STONE    

Page 9

  TRUTH and SKEWED REALITIES

And was awake.

He stood on a desert plain, featureless and dull.  Nothing moved, and nothing grew, no dunes broke it’s flat face. A cool breeze stroked his cheek in the almost- twilight. He was dressed in black, a loose sleeved shirt over snug pants, much like he’d been partial to before he met Ricci. His boots gleamed on the pale earth,  a smell of dry pepper and  herbs close when he pivoted to survey this new domain. His heart still slammed against his ribs, demanding freedom, and his breath came hard, but the tears passed, gladly, letting the breeze dry his face.

Nothing but empty.

Not quite nothing. A low vibration came to him through his soles, and the air carried a grinding from far away. Seeking the source, he closed his eyes and waited. There, off to his right, and moving swift, was a disturbance of the quiet. Some large beast ran over the dust, long and liquid, chasing nothing. He could see the shape of it, like a child’s nightmare of a lion, impossibly sleek and rolling, terrifying yet beautiful as it came closer.

He caught details slowly, but it was a good distance off yet, giving him time to prepare. It was several times his size, and he thought he saw claws digging at the dirt for more speed. Was it even aware of him? It might pass by without noticing him if he crouched down.  He could see a tail now, lashing and thick. A wide head, with ears like pennants laid back against the head, tapering down to a small flat nose, passing eyes filling half it’s skull. Golden and furred, it streaked across the wide space  at top speed with huge pistoning muscles  Stone flattened himself to watch safely.

Wrong move.

The beast caught the movement from the corner of it’s immense eye, turning to see him folding into the ground. It spun, skidding and sliding, it’s hindquarters shooting past and dragging it around as it tried to stop. Claws like I-beams shot out and clung to the hardpan, drawing it up short. Still as death, the menacing monstrosity gazed at him from long slits of eyes, it’s breath labored. It lowered it’s head, stretching out, and then, it was simply there.

 Stone stumbled backwards, feeling the breath of the beast swirl around his ears. There was no more than a yard between them, and  the irisless eyes regarded him dispassionately while he scrambled to avoid the blow that did not come.  Under it’s gaze, he stood, brushing dead dust from his elbows, and considered. When it failed to eat him, he decided it to chance the balance of silence and stillness.

“Where am I, and why am I here,” he ventured, steeling himself under the unblinking stare. The thing shuddered, and reared it’s head, pulling back and up to sprout wings. From it’s full height, it looked back at him a moment before rising and hovering above him. Still the eyes held him, intense and emotionless, weighing options, and he felt the breeze die under it’s scrutiny. Hanging there, wings still,  so far above, it extended a rear leg, offering him a broad foot. He climbed up, willing to ride to his answers. He was lifted and held close under the beast’s belly when it’s legs faded, and soon he was carried by a manta made of pale gold liquid across the dissolving desert.

He admired an ocean, glinting and sapphire. He saw no fish, no dolphins capered in its depths.  A jungle heaved it’s green face to his vision from the water, but no tigers prowled there. The  silence continued unbroken by cricket or mynah, and his ears began to ache for the sounds of life associated with these sights. His guide banked over a meadow, fir trees mixed with oak, but no deer pranced and grazed in the thickets, and the whippoorwill was unheard. In the haze of distance, Stone could see the skyline of a city, but understood that it was empty, despite the flashing signs and lights. As he has surmised upon arrival, nothing lived here. A dead world, no one home but him. 

And his transport. He looked up, seeing the reflection of landscape on the skin above his head. It had forgotten him, apparently, cruising the air for the feel of  the wind.  The ache was better with the knowledge that he was not totally alone, but the desolation crept into his bones. Did it really live here, in this beautiful void?  He’d lose his mind.

He tapped the limb that gripped him, wanting to ask his question again; he jerked slightly when the two eyes opened on the creature’s belly, blinking at him slowly. His voice ripped away from him in the wind, but when  he tried to fall back on more direct contact, he shied away from the size and power he found above him. A mind almost alien in it’s cool order, the suggestion of hidden passages behind a vast expanse of blank receptiveness. It returned to it’s soaring, and Stone re-considered talking.

But the silence was crushing, the emptiness louder with every second. He tapped again, pointing down at a hillside of tall grass. The eyes blinked at him, sliding up to follow his arm, and they dropped out of the sky with a long sweeping roll. He was deposited in the green, seeing  the shape of his companion’s shadow flow again and become small. A feathered dragon perched on his shoulder to survey the plains with him. There was only the sound of the grasses whispering to ease the oppressive vacuum.

Desperation was a few steps away, he knew. This lack was symbolic of something. He was in a strange place, alone but for the mind that sat so deceptively tiny on his shoulder. He tried to connect the previous place he’d been- Ricci’s living room and the bloody rags of her everywhere- with this absence of all life. He’d gone in, and arrived here.  So where was here? Where Ricci had gone? This could easily be a form of purgatory, and that would easily make the beast thing God. His life spent distancing himself from everyone, his eternity would be spent in solitude, eh? It seemed harsh. And he could do nothing? The weight pressed on his chest, stifling, and he turned to argue his fate.

Even his guide was gone.

He spun, rage at this helplessness building swiftly,  wanting to catch it before it was out of range, but no sign of it remained. He was left standing on the slight hill, shaking in his need to fight and destroy, finding no enemies more tangible than the breeze and the grass. He ripped at the green blades, flinging dark clots of mud to all the points of the compass. He screamed obscenities for the sound of his own voice, until voice broke, and despair crushed him. 

Finally, he sat, eyes just over the grass tips, trying to convince himself of this reality’s un-reality.  There was no place where people were not, no where that the sun did not move or the body not need. He should be hungry, or tired, something by now, so this could not be real. But wouldn’t Hell be free of such needs, if they interfered with the torments intended? Please God, no. Better no afterlife than this one, isolated, trapped. Such nightmares he’d never had.

Nightmare. It must be a nightmare. It also fit the circumstances, didn’t it? A dream, caused by- what? It was a new genre for him, but he and Mike had been talking about vaguely related topics. Perhaps this was her nightmare, and he was picking it up. There’s always a first time for everything…

“Truly.”

He was up and moving before conscious thought reached him. He spun foolish circles in the grass, searching for the source, finding nothing.

“Truly what?  It’s a nightmare? It’s a first time for something? It’s not mine? It’s a new type for me? Which?” The rage returned on swift feet, and he slung more grass at the unseen voice. “This is Hell? Or did I fall asleep in the tub and dream the rest while I died? Show yourself!”  He faced the sky instead of venting on the dirt, and was confused at the grid of razor wire that confined this world.

“Is that what it takes to keep me here? You want me here that bad?  You were here before, why not now? Is there a purpose to this, or are you simply getting off on  watching me lose it?” He pulled up another lump of grass, then stalked off down the hill. His throat burned and his hands were stained green with the blood of the plants he’d uprooted, sticky. “Fuck this.” He wiped at his pants, trying to dislodge the drying goo.  He needed to wash them. He looked up, wanting water, and through a part in the waves, he saw a stream. It cleaned his hands and soothed his throat, for all that it was barren of the teeming masses that should have inhabited it’s bottom.

“Better?”

He resolved not to look, and managed to keep it for several seconds. He wasn’t surprised to find no-one there.

“Not much. I want more than a quick drink. I want out.” He waited, hoping for nothing as much as the chance to slowly slice the unseen speaker for roast.

“I don’t hold you here. I did not bring you. Seek elsewhere.”

“So I can leave whenever? And I suppose I just click my heels? Or should I leave the way I came,” he snarled. “Thank you, you’re so kind.” He stepped through the streambed, trying to head back towards the ocean in hopes it was at least the right direction. What he’d do when he got back to the desert, he had no idea. He continued, righteous anger fueling him for several miles before he started to feel the quiet and distance again. Was he getting anywhere? He could walk for years this way without knowing if he were headed in the right direction.

He stopped, looking for distinguishing marks, trees; off to one side he found an old pear tree, knotted and bent, with tiny blossoms  raining slowly to the nodding weeds.  Familiar. He cut a new trail to the tree, fingering the branches, trying to place the last time he’d seen it; he leaned against it to gaze at the barbed sky, and had it.

A small girl had been sitting about three yards away, her back to the tree, playing with her kitten. He had seen only the shoes and the cat, not the tree, from his viewpoint, but the child he’d tapped had known it was there, and the knowledge had carried over. So this place fit in some memory he contained. A new facet to the torture? The god-mind had blundered. He welcomed this reminder of his Lady, an ease seeping into him.

“Show me.”

He called the image forth unconsciously, though he had no desire to please. The pair appeared, playing, hiding from someone, giggling child and sleek feline. He watched for long minutes, enjoying the sounds they made, mildly resentful that doing so also gave the other watcher something it wanted.  After  she’d fully stained the knees of her tights, the  flaxen beauty peeked up from her jungle at some interloper approaching, shushing her furry playmate. Stone looked up to find a new addition to his dream.

“Lynn,” this new apparition called, “it’s time to go. Don’t make me come get you. Come on, Honey, Grandmamma’s ready, and we don’t want to make her wait.  Lynn!” The older version of the little girl waltzed into view, a lovely woman with curly blonde hair on her shoulders and a white summer frock that fluttered in the air. She continued searching, a pressed good humor on her face when the object of her search did not reveal itself. At long last, the fiercely giggling Lynn popped out to surprise her mother and was swept up  and scolded for her ruined clothes, regaling her Momma with tales of horrid beasts vanquished with bare hands. They sailed out into the waves, Lynn beseeching Dirty-face to hurry. Stone closed his eyes,  sighing at their departure. Her name had been Lynn. He sought his original course.

“Wait,” the voice cried softly to him.

“Fuck you. Get your jollies off somebody else.” He started for the bent grass beyond the tree.

Please,” it whispered desperately, “please, don’t. I need this.” A rustling in the  blades around him, furtive, anxious.

“I said fuck you. No. Why should I do for you? What do you get out of this?” He continued to walk.

“I don’t know, please, it hurts, stay, just a little longer,” it begged in it’s soft tears. The movements grew frantic as the breeze became wind, the pear blossoms falling thick.  He paused.

“Why? Why does it matter? Is it something you get from me, or the memory itself?”

“I don’t know, hurry, go back before they’re gone completely. Bring them back”,  it sobbed as the sky rolled and grew dark. Stone was pushed sideways by the rushing of air, and a pain, a loss of frightening power overwhelmed him. He was driven to his knees by the nameless need he quickly understood did not originate with him, but was painfully familiar just the same. This thing shared the same demon that had driven him to create gardens, and sucked his sleep dry of rest.

He held a cruel weapon now, and had no reason not to wield it. He looked around himself at the whipping stems. “Show yourself.”

please…”   Thunder growled in the distance, the sound most terrifying to small children, a sad ending of daylight.

Stone stood, bracing himself against the wind and the raging emotions.

“I said show yourself. Explain to me face to face why these images matter. Do you get something from me, from what I feel, or do you know them?”

The light faded, depressing and cold, rain falling miles away.

I don’t know. I don’t have access to that information. There is an urgency connection, unspecified, to the figures themselves. There is more, that’s all I know; I need it, I cannot explain further, but it more important than anything I have. Please,..” it rose , and Stone looked back to see the last lingering ghost of Mamma’s  dress fade out just as the barest suggestion of a building had begun to grow beyond her. Then she was gone, and the agonized shriek shook the tree to splinters. It ended in a wailing, heartbroken weeping that was more effective than any threat might have been in changing Stone’s mind.

“Damn.” He returned to the remains of the stump, and tried to re-create the faces of the pair, succeeding for a brief second to make them flicker,  the pair joined by others, but it was over. He sighed again, wanting the silence back now as badly as he’d needed it gone before. There was a great rushing, and  the movement near him sped towards the place they’d been, crushing the rich green in it’s passing, the air thickening and turning pale as the presence gained substance. Stone saw it become a misty human figure, pulled out of shape, but recognizable, speeding after them, but pausing, bewildered, and sinking to the ground, disconsolate.  Torn between pity and anger at his treatment, he followed it, ready to gain his freedom by force. Half-hidden by flora, his objective seemed small and pathetic, no longer the intimidating menace he’d felt in the glider.

It did not move as he came up from behind, oblivious to his presence in it’s grief.  He stepped close to the crumpled  form, seizing it by the hair-like veil, pulling it back against his chest to pin it by it’s throat. It gasped, but did not fight immediately; instead, it rolled in his grasp, pushing it’s smooth face against his chest so that he found himself not restraining, but comforting his captor.  A moment of confusion; he pulled away, his hands hard on it’s shoulders, and it flailed at him,  tiny fists beating at his shoulders.  This was not defensive fighting, but frustrated anger, he realized, there was no way it could hurt him with such useless blows, so he simply waited for it to tire.

“You let them go. .. was it so much to ask for, just a few more minutes? Just to watch them a bit longer…” it suffered and shifted, hiding it’s not-there face with it’s hands. He shook it, tired of feeling guilt and pitying it.

“What do you want with my memories? A few more minutes for me to stand here, giving you a part of me, giving you what you want, after you brought me here, left me in this hell, this dead place, alone? Fuck this. I want out. Show me the way out. Now.” He shook it again, wanting to hurt it, restraining himself only to insure it could obey.  It caught  it’s breath,  the hitching slowing, sucking in deep gulps of air to still itself. Calmer, it placed it’s palm on his chest, pushing him away with terrifying strength even as he tried to hold it.

“You could have gone whenever you liked. Your assumption that you were held in turn held you.  I never made you stay,” it explained with it’s ruined voice. It walked away, sliding into it’s original furred face, much reduced. 

“That’s bullshit,” Stone yelled after it. “If I don’t know where I am, how can I find my way back? Why not plant me on Saturn and tell me to go home? Son -of-a-Bitch! Don’t you dare walk off without telling me at least where the way out is.” He hurried after it, wishing for something to throw.

It glanced back over it’s shoulder. “You want out, just wake up. I can’t tell you how get back on your side from here, but that should be sufficient for mere exodus. As for Saturn, your wish is my command.” The landscape shifted, and he was floating in dust clouds, a wide band of rock floating through the razor boundary above. He hung, suspended, and it swam around him as the glider.

“Is that better?” It circled him, forcing him to thrash around to see it. “You’ll never get anywhere that way. I’d suggest a more streamlined body. Would you like assistance?” it  altered it’s shape again, becoming a long feminine gleam of mirror with wide smooth wings, it’s vast eyes returning to gaze at his struggles innocently.

“I want out. What part of that don’t you understand?” He fought against the sluggish dust, tiring himself. It peered a him, coming closer. He knew how the bird feels before the cobra.

“I attempted to explain your situation. You are unaccepting of the answer, so any response would be pointless.” The long face was reminiscent of one he knew, but all distinguishing features were lost to the stretched reflection of his own face in it’s surface. “I am altering you. You are free to go where you want, please respect  privacy. You will have to make further changes yourself if you choose to be alone.”

He felt his body melt, become liquid, and he was free, swimming through the grit. An instinctive fear for self took him, but there was no pain, and it had said that he could change again.  Just ahead, it waited, and he realized how he must look- an armless silver serpent, broad shouldered and mirror-winged. How strange.

“I, myself do not need to see Saturn,” his almost-twin told him. “There is nothing new to see. Anywhere. If you do not desire company, I will leave you to explore and enjoy. If you should need help at any time, I will hear you call, wherever you might be. I am sorry I cannot return you to your own space; I regret my desire to have company brought you where you do not wish to be. I would not wish to inflict my personal hell on anyone.” It considered. “I rescind that statement. There are a few … but it was not my intent for you.”

“So you did bring me here.” He rushed it, aching to punish it for the lie. It stayed always a safe distance away, and eventually he relented.

“I wanted you. I attempted to influence your dream in the hope that you would reach for me again. It did not occur to me that you might join me here. Or that you were here without understanding of the circumstances. I thought you had come as promised, to see my side. I was mistaken.”

Stone felt some understanding battering at him, some memory; being thirsty, being hurt, a crushing fear. Dreams. Wake to escape, on this side… But this was real. It was too… real not to be real.  But it explained it. Recall of the first dream came to him, and he understood all. Or closer to it.

“Mike.”  But the agony of the silence she had subjected him to, the fear, why? He’d never suspect her of that depth of cruelty, and the other dream had been full of such peace. “I don’t understand. What did I do to deserve all this? You asked me to keep you free of them, I did. You needed to remove the tag, I removed the pain. You expected to be used again, I didn’t touch you. You were ‘owned’, I gave you what freedom I could. Where did this anger come from?”

“You were here. This is what I am, where I exist. This is what I thought you came to see: when you first came to feel the truth of this place, you were unhappy, but did not leave.  I told you you could go, but you did not listen. Then you were angry.” The eyes closed, and acceptance/misery  radiated from her. “You should wake up. Most of the quiet I made for myself, the peace you enjoyed so, has been eaten away by the constant change of circumstances.  What was my prison and my sanctuary has been corrupted as I have had to alter myself. The system has become unstable.” 

 What was there to say?  He could get back to sleep once he woke up, certainly, but if this was where she was spending the night, could he leave her here? This was all the answers he’d not know to ask, open book. All the strange habits, the passivity, and the  half-responses that had frustrated him  would be here somewhere, with the barriers fallen.

“Not all. And you will not remember them when you wake, if the first joint- dream is an indicator.”

“You shouldn’t read a person like that without asking. It’s rude,” Stone told her irritably. “I try to give you the same consideration out there, you know, even though I could keep an ear on you all the time.”

“You are in my head, literally, so it’s not totally by choice. Not everything is on display, but most surfaces are visible, unless you purposely try to hide, and I do not try to look. No shield you erected would be effective here. Home court advantage.” She looked up at the razor wire that somehow managed to contain Saturn now as well. “You are not leaving. Does that indicate a desire to stay, or a tendency to procrastinate? This vista has nothing to interest me, and if you are not leaving or attached to this place, I would prefer to go somewhere more pleasant.”

“After you, Milady. Unless you prefer I leave?” For a brief moment, he thought she would say yes, leave, but then they were in a garden, full of spanish moss and willows. His body was his own again, but  Mike had become the mist- cloud again, human shaped but blank.  First question, then.

“Why don’t you look like you?  And how can you be as strong as you were when you the glider, but be so normal now, and so invisible outside? Was that a mask?” He was walking behind her through the statues, watching her move and change the blooms that clung there.

“Was which a mask? And define what ‘you’ I should look like? I am me. Why would the flesh I wear be more ‘me’ than what you see now? Nothing has really changed, I merely see no reason to walk around carrying the weight of what was thrust upon me by the life I was thrown into.” She stopped in front of a hideous creation, a technician bent and broken with the tree that grew through him, carved of a  delicate teal marble. She plucked a few dead leaves, then moved on, smiling sweetly. “It bothers you. So I will dress for my company.” Color and line filled her, and she was the Mike he’d first met.

“You know what I meant.” The smile was wrong, and chills ran up his spine wondering what more had been hidden from him.  She looked up, and he followed her gaze, studying the grid above. “And what is that? You can change everything else, why leave that?”

“It is not within the confines of my control. It is the answer or most of your questions, but to explain it would be to define humanity and evolution,  the conditioning process of childhood, … I am god here, but that is the limits of my kingdom as defined by my psyche.”

“How poetic. And all this means…” he rubbed his neck, thinking that she was incapable of just answering a question directly.

An arched eyebrow, and the smile dissolved. She looked up again, and began to grow. Stone fought the desire to run while she expanded, coming up against the barrier in seconds, her outstretched hands pushing it out, spanning the horizon, but unable to slip through. Deep cuts welled and rained, spattering the landscape as the grid stretched, where they fell, the land died. Stone was drenched with the falling, discovering it to be emotion made liquid. Desperation, despair, anger, acceptance and exhaustion of self filled his mouth, the flavor of her, the same thing he’d felt when she was kneeling before him, spiced now with the events he’d brought on her, and being inside the iron cage where she hid.  He recalled her simple acquiescence to What Is, saw the reason above him.  She lowered her hands, and went higher, the grid wrapping itself around her like spider’s web, restricting movements, binding her and holding her to a few specific actions. To move so was to do this and that, just so, or be sliced apart.  She gazed down at him, seeking his understanding, and returned.

“Next question?” He was without words, the demonstration effective.

“Good. Now explain the reference- when I kneeled before you?”

Stone’s gut froze, realizing his mistake. The Mike out there had not cared, he’d deleted the act for his own peace of mind, to ease his guilt, and he’d been glad when he’d discovered the uses to which others had put her. But this Mike might object, strenuously, and could take punitive measures. How to phrase it, the betrayal, and the deceit after?

“Yes. How to explain? Is it worth the time? Did I ask to be edited?” She walked away, disinterested. “Nothing has been removed, Stone. You put the memory out of conscious reach, but that is all you did. You have power over the mind, but little true understanding of how it works. So few do. I suppose I would be as ignorant, if not for the way things happened, leaving me with no other outlet but this one. The brain is much like a computer. You may label something as erased, but unless you were to run out of room, it would not be overwritten, and can be retrieved eventually, given the right tools and skill. The brain will never run out of room. We don’t usually live long enough to use it’s full capacity.

“You blanked out the data’s connection, but it itself remained, floating. You saw enough to know I was not bothered. What you did after was for yourself more than me, but I appreciate the idea that you would feel guilty. It’s sweet.

“Get over it.”

“Mike,  it’s not that easy. It doesn’t seem to matter to you, but it was a violation of your body and my convictions. I have wrongs to atone for. Vows I have made.  I broke one then. After years, decades, I let myself be weak, and used my talent for the most base, selfish purpose I know.  Wrong is wrong. It helps to know you weren’t hurt by it, but I’m not sure you would understand why you should be, given your life.” He needed her to see, before he could ask for forgiveness, or it was meaningless to have it.

‘Really..?” She turned back to him, her face a study in conflicts; violence and laughter played hide and seek, vying for dominance. Violence won. The world tilted, and Stone found himself in a dark corridor , polished marble walls reflecting empty floors and closed doors. He was swept along, a firm hand on his arm, feeling small and cold in a strange place. A quick push into  a room, and he was watching from a wall while a white coat locked doors and disabled speakers. A quick undressing, and the wrinkled labbie pulled off the thin gown between him and the smooth body underneath. There was pain and fear, but the order was to be quiet, so nothing could be expressed. The second command was to be still, so  the instinct to fight must be suppressed. Stone saw himself in  the wall, a dark image of rape and sadism on the ebon surface. This was the first, but only  the first. The face he’d first seen on the night steps, emotionless and silent, began here, perhaps. But Mike’s lessons for him were not through. There was the endless hours sitting in white rooms to be seen, speeding past for his interest, unknown faces crying over the mechanical responses,  then a repeat by a new coat. Time unmarked passed in these rooms, being taught to be human, being used by those who themselves were not very, programmed and re-programmed,  layer upon layer of the ‘grid’ put in place. There was no escape and no end.

“What lesson do you need me to have, Stone,” she whispered in his ear. “That to touch is wrong, or that to object to being touched is punishable? That emotions are a needless luxury, or that not making others feel better is cruel? I have all the info, ‘Darlin’, and what you did is a grain of sand on a mountainside.”

He was released, shaken by the force of her will, and aching from the battering he had not taken.  There was nothing more to question in this vein; she had very effectively explained most of herself already, without a word said. He could not guess how it had happened to be so, but the what was quite clear.  A blank mind, filled with the rules of society, all the rules, most unintentional, all set in stone. There was no allowance given for being human.

“So what we generally learn slowly from our parents as shoulds,  you got as musts. But you weren’t a child.  What happened, why were you there to start with? Are you artificially made? There were people there crying over you; they weren’t parents, or family?”

“I don’t have access to that information.” Flat and emotionless, but calm, praise be, he thought.  She wasn’t looking to punish him further. They were  on the plain again, desert and shadowed. “Erased and accessible are different issues.” She directed his gaze across the dust to a darkness in the distance.

The Wall.

He’d forgotten about the black space he’d found during the first twist. What lay behind it was unknowable, unless he could break in, and here, he wasn’t sure he had the raw power needed. He considered a closer look, and was immediately taken to it’s foot, feeling it loom over him. He stepped back to view the full height, but it continued indefinitely upward, casting no shadow, giving back no glint of light. It simply was. No end to either side, he noticed.

“Diagnosis,” Mike asked, waiting behind him.

“It’s a wall,” he told her, trying for levity and not reaching it.

“It always was,” she replied.

“You know anything about it? When it got here, how, what might be behind it?” He ran tentative fingers over it’s surface, feeling nothing, and pressed his hand further. It sank the wrist, and he pulled it back.

“Can you walk through it? Or have you ever tried?”

“My fingers don’t go through. For me it is solid. Feel free to try,” she added, showing a glimmer of curiosity and something else.

Stone took a breath, then stepped to the edge. His hand sank again, and his arm tagged along behind, as did his shoulder, then his left foot and leg. He hesitated to submerge his head; his eyes insisted that it was a real surface, but they were easily shut. He stepped into the dark, opening them when he was certain he was through. There was nothing visible here, just a darkness above and below. Another few steps took him out the other side. Or so it seemed.

A night landscape of jumbles images, buildings and faces merged  over green fields and cars that ran endless miles without purpose. The smell of cut grass and burning oil conflicted with a third smell, more like gangrenous flesh and burnt hair. Bits of disjointed sounds, pieces of words and an ominous grinding were harmonied by a high ringing whine, like he’d been struck on the head. His next step took him fully into the new place.

Where he was vulnerable. A scream of metal and old hydraulics assaulted his ears, and he rolled to avoid the jaws that snapped at him from above. An immense head lifted, taking with it the ground he’d just vacated, and opened for another try. It was barely visible, a blurred image, seen through water and broken glass in the half-light. Wide, toothed, eyeless, it reached for him, forcing him back into the wall. He saw a building explode, the top floors disintegrating as he made his retreat, and then the daylight struck him. He rolled out onto the dirt, heart pounding in his ears.

“I take it that means you can’t wave your hand at it and make it disappear,” Mike asked placidly. She pulled him up, brushing his shirt clean.

“You didn’t expect me to, did you, though. Perhaps from outside, but here, it’s not just a thought. There be dragons.” He considered trying to tell her what he did see, but it was hard to see clearly, much less relate. “Want to see if you can go through with me?” He took her hand, surprised at it’s icy feel.

“That idea is not without merit, but I think I shall decline, sir. I have no guarantee that there’s anything of value there anyway.” She made to turn and leave, but he did not release her hand.

“Your answers are not out here. The only other place they could be is in there. You can’t not want to know what made you. Everything that you’ve gone through must have had a beginning, a reason.” The clouds began to roll in again, a cold current lifting her hair around her cheeks. She was fighting to keep the emptiness on her face, he knew, losing by degrees for every inch closer he pulled her.  Fear made her weak, and he was in control for the first time since arrival. “I’ll be with you every step. They’re your memories, and I can’t interpret them for you. They make no sense to me. But you might have the other half already, or this will let you put them back in place so they do make sense.” He moved behind her, taking her other hand in his to wrap around her protectively. “I can carry you, if you want,” he whispered to her, “I can try to merge here, if you think it would help. I owe you a few, Darlin’. And I forgive you for everything that you did here, intentional and not, so don’t think I’m doin this out of spite. The rest of you is in there, and if we survive all this, you’re going to want it. I’d hate for something to happen to me, something you can’t fix, and your still being divided this way, if I can fix it.” He could feel her heart through his clothes, beating like a rabbit’s. He thought he understood that now, too. “You remember that, don’t you? Better to die quickly than suffer without hope, am I right? Let me do this for you.” He had leaned down to reach her ear, and she pressed her face against his neck.  A tiny nod, and he reached their hands out together. 

Their fingertips brushed the edge, and the world exploded.

Everywhere was the scream of the jawed beast, the ground a morass of chewed meat, tendons and gold hairs strung through it in bloody ropes. Disembodied voices shouted filth to each other from far above, and Stone felt Mike convulse in his grasp at every syllable.  He recognized the phrases- “shut down- hit the safetys” over and tried to place others. Nothing of her desert remained;  everywhere was blood and bright bone. He  pulled her further away from the wall, hoping distance would break the connection, feeling the fool when he realized there was no distance to be had from what lived in her head. He quickly discovered that she was the force behind al changes, he could niether alter his shape or their location. 

He took her as far as the heaving wet mass of meat would allow  for walking, then set her down on a slightly drier spot.  The spasms continued, her back creaking audibly when they hit hardest. Stone wondered if it was possible to break one’s own back that way, and the consequences for her physical body. It seemed she must surely wake up, or her thrashing wake him, allowing him to do something for her, but she was deep in it, and he decided he must be trapped.

Trying to quiet her, it took several minutes for him to discover he was drenched with blood above the knees, where the sloshing floor would not reach. Mike was rent from mid-scalp to lower shoulder blade, a wound appalling in it’s  severity. Slightly sickened by the sight of her opened skull and the red-slimed mass underneath, Stone cursed his stupid pride, and the assumption that he had any control here.  This was the baser mind. This was a conscious use of the sub-conscious, and he was out of his league. One did not apply  first aid to a body that existed only in the mind, especially  when that mind was what was damaged. Foolishly trying to pull the wound closed, he stripped off his shirt, pressing it to the deepest part of the tear for lack of a better idea. This was fucked. If  it were   out there, he would know what to do. He felt useless, responsible, and above all, sorry. He gave up with the sodden rag, pulling her up to his chest. Somewhere he’d read that when you can’t do anything else, you give love.  And that’s all that was left.

No. This was his doing. However well-intentioned, he’d fucked up, and  he would fix it. He hoped. 

Forehead to forehead, he gathered himself, forgetting the rolling beneath him, the voices, the howling, closing off all systems that were not directly involved with the use of power. His arms pinned her tight, he breathed her breath, heard her heartbeat. This was nothing more than the illusion of her body, the chaos around him a visual reflection of her mental state. There was no mind so strong that he could not take it for his own. He was in the nexus; it should ease things, not complicate them.  He could, he would. He did. His  thoughts opened around hers, cautiously closing over them. He drew from it, taking the land in hand, laying it down, giving it solidity. Her body trembled a while yet, fighting the calm, but he clamped down, demanding surrender, re-writing the vision to his own specifications. The stained bones knit, the scalp closing, but he could not erase the livid scar that ran the length from crown to mid-back. How close?

He slowly released her, watching for a return of the shudders that had marked the end of her attack, and wiped at her face. She was very still, and he used his lingering  strength to eradicate the mess  from face and hair. As an afterthought, he placed them back in her temple beside the stream, stretched out on the soft mossy bed. Stroking her face, he swore off all tampering not required by the Goal,  until such tile as he was certain he could repair without endangering.

“Mike,  wake up. Come back to me, Hon. You gotta be OK,  cause the world didn’t end. You’re too deep for my comfort, though. Float up a bit,” he suggested, pushing a bit to give it weight. She twitched, and he continued, kissing her on the temple. “Mike darlin’, you  need to come back up. I don’t know if I like the idea of following you that far  from in here, and I don’t want to leave with you on shaky ground. Open your eyes.” He could feel her body tensing, filling with the lost mind,  and he bit lightly at her fingers. Her eyes popped open, her hand jerking away from his mouth. She did not look focused, but she was moving.

“You gonna make it, Hon?  You had me scared there for a bit.” He brushed at her hair again, leaning closer to hear a response if one was forthcoming. She strained up, exhausted,  and he offered her an ear to make it easy.

Mike bit him hard enough to let him worry about losing a piece. 

                                                     

When it had stopped throbbing, (it took a good while to convince her to let go)  Stone found her a red crayfish and a chrysanthemum. She took both, munching soberly for the comfort it gave, and he stroked her shoulders apologetically. She was quite content to let him suffer in his guilt, and he had reached her toes before she would speak to him, rolling over to offer him a wrist.

“Don’t. Ever. Think. About. Playing. Guinea Pig. With. Me. Again.”

He did not respond, but dutifully took the wrist and began working his way up her arm. She lay in the creek, letting the water soothe what his hands did not cover. The flowers had begun to grow, replenishing their much-depleted numbers, and her tiger was prowling the thicket once more.

“And I do not forgive you.”

“I understand.”

“Do you? Do you really? What is your worst fear, “Darlin”? May I shove your deepest horror at you, in the name of good mental health? Fuck you.” She took her arm back, putting her head under the water to avoid hearing him breathe. Stone tried to think of a proper response, but settled for laying next to her in the water, a mimic of their positions in the world above. His chest was warm on her back, though she did not say so, but neither did she move. He ventured an arm around her waist, and she pinched it, but again did not move, so he took the pinch and stayed still.

When she turned to bury her face in his neck, he felt safe to breathe again. She pinched him again, and this time he pinched back, but lost the ensuing match upon discovering she could pinch with her toes as well. They might have been there days or years, but hunger had yet to visit, so there was no rush to leave. If there was not forgiveness, there was at least an easing of resentment, and a week’s concern was left behind for a while.

“What will you be when we wake, Mike? Will the events carry over?” He tossed a pebble at her, missing, but it returned with better aim.

“When I pass up through the layers, the rules will apply again, but I will remember. You did not. There  are layers of commands, interlaced and specific, that delegate almost every possible action.  You have altered them several times, and forced me to choose between conflicting commands, but the basic programming still holds, I believe. And I may not ask you, which would include reminding you unless specifically asked during outside time, to do anything about it.”  There was no regret here, the peace being restored for the moment.

“What do you want? Most of all? If you could have anything?” He sat down beside her, and she leaned against him.

“I doubt I could specify a single desire outside of simply not having to continue as it has been. I had hoped by now you would be done with me, and have killed me to cover your tracks.” Stone fell back, astounded at the easy way she spoke of it, as if she were choosing a pencil from a jar.  To suggest so casually that nothing was worth living for… But then, he was trying to change a world for that very reason, wasn’t he?

“Is that what you want? When this is done? I will if you ask, but it would eat me alive to do it. You’re the only person alive who knows me, you know that?   I limited the number of people I dealt with outside of my ‘work’, and Ricci was the first to be part of my daily life; well, weekly or so. If you go,  I’m alone again. Maybe I got soft, but the idea depresses me.” He fingered the scar on her back, his fingers ending up in her hair. It was  as soft as he’d first noticed, falling to her shoulders in faint waves. It was not a stunning color, but the texture was very…

“Yes? Go on, please. The X-chromosome feeds on compliments, and mine’s starving. You don’t tell furniture it looks nice today, ya know?” She leaned back, spreading it across his chest. “Take a good handful.”

The feel of it on his skin raised other thoughts, literally, and he sat up, firmly setting her away.

“We’ve been there, Hon. It’s difficult enough to know you’re next to me in reality, so very passive and willing to please,  let’s not make things worse.”

She frowned. “The way I figure it, you owe me one. Or do you not feel so bad after all?”  Her feet in the ivy, she stretched. “You got yours,   eh, and now you’re wanting to behave like a gentleman?”

“I just… it is because I “got mine” that I want to do the right thing. I’m not going to suggest you do for me every time I get an urge. We’d never get anything done.  Passive is great for business, but you should want a person, not just the act.” He rubbed at his reddening face. Now that the subject had been brought up, it was hard not to think about. Mike kneeled behind him and spread her hands in his hair, kneading at the bunching muscles. 

“So you don’t really want me, as such, you just have a need to satisfy.”

“No. That’s not the point.”

“Do you want me, or just a body right now?” She waited, hands on his shoulders, while he sought the words he wanted.

“What I want is beside the point. I control my body, not the other way around. It shouldn’t matter to you at all.” He wanted to stand, walk away, get some distance from the problem, but she did not lift her hands, and even that small touch was better than none.

“Do you consider me damaged goods,” her lowered voice asked from just behind his ear. “Good enough to borrow, but not what you’d choose if you were out in the world? I know you stayed with Ricci for a long while, and we wore the same face, so it’s not a pretty issue. My hair pleases you, and you  like being touched in other ways. So that is all that’s left.” She was a statue, her hands cooling against his skin.  He caught at them, pulling her around to face him.

“You are not a virgin, Mike, not technically, but I’d venture that there were damn few times you wouldn’t choose to forget. I don’t want to be that for anybody. I’ve been there, it still ruins my sleep sometimes. I owe you. I owe you too much to go deeper in debt for something so cheap as a quick lay I won’t remember when I wake up anyway. Does that settle the issue?”  He stroked her cheek, wiping away a bit of grass that had clung there.  She closed her eyes, leaning into his hand, and he felt his own embarrassment like cold water. He was fighting the wrong battle.

“I’m sorry. It did not even occur to me, Mike,” and he leaned up to kiss her lightly. Another advantage of being who he was,(once he got it through his head to listen instead of defending her honor). There was no need to ask; he opened her thoughts and simply did what pleased her. So many tiny things, never easy to request with a lover of many years, done automatically, as he followed the wordless demands of her body.

She was soft, pliable, and he used it to advantage, touching her everywhere, finding his own body capable of feats undreamed of now that physical restraints did not apply. He waited  until  sanity threatened to crack, giving it everything, every trick he’d ever learned before he slid into her,  hearing her cry out with him, painfully aware this might be the only opportunity they’d have, and if they failed the Goal, her first and only. How to draw it out, give her as much time as possible. Her arms pulled him closer, tighter against her, his face buried in her hair as he spread her, pummeling her into the loam. He cupped her neck, lifting her mouth to his, enjoying the desperate moans and growls she made,   thrilling to her hands on his hips, in his hair. If this were love, could it be any better, any sweeter? Could it be love? If she did not share it, did it change the basic truth of it?

He was tangled in the covers. He kicked them away, intent on hearing her cry out. Slamming against her, he felt his own peak approaching, and sought a way to trigger hers first. She begged for release, barely aware she did so, and he paused for a long second, hanging at the edge of abyss himself,

And was awake.

Confusion reigned, as one  second he was trying to understand why the moss has turned to black satin, the next he was left desperate to re-capture a fading dream, a third and he was horror-stricken at the circumstance in which he found himself. Mike was stretched beneath him, asleep, her legs around his hips.  He’d betrayed himself in his sleep, and only impending orgasm had kept him from discovery. His balls  throbbed, full to brimming, and Mike’s ankles were locked behind him, trapping him, unless he risked waking her by moving his arms, now under her shoulders and back. Pushed beyond his limit to cope, Stone froze,  unable to decide on any action.

Then Mike moaned, rolling her hips against him, and it was decided for him. All thought stopped, his brain stuttering as he came, grinding against her helplessly, feeling her respond under him, arching and meeting his movements, gasping for breath. They collapsed together, a shuddering mess, and he held her tightly.

“Sleep,” he whispered, pressing her further into alpha, “The dream isn’t over, daylight is hours away.” He battled for breath, trying not to move her again, panicked with imaginings of her catching him and knowing what had happened. When her own breathing slowed, he kissed her eyes and slipped out of her, hating himself further for enjoying the last outstroke. He crept out of the bed, tucking the quilt around her chin. She sighed, and he almost died right there, but she reached for the pillow to replace him. He was in the bathroom before she was fully asleep again.

Shaky and weak, his legs took him to the shower, but only long enough to start the water. Then he was on the floor,  face in the harsh spray, unable to make sense of this collapse of his controls. He’d never sleep- walked, so far as he knew, he’d never been prone to vivid dreams. He remembered a vague, unfinished image of a temple, and clean pale flesh. The feeling of desperation had run through the desire, a feeling of lost time, but all the references were missing, leaving what he knew floating and disconnected in his head. Atrocity followed atrocity for him, didn’t it?

The Goal floated so far beyond him now; he couldn’t say if they still had the data cot, or if the clearances he’d kept Mike for would still be valid. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate joke? To have taken her hostage, ruined her life, violated her - twice now-without forethought to, forced her to flee everything she knew, only to find the whole point had been made mute that first  day, while she nursed him away from the threshold of demise? He hadn’t had time to think of that till now. He leaned back against the cold tile, feeling the probability of failure crush the breath out of him.  There wasn’t really any chance they hadn’t changed every possible inlet to the mainframe Mike had accessed the first night. They were fucked, with nowhere to go, no way to win, and still he couldn’t just give up, could he? There was still the ‘maybe’, hanging there, goading him, begging him to  throw himself on the knife one more time, just in case. And drag everything you love along too, buddyboy, it just ain’t a party if you don’t leave empty-handed.

If he were a true, caring human being, he’d kill Mike right now, and then himself, to avoid any more destruction. A quick, humane death was the most he could give her at this point, and he would walk into the line of fire one more time, knowing it futile, but fulfilling his destiny by dying horribly in service to the Goal. There was no way to win, so facing his Lady was unthinkable,  but only a rabid dog keeps biting once it’s beaten.

He wallowed in self pity for as long as the floor was comfortable. But his rear was going numb, and the shakes were fading, so he was obliged to stand, leaning on the cool tile again. He washed his himself gently, avoiding the raw spots, smoothing the scars once more. New map, bud. Not much clean skin left.

He tried to imagine a way to complete his work, a way to get to someone else in a position to access the mainframe. Mike could  do what was needed. Even if he could not stop production, he could delete whatever extra programming they had put in the manufacture of the first run, and maybe insert something about free thought. It would reach millions before anyone realized it had been tampered with, if he was careful. When it was re-called, the first-run consumers would question the motives of Corp., and possibly offer the second run buyers the original software. Yes. Add a quick word to share the message, and people would be compelled to spread free thought to others. It was the same methods his enemy used, but to a better end, and so simple… If it could be made to happen that way.

Mike would figure it out. That’s why he loved her, wasn’t it? Because she always knew what to do.  Mike had carried him since this started, he had to admit. He was used to direct conflict. He had no gift for complexity or subtlety. She would listen to him, to his requirements, and find a way to make it work, in the quickest, simplest way possible.  Love her?…..

Ok…. Well, was there any point in questioning himself? She’d sure worked hard enough to please him, and most of it beyond the call of implanted duty. He’d been willing to give her up just minutes ago, in spite of the Goal, to spare her any more suffering for his quest. Damn. He wasn’t ready to die for her yet, given his commitments, but if he was ready to jeopardize the work of  decades for her sake, that sure as hell meant something, now, didn’t it? Why pretend to himself, of all people?

But would you give up your Lady, a nasty voice whispered to him. Your’e willing to kill,  because you’re ALWAYS  ready to kill, but are you willing to replace Her? And is it possible that this has anything to do with the face she’s wearing? Can you convince yourself it’s not? Cause if you can’t…

“Does it matter,” he asked the water softly. “Does it make any difference to the feeling itself, to the things I will do, or not do, for her sake? Will I hesitate when I need instant action, will I be indecisive when she’s endangered,  and will I have any say in it? Yes, yes and no. So by feeling anything for her, I put her in more danger than I already have, because I’ll be less efficient, more concerned for her safety. And face or no face, she is who she is, and I didn’t love her immediately upon seeing her. She’s strong. She’s caring. She’s smart. She has yet to fail at anything concerning me, out of sheer determination, I’d bet. She tries, not to impress, but just because it needs doing. She is a worthy and descent person in spite of the world she was raised in. I refuse to feel guilty for this.

“Of course,   now everything else seems that much worse…” he looked at his middle, remembering the ants and her face when he objected.  Was that the first time she’d smiled at him? Such a genuine humor, when it flickered into his view… suddenly he heard again her comment in his burrow - down from a duck- and snickered. She’d zinged him, and he’d been to self-absorbed to know it. Granted, it was a little joke, but still, it was a sense of humor in it’s own quiet way. Damn he was so fucked, he grinned to himself.  Was there a rule left he hadn’t broken on this little adventure? He’d gone in without armor, he’d become dependent on someone, he’d twisted his victim twice without being sure he’d be free to kill them soon after, he’d played around in her mind like she was Ricci, merging repeatedly, delving into her inner mind out of sheer pride and hatefulness. He’d left her in charge while he slept, not that he’d had much choice. He’d allowed himself to touch her physically, - he never should have taken the bed. The couches were huge and overstuffed, and it would have been impossible for today’s fiasco to happen. And now, the biggest blunder of all. Love. Every ‘borrowed’ sidekick had eventually had to be removed, if they hadn’t been killed in action. They always turned. It was a natural reaction to the changes they’d gone through, things they’d seen, after the years of Corporate mindlessness. And yet.. Mike had specifically asked to be taken away, saved from them and her earlier life, or killed if he couldn’t. That was new. That was so different, it scared him a little. Her comment in the garden…

He heard her moving outside the shower doors, getting towels, hanging them on the rack for him. Ever thoughtful. If he could give her a new life (if they survived) he would erase himself from her mind, and leave her everything he’d accumulated over the years. He’d become rich to buy the garden’s grounds. He’d ignored it since. If  he was still rich, she’d be set. If not, she’d have the garden itself, at least, and he’d know someone would care for it after he was gone. He imagined her with children, running through the flowers. He tried hard not to think of the damage caused by the trucks.

“Do you need assistance, Stone, or are you functional enough to do this for yourself?” Mike stood outside the door, waiting for orders. Stone turned off the water, feeling improved, but hesitant about looking into her face. Would she remember the dream? And was it him she’d dreamed of? All manner of foolishness assaulted him; finally, he simply pushed it away, stepping out to take a towel and cover himself. Mike raised her eyebrows at this, and he realized it was pointless to hide what she’d seen many times over.

“Should I leave? I understand that you have been exposed before out of necessity, not choice, and I will not be offended at your modesty. I do need some instruction as to the behavior you expect.” She half-turned, facing the wall, and he tried to interpret the trace of smile he saw tugging at her lips.

“You laughin at me, little girl? I’ll have you know, I wuz raised up right. Young girls don’t like lookin at naked old men, and gentlemen don’t expose themselves in front of ladies. So there.” He poked her lightly in the side, seeing her jump and gasp lightly. “And ticklish folk shouldn’t push their luck.”

“Those statements have so many fallacies and false assumptions that it would be tiring to point them all out, Sir. And I am most assuredly not ticklish. Where’d you get the idea you were a gentleman? And you did not ask if I were a lady. Or young. And you do not qualify as the ‘old man’ type. You are scarred everywhere, but are missing the wrinkles, the paunch, the saggy skin.. should I go on? I know quite well what an ‘old man’ type looks like naked. You don’t have what it takes.” She looked boldly at him, from her low vantage point, and he poked her again, wiggling his fingers in her ribs, and she folded, biting her lip to stifle the giggles.

“You  are a terrible liar,” he told her. “And what do you do that keeps you from being a lady? Not what were you made to do, but what would you choose to do that would be so improper? I have yet to see you cuss, spit, ect.” She slapped his hand hard, and regained her composure.

“It’s not for a lady to tell,” she said archly. He knew he was missing a joke, here, but passed on it.

“ You just said you weren’t  a lady, so you can’t use that excuse, now can you? Give.” He used the towel on his hair, stopping the drips on his shoulders, and she glanced over his body speculatively.

“I like to look at well formed  naked men, for one,” she stated. “I want to touch them, which is improper. I like to listen to music that is not sanctioned by the Corporation. I think unpleasant thoughts about people who are unkind to me. I did not enjoy being forced, but when the man in question was pleasant, I found I liked to say the filthy things they ordered me to say.  I like to be naked when I am in private, even though it serves no purpose. As I have no command sequence against it, I can do so. Shall I go on?”  She gazed questioningly at him, waiting his judgment. He looked back at her, wondering if he should tell her, or wait until things were over. Everything he learned about the real her led him further down the path.

“Darlin, if you think I’m ‘well formed’ and want to look, then knock yourself out.” She frowned suddenly, and he caught himself. “No, I mean go ahead, look all you like. Stare till you go blind. I never thought I was all that pretty, personally, but far be it from me to deny my fans.” He tossed the towel back on the rack and looked around for his clothes. “As for the rest, it means you’re human, and that’s what all this was about from the beginning. Keeping humans human.” He realized why his clothes were not here. He’d come in naked, from the bed, and gone to bed from the bath, losing his rags to the guns once more. Damn! If they didn’t leave him alone long enough to shop, he’d have to play the game naked.

“Come on. I will find you something to wear in the closets. Food is almost ready.” Mike took him back into the bedroom, rummaging in a wall closet for jeans and a shirt, apologizing for the lack of undergarments. Stone smelled the air, tasting it, envisioning steak and corn, regretting the passing of bovines. They were slow, and ate too much. But they sure tasted great.

Dressed and brushed, They adjourned to the kitchen, where the table was set, and veggies sat in wide bowls. “Do you prefer beef or pork? Breakfast foods are limited to fruit and bacon, but we have steak, pork ribs or ditto veal, wait, we have beef roast too.” She rummaged in a cabinet, letting him think, but he’d decided before he’d seen the grill.

“Where did you get steak? Cows went over forty years ago.”

“No, Cow farms went. There are over 100 left at any given time. Like the veal, they split the first cell clusters, and grow them individually to cut down the number needed to continue the species, and obviously, you have to be top brass to get one. This  particular hidaway belongs to someone special. He gets them when he wants them, whoever might be next in line. And since I can say it, I will. It gives me a certain pleasure to know you are eating his ‘special food’ in his special place, with his special whore, and sleeping in his special bed.” She pulled a thick piece of meat from the upright cooler, holding up for his approval. “ Should I take it you would like a steak if they are here to be had?”

“Oh, Mike, that’s beautiful. That’s a work of art. You know how to cook it, from your attitude?” He was ignoring her whore quip, and found he was salivating over the memory of meat. She grinned, slapped a button for flame on the grill, and rubbed salt into the  red slab.

“Rare, medium, well? Tell me now. Clock’s going.”

“Rare. I hope you don’t mind, but it’s been so long..”

“Rare it is.” She reached up to retrieve another from the shelf above, and tossed it on as well. “I was hoping not to disgust you with my bloody chunk of meat, personally. I’m glad you didn’t want veal. It would have blown my opinion of you. Watch closely.”  She reached in with the tongs, deftly flipping each to cross the lines. They were flipped again shortly, and again, then off to grace plates.  “Choose your sin, Sir. The right one’s soaked in more salt, probably, so it will be the stronger flavor. You like?” She offered both plates, right extended, and he took it with relish. They sat, and Stone filled his mouth joyously.  Rich, hot and decadent. He was going to have to find out where they kept the poor things, and steal a few hundred pounds…

“Are you up to talking business? Protein stimulates clear thinking and mental acuity.  We need to decide on a course of action, based on the obvious preparation the other side has gone through.” She looked troubled, and Stone knew she’d had the same realization he’d had. Probably the first day. “We won’t be able to get to the imput or programming functions with my clearance anymore.” She was obviously distressed by this supposed failure.

“If I had been paying attention when we left the building that first morning, we’d have been done within hours, none of this would have happened this way, and they wouldn’t have had time to change the codes, Mike. You saved my ass. How many times can I say it. You -saved- my -ass. Even when you could have bolted. So you’re worth more than your clearances, kid. Hell, you can get steak, you’re worth your weight in gold to most of the world. Seriously,  we’ll figure out a way. We need someone with better clearance to make the changes. You know of anyone accessible, someone with the authority to do what I need?”

Mike’s face drained of life, like a stopped clock, empty and dead. Stone scanned, seeking a problem, and didn’t even find the wall. There was simply nothing there. It was as if she’d died on the spot, but left her body running without her. Stone reached over, touched her face, felt her pulse, lifted her chin, and pliable as she was, she was empty. Horrifying, to see her breathe, yet find no life. NOW she was so very much his Lady, his Lynn. The vacancy continued, and he realized the penalty for repeated twists might not come all at once. Perhaps they crept in on the twisted, disabling them bit by bit, unnoticed, until there was noting left to hold it, and then POP! They turned off. He remembered his early years, the mindless drones that had resulted from his repeated demands on their brains, repeating the same actions, responding to a single set of inquiries or suggestions, half-functional, non-functional,  some deserving, some unintentional,  all horrors of his making. He’d done something wrong. He’d taken liberties with her, small things, talking to her as he had Ricci, thinking nothing of it, but then he’d never twisted Ricci, had he? Had it damaged an already weakened spot? Could it be considered a twist? He’d shared with Ricci  that way for years. The two combined, perhaps, were more damaging. He leaned down to kiss her softly, and braced himself to the humane end he must give her. He reached out his hands to her, and heard something.

Her eyes fluttered once. Stone froze, desperate for hope, and she blinked. One long, slow blink, followed by another, then she was coming out of it, regaining herself. He found he’d been holding his breath, and gasped for air. Mike looked at him as if he’d appeared there out of the air, and he supposed he had, if she’d been out in the interim.

“You ok, Hon? I was a little worried there.” Just enough to think I’d turned you into a zombie, Hon. Just enough to think I was obligated to pop your head off your neck, Hon.

“I’m fine. I was considering your query. I believe I will be able to get you to someone who can make the changes you want made. You will be able to direct them yourself from their office, through them. We will have to alter our appearance to gain entrance to the base levels, but if you follow my lead, there should be no difficulty in getting to the upper levels, where my knowledge of protocols will take us in. Are you amenable to a farce?” She looked at him, gravity personified, and as glad as he was for her solution, and her  return to the living, he wanted the easy conversation of a few minutes gone.

“If you say it will work , I trust you. Can I finish my dinner, or do we need to get moving?” He took a quick bite.

“You can finish, if you don’t choke yourself eating like that. While I am flattered that you are so enamored with my cooking that you deem it worth suffocation, It will be hard to smuggle you through as a dead body with a blue face.” She cut another dainty bite of half-raw meat, and chewed it reverently.

“Too bad people don’t taste this good, eh?” He waited for her response, but she looked at him humorlessly and enjoyed another bite.

“Don’t tell me you never wished you could chop those fat old buggers into little pieces  and cook them up to hide the evidence,” he suggested.

“Not once,” Mike told him. After another bite, she continued. “If I were to chop them up first, I would deny myself all their beautiful screams…” she left it at that, Stone shocked to stillness, fork on it’s way to his mouth. She continued peacefully eating the monster chunk of bull on her plate, ignoring him.     

            

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2:05 PM 5/22/00