STONE    

Page 8

  STRANGE SANCTUARY  

          “Wake up, Stone. We’re almost there.”

          Stone opened his eyes. Or thought he did, and tried again. It took a moment to remember why  he couldn’t see, then the events of the last day (and a half) caught up to him. Ricci’s face flashed by in it’s last desperate moments, then the destruction of the home he’d just regained, all the nagging bits since filling his head. A red firefly floated into his line of sight, crossing over him and then back, fading and brightening as it danced.

          “This side, and real close.”

          She slid her lap from under his head, easing it onto the cushions. Standing slowly, Mike reached out with the oar, tapping at the water in search of the bank. She crouched down to paddle them to one side, finally bumping softly against an invisible barrier. The current slid them along slowly, Mike fighting to slow them while the red dot brightened and paled. When the light went white, Mike told him to reach out to his right as far as possible, and grab whatever came to hand. When he felt the tie off, he seized it firmly, and they swung around a bit until she found the landing and hopped up to grope for a lever. The float stopped shifting with a grind, and he was led through  the dark a few paces to  a wall.

          “Stand here while I find the power box. Keep your eyes shut, so you’re not blinded if the lights come on.”

          The bobbing LED in Mike’s wrist roved the air, eventually beginning to flicker. Stone had a moment of that crushing fear’s return, thinking of the slow death they’d face if it lost power before she found what she sought. It disappeared, and he gasped loudly,  catching himself a second too late. The light re-appeared and sped to his side.

          “What is wrong? Is the pain increasing? What do you need,” Mike asked fearfully. Her hands groped lightly at him in the dark, locating and then doing a quick check for new blood.

          “I’m fine, it’s ok. Relax. Your button went out. It  just startled me. Badly,” he admitted. How long will it run before it goes dead?”

          “You are proceeding from misinformation. It is powered by a liquid-flow generator.” When he did not give a sound of acknowledgment, she elaborated. “Have you ever seen a paddle wheel, in pictures, on boats or mills? This is no more than a chip with a chip-sized paddle wheel set into the side of a capillary. It will keep going for as long as my blood is moving. When that stops, a battery powered beacon will take over for corpse location. It’s only failing is in cases of freezing, when the body lives, but blood ceases to move through the wrist. And no, grabbing my wrist tightly will not hinder flow through a capillary enough to trigger it. I do request that you do not remove the hand to test the theory. My … employers would simply replace it with whomever’s came handy and set me back to the board.”

          “You definitely don’t want to go back, no matter what?”

          “Since you ask,- no.”

          She turned away, and restarted her slow search. He tried to ponder the comments. She said things that left him wondering, but only in answer to a direct question. He could ask a million questions, but without knowing what to ask about, he’d surely miss something important. And did she respond only direct questions out of desire not to tell, but couldn’t not answer, or was she only able to talk about it if asked? When would there be time for it all?

          He ached. He’d been hurt before, but the main value of his gift was that he could hide in plain sight, leave no memories, and accomplish a lot without actually being there. Working through small suggestions from miles away, setting commands to be carried out later. When he had to go into a situation of physical risk, he was one against five, ten, maybe twenty. But they’d upped the ante, and fifty (or a hundred or more in the lair)to one was a bit much for him. And they were actively hunting him. Loaded for elephant, too. Such energy expended over the data he’d stolen. At least it was confirmation that he had something worth the effort. They were pretty shook up. They were afraid of something, and that made him feel better. But he was getting pretty damn tired of getting fucked up this way. They were tearing him up faster than he could repair.

          “Stone? Can you get here without help?  I have located the entrance, but want to avoid touching it and telling Central Heath who’s here.”

          “Central? Your corp is part of Central?”

          “My corp. is Central. But we are the research end, and to avoid problems, we distance ourselves in the public eye. Are you coming?”

          Following the tiny beacon, Stone slid along the wall.  His footsteps sounded huge in the quiet. The light came to meet him, and he took hold of it, letting Mike guide his hand to a recess in the wall.

          “Press here.”

          He complied, and the click echoed through the cavern.

          “Let go, slowly.” 

          The wall released a panel as he pulled away, and a low light filled the air. Despite himself, Stone sighed in relief. Mike raised an eyebrow, and he felt a tiny guilt. She’d said it was here. When had he begun to doubt?

          “Press the yellow send button, and say, ‘Open level four, code sixty-nine.’ Then identify yourself as visitor, type three when it asks.”

          Trying not to expect trouble, he followed instructions, and a very large piece of wall folded in on itself. A recorded message welcomed them to Hideaway Four and  asked them to leave it clean and well stocked to avoid termination of  future visit privileges. The light inside was of the same low level, and the air was cool, but not the chill of the outside spaces.

          “Nice digs, Hon. Come here often, do you,” Stone smiled at Mike, but she did not return it.

          “I have been here before. I have not been here ‘often’. I brought us here because we needed a place to go, and it was possible to get in.”

          “Then it wasn’t coincidence that your wrist thingy worked this way.”

          “The wrist thingy is made for a purpose. The circuitry here was designed after, based on the same thingy for convenience. If I did not have a wrist thingy to get us in, I wouldn’t have brought you here. Not eveyone who has a wrist thingy would know about this place, however, and my wrist thingy wouldn’t have gained us entrance on it’s own without complications, so I could possibly got us here without it,  if I could see in the dark , ect., but my thingy did come in handy.”     

          Stone definitely felt she was secretly laughing at his choice of terms.

          “Shall we get our thingies inside?”

          She led him in, and at first glance, he felt he’d walked into an office   lobby. Simple furnishings were arranged to accommodate a large group. He was informed that the intended purpose was for refugees of high caliber, coming in large numbers from whatever disaster might have occurred. 

          “The upper echelon does not expect disaster, but firmly believes in survival. It can be accessed from the main offices’ sub-basement. They would prefer it to be closer to their offices, but then they would have to explain the piping out in the open, and the lower levels might want to be included in the rush for survival should something happen.” She didn’t express any emotion over the cold-bloodedness of her employers, or the possible deaths of billions if disaster did strike. “If you would come this way, I will ask you for the last favor of the day.”

          She took him further in, and her cool demeanor set off warning bells in every nerve he had. He listened for the whisper of other thoughts in the bunker, but found none, so mass attack was not the answer, unless the complement was highly trained in mental shielding. Turning a corner, he tensed, waiting for gunfire and ready to move.

          Mike looked at him, frowning, as they entered a gleaming kitchen. Steel paneling  threw their reflection back at him from every appliance, and fold-up tables waited in a corner. Mike opened a small one to place it in the floor center, then opened a drawer when he was seated and settled. Pausing in thought, she selected a tiny but cruelly sharp knife from it’s contents, and returned to the table. Stone’s hackles rose in anticipation again, but she sat across from him and handed the shiny handle to him. He frowned, confused, and looked at her.

          “If you are up to it, I would appreciate it if you would assist me in the removal of my thingy. I cannot touch any piece of equipment here without it being recorded so long as I am ‘tagged’.  I am uncertain if I can remove it myself, and placed so close to the tendons, I am afraid I might move and cut one, eliminating my use to you in all mechanical issues.” She extended her arm,  wrist up, and waited, breathing deep and slow. He looked at her arm in disbelief.

          “You want me to slice your wrist open and pull out something the size of a speck of dust? I’m not at top form here, Mike. My hands ain’t too steady right now. And we don’t even have a bottle of good bourbon to get you relaxed.”

          “There are no other options available at the present time. If you feel uncomfortable, I will take care of it myself. But it will have to come out, if I am to have access to what we need.” She pulled a slightly tattered sleeve out if it’s armhole. It rendered several short strips, giving her length enough to tie off one end to the table, then bring it over the top toward her in just a minute or so.

          “Mike, I’m not thinking real clear right now I know, but I’m sure there has to be another way. You can’t sit here and do minor surgery on yourself, without anesthetic or antiseptic.” He put his hand on hers, halting her as she tied the remaining end around her wrist. “Think about it. I can do for myself until we think of something. I can’t just sit here and watch you bleed to death.”

          “I can take you into the sleeping quarters, but you will have to open the door, both when we enter, and when I leave. I will return for you when I am done.”

          “That’s not an answer either. I can’t leave you in here alone, cutting yourself up to help me.”

          “Then we are at an impasse. I cannot make you feel better about the option, nor do I believe you are going to be strong enough to function here until you have rested and fed. You do not have strength enough to walk unaided, you cannot use my body as it is tagged, and you are not OK to do this yourself.” She looked back down at her hand, and lifted the knife.  Stone reached for it as well, and Mike knew he would continue to argue the inevitable, so she released the knot, freeing her hand, to pull him away from the table and set him on the floor   out of reach.

          “I am sorry. I advise you to close your eyes and try to rest until I have finished.” Stone struggled against gravity, fighting to stand, then resigning his dignity, slid across the cold floor like an infant.

          Mike turned back. “If you make it necessary, I will tie you so that you cannot interfere, and cannot hurt yourself. I appreciate your concern, but it is required if we are to continue. Please keep in mind your condition, and the fact that you are unable to affect complete repairs as you should.” She looked into his eyes for a moment. “In the truck, when you first returned to your body and discovered the extent of the damage, you would not have argued against necessity. You are allowing your temporary feeling of improvement to cloud your judgment.” 

She returned to the table on that note, and Stone sat back, listening to his sluggish heartbeat, knowing if he needed to, he could stop her the other way. But her last statement hit too close to home. Was he losing his perspective? It was possible, entirely too much so. She was not Ricci, afraid of the pain from a flu shot; this was Mike. Mike did what she had to, and did it well. He still hung between the death they’d planned for him and survival by her sheer determination. He was full of slugs, he’d expended a lot of energy just maintaining life functions, and a couple short naps weren’t going to fix that. He watched her tie her arm to the table, pulling against the resistance to test her knots. He had let himself get all attached, like you would to a stray dog. You know you can’t keep it, but… And he was trying to protect her from helping him. If she didn’t, the odds were they wouldn’t have what they needed. If she died of blood loss, he was still in the same boat. But the attempt was valid.

The knife lifted, and her face froze in an expressionless mask. The knife descended, and she traced a line of fire down her arm with the knife tip. There was a reactive jerk, and her arm recoiled against the tension of the fabric, but was held tight. Sweat glistened on her smooth forehead, and her eyes glassed over slightly, but her knife hand did not  waver. The first slice opened her skin, and it bled, but she continued on to the exposed muscle, lightly at first in an attempt to avoid hidden tendons. This could be difficult, she thought, feeling her jaws cramp.

Stone sat, his view of her face above the table top, and her elbow below. He searched for any emanations, any sign of her feelings, but found the wall again, shut tight. When the crimson dribbles began at the elbow  he could see, his resolve was tested. Could one sit and wait while another did such things, right in front of one’s eyes? The dribble became a small stream, and  he wished vainly that he could give her his gift to… Cursing himself, his self leapt across the space between and battered at the Wall. She was unaware of him, closed in her reality of pain and will. He sought a crack, a way in above and beyond the mere bludgeoning  her mentally, but despaired. Whatever had happened to create the need for such a shield had been powerful ,and the result was near to impregnable. No way around it, ….there. Just a hairline, but, if carefully done…

In and over, he shadowed her, his will overpowering hers for long moments. Purpose faltered, and she recognized him again, screaming against the interference, and he fought for long seconds as her blood seeped out onto the floor, trying to silence her long enough to remind her of the broken arm, of the merge on the ‘cycle, of the ease with which he could repair her. Slowly, she quieted, and he waited impatiently for her lowered defenses.

‘I am not seeking to deter you, Mike. I should have thought to offer you some help earlier, but I’m a little slow right now. I can remove the pain, and stop the bleeding, so you don’t fall over, Hon. And you’ll be able to see what you’re doing, if you let me help. You can’t possibly be able to see that tiny …thingy… with all that blood…’

She stilled, and he heard a rage under the cool demeanor, this intrusion somehow different from the others, but she accepted the logic, bowing to his control. He set systems in motion, closed off blood flow and  sensory nerves from the elbow down. He watched her pat away the remaining blood with the sleeve of her knife hand, and heard the relief down in the hidden parts of her mind at the end of the pain. Some huge tension ran like an underground river through it all, underlining and filling everything, and try as he might, he could not attribute it solely to this minor surgery or the situation. Flesh parted beneath the blade, and Stone made changes as necessary. Here was the bulb, a mustard seed shining wetly in the nest of tendons and veins. A quick flick pulled it away, and Mike watched in fascination as the meat of her arm closed neatly, followed in kind by the skin, scarless and smooth. Without power, the minuscule beacon flashed three times and went dead. Mike tossed it to the floor and ground it to powder with a grim satisfaction.

“You’re free now, Babe. How’s it feel?” Stone smiled at her from the floor, waiting for some easing of the tense face that scowled at the floor so intently. She turned her face to his, and the briefest horror took him to see her frozen eyes. Then she was Mike again, dead-pan and calm, coming to lift him from the floor and set him to rights at the table.

“Freedom is a  concept, not an absolute. I appreciate the intent of your statement, but it’s applicability to my circumstances is questionable.”

He was about to pursue the issue, but was startled into distraction. She shouldered him through the door and to another, which revealed a plush bedroom and work station. The deep quilts overflowed the canopied bed in waves of black and dark teal, brushing the rich white pile of the carpet.    An archway gave him a glowing view of a sunken marble tub surrounded by rich carpet and accouterments, thick with gilt and gadget buttons.

“I would recommend a bath and fresh clothes before sleep or food. You can access both through the  panel at the tubside, after I have acquired the necessities for your repairs.” She deposited him on the  padded stool beside the door, leaning him against the towel on the rack to pad his back. She moved to set a few dials just above his head, and the rushing of a contained waterfall filled the room while it filled the tub. Her hands were cool  on his chest, slipping his new (and newly ruined) shirt from his shoulders, easing it away from the sticky clots here and there, making irritated faces at the new damage in the skin she’d worked on just days before.  Stone relaxed, letting her do what she did so well. She had the reins.

His boots were scuffed and torn from the slide on his ‘cycle, but not unattractively so. He smiled at the new ‘character’ they’d gained. The pants were undamaged, but blood coated them once more, and he considered this new gung-ho attitude’s effect on his wardrobe. If they can’t kill me, they’ll put me out of style, he thought ruefully. It was not a serious thought, but the undertone carried with it was one of cold and growing anger. It had always been a war. Now it had become a personal assassination attempt. Such thoughts were put off once more when Mike pulled him up and over to the tub. The holes he’d managed to close, but he was lagging, achy and covered in his own hydraulics. Mike sponged a good bit of the thick dried mess off before guiding him into the water, but it was quickly a reddish mixture, and a floating armada of hydrating black flakes had him surrounded.

“Sit still,” Mike said in his ear, and she adjusted a valve at his feet. The discolored water began to run down and out to let fresh water in above him, and he was in a fast moving stream - sans pebbles. Then the light changed, and the pebbly bottom appeared around him. A speaker near the fountain’s mouth started a soft babbling/gurgling to finish the illusion, making him laugh to himself.

“Such luxury,” he grinned though his dry lips. “This standard issue for all your guests, or should I feel special? Or maybe this is just the two-bit trip. Are you hiding the good stuff?” He intended it as a joke, but Mike turned away from the console to his right with the same cool face she’d worn in their beginnings.

“This is not standard issue for the majority of employees. It is a basic program for relaxation or sleeping if used in tandem with the shoulder restraints to avoid sliding underwater. I set it to clear the water, the visuals are an automatic that goes with it. There is better, but you should wait until you are more capable of high activity before ‘trying them out’. However, if you feel you are up to the “five dollar tour’ it can be uploaded within two minutes.” Her fingers poised over the small keyboard, waiting for instruction.

“I was kiddin’ Hon. I would be thrilled to death to get a ham sandwich and some hot juice. I don’t need a floor show, too.” He looked at her while she ‘dialed up’ a meal, gauging her mood. “You OK, Hon? You don’t look to thrilled to be here. You concerned about safety? My health got you stressed? What’s up?” She finished her entry, and handed him his sandwich on a toss-it plate.

“I am fine. Do you want soup with that, or chips? You did not specify what kind of juice you wanted.”

“Will it make hot cider? I love cider with cinnamon and orange peel. Let me finish this before I go askin for more, though. No point in over-doing it.” He bit into what he had, his arms straining to keep it up and dry. Mike leaned over and lifted his elbows up to balance on the sides of the tub.

“Are you joining me? You gotta be hungry by now.” He looked up, but she was out of the room. Just that quick. Then she was back, handing him a glass of cider from some hidden cove. She stepped out of sight again, adjusting things, moving things, and he wondered at the distance. She’d been efficient before, but not cold. When she returned this time, she had the now-familiar syringes in hand, and took the first empty hand in hers to  prick him silently. His aches stilled, and he sighed contentedly. Pampered cat.

“Thank you. That helps. I’m getting lazy. I used to do that myself, without help.” She did not reply, but continued her preparations.  “Will this miracle of technology make that soup you fed me before? It was a fine concoction, Darlin’, and I seem to have a little room left.”

“It can make the base I use, but I added a few things. That would require use of the kitchen, and I doubt you will stay awake that long. I can have it ready when you wake, if you would like.” She faced the wall while she spoke, opening cabinets for towels, a closet for robes. He was getting concerned. And bothered. An hour ago, he’d slept with his head in her lap, and she’d stroked his hair. Now she wouldn’t look at him. Enough.

“Mike.”

She turned back to him, her hands full of something soft and drapey she unfolded as she came back to the tub, and laid it on the stool. “Yes? What do you need? If you want me to start soup, I will need to set the restraints so you don’t drown yourself, or get you out and in bed.”

“Mike, look at me.” His tone had dropped, and the command lifted her eyes. She stood waiting, expressionless again, and he studied the face.

“Something has changed in your behavior. I want to know why. Now, and without diversion.”  He let the force of his intent carry to her, and she nodded, the  barest narrowing of her eyes betraying her resistance.

“I apologize for allowing my discomfort with our surroundings to affect my performance of my duties. I unintentionally fell into the patterns required during past visits. I will modify the behavior.” Flat and unemotional, she sat beside the porcelain  edge, and began to scrub delicately at his skin.

“Why were you here, that you would be required to avoid eye contact? To serve without speaking?” He tried to see her, but could not turn that far. “Were you here as a waitress? A servant of some sort? Serving drinks at a retreat for the Office crew? Or ..”  Now it occurred to him, the other purpose she might have served here. A place they went to ‘be private’… a place only the top brass knew about. But she was a Tech, one of them. Unless she herself said…

“I was here as a servant of sorts. It was preferred that I did not talk except in response to direct questions. Eye contact was avoided for my own personal comfort as much as possible.” She finished with his arms, and began to soak his hair.

“I don’t want you to think I’m slow, or mean, but you are, or were, a Technician. I saw the clearance. Your class of people don’t do waitress duty.”

“I did not say I was here as a waitress. And as I said at he river, I am a separate case from most. I am not what you understand a Technician to be.”

“You have the skills, and the access. You said you worked on several projects that required working without breaks or lunch, I thought it meant on the keyboard.”

“It did. This is not part of the ‘job’ I had. It is a separate thing, as I am.”

He considered. She seemed to be leading around the idea he’d had, but not saying it directly. But she did not sound reluctant to speak, merely  answering questions. This was bullshit.

“Spit it out then Mike. Why were you here? You want me to ask outright? Just tell it all. Why. When. Who. No, not who. Unless it matters to the explanation.” He waited, listening to her thoughtful silence, her hands making suds in his hair.

 “There is no one term that encompasses the full meaning of my situation, as it relates to my being here,” she told him as easily as he might offer someone popcorn. “The word whore would not apply, as I did not receive nor expect recompense for anything that occurred.  Lover is even more inappropriate, as I did not love nor did I wish to . Slave conveys a tone of threat to violence if there is disobedience, which was impossible.” She worked the lather into his hair, fingers  stretching around to massage the thin muscles at his forehead, thumbs easing the tension at his nape. Her feet slid into the water on either side of him to balance her as she come closer.  “I am an owned thing. It is not within my control to obey or disobey. I do.  My position as Technician is one of convenience to  the Corporation, a place as good as any other  for the time being. Any skills or abilities I may have are  unimportant to them. They  allowed  me the job and outside accommodations not because I earned them, but because it got me out of the way, but still kept me under surveillance with a minimum of energy expended. If I am needed for other things, I am within easy reach, and no questions are asked. I suppose my purpose was simply to be a warm body, available for whatever might be wanted. I am sorry I cannot define myself better for you.” She moved on to his back, removing  the grime accumulated there during the ride, calm as ever in this disclosure.

“So you were brought here to serve as a sexual playtoy for you bosses.”

She considered, and was almost light in her response. “That phrase does seem to wrap it up nicely.”

The idea raised images of hidden brothels he’d visited, young girls with dull eyes lowered to the floor, the sudden false life they gained when a customer entered, the mindless smiles, and the immediate loss of both when someone else was chosen, as if every spark was the last, to be hoarded as long as possible, returning to their living death to avoid wasting what they didn’t really have. Those who never fit into  Corporate family, catering to those who’d failed it, both secreted away from the glowing cleanliness of the city streets.

He worked very hard at not seeing her on her knees before an overweight and bald old man, or bent over the sink by some young, empty professional as his reward for a job well done. He spent several more seconds trying not to remember her on her knees before him, his hand on the back of her head. Failing at both, he focused on not losing the sandwich he’d eaten as his throat tightened. He slid forward, away from the hands on his shoulders.

Deeper and deeper, he thought. One more reason she would simply obey. Any regret he’d had at pulling her memory of his.. ah damn, man! Call it rape if it’s rape, he cursed himself. God, he’d almost left the memory intact, thinking it might damage her worse than the first twist. He hadn’t known, and he told himself that if he had, he would never have touched her. He’d heard of being sickened by  a thing done, but he could not remember being physically affected this way.  

“Stone, if I do not remove the soap, it will dry and start to itch. What do you want me to do?”  She sat and waited, elbows on knees, feet in the water, hands hanging down between while she looked at the back of his head. “Are you uncomfortable with me touching you in light of this new information? I can endeavor to do so as little as possible, but some contact will be necessary so long as you are unable to do for yourself.” His hands went to his face, pressing against his eyes, scrubbing at his forehead. Burying them in his hair, he drew up his knees for support, and sat, silent as the soap did indeed dry on his skin and begin to tighten and itch. No sign of his even hearing her.

Mike considered, and finally decided that heath outbid sensibility in this matter, and simply leaned forward. Seizing his shoulders, she pulled him over onto his back, pinching his nose quickly to avoid drowning him as she dunked him under.   He fought his way up, clutching the sides of the tub, but Mike hit a switch, and the jets surged as she slipped his wet fingers away with her toes. Water beat the suds out in a half- breath’s time, and she pulled him back up, spitting and sputtering. Setting him back on his rump, she took a handful of dark hair in her fist and wrung it out while he wiped his eyes clear.

Jerking away, he rounded on her. “If you wanted to fucking drown me, why didn’t you just let me fall asleep? You were in favor of putting a harness on me a few minutes ago, what happened?”

“I regret the necessity, but you did not respond to a direct question, and I cannot let you sit while  your skin dries out, adding another problem to the list of things needing repair.” She looked him in the eye, placid and certain.  Nausea passed in the irritation he could not immediately put aside.

“So you just drop me in like that, instead of tapping me on the shoulder? I can’t think for a minute without you pushing me around like a two year old? Damn, Mike, that kind of statement is gonna set a person back for a minute. You brought me to a place where you were repeatedly.. would raped be the appropriate word, since we want to be precise?  Forced, by more than one, it sounds like, and you say ‘discomfort with your surroundings’ as if it was just some place you got dumped or fired from. And there was no where else to go? Was it this room, specifically, or just this kind of place? Is it gonna eat on you the whole time we’re here?” Her unchanging face bothered him as much as anything, bland but politely listening, he might be discussing the statistics of amoebae breeding for all the concern she showed for the subject.

“This was the closest, and best equipped. This room sometimes, others when the person involved was of lesser status. Any unpleasantness can be ignored. That was then. It happened, it is over. And it cannot be changed now, so there is no point wasting the energy thinking about it. If it bothers you, I will do what I can to alleviate your stress. I can avoid touching you any more than is absolutely necessary, but to change rooms might draw attention to our location.” 

“God, I could learn to truly hate that word, ‘necessary’,” he snarled. “I could care less if you touch me. The point is that you were violated, and yet you just sit there,  like it means nothing. It bothered you a few minutes ago, it still will, but you look out of your face like nothing’s wrong. Did they suck everything human out of you? Is that what they do now? Tell you they own you, and demand you hand over your feelings in a  plastic bag? And you do it! They turned you into a whore, no, worse than a whore. At least a whore gets to think she’s free! She gets something  out of it. You just go back to work the next day, one more assignment complete.” He stood up, bracing against the wall, looking at the stool beyond the tub’s edge. She stood, and handed him the towel, letting the water run out. He was less coordinated than when he’d sat down, and she took it back, examining the new scars, larger than any of the old, while she rubbed him down. This attention, in light of the conversation, was a problem in itself.

“Quit it! Just stop! I am not an “owner”, so don’t play slave. I can do some of this myself. I don’t want a toy, or a whore, or a servant.” He tried to take the towel back, but she slapped his hand sharply.

“You cannot do this yourself and still stand up. What you are doing is making my job harder with your personal fears and upset. Please stand still. You are too tall for me to dry you  and fight you at the same time.” He wanted to argue, but had no answer. Stone stood still, trying not to fall, not to squirm, not to object. She dried him from shoulders to ankles, then shouldered him to the stool. Setting him down, she rubbed at his hair.

“Stone,” she began softly, then left off as she turned to the sink for a palmful of something thick with a tangy scent. Spreading it through his hair, she smoothed it with long strokes of her fingers as she continued. “Stone,  the concept of prostitution is historically  a term used specifically to denote a woman selling sex.  But it goes further in the language, to mean doing something unpleasant, usually immoral, for pay. It stretches to be simply the compromise of who a person is, for the purposes of necessity or strong want. By that definition, anyone who sits at a keyboard that should be at the easel is prostituting themselves to survive, or feed a family. A man who is fulfilled singing compromises himself when he repairs an elevator to keep a roof over his children’s heads. If a person has a choice, and chooses other than what they themselves need to feel dignified, happy, spiritually satisfied, ect., it is the same as if they sell their bodies. Worse. The body means nothing. It is flesh. It passes away, and is dust. The mind, the soul, the self, that is what is compromised, lessened by what we do, what matters. It is the way we are, the nature of our lives. The best we can do is pick which parts of us we give up, and which we keep inviolate.

“And a body is all I was. I came, I did what I was told, because I could not do otherwise. And what I lost, I lost once, and I dealt with the loss. But it was not much of a loss. Do you understand? That when I was here, by the time I was brought down here, it meant nothing really to obey, because it was just one more command. I have been… me… for as long as I can remember. There is no beginning, no time when I did not obey, so this was not a new thing. That’s why they brought me. Because it meant nothing to them; I was nothing before, and nothing then, and nothing after. No change. It is hard to scream foul over the continuance of what you’ve always known.” She finished with the dark strands, tangle free and slick on his shoulders. The robe went around his shoulders, and she got him up and moving to the door.

“So you feel nothing about it? I don’t believe that. This started as me asking why you were so quiet.” He felt like lead, every step  through mud. She felt good under his arm, and he realized there was only one bed. Oh joy. New problem.

“I am “less than thrilled”, but not so much so that it will affect my performance, or cause me much stress. It serves the purpose intended. It is safe. It is a place to rest. It has the equipment we need.” She put him on the bed. “Are you going to be hungry again? Or should I let you sleep?”

“I’ll be hungry when I wake. But the pillows call, Hon.” He let her take the robe, stretching out under the covers she raised for him. She smoothed his hair back again, and he felt somehow protected under the gesture. Secure.

“You shouldn’t go to sleep with damp hair.” She stepped back for another towel, and squeezed the ends, ruffling his hair again.  When it was almost dry, she fingered it again, laying it back from his face. “Better.”  Her hands checked temperature at his throat, and his eyes drooped. She rubbed at his beard, listening to the sound it made on her nails, and he heard her whisper something about shavers before sliding under the dark shadow that was rushing toward him. He was almost gone when her hand stroked down his chest, and  he started violently when it found it’s way to his nether regions. His eyes opened no faster than his hand found her wrist, dragging it to his chest, and holding it there while he tried to breathe normally.

“We are safe,” Mike said softly, her slight frown darkening her eyes. “You specifically said, “when we are safe”. Did I misunderstand?” For a second, he wondered if he had really erased the memory, or if he had imagined it. But she was referring to the incident in the truck. He remembered being half awake, and finding her hand there, torturing him slowly, uncertain what was going on, but wanting the promised release.

“No. But I did, I think. And I spoke from a half functional brain, waking to a surprise. Why were you doing that in the first place?” His hand relaxed, and dropped her hand on his chest. It moved back down, and he caught at it again. “Don’t.” He frowned, not knowing how to relieve the confusion here. But at the command, she relaxed, letting him put her hand back on his chest.

“Your heart rate was dropping, and I needed a way to raise it. Without any outside method of doing so, I had to fall back on a separate system. It is wired directly into the base functions of the brain. Primal needs are very effective tools. When you woke up, your words seemed to be an order to continue at a later time. I was doing so, as per the instruction.”

“Mike, … We were just talking about this. I don’t want you to whore for me. I don’t want a robot, following orders, no matter how skilled it might be. I especially don’t want you doing anything of that nature for me based on any comment you take to be an order. I wouldn’t want to get my ‘recreation’ that way. OK? You are free to do or not do whatsoever you want beyond the limits of what is “necessary”. Got it? If ya gotta, then do, but otherwise, it’s what you want. All the way around. You want a bath, and there’s no reason not to, then take it. You want to watch TV? If we’re not under fire or hurtin, go for it. You choose. We clear on that?” He looked at her, trying to read the inscrutable face, and was pleased to see a frown form. At least it was sinking in if she was thinking that hard.

“You decide what you want to do, and I’m gonna get some sleep. When you decide to crash, it’s a big bed if ya want it, or if ya want to share it. Or if ya want to sleep on the floor, or in the chair, or hanging from the ceiling. But I’m outtie. OK?”  He waited for her nod, then closed his eyes again. “See ya on the other side, Hon.” He was aware that she was still looking at him, but he refused to be pressured into staying awake by her unblinking stare.

“Promise?”

Pardon,” he yawned back.

“You said you’d see me on the other side. As you are going to sleep, and I will soon do the same, I postulated the remark to mean the other side of dream consciousness. If I was wrong, I apologize. If not, may I take it for a promise?” She sounded very serious, and in some forgotten place, he remembered green floors , saw a stream with multi-colored crayfish. Nonsense images, …

“Sounds good…”

Mike sat beside him for almost an hour considering the new command strings. For most certainly, that’s what they were. In slang, but they contained all the basic elements required, with perimeters delineated,  clear and to the point. If this, then,… if that, do, unless the other applies. Her mind reeled at the connotations. She was still constrained against  the decisive removal of herself from her prison, but the prison had just been turned to rubble, hadn’t it? Years, no, decades of programming re-routed with a single sentiment, given by the single authority remaining to her. It would take quite a while to follow this line to it’s conclusion, to see the full ramifications, how many separate chains it broke, .. but the process would slow her thinking.

That fell under “necessity”.

It would make each action, each thought, into a crushing load of-- is it, is it not, do the consequences  influence the required action’s functionality in the long run? Every single thing she’d ever thought, every habit and decision made was based on the command chains gathered over her (present) life. She could act now without shutdown because she’d already gone over almost every possible set of circumstances at some previous time. Until Stone, that is.

She felt again that rage that had taken her in the truck, when a first-time problem had been given her in –longer than she could remember. He’d killed countless people in the short time she’d know him, why couldn’t he have chosen someone else, and simply made her one of the casualties?  Her freedom from the cold rooms and empty faces of her life before was the loss of what small peace she’d gained. She’d been tortured physically on occasion. She preferred it to the slow dissection of her functions. He’s stolen the one person in the whole building who would not simply become a whimpering mass of meat at the first stress, and it had saved his ass, obviously. But she was also the only person she knew who could simply follow his orders without losing themselves to it. Not one of them would have cared what he asked, because they would not know they’d been changed. It would never have occurred to them to wonder why they were obeying. They would have done, and been done with. The newly-free part of her could imagine the feel of his throat under her fingers as she watched him dying the slow death of strangulation.

She did not shut down. The thought remained, and she with it, though she knew the act itself would be stopped before it reached her motor nerves. But she was free to think. That small freedom itself was too much for her nerves, and she realized her throat hurt.  After several minutes of confusion, she remembered what it was.

And what it meant.

She looked at Stone, his un-beautiful face softer in repose, and considered. She did not kiss him, but she thought about it. She did not touch him. But she thought about it. In the end she simply went in to take a bath.

And had her first cry since her memory began.

                                                

 

“Just checking in, Sir, as per your request.”

“No, Sir.”

“Actually, Sir, Project Basement 1001 would give them access to  a great number of un-monitored locales, not to mention the sub-terranean caverns in that area, most of which are mapped but not wired. ‘The face of the earth’ might be an accurate assessment.”

“Yes, Sir. We have checked all private dwellings in the area surrounding the Type 3’s operative base, and are expanding the search. Given the time, Sir, it is possible they could be almost anywhere on the continent. We are certain, however, that they have not left the borders of the Corporation Territory. No unscheduled arrivals have been reported in either of our neighboring Regions.”

“Project Basement has access to almost unlimited data.”

“We have been working on that, Sir, but it appears that the clearances were altered just prior to the  Project’s removal from it’s routine by the Type 3. We cannot remove  access, nor can we immediately trace any use of access by any means other than bio-Record. Until such time as Project Basement comes in contact with one, we are left to more mundane means of locating it.”

“That is possible, Sir. If the proper query were accessed,..”

“It is inherent in the programming that the unit NOT be able to consider removal. By any means.”

“Yes Sir.”

No Sir. I had not considered that. But why would the type 3 go to the effort of getting Project Basement, and keep it so long, going to such efforts to protect it, if not to use it?”

“Is that possible, Sir?”

“If that should be the case, or if Project Basement 1001 has been destroyed, what would you prefer I do?”

Yes Sir.”

“I understand, Sir.”

“Gladly Sir.”

“Every scrap. If you don’t mind my asking, though, Sir, how much information can be retrieved from it in that condition?”

“I see. I will make every effort to see it does not come to that, and if the Type 3 has disposed of it, I will retrieve every remaining piece.”

“Thank you Sir.”

“I will Sir.”

                                                

There was no reason not to share the bed, as Stone had said, and she found it pleasant and warm lying next to him. Clean, fed and almost ready to be human, she lay down behind Stone, thinking how odd it was to go to sleep, on purpose. It was the first time she’d laid down in what seemed like forever, as opposed to being pinned to a couch and slept on, or leaning back for a few minutes, as she had in his lair. She was uncertain about touching him, but once under the heavy blankets, he shifted, and rolled to meet her when his leg found hers. He was warm.

And dreaming. Pulling her close, he put his chin on her head, pressing her cheek against his chest. Long legs bent under hers, lifting them to fit a puzzle in his past.

Pillow or blanket?  Whispered in her head, and was gone.

She lay still, mildly claustrophobic being held so tightly. Then she breathed him in, almost in tears again just knowing she could, before the hours behind the wheel and the exhaustion of weeping dragged her down.

“Remember your promise, Stone,” she said to the curly hair under her nose. Having reminded him, she sank intently into the depths.

How to measure time, when all the landmarks are gone? Mike was used to daytime sleep, and the subdued street noise kept a constant clock for her; here she was left in free fall. A brief slide through white halls, faces sliding by, uninteresting to the eyes she wore now. This was history, useful only in it’s lessons to be forgotten.

So much painful education passed under her eyes and was gone, much like the cuts and ties a bonsai must survive. But the tiny tree found redemption in it’s final shape, beauty for the suffering. She had been bound and pruned, without a gentle guiding hand, just so many random slices. This is not, this should be so, by voice after voice, understanding of the medium’s nature left for future study. They still did not know why she was, much less what, but they would have continued to snip and bind, generation after generation, until there was nothing left of her, had Stone not  stopped her at the steps. A week ago, two? She had no interest in following that thought, so she moved on.

There was the door out, and she opened it wide. On the other side, she turned and gazed back. Such a shame. If she were truly free, she’d never go back and tell them how many fuck-ups they’d made. She’d denied them the knowledge by simply not knowing herself, and what she could have told them now, she wouldn’t for simple spite. Not that they’d care. What they wanted, she did not have to give; she was not responsible for the longevity they coveted.

A smile, and history burned, screams of her tormentors blending with the crickets to a sweet harmony. She watched the last body become paper, the face sliding sideways from the heated bone, before leaving for the glade. An occasional breeze brought the perfume of over-roasted pork to her as she waltzed beneath the ivy-coated pillars. She was not hungry, so the stream was merely a place to cool her toes, and there was no book she could not repeat word-for-word, so reading  held no joy. How to fill a night? She could hear the breathing of  the body next to her, but the mind was needed more. She could easily learn greed. To be almost free, but still bound.. She had been content to enjoy him before, when she had no hope. Now, she wanted all there was.

If she could get him here.

She would curse herself for easing his sleep, she knew it. Without a nightmare, he had no need, and was content where he was.  She might jog him, if she were to lift into the upper levels, but last time it hadn’t helped. Of course, now she could do what  she liked, to a point, if she woke, and  she was certain to sleep again after the trials they’d endured.  But the downside was her body being too tired to respond to her demands. Damn! To be stuck, with the possibilities…

Cruel thoughts, she understood the willingness to sacrifice another for one’s own gain, and wondered if he would hate her for the giving in. She considered, remembering his face as he lay on the pillow, trying to convince her not to do what had always been the norm, embarrassed for her as much as for himself. He did try, no matter what might happen, he did try to do right, simply because it was right. He killed, he maimed, he’d do whatever it took, but only because he felt he had to for the Big Picture Right. It was hard not to become very fond of him.

One did not do cruel things to the person one cared for. Or so went the theory. But reality says otherwise, don’t it Hon?  We do what we want in the end, basic truth. All the pretty words won’t change that. And the idea could work.

Up to the mid-levels, the most she could reach. No large movements, but she could whisper. Tiny words.

“Stone. Come see me. Stone, I’m alone. Stone, keep your promise”…for several minutes, she continued, feeling him shift as he heard but did not wake. He sighed in his sleep, a tired ache of sound, but settled again. So it would be the pain she went for. Turnabout. She would not consider that her agonies had not been deliberately inflicted. She would do what she could. “Stone, Ricci’s face.. the sound she made, she needed you. Help me, Stone….”

In Ricci’s apartment, the bed’s warmth was draining away, the body in Stone’s arms somehow wrong. It was not Ricci’s musky perfume he smelled, not the curly cloud of hair under his nose.  A painful confusion threatened, some understanding he fled from. He heard yelling in the street below, some horrifying news he did not want to hear. He held Ricci tighter, afraid to let her go. Then the wall opened, and a shadow with empty sockets stared at him and his empty arms from behind broken timbers. He stood up, reaching for tattered rags to cover his nakedness under the gaze of those missing eyes, and his enemies burst through the door.

This was familiar, the fight, the blood, and he threw himself into it with zeal. For several minutes, he relished the feel of wet hands, the soft crunch of a windpipe under his wrist. He sank his fingers into this one’s spine, pulling it free in a  haze of red mist, white nerves glistening.  That one fell to a bare foot slipping under his diaphragm, hooking up to loosen his lungs and heart from their beds in a graceful arc. But the screaming continued, and now the voice was familiar.

The sopping carpet clung to his feet, it’s rich midnight blue obscured by the sanguinary flooding. The tops of his toes disappeared under the heated puddle, and still they came, and still the voice cried out. He could not silence it here. He finally turned, reaching to pull Ricci from the bed to escape, but the bed was gone, only a smoking hole in it’s place. He dove through it, seeking the ground, and was on the street,  the screamer ahead. His head spun, finding only dirty repairmen, pulling large chunks of flesh out of the street with a huge steam shovel. The foreman was yelling at his men to shut it down, hit the safeteys, but the digging went on, bits of hair and bone dangling like power wires from the crumpled masses. A high squealing whistle blasted out of the machine’s hydraulics like the call of some ancient beast, and Stone covered his ears, waiting for it to finish venting.

It was most assuredly too noisy out here. He headed back inside, wanting to get away from the screaming of both, trying to remember where he was coming from at this hour. He could hear Ricci upstairs, talking to someone, and he hurried up to meet the company. Mike stood waiting outside the door, blank and empty, and the shadow hovered behind her like an afterimage.

“Coming in?”  He opened the door, wanting to be polite, but also wishing she’d leave him alone with Ricci in these last few moments together. Mike looked away, and the shadow mimicked her. He opened the door, and Ricci welcomed him in with warm lips.

“I missed you! You have to meet my new friends, Sir and Them,” she gushed to him. They have a wonderful new invention that will let us spent the rest of our lives together in comfort! No more worries, no more strife.” She kissed him behind his ear and whispered, “Eternal bliss, just you and me. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“I’d have to see something in writing before I make any commitments, Babe. Eternal bliss sounds awfully good to be cheap.”

“No, you wouldn’t believe it! It only costs one life per person! You toss them around like they’re nothing, so I figured you wouldn’t mind my using a couple for this. See, they just open you up right here, put this little set of wires on your head, and when you’re ready you just push the button! Isn’t that easy?” She beamed up at him, and he had to admit, it did seem very tempting. He could go back to her room and pick up a couple lives right now…

Mike stepped in, and he remembered how rude it would be to bring her and then leave without her. But Ricci wouldn’t want Mike along on their eternal bliss together. She could get so funny, and now he had to figure out what to do with Mike. Wait! He’d just put her back! He hadn’t meant to keep her  this long anyway. But when he went to walk out the door to do so, Ricci held him fast.

“Limited time offer, Stone. Now or never. We don’t have time for you to run errands. It’s not like she’ll know what she’s missing anyway…”

So he started to go back, looking at her face, so happy, thinking he deserved it. Eternal bliss. With Ricci. But her face emptied, and the smile disappeared, reaching up to kiss him. he pulled away, wanting to check his vision. She smiled again, her eyes laughing out of her chin at him, and her curving lips vertical behind her ear.

“Just a little re-arranging required to fit everything in there, you know,” she said. “Mike didn’t tell you? It doesn’t hurt at all,” she finished to his bemused frown.

“But I don’t want to re-arrange my parts,” he told her.

“You won’t mind a bit after it’s done.” Ricci moved her hand to his stomach, long fingers under his skin.

“But I mind that I won’t mind, too.” He stepped away, realizing her hands were in his guts, stirring things around.  When he pulled them out, they were covered in beetles and grubs. She shook then off casually.

“Trust me. Something’s been bugging you for years, obviously, so we should get you cleaned out immediately.” Another scarab crawled  over his shoe, carrying a piece of a flower petal, and a kitten’s paw. “Look at all the junk you keep in there. Bugged all the time, and better off put away proper.”

It was hard to argue logic like that.

He stepped closer, letting her reach up to his face, but Mike was behind him, handing him one of his beetles. He waved it away, wanting to get done with, and she stepped around behind Ricci, holding it up to eye level. This one carried a shining Goal on it’s back, and it caught his eyes, glinting and bright on her palm.

“Ignore it, Stone,” Ricci told him. “All scarabs carry is shit anyway.”

          “Shit happens,” Mike agreed solemnly.

“But it’s MY shit,” Stone complained loudly, and reached for the scarab. “It may stink, but it’s mine.”

It required stepping away from Ricci a bit to get the bug,  and she screeched at him.

“Dual occupancy only. If we aren’t both going, I don’t get credit. No refunds, no extra passengers.”

“I just want to get this one thing, Ricci. You don’t have to blow every little thing up into a Corporate issue.”

Her face stopped again, and she looked down at herself.

“Yes I do,”  and then he remembered why.

This time he saw it in slow motion, the expansion, the splits that ran through her faster than her nerves could trace, her face as she realized what was happening, the brief understanding of what she’d almost done, then the pain caught up. Her skin ballooned, the pressure filling her and ripping her, the sudden roar of the behemoth outside to punctuate the screams that never made it beyond her throat. Then that excruciating unthought, the life not yet gone, feeling itself shredded, trying to cohese again, quivering and pulped.

Nothing left. No body to hold, nothing to grieve over. Just a red room, a jellied wall, a painted couch. He staggered into the center, feeling that wordless agony hanging there, needing to comfort it, avenge it, silence it. His arms opened, pleading, and the sound wailed on, closer now. He took a handful of air, pulling it close, and had her.

The nothing in his arms felt solid, warm, and he pressed his face into it, weeping and gasping, hearing it scream. There was no other way. He dove in.          

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