Faraday Serum II: Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans
By: Meridian and Light Clark

Synopsis: Almost two years have passed since the Protean serum capable of changing men into women was brought to Aurora in an effort to save the people of the world from extinction. The Aurorans have since organized the Faraday Initiative, a program calling for volunteers to undergo the treatment and begin bringing women back to the planet. Two lowlifes from the streets of the opulent city’s underground volunteer in the hopes of swindling their way to the top of society.

Chapter One: Step One

The obnoxious buzz of an alarm forced me awake by sending a pounding through my head. As it did, sweet dreams of a fancy restaurant and a mountain of luxurious food faded away. In their place was just the dim gray world of early morning, mingling with the dreadful racket that told me it was time to get up and go to work.

“Ugh … fucking too much to drink last night,” I grumbled as I used one hand to rub at my eyes and the other to swat at the nearby clock. That silenced the annoyance and helped to wake me up, but didn’t help the ache that throbbed in my temples all that much. It was more than enough to get me to regret the night before, a late one with plenty of liquor involved, but not by all that much. After all, it had been fun, and there wasn’t much else to do for fun these days.

With a grunt of exertion, I finally got myself moving, rolling over to the edge of the bed. There, I sat up, but not all the way. I wasn’t a tall guy, but even I had to hunch over to not hit my head on the bunk above me.

For a few seconds, I just sat there, getting my head in order for the coming day. There wasn’t all that much to that, but it was important. Otherwise, I might forget something, like that deal I had later or that I needed to look for a couple of choice opportunities while I was working.

“Alright, time to go make the money,” I finally told myself, practically a mantra. That was what it was all for, the credits. Well, that and the dream that they’d buy someday. When that day came, I definitely should have a food mountain like in my dream, full of high quality meats with fancy sauces and lots of liquor and champagne stacked up alongside it. Something so pointless and wasteful was exactly what wealth was for.

Readied for the day ahead, I shoved myself out of bed and navigated my way across the small bedroom. The first stop was getting a change of clothes for the coming day. After that, a punch on a sticky wall panel opened the automatic door that led out to the hall beyond then a more gentle tap got me into the bathroom. Inside, I flipped on the lights, dropped my spare clothes on the vanity, and went straight toward the shower, tossing a quick glance at the mirror along the way.

“Hey there,” I greeted my reflection with a smile. It was a good smile, easy and winning to go well with the handsome, trustworthy face that surrounded it. Well, it wasn’t looking too trustworthy at the moment with the scraggle of beard, splotchy red eyes, and messy hair, but I could fix all of that later.

A few more taps had the water for the shower flowing. While it warmed up, I stripped out of my clothes. That task didn’t take long enough, though, forcing me to just sit there and wait while the cheap, old plumbing did its work. Just another of the little perks of living in the shitty little apartment.

Eventually, I managed to get into the water, giving myself a thorough wash that helped ease my throbbing head. Once that was done, it was back to the mirror for a close, careful shave and drying my hair. After that, it was time to get dressed.

My outfit for the day was the same as every work day. It was a simple, gray uniform made from cheap material with shoddy workmanship. It screamed laborer to everyone that looked my way. By itself, it was enough to get a lot of people to look right over me, beneath their very notice.

“Stuck up, pricks,” I muttered at the very thought even as I moved on with my morning routine.

The next task was dealing with my hair. Fresh from the shower, it looked like a shaggy mess, but a little gel and some deft handiwork had it all neatly slicked back. It was a nuisance, but the only useful thing my father had ever taught me was that the keys to success were a sharp haircut and winning smile.

After giving the mirror one last smile to make sure that I had both things down, I nodded contentedly. “Alright, time to poke the bear.”

Out of the bathroom I went, returning to the bedroom for the next chore of the day. It was the most annoying, because it was the one that made me wake up first. After all, if I trusted my friend and bunkmate, Spencer Miklos, to be the first one up, we’d sleep through work at least half the time.

Stepping up onto my bed, I reached into the top bunk to give the big, meaty, mass that lay there a healthy shove. “Wake up, Spence! It’s time for work!”

The only response I received from the slumbering behemoth was a low growl. Unlike a real bear, that growl wasn’t a warning. It was a sign that he was almost up. All he needed was one more shove.

“I said up!” I barked, giving Spence that last prod he would need before dropping off the beds back to the floor.

With my buddy handled, I was off again. Next in the morning routine was breakfast, so I took the other direction in the short hall outside of my room. That led to the main area of the small apartment Spence and I shared. It was a combination kitchen and living room, both of which were fairly cramped, or at least, they seemed that way whenever Spence was lumbering around in them. Short and wiry, they weren’t too bad for me.

A short stop in the kitchen got me a bowl of cereal before I plopped down on the sofa in front of our TV. The thing was one of the few luxuries in the whole apartment, large and fancy but not because Spence or I cared that much about watching it. We just got lucky and snatched the thing a few months back to replace the little dinky one that we’d had before.

Grabbing the control pad, I flipped it on and switched it immediately to a news station in the hopes of hearing something useful. There wasn’t much of a chance of that, though. These days, the news was pretty much focused on just one thing.

“– is expected to talk about the experimental trials responsible for her startling transformation as well as where those results will lead next,“ a serious-looking anchor was saying as soon as the channel came in, proving my very point.

On the screen was an image of a woman, one that I and every other schmuck in Aurora knew quite well. Hannah Orlaev was the face of hope, the first success from scientific dabblings into some old Protean chemical. Less than a year ago, she’d been going by Hank, not Hannah, which fit her a lot better at the time. After all, she used to be a man, just like all the rest of us. All the actual woman had been killed off years ago by The Phage. Apparently now, though, they were going to be coming back.

“Not that Spence or I are gonna get a chance to land one anytime soon,” I muttered in between bites of my cereal.

There was no way the fancy bigwigs that ran the greatest city on Proteus were going to let a couple of delivery men like Spence and me get anywhere near a girl. They’d rope them off in some fancy part of town for their sons to make a few goes at. I did however chalk one up on the list right next to food mountain for when I finally got us out of these dregs and into respectable society.

Caring more about that goal than the useless news story, I flipped the TV over to a different input. The thing doubled as our computer’s monitor, allowing me to pull up some of the documents that I had on Spence and my’s savings. They were pretty good, for the kind of money we made, but not nearly good enough for my liking. We needed to find a way to make more.

While I ran through the numbers, I could hear the various sounds of my roommate moving around in the background. Like me, he got a shower and changed clothes, but he was much quicker about it. I guess his old man hadn’t taught him the same lesson as mine, which, in my opinion, was a good thing. I didn’t need another winning smile or sharp haircut, but an imposing tower of muscle with a big black beard and a scar along his right eye was quite useful.

Listening to the sounds, I knew exactly the right moment to look up from my cereal and greet my friend with a chin bob and easy, “Hey.”

“Morning,” Spence rumbled from the back of his throat before quickly turning that into a cough. As he cleared his throat, the big man lumbered over to the counter to grab a small box before finally flopping down in the chair next to the sofa. Once he was situated, he opened up the little box, pulled out a slip of paper and some tobacco, and rolled up a cigarette for himself. A lighter appeared from his pocket a moment later to light it.

As the first puff of Spence’s morning cigarette entered the air, I frowned. It wasn’t the smell or the health warnings or any of that nonsense that I cared about. It was the wastefulness. The stupid habit cost money without doing anything for us. Then again, so did staying out late and drinking, and there was no way I was going through all this grind sober.

“How’re we doing?” Spence asked between drags, tilting his head toward the TV.

“Good,” I exaggerated as I quickly flipped off the screen. “And we’ll be even better after the deal I set up for tonight.”

That claim brought a slightly skeptical look onto the big man’s bearded face. “You sure about that?”

“Yeah, of course,” I answered confidently. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

The big man took another long drag, then puffed. “They just seemed a bit iffy to me,” Spence replied. It might have sounded simple or maybe cryptic to anyone else, but from him to me that pretty much meant he thought this was all going to end in a fight.

“Well, yeah, obviously,” I answered without any concerns for the arrangement. “It’s a back alley deal for stolen goods. That’s about as shady as it fucking gets in this city.”

Seemingly content with that answer, Spence shrugged off his worry. “Alright. We gonna hit the bar again after?”

That question took longer for me to answer as I weighed the cost against the fun. After a moment, though, I finally shook my head. “Nah, this isn’t big enough to celebrate. ‘Sides, I need to find some leads for our next deal.”

That news got me a nod of understanding from the big man as he fell back into silence to enjoy his cigarette. My attention fell back to my cereal as well, or at least it appeared to. While I stared at the bowl, I tried to think of what I was going to do to find another score. Big as Aurora was, there wasn’t a whole lot of crime. The police force was sharp and nobody wanted to pay the penalty for getting caught. Anyone that did anything even remotely serious got deported, cast into the wasteland outside the capital. Out there alone, a guy was more likely to get himself shot than find a nice place to live, and there weren’t any places as nice as Aurora. I knew that all too well. After all, that’s where Spence and I were from.

Finishing up my last few bites, I got up to take my bowl to the kitchen. “You gonna eat anything, man? It’s almost time to go.”

Spence shrugged. “I’ll grab something on the way out.”

“Suit yourself,” I replied before starting back toward the bedroom to grab a few of my things before work.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The steady clack of the little train car on its lonesome rail kept time for its journey round the city. Fortunately, Spence and my’s time riding along with it was nearly over. Our stop was just a couple down the line.

Yawning sleepily, I lounged back in my seat and glanced around at the rest of the car. Beside me, currently staring off into space, sat Spence, the reason why we even got to have seats at all. Most of the people inside were crammed into the standing area. There were a lot of them, but it was hard to really focus on any individual one. Like us, they mostly wore uniforms, just as shoddy, but shaded or styled differently to show what they did. A trio of guys in red worked motorpool. There were a couple of greens on garbage detail. I believed the yellow were infrastructure maintenance. It was hard to remember what they all were, but it did make for a colorful crowd – a whole rainbow of nobodies slogging off to their menial jobs.

A slight lurch brought the car to its first stop as various colors left and new ones shuffled on. Then, we were off again, only to stop a few blocks further along. This time, I popped up from my seat and swatted Spence on the arm. The big guy snapped to focus right away, shoving himself slowly to his feet to follow me off the train car.

Passing through the station, we got out onto the streets of Aurora. They were nice streets, smoothly paved with wide sidewalks. Even the buildings looked to be in pretty good shape. I suppose that’s easy to do when the city can draw in immigrants like those guys in yellow back on the train to do all that maintenance work with promises of the happiest life a fella can find on Proteus. The reality was more wages that can barely keep a man going, but barely going is better than the not going at all that a lot of people find out in the rest of the world.

A few blocks from the station, Spence and I found our own particular spot for barely going. It wasn’t much to look at, just a big warehouse with lots of trucks parked at the loading docks. Less fortunate souls than us were already hard at work, and had been for some time, loading up all those trucks so they’d be ready to go out as soon as their drivers came in.

“Jim, Rick, Eddie …” I rattled off the names of some of the loaders as I walked by them, occasionally throwing in an a, “How’s it going?” or a , “Hey there,” to mix it up.

Most of the workers gave me little more than a head bob and an absent, “Hey,” but a few went with, “Andy.” They were too busy finishing up their jobs and too tired from their shift to bother with much more than that.

As Spence and I moved down the line, we passed fewer and fewer loaders, indicating that most of the further trucks were already done. Unfortunately, ours didn’t seem to be one of them. There were a couple of loaders leaned against the side of our truck, apparently taking a break to talk rather than finish their job. I might’ve understood, if I wasn’t the one they were holding up with their chat.

“Hey, Frank,” I greeted the loader that I was more familiar with. “How long until you’ll have her ready to go?”

“Oh, the truck’s all set to go, but I don’t know when you’re going to get to take her out,” Frank answered. “The boss wants to see ya, first.”

Even as worries flittered through my head, I shrugged off that news with apparent nonchalance. “He probably just wants to give me a raise, is all.”

“Yeah right,” Frank muttered sarcastically as he pushed himself off the truck. “Congratulations then.”

“Thanks,” I replied brightly, intentionally ignoring the sarcasm. Smilingly easily, I turned to my buddy. “I’ll be back in just a minute.”

“I’ll wait in the truck,” Spence responded with typical brevity.

With a quick nod of acknowledgement, I turned to stroll off, keeping that smile on my face the whole way to the supervisor’s office. It did a good job of hiding my racing thoughts as I tried to figure out exactly what kind of trouble I might be in. There was that crate of hooch Spence and I nicked a couple weeks back. I also had a few things stashed in my locker that I otherwise never used. It could also be that little back alley boxing match that I set up between Spence and a big brute named Brad on the loading squad that put the latter out of work all this week. It was hard to really say, but whichever it was, I’d just have to talk my way out of it. I was used to that.

“You wanted to see me, boss?” I greeted pleasantly as I poked my head into the door of my supervisor’s office.

Seated at his desk, Robert Greene, pain-in-the-ass extraordinaire, looked up to give me his best effort at a stern and reproving glare. “Yes, have a seat.”

Used to dealing with such looks, I just walked right over to take one of the dinky little chairs that sat opposite the man’s desk, smiling the whole way. “So, what can I do for ya, today, Mr. Greene?”

“You can try explaining to me why your truck has reported more missing and damaged packages in the last month than any five other trucks combined,” Robert stated, trying to put a sharp, accusatory edge into his voice to match his gaze.

As soon as I heard those words, relief flooded me. It was immediately clear that Robert had nothing solid. All he had were some mildly suspicious circumstances and a not exactly solid plan to try to bait me into giving him more through confrontation. There was no way that was going to work on someone like me.

Taking a moment, I rubbed at my chin as if deep in thought. “Hmm, I suppose it did seem to happen a little more than usual this month. I wouldn’t have guessed five times, though. Are you sure there were that many?”

“Very,” Robert confirmed coldly. “I just triple checked the numbers a moment ago.”

Shaking my head, I gave it another moment’s thought before finally shrugging helplessly. “Well, I’m stumped, sir. I guess bad luck?”

“Bad luck?” Robert questioned dubiously.

“Yep, I mean, what else could it be? Maybe the loaders played some pranks or–oh …” I began only to pretend that the implied accusation finally dawned at me. As it did, I pointed at myself in disbelief. “You think I did something?”

“The thought had crossed my mind, yes,” Robert answered, not seemingly to fully buy my story.

“Well, I … I don’t know what to say,” I began, acting like I was at a loss for words over the very idea. “I mean … I would never report a package damaged or missing if it wasn’t the truth.”

I could see the act starting to wear Robert down, leaching away his conviction as he asked, “Is that so?”

“Of course!” I declared emphatically. “In fact, let me go get my partner, Spence. That way, you can ask him any questions you want. I’m sure he’ll verify every single report I filed.”

Bringing up the big man was just the nudge that Robert needed to abandon his efforts. No one ever wanted to question Spence. That was no surprise, though. After all, he had a well deserved reputation for being quick to lose his temper and terrifying when he did.

“No, I don’t think that will be necessary,” Robert answered quickly, adding a fervent shake of his head. “It was just a routine investigation of an anomaly. These things happen sometimes, though. I don’t see any reason to go any further into it than this.”

“Oh … alright,” I replied, bringing my smile back to lips. “Then is it alright if I get back to work, sir? I’ve got a truck full of deliveries waiting for me out there, and there’s only so many hours in the day to get them where they need to go.”

“Of course, by all means,” Robert replied, waving me toward the door.

Nodding gratefully, I rose from my seat. “Thank you, sir.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Two: Same Shit, Different Day

“Fucking Greene,” The short man said from the other side of the truck cab, smiling a toothy smile at me like everything was going his way. In his defense, they usually did. “Thinks he’s got things figured out, but keeps going off all half-cocked like that. Makes this job almost too easy, Spence. Too easy.”

I just grunted back at that.

Andy always talked too much.

On the route. With the guys. At our stops. Even at the bar, when everything was done. Even where you were SUPPOSED to talk, he still talked too much. Somehow, he did it without giving everything away.

And people liked it. They liked that gleaming smile and professional charm. They liked the confidence and the glint in his eye and the way he laughed when he was supposed to, the WAY he was supposed to. They liked him because he always looked and sounded like he knew just what to do.

Because he did.

I was in the driver’s seat as per usual on our routes, even though it was all pretty much automated. Just needed some minor input and an eye out and such. Andy kept me company from the shotgun seat in that big company truck, and I’d listen to him go on like always. Kind of a comforting background noise to lose oneself in while doing a braindead job for hours on end.

Often enough, though, someone managed to piss Andy right off.

“Can you believe that asshole?” he was saying as we climbed back in, sweating and winded, after finishing an offload at one of the usual spots -- a smaller warehouse working as another middleman for our foodstuffs in this particular burrough. “Thinks he’s so much fucking better than us.” The smaller man tossed himself into the front seat while I squeezed in behind the wheel. “Not even so much as a thank you for the guys nice enough to haul in his shit from clear across the fucking city. It’s just common fucking courtesy, man.”

“Hm,” I grunted in agreement back at him, but it was unconcerned. I’d seen Andy lose his shit around enough stuffy-assed, rich-ass native-born Aurorans to have lost count of all of them. Not that I bothered keeping one in the first place.

I agreed, sure. Put on a colored jumpsuit and you were just another one of those rats underfoot, suckling at the teat of this great city they’d founded. People like us were tolerated, but would never be good enough to rate anyone’s notice. But I’d grown up with that. It was in my blood to have people look down on me -- figuratively, if not physically, of course. I dared some motherfucker to try and do it to my face too. I’d show him the same lesson I showed everybody who got on my bad side before long.

Andy was different, though. A cut above, but no one else but me bothered to see it, usually. I’d first met him when we were both snot-nosed pukes, terrorizing the streets back at Sommelier, the habitat where I’d been born. He was a leader even then, running a small gang of likeminded punk kids as they threw their weight around the place’s underbelly. First coming into his own as a future Great Man, someone poetic might’ve said. Mama might've said. She would’ve liked Andy. Would’ve liked how far he’d taken me with him by his side.

Working menial jobs as immigrant labor for the fat cat eggheads in the capital wasn’t enough for Andy, though. Not by the way he was always scheming for something more, that is. Not like it was for Mama Miklos’ little Spencer baby boy. The fact that we were even here at all after all we’d been through before escaping Sommelier was a motherfucking godsend in my book.

“You’d think they’d teach these pricks better at whatever fancy school their daddies sent them too,” the man himself was still griping about that one bad stop fifteen minutes later as we came up on the next. He waggled a finger at me as we dismounted to unload. “And you KNOW it was his daddy because no fucking WAY did that asshat work for a goddamn living. Not like you and me, Spence. Not like you and me.”

I did most of the unloading as Andy talked, but that was just fine by me. It was kind of our system anyways. He’d do the administration, the talking -- and I’d get the simpler stuff. The stuff my six-foot-three mass of corded muscle was built for. And I got to do my idle thinking without any outside pressure bullshit while Andy went on with his mouth and took any opportunities to intercept white collars come to check up on us. It was all practically fucking meditative.

The blue blood at this place was even worse than the last guy that set Andy off, though. My little buddy started giving him the sideways smile and good-little-boy eyes. The kind he reserved for people trying to look down on him that he knew weren’t even half as clever. I just shook my head and chuckled to myself as he did. Guy was a fucking pro at working over asswipes.

That didn’t stop him from venting about it later as we drove off, though.

“Swear to god, Spence,” he grumbled aloud as he flicked that manager and his restaurant off through the sideview mirror as soon as the man had turned his back, “We’re too good for this shit. We’ve paid our dues. It’s time to move on up.”

It’d been six years since the two of us had dragged ourselves out of the wastes and into Aurora. Andy’s silver tongue had done the trick, landing us jobs as laborers inside the city. We’d gotten our color-coded jumpsuits, some modest living, and the first decent place to sleep in what had felt like a lifetime. It’d always felt like enough for me after getting away from Papa’s shit, but I always kinda knew it wouldn’t be the same for Andy. He needed more, DESERVED more. Kind of guy like him figured shit out and got it done. Who better to put themselves up there to the top of a bunch of pencil-pushers and line-towers? Most of the time I figured I was just lucky to be along for the ride.

The other man was shaking his head as the truck made its merry way up to the next stop.

“And what’s even wrong with us, huh?” he demanded at me, but I knew he didn’t expect an answer. He already had his own worked out, like always. “All this work? All this bowing and scraping and lifting and ‘yes, sir’ ‘no, sir’ ‘thank you, sir, may I have another, sir?’”

He leaned across the seat and jabbed a finger towards me.

“We’ve fucking EARNED some time in that sun, man. None of these shitheel Aurorans had to earn it like we have. Our time’s a comin’,” he stressed, relaxing slowly back with another thoughtful shake of his head. “I promise you that, Spence. Our time’s a comin’.”

I let that sit for a while. The rumbling hum of the truck as we roared on to our next stop filled the space between us. The man was thinking. Always thinking. And when he went quiet like that, it meant he was REALLY turning something over good and proper inside his head. I waited until he’d had his moment.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked then. Because Andy always had a plan. Always had a mark. He was always a step ahead and anticipating the steps beyond that. It was fucking beautiful to watch him bring some of that shit together sometimes. But he just shook his head at me.

“Nothing as big as we deserve,” he said, but didn’t miss a beat. “Yet. But we got that deal in a bit. It’s something, at least.”

I wasn’t so sure about the Farley brothers -- two wiry little fucks who sure didn’t look related by the general makeup of them, but supposedly had their fingers in some restricted places up with the blue bloods. And Andy had something for them to recoup some of their shadier clientele amongst the lesser elite. He was smart enough to keep an eye on our manifests when we went out and always made sure some easily redistributable cargo went missing when he could manage it. This time, it was those fine and fancy wines and liquor the top dogs liked to sip from their ivory towers. And we had--

Wait.

Hold on.

My eyes were suddenly glued on something outside the window up ahead. “Well, fuck ME!” was what I mumbled in Ungrish a moment later, though, just staring out the front of the truck.

“What?” Andy immediately demanded. He didn’t understand that bastard mix of Hungarian and English my father’s cadre had brought with them to the colony, and always hated when I said something in it he couldn’t make out the meaning of. I just tossed him a lopsided smile.

It was mid-morning, broad daylight. Worst fucking time. But empty street, and we were rolling up nice and steady. Not a care in the world. And Danny had none either. Fucking Danny boy Danny. From the Wigstrom Pub two weeks ago. He’d said some shit to me and Andy, but mostly to me. I’d gotten a good punch in, but then his buddies pulled me off and held me down while he wailed on me instead. Held Andy down too, but I kept their attention focused on me so that they’d left him alone, throwing us out into the street afterwards with just some bruised ribs and blood in the back of my throat.

Funny. I only saw two of his buddies with him now.

Motherfucker was swaggering up this backstreet between an industrial building and some kinda shop, easy as you please and sharing a laugh and some drinks for the road. I kicked the truck into slow gear, popped the door, and hopped out onto the street behind them. Andy almost gave me away when he shouted after, asking what the fuck I was doing.

Danny got the idea when I loped up on him and cracked his fucking skull.

“Hey, what the fuck?!”

Other two guys weren’t slow, but also weren’t fast enough. One got me in the shoulder, but I clipped his jaw, caught his stomach, and knocked the piss right outta him. Third guy didn’t get a chance to do anything but hit the pavement with the prettier part of his face. Then Danny got my full attention.

Andy was shouting a warning at me from the still rolling truck a half minute later, while I tenderized Danny boy’s ribs in kind with my size thirteen boot. Guy number two was getting back up when I glanced that way, and I grabbed the open truck door and clotheslined his body with it.

I was growling a bunch of shit in Ungrish at them all the while, leaning heavily on Papa’s Hungarian side of it. Not a one understood, but they got my meaning anyways, I think.

I swiped the whiskey they’d dropped and hopped back into the truck.

Andy waited until I’d pulled out a cig and taken a long drag along with the last few, surviving gulps from the bottle before he said, “You better not’ve killed him.”

I smiled full-on over at him, all feral white teeth and pleasant fucking satisfaction.

“He had it comin’.”

At that, Andy leaned forward in his seat, sighing and shaking his head. He got a good look out my sideview mirror at the three assholes back there, rolling around on the ground. Satisfied, he eventually slumped back.

“We’ve got a few hours left ‘til the deal. Just keep your shit under control so we don’t put ourselves on a radar. Don’t need any cops hanging around the trade zone, you know what I mean?”

I nodded. I understood. And between that stolen whisky, my hand-rolled cigarette, and freshly-baked memories of Danny lying broken in a back alley … I was more than content to ride out the rest of our shift in comfortable silence while Andy and the fat cats talked, talked, talked.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Andy had worked the spot out with the Farley brothers a day or so ago, making sure it was close enough to our route for us to get away with. And since we didn’t wanna get caught carrying a crate of illegally filched, high-end booze meant for the creme of the elite up top somewhere, we’d gotten it loaded into the truck along with everything else. Guys who did the loading weren’t too bright, so Andy would remark with a smile when I asked, and an extra crate looking official enough to have been accidentally left off the manifest hadn’t even registered with them. Safe, Andy’d said. Worst case, those guys asked questions and we pretended we knew nothing about it. Chocked it up to those “missing” shipments the boss was always complaining about. Hell, it’d just make us look that much less to blame for any of it.

The other man had it all figured out and pulled a little trick he’d learned with the onboard systems for the truck. Cracked open the side panel and did something to spoof the tracking chip. If anyone checked the logs, it’d look like we took a wrong turn somewhere, got stuck, and then showed up back where we were supposed to be when we un-spoofed it. Not sure how he’d managed that, but it was perfect for some daylight dealing.

We rolled down into a big loading area behind a dozen empty warehouses and factories. Nothing but automated worker drones clunking along in the background, sensors pointed elsewhere. Andy’d picked a nice spot out of view of any direct camera supervision. It was a good spot -- a spot we’d scouted out briefly before. Anyone seriously interested in what was going on would have to do some serious digging to figure it all out. And, really, our game wasn’t interesting enough to rate that kind of attention anyways.

Seemed like that rankled Andy some of the time. But I suppose a big score would’ve made him feel much more satisfied with his lot in life. Me? I was happy as long as we were getting something done and I didn’t have to take no shit from anyone I couldn’t get away with a swing at if they got too mouthy. Like that one guy a few months ago. Thankfully, some of Andy’s patented quick thinking made sure THAT body never got found.

Sometimes, guys turned out a lot more fragile than they looked after I started in on them. Especially with enough drinks under my belt at the get go.

The brothers were already waiting when we got there. I’d love to have imagined that as a good sign, but those weasley fucks just looked too shifty, sitting there on the hood of their stolen auto. Stolen, because I KNEW pricks like them didn’t make the kind of creds you needed to have a private vehicle. Hell, me and Andy only had the utility trains and maybe our company truck, like today. We were a couple of average guys, just trying to skim off the top and keep a little piece for ourselves that would otherwise go unnoticed by the blue bloods. The Farley brothers, though, they were fucking thieves.

We popped out of the truck, Andy with his usual confident swagger and me trailing a little more cautiously behind. I tried to size the two brothers up for a few, give them some of the old dead-eye stare that made most assholes start spewing up their guts past the lies. Nothing, though. One of the little fucks winked at me.

“Get the stuff, Spence.”

Andy strode forward, clasped hands with Trent Farley, who you might’ve called the “smarter” of the two brothers. I turned back towards the truck and headed to get the liquor crate, not hearing what they said or caring much. Same old bullshit, different day.

Hauling it back, I saw Andy grinning and laughing with those two, just like old friends. Man was a snake, though, and I knew that look. He wasn’t any dumber about these two pukes than I was. Both of us were looking out for a double-cross.

There were no guns, of course. Auroran police kept that shit strictly locked down. If by some miracle some two-bit lowlife like the Farleys got their hands on a piece AND got it de-chipped, the sound, or the cameras, would’ve had cops all over us before we could blink. Not that I’d put that kind of stupidity past these two, but I figured we were safe. No, I was looking for knives.

Vic Farley had a nice six-inch blade on him. I saw the hilt bulging out above his waist and caught a glimmer of it when he brushed his leather coat back to put his hands on his hips, belly-laughing at some shitty joke Andy made. Trent had something too, buried in the side of his boot under the pant leg. I kept an eye on them while Andy worked his magic.

The deal had already been struck, of course. Now was time to shoot the shit and inspect the other party’s goods first-hand. Andy went to work on the crate of industrial-grade antibiotics the Farley’s had brought out, smuggled somewhere from a factory in Old Town, while I dropped, popped, and showed the crate of high-end booze to Trent. Both him and Andy cracked jokes and made friendly small talk while they worked. Nothing wrong here. Nothing to worry about. But both those smiles hid a lack of hesitation to knife the other in the back if they detected even the slightest cheat going on.

We’d worked with the Farleys once before, and I hadn’t liked them then either. But there was a demand for what we had back where they operated, and a general shortage of antibiotics amongst the rundown clinics of Pioneer Hill, where we lived. So we could both push the other’s goods in our respective areas easily, making some easy money with little fuss.

Too bad that wasn’t good enough for the Farley’s to settle on.

Vic had been getting more anxious as Andy inspected the stout, vacuum-sealed glass vials in their crate one-by-one. Nothing too noticeable, but I’d been looking for it, and I made sure I was close by. Trent seemed oblivious, but he smiled too much at me while he checked the liquor over. And I guess Andy must’ve given something away when he cast a glance back over his shoulder at me, yelling, “Hey, Spence?” but I couldn’t tell what. I just saw Vic start to move.

Vic went for that blade. I saw it, and was waiting. I caught his arm before he could grab it, twisted until the bone cracked, and clocked him in the face with my free hand. Andy backed up but Trent leapt to his brother’s defense. His mistake was trying to sock me in the kidney instead of going for that knife first. He tried to fix it a split second later as I turned around.

I stomped my boot into his chest and that put him down. The knife clattered away and I went to get it, plucking it out of reach. I heard a shout behind me.

Somehow, Vic was back on his feet. I would’ve given the little fuck credit for that, despite his broken wrist and nose, if he hadn’t repaid my leniency by trying to stick a knife in me. I caught it in the forearm before he could do any real damage, but my own blood came pouring out as he reared back and tried to swipe again.

I saw red.

Not sure how it happened, but both the Farleys were beaten and broken and breathing shallowly on the ground with faces turned to hamburger meat when I finally caught a breath. The knives were tossed, Andy was untouched, and we were the only ones left standing.

“Fuck!”

Andy was looking at the goods.

Not sure how that happened either, but the antibiotics were scattered all over the ground, a bunch cracked open. I vaguely remembered Trent hopping on my back and having to toss him away in the rush of all of it. I guess he’d landed on his own wares. I looked back to the booze and realized they hadn’t fared much better, not least of which because Vic had broken one open to jab me with and then got upended into the crate himself when he failed.

Andy was looking pissed. But not as pissed as when those sirens started up in the distance.

“FUCK!!!”

Cameras must have caught some of the action on the periphery. Probably just the sound of it, I’d have guessed, but it was enough to set off some red flags. Andy put both his hands on the back of his head and just surveyed the carnage a moment before getting himself under control.

“We gotta move,” he snapped. “Back on the route, turn the tracking shit back on. Make like we weren’t even fucking here. Fuck these guys. Fuck!”

He was already moving back towards the truck.

I plucked up the knife with some of my blood, gave a cursory look around for anything else damning they might find, but found none. Farley’s shouldn’t have fucked with us. Shouldn’t have fucked with ME. They’d taken all the beatings from it.

Andy wasn’t gonna be too happy about it later, though. On my way to the truck, I made sure to snag one of those high-end wines from inside our crate, popped the top, tossed some on my knife wound and hauled ass back while chugging.

Not the first time things had gone sideways for us. And nothing to do for it but to drink the pain away.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Three: Step Two

A heavy sigh slid from my lips as I carefully knit needle and thread through flesh. There was nothing else to really do. Everything was a mess, and the only salvageable piece was my sasquatch of a friend that had wrecked it.

Well, I supposed, he wasn’t really the one that had wrecked it. That had been the Farley brothers doing. Assholes had gotten greedy, wanting more and willing to kill to get it. They should’ve known better than to try that shit with Spence around, but greed and stupidity ran together more often than not in criminal circuits. Nobody bothered to look at the big picture, except me.

“Sorry, man,” Spencer grumbled at my sigh. It was an insincere sound, barely even words really. After all, the big guy, who’s knife wound I was stitching up, didn’t regret any of the things that he’d done. If anything, he’d been pleased with himself. After all, one of the only things that ever got a smile on his face was when someone was stupid enough to get his blood boiling and pay for it. He wasn’t an idiot, though. He knew I was pissed about all that loot we lost, all the work and money it represented. That was why I got an apology, even if he didn’t mean it.

“It’s alright,” I answered as I worked, returning the favor. There was no reason to hold it against the big guy. “I think we got away clean, gave those fuckers what was coming to them, and all we lost was one little box of goods. I’ll just line something else up, and get us back on track.”

“Hm,” Spence grunted in acknowledgement as he took a pull on his stolen bottle of wine. I supposed that was one other piece that we’d managed to salvage.

“Spare a swallow?” I asked, pausing in my work to reach for the bottle.

Shrugging, the big guy handed the liquor right over. As soon as I had it, I tossed my head right back, guzzling down a few big gulps of the stuff. Light weight that I was, that was all I needed to take the edge off and start actually believing the shit I said.

“Thanks,” I added as I handed the bottle back to return to first aid. All I got was another of those grunts from Spence when he took it back to drink some more. By the time the bottle dipped again, I was finished with my work, patting the big guy on his arm. “Well, I won't say it’s as good as new, but should keep you from bleeding to death.”

Barely even glancing at his arm to see my handiwork, Spence nodded in approval. “Good enough then.”

“Yeah ... “ I muttered as I pushed myself up from the crate I was using as a stool to walk into the kitchen and clean the blood from my hands. “Anyway, we’ll lay low tonight, then tomorrow night, I’ll get started on lining up our next job. We’ve got a few things stockpiled that I can shop around, other guys’ll have new stuff to bring up, too, and if nothing else, Marty’s bound to have something he wants moved on our truck.”

It was hard to tell if Spence even bothered to listen to all of that, but he did nod. “So, hold off on drinks until tomorrow then?”

“For you, yes,” I answered. “You’re gonna need to stay here for a few nights. We’ve got too many beating victims out there right now, and that arm of yours needs some time before the next fight or you’ll bust your stitches. I’ll handle it on my own.”

This time, it was very clear that Spence had paid attention because he glanced back my way to offer a skeptical look. “You sure? Danny and his buddies might be looking for payback. Don’t think they won’t take a swing at you if I’m not around.”

That warning earned a derisive scoff from me as I finished washing my hands and walked back into the living room. “Ha! After the beating you gave ‘em, those guys ain’t doing shit for a while, and they couldn’t catch me even if they weren’t pounded to shit.”

Relaxing into his usually impassive expression, Spence shrugged off his worry. “Alright.”

With a plop, I settled into a seat and grabbed the control pad to turn on the TV. “Yep, you can just relax here for a while; have a couple drinks, smoke a few cigarettes, and spend some time figuring out what you want to do with all the money we’ll be making.””

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Shit,” I cursed under my breath as the morning news rolled on, leaving a spoonful of cereal just dangling in front of my mouth.

The cause for that single expletive was just a little blip for the program in front of me. It had hardly even warranted mention, just a few lines about a couple of guys found beaten to death behind a warehouse. Basically the only other information they gave were the two guy’s names – Trent and Vic Farley.

I didn’t feel bad for the dearly departed asshats. In a way, I was actually glad they were dead. Dead people don’t seek revenge, and it wasn’t like they hadn’t earned the reaper’s call. There were other problems with it, though. The cops wouldn’t have even cared about a couple of lowlifes like them getting beaten, but there’d be, at least, some heat over two murders. Plus, it was just bad for business, killing people, especially during a deal.

“Oh well,” I sighed, shrugging off the worry to return to my momentarily forgotten meal. It was in the past and I already had Spence laying low. There wasn’t much else to do. I’d just work around it like I always did when the big guy’s temper caused an issue. “That’s enough news.”

Unlike the day before, when I switched off the news, it wasn’t to start checking on finances. After all, all my accounts were at the same spot as before. I did pull up an inventory list that I kept to mark off the lost booze and the never gained antibiotics, though.

“I need to go apologize to Mitch about losing the goods I promised to get,” I noted to myself as I updated the document. “Maybe bring him a little something to make up for it … hmm ... “ I looked through the list for something that would be hard to make a profit on, but still be appreciated as a token of good faith. “Nothing great, I’ll have to look for something to swi–shit.”

Normally, I’d just steal something from one of the shipments that would make a nice gift, but my asshole of a supervisor would be watching the reports. I could pass off a month here or there with really high package loss rates, but if it was a constant thing, even a dipshit like him would figure it out eventually. I needed to lay off for a month or two to lull him back into complacency before I started that racket up again.

“I guess I’ll just have to buy him a couple drinks,” I finally muttered, before moving on to the next task for the morning, checking the mail.

One of the nice perks about Aurora was that there was mail. It was even delivered electronically. Of course, every perk has its downfalls and this one’s was that it was mostly used to just blast citizens with meaningless drivel. Every week, there were dozens of messages about deals, proposed tax changes, and random revitalization initiatives. They wanted to make sure everyone knew how great it was to be an Auroran and how much they were doing to make it even greater.

Right on cue, the very first note I read was entitled ‘Making the best even better’, in chipper arrogance. That was their way, always acting as if heaven itself had fallen to earth and named itself Aurora. It was enough to make my eyes roll every time I had to go through it all.

“Gone … gone … gone …” I mumbled as I went through the list, getting rid of item after item. One was a special deal on clothes due to overproduction. Another was a message talking about how the gubernatorial election would be coming up that fall. Funny thing was that the fancy old rich guy they’d put in charge last time wasn’t even running against anyone. After all, there was no chance anyone was going to vote out the guy that was bringing women back to the world. “I’m surprised they’re not just making him king. I mean, it’s not like they’d ever let anyone who wasn’t a regular at their fancy parties actually run for that sort of thing. They probably fix it, anyway.”

As I muttered, I continued through the pile of crap, tossing item after item. I was soon back to droning, “Gone … see ya … nope …,” too, right up until one thing got me to at least pause as I read out the title. “Faraday Initiative? Wasn’t Faraday the scientist head up that whole women research thing?”

Dumbfounded as to how anything related to the return of women could possibly have come to me, I just stared at the note for a moment, believing I had to be wrong. When the subject didn’t change, I opened it up to figure out what was going on. Before any sort of hope or excitement could build, though, it was immediately dashed by the contents within. “Oh … of fucking course.”

I’d been right about Faraday being the name of the scientist that was working with the Protean chemical. The Faraday Initiative was even a new government program that was apparently intended to place newly minted women with strapping young men so that they could start breeding. All of that sounded fine and dandy, except, the invite wasn’t to be one of the strapping young men. No, the bigwigs up top wanted Spence and me to be the other side – a couple of newly minted women for their dipshit sons.

“God damn shits think they’re so great that they can just bully the rest of us into lining up to lose our dicks and breed with ‘em. Fucking nonsense,” I muttered, closing out of the note to get back to deleting out all of the useless crap. All told, there were only two things that were actually worth the time it took to read, a reminder that our rent was coming up, and a note about raising the cost of tobacco and beer to help pay for some government shit.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Come on, man, I know you can move this,” I argued, trying to get some leeway. “I’ll even cut the price ten percent, just to make it easier.”

The guy that sat next to me at the bar, one Logan Falkner, wasn’t budging, though. He just shook his head. “I’m sorry, Andy, but I can’t. You’re just gonna have to find someone else.”

Frustrated, I swiped a hand over my slicked back hair as I tried to think. Logan was usually a pretty eager dealer. In fact, usually, he was too eager. That was why he was the sixth person that I’d tried to make a deal with over the last few days, because overeager people make mistakes. Even he wasn’t biting, though, not even at a discount.

“It’s top notch tobacco, Falk, finest stuff you can get anywhere in the city,” I pushed, changing angles. “It’s like silk on the throat and kills nerves like that.” For emphasis, I added a snap of my fingers. “All you have to do is get someone to try one puff, and they’ll be hooked. Plus, I’ll even give you first shot at anymore I manage to bring in.”

There was a flicker of temptation on Logan’s face, but I could tell immediately, it wasn’t going to be enough. There was just too much hesitance right alongside it. I tried to come up with another push on the spot, but I wasn’t quick enough.

“Sorry, man, I just don’t have the creds,” the dealer told me, pushing off of his seat to indicate that I would have no more shots at the sale. “Sorry.”

“Alright, you’re loss,” I conceded, trying to play it like it wasn’t a big deal. Inwardly, though, I was furious. If I was built like Spence, I would’ve just hauled off and beat the shit out of Logan for fucking with me like this. I knew it wasn’t a lack of funds, or trouble with moving the product. A guy like him never held back for logical things like that. No, it was because of all the rest of the mess.

Waiting for the dealer to leave, I pounded a hand on the bar, spitting out a raging, “Fuck!” under my breath. This was the problem with killing people.

Taking a deep breath, I forced the anger away and lifted a hand to gesture at the bartender. “Shot o’ whiskey, please.”

“Right away, Andy,” the guy answered, turning immediately to fill the order.

A moment later, the drink clinked down on the bar in front of me, and I immediately tossed it back. As it burned down my throat, it helped burn away my cluttered thoughts, too. With that, I could start fresh, take a new approach, and just think about what came next.

“Give me another,” I ordered, even as my brain got to work.

The problem was simple – people were scared. They were always scared of Spence, though. That’s why I kept him around. This was more than the usual intimidation, however. It was real fear, but it was also temporary. I just needed to let ‘em settle down, rebuild the trust, and it would all be fine. Problem was, that would take a couple weeks at least, maybe more. I was already losing out by having to hold back at work. If I couldn’t get anything lined up in the interim, I would just be bleeding time. The flow of money had already been barely a trickle, hardly enough to even scatch away at the great divide between where we were and where we deserved to be. It was taking too long. I needed to go faster not slower. I needed–

The clink of another glass in front of me stopped those raging thoughts in their tracks. Quickly, I tossed it back just like the one before it. As it settled in my gut, I settled too, blinking away the anger as I slouched in my chair.

Raising my hand, I waved for another as I leaned forward to rest my chin in one hand. Like that, I just stared into the mirror across the way, taking a moment to just let my mind go blank. Getting angry wouldn’t help anything. That was how the whole mess had begun, people not controlling their damn tempers like some wild beasts.

“Thank you, my good man,” I told the bartender with dramatic flair as the third drink clinked down in front of me.

“Sure thing,” came the easy reply before that wonderful dispenser of drink was off to his next customer.

Grinning, I snatched up the shot glass to toss it back, but I didn’t quite get it to my lips. Instead, I caught sight of something in the mirror that ended my budding good humor in an instant. Just walking into sight at the far end of the bar were a couple of guys that looked like they’d been on the wrong end of getting run over by a car. The bruises and broken noses and all the rest weren’t enough to keep me from recognizing Danny and one of his friends, though, and here I was without my muscle around.

“Shit!” I hissed under my breath before casually setting my glass on the bar. Sudden movement would draw attention, and if those guys saw me, I would be the next badly beaten body that would make it to the news.

Forcing myself to remain slow, I slipped off my stool and started away from Danny and his lackey. As I moved, I kept close to the stools, using the larger men sitting at the bar to hide myself from the mirror. At the same time, I made sure to look out into the taproom, hiding my face for the gaps between drinkers. A handful of easy steps, and I was passed the bar before cutting left, ducking through the door there that led to the kitchen.

As soon as it was impossible for Danny to see me, I abandoned my easy stroll and darted quickly through the back of the bar. It earned me a strange look and a blurted, “Hey!” from the chef, but I ignored him. He didn’t make any moves to stop me, either, leaving the path across the room to the door out the back completely clear.

Out in the alley, I didn’t slow down, hurrying to the street and then making sure to put a few buildings between me and the bar. Even then, I glanced back a few times to make sure that no one was coming after me. No one did, though, thank God.

“That’s something, at least,” I muttered as I shook my head and started trudging back toward the apartment. The whole way, the same thought echoed in the back of my head. I was going to need more than that if I wanted to get anywhere.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Don’t bullshit me, Marty,” I warned. “Usually, you’re begging me to move something for you, and here you are saying you got nothing?”

Martin Coolidge, the last ditch effort in a week full of failed attempts, rolled his eyes at me. “Yeah, and usually you and that raging lunatic of yours don’t beat your contacts to death.”

I couldn’t believe the man would come right out and admit it like that, but when he did I was so frustrated, I wanted to just reach up and rip all the hair from my head. “Argh! I’ve told you they started that shit!”

“I don’t fucking care,” Marty retorted. “I saw the photos they put out, just like I saw Danny’s face after Spence just opened up on him in the middle of the fucking street. That guy’s fucking terrifying.”

“You don’t have to ever be near him,” I offered, knowing I could work the details so the two never had to so much as look at one another.

“That’s not the only issue, man,” Matry countered. “The Farley’s may have been shitstains, but they had friends, and Danny’s promised to fuck up anyone that works with you two. He’s even been waving around a gun he got his hands on somehow. I ain’t getting in the middle of that shit.”

The part about the gun was new, but all the rest was the same shit I knew was going through the heads of everyone I’d tried to talk to since that day. It was just too sketchy for anyone to deal with Spence and me right now. I couldn’t even really blame any of them. Three nights straight, I’d had to duck assholes looking to fuck me up. I was sneaky enough to give them the slip so far, but it was only a matter of time, especially since Spence wasn’t going to just sit on his ass forever. His arm was on the mend, and I’d just tossed a week in the trash without anything even close to a deal.

“There’s gotta be something,” I tried, switching to begging in the hopes that sympathy might work where cleverness wouldn’t. I played it to the hilt, too, putting desperation into my eyes as I leaned forward with a hand out beseechingly. “We can keep it under wraps. No one has to know. Discounted rate, too.”

There wasn’t even a glimmer of a chance in Marty’s gaze as he shook his head. “Sorry, man.”

“Alright, I understand,” I surrendered. “Thanks for talking with me, at least.”

“Anytime,” Marty assured me.

“Yeah, see ya,” I replied, offering an absent wave as I turned to go.

“See ya,” Marty replied.

With nothing else to say, I just walked away, leaving the little out-of-the-way alley that was perfect for such dealings. By then, I was already on to other plans, trying to think of what the next step should be. Obviously, Spence and I could just wait it out. Heat like this would blow over eventually. If it was the cops after us, that would be different, but they’d given up on finding the Farleys’ killer almost immediately. We still had our day job to hold us over. The only other option I could think of was the exact opposite route. If I told Spence what Danny had been saying about us the last week, all I’d have to do is point him in the right direction and that asshole wouldn’t be a problem anymore. It wouldn’t make people any less scared of Spence, sure, but it would be the right kind of fear, the kind that makes people do what they’re told. It had its risks, especially if what Marty had said about Danny having a gun was true, but it was by far the quicker solution, and I wanted quick. I couldn’t just sit around in that damn truck dropping off all the goodies to those fucking privileged pricks in their fancy houses while I had to slink back to my dumpy hole of an apartment every night like a meaningless little rat.

With those thoughts rolling about in my head, I was in a shit mood by the time I got back to the apartment. That just made it all the more important for me to stop outside the door and put myself together. A few deep breaths put me back in control as I straightened up my posture and put an easy smile on my face. Only then did I open the door and walk inside.

In the apartment, I immediately spotted the hefty bulk of my friend lounged in one of the chairs, facing toward the TV. “Hey, Spence.”

I got no grumbled greeting back from the other man. In fact, he didn’t even move. I found out why a few moments later when I walked up beside the chair and found the big guy sound asleep, surrounded by empty beer bottles and an ashtray with plenty of recent butts squashed out in it.

“Glad to see one of us had a good night,” I remarked at the sight before slipping by the big guy.

Plopping onto the couch, I grabbed the control for the TV and switched it over to the computer. There, I dove into my various notes, looking for anything I might have missed over the last few days. There had to be something, an angle that I’d overlooked or an offer that I hadn’t considered. There were always more angles, more tricks, more …

After a while, I just leaned forward, resting my head in my hands. There was nothing. Either I just chuck months into the bin or I make the mess even bigger by letting Spence loose and hope that the resulting chaos landed my way. The problem was, both options felt like utter shit. Even at their best, neither got me where I wanted. I was still so far away, a little bug looking up at a towering mountain that I’d never be able to climb no matter how hard I tried. That mountain was reserved for the asshats that were born on top of it, and they’d never stand for someone like me, born at the bottom, to stand up there with them.

“Or will they …” I mumbled as an idea caught in my head.

Sitting up, I started searching through things on the computer again. This time, I had a specific item in mind. It took a bit to find, dredging it up from where I’d tossed it. Luckily it hadn’t been cleared out yet, and as I read through it, I knew I had my answer, my way to skip right to the top of the mountain at the very invitation of those useless shitheads that wanted to keep me down here in the dirt.

“It’s gonna be a tough sell,” I told myself as I glanced over at Spence. He wasn’t going to like this way, regardless of if it was the best and fastest. He’d rather go punch obstacles out of the way, even if he had to spend his whole life punching without making any headway. It might be easier to just not try to convince him, to leave him behind. He could be such a liability sometimes, and this was really more my expertise than his. Still, it wouldn’t be right. It had been just him and me against the world for years now. Plus, there was a better chance of it working with both of us going for it.

“I’ll figure it out.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Four: Salut

I laughed.

I stared back at Andy, and laughed.

I almost never laughed at Andy. Not like that anyways.

We were in our apartment. Late. Another night spent shut in and “laying low” while the rest our small world went on outside the door. While people probably wondered why good old Spence was hiding his black-bearded mug away. While Andy took stupid risks and tried to wrangle us up some opportunities without me there beside him, watching his back. He really wasn’t built to take a punch, after all. Not like I was.

He’d gotten us some good booze. Not sure from where, but I’d learned long ago not to ask too many questions when it came to how Andy acquired half the shit he did. Looking a gift horse right in the mouth was what they called that. So I drank, and didn’t question. We shot the shit, reminisced on lives wasted at Sommelier. The people we’d left behind. The old gang. I still had the tattoo I’d gotten to commemorate my loyalty to it, a black-ringed phoenix on the back of my left hand. I pawed at the skin there with a finger while I waited for Andy to drop the punchline on that one.

Because it was a joke. It had to be.

So I laughed. I laughed at him.

But Andy wasn’t laughing.

He’d gotten this strangely intent look in his eye. It took me a moment to see it through the cloudy haze that’d settled over my mind, but it was a look I’d seen him get when he was trying to be extra persuasive towards some mark.

Except now he was looking at me. And, if he was to be taken at face value --HE was the mark. We both were.

Eventually, I just shook my head at him, taking another swig. My cigarette had burned down and I tossed it into a well-used bowl beside me.

“It’s our way in, Spence.”

His gaze hadn’t flickered. I glanced back, disbelieving, but he was still staring at me. I could feel the weight of it on my sluggish thoughts.

“You wanna volunteer?” I started, the words coming out slowly and carefully -- as much for the alcohol as for the unlikely subject matter at hand. “You wanna give yourself up to be experimented on by those fucks?” I jabbed a finger toward the ceiling to indicate just who I meant.

“Not experiment,” Andy argued instantly. “They’ve already proven that it works. See? Look here …”

He tried to shove some info about that one freak show who’d somehow gotten himself turned female up in the labs those blue bloods had going. Never followed it much myself, but I remembered the fanfare when two women had shown up on the Auroran doorstep a year or so ago. Rumor had it that they’d originally been men from way up north, exposed to a Protean chemical or something. Always seemed like kind of a boogeyman tale about unearthing more bullshit from Protean ruins to me, though, pairing well along with one too many drinks at a bar.

I waved Andy’s offer away.

“So? Even if you believe that bullshit--”

“I do. I’m telling you: this is legit shit, man.”

Legit and Andy didn’t quite fit right together.

“Look, I just don’t get it.” I shoved a flat palm towards him. “What the hell is this really about? You still worried about Danny?”

“You’re fucking RIGHT, I’m worried about Danny.”

“Don’t. I’ll take care of him. I’d’ve done it already if you hadn’t made me hole up in here like some kind of fucking coward.”

Andy had finally let loose about how Danny had been muscling in our crowd, puttin’ down threats and making business difficult for Andy out there. If I hadn’t already been so deep into the liquor he’d gotten us, I would’ve found the prick right then and there to teach him a lesson he wouldn’t ever forget. Hell, maybe I still would if he was getting Andy to seriously consider this kind of nonsense already outta fear.

I tried to get up, but he got up with me. Even went so far as to stand in my path. Lucky me, I was so drunk already I wasn’t sure just when I’d toppled back into the well-stained couch. Andy found his seat again too.

“This goes way beyond that asshole Danny, Spence,” he was saying, getting a seldom-used frustrated tone with ME, of all people. “People don’t like working with us. Not enough to ever pull this outta the small time phase. We’re wasting our lives away here and getting nowhere. You really wanna die down here? In the basement of Aurora?”

“Uhn. As good as dying anywhere,” I grunted back at him. For some reason, it got him mad.

“Don’t you fucking get it, Spence?” he snapped, sticking a finger in my face. “We’re better than this! But these fucking schmucks … they’re never going to see it. They’ll keep walking right over and past us like we’re nothing until the whole world’s gone and there’s nothing left! I can’t go out like that, man. I WON’T. I’m better than that, and so are you. Now are you with me, or not?”

Normally, I’d say that was rhetorical. I was always with him. But tonight … fucking christ. What a joke. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it.

“It’s just a rough patch is all,” I told him, and shrugged my shoulders. “You’re overreacting.”

“Fucking hell, Spence. I’m not. It’s been six years!”

“Yea? And we got jobs, Andy. GOOD jobs. We’re here, NOT out there.” I pointed toward the window, even though we were boxed in by other cheap tenement buildings from any sort of real view that way. “We’ll bounce back. We always do.”

“You think so?” The man was practically shouting at me. I didn’t like it. “And how many more bodies you gonna leave on the side of the road before the cops connect one to us?! To YOU! How long before we don’t have any options left?!”

I didn’t answer him. Didn’t have to. He knew I did what I did to protect him. To protect the BOTH of us.

“We keep going this way forever and we’re dead, Spence. Bottom of a ditch or a prison lockup, what does it matter? At least this way we’d be set for life. Those same people who’ve treated us like garbage for YEARS would be bending over backwards to do us favors. Guys like Marty, and Danny, and everyone else, would be dreaming in their little holes about getting just the chance! Do you even get what that means?”

I did, enough. Become freaks too. Let the Auroran government experiment on us, probably brainwash us, and push us up there like that freak on the news. Mama didn’t raise her boy to be that dumb. Didn’t raise him at all, but that was besides the point. Wasn’t hard to figure out what kind of liability getting transformed like that would be. Didn’t spend my days as a kid sucking up Papa’s belt and fists to just throw it all away when I already had everything I needed.

Not that Andy was too happy about it.

“You just don’t see it,” he kept muttering about the whole thing. Maybe he was right, too. What was there to see? I didn’t fucking know. Andy had a crazy idea, and I was setting him straight. It had to happen once in awhile. Guy couldn’t be so clever for so long without slipping up once or twice, just like sometimes I got sloppy and let a punch through. That bandage on my arm from the Farleys was a goddamn testament to it. And, if he was right about Danny and all that, things would’ve looked pretty bad to him. I was used to smaller guys getting scared and running that much easier. That’s why he had me.

Of course, there were … other possibilities. Maybe my thoughts were slipping too much, but as Andy went on his tirade and I slumped back into the couch that much more, I found myself wondering at how Andy of all people could’ve come up with this idea. Being … THAT, for those people? Christ, but it seemed like the very fucking thing he’d be up in arms about even a whiff of a suggestion for. Schemes were schemes, plans were plans. They advanced us and sometimes they fell through, but we never lost who we were in them. That shit he was talking about was some kinda fucked up permanent, though, as far as I could tell. I mean, how could it not be? And it was pretty obvious that it’d be like signing your life away to the fat cats anyways. How was that an escape from all of this that we wanted? How was that supposed to be BETTER?

No. I briefly wondered -- and I hated myself for thinking it of him as I did, but … I wondered if Andy might not be secretly like one of those ladyboys somehow. The kind you’d find on street corners in the REALLY shady parts of Aurora. Those freaks who played butt buddy to desperate fucks with creds to trash. I wondered, and there was that moment of drunken lucidity where it made a little too much sense.

I got the temptation, at least in small part. On the side of the buyers, that is. Every guy worth a damn felt that unignorable need deep down to jerk it every once in awhile. And there was the ghost of the idea of some other … THING, engaging with him. Like all the mamas and papas of the world. Even so young then, I remembered. Others did to. But I couldn’t ever in my right fucking mind imagine what drove a man to want to … to want to RECEIVE on that kind of shit. I didn’t. The very idea of it made me want to puke up that good bourbon I’d drunk so much of.

I don’t think Andy was really seeing it the same way. For whatever reason.

Eventually, I got up. Wobbled a bit. But I managed to get close and clap Andy on the shoulder a few times. It shut him up, but I didn’t say anything, just gave him a tight-lipped smile and pushed my way past. I’d had enough for one night, and felt like sleeping off both the rest of the liquor and that conversation. Andy didn’t say anything, which was usually a bad sign. Didn’t stop me from plopping down in my bed and passing right the fuck out, though.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

No matter what I thought, Andy greeted me with the usual smile and nod and routine the next morning. We went to work. Schmoozed the boss and the guys in the loading bay. Went home. Even went out for drinks afterwards. Didn’t see Danny anywhere around either, and people gave us a bit of a wide berth. But that was just fine with me.

I liked my space.

So things were good. I’d guessed rightly that Andy had cracked just a little under the pressure, which was understandable. He wasn’t made of as stern of stuff as I was. But that’s why we stuck together. And once that temporary bit of insanity had washed on by with a night of healthy drinking, he got back to the way of things with the usual enthusiasm. I didn’t hear another word about that Initiative thing or the fucked-up idea of joining it.

Guess some other guys would take up the blue bloods pact-with-the-devil and all that bullshit about bringing women back to Proteus, and Aurora first. Couldn’t understand why, but it wasn’t my problem. Hell, maybe someday I’d even see the benefits of it firsthand. But probably not. And that was just fine with me.

I had my life. I had my job. I had drinks, and smokes, and I had Andy.

I didn’t NEED anything else, no matter what anyone said.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 05: Step Three

“Hmm …” I hummed out as a perfectly normal morning drifted by around me, just as they had for the last several days. Every single detail was just like usual, from the time I awoke, to getting Spence out of bed, to the bowl of cereal I had in front of the TV. That is, every detail except for one.

On the screen wasn’t the news. Nor was it full of documents about my various little schemes. No, all of that was a waste of time. There was only one thing to worry about now, and I’d spent the last week sneaking about checking every detail.

The need for such stealth was because of Spence. The big guy needed to think I’d given up the dream, that we were going to just continue right on the way it had always been. There was no chance of that, but he needed to believe it.

Well, if I was honest, there had been a chance of that exact thing happening, at least early on. When Spence had first refused, treating me like I had a screw loose the whole time, I’d been just about ready to storm off on my own. That was just frustration, though, the weight of a week that had gone to shit. I couldn’t just leave Spence behind, and he’d shown me exactly why in his refusal. The big guy didn’t understand the danger he was in, the trouble that he always made that I had to clean up for him. Without me around, he’d make more enemies than those big fists of his could handle. Sure, maybe, it wouldn’t happen right away, but he’d get himself killed eventually, and I wasn’t going to have that on my conscience.

“It’s my job to look out for him,” I mumbled between bites of cereal. That’s how we worked, he handled the heavy lifting and I handled the wheeling and dealing, and this was the biggest deal I’d ever wheeled. It was what was going to take us out of this shit life, and I wasn’t going to leave Spence out just because he was being difficult. The big guy had even given me the idea for how to get him to say yes.

The problem with Spence was that he wasn’t a big picture kinda guy. He figured as long as we were making progress, that was good enough. He couldn’t see that we needed more than just the inches that we’d scraped and stolen. We needed feet, yards, miles. That was this gig.

Ever since Spence and I had talked, I’d been checking into the Faraday Initiative. I’d made some secret calls to ask questions. I’d scoured every last bit of information that the government paper pushers would give me. I wanted to be absolutely certain that this was a sure thing; not a gamble, but a shrewd business decision. From what I could tell, it was.

Right out of the gate, the Initiative was willing to get us ninety percent of the way there. They were offering everything from a fancy new home, to free living expenses, to a stipend that was larger than the shit wage I got for doing deliveries. That was just the beginning, though, the perks that were meant to bribe people like Spence and me. It was nothing to the bigwigs that ran this place. They could spend twice that on tricking us and never bat an eye. No, it was the last ten percent that had really sold me.

Undoubtedly unsure about how reticent people might be, the pricks had made a classic mistake. They’d over offered, wanting the deal to just seem great so that we’d all line up to get fucked. As such, there were all sorts of reassurances in the deal. One of them was that this wasn’t just some fucking breeding experiment. We didn’t have to do nothing really to get paid, just show up to some fancy parties and let the fancy try to woo us. That little detail gave us the power. If we didn’t give the go ahead, they got nothing. They were going to end up scrambling over each other to impress, hoping to get one of us to settle down with them.

That part was the last ten percent I needed, and it was all summed up in one word – marriage. Way that the world was, I’d had to look it up in a dictionary to see what it really meant, but once I had, I knew it was the ticket. If Spence and I married a few suckers, we got everything, their house, their money, everything. Sure, technically, we’d have to share it with whatever asshat we tied ourselves, too, but even half of what those guys had was a swindle beyond any swindle I’d ever pulled. It was the way to jump up a mountain in a single bound.

“Shouldn’t even be hard,” I mused as I pulled up a couple images on the screen. They’d been attached to the sale’s pitch, some kind of computer rendering of what the science guys thought we’d end up like. That was, apparently, how we’d gotten picked, some test they’d run that indicated we’d make for attractive and fertile woman. Ha! Figures those fuckers would want to make sure they not only got the first girls but the best ones, too. It just wouldn’t do if someone that earned it got anything halfway decent in this city.

“Whatever, just makes it easier to con ‘em,” I dismissed as I looked at the two pictures. It was hard to say, between it being a rough approximation and the fact that I hadn’t seen a live girl since I was old enough to care, but I thought Spence and I looked pretty good – good enough to trick some gullible rich idiot into handing over his fortune.

I had only looked at the pictures for a few moments when I heard the sound of the water shutting off in the bathroom. That meant that Spence would be out soon, so I quickly closed all the information about the Initiative, hiding it away. Once it was gone, I switched over to the news, pretending to care about the fluff piece that came on.

“G’morning!” I greeted chipperly when Spence finally made his way into the living room, even adding a smile to go with it.

“Morning,” the big guy rumbled before he did the usual, plopping into his chair to make up his first cigarette of the day.

“I think I finally got something lined up for us,” I remarked, stretching the truth just a beat to make it sound right. “It’ll probably take a couple of days to work it all out, but we should have some steady work coming in after that.”

Way Spence was, it was hard to be sure by looking at him, but his nod seemed a touch smug to me. He’d said it would all blow over, and here I was telling him it just about had. Now, in his eyes, everything was right back where it should be, even me and my loose screw.

“Good,” Spence stated simply.

“Yep, it should be smooth sailing from here,” I replied with a smile, and I meant it, too, just not the way my friend thought I did.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“God! Fuck that guy!” I spat as I hopped back into the truck after the latest delivery, already a few dozen stops into the route. That was all I said, just letting it hang there to see if Spence would bite on it.

Plopping into the driver’s seat, Spence didn’t respond. I couldn’t even be sure that he’d heard at all. He wasn’t exactly a conversationalist. I had to fill most of the empty space in our days while he just sat there. Looked like I was going to have to do so again and just hope enough of it sunk into his skull to get him in the right mood.

“Fucker was laughing at us from the moment he saw us,” I continued on after the pause. “Making jokes with his buddy as we worked. You should’ve heard the things he said.”

Of course, Spence hadn’t heard nor seemed to care. Like usual, I’d handled all the talk, and he’d handled all the moving on his own. Furthermore, there hadn’t even been anything to hear. Odd as it was, the two guys had been some of the nicer rich pricks we’d ever had to drop something off with. They’d actually deigned to talk with me for a bit. However, since I was the only one to actually hear the conversation, it was easy to paint them as assholes, now.

“He really went to town on you,” I kept right on going. “Asking me shit like if you were too stupid to talk or if you had some deformity that made you grow so big and ugly. Figured you had to be an outsider, ‘cause outsiders are all fucked up. Said we’re all good for nothing but lugging around his shit, and we can barely even manage that.”

This time, I finally got a hint of acknowledgement from the other man. It wasn’t much, just a slight narrowing of his eyes and a tightness to his grip on the steering wheel. That was what I needed, though, enough to put him on edge.

With the big guy in the right mood, I shifted topics slightly. “Of course, I shot right back, calling him nothing but a primped up little shitstain that couldn’t last half a second outside this place. And that was just the start of it. I had a whole line of shit to give him, shouting him down until he finally just stomped off to cry to his daddy. After all, I can’t just let him talk shit about my friend like that.”

“Damn right,” Spence finally spoke, a heartfelt rumble. The big guy always had appreciated loyalty.

“Yeah,” I agreed before quickly drifting off into silence. There was another couple of blocks left to the next stop, so I didn’t want to start into anything else. I wanted Spence to just stew for a bit, let the rage build up within him. That way he’d be ready to blow if I just gave him the right spark.

A few more stops down the line was some nice, upscale restaurant that people like Spence and me would never set foot in if it wasn’t from the loading dock. Sure enough, that was where we entered from, coming right out in the kitchen where the head chef met me to take care of the paperwork. First he had to bark an order at Spence to tell him where to take everything. Mad as the big guy was, I thought that might be enough to set him off, but he got to work with a grimace on his face.

“Alright so just si–” I was saying to finish up my own part of the job.

“Sir, the boss needs you,” one of the kitchen staff interrupted as he ran up to tug on the head chef’s sleeve.

“Huh?” the chef mumbled in confusion before the aide pointed back toward the other door into the kitchen. Standing there was a man that clearly didn’t want to be in that place from the annoyed look on his face. It might have had something to do with his clothes, a sharp, high quality shirt and slacks set that made it clear that he was someone of stature, someone whose time wasn’t to be wasted in dirty kitchens dealing with cooks. “Oh … shit!”

Not even bothering to turn back to me, the chef took off to hurry over to the other guy with the aide scurrying behind him. I supposed he was the manager or something, and ol’ cooky had fucked up something important. Sure enough, the moment he got there the boss started giving him a good reaming.

“Huh …” I mused as I watched the whole affair. The manager looked like a pretty angry guy, at least enough that I could probably start something with him. He had some size to him, too, so if I started it, he’d probably be ready to finish it. All I had to do was get him to take a swing, and Spence would have to come to my rescue.

Even knowing it was all according to plan, I couldn’t help but feel just a touch apprehensive as I started forward. There were too many years of dodging fights in me to make me feel comfortable intentionally picking one. I could take a punch if I had to, though, and had on occasion in the past, as long as it was for the right cause. Getting Spence and I to the top of the mountain was as right a cause as there ever was.

“Hey!” I yelled once I was only a few feet away. “Don’t just walk away from me like that, you asshole! We were in the middle of something!”

An irate stranger belting out obscenities was always good at killing a conversation. Instantly, all three restaurant workers turned on me. The aide was incredulous, the chef was aghast, and the manager annoyed. That last one was perfect.

“Excuse me! But this is very important,” the bossman started with at least an attempt at tact. “So if you could just s–”

“Fuck that! You don’t think my job’s just as fucking important as yours is, you stuck up prick?!” I shouted down the attempt at decency. “You don’t think I matter as much you?!”

“What? No, that’s–” Mr. Fancyshirt tried for reason again, but that just wasn’t gonna happen.

“Nobody calls my friend that!” I growled just before I charged headlong at the manager.

Befuddled as those three men probably were by my insane level of anger, I almost got a clean punch off. The boss was just a little too sharp for that, though. He got his hands up to block, so I only punched his forearms, which I was quite sure hurt my hand a lot more than it did his arms. That didn’t stop me from trying again, though.

My second strike didn’t even get half as close as the first. I barely got started before the manager caught my arm. A quick twist, and he had the limb locked painfully. All I could do was hiss in pain and bow down in front of him. Well, that and listen to the sound of heavy footsteps coming barreling over.

A moment later, Spence crashed in like a wild animal. His opening salvo was a dynamite punch that smacked the boss right to the ground. It also broke his grip on me, allowing me to stumble back and wiggle my arm around to loosen it up. That was only the start of the fight, though.

When the manager went down, all his peons broke from their stupor. In an instant, there were four guys coming at Spence. They were wimps, though, soft, little cooks used to dealing with stuff that didn’t fight back. As such, Spence just started plowing through them, swatting away one after the other.

For a bit, I just hung back, marvelling at the sight. There was nothing quite like Spence during one of his rampages. It was terrifying but also strangely majestic, like watching some natural disaster just roll in and crush things. I couldn’t let there be too much crushing, though. I needed us in trouble, but not too much trouble. Not even Aurora was so strict as to deport someone for a fist fight, but they’d probably do a lot worse if we killed someone during it.

I knew it was time to step in when the fight got to the second round. Some of the early people that had been leveled were getting up, specifically the manager. If Spence got his hands on them again, they might not rise a third time.

Even more apprehensive than when I’d started the fight, I darted back into the fray. This time, I put myself between my buddy and his next target. “Spence! Stop!”

The big guy had enough reason in him to realize that I wasn’t an enemy, but he just shouldered right past me to deck the guy on the other side. That left me having to spin around and chase after him to try again. My next attempt, though, I grabbed his arm, dragging on him with what weight I had.

“Spence!” I called, putting a little extra bark into it.

This time, I could see that I got through as my friend’s blazing eyes blinked my way, reason seeping back into them. At the same time, he stopped just barreling along, coming to a halt to take some big heavy breaths as he peered around warily. Fortunately, none of the restaurant staff was stupid enough to take a swing at him.

For a moment, there was no sound except a few pained grunts and Spence’s puffing. That was before the big guy leveled a glare at the manager. He was down on the ground, rubbing at where Spence had just clocked him. Spence didn’t bother with words, he just spat on the fallen man to show his distaste.

Figuring that would just about seal things, I patted my friend’s arm. “Come on. We gotta go.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Six: The Downward Spiral

Robert “Bobby Brown” Greene was a squat, tiny little porker of a man. He’d been the boss of our team of Greys here for the past two years, taking over when the last guy had up and died from a heart attack. I’d always liked that guy, our first boss. Big, barrel-chested bastard with a love of cigars and scotch. Real cigars too, like the ones only the elite could afford. He’d let me share one once, when I was still just starting out with Andy. Like us, he’d been an immigrant, but older. He’d remembered the first touchdown of the colony and had done well for himself after the habitat he came from went to shit.

But Bobby wasn’t like the last guy. He wasn’t an immigrant either, just a
shitty-end-of-the-stick Auroran with nothing better to do than sit back in his easy chair and bark at the shitheels downstairs. Of course, “Brown” was only a nickname we had for him behind his back. One of the other guys thought it up. Something to do with a rumor about him wearing one of the brown jumpsuits once back when, and also being a shitstain.

Bobby sure looked like a shitstain now. A smug shitstain. As he waddled around his little office and puffed out his chubby cheeks, shaking his head. It’d been a day since the incident back at that fancy little restaurant where I’d stepped up when the manager took a swing at Andy. Guy was just sticking up for me too. Fucking rich asshole had gotten exactly what he deserved. Just what they ALL deserved.

Of course, Bobby didn’t see it that way.

Mr. Greene was in a chipper mood. Andy and I were standing between the door and his big desk inside his office and the place felt crowded. We knew why we were here too. Andy had stopped me outside when we’d been called up, warning me to let him do all the talking. Not that I had much reason not to. Wasn’t my thing anyways.

And boy was Andy talking now. Running his mouth like no tomorrow while our favorite asshat manager paced back and forth, looking like he didn’t care a whit for any of it. Guy had been weird with us almost since the moment he’d taken over. Didn’t like me, and didn’t treat Andy with the respect he deserved. And I could tell we were in a rough spot after yesterday. For once, Andy let the guy shut him up with a hand so he could speak.

“I’ve heard enough, Mr. Illes.” Green turned around to finally face us, sighing out like he had bad news but even I could see the smug twitch to his wormy lips. “But there’s nothing I can do. As of nine a.m. this morning, you and Mr. Miklos are no longer employed here with the Pioneer Hill chapter of Hancock’s Logistics. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

Andy was already hopping right on that, though.

“Mr. Greene, surely there’s something you can do. A … a transfer? A reference? Something? Anything! You gotta help us here, boss!”

It had an air of desperation and I think that was the first moment the gravity of things started to settle into the back of my mind. Andy had taken a step forward, practically begging. Andy never begged, I wouldn’t have let him. But me -- I just stood there. At the sudden quiet in the room, I’d felt my whole body stiffen.

Bossman was shaking his head.

“Not a chance, Mr. Illes. I’m sorry, but you two really fucked up yesterday. We can’t take the chance of having this kind of thing coming back on the company. We already promised to release you.”

“Sir, if you just listened to me, there’s more to the story here. We were provoked! It wasn’t our fault!”

At that, though, the fat man actually laughed.

“Doesn’t matter, boys. Who cares whose fault it was? You attacked a fucking mogul!” He shook his head, still laughing. “Nothing more I can do about that.”

Andy’s tone got careful.

“They’ll deport us,” he said. “If the company blacklists us, they’ll deport us. Back out there.” He stabbed a finger toward the office window angrily. “We’ll die out there!”

That point struck a chord with me, as I was suddenly forced to consider it. I agreed. We’d barely made it into Aurora alive after what happened at Sommelier. What FOLLOWED us from Sommelier. We’d made a place for ourselves here. A SAFE place. Safe from …

Well. We couldn’t just leave.

“Not my problem,” was all Bobby Brown said to that, though, and I saw a crack of that shit-eating grin pushing all the way to the surface. “Now, if you’ll please? Get out of my office.”

Andy huffed at him a few moments longer. Then, he accepted it. He bobbed his head in defeat and turned back around. “Come on, Spence. Let’s get the fuck outta here ...”

I didn’t move, though. The smaller man bumped into me and grabbed for the door, but I was still busy staring down at Mr. Green. Shitstain, Bobby Brown Greene. I felt the veins popping out on my neck, knuckles popping as first one fist clenched, then the other. At the sound, the little porker seemed to finally notice.

The man who’d just fired us stumbled back a step. He swallowed hard, looking up at me. But before I could take a step towards him and let him know what I really thought of all of this, Andy’s hand was on my arm. He tugged as hard as he could on me.

“Come on, man. Don’t make this any worse than it already is.”

I didn’t look at him. Not at first. I just kept glaring down at the fat man, watching as a cold sweat broke out across his forehead and he recoiled against his desk. Then Andy snapped at me again and I responded. I tore my eyes away and looked at him. He was serious.

So I nodded my head, spat some angry Ungrish under my breath, and left with my friend before anything happened.

Things got … worse. After that.

First thing we did was get drunk that night. I think I was in a worse way than Andy for once, but he didn’t seem as interested when we were there. Little bastard almost looked more worried about ME.

Whatever. I knew we’d find our way. Getting fired just … sucked. Right now.

But we didn’t find our way.

Andy looked for new jobs for us, but it was like he’d said back at the office: we were blacklisted. I’d beat up a blue blood in broad daylight at his own place while on the job. No matter that he’d gotten less than what he deserved and I’d only been trying to protect Andy. No matter that those pissant motherfuckers were no better than us and did whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted without getting their comeuppance ALL the fucking time! No. A few days and still nothing was coming in.

We’d paid off the month’s rent and had some time, however. So Andy switched to Plan B.

He still had his contacts. Still had people we made our deals with. Not having our delivery route was a problem, but there were still things we could do. Too bad that didn’t pan out either. People still wouldn’t touch us after that shit with Danny and, what was worse, I decided to go looking for the fucker but no one would give him up. Andy said he’d heard the guy had gotten wind of what happened to us and was content to sit back and watch us starve to death on our own lack of prospects. War of attrition, he’d called it. I made sure he had a few losses on his side, though, roughing up some choice pukes when I found them. But it never got me any closer to Danny or fixing any of our mounting problems.

A week out from losing our jobs and I was spending more time at the bar or at home drinking than following Andy out to try our luck. Seemed like a wasted effort to me. Just a few weeks left until we’d get evicted from the apartment without any money, and the only way to put those thoughts outta my head was with the bottle. Andy got angry with me about it, but there wasn’t much he could do. Warned me I was pissing away our prospects that much faster, but it was hard to care. We were fucked.

I could feel deportation coming soon.

Before we’d gotten into Aurora, we’d … spent some time. In the tent city of unwelcome refugees outside. Hopeful wasters looking for an in to the only city left on a shithole planet full of people trying to kill each other. Of course, that tent city had been a den of dealing and backstabbing and murder too. At some point, we’d pissed off the wrong person and had people coming for us to do us in. And they tipped off someone far worse, someone who’d followed us all the way there from Sommelier for some revenge.

Only way out was into Aurora. Andy had managed to talk our way in.

Outside the city was a death sentence now, though. I knew the man waiting for me out there, and he wore the face of my Papa. But no pleasant fucking family reunion for me. The moment I set foot outside, I was dead. He’d promised.

Andy didn’t need to remind me of that when I was at my lowest. He knew the thought was always in back of my head.

I wanted to flee to the streets. Find somewhere to lay low, and avoid the Auroran census. But those government fucks were too good at controlling the population. They had us all on a list with our DNA catalogued, and cameras just about everywhere. There was no such thing as a derelict on the streets of Aurora, not for long. They’d find you no matter what.

Everything was bad, and I just drank harder. Our world was falling apart, and I smoked through my cigarettes. Andy tried, and talked, and tried and talked. Nothing worked. He disappeared and I only realized by the time he’d come back that I’d left him all alone out there. Small wonder that he came home one day, bruised and battered all to fuck.

Danny’s boys had come around to get him while I wallowed.

“We can’t keep going like this, Spence,” was what he said as I stared at him from across the room. Guy was leaning heavily into the door like he was grateful to have made it back to the apartment alive at all, slicked back hair all in a mess and with a dripping line of blood sliced across his brow. I sat there, frozen on the couch. Watching. It was probably the most helpless I’d ever felt in my entire life since leaving Sommelier.

I didn’t say anything, and eventually Andy came all the way in, grabbing one of my half-drunk bottles and downing it in one go. He tossed another to me before pitching down into the chair across from the couch. My mind was only half there while he did.

“We can’t keep going on like this,” he repeated after a minute of that, shaking his head. “But I don’t know what we can do. No one will talk to me. No place will hire us. We’re fucked, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

The man settled his head into his hands. If he were any less than he was, I’d say he was about to start crying on me. I reached for a smoke and realized for about the dozenth time today that they were all gone. Gone since that morning, and I had no money left to get the stuff for more. I didn’t know why, but that cut me deep.

It was silent, for a while. Probably the most miserable I’d ever seen my only friend left in the world, the only family I had left. That was worth a damn, anyways. I’d been looking at the scar over my right eye in the mirror that morning, the one Papa’d given me all those years ago with his big knife. It’d made me think of him, and there hadn’t been enough booze left to push the thought away all day. Didn’t stop me from finishing off the beer Andy’d tossed me, though.

After another few minutes, I tossed a packet of papers on the end table between us.

Andy glanced up at the bundle. Then at me. He did it slowly, frowning while he did. I just jabbed a finger at the thing.

“You … you really think that could work?” was what I worked up the nerve to ask, and there was an alien hitch in my throat as I did. Whether it was from the booze or the days on end with all this shit looming over my head or just the thought of what was waiting for me outside the city, I couldn’t fucking know. But Andy looked at me.

The packet said “FARADAY INITIATIVE BRIEF” in big red letters on it. I’d found it tucked away next to the couch yesterday, probably where Andy had left it after I’d set him straight about all that shit back when. Hadn’t even realized my ash tray was sitting right on top of it until the smokes were all gone. Morbidly curious, and with nothing better to do, I’d skimmed it.

Andy was just staring at me. He knew I didn’t mean whether or not the serum they went on about even worked. Seemed like it would have to, for them to be making all this fuss. No. I wanted to know whether he’d meant all that shit he’d said before, about how it was our ticket to the top on a short train. About how it was supposed to be the answer to all our problems.

I was pretty sure it might be the only answer left now. Thinking about Papa outside had made me consider that.

Eventually, Andy opened his mouth to speak. He hesitated.

“I thought you didn’t want to have anything to do with all of that …”

“I don’t,” I told him quickly.

The man waited for me to explain that, but I didn’t. So he just bobbed his head. “And I don’t think we should, Spence. There’s still things I can look into. Still people out there. Maybe if we head to another district? I’m sure the Farley’s had enemies who’d be happy to know we took care of them. We can talk to some people. Cut a deal. Do … SOMETHING. I know we can, Spence. I KNOW it.”

But I was already shaking my head at him. Guy was babbling. Grasping at straws that didn’t even exist. I could see it in his face. He was being strangled to death and still clawing for air. Guys did that as they died. I’d watched the desperation that clung to them against all odds, right up until the very last moment. Andy was better than that. I couldn’t just let him die down here like this. He deserved better.

“Do you. Think. It will work?” I cut into his rambling nonsense curtly.

He stopped. Looked up at me again. I waited while that desperation still clouded his face. Waited for him to start thinking, like he always did. Waited for it, and then it came.

“... Yea,” he eventually admitted, canting his head. Then he bowed it, and rubs his hands back through his hair, maybe just then realizing how fucked up it looked. “Yea, I think it will. Pretty foolproof, actually. I wouldn’t have suggested it in the first place if I didn’t think it was a sure thing. You really think I’d take that kind of risk if it wasn’t?”

“No,” I relented, looking away. “No, I don’t think you would, Andy.”

“So … what? What are you thinking, Spence? We’re not out of options here yet.”

No. We were. He’d made that abundantly clear to me, even though he couldn’t see it yet himself.

“I’m saying I’ll do it, Andy,” was what I forced out instead though, a second later. After pawing around our empty bottles for any hope of another drink. No such luck, and that was about the gist of it. “I’ll do it. If it means getting out of this place alive and together, I’ll … I’ll do it.”

There was a long pause afterwards where I was sure the guy was gonna turn it around on me. Throw all the shit I’d said all those nights ago to him right back in my face. Probably would’ve been justified. I hardly knew where my OWN head was at nowadays. I probably was crazy to even consider it.

But what Andy eventually said was just, “Okay.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 07: Step Four

My footsteps, light but driven, padded out a steady rhythm as they went back and forth across the room. There was nothing else for me to do. I was too nervous to sit, too nervous to eat my usual bowl of cereal, too nervous to just watch some TV. The day was finally here.

It had taken so much work. I’d had to pick that fight to get Spence and me fired. I’d had to go out and waste time acting like I wanted to find us something. Luckily, there was nothing to find, not after that mess. I’m not sure I could’ve managed to lie about it convincingly otherwise. It was pretty tough watching the big guy go through it all, sinking further and further into his chair every time I returned a failure as a perfect mimicry to his state of mind.

That was what actually pushed me to finally get that yes. I didn’t want to keep dragging it out. It took picking yet another fight to get Spence on my side – this time without him to rush in to save my ass. Luckily, I wasn’t much when it came to fisticuffs, so it was over pretty quick. I had days of aching to remind me of the idiocy of my decision, but it had worked. Spence had pulled out the documents that I’d left for him to find and agreed to go.

Of course, that capitulation to the situation wasn’t the panacea that I’d hoped it would be. Spence’s mood didn’t improve any. He’d just moped around the apartment while I’d taken care of all the details of getting us enrolled. Now, the day we left for the Initiative was here, the moment of truth.

All the usual details of the morning had passed by in their usual way so far. I’d showered, shaved, and slicked my hair. I hadn’t dressed in the gray uniform they’d taken back, but casual clothes didn’t really change the day much.

Stuff with Spence had seemed normal, too. I’d had the usual amount of trouble getting him up. He’d lumbered off to the bathroom same as always. Now, I was just waiting for him to finish up and come out.

Whenever that moment came, I wasn’t sure what Spence would do. The man was a mountain of bravery in all things, but I could tell he was terrified of what we were going to do that day. He was terrified of the other option, too. He wasn’t the type to waffle on a decision, but I felt like, maybe this one time, he could. I hoped he wouldn’t, though, because if he did, I had no idea what I would fucking do.

Somewhere in the midst of that pacing, I heard the sound of the bathroom door. Instantly, I stopped the nervous habit, wanting to present my usual confident calm. Spence was going to need that, going to need to believe that I was absolutely certain of this decision being good for us.

“Hey,” I greeted when the big guy finally left the bathroom. I made sure not to use good morning, because it was very clear that he didn’t think there was anything good about it.

Depressed as he was, Spence didn’t even bother to use words to respond. He just grunted out a greeting to me as he trundled off to the kitchen. There, he snatched a beer from the fridge. It was the last of the little gift that I’d gotten for him, using the last bit of emergency funds that I’d kept. Gift or not, he popped the lid and downed the last bottle in one long pull.

“Want something to eat with that?” I asked, trying to sound lighthearted.

“No,” Spence stated gruffly. “Let’s just get this shit over with.”

A part of me felt the urge to do something in that moment, to try to help my friend. The salesman in me knew it was a bad idea. I had him right now, and anything I said could do nothing but lose me the deal. Besides, I had no reason to feel guilty. This was what was best for both of us.

Shrugging off the dismissal of my offer, I waved toward the door. “Alright, then let’s go,”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

In all the years I’d been in Aurora, I’d never had reason to set foot in one of the research facilities before. They were in the fancier parts of town, the kind of places that got a guy like me funny looks if he even tried to walk on the same streets as those upscale pricks. Undoubtedly, they had to get stuff shipped to them, just like every other place, but whatever they needed it must’ve rated above my pay grade because they didn’t ship that shit through us.

The building itself was a true embodiment of hope, a shining pinnacle dedicated entirely to the future. Unlike the darker parts of town, it wasn’t just a shimmering veneer over shit, though. No, every little detail, inside and out, was pristine and sparkling, clearly maintained with the utmost of care. In fact, it was a bit too pristine, coming off as almost sterile. I suppose that was apt, a building that stood for the future built by a people that, at least until recently, had no way to breed.

What definitely didn’t look sterile, though, was the next wonder that waited for Spence and I within its halls. She stood by the reception desk, dressed like a man in slacks, shirt, and a lab coat, but very clearly a woman, unless those hefty bulges at her chest were somehow her pecs. It was hard to believe, an honest to god woman in the flesh. I knew it was the flesh because she perked up at our approach and offered a smile that might’ve looked boyish if it wasn’t on such a girly face.

“Hey!” the woman called out at our approach. “I take it you’re two more test subjects?”

“That’s us,” I returned the greeting warmly, taping myself on the chest. “Andrew Illes, but you can call me Andy, and this … “ I used the same hand to gesture at the guy next to me. “... is my friend Spencer Miklos.”

“Leslie Weeks,” the woman gave her name, extending a hand toward me. When I took it, her grip was surprisingly firm, almost making me think I was shaking the hand of someone like Spence rather than a pretty, blonde woman. “I’m Dr. Arthur Faraday’s assistant.”

“A pleasure to meet you … uhm …” I replied, only to fumble a bit at the end.

“Miss, at least for a little bit still,” Leslie supplied helpfully before she turned her attention to a clipboard that I hadn’t even noticed she’d had until then. “Yep, there you are. Early too, always a good sign.”

Getting back into the groove, I nodded in agreement. “Yep, always did value punctuality.”

“Me too, but I never was very good at being it myself,” Leslie joked before waving us forward. “Anyway, why don’t I show you where you can wait.”

“Sounds great,” I agreed, falling right into step as soon as she started moving. I didn’t let the conversation lag for long, though, starting it back up within just a couple of steps. “So, what’s on the schedule for today? Just some waiting then a few shots or what?”

“Well, there will be some waiting while the other participants arrive,” Leslie explained. “After that, there’s going to be a presentation by the program director. He’ll cover everything else on the schedule in detail.”

“Good good, and what about you?” I asked, moving right along to a more interesting topic. “What’s your story? I heard there were other women, but they only ever show the one on the news.”

Glancing back over her shoulder, Leslie smirked at me. “Sorry, but my story is a little long, especially since we’re already here.” In time with her words, the woman stopped, gesturing to a pair of double doors. “Head on inside and find a seat. There’s refreshments if you want them, and if you need anything one of the attendants can help you.”

“So does that mean you’re not coming in with us?” I surmised.

“Yeah, I’m back to the desk to wait for the next ones,” Leslie replied. “It was nice to meet ya, though.”

“Definitely,” I agreed before the woman turned to go. When she walked by me, I let my gaze follow her, but only for a couple of moments. It wasn’t the time for distractions. I had my course laid out, I needed to focus on keeping myself and Spence on it.

Speaking of the big guy, he hadn’t seemed to even notice the woman or anything else for that matter. He had a dark brooding expression on his face as his gaze never left the ground at his feet. It didn’t stop him from following me, though.

Through the double doors was a large auditorium. In spite of its size, there wasn’t a lot in it. On one end there was a modest stage that had a few men moving about it setting up electronics. Off to the side, there were a few tables with food and drink.

“Wanna feast on the generosity of the rich and wasteful?” I asked, pointed toward the buffet.

“No,” was all the answer I got.

Sighing, I turned my attention to the last part of the room, the center. Most of it was empty, but there was a small section by the stage that was in use. There, a few dozen chairs were set up. We’d been told to take a seat, and those were the only ones that I saw.

As I started that way with Spence trudging along beside me, I let my gaze sweep over the set of chairs. Most were empty still, but a few had other guys situated in them. Almost to a man, they looked uncomfortable, even afraid. They’d spread out, putting large gaps between themselves as if trying to hide from the others. Only one person had a different attitude, sitting front and center. This peculiar individual looked bright and eager. No, he was more than eager. He was fidgeting with an obvious look of anticipation on his face. That aura had earned him an even wider berth than any of the others, leaving not just his whole row but the one behind it empty.

Wondering what that guy’s deal was, I took a seat in the same row as him, giving the end seat to Spence so he’d have extra leg and elbow room. After that, I spent the wait, glancing down the way trying to assess where the crazy enthusiasm came from. At first, I thought the guy might be someone like me or even Spence, scheming for the future or desperate to escape his past. I was pretty good at reading people, though, and neither seemed right. He was just too into it for that.

Whatever the cause, none of the other men that trickled into the auditorium were a match. A few looked like Spence, though, drudging in with a listless despondency that spoke of people that had run out of options. Most mirrored the same trepidation as the ones that I’d noticed before, a few even looking so skittish that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see one spook and bolt at the slightest loud noise. None did, though.

After a bit, the trickle of men had one woman sprinkled into it. That Leslie girl that had greeted us showed the last guy in then walked over to talk to a man by the stage. I took that to mean that we had everyone we were going to have. When I looked around, though, there were a lot of empty chairs. I supposed some of those skittish ones had chickened out on the way.

Another couple of minutes and Leslie finally walked up onto the stage, stopping at the mic that had been set up there to speak. “Welcome everyone. Some of you already know this, but my name is Leslie Weeks, and I’m the assistant to the doctor in charge of this initiative, Arthur Faraday.”

At the name, a door in the back opened up to let a man walk through. He was an older guy, but in good shape, tall, straight backed and moving with purpose. His hair was gray, but still full, even his thick mustache. Altogether he had a smart, stately presence to him as he moved up to the woman on stage and took the microphone from her.

“Hello, I’m Arthur Faraday, one of the driving forces behind this initiative and the founder of the replication process that has allowed it to become a reality,” the older man introduced himself. “I’ll be heading up the team responsible for your medical care, both physical and mental. There’s just one thing I wanted to make sure to impress upon all of you before we started this. Your wellbeing is our top priority in this. If you feel troubled in any way, we want to know and we want to help. There will always be at least one doctor on call to handle any injuries, illness or other emergencies. Therapists will also be available day and night if you need to talk. Make use of these resources, because all of humanity wants to see this test be a success, and to do that we need each and every one of you to come out of this at a hundred percent. Thank you.”

As the doctor finished his speech, he handed things back to Leslie. “Well said,” she began as she tried to applaud the old guys efforts. It managed to get a weak spattering of claps from us, but that was it. “Now, we’ll hear from our Program Director, Jason Herzog.”

The first old man was quickly swapped out on stage by a second one. This one, though, looked a hell of a lot older. He was pudgy and hunched with only a few wisps of hair on top of his head. To balance it out, he had a full, fluffy, white beard that combined with gentle features and a set of glasses to create a kindly old man sort of look. When he spoke, even his voice showed his age.

“Thank you, my dear,” this one began grandfatherly as he took the mic. “I am indeed Jason Herzog, and I’m the director for this entire program. As such, I’m the one responsible for bringing it all together for you, from your housing and stipends, to your medical care, to socials and other events. It also gives me the privilege of going over a quick presentation with you covering what can be expected both from us and from you.”

After that, the director fell into his spiel. Most of it was stuff that I already knew, but I paid close attention anyway. This was one of those moments where the fancy assholes might try to screw over the rest of us, slipping a little something extra into the presentation to see if anyone noticed or complained. I was planning to do both if I caught even the tiniest detail that was out of place.

Surprisingly, the fuckers seemed to be intending to keep their word, because I didn’t catch any oddities. All the privileges and rights that were supposed to be there were there: the fancy apartment, the extravagant stipend, the free living expenses, forgiven absences for medical issues, the ability to choose who we did things with and what we did, all of it. The only new information came in the form of a schedule of events.

After what the head doctor had said, I would’ve expected a much slower and more methodical pace to the experiment, but it was actually very fast. That fact alone was enough to make me immediately suspicious of the director. That kindly exterior could easily be a front, and he seemed to be looking to push the test subjects, giving us barely a week to recover and acclimate before the first social event was scheduled to take place.

I wasn’t sure what the old man’s goal was, but I wasn’t going to complain about fast. I was eager to get right into things. The sooner I could get to finding the best deal after my change the better. That would mean less time as some lab rat and more time living in the lap of luxury.

“Now, then … “ Mr Herzog segued as his presentation came to an end. “If any of you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them before we move on.”

Those words earned little besides awkward silence. The men in the crowd, both the depressed and the skittish just glanced around at each other. There was only one question on their minds and it wasn’t for the director. No, it was the other volunteers, and it was full of disbelief – “Are we really going to do this?” None of them actually voiced that question, though. After all, if they were ready to answer no, they wouldn’t have been in the room. In reality, each just wanted someone else to speak up, to say it was all insane and that no one would stand for it. There was no one with the guts to do that, however.

Of course, I didn’t speak up either. I’d gotten all my questions answered long before I set foot in that room. Even if I’d had one, I probably would’ve kept it to myself. Otherwise, I might’ve startled one of the reluctant ones and ruined things. No, now was the time to get things moving.

“Alright, since there doesn’t seem to be any questions, let’s get you all upstairs to the lab,” Mr. Herzogg declared after a couple of moments. “Like I said in my presentation, we’ll be beginning with a quick physical then moving on to setting up for the procedure.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Eight: Post Mortem

When I came to, a light was swimming in my eyes. Along with it, a voice, buzzing inside my ears. It was all white noise for what felt like forever. Forever, that is, until I found myself blinking up into the face of a man in glasses holding a flashlight to my pupils.

“Ahhh, there you are, Ms. Miklos. Good to have you back with us.”

I continued blinking as, satisfied, the man pulled the flashlight back outta my face. He exchanged it for a smile, but I didn’t feel like I had much to smile about. My whole body felt numb, my thoughts were foggy and sluggish, and every light in the room was far too bright. Like the worst hangover I’d ever woken up to. I tried to will it away so I could think.

“How long?” was the first thing I managed to say, interrupting that man as he rattled off some sciency-sounding bullshit at me, looking over a datapad in his hand. Doctor, by the looks of him. Or maybe just another scientist. Didn’t matter. There’d been nothing but eggheads since we got to the Initiative building. Eggheads and that one freak who’d greeted us at the front.

I stopped dead at that thought, though, not really listening as the labcoat droned on. My eyes drifted down to the rest of me, wrapped up in some blue smock that went all the way down to my knees. My hands, my chest --all of it. Too small. Everything was too small.

My hands were alien and tiny. I stared at them, the bed at just such an angle that it was like sitting up while still lying down. And I started to laugh. The sound of it wasn’t the usual sound. Higher, lighter, like some little punk kid. I laughed even harder at that.

I guess I was a freak now too.

“Something funny … Ms. Miklos?” the doctor was saying, peering at me over those spectacles with a borderline worried expression. If he’d told me how long I’d been out, I hadn’t been listening. I just looked back at him.

“Everything.”

My voice was rich and lilting, even as it creaked its way out of deep sleep. I would've sworn it wasn’t even mine if I hadn’t already had some idea of what to expect, or it hadn’t come out at the same time I’d moved my mouth. The egghead seemed to not think too well of that remark.

“We imagined this might be a … a shock … for some people,” he started after a moment, chair slipping back over and removing his glasses to look me in the eye. “But I assure you, you have nothing to worry about. You were so brave to volunteer in the first place. And all of us here -- the staff -- we’re all dedicated to seeing you successfully through this. You’re going to be a pioneer in saving our society from extinction, Ms. Miklos. You should be very proud of that.”

He’d lain a hand on my arm towards the end. If I’d had the wherewithal to throw him off, I would have. Had that fuzzy feeling not still hugged my brain, I might’ve tossed a fist into his pearly white teeth for good measure. The tone in his voice felt like some asshole trying to talk down to me. The gentleness of that touch, though, that was something even worse. Couldn’t remember anyone laying a soft hand on me like that since Mama had died. Certainly never a man.

But I guess I looked like someone’s mama now, myself.

“Would you like a mirror?” doc asked, reading my mind. Not that I did, but I just stared back at him. He took that for a yes and retrieved one. Couldn’t say I wasn’t scared just to look. But I wasn’t one to let fear rule me, like most men.

I didn’t recognize the face.

Oh sure, there was the same dusky skin. The dark hair and the dark eyes. That scar over the right eye, shrunken now and distorted. Just like me. When I came to it, suddenly reminded of where I’d gotten it in the first place, I thought that there was no way Papa would know this face that I wore now. No way to know I was the one to kill. If I left, he’d never even know it was me.

Spencer was already dead.

I looked in that hand mirror and didn’t see myself in it. I saw someone else entirely, someone I didn’t know. And I dropped it, though the doctor was quick to catch before it tumbled off and broke on the floor.

“The procedure was a complete success, Ms. Miklos, and you should be proud of the result. You are attractive, healthy, and fully fertile. Things will go well for you after you’re released.”

I shot him a look that would’ve made any man shit his pants and crumple up in terror before today. My surprise when all the egghead did was give me a tight-lipped smile as he patted my arm.

“Let’s get you out of that bed then, shall we?”

I’d been rigged up with little tubes in my arms, nose, and elsewhere. The man, who’d introduced himself as Dr. Perkins, unhooked them one by one and then brought in a wheelchair to carry me out of the room I’d woken up in. I started to snap at him about being able to walk my own damn self but quickly realized I couldn’t. Whether it was on account of how skinny and useless my legs now were or the general tiredness overwhelming my whole body still, I couldn’t know. Even more embarrassing was how I’d had to practically HANG off the man to get maneuvered over into the seat. Just how light was I now?

But if I thought that was bad, realizing how much shorter and smaller I now was, was even worse. Was hard to tell for sure just where I stood after the treatment, but it was a far cry from my usual six-foot-three either way. Doc was maybe half a head or so taller and hefted me around like a child. Couldn’t say I had a smile anywhere near my face as he rolled me out into the hallway.

“Mr. Herzog most likely explained our rather aggressive schedule in the introductory presentation, but don’t let it frighten you. We’re all here to help in any way necessary to get you there, happy and healthy. I’ll be your attending physician, and we’ll have you meet Dr. Keinzler soon. He’ll be your psychiatrist for the duration of the program and beyond. Do you have any questions at this time, Ms. Miklos?”

I refrained from answering him. The same way I refrained from flinching every time he called me “Ms. Miklos” like that. The only thing I really wanted to know was whether or not Andy was doing alright … whatever he looked like now. I felt too weak to deal with all these new faces. So many of them, and me in this vulnerable position. My fists felt useless. I could’ve wished I had a knife. Just something to make me feel the slightest bit less helpless in that chair as we rolled along.

We made it to a lift, rode it up a few floors, and came out on a hallway vaguely reminiscent of the one outside Andy and my’s old apartment. Way too nice, though. Way too clean and well-kept. Some blue bloods would’ve lived up here or sure.

“And this’ll be your own, personal room while you stay here, Ms. Miklos,” Perkins said, gesturing as we stopped in front of one of those doors. Had Papa’s name in big, golden letters too: MIKLOS. I glanced back over my shoulder as he popped open the door.

“I can help you get acquainted and settled in if you like,” the man offered as he rolled me in and I got my first full view of an entryway the size of our entire apartment back home without even touching on the main room, it’s giant TV, couch, and the rest of it further in. It was the first glimpse of that fat cat lifestyle Andy had promised would come with this. The first glimpse, and it was hard not to have the eyes bug right out of my skull.

Doc repeated his question to me.

“No,” I grunted back at him. I wanted to be left alone. Wanted one less set of eyes on my deformed state for as long as I could get myself free.

The man merely bowed his head at that.

“There’s plenty of food in the kitchen. Clothes, generic and sized to fit your new self, in the bedroom dresser. This comm here” --he clapped a panel on the wall-- “and one like it are in each room. Use it if you need help, any kind at all. Someone will answer, no matter the time of day.”

He evacuated my new, fancy apartment with a promise to check up with me soon, and that my psychiatrist would see me in a few hours. Others too. Aggressive schedule, like they’d said. I just hoped Andy had made it through okay. Freak or not -- GIRL or not … heads were gonna roll if he didn’t. If we BOTH didn’t. No matter the smiles and the assurances and the nice talk, I didn’t trust these people for a second. And the thought had long ago occurred to me that I couldn’t just wail on them until they stopped their bullshit like I used to.

No. No matter what, I knew my only chance of surviving this whole fucked up thing … was with Andy. It was still us against the world.

Always.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“So have you decided on a name yet?”

I glanced up at the doctor across from me in my new room. ROOMS. This one just happen to be the living room, with big, expensive couches and a TV and full window view to the outside world. That was what had gotten my attention most, of course. The view. Don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite like it before. Made it hard to tell if the world was really so much bigger than I’d always thought, or if I’d just become that small.

Dr. Keinzler had pulled up a chair across the low coffee table full of rich glass between us as I slumped on the couch. The wheelchair lay folded and discarded somewhere else since the very moment I’d felt just strong enough to move around on my own, already having suffered through the experience. I was a far cry from what I’d been before and the thought left me bitter and angry while I sat there listening to the shrink prattle on.

“No.”

He smiled. It was just like the other egghead’s smile: condescendingly gentle. Wore glasses too, just like the other one. With their generic, rich-guy looks and doctors white coats, made it hard to tell I was even talking to someone different. I busied myself plucking at the loose shirt that I’d found in the bedroom to replace that medical gown.

“Well, we recommend you do. It makes it significantly easier in the long run, and there’s no time like the present, since you’re starting fresh, as it were.” He chuckled a little at the thought in a fake, social way that would’ve been right at home with Andy.

“Whatever.”

That smile strained.

“How about it then?” He pressed, but I didn’t answer. He had a pad in front of him and I’d caught him taking notes with a stylus while we talked, whenever I said something interesting to him. He had it ready now. “There’s plenty to choose from. Some of the more common names are Elizabeth, Michelle, Valerie … Felicia, Emily, Sarah ...”

I held up a hand, glaring back at him, and he stopped. He mistook the gesture.

“You like that one?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to argue, but gave up immediately. Didn’t matter anyways, did it? “As good as any other,” I told him instead. I didn’t give a shit. If Spencer was dead then what did it matter if we pissed on his grave a little more? I canted my head and the doc took down the note.

“I’ll see we have things updated for you just as soon as we can, Sarah.”

I couldn’t help my flinch at the name this time. Doctor was watching, though, and I had an idea what Andy might say about all this. So I tried to smile a fake smile back at him. Felt more like a grimace, which was just as well because it hurt to smile at any of these blue bloods, especially now.

Keinzler ran through some other things. Poked and prodded at my brain some more. Had this deepening crease of worry in his forehead while he did, which made me worry I was fucking this up for us somehow. Got my blood pumping too and I just couldn’t shake the thought at how that trueborn Auroran was judging me right now. Reflexively, I wanted to get up in his face and put him in his place -- make him feel the fear that I was used to having to push on assholes like him when they tried to give me the business like that. But I could barely walk, and wasn’t going to embarrass myself until I could. Not where they could see. So, for the first time in my life since Sommelier I … I just swallowed all of that back down, deep inside.

For now.

“Would you like to talk about what happened with … that … earlier?”

The doc was gesturing over one of my shoulders toward the open door leading to the bedroom. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, until I looked back and followed him. You could see the full-length mirror standing there against the wall. It had a big fist-sized crack in it. Not as big as it should’ve been, but Keinzler still gave me a calculating look.

When I’d found my way back there after the other doc had gone, I’d gotten it into my head to get out of that hospital smock and see what they had for me in those drawers. Also, to take full stock of what I was working with now as far as the rest of me went. I already knew I was way smaller, weaker, and … other things. So I'd struggled my way up to my feet in front of that mirror and tossed the gown right off without preamble.

I’d resisted the urge to freak the fuck out as I took in the rest of me, naked. If I remembered what women had looked like from when I was a boy, I wasn’t too surprised by what I was looking at now. I remembered Mama’s face, but hadn’t paid much attention to the rest of her in those regards at the time. Just the highlights. They matched up with my own body now, I thought.

I’d started laughing. Couldn’t help it.

Wasn’t a GOOD laugh, though. More like a dying man’s laugh as he bleeds out from tragically unlucky circumstances. It certainly felt like I was laughing at death as I stood there, wobbling on my own two shrunken feet, staring at that girl’s body. Eventually, it stopped.

My thoughts turned dark. That pretty face in the mirror -- and it WAS pretty, by all accounts I could remember -- it twisted and then smoothed out. I gave myself the same dead-eye stare I gave everyone else. Then I screamed and wailed on the glass until I couldn’t see that face anymore.

When I looked back at the doc, though, I just shrugged. I’d been hiding my bloody knuckles and bruised little hand inside my sleeve. I didn’t want to talk about it.

He smiled his little elitist smile again.

“Don’t worry, Sarah. We understand that this is … difficult. And we’re here to help in any capacity necessary to make this effort a success. We WANT you all to be successful, and healthy, and happy. We’ll get you a new one.”

I wasn’t so sure about any of that, but the thought of breaking things and having these motherfuckers replace it without batting an eye was both gratifying and infuriating at the same time. Made me wonder how much I could break before they stopped smiling like that about it.

Keinzler clapped both hands to his knees. “I think that’s enough for now,” he declared with another practiced smile, pushing to his feet. He waited for me to do the same and, when I didn’t, moved around to stand in front of me on the couch, leaning in as he extended a hand for me to shake. “It was very nice meeting you, Sarah. I hope for a happy and productive relationship in the future.”

I stared at his hand for a moment. The way he towered over me now, sitting there on the couch, bothered the hell out of me but there was nothing I could do about it. So I just slapped my hand in his and shook. I even tried on another little fake smile of my own for good measure. It was easier when I imagined Spencer’s much bigger hand crushing this guy’s in a grip. As it was, he barely even squeezed down on mine, like he was trying to be gentle again.

A grin and a wave and the doc was gone then. And as soon as the door closed and I was alone, I was left with this overwhelming, alien urge to ball up and cry. Didn’t know where the fuck it came from. Didn’t care. I just bit down as hard as I could on it until it went away for good.

Best I could do was bury it in the back of my head, though. I had a feeling it would be back.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 09: Step Five

Somewhere in a long and timeless void, I remembered having a very bad dream. It had been full of pain, yelling, and confusion. That was all that I could recall, though, when it passed away, changing into a different pain, the glare of a very bright world assaulting my eyes.

Trying to blink away the pain, I heard some distant voices through hazy thoughts. They came into focus more quickly than my vision did, though, as I rushed back to the world of the waking. There, I crash landed, suddenly very solid and feeling like I’d just come out of the wrong end of a fight with Spence. That deserved a groan, but the one I managed was so little, weak, and raspy.

To my left, someone was sighing in relief. “Glad to see you made it back to us, Miss Illes. We weren’t sure you would.”

“Huh?” I mumbled, the world sounding all wrong as my eyes finally started to actually see the light rather than just be attacked by it. They didn’t do a very good job at that, though, bringing the world into decidedly blurry focus.

With my eyes finally working, I got to see the man who had spoken. His face was more blob than features, but there was no way that I could mistake that full gray mustache. That combined with the voice, and I placed him as that medical director from the presentation leaning over me from the side. Why would he be there? Hadn’t I had a different doctor before?

“Wha’? Did sum’in’ happen?” I asked weakly, only to hear my voice echoing in my ears. It was the first real reminder of why I’d even been sleeping. I was supposed to become a girl and if the high, strangely sweet, sound of my voice was any indication, I’d succeeded.

“Unfortunately, yes,” the doctor, uhm … Faraday, that was the name, told me. “You had a peculiar reaction to the treatment that resulted in several anomalies in your change compared to the others. Made things a bit touch and go there, but you fought through it.”

Alright, that didn’t seem so bad. It was an experimental procedure, so there were bound to be a few oddities. As long as I’d pulled through al–

The momentary calm shattered into worry as I tried to sit myself up. It wasn’t a good idea. Whatever had happened to me, just getting my body to move at all was tough. I forced it anyway, and thanks to the angled bed, I managed to get upright and look down at myself. There was mostly just blur there, which I tried to squint away, but I couldn’t be sure exactly what I was seeing.

A steadying hand found my shoulder. “Relax, you’re alright.”

“I am?! Then why is everything so blurry?!” I demanded, my new high voice rising into shrillness.

“It is?” the doctor question in surprise.

“Yes!” I blurted out in confirmation.

“Hmm … poor vision is a common issue with those suffering from albinism,” Faraday mused. “We’ll have to give you an optical exam to be sure, but it should be correctable with glasses or surgery.”

While the doctor talked about my vision, my thoughts caught back on the odd word he’d used to describe my condition. “Albi-what?”

“Albinism,” the doctor repeated. “It’s a condition resulting in loss of pigmentation. We’re not entirely sure what caused it. Maybe a dormant gene that happened to get duplicated by the procedure or some genetic weakness that decayed under the strain.”

Regaining some focus, I processed that information carefully. Pigment was color, so it was some loss of color. Using that information, I looked down at myself again, noticing some pale shapes. Normally, my skin was on the darker side, but I supposed it wasn’t anymore and those shapes were my arms and hands.

“Just color?” I asked, hopeful that the terrible surprises were at an end. “Nothing else … nothing that would … stop my participation?”

“Hmm?” Faraday hummed, taking a moment to catch my question. “Oh, no, we wouldn’t remove you from the Initiative even if there were issues, but there’s not. Everything seems to be in working order.”

I clung to those words like a lifeline. I hadn’t lost my chance before I’d gotten it. That was the important part. Being pasty white and half blind wasn’t good news, but if that was all I had to deal with, I could make it work.

“Now, you should probably lie back down and get some rest,” the doctor told me. “You’re still recovering.”

While I had confidence that the old man knew what he was talking about, I didn’t have time to waste on napping. I already had a handicap to overcome. I needed to get going so that I could make up the ground I’d lost. Hopefully, Spence …

Mind catching on my friend’s name, I knew what had to come next, so I shook my head fiercely to refuse. “No, I need to see my friend. We came in together, Spencer Miklos.”

“I understand your concern, but your friend is fine, and you–” Faraday tried to reassure me.

“No!” I interrupted. “I have to see him now.”

Spence had looked like a man walking to his death when we came in here. Now that he was on the other side, he was probably freaking the fuck out, especially if these guys had told him anything about my issues. I needed to get to him and make sure he stayed calm, because whether he was a girl now or not, the next time I awoke it might be to a bunch of doctors that had been beaten to death by my friend.

“Alright, I’ll have someone on the staff go and bring her,” the doctor conceded. “Until she gets here, though, would you please just lay down and rest.”

That seemed fair, so I let myself slouch back against the bed. I hadn’t realized until then how tired I actually was or how sore I felt just from trying to sit up for that long. “Sure thing, doc.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

A touch on my arm snapped me awake. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the last time, but there was still a moment of confusion when blinking failed to take the blur from my world. My brain caught up quickly enough, getting me oriented on the doctor-looking shape next to me.

“Hey, sorry, drifted off there,” I explained, surprised at how easy it had been to do exactly that.

“Quite alright,” Faraday assured me. “I almost didn’t wake you, but a promise is a promise. You’re friend is outside if you’re ready for her.”

Nodding immediately, I replied, “Great, send her in,” making sure to mimic the old man’s pronoun usage. If they wanted to treat us as girls already, then I saw no reason to not play along.

The doctor didn’t try to argue with me, just turned and walked out. I watched him the whole way, tracking his movements and seeing how he blurred further and further. By the time he was across the room, I could barely make out that he was a person. Guess that meant that I wasn’t going to get to see what Spence looked like as a girl for a bit.

A few moments after Faraday left, a new shape rushed in. It looked too small to be Spence, but that didn’t really mean much. I had no idea how little he might be now, or how little I might be for that matter. It was strange to think of Spence as something other than that big, black-bearded mountain of muscle, though.

“Andy?!” a woman’s voice gasped in disbelief.

I felt some of my own disbelief at hearing those smooth, dulcet tones that had replaced my friend’s low rumble. I didn’t let that show, though, didn’t let anything negative at all show. Instead, I smiled brightly and offered a chipper, “Hey, Spence. How’s it going?”

“How’s it …?” the woman mumbled before my question was driven away by a blurt. “Is that really you?”

“Yeah,” I reassured. “I know I look a little funny, but to be fair so do you.”

Well, not that I knew how he looked. Actually … was that even right? I wasn’t a he anymore. The doctor had called me miss, and I could feel the difference quite well. Spence presumably wasn’t a he anymore either. No, I supposed we were she’s. I’d have to make sure to keep that right.

My lighthearted remark was met by silence. That wasn’t really unusual. Spence had never talked much, and I saw no reason why being a girl would change that about her. I supposed I should be just as able to carry the conversation, too.

“What did they do to you?” Spence demanded, her voice taking on a dark and angry tone.

Surprised that my friend had talked after the momentary pause, I didn’t have a response ready. My head was in the midst of another phrase entirely. As such, I sputtered out a, “So, I … uh … I mean … they–”

“They’re … they’re gonna fucking pay for this!” Spence spat, cutting me off before I could recover from the slip. “I’m gonna make them pay for this, Andy!”

“Spence wait!” I called out, but the blurry woman was already on the move. She didn’t seem inclined to stop at my call either. I had to do something, though, had to stop her. All that work to get us here couldn’t just be ruined like this.

Since words were unlikely to work, I resorted to trying to chase after Spence. Hopefully, I could get there in time to keep the mess small and contained at least. That meant getting up. In any normal situation, it would’ve been easy to do, so much so that I didn’t even consider the possibility that it could go wrong. It definitely did, though.

Sliding out of the bed was the easy part, but even it was more struggle than it should’ve been, taking real effort to move after what I’d been through. It should’ve been a clue, but I didn’t stop. My feet swung out and I dropped off the bed.

Dropped. That was where it all started to go wrong. I was short, but I didn’t drop out of beds, or at least, I didn’t used to. The medical bed was higher than most, but not enough to account for the rather precipitous lurch that came as I fell, my feet hitting ground quite a bit after I would’ve thought.

One might think getting to ground would improve things, but no. I was in no shape to recover from a drop, and possibly in no shape to be standing at all. My legs buckled instantly under my weight.

A moment later the ground made things worse again, rushing up to crash into me. There were other pains too, feeling like things were ripping out from inside my flesh. All of it just mingled together into a dizzying blur of hurt that made it impossible to think straight.

I think I heard Spence yell. Maybe scream was the better word. It certainly sounded like some of the screams I’d heard watching old movies from back when there were women to act in them.

I used my name to ground me, pushing some of that pain away so that I could think. As I did, I tried to prop myself up on my arms. That small feat I managed to accomplish, just before I felt hands on my shoulders.

“You okay, man?!” Spence blurted.

Nodding absently, my mind focused on, of all things, the feel of Spence’s hands on me. It was an odd sensation. At the same time, the hands felt both too small, and yet, just about right. They clearly weren’t the big, meaty paws that Spence used to have. They were definitely smaller. Compared to my undoubtedly more delicate shoulders, though, they were pretty close to what I was used to. I supposed that some things just never changed.

“You’re bleeding,” Spence pointed out, snapping me from odd thoughts. “What the fuck did they do?”

“Huh?” I mumbled, trying to look down only to be reminded that my world was just a blur right now. I could see some red in that blur, though, on one of my forearms. “Oh … seems so. Think you could call the doctor for me? I’m not ...” I had more words ready but they got lost as I shook my head to try to clear some dizziness. That fall had really done a number on me.

Spence just grunted her assent, apparently still willing to listen to me. Look at that, another thing that hadn’t changed, even if it came out feminine and far, far less like a growling bear now.

I would’ve sworn no time had passed between that and when the doctors arrived. The next thing I knew after that was that I was laying on the bed again. After that, my brain was busy with dreaming.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

The next time I woke, I actually felt pretty good. Yes, my arm ached, and yes, my vision was still a mess, but otherwise I was rather hale and hearty, more so than any other time I’d woken up. I guess the doctor had been right about my needing some rest.

There were other oddities with this waking as well, one of which came from the fact that the room’s light had been dimmed. Maybe it was nighttime or maybe they’d just been trying to help me sleep. Either way, it wasn’t that big of a deal. The lack of a doctor there to wake me, though, was.

Instead of Faraday greeting me, I saw a different shape to the side of my bed. Through the blur, it took me a moment to piece it all together, the block on top was hair, the outer shell a chair, and the slighter figure inside a dusky-skinned woman. It was pretty obvious who that was.

“Spence?” I called out softly.

Instantly, the woman snapped awake, lurching about like she expected a fight to be waiting for her. When she found no foes, she settled down quickly enough. Then, her focus turned to me.

“Andy, you feelin’ better now?” Spence asked with obvious worry.

I could’ve gone with great, but the last time I’d tried to be positive, Spence had been ready to go beat the crap out of people. I needed her calm, so this time I tried a different approach. “Like I tore up my arm after I fell chasing after you.”

With my shit eyes, it was hard to be sure, but I thought I saw Spence wince. “Sorry …”

“No worries. I’m sure it’ll heal right up,” I dismissed, not wanting my friend to linger on the guilt, just be distracted by it. “I see you stuck by me.”

“Yeah,” Spence confirmed. “They tried to make me leave, but I wouldn’t let ‘em.”

“Thanks,” I told her, glad to know I still had her support. “But, you shouldn’t fight with them. We don’t want to screw this up after all we’ve been through.”

Spence didn’t have anything to say to that. She didn’t even nod. What she did seem to do was slouch, like the fight had been all that was holding her up.

“So, did they tell you what was going on with me?” I asked, trying to segue into other things.

“Said it was some unexpected side effect,” Spence stated coldly.

There was an implication in that tone that Spence doubted the truth of the doctor’s claims. I might’ve felt the same way, but I couldn’t see what their angle would be to damage one of us, even just superficially. No, at worst it was an accident that they didn’t want to admit to.

“Yeah, well, lucky for them, I’m fine,” I told the new woman. “Otherwise, I’d be all over those fuckers right now, making them give us everything they promised and more. No way would we take someone fucking with me lying down. Right?”

The bravado seemed to help, or at least, it got Spence to nod. “Right.”

Hoping that was good enough, I moved right along, wanting to put the past where it belonged and get Spence focused on the future. “So, how’ve things been for you? You get that fancy new place they promised yet?”

Spence nodded without any enthusiasm.

“What’s it like?” I inquired. “As great as we always thought?”

Spence shrugged. “Big. I guess.”

“Big, huh?” I repeated. “Big’s good. Our old place was always too damn small, even for me. Now we’ll have more space than we know what to do with, really get to just stretch out. “

“Yeah,” Spence continued her string of listless answers.

Worrying about the formerly big guy, I put the biggest smile I could onto my face. “Yep, finally getting a taste of what we deserve, and remember this is just a taste. It’s gonna get even better soon, just you wait. We’ll be rolling in luxury while all these fancy pricks get to lick our boots.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“How’s everything look?” Dr. Faraday asked.

Seeing the world through the new glasses that had just settled onto my ears and nose, I breathed out a relieved, “Great, Doc … just great.”

As bad as my vision had seemed, the doctor had been right in his guess that all I needed were some corrective lens. Now, the world had its old sharp focus back. I could see all the wrinkles creasing the old man’s face as he smiled at me.

“Glad to hear it,” the doctor replied before grabbing a hand mirror to offer to me. “Now, since you can finally see, I assume you’re eager to see the new you.”

“Definitely,” I agreed, taking the object to hold it up in front of my face.

The sight of my reflection was a decidedly strange thing for me. I was intimately familiar with myself. Every day, I checked how I looked, made sure my smile was perfect, my hair was just right, and my gaze earnest and forthright.

Seeing that firmly engraved image replaced was hard by itself, but what had replaced it didn’t make it any easier. The girl I’d become had a delicate, ethereal appearance to her, thanks to her cream-colored skin. There were a few dashes of color, lashes, eyebrows, lips, and eyes. The first two, like the hair on top of my head, were brown like I remembered, except at the base, there was a bit of stark white that had grown in. Clearly, that color would eventually be lost entirely, leaving my hair even lighter than my skin. The last two were such pale dashes, just a hint of pink to the lips and eyes, once a warm brown, now a very light blue.

To my relief, underneath all those odd colors, my face seemed to be quite pretty. There even seemed to be a resemblance to myself, especially in the strong cheekbones. It would take some work, but I could use that foundation to get past the peculiar surface or maybe even find a way to use them together. Peculiar could also be seen as rare, after all. It certainly wasn’t hopeless.

Using my free hand, I reached up to fiddle with the glasses a bit before adopting a friendly smile. It seemed I hadn’t lost the winning smile, although, it did take on a slightly different light surrounded by that female face. The glasses looked alright, too, small oval lenses in delicate gold frames. I’d had to pick them from all sorts of options, only to have them readied and given to me with lightning speed. It was my first taste of just how eager everyone was going to be to keep us girls happy, and I liked it.

“Seems like I turned out alright, even with the weird reaction,” I noted, still focused on my reflection.

“Yes, I think so,” Faraday agreed. “And speaking of, you seem to be recuperated enough to be released. I can have someone show to your room, and then in a bit, we’ll have a therapist come by to talk.”

Breaking my attention from the mirror, I furrowed my brow at the doctor. “Therapist? Oh, no, I don’t need anything like that. I’m quite happy with the results.”

“Oh … uhm … well, you seem to be doing pretty well, so you might not need it, but I do strongly recommend it, regardless,” the doctor cautioned. “Psychological issues often take time to surface, and you have difficulties that the others won’t have to deal with.”

“I’ll be fine,” I assured the old man. “Besides, if I’m not, I can always come and find one to talk to, right?”

“Correct,” Faraday confirmed. “But people often think that until–”

Getting a little tired of the persistence, I turned on the dazzling smile and beamed it right at the doctor. “Trust me, Doc. No one wants this to go well more than me. If even the slightest thing feels off, I’ll be here faster than you can blink.”

“Alright …” the old man finally conceded, albeit with obvious reluctance. “However, since you’re not going to speak with the therapist, I do have something to ask of you.”

I nodded agreeably. “Sure thing, Doc. What d’ya need?”

“We’re supposed to encourage all subjects to consider adopting a new name,” the doctor explained. “This is the easiest time for such a transition, and it should help you bond to–”

“Adelaide,” I supplied, the name I’d readied days before after a long and careful selection process. It had that fancy, overwrought sound to it that rich people often had. Furthermore, it could easily be shortened into something that felt familiar and attractive to me. “But have everyone call me Ada.”

The old man blinked in surprise at my answer. “Alright … I’ll put that into record keeping for you, Ada.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Ten: Pre-Game Show

“Yea, well I don’t like it.”

“Since when do you ever like anything anyone else tries to tell you to do?”

Andy looked at me. Or at least, the freak who Andy had become did. But that wasn’t right. He was still Andy, no matter what. Not a freak. Not us. A … a woman then, I guess. At least, that was what the eggheads kept telling us.

Not that I didn’t believe it, really. It was just … hard. To accept. And maybe that was why they had me seeing a head shrink everyday when they didn’t even bother with Andy.

I repeated my objections in as low a grunt as my syrupy-sweet new voice could go. The other man … woman, she leaned in and whispered in a serious tone, “Look, I know this shit is all weird and difficult, but you gotta play along, SARAH. It’s the only way to get the most out of these people. You don’t know how potent a weapon that pretty face of yours is about to become.”

“Don’t call me, that.”

“It’s your name now,” she stressed, looking me in the eye. Weirdly enough, she was almost as short next to me now as she had been before the serum. “At least to the rest of the world. And if you’d really read that packet through, you’d know that etiquette training was all a part of this. How else do you think we’ll manage to rub elbows with the wealthy elite? They won’t trust you in their world if you can’t play along with their games, you know.”

I spat out into my drinking cup at that, and flattened both hands on the table. Despite the food they’d prepared for us, all to our own requests, I didn’t feel much like eating. There was no booze at all and nothing for cigarettes, and it had me even more on edge. And then this announcement that we’d all be undergoing some kind of social training? All of it smacked of turning us into puppets to dance on their strings to me.

But Andy just clapped me on the back with her much weaker hand now, digging into her own food like she hadn’t a care in the world. Every time I looked at her face, it reminded me of just how much they’d fucked up with her. The pale skin, pale lips, hairs growing in white? That wasn’t normal. Didn’t look at ALL like the way it had before. I could at least recognize a hint or two in my own face. It made me so fucking mad.

“Mind if we sit here?”

A sweet voice drew my attention back up from the table. It belonged to a little redhead, standing there looking shy and uncertain of herself. A black girl stood beside her, seeming not much better. Both had this cagey, nervous attitude to their stance, like they weren’t really sure just what to do or say or think.

“Seats’ taken,” was what I grumbled back at them, but it came out so soft and light in comparison to my old voice that I don’t think I really intimidated either. We were about the same size now too. Nothing about any of this was good.

I felt Andy’s hand on my shoulder in that moment, though. She plastered a big smile across her face.

“Oh, don't listen to Sarah. We don’t mind at all, now do we?”

“I said don’t call me that.”

Those two girls took the seats across from us. It was a big cafeteria-like place, with plenty of tables to sit at while we ate. Some kind of communal lunch thing they’d arranged so we “women” could get to know each other better since a lot of us had just hidden inside our rooms since yesterday. I didn’t recognize either of the two across from us, but that didn’t mean anything. There’d been twenty or thirty guys in that introductory briefing and I hadn’t much paid attention to most of them.

“I’m, uhhh, Madison,” the redhead offered tentatively after they’d both sat down. “Maddie,” she added, a nervous smile cracking her face. “At least that’s what I picked when they asked. It was my sister’s name.”

“Adelaide,” Andy offered, still with that same pleasant look she reserved for marks, “but you all can call me Ada. This is Sarah.” She gestured at me, and I just shook my head slowly. I didn’t want them looking at me. “And you?”

“... Trish,” the black girl said, after a moment. She didn’t bother with a fleeting smile like her friend, and I couldn’t blame her for it. No matter what Andy said, it was hard to find anything to smile about in this situation. I was beginning to accept that it was all just something to survive through in the long run.

Andy did his usual thing, no different now that he was Ada. She talked. She schmoozed those two girls, probably trying to net us some potential allies or something. She did it so well too, so confidently despite our current situation, that she had other girls flocking to our table before long, every flavor between commiseration to speculation coming out in awkward, nervous spurts. Everyone had their new names, and seemed content to stick to them for the most part. Some even looked a little embarrassed to be reminded of their old ones, like if they somehow pretended that their old selves just didn’t exist anymore then they could accept the shitty place they found themselves in that much easier. I could sort of relate.

One of the other “girls” struck a chord, though. I noticed it only because I’d known Andy for so long, and knew most of her tells. Smile on her face got REAL strained when this one pretty, petite blond girl introduced herself in an uncharacteristic gush.

“Lily!” she’d chirped happily, grinning just as big and broad as Andy, clustered amongst our newly acquired group. “You know, like the flower.” Punctuated it with a tittering little laugh that set my teeth on edge too. I could tell Andy didn’t like her at all.

But meet and greet and eat only lasted so long. Pretty much all the girls flocked together and were all too eager to wonder at where things were going and the novelty of the whole situation. A couple of them hadn’t really believed it would really work. Some, like Andy and me, had had no choice. You could tell by their hard, harried faces. Just a few, seemed okay with it all. Lily was the only one out of the lot that was somehow EXCITED at everything that was happening.

“Hey,” the redhead, Maddie, interrupted at some point. She was a little bolder now that all of us had been congregating together and were positively breaking down some social fucking barriers, I guess. “You mind if I ask something?” she said to Andy, who nodded. “You didn’t … look like that before, right? I mean, beyond the usual stuff, of course.” A nervous laugh. “You weren’t so …”

“What, this?” Andy gestured at herself, her skin and her hair, which was showing even more white at the roots. “No. Unique reaction to the treatment, they told me.” And she leaned back a little from the table with a small smile on her face. “Said I was one in a million case of divergence from predicted models. Very unique.”

Before anyone could respond to that, the doors at the other end of the hall opened loudly, and we all glanced over to see just what was coming our way next. A bit of a surprise, but it was a tiny brunette woman wearing well-fitted female attire that contrasted greatly with the generic sort of loose clothes most of our group were wearing. The woman had an air of authority to her bearing and practically marched along in her boots as she came right up to a microphone staged at the head of our cluster of tables. Another woman was in her wake, only a step or two behind. That one, an inch or so taller and brunette too, looked like she was far more accustomed to smiling. Even I recognized her face from the news: Hannah fucking Orlaev.

The first Auroran-turned-female and the poster child for this whole goddamned thing. I had no idea who the other one was, but that didn’t matter since she seemed pretty intent to up and tell us right about then.

“Good afternoon. Ladies. I’m Quinn McClelland and I’ve been assigned to oversee this group to make sure we keep any incidents that might arise to a minimum for the duration of the program. And this woman beside me, as I am sure you must all be aware, is Hannah Orlaev, the first successful recipient of the serum treatment with which you have all been recently treated. I know exactly how difficult this transition is, so please believe me when I say that you have my utmost sympathies for everything you are currently, and will be, going through. But I’m also here to assure you that you can, like Ms. Orlaev here and myself, get through it. I won’t promise you happiness like some others might, but I WILL promise you that you will be taken care of. IF, you follow my directions, obey our rules and restrictions, and everyone does their part to see that this program succeeds as intended.

“Now.” She stopped, looking around at everyone. “Are there any questions?”

No one jumped up to speak. Seemed about right, considering how timid most of these new-girls were and the way this Quinn bitch handled her introduction. Hands clasped behind her back, long brown hair pulled back in a crisp-looking bun, and face impassively hard-set. Would’ve fit right in with some of the Auroran police pukes Andy and me had been so careful to avoid crossing from before. I could already tell I wasn’t going to like her. Not one bit.

“None? There will be,” she went on, arching an eyebrow at the lot of us. “I understand how new and uncomfortable this all must be for you. Also believe me when I say that I was there myself, not so long ago. Some of you might know Ms. Orlaev’s story, but I doubt any of you would know mine. Suffice to say that I was one of the people to find the Protean chemical that was used as the basis for the treatment you all received. I was a man once, just like all of you. Before I was exposed. Feel fortunate that you were all given a choice in the matter. I had none. So my sympathies only run so deep for whatever problems might occur amongst this group. First and foremost, your SAFETY is my primary concern. See to it that you don’t jeopardize that while on my watch.”

The militant martinet wound down and took a step back, letting Orlaev take her place. That plastic smile hadn’t left Hannah’s face the whole while her partner spoke, looking like nothing so much as she was posing for a picture. Now she cleared her throat rather daintily, and opened her mouth to speak in turn.

“And a good afternoon from me as well, girls!” She glanced briefly back at McClelland. “I’m sure that we can all appreciate Mrs. McClelland’s enthusiasm for this program, but don’t let her intimidate you. She’s a whole helluva lot sweeter than she looks, you just have to catch her with her husband or baby girl around. That’s right,” the woman looked back at us like she was gonna wink, “Lovely Quinn here’s not only one of the first two women on the planet since the Phage, and the other one I’m sure most of you have already met, dear sweet Leslie -- but Quinn is ALSO the very first wife and mother, the honest-to-God inspiration for this entire program, so let’s give her a round of applause, come on, girls!”

A smattering of our group started clapping along with Hannah, but they were a hell of a lot less enthusiastic and sure of themselves as they did. I didn’t join in, and Andy clapped politely. That Lily girl, though, she practically leapt to her feet to applaud along with Orlaev. The only response we got from the McClelland woman was a tight-lipped wince across her pretty, hard-eyed face.

“Now we’ve got sessions scheduled for all of you for our etiquette training program, starting immediately after this lunch. We’ll have instructors helping each of you girls in private, and also group activities as we progress along. The target goal is to have all of you lovely ladies ready for our big, expensive dinner party this weekend where you’ll get to meet most of our benefactors for this program and show them just how excited and enthusiastic all of you are about saving our great city! And don’t forget about the whole colony too, girls …” she drawled on, sweeping those big, sparkling blue eyes around our crowd. “This is the first step. You all are pioneering our salvation from the very extinction of our race! So why don’t you all give yourselves a hearty round of applause as well!”

She went off to clapping again. This time, she put even more enthusiasm into it until nearly every girl was clapping right along with her. Got a bunch to even smile, and some to look relieved. Determination brightened that Lily’s face and I caught a smirk twisting the edges of Andy’s lip as she clapped a little harder. All the while I just sat there and watched, scowling to myself.

Eventually, the pep rally came to an end. Too bad what came next was even worse.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

I howled as loud as I could as those two orderlies carried me out of Mr. Gutierrez’ session room. Of course, it came off like a shrieking infant, screeching and wailing and shrill. Nothing like the old Spencer.

But that was just the problem, wasn’t it? The old Spencer couldn’t have been hauled off a grown man by two skinny fucks in lab shirts, trussed and screaming like a stuck pig. The old Spencer wouldn’t have screamed at all. The old Spencer would’ve just beaten that ass-fucker’s face bloody and then gone on to bash in these two motherfuckers too.

But it was just little old Sarah here now.

They dragged me out into the corridor, crying out into those radios they all carried for Dr. Keinzler to come on down and try to shut me the hell up. I was pissed, though. I’d had one too many times getting prodded by that motherfucking Gutierrez with his little stick and had launched myself at him. Though he had a hundred pounds on me, he wasn’t a fighter. He was a worthless prick and a coward and I wailed on him with my tiny fists until he was retreating all the way to the opposite wall.

I’d gotten him on the ground before those orderlies busted in. The insignificant way my blows hammered at his face only pissed me off more. He was bruised, not bloodied, when they pulled me off him. Me, on the other hand, I’d re-opened my knuckles once again and the only blood to be found there was my own.

At some point, sitting there wrestling with those two pukes with my skinny arms and legs kicking every which way, I got a needle jabbed into me. And that took the wind right out of my sails. Next thing I knew, I was waking up on my new couch in my new room with Dr. Keinzler’s lined, ginger face looking down in concern.

“Are you alright, Sarah?”

I tried to shove him away, but I didn’t have the strength. Someone had tossed me lengthwise on that couch like a sack of meat and the good doctor was kneeling down beside me, pulling back with a needle. I maybe thought to grab at it too, but I was too fuzzy still, too slow. The man apologized for that.

“You had a bad reaction to your instructions today, Ms. Miklos. We wanted to make sure you didn’t cause any accidental harm to yourself or others for a little while. The lethargy should diminish over the next hour.”

He said it with a clinical smile before pulling back from me and taking his usual seat opposite across the coffee table. The whole room was quiet while I lay there, sucking slow breaths into my lungs and glaring back at him. I was pretty sure we were alone. It was so hard to work up the strength to want to throw myself at Keinzler too, though. No matter how much it might’ve made me feel just a little bit better inside.

“You want to talk about it, Sarah?” he eventually prodded when I said a whole hell of a lot of nothing for awhile.

No. I didn’t. What was there to even talk about?

“I’d had enough of that asshole,” was what I did say, though, forcing my tongue to move behind my lips. It was what was foremost on my mind. “He asked for it.”

“That’s an … interesting opinion. Here. Let me help you.”

Doc didn’t seem to like talking to me while I was lying there listless, so he got up and tried to help me sit up too. Reminded me of my “lessons” so suddenly -- sit up straight, they kept telling me. “Posture!” he’d cry, and then jab my back or stomach with the rod.

“Get your fucking hands off me,” was what I snapped at the shrink when he was done. Because I couldn’t do anything else but bark while I sat there virtually helpless. My head lolled a bit and he helped me steady it before finally retracting, throwing those hands up in surrender.

“Just hoping to make this a little more comfortable for you,” he tried to placate me.

“Nothing about this is comfortable!” I growled back at him immediately. And immediately regretted it. Because he pulled out his stylus once more as he settled back down into his seat.

“Why don’t we start there then. What exactly about this do you find ‘uncomfortable’, Sarah.”

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to shake my head and cackle at the wrongness of it all as he asked me that too-gentle question. A part of me wanted to cry too. A new part, an alien part. A part I didn’t accept and pushed down over and over. I was pretty sure that it was THAT part the doc was looking for with all his interrogations. I did my best to keep it hidden, though. He didn’t ever need to know about that new part of me.

Still, my nerves were piqued from that shitty fucking resolution to me pouncing on Guttierez, and Keinzler got a lot more out of me than I could’ve liked. Even though I spat it at him. Even though I hissed and growled and snapped like a feral cat while he prodded. He didn’t lose his composure, and he just kept on prodding. Took me too long to figure out that HE was the one in control of the situation, not me. And then all I could do was clam right the fuck up.

Eventually, he left. Whatever they’d drugged me up with had worn off, but I’d kept my seat. I felt drained as he stood, reached over, and touched my hand. I snatched it back, and he winced.

“It’s going to be okay, Sarah. I’ll speak with you more tomorrow, okay? Just try and get some rest. Sleep all this off and start fresh tomorrow. Can you do that for me, Sarah?”

I glared up at him, but there wasn’t much bite left in it. This was like torture, and I was suddenly afraid that I might eventually break. That this new, tiny, vulnerable creature I was would crack under all their scrutiny and lessons and evaluations and … and then who would I be? Huh? Not Spencer anymore, no. Not Spencer motherfucking Miklos. I’d be …

Sarah.

I’d just be Sarah.

Who the fuck even was that?

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 11: Step Six

“Get the fuck off me!” was the last shriek I heard before the orderlies dragged Spence from the room. The pitch, the desperation, the very words all echoed in my head, twisting me up inside. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do.

That fact was a very literal truth. The moment the fight had started, I’d been up on my feet, trying to settle it down, but the nearby staff had kept me away. When they dragged Spence out, I tried to follow, but they’d blocked the path, holding me there with the promise that my friend’s doctor would talk to her.

“Please, I can help. I know her better than the doctor, better than anyone,” I tried to reason with the big guy blocking my path. “Just let me talk to her.”

The orderly held firm. “Sorry, miss, but standard procedure for outbursts means doctor only until he gives the clear. You’ll just have to stay here for now until a decision can be made regarding the lesson.”

With a frustrated sigh, I gave up, turning away from the obstacle. I didn’t want to, but I’d dealt with his type before. Everything they did was by the book, so unless I showed him the book would let me do what I wanted he wouldn’t move. I’d have to go around him, and to do that I needed someone with some authority.

The scene that waited for me when I started my search for that authority was certainly something. For as much size as Spence had lost during his switch to womanhood, she still knew how to make a mess. Chairs were upended, the table askew, and dining implements scattered about. On the far side of the room, medical staff were hovering around our fallen instructor who had taken a pretty considerable beating. Of course, had the old Spence given him that kind of beating, he wouldn’t be breathing, which made me very glad that the old Spence wasn’t around anymore.

“Still dangerous to poke the bear, though,” I remarked under my breath as I lamented the situation. I doubted one little outburst would be enough to get Spence in real trouble, but it wasn’t a good start. We were only on our second day as women, after all. Plus, even just one incident could be enough to start rumors. It would be hard for her to con some guy if they all thought she was some raging beast.

Another issue with conning guys would come if Spence kept fighting all the lessons. I mean, with the way that instructor was jabbing at her, I wasn’t surprised that it started a fight, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a useful lesson. Well, it wasn’t for me really. I may not have had some formal education, but I knew enough to be able to sit at a table nice and proper. Spence, and apparently a lot of the other girls, too, had never bothered to learn those kind of manners. They were going to need them for what was coming. That was why I’d been sitting there listening close throughout the whole lesson just in case there was something I didn’t already know. A little practice never hurt either.

Finally, authority presented itself in the form of our militant dorm leader, Mrs. McClelland positioning herself to get the students’ attention. “Everyone, Mr. Guttierez is in no condition to continue the lesson, so we will be adjoining early. For now, I’ll take you back to your rooms, where you can all take some time to put this incident behind you before dinner.”

Those orders made it pretty clear that I wasn’t going to find anymore wiggle room with the commanding woman than I was with the orderly. She wanted to keep the situation contained and organized, and the best way to diffuse tension was to literally separate everyone that had it so they could decompress. I’d just have to settle for talking to Spence at dinner.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Bustling chatter filled the table as all us new girls ate. Normally, I would’ve tried to stay in the center of it, guiding the other participants in useful ways, but I was distracted. That was because one of the girls was missing – Spence.

For some reason, when dinner came, Spence hadn’t come with it. At first, I’d just figured that she was late, but time had ticked by and she never showed. Now, the meal was mostly done and people were only lingering for the company. After all, meals were the only times we gathered together to do something that felt somewhat fun and natural even to the most pessimistic of the members of the initiative. That even, though, I wasn’t really taking part.

“Sorry to call it early, but you all will have to excuse me,” I cut into the conversation to apologize. “I have to check on Sarah to make sure they didn’t do something to her.”

By that point, all the women had heard the story, so I got several sympathetic nods and farewells over that. Almost all of them were firmly on Spence’s side. They had the same frustrations with the lessons and just their lot in life in general. Most had thought about socking the teacher just like Spence had, or at least, so they claimed. Solidarity through shared misery.

Slipping from my seat, I left the table behind and then the room with it. No one tried to restrict my movements. We had mostly free rein of the premises. However, the staff didn’t let us go out into public and if we had something scheduled, they herded us to it. Our evenings were free, though, and dinner had no set end, so I could do as I wanted.

A short while later, I was turned down the hallway that held Spence’s apartment. I hurried right up to the door before I stopped. For a moment, I just stood there looking up at the plaque of Spence’s last name, wondering just what I was going to find on the other side.

Not willing to let uncertainty stop me, I reached up, using one delicate hand to knock on the door. I could’ve run the bell and used the intercom, but that’s what staff would do. No, I settled for the soft rap of knuckles that I hoped would translate to my friend that it was her buddy there to help.

Whether that message got through or not, the door did eventually open, albeit only after a fair wait. When it did, it presented a rather haggard-looking Spence. Her whole body was slumped like whatever diminished feminine strength she’d been left with had been stripped away as well. Her gaze was unfocused and distant. Her expression slack and lost.

“Hey,” I greeted with a smile, forcing myself to sound bright and positive even in the face of all that gloom towering over me. “We missed you at dinner.”

“Hey,” was all that Spence gave me in return, not even addressing my second comment.

Undeterred, I just nodded along at the greeting and moved on. “I would’ve come earlier, but the staff were being fucking pain-in-the-asses. I couldn’t get them to let me through when they dragged you out, and then they hustled us all back to our rooms to settle down. Can you believe that?”

This time, I didn’t even get a single word. All I got from the taller woman was a throaty grunt. Even that seemed lacking, devoid of effort and robbed of true rumble by a woman’s throat.

“You sure gave that Guttierez guy a good beating, though,” I continued on. “He’s going to think twice about trying to correct someone else, that’s for damn sure. Plus, you should’ve seen the other girls at dinner. They were all thrilled at what you did, sticking up for them like that.”

Now, I got nothing at all. Spence just stared at me blankly. Whenever I got into talking, I always wondered how much she listened, but this time I was pretty sure she wasn’t really hearing any of it. She was off on other, darker thoughts.

Worry robbing the smile from my lips, I reached up to rest one pale hand on my friend’s shoulder. “Sp-Sarah? Did they do something to you?”

“Did they do something to me?” Spence repeated those words as focus returned to her eyes. A moment later, she laughed a dry, humorless laugh that made every hair on my body stand on end. There was nothing else, just a couple seconds of that laugh, then even more silence.

“Uhm …” I mumbled, more than bit unnerved. “So you’re alright then?”

“Alright ... “ Spence muttered, smirking as if the word was funny. “ … yeah.”

I had my doubts, but I didn’t know what to do about them. All I could think of was to just force a strained smile back onto my face and nod. “Good. Then, I’ll see you tomorrow morning?”

“Sure,” Spence agreed.

“Great,” I replied. “G’night, then.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“I’m going to have to do something about this,” I muttered as I ran my fingers through my hair. The brown was decidedly out of place next to the stark white, and obviously, my old style of slicking it all back nice and sharp wasn’t going to work. I’d forgone it the last few days, but that had just left a shaggy mess.

Turning from the mirror, I walked out of the bathroom and off toward the oversized living room that my apartment had. I didn’t get far, though, just a couple of steps before I stopped and looked around. Unlike Spence and my’s old apartment, the bath and bed rooms adjoined each other here, so I was surrounded by where I slept. It was huge, maybe not the size that our whole apartment had been, but plenty big. A lot of that space went to the big king-sized bed with its soft sheets and even softer mattress.

It was looking at that bed that had stopped me in my tracks. For all of it, being a woman in the lap of luxury hadn’t changed my morning routine much. I still woke at the same time, cleaned up, changed, and all the rest, but there was one very big difference. There was no big rumbling bear of a roommate to wake or trundle around the place. No, this huge apartment had only one occupant, little ol’ me.

“Maybe tiny is a better word now,” I mused, glancing down. I was only an inch above five-foot now, not that I considered that much of a problem. It might even be a boon. Girl’s were supposed to be small and delicate, and I certainly was. It did make the world seem very big when I was all by myself, though.

Sighing, I silently wished that Spence was doing better this morning. She’d looked pretty bad the night before, unnervingly bad even. It had been a rough day, though. A good night’s rest would help.

“I should stop by a little early today, so we can chat before its time to leave for breakfast,” I decided, before quickly slotting that into my mental plan for the day.

Content with that decision, I got myself moving once more, off to the living room. In spite of having such a wonderful bed, it was in that room on the sofa that I’d spent the previous night. I would’ve preferred not to have, but I’d drifted off in the middle of some very important work.

As part of the program, the Initiative had gathered all sorts of useful materials on women. Most of which came in the form of old media. There were fashion magazines from before the Phage, old movies for instruction as well as entertainment, and more. I was determined to go through as much of it as I could before the party, ingraining the art known as seduction into my skull along the way.

Fortunately, I didn’t find my personal lessons all that difficult. They were just a new take on the same ideas that I’d practiced my whole life. Either way, I was still just the charmer, the salesman. I just had a few new charms to work into my pitch.

“I think there was an article on fresh short hairstyles in one of these …” I mumbled as I plopped down on the couch to pull up the research I’d been doing the night before. I’d started on a few fashion magazines to see what kind of clothes I needed to acquire and acquaint myself with, but that wasn’t all they’d discussed. There were tips for makeup, and hair, and other things as well. There were even some really bizarre articles and quizzes that I couldn’t be sure whether they were serious or utter nonsense. “Ah! Here we go!”

On the screen came the article which listed out some of the ‘sexiest’ short hairstyles. I didn’t really want to go with short, since long would sell the whole woman thing more, but it wasn’t my choice. Unfortunately, while my hair was on the long side for a guy, it was definitely short for a girl by what I could tell from these articles. As such, I perused through the options, looking for something that I thought would work well with my face without requiring me to cut off much.

“This one’ll work, I think,” I decided, printing out a picture of it. Rising from my seat, I walked over to grab it, checking it one last time before I folded it up to tuck into a pocket. “Alright, just need to remember to ask for a haircut with all the rest. High priority on it, too.”

Intentionally, I had made my list of requests incredibly long. It was unlikely that I would have a use for it all this week, and would likely change my mind on a lot of it as I learned, but it was a test. I wanted to see if there were limits to the Initiative’s generosity or if they would gladly front the cost for my experimentation, no matter how elaborate. I had a feeling they would, but it was important to know for sure.

With hairstyle chosen, I turned everything off and started right onto the next task. That took me right out of my apartment and off toward Spence’s. We weren’t neighbors, but luckily, there weren’t too many letters between I and M. That left it a rather short jaunt before I was knocking just like I had the night before.

Unlike the previous evening, no one answered to the knock, not even after I stood there waiting for a bit. Worry crept into me at that fact, but I reasoned it away. Spence had never been an early riser, and I wasn’t there to make sure she didn’t sleep through the alarm. She could also just be in the shower, not heard the knock, or something equally innocuous. As such, I just reached over to try the buzzer instead.

There was another wait, then suddenly the door in front of me was just ripped open, revealing Spence looking angry, tired, and disheveled. When she saw me, though, that first part faded away. “Oh … it’s you.”

“Who were you expecting?” I inquired with a smirk. “Guttierez come to get another asskicking?”

“No, just … “ Spence began but she never finished. Instead, she shook her head before gesturing over her shoulder. “Come in.”

“Thanks,” I replied brightly, following through on the invitation. As I did, Spence spun around, walking back into the living room. “So, did I wake you up?”

Shaking her head, Spence dropped heavily into one of the chairs.

“Oh, are you not sleeping through alarms anymore?” I asked as I slipped onto the couch, mirroring the positions we used to have every morning back in our old place.

“Not so much,” Spence muttered vaguely.

I affected a laugh at the answer. “Yeah, I get that. There’s something about the one they gave me that makes it extra annoying. Cuts through me like a knife.”

Spence nodded absently.

“Lots of other nice stuff, though,” I continued on, guiding the conversation toward positive areas. “Like those beds, am I right? Soft as a dream and bigger than like four of those little bunks we used to have to squeeze into. That’s not even all of it, though. They’ve got spacious showers with hot water there in a flash and these gigantic TVs and all the midnight snacks we could ever want to stock the fridge to brimming.”

“Put a lot of money into this place, I’ll give ‘em that,” Spence agreed, actually deigning to string together more than just a handful of words.

That answer got an emphatic nod from me. “Plus all you have to do is ask and they’ll rush off to get basically anything you want. I demanded some fresh fruit last night and boom,” I paused to snap, “they had it right to my door. Too bad it doesn’t work for booze, though. Pricks are a bunch of puritanical asshats about that shit.”

“Won’t let me smoke either,” Spence comisserated.

While that news wasn’t a surprise, it did make me wonder if it wasn’t the problem. Spence never was quite right when he didn’t get at least the occasional cigarette. There’d be more than a few brawls back in our leaner days started because of exactly that.

“That’s rough,” I sympathized. “What about the rest? All this fine livin’s really somethin’ ain’t it?”

“I guess,” Spence conceded, as close to an upbeat response as I was likely to get.

“Yeah, and just you wait. It’s gonna get even better,” I told him. “Pretty soon it won’t just be a few big rooms, but whole houses just for us, and there won’t be nobody to tell us not to smoke or drink if we’d like. The staff will all work for us and they’ll jump to do whatever we want. All we gotta do is stick it out for a few obnoxious lessons, and we’re golden.”

It seemed like Spence was right on track with that goal when she nodded along. “Yeah. I guess so.”

Wanting to cement things just a bit more, I got up, stepping over to rest a hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “Just picture it. Soon, you and me’ll be on the top, right next to all those fancy bigwigs that didn’t even want to so much as look at us before, much less let us get what we deserved. We’ll have it, though, everything we could ever want.”

As usual, I couldn’t really tell if Spence was picturing the future I was trying to paint. I doubt her being a woman had made her care anymore about the big picture. That was alright, though. I was going to bring her to that future, and then she wouldn’t have to picture it. She’d be able to just look around and see it for herself.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Twelve: Marching Orders

“Would you take a look at this …”

It was after lunch. We “girls” all had some free time for the first time in days, hours and hours to ourselves after suffering through all the bullshit of those “etiquette” lessons. Of course, Mr. Guttierez hadn’t been too keen on instructing me after the beating I’d laid on him. To make matters easier for the higher ups, they’d saddled me with someone else. In private. With guards hanging nearby just in case I tried anything.

New guy was a lot less annoying. Xander Mayweather, he’d said his name was. Didn’t dress quite so much like a ladyboy or stick a switch where none was wanted. Instead he gave me a lot of soft-spoken directions and tut tutting when I didn’t follow them just right. Must’ve been just a little something to it, though, because after two days of that nonsense, Dr. Keinzler was looking pleased with how I sat on my couch during our dailies together.

The other girls were doing a whole hell of a lot better for the most part, from what I could gather. Made sense, since they’d all been far less than the man that I was when they came in. Most volunteered of their own accord, coming from slightly better prospects. Even a few honest-to-god dutifuls amongst them, genuinely hoping to save the human race or some shit. Andy trumped them all, of course, and it was getting harder to remind myself that she had a gameplan all the while her behavior became more and more like Hannah Orlaev’s and less and less like the Andy I knew. Only fucking Lily came anywhere close to doing so well on the “girly” front. They were both so far ahead of me it wasn’t a wonder my private sessions had been jokingly called “special ed” by some of the others.

Either way, we’d all gotten that free time. And when I’d finally gotten back upstairs from “Special Ed” with Mayweather, a couple of the girls had already been huddling around one of the public computer terminal. They’d had those set up for all of us in the little sitting area at the end of the hallway opposite the lifts.

I’d noticed them, and didn’t care at first. It’d been all I could do to keep myself from snapping these past few days, and that I only managed out of respect for Andy. But a couple of those girls ran and shouted for others and people were practically pouring out of their rooms before I could hide away inside my own. Even Andy. She’d tapped my arm as she hurried past to join the rest. Scowling to myself, I’d had nothing left to do but follow too.

Now I was looking over the shoulders of a couple girls as one of them, a mousy little strawberry-haired ginger calling herself “Amber”, brought something up on the screen for everyone to see. She’d been some kinda tech in her previous life, and looked right at home in front of a monitor. Even had the soft pudge to her frame to prove it.

“Oh god.”

“What is it?”

“I think …”

All the girls were gushing at the images that came up. They streamed past, along with titles and little requests for entrees and main courses and such. A whole bunch of men in profile, pictures ranging them between mid twenties to late thirties, wearing smart suits and smiling like politicians.

Amber hit a few more keys in rapid succession. Then that one black girl, Trish, put a hand on her shoulder. “Is that the guest list for that party at the end of the week?”

No one answered at first. Most of them just looked at each other with unreadable expressions on their faces. Then a few turned calculated: Andy’s, and another girl named Zoe’s. Most of the rest of them looked pretty much shell-shocked. It took me a second, but I realized that I must have too.

Because, up until that point, the dinner party and all that it was hadn’t quite felt … REAL to most of us yet.

And now we were all having to consider exactly what that was going to be like.

Our first public exposure. The rich, wealthy elite coming to see the results of their first crop of new women. Eyes, all over us. Unwelcome eyes. Eyes seeing just how far we’d all fallen and what we were being forced to become. Eyes on ME.

I think I must’ve stood there, breathing short, sharp, shallow little breaths as sudden terror seized me from within. I realized what was happening and that made it somehow so much worse. I’d never been so terrified of anything before in my life! Not since--

But one of those girls was saying something about it.

“Mark Truman, CEO of Aurora Dynamics. His son, William. Eric Masterson, he owns most of the energy producers in the city. Marshall Hancock, Gregory Schultz … Geoff Taylor, Wesley Saunders, Arthur Chang …”

The list went on and on, but one thing was clear. That party was hosting a whole hell of a bunch of rich guys from everywhere all over the city. Guys whose daddies had set them up big when the colony first landed, and now were running million- and billion-credit businesses all across Aurora. The kind of guys who made it seem like the rest of the world hadn’t gone to shit. The kind of guys who’d made people like Andy and me lie down on the dirty streets and kiss their feet from the first moment they’d let us inside their precious, overgrown habitat with them.

And these guys would all be looking at ME.

I looked around. Sweat had broken out on my forehead. The stunned silence had abated and now everyone seemed to be either quietly wondering how that dinner party was gonna go or, like Lily, gushing about the possibilities. And I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. It was one thing to live here, with that bitch Quinn and their peppy mascot Orlaev, the condescending doctors and demeaning instructors. It was a whole other thing to go out THERE, with THEM, and be put on display like … like some kind of freak!

I spun around before anyone could see that stark terror writ all across my face.

Imagine me -- Spencer Miklos! Scared shitless!

No one could see me like that. No one. Not even Andy. ESPECIALLY not Andy.

So I hurried back to my room to hide away. To get my shit back under control while they were all distracted with that bullshit on the screen. Andy too, thank god. She, I could tell, was already off and planning how she could turn that whole thing to her advantage. I hoped she did. I really hoped she did. Because I suddenly wasn’t sure just how the fuck I was ever supposed to make it.

When Dr. Keinzler finally came by to see me later, I didn’t say a word to him the entire session. He left with a worried, dissatisfied look on his face.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Later that the week, shortly before the dinner party, Quinn McClelland greeted us with a small infant cradled in her arms.

We all got a good look. She made sure of that. She clomped around the hallway outside our rooms, had us all standing there like soldiers on a tarmac. And she cuddled that little girl to her chest, rocked her even as she gave each of us in line these hard, long, military-puke-like stares. Eventually, she opened her mouth.

“This is what your target objective is,” she said, and I don’t think a one of those girls lined up didn’t know exactly what she meant. “I know it’s probably the most terrifying thing imaginable to you at this point, but that will change. It changed for me, and it’ll change for each of you.”

Everyone was staring at that baby in her arms with varying degrees of horror, fascination, and dread. All the while, she slowly marched up and down, giving us all a good look. She spoke slowly, loudly, and every so often she would stop and lean in close to talk right in some girl’s ear. As best she could, anyways. She was on the shorter end of the spectrum among the freaks here, and so skinny that I wondered how she could possibly act so tough. Plenty of the girls here could’ve taken her.

“I know this probably isn’t what some of you wanted. I know it might be difficult to hear. But be grateful that the people here are actually trying to help you, offering to make it easy and beneficial, rather than just take it. I promise that your entire perspective on things will change once you’ve had your first child. I can promise you that easily, based on experience.”

By the time she was done, some of the other girls had actually worked up the courage to ask to hold that little girl. McClelland allowed it, but watched her little “Dani” like a hawk. The look in her eye reminded me of one Mama used to get way back when. But this wasn’t Mama we were talking about right now. This was us. This was Andy! And ME!

I’d sat there, stiff as a board, fists clenching, while I watched all of that go on. It was like the worst kind of trick, the worst attack on who we’d been before. I felt swindled, looking at that baby -- the first one on the whole planet in twenty years, so they claimed. And I felt like I was about to be used in the worst possible fucking way.

Oh sure, I’d assumed there was a reason to all of this Initiative business. Maybe I just hadn’t let myself really get it when we started. I couldn’t have followed Andy all the way here if I had. But with the anonymous leak of the dinner list? All this training? The grooming, the conditioning, the “etiquette” -- all of that bullshit! It all suddenly came together in my mind when I looked at that baby there in the small woman’s arms.

THAT was what they wanted us for. THAT was what this dinner was all about.

They wanted to wave us right in front of all those fat cat, blue blood, motherfucking assholes and see if any of them wanted to take a bite!

And I was mad.

Because this wasn’t about getting rich. This wasn’t about doing some kind of job or running a deal to get what we wanted. They wanted US! That THING we now had between our legs. All the newly made girls. All these FREAKS ...!

And me too.

I got it. I understood it. Part of me might have even known it was the right choice and none of me blamed Andy.

No.

I blamed all these people.

They wanted to … to USE us, and in a way that was so disgusting and terrible that I felt something in me finally snap loose after all those lessons.

But what I eventually said was, “Are you fucking kidding me with this shit?”

I yelled it. Practically screamed it down the hall. At that Quinn bitch. She was the corporate shill here -- RIGHT here, showing us just how it was gonna be.

She looked at me. And calmly passed off her baby to someone nearby -- that same freak who’d walked us right into this place what felt like a lifetime ago now.

Then she took a few steps toward me.

“You have a problem, Miklos?”

I was glaring at her. Puffing and fuming and feeling like a bull about to charge. Maybe I was. If I’d still been Spencer, I would’ve maybe picked that bitch up and tossed her around. Mama’d told me once, before everything, to never hit a girl. But I was a girl now too, and I sure as hell felt like hitting this one.

“I said … is there -- a problem?”

She’d closed in on me, hands on hips. The other girls were all watching and the whole corridor had gone silent. Leslie Weeks was standing towards the back, letting that baby play with her fingers while she cooed.

I didn’t open my mouth again until the tiny woman was right up on me.

“Yea, I’ve got a fucking problem. This is some goddamned bullshit, is what it is!” I snarled down at her, standing right in front of me with her hard eyes peering up out of that impassive face. “If you all think I’m gonna let one of those rich fucking pricks fuck me like some fucking ladyboy I’m gon--”

I stopped. And the whole hall stopped with me.

The sound of Quinn’s hand slapping against the side of my face had gone off like a gunshot, and I could swear I heard it echo from where my head had been snapped to one side with the force of it.

And then I saw nothing but red.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“GET YOUR GODDAMN, FUCKING HANDS OFF ME!!!”

I was shrieking by the time they dragged me into that tiny room away from everyone else. Two beefier fucks -- security guards this time, or something like it -- had me by either arm and were trying to wrestle me along while I kicked my feet every which way. I got a distinct flash of deja vu and I was far too small and weak compared to those grunts to ever hope to hold them up, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

Eventually, they threw me in there and stood back.

Quinn McClelland entered calmly a moment later and it was only the sudden lurch in movement between those two toughs to either side of her that made me hold back on pouncing again. I couldn’t know HOW she had managed to get the best of me in that scuffle out in the hall before, but I wouldn’t have let that frighten me off from taking another chance. She was small. So fucking small.

But I’d come out the loser in that equation. I don’t know how. Oh, it wasn’t like she’d beat me up any worse than I’d beat up Gutteriez the other day. No, she’d just flashed around me like some kind of goddamned trick of the light, wrenched my arm behind my back, and pounded me into the wall. That hadn’t been enough to put me down, though. I twisted free and went at her again. Over and over. At some point, I realized that she was letting me go. She was letting me come at her and faceplant into the floor. She’d wanted me to eat it. I had bruises all over, my arms felt like they were barely holding in their sockets, and the tinier woman didn’t have a mark on her except for a split lip. She didn’t look scared of me at all as she stood there in the doorway without saying a word.

I growled at her, spat something that woulda made Mama blush in Ungrish, but that was about it. The rage was starting to bleed away no matter how much I tried to grasp after it, and I felt my injuries catching up with me. It wasn’t good. I was worn out, beaten, and tired. But I wasn’t gonna let this bitch see that in my face.

Turns out, I didn’t have to. Because Hannah fucking Orlaev sashayed into the room right after. Quinn stepped out of her way.

“Oh, it’s perfectly fine, girls!” the smiling woman was calling back over one shoulder as she entered, before they closed the door. All the other women had seen, and they were still watching from out in the corridor, a safe distance back. “I’m just going to have a word with our dear Sarah and see what’s the matter and set all of this unpleasantness to rest!”

She kept smiling the whole while she said it. Right up until that door swung closed behind, the two toughs dismissed outside with the rest.

Then we were alone. And that smile evaporated right off her face.

“Now you listen to me, you little cunt,” Orlaev snapped immediately, and strode right up until she was in my face. It caught me so much by surprise after that fight outside that any thought to jump either of them vanished from my mind. “I don’t care who you were before or what you think you’ve got here to prove, but I am NOT going to just stand there and watch you get in the way of what I’m doing. What WE’RE doing,” she amended, with a glance back towards McClelland standing quietly in the corner. Then she somehow got even closer to me. “Need I remind you that what we’re trying to accomplish here is nothing less than saving the whole fucking human race? There’s not a chance in hell that I’m going to let you and your stupid bullshit risk that. You understand?”

I didn’t answer. I just glared back at her. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing I was really supposed to answer anyways.

But that woman took a page from Quinn’s book and smacked me right across the face.

I came back up snarling in Ungrish. And she reversed direction and smacked me again with the back of her hand. A third time too, because I couldn’t move fast enough. And when next I came up, there were tears in my eyes.

“Yea. That’s what I thought,” she said to me, and I was so suddenly mortified at the fact that those tears were coming out of me at all that I completely fell apart before I could get her back. Her head bobbed like that was just what she’d expected.

She grabbed me by the front of my shirt, digging in with her pretty, manicured nails.

“You’re going to tow the line, do you understand me? You’re going to go to your lessons and you’re going to do what you’re told. You’re going to do everything that’s asked of you and do you know why?”

“Why the fuck would I?!” I spat at her, seething through those angry, unwanted tears.

Her grip tightened.

“Because I know who you are … Spencer Miklos,” she said, pausing for some kind of effect. But I wasn’t impressed by whether or not she maybe read my file somewhere. No, but I clamped my mouth shut when she said what she said next. “And I know there’s a Mikhail Miklos who’s been trying to get citizenship here in Aurora for years now. No doubt looking for his … son?”

I didn’t want to give her an answer. I didn’t want to give her anything. But she guessed enough from the way my entire face just suddenly paled.

“I’m guessing you don’t want to see dear old daddy again anytime soon. With the threats our brave soldiers recorded him making each time they denied him his request, I can guess as to why. And boy, just what would he think of his son now ...?”

I’d gone shock still. My palms were sweating freely and so were parts of my face. I felt a tremble in my throat and didn’t trust myself to speak. I just looked up at that woman as she leered down at me. Triumphant.

“Now, you’re going to be a good girl for me and everyone else here for now on,” she continued with a smile that held nothing of the plastic warmth her usual ones did. “Isn’t that right, Sarah? Because I can tell you what will happen if you don’t. I will personally make sure you get tossed outside that wall and left for the jackals. Left for your father. Do you understand just what that would mean? Whatever they want to do to you,” she cooed, and suddenly brushed a few fingers down across my cheek. I flinched. “You and that pretty new face of yours. Is that what you want?”

When I didn’t answer, her claws just dug in that much harder.

“Is it?”

“N-no.”

I stammered back at her, swallowing. I tried to look her in the eyes, but couldn’t. For the life of me, I couldn’t. And I felt a big piece of me die inside because of it.

“What’s that, dear? I can’t hear you.”

“I said no!”

“That’s what I thought.” Then that simpering smile was back as she pulled away from me, letting me go. She just couldn’t resist leaving me with a little parting pat-pat on the side of my face for good measure, though. “I’m so glad we could have this little chat, Sarah. I feel like we’ve both learned so MUCH about each other!”

It wasn’t until she’d gotten to the door and started to open it that she looked back one more time. “Oh, and as for worrying about -- oh, how did you put it … someone here wanting to ‘fuck’ you? You really should be so grateful for the opportunity. Every last man on that guest list is a prime catch, and well worth the effort just for a taste of the privilege that comes with it. Though, if you’re still in the business of getting cold feet despite all our encouragement and assurances, I suppose you could always take your chances on seeing who might want to fuck you OUTSIDE the walls instead.”

And then she was gone.

I wasn’t even sure when my legs had crumpled beneath me.

“She was the one who leaked that list, you know,” Quinn was saying, a minute later when I did nothing but sit there in a wrecked, blubbering heap of misery, too embarrassed to move or speak or do anything else at all but let those tears come out freely. It was all I could do to wrap my arms around my head and pretend that I was alone, that no one could see me. But that Quinn woman was still there.

“She wanted all of you to see that party list,” she continued when I showed no signs of caring. “She’s craftier than she lets on and doesn’t really care about any one of you by yourselves. I’d suggest following her ‘advice’ for what it is. This really isn’t as bad as it could be.”

“Oh it’s fucking NOT?!” I sobbed, finally looking up at her just long enough to spit that out bitterly before my whole face twisted up and more tears leaked down.

Quinn was silent for a few, long moments.

“Look, I get it. You were probably some big, tough guy before. So was I. But we AREN’T anymore, and you’re gonna have to learn that, just like I did. Finesse is how you win this game. I know that’s not what you want to hear right now, but it’s too late to go back. You’ve already agreed to essentially be completely dependent on this government. Either you … produce … for them, at some point, or you are on your own. And I promise you that being on your own now is no longer an option.”

I understood what she was saying, but I just couldn’t process it for what it was right now. That her usual, militant tone had gone soft and consoling like all those memories of Mama’s was lost on me in that state. I just shook my head.

“I noticed they had you marked down as a warning case and I can see why, Miklos. Don’t take it personally, but I’ll have to keep those guards around with you for the time being. I think you need them, as much for yourself as for the rest of the people here.”

I couldn’t even argue with her. All I could do was shake my head there in my arms while I cried on the floor.

“Get some rest,” the woman was saying. “Take a few hours, then we’ll have your therapist come up and see you. I’ll make sure the other women are all cleared out and distracted so you can head back to your room in peace. Just give me a minute out there.”

I heard her move towards the door and push through it. I gave her that minute too, and a whole hell of a lot more, as I hid in that little closet and cried alone as long as I could. Until Dr. Keinzler finally came and found me and dragged me back to my room.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 13: Step Seven

“And voila!” my cosmetician declared just before he spun me around.

Waiting there was a mirror and with it my first sight of the long minutes of work that this guy had put in on me. I had to say, I approved of his results. Without a doubt, they were far better than I could’ve managed with my improving, but still somewhat clumsy, skills.

The woman in the mirror was a far cry from the pale ghost that I’d first seen in that little hand mirror on the hospital bed. Makeup put some color in that face, rosy cheeks, brighter lips, and darker eyes. There was still the fair skin, and the hair, which had days ago had the brown bleached to a pale blonde to better match the white, but those things now stood out as positives rather than being lost in a milky, monochromatic sea.

“It’s perfect,” I declared, truly believing that I couldn’t possibly do better for the party that was, now, less than an hour away. As I said those words, I glanced back at the man that had worked that magic to offer him a smile. “Thank you so much for the help, Edward. I never could’ve managed this on my own.”

The cosmetician waved off the gratitude. “Oh please. It was a pleasure. There’s not a lot of chances to really work with someone. Even on camera, men always want it understated, but you wanted more.”

“And you delivered it,” I replied before turning back to the mirror.

With my reflection there, I tried a few different expressions, mostly smiles, seeing how it all looked. Everything seemed good, but a touch forced. I figured most of that was nerves about the big event, but some of it came from just not being used to having stuff all over my face. Not licking my lips was especially hard to resist.

After the quick check, I rose from my seat. “Well, I should let you get to the next girl.”

“If only there was a next girl,” Edward sighed with disappointment as he looked around.

The room I was in had been set up to help pretty up us gals for the night to come. As such there were chairs and mirrors for people doing hair and makeup, as well as some clothing experts with racks of dresses for girls to pick from. I’d partaken of the first two, but the latter I’d taken care of myself, requesting a specific dress days before the party to give me time to acclimate to it. The other girls, though, well …

While there were many things our strict, police-like caretaker was good at, motivating her charges wasn’t one of them. She was too harsh, too no-nonsense. Undoubtedly, that would’ve been great for commanding compliance on a street, but it wasn’t so great at corralling scared and confused women into acceptance. Her little stunt with her baby had made most of the ladies especially gunshy.

That was why, when I followed Edward’s gaze, I found myself almost alone in the beauty room. Only a couple of girls remained at mirrors finishing their own hair and makeup. One was named Zoe, who I wasn’t too worried about. She was late to get her act together, so while she was game to try what needed to be tried, she was far too unfamiliar with it to be a threat. The other girl, well, there was competition.

Of all the girls in the initiative, Lily was the only one to take it seriously. In fact, I worried that she took it more seriously than I did. Clearly, she’d been training in feminine things since before she’d even been changed. Now, she was so at home with herself that I doubt I could’ve picked her from a natural born girl, assuming such a thing existed these days. She was pretty too, a perky blonde that seemed to look an awful lot like some of the girls from the magazines that I’d read. In short, she was trouble, but I was ready for her. A glance down was all it took to prove that.

Most of the Initiative’s offerings when it came to dresses were quite conservative. That was no surprise as that was what most of the women had begged for when they’d been told that such garments were required attire for the event. Mine was not. I’d picked it out of an old movie, shimmering red and cut so that I felt half naked wearing it. That was why I’d gotten it early so that I could get use to it. Even after hours of nighttime practice, though, I still wasn’t quite used to the feel of all the air it let blow along my legs through the slits in the skirts or onto the soft valley that the low neckline left half-exposed. I was ready enough to push through that, but I had been required to abandon my plan to try heels for the night. Looking like some drunken clutz was not the goal.

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t help right now, but I’ll make sure to ask for you next time I need your expertise,” I promised Edward.

“And it will be my honor to provide it for you,” Edward replied, going so far as to bow to me respectfully.

Smiling at the flair, I dipped my head slightly in return. “Then until we meet again?”

“Until we meet again,” Edward told me.

Farewells said, and hopefully a useful new contact made, I turned to leave. Even though the party, and the prospective dupes, were still a bit away, I didn’t just go with my usual easy stroll. No, I took this time to practice, just like I had for days now. My stride was decidedly languid, full of hip swaying that made me almost feel like a clock, ticking back and forth in perfect time.

Outside of the beauty room was a second open space, this one for us girls to wait in once we were ready to be taken to the party. Almost everyone was there before me, but I gave the crowd only a cursory inspection. There were a couple others in make up, a few more that had been willing to let our hosts fiddle with their hair, then a bunch that just huddled their in their dresses practically shaking with fear. None seemed like they’d be a concern, at least not that night.

Amongst those huddled and mostly unprimped, I spotted Spence. Ever since the day she’d fought against, and lost to, McClelland, she’d had a shellshocked look to her and tonight was no different. She stood there sort of dazed, not resisting but not actively participating either. It was like her brain had gotten stuck.

I could understand that, even sympathize. The Quinn girl had been so blunt about what would be expected of us, kid in her arms and everything, that even I’d been a little shaken in the moment. Of course, I’d realized that … reproduction was the goal, and I’d understood that getting to that would require certain things from me. In spite of a some people’s assumptions about me based on my small size and good looks, I’d never been the type to find my jollies with other guys. I took care of that on my own. The idea that I’d have to tolerate it at some point wasn’t ideal, but I’d push through. It was no different than trying to schmooze some asshat I hated or listen to some dull prick drone on about his passion for birds just to get him to warm up enough to give me a good deal. Once I had that straight in my head, I was right back on track again. Spence, though, was still derailed.

“Hey, buddy,” I greeted after making my way over to my friend. “You nervous? I know I sure am.”

The words were meant to help relax, but when the taller girl focused her gaze on me, I could tell I hadn’t had the right effect. Her eyes bugged out. Behind them, her mind was obviously boggled, not sure what to do with what it had been presented.

In a way, that reaction was exactly what I was going for. In fact, I almost forgot myself and smirked at it, but I caught it before I could. This wasn’t some guy I was set on playing for a mark. This was Spence, and I didn’t need her any more rattled than she already was.

“Did a real number on me, didn’t they?” I remarked, feigning discomfort with the situation as I glanced down at my revealing attire. “Feel like I’m the butt of some joke.”

My efforts didn’t seem to make much of a dent. When I looked back up, Spence was still staring at me like some impossibility made real. Still, I took that as an improvement. At least she was worried about me and not herself.

Meeting my friends gaze, I feigned a brave smile. “Still, not gonna let some frills and a little goop on my face get to me. I’m pushing through it. You with me?”

Finally, I got something from Spence, a weak nod, but that was good enough. “Y-yeah. I’m … I’m with you.”

“Right on,” I replied, pumping a fist.

Even with Spence’s mood improved, I spent the rest of the waiting time working to cheer her up more. The best selling point I could come up with was that I’d managed to learn that this party was going to be our first chance at booze. Apparently the bigwigs were slackening up the rule on the hopes that some drinks would help loosen up us girls. Plus, it would be unthinkable if their little boys had to live without something for even one night.

Eventually, the moment of truth arrived. The staff for the event came to gather us all up, put us into alphabetical order, then herd us out. This separated Spence and me, which was probably not a good thing given how she’d been acting before our talk. More annoying, Lily’s last name was Bennett, which meant that she was going to get to make her entrance before me.

Outside, there were cars waiting to take us women off the premises for the first time since the procedure. It wasn’t a long ride, though, before we were let out again and ushered off. We made our way through some back hallways until finally we made it to an area that was clearly behind a stage.

Once again, there was a need to wait while out in the spotlight stood the program director for the Initiative. Mr. Herzog was in the midst of a speech to what was undoubtedly a crowd in the room. Flanking him out there were a couple of other rather important personages. Dr. Faraday stood to his left, looking decidedly rigid. On the other side was a man that was clearly far more used to dealing with the public. Like the other two, he was an older man, although, not as old. His hair was still mostly brown. His handsome face wasn’t too creased with lines yet either, but it did have the easy, practiced smile of a man that played to a camera. That was no surprise, because I recognized him as Gregory Schulz, the man on the Auroran ruling council that was in charge of representing science and research. As for the crowd they sood before, I couldn’t see them, though, but I could hear it murmuring. There were also flashes from cameras at times showing there was press for the event as well.

Finally, the old man brought things to a close with a simple announcement, “And here they are now!”

That was the cue for us women to get moving again. We filed out onto the stage, standing up behind the director as cameras flashed and people applauded. To the last, we all looked nervous out there. Even I could feel the strain as I smiled out at the people. It wasn’t exactly a big crowd, but it was intimidating. Round tables, set with fine white cloth and shimmering flatware were arrayed about the room. Seated at them were the rich and powerful, looking the part in finely tailored tuxedos. Not all the seats were taken, though. A few dozen had been strategically left vacant, scattered about the tables. To round it all off, at the sides there was the press with their cameras eager to record the whole thing for posterity.

“Now then ladies, if you would be so kind as to join us,” Mr. Herzog continued once the the uproar had died down. “The staff will show you to your seats.”

With those words, the dazzling moment ended. The staff got the line of women moving again, this time taking us off the stage and down into the crowd. As we made our way through, we got dropped off one by one at the vacant chairs as the men that shared the table with those seats rose to greet their guests. It didn’t take long to notice a pattern. There were six chairs to a table, three vacant, and three already taken by men. There weren’t any older men in the lot either. No, they were all situated at other tables that were already full. These were the strapping young sons that we were meant to pair off with. That suited me just fine. What didn’t though, was that my seat happened to fall in between two other girls.

“Excuse me,” I began, turning to the woman that was just about to get into her seat next to me. Her name was Kelly, and she was looking at the man next to her like a sheep might look at a wolf. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but would you mind switching seats with me?”

“Oh … uhm … “ Kelly stammered, glancing about unsure whether switching seats would even be allowed. No one spoke up to complain about it, though. “Alright … I guess …”

“Thank you so much,” I said gratefully, as I slid around the other woman to get to her seat. “I much prefer sitting on the outer edge. Otherwise I can get a touch claustrophobic.”

“Oh … it’s, uh, nothing really,” Kelly replied, looking quite relieved to have been given a seat that didn’t put her right next to one of the men.

With the other woman’s blessing, I took hold of her seat, turning toward the man that she’d been so afraid of. As I did, I offered him a dazzling smile. “Hi, I’m Adelaide, but I hope you’ll all call me Ada.”

The boy next to me didn’t know what to do with that or me in general. He was just staring kinda slack-jawed and dazed. In fact, the look reminded me a lot of how Spence had reacted to the sight of me, far more welcome on the young man’s face.

The next man down the line had much more tact, smiling graciously. “It would be our privilege, Miss Ada. My name is Craig, by the way, and this is Alexander seated next to you, and Robert to my right.”

“Oh, how silly of me,” I replied, taking a line from a movie that I’d seen even as I mimicked the actess’s movements clasping my hands together. “Kelly is the young woman that was so kind as to switch seats with me and next to her is Madison, but she likes to go by Maddie.”

“A pleasure to meet you all,” Craig continued, taking the lead for the men while dipping his head politely.

The other boys mirrored Craig’s sentiment with Alex being the straggler while my fellow women gave waves that were shy and awkward. I was the only one to verbalize my happiness in kind. After that, we all took our seats.

Once everyone at the table had settled in, I made sure to get the conversation going before any awkwardness could settle in with us. The two other ladies didn’t say much, but I got all of the boys talking, even the rather shy and tongue-tied Alex. However, I tried not to put too much charm into my efforts. while Alex would’ve been an easy mark, and I could probably have worked Robert, maybe even Craig, these three weren’t important enough.

After the guest list had been leaked, I’d spent a good chunk of my free time researching the names that were found on it. That had led me to make a ranking list of those in the right age range to be potential targets. Unfortunately, while the three at my table were plenty rich, they weren’t anywhere near the top of my list of prospects. I didn’t just want plenty rich. I didn’t want to climb all the way to the top only to find myself still on the bottom of a whole different ladder. Of course, not knowing the plans the bigwigs had, I couldn’t just dismiss these three entirely, but I held out hope that I’d have a shot at bigger fish later.

Unfortunately, it was quite some time before I found that shot. All of dinner had passed by before people finally started leaving their seats. It was easy to tell that the next part of the evening was going to involve some time out on the veranda as that was where people were drifting.

Not wanting to fall behind, I made sure to excuse myself early on in the migration. That didn’t allow me to fully escape from the trio that I’d been assigned for dinner, however. Craig took my desire for a little fresh air as an opening and invited himself to join me. Refusal would’ve come off as rude, so I just let it slide, figuring I could handle him tagging along and still get my work done.

Outside, the patio was every bit as fancy as the dining hall within. There was a lot more open space there, though, with tables only set up along the side. Some had chairs around them to allow people to rest their feet while others had food and drink for the guests to partake. At the moment little of it was in use as only a small number of people had made their way out there yet.

As I stepped out into the open air, I affected a deep breath to maintain my excuse for coming outside. In reality, I was focused on scanning the area, seeing which other men had come out so far. Unfortunately, there was a distraction, namely a shudder running through me as the cool night air met my overly exposed skin.

“Are you cold?” Craig asked attentively. “You’re welcome to my jacket, if it would help.”

Turning to him, I smiled brightly. “Thank you, but no. I just need a moment to get used to it, after being inside. I could, however, use a drink.”

“Then allow me to fetch it,” Craig answered agreeably, moving off toward one of the tables to find me something.

With the nuisance handled, I returned to looking around as I folded my arms to ward off the chill. There was no way I was going to wear some jacket and cover up the carefully chosen dress and the charms it highlighted. As I’d claimed, I’d acclimate eventually. Until then, I’d just be a little cold.

As I searched, I realized an issue with coming out to the veranda. There weren’t many people to pick from yet, and they tended to be in small groups, men that had picked one of the ladies at their table to lure out into greater privacy. As such, there were a lot of couples about that would be hard to insert myself in between. I could do it, though. Fortunately, it seemed I wouldn’t have to.

One man had set himself apart from the crowd, leaning on the railing to gaze out away from the party. Him being alone made him easy to approach. That would’ve been enough reason for me to try, just to avoid being alone with Craig. There was another perk, though, as I looked closer and recognized who it was. This man was one of the ones from my list.

Wesley Saunders was a solidly built man a handful of years older than I was. He was also one of the very best options that was being presented to the Initiative. Unlike many of the other prospects, his father was no longer with us, having passed not too long ago. That left him fully in charge of his family’s business interests, and they were numerous. He controlled huge swaths of the city’s food industries, as crucial a business to hold as there could possibly be. There was also an odd quirk to him that would make the play even more fun. I’d once picked a fight with him in the back of a restaurant. At the time, I’d thought he was just the place’s manager, or I probably wouldn’t have attacked him, but it would be an amusing little side note to my efforts. After all, it wasn’t like he’d be able to recognize me.

Decision made in an instant, I started right over, wanting to get my move made before the annoyance of Craig returned with my drink. That required me to rush my practiced stride a bit, but I didn’t mind. Wesley wasn’t even looking my way – yet.

“What are you thinking about?” I opened with as I sidled up next to my mark. As I did, I leaned against the railing as well. However, rather than rest my arms on it like he did, I turned to rest my back against it to present a more intriguing view his way.

Looking up from his brooding, Wesley turned to me, eyes widening slightly at the sight. It wasn’t the slack-jawed stare that I’d received from that Alex boy, but I would take it. “Excuse me?”

“It must be pretty important to keep your attention off the party,” I remarked, playing right through the man’s momentary befuddlement. Part of that play came in letting my smile fade away to adopt a look of concern. “Or do you just not like the provided company?”

“Ehh … no,” Wesley replied, recovering quickly from the sight of me. “I’ve just, never really been comfortable at these sorts of things.”

“Me either,” I lied flawlessly, letting my concern fade into a shy look downward. “It’s especially nerve wracking like this …” I continued, gesturing down to make sure that Wesley would take a good look at what I had on display. Once he’d had that chance, my gaze sprung back up and I put on a dazzling smile. “But I wouldn’t want to bring anyone down, so I put on a smile and push right through.”

Wesley got a little hung up on that second step, but he got his eyes up to mine before too long. “How very magnanimous of you.”

I had no idea what that word meant, but I assumed it was a compliment, so I went straight to trying to look modest. “Well, thank you,” I murmured on to finally extend a hand toward the man. “My name’s Adelaide, by the way, but you can just call me Ada.”

“Wesley,” the man replied after a momentary pause, reaching out to shake. At first, the action was smooth and practiced, but when his hand found my much smaller one, there was a hitch and what was undoubtedly normally a strong confident handshake became light and awkward.

It was a good start, but unfortunately, an obstacle by the name of Craig returned to hinder me with a simple, “Here’s your drink, Ada.”

Actually struggling a bit to keep the exasperation from leaking out onto my face, I turned to smile at the other man and take the glass he’d retrieved for me. “Thank you so much. By the way, do you know Wesley?”

“Uhm … yes, he and I have met,” Craig replied awkwardly.

“I thought he might join us for a few drinks,” I elaborated. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“... no, I don’t mind,” Craig agreed reluctantly.

Wesley, however, looked even less enthused. “No, that’s perfectly alright, I’ll be–”

Placing my hand on the loner’s arm quieted those protests as I leaned in to quietly whisper. “Please, join us. Otherwise, I’ll spend the whole night worrying that you’re not having any fun.”

It was clear that Wesley wasn’t enthused by the idea, but a plea from me proved too much for him to ignore. An uncomfortable smile that was almost a grimace curled his lips. “Fine. Just a few drinks.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Fourteen: After the Afterparty

If there was one good thing about this whole shitshow of a dinner party, it was the alcohol. First they’d let us have in months, and I had asked. Repeatedly. No dice in all that first week, post-treatment. They’d been worried about “unnecessary complications”. Guess I’d kind of salted the earth a bit around me too.

If there was another good thing, it was that Hannah Orlaev wasn’t there. She’d seen us off, then quickly abandoned us to the wolves while she strode away, arm in arm with some corporate bigshot. Seemed true to her character, now that I’d gotten to see a bit under the mask. Quinn too, was gone. Had the night off to spend with her husband, so the rumor said. He was supposed to be the brother of that one girl, Leslie. Some other immigrant from way up north that they’d somehow treated better than gold when they all stumbled onto the Auroran doorstep a little while back. Didn’t matter that people like Andy and I had been here far longer, and working our asses off to earn that keep.

But I didn’t care about any of that right now. I was just glad to get away from all of them. And those eyes too, though I never felt them leave me for long. There were other girls more … willing … around, especially now that most had a few drinks in them. But that only distracted so much. They’d invited more men than women here tonight, and every last one of them wanted to take a gander.

We’d all been stuffed into little dresses. The kind of nice shit our mamas and sisters would’ve worn way back when. Showed a lot of that soft, new skin everyone here was so interested in. Showed a lot, and if I had Hannah Orlaev pegged right, was also the first bit of advertisement for it too.

My own number was only slightly more terrible than the rest, and that was the case only because I’d been too scared to say no at that point when they’d brought me the first option. Another dandy named Farragut had been assigned to “doll me up” for the night. I’d spent a whole lot of time trying to ignore him and just see how many yes’s he’d pull outta my silence. Of course, if I thought they’d done a disturbing little number on me with some begrudged cosmetics and that tiny slip of fabric, I had nothing on what they’d worked with Andy.

Couldn’t really say what it was like to see her like that, and I didn’t have a ton of time to worry about it either. Pretty soon they were carting us off to this big showing, and it was as terrible as I could’ve possibly imagined. Walked up on stage like a row of sideshow freaks for entertainment, then saddled with a table and two other girls along with three random blue bloods. Not a big surprise that I didn’t talk much all dinner long, and did the barest minimum of eating. One of the guys was trying to goad me into noticing him, asking if I “was alright” halfway through. I’d given him a tight-lipped smile and said that I was, but it scared him off rather than invited more. Which was really just fine with me.

I lost Andy, who was busy working whatever new magic she’d conjured for herself in the midst of all of this. Gussied up like some disciple of Hannah Orlaev, she’d been playing to all that rich guy attention like it was a seller’s market ever since the evening “festivities” had started. I supposed that it was. A market for girl-flesh, that is. I wondered if she realized just what we’d have to give up to swindle these guys outta anything. But she must have. Andy was always on top of the game. Too bad I didn’t feel much like playing.

I had two pricks in suits try to ambush me on the way to one of the liquor tables out on the patio, where they had glasses and champagne and a little ice sculpture of some kind of fish sitting out. I breezed right past those two assholes and they gave up the chase for easier prey after a few unsuccessful tries to get me to stop and chat.

What was there to chat about? What the fuck was I even DOING here in the first place?

I knew. Orlaev had made it abundantly clear that I was little more than a piece of meat to throw to the dogs now. I wasn’t gonna get any sympathy from those people for this, no matter how degrading and shitty it all was.

So I was going to get drunk.

Yea. That seemed like the perfect solution to this, the absolute shittiest of nights. It had certainly always worked for me before.

Stinking, pissing, ROARING drunk. Positively shit-faced.

Maybe I’d kill my liver and get a one-way ticket out of this place with some small shred of dignity still intact. Maybe it’d take the edge off so much that they’d have to drag me back to my apartment. Maybe that was dangerous, but each drink made me care just a little bit less.

Too bad I wasn’t alone in that thinking.

Some guy in an unbuttoned suit and a loosened tie had already beaten me to that particular table. I took a quick look around, but most of the others were packed with men at this point in the evening, and a few women. Just the one guy at this table. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say people’d been avoiding it because of him.

Can’t say I cared too much. Because he had his back to me, and looked totally uninterested in any of the company all the other suits seemed to be so desperate and eager for. Weird, but … who the fuck cared? I just sidled up and grabbed a bottle, filled my glass to full and started chugging.

Mayweather had instructed me to only sip politely. So I stuck my middle finger up -- professionally manicured and lacquered for tonight -- back towards home, and willed for him to somehow feel it.

I got through that whole glass and one more before that disheveled suit next to me seemed to suddenly take notice.

“Afraid I’ve already had all the entertainment I can stand for tonight, Miss,” the man said then. “I’m not looking for any more.”

Though the words were polite and well within the courtesy Mayweather had been shoving down my throat all week, the tone was another story altogether. Rough. A little aggressive. The kinda tone a guy would get with someone at the bar when he wanted that someone to kindly keep the fuck away from him. But translated into rich motherfucker speech. It got me to look over in anger and just a touch of surprise.

“... And I’m not looking to entertain,” was what I responded slowly with, not sure why this guy seemed to be the only one at the party not trying to chat me up or stare down the top of my dress or anything at all. He gave me a little sidelong glare when I didn’t just up and leave.

“You’re NOT trying to get me to pay attention to you? You didn’t come over here to goad me into taking notice of you in that pretty dress?” He said it with enough sarcasm to tell me just how little he believed that was the case.

I stopped what I was doing and turned all the way toward him.

“Look, I didn’t even WANT to wear this fucking dress. They didn’t give me any goddamned choice. So why don’t you just keep to your side of the table, and I’ll keep to mine. Leave each other the fuck alone. Got it?”

I turned away without waiting for an answer, put my back to him and the rest of the party as much as I could, and started working on another drink. Things were beginning to kick in, my head getting a little fuzzy, and I thought that that was too soon. I’d nearly forgot the massive amount of body weight I was missing when I started, and wondered briefly if I shouldn’t slow down.

But …

Fuck it. It was one of those kinds of nights.

A few minutes passed. I’d emptied another glass and waffled over a fifth. When I gave up and decided to just go for it, angry rich prick decided it was time to butt in again.

“That’s a lot to put away for someone your size,” was the guarded, measured words that came out of his mouth just then. “Sure you can handle it all ...?”

“Fuck off,” I told him plainly, and tossed some back. After that, I did sip. But only because I was getting sloppy and wanted to enjoy some of the rest of it.

Orlaev would’ve reamed me for talking that way to one of these suit jockeys, probably. But Orlaev wasn’t here right now and I could do whatever the fuck I wanted for once. As long as I was still HERE. As long as I still let them all have their LOOK.

Who cared if I was plastered while they did it?

“Getting a good look too?” I snapped at the suit at the table at some point thereafter, feeling his eyes on me again from the side. Though it came out slurred, the words sloshing about inside my mouth. I teetered a bit as I spun to face him too. He hadn’t bothered to answer me.

“You know, it’s ashholes -- a -- ASSholes like you who got us in this mess in the first place,” I said, deciding to lean over and jab a finger towards him as he stood there, cocking an eyebrow at me. “Always sticking your … your DICKS where they didn’t belong.” A little giggle bubbled up in my throat at that turn of phrase.

“Is that right?” the man asked slowly, standing his ground as I took a step closer and stuck a finger all the way into his chest.

“Yea. That’s exactly right. Fuckin’ PRICKS.” I tossed a hand out. “Diggin’ up Protean ruins. Killing all the women. Good old --good work wasn’t good enough for any of you. Had to go … you know, DIGGING for shit. Whatever. You know what I mean.”

I tried to turn away back towards the party. Maybe find Andy and see if I could get the fuck out of there because I didn’t want to BE here anymore. But I lost my balance in all the excitement first.

Someone caught me. That rich guy in his unlimbered suit caught me. I felt my tits bounce up in my face as he lurched forward of a sudden and grabbed me back from behind before my head could slap the ground. My limbs flopped crookedly as he tried to pull me back up.

“I think that … maybe that’s enough for you,” he grunted, hefting me onto my feet the best he could. It didn’t work very well because I ended up splashed against the open vest on his chest, those arms straining for some leverage to push my deadweight back.

“Hey. You look kinda familiar …” I said, peering up intently into his face. It was a generic sort of rich guy face, but I could’ve sworn I’d maybe seen it before. Maybe.

“Yeah, I think you’re maybe getting a little too familiar with me,” he groaned, finally managing to get me back unsteadily on my feet. He held me there, looking annoyed. “Most people know me,” he growled at me. “Or at least OF me. Can’t say I’m surprised.”

I laughed at that. A little tittering, too-happy laugh. I waved a hand and slapped him on the cheek.

“I don’t give a fuck WHO you are.” And I came back down, poking another finger into his chest. “Just another rich fucking prick who thinks he’s better than the rest of us. You know, I think you assholes all look alike after all!”

I said it with such finger-jabbing conviction and slow-swirling tongue gymnastics that he couldn’t help but be speechless when I was done. And if the way he cast about worriedly to some of the onlookers was any indication of how badly I’d put him in his place with just words over a few drinks? Then I had plenty of reason to be satisfied. A couple guys were looking at us and even one was jeering. I decided to take a bow for all their approval.

Too bad it turned into a full-on dip.

“Hey! Whoa, whoa, whoa …”

I felt loose-suit’s arms wrap around me again, catching me before I could faceplant completely. It was an awkward, haphazard hold, and I tried to punch at his hand when I realized one had latched onto my tit.

“Don’t … touch me! You … yo--”

Then I puked up all over the ground.

My hair flopped over into my face. Good thing it was still a helluva lot shorter than they wanted us to grow it, saving me from upchuck getting caught in there. The guy held me while I emptied up my stomach, then I swiped at my mouth with the back of a hand. Before I knew it, that prick had me propped up sideways against him again and was trying to shove a napkin in my face.

“Here,” he said as he gave it to me, a slight hitch of irritation in his voice. I heard some clapping and that guy looked around at other people, a scowl on his face. I ignored them all and a champagne glass replaced the napkin soon enough.

I spit it out when I realized it was just water.

“I need a real drink!” I tried to yell at him, but it came out all wrong as I collapsed again into his chest. His breath was in my ear.

“Don’t you have, uhh ... a friend or someone here watching you? Staff? Handler? For Christ’s sake, don’t they have PEOPLE here for this?”

He demanded it like a desperate man, angry and unsure of himself. From somewhere deep down in my mind, I recognized that I was the actual source of his frustration. Not that I cared overly much. But it WAS a surreal sensation, and sent my head spinning into vertigo, when I felt him scoop me right up into his arms like some little kid before everything faded away into white noise all around me.

As it did, I couldn’t help the flash of memory.

That little infant cradled against Quinn McClelland’s chest. Except I was the baby now.

And I think I might’ve puked again.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

I had the worst headache of my life when I woke up the next morning, not entirely sure what had happened the rest of the night after the party, or how I’d gotten myself back into my bed all safe and sound. My mind was still fuzzy, but it was just my luck that the light coming in from the windows was curtained thickly from view. So I suppressed an inward groan, thinking how absolutely fitting and shitty it was that I could somehow hold so little of my liquor now. I couldn’t remember the last time Spencer Miklos had had a hangover before this, even after having way more, and much harder, stuff to drink.

Since nobody was apparently coming to get me up for breakfast or lessons, I took my sweet ass time in doing so. And maybe I shouldn’t have. Because when I rolled over, I found a hastily-scribbled note on the end table beside the bed, along with two white pills. Took me a moment to get myself together enough to pull it to my face and read it.

Whoever you are,

Please take these pills and get yourself cleaned up. There’s an adjoined washroom you can use. When you’re done, Johannes will see you safely back home.

A lot of … details … became quickly clear to me then. For starters, I wasn’t actually in my bedroom like I’d assumed, which made much more sense when I remembered that I didn’t have a window in it. Also, the place wasn’t done up with a suggestive little vanity and full-length mirror. It wasn’t “feminine” as the eggheads called it. Much more like some kind of guest room, and that just made me want to throw up for reasons that had nothing to do with the vague smell of vomit still clinging to my person.

I downed those pills figuring that they were meant to help, not poison me or something. And they did. By the time I hobbled my way to the bathroom, my splitting headache and nausea had already started to go away. I did my business in there mechanically, just like always, and found my dress waiting for me outside when I was done, freshly-laundered and not smelling of vomit at all. Which was good I admitted, although they must have gotten it while I was in the shower, because other than that there was only my underwear I’d worn underneath it and a bureau full of male clothes. And though I would’ve really preferred to be wearing those right now, they only made me look like more of a freak when I tried.

It wasn’t until I was done, dressed, and back in those little shoes Mayweather had called “wedges” when it finally dawned on me in full, hand on the knob of the door.

I’d been taken home by some blue blood.

And no one had fucking stopped him.

My heart leapt into my throat, remembering how drunk I’d been. Blackout drunk. I had only fragments of memories from the previous night, fragments that barely even gave me a hint of who this guy was or what he was supposed to be. What if he’d kidnapped me? What if he’d FUCKED me? He--

But that was just it, wasn’t it?

I tried to take stock of myself.

I didn’t FEEL sore or battered … down there. Should I have? Was that how it worked? I couldn’t even consider the fact that I might’ve been so drunk as to have been into it. All I could think about was that someone had taken me home and … and …

I flew out of those doors in a rage once I’d pulled myself back together. The idea of Hannah Orlaev getting a kick out of me now was what jolted me onwards. That, and the memory of Quinn with that baby in her arms. I felt a sick lurch inside my stomach and was snarling by the time I bumped into some really tall, older guy in a suit out in the hallway, waiting beyond the bedroom.

“I take it you are prepared to leave then, ma’am?” he asked, adjusting the square-framed glasses on his head as he peered down at me.

“Where is he?!” was what I screeched back at him, though. I knew this guy wasn’t him. I’d been fucked and I was out for blood. “WHERE THE HELL IS HE?!”

That old man -- maybe one of those servants that they said rich people always had by the looks of him -- regarded me with some scrutiny for a few moments. Long enough that I was about to start showing HIM the same treatment I had in mind for his master. But then he said, “I assume you mean, Mr. Saunders. I can take you to him. But, please, keep your voice down. There’s no reason to shout.”

There most certainly fucking was.

“Fuck you!”

The servant winced, but gestured with his hand just the same before turning around. “Right this way, if you please?”

I followed him. He took me through a tricked-out house that just stretched on and on and on. Mostly upward, by the glances I got outside through wall-sized windows as we passed. Swimming pools and giant fish tanks, other servants and carpets so rich and deep that I nearly lost those girly shoes in one. By the time we got to a room on the opposite side of the house, I couldn’t help the wayward thought that this was exactly the kind of place Andy’d been thinking about when he suggested his plan. It was just too bad it wasn’t her here instead of me.

The servant stopped, knocked at the door, and got a “What is it, Johannes? I’m on a call,” as soon as he cracked it.

“Apologies, Mr. Saunders, but I h--”

I pushed right past him and through into the room before he could even finish.

“Listen here, you rich fucking piece of shit!” I screamed at him as I stalked forward, trying my best to stomp out a death march even though my shoes made it pretty much impossible. So I kicked them aside. The man inside the room was busy trying to work a tie around his neck, collar popped and hands halfway through the motion, when I rushed him. I charged right up and put both hands on his chest and SHOVED.

He barely stumbled back more than a couple of steps, and that just made me all the madder. His eyes had gone wide inside his impassive face, though that look quickly turned annoyed as I went in to push him as hard as I could again. This time, he put an arm out in front of himself, warding me off. Too easily.

“I’ll call you back,” he said to someone else and shot a hand out toward the big, rich desk beside him, clicking off a phone there. Then he just shouted over my head back towards his manservant. “What the hell is this, Johannes? You were supposed to take her back home, not bring her in here!”

“You instructed me to give her whatever she w--”

Whatever the old man was going to say, I cut him off. I cut him off as I launched myself at the guy in front of me again, shrieking in a flurry of Ungrish, “YOU FUCKED ME! YOU FUCKED ME! YOU FUCKING FUCKED ME!”

I went after him with both my fists and he darted back around his desk ahead of them. Angry tears had popped up into my eyes and I felt the blood thundering in my ears. Somehow, through it all, the man managed to shout towards the door, “No! I’ll handle this! Just … just wait outside!”

That old man, Johannes, had called calmly to the rich fuck, asking whether or not he should deploy a security team to come get me. “I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU!!!” I was screaming as the door to the room pulled shut behind him.

I snatched at something on the desk. Some kind of trophy or whatever, but with a sharp end. And I went at the man with it, hoping against hope to slice open his throat. No such luck, though. He caught my hand and pulled me into a stranglehold hug, tossing the improvised knife aside. I struggled, but those stick arms weren’t good enough for ANYTHING anymore.

“Would you please calm down!” he snapped in my ear while I thrashed.

“FUCK YOU!” I screamed right back, and butted the crown of my skull into his chin. He finally growled at me for that, and clamped down so hard that I could barely breathe.

When I was finally done -- when all the fight had been bled right out of me with my air and I hung there awkwardly in his grip, flopping my hands and feet against nothing -- only then did he let go. And by then my eyes had filled with tears. I was crying as I crumpled into the ground. He stepped back.

“How could you … you do it?” I sobbed there on the floor, shaking my head and just feeling sick to my stomach at the fact that I had somehow found my way back here at all. To this place. Like … THIS.

“I … I was a MAN. Like you! Like … YOU … I was ...”

I’m not sure how long I stayed there, bawling my eyes out on top of my crooked, splayed legs like a broken man who had nothing left. I just picked a spot on the floor and glared at it as water filled my eyes until I couldn’t see, and wondered at what the hell my life had become in barely a week.

Nothing. I’d become NOTHING.

Eventually, that man grabbed a hold of my arm.

It wasn’t as rough as I would’ve expected. I suppose. Considering I’d been very close to slitting his throat just a few minutes before. Instead, it was a gentle but insistent nudging as he tried to pull me back up to my feet. “Come on,” he said, and I reluctantly went with him, unsure of what else I could do. I couldn’t just stay there. Eventually, I had to get back home.

HOME. That was a joke.

Back to the tower? The Initiative? To Dr. Keinzler and Hannah Orlaev and all the rest? That wasn’t a fucking home.

But Andy was there.

I couldn’t look that guy in the eyes after he’d pulled me back up. I just stood there with my shoulders slumped, swiping intermittently at my face and sniffing back more tears as I silently willed myself to stop. It was hard, and he didn’t say anything for a while.

Then, “Now what exactly is it you think happened here?”

His voice made me look at him, and I think it was then that I finally realized that he looked familiar. I rubbed at my eyes, choked back a sob, and looked him right in the face. And I saw that same man from several weeks ago. The one who’d attacked Andy and I’d beaten up and then gotten us fired.

“It’s … you …” was all I managed, then promptly lost my tongue.

The manager from that restaurant stared back at me in confusion. I’d messed up his suit, and he’d lost his tie somewhere along the way. Collar was still popped, though. He reached up and unpopped it, tried to straighten himself out a bit.

“Yes. Me,” he said flatly, giving me a frustrated look. “Do you remember? From last night? The one you vomited all over? Because I remember that quite vividly. No?”

He was giving me a harried look and I wondered why he bothered. All that came out of my mouth was a pathetic little whimper.

“You fucked me …”

All of a sudden, his face screwed up. He pushed me back to arm’s length and that expression blanched. “N-no,” he argued quickly. “I … I didn’t touch you at ALL, I just …”

But at my slowly shaking head, he seemed to get himself back under control.

“Look. You were drunk. So drunk that you couldn’t stand and … those PEOPLE at the event, they … they wouldn’t take you back to wherever the hell they’re keeping all of you. They said something about a curfew, that no girl was to be allowed back in before it. It was either leave you there alone or, well … I decided to bring you here. Let you sleep it off. They seemed MORE than fine with that, but … Johannes was supposed to take you back first thing in the morning! I swear! No one touched you. I swear it on my life.”

Rich people. Blue bloods. Managers. I swear they had been lying to me, and Andy, from almost the moment we’d set foot inside Aurora. Everything from the work to our pay to … to everything. The Initiative. They’d just wanted a disposable crop of assholes like me and Andy to turn into girls so we could be their fucktoys for however long we lasted. All the window dressing was just that. And they’d lied about it. They’d lied to me to my face, over and over and over again.

But something about this one particular rich prick … he seemed somehow incredibly truthful as I looked up into his eyes just then. Like he meant it. Maybe he wasn’t lying and he hadn’t fucked me after all. Or maybe I was just that easy to fool. Maybe this was all just payback for that time I’d laid him out on the floor.

I became aware of his hand squeezing at my arm.

“Miss …? I’m afraid I never got your name,” he was saying, giving me a look that gravitated between worried and unsure. I remembered enough from last night to find it odd for him to seem like he cared.

“Sarah,” I said, but my tongue stuck before I could say my Papa’s name. I didn’t want him to know who I really was, if he didn’t already. I didn’t want him to realize what had become of the man who’d torn him down so easily just a few weeks ago. Or how easily he could’ve fucked her last night.

“Well, okay then. Sarah, I’m Wesley. And I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.” He was trying to look me in the eye and it reminded me distinctly of Dr. Keinzler with that tone he’d adopted. Careful, comforting. Like he thought I was some kind of wild animal he was afraid would bite and had to be handled with caution. Maybe I was. “Do you … want something to eat? It’s still early and I can get the staff to cook up some breakfast for you. I don’t think you had anything last night but champagne.”

His lips twitched upwards at the corners like that was supposed to be a joke. But I just shook my head back at him, feeling like something had wilted and died deep down inside. Even though he probably hadn’t touched me, or fucked me, or … any of it. I’d fallen apart all over again for the second time. Right in front of this blue blood. And I just couldn’t shake this feeling like the pieces wouldn’t ever quite come back together again.

So I shook my head.

“I’d like to go home now,” was what I told him instead. He regarded me for a moment, thoughtfully. Then he nodded back and let me go.

“I’ll have Johannes bring the car around.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 15: Step Eight

Very intently, I worked on the notes that filled the screen before me – very very intently. If I didn’t, I’d start to just stare at the empty space that I’d left next to Wesley Saunders’s name. If I didn’t, I’d start thinking about the scene Spence had made and the way that the man that had caught her had carried her out. If I didn’t, I’d start to worry about what had happened between the two after the event staff had told me that I wasn’t allowed to leave, yet.

In spite of my best efforts, it was hard to keep my record keeping at the forefront of my thoughts. Still, that morning, I’d managed to get a good amount down in the document. There was still a lot more to go, though.

The night before, I’d made sure to meet every single man at the party. I’d even stopped by the older ones for a quick introduction if nothing else. Most warranted only a listing of their name and brief description of their prospects and reaction to me. The former was almost always limited and the later almost always positive. There were a few men, though, that had clearly not found me their type, but not many. Frustratingly, one of them was on my list of top contenders, so he’d been written off. All his entry said was to try to pawn him off on Lily or Zoe or any other girl that started trying to compete. That left four men on my list to pursue.

The first man was Marshall Hancock, a man that, like Wesley, had an extra little flair to make him more amusing to try to swindle. He was the future owner of the delivery company where Spence and I used to work, amongst a great many other things. Furthermore, he was a fairly unassuming man, which had left him short on female company during the party. Therefore, he would likely be much easier to manipulate with less competition to worry about.

After Marshall I had listed the biggest gamble of the lot, Peter Herzog. He was the program director’s grandson, undoubtedly snuck into the listing purely on the back of his daddy’s position. Their family wasn’t that well off as the potential suitors went, but Herzog’s power was likely on the rise. After all, if things with the Initiative went well, he was likely to get put in charge of future programs related to nurturing the female population. That was a very important resource to control. Plus, his son was clearly very eager … so much so that he’d been the hardest to slip away from of any of the men that I’d met.

Third on the list was the governor’s son, Theodore Lawton. Like Peter, he was a bit of a gamble, although, less of one. The governor was well off, and likely to be a historical figure for his efforts in bringing women back to the world. Unfortunately, being around politics all the time, Teddy was a tough guy to read, so he was the one I was least sure about his opinion of me.

Last on the list, by virtue of my not wanting to think about him, was Wesley. Otherwise, he might’ve been near the top, maybe even the single best prospect. Of course, Spence might’ve snatched him up right out of the gate. I didn’t know whether to be thrilled by that, furious, or something else entirely. I supposed that it depended on whether it was Spence or Wesley that had done the snatching.

There I was, caught thinking about it again. I tried to shake my head and get back to other tasks, but it just wasn’t working. I needed a stronger distraction, or at least one that didn’t include Wesley’s name on it.

Saving everything, I shut off the computer before marching right out of my room. Down the hall I went, trying not to look at the door with Miklos on it. No, I had a different room in mind.

As she was the one tasked with watching us women, that McClelland lady had been given an apartment near ours. Presumably, we were allowed to come by to talk whenever, but no one really took advantage of that. None of us wanted to deal with the stern, forceful woman any more than we needed to. Unfortunately, I now had just such a need, but that didn’t stop me from being hesitant when I reached up to push the button for the buzzer.

With completely expected promptness, the door swung open, presenting Quinn, already dressed and ready for the day. Past her, I could see a bit of her apartment, catching a glimpse of a young man. In his arms was that baby that she’d used to scare everyone with the other day. It was still kinda scary right now, too.

“Illes, something I can do for you?” Quinn questioned professionally.

Snapping my attention back to the woman, I nodded as much to get my thoughts in order as indicate anything. “Right, I was wondering about the rules regarding our not being able to leave the premises.”

“Wondering? You seem well aware of them,” Quinn pointed out.

“Yes, or at least, I thought I was until my friend Sarah didn’t return last night,” I explained. “That got me wondering if we’re allowed off premises for specific situations, such as to meet with someone we met last night. Could we invite them to come here as well?”

Quinn raised an eyebrow at that question. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to ask me that for a while yet, but yes, such things are allowed, although, you’ll need to let me know about them so that I can inform the staff of what to expect.”

“Really? Good,” I mumbled in relief.

One of the biggest problems that I’d had the night before was there being too many people around. I needed a more private setting to make any real moves, especially if I wanted to play multiple hands at once. Given the risks, I definitely wanted to do that, and being able to schedule meetups, dates as my research called them, would make that much easier.

“Did you have anyone particular in mind or was it more of just a general question?” Quinn inquired when I didn’t say more.

Looking up from my thoughts, I smiled brightly. “Just a general question, but I’ll have some soon now that I know that I can.”

Quinn nodded, an intrigued look on her face. “Alright. Just let us know when you do.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Could you believe how pushy they were?” Maddie remarked.

“Like starving men at a meat market,” Trish compared.

“No surprise,” Amber noted. “There hasn’t been a woman around in over twenty years. Every man is starving for one.”

Absently, I half listened to that discussion. I didn’t really care about the complaints or anything like that. All I concerned myself with was catching any details about the other girls’ plans for the boys. As long as those plans revolved around fear, however, they weren’t much of a concern.

Well, there was one other thing that I was listening for, a need to chime in. I didn’t want to abandon the facade of caring about talks like these that filled the time between the end of our morning lesson and lunch being served. They were a useful source of information, and I’d lose them if I acted like some aloof, self-centered ass.

Fortunately, the other women seemed to be handling things just fine on their own, so I got by with just a few nods and hums of assent. Meanwhile, the other half of my brain was off on other things. There’d been an article in one of my magazines that I needed to reread, one that listed suggestions for first dates. I had invitations to said dates to write and send out as well. Lastly, there was Spence who was still gone, even though, most of the morning had passed by. That final worry was growing by the moment.

To my great relief, the unknown fate of my friend happened to reveal itself in the midst of that conversation. The other girls and I were outside, not technically off premises, but enjoying a nice sunny day with a good breeze. As such, I easily caught the sight of a car pulling up. That oddity was enough to draw my attention, but it was Spence bursting out of the side door as soon as the car was stopped that had me scrambling to my feet.

“Sarah!” I called out, rushing over to the woman.

Hearing my shout, Spence’s rush toward the door came to an awkward stop. Her gaze dropped down and away, looking embarrassed. Meanwhile, behind her, there was the sound of another door as a familiar man stepped out of the car.

Glancing between my ashamed looking friend and the stern expression on Wesley’s face as he came around the car, I focused on the latter, leveling a glare at the man. “What did you do to her?” I demanded, keeping my anger only barely restrained. Even then, my voice came with none of it’s usual charm or light, instead sporting a dark, icy edge.

“Nothing,” Wesley assured me, raising his hands non threateningly. “She’s fine. She just had a little too much to drink last night.”

Suspicious, I turned to Sarah. Walking over in front of her, I rested my hands on her shoulders in an effort to both reassure and get her to look at me. “You alright?”

The woman’s response was a strange contradiction. First, her face twitched at the question as something haunted filled her eyes. Then, somehow, she nodded, in complete opposition to what her expression said.

For my part, I didn’t know what to do with that answer. My friend had been rattled for days, so her being rattled now, after spending a night at some man’s house, was no surprise. It was entirely possible that nothing had happened. It was also possible something had, though. One thing was for sure, and that was that either way, Spence clearly wasn’t doing well at the moment.

“Alright, let’s get you inside,” I finally said, settling on just trying to be there for her.

“I assume you can handle her from here?” Wesley questioned.

Looking up from my friend, I nodded. “Yeah, and uh, thank you for dropping her off.”

“Of course,” Wesley replied simply. “It was just the polite thing to do.”

With that exchange over, I got Spence moving, leading her into the building. There, we got her checked back in with the staff, who were easily convinced to let me take her back to her room to rest. The whole way, she remained silent, her movements almost robotic as she just followed my guidance.

“Are you really alright?” I waited until Spence’s living room to ask. “He didn’t … try anything … unwelcome or something?”

I don’t know if it was the timing or the privacy of the apartment, but the shaken woman was a little more forthcoming than before. “N … no. He didn’t … at least, I don’t think he did. I’m fine.”

“Then why did he take off with you like that?” I questioned, not understanding the man’s motives if not to get a free sample.

A shrug and a headshake all mixed together for Spence. “He … I don’t know. I don’t remember. He said they wouldn’t take me back here last night.”

“Because of the curfew?” I questioned, surprised at the news. What good was there in forcing a girl who was pass-out drunk to stay at a party?

Spence just shrugged again.

That was a befuddling answer, but I tried not to let it show. Instead, I nodded while pretending to mull it all over for a moment. “So then he was just trying to be helpful?”

“I guess …” came another uncertain response.

“Well, whatever, you’re back now,” I said, figuring it was best to try to just move past the incident. “You don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Memories whirled through my head, trying to build a perfect picture. The subject of that picture was Wesley Saunders. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much to build with. The man was curt and reclusive. He was alone at the party, even slipped away from me after I’d put forth the effort to draw him near. I took that as a hatred for crowds more so than me, though. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have accepted my approach at all.

Outside of my own experience, I had Sarah’s little … episode. She hadn’t given me much either. I could deduce a few key things, though. One, that Wesley wasn’t in the program just to get some quick mating in between important business meetings. Two, somewhere under the brusk exterior was a man that fancied himself decent and upstanding. He wouldn’t just leave some drunken girl to fend for herself, not even after she’d thrown up all over his expensive suit.

Between those two little bits, I had a rough picture sketched out. I’d have to refine it as I went, but it was a good start. The very door that I stood in front of in that moment was proof of that.

As McClelland had promised, I was allowed to leave the premises to interact with the strapping young men from the Initiative party. Wesley had been the hardest one to get to agree to a meeting, though. After his reluctance at the event, I knew I needed a different approach than a social call, and Sarah, loyal friend that she was, had given it to me. A hostilely worded note demanding to discuss what had happened with the other woman was something a decent upstanding fellow couldn’t just ignore. He’d have to protect his honor from such accusations, and in doing so, he’d agreed to allow me over. All according to plan.

The next part of the plan had involved figuring out what I wanted to present to the loner. I suspected that he wasn’t too interested in the flashy and dazzling Ada that had flittered about the party trying to make everyone happy. He had respected the commiseration, the little tidbit of a girl putting on a brave face in a trying situation. That was the angle, and to do that, I had to abandon overt tactics.

Now, I still wore makeup, but it was very different. There was just a little extra pink to my lips and cheeks to keep me from seeming sickly with pallor. My attire was far more conservative as well, a skirt past my knees and a comfortable top. It was the kind of thing a girl who was being forced to be girly might wear.

After all of that work to set up the plan, all I’d had to do was get the Initiative to drive me over. Ol’ Wes had a really nice place, but I kept it from aweing or intimidating me. It was just another home with a door and a bell. The latter of which, I rung as soon as it was in reach.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” an older man in attire that, while quite fine, felt more like a uniform greeted me as he opened the door.

I smiled at the man’s welcome. “Good afternoon. Adelaide Illes to see Mr. Saunders.”

“Yes, he is expecting you,” the servant replied before stepping back to beckon me forward. “Please come in.”

“Thank you,” I replied, stepping through the door into a place that made my fancy apartment at the Initiative look decidedly drab.

With a nod of acknowledgement, the old man moved passed me, leading the way into a living room. “If you will just have a seat, Miss Illes, I’ll fetch Mr. Saunders for you.”

“Alright,” I agreed, letting the servant leave before I moved to comply. I took a seat that had a back facing toward the door that he’d left through. That way, Wesley would only see a faint silhouette in a chair when he approached.

As I waited, I mulled over several possible opening lines while I counted the seconds. It turned out that there weren’t that many to count before I heard footsteps again. Apparently, Wesley was a punctual man as well – another useful little tidbit.

Pretending to not even hear the man’s approach, I just sat right where I was until he finally spoke, “Miss Illes.”

That was my moment. I popped up from my seat, feigning anger for just a moment until I spun to face the mark. Then, I had an easy smile on my face. “I thought I told you before that I prefer Ada.”

Across the way, there seemed to be a flicker of confusion across Wesley’s face at the sudden shift from expected. “... Yes, I believe you did. Regardless, I really don’t understand what you needed to see me about. I would’ve thought that your friend would be able to explain what happened herself.”

“She did. That’s why I’m here,” I explained, letting it hang there for a moment as if Spence had revealed something terrible that would need to be discussed. Only after that little pause had passed did I speak again. “To thank you for taking such good care of her.”

“Oh …” Wesley mumbled, a bit taken aback by the unexpected reason for the visit. “Well, I didn’t do much, but you’re welcome.”

“Not at all, you were very helpful,” I denied emphatically before quickly changing gears again, adopting a bashful look. “That’s why I also wanted to … apologize … for suspecting you. It’s just … with everything they’ve done to us, the changes, the clothes, the way they marched us out like livestock to market, I was worried. Sarah’s a close friend from … before, and I overreacted.”

Wesley held up his hands wardingley. “There’s no need. In fact, there was no need for you to come at all. I understood your concerns, but was hoping your friend would clear them up, so we could put this all behind us for good.”

“I don’t agree,” I stated, switching tactics yet again. I couldn’t be too soft, not with someone like this who would push that away. “Maybe this won’t sound sincere, but you were a great help. If you hadn’t taken care of Sarah, who knows what someone else might’ve done. I couldn’t just let that pass without expressing my gratitude or my embarrassment over doubting your motives.”

“Yes, well, you have so–” Wesley started, and I could tell he was planning to kick me out right then.

“Not yet, I haven’t,” I interjected. “At least, allow me to take you to dinner or something in return. Otherwise, I’ll always feel like I’m in your debt.”

That invitation clearly wasn’t something Wesley wanted to accept. “Please. That’s really unnecessary. I don’t--”

“Please?” I cut him his attempt at rebuffing me again. “It’s really just the polite thing to do, isn’t it?”

An exasperated sigh slipped from his lips at his words repeated back at him. “Very well … Fine. Whatever you think you need to do.”

There it was, the yes, I wanted, but I didn’t just take it. No, there was a different opportunity. “Is it really so horrible, spending a meal with me?”

“What? No. I didn’t mean to imply that,” Wesley denied defensively.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not how you feel,” I pointed out, shifting into pretending to be self-conscious. “Is it because of me? I know I look … different from the other girls.”

Wesley shook his head. “That is not the issue. Honestly, I’d just prefer to not get involved with any of you.”

“You wouldn’t?” I questioned. “Then why are you even in the Initiative?”

Another sigh slid out of Wesley, heavy with weariness. “I didn’t want to be. There were just … obligations.”

“Ah, I understand,” I replied, looking down with feigned despondence. “It’s the same for me. I didn’t want to join, but I lost my job because of something out of my control, and I couldn’t find another one in time. If I didn’t take the offer, they were going to deport me. Now, I’m stuck. If I don’t play along, they’ll toss me toss me out there like this. I can only imagine how horrible that would be, so I just do my best to be what they want.”

When I lifted my gaze again, I saw exactly what I was hoping for. There was sympathy in Wesley’s eyes. It was the proof that I was on the right track here, trying to appear as a kindred spirit just working with the situation she’d been stuck in.

“That’s actually why I was pushing so hard,” I continued my false confession. “It’s selfish, I know, but I thought … well, I was going to have to end up with someone. With everything I knew about you from the party and how you helped Sarah, I thought maybe … well, I suppose it doesn’t matter if you don’t even want to have dinner with me.”

It was a very different pitch from any that I’d expected to have to make, but I expected it was the right one. Wesley has already shown a willingness to help a girl in need. I also presented a solution to his own troubles, one that the previous connection would make rather appealing.

“I …” Wesley sighed again, putting his hands on his hips. “Does that mean you don’t want to have dinner after all?”

I shook my head. “No, but I won’t hold it against you if you take back your acceptance.”

“I see,” Wesley replied, mulling that answer over for a moment. “Very well. When would you like to meet?”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Sixteen: Two for the Show

“You’ve been rather quiet, Sarah.”

I glanced up and across the coffee table to the familiar sight of Dr. Keinzler. Our sessions had become a consistent part of my daily routine after nearly two weeks in that place, and I’d gotten used to them. Comfortable even, despite the two guards they always had close by outside my apartment door. Keinzler always apologized for them, saying he regretted the state of affairs, but I couldn’t blame him. It’s not like he’d done that to me. And it’s not like I’d ever threatened to attack HIM, so he really didn’t know any better.

I was sitting there with my shrimpy legs up on the couch with me, wearing some loose pants meant for sleepwear and a black tank top. They’d gotten our sizes and flooded us with all kinds of clothes to get accustomed to wearing. I happened to like whatever I could find that reminded me of my much more straightforward wardrobe from before. Made it easier to forget.

“I never really cared much for talking. That hasn’t changed.”

“There are some men who might find that a useful trait.”

A wince creased my face. It was as involuntary as it was immediate. The doc was quick to apologize for that too.

“I’m sorry, Sarah, I didn’t mean it like that,” he tried to say, giving me a sad, consoling look. “I understand you’re uncomfortable with the expectations they’ve set on you here. I just meant that there are people out there who would appreciate someone who knows when to speak, and when to listen.”

I scoffed at that, flipping the cheek-length brown hairs atop my head away from my face. “Never said I liked listening either.”

“But you’ve been listening to me. All these little talks we have, you’ve been sitting there quietly and listening the whole time. I know, because I pay attention to make sure that you are. You might drown out most people, but I’ve noticed the ones you don’t. Myself, your friend Ada, Mrs. McClellan--”

“I only listen when she talks because I hate her!” was what I snapped at that name before he could finish. And I regretted it because I knew Keinzler was just trying to get me to talk. Provoking a reaction.

I settled back down into the couch, folding my arms across my chest.

“Almost as much as you hate Ms. Orlaev?” he goaded in that clinical tone of his. Of course, it was impossible to resist taking the bait.

“I never should’ve told you about that.”

“Well for what it’s worth, I’m glad that you did. Though I might not approve of her methods, I can’t really do anything about what one person in our care says someone on the staff said to her in private. Especially given your unusual circumstances at the moment.”

He meant the guards. The attacks. My word would never be credible against Hannah Orlaev’s, the darling fucking princess of this wonderful fucking project. But wasn’t that just how it always went. Those blue bloods protected their own, I wasn’t dumb. I wasn’t even asking the doctor to DO anything about it.

“I am rather interested in one thing that you mentioned she said,” Keinzler continued, pushing the glasses back up on his face. He wore a short-trimmed orange and silver beard that crinkled up whenever he started getting thoughtful on me.

“Oh yea? What’s that.”

“This threat she made. About throwing you out of Aurora? You seemed pretty worried about that being something it was well within her power to do.”

“Shouldn’t I be?” I snorted.

“Perhaps,” was all the doc could say about that. Probably because Orlaev had more pull than him or something and he had to tow his own line too. “But I think there’s more to it than that. When I followed up on some of these things that you told me she said, I eventually found my way to another Miklos who seemed to be of some interest. A certain Mikhail, living somewhere outside the city?”

I tried to hide it, but my blood froze up at the mention of Papa again. It was hard not to do that. But I really didn’t want the shrink digging into that particular bit of personal history, so I quickly shoved those lingering fears down, made myself shrug, and looked elsewhere.

“Not sure why you think I’d care about the guy.”

“He’s your father, is he not?”

I wanted to say no, but it would’ve been a wasted effort. The way he asked the question made it all too clear that he was already sure of the answer. Just trying to see how I’d respond then. Too bad I wasn’t interested in walking down memory lane with him anytime soon.

“I don’t wanna talk about him,” was what I told the doc. Firmly.

“Okay,” he relented. Then immediately swung from another direction. “How about we talk about what happened last Saturday night.”

The night of the dinner party. The night of being shown off like a hunk of meat for sale to the highest bidders in the city and watching the jackals paw around in the dirt for a whiff. The night I’d let myself go too far. The night I’d blacked out in front of all those people.

I stiffened up at the thought.

“Don’t wanna talk about that either.”

“Oh? From what I heard, you seemed to find yourself in the company of one of the men from the engagement. Our records showed you gone to Mr. Wesley Saunders private residential home for the night, not arriving back here until late the morning after.”

It didn’t matter that I’d wanted no one to ever know about it. It didn’t matter that it was the most degrading, embarrassing thing in this new world of mine. Most of the other girls thought that I’d fucked him, as if I’d gone with him on my own for that very reason rather than been too out of it to even realize what’d happened. And when Hannah Orlaev had finally come around the next day? She’d just given me this smug, amused smile. I guess she thought I’d taken “towing the line” as seriously as I could.

“I said I don’t want to talk about it.”

Dr. Keinzler watched me for a few moments. Then he reached up and removed his glasses, massaging the bridge of his nose. “Sarah,” he started, in as calm and gentle a tone as he could muster, and it put me immediately on edge. “Did something happen while you were gone?”

I’d been purposely avoiding this topic all week ever since. Maybe the good doctor had been waiting for the right time to bring it up, because I sure as hell hadn’t given him any hints and he seemed to do his homework. The fact that he was researching what I did outside these sessions and what I told him was more than a little discomforting just in and of itself.

So I didn’t say anything. But, after a second or two, I did shake my head. I was pretty sure that was true too, not that I could remember anything from that night. Maybe if that guy had known who I was, he might have done differently by me. But he’d seemed genuine at least. I really didn’t think anything had happened after all.

But it could have. It so easily could have, and it made me sick to my stomach whenever I thought about it.

The way he’d smiled at me when he dropped Andy off earlier might’ve worried me more, but it’d been as tight-lipped and unsure as the one I’d given him reflexively in turn without realizing until it was too late. And then I’d just scurried off alongside my buddy, not wanting to think about it anymore.

But Andy. Andy …

Was she even Andy anymore? It was hard to tell. And maybe that was just as well because she couldn’t BE who she’d been ever again. That was starting to sink in for me now. It really hadn’t before. Before, part of me had always felt like this was temporary -- just a con to get through and be richer than god once we were out on the other side. But that wasn’t true. There WAS no other side. After all, we really were stuck like this, weren’t we? There was no Andy and Spencer anymore, just Ada and … and Sarah.

What did that even mean?

“Sarah,” the doc was saying, pulling me back around to look at him, “I know this is uncomfortable for you to hear but there would be nothing wrong with it if something HAD happened. Not so long as it was with your consent. I don’t think there’s a person here who doesn’t understand just why this program exists, yourself included. If this colony is going to survive, then procreation between men and women will have to occur. You will need to be a part of that at some point, so there’s absolutely no reason to be ashamed. You’ll need to start considering your future prospects if you want to succeed.”

“Succeed …?” I echoed, swallowing thickly as I did.

Because it reminded me of what Ada had said, when I found out that she was gone out on her own and spent every moment they’d given me worrying, and beating myself up inside wondering what she’d been about. The woman that came back, hopping easily out of a familiar, richly well-kept vehicle, was like a stranger to me. Except she was doing exactly what she’d said she would do all along. I’d just been too stupid to see it for what it really was.

“What are you doing?” I’d demanded of the other woman as we strode away from Saunders and back into the Initiative. As for the bite that should’ve been in the words, there was none. It’d gone the same way as Spencer had.

“Working the con, just like we’d planned. I just have to figure out which one of these jokers is the surest thing.”

I’d stopped in my tracks at that. It was the same old game, just different moves. Or maybe that was different players. Because what she was talking about wasn’t just taking what we wanted, making them give it to us. It was letting them … KEEP us. In payment. And there was so, so much implied in that arrangement. All I had to do was look at Quinn McClelland to understand.

Ada had paused when she’d noticed, looking back to me standing there, struggling with all of it. Her face softened just the slightest bit, but what she told me was, “You’re going to have to play this game too, Sarah. It’s why we came here.”

“I don’t think I CAN …”

I’d shaken my head helplessly and she’d sighed, coming back to grab me by the arm. “Sure, you can. They’re teaching us half of what we need to know here for free. You just gotta pick someone and … just be nice to them. That’s not so hard, right? Or let them come to you. There’ll be plenty of guys looking to get your attention. Let ‘em. Smile and listen and figure it out. It’s really the easiest thing in the world. The treatment already gave you pretty much everything you need.”

She’d gestured at this small, weak female body as if that was the answer. I suppose it was. But it didn’t make me feel that much better about any of it. Still, Andy had always known what was best for us so I was pretty sure Ada did now too. I’d just wrapped my arms around me and nodded back.

And that was the same thing Dr. Keinzler was saying to me now. He was telling me to start doing just what Ada was doing. Become a … another Quinn McClelland, with a … a baby in one arm and a husband and …

Would it really be so bad? I wanted to say yes, it would. But Ada was doing it. She was going for it with all the drive that Andy ever had when it came to all our other schemes. I guess I really didn’t have a choice either. I couldn’t even imagine what it might be like to be thrown outside the walls like Orlaev had said she would do to me. If I didn’t tow the line. If I didn’t … participate.

So I looked right at Dr. Keinzler and nodded my head for him too. Like someone who was onboard with it. With everything.

“Okay,” I told him in a small voice. So, so very small. “Okay. I’ll … I’ll try it.”

He seemed very excited by that.

“That’s very good, Sarah!” he told me emphatically. The glasses were back on his face and that ginger beard split wide with a smile. “This is a breakthrough, I should say. Acceptance is a wonderful step forward. You should be proud of yourself!”

He’d stood up and come over to put his hand on my shoulder. I looked at it there, and, for once, resisted the urge to shove it off. I tried to smile for him instead, just like Ada had told me to. Even though I felt a despairing lurch inside my soul.

I didn’t cry so much that night.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Oh, Eric, how good to see you again!”

Ada held out her hand in a very dainty fashion, palm down and fingers dangling. The young man in front of her reached out and took it, giving her a gentle little shake that only seemed a little bit awkward, considering the positioning. Not that you would know it by the look on his face. Beaming ear to ear, his rounded head was mostly meat and muscle, but it was obvious that he didn’t have much need to use it. It was soft.

“Ada!” the man, Eric Masterson greeted her warmly and with plenty of enthusiasm. His family owned most of the renewable energy resources within the city, which I only knew because Ada had whispered it hurriedly to me as the man approached like I was supposed to care. I guess that was just the point, though. She thought I should.

So I smiled, as best I could, when he looked my way to greet me too. I held out my hand to shake his, not really succeeding in that same effeminate way that Ada had. Which earned me a rather quick dismissal as the man turned the entirety of his attentions immediately back to the pale woman beside me.

“I haven’t seen you since the dinner party and Schandler’s Hall last weekend. Tell me, what do you think of the play so far?”

“Oh, it’s positively wonderful! Though I imagine the whole thing looks much better from where you’re sitting.”

“You are so very right, my dear. Maybe I could persuade you to come join me in my own private box after the intermission?”

Ada touched a hand gently to the man’s arm. “That’s really very sweet of you, but I’m afraid it would all be wasted on me. Just sitting where I am and seeing it at all is such a novelty already!” She giggled a laugh, and then started steering me away. Once we’d made a short distance and were out of earshot, the pale woman tapped my arm and whispered, “Not worth our time. A bunch of his subsidiary companies are are about to go under and there’s already bidding from more serious competitors. But you see how it’s done, right?”

“That was terrible,” was what I mumbled back at her as we walked, glancing at the people all around. They’d dragged all of us women out to this theatre for our second, big social event. For the moment, everyone was using the excuse to socialize and fill up the venue outside while we waited for the next series of acts. Can’t say I ever wanted to go back in there, though.

“He just kept … STARING at you while he talked,” I added with a disgusted twist of my mouth a moment later, shaking my head. And by staring, I meant at her body, not her face. His beady little eyes had been roving all over the skin that she showed in her glimmering dress all the while.

“Yea, that’s usually what they do. You gotta use it to your advantage.”

I cringed, but didn’t say anything. Eventually, she leaned in to whisper to me again.

“Here comes Theodore Lawton. He’s a big fish, with lots of potential. Just watch and learn.”

I did. I made my little pleasantries, trying to stick to Ada’s shadow and observe how she handled all these rich pricks herself. She was so good at it. But this was her thing. Andy had always been the talker before, never me. I just wished that it could be like always -- let me bash in some skulls when the situation called for it, Andy handling the schmooze. But it couldn’t work so easily like that and I knew it now. I could hardly bash in a drinking glass, let alone someone’s skull with these puny arms. So the only thing left to do was learn some small amount of tricks of the trade from the master while she worked.

It was painful to watch.

Those assholes loved to oggle her. Her tits, her ass. Some guys even just fixed on her face in the most disturbing way. And she sweet-talked ‘em the whole while through. It was kind of like watching the old Andy through a broken mirror. I could still see him in there while Ada worked, but it was a whole new type of game. Only made sense that she’d be a pro at this one too.

Eventually, “intermission” ended. They called us back in and I scurried away to my seat. I was sandwiched between two men that would’ve undoubtedly wished for a much more pliable female to work their attentions on, like Ada. Though I tried to force my smiles and be as nice as I could, I didn’t have much to say to either. Thankfully, the performance on stage gave me an excuse to be quiet.

I was trying. I’d told Dr. Keinzler that I would, and Ada too. So I was. I was holding all that frustration and hopelessness in and just trying to be what everyone else wanted me to be, and it was the hardest thing I had ever had to do in my life.

When the play was over, we filed out and walked a short distance over to another patio-place with a nice view of a small pond, arches done up with ivy and twinkling yellow lights all around. It was night and everyone started to relax as the liquor flowed. I snagged a glass for myself and downed it super quick, but held off on any more for fear of a repeat of the last event.

Ada made her rounds. I swear to god, it felt like she had to talk to EVERY last person there. I followed in her shadow, listening as she whispered little hints and details she’d been collecting on all those people. There were four who she earmarked as her primary targets: Pete Herzog, Marshall Hancock, Theodore Lawton, and … Wesley Saunders. When Saunders came around, I tried to make myself invisible while standing in plain view right next to Ada. He gave me a curious frown, though, noticing me either way. I returned one of those forced smiles I’d been giving everyone and looked elsewhere. Strangely enough, he seemed to have warmed to Ada a bit. The two spoke, and the pale woman was pumping him for another opportunity to see each other for dinner. She did that with each of these Big Four, I noticed. Thankfully, though, she didn’t recommend I try doing the same just yet.

I think the only moment that stuck out to me in that never-ending stream of useless talk and smiles and plastic laughing, was when Ada had held her hand out and a man actually bent over and kissed the back of it. I thought it incredibly weird, and wondered if my friend wouldn’t just smack the guy right upside his face. But she actually stood there with her mouth open, about to speak, and then seemed to forget whatever it was she was going to say. A moment later and she recovered, though, beaming brightly at the man as she went right in on some more of that rich person small talk. The guy introduced himself as Greg Schulz, and said he was just making the rounds with all the girls here since he’d duck out early from the last event due to work. Explained how he had been the one to coordinate with Quinn McClelland and Leslie Weeks when they first stumbled into Aurora almost two years ago. He seemed very excited by all of us and pleased with how things were going so far.

After he left, Ada whispered to me that he was a member of the Council. If I remembered right, from the past six years hanging around bars and such, that was supposed to be like the government here or something. Bunch of fat cats making all the decisions, with a governor overseeing them. But Ada said it was certainly the sort of position of power to consider.

At some point, I found myself away from the pale-skinned woman, toward the latter half of the night. There was that same curfew again, of course, not that I’d known about it until after the first gig, but most of the girls seemed content to stick around anyways. A lot of them had gotten more comfortable. If not with the idea of how we were being marketed to all these suits, then at least with all the attention and glamor. I suppose I should’ve been too, and I was trying. Maybe there was just something wrong with me that made it all so difficult in the first place.

Again, I escaped to the familiar comfort of one of the many liquor tables. A lot of the booze had already been drunk, but I wasn’t looking to take myself down for the count again. I did allow myself to gulp down another glass for good measure, though.

Someone came up behind me as I did.

“I would’ve thought you’d learned your lesson after last time.”

The drink caught in my throat in surprise, and I was coughing it up and spluttering as I whipped around to see a familiar face standing there behind me. He moved up to the other side of the table and went about pouring himself his own glass. “Don’t worry, I’ll stick to my side, you can have yours again.”

Wesley Saunders managed a bitter smile out of the side of his mouth as he poured. I was still coughing on my drink, trying to force the bubbling liquid out of the wrong pipe. Eventually, Saunders cocked an eyebrow at me.

“You alright?”

“I … I’m fine!” I gagged, forcing up the last of it. Then I shook my head violently, giving him a dark look. “Shouldn’t you be over there with the rest of these people, fawning and talking about a lot of stupid bullshit?”

“Can’t say I ever cared for ‘talking a lot of stupid bullshit’,” he remarked easily, coming back around to throw a scrutinous eye at the rest of the party. “And fawning isn’t something I aspire to either. Speaking of which, shouldn't you be busy trying to bat those pretty eyes at someone to see if they’ll want to seduce you into their bed full of money?”

I screwed my face up at him, even though that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing according to Ada. Might as well have been what Dr. Keinzler was suggesting I do too. Only maybe he was thinking more about me letting myself get fucked and pregnant.

“Oh, that’s right. I seem to remember you getting quite upset when you thought I might’ve taken advantage of you that night.”

My mind went back to that morning after, and I winced. It wasn’t the most pleasant of memories, but at least it hadn’t gone as badly as it could. He was sipping his drink, and gave me a sidelong glance.

“However do you hope to survive this whole Faraday Initiative effort if you’re not going to play their game?” he asked then, and it was hard to tell if it was rhetorical or not. “Most of all the other women seem to be getting it. Just look at them. Not you?”

The question had me frowning into my glass, and I didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, it was just a pitiful little, “I’m trying,” whined at him as if he might give me credit for the effort. But not so much.

“That’s right, I saw that,” he nodded, and tossed me another cynical smile. “Though I think you were much better off showing everyone how much you hated them. At least it was honest. That little smile you were trying out earlier only made me think you were suddenly feeling sick at the sight of me, truth be told.”

That wasn’t far off from the truth. Not that this one rich asshole was the worst of the lot, though. Not by far. Most of the others, I was sure, would’ve taken any chance to fuck me if they could’ve, judging by the way they looked at all of us. And the thought of it was a disturbing reminder that if I somehow found myself alone in the power of one of them, well there wasn’t much I could physically do anymore to stop them from doing whatever they wanted with me. It made me cringe deep down inside.

Powerlessness was not something I’d had to feel in a long, long time.

“Your friend … Adelaide,” Wesley Saunders started up again after a minute or so of us just sitting there, drinking and watching the party in uncomfortable silence while I wondered why the hell he was even still hanging around. “Ada. She’s rather interesting, isn’t she.”

It wasn’t a question by the way he said it, but I still looked at him sharply. “She …” And I lost whatever I was gonna say part way through, though, so I decided on just milking the common play. “She’s the most interesting girl here,” I told him, trying not to stumble as I scrambled to sell it like Ada might. “You should definitely go talk to her. Whenever you get the chance. She’s, uhh … she thinks you’re very … interesting … too.”

Huh. Yea. That could work.

But the man just gave me another curious look.

“And what about you?”

“What do I think?” I parroted him in surprise, alarmed at the idea. “Why would you care what I think about you?”

That look just turned perplexed.

“I … didn’t mean it that way. I was asking about YOU. You’re the only one of these girls standing off to the side trying to avoid even the slightest hint of attention.” He waved a hand back towards the party. “Seems like something to ask about, doesn’t it? That’s what people usually do at these things. Ask asinine questions, for stupid reasons.”

Ass-a-WHAT?

But I just shook my head, quickly.

“I’m not the one you should be asking about, or talking to. I’m not interesting. I’m not interesting at ALL.”

“Hm. Says the person who got so drunk that she threw up all over several thousand credits worth of suit and then tried to murder me the next morning with my own Vandeman Award, without so much as an apology uttered for any of it.”

“I … overreacted,” I offered, deciding to echo one of Keinzler’s usual descriptions for my “behavior” when I stepped out of line, grimacing as I did so. “Do you want me to say I’m sorry? Is that it?”

I looked at him, and he looked back. Didn’t say anything, though. Just stood there studying me for several, long moments. Long enough for me to start getting uncomfortable again.

“No,” he finally admitted. “Can’t say that I care. I have a hundred suits just like it, and could buy a hundred more without losing so much as a fraction of a point in my company's stock. And you didn’t manage to kill me, so there IS that.”

“So … what?” I demanded, a little irritated both at that flippant tone and the casual reminder of my inability to even come close to slitting his throat when I’d wanted to. “You just like bothering me then?”

He seemed to consider that seriously for a moment. “Maybe I do. Maybe I find it much more INTERESTING than making the rounds with all these yesmen and sycophants, these pretty new things with their pedestrian agendas. Maybe that’s exactly why I’m over here in the first place.”

I wasn’t sure what that all meant. Or why he was still talking to me. But, apparently, he wasn’t so sure about the talking to ME part either, because he suddenly smiled and said, “I think I’ll be going. You can have your table back, just be careful not to drink so much this time. I won’t be here to carry you home tonight.”

I scowled at that, at his back as he stepped off and away. He only got a few steps before he spun back around, though, and tossed me a strangely glib, “Maybe I’ll see you again next weekend. Same table?”

I just shook my head in confusion.

“What?” I tried to call after.

But he was already gone.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 17: Step Nine

“Will this do, er, madame,” the waiter asked as he stopped and gestured at a table. He was old enough to remember the right words to use for women, but he was long out of practice, stumbling a bit over addressing me.

While the man was able to get the words right, I found his table selection abilities to be truly terrible. He had us out in the middle of the room with no sense of privacy or romance. That just wouldn’t do.

“Actually, if it’s not too much trouble, could we maybe get something along the wall,” I tried, affecting a dainty and apologetic air. Underneath it, though, was careful direction to make sure everything for the night was correct. “I prefer something a bit more cozy.”

While he may have been bad at picking, the waiter was fortunately agreeable enough, dipping his head at the request. “Of course, madame. Right this way.”

As we started off again, I glanced back over my shoulder with a smile. There, my date, a rather unassuming man, followed along behind me. He wasn’t looking at me, though. No, his gaze was on the floor as he fidgeted nervously with his hands. That wasn’t exactly unexpected. Marshall had been doing some version of that ever since I’d gotten into the car with him at the start of the date.

Rather than do something right away, I waited for the waiter to bring us to our new table. It was much better, a cute little booth near the corner. Of course, with my light coloration and the fact that I was one of the few women in the city, there would still be plenty of unwanted attention from the other guests, but I had a solution for that. I took the seat that faced the restaurant, while Marshall got the seat that could see little besides me.

Once we were seated, Marshall’s focus went right to his menu, almost seeming to be trying to hide behind it. I had no intentions of letting him do so, though. No, within a few seconds of the waiter departing, I reached out, leaning over the small table to rest a hand on his wrist as I put a smile on my face.

“Marshall, sweetie, relax,” I reassured, trying one of the cutesy little names that so many women in the media that I watched for research seemed to use.

The poor boy actually twitched at my touch, but when he looked up at me, he calmed down some. A stupid looking smile appeared on his face in awkward reflection of my own. “S-Sorry, I’m just … well –”

“I know, Marshal,” I cut off the stammering. “But you don’t need to be. I’m absolutely thrilled that you agreed to come out with me tonight, and I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful evening.”

“I–I’m, uh, I’m th-thrilled, too, Ada,” Marshal stuttered back.

At those words, I brightened my smile, wanting it to truly shine. I added a pat on the wrist that I’d grabbed as a reward before finally pulling my hand back. With it returned, I shifted my posture around a bit. Chest out and shoulders back put the pale mounds on my chest in position to be admired as well as kept me looking graceful and alert. A slight forward lean aided both goals as well as served to make me appear very interested in my date. Marshall certainly seemed to approve as he had exchanged fidgeting for staring at me.

Only once I had myself properly posed did I break eye contact to look down at my menu. There I spent a few moments pretending to peruse the options, letting out a few exaggerated hums. It was all made to seem like I was struggling to make a decision, but Marshall didn’t bite on the hints I was trying to give him. When I dared a peek up, I found him still just staring.

“Marshall, sweetie,” I began, before just pausing to wait for his eyes to focus.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to repeat myself as Marshall’s gaze snapped up to mine. “Y-Yes, Ada?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with such glamorous places,” I continued now that I had his attention. “Would it be at all possible for you to suggest something to me?”

“Oh, well, uhm, that is, yes, let me just …” Marshal blabbered before quickly snatching his menu to look at it. “The, uh, the f-fish is quite good and the … uhm … the …”

“Which dish is your favorite?” I asked, putting the focus onto him.

“Well, I, uhm, I’ve always preferred the steak, myself, personally,” Marshall answered.

Smiling, I pushed my menu aside. “Then that’s what I’ll have.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“And then I said, but that’s how you peel an onion, and she just laughed this most beautiful laugh,” Theodore Lawton, the most recent of my dates, recounted as we walked along the park path hand in hand. In the wake of those words, he even let out a wistful sigh.

Meanwhile, I was trying very hard to keep the pleasant smile on my face, but it was not easy. Normally, I liked my marks to talk. Because of that, I’d considered Teddy here a step up from Marshall, at least, earlier in the evening. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that there was one topic that he was quite fixated on, and it was rather problematic – Lily.

If there was one thing I was absolutely certain about after my date with Theodore, it was that he was smitten. He was acting just like some idiot in a movie, drunk on love and yet seemingly completely clueless about it. It was sickening and aggravating and just a touch sweet. It was also plan ruining.

In a way, I was sort of relieved. I’d always known that Lily girl was a threat, but it was the not knowing when or how she might make her play that was troubling. If Theodore was her play, though, then I didn’t mind conceding him. That would take Lily, my only real competition right off the table. In fact …

“Teddy wait,” I suddenly spoke up, stopping in my tracks.

With my grip on his hand, Theodore was forced to stop with me if he didn’t want to rudely drag me along. Doing so, he turned and furrowed his brow in confusion. “Is something wrong, Ada?”

Adding a sad tinge to my smile, I shook my head. “No, not at all, but I’m afraid, I think this is going to be our only date.”

“What?! Why!? Did I do something wrong?!” Theodore blurted in disbelief. “If so, I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”

The emphatic apology almost got me to change my mind, but I held course. Theodore was clearly infatuated with the other woman. I would just be wasting my time, and this way I got to remove a rival at the same time.

“No, Teddy, you didn’t do anything wrong,” I told him, shaking my head. “You just fell for someone else.”

Disbelief returning to confusion on Theodore’s face. “What?”

“For Lily,” I elaborated matter-of-factly. “And quite hard given how much you talk about her.”

“What?! No! I couldn’t!” Theodore denied immediately, even as his cheeks flushed in a most telling well. “I mean, we just met a couple of weeks ago! Besides, she’s so, so–”

“Pretty, upbeat, and friendly?” I suggested a few complimentary words. “I know, which is why I’m not very upset. She’s a fine girl, and very lucky to have you care about her so much.”

The man’s cheeks only grew redder at my words. “Well, I, no, there’s–”

“Shh, it’s alright,” I hushed, holding up a hand to stop the protests. “I’m not mad, and I hope we’ll remain friends, but you need to see your feelings for what they are, not try to deny them.”

Finally the fight left Theodore, leaving him just looking down in embarrassment as he nodded. “I suppose she is pretty fun.”

I laughed lightly at the still reluctant agreement. “Yes, she is, and that’s why you shouldn’t be wasting your time here with me,” I told him, lifting our entwined hands so that I could add my other one to the pile. “You should be focused on winning her before one of the other men in the program swoops in and snatches her away from you.”

Reluctance and embarrassment vanished as Theodore’s gaze snapped with a glint of fear in his eyes. “Huh?”

“What? Did you think no one else would notice her?” I questioned. “There are several other guys that have been eyeing her whenever we’re all gathered, looking to curry favor. You’re going to have to make sure that she doesn’t turn to them, but to you.”

My the man was full of emotion that night as he swapped out fear for determination. “Right … and how do I do that?”

“Just be your usual charming self, approach her calmly, and ask her out on a date like the one we’re having right now,” I instructed simply. “Then all you have to do is enjoy yourself, and try not to talk about some other girl the whole time.”

That self-deprecating remarked garnered a chuckle from the man as he used his free hand to rub at the back of his head. “Ah, right …”

“Now, fun as this was, I think it’s time for you to take me home,” I told him. “Right now, I’m just distracting you from your love.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“And that’s when I made my move, came in under his punch and dropped him with the ol’ one-two,” Peter Herzog, the last of my four main prospects to get a date with me, boasted as he shadowboxed his past triumph. “Out like a light.”

Listening to him from the other side of the car’s back seat, I had my doubts about the tale, but I didn’t voice them. It just didn’t matter. If Petey here wanted to pretend to be all big and tough for me, then I was just going to count it as a good sign.

“Wow, weren’t you scared?” I feigned interest in the story, trying to make it sound like I was genuinely impressed. In reality, the only thing my date could impress me with was tales of his money and schemes for the future. Then again, I supposed if he did that, he would probably be too cunning to be worth trying to con, so maybe this was for the best.

“Well … “ Peter played it modestly with a shrug. “I can’t say I was looking for a fight, but I couldn’t just back down after an insult like that. A man has to protect his reputation after all.”

Thinking of someone picking a fight over something as minor as one insult had images of some of Spence’s rampages running through my head. Of course, Spence was usually a little more controlled than just one insult. That and I highly doubted Peter could rampage at all, much less at the level my friend used to.

“Sounds very brave to me,” I complimented even as the car drifted to a stop. A peek outside showed that we’d arrived at our destination, the Initiative building where the date would conclude. “Aw, it seems our time is at an end,” I noted before adding a seductive little glance back at Peter. “For tonight, anyway.”

“A pity,” Peter sighed with genuine regret. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.”

“Definitely,” I agreed, inwardly celebrating the success. Peter’s interest put me at three for four on my dates, and the fourth was a willing sacrifice. Things were going practically perfectly.

When I reached to open the door, Peter broke into motion. “Oh, allow me!” he blurted out before scurrying out of the car to rush around and open the door. He even offered me a hand to help me up.

Gladly taking all of the aid, even if it was unnecessary, I offered the man a bright smile. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Peter replied graciously. “After all, seeing you to the door is the least I can do after the delightful evening you gave me.”

“Well then …” I began before shifting over to link arms with my mark, leaning against his sturdy frame. “... lead the way.”

My proximity put a big grin on Peter’s face as he strutted off toward the door with me beside him. Seeing that, I played it up even more, resting my head against his shoulder. I also shifted my grip, pulling his arm closer to me so that I could grip it with both hands while cradling it against me. That earned a twitch from Peter as the soft swell of my chest squished against him.

It wasn’t much of a walk, so by the time I was done toying with the man, we were already stopping at the door. Peter made no move to release me or speak, though. He just drifted to a stop while he stared over at me.

“Here we are,” I finally spoke up, after letting the mood linger for a few seconds.

Finally, the man looked away, noting the door briefly before turning right back to me. “So we are.”

“We should probably let go of each other,” I noted, although, I made no move to do so, to make it seem like I never wanted the night to end.

“Yes, but first …” Peter replied only to trail off as he leaned toward me.

“What are yo-mmph?” I started to ask as the man’s free hand reached up to cup my chin and tilt my head back. I never got a chance to finish the question, though, as his lips pressed into mine, robbing me of the ability to make words.

Even as professional and well researched as I was, I still nearly jerked away from that contact. That was just my instinctual reaction to a guy kissing me. Plus, it was so sudden, so unexpected. Of course, I knew it would happen eventually, but I’d always assumed that I would be the one to initiate it when it did. I’d always assumed that I’d have more time, that I would be able to use it like a trump card when I really needed something big to seal the deal. I’d never thought that some mark would have the initiative to just snatch it away like this.

Fortunately, I managed to keep myself to just a twitch as my whole body stiffened. I even tried to return the gesture, but it felt so awkward. The one saving grace was that that it didn’t last long before my partner pulled away.

Putting myself together quickly, I adopted one my usual smiles, although, it was perhaps a touch flustered. “What was that for?”

“To wish you a good night,” Peter replied. “My father suggested it, said it used to be a custom back when he was dating. That made me worried that it would be a bit oldfashioned for my tastes, but no. It was actually quite amazing.”

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one that had done a little research into bygone dating rituals, albeit Peter’s seemed much less thorough. At the same time, he had it direct from someone who had lived through it. I made a mental note to try a similar source the next time I got a chance.

“Yes, it was,” I agreed, making sure to keep my discomfort with the situation carefully hidden behind a mask of delight and enthusiasm. “The perfect end to a perfect evening.”

“Exactly,” Peter replied before finally pulling away from me. “Now, I suppose this is farewell. Until next time, my dear Ada.”

Releasing the man’s arms, I nodded. “I’m looking forward to it already.”

Grin as wide as it could be, Peter offered a slight bow to me before he spun to make his way back to his car. He almost seemed like he was skipping with enthusiasm as he did. I supposed that was a good sign. After all, he wasn’t likely to forget a night like that.

“I’m sure not,” I muttered as I turned to walk into the building, resisting the urge to wipe at my lips. It might smear my make up. Plus, someone could see it and notice that I wasn’t actually that pleased with the good night kiss. If that got back to Peter somehow, it would be disastrous, so I was just going to have to tolerate it until I got back to my room.

There was another important aspect to resist that temptation. It would be good practice. After all, it might have been my first kiss, but I was quite certain that it wasn’t going to be my last. Kissing men was just going to be part of my life going forward. It was a skill I needed to master, not shun. In fact, there was no time to start like the present, and it would make an excellent topic for that night’s research.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Eighteen: Three to Get Ready

“Listen up, girls!”

Hannah Orlaev was clapping her hands up at the front of our tables during dinner one night, loudly enough to get our attention. Quinn McClelland stood close behind, a familiar, impassive look on her face, hands clasped behind her back.

“This will only take a minute, so please give us your attention and then you can go right back to your dinner and whatever wonderfully interesting topic you’re all talking about. Do I have everyone’s attention yet? Lizzy? Yes? Good.”

The taller brunette backed up a step and gestured for the shorter one to take her place. McClelland marched up and gave us all a leveled look before opening her mouth to speak.

“A few of you have spoken to me already, and there’s been at least one incident without prior notification, so I’m making this generally known for everyone now. Though the restrictions on you leaving the safety of this building have NOT been lifted, it is generally allowed that anyone here can do so in efforts strictly related to advancing the program.”

“She means going on dates, girls!” Hannah Orlaev abruptly butted in, flashing some teeth in that ear-to-ear grin of hers from one side.

“That’s … correct,” Quinn admitted with a bob of her head.

“That means all of you lucky ladies are more than welcome to take your pick amongst any of our fine young handsome friends you might meet at the Initiative’s sanctioned events, and feel free to ask them to take you out for some fun on the town, or even ACCEPT such an invitation from one of them …”

She drawled the last part out in an excited gush that left no confusion as to how terrific we should all consider getting “asked out” by one of the men. And there was immediately some chatter rushing up from the girls around me at the declaration. Hannah watched with plenty of satisfaction as it did.

“Be that as it may,” McClelland suddenly stressed in a loud voice, trying to get all of that wayward attention back and fixed solely on her. “There are still issues of safety to consider. You will notify someone on the staff, preferably me, whenever you are to leave the premises under such circumstances. We’ve already had one outing without prior authorization and I don’t plan to repeat it. Everyone here should consider their safety first and foremost. I don’t want to have to remind you ladies about the very real consequences you might face out there alone, or even with one of these men, if you don’t inform us of where you’ll be at all times.”

“Oh, you all don’t have to worry your pretty heads so much about it like sweet Quinn here, girls,” Orlaev added with a casual wave of her hand once the other woman was done. “She’s just doing her job so well, looking after you all. For the record, nothing BAD happened with the incident in question, so don’t you worry. It was just our dear, lovely Sarah here getting a little ahead of herself. But I think we can ALL agree that her particular enthusiasm in this special case was an inspiration to the rest of us here!”

The woman started clapping in the excited way that she so often did, drumming up everyone else in the immediate area to do so as well. And I suddenly felt a figurative spotlight turn on me as I sat there picking at my dinner, head resting indifferently on one hand. I dropped it, glancing slowly around to the Orlaev woman in surprise at being called out like that, and felt my cheeks start to burn. A couple girls were whispering to each other and laughing when I did. And before I knew it, Hannah had made her way around the room and was closing in right behind me.

“Now, something you might not know about our Sarah here, is that we, the staff working for the Faraday Initiative, were once seriously concerned about her lack of team spirit in regards to this VERY important program.” I felt the woman’s hands fall gently on either of my shoulders, and I went rigid where I sat. “But I have to say, I think she’s had some eye-opening experiences here already and, wouldn’t you know it but she decided to jump right in, head first! So don’t let her … unorthodox methods fool you. We’re ALL very proud of how much she’s accomplished in so short a time, aren’t we girls?”

Hannah pulled back and incited everyone into clapping even harder than before, standing right behind me all the while so it was all I could hear in my ears. Those girls I’d caught quietly giggling behind their hands just a second ago were full-on laughing now. Not that any of it bothered Orlaev. I could feel her bright, plastic smile bearing into my back.

Eventually I swallowed the food still caught in my mouth.

Then the other woman’s head was suddenly down next to my ear, breath on my neck. “I knew you had it in you, Sarah,” she whispered to me as the clapping died down. If I might’ve hoped for some sort of genuine happiness at my attempts to “fit in” and do just what all the other girls had gotten on board to doing, though, you couldn’t tell it by the tone of that voice. It was dripping with sarcasm and smug self-satisfaction. And she patted both my shoulders with her hands once more for good measure before finally pulling away.

The chatter started up again in earnest as soon as those two were gone, but I’d lost my appetite entirely by then. That night during my session with Dr. Keinzler, he resisted the urge to grill me on the incident too much, only insisting on discussing how it’d made me feel.

Angry, embarrassed … I confessed a distinct desire to pummel Hannah Orlaev’s face into putty more than once. The doctor seemed to take it all in stride, still convinced I was blessedly on the right path.

Of course, lessons proceeded on schedule. I somehow pleased Mayweather with my progress too -- probably because I’d stopped glaring silent death threats and just started doing what he told me, albeit rather apathetically. He said my diction had improved and seemed happy with my ability “to form complete and coherent sentences” when mocking conversations with some imaginary well-to-do people. Even though I was worlds away from that delicate grace that Ada had somehow mastered so quickly, I was quickly approaching “mediocrity” according to my instructor. It was the closest thing to a compliment I’d ever heard come out of his mouth.

By the end of the third week, they’d taken away my guards, stopped scrutinizing me so much in general, and I seemed to be skirting by in my training, though they still left me to Mayweather. I adopted a general posture of quiet indifference with no desire to stir still waters or draw any attention at all. It was a far cry from who I’d been able to be as Spencer, but it was how I survived now, was what I’d decided. Funny how taking away my ability to pummel all my problems into submission left me looking like this in the end. Funny, without being really funny at all.

Hannah Orlaev could have her moment. Because she’d won.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

By the time the third social came up the next Saturday, most of the other women had grown comfortable enough with themselves and our situation to start considering bolder moves. Ada wasn’t the only girl trying to wrap some of those suits around her little finger, and I’d heard of a few others going out on “dates” just like Hannah had suggested. But there was still something novel for all of them at this next event. Namely, dancing.

The instructors had been working a lot with everyone to teach them how to do it. Even though Mayweather had made me learn too, I couldn’t imagine a more useless thing to do with my time. It didn’t help that it was built around holding onto someone -- most often, as close as you could it seemed to me -- and that was a whole new uncomfortable experience in itself. But they insisted, and apparently many of the young men invited had been getting taught themselves just to participate. One of those eggheads or something upstairs had apparently pulled the idea from old media.

It was a “singular experience”, so I heard some flamboyant couple gush about it during the night. Me, I was still trying to do my best to not make waves and just keep up, and tonight that included focusing my sights on a single target for most of the event. Ada had arranged the whole thing, introducing me to a certain Craig Travers, son of Matthew Travers, who owned some larger agricultural interests. He had light brown, well-groomed hair, big blue eyes, and an eager smile. I think Hannah Orlaev might’ve referred to someone like him as “boyishly handsome”, though I wasn’t so sure that I saw the appeal. Still, I made the effort.

We exchanged initial pleasantries under the watchful eyes of Ada and her date of the moment that evening: Peter Herzog. It was a bit awkward and unwieldy on my end, but once we were away from those two, Craig just accused me of being “shy”. And he was quick to add that he could handle that. So I had to resist the urge to snap back something terse and threatening while he plied me with a drink. The drink helped. Then some music started and he dragged me out with the others to dance. I begged off, as politely as I could, but he just smiled and didn’t take no for an answer.

He wasn’t as good as Mayweather had been during lessons, that was pretty quickly obvious. The movements were too brash, too confident, and he seemed to lose sight of the fact that he could step on my feet at all. It made me realize how graceful my instructor had really been in comparison, now that I had someone to actually compare him TO. But I suffered through it. I’d gotten better at smiling, Ada counseling me to practice in mirrors for effect. Couldn’t say my heart was any more in it than it was before, but at least I could fake it. Craig Travers seemed not to notice anything wrong, at least. While we moved to the music and he held my hands trying to pull me in as close as he could possibly get away with, I had to listen to him go on and on about all the dullest details of his blue blood life. Grin and bear it, so I’d been learning. I did.

If me being quiet bothered the man at all, he didn’t let on, which was just as well for me. As per usual, I didn’t have a whole lot on my mind worth saying aloud, nor did I think most of it would be appropriate. My practiced smile became painful by the end of the night, before he actually surprised me with a question about myself instead.

“What?” I choked out as soon as I realized he wasn’t just going to go on with another story about how he’d improved some business deal marginally, or beaten some competitor in a friendly game of something called “squash”. I assumed it had something to do with crushing, but I couldn’t be sure by the way he talked about it. And then I was just left staring at him as he smiled over at me while we walked.

“I asked what it was you did before the Initiative,” he repeated, far too gently for my liking.

He’d guided us away from the main fanfare of the event toward a lightly-wooded walkway nearby where it had grown quiet. Music could still be heard in the distance, not too far away, but it was just us there walking along the paved sidewalk through trimmed grass. It resembled the “park” they had out behind the Initiative’s building, though somehow perfected even more in how the trees and scrub and flowers swirled along to either side.

“It doesn’t matter,” was what I told the man, hugging my arms a little tighter around me as we continued on. He placed a hand on the small of my back and I had to keep myself in check before I flinched away. I consoled myself with the fact that he’d already been … touching … me most of the night, and as long as he kept his hands away from any of my more embarrassing places, I could survive that.

“Either way, I’m still curious. I’m afraid I know so very little about you and here I’ve been telling you all about me all night long.” Well, at least he realized it. “But I can respect your privacy if that’s what you wish. I understand it might not be the most comfortable thing to be reminded of, given your present circumstances.”

Present circumstances including walking down a dimly-lit path in the middle of the night with a stranger I’d never met before, who I was pretty sure either wanted to tear my dress off or else find some other way to fuck me in the end. But I just afforded him a smile and a nod at that, like I’d been doing so well all evening. He smiled back.

“I just noticed your accent, was all, and was wondering.”

“My … what?” I shook my head at him, confused.

He gave me a gracious look, bowing his head. “You see, my dear, I spend a lot more time interacting with immigrants from the other habitats in my line of work -- poor souls, desperate just to have a place to call home away from the terrors of the wastes and raiders outside. I’ve developed an ear for the subtle inflections of their accents. I’d peg you as having grown up somewhere to the east. Maybe Pandora or Ralleigh?”

I froze up at the question, and we stopped. I didn’t meant to react that way, but by the time I recovered, he’d stopped with me. He swung back around, giving me a worried look.

“Have I upset you?” he asked, boyish face creasing. Before I could even open my mouth to rebut him, though, he’d swept right in and taken my face in both his hands. “I assure you, that was not my intent. I won’t ask again, if it makes you so uncomfortable.”

“It … I …”

I struggled to make words, suddenly at a loss with how he was leaning over me and so close to my person. Even closer than he’d managed while dancing earlier. My whole body locked up as he stood there with my head in both his hands, my eyes wide and completely unsure of what to do.

A moment too long of that, and he leaned in a little closer, his own eyes drooping slowly as he did. He spoke, quietly.

“You’re so … beautiful … Sarah. I just want to …”

All of a sudden, he was trying to put his mouth on mine. But reflex came back to me before he could, and I reacted the exact same way I would’ve had I been Spencer just then with two hundred more pounds of meat and muscle to my name.

I shoved him back, and I punched him.

He flopped over onto the ground, crying out shrilly in surprise. His nice, expensive suit hit the wet grass, smearing as he crushed a bed of flowers. And I stood there as he did, fuming and … surprised at myself.

I’d been doing so well. Trying so hard!

And then he’d just … He’d tried to ...

He squirmed back around to look up at me, pulling a bloody hand away from his face.

“I … I think you broke my nose!”

I didn’t say anything to that, to the angry, pleading look of confusion he threw up at me then. I don’t think he truly understood what had just happened. I knew I didn’t. I just knew that it wouldn’t look good no matter what happened next.

So I ran.

He called after me while I scurried along back to the party, but I ignored him. We’d gotten a lot further than I had ever realized. It was stupid, so stupid, letting myself get caught up and then blindsided like that. I … I wasn’t ready. Not for … THAT.

So I ran, and I lost myself in the partygoers, hoping against hope that Craig Travers would just forget about me and what’d just happened and move on with his rich and wonderful life full of immigrant laborers and squashing, without making any more trouble for me. I saw him once, fifteen minutes later, casting about the crowds before getting intercepted by that one guy, Schulz, for a conversation. It was lucky in that it distracted him for just that moment before he saw me. And before he could continue the search, I’d ducked behind a service table. I sat there on the cold, hard ground where he couldn’t see me until I was sure that he’d moved on.

Then I just stayed there, for awhile. I pulled my knees in that dress and wrapped my arms around them, wondering just what the hell had happened back there, or where I was supposed to go from here.

And it was sitting there, hiding behind a table out of sight in the wet grass, that Wesley Saunders eventually found me again.

“Well this is certainly an interesting place to find you in,” he remarked in that sarcastically casual tone of his, and I looked up sharply at the sound, seeing his head and shoulders past the edge of the table, peering over. “Are you … hiding from someone down there? Maybe everyone? You don’t LOOK like you’re drunk again.”

I didn’t answer him at first. I just reached up to the table and grabbed one of the bottles of wine out of the ice bowl and uncorked it, then started drinking. A few gulps later and I pulled back enough to mutter, “How about now?”

Saunders disappeared and, for a moment, I thought I might have succeeded in scaring him off. But then he was pushing his way around to my side of the table, away from the party too. I watched with a frown on my face as he cleared out a space on the grass beside me, kicked out his legs, and sat right down with a sigh.

“I can see the appeal,” was what he said once he’d settled.

“What are you doing?”

“What?” He gave me an obviously faked, innocent look. “It’s true. No one can see you back here. At least not easily. And imagine my embarrassment when I spent my whole evening looking to find you drinking at one of these tables alone again and couldn’t. What a waste of a party, knowing you were hiding back here the whole time.”

“I’m not hiding, I’m just …” But I was. That was exactly what I was doing. So, I just shook my head, glaring at him. “I haven’t been back here all night.” I don’t know why that idea seemed so much more pathetic than what had really happened.

“Oh, I know. And I certainly didn’t spend all night looking for you, I’m sorry to say. I saw you hanging off Craig’s arm for most of it actually. But if you’re back here then I can only assume that things with him didn’t go as well as you’d planned?”

I eyeballed him for a second, that easy, condescending grin on his face. “I didn’t plan for any of it,” I growled at his attitude. “I was only with him because Ada thought he’d be good pra--”

And I cut myself off, before I could admit to him just being a stepping stone to something bigger maybe. I wasn’t about to out my only friend to one of the people she was already trying to win over. I wasn’t a snitch.

“You’re friend Ada again?” he remarked, sucking in a breath through his teeth.

“Yea. She was just trying to help.”

“Help you … acclimate? To your situation, that is.”

I lifted my chin at him. “Yea. Something like that. What’s it to you?”

“Oh, nothing at all.” He shrugged. “But let me guess: Craig tried to reach out and grasp at something he didn’t really understand … and fell flat on his face because of it?” At my sudden look, he just nodded. “Sounds about right for him. He never knew when to take his time with something.”

The man reached into his coat while we sat there, me, wondering just what the hell he was doing over here again. And in the wet grass no less, hiding behind the service tables. It was the last place I’d ever expect one of those rich pricks to plant himself, much less here with me.

But then I saw what he’d taken out in his hand.

“Holy shit.”

He looked at me sharply, the cigarette already in his mouth. “Oh, I know,” he mumbled around the thing while he lit it. “They’re terrible for your health, no matter if you let them bleach out the right chemicals. Don’t tell Johannes I’m back here, will you?”

He said it with a lopsided smile which I ignored. I just started to plead, “Can … can I …?”

I wasn’t even sure how to ask, but it was the first time I’d seen a cigarette in weeks, and I think I might’ve outright begged the man in order to get at it if he hadn’t given me a look, puffed, and passed it over. His expression turned curious, but I ignored that too. I just put the thing to my lips and took a nice, long, slow drag, relaxing back toward the table as I did.

It was the greatest thing I’d done since this whole mess had started.

“I take it they don’t let you all smoke up there in that building, and you’ve been without for awhile?”

I nodded without a word. Eventually his hand extended out for the cigarette back and I contemplated refusing him. Don’t know why I ended up handing it over. But he just took another puff on it before passing it right along.

“Speaking of your friend, Ada,” he started up again, a minute or so later after just quietly sharing that cigarette back and forth between us there behind the table where no one really noticed. “She seems like a pretty nice girl, all things considered.”

“Yea. The nicest,” I offered up, giving him a sidelong look.

He quirked an eyebrow at me, then gestured toward the wine bottle still in my other hand. “You mind?” I passed it over to him and he knocked some back. “Thanks. And yes, I’d certainly say she DOES seem a whole lot more interesting than any of these other girls. I can see her playing the game, but she drops that mask around me. I have to admit, it’s a rather interesting situation to be in.”

I watched him as he mused that point over to himself, only a little less glibly than most of the rest of it. He passed the bottle back and caught me long enough to look me in the eye. The cigarette puffed in his mouth.

“Some of my … people,” he continued, and smiled bitterly to himself as he said the word ‘people’, “Recommend I apply some pressure and stake her out for my own. Invite her over, or out consistently. Make sure she isn’t getting involved with anyone else. Maybe one day marry her, like the Initiative pitched it. Work towards that idea of family they all seem to be so smitten with.”

He blew out smoke as he explained it, eyes roving about thoughtfully to the rest of the night. I took a swig from the bottle, realizing it was almost gone. There hadn’t been that much to begin with, though.

He turned back to me.

“What do you think about that?”

“What do I think?”

He nodded. “She’s your friend. You know her better than anyone else here, maybe even better than she knows herself. You think she’d be interested in such an arrangement?”

I don’t know why that particular question made me uncomfortable. Or how the way he was watching me as he asked it did the same. Maybe it was that attempt earlier by Craig to kiss me, or maybe it was just everything that he’d implied with the words “marry” and “family” but … I couldn’t shake the feeling either way. But I think I knew what Ada would want me to say.

“She … would,” I said slowly, carefully. He studied me while I did.

“You don’t sound too sure of that.”

“No, I am. I’m sure she would love that. It’s what she … it’s what she wants out of this whole thing. She’s told me so herself.”

And if he worried about the dark frown I’d gotten on my face as I finished off the bottle of wine on him, then he didn’t say anything. Just kept looking at me.

I tossed the bottle off to one side.

“Curfew’s up soon, I think,” I mumbled, not really sure what else to say with the way the man’s eyes were still on me. He finally turned them away as I said it, though, and barked a laugh.

“You ever get tired of that?”

“What?”

“Living in that building with all the other women, following all these rules they’ve set out for you. Being groomed for all of this.” He gestured around with a hand, then remembered the cigarette and passed it over to me again. “I mean, what am I saying? Of course you do. It was obvious from that first night two weeks ago. They don’t even let you smoke.”

He gestured at the cigarette between my fingers as I put it to my lips, and his own lips twitched upwards into a bitter smile. He shook his head.

“I can sympathize. There’s a few places I like to go, though. Maybe you’d like to come with me too, get away from all that ‘bullshit’ for a little while.”

And for the second time that night, I froze up. This time, it was while puffing on that cigarette and staring back at him. Which was a mistake, because I immediately inhaled wrong and started coughing up plumes of smoke.

“You … like … like a date?” I managed, spluttering as I did so. It disguised my utter horror at the idea.

But if I’d expected him to confirm it or even backtrack upon seeing that look on my face, he didn’t. He merely shook his head.

“No, not a … a ‘date’? Is that really what they’re calling it?” He shrugged. “I suppose it makes sense, in a way. But I was really thinking about something a LOT more casual than I’m sure all those fine people over at the Faraday Initiative have planned for the lot of you. You don’t even have to wear a dress, if you don’t want.”

“If it’s not a date then … then what the hell are you even talking about?”

It was hard to wrap my head around, because I couldn’t think of a single reason why one of these blue bloods would ever want to do anything with one of us women that didn’t somehow involve charging down the road toward fucking and coupling and … and everything else.

But he just shook his head again.

“Nothing of the sort. Just … like this, I’d say,” he glanced around, gesturing toward where we were sitting behind the tables. “Get away from our respective watchers. Hell, you can even smoke. I’d bring some. I’d love to have a good reason to get out and do that somewhere for once. Go alone and Johannes wouldn’t let me out of his sight. Take you along, though? He’d think it really WAS one of these dates. I could live with him thinking that.”

I wasn’t sure if I could, even though … I guess it sounded safe enough. And if I was worried about trusting him at his word then I definitely already had a blackout drunk night to show for what he might do given the opportunity. That is -- nothing.

“But … what about Ada?” I asked, suddenly remembering. I couldn’t imagine her not thinking that sort of thing would be very odd. And potentially dangerous to her plans.

“What about her?” he tossed back, though. “It’s not a date, like I said. And even if it was, I haven’t made any decisions about her yet. She’s not my keeper. However, I suppose if you’re really that worried about what she thinks, you could see it as an opportunity to sell me on the idea of her a little more.”

That … was something worth trying. If he hadn’t suggested it himself, then I was sure Ada might have. And the fact that he HAD suggested it himself? I wasn’t sure if that meant it was less likely to succeed or more. Did it matter?

“I … okay?”

“Okay?” he echoed, giving me a little sarcastic smile again. “That a yes, then?”

“It … yes. Fine. I could … maybe do that.” I thought.

If I’d expected any more fanfare at the agreement, though, I was disappointed. All he did was take one more puff on that cigarette before he handed it back and got to his feet. I stood up with him, but he waved me off when I tried to give him the smoke again.

“Finish it for me. I’ve got more. I’ll see you around some time?”

“Y … yea. I guess so?”

And that was that. He turned around, gave a short wave, and left.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 19: Step Ten

Walking up to Wesley’s door, I hummed softly to myself. After all, I was in quite the good mood. Everything with my plans was going great. Well, I supposed that, technically, Sarah was still a bit of a mess, but her punching Craig really wasn’t a bad development. If nothing else, it would probably keep him away from me from now on. Plus, hopefully, she’d gotten that shit out of her system and could handle an evening with a guy. That last part might’ve been a bit of a long shot, but I was feeling too optimistic to let such doubts linger.

Shrugging off worries of Sarah, I focused instead on what lay before me. Wes was probably the toughest of the three for me to dupe. It wasn’t because he was any less gullible, just that his gullibility lay in an area that required me to act in a less assertive way. I couldn’t just fawn all over him, flash the goods, and watch him fall into the palm of my hand. His interest lay in someone who was doing those things reluctantly, and so, I had to act completely different around him.

Part of that act was the bags that I set down before ringing the bell. Another part came in the dress I wore, a loose garment that covered me fully from knee to collarbone. I’d even had to forgo the heels that by now I was quite comfortable with. It was a shame because I really appreciated the extra few inches they granted me.

“Welcome, Miss Illes,” Johannes, Wesley’s butler, greeted politely when he opened the door. Immediately, he stepped back to gesture inside. “Do please come in.”

“Thank you so much,” I replied before scooping up my bags to enter.

“Would you like some help with those, ma’am?” the servant offered.

Smiling, I shook my head. “Oh no, I’ve got them, but the offer was very kind.”

Without argument, Johannes just dipped his head and turned to go, off to fetch his master. That left me free to take a seat in the living room. Unlike my first visit, I didn’t choose a seat that would hide me. Instead, I plopped onto one in full view of Wes’s approach. Plopped was definitely the right word too, as I just dropped onto it without grace or fanfare before sprawling out comfortably. It was odd, but I was so used to sitting all carefully poised that it actually felt a touch weird to not do that, leaving me having to resist the urge to fidget.

Luckily for me, Wesley was quick to arrive, so I didn’t have time to get truly annoyed at the sloppy posture. I did, however, pretend to not notice him right away. Instead, I kept my gaze down, affecting a relaxed but thoughtful look.

“Ada,” the wealthy man greeted simply.

Looking up, I offered an easy smile that way. “Oh, hi.”

“I thought we were going out to dinner,” Wesley remarked as he looked over my attire. I never wore anything so simple and inelegant out in public. Even for our first date, I’d changed out of the mundane attire I’d worn for our initial meeting to something flashier on the claim that the Initiative would expect me to dress more suitably.

“That was the plan, but then I thought, you don’t like being out like that, and I’m tired of all the stares I get and having to act just right,” I explained, sitting up to grab my bags and heft them a little. “So, I brought all this instead.”

“And what is ‘all this’?” Wesley questioned, eyeing the bags dubiously.

My smile twisted into more of a grin. “Everything I need to cook dinner.”

Wesley’s brow crinkled at that information. “You can cook?”

“By your standards, no, not really,” I admitted modestly. “But a guy spends enough time on his own and he picks up a few things to make his life a bit better.”

Apparently buying that logic, Wesley shrugged. “Very well, but if we’re staying in, I’m changing out of this suit.”

“Go ahead,” I told him as I got up from my seat. “I have to go get started anyway. In fact, you can do as you like for a bit. It’ll take me about thirty minutes to finish.”

“Mmm,” Weslely hummed out in acknowledgement before turning away, already tugging on his tie to get it out of the way.

Watching him go, I allowed myself a genuine smile. It wasn’t exactly enthusiasm, but I wasn’t sure Wes was ever enthusiastic. The fact that he hadn’t argued or even appeared resistant was a good sign. Eventually, I’d get him to warm up.

With that plan in mind, I took my bag into the kitchen to get started. While what I’d told Wesley about picking things up on my own was true, I had been practicing this as well. My research had showed that a useful angle to work on a man was his stomach. Normally, I wouldn’t have tried to rely on something like that, but my other options were more limited with this particular mark.

Of course, practice or not, I couldn’t whip up some fancy world class meal, but that wouldn’t have impressed Wes anyway. No, I wanted to offer him something he’d probably never eaten in his whole life. As such, my dish would be the kind of simple, hearty things that most of the world spent their lives eating.

While I had told Wes he had plenty of time, I had barely gotten everything started cooking by the time he returned. His ‘comfort clothes’ still looked hoity toity to me. He wasn’t in some baggy shirt and stretchy pants. He still wore slacks, just slightly less carefully pressed ones. His shirt was still snug and stylish as well, just devoid of coat and tie. I supposed that the man was just too rigid to get any more slob-like than that.

“Is there anything I can help with?” Wesley inquired when he entered the kitchen.

Even if there had been, I still would’ve answered with the same shake of my head. “Nope, it’s mostly just waiting now with the occasional check or stir.”

“Alright,” Wes conceded simply, but made no move to leave.

I didn’t even have to fake the laugh that came out of me as I watched him just stand there, although, the light tittering giggle of it was practiced. “You don’t have to wait with me, you know.”

“Yes, so you said,” came Wesley’s reply. “But I had planned to be in the midst of our … date right now, so I have nothing pressing to attend to.”

“Well, then, I’ll just say thank you for keeping me company,” I told him as I turned to get some of the first few checks on my food out of the way.

“You’re welcome,” Wesley answered in a decidedly automatic way.

Even though, I doubted that he would say more, I waited a few moments just in case, leaving a silence there that he could fill. To my surprise, he actually did take the opportunity, “So … you’ve been on your own a while?”

“Since I was a little kid,” I answered easily while I worked on the food.

“What about Sarah?” Wesley questioned. “Aren’t you friends?”

“Of course,” I confirmed immediately as I turned back toward my date. “But I’d already been on my own for a few years before I even met her, and … well … even with a friend there beside you, it's easy to still feel like you’re all on your own. I’m sure you understand, though. You’re probably surrounded by people who at least claim to be your friend and yet here you are hiding out in your place with me.”

Wesley smirked at that remarked. “I suppose so. Was that what it was like for you? People all around, and yet still alone?”

I let the good humor drain out of my face and voice. “No, it wasn’t.”

“I’m sorry, but have I pried somewhere I shouldn’t have?” Wesley asked without any feeling behind the apology.

Shaking my head, I took a deep breath that I pretended I needed. “No. It’s just … Momma died right alongside everyone else’s mothers, and Pops wasn’t much good. He dragged me around with him for a bit, but it wasn’t long before he got into some trouble, and he wasn’t going to risk his skin to make sure I got out of it with him. Found myself with nothing, begging for scraps, sometimes having to steal just to survive, but survive I did.”

“And now you’re right back in the same situation, just trying to survive after you got left with nothing,” Wesley noted.

Putting the dour mood behind me, I pasted a smirk on my lips as I let out a self-deprecating laugh. “What can I say? I guess I’m just not very lucky. How else do you think I ended up as the one girl in the whole program with some weird complication?”

“They assured us that didn’t make you any less … capable, from the perspective of the Initiative’s purpose,” the man noted quite clinically. “Are there other issues with it?”

“Yes,” I confirmed before quickly pulling back. “But, I don’t really want to complain.”

“No, please, I’m quite curious,” Wesley prompted me to continue.

Pretending to be reluctant, I tossed Wesley a skeptical look before finally shrugging. “Alright, well, it definitely … bothers some people. I have to be very careful out in the sun. Oh, and ...” I rattled off before reaching up to tap at the glasses that rested on my face. “I didn’t need these before, but now I can barely see past the end of my nose without them.”

“Couldn’t that be fixed surgically?” Wesley noted.

“Yes, but … I’m kinda worried something will go wrong with that, too, and I’ll end up truly blind,” I answered, affecting a soft giggle as if I was self-conscious. “Silly, I know, but this isn’t exactly a great time to try my luck.”

That response garnered a nod of understanding from my date. “Other things to worry about.”

“Exactly,” I confirmed, turning my attention back to cooking. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter much. Doing my best for the Initiative takes most of my time. A few extra hurdles just means I have to work that much harder.”

“It’s possible that I could help with that,” Wesley commented.

Not thinking much of the comment, I shook my head dismissively and turned to check on the food again. “That’s alright. I appreciate the offer, but I don’t want to add my troubles to yours. You seem to have enough of your own already.”

“That wasn’t what I was offering,” Wesley stated.

Perplexed by that answer, I glanced back to shoot the man a confused look. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that I believe that we can lessen both our troubles,” Wesley elaborated. “I’m under pressure to participate fully in the Initiative. You are in a similar situation. I believe that we could work together to alleviate these pressures.”

Surprised by the offer, I turned to face the man fully. “Are you serious?”

“Very,” Wesley answered simply.

“Alright … and how would we do that exactly?” I asked.

“For now, a simple month-long trial run,” Wesley explained. “We can continue these … dates, as well as attend the Initiative events, together. If we appear to be pursuing each other exclusively, then neither of our groups should have cause to concern themselves with our actions. Furthermore, if either of us finds issue with the arrangement, we can just walk away without any requirement for further commitment.”

Rather than get caught up in that part of the offer, I forced myself to push for more information. “And if the trial goes well?”

“Then we take this to its logical conclusion, marriage, and eventually, children,” Wesley answered bluntly.

Such a straightforward response left me a bit taken aback. After all, it was one hell of an offer. Wesley was one of the best prospects that I had going for me. He might even be the best, clearly logical, intelligent, and purposeful with his actions. That could take him quite far, and he was already very high up. Furthermore, his offer might let me jump right to that, skipping past a lot of the obnoxious waiting that came with playing the game that the Initiative had set up for us.

The deal wasn’t all upside, though. One of the requests was exclusivity, and I couldn’t imagine it was accidental. Wesley undoubtedly knew that I’d been out on dates with a few of the other men. He’d certainly seen me around them at the Initiative socials. If I wanted to try to pursue this, I would have to abandon my other prospects. It was a gamble, but so was the other way. The question was which gamble had a better chance of paying out. Three hands certainly helped more than one. However, Wesley seemed quite reliable and cool-headed, so he wasn’t likely to change his mind.

“Is there some issue with that end goal?” Wesley questioned.

Snapped from my thoughts, I quickly shook my head. “No. After all, that was the whole point of this, wasn’t it? I was just surprised. This is … sooner than I expected to have to think about that sort of thing.”

“I see,” Wesley stated. “Well, as I said, it would only begin with a trial. There is some time until such considerations need be made.”

“No, I shouldn’t enter a deal, if I’m not ready to see it through,” I countered. “Are you sure you want to try this with me, though?”

“You’re pragmatic, hardworking, and capable of handling the annoying interactions that I would prefer to avoid with grace and tact,” Wesley listed neutrally. “It seems to me like we'd make compatible partners in that regard.”

Taking a moment, I pretended to weigh those words carefully. I didn’t really need to. I’d already made my choice, but the girl I was pretending to be shouldn’t agree so readily. She was supposed to have some unease to her, some level of uncertainty about her actions.

Finally, I gave Wesley a determined nod. “Then, I accept. We can start the trial run right now, in fact.”

There was no elation on my date’s face at those words. There wasn’t really anything at all. His only response was a curt nod and a simple, “Very well,” to acknowledge my answer.

For my part, I went with a little more emotion for the occasion, putting a smile back on my face. “Great, now, I really should focus on dinner before I end up ruining it.”

“Of course,” Wesley replied, turning to go. “I’ll get out of your way.”

As the man left, I turned back to cooking, but my mind didn’t focus there. No, I was busy considering all the ramifications of this new arrangement. I had dates with other men to cancel as well as new ones to plan with Wesley. I needed to consider some new wardrobe if I was going to spend more time around him. I needed to figure out how best to sell my appeal. After all, since I was going to take this gamble, I needed to do everything I could to make sure it paid off in the end. Of course, there was no way to make it a certainty, but I was going to get as close to that as I could.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Twenty: Playdate

“Ms. Miklos? A Mr. Saunders is here to see you.”

I listened from the safety of the other side of my apartment door as that male voice called in, warning me of what I’d just been told thirty minutes ago would happen. A part of me had immediately refused the idea, but it wasn’t like I’d had the chance to say no. It was just a call to the staff, letting them know that Wesley Saunders would be coming by to pick up a Miss Sarah if she was willing. Maybe it would’ve been better too, if they’d had another girl named Sarah here to get me confused with. I hadn’t ever given the man my family name.

But I decided against it. Maybe it was the vague promise of cigarettes to smoke or just the chance to get the hell away from this place for a little while, but I pulled open the door and told the orderly waiting on the other side that I’d be down soon. I hadn’t realized how stifling this place really was until Saunders had offered a “mutually beneficial” means of escape.

The orderly nodded, smiling a little awkwardly at me before he turned to go. He’d been one of the ones to pull me off of Guttierez weeks ago. I only recognized him because one of the other girls, Felicia, had warned me that she’d noticed him always trying to take assignments to or near me and Lily had gushed about him “having a crush”. Which she’d explained meant that he liked me. And I couldn’t say that I returned the smile, for just that reason.

It took me only a minute or two to get ready because unlike Ada and some of the other girls who had gone out before, I wasn’t trying to impress. And one of said girls reminded me of that, right as I was marching down the corridor to the lift.

“You’re not going to let him see you looking like THAT, are you?” Zoe demanded, wide-eyed in concern as she stopped me. I was wearing a light jacket over a tank top, jeans and sneakers. I’d done none of the things they’d showed us to do with my hair or my makeup. It was about as casual as you could get here.

And I just gave her a look. “Yea. Why?”

But I didn’t wait for her response. She didn’t have one anyways. So I brushed right past and on toward the lift, leaving her standing there looking confused in my wake.

Of course, Saunders felt the need to comment on my appearance too, for some reason. When he asked, confused, I bitterly told him about what they slapped on us for those socials just to “pretty” us up.

“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without makeup on before ...,” he said carefully after I’d climbed in the spacious back seating area of his car, that towering old servant of his having already sealed us in by pushing the door closed behind me.

“Was the real me everything you were hoping for?”

He quirked a thin smile at that. “I’m afraid I’ll have to call this whole thing off until you go back and fix it. We can wait.”

When I gave him a dark look and started debating whether or not I should slug him on my way out, though, he just laughed. “Johannes? Drive!”

“What’s this all about?” I tried to ask at some point during the ten minutes it took us to get wherever we were going. Saunders was sitting there, casually leaning back on the rear set of cushioned seats, one leg crossed over the other and an arm splayed back. He hadn’t said anything in minutes, just glanced around to the tinted windows like he hadn’t a care in the world.

He did spare me a look and a finger to his lips, though. “Not now. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

I didn’t, but that was because I had no idea what to expect from this whole thing. Eventually, we stopped, however, and the servant and driver, Johannes, opened the door to let each of us out.

“Thank you, Johann. Now, Sarah here and I would like a little privacy, if you don’t mind?”

“Of course, sir.”

I felt a hand on my back and it took all of my willpower not to jump away from the man after what had happened with Craig two nights ago. Instead I tried to hold together and just follow, as he guided me onwards. And as soon as we were out of sight, the hand fell away.

Saunders shoved out a breath, shaking himself. “Such a relief. Sorry about that by the way,” he told me. “Best way to keep him from nosing about.”

“What are we doing here?”

I glanced around. It was some kind of overlook above a body of water. Could’ve been the one from the big social event, or maybe another since I had no idea how many of those cultivated little ponds they might be hiding around here in the richer parts of town. Someone had fashioned a wooden rail along a beaten dirt path, extending out at a high point above the water. He’d walked us up where it was hard to see from the parked car. Some trees screened the way to either side too. No one else was around, just a few undoubtedly wealthier people on the beachwalk down below. We were alone.

“They must have tried to make this place look rustic,” was what Saunders answered with from behind me, knuckling the wood of the railing, which was barely more than split logs. “Back when there’d been women for the men to sweep along with romantic scenes, and families to idle alongside the water. I suppose this would’ve been the kind of place to take one of you girls, if I wanted to woo you.”

I stiffened at that statement, and turned back to look at him. “Is that what you brought me here to do?”

“God, no.” He barked a laugh, shaking his head and looking out at the water. “I’m not in the mood for another scuffle right now. Besides, I decided to move forward on that deal with your friend. No, I just brought you out here so I could get away from Johannes and everyone back at our corporate office. And to unwind a little, of course.”

He pulled out a little case from inside his jacket, popped it open, and pulled out two cigarettes. One for me, one for him. A lighter appeared in his hand next, and he lit them both.

“Things got a bit … heated, back with my board of directors,” he continued, mumbling it around the stick in his mouth idly without really paying that much overt attention to me while he did. “Wanted to get away for a bit, try this arrangement out. So far, it’s working okay. So long as Johannes stays put back there. Everyone likes the idea of me spending time with you women --any of you, doesn’t matter who. They think it’ll make me more pliable, or just distract me, I suppose. Probably would too.”

“But you’re not here to ‘woo’ me.”

“Sorry to disappoint, Sarah. I know how much you’ve been enjoying all that attention.”

I tossed my head, puffing out smoke. I almost laughed at that, despite the sarcasm. “There’re plenty of other girls enjoying it. I don’t get that much.”

“Might have something to do with that attitude of yours. Or maybe the tattoo and the scar. I imagine you intimidate a lot of my peers.”

At the mention of it, I reached up and touched the distorted scar tissue across my right eye. Was easy to forget it, especially with everything else that had gone on. Given the novelty of having women to look at in the first place, you’d expect a little thing like that wouldn’t bother anyone much. But I could easily see how it all came together to make them turn away from me in favor of others. I’d watched that very thing all night, following Ada around. Everyone seemed to like her a whole hell of a lot more than me.

“It’s better that way,” was what I told him, though. I muttered it around the length of my own cigarette as I smoked. “I don’t want any of their attention anyways.”

He shrugged. “They’re not going to let you get away with that forever, you know. You’ll see. If they haven’t gotten to you yet -- and it seems likely that they have -- then they will soon. Once they’ve got it in their heads that you have to behave a certain way, there’s really no fighting it in the long run. Too many of them, and they don’t even realize what they’re doing to you. Inexorable, like … gravity. Or death. All you can do is play along and snatch the opportunity for moments like these when they come by.”

Saunders adopted a thoughtful look, musing out loud as we stood there on that overlook. Eventually I decided this wasn’t as bad as I had worried it might be, and I started to relax a bit. I leaned back into the railing to smoke, and he leaned back opposite. He didn’t sit there staring at me or undressing me with his eyes or anything. It was … kind of a relief, like he said.

“You roll these yourself?” I asked him at some point, after just letting the wind whip at the two of us up there alone in silence for a bit.

“Well I certainly can’t get anyone to go fetch me any that don’t taste like shit,” he scoffed with a sardonic smile. “Old friend in the military division showed me how, back when we were kids just flirting with the idea of joining up. Manning the walls and ranging against raiders and all that, you know? Things were pretty bad back then, just a couple years after the Phage ruined it all. Old man wouldn’t hear it, though, not after mom died. Had to take over for him when he was gone. That was always the plan. Not like he could have any more kids either.”

I nodded, not quite ignoring him but not really caring too deeply. It was just conversation, like you’d maybe have at the bar. And I realized how much I’d missed that too.

The bar, that is. Maybe not so much the conversation. Though Saunders made it a lot easier than most.

“You bring any booze with you?” I asked.

“Should’ve known. People only want my company because of what I have.” He said it with the usual sarcasm, but I caught a hint of something else in his eye when he did. “Oh, don’t give me that look. Of course I did. Can’t imagine dealing with you sober, Sarah. I’m pretty sure you’d find something to stick in my neck if I tried.”

It wasn’t much, but he pulled a flask out of his other coat pocket and tossed it over to me. I unstoppered it and downed some before immediately seizing up a little as it scoured the inside of my throat.

“Sorry, should’ve warned you. That’s not wine or champagne in there. Same buddy of mine gets me some harder vodka or the like when he can. Works really well for bad days.”

“Please,” I scoffed, gulping it down. “I’ve drunk harder things than this before. Things made outta guys’ bathtubs.”

He laughed and held his hand out. I took another swig and passed the canteen back.

We drank. We smoke. Johannes left us alone. No one else in the area even came close to intruding upon our little “date” up there on the overlook. No matter that neither of us was trying to cozy up to the other and make good on the intent of coupling that the whole Initiative was all about. I wouldn’t have ever believed it if I hadn’t ended up right there, sitting through it with him, but … it was actually kind of nice.

No doctors. No shrink. No other girls whispering behind my back or playing their own games with men that were hard to ignore. No Quinn McClelland or Hannah Orlaev. No one trying to touch me, or ogle me, or bore me for hours with their insipid bullshit. Just peace and quiet, smokes and drinks. Sharing it with Wesley Saunders wasn’t so bad. The way he found himself perched up on the railing, lounging as he looked out and spoke easily too, made me think he felt the same.

It was … nice.

“I think I like this,” the man confirmed my thoughts a moment later, tapping the last of his cigarette butt out into the rocks tumbling down to either side of us. “This was a good idea. I’m glad I thought of it.”

He flashed me a genuine grin and I actually nodded my head without thinking, agreeing.

“And don’t worry about the smokes or the liquor. You can make that up to me by putting up with the abruptness of it. Hard to predict when I’ll need a break from everything, but I imagine it won’t be long. They rarely give me a moment’s peace unless I’m doing exactly what they want me to do. Ready to head back to it?”

I shrugged. He didn’t look too enthusiastic about it either, but we’d used up the cigarettes, and we’d drunk all the liquor. Was as good a time as any to call it quits and get back to our respective bullshit.

“I assume you’re good to try this again sometime soon, given how quickly you emptied that flask.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll remind myself to bring more with me next time if I can manage it without getting Johannes too suspicious. Speaking of which, practice that pretty smile of yours for him while we walk down here, and I’ll do the same. Might as well pretend like we were doing what he probably thinks we were doing.”

I did as he asked. It wasn’t as hard as I would’ve thought, certainly not as hard as it usually was for me when dealing with these people. That hand found its way to my back again and I didn’t even flinch this time. And then it was just the two of us strolling down to the car with that old man standing like a statue right in front of it, watching us smiling our plastic smiles right back at him. The drive home was a much more comfortable silence than the one leading out.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 21: Step Eleven

“Hmm … I’ll have to find out if he likes that sort of thing,” I mused to myself as I added a new line to my notes. There were several already, not even counting the revisions that I’d had to make to previous sections.

Unfortunately, while I’d been working for a while, there wasn’t a lot of actual hard information in the list to go on. Wesley Saunders was something of an enigma. The man was not very talkative, especially about himself. He wasn’t easy to get talking either, especially compared to other men I had dealt with. As such, most of the hard facts that I had about the man were from research into the news and public record. The rest was little more than guesswork.

Leaning back, I folded my arms and just peered at the screen for a bit. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe I’d made the wrong choice, placing my money on something shakier than I’d thought it was. The man didn’t seem particularly fascinated with me. I didn’t know much about him. Our deal didn’t even have any assurances built into it.

“Maybe I’m rushing things,” I considered thoughtfully.

The deal had just been so tempting. Wesley had offered me exactly what I wanted, an extremely wealthy man ready and willing to marry. Not only that, he’d asked for only a month of waiting. Admittedly, people were pairing off pretty quickly, but I doubted any of them were less than a month from getting engaged. I supposed that, technically, he hadn’t promised that was what waited at the end of the trial, but it certainly seemed like it was. Wesley wanted out of the Initiative nearly as badly as I did, albeit it for very different reasons.

“Still, I should’ve fought the exclusivity,” I chastised myself, knowing that I’d made a mistake there. I’d been worried that he might retract the offer if I tried to start negotiating. Just attempting would’ve tipped my hand, letting onto the idea that I wasn’t quite as desperate as I pretended to be. It might have even put him on guard, if he realized that I was trying to be shrewd. The risk would’ve been worth it, worth the chance to keep playing my other prospects rather than betting entirely on Wes.

In the midst of such thoughts, an alarm buzzed reminding me that it was just about time for dinner. Setting my work aside for now, I got up and walked into my bedroom. There, I checked my reflection, giving myself a quick touch up to match expectations. After all, several of the other girls had come a long way in adapting since the night of the first social. It was much more common for girls to dress to impress now. Many wore make up even around the complex. Jewelry and flattering clothes were common. There were still a few holdouts like Spence, but even they had bowed some to the continued pressure toward feminine habits. As such, I had to make sure that I met expectations to avoid judgement or criticism from the others.

Once I was sure that everything was in place, I left my room behind, off to the dining hall for the evening meal. Even though I was quite prompt, several other girls had already beaten me there. As such, by the time I sat down, there was already a lively conversation going on at the table.

“She did?!” Maddie gasped in disbelief.

Across from her, Trish nodded emphatically. “She did.”

“I can’t believe it,” Maddie shot back.

“Well, you’d better,” Amber countered. “I saw her leave with him, too.”

“Who are we talking about?” I asked as I sat down with the other three.

My arrival got them all to look my way, but it was Trish that answered. “You don’t know?”

“What don’t I know?” I questioned, wishing that she’d just answered.

“Sarah had a date with some guy, today,” Trish explained.

My eyes widened involuntarily at that news. It was just so unexpected. I hadn’t thought Spence was even close to something like that. She was too busy punching people at socials to have caught anyone’s eye. Well, maybe someone noticed who was into pain? I’d heard of that being a thing.

“Guy named Wesley Saunders,” Amber added helpfully. “Wasn’t a very long date, though.”

If the idea that Spence was dating was astounding, that the guy was Wesley nearly floored me. Fortunately, I already looked shocked, so my lack of self-control in that moment didn’t reveal anything. I was stunned, though, and then suddenly right to feeling betrayed. Had that guy–?

Before that thought could even form, I shook it away. Spence wouldn’t intentionally cause trouble for me like this. I needed more information before jumping to conclusions. That meant that I had to talk to Spence.

“And look, here she comes now,” Trish remarked.

Tugged from my thoughts by those words, I looked up to spot Spence coming over. She looked about the same as usual, which I didn’t know how to take. Did that mean that nothing had happened during the date or did that mean that something had happened and that Spence was now okay with such things?

Rather than try to guess, I slipped from my seat and moved to intercept the other woman. “Sarah, sweetie, why don’t we eat in your room today?”

“What?” Spence mumbled momentarily thrown off by the request. “Oh … sure.”

“Wonderful,” I replied before grabbing the taller woman’s arm to hurry us out of the dining area.

I didn’t talk once the room full of girls was behind us. Others would still be wandering the halls, and so capable of overhearing me. No, I stayed silent all the way to Spence’s room, trying to not rush too much as I led her along.

“What’s going on?” Spence questioned once we were finally inside her room, perceptive enough to know that something had to be up for me to act this way.

Forcing myself to a greater level of calm, I turned to face the other woman. “Did you have a date with Wesley Saunders today?”

“Date?” Spence repeated that word with a disgusted look on her face before quickly shaking her head. “No! I mean … not really. We just went out to have a few smokes and a quick drink.”

That sounded an awful lot like a date to me, but I didn’t nitpick the definition. All that really mattered was that Spence didn’t seem to be aware of whether it was meant to be a date or not. That probably meant that Wesley just hadn’t been explicit about it.

“That’s it?” I double-checked.

Spence nodded. “Yeah. Why?”

“Nothing, I was just checking on a rumor,” I explained, not bothering to reveal everything. “The girls were talking about you being out on a date, and I was surprised to have not heard anything about it.”

Aggravation spread across Spence’s face as she rolled her eyes. “Ugh, they’re already talking about that?”

“Yeah, apparently a couple of them saw you leave,” I informed her. “It’s no big deal, though. Stuff like that always gets out eventually. We know it’s nothing, and that’s all that matters.”

“I guess,” Spence muttered, clearly not happy having her business be the talk of the building.

Reaching up, I rested a reassuring hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “Hey, enough of that. Let’s eat already.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“Can you tell him to just wait in the lobby? I need a few more minutes,” I noted.

Outside my door, the Initiative staff member nodded. “Of course, miss.”

“Thank you,” I added before closing the door and walking back to my living room.

In reality, I didn’t really need more time to prepare. Having gotten a feel for the time it took, I made sure to always be ready for the social events early. That night was no different, except that Wesley had apparently come to pick me up. It was mulling over that fact that would take a few minutes, and so, led to my request for more time.

If Wesley was putting forth that kind of effort, he clearly felt the deal that we had was still in place. That left me wondering why he thought that, though. Did he just think I wouldn’t find out if he dated another girl? Did he think I was too desperate to call him out for it? Was it just really not a date at all? It was hard to tell, and my minutes passed me by without making it any clearer.

“I guess I just have to talk to him about it,” I sighed, not happy with the situation. I liked to be on the other side of these things, the one weaving the careful set of lies to evade suspicion, not the interrogator. There was no avoiding it, though.

Stopping by a mirror on the way just to doublecheck my appearance, I left my apartment to make my way to the lobby. There, Wesley, dressed in the typical finery required of these events, waited. He did so impassively as if the night were meaningless to him, at best. That just wouldn’t do.

“Wesley, darling!” I called out to my date for the evening, adding a bright smile and eager wave as I sashayed over to him.

For his part, the man just looked up to register my presence and offer a neutral, “Hello, Ada.”

Wanting to roll my eyes at that reaction, I raised a hand as I drew close to beckon my date toward me. “Could you lean down for a moment.”

“Alright?” Wesley agreed uncertainly as he tilted forward a bit.

Given the difference between my petite height and the man’s fairly tall one, that slight movement wasn’t nearly enough to do what I wanted. It was, however, enough of a start. From there, it was easy for me to throw my arms around his neck and drag us the rest of the way, so that our lips could meet.

My second kiss with a man wasn’t quite as bad as the first. I was ready for it this time, as practiced as I could be without someone to be on the receiving end. It still wasn’t some thrilling experience, but at least, I didn’t want to jerk away and start spitting out the taste.

Wesley’s reaction was more like mine had been on my first kiss. His whole body stiffened with obvious surprise, and he definitely tried to pull away. The effort wasn’t very insistent, however, my arms around his neck were, keeping his lips locked with mine for several seconds before I finally released him.

“What are you doing?” Wesley questioned coolly once he was finally free to straighten up.

“Showing everyone that we’re very interested in each other,” I explained quietly as I reached out to take his hand and get us moving toward the door. “That’s why you’re here to pick me up, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but–” Wesley started to say.

“And if we want people to believe that, we need to do things like this,” I interrupted before pretending to lose my confidence for a moment. “It wasn't too bad, was it?”

There was no immediate response from Wesley, leaving a moment to slip by before he finally shook his head. “... no, it was … fine.”

“I wasn’t exactly going for fine,” I remarked as we reached the doors to go out, which Wesley helpfully opened.

“Well, it was more surprising than anything else,” Wesley noted.

Considering that for a moment, I came up with a new plan. Rather than walk the rest of the way to Wes’s car, I used my grip on his hand to tug us to a stop before releasing him to turn his way. “Alright, then why don’t we do it again to see if we can get something better than fine.”

“But … there’s no need,” Wesley argued, looking around.

I shrugged. “The people inside can still see us out here, and you not being able to keep your hands off of me would certainly help sell our relationship. That is, unless it was worse than you claimed?”

“It wasn’t,” Wesley stated firmly, before just looking at me with his jaw tightened.

“Well?” I asked. “Are you going to make me start again?”

Caving to the pressure, Wesley didn’t answer. He just leaned in, cupping my face with his hands as he pressed his lips to mine. Not being the initiator didn’t help it much, but the more willing partner made the kiss feel a little less awkward. In fact, Wesley seemed to actually get into it after the first moment or two, pressing us together more tightly until finally we broke apart again to breath.

With perfect calm, I smiled up at the man. “Better?”

Wesley did not have such calm, having a mildly befuddled look on his face as if surprised by the kiss not only not being worse but much improved. “Yes …”

“I thought so, too,” I added in a bright chirp before taking his arm to link with mine. “Now, shall we get going?”

It took Wesley an instant to recover from all of that and nod. “... yes, let’s.”

There were only a few more steps to the car, so I waited until we were in and on the move before I broached the next topic. “By the way, there was something about our arrangement that came up that I wanted to discuss.”

“Our arrangement?” Welsey stated to ask before realization dawned on him. “Oh, is this about Sarah?”

Surprised that he’d just come right out with it like that, my eyes widened slightly before I could stop them. “Uhm … yes.”

Wesley waved a hand dismissively. “You don’t need to worry about that. She’s just an excuse to slip away from my handlers when I need some peace and quiet.”

“Oh … “ I mumbled at the answer, trying to read between the lines. There didn’t seem to be anything written there. As far as I could tell, Wes was telling the complete truth. “... alright.”

“Alright? So it will be fine if that continues?” the man asked carefully.

I nodded. “I don’t see why not. The whole point of this was just to make things easier for both of us. If she helps, that’s fine. I only worry about it undercutting the believability of our supposed infatuation with each other.”

Giving that concern some thought, Wes nodded absently. “Hmm … well, I’m sure after that display tonight, that won’t be too much of a concern.”

I let a little giggle slip out of me. “Maybe not, but that was for the Initiative staff. Your business associates and handlers didn’t see it.”

“Then, I suppose we’ll just have to repeat ourselves at the event,” Wesley suggested logically.

I nodded in agreement. “I suppose we will.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“I never would’ve believed it, someone kept the Saunders boy from hiding in the corner all party,” Gregory Schulz declared grandly as he looked between Wes and me. “But, I suppose that was what women were known for, once upon a time.”

“I wouldn’t know, Mr. Schulz,” I replied as I patted Wesley’s arm affectionately. “All I know is that we’re so happy to have met each other.”

“I bet you are,” the councilman commented, leaning forward to give my date’s other arm a fraternal slap. “You’re so lucky, kid. I hope you know that.”

With a strained smile on his lips, Wesley nodded stiffly. “I do, Mr. Schulz.”

“Well then, I should leave you two lovebirds alone,” the older man remarked. “Nothing kills the mood faster than an old man blabbering on about it. You two enjoy your evening.”

“And you as well, Mr. Schulz,” I replied politely.

With an exchange of waves, the councilman took his leave, off in search of someone else to chat with. I waited until he was a good bit away before I leaned a little closer to Wesley and whispered. “I take it he’s one of these people pressuring you?”

“Yes, but he’s hardly the only one, and far from the worst,” Wesley answered. “A lot of the older generation were pretty good friends with my father, and now that I have to take his place, they all want to ‘look out for me’. It can be very annoying.”

“Well, we’ve finished making the rounds to let everyone know we’re together, so you should be safe from such annoyances for a bit,” I offered reassuringly before lifting the hand I held in my own to give it a little kiss. “Why don’t you get a drink or two while I go freshen up, okay?”

While Wesley’s mumbled, “Sure,” didn’t have much interest in it, I could feel the relief run through him at the idea that he could return to his usual party habits for a bit.

Smirking, I slipped away, offering a cute wave back at him for anyone that might be watching. Once that was out of the way, I was off across the room, on my own for the first time since Wes had picked me up. It was a relief to not have to maintain the double facade that my act demanded for a bit. That required a lot of care, whereas, walking on my own, was so carefully practiced that I maintained my perfect swaying stride without a single thought.

It wasn’t until I made it to the restroom that I was truly alone, however. I slouched forward against the counter, and just peered at my reflection in the mirror. I could already see a few touch ups that needed to be done to my hair and makeup, but I didn’t rush to get started on any of that. Instead, I let my mind wander for a bit, considering everything from how the night had been going to how all the exposed skin that came with my dresses wasn’t so bothersome anymore.

After a couple of minutes, the time to decompress came to an end, and I got to work. A trip to a stall made sure I would be good for the rest of the evening. Then I spent a little while in front of the mirror getting everything looking perfect. Once that was all done, I put a smile on my face and left to get back to the party.

Even so prepared, I was a little surprised to find the hallway that led between the restroom and the night’s event was not empty as I stepped out. Down the way, leaning against the wall next to the door to the party, was Peter Herzog. Judging from the way he straightened up at the sight of me, I had a feeling he was there specifically for me.

“Good evening, Ada!” Pete greeted warmly as his position forced me to walk closer.

“Good evening, Peter,” I repeated the sentiment back, keeping my voice pleasant, but clearly professionally so.

When I was close, Peter stepped away from the wall, inserting himself between me and the door. “Enjoying the festivities?”

“Yes, Wesley and I are having a wonderful time,” I pretended to gush. “He’s been showing me off to all of his business associates, and they’ve all just been splendid.”

My effort to make it clear who I was there with had Peter’s face tightening with obvious anger. “Saunders … pfft. What do you even see in that pissant? He’s about as much fun as a doctor visit.”

“Well, I realize he can act a bit … off-putting at times, but he’s just shy,” I countered. “Once you get to know him like I have, you’ll find he’s really quite fun to be around. Why we had just had a wonderful date ti–”

Peter rolled his eyes. “So that’s why you had to cancel with me, to go fuck around with that clown?”

“What? No, that’s not–” I tried to explain.

“Don’t lie to me!” Peter growled.

I stiffened at the outburst, drawing myself up primly. “I am not lying, Peter. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

With that said, I tried to walk by the irate man, but he wasn’t willing to let things end there. He grabbed my wrist along the way, tugging me to a stop. I didn’t even bother trying to break free. Even as a man, I probably couldn’t have and I was even weaker now. Instead, I just turned and leveled a hard look at the man.

“Let me go, Peter,” I directed in a calm, clear voice.

“Why the fuck should I?” the man demanded, spitting the words at me. “You’ve been playing around with every guy that so much as looks at you. I’ve heard all about it from the others, the way you prance about for everyone to see, the way you rush to go out on the town. Well, it’s my turn to play around now.”

“I don’t know what–” I began an argument, but it would seem that Peter was beyond listening. Instead he just jerked on my hand, dragging me toward him. “Peter!”

That yelp was all the I had time for before I felt Peter’s arms clamp down around me like a vice. Instantly, fear leapt up within my chest, driving me to try to break free. There was nothing I could do, though. Flailing and twisting about did nothing. I had no strength to compete with his nor enough weight in my tiny frame to overwhelm him in any way. All I could do was remained trapped as he bent forward.

True revulsion shot through me a moment later when I felt lips press into mine. It wasn’t really a kiss. No, such a thing would require my consent or at least some sense of affection from the other side. This was something else, something forced, animal, and stolen.

Instantly, I jerked my head, breaking away from the violation to scream. “Stop!”

Peter wasn’t listening to me. All he seemed to notice was the fact that I had pulled away, and he didn’t like it. For an instant, I felt his grip loosen, and I tried to use that moment to break free, but I didn’t get far. Half a step back was all I managed before Peter’s hands grabbed me again, this time by the shoulders.

The next thing I knew, my world vanished in a flash of pain as I felt myself slam into something hard, cracking my head along the way. Dizzying images spun in my vision for several seconds after that as I gasped for the breath that apparently had vacated my lungs. It was a fight just to stay conscious.

Eventually, though, the world came back, but I almost wished it hadn’t. Peter’s lips were on mine again, but he’d gone further than that as well. One of his hands was roughly latched onto a breast, squashing it painfully. Below that, he had his hips pressed up against me, grinding like some stupid animal.

The worst part of all of it was that there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t speak or cry out with our lips locked. I barely managed muffled grunts in my effort to escape. I couldn’t break free or twist away. I was pressed up against the wall with the man’s bulk holding me in place while his free hand gripped my chin to keep me facing his way. It was a nightmare and all I could do was endure it.

Somewhere in the background, I heard an enraged woman growling, but I just assumed it was me futilely trying to resist. A moment later, I was proven wrong as the pressure upon me was torn away. Peter toppled to the side, tearing his lips from mine and leaving me barely standing there thanks to the support of the wall.

Stunned, it took me another moment before I could register the shape of Spence bearing down on the fallen Peter. In her hand, she had some object that she was using to beat him, battering his head and the arms he tried to get up to protect himself. Then one blow landed with a solid thunk, and the man went slack, flopping over limply.

Straddling him, Spence glared down at the man, breathing heavily. Even with him down, she reeled back to take another swing, but a hand caught her wrist. Shrieking like some feral bird, she tried to tug free to keep up the attack, but more hands came, dragging her off the fallen Peter. Meanwhile, off to the side, my legs buckled completely and slid down the wall to just plop on the ground, almost unable to believe that my friend had saved me.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Twenty-Two: Benefits with Friends

I spent most of the night of our fourth social hanging around the periphery of the party crowd, curious as to why I didn’t have to dodge much attention considering I was “unattached”. It was a little suspicious, but I didn’t bother to voice that aloud until Wesley eventually pulled himself away from Ada and found me in our usual sort of place.

Now we both sat there with our backs to the party, drinking from champagne flutes and stealing quick looks to the crowd every so often. “Seems to me like you got your wish,” he commented when I brought the issue up, wondering aloud. He’d just shrugged. “No one bothering you.”

“Seems so,” I agreed, not sure whether to feel thankful or slighted. All the other girls had had men hanging around them if they weren’t already hanging off someone in particular themselves. I suppose with the rumors bouncing back and forth about my little “dates” with Wesley, I could imagine people thinking that I was maybe attached as well. We didn’t even have to make it look that good in public for people to just ASSUME there was something going on there. No matter that he was pretty officially paired with Ada.

For the time being, it was enough to have a breath away from free-floating suits trying to catch my attention or talk my ear off.

“Might have something to do with the way you broke Craig Travers nose,” Wesley suggested then, and pointed with a finger toward a familiar, boyishly handsome face amongst the crowd. This time, it sported a crooked and still slightly purpling nose on it. “I think he mentioned it to a few of his friends. Probably warned them to stay away from you.”

“Even more reason to not regret it then,” I said, sipping at my drink. And as we both watched, Craig Travers’ eyes strayed away from the man he was talking to, about the party … right to me. Wesley too, I suppose, because Saunders suddenly raised a hand and waved to the other man over the crowd. The gesture had Travers fleeing back toward his original company with a sharp jerk of his head.

“Can’t say he didn’t deserve it, but I’m curious. Whatever DID that man do to you to get his face bashed in like that?” Wesley gave me a look, coming back from the wave with a self-satisfied smile on his face. “Try to hold your hand? Grope at other places maybe?”

“He tried to kiss me,” I murmured around my drink as I finished it off. Though the answer came easy, the memory was anything but. It was just that all these fake dates had gotten me relaxing now when Wesley was around. It was so strange after being alone in the world with nothing but Andy for so long, but … it almost felt like I had another friend. And when I reminded myself of how I had laid him out as Spencer barely more than a month ago now, I only had a flicker of discomfort and uncertainty about it.

For his part, the man seemed not to mind me either. Ever since that first time at the overlook, he’d dragged me out every day since. Never at the same time, and never with much more than a half hour’s notice. I’d found myself starting to look forward to our outings, and not just for the promise of hard liquor and cigarettes. It was … nice … having another friend besides Ada. Weird that people thought we were somehow dating even though Ada and Wesley had already agreed on their potential match with one another, but nice nonetheless. Dr. Keinzler was the only other one who knew the truth and he, at least, didn’t seem to object to any of it yet.

Wesley let out a laugh and patted me on the shoulder.

“I’m surprised that’s ALL he got away with, considering how hellbent on murdering me you were after I merely let you sleep off your night drinking in my house. Really, I don’t think it’s entirely fair.”

“You want me to go over there and finish the job?” I offered, as seriously as I could.

The man gave me a too-grateful look and said, “If it’s not too much trouble, that would be wonderful, thank you.”

I refreshed my drink and we both stared back at Craig for a moment then. Eventually, he laughed and then so did I.

“I could try and introduce you to some men who might take more kindly to that kind of … enthusiasm … in a relationship, if you wanted.”

I knew he was just joking, trying to goad me as per usual, but I still snapped back at him instantly, “Don’t you fucking dare.” He laughed again.

“Oh well then. Can’t fault me for trying to help.” He flicked his arm around and looked at the watch on his wrist. “But I guess it’s about time we should go find your friend and my future bride. Come on.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“So what was it this time?” I asked lightly as I took a drag on my cigarette, looking over at Wesley. He lifted one of his expensive shoes so he could tap out some ash against it.

“Asher Cullens again.”

“Ah.”

He’d told me about that one before: the son of a man who operated a significant chunk of the businesses Wesley owned. A big complaint he often had out here when we were alone was how his people expected him to “entertain” the more important people both within his businesses and without. To keep things running smoothly, he said. All the pretense and kissing-ass annoyed the hell out of Wesley. It seemed like he was always swinging by the Initiative for me the moment after he had to deal with any of it. This was actually the second time today, not that I had minded when I got the call. It took me away from all that … other business, back at the Initiative.

“Man’s an incompetent, and I’d like nothing more than to cut him from our chain of command entirely. I think his father got him into one of the parties. Hey, maybe I should try and hook him up with you for a night.”

I shook my head with a laugh, blowing out smoke into the wind. We were both idling around the peak of that water overlook again, one of the usual spots he dragged me out to. No one ever bothered us there.

He laughed bitterly too, probably imagining a broken nose on the other man just like Craig Travers. Or maybe remembering having to pull me off Peter Herzog a few nights ago after I’d clubbed the side of his head with a full bottle of wine, just before I’d started wondering if I could separate him from it. But that was exactly what he got for touching Ada like that. Or anyone, but especially Ada. When Wesley suggested I go into the bathroom to retrieve her and I’d come across him, I’d just …

It was stupid, I suppose. I’d gone too far. Wesley had warned me of as much when he’d finally managed to drag both me and Ada away, bellowing out for some of the staff and personally manhandling Herzog until they arrived. No one held him accountable for the full-on punch to the jaw he gave Herzog either.

Things had been resolved while I pulled Ada aside to make sure that she was okay. Shaken, yea. I suppose what had been happening there had been a whole hell of a lot worse than any scrape I’d ever saved Andy from as Spencer. I don’t know what I would’ve done if it had been me in her place instead.

Probably killed him.

Things had calmed down. Wesley helped. He had a lot of clout, given his family’s status amongst the city’s elite, not to mention most people seeing it all as a jealous attempt on his potential wife. And even though no one tried to punish me for attacking the grandson of the Director of the Initiative … I’d still attacked the grandson of the Director of the Initiative. Wesley had warned me to be careful, and not make waves. Which was exactly what I’d been doing for the past few weeks, so I tried not to worry.

If Herzog ever came near Ada like that again, though, I WOULD kill him that time. No matter what anyone said.

“I wanted to thank you, Sarah,” Wesley spoke up, a few moments later. Unlike our first few times out, there weren’t a lot of long silences anymore. One of us was usually talking, even though a lot of it started with him venting. “I don’t think I’ve had another friend in a while. Not that wouldn’t be trying to exploit me in some way the whole time we were together, that is.”

He said it so seriously and regretfully that it threatened to make me uncomfortable when I looked at him. Ada came to mind all of a sudden and my voice got a little shaky as I tried to just laugh it off. “What do you mean? I’m just doing it for the beer and smokes.” When he actually chuckled at that, I managed a lopsided grin at him. “But you’re not so bad. For a blue blood.”

“Never been accused of being ‘not so bad’ before,” he remarked with his usual glib. “But either your game face has improved or you must actually mean that because you haven’t tried to attack or extort me once since we started this.”

I suppose that was true, and it was an odd thing with some worry attached. Worry, because it was getting harder and harder to lie about what Ada was doing the more comfortable and friendly Wesley and I became. A part of me really started to worry about whether or not he might get hurt in the end somehow, figuring out the other woman’s game. I didn’t think I could be so apathetic about it. Not anymore. Not without him reading it on my face.

When he’d commented wistfully on the sort of “loyalty” I’d shown towards my friend in jumping to her aid the other night -- and how he wished he had some people like that in his life -- I almost lost my nerve. The regretful look on his face had been difficult to watch.

Of course, Ada didn’t come up much, outside of extraordinary circumstances. Whether that was because he didn’t want to ever complain about her in front of me, her loyal friend, or because he just had nothing to complain about, it was hard to say. But whenever he did bring her up, I was quick to try to spin her as positively as I could, and he always gave me these funny little looks when I did. I couldn’t say I’d ever felt that guilty about anything I’d done before in my life, but he was somehow making me feel more and more that way about keeping Ada’s plan from him.

So today … I decided to compromise.

I tapped out some ash of my own against the wood rail and took another long, steadying drag. “I never told you my real name,” I started then, letting that hang in the air between us for a moment. He didn’t take the bait.

“I can understand why you wouldn’t, but I WILL say that I think Sarah suits you just fine.”

I resisted the urge to smile or frown at that since I wasn’t so sure just which I felt like doing more. Instead my lips curled back into a thin line as I pushed onward.

“Spencer Miklos.”

I let THAT hang for a moment too. And waited. Eventually, he just said, “Is that supposed to mean something to me? Can’t say I ever heard the name before. But unless you were in motorpool down with the Aerials or something, I don’t think we’d have been running in the same social circles anyways.”

He laughed at that, but it was short-lived. When he caught the look on my face, he sobered up.

“I’m sorry, should I know that name? This is supposed to be a relaxed space, Sarah. I don’t want you sitting over there feeling negatively tow--”

“It was MY name,” I spat out at him, getting just a little bit frustrated both with his obliviousness and my own fear bubbling up inside. “It was the name I had when I …”

I clammed up, scowling, but he just gave me a worried look.

“Your name when you …?” He waved a hand encouragingly. “Come on, out with it. I’ve complained about, and exposed, all SORTS of corporate secrets out here to you. Don’t tell me you’re going to balk at telling me something as inconsequential as who you might’ve been before.”

“You didn’t think it was so ‘inconsequential’ when I was beating your ass!” I snapped, and then promptly shut up. That was precisely the part of it that was the problem after all. And I’d just blurted it out all at once, without any of the rest.

He gave me a funny, confused look that I just wanted to ignore, and maybe he’d forget I’d ever said anything at all. But then his eyes suddenly widened in recognition. I saw it at my periphery and tried to shift even further away.

“No …” he breathed out incredulously after a moment of just staring. “No, that’s … But he was so huge and you’re so …”

“Yea, believe me, I fucking know,” I growled, but it had a lot more bite to it than I thought I could’ve managed. “Would you stop fucking looking at me like that?”

He was staring, and I didn’t like it. He’d never done that to me before while out on these little things. It was why I could tolerate them so easily. But in that moment, goggling at me wide-eyed and disbelieving, I felt just like I had when this whole Initiative thing had started. I felt like a freak.

“That scar,” he eventually said, and I reflexively reached up to cover it from his view. “I remember that scar. I …”

He trailed off, but it didn’t matter. He knew who I was now.

“Just say it. Or do it,” I told him, scowling out at the water and away from him. “Whatever you want to do. Whatever. I can’t stop you. You could beat MY ass right now and there’s nothing I could do to stop it.”

“Oh, I’m not so sure about that.”

I glared back over at him, sharply. And if I’d expected him to be sitting there suddenly fuming, dreaming up schemes of vengeance and how he might enact them now that I was so small, and weak, and alone with him and at his mercy -- I was disappointed. Instead, his lips were curled back into his face. He was trying hard not to laugh.

Embarrassment mixed in with the anger of a sudden.

“Yea. It’s fucking hilarious, I get it. Laugh it up.”

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” he just managed, nearly losing it as he sat there trying to swallow that amusement back down. “But you have to admit that it’s … kind of funny.”

“I don’t fucking think so.”

I took one last drag on my cigarette, then flicked it off toward the beach below. I suddenly didn’t have much appetite for the things anymore, not while he was laughing at me like that.

“Christ,” Wesley was still chuckling to himself a moment later. “That guy hit me like a truck. I never would’ve guessed. Though maybe I should have. Things with Pete and Craig make a whole lot more sense to me now.”

“Yea, well now you know. So …”

I wanted to say this was over. That we should call it all off and get me back to the Initiative. That we couldn’t be downright chummy like this anymore now that there was this rift he didn’t even know about back in place between us. But that wasn’t what I was trying to do by telling him in the first place. I’d just … wanted to not feel like I was lying to my friend.

Maybe we couldn’t be friends, though. Maybe that was the truth of it, and I’d just proved it by being honest. It wasn’t like Ada had ever gotten as far as she did by being honest. I really sucked at dealing with people.

I’d turned as far away from Wesley as I could. So I didn’t see it coming, and I flinched, when I felt his hand suddenly squeezing on my shoulder.

“Hey. You’re worrying too much about it. I don’t even really care. I didn’t look into that afterwards or call up your boss or anything. It was the restaurant manager who did it, I’m fairly sure. He was embarrassed that it had happened at all while I was dealing with some mistakes they’d made at that branch. Had to go in person, to get a straight answer with those people. Honestly, I’d completely forgotten about it until you just reminded me. And yes, it’s ironic, but … hey, you’re basically a completely different person now.”

I just gave him a hard look. “I’m really not.”

“Yea, you’re right,” he admitted, but it was dripping with the usual sarcasm again of a sudden. “My mistake. I mean, trying to kill me was almost the first thing you did when I met you.”

He shook his head and pulled back. Then he replaced that hand with the bottle we’d been sharing. I took it, and gulped down half the contents before I stopped.

I was mad, but I wasn’t sure just what at. Him? Everything? Or maybe just me. For ever letting myself get into this mess in the first place. Wesley hadn’t tried to beat me to death, though, so I guess that was a good thing. I probably wouldn’t have said anything at all if I’d really been worried about him taking revenge for laying him out all those weeks ago. And now I was sitting here hanging out with one of the rich pricks I’d always hated. I suppose I’d never considered what kind of person HE might be when I’d been busy pummeling him into the ground before.

Maybe he was right. Maybe I WAS a different person now.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from having some fun at my expense.

“Never thought someone like that would end up looking -- so -- beauti-”

A bottle suddenly flew at his head before the man could finish that thought. It whipped past and over the bluff behind him, and I wondered if I shouldn’t have skipped the warning shot. And maybe not told him just what Craig had said to me that night he tried to kiss me too. It’d been a running gag with him ever since.

“WHOA!!!” the man cried out and flinched, eyes going wide. That strangely boyish grin he sometimes got out here was still plastered across his face, though.

“Don’t fuck with me, Wesley. Next one won’t miss.”

“That’s the most fun thing to do with you, though. Besides, there won’t BE a next one now that I know you’ll waste good beer.”

“Fuck off.”

“If I do, who’ll drive you home?”

We went back and forth for a while. It had become a common enough theme for him to try and get me pissed enough to do something about it, then smirk and laugh at how easily he could manage it. Maybe I HAD changed, after all. Spencer certainly would’ve strangled a man like him to death long before now.

Eventually, the mood lightened again and left us both laughing. I wasn’t even sure what at any more, but it was nice. I shook my head and suggested it was about time to head back. The sun had just about set, painting the clouds in pastel oranges and yellows as I hopped down from my perch atop the wooden railing.

“Before we go, Sarah, I was hoping you might do something for me.”

“You know my price.”

He smirked, but resisted the taunt.

“I made an appointment tomorrow with an old friend that I’d like to keep,” he continued, a little more seriously. “If you could be available after lunch, I’d like to use you as the perfect excuse to go.”

“Use me. Isn’t that all you rich motherfuckers know how to do?”

He bobbed his head. “Just about. But I’m being serious here.”

“So am I.”

He rolled his eyes. “Be that as it may, I have this friend: Ezra. I’d like to see him tomorrow, as planned. My father never liked me hanging around with him, so that means Johannes and some of the others usually try to distract me with fires to put out whenever I mention wanting to go see him. This time, I told them I was planning on taking you. No fires miraculously sprung up.”

My brow crinkled in a frown and I shook my head. “Why not take Ada? It seems like she’d be the one to introduce to one of your friends. She’s going to be your wife, after all, right?”

“Assuming everything continues to go well?” He shrugged. He got a weird little smile on his face as he said it too. “But this isn’t the kind of thing I think she’d enjoy.”

“But I’ll put up with just about anything, right?” I offered with a smirk.

“Exactly. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that would impress her. And with her along, I’ll spend that time worrying what she thinks instead of enjoying myself.”

“Because you don’t care what I think.”

“Not one bit,” he said, and chuckled a little at it.

By the time we’d reached Johannes and the car again, I’d agreed. “Like I said … you know my price.”

To which he just smiled and nodded.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 23: Step Twelve

“And so we’re going to meet a friend of his tomorrow,” Spence rattled off, finishing her recounting of her most recent outing with Wesley. “I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do there, but if all the bluebloods around him don’t like this guy, he should be pretty okay.”

Listening carefully, I nodded along at the information. None of it seemed particularly useful at the moment, but I appreciated hearing it all the same. One never knew when some little thing could come in handy.

“He does sound like your kind of guy,” I remarked honestly, although, I would’ve probably said it anyway, even if I didn’t believe it. Having Spence reporting on her time with Wesley was a big help in learning things about him. After all, he was a lot more open around her. Around me, he was stiffer, apparently, according to Spence, trying to impress me. That was good, but not all that useful for figuring out how I could do the same to him. That by far the more important thing to me.

“Yeah,” Spence agreed before shrugging. “If nothing else, it’s another chance to have a few drinks and smoke. It's not like I can do that around here.”

“Can’t go wrong with that,” I commented with a laugh, that quickly drifted into a wistful sigh. “God, I do miss being able to have a good stiff drink whenever I want. That champagne stuff just doesn’t have the same kick to it, and we only get a shot at it during parties.”

Across from me, Spence nodded emphatically. "Yeah. I miss my morning smoke. It really got the whole day started right."

While not a habit that I’d ever had, I knew quite well how big of a deal it had been to Spence back before all this. “Definitely. Hell, sometimes, I even miss that dinky little apartment. These new ones they gave us are so big that I’ve never used more than like a third of the space.”

“They’re definitely a step up for me,” Spence contradicted. “I haven’t cracked my elbow or knee on anything by accident since we got here.”

I giggled at the silly reasoning as well as memories of the cursing fits that used to spill forth from Spence in those olden days. They used to be so common. Any little thing could set one off, like the aforementioned crack of a knee. “But without those, what would make you punch dents into the walls?”

It was the wrong comment to make, deflating Spence’s mood immediately as she looked down at her hands. “I’d probably just break my hand if I tried that now.”

“Hey, you had no trouble trouncing Peter the other night,” I noted optimistically. “Still can’t thank you enough for that, by the way.”

Spence shrugged off the gratitude. “Fucker deserved worse.”

“Probably, but I’m glad you didn’t give him worse,” I told her earnestly. “Wes probably couldn’t have kept us out of trouble if you had. He’s the director’s grandson, after all.”

“Doesn’t make him better than us,” Spence grumbled. "Doesn't mean he can just touch one of us like that because he wants to either."

That was a sentiment that I didn’t have to argue with. “Damn right.”

*********************************************** ***********************************************

It was taking a while, but kissing was starting to grow on me. I wouldn’t have claimed it was fun, yet, but repetition was clearly wearing down whatever hitch in my head kept me from really getting into it. The information we’d been given had mentioned something about that in the midst of all the science stuff that I couldn’t exactly follow – something about altered brain chemistry and other stuff leading to us girls eventually being into boys, even if we weren’t into ‘em before. At the time, it hadn’t seem necessary to the plan, but now that I was stuck kissing guys all the time, I was certainly thankful for that little scientific boon. I doubt I could’ve done it otherwise.

Another aspect that was making this particular kiss enjoyable was the fact that Wesley had started it. Out of character for him, he’d answered the door for our date rather than let his servant do it. Then, completely without prompting, he’d greeted me with a nice long smooch. It was a strong sign of his interest, and any such sign was a damn good thing to me.

“Wow … what was that for?” I breathed once the kiss finally broke, pretending to be stunned and flustered by the attention. “No one around right now to show off for, you know.”

Straightening up, Wesley’s lips cracked into a slight smile. “I know, but I did it anyway.”

That was far from a grand confession of love, but for Wesley, I figured that was about as good as I was likely to get, at least for a while. As such, I let my own face mirror the man’s smile with a beaming one of my own, like he’d just said the nicest of things to me. If he was going to start showing affection, I definitely wanted to appear receptive.

“Well, it did make for quite a greeting,” I commented lightly, before shifting slightly to give the man a sly look. “Shame how it ended so quickly, though.”

The implicit invitation in those words did not go unheeded. Wesley leaned right back in for more, cradling my face with his hands as I threw my arms around his neck. For the next several seconds, we just made out right there in the doorway.

“Maybe … we … should … continue this … inside,” I whispered during a series of short quick kisses that had sprung up in the midst of that.

“Good idea,” Wesley answered, breaking off just enough to tug me through the door with him. Once he had, he kicked it closed behind us. Then, we got right back to what we’d been doing.

I had no problems with the activity right up until the moment where the man pressed me up against the door. It wasn’t the same feral slam as Pete had used, but my whole body tensed and fear rushed into me. I tried to fight it down, but Wesley’s eagerness proved a problem. His hands wandered downward and all of a sudden it was just more than I could handle right then.

Twisting my head away, I broke the kiss and got my hands up to push gently against Wes’s chest. It wasn’t close to enough to shove him away, but it was a clear sign to stop. I added a gentle, “No, Wes,” to make sure it was clear.

Unlike Pete, Wesley stopped immediately, pulling back. As he did, his cheeks flushed while he looked down bashfully. “Sorry. I … I guess I should’ve known after what happened.”

Even as my heart still raced from the irrational fear that had gripped it, I forced a typically dazzling smile onto my face as I used a hand to caress the man’s cheek. “It’s alright, sweetie. Everything leading up to that was great, but I’m just not quite ready for more yet.”

“Of course,” Wesley acknowledged swiftly, undoubtedly eager to move past his mistake.

Happy to do exactly that, I helped out by saying, “Well, anyway, I was thinking that, in our ongoing effort to hide out here, we could try watching a movie tonight. I’m told it used to be a common date activity.”

Back to his usual stiff self, Wesley nodded curtly. “Very well.”

“Great,” I chirped, pulling out the night’s entertainment to hand it to the man. “Then here’s the movie. You go get situated and I’ll grab some drinks and something to munch on.”

Obeying readily, Wes marched off to the living room to plop onto the couch. That left me free to glide over to the kitchen. There, I snagged a couple of beers along with some snack food and was off to the living room as well.

“Thank you,” Wes stated with trained politeness when I handed him his drink.

My follow up, “Your welcome,” was typically bright and warm as I moved to sit. At first, I considered taking the opposite end of the couch, but I stopped myself. That was the kind of seat a buddy might take. I was Wes’s date, though, and judging by what happened at the door, he was clearly interested in some … closeness.

Sitting on the cushion right next to Wesley got me a slightly raised eyebrow, but he didn’t question it. Instead, we just popped open our beers and settled back for the show. A few moments later, the movie was up and running.

For the next little bit, I just waited, not really watching the movie. I’d seen it before, only picking it because I felt Wes might like it based on the information that I’d gleaned from Sarah. Instead, my focus was on the man watching it with me. I didn’t stare at him or anything. In fact, I pretended to be fully engrossed in the film. In reality, though, I snuck little glances his way, waiting for him to be fully into the film.

I didn’t have to wait long before I felt Wes was engrossed enough. When that happened, I shifted my position on the couch, scooting closer to the man. After that, all it took was a slight tilt and I was leaned up against him cozily.

Like with my initial choice of spot, I could tell Wesley noticed me, but he didn’t say anything about it. He did move this time, though, but it wasn’t away from me. No, he just shifted to move his arm out from being wedged between us to settle it around my shoulders.

Taking that movement as tacit acceptance, I made my final alteration, tipping my head over to lay it against Wes. It was weird to do that, weird to be nestled in a man’s arms like this at all. While it didn’t prompt the same kind of fear as earlier, I felt tense, uncertain, and a bit awkward with it all. It just wasn’t the kind of thing I had any experience with. The closest thing to it was a hug, and I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d gotten one of those – decades ago maybe. Thinking of it like that helped, though. A hug was a good thing, something people that cared about each other did. Wes caring about me was exactly what I wanted.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Twenty-Four: Flyboys

“Well? What do you think?”

Wesley was leaning over, shouting in my ear, which was currently encased along with the rest of my head in a flight helmet. So I barely heard him. The loud thumping of the turbines and blades as they spun above us drowned almost everything out.

“I think I can’t hear a single thing you’re saying!” I yelled back, loud and slow. He turned his ear to hear me as best he could, but then came back around with a laugh, the sound of which was lost in the cacophony of motors and buffeted air outside. He reached across my seat straps, pointing out the viewport.

“Just look out there for a while,” he mouthed, gesturing for emphasis, and I did.

We were in one of the Auroran military’s few airborne vehicles, a helicopter belonging to a battalion called the Aerials. When Wesley had dragged me down to the other side of the city after lunch for his appointment with his friend, Ezra, I’d found out the whole thing was actually about getting a chance to “borrow” one of the helicopters, something he’d arranged due to his friend being the commander of the unit. Ezra was actually Lieutenant Colonel Bashir, and the two of them had apparently done this plenty of times before. Taking a chopper out for a joyride, that is. All the while we were being prepped on the ground, Wesley gushed about how he’d always wanted to be a pilot -- how his grandfather had been the chief navigator onboard the original battleship Aurora, before it touched down. But his father had started building commercial interests and wanted his son to follow along the same path.

I’d learned over the past week or so with our many “dates” that Wesley had a strict aversion to his father’s businesses. However, he’d been forced to learn them rather than join the Auroran military like he’d wanted, and his father’s death had cemented his position in the company permanently as the new owner, rather than just the erstwhile son. He hadn’t been lying about being kept from seeing his friend by his handlers at the corporate office.

When we’d gotten in to request entry at the compound gates, a hasty order came down to let us in over their radio, and a weathered man in a crisp uniform greeted Wesley with a full-on bearhug. He’d introduced me to him as his friend, but Lieutenant Colonel Bashir mistook me for his future wife at first, seeing as Wesley had apparently been scant on the details in who he was bringing along. And the fact that Ada looked radically different from me.

I corrected him.

“I was there when those two girls -- I forget their names -- first came in,” he’d prattled on excitedly, getting a good look at me as we stood there waiting for the helicopter to get fueled. “Couldn’t believe it then and I can hardly believe it now. What’d you say your name was? Sarah? Damnit if it isn’t a miracle to me still. I heard you all were supposed to be volunteers, undergoing that experimental treatment. Good to see it all worked out. Thank you for your service, uhh, ma’am.”

He’d given me a smart salute that I didn’t think I was supposed to return. I just stood there, thinking that was the strangest thing to thank someone for. It wasn’t like I would’ve done this if I’d had any other choice. Fucking military and cops were all dumb little drones for the blue bloods, I swear.

Though I hadn’t been too sure about Wesley’s excitement over this whole thing, I got a chance to change my mind. Right about the time I looked down and saw the whole city gliding below us. My mouth fell open and I froze. And I just stared there for a bit like that, while the chopper slid forward hundreds of feet in the air.

“Beautiful, huh?” Wesley leaned over and yelled to me as I stared. I don’t know if “beautiful” is the word I would’ve used to describe the shitstain city I’d scraped along in the underbelly of for the past six years, but there WAS something utterly breathtaking about seeing it from this angle. Like everything was so much less consequential, up here above it. Everything was within reach. Everything was accessible to us from this perch up in the sky.

“I haven’t been able to get out here since dad died,” he continued, shouting and exaggeratedly mouthing near my face. “I’ve missed it! You should try looking out there!”

Again, he pointed and, again, I followed. This time, it was out to the horizon where a cloudless sky was peeled back to show the land surrounding the city of Aurora for miles. The wall. The tent city outside. The rolling hills to the north around a lone mountain. The sinking plains to the south. I stared out there for a while without saying anything, drinking it in and letting Wesley enjoy his little piloting vacation away from his people and work.

When I finally looked back a minute or so later, Wesley was staring at me instead of the vista. I just gave him a thumbs up in regards to it, not feeling like yelling about how beautiful I DID think it was over the sound of the propeller. He cocked a little smile at me.

We flew around for about half an hour. Already, this outing was shaping up to be our longest. Not that I minded. Things back at the Initiative were about as interesting as they ever were, and skipping a lesson or two had never been quite so worth the make up Mayweather’d put me through. And as much as I didn’t want to gawk and gape and grin like a pleased, awed idiot at that whole aerial view of the city and beyond, it was hard not to. I’d certainly never seen anything like it before.

I think that reaction amused Wesley too. Or maybe he just thought it was funny for the huge mountain of a man he remembered from before, sitting here as a tiny female in the copilot’s seat, staring out in silent wonder at the view. He was smiling and more quiet than usual, and it wasn’t just because of the noise. Ever since we’d started, he’d look pretty pleased with himself. I caught the look out of the corner of my eye once and gave him a questioning one in turn, but he just laughed it off, pointing out some building of interest to look at down below. And, eventually, the whole thing came to a close.

As we drifted back down towards the landing pad, we were both enjoying a comfortable, satisfied quiet. Strange sort of thing to find myself enjoying, but … there it was. I wasn’t complaining. I supposed that having a suit for a friend wasn’t without its perks. I said as much, on that last vertical towards landing, but he didn’t answer. He just gave me another tight-lipped smile.

We hit the ground and the engines wound down along with the propeller. Hearing became less of a challenge, though the final whine of the rotor was slow to die out. I waited while it did, still strapped into my chair. The ability to hear and talk again like normal was awkward and took some getting used to.

“That was actually fun,” I told Wesley as he flipped switches and pulled a lever, bringing the thing towards a total shutdown state. I smiled wistfully out toward the tarmac around us, feeling like the world was suddenly too stable under my feet, gravity a little too demanding. “I can see why you like it so much. I’d do it again sometime.”

“I’d take you again sometime,” he tossed back glibly, an easy smile on his face.

“But you do still owe me.”

He looked over for a moment, and didn’t say anything. Eventually, I prompted, “Alcohol? Don’t tell me you didn’t bring any with you … Smokes, too. You should know how it goes well enough by now.”

“Not really supposed to drink while you fly …”

He scrounged around inside his coat, having to unbuckle and unfasten himself to get at it. He’d eschewed the usual suit for something a little more casual today. I suppose he had the time, since he’d actually planned this for once.

I unbuckled while he looked, and fiddled with the helmet but had some trouble with it. “Guess I forgot it this time,” he was saying, somewhat apologetically as he got himself free of the seat. He slumped back in with a preoccupied look on his face.

“Really? Shit. Whatever, it was still worth it. I … I can’t get this fucking thing off.”

I was still struggling with the headset, clamped around my chin. As I did, Wesley glanced my way.

“Here, I’ve got it.” He leaned over in front of me and started messing with the straps. “Look at me for a sec. Stop moving around.”

“You’re breathing right in my face.”

“You want me to just leave this thing on?”

“No. Maybe I want to CHOKE you until you get it off.”

“Well ... There. Got it. See? That wasn’t so hard.”

“Sorry I didn’t get to go to some fancy school where they taught me how to do all this shit.”

“Yes, basic buckles really took an advanced education to master.”

He laughed, and I laughed. We laughed at each other.

Then he pushed his mouth right into my face.

I jumped in surprise, but he had a hand slipped up under the flight helmet -- half removed from my head -- with his fingers digging into my hair and holding me in place. His lips found mine and I didn’t have the wherewithal to pull back before they did. And then it was just the gentlest sensation of him kissing me there on my mouth.

My hand came up in a fist --but paused, partway to the side of his head. His eyes had squeezed shut with the vestiges of a very determined look there. I saw that, watching wide-eyed with his head pressed flush to mine and … and I couldn’t hit him. I reached my other hand up to push him away, but I hesitated first.

Instead I kissed him back.

It was THAT that got him to finally pull away. That little, unintentional peck on his lips in reciprocation. I don’t know where it came from, but he gave me a few inches just to sit there, staring me in the eye. A few seconds of that and a bubble of fear finally burst from within.

I pushed him back away from me.

“Wh-what are you doing?”

“Please don’t break my nose.”

He gave me this serious, abashed look that just had me reeling all over in confusion, magnifying everything that had just happened in my mind. I raised my fist up to do just that, but it stuck in the air again. “What wa-- are you fucking with me?!” I all but screeched, and he winced.

For a moment, he looked like he was going to say yes. I waited for it, horrified and wondering if I could even stand that as a joke. But then he hastily shook his head. He didn’t say anything at all, just kept shaking his head.

“I …” I tried to start. Failed. Then I looked away from him to the rest of the cockpit. We were still alone in the helicopter, his friend Ezra nowhere in sight on the tarmac. And I couldn’t decide if I liked it better that way or wished someone else had been there too. Eventually, I came back around. “Wh-what about Ada?”

“What ABOUT her?” he uttered in a low, despondent voice without looking at me.

“What about all of … all of THAT? Things are … going well, right? Between you two? Right? Why would you …”

But I couldn’t even put the rest of it into coherent words.

“I don’t KNOW, alright?” he just snapped at me. Then he seemed to catch that stunned, borderline horrified look on my face and softened his tone. “I don’t know. It just happened. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“But … it’s not SUPPOSED to happen! You’re supposed to be with Ada! That’s how it’s supposed to be!”

“I know that! Don’t you think I know that? I … LIKE Ada. I think I do. And I know she’s your friend but … I think I like you too, Sarah.”

I was shaking my head at him, still not sure how the hell that had even happened in the first place.

“That’s not what this was supposed to be about! This was never about … or was that your plan all along? Did I have it wrong this whole fucking time?”

“No! Sarah, look.” He pivoted back around so that he was facing me, but all I could see was how close he’d gotten once more. My instinct should’ve been to flinch like with Craig, or anyone else. But I just stiffened up and went still, looking back at him. “I didn’t want to do any of this in the first place. The Initiative. This whole thing. I was pressured into it. And if it hadn’t been for Ada -- if it hadn’t been for you …”

“Wh … what are you saying …?”

“I don’t know what I’m saying. I just never wanted any of this. And now … I … I started calling on you for no reason, you know? This started as a nice little excuse to get away from everyone, and you were okay with it. Hell, you were even willing, without any kind of real expectations. But then I did it even when I DIDN’T just want some time away. I guess I … I did it to see YOU, Sarah. I just wanted to see you. I like being around you. And I’m pretty sure you like being around me too.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I tried to argue, but he just rolled his eyes at me. He reached out as he opened his mouth to say something more, but I cut him off. “I … really think you should take me back now.”

And whatever he’d meant to say died on his lips. His whole face wrinkled up in hurt and disappointment. Maybe because he realized, like I did then, that this meant we couldn’t see each other like this anymore. There was just no … there was no way.

He must’ve seen that, because he tried to say something else.

“Sarah …”

I moved to open the cockpit door on my side and he latched firmly onto my arm. “Please, Wesley,” I pleaded, unable to look at him just then. “Please.” I don’t think I’d ever begged a man before in my entire life.

Eventually, he did let me go.

Wesley’s friend Ezra seemed to sense that something was up when he came to get us off the landing pad. He’d had a big grin plastered across his face on the way over, apologizing for getting held up elsewhere, but it evaporated pretty quickly. The two of us were fairly terse, and I just avoided saying anything at all. The car ride back was even worse.

I did flinch when Wesley abruptly came over from the opposite seat and sat next to me before we arrived back at the Initiative building. “I don’t want this to end,” he told me. “I really don’t want you to go out that door and refuse to ever see me again, Sarah.” But that was exactly what I did.

I didn’t say anything. I just held myself together with him sitting there next to me in a frustrated, defeated slump until we finally came to a stop. Then I left without a word and didn’t look back. I scurried back to my rooms, threw myself down on the bed, and cried like I hadn’t done in weeks.

And when Wesley Saunders came around on short notice like usual to call on me the next day like nothing at all had happened, I ignored him. I let him sit down there for however long before he gave up. He tried to get several messages to me, and I ignored those too. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done in my life.

Because each one hurt more than I could understand.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter 25: Step Thirteen

“What has gotten into her?” I muttered as I jammed the button for Spence’s buzzer much harder than was necessary. It was the third time that I’d pressed it and the woman still hadn’t come to the door. Something was definitely up.

Of course, I’d already known something was up before I’d even arrived at the other woman’s room. The day before, I’d planned to meet up with her to talk about her outing with Wes, but she’d spent every moment after she came back either holed up in her room or at her private lessons. She hadn’t even come out for dinner. Then, today, some of the other girls had told me that Wes had stopped by for her, even left her several messages at the front desk, but he’d gotten nothing in response. Eventually, he’d given up and left.

Knowing something was wrong didn’t tell me what it was, though. I couldn’t just wait forever to find out either. I was supposed to have my own date with Wes in a little bit. I couldn’t just walk into that with no idea of what catastrophe had occurred or the mess it had left in its wake. I didn’t even know who was at fault for it. Had Spence picked another fight? Had Wes said something he shouldn’t have? Was it something I couldn’t even guess at?

“Come on, Sarah, open the door!” I called out when, again, no one answered, adding a couple of pounds in a not exactly good attempt to emphasize the demand.

Ineffectual as the attempt seemed, it was what finally got a response. The Spence that greeted me, though, was far from anything that I could’ve expected. She looked haggard and listless, kind of like she had those first few days after we’d been changed.

“Ada,” Spence mumbled my name as her eyes, previously so lost, lit up with something else. She was looking at me with the hope that I would somehow fix whatever had so devastated her.

For my part, impatience instantly swapped with worry at the sight of my friend so distraught. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. Wes … he … “ Spence started to answer, but every time she aborted along the way, never finishing any one thought.

Reaching out, I grabbed the taller woman’s shoulders. “It’s alright. Whatever he did we can–”

“He kissed me,” Spence blurted out at that simple touch.

All words died on my lips in that moment. Reassurances, plans, jokes, all of it was just gone. In their place was a weird mix of stunned disbelief and an internal voice yelling at me for not thinking something like this might happen.

“He … he kissed you?” I managed to get out, struggling with even those few, stammered words.

Averting her eyes, Spence just nodded.

That confirmation didn’t make things any easier for me. It just drove home my mistake, and made me curse myself all the louder in my head. “And what did you do?”

“I … “ Spence started to say, but got caught on something. When she continued a moment later, I could tell something had been left out. “I pushed him away. I yelled at him. He’s not supposed to want me! And–” There, the woman just stopped abruptly, falling into a despondent slouch.

For my part, all I could do was look at her, trying to find the pieces of my shattered plan and stick them back together. What did this all mean? Did Wes love Spence? Did he not love me? Were those two things equivalent? Was there any way to salvage this? Was there–

My thoughts stopped as I caught sight of something glimmering through my distraction. When I focused on it, I knew instantly what it was – the shimmer of tears. The only oddity was that they were in the corners of Spence’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Ada,” Spence finally added more words to her story. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. It was just supposed to be a break from all of … this, a chance to just … to just not have to worry about anything. I didn’t–”

“It’s alright,” I cut in gently. Stepping forward, I slid my arms down from Spence’s shoulders to wrap them around her. In all of our years of friendship, it was the first time that we’d ever hugged – the first time that Spence had ever seemed to need a hug. “You don’t need to worry. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll fix everything. I promise.”

Spence didn’t answer. She just slumped into my embrace with the faintest of nods. I suspected some of those tears probably fell too. Her eyes certainly looked kind of red and puffy when we finally broke apart, but there was no wetness to be sure.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

“It will be just a moment, ma’am,” was what Johannes has told me when he’d left me to wait in Wesley’s living room. He’d had to say that, because unlike for our last date, I had not been met at the door with a kiss. No, I imagined that Wes probably hadn’t even remember that we had a date that evening at all – not after what had happened.

There were all sorts of thoughts and emotions vying within me for dominance as I stood there waiting. I wanted to be angry, over the betrayal, over the tears that I’d seen ready to fall in Spence’s eyes. I wanted to be rational, focused on getting everything back on track, focused on completing my dream. Plans whirled about that could see either through. I could take a page from Spence’s book and bludgeon Wes with that lamp. I could forgive him and rework the arrangement that we’d made. I could just run from the room screaming and never have to deal with any of it. That last option actually didn’t sound half bad. It was all just such a mess.

Through all the inward angst, I maintained a near perfect outward calm. The only tell that something was bothering me came in the fact that I didn’t sit down. I couldn’t have. There was too much going on. Even standing still was hard. I wanted to pace, to rant, to punch something, anything but be still as events rolled on around me.

Unlike every other time that I’d visited, Wesley rushed to meet me. I could hear it in the sound of his footsteps, racing along. I even saw it as he skidded slightly around the corner, coming to a stop just staring at me.

When I saw him, I noticed there was a shocking similarity between what Spence had looked like and what Wesley looked like now. He was not his pristine, well-kept self. His clothes and hair were askew. His eyes full of guilt and confusion. His shoulders slumped. Everything spoke of a man that had fallen apart.

“Forget the time for our date?” I asked simply, smiling one of my usual smiles as if nothing at all was wrong.

The casual greeting didn’t make it any easier for Wes to get himself put back together. He did try, though, straightening his posture and tugging on his shirt to smooth it out. "No, I ... I was just ... I'm sorry, I lost track of–”

“You don’t have to lie to me, Wes,” I interrupted the stammering in the same perfectly pleasant tone as I’d greeted him. “I know what happened between you and Sarah.”

While he had to have suspected something like that was coming, Wesley winced at the news all the same. “I’m sorry, Ada. I didn’t mean for anything to happen. I didn’t mean to have feelings for her. I didn’t mean–”

“Do you have feelings for me?” I inquired, once again interrupting as I struggled to keep an edge from creeping into my voice. An apology did me no good, after all. I needed to know where I stood, so I could figure out where to go next.

“Yes, of course,” Wesley answered, sounding almost desperate. “I just …” he started to explain only to trail off into obvious frustration as he clenched his hands into fists in front of him. “I have feelings for both of you. I know I shouldn’t. I know it’s stupid. I don’t even want to, but I still do.”

I couldn’t respond to that right away. It was just too strange seeing Wes like that. The man was normally so put together, so withdrawn, and here he was … tormented, warring with himself.

When I gave him nothing but silence, Wesley lost that war. His whole body slumped as his gaze dropped to the floor. Everything about him was filled with guilt, even his voice as he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt either of you, and here I hurt you both. Sarah won’t even talk to me, and you … I guess you’re about to do the same, aren’t you?”

There was a part of me that was tempted to do exactly that, but it was quickly driven away. I couldn’t just walk away from this. After all, I had bet everything on Wesley. Most of the other men were taken already, at least the ones that were any good. Besides, there was something else caught in my thoughts, and I had to sort through it.

“No, I’m not,” I answered with as much calm as I could muster. It wasn’t as much as I would’ve liked, though. Even in my ears, my voice sounded sort of hollow as if my efforts to stay calm had just sucked all emotion right out of it. “I would like to know exactly what happened, though. I couldn’t get much out of Sarah. Apparently, her not talking extends beyond just you.”

A pained look flitted across Wesley’s faced, but he nodded. “I have a friend in the military who sometimes lends me the use of one of their helicopters. I took her up in it. We had fun, like we usually do. There was nothing different about it, until … I don’t know … there was just a moment, and I … I kissed her.”

“And she …?” I questioned leadingly, knowing that there was more to the story.

“She was shocked, no surprise there,” Wesley answered. On the heels of that, he let out a bitter little chuckle. “In fact, she kind of looked like she was about to punch me for it like she did Craig.”

I furrowed my brow slightly. “But she didn’t?”

Wesley shook his head. “No, in fact it almost ... “ never finishing that sentence, he just paused to shake his head a second time before continuing with an entirely different thought. “She ended up pushing me away, then we argued, and I took her back to the Initiative. We haven’t spoken since.”

That all sounded like what I’d expected. There was just one slight irregularity, the little gap that Wesley had left. Thinking back, Spence had done that too, withheld something in her recounting of their outing. At the time, I had assumed it was embarrassment, but now I wasn’t so sure. No, maybe, it was that now I was entirely sure. Something had happened that neither wanted to talk about, at least not with me.

Immediately, ideas sprang to mind for possible actions. I could try to press for that little bit of information. I could ignore it and try to fix things with what I already knew. I could call it a loss and walk away. Well … no, I couldn’t really do that last one.

“I know it was a mistake,” Wesley kept right on going. “I never should’ve done something like that. We had an arrangement, one that I had always intended to uphold, one that I still want to uphold. If there’s any way that I can make this up to you, I will.”

It made so much sense to just accept that offer. Of course, it wouldn’t just immediately fix everything on its own. Things were never that easy. I’d have to get Wesley to not spend time with Spence anymore. No, I’d have to find a way to get her out of his mind entirely. How could I manage that?

One thought came to mind in answer to that question. There was something that I knew Wesley wanted from me, something that I had refused once before. During our last date, I had stopped him, saying I wasn’t ready. That had been the truth – was still the truth. Sometimes life demanded things without readiness, though. I could push through it. That would seal things between us and cut off whatever was building between him and Spence.

Building or was already built? That was the problematic question. I’d seen Spence on the verge of crying, so hurt and confused. I’d seen Wes with the same haunted look. It was the look of people that had lost something of immense value, and that something wasn’t me. It was that little piece that neither would talk about, that neither probably even understood – not rationally anyway.

Continuing from his offer, Wesley lifted his gaze, looking right at me with such earnestness in his eyes. “I promise.”

I believed that simple statement. With his word and some help from me, Wesley and I would be together, probably for the rest of ours lives. We’d marry and have children, all while we carved a huge swath out of Aurora to call our own. Hell, maybe we’d manage to just take all of it – the jewel of the planet all mine. I’d have everything that I’d ever wanted, standing at the very top of the mountain, so high that I couldn’t even have seen the spot that I’d started from.

Well, no, I wouldn't have everything. Spence couldn’t go there with me. The friend that I’d dragged all this way would have to be cast aside. I couldn’t let her and Wesley be near each other or this would probably all happen again. After all, from what I could tell, they loved each other, or at least, they would if given the chance.

Thinking about it, it was such a simple choice. The world or one measly person. She was such a troublesome person, too. She picked fights. She made a mess of my plans. She had no motivation. She had no vision. She had … stuck with me through all of it. She had fought to protect me. She had …

My eyes started to burn, but I quickly blinked the budding tears away. They were stupid. Spence was a tool, one that had probably never been useful enough to be worth all the headache that came with her. She certainly wasn’t worth giving up everything that I had worked for my whole life. I was being stupidly sentimental to even consider her right now. There was just one last step in my plan. All I had to do was take it.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Chapter Twenty-Six: Dinner with Trimalchio

“Is there something you want to tell me, Sarah?”

It had been a little while since Dr. Keinzler expressed any significant concern over me and what I was doing. Our sessions had turned into something more like status reports and dwindled off to every other day, then more recently to only once a week. Other girls had reached that point long before I had, as far as I could tell. Really, I think my surge in renewed apathy lately with Mayweather was the only reason why I found myself sitting here now, being interrogated by the shrink outside that schedule.

For my part, I’d assumed as disinterested a posture as I could. Which was a mistake. I knew that this sort of thing only invited the doctor to inquire even deeper. But … who knows? Maybe I wanted him to.

Still, that didn’t mean I was going to make it easy for him. No matter what truths about me he might’ve already gleaned in our time together, I never made it easy. It was the last, half-assed efforts of a beaten man to dissimulate.

Dissimulate. Another word I’d picked up from Mayweather’s lessons, and it fit in so well with all those blue bloods with their games and their lies and the fantasy that they lived. The Initiative had taught me to talk just like them, hadn’t it? Mama would’ve been so proud.

I just gave the doctor a long, hard look before turning away without a word. Because I didn’t want him here. I wanted to be ALONE for once. Just once. Away from all this bullshit and back where things made sense and I could …

“I gather you had a falling out, of sorts, with Wesley Saunders.”

My eyes snapped right back to him across the table, blazing of a sudden.

“And just who the fuck told you THAT?”

For all my sudden anger, and the lack of guards outside to protect him from me, Keinzler didn’t flinch or show any fear. Even though I had a drinking glass close enough to smash and leap over there to cut his throat. He just crinkled his brow expectantly at me, which was just as well because I realized that I didn’t really have the heart to do anything to hurt him. The moment I thought about it, I saw Wesley’s stricken face, looking up from the floor of that restaurant at me after beating him down, and the anger fled. Disgust replaced it, and I had to tear myself away.

“Various inquiries,” the doctor explained, oblivious to all of that going on inside my head in an instant. “You were speaking quite highly of him last time we spoke. I checked up on you and found out that he’d been by several times, leaving messages for you too, and you didn’t respond to any of them. You’ve been hiding in your apartment for the past few days, barely saying a word to anyone. It really wasn’t hard to deduce that something happened between the two of you.”

“Nothing happened!” I wanted to shout at him, as if that would somehow make it true. But I couldn’t. Not with the way he just tapped his bearded chin, measuring me with those penetrating eyes. He always seemed to know just when I was lying or hiding something, and I’d learned long before now not to even bother. Not saying anything was the only thing I could do, and then he just never left me alone about it.

So I told him. I told him ALL about Wesley Saunders and that ride in the sky and that horrible, terrible betrayal of a kiss back on the ground. I didn’t tell him about how, for just a split second, I’d kiss him back, though. No, I hadn’t told anyone about that, not even Ada. That I kept entirely to myself where it belonged.

No one else ever needed to know just how sick Spencer Miklos might’ve become.

When I was done, Dr. Keinzler didn’t look shocked or surprised. He looked totally impassive. It made me even angrier, though I hardly knew why. He just leaned forward and gave me an unreadable look.

“So you saw this as a betrayal, I take it.”

“You’re god damned right I did!”

That clinical little smile crinkled his ginger beard. “And there was no reciprocation on your part? No … gesture or words spoken to give him reason to think you might feel similarly toward him? None at all?”

I opened my mouth to spit an emphatic “No!” but it was pretty obvious to me that he was waiting for the lie. He had his eyebrows raised, perched and ready. So I caught myself. I just shook my head and said, “I don’t know.”

That slowed him down for a few moments, his mind turning over as he watched me. I waited for the verdict, for him to pierce the uncertainty, but all he did was eventually let out a sigh, adjusting the glasses on his face.

“Perhaps there was some overreaction. As I understand it, you’ve begun your monthly bleeding, and it used to be quite commonly known that women suffered from heightened emotional responses during times in and around menstruation. Perhaps you said something you didn’t mean, or that he misinterpreted.”

I didn’t need to be reminded of my already awkward new genitals bleeding out on me. But I tried to pull back on the anger that flared up at that sterile tone, or the way he tried to link it to those impossibly frustrating circumstances. Anger was probably just what he was expecting. So I reined all that shit in and just gave him a clear, firm, resounding, “No.”

I’d had a lot of time to think about that kiss. That terrible, terrible kiss. I don’t think I’d thought of much else since it happened. COULDN’T think of much else. Wesley had barely been in my life for more than a month and then so suddenly GONE that it’d left this gaping hole inside. A hole that I’d never known existed or how I was supposed to get rid of it now that it did and he was gone. All because of one stupid, little, mistaken kiss.

“I DON’T want to talk about Wesley Saunders anymore, Dr. Keinzler,” I eventually groaned out in frustration when all he did was sit there patiently studying me for a bit. “He’s gone now and won’t be coming back. So just drop it. Please. I’d like to move ON with my life.”

It was one of those lines he was so fond of using: ‘move on with your life’. Fond enough that he seemed to take it for what it was and leave the subject of Wesley Saunders alone for the time being. Too bad the one he picked to move on to wasn’t any better.

“Alright. Sarah. Why don’t you tell me how you got that scar.”

I flashed some teeth at him, but resisted the urge to touch at the tissue above and below my eye. He’d asked me about it plenty of times. He practically GOADED me, trying to get me to explain where it came from or who gave it to me or--

“I told you NO,” I just snarled back at him.

To which he merely cocked his head. “Really, Sarah? It seems to be such a difficult thing for you talk about. There must be something to it for it to provoke such strong emotional reactions in you.”

I stabbed a finger at him over the table, at that accusation of being ‘emotional’. “It’s not and there doesn’t!” I spat. “And I’m tired of you always pushing me about it so why don’t you just shut the hell up!”

“That’s not how this works and you know it,” he droned on in that too-calm voice, attempting to soothe. Always. Always trying to soothe, and console, and lecture and--

“I don’t fucking care!”

“You’re never going to get better and live a happier, healthier life if you don’t face these inner demons, Sarah. Talk them through with me. This is exactly what I’m here to help you with.”

“Oh, is it? Here to dissect my brain, you mean. To play your little head games and try and convince me I should be like all these other assholes! That I should accept being someone’s fucktoy, and let them kiss me, and make babies and … and …”

“That’s not true at all. You’re grossly misin--”

“Don’t you fucking lie to me, dammit! Because I’m not some idiot drone or pretty doll or … or Hannah fucking Orlaev trying to save the motherfucking human race, and I don’t have to sit here and listen to any of this bullshit if I don’t want to, I can--”

“Sarah!” the man suddenly snapped at me, leaping to his feet. I was standing over him, having gotten to my own and shouting down at him around the table. He tore the glasses off his face and ordered, “Calm down! And sit! Now!”

And I don’t know what the fuck it was about that ginger doctor towering over me and looking like he was at the end of his patience as he barked those commands down at me but …

I snapped.

I leapt at him and shoved, but it only knocked him back, not down. I tried again, but he was ready, glaring back at me out of that cold, clinical face. By the time I tried a third push, as hard as I fucking could and with all my skinny arms could muster, my frustration at that total lacklustre physical response reached a fever pitch and I shrieked right in his face instead.

“You wanna know how I got this scar?!” I demanded, screaming it at him with my fists clenched to either side, glaring him down. “You really want to know?! FINE! Fine, asshole, I’ll fucking tell you. I’ll fucking tell you, you egghead piece of shit!”

And I got right up in his face as I said it.

“My Papa gave me this,” I shouted at him, tracing a fingernail along the line of distorted scar tissue so hard that it should’ve drawn blood. “Took his fucking knife and carved me up when I was a teenager! He’d tried to touch me again, but I was too big for him by then. Too big for Papa! I beat that motherfucker like he beat ME. For years. YEARS!”

I clenched my teeth, spitting the words out and jabbing a finger into the ginger man’s big chest. He didn’t move.

“He said he’d kill me. Promised me he’d kill me, if he ever found me again. He sliced my eye up after I hit him, and then I beat him so bad that he wished he was dead. But I couldn’t finish it, you see. I couldn’t kill my own Papa! What would Mama ever think of me then, wherever she was?

“But I wanted to. I wanted to so -- fucking -- BAD! I wanted to split that fucking asshole open from throat to crotch, and let him bleed out on the floor back in Sommelier. Split him just like he split me. Make him FEEL exactly what he’d made ME feel, only worse.”

I was right up on the doctor, baring my teeth up at him while he watched, my nostrils fuming and one fist having pounding him in the chest right where his heart was. He’d retreated another step then held firm, gingerly rubbing at the spot while he tried to hold his ground.

“What do you mean, Sarah?” he pushed, more angrily than I had ever heard his voice go and yet nowhere near as furious as my own. Maybe he didn’t realize how close I was to finding something to take his head off with. Maybe he was really that stupid. “What exactly did he make you feel?”

I laughed. It was a shaky, bitter, angry sound. Like some kind of lunatic.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” I growled at him, and slammed another fist into his chest before he could stop me. “He fucked me! His little baby boy! Mama was dead and gone. There were no women left! So he fucked me. He fucked me. He fucking fucked me!”

I punctuated each with another pounding blow on him with my fist. Then I shrieked at him again. When I was done. I opened my mouth wide and wailed, screeching so that I was sure every other girl on the floor fucking heard me.

Because I remembered. I remembered being that little boy when Papa had come home too drunk and mad to be anything but a monster. Mama had only just barely kept him a human being for those few years I remembered, but I knew. It wasn’t the Phage that got her. It was him. No one thought any different at the time, and I’d been five years old. No one would’ve listened to me. I hadn’t even understood it myself. Then.

But I remembered what he’d done to me as that little boy. I survived, and I grew bigger than him. Bigger than he could manage. He never touched me again after I got older and I almost forgot. Until that last night in Sommelier. The night he tried to put hands on me like that again and I’d lashed out, remembering. He got a knife and nearly sliced out my eye. And I should’ve killed him. I should’ve killed him when I had him beaten and bloodied and lying there on the bedroom floor. But I’d been too scared. I hadn’t told anyone because I’d been so scared, not even Andy.

And now look at me.

Dr. Keinzler was doing just that, as the first tears sprung up into my eyes. I felt myself start to deflate and shook my head. I tried to hold onto that anger just a little bit longer. It had always kept me safe.

“You get it, don’t you?” I demanded of the man, no longer flailing at him while I stood there, feeling drained and worn and beaten instead. “Why I can’t be what they want me to be. Why I can’t let someone do that to me again. Touch me again. I don’t … I …”

My vision clouded up. A sudden sob wracked my chest and my whole face screwed up and, before I knew it, I was blinded by tears and crying. Everything I’d tried so hard to be for so long and I just dissolved right there on the floor of that fancy apartment. I came entirely apart and--

Dr. Keinzler’s arms suddenly wrapped around me.

I tensed up, but he squeezed me to him. I raised my hands into fists to beat him back, but he just started murmuring, “It’s okay, Sarah. It’s okay. He can’t hurt you anymore. You’re safe here. I’m sorry I had to push so hard, but you needed to get past this. You’re safe. You’re safe here now. I’m sorry.” My arms froze before I could hit him, push him away, make him regret touching me at all and …

I suddenly realized how much like when Ada had hugged me the day before that made me feel. And the fight was all worn out of me. So I just … stopped.

I didn’t do anything at all while the man held me. I just cried and cried and cried. And eventually, when I was done, he let me go.

I realized he was right. I WAS safe. I had been for a while now.

So I finally stopped trying to run.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

I watched our fifth social from the comfortable anonymity of the back of the crowd, holding a champagne flute that I hadn’t felt much like drinking the whole night long. Jason Herzog, Director of the Faraday Initiative was standing up there at the front of the stage where not so long ago all of us first gens had stood for the gawking mass of assembled wealthy elite and investors. He had Hannah Orlaev, his grandson, and Dr. Faraday himself all up there alongside him while a small orchestra behind paused in their playing for a speech. The older Herzog was praising the success of the whole thing he oversaw, patting himself on the back to the polite applause of the gathered guests. All those plastic, happy smiles gathered together in one place. He announced plans for moving forward with a second call for volunteers sometime in the near future and went on to wax poetic about leading the fight to save the human race from extinction. Everyone cheered for that.

The decision to hold this event back at the place where the first had been held, exactly one month later, was no accident. They’d confirmed that all the women had menstruated, and so allayed any lingering doubts about our ability to get pregnant and spawn the next wave of humankind here on Proteus. Such a wonderful accomplishment. Really, they should’ve been proud of themselves. Me, though, I just couldn’t quite find it in me to get excited. Maybe it had something to do with my being alone and, for the most part, disregarded by the assembled “eligible bachelors” as per last time. Maybe not.

My reputation would probably smooth over. Eventually. After all, they needed every womb working on keeping the colony from failing any further than it already had, and they weren’t going to let me slide on pretense of being one of the first pioneers for long. Most of the other women were already attached. Not what I’d ever expected in the beginning, but just about everyone seemed pleased. The Faraday Serum had all but replicated the results of that of the Protean parent, so we were all finally safe from the Phage and what it had done to us as a people.

Mama would’ve been so proud.

Of course, there was someone else who had reason to be proud: Ada. Adelaide soon-to-be Saunders Illes. Everything had worked out just like she had planned it and, as I saw her walking over to me with a plastic smile of her own and a few genial words for people along the way, I suddenly wondered if she’d ever had a plan for me, too. Or if I’d just been along for the ride since the beginning.

I tried my best to resist that bitterness welling up inside. I had only some idea where it was coming from, and I couldn’t allow it.

“Sarah,” she greeted pleasantly. Just before that smile melted right off her face into the determined look that replaced it. “We need to talk.”

I let Ada drag me over by one arm a little ways, until we had some privacy within the din of the crowds all around, a little pocket that opened up for just the two of us within the reception hall. She turned to me once she’d checked that no one was close enough to hear or paying too much attention to us and just said, “This is my fault. All of it. Everything that’s happened to you. Spence.”

I stopped and frowned at her.

“What?”

She didn’t go on to explain right away, though. Instead she took a deep breath, looking away to the rest of the party. Like she had to collect herself a bit to continue. When she did, she gave me a very flat look and started, “You remember that fight? Back at the delivery stop? The one with … Wesley.”

“Yea …” I responded slowly, not sure what that had to do with anything and cringing a little inside at the mention of the man’s name. Ada just straightened herself out to her full height, trying to look me in the eye while she did.

“I started it. It was me, Spence.”

I shook my head at her, not really understanding. “You started it? What? What do you mean? What does that have to d--”

“I picked that fight with Wesley so that you would jump in and do what you do best. I knew you’d get us in trouble when you did. I knew it’d get us fired.”

I stared at her for a moment. But it still didn’t click.

“I don’t get it, Ada. What …”

THEN it finally hit me.

“That’s right.” She nodded with a tight, bittersweet smile on her face. “You were being stubborn, refusing to join the Initiative so long as we still had a job. So I made sure we lost that job. I made sure all of it worked out to get you to agree. So everything that’s happened, everything that’s happened to you … it was my fault, Spence. Mine.”

I couldn’t speak as I stared back at her. Something caught the tongue inside my throat and I just stood there, not doing much of anything. I froze, unable to process any of that at first. Ada gave me the first genuine, apologetic look I’d ever seen on hers, or Andy’s, face before in my life.

“I’m sorry, Spence. Sarah,” she corrected after a pause, with some emphasis on my new name. “I did this to us. I knew you couldn’t survive on your own the way you were and I wasn’t just going to leave you behind. This was my plan all along, but you were always supposed to be part of it. I couldn’t just let you die alone back there. I couldn’t.”

She reached out and touched my arm. It was such a feminine gesture that it jarred me out of that place I’d just been, unable to move or speak or think beyond the simple fact that Andy -- that ADA -- had been responsible for all of this. Everything that had happened to me. Everything that they’d DONE to me. She was …

Gone.

“But you don’t need me, Sarah. Not anymore.”
Then she turned around and walked away. I watched her go, mouth still refusing to work as my brain tried desperately to catch up. She was gone before I recovered, and I realized, for the first time that night, that I really felt like I needed a drink.

I drained the flute in my hand, stumbled out towards the veranda, and tossed the glass as far as I could out into the night. Only a few people were out there yet, since the night was cold. I didn’t care. I just waited for the satisfying crash of that glass from the dark and stormed away to get some more. I found my way to one of the tables out there, snatched the bottle from the ice bowl and popped, then chugged a bunch right into my mouth. It spilled down all over the front of my dress before I could stop it, and I just snapped at myself.

“Fuck.”

I put the bottle down, and stared at it. At the table and beyond. I was suddenly so angry that I couldn’t see straight. I wanted to throw it too.

And it was right about when I was reaching out to do just that when someone asked, “Having a rough night?”

I didn’t have to turn around to see just who it was. I knew. I’d spent the last few weeks getting very familiar with the sound of that voice, unintentional from the beginning, and I felt all that anger freeze up inside of me as soon as I heard it. It’d been days since the last time I had. And I realized all too quickly how familiar the table in front of me was, how familiar that situation was, how much like the very first social so long ago.

Wesley Saunders strode up to the table beside me, took that bottle before I could, and poured himself his own drink. “Don’t worry, I know the score. I’ll stick to my side, alright?”

I froze up and stared at him too, but for entirely different reasons than I had for Ada. What he’d done to me was just as bad, but … it wasn’t his fault. That I’d felt something too … wasn’t his fault. Dr. Keinzler had made me see that. He’d gotten me to see that maybe, just maybe … that was okay.

But all I said to Wesley was, “You shouldn’t be here. Over here. Not with me.”

“I wanted to talk to you,” he responded easily enough, with that same politic charm he employed so sardonically when he was in a particularly good mood. “And you’ve been incredibly hard to get a hold of over the past week, so …”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“I think there is.”

“You’re with Ada,” I growled at him, looking away at nothing as I did because I couldn’t stand the sight of him or the memory of those feelings in that split second where they’d come to a head. When I’d actually enjoyed him kissing me. “So there’s nothing more to talk about, Wesley. You need to stay away from me, do you understand? I’m not going to let you betray my … my friend.”

But I faltered, because I’d already been betrayed by that very friend, hadn’t I? She’d betrayed me in the worst possible way. She’d manufactured my own personal hell and let me believe through all of it that it had been MY choice all along. It hadn’t, though. It had been hers. It had always been Ada.

And that made me so sick to my stomach that I had to bite back the tears threatening to burst right out of my eyes.

Wesley took a long drink, draining his glass all in one go, before he looked at me. I slumped forward, holding myself up against the table and I felt his eyes boring into me from the side. “You can’t betray Ada just by talking to me, Sarah,” he said.

“I don’t think you understand just how hard this really is!” I grated out, back at him. And he actually smiled at me. At me saying THAT.

“And why would it be so hard for you?” he asked, slowly and carefully, drawing the words out. I looked up at him as he did, scowling at that little smile on his face.

“You know EXACTLY why it’s so hard for me.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I just know that it wouldn’t be so hard for you unless you felt something too.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, Sarah. I …”

And he faltered there, a bit. I suppose the look on my face wasn’t too encouraging because that confidence evaporated right off of his after a moment and I just got this flash of something else. Misery? Desperation? It made me wonder.

“You felt something, Sarah. I know you did. You … you kissed me back. I remember. Please don’t tell me that was nothing.”

I wanted to. I wanted to do just that, but it felt like a lie. I KNEW it was a lie. But I couldn’t do anything about it. Even though Ada had … I just couldn’t do anything about it. That wasn’t … me.

“I won’t betray Ada,” I told him, firmly. I couldn’t hold it for long, though, my voice getting shakier the longer I spoke. “It doesn’t matter what I feel, or if it was something, I can’t … I can’t do that.” I squeezed my eyes shut to keep them from leaking, and then blinked back up at him. “Please don’t make me do that.”

It came out so desperate and weak that I hardly recognized myself as I stood there in front of him pleading. No matter WHAT Ada had done to me, I couldn’t take this away from her. No … no matter how much I realized that I wanted it.

And I did. It became clear to me then, looking Wesley in the eye. It was why I couldn’t talk to him, why we couldn’t just hang out like before. Because I’d kissed him back and I wanted him. I realized that and knew that there was no going back. I knew that.

But I couldn’t have him.
“You wouldn’t be betraying anyone, Sarah.”

He said that, and I froze again. My brain didn’t quite comprehend whatever he was implying.

“What?”

He smiled. He smiled at me instead of answering. Then he reached up and took my face in both of his hands, cupping it to him.

“What if I told you that there was no Ada and I anymore? No agreement. Nothing binding me to her instead of you. What if I told you that?”

The ‘instead of you part’ had me suddenly reeling. As much as the question itself. And the way he was looking at me. The way he leaned in to say it. And the way he reached down and kissed me right on the mouth.

I was too stunned to do much of anything but stand there in his grasp while he kissed me. It was slow, and tender. Like he was savoring it. And when he pulled back to look me in the eyes again, I realized that I was savoring it too.

“She told me I should be with you, Sarah,” was what he breathed out, gently there in the inches between us. “She said she’d never seen either of us happier than when we were together, or more miserable than when we were apart. I think she was right. And I want to be with you, Sarah. Please tell me you want to be with me too.”

I didn’t, though. I just sat there, staring at him, hardly able to comprehend enough to form coherent words. So I did the only thing I could do.

I kissed him back.

I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him into me, squeezing my lips to his like I was drowning and he was my only source of air. It was clumsy, and rough, but I’d had no practice ever before in my life. I barely knew what to do except for blind instinct and repetition of just what we’d done before. But it didn’t matter. Because when I finished and pulled back, he was smiling that little smile that I knew was just for me.

“Can we … just get out of here?” I asked a little breathlessly, and gestured with my head back toward where all the blue bloods’ vehicles has been parked across the way, with their valets. “I don’t want to be here anymore. Not with any of these people. I just want to be with you.”

“Cigarettes and rum?” he offered with a smirk and his hand. I nodded my head and laughed, as I took it. It was so easy to laugh of a sudden. With him.

I looked around briefly for Ada as we hurried out of the event and over to get Wesley’s car, but I couldn’t find her. I wasn’t sure if I could ever forgive what she had done to me either. But I felt like I could try. With Wesley’s hand in mine, I felt like I could try to forgive anything.

*********************************************** ***********************************************

Epilogue: Misstep

“Just not the same,” I muttered as I finished a sip of my champagne, setting the glass down on the table in front of me. It was my only company at the moment, but it wasn’t worth much. God, how I wished it was whiskey instead. That stuff would’ve made what I was witnessing a lot easier to handle.

Far from the secluded corner spot that I’d hidden away in, I could see Wesley and … Sarah talking. I could almost guess at the words. Sarah, stubbornly loyal as she was, trying to resist even after I’d told her the truth about the things I’d done. Wesley, stubbornly infatuated, working to get her to come around. Then, they kissed, proving that my guess about them was spot on.

“There goes my perfect future,” I sighed, pulling my glasses off. That action turned the world into nothing but a blur, long before any budding tears in my eyes could do that. It spared me from watching my friend of a lifetime walk away with the man she loved, shutting the door on the time that we’d spent at each other’s sides. There had been a bunch of scrapes and scares over the years, but in spite of all of that, I was sure going to miss her.

“Well, this is a surprise,” an older male voice remarked from nearby just before I heard the sounds of a chair shifting about to let someone sit beside me. “You, all by yourself like this.”

Turning to the voice, I forced a smile onto my face as I slid my glasses back into place. “Councilman Schulz, what a pleasure to see you again.”

“Your company is always my pleasure, my dear,” Greg replied congenially. “In fact, I had been looking forward to you being around more thanks to your pairing with Wesley, but it appears that hit some sort of a snag.”

Trying to appear nonchalant, I shrugged and scooped my champagne glass up off the table. It was looking like I was going to need another drink. “Some things just aren’t meant to be.”

“True, but you and Wesley together wasn’t one of them,” Gregory noted. “I saw the way you were working him. He was yours for the taking.”

“Working him?” I questioned with affected indignation. “I don’t know what you mean by that, but–”

Chuckling, Greg waved a hand to dismiss my protest. “Oh please, my dear. There’s no need to deny it. You may have fooled all these young guns that haven’t seen a real girl since before their voices cracked, but I have a bit more experience. I was a grown man back when women were all around, and trust me, you weren’t the first to realize her charms could get her a fancy life if she used them right.”

Seen right through, I was left just staring silently for a moment before an unashamed smirk twisted the corner of my lips. “A girl’s gotta think about her future.”

“Indeed, she does,” Greg agreed. “And what do you think of your future now? Intending to try for one of the lads that are still unattached or do you have plans to steal one away from one of the other girls?”

While I had started on some new plans after the tragic failure of my last one, I had not intended to admit to that. In the moment, though, I nodded. “Actually … yes, I do have a new mark in mind.”

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” Greg remarked. “Who is it?”

Smiling mischievously, I shrugged, returning my champagne glass to the table. “Why don’t you guess?”

“Well, of the more influential ones, Marshall’s relationship with Amber is the most tenuous, so–” Greg tried to deduce.

I was already shaking my head. “Nope, not Marshall.”

“Well, obviously Peter or Craig wouldn’t be an option,” Greg noted humorously before getting to his actual guess. “I did see you around the Lawton boy before, so maybe you plan to try for him again, even if that Lily girl has a pretty tight grip on him.”

“Nope,” I answered. “I actually pushed those two together.”

“Hmm, can you give me a hint then?” Greg inquired.

“Alright, he’s older than me,” I supplied readily.

Greg furrowed his brow at the clue. “That’s not exactly helpful, my dear. While I don’t know exactly how old you are, and I know quite well not to ask a lady that question, I do know that the people selected to become women were almost all younger than the men that were picked to court them.”

“You asked for a hint, not a good one,” I joked lightly.

Rolling his eyes, Greg gave me an exasperated smirk before nodding. “Alright, then let me see …”

For a moment, I just let the man think while I watched him in amusement. I highly doubted that he’d ever guess the answer. Hell, I couldn’t have guessed it if someone had asked me even a day ago.

“Well, while you figure that out, why don’t you tell me why there’s no Schulz boy in the program?” I queried. “Mr. Herzog managed it for his grandson, so you must have had the influence to do so as well.”

A slight hint of melancholy settled over the councilman at that question. “Well, the council agreed to avoid that sort of thing for fear that it might be seen as improper and self-serving, but I have another excuse. Namely, that I don’t have a son.” As he made that admission, something seemed to dawn on the man as he sat up to peer at me suspiciously. “But I suspect you already knew that.”

Giggling, I nodded in confirmation. “I did. I also know that you were never married. Why, though?”

“Stupidity mostly,” Gregory answered with a shrug. “I was young, surrounded by pretty girls that were eager to impress me, and didn’t want to settle down. Then, all of a sudden, all those girls started to disappear, struck down one after another. Just my luck, now that they’re coming back, I’m too old to go chasing after them.”

“And what if one was sitting right next to you?” I postulated. “Think you could catch her then? Wouldn’t be much of a chase.”

Greg’s eyes widened slightly at that question. “Maybe, but we’re trying to avoid impropriety, remember? How would it look if someone on the council took one of the first round of girls for himself?”

“Tsk tsk tsk,” I clicked my tongue at the man. “You’re more clever than that, Mr. Schulz. The rules say no one can make me be with anyone I don’t want to be with, and I’m a patient woman. I wouldn’t mind keeping myself available for a bit while I look for the right guy. Plus, I hear there’s going to be a new round of girls soon. I won’t be nearly so special then.”

“My dear, even if half the world was women again, you’d still be something special,” Greg countered glibly.

Smiling, I reached out to rest my hand on one of the councilman’s. “Well, I’m glad you think that, because I’m not planning to let another mark slip away from me.”

The End



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