David Niall Wilson

An Author's Virtual Home

Virtue’s Mask

May 4th, 2020 / david

I have collaborated with a lot of very talented authors (you can find a lot of that work int he collection “Intermusings”) including this story that I find a bit too appropriate for these times not to share…

VIRTUE’S MASK

By Brian A. Hopkins & David Niall Wilson

If I sin, I glory in sinning

I will not wear virtue’s mask.

The world shall know we have met

And are worthy, one of the other.

Havoc met Tiffany at Fantasy’s. Between Dead at Dawn’s second and third set, he slipped his microphone into place on its stand and led her to one of the available encounter booths. Once inside, he locked the door and watched her undress behind the filmy shield of Plexiglas. The booth smelled of disinfectant over semen, of sexually-transmitted diseases and lust that lingered and scratched at his paranoia. There was passion, pain, and poison in the air, and he was careful to touch nothing.

Fish-eyed camera lenses hummed to life as customers in the adjoining booths registered their presence. The cameras scanned Havoc quickly, found nothing of interest, and proceeded to Tiffany as she slipped out of her leather skirt. The cameras were directed by foot-pedals, leaving one’s hands free. There were corresponding monitors: hi-def windows looking in on the neighboring booths. Voyeurism was part of the fare at Fantasy’s and, though the cameras featured on/off switches, it was considered bourgeois to turn one off.

Watching Tiffany, Havoc could also see the two monitors on her side of the booth. The first showed a pock-marked blonde with her heavy breasts flattened against the glass, while her partner, a sallow, emaciated man, licked the unthinkable from his side of the encounter shield. Neurally incompetent, Havoc labeled the wasted specimen, automatically slipping into the jargon of the younger crowd that nightly barricaded itself in Fantasy’s Funhouse. The man was mad. Nothing short of insanity could overlook the ten thousand diseases stalking the booths. The second monitor featured a lone masturbator stroking away while he watched the blonde, or Tiffany, or both. A careful man, this masturbator. He was wearing plastic gloves, protected not only from the decaying world around him, but from himself as well. There was no telling what you could pick up on your hands these days. The latest figure was 83.5 percent and they were forecasting at least a two percent increase in carriers before Christmas. Who could you trust?

What was the other phrase the kids were using? Accelerated entropy. Yeah, that was it.

Tiffany’s panties were crotchless, a beguiling opening spilling an unruly burst of red-highlighted curls. As Havoc had suspected when watching her move on the dance floor, she wore nothing under her silk blouse. She’d tinted her nipples lavender to match her panties. The fine hair that began just below her navel glittered with some other cosmetic enticement, a scintillating trail that his eyes could follow, but his hands never would.

“Aren’t you going to undress?” Tiffany’s voice lost its huskiness when conveyed by the booth’s tiny speaker. Havoc found her somehow less attractive this way, less desirable. Was he watching the woman he’d craved throughout an entire forty-five minute set—or was he watching a holo-vid recording of her? There were booths in other clubs that allowed one the option of inserting a personal HV disk. It was considered proper form to decline an unwanted encounter by offering the use of one’s disk for a few minutes. Given a good hi-def, plasma-prism screen embedded in the encounter shield—which all the better clubs featured—and it would seem just like a real partner was on the other side. Then again, he mused cynically, what was the difference?

“Are you okay?”

“Have you ever wondered,” Havoc asked, “what it’s like to actually fuck?”

She paused, one hand at her crotch, a finger lost in the cleft of her panties, the other hand clenched about her left breast, lavender nipple pressed between thumb and index finger. She cocked one eyebrow. “Have you ever wondered,” she countered, “what it’s like to fucking die?”

One camera lens swung in his direction, as if the masturbator, the blonde, or the licker wanted to hear how he would answer.

Havoc said nothing.

“Forget it,” Tiffany muttered, reaching for her clothes. She slipped the silk blouse over her satin-smooth shoulders, drew the skirt up over her flawless thighs. Too late, he found himself becoming aroused, the erotic attraction of watching a woman put on her clothing altogether new and exciting.

“Look,” she said, turning as she was about to slide out of the booth, “I meant what I said earlier about your music. You guys are good. Too good for this dump.” She kissed the tip of one carefully manicured finger and pressed it to the Plexiglas. “Look me up when you lose the attitude, okay?”

In the self-adjusting lounger fronting his computer terminal, Havoc let himself ride the waves of music flowing out and around him from his stereo. He’d called up the archive file of an oldie he remembered from his father’s collection. Alice Cooper. “Poison.”

I want to touch you, but I want it too much,

I want to kiss you, but your lips are covered with poison,

Running through your veins, you’re poison—driving me insane.

Yeah, right. That guy had been talking metaphorically. There was no telling how many women he’d slept with, how many times he’d actually run his hands, his tongue, or whatever bit of flesh he wanted, over soft, female flesh. The song had obviously been a fucking prophecy. Havoc wondered briefly what this man named Alice would have thought of sex in plastic booths, personal video encounters, and virtual groping? Not  much, was the first guess that came to mind. Not much at all.

There were a thousand new encounters awaiting Havoc at the touch of a keyboard. He could log on-line, slip the head-piece and visor in place, and be lost in the passions of endless—and meaningless—relationships in seconds. It was a virtual smorgasbord of electronic delight. It was also not what he had in mind. Not by a long shot. It was one thing to have your nerves electronically stimulated, another to really touch something.

“Shit,” he muttered, spinning away from the console. There was nothing he could do about it except become more depressed than he already was. They’d killed sex the generation before. His was a generation of abstinence. A generation of careful self-stimulation and coveted monogamy. To think there was a time when sleeping with one partner your entire life was a joke. Havoc would give a lot for such a partner. Someone clean. Someone faithful. Someone on whose flesh he could jettison the prurient rush in his veins. Curse it all. God damn everyone who’d gone before, every self-indulgent bastard who’d slipped his cock one too many times where it shouldn’t have been and screwed it all over for Henry James Havochek, a.k.a. Havoc.

He turned to the computer. There was work to do. The new disc would be coming out soon—the one that was supposed to rocket Dead at Dawn to new pinnacles of fame and fortune—and there were still three songs to be written. Nikki and Devon and Ron were counting on him. They could play—God how they could play!—but they were counting on him to write the words and at least the first cut at the music.

The chorus of the Alice Cooper song came around again, insinuating its message between the thoughts he was trying to organize. He would have liked to have put his frustration into the music, but that was no way to the top. People didn’t want to hear that their world was fucked up, that they should be touching and caring for one another. They wanted instant gratification, and they wanted to be reassured that everything was just fucking fine, thank you—better than fine. A fantasy.

Still, these feelings were not easily switched off as he pulled over the keyboard, slid it into his lap, and sat back to write. What rose to the surface was a piece he’d started more than once already. “Virtue’s Mask.” A comment on the nature of intimacy in present day society. He could feel the music now, rising from the depths of his own anger, his own sense of betrayal. Musical shorthand fell out on the screen, dropping automatically to the synthesizers which, with a little direction and prodding, sorted his rough composition into working instruments. An oboe here—he liked that, the haunting, distant cry like the howl of a lone wolf. A kazu matsui there—the long,  ghostly whisper of the all but forgotten woodwind instrument echoing the exact empty timbre of his soul. A lone piano, the whine of an electric guitar, then a cello, then—

But no, it was all wrong.

He wasn’t writing the fantasy. He was writing the reality. It wasn’t music for Dead at Dawn. Oh, it would have been at one time. He’d named the band correctly. It had been his intention in their early days to follow the suicidal rock movement started by bands like Throw it all Away and Die with Me. With songs like “Kill me in the Morning” and “Love is a Razor Blade,” Dead at Dawn set out to make their mark. But repeated incidents had left the club scene with little passion for suicide rock. There were too many teenagers turning up dead in the bathrooms, puddles of blood and liquor and drugs spilling out from under the stalls. If Dead at Dawn was going to get anywhere, they needed the money and the momentum that playing the clubs would give them. Therefore they would have to play appropriate music. Safe music. Music that made you  feel that there was a reason to be here when the sun came up tomorrow. Music that didn’t make you feel like shit. There would be time later, everyone assured them, to lay down tracks like “Virtue’s Mask.”

With a long sigh, Havoc dumped the composition, knowing even as he did it, that it wasn’t forgotten, simply tucked away. How could he forget it when it was the very music flowing through his veins?

Then, suddenly, the speakers emitted some absurd, “unplugged thing” that sounded like a cartoon theme: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

“Nancy?” he asked the suddenly blank computer screen.

You need to quit obsessing with that stuff, Big Brother.

He smiled, but the smile was bittersweet. Through the miracle of virtual reality, his sister was able to communicate. Even after three years, he couldn’t bring up the image of how she’d looked before she got sick. All he could see was her too-white face, wires and sensors protruding at every angle, staring endlessly at the ceiling above her bed.

Nancy had contracted a disease at age 14—a disease she shouldn’t have been subjected to, wouldn’t have been subjected to, in a perfect world. It was about three strains ahead of the doctors, yet they’d managed to halt its progress. Temporary stasis, they called it. A medical first. What it was, was an induced coma. Living death.

With her neural interface, Nancy’s mind was free. More free on the nets than anyone locked to a keyboard and monitor could hope to be. She was fully interfaced . . . an integrated part of the system.

You still there? She asked. Though she could easily synthesize a voice through his sound system, Nancy preferred communicating on the terminal. He’d never pressed her for a reason for this inefficient mode of expressing herself, but Havoc suspected it had to do with the inability to recognize or appreciate the sound of one’s own recorded voice and the dislocated impression aural communication must leave her with. She seemed far more at ease hiding behind the machine.

“Yeah, I’m here, Sis. I’ve got a ton of work to get done though.”

I won’t keep you then. I just popped in to let you know that our project is a success. Her words were accompanied by a series of colorful pixel explosions. From the speakers came a sound he hadn’t heard since he was a child: the distance-muted popping of fireworks.

Now the pressure to finish the new music was doubled. Nancy had just secured the financial wherewithal Dead at Dawn needed to wine and dine a major record label. “Thanks, Sis.” He waited, but there was no response. Back into the ether. It wasn’t her way to wait around. The seconds between his responses must seem like eternities to her, running, as she was, at net speeds. Their conversations were always brief. Their time together, nonexistent.

The Scotsman’s Kilt catered to those with an inclination for mechanical stimulation. Whether you wore your own kilt in or paid for one of the disposable ones at the door, there were seats in the huge converted warehouse to suit your own peculiar fetish—eight hundred and sixteen seats to be exact. Havoc had counted them one night between sets, back when he and Dead at Dawn had played clubs even less reputable than Fantasy’s. Add to the mechanical seats the totally nude servers (protected by tight, poly-vinyl suits to prevent intimate contact with the clientele), the reasonably priced liquor (a shot of synth whiskey was less than ten credits and a beer could be had for five), and the thirty-six stages featuring every carnal act imaginable performed LIVE BEFORE YOUR VERY OWN EYES! (as the marquee out front proclaimed in garish chartreuse and yellow neon), and the Scotsman was a popular, if disreputable, establishment.

Havoc, of course, trusted none of it. Forget the guarantee that every seat with its array of mechanical arms, probes, needles, electrodes, forceps, retractors, and vibrators was sterilized between each and every use. Forget the fact that a medical staff was standing by in case some of the more elaborate—and masochistic—stimulations went awry. (There were, for instance, procedures to tap into the femoral artery to cycle the blood through a deoxygenating unit for that ultimate high, what they called the Little Death; others that electrically stimulated the nerves of the labia and rectum; and still others that could peel back flesh to expose the very nerves of one’s genitalia to autoeroticism.) Forget the live shows, perhaps the best in town, rumored to actually show real intercourse on occasion (though Havoc had yet to see anything remotely resembling real sex). Forget it all. From an unequipped stool at the bar, Havoc was buying none of it. He’d politely declined the loan of a kilt at the door, preferring the safe impenetrability of his jeans. He’d shrugged off the plastic-coated hand of a hostess who’d wanted to show him to a table, and instead found his own way to the bar where he could see most of the stage shows and had no one but an anachronistic, live bartender at his back. In this way, he hoped to see his contact before the contact saw him. There’s always the chance, Havoc acknowledged, that I might decide to run.

The customers at the Scotsman were cut from a slightly lower cross-section of metropolitan perversion than those Havoc had of late grown accustomed to at Fantasy’s. He’d forgotten how absorbed they were in their own egocentric self-indulgence. He’d forgotten how those nights playing here on a stage forgotten and ignored had driven home his now innate desire for something different.

Watching the wiretaps with their spider-like bundles of neurocables, he recognized the birth of his fear of the machine, the fear that he could become so lost in false neural signals that he could wander in a daze, reality an ever receding and increasingly untouchable blur. In the questing eyes of the cube-junkies, always seeking someone with whom to trade their stored adventures, dreams, and nightmares, he saw his fear of the familiar, the routine, the well-known collective experience that left one with nothing left to desire. In the plastic-sheathed women waiting on the tables, he saw acceptance of the charade. In those who still yearned to touch them, more than acceptance—defeat. In the cyber-whores who worked the shadows, selling themselves a synapse at a time, complete and utter surrender. In those with their own kilts, slumped over the chair’s Little Death, the real death.

His contact arrived at last, easily spotted because, like Havoc himself, he didn’t fit with the Scotsman’s crowd. He wove his way through the tables, avoiding their occupants as if they were plague victims—which, thought Havoc, in a way, they were. He was older than Havoc, but not by much. He was better dressed, considerably so—extravagantly so. Better fed. Better rested. Better prepared. He wasted no time, didn’t bother with introductions, went straight to the point.

“I don’t think you can afford this,” he said. His eyes were very cold. His lips were very thin. Havoc took an immediate dislike to him.

Havoc set his drink aside, used that hand to draw a credit chit from his shirt pocket. His left hand remained on his knee, the line of his forearm perpendicular to the rotund belly of the man who in other days would have been called a pimp. There was a projectile weapon there, strapped along the inside of his wrist. If he made a fist of his left hand and pulled back, someone’s insides would be introduced to daylight. He had no doubts about how dangerous the man before him was. This was the black market. Of the ten million sexual diversions that could be had, one only went to this kind for one thing. If it came down to it, Havoc thought he could kill this man, or at least threaten to do so, if it got him what he wanted.

He tossed the chit on the bar between them. “One million credits, you said.”

The man did not reach for the card. “I checked into you, Havoc—or should I call you Henry?”

Havoc congratulated himself on not reacting.

The man smiled. “Hit a nerve, Henry? I know everything there is to know about you. Parents dead. One sister who—”

“You want to make this deal or not?” Havoc cut him off. “I can go to psych services and get a free deep recall any time I want a trip down memory lane. What the fuck am I sitting here listening to you for?”

“Cause,” the pimp sneered, “I got the women. Pity is, you ain’t got the cash.”

Havoc nodded at the chit. “Better be sure, fat man. I can go to someone else if you’re not interested.”

“Checked you, asshole. Two bit, wanna-be rock stars like you are a quarter credit a dozen. You ain’t got spit to pay for her with, Henry. I only came ’cause I was looking to offer you a job bending over for some of my government clients. Now that I see how fucking ugly you are though. . .”

Havoc managed to keep his left hand unclenched. Barely. “You ran the wrong accounts, dildo. Run this one.”

The pimp cocked his head, considering. Havoc considered opening his fat abdomen and dancing on his entrails, but the truth was this pompous ass was the only one Havoc had been able to locate who was reputed to deal in live flesh.

Finally, the pimp took up the chit. “Hal, come here.”

The bartender materialized out of thin air, a talent that mechanical replacements were unable to duplicate. “Need a drink, Mister C?”

“Run this for me.”

“Yessir.”

While he was gone, Havoc and the now identified Mister C stared at each other with something rapidly approaching hatred.

“Assuming you got the funds,” Mister C said dryly, “where’d you get it, kid?”

“My business,” was all Havoc would say. “You supply the goods.”

“Oh, I got the goods. Best goddamn goods you ever seen.”

The bartender returned, handing Havoc’s credit chit to Mister C. “Credit line’s a little over a mil, Mister C. You need anything else? Drink maybe?”

“No thanks, Hal. Please leave us alone now.” Mister C slipped the chit into a dainty little purse on his belt. “Here’s how it goes down, kid—”

“First,” Havoc interrupted, “you quit calling me kid. You quit calling me Henry. You quit treating me like shit. My name is Havoc. I just gave you a million and change and that demands some goddamn respect. You don’t like those terms, you can pass me my credit, kiss my ass, and watch me take my business elsewhere.” Havoc smiled. “Are we clear?”

The pimp surprised him by smiling back. “Okay, kid—er, sorry, Havoc. Deal. But here’s the way it goes down. You’re playing Fantasy’s Friday night. You’re gonna wanna knock off early. Maybe your throat’s not feeling up to it, I dunno. You’re gonna see this gorgeous blonde on your way out—uh, blonde’s okay, ain’t it?”

“Fine.”

“You take her back to your place. You have fun. In the morning she’s out of there. Any trouble with her leaving and I send over the two biggest monkeys you ever seen to break both your legs, maybe break your dick too. Turns out you ain’t clean, we break more than your dick—we break your ties to this world. You got that medcard we asked for?”

Havoc passed it over.

“How old’s the damn thing?”

“Two hours,” Havoc answered. “I got retested just for this. What about your girl? Turns out she ain’t clean and—”

“She’s clean. You just make sure she leaves in the morning. You bought one night, understand? Some customers, they fall in love with the merchandise. You don’t wanna do nothing stupid like that.” Mister C was still smiling. “Are we clear?”

“As ice,” Havoc whispered.

It had been a long time since the jitters had hit him so hard. It wasn’t the music—Havoc knew that nobody paid that much attention to the band. The music was a backdrop, a convenient rhythm to fall into once you reached your particular groove, your personal fantasy. Tonight’s nervousness had nothing to do with Dead at Dawn’s performance.

Somewhere in the crowd was a woman, a flesh and blood, soft-as-silk, living woman, and she was waiting for him. Sure, he’d paid for her to be waiting, but that didn’t change the thrill of it. He felt like a kid again. Standing at the microphone, he felt an insatiable passion fueling his voice. That kind of intensity had been lacking for a long, long time.

As he sang, his eyes swept the crowd, making contact a dozen times, snapping free. There were blondes everywhere, mixed in with an amazing array of redheads, brunettes, neon-hued exotics, and even a thin, bald woman in black rubber with tattoos covering her skull. Which was his “date?”

By the time he’d reached the mid-point of the second set, he was a nervous wreck. His hands were shaking. He was about to invent an excuse and make his exit when he saw her.

She was dressed in red leather from head to foot. Her hungry eyes were locked with his own, full of promise, wild with danger. Her hair, silver blonde, rose in a moussed masterpiece that framed her slender, aquiline face to perfection. Her clothes hid nothing; they might have been painted on. Her body was a sinuous roll of curves and sculpted mysteries. There was a grace about her, not just in the sensuous way she brought her drink to her smoldering lips or the way her back was straight and her shoulders back. It was more an aura that she wore. There was grace in the delicately  simple curve of her neck, the coif of her hair, the angle at which her legs crossed and the toe of her shoe pointed toward the ground, the silver glint of hair on her arms, and the snap of her lashes. There was grace in the very rise and fall of her breasts, in the pulse Havoc fancied he could see in her fragile wrist, in the bones on the back of her hand.

The band was waiting for him to key the opening sequence of the next number, a simple piece about life as a cloud. Meaningless drivel, shit that he’d written while high on Blue Alice. All he had to do was thumb the second fader built into the mike and start the opening, a synthetic sequence. Since their keyboardist had come down with HIV-7, they’d been dubbing all the background instruments in advance.

He couldn’t do it. She was listening, and she was far too wondrous for crap like “Cloud High.” Havoc set the mike aside and walked to the unattended bank of keyboards stage left.

“What are you doing?” Nikki asked.

“Take a break,” Havoc told him, and then he was bringing up the synthetics on manual, working from memory. The tune in his heart had never been entrusted to a more secular storage medium. The other band members stared at him quietly as haunting bass echoes rose from the depths of the club’s speakers, as the anachronistic kazu matsui whispered tangible pain and remorse. The sound system at Fantasy’s was bar none, and until that moment even Havoc hadn’t realized the full beauty and potential of his composition. When he had everyone’s undivided attention, he pulled across a microphone and, eyes locked with the blonde’s, he sang:

“Touch me and I bleed, fallen angel, false bride;

Mistress whose kisses taste of anger and ash,

You wait long past your appointed hour,

For me to take your offer of poison and death.”

There was a soft wooden clatter as Devon’s sticks hit the floor. The drummer cursed vehemently, “He’s gonna’ get us kicked out with this shit!”

“Shut up,” hissed Nikki, his eyes as lost as those of the audience. He too was caught in the hypnotic effect of the music, in the power of the lyrics. Such had always been the magic of the suicide rock movement, to create an affectation with Death like no other; such was Havoc’s melodic delivery, proving that love of Death was beyond rationale argument. With that voice, in the soft lights delivered by a more than attentive stage hand, Havoc appeared almost angelic. An angel of song singing of an angel of death.

But Havoc had no intention of singing his love for Death. Follow him, the audience might, but not to Death’s dark kingdom. For Havoc, there were desires and loves stronger than that:

“But I wait for another, knowing that she’ll come

If only I can resist your temporal temptations.

Though you promise forever—while she, but a moment—

When she looks upon me, I’ll not wear virtue’s mask.”

Havoc let it die there, the final chord the sorrowful echo of a cello, like the lonesome cry of a whale reverberating thousands of miles through the deep. Between the cello and the Japanese woodwind, Fantasy’s audience had been introduced to instruments they’d probably never heard before, nor would hear again.

“I’ve gotta get out of here, man,” he mumbled to Nikki, and then he was off the stage and heading for the blonde by the door. He was halfway there before he realized the thunder in his ears was applause and his stumbling gait was a result not of his reeling mind, but of the many hands slapping him on the back.

Reaching the blonde, Havoc extended a hand, his heart hammering faster than Devon’s drums now pounding back to life behind him. On the stage, Nikki was trying to regain the bar’s attention, his reedy voice rising in volume and filling the air with a cover tune of a truly old song, “Dream Lover.” Of course, they’d modified the lyrics somewhat—no way around that. Instead of dreaming about a woman to hold, the song was now about sharing dreams—a tribute, of a sort, to the booths in the back rooms. On more than one occasion, the song had led him into an interesting, if unfulfilling  encounter. Looking into the eyes of the blonde, Havoc knew there would be no more such encounters for him.

“Havoc?” It was a question, but he knew no answer was required. A formality. She took his hand and rose elegantly from her chair.

“And you are?” he asked, hoping his voice wasn’t too hurried, too insistent.

“Melissa. I love your music.”

“Thank you.” Pulling her closer, he steered her toward the door, breathing the perfumed air that flowed around her exquisite body. With every breathe, he thought, writing lyrics with which he’d remember this night forever, we take in the air and subtly make it our own. Would that I was the air that she breathed. What contact, what intimacy!

“Have you ever thought,” he asked her, “about the brief moments in which we live?”

“What do you mean?”

“We live in moments,” he said, “cherished seconds that stay with us through time. Think about this: there are sixty seconds in a minute; thirty-six hundred in an hour; eighty-six thousand seconds in a day. Over thirty-one million seconds in a year! I can’t even imagine how many seconds in a lifetime. Yet how many of them do we remember? How many of them take up residence in our hearts and minds? I know of one.” He squeezed her hand. “I will forever remember the moment when our eyes first met.”

In her smile and the wet-bright glow of her eyes, he could tell that she heard the truth and the music in his words. “You are the romantic, aren’t you, Havoc?”

“The last of a dying breed,” he acknowledged as they slipped out the door.

What he didn’t expect was that it could be so . . . personal.

This act, this coupling, this coming together as one, it was beyond any experience he knew. There was no VR equivalent to the wet intimacy of entering a woman for the first time. No mechanical, mental, or self-stimulated masturbation could equal her hands on him. This interaction . . . this sharing . . . this thing so blatantly and simplistically labeled “sex” was beyond dreams. This was of the physical, of the salacious and deliciously mundane. It was an overwhelming tsunami of the senses.

He’d never felt anything as tactile as the intimacy of Melissa’s naked body against his own, the feel of her along the entire length of his body, her teeth on his neck and her nails across his buttocks. His skin had never felt so alive, so warm and comfortable and welcome.

He’d never tasted anything like the hundred different tastes that waited at every bend of her body, never experienced any quest so engrossing as finding them all.

He’d never smelled sex, the heady aroma of female musk, of fluids, of sweat and passion and expended desires. He’d never known the intimacy of inhaling the panting breaths of another.

He’d never been blinded by the red vision of lust, of flesh so close that he could see the pounding of blood through veins beneath the translucent surface of skin so perfect it could have been manufactured. He’d never looked so deeply into the eyes of another.

He’d never been near enough to hear all the tiny whimpers and moans a woman makes when she comes, to hear her laughter, to hear the whisper of her thighs, the sighing of her breath. He’d never heard the sound of female feet across his bedroom floor.

All of it left him wanting more. Even the exhaustion. He wanted to collapse like this every night for the rest of his life.

“I think I’m in love with you,” he whispered.

She placed her finger against his lips. “Don’t say that.”

“Why?”

“Because tomorrow I’ll belong to someone else. Tomorrow you must forget me.”

“I could never forget you, Melissa. Not in a million years.”

She shook her head, her blond tresses in lovely disarray. “There’s no such thing as a million years, Havoc. There’s only now. Let’s enjoy that and let tomorrow work itself out.” She pulled him close beneath the cool, damp sheets. “Make love to me again.”

When it was over, when morning’s mauve painted stripes across the tussled sheets and their tangled limbs, Havoc knew he could never let her go back to Mister C. He knew he couldn’t live another day without her.

That was just before the men whose money he’d spent broke down his door.

The door exploded inward, rendering hundreds of credits of security-grade II steel as worthless as a pile of beer cans. There was motion everywhere, grunts and flashing eyes, stun-billies and far deadlier hardware. Havoc rolled to the side, tumbling from the bed and groping for something—anything—that he could use as a weapon. Too late, far too late.

There were at least four of them, maybe more out front. They wore the dull blue of businessmen, but the eyes behind those suits were those of sharks, not salesmen. There was no humor, no compassion—only ice.

They had him hauled up against the headboard before he could protest. He caught a fleeting glimpse of Melissa, her leather miraculously back in place, flitting out the door like a frightened butterfly. The men watched her go dispassionately, two of them stationing themselves at his door while the others flanked him where he lay naked and vulnerable.

“You just live for trouble, don’t you Havoc?” one of them said flatly. It wasn’t until he spoke again that Havoc was certain which one it was. “You want to die that bad, we’re here for you. No need to waste yourself poking some whore’s got diseases ain’t even been cataloged yet.”

Trembling, Havoc sat up slowly, pulling the sheets around him in a futile attempt to regain some shred of dignity. “I know why you’re here,” he said, forcing a weak grin and meeting the man’s eyes with a great effort of will. “I know how this looks, too, but believe me, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Oh? I think you might have a few concerns, smartass. Maybe, if you think about it, you could come up with something we could tell Mr. Denton that would save your ass. I doubt it, but maybe. Who knows, he might be in a charitable mood.”

Havoc’s mind was a blur of desperate concentration. He had no idea how they’d caught him, doubted that they’d be inclined to tell him. He could only hope that they hadn’t traced Nancy. Whatever else he did to weasel out of this, he had to make sure they didn’t know about her. Her existence was much too fragile. He needed time to think, but it was hard to concentrate with Melissa’s scent in the air, the lingering memory of her imprinted on his flesh.

“Listen,” he stalled, “we can work something out.”

“Nothing to work out. You owe Mr. Denton a million plus interest.” The suit leaned closer. “I make it a million and a half. You got it, we leave. You don’t, we do a little slice and dice for inspiration’s sake and come back tomorrow.” A wicked smile that revealed two missing teeth. “Tomorrow it’s two mil.”

“What if I got something better?”

“The only thing better is you give us the connection you used.”

“The connection?”

The suit hit him with a backhand. “You think we’re stupid? You think we don’t know it was an inside job?” The suit frowned at the blood on the back of his hand, looked over at his companion. “No telling what this cunt-licker’s got. You hit him with the billy next time he smarts off so’s I don’t gotta worry about his teeth coming through my gloves.”

The second suit slapped the heavy club against the palm of his hand. “Glad to.”

Havoc wiped blood from his lips. “I give you this connection and I walk?”

“You fly, little brother,” replied the suit, “like a fucking bird.”

“And we forget the mil?”

The suit shrugged. “Water under the bridge. Mr. Denton’s paid more than that to get a mole outta his net.”

“I’ll have to do some checking,” Havoc lied.

“Whatever it takes.”

“It was all arranged anonymously, but I can make contact again. Slip this guy a tracer and tell you where to sniff.”

“You sniff. We just want a name.”

“Give me a couple days and—”

“What you got,” said the suit as they turned for the door, “is twelve hours. You be at Fantasy’s playing your heart out tonight. Afterwards, we’ll wanna talk. You don’t show up, I’ll know you lied, and I’ll hunt you down. I’ll kill you slow. Real slow.”

When they were gone, he logged on the net and queried her account. Nothing.

Nancy? He typed frantically, knowing she could pick up his call from anywhere, any terminal. She was a ghost, capable of monitoring a million data streams as they raced across the city, scanning each for that unique byte sequence that was her name. Nancy, I need you!

Nothing.

Had they already located her? Had the suits been toying with him, knowing all along that they’d already eliminated their mole? He was about to turn away when the terminal signaled an incoming call.

“Thank God,” he muttered, triggering the pickup. But it wasn’t Nancy. The side screen opened a window on a well-dressed man he’d never seen before. “Yes?” Havoc asked cautiously.

“Willard Busby here, Mr. Havoc. I represent Omega Records. Perhaps you’ve heard of us?”

This, on top of everything else? Havoc pulled out a chair and sat down. “I know Omega Records, Mr. Busby.”

“Willard, please. Listen, I caught your act last night at Fantasy’s. I was particularly impressed with that last piece you did—what’s it called?”

“‘Virtue’s Mask?'”

“That’s the one. Love the twist. You think it’s suicide rock, but then it’s not. I think we’ve got something really important here, Havoc. Maybe even the next pop movement. Do you have other cuts like that one?”

“Sure.” Some of their early stuff qualified, and he could certainly write more.

“Splendid! I’d like to talk to you about a record deal tonight.”

“Me? Or the band?”

“I’m primarily interested in signing you, Havoc, but—”

“We’re a band. I can’t just leave the guys like that.”

Willard Busby held up a hand. “Not a problem, Havoc. If Dead at Dawn is the package, then that’s how we’ll scope the deal. How ’bout I come by and talk to you guys after your last set tonight?”

It figured. “Tonight’s going to be pretty busy.”

Busby looked taken aback. Havoc understood his confusion, most bands would kill for a contract appointment with Omega. Before he’d blown most of the money on Melissa, Havoc had been willing to buy such an appointment. Problem was, there were some goons planning to kill him after he played Fantasy’s tonight. Havoc wondered if they’d let him sign a record deal first. He wondered how he’d explain it to Busby when the suits wanted to join the negotiations.

“Look,” Busby said, “I’ve got to fly back to L.A. tomorrow. If tonight’s not good, we can hook up next time I’m in town and—”

“That’s alright, Mr. Busby. Tonight will be just fine.”

The nurse looked up when he entered the room and gave him a cautious smile, her hospital whites clean and neatly pressed. “There’s been no change since you called earlier, Mr. Havochek.” She indicated the data terminal where her most recent queries had gone unanswered:

Nancy, this is Nurse Benson, please talk to me.

“Will she be alright?”

“Let’s hope it’s temporary. Sometimes coma patients lose interest in the net and shut down for awhile.” She shrugged apologetically. “They almost always come back,” she added as she left them alone.

Havoc pulled a chair to his sister’s bedside. The entire thing was draped in a plastic “bubble.” It always gave him the creeps to see her this way, inanimate, wires criss-crossing her frame, all viewed through the twisted, wrinkled surface of plastic. Behind that plastic she was safe, sealed off from the airborne viral intruders which her decimated immune system couldn’t handle.

“Nancy? I really need to talk to you, Baby Sister.” Nothing. He repeated it on the neurally linked terminal’s keyboard, but got no better response. He touched her cheek  through the plastic, running his finger down the delicate line of her jaw, watching carefully for the slightest indication that she was aware of the contact. He’d been watching for three years. As always, there was nothing. Her eyes were vacant, her breathing shallow and insouciant. She’d been this way since the night a maniac had taken her away—taken her away by infecting her. The man had simply killed his parents, but Nancy he’d punished much more deeply.

Now he’d lost her on the nets.

Had Denton traced her? It had seemed so foolproof when she’d presented the idea to him. I can raise the money you need to get a big L.A. record company interested, she’d said. It was simple. There were men like Denton using the foreign exchange system to launder their drug money. Nancy would simply manipulate the exchange database and skim a bit off the top. She was a ghost, a non-entity. Beyond the confines of the hospital, nobody even knew she existed. She had access to all but the most carefully guarded national defense systems—and even those she could crack if she wasn’t worried about getting caught. The foreign currency exchange base was a piece of cake. Nobody would be the wiser.

But they’d caught him. And if they’d caught him, there was the chance that they’d traced the manipulations back to her. Denton would have competent tracers on the nets. Once he knew he was being ripped off, it would only be a matter of sniffing out the culprit. They might have caught her. They might this very minute have her neurally confined.

Or worse. They could shut her down.

“It’s going to be okay, Baby Sister.”

If Denton had her, Havoc would have to buy or steal her back somehow. Trade her for something Denton wanted even more. But the crime lord was unreachable without the original mil as a bargaining chip. And Mister C had the mil.

Mister C also had Melissa.

“I don’t usually get much in the way of return business,” Mister C acknowledged as Havoc was ushered into the lavish front room of his office building. “In fact, I  discourage it.”

“Why’s that?” Havoc asked, waiting behind the chairs that fronted the oversize mahogany desk while the first of C’s goons pulled the door closed behind him. One down, Havoc thought, but the largest of the muscle boys remained inside, positioning himself just behind C’s right shoulder.

“It’s what I call the broken-hearted lover syndrome. You see one of my girls more than once and you fall helplessly in love. Next thing I know, I got you on my doorstep wanting to sell your grandmother’s gall bladder for another go. I do some brokerage for the black market organ boys, but I ain’t looking to go into it full time, you see.”

“I don’t have a grandmother.”

“Yeah, but I see it in your eyes, kid. What you’ve done is you’ve gone all mooney-eyed over Mel. I can’t have it. Bad for business.”

“Bad for business is you turning down another mil,” Havoc countered. “And this time let’s both assume from the start that I’m good for it.” He nodded toward the muscle boy. “He staying?”

“Yeah. That a problem?”

Havoc shrugged. “It’s just kinda’ personal is all.”

“Personal we ain’t got around here, kid. You got business, you make it, otherwise—”

Havoc shot the bodyguard in the chest with the tranquilizer gun he’d bought just an hour before. The big man looked down at the tiny red dart embedded in his chest, seemed as if he might laugh at it, then crumbled to the floor. C punched frantically at a red switch on the desk. Havoc leaped quickly to the door and threw the deadbolt just before the pounding started on the opposite side. The door was solid. Like his own, it would take explosives to bring it down.

C studied his collapsed employee. “I really wish you hadn’t done that, kid.”

“I asked you to quit calling me kid.”

C regained his composure, set his hands carefully on the desktop in front of him and scowled. “Yeah, seems I recall that now. You got any other requests before my security breaks down that door and kills you?”

“I want my money back.”

“Excuse me? Didn’t you just offer me another mil?”

“Changed my mind.”

“What, you didn’t have a good time with Mel? You like little boys or something, Havochek? You want I should give you a freebie on account of the mistake and all?”

“I want the mil I gave you. I’ll give you an account number. You make a transfer. When I see it’s there, I’ll be on my way.”

“Sounds easy enough.”

“One more thing. I want to see Melissa.”

“We can do that too, kid.” The intercom on the desk began buzzing like a starving insect. C keyed the pickup and told them to leave him the hell alone. Then he leaned forward, resting his chin on steepled fingers. “Have you figured out yet what’s going to keep me from selling you to the underground a piece at a time? You’re seriously making me consider that organ business stuff.”

“You’re not going to kill me because I’m going to give you fifty percent interest in my record contract with Omega.”

C laughed. “You? A record contract with Omega?”

“I’ll be cutting the deal tonight at Fantasy’s. You can show up and make sure it’s all on the up and up. You’ll need to sign the papers as my agent.”

“You shoulda’ took another day and worked on your story, kid. This one’s weak. Mel deserved a better try than this.”

“If I’m telling the truth, you’ll triple your investment the first year alone. If I’m lying, you look me up when your goon there’s awake. He’ll probably be wanting a piece of me anyway.” He can get in line.

“You’re forgetting the fact that I’ll be out the mil.”

Havoc shrugged. “Petty cash to a man like you. Call it an investment. A chance to get out of prostitution and into the record business.”

“And I’ll always have organs to fall back on.” He pointed a fat finger across the desk. “With you as my initial stock.”

“There is one other option,” Havoc replied. He pulled out the second weapon he’d bought and aimed it nonchalantly. “I think they used to call this a sawed-off shotgun. I’m told it makes a hell of a mess.”

C reached for his keyboard. “I like your style, Havochek—”

“Havoc.”

“Whatever. Give me that account number.”

Havoc gave it to him. A moment later, C turned the monitor around and passed him the keyboard. Havoc verified that the transaction had taken place.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” C said in an almost sincere tone. “When’s our record deal going down?”

“Tonight, after the last set. Where’s Melissa?”

“You’re serious?”

Havoc pointed the shotgun again. “Afraid so.”

The room looked more like a refugee center than a boudoir for million credit a night prostitutes. As his eyes went from cot to cot—there must have been thirty of them running the length of each wall—Havoc found himself at a complete loss for words. More than half of the bunks were occupied. Some of the girls were reading, others were painting their nails or rubbing their long legs with oil, but the majority of them were staring vacantly at the ceiling, waiting, perhaps, for business to pick up this evening.

“Happy now?” Mister C smirked. “This is Mel’s room.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Clones, kid. They’re clones.”

Havoc looked from one to the next, every one identical to the woman with whom he’d been up all night. “Clones?”

“Breeders.”

“Which one . . . ?”

“Hell, I dunno. They probably don’t either. Engineered for sex appeal, you see, not brains. She’s already forgotten you.”

“But I . . .” He trailed off there. What? He’d fallen in love with her? A cloned sex toy?

That’s when C hit him just behind the left ear. There was a flash of red and Havoc went down. The concrete floor hit him on the right side of his head. A boot stomped the hand that held the shotgun and a second later it was pried out of his bleeding fingers. C kicked him in the side, rolling him over. Then he knelt and pressed the barrel of the shotgun under his chin.

“You are one dumb son of a bitch, kid. You shoulda’ seen your face.” C laughed hysterically. “What we’re gonna do now is we’re gonna go back to my data terminal and you’ll give me the password for that account so I can transfer back my mil. When we’re done with that, we’ll discuss whether you walk out of here alive. Understand?”

“Melissa?”

“Oh hell, kid. Wake up and smell the pussy. They’re nothing more than semen samplers. It’s a government program, and if I tell you anymore than that I gotta kill you for sure. Truth is, I’m starting to like you.”

“You’re going to kill me anyway,” Havoc replied, wiping away blood that was running into his eye.

“Now you don’t know that.”

“Yes I do.”

Mister C shrugged. “Okay, so maybe you’re right.” His voice lost all its previous mirth. “But I want my mil first. I need that password. I can make it real unpleasant for you if necessary.”

“You explain this and I’ll give you the password.”

C leaned back, scratched his cheek with the shotgun. “Deal. I’ll tell you everything I know about old Mel there.” He rapped Havoc sharply across the bridge of the nose with the shotgun. “You sit back and behave though.

“It has something to do with prairie voles—these little rodent-looking things, kinda’ like a mouse or something. These voles, they mate for life. The males like nothing better than snuggling up in their burrows for the rest of their life with one lady vole. If another vole so much as looks at their woman, there’s one hell of a scuffle. Some government scientists see this, and being the looking out for our welfare types that they are, they realize they got something here that can maybe halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.”

The Melissas gathered around like children, listening as if C were telling a bed time story. Havoc studied each of them in turn, hoping for some sign of recognition in the depths of one pair of sky-blue eyes. But there was nothing.

“As early as the mid nineties they’d isolated a hormone in the vole’s brain that induced monogamy. It’s some combination of vasopressin and oxytocin. We produce these too, but in humans vasopressin merely regulates water absorption in your kidneys and oxytocin has something to do with uterine contractions—boring! The prairie voles have a different distribution of brain receptors than we do; that’s what lets these hormones work the way they do.”

“You know an awful lot for a pimp,” Havoc interjected.

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m one of those over-educated government scientists.” C rapped him again with the shotgun. “Then again, maybe I just read a lot more than two-bit nightclub performers.” He looked up at the women gathered around them. “Hey! Go on now; get back to your beds.” The Melissas scattered.

“Stupid whores,” C growled. “They’re damn nice to look at though, aren’t they? Even better to poke, eh? I know,” he winked, “company benefits and all. Anyway, around the turn of the century, we discovered the gene sequence for the prairie vole hormone receptors. Ten years after that, we got good at genetic engineering. You know anything about genetic engineering, kid?”

“No.”

“Well, the only important thing to this story is that we still can’t engineer living specimens. It’s a next generation kinda’ thing. We can monkey with your reproductive system so that your offspring have specific genetic traits, but we can’t do a damn thing for you. About this time, HIV and all its derivatives got the government really worried. All their abstinence campaigns had failed. People still fucked like rabbits. Tell you a secret, kid: people will always fuck like rabbits. Keeps guys like me in business.

“So the government starts a monogamy program. Nobody buys into the soft sell, so they go one step further. They start engineering the next generation. Our children will still fuck like rabbits, but they’ll only fuck one rabbit. Bingo, you’ve stopped the diseases cold.” C indicated the Melissas in the room. “These are breeders, engineered for sex appeal and the proclivity for a monogamous gene sequence. I send ’em out for semen. They come back and we run some tests. With any luck they’re carrying disease free seed. In nine months we got a monogamous baby. Hey, you could be a father, Havochek!”

“Wonderful.”

“This is just the pilot program. Give ’em a year or two to prove the concept and there’ll be Melissas in every major city. An enterprising fellow could set himself for life.” C extended his free hand. “Come on; let’s go transfer my money; then I want to talk to you about a job. I really hate to kill you, kid.”

Havoc knew he had as much chance of walking out of there as he did of getting back his semen. C had told him too much to let him live. He reached out as if to take C’s hand, pulling back his wrist and clenching his fist. The miniature cannon strapped to the inside of his forearm belched flame and thunder. C flew back across the room, his chest spewing red across the walls.

The Melissas screamed.

Havoc thought fast. He’d always been one to play off the cuff, but this was carrying it to the extremes. There were about a hundred goons on the far side of the door waiting to tear him limb from limb. That he knew. What he didn’t know for sure, but hoped, was that it wasn’t the only door. C had brought him here, confident in his ability to control the situation. This room was not as secure as the office they’d left.

That was when he spotted the computer against the far wall. The screen was blinking a diagram. Yellow. Blue. Red. Green. On and Off. As he dashed across the room, the diagram came into focus. It was a floor plan. It was the floor plan for C’s office complex.

Nancy.

There was no other explanation. She was still in trouble, still lying low, but she obviously knew from the funds transfer where he was and what he must be doing. She’d guessed—or maybe just run every possible scenario through the wealth of memory and processing capacity available to her—and knew he would have more trouble getting out of C’s than he’d had getting in. She couldn’t call to him, couldn’t send anything as obvious as an audio or text message, but she’d sent him the map to freedom. He imagined it blinking on every computer screen in the building (there was no way she could know what room he was in) and he knew he had only minutes before C’s goons also figured out what it meant.

Scanning the floor plan, he quickly found the back way out. There was only one problem: two words highlighted in neon blue. Fingerprint coded.

The locks were coded to C’s own prints.

Smiling, Havoc turned back to the Melissas. “No problem,” he muttered.

He scanned the Melissas, trying to pierce their veil of anonymity. Damn it, they might be cloned, but life never left the same print twice—check that against the door locks. Snatches of music invaded his thoughts and he found himself humming “Virtue’s Mask.”

What he’d hoped was that one of them would pick up the tune and join in, maybe even add vocals to his music. The unexpected happened. Not one, but a dozen Melissas took up the tune, their voices as sweet and as sad as rain. He realized that she had indeed remembered his music, but she’d brought it back to the room with her and had shared it with the others. The effect had been universal. There was not a one of them that would not leave with him if he asked.

The band was already warming up when Havoc cut a swath through the crowd at Fantasy’s. The place was packed. When they saw him enter, fans began chanting his name. He rode the swell of that emotional wave to the stage and was greeted by the only three friends he’d ever had. Thumbs up all around. Tonight they became stars.

He’d left Devon, Nikki, and Ron email to be in top form tonight, filling them in on Busby’s offer. He’d included a list of some of their earlier material which he wanted them to play. He’d even found an hour or so to change a few of the lyrics. He had no idea if this was the musical revolution Busby thought he was buying; he’d merely poured his heart into it again. There was even one new tune called “Melissa.” It was still rough and the music was synthetic and simple, but the emotions were there.

Departing C’s complex, he’d deposited the severed hand and the discharged wrist cannon in the nearest recycling bin. The shotgun he kept strapped beneath his leather duster. He was beginning to like the reassuring weight of it hanging there. There was always the chance that C’s goons would hunt him down, but it was a small one. They weren’t the type for revenge. Their present energies were probably devoted to vying for C’s job. They’d only have one problem: he’d left the Melissas’ door open. C might think the Melissas stupid, but Havoc thought they’d have enough sense to take freedom when it was offered.

If C’s goons did come after him, they’d need to make it quick; he’d soon be a lot less accessible. Not only would Dead at Dawn require some heavy security of their own, but Busby would probably want the band to relocate to L.A., a move that was fine by Havoc. There were better hospitals for Nancy. Better research facilities. A cure perhaps.

The crowd loved the new music. During the last set, while the band took a breather, Havoc sang “Melissa,” accompanied by the synthetics. He saw tears glittering like stars throughout the club. When he felt them on his own cheeks, he was surprised, but unswayed. He poured all their wet fury into the song, at one point letting his sobs become a part of the tune.

Near the bar, Havoc spotted Fantasy’s owner, shaking his head and cursing under his breath. The man knew he was watching money walk out the door. This would be the last night Dead at Dawn played his club.

At a table to the right, he spotted Busby. Seemingly immune to the tide of emotions washing around him, the refined music exec was watching the audience, nodding his head thoughtfully, pleased with what he was seeing. On the table before him was a stack of papers and a pen. Havoc suspected that Busby had already signed the bottom line for Omega.

And to the left, there were three suits whose immunity to the rhythm and message of “Melissa” did nothing to lessen the attention they focused on the stage. There was a portable computer on their table, no doubt sat-linked into the net. Denton’s henchmen were looking for his money.

When the set was over and he was able to make his way through the crowd, he signaled to Busby that he’d be there in a moment and went to deal with Denton’s lackeys first. The other members of Dead at Dawn were already swarming the Omega exec, shaking hands and ordering drinks. They knew only that Havoc had other business to take care of first.

Havoc pulled out the only vacant chair at the table and sat down.

“It’s going to be a shame killing you, the way these buggers love your music and all.”

He couldn’t be sure, but Havoc believed it was the same one he’d spoken with earlier. He offered his best smile, casually flipping his hair back over his shoulder. “You don’t really think you could kill me here with all these fans around, do you? Right now, if I screamed, they’d rip you blowhards limb from limb.” The suit’s hand slipped under his jacket and he opened his mouth to offer a rebuttal, perhaps to order Havoc outside where whatever was under his suit could be used to persuade the young singer otherwise, but Havoc held up a hand. “Save it. I know you’d only kill me later when it was more convenient.”

“That much you’ve got right.”

Havoc pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and passed it across the table. “Account number and password for Denton’s mil.”

The suit passed the paper to the guy with the computer. “Run it. If the money’s there, pull it out.” A second later, the second suit confirmed that he’d retrieved the million credits.

“Be sure and tell Denton I appreciate the loan.”

“Problem is, you forgot about the interest,” the suit replied. “The bill’s a mil and a half.”

“Actually, you said a mil and a half or the name of the connection I used. Because I want to make sure there are no hard feelings with Mr. Denton, I’m giving you the original mil and the connection.” Havoc leaned back in his chair and cracked his knuckles. “You trace that transfer. It’ll lead you to a government program funded by skimming money from guys like Denton.” There’d been no way to clear all this with Nancy—she was still lying low and any net call Havoc made until this was cleared up would be closely monitored. But Nancy’d always been one step ahead of him. The floor plans at C’s were a prime example. He knew she’d already have all the audit trails laid out in the system indicating C as the culprit.

The suit didn’t look happy. “Told you we weren’t interested in running things down, Havochek. Told you we wanted a name.”

“I know. I went one step further. I’m delivering a body. There’s also an address on the back side of that paper I gave you. Guy calls himself C—well, called is a better choice of words. You check the address, you’ll find what’s left of his operation. Interrogate his boys and you should be able to find what’s left of him.”

Havoc kicked back his chair and got to his feet. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another deal to attend to. Give Mr. Denton my regards.”

You should have told me what you were planning to use the money for.

“Would it have made a difference?” Havoc asked. Morning was less than an hour away, but after all he’d been through, sleep could wait. It was good to know that Nancy was safe. “Denton’s sentries are obviously better than you thought. They’d have caught you regardless of how I spent the money.”

That’s not the point. You should have told me what you wanted it for.

“Yeah, I know,” Havoc replied uncomfortably. The air in his apartment had taken on a sudden chill. He couldn’t recall arguing with Nancy since she’d been placed in her coma. Their connection was far too fragile and precious to jeopardize it with petty disagreements. “I’d honestly planned on using the money to get the band set up in L.A. It wasn’t until the last moment that I decided to . . . you know. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

Wouldn’t understand!?! You think because I’m locked in the goddamn net, I’m not human?

“God, no, Nancy. That’s not what I meant. It’s just . . . well, what do you expect when all I see of you is words on a screen?”

The screen remained blank for what seemed like hours. Havoc stared at the blinking cursor, certain that he’d run her off, terrified she might actually be mad at him for being honest. Finally, his sound system turned on of its own accord and her voice came sweet and clear from the speakers.

“Is this better?”

“Much.”

“Doesn’t sound like me at all.”

It sounded exactly like her. “You’ll get better with practice,” Havoc reassured her. “Maybe I could invest some of Omega’s advance on a holo generator and we could have dinner together.”

“Don’t you dare! You spend that money on some new equipment. Start with some decent speakers, ones that won’t make me sound like an old woman.”

“You sound just great, Sis.”

“Yeah, that’s cause I’m doing just great, but we were talking about you. What exactly did you think you were buying from that pimp?”

“Love, I guess.” It was strange having a bodiless confessor. There was no where to look when he came upon those moments where one traditionally looked away.

“You can’t buy love, Henry.”

“No.” He knew that now. “But obviously you can engineer it. Leastwise, the government can.”

“If it can be engineered, then it’s not real.”

“Oh, hell, Nance, what is real these days? We live in a sanitized, virtualized, don’t-talk-to-me-just-drop-me-email social experiment gone awry. I went to C for something different. Something I could touch. Someone I could hold. Someone whose shoulder I  could cry on. Melissa might have been manufactured, but at least, for one night, she was all that.” And more.

“Then you should have taken her with you when you left C’s.”

“I didn’t even know which one she was.”

“Did it make a difference?”

“Maybe.” He pushed away from the console and paced the floor. “No.” He sat on the edge of the bed where they’d made love, the sheets and comforter still a tangled mess. “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If love has to be engineered, if biology has to be manipulated to mimic some kind of natural order . . . then fuck it. I’m better off alone.”

“Then maybe I should leave the front door locked.”

“What?”

“The door. You have a visitor.”

Havoc looked to the newly hung door just as the locks clicked off. The door swung open and she stepped uncertainly across the threshold. Rising awkwardly to his feet, Havoc struggled to find his voice. “Melissa?”

She nodded and gave him a tentative smile. “It took me awhile to remember how to find your apartment.”

And then she was in his arms and he was holding her close, feeling the warmth and softness of her against him, breathing her perfume. Havoc opened his mouth to ask Nancy to give them some time alone, but before he could speak he spotted the words blinking on the computer screen.

I’ll check back later, Henry. Love you.

“I love you,” he whispered. Melissa, thinking he’d spoken to her, began to cry. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I didn’t think you’d want me after you knew what I was.”

He lifted her chin so he could look into her blue eyes. “You’re as human as anyone I’ve ever known, Melissa. No one will ever say different when I’m around. And if you’ll have me, I’ll always be around.”

Her answer was a kiss and, a moment later, to take his hand and set it against her stomach. “I think,” she said, “that the three of us are going to be very happy.”

Note: The authors wish to acknowledge the work of Thomas R. Insel and C. Sue Carter of the National Institute of Mental Health, James T. Winslow of Hoechst-Roussel Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and Lowell L. Getz of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



Copyright © 2020 David Niall Wilson