Kira gripped the glass beaker tightly in her fist.
"I hate him."
She hurled the tube as hard as she could, forcing it to shatter against the stone wall.
That felt good.
"Stupid old man," she said, picking up another from the floor - a secret, pilfered stash of "stress reducers" she kept in this back corridor.
She let another one fly.
If she had to destroy everything in this godforsaken, sunless place, she would.
She grabbed two at a time now, and smashed them on the floor, cursing. Then she picked up a particularly big one. She went over to the nearby stairwell and lobbed it down to the floor below. Ahh.
Then she heard the voice.
"Hey," it called from below. "*Hey*!"
She froze. That wasn't the old man's voice. She crept down the first two steps.
"What are you *doing*?" the voice asked.
She could see his feet, but nothing else. She descended further, slowly. He stepped forward, too, until he was in her sight. She drew back. He wasn't much older than she was.
He took a step up.
"No, don't come up here," she said.
He squinted into the dark stairway. She realized that he couldn't see her.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said. "I just.... Are you OK?"
"I'm not hurt," she said. "I'm just... pissed."
He paused. "Why?"
"Because I *hate* this place," she whispered audibly. She stepped down a little more. "Is he there with you?"
He looked over to the side. "The Doctor? No, he's in the other room."
She continued down until the light hit her, and she was visible. His expression changed at once, from confusion to intrigue.
"Wha...." He stared at her. "What are you *doing* here?"
She sat down on one of the steps. "He thinks I'm his granddaughter."
"What, you're not?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "My mother told me her father was insane, so I *could* be." She looked up at him. "What are *you* doing here?"
"I'm here to see the Doctor," he said.
He smiled. "Oh yeah?"
She nodded. "Yeah. He's insane. I wouldn't let him touch you, if I were you."
He leaned against the doorway. "Well, he saved my life."
"Hm..." She thought for a moment. "Then I'd be *really* scared."
He laughed. "I don't scare easily."
"You must not." She smiled at him, and looked away. She wasn't sure if she was reading him correctly, but it felt like he was flirting with her.
It was the old man. Kira gasped, and scrambled up the stairs.
"Hey, wait!" Joe called.
"I haven't got all day," the doctor said, eyeing the broken glass on the floor. "Who did this?" He looked up the stairway. "Sakira!"
He scowled. "Was she throwing things at you?"
Joe shook his head. "She didn't know I was here."
"She's an insolent child," the Doctor said. "If she bothers you again, just ignore her."
Joe shrugged. "She wasn't bothering me at all," he said, almost grinning.
Dr. Rafael eyed him. "You'd do well not to be tempted by every pretty young thing that comes along." He nodded towards the stairwell. "It's a sign of weakness."
Joe rolled his eyes and looked away. "It's a sign of being human, if you ask me."
"I didn't." the Doctor motioned Joe to the table. "And besides," he said, "humanity can be *highly* overrated."
Kira *hated* the laboratory. It gave her the creeps. But she had been duped into staying here and learning all this cybernetic stuff.
That boy had *better* come back, she thought.
"We're going to start off very basic," the doctor said, pulling a sheet off a young, apparently dead, body.
Kira gasped. "Is he *real*?"
The doctor smiled. "Of course he's real .... You shouldn't get squeamish. It's no good, in this line of work."
"Where did you *get* him?"
"Oh, this one drowned." He admired the corpse. "So he's absolutely pristine."
"You can't just *take* people's bodies.... what about their families?"
"Oh, he's much better off here. They'd just put him in a box and bury him... or, worse, *burn* him." He shook his head. "Waste, waste... and of one so young."
She looked around the lab uncomfortably. "So, you're going to bring him back to life?"
"This one," he said, "Is for studying. We can use his tissue. He's been dead too long to be revived... I'm not God, you know."
She rolled her eyes. "Right."
"Everything in the human body has a purpose... and all of it can be perfected." He looked around, then grabbed a glass jar from a nearby table.
Kira stared at the contents. A human heart, floating in solution. She made a face.
"Is that real?"
The doctor exhaled. "Everything here is real, child," he said. "*Everything*."
She looked at it. "OK, well... who did you yank this out of?"
"Actually," he said, "this one came from your friend..."
"What, the one who was here yesterday?"
He nodded. "And it's perfect."
"You took out his *heart*?" She shook her head. "I don't understand. How can he *live*?"
The Doctor shook his finger at her. "You have to learn to think about anatomy differently.... Cybernetics isn't about *this* organ or *that* organ being required to live. It's much simpler. And much more complex."
"So he doesn't have any of his real organs?"
"Oh, he has some of them."
She crossed her arms. "Well, if his *heart* was so perfect, why did you replace it?"
"You're not listening, Sakira," he said sternly. "Are you going to question everything, or are you going to listen?"
"I just don't get it is all - "
"Sometimes you need to change the structure of things to make them more useful. The issue was not that the organ wasn't useful to begin with, but that it wasn't serving the *purpose*... "
He looked at her. "Must you be so contemptuous?"
"Well, why do you *do* this to people?"
"It's not for you to question why."
"But how am I supposed to understand the process if I don't know why?"
"It will all come, in time. There's an order to things. And now is not the time for you to be questioning my motives."
Kira had almost given up. She'd been out there practically since dawn, waiting for him. But with her days filled with dissections and diagrams and lectures (half of which concerned her attitude), she didn't mind the change of scenery. It was almost pretty, from the outside, so silent and open. Still, she was beginning to wonder if her grandfather had been lying when he told her that the boy he called Joe - or "267", depending on his mood - was supposed to come back that morning.
Then she heard it. It was a motor, definitely. She got up and looked in the direction of the sound, but it cut off, and she couldn't see anything. She had found a good spot, about one story's height over the ground in the rocks, to sit and watch. She heard footsteps, and found herself crouching behind a stone.
*This is crazy,* she thought. *He's going to think I'm as insane as the old man.*
She watched as he walked closer, and wondered what she should say. Maybe she should just say nothing and go in and pretend she was never out here, waiting.
Her hand slipped, sending a tiny avalanche of stones down the side.
He looked up, alarmed, then immediately recognized her. "Hey," he said, "It's you again." He smiled.
She waved sheepishly.
"You're into this prowling around thing, aren't you?"
She stood up. "What else is there to do around here?"
"Hm." He looked around. "Not a lot, I guess."
She started trying to climb down, but lost her footing right away. She caught herself and pulled herself up again.
"Hey, you gotta be *careful* -"
"I'm all right..."
"Well, don't try and climb down here, you'll kill yourself."
She looked down at him, and shrugged.
"Seriously...." He inspected the rock, and, before she even realized he was going to *try* to climb up, he was standing beside her.
She looked up at him from her crouched position. "Well, that was pretty cool."
He shrugged. "I've been trained for that kind of thing."
"Oh," she said. "Still...."
He put his hand out. "I'm Joe, by the way," he said.
She smiled, and stood up to grasp his hand. "I know. My grandfather's always talking about you."
"What's your name again? Sakira"
She shuddered. "Call me Kira."
He looked around. "So you're stuck here all the time?"
She nodded. "Yep."
"That kinda sucks."
"Yeah - and look who I'm stuck with... it's like The Shining."
There was a sound below. Joe leaned over and checked it out.
"It's your grandfather," he said.
"Are you out here, Joe?" the old man called, looking around.
She rolled her eyes.
Joe looked at her. "Do you think he'd be pissed if he saw us up here?" he asked.
Kira smiled. "I thought you weren't afraid of anything," she said.
"Yeah, but... he's gonna have me strapped to a table in about five minutes..."
"Even so, I think you could take him." She stood next to him. "He can't see us from there, anyway..."
"I know.... Let's wait till he goes in."
He looked at her for a moment. "Does he *ever* let you out of here?"
She looked around, and shrugged. "Where would I go? I have no way of leaving... I don't *know* anybody..."
"You need to get out. I'd go crazy if I had to stay in one place all the time. Especially here."
"Where did you live before?"
"Boarding school. I was sort trapped there, too, but at least I had friends, and we *did* stuff..."
"Did you ever go to the racetrack?" he asked.
"You mean horses?"
He smiled. "No, the speedway. Cars. I race cars."
"Well, not as much as I used to - actually, I haven't been in awhile, but I try to go when I can."
"You should come some time."
She blinked. "When?"
He shrugged. "Anytime. You really want to go?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I'd love to go..."
"OK, then... I'll come out and get you. I was thinking about going on Saturday."
"That sounds good."
He nodded. "All right, then." He turned and peered over the side. "Just keep in mind that I keep a pretty weird schedule. I get called a lot."
He turned back to her. "He's gone back in," he said. "I think I'll go down and head in."
"Yeah," she said pointing behind her. "I'm going in over here..."
He nodded. "Are you going to be *around* or..."
"Yes, I'll be there." She rolled her eyes. "I'm in 'training,' now..."
"All right. Cool. I'll see you in a few minutes, then." He smiled at her, and disappeared over the edge.
Jun looked up from her magazine as Joe walked into the J. It was only 2:00, earlier than he usually stopped in, and the place was nearly empty.
"If you're looking for Ken, I haven't seen him, " she said.
"I'm not looking for Ken," he said, taking the stool in front of her. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you."
She looked at him. "Really? What did you want to talk to me about?"
"Well..." he said, "I asked out that girl."
She smiled. "You did? That's great! She said yes?"
He nodded. "We're going out Saturday."
"That's *great*. Where are you taking her?"
"Just to the track."
She nodded slowly. "Oh."
"It sounds cheesy, but she seems into it."
She thought for a moment. "Actually, I think it's good. It's a comfort zone, it's open..."
"It's not romantic, but I don't wanna make her feel like there's all this pressure..."
She nodded. "I think it's good." She narrowed her eyes at him. "You're not nervous, are you?"
"I'm not *nervous*," he said. "But I really like her. It's sort of a weird situation, and... I don't want to burn any bridges with Rafael, but I like her." He looked at the counter.
"Well, I'm sure you'll have fun."
"Mmm..." he looked at her. "So, Jun..."
"What?" she asked suspiciously.
"What do you look for in a guy?"
She blinked. "Me? I don't know..."
"I mean, besides *Ken*... what do you look for generally?"
"I don't look for *Ken* - "
"I look for..." she thought. "I guess honesty... loyalty ... strength...." She looked at Joe, who listened intently. "A sense of humor is good."
"And someone who's kind, gentle - "
"Gentle how? Like physically?"
Jun stopped. "Joe," she said, "you don't need me to tell you how to act. Just be yourself."
"Be myself," he huffed.
"She obviously likes you, too - "
"Yeah, she likes me... she doesn't *know* me."
"Well, *I* know you. I don't see any reason why she wouldn't like you."
"C'mon, Jun, I'm a total *case*..."
"Well, maybe what you need is someone like her to balance things out..."
He sighed. "Maybe. Although I should mention that she was breaking things when I met her... "
Jun tilted her head. "Oh, Joe..."
"No, she's cool... she's just got it hard, living in that place with just Dr. Rafael."
She sighed. "Do you want my advice?"
"That's what I came here for."
"Don't worry about what you think she wants or expects from you. If she doesn't like you for who you are -"
"I know, I know..."
"Well, it's true."
The door opened, and Ken walked in.
"Hey... what are you doing here so early?" he asked, looking at Joe.
"Hey," Joe said. "Just talking with Jun."
"Oh?" He looked from to Joe to Jun, then back to Joe.
"Joe got a date with the girl he was talking about," Jun said.
"You're kidding," Ken said. "The Doctor's daughter?"
"She's his *granddaughter*," Joe said. "And we're just hanging out."
"Doesn't she live like way out in the middle of nowhere?"
"I don't know..."
"That doesn't matter to me..."
"No, I guess not," Ken said. He nodded towards Jun. "Can I have a soda?"
"Sure," Jun said. "Let me see your money first." She glanced at Joe, and smiled.
"Aw," Ken said, digging in his pocket. "You are a cold, cold woman, Jun."
Joe stood up, and held out his hand to Ken. "I gotta get going."
Ken looked at him. "You're leaving already?"
"Yeah. I have stuff to do."
"Oh. OK." He grasped Joe's hand. "See you later, then. Come back tonight, we can shoot some stick."
"'K..." Joe turned to leave. "Thanks, Jun," he called.
"Anytime," she said.
"Ugh," Ryu groaned, "Why do we have to sit in the nosebleed section?"
"I told you," Ken said, lowering his binoculars, "we're not supposed to be here."
"Look at all the empty seats," Jinpei whined. "This *sucks*!"
"Yeah, Ken," said Ryu. "You didn't say anything about hiding out..."
Ken scanned the crowd. "I didn't force you two to come with me."
"I thought we were going to have *fun*," Jinpei said.
"Will you stop whining?" Ken said. "Dammit, I don't see anything..."
"Let me see," Ryu said.
Ken handed the binoculars over grudgingly. "You should have brought your own..."
"What's the big deal?" Jinpei asked. "So Joe sees us. So what?"
"Because Jun told me specifically not to come here today," Ken said.
"Aw, who cares if Joe has a girlfriend, anyway?" Jinpei said. "She's probably stupid and bunk like the rest of them."
"Ooooh," Ryu said, "She's *cute*!"
Ken perked up. "Did you find them?"
"Ryu," Ken said, "you're supposed to be looking for Joe and the girl..."
"Pfft!" Ryu looked at him. "You're the one spying, not me. I'll look at what *I* want to and -"
"Give me those!" Ken grabbed the binoculars out of Ryu's hand. He glared at him. "What's the matter with you?"
"Jeez, Ken, lighten up...."
"Let me see!" Jinpei said. "I'll look for them!"
Ken sighed. "Oh, what's the use," he said, handing them to the kid. "They're not here. But I don't understand why he'd lie to *Jun* -"
"Maybe 'cause he knows she's got a big mouth," Jinpei offered.
"Maybe they were *going* to come here, Ken," Ryu said, "But they got held up." He elbowed Ken. "If you know what I mean..."
"Yeah," Jinpei agreed. "Maybe they got caught in traffic."
Ryu nodded. "Yeah," he said. "'Traffic,' if you know what I mean..."
"Forget it," Ken said, shaking his head. "Let's just go..."
"Well, if they're not here, why can't we stay and watch the races?" Ryu asked. "From a decent place?"
"Hey, if *you* want to..."
"Well, we both rode here with *you*..."
"Hey wait - " Jinpei said, standing up. "I see 'em!"
Ken looked at Jinpei, then at Ryu. "You see them? Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I see 'em! They're talking to some guy..."
"Let me see..." Ken took the binoculars. "Where?"
"There," Jinpei pointed, "By the pit there... see?"
Ken paused, searching. "Well, I'll be damned..."
"What does she look like?" Ryu asked, squinting to make them out.
"Pretty stupid, to me," Jinpei said.
"She's... not bad," Ken said. "Stacked, which is typical...."
"Gimme those," Ryu said, yanking the binoculars from Ken. He looked. "Hey... 'not bad'? Ken, she's a beauty!" He watched for a minute. "Let's go meet her."
"We're not going to go meet her," Ken said, "You're missing the whole *point*"
Ryu lowered the specs. "Hey, nobody told *me* I wasn't allowed to be here..."
"What do you think, she's gonna want to date you?" Ken said, his voice rising.
"Maybe I just want to meet her because she seems like a nice girl - "
"How can you *tell*?"
"- and because - well, because, Ken, she's Joe's friend, and a friend of his -"
"Ryu, if you go down there, so help me God..."
"You guys need to shut up," Jinpei said. "Jeez. This sucks so bad..."
Ryu sat down. "So, basically, we're going to sit here *all day* and take turns watching them through binoculars -"
"We wouldn't have to if you guys had brought yours..."
"What? Are we going to follow them when they leave, too?"
Ken paused. "No..."
Ryu threw his hands up in disgust. "Jinpei, let's go get something to eat."
Joe leaned over the fence. The sound of the motors was deafening, but he was trying to yell over it anyway.
"Moke... hey, *Moke*!..." Joe waved an arm at the young mechanic, but he was oblivious.
"Who is that guy?" Kira yelled.
"Old friend of mine," he shouted. He leaned forward again and let out a high-pitched whistle. The mechanic turned, looking somewhat annoyed, then shocked. He motioned for the driver to cut off his engine, and walked towards the, his jaw hanging.
"Joe? Is that really you?" he asked.
"What's up, man?" Joe said.
"Joe - I don't believe it! I - we were hearing so many stories, we thought we'd never see you again!" He grabbed Joe's extended hand.
"Well, here I am."
"God... well, you look *great*," Moke said.
"So do you," Joe said. He looked around. "Wow, I really miss this place...."
"We miss *you*," Moke said. "So, when are you going to come back and race again?"
Joe smiled "I don't know...."
"We'll hook you up with everything, anything you want, no charge.... You still got old number two?"
"Don't drive her anymore," Joe said.
Moke shook his head. "We all figured you'd die in that car...."
Joe nodded apprehensively, and looked at Kira, who smiled at him.
He put his hand on her back. "This is my friend Kira, by the way," he said. "Kira, this is Moke. Great mechanic - fastest guy you've ever seen."
Moke shrugged. "Well, I try...." He winked, and held his hand out to Kira.
"Nice to meet you," she said, shaking his hand.
"No, no, the pleasure is mine," Moke said, smiling. "This guy you've got here is a legend, did you know that?"
He glanced at Joe. "So, is this why you're not racing anymore?" he asked.
Joe smiled sheepishly. "Not exactly," he said. "I've been real busy with other stuff."
Moke nodded. The engine behind him began to roar again. He put his hand up. "Well, good luck to you!" He shouted.
"You too!" Joe yelled.
"Come back and see us!"
Moke stepped backward. "Nice meeting you!" he shouted, giving Kira a quick salute.
She waved, and looked at Joe. He motioned for them to go up into the stands.
Once they got far enough to hear each other, they sat down in the bleachers.
"Sorry about that," Joe said. "You probably have a headache now... sometimes I forget how loud it gets...."
She shook her head. "No, it didn't bother me at all," she said. "I just - I can't yell that loud..."
"Sometimes you just have to forget about talking down there." He looked at her. "I hope he didn't make you feel uncomfortable."
"He didn't. Why?"
"I don't know... he was sort of just assuming we were a couple."
"Oh...." She paused. "I didn't mind."
He nodded slowly, and looked out at the track. "I didn't mind either..."
She looked around. "This is really cool," she said. "So this is where you used to race?"
He nodded. "All the time. I raced all over. This was my favorite, though, I think." He squinted into the crowd. "Oh, I don't believe it..."
He pointed. "You see those two over there? The big, goofy guy bickering with the runty kid?"
She laughed. "No... where -"
He leaned in close to her and pointed again. "See..."
"Oh, yeah... what about them?"
"Those are two of my best friends, believe it or not."
"Yeah, and I strongly doubt it's a coincidence that they're here." He looked around. "I *know* Ken's here, too... " He looked back at Ryu and Jinpei, who were feigning surprise at spotting Joe. He held up his hand. "'Hey," he said, mocking them in a voice only Kira could hear, "oh my god, look who's here...'"
Kira chuckled. "Too funny... they're checking to make sure I'm good enough for you?" she asked.
He looked at her. "They're checking because they're nosy and have nothing better to do." He smiled. "Just take everything they say with a huge grain of salt..."
Ryu bounded up the steps with Jinpei close behind. "Hey, Joe, buddy, what's happening?"
"Oh, you know... just hangin' out..."
"We didn't expect to see you here!"
"Oh really?" Joe said. "Where's Ken?"
Ryu pretended to look confused. "Ken?"
"Yeah, you know, about my height, dark hair, a pain in the ass..."
"Oh, *Ken*..." Ryu said. "I thought you said *ten*..."
Joe laughed. "Give it up, man..."
Ryu put his free hand up. "Hey, it wasn't my idea..." He looked at Kira. "Hi, how's it going? I'm Ryu."
She nodded. "Hi."
"I'd shake your hand but it's covered in grease."
Jinpei waved an ice cream-covered hand at her. "I'm Jinpei," he said. "So how come you wanna be Joe's girlfriend?"
Joe covered his face with his hand.
"Jinpei, shut up!" Ryu said, elbowing him.
Joe sighed. "You guys ever hear of first impressions?"
Kira was unfazed. "I'm Kira. It's nice to meet you," she said, smiling. "I've heard a lot about you."
"Really?" Jinpei asked. "We heard a *lot* about you, too!"
Joe narrowed his eyes at Jinpei. "No you *didn't*," he said.
"Sure we did," Jinpei said, "It's like all you ever -"
"Jinpei!" Joe stood up and glared down at him.
"Come on," Ryu said, grabbing the kid's arm. "Ix-nay, already..." He looked at Kira. "It was really nice to meet you," he said, dragging Jinpei away.
"Same here," she said, smiling.
Joe sat down, pissed. "I'm sorry," he said. "That kid is *so* slapped the next time I see him."
"It's OK," she said. "I like meeting your friends. You don't have to keep apologizing, I'm having a great time."
He looked at her. "Really?" He asked. "Because it's not exactly going how I wanted it to..."
She leaned back, propping herself on the seat behind her. "Well, it's the best day *I've* had in a long time." She glanced at him, and caught him admiring her. She smiled. "The *best*."
One nice thing about his new machine was that it could be driven anywhere: on land, in the air, and, most conveniently for reaching the island where Kira lived with the doctor, on water. The downside was that its design was about as subtle as a drag queen on Halloween. It wasn't to be used off-duty, really; Nambu had hooked him up with a decent roadster, which he *would* have used, of course, except that there was no way to drive it to the island. The motor boat could get him there, but it was noisy as hell. So he covered the G2 in black plastic and duct-taped it down. A crude disguise, but it worked. Better yet, when it was set on hover mode, it was nearly silent. The only real pain in the ass was ditching it back in the city - there was no way he was driving it on the street - for his regular car.
Kira had asked surprisingly few questions about the machine, which was good, because it kept him from being in the position where he had to decide just how much to tell her. He didn't want to hide things from her, but it was against his general better judgment to divulge too much. She knew he was on a Special Forces team. She might have known, through her grandfather, that it was the KNT, but he didn't ask, and it didn't come up.
As the afternoon wore on, the crowds of beer-gutted car experts, their big- haired wives and screaming kids thinned out. By 5:00, all the big races were over and only the stragglers, groupies, and die-hards remained. Joe never did see Ken, but, then, makinghimself unseen was something Ken did best. It didn't matter, really; if anything, once he knew he was there, Joe was a little disappointed that he hadn't shown himself and said hello.
The nervousness, for the most part, was gone. The first kiss had happened, quite spontaneously, about an hour earlier, when, for the first time since they'd gotten there, they seemed to be alone. Or, at least, they weren't surrounded by race fans on every side. It had been a nice, long kiss, the kind Kira had been imagining, and, now that it was done, everything seemed more relaxed. Now they could touch - he slid his arm around her shoulders, she squeezed his hand, his arm, his knee. It drove him crazy, but he played it cool: he had no intention of bedding her today. Not yet. Rushing into things had proven unlucky for him in the past; he was counting on this time to be different.
The conversation, for the most part, was surprisingly easy. They talked about things they liked- a novel idea for Joe, so used to discussing the things he most definitely did *not* like. No shop talk. Just nice, ordinary conversation. Hardly anything had caught him off guard, except for a few minor "relationship" questions.
Like when she stared at the track intently and casually asked, "Do you have a lot of girlfriends?"
He paused. "What? Now?" he asked. "No, I haven't had a girlfriend in a long time. None at all since your grandfather's 'operation'."
Actually, that wasn't really true. He'd been with one woman since his life had been saved, but it had been a disaster. One night, shortly after leaving Dr. Rafael's care, he had been feeling so lonely for his friends that he spent a whole evening sitting at some bar, drowning his sorrows in whiskeys and beer. The woman making eyes at him was attractive enough to catch his attention. He declined her offer of a dance; he accepted an invitation to her room. The combination of alcohol, and a body he was still getting used to (not to mention skin that was still unusually insensitive), made for really lousy sex, and he lost interest before either of them had gotten any satisfaction. The woman - he couldn't remember her name now - had been deeply insulted by it all, promptly kicking him out with a stream of expletives.
Definitely not worth mentioning.
"Why do you ask?"
"I don't know," she said. "I thought maybe you did."
He shrugged. It was probably better to change the subject. He really hadn't paid too much attention to other girls - he still looked, sure, but he didn't *pursue* them - since he'd met her. But telling her that seemed corny, and encouraging her curiosity about the subject by talking about other girls would invariably lead to a discussion about the other guys *she'd* seen. And he had no desire to hear about that.
"Well, I don't," he said. Then, to make sure that was the end of it, he leaned over and kissed her again.
She got the point.
Dr. Rafael was beside himself. He was used to his granddaughter wandering off and lurking in one of her favorite hiding places on the island, but he was beginning to think she was gone. As crude as the laboratory looked, every room, every section of the building was monitored, as was the outside, as far as the ruins. He hadn't been paying attention most of the day, too busy to keep tabs on the girl. He wanted to teach her every day, but he had granted her, after much whining, a day to herself. She *had* been working hard, finally, and she deserved it. It also gave him a chance to work on the implant he was working on for his most crucial subject. Kira had taken a liking to the boy, and he didn't want to upset her by working on it in her presence, just as things seemed to be moving along.
Then it occurred to him: Joe. A chill ran through him. If she really had left the island, he could think of no other way for her to do it than with him. Would he actually be so stupid as to permanently take her away from him? He didn't think so. But Joe was certainly human enough to have that sort of lapse in judgment, even if only for a short while.
A light blinked on his monitor, indicating an intruder outside. He pressed the remote, switching on an outside camera. He searched the terrain until he saw the girl. She was alone, but that was hardly enough to prove that she hadn't been with him. Between the two of them, they knew that island - and the limitations of his monitor system - inside out. He stood up and waited for her to come in.
She hadn't really expected to elude him. She expected him to be outside somewhere with his gaslight - who used gaslights anymore? - and that awful bird circling over her, screeching. She was almost worried when she didn't see them. Still, she jumped when he popped out in front of her as she entered the cavernous hallway.
"Where have you been?" he asked, sternly.
She exhaled. "I was over by the ruins," she said. Joe had dropped her off there. It wasn't a total lie.
If he had doubted whether Kira had left the island before, the hesitation in her voice left none. "Don't lie to me," he said. "You *left* the island, didn't you?"
"I *told* you - "
"Don't try to outsmart me," he said, cutting her off. "It won't work."
She tried to get by him, but he blocked her, grabbing her shoulder. She glared at him.
"You're not to see Joe outside of the laboratory," he said.
She looked at him, defiant. "Tough," she said, before realizing she was confirming his suspicions.
He gripped her shouders tightly.
"Get off!" she protested.
"Listen to me," he said. "You will not see him again. You don't understand the gravity - "
"I don't *care*," she said.
He stopped. He had seen the look on her face before. The last time he saw his daughter, Eva, she had looked at him with that same expression. Then he watched as she, not even as old as Kira and pregnant, walked out of his life forever. Eva had refused to stop seeing a young man, too - the fighter pilot, as doomed as Joe was, who fathered Kira. He would never know anything about him, other than his family name: Sakira.
But this was different. Joe was the result of years of research and work. The implant was part of the final step in his plan; once inserted, he would have the world's most powerful weapon. He didn't want him to become too attached to anyone - especially a young woman, and *especially* his granddaughter. He'd seen the attachment developing from the first day, right in front of him, unspoken but visible. He didn't take it seriously at first, but he started to dislike it. Still, as long as it remained that way, it hadn't particularly bothered him. It kept her interested in the work, more apt to want to learn (he had to wonder if she would have *ever* stopped skulking and throwing tantrums long enough to learn *anything* had she not met Joe). He hadn't counted on them to try to see each other outside of the lab, though. Perhaps he was just an old man, like she said: he had completely forgotten how if feels to be young. To him, their attraction was just a series ofglances and smiles. It didn't mean anything. Until now.
She still had that look on her face. His initial reaction, to forbid her from seeing him, seemed rash now. He didn't *want* her to see him, but he'd learned from experience that young women didn't obey their elders when a young man was involved. He couldn't afford to shoot himself in the foot like that again. He had no living apprentices and no other family left. If she left now, all his work would die with him. And it had taken him years - since Eva's death - for him to find her. His late, estranged wife had seen to it that the girl was put into a proper school, but she had taken the name and location of the school to her grave. Only a lucky, longshot search of Kira's father's surname had turned up one girl of the appropriate age. It was her given name - he hadn't expected it to be her last name, nor had he expected Rafael to be - and a photograph of the teenager, who looked stunningly like his daughter, confirmed it. Now he was an inch away from losing her again. He shut his eyes. It wasn't worth it. Even if he didn't need *her*, he needed Joe, and he couldn't be sure what he would do if he tried to control this sort of thing. And if Joe wrote him off now, everything was ruined.
He let go of her and resigned himself to the situation. She was going to do exactly what she wanted. He wouldn't tell her about his plans for Joe. It wouldn't do anyone any good.
Jun heaved a sigh as she flipped through her magazine. This was becoming her only refuge, her only contact with other women. It was getting upsetting. She *used* to have girlfriends, but now she spent the bulk of her time in the male-dominated G-Town -- and even when she got a break, like now, to spend at the J, her old friends never seemed to stop in. Even her old band mates, Trixi and Betty, never came by anymore. She'd had to stop playing with them after Joe's disappearance - she'd just been to depressed to keep playing. And it hadn't been working out, anyway. They'd wanted to play out more, get booked at "real" clubs and maybe do a little touring, but none of that fit into her life. She wasn't dependable enough to keep the band's reputation good with other clubs, and touring - well, that was out of the question. The girl who'd replaced her was really good - she was happy they'd found her. But she missed hanging out with the girls. A hundred times more than she missed being in a band. That had always been a side thing, just for fun. But she hadn't realized how much she'd miss Trix and Betty.
She turned the page and glanced at the headline: "20 reasons to Spend Saturday Night with The Girls."
She thought she might cry. What was Betty's phone number again?
Ken approached her, and sat down. "What's the matter with you?" he asked.
She raised her eyes slowly. "Nothing, Ken," she said. "You wouldn't understand."
"I might," he said. "Usually you like to talk when something's bugging you..."
Was that a crack? "No, you wouldn't," she said. "You've got Joe, and Ryu, and Jinpei, and the *doctor* - "
Ken shook his head. "What?" he said. "So do you... what are you *talking* about?"
"They're *guys*, Ken," she said. "They're all guys. Everyone I talk to every day is a *guy*.... God, it seems like we don't even get female customers in here any more..."
"There was a woman in here not two hours ago..."
She glared at him. He was missing the point, as usual.
Ken made a face. She was right. He just didn't understand her sometimes. He thought she *liked* hanging out with the guys. It's not like the even really treated her any differently. He glanced down and noticed her magazine. *OK*, he thought, *time to shut up*. It was one of those magazines full of quizzes that always led to icy stares from Jun, and "see, you *are* insensitive!" comments. Now it was turning her into a man-hater.
"Put that away," he said, motioning towards it.
"It's giving you crazy thoughts."
She held up the glossy, pink magazine with the silver-lipped blonde on the cover. "If it weren't for these," she said, "I'd forget I was a *woman*!" She stormed into the kitchen, just as Jinpei was coming out. He turned and stared at her. He eyed Ken for a moment, and, before he could stop him, hollered:
"The rest of us already have!"
Ken tossed a wadded napkin at him. "Jeez, Jinpei, shut up, already! She's upset."
"Aw, she's always upset. Probably just PMS."
Ken eyed the kitchen door nervously, expecting Jun to come flying out in a rage. "Shhh! Are you nuts? You want to get us all killed?" He'd learned from experience *never* to mention those three letters in the presence of an angry woman. Jun, at least.
"What's she whining about this time?" Jinpei asked.
"I don't know," Ken said. "Something about her not wanting to hang out with us guys."
"No, no, no..." Ryu said, sitting down next to Ken. He'd been sitting at a nearby table the whole time, finishing his dinner. He'd heard the whole thing. "It's not *us*... she's upset because she doesn't have any *girl* friends...." He paused. "Hey, I know how she feels."
Ken looked at him. "Jun's got girlfriends," he said. he looked at Jinpei. "Doesn't she?"
Jinpei shrugged. "Not really, no...."
"Sure she does...." He paused. "Well, if that's all it is, then, that's *easy*... we'll find her a girl friend."
"How is that easy?" Ryu asked. "You can't just grabbed some girl off the street."
Jinpei laughed. "Why don't you pretend to go out with one of those girls who's always chasin' you around?" he asked Ken. "Then, make her hang out with *her*!"
"Oh, she'd *love* that," Ken said, rubbing his chin. "Jun's a great girl... who wouldn't want to be her friend?"
"We could put out a personal ad!" Ryu suggested.
"Ugh..." said Jinpei, "that's tacky."
"Tacky?" said Ryu. "What do *you* know from tacky?"
"Shut up, you guys, Ken said, elbowing Ryu. "I'm trying to think..."
His dreams were bright and pleasant, for once. As he drifted out of sleep, though, it was even nicer: he wasn't sorry to have woken up. Her head rested against his chest, and her breathing was even enough that he wondered if she was asleep, even as she ran her finger along his arm.
She smiled, but didn't look up. She had felt him wake up, had heard his body regain consciousness. For two hours, she'd listened. She knew his heart well; it's structure delicately constructed by her grandfather of organic and mechanical parts. It moved blood, as well as other necessary fluids, yes, but it was also the core of his circuitry. It pumped like a regular heart, but the sound was little like a regular heartbeat. She couldn't define a rhythm, at first, sometimes distracted by the sound of her own heart - but it had one. Just as she had gotten used to its sleep rhythm, he woke up, and now it was even more complex, accompanied by a very un-heartlike hum.
He looked at the ceiling. He hadn't been to the old trailer in a long time. He had visited once, before rejoining the team, just to see if it was still standing. It had been trashed, and, almost compulsively, he had picked it up, only to leave it again. He had told himself that he had only wanted to show it to her, but deep down he knew his motives. She knew it, too. There was no way for him to take her to his quarters in G-Town, no way they could be unmonitored at Dr. Rafael's. A motel was an option, but *too* obvious. Things had moved faster than expected, actually - but, then, there really wasn't much to *see* there. He did have to give himself credit, though, for at least waiting a couple weeks before trying anything. Now that it was done, it was more of a relief than anything else. He'd neither hurt her nor disappointed her, from what he could tell. He looked out the window. The sun was beginning to set.
"You should've woke me up," he said, finally.
She sat up. "I didn't want to," she said. "You looked so peaceful. And... it was just nice."
"Hm." He paused. "But now the day's gone, and I have to take you home soon."
She sighed. "No you don't."
"I do, too," he said. "Or else he really will start locking you away."
She clicked her tongue. "He's not going to *do* anything," she said. "I know him better than you do."
"I don't know about that," he said. "I've known him longer."
She shrugged. "Still."
He sat up. "God, I'm *starving*," he said. He couldn't remember the last time he felt hunger like that. He reached down and grabbed his jeans. "Put your clothes on... I'll take you out for dinner before dropping you home."
She smiled. "You were supposed to do that *before*."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Yeah, well, you knew I was no good when you went out with me," he joked, pulling his shirt over his head.
She laughed. "No, I just *suspected* it..."
He stood up, fully clothed already, and stretched his arms over his head. "You look really cute there, sitting with no clothes on, Kira, but if you don't get dressed I'm gonna start looking in that disgusting refrigerator for food."
"O*Kay*," she said, picking her things up from the floor.
She dressed hastily, then slid into the small bathroom. The door hung open - it was getting dark, and the trailer wasn't connected to an energy source now. He watched her reflection in the mirror as she pulled her hair out of her face and straightened her top. He could hear the voices of nearly everyone he knew in his head telling him not to get too attached. He'd already been confronted by Dr. Nambu about "this young woman", thanks to Jinpei's big mouth. He'd flat-out lied to him, assuring the doctor that it was "nothing," just a girl he'd met and dated once. He made Ken believe that it was a simple fling, if an ongoing one. And he was trying to convince Rafael, who wasn't easily fooled, that his motives were to keep her from leaving him without an apprentice. He'd only really been honest with Jun. Her support was nice, but it was also more or less unconditional, as long as he was happy. She wasn't looking at the consequences like everyone else.
Consequences. He sighed. Whatever they were, he'd be ready for it. As much as it challenged his sense of what was *right* and *fair*, he had no intention of giving her up. The feeling was bigger than even he had expected. He didn't know how else to define it, except for raw, simple love. Which truly scared the shit out of him. He leaned against the doorway as she applied color to her lips. She glanced at him in the mirror and smiled. He considered, fleetingly, telling her what he was feeling.
But he didn't. He watched her cap the lipstick and drop it in her pocket. "You don't need that stuff," he said, instead. He sort of liked it, actually, but it seemed like the thing to say.
She turned to face him, her eyes gleaming. "So where do you want to eat?" she asked.
*Anywhere but the Snack J,* he thought. "I know a place that's right on the way."
It had been ten days since she'd heard from him. *Ten days*. Christ. Now, he'd made it clear to her from the beginning that this would happen, secret missions and all that shit, but it felt just a little convenient that he'd fallen off the face of the Earth immediately after she'd slept with him.
Maybe her mother had been right after all. Maybe they all *did* only want one thing.
God, how could she have been so *stupid*? Secret mission or not, how hard was it to pick up a phone? Ten days, man... there had to be *some* break. She was past the pining stage. She was past worrying about him. Now she was *pissed*. She looked at her scalpel and thought what she'd do to him. *This wouldn't do much good,* she thought. She looked over to the row of delicate laser tools on one of the lab tables. Her knife started to plunge violently towards her subject, a ferret. A strong hand quickly grabbed hers before the flesh was punctured.
"This is delicate surgery, Kira," the old man said. "Not stone carving. You're not even *looking* at the tissue...."
"I'm *tired* of this," she said. "Can't I just stop for - "
"Why? I've been working hard...."
"*No*. I want to see this animal running around by the end of the day," he said.
She looked down at the animal. She had a long way to go. The old man was being unreasonable. "I *can't*," she said.
He banged his hand on the table. "What have I told you about that word?" he said. "I won't stand for it in my laboratory. You *can*, and you *will*"
She sighed. "Fine." She picked up her tool again and started connected the circuitry she'd implanted. After a few seconds, she stopped, and looked at her him. "Grandfather," she said, "What's wrong with me?"
He looked at her, and paused. That was an odd question, even for her. "Well," he began, "You're too emotional - you over-react to things. You don't listen very well sometimes. Sometimes, you act very selfish - " He stopped, as Kira dissolved into tears.
"Well, then, no *wonder*," she sobbed.
Dr. Rafael sighed. Why would she ask him to point out her faults if it was only going to make her cry? He wouldn't have this problem, if only she'd been born a boy. He should have known better, after dealing with Eva for 17 years, than to track her down. Blood meant relatively little, in reality; he could have chosen *anyone* to assist him. He was angry with himself for allowing guilt to drive him to dig for a child who really had no place there with him. He had to admit, though, she was making progress. Or she *had* been, until Joe and the others had been deployed on this rather involved mission. Joe had called before leaving, telling him that he would be gone awhile and asking to speak to Kira. The doctor refused, and sternly reminded him not to try to contact either of them until he returned. "I *know* that - you think I don't know that?" his subject had said before the line was disconnected. "I just - " there had been voices, sounds in the background. "OK, OK... Listen, just tell her I called...." "I'm not telling her anything," the doctor replied, before realizing he was speaking to dead air. He didn't want to encourage this little relationship, and he intended to keep out of it. But she was of little use this way - her mind was elsewhere, and it took her hours to do even a simple procedure.
"It's far too dangerous for him to even consider contacting you while he's on a mission," he told her.
She sniffed. "It can't be *that* dangerous."
"It *is* that dangerous," he said, scowling. "If he *did* try to contact you, I'd be very angry with him." He paused, then grudgingly added, "He's keeping quiet because he cares for you."
"He's just never taken so long on one mission..."
"You think the enemy sticks to a convenient schedule?"
She looked down. "No..."
He shook his head. "No." He turned away from her. "He'll return soon, and you'll feel silly about all this nonsense."
She pulled her tiny subject towards her and slipped her magnifying visor over her head. "OK.." she said, halfheartedly.
His expression didn't change, but the doctor was amazed that his words had actually calmed her down. "Now," he said, "let's get this finished."
It was still dark when she woke up. Something was going on - she could feel it. She slid out of bed and pulled her jeans on.
As she neared the lab, she began to hear voices. Her heart jumped as she recognized Joe's voice - he'd come back. Finally. She couldn't even hear the words, at first, but there was no mistaking the voice.
She peered into the room, and drew back. Was that really him? She'd never seen him in his uniform before. He looked bigger, more imposing, with a heavy cape and a helmet that nearly covered his face. She never would have recognized him if she hadn't heard his voice. Their conversation was low and cryptic to her ears, almost like another language. As she stared at him, she recognized his gestures, too, the way he stood, arms crossed, how he leaned against the table. She caught her breath. She had really missed him.
Then it occurred to her that maybe he had come late at night in order to avoid her. Her jaw tightened.
She stepped into the room, and forced a smile. "Joe..."
He spun around. "Kira!" both men said simultaneously, with different degrees of alarm.
Joe pulled off his helmet and walked over to her. She was visibly upset.
"We're not done here, Joe," the doctor called.
"I was just going to come up and wake you," he said.
"Where were you?" she asked.
"Kira," the doctor barked. "Go to your room at once!"
Joe turned around. "Can't you just wait a minute? I haven't seen her in -"
"You're *not* to see her until you're finished with me," Rafael said. "I *told* you that." He looked at Kira. "And you - this is not for your ears, none of this. This is very confidential, very dangerous information, and you are not to be a part of it."
She looked at Joe, who was looking at the floor. He looked at her, and nodded. "He's right," he said. "I'll come up - "
"Don't bother," she said, turning. She didn't mean it, not for one second, but she felt this need to get to him. It probably wasn't fair, she knew, yet she still said it, still stomped away, and didn't look back until she reached her room. "What am I doing?" she whispered to herself when she got there.
Joe stood, motionless, staring at the empty space where Kira had stood.
"Let's finish this," the doctor said.
"Why couldn't you have given me two minutes to talk to her?" he asked, without turning.
"I told you why."
"It wouldn't have hurt anything." He looked at the old man.
"Who knows how long she'd been standing there, listening? She needs to stay *out* of this - you know that as well as I do."
"I *know*, but - "
"She'll *get over* it. She spent the past week crying over you. Don't think she's not up there waiting -"
"She was crying?"
"Don't discuss it with *me* - "
"No, I want to discuss it with you.... Why was she crying? I called here and told you what was going on. Didn't you tell her?"
"I'm not your personal messenger."
Joe heaved a sigh of exasperation. "Two words! Why didn't you tell her? I got a lot of grief for making that call - "
"As well you should have -"
"Shit," Joe said, turning away from the doctor. "You've *screwed* me."
"I told her you were on a mission and weren't able to contact her."
"But you didn't tell her I called."
"She shouldn't expect that you will."
"Well, *this* time it was important. I can't *believe* you just blew it off."
The doctor looked at him. "Well, at this rate, you'll never get to see her," he said flatly. "Come over here and finish your report."
Joe stood still, and didn't say anything.
"Fine," the doctor said. "Stand there all day, see if I care. These little tantrums don't work when Kira pulls them, and they *don't* work when you do. Don't expect to get to see her or take her *anywhere* if you refuse to work with me."
Joe turned. "You shouldn't expect me to work with you if you're going to act like a dick." It was a petulant statement, the kind of thing he'd say to Ken during a power struggle, but it just came out.
They faced each other. It was hard to say, for a moment, who had the upper hand here. Joe was almost convinced *he* had it, until he remembered how high- maintenance he had become. Dammit. He sat down, and, without another word about it, finished giving his report.
"What happened to your uniform?" Kira asked. It was the first thing she said when he finally came up to see her.
"It's gone, for now," he said.
"Oh," she said, Then: "I've seen your picture in the paper before.... I didn't know that was you."
He nodded slowly. "That was me..."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Kira..." He came in shut the door behind him.
She looked at the door. "He's not going to like that."
"We're going to *talk*," he said. "We're just going to talk. He can watch us, anyway, if he's so worried." He paused. "Listen... there's a lot of things I need you to not know about, not ask me about."
She sat on the bed. "Don't you trust me?"
"It's not that, Kira, it's... it's really complicated..."
"I'm not *stupid*..."
"It's too *dangerous*. It's OK for me to know this stuff, that's my *job*. Your grandfather has his own reasons for needing to know about it. But he's right, you shouldn't know too much. If they found out - I mean, if they found out about you, period, it would be *bad*. But if you knew *anything*, who knows what they'd do to you - "
He sighed. "Kira...."
"Do you think I don't *know* about Galactor? I do, you know... they destroyed Polma three years ago... My mother was *living* there."
"Polma?" He remembered that attack especially clearly. The city was located on an island near Spain in the Mediterranean. They'd been right there. And they hadn't been able to stop it.
"That's how your mother died?"
She nodded. "I saw the whole thing on TV."
He sat down next to her. There were so many faceless victims of those attacks. He'd never known a single one of them personally, although he'd come to know a few survivors. Ironic, though, that, when he saw cities being destroyed, one thought that always crossed his mind was: *Somebody's mother is down there*. It didn't put a face on them, but it put emotion there. And he found that he was a better fighter fueled by anger.
"Do you want to see Galactor destroyed?" he asked.
She looked at him. "Of course I do."
"Then you need to let me take care of it and not ask questions, OK?"
She looked down. "OK."
He paused. "Kira, I *tried* to contact you before I left."
She looked at him. "You did?"
"Your grandfather didn't give you the message... but... that's not the point, really. I wasn't even supposed to have called." he looked at her. "When we get an assignment, I'm not going to contact you. Even if the mission takes a long time," he said. "I just can't. If you can't handle it, Kira, we really can't be together. I *have* to do this."
She nodded. "I know..."
"I mean, whether I had tried to call or not, I *told* you that already... and then, your grandfather tells me you were crying all week - "
"He told you that?"
"Did you think I was avoiding you? You really think I'd do that?"
"I wasn't crying all week," she said. "I cried once, and *he* made me..."
"I've been trying to do everything I can so you think I'm *not* a jerk," he said. "I know the timing was bad, but don't take it as anything other than, you know, shit happens... especially with me...."
She nodded. "I know..." She smiled at him. "I don't think you're a jerk." She paused for a moment, feeling just as silly as her grandfather had predicted. "I'll try not to get upset any more."
"You better not," he said. He smiled, then glanced toward the ceiling. They were being monitored. He had gotten used to it when he'd stayed there himself, after Rafael had operated on him. He wondered, for a moment, if the doctor would even care if he were to start kissing her - he was letting him take her with him for the day, after all, and he planned to do more than that. Still, he decided against it. He made a fist and pushed her chin away with it amiably.
"So, you coming with me or not?"