he’s lost six pounds since last week, sir,” Jason Hu said.
Thaddeus Greaves gazed through the vidcam monitor at the young woman inside the 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. Full of psi talent, even unenhanced. He tasted it in the air, like smoke.
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 and 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,” he said. “I went the day before that, and Miranda before that. Our best duration so far is less 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 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 an extremely talented sculptor. He owned a number of her pieces already. 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. You’re 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.”
top 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, holy God, what was up with that? White hot, thundering erotic dreams about her, every single night. What kind of scumbag dreamed nightly of nailing the girl that he’d
to rescue? If he’d saved her, 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. He’d read about it. But it didn’t matter. 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, but they did not play themselves out through his glands. They just 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 strong, up here in the mountains. Weeks of constant, grinding practice had yielded him at least that much. He’d discovered the uses of rock climbing the second week. The tight mental focus it required pulled him together, somehow. Free climbing, of course, since climbing equipment hadn’t been on his supply list. That was okay. 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 downward. 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. 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 hidden, Lara-shaped openings and slithered through them. Sinuous, practiced, like some sort of sexy pole dancer. 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. Who had the energy.
His shield was solid, after some deep breathing. Okay. Good to go. He flexed his hands. The pine needles beneath his bare feet were fuzzed with frost, but his feet weren’t cold at all. His body seemed to be regulating temperature better than it used to. He focused his mind to a diamond sharp point . . .
. . . it washed over him, mixing into the data feed.
Where? He looked around, neck prickling, keeping his mind blank to make space for the flash flood of sensory info. That was another souvenir from Spruce Ridge. Harold Rudd had mindfucked Miles into a coma with his coercive psychic powers a few months ago. He’d survived the encounter—barely. But when he woke up, his brain was wired all wrong. He existed in a state of constant sensory overload. The world blared at him from all sides—no filters, no rest, no down time.
It knocked him flat. He’d hiked out here to the ass end of nowhere to try 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.
Oddly enough, 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 started getting laid. Even if it was only 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 infinitesimal bits of information, each individually too small to perceive on its own, swirled up like a pixelated cloud in his mind, focusing into a potent, predatory
Near-invisible in the trees, eyes gleaming with inscrutable feline calm. Her tail swished when she sensed him watching.
He stared, 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. Her 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. Nearly impossible. Silence and solitude helped focus him, and 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.
Strange, how 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 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 of screaming stress flashbacks, reliving Rudd’s torture. Big barrel of laughs, that one. Mode Two: keep that mind shield up, constantly. It clamped down on the stress flashbacks. It also flatlined him emotionally.
Mode Two 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. 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 was torture. Perfume, cigarettes, and car exhaust made him gag. Intimate olfactory 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, the electromagnetic radiation of wi-fi generated a hot, prickly buzz in his head that turned the chronic headache into stomach-churning 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, but to make a dent in 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, improving the info dump to a point he might almost define as bearable. But who knew if he could tolerate wi-fi, 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 another symptom of impending insanity. It was problematic on so many levels. At least the shield made it easier to be stoic about head pain. He still felt it, it still sucked, but it didn’t make him panic. It was just pain. He breathed into it. It was easier, out in the woods. Sensory data still flooded in, but the data was clean, balanced. Nothing made his head explode. At first, he’d retreated to his own mountain property, but his friends kept coming up to nag. He had to retreat deeper to avoid them.
He’d sucked down some books on wilderness camping before he came up here, and packed up all the macho gear the McClouds had equipped him with over the years—guns, ammo, all-purpose belt knife, etc. The gear was 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. As fucking if.
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 in a shimmering energy field. Lichen rasped beneath his fingertips. Every bird, every bug a bright spot on the 3-D grid in his mind. The cougar was a hot glow of pulsing energy. Staring up like she wanted something from him. Something he just couldn’t give.
That made him think of Lara. Bad idea, dangling from a cliff face. And then he wasn’t just thinking of her. He saw her. Actually saw her in his head, even though his eyes were fixed on the rock face, his hands. Sliding through those grinding gears, just like she did in his nightly sex dreams, as bright a spot on his sensory grid as the living, breathing cougar. Inside his inner sanctum now, looking around. Curious, expectant. Big dark eyes alight with fascination. He saw her so clearly.
The fear grew, penetrating his shield, vibrating in his stomach, his limbs. He was not guiding this image at all. It was unspooling on its own, but he wasn’t dreaming. He wasn’t even daydreaming. He was screamingly wide awake, hyper-conscious, hanging onto a cliff.
Like, what the
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 ledge of granite with a bone-jarring
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, angles, wind drop, that shit was just math, and he was good at math. If he ever needed to waste somebody at two kilometers, he was all set.