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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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.
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
To Page 6
never go home again....