“What I want?” Nancy said. “I had a good life, I’ll have you know. Family, friends, everything anyone could ever want, and you took it away from me with this damned … sequence … of yours! What do I want? I want my life back!”
Eleven years after her encounter with the psychopath, Nancy Madison discovers that her troubles are far from over. Still haunted by visions of brutality and torture, she must journey into the past once more, this time in pursuit of her former partner, Joe Coyne. Bereft of family, friends, and future, what she does next may save the Earth … or destroy it!
One woman. One choice. Reality in the balance.
Excerpt from The Version Sequence: A-Version
(c) 2011 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.
Author’s Note: Eleven years after “In-Version”, Nancy Madison (now using the alias Nancy Phillips) is still suffering both mentally and emotionally from memories of torture and humiliation. Struggling to rebuild her life after losing her entire past, she faces fresh challenges as that new life begins falling apart.
The Total Eclipse Club
Tycho City, Luna
The dome’s sky lights were just starting to dim for the evening as I headed out. Tycho, like other Lunar cities, is built underground, with layers of regolith over its big dome to serve as radiation shielding. Day and night were set to the same ten metric hour day as the big blue planet above our heads. You get used to that artificial sky after a while.
A cool breeze blew through my short hair as the city’s life support system began lowering the temperature slightly for nightfall. Soft blue lighting came on along the edge of every walkway, as the dome overhead darkened first to grey and then black. I watched the lights come on in the city itself, the buildings glowing a variety of colors.
The Lunies might not wear fancy clothes or anything, but they make up for it in their architecture. I whistled a pop tune I’d heard the other day – Luna doesn’t have the same restrictions on music as Earth, so the Worldnet channels here were filled with the sort of entertainment that would get you tossed in the slammer back home in Prescot, Arizona.
I really love it here on Luna. It’s so cheerful – cheerful, and friendly. It was no wonder so many people move here permanently. As a result of all those people moving in, Luna is a very cosmopolitan place. With all the different cultures and races and sensibilities, there really is no better place to live. If my job didn’t require me to visit Earth a couple of days each month, I don’t think I’d ever leave.
Well, I was really feeling good that evening. My physical discomforts had subsided quite a bit and all of my troubles seemed like a temporary setback.
Sure I was dying, but what the hell. Aren’t we all?
I decided to walk all the way to my destination, a small club on the east side of town where live bands play till all hours of the night.
Boy, I can just imagine what someone from the States would think hearing me say that. I remember the first time I came across music for the first time – real live, honest-to-god music.
I felt so … so … dirty! I mean, granted the United States has the strictest anti-music laws on the whole planet – even the straight-laced Africans allow simple religious music. No dancing, or drinking or anything there, but hey, whatever floats your boat, right? I understand the reasons for those anti-music laws – the big scandals of a hundred years ago certainly proved how dangerous the combination of sonics and psychology could be. But at least most of the world allows real people to perform real music in person. Live! Not the U. S. of A, though. No siree.
Bunch of nannies, the lot of them.
But, still, I like feeling a little naughty now and then. It makes me feel alive, and heaven knows I desperately need some of that right now.
The music pulsed from the entrance of the Total Eclipse (which was the name of the club) like a physical thing, and I just stood there a moment and let it wash over me. The feeling it gave me was so … erotic … that I wished I was wearing shorts and a low cut top so I’d get a little action. Not that I was in any condition to handle that action, mind you – one touch, and I’d probably send the poor guy to the emergency room (or worse)!
Still, the thrill of the idea made me laugh out loud.
Can you picture the faces if I walked around like that on Luna? Hell, my sleeveless baby blue jumper was bad enough – I was practically carrying a sign “loose woman”. Imagine what they’d think if I dared to show my legs?
God, these people are prudes.
Speaking of naughty, as I entered the club (largely deserted at this early hour), I had an absolutely wicked thought: if I unzipped the jumper down to my belly button (no underwear, remember), I’d no doubt be the center of attention.
Yeah, right before someone called the cops.
No, thank you. After what happened last week, I had no intention of attracting the attention of the boys and girls in green. Besides, they already had their peep show when I was carried into the police station unconscious, my shirt and pants ripped open.
Catch me with my breasts hanging out again, and they’ll think I’m in business for myself, if you know what I mean. And yet, maybe I should just say to hell with it and start dancing naked on the tables. After all, I was already as good as both fired and dead. What was a charge of public lewdness and/or prostitution added to the list?
God, I need a drink before I do something stupid!
It wouldn’t stop me from actually doing something stupid, mind you, but at least I could claim I was too drunk to know any better.
“Beer – whatever’s on tap,” I said to the bartender, slapping my palm down on the black glass plate set into the top of the bar. The plate recorded my ID, and charged my account for the price of the beer.
God, what the hell did people do before ID scanners? Use money? Hah! Bet that was fun in a bar.
The bartender placed a tiny paper napkin in front of me, and set a tall, cold glass of golden heaven on top of it. I drained half the glass in one long pull. I took a breath, and finished it in a second pull.
I slapped the plate again. “Hit me,” I told the man.
“Don’t get many locals in here,” he said as he refilled the glass.
“How do you know I’m local?” I asked.
“The way you walk,” he replied as he set the glass back down in front of me.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, slapping the side of my head with the heel of my right hand. “Stupid me. I’m not thinking today.”
“No problem. It’s kind of funny, really. I see so many Earthers come in here shuffling their feet, like they’re afraid they’ll fly away if they ain’t careful.”
“I know the feeling. Wasn’t too long ago when I was doing that.”
“You? An Earther? Nah – you must be kidding me.”
“Yep. Born and raised in Arizona.”
“How long you been on Luna?”
“Oh, lemme see. I guess about six or seven years now.”
“You must like it here.”
“No place better.”
“Amen to that, my dear. Amen.”
I took the glass in hand, and set my back to the bar. I ignored the bar stool for the moment – there’d be time enough later when I’d be too drunk to continue standing – but the driving beat of the music just made me want to keep moving. Hell, I didn’t come here to sit down, after all. I looked around the room, and spotted several attractive men, apparently by themselves. But however much I really wanted companionship, I wondered how far I’d be able to carry it out. Always in the back of my mind, the specter of that maniac and the sewage plant stood ready to haunt me if I went too far. God, I was torn. You don’t know how badly I wanted to avoid that particular nightmare.
And yet …
Look, would you be shocked if I told you how much I wanted to get laid? Nothing permanent, no commitments, just a ride on the sheets for a little while. Yeah, I know, a lady doesn’t talk about that stuff. We’re supposed to be so quiet and demure and everything. I’m sorry. I’m really very sorry if you’re offended. But I’ve been so lonely. Particularly now, after getting fired and hearing the doctor’s death sentence.
Hell, I’m going to die alone, aren’t I? Alone, unwanted, unloved, and …
“Excuse me,” this handsome fellow said, startling me out of my depressed reverie. “Would you like to dance?”
God help me, I felt the urge to say “no”, despite everything running through my head. But I fought it, smiled sweetly, and said “yes”. They were still playing fast music, so there was no chance of getting trapped in the old grope-and-shuffle.
Part of me wanted that, you understand, but I knew I couldn’t endure it. Just the thought of being touched like that made the nightmare inside me squirm restlessly.
I followed the fellow out onto the dance floor. And, like the bartender said, I could tell the guy was fresh off the Earth shuttle, the way he shuffled his feet as he walked. I grinned as I pictured him trying to dance without bouncing off the ceiling.
But it turned out, he wasn’t a bad dancer. Most club dancing here on Luna involves moving the upper body without moving the feet. As a matter of fact, slow dancing moves the feet a whole lot more than fast!
Go figure, right?
Anyway, I lost myself in the music as I wiggled and jiggled across the dance floor – and yeah, that may sound awful, but a lot of people these days have never seen ordinary dancing before (what’s the sense when music’s illegal). If you’re one of those people, dancing is fun to do but disturbing to watch.
We danced through about three or four fast songs before hitting a slow song. My dance partner was eager to get his hands on me, but I waved him off, having no desire for the contact. Perhaps if I knew him better, it would be a different story, but already I could feel the panic rise in my chest at the thought of a complete stranger touching me.
“That’s okay,” he said smoothly, flashing me a big friendly grin that looked well practiced. “What say we dump the crowd and find some face time? I’ve got a room here where we can be alone – maybe have a bottle of wine sent down?”
“Sorry,” I said, trying to sound friendly, despite the fear and anger that was threatening to overwhelm me. “Not interested. Besides, tonight I like crowds.”
But he wasn’t taking “no” for answer. He slid towards me, and tried to wrap his arm around my waist. I guess he thought I was a Lunie woman he could easily strong-arm into compliance.
I caught the hand before it could reach its target, and “gently” bent the middle finger backwards.
“Oww,” he exclaimed, his whole torso bending as if to duck an oncoming missile. “What the hell you doing?”
I used the finger to draw him closer, until we were practically nose-to-nose.
“I. Said. No.” I whispered softly. I let him go, and he staggered backwards a step or two grumbling “Bitch!” under his breath as he went away. I went back to the bar, where I found someone already in my seat, the unfinished drink pushed to one side.
“Jump in my grave that fast?” I asked the woman, as I grabbed the glass. She gave me a withering look, to which I responded with a rude gesture and walked to the other end of the bar where I found an empty seat.
Crap! Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all!
I drained the glass in one swallow, and tried to get the bartender’s attention.
“Here, let me,” said a voice from behind me. I was turned a little to my right, watching my former dance partner as he trolled for a fresh catch on the other side of the room. I swiveled around to find this dark-haired, handsome man smiling at me. Something about that smile caught my eye, and I found myself smiling back.
“Sure,” I mumbled, caught off-guard by my own reaction. I was mad, and wanted to stay that way, but this new fellow’s gentle smile wouldn’t let it happen. The bartender set two beers down in front of us.
“Here’s to finding a better dance partner,” he said, raising the glass in a toast.
I felt a matching smile tug at my own lips. “Are you volunteering?”
“Me?” he exclaimed with a laugh. “Heavens, no. I feel like a damned criminal just being here. I couldn’t dance if you put a gun to my head!”
“Music’s not illegal, you know. Not here on Luna.”
“Easy for you to say. You weren’t brought up in the United States.”
“I’ll have you know I was born and raised in the lovely state of Arizona.”
“Lovely, eh? My dear woman, I’m afraid it’s too hot there for my taste.”
“Only in the summer. Why? Where are you from?”
“Arrgh, too cold in winter for my taste, good sir.”
“You get used to it, trust me.”
“And you get used to Arizona summers, trust me!”
We stood there, eyeballing each other, before we both broke down laughing.
“Yeah,” the guy said with a shake of his head. “We’re both Americans, alright. Can’t mistake that!”
I took a long slow sip of my beer, and thought of what to say next. Something in me was starting to like this guy, and I didn’t want the conversation to drop dead in a fit of awkward silence.
“So, you’re from Chicago?” I asked. “What is it you do there?”
“I’m a cop, actually. Detective Lieutenant Robert Tanner, Chicago PD.”
“Ooo,” I teased, “a man in uniform. How dashing! What brings you to Luna, Lieutenant?”
“Wait, wait. You mean to tell me you came here and you didn’t have to? I’m sorry, but that’s grounds for dismissal – a clear case of clinical insanity! Do your superiors know about this?”
“Shhh!” he said, making the gesture with his left index finger (left handed?). “Let’s keep that part between us, ok?”
“So, what does a Chicago cop do when he’s not on vacation in the back end of nowhere?”
“Mostly search a city-sized haystack for small-time needles,” he said, shaking his head slowly.
“Sounds exciting,” I teased.
“Depends on your definition, I guess,” he replied with a forced smile. “The courts do too good a job these days. No repeat offenders, leaving us to chase after what’s left: the first-time rank amateurs.”
“What about organized crime?” I asked. It was a subject I had personal knowledge about from my time with Joe. Hey, not a whole lot of people can say they know a big-time crime boss. Fewer still can say that crime boss owes them a favor.
“Doesn’t exist,” he said quickly – too quickly, I thought. Yeah, he knew better, but had to toe the official line. I grunted in agreement, and he didn’t pursue the subject.
“How about you?” he asked after taking another sip of beer.
“What about me?” I asked, taking a drink myself to stall for time.
“Well, what’s your name, first of all?”
“Nancy,” I replied. You will note that I omitted giving Robert my last name.
A girl’s gotta be careful, you know.
“Well, Nancy, where are you from? Now, I mean.”
“What makes you think I’m from anywhere, laddie?” I demanded, indignant. “How do you know I’m not a native Lunie now?”
He blinked at that last, and I could see a puzzled smile tug on the corner of his lips.
“What?” I asked, laughing at his puzzlement. “You mean to tell me you’ve never heard that term before?”
He was uncertain now.
“A native of Luna is called a Lunie. God, you’ve lived a sheltered life haven’t you?”
“So,” he said, taking a deep breath, “Are you a Lunie?”
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing.
“Sometimes,” I teased.
“Um,” he said, totally confused. I decided to take pity on him.
“I spend most of the year here on Luna,” I explained. “But I go back to Earth to attend meetings.”
“What do you do, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m a Project Manager for UNISEA, the space agency.”
“Interesting,” he replied. “I wouldn’t have taken you for a bureaucrat.”
“Hey, watch that crap!” I told him, annoyed despite myself. “I’m no bureaucrat. I’m a certified, professional Project Manager. Look, you think spaceships build themselves? I’ll have you know …”
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Robert interrupted, holding up both hands in a defensive gesture. “I wasn’t trying to be insulting or anything. I simply meant I would have taken you for a scientist. Really. I mean, you don’t look like an office manager.”
“Project Manager,” I corrected.
“Sorry, Project Manager.” He looked desperate to get out of the hole he’d dug for himself, and knew he was only getting in deeper. It was also clear that he didn’t have a clue on how to do it. I was kind of tempted to keep him dangling, but decided to give him a break.
(Sigh) I must be losing my edge!
“I wanted to be a scientist, back in High School.”
“Oh? What kind?”
“Quantum Engineering. I planned to specialize in Material Enhancement – you know, making stuff stronger or lighter or more porous.”
“That’s a pretty lucrative field these days.”
“Yeah, but back in High School, it was still in its infancy. Oh sure, the space agency had Hullfields and all, but the tech hadn’t really reached the commercial sector yet. I’d done a lot of research, and figured the field would only get better with time.”
I could hear my voice fill with enthusiasm as I remembered the dreams of my youth. Unfortunately, I should have seen the next question coming.
I didn’t, which ought to tell you how distracted I was by Robert’s company.
“So what happened?” he asked. “I mean, why didn’t you go through with it?”
I was silent for what felt like a day and a half while I thought of what to say. I delayed the inevitable by taking another sip of beer. I set the glass down carefully, and took a shaky breath. Meanwhile, Robert waited with infinite patience, detecting my distress.
“I lost my family,” I said at last, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Everyone … dead?” he whispered sympathetically.
“Everyone,” I nodded. “I was the only survivor.”
“What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I … I’m sorry. I don’t like to talk about it. Please don’t feel offended.”
“No, of course not. I feel terrible now. I’ve dredged up some bad memories, and I’m sorry. Really.”
“No problem. But … after the … accident … there wasn’t enough money to continue my education.”
“No savings? No insurance?”
“No, nothing,” I replied. How could I explain that the bank and insurance company got erased along with everything else when history got changed?
“God,” Robert said, licking his lips nervously. “That’s just … terrible!”
“Yeah, well … long story short, I made a deal with the space agency. They’d pay for my education if I sign a contract agreeing to go to work for them when I graduated. Naturally, I had to take the courses they specified, which meant giving up all my plans. But those plans died with my folks anyway, so what was the sense?”
“I almost hesitate to say it, but you sound lucky. I don’t know what I would have done in your position. If UNISEA hadn’t come through for you, you’d be in a real box.”
I thought of the poor people I passed on the street back in Philadelphia’s High Town, the place where the poor, the homeless and the criminals lived.
Hello, mister, I just saved the world today. Can you spare a few bucks for a hot meal?
“Yeah,” I said sadly. “A regular four-leaf clover, that’s me.”
“Okay, bad choice of words,” Robert said, putting his hand gently over mine. I quickly pulled away. “Hey, look, I didn’t mean to … I was just trying to …”
I struggled to calm my racing heart. God, the slightest touch these days sends me into a panic.
Calm yourself, girl, Robert looks like a real nice guy – don’t blow it!
“No, I’m sorry, Robert,” I told him. “It’s got nothing to do with you, believe me. Maybe this place is getting to me, I don’t know.”
“You want to get out of here?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “Find some place quiet, and just – I don’t know – just talk for a while?” He raised both hands, and put on a shy smile that just melted my heart. “I promise … no touching or funny business. You look like you could use a friend.”
“Sure, why not,” I replied, getting to my feet. “The music’s starting to get to me anyway.”
As I followed Robert outside, I asked myself what the living hell I thought I was doing picking up a strange man in a bar, like some cheap whore. I didn’t even know this guy – how did I know he wouldn’t pull me into the bushes and rape me or kill me, or both?
My first reaction to that was: Let him try it! I’ve already killed one man this week.
My second reaction was: I’m already a dead woman, so what do I have to lose?
I don’t know which one scared me the most.
At first, he tried to hook my arm in his, but when I almost freaked out, he desisted, mumbling an apology.
“So tell me,” he said after we were walking a while, “do you miss the sky at all?”
“Not really,” I replied. “I mean, it’s not like I go outside much anyway – when I get to Earth, I mean.”
“Where do you go on Earth? Anyplace interesting?”
“I suppose, if you call Kansas City interesting. That’s where UNISEA is, you know.”
“Why don’t you use Virtual?”
“I could, I suppose. A conference room is a conference room, isn’t it? But it’s not the same, I don’t think. It might be just a psychological difference, but people seem to come together and get involved more when they’re physically in the same room.”
“But you can’t tell the difference in Virtual, can you?”
“No, but you remember entering Virtual, right? Plus, it’s easy to play with your Virtual clock, so time is effectively meaningless. I’ve been in some of those meetings, and they tend to drag out forever. When there’s no urgency, nothing gets done. So by putting everyone in the real world, meetings suddenly become more productive. It’s like magic, you know?”
“You sound like a harsh task master.”
“Oh, I am. Time is too short for anything less.” My mouth snapped shut as I realized I was skirting too close to The Big Secret: eight years from now, the Earth would be attacked by aliens.
I shudder to think of the panic that would cause if word got out!
“Time is always too short,” Robert replied. “It makes us squeeze so much into each second that we never get to sit back and enjoy it. Before we know it, our life is over and all we have to show for it is an endless string of meetings.”
I lost it.
Oh, I know Robert didn’t mean to be cruel – at least, I don’t think so – but his simple, careless words drove a stake through my heart. I let out a soft, involuntary cry, and a tear fell down my cheek.
“Nancy? What did I say? Look, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s alright,” I said, wiping the edge of my index finger across my eyes. “You had no way to know.”
God, how to say this? It’s not like I wanted sympathy or anything. Alright, so that’s exactly what I wanted. I’m not ashamed to admit it.
“Robert, you’re sweet and all, but it’s not your problem, okay? I mean, you’re a total stranger. You don’t want to hear me whine and complain. I’ve done enough of that tonight already. Can we talk about something else, please?”
“Nancy, there are times in our lives when a total stranger is just what the doctor ordered. Come on, talk to me. What’s bothering you?”
We walked in silence for a moment or two while I considered that. Finally, I nodded.
“I’m dying,” I said at last, fighting to keep my voice steady. “Found out about a week ago. Doctor tells me I have at best six months. Probably less, he can’t be sure.”
Robert was silent for a very long while.
“Nancy,” he said at last, “I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing they can do?”
“I don’t think so.”
“But I thought they could cure anything. I mean, medical science is so advanced these days.”
“Not advanced enough, it seems,” I replied, concentrating hard on placing one foot in front of the other. If I stopped walking, it felt like I would collapse.
“That’s just terrrible. I’m so very sorry.”
“Yeah, me, too,” I whispered.
“I don’t know what to say,” he repeated, his voice strained.
“It was my own fault, I suppose. I ignored the symptoms for years, and only went to see the doctor when I started having physical problems.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again. Maybe he wanted to know the details – some men are like that, having the urge to fix problems rather than just listen. I gave him points for knowing when not to give in to his urges.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his right arm twitch a bit, and knew he had the urge to wrap it protectively around me. Oh, how I needed a hug right then – you have no idea. But the mere thought of a stranger’s touch sent a jolt of panic coursing through me, and I had to fight it down.
Going out tonight was a really bad move!
“I’m sorry,” I said with a sigh. “I’m not going to be very good company tonight. Why don’t you go back there and find someone else.”
“I’m not interested in anyone else,” he said without any hesitation. “I’m in the company of a beautiful woman who’s in need of a friend. I’m not about to abandon her now.”
“Beautiful?” I said with a tired laugh. “Blind as well as a real gentleman. A rare find indeed.”
“Be that as it may,” Robert said, giving me a broad smile, “right now, I’m in heaven because I’m in the company of an angel!”
Now I really did laugh – with full and genuine humor. It felt good.
“That is sooo old,” I chided once I caught my breath.
“I know,” he replied sheepishly. “I’d like to tell you something clever, but frankly it was the only thing I could think of. I’m not very good at that sort of thing.”
“What? Talking to women?”
“Afraid not. I’m usually too busy. Why, this whole vacation was my Captain’s idea. He practically ordered me to go somewhere and have fun.”
“And you’re idea of fun was to come here? To Luna? You don’t need a vacation, you need a life, you know that?”
“Yeah, I know. I can’t help it.”
“Hero complex,” I diagnosed. “You just can’t stand idly by when there are people around you in distress.”
He was quiet for a moment, thinking about that.
“You may be right,” he said at last. “I never thought of it like that.”
“Well, you are a cop, right?” I teased. He hesitated for a moment before nodding in agreement. I considered adding “unless that’s just another come-on”, but something made me desist. I was beginning to like this guy, and didn’t want to risk offending him. A man’s identity is wrapped around his career and what he does every day for a living. It was a bad idea to make fun of that.
At least it was if you ever hoped to see him again.
We turned into one of the many small parks that dotted the city, and were quickly surrounded by greenery.
“Why is it,” Robert spoke up, “I can’t smell any of the flowers? I’ve been through here before, and was surprised by that.”
“All the flowers grown on Luna are genetically engineered not to have any odor.”
“Well, there are no open spaces anywhere on Luna, and while everyone loves the color and variety of the plantlife, no one wants the smell. In fact, most find it offensive. You want to know how far that opinion goes, you need go no further than the on-line supply catalogs. Do a search on personal hygene, and you won’t find any products containing fragrance.”
“Interesting,” he replied noncommittally.
With sudden insight, I realized he already knew all that, and was just making conversation. I didn’t know what to think about that at first, but eventually I just let it pass.
“I think I’m gonna lose my job,” I said out of the blue, my mouth working without permission of my brain.
“You can’t be serious,” he said, clearly shocked. “In heaven’s name why?”
“About a week ago, just before the doctor gave me the bad news, there was an incident – a woman was almost raped in broad daylight. She ended up defending herself, killing her attacker.”
“That was you?”
“Yep. Guilty as charged. So you see, that clown back in the bar got lucky.”
“But why would they fire you?”
“Technically, I’m on Administrative Leave while Public Relations sorts everything out. They don’t have to fire me, but I figure it’s the easiest way for them to resolve the whole thing.”
“I’ve been in dutch with the ‘Cloud Minders’ plenty of times. All they’ll do is make you stew in your own juices for a while, that’s all. They’ll use it against you in your annual review so they don’t have to give you a raise or anything, but they won’t fire you. They would have done it already if that were the case.”
“Sure, no worries,” I grumbled. “Maybe I’ll even live long enough for it to be an issue.” That brought the conversation to an immediate halt. After a moment, I regretted my words. “Hey, I’m sorry. I’m a real bitch tonight, aren’t I?”
“You’re just upset, that’s all. I understand. And I don’t mind, either. Hit me with everything you’ve got. You need to get it off your chest, that’s all.”
I couldn’t help but notice his glance dropping momentarily to my breasts when he said that. Was I imagining things, or did his face momentarily turn red after doing so? As for me, I didn’t know whether to be annoyed or embarrassed.
I bet that’s not all you’d like me to get off my chest, I thought wryly.
I found myself smiling, though, as carnal urges momentarily overwhelmed the fear inside me.
God, I wish life was simple again!
But for the moment, I was content to just walk through the park with this stranger at my side. I felt … comfortable!
Then, in a heartbeat, everything changed.
A sensation like an electric shock traveled from the sole of my left foot up the leg to the spine, and from there to the back of my skull. My left hand shook uncontrollably. I grabbed it with my right to steady it, but it wouldn’t stop shaking.
Then both legs went numb and limp, throwing me to the hard pavement.
“Nancy!” Robert cried out, trying to catch me. I reacted by thrashing my arms wildly as fear and panic overwhelmed me. What the hell was going on? I was barely conscious of Robert bending over me, rubbing my legs with his hands. At least, that’s what it looked like he was doing. He mumbled a string of curses under his breath as he continued rubbing. My legs began to tingle as feeling returned to them. I was hardly conscious of being moved so that my back was against a low stone wall. The panic rose up again and took hold of me. I thrashed around again, trying to push the man away. But Robert donned a grim expression and wrapped his arms around me.
He was stronger than he looked, and didn’t budge as I fought to drive him away.
Terror! Blind unreasoning terror had its claws in me, and I gave no thought to what I was doing. But the man held on until fatigue won out over the fear, and I collapsed in his arms, sobbing.
“What the hell was that?” I whispered.
“Your leg muscles triggered a nervous flashback,” he explained. I wondered how the hell he knew that.
“And what’s a nervous flashback?” I asked.
“Something that often happens to soldiers early on. It usually means the genetic modifications to their muscles and/or nervous system is failing.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I’m a cop, remember? We have to know all sorts of trivia like that to do our job.” He tilted his head to one side – I should tell you that he still hadn’t let go of me, and for the moment, the panic was quiet. Under other circumstances, I would have enjoyed the human contact. “The better question is,” he continued, “why do you have it? You’re far too old to be a first-year cadet.”
“I’m serious, Nancy. What’s going on?”
“My condition,” I said after thinking about it a moment. “The one I’m dying from. A long time ago, I was exposed to commercial nanobots – long-term nanobots. At the time, I’d also been given a small dose of standard-issue military bots, and the two interacted.”
“And you never sought treatment?” he asked, disapproval in his voice.
“Nah. It was stupid, I know. You don’t have to tell me. The Doc read me the riot act already, so you can save your breath.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything. You just relax right here. You’ll be fine in a moment or two.”
“Why? What did you do?”
“Sometimes, a little massage works to restore nerve function. I really ought to take you to a hospital. You need medical care.”
“Please, don’t!” I pleaded. “Once they look up my medical record, they’ll just stick me in a hospice or Euth ward. Probably keep me strapped down and sedated.”
“They wouldn’t do that, would they?”
“This is Luna, Robert. Resources are limited. I’m as good as dead – nobody’s gonna waste time or medicine on me. That’s the way it works up here. Besides, there’s nothing they can do. My bots are doing their best to ‘repair’ what they think is damage. They’re trying to give me a soldier’s muscles and nervous system, but that’s impossible. The attempt is killing me. Please, just let me rest here a little while. I can feel my legs again, and can even wriggle my toes. I’ll be fine.” I gave him a stern look.
“You can also let go now,” I said.
“I was afraid you were going to hurt yourself,” he said, freeing my arms from his iron grip.
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate the help. I’m sorry for freaking out on you like that. I … I’m not sure what came over me.”
I’ve got issues, my lad. In case you hadn’t noticed!
“I understand,” Robert said carefully. “It sounds like you’ve been through a lot.”
“Yeah, but that’s no excuse. I’m a real mess, no doubt about it.”
“But a beautiful mess,” he insisted.
“Oh, stop that,” I replied, smiling despite myself.
“Seriously, we all find ourselves pressed against the wall now and then. Most of the time, we have people we can fall back on for emotional support. Without that, it can be tough just to hang on to our sanity. Off hand, I’d say you’re doing pretty well. I’m sure if your parents were still alive, they’d say the same thing.”
I was quiet for a few moments, thinking of my mom and dad.
“Parents,” I said suddenly.
“Mmm?” he said.
“My parents weren’t very supportive, even at the best of times. I think my daddy hated me, while mom just thought of me as an embarrassment.”
“Oh, come on, now,” he said. “That’s not very nice.”
“It’s true, though. It’s true. You see, the year before I was born, daddy had this great big project to do, and he spend most of the time on the other side of the planet. While he was gone, mom had an affair with his brother. Nine months later … ‘hello world, here I am!’”
“Um,” was Robert’s only reply.
“Yeah, that’s what I said when I found out. They both denied it, of course, and both insisted they loved me, but I knew better.”
“You feel bitter about it, even after all this time?”
“No, not really. It’s just that … well, I miss them. I keep wondering how much of what I thought I saw was actually there, and how much was only in my head. Did I misjudge them? Sure, they seemed cold towards me sometimes, but was that because of me? Was I such a brat that I hated them for no reason? I …”
“You didn’t hate them,” he said firmly.
“How would you know?”
“Because if you did, you wouldn’t be agonizing over them right now.”
“What? You’re my psychoanalyst now?”
“Comes with the job, my dear.”
“Hell of a job description you got there, slick.”
“Tell me about it. You wouldn’t believe the training cops have to go through to get their badges.”
We were silent for a little while. My legs were starting to feel like they were back to normal, but I didn’t want to move. Here I was, sitting on the cold hard ground in the middle of a deserted park at night in the company of a man I hardly knew.
I liked it. So did he, I think. Even if he was sitting next to a …ah … raving Lunie.
“My parents,” Robert said, his voice barely above a whisper. “They used to have this great big get-together every Christmas, and invite the whole family – both sides, my mom’s and dad’s. Anyway, Grammie – sorry, my grandmother – she really disliked my mom’s relatives. To this day, I have no idea why. She never explained herself, just acted like it ought to be obvious or something. Every year, she arranged to leave before mom’s people arrived. Now, a couple of people were insulted, and my dad positively embarrassed. Everybody else just thought it was rather … sad. Me, I was just puzzled. I wasn’t brought up like that, you see.”
“Didn’t you ask your father about it?” I asked, trying to imagine a house filled with all those people. It sounded warm and welcoming, and I wished I could have been there to see it for myself.
“Only once. He didn’t answer me – not directly, but from the look on his face, I knew that he’d argued with Grammie about it before – maybe several times.”
“Sounds like he always lost those arguments,” I said gently.
“Yeah, he did. Not for lack of trying, though.”
“Did she ever have any regrets?”
“I’ve often wondered about that myself. She died one January after missing Christmas dinner. My dad had had an argument with her, you see, and she refused to attend. To punish him, I suppose.”
“Sounds like a vindictive woman,” I commented thoughtfully.
“Maybe. But people often do things out of anger they later regret. It doesn’t make them bad people. Just human, and fallible. We all make our fair share of mistakes.”
“I suppose,” I said. “Doesn’t make me feel any better about my own folks, though.”
“It’s not supposed to,” he said. “If our mistakes didn’t hurt, we wouldn’t learn from them, now would we?”
I laughed at that.
“If that’s true,” I said, “then why aren’t I a genius by now.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps you haven’t made enough mistakes, or maybe they didn’t hurt enough.”
“Now there’s a horrible thought!” I replied.
“Which one?” he asked.
“Both of them – take your pick.”
We fell silent for a moment, and our eyes met. We stayed like that forever.
“Feel any better?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Then come on, let’s see if you can stand.”
“And if I can’t?”
“Then I suppose I’ll have to carry you, won’t I?”
The panic threatened to take over again, but I told it to shut the hell up. For a change, it listened, and stayed quiet while Robert helped me to my feet. Our eyes met once more, and I had to look away, embarrassed by the sudden emotion that welled up inside me.
What the hell?
My legs were still a little wobbly, so I leaned on my new friend for support.
“Aren’t you going to ask me for my phone URL?” I asked, teasing.
“I figure once I know your address, I can look you up and get it through city records. I am a cop, you know. I do that sort of thing for a living.”
“Oh? What am I, part of an investigation now?”
“At the very least, Nancy Phillips, you are a Person of Interest.”
I laughed, and he walked me home, arm wrapped around me for support.
But he’d used my last name, a fact that didn’t register at the time.
And I hadn’t given it to him.
Continue the adventure in The Version Sequence, a six-volume science fiction series by Thomas F. Brown, now available from Amazon in the US, UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany for the Kindle family of eBook readers.