Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Installment One: Looking Glass


Wicked Game
Fiction by John Seanchai Grose



Installment One: Looking Glass

Byron Jacobson eased himself into his virtual playground. His cyberdeck smoothly disconnected his senses and he fumbled for a moment in the resulting darkness. It surrounded him with a formless touch, an insistent hand. Then a program came on-line, an electronic key was formed, and an unreal door opened with a flash and bright glare into an unreal place. Assured of his identity, sentry programs, invisible but active, allowed him to pass.
Byron stepped out onto a gigantic chessboard, its huge squares etched into a neutral colored marble floor with fine pixels. He walked around pawns and rooks as tall as he was. As Byron neared the far end of the board, he smiled broadly, seeing the white queen had moved to save her king from check.
Then he passed through another door and into a carpeted hallway. There were tables and plants and bric-a-brac scattered about its length. Byron ran his hand over the head of a ceramic lion as he wandered to, and entered, his study.
This room suggested refinement. A phonograph, almost hidden in one corner, ran its needle over a scratched record and a symphony rose hesitantly into the air. A simulated hound lifted its head as it lay in front of a fireplace. Byron crossed to his desk and sat.
He reached into a drawer and removed a sheaf of letters. They were virtual representations of his electronic mail and he read them with care. Some he tucked back into their places, an act which caused the computer that ran his playground to save them for later reference. Others he crumpled with a frown and tossed into the wastebasket at the foot of the desk. These were summarily deleted from the system.
As the music swelled to a single, high note, the door to the study was thrown open. A girl, dressed in a perfectly white dress, rushed to Byron and clutched at his knee. "Daddy!" she cried as she ran, "Daddy! You're home!"
Byron smiled, his hand covering the tiny one on his leg. "I'm home, honey."
"Guess what we did in school today?" The girl's oval face beamed from beneath a mass of blonde curls. She climbed up onto her father's knee, then straightened her dress.
"What did you do?"
"We painted dinosaurs."
"Dinosaurs? What kind did you paint?"
The girl did not answer. Her mouth began to open, then she froze like a videotape being paused. A small hand hung in the air, caught moving toward Byron's thin beard, and the girl's eyes were half closed in a blink.
Byron snarled and cursed, the illusion ruined by a glitch. His virtual daughter, painstakingly created from photographs and fantasy, sat on his knee, now nothing more than a solid mass of pixels and electronic ether. He sent a mental command to his node's main processor with an angry jab of will.
His daughter, freed a moment later, rubbed his beard as she said, "A very big one."
"How big?" asked Byron teasingly.
"Cherise," warned a warm voice from the door, "don't bother your father when he is busy." Bryon and his daughter turned toward the speaker. A tall woman, blonde and lithe, stood in the door. A tight, tan evening gown ran down her body.
"Why don't you get your painting and show it to me later," Byron said to Cherise. With a darling smiled her father had created, the girl slipped down and ran out into the hallway. Byron watched her go, then turned toward the wife which he had also invoked from computer code. "Amanda," he said evenly.
"You're home early. Are you coming to dinner?"
"We discussed this last night."
Amanda sighed and ran a hand down her dress to straighten it. "You don't really love me."
Byron stood. With a smile, he moved to his wife and pressed himself against her. He brought his lips lightly to her neck as she tilted her head to allow him access. "Come to dinner with me," Amanda breathed.
Byron smelled another man's cologne under her perfume. His embrace tightened.
There was a distant part of himself, buried beneath coils of fantasy, that recognized, called attention to, the illusion. This was not his wife. This shadow could not take a lover. Outside the virtual stage, sophisticated subroutines had gauged his mood from his brain's chemical dance and had recreated this familiar drama.
But Byron would play along. He would drink this in and fill his need here.

"Is this a new dress?" he whispered.
"Why?"
"The salesman's cologne is all over it."
"Oh," said Amanda, her tone tinged with challenge. "He wore so much of it."
"He must have," agreed Byron flatly. He drew away.
Amanda began to speak again, to draw him further into the fantasy, but he silenced her with a command to the hidden processors. Like his shadow daughter had earlier, she froze. He walked past her into the hall, feeling hollow inside again.
He entered the chess room again and navigated the giant pieces with disregard. None of them had moved. None gave him the pleasure, the satisfaction, they sometimes did. He conjured up a passkey before he reached the playground's exit and used it angrily.
The black and white checkerboard floor, the white queen and king, and the invisible sentries all vanished in a burst of static and light. Byron's cyberdeck powered down, indicators moving from a bright green to a dull orange.
He reached up and tugged the interface plugs out their socket.
The contents of the room shouted for attention. Colors raged in place. Sounds swam up to assult Byron's ears. For a moment, everything was vibrant and vivid. Then, as his biological senses adjusted to the return of stimuli, the world grew quiet. Still and dim.
Byron sighed, levering himself up off the couch he lay on while interfaced with his computers and the Net. His stomach announced itself hungry. His legs felt weak as he stood and walked to the kitchen.
The realities of the outside world struck him, as they always did, as he passed a mirror in the hall between his real study and the kitchen. For half a second, something hideous was reflected in the glass. A dwarf, a tiny twisted man. Its large head wore a pained expression as it hurried past.

***
Lily pressed a tiny key that would call the next page of the novel she was reading up on the pocket computer's screen and looked across the mansion's manicured lawn to see if the situation had changed. There were still four well dressed men between her and the door, two cleaning their guns by the pool and two almost hidden the deep shadows of the patio.
She sighed and went back to her book.
Two pages later, the security force around the house changed shifts. Lily caught the sounds of laughter, harsh in the quiet of the afternoon, as her novel's heroine was being dragged off a pirate ship by her future husband. A fight between swarthy pirates and the future husband had just gotten underway when Lily put the computer aside and used a pair of binoglasses to watch the men below.
They were professionals. Rather than all leaving at once, each man was replaced in turn, the other three guards continually scanning the grounds for any problems as they did. Lily noted their efficiency with a grim look.
"Hey there," said a voice in her ear.
Lily rolled onto her back, ready to kick the man who had found her in the knees, when she realized the voice was coming through the miniature receiver she wore in her ear. She cursed, her heart pounding, adrenaline flaring in her system, and dug the accompanying microphone out of the collar of her dress. "Byron," she whispered fiercely.
"What's happening?"
"You just about blew my cover, that's what's happening." Lily was hidden well: she had buried herself in a mass of evergreen bushed that formed a kind of border between the inner lawn and the greater mass of the mansion's grounds. A thin blanket of a heat reflecting substance insured that she would not betray herself on infrared while it's outer surface was camouflaged to keep her from being spotted by air. Her pocket computer was too small to be picked up on any scans for electromagnetic sources and since Lily didn't have any kind of cyber or neuralware, that wasn't a problem. But somebody - a gardener maybe - could always accidentally stumble over her where she lay.

"Sorry," said Byron, but wasn't.
"Are you inside?"
"Not to worry, little sister. I have the Net end of things covered."
The operation was straightforward, a simple extraction. Byron would gain access to the building's security systems via the Net and shut them down. He would gain control of any machines linked to computer and use them to wreak havoc and protect his sister as she entered the premises. Lily would rush in under this electronic cover, find the boy they'd been paid to retrieve, and get out.
"Well?"
"Well what?" asked the Netrunner.
"Are the systems off-line or not?"
"Not yet. Give me a minute."
Lily rolled back onto her stomach and used the binoglasses to see if the men below had noticed her jump when her brother's voice had boomed in her ear. They had not. There were two by the pool and two on the patio still. "Give you a minute. What are you doing in there?"
"This place is fascinating," replied Byron. "I've been combing some of Lignelli's files and he sure does have some secrets."
"Byron," commanded Lily, "get the security systems off-line now."
"You sure are bossy for a little sister."
"Do it."
There was no reply, only a slight hiss that meant the program Byron was using to generate a voice from the Net was still functioning. Two minutes later, his voice crackled over the receiver again. "All done," he told Lily.
Lily took a second to focus, adrenaline and excitement singing in her, then sprang out of the bushes and ran towards the mansion.

***
Lily encountered the two men by the pool with the thrum of adrenaline in her bloodstream and a wisp of a smile on her face. She caught of the hand of one man as he pulled a large gun from inside his jacket and, squeezing on his forearm, caused his finger to close down on the trigger.
The gun spat out a line of bullets and by shifting the man's arm, Lily directed the deadly spray into the chest of the second man who had run up from the pool. A large clay vase was split into two large fragments, dark soil and a tangle of roots spilling out it, as the gun's muzzle swept past it. Lily let go of the first man's arm in time to see the second drop to his knees, stunned. Blood began to seep through his designer shirt.
A knee to the gunman's stomach caused him to double over. The astonished cry of his partner dragged at his attention and Lily was able to complete the move with ease; she struck his head with a closed fist and he collapsed, only half-conscious.
Lily moved on, breaking into a run.
The two guards who had been standing by the door intercepted her as she flowed over the concrete apron around the pool. One of them attempted a flying leap, but landed in the deep end of the pool as Lily ducked and redirected his forward momentum.
Before she could turn her attention to the last guard standing, the clatter of gunfire sounded once again in the expectant silence that seemed to wrap itself around the house and Lily felt the impact of bullets against her skin. She glanced down and found they had not penetrated her tightly woven, bullet proof clothing. There would be a bruise, a large ugly bruise, she knew.
The last man was more cautious and only stood grinning, gun in hand, as he watched Lily gauge her wound. When she looked up a moment later, he straightened his arm and looked down through the gun's sight at her.
Lily exploded forward as the gun went off a second time.
Before she realized the second bullet had punctured her clothing and drawn blood, she was in front of the remaining guard and sent a roundhouse kick towards his hand. It knocked the gun out of his grasp and into the grass a few feet away.
Then Lily felt the searing warmth of the slug in her arm.
The man closed his hand into a fist and twin blades, each almost two feet long, sprung from a hidden recess in his arm. He swung them in an arc toward Lily and she fell back. He tried to slash her a second time, but she put up a restraining hand and tried to twist the man's arm so that his forward momentum would carry the bulk of his body past her while she pinned the arm behind his back.
But the man's limb had been modified beyond the pair of rippers. The shock of the blow, catching it, caused Lily's hands to go numb. She stumbled backwards, nearly falling into the grass.
The man came forward as the solo dug into a pocket. When he swung again, Lily caught the arm, this time allowing herself to be carried along with the strike. She touched a thick metal plate to the man's flesh. There was an intense squeal as the device released an electromagnetic pulse into his cyberware.
The man broke off contact, his arm cocked at a fourty-five degree angle. He frowned and tried to swing again. But his shoulder was frozen in place and the blow did not go far. Lily smiled as she planted a kick in his midsection. And then another.
Trained in the use of firearms and his cybernetic weaponry, the last guard was no match for Lily's martial arts skills as she rained blows down upon him. Soon he retreated to the patio, where a snap kick to his head jarred him into unconsciousness.
Panting, Lily thumbed the lock to the sliding glass door and after it processed an implanted command from Byron, opened obediently. She peered into the dim interior for more security personnel, but found none.
Lily whirled, dove to the side, as the man who had fallen into the pool tried to bring part of a deck chair down on her head. She drove a kick into his stomach and he stumbled backwards. Before she could press her advantage, the sliding glass door flowed silently shut.
The guard, dripping onto the patio, charged forward, his makeshift club raised.
There was a flash and a crackle as he contacted the electrified frame of the door. Then her fell away, his vital organs charred by the deadly current the house's security system routed through the door's lock and edges.
Byron chuckled in his sister's ear. "Why don't they make these people take aptitude tests?"

***
The house was full of darkness and dim shapes, the afternoon sun held at bay by heavy blinds and tinted windows. Lily moved cautiously in it. There was a computer on the bar that flickered to life as the solo approached its position. The perfect face of Byron's ICON peered out of it. "I've sealed the house against any further unwelcome guests. Changed the codes, too."
"Good," whispered Lily. "Where's the boy?"
The ICON frowned from behind the looking glass. "As near as I can tell, he's upstairs in the master bedroom." Lily's stomach clenched itself into a knot, willing his current location not to be a sign of what his captivity had been like. "There's a flight of stairs to your right."
Lily located it quickly and padded up the steps, her arms held at ready and slightly away from her body. She was still high on adrenaline. The corridor at the top of the stairs was empty save for closed doors.
"Which end?" Lily asked her invisible brother.
"The south end," he said in her ear. "There's a security system - I've disabled it. I can't find any off system security listed on the floor plans, but that doesn't mean its not there. Watch out, okay?"
Lily moved slowly forward, one step at a time, until she was standing before the heavy closed door of the master bedroom. The keypad lock near its knob blinked green. The solo ran her gaze around the frame looking for laser eyes and receptor sites, but there were none she could see. She waved a hand in front of the door to check for motion detectors, the bulk of her body flat against the wall, but there was no sign of any.
Taking a breath, she forced the door open.
"Our guest is finally here," said a rich voice from the depths of the bedroom.
The bedroom was divided into two distinct areas. One had a great bed, with a thin figure sprawled unconscious over it, with a wall of carved dressers and wardrobes. The other area consisted of a desk, chair, and sofa. There was a grossly overweight man sitting behind the computer at the desk and a young Asian lady sat rigidly on the sofa.
"Do come in," said the man, his great jowl moving as he spoke. "Your friend in my computer system is skilled, but even he cannot disable security camera not hooked into said system. I've been watching your progress - impressive."
Lily glanced over at the figure on the bed. It was impossible to tell its the sex and age at the current distance, but the height and apparent weight would approximately that of the boy. If it was him, the next question would be was he still alive...
"Ah, the boy." The man tapped at the keys of the computer in a distracted manner.
Lily moved into the room cautiously. Her senses were strained, trained in a wide circle around her body. She listened to herself breathing heavily, felt the throb of her wound. She looked at the figure's chest, hoping to catch it rising and falling.
"Don't worry about Thomas," said the man. "I haven't harmed the lad. He was anxious and I administered a sedative."
The solo inched her way closer to the boy, prodding loose piles of clothing with her toe, crouching to see that no one was hiding under the bed. When Lily was close enough, she laid two fingers against the child's throat. His skin was cool, but he had a steady pulse. There was a gun just beyond the reach of his outstretched hand.
"You must think I am a monster," commented the overweight man. The Asian women on the couch looked at her lap.
"I'm not paid to think," replied Lily.
"Oh," laughed the man, "don't be coy."
Lily bent down slowly to pull the firearm out of the child's grasp. He stirred, but did not wake.
Gun firmly in hand, Lily swung around so that it's barrel was pointed at the man behind the desk. She held it loosely, casually, as if it were a natural extension of herself she was adept at using. Her arm ached as she did it. The solo didn't plan on firing it, however; guns make good leverage.
"Ah," said the man.
"The boy and I are leaving," Lily told him. "Where are his clothes?"
"His clothes? In the dresser next to the bed. But don't wake Michael just yet. He's had a trying night."
The muzzle of the gun waver. "Trying?" said Lily, hoarsely.
The man smiled. "Yes. Surgery."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, it's simple really. I was making him mine. Like Felicia." The man gestured towards the young Asian woman on the couch. She looked at her hands, which she had folded in her lap, her face as expressionless and smooth as a bronze mask.
"And what did you do to her?"
The man tapped a key, then turned his monitor so Lily could see it. There was a green wire frame schematic of a human skull. Nestled in the yellow haze of pixels that represented the brain was a mass of red dots. "This is a map of the human brain," the man explained. "This here - " - he pointed to the red areas - "are clusters of nanites which have been inserted into the skull to change certain hardwired functions."
"What functions?" asked Lily, hoping to gain enough information to give to the surgeon she would be handing the boy over to once they were free of the house. The more the doctor knew, the less time it would take for him or her to reverse the condition.
"I'll show you," replied the man, pressing yet another button on his keypad. The woman on the couch gasped, arching her back. She cried out softly as she slid from her composed position to the floor.
"Stop it! Stop hurting her now!" Lily tightened her grip on the gun as she drew her arm into a rigid line.
"Oh," whispered the man, "I'm not hurting her. Rather the opposite."
A wave of nausea passed through the solo as she realized what was happening.
"You see, the nanite have eaten away the pleasure centers in Felicia's brain and have taken over the functions of that structure. On a limited basis, that is. The only pleasure Felicia receives now comes directly from me. She cannot enjoy the taste of food, the delicate joy of a kiss - "
The gun thundered in Lily's hands.

***
Lily sipped mineral water while Byron scowled. The dwarfed glanced at the sofa that held the curled, sleeping form of the boy Michael and then out to the patio where Felicia sat. His stubby fingers picked at invisible lint on his shirt as he said, "Why did you bring them here?"
"Where should I have taken them?"
"How about his parents?"
Lily shook her head. "Not yet. We have to get him to a doctor to see...what's happened to him."
"That's not part of the deal. Not our responsibility."
"I don't care," the solo replied with a shrug.
Byron straightened his collar. "That's not a professional attitude," he told his sister in an irritated tone. All his nervous mannerisms having been cycled through, he stood. It was an old ploy; Lily was as sensitive about his height as he was and Byron had learned over the years that calling her attention to his deformity often gave him an edge in any negotiations or argument.
Lily took another sip of her water, then cradled the bottle. "The last person who said that to me is dead." Her voice was flat, without the hint of threat. "He was right though."
"And it's professionalism that keeps a person alive in this business. We need to follow through with the plan and dump the kid."
"Was looking through Johnson's files part of the plan?" Lily sparred.
Byron smiled sweetly. "Listen, let's just get the kid to his parents and be done with it."
"Michael."
"What?"
"His name is Michael."
"Well, sister dear, you are not responsible for Michael's well-being or what happened to him. You shot the person who was, remember?"
She nodded. The plastic water bottle crumpled in her hand.
"Besides," Byron continued. "You can't look after these kids. They can't stay here and your apartment is certainly too small. His parents - " he stabbed a short, thick finger at the sleeping boy - "are expecting us to haul him in for hugs and kisses any minute now. Let's give them what they want and collect our money."
"I think part of his brain has been eaten away."
"You said that already."
"What about Felicia?"
"What about her?"
Felicia was sitting in an expensive deck chair on Byron's well decorated redwood patio. Behind her, the sun was dying in the arms of the sky, bands of red, gold, and pink clustered about the horizon. A warm breeze caused the flowers in tidy beds to sway.
The young woman noticed none of this. Her head was bent, her gaze firmly upon her lap and the hands she rubbed endlessly in it. She had not moved since Lily had brought her out onto the patio, the solo expecting the fresh air and pleasant scenery of her brother's tailor ground would do her good.
But there was a shell about the wound girl, an almost physical barrier that kept her isolated from the environment about her. Her expression was always blank, her eyes flat. When questioned or commanded directly, Felicia became animated enough to answer or obey but then fell immediately back into her near catatonic state.
Lily looked out at her. An image of Felicia sliding down a couch, her face alive with pleasure, her mouth open and eyes shut, sprang up unbidden. The solo shook it away and a thin finger of despair reached out and touched her heart.
"We could always zap her," said Byron, following his sister's gaze. He drew back when Lily looked back at him. He knew the expression she wore as she glared at him: he had seen it through a camera's lens as the solo had shot Johnson where he sat. "It was just a joke," the NetRunner hastily added.
The device that was used in conjunction with the nanites in Felicia's brain was sitting in Byron study, Lily having ripped it out of Johnson's desk after he was dead. She wanted to leave it behind - to never think about it again - but it was the key to the young woman's salvation and it needed to be studied. Byron had downloaded all the appropriate files out of the dead man's computer system when Lily explained the gunshots and had promised to get to work deciphering just how the device worked as soon as she got it to the house.
But he had not done that. Instead, he was arguing about what would happen next.
"We need to get both of them to a doctor."
"Yes, you said that."
"It isn't fair." Lily's voice cracked.
Byron looked down at the front of his shirt and began to bits of lint off of it. "If you're going to take them to a doctor, take them to a doctor. But do it now - we need to get the kid back home as soon as possible."
"Get me a file about that machine," Lily told her brother, "so I can take it with me."
With a ghost of a scowl, Byron walked to his study.

***
Byron waited until Lily hd been gone fifteen minutes before he hurried into his study and settled himself in the low-back, well-padded couch designed for NetRunning. His short fingers quickly found the datajack and snapped it into place. A cool world of electronic darkness rushed up to engulf the dwarf.
In the dark, Byron produced a key and a door of dazzling pixels appeared. He stepped forward into the chess room, where he saw the subroutines that ran it had been busy: at the far end of the chess board that was the floor, the black bishop had been toppled. The dwarf chuckled and moved on.
The study was how he left it, although the program that ran his playroom had put its various inhabitants through eight hours of virtual time. Amanda had gone to dinner alone and Cherise was in bed. Randomly chosen subroutines had been activated and subtle changes had occurred: dust had built up where dust is liable to, the pixelized sun had set in a randomly colored sunset Byron had missed, the phone had rung and messages were scrawled in Amanda's broad hand on a pad near it, and a bird had flown into the window of Cherise's room, frightening her.
Byron walked to his desk and removed a leather binder he had created there during his run with Lily. He thumbed through it briefly, checking to see that the inscription and translation programs had worked properly, then headed for an older part of the house.
He walked down an open, empty stair that swept down from the second floor towards the massive front doors. Byron, perfectly formed in his hidden world, ambled through oak planned halls. He passed the kitchen where a computerized cook had prepared a dinner on a computer-controlled schedule. Finally, he reached the door to the cellar.
Byron held out an open hand and, with a quick mental command to the controllers, a key formed in it. He opened the door. The flick of an antiquated switch caused a naked bulb above a set of narrow stairs to light. He walked down them, binder under his arm.
At the bottom was a large open area. It had an earth floor and walls. Byron's deck intercepted certain computer codes and translated them into a smell of decay. Without pause, he flipped a second switch and another bare lightbulb began to glow.
"Oracle," Byron called. When there was no response, he called again.
The form of a bent man slowly resolved out of one of the room's remaining pools of darkness. His hair, a dirty grey, was long and tangled. His face was etched with famine and insanity. As he shuffled forward, a heavy iron manacle on his ankle pulled lengths of chain out of the shadow.
"Oracle," said Byron. "Digest this." He threw the binder at the feet of the wild man, who, slowly, retrieved it. Then shuffled back into the darkness without ceremony.

***
The Oracle squatted in a corner leafed through the binder wildly, turning pages with abandon and muttering incoherent curses. Byron, through his connection to the machine that created the cellar and Oracle, could feel his programming wake and absorb the information contained within the binder.
Byron sensed connections to the Net being formed, opening up, and information was sent in packets through those lines by the Oracle. A database, nearly buried under various subroutines, whirred to life. Data came and went along spidery connections to the outside world.
And then it ceased. The spider web of communications sputtered and disintegrated. The database was shut down and buried once more. The Oracle, having dropped the leather binder, looked up with a sane face.
"Oracle," Byron commanded, "speak."
Calm eyes looked out of a calm face. "What is your question?"
"Is there a correlation between Maximillian Ourtous' data and any of my current projects?"
"Maximillian Ourtous' death was reported to the police at twenty twenty-three hours by one Ms. Lane. Employment records for Ourtous' business do not show a record of any such woman on the payroll. Financial statements do not indicate purchases which might have been intended for Ms. Lane. A trace on the Ourtous genealogy was unsuccessful in locating any relatives with the surname Lane. Thus an anomaly."
"Go on," prompted Byron.
"A Net search for the term 'Ms. Lane' returned with eighteen such persons within the city limits. Narrowing the field with available financial records for these returns indicates fifteen were either out of the city, out of the country, or otherwise occupied at the time Maximillian Ourtous' death was reported to the police. Thus there is a high probability that one of the three remaining 'Ms. Lanes' had a connection to Ourtous."
"Okay. Now the connection to me."
The Oracle cocked his head. "Of the three remaining 'Lanes', one - Patricia Margaret Lane - has accepted credit transfers from the Arasaka Corporation on a regular basis. Project Mole is currently operating within the Arasaka Corporation as is Project Saturn."
"What is the probability - low, medium, or high - that this is just a coincidence?"
"Given the current information, probability of coincidence is high."
Byron smiled. "Excellent. Oracle, command: search the Net on an hourly basis for any new information regarding Patricia Margaret Lane and her connection to Arasaka."
"Accepted."
Byron turned and left the cellar. When the door at the top of the stairs closed, the Oracle dropped the pretense of sanity as the subroutines governing his behavior woke from their suspended state. With a roar, he threw the binder against the far wall, where it dissolved into pixels.

***
Felicia watched the medic through slitted eyes, pretending to be asleep on a hard bench out of earshot, and thought it odd that he was afraid of her. She reviewed the signs again - lack of eye contact, fine tremors, strained vocal qualities - and reaffirmed her initial impression: fear and unease.
But there was no threat. She was immature, her physical capabilities far from a challenge for the well-muscled middle-aged man. His practice was in a poorly patrolled part of the city; surely he had some combat skills.
Felicia hypothesized causes for the medic reaction as he spoke with Lily on the far side of the room. They were bent over a monitor, an x-ray of her skull displayed upon it. The medic was empathic and shaken while the solo listened calmly, her arms folded across her chest.
Lily. Her savior. The woman who had destroyed her old life and the one kind person in it. Felicia called the file dealing with emotional distress up out of her internal memory and reviewed it as an image of a gun going off, of Maximillian slumping in his chair, swam through her mind.
She tried to suppress it, but it was not part of her machine self and could not be dispelled.
Lily was kind. And sad. The cause of her distress was much easier to ascertain than the medic's source of fear. Felicia had watched her, shaking from her reward, as Lily lowered Michael's gun. She watched as Lily pushed the personal computer and its peripherals from the desk onto the floor. Felicia heard the disembodied voice spring from a hidden speaker.
"What in the heck do you think you're doing?" the person Felicia later learned was named Byron asked.
Lily had stood by the desk, her eyes focused on Michael as he recovered.
"Lily? Are you okay?" said the voice.
"He's been torturing children," Lily answered. Felicia spent the ride to Byron's estate trying to classify the tone that was so evident in the solo's reply. It was difficult because there were some many elements within it. She eventually decided it was an anguished reply.
"Are you okay?"
Lily kicked the computer monitor into the wall. She grabbed data cables that lay exposed on the desk and pulled onto them until the snapped off from the interfaces set into the floor. And then she was crying. She woke up Michael, and carrying him from the bed, came to ask Felicia if she was alright.
Of everything that happened that night, Felicia remembered Lily's eyes most vividly. Even the image of Maximillian's death was beginning to be frosted over with a haze of time. But the solo's eyes as she bent to help Felicia to her feet, the boy still cradled protectively in her arms, still leapt to the fore of Felicia's memory. They were becoming red from crying, a striking shade of green, and round with pain.
And Felicia went with her and listened to her instructions and accepted her charity. Lily led her out of the nightmare into a period of shock and grief. And now there was a grayness that lay over the world, a neutrality greater than anything the young woman had known before. Felicia struggled with it mechanically and reread her files about dealing with emotion distress and discomfort.
She ran a finger along the flowery skirt Lily had boughten for her as she watched the solo and the medic argue about her condition.



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