STONE    

Page 7

  PILGRIMAGE IN VOID  

 

 

    Luck 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.

He 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.  

Had 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.

Familiarity 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 life.

What if all this warmth was just loss of blood? What a horrible thought.

It 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 closed.

Had 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 the rear-view.

He 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.

“What are you doing out here?”

“You hopped out. I thought something was up.”

She almost smiled. “And you were coming to assist?”

“It 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.

“Let’s 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.

“What’s happening, Mike?” The direct approach was more effective, and the solve-it face dropped, uncovering a quiet pain and uncertainty.

“An animal ran under the wheels. It’s alive, but wouldn’t survive very long.”

“You were going to take it with us?” He wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but if she was determined…

“No. I was going to kill it.” He was startled by the idea, but her tense face was proof of her seriousness.

“OK,…I..” He gave up, his wits not equal to the task. She was a confusion. “Why?”

“It 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.

It 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.

“Can 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.

“He likes that. He feels safer, despite the pain,” Stone whispered back.

“Kill it.”

He 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.

After 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 temperature again.

“You 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”

“You 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.

“There 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.”

She 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.

He drifted, comfortable and secure with her taking care of things. If life were different….

Mike 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.

Looking 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…

He 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.

And their destiny.

She darkened the windows on his side, shutting out the cutting sunlight, and waited for dusk.

                                                

A 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.

Working 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.

What 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.

Conflicted, 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.

And she was still tied too tightly to give in, or give up. That nastily barbed piece of programming still held firm.

“Stone.”

She 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.

And what did it cost, really?

She 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?

Resolutely 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 beneath.

Warm 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?

Cupping 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 conventional means….

Wrapped 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.

Time 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.

Minutes 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 rebuild something…

Time 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.

“Stone.” 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.

“Stay,” 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.

Both hands on his cheeks, Mike assented to the kiss, then pulled away.

“Stone, 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.

“Stone, 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.

He was too far gone to hear or understand.

“When.. 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.

It 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 stretch out.

Hollowed 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.

He  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.

He 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…

Here.

Wherever here was.

Here 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.

For 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. 

Could 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 semi-free.

He 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.

He 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.

He 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.

Bitch. 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.

Water. 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…

Mike 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.

“Problem?” 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.

“I 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.” 

Stone 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.

“Thank 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.

“Later. Is this our destination?” She nodded, understanding, or thinking she did, and looked out at the dark surrounding them.

“I 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.

What 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.  

Then 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.

Then they were moving, and he felt the give as they crossed the bridge. 

He was not surprised to feel it buckle under them.

He 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.

“What 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.

“Can you swim?” She nodded without facing him. “Shall we,” he suggested. She dropped her forehead to the door frame.

“I 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.

“I am unable to find a solution to this problem.”

There 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.

He 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 inconsequential.

His 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.”

Out 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….

“Would the winch still work?”

“The 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.”

“…Do the tires have inner tubes?”

“I am unfamiliar with the term. Please define.”

“That’s probably my answer there, Hon.”

….

“Do the tires float if we pull ‘em off?”

“I … believe they would, but we do not have the equipment required to do so.”

“You can’t take off the tires? What do they do about flats?”

“This 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.”

“What if it gets blown up,” he asked with a half smile.

“It does not get damaged. It has the most advanced shielding available.”

“Why didn’t we grab one of them, then? If it’s indestructible ?”

“It was not easily available from our position.”

“We could have made it across the room.”

“The vehicle in question was already buried.”

Indestructible, but stoppable, nevertheless. Stone grinned in spite of the predicament. They’d out-thought themselves in that one, eh?

Back 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?”

“Not that I am aware of.”

“We still have my gun?”

“Yes. It is  under the seat. I could not find a recharge plug, or I would have had it charging.”

“It shouldn’t need it yet. It goes ‘till it’s dead. Then you replace the cells.”

“Wasteful.”

“Every  hundred or so years, I guess I can waste a little.”

“Those were outlawed. And I am unaware of any design that conforms to the configurations of your weapon.”

“One- 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 right currency.”

She did not answer. One more affront to her reality, this was digested a while before moving on.

“You have limited time. If you have a course of action to follow, I suggest we proceed.”

“In a moment. This is nice. It may be a while before we are warm again. Enjoy it.”

“I cannot enjoy what is possibly time we will need very badly later on.”

Stone sighed. Right is right, but did she have to be? He took an internal check- holding, but weak. So move.

“I need to borrow you. You up to it?”

Mike sat up, and he ached for a moment. Moving to the door, she retrieved his toy from under the seat.

“Shall 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.

Power 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 thought.

No 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.

Mike 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.

Up, 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?

What 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.

Here. 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?  

Mike smiled at the rainbow patterns on the cooling metal. She would not hope. WOULD NOT. Yet it was possible they might make it. 

Here 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.

A 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.

It 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.

“Bingo!” 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.

“Travel 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.

“How do you know when we get where?”  The blackness crept in as the light was left behind them.

Mike 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.”

A deep chill gripped Stone. “ How short range, Mike? A mile, maybe two?” Or more? She’d led them right to him and his home…

“Approximately 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 unnecessary function.”

He 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?”

“There 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.

“Mike?” 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.

“Yes.” There was no hesitation  or recrimination in her voice, so he pushed on.

“Does it bother you, do you resent it?”

There was a questioning in her “No,” that made him feel almost foolish for  thinking it might.

“Who 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 disappointed.

“The question has too broad a spectrum to be answered properly. Please refine it,  as I am not certain what information you require.”

He thought a moment, letting the light rocking and sound of the water soothe him. “How old are you?”

Mike 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.

“You don’t know how old you are?” He was confused for a moment. Had the big They eliminated birthdays?

“No. 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?

“Have you heard of the Rickswaw Building Tragedy?”

“Yes. Is that significant to your answer?” She sounded amused, if it was possible for her to be so.

“I turned twenty-one ( or was it forty-one?)   the day it blew. How long is that?”

She 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.

“May I ask two questions?”

“Knock yourself-  hold on,” she just might, he thought. “Be my guest.”

“Offhand, you yourself don’t know your age?” The humor was there, but shadowed by something more.

“Ya 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.

“Stone, 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.”

Stone 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.

“Aren’t 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.

“What 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 the same.

“I 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.”

They 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.”

“I 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.

“Is 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.

"We 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.”

“Your 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 relieved.

“Do 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.

“Stone, 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.

“However, 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…

“There 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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