by Dawn G. Patterson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
At the turbo lift, I showed security my badge. Once the lift doors closed, I stripped to my undies and balled up my clothes. Stuart slid them under his jacket as the doors opened.
“York? York!” were the initial exclamations. But behind the scenes of a rock concert, most were not shocked to see a half-nude woman. We walked down the hall toward my dressing room.
“So what do you want?”
He cocked his head while stopping to toss the bloody clothes down a trash chute. I pressed the Incinerate button. “It’s been four years,” he said.
“Four? It’s been three. Getting all those numbers jumbled up in your head?” I asked.
“Never. It’s been four years since I made Ash.”
Stuart had recruited my brother a few months before me. I’d been a tag-along. Ash was planned. Stuart, a diehard fan, wanted to keep Splat together a little longer.
Ash wasn’t allowed to tell me about time hoarding, although he had a habit of giving himself special permissions. He begged me to do it, too. Said he couldn’t live without his little sister to keep him straight. He said hardly anyone knew of this glitch that allowed hours to be stolen. He said we may even live to be fifty. Fifty!
Ash. He was the only family I had. Our parents used up their hours a few years after I was born. We stuck together even though the Council for Sustainable Population discouraged strong relational bonds. It looked bad when loved ones blubbered over graves. They said: “We are a happy society. We do what we want.” Carpe diem and all that Latin jazz.
Yet ever since Ash found me tied up and being “carpe diemed” by a group of guys using up their last hour to live, we had become each other’s protectors. Ash had wanted to slice them up. I told him no. Their hours were about gone anyway.
I kept Ash in line. Ash kept me alive.
I slid a dress over my head. “Want to know what to buy him for your four-year anniversary?” I joked, spinning around to find an unsmiling Stuart. His leer revealed his plan. “Stu...” I pleaded.
He shook his head. “His time is up, pet.” He sat on the vanity stool and crossed his long legs.
“Why four years? Ash could still do a few more.” Ash hit the high note at the end of “Hunted,” the last song before the finale. Even through layers of walls and a floor down, his voice gave me chills.
“Hon, he’s too popular. People will notice he’s not, well... dead. Someone will do the math — the number of practices, the number of shows, the publicity stunts. Those all cost hours. And he’s nineteen.” Stuart stood and placed a manicured hand on my shoulder. “And if people find out, what will happen?” he whispered.
I turned slowly, shrugging his hand off. “Anarchy. Mass murders. Hysteria. Everyone stealing hours. Possibly stealing our hours.” Only Stuart’s select few knew about time-stealing. Apparently, that knowledge didn’t secure longevity.
“Ash doesn’t have to die. He just needs to become nonexistent to the public. He could go underground for a few years, get a fake ID, get some plastic surgery to disguise his age, and ta-da.”
True, finding plastic surgeons proved difficult when life expectancy averaged twenty, but it could be done. Jeez, Stuart’s skin was pulled as taut as the wire across his victims’ throats.
“It’s too risky. Ash couldn’t live a low-profile lifestyle.” About to argue further, I stopped when Stuart began to massage his temples: a warning signal. He looked elegant, almost dainty, but I’d seen him in action. The week after he made me, he’d taken the right arms off three time-hoarding traitors with a method that involved clamps and rusty hacksaws. He’d forced me to carry the burlap sack with the removed limbs.
“What about me?”
“York, you’re famous now. As soon as Ash goes away, you’ll fade into the background. Change your hair and signature color, and no one will even recognize you.”
Pointing a finger at him, I said, “You better not mess with me, Stuart.”
“Of course not. Who else could I grow old with? Make little Stueys with?” He reached out and caressed my nano hidden under my dress.
“Hands off, Stuart.”
His mouth twitched. “I know what I’m asking you is difficult, dear, but we have to keep our secret safe. You’ll take care of it? This is your honor.”
A quick rap at the door announced Manager Bob. “York. Oh, sorry, didn’t know you had company. Is your COM-set not working again? I’ve been trying to get you.”
I didn’t bother to reply. We both knew I’d turned it off.
He continued, “We need to get out of here. There’s a mess upstairs. Guy killed in the alley. Police are locking the place down. People Disengaging left and right. Zombie land.”
“Sure.” I grabbed my bag and hurried to the door. Stuart grabbed my arm.
“What do you say?”
I tucked my hair behind my ear. “Of course. Anything for you.”
He kissed my cheek, leaving a moist imprint. “Good,” he whispered, his breath wafting under my nose, smelling like vodka and burning plastic.
* * *
“Hi, home,” I said. The voice-activated lights illuminated my path through the winter can to the stairs. We stayed in the winter home as long as we could, until the warmer temperatures drove everyone underground. I descended on the elevator and entered the twin summer can.
King was Disengaged. He wouldn’t expect me home this early, not knowing about the murder and mass exodus from the concert.
I smiled. He always Disengaged in the best poses. Shirtless, old jeans, a bare foot leaning against the white wall, and abs sectioned like a waffle. His skin covered them, the color identical to warm maple syrup. His arms arced over his head, casually flexing his biceps. This was the most beautiful human in the world.
In three thuds of my heart, he Engaged and strode across the floor to scoop me up. My lips on his, my hands in his shaggy hair... mmm, yes. An advantage of the summer can was the noise-cancelling earthen walls. We gave them our nightly test.
A nude King handed me a post-coital glass of water. “You’re home early.”
“A mess at the concert.” I ran a hand over my nano, making sure my iFlesh was fused. My nano had more garb than most people had clothing. Different sets of membranes for my different lives. This one announced 1,990 hours. “Your night?”
“Productive.” He pulled on his boxer briefs. “Transferred three minutes.”
“Not bad. You didn’t gift any more, did you?” Our time was too precious for him to keep gifting time to people. Of course, I could let him know how he could get plenty of hours. But not only would he not do it, he’d be done with me.
“Why are we spending so much time not touching?” The right side of his mouth turned up. He pulled me to my feet, and I spread all of myself against him. “I didn’t gift any time,” he whispered.
Could I believe him? Being married to a philanthropist who wanted to give his hours to the less fortunate unnerved me. All it would take would be a dying mother waiting for her children to attend the last moments at her bedside, and King would gift her whatever he had, leaving me with only the memory of him. I leaned in, taking his bottom lip in my mouth and sucking. My teeth clamped down on the tasty wedge.
“Aaaa,” was his cry, still husky, still sexy.
I let go, licking a drop of blood off his lip. “You better not.” He didn’t give me any promises. Damn him.
“The zero-gravity box is working, only it’s too slow. We’re looking at doing something with temperature. It should affect the atomic clocks. We’ll just have to see by how much.”
Getting the atomic clocks on our displays to slow down allowed a glitch where hours could be electronically transferred from one clock to another. As he spoke, his display changed from 1,006 to 1,005, and my stomach knotted.
“Disengage?” I asked.
He nodded. “You?”
“Soon. I have to go out.”
“York, you can Disengage around me.”
He sighed. He thought I felt self-conscious about him seeing me Disengaged. Some people didn’t look good Disengaged: slack-jawed, drooling, or eyes rolling back. I pulled on a denim vest and slid on heels. He stepped close and inclined his head. “Don’t bite me.” And that time I didn’t. I let his lips and tongue slip and slide around mine.
He plopped on the couch in his boxers. “I’m going.”
“I’ve Disengaged in less.” He winked.
I laughed. “Yes, you have.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow night?”
“Yeah.” He was accustomed to my absences when Ash was performing. “Last concert tomorrow. I may be late.”
His smile dropped. “Don’t get caught.”
“Don’t get caught.” I repeated our nightly mantra. He didn’t know what I did. He suspected it was illegal. He suspected it was altruistic.
Two criminals. Both time-tampering. I glanced in the mirror by the elevator doors and adjusted my dress.
Both sexy as hell. I fluffed my hair and then, before leaving, looked back at King’s relaxed form on the couch.
I looked again in the mirror.
And one monster.
Definitely one big, bad monster.
* * *
Outside, the vast sky twinkled with peppered starlight. The scythe of moon cut sharp but delicate. A sudden rustle in the woods dispersed a hooting owl. I flattened myself against the side of the house. My knife hid in the hover, tucked behind a panel in the driver’s side door. I couldn’t go back inside. Trouble could follow me straight to King.
The crickets held their chirps. I slipped off my steel-tipped heels, gripping one in my right hand. On a silent count of three, I ran toward the woods, a silently screaming banshee. Inside the copse of trees, I halted, eyes darting from trunk to branch to black space, seeking the perp. Only a rotting log materialized to attack me, tripping me up and throwing me to the ground. No boogeymen, no ghosts.
Shaking my head, I stalked back to the hover. What an idiot. There was no time to chase imaginary villains. I overrode the automatic driver and opened the throttle all the way. Speed would help me think. The familiar dips and curves took me further from the city to no-man’s land. I passed a lone hover driven by automation. The tracks ended soon. Only manually driven vehicles from here on out, and those would be few. When I had rolled down all the windows, the wind blew the distractions away and chiseled my focus.
How was I not going to kill Ash? Ash, a diligent time hoarder, had many hours — about 65,000 the last I saw. Stuart had killed other time hoarders. He made them. He thought they deserved to die by his chivalrous hand as well, all while he ate up their hours.
So why had Stuart insisted I take out Ash?
It was a test. Stuart would decide how long I was allowed to live based on my compliance.
A chime signaling a text from Stuart shot across the top of the windshield. In green light it read, “I’m with King. We’ll meet you back home once your business is taken care of. Until then.”
Stuart was holding King hostage.
“Ahhh!” I killed the thrust. The hover dropped. Panel lights flashed warnings. A foam arm slipped around my neck.
Prepare for impact.
I couldn’t breathe. I ripped at the whiplash arm. Seizing the knife from the hidden panel, I put it to my neck, ripping at the foam. The hover responded, releasing its grip. I tossed the knife onto the floorboard. “Stupid hover.”
Rubbing my neck, I retrieved the knife. Turning it over in the hover lights, it refused to glint. Even it did not enjoy the thought of what it must do. Sacrifice a brother for a lover.
How did Stuart find out about King? Had he been following me, watching me? The heebie-jeebies crawled around under my skin.
“Reply text: I will complete my business sooner than expected,” I said.
God, Stuart was a talker. I didn’t need him finding out about King’s job. Stuart didn’t need more blackmail ammunition. He could use the secret of King’s research to further my compliance in anything he wanted. And a time-hoarding lord could wreak havoc with King’s discovery of time-gifting.
What was King thinking? Would Stuart tell him what I was? Would Stuart tell him I’d gone to kill Ash?
Of course, Ash wouldn’t die tonight. Tonight, Stuart would go down. I took a steadying breath and revived the hover.
It would be fine. I would do what I had to do. I was a killer. I am a killer. I kill.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Dawn G. Patterson