Friday, March 30, 2012

Extreme Makeover - Part 39 of 42

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Chapter 39: Closeness
The drive from Fresno gave Deena time to think. Motorcycle travel, hanging on to him on the back of the Honda for hour after hour, was stressful. She couldn’t sleep, as she had on the way down in the Chevy. She missed its cushions and relative quiet.
They couldn’t even talk while traveling, other than a few yells from time to time.
By sunset, he was weaving too much on the road. She could tell he was too tired to go on.
“Ever ride a motorcycle before?” he yelled.
“First thing after we save the world! Gonna teach you how to drive!”
That would be nice. Mom would never teach me. It would be so strange to go back home. If I can keep the asteroid from hitting us.
The last thing they did, before leaving the computers in Fresno was to look up the LA Times on the web. They found the article.
“$2 Million in Gold Coins found in Collapsed Home”
Leo Drye and Jesse Thompson were listed as killed, along with three others. There were survivors too, but Luther didn’t recognize any of the names.
Maybe we are free of them. Luther told her she was probably safe, but he wasn’t willing to risk it for himself. As long as anyone could tell Angelo Benedict that Luke Haskell was still alive, he would need to keep running.
So, I can go home, but Luther can’t. 
She tried to put that puzzle out of her mind. It made no difference what Las Vegas mobsters planned if they were all going to die in the asteroid strike. She just held on tighter as they rode north.
Driving into a lakeside campground, well after normal hours, Luther pulled up to the check-in station.
“I’ve been here before,” he said, keeping his voice low. There were other campers visible—trailers and tents, mostly.
He got off the cycle and filled out the registration slip, added some cash, and stuffed the envelope through a tight slit in a sturdy metal box.
“Paul and Jenny Anderson,” he whispered. “Too tired to think up new names.”
They quickly found a tent-only site that wasn’t occupied and began unpacking.
Luther was also too tired to set up the tarp.
Deena stretched out her sleeping bag next to his.
That’s interesting. His sleeping bag zipper is on the right, and mine is on the left. You could actually zip these two together to make one big sleeping bag.
She grinned. Mom would have a fit!
But tonight wasn’t the time to think about it. Besides, he was already snoring.
Don’t get any ideas, Jenny Anderson.
Still, after hours of having her arms around him, she felt lonely in her bag all by herself. She stared up at the stars above.
Is the asteroid up there? The answer came almost immediately. She twisted her head over to the side, but the horizon was blocked by trees.
“That’s okay,” she whispered, turning her head back to zenith. She wouldn’t be able to see it anyway.
Her eyes blurred. It was too much. She had to defeat an enemy she couldn’t see, using tools she didn’t understand, or else everyone she ever cared about would die.
And she had to do it alone.
She edged her bag a little closer to Luther’s, and tried to will herself to sleep.
Perhaps the nanobots were listening. She dozed off instantly.
He was trapped. His hands and feet were bound. The killers were coming! He struggled, and broke free!
Luther rolled half out of his sleeping bag. The cold air tickled his brain enough so he realized he was dreaming. I’m asleep. But his heart was racing. He flopped over, and bumped up against another sleeping bag. After several seconds, his sleepy brain put the pieces together. Deena.
Endorphins trickled into his brain. Dreams of riding mile after mile, with her holding him tightly. He did have a few ideas. Dream, or real life—he put his arm around her. She rolled onto her back. He could hear her breathe.
Deena felt a touch on her skin. She shifted. When she tried to move her arm, the bag hampered her. The feeling of being trapped mixed with the horror of her time, dead in the field, with insects crawling over her. She struggled awake, urgently pushing her way out of the bag. Her elbow caught Luther in the side, and through the covering, she hear his “Oof!” 
She stood up, her heart beating rapidly and her breath puffing in the cool morning air. Her only urge was to get away.
She turned toward the bathrooms. She knew Luther was watching her.
At the sink, Deena splashed water on her face. Waking suddenly, with Luther’s arm around her had been startling. If she hadn’t imagined it, where his hand had rested, what he had been doing was...disturbing.
It was far too close to her own idle thoughts—ones she couldn’t afford right now. In the cheap metal campground mirror, her blush was still visible.
I can’t deal with this. The redwood grove was sending the nanobot signals so strongly that it was like the presence of another person, hovering over her shoulder.
No distractions. I have to get in there and get to work.
She walked out of the bathroom and saw Luther energetically stuffing the sleeping bags into their totes.
He’s mad at me. But it wasn’t my fault! I want to cuddle, but I can’t!  Not now.
She walked over to join him.
“I’m sorry, Deena.”
She stopped him with a raised hand. “Not now. I can feel them. We need to go.”
His face was as stony as flint. “Right. Here. Secure these to the bike. I’ll be back in a minute.” And he stalked off to the bathrooms.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Extreme Makeover - Part 38 of 42

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Chapter 38: Failsafe
“Deena!” He grabbed her and forced her to look at him. Her eyes were wide with terror. “Deena, look at me. Focus!” He shook her.
She calmed a bit. He brushed her long red hair back out of her eyes. “Easy. I’m here. Talk to me.” He kept his left arm around her, but with his right, he stroked her face. Whatever had frightened her had broken right through her reserve. He feared the worst. She was a strong person.
“I’m right here. Tell me.”
She blinked, coming out of her self-induced trance. A timid smile came and went. He felt her straighten up. He released his grip on her, reluctantly.
After a deep breath, she said, “I saw it.”
“What did you see?”
“The asteroid. Luther, they’re going to drop an asteroid on us. All because of me!”
They sat at the computer in the back of the Internet Cafe in Fresno. It was morning on a weekday. They had the place to themselves.
The peril to San Francisco was totally forgotten. They had something more important to worry about.
Luther spelled it out. “An asteroid that size could destroy all life on the planet. Of course, the blast would wipe out everything for thousands of miles. But what’s worse are the long term effects. There would be secondary fires everywhere. So much dust and smoke would be thrown up into the atmosphere that the sun would be blocked out, for years! All crops would die. Winter would come to the whole planet. Everything would freeze.
“It’s just like what wiped out the dinosaurs. Maybe some life would survive. But it would reset the planet’s ecology back to the beginning.”
Deena made calculations, converting the time and distance measurements the nanobots used into human units.
She gave him the distance and he searched the NASA online database of NEO’s, Near Earth Objects.
“I can’t imagine anyone doing something so horrible. They would be killing billions. Maybe everyone.”
Luther kept his eyes on the screen. “Does the sin scale with the body count? Once they started on this project, they knew they would kill people. It was important to them to knock us back to the Iron Age. It’s not too surprising that if that failed, plan ‘B’ would be to blast us back to the Stone Age.”
Deena sagged back into her chair. “It’s all my fault. They’re only doing this because they detected me giving them new orders.”
“No, it’s not at all your fault!” He was angry. “How could it be? Nanobots were their idea. The asteroid was their idea. Hurting us was their idea. I’ve got no patience with evil people putting their guilt onto the victim!
“It’s no more your fault for triggering their failsafe that it is the fault of the kid who steps on an old hidden landmine in some long abandoned battlefield.”
Deena was shocked by the outburst. Then she understood. What had happened in those torture sessions? What twisted arguments had Drye tried on Luther while Thompson was cutting up Katy’s face? What scars had he left on Luther’s soul?
Luther hit the keys hard as he worked. His words were hard as he talked.
“The aliens want to undercut our technology. You didn’t volunteer to be their warrior, no more than Ruben volunteered to tear down his master’s house.
“It’s all the aliens’ fault. First for putting the nanobots here, then for being so sloppy with their planning.”
“What do you mean, sloppy?” she asked softly.
He clicked on a picture icon and a radar image of an asteroid appeared on the web page. “Is this the one?”
She looked over the blurry image and shook her head. “No. It’s long, not round.”
He nodded and went on down the list.
“Sloppy?” she prompted.
“Yes, sloppy! I’m starting to think that the nanobots aren’t even their technology. I mean, think about it. From what you told me, the nanobots are designed carefully. They never get out of control. No gray-goo catastrophe for their creators. There’s no universal assembler that’s self-contained and can create itself.
“The brain-bots give the orders. Database-bots have the schematics. Scavenger-bots gather the raw materials. And finally, the assembler is just a tool that puts the nanobots together. Many different schematics to make many different versions of the robots. No simple mistake can turn it into a devouring monster. If biological life had that many constraints, we would never have lasted a billion years.
“And think about how important orders are to them! Without orders, they self-destruct. That’s what you said, right?”
Deena leaned back in her chair. She crossed her hands on her lap. “Yes. Katy’s repair was very simple, really. I had them rebuild her according to her DNA, and then once they did that, they just unzipped their structure and her body cells cleaned up the pieces.”
“So that’s what I’m talking about. Nanobots are very well designed. They are efficient, powerful, and have lots of safety constraints.
“Now think about our aliens’ plan. Use the native animals to contribute to their own destruction, and then take no precautions when connecting to their brain cells.
“I mean, they must have thought about the possibility of host brains feeding their own orders into the system—otherwise why have this asteroid failsafe system in place for that eventuality.
“Okay, I grant it’s a plan, but why not just make a rule to never connect to a brain any larger than a frog’s. 
“If the nanobots are really the aliens’ technology, why not make them loyal? From what we’ve seen, nanobots take orders from you, and maybe even Ruben! How hard would it be to add a security code? Dumb!”
He pointed to the screen, “This one?”
She gasped. “Yes. That’s it.”
On the screen, an animated image of the spindle-shaped rock tumbled end over end. The text described its mapping. On its previous closest approach to Earth, scientists had used the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to map the two-mile long worldlet.
“It looks pretty deserted,” she said. Craters covered the terrain.
“The closest details they have are still hundreds of meters across. We’re not going to see anything.”
He frowned at the image.
“But I just don’t see how they’re going to make it hit the Earth. According to this orbital projection, it will make a close approach to the Moon shortly, but it will come nowhere near here.”
She gazed at the tumbling asteroid. It was a repeating video clip. “Here!” She stabbed at the image, and then said, “No. Can you stop it?”
He clicked a button on the browser. The image froze.
“Right here. That’s where they’re working.”
She traced her fingernail across the narrow waist of the asteroid.
“They’re digging, honeycombing the rock, making it weaker.”
“They’re splitting it!”
“Breaking it apart,” she finished almost at the same moment.
He switched to the table showing orbital data, estimated mass and the like.
“I don’t have enough information. NASA notes that it is tumbling faster than any other asteroid of its class. I’d bet the nanobots did that somehow. But if the direction of its tumble was in the right direction, one of the pieces just might pass close enough to the Moon....” He drifted off, considering the possibilities.
Sometimes Deena just needed a few words from him to add clarity to the information she was getting from the distant redwood grove. She put her hand on his arm.
“You’re right. The asteroid will split. One piece will swing by the Moon, lunar gravity bending its orbit enough to hit the Earth. About a year later, the other piece will be in position to hit as well.”
He sat back in the chair. “A one-two punch. I can’t imagine the calculations necessary to make that come off.”
“Oh, they can do it. The asteroid is riddled with little chambers, full of nanobots, doing nothing but orbit estimates.”
He frowned. “Do they have precise enough measurements of the orbits?”
She could tell he was looking for a loophole. Something to cause their plan to fail.
“Sorry, the surface is covered with optical sensors. They work together, somehow, to make highly detailed images.”
He waved through the air, “Now we know how they knew about San Francisco and the San Andreas Fault. With a two-mile long optical baseline, they could clearly see small details. It’s like an telescope with a lens two miles wide!”
She laughed. “Physics class! What was that equation?”
He rattled it off, “Dawes Limit! Let me look it up.” He went to the search engine.
As quickly as he read out the equation, she did the math. “When it came as close as two million miles away on that other pass, the nanobots could see things as small as two feet wide on the surface of the Earth.”
“Mr. Fenner would be proud.”
Then his smile faded. “So the nanobots probably know their orbit precisely. They know they can cut the asteroid in two and use the Moon to bend its path towards the Earth. They know they can hit us.
“So, what are you going to do to stop them?” he asked.
He turned around to face her. He took each of her hands in his.
“Yes, Deena. Right now, aliens have declared war on the human race, and you are our only warrior. The weapons are nanobots, but a gun can point both directions.
“You are the only human who can control them. You are our only defender. In this war, you are the human race, Deena.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

Extreme Makeover - Part 37 of 42

© 2008 by Henry Melton

Chapter 37: Hiding
If anyone enjoys having the wind in her hair more, I don’t know who it would be.
Luther watched her run through the trees, getting her itchy feet moving. From the time she had put on the helmet to when they had arrived in the Sequoia National Forest, her red hair had lengthened two feet. It billowed out behind her as she ran.
I need to caution her on that stuff. While he was grateful for the nanobots bringing her back from the dead, he had no confidence that alien machines knew exactly how to build healthy human cells.
He stirred the campfire and frowned at the camping gear he had bought. There wasn’t room for much on the bike. The two sleeping bags were laid out, fluffing up from being compressed down to a fraction of their size in the tote bags.
It would have been nicer with just one. But she would object, I’m sure.
There was a tarp to keep the dew off them, but there hadn’t been room for sleeping cushions or any of the other comforts.
No ice chest, so food would have to be purchased each day, and cooked without pots.
How long will she put up with roughing it?
They hadn’t really discussed the future. Did she really want to ride with him, or should she convert back to brown-haired Deena and get back to Crescent City in time to graduate.
I just wish I had that option.
He counted the cash again. It was down to nine hundred plus. I miss the gold.
“Hey, Luther! Look what I caught!”
She ran up to him, holding a large hare by the ears. It was struggling, kicking, but she had it secure.
She looks like a dog that has brought its prey to its master for approval.
He leaned forward.
“Deena. Put the rabbit down. Let it go.”
She was disappointed, but she did it. The rabbit was on its feet in an instant, rounding the trees and out of sight.
He took her hand. “Deena. Sit here beside me.”
By the flicker of the fire, he asked her softly, “Deena, tell me about Ruben.”
“So, when he came back to me, he was convinced I was friendly, part of his pack. I fed him more nanobots. I gave him a radio link with hooks into his senses. I also added the urge and the means to seed destruction throughout the buildings.” 
She smiled at the memory.
“He loved being touched. Only his master ever treated him kindly. He loved the man.”
“Drye?” Luther seemed surprised.
Deena nodded, “With Ruben, he was good. They had bonded.” Her smile saddened. “Ruben died trying to save him. I just hope he never quite realized his part in the destruction.”
Luther rotated his kabob skewer at the edge of the fire so the meat wouldn’t char.
“So with the radio, you could see through his eyes?”
“Right. Only it was weird. It wasn’t like video. More like the memory of seeing, if you know what I mean?”
He shrugged, “Maybe.”
“Anyway, it wasn’t clear. Hearing was better, although words didn’t make sense. Smelling was really sharp.”
“You were getting his processed memories then,” Luther guessed. “Sight, scent, hearing, already processed through a dog’s brain.
“Tell me. Did you get his emotions, too?”
She turned her face and picked up her kabob stick. By the flickering reddish glow, Luther wasn’t sure if she was blushing.
She bit the first chunk of beef off the stick.
“Yes.” It was chewy. “I felt his love for Drye. I felt his pride of territory. I felt his joy at tearing into a guard’s arm.”
He didn’t comment, pulling his stick from the fire too.
After a moment, she said, “It felt good, being an animal, acting on emotion.”
“What did Ruben think about you?”
She smiled. “He considered me one of the pack. An alpha-female, if you want the science term. His thoughts were simpler, more basic.”
Luther nodded, “You got his processed senses. How did you look to him?”
She shook her head. “You’re asking for memories of memories. It’s not too clear.”
“Come on, give it a try. Go back to your face-to-face with him, after all the nanobots had been added. Ruben looked at you, and saw...?”
She looked off into the fire. “He saw me, only I was smaller, maybe, longer. More hair. My teeth were sharp.”
Luther waited, then said, “I had lots of chances to look at Ruben. He was a big massive Rottweiler—black with reddish brown legs.
“Tell me, when did you decide to become a dangerous looking redhead?”
She sat up, startled. “You think Ruben programmed me!”
“I don’t know. I’m just trying to make sense of you. You are different. Whether it was the trauma of your ‘death’, or the emotional tie to Ruben, or some back-channel thing in the nanobots, I think we need to know.”
“That’s ridiculous! Ruben couldn’t have programmed me. I was directing him!” But there was a frown on her face.
“Is there a way to tell? Can you ask the nanobots?”
“They don’t tell me anything.”
“You say that, but they give you radio signals, answers to calculations, element assay on demand—there’s definitely two-way communication between them and you. They don’t speak English—I’d be surprised if they did—but Ruben didn’t either. Yet, you got detailed information from him.
“It may be,” he suggested cautiously, “that if you are being influenced by them, that the safest thing would be for you to get rid of the nanobots.”
“What?” She seemed startled by the idea.
“You said you released Ruben. You said you had programmed Katy’s nanobots to self-destruct once they had finished their task. Can’t you order the ones in you to turn themselves off? They’re just machines. They’ll do that, won’t they?”
She nodded, then shook her head. “But what will happen to me?”
“Hopefully, if they did their job as well as you seem to think, then your hair would grow out brown. Over time, your eyes would change back to gray. This fake-muscle padding would fade away. Normal muscle tissue would gradually replace what you have now.
“In short, you could have yourself back.”
She sat still, with crossed arms.
“You don’t like the changes?”
“It’s not that. Hey, I like the cute blonde, the sultry Latina, the hot biker chick. I’m a guy. I could get used to the idea of a rotating harem...”
“Hey! Don’t get any ideas.”
“...but just maybe I’d like to have a chance to get to know the girl with the brown hair and gray eyes a little better.
“Is it even possible that you can ever get back to her, free of nanobot programming?”
“Coming to bed?” he asked.
Deena stirred the coals, the tip of her stick bursting into a brief flame. “Not yet.”
She had been like that since their talk. Whether he had made her mad, or whether she just had a lot to think about, he didn’t want to disturb her.
However, he was only human. He needed his sleep.
But he couldn’t just leave her like that.
He unzipped his sleeping bag and carried hers over to where she sat. She looked up, with a question in her eyes as he unzipped the bag and draped it over her shoulders.
“I don’t really need it, you know.”
Luther arranged it as well as he could. “Yes, you do. There is more to a blanket than warmth.”
He crawled back into his bag and was asleep in minutes.
Deena woke up to the smell of bacon grease dripping into the fire. Luther was sitting on a rock, tending the cooking.
“Three strips apiece, two milk cartons and a cold muffin. Are you ready for breakfast?”
She nodded, unwilling to climb out of the comfort of her cocoon. The air on her face was comfortably cool, but when she moved, the dew on her bag shook droplets onto her skin.
I should have moved the bag under the tarp. But she had been too embarrassed to pull her bed next to his in the middle of the night. Suppose he had woken up. Suppose he had gotten ideas?
Don’t kid yourself, Deena. I’m the one with ideas. And they scare me.
And like the key to a lock, she remembered her dream, a surrealistic mélange of dark fantasy images and great moving powers.
Click. Click. Click. Ideas came together—jigsaw puzzle pieces.
She unzipped the bag and began to shake it dry.
“Luther. We need to talk.”
“I could rid myself of the nanobots. There might be an adjustment time while my body settled back into a natural balance, but I would survive it.”
Luther was listening quietly, intently, sitting beside her. She wished he reacted more.
“Remember after they left me in San Francisco? Nanobots in my body weren’t doing a thing then. They had essentially gone into hibernation.
“They’re good at what they do. And one of those things is hiding within a host. They are microscopic machines, trying to do a job in the macroscopic world. For that they need healthy hosts. It’s easier for them working in a host body that is already in balance with itself.”
He nodded. “That’s a relief. So what’s the problem?”
Deena let out a sigh. “You’re always ahead of me aren’t you. Do you know how aggravating that is?”
Luther raised his eyebrows in mock innocence. “Me? I’m just sitting here, waiting for enlightenment.”
She grumbled low to herself. “Okay, getting back on track here.
“I can’t afford to tell my nanobots to self-destruct. You can’t afford it. Especially San Francisco can’t afford for me to bail out now.”
He frowned, “I was worried about that. What are they going to do?”
“It’s earthquakes, obviously. Otherwise why use me to get to the fault line and then sink into the ground.”
“You are sure they’re evil?” It wasn’t really a question.
Deena nodded. “I’ve been trying to ignore it, but my little critters have a talent for destruction. I just wanted to go into Drye’s compound, lock up the gunmen, shake things up a bit for a distraction, and then escape with you and Katy.
“It was their elaboration to completely destroy the place. They’re very good at it.
“Last night, I dreamed. At least I think it was a dream. Nanobots are on some kind of holy crusade. I am supposed to be a warrior in their struggle.”
Solemnly, he stared at the ground.
He looked away. “When I was trapped, waiting to die, I had hours alone to fret about things. I wondered why they wanted you to transport them to the San Andreas Fault. Why would an alien species send complex machines across light-years of space to cause earthquakes?”
Deena said, “They can do other things. They can corrode structures, cause fires, freeze up moving parts. And of course, they can manipulate living things. They could convert a harmless bacteria or virus into a lethal disease. They could even be a disease themselves.
“They’re attacking us, Luther. And I was a weapons delivery system. I just don’t know why.”
Luther nodded. “Only one thing makes sense to me.
“It’s our technology. Deena. That’s what they’re attacking. I don’t think they are trying to wipe us out. I think they just want to keep us as primitives.”
“I don’t understand.”
He took her hand in his. He searched her eyes.
“Suppose they had arrived a thousand years ago. Given a few hundred years to spread all over the Earth by hitchhiking on animals, they could have been well established when the first steam engines were developed.
“If they could have detected the by-products of technology and zeroed in on the area with earthquakes and fires and simple mechanical failures, they could have stopped the industrial revolution cold.
“Because of these ‘random acts of god’, we would have stagnated at the age of sword and sail. And no one would have ever suspected the true cause.
“Perhaps they want to keep us from ever becoming space travelers ourselves. With spaceships and nuclear weapons, maybe we are too threatening to them.
“Remove our technology and we can’t wield dangerous forces. Remove our technology and we stay safely down in the dirt.”
Deena struggled to find a weakness in his argument as he talked. Unfortunately, it rang true.
“They set up house in the redwoods, and began to sense heavy technology south—by pollution in the wind, radio signals, who knows—they targeted it for destruction.”
Deena felt her insides knot up, “So when they accidentally infected me, I became the chosen warrior—the only host animal who could travel the great distances necessary to plant the earthquake bugs.”
He squeezed her hand. “We’ll stop them. You’ll give them the order to stop.”
She shook her head, “Luther, you don’t understand something about nanobots.
“They can only ‘do’. They don’t understand ‘don’t’. I can’t tell them to stop doing something. They are already tunneling down into the fault line. Even if they could hear me, they already have their orders.
“There’s nothing I can do to stop them.”
Luther asked quietly, “What if...what if you radioed an order to all nanobots everywhere to self-destruct? That’s a positive new order. Would they do it?”
She shrugged. “I don’t really know. It seems like they would. Let me think.”
She felt his hand holding hers. She had to concentrate. Closing her eyes and pulling her hand free, she tried to get back to that place, that strange place of great moving forces.
The grove of redwoods was there, their massive radio installation—she was close enough to feel it. She had enough of the radio nanobots in her to make a weak connection. 
Like an oracle in some ancient temple, or the modern Internet, it was a massive store of information, quiet and unconcerned. Yet, if she asked the right way, it could provide the answers.
It was quiet in the forest for several minutes. Luther waited patiently.
Then, she started screaming.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Extreme Makeover - Part 36 of 42

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Chapter 36: Escape
“You’re losing your hair.”
Deena turned his way, and as she did, the air conditioner vent caught strands of black hair and filled the air with them.
“Sorry. I didn’t think about the shedding. Is there a comb in this place?” She started looking through the glove compartment.
“Tell me if you see any cash. We’ve got a full tank of gas—they were going to take me to Las Vegas—but I’m broke.” There had been some gold coins on the floor, left from Leo’s tirade, but he hadn’t thought to pick them up.
“Hey, yes! Three hundred dollars in fifties.”
Luther nodded, but it didn’t lighten his spirits. “Pocket change for parking lots and gas refills. It won’t get us far.”
Deena found a comb. She ran it through her black hair, pulling out large clumps. Luther began to see a trace of red underneath.
“I had just barely gotten used to your new look. Now you’re changing again?”
She nodded. “It seems wise. When the police and fire department dig out the security office, they’ll find tapes that might have my picture on it.
“And as you said, I won’t believe Thompson or Leo Drye are dead without more proof.”
“Your eyes are getting lighter. What will you look like?”
She smiled, “You’ll see soon enough.”
“So,” he asked a minute later, “you were shot. I saw that. What happened then?”
She shrugged, sobering. “Then I died. I took three bullets in the chest. It tore me up pretty bad. My heart was gone, I’m sure.
“I woke up in the field where they had dragged my body. The nanobots were working on repairs. I wasn’t breathing. My heart wasn’t beating. The insects had already started on my corpse.”
Her eyes started to water. “I’ll talk about it later. Basically, the nanobots made essential repairs. I made it over to Katy’s apartment and ate everything there to bulk up. I chose a new look as a disguise.”
She had started to cry and it was building on itself.
He reached to take her hand. Her skin was hot. He looked. Her skin was lightening. The red hair was coming through the remains of the black.
Deena whispered, “I killed people back there, didn’t I?”
“We don’t know, not really.” He was lying, but it was the thing to say.
“But that’s the way to bet. I had Ruben lock up the doors. People were trapped. And then the house collapsed on them.
“Luther. I didn’t ask for the place to be destroyed! I wouldn’t have done that. Why did the nanobots get so destructive?”
She shook from the emotions. The traffic was safe enough—he unhooked her seatbelt and pulled her closer into the circle of his arm.
Luther decided to take Interstate 5 north. The coastal route was too slow and he certainly didn’t want to go to Las Vegas. 
“You know, when the building collapsed, I didn’t think about the people being killed. I was only worried about Ruben.” She looked at him. “What does that say about me?”
“They were strangers. They weren’t people you knew.”
She straightened up and reached for her comb. “The old Deena would have cared about them anyway.”
“You’ve been through a traumatic experience.”
“Ha! I died, Luther!” She tugged the comb and with each stroke, the hair reddened.
He shrugged. “Not really. The nanobots probably....”
She glared at him, “You weren’t there! I was! Bullets tore me apart! I was rotting in the sun! I was dead!”
Sagging over her comb, she sniffed at tears. He pulled out a tissue for her.
“Luther, I may have lost my soul.”
She blew her nose, and began tugging out the black hair from the comb with furious intensity.
“I died. The real Deena went off to heaven, and then I woke up again—like a zombie. You should have seen me. I was a walking skeleton.
“Then I went out and killed people. And I didn’t even care!”
Luther stared at the road ahead. The big truck traffic was slowing down as they climbed the mountains.
His voice was bitter. “I didn’t care...don’t care about them either. They were bad people, doing horrible things. Even the guards and the other servants. Surely they weren’t ignorant of who they worked for.
“People like Drye know the legal system is imperfect. People with enough money and power can carve out little islands where their word is the only law, and they can torture and destroy anyone who gets in their way.
“It ate me up, at first. The injustice of it all made me crazy. Drye, Benedict, and even monsters like Thompson could live outside the law. And just to live, I had to become like one of them, ignoring the law, hiding from the police, forging documents.
“But the system is a big compromise. Big Police can be just as bad as Big Crime.”
“I know how it works,” she said impatiently. “I’m getting an Incomplete in Government as we speak.”
Luther persisted, “You have to understand it. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to have any peace.
“From my viewpoint, you were an Angel of Justice, putting to right an evil that the police couldn’t correct. I don’t buy your killer zombie idea.
“But you can never go back to being a simple honest cog in the system. It’s smart to change your looks. A survivor’s description or a videotape of Dark Deena will go into some police report and they will be looking for you.
“The legal system has no place for an Angel of Justice, even if she were sent down by God himself.”
Deena peered into the mirror every few minutes. The nanobots were faithfully following her visualization, but she didn’t really trust them, for more reasons than one. She would have preferred to do a full body alteration naked in front of a full-length mirror, but with Luthor close enough to touch, this was hardly the time or place.
They certainly went beyond my visualizations on that house. The little critters certainly have a talent for destruction. What were they planning for San Francisco?
Luther was plainly worried about her, and Katy. She was worried about him. There was a hard twist in his words. The scars were on Katy’s face, but they were in his brain, too.
But I’m not tinkering with his memories. Maybe it will be worth it with Katy, but it feels dirty.
“What’s that on your arm?” Luther asked.
She held it where he could see better. “That’s my tattoo. Like it?”
He checked the road again and then frowned at her barbed-wire armband decoration. “They can do that?”
“As long as I keep the image in my head focused. Skin pigments are easy. Look at my eyes.”
“Hazel, right?”
“No. I mean around my eyes.”
Sparing another look at the road, he nodded. “You’ve added eyeliner. Isn’t that just makeup the hard way?”
Deena shrugged. “Not if you don’t have any makeup. Now look at my chin.”
“It’s square. I thought I was imagining it. You had high cheekbones during the rescue, didn’t you?”
“Yes. The girl in the magazine had them. I’m not really altering my bone structure, but it’s easy enough to add padding in the right places. See my arms?”
“Are you going for a body-builder look?”
“Yeah! Mean and muscular. I just have a need to feel dangerous right now.
“Do you think I should add freckles—to go with the red hair?”
He shook his head. “Save your strength.”
Luther doesn’t like it.
Well, too bad! It’s my body. I’ll change it however I like.
Deena put aside her comb and said, “I’m starving.”
Luther brushed the back of his hand against her bare shoulder. “You’re hot, probably from all the changes.
“Bakersfield is just up ahead. We’ll stop there.”
A groan came from the back seat. “Did someone say food? I could eat a horse.”
A passing car honked as Luther pulled over to the shoulder.
“Katy? Are you okay?”
She tried to get up, but the seatbelts were holding her down.
“Hang on.” He got out and went around to her door. Deena was right behind him.
Katy had gotten the first buckle free. He helped with the others.
She blinked widely. “Oh, I feel like I’ve been asleep for an age.”
Luther couldn’t keep his eyes off her face.
Not only were her cuts completely healed, but now she easily looked ten years younger. Deena’s nanobots had repaired more than just the injuries.
Katy reached up and massaged her face. Luther held his breath.
“Boy, I feel strange.” She frowned at him.
“Lu ... Luther.” She smiled, getting it right. “What are you doing here? For that matter, where is here?”
“It’s a little bit hard to explain,” he began, knowing that he had no idea what to tell her.
“You were captured by Leo Drye and drugged,” Deena supplied.
Katy looked at the rough looking redhead and smiled, “Do I know you?”
“Deena,” she held out her hand. Katy winced slightly as they shook hands.
Luther asked, “What do you remember? We’ll try to fill you in.” He could see no reaction on her face to Deena’s name. Just how much memory had she lost?
Katy struggled with her recollections. She shook her head. “It’s all mixed up. You were upstate.” She looked at him and asked, “What does Deena know?”
Deena said, “I know Luther’s real name is Luke Haskell, and that Leo Drye was trying to find something his father stole. That’s why he kidnapped and drugged you.
“Someone convinced him that this new drug would open up all your memories. Instead, it caused you to hallucinate. By the time Luther and I came to your rescue, you were screaming from the drug induced nightmares. We got you out right before an earthquake destroyed Leo Drye’s house.
“Hopefully, Drye didn’t make it.”
Luther nodded, confirming her fantasy. It was a better story than the real one. The drug story would give her a way to handle the real memories of torture if they resurfaced. 
“We swiped Leo’s limo and headed out of town. Katy, I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can go back to your old life. Whether Leo died or not, we don’t know how much the Benedict organization knows.”
They drove into town, Deena and Katy chatting in the back.
“Steak?” he asked, guessing Deena would need protein.
There was a chorus of approval from the rear.
Katy stopped dead in her tracks as they walked into the restaurant. She stared at her reflection in the glass, and then reached up to feel her face.
As casually as he could, Luther asked, “What’s wrong, Katy?”
“My face. Something has happened. I used to have wrinkles.”
“Oh nonsense! Katy, you’ve always had a great complexion and you know it.”
He whispered, hoping for a distraction, “Sometimes people would hint that you and Dad had something going on.”
She blushed and shook her head. “I could never do that to Alice.”
One last glance at the mirror, and she took Deena’s hand and they went on in.
After watching the women eat twice as much as he could, he handed Deena the rest of their cash.
“Just wait here. Drink lots of tea and have dessert. I’ll be back within the hour. Business.” He slipped out of the booth.
Katy leaned closer. “Well, now that he’s gone, tell me everything!”
Deena looked down at the empty plate. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sure you do. I’m his honorary aunt, didn’t you know? You can tell me everything.”
Luther sat down to join them only a little bit later than he had projected.
The two seemed to be fast friends. Well, he was glad of that.
“Katy, here is fifteen hundred dollars.” He handed her the folded stack of bills. “It isn’t much, but the gold is gone, and it’s the best I could do.”
Deena asked, “Where did you get this?”
He shook his head. “Don’t ask. But let’s say we no longer have a limo to get us around town.”
He squeezed Katy’s hands. “Deena and I have to vanish. I don’t like leaving you here, but we have to keep moving and two can do that easier than three.”
She had tears in her eyes. “I know that, Luke. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was just telling Deena that I have a friend here in Bakersfield that could probably put me up until I can get established.”
“When we come back to visit, what name should we look for? It can’t be Katy Ferril anymore.”
She nodded. “I feel like spring. I’ll be ‘Amber Spring’.”
Outside, after tearful goodbyes, Deena followed Luther to the parking lot.
“I hope we don’t have to walk. I don’t think you could keep up with me.”
He grinned. “No. I thought a biker chick would like a motorcycle.” He handed her a helmet from an obviously second-hand Honda.
“Get on. We’ve got a lot of miles to make.”