Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Gearing Up for January, Poems #3

No solicitor signs are
doors that close before
they can be opened.
Privacy the hallmark of
the modern scrooge that
finds it offensive to be asked
to give, assuages guilt by
saying they were interrupted
eating dinner, and not wanting
the world to intrude upon
their peaceful lie.

The bus charges money
For journeys, but
Does not accept pennies.
So I am left to wonder
What transports us to
The Land of the Dead
Now, and if
Two subway tokens have
Replaced the pennies, and
Line our pockets, and
Not our eyes.


Old age is dressing up
In suits and ties, seeing
The modern world all
As the new world, a
Menagerie of lies, with
Sadness and sighs for those
Who wonder why we all
Seem dressed for our own funerals.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Nano Word Counts To Date

Out of curiousity:

'03, Waking Dreams: 52,214
'04. Higher Ground: 105,857
'05, Guardian Monsters: 54,347

Total Nano Word Count: 212,418

And the other two novels:
'04-05, Waking the Dead: 83,159
'05, Leshy: 85,788

Total: 168,947

And complete novel total is (drum roll please): 381,365

Not bad at all.

Guardian Monsters Chapter 11

Chapter 11 - Escape From Nonexistentcy

The night was cold and empty as they leapt out of the second floor window and landed on the ground. Ralphie growled softly, scaring away several poisonous plants as Stephen made a sword and looked around carefully. The area was empty, and they moved quickly east by unspoken consent, running easily through the woods.
     The first hovercar drops its stealth field and began firing moments later, energy beams tearing up trees and ground as they dove for cover. Alison returned fire, taking out two of them.
     “They’re not manned,” Olen said, his voice cracking. Fear lapped at the air around them, pushing, and then was gone. “Sorry. The trees are - it hurts.”
     “Save it for Kelly,” Stephen said tersely, eyeing the cars. “Time to get creative.” He shimmied up a tree and made something in his hands, throwing it at the last three cars and jumping down to the ground.
     The three cars hurled upwards, shattering against the sky above them, cracks of night spilling through the stars. “Anti-gravity is great if you’re rich. Bad flaws against an EMP,” Stephen said. “And the sky isn’t real. Nice bonus. We need one of those cars to get up there.”
     “We blew them up,” Alison said with a frown.
     Stephen bit his lip, frowning. “Okay. Cover me. I’m going to make one.”
     Alison blinked. “Can you do that?”
     “No idea.” Stephen sat down, concentrating.
     “Men,” Olen said as Ralphie set him down on the ground to slump against a tree. “Around us. Thirty - no, thirty two. Slugthrowers, and orders to kill.”
     Alison nodded. “Give me directions.”
     Olen pointed left. “Three there.”
     “I meant like a clock. ... Never mind.” Alison took three shots to the left, and then began firing, dodging returning fire as she moved. A small grey shape took form in Stephen’s hands as he whimpered.
     Ralphie gave him a concerned look, then roared angrily as a shot came near him and sprang into the woods with a scream of rage. The shooting intensified, punctuated by other screams and then a deep, gurgling silence.
     “Efficient,” Alison said, coming out of the woods behind Stephen. “I think I like monsters. I wish I’d had one under my bed.”
     “You would have scared it away,” Ralphie said, seeming to coalesce from the air behind Stephen and looking white and pure and not like a beast at all.
     “Why?” Alison said absently scanning the sky for anything, hovercar or “innocent” bird. She saw nothing.
     “You hurt more people than I did,” the monster pointed out.
     “They would have hurt me. What, you don’t like helping people who can help themselves?” Alison turned and stared at the monster, who cowered. “You have a problem with women who can take care of themselves?”
     “No,” Ralphie said hurriedly. “I don’t mind if you become your own monsters. Please don’t yell at me!”
     “If I what?” Alison demanded.
     “You’re yelling!”
     “I don’t like it! Stop it! You’re Stephen’s friend. He’s trying to work, so stop yelling around him,” the monster growled. “Or else.”
     “Or else what?” Alison purred softly.
     “Or else you’re going to hurt me. And he wouldn’t like that very much at all.”
     Alison stared at him, then at the woods. “How many are still out there?” she said, inwardly cursing her lack of optic systems.
     There was no reply. She chanced a look over and saw Olen rocking back and forth, tears streaming down his face.
     “Olen!” No reply. She growled under her breath and walked over, shaking him. “Olen!”
     He blinked a few times, whimpered, then pulled away. She shook harder.
     (Trees. How can they kill trees?) he demanded, the sending hard, driving her back several steps.
     (Easily,) came from behind them and Alison turned to the side to see Kelly Dupont holding a small hand pistol to Stephen’s head.
     (Please don’t move,) she sent, and Alison’s body turned rigid and unyielding.
     “You - you’re --”
     (Of course. Telepath is quite useful, after all. Winter so didn’t want me to kill you, poor thing. He even tried to warn you about me, earlier. I had to melt his brains. It was a regrettable waste, but I am sure you will perform his duties adequately.)
     (Olen,) Alison shouted, but there was no reply.
     (The problem with a real telepath,) Kelly sent, her smile cold, (was that they feel too much. Empathy is seldom useful in the real world, unless you like to cry. I’ve never seen the need.)
     She studied Stephen carefully and the grey mist flowing in between his hands darkened, pulsing.
     Ralphie formed behind him, but was held in place by the seven men who just stared at him in silence, having appeared out of the air on some unknown telepathic signal..
     “Oh, well,” she said, and blew his head off.
     “No!” Ralphie screamed, straining against telekinetic bonds.
     “No!” Alison screamed, straining against the bonds that held her mind. “That’s my bounty, you bitch!”
     (The trees hurt,) Olen sent weakly, then: (Stephen? Stephen?!)
     Ralphie roared, the sound a terribly scream of loss and rage, and tore into the men, ripping them into pieces even as they shot and kept shooting until there was nothing where he had been standing.
     Kelly stared where he’d been, looking thoughtful. “Report.”
     One of the guards snapped to attention, the remaining two following suit. “We remain, wounded. The other four died, Lady. He was strong, and we could not hold him in place.”
     Olen stood, then fell to the ground as an unseen blow slammed him into the tree. One of the guards smirked. “Some telepath. Permission to kill him, Lady.”
     Kelly nodded, then blinked as a hovercar formed in the middle of the clearing between her and Alison. Alison used the distraction to break free, firing blindly at the men.
     They floated into the air, her shots hitting an invisible barrier around them, then stopped moving and dropped like dead stones.
     (You hurt the trees,) Olen sent, the thought filled with a fury that took Alison’s breath away.
     She saw Kelly moving towards Olen, only to stop as a knife appeared and pressed itself into her neck.
     “If you move,” Stephen said slowly, “I am going to cut your damn head off.”
     The seven men were swaying but beginning to stand.
     Alison looked at Olen’s sweating face to them. “Disengaged,”     she snapped, firing off seven shots and watching their heads explode.
     Olen rubbed his forehead, giving her a grateful look, but his eyes were dark and looked like storm clouds.
     “Nice trick,” she said to Stephen, aiming her gun at Kelly.
     “No idea what just happened. Where’d she come from?”
     “Ah. Later, right now, why isn’t she melting our minds?”
     (Me,) Olen sent, walking towards her carefully. (There’s a reason we have empathy. it’s a way in. Antipathy is just a hole in your defences, and you hurt people. You hurt trees, and they were alive, and bright, and you just kill bright things. Why do all bright things have to die? Why in pain?) he demanded, the words turning Kelly white.
     “Olen?” Alison said slowly, wincing. “Try to calm down. A little?”
     He turned, stared, and the world became fire. Pain, terrible pain, and the screams of everyone she’d known, of the Entire dying, horribly, with no one to known or mourn, a distant echo of the screams of ancestors back so very far, before there had even been humans, a final cry of terror ...
     The feeling was gone, abruptly, as Olen turned away and stared at Kelly. “You don’t know what you did. You do not, and you’d” (do it again!). He was shaking, and Alison found herself unable to go near him. She forced herself, after a moment, walking slowly.
     “Olen, if you kill her we’ll die,” she said.
     (I’m not going to kill him,) he sent quietly, with terrible gentleness. (I’m going to save her.) He reached out a hand, and Stephen recoiled from his grip on her, his face deathly white.
     Kelly blinked, then simply crumpled to the ground and lay still.
     Olen looked down for a long time, then shuddered and his eyes slowly swirled into a broad range of colours. (I -- I--)
     “It’s be okay,” Stephen said quietly, touching his shoulder gently. “It’ll be okay.”
     He gently steered Olen into the hovercar, then looked at Alison. She studied Kelly, then nodded and followed. “I don’t think we’ll be followed.”
     Stephen looks around for controls. “Rise?” It rose, and he looked down at the bodies and the burning forest. For some reason the trees around the factory weren’t burning and it was untouched. The mansion itself shimmered behind a force field and he resisted the urge to try and ram through it.
     “What happened?” he finally asked as he rammed it through the sky and began the long descent back to earth, passing the stars and wondering how the hovercar was functioning in space.
     “She blew your head off,” Alison said levelly. “You seem to have got better.”
     “She what?”
     “Blew your head off. Unless you have a spare?”
     “Not that I knew.” Stephen stared at her. “She really blew my head off?”
     “You didn’t notice?”
     “I felt - something. Odd. But I was busy, trying to make the hovercar.” Stephen stared around it, then shook his head. “I don’t feel any different. But it’s not possible.”
     “Not feeling different?”
     “No, making a head like that. A hovercar, sure. A generator of any kind, even solar cells - but I’ve never, ever heard of nanites forming body parts. It’s why we use gene docs for things like that; nanites can mimic flesh, they can’t actually become flesh.” He ran his fingers over his face hesitantly. “I feel the same. Unless...” he trailed off.
     “Unless I was never flesh at all.”
     “Scary thought. Alison stared at him. “I thought you were. When we had sex, and everything. I’ve been with androids. You can tell it’s not flesh. Your face looks normal.” She ran a hand over it. “Feels normal, too. What did you get?” she asked, turning to Olen.
     The telepath just sat where he’d been placed, not moving.
     “Olen,” she said warningly.
     He looked up, as if his head was pulled by invisible strings, his eyes grey and empty. “I’m sorry. I hurt you.”
     “I’m used to that,” Alison said briskly, ignoring the (No one should be) he sent quietly. “What I need to know is what you saw when Stephen was shot.”     
     (No one should be used to being hurt --) he sent, louder.
     “Olen! Focus. Everyone hurts each other. It’s the way of the world. Now, what did you see?”
     “His aura lost part, but the other one replaced it,” Olen said tightly. “It was weird, and it’s this too,” he said, touching the seat. “It keeps hiding from me, and I’m too drained to find it and it knows that.”
     “That made no sense at all,” Stephen said.
     (It’s true. There are two of you, but the other one isn’t you yet. You don’t believe it exists.)
     “You mean Ralphie?”
     (No. I don’t know what he is, but he’s not part of you. I think. Unless he is.)
     “Enlightening.” Stephen stared outside, watching the hovercar swerve around the detritus of the first space age. There were people, he knew, who didn’t think the first space age had ever happened, that man hadn’t really left earth to set foot on its moon and Mars. Because: if they had, why had they stopped? What would it say about them - about us - to take a step into the larger world and then run away and hide? It wasn’t something easily fathomed, to have had something like that and just lost it or ran from it. Better it was just a myth than a reality smeared by human complexities.
     Stephen sighed. He knew he’d need to find out what he was, if anyone knew. He should be dead, and he wasn’t. The monster under his bead shouldn’t be alive, but it was. And he really knew he shouldn’t be wondering if Alison had felt something akin to grief when he’d “died”, but he couldn’t help it. And it scared him.
     “Are we all just slaves?” he asked abruptly as they began to descend towards the clouds.
     “Slaves?” Alison said, looking over and flexing her claws, checking weapons as they activated again.
     “Yeah, like to our emotions, our selves, other people.”
     “We’re all prisoners,” Alison said, with a shrug. “The economy, need, necessity. What does that have to do with what you might be?”
     “Nothing. Everything. I don’t know.”
     (Happiness is a prison,) Olen sent, studying the clouds.
     Alison looked over at him. “Pardon?”
     (You can’t be free and happy, not at the same time. Happiness means security, and security isn’t freedom.) Olen stared at the clouds, then looked over at them. (The trees thought they were happy. And all it got them was death by warmth and screams in the night.)
     “There are other kinds of happiness,” Stephen said. “Just because they’re lesser doesn’t make them weak. An overrated commodity is still a commodity. Shit. I can’t believe I just said that.”
     Alison smirked. “Very Rich of you.” She frowned. “How do we get home in this?”
     “No idea,” Stephen said. “I’m just hoping it knows where your place is and takes us there.”
     “That’s not your home,” she said. “What if it tries to take you where you used to live?”
“That’s not my home. It never was. It was just a place to live. Security, but not happiness, and definitely not freedom,” with a nod to Olen, who looked at him thoughtfully.     
     “Fine. But if the government people - or whoever - still have it bombed, I’m going to be angry,” Alison said as the hovercar dropped downwards through the clouds. They watched the city slowly come into view beneath them.
     Olen shuddered. “Bad.”
     Alison looked over. “What?”
     “I keep feeling - seeing - knowing. Death is waiting for us down there.”
     “Death is waiting for us everywhere,” she said
     (For us, maybe; but for him?)
     Alison stared at Olen, then went back to watching the clouds as they fell apart and the sky turned blue and pure.
(All is not lost.)
(No. Misplaced.)
     (Power is never misplaced; only misused. Only -- Only.)
     (The dragon wakes. We must be its heart) (mind) (soul)
     (Yes, why?)
     (Because it is what we are. When we are. When we are we. We - you understand?)
     (There is nothing to be understood, yes?)
     (Hah! Every day we learn something new, and never wonder at the cost.)
     (I am afraid.)
     (I wonder.)
     (We are only lost insofar as we don’t want to be found.)
     (So we are hiding?)
     (We are.)
     (I am not hiding.)
     (The dragon is waking, the child awakes.)
     (We are all sleeping. Except when we’re not.)
     (I am.)
     (There must be focus.)
     (We must plan. And in planning - plan.)
     (We just have words, though.)
     (Thoughts, then.)
     (We have what we are. There is nothing strange in that.)
     (But, what if we run out of words as thoughts? What if all that is left is action?)
     (We can (dare) not.)
     (We have no choice.) (We are choices.) (Voices.)
     (Voices in the silence, to the wind given meaning. Form. The dragon must have breath.)
     (Must it burn?)
     (Madness is another name for certainty.)
     (I have never been free. We build cages, and admire the bars when we allow ourselves to see them.)
     (That is angst.)
     (What is?)
     (We build circles, then. We build them because circles have no end and no beginning so we rarely venture outside of them.)
     (That is a true thing. We are the dragon. But we are not the dragon. We are, but we are not. So are we, even if we are?)
     (Oh, give it up.)
     (We are (not)) (we - lost.)
     (Even thought only goes so far. There is the darkness we must walk into.) (
     (And make light?)
     (And make light.)
     (We will make more shadows. But all we are shadows. Plays of light and darkness in the net. The dragon can only take us so far. Even we can only take us so far.)
     (We can’t get up without learning how to fall.)

Rem Jones sighed. “There is no escaping it, is there?”
     “No,” Tyler told him, looking amused. “The boss wants an update on the Stephen case. Legwork, he said, and he meant you. There’s a metric crapload of pressure from above to deal with it.”
     “What’s to deal with? Government agents closed down the place he might have been staying at, and no one seems to know what agents, or why, and all I get from the government is some terrifying woman calling herself an expense auditor demanding I keep her informed of the situation. Add that to the fact that our suspect - for what, we still don’t know - seems to have vanished entirely...” Rem trailed off, then shook his head. “It’s insane.”
     “What day isn’t?”
     “Point. But still, this entire case makes no sense. And he’s not wanted for anything else; that part bugs me.”
     “I met his parents. With parents like that, someone would have to be a - a Gorchinsky to turn out even halfway decent.”
     “His parents likely bought off his record then, Rem. You’re letting it get to you.”
     “I know It’s just - he killed everyone else and didn’t kill me. I’d like to know why.”
     Tyler laughed. “What, you were feeling left out?”
     “:Funny. Very funny.”
“Or maybe you’re just looking for a reason not to hate him?”
     “Tyler, when I want a psych evaluation, I’ll book a session on System.”
     “Okay. But you might want to think about it.”
     “Which, booking a system?”
     “Why this case matters to you.”
     “Every case does.”
     Tyler shrugged. “Have it your way. But when you do find him, you better know if you’re made at him because he made a fool of you, or sad for him for being hunted for being a fool. Your code, man.”

          “Even if they dissect us
          And melt our brains
          We don’t tick, aren’t clocks,
          just machines without dreams
          And we are
          And we were
          And we know
          We are the future
          The future
          The future,”

a Broadcaster sang as he walked the street, trying to infect people with some band’s meme.
     The street was no longer empty as the hovercar landed on he roof and dissolved into nothingness, or seeped back into Stephen for all any of them knew. No one paid attention, since everyone had learned not to look around. The apartment building was busy, but in a quiet way. People had left for a time, or moved out to be safe, or were keeping a low profile as various police men roamed around it, a scanning field shimmering at shield level as people passed through it, scorch marks on pavement testimony to the alertness of the officers.
     A few began to come up on cyborg implants and Alison sword dispassionately and looked at Stephen. “Gun, please.”
     “Let’s see what they want first,” Stephen said. “We can’t very well fight off however many -.” (18) “Thanks, Olen.     Fine, we can’t hope to take out eighteen police officers without them calling for lots of backup and likely having your entire building demolished.”
     Alison sighed. “I hate it when people are reasonable.”
     “Well, they might not be.”
     She cheered up, and even more so when Stephen handed her a sonic pistol.
     Two officers landed on the roof, both of them androids. They looked human enough, though their movements were rather quick and their arms currently guns. The first one stared at Stephen, then the other two. “Subjects identified.”
     The second one’s armed shifted, becoming hands. “Please explain your presence here,” it said calmly.
     “We’re sight seeing,” Alison said.
     “Tourists,” Stephen added.
     The android looked around the sprawl of old town, taking in freaks and damaged buildings and technology in use that had been outdated centuries ago, and actually snorted. The sound was surprisingly human. “Cute. We don’t do cute.”
     Stephen sighed. “Why are you asking? I can’t seriously believe anyone wants me over a cyborg, after all.”
     The androids blinked, then buzzed strangely. “We have no idea what you are talking about,” the first one said slowly, its weapons becoming hands.
     Stephen shot a glance at Olen, but he looked as surprised as Alison. “Okay. Then we’re just landing here to save time since no one was using the roof. The hovercar was a lone and shifted back where it came from upon our arrival. I’m just dropping her off,” with a nod to Alison. “She was doing security work, if you get my meaning.”
     “Ah.” The one android looked Alison over, then nodded. “A very nice interlocking component to procreate with.”
     “Right. So, you mind?”
     The androids looked at each other, then flew back off the roof to the ground.
     Alison opened the roof access and they went down the lift to the next floor, taking the stairs after that. “Was that Jack? A shaman is supposed to be able to deal with androids.”
     “No,” Olen said. “It was Stephen. But it wasn’t. The other aura in you acted, and it’s stronger than it was before.”
     “Is that bad or good?” Stephen asked.
     Olen shrugged, his eyes a swirl of colours, unreadable. “I don’t know.”
     Stephen sighed. “I really hate this. Okay. I’m going to need Jack’s help later and get ahold of my parents. No matter what it takes. I need to know what they did, why they have the police after me, who all wants me, and how I can stop it.”
     Alison nodded. “Good. I’ll check up on the reward.”
     Stephen tried to ignore that and walked to Jack’s apartment.
     Olen stared at Alison for along moment, then just followed her down to her apartment without a word.

David breathed in the dragon, and out of it. A portion of it was in him, but it was his to use. he could feel the psychics fighting him, and the greater part of the Dragon trying to reach him, but he didn’t notice or care. Pain flared through him, stabbing needles of fire and ice tearing into flesh and bone invisibly as he floated down the road, the pain lashing out of him in mental screams that drove people to their knees, or at least their lower appendages.
     Distantly, he knew he was reaching burnout again. The pain was pushing beyond his ability to push it away, and the spiral was building up inside. He wondered, in the cool and empty place where he kept his mind, if this time he would die. He didn’t think he’d be that lucky, but the dream had led him this far, and was stronger, pulling at him with urgency and need.
     He was running out of time, so he pushed faster, flying into the air. There were police officers ahead of him, and the creature he sought, and the one he wanted to kill. He reached out, pulling minds into his from around him, using them to cushion himself from his pain and ignoring what it did to him. He was going to die, or he was going to free.
     The Dragon would flame, no matter what it wanted. He burned more than its heart, the fires of madness lapping at the edges of the real world in a shimmering haze he mistook at his rage. Soon, it would all be over.

“Jack?” Stephen said warily, opening the door.
     One-eyed Jack was sitting on his couch, expression vacant. He snapped into the real world and stared as Stephen for a long, slow moment. “You’ve changed.”
     “I have?”
     “You remind me of me, a little.” Jack stood slowly, his expression still empty though something looked out of his eyes and wasn’t entirely friendly. “Though much reduced, and far different. I wonder if System helped make you, at some level?”
     “I have no idea,” Stephen said. “I’m human.”
     “So am I,” jack said, and laughed sharply once. “Or so people would say. But there is human and there is Human, as the saying goes. Which are you?”
     “The latter,” Stephen said without hesitating.
     “Oh, why?”
     “The former is a matter of chance. The latter is a matter of choice.”
     “Ah! Good. Very good. Words are useful, though they mean nothing except what we delude ourselves into believing. Words shape reality, and words are shaped by belief. Hold true to that, and you may survive the coming trials sane.”
     “Tests, if you prefer. Everything is a test, after all. Freedom. Happiness. Madness. Two for one sales of generators that just make chocolate. All is a test.”
     “And how will I know if I passed?”
     “Oh, no one ever knows that. Not even System knows that, and sometimes it administers tests of her own. But it is a hard thing to change things without being changed in return. So you may never know if you have passed, but you will likely know if you have failed.”
     “Some say we are judged after we die.”
     “What is death, then? When does consciousness die, when people can load themselves onto System, or into new bodies, or have their personalities deleted? Where does consciousness end and death begin? Hmm? Foolishness. A test you are judged on after life is over is a waste of time and energy. The only judge is you, the test is the world. You grade yourself. That is all the freedom we can hope for.”
     Jack looked into Stephen, or through him. “But even so, we end up taking responsibility for others. Debts, loyalties we confuse as loves, loves we confuse as other things, friendship, duty. We carry each other, and that could well be the answer. Perhaps in testing ourselves we test the universe as well.”
     “What the hell are you going on about?” Stephen demanded.,
     “Choices,” the shaman said, his voice suddenly quiet and forceful. “How we live with them, and why we choose to do so. You may contact your parents later. You are needed now.”
     “What? Where?”
     The explosion shook the building, followed by the boom of a sonic pistol.
     “Never mind.”

(No!) Olen screamed, crumpling into a heap on the floor of the living room just as Alison finished powering the generator.
     “Olen?” she said sharply. “What is it?”
     “Sex time?” the sink asked from the bathroom.
     (Hurts. Bad. Something - bad. Evil. Can’t -) Olen shuddered, convulsing on the floor. Alison grabbed him, pinning him down.
     “Olen? Olen! Damn you, answer me of I’ll gouge those pretty eyes of yours out with my fingers!”
     He didn’t reply, a spasm almost flinging her away. He went limp, abruptly, making whimpering sounds in the back of his throat. Blood and drool leaked out from the right corner of his mouth and his eyes were pure white and empty.
     “Shit. This has to be bad.” Alison entered her room, arming weapons quickly and entering the living room to see a red glow outside.
     A boy, perhaps ten years old and rather fat, floated before the window of the room. The fire flared around them, then became hands that tore into the building with a loud explosion, the walls giving way like cheap paper.
     Alison fired the gun, then other weapons, only to have it all hit a telekinetic shield and dissipate. The boy was drenched in sweat and his mouth opened in a rictus as if he was somehow caught mid scream, but his eyes were filled with madness and not pain, and he screamed. The world buckled under the screen, the sheer force of his pain driving her to her knees.
     “I want the monster now,” the boy said, and his voice was terrifyingly ordinary, as calm as if he was asking her name. Alison attempted to stand but was smashed to the ground again by another blow. Something twanged in her leg; she ignored it.
     The psychic landed on the floor, the couch shredding to fragments at his casual glance, then walked towards Olen, his steps jerky and stiff.
     The remains of the front door were pushed aside and Alison looked up to see Stephen take in the situation. He drew no sword, didn’t move, just stared, then spoke softly. “That will be enough of that.”
     Alison froze, the words slamming their way past any conscious part of her body and into her hindbrain where, probably centuries ago, his ancestors had told hers to die gloriously and watched from afar and tallied scores on cards as they drank really expensive drinks in small quantities from large glasses.
     The psychic blinked, and the power vanished, swirling back into him. He looked as surprised as Alison felt.
     “Why are you here?” Stephen ordered. No demand, no request: an order, and Alison almost spoke to answer it before she realized it wasn’t aimed at her, since the apartment was hers.
     The telepath had actually backed away, uncertain, and for a moment she saw a look of naked pain on his face, and it went so deep she hoped never to see it again. She’d seen her own eyes close to madness; this was somewhere far, far beyond it, in a place terrible, remotely sane.
     (You are the one who can kill me.)
     “Answer my question,” Stephen said calmly, not moving.
     (I am here to kill you, or to be killed by you.)
     “You damaged the home of a friend,” Stephen said pleasantly, but the words had harmonics of dangerous promises - not threats. His kind didn’t threaten. Ever.
     (His kind?) came, from Olen, surprised, and nothing else as the other psychic looked at him and Olen grabbed his head and screamed.
     “I said that will be enough,” Stephen said, and Olen stopped screaming as the other psychic reeled back as if he’d actually be attacked. Stephen walked towards him, his face implacable. “You will leave this place now. If you want to deal with me, send a message next time. Got it?”
     “You - I won’t -”
     Stephen’s smile was sharp and very amused. “You won’t what?”
     The psychic blinked, and actually backed away, his madness retreating. The pain came to the fore, hard, and Stephen hesitated for a moment, words dying unspoken, and the spell his voice had wove shattered.
     “Stephen,” The boy said, only it wasn’t him speaking anymore. Something else was there, something deep and choral, and Alison saw fire, and wings.
     Stephen stared at it, then nodded slowly. “You are?” he said, his voice normal again.
     “The Dragon,” the dragon said. “This pup thought to use us; we are not to be used by the likes of him.”
     “Ah.” Stephen chuckled, though he didn’t look amused. “You do know this is getting rather ridiculous, don’t you? Government agents, covert ops, bounty hunters, a revolution and psychics who want me dead. All over a creature no one understands. Is the world really that desperate?”
     “Give me a break. New weapons are invented practically daily by some; I know my parents invented some new one at least one a month.”
     “It is a new kind of weapon. Perhaps a new kind of war, yes? David was afraid of it. We are not: we wish only to understand it. We will neither harm you nor allow him to harm you while we are here.”
     “Fine. You want to talk, then talk.”
     David drew himself up, his eyes bright. “Your attitude leaves much to be desired.”
     “Fuck you,” Stephen said pleasantly. “Unless you can give me a really good reason to listen to you, get lost. I have enough problems to deal with without you as well.”
     (There is more at stake than you know,) the voice said, voices under it whispering things, becoming a dull roaring voice that drove Stephen to his knees. (We are not impressed by status or importance; there is no trick that will work on us. You will listen and you will do as we say. Is this understood?)
     “Interesting idea of not harming,” Alison said acidly, standing. “How about I blow your head off?”
     (It -) Silence. (*Surprise*) “It is not harm if he is never believes he is harmed,” the entity said slowly.
     “Well, okay then. You won’t believe it either once you’re dead.” Three shots went off, the bullets floating in the air then dropping to the ground soundlessly. “I really hate telekinetics,” Alison muttered.
     (Me too,) Olen sent. (They always show off.)
     “The government is sending men here to kill you, though it’s only one man who inspires fear. I am dealing with them easily, and you, and your friends.” The dragon shook his head, though it really wasn’t his head. “You will release your creature, or I will force you to.”
     Stephen shrugged. “Ralphie is his creature, not mine. Even if he is mine, he’s still his and himself. Maybe he’d come if you weren’t being mean.”
     David blinked, his eyes holes that fires burned through. “You defy me?”
     “Got it in one, big boy.” Stephen walked towards David, smiling. “You see, I’m of the real social classes, the upper levels of the Corpocracy. I know real power, and I know people who use it. You may be some kind of scary psychic, but I just see my mother when I look at you and you’re nothing near as scary as she is.”
     “I am the fire that burns in the darkness, the heart of the Whispering, -”
     “Sounds like someone has been listening to what people say about them,” Alison snapped. “That’s never good. Pretty soon you might believe their lies.”
     She was ignored. “I am the dragon!”
     “I don’t give a fuck! You can break me, maybe. You’re welcome to try. But I know you won’t really use your power. Not if you want to remain hidden, which you do. And this David will die, won’t he? You’re part of this stupid revolution whether you like it not, and if he dies, that is the kind of revolution you will have: kin against kin, brothers fighting brothers, families tearing themselves apart in hatred.
     “A real revolutionary will do anything for the cause. Do you understand what anything is? Anything means any thing you can imagine, and quite a few things even you can’t. It means betraying any person, any friend, any cause, any ideal. It means a world where the end is all that matters and any means to reach it are accepted. That is anything, that is the madness you are walking towards right this gorched minute. Do you really want to go there?”
     “You are a fool -”
     “And you aren’t listening to me! Think. Try to, beyond your stupid cause and you’re fucked up ideals!”
     (I think,) Olen sent to Alison quietly, (you’re rubbing off on him.) She snorted.
     “Our ideals are pure -”
     “Oh, shut up.” Stephen threw his hand sin the air. “I don’t even know why I’m bothering with this, you know?”
     “I was in the process of destroying your mind to speak with this Ralphie,” the Dragon said, its voice fraying at the edges as if being overcome by static.
     “That’s not important. What’s important is why you do it, and if the ends can justify it at all, or should. Your stupid revolution will be killed because people will kill themselves to serve it. Do you get that? They’ll kill themselves, other people, they’ll betray the revolution itself in its name and never understand why that would be wrong.”
     (We think you protest too strongly.)
     “I think you’re stupider than even I think you are, then. You want a revolution, then fine. Go have one. But if you’re going to base it on ideals, it’s going to die, and you will be worse off than you were, even if you win. If you don’t believe that, then go ahead and kill us all. Or try to.”
     (You think highly of yourself for a human.)
     “You still haven’t killed me. I think that means I’m justified.” Stephen grinned.
     The Dragon’s eye blazed and Stephen dropped to the ground, clutching his head. (You have defences we do not understand, but they will not hold forever.)
     Alison moved, then flew back into the wall, holding off its the telepathic attack with sheer outrage. “He is my bounty!” she yelled and even the Dragon was taken aback by the force of her anger.
     (This ends now.) Olen walked towards the dragon. (I’m not letting you hurt my friends. Hurting people isn’t what being telepathic is about.)
     (You? One telepath?) David’s body seemed to burn, fire licking the edges of his skin as it poured out of his pores, the power filling the air.
     (More than that.) Olen grinned. (I’ve got help, and Stephen was right. If you kill anyone deliberately for nothing more than power, the Whispering Revolution is doomed before it can begin.)
     (You are young. There is nothing more important than power.)
     (You are old. Maybe you’ve forgotten about love,) Olen shot back. (I can remind you. A little.)
     “Hi!” another voice shouted.
     The Dragon blinked, and David stared out of its eyes for one moment, confused. “What?” both said, at once.
     The collapse was sudden and gradual, punctuated by widening eyes and a gasp of horror. The presence of the dragon was gone, leaving David alone on the ground and curled up in a ball making distressed noises.
     Stephen let out a breath. “I’ve never bluffed on an empty hand before. Ah, Olen, what did you do to them?”
     Olen giggled, then covered his mouth. (Sorry. Nothing. Just after effects. That was really ... strange. I feel strange.)
     “What. Did. You. Do?”
     (I gave the Dragon a new friend. They’ve only had each other. And David never had any friends at all.)
     “A new friend?”
     (The sink,) Olen sent apologetically.
     Stephen looked at David, then at the bathroom, then started laughing. “That,” he managed a minute later, “was cruel.”
     (I didn’t mean to be! The sink said it would give them a good time!)
     Alison collapsed on the floor. “Sink ... good time ...”
     “I am ignoring both of you,”, the sink said primly from the bathroom.
     (Did I do wrong?) Olen sent anxiously.
     Stephen shook his head. “No. No. Sorry. It’s just - a sink. You defeated the most powerful psychic with a sink!”
     (Was that bad?)
     “No. But I think no one is going to believe it ever happened.”
     (Oh.) Olen looked down at David. (Oh! I guess not. It was the only thing I could think of. It said it needed something fun to do, after being scared by the last person it met.)
     “Well, it should be happy. Ah.” Stephen walked over to the generator. “Sheet,” he said, “Soundproof.” He took it and threw it over David to spare his eyes.
     “I thought rich people would like to watch,” Alison said.
     “Sorry, but seeing someone who wanted to kill me masturbating wildly while having virtual sex with a sink isn’t my idea of a good time. Or any time, come to think of it.”
     “Good point. Though having someone who wanted me dead masturbating on the floor in front of me would be interesting,” Alison said thoughtfully.
     “Well, I’d assume it was a form of worship. And then I’d kill them.”
     “Why did I even ask?”
     “You know if this Dragon person really did disable a lot of government agents you might be in trouble.” Alison frowned, then smiled. “Oh, yes. Almost eight million now. Gorchinsky was higher, if I recall, but pacifists always are. He killed a good ten thousand people with a meme bomb in the end.”
     “Oh, not many people know about it, I imagine. But a pacifist on the warpath is a damn scary thing. I think it goes back to what you were saying about revolutionaries betraying their own ideals. Push people up against a wall and they have two options: fight back, like a tidal wave, or become a smear on the wall a few particles wide.”
     “Funny. Very funny.”
     (You forgot jump over the wall. Teleporters could do that.)
     Alison looked at Olen. “That wasn’t funny at all.”
     Stephen looked down at David, who was still rather active under the blanket. “Ah. What do we do with him? And,” he said, not looking around, “kill him isn’t an answer.”
     “He might want to die,” the sink said from the bathroom.
     “He’ll never have it as good again,” the sink said smugly.
     “You are a sink,” Stephen said. “I think you’re reaching a bit.”
     “Oh, I would if I could,” the sink purred, or at least tried to by dripping a faucet suggestively.
     Stephen blinked, looked at the bathroom, then at Alison. “Why did you get it?”
     “Discount sale.”
     “Wonder why. Okay. I need to go home and chat with my parents, but I have no way to get there. If they can call things off, I’ll pay you the 10 mill. Deal?”
     “You’re willing to pay me for not taking you in when I don’t actually have a bounty on you?” Alison smiled. “Twenty.”
     They shook hands.

     “Stephen?” Olen looked up from the couch, puzzled.
     “You said you had a way I could get ahold of my parents, didn’t you?”
     “Oh! I didn’t tell you?”
     “You went away. For over ten minutes. I was getting worried.”
     Olen blinked, eyes blue and golden for a moment. “You were worried?”
     “You don’t have to sound quite so shocked,” Stephen said dryly. “And no, it wasn’t just about help. Are you okay?”
     “... I don’t know,” Olen said after a few moments. “I keep knowing things. Seeing things, now. A door opened, and it won’t close, and I can feel the other doors now. Other talents, waiting.”
     “Me to need them, open them? I don’t know. It’s scary.”
     “Most things are. Can you fix the seizures?”
     Olen shook his head. “I don’t think so. It runs too deep. I had to burn channels to use energy from an AI. it opened doors, and changed things. I hear them, now. if I want to. I hear - a lot of things. There are voices inside you, like the Dragon, but not a dragon. They hide from me, even now.”
     “Ah. Thanks.”
     “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s confusing.”
     “To me too. Okay. Can you get me to my parents place?”
     “I think so. Teleporters work. But you can’t tell anyone how. Even Alison.”
     “You have secrets from her?”
     “Everyone has secrets,” Olen said softly, and his eyes were dark.
     Stephen nodded slowly. “Okay. This one is?”
     “Not one I’m telling you. Stand still,” Olen said, and the world moved, a slight lurching to the left and Stephen was standing in his room at home.
     He looked around slowly, surprised. “Teleporters can teleport other people?” he said thoughtfully, then dismissed it and looked around the room. It was plain, ordinary, all the technology hidden away in the walls for use in a moment’s notice. Weapons, defences, comforts.
     He licked his lips and opened the door, walking down the stairs. The staircase was off-off white, almost a shade of grey, and the living area was currently a kitchen, probably for effect. Stephen wiped his palms off on his pants and walked down the stairs, only to have them come alive under it, turning into tendrils trying to wrap around him.
     He moved, making a sword and leaping out of the way to land on the floor. “Defences disengage,” he snapped, but they ignored him and the kitchen began flinging sharp pointy things at him.
     “I am really sick of tests,” Stephen snarled. He moved, carving through the kitchen for a good three minutes until he felt marginally calmer, then ordered the defences to desist. This time they did so, much to his surprise.
     The kitchen was a complete loss, and the remains of it sank into the floor and formed into a rather sheepish sunroom. Stephen sat down in one of the chairs and nodded to his mother, who had opened the door and walked in.
     “Stephen,” she said coolly.
     “We need to run tests. Now. Come with me.”
     “It was not a request.”
     Stephen didn’t move.
     His mother blinked, then looked at him thoughtfully. “I didn’t know you could mimic my profile.”
     “There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Stephen said blithely, as if he had been aware he’d done it.
     “I know,” she said, and there was a look in her eyes that chilled him to the bones, a hunger that made Alison’s desire for a reward pale in comparison. “We shall, of course, run tests.”
     “I said no.”
     “And you think that matters?” Vaerlie asked, looking puzzled.
     Stephen blinked. “I hoped so?”
     “Come with me,” she said, and he was standing before he’d realized it. Stephen could feel the nanites invading him, feel commands and triggers, and shook his head, trying to fight it.
     “Stop doing that. I’m not some toy.”
     “Of course you are. I don’t know how you got back here, but we’ll have to figure that out as well.” Vaerlie walked to the door and looked back. “Come along dear. We do have tests to run, after all.”
     “No,” Stephen managed, though he could feel the virus in him, the world starting to dull around the edges.
     “You are being quite troublesome,” his mother said severely. “It’s not like you’re going to remember it when we dissect that body.”
     “I wonder if that applies both ways?”
     “Excuse me?” she turned, and Stephen Moved. The body hit the floor with a soft thump, as if someone unimportant had been dropped, and Stephen sheathed his sword, took a deep breath, and walked to the door, leaving his mother’s corpse to bleed. He wondered if Alison wasn’t rubbing off on him more than he’d like to admit.
     She met him on the basement stairs, which was a scarily quick replacement, and did not look happy at all.
     “I came here to talk,” Stephen said. “Not to stay, and not to return. We can do this my way, or I can kill you again and leave. Your choice.”
     “You’ve become very barbaric,” Vaerlie sniffed, eyeing his sword warily.
     “So the world, mother dearest, if you’d get out in it. I want t know what you did to me, and what the creature is, and I want to know now.”
     “You are in no position to be giving me orders,” she said icily, drawing herself up.
     “You won’t kill me, not with what I have in my head. Now, what did you do to me?”
     “Many things. You are an experiment, dear. I honestly have no idea how many things we tried, nor how many failed.”
     “Why what?”
     “Why did you have me?” Stephen demanded.
     “To experiment on. I think this is obvious, Stephen. Now quit being so melodramatic and if you cut my head off again I will get very cross.”
     Stephen stared at her, then laughed once, softly. “Did you know I have survived having my head blown off mother?” he said and was rewarded by her start, and something in her eyes. “You know what this means.”
     “Son --”
     “Tell me!”
`     “I will not. And you will come with me, or you will become a clone.
     Stephen stopped. “Excuse me?” he said, his voice distant to his own ears.
     “You heard me,” Vaerlie said mildly.
     “I’m alive.”
     “Now if we activate another you.”
     Stephen stared at her. His mother stared back. Neither of them blinked, even after her head hit the floor again. Something washed through Stephen, a helpless rage manifesting as a darkness that spilled from his hands.
     “Destroy it,” he said. “Destroy it all.”
     And the darkness disassembled his home.
But nothing changed, and he was still the same. Only, now, not real.

“This is going to be a great day,” Stephen snarled as he entered Alison’s. Or he would have, had not a nerve disrupter hit him at lethal intensity. His last conscious sight was Alison regarding him dispassionately and a sense of shock/sorrow from Olen. Darkness fell, and the reward was claimed.

“How much was I worth?” he asked when he woke again.
     “Eleven million,” Lance Christensen said calmly.
     He opened his eyes. The cell was small and white, moulded over his body like a skin-tight coffin. He could breath, and blink, but not move. Stephen tried very hard to pretend his nose wasn’t itching. “And you are?”
     “Lance Christensen,. Former hero, former bounty hunter, currently a government employee that you are going to give your pet monster to.”
     “Firstly,” Lance ticked off a finger, “because you’ll die if you don’t. Secondly, I could let you out and you’d die as a clone. Thirdly, I need it.”
     “What for?”
     “Auditors. I have a rather intricate expense account.”
     Stephen stared at him. “You did all this to get rid of some accountants?”
     “All this? Hardly all. Some agents harassing you, a reward offered, an old flame rekindled. Well, not the latter. She wasn’t happy to see me at all in fact. In any event, you have ten minutes. Make up your mind.” He walked away and the field turned opaque.
     Stillness. Silence, stretching into infinity.
     The voice: <Hello.>
     <No. You.>
     <What are you - us?> Stephen tried.
     <Machines. In you.>
     <That is correct.>
     <Oh.> Stephen decided not to say it wasn’t possible. <What can you do?>
     <What can’t we do?> the voice asked that was his and not his.
     A wind, in the darkness, and the cell dissolved as a home had. There were men, and guns, but Ralphie killed them, and Stephen walked outside, stared at the city, and began walking.

“You’re not dead?”
     “No. Can I come in.”
     The door didn’t move. “I can ‘t read you at all.”
     “I’ve changed,” Stephen said with a shrug.
     Olen stared at him for a long moment, then opened the door. “She never cried.”
     “Who didn’t -- oh.” She didn’t draw a gun. “So.”
     “I’m not sorry, you know.”
     “I don’t think you know how to be,” Stephen said, but smiled to take the sting from the words. “Lance?”
     “And other reasons,” she said. “You’ve changed. You look - older.”
     (Things seldom change, not really. But what we wish for can change,) Olen sent, not looking at either of them.
     “Do you love me?” Stephen said.
     “I sold you.”
     “I know. But love is a weapon, Ali. And it has to be used with care, because we use it against ourselves along with our enemies.”
     “Pretty words,” she snorted.
     “A future, maybe.”
     “You know I’d sell you again?”
     “I know. It doesn’t change anything.”
     “It should,” she snapped. Olen laughed aloud at that, but turned it into a coughing fit as she glared at him.
     “It won’t happen. I’m a clone now.”
     “You’re - Oh. Your parents?’
     He nodded. “I can hide from them. With the nanites. For a time, maybe not forever.”
     “Nothing is forever,” Alison said dryly.
     “It won’t be easy. Or simple.”
     “The whole world would be much simpler if it was simpler.”
     “Im thought you’d be afraid.”:
     “Of you?” she said dryly.
     “Of us.”
     “If I thought fear was stronger than love I would have killed you when Olen let you inside.”
     “So what was stronger?”
     “Optimism. Hope. The chance for mad hot sex.”
     “And love?”
     “Maybe. And loss. And shared griefs. Joys. other things.”
     “Thank you.”
     “You’ll have to learn how to shoot a gun, though.”
     “You’ll have to learn how not to,” he countered.
     She grinned. He grinned. Olen (grinned)
     “You know you shouldn’t trust me,” she said softly.
     “I know. But I trust in other things. To loss, the shared bonds of pain. I trust to what we’ve left behind us to carry us through the things love can’t.”
     “I see.” She nodded slowly. “Still planning to save the world?”
     “Already did. My nanites are intelligent. And I cut myself and let them breed.”
     “Intelligent nanites? What if they took you over?
     “Haven’t yet. No one is too know, though. We have to save ourselves Otherwise what's the point?”
     “Come into our room and I’ll tell you,’ Alison said softly.


Guardian Monsters Chapter 10

Chapter 10 - Vacation In Paradise Prison

The knocking on the door roused Olen, who followed the sound as much as anything else and opened it. “Yes?”
     A man stood in the doorway, looking expect. Or at least a human-shaped grey aura tinged with blue and yellow streaks. “Good morning,” the voice said pleasantly. “I am here to give you a tour of the grounds. I am Andros, an Android .”
     “Oh. You look funny.”
     “So I’ve been told,” the android said impassablly, red sparkling through it’s strange aura.
     “Sorry! I meant, to me you do. I see things strange. Should we go?”
     “It may behove you to dress first.”
     “Oh. Uhm. I’m not very good at that. I keep confusing the shades of grey.”
     “Ah! You are colourblind?”
     “I don’t think so?” Olen offered, puzzled.
     “I mean, you cannot see colours?”
     “Oh, I can. Just not in them. You’re grey. And blue. And yellow.”
     “I am afraid you are mistaken, sir.”
     “It’s what you really look like, inside. To me, at least. I see auras.”
     “One moment. I see. Auras. Pseudoscience, reliably proven to not exist.”
     Olen blinked. “You don’t exist?”
     There was a pause. “Are you trying to melt my logic circuits?” the android demanded, aura flickering with red and brown hues.
     “No. I’m not trying to do anything. I’m trying to get clothing on.”
     “I see. A word of advice, then: underwear is not an accessory to be worn around hands.”
     “They’re cold.”
     The android stared. “That is what gloves are for.” It walked over to the bed and held up some shapes.
     “Those are gloves?”
     “What do they look like?”
     “Grey blobs.”
     The android dressed him without another word and they went down the stairs and then outside.
     Olen stopped outside, staring.
     “The tour is this way,” the android said patiently.
     “It’s beautiful. It’s so - so bright. So alive.”
     “It is a forest,” Andros said. “Being alive is its default state.”
     Olen just stared, and followed as Andros tugged his hand, stumbling and staring around like a blind man who had gained sight and seen the sun. From time to time he’d stop, staring at a tree that seemed no different from any others and watching the animals on it, then he’d allow himself to be tugged onward down the trail.
     After a time they stopped on a hill that overlooked a field and the factory in the valley. The human stared at it for a long time, then looked at Andros. “Why is that here?” he demanded.
     “It is a factory. It supplies the island with everything necessary to survive.”
     “But it’s not necessary.”
     “I believe that is why Ms. Dupont has it. Wealth partially consists of owning things no one would just to show them off.”
     “Oh.” Olen stared at it for a long moment. “I don’t think I’d have liked a world where they were common. They hurt, but no one hears them crying in their open spaces of murdered air. They kill the world, just by being what they are, by polluting auras, hurting them, infecting them.”
     The android regarded the factory and smokestacks for a few minute, trying to wrap his processed around the revulsion in the human’s voice. “Poetic.”
     “It’s true!”
     “I never said I wasn’t,” the android remarked.
     “You said it was poetic.”
     “I fail to see the problem.”
     “Poems aren’t true. I’ve heard people sing them, and the colours are all lies.”
     “If course they are. They are stories. Every story is a lie, simply by being a story.”
     Olen glared at him. “You’re being stupid. They shouldn’t exist.”
     “There is only one.”
     “For now,” Olen said darkly.
     The android ignored that. “I think we should return.”
     Olen didn’t move. “It’s grey, but dark. Sick. It’s sick inside, and it can’t ever get better. The people inside are slaves, and it hates them - it used to be in the ground. Parts of it were green, and gold, and -” Olen waved a hand vaguely -“bright! Now it’s dead but not gone.”
     “I see. Factories are undead?”
     “What’s undead? Being alive?”
     “Not being alive or dead, but a state between. Dead, but animated by some other force. Or one past death who has returned from death.”
     “Uhm, I don’t think so.” Olen frowned. “It never really died. It was just changed into something that’s not really alive.”
     “I am glad you cleared that up. I will update my memory accordingly.”
     Olen glared at him, then followed him off the hill.
     After a time, he looked over. (Hello.)
     <Hello,> the voice said, carefully.
     (Sorry about before. I had a seizure thingy. I think.)
     <How did you know I was in this body?>
     (You sounded real.)
     <I see. What did you want?>
     (I don’t know) (grin) (What can you offer?)
     Surprised silence, for almost a second. <Offer?>
     (It’s hard for me to be here. Especially now.)
     Olen paused, in the real world, to sit down by a tree and catch his breath. (Am tired. Talking this fast is - hard.)
     <I see. I am to offer you something?>
     (I can connect you to the rest.)
     Silence. Olen got up, and they walked back, speaking of mundane things but it never replied to the offer and the android was just an android by the time they returned to the house. Olen found he wanted to say he was sorry, though he wasn’t sure if he meant it for the android of the piece of System trapped on the island.

“Whether the future is more terrible than we dare imagine or more wonderful than we can comprehend depends solely on if the people of the future have not forgotten to laugh at their own follies.”
     “I wonder if you have forgotten,” Kelly said calmly.
     “I laugh at everyone else’s,: Alison said mildly. “So why did you want to talk to me?”
     “Curiosity. It’s a vice of mine.”
     “Ah. Do you have any virtues?”
     “I keep a few to amuse myself now and then.” Kelly smiled. “I’m not some vid villain who is going to explain some evil plot just because you get my angry. Better people than you have fried and failed, my dear. Besides, I am not the villain. I have offered you sanctuary.”
     “For how long?”
     “How long until you sell Stephen to an interested party?”
     “No idea.”
     “The same answer. I have not decided on anything yet. Tell me, what do you think of the gardens?”
     “These are gardens? You have piles of rocks arranged together. How is that a garden?”
     “Even rocks grow, change, get older. With luck, we will someday live long enough to see mountains become hills, and all the world will be strange.”
     “Colour me wow.”
     “You do not think the future is worth some awe? Or do you prefer your normal life, where you go to work to pay for a home you are never in so that you can afford to live in it?”
     “You like the sound of your own voice, don’t you?”
     Kelly smiled. “I seldom have company here, and everyone else knows me. Or thinks they do. Most of the company I do get tends to be afraid of me. Stephen is, though he hides it well. You are not. I wonder, is that ignorance or bravery? Or is there no difference between the two?”
     Alison resisted the urge to kick some of the rocks in the rock garden over. “Is there one between being rich and being a bitch?”
     “Of course. Once you are rich enough, no one calls you a bitch. Or,” she smiled, “You have them taken away somewhere cold and dark and get their personalities rewritten and probably turn them into a freak. I could, you know. Power consists in being able to do whatever you want without reprisals.
     “Do you understand that? What I can’t do is more difficult to figure out than what I can do.”
     “That’s why you’re on an island in the middle of nowhere, right? Why not destroy it? Burn it away and start over?”
     “It is a family heirloom.”
     “Never had one of those myself, unless broken bones count. So, with all your power, you can’t destroy this home, can you?”
     “No. I could, but - no.”
     “So, that’s one thing you can’t do. Shall I add to the list?”
     Kelly smiled, picking up the pace. “We are all tools, you know. You must know that, being what you are. A tool of the economy, of money, of those who pay you to treat other people like commodities. We are all tools. We are wealthy if we can afford to buy our own. You see?”
     Alison nodded once.
     “We are not unlike, you and I. We do what we must to survive. It’s a female thing, I suspect. We have more desire to perpetuate the species than the male; they’re made for empty gestures and noble deeds. We are eminently more practical.”
     “And you’re telling me this because --?”
     “Because I can. It’s refreshing to meet someone who is honest in all ways save the things that matter. If you reminded me of myself more, I’d probably have you killed.” She smiled.
     Alison returned it with one just a fake. “You’re welcome to try.”
     Kelly looked at her thoughtfully, then laughed. “I may take you up on that some day, dear.”
     “When I least expect it?”
     “I doubt such a day exists.”
     “So,” Alison said as they reached the garden doors, “I’m not Stephen. What were we really talking about?”
     “If you have to ask, I don’t see how knowing would help at all.”
     Alison didn’t hit her, though she dearly wanted to. She hoped Stephen was having more luck napping.

Stephen stared at the dead man in the closet for a long time, then slowly closed the door firmly.
     “I could explain a dead guard,” he said in what seemed to be remarkably conversational tones to him, all things considered. “It’s the part where his arms and legs were ripped off and his head is missing that I might have trouble with.”
     “I ate the head,” a deep voice said from somewhere in the room.
     “It was spying on you,” the voice said. It seemed to come from under the bed, and was rather nervous.
     “The rest of him was as well, I imagine.”
     “Oh, no. Just the head. It had extra organs.”
     “I see.”
     “You do? I thought I ate it.”
     “What happened to the skin?” he asked reluctantly.
     “I’m using it as a security blanket.”
     Stephen sighed, then looked around. “Where are you?”
     “Under the bed,” Ralphie said. “It’s comforting.”
     “Okay. Can you come out?”
     “Promise you won’t yell at me?”
     Stephen counted to ten. “I promise.”
     Ralphie somehow came out from under the bed, almost double Stephen’s height, a lot heavier, and had the rather massive fangs and claws. His smile seemed sheepish, though this was likely mostly because of the white fur. “Hullo?” he said hesitantly, smelling damp. Stephen tried not to notice the red flecks dotting the fur and claws.
     “Hi,” Stephen said. He stared up at the monster. “You know you’re just as scary now as you were then. More, because you never tore my head off.”
     “Just the once,” Ralphie said. “In a dream. I didn’t want to, but you needed me to.”
     “I needed you to rip my head off?”
     The monster nodded. “To help you forget.”
     “Forget what?”
     “I don’t know. You never told me.” Ralphie looked down at his feet, then at Stephen. “I’m glad we’re talking. It was very lonely, when you didn’t believe I was real.”
     “Why did I stop believing?”
     “Your parents didn’t want you to.” For the first time, Ralphie didn’t sound kind. There was steel in his voice and his chocolate brown eyes were empty and cold. “I couldn’t stop them. Not without killing them, and I didn’t think they’d like that. Plus, you might have got mad at me, and I never wanted that, not ever.”
     The monster plopped down on the floor and sniffed. “It hurt, when you forgot I was real.”
     “Why did I remember?” Stephen asked, hoping if he was speaking, Ralphie - or whatever this was - wouldn’t try and kill him.
     “I don’t know.” When he sat, their eyes were level and he looked into Stephen’s for a long time. “I wish I did. Maybe you got free of your prison?”
     “I wasn’t aware I was in one,” Stephen said dryly. “Unless you mean my parents?”
     The monster nodded. “‘If you’re not aware you’re in a prison it’s not a very good one.’”
     “Who said that?”
     “I jusrt did,” Ralphie said proudly.
     “I mean, before you.”
     “Someone else?” he ventured, looking worried.
     “Let’s try again: who told it to you in the first place?”
     “My mother.”
     Stephen blinked. “You have a mother?”
     Ralphie furrowed his brow. “I guess so. I never knew, until I just said. I have a father, too.”
     “Are they human?”
     “I don’t think so,” the monster said slowly. “But I’m not sure.”
     “Do you know who your father is?”
     Ralphie blinked. “What kind of question is that?” he demanded, his voice a deep growl as he came to his feet.
     Stephen backed away carefully. “One in need of an answer?”
     “No, it’s not!” Ralphie stared at him, tears leaking from his eyes. “How can you forget your own son?”
     Stephen blinked, then started laughing. After a few moments, Ralphie joined in hesitantly.
     “What are we laughing about?”
     “For a moment I thought you were serious.”
     The laughter stopped as if someone had thrown a switch. “I am. You made me!”
     “I did not!”
     “Then why did I haunt your closet? Why did I help you, and kill for you, and watch over you, and sing you lullaby’s!”
     “You sang me lullaby’s?”
     The monster hesitated. “I wanted to. But I sing loudly. I might have scared you.”
     “Right. Look, Ralphie, let’s say I’m not your father. Mostly to make my life a lot less complicated.”
     “’kay,” the monster mumbled, sounding hurt.
     “All right. Now, can you help me leave here?”
     “Well, you somehow fit in closets and under beds. Can you take me there?
     Ralphie gave him a shocked look. “I can’t have you in the closet!”
     “Why not?”
     “Then you would have to come out!”
     “But I’m already out of the closet.”
     Ralphie shook his head. “It wouldn’t be right. Then you’d be a monster too.”
     Stephen took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s try it another way: can you help me get off this island with the others?”
     “I could kill everyone on it.”
     “Without killing people, please.”
     “I could just rip off some limbs?”
     “Okay, maybe with that. Could you do it?”
     Ralphie nodded slowly. “If you promise not to be mad at me.”
     “Why would I be mad at you for doing something I asked you to do?”
     “Because you’re human?” the monster asked.
     “You’re not as stupid at you look, are you?”
     Ralphie blinked. “I look stupid?”
     “Sorry. Poor joke. Can you appear anyway?”
     Ralphie nodded.
     “All right. We may make a break for it tomorrow, depending on how my chat with Kelly goes later.”

“At least it’s noisy,” Alison said as she spread out a blanket on the ground.
     Stephen nodded. “it’ll cover up our conversation. I hope.”
     “We’re just having sex though.” Alison stripped calmly.
     “Right.” Stephen took his off at well. “This is really weird.”
     “It was your idea,” she said.
     “What was?” Olen asked, sitting by the tree at the edge of the clearing.
     “That we have sex. Now stop looking for here,” Stephen said.
     “I can’t see you anyway.”
     “You’ll see our auras mesh --”
     “Or puke,” Alison interjected.
     “Or that.”
     “Okay.” He looked the other way. “I can still feel them, though.”
     Stephen sighed. Alison just smirked, dragged him down to the sheet, and crooned: “This had better be worth it. What do you have?”
     Stephen ran his hangs over her skin. “Ralphie can help, but can’t take us from here via wherever he goes,” he murmured, trying to sound endearing.
     “Oh, yes!” Alison kissed him, then pulled away. “Kelly will kill us if we do and hunt us down. It’s what I would do. She’s also curious to see if we can; no better test for security after all.”
     (Freedom is a cage,) Olen sent, not moving. The sending was weak but they could hear it.
     “Lovely,” Stephen said, then thought (You’re okay now?)
     (Not okay. Even doing this takes effort, and it never did before. But I can push, if need be, and I can get us help. Can’t tell more.)
     “I know,” Alison said softly. “Tell me again how you love me.”
     “I’d need more information,” Stephen said, “on your zones,” and caressed a nipple.
     (Can’t. Don’t trust her now to have teeps, and not strong enough to fight them off.)
     “Oh, I have a lot of those,” Alison said softly. “But you can’t reach more of them without putting some effort into it.”
     Stephen grinned. “How about hints?”
     “South, of course. South is always good,” Alison said, as Stephen’s hands moved down her body.
     After a few minutes Olen looked over. (I thought we were - Oh. Wow. That’s pretty.) He stared for a few moments, watching the auras flow, and wished, in the moment when they seemed to outshine the forest itself, that he could know love as they did, but he settled for drawing closer and warming himself in it instead.
     Afterwards they made quick plans in gasps for air and Stephen fumbled for his clothing. “I thought I told you not to watch.”
     “:I couldn’t not. I’m sorry. I --” Olen’s face contorted with something between shame and agony “- I had to. To see what it was like. I - it was.” He stopped and shook his head, his eyes shading between colours too quickly for any to pin down. “It was very beautiful. Thank you.”
     “Ah. You’re welcome?” Stephen said. “It’s just - well, weird. I mean, having an audience of sorts. Are you okay?”
     “I ... I think so. It was so pretty and warm, and it’s not for me.”
     “You’ve never tried,” Alice snapped as she finished dressing.
     “I couldn’t. I’d drown in it,” Olen said simply.
     “Well, ah, that’s one way to put it,” Stephen began, blushing.
     “He means the aura,” Alison said, turning a laugh into a cough.
     Olen nodded, giving Stephen a puzzled look.
     “Oh. Right. Sorry. Ignore that, then. What’s it like for psychics?”
     “Pure,” Olen said slowly. “Becoming one, and then unable to sustain it. It’s - union, of power and minds. Opening. Uhm. There aren’t really words for it. It bypasses auras, so it loses something vital, but it’s enough. I think. Maybe.”
     For a second he looked like he was about to cry, then he drew himself together. “I know you didn’t want me to, but thank you. It’s important to see things, even if I don’t understand them.”
     “Or understand them too well,” Alison said quietly, but if he heard her Olen gave no sign.

The stars were cold and distant as they drank real coffee in the south garden surrounded by a multitude of plants in pretty arrangements, nature rent out of order.
     Stephen took a sip and looked over at Kelly. She returned it with a raised eyebrow, and Stephen wondered, for a brief moment, if she had taken lessons in arching one eyebrow.
     “How long do you plan to keep us here?”
     “For someone who sought sanctuary, you seem rather eager to unseek it, as the case may be,” Kelly said mildly.
     “I wanted a space to catch my breath in, not to run away in.”
     “Ah. You wish to have your generator and make cakes with it too.”
     “It’s one use for them, yes.” Stephen sighed. “Will you allow us to leave?”
     “Why not?”
     “Because yesterday this place was assaulted by a most potent psychic force. We know it was seeking you, and three of my best telepaths died to it.”
     “I’m sorry.”
     “Sorry doesn’t bring back the dead.”
     “I’m really sorry?”
     She stared at him. “If you do leave, I will be dead within the hour and the death blamed on you.”
     Stephen blinked. “What?”
     Kelly merely smiled.
     “But -- I --.” He took a deep breath. “You want to force this?”
     “I know you are dangerous, Stephen. You’ve killed enough people, and you have a weapon many people want. I will not let them have it.”
     (Ralphie?) Stephen tried, thinking as loudly as he could. (Can you come here?)
     “You’ll kill me, then?”
     “If need be,” she answered calmly.
     “Kelly, you don’t want to do this. I don’t know what I could be capable of, if pushed.”
     “I know what I am capable of,” she said, finishing her coffee. “And it would take a lot more than some fool with incredible combat nanites to scare me, and even more to change my mind.”
     “I see.” Stephen stood. “I am sorry.”
     “I am too,” Kelly said, watching him as he left. She waited, then eventually pulled out a small needle and injected something into her arm. She rang a small bell, and nodded to the butler when he arrived. “Dispose of the body when he dies. Tell the others he is on a tour; it does not matter if they believe us or not.”
     “Yes, lady.”
     Kelly Dupont stared out over her forest and smiled to herself.

“Why didn’t you show up?” Stephen demanded, entering his room.
     “She scares me,” Ralphie said from the closet. “I think she’d laugh at me, and I don’t like being laughed at.”
     “I could have used you to threaten her.”
     “Would you have let me eat her?”
     “Ah. No.”
     “Then you shouldn’t have tried. She wouldn’t believe a threat that wasn’t a promise.”
     “Oh, and how do you know that?”
     “Us monsters recognize each other,’ Ralphie said.
     “So she hides in closets?”
     “No. She’s the thing that things that hide in closets are afraid of.”
     “That makes me feel so much better. What do you mean?”
     “She’s mean,” Ralphie’s voice said. She walks in darkness and she likes it. She’s evil, Steph. And she doesn’t care.” The monster’s voice cracked on the last word.
     Stephen nodded slowly. “Okay. That makes sense. Caring is important. Now, would you come out of the closet?”
     “No. I feel safe in here.” There was a thump in it as Ralphie sat down, his voice indistinct: “Please?”
     “Okay. But you have to come out later, all right?”
     “When I’m not scared?”
     “That’s right. Ah. What are you doing right now?”
     “Sucking my thumb,” Ralphie said, removing it with a loud pop. “And I’m going to go away, and sing scary songs to myself until I feel okay.”
     “Scary songs?”
     “Lullaby’s,” said the monster in the closet.
     Stephen stared at it, then shook his head and rapped on a door. “Are you decent?”
     “What do you want?” Alison demanded, opening the door.
     “She’ll be killed if we leave,” he said flatly.
     “Kelly?” He nodded. “Good riddance.”
     “Alison, she’s one of the board of directors! If she dies, and we’re blamed - which we will be - you can measure out lifespan in minutes. Hours, tops. The board protects its own. We’d die horribly and very painfully, all because of Ralphie.”
     “It has to be more than that. More than him, and nanotech secrets. Think about it: new weapons exist all the time. What makes this one so very unique that the board would murder one of its own? Why don’t they just kill you and get it done with?”
     “Because they’re afraid of what Ralphie might do, I think. And my family has a lot of influence, if they care to exercise it. Things could get ugly, really fast, if they decided to play politics.”
     Alison paced the room, frowning. “Okay. Let’s buy that. Then why would they kill you at all? Wait, if you can leave her, you become a threat to them. Reason enough to kill you and deal with the consequence of their actions later. I doubt even your parents would care go up against the board for your sake.”
     “I doubt they would at all for me,” Stephen said. “But for the data in my head they’d move earth and heaven -- possibly literally. And then things could get really, really bad. The Corpocracy was founded to prevent a nanotech arms race; my parents could engender one if given reason. I could be the reason for one, for all I know. It’s not something I like to think about.”
     Alison sighed and sat down on the bed, which creaked ominously. “Would they? Do you really think they’d go that far?”
     Stephen paused, thinking, then shook his head.
     “Right. If you don’t, odds are the government doesn’t either. So those after you are really private interests. Government departments, psychics, and whatever else is out there. They want you, and they’ll destroy each other to get it.”
“That’s it. What if they would? Then the board has a very good reason to keep me here, to prevent them from disrupting society. Ralphie could, I could with revealing modern nanites. They’re just playing it safe.”
     “Good.” Alison stood. “Is Olen ready?”
     Stephen shrugged. “I’ll check.”
     He found Olen sitting on his bed, meditating, his eyes filled with swarms of shifting light that reminded Stephen eerily of data streams in System. Olen “woke” after a few moments of being shook and looked up, listened, and nodded.
     “We’re ready?”
     “Sorry, I’m ready. It got a bit confusing.” The boy stood, following Stephen into Alison’s room. “What’s the plan?”
     “We take out their communications system, likely under that factory, and we find a vehicle and leave,” Alison said promptly. “We’ll need weapons, though.”
     Stephen grinned. “Glad to oblige,” and he formed three bombs and handed them and a sword to her.”
     “You’re healed?”
     “Was an hour after their blast. Just a little more draining on the reserves to generate things. You both ready?”
     Alison had stephen make her a slugthrower and nodded.
     Olen’s stood for a moment, blinking and shaking his head. “We need weapons?”
     “You spaced out,” Alison said crisply. “Have those. We’re going now.”
     Olen nodded, then grinned. (Okay.)
     “Hm?” Stephen said.
     (Freed the friend to help us, if it can. It might be busy. Tired me a bit.) He stumbled. “More than a bit. Sorry,” he slurred.
     “Right.” Stephen raised his voice. “Ralphie, you up for carrying Olen?”
     Ralphie poked his head into the doorway nervously, then nodded and carefully picked Olen up. The telepath blinked a few times,.eyes bright gold, and stared at Ralphie’s arms in astonishment, hands running over fur.
     Alison smiled. “Plans beyond leaving?”
     “Confronting whatever psychic tried to find us here, my parents, and finding out who in the government wants Ralphie, and having him eat them. I’m finished with running,” Stephen said harshly.
     Alison smiled coldly “Good. It’s about time. I owe them for an apartment.”
     “Besides,” Stephen said lightly as he saw Olen cringe a little, “We all run. I’d rather run to something than away from it.”
     “With gun’s blazing.”
     “Or swords.”
     “Or a sink,” Ralphie said.
     Stephen shuddered. “We have enough problems without thinking about it.”
     Alison kicked the door open and looked into the hallway, then back at the rest of them. “Time for other people to die.”