Page 5



The faces floated above the white coats, and she waited for the sequence to run it’s course. The walls went from sterile white to homey peach, she fulfilled tasks, passed tests, all in fast-forward flashes. When she walked through the wide glassed halls, she considered the evening’s options. Her dim reflection flickered in the dark grain beside her, and she turned to survey it. She remembered looking like this, back when there was a reason for concern over appearance. In a way, she missed it. But appearance was irrelevant to her present occupation. Check that. Her previous occupation. Things changed. It was the only constant in the universe. And though she could welcome it here, where she was herself, it was a constant source of pain there, where she was bound tightly by unrelenting commands. Do if, and if not, do that, this way, unless the other applies,…… Pointless to mourn the lost freedom. What cannot be cured must be endured, and most would prefer you endure it in silence. The reflection altered with her mood, and she considered the new image of herself.

Mouth sewn shut, eyes encased in vision-limiting goggles, hands that ended in terminal jacks instead of fingers, it lacked one ear entirely and the other was wired to a microphone. It gazed back at her pathetically. She considered the new addition to her outer reality. He was of a different origin, yet of a similar nature. It was possible he would be the key she’d never dared to hope for, unlocking the shackles her (originally) well-meaning jailers had placed upon her over-mind. Or perhaps, if that were not possible, he would kill her. Either would suffice

She was aware of his body pressing against hers in the above reality. It was pleasant. It was the first time in that she had been in personal contact with another human being in many years; the desperate, secretive psyche specialists of her time in the white rooms had been selfish, sometimes sadistic, but had not touched her as “herself”. She’d been a body, obedient and silent, and when each was caught in turn, the re-programming had been repeated and altered a bit more. She had not touched anyone, ever, if it could be helped, but the program had changed again, and she inhaled above, enjoying the freedom to enjoy his scent as much as the scent itself. He was warm.

Time was limited, and she was wasting it here on these pointless considerations. How foolish.

She dissolved the walls, putting a twilight sky above her and a desert floor beneath. She lengthened her fingers, filling the space between with webbing, and became the beast, huge and terrible in its beauty. She soared above the landscape, looking at the sunset, giving it more color. She was content to feel the wind on her fur, and listen to the desert sounds below for a long while before the ache began.

She turned from it, and rose high on the breeze to fold her wings at apex, and fall to the waiting sea. Form flowed, and a winged seahorse sped through crystal waters, her shadow dark on the gold sand under her belly. Morning light pressed on her back, and treasures beckoned from the floor, but she was restless. The ache returned. She screamed her frustration, and the waves boiled away with the heat of her anger. Further down.

Shape altered again, and she burrowed deep, seeking caves and solitude’s distraction with the creations of past nights. Limestone spaces stank of silver and she called to her lover in the blackness. Unseen hands lifted her hair from her nape, and heated lips brushed her spine. Arms around her, enveloping her, absorbing her. She was touched everywhere, hands becoming too limited a concept for her needs. When her face was covered, even the act of breathing became unimportant. Sensation was all.

When end was achieved, she floated a bit, considering an extended stay. But even here, the ache found her. ALONE. Always and ever. No end, no beginning, she continued, serving, and denying self, per programming, waiting. To what purpose? Rage built and overwhelmed, then faded in the wave of hopelessness that followed. Accept. As no other choice was available, she complied. Nothing mattered, nothing could be changed. She let the quiet of emptiness fill her.

She closed her eyes, considering. Companionship was a breath away, wasn’t it? It meant little in the grander scheme of things, but it passed the time. How to acquire it? The initiation, the mechanism of connection resided with him, and she doubted he would have recall of the prior instance. How to instigate…

Above, he breathed smoothly, the tiny intermuscular movements of dreaming showing no agitation. He had been in abject terror the first time, and had reached out instinctively. Such a big thing he was, to be so humbled. Deadly above, but helpless here. She was glad for him, that the fear had been ended, but it had been a momentous thing to her to have “company”. And without the fear to push him, it was doubtful he would repeat the exertion.

Rising a bit, she drifted in the upper reaches. She would try. Working at two levels taxed her, but she filled her body, feeling the weight and the paralysis of her sleeping body. All her strength of will was required to move her lips, speaking without waking her physical self.


He stirred, his breathing altered, but he did not wake. Nor did he seek.

Once more.


His brow furrowed against her shoulder, and he twitched, but sank quickly. She could try again, but to repeat took effort, and he might simply waken fully.


He moved, his head lifting just a tad, and he shifted onto his side, sliding a shoulder under hers, sliding his long legs under her knees. His head pillowed on her chest. The arm that fell across her middle was weighty enough to be uncomfortable, and her body moved to adjust. Her chin rested on his hair, and she leaned down to relax on the soft waves. She sighed, feeling her body wake further, and the conditioning clamp down.

Unable now to act, she lay quietly, listening to his breathing. The quilt had slipped, and she pulled at it, it’s weight comforting. It felt good to be fed and warm. She did not remember having slept in tandem before, and after getting used to the idea, enjoyed doing so. Was it worth the constant dancing around conflicting directives, though? Would he further alter her directives? It would be something to consider.

She closed her eyes, and focused on sinking. She could go only so far before hitting a block, and waited for the chemical response to carry her the rest of the way. As the drift picked her up, the command sequences that governed her behavior loosed, and she slipped a quick thought out. Her hand slid down his chest, grazing the stiff scarring, and found the warmer skin below.

“Stone…” and she was dozing, feeling the response of his unconscious body, hearing the soft growl he made to punctuate his squeezing her side. Close. She was in the half-way layer, not fully aware, unable to act on either level. The dream she’d inspired in him deepened his breath, and his hand on her middle twitched lightly. Waiting and impatient, the deeper sleep did not arrive to free her. The ache of despair filled her again, and she folded beneath it.

Stone opened an eye, enjoying the warmth and lethargy that held him still. It was early evening, by the shadows, so they’d slept not quite round the clock. The most noticeable thing was the lack of pain. He stretched experimentally, feeling the slight pull of new scars, but the well-being did not go. He cautiously slid his arm from under Mike’s back and eased off the couch. As an afterthought, he tucked the quilt into the empty space left to stop a draft, and she rolled away, pulling it high over her shoulders till all he could see was the top of her head.

He stood, testing the strength of his muscles after so much inactivity. He glanced at his middle, fingered the heavy new scars there, and the remaining ants. He pulled at one, and was surprised at the sharp stabbing that it produced. He decided to wait for Mike to “unbug” him. The scarring was admittedly less than one would have expected, given the speed and re-opening, ect. Could be worse, he mused.

Walking was glorious. He looked out the low window, seeing the dirty streets, the scruffy clothes of the people scurrying by, and wondered why a Corporate owned Tech would leave the confines of the home “hive” to take up residence in a place like this. The invisible people, nameless and desperate, surrounded the building, and he imagined Mike out there, shopping for the soup makings. Too odd.

He turned away, looked back to the sofa a moment, then skirted the table to settle on the empty floor beyond. He sat slowly, aware of the unfinished nature of his healing, feeling the cold of the wood beneath him and the warm of the reflected sunset on his chest. Closing his eyes, he drew a long breath, and dropped into his level, the still of the room very like that of his own space.

Nerves long stifled were unblocked now; he listened to the news of his body in it’s own language. The repairs had accelerated as there was less to repair, and he was functional. Not at top form, but his low ebb was still better than the best of most professional soldiers. Advantages of. The last bits could be done while he moved on to other things. Just for vanity’s sake, he paled the new scars, shrinking them as much as possible. He stretched out his arms, the blood flowing fast and deep, fibers of muscles sliding and locking. The legs followed, and then the back. His latissimus dorsi, now properly labeled, flexed and rolled. He twisted and folded, loosening the stiffness of two days abed.

Body relieved, he slipped deeper, finding the purpose and strength waiting for him there as always. He opened himself from there, protected and exposed at the same time, as he let the world in. Thoughts, feelings, and the dark, formless fears of a city poured in as a seamless roar, but he floated above, picking out the separate personalities effortlessly. He skimmed them all, connecting for the briefest moment, breezing by, and finding another. Sights, sounds, all there to be borrowed. He became the city.

Then he was confronted by the sight of himself from behind. Nothing of the person behind it, just his naked back, shadowed, dotted with expired “sutures”. The lines of his muscles, the leanness of him in the reddish glow. And the obvious lack of damage.

He turned, remaining in his level, finding Mike watching him from the couch. The expressionless face did not flinch, but the recognition of his miraculous recovery was evident. She waited. He turned back to his sunset and followed the end of his routine through. Silence has a different quality when you are ‘alone’, he mused.

Pulling himself back to the shallow awareness of normal life, Stone lingered on the floor, breathing slowly, feeling the last vestiges of his invalid’s aches fade in the also fading sunset. He was reluctant to stand up, naked still, in the center of her living room, though it could hardly matter at this point. When he heard her leave the couch, then the room, he felt foolishly relieved. He moved quickly to retrieve his pants, and was half into them when she returned.

“I would hold off for a few minutes. I have started a shower for you. If you prefer a bath, I can set that up as well. Since you are sufficiently recovered to move, it would be best to stand and stretch the affected areas as heat is applied to them, and the ants will release in the water.” She looked at him no differently than she had the first night, clothes or no clothes. Reserved and professional, despite the activities of last night.

Stone hesitated, then slid his foot back out of the pants leg. She led him to the dark corner where the bed lay still made and waiting, and the small bathroom at it’s foot. Opening the door, he was greeted by a warm wave of steam, and he stepped through the door into the tiny space.

“Bath? Where?”

“The end cabinets in the kitchen roll out, and the wall pushes back to allow expansion of the tub. It is not a porcelain tub, obviously. The Ends are solid, but the middle section folds… no, gathers.. sort of. You can see it when you get through the clouds. I need to know ahead of time to pull out the cabinets, though. I cannot use the kitchen while the bathtub is in use, but I never had any reason to need both before…” She trailed off, frowning. “This is designed for single occupancy with minimum space requirements. As I cannot be in two places at once, it never came up as a liability.”

Stone considered a moment. “You need to cook?”

“If we wish to eat, I need to cook.”

He agreed to the logic. “I will wait on a bath until it is convenient for you. Works?”

She nodded. “Do you have a preference as to the menu?”

“Whatever is easiest. Soup?” He looked for the source of the wet, and trailed fingers in the stream to test the temp. Approving, he stepped over the foot-high side-wall and into the water. Mike pulled the clear curtain around, tucking the bottom in to the tub to keep the floor dry.

The door closed, and Stone looked for soap. It hung in a perforated pocket at elbow level. It smelled much like the lotion, warm, salty and summery, genderless. Works, he thought. The light pounding of the shower was a mini-massage, and he was sure he could feel his abdominals stretch under it. Heat and pressure. Now all he needed was a good workout, and he would be ready to take it on.

The door opened, and Mike stepped lightly onto the tiles. She set a bowl on the basin, and pulled towels off the shelf above.

“If you want to soak, I have finished in the kitchen. You can eat in here, if you like, and I will wash your clothes while you are occupied.”

“Sounds good. How does it work?” He looked for a button or switch along the walls. None seemed close at hand.

“Elbow grease. Stand still.” She slid between the shower curtain and the wall, reaching for something out of his line of sight. A loud thump startled him. Mike proceeded to the opposite wall, and the sound repeated. Bracing her feet, she leaned on the wall, and it rolled loudly back, finally stopping with a third thump. She then fiddled at the side of the tub wall on either side, and it parted in the center to stretch a clear curtain- type fabric along a small bar. The result became a tub with a soft middle. Stone was doubtful, but it held water, and he sat back in the stream.

“Very nice.” He accepted his bowl with shriveling fingers, and Mike left him again. One could get used to such pampering quickly, he smiled to himself. Shame he couldn’t keep her. But that led to other thoughts, memories of past ‘helpers’ and their bloody ends, so he focused on his soup. Different than before, but good.

Mike woke him after an hour. The tub had cut off when it got too full, and the bowl floated well, a concave raft in his pond, blown by soft snores as he dozed in the warm wet. She almost seemed to smile as she handed him the towel; his clothes were laid out on the bed, clean and dry.

“While you dress, and if it does not conflict with any plans you may currently have, I would like to bathe also.”

“Knock yourself out, kid. Take all the time you need. We’ll move out before dawn, but there’s no hurry.” He lifted the shirt, fingered the repairs made to the dark fabric.

“Some of the holes were too large to darn, as there were missing pieces. I replaced it, but the color is not an exact match. I hope it is satisfactory.”

He thought of pretending to mind, as he would with Ricci, then passed the thought off. They were already too familiar, and Mike seemed to be ‘missing pieces’ of her sense of humor. Why push?

“I never aspired to be a fashion plate. I appreciate the work. The point of wearing black is to hide the stains anyway.” He grinned, remembering the last shirt’s demise. “I got dozens like it in my burrow.”

Mike nodded, leaning over the pillow to fetch a robe and clothes from the in-wall shelves above the bed. Duplicates of the outfit she’d worn to work last, and wore now.

Stone noticed that though she did not seem bothered by his nudity (or should that be did not notice?) she did not undress until behind the closed door. Modesty, habit or low self-image? Not that he cared. He was just noticing.

Fully dressed for the first time in days, he sat on the edge of the bed and looked over his weapons and ‘toys’. Everything appeared to be in order, cleaned of blood and grit. His boots had been polished and stuffed with paper. Anything that was re-fillable was re-filled. Mike had been busy, following the order to ‘assist’ to it’s limit. The requirements of the order were non-specific, to allow for any request that might be necessary in the course of events, but this was indicative of the nature of the person herself. The stray thought slid by,- who would she have been in a different world? Before the Corporations? But it was meaningless, and best forgotten. The odds almost guaranteed her dead, by his hand if none other. Seldom had he not been turned on or turned in, shot at, stabbed ect. by the end of a job when his ‘help’ was used against him. They had great skill at finding those he was close to, yet never attacked him directly. He was a blind spot, aimed at by the reflection of and ricochet off those around him.

Elbows on knees, he hardly noticed when Mike emerged, wet-headed and flushed-faced. She brushed her hair, and dabbed at trickles down her neck, watching him brood. He looked up from his sober considerations, and discovered her half-smile at the door.

“You are not happy. What do you require? I will be happy to do whatever I can,” she prompted. “A bath should lift your mood, relax and invigorate you. Did I forget something? Did your nap give you a headache?”

“Just lining out our itinerary,” he lied. “I need my armor, and access to my system. I need to figure out how to use what we have to the best advantage. And I need to be sure Ricci is OK. What do you need to get together? We will be on a ‘cycle, so space is limited, but we won’t need much. The burrow is well-stocked.” He stood, and she began to collect supplies from the stacks left unused. “Where are we currently? What street, ect.?”

Mike gave him the data, her smile faded into her usual seriousness. She explained the route she’d used to find Ricci, and the ways of avoiding ID scans from here to there. Finishing her preparations, she found shoes for traveling and slipped into a coat and pack, turning off the light. Stone glanced around, taking inventory, feeling something was being forgotten.

Memory flashed an image at him, and he turned a grim face to Mike.

Reaching out his arm, he placed the tip of his index finger above her left eye as a distraction, and then his will seized hold of her thoughts. Her eyes, unfocused and dilating, sought his face but he was a dark shadow that loomed above her in the dark room. He quested deep into the bemused mind below him, seeking the memory of the prior night’s indiscretion, finding a web of dos and don’ts written in steel on her psyche, codes of behavior surrounding the act and all things linked to it. Vague feelings whispered by, indecipherable in the melee, bits of other memories tied tight with barbed wire, till the piece he wanted was all but lost in it all. Should he leave it? Unthinkable; even if she were destined to die before the next nightfall, it would be too long. This was the second half of the sin he had already committed, both reprehensible, but more so if he left this unfinished. Both were a form of >rape, he knew- one of body, one of mind. Non-violence aside.

How to do it? The memory was so deeply buried. And what did this make him now? After all these years, he still had not learned to control his needs; if Mike complied, it was because she had no ability to refuse. She obeyed, first conditioned by Corporate manipulation, now by his own. He had been weak, and now he saw no way to undo the damage without a greater evil. Self-loathing gripped him once more, and he recognized his only options. Leave the memory, which he could not bring himself to do, or twist her for the second time, which was only marginally less horrifying. His guilt grew upon him with every life he touched

So be it. He bore down hard on her, the thoughts flickering by stuttering suddenly, then blanking as he made the change. The straw, already bending in the wind, folded, almost to breaking, and was released to stand, but a new weakness remained where it had been altered…

Stone surveyed the work with a narrowed eye, knowing only that he had shown his weakness again, even as he sought to prove himself worthy. Nothing had changed. He had not changed. When this was over, he would remove himself, and his selfish, destructive nature from the world of normal people. But when he found Her on the other side, he would still not be worthy of her forgiveness. The best he could hope for was that death was indeed the end. No afterlife would welcome what he was.

He stepped away, preparing to release her, expecting to have to catch her, but was himself caught by the slightly bemused/ expectant expression she wore. Impulse betrayed him a last time, and he pressed his lips to hers, completing the cycle of events. Then he slipped away, leaving her blank and dazed, steadying her when her knees buckled. Thought returned, and Mike blinked at the wall a moment.

“Thank you sir” she whispered, “may I have another,” and Stone strained to catch the words. Then she stood, and looked to him for the next request.

She knows what was done, Stone thought to himself with a chill, then discarded the notion. It doesn’t work that way. So quit acting the fool. Time to go.

He opened the door, feeling the tension come over him, readying him for the fight, if fight there should be… They stepped out into the hall, Stone at the ready, and Mike waited while he checked the stairwell and corners, watching him with only the slightest hint of amused frustration at his activities. Finally, she simply walked past him and proceeded down the stairs. Immaculate as before, no sign of their first passage was evident.

Mike led him past the dimly- remembered steel door, down a narrow hall to emerge in a storeroom full of odd junk. Through a swinging door, they entered a small store, their rear passage hidden by shelving and such. A smiling, wrinkled face popped out from behind a stack of magazines, and promptly froze upon seeing Stone behind the expected angel. Stone heard a swift current of possible calamities running behind the old man’s eyes, half in expectation, half in fear of worse discoveries. He himself was a huge dark shadow seen to hover with malice over a small helpless child, while the shopkeeper weighed the odds of saving Mike from this terrifying stranger.

“Good morning, Pop. How are the cats tonight?” Mike smiled warmly at the old man, who tried gamely to return it. “This is Stone. I’ve been given a new project, and,” she leaned over to whisper loudly to him, “he’s my temporary protection. Isn’t he the most threatening thing you’ve ever seen?” The conspirator’s smile filled her face with mischief, and Pop was hard pressed not to smile back. Losing the battle, Pop patted her hand, and agreed.

“You Corporate or Freelance, young man? I trust you take the job seriously.” He extended his hand to Stone, and Stone took it in his, finding Pop’s hand almost as big as his own. The old man stood, and it was plain that in his youth, he’d been almost as tall as Stone as well. “Temporary, eh? Meaning the job is short, or you’re so good they can’t afford you for long?”

“Short job. And little actual risk. Corporate over-protectiveness.” Stone broadcast an image of efficiency and alertness, dedication to the safety of his charge. Pop relaxed, and offered Mike a candy.

“I admit, I got worried when you didn’t come in the first night, or the second, but I figured something like this. I hope they aren’t working you too hard over there, Sweet-tooth. I ain’t the only one who’d miss ya, hon. Box has been whinin’ all day.” He looked around the floor, frowning. “Where’d he get to?”

Mike peeked around, then made a kissing sound, and a small ball of fur landed on her shoulder from above. She kept it from sliding off (and from taking her shirt with it) and buried her face in the soft brown and black puff. A loud purring filled the air, and the kitten pushed it’s face against hers while trying to balance on her hand with it’s back legs. Stone felt again the chill of dead memories, seeing the smudged, furry face. A small voice giggled and squealed in the echoes. He reached out to rub the tiny beast between it’s ears, and it rolled off Mike’s hand trying to get to both sources of attention. Stone caught the skinny body and it tried to crawl up his sleeve on the way back to Mike. “He likes ya, don’t he?” Mike grinned. “It might be mutual if he’d leave off with the claws,” Stone replied, trying to stabilize the now sleeve- ensconced cat. Who’d have thought there was room?

Mike waited until Box emerged from Stone’s shirt collar, and kissed it fervently atop it’s head before returning it to Pop.

“Kiss him every night for me till I get back, ‘kay?”

Stone did not see a reason to comment on the improbability of that.

Pop promised, glancing at Stone as he did so. Again, Stone broadcast the idea of dedication, and moved Mike out the front. Now he had two more sources of guilt when she met her END.

Mike was quick to move, and a ready guide on the empty street. There was little time for talk, Stone scanning for guarded thoughts, and Mike enjoying the warm night air as she skirted ID checks. It was only a twenty minute walk to Ricci’s neighborhood, and he was relieved to see the bar lights when they rounded the corner. Rational fears based on experience rode his shoulders, nagging him with pictures of other friends exposed to his world. Scarlet snapshots, each a fist to his vitals then, now the dull ache of past pains. They passed the bar, and he checked for her, visually and other, but it was not her night for third shift. Around the back and up the steps, to the upper hall, and still nothing unusual. Relief came hard, the desire to believe everything fine weighed against the past, and lost. Until he saw her, unhurt and unaltered, he would not relax.

Then Mike was knocking on the door, and Ricci opened it wide. She stared past Mike, her eyes full and joyous for the sight of him whole and strong. She was in the hall and holding him tight before Mike could give greetings or warning. Then she dragged him inside, and Mike was left tagging along behind.

“You look so good, are you ok already? You looked pretty beat up yesterday, and here you are, walking and talking, all man again.” Ricci pressed herself close, kissing him firmly, and he smiled against her lips. Her thoughts were open and blatant, freely ready to re-assert her claim on him after his stint under another woman’s care. He returned with the image of what he would do to prove his health, and she sighed happily. Running hands over his chest, Ricci noted the changes in his topography, and made a note to map it as soon as possible.

“I need to get my wheels, and get this done first, then we can spend the rest of our lives doing that very thing, my lady. Rain check? If we’re lucky, I can do it all by wire, and be back by tomorrow night. No risk, no blood, no pain; just a quick slide in the back door, do what needs doing and poof! Done and gone.” He squeezed her from the small of her back, and she winced.

“Careful there. I got a tender spot.” She did not elaborate, and he stroked it gently, fingers light and warm through her blouse.

“Want me to..”

“Nah, get the keys, get done and get back. I need you long-term.” She pushed him away, headed him to the bedroom. He went, pictures of the mornings to come later making her blush slightly. Then he was out of sight, and Ricci turned dark eyes to Mike.

“You should go check the street, he’ll be down in a moment.” Ricci moved around the room, setting this here, adjusting that.

“Stone will no doubt do so himself, so it would be wasted effort to check myself.” Mike gave no sign of temper or concern, but noticed that Ricci’s agitation increased quickly.

“I was trying to be tactful. I would appreciate a moment alone with Stone. There are relationship issues involved. It won’t take long.” She stared hard at Mike, trying to force her out by sheer force of will, but Mike waited, returning the stare with an effortless, emotionless gaze. Ricci glanced back at the door to the bedroom with a nervous twitch of her neck, then back to Mike, her face betraying a fast growing desperation. “I need to see him without you standing here, watching us like fish in an aquarium! Do you understand the idea of privacy?”

“I understand all that would have been required to let him know this a moment ago was the simple desire for it. It would not have been vocal, and so would not have needed tact, and he could easily sent me wherever, without explanation, if he considered it a worthy request. The fact that you did not do this leaves me wondering as to your intent. There is no logical reason that I can see for the behavior you are currently evincing,” Mike finished in her cool, polite manner. Now the eyes narrowed slightly. “I would be amenable to giving you privacy when Directed to by Stone. Until such time as I receive contrary orders from him, I will remain here.”

Ricci’s frantic movements stopped, the frown melting. Mike’s face came alive with horror as Ricci’s emptied of all life. Seconds stretched out and filled eons, but Ricci did not move, and Mike processed and extrapolated at top speed, this understanding at odds with her reality. And in some tiny, foolish part of her, she knew this is what she looked like when she slipped gears, when she fell out of function and into analysis of conflicting commands. Only the fact that Ricci would not know it was recognized was in Mike’s favor now.

Poor Stone.

He would be very unhappy when (and if) he found out.

One long, slow blink signaled the beginning of Ricci’s recovery, then another, each following faster as thought resumed normal parameters. Then Stone was returning, blissfully unaware of what had been done to his lady, flipping her around for a final goodbye before he went off to battle. Mike considered the ramifications of the previous conversation.

Whatever was to be done, Mike herself was to be absent when it occurred. Stone was to be alone with Ricci, it would not take long, and it was against Ricci’s natural inclinations, if it caused such anxiety. What had been done was obvious. What Ricci had been Programmed to do… too many variables.

Poor Ricci.

She probably could not even be unhappy about this.

The freedom to feel was always the first to go.

Mike heard whispers between the lovers, “in private? Just for a minute? I was so worried...” and considered how best to ‘assist’ Stone in achieving his goal at this juncture. He would be resistant to the idea that Ricci had been compromised, but feelings were immaterial when compared to survival. Physical function must be maintained above other, more ephemeral concerns.

“Mike? Are you in there?” Stone was glancing back over his shoulder at Ricci, trying to keep her from seeing Mike this way. It was humorous, in it’s own twisted way, Mike thought.

Ricci showed signs of increasing disquiet. Stone began to turn back to her, forcing Mike to reach out her hand and grasp his arm. He turned back with a frown, himself caught between directives, and Mike made herself meet his eyes.

“We must leave NOW. There is something significant wrong with your companion, and there is insufficient time to explain. Have you acquired what you came for,” she asked, making a supreme effort not to look away. He pulled his arm back, and she let it go, hoping he understood, or would attempt further understanding in his own fashion.

“I think I would know if there was something wrong; I know her inside out. Literally. If you have a-”

“Stone! Will you come here? What’s going on?” Ricci’s voice was becoming shrill, and Stone was torn. Mike did nothing without a reason, but her reasons were not always clear. Ricci was clearly upset, and he had wanted to take a moment to ease his guilt over last night by making secure, though tentative plans for the future with her. A quick suggestion would reassure and elate her, and she deserved it. But Mike seemed intent. The easiest way was the quickest, and he sent out a tendril of question, finding Mike’s odd shield missing.

And he recoiled at the images there. The programmer he’d seen on TV was just a prototype, not a viable product! The concept was revolting in theory, but to suggest that Ricci had been ‘altered’- that was beyond belief.

He would have felt the change in her as soon as he’d entered the room, could not have missed it when they were ‘sharing’ images of such personal intimacy.

He would hear the change in every thought she had.

Wouldn’t he?

Stone looked at Mike a moment more, loathing in the deep shadowed eyes. Then he returned to Ricci, stroking her face with his fingertips, pressing waves of calm on her. His lips stroked across hers, and his tongue slipped between them as his mind slipped into her thoughts, tasting them, testing them, seeking and hoping not to find. But such hope would kill him surely, he knew, and bracing himself, he delved deep, looking for anything that did not fit.

And found it. A small, quiet place, out of the way, with a hidden agenda all it’s own. Thoughts without anchor, linked only to his presence. And a sweet image of themselves, together, for all of time, in some distant place lay over it all, her deepest desire used as the lever for…what?

~Ricci? You can tell me now. You know I know.~

~What? I don’t understand…~

And she didn’t, not in her upper or lower minds; it lay deep, where she would do without thinking about it. The ultimate betrayal of self.

He pulled away on both levels, stepping back a bit to look at her. The hand on her middle. His fingers were gentle, but she gasped lightly as he pressed, finding a solid where there should be none. The sore back took on an ominous meaning now. She reached out to pull him close, reaching up for his mouth. For a moment, Stone considered. The last refuge of his world had been breached, his only concern in this life beyond the Goal stood before him, dead on it’s feet. She was beyond his ability to save.

“Ricci!” Mike’s voice was sharp in the small room, and Ricci shuddered at the sound. Her eyes blanked, but her head turned to Mike. “I am still here. Define the parameters of your requirements.” Ricci shook her head, recognition in her eyes but not her face.

“Leave her the fuck alone. I decide what happens to her, got it? I will figure out what to do,” Stone spat at her. He was helpless. But he would not allow Ricci to know what had happened to her.

“Stone. You are allowing your emotions to dictate your actions. There is nothing that you can do for her at the current time. It is entirely possible that she has contacted the parties responsible and you will be trapped here.”

We will be trapped here, honey.”

“What happens to me is not of concern here. You need to remove yourself from your feelings for her. We can return after the situation is resolved and I can attempt repairs then. Without knowing what her directives are, we cannot-“

“I know what she’s supposed to do.”

Stone considered pulling Ricci out of herself and into him until he could remove the object from her middle. He had never done it, but it had always seemed feasible. Once more he considered giving in, dying here and now, letting it happen. He considered taking Mike as a surrogate body for Ricci- it was younger and looked so similar..

In the end there was nothing to be done. Time runs out the bottom, and later we wonder what happened.

Something in Ricci’s face cleared, and she grasped Stone’s face firmly with her right hand, running her left firmly into his hair. Pulling his mouth down to hers, she slid her fingers down his startled face, going on to his chest and across him stomach, dropping to caress his groin before returning to brush against his middle. Her fingertips left his skin to press against her own, finding the solid lump beneath.

Mike’s body struck hard against his shoulder, knocking him into the short hall and collapsing atop him. He had a brief view of Ricci’s stricken face, her arm outstretched to him in supplication, then the thunder filled the room with smoke and debris. Chunks of ceiling dropped loudly to either side, and he could hear what Ricci had been- a shocked, helpless agony as life lingered in the tattered rags of flesh, then the quiet expansion and lift of her leaving. Amid the creak of damaged supports, the remains of his soul shrieked in protest at the exodus, denying it and the newly scarlet walls of the room beyond.

Mike reached out, her clasping hands slipping along the deeply cracked wall. Finding her balance on hands and knees, she lifted her head to survey the changed landscape. Glancing back, she took in the coated walls, the sound of imminent collapse growing in her ears. Time to move.

Turning to Stone, she considered her possible miscalculation.

Twisted by rage, Stones’ face was almost unrecognizable. Madness lurked there, pacing behind the bars of his control, desperate for a way out. Nothing existed beyond his need to destroy the origin of Ricci’s pain. Nothing mattered more than the balancing of scales; his years of agony and now this - they would weigh heavy and he would shed blood to find recompense.

And he had called Ricci because of Mike, hadn’t he… he turned to her.

Because she wore that face… he reached out.

Because he was weak… his hand froze.

He’d killed Ricci with his weakness as surely as if he’d opened her with a knife. Killing Mike would mean nothing.

Mike waited, and wondered, and watched the changes running across his features. Should she have allowed him to die with his lady? It would be a great tragedy if she had denied him the choice she herself did not have. He had not specified an action in regard to this possibility. His hand moved toward her, and for a moment, she was caught between the hope that his need to destroy someone, anyone, would free her, and the regret that she had failed to find a way to spare him this. Had she moved faster, more forcefully, perhaps. Deepest regrets.

But he did not kill her, and she continued to wait while he lay in the falling plaster, too far gone in his own thoughts to consider his survival. At what point should she take control and force him to move? He said nothing on either level; left without instruction, she had no choice but to continue, and when the groaning reached it’s peak, prior command kicked in hard, galvanizing.

“Up -Now! Move it, mister,” she barked, grasping his shoulder. “The ceiling will collapse at any time. Vengeance requires a living instrument.” She placed both hands on his face, pulling it away from the red vista beyond the hall. “Stone. The building will fall on us if you do not move. I cannot leave until you do. If you want us to die here, say so. Otherwise I am compelled to attempt to keep you alive.” His eyes met hers, and she could hear the whisperings of him behind them as he weighed the Goal against the pain. “They took her apart and put her back together to please them. If you do not wish to allow them to continue, you must MOVE” and he was up, dragging her behind him as the snapping timbers shot splinters at each other.

The door was on the other wall, beyond the ruined living room, not an option for escape. The window in the bedroom offered a slim hope. Stone looked out, gauging the distance, cursing to discover a street full of city vehicles. How to cheat death this time…. He aimed his gun at the mid-wall, and an opening appeared. Through it, and another, then through another in the floor. Down and across, he created new paths to his objective, the already weakened building shaking in his wake.

“Where are we going?”

“We need transportation. My cycle is in the basement lot,” he growled over the complaints of the walls.

“Did Ricci know about it, or it’s location? If she had the knowledge, they will..” and was cut off as he stopped short.

Shut Up.” They were almost at ground level. He swung the gun around to face her, out of breath and snarling. “Don’t speak her name, don’t tell me what you think you know about it. I call the shots, come hell or high water, and god help me, you will keep your trap shut until I say otherwise. Got me?”

She closed her eyes, drawing herself up straight, and nodded, her eyes on the wall.

“Good. Unless I specifically ask you a question, I don’t want to hear it. Now move.” He opened another hole, and they were in the dark, echoes of their footfalls harsh in their ears. He turned, looking for something, and Mike listened while he pulled a heavy tarp to the ground, uncovering a huge two-wheeled monstrosity glistening in chrome and black. “My baby. How you been?” He stroked the front ‘glass, and hit a switch. A heavy hydraulic whine filled the low space, and Mike shivered. She lightly touched the saddles, soft and silky, and shoulder high. Too big. It was reminiscent of something…

“Powering up takes a few, but the sub-floor will hold a while longer. The rest of the building may be gone… I need armor. That requires going back to the burrow. You can access the terminals there; I hope they aren’t too low-tech for you,” he told her to kill the silence. She did not reply, as per instruction, and he continued to check dials and levels. He could not shake the feeling that something was missing. Of course there is - no Ricci, he told himself, trying to distance himself from it until he was out and gone. Somewhere safe to grieve. But still it lingered. He’d come down here alone before, what was different?

The dark. He’d neglected to light the garage, and still he felt fine. No shakes, no need to breathe. How fitting. Years of claustrophobia, and he was cured. All ya need is a good friend to blow to bits right in front of ya, it’s a miracle cure, he thought wildly.

He doesn’t hear it, Mike thought. The lack of crickets, no street noise. She touched his arm, and he looked around, unaware of the slow tears gracing his cheeks. She felt sick seeing it, unable to ‘assist’ in this circumstance, but he needed to know. They were here.

“What?” Short and rude, jerked away from her touch to stare hard at her. If it was not necessary to have her right now…

“Can you tell if anyone is close by? There is no other sound here. That is not natural.” She tried not to speak loudly, but her low words echoed in the shadows. He looked at her, then around the unlit lot.

He scanned out, his prior adrenaline rush giving way to the next as he found mind after mind creeping in through the rear door. He set the cycle to start as soon as it was ready, and opened the wind shields (which shielded him from more than wind).

“Get on the cycle, keep your head down and your feet up. Stay put. It won’t protect you from ricochet, but you won’t get hit from the front or sides. I’ll do what I can from here, and when I say go, hold on tight. Got it?” She nodded, a lighter shadow among the rest. He helped her up, but stood beside it while he stretched out, seeking minds in the dark.

Here, and there, he slipped a thought in, making suggestion or removal, but the sheer numbers were beyond him. So many. What had changed, that they were willing to go against him openly in force this time? Was the data Mike had taken that valuable to them? There was a deeper meaning here, plans within, and he did not have time to steal them from the minds before him. He skimmed through, closing down as many as possible.

Blinding light stabbed at him, and Mike’s unvoiced scream passed through him and out again as the amplified voice beat as his ears, demanding surrender. He sought the source in the light’s halo, seeking a mind on which to fasten - kill the leader, the drones will follow. But the light and sound were effective in keeping him disoriented, and he felt fear come creeping in where it had not ventured before. An enemy, prepared and briefed on his abilities for the first time. He was left to fight as a man against men now, his power stolen from him, and he was afraid.

“Stone,” he heard Mike whisper, and he shielded his eyes to squint at her. How could he hear her over the noise? “Stone,” she yelled again from a foot away, and he dipped in to her thoughts. A fear of something beyond dying ran ice through her, and he tried to make sense of the image she saw. He put out a hand to steady her, and the voice became frantic, ordering him to step away and drop.

“Like hell,” he growled to himself, and took a leap towards the cycle. His ears told him something had exploded as the whole of their numbers opened fire on him. Or tried to. Many found themselves murdering their comrades while a few simply dropped to the ground, unconscious. But still, enough were untouched to leave gaping holes in the ‘crete, and only slightly smaller holes in Stone himself. Smaller caliber than the previous weeks’ hits, he thought lightly as he was twisted and turned by the bullets, like a man walking on moving ground. Pain and rage filled him, but he could not see to find shelter behind the cycle. It had to be up and running by now. Had to.

The shooting trailed off in a fresh burst of voices, someone screaming, frantic orders to hold fire, rush them… he pushed himself off the floor, looking for the back wheel, but finding instead small hands, appearing under his shoulders as Mike dragged him around and tried to push him up onto the metal beast. He smelled ozone, and heard the lift of the dead, but could not remember firing.

He had a brief flash of understanding, and looked back at Mike, shocked to find her shrieking defiance and firing at whatever she found moving. It’s always the quiet ones, he thought, irrationally proud of her. She’s beautiful when she’s angry, he smiled to himself, taking the gun from her and putting it to more precise use. She buried her face in his chest for a moment, gasping and shaken, and he put one tattered arm around her. Then she clambered back onto the shining behemoth, reaching back to drag at his arm; his clean clothes were bloodied again, and her grip slipped.

“Scoot forward.” She looked back at him, startled, but complied, taking the front saddle, and he put a boot toe in a crevice. “Hit the yellow button above the power gauge.” She did, and he was thrown up to hit the opposite shield.

“Fuck that hurt,” he gasped, but fired a shot or three over the shield with a relish. This was his element. His purpose. And it was all he was good at…

The firing resumed, and he pulled at the shield behind him, slipping again and again, finally catching it at the corner to feel it set. Mike sat up, her head exposed for a second as she tried to figure an exit, and the screaming began again; wild shots careened off every surface, then stilled while the shouting increased. Men in heavy armor found their way to the far side of the cycle, still dozens of feet away, but seeing them so close had Mike in a frenzy to escape.

~Lean forward, Mike~ Stone sent to her, and she reached up for the most obvious handholds. ~Good girl. Feel the shape of the machine. It knows what to do, all it wants is a direction. Feel the power? It’s ready. You ready? Let’s take ‘em out, Hon.~ He leaned down to her and wrapped his arms around her middle, towering over her at a slant. She shook her head, not knowing what to do with the opportunity, and terrified of a nameless thing he could not isolate. He had not seen her afraid before now, despite ample cause, and he was bemused. Safety was a short blast away, but it would not wait long.

~May I join you?~
He offered a merge, knowing he could not handle the beast himself with this new damage, and anxious to get her moving. She did not resist, closing her eyes as he threw another shot over the edge from behind her. He slipped into her head, smoothly filtering what was him and what was her into a seamless center with two individual sides, co-opted yet independent. It was different than the trip to Ricci’s, a fuller merge, not just his watching over her shoulder this time; he was awake, aware, and she< felt him inside and out, a warm, secure wrap of power and thought, infinitely able and calm. No pain, no grief. Just function.

Filling her, being himself, he reached out their hand and caressed the buttons, adjusting the settings, setting the weapons. If there was an afterlife, he would be sure Ricci had plenty of servants there. He/she locked the front wheel, geared the back wheel hard to send them spinning around, and let fly. Once, twice, three times around, sending great arcs of screaming shrapnel into the armored figures creeping up on them. Weakened supports gave way to the barrage, crashing onto the writhing bodies below as she/he released the guide wheel to leap forward, dodging and dancing between the falling ‘crete and up, finding the door she had yet to see which dissolved even as she thought of opening it.

‘If any lived, they’ll die underneath when it falls. Do you regret?

She did not answer, in voice or mind, and he could imagine her, trying to assimilate the acts she’d committed with what she knew. It is a wrongness… This was what ultimately destroyed his ‘help’, the deep rift between ingrained right, and what happens in war. Few took the gun for themselves, though, too shocked to cope just witnessing his work, but she had been twisted twice. Had it strengthened the original demands?

~I owe you my life again. The damage is minimal compared the first time, but it would have added up quickly. You were foolish to leave the protection of the cycle on your own sake, but for my sake, I thank you.~

He took them down the black back alleys, working out to the highway and the city edge. ~You will like where we’re going,~ he told her. ~The last person to go there looked a lot like you, but it looked very different then. It is beautiful now, a tribute to her, and it will last for generations.~ He was filling the silence, he knew, the adrenal rush wearing down slowly, and it was pointless to share any thought with her beyond the most basic and necessary, but silence was space to think, and that was deadly right now.

Better to babble calmly, and enjoy the fading sizzle of power after a battle well won, and see the stars though the eyes of someone who seldom saw them. His machine was a soft roar below them, and Mike was a still pool, without ripple, reflecting serenely all that was around them. The smell of blood on his clothes was familiar, one of survival and success to him, and the soft body he held pleasantly salty but clean. He heard her remember the music, saw the land and sky as she saw it, and felt her growing ease and pleasure in her control over the cycle. He was separate from all that was painful, detached from everything but right now, here, and he reveled in it.

~I have created a garden in the wilderness, a memorial to a soul I tasted for but a moment, who deserved so much more than what I was, more than what I am now, but to whom I owe all that is worthy in me. When the Goal has been fulfilled, I will go there and become the last addition to my Garden, becoming one with the Earth, giving the last possession, the last gift I have to her memory. And if there is something beyond this life, I will spend eternity in her service, showing my repentance and atoning for the wrongs I did her. I imagine it would be much like this, the beauty of the night going on forever, the darkness, the warm air... heaven is a long summer night on a fast horse with your lover, riding through never-ending fields of sweet grass and flowers.~

~Do you believe in an afterlife? A place where we continue after the shell of flesh we wear has gone to dust? Or do we End, nothing beyond, never again, forgotten by even the most devoted descendants in a generation or two? Are we eternal or transient? Spirit or flesh? I have spent decades pondering it. I do not fear death. I do not really fear the dying. I have felt pain; you have seen what I survive. I fear only that there is something more, and that I will die before I have become worthy. The world will continue without me as it always has; no one will be here to weep for me now. But to go as I am now…

~What do you fear? You have not shown fear for yourself. You were afraid of something back there; what was it? You left safety to save me, so it was not death - and they would not have killed you once I was brought down. You picked up the gun of your own volition - I have never forced anyone to kill, and had not told you to do so in any fashion. Yet you did so, after your earlier statement. Have the rules changed for you? Did you think you were in danger, Michlenna?~

He paused, hoping for an answer. He could hear her considering, as she enjoyed the wind on her face and the warmth of him against her back. He was surprised at that last bit, uncertain what it meant, but pleased on some deeper level that it was mutual. The moon was full and bright, and she turned off the lights, letting the moonlight show her the road. The feeling of isolation increased with this new aspect; they were all that existed.

“It doesn't matter what happens to me. It is not in my realm of control, therefore it is pointless to concern myself with it,” she whispered to the wind, and he heard it on both levels, the words underneath the words without true language. He waited for more, knowing a pause for thought when he heard it. She would get the grasp of tongueless speech in time. Images drifted by, an abomination- bound and altered with technology, the music and the massage, the gun held on her as his pain left him biting and cruel, all with the same acceptance. “Fear is resistance to what is and what will be. The shore might as well fear the change of the tide. But it would alter nothing.” She paused again, and he caught an image of her, hands thrown to the wind, eyes closed, her hair streaming loose in the wind. “My life is gone. It cannot be reclaimed. You are now my purpose, and when you go, I do not know what will be. I do not waste time on ‘might’. You were in danger, and in pain. I did what was required.” There was more, but she fell silent, the joy of the ride diminishing with the return of thought and memory. Somewhere beyond what was merged, he heard the stirring of something large and clawed, but she turned her eyes back to the sky, and it slept again.

~You did not answer the question. What did you fear so much that you would risk your life, and kill?~ He knew the question was pointless for more reasons than he could count, but he pushed on, thinking of the changes she underwent according to the situation. ~You could have sat and waited, and I might have made it on my own. You could have figured out the controls and escaped. You could have done a great many things, but you chose to walk into the bullets and pull me in. And you killed other human beings.~ He was skating the line between curiosity and cruelty, but her lack of response was a goad. He expanded the merge further, tapping in to areas he did not need, demanding an answer.

”I regret the necessity of it.” The answer to his first question, both simple and layered. Was it a riddle? She held no sign of it. She’d said what she meant, and no more, but it spoke volumes Motionless, she continued to watch the road while his thoughts spun in circles, decoding and analyzing.

Distraction from what was, the question grew in importance until it consumed every thought. There was something there, in her, he’d seen a person, feelings and hopes, when she’d listened to the music. In the lot, he’d seen fear. But not when he’d threatened her, or now, when he dug at her exposed soul. Where was the reality of her hidden then?

~Confess. I can take it from you with no effort. I can open you and read your soul and never feel a thing. What did you fear? What DO you fear?~ He leaned on her thoughts, enraged by her lack of fight, by her ability to feel nothing in the face of his power. She was empty, of thought and feeling and fear of him, and though he knew his anger was not really for her, he dove, peeling her sub-mind open, peering deep at what lay there. Part of him took savage joy in her helplessness, at drawing a tortured gasp from her silent lips; part of him looked on in horror at what he did with his gift and his anger. Then he was too absorbed in what he’d found to think anything at all.

A great clawed beast filled a morning sky, screaming and snarling at endless walls of rock, and he/she was trapped, alone in it’s lair, unable to move or think, aware of terror, yet detached from it as the monster lowered it’s blackened, greasy head ever so slowly in their direction. It was vaguely familiar, a long heavy neck supporting huge jaws that glistened coldly as they reached to sever hunks of the wall and spit it at some unseen carrier. Two, three, four bites, ever closer, and he was moving closer to it, helpless to run, drawn to an end predestined by some invisible hand. Stench blew over them, and hair filled their face, blinding them. A high, whistling screech tore at their ears, making them bleed, and then the jaws were coming down for them.

Stink of metal, burning oil, and mindless pain as scalp and skull parted ways, then a blankness that lasted forever. Consciousness, manacles, white rooms, and a feeling of some great tragedy. Something lost, irrevocably. And eternity stretching out before them in this tiny prison of self…

“I fear only immortality.”

He heard the words, but they were meaningless to him as he shuddered against her back. Separate suddenly, he heard the whistle again and again, and the sound shook him to his bowels. How what he’d seen fit in to her fear at the lot, he could not guess, but any interest he’d had in digging further was well gone. Punished and passive, he wished the ability to remove his own memories as he did those of others, stilling the screech of the beast in his head. Inorganic. Alien. And cold. As was he, left in his own body, the rush gone, and guilt returned.

~I am sorry beyond measure. And I have no excuse. Cruelty is not a trait I relish in myself, and I regret this more than… Damn. I don’t understand what I saw, and I won’t violate you again. I hope you’ll try not to hate me for it.~ He fell silent, feeling the pain and cold seep deeper into him. The air was still warm, and the night still clear, but it had lost it’s beauty.

“Life is.”

There was no recrimination in her voice, but it was somehow worse that she was not angry. She leaned her head back against his neck, and he dropped his head on her shoulder. She turned slightly, putting her lips to his ear, and he waited for whatever she might say with dread.

“I have no idea where we’re going, and you didn’t tell me how to stop.”

He blinked a moment, caught off guard, knowing the humor of the situation escaped her, and held her tighter while he laughed for them both.

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