A CARNAL OBJECTIVE
I waited, muscles knotted into anxious cords, with a steel crowbar ready to kill. I heard her footsteps just beyond the door; and I knew the exact position her head would first appear as she passed the threshold into the lab. I knew where to swing for maximum damage. I adjusted my sweaty grip upon the smooth steel; as my heart pounded beneath my immaculate white lab-coat that bulged slightly near the top from my broad shoulders. That had been her idea. Did she actually find me ... handsome in it? Would that even matter to her? In reality it was my nerves I truly needed to grapple. Not to mention the familiar stiffening that occurred within my dark cargo pants. As it always did; when she drew near – or when I even thought about her drawing near.
My body could sense her approach with an alacrity that seemed to defy the conventional five-senses. As my breathing accelerated; a thin sweaty trickle ran from my tousled, mahogany head of hair, past my sharp brow ridge. I would tell myself, in the other iterations of this identical moment that had occurred so often these past months, that the Hatred was my true lover. Not this nemesis of living Desire that I forced myself to despise. The Hatred was my mantra.
I would have at least this one, small victory. This one, petty blow towards personal liberty.
And there would be many, many more to come; so I hoped. She was responsible for all of it; this laboratory of horrors. The experiments on the cadavers, the imprisonment; the perverse form of inverted slavery that had slipped over the others that had accompanied me to this refuge of shame and pleasure. The vile machines, the preserved flesh surrounding me on cold worktables scattered throughout the chamber where I labored with futility. And the windows of course.
Bullet-proof, triple-layered, reinforced anti-shatter glass. As useless as my struggles had been so far, hitting those windows with the intent of breaking them would prove even more futile. Actually looking at what lay beyond them was out of the question.
If I wanted to entertain even the illusion of survival, of a future.
Everything that I looked upon in the workroom before me served as a stark reminder of why she needed to die. One perversion upon another, leading off on an unwholesome tangent of abominations long past the territories of behavior and innovation that any man had business exploring. Her latest dictates seemed as if she were compounding the degradation and madness that had slipped over me – and the other survivors like a tarnished burial shroud. And it was all so senseless; She didn't really need me for any of the unholy experiments. What was the real reason she kept me around? It wasn't that I was smarter than her, could do anything she was incapable of. Contemplating the possibilities as to why I was even here, why she allowed me this ... this ... research only served to deepen my dread.
My lonely resolve, to never stop until I had killed her was soon accompanied by the merciless certainty that these depraved inventions she demanded removed any possibility of pity. The pity that I longed to give her. The reason why I hadn't acted sooner was not overwhelming force on her part; despite the evil of the experiments, prior to now my own feelings where the true enemy. More to the point, my own lusts. But I had reached a tipping point. Or so I hoped.
I was at peace with the violence I intended to inflict on the one I hated as much as I craved. As usual, I felt the first stirrings before she was even through the door. As always, it started as a tingling in my gut. Like circus-cannon butterflies hopped up on meth. Then, the floating sensation. I had once read a neurology article that studied the brains of people in the throes of the deepest, most prayerful religious experiences, across cultures. An uplifting sensation; the part of the brain that oriented the body's perception of position in space was suppressed. It was Immersive; It was sublime. It was Her.
October 19th, 2076 One Year Ago
Must be a trick of the light. Perhaps the glare. Or the bones. Or the death. It got to all of us eventually. I wanted to be the voice of reason; the sane one out of this accidental band of twelve men that did NOT see the apparition. I wanted to be the one to tell them all that they were letting hunger, paranoia, and superstition cloud the reasonable answers that were there for the taking if one has a cool head. But that wasn't true. Amidst the crumbling ruination of now-skeletal guts of the urban corpse that had once been St. Louis, I too saw the Woman in White scampering through broken cinder-blocks and pock-marked pavement.
She was climbing, as if to get a higher vantage point. She nimbly mounted a smooth curvature of silvery metal that had once been part of the now-exploded landmark Arch to reach a nearby half-collapsed brick wall that formed a staircase profile from the irregularity of its disintegration. What was she looking for? At? If the Woman in White was looking towards us; she would have seen an almost unbearably grim gaggle of desperate men.
Most of us had only been able to scrounge-up old 20th century gas-masks, luckily equipped with modern, sub-molecular filters. But most of our weapons were primitive slug-throwers from that era as well. The woman, or indeed any observer would not have been able to see our faces beyond the mosquito-like countenance of our fully-enclosed respirators. She would have seen that the rest of our bodies were covered by a motley assemblage of padded garments, scuba-diving wetsuits, and thickly wrapped leathers. All with as many pockets-within-pockets as possible; as your basic slug-thrower gun only had a tenth the ammo capacity of a modern pulse weapon. Every bullet precious, and needed. No such thing as a spare clip. That and food. What there was of it.
Oddly, actually getting enough food was often less of a problem than one might have expected in the apocalyptic wasteland that the country – and the world found themselves in. My band had actually survived the eight years since E-day almost entirely on pre-packaged, processed food-stuffs preserved to last for the long haul. But actually eating it was a whole 'nother ball game. Not that all of us that started out eight years ago were still alive.
Even though the woman perched on the broken wall couldn't really make out our faces; just the fact that we were walking, wearing clothes, and even bothering with gas-masks spoke volumes; or at least it should have – to any survivor.
"Sal; we gotta do another Endo check." McConnaught demanded, his voice filtered by his mask into a hollow rasp. Because of her? Because you see some fallout shelter headcase that finally decided living underground wasn't living? Just because she finally snapped and decided on one last breath of 'fresh' air, " I actually made finger-quotes. " - that we need to waste resource testing for T-levels that we all know are too-damn high?" I argued.
"Eh, not like rat skins are in short supply." muttered Garland, our sort-of-doctor. Well, not really a doctor; he had a been a Medical Technologist before E-day; that was the best we could hope for. "It just takes time for the endothelial cell cultures to get started is all."
"No reason to waste that time when we could be making more progress towards this ... Preserve-place they talk about on Short-wave." I insisted. "Let her be. She's gotta be infected already. No contact is the best contact."
"Maybe ... maybe Sal's wrong; Maybe she's the living proof?" said Cleary, as he refuted me, widening his stance as if ready to give chase.
"What, of a cure? Ehhh ... been down this road too many times." grumbled Garland with a dismissive shake of his gas-masked head.
"The only labs big enough for any real hope were the first ones hit!" I snarled; reminding myself time and again of the cause of our hopelessness grated on my already fraying nerves. "You're thinkin' with your little head again." I accused. But Cleary was like that; done a dime in Federal lockup for sexual assault back in 67' Not someone I wanted watching my back; even after all these years of him doing just that. Besides, he could do tricks with a car-engine that had to be seen to be believed. As it was now though, I suppose we couldn't claim to be much better. The real reason, besides all the rationalizations and survival-based excuses about why we wanted to get to this Preserve, was the buzz we'd heard that there were women there. It really was that simple; Cleary was just less shy about admitting it.
Now it seemed, we wouldn't have to shoot, hot-wire, and suffer our way to Wyoming; it seemed that the rarely-acknowledged object of our quest was right in front of us. She seemed healthy enough. From a distance, at least. Some kind of white, flowing gown. Smooth, perfect skin.
Not a tumor in sight. That was refreshing.
No trouble breathing, no crippling pain. But no respirator. No gas mask. That lingering, long-suffering hope for hope itself tickled the edges of my consciousness again; after being so long buried.
"Hold up," cautioned Tannerman, our best sniper. "Maybe she can be our Endo test. Just give it a minute."
"No ... It's been eight fuckin' years..." rasped Nailer, our wilderness-survival expert. " I won't ... won't..." he never finished his sentence. He didn't really need to; we all knew – and felt what he did. Having to perform a biochemical test to know if was safe to feel the sunshine on your face ... Never feeling the wind in your hair. It wouldn't take much of an excuse to say 'to hell with all the precautions'. Like Nailer did.
It took a moment to struggle with his tamper-proof straps and seals, but far too quickly, he ripped off his mask to breathe in great gusts of forbidden, unfiltered air. And to give chase. His stringy, once-blond matted tangle skewed in several directions as his face, and wild eyes freed themselves at last.
"It's alright ... I'm okay ... and I want more ... I want ... Her." And with a hungering hiss, he set off in the direction of the Woman in White. We were stunned for a moment. McConnaught just wanted to expose a sealed plastic sheet sandwiching a growth of preserved rat-skin to test the toxin levels, but Nailer had volunteered himself out of his own frustration. Not surprising; he'd been a park ranger, and sometimes-hunter before ... it must seem like a cruel joke to travel from city to countryside, forced to seal himself off from the natural world in such an unnatural way. Also not surprising; no one else followed his lead with regards to our respirators.
And he had snapped. He seemed to be breathing just for the sake of breathing as he lunged towards the Woman in White. She must have noticed us, and made up her mind concerning our trustworthiness, because she slid down the Arch fragment and took to running herself. Odd, those looked like high-heels she was wearing; but she was able to move with a graceful speed to impress a ballerina.
In moments, it had become a full-blown chase. Some of us were going after Nailer, to try and talk some sense into him while there was still time; if there was still time. Nailer was chasing the woman. And the rest of the men chased Nailer to prevent him from getting to the woman first. To his credit, he lasted about two minutes.
"Yes ... Yes ... I'm ... I'm fine ... I'm uhhh..." Nailer gasped, panting with determined exhilaration, and then with agony. "She's ... immune ... and so am ... I ... I... " he stumbled to a stop next to a rusted fire-hydrant, as a coughing spasm wracked him. Followed by the clenching of facial-muscles. "You see ... I can ... handle it..." He grunted; eyes flashing wild with pained lunacy as a trickle of drool escaped his quivering lips. "Uh – AHHHHH!!!!" his eyes squeezed shut from the pressure that was building behind them. "We don't need ... the masks ... don't need ... the tests ... She ... survives ... I'll survive! Free ... free from the th - " he fell, vomiting to his knees. The white of his left eye suddenly flushed a solid crimson, as a blood vessel burst in his retina. "Not ... to me ... I ... I am ... immuuuuuuunnnnnnnn..." His head jerked like a rag doll with the strings cut as he collapsed into a thrashing heap upon the rubble-strewn cement.
His howls barked through the deepening gloom of early dusk as he clutched his skull; as if trying to prevent his gray matter from flying the coop. There was only one thing to do. I began to load my Winchester.
"You think... GULP that I'm not really ... immune ... show you ... show you all..." Nailer raved, froth escaping the rictus of his clenching jaws. "Stronger ... smarter that you ... prove it..." He began to stand on wobbly feet, veins throbbing in his neck and forehead. He began a slow, low-boiling cackle as a trickle of blood escaped his right ear. "Rip your mask off too ... you'll see it's alright ... if you're Man enough..." he wheezed.
No way in hell.
I didn't answer him. No one did. Once the first stage symptoms were obvious, there was literally no reasoning with the victim.
So no one tried.
Instead, I reasoned with a bullet. Between his eyes. So much for our wilderness expert. Eleven men now. The sound of my shot was a sobering death-knell that changed the mood almost as readily as it changed Nailer from man to corpse.
"Too much activity; too many footsteps ... too much noise, noise, noise" twittered Mouse with a spasmodic quiver. That was the only name we'd ever gotten out of him. He was right, of course. He knew as well as anyone how to slip through the ruins unnoticed. Just a juvenile delinquent when E-day hit, but he'd survived alone for years; knew where to go in any city to find food, drink, a bath – (not that he partook of that luxury too often.) Useful enough to keep around despite the fact that he was almost certainly clinically insane. But hey, he'd never pulled a stunt like Nailer just did.
"Now, we've gotta get going; unwanted attention won't be far behind." Garland reminded us.
"Her..." Cleary insisted. "At the least, she's probably got a safe harbor, a clear zone if nothin' else." That made sense. Cleary paused, a lit a cigarette. He lodged the nicotine-delivering stick between the ridges of his re-breather assembly, where the vapors could – in theory be sucked in. That did not make sense. If his filters were any good at all, no vapors would get through. He typically explained himself with a 'fuck the Apocalypse, I ain't stoppin' now.' His actions more symbolic than chemical. "See where she gets off to." Nods of general agreement.
But that also meant I had to follow her too; to save her from my own allies. None of us could go it alone. Individually; and actually survive. Even Mouse, cunning as he was, still got wounded from time to time, still needed help. (That was how we found him.) But I'd be damned if I let them have their way with the Woman in White. Months ... maybe a whole year since any of them had even seen anything female. I knew these men; they'd tear the poor girl apart! But if I was too strident in my opposition to the painful violation they were bound to inflict; they could easily turn on me. Was this stranger worth dying over? I followed after the crowd; wracking my brain to determine how I could save her, not get myself shot, and not alienate my team?
Struggling to conceive of an answer, I scrambled over the bodies of near-mummified corpses of both men and vehicles, wondering if I would be put down with no more ceremony than I had just used to dispatch the contaminated Nailer. I huffed it past a cinder-block wall with valentine-motif graffiti of a stylized heart with many cupid's arrows piercing it. We barreled through the wreckage after our feminine target in a haphazard mob, nimbly avoiding the pulverized remains of our once-civilization; the intended purpose of our mad scramble seemed the final nail in the coffin of chivalry, civility itself. Unless I could save her. I wasn't a total monster; despite all the bullets-between-the-eyes, the vital supplies and medicines we'd stolen to save ourselves over the years. The knife-edge choices that left no room for second thoughts. There had to be some limits; some last ethical shred to grasp on my slide into an amoral abyss of ruthless savagery.
It was not until the third city block that I became convinced there was more to this than met the eye. The Woman in White ... she seemed to stop, pause for a moment next to the ivy-embraced metal shaft of an unexploded Chinese ballistic think-bomb jutting out of the side of an old hotel. What a find! Salvaging the neurolectrics alone could let me bypass almost any automated security! A few years ago, I would have complained bitterly about the pointlessness of it; human warfare was only incidental to E-day. It was not the cause. If only our Leaders had known the truth in those early hours ... If they'd suspected the magnitude of the betrayal ... but no, they were locked into an us-vs.-them Cold War mentality. Blind. Utterly blind.
But now, the first thought in my mind was how every last bolt and rivet of the missile could be exploited to our advantage; in a modern, apocalyptic parallel to the way my Great-Plains ancestors made use of every part of an arrow-perforated buffalo. From bristles to bladder. Nothing wasted. A lesson from history that served me well. Any further-reaching concerns ceased to matter.
But what should have mattered was why the woman seemed to be waiting there. At first I thought she was trying to catch her breath; but no ... something in her eyes alerted me; it was as if she wasn't really afraid. She was studying us too intently for someone in a panicked dash with only escape on her mind. My well-honed instincts smelled subterfuge. I picked up my pace to keep up with the others as it occurred to me that the woman wanted to make sure we didn't lose sight of her. Wanted us to follow her. There was one possible explanation.
It could only be a trap.
Ballsy, though. For twelve – make that eleven men, all equipped with both small-arms and rifles. She must be extremely confident in her allies! We could surely inflict heavy casualties if someone intended to take on our entire band at once. Casualties that few survivor-colonies would be able to afford.
"N-no, wait ... It's not what it looks like!" I insisted. Vanconi shoved me aside rudely.
"Don't try it, Sir Galahad. You're not spoiling this for us!" We needed Vanconi; as a 20th century gun enthusiast, he could keep our weapons in good order. Would he recognize my value to the team, or only his immediate, physical needs? The problem was, they knew me as well as I knew them; and what I was determined to prevent.
But the pattern seemed clear to me, she would scamper frantically down the choked thoroughfares past rows of vehicles abandoned to rust and rodent, running with just enough vigor to play the frightened little damsel in distress; yet it seemed as though her overall distance from us never changed. Every once in a while, she would kick some rubble, or drag down a swath of ivy, as if ... as if to make sure she left a clear trail so that the whole group could chart her progress; since some of us were faster than others.
"No, it's a trap!" I rasped in warning. They barely spared me an angry glance; they knew I'd say anything to divert them from their carnal objective; but it seemed that their mistrust of me, and lust for the girl was blinding them to any other possibilities. Including a smeared sigil painted upon the asphalt; depicting an arrow penetrating a row of several, cartoonish hearts. Made with long-dried blood.
Soon, she led them into an area apart from the other crumbling structures; past the tangled threads of what was once a high-security fence; past a guard-booth inundated with darkened blood stains from within, towards what was once a sprawling, high-tech compound. Odd, that there was no company/corporate logo? Though the sign should have been in disrepair by now, still ... it seemed that there was no identification whatsoever concerning who had funded this large campus. I couldn't see the entire structure, but it appeared more spacious than most stadiums. Finally; I did see a sign:
TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED
Wow. A massive compound sprawled over several acres before us. A LOT of private property. Clearly, something this massive had to have been built before the war; but no clue as to who or what had paid for it. As spacious as the structure was ... it could have been a factory; perhaps some processing plant; I could see a metallic reticulum of pipes and conduits rising about two stories above the south side. Yes, a high-tech operation. It must have cost millions; before E-day you just ... just couldn't build something like this without some serious governmental/corporate backing. This wasn't just the backyard of some crazy old coot with a shotgun. But no, not government property; private. Curious.
The rest of my band seemed to catch on at this point; she could be hiding an army inside that compound! The chase of these brutal, desperate gas-masked men of one lone woman was as savage as the Serengeti, the driving urges just as primal, just as bestial. Though they all attempted to speed up, to catch her, grasp her, claim her before she could reach a segmented sliding hangar door, her own velocity – even in high-heels was sufficient that even the greatest bursts of speed humanly possible gained no ground.
This was entirely too suspicious. How could anyone not realize she was toying with them?
But again, I understood these men, as they did me. When Garland, or especially Cleary, took to hunting something; once their pride was at stake; they would pursue it beyond reason, beyond sensible acknowledgment of danger. It was true of most of the band; when they wanted something badly enough, it was conquer-or-die. To give up on the Woman in White now ... it would also send a tacit message that Nailer had died for nothing. McConnaught surely knew it was a setup by now, but that no longer mattered. It was the team's greatest asset – and no doubt the pig-headedness that would get them all killed. And me with them.
That was when Cleary drew his knife. Holding it delicately. I'd seen this tactic. The obvious danger had suddenly hit home, and his intent was to catch her, grab her, and use her as a hostage against whatever reinforcements would be inside waiting for us. He just had to catch her. How could she possibly run so fast? But I realized that her maintaining a constant distance of thirty feet ahead no matter how fast we were bespoke of greater abilities not yet apparent. I tried to shout out another warning but ... after so much running, behind the mask, I didn't have the breath to make more than a hoarse whisper.
I should have stopped short, should not have run into the hangar with them. But dammit! We needed each other! I can't just watch them die with a bemused chuckle and expect to survive on witty repartee. So ... if I was with them, maybe I could find the words negotiate with whatever gang of armed men were waiting for us; defuse the disaster waiting to happen.
The Woman in White was backed up against a wall, her posture fearful, as if she were trying to press herself into the pitted cement. And yet ... the expression on her face, it was neutral – none of the terror I would have expected. A vision as unique as she was gorgeous.
She was young and fit, yet with an ageless grace accentuated by a flowing mane of snow-blind- white hair glistening with a stark, ivory purity. But her sculpted face had not a trace of age. Her form seemed so hale, hearty, unlined and youthful, that she could flaunt what should have been a sign of age as a symbol of smooth-skinned defiance towards the natural cycle of mortality.
Those eyes that showed a fearlessness belying her posture were heterochromic; one blue, the other iris green. The white that she wore was, evidently a wedding dress. It was a shape-hugging trumpet-mermaid design that enhanced her curves and flared below the pelvis with diaphanous layers of organza-weave silk. Her bare shoulders poked above the lacy caress of the fabric as if to proclaim a shapely grace I never dreamed could be found among the ruins. She seemed to thrust out her bustline at me; artfully contained in a elegant bodice of heart-embroidered lace appliqué as she slowly rose away from the dull wall of graying concrete. Yet somehow, she had just outrun all of us, dressed in such constricting finery, high-heels clicking. Not a drop of sweat. Didn't really seem to be breathing heavy.
Cleary made his move; still seething with adrenalin, he lunged at her bosom, knife at the ready. He would grasp her, intentionally ripping her clothing to make her seem more vulnerable to what ever backup she had now watching us; as he held his savage blade to her smooth, quivering throat. I'd seen his merciless strategy evolve over at least four similar encounters over the course of our eight years; only this time; I would do something. This time, I vowed I would bury my fears and find a diplomatic resolution.
"Don't touch her!" I commanded, my voice brooking no argument.
His gloved, greedy hand was mere centimeters from her heaving chest.
"I've had it with your knight-in-shining-armor routine, you sanctimonious prick!" That hand became a fist, which then reached for his Luger-pistol. "We all know you've got some stick up your ass over your worm-food fiance' and now you've gotta play the hero whenever we want some female action!" If he only knew. Cleary's voice deepened as he spoke into a threatening rumble. "We're all sick of it, and you. Maybe you shouldn't run with us anymore; if you're gonna be such a tight-ass every time something sweet comes our way." His posture tense, his breathing heavy, he was still pumped up from the chase, it would be easy to switch from flight to fight.
"Sure, I get you." I lowered my Winchester, but not too much. "You don't give a shit what happens to these girls when you're done with 'em. I've tried to talk some sense into you, but we're all adults here, you've made your choice.
"But maybe you will give a shit about an intact Intercontinental Think-bomb, that only I can salvage. You know neurolectrics is my specialty. You missed it, didn't you? All of you? This 'female-action' you've been chasing totally blinded you to the real find! A machine like that has filtration systems, fuel, mag-rails ... I can take it apart to build us some real pulse guns! I can use its chips to make code-slicers for electric locks! Power supply can get our next car up and running. Hell, we can use its casing for armor! You know only I have the skills to make use of it; IF I'm alive and happy." I paced back and forth through the sterile hanger, marshaling my thoughts.
"A real find eh?" Garland muttered in a double-edged question. "So we last a little longer with some more tech. But in the end, what are we surviving for? Moldy energy bars in the next clear-zone we find, sitting around in ammonia-treated tents tryin' not to think about who died today? Look around you Salvador, what do all those high-minded bullshit laws and ethics mean now? It's back to basics. The most basic."
"Maybe we'll have something else to do in the next clear-zone!" Cleary rumbled. "Or someone."
"Basic doesn't mean we have to be animals! That Preserve is still out there!" I reminded them, ignoring Cleary. "We can find a home, a shelter there! Live as men, not savages!" The woman's frightened posture was gone now, and she began to look us over as if studying some shiny, new toys. Didn't she realize what I was trying to save her from? She strode closer to me. "Leave her! Even if you nimrods retraced your steps back to the location of the missile, I won't help you unless you let the girl stay here, safe." It wasn't going to be easy; somehow the nearness of the girl began to affect me like a drug. It wasn't simply a matter of her glamor-model good looks; something about the aura of her presence kindled in me a primal, covetous instinct – to protect, possess, mate. I suspected the first item on that list would be forgotten by my companions.
"Not sure it's gonna matter one way or another," Tannerman argued. "This Preserve-place, sounds like a fortress; sounds like the place where men that can handle themselves are gonna be welcome. We got food, supplies, and skills. Really, I doubt they're gonna turn us away if our - " he snickered sarcastically. " - background checks come back a little rough around the edges! As if there was such a thing anymore." The Sniper chuckled. "I don't think it matters one whit to our future whether or not we leave a trail of broken hearts behind us." What a nice way to whitewash it, I thought.
"Maybe..." Cleary drawled threateningly as he flicked his symbolic cigarette at me. His chest was still heaving, he was still ready for action. "Maybe I take her with us! Sal cares so much about her-" He grabbed for her elbow -
and his hand passed right through her!
" ... maybe I'll use her to make you ... you ... wha -?" He shook his head. I backed away, not certain what I'd just seen. The Woman in White shrugged sheepishly.
Cleary lunged angrily at the hem of her bodice, not to be denied.
He was denied.
Somehow, his hand passed entirely through her chest and torso, blending into her shapely form and reemerging out of her right hip, without meeting the slightest hint of material resistance of any kind.
"H- Hologram?" I stammered. "No ... no, that's not possible. I saw you – I saw your feet kicking up rocks, I saw you disturb the ivy as you touched it. No ... she's real, can't be just a light-show"
"I apologize;" The woman spoke for the first time. Her voice trilling melodically over our ears. "I have a separate process for my Decontamination. We can't be in the same room while it's happening."
Tiny spigots on the ceiling above us began to spritz us with some frothy, synthetic, chemical mixture, even as we heard the sliding door seal shut behind us. I knew I shouldn't have blundered in here with them! Still, not an army awaiting to attack. Just an unknown chemical cocktail spraying down on us.
"We'll need to wait for the agent to saturate your belongings. Please keep your masks on," She instructed, as an adult might a room of first-graders – if there still were first-graders. "Direct ingestion of the compound tends to cause unpleasant side-effects in human bone-marrow." Garland startled at that. Here though, it seemed impossible that she could be the same, very solid woman we had chased through the ruins, as the spray vanished into her body without moistening her surface.
The chemical soon changed to water, which then changed to gusts of warm air, swirling and convecting around us to draw up whatever remained of the airborne toxins of the ruins. Then we felt the room shaking, a sinking feeling.
"We're descending to sub-level-2 now," The holographic female explained. I hadn't been on a working elevator since before the War. "Once there, you'll find ample food, water, filtered air, and lodgings. You'll also find me. The real me. After you're all finished using my body for your pleasure, feel free to explore the compound, and select personal quarters for yourselves." Did I hear her right? God, I hoped not.
"Uhm..." I tried to speak, unsuccessfully.
"And YOUUUUU!" she enthused, turning to me with a mega-watt smile. "You were concerned for my well-being! I certainly appreciate what you think you were trying to do. And I'll be glad to show you how much I appreciate it!" A few ribald chuckles from the men as she suggestively ran her hands over her thighs. She turned her green eye back towards the crowd. "I surrrre hope no one will mind if this stud gets the first crack at me!" The men didn't reply; understandably confused.
I sighed mournfully. The poor thing was attempting to save herself with some sort of reverse-psychology strategy to trick the men, flustering them enough to reconsider their lust-fueled agenda. I doubted she could succeed. And yet...
"I ... I am concerned for your well-being," I assured the hologram. "You don't need to play these games; I'll do my best to -"
"Why do you think I brought you here?" She interrupted with a sheepish grin.
"You weren't trying to escape us by running;" Tannerman concluded, though his posture looked as though he was about to make a run for it himself. If there had been anywhere to go. "You were ... herding us." It wasn't a question.
"Oh pretty please, mysterious band of armed men, why don't you follow me into my fortified compound where you can have all the supplies you need, live in secured comfort, and do things to me your wives and girlfriends would never have allowed in a thousand years?"She teased in a mocking voice, Arms gesticulating for emphasis. "Would you have believed me if I had told you straight-up what I wanted?"
The obvious denial went unspoken as the chamber continued its slow descent through the earth.
"And ... that IS what you want?" McConnaught wanted to know.
"My big friend here was looking out for me," She turned her glistening gaze back to me. "But not everyone can bottle-up their desires the way he tries to. Suppressing your normal, male drives is unnatural, I fully appreciate the futility of resisting these intrinsic needs.
"But clearly, trust is an issue for men in your position. So I had to portray an obvious motivation that would be instantly believable. The Damsel." A strand of ice-white hair fell over her sapphire-blue eye.
"But not in distress." I added. She whirled on Cleary, his hand still twitching, as if eager for what he could not possess. "You're prepared to use force to gain liberties I would have granted freely." Even behind his mask, I could tell Cleary's scheming had been derailed. He clenched the pistol at his hip; even without knowing what to do with it.
"Damn, Clearly blew it for us; she could have automated defenses, bombs down there, who knows?" Tannerman speculated with a clenched fist.
"But there are no ... hard feelings ... above the belt, at least." The woman quipped. "I'm the one who wanted you here in the first place. I'm the one who wants what you have even more than you want to give it to me." Her pearly smile was positively scandalous.
"WAIT!" I cried out; my mind scrambling for answers. I put a hand to my head as if to focus my thoughts. "Think about what happened to Nailer. He snapped. The stress, the death, the frustration. She's ... probably alone here, just machines to run the place, I bet. Maybe ... maybe she's snapped too. The loneliness; it's gotten to her. She's gone stir-crazy.
"Listen guys; you don't want anything to do with her," I waved my hand at the men in a warding gesture. "A crazy bitch like that will slit your throat the moment you turn your back on her; probably got all kinds of blades hidden in that gown. Don't touch her – the real her – it's too big a risk. She probably lures survivors into her compound ... to make trophies out of our bodies ... ya know, some black-widow psycho thing. Maybe we never saw her outside without a suit on; maybe she's rigged up holograms to make it look like she can run around without protection." Luckily, not being able to see my face behind the mask, they shouldn't be able to read the insincerity in my eyes. The Woman in White made a surprised gasping noise.
"You are so precious..." She cooed. "You're afraid you can't stop the others by force, so you're trying to save me by making me seem undesirable!" Well, calling attention to it certainly won't help! I fumed silently. "You ... are going to be my best friend." She made a motion that walked her fingers up my chest flirtatiously. "But I bet you're the jealous type too – what fun we're all going to have!" I shook my head in exasperation, at my wit's end. If this poor woman was so demented that she actually wanted to be raped by strangers, maybe there was nothing more I could do. Maybe I should cut my losses. "But it's funny you should suggest that I have only machines to take care of me..."
Though previously silent since we entered the compound; Mouse suddenly stepped forward, just as we felt the floor settle to a stop on Sub-level 2.
"P-A-C-1 Presentation Protocol." He called out in a clear, firm voice at odds with his slender stature. The woman's eyes widened, and a shudder passed through her. Her holographic self turned its back to us, and raised her snowblind-white hair to expose the back of her neck.
The tattoo resembled a silhouette of a reclining woman laying atop a slanted, capital P. The entire image colored with an alternating black-white striped barcode pattern.
Of course! It had been so long since I'd seen one! It all made sense now. I sighed with audible relief.
"Well?" The woman swept her gaze over us after lowering her hair. "Any incredulous cries of – 'She's a robot!' Anyone?" she chided, placing her hands to her cheeks in mock surprise.
SUNSHINE AND BUNNIES
November 3rd, 2077 Present Day
My densely-muscled frame shuddered as I opened my gray eyes with hesitant flutters, I had already dropped the crowbar, and was leaning - panting against the wall. She was standing right in front of me, but for the moment I tried not to look at her. Looking always made it worse. I tried to focus on the room, my laboratory, my prison. The feelings were still there, but lessened. Perhaps I could try again, even though she stood directly before me. No crowbar. Must have moved it while I was captivated. That alone gave me hope. Hope borne of her fear - unless she was toying with me; as had invariably proven true on past occassions. The rest of the implements in the room consisted of cluttered work-benches, various nano-soldering guns, and the crane-like profiles of hyper-precise robot arms poised like mechanized scavengers over irridescent, filamentous circuit-wafers.I tried not to think about the sheets of human brain tissue growing in sealed plastic panels awash in nutrients over to my right. And the bank of ten dormant television screens on the southeast wall I studiously ignored.
"You lasted longer that time." Celeste teased, with a velvet voice bathed in honey.
"I'm becoming ... resistant ... to your neuropulses!" I grunted defiantly, even as I gauged my surroundings for yet another weapon.