Maximus watched Siobhan sleep. Tomorrow was today, and he knew what he had to do. He bent to kiss her; her eyes opened slowly. It had been a very long night. “You’re leaving?”
“I promised East I’d help with the horses this morning,” he lied.
“Mmmm, ok, see you later?”
The lie stuck in his throat. “Of course.”
He showered and changed, trying to mentally compose a note to leave for her. He scribbled a few words, sealed the envelope and headed down the hallway to Terry Thorne’s room. Thorne was a kindred spirit, more so than the others sometimes. As soldiers, they shared a similar outlook on life and the nature of loyalty.
Terry answered his knock, already dressed for a pre-dawn run. He came outside and shut the door, indicating the sleeping figure of Caroline inside. They headed down into the darkened Tavern to talk.
“I need a favor.”
“What sort of favor?”
“I need to get away from here for a few days, think some things through.”
“In part. What do you know about our ability to leave here?”
“Not much, just that we fade and die. You wanna leave, mate?”
“No. Just looking at my options.” He handed Terry an envelope. “Give this to Siobhan, will you? Later tonight when I’ve had a chance to get away. And keep an eye out for her?”
“Yeah.” Terry put the letter into the pocket of his sweats. “Where you going?”
Maximus had turned to leave; he stopped. “Thought I’d ride out towards Mannie’s place. Hey Terry, you know anything about automatic drip coffeemakers?”
“Like how to make coffee in them?”
As they walked out together, Maximus entrusted Terry with what had happened the night before with Siobhan. It seemed an odd subject to be talking about while making a pot of coffee, Terry opined silently.
“That’s it, press this button and the coffee will start brewing at 7.”
“Thanks for helping me with this. Machines don’t come easily to me.”
“They will,” he assured the Roman.
“Keep her safe while I’m gone.” The sadness crept over him again. He’d left a woman for a journey before.
* * *
Siobhan and her ever-present morning cup of coffee managed to make it into the lab early that following morning. She smiled when she saw a brand new coffee pot sitting in the corner by the door. It must have been on a timer because a pot of fresh-brewed coffee was waiting for her, along with a card. She opened the card. All it said was, “I thought you’d rather have this than flowers. Maximus”.
She laughed as she tossed the contents of her cooling cup of coffee out the door onto the grass. The perfect gift and he knew it. She poured a fresh cup and sipped it. Perfect. She wondered who’d taught him to make coffee as she bent over to hit the power strip.
Truth be told, she was early because they’d been up half the night, making love. He’d left her just about an hour ago with no further discussion of the future. She wasn’t naïve enough to think the crisis had passed, but she intended to enjoy the moment and the memories.
She logged in and started reviewing the scenarios again. It was about ten minutes before she heard anyone coming.
One thing she’d learned was that you couldn’t always tell WHO was coming by the sound of their voices. Pitch, timbre, accents changed, but not always enough. But the two coming up the walk were Sid and Terry.
“…good time last night,” she heard Terry saying.
“I did. I guess they’re here for the weekend. Probably to admire me.”
“Candace didn’t seem so impressed with you.”
“No, she talked about Maximus all night. Hey, look, Doc must be here already.” They pushed the half-closed door open and came in. “ Good-morning, Doc.”
“’Morning, Sid. ‘Morning, Terry.”
“You’re up early,” Sid leered, pulling aside her collar to check her neck. Vampires wake you up?”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “No. But thanks for last night, Sid. For saving last night.”
“Everything ok?” Terry asked.
“Not yet, but it will be.”
Sid seemed inclined to like Terry which made the morning pass that much more pleasantly. The K&R man insisted on participating in the work, claiming he’d be bored watching. The three of them turned out to work well together: Terry with his military background, Siobhan with her training background, and Sid the former police training vehicle. The Pa Ingalls personality module was finally rejected after a series of tests that proved that, even further down the hierarchy, it would clash too badly with Sid’s current programming.
“I have another one I like a lot,” Sid offered, keying in a numeric sequence. “He seems to be very popular with the ladies. HIS Creator was more popular with the ladies than our Creator in ‘The Quick and the Dead.’”
“That was six long years ago, Sid, and pre-Gladiator,” Terry reminded him as he looked at Jack Dawson on screen. “What do you think, Doc?”
“He never did much for me,” she giggled. “But Jack Dawson would be a fairly good match – he’s cocky like Sid – so maybe…maybe. Let’s run the simulations.”
Terry didn’t know Siobhan very well. They’d only spoken in passing in the Tavern, but they had gotten on. She seemed strong-willed and intelligent. She certainly was thorough in her work. And she understood his military jargon, only occasionally asking him to explain what he meant. It was difficult to gauge her emotional strength from their conversation. He hoped she wasn’t a weepy female who dissolved into tears when she heard Maximus had left.
They broke for a late lunch and headed towards the Tavern together. Sid stayed behind to research the proposed module for the afternoon’s upload so now was Terry’s chance to talk to Siobhan.
“Siobhan, luv, look, I need to talk to you a minute, and it’s serious.” He sat her down at the picnic table in front of the Tavern.
She was clearly nervous. “OK, what about?”
Siobhan’s stomach fell. She nodded, uncertain if she should speak or if she even could speak. “Tell me.”
“Just tell me he isn’t dead.” Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over. Terry grabbed her shoulders and shook her gently.
“No, no…you didn’t let me finish. He’s left for a few days to do some thinking. He’ll be back when he’s sorted a few things out. He left you this.” He pulled the note from his pocket.
“When did he give you this?” she asked, opening it.
“Before dawn, just before we went to set up your new coffeemaker.” He handed her a handkerchief; he’d searched high and low for one in his gear after Maximus left. He knew he was going to need it.
Maximus had a distinct spidery hand:
Forgive me for lying. I couldn’t leave you any other way.
Siobhan folded the note and slipped it into her pocket. “You know where he went?” she asked.
“More or less. He said he needed to think.”
She shrugged, wiping away her tears with her sleeve. “I had a hunch he was lying to me this morning. Hell, Terry, he’s really the worst liar in the world.” The man was staring a hole through her, waiting for a different reaction. “Don’t worry, I’ll be ok. I am damn near cried out.” She smiled rather unconvincingly at him. “Come on, I’m starving.”
Terry wasn’t so sure she’d be all right, but he didn’t know her well enough to argue the point, so he followed her into the Tavern. Caroline hailed them from behind the bar. She knew Maximus was gone; she raised her eyebrows in a silent question. He shrugged and mouthed, “OK so far.”
John Biebe appeared in the doorway. “I heard Maximus left this morning. Anyone know the story?” he asked. “Tina told me before she headed back to Louisville for the week. What’s up?” Terry shot daggers at Caroline. He’d told her to keep it to herself.
She grinned sheepishly, “Sorry.”
“She know yet?” he indicated Siobhan.
“I just told her. Gimme a couple of beers, Caroline. We’ll talk about this later.”
He walked over to the table and handed Siobhan a beer. John followed him. “Hey, Siobhan, how ya doin’?”
She looked at Terry. “Everyone knew before me, didn’t they?”
“Nice try, John.” She took a long drink. “If you guys start treating me too nice, you WILL make me cry, OK? Just act normal.”
“Define normal,” Terry asked.
“Around here? Tease me, abuse me, try to run my life. You shouldn’t have too much trouble.” She grinned. “Hand me that beer? Now, did everyone know before me?”
“I was the only one who was SUPPOSED to know,” Terry told her, glaring over at Caroline. “Seems I confided in the wrong person.”
“Shouldn’t have told anyone if it was a secret, Terry!” Caroline shot back.
After lunch, Terry was replaced in the lab by Dominic, a most willing assistant who reminded Siobhan of long-ago high school friends. She dreaded the moment when Sid found out Maximus was gone, but after her big “friends” speech, she knew she better be the one to tell him. Fortunately Dominic’s good-natured questions kept her busy while she finished the module.
Sid stripped to the waist and headed into the booth to hook himself up for the transfer. “Siobhan, how’d it go last night?”
“Great, Sid. I owe you for getting me out of a jam.” The programmable pain-in-the-ass grinned. “I don’t owe you that much. OK, you ready?” Sid gave her a thumbs-up; even that reminded her of Maximus and she fought back a reaction before typing in the load commands. She watched the screen scroll by; the final line said:
“Program complete with no errors.”
She hit ENTER.
“OK, Sid, you’re finished. Get dressed and come on out. I have something to talk to you about.” She turned to Dominic. “Stay close by, ok?”
Dominic grinned. “No worries. You gonna tell him about Maximus?”
“You’re too smart for your own good, Dom,” she told him, turning to greet Sid as he left the booth. “How you feelin’?”
“Great! My vitals are all strong.”
“No, we can talk later. You’re waaay too serious today, Doc. Let’s go up to the Tavern for a drink.”
“I have something to tell you.”
“Later! Come on.”
Siobhan looked over at Dominic and shrugged. Sid was smiling, a genuine happy-to-be-alive smile. “Want a beer, Dom?” she asked.
Jack Dawson seemed to be a fine fit for Sid – the happy-go-lucky air complemented Sid’s usual snide sense of humor. He was fun – if she dared to ever say Sid could be fun – and flirtatious, dancing with several of the lurkers who filled the Tavern booths in the evening hours. Siobhan hopped onto a bar stool to talk to Andy and Caroline. She was still there, watching Sid work the room, when Cort came in, looking for her.
The invitation to dinner in one of the Point’s less-formal restaurants was perfect; she was hungry, but never enjoyed eating alone. Caroline took her dinner break so that she and Terry could join the others. The restaurant was quiet as many people were still at work or hadn’t arrived at the Point from a week working in the real world.
The food never ceased to amaze Siobhan – each dish appeared to be better than the ones before it. The choices were eclectic. This time she ordered a steak sandwich and onion rings, her favorite comfort foods.
The meal and the company were excellent, vastly improving Siobhan’s frame of mind. From the moment she had realized that Maximus had taken off, she had done everything she could to keep her mind occupied.
“Hey,” Cort poured her a little more wine. “He’ll be fine. Remember, we’d know if he wasn’t, so just relax.”
While Siobhan settled in over a bottle of great wine with good company, Tina had wandered over to the Tavern for the strangest night of her life.
As a result of some killer overtime, Tina had managed to score two extra days off so she arrived back at the Point on Wednesday afternoon, instead of Friday evening. John had been extremely happy to see his beautiful fiancé two days early, but was a little concerned about telling her the latest news. He whisked her off to their room where they made love till the sun was slipping behind the mountains.
But as Tina was finishing dressing to go grab dinner, he knew the time was now or never:
“Tina, something happened while you were gone, and I kinda wanted to be the one to tell you that Maximus went off today.”
“What do you mean ‘went off’? Left the Point?”
“We don’t know for sure. He told Terry he had things to work out. He asked about surviving outside the Point.”
“What is Siobhan saying?”
“Not much…hey Tina, don’t…”
“Don’t ask her about it right now, ok?”
“Why? She didn’t do something to hurt him?”
“No, at least, I don’t think so. But she’s not doing real good.” John knew that Tina was fond of Siobhan, but Maximus was special to her. “Caroline was dragging her to dinner with Terry and Cort to sort of cheer her up.”
“Mmmmm? What does that mean?”
“Nothing, just everything seemed to be going so well for them. I’ve been hoping she was the one.” She took a last look at herself in the mirror. “I promise to reserve judgment, ok? Come on and feed me.”
On their way across to the Tavern, a young lurker stopped John with some questions, mostly concerning directions to the nearest town and then home. She was young and quite concerned that she be home on time so John sent Tina ahead alone with orders for dinner and a beer.
Tina found their favorite booth was free. She ordered dinner and a couple of drinks, then slid into the booth with a basket of pretzels to unwind a bit. The place was busy as usual. From her vantage point, she could see the door and the bar.
“Hi, Tina!” She looked up. The voice and the man behind it looked familiar, but not quite what she was expecting.
Yes, it was definitely Sid. But his bright wardrobe had been replaced by a cotton plaid shirt and brown pants with suspenders. His hair was combed forward in a casual style that made him look much younger. The smile on his face was genuine, not a hint of sarcasm. The entire effect was vulnerable, friendly, but there was something Tina couldn’t quite put her finger on.
He slid into the booth beside her, keeping a decent distance between them without her usual complaints, and said, “So, you got up here early this week, huh? Sure is good to see you. Where’s John?” Even his vocabulary was suddenly casual, normal.
“I…I….I’m sorry? Oh. John? John is outside, giving directions to a visitor. Sid, you’re so different.”
“Oh, yeah, a little I guess. It’s my new module, I had Siobhan install it pretty high up the personality scale to see how I liked it. So far, so good. I haven’t felt this good in years.”
“Who is it?”
Sid hesitated. “Well, I found him on a DvD in your collection so you’ll probably know who he is right away. Guy by the name of Jack Dawson, from ‘Titanic’ – does that ring a bell?”
The flush began at Tina’s feet and swiftly made its’ way to her face, coloring everything in between, she was certain. All she could do was nod in response to Sid’s question.
“Excellent movie,” he continued. “I was interested in the fact that this Dawson guy was an outsider, kinda like me, and he managed to get the girl…well, briefly, you know. Anyway, I like how he makes me feel like I can do anything.”
Tina took a deep breath. “You have always felt that way, Sid.”
“No, that was different. I feel like I can do anything and people will like me for it.”
That wasn’t what she expected to ever hear come out of Sid’s mouth. Though she was aware that Sid wanted to fit in better, she never thought of him wanting approval like everyone else.
Sid smiled. “To change the subject a little, I thought maybe you’d be willing to spend some time telling me about ‘Titanic.’”
“I thought you said you watched it?” she asked.
“No, I mean the real ship.” He shrugged. “I saw the movie, I know the story and I even know how Jack felt. But he’s fictional and I would love to know the real story.”
This time it was Tina who smiled. “I don’t even know where to begin. It was 98 years ago just about now when Titanic began her maiden voyage from Southampton with 2,227 passengers and crew aboard….”
John entered the Tavern about an hour later. It had been one thing and then another. First the young lurker who needed directions, followed by several admirers who wanted to say hello to the Mystery, Alaska police chief. By the time he had satisfied courtesy with one group, another had gathered round. Sometimes he wished the Point was just his Brothers and their Ladies, but he knew that was wrong. Several of their Ladies had arrived as casual visitors to the Point. And every fan of the Creator was welcome.
His eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the Tavern, as he searched for Tina. She was in their favorite booth, talking to someone. Looked like Jeff…no…
“His name was Captain E.J. Smith, they called him ‘the Millionaire’s Captain,’”he heard Tina saying as he slipped into the booth beside her. He was curious about her companion –it was one of the Boys, but who? “John!” Her face was wreathed in smiles as she turned to greet him. “I wondered where you were.”
“Tourists, sorry to be so late. Sid?” His jaw fell at the sight of Sid’s new clothes. “What’s this all about?” he asked.
“Siobhan finished loading a new module today,” the cyber pain replied. “Jack Dawson from ‘Titanic.’ I was asking Tina about the disaster. She’s very well-versed in the facts and the survivors’ stories, you know.”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I DO know.” The reply was crisp and blunt.
Tina turned to look at John. There was no mistaking the look on his face: pure annoyance. She suppressed the urge to smile; he had no reason to be jealous, but she wouldn’t insult him by dismissing his reaction as funny.
“Hey, listen, I have been droning on and on. We can talk more later, ok, Sid? John and I haven’t seen each other all week,” she hoped he would read the implicit dismissal. He did, and excused himself in very un-Sid-like record time.
Dominic arrived with their dinner. He had held the order until he saw John come in. They ate silently at first.
“Why is it that every time that Siobhan reprograms him, he comes right after you? Last time he was crying on your shoulder. This time he’s got that damn Jack Dawson front and center.”
“You can’t be jealous?”
“No. Yes. No, I mean, I trust you. I’m just suspicious of the CyberSneak.”
Tina did laugh then; the name was too perfect. As she leaned over to kiss John, she saw the door open and Caroline, Terry and Cort came in. Siobhan was glaringly absent as the threesome came to join them.
“So how was dinner?” John asked.
“Good,” Terry assured him. Like Cort, he was a man of a few well-chosen words, but Caroline filled in the gaps.
“Siobhan’s doing better than I expected, but she’s pretty blue. From what she told us, Maximus has some things to work out about being here.”
“Like what?” Tina asked.
“Like should he even be here, I guess.”
“Where should he be?” John asked.
“The Afterlife with his family,” Caroline chimed in.
“But,” Terry jumped in. “Get it right before you panic Tina. He said he wanted to be here with Siobhan and all of us.” Tina had shot bolt upright in her seat, but she settled back at Terry’s words. “She had to let him go work things out for himself and she understands that.”
“But she doesn’t like it one bit, does she?” Tina asked.
Terry stared at her. The issue was black and white to him, but not to Tina. “No, she doesn’t.”
“I’m going up to see her,” she announced. “Scoot over and let me out, John, please.”
“Tina…” John began.
“You know how you all say you can feel each other when something goes wrong?” she asked her handsome Sheriff. “Well I have a feeling that Siobhan could use someone to talk to right about now.” She leaned down to kiss his cheek. “Trust me.”
* * *
Though he had started out before dawn, Maximus had wandered aimlessly most of the morning. Argento got a well-needed run, but after that, nothing seemed to be critical. That was part of his overall problem, he reasoned. He needed a purpose. For many years, he had been up at dawn, both as a soldier and as a farmer. Now he could sleep the day away if he wanted.
By noon, he was further away from the Hotel than he thought, though a long ways from Mannie’s place. He had no intention of disturbing Mannie. It was just a general direction he gave Terry.
He sat under a tree to eat the lunch he’d packed while Argento grazed nearby. It felt good to sit in the warm fragrant grass. Thoughts of his farm drifted in and out as he laid back on the ground and dozed. He was exhausted from the emotions of the previous night, not to mention making love till dawn.
When he woke from his nap, the sun was low in the sky. Argento nickered softly, eager to be on their way. How long had it been since he’d been truly alone with only a horse for company? The god-forsaken ride from Germania, he reminded himself, as he climbed into the saddle.
Away from 21st Century civilization, he started to feel like himself again. The constant droning hum of electricity that other people took for granted interfered with his ability to think, he feared. The further away he got, the more the farmer returned. He started looking at the land, sizing it up for a small farm and a home away from the Point. He understood Mannie’s desire to live away from the others. Sometimes he wanted to be himself, not one of the Boys. By the time he rolled himself into a blanket, close to a fire, he felt better than he had in a long time. Then the dreams started.
He was riding a sweat-encrusted black horse across a rocky plateau. Blood seeped down his arm from an infected wound that throbbed with each hoofbeat. They’d start down into the valley that led to his farm. He could smell the charred flesh, see the servants’ bodies laying unburied in the fields.
With a start, he awoke time and again, shivering. Finally he gave up trying to sleep all together. He headed down to the river and stuck his head into the water; the sudden cold shocked him into alertness. He sat by the river, hugging his knees and staring off into the darkness.
The nightmares had been with him from the beginning. At first they had been fever-induced, then they’d fueled his quest for revenge. They had even invaded his sleep at the Point when he’d first arrived. Slowly they had receded into faint stirrings in his dreams.
He had been relieved to sleep without reliving the horror he had found in Trujillo. Yet over the months, it had become harder and harder to see Selene’s face and hear her voice, no matter how hard he tried to conjure her.
Laying there alone, staring at the stars, Maximus remembered Siobhan’s scent, the taste of her, and the sounds she made when he loved her. Choices, it came down to choices. Could he give her up? Send her away? Hurt her like he had done already? Could he stand to watch her with one of the others? Or have her leave the Point for good? What did he do about the unending feeling that he was wrong to find even a measure of happiness without his family?
A sudden overwhelming sense of peace settled on him as he stood there. It was as if he could hear Selene speak of her love for him. She had never questioned his decision to serve Rome and to be away from her for years at a time. Somehow he knew that she would want him to accept the happiness life offered. No one would wish him joy more than she would. Tears ran down his face for the first time since he buried his family.
Finally he knew what he had to do.
* * *
Siobhan’s door was partially open when Tina got there. She could see the other woman, curled up in her window seat, a book open on her lap and a glass of wine in her hand, but she was looking out over the paddock.
Tina knocked gently. Siobhan looked up and smiled, “Hi, Tina. Come on in.” She put the book down and started to get up when her visitor shook her head. “Welcome home. Want some wine?”
“Stay there, I’ll get myself some. I just came by to say hi.”
“And see how I’m doing?”
“Well, yeah, that too. How are you doing?”
“OK.” She smiled. “No, that’s not strictly true. I miss him. I guess you know what happened?”
“Not really, just that Maximus left this morning. Something about things he had to work out.” She settled into the armchair with a glass of wine. “I know we don’t know each other really well yet, but if you need a friend, I’m here.”
Siobhan looked up from her glass of wine; tears ran down her face. She couldn’t speak for a long minute. Finally she turned to look out the window and began to tell her story as simply as she could. When she finally finished, she turned to find that Tina was crying as well. “Poor Maximus,” she told Tina, hugging her. “I screwed him up pretty good, huh?”
“No, you know better. This was going to happen eventually. Maybe you were just the catalyst.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know about Maximus and me, don’t you? That he drew me here and we were lovers briefly?”
“Yes, but he told me that it was so obvious where your heart belonged from the moment you laid eyes on John.” She settled back in the window seat, wiping her eyes with kleenex.
“I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“He knows that, but it did hurt.”
“But no guilt?”
“No.” Siobhan sat forward. “What are you saying?”
“Survivor’s guilt, right? He didn’t have it with me, maybe because I wasn’t the one.” Tina shrugged. “I’m not a psychiatrist, but it seems pretty clear. He’d been here almost 7 months when you arrived and never seemed to doubt whether or not he belonged here. He loves you so the guilt surfaced. Being alive was one thing, being in love with someone else is another. Or maybe I am oversimplifying.”
“Tina, I’m so afraid he’s dead.”
“They’d know if he was hurt or in danger. The Boys, I mean. They have a psychic connection. If they sense anything, they’ll be out looking for him.” Tina’s stomach was in knots. She was worried too, but she didn’t want to let on to Siobhan. “Come on down to the Tavern and have a drink with us. It’ll cheer you up, I bet.”
“You need to see Sid.”
The programmer’s eyebrows disappeared into her bangs. “Now what?”
“The new module is..um..it’s interesting.” She giggled. “He’s a cocky, funny Sid. How do I explain him? Full of life, asking all sorts of questions about ‘Titanic.’ And he’s changed his hair and his clothes.”
“Come see for yourself.”
Siobhan agreed to come down with Tina for a drink. She washed her face, tried to conceal her red eyes with makeup and plastered on a smile. “How’s that?”
“A little less teeth in that smile,” her friend teased. “Ready?”
“Yep.” She tapped Tina on the shoulder. “Hey?”
* * *
It took almost two days before the first complaint surfaced. Siobhan was curled up in bed late Friday night, reading a novel, when the requestor came.
“Come in, it’s open,” she called out. The door opened a crack to reveal Bethany. “Hi, Bethany.”
“Hello…” Bethany seemed unusually subdued and uncomfortable coming into Siobhan’s room. “Nice room.”
“Thanks.” Siobhan hadn’t spent nearly as much time with the women as she had with the Boyz, but she knew and liked Bethany from Internet conversations. She also knew they were polar opposites in taste so her flower prints and baskets were not the reason Bethany had come to call. She stood up. “OK, Bethany, how about some wine and you tell me why you look so unhappy.”
“Wine would be nice, thanks.”
When she’d settled her visitor in the window seat with a big glass of wine, she plopped herself into the oversized chair opposite. “OK, what’s up?”
“Well…look, I know you’re doing the best you can, what with Sid being what he is, but…this Jack Dawson module has changed him too much.” She stared at the ceiling as she said, “Can we have ‘im back the way he was? Please?”
Siobhan laughed, probably the first genuine laugh since Maximus disappeared. “Oh, Bethany, I can’t do that unless Sid asks for it. Is he really that difficult for you to stand?”
“He says he thinks I’d look good in one of those long country dresses like you wear all the time. In pink. And that’s just for starters.” She grimaced. “He tried to teach me to spit. I don’t spit.”
“I am really sorry about that. Maybe we can move the module further down.”
It was Bethany’s turn to laugh, “Down to the floor of the Atlantic with that damn boat?”
“Let me see what I can do, ok?”
The second request came to the lab on Monday morning in the person of John Biebe.
“Hi, Siobhan, how ya doin’?”
“Pretty good, John. Do you have the shift this morning?” she asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down beside her.
“Yeah, I do. But I wanted to talk to you anyway.” He hesitated.
“Have you heard from Maximus?” she asked, hopefully.
“No, sorry, I haven’t. I guess you haven’t either, huh?”
She shook her head. “Did Tina have to leave?”
“Yeah, just now.” He logged on to the network and picked up the task list posted by the monitor. “Do you want me to run these simulations?”
“I have the first two. If you could double-check the next two and submit them, I’d be grateful.”
“He’ll be late. He went fishing this morning, can you believe it? With Dominic and Steve.”
“Good because I need to talk to you about him.”
John concentrated on starting the simulations and then pushed his chair back to wait for them to run. Siobhan was concentrating on her work so he waited until she pushed back as well.
“OK, what’s up?” she asked. “What did he do now?”
The Alaskan smiled at that, “You don’t seem surprised.”
“Nope, not where Sid’s concerned. So?”
“Last night he…” John looked over at the programmer, then looked away. “He asked Tina to pose nude for him.” He blushed, an angry embarrassed flush of red that rushed to the tip of his ears. “I wasn’t at the table or I’d have smeared blue goo all over the walls.”
“Are you serious? What a slime weasel! I knew he was up to no good.”
“Didn’t Dawson draw someone nude in ‘Titanic’? I mean, did you program him this way?”
“No, of course not. What he got was the core of Dawson’s personality as defined by the screenplay and the actor. Look.” She began to type. “See, these are personality trait?” A tree-like structure appeared on the screen. “Each module is made up of anywhere from 5 to 50 of these. Dawson’s got artistic abilities. We never implant memories or feelings.”
“That’s not what he told Tina. He said he knew how Dawson felt.”
“He lied. It would be counterproductive to implant memories or feelings. The ones he was created with are what caused him to be so deadly. The most vicious ones were erased as part of his retrofit when he arrived here. Tina showed me the specs. His memories date solely from ‘Virtuosity’ and his arrival here.” She wheeled her chair around to the coffee pot and poured a second cup. “I know the operating system well enough now. I ought to program him as a five-year old. God, that just pisses me off.” She slammed her coffee cup down. “I am not working to program him with good pickup lines. I hope Tina slapped him silly?”
John chuckled at the memory. “Oh yeah, she did….”
It had been a typical Sunday night at the Tavern. The weekend lurkers and tourists had departed, leaving the Usual Suspects (as Siobhan dubbed them) hanging out. A rugby match was on television which meant most of the Boys (and Kath, Lisa and Jenn) were clustered around the bar. Tina was at the desk, coordinating the many tasks facing her staff on Monday and preparing work schedules. Caroline was tending bar. Siobhan was in the lab, answering email, and trying to convince Erin to bring Jake for a visit. Wendy and Jeffrey had gone for a stroll along the lake while Trisha and Bud had gone off to be “alone.” Caroline and Colin were seated in a booth in the back.
Tina was sitting with John, having a last quiet drink before turning in. She was going to make the weekend last as long as possible by leaving very early in the morning. She was pouring over bride magazines, a ritual her fiance found enchanting. He didn’t care what she wore; he knew she’d look perfect in anything she chose. But watching her eyes light up as she looked at dresses and cakes was easily as much fun as what she was having. Made him want to whisk her right upstairs.
“Hey John!” Steve called him over to the corner of the bar where he and Brynn were sitting. “Got a hockey question.”
Tina smiled. “Go,” she told him gently. “I’m completely entertained here.” She watched him walk across the room before returning to her magazine.
“Hi, Tina. I didn’t know you were still here.” Sid slid into the booth almost immediately, causing her slime radar to kick on. But the look on his face disarmed her. It was hard to remember to distrust him when he looked so open and friendly. After all, the goal of the reprogramming was to make him more likeable.
She relaxed. “I leave in the morning. Where’s Bethany?” she asked. The relationship between Sid and Bethany had been slow to take off, but it had potential.
“She’s sorta annoyed with me right now.”
“Well I was thinking she’d look nice in pastels. Pink. The fashion magazines are showing a lot of pink this year. Even calling it ‘the new black.’”
“Fashion magazines, Sid?” Tina was becoming very good at repressing the desire to laugh these days. He looked so EARNEST.
“Cable showed a recap a few nights ago.” He shrugged. “It was late, I was bored.”
She allowed a giggle to escape. “Sorry, but I can about imagine what Bethany said to THAT!”
“She told me to go fuck myself. I told her that was physically impossible to achieve, even for me.”
Tina shook her head. Sometimes Sid was amazingly literal. “I don’t think she meant it quite that way. It’s just an expression.” She noticed a small notebook laying on the table. “What’s that?”
“Oh, I’ve been doodling. The new module has some interesting side effects. I can draw.” He flipped open the book. The first picture was a self-portrait, rendered flawlessly. The next few sketches were equally well-executed, but far more telling.
Tina’s favorite was Bethany, sitting on a bench beneath a tree, a sword resting against her knee. The wind has stirred her beautiful hair; Sid captured her hand raised to push it away from her face. The entire effect was stunning and she said so. Sid smiled.
“Would you let me sketch you? You look so lovely with your hair framing your face like that.”
The gracefulness of his inquiry disarmed her for a moment. She glanced down at Bethany, looking like a Raphaelite angel, and started to say ,”Yes.” But before she could get the word out of her mouth, Sid continued,” I have this idea. I would love to sketch you nude.”
SMACK! The sound of Tina’s hand connecting with Sid’s face echoed through the Tavern.
“Tina?” His hand flew to his now-reddened cheek. “What did I do? I thought you’d be flattered.”
“Get…away…from…me,” she enunciated every word clearly in her fury. “GET… AWAY…FROM…ME…NOW!”
“The puppy dog eyes won’t work. GO!”
John had already returned to the booth. “What’s wrong? What did you do, asshole?” He grabbed Sid by the front of his shirt as he was standing up.
“Nothing, I swear.”
John looked at Tina who shook her head. “It’s ok. I just want him out of my sight.”
Biebe pushed Sid away from him, “You heard the lady. Get out of here now.” The other man started to protest until he realized that Cort had stepped up to help John remove him from the Tavern if necessary. He straightened his shirt and walked off, stopping by the door to retrieve the notebook that Tina had hurled at his head with amazing accuracy. When he straightened up, he turned and extended his middle finger in salute.
“I haven’t seen him since and when I do, I may rip his CPU out of his chest and stomp on it,” John finished.
Siobhan’s fingers began to fly over the keyboard. “You know you won’t. God knows, every one of you has been provoked by him, but you never kill him. He’s one of you. Let me just get this ready and I will get that stupid module removed this morning.” She shook her head. “I am sorry, John. I feel responsible.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Yeah it is. I should be more careful. I did have an idea for the ultimate solution to the Sid problem. I am running the programs now. When I have it all written up, I will present it to the Point as a whole.” She smiled. “But I think you better not be here when Sid gets back.”
“I can’t leave you alone with him.”
“I won’t be, I promise.”
“OK, when these are done,” he pointed to his computer.
Siobhan had every intention of keeping her promise to John. Of course, being alone with Sid would be more dangerous to him at this moment. A cold fury had settled over her. She’d believed he wanted to be liked, bought into the goal, and spent hours pouring over modules with him. All so he could hustle women who weren’t interested in the first place?
‘Maybe,’ she thought. ‘Just maybe, I am over-reacting?’
If Sid was insincere, she had no reason to stay. Maximus was gone, possibly for good. She’d had no word from him, though Terry had assured her that he was all right. If there was no future with Maximus and no job, she’d be leaving.
‘Great, I’m a complete failure,’ she told herself as she stood in the doorway, looking out at the Point. Down the path to her right were the stables and the corral. She could see Cali pushing her velvet nose against East’s arm until he offered her an apple. Up the path she could see the Hotel and the Tavern. It wasn’t going to be easy to leave all this, but she began to see that she might have to.
She began to cry as all the frustration and worry finally took hold.
Sid whistled as he headed down the path to the lab. He’d had a great morning fishing. This Dawson module was pretty great; he’d discovered a side of himself that people liked. OK, Bethany was thoroughly disgusted with it, he knew that. And Tina…
Why Tina so particularly, he wondered sometimes. Probably because she wouldn’t have him. Sooner or later, he’d break down her defenses and get her into bed. He did think this Dawson guy would be the one. After all he was better looking than John Biebe, had a better body certainly, and now he had Dawson. But he needed to be subtler. Maybe Siobhan could be convinced that the Dawson module was incomplete…
As he approached the open door, he could hear Siobhan crying. Cautiously he entered the lab. “Doc?” She turned; her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen and her nose glowed. “What’s wrong?”
Wham! Her fist connected with his eye, followed immediately by her cry of pain. She stood there, shaking her hand and crying harder now. “You bastard!”
“What did I do?”
“The only reason you want to be reprogrammed is to score. You used me. I cannot believe I fell for all your bullshit.”
“What are you talking about?” He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “I never used you.”
“I know all about you asking Tina to pose nude and claiming all the Titanic memories.” She tried to push him away. “You had your hand on her breast the night we brought you in here to reprogram you. God!” she growled. “You repulse me.”
“I repulse you? I have never treated any woman at the Point as well as I have treated you and you know it.” He grabbed her wrist and held it in a firm grip this time; she whimpered from the pressure as he turned to kick the door shut. The lock snapped into place. “I could rape you right now, you know that. I am capable of it.” His face was so close she could feel his breath. “But I don’t. I want a woman to come to me of her own free will. I want Tina to want me.”
“Because she never gave me a second look. Never even considered me.”
“Women come here who do want you.”
“But they don’t stay.”
“I thought that was what we were working on.”
“How about you? You want me? Make me into the man you want.”
“That’s pathetic, Sid.”
“Why? Maximus has left you. I’m better than Biebe, I’m better than Maximus!” He was rewarded by tears springing back up in her eyes, but it wasn’t the satisfaction he’d expected. He pulled her into his arms and held her. “I’m sorry, Doc,” he said consolingly, as she cried. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” His hand slipped down to caress her backside. She struggled to get away.
“Damn it, Sid!” She raised her hand to smack him again, but he caught it at the wrist. “Get in there now!” she pointed to the booth. “Now or I swear, I walk out and never come back.”
“I like this module.”
“I don’t. Get in there.”
“Fine, then I’m gone.” She started to walk past him. “Don’t touch me again, do you understand?”
“OK, fine, I’ll go in there, but under protest.” He turned in the doorway. “You owe me and I will collect.”
“Owe you how?”
“Do you really think you’re capable of making me do anything?” It was her first terrifying glimpse of Sid as he had been in Virtuosity: cold, calculating and ruthless. Her mistake had been in trusting him. “I will call in this marker some day.”
Shivering, Siobhan opened the door quickly before going to hook Sid up. He didn’t speak as she removed the module. Once the work had been completed, he buttoned his shirt and left without another word to her.