“She’s lost six pounds since last week, sir,” Jason Hu said.
Thaddeus Greaves gazed through the vidcam monitor at the young woman inside the small cell. Lara Kirk stood with her back to him. Sharp shoulder blades pressed against her cotton jersey tank. Loose pants hung on her thin but still graceful form. Her slender back radiated defiance. She was conscious of being observed, though she could not see them. She vibrated with psi talent, even unenhanced. He tasted it in the air, like smoke. Just like Geoff. The similarities stirred disturbing memories.
Her long, dark hair dangled as she sank into a perfect back-bend. Her tank top slid down, too, revealing her ribcage. The top snagged on the curve of her breast. He waited, breathless, for it to slip enough show him her nipple. It did not. “Other changes?” he asked.
“She no longer cries, or talks to herself, or sings. That stopped about a month ago. She spends her time meditating, doing gymnastics—“
“Yoga,” Greaves corrected. “She’s doing yoga, Hu.”
“Ah, yes. Blood samples show her iron is low. I’ve supplemented her food, but she averages six to seven hundred calories a day.”
“That can’t go on indefinitely,” Greaves said.
“We could use a feeding tube,” Hu suggested.
Greaves grimaced in distaste. “Any progress with the new psi-max formula? Who was the latest volunteer?”
Hu hesitated. “Silva went today,” Hu said. “I went the day before that, and Miranda before that. Our best duration so far is than ten hours. Without the A component, we’re still stabbing in the dark.”
Lara Kirk kicked up a slender leg. The pant legs pooled around her thighs as she did a hand-stand. The shirt sagged lower, and her nipple was revealed. Her slim arms trembled. They did not look strong enough to bear her weight, yet they did. Her eyes were wide, intensely focused, the message as loud as if she screamed it. You. Have. Not. Broken. Me.
Greaves was stirred. Something steely and indomitable about her called to him. He stared hungrily as she folded her body, and stood.
“Has she manifested any psi abilities?” he asked.
“We never dosed her,” Hu said, defensive.“You never authorized—“
“I mean naturally,” Greaves snapped.
Hu looked clouded. “Haven’t noticed. Couldn’t rule it out, I guess.”
Beautiful, how she held herself. That remote dignity. Geoff had been an artist and visionary, too. She was a very talented sculptor. He owned a number of her pieces himself. They called to his soul.
He made a snap decision. “Dose her,” he ordered.
Hu blinked. “But the formula’s not perfected. Without Helga, we can’t even be sure she’ll survive first-dose. Are you sure we should—“
“I’m sure.” He stared, as Lara sank into a deep lunge, and then arched her arms back, like a bow pulled taut.
Greaves licked his lips. “Do it right now,” he said. “I want to watch.”
Stop thinking about her. Stop thinking at all.
Miles stared up at the volcanic granite that reared above him in the dim light of dawn, scanning for handholds, footholds. He channeled a surge of fresh energy into his mental shield. Thinking about Lara Kirk was not useful, but he’d never been good at suppressing unwanted thoughts, even before being reduced to his current suck-ass state.
And the dreams? Oh, holy God, what was up with that? White hot thundering erotic dreams about her, every single night. What kind of scumbag wierdo dreamed nightly of nailing the girl that he’d failed to rescue? If he’d saved her, now, he’d be halfway entitled to his horndog fantasies. But as it was, no way.
Every night, as he prepared for sleep, he gave himself the stern pep talk. Tonight, he chose how he behaved in his dream. People could. It was called lucid dreaming. He’d read about it. Didn’t matter, though, lucid or not. When she came to him, his dream self did not give a fuck what his waking self wanted. His dream self wanted her, and wanted her bad. Deep, hard, every which way. When she showed up, he seized her, went at her like a maniac. It was as disturbing as it was exciting.
He remembered every last detail when he woke, in laser sharp detail. No foggy dream lens, no fade-outs. Her sweet salty taste, her satiny thick hair, twisted into his fingers. Her body moving against his. Strong, slender. Hot and slick. He could feel it right now. He could practically smell her lube on his fingers. And, man, he’d done it again.
He contemplated his newly refreshed hard-on, dismayed. The guys with the white coats should just take him and his perpetual stiffie away before he hurt himself.
You tried to help. It didn’t work out. Climb the cliff. Don’t think about Lara Kirk. Don’t think at all.
He stared up, calculating the best ascent. Neutral data, crunched through algorithms. Conclusions, organized into neat categories, rank and file. As long as his mind shield was up and running strong, he was chill. He had errant thoughts, sure, but they did not play themselves out through his glands. They flickered on the edge of his mind, like a TV screen he was barely following.
But if his mental shield wavered, man, it was blitzkrieg. Full on screaming stress flashbacks, of Rudd’s attack at Spruce Ridge.
He’d gotten better at keeping the shield up, here in the mountains. Weeks of constant, grinding practice alone had yielded him at least that much. He’d discovered the benefits of rock climbing the second week. The tight mental focus it required helped pull him together. Free climbing, of course. Climbing equipment hadn’t been on his supply list. That was OK. The harder the better, for his purposes.
He pulled off his boots. He needed monkey toes to climb that big bastard, but he’d make do with what God gave him. He studied the big overhang, the stretch where basaltic lava had formed long crystalline striations, as if a huge beast had clawed violently downwards. There were cracks and crannies, maybe big enough for fingertips, maybe not. He cataloged them all. His eyes were sharper than before Spruce Ridge, and his memory, too. Sharp, like all of him. Sharp like broken glass.
To counteract that dubious advantage, his headache throbbed nastily away. A lingering hangover from Spruce Ridge, plus the effects of sleep deprivation. He was so damn ambivalent about sleep ever since those crazy erotic dream trysts with the ghost girl had started up.
Each night, the dream began with her creeping through a big mechanical wall. A big, steam-punk style thing, full of monstrous gears turning, ax-shaped pendulums swinging, a confusion of parts in constant motion, but somehow, she found these hidden Lara shaped openings, and slithered through them. Sinuous, practiced, like some sort of sexy pole dance. A choreography she knew without thinking.
He forced the memory down, and squinted at the Fork, which towered against the dawn sky. Lara was a dangerous ghost. If he shorted out and lost the shield partway up, he was meat.
Not that he was afraid of death. He wasn’t, since Spruce Ridge. Rudd had driven him to a place where death was his friend. He’d never be afraid of it again. Even so, he wasn’t going looking for death. A guy had to give a shit, to plan his own suicide. He didn’t have the energy.
His shield seemed solid, after some deep breathing. OK. Good to go. He flexed his hands. The pine needles beneath his bare feet were fuzzed with frost. He focused his mind to a diamond sharp point . . .
. . . it washed over him, mixing into the data feed. Cougar.
Where? He looked around, neck prickling, keeping his mind blank, to make space for the flash flood of sensory info. Another souvenir from Spruce Ridge. Harold Rudd had mind-fucked Miles into a coma with his coercive psychic powers a couple months ago. He had survived the encounter—barely. But when he woke up, his brain was wired all wrong. He’d existed in a state of constant sensory overload ever since. The world blared at him from all sides, no filters, no rest, no down time.
It knocked him flat on his ass. He had to jerry-rig himself back into functionality again. To learn how to at least fake normal. Not that he’d been so very normal before, but hey. Everything was relative.
The sensory overload had gotten somewhat better since the ghost girl started making her conjugal visits to his mental fortress. Surprise, surprise, life improved when a guy was getting laid. Even if it was only happening in the privacy of his own mind.
The animal was watching him from that stand of trees. How did he know the cougar was a she? By smell? Like he’d ever sniffed a cougar to determine its sex. Still, the summation of the bits of information, each individually too small to perceive on its own, swirled up like a pixelated cloud and focused into a potent, predatory her. She was near-invisible, those eyes gleaming with inscrutable feline calm. Her tail swished back and forth when she sensed that he saw her.
He gazed, awestruck. He loved seeing the animals. These were the moments he was trolling for. Fleeting instants when his hyper-sensitivity was actually a gift, not just a huge pain in the ass.
Neither wanted to move until the other one did, but Miles finally surrendered, lifting his hands. “I’m not breakfast,” he told her.
Her tail swished again. He gaze was unwavering.
Miles took a swig of his water, stowed the flask and gave her a respectful nod. “Later, then,” he told her, and began his climb.
Long, slow, and nearly impossible. Silence and solitude helped focus him. So did muscle-bulging, sweat dripping, eye-popping effort. Dangling a millimeter away from death for hours at a time was genuinely restful to him. If he kept the shield strong.
He’d originally created the shield to protect himself from Rudd and his pet telepath, Anabel, for all the good it had done him. They hadn’t been able to read his mind, but in the end, Rudd had ground him into hamburger anyway. He’d made that wall to keep attackers out, but what he’d ultimately created was a bunker to keep his own self in.
Whatever it took. Since he woke up from the coma, he’d been faced with two possible modes of existence. Mode One; a shaking, sobbing nightmare screaming stress flashbacks, reliving Rudd’s torture. Big barrel of laughs. Mode Two, he kept the mind shield up constantly. It damped down the stress flashbacks. And flatlined him emotionally.
Mode Two still won, whatever the price. Cowering in a fortress worked for him. It was a no-brainer.
It changed him, though, to the vocal dismay of his family and friends. Nobody liked chill, flatlined Miles. He was too cold for them. He was no fun anymore. Tough shit. He was done rolling around like a puppy, panting for everyone’s approval. Anyone who cherished strong opinions about his coping mechanisms could go get stuffed.
Nothing moved him. Not maternal guilt, not the scolding of his friends; Aaro, Sean, or various other components of the McCloud crowd, an opinionated group if there ever was one. To a man, they considered Miles to be their own personal creation, and as such, their personal property, too. It took a traumatic brain injury to jolt him free of that.
He’d always wondered how those McCloud guys, most notably Davy, Connor and Kev, managed their strong, silent routines. Now he understood. They had shields in their heads. Just like him.
Too bad the shield didn’t block out his sensory overload problem. But no, that torrential info dump ran on a different channel. With his senses ratcheted up like that, normal everyday life became torture. Perfume, cigarettes and car exhaust made him gag. Intimate data about the hormonal and emotional states of the bodies of the people he encountered was embarrassing. Traffic was ear-splitting, electric lights, God help him. Worst of all, electromagnetic radiation of wi-fi generated a hot, prickly buzz in his head that turned the chronic pain into agony. And he was a computer geek by trade, for God’s sake. This was a game-changing professional handicap. There were drugs he could take, sure, but to make a dent in this a problem this big, he needed a dose so high, it turned him puddle-of-drool stupid.
Of course, things were a little different since the dream girl started her yummy therapeutic visits to his fortress. The head sex seemed to have increased his bandwidth. It had improved the info dump experience, to a point he might almost define as bearable. But who knew if he could tolerate city noise, wifi, electrosmog? He had yet to put his laptop and router to the test. He had left them hidden under the body of his truck, in the woods, swathed and sealed in plastic.
He wasn’t sure if the sex fantasy-fueled improvement was a positive sign, or just another symptom of impending insanity. It was problematic on so many levels. But at least the shield made it easier to be stoic about the head pain. He still felt it, and it still sucked, but he didn’t panic. It was just pain. He breathed into it. Waited for it to ebb.
It was easier, out here in the woods. Sensory data still flooded in, but the data was cleaner, balanced. Nothing made his head explode.
He’d sucked down some books on wilderness camping before he came up here, and brought some of the macho gear the McClouds had equipped him with over the years; guns, ammo, all-purpose belt knife, etc. All part of the McCloud guys’ ongoing quest to transform Miles from a basement dwelling geek freak into a kick-ass battle-ready commando like them. They’d made some progress over the years, but those guys wouldn’t be satisfied until he was prepared to sew up his own bullet wounds with dental floss. Asfuckingif.
Thinking too much. Cut that shit out. Concentrate.
The rock-face shifted back into focus. He felt the energetic pulse of every living thing near him, vibrating together in a shimmering energy field. Lichen rasped beneath his fingertips. Every bird, every bug, a glowing bright spot. The cougar studied him intently from below. She was a molten, multicolor glow of pulsing energy, staring up like she wanted something from him. Something he just couldn’t give.
Which made him think of Lara. Bad idea, dangling from a cliff.
Suddenly, he wasn’t just thinking of her. He saw her. Actually saw her in his head, though his eyes were fixed on the rock face, his hands. Sliding through big grinding gears, like she did in his nightly sex dreams, a molten, glowing spot on his sensory grid, as bright as the cougar. Inside his inner sanctum now, looking around. Curious, expectant. Big dark eyes alight with fascination. He saw her so clearly.
Fear grew, penetrating his shield, vibrating in his stomach, his limbs. He was not guiding this image. It was unspooling all on its own, but he wasn’t dreaming. Or even day-dreaming. He was screamingly wide awake, fully conscious, hanging off a cliff. Yet there she was.
Like, what the fuck?
His shield flickered, and shock of raw panic blasted through him, whiting him out—
He came to sliding rapidly down the wall. Barely caught himself on a narrow chink of granite with a bone-jarring thud, fingers clawed—
Focus. Don’t look down. His feet dangled, swung, over nothing.
It took a few flailing, panicky moments, to find the frequency, get the shield back up. There it was. Hard as ice. Chill. Empty. No think.
He looked down at the jagged boulders hundreds of feet below, bare toes wiggling in the foreground as they searched for purchase. Blood, smeared on the rocks. He’d scraped all the skin off his fingertips.
It took many long, shaking, straining minutes before he found a jut of rock with his foot, and could lift himself enough to move, think straight enough to recalculate a fresh route.
He made it to the top somehow, limbs hollow and limp when he got there. He had named this rock formation ‘the Fork,’ today’s destination being the top of the tallest, sharpest tine. He stood on the summit and took in the towering forest of conifers, the snow dusted Cascades, the shreds of moving clouds above and below. Right now, he almost enjoyed the info flood, when every single piece of data was harmonious with the rest. Except for he himself. His fingertips oozed blood. And his cock was still hard, from that not-exactly-a-dream.
He pushed the thought away, and gnawed some jerked elk meat Davy had given him, a relic from their hunting trip last year. A thinly disguised campaign to force Miles to learn to shoot a rifle properly; a necessary rite of passage, according to Davy. Davy himself was a great sniper. Mostly, Miles surmised, because the guy could shut down his emotions at will. Miles had not been great at it. Too nervous, too twitchy. He couldn’t find that still place between the thoughts, breaths.
Well, he’d found it now. The new, chill Miles would be a good sniper. Technique, wind drop, that was just math, and he was good at math. If he needed to waste somebody at two kilometers, he was all set.
He had no more misadventures on the long, slow way down, but he was exhausted when he got back to his campsite, which consisted of a tarp tied over his sleeping roll, a small fire pit and a tiny gas burner.
Too tired to cook. He built a fire, chomped a protein bar without much appetite. He’d get scurvy if he went on like this, but foraging for edible plants did not engage his brain in the excellent way that rock climbing did. And all that chewing, Jesus wept. It made his jaw sore.
He fed wood slowly into the fire, too zonked to think. Then he felt it again, a hot, shivery tingle. He rose, scanning the trees til he saw her.
Luminous cat eyes, flashing eerily in the firelight. The sounds of the night swelled as his perceptions amplified. He felt no sense of menace, just cautious awe, but he pulled the loaded Glock 23 out of his pack. Nine millimeters was too small a caliber for a cougar. He’d have to shoot her right through the brow or the eye if she came at him. Tricky.
God forbid it should come to that. She was so damn beautiful.
He sat slowly down again, facing her, and fed twigs into the fire. Wind sighed and tossed the treetops. It was a clear night, wind blowing. The shifting swatches of velvety night sky were smeared with brilliant, uncountable stars. His eyes wanted to close so badly, but the cougar’s presence gave him that extra zing of adrenaline to keep them open.
The big cat stared, tireless. She seemed fascinated with him. She wanted to figure him out, make sense out of him. Good luck with that.
They’d told him that depression was normal after a brain injury. And God knows, PTSD flashbacks would drive anybody half bonkers. He had multiple excuses for everything that was happening to him. Duh. But the sex dreams in his sleep were hard enough to justify. If Lara started haunting him while he was awake, too . . . Jesus.
That bumped him up to a whole new level of crazy.
He’d taken on the task of finding and rescuing Lara as soon as he’d been capable of functioning after the Spruce Ridge debacle. Lara was another victim of the psychic freak squad who had attacked Miles, and it had been Lara’s own mother, Helga Kasyanov, who had developed psi-max, the psi-enhancing drug that augmented latent paranormal ability, thereby starting this whole mess. Helga had been murdered by Rudd’s people. Miles had been the one to find the mutilated body of Joseph Kirk, too, Lara’s father. Chained in his own basement.
So Lara had been orphaned, as well as abducted. It made him angry, sick and sad, which touched off a useless but uncontrollable urge to save the princess. Too many video games in his egghead youth.
He’d tried to find Lara Kirk harder than he’d ever tried at anything in his life. He’d found exactly squat. She had stayed stubbornly lost. No clues, no breaks, no hints. Just a smooth, obdurate brick wall.
It burned his ass. No one better than he knew what she’d been up against, what she might have suffered. How could a guy know that, and just take it easy, convalesce? Sorry lady, I need some R&R to get my brain swelling down before I can rescue you from the slavering monsters.
And why did he still give a shit at all, with his shield up? He managed not to care about anything or anyone else.
Because everyone else is outside your shield, dickhead. She keeps sneaking inside. At which point you bone her brains out. What a prince.
That thought stank of schizo delusion. He refused to think it.
Sleep was like a hand, pressing down hard on his head. He fought it, which left him less willpower to withstand the impulse to grope in his jacket for the plastic envelope. It held a copy of the head shot on Lara’s website. She was a sculptor. Had been a sculptor. He knew every piece in her online catalog. He’d studied them. Pored over them.
He stared at her haunting dark eyes, and then started cursing, low and long, picking up steam. His tantrum culminated in tossing the photo at the fire. He choked it, of course. The picture fell short, landed at the edge of the embers. The plastic envelope began to melt and twist.
He plucked it out of the coals, defeated. Waved it until the plastic solidified. Stuck it in his jacket, defeated. So much for his hissy fit. Why did he even try.
He was keeping his eyes open by brute force of will alone when the images started again. Just like while he was climbing. Like a dream, but he was not asleep, and he could not stop them. He just watched her, moving through the guts of the big machine that housed him. She wore that gauzy, impractical white thing, like a fairy-tale princess, pale over-the-top froth. Her hair hung long, tousled. Long, slim legs. The white skirt swung and fluttered as she sidled through gnashing gears, arching, bending, ducking . . . and she was inside.
Of his mind. While he watched, wide awake. Again. Holy shit. His muscles contracted. Oh, man. This was so weird. So bad. Crazy bad.
In his dream, or image, or whatever it was, she was in a control room, like the bridge of a futuristic spaceship. A relic of all his late nights with the sci-fi channel, no doubt. She drifted around in the room, twirling knobs, pushing buttons. She sat down in a big swivel chair that looked suspiciously like a space captain’s chair, and began typing onto a terminal that took form before his eyes.
He started to sweat. She’d never spoken, in the dreams. Not that he’d given her a chance, the way he came on. Conquering barbarian style. She hadn’t been able to do much more than whimper and gasp.
He’d left a message on his analagous mental computer only once. It had been for Nina, on that fateful night at Spruce Ridge. More a thought experiment than anything else, just to see if it would work. He’d been kind of appalled, at the time, to find that it had.
That had been his one glancing brush with practical telepathy. He had not wanted to repeat the experience, not ever. He had enough problems. He didn’t want this to go any further. Please.
But the message glowed on the inner screen, beckoning.
where r u?
He shouldn’t answer. He should not encourage a split off part of his own fucked up prefrontal cortex to talk to him. That played along with the fiction that it existed separate from his own consciousness, and it didn’t, goddamnit. It was just Miles Davenport and his own complicated mental baggage. No more, no less.
But his response rattled out onto the screen anyway.
piss off i dont want 2 play
Lara’s eyes widened, in shock. She poised her fingers over the keyboard, typed. fuck u 2 And she winked out. Pissed. Gone.
He realized three things at once. One, he had a massive hard-on, again. Two, he felt like shit for being rude to her. Bad sign. Three; without him noticing, the cougar had moved in on him. A lot closer.
He grabbed the Glock 23, jumped up and discharged it into the sky with a shout. The cougar leaped high, and vanished into the night.
The gun report was a hammer blow to his skull. He sank to his knees, let the gun slide from stiff, shaking fingers onto the pine needles. Hid his hot face in his hands. Time for the meds. Jesus, look at him.
Trying to chase a fucking dream away by shooting it.
End of Excerpt