PILGRIMAGE IN VOID
follows some like a faithful dog. Stone hoped his was still wagging tail beside
him as the sun came up. He was having trouble re-starting the closed systems,
his body tired of the fight, and though he’d stopped bleeding and sealed what
he could, it was becoming a concern. He felt fuzzy. He’d taken nothing to
cause it. Not enough pressure to keep the hydraulics of his heart working, and
his brain was complaining.
looked over at Mike, her shadowed face drawn from lack of sleep, and wondered
about the quiet smile on her lips. She’d opened the windows, leaning on her
arm as it hung in the wind, and the breeze their passing created blew her hair
in wisps around her cheeks. He recognized it now,- the look she’d worn when
they first emerged from the depths of her Corp. to the sunrise, the soft joy for
the morning air, the painted sky, and the silence of the dawn. The look of a
young girl in love. A child’s expression when no one is watching her watch the
fairies on the lawn. Simple happiness. And it made her beautiful.
She ever been this lovely to him, his
nameless Lady? Had he seen her smile except that odd side grin at the
car? Never like this. He had not known Her for much more than an hour, and most
of that, she’d been restrained. With Mike, he’d spent hours, seen her world,
seen her with her co-workers, friends (though few they were), and seen her as
she was and could be.
could breed contempt, but it also had
been known to breed comfort. Her
quiet mannerisms, her easy, automatic willingness
and honest desire to help, … these were things one grew accustomed to, came to
expect or look forward to. She was part of his daily routine. Despite his
determination to feel nothing, he’s been caught off guard, off balance once
too often, and for the first time in memory, the ‘felt for’ had not
destroyed him at their soonest convenience. She’d chosen him over her old
if all this warmth was just loss of blood? What a horrible thought.
was pleasant to just sit and gaze at her as she gazed in turn
at the barren scenery beyond the ‘glass.
A tattered rabbit flashed out of it’s hole and across the sand. She
followed it’s path, a slight lifting of her eyes telling him how thrilled she
was, and then it was gone, dropping out of sight suddenly. She never moved, but
her body tensed and relaxed as each new sight was seen and passed. His eyes
any time passed before she started, and he felt the slight bump of the wheels
hitting an object in the road? She hurriedly flipped switches and they stopped,
then reversed several yards. He drug
his eyes open to see her hop out of the cab and run behind. What now? She was
well behind the transport, bent over something in the road from what he saw in
struggled out of the cab, falling roughly to the pavement when his legs failed
to remember he was moving. He was suddenly a lot more concerned. He looked back
to Mike, glad to see she was returning, but her face had lost it’s softness.
The ‘problem-solver’ had returned, and the problem was an unpleasant one,
from the look of it. She was almost on top of him before she noticed him on the
ground, frowning at the scrapes on his hands where he’d caught himself.
are you doing out here?”
hopped out. I thought something was up.”
almost smiled. “And you were coming to assist?”
occurred to me that you might need help, yes.” Although he doubted he’d have
been much in his present condition. She must have shared the thought, from the
look she wore.
get you back up.” She lifted him from the shoulders, and he tried to get his
reluctant legs under him. Bracing himself against one of the shoulder-high
wheels, he searched her face for what he was missing. She avoided his eyes,
opening the door again for him.
happening, Mike?” The direct approach was more effective, and the solve-it
face dropped, uncovering a quiet pain and uncertainty.
animal ran under the wheels. It’s alive, but wouldn’t survive very long.”
were going to take it with us?” He wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but if
she was determined…
I was going to kill it.” He was startled by the idea, but her tense face was
proof of her seriousness.
He gave up, his wits not equal to the task. She was a confusion. “Why?”
is suffering.” She looked back to the lump in the road, and since he was not
hurrying to re-mount, she returned to it. He wobbled after her, steadying
himself on the solid side of the carrier.
was another rabbit, smaller, and darker, panting
heavily above it’s crushed hindquarters. There was surprisingly little blood,
just matted fur, and waves of pain and fear rolling off the tiny beast. Mike
reached down, and it jerked, causing itself more pain when it’s lower half did
not pull away from the pavement. Mike’s face twisted, and she whispered
apologies to it in a cracking voice. Moving behind it, she reached again from
behind, and it’s breathing slowed as she plucked at it’s fur repeatedly.
you kill it,” she whispered. She continued to tug lightly at it’s back,
moving around. He watched, fascinated to feel the rabbit’s easing fear.
likes that. He feels safer, despite the pain,” Stone whispered back.
looked up at her, seeing the emotionless mask, and faced the animal again. He reached,
and slipped into the tiny mind, radiating soothing thoughts. It calmed further,
and he suggested sleep. Tiny black eyes closed slowly, and the body relaxed; a
thought further, and the breathing stopped.
Mike looked up at him, and the relief there was hard to look at directly.
Looking down, she stroked the soft fur a second longer, then the mask dropped,
and she slipped a hand under the rabbit’s chest, ripping it free of the pavement.
depositing it in the tall grass beside the road, she wiped her hands with
antiseptic before turning back to help Stone to his feet. She deposited him
securely in the cab, checking him for fever and blood loss, then climbed in
after. She set the machine in motion again, looking at readouts and displays
with her serious face intent on some unseen equation. Stone waited for some
word, some clue to her thoughts, testing the walls, uncertain what to make of
the incident. He leaned back, unable to read her face, and getting nothing from
her beyond it. She checked a clock, frowned, and tested his pulse and
are not coping with the new trauma to you systems as well as you did in earlier
instances. There is no safe place to go within a four hour- ride.
I am uncertain”
know a safe place? And it’s only a few hours away,” he interrupted her,
unable to imagine anywhere as safe now
that his lair had been destroyed.
is always someplace to go. The question is more- who owns it, and how long
before they check on it. Is it close enough to be of use. And will it contain
what we need to sustain you. Can it be entered without notice. Can we get you
there in your present condition. There are more considerations along that same
line, but you get the idea.”
did a few more calculations, then slid beneath the front dash. Small fingers
found panels, and made adjustments. They slowed, and she returned to her seat,
pulling it closer, and higher, then taking the wheel of the now-creeping
vehicle. Her foot brushed the throttle, and she schooched up a bit to press it
firmly toward the floor. Stone watched her adapt to driving, marveling at her
knowledge of things she would have had no use for in the office. She was ever
supplying his needs, often before he knew what he needed.
drifted, comfortable and secure with her taking care of things. If life were
heard the soft sigh beside her as Stone nodded off. She did not waste time
wishing for the monitoring equipment she did not have, instead setting an
internal clock to check him every fifteen minutes. She edged the carrier’s
speed up as far as she could with it’s current core temperature. In a while,
she would increase again as the machine settled the heat from the day’s work
in the sun. Higher speeds used different systems, and they were just warming up.
back at him, she weighed the odds of his getting to the closest security, based
on the climbing involved. She quickly dismissed the option, moving on to the
next, and so on. The best hope seemed to be the Sister-corp.’s hidaway. Not as
large as some, it was more easily accessible by someone is Stone’s condition.
She would prefer the obsoleted
bunker, but it would require more agility and a longer walk, unless she could
re-activate the ‘rail without the power drain being noticed. Perhaps a
lay-over until she could jimmy-rig it…
was sleeping deeply, unnoticing of her fingers at his throat, on his forehead,
behind his ear. He slept on as she lifted his eyelids, checking for response.
Worrisome, but not serious enough to act upon.
She pushed the engine harder, knowing it futile; time might be
non-linear, but she was yet
of a nature to enjoy it that way, wish as she might. Nothing to do but drive and
live out the minutes to hours that lay between her and their destination.
darkened the windows on his side, shutting out the cutting sunlight, and waited
subtle change in Stone’s breathing between checks took Mike’s attention from
the changing roads they’d come upon at the last set of turns. With an hour or
so of surface driving yet to go, she despaired of the meaning this change might
take. Warm skin had become heated and swollen as miles passed beneath them, and
he’s dreamed through the onset of fever. He did not thrash about, and he did
not appear uncomfortable, but it was a change, without any discernible cause.
hard to distance herself from the rising anxiety, she let the carrier slow a
bit, stretching a hand to his cheek. His heart rate was down, sluggish and
heavy, fighting for each beat, and Mike allowed herself a brief, useless thought
for the supplies lost back with the buried ‘cycle. Then she threw the
worthless ‘if’ out of her mind to focus on the problem. How to raise the
heart rate? No stimulants, nothing to work with except the systems themselves.
Acupressure would regulate a specific organ or nerve cluster, but she was
limited to what could be done in the close quarters of the cab. And stopping
meant a longer wait for what was waiting at the sanctuary ahead. What was the
greater need? Would he make it another hour? Once they reached it, they would
have all the time they needed, but if he died en-route, it wouldn’t matter if
they drove to the ends of the earth. What
could be done here might help only so long as it was actively worked at, leaving
her at a stalemate, unable to continue the journey, yet knowing that it would
only help so long.
could be done… The Wall threatened, from both the impasse and the solution
that presented itself. Strictures stated Do Not, Stone’s overlay commanded Do
What is Necessary.
she felt the panic of free thought that had plagued her over and again since her
first awareness of the tendrils that brushed though her mind. She almost wished
for the mindless agony of her prior state, every action dictated, and misery
guaranteed. No risk, no painful
hopes. No desperate fear of loss; the invisible face in the corridor. She looked
over at the limp form on the seat, his leg brushing hers, and for one white-hot
moment, she hated him more than all the inhuman researchers who’d filled every
moment of her past. The pain they caused was impersonal; she had never been a
person to them. Stone, in his unknowing, unconscious habit of humanity had bent
barriers and unstoppered the sea of self that had been so effectively bound, and
the pain was new to Mike. No defenses had ever been erected against this.
she was still tied too tightly to give in, or give up. That nastily barbed piece
of programming still held firm.
slapped at the peaceful face, trying the normal before resorting to the new. His
head rocked over, nodding on his other shoulder. She pinched him sharply on the
soft skin beneath his arm, and still he slept. Exhausting her options, she was left with little recourse. Do
As Necessary, assist at all cost.
what did it cost, really?
could not leave the guidance to the auto-systems, but she could set the speed.
One distraction down. A finger, hooked into a belt loop, pulled him closer and
into better reach. Working one-handed, she checked for re-opened wounds, ect.
Raising the blood pressure while bleeding was present would contradict her
purpose, but he was not bleeding. So why the hesitation?
she focused on the road ahead, keeping her left hand on the wheel. Her right
slid over buckles, finding the catches, deftly loosening the remnants of his
armor. She wondered at the design.
Was he looking to protect himself from something more than bullets? Or did he
simply enjoy the look of leather and steel so much that he didn’t mind the
complications? The final strap slipped free, and she pulled at the fabric
skin. His shirt was a map of the last battering he’d taken, holes and stains
marking the places his protection had become a trap for the shrapnel that had
lost the velocity to escape, but not enough to end their tearing right away.
The flesh under it was ragged and dark, his efforts at repair being
interrupted mid-way by weakness.
She lightly fingered the damage while her eyes looked for landmarks on the road.
These were landmarks of a different sort, and she had traveled this road with
him as well. Care to add a small side-trip, Dearest?
him softly through the heavy leather of his pants, she fondled the
soft mound there, stroking and squeezing. For long minutes, there was no
response, only his even breath and the throb of the engine. Diligent and gentle,
Mike’s fingers moved across his crotch, waiting. As nerve endings slowly woke
to her touch, she felt the heat lifting through the fabric and smiled softly to
herself. A firmer hand speeded the swelling of his cock. She gave a last squeeze
and moved around to find the access above.
Dividing her attention between the wheel and Stone, Mike pulled the dark
hide waistband away from his skin and found the softer skin that lay further
down, stretching her fingers into the warmth there. Here was the source of the
heat. Her small hand eased down, sliding beneath his balls to feel his pulse
there, and was gratified to find it stronger. Stimulation, if not by
around his base, her palm pressed against his shaft, Mike felt the subtle
twitches under his skin, reading the messages of nerve and vein to
find the language underneath. A single stroke from base to tip created a
new surge of tiny spasms as Stone’s body came awake and wanting.
Slow movements down and back to the top caused tremors against the back
of her hand as the small muscles of his stomach quivered, and his sudden sigh
startled her after his long silence. Not awake, yet no longer in the frightening
depths of his sleep, his breath came faster now, deep, strong swallows of air
that he held before sighing them away.
compacted, each second filling the next, folding into it’s successor with
silent ease. Stone’s battered body lay
trembling on the seat beside her as the miles dropped away, and Mike began to
consider the possibility of his surviving the time required. The turns and
climbs came faster, and she weighed the odds of arrival during daylight. Each
landmark recognized, each breath that passed Stone’s lips without breaking the
pattern, individually they were steps in the
ladder. Together, they were the promise of summit. Mike caught herself hoping,
and crushed it out, fearing fire. Hope kills, and she’d prefer to die on cold
merit than burn to death in dying hopes.
came together, formed a quarter hour, then half. As she stroked and teased as
his flesh, she realized she’d need both
hands to navigate the final approach into the mountain. Would he simply drift
back out to sea, so to speak? Would he wake enough to leave the cab, or would
she have to carry him? Frowning doubtfully at his sizable bulk, she reviewed the
possibilities at hand. On her back, he would drag at the knees. She could
to make the turn. She altered the speed, flipping the cut-off with her foot,
sighing at necessity. Leaving him
with one last, lingeringly tight stroke, she pulled her hand away, brushing up
along the twitching middle. A soul-torn groan passed Stone’s lips, and his
limp hand caught at her startled fingers, gaining strength as he pushed them
back down and wrapped them firmly about the needy part of him.
She stopped the carrier, afraid to move forward without her full attention
there. “Stone, I need you to listen. Can you hear me? We are almost to a
secure place to recuperate. I need to focus on the road, as I am not familiar
with this part of the journey, and the road itself is not fully paved. I cannot
continue if I cannot navigate. Are you able to understand?” She leaned down to
check his eyes and temperature, and he reached for her.
he whispered, and pulled her face to his. His lips were warm and soft, but she
couldn’t not consider that the fever
made them more so.
hands on his cheeks, Mike assented to the kiss, then pulled away.
help me. Please. It is imperative that I get us to a safe base of operations if
I am going to keep you alive. I cannot believe that you have a lot of time or
energy to waste at this point.” His head fell on her shoulder, and his eyes
had yet to open. Another tactic, then.
I am afraid. I need you to try to stay
as awake as possible. I do not know what to do if you die. I need you to stay
with me now, so I can get us to safety. There will be time for whatever you want
after we are sure you are functional, but I need to know you are in there.”
The tension in his body was leaving slowly, but his hands twined in her hair,
holding her helpless against him. One released to clasp her hand one last time
to his swollen cock, and she felt a cold fear dripping in to her bones.
was too far gone to hear or understand.
we ..are ..safe…” he whispered again, half threat, half order.
She sagged to his shoulder in relief, hearing reason and the growl of
denial in his cracked voice. The effort of sitting up made him moan again, and
he paused with his forehead to hers, taking
the opportunity to kiss her roughly before letting her go. She secured him in
the seat, afraid not to watch him, knowing her eyes belonged on the road ahead. His
eyes were open, and his teeth ground,
but no awareness showed in the gleam below his brows.
took less time than Mike had anticipated to find the first entrance to the
caverns. The sunset threw rich colors on the rockface, but she did not stop to
admire the effect. Slowing to a crawl, she opened the power to floodlights,
giving them a spectacular view of a desolate tunnel. For a second, Stone seemed
about to speak, but his mouth closed without having done so, and Mike’s best
efforts could not convince her that it was a good sign. She wanted to explain
their course, but was certain he would not care or respond. So they rode in
silence, feeling the distance between them and the sun-painted ground above
and smoothed by machines the size of small buildings, the roadway was level and
wide, but sloped more sharply than would usually be the case, as the designers
had been considering speed of arrival in emergencies more than comfort of mind.
Shuddering deeply, the heavy transport wound down the minimally leveled tunnel.
Floodlights could illuminate the way ahead, but fell short of lifting the
oppressive dark that pressed in just behind them. Stone felt the familiar
squeeze creep up on him, but knowing it was a memory of fear rather than the
fear itself was all that kept him from giving in to the mania that sniggered
between his ears.
wanted to ask questions. He wanted to lean against Mike, stealing the
warmth and animal comfort that was there. He
wanted her hand back where he’d found it when he woke,
and he wanted to know why it had been there to start with. He was sure
the incident with the rabbit meant something, but Mike was securely behind her
walls again, and he didn’t want it enough to open her up to get it. Yet.
felt weak. He hated the feeling. He felt helpless, and dependent; both disgusted
him. He felt dizzy and sick and confused and Mike was doing things he could not
explain, and now, she’d brought him…
was dark, and deep, and unfamiliar, and he had only the vaguest memory of Mike
saying they were headed to safety before he fell asleep. Perhaps the scene at
his lair had been a charade. She’d chosen him?
A Technician with such high clearance- nobody got that far without years of
dedicated service, extreme loyalty proven time and again, putting the
Corporation first to the point that they became
the Corporation, in spirit, losing individuality to the greater mind.
Nothing he had done should have altered that part of her.
that matter, where was the data-cot? He’d lost track of things in the need for
survival, the constant running and almost-dying. Did she still have it? Or had
she turned it over at the lair before running back? Was she here to deliver him
alive to some better prison for study and duplication? Was he being delivered,
weak and defenseless to his enemies by the pretty face he’d enjoyed so much
earlier? So much could have happened when he wasn’t looking, as he’d found
out so many times in the past.
he Kill her if he had to right now? And would he make it alone right now…
No-one to ‘borrow’, no help to be bought or stolen this far away from the
Cities. The cab gave a particularly nasty jerk, and he could hear Mike cursing
softly from a great distance, but they weren’t dropping off the face (so to
speak) of the earth, so he tuned it
out. If they died here, at least he died
should have been watching closer at the beginning, when they came out into the
light of the morning. If he’d been more careful, hadn’t got shot the first
(twenty rounds worth) time, she wouldn’t have been around past the second step
of the operation, and he’d have been done and home by that next night. All the
pain in between, the loss of Ricci and her unthinkable manner of death, all
could be traced back to that minuscule moment when he paused, watching that tiny
wisp of hair waft across Mike’s face. So well timed, that smile of hers.
was positive that she had put the
required information to disk- with the twist
so fresh, she could not have done otherwise. However, it was entirely possible
that he’d been led by the nose from there on. Assist. A truly dedicated Corpie
might truly feel on some inner level that it was better to be dead than
be on the wrong side of the parental Corporation’s interests, and want
to assist him in hiding his flaw by leading him to slaughter. Yes. It seemed to
follow a pattern. It was logical. He was in danger, and now he knew it. Now he
knew better than to trust her and her pretty smile. How many times had a pretty
smile put a bullet in him? Not this time, Babe.
looked over across the gulf at the snake in his private tree. If there was time
to heal, he’d show her a thing or two about charm with teeth. If not, he’d
make sure she followed him down to hell in style.
He remembered the look Ricci had given Mike. Ricci’d known. And died for it.
How to repay that? He tried to think of a suitable torture, but his head
was thick, and he put it off. He needed food and sleep. A place to stretch out,
and a good blanket. Pillow or blanket, my
Lady… he hurt, and couldn’t
focus enough to master his sensory nerves. Blinking was work. Gazing at Mike,
and the dark beyond her window, he realized
he was hearing several new sounds and had been for several minutes.
Rushing, a river perhaps. And a grinding from below them, -gravel?
Or the transport itself, protesting the abuses perpetrated upon it by the
long decent? He had a vision of the rotors snapping under the pressure of the
brakes, the wheels rolling on unfettered and plunging them into the wet grave
ahead. How peaceful, to be dead…
began cursing again, a soft growl her eyes did not share. Maybe she didn’t
know she was voicing such obscenities. Frantic hands flipped switches, pulled at
levers, and gripped a jerking steering wheel with white knuckled determination.
Up ahead, Stone saw laconically, the tunnel became a cavern, widening away from
the realm of the floodlights’ influence. A faint glow appeared to be the
reflection they made on a far wall. A
moment of not-quite-freefall, and everything leveled out to a sound BUMP
as they found a floor. In the open now, Mike breathed deeply, letting the
carrier stop, and reached down to massage a bunched calf with trembling fingers.
Stone did not smirk at the stress he saw on her face, knowing that such open
enjoyment would give away the fact that he knew the score now. It was enough to
see her suffer. He could gloat later, if later came.
regret having to admit that I was not careful enough in following your
instructions earlier,” she told him. Here it comes, he thought. “I did not
seek food upon waking, back at your … place. Nor did I put myself back to
sleep, even though it had been less than six hours since I lay down. I was
unable to make myself not worry
about you, even though I knew you were capable of caring for yourself in your
home environment. As you predicted, I was caught less than
fully functional when the time of need came. I became tired during the
journey here, and when the brake hydraulics gave out, I was very close to not
being able to keep sufficient pressure applied to keep the vehicle from slipping
out of control. I almost cost you
your life through my neglect, despite having been warned on that specific issue
prior. I apologize for my irresponsibility. I accept whatever disciplinary
action you think fitting.”
listened, waiting for a confession of betrayal, but this was not what he was
expecting. Was she playing games? He reached out, squeezing the cramped muscle
she was kneading, finding an impressive charley-horse. No lie there. He
absent-mindedly pressed at a pressure point, causing a momentary spasm, then the
knot eased, and Mike gasped in relief as he thought about her possible motives.
Such a complex game. And he was having trouble thinking. Unfair.
you,” Mike was whispering, and he looked back at her. No choice but to wait
then. She’d slip eventually. The circles had deepened under her eyes, and she
glistened with sweat, but the expression had hardly changed. She sat waiting for
his decision, apparently.
Is this our destination?” She nodded, understanding, or thinking she did, and
looked out at the dark surrounding them.
should find the outer lights and go lower the bridge. Can you see the shadow
over there? It’s manually operated; in the event of power loss, you can still
get across. Or so the theory goes.” She opened the door, but her decent was
scarcely more graceful than his had
been on the road before. Brushing
off her knees, she edged around the cab and did something,
and the room was flooded with light. Smooth walls in countless shades
of gray, brown and red were lit and gleaming, a semblance remaining of
the originally carved lines under the drip work of decades. Warehouse size, it
echoed Mike’s footsteps back to him, and the creeping fear returned.
if she’d brought him down here to leave him, lost and cold under a mountain of
dirt and rock? To die, screaming, in the largest confined space imaginable was
somehow more horrible than his original fears had suggested. The screech of
long-unoiled hinges caught him off- guard, and he cried out as if in sympathy.
Mike was back, climbing up and in, her hands leaving small bloody marks on the
seat. “Took a little skin to get it down,” she passed off his frown.
they were moving, and he felt the give as they crossed the bridge.
was not surprised to feel it buckle under them.
was surprised to realize that they
weren’t drowning, or floating away, either. A horrendous jolt,
followed by the lights’ disappearance, and they were stuck fast, the
front wheels just over the far edge, and the back top corner of the
thing wedged tight into the bank they’d just left.
Mike fought valiantly for the few seconds they were falling, and sat
wide-eyed in the seat as the realization of what had happened hit her.
now,” Stone asked her after several minutes. The dash lights still worked, and
he glanced at her in their ghostly glow. She was barely breathing, and there was
no sign that she heard him. He looked down at the water swirling below his
window and wondered how he’d get out without swimming. When he turned back to
Mike, she was doing the same, a stunned expression draining her of color.
you swim?” She nodded without facing him. “Shall we,” he suggested. She
dropped her forehead to the door frame.
do not believe I am going to be able to get you to our destination,” she
stated quietly to the window. “I cannot carry you through water where
I cannot reach the bottom,
nor are you functional enough to travel the distance from here to the nearest of
the bunkers. I doubt you could make it to the ‘rail from here, even if I was
positive that I could power it up safely. The water temperature
is such that hypothermia would be a serious concern within minutes,
eliminating swimming to the next landing an option.
This vehicle is not equipped for aqueous
maneuvers; it did not occur to me that the maintenance crews would have
allowed the route to become
unreliable. This is their only function.
am unable to find a solution to this problem.”
was nothing in the soft voice to indicate despair, no sign of agony in the face.
Yet a small tendril of something
slipped past the wall, and Stone tasted it lightly, defining it by feel and
familiarity. So like what he had felt, watching Ricci twitch under the
programming they’d given her, knowing he was unable to save her, hearing her
die, frightened and needing and alone - this ..horror
crept in Mike, too much to
contain, and seeping. The confusion returned as this knowledge warred with his
train of thought, and his certainty of her nature crumbled again. Fever dreams,
as utterly convincing as they were mistaken.
listened as she wondered quietly if she could kill him painlessly before his
wounds took him to a much less gentle end. And if her conditioning would allow her
to drown herself after, now that all possibility of fulfilling her task
was gone. Possibly the cold water, just a short swim,… But first things first.
All comforts available so long as Stone functioned… Mike’s wall sealed itself again, cutting him off. Could she
be good enough to feed him false thoughts? He considered it a moment, and for a
second it seemed plausible, but the image of her sitting in the dark with his
dead body as she waited to starve to death was too real. Too possible. Too very
much what he’d seen her do before. The task at hand above all else; death was
turn, then. How to survive this time? “Mike, I’m cold.” She turned back to him from her musings, and searched under
the seat. “No. Not blanket cold. Just chilled a bit. Come here and be warm
while I think.”
of words, she complied, sliding across the seat to his side, and he wrapped her
around him, fitting her head to that shallow depression on his shoulder where
she’d fit so well before. She sat very still, cautious and tense against him,
and he bathed her in waves of the sheer creature comfort it gave him. She
relaxed slowly, his commands soft and pleasant, and they sat in the dark for a
while, listening to the lapping waves against the door. If one could give up,
give in, this would be the place….
the winch still work?”
winch is electrically powered; all electrical systems are out, being wet. It has
a manual crank backup, but we have nothing to attach the other end to, nor do I
have the physical strength to pull us out of the position we are in.”
the tires have inner tubes?”
am unfamiliar with the term. Please define.”
probably my answer there, Hon.”
the tires float if we pull ‘em off?”
… believe they would, but we do not have the equipment required to do so.”
can’t take off the tires? What do they do about flats?”
type of transport is always sent out ‘en-masse’ as they were to your
‘lair’. They are accompanied by a repair/supply vehicle. All maintenance
equipment is carried on it for both mechanicals and humans.”
if it gets blown up,” he asked with a half smile.
does not get damaged. It has the most
advanced shielding available.”
didn’t we grab one of them, then? If it’s indestructible
was not easily available from our position.”
could have made it across the room.”
vehicle in question was already buried.”
but stoppable, nevertheless. Stone grinned in spite of the predicament. They’d
out-thought themselves in that one,
to the start. He couldn’t lose the idea he’d started with, though. A way to
get the tires off… “Do we have any cutting tools?”
that I am aware of.”
still have my gun?”
It is under the seat. I could not
find a recharge plug, or I would have had it charging.”
shouldn’t need it yet. It goes ‘till it’s dead. Then you replace the
hundred or so years, I guess I can waste a little.”
were outlawed. And I am unaware of any design that conforms to the
configurations of your weapon.”
I’m an outlaw. So I see no reason to
follow the rules they set to save their profit margin. Two- I
had it made to fit my needs. One can buy anything with the
did not answer. One more affront to her reality, this was digested a while
before moving on.
have limited time. If you have a course of action to follow, I suggest we
a moment. This is nice. It may be a while before we are warm again. Enjoy it.”
cannot enjoy what is possibly time we will need very badly later on.”
sighed. Right is right, but did she have to be? He took an internal check-
holding, but weak. So move.
need to borrow you. You up to it?”
sat up, and he ached for a moment. Moving to the door, she retrieved his toy
from under the seat.
we?” The crushing hopelessness was in check, and he slipped out
of his body into her head. A moment of vertigo, and they looked out at
the bloody rag he’d become together.
windows also had a manual backup, and he/she slipped out onto the hood, then
dangled over to find the winch end. Releasing the catch, they wiggled back over
and down, slipping the end around the heavy steel spokes of a wheel before
securing it. Sliding off the hood, they planted foot on the far shore at last.
A lot of good it does now, Stone
real light was available, so Mike pulled off a headlight frame, working by feel
to attach it directly to the battery, small wrists slipping through the grill.
Blinding light struck them, and the instinct to recoil almost dropped the sole
source of illumination into the wet, only Mike’s cold sense of duty keeping
their hands still. Good
girl, Stone praised her, relief making him/her weak.
had to crouch low to get a glimpse of the axle between the front of the grill
and the edge of the crushed bridge. There.
Careful. Narrowing the beam,
Stone-in-Mike lay on the ground for a better angle, then let the shot dissolve
the axle at the hub. The wheel fell free, swinging hard in the current. Now came
the hard part.
and a hand on the crank. Fighting the current, they slowly hauled the thing over
the edge of the concrete bank inch by inch. How they’d get the finished
product back in the water was a problem for later. Repeating the process with
other side, Mike tried not to feel the tired that was creeping up on her with
every turn of the handle. There was no time for pain or sleep. Stone listened to
the whisperings that beat against the barrier
between them, wondering what the limit would be for her. Muscles in their back
pulled and burned as the huge lump cleared the edge. Was it necessary
to get the back pair?
had been shoulder high for Stone was slightly taller than Mike herself, and
flat, they were as wide as her
couch had been. A third would give stability, but damn…
Skip it. He/she looked up at the roof, and went up to find a weak spot.
Just a little piece of sheet would
do. And a paddle? Mike asked. Good
point. Tricky here for a different reason, the beam was narrowed
further to cut a swath from the smooth curve of the top. How to burn out what
they needed in such close quarters without getting
burned would be a fine question. No room to back up when the blast shielding
threw the heat back at them. And hope there’s nothing combustible underneath.
Getting Stone’s somnambulant flesh
out of a flaming but ice-water surrounded cab could be too much to cope with.
And here. Slowly they peeled off a section, but left a small bit still connected
to hold it while they went back for the winch. Tugging it over was easier than
retrieving the wheels had been. Then it fell the last few yards to the floor
with a shrieking and clatter, and Mike/Stone breathed a few easier breaths. It
took no time to sever the winch cable and connect the rounds, then empty the
spokes, watching the way the metal dripped and ran through the cable’s wire.
Instant solder, eh?
smiled at the rainbow patterns on the cooling metal. She would not hope. WOULD
NOT. Yet it was possible they might make it.
on the bank, there was room to cut an oar. Lifting the remaining piece onto the
empty wheels was almost too much. A creaking in the back of their awareness told
Stone that something was going to give soon. Warnings to Mike went unheeded, and
if the shift of metal had not come when it did, he might have shut her down. But
it slid, and the creaking faded. When they finally had it on, Stone sat them
down for a break. The body might be weak,…but Mike might easily damage herself
to achieve the end he’d set.
bit of heat, and the flat of the float was secure. Stone chose to ‘waste’ a
bit more power to thin the sheet metal, lightening it, while they sat and
recuperated from the work. How to get it to the water? It was absolutely to much
to lift. And the winch was part of the float now. Not that it would have pulled
the right direction.
was a much simpler task than either would have guessed. Setting the oar, Mike
boarded, and Stone regained his physical self. Tossing up the weapon she’d
impugned before, Mike sat and held the float steady while Stone whittled away
the bank. At last, all it took was a nudge, and both slid down a gentle new
slope into the water. Mike held her breath, waiting to sink into the cold, but
the wheels held her just above water level. Bracing against the cab, she held
steady while Stone handed down what few pathetic supplies they had. After a
moment’s thought, he pulled at the upper seat, checking for hinges.
The backrest came out, and became a lounge on the spartan surface. Then Mike
helped him slide out, and she pushed off while he attached it firmly.
in style, do you,” Mike asked, and he turned to look for humor on her face.
Finding none, he was left groping for a response. Mike took up the oar as a
pole, and kept them facing front though there was nothing to see.
do you know when we get where?” The
blackness crept in as the light was left behind them.
lifted a wrist. A tiny dot of red glowed deep under the skin.
“When it changes color, I know we’re close. Short range, so I have to
be ready to move fast, but enough. Remember my saying the doors were sensitive
and recorded who and where? You will have to open the door when we get there.”
deep chill gripped Stone. “ How short range, Mike? A mile, maybe two?” Or
more? She’d led them right to him and his home…
twenty feet. More if the signal is strong, but it can’t initiate. Like you and
I, it requires a parent signal; it can respond
or indicate it’s receiving, but with definite limits, and it can’t
send on it’s own. The most we can hope for is fifty, if the originator signal
has a large generator behind it, but without the pass code or a direct command
line from the mother computer, our goal site won’t be putting out anything
bigger than an ‘I’m working’ wave. They won’t waste the power for an
wanted to believe. And it was certain she
believed. “If they thought you were in this area,… If they can track you and
your co-workers, why wouldn’t they make the things more efficient, and keep an
eye on you all the time?”
is no way to do so without violating the privacy laws in effect currently, and
when they’ve tried to alter the laws to allow them to track employees that
way, it was used by media hounds to track the upper echelons of the Corps. in
their … private affairs. They still look for a way around it on occasion, but
they like their freedom to … be private.” She sat down on the end of the
seat, and Stone rested his head in her lap while she steered. She did not
elaborate on her topic, but it was plain she knew a bit about the ‘private’
interests of her employers. How far in was she? She did not seem to be the type
to enjoy the hidden pleasures of rank, but she probably had the rank to do so.
He looked up at the blankness where her face should have been. “You know that
you… that I changed you to make you help me?” The asking was a breaking of
taboo, but she had seemed to understand on some level, there was a feeling of…
naturalness that it should be so.
There was no hesitation or
recrimination in her voice, so he pushed on.
it bother you, do you resent it?”
was a questioning in her “No,” that made him feel almost foolish for
thinking it might.
were you before?” He wished for light, wanting to see her expression, gauge
her mood. He heard the wheels turning, and waited for the definitions, but was
question has too broad a spectrum to be answered properly. Please refine it,
as I am not certain what information you require.”
thought a moment, letting the light rocking and sound of the water soothe him.
“How old are you?”
shifted slightly, moving his head to a better padded place, and replied, “I do
not have access to that information.” She seemed unbothered by this.
don’t know how old you are?” He was confused for a moment. Had the big They
If I may ask, how old are you?” Her tone was infinitely reasonable, and he had
to admit, she had made a good point. But he was different. Wasn’t he?
you heard of the Rickswaw Building Tragedy?”
Is that significant to your answer?” She sounded amused, if it was possible
for her to be so.
turned twenty-one ( or was it forty-one?)
the day it blew. How long is that?”
did not speak right away. He considered that she did not believe he could be
older than forty or so, and thought he was lying. Maybe she was counting.
I ask two questions?”
yourself- hold on,” she just
might, he thought. “Be my guest.”
you yourself don’t know your age?” The humor was there, but shadowed by
got me, Babe. I don’t know either. One loses track when one gets busy with
world conquest. Small details.” He waited for the punch line.
the Rickswaw Tragedy happened one hundred thirty-two years ago.” She lowered
her voice as she said it, stroking his face lightly with her palm. No way, he
thought. She thinks I’m nuts. Maybe I am. “Are you saying that you believe
you are one hundred fifty-two years and some months old?” Her fingers brushed
his face, his eyes, the smooth forehead. “You have aged very well.”
was still waiting. She was making a joke, finally. But it left him flat, this
particular bit of humor. There was the
possibility that it could happen, and that fact sucked all the funny right out.
you a laugh riot. Shoot me for asking a woman her age.” He closed his eyes,
there being no point in keeping them open. He was suddenly much less comfortable
than he had been. It was strange not to be terrified underground. At his lair,
he’d spent most of the visit above, escaping the lack of fear that was the
norm by wearing himself out. Now it’s absence was as real as the fear itself
had been, and the memory of fear haunted
him. He shifted, and Mike absently stroked his shoulder, rubbing at the tense
places. Focus on that. He was not trapped in absolute blackness, hurt and
helpless on a makeshift raft. He
was alone in a quiet place with a girl who sought to make him feel good. He
listened again to the water’s rhythmic slap, felt Mike’s fingers easing his
pain. This was pleasant enough.
was your title, before you left?” He was getting drowsy, but he’d prefer not to be alone down here; he thought she might feel
was not given a title as such. The question does not apply. But I was called
Technician for respect and convenience sake, if that is any assistance.”
thrive on titles. “How can you have had the clearance you had, and not have a
title? I chose you for your clearance, you know. You had access to some top
level info there.”
am aware your choice was not made based upon my overwhelming beauty.” A hint
of the dry humor had returned. “Clearance is given to whomever can be trusted and
be useful. Until such time as I was given conflicting orders by you, there was
no concern that I could in any way compromise the security of the Corporation or
it’s interests. Therefore I could be and was given the highest clearance
possible, again, for the convenience of my … employers.” There was an
uncertainty here, as if the term was an unfamiliar one.
that not the right word? Or were you thinking more in terms of slavers? I
started all this, conceived of the Goal, as a response to the mental slavery of
the masses, to the power misuse. It sickens me to see how entire species is
being devolved for the sake of a collection of … really for the power of one
man. I want him. I want to crush him as he’s crushed humanity to fit his mold.
There is part of human life that has not been invaded, twisted somehow to
further remove the dignity and will of the species, making them more pliable to
their master’s wishes. You are a perfect example, Mike. Don’t take that
wrong, please, but you are unable to do or say anything that you’re not
positive will further the job at hand. You can’t
disobey, like you said. Not out of choice, but out of a compulsion they gave
you. They took something from you,
Mike. And you don’t even realize it, I think. It’s a greater tragedy than
any in our entire history, in my belief.
have a bloody history, Mike, entire races destroyed or enslaved, or both, but
for the first time, in just the last two hundred years or so, the species itself has
been altered, bent around to become a docile, mindless, helpless thing, with a
few select individuals allowed to truly be people, in a brain capacity for the
rest. We, as an animal, have been changed. And it won’t be reversible much
longer. They know this. And the Programmer they are touting as a mental heath
breakthrough is their ‘final solution’. I’m sure it could do wonders for
the field, but I can also guarantee it will have a dual purpose. With it, they
can put directly into the mind at one stroke what it has taken them three
generations to beat into people. And it won’t
be reversible. They will suck the human race dry of free
thought, cutting away any creativity, sentiment, anything that interferes with
their own interests.”
heart rate is high, and your voice is stronger. If I could have got you awake in
the cab, I could have simply talked politics to revive you.” He could hear the
smile in her voice, but he wanted her to understand, to care, not to be
you understand, Mike? Don’t you care at all what’s been done to you? Am I
wrong here? They are removing
everything that makes us special, what makes us human. Cutting it off and
throwing it away like a piece of bad cheese!” He groped for her hand, rocking
the small construct. She steadied them, and placed her hand on his chest.
I understand what you are trying to do. It is a noble cause. You value something
irreplaceable, and it is endangered. But what has been done to me, and what you
are describing … You are right, and
you are wrong. I will do everything
I can to assist you in your endeavor to liberate
the group mind.
I am not of the group. As you said, I am not permitted to ..consciously
object to what has occurred in my life.
There are no words that can define or delineate to you…
are connections and intertwinings here. But you are assigning causes to effects
that are misgiven in my case, and you lack certain facts. There are many I
cannot supply. And I am unable to …articulate fully at this time those I have
access to.” Her voice had become quiet, and had gradually become more forced,
as if it was en effort to speak at all. “None of it matters enough to be worth
the understanding, or the effort required. It is doubtful that any of my
personal situation will have ramifications on the overall effect you seek. It is
a waste of energy, then, to discuss it.” She leaned down to trail fingers in
the icy water, then brushed the wet across his forehead. “You should rest, and
enjoy the ride. We are safe within the womb of the world.
“When we get there, we will have all that we require and then some. Until then, our world holds us in it’s bosom, a cradle rocking on the waters of it’s very heart blood. Listen to the pulse of our first mother. Sleep in the love of the living planet, held safe from your enemies by her body. None of these matters are lasting. Only this is eternal. We are fleeting, will-o-the-wisps on a warm breeze, but we are loved despite our transient natures, for nothing is as precious as that which will pass. We must be treasured while we remain, for we will flicker and be extinguished. Can you hear her breathe? Can you feel her heartbeat? We are small and weak, but she is immense, and we are safe…” Stone listened, wanting to ask more questions, but Mike’s voice was soothing, and he did not know when he drifted off.
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