STONE    

Page 7

  BATTLE and REUNION

“Don’t distract me, please. This will sting and itch on the skin, and it’s been a while since I did this.”

          Mike mixed tubes into a bowl, altering the mixture a bit, then rubbing it into her hair. Stone sweated in the over-warm bathroom, trying not to breathe deep.

          “You’ve done this before? Your hair didn’t look colored.”

“It has been a while, as I said. It was suggested that I be moved around the company, and given a different color hair, with changed clothing styles, to avoid questions. You did not state a preference, so I have mixed the one I personally found to be the most flattering. I am uncertain about how to change you sufficiently to be effective. With your height,  I might shave you bald and still not keep you from being recognized. Any suggestions?” She finished coating her hair, pressing the length to her crown and wrapping it in plastic.

Stone tried not to snicker. “I can take care of anyone we meet, but I can’t fool a camera. If it don’t have a brain, I can’t change it’s mind.”

“Then we’re in trouble. We’re dealing with upper management, remember. But if we move well, we won’t need to avoid cameras. Most internal cameras aren’t monitoring for outlaws, and I doubt they’ll be expecting us there. Have you ever tried to alter technology? Energy is energy, and at the minimum you should be able to disable it. In an emergency.” She pulled him into a chair and worked with his hair, pulling the heavy fall of dark waves back into a ponytail. It curled up at the bottom, and she fingered it into a spiral.

“I never thought to try burning them out. I was always in and out before they could do much, and most of the time, there wasn’t much left if I had to go in person. I try to work through people if I can, like on the bike. If I can have an order given by a recognized authority, no one can say it was sabotage. Too many witnesses. I’ve slowed things, but this last development came out of nowhere. It would be a coup d'état for them, possibly coup de grace. If I can’t interrupt it before they get it on the market, it’s over. And I’m finished. The Goal will die with me and what’s left of our humanity will fade like fog on a summer morning. If I can get in, if I can take out what I know they put in, and replace it with my own message, just a quick impulse to think for themselves, it might turn things around in a generation or less.” He looked up at Mike’s handiwork, and found a slightly jagged, but well coifed professional looking back at him from the glass.  He turned his head, wondering if many executives has quite so many scars. On the outside, that was. “Not bad. But does it come with a manicure?”

“Full service, Sir. Would you like your drink now, Sir? Or perhaps your fellatio, Sir?” Mike was a master of deadpan, he decided. She leaned over to check her hair, then scrutinized his hands. “That would be the next step. Ready to soak?” She scrubbed his nails, clipped cuticles, and polished them to a gloss. Looking up at him over his fingertips, she seemed to consider. “Can you grow a mustache real quick? Real thick and long? The overseas competitors have a fetish for facial hair. I could easily pass you off as a foreign  investor that way.”

“I… Sure. I’ll give it a shot, anyway. When I was young, I tried it, not speed-growing, but just a mustache, and it came out reddish, so I shaved it off.”

“We can dye it in ten minutes. How fast can you grow it?”

“We’ll see, won’t we? I think you’re hair’s done. You look almost albino.”

“It’s not that light. The bleach foams. You grow that, and I’ll wash this. Meet ya in the middle.” She pulled off the plastic, and headed into the shower, unconcernedly disrobing as she went. It was the first time he’d seen her fully nude, and the scar running down her shoulder gave him a nasty start. Perhaps this was why this was the first time..

“Mike!”

She turned, expectant, but impatient.

“What happened? To your shoulder? It looks like you were ripped open and chewed on! I take it they were out of ants?” He turned her around for a closer look, disturbed by a feeling that he should recognize it. It ran into her hair, wide and white with age. He couldn’t see how far it went for the bleach, but it must have been nearly lethal when it happened. “Does it hurt? Can I touch it?”

“No. It doesn’t hurt. You can touch it later. I want to get this stuff off my head. It itches. If you want to look at this, you can get in, or wait until I get out. And I don’t have access to when I got it, so I don’t know what did it.” She fingered it.  “No one’s ever asked to touch it before. It doesn’t give you chills? Or nausea?”

“You looked at me lately?”

“Men are allowed. Scars show manly activity. Women are supposed to be smooth as silk and unblemished as an empty canvas.” She frowned, and hopped in the shower. “And it itches worse than the normal skin. Let me do this first.” She started water, and he closed the door rather than get drenched. He listened to the little growls of satisfaction as she scrubbed at the offending itches. Why did the scar bother him? Because it was familiar…

“Grow, boy. Gimmie a mustache,” Mike called from the water. He went back to the mirror, and began designing his face.  He’d managed almost an inch, Fu-manchu style, on lip and chin, before she emerged, toweling vigorously. A handful of conditioner to soothe the very angry strands, and she was combing it into pale gold waves. She slipped a finger of darker liquid among the silk, and had streaks of warmth though it as it dried. She glanced at him, and found him staring at her, eyes stunned, and she pulled lightly on the fuzz of his chin. “Getting creative, are we? Aesthetic. Keep going on the top. We will require a minimum of two inches to go European. Very soft, too. Nice. Very nice.” She shook her hair, fingering through it, and smiled at him. “I take it you appreciate the change? Is it becoming, or overwhelming? It should be longer, but I don’t have that ability, or that much bleach. I’ll be putting it up, anyway, so length won’t matter.”  Still he failed to move, only his eyes responding, squinting and shifting, returning always to her face, and she peered at him. “Are you in there, Stone? If you don’t like it, it’s ok. I won’t cry. Nothing’s permanent, and I was never under the delusion I was here for my looks.” Her smile drained away in the face of this scrutiny, leaving only the quiet emptiness of her own eyes, waiting.

“No, that’s…,” he sought an excuse for his confusion. Or truth? Yes, but simplified. “You are… identical.. a mirror image of someone I almost knew a loooooong time ago. I knew you looked like her, quite a bit, but the hair,… that makes it so, so absolute. If you put on makeup, not garish, but simple, THAT might give me some bad chills. I can’t imagine you looking more like her, but it might mess me up for a few.” He closed his eyes, trying to see Mike in the truck, at the table, Mike as MIKE. Trying not to see the face in the alley, the smile as the car door.  He’d dealt with much of his problem by talking to Ricci about it, but this was a bit much.
          “Can I hope you thought she was pretty? You do not look happy by any definition, Stone. If it bothers you this badly, I can change it. I will have to put on some makeup if I am to go into the Corporate offices, or I will look out of place. I need instruction.” When Stone continued to stare, she covered her head with a towel, and tried again. “Tell me what to do. If I go red, I look like Ricci. That can’t possibly fail to bother you. Brunette? Back to my natural?” She was whispering now, the silence of him overwhelming.

He opened his eyes at the rattle of the cabinet door. Mike was hastily puling out tubes again, getting a clean bowl, a mask of indecisive misery on her face. He put a hand on her shoulder, her scar rough under his palm, but she startled, dropping everything, and the tears began to fall, startling him in turn. After everything- bullets, blood, psychic rape and murder- this made her cry? He pulled  her close, smoothing her hair, feeling the new texture, fingering the scar, letting her sob.  If it is all you have to give….poor comfort for such a situation.

“It looks stunning, Hon. That’s most of the problem right there. She was lovely, and it wasn’t the best chapter of my life. The Lady of the Garden, the one who deserved better? Remember? It kills me a little more every day, knowing what I was, and what I did, and now here you are, her twin, getting pulled through hoops to help me redeem myself so I can die peacefully. It just kind of threw me, seeing a close resemblance turn into .. this.” He kissed the top of her head, and wiped at her cheeks.  “Keep the color, and I’ll deal with it. It won’t kill me.” Liar. It just may. She stepped back, silent and pensive, bending to retrieve the fallen items. He helped her put them in place, forcing his mind away from the tunnel that threatened to pull him back down the years to the alley, trying not to smell burning and death from somewhere behind him. The clatter of bowls became the falling of ‘crete on the pavement, and he could hear screams in the distance…

He shook himself. This could be a deadly distraction if he did not get himself under control.

Mike had a mixture ready before he’d realized the mess was up, and was dabbing it on his chin. It stank,  but was off again quickly, and he looked at a semi-stranger in the glass. If he were not so familiar with the face… He gave Mike his approval, and she went to find appropriate clothes for the trip. He continued to gaze at himself a few minutes longer, considering the odd turns. He’d been altered, as had Mike, but his change was a first, making him new to himself;  hers had made her more herself, and more part of his circular karma. Like a homecoming, that was the feeling, as he named it, to look at her now was to be somewhere he belonged, was meant to be, though he’d not known the destination himself.

This was the end.

Mike was the end, her face the same one that had truly started it all for him.

He’d stolen the outrider of his quest’s end unknowingly. Now he’s seen it for what it was, it was almost a relief. Even if he failed, it would end soon. 

Such a horrifying and yet delivering realization. He’d come full circle.  And Mike would be there. He closed his eyes, turning from the reflection,  seeing Mike at the closet. A second possibility froze him solid.

What if the purpose of this ‘return’- the re-discovery of this face that left him dying by inches - was merely to repeat his past? 

                                                   

Altering the suits to hide Stone’s armor and accommodate his extreme height seemed surprisingly quick to him, though there was nothing to say Mike was hurrying. Mike found startlingly high heels and a formidably attractive ensemble in the master closet for herself, both fitting too well not to have been tailored for her. Stone tried not to notice how sexy the outfit was, nor that Mike fit the image of high Corporate management flawlessly. It was too easy to imagine her in the offices above… But Mike was leading them out into the dark one last time before they could consider the next step too long. A few twists brought them to the mono, and Stone realized that she could have come and gone several times this way while he slept, without his ever noticing. Sobering thought, that one.

So few turns, yet such a heavy dark. He would have lost himself within minutes if she were not here to guide him. The lights were keyed into the general system, Mike informed him, and would have shown their location to anyone near the upstairs panels. So they traveled in the dark for a hundred steps, finding the station by the light of the controls within. The tiny station was made for the comfort of it’s upper echelon clientele, small as it was.  Mike busied herself taking the two passenger car offline, using the manual settings to program their coach.

Lost in thought, Mike’s fingers punched destination codes without real thought. Ice ran the length of her, numbing, removing all emotion save the single  sharp anticipation of what was to come. Years of waiting without hope were coming to their close, a closure she’d not been capable of envisioning for most of her life was now actually within her grasp, the freedom to engineer it heady yet agonizing. The wall threatened at every breath, at any consideration of what she was doing. Every command sequence screamed against this, the endangerment of  her ‘family’ and betrayal of her ‘employers’. Her single savior was the simple question Stone had asked- ‘do you know anyone?’. Of course she did. She knew everyone and everything concerning Central Heath for the last.... the blank spot again. She could no longer count the how many years she’d been a databank, nor even how long she’d been processing data for them. How many moves, designed to hide her unexplained continuance? How many changes made to distract from a face that should be wrinkling and fallen?

Now was the one chance.  That this could happen was beyond her ken, that Stone should have chosen her, and given her this possibility…  What she’d dreamed of only in the deepest hiding places, and only after she’d been discarded to her nomad exile, - it was being offered by someone who would protect her, if only to protect his own interests. There was no question of whether she could or would do unto the other as had been done to her. It was merely a question of whether Stone would stop her before she could take full vengeance. 

Oh, the agonies of fear and rage, imagining His face, his seeing her as she was, or as close as could be made now….

Imagining his fear as He first grew to understand that she was almost free….

Knowing the lack of any possible escape from his knowledge of what was happening, and why, and who had done this thing….

Watching him see his empire fall and be twisted to fit another’s dream…

“Mike?”

Stone’s voice startled her from her thoughts, drawing a gasp. She turned to his confused eyes. He ran a thumb along her cheekbone, feeling her tension as it rolled off her, wondering at what he could not define without invasion. Her eyes still glistened, but the red had faded. His fingers twitched with the clenching of her jaw.

“I’m not sure what’s going on in there, Mike. You’re strung tighter than a cheap network, and I don’t want to pry, but I can’t be sure you’re not going to fall apart on me. You scared me a bit back there. And now I’m getting some odd snatches of thought here and there. You need to talk before we get there?” His face was the same one that had slept beside her, unlovely but kind, and Mike wished she trusted him enough to share her need with him. What if he refused? What if his kindness extended somehow to his nemesis, forgiving in victory what had necessitated the battle? She needed this too much to chance it on his whim, or the odd morality he’d evidenced.

“I will be fine. It is the return to my prior environment that causes this tension.  Please forgive me if I have caused you concern.” That familiar un-expression of hers had returned.           

Stone reflected for the first time in quite a while that without an absolute violation of her mind, he was without knowledge of her thoughts. His willingness to allow that freedom, that separateness, concerned him more than her mental state. Love notwithstanding, what was different this time than any other? Was it not once more the end-game? Was it also not the time for his ‘assistant’ to betray him, or die, or both, according to the rules that had always seemed to apply to the life he’d lived? She was isolated in the bone box of her skull, the same as all humanity, barring only himself. He knew the concept of ‘shared reality’ to be false, so trusting her perception to sync with his… with so much at stake… but he couldn’t bring himself to open her up again. Not after the blankness he’d seen at the table. (Was that really it? Or was he simply unwilling to see anything that might necessitate ending her..)    

          “We will arrive momentarily,” Mike informed him emotionlessly. “When we exit the car, we will be in an unoccupied area, near a hallway. To get to our destination, we will be required to pass through a large office. If you avoid looking directly at any one person, seeming more interested in the equipment, there will be no reason to converse with any of them. Let me deal with anyone who approaches us, excepting armed forces, which I cannot imagine encountering in this situation. Are you ready?” She looked back at him as a cool light appeared ahead. The click of the doors’ opening was their invitation into possible disaster.

          “Always and ever, Darlin. Lead on.” He stood, stooping a bit to clear the ceiling, then they were out and moving. Mike took the lead as instructed, assuming a leisurely but somehow imperious stride into the bustling chambers. Stone followed, looking mostly at her upswept coiffure. This was not his way, nor his place.  He was totally committed now, exposed and vunerable, dependent on her and her continued loyalty. If she turned now, it was over.

          When she glanced back at him, the face was unfamiliar. Mike wore a pleasant, professional interest that altered her totally, smiling and gesturing as she led him through the maze of halls and desks, telling him about this feature and that while those in the desks tried to look inconspicuously busy. A few peeked over piles of binders once the pair was past, fearing an imminent re-shuffle. Keeping his eyes for whatever Mike waved at or mentioned, he studiously avoided eye contact while he slipped the lack of interest in himself and Mike into each mind. The forgetfulness might prove useful to the forgetter and the forgotten in short order.

          There were cameras everywhere.

          There were no easy exits, no place to go if they were recognized, and no way to avoid killing almost everyone on this floor, possibly those above and below as well.

          Every turn brought them further into a ‘crete dungeon more secure than his burrow could ever hope to be, simply based on it’s complexity. He could have hidden for days with such a place. He was long past finding his way back, and subtle probes informed him that none of the current underlings were aware of the ‘rail’s existence, much less it’s location.

Mike, however, seemed at ease, shining in her element. He couldn’t help but be impressed with her as she flowed smoothly through the same information over and again with each new area they entered. She noticed before he did the shadow they’d acquired, and paused to apologize to Stone before stepping back to speak firmly to the ambitious young man. Stone watched as Mike lost her smile with frightening speed and became ‘the authority figure’, heading him off and turning him around before returning to Stone, smile back in place as smooth as ever. He did notice the shadow’s return after several minutes, feeling the desperate ambition dripping from the man.

          “I must beg your sufferance for a moment more, Sir, while I eliminate a problem. I won’t be a moment,” Mike promised Stone, placing her fingertips on his arm. She strode back to the nervous worker, saying something Stone could not hear that forced the hope over the edge into dread, then despair. He turned and wandered away, stunned, while Mike showed not a ripple on her way back.

          “What did you just do,” he asked her quietly when she was close enough. He leaned down for her answer, but she did not whisper to him, responding in a normal voice over heard by several desk occupants close by.

          “He was interfering in your tour, Sir. As per my instructions, I eliminated him. My superiors were very clear on that point. No one is to hinder your excursion, Sir. You are a valuable client, and to be given preferential treatment.” She raised an eyebrow slightly, indicating how ‘preferential’ it could be at his request. A few of those close by took this as the proper time to take their breaks, whispering to each other over the loss of a fellow only when out of range. Stone was left stunned, one- that she would go to such lengths, two- that she had carried it off so convincingly, three- that she seemed so casual about it.

She was leading him on through a smaller section, and he could see a large foyer ahead, and the imposing doors at its end, and knew that the end was literally in sight.

 She had got him here without incident, as intended. Now the question was whether they were expected or not.

He glanced about him as they stepped through the arch and onto the echoing marble floor, knowing that such a room was meant as a deterrent, a silent  intimidation to any who would bother the Great Man. Knowing did not make it any less effective. Window-walls showed this section to be set apart from the rest of the building, giving Stone no comfort in his thoughts of escape. Again, there were cameras everywhere, staring down at him, gauging his value, seeking any threat.  He was sure there was to little time for an armed force to assemble here before he and Mike could get through the door, but one inside…  The further in they went, the less certain of Mike he became. What would be waiting on the other side of the door? The line of her back screamed out a tension close to snapping, and though some self-destructive part of him was willing to write it off as just the return to her former master, the rest of him argued for the safety of mistrust. It was insane not to believe that she would betray him when put back in the presence of a person he’s been led to believe had all but literally owned her for years.

It took an effort greater than he would have believed not to  reach for his weapons. He scanned ahead. There was no-one beyond the door to read. Either he was being led astray, or her intended contact had a natural tendency to shield his thoughts. Semi- normal in anyone who had risen so far as to warrant such an office, yet still doubtful that Stone would be unable to  find even a whisper of presence.  

From the corner of one eye, he noticed a construction outside, soaring above the city proper with it’s airy girders. Another Mono, full-sized and half finished.  Was it close enough for a jump, if things got too heavy? It was possible. He felt more himself than he had since the beginning of this little excursion, since the garden, just days ago. Very possible. If he could get through the window.

Half way there.

So quick, yet so heavy, this few moments, watching Mike’s shoulders tighten, hearing the high buzz of her hectic emotions, unable to force himself to probe her and eliminate the fear, or even to confirm it. Perhaps her mental disfunctions were contagious. Would he truly be willing to walk into the lion’s den rather than find her guilty? That was almost suicidal. Yet still he shied away, wanting to  ease the anxiety that was starting to crawl up his spine, unable to force himself even  to reach out the way that he had with Ricci without  a thought qualm.

He realized Mike was slowing, almost imperceptibly, but slowing nonetheless. Her steps became gradually shorter,  bringing them closer together.  A pinky finger began to twitch slightly. When she was almost too close to walk comfortably,  he saw the shakes that took her from nape to toes. Only her smile was unaffected.  She turned to him, her eyes empty and distant, and bowed to let him enter first. So he knew, at least. Time to fight or flee, his trust misplaced. He reached for the door, adrenaline  flooding his system, and turned the knob.

 The door swung without effort, gliding silently on it’s hinges to allow him full appreciation of the music playing softly within. Somewhat familiar, it ws the only sound. A step took him in to see the occupant of a large desk leaning back, unaware of the intrusion as yet with eyes closed, listening to the bittersweet melody. Stone stood stunned, waiting for the cannon fire, slowly realizing that it was not forthcoming, and unable to credit what his own eyes told him.

This was Sir.

The one inaccessible face, the one mind he’d never touched, no matter his searching, the single source of all his quests and subsequent failures.

And he was alone.

Mike had brought him to the one and only place he never thought to reach. Without guns, without blood and pain, she had cut through all the years of work and given him an option he’d never hoped to have. He did not doubt his ability to open the man’s mental locks.  Elation swept him, the certainty that his work was coming to a close beaming on him like  the sun after a storm.

The serene face opened it’s eyes and glanced to the door, mild irritation crossing it briefly, before giving way to confusion, then startled recognition.

At first Stone was unaware that the man was staring behind him, at Mike. Then the tension that had been Mike exploded, needles of cold anger and fear rushing at him from behind. He looked back to her, remembering his certainty of just moments ago, uncertain what to think at this point. She had changed again, her head high, returning the man’s stare fixedly. She was hardly breathing, seeming to use all her life’s force to hold it, refusing to lower her gaze under that of her world’s ruler. There was more than the freed slave’s return to a bad master here, Stone knew, but could not fathom it yet.

“So that would make you the Type 4 renegade, I suppose,” Sir said without looking away from Mike. “Thank you for the return of the merchandise. I cannot imagine you succeeded where we did not under such poor circumstances. Though why you would bring her here is beyond even me.”

Stone realized he was losing time, standing here like a bird in the snake’s gaze. Whatever he was missing was unimportant to the Goal. The man’s misconception of the situation was in his favor, but wouldn’t stay that way long.  He pulled Mike gently across the threshold  and closed the door, keeping his eyes on Sir. His mind raced. What to do now that he had the ultimate key? How to use the genie’s wish? One chance to fix everything at a shot, or blow the whole deal…

“Do not allow him access to his panic button under the desk. He can have armed troops here in thirty seconds in times of crisis.” Mike’s voice was barely more than a whisper, as empty and emotionless as the night they’d first met.

Stone looked at the man, wondering why he hadn’t already done so. Was he so secure in his power that he was unable to imagine a real threat, or was he counting on something else?

“I assume since you’re still here there’s something you want. If we could get on with it, I could get back to more important things.”  Smug yet distant, he looked at Stone finally, giving the battle to Mike as if it had become uninteresting.

“We should talk about your new toy. The Programmer.  And how it needs to be modified.” Stone stepped further into the room, wary of the man’s confidence. “Though I admire the research that it took, I can’t accept it’s intended use. I know what you put in it, you see. And I can’t let you have that much power over them,” he told the placid smile, gesturing toward the window.  “I can’t let it go out on the market as is. They’re barely human as it is, and this will take even that away from them.”

Sir looked at Stone pityingly. “Is that what you’re on about? The programmer?    That’s what started all this foolishness?  Son, you have no idea what you had, did you?

“As for the programmer, what makes you think it isn’t already out there?  We’ve been using it for a decade or more. I would’ve thought you knew that by now.” A calculating glance at Mike gave Stone some clue.

“You’ve been using it on your employees? As test subjects?” The righteous rage of the Goal began to creep into him, slipping past the confusion, as Stone imagined  the masses unknowingly submitting to the removal of their will, for the right to live and breathe in the Corp. Mike - her terror of losing the job, reinforced by the same tool that stole her ability to refuse any command…  But a whole race of Mikes? Perhaps his theft of her was the greatest gift he could have given.

“I didn’t say that, now did I? And our tests are long done. This is just a more effective version of what we’ve used for years in institutions of every sort. I just got tired of having to discipline anyone who let it slip, so I decided the next advance would go public as the first. We hail it as a miracle, and pretend it’s new.” Sir returned to his seat, “It’s best for all concerned. I just don’t know how you got through without it all these years.”

He turned to Stone’s scowl. “Yes, son, I know what you are. And who your parents were. I couldn’t get hold of you sooner, or I’d have had your secret of longevity before I got this old. It’s odd, isn’t it? Knowing how much older you are than I, yet the wrinkles make all the difference, don’t they. I can’t help feeling old  when I look at you. We took her apart more times than I can count, and never found out why she is what she is, but I think perhaps I’ll have better luck with you.” He turned to Mike, still and silent behind Stone, and sighed.

“Secure him until security arrives.”

Stone whirled to face Mike, expecting a weapon in her hand, found her empty-handed,  and turned back to Sir. Mike stepped forward and placed a hand on his arm,  and for one flicker of thought, he expected her to try and restrain him physically. There was no way she could possibly overpower him, unless Sir was counting on his unwillingness to harm her. But Sir was showing uncertainty for the first time.

“Michlenna. I am giving you a priority command. You will do whatsoever is required to retain him and cause him to be unable to act upon me in any way. Is that understood?” His voice was authority personified, and Mike shook at the sound of it.  Her hands spasmed, clutching at nothing. She turned to Stone, and he readied himself to knock her out quickly.

She looked up at him dispassionately, waiting for something. Sir made no move, but his face was no longer serene, and became more agitated with every moment that passed without her compliance. Stone reached for the man’s mind, seeking to end the problem at the source and wishing he’d done so upon entering, but found only the faintest wisp of thought behind a slippery surface shield. He hammered at the barrier, too aware of Mike to focus fully, knowing this was the point. Sliding futilely across, unable to find purchase, he groped for anything, a crack, a quiver of fear from beneath, helplessly off-balance in this conflict, cursing himself for allowing a situation that could be used so to exist.

Easier to end it on this end and then he would have the space he needed to work. He swung the force of his will back to Mike, crawling over her mind, only to find it open, seeking his.  He could hear the roaring of the Wall, hovering above her thoughts, waiting to crush her. The inability to choose an action would pull it down. Behind her, Sir was demanding her obedience,

“Do what you have to, Hon. It’s your choice,” he whispered, knowing he could defend himself, giving her the freedom to select between without breaking.

She turned away and  sighed, Sir’s stolen serenity finding her face, missing only his smile. Eyes wide and panicked, he turned and reached for his desk, but she was there, waiting to intercept the hand on it’s way to call help.

“I cannot in good conscience allow you to do that. It is imperative to his Goal that you remain with us uninterrupted for however long it takes to accomplish the undoing of your work.  You should sit down. I do not wish to cause you unnecessary discomfort,” she added, staring him down. He dropped to the chair, nerveless, and panted into hte silence.

“Yes, I remember, Eddie. Everything and everyone,” she whispered.

“You! You brought her here, you changed the program! Do something,” Sir screamed hysterically at Stone. All traces of poise had fled, and he  kicked wildly at the desk edge, trying to reach the hidden button.

And did.

A light flickered on, and he began to screech at it over her shoulder.

“Project Basement 1001 is renegade! In my office, all safeties off! Full aggression! I repeat, Project Basement 1001 is renegade! Save”  And Mike was gagging him, her hand accidentally over nose and mouth both. Silence fell over the room, allowing them to hear the  sirens far below winding up, and the slam of outer doors.

“I am sorry. I miscalculated the distance from chair to desk, and his agility.” Somewhere in her voice was a cold calculation, and Stone wondered where he’s lost his handle on this. “What do you wish me to do? We have approximately 30 seconds before we are joined by several highly unpleasant individuals with large power weapons.”

Head spinning, Stone looked around for options. There was nothing sturdy enough to bar the door, and no time to salvage things. Even if he opened ‘Eddie’s’ head, he would still have to come up with a plausible reason for ‘Eddie’  not to be protected from what was obviously considered a huge threat. And there was no time to find out why  Mike seemed to be considered a greater threat them himself, even though ‘Eddie’ had seemed to know who he was.

“Stone, we are quickly running out of time.” Mike was still calm, looking expectantly at him.

“Any suggestions?”

“Of course.” She stood up, letting her hand fall away from Sir’s face to place it on his chest, holding him in the chair. “I can engage the room’s defenses against the forces on the way, thereby giving us several minutes in which to accomplish what we came for. From there, we will have to find a method of escape, as I  doubt they will be willing to allow us our freedom immediately, no matter what you make him say.” She looked at the wall behind the door while her hands busied themselves at the keyboard and Stone heard a heavy hissing and clicking. “If you had been able to easily ‘alter’ him a few minutes ago, I assume you would have. Am I correct?”

‘If you’re asking why I didn’t, then yes, he has a strong natural barrier. It will take a few minutes. But it’s a far cry from impossible.”

“If I may remind you, we only have a few minutes.”

“Well, then, do you have a better idea,” he retorted as the door gonged deeply with the last bracing. He was less than happy with the suddenness and turn of events. He had always imagined himself laying his nemesis out before him like a platter, to pick and choose though the thoughts he wanted at leisure. The reality was less under his control than anything he’d ever dealt with before.

“It is not my desire to impugn your abilities. I am merely attempting to find the most expedient method of achieving your objectives.” She stood, looking down at her captive, her face unreadable. Stone felt a momentary chill himself, seeing the terror the world’s most prominent, most feared individual held for her. Had he spent years wallowing in guilt over his crimes toward her, building up her revenge in his mind should she ever get loose?  Or was there something more?

“What do you suggest,” he asked her slowly.  The face did not change, even as it lifted to survey the wall again.

“If you would restrain him,” she queried.

He came around to the chair, seeing the sweating face turn to him pleadingly.

“Don’t let her do this. You can’t set her loose on me; she’s not like you and me.  She’s-”

“She can’t do anything worse to you than you've done to her, and every person in this city. To every person in every city you’ve touched.  What are you so afraid of? You said it was for the best, didn’t you?” Stone crushed the pity he felt welling inside him for the old man, remembering the Goal and the plans this an had made for humanity. There was nothing  Mike could do that could possibly rival this man’s crimes, he told himself.

Mike returned from the now-open wall with a delicate bit of shining lace.

‘Eddie’ turned and saw her, and began to scream, deep blubbering sobs of terror.

“What is that?” Stone tried to look at it, but the intricate wires were cobweb thin, eluding his eyes in the window’s light. He had to put real work into holding the smaller man in the chair as Mike came close enough to reach for the bobbing head.

“Justice.”

She pulled the hair of Eddie’s neck up to clear the skin, and placed a small circle at the spine’s top. The wildly thrashing body did not deter her, nor even slow her as she placed others, one by one, under his hair as the door shuddered under the first blow from the invaders. Eddie collapsed back into the seat sobbing when she’d finished. She offered Stone a small microphone.

“It is more effective when you shave the hair, leaving naked skin to connect. We do not wish to leave them any evidence of tampering with which to engineer his removal from power once we have made the changes we wish implemented.

“Do you wish to Program him yourself, or should I set it up?”

Stone stood motionless, realizing what she meant. This was her justice, to use his technology on him, cutting what did not suit them out of his mind, and replacing it with their own Goal. The ultimate rape. Everything he was, was in this tiny set of wires, everything that made him unique. No, it lacked emotion. It had no pity, no compassion, no care for the mind it edited. It was his gift, without him behind it.

Absolute Justice.

So this was what the old man had feared. That Mike, working solely on logic, would come to the most functional and emotionless decision. And give him what had to be his worst fear.

“I take it you know what I want, and how to phrase it in such a way as to leave him no leeway,” he asked her, looking toward the door. It bent slightly with each strike, weakening by degrees.

“I believe so. You wish him to remove from the  Program any suggestion that the user do as they are commanded without thought, and replace it with a suggestion to think for themselves. Is that the basis of your wish for humanity?”

He hesitated, knowing this to be the only option available with such limited time, hating the need to rush with so much at stake, and sickened at the thought of such a cold, bloodless method of succeeding.

And time ran out the bottom.

The door shook, signaling it’s willingness to give in  as soon as it could, and Stone was left without choices. He looked down at the tearstained face, and looked away.

“Do what you have to.” He turned to the window, distracting himself with the need for escape when this was done. The window was unbreakable, but it was possible the wall was not.

Behind him, Mike heard the words, but could not credit them. It was too easy, to much what she needed to be real. But Stone was walking away, leaving it in her hands, and she almost dropped the microphone in her relief. Leaning down, she whispered once in her master’s ear while he sat helpless and paralyzed by his creation.

“For the sins of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Corporation, Amen.” And watching his sobs begin afresh, she let the words that had been distilled and purified by decades of waiting- cooked down to their most essential parts by the heat of her rage and pain- flow out and into his defenseless mind. His every movement, every thought she wrapped in razor wire, creating a bondage of self for his remaining life that would rival what her own had been.

 Stone looked behind him at a soft step, to find Mike patiently waiting. Eddie sat in his chair, calm and composed,  wiping his face and setting himself to rights.

“I take it everything went according to plan? What do I need to do now,’ he asked reluctantly. The great man looked over at Stone and beamed. All sign of the recent terror was gone.

“There is nothing required at this time. The basic commands are in place, and he will begin to make such changes as will fulfill your interests gradually, so that those who currently benefit will be unable to object on a basis of strange behavior. He is under the command to do whatever is required to conceal what has happened to him. If you at any time wish to alter his instructions, he is open to you and only you, by way of your particular communication style. He will also arrange for a face to face meeting if you so desire.” Her eyes were distant, relaxed. A different sort of passivity had come over her.

“Is there any way he can break this, or undo it?” Stone knew the limitations of his own power, but wanted to take no chances with this artificial method.  He came closer to the desk, and Eddie stood up, brushing at his shirt like a young boy meeting his hero for the first time.

“Mike, people will notice the change.”

“He is only like this for you. He will be his usual self for everyone else, as per the instruction to conceal his condition. It is untraceable physically, so even if there were suspicion, it would not be provable.” The tone of her voice made Stone glance at her, and for a brief flicker he caught the cold, unsmiling satisfaction in her eyes. Then she was listening for the door, and concerned for their exodus.

Stone watched her move to the wall. He could not shake the eerie look she’d given the man. A tendril of thought snaked out, and he felt the barrier open eagerly to him, inviting him into the only mind he’d never been able to touch before.

And could not now. What had been was changed, overwritten with line upon line of absolutes. Snatches of what Mike had done drifted by as the mind underneath adjusted and considered each command and how best to obey it.

‘…your only true goal will  be to please the Type 3 ….  replay the message within ever 24 hour period… first hour delayed you will  develop a migraine… nausea, after three hours you will experience…… alleviate it will be to replay….conceal at all costs….no changes in such a way as to cause suspicion…eliminate all sources of strong dissension….mber that you are owned by the Type 4 and happy to be so…’

God.

A life spent aware of the fact that he had been changed, that he was a slave to the whim of another man after ruling most of the world….he doubted it would have occurred to Mike that the awareness itself would be a cruelty. Forced to re-play the message that enslaved him every night. Divided into the man he’d been who would watch, and the man she’d made him, who would act against the first’s interests at every turn. Stone watched Mike’s back as she inspected the small rooms leading off this main one. And yet, he still recalled the comment she’d made about cooking them alive. Was she capable of doing this as a punishment?

The realization slammed home to him just how badly he’d jeopardized his life’s mission with his unwillingness to look fully into Mike since the endgame had begun. Here, when everything was so close to it’s conclusion, and so precariously balanced, he’d let an indistinct factor take charge. The result was favorable so far, but the chance he’d taken... His head swam.

The door creaked, preparing for it’s own end, and reminding Stone of the now more pressing issue. Survival. Mike disappeared through a door, and he had a nasty moment of suspicion before she returned, motioning for him to follow. He locked the door to gain a few seconds, and waited for her to show her intent.

“The wall here is closest to the construction outside. It passes within 20 feet, and down, preparing to meet with it’s dock at the far side which is yet to be built. I can see no other way out of the building; even if you were to open walls as you did at Ricci’s there are too many floors and troops available on each. You also seem reluctant to kill uninvolved parties, which will be unavoidable if we take that route.” She passed her hands over the wall, her face to it’s smooth surface, calm and uninterested in the proceedings. “You are aware that now that your Goal is accomplished, there is no longer a need to retain me, and your original request no longer has relevance.”

Ice ran through his veins. The betrayal scene had begun then. Now she would tell him that she would have to kill him as her next order commanded. He slipped his weapon silently from it’s sheath, hearing the crash of the door in the room behind him.  She was the only one who knew what had been done, and could undo it.

“You also should know already that your chance of escape is immensely   greater if you do not have me slowing you down,” she added, and he was stymied.

“We’re out of time, Mike. Spit it out.”

“Logic demands that you kill me, open this wall, and jump to the mono, where you can slide down or through to the street before they can mobilize on that level. Once free, you can watch over and direct any changes you might want. You have the rest of his life to set things up the way you want them.” She continued to face the wall, caressing it lightly. “ Here, I think, would be the most secure place to make your exodus.”

One more time, you manage to unseat me, he thought. He aimed the business end of the deadly toy at the wall, and the brick became dust. Voices were loud and unfriendly behind the door, and he pulled the suit off to get what free motion he could in his armor. Looking out, he gauged the distance, and knew it was more than 20 feet. He might make it, but it would be a stretch.

He backed up, feeling the weight of the armor he’d not needed, and wondered if he had time to remove it.

The door took a blow, and caved under a second. Two armored guards fell in, and a third hopped over them to disappear in a puff when Stone responded.  Shouts from those behind and from the ever- demanding Sir fought to dominate his hearing, and Mike was moving to intercept whatever might come. The men paused at seeing her, caught between prior orders to  capture her undamaged, and the more recent command to bring her down at all costs. The guns came up, and  Stone’s hand was on her wrist, spinning her around behind him. There was no place to shelter from this hail, and the most he could do was bundle  her in front of him and duck his head. In what seemed no time, one found the weak place behind one knee, another caught him in the space at his waist, and he stumbled under the screaming onslaught. The wall was the only option.

Closing off everything, he gathered himself, and whispered to Mike.

“Hold on to me. No matter what.” Her arms went round his neck.

“You won’t make it,” she whispered back.  “If you shoot me, I die easily, and you might still survive.”

“Shut up.”

He braced his good leg and swung heavily toward the gap. There was no way to get the speed he needed, and he was hit again, and again still, as he raced for the open air beyond. Mike kicked off the side closest to her with both legs as they careened by, and they passed through with their entourage of death following close behind. He could see the construction, and the distance they’d never travel to get there. This is it, he thought to himself. Sorry, Hon.

“Look down.” Mike’s voice was that of the  problem solver he’d met the first morning. He looked below, and saw the scaffold rushing up at him. He would have to trust Mike’s grip, and let her go to reach for it. Her legs were suddenly around his middle, slipping slightly on the bloodied armor, and then she was leaning out to stretch her hands to it, too.

“What part of hang on didn’t you understand?” he yelled through the wind of their passage. 

“Only the part that makes you think you can catch that at this speed and  hold us both,” she called back to him.  Her legs tightened around his waist, making him wince, and he prayed softly to himself that she was wrong. Their hands struck a bar, leaving their fingers aching, then a second, grasping at what sped by. Mike twisted, her face without feeling, and caught at a support. They swung in, carried by their momentum, and hit another. Her hold faltered as Stone clutched at a lower piece, then slipped.

Stone’s didn’t, and Mike was jarred, her legs slipping across the wet armor to leave them hanging in a position of sexual parody, her elbow around his neck. He reached a foot out, edging to the nearest platform, but came up short. Mike leaned away to take hold of the closest bar, and hand-over-hand, pulled her, and with her, his lower half, over the tiny floor.

“Let go.”

He did, and they swung the rest of the way. Stone looked up at Mike, who released him slowly to drop stumbling, with a thud, her muscles reluctant to believe they were safe. She grimaced at the cramps, letting Stone hold her up while she eased her hands open. Lowering her to the floor, he noticed his bloodied knuckles, then hers as they wrapped around his own. 

“I believe we’ve ruined your blouse, miss.” He patted at her ruffled hairdo with shaking fingers. “Shall we find our way to the ground? I’m not sure if the elevator is our best choice.” He looked over the edge at the still- severe drop, and shook his head. “The only exit I see goes over to the main construction.” His knee was a throbbing mass; the hole at his waist felt like a canyon. Standing was agony,  and he was noticing damage everywhere, it seemed, but far above there was still the sound of heavy weapons, and he knew there would be a detachment on the way down.

“You will need to stop your bleeding first, and make some repairs if you are to survive your escape.” She did not look at him, and again, the brief suspicion went through him at her change of manner. But she was Mike. And she’d suggested her own death rather than endanger his life. That meant something. Unless she did it knowing that you wouldn’t..  He closed his eyes, remembering the sound of her voice as she’d whispered to him. No. That was real.  And if it wasn’t, it didn’t matter. The Goal was accomplished.

And he could always kill her, later, if he had to.

“We don’t have that kind of time, Darlin. There’s no way he’s gonna convince them this was a drill, or that we’re not a threat after all that. They’ll be looking to grab us as soon as we hit the ground. We need to get moving.”

She was staring down at the connective line to the mono, frowning lightly. He came around and followed her line of sight to the heavy wire, twenty feet down, feeling the drain on his system already. But he’d been hurt worse, and done more…. He could make it. He looked around for a suitable tool.

“If I slide us down, can you hold on to me? I hate to admit it, but I’m not sure I can do this one handed right now.” He looked at her, but she nodded without looking up. Her total attention seemed riveted by the drop.

He paused a moment, watching her. Perhaps not betrayal, but suicide..  No time. He hobbled his way to a pile of similar wire laying on it’s tools, and uncrimped a connector to get a short length. The was no lift in sight, so they’d have to shimmy down a support to the line. Grabbing his wire and a few connectors, he eased himself over the edge.

“Mike, climb down here and help me,” he called up to her. Without hesitation, she obediently removed her shoes and complied. “Hold this right here.” They bent the wire over the long line to their destination, now at waist height,  and he coupled the ends into it, leaving two loops for his hands. He tested the pull , and threaded his wrists through. Crouching under the line, he glanced at her.

“Put your arms around my neck, and get a good grip. I don’t want you slipping. If it helps to put your legs around me, go ahead. It’s not as painful as it looks.” She kneeled and slipped her arms into place, grabbing her elbows, her face pressed into his hair.

“You ready,” he asked, and felt her nod. “Don’t let go. No excuses this time.” She nodded again, and he slid forward, pushing off to get speed. The moment they were out of the tangle of scaffold, the shooting resumed full force, but no-one noticed they were out of range.  The wire they rode squealed and sang with their passage. Stone looked at he abyss beneath them, and waited for Mike’s arms to part and plunge her into them. The depth made his dizzy, the sound of the wire maddening, and he wondered if he’d let go when she did. But his order remained, and she continued to cling tightly to his neck, barely breathing.

  Workers on the mono looked curiously up as Stone and his passenger  came sliding onto the pallet. He made a quick sweep of them, broadcasting disinterest,  and most shrugged and went back to work, a couple merely forgot them. He hissed through his teeth as he pulled his hands from the wire, sharp lines left in his skin. Mike felt the stop, and stretched her feet to the floor, pulling away to grimace over the marks. Her fingers brushed his palms gently, searching out cuts and trying to smooth out the deep indentions.

“We have to go. Now,” he told her, feeling the fresh flow from his injured side.  The first fears began to seep through him, as he realized how long  it might be before they could rest. The world pulsed at him, waves of light and dark coming and going with his heartbeat. He looked over the edge of the pallet, seeing the angry ants on the ground below, feeling hunted and tired. Al the times he’d envisioned his Goal’s accomplishment, he’d never imagined himself running and hounded after. Sanguine drips threatened to decorate the floor and leave a trail for their pursuers , and he was forced back to the efforts of survival.  

“Stone,” Mike began, and trailed off, her eyes caught by the open mouth of the incomplete mono. It’s dark throat led off and down, eventually  coming within a few feet of several buildings or a long jump to the ground, all out of the sightline of their present armed entourage. It would be a close fit, snug on his armor, and a blind trip, unable to see what was ahead of them.

“After you, Darlin.” He watched her  kneel and disappear into the black on hands and knees. What was for her a narrow crawl would be for him a scrabbling on his elbows and knees, wanting to rise to his hands and held too close. Any claustrophobia his Lady had given him held court in places like this. He hoped the earlier lack of it continued.  He put his head in, and shoved his armored shoulders after.

“Stone?” Mike’s whisper floated back to him in the heated air of the tube as he pulled his legs in behind him. “You need to give them some other idea of what happened to us. If they know where we went….” her voice stilled, conjuring images of themselves trapped in the tight space, riddled with gunfire without chance of escape. He twisted his head back, trying to send an image of the two of them floating off to the ground. The workers gathered at the edge to watch the illusion drift off into the ether, and Stone turned back to the task of  forcing his way through the tunnel.

He could hear Mike just ahead of him, and reached out his thoughts to  find her. He found her just ahead of him, waiting for him with deep trepidations; he saw himself in her mind, a dead mass in the dark, too heavy for her to  pull out,  too familiar to be left to the butchers below. He was oddly comforted by the idea of her  sitting a silent vigil over his corpse, invisible as it was.

“You ready, Hon? It’s too warm to be in here any longer than we have to.”

 

“Can you fix some of what’s wrong before we do?  I cannot do anything for you if you fall unconscious here.” Her thoughts were a calm expectation of the worst. He wanted badly to soothe them as he would with Ricci, but the blankness at their ‘dinner’ was hard on his mind, and he didn’t dare risk it anymore. If he blanked her without meaning to.. if he created a drone or a puppet …  Perhaps it was too late. But she was here, and afraid. He sent the barest tendril of reassurance out to her, the vision of them asleep and safe somewhere, all as it should be in the world, and heard her turn back to the blackness. He started to follow, and brushed her retreating foot. She’d not gone far without him, then.

He tried to make some repairs as he went, finding the multiple sources of the leakage,  and closed off what he could. The heat inside the tube pressed on his face, making him lightheaded, and it occurred to him that her vision could be the correct one. It was a long way down, and they might easily get stuck somewhere. 

He heard her gasp once, then her sounds stopped, replaced with a long spidery whisper that disappeared quickly. He was alarmed, until he felt the drop himself, and understood.  So this was the beginning of the ride.   He slid forward a bit more, and let gravity take him.

His breastplate took the abuse for him, and began to heat quickly as he slid along. He closed his eyes reflexively, trying not to imagine the walls rushing by.

How many feet? How far, how fast? The speed they must be moving at .. the bottom would come soon. But on he went.

Suddenly, it seemed, the rail leveled out, but he shot along without slowing for what seemed forever. Then the surface roughened, and he heard the remnants of his shirt shredding under him, but it stopped him, and he was grateful even with the loss of (yet another) shirt. He found his arms were pulled up tight to his sides, and he stretched them ahead of him to scout  the territory.

He was able to move forward, but the new terrain was thicker than the old, and it’s surface slowed him. He was tiring, and overheated, and his progress slowed further as his reserves ran out.  His head swam, the tunnel rolling under him, and his hands hit the sides with a resounding clang as he tried to steady himself.

Where was Mike? Why was she not here to .. he could not think of what it was she might do to fix this, only that she should be here. Nausea crept up on him like a final assassin, and he fought to keep his head with all he had left. His hands clenched as he pulled himself forward, ignoring the feeling of unbalance,  relying on habit and the logic that said the world was not spinning, and what was under him stayed under.  Panting and gritting his teeth, he crept on.

He heard humming.  Mike, humming to herself, the bittersweet music she’d played the night he’d slipped floated to him as she fought her own battle in the thick of the dark and heat. He heard the harmonies in her head, keeping some demon at bay as she waited for him to find her. His breath paused,  realizing she did not hear him. If he did not get out, then what of her?

  “Mike,” he called softly, fighting to keep his voice steady. “You hurt?  I’m not sure where we are, but we’re at the bottom.” The humming cut off, and he could hear her moving toward him. Fingers brushed his hand, found his face.

“Are you up to going a bit further,” she whispered shakily. “It curves around the building and out of sight just ahead. If they don’t know already where we are, that should get us away. It is safe to assume that if they did know, they’d be opening the tube already.” Her hand rested on his jaw, feeling his pulse, checking for fever.   Was that all?

“You go, I’ll follow.” Her hand lingered a moment longer, then she turned and hurried ahead. His thoughts were thick, and he regretted the loss for a moment before he moved himself after her. Why it should strike him strange for her to touch him so he could not remember. She was Mike. She touched him all the time…

Mike was calling to him, her voice bending strangely, and he understood finally that she’d passed the bend, and was waiting. He crept to her voice, and found the fingers again, questing along his own to pull him closer.

“Can you cut us out? There’s no exit on this end. We should be just above street level.”

His arm ached to reach behind him, seeking his weapon, and he was hard-pressed to pull it up to her. He found the settings by touch, running them to the far end of the norm, cutting back the power to the barest minimum. 

“Bring it to the wall, and cut about halfway up the side, so the damage isn’t easily visible from the street,” he told her. “I can’t maneuver well enough to get where I’d need to be. Don’t get burned,” he cautioned her, handing the grip to her. She took it, hefting it to  get the balance, and felt along the wall. The ozone wafted to him,  and he could almost see her by the pale light it gave off.  Daylight shot in the small opening she created, blinding them both for a moment, and Stone saw the face he’d loved for so long by it’s light. Then she was Mike again, her carefully coifed hair streaming around her face, her eyes narrowed against the painful glare, her face set in concentration as she created their egress. Cooler air breezed by, and the heat pushed out of the opening, easing the pounding behind his eyes. Perhaps they could make it.

The metal sizzled and disappeared, and Stone  leaned back to rest before they attempted to leap from such a height. Mike leaned cautiously out, peering down at the street, then over at something unseen. She turned back to him, frowning still, and explained their situation.

“We are no more than 20 feet from the ground, and 10 feet from the closest building. There is no pedestrian traffic, but we are on the far side of the city from my apartment.  We are easily distinguished by our appearance, and you are wounded. It is possible to walk along the top of the rail for a bit, concealed from view, if we are cautious, and dismount from the closest support. They are designed to be climbable for the maintenance crews.” She looked closely at him, trying to guess his strength. He tried his best to look capable, and surrendered to a wave of fatigue that crashed over him when he sat up.

“We’ll do what we gotta, won’t we? You go up, I’ll be right there,” he told her, and she grimaced.

“What we gotta.”  She did not point out the pale of his skin, nor the glaze of his eyes, but he was aware that she saw it. “Where do we go once we are out?”

He had no answer yet.

She pulled herself out and up, finding no purchase, and spread herself flat on the rounded metal. Stone twisted his frame out and over the lip, letting Mike pull him around to face her. She steadied him, and they crept along the slick top edge.
          “There,” Mike pointed, and Stone followed her arm to the ladder-like brace on down the line.

 She pushed and pulled him, easing him down the brace. His knee gave under the strain, and blood flowed one more, spilling down his calf, and slicking the stair under him.

“We cannot make it from here to there with your condition hindering us. You said you had safehouses. Are there any close by,” Mike asked solemnly.   

“None closer than your place was,” he responded from half-way down, “but I think… perhaps.. I can get us a ride.” He placed a foot on the ground, and  reached for her shoulder. “We just need a quiet spot to wait for a few.”

She found him a cool shaded alley. Leaning heavily on her, he dragged himself into the relative safety  of the  shade before attempting to link with the accomplice she’d given him. Even knowing that the mind was waiting, open  and eager for him, he could not help being startled. A set of thoughts he’s never touched before, spread wide. It was like finding a new mountain outside your window one morning. Far above them, in his crowded office, Sir/Eddie smiled secretively, and opened a file. A quick look at a city’s resources gave him what he wanted, and he sent a remote command to a mechanized servant with whom he now had everything in common. One automaton gave orders to another, and a captive inside screamed in rage at the pleasure the first felt for having served it’s master. Stone gave Eddie his approval, and pulled away in disgust at the  pathetic joy the man felt in return. 

“A car is on it’s way. If anyone sees it, they will assume we’re already in custody, and if no one notices, he’ll remove its destination form the records once we’re out.” Her eyes did not meet his, looking instead at the alley’s mouth, and he did not regret it. They’d created an un-person with their actions, a thing he’d done only by accident before, and always wished to undo. This time, is had been done for him, purposefully, and though it had completed his life’s work, he could not rejoice. This must be the last sacrifice, he thought to himself, sickened.

The car arrived. Mike guided him into it, and they rode silently back to her apartment. They’d destroyed his lair; it was the only place left to go.

Only one act left, he thought to himself. 

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