SciFi

Here’s the beginning to a scifi novel I’ve got in the works:

Awakenings

Ana

From out of a deep, deep sleep I notice, very faintly, there’s a chill running down my spine. It’s like I’m a glacier, bright blue at the core, slowly awakening, getting ready to advance one inch, maybe two. Nothing significant. I’m too tired to accomplish anything great. Yet there it is, creaking through my bones. I’m the frozen surface of a lake with something heavy sliding across my back. Weakening me beneath the pressure. Tiny fissures spreading until… I crack.

With a sudden shock it spreads. My arteries, my veins, are straining to find some form of flow. Yes… There it is, my pulse. It’s slow, deathly slow. The beats are so far apart no one would mistake me for being alive. But I am. I am alive!

What an odd realization. Was I not alive? If not, where have I been?

My mind flashes back to the last memory I have. Monitors are beeping. Lights flash.

“This is it people! It’s go time. If we’re going to save her it’s got to be now.”

An army of medical personnel surround me. In no time at all I’m loaded onto a Gurney.

“Please. Give us a moment.” pleads my mother.

“If we don’t get her in the cryo unit now, she will die,” the lead man responds.

“But for how long…?” begins my father.

“It’s simple. She’ll stay frozen until there’s a cure. Ten…fifteen…twenty years…however long it takes. That’s the beauty of this new technology. She’ll have all the time in the world.”

“But I’ll never…” I gasp out a protest.

Mother grasps my hand in hers.

“It’s alright Ana, darling,” her eyes glisten down at mine. “We will always be with you in your heart.”

They were the last two faces I’d seen.

Things are changing too fast. Now all I can do or think or feel is shivers. It’s strange because I don’t think I’m moving. The crack across the surface of my being spreads and branches until, with a thundering crash the tremors break through.

My eyes fly open from the shock. Everything’s so bright it’s blinding. I close my eyes against the glare. Things inside me are running in reverse. Against the rules of nature, the tremors radiate from my core, out to my arms and legs, on to fingertips and toes until… Everywhere! My whole world is shaking! That’s when I begin to hear voices.

“…heard you the first time Doc.” says an impatient baritone. His voice is harsh like a seasoned soldier, “We’re running out of time.”

Yes! Me! I’m running out of time! I silently cry, Help me!

“…liable to bite off her own tongue if we’re not careful…” snaps someone new who’s much closer to me. This time it’s a Southern drawl, a melodic sound from deep in the throat, “…half a tongue in her mouth…” he repeats in a subdued mumble to himself, “…let’s just see how much of a profit you can turn when all you’ve got is damaged goods…” suddenly his voice rises again, “If you know so much about what’s good for the girl, you’re more than welcome to come over here and show me somethin’ better!”

Then, with a burning blast, air flares into my lungs. As much as it hurts, I can’t stop gasping, gulping for more.

“See? She’s doing just fine.” retorts the cocky Soldier, “You! Pretty Boy! Go help Doc pull her out of there!”

Between the harsh rasps of my straining lungs, someone else pipes in. This time it’s in Spanish, so I don’t understand, but he’s a sure tenor. The words tumble out in a rush. He’s angry, most likely cursing, if I had to guess.

They’ve got me by the arms, one on each side, lifting me up. I’m trying to protest, but with such a need for air, no words will be escaping my lips any time soon.

Doc, the one with the water voice, feeds me encouragement as he goes.

“That’s it darlin’…like riding a bike. You’ll catch on.”

The second man, Pretty Boy, is lean, someone who is lanky yet muscular. His clothes are thin, like mine, a shapeless shirt and some drawstring pants.

The rough denim of Doc’s pants rub the length of my thigh. My head, my whole body is shaking. It’s embarrassing. I can’t make it stop.

“What’s her problem?” asks a nasal tenor with a twang, “The three of us were in full hibernation. We came out alright.”

“Hibernation sickness.” snaps an impatient soprano, like she’s dealing with a dullard. There’s an Asian edge to her voice with an imperial tone.

So that adds up to six, four men and two women including me. Four of us were in hibernation: me, Pretty Boy, Mr. Nasal Twang and the Asian Queen. The other two, Doc, and the mean one, the Soldier, woke us up.

“That’s it,” Doc continues, “take it one breath at a time. In. Out. That’s all it takes.”

I still can’t get enough air, yet Doc and Pretty Boy have got me moving, my bare feet drag-smacking across the floor. There’s a faint buzz in the distance, echoing through what must be a vast building.

“Time’s up!” announces the Soldier, “Move!”

“What are we running from?” asks the nasal tenor, now sounding nervous.

“Drones.” answers Pretty Boy, who has picked up his pace, “When one of the hibernation beds hit defrost, they were activated.”

“And they won’t hesitate to rip you to shreds.” adds the Soldier, “Now run!”

We’re running alright. Well, I’m incapable of moving on my own, but they’ve got me moving all the same. The buzzing noise is increasing fast, closing in on us from behind.

“First security wall dropping in three… two… One!” yells the Soldier.

The grating sound of concrete and steel thunders down behind us, so close I can feel a slight breeze from it’s fall. The drone’s buzz diminishes. A series of clicks follows. The screech and whine of the barrier being shredded into dust begins. The drone thing, whatever it is, is hacking it’s way right through the wall that dropped.

“Second barrier going down!” announces the Soldier.

“How dare you touch me!” cries an indignant Asian Queen, “Put me down!” She must not have been moving fast enough, the Soldier must be carrying her now.

Another wall slams down. The tension in the air is almost palpable. The sound of destruction continues behind us. We’re not going to make it.

“Stairwell straight ahead!” roars the Soldier. A wall of hot, humid air engulfs us.

Something triggers a metal door which slides shut behind us.

“What happened to the AC? Where’s the lights?” cries the nasal guy.

“The building’s on emergency backup.” explains Doc as he struggles to help me, “This part of town hasn’t had power since the hurricane hit.”

“Enough already!” orders the Soldier, “We’ve got five floors to go! Hustle!”

Pretty boy growls, pulls me from Doc’s grasp, then tosses me over his shoulder before charging down the metal stairs at an alarming pace. With each jolting step my head thrums. I’m breathing better now. It takes great effort, but I manage holding my head steady. My arms aren’t flopping around so much either. Instinct has kicked in. I’m able to use my arms as a counter balance, which helps protect me from the pain that’s pulsing through my head.

The stench of water and rot fills the sweltering air. The Asian lets out a screech as if her delicate sensibilities have been offended. At the same time the nasal fellow moans like he’s going to be sick.

The foul smell grows stronger. Down, down, down we go, our footsteps ringing throughout the stairwell until with an unexpected woosh, we hit water. The Asian Queen screams only to be abruptly silenced like she’s been dunked into the murk. Pretty Boy loses his footing and slips. With a splash I’m submerged.

My eyes pop open in shock. Down in the wet gloom it’s easier to see. The water’s a filthy mess so clogged with debris I can’t see far. At least it isn’t cold. I’m already cold enough. A thick curtain of hair floats around my head. This is a surprise. The last time I remember, I had no hair. None. Anywhere.

Someone large and powerful hefts me up into their arms.

“Grab my neck and tuck your head against my shoulder.” commands the military man. Simple for you… I think. My body is impossible to control. Now that my long hair’s wet, the weight of my head has doubled.

“Do it!” he orders again when I don’t respond, “NOW!”

And I do it. The struggle is immense. But I wrap my arms around his neck like my life depends upon it. My vision begins to adjust. Light is filtering through an open door.

Dripping hair curls about the Soldier’s ears and the nape of his neck. My face is so close to his, I can feel the sandpaper rasp of his cheek against my temple.

The water is only hip deep to him. Over his shoulder I see a big gun strapped to his back.

Up ahead, his back braced against the steel barrier, is the one who must have carried me down the stairs. Pretty Boy. It fits. He’s as handsome as his voice is alluring.

We pass from the dimly lit stairwell out into open air. Behind us Pretty Boy closes the door. Up ahead there’s a slight Chinese woman with a short bob of hair floating half bent against a big black man’s arm. He must be Doc. Behind them is a tall, thin fellow with a bright burst of red hair on his head. Both the Queen and the red headed man are dressed in the same flesh colored garb that matches my own. We slip through the alley out to the street.

Water is everywhere. Across the boulevard a white car is perched in a restaurant’s window. Next door there’s a drugstore where merchandise floats next to empty shelving. There’s a tree smashed into the lobby of a bank. I can see the undercarriage of another vehicle rocking in the middle of the road. Further down, the front of an old church has collapsed.

To our left, tethered to a lamp post is a motor boat where Doc is throwing the tiny woman inside. He climbs in behind the Queen and starts the engine. The red-headed man follows, leaping into the water craft with ease. Pretty Boy passes the Soldier and I to vault himself inside as well.

“It won’t be long.” he reports as he passes. The scream of metal slicing through metal reaches our ears. I’m passed from the Soldier’s arms to Pretty Boy’s lap. The military man throws his rifle beneath the bench and slips on an orange vest.

Our time is up. What can only be the drones, comes zooming out of the alley. We’re too late. Their laser sights have pinpoints on our chests.

 

Hunter

How in God’s name did we trigger a Class A drone cluster?! We were in a hospital not a war zone! The mechanical monsters are programed to kill at all costs. Innocent bystanders be damned, for all they care. The ominous black ball about a meter in diameter is smooth at the moment, but beneath that exterior is an armed array of blades and pincers able to cut through anything. The two smaller units, similar hovering globes, give their leader cover and support. I should know. I used to sabotage and reprogram the things. Seconds from now, maybe less, we could all be blown into oblivion.

The good news is, we’re not dead yet. Something’s holding them back. Since I don’t have any other brilliant ideas, I decide I may as well run the usual drill and pray it works.
I flash the drones a smile and wave to gain their attention, then point at my volunteer arm-band to make sure it registers.

“That’s right.” I say in a placating voice, still forcing a smile, “We’re nothing more than volunteer team forty-three, retrieving civilian stragglers.”

I’ve got my fingers crossed, hoping against hope that the usual natural disaster overrides still apply for this pod. We are, after all, out in the open now. The signal should be crystal clear. There’s no denying that a natural disaster has occurred. Hurricane Daniel was a beast, causing a storm surge more devastating than anyone had imagined possible.

According to international law, drones of any kind must be hard wired to function as emergency responders. It’s not like we’re inside a high rise where bureaucrats sometimes have their own secret set of illegal overrides. But a Class A? Has a Class A ever been in a disaster area? If there was an exception to international laws, wouldn’t military drones be it?

“Well? What’s it gonna be?” I demand of the hovering trio. The smile is still plastered on my face. The rifle may be out of reach, but I’ve got a pistol taped beneath my seat, ready to go. If I’m gonna go down, it won’t be without a fight.

The ball shifts and rotates within itself as if considering it’s options. The red lights turn green. I nearly pass out from relief. A moment later, the Class A is gone.

Doc amps up the engine to full power. We both know they could be back at any time. Even though there’s no chance of us outrunning a Class A, we aren’t going to sit around waiting to get killed either.

Now I’ve got to figure out which one of these four sleepers nearly got us killed.

“So, Pretty Boy, Marco, want to give me the odds on you triggering that pod?” I ask.

“My father, will pay a generous ransom, if that’s what you’re asking. He may have dumped me in the deep freeze without asking, but that’s as low as he’ll stoop. The man would never send a Class A after his only son. His top general doesn’t care for me, but he doesn’t have the brains, clout, or money to get his hands on that kind of technology. Any of my fathers’ lower level enemies, would never send a drone to do a hit. The whole point of killing for them is to create fear. Bodies create fear, not messy shredded remnants. It’s not me.”

Nope, the kid’s probably right. The odds are against him. He’s caused his father, the current el Presidente of the great Republic of Mexico, plenty of grief the way he runs off all the time. According to the nets the kid’s a nightmare. But he’s right. The politics don’t add up. Only an idiot would send a Class A to eliminate him.

From the look of things, our eighteen-year-old troublemaker is also a drooling devotee to our blond hibernation sickness victim. Too bad for him, he’ll be history soon. After I post him on the nets, the usual bidding war will follow. Thirty minutes later we should have an agreement on the table. The pay-off in his case should be excellent. How fast we can unload him will depend on the transaction details, the where, when, and how arrangements. Regardless of the bids, his dad will win. That’s the way Doc and I agreed to handle these things. Loving family first if possible. He’ll be out of my hair in no time.

I will say he’d be good backup on the battlefield. He’s a pretty boy if I ever saw one, the type who likes playing hero and saving the girl. (Big eye roll on that one.) But when the pressure was on, it was like he could read my mind. We were tag teaming it pretty well, getting the sick girl out in spite of everything. There’s no question that kid’s had some military training. I could use a guy like him in a pinch.

“So what about you, Chun Li? Do Hong Kong real estate heiresses and fashion designers draw Class A drones?”

The doll sized woman is sitting pin straight, with her nose in the air, deliberately ignoring me.

“No powerful diplomatic enemies poking around disliking your plans?” I press, “No family members with military connections who’d like you dead?”

“If I have enemies, sir, I take care of them.” she snaps back in her regal fashion, “At present that includes you.”

“Yes, of course, I just saved you from getting churned into nothingness by a Class A drone pod, no big deal. Maybe you’d like me to start making cracks about your size? Like how you’re less than knee high to a grasshopper?” The scowl on her face is priceless. I’ve got to find ways cut this woman down as often as possible. It’s pathetic entertainment, but cheap. I definitely like the cheap part.

Besides, Chun Li Chang is no fool. Throughout her fifty-two waking years, she’s been in and out of hibernation a number of times, prolonging her life or legacy as she sees it. The tactic must be working. She doesn’t look fifty-two and her fashion brands couldn’t be any hotter, if you can afford that kind of thing. She wouldn’t walk into a hibernation bed without setting up safety precautions. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s got people watching us right now.

Regardless, we both know that in the end, Chun Li will pay her own ransom. She’ll even pay extra if I don’t post her name for bidding on the nets. The trick is in getting her hooked up with her money. Anyone who goes into hibernation has nothing but the clothes on their backs when they come out. Anything of worth is tied up in one of those high security banks that require eye scans and DNA matches to affirm ownership. The only way we get paid is to get the sleeper to her money. It’s a dangerous undertaking, but we’ve done it before, if the price is right we can do it again.

“What about you – Blaze?” I ask the freckled red head, “Got any high level enemies we need to worry about?”

“Who in the hell would hate me?” asks the one-named wonder in his twang.

“Blaze?” I question, because really, who’s born with less than two names? Even if you’re famous, you use your birth name for medical records, “You want to tell me who you were before the ‘Blaze’ title came along?”

“I think I need to speak with my lawyer.” he responds with a scowl.

“You’re welcome to try. The crash of ‘98, killed off a lot of law firms along with everything else. It’s not likely they’re still in business.”

Blaze begins to petulantly stew. Who is this guy? I’m itching to check him out on the nets, but that’s not safe, especially in a disaster zone where they hunt for survivors by tracking their electronic connections.

“You wanna tell me why you weren’t revived after the cure for your MS was found? At the very least, a sleeper like you should have been dumped as soon as the stock market crashed. Where’s the cash coming from for your support?”

Great. The expression on his face says it all. He’s clueless. What nut job would want to keep an oddity like him in the deep freeze for twenty-seven years?

He looks good for being forty-five. The man’s taller than me, which is rare. Gangly as he is, you’d think he’d be clumsy, but he isn’t. If he wasn’t so thin I might even call him athletic. He slouches warily at the far end of the boat near Doc. Not a fan of mine I guess, which suits me fine.

And finally there’s our hibernation sickness case, Ana Forsythe. She is a beauty, something which, as I noted, was not lost on Pretty Boy Marco. He’s got her draped all over him, curled up in his lap with her head on his shoulder. At least she’s finally sleeping. The worst of it is over.

The sickness in her case is understandable. She’s been in hibernation for a century. They scarcely knew what they were doing when it came to hibernation a hundred years ago. Twenty-three years old and slammed with an aggressive melanoma. She must have been down to skin and bones. Repeated rounds of surgery and radiation like what she experienced were ruled to be inhumane before the crash. Now, of course, we do whatever we can to survive.

Like Blaze, the cure for her melanoma was part of the genetics revolution. So why wasn’t she released back then? Who’s been paying her bills? The people she once knew are long dead by now. An even better question is why a drone pod would want a girl from a century in the past?

I need more info. For all I know, the storm surge short circuited the pod. Whatever the reason, we better figure it out soon. Just because they let us go once, doesn’t mean it’ll happen again. They’ll be back. Doc’s always in a panic that this business of ours will take a wrong turn. Maybe today was the day. We’ve all got to die sometime. If you ask me, however, as long as I’m alive, it ain’t over till it’s over.

 

Ghost

I watch from a broken window as the little boat weaves through the flooded streets of Houston’s Medical District. They’re lucky the drone threat is gone for the moment. More importantly, they better be ready for the drone’s return.

I readjust the scope on my sniper rifle for a better view. It is a crude weapon, but for the moment it’s all I could assemble for long range targeting. I’m poised to fire. A limp old man flies by, an evacuee supported by a pair of drones, blocking my view. Once he passes I’ve got a clear shot.

From down below I catch sight of an unexpected hand signal. I’m intrigued. The plan has changed. My mind adjusts, calculating what must be done. The challenge, however small, is refreshing. I switch to my binoculars. A minute later I know their next move. Time for me to go. And in an instant, like a ghost, I am gone.

 

Marco

“We need food! I am starving!” screeches the Asian monster, “And if you want me alive and well, it better be something suitable for my delicate constitution! Anything non-organic makes me ill!”

“One more word out of you, Your Highness, and I’m going to stop this van and shut your mouth myself.” growls Hunter from the driver’s seat. The dinosaur of a vehicle we’re in sways wildly as we turn off of the main road. After our boat ride, the bounty hunters shackled us with some liberty bands, then swiped a military rescue truck. Since the truck could easily be traced, we switched over to this miserable vehicle. There’s no AC so we’ve been simmering for the last couple of hours.

“We are festering in filth.” mutters the Asian Queen, “Decent clothes would be nice. Reese Rivers shoes would be perfect, matched with a Dubai ensemble and some Blain Lane baubles…”

Will the woman never stop? I’m amazed Hunter didn’t deck the monster ages ago. Ever since we climbed in this van she’s been full of demands and complaints. She’s like all three of my dad’s most recent wives, crammed into one tiny body.

Material things aren’t the answer. They never were. My father doesn’t understand that concept. There are reasons why we don’t get along. Freezing me was a low blow – understandable perhaps – but low. When was he planning on waking me up? Was it going to be within his lifetime? Doubtful.

Ana’s got her face pressed against the window as she watches the world pass. She’s got one hand cupped against the glass beside her face. Her fingers move slightly in strange, pulsing patterns. The other hand, the one I’m holding is doing the same. I’m not sure why, but the rhythmic action is comforting. Her hands pause, catching my attention. Seconds pass. I find myself missing the motion. Then she starts again, her fingers flexing to beat out something new.

We’re all caked with mud and soaked with sweat, yet Ana’s beauty shines through it all like a beacon. It’s more than the superficial: the hair, the eyes, the body. There’s something inside her that draws you in. No matter how close you may be, it isn’t close enough.

That jack-ass Hunter is wishing he could be in my shoes. I saw how he noticed the way she was in my arms, her head on my shoulder in the boat. He checks us in the rear view mirror every once in a while. Whether he knows it or not, it’s eating at him. He wants her. Well, as long as I’m around he’ll be dealing with a lot of disappointment.

While Her Royal Highness continues her commentary, she sits pin straight in true regal fashion. In sharp contrast, the redhead slumps in the corner, arms folded, legs outstretched, sullenly refusing to talk. He wants his lawyer, as if that’s going to happen. There’s only one way to deal with bounty hunters. You pay them off. If you’re lucky they let you go. As my dad would put it, that’s the way things are.

He knows the drill. The man may not believe in a world without corruption, but there are cities, the White cities, which are havens of peace and equality. I have heard missionaries preach about them. Everyone willingly does their part. Everyone prospers. No one lacks for food or shelter or medical care. There is no crime or pain or suffering and no back handed payoffs to crime bosses to keep the peace.

Now there’s Ana… Beautiful Ana. Gently I pull the hair back from her face.

“I’m going to take you away from these people.” I whisper in her ear, “We are going to find a missionary who will take us to a better place, a place where you and I can live together in peace.”

She turns her head toward me slightly so her cheek rubs against mine.

“I don’t know where I belong any more.” she says softly, “I don’t know who I am.”

“You’re Ana,” I whisper to her, “You’re my Ana and I promise, I’m going to keep you safe.”

 

Ana

After endless hours on dirt roads taking us deep into the forest, we pull up to a small, grey cabin and stop.

“Welcome to the hostage hotel!” announces Hunter with a grim smile. Doc slides the van door open then makes his way up three rotting, wooden steps to the cabin’s door. Chun Li and Blaze waste no time getting out. Marco continues to hold my hand as we follow behind them. I appreciate his support. I’m still weak. My head hurts. But the pain in my lungs is gone as are the tremors. Doc was right, the heat did get to me. He wasn’t exaggerating either. The air is thick with humidity almost like a blanket, it surrounds and swallows you until you’re dripping with sweat from every pore. I hope this new stop has AC. Based on outward appearances, it doesn’t look promising. There are screens in the windows and a frayed front screen door. Buildings with AC don’t need screens. The structure is perched on top of a series of cinder blocks. The walls look like simple wood planks which are interrupted occasionally by a window or two.

The dense trees that surround us soar high into the sky. They’re spread only a few feet apart, with branches so dense, the sky is nearly blocked from our view. The ground below is littered with a thick, springy, mulch of crumbling earth-toned tree droppings and lots of ferns. The shady, humid air is slightly cooler, thick with the smell of rich soil mixed with a hint of pine sap.

“Still no shoes!” complains the Queen, “I don’t even want to think about the swill you have for us to eat! Simple requests, have simple answers. It’s either we’re given a chance to properly cleanup into clean clothes or I’m going on a hunger strike. Then how will you collect your precious ransom?”

For once she has a point. Some cleanup would be nice since we’re all caked in muddy muck. I’m sure we’d smell better.

“All I want is some good old fashioned AC.” comments Blaze, “I swear I’ve lost ten pounds in sweat alone.” He takes a long drink from the water bottle Doc provided earlier while we were on the road.

Up by the door, Doc’s smiling broadly. I’d guess he knows this place well. The Eastern Queen follows him as if he’s her security officer, her head held high, her face still thoroughly disgusted. Blaze, is on her heels. They’re an odd duo with him so gangly and tall and her so very tiny.

Marco leads me across the stones, brushing away debris with his foot, so I don’t step on anything sharp. We traverse three creaky stairs, sticking to the outsides where the wood doesn’t look as worn, cross the small porch, then step inside.

Even from behind the others who are still crowded by the door, the sight makes me gasp in awe. There is AC. It’s like stepping back in time, to my time. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling if I tried. The place is immaculately clean with a worn, dark green carpet covering most of the floor. To my right, open to the main room, is a small kitchen, it’s corner covered in cream colored tile. There’s a stainless steel sink, black refrigerator, microwave and gas cook top, a tan, Silestone counter that compliments the floor and honey colored wooden cabinets.

In the center of the longest wall to my right, between two windows is a stone fireplace with a stack of wood in a metal frame nearby. There’s a light pine table with four matching chairs set up near the kitchen and an “L” shaped leather sofa, it’s longest side facing the fireplace, draped with colorful afghans. Two cots are crowded up against the far wall with little space between them and the short end of the couch. Near the cots, facing the long back of the sofa is a doorway that looks like it leads into a small bathroom. I can see what looks like a white tub through the opening. Closer to my left is a second door which most likely leads into a bedroom.

The door behind me closes. I feel the warmth of a body ease up from behind, close to mine followed by the even warmer touch of big hands on my waist. Even though I’m dripping with sweat, shivers run down my spine. The soft puffs of his breath whisper against my left temple. His smell, a musky, manly aroma surrounds me. I pause to drink it in. The moment is over in seconds. Hunter, moves me aside to pass, then disappears into the bedroom.

Somehow Doc shows up at my side, a grin on his face. “I thought you’d like this place.” he says to me softly. “It’s where the men in my family came to get away from the world, just like we were going back in time to the old ways.” he explains. Again, all I can do is smile. The others are not so pleased, most notably our noble lady.

“No food generator?” she demands with raised eyebrows at Doc as if the thought is unthinkable, “This bathroom is not hygienic.” she announces from it’s doorway, “I cannot live in such conditions! Where are the beds?”

“You’re looking at them.” answers Doc calmly. “Two of you will sleep on the couch. The other two will take the cots.”

“And you?” utters the wide eyed dragon.

“Hunter and I will be in the bedroom.” he says. Our resident queen lets out yet another audible huff of disapproval.

Blaze has plopped down on the couch. He’s got his hands behind his head and his long legs stretched out in front of him.

“I’m calling for the cot in the quiet corner,” he announces. “Our ‘Royal Highness’ might like to take the one closest to the bathroom,” he adds with a sly glance toward the lady in question. “That way the two love birds can share the couch,” he wriggles his eyebrows toward Marco and me. I immediately let go of Marco’s hand. Is that what they’ve all been thinking? That the two of us are a pair?

Don’t get me wrong, I like Marco just fine. He is incredibly handsome. But if what they are telling me is true, I’m a hundred and twenty three. He told me he’s just past eighteen. That’s a large age difference. Even if you dismissed the hundred years part, he’s still five years my junior. He’s just a kid.

Who is head over heels for you. My internal voice points out. I growl irritably at myself regarding that admission. I needed someone. He was there. It wasn’t like I was making some kind of huge commitment.

Hunter shows up in the bedroom doorway. The big gun he’s been toting around on his back is gone. It’s the first real chance I’ve had to look at his face. He’s handsome, but not in a traditional sense, like Marco. His brow isn’t too prominent, just prominent enough. His jaw is firm, but not chiseled. His wide lips curve crookedly, in a cocky sort of way like he usually wins at whatever he does. His hazel eyes are elusive like he’s got some trick hidden up his sleeve, yet have an unexpected vulnerability at the same time, like he’s still just as human as the rest of us, doing the best he can with what he’s got. He stands grasping the door frame which is scarcely above his bent head, a posture which makes the thick cords of muscle in his arms stand out, beautiful and menacing.

“Since this cabin’s so small,” he begins informally, “the Liberty Bands on your ankles are set at five meters. Just as a reminder, that means that if you get more than five meters from either Doc or myself, you’ll get a nasty shock that will render you helpless. I don’t advise pushing your luck.

“We’ve got clothes for you in the bedroom closet,” he adds with a quick nod thrown back over his left shoulder. “We’ll let the ladies pick out whatever they’d like first so they can move on to the shower. Blaze and Marco can follow. Then Doc and I will take our turns. In the mean time, there’s cans of stew for dinner,” he announces. This time Her Royal Highness isn’t the only one to look disgusted, something Hunter deliberately ignores.
“Aside from that my only request is that you keep your voices low. We don’t want to attract any unwanted attention. There are looters in these woods who will kill us without a second thought, just to collect what little there is to be had in this cabin. Keep in mind that if you do happen to be making too much noise, Doc and I can always manually give you a shock through the Liberty Bands. Any questions?” he asks like it’s a challenge rather than an invitation. No one says a word.

“Good,” he responds with a cocky smile. “Ladies?” He steps aside from the door with an open arm ushering us into the room. Her Royal Highness enters first. I’m right behind her, slipping past Hunter without looking his way. The room is smaller than I had expected. There are two sets of bunk beds, each pushed into their own corners. Between them is what looks like a tall gun cabinet. Before we reach the shallow open closet which faces the two beds, my companion turns to me.

“You call me Chun Li,” she orders. “You wear what I pick.” I frown at that idea. “Don’t worry,” she says in response. “I am a professional.”

She turns toward the closet packed with a wild assortment of old, worn out clothes, fingering her way through them, making noises of disgust, shock, and resigned possibility. Finally she whips out a gaudy, pink floral dress, holds it up to me for brief consideration, then nods firmly. “Shoes…” she mutters thoughtfully just before she drops the dress into my hands. The small woman is down on all fours, searching through the footgear. “Ah,” she sighs with satisfaction as she pulls out a pair of worn white canvas sneakers. The shoes are set next to my feet on the floor. I assume she wants me to try them on, so I move to do just that.

“Noooo!” she screams loudly. I jerk my foot away. Hunter comes thundering through the door. At first his expression is wary, searching for danger. It quickly turns into a dark scowl.

“What did I just say about keeping quiet?” he asks in low clipped tones. Somehow he makes a soft voice seem far more dangerous than a loud one.

“I was just going to…” I begin explaining but am overruled by the Queen.

“Heat molding shoe!” she hisses at Hunter, “Filthy foot! Dirt NEVER go!”

His posture relaxes slightly.

“You don’t know anything about heat molding shoes,” he states with resignation while looking directly at me. So I shrug my shoulders slightly and shake my head. “Most clothes fit to you, not you to the clothes,” he says awkwardly. “Chun Li will explain.” he adds before turning toward the door, then he pauses and as if dealing with two children, turns back toward us. “Chun Li is going to remember, no matter what shoes get soiled, or anything else for that matter, we are going to use our inside, quiet time voices.” From behind me near the closet I hear a soft sigh of relief once he’s gone.

“That man is scary,” she says to me confidingly.

And you’re not? I counter silently. A slow smile creeps onto her face.

“Well,” she comments with an evil glint in her eyes. “guns are not the only weapons. Chun Li has a few of her own.” She gives me a long, hard look. “Come, we have work to do.”
Hunter

Women! Ana and Chun Li have been in the bathroom for well over an hour. While I wait, I’m sitting at the table with my chair tipped back. Momma Doc watches me with a scowl like I’m gonna fall. He and Marco are playing a card game at the other end of the table.

I’m not happy with Doc at the moment. A while back Chun Li poked her head out of the bathroom demanding a pair of scissors. Doc being the gullible softie he is, just walked over and handed the things to her without question. When I gave him ‘the look’ he bug-eyed back at me then said in his defense, ‘She’s an artist not an axe murderer.’ whatever that’s supposed to mean. That’s when I gave up my wait for the restroom and took care of my business outside. At least the bidding war for pretty boy Marco went fast, furious and done in no time. It’s good to know he’ll be off our hands soon.

Which brings me to Ana, another person I’d like to unload quickly. Things don’t look too promising on that front. The nets had nothing on her. Absolutely nothing. At the very least there should be some obscure, medical article from a century ago about successfully freezing someone without killing them in the process. Nope. From the moment I first laid eyes on that girl I knew she’d be trouble.

Then there’s Blaze.

“So Blaze,” I call. “You wanna tell us about your glory days as an Ultimate Fighter?”

“I’m not talking until I have a lawyer,” he retorts from his position on the couch.
“Fine. I’d be embarrassed if my hero status was based on nothing more than canned fights too.”

That comment lights a fire under his ass. He sits up quick.

“I’d like to see you do a back flip run in the suicide dome, let alone land on the shoulders of the man below!”

“No need to. When I fight I fight to win. No fancy moves required. Nothing choreographed in advance. Shoot to kill. Punch to hit. Stick with the basics. They work for me.”

“Why don’t you come on over here and throw me a punch. We’ll see who hits.” he challenges, as he rises to his feet.

“Don’t have to.” I give him a baby sized jolt from his liberty band. With a tremor the man collapses onto the sofa, then scrambles back onto his feet, green eyes spitting fire. “Ready to talk?” I ask.

“What’s there to tell?” he snaps, “I was an Ultimate Fighter who knew how to invest well. Is it a crime to be in ‘canned’ fights and have a brain too?”

“Invest well?” I repeat. “From what I saw your face was plastered on everything from tee-shirts to toothbrushes.”

“The cash was there for the taking. Now I’ve got enough and plenty to spare.”

“Doubtful,” I reply. “When the stock market crashed in ‘98, everyone lost.”

“Then why am I still here?” he challenges. “Some charity group decided to support me? I’m no idiot. Maintaining those cryo beds can’t be cheap.”

“That, my man, is the question. Who wanted you alive, but out of the way, enough to keep paying the bills? Any ideas?”

Great. The man’s speechless.

“Does the name Shondra ring a bell?” I offer. “She is the mother of your child. Using the tot as leverage, she managed gaining complete control over your estate in less than five years.”

“Why that little bit-”

I hold up my hand. “Don’t besmirch the mother of your child,” I chide. “Besides, she died a few years back from a drug overdose.”

“Died?” gulps Blaze. “What about the baby?”

“Baby?” I repeat. “The man’s nearing thirty and off the grid. No one knows where he is. It doesn’t much matter. Your fortune is gone. Like everyone else, he’s broke.”

Blaze once again collapses on the couch. “What did she name him?”

“Blaze Junior, of course. She used the court case to revive your product sales, referring to her beloved, ‘Blaze Junior,’ as the only reminder that remained of the man she loved.” I finish with dramatic flair.

“I’m a father…” mutters the bewildered man.

The bathroom door rattles. All eyes turn toward the sound. I’m so stunned, my chair slams to the floor. Out saunters Chun Li, gracing us with her presence. The nut job is wearing ten centimeter platform heels, stilts for a woman her size, which are a mash-up of at least three sets of shoes. She’s scaled a pair of balloon slacks down to her tiny proportions, and has donned little more than a cutoff tank top for a shirt, an item which was supposed to be included in the underwear category. To top it all off, her hair is fluffed to such a daunting height that between hair and shoes she’s now nearly fifteen centimeters taller than when she started. I’m speechless.

A devilish grin creeps across the little dictator’s face just before Ana makes her appearance.

When I’m on the job, women aren’t supposed to get to guys like me. I’m a soldier. I’ve been trained to stay focused on the task at hand, nothing else. But when Ana’s eyes meet up with mine, I can’t turn away. My pulse is racing. My breathing’s gone erratic. I’ve never seen anyone look more like… I don’t know… like her. I mean, she was attractive before now even in her pasty, pale, near dead sleeper state. Back then I figured I could handle it.

You see, there is one paramount rule in this business. You never let yourself get attached to anyone, especially when it comes to women. These people are your product. If a girl is attractive, it means more money is headed my way, nothing more. We’ve had plenty of good looking marks. Women use those cryo pods for all kinds of enhancements. I’ll admit, at first, some of them look tempting. Thus far they’ve all turned ugly the second their mouths opened. Women like that are self-centered, manipulative, money mongers. Character traits that make my job easier.

In Ana’s case I wasn’t sure what to expect. From the start, her beauty was a given. It helped when we had to go sloshing through nasty muck, then get caked with mud. None of us looked or smelled so great. But now, the mud is gone. All her crazy blond hair is neatly combed and trimmed, which brings out it’s natural curl even more. She’s wearing my sister’s old prom dress, but the lame rose things are gone. The puffy sleeves have been trimmed to near nothing. It’s perfect. The dress hugs her torso, and is gathered at her waist accentuating her figure just enough, not too much. All the little buttons running down the front from the open, round neckline down to the slit below, practically beg to be undone. She even makes those stupid, dingy white canvas slip-ons look good… And her face… Those eyes turned toward mine… I’m breaking out in a cold sweat just looking at her.

Then it hits me. This is Chun Li kicking off her ransom negotiations. She’s read me like a book, dressing her Ana doll exactly the way I’d want, pushing my buttons. What Ana’s wearing isn’t Chun Li’s standard style. It’s my kind of style. Something to throw me off. Smart. But not smart enough.

“You. Me. In the bedroom. NOW.” I say to the little Chinese woman. Ana begins to blush. She thinks I said it to her. Now I can feel the warmth of my own blush coming on. I grab Chun Li by the arm and drag her with me into the bedroom before anyone sees, then kick the door shut.

“You like my Ana?” says the Little Queen feigning innocense.

“This isn’t about Ana.” I growl at her, “It’s about you. You’ve got I don’t know how many enemies out there waiting to take you down, willing to pay a fortune for your demise and in less than two seconds I could have your name posted for bounty to the highest bidder. Give me one incredible offer now, or you’re on the nets!”

“Go ahead. Post my name.” she answers casually, “Might as well chop my head off now and mail it to the family. Their last offer was over one-hundred million. You’d have a small fortune.”

Could anyone make me more angry? I’m about ready to rip her limb from to limb. Fully aware of my line of thinking, she puts her hand up in a commanding gesture.

“One hundred fifty.” she states, “A fair offer.”

“I’ve seen bounties for you that exceed well over two hundred.” I growl back at her.

“Two hundred million credits for me? I’m flattered. But I’m afraid my offer stands,” She smiles elusively. “Doc is a nice man. I can’t imagine him hurting a fly,” she comments from out of the blue, then pauses to let that piece of information sink in. “You won’t kill me,” she tells me with confidence. “You’re not that kind of man.”

Oh, I’m feeling very close to killing the little minion right now. At the very least, I’d enjoy using the Freedom Band’s manual shocking mechanism on her.

“Where’s the money?” I ask menacingly, “Where do we have to go to access the funds?”

She shifts uncomfortably. Apparently she doesn’t like my questions. I figured as much.

“Manhattan.” she states with an insouciant shrug, trying to make it sound like a simple little metropolis, no out of the ordinary request. We both know the added dangers of reaching her bank in Manhattan. Entering the city is a near death sentence for anyone who can’t afford to buy their own security force and equipment. The last time Doc and I escorted a sleeper into that mess, we barely got out alive. Even after factoring in the huge profit we’d made, we both swore to each other we wouldn’t go back. But if the price is right, just about anything can be reconsidered.

“Two-hundred.” is my reply.

“Two-hundred!” she nearly screams, but catches herself before I can activate the shocking mechanism, “I’m not asking you to take me to Hong Kong!” she scowls.

“Two-hundred,” I answer.

“One-sixty,” she says grudgingly.

“Two-hundred,” I repeat.

“One-eighty,” she retorts with a glint in her eye.

“Two-hundred. Take it or leave it. You know it’s more than fair.” I reply, “I could get more. A lot more from other sources.”

“But you wouldn’t.” she comments defiantly.

I give her my one eyebrow raised glare letting her know she’s walking a fine line. The room is tensely silent as the two of us try to stare each other down. She knows good and well who has the advantage and it isn’t her.

“Alright. You win. Two-hundred.” she concedes as if defeated. There’s nothing defeated about the glint in her eyes.

That was too easy. I think to myself. She’d been ready to pay more. I could kick myself.

“You like my Ana.” she states, barely suppressing a smile.

If she didn’t piss me off so much, I’d almost be impressed. Like an expert she threw me off with that Ana business, made me jump into the negotiation without being mentally prepared and played me like a sucker. I don’t know who I detest more, her or me.

“Out. Now.” I order before I lose control and use her liberty band to shock the living daylights out of her. The proud little woman can no longer suppress her smile, it’s all over her face. Her Royal Highness struts past me on out the door.
Ana

Chun Li comes sauntering out of the bedroom with a satisfied smile plastered all over her face. A minute later Hunter marches out of the room sporting a scowl, with the big gun in his clenched fist. He grumbles something to Doc, then storms toward the door.

After his strange reaction to me a few minutes ago, I’m probably the last person he wants to see. It’s mortifying the way I first assumed he was ordering me into the bedroom. But I’m standing in the little kitchen eating my can of stew right next to the cabin’s only exit. So on his way out, he stops dead in his tracks when he sees me. For a split second there’s an unguarded kind of shock on his face, then the thunderous expression he had returns growing ten times more fierce. I want to melt into the floor. He hates me. The door opens then slams shut behind him, which makes me jump.

“Calm down.” sighs Chun Li, dragging out the word ‘down’ in a casual manner. She comes over to me somehow maintaining her balance in the odd shoe creation she’s wearing, to retrieve her can of victuals, “He’ll be okay soon.”

“He hates me,” I whisper back at her. She laughs. It’s a haughty kind of sound that dies once she sees the disappointing can of stew. Without a second thought she pops the top off her can. I cringe, waiting for her to drop the thing the way I did because of the sudden, burst of heat from the self warming can. Instead she leaves it on the counter, stirring it intermittently with her spoon.

“Your fingers get burned?” she asks with mirth in her eyes.

“Maybe.” I answer without conceding.

Marco steps out of the steamy bathroom wearing a pair of low slung jeans and nothing more. He’s rubbing his head with a towel to get the moisture out of his hair. Chun Li stares at him with unguarded admiration. I look away at first, but then glance back. I can’t help myself. He’s magnificent. The muscles of his torso are so well defined I could draw lines with my finger through the indentations. My eyes slide from his powerful arms and perfect pecs to his incredible abs on down to the low line of his jeans. All of that perfection attached to his beautiful face is an amazing sight to behold. I shiver, find that I’m breathing deeply, and turn away before he sees me blushing.

“Anybody see my shirt?” he asks, like he has no idea that Chun Li and I have been ogling him.

“You know perfectly well your shirt is on the couch.” says Chun Li as she waltzes right up to him. He rolls his eyes at her like she’s making something out of nothing. She stands in front of him, blocking his way to the shirt. He steps to one side. She steps the same way. He tries the other side. She follows.

“Do you mind?” he asks, clearly flattered but also frustrated. Finally she steps aside gesturing with an open arm like he’s been welcome to pass at any time. He drops the towel onto the couch and pulls the shirt on. I don’t know how an act so simple as pulling on a shirt can be so arousing, but all those muscles flexing with elegant ease is enough to make me melt. There’s a huge smile on Chun Li’s face. She’s enjoyed the show immensely.

“Shower’s all yours Blaze,” announces Marco as he makes his way around the couch where he’s stashed a pair of socks and some boots similar to the ones Hunter wears. He looks good, far too good for any one man. He’s only eighteen. I remind myself, then wonder what kind of magnificent specimen he’ll be in five years. Once again I get the shivers.

“You eat yet?” I ask as I make my way toward the couch, cooled stew can in my hand.

“We had more than enough time to eat while the two of you were in the bathroom,” he comments.

“Sorry,” I reply.

Chun Li had insisted on being in the bathroom while I showered and vice versa. The woman is impossibly stubborn.

“Top button undone,” she’d ordered as soon as I was dressed. “Bottom two unfastened too.” Then she’d gazed in the mirror, a satisfied smile on her face.

“Is that really me?” I’d asked. “I mean, it’s been a long time since I saw myself before the cancer. It seems like the basics are right, but my eyelashes are dark, not blond like my hair. My skin’s flawless. I think my eyes might even be more blue. What happened to me?”

“Ever since the genetics revolution, the primary purpose of Cryo units has been for cosmetic enhancements,” she’d answered with a shrug. “They’re hardwired to make basic improvements. Look at me. How old would you say I am? Mid to late thirties? I’m fifty-two.”

“Are you okay?” says Marco directly into my ear, shaking me back to the present. “You seem a little distressed.” My nerves are immediately on edge. He’s close. Too close.

“I’m fine.” I stand up under the premise of getting rid of my empty can. From across the way, Chun Li and Blaze, each lounging on their cots, are watching ‘The Marco and Ana Show.’ At least Doc has the decency to act disinterested. But now that I’ve reached the little kitchen I’m standing in the corner not knowing where the can and my spoon are supposed to go. Suddenly I sense someone behind me, a caressing warmth breathing down my neck.

“Let me take that for you.” says Marco in a husky voice. As he reaches for the can from behind, his body surrounds mine. I can’t breathe. His head is just above mine, our cheeks nearly touching. Apparently he has no inhibitions about being in front of an audience when it comes to this… kind of stuff. Against my will there’s a replay running through my mind of him sauntering out of the bathroom in shirtless perfection. I don’t notice where he deposits the can. His lips graze the side of my face.

“Oh Ana…” he whispers. “I’m going to take you away from here.”
My heart rate is through the roof. I can’t deal with this any more. I duck underneath his arm and head across the room to escape before it’s too late.

“Shouldn’t you be in the shower Blaze?” asks Doc. “I’d like to feel clean sometime in the near future.”

Blaze rolls his eyes before heading for the bathroom.

“Ana,” adds Doc, “why don’t you do me the favor of playing a game of cards. We can play war. I’ll even let you beat me if you’d like.” He smiles up at me with a quick wink. Overwhelmed with relief I slip into one of the four chairs set around the table. “Chun Li?” asks Doc pleasantly, “Marco? You’re more than welcome to join us.”

Marco’s got a sly smile on his face. He knows he’s the reason why I’m jittery. Girls probably turn to mush for him all the time. He slides into the chair on my left then gives me a sidelong glance that sends shivers down my spine. The whole situation makes me nervous. I can’t look at him. Instead I focus on Doc who’s dealing out four sets of cards.
Chun Li lets out a resigned sigh, before marching over to the table.

“War,” she says disdainfully before she sits. “War is for children. Poker is the only game worth playing.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’ve dealt the cards for that very game,” comments Doc with a toothy grin.

 

Ghost

From outside the little cabin looks deserted. Now that night has fallen, the camouflaged windows have been activated to block out the light. I watch from high above, perched on the branch of a pine tree. The big man, his rifle against his back, is walking from one booby trap to another, making sure everything’s in order and secure. He dumped the van a while ago, covering the tracks when he returned. Wise. One can never be too cautious when playing his kind of game.

The drones are still out there. They remain a constant threat. Earlier today one the size of an insect flew onto the truck they ‘borrowed.’ I smashed it before it could latch on to the old van. That’s the nice thing about the little drones: if you can get at them, they’re easy to crush. At this point the group’s not likely to be discovered until they leave. On the way here they drove underneath the cover of the trees where satellites wouldn’t be able to pinpoint them. But they won’t be able to keep that up forever.

I settle myself against the rough bark of the pine, straining just a little against the leather strap that holds me in place. A fall from this height would be deadly. It’s going to be a long night. I might as well get a little sleep. Any raiders won’t show for a few hours. Besides, the man below has that situation under control. Things, however, will change fast when the drones return. I must be prepared. So for now, I sleep.
Ana

I’m in a dark place when it begins. There’s music in the air, a sad requiem that entices me forward. The sound leads me into a graveyard. Pillars and effigies of angel’s wings stand frozen, unable to comfort or bring peace. Like a choir behind the notes I already hear, voices begin calling my name.

“Ana… Ana… Ana….”

I stumble into a mass of rotted leaves. My hand lands on a smooth square of stone buried beneath rotting debris. All I can see is the name chiseled into it’s face:

Ana Louise Livingston

A memory is triggered.

I’m in the hospital. My two best friends have arrived, introducing me to their new baby girl.

“We named her after you Ana,” says Zina.

Me. They’d named her after me.

“She already has the world’s best parents,” added Eric. “We had to think of a namesake equally awesome. What do you think?”

Tears are in my eyes. I scarcely have the strength to hold the infant, yet they insist that I hold her for a moment. There we are, birth and death entwined.

Am I sprawled across little Ana’s grave? Has history twisted upon itself, giving me life and her death?

“Ana… Ana… Ana…”

Something’s wrong. Somehow I know little Ana and I aren’t who or where we are supposed to be. The essence of nature has been insulted. Along with that realization, the music that enticed me into this place takes a sinister turn. The chords become dissonant and piercing.

“Ana… Ana… Ana…”

I try to run, but find I can’t even stand. Vines rise from the blackened dirt, reaching up from the grave. They twist around my ankles, wrists, and hands until the fierce tendrils have my fingers forced against the ground.

My fingers.

“Please…” I beg. “Please…” I’m so filled with fear and desperation, tears are in my eyes. The thing from below cannot be human. It’s indifference to my pleas is worse than it’s strangling hold. There is no escape. There is no hope.

“Ana…”

“No!” I gasp in terror at the sound of my name.

“Ana…”

“Let me go!”

“Ana!”

The word is whispered, harsh, right against my ear.

“Wake up!”

My eyes open in shock. The room is dark. It takes me a moment to realize where I am. The hospital room I expect is gone. Instead I’m in the cabin on the couch, the short end of the ‘L.’ My hands are pinned down, clamped in one of my captor’s hands against my chest. Another hand is ready to close over my mouth – again. I look up at the face that’s bare inches from mine and I’m terrified all over again. It’s Hunter.

 

Hunter

Ana’s eyes are wild when they open. In the dim light I watch as she remembers where she is. Even though her heart continues to race, her body stills. Then she sees me. A new kind of fear takes control. Her muscles tense all over again. Right. To her I’m the bad guy. I let out an aggravated breath.

“You and I are going to get up and walk to the bathroom,” I whisper. “Nod if you understand.”

She nods. My one free hand slides down her back, urging her up and onward. As soon as the bathroom door is closed the light comes on. We both squint our eyes against the glare. Once she realizes her hands are free, she rubs her wrists, then like a cornered animal, backs herself into the opposite end of the room.

“It’s all right,” I say softly. “You had a nightmare.”

She stares at me with fearful eyes. Am I really that terrifying?

“Who are Derrick and Tina? You were calling out their names.”

She gives me a completely puzzled expression.

“Derrick and Tina?” she repeats, like I’m the one who’s out of their mind. Then some kind of comprehension dawns on her. “You must mean Eric and Zina. We grew up together.”

“They were in your dream?”

“The three of us are…” she stops herself. “…were… best friends. We took music lessons together.” She pauses to glance down at her hands. “Not long before I became sick, Eric and Zina got married. They had a baby that they named after me. Ana Louise Livingston.” A slight smile slips onto her face then fades. “I saw her gravestone in the dream. Something wasn’t right.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. None of it makes sense.”

“And you were fighting me off because…” I try to evoke a response.

“I was fighting with you?”

“Why else would I pin down your hands?” My voice sounds sharper than I expected. Once again I let out an aggravated breath. “You feel like you could go back to sleep?”

She slowly nods and starts walking toward me. The closer she gets, the faster my heart beats. It’s a small bathroom. When I don’t step aside, she stops. Our bodies are bare centimeters from each other. I can smell the lavender shampoo in her hair. Stronger still is an aroma, something soft and delicious I’d like very much to taste, that can only be Ana.

For the briefest of moments her eyes meet mine.

“I’m sorry I woke you,” she says sincerely. A slight smile slips onto her face. “I’ll try not to let it happen again.”

“Good luck with that,” I answer, allowing myself a small smile in return, then dim the lights in preparation to open the door. Still I can’t bring myself to move. Her face is turned up toward mine. There in the dark it’s like I’m drawn to her like a magnet, unable to resist the natural pull. Without even thinking I find my head dipping down toward hers. Our lips are on the brink of contact when she suddenly turns away.

I can’t believe I just made a fool of myself. What was I thinking? She saved me from making a big mistake and like an idiot I’m disappointed. This girl is going to be the death of me. Like I should have done in the first place, I step aside, open the door and let her go.

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