Out of the Ashes, Part 11 (Conclusion)

Out of the Ashes, Part 11 (Conclusion)

Out of the Ashes
by Misty Meenor
A Comic RetCon Universe Story
The Martian Manhunter and Miss Martian characters are the property of DC Comics.

I interrupted her. "Never mind that. The chips. I want them." I needed at least one sample, and I couldn't trust anyone else to destroy the remainder.

She frowned at me. "Now hold on one moment, Miss..."

I sighed, and silently cursed my new form for the thousandth time. Intimidation wasn't in my arsenal anymore, unless you were six years old. If I couldn't intimidate, I had to demonstrate, and that took time and people got hurt. My hand snapped out and grabbed the woman's throat, lifiting her off the ground. "Chips!"

Her hands clutched at her hand on my throat for a few moments, before she pointed frantically back towards the hallway. "Office. Safe." she choked out.

WARNING: I don't want to give anything away, but if there were elements in the previous chapters that disturbed you, please do not continue reading. Elements of this chapter will be dark. I've rated this chapter Adult and Intense.


I had nothing better to do after turning in Heatstroke, so I went home and slept, curled up with Dolores' pillow again. No bad dreams this time.

I slept longer than I usually did, waking to sunshine beaming in from the window. And the doorbell. I vaguely recalled it had rung a few times. "Coming!" I called, then jumped out of bed and shifted to Megan's form. I was feeling pretty good, physically. I guess the sleep was good for me. "Who is it?"

"Sylvia Merrick," came the reply, and I raised an eyebrow. Not Agent Merrick, this morning? Interesting. Hastily I shifted to the shape that matched the Joanne Jahns ID, and added some morning clothes, sweatpants and a t-shirt, for authenticity's sake. Still no messages on Megan's cellphone.

I opened the door for her, glancing past her to wave at her partner in the car. "Come on in. Might as well bring him in, too. Coffee?" Without waiting for a response, I headed for the kitchen and started a fresh batch. She waved her partner in and waited at the door for him, then they both followed me into the kitchen. Both agents were dressed casually, in jeans and sneakers. Sylvia had a knit sweater, while the man had a windbreaker over a golf shirt.

I set mugs and sugar on the table, then grabbed the carton of milk from the fridge, sniffing it tentatively before deciding it was still good. I offered a perfunctory smile to the man and stuck out my free hand. "We finally meet. I guess I'm Joanne Jahns."

He took my hand stiffly, and gave it a perfunctory shake. "Agent -- ahh, just Chase. Norm Chase." His grip was firm and dry, and his hand dwarfed my own. He was balding, but it was premature, I placed him in his late thirties. Husky build, in good shape, definitely ex-military, they both had that look about them.

I leaned against the counter, arms folded across my chest while I waited for the coffee to finish brewing. "So, we're on a first-name basis, now? What's changed?"

Sylvia pulled out a chair and sat, toying with the mug in front of her. "Are you still bug-free?"

I knew the kind she meant, and after a quick check with my ring, I nodded. "You two are still bugged, just your phones this time, but they won't work here." Norm looked uncomfortable at that.

She sighed. "So they know we're talking, but not what we're talking about." She exchanged glances with her partner. "It'll have to do." He nodded. She waited while I poured the coffee and sat down with my own mug, then took a deep breath. "The Terberon robbery. Something was stolen, we're sure of it, and we think we know what. You were right, there were records."

I sat and looked at them expectantly. "So, what was it? And what was Terberon doing with it?" I prompted.

Norm looked briefly annoyed. "There were shipments of something called a 'biometal', whatever that is, from some place near Pittsburgh. You wouldn't believe how much that stuff costs, it would have to go in the vault, but there's no record of any of it going in or out." He growled in frustration. "We don't know what they were doing with it -- the records aren't there anymore. Officially, there was some kind of 'voltage fluctuation' in the Terberon data center. The batteries used for the backup power system exploded, and the resulting fire destroyed everything that might be construed as evidence. Unofficially, we don't trust the official story. There were backups offsite, but they're useless until the company has new computers to access them. We're looking at a couple of weeks, easily."

I looked skeptical. "Not coincidence, hardly."

Sylvia shook her head, her hands wrapped around her warm mug. "We think the timing is far from coincidental. It happened as we were starting to find discrepancies in their records."

I sat back and sipped my coffee. "Okay, fine. So was it Terberon covering their tracks? Or the D.E.O. covering it's tracks?"

She frowned, clearly unhappy with what she was about to admit. "Going through these records is a pretty slow job. We think the explosion happened about an hour after we started noticing discrepancies. If it was Terberon keeping an eye on what we were pulling out of their database, they could have pulled the plug as soon as we hit paydirt, or even before we had a chance to find anything -- and they would have been able to tie us in knots without such a brute-force approach. That's just speculation, of course," she hastened to add.

I stared into my coffee, thinking. "So... who ever it was... realized you'd found evidence and decided you had to be stopped, and then it took time for them to get somebody out there to shut down the computers. Since they didn't know which computer to shut down, they took 'em all." I nodded. "Seems possible, anyway. So... your bosses don't want you to know what's going on." I grinned sourly. "Welcome to my world."

I turned to Sylvia. "Yesterday, you offered the resources of the Department. Can I assume you two are it?"

She shrugged helplessly. "It's the weekend. Tomorrow's Monday, I can submit a budget request first thing, and -- "

I held up a hand to cut her off. "No, no, that's okay, smaller is probably better, for now." I thought hard. Somebody was trying to hide the Fed's involvement with the biometal, but why? Why not just cut their losses and shut down without all the misdirection?

Item: The Feds had a top-secret research project at Terberon.

Item: The project was so important the Feds locked up the source and the supply of the biometal required for the project.

Item: The biometal was stolen, but the Feds aren't screaming to get it back. Instead they're denying it was ever there. What happened to the project?

Item: Despite all of this, these same Feds seem interested in helping me find Dolores, possibly because they think I may lead them to the biometal. Or that I'll be too busy to care about it?

The hell with it, you need to trust somebody, at least a little. Tell them. "The biometal. It's used to make computer chips that integrate with the body -- in particular, the nervous system. Originally to control artificial limbs, but it was stolen because the Cartel wanted to control the brain itself, mind control. Now think about it: if the D.E.O. was just using it to create artificial limbs, would it be such a huge secret?" I could tell by the looks on their faces that they could see where I was going.

Finally I said, "How about this: You guys need to see the data center, and talk to the investigators. Inspect the damage, make sure it's legitimate. See if anything's been removed. Find out if it really was a clever job to make it look like something else, or if was a simple bombing that wasn't trying to fool anyone. That should give you an idea how much time they had to plan. From that you might get an idea of what resources they had, and from that hopefully you can narrow down who might have ordered the bombing.

"No matter what you find, make a show of suspecting a deliberate attack -- somebody's trying to foil the D.E.O.! Then, since the computer records are unavailable, one of you gets to drag Terberon's security through every one of their lab buildings, the entire campus, basement to roof. Figure out what's going on in each one of them, anything that might be suspicious, like labs suddenly empty since last week -- and find out which doors they can't or won't unlock for you."

They both shared a pained expression. "There's what, a dozen buildings? That's gonna take some time. What are we supposed to be looking to find?" Norm asked.

I shrugged. "Computer chip fabrication? Medical labs? But that's just for one of you." I smiled tightly. "The other of you will be watching for whoever turns up as soon as you start searching buildings."

~o~O~o~

Kitten looks up from her mat as the man comes in. She has been kneeling patiently, her face is washed, her hair brushed, and the thin robe is fastened at her waist, accenting her figure as well as it can, leaving a generous amount of her cleavage exposed. The cheap makeup provided to her is deftly applied, but fails to hide the dark circles under her eyes. She waits patiently while he studies her, putting on a smile because it is important that this man find her attractive, but it is a mechanical curve to her lips, nothing more.

The chip has stolen her emotions, constantly smoothing the highs and the lows into a nearly flat, barren plain. Terror is reduced to a small dip of anxiety. She feels no shame, or rage, or despair at her situation, she feels almost nothing, only placeholders for where those emotions should be. She is barely more than a machine, and she knows that should horrify her, but it doesn't. It just is.

The man crouches to pick her notebook off the ground, and he straightens, flipping through the pages for a moment, as if checking her homework. Finally he tosses the notebook to the floor in front of her, open to the last page she wrote. "Read that. Out loud."

Kitten takes the book and begins to read. She'd written the page late the previous night, after ten exhausting hours of fighting a losing battle for control of her own mind. The handwriting is shaky and scrawled, and some of the words are difficult to make out, but Kitten doesn't need to read the words at all anymore.

"My name is Kitten. I am a slave..."

The words flow smoothly, without hesitation, her tone flat and factual, as if she was reciting from the phone book. She accepts the rules, knows they define her now. She understands she has been broken, and tries to find the humiliation and grief for the loss of her former self. It's simply not there, only a mild gratification for avoiding the pain.

Her owner nods, clearly pleased with her condition. "You're coming along well, Kitten. The punishment phase of your training is over. You've been a very good girl, and it's time for a reward." She becomes apprehensive as he pulls the remote from his pocket. "Be obedient, and please your owner, and you'll get a taste of this." Her eyes go wide and she opens her mouth to plead with him, but he says "Good Kitten!" and presses a button.

Fireworks explode in her head.

It is perfect, unadulterated pleasure, revved up to a million volts and slammed directly into the center of her brain, flooding and overflowing her senses. It is the simple melody of a warm sunbeam, the sweet tang of a baby's giggle, the rich perfume of passionate kisses. It is love, and laughter, and bliss, and every good feeling, every happy memory, purified, condensed, and double-distilled into a joyous, exhilarating liquor that cascades through her body and sweeps her to the cusp of delicious ecstasy, before plunging headlong into orgasmic rapture, again and again and again and again.

It lasts forever, and is not long enough. It is over in sixty seconds, and it is far, far, too long. Her dreamy smile fades as the room slowly comes back into stark focus, and the bright, warm euphoria gradually seeps away, stranding her in flat, dull reality again, feeling even more cold and bleak and miserable with the loss. She is already missing it.

The man places the remote in his pocket with a smirk. "That's it. Simple, isn't it? But it's effective, you'll see." He picks up the timer. "Today we have a slightly different drill. When the timer goes off, reset it. Go to your mat, write your rules, and read them out loud. That's it. For the rest of the time you may do as you wish." He gestured to the simple table and chair. "You may use the furniture." He sets the timer down, but does not remove his hand. "Oh. One last thing. The maximum on the timer is one hour, but you may set the timer for whatever interval you wish."

The man starts the timer, and it begins counting backwards from fifteen minutes. When he leaves, there is nothing at all in the room to occupy her attention, to divert her thoughts from the mind-searing pleasure she has just experienced. She paces for a few minutes, checks and rechecks her makeup, and brushes her hair again. She sits on the chair and closes her eyes. She tries to imagine being safe again, far away from this place, warm and secure and loved, but her body keeps intruding, little aches and pains, growing more insistent, discomforts that she doesn't recall noticing before.

Before the fireworks.

The fireworks.

No matter how she tries, her thoughts always return to her growing need for the pleasure. She cannot escape her own head, and she spends the last few minutes in the chair with her knees drawn up to her chest, rocking back and forth, unconsciously toying with the bell on her collar, watching the timer slowly tick the seconds away, willing it to hurry with all her might.

When it finally goes off, she snatches it up, and then she is torn, unable to decide what interval to set. Intellectually, she knows she should resist as much as she can and set it for a full hour, but any interval is too long, and she persuades herself that thirty minutes is a fair compromise, thirty should be easy, she can set it for forty-five the next time. She goes to her mat and begins to write her rules. The aches and pains start to fade, and color begins to return to her cheeks. It's not anything like the fireworks, but her obedience is being rewarded. Despite knowing the chip is manipulating her, her mood lifts, and she begins to feel good, to find some enjoyment in the tedious task. By the time she finishes reading them aloud, she is almost ready to sing them, and she is feeling wonderful, unable to keep a smile from her face.

The euphoria lasts for a few minutes, but with no more instructions to follow, it begins to fade. With a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach, she begins to realize that thirty minutes can be a glacial age, as she watches the timer slowly count down to her next opportunity to obey.

~o~O~o~

Once the Feds had left, I was in the air and hovering high over the Haldibane plant, high enough that I wasn't too worried about being spotted. Heatstroke had mentioned that Vincent would have to come and survey the damage, and it made sense. I almost felt sorry for Vincent, considering the two dozen people most able to give him an assessment of the damage were in the hands of the M.I.B. at the moment. Although it shouldn't take an egghead to recognize 'catastrophic'. He was definitely going to have some explaining to do to Tony Carpaci.

There were a few people idling around the outside of the building, probably Bone Fist playing at security, but none of them seemed interested in doing much except parking their backsides on whatever happened to be handy. I dropped behind another building and shifted form, becoming a woman in her mid-thirties, shorter hair, dark blue jacket over a denim work shirt, construction boots and jeans, with a clipboard and hardhat. I came around the corner of the building, and walked up to the closest goon. He was sitting on a dumpster, arms crossed, looking down on me. Sure enough, he was wearing Bone Fist colors.

"Which one of you guys is the boss?"

He shook his head. "None of us is. We got told to wait out here for him, an' keep people away."

I frowned. "I need to make an inspection. Let me know when he gets here." I moved to walk past him and enter through gaping hole where the lobby used to be.

"Uh-uh." Suddenly I was looking at the wrong end of a large pistol. "Nobody gets in."

I suppressed the urge to shove the gun where his proctologist would have to mine for it, and instead raised my hands, looking exasperated. "Jeez, guy, what the fuck? I got a job to do, yeah? One of the other tenants said there was a lot of noise last night, you lost part of the building. I need to check it out." I glanced around to make sure we weren't overheard. "You know who owns this park? Tony Carpaci. Yeah, him. Be my life if I don't fuckin' check it out."

He looked uncertain for a moment, then shouted. "Hey, Lenny! Got a dame here says she needs to inspect the place, for Tony Carpaci."

I made shushing noises and held a finger to my lips. "C'mon, man, not so loud!"

Lenny came round the corner, a big guy but getting old and not aging well, his muscles slowly turning to flab. He shaved his head, probably to hide his bald spot. He looks me over suspiciously. "Who the hell're you, toots?"

I sighed patiently and explained again. "I work for the landlord, who, as you may have guessed," I rolled my eyes at the first goon, "is Tony Carpaci. Mr. Carpaci calls my boss, my boss calls me, I get dragged out on a Sunday to check the place out, and report back as soon as possible." I jerk my thumb vaguely in the direction of another building. "I got a camera and stuff in the car. What the hell happened here, anyway?"

Lenny shook his head. "Doesn't matter. Nobody goes in. You stay out till Mr. Vincent gets here. He can decide."

I threw up my hands in exasperation. "Fine! I have to report back to the office, though. I'll be in my car. When's your Mr. Vincent supposed to get here?"

Lenny spat on the ground and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Charming. "How the fuck should I know, I'm not his fuckin' social secretary."

I scowled back at him. "Whatever, buddy, don't take it out on me, awright? Just doin' my job here, same as you." I took a few steps back the way I came, then turned. "Oh -- you did call the gas company, right? And the electric guys?"

He gave me a scornful look. "Why'n hell would I do that? Not my fuckin' job."

I sighed and explained slowly. "No, it's my job. Don't sweat it, I'll call 'em from the car. They'll send out a couple of trucks, probably cut power and gas to the whole park. Might need to evacuate the area for a couple of hours, the cops'll have to take care of that." I kept walking.

The panic in his voice was worthwhile. "What? No, hey, no trucks, no cops!"

I turned back to face him, looking pained. "Look. Lenny. I know you don't want anybody going in. I understand where you're comin' from. We all got our jobs to do. But -- " I gestured at the front of the building, sitting in the middle of the parking lot. "-- you got a serious problem here. I dunno what the hell did that, a mini-tornado, or maybe some kind of an explosion, but you got gas lines in there that could be leaking." I pointed overhead at the telephone wires leading into the building. "And you got a thousand amp volts that could be sparking like crazy, too. This place isn't safe till I can say it's safe. Till then, if you smell gas, man, you guys better run like hell. And for God's sake, don't fucking smoke!" That last was directed with a glare at the first goon who'd pull out a cigarette and was preparing to light up. Lenny backhanded the guy's arm and he put it away sheepishly.

I adopted my most reasonable tone. "Is there any chance you can just call Mr. Vincent? Ask him when he'll be here, or if it's okay for me to just go in and do my job?" I asked hopefully. "'Cause if you won't call him, I haveta call my boss, and he has to call Mr. Carpaci. Who's only gonna call Mr. Vincent anyway. So... he either hears about me from you, 'cause you're doin' your job real good, or... he gets a surprise call from his boss..." I let the implications sink in.

Lenny grumbled about it, but he knew the right choice when it was shoved down his throat. He pulled his phone out, and found the stored number he wanted. "Don't go anywhere," he growled at me. "...Mr. Vincent. It's Lenny out at that factory you wanted us to watch. I got some dame here, wants to go into the place and look around. Says she's an inspector for Mr. Carpaci... I dunno, she said he owned the place..." His eyes fixed on me and narrowed. "Yes, sir, I'll do that." He hangs up the phone.

"Well, is he coming?" I asked innocently.

Lenny considered me thoughtfully. "He says to find out what the hell you're up to, bitch. Tony Carpaci doesn't own this place, you been spinning us a fuckin' line." He loomed over me threateningly, and the other goon grabbed my arms from behind. "He's changing his plans, and he's coming out right now to talk to you."

Well, it's about fucking time.

~o~O~o~

It was half an hour before Vincent's car pulled into the lot, carefully steering around the wreckage of the front of the building. I was lounging in the chair previously used by the former security guard, positioned on the front steps leading up to the gaping hole that used to be an entrance. He stepped out of his car, a tall, well-built man in an expensively tailored three-piece suit. He was escorted by his driver and presumed bodyguard, a very wide man of medium height, apparently born without a neck. His collar appeared to wrap around his head just under his ears and button where his chin should be.

Vincent strolled up the path and stood with his hands in his pockets, regarding me. "You're the woman they called me about?"

I nodded.

"Where's my boys?"

I pointed to the dumpster, over by the side of the building. The one with the pickup truck balanced on top of it.

I'll give him points for the poker face. Not even a blink. He sighed. "All of them?"

I shrugged apologetically.

"Mind if I take a look around, now that I'm here?"

I nodded, "Be my guest."

He picked his way past me and was gone for several minutes, leaving the bodyguard to watch over me. When he came out I was still swiveling idly in the chair. "Where's Bruno?" he asked, sounding pained.

I pointed to the dumpster. The pickup truck was now facing the other way.

He muttered something under his breath. I didn't recognize the language, but I was pretty sure it was obscene. "You have the biometal?" His voice was tight.

I nodded again.

"What do you want?"

"Dolores Parker."

He had the good sense not to pretend he didn't know who I was talking about. "In exchange for the biometal."

I held up Lenny's phone. "I'll want to hear her voice, before we have that discussion."

He slumped, then got a crafty look in his eye. "I don't have her. But I'm willing to deal for information that should help you find her."

This should be good. I snorted. "When Tony Carpaci finds out what a screwup you are, you're a dead man." I ticked the items off on my fingers as I listed them. "You've had a busy night, screwup. You've lost the biometal, the Haldibane production facility, the Haldibane eggheads, and -- oh, yeah -- you've even lost Heatstroke, the Cartel's pet meta." His eyes widened at that one. "You didn't know?" I grinned. "Guess what? Heatstroke used to be his daughter."

He looked suddenly grey, and I thought he might throw up. "He can't blame Heatstroke on me. I didn't know."

I shrugged. "I doubt it much matters. Tony sent Heatstroke here himself, to protect your plant. But he's not much for taking the blame for his own fuckups, is he?"

His voice was insistent. "I need the biometal. With that, I can cut a deal with Tony, you can get the woman back."

I shook my head. "Enjoy your last daylight, dead man. Here's what's on the table. A chance -- just a chance, mind you -- to extend your life. Alternatively, I get creative about torturing you, then give whatever's left to Tony. That path ends with you dead, today. Either way you give me what I want."

I leaned forward and grew very serious. "I know, I know, you're a tough guy, grew up on the streets. Lost your ear in a fight, got quite the rep. I'll make a bet with you, tough guy. Thirty minutes. If I don't get what I want at the end of thirty minutes, you win. I'll take you to the biometal and walk away. Maybe you won't talk. But you better ask yourself what shape you'll be in after thirty minutes, because I doubt you'll get much of a thrill from winning. Ask Ramon. He didn't last ten minutes."

I picked up a chunk of concrete and crumbled it in my hand, watching his eyes. The poker face was definitely becoming harder to hold. "Of course, if you do talk I still hand you over to Tony. So either way, it's not a bet you really want to take."

I sat back and crossed my arms. "Now, think very carefully about your choice right now, because you won't get to change your mind later. Door number one: talk now, don't get hurt, maybe live longer. Or door number two: thirty guaranteed minutes of pure hell. Maybe you win the bet, but I promise that you won't be in any condition to enjoy it. And of course, if you lose, well, it won't matter, because Tony will end you."

I shut up then and let him sweat, thinking about all the ways he could make somebody talk in under thirty minutes. His imagination was doing my work for me. It took a couple of minutes, but finally he began to talk. When he was done, I put him in the dumpster with the others.

~o~O~o~

The man steps into her cell, and for the first time there is another man with him, only the second person she has seen in her captivity. She bounces to her feet, flashing her owner an eager smile, hoping for a chance to obey, still riding the euphoria from her last drill. She spares no attention for the stranger, but she can't help but notice him study her closely.

Her owner picks up the timer and turns it off. It had been counting down from ten minutes. "Kitten, this is your new owner, you will go with him."

Kitten glances at the stranger, then back to the man, with an intent gleam in her eye that he misses. "You are not my owner..." Her voice is hesitant, as if unsure how she should react to the news.

He nods. "You belong to this man, now."

The palm of her hand slams into his nose, shattering it, then the hip throw follows automatically, precisely as she had been drilled in her police classes. She spins with him, riding him down, and lands with one knee on his chest, knocking the breath from his lungs. Her fist crushes his exposed throat, and then with both hands she lifts his head and repeatedly smashes it with all her strength into the concrete floor, the horrific sickly thuds punctuated by ghastly choking noises and the merry tingling of her bell.

Her new owner is startled into immobility at her brutal explosion of lethality, recovering too late. "Kitten! Stop!"

Immediately she stands, facing the stranger, flashing him a smile, arms behind her back, shoulders straight, her breasts thrust out through the thin robe, both now spattered with blood. Behind her the unconscious man convulses, choking and coughing bright red blood over the concrete, before exhaling a long gurgling sigh and becoming still.

The stranger curses vehemently. "Shit! I don't have time for this!" He fixes Kitten with a furious glare. "You are not to attack anyone else without permission, understand?"

Kitten meets his gaze, unrepentant, unable to fear the punishment this man could inflict. "I understand."

The stranger's eyes fall to the corpse on the floor, blood slowly pooling under the head. He curses again. "Come with me."

~o~O~o~

With Vincent safely in storage, I shifted to my Joanne Jahns shape, dressed in government-issue agent wear: dark skirt suit, white blouse, low heels. I called Sylvia from Lenny's phone. "Building 6, basement. Lab C. Nobody in or out. Possible hostages. I need both of you. I'm already here." And very soon after that, I was.

Vincent had delivered her to Terberon Labs. He'd intended to kill her with William Yee, in the car, but after seeing her, figured she'd make a good test subject.

Without Haldibane's expertise, neither the D.E.O. nor Terberon had the wherewithal to start fabricating chips in anything less than two years. Somehow, they'd come up with a sophisticated design, without any knowledge of how to build a chip. Vincent couldn't explain, but he was adamant that the design had come from the D.E.O.

The problem was, two years was too long to wait. For some reason, they needed the chips now.

Haldibane could build the chips now. So a deal was struck. The Cartel had stolen the biometal with the full knowledge of the D.E.O. They'd manufacture the chips, and covertly sell most of them back to the agency, naturally reserving some for themselves. Some hefty bribe money had changed hands, of course.

It was a win-win scenario. The agency gets to deny it has anything to do with mind-control, and yet has a steady under-the-table supply of chips. The Cartel gets big money from supplying the Feds with illicit goods, and keeps some chips for itself. I was sure they'd be eagerly trying to acquire their own offshore suppliers for the biometal, but in the meantime, the Feds keep an iron grip on the supply of the critical biometal component and retain a certain amount of control.

I tried the door. It had an electronic passcard lock, but was easy enough to kick in. Inside it looked like any bland office, pastel walls, commercial-grade carpet, framed prints of nondescript bowls of fruit and uninteresting landscapes. A hallway, with wood-panel doors on either side, and one at the end. "Hello?" I shouted. "Anybody home? I could use some help here!"

A woman in pale pink nurse's scrubs dashed out of one of the rooms, drawn by the crash of the door and my call for help. "What? What's happened?"

I took her by the arm and escorted her back into the room she'd just left, it turned out to be a staff lounge. I flashed a hastily-formed facsimile of the D.E.O. badge. "Agent Jahns, D.E.O. Who else is here? It's important."

The woman looked frightened. "Y-you're hurting me!"

I released her and she rubbed at her bruised arm. "Who else?"

She shook her head. "J-just Doctor Sarnow. He's in the back."

I quickly checked the other rooms: an office, with a pair of closed-circuit TV monitors, now dark; a small operating theater for minor surgical procedures; a hospital-type room, presumably for recovery. No Dolores. I stormed back to the woman. "Was there a woman here? Mid-thirties, medium height, long hair. Brunette. Pretty."

She backed away from my expression, nodding. "Y-yes. Subject 14. The director took her about fifteen minutes ago. The doctor was very pleased with her progress but wasn't ready to release her just yet. The director was in a hurry and was most insistent. I had to give her a spare set of my scrubs to wear."

I dragged the woman with me as I went through the final door. The back room proved to be an open warehouse space, with two adjacent cinderblock rooms. The door to the first was ajar, revealing an austere cell. And something else.

I pushed it open wider, for the woman to see. "Is that Doctor Sarnow?" She gasped, but nodded.

My guts turned to ice as I processed the woman's words. "Director? Director who?" I asked, praying that I was wrong.

"W-why, Director Trask, of course. Who else?"

I was desperate to be after Dolores, but I needed to do something first. "This... Subject 14. You put a chip in her?"

The nurse nodded. "The doctor was quite pleased. He said the new firmware was much better --"

I interrupted her. "Never mind that. The chips. I want them." I needed at least one sample, and I couldn't trust anyone else to destroy the remainder.

She frowned at me. "Now hold on one moment, Miss..."

I sighed, and silently cursed my new form for the thousandth time. Intimidation wasn't in my arsenal anymore, unless you were six years old. If I couldn't intimidate, I had to demonstrate, and that took time and people got hurt. My hand snapped out and grabbed the woman's throat, lifiting her off the ground. "Chips!"

Her hands clutched at her hand on my throat for a few moments, before she pointed frantically back towards the hallway. "Office. Safe." she choked out.

I released her throat and dragged her back into the office area, shoving her into the arms of Agent Merrick, who was just coming in the ruined door. "Keep her. They were implanting mind-control chips here for the D.E.O., she's the only one left alive. I'll want to talk to her later. There's a body in a cell, out back. Your Director Trask just left, with Dolores."

The office safe was easy to find, set into the concrete floor under a loose corner of carpet. "Secure this place. Nobody touches that safe till I get back." With that I was out the door, and within seconds, in the air. I dropped the Agent Jahns disguise and reverted back to Miss Mars; the masquerade was pointless, now.

*I need to find Carleton Trask. He left Terberon Labs about 15 minutes ago, with a woman in nurse's scrubs, I think it's Dolores. Can Jade's A.I. locate him?*

*Scanning... Terberon cameras have a black SUV licensed to him leaving the gate seventeen minutes ago... I have a traffic camera image, from seven minutes ago. The on-ramp for the interstate, heading south. I can show you the approximate distance he could have traveled.*

As I watched, a green beacon appeared, gradually moving south along the interstate. With my enhanced eyesight, the black SUV was easy to spot. Now, how the hell do I stop it? I kept my distance, but flew lower so I could see inside the car. There was only one occupant.

Remembering the fiasco with Jade's giant stop sign, I flew well ahead of the vehicle, and stood on the highway, giving the driver plenty of opportunity to see me and pull over. The window slid down as I approached the driver's door. "Where are you going, Angel?" I asked, gently.

She looked straight ahead, not meeting my eyes. "He... told me to drive south, on the interstate, until I was stopped or I ran out of gas." There was color in her cheeks, and her eyes were bright. Her nipples were visible under the thin nurse's scrubs.

"When did he get out of the car?"

She shook her head. She was wearing a collar, with a little bell that chimed. "He was never in it."

My heart dropped. Oh, shit. He's at the lab. *Agent Chase has a government-issue vehicle, a black sedan. Has it left Terberon?*

*One minute ago.*

I wanted to scream in frustration, but Dolores was more important. "Come on, sweetie. I'll take you home." I opened the door for her.

Her fingers tightened on the wheel. "I-I can't. He gave me instructions. I need to tell you something, and then you have to do something, first. If we don't do this, I have to keep driving south, push the accelerator to the floor, and close my eyes." For the first time she turned to face me, her face devoid of emotion. "I have to," she repeated.

My stomach churned. "W-what do you have to tell me?"

She turned away from me again, unable to look me in the eye. "I have to tell you about me. These are my rules, now:"

"My name is Kitten. I am a slave."

"A slave always has an owner."

"A slave must always wear her collar."

"A slave is obedient to her owner in thought and in deed."

"A slave wants to be attractive for her owner."

"A slave never raises her voice."

"A slave does not wear clothes without her owner's permission."

"A slave does not use the furniture without her owner's permission."

"A slave is not permitted to leave her assigned quarters without her owner."

She paused a moment, then continued. "If I break the rules... they put a thing in my head, it punishes me. It's watching all the time. I can't even think about disobeying." She lifted her hair, to show me the back of her neck. There was a small surgical scar there, an angry red color, just at the hairline.

"But... when I obey... it... rewards me." She smiles, a little, just at the memory. "It's... the feeling is incredible. It's the only thing I can feel, now. I... need it."

I felt the tears roll down my face. "Oh, Angel, oh God, I'm so sorry... w-what do I have to do?"

She took a deep breath. "You have to be my new owner. You have to say, 'Kitten I am your owner now.'"

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut; my hands clenched, leaving the car door bent and useless. Oh, Trask, you bastard. "Of -of course. But we'll fix this, baby, I swear to you." My mouth went dry, and I forced out the words.

For the first time, she seemed to relax, and she took her hands off the wheel and let me help her out of the car. I wrapped my arms around her and buried my face in her hair, sobbing uncontrollably. "I'm so sorry... I t-tried to find you... I-c-couldn't..."

She whispered in my ear, "It's okay, it's okay. It's not your fault." Suddenly, she slumped in my arms, and her eyes fluttered closed. "so...so tired..." she breathed.

I caught her before she fell, and picked her up, carrying her like a child, frantic to do something, but with no clue what I should be doing, screaming in desperation at the ring. *Jaaaaaaaaaaade!*

~o~O~o~

I sat with Dolores in the medical bay of the starship, holding her hand while she slept. The ship had determined she was suffering from exhaustion, but otherwise hadn't been physically mistreated. Yeah, aside from the wires in her head, invading her brain and controlling her thoughts, she's perfectly fine.

Jade had made a quick run to Chicago, to fetch someone she thought might be able to help. I'd heard of Giganta, of course, but not many knew Doris Zeul was a scientist before her change, specializing in biochemistry and molecular biology. This wasn't exactly her field, but it was pretty close, and she'd know the right questions to ask. And if she couldn't help, she might be able to recommend someone who could help us.

Doris came as part of a package, she and her girlfriend Lena were inseparable, in a way that hurt to look at without Dolores. Lena was supposed to be no slouch in the brains department, so her help could prove valuable, too.

Doris and Lena came in sooner than I expected -- wow, Jade was fast! -- and after introductions, I filled them in on everything I knew, then Doris chased us out while she set to work, trying to figure out what was going on in Dolores' brain.

Jade offered me a hug, and I clung to her like an abandoned child. "We'll fix this. Doris is the best," she whispered. I could tell she wanted to believe it as much as I did.

Eventually I let her go, and wiped my cheeks abashedly. "Th-this girl stuff... it takes some getting used to," I smiled weakly. "Dan would just stomp around and look for something to punch." I choked out a sharp laugh. "I'm not sure his way isn't better. Something must need to be punched."

Jade looked grim. "If you find it, save some punching for the rest of us. What they did... is an abomination."

I nodded. "You realize... the D.E.O. was in a hurry for these chips, for a reason. Their sudden interest coincides with the appearance of metahumans."

Her eyes widened. "Oh, shit," she breathed.

~o~O~o~

Eventually Jade had to leave to deal with Jade-stuff. I curled up miserably in the lounge, across from Lena, and asked the ship if it had any news from Terberon.

"Terberon Security was called to building 6 shortly after you left; a report of shots fired. They found Agent Chase and the nurse dead, and Agent Merrick critical, but they were able to get her to a hospital. She's just out of surgery, with a good prognosis. The safe was open and empty."

"What about Chase's car?"

"Parked illegally on a side street around the corner from a busy commuter bus stop. No sign of Carleton Trask."

I cursed, silently. Run while you can, Trask. There's no place I won't find you.

I hadn't forgotten about Vincent and his boys. I debated taking him to see his precious biometal, but in the end decided it wasn't worth the energy.

"Are you able to get messages to the media and police in the city?"

"Of course."

"Inform the media that the man known as Vincent, high-ranking Cartel lieutenant, murderer of police accountant William Yee, and the man who kidnapped police technician Dolores Parker has been located. He is in a dumpster in an industrial park, south of town." I gave it the address. "Advise them that this will be a photo opportunity that's not to be missed. Wait fifteen minutes, then give the police the same message, minus the photo op bit, but add that they'll need a small crane and medical treatment for eight."

All this had been with Lena listening, and I could tell she was going to explode if she didn't find out that was about. I grinned tiredly. "The guy who took Dolores -- and his henchmen," I explained. "They've been in that dumpster for about six or seven hours, now. Eight of them, it was a tight fit. They're stacked like cordwood."

Lena returned my grin as she pictured it. "The crane?"

"I kinda parked a truck on top, to keep 'em in."

She nodded sagely, trying to keep a straight face. "And the medical equipment?"

I shrugged. "Exposure. There was frost last night, and it wasn't that warm today."

She frowned in mock sympathy. "Awww, they weren't dressed for the weather?"

I coughed and looked a little embarrassed. "Ah. Well. Actually, it seems they weren't dressed at all... hence the photo op."

Lena cackled wickedly. "Eight. Macho. Tough guys. Stacked naked. In the dark. Trying to keep warm. For hours. And then... on the front page of every newspaper?" She thought that was hilarious. It's possible I could like this girl.

After a few moments, I spoke to the ship again. "Also please advise the media and police that Heatstroke, the cold-blooded killer of at least five police officers and a grand jury witness, member of the team that killed several people during the Terberon robbery, is in fact the daughter of Cartel boss Tony Carpaci. Which means that Carpaci is guilty of faking her death, and that somebody else may be in the poor girl's grave." I'd leave it to the M.I.B. to announce they had him in custody. I had no idea if the casket was empty or full, but Tony sure wouldn't be happy about the spotlight. And I sure as hell didn't owe Heatstroke anything.

Doris eventually joined us in the lounge, her expression grim. "She's still sleeping. She needs it, badly. The ship gave her something to take her deep, below REM. The damned chip --" her face twisted in anger, and she actually grew a couple of feet, forcing her to pause for a moment to compose herself and return to a more normal height. "The chip even monitors her dreams. She can't escape it. Not for a second."

I sat up on the couch, watching her intently. "But you can remove it, right?"

She sighed, looking mournful. "It's not that simple. The biometal... it's insinuated itself into her brain, become a web of infinitely fine molecular wires, impossible to remove. One of its targets was the autonomic nervous system -- the part of the brain that controls your breathing, and your heart, among other things..." She slumped into Lena's lap, who immediately threw a comforting arm around her, and I noticed that she'd become smaller yet, the better to fit into the hug.

"The technology in the medical bay is amazing. Without it, we'd probably have killed her in our ignorance. The ship can map the biometal in her head, can even analyze the chip and get some idea of how it's been programmed -- but we don't dare do anything about it."

"The damned thing doesn't just mess with her brain. It ties the body into the punishment and reward cycles, linking the mental jolts with physical symptoms. When it punishes her, it paralyzes her breathing for sixty seconds, probably to stop her from screaming -- think about being in the most terrible pain you've ever imagined, and suddenly unable to breathe as well -- the chip takes the fear and panic and amplifies it, feeds it into the punishment. During a reward, it triggers sexual arousal, accelerates the heartbeat and breathing, to increase the physical sense of exhilaration."

She closed her eyes. "It's at the base of her skull, where it connects with the spinal cord. It displaces her own neurons. Not all of them, but enough. Her brain can't control her body without the chip, now. If, through some miracle, we could instantly remove all the wires, it's too late, the damage is done, and the brain, the spinal cord, the nerves, they don't regenerate, they can't heal themselves. Even if we just destroy or damage the chip, everything stops. Heart stops. Respiration stops. Blood pressure crashes. Total paralysis. Most of the major organs would be affected to some extent. It didn't have to work this way, but they did this on purpose. We're pretty sure the chip runs self-tests and redundancy checks about ten times a second, so we can't even tamper with it. Mess with the chip, it kills her. It was designed to be impossible to remove. That chip..." her voice filled with loathing, "is the most vile, despicable, heinous thing any human being has ever created."

She opened her eyes to meet my own. "Megan, I can't see any way to take it out. I'm sorry. And... it gets worse. Haldibane never solved the rejection problem. Sometime down the road, maybe as soon as six months, the body will begin to reject the biometal."

I wanted to curl up into a ball and cover my ears, to stop hearing this. "W-what happens then?"

Doris shook her head tiredly. "We're not really sure. It's possible the chip will treat it as damage, and just shut down, killing her. That's probably the best-case scenario."

~o~O~o~

Dolores woke in her own bed, late Monday morning, with me snuggled next to her. She'd been out a long time, as if her brain was unwilling to face consciousness again, and I'd been with her as much as I could. Her eyes fluttered open, and focused on me. "Morning." I whispered, and kissed her. She smiled softly, and returned the kiss eagerly, rolling on top of me, her collar bell jingling. and it just got better from there. She was passionate, and aggressive, and she knew exactly how to bring my body to the brink of orgasm and hold it there for a delicious eternity, before tumbling us both into shuddering, frenzied, inarticulate gasps. Repeatedly. We had made love before, but this, this was sex. It was amazing, and she didn't let up, not even for a moment.

Maybe...she couldn't stop? Reality came crashing down around me, and my eyes widened as I understood. "Stop! Stop, let's catch our breath." Instantly she was snuggling with me, her body pressed to mine, face flushed, skin gleaming with a thin sheen of perspiration. Her chest was heaving. "That... that was amazing. Thank you." I kissed her on the forehead and her breath caught as she squirmed in my arms; I'd sent her over the edge again.

"It's the chip, isn't it?"

She nodded matter-of-factly. "Everything I do is the chip, now. But... I wanted this, too. The chip rewards me for pleasing you, but I didn't have to do it. Then... the more I pleased you, the more pleasure I got. It was... there's no words. I don't know if I could have stopped. I didn't want to. Until you told me to." She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "So... what have they done to me? Do you know yet?"

I nodded. "When you collapsed, I called Jade..." I told her about the trip to the medical bay, and as gently as I could, explained what Doris had discovered. All of it, she deserved to know everything.

She took in the bleak news without a change in her expression. "So... we have to figure out how to live like this. For a while."

I was trying not to cry. "Dolores, I'm so sorry. We won't give up."

She flinched and pulled away from me. "Kitten! My name is Kitten now." She sat up, wrapping her arms around herself. "I can't think about th-that name... my name is Kitten. I used to be Dolores -- I can think about her that way. And not Angel. Angel's just another word for Dolores. But I'm Kitten now. Kittenkittenkitten." She kept repeating her name, hunched over, rocking, as if it kept the punishment away.

Watching her, I felt sick, as if I'd just slapped her for no reason. "Kitten! Kitten, I'm sorry, I'll remember." I said hastily.

Gradually she calmed, the panic subsiding, but she kept her arms wrapped in a hug around herself, looking at me. "Y-you need to understand what I feel. I only have two settings: punishment, and reward. Everything in between is... just empty." She shuddered. "I don't ever want to be punished again. That only happens if I break the rules. If I never break the rules, the best I can ever hope for is to feel this emptiness inside. No hate, no anger, no fear, no sadness. No love. No happiness. No satisfaction, no enjoyment. Just... nothing." She met my eyes. "Unless... I earn a reward."

"Rewards... punishments are on or off. Rewards aren't like that. Rewards sneak up on me, they increase as long as I keep earning them. It's... there aren't any words. The feeling is unbelievable. It's more than any drug. I know it's completely artificial, I know it's conditioning me, and it doesn't matter a bit. It feels like joy and sex and laughter and, and chocolate, and... the alternative is to feel barren, a void. Like some machine. A big hole where feelings used to be."

Finally she leaned forward and took my hands. "I get rewards for obeying, and for pleasing you. They make me happy, better than happy, even if it comes from the chip, it's as real as I'll ever get. If you tell me what to do, I have to do it, I can't even think about not doing it. The chip makes sure I'll di it, and love doing it. And every time I do something that pleases you, even just makes you smile, I-I feel good."

I sat cross-legged on the bed, facing her, squeezing her hands. "Kitten... what do you want me to do? I can't stand the thought of controlling you. But if the alternative is worse for you... I don't know how to help you..."

She shook her head. "I don't know... we need to find a balance, something I can live with, without losing what little I have left of myself. It would be so easy to give in and be a slave... it should terrify me. It should terrify me that it doesn't terrify me... if that makes any sense."

I pulled her to me and clasped her to my chest, kissing the top of her head. "Oh, sweetheart, I'm terrified for both of us." I let her go and lay back on the bed, and she joined me, her head on my shoulder and her leg across mine. We lay there for a long while, while I thought furiously.

"Okay. First things first, no accidental commands. Kitten, whenever I give you an instruction you must obey, you must say to me, 'I obey'."

She nodded. "I obey," she responded promptly.

"Kitten, I command that from now on the only instructions you must obey, are those that begin with 'Kitten, I command'."

She smiled a little. "I obey."

"Bark like a dog."

She thought about it a moment, testing the command against her rules. "Meow."

I grinned and kissed her, and she smiled, rewarded for pleasing me. Is that so different from the enjoyment I get from pleasing her? You know it is.

"Kitten, I command that if anything I do or say compels you to break a rule, or incur punishment, you are to tell me immediately. You are not to break the rule or incur punishment unless I confirm my intent."

"I obey. I-I'd rather not test that."

I hugged her. "Don't worry. I'm just trying to build a safety fence so I don't hurt you by accident. I hope we never need it. Kitten, I command that if anything I do or say compels you to act against your will, you are to tell me immediately."

"I obey."

I tried to think of anything else I could add. "How'm I doing?"

She lay quiet for a long time. "It helps, I think. I guess we'll see. I still get rewarded for pleasing you. Please don't take that away," she added quickly.

I shook my head. "I won't. No more commands. But... what would please me most, would be to see you living the fullest life you can." What would please me most, is to have Dolores back.

Eventually she got up to answer the call of nature, and when I heard the water running a little later, I joined her briefly in the shower, and we scrubbed each other's backs and washed each other's hair -- I didn't need it but it was a morning ritual we enjoyed. She would have been happy to make it longer, if it would have made me happy, but I had to be strong for both of us. I had a pan heating and had just started whisking some eggs for breakfast when she came out of the bathroom, naked, her hair hanging in damp ringlets across her shoulders.

She cleared her throat softly. "I need permission if you want me to get dressed."

I winced at how she'd phrased that. "Of course you have permission. Always. Wear as much or as little as you like, whatever you think is appropriate. And you can use the furniture, any furniture, as well, always." I added, recalling another of her rules. She nodded and padded off in her bare feet.

A little while later she reappeared, in a casual dress, with a light, expert application of makeup and her hair dried and brushed. "Is this okay?" She knew it was, and she knew I loved that dress on her, it showed her legs and figure off to good advantage.

A slave wants to be attractive for her owner. I cried a little inside but nodded reassuringly and smiled. "You look gorgeous, Kitten. I love that dress on you." Her smile lit up her face. "If you pour the juice, we're ready for breakfast." She hurried to comply.

Breakfast was companionable, but mostly silent. Neither of us wanted to talk about the last three days, or about the next six months, and with those things looming over us, how do you make light conversation? Afterwards she insisted on clearing up -- which was fair, since I'd made breakfast, Dolores would have done the same -- and I curled up on the couch, thinking about anything except the two of us.

"I'll have to file for disability, I guess I can't work anymore." She was standing uncertainly, unwilling to sit despite having permission. I shifted and made room for her on the couch, an unspoken invitation.

She sat and I leaned my head on her shoulder, nodding. "They know that you were kidnapped and tortured. I didn't tell them about the chip, the fewer people that know about those things, the better. I'll call them for you, if you want."

"No, it's okay. I should probably do it. You're just a kid, as far as they know. There's probably specialists they'll want me to see." Her tone was monotonous, disinterested.

It hurt to hear her like that. I nestled more comfortably into the crook of her arm. "I missed this," I told her. "I love cuddling with you." Her mood brightened immediately, and I felt a little guilty for manipulating her, though I was telling the truth. The responsibility was overwhelming. If I don't dole out her happiness, she'll never feel anything. How much is enough? How much is too much?

~o~O~o~

Kitten came with me to the hospital, to check on Sylvia Merrick. Neither of us was quite ready to be out of each other's sight, quite yet.

Sylvia was doing well, considering she had a bullet hole in her chest. The doctors expected she'd make a full recovery, in time. I was surprised to see another woman sitting with her. I suppose I shouldn't have been, she was entitled to a life outside our narrow relationship.

The woman looked up as I peeked in. "You must be Jahns, I recognize you from your file," she whispered, glancing down at the figure in the bed. "Sylvia is sleeping, can we step outside? She wanted me to brief you." Kitten waited with Sylvia, while the woman and I relocated to a small waiting room a few steps down the hall.

"Anne Liu." She flashed her badge and then handed me an envelope. "It's all in here. Officially, the Department has renounced Trask as a renegade and a spy. Unofficially, they'd probably have canonized him if he had succeeded. Nevertheless, they're in full denial mode now, and every detail of Trask's life for the last five years is being scrutinized for links with organized crime. There's a commendation in your file, if you collect those sorts of things."

"What about Chase? Did he have a family?"

The woman shook her head. "No wife or kids. Father and a married sister back home in Michigan." She paused. "Chase was the one who shot Sylvia, she wouldn't let Trask open the safe. We think Trask fed him a line, he thought he was working for the Department, keeping an eye on you." She looked disgusted. "Not that it did him any good, Trask shot him. Sylvia saw that much before she lost consciousness."

I brought her up to date on the connection between Vincent and Trask, then asked a question that had been nagging at me. "Where did the design for the BRB chip come from? Where did Trask get it?"

Agent Liu shrugged. "The Department has no idea. There's no internal research project on the books that could produce such a thing. If it's not on the books, we'll never know."

Haldibane doesn't know where it came from, the Feds don't know where it came from. I don't know who to believe.

~o~O~o~

We tried to figure out how to make it work. I never did return to school; I gave them an explanation that skirted the truth. They knew about the kidnapping, of course, I explained I couldn't leave Dolores alone. Deb and Trish called a few times, but the latest highschool gossip wasn't really that interesting anymore, and the reality of my life was a sure-fire conversation killer.

Kitten hung on my every word, seeking some kind of approval, an indication that she'd pleased me. Physical contact became increasingly important to her, a kiss from me, a stroke of her cheek, or a hug, were all indications that I was pleased, and thus she would be rewarded. We hugged, and cuddled, and snuggled a lot. We had sex, and I won't deny it was good, but it wasn't making love. She was doing it to please herself, and I let her.

Despite the fact that I'd made sure she had permission to wear clothes, and use the furniture, she constantly sought reassurance. "Do you think I should wear the t-shirt or the blouse?" or, "Can I sit in here with you?" She insisted on cooking all the meals, and I let her, because I did love her cooking. She would have cleaned up, too, but I insisted that I'd enjoy it if we did it together. And I did. So she did.

After a few days, Kitten suggested I go out for a while, leaving her alone. I felt guilty, but she did have a point; it was going to have to happen sometime. When I came back I found her sitting on the floor, staring off into space. With no promise of a reward from the chip, she slipped back into the emptiness, with no real interest in anything at all. I'd been gone all of thirty minutes. I found that if I suggested some kind of activity she could do while I was gone, it seemed to work. She'd perk up, knowing she was doing something that pleased me, and of course I made sure to be pleased when I came back.

I did my best to try to encourage her to do the things that Dolores would have done. "The D.E.O. messed with the computers. Can you take a look?" It took her most of a day to take the computers apart, her top-of-the-line laptop and my old desktop, inspect them for electronic devices that shouldn't be there, reassemble them and back up all the data files, and finally wipe the disks and reinstall everything from scratch. That was an especially good day; seeing her fully involved with the task, taking her out to the electronics store to shop for an external hard drive for the backups -- well, we started with the disk, eventually she convinced me to ditch my old computer and just buy a new laptop more fitting for a teenaged girl -- all of this reminded me so much of Dolores, and Kitten picked up on my feelings and she brightened up enormously, and it was a feedback loop, I was happy seeing her happy making me happy.

Courtney visited, to bring me up to speed on Heatstroke. He'd been shipped to a facility in Louisiana, Belle Reve, that had been rebuilt for metahumans. Apparently they'd fitted him with a special collar that did something with his skin conductivity; if it changed in a particular way, he was using his power, and it gave him a shock. Not too different from the BRB chip, really, a difference in scale, not in kind. Except his collar would come off, at the end of his sentence. That was another good day, mostly. I introduced Court to Kitten, and we went out to lunch, and she was almost Dolores, and I enjoyed it. Except for the sad look in Court's eyes.

Jade kept in touch, and even brought Doris and Lena over for a short visit, and we made the best of it, but seeing what Doris and Lena had together was just too painful.

And so it went. Most nights we'd go to bed together, and I'd sleep for a couple of hours, then get up and go out. Early on I made sure that the source of the biometal, that place outside Pittsburgh, met with the same fate as the Haldibane plant. The stock they were about to ship wound up in the recycling bin with the rest of it, in my little stash on the moon. I snooped around a bit as Dan, and broke up the occasional crack house. Once I roughed up an aggressive pimp that was trying to run Tina off her corner, for his own girls. That should have been the Bone Fist's job, but without the leadership of Ramon and Vincent, they were in some disarray. Finally I gave Tina ten thousand dollars in confiscated drug money and told her to get off the street. My heart just wasn't in it anymore.

Most nights, I'd stay out till daybreak or a little later. I was usually back in time to climb back into bed, but sometimes she'd be up, making breakfast for me.

We made it work for a couple of weeks.

~o~O~o~

She was in the back yard when I returned, kneeling on the frosted grass in Kitten's thin robe. She was facing me, hands in her lap, her head bowed, not meeting my eyes. Her voice was barely more than a whisper; flat, emotionless.

"Please... don't speak. When I wake up alone, I'm closest to being myself. I'm not Dolores, not by a long shot. But I have a little control, a little clarity, I can think without you influencing me. I can make choices for me... it's really hard, just with you standing there. If you speak, I'll lose it. But I waited for you... I wanted you to be here, so I could explain."

She waited to be sure I wouldn't spoil the moment before continuing.

"I'm not her anymore. I have her memories, but you have to understand Dolores is dead. She died the night they put this chip in. Oh, baby, Dolores loved you so much, but they took that away from us. I'm Kitten now, and I can't love you. I need you, but it's not the same, not anything like love. I'm only feeling what the chip lets me feel. And it's good, so strong, you can't imagine. I want more of it, and it hurts when I don't have it. I'll do whatever I have to, to get more. That's not love. The chip... it's winning. It's already mostly won; before long I won't be able to fight it. I'm just a junkie, and you're my dealer, and that is all we can ever be."

She choked out a bitter laugh. "I won't even be able to hate you for it, but you already know it's not the same, you do the best you can, but it's eating you up. Every minute of this tarnishes what you and Dolores had, and before long, this is all we'll have left. Then they've won. The minute I stop fighting and just be Kitten, Dolores is gone. The Barbie chip is a success, and they win. And I'm sorry, I'm so sorry... I just can't fight anymore, it's too hard."

She lifted her hands, and I saw what she had cradled in her lap; Dan's police revolver. For the first time, her eyes flash to meet mine, her voice pleading. "Don't speak, please don't speak. I need you to understand. This is the only choice that they haven't taken away. This is the only way Dolores has left to fight back, to stop what they did to her."

Her eyes drop to the gun in her lap. "I-I could have done this before you came back, but I wanted to tell you why. It was a risk, I know you can stop me with a word. Even if you don't forbid it, I don't think I'd be able to do this again. I'm begging you, please go back inside, now."

I stood there for a long moment, frozen. I wanted to stop her, to shout Bad Kitten! and take control of her life, but I knew, that would be the last straw. She'd stop fighting, and give herself over to the control of the chip, and she'd serve me, and trust me to care for her and make her happy. And she would be happy, the way an addict with an unlimited supply can be happy. The chip would make sure of it. My very own pet slave. What gives you the right to do this to her?

I wanted to hold her, to kiss her and stroke her hair and tell her how much I loved her one last time, but in the end, with tears on my face, I turned my back because I loved her, and it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I sat numb by the phone, and waited for an eternity.

When the gunshot finally came, I dialed 911, and then I fell apart.

~o~O~o~

Epilogue

The afternoon sun was warm, but the offshore breeze kept the heat from being oppressive. I sat in a sidewalk cafe, sipping an iced coffee, as the car pulled up in front of the building across the street. I tossed some pesos on the table and stood up, grabbing my purse and casually stepping across the street, careful in my heels. I was in my sexbomb Candy shape, dressed in a pencil skirt and floral blouse, open two buttons more than was proper, and a fuzzy pink sweater covered my shoulders against the breeze.

I stumbled through the doors into the lobby of the hotel, fumbling at my purse and hurrying for the elevator, awkward in my high heels and tight skirt. "Momento, momento!" I called to the two men, just as the doors began to close. "Gracias," I beamed to them, as I managed to get get my hand into the narrowing gap, and the door bounced open again.

The first man was in his mid-thirties, muscular and swarthy, dressed in slacks and a blazer that didn't hide his shoulder holster very well as he tried to block my way. "Tome el ascensor al lado, seá±orita."

"I'm sorry, I don't speak much Spanish at all. No hablo." I smiled helplessly as I ducked under his arm, still digging into my purse, and turned to face the front. "Seven -- uhh, siete? Siete, por favor." I triumphantly produced a room key out of my purse. "Found it! I'm always losing these things." I confided to Carleton Trask.

~o~O~o~

Trask hadn't been easy to find, but when you have a bright kid like Lena on your side, with an A.I. that has access to just about every computer in the world, it was only a matter of time. He was hiding in Montevideo, living off a substantial amount of money he'd managed to funnel into a local bank over the years.

The safe in the Terberon lab had held the remaining chips of the only batch produced by Haldibane, and a variety of supporting documents. Trask was trying to auction them off, which annoyed Intergang no end, since they considered the chips to be bought and paid for with Crime Cartel funds. The Cartel didn't have much of a voice in the matter, since Tony Carpaci and a number of Cartel bosses had mysteriously disappeared shortly after Dolores died. I seriously doubted they'd resurface any time soon.

Intergang finally caught up with Trask -- with some help -- but unfortunately he was a little bit unconscious, and wasn't in any shape to find all of his teeth, let alone help them find the missing contents of the safe. According to the security video, somebody looking just like Trask had cleaned out his safety deposit box at the bank, after arranging to transfer most of his funds to an offshore account.

Eventually, they finished killing him.

~o~O~o~

I'd withdrawn quite a lot after Dolores died, despite the best efforts of Court, and Jade, and even Doris and Lena, but she was always the social one. I just couldn't bear to have any company. Deb and Trish were at the funeral, and Kyn was there, but kept his distance, for which I was grateful. I couldn't go back to high school, it was hard to see the point, anymore.

Court dragged me out to a bunch of rowdy bars and tried to get me hammered, but it didn't work; I couldn't get drunk and after the third bar I just got mean, and she had to drag me out after I'd broken the arm of another guy who couldn't understand I didn't want his hand on my ass. After that we decided to make the best of my mood, and finished the night at the Bone Fist hangout, and just beat the shit out of a bunch of them. I felt better after that. Dan was right; sometimes you need to find something to punch, even if you have to be careful not to kill anyone.

Montevideo wasn't a bad city; not the most modern or picturesque, but with its own charm. Summer was just starting down here, and Midwest winters were bleak enough, I really couldn't face one without Dolores. The Southern Hemisphere seemed to be short-changed on metas anyway; I promised Jade I'd help shoulder some of her load. So, with a little computer assist, Megan Morse acquired her student residency papers and settled down in a little apartment near the university, drawing funds from an offshore account -- a very different one, of course.

I didn't know how I was going to fill my days, but I didn't much care, as long as I was left alone. I had some Spanish to learn first, anyway.




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