Sunday, February 26, 2012

#SampleSunday Sexy #SciFi Snippet #ConditionedResponse #SciFiSaturday

My alter ego, Marjorie "Friday" Baldwin's, SciFi Thriller, Conditioned Response, isn't really a Romantic SF novel but there is a lot of sexual tension and there is a little bit of sex - and it is all critical to the plot. In fact, it's kind of the point to the climax of the plot (no pun intended). That's why I thought today's sample snippet  from Conditioned Response might interest fans of Webbiegrrl's Romantic Suspense. A word of caution, however.


MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!


If you plan to read Conditioned Response and don't want to know how the story turns out, do not click through the jump break. Okay, you've been warned.

Background on the Story to Understand the Snippet
There's very little background you really need to have to understand this snippet. First, the term "Adjustment" refers to a process whereby someone's mind (memory, thoughts, feelings) is altered by artificial means. False thoughts can be planted, real memories erased. Adjustments are a legal means of controlling the "slave class" (Proctors) but are used illegally by some of the ruling class (Councillors).

The Proctors, themselves, are turned into political weapons, things through which one Councillor might sabotage or at least spy on another Councillor's activities.

Raif is a Proctor for the one and only Phoenician Councillor, Shayla. Raif has been illegally Adjusted by at least two of her political enemies. Just prior to this scene, she has just Adjusted him again in an attempt to undo the damage, which was causing him to have memory loss, false memories and bizarre thoughts.

They have been been together 13 years, a situation that was directed by the Seven Chiefs (Phoenician leaders). Raif fears retribution from the Seven Chiefs more than from Shayla's political enemies on the World Council. Shayla doesn't fear anyone anymore. She's fed up with them all and just wants to run away someplace with Raif where no one can find them.

They have never once in 13 years spoken of their feelings (due to the 11 yr age difference). She discovered his feelings for her when she went into his mind to do the Adjustment but she also discovered that Councillor Kindi had planted false feelings in Raif's mind, trying to force him to make a move on her, so now she doesn't know what to believe anymore.

Shayla has a neural transmitter implanted in her left wrist/hand. It allows her to communicate with an AI (Artificial Intelligence) she has designed and built and named Charlie. All of their silent communication is shown as (parenthetical dialog like this).

Click through the jump-break if you want to read the spoiler-filled snippet. Leave now, while you still can, if you want the full impact of this scene in the context of the completed book. It is designed to bring a tear to your eye if you're fully-invested into the characters. Alone, out of context, I doubt it will but it might intrigue you enough to read the whole book - coming soon! ^_^




She guided him with her hand on his arm through the door like he was some kind of invalid. Ironically, by now, he was feeling almost himself again. She left him by the door and went to her desk, leaned over to allow her retina to be scanned authorizing the lock. She tapped to hush the room and then looked back at him.

He was still trying to feel out all of the memory gaps. Someone had definitely been moving things around inside his head, though it seemed orderly enough. There was just something “off” everytime he tried to call up something specific. Everything was there, but not where he’d left it. There were random thoughts filed away out of place, as though someone had organized all of his data collections under some new system and then neatly stacked the trash on top of it all. He felt the lag, the hesitation in his thought processes given he had to search and locate rather than calling up memories at will. He was going to need a week alone to sit in silence and get himself cleaned up, mentally, again. He really wished he’d kept a daily copy of his memory map. He was going to start doing that, he decided. Richard Gaultier was just going to have to become some kind of hypochondriac. It would be inconvenient for Raif the Proctor to have a daily memory map scanned in, but obviously it’d be worthwhile if he was going to keep undergoing risk of Adjustment this way.

By the time she’d started across the room, he was already searching for the parts of his mind that had been Adjusted—the holes, the new or misfiled data. He had no clue why or to what end, let alone by whom, but he knew far too much about far too many things to let someone rake through his thoughts unchecked. Most of all, he needed to figure out how to stop them next time. He was focused on that when she sat down and looked up at him with those incredible blue eyes of hers full of expectation. How was he supposed to protect her when he couldn’t even protect himself?

#

Shayla sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to gather her courage. She didn’t know how to start. What was she going to tell him she’d done to him—and why? She called him over to her. He stopped and waited at attention in front of her, two steps away.

“Please sit down, Raif.” She patted the bed next to her.

“Councillor?”

She looked up at him. He was looking past her at the bed and clearly wondering what she had in mind. Whatever suggestions he was coming up with were disturbing him now. She couldn’t help but recall how he’d made exactly those kinds of suggestions himself, looking at her in bed back at Joshua’s. She longed to see that look in his eyes again. It had to be better than this palpable distance he was keeping now.

“You’re too tall and I don’t want to crane my neck. I want to talk to you, Raif. It’s going to take a while. Please sit.”

He hesitated then perched himself an arm’s length away from her on the edge of the bed but he wouldn’t look at her. He nervously watched the floor in the middle of the room.

“All right, Councillor. I’m sitting and I’m listening. How may I serve you?”

She pivoted to face him and folded one leg up under herself. “Stop that. Stop the—the Proctor Talk. It’s just us. We’re just talking.”

“As you wish, Councillor.”

“I mean it, Raif. I’ve hushed the room. No one’s listening but me. This is…we’re alone and…”

He looked up at her with deep concern, then glanced at the bed. “What do you want from me, Shayla? The fact we’re alone is precisely why I’m asking you—as my Councillor—what exactly are you suggesting and are you sure you’ve really thought this through? Because I'll tell you, if you’re asking what I think you’re asking—”

“Raif, a lot’s happened the last few days, and I know you don’t remember most of it, but I do. I want to tell you about it, but I need—” She choked on the words and had no idea why she was so emotional about it. It was like all of her hormones were firing at once and making her brain malfunction. Maybe they’d Adjusted her, too, and she just hadn’t noticed. “This is hard enough to figure out by myself but it’s even harder to have felt it all, to know it was real to me and just some false reality to you. I know you were Adjusted, Raif, so you don’t remember, but it’s been an emotional rollercoaster for me.”

His demeanor softened and he nudged himself closer to her. Quietly he asked her, “I’m sorry, Shayla. Tell me what happened, and how I can help.”

He moved up next to her and put his arm around her shoulders, letting her cry against him. It wasn’t the first time she’d cried in his arms but she didn’t think she’d ever let so much out with so few tears. She hadn’t realized how much she’d been keeping bottled up inside until she’d started letting it out. He pressed his cheek against the top of her head with a long sigh and tightened his arms around her, as though he could protect her from anything if he just held on tightly enough.

“I’m sorry you had to go through this, Shayla, it’s hard for me to tell—I can tell someone’s done something to me, probably Dramond, if I had to guess but I have no idea what was done to me. I know I’m not myself right now. Did Dramond do something to you as well?”

She looked up and shook her head. “No, it wasn’t Dramond. He didn’t touch either one of us.”

He wiped at the moistness on her cheeks with his thumb and asked, “Then who was it? What happened and why are you crying over it?”

“Because I failed you, Raif. I wasn’t there for you when you needed me. I didn’t even—so much has happened and despite all the things we’ve said to each other these last few days, I still don’t know what’s going on between us.”

She nestled her head against his shoulder and he stroked her hair, but when he spoke, it was in an uncomfortable, Proctorly tone. “There was an us? There was something going on between us these last few days? I don’t remember our relationship changing.”

“It didn’t. I mean—” She looked up at him. “Kindi was raking you for information, probably Dramond was, too, but I suspect they’ve done it more than once. They’ve been Adjusting you for months, or years. Joshua—the man I met with in Trouville Sector—he said there were dozens. I just went in now, Raif, to see for myself. I tried to remove everything. Charlie—my AI, the special private research project, you said remember him?” He nodded. “He helped me and we tried to put everything back the way it was—or how Charlie thought it was supposed to be. It was overwhelming for me. I’ve never seen…you have a very unusual mind, Raif, complicated.” She smiled up at him. “I hope you’re not too disoriented. I had to let Charlie take over when honestly, the complexity of your mind just overwhelmed me. He tried not to leave too many gaps but I told him it was safer to erase memories than risk leaving things Kindi or Dramond might’ve created. There were marks of prior work everywhere.”

He swallowed and stiffened under her grasp. “How did they do it? Do you know how they got to me in the first place?”

“I’m not sure.” She relaxed against him again. “You weren’t either when we talked about it two days ago. You said you thought it was probably when you were on downtime. When you were sleeping alone, not with—you know, one of your—”

“My what?”

She leaned back to look up at him again. “You go through a lot of women. It’s hard not to notice.”

His mouth dropped open. “And you’re what, finding fault with me for having sex on my downtime? You can’t be serious!” He started to get up so she yanked him back down into place next to her.

“Raif, they got reality—my real feelings, your real feelings, our reality—everything all mixed up with lies and half-truths. I’m not sure what to think anymore. The last couple of days have been…look, you’ve flaunted a lot of women in front of me over the years. It’s hard to ignore in light of things you’ve said these last two days.”

“I’m sorry but I don’t remember the last two days, as you keep pointing out and don’t worry, I’ll be sure not to flaunt women in front of you from now on. Is that all, Councillor? May I go?” She hated when he got overly-sarcastic like this.

“No, you may not! We’re not done talking.”

“Is that what we’re doing? Talking?” He looked away, around the room, anywhere but at her.

“I’m trying.”

He turned to look back at her and seemed furious. “Then try harder. What do you really want from me, Shayla?”

“You said—I know you didn’t mean it, or don’t remember it, but you said you had feelings for me and I believed you. I wanted to believe you because…I’ve had feelings for you, too. I never said anything about it because…well, you’ve had a lot of women around so I didn’t think you had room for me and—it doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to get at is that somehow, Kindi and Dramond found out about us, about our feelings, our unspoken feelings. They raked your mind. They must have been searching for something else when—”

“What did I tell them? Did I betray your plans with Julia to—”

She looked up at him and saw the deep lines of concern on his face. “You really knew about that? Did Julia tell you?”

He nodded. “She was worried at first.”

“I don’t think you knew as much as you thought you did, not enough to compromise our plans, and I’m not going to tell you anything else. I hope Julia doesn’t, either. Raif, they planted a lot of ideas in your head—that is, they saw how you felt about me, even if you didn’t mean it, and they planted a desire for you to want to act on it, to want to assault me, sexually.” She watched as a controlled horror washed over his face and he tried to pull back from her. She clutched at his arms and held him place. “You didn’t do it, Raif. You were stronger than them. You thought about it but only because they made you think about it. They played on your weaknesses. You never took action and I removed that directive so whatever you feel now, it’s your own feelings.”

He stared at her doubtfully a moment then nodded, his face still full of shock at hearing what had been done to him. “Are you sure you removed it all?”

“I think so. Charlie said he got it all but…you’ll have to tell me.”

“If I’ve been compromised this much, and in these personal ways, why didn’t you just kill me when you found out? While you had me on the table downstairs?”

“What? How can you say that now?”

“Shayla, I’m sorry but with the kind of damage you’ve just described and with what I’m starting to remember, I’m still a high risk. I’m piecing back together a lot of things you tried to—Shayla, my mind has a very specific form of organization. I’ve always been able to tell when I’ve been Adjusted. I can tell what’s been moved, disconnected, removed entirely or just reorganized. Much to Dramond’s chagrin, I learned early on how to undo whatever he did to me both times he tried to Adjust me. Kindi’s work has been more of a challenge but it’s simply more complicated, more time-consuming to repair and I can sense now, he’s had at me more than a few times, hasn’t he? I’m a threat to you because if you give either one of them five minutes, they’ll Adjust me again—and next time, I might not be able to repair it fast enough. If they wanted to make me hurt you—”

“No, I’ll stop them.”

“You can’t, Shayla, not unless you know how they got to me in the first place. Even then, they’ll just keep raking me for information and get to you that way. It’s safer to just kill me under circumstances you can control. You’ll need to select my replacement.”

“No, I don’t.”

He ignored her and stood up, started pacing as he went on, thinking out loud. “Only Brennan and Collier have seen any real action and Brennan’s not the right man to stop Kindi so I’d go with Collier. There’s a whole history with Brennan and Kindi that you don’t know about, Shayla, trust me. Don’t put them in the same room. It won’t end well. Besides, the rest of the team is ready to follow Collier over a cliff, literally.” He turned and snapped his fingers.

“Or you could go after Ronen for the job, now that he’s back in the Western Region. You know he’d do anything for you. He might even reduce his fees, but you have to know by now, I’ve left you with more than enough funds to support the team indefinitely.”

“I don’t want your money, Raif.”

He waved that away. “It’s Gaultier’s money, but you have the papers for Richard Gaultier. You could insert Brennan into that identity and no one would be the wiser. He could do it seamlessly. It’s perfectly safe to kill me, Shayla. You can take control away from them. Go on the offensive, stop waiting to react to their next move.”

She stood up now. She needed to pace, too. He stopped walking as soon as she started towards him. “Raif, I’ve heard enough. I’m not going to kill you and I don’t want Brennan or Ronen or anyone else in your place. I want you in your place.” She turned and walk back to the bed.

“You have to do something, Shayla, or they’ll use me again.” He took his gun from his holster and held it out to her, butt first. She turned and stomped five paces away, turned back and just stared at him in disbelief. He said, “Just—I’d rather go like this than be used against you by Kindi or Dramond. I can’t imagine a worse fate than for them to use me like some weapon against you. Please, Shayla.” He waved the gun at her again.

She reached him in three quick, long strides and swatted the gun out of his hands and onto the floor. “Stop it! I order you to stop it.” She started past him again muttering, “I thought we fixed this. I was sure we fixed this.”

He caught her by the waist and pulled her up against him, then he lost his footing and fell, seated, on the edge of the bed. Or maybe he’d sat down on purpose. She hoped he meant to place her there, standing between his legs, knees against the mattress close enough she had to balance herself with her hands on his shoulders. She held very still. There was something different about the way he was looking at her. There was something even more different about the way he aws touching her, the way his hands skimmed up and down her sides, the way he squeezed at her waist and raked his eyes over her breasts. The whole thing was suddenly very un-Proctorly.

He whispered up at her, “Shayla, I’m definitely not suicidal. I swear to you, I’m perfectly rational—or I was, until I got my hands on you.” His hands slid down to her hips, exploring the curves of her body. “The thing is, I’ve been making these plans for years. I’ve made sure you have everything you need to go on without me.” He looked up at her again. “I’ve looked out for your future because your future matters to me.” He grasped her waist and held her back an inch. “You matter to me. I need you to be safe, Shayla. If you kill me, they can’t use me anymore. You’ll be in a position of strength. You can do this. Do it for me, for us. Don’t let me be a weapon against you, Shayla.”

He was serious. She sat down on his leg and looked over his face to be sure but he was deadly serious, no question about it. He thought dying was the solution. She pressed a hand to his cheek and looked him in the eye then spoke quietly and carefully.

“You’re not a weapon, Raif. You’re not my weakness, you’re my strength. You’re everything that matters to me. I love you and I don’t want to live without you, so please, I beg you, stop talking about killing yourself!”

He nuzzled his face into her hair and sighed before whispering into her ear, “I love you, too, Shayla. I’ve always loved you. That’s why I can’t let them use me like this. I’d rather die than hurt you.”

He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight against himself. He ran his fingers through her long hair and she felt him breathing her in. She closed her eyes and tried to focus her thoughts then called out with her mind.

(Charlie, did they tell him to say that? That he loves me?)

(No, Shayla. He really does feel that he loves you. He has felt this before, many times. He stored those memories behind that mental block you avoided. He was also truthful about the fact he has been planning the financial arrangements he mentioned for many years as well. He is telling you his true feelings now.)

(You’re sure?)

(Yes, with one hundred percent certainty.)

She leaned back to look at him. He was waiting for her reaction but his gaze dropped to her mouth and she knew he was thinking of kissing her. She leaned in, closed the few centimeters between them. He brushed her lips gently, testing, seeking permission to take more and she gave him an answer. She let herself be caught up in the kiss as the only real thing that had passed between them in months. She was as swept away by this kiss as their first, in the hallway downstairs. He stopped suddenly and drew back, looking at her as though she were the one who’d been Adjusted.

“What? What’s wrong, Raif?”

He asked, “Have I kissed you before? Maybe in these last two days that I can’t remember?”

She nodded and let herself slide off his lap onto the bed, leaned back on her hands, leaving her legs draped across his.

Alarm spread over his face. “What else have I done to you that I don’t remember?”

She thought of all the false intimacy they’d shared these last two days. “Nothing, or nothing worth remembering more than that kiss you gave me just now.”

“Shayla, I need to know I didn’t—did I force myself on you?”

“No, of course not! I told you, they made you think about it, so I guess you might remember that, but you never did anything.”

“I didn’t even—I remember something.”

He looked her over and seemed very uncomfortable. It was ironic because she’d never felt as comfortable with him before as she did now. That’s when she realized he’d only seen her like this with Kyree. She’d always been formal and professional with Raif, kept her distance from him. She’d wanted him to let his guard down first but now she could admit, she’d been the one holding back, staying guarded.

She said, “Tell me what you remember.”

It was hard for her to remember that he didn’t remember. It was hard for her to imagine why she’d ever wanted to keep him at a distance. It was hard for her to keep up with all of the twists and turns their lives had taken in the last two days.

He had a distant look for a second, then said, “We were in the hallway, downstairs, before we went—Shayla, if that’s why you brought me into that room—”

“I told you, it was Kindi. What do you remember from the hallway?”

“That I kissed you, but...not like just now. It was…more aggressive. Did I hurt you? Is that why you Adjusted me?”

“Raif, no. I didn’t. I fixed you.”

How could he be remembering their first kiss?

(Charlie, why is he remembering that? Didn’t we erase it?)

(He was trying to hold onto that memory when you first put him under. It was his strongest memory of you in the initial contact. I am not sure how he could have preserved it.)

(You saw this in the initial contact?) She’d been completely overwhelmed by the initial contact with Raif’s mind. It had been all she could do not to lose consciousness as a result.

(Yes, but he must have placed a copy behind the mental block or he could have stored it there before we entered his mind. You told me to allow him to keep all memories that were placed there. I suggest you tell him about it now. Tell him how you promised to remember that kiss for both of you.)

(I did say that didn’t I? Charlie, can you duplicate that dampening field Joshua set up in the lab?)

(I could but would it not be easier for me to control your internal stores, thus preventing you from radiating rather than dampening the results after the fact?)

(How can you do that?)

(With this link, I can control all of your bodily functions, do you not remember? You requested I not interfere, and I have refrained ever since, but I can do so now if you would like.)

(I would like, very much.) She looked up into Raif’s green eyes. He was stroking his thumb across her cheek and she wondered what he was thinking. (Charlie, help me let my guard down with him and not worry about…what happened to Collier. I want you to protect Raif from it, from me. Prevent me from radiating, no matter what.)

(Understood, Shayla. You can proceed without hesitation. I will allow no harm to come to Raif as a result of anything you might otherwise do.)

(Thank you, Charlie, from both of us.)

She reached a hand up, sandwiched Raif’s hand against her cheek and she said, “You’re remembering our first kiss, Raif. I won’t mention this again if you’d rather just forget the whole thing. Permanently. You can leave now and take your downtime. We’ll go back to work tomorrow as though nothing’s ever happened. No one else knows.”

“No, I—no, Shayla. I don’t want to forget, or not again.” He took both her hands in his and looked at the Shaklet on it. “But if I stay?” He looked into her eyes, searched her face for a response. “What about Kyree? You’re wearing his Shaklet now.”

“No, I’m not. That’s the neural transmitter, my link to Charlie.”

“Link to—the AI? You named it?”

She snatched her hands back and tried not to pout, but she supposed since he’d reacted that way the first time, she could believe this was how he honestly felt towards Charlie.

“When did that happen?”

“Last night, the surgery—”

“That was when we met Caine?”

“Yes, Joshua Caine provided a neurosurgeon and—”

She stopped when Raif let out a long breath, a look of condemnation spreading across his face.

“Now I remember. Joshua Andrew Caine—or someone claiming to be the Administrator.”

“He really is the Administrator. He showed me his genetic print.”

“Yes, and that’s not all he showed you, is it? I knew I didn’t like him when you said something downstairs. I just couldn’t figure out why—until now.”

“And I can’t figure out why you’re jealous. You’re the one sitting here.”

“But I had something to be jealous of, didn’t I? I can’t remember it all but—” He let out another hard breath and fell back on the bed, holding his head with both hands.

“What? Is something wrong?”

“He showed you his print and…he claimed to be my progenitor, did he not?”

“He did.”

“Shayla, don’t you see? The other side of that coin is that I am the Designated Heir of the Administrator.”

“Well, he didn’t designate you, so legally—”

He sat again. “Right, I’m damaged goods. The reasons to dislike the man just keep mounting, don’t they? But that answers so many questions. Now I see it all.”

“See what?”

“An assault upon the Administrator’s Heir, designated or not, is a capital offense. When Councillor Dramond intercepted me all those years ago, when he had the gall to put me through the production lines as a Proctor instead, he was committing an assault against the Administrator’s Heir. That’s why the more I dug into my genetic origins, the harder he tried to stop me. I never understood why he didn’t want me to see my genetic print but,” Raif shook his head. “now it all makes sense. Shayla, with this information, we can—”

“Stop!” She pressed two fingers to his mouth. “I don’t care about them, Raif, not Dramond, not Kindi not the Administrator, himself.” Raif opened his mouth and bit down on her fingers, reminding her far too much of Joshua Andrew Caine. She added, “Especially not the Administrator.” His eyes sparkled at that.

He took her hand in his, interwove his fingers against the Shaklet. “If this is a neural transmitter, why does it look like a Shaklet and what does Kyree think about it? Has he seen it yet?”

“I don’t care what Kyree thinks about it. He’s not here. You are and I seem to be repeating myself.”

“I can’t share you with him, Shayla. He did this, didn’t he?” Raif pulled the small braid with a strand of silver beads woven into it forward, over her shoulder. “You were just with him, weren’t you? In those two days I don’t remember.” He looked over the silver beads.

“I wasn’t with him that way, but yes, I just saw him this morning, before we came back here and strangely enough, you asked me then to choose between you and Kyree.”

“I did? And,” He dropped the braid. “you chose him, clearly.”

“No, I told you, there’s no choice. I saw him. He braided my hair, but you’re my life, Raif. If you need me to say I choose someone, then fine. I choose you. Do you want to go after Dramond and seek vengeance for something he did to hurt Caine twenty years ago or do you want to choose the here an now? Do you choose me as I choose you?”

He ran his eyes over her body then slowly, he pushed her down into the soft bedding. “I do.”

“Then show me something that matters. Show me how you kissed me in the hallway and stop talking about all of these people who don’t matter.”

He cuffed her wrists and pushed her hands up over her head then stopped, holding himself up over her. Was he giving her a chance to change her mind? She didn’t want it. She opened her mouth to say something and he said, “This is how I remember it. I had you up against the wall, which was nice but the bed is softer, and I think it’s better, isn’t it?” He smiled quickly then lowered his mouth to hers.

When he kissed her this time, it was with intent—a sweet and gentle intent, tempered and measured and delivered with care, but a focus that was deliberate. He poured himself into her, slowly and with none of the desperate hunger of that kiss in the hallway. He was taking his time. She opened herself up to it, to him, let her body rise up and tell him how much she’d wanted this for years. She hoped she could trust Charlie to protect them both because she couldn’t stop herself now. She didn’t even want to try.

#

When Brennan arrived in Trouville, Caine had him land on the roof. He told Brennan to just leave his weapons in the car for safekeeping and lock the vehicle down under his own seals. When Brennan opened the hatch, he was a little surprised to find he was no longer on the roof. A little, but not completely. He hadn’t felt the vehicle moving while he’d been powering down, sealing the windows, divesting of weapons and locking up, but then, Caine’s lifts did seem to have unusually good intertial dampeners. In the moments it had taken him to lock, offload and set the car’s alarms, he’d been lowered into a hangar inside Caine’s estate. Brennan figured he was above the level where they’d done surgery on the Councillor but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to hop in the car and leave without permission—or assistance.

There were several other vehicles in Caine’s garage, each one more eye-catching than the last. There was nothing else like them in the skies today. Half were antiques and the other half, experimental models. Caine’s personal prototypes, Brennan would have to guess. Julia had been telling him about this guy’s vehicles and all the special permits Caine had requested, but until Brennan saw them here in front of his own eyes, he hadn’t really believed her. After all, who would actually keep fourteen personal vehicles? He knew Raif still doubted this guy was really the Administrator, but this hangar full of exceedingly rare equipment was convincing Brennan.

The man himself waited next to a sportster Brennan thought might be a Viper. If he’d been anywhere else, he’d have figured it was just a fake because there were only two Vipers left in existence, having been taken out of production over a hundred years earlier. Given this was Caine’s garage, however, he wondered if that really was a Viper. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn Caine owned the other one, and Brennan quickly rescanned the hangar to be sure there wasn’t another one hiding just out of sight. To this day, they were still the fastest things in the skies.

“Thanks for accommodating my request to land on the roof." Joshua said as Brennan came closer. "The car will be safe in here, I promise. The hangar’s completely secure. It’s also easier to keep things off Julia’s radar this way.”

Brennan gave a knowing grin. He was tempted to make a remark about keeping off Julia, personally, but decided it was probably better not to reveal his relationship to her. Raif was right. It was an awkward situation, especially if this guy really was the Administrator. Instead Brennan said, “You can’t really think her people don’t know where Shayla’s car is right now. Every Councillor’s official vehicle is tagged and flagged.”

“True and I’m sure Julia’s people know exactly where this car is.” Joshua bared his teeth in one of those smug fake smiles of his. “Right about now, it’s on approach to land, and in another…eighty-three seconds, their records will show it pulling back into the Council hangar where it will stay until you leave Trouville again.”

“Really?”

“That’s what the Department of Transportation records will say. I guarantee it.” Joshua added a raised eyebrow to his toothy fake smile this time. “Unless you have inside information to the contrary that you’d like to share?”

“Well, I’ve got a friend in Transportation but she doesn’t really care where Shayla’s car goes, so send whatever lies you like through the system.” Brennan looked over the walls, trying to guess where one of those hidden lifts might be. “We’re underground again, right?”

“Yes, about one kilometer down. You saw the house. On top of the hill, exposed to the elements, we have a good defensive perimeter but not a good place for storing cars.” Caine stroked his fingertips lightly over the hull of the Viper. “The periodic windstorms ruin the finish. Besides, this hangar was part of the original plans, so why not use it? Who’s your friend in Transportation?”

“Why do you care?”

“Just curious. Girlfriend, you say?”

“I didn’t say but you could call her that. I wouldn’t but you could. We’re keeping our relationship simple. She’s Privilege Class—and private.”

“Really? How interesting. And how exactly did you meet this private Privilege Class woman?”

“You mean, how did such scum like me get a woman like that? Not everyone wants to scrape me off. She fell for my charms.”

“Yes,” Caine bared his teeth but the smile looked halfway authentic. “I forgot. Men in uniform. Some women are really attracted to that sort of thing, aren’t they?”

“It wasn’t the uniform so much as my personal charms but you don’t really care, do you? So, are we going up or down to check this sample?” He patted at the container in his interior jacket pocket.

“Your choice. I just wanted to talk a bit first and you seem to be a lot more chatty without Raif and Shayla here to censor you.”

“You know, Raif keeps reminding me a Proctor’s job isn’t to chat, it’s to shut up and do as he’s told, so you wanna stop chatting me up and let me go do as I was told?”

Joshua laughed quietly to himself but he opened the door to the lift. “Let’s try to do a bit of both, hm?” Joshua followed Brennan into the lift and said to the room, “Bio with one visitor.”

Brennan behaved like a Proctor and just stood there waiting. Again, there was no sense of motion or noise associated with their journey but he thought he felt something in his inner ear. Not quite dizziness but something off balance. He was analyzing the sensation when Joshua spoke.

“Brennan, do you trust me?”

“I could try, if you like, but I don’t work for you and technically, since Raif’s my progenitor, I don’t owe you anything, especially trust.”

Joshua smiled. “No, you don’t, but I’d like to earn your trust if you’ll meet me halfway. And I’d like to give you a gift if you’ll let me. It’s something I think you’ll really like. Will you have a look?”

“You giving away that Viper?”

Caine smiled and it went all the way up to his eyes this time. “Ah, no—or not yet, not until I’m dead and gone, not coming back, and then, I’ve bequeathed to someone else. To William.”

“Okay, then either you’re coming on to me—and I don’t go that way, sorry—or you’re just a little too creepy with the offer of a gift. I don’t need any gifts from strangers. Besides, I’ve already got everything I need. I like to keep life simple, though I’d get complicated if you change you mind about the Viper.”

Joshua laughed quietly. “William would never forgive—for the car or for claiming an interest in you such as you suggest so please trust, I’m not trying to complicate your life, Brennan. I’m just trying to offer you a way to see to it your life doesn’t change dramatically or unexpectedly. It’s a gift, truly, with no strings attached.”

“What kind of gift exactly?”

“Just a way to prevent your losing any of the precious information inside your head right now.”

“You know, a lot of people sure seem concerned with what’s in my head these days. I think I’ll pass. I don’t know anything special. There’s nothing in my head worth knowing. Or keeping.” Now Brennan was definitely getting a little nervous. After three years in Kindi’s employ, he’d developed a serious dislike for Adjustments.

“I’m afraid there’s much in your head worth keeping but I’m concerned with your personal safety, Brennan. Did you know Raif’s been Adjusted?”

“Yeah, I knew. How’d you know? Could you really tell just from looking at that hand scan you took?”

The lift door opened. “I could, yes. Besides, I am the Administrator. It would be difficult for me not to know about an Adjusted Proctor. Officially Adjusted, that is. Statistically, doesn’t it seem likely someone will try to Adust you sooner or later—unofficially?”

Brennan stepped out of the lift and turned around before saying, “Someone already has Adjusted me. Repeatedly, and it was as unofficial as it gets.” He looked down the hall in the direction Caine had indicated. It looked exactly the same in the other direction.

Caine joined him and asked, “Who?”

“Who what?”

“Who Adjusted you?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. Obviously, being I’m just a Proctor and have no rights. You said this way for the sample?” Brennan started slowly down the hall, Caine pacing him. He couldn’t believe he was speaking to this Privilege Class Citizen this way but it felt good to speak freely, like he did with Julia—and the man didn’t seem to mind. In fact, Brennan was getting the distinct impression Caine wanted him to talk back, or at least not hold back, which at the moment, was the same thing.

“Brennan, please stop walking.”

Brennan stopped and turned around. Caine was looking at him with the strangest expression. “Yeah? What?”

“As Administrator, I’m ordering you to tell me who Adjusted you. Was it Kindi?”

Brennan licked his lips but didn’t answer. How could he? Saying something like that about a Councillor to another Proctor was bad enough, but to a Privilege Class Citizen was a capital offense. To the Administrator? Brennan didn’t know what would happen to him if he admitted the truth.

“Why are you so interested in me and my life? I’m just a fucking Proctor. I’m scum, remember? So scrape me off and let me do my job.”

“Ah, Brennan, you’re so much more than a Proctor. Didn’t you hear my conversation with Raif back at the Centre?”

“I dunno. There was a lot of talking. I was trying not to listen to it.”

“Did you hear the part where I said I’d met Raif before?”

Yes, Brennan certainly had heard that but he answered, “Maybe.”

“Brennan, please don’t lie to me. If you don’t want to trust me, I can understand that. You don’t know me. I don’t trust many people either, but please don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying. I might’ve heard what you asked and I might not.”

“I don’t want you to tell me what you think I want to hear. I want the truth. Was it Kindi? Did he Adjust you?”

Brennan shifted his weight and suddenly couldn’t figure out a good place to look. Caine was boring a hole into him with a look.

“There’ll be no repercussions, Brennan. I just want the truth.”

“Yeah, so?”

“More than once, you said?”

Brennan nodded.

“Thank you for telling me the truth. That makes what I have to offer you even more important, and I have to tell you, it’s possible Kindi did some damage in the process of his Adjustments.”

“Possible? No. It's definite. There was damage, but I’ll live. It was just—he just likes to…”

“I know what Kindi likes to do. William told me you allowed him to take a high-res scan earlier, a memory map was included.” Caine waited for Brennan to say something, but he didn’t have a clue what the man wanted to hear now so he just shrugged. “After seeing that map, William used the word ‘disconnected’ to describe your mental faculties. I suspect Kindi’s illegal Adjustments created mental deficiencies.”

“Great. So I’m scum and an imbecile, and you’re still not letting me do my job. Could we just move on?”

“Go through the next door.” Caine said and waved his hand down the hall then spoke to the air, “Open Bio four with one visitor.” The next door down the hall dissolved. “Brennan, you are definitely not an imbecile. As to the other, I’m not sure why you keep calling yourself that but please stop. I’d point out, I’ve never said any such thing about you. I don’t know you so I cannot comment on the content of your character, but you have qualified as a Proctor so clearly, you are not scum.” Caine stopped in front of the open doorway and put an arm up across it to keep Brennan from walking in. “I’m not the enemy, Brennan. I’m here to help you.”

“Yeah, okay, thank you but the only help I need is getting this sample…processed or whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing here.”

“Don’t you understand what we’re supposed to do with it?”

“No, not really. Some kind of pre-production…something. I thought Ronningers were illegal. If you’re really the Administrator, aren’t you a little bothered by the idea of Shayla making a Ronninger right under your own roof?”

“Yes, I would be if that’s what she were doing but to my knowledge, no one is making Ronningers. If anyone were found to be attempting such an act, they would be tried before a full Council Hearing and, I suspect, sentenced to the Recycle Bin.”

“Which is another term for legal Ronningers.”

Caine sighed. “No, Brennan, it’s not. The Recycle Bin reorients individuals found to be dysfunctional. There are genetic therapies applied when physiological damage is found to be at fault but no one is murdered there. Ronningers, on the other hand—”

“I don’t care what you say. You scrape someone’s brain out and fill their skull with tech, it’s murder.”

“And I’m not arguing that point, Brennan.”

He had to admit, he was a little surprised to realize the man was not arguing that point.

“Yeah, well, that’s what they do on the Recycle Bin, turn the Garbage into things. Why don’t you put a stop to it? If you’re the Administrator, you can just—”

“Brennan, Ronningers are illegal and have been for the last fifty years, but as you well know, the Black Market is a world unto itself. I try to keep myself involved in the financial underworld, specifically to provide alternatives to the Garbage Bin sales, but I cannot, single-handedly, stop every criminal activity on the planet. I couldn’t stop half of what happened back on the—one person can only do so much. That’s why we must work together.”

“Right, you’re not just one person, not if you’re the Administrator. You’re the whole fucking Council. They have to answer to you. All fifty of them. You just have to ask them, hold them accountable.”

“You would think that, wouldn’t you? Sadly, as you found out, Councillors don’t always abide by the laws either. Which brings us back to what Kindi did to you. As I mentioned before, William suggested to me that it might be possible to effect some repairs. You could participate. You wouldn’t have to be a passive observer. Have you ever repaired a memory map?”

“No, not even close. I’m not real good with any of that shit no matter how hard Raif tries to shove it into my head, and if he can’t do it, neither can you, so stop trying. Let’s just get back to this sample, okay?”

Brennan started to push into the room and Joshua caught his arm and moved to block the doorway with his whole body now. “You’re genetically identical to me. It would be impossible for you to lack the intellect to grasp this. Have you never received any training at all?”

“Why do you care? What, you figured I’d be a willing donor?”

“Donor? What are you talking about?”

“Didn’t you say you were looking for replacement parts? Right? I know I’m a little slow but I definitely heard you discussing a replacement with Raif in that conversation I was trying not to overhear and that donor box spoke volumes all by itself.” Brennan crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the smug asshole to talk his way out of this one. He figured this ought to be pretty good. “I’m obviously the right genetic profile, like you just said.”

“God, Brennan, is that what you think? That I want—I don’t want to harvest you for spare parts! I want to train you. I meant that after I die—as in cease to exist which would make me no longer in need of any donations—I’d hoped you would take my place, be my replacement. As yourself. As a whole, complete and highly-trained individual. If there’s enough time to train you by then. It’ll take years and I might not live that long. You’ll need considerable education and massive retraining to leave your Proctor’s Orientation behind.”

“You’d train me?”

“Not me, personally, but I approached Raif with the offer all those years ago and make the same offer to you. Consider what it might mean to live with me, in my shadow as it were, and then step into my life after I’m gone. Of course, Dramond stepped in and redirected Raif’s path elsewhere, but yours is well, could be your own to choose. I could speak to Shayla. Brennan, your health and long life are of interest to me, because you’re my legacy, not my…health plan. I don’t plan on living longer than you. I doubt I’ll outlive Raif for that matter.”

“You look healthy enough to me—and you’re barely older than me. It’s not like you’re dying tomorrow but I could help you die today if you’d like.”

Caine smiled and his eyes sparkled. “It’s older than I and as though I might die tomorrow but I must agree, it’s likely I’ll still be alive tomorrow. About a ninety-eight percent chance if my calculations are correct. When it comes to next year, however, well, it could go either way at this point.”

The guy had to be kidding. No one was this melodramatic. Or full of himself. He shoved Caine’s arm off the doorframe and this time, the man let him into the room. Brennan was surprised to find the room so different than the other “bio” room they’d entered. It wasn’t a standard MedTech exam room. There was a couch, a few soft chairs, a couple of hard-backed chairs and a little rug in the center of the floor with a low table around which the chairs were arranged. If it weren’t for the MedTable along the side of the room, he’d have guessed this was a doctor’s waiting room. It smelled the same as the others, though, sterile. That was better than MedTech in the sublevels of a Council Office building, where nothing was sterile and everything smelled of dead and dying Proctors.

Caine followed him in and said, “I’ll take the sample now, if you please.”

Brennan removed the carrier from his inside coat pocket and coded it open. There was a small dosing container from Raif’s MedScanner inside and from what Brennan had gathered, some Phoenician guy’s blood inside that. This was about as valuable as it could get since even Brennan knew enough to be sure there wasn’t any of this kind of material in the Council’s Archives. In fact, when he’d been briefed into Shayla’s team, Raif had given him a long list of ways someone might try to take a genetic sample from the Phoenician Councillor. He’d been told to use lethal force to prevent it. No Phoenician genetic material was ever to enter the Council’s Archives—or worse, the Breeding Selections—under any circumstances.

“She said not to let it out of my sight.” He took the vial out but didn’t hand it over just yet.

“The container or the contents? Because you can’t possibly keep an eye on every last molecule inside that doser. Even my eyes couldn’t do that.”

“I just meant, where are you taking this?”

Caine snatched the vial out of Brennan’s hand pretty damned fast for someone claiming he was decaying by the minute.

“Relax, Brennan, I’ll do the setup myself, right here, right now. You can watch and maybe learn something if you’d like.”

“I told you, I’m not real good with the tech stuff but I’ll watch—and take the container back once you get what you need.” He’d make sure Caine didn’t keep any leftovers. Of course, just taking the container back didn’t insure that but it was the best thing he could think to do given his limited options here.

Caine opened a panel in the wall near the MedTable and removed a kit of tools Brennan had never seen before. “Brennan, what were your scores on the Tactical course?”

“What?”

“Never mind, I’ll look it up myself.” Caine looked up, gazed at a point off in space with an unfocused look in his eyes. “My, God, that can’t be right!” Caine turned to look at Brennan. “Did you actually get a sixty-two? Twenty years ago, that score would have sent you to the Recycle Bin.”

“I know and now, it’s two points above passing. Thank you for that small favor, Administrator. So how do you know my score? Have you got an AI in your head?”

Caine started assembling a piece of equipment from the kit he’d taken out. “No, just the eidetic memory Raif inherited and apparently you never learned to access. Brennan, as Administrator, I see all Proctors’ test scores prior to approving the Proctor’s release from the Academy. I could, theoretically, call up your entire record but the fact is, I’ve been having trouble with my memory lately.”

Brennan snorted a laugh. “Yeah, right, I can see that.”

“Really, it’s true. It’s just…I have a system, a long-practiced system for data management. Memories, I mean, when I say data. If I didn’t have a system, I probably couldn’t recall my own name at this point. I’ve used too many of them over the years.”

Caine inserted the assembly he’d just finished putting together into the end of the doser tube and pressed a contact. There was a short sound of suction and a click then he detached the doser and held it out to Brennan.

“There we are.”

“That’s it? That’s all you need?”

“I’d feel more comfortable keeping a backup—or three—but since you’re not willing to leave that doser here, this is the minimum amount of material required to meet Charlie’s needs.”

“I’m not trying to be difficult.” Brennan said and tucked the doser back into its carrier case and restowed the whole thing in his inside jacket pocket.

“I know, Brennan. You’re just doing your job. Millions of lives have been lost across human history because good men were just following orders. It is far more important to think about the orders than it is to do without thinking.”

“Isn’t that just the opposite of what they tell us at the Academy? Proctors are supposed to do what we’re told and not think at all.”

“True, but as I keep saying, you’re not a Proctor. You were never meant to be a Proctor, and part of your training with us would be to teach you how to stop being a Proctor. You were very specifically designed to think—and to do it exceedingly well. You were designed to be an analyst of the highest order. You have, within you, the capability to correlate data better, faster and more easily than any AI on the planet, up to an including a Scherrer-Reinhart.”

Brennan was kind of dumbstruck. No way he was all that. He wasn’t as dumb as everyone seemed to think but he wasn’t as smart as Caine and smarter than an AI like a Scherrer-Reinhart? That’d be…well, that’d be an Administrator. Had Kindi really taken all of that away from him doing those illegal Adjustments?

Caine finished placing a drop of the sample from the assembly onto six different round dishes. Then he started sealing each of them shut. He took the stack of round dishes and the assembly he’d put together all back into the kit and closed it. “Now, shall we go next door so I can stow this? Cory will get started on it as soon as he gets back from his lunch meeting. I can show you the process I was describing before if you’d like to see it—that is, your gift.”

“I didn’t agree to let you give me anything.”

“I know, but I think you’ll want this once you see what it working. Just let me show you the process.”

The guy wasn’t going to let up on this and Brennan was just curious enough to follow him into the adjoining room. It was outfitted just like the one where the Councillor had had her surgery, a standard MedTable in the middle with cabinets lining the walls. A device like the one Harrington had used on him was on the wall beyond the MedTable. Caine put the box down on the MedTable and accessed a data panel next to the scanner settings. Brennan had to admit, he was a little impressed at how quickly the guy’s fingers flew over the pads. The images on the display above the MedTable shifted too quickly for Brennan to follow it all but he did see what looked like standard forms he recognized: genetic profile data sheets. Caine closed up the forms and shut down the display before he stowed the kit with the six samples in a small cabinet around waist height in the wall next to the MedTable. He tapped quickly to close the space up again. When he turned to face Brennan again, he said, “There, all done. For now. Shall we?” He patted the MedTable.

“Shall we what?”

“As I said, Kindi, no doubt, did damage to your memory when he Adjusted you. I can repair that damage. We can repair it, together.”

“No thanks. I’ll quit while I’m ahead—or still got a head.”

“You don’t understand. I don’t want to Adjust you, Brennan—”

“Good!”

“What I propose is to do what amounts to taking a copy of your mind as it exists now. The process is nearly exactly like what William did earlier when he took that high-res scan. You won’t feel a thing and then afterwards, you and I can go through it together. We’ll run it through a simulation AI here and you can be involved in reshaping your own mind, if you’d like. You’ll have control over every step of the process.”

“Kind of hard to be in control of something you’re reshaping.”

“Ah, sorry, I neglected to mention the critical step. I told you, my mind’s not as sharp as it used to be—and there’s no more room for repairs in my case. In your case, however, I hope we’ll find we can repair everything. The copy we make will be stored, just like that high-res scan. We’ll load it into the simulation environment and modify it there, offline, not in vivo. Then assuming you want the modified version in your head, we can use the repaired copy to overwrite the damaged one. That process, of course, is very much like an Adjustment. It’s a little different but…when you wake up from one of those, you’re still you just without the damage.”

“Sounds exactly like an Adjustment.”

“You don’t need to go through that last step. You could just do the first part of the process.”

“I’m not sure I want to have any part of it. Even if you order me. Administrator.”

“It’s not an order, but I’ll tell you what. Let me take the copy, let’s do the repair work together and then just leave it here, stored. Maybe at some point in the future, you’ll decide you want it. I’m concerned, Brennan, after what Kindi’s been doing, if you go back there without having made a backup copy first, well, you’re a Proctor. Anything could happen. You could be dead an hour after arrival even without Kindi’s involvement.”

And in the end, that was the point that caused Brennan to agree to let Caine do the scan and make the copy. It couldn’t hurt to have a copy of his memory map and Harrington had already scanned him without any discernable harm. He hadn’t even felt the scan while it was being done. He’d seen the results and he hadn’t understood what he’d seen so he thought maybe this time, Caine would explain it to him. The scan only took about ten minutes, like before, but Caine explained every last detail of the results in painfully expansive terms—that is, after teaching Brennan the fundamentals of how to actually read a memory map. That part took about a half hour by itself.

Brennan had to admit, this science stuff was interesting once someone explained it so he could follow along. He wasn’t in so much of a hurry to leave once they got into making the changes. It was like painting a picture and then changing your mind and being able to just remove all the brush strokes to start again, on a blank canvas. It was nearly two hours later when the AI’s barritone voice filled the room where Brennan and Caine were making minute changes to a visual representation of Brennan’s mind.

“Excuse me, gentlemen.”

Without stopping his artistic modifications, Caine said, “Yes, Charlie, what is it?”

“Brennan’s presence has been requested at Shayla’s office. Immediately.” Caine froze the simulation and looked up. The AI went on, “There was a team-wide alert. I can file a flight plan to return him there in forty-nine minutes from time of departure. How soon do you think he can depart from your location?”

At the same time Brennan asked, “What’s going on?” Caine asked, “Can you get a flight plan for my Viper instead, Charlie?” He turned to Brennan. “I can get you there in half the time if you’ll let me, Brennan.”

The AI’s disembodied voice answered, “Joshua, using your Administrator’s priority to obtain access authorization for the emergency lanes, and if you will allow me to take control of the flight from take-off to landing, I can cut your flight time to sixteen minutes.”

“Do it.” Caine said without even waiting for Brennan’s input. “Then notify William of my whereabouts, Charlie.” Caine turned to Brennan. “He’ll come after us if I don’t let him know where I am. Let me just attach a personal note so he doesn’t wonder if I really went of my own free will.” Caine tapped into a notepad and quickly typed a short message in a code-like shorthand Brennan had to assume Caine and Harrington both understood. Or maybe it was a foreign language. Raif knew about fourteen dead languages plus Phoenician. Brennan was lucky he’d figured out Standard, which apparently Caine believed he still didn’t speak correctly. He’d barely passed the Language Labs, so maybe he didn’t but grammar was hard when no one actually used it right anyway.

Brennan asked Caine, “Don’t you even wanna know what happened first?”

“I believe I already know, unfortunately, and if you’d scored higher than a sixty-two, you might have figured it out by now as well.”

Brennan wasn’t sure which he wanted more: to knock the guy’s teeth in for that sideways insult or ask the AI to explain what the helll was going on. He did neither. He behaved like a Proctor and said nothing. He was the one with a command performance, so he’d take the ride—which would definitely be a treat he’d never admit he was eager to enjoy—and then he’d leave Caine at the gate. Caine might share Brennan’s DNA, but Caine’s famous eyes didn’t belong to a registered Proctor. He’d never scan past the Proctor’s Entrance.

Caine said, “I’ve got to get a couple of things together to take with us, just in case. Is there anything you need? Now’s the time to ask.”

“Just more information on what’s going on.”

“Brennan, please stay here. I’ll only take two or three minutes, and then we’ll go. Open Bio One.” Caine took one last look at Brennan then flew through the open doorway.

Brennan had to wonder what would happen if he tried to follow, but he didn’t try. He waited for the door to resolve itself behind Caine and tried something else. He’d watched the guy code the little cabinet open and closed. Caine claimed Brennan had the same eidetic memory as himself and Raif, so he tried to remember the code he’d seen. Surprisingly, the little door slid back, revealing the kit and six sample cases. Now what?

He took the doser inside its carrier case out of his inside pocket and took a good, long look at it. The Councillor hadn’t told him not to leave it all with Caine. She’d only said to make sure it all arrived intact and that he got confirmation they had what they needed. He guessed Caine had said they had what they needed so he lay the whole container on top of Caine’s kit, then closed the cabinet again. He felt like he owed Caine something for that gift he hadn’t wanted but had somehow accepted anyway. Brennan looked at the image of the frozen simulation one more time. Could he really have all of that inside his head right now? Had Kindi really tried to take all of that away from him? He didn’t know what was true but he knew if he could have all of that, he wanted it. He hoped he was doing the right thing, accepting Caine’s help, involving Caine in his life. It sure felt right.

#

Shayla hoped it would be all right. It sure felt right, better than right. It felt like she’d been waiting her whole life for this. Raif made love to her slowly, cautiously, almost deliberately. He watched her and paced himself and just when she thought he’d give into it, he’d stop and watch her waiting for him to make the next move. Then he’d start again and she’d forget to wonder at it all. She watched him watching her—and he did watch her. Every move, every nuance, every breath she took. It was as though he were collecting every moment, storing it all away as a precious new memory, locked-up and tucked away behind that wall she’d seen in his mind.

She’d been surprised to have found herself there. She couldn’t help but wonder at how much of her he’d cherished in a tiny corner of his mind. How carefully he’d guarded her inside his mind. How fully he focused on her now. She sat on top of him, impaled on him, her long hair a curtain over her shoulders, the ends pooling on his stomach when she put her hands down on his chest. She loved his body. She’d always loved looking at him. She ran her hands down over his rib cage to his stomach and felt the muscles tremble under her touch. It would be all right. It was already beyond right.

She wasn’t sure if she could trust Charlie to control her internal stores, but she couldn’t hold herself back much longer. She felt the need building inside herself—and realized something was missing. This was strange, this feeling of sexual pleasure without the internal exchange. She didn’t feel the energy mounting. It wasn’t exactly an emptiness she felt, but an absence. Charlie was protecting them.

If she’d been with a Phoenician man, when she climaxed, she’d transfer energy to him, radiate from her internal stores, and his body would reciprocate, absorbing her energy as the means by which he would reach his own climax. Even with a Phoenician man it was dangerous to play this game, as it was one breath away from a Joining. With Kyree, Shayla would pull her internal stores back. If she were merely mostly successful, she wouldn’t worry about the excess, since Kyree could absorb the overflow and much more. Lately, though, even Kyree had been less willing to stop, more inclined to keep the flow going between them, despite the risky consequences. He’d told her repeatedly it was better not to start than to risk an accidental Joining. Without the Seven Chiefs standing guard over it, even a Phoenician couple’s first Joining could flare out of control and end in diaster, in death.

That was the danger of her being with a human lover. The consequences were potentially lethal with just the smallest amount of “overflow.” The inability to absorb the energy expelled by a Phoenician woman coming to climax would have tragic, even if not lethal, results. Like Collier’s disfiguring burns.

When Shayla had reached her first climax, she’d pulled herself back, automatically. She’d held herself under tight control, afraid she would hurt Raif. Only when she realized that not the tiniest bit of energy had escaped her internal stores did she believe and trust Charlie was doing as promised. After that, she’d stopping trying to stop herself from fully-engaging. Now, she let herself be lost in Raif. She focused on Raif and he focused on her. She moved over him and he moved under her, searching her face for something.

“It’s safe.” She whispered. She drew her left hand up to his cheek, glanced at the Shaklet in the light and waved her hand at him. “There won’t be any accidents, Raif. Charlie will use this to protect us.”

“Then let go.” He urged her and pushed his hips up, pressed himself deeper inside of her.

“I’m not holding back.” She bent down, supporting her weight on her forearms.

He pushed her hair back, framing her face with his hands. “Yes, you are, Shayla. I know every look on your face and you’re—you’re afraid of something.”

“No, just…I don’t want this to end. Us, I mean, not the sex.” She giggled. “That has to end, at least for a while.”

He grinned. “Alas, ‘tis true, I am only human.”

“That’s not what I meant.” She smiled back at him.

“I know what you meant and I’m not leaving. You said you weren’t, so…” He bit down on her lower lip. She closed her eyes to focus on feeling every point of contact their bodies shared. He trailed kisses over her cheek then said, “Give yourself to me, Shayla.” He reached a hand down between them to urge her along.

(It is safe, Shayla, and he is correct. You are holding yourself back.)

(I am not.)

(You are afraid. Do you not trust me to protect you? Or is it him?)

(I trust you, it’s just—)

“What?” Raif asked.

“What?” She opened her eyes.

His sharp green eyes, dark with desire, narrowed now. He held still and drew his face back. “You looked like—God, please tell me you’re not talking to that thing right now.”

“He’s not a thing and I just…I wanted to make sure he’s keeping things under control. I couldn’t bear you becoming a martyr, like Collier, or worse.”

“I’m not Collier and I have no intention of dying here today.” He gripped her hips and guided her over him and smiled. “Not unless you count the little death. Now stop worrying and give yourself over to this.”

She let herself be caught up in his rhythm and this time when she came, she let it overtake her. She sat up as her climax peaked and threw her head back.

He gripped her thighs and said, “God, you’re so beautiful when you do that. You’re glowing.” She looked down at him, in a panic, and he added, “No, not like that, like…a woman who stopped thinking for a minute.” She smiled and shook her head, swaying her long hair back over her shoulders, the ends brushing over his legs.

He laughed and one knee came up. “Stop it! I told you, that tickles.”

She swayed her head to deliberately do it again and he sat up, knocking her over, rolling on top of her, and pinning her into the soft mattress. She squeezed and her internal muscles down on him with a coy smile.

“If you keep doing that, I’m going to come.” She did it again and his head fell down, forehead banging against her chin. “I’m so close, Shayla, don’t.”

“That’s the idea, Raif.” She pushed herself up against him and after two more strokes, his head snapped up and his dark green eyes opened. She told him, “Come with me.”

“Too late.” He leaned down and kissed her. She kept her eyes open, watching his face as she felt him coming inside of her—so she saw it happen. That terrible moment when the trigger fired was clear as day. She just didn’t understand it at first. The look of the exquisite release faded from his face as quickly as it had appeared and in its place, a look of horror. He’d felt the directive triggering in his mind, overriding his control over his own body and mind.

Shayla watched the change in his expression and asked, “What? What’s wrong, Raif? What happened just now?”

His mouth moved silently, his breath struggling to escape his throat, his mind doing battle for the right to answer her. He was losing. His weight was heavy on her, and even though he supported himself on his elbows and forearms, he was twice her mass. He felt like a crushing weight on top of her. Of course, he had the advantage of gravity. To make matters worse, when she tried to shove at him to sit up, she discovered her arms and legs were completely tangled up in her own hair. She couldn’t move if he didn’t get out of the way and he was definitely not moving out of the way. He settled in closer actually.

He stared back at her, the strain in his eyes painful to watch as his hand slowly closed in on her flesh, clamping down on her neck with all of his formidable strength. Now she understood what the trigger had done. He was trying to kill her. He shook his head in disagreement with himself but his fingers found her carotid arteries. She gulped a deep breath, tensed her neck and took his wrist in her hand to stop him. She was surprised to find him capably fighting against her grip. She could force his hand off, she was sure, but she’d have to shatter his hand to do it. She clenched her teeth, tightening her jaw and neck muscles further and he shifted his fingers slightly to compensate. If she weren’t Phoenician, she’d already be dead from his death grip on her throat. She could bite him. Maybe.

Between his hand crushing her trachea and his torso keeping her diaphragm compressed, she wasn’t sure she could get another breath of air and she was starting to feel light-headed. Her heels kicked at the bed as she tried to push him off, but he had her completely pinned. He was still inside of her, pressing against her from ankle to thigh, from hip to mid-chest. She couldn’t move him without hurting him and she couldn’t bring herself to injure him, not even in self-defense. And that, she realized, was why the safety net she’d put in place was going to be her downfall. If she could just raise her internal temperature a little bit, he’d instinctively let go to avoid being burned again. She could move in that instant when he loosened his grip. But she didn’t control her internal stores right now. Charlie did.

Finally, Raif whispered to her, “Do it, Shayla. You can stop me.” He tried to pull his wrist free of her grasp and his face told her it wasn’t what he wanted to do. He was shaking with the effort to resist the directive, trying to will himself not to clench down, not to crush her neck. If he kept curling his fingers in towards their new goal, even being Phoenician wouldn’t save her. He’d crush her trachea. That had to be Plan B, since Plan A, compressing her carotids, wasn’t working out.

(Shayla, do you want my help?) Charlie called out in her mind and she didn’t want to acknowledge him.

Raif trembled again and gasped in a breath, straining to break free of the command planted in his mind but he couldn’t pull himself free and she couldn’t overpower his grasp without hurting him. She couldn’t unbalance him to knock him off of her and she couldn’t get out from under him with her hair acting like ropes of bondage. She had no choices left. She was going to have to accept Charlie’s help.

Raif pleaded with her. “Please, Shayla, don’t let this be how you remember me.”

“It won’t be.” She rasped out surprised she could barely speak and still she said, “but I can’t do it.”

Raif’s eyes were glistening with unshed tears as the internal struggle played out on his face. “I beg you. Kill me.”

She could see it. Kindi had done this. Whether she’d had sex with Raif willingly or he’d forced himself on her like Kindi had tried to make him do, Kindi had set the trigger to fire when Raif reached his own orgasm.

Kindi had known Raif wanted Shayla.

Kindi had known Raif would continue to want Shayla.

Kindi had known Raif would have Shayla.

But Kindi had under-estimated the strength of this man. Raif would not kill Shayla not matter what Kindi had programmed into his mind. Raif would self-destruct from the inside out before he let his body carry out the directive Kindi had planted in his mind.

Raif leaned in closer, his lips brushing her cheek, his tenderness in painful contrast to his aggressive attack, his breath warm on her skin as he spoke. “I’m begging you, Shayla, kill me now, while you still can. You have to end this!”

She looked up into those beautiful green eyes of his and he blinked, forcing out a tear. It fell onto her cheek, and she told him, “I love you, Raif, and I’ll always love you.” And she was surprised to realize how deeply she meant it.

She clenched her eyes shut tight and felt warm liquid running down her cheek, seeping into her ear, and she wondered if it were his tears or her own. She hoped it was both, mingling together in a last moment of their life together. Reluctantly, she called out to Charlie.

(Okay, Charlie, do it. Let it out. Use…you can stop him.)

She felt it begin immediately, before she’d even finished thinking the comman to Charlie. She felt herself radiating, felt her internal stores releasing in a powerful and focused throw into Raif’s center of mass. She kept her eyes shut, unable to bear watching his death, but she thought she heard Raif whisper to her, “I forgive you, Shayla, and I’ll always love you, too.”

She tried to pull it back, to temper it the way the Seven Chiefs would do during a couple’s first Joining. She thought maybe she could injure, not kill, but Charlie had control of her body the way Kindi had controlled Raif’s. She couldn’t stop it and she could feel Raif’s body changing texture against her skin. She wanted to crawl away, far away, not feel it happening, but she still couldn’t move. Not yet. She had to wait until it stopped, until she felt control over her own body returning to her.

She opened her eyes, knowing it was too late. What used to be Raif was now charred to a crisp over her, in her, pressed close against her, touching her everywhere. She had to push him out of her before she could shove at it, crawl out from under it, away from the charred thing that used to be Raif. That, perhaps, hurt more than all the rest put together.

She rolled to her side, pulled her knees up to her chest, curling herself into a ball up in the corner of the bed, and let herself cry. She knew now what Kindi had done. More forces than merely Kindi’s lone hatred had caused this loss and now she finally understood why they’d done it.

They had finally and completely separated her from Raif.

If they’d thought this loss would teach her a lesson, they were sorely mistaken. She would lie here, she would cry, then she would gather herself together. And then it would begin. Now that Raif was gone, there was no longer any one or any thing to stop her. Now, she could kill them all.

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