STONE

Page 2

ACQUISITION



"You are too lovely for words to express," the man in the expensive suit wheezed at his waitress. She paused in her cleaning and looked back at him a bit more closely. Noting the glassy stare and the large bill in his shaky hand, she glanced over her shoulder to a far table. No one seemed to be looking in this direction, the long dark figure closest in particular, which was suspicious in itself. "Please, Miss," her patron continued. "I'm don't want anything, please don't think that. God, I... I just want you to do something nice for yourself, please, you know, I mean,..." He stopped, flustered and embarrassed, unsure of himself and of why he was begging a menial to take his money. She, however, understood completely.

"Thank you. That's so sweet of you." She gave him the warmest smile in her collection, and he glowed. As expected. She tucked the cash in her apron pocket, finished her removals and patted his shoulder as she left. She'd seen this many times.

She moved back into the crowd, dropped off the rubbish on her tray and greeted the new faces at the door. Seats were scarce, but she squeezed the pair into a cleanish corner. Corporate kids slumming for thrills, she reasoned they could enjoy the seediness without needing to be IN the line of fire. What you don't have is always more attractive, she mused; if <>you have it, it couldn't really be worth having, despite the opinions of those without it. It was no end of amusement to her watching the envious eyes of the well fed young beauties as they imagined life without the corporate uniform, free of the corporate morality. Did they imagine her going home with whomever, whenever, her orgasms rattling windows? At least it was something to dream of.

Once in a while she'd see a braver soul wearing what she had given to the Hand-Me-Down's bins not a day before. The poor thing had come in, watched her for a hour or more, then ran off blushing when she'd gone to say hello. Was it that bad in heaven that the angels cried for her hell?

It was late, but a few bodies were still trickling in. It would be hours before they all left. On the up side, the Stuffed Pockets crowd spent more time in here lately than ever before. And the suit in the back wouldn't be the last to ease his wallet to her benefit if Stone stayed all night. And he always stayed all night.

Here was another smiling face handing her something folded,"because she just worked so hard'. A quick glance up let her catch the smile behind this smile, before it looked innocently away. At the same time, the face before her lost interest in her and in the money in her hand. Did he have to be so corny with these planted phrases, or were they pulled out of the sub-basements of his toy's brains? More horrible than the burgeoning violence of the streets was the idea of a city full of such REALLY bad poets. At least if humanity killed itself off, it went with a roar. But please God, don't let us devolve into a race of greeting-card kissy-huggie pansies.

"What deep thoughts you have my dear," a voice said behind her. She turned to find the source of the insight.

"Pardon me?" she found a bland face on a bland, round body gazing at her.

"I didn't say a thing,"the face said, handing her a crumpled bill, unaware that it was doing so.

"Sorry, my mistake." She moved on, this time heading for the jokester at the heart of things. The object of her search looked studiously out at the band, forcing himself into a casual seriousness. The battle was lost before she arrived, and he cringed, laughing while she beat him unmercifully with her dishtowel.

"YOU are the most UNsubtle, SMUG, smarmy, smartassed cornball I've ever had the misfortune to spend my nights with!" She ranted on, punctuating her complaints with hearty whacks of the cloth. "And do you have to be always and ever so nosy?"

"If I can't help the little people, what kind of god am I?", he replied with a bad attempt at condescension before giving in to the helpless laughter again. She pulled a truly hideous face at him, sighed dramatically, then bent to kiss him.

"No, no, don't kiss me with THAT face," he wailed, and defended himself against a new barrage, snickering at her shocked expression.

"We'll talk later," she scowled, "behave." She started to leave, and he caught her hand, holding her back.

"If I can't help the little people, what kind of god am I?" His face held no mirth now, the quiet torture of his voice cutting through the cushioning noise. She squeezed his hand, knowing no answer for a few seconds. Then she buried her fingers in his long locks and kissed his forehead.

"Maybe we don't need a god. Maybe it would be enough if we just got rid of the ones we put uptown. Know?" She wanted so much to reassure, but she knew it had to run it's course through his system tonight, and neither she nor drink nor acts of God would save him it's pains. The other god. The Invisible One. HIM.

Even God can't save you from birthdays.

How much worse to remember you've passed another year when you don't have the talisman of a success to hold against it. This time last year, and the year before, and the year before that, so far back. Perhaps he wouldn't stay all night tonight. Would this be the year he followed the desperate thoughts that took him in the wee hours every time the cake came around with it's candle population grown by one? Always the feelings of having failed to change the world, the 'great potential' killing the spirit that carried it.

"Go home. There's no one here to cause trouble tonight, and I'll come by later to get you to sleep." She imagined him spread naked on the floor, surrounded with softly glowing candles. The thought changed for her, the candles melting at high speed to gutter on the carpet, him in the center, naked and comical, asleep on the cold floor. "Stop that. I won't be here that late." She grinned, asked "You to spoiled to cook your own dinner, or too needy to wait for me?" A lightning of his long face gave her hope for his mood.

"If I wait, and you don't show..." he wore her earlier scowl, and she smiled at the mimic.

"Would I do that?"

"Just for the pleasure of knowing I would wait, naked and cold. All night long. For you." He licked her palm lightly, spreading her fingers between them, his eyes on hers. Oh, if this were love, how much better would it be? Could things be this warm if he was always there? She didn't doubt it, but could anyone take that much love all the time? He caught the thought, smiled promisingly from the dark eyes.

"Maybe I can get off early, " she offered airlessly. His eyebrows went up, and she felt warm, realizing the joke. "No, I meant, " and left off. He knew what she meant, didn't he? Advantages of.

"Stay. I have a quick trip to make. I can find you here later." He stood up, unfolding like a long paper cutout. His hair fell forward in it's heavy waves, shadowing his lean face for a moment, the harsh-cut features finding grace in the dark. When he finally reached full height, he peered out over the heads of the dancing patrons, checking the temper of the room. Deep undercurrents and roiling needs, but no threat. Time to go.

"The yearly?"

"Just so."

"And it will help?"

"Not necessarily. But necessary." He did not elaborate, and she knew it would be pointless to ask. He would not argue about his secrets, many and complex. They were the one possession he kept for himself alone.

"Happy birthday." But he was gone, the over-tall silhouette moving through the crowd, and during the night she discovered the 'generosity bombs' he'd left her here and there among the sea of faces. He'd got the last word again, in his silent style.

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It was dark on the hill, but he knew the place well enough. When he found the exact spot, he sat down, resting his elbows on his knees. The first few times he'd come, there was a fear of discovery and possibly incarceration, but he'd been driven here despite that. Skulking around boulders, hiding with his pulse humming and hammering- that had been a bad time in tense years. Now it was his; for several miles the flowers he had planted bobbed in homage to a memory he remembered only the surface of. The depth had been lost to a weak, proud, careless child in a moment of unworthy violence. How he hated that child. With every fiber of his being, he wished to erase it's existence from the world's story forever. And every year, the crime weighed heavier because he failed to redeem it with the achievement of what he had sought then as now.

If his early, reckless attempts had borne fruit, he could possibly have said to himself, "I did this because I did that. That made a difference, and though the other was a wrong, it was merely an unpleasant incident on the way." But he couldn't. There was no redemption, and nowhere to go to confess.

The flowers were a testament to the capacity for guilt in an almost- human animal. It was all he really had of who had been then, but it was still too much. He opened the satchel he'd brought with him, and looked about for a bare spot. Hadn't there been one over by... but there was nothing left of the dead dirt he'd started with. The blossoms grew thick, taller this year than last, and filled every niche. Without the ritual to fill the hours, he stood numb, unable to grasp the concept. They'd spread on their own. This job,at least, was done. What now?

How many times had he filled the night here, re-planting what the angry earth had rejected over and again? This was part of him. There had to be someplace to put the seeds he'd chosen with such care over the last year. He wandered in the dark fields, carrying the satchel, a lost doctor seeking a phantom patient. Without this, would the dreams return? Years, decades of coming to revel in the shame for one night, to give memorial to a death and his re-birth. To ease the spill of thoughts that he'd never had, but had instead stolen and been subject to in his lowest hours since. To lay the ghost- or to let it howl full on 'till it had exhausted itself for a while. But that was over, and he had created a tiny Eden in the doing. There was nothing left to allay the growing- not easing- agonies. And the worst, above all, was the knowledge that he had yet to age. This could last forever.

How old was he? He'd never told, but was it because he no longer remembered? It had been at least forty since he had 'acquired' these grounds, and a decade or more before. How old had he been when he'd committed the 'birthday bombing'? He wasn't sure. It had accomplished nothing, created a tear in soul and psyche he could not rid himself of, nothing more. He remembered being a child, but a child went day to day, uninterested in the landmarks of time.

He sat, and ran shaky fingers though the seeds. The feeling was soothing somehow, and his mind quieted. Long minutes spun out, joined, became an hour, then two. Just him, the breeze, and the sound of the seeds rustling through his hands, smooth and warm. A memory floated by, sitting like this, a mottled kitten at his feet, chasing what might have been a mouse, and might have been wind on grass. Not his, the memory's feet were small and white, and wore one white sandal with a gold buckle. The kitten pounced on the other shoe with a fierce purr of victory, his spotty face so ugly it was cute. "Dirty face," a voice called, high and giggly. The gold eyes turned to him and sprang at him with a louder purr, expecting treats or scratching in that 'itchy spot'. The voice squealed with glee, and disappeared. It was as soft a blessing as he'd ever received.

When "it" had occurred, he'd thought he saw everything. He'd been so sure of himself. And never seen the levels of self under the surface he was scratching at so proudly. He still didn't know her name. But her mother had been kind, and she'd had a kitten, and liked rich music late at night. And she had been brave, and afraid of spiders but not muggers, and once held a rabid dog at bay with a table leg. Layers underneath, and still he found more.

It was morning. He had sat in a field of flowers all night, watching a kitten that wasn't there play in the sunlight while the dew fell on him. And he had no more idea how to save his sanity than he had before. And no plan for world conquest...Damn.. Birthdays sucked so hard sometimes.



Once on the road, he realized he'd stood his lady up. Oohhhh, my, he'd bought himself a week of hell now. Not that she was a screamer. She just never forgot anything. And his separate self was a tender spot for her, a place where she couldn't go or see.

He would think of something. He always did, and she was more understanding than he had any right to expect. If he told her about last night, she would be the perfect listener, and supportive beyond measure. He had always known this, but couldn't then (or now) bring himself to expose that much of himself, no matter how long he'd known her. Or Anyone. Better to be the ghost that flitted in and out of a life, bringing prosperity and joy while he was there, causing as little pain as possible when he left. If he never came back, she was provided for- for the rest of her life, though she didn't know it. Just a default option to ease his mind.

The city loomed ahead, a clean, sharp image in the morning sun. A corporate dream made reality, it flowed well through the work day, functioned efficiently at great profit to all. And his job in life seemed to be - what? To kill it? To destroy what had been decades in the making, even though it benefited all who lived there. But then, there was the lie, wasn't it? It benefited all who lived the clean, sharp image the city represented. Anyone who stood outside the perfection of business life was expendable, and dissension was grounds for dismissal. From the city, from food, from any city anywhere, and anything that wasn't city was dead. There was no where to go.

He had been there when the City Planners went corporate, and his first pathetic attempts to stop what he barely understood had been futile. Lack of scope and vision had kept him from hitting anything vital with his randomly flung arrows; the knowledge that he lacked what was needed to succeed kept him from trying anything too big. Now the Corps were the government, international behemoths that controlled all but the smallest aspects of life, but the nexus was here, in his city, where they'd begun.

He had tendrils of power everywhere, he filled most high places with his invisible self. But the rot remained, and most of those he needed could not be reached from where he was. He could 'hide' from a human mind, but not from an electric one. He missed machines, basic gears and hydraulics; computers were to much like people, and he could get no purchase on their thoughts. He had waited too long, perhaps. When they invented a machine that truly thought for itself, he would be done. Nothing of what he was could help him against an inorganic brain.

For so many, there was nothing else, just the Corporate job, then the Corporate sponsored apartment, and the Corporate designed lifestyle. Technicians might spend weeks on a project, sleeping in the office, living to work, family a liability. Those who did choose family did so within the corporation, the idea of a personal life turned around to focus on how to better 'life in the Company.' Education was all-pervasive, but riddled with Corporate scriptures - churning out new generations of hard-working drones, all human traits subverted and denigrated, until only the select few thought for or as themselves, the rest going about their appointed Hand tasks, creating and doing great things, unable to feel proud of themselves as people. They did not think for themselves anymore, and so could not resent what they did not know had been stolen from them. How does one bring self-awareness to an entire world?

He turned off the 'way and wound through quiet streets, (all good people were at work or sleeping off the third-shift malaise) and found her on the front stoop with a cup of coffee on her knees. He deposited the car, watched her as she watched him approach.

He sat beside her on the step, and they sat in silence a while. When the coffee was gone, she leaned over and rested her head on his arm. "It's not another woman, you're not gone that long or that often. So I guess it shouldn't matter. Was it a good birthday?" She looked rested, so she must not have stayed up all night waiting on him. Nor did she seem too angry. Was that a good thing?

"It was a birthday. And I missed my present. But I hope I can get a rain check?" He was NOT rested, and sitting here in the warm sun, he was starting to feel it. But he would manage if she need the reassurance, though he hoped he didn't have to carry her to bed.

"I need sleep" she lied, yawning largely. "Want to be a pillow or a blanket?" She stood up, offered a hand to him, and smiled at his doubts. He took the hand and joined her up the stairs.

"I prefer to be blanket, if I may, my lady Riccetta. How shall I warm you?" He was grateful for her as always. Too bad it wasn't love. It might have been fine.

On the way to the bed, he stopped to grab a few beef chips from the jar on the counter and overheard the TV running on alone. He went around the couch to turn it off and froze cold.

"as we join the man in charge of the project. Sir, how do you expect this new development to affect the crime problems we've been experiencing lately?"

A familiar face filled the screen, and Stone studied the dark face. He knew this one from the memories of a great many men "in Power'. This was the mind behind the minions that he could not reach. The last remaining City Planner, "Sir" was the heart of the government as it was now. And he'd found something new?

"You have to understand a bit of theory before you can truly grasp the implications of this device. It is not limited to any one area of our culture, but instead will ease all manner of problems in our everyday lives. Try to follow me, here. All our actions, feelings and reactions to the stimulus in our day is controlled be our perceptions, beliefs and thoughts. If you change the thought that causes you to fear snakes, for example, snakes bite and kill, to say some types of snakes may bite if threatened or hurt, but are harmless otherwise, it is a small change, but it is more factual, and relieves you of a fear that limited your activities. The same is true of crime. Crimes are a symptom of a disease, not a disease itself. A person commits a crime because of mental illness, of one type or another. An imperative need is not being met somewhere in their lives and they seek to fill that need or alleviate the way they react to it. Anger, fear, hunger for what one does not have; these are the problems we can cure with this technology."

"This sounds a bit like brainwashing gone mainline, Sir. Isn't there a concern with people letting someone else plug directly into their subconscious and do a custom cut and paste? A single shady operator could do more damage in a few minutes than a bad psychologist could do in years, couldn't they?"

"You begin to conceive of the powerful tool we have here. The safeguards are still being perfected, but the end goal is to supply software with the unit, which will be available to everyone within months at a minimal cost, by the way, that will allow the user to design their own program, eliminating the fear of tampering. The unit costs pennies to manufacture, and the CD will be the most expensive part. We are planning to make it transfer proof, yet useable on any system, so it can be taken to the libraries if a home PC is not available. I have personally given my percentage of the profits to a fund supplying technical support online when this is available. My hope is to eliminate all mental illness in the next ten years."

The interview concluded with the usual mindless honorifics, but Stone was still motionless. Rikki put a hand on his shoulder, not sure of his state, and when he failed to respond, went for more coffee. When she returned, he remained, and she put the cup into his hand, and started it on its way to his face. When she let go, it continued, and the automaton he had become drank it dry without blinking. Should she go about her business, and let him think, or guide him to bed and hope he slept? He looked like hell, and worsened every minute. Age ran through his face, and he began to shake.

"The last step, the final barrier was the sub-mind," he whispered. "The last refuge of feeling and thought, and they can walk right in and close it down without losing productivity. Just kill the self.." Concerned, Ricci reached for him, but outside something was dropped, to a resounding POP!

She was on the floor behind him, and he was crouching between her and the window, hands outstretched aggressively.

She was too frightened to speak, listening to the downstairs neighbor fussing at the her 'slabfingered' children, not sure that he would not leap out the window to fight the unseen enemy. Could he hear the kids, the mother, the glass tinkling and scraping on the pavement? What was he hearing instead, then? Often she had considered the possible dangers of "consorting" with someone who told her nothing of his past, or of his life when he was not with her, but she had never feared anything more than a sore heart if she never saw him again. In twelve years, she had not found reason to fear HIM, himself. She knew he was 'more' than most, that his 'work' did not pay his bills, but instead could someday get him dead. But the gentle hands had never been those of a dangerous man, had they? But she had not seen him move. All his odd comings and goings, the tricks he blew off as meaningless, they all had new context. This was the real man, the substance his smile hid from her. This was Stone. And she feared him.

At long last, he stood up. Slowly, he remembered himself, and turned to her to find her cowering on the carpet. The strangeness was slow in draining from his face, and she closed her eyes rather than look into his. Deeper than ocean grottoes, colder than the dead, he looked at her, and when recognition filtered through, she did not see it. "Riccetta, " he began, but his voice was empty, and tears rolled down her face. He gathered himself, breathing deep and rubbing his forehead. "Riccetta, " he tried again, then realized he had nothing to say. He went to the coffee pot, remembered the cup she had given him, found it shattered in the corner. A fresh cup, then coffee, and he was back in front of her. She trembled when took her hand, and it was harder to wrap her hand around the cup as she had done for him. The heat opened her eyes, and she avoided his face when she drank. She felt the leading edge of his questing thoughts, and cried out in instinctive protest. His hand was soft on her cheek, and she tried to think of how he looked in the bar, on the step, in her bed asleep. When she looked up into his face, the effort was rewarded. The stranger was gone, and he was just Stone again, long dark hair in his eyes, long sad face sporting a quirked smile.

"Just Stone?" he whispered. She closed her eyes and leaned against him. He topped her head with his cheek, and hugged her tight. Apologies were easier without words, and that was his thing wasn't it? Bare emotion lapped at her soul, needing only her OK to wash over her in a quiet river. Even his best efforts could not keep her from feeling his tension, try as he might to give her only his desire to soothe. A rough undercurrent ran through the connection, some nameless thing that loomed over him now that had been a distant shadow before.

She was tired and let him know. He stood and pulled her to her feet; they supported each other down the short hall to the bedroom. He undressed her and kissed her toes when she lifted them from the floor. The old habits and games seemed empty after the truth of his nature had been revealed. He drew the shade, lay down behind her, and wrapped long arms around her, waiting for a rejection; getting none, he squeezed her lightly and kissed her behind her ear. "Nothing has changed but what is in you," he told her softly. "I was always what I am now, and always was it there to be seen. If you see me differently, it is not that I am different, do you understand that? All that's gone before, all we've done together, that was real, and is still so. That is still who I am. Can you understand this? " She was silent, and he felt the conflict in her yet. Fearing him, but wanting what she'd thought he was an hour ago. "I will leave if that's what you decide you want. I will not try to convince you either way- the decision is yours alone." It was a good thing to hear, knowing that he could change her mind if he wished, with the ease of blinking his eyes. The thought came and she considered it.

"Make me forget." She shifted to look at him, hoping the fear would be gone of its own, finding it still hid close by.

He frowned. "You don't want that." His turn to consider, he offered an alternative. "I can make it not matter so much, but I would hate doing so and myself for having done. I would prefer you continue to love me because you love me, not because I 'fixed' you that way. It's meaningless if its artificially come by." He smiled at the image it presented. "Didn't you ever wonder why, if I can put any thought in any head, I wasn't dripping with women when you met me?" His reluctance was enough to tip the balance. She looked at him, fear become unease, and fitted her face to his neck. "I need you naked" she told him. He complied, and joined her in the center of the bed. All seriousness, he was warm and comfortable with her, routine a welcome reminder of the time they'd spent together. Acrobatics could wait for later, if there was a later.

Later, when they were dozy, she asked about the broadcast. Was it that bad? It sounded like a useful thing, and it worked much the way his gift did.

"Perhaps that's the problem. I'm out of a job."

Lying in the bed with her warmth against him, he considered the implications of the broadcast. It must be ready now for them to break the news of it's coming; what would be waiting in the program that would not be advertised? He knew so little about the wired side of life; he was a biologic based weapon, not a techie.

He could not let his lack of a plan be a reason not to act. Never had he imagined a thing such as this; he had waited to long, assuming the enemy would do this or that, only to find he'd underestimated. This could be a serious character flaw, here, he mused. When he was young, he'd done too much of the wrong thing, and now did too little of ANYthing, both because he underestimated his multi-layered opponent. Now he had to run where he was not sure enough to walk, and strike hard without knowing where the weaknesses were. He sat on the edge of Ricci's bed, looking out to the dark, wishing for inspiration.

There was so little time to research, he would have to break the rules he'd set for himself. He'd need to take a partner, willing or coerced. It invariably led to problems later, when they realized the destruction they'd participated in and were stuck with social-driven remorse. The Big picture is not as easy to see when the world is hunting you, and all you've known is ripped apart. The blight at the heart of the fruit is better left unseen, by most accounts. Most often, The Betrayal came when the work was done, and he found his companion was a good actor with a better offer. Sorry, dear, they wanted a word with me, and it was a good word. Sorry about the bullet in the back. And by the way, all that work you did serves a second purpose. Not yours, but a purpose none the less.

He hated to kill. He had learned to feel nothing at all for long stretches of time, to ease the burden, but to work so closely with a person who was invariably doomed to die in process or betray you and die by your own hand... it caused holes.

He trusted so few already, and found himself absenting himself from them much longer that 'necessary' after an excursion, unable to remember the feel of them after. He knew them at almost every level. He was sure he'd know if something had changed in them. He was sure. But... And it would be impossible not to kill again, to make sacrifice to the Goal, changed as it was. Eventually, it would always come back to that. By 'natural' or artificial means, Mind Kill or gun or knife or whatever came to hand, it would come. That moment when you remove from the world a set of ideas, dreams and hopes without chance of recovering them. Even those he wanted to eliminate were alive, with thoughts and feelings that would be lost to the race when they ENDED. To take that much away killed a part of the soul. It was hard, too, to know how little we were without the mind, and how easily it died. True killers had no souls left, he guessed. How much was left of his?

Tonight. He would act as soon as he had scouted the building, and decide what to as he went. God provided- when He was in the mood. Let's hope, eh?

"Hey, Conan. Will you brood all night?" He jumped a bit at the voice from the pillow behind him, and reached out for the warm fingers questing for him. "You're going?" She was disappointed, but used to his coming and goings, like an old tomcat, seldom worried overmuch.

"I will miss you, more than I could say. I will call if I need you. I will dress warm and remember to eat healthy. Did I cover it all?" This was a good thing, this routine of closeness. It was good also to know that she meant each thing, every time it was asked.

"Good boy. Have fun, say hi for me, ect." She watched him dress, the goodbyes accomplished. It eased things to pretend she was asleep, though he knew it for a sham, she knew he knew, and so forth. So she did, and he pretended with her as he slipped out. She felt his "good bye" from the street, and wished for a speedy return. He would not need her, or call her, or dress warm. And he always looked starved and worn when he returned. But he was hers, or as close as it got with him.

In the dark below her window, he began the changes that would allow him to do, to be what was necessary for the task ahead. How to begin, he wondered. It was a short trip to the lab where he thought he would find the basic info he needed. They never look in their own back yard, so that's where you hide.

A quick perusal told there was no entrance without help, so he waited. It was not normal work hours, but the corporate world never really slept. Eventually a body rounded the corner, and he caught it by it's brain. A quick slide through it told him what he wanted to know, and he released it with the instruction not to remember him. Again the wait, and again the cast. The fifth attempt bore fruit. The smaller shape threw him a moment, but it had the clearances he needed to get where he was going. He stepped closed to put a face to the thoughts, and found a she, light and quiet, watching him in return. The air of waiting was reminiscent of something, but there was no time for considerations. Time had run out with his considerations, his procrastinations.

"Shall we go," he asked politely. The face moved and became confused, looking up at him as if she'd misunderstood.

"Pardon me?" The politeness was returned, very softly, without inflection.

"I need a moment of your time. Shall we go?" He bowed slightly, extending a hand in the direction of the building. He used only a slight pull inside to persuade, and she began to walk. While he stepped around the camera views, she opened the door for him. Once inside, he stopped to check camera angles and corridors. She continued to move.

"Stop, and wait," he commanded softly, not giving it much thought. She turned, and for a moment, didn't move at all. Then she blinked, and glanced up (so far up) to look at him with growing concern.

"I apologize, but I must go to work now. I have a job." She did not leave, still held, but waited expectantly for his response. He finished his scan of the lobby, and made a decision. He fed the info to her, and she lowered her eyes to the floor as she complied. Low security on the greatest find of the decade was hard to believe. Her badge got them through doors and down halls empty but for a few engrossed labbies who never looked up. There was little effort needed to become invisible here, he thought.

At a turn of the hall, not well lit, she repeated her earlier statement, obviously agitated. Work was an important responsibility. She needed to man her post. A slight pleading became audible now as the conflicting pressures and demands began to cause her greater discomfort. The instinctive guilt almost found a crack in his carefully constructed armor of unfeeling, and for a moment he considered releasing her now, as he had almost reached his goal. But it would complicate an already snug situation. He placed a hand on her shoulder.

"I hate to keep you from it, but I need you here right now. Everything will be fine." The platitude was almost as effective as he'd expected. People were suggestible when under stress, and his influence took deeper hold. They continued, and he found the room he'd come for. She had excellent clearance, and was patient with his inquiries into classified data. All was as expected, and for a time, he was free to gather what he needed. For a time. The longer he took, the more she moved. Finally, she came directly to him.

"I must GO. I have a job and I have to go to work. Work is important, it is a responsibility. I greatly apologize for the inconvenience, but my employer depends on me to be at my station," she quoted to him. She was clearly upset at the change of habits, and he realized he would have to let her go or make a change here. This is what I fight, he thought, and the tragedy of it gave him strength. The creation of non-people like this, the removal of all that separates us from the mechanical, the dead, ... it will end. She is unable to be angry, to disagree, think beyond what an authority figure tells her. Useful as it may be to me now, it should not be the species destiny.

"I need you to stay here. Do you understand?" he asked her as he re-applied the pressure. "It is important that I get done what I came for." He turned back to the console. She did not move.

"Please," she whispered to him, "I have a job. I have to go to work." Tears began to run down her face, and she did not wipe them away. "I apologize, but I need to go now," she repeated. He looked back at her, and almost lost his resolve. She was just a cog, not a source of the problem, and she was in pain, but he needed what he needed. The first sacrifice.

"No. You do not need to go now. It is more important to stay here and help me now. Do you understand?" He tugged a bit harder, slid the thoughts he needed her to think in between the imperatives already there, and made the change. Her face emptied of all life, and he had a few seconds of concern before her eyes closed again, and she sighed from her soul.

"I understand." The tears flowed a moment more before she laid hand on the console and opened the menus for him. So much easier with help. He was less than sure of what he would need, more uncertain of how to use it to it's optimum, but she filled the gap with her knowledge of the systems. Plugging pegs of data into the holes of need he provided her, she opened the way for a possible solution. Had he known the final threat would come from this direction, he would have spent more time with the technology, he mused.

"Transfer data to hardcopy?" Her voice was empty of emotion, efficient and cool to the ear. Computerlike. Her hands, however, were a dance unto themselves, alive and flowing across the console and keyboards like separate entities. Fascinated, he confirmed, and watched while she fed bits and bytes through the security filters and onto chip for him.

A muffled sound fed through from the hall, and his head snapped around, but she worked on, an absentminded motion throwing a switch atop the board, and the doors clicked. Stone had his weapon out and ready before he realized her action, and only half-heard her state loudly "Occupied, priority five." The door was quickly released, and hurried feet moved down the hall. His innards froze, and he considered the possibility that she had informed the intruder of his intrusion with that casual phrase. But she was still working. A great actress?

No thunder of boots, no yelling followed, and she continued at the board. Eternity passed before she looked up, and he had plenty of time to calculate the layers of walls between him and the outer air. How many floors to the ground. And how many bullets could he absorb before his heart stopped? Rapid-fire guns could cause an amazing amount of pain before actually killing. Her lack of concern concerned him, and he fingered a few of the small puckers that decorated his skin from past maneuvers. If it was not too late, it might be time to retrieve his heavy-plate from storage when he left here. Armor was a burden, but a comfort at times like this. He positioned himself by the door, waiting, and the cold descended as he heard footsteps again; it began.

The door handle rattled, and Stone leveled the gun at head height. His grip was steady, and he was as his namesake. "Occupied, priority five." There was nothing in her manner to indicate her awareness of the interruption beyond the automatic put-off. A low curse came through the door, followed by a response. "Estimated logoff?" a high male voice inquired. Her hands paused in their motion, and for the first time, nature showed though maskings. Ice in her words, she merely repeated her first phrase, the expectations clear. "PRIORITY FIVE." Narrowed eyes and a raised brow bored holes in the door, and a quieting of the shuffling beyond it gave Stone cause to be impressed. She was somebody, obviously. The next comment was of a different sound, the fear and desperation unhidden in the almost adolescent labbie. "I greatly apologize for the inconvenience and hope you will deduct your lost time from my project. Please accept my humblest desire to avoid bothering you again, Technician."

"Thank you, technician." She returned to her console, and Stone relaxed. This was his aide. If her desire to fulfill her purpose could be steered to meet his purpose, she could be invaluable. And here she finished the transfer, and handed him the chip cot. He glanced at it and found a security slide across the bottom edge, and his soul sank.

"I will be using this outside the company sub-system. I should have made that clear to you before you began," he started, But she interrupted.

"The security codes have not been inserted yet. I assumed you wished to access it through your personal reader, but you also seemed concerned about limiting knowledge of your visit. I therefore set it to receive code at a later date though your personal system. You can control future access as you see fit. Was this not the appropriate thing to do? I can make the necessary changes now, if you give me the required specs." She waited without expression, as he looked for the words he wanted.

"I misunderstood your intent and the options you have given me. It was very appropriate and I appreciate your forward thinking on this issue." It was less than natural for him, this corporate lingo, but he had some extensive practice. "Is there any other pertinent information I should be appraised of?"

"Without knowing the purpose you ultimately intend it for, I cannot in good conscience advise or attempt to assist you in your work. In the uninformed desire to direct your search, I could easily overlook a vital piece of data and not discover the lack until you were involved in some crucial calculation. Please understand that this is not a desire to avoid the task set, but rather a clarification of the position and restraints that keep me from contributing to my fullest potential in this endeavor." Her oration completed, she resumed waiting. Stone looked at her, full of the knowledge that to get full value of her help was to pull her into deep waters without hope of shore.

This was the beginning, he supposed. Not the catching, not the using. Now he must remove a human from it's life and set it on a course that would ultimately destroy it, in order to accomplish the task he had set himself. It took less thought that closing his fist, and he allowed himself no feeling in the matter this time. Needed, then done. Simple and clean. He spread her mind open, and made his Goal her goal. A quick look through, deeper than before, showed nothing to hinder the completion of this game. No family to miss her, no long-term commitments. But here... A dark patch in a deep pocket gave him pause. He had found these before, a space inaccessible to him by casual perusal, needing sharp focus, the victim most always unaware of it's existence. Caused by trauma- a blow to the head in an accident, an abuse so horrific it necessitated removal of the memory, a life-threatening fever. They could sometimes hide incredible phobias that never failed to appear at the worst possible moment. But he had her, here and now, and there was little hope of finding another body as well suited to his need. He could investigate and eliminate it later if he needed to take her with him far. He filled in the data necessary for her to analyze the situation. He added the feeling of imperative for success, and great catastrophic consequences for mankind if they failed. Dramatic, but generally useful. The first real twist had been made.

He closed her back up, psychic surgery done, and waited for her to react to the changes he had made, and how he had made them. She sat, still as death for many minutes, her head tilted as if listening to far-off music, and he began to frown. This was almost normal, but it should not be taking so long for her to assimilate the new programming into her inner systems. Would she come out of it with all intact? Some 'awoke' screaming, some in mortal terror of him, some become reverent of his power. All were bent to service, but the small understanding of him changed them. No-one could be opened so to the scrutiny of a greater mind and not be cowed. But here she came. A light frown creased her forehead, and she looked up into his eyes.

He looked back, surprised by the apparent lack of surprise in her face. For a long second, he felt trapped by this gaze, as she seemed to sum up what he was and had done, then she turned back to the switches. "If you give me a moment, I believe you will need a few bytes more in another area. Accessing will take three systems, opening now." Again the hands, like birds released and joyful. Swiftly the data was transferred, and a second disk was added to his pocket. She looked back at him with a grave face.

"There will be a need for certain hardware; I have informed stores, and we must go to the lower levels to requisition it. It will take approximately five minutes to get there, and seven to open Stores and clear the removal. Unfortunately,
He was up and pulling her to the door in an instant. She gained her feet, and her hand caught his at the doorhandle. "My clearance, my chip, my fingerprints. Hand color: white"> These doors are sensitive to touch and record who and when every time they're opened." She led him out into the quiet hall, and checked a brightly colored box of buttons beside her. "Room 718 is now logged off and accessible for next user." Stone gripped her wrist, and she leveled a steady gaze at him. "If I vary from normal protocols, it will draw attention that may not otherwise be on us. I am attempting to assist you, but cannot do so if you interfere with what I do. Do you wish to go to Stores, or do you have other needs you have not informed me of?"

Stone paused. This was her element. That's why he'd taken her in the first place, and if he couldn't trust her, now would be the time to find out. He had to trust in his ability to hold her fast to course, or give up now.

"Let's go." He released her wrist, seeing the deep dents he'd made in her flesh. The blood flushed through them, discoloring the skin, but she took no notice. A brisk walk around a bend to the lifts, and then down, he touching nothing, her relaxed and casual. He felt the bottoming out of his stomach as it picked up speed, and wondered how far down they were going. They passed ground level, and she looked over at him smiling. "Almost there," she told him.

Almost?

Still further down, and deeper. His concern grew. A hole in the ground was a bad place to be when armed guards showed up. He had found it easier to help Catholics escape guilt than to fight his way out of an underground position. They came in from above, and you had to go through them to get free. How far down were they now? When the lift slowed, he knew they had come a ways from the speed it lost.

The doors opened onto a small city. He'd known this existed, but never actually been in a Downtown. The joke of a century past had found full bloom in the Corporate world, as it found new ways to lower costs and reduce travel. If your employees live on site, they can't crash, have flat tires, miss a train, ect. Streamlined living.

His guide left the lift, and he followed her off to a smaller open lift. He looked out at the activity around them as they dropped the last three levels to 'ground' floor, and under what appeared to be s suspended road. "There is a more direct way, of course, but this will appear to be a tour while avoiding most of the scans. Is this satisfactory?" She looked over at him, he nodded, and she continued.

Buildings within buildings, layers of humanity and it's accessories filled a cavernous space. Layers. Was this becoming a theme? He was repulsed by the concept he saw here, yet fascinated by the way it all seemed to fit together.

Now she took him through an area dominated by domesticity. The street above replicated below, children ran across girders painted bright with pastels and red Treadsure on top. He smiled. The small warriors, Mommies and sports heroes smiled back from their various play. Children are eternal, infinitely adaptable and ever/never changing. So long as we still have children, there will still be hope, Stone thought, comforted. Because we will still be human. You can alter people, corrupt ideals, but children will always be children, finding joy in the simplest things. The capacity for joy...in a way, it makes them my conspirators; it's what I most desire to save in us, what makes us alive. Without it, what point is there?

Another quick turn, and they were in a long corridor lined with doors. Passing many, she opened one and stepped inside. A clerk at a terminal looked up and beamed broadly for a second, his thin young face lighted from inside until he saw Stone. Then the corporate mask fell, and the same look of expectant readiness took over his features. "Can I get you something today, Technician? I could have had it sent up to you at no time loss to you," he finished.

Stone felt great waves of hostility pouring from the man/boy. Why did they all look so young, he thought absently. The clerk resolutely avoided looking at him, and Stone decided there was a dream being stepped on here.

His guide easily stepped into conversation. "I was on my way down anyway, and won't be returning to my cube before going Out, so I thought I would give myself a chance to bask in your company before braving the world."

The clerk visibly melted before her, and Stone was almost embarrassed to watch as the interplay of warm casuality finished. The clerk adored her, and found what she requested with dispatch."You're lucky, you know; an hour from now, you would have found an empty room, and had to fetch for yourself. Inventory starts here in a few, and I would have hated to miss you, especially if you're going for a while," he ventured. She smiled at the veiled hint, and turned to Stone.

"I can't say how long I'll be gone this time, Tim. My companion has a commission for me, and after that, who knows where I'll be?" The implication of promotion for work done quietly was intrigue for a dull day ahead, and she left him with a feeling of a secret shared in confidence. A glance at Stone was less than happy, and he caught a few thoughts from the air. Caught between fearful respect of a possible Boardsman, and disgust for a possible freelancer who would certainly abuse this angel's kind heart and dump her by the wayside for profits, poor Tim was desperate not to see Stone as a tall, muscular &
Stone Slipped the thought over that to hide the requisition would assist her and vaguely harm Stone himself. The clerk smiled to himself at the clever thought he'd just had to ingratiate himself with his angel, and went to screen. Stone left.

It took less time to find a way to surface level, and Stone felt much more relaxed. It was almost morning in the dim shipping lot, the barest edge of light creeping its way up the horizon. Silent and warm, the breeze brushed her hair across her eyes, and she smiled softly into it. No security stopped them, no alarms shrieked and wailed. He was on his way, and no one had died so far. If they could get to the next site as easily,... The bullets slammed him to the ground before he heard the report. His guide whirled and blinked several times, but did not scream. She was expecting this, then. The thought passed through and was gone as he rolled, trying to avoid further damage. She was looking up at the source of the noise, and he found his weapon aimed at the same point. A smell of ozone hit him as he fired, and the leading edge of the roof crumbled. Then she was moving, and he was attempting to stand. He focused all his attention on that one thing, ensuring no room was left for pain. It would come, but he needed this time first.

She was gone, and he cursed; he'd missed something. She shouldn't have been able to set him up like this, or run, under a full twist. He looked for a way out to the street, checked for the disks. They were undamaged, though one shot had come close to making streamers out of the plastic cots. One inch made all the difference. Inside, too. Was anything vital hit? He couldn't tell. Loud voices from across the lot seemed further away than before. No time to pause and stop the bleeding. He glanced down at himself. God, what a mess. But he'd been worse, hadn't he? Several large holes decorated his front, and he told himself that it was no worse than any other time, just that the exit holes were where he could easily see them. Out of sight... He was feeling fuzzy, though, and that scared him badly. He was stumbling toward the nearest building's corner, and ducking around it, sighted on the nearest set of threats. Not people. Living weapons. Fire now. He triggered, and screams from those glancingly hit met his ears. Those hit full on made no audible sound. He heard the last confusion as they billowed out and up, then left to wherever they went. He turned and tried to run to a dumpster, but made it only halfway before stumbling and going to his knee. A sharp pain lanced through as it landed on a rock, then the floodgates were open, and he could not get breath enough for a scream to give justice to his agony. This was serious. This was END. A body could not be so damaged and live. Failure rivaled wounds in pain for a moment, and he had a moment to regret a life wasted on a failed venture. So much time gone,...

Hurried footsteps behind made him move. The gun came up and around, pulling his arm with it, and so turning him to meet the threat. Habits. He did not really need to find the sights, but his hand found them for him, and he found himself looking at his prior guide. She paused then, a yard away from the weapon's end, out of breath and confused.

"Where do you think you're going?!" she hissed at him. "I can't get you out of here if you disappear on me. Damn, but you're wrecked bad. Can you stand?" Her face was dirty, and her clothes covered in small dark stains. He went blank, and she stepped past the gun with a soft growl. He blinked, and for a moment of disorientation, believed himself floating. Then he felt arms, and decided he was falling. Why catch him? Stand? Get out. That sounded good right now; don't question . It didn't matter anyway, dead here or dead there, just lay down. But she was pulling at him, and he followed her again, to a small gate between buildings, and then out. She had a bag on her arm that kept getting in the way, and he wanted to tell her to drop it, but couldn't find his voice. She half dragged-half cajoled him through a dirty door into a dark room smelling of cut grass and gasoline. Laying him down on a pile of burlap bags (burlap? Where did one find burlap nowadays, he mused. What would anyone need it for?) She opened the bag and pulled out small boxes and shears. One small box yielded hypodermics filled with thick golden fluid. Before he could protest, she'd broken off the tip of one and found a vein. A blissful quiet came over his shattered body, and the pain receded to a dull sickening pull from inside. Gratitude for the respite filled his soul, and he forgave her for killing him. But as he drifted, her voice cut through the bliss.

"I can't give you any more than that right now; you've lost a lot of blood, and I had to guess at your weight. Open your eyes, now, look at me, this is important." She slapped his face lightly, and when he didn't respond, leaned back for a full swing. His head rocked, and obscenities flooded muddled out of his mouth. "I'm sorry for the necessity of that, but it is imperative that you stay awake. You will have to assist me in this next job, if I am to keep you alive. Can you respond?"

He blinked at her a moment, and jumped at the sound of voices nearby. He stated to yell as the movement jogged his pain awake, and she hurried to stifle him. "It's next door, but the room faces away. We must have left a trail a lovesick labbie could follow, but we're down for now. Please understand that I cannot save you if you will not focus. It will be difficult, but I cannot lift you on my own. Sit up, here's my hand, now pull, I know it hurts, but there is no other alternative, GOOD, now stay there. OK." With copious help, he managed to sit, not at all willing to forgive her now. She cut the remains of his shirt from his back, trying not to disturb the slowly-clotting blood, and apologizing when he moaned and growled. An pump spray spat something that stung a moment, and a thin sheet of something cool wrapped its way around him. Most of the damage seemed localized in the torso. How reassuring. He only carried EVERYTHING important in there. The activity cleared his head, and it occurred to him to wonder why she was here, and doing this. He opened himself, and felt only her desperate concentration on the task at hand. Fix what can be fixed and escape. Her hands were slimed to the elbows now, and dripping onto the floor. He needed to solve that problem first. She secured the cool thing, and reached for another spray while he closed his eyes.

Deep, and silent he went. Away where his flowers filled the horizon. He felt her hands on his face, stinging again, and his hands held hers without command. His spine straightened, and he released her hands, while he found the center of himself. Silent darkness descended, and he thought once again that if he were to die, it would be no real change. Perhaps he wouldn't even notice here. From this place of power he made changes, commanded armies of cells and decided the fate of tissues. Bleeding stopped, and his torn body took stock of itself in preparation for action. Maybe he would decide to live a bit longer. He'd done the impossible many times before.

He lingered, reveling in the absence of pain. I should try to take this with me. So resolved, he lifted back into the world and opened his eyes. She was waiting, bloody hands where he'd dropped them.

"How long can we stay here?" he asked her. Her eyes went to the door, and she hesitated before answering.

"I would measure the time available before discovery in minutes. I came here because it was unfamiliar to most. Few will remember it's here, but it is only necessary that one looks in. If you feel able, we should go."

"Able or not, you're right. Where?"

>The door opened, and three shapes filled it. Stone was up and moving before the first bullet sung through the air behind him. His weapon on the floor, he slid between them and moved. The first was easiest, as he had no armor. Stones' flattened hand slid between his ribs, and he fell. The next was an effort, and with no time for niceties, Stone opened and emptied his head of thought. A rush of strength lifted him for the last, and he fit his other hand into the small space where brain met spine, going through the front of the man's neck. A small choking sound replaced his last words, and then Stone Felt them lift/billow/leave. Gone, quick and easy. Not even enough time to feel the pain of their own dying. When he looked back, his companion was only half-risen, and very quiet. Her eyes wide but jaw set, she blinked a few times, then stopped. Dead still, and expressionless, she looked like a mannequin. He went to her, reached out hands that now matched hers, and started to touch her. The red of his hands was stark against her skin, and he instead reached for a bag and wiped his hands. When he turned back to her she was blinking rapidly.

"Killing human beings is an antisocial act and therefore undesirable. It is a wrong thing," she stated flatly. She closed her eyes. Standing up, she breathed deeply, and continued. "There will be more. Because there is someone set to check this area, no one else will come until these miss their report. If you are able, we should go." She opened her eyes, and gathered up the supplies and waited for his reply without looking at him or the dripping bodies.

"We were here before. I agreed. You have a place in mind, I take it," he asked quietly. "I have safehouses but none close enough to walk it. And I will not survive long as I am now." He looked at his chest, saw clear, elastic polymer covering him from high hip to shoulder. Blood seeped slowly from beneath, and he willed it back. Semi-successfully. She glanced at the object of his scrutiny, and pulled the second spray back out of the bag. Wordlessly lifting his arms, she sprayed at the
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Greensen," she remarked grimly, reading the tag. "Actually,my lady, the name is Stone. Just Stone." He deepened his voice and tried to sound suave. She missed the reference and the joke.

"Michlenna. Michlenna Wonne." She shook his hand gravely, and he regretted the introduction. Now she was a person, instead of a tool.

"Micklin?" He attempted, and she made no immediate response, her attention on the door.

"Leave it at Mike. You're not Gaelic." Dry humor, handy, and not squeamish. Damn, I'd hate to have to like her, he thought.

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