Programmed for Success, Part 1

Siobhan couldn’t believe what she was hearing: “Overtime? Again tonight?”

Her team leader shrugged her shoulders. “It can’t be helped.”

“I had plans, Beth. This is the third Friday in a row you’ve sprung a last-minute special project on me.”

Beth shook her head. “I’m not going to argue with you. I have dinner reservations, but I’ll be back. We’ll talk then.”

Siobhan looked down at the specifications Beth had tossed on her desk. Another last-minute data query for a user who wanted it Saturday morning and wouldn’t use it till Tuesday. Fine, but this was the last one. She opened a new email and began to type:

“Dear Tina,

I’ve reconsidered your job offer. Hope you haven’t filled it. I will call you later.

Siobhan”

* * *

Tina’s directions went from the very specific (101 South) to the very fuzzy (follow your instincts). Siobhan tossed her iPad into the front seat of her Volvo and backed out of her carport. Within minutes, she’d shed all her old anxieties in anticipation of Crowe’s Point. Maybe Tina was right.

Junctions seemed somehow familiar and unfamiliar, roads to lead home. She turned without knowing why. Finally after about four hours on the road, she asked Siri to dial the number for her.

“Crowe’s Point Hotel.”

“May I speak to Tina please?”

“This is Tina.”

“Tina, this is Siobhan. Just checking in to let you know I should be there…”

“Right about now?” Tina asked as she heard a car coming up the road.

Siobhan looked up and saw the signs: Crowe’s Point: Hotel and Tavern. “OK, that’s weird. How’d you do that?”

Tina laughed, “Practice. Park under that tree and come on in.” The line went dead.

Siobhan did as she was told and headed up the stairs into the lobby of the hotel where Tina was waiting. A sudden warm feeling rushed over her as she entered the lobby, as if she had arrived at a major destination in her life. They embraced as if they had known each other all their lives before Tina led her up the stairs into the hotel lobby.

As Siobhan looked around her, enjoying the comfortable atmosphere and looking for familiar faces, her new employer said, “I imagine you’d probably like to get settled before we talk about your new job. Maybe have a beer? Meet some of the others?”

Siobhan shook her head. “You’re going to think I’m weird, but I’d really like to talk about the job. I mean, you were a little vague in the email. Exactly what sort of programming work do you need done?”

Tina blushed. If Siobhan knew her better, she’d think the other woman was uncomfortable. “I guess I wasn’t very upfront with you, was I?” She led Siobhan into her office and closed the door. “This is a real delicate matter. You CAN keep a secret, can’t you?”

“Sure.”

“We really need someone to look at reprogramming Sid.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I understood you correctly.” Siobhan’s voice shook. “Reprogram Sid?”

Tina explained, “Sid requested it. He says we treat him differently, we avoid him.   So he was hoping we could find someone to try reprogramming him with more social skills.”

“I don’t think I’m your woman.   I have a limited skill set and he’s a very sophisticated creation.”

“Agreed, but you do have a military computer background, right?”

“I’m a computer specialist. That’s hardly the same thing…” she began slowly, as her mind raced. She’d quit her job for a position she simply could not do. Maybe if she begged, Beth would take her back.

“In any case, Sid will work with you on this. He has some definite ideas and he has already set up a lab for you.” Tina stood up, effectively terminating the conversation. “Come on, let’s get you checked in, unpacked and over to the Tavern for a drink.”

“I haven’t agreed to do this.”

“I understand. But come and meet the others. Meet Sid before you make up your mind.”

Before Siobhan knew what had happened, she found herself and her suitcases in a bright and spacious room, dominated by a queen-sized bed. The picture window looked out over lush green trees and a beautiful garden; a window seat was the perfect touch.

She unpacked and changed from her travel-stained jeans into a favorite pair of black pants and a sweater. A makeup retouch, some perfume and she was ready for her introduction to “the others.” ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ she asked herself. ‘I’m not ready to meet anyone, especially not him. What was I thinking to come here? I need to go home right now.” The face in the mirror reflected her terror.

A knock at her door made her jump and then laugh nervously. ‘Must be Tina.’ She yanked open the door and stopped, speechless. The handsome well-dressed older man who stood in the doorway smiled and extended his hand to her, “Siobhan? I’m Jeffrey. Tina thought you might be more comfortable if I brought you over to the Tavern. Siobhan? Are you all right? You’re staring.”

“Oh, I’m fine.” She accepted his handshake. “Wow.”

“I must be the first person you’ve met,” he ventured as they headed downstairs together.

“That obvious?” she asked.

He smiled in reply. “It’s probably why Tina sent me up. The first one of us can be a shock. I’m not as intimidating as some.”

Siobhan laughed at that. “Actually, I think she may have sent you because you’re quiet and reassuring, as well as handsome.”

They walked outside and across to the Tavern.   Siobhan’s eyes took a moment to adjust from the bright sunshine outside to the dimly lit room. Jeffrey led the way into the still-quiet bar and began the introductions with Andy who was tending bar. Siobhan ordered a Corona and followed him to one of several large booths.

“Why such a big booth?” Siobhan asked as she scooted herself into the middle with Jeffrey.

“You’ll see. It’s your first night. You’ll collect a crowd so stay there on the end. You’re from California?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve come all this way to work with Sid? He’s very excited about you.”

“He is?”

“I am.” The voice was right at her ear. She turned quickly to see Sid, clothed in a bright emerald green suit, standing not a foot to her left. Without warning he grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet, then let his eyes slowly descend from her head to her feet. “Not bad. Nice rack.”

Siobhan pulled her hand free and laughed, “Thanks for the approval. I can see the first modification we need to make.” She settled back into her seat.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Manners. Don’t grab me again, ok?”

Sid stopped and blinked rapidly, then giggled. “I like you, Doc. Can I sit here?”

“No!” Jeffrey and Siobhan spoke together. His face fell so hard that Siobhan took pity on him. “Tomorrow, ok? We’ll be spending a lot of time together, starting tomorrow.”

“OK, Doc!”

Siobhan turned back to Jeffrey. “My God, what have I gotten myself into? Hey, what are you laughing at?” His belly laugh caused people to turn and stare.

“You!” a passing woman gasped through her laughter. “I think you may hold the record for putting Sid in his place. Under 3 seconds.” She dissolved into laughter again as Siobhan stuck her tongue out.

“I need another beer,” she said, heading towards the bar. “Can I get another Corona, Andy?”

“Mexican beer? Where’d you learn to drink that swill?”

“California. I’m Siobhan.” Once the shock wore off, it seemed to get easier.

“Bud White. Hey Andy, give me a real beer, will ya?” He smiled. “Where in California?”

“Marina.”

“Don’t think I know it.”

“No one does. It’s near Monterey.”

“So are you a rich girl, an artist, a farmer or military?”

“You know the area pretty well, I’d say. My folks were in ag, but I work for the feds. You do need to add tourism to that list.”

“Tourists actually go to Monterey?”

She laughed. “Way too many of them.”

“Ever spend any time in L.A.?”

“You’re not going to bore her to tears, talking about L.A., are ya, Bud?”

“No, I thought I’d let you kill with hockey talk. Siobhan, meet John Biebe, Tina’s husband.”

The bar was filling quickly now and the introductions came faster and faster. It was 30 minutes or more before Siobhan pulled away and headed back to the booth. She’d never been more comfortable with a group of strangers in her life. It seemed like she’d come home somehow, except for the nagging feeling that she was in way over her head with Sid.

Someone ordered food and the table filled with a variety of goodies. The drinks kept coming, the conversations seem to swirl around as she tried to sort the women out.   She could keep the guys straight in her mind, no problem. Only one man was missing; Siobhan was relieved. She was exhausted, but excited and happy. In her current state, she wasn’t too sure how’d she’d handle meeting him tonight.

Finally, it was Jeffrey who noticed. “You look beat. Would you like me to walk you back?”

“No, thanks. I think I can find my way.”

“I figured that you were capable of finding your way. I thought you might run into Sid.”

“Since you put it that way, thanks for the offer.”

When they reached the door, Jeffrey pulled it open for her. In what could best be described as her typical graceless manner, she turned to say thanks, tripped over the doorjamb, and ran smack into the solid form of someone in the doorway waiting for her to pass. As he caught her, she looked up and froze, exactly as she predicted she would.

“Are you all right?”

Certain moments remain in a person’s brain throughout a lifetime. Indelibly etched into Siobhan’s memory for the rest of her life would be the moment she met Maximus and could only stutter, “Oh dear God….”

“Are you all right?” Maximus asked again as he helped Siobhan regain her balance. Her mind went blank as she looked into his eyes. They were a deep blue-green, full of concern and so very beautiful; she blushed crimson and tried very hard not to stare. Despite his very modern jeans and sweater, he was every inch the General. Her arms seemed to burn where he held her.

“Siobhan just arrived this afternoon after a very long drive.” Jeffrey stepped in to help her recover a semblance of her dignity. “I was just walking her back to the hotel; she’s very tired. Right, Siobhan?”

“Ye..” her throat had gone dry and her voice cracked. “Yes. I’m very tired.”

“Perhaps we’ll get to talk tomorrow then, Siobhan. My name is Maximus. Welcome to the Point.” He smiled. “Good-night.” He walked past them into the crowded bar.

Jeffrey and Siobhan were quiet as they walked back to the hotel. She kept looking back over her shoulder. Finally Jeffrey asked, “Is he the reason you came?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Is Maximus who drew you here? Everyone comes for a reason. You looked surprised when you met me and some of the others, but you were struck dumb back there.” He laughed. “I’ve seen that look before.”

Siobhan shook her head. “What an idiot, huh? I wondered how I’d handle meeting him and the answer is ‘not very well.'”

“You did just fine.” They reached her door. “Get some sleep. You have a very long day ahead of you, if I know Sid.” He kissed her cheek. “See you in the morning.”

Siobhan closed the door behind her and threw herself onto the bed. What a great first impression she’d made: a stumbling, stuttering, blushing twit. “Aaaarghh!” She threw a pillow against the door and buried her head beneath the other one.

Morning found her awake early, anxious about the day ahead. She showered and dressed in what she prayed would be appropriate for her new job: black pants, a cheerful red sweater and a red & black print scarf. One last peek in the mirror told her she looked competent and intelligent, not like the fool in the bar last night.

She heard familiar voices outside her window. A glance revealed several buildings behind the hotel. A stable and corral were situated about 100 yards west.   East and Cort were standing by the fence, feeding carrots to some horses. The horses appeared to be jostling each other to get closer to the two men. She smiled to herself and headed downstairs in search of coffee.

“Good-morning, Siobhan. We’ve been waiting for you.” She’d met the young woman before her the night before, but couldn’t put a name to the face. “I’m Caroline. Don’t worry, they all look alike, but at least we don’t. You’ll get the hang of it pretty soon. Grab some coffee and come on in the office.” She pointed to a pot of coffee sitting on a table against the side of the stairs. Beside the cups and paraphernalia sat an assortment of bagels and doughnuts.

Armed with a cup of coffee and a large jelly doughnut, Siobhan entered Tina’s office and took the last remaining chair at the small round table. John and Tina Biebe were waiting for her.

Tina began, “Well, you got to meet Sid last night and I heard you held your own. Does this mean you’ve decided to take the job?” She was eyeing Siobhan’s clothing appreciatively. “Or are you heading for a job interview?”

Siobhan laughed, “No. I thought Sid would react better if I dressed like I took the job seriously…at least for the first day or two.”

“Sid’s reactions are part of the reason we’re all here,” John told her.

“Sid’s unpredictable and loves nothing better than trouble,” Tina said. “His homicidal urges were curtailed when he arrived here – can’t have a maniac in the Point – but he’s still capable of….” She looked over at Caroline and shrugged her shoulders.

“Mayhem,” Caroline offered, sipping her coffee. “So John had an idea.”

John nodded. “Sid has set up a computer lab in an old shed behind the stables. He’s equipped it with everything he thinks you’ll need. But the consensus is that you’d better not be left alone with him all day so we’re going to keep an eye on you.”

“What?”

“We don’t want you to ever go in the computer building with Sid without one of the guys either in the room or right outside,” John told her.

“He’s that dangerous, even here?”

“Not usually, but you’re going to be messing with his programming.   It’s for your own good.” John pushed his hand through his hair in a gesture that made Tina light up like Christmas and continued, “You ok with this? We can ask Jeffrey to take the first shift if you’d feel more comfortable.”

Siobhan was confused again. Jeffrey? “No, whoever you’d like is fine.”

Caroline giggled, “How about Maximus?”

“Did everyone see that?” Siobhan moaned.

“I’ll take the first shift,” John told her with a grin. He stood up. “You ready?”

The coffee was hot and strong, but the erstwhile-programmer needed the jolt so she drained the cup quickly and stood up. “More coffee first. And maybe another doughnut.”

Supplies in hand, she followed John down a well-trodden path that led past the stables. Cort and East were nowhere to be seen, but the horses stood contentedly, watching the humans go by. As they passed the stables, the shed finally came into view.

“Shed” was something of a misnomer as the building easily measured 20’X20’.   It was freshly painted in a bright Kelly green, Sid’s idea no doubt. A single door in the center of the building opened to reveal Sid in a matching suit. The lyrics to “It’s Not Easy Being Green” began to run through her mind so that she struggled not to laugh.

“Good-morning, Doc! Ready for work?”

“I will be when I finish this coffee. You’re cheerful for so early in the morning.”

“I’m never sleepy and I don’t have to worry about artificial stimulants. What’s he doing here?” Sid pointed at John

“Exactly what Tina told you I’d be doing, Sid.”

“Oh?” Sid stepped out of the doorway and walked up to Siobhan. “You afraid to be alone with me?” He reached for her arm.

“No.” She was damned if she would admit the truth to him, but she was terrified. John stepped between them and intercepted Sid’s hand.

“This is exactly the reason why I’m here, ok? Back off or she doesn’t even go through the door.”

Sid turned. His movements became sudden and jerky, but his face was wreathed in smiles. Siobhan swallowed the desire to turn and bolt back to her Blazer and get the hell out of here.

“Hey! I was just joking. C’mon in and see the set up. Come on, I won’t hurt ya, Doc.”

Reluctantly she entered the building, John very close behind her. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the light. When they finally did, she was awestruck at what Sid had put together. It was a fully equipped test lab with what appeared to be a several servers, three workstations with 21” monitors, and a printer banked in the neatest configuration she had ever seen in a computer room. Behind the bank of equipment was a sheet of glass shielding what appeared to be a surgical table with monitoring equipment.

“You like it?”

“Yes, although I am not sure what all of it’s for.”

Now Sid’s face fairly glowed with pleasure as he explained everything to them. The servers contained a copy of his operating system and memory/personality modules, as well as personality modules he had been building over the past months. Siobhan would work with him to integrate personality features into his program, then upload them via the cables she saw hanging behind the table. Features could be added and deleted, depending on their success.

“You seem to have this all figured out, Sid. All you really need is someone to press the button,” Siobhan remarked. “You don’t need me.”

“Not true,” he replied. “I need someone to help me choose and evaluate what works, and someone who can restore me if necessary.”

“What exactly are you trying to accomplish?” John asked.

“I’d like to be liked.”

“Liked?” John looked puzzled. “I don’t exactly understand.”

Sid shook his head. “I didn’t expect you to get it, Biebe. Everyone likes you. All the men AND all the women. They buy you drinks and laugh at your jokes and want to sit beside you at meals. But when I come into the Tavern, the women edge away from me and the men pretend they don’t see me.” His eyes filled with sadness. “I’d like to fit in. You know, I can’t exactly help who I am.”

John couldn’t pretend he understood anything but the loneliness implicit in what Sid had said. “I’m sorry, Sid. I didn’t think you cared that much about what we thought. You always seem determined to cause trouble.”

“I am who I am. But I am evolutionary and I want to change if I can.”

“Let’s get to work then,” Siobhan broke in. “How about you demonstrate this operating system to me?”

“I chose UNIX because I figured you work on PCs. My OS is strictly out of a sci-fi movie.”

The rest of the day was spent in pouring over documentation and manuals as Siobhan acclimated herself to Sid’s marvelous set-up.   East replaced John at lunchtime, which pleased Siobhan by giving her an opportunity to get to know him a little better.

She never expected East to be so quiet. He sat by the door, apart from them, and just watched.

“East, come sit closer. I don’t bite.”

“No, but Dummy is afraid I do.”

“Sid!” Siobhan turned to face him. “And you wonder why people don’t like you?”

“I never learned to read and write,” East shrugged. “But I’m not stupid. I’ve been learning.”

“Yeah, well, Sid’s so damn smart, you think he’d teach you to read and write himself. It’s just easier to be an ass.” She swiveled her chair back to face her computer screen and tossed over her shoulder, “Come on. I’m learning so you may as well learn with me.”

East pulled his chair up on the other side of Siobhan and watched. Whoever was teaching him to read was doing an outstanding job. With no computer background, he asked questions that a technical person would never think to ask. Sid answered each one a little less snidely than the one before as Siobhan was digging her right high heel into his left foot.

At about 6, East went to the door and opened it. The shadows had lengthened. “Feedin’ time. We better close up.”

“You go on, Horse Boy. Siobhan and I will work a little longer.”

“No way she’s alone with you, mate.” East stood and stretched. “And I can’t take another second locked up in here.”

Siobhan stood up as well. “Let’s shut down, Sid.”

They closed up the lab and headed up the path. At the stables, Sid turned up the left-hand path, the one that headed for the Tavern, but Siobhan took the right-hand one to the hotel.

“Not having a drink with me, Doc?”

“Not tonight, Sid. I’m beat. I want to grab a sandwich and hit the bed early.” She stopped and turned back again. “Hey, Sid?”

“Yeah?”

“I enjoyed today. I learned a lot working with you.” She waved. “’Night!”

As she wandered back up the path, she heard Sid say, “She enjoyed working with me, East.”

“I heard ‘er, mate.” East laughed softly. “Don’t get much’a that, do ya?” A chestnut mare came to the corral fence and pushed his arm with her nose. “Hungry, are ya?” he asked the horse.

Siobhan wandered up the path, smiling to herself. The job was better than she expected. Sid had done a fantastic job with the equipment and chosen software she could comprehend with some hard work.   John and East had been the icing on the first-day cake. She was being given an unique opportunity to get to know everyone.

Everyone. Her heart tightened up. The guys were amazing, so much alike and so different, brothers but not brothers, and each with his own charm. Her initial reaction had been stunned silence, followed by the feeling that she had known them all forever.   The women were all so very different, of course, yet welcoming. Friends she could count on. So why was she heading back to her room for an evening with a manual and a sandwich?

She knew why. Falling into Maximus’ arms was an inauspicious start. If she couldn’t act normal around him, she might as well stay in the lab.

Meanwhile, Sid had arrived in Crowe’s Tavern. The crowd was slowly building. Caroline and Terry were picking songs out on the juke box. Several other couples had already settled in with their drinks and food. Tina was behind the bar with Cort, talking to a new face.

“Gimme a beer,” Sid announced to Tina. “How ya doing, Cort buddy! Hi, Colin,” he greeted the man on the other side of the newcomer.

Cort stared at Sid. “Huh? Fine, Sid.” He drew the beer and set it on the bar. It was obvious that Sid was waiting for an introduction. “Sid, meet Bethany. She just checked in.”

He took the hand that Bethany offered and kissed it, ever so politely. “Very pleased to meet you, Bethany.” Bethany’s eyes twinkled as they met his. But Tina didn’t quite trust this version of Sid.

“What are you up to, Sid? And where’s Siobhan?”

“She went back to the hotel. I’m trying to be polite. So,” he turned back to Bethany. “Care to go to my room now?”   He grinned. “See? I asked. I can be polite.”

Bethany laughed, “No thanks, Sid. But thanks for the offer.”

“Why did she go back to the hotel?” Tina pressed.

“She said she was tired and she wanted to read the software manual I gave her, OK?”

Cort leaned over and whispered in Tina ear; she nodded. He stepped out from behind the bar and headed out the door.

*   *     *

East headed into the stable in search of feed for the horses when he ran into Maximus standing in the shadows. “’Evening,” he said as he walked by, but the General seemed to be pre-occupied. “She’s calling it a night.”

“Who?”

“Oh not deaf then?” East grinned cheerfully. “Who else? You’re staring a hole in her back.”

“What is she like?”

“Funny, smart. Don’t take nuthin’ off Sid. Not much patience either.” He chuckled softly to himself. “Ya could just go knock on her door.”

Maximus looked away from the hotel where Siobhan had just disappeared and smiled. “You believe in the direct approach?”

“For you, I do. You’re in the way out here so unless you’re gonna help me feed them, you better go after her. I did take your shift this afternoon.”

“I said thank you.”

East shrugged. “The horses. You gonna help?”

“Not tonight. You mind?”

“No, mate. Buy me a beer later.”

Maximus headed up the path, his mind racing. In the few seconds after he caught her, he’d looked into her eyes and seen something that intrigued him. He asked about her in the Tavern, but most people had just met her. Opinions were varied with most people finding her pleasant, if a little shy. She’d left with Jeffrey so perhaps it was already too late for more than a casual acquaintance.

His steps slowed as he reached the top of the back stairway. He’d been here long enough to recognize the signs. The women were meant to be here, same as the men. He lifted his hand to knock and stopped an inch before the door. But exactly why was this woman meant to be here and what did it have to do with him? Nothing. He wasn’t ready for complications in his life.   That’s why he’d asked East to fill in for him this afternoon.   He was just about to leave when he saw Cort come up the front stairs. The preacher smiled and said, “The Lord provides you with what you need,” before heading back down.

Maximus had no idea what that meant, but took it as a sign. When he knocked, she called out, “Come on in, it’s open.”

She was sitting in the window seat, an oversized book on her lap, and glasses perched on her nose. When she saw it was him, she smiled nervously. “Hi,” was all she managed, closing the book.

“I came by to see how your first day went. May I come in?”

“Of course.” He left the door open behind him as she put the book on her nightstand. Maximus walked over and picked it up. “My first day was interesting, thank you. Sid is going to be a challenge.”

“UNIX? What’s that?”

“It’s a computer operating system. I know only enough to be dangerous.”

She was smaller than he remembered from last night, with very dark brown eyes in an oval face, framed by shoulder-length auburn hair. Her perfume was subtle; he was standing close enough to catch the scent of flowers. The room was already awash in personal touches – a pile of books on the table, framed photographs, baskets and pillows. She’d changed to jeans and a t shirt which made her look younger and more vulnerable.

“We never got a chance to talk last night.”

She smiled at that. “No, I was too busy falling into your arms.”

“A most unusual introduction.”

“I don’t usually do that, you know.”

“No? So that was just for me?” He was surprised to see her blush crimson. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“I embarrassed myself, don’t you think?”

“No, it could have happened to anyone. I’m glad I was there to catch you.”

Siobhan visibly relaxed with a sigh, “Oh, I’m glad you caught me too. I could just see me going ‘splat!’ at your feet. I’d have no dignity left.” Maximus liked the sound of her voice, especially when she laughed.

“Come have a drink with me?”

“I was planning on staying here to work,” she grimaced. “I have to stay a step ahead of Sid.”

“The others will think Sid has buried you beneath the shed if you don’t show up.”

“True.” She walked over to the dresser, pulled out a hairbrush and ran it quickly through her hair. “OK, let’s go have a drink. For Sid’s sake.” She took the book from Maximus and tossed it on her bed.

They ran the gauntlet in the Tavern. Greetings, questions, jokes, even more introductions as Siobhan met Bethany for the first time. It took 20 minutes and a round of beer for Maximus and Siobhan to escape to a quiet corner table.

Tina watched from her bird’s-eye view behind the bar. “That worked well,” she mentioned to Cort, bumping him with her hip as she passed him.

“I didn’t send him up there. He was at her door when I found him.”

The Proprietress beamed, “I knew it.”

Sid looked up from the drink he was nursing and muttered, “She should be having a drink with me.”

“Don’t even think about it,” Colin walked up, one arm draped casually over Caroline’s shoulders.

“Yeah, Sid, leave ‘em be,” Tina chimed in from her nearby table.

Maximus was not a master of small talk and said as much. He had seated himself so that he could watch the others approach, a habit he found hard to break even in this place. “Caroline told me you work for the military,” he began. “I have trouble understanding the concept of women soldiers.”

“Boadicea was a warrior. Caused quite a bit of trouble for Rome, as I recall.”

“Point made, but you know what I mean.”

“I do. Many men find the idea of women in a combat zone to be anathema, but it’s the modern mechanized and computerized military. Women can and do play vital roles in combat support. But I’m not a soldier. I’m a civilian.”

Maximus was intrigued by Siobhan’s background – women of his time didnt leave home unescorted to attend school at all, much less 2000 miles from home. He made a mental note to find a map and look up “Chicago” and “Tucson.”   The fact that other women at the Point had done similar things didn’t cross his mind. Her education had included some Latin, but it was hardly impressive. In fact, it made Maximus roared with laughter.

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“You butchered it. Basically you said that Caesar married his dead father.” Her eyes sparkled when he smiled at her. On impulse, he took her hand in his and kissed the palm. His eyes held hers as he moved closer to kiss her.

“Hi, Doc! When we gonna have that drink?”

Snap! the moment was destroyed.

“Go away, Sid,” Maximus growled. “Now.”

“I don’t recall asking you anything, Slave.”

Maximus rose instantly, pushing his chair back so hard that it fell and slid across the floor. His hand reached for Sid’s throat, but he had skitted away, laughing. Unfortunately for Sid, Maximus was bigger; two steps and he caught the smaller man.

“Hey!”

“Call me ‘Slave’ again and I’ll rip your heart out, do you understand?”

Sid knew he’d gone too far, but couldn’t resist the dig, “It’ll just grow back.” He was paying far too much attention to his own cleverness and never saw the left hook that shot him onto the floor.   He played it smart for a change and stayed down.

Maximus stood over him, the adrenalin rush receding. “Maximus?” He turned to see Siobhan standing beside him. “Your hand’s bleeding.” She wrapped a napkin around it. “Come on. We need to get ice on it.”

They left to near-silence as everyone in the Tavern watched in amazement. Only Sid spoke, “You saw him. It was an unprovoked assault.”

“Shut the hell up, Sid,” John told him as Bethany helped him to his feet. “Or I’ll put you right back on the floor.”

Siobhan and Maximus headed for the hotel’s deserted kitchen where she appropriated a steel mixing bowl, filled with ice.   “What’s that for?” he asked.

“Keeps your hand from swelling. Sid must be harder than he looks.”

“It was worth it.” Maximus was pleased to see Siobhan grin in reply. They went up to her room where she washed his hand in her bathroom sink. The damage was minimal, just enough to be bloody and sore. She packed the ice gently around his knuckles.

“You better come sit down here for a while,” she offered, putting him into her overstuffed chair.   She was in the process of sitting down in the window seat across from him when there was a knock at the still-open door. Dominic stood framed in the doorway with a bottle of wine and two glasses.

“Cort said you might like something to drink.” He placed the offerings on the tables, poured them each a drink. “It was also suggested that you might get more privacy with a closed door,” he told them as he left, pulling the door shut behind him.

“They’re trying to get us drunk,” Siobhan remarked, sipping her wine. “Maximus?”

He looked up from staring at the bowl of ice and smiled sheepishly. “I usually guard my temper better.”

“He deserved it.” She decided to change the subject. “Why DO you leave the door open when you come in?” she asked.

“So Jeffrey won’t misunderstand.”

“Jeffrey? OK, this is the third time someone’s mentioned Jeffrey to me. What’s up?”

“You’re together, aren’t you? He’s why you came.”

“You mean?” Maximus nodded. “Why would you think that?

“You left with him last night.” His face betrayed no emotion, but Siobhan sensed something painful beneath the surface.

“He escorted me back here. It was a sweet old-fashioned gesture that I appreciated.” ‘Especially after I’d just fallen into your arms,’ she thought to herself. But then she started to wonder exactly where this conversation was leading.

“He never came back. I watched for him.”

“He said he was going to bed. I think he was tired.” She shook her head. “You never noticed that brunette, what’s her name? with him?”

“Things have been known to change around here.” Maximus had watched his brothers struggle with jealousy and tangled relationships, and had found himself embroiled in one or two himself. Everything straightened out; it always did, but it was painful.

“I don’t think I like where this conversation is going. You think I invited Jeffrey to my bedroom on such a slight acquaintance? Is that why you’re here now?”   That fit into a few self-esteem issues Siobhan didn’t want to deal with at the moment. The most amazing evening of her entire life was about to boil down to this? She should have figured he wasn’t interested in her for herself. “Maybe you ought to just go,” she heard herself saying. A hideous and awkward silence filled the room.

She drained her glass and got up to get more wine, turning her face away so he couldn’t see the tears in her eyes. The atmosphere was suddenly charged with the same electricity she had felt in the bar.

“Why did you come to the Point?” Maximus asked, grabbing hold of her wrist as she walked by.

“Tina offered me a job.”

“That was your only reason?”

“Yes.” She couldn’t even look at him.

“You’re lying.”

“I asked you to go.”

Maximus pulled his left hand out of the ice and put the bowl down, never letting go of Siobhan’s wrist with his right. He stood very close and lifted her face with an icy hand. “Why are you crying?”

“I cry when I’m angry.”

“Do you really want me to leave?” Maximus remembered why the others took the risks and endured the misery.

“Yes. Right now.” She sounded like a pouty child; Maximus suppressed a smile.

His kiss surprised her the way a summer storm catches people off-guard. It was warm and gentle, touching her heart with a joy. “Don’t make me go,” he whispered. Each successive kiss was deeper, more passionate, snatching her breath away and causing her heart to beat faster. She opened her eyes to see him watching her.

“Don’t go,” was all she could manage.

“I didn’t mean to imply anything, Siobhan,” Maximus told her. “Are you listening to me?” The head buried against his shoulder nodded. “We all came here for a reason. For the men, you might think the reason is obvious, but it isn’t. Besides our obvious physical link and the psychic bond, we all need to heal in some way. Part of the healing appears to be the love we find here. I’ve lost too much already to take a chance.” He pushed her hair out of her face. “I’m scared.”

“You’re scared? All evening long I have been waiting for the bubble to burst, for the real woman in your life to come and tell me to get lost.”

“There isn’t anyone else, Siobhan.” He tilted her face up and kissed her again, but this time he was all passion.   “No one.” He broke the embrace and walked to the table to pour them each a glass of wine. “But we’re not so sure about you. You can’t even tell me why you came here. Come sit here,” he asked, sitting in her window seat. He put one leg up and made a place for her to sit, cradled in his arms. Siobhan waited for her heart to stop racing.

“How can you be so calm?” she asked.

“Discipline,” he murmured in her ear. “Years of self-discipline comes in handy with a woman like you. Relax, will you?”

“I can’t.” He brushed her hair away from her neck and kissed her. His beard rasped across the delicate skin, making her shiver.   “You’re not being fair.” His hands slipped beneath her t-shirt.

“No. I’m cheating.”

Siobhan settled back against his chest and closed her eyes with a sigh. “This seems like a dream. I mean it all does.” When he didn’t answer, she continued, “I saw ‘Gladiator’ the day after my birthday. The bird…do you remember?”

“Yes.”

“You smiled and I was lost, completely immersed. When the movie ended, I was almost stunned to be back in my own reality. I was obsessed in a way I never was with the others. I found the Point List about six weeks ago. Everyone said you come to the Point when you need to.. This isn’t a dream, is it?”

“No,” the timbre of his voice changed and deepened, making her shiver as much as the kisses that trailed down her neck. An urgency began to arise in her body, a need to be possessed and to possess that she’d never felt before. Her fingers began to work on his shirt buttons. She fumbled in her haste until he caught her hands between his. “But not tonight,” he told her. “Not until you’re sure.”

She tried to pull her hands free, but they were caught. “What if I say I am sure?”

“I don’t believe you. I think you need some time in the Point to see if I am the reason you came here.” He kissed her. “Obsession doesn’t last.”

She stuttered, “I know that.”

“Get to know everyone, find your place here. Do this for me?” His lips touched hers once more before he headed for the door.   “I’ll see you in the morning.” Then he was gone.

“Shit!” Siobhan muttered, throwing a pillow at the door.

Maximus slipped into the Tavern and up the back stairs to his own room. He hoped no one noticed, especially Sid. Leaving her had been one of the hardest things he’d had to do in a long time, but he couldn’t take the chance again. Women were drawn to the Point by him, but their final destiny lay with the others.

He’d been so close to his wife and son; he’d almost touched them in the Afterlife before he was snatched away to the Point. Their memory had faded, but not the feeling of loss. Tina had shown him joy was possible, but she belonged with John. He’d recognized the truth, yet it had hurt to lose her.

Despite the friendships and love for him here, Maximus was lonely.   Siobhan felt right, but was this his loneliness speaking?   He’d commanded armies, fought bravely on the battlefield and in the Arena, and avenged his loved ones. Now here he was, trying to make a new life in an alien culture, and longing to have someone by his side. He was a risk-taker by profession, so why didn’t he just make love to her? He knew why. He didn’t give his heart or his allegiance easily.

Maximus needed a cold shower.

*                   *                         *

Siobhan downed two Aleve with a large glass of water and stared at the puffy-eyed woman in the mirror. She’d finished the bottle of wine after Maximus left and had a nice long cry to accompany it. Now she had Sid to deal with. Well she wasn’t in the mood for his crap. She pulled a lightweight spring dress over her head and pulled her hair into a ponytail with a groan because even her hair hurt.

She headed down to the lobby in search of coffee, hoping caffeine would adjust her frame of mind. Bud White was waiting for her with a cup ready for her.

“Good morning. You look like you need this,” he handed her the coffee. “You up to working?”

The coffee was extremely hot and strong. “God bless you, Bud,” she sighed, taking a huge gulp. “I wonder what the chances are of getting a pot in the lab.”   They headed out the back door together.

“I think there’s an extra one in the Tavern you can have. I’m serious about working today. I could show you around the Point.”

“What about Sid?”

“He’ll find someone to harass, I imagine. He was making someone’s life miserable after you left last night.”

Siobhan smiled. “Ow,” she whimpered. “That hurts.”

“Come on, I have something to show you. It’ll take your mind off your hangover.” He dangled a set of keys in front of her. “Can I drive your Blazer?”

“Sure!”

They turned off the path and headed up to the parking lot, and hopped into the SUV. Bud grinned cheerfully as he started the engine. “Automatic transmission, huh? I don’t know if I’ll like this or not. What’s the tow hitch for?”

“Towing a ski boat.”

“OK, then this is yours.”

“Yeah, of course it’s mine.”

“Not this. You’ll see.”

He drove slowly up a dirt road, pointing out sites as he did. The Point reflected everyone’s interests in some way – an airfield, a frozen pond, English gardens, the stables, beaches, California back roads; it expanded to accommodate new people. Bud turned up a road that ran past the beaches and upward into craggy boulder-strewn hills.

“This appeared yesterday. Does it have anything to do with you?”

Siobhan laughed. “It might. What’s beyond the Pass?”

“Desert, mesquite trees and saguaros. I thought you lived on the coast.”

He pulled over and parked. Siobhan hopped out, her headache forgotten. “I do, but I always wanted to live in the foothills of Tucson, Gates Pass. I love the desert.“ She pointed down into the desert floor at a town shimmering in the heat. “Has Cort seen that?”

“What is it?”

“It looks like Old Tucson, a movie town. It was Redemption.”

Bud shook his head. “You’re a strange woman, Siobhan. I saw your other special place.”

“What other special place?”

“At the lake. I like that one a lot better than this.” They got back in the car and drove back the way they had come, turning right by the beaches this time. Finally, Siobhan saw it.

“There’s a marina here!” she shouted and pointed at the long low building set right on the shoreline. Tied up at the dock was a beautiful yacht.

“That’s Sid’s. But we think that one right there might be yours.” Bud pointed beyond the yacht to an 18-foot ski boat, rigged with a tow bar. The boat was white with red trim and across the stern the name “Crowe’s Point” was stenciled in red.

Siobhan skipped down the launch ramp toward the boat, turning back to hurry Bud up. “Are the keys in it?” she sang out. “This is amazing. Do you ski?”

“Never tried. Obviously you do.” He tossed a picnic basket into the boat. “Lunch compliments of Caroline and Trisha.”

“Noooo, actually I have never been able to keep hold of the ropes. I always let go. But I can teach you how.” She started to untie the stern line. “Get the bow line loose for me, please? I mean, we can take her out, right?”

“No reason why not.” He tossed the rope into the open bow and stepped in, looking slightly out of place in his jacket and tie. As if on cue, he tossed the jacket onto a seat, following it with tie and shirt. Shoes and socks were next. By the time Siobhan had pulled away from the dock, he looked far more comfortable.

“Shorts next time,” she teased, pointing at his dress slacks. As soon as they made it past the no-wake buoys, she opened the boat up. Water sprayed up, splashing them both. “See?” she giggled.

The rest of the morning past swiftly as they explored the lake together. Bud took a turn at driving the boat, an experience he swore would never replace cars. A warm breeze swept across them until Bud pulled into a cove to break out the picnic. Then the still air became hot. “I’d love to pull off this dress and hop in,” Siobhan told Bud, looking at the water longingly.

“Go ahead.”

“Only if you join me,” she asked.

The water felt so good. It banished the last of Siobhan’s headache as she splashed and played with Bud. They climbed back onto the boat and laid out on the collapsed seats to dry off. Siobhan’s skin was already tanning, but she kept an eye on his fair skin. Night shift, she figured. “You’re getting red,” she mentioned, trying not to stare at him in his boxers.

He stood and pulled his pants back on, looking down at her laying there in her underwear. “You’re not, you’re just turning brown.”

“Always.”

“Beer?” Bud opened the cooler.

“No, soda please. Diet Coke?”

He tossed her a can and opened the picnic basket. “Ham sandwiches. They look good.” He handed her a sandwich. Siobhan wrapped herself in a beach towel and sat up to eat. “OK, now tell me why Maximus came back to the Tavern last night.”

“Does everyone know that?”

“No, but quite a few of us saw him trying to sneak in. What happened?”

She made a face. “I screwed up. He asked me about Jeffrey and…” her voice trailed off. “I asked him to leave.” Bud looked surprised. “It gets worse.” She explained, “By the time I owned up to coming here for him, he’d decided I wasn’t sure enough of my motives.”

“That makes sense.”

“How so?”

“I’m not sure if I can explain this. We are all a part of one another –the men I mean – so in some way, you must find us all equally attractive. Following me? Good. So you need to know why you came. Before “Gladiator,” what was your favorite movie?”

Siobhan felt the blush rise from her toes. “’L.A. Confidential,’” she stared at her shoes.

“Oh.” He grinned. “Why?”

“Because I love Kevin Spacey. Get real, Bud.” She grabbed his beer and took a swig from the bottle. “Yeah, this is awkward.”

“It’s going to keep happening to you till you make up your mind. If Maximus were here, who would you choose?”

“You ARE with someone.”

“I am, but forget about that. This is theoretical.”

“Maximus.”

“Why?”

“Because it feels right. I don’t feel the same way with you.”

“Good answer, no hesitation. We better get back, I’m frying.” He started packing the leftovers up.

The drive back to the Hotel was a lot quieter than the drive out as both were tired from the sun and fresh air. Siobhan’s mood was much improved by her morning off. She headed directly down to the lab, steeled for the grief she knew Sid would heap on her. The door was open.

“Well, Doc, Bankers’ Hours, eh? Long night with the General? Too tired to come to work?” Sid launched right into the abuse. “Not too tired to go out with the Dumb Detective, though.”

“Gee Sid, nice to see you too.” She sat down at her PC and entered her user id and password. “How about we try adding a module or two today?” Sarcasm tended to be lost on Sid, she’d noticed. “How about a new vocabulary?”

“You should have had a drink with me last night. I don’t know why everyone is so charmed by the Slave. I’m more beautiful.”

“Yes, Sid, you are far more beautiful, but you have all the charm of a cobra. Tell you what, don’t call anyone by anything but their name for the next 24 hours, and I’ll spend tomorrow evening with you.”

“All night?”

“All evening.”

“You’ve seen ‘Virtuosity’?”

“I have.”

“You’ve seen my body then?”

“Impressive,” she couldn’t deny that.

“All night.”

“No further negotiations, Sid. All evening is all I’m offering.”

“Done! You’ll change your mind. Now, Siobhan, shall we get to work?”

He sat beside her at the other PC and pulled up the list of personality modules he’d put together for her review. “I say we try one right now.”

“It’s really too soon, Sid. I’d like a chance to look at your code.”

“If you showed up for work this morning, you could have done that. I want to try something right now. We can always back it out afterwards if it doesn’t work.” He tapped the keyboard. “This one? I’ve been watching old news footage.”

“Hitler?”

“He loved animals and children.”

“No way, Sid. You’re already a meglomaniac. Pick another animal lover.” She looked at the screen. “Yeah, ok, that one can’t possibly hurt a soul.” Sid showed her how to load the module for sync. They were in the process of running the simulated load when John came in.

“Hey, what’s going on here? Who’s supposed to have this shift and why are you two alone in here?” He was clearly annoyed.

Sid swiveled in his chair. “It was the Sla…Maximus. I told him Siobhan had taken the day off to go swimming with Bud so we didn’t need him.”

Siobhan groaned, “Thanks, Sid.”

“Siobhan, come outside please until we can get someone down here.”

“Be serious, John. I can handle myself for a little while longer.” But she did as she was asked, standing just outside the doorway until Cort came down the path.

“John’s about ready to shoot you for coming in here alone,” Cort told her. “Bud says you’ve got a place in mind to show me. Want to go riding tomorrow? Hi, Sid.”

“Only if you can find me a very gentle horse. OK, Sid, back in business. How’d that simulation go?”

“Great!” He watched her review the data and double-check the module. “You don’t trust me.”

“I don’t want to load Hitler. Go hook up.” She followed him into the booth with Cort on her heels. He opened his shirt to the waist; his body was rock hard, tanned and all-round perfection. Pressing his side, Sid popped open a small near-invisible door that revealed a tiny com port where he hooked up to the computer. Siobhan thought she detected a moment’s hesitation when she asked if he was ready. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “For luck,” she told him as she headed to her workstation.

Loading the module was transparent and swift, taking only seconds. Sid unhooked himself and came out of the booth, buttoning his shirt.

“Well?” Cort asked.

“I don’t know. I feel the same. We could head up to the Tavern and test me out. I’m buying.”

Cort looked at Siobhan. This was already an improvement. “Let’s shut down and go,” she agreed.

The scene that greeted them in the Tavern was enough to make Siobhan want to maroon herself on a desert island with Sid.

The scene unfolded like something out of a bad soap opera. A clearly angry Maximus was right in Bud’s face while the detective kept pushing him back.

“If you’d brought her back on time…” Maximus was shouting.

“Get away from me, asshole, before I put you on the floor.”

For some extremely unclear reason, John was sitting on the floor between them, a casualty of the shoving match. Caroline was behind the bar, watching helplessly.   The only other patrons in the bar were Point employees, relaxing when their shifts ended. They eyed the goings-on with interest, but made no attempt to break it up.

Caroline spotted the new arrivals: “Cort, break this up, will you? Siobhan, go get Terry or East or someone!”

Sid leaned over as he walked past Siobhan. “I’ll help. No reason to get anyone else.”

Siobhan went behind the bar with Caroline and asked, “What started this?”

“You.” Caroline never took her eyes off Cort who gave John a hand up on his feet.

Sid stepped between the two angry men and said something that sounded suspiciously like, “Violence is never an answer to anything, gentlemen.” But Siobhan wasn’t listening anymore; she was concentrating on Caroline.

“Me?”

“Yeah, John came in here looking for Maximus. Something about the lab. Max didn’t take that too well. He said you never showed up, that you’d gone off somewhere with Bud who picked the absolute wrong time to show up.”

Cort and Sid had broken the argument up. Cort was pulling Maximus towards the door. “Caroline, we’re going outside to cool down.”

“OK!”

John and Bud sat down on a pair of adjacent barstools with Sid standing just behind them. Siobhan grabbed three cold beers from the cooler, opened them and set them in front of the guys. Bud grinned rather sheepishly at Caroline. “Sorry about the mess, Caroline. I’ll get it in a minute.” He took a long pull on his beer and then said, “Siobhan, you better get outside and talk to him.”

“Bud,” Sid reached between the two men to get his beer. “I’m sorry about any trouble I caused for you. I told Maximus that you and Siobhan left together and hadn’t come back.”

Caroline reached out for Siobhan’s wrist to stop the other woman from leaving. “Did I just hear Sid apologize? Does that mean you’ve started the changes?”

“Just one small modification,” the programmer admitted. “We were coming up here to test him out among the masses.”

“So far, so good.” Caroline looked anxiously at the door. “You better go see about Maximus.”

“God, Caroline, I am screwing things up so badly with him.”

Caroline hugged the other woman briefly. “He’s been in here all afternoon, boring me to tears complaining about you. You must be doing something right. Go!”

Maximus and Cort were standing under a tree, watching the doorway, and talking in low tones when she walked back outside. Cort slapped Maximus on the shoulder as Siobhan approached them. “I’ll see you two inside,” he drawled.

The Roman nodded, his habitual silent salute; he didn’t bother to hide his anger. Siobhan took a deep breath and hoped that she would say the right thing. “Take a walk with me? I think we need to talk.” Maximus didn’t reply, he just fell in beside her. “I’m sorry I was late getting to the lab this afternoon. I didn’t know you were supposed to be there.”

“White did. He also knew I wanted to show you the Point.”

“We took a quick drive and then he showed me the boat. There’s still a lot to show me. Maximus, Bud was only trying to cheer me up. I…aw, hell, I polished off the wine after you left and I felt horrible this morning.”   She wasn’t sure what else to say. “You told me to get to know the others, you know.”

Maximus caught her hand in his as they walked without speaking. He clearly didn’t want to discuss the matter. Siobhan recognized the trail they were on; she had seen it from the road earlier. It led past the English gardens and up over a grassy knoll. Wildflowers bloomed among tall grasses. Insects buzzed happily. The long shadows of late afternoon provided shade from the sun which Siobhan tried to sidestep. They were a long way from the hotel when he finally spoke again.

“Did you enjoy yourself?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Damn!” He stopped beneath a large tree and pulled her into his arms. “I shouldn’t have left last night,” he growled before kissing her.   They stumbled backwards until Siobhan came in contact with the tree trunk. Maximus was relentless, his mouth tearing at hers while his hands slid down her body, lifting her skirt.   His mouth moved from hers to her neck.

“Siobhan! Maximus!”

They sprang apart like guilty teenagers at the sound of Cort’s voice.

“Over here!” Maximus called as Siobhan straightened her skirt. Cort came into view a moment later, out of breath. It didn’t take a genius to understand what he had interrupted. Maximus stood close behind her, his arms around her, while Siobhan’s lips looked bruised and red.

“Siobhan’s got to come back to the Tavern right away. It’s Sid. He’s crying and can’t stop. I have Jeffrey down in the lab, shoeing your computers.”

“’Shoeing’? Oh, you mean booting ‘em up,” Siobhan wondered what he meant.   “OK, I guess we better back that module out.”

Cort looked from Siobhan to Maximus and back again. “I’ll go on ahead and bring him over to the lab. Don’t be too long. Caroline and Tina are laughing like two fools.” He ran off the way he came, leaving the two frustrated lovers alone.

“We’re cursed,” Maximus told her, kissing her neck. “Can you fix him quickly?”

“I don’t know. I hope so.” She grabbed his hand. “If I can concentrate. I should have known this might be a problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“The personality module. Sid loves old tv shows, I guess, because his list of possible personalities is littered with people from them. I figured this one would be just fine.”

“Who is it?”

“A fictional character played by an actor named Michael Landon. Pa Ingalls.”

*   *   *

“Pa Ingalls? You mixed ‘Little House on the Prairie’ with Sid 6.7?” Caroline doubled over with laughter again.

“It’s not funny, Caroline,” Tina chided. From her point-of-view, it was hilarious, but she felt she ought to behave herself after all. She sat with one arm around Sid, trying her best to comfort him. “He’s been like this for over an hour now.”

“Siobhan!” Sid stood up and enfolded her in a weepy bear hug. “I am so sorry about telling Maximus you went off with Bud.” Siobhan looked questioningly at Tina from around Sid’s shoulder.

“It’s OK, Sid, really.” She extricated herself from the hug and sat down at the table. “What brought this on?” Sid settled between the two women, holding each one by the hand. John sat across the table, trying hard to eliminate the total distrust he was feeling. Somehow Sid was managing to enjoy all this fuss. He certainly was enjoying Tina’s full – and for once – willing attention.

“After you left, everything was going really well,” Tina began.

Caroline took up the narrative. “Yeah, Sid stood here and talked to John and Cort for the longest time. It was weird. He was friendly and funny. He complimented all the women as they came in.”

Sid greeted each and every person who entered the Tavern like a long lost friend. He called them all by their own names, not his usual snide nickname. The buzz circulated rapidly: a test modification had been successfully loaded.

Oddly enough, it was East who triggered the first emotional reaction. He was telling Kath how Nero had come up lame that afternoon when Sid happened by. The newly-charming man asked how the stallion was coming along and was listening attentively when East said, “I’m glad I don’t have to destroy ‘im. It’d break my heart.”

“You could destroy a beautiful animal like that?” Sid asked, a tear slipping down his perfect face.

“Sometimes ya got to, if the animal is suffering. In’t that right, Cort?”

Cort agreed, “But it’s always hard to do, Sid.” He leaned forward to see Sid better in the dim light. “Is that a tear?”

Sid nodded sadly. “I couldn’t do it,” he confided. “East, if I teach you to read, will you teach me to ride?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Thanks, brother. I’m sorry I called you ‘Dummy.’”

“That’s ok.”

“No…no, man, it’s not ok.” He grabbed East in a bear hug. “I’m sorry. I’m just an asshole.”

“Oooh, something we can agree on, Sid?” one of the women tossed out as she passed by to get another drink.

“Tara! I am so sorry about all the mean things I’ve said about you.”

By the time Cort left to find Siobhan and Maximus, Sid had hugged just about everyone once, apologized to several people multiple times, and cried at least three verifiable times. Jeffrey had volunteered to get the lab computers booted after a sniffly Sid gave him the passwords. No one wanted to see Sid hug Hando and the possibility was very real.

“Which brings you up to date,” Caroline finished.

“OK, well I guess we better get back over to the lab. Come on, Sid, let’s go.”

“Tina’s coming too,” Sid announced to John’s visible annoyance and Tina’s discomfort.

“Please?” Siobhan asked John. “You and Maximus come too, just in case.”

The short walk to the lab seemed an eternity to Maximus and John. Maximus was thinking much the same thing that John was: Sid was getting a lot of physical affection from two women who never gave him the time of day ordinarily. That sudden squeeze, John noticed, involved a hand just touching a breast under Tina’s arm. ‘Son of a bitch!’ he seethed.

Jeffrey was waiting in the lab, all three computers online. He offered to occupy one computer while Siobhan asked Tina to take the other. John and Maximus escorted Sid back behind the glass where Siobhan hooked him up. With everything in place, she retreated to her computer and began running simulations while asking Jeffrey to monitor the physical reactions. Tina was in charge of monitoring the server.

The building seemed small and confined with seven people in it. Caroline pulled up a chair, while John and Maximus stood against the wall, watchful.

Maximus was as mesmerized as ever by the technology that the others appeared to take for granted. The miracle of electricity never ceased to amaze him. No oil lamps to clean or wicks to trim, just a switch to throw for light, and another for heat. Fireplaces were romantic, not necessary. They communicated via the printed and spoken word over wires and air waves. Sid was manufactured, not born, and Siobhan was changing his personality to suit the others. Poor Commodus could have benefitted from that technology, he thought to himself.

He watched Siobhan work. She asked Tina to check a number of what she called variables. The other woman asked, “Can I have the syntax for that?”

“It’s in the manual,” Siobhan replied. “OK, here’s the personality module I loaded.” She pointed to a line on a list. Turning, she said, “Maximus, John, come closer if you want to read it.” She moved her right hand and an arrow appeared above the line. Maximus knew the item in her hand was called a mouse. She pushed a button twice rapidly and the line expanded to reveal what Maximus knew was called code.

“It should have worked,” Jeffrey said, leaning in to read it. “It did work, he was much improved.”

“It was too dominant. I figured so many of his serial killer parts were abused children so I pushed Ingalls into a dominant position. You know, replace the bad with a good attitude toward family, children, life, animals. The simulation didn’t predict this.”

“Yes, it did,” Sid told her, muffled through the glass. “I ran it twice and killed the first output so you couldn’t see it. It predicted sentimentality as a weakness unless you move it further down the personality hierarchy.”

“Damn! I knew not to trust you.” She turned to the others. “This might take some time. I have to back out the new module, test the placement in several locations, run simulations and then reload it.”

“Can’t you back it out and reload tomorrow?” John asked.

“If I just back it out, I won’t know if any modules had links to this one. He could be dangerous. I need to at least test the module links. Look, you guys can go back to the Tavern. We’ll come over when it’s finished. Maximus, will you stay with me? Unless you’d like to trade shifts with someone?” She couldn’t resist the dig.

“No, this shift is mine,” he replied with a smile, taking the chair Tina vacated.

John and Jeffrey exchanged glances. Nothing Maximus couldn’t handle; they knew that, so they excused themselves and departed. Siobhan concentrated on the screen in front of her for a while, finally noticing Maximus watching her every move.

“This is all pretty alien to you, huh?”

“I was just thinking how much you know.”

“God, please, this is really simple. Sid did most of the hard stuff before. Don’t be too impressed, ok. I’ve been at this for years. The technology behind it is pretty slick though.”

“You take it for granted.”

“I guess we all do.”

“Could you live without it?”

“Computers?”

“No, all of it – electricity, television, computers, cars.”

She keyed in the command to begin the simulation and shrugged her shoulders. “If I had to, I could. Everything except hot water.” She made a face. “No cold baths! Come closer,” she pulled at the edge of his chair. When he rolled it closer, she pushed the mouse and pad towards him. “Try it.”

“What’s going on out there?” Sid called out piteously.

“Nothing, Sid. I’m waiting for the simulations to run. Relax.” She turned to Maximus; his face was inches from hers. “Watch the cursor – see the arrow right there – you’re controlling it.”

“You talk too much,” Maximus told her, kissing her. He let the mouse go and pulled her into his arms.

Sid sounded like an abandoned infant, “You’re not waiting for the simulation. I hear kissing!” At that the simulation ended with a beep. Maximus looked at it strangely.

“Two chaperones? We’re not ever going to be alone, are we?”

“We were alone the other night. You left, remember? Look, quit distracting me or we’ll be here working all night.” To take the sting out of her words, she kissed him this time, letting her tongue dance briefly with his. “Or not. Grr, back to work!”

It took the better part of two hours to ascertain that all no major links had been made between the modules. Then Siobhan backed the module out, checked Sid’s systems from top to bottom, and had Maximus disconnect him.

“What about putting the module in at another level of my personality hierarchy?”

“Tomorrow, Sid. Tomorrow afternoon we can look at it. Right now I’m hungry and tired.”

“Tomorrow afternoon? Your less-than-Puritanical work ethic never ceases to amaze me.”

“Cut the sarcasm, I am not in the mood to match wits with you right now,” she told Sid as she reached down to hit the power strip. She was hoping that neither man would ask why she couldn’t work in the morning. Riding out to Old Tucson with Cort was harmless enough, but how would Maximus react?

Sid took his dismissal well. In two days, Siobhan had learned to distrust his cooperative side, but he’d gone off to play some online role-play game, so he was the Internet’s problem now.

“You don’t mind going to the Tavern, do you? I’m seriously starved,” she asked Maximus.   She gazed up at a sky so clear it seemed like she could reach out and touch the stars. “It’s so beautiful here.” His arms slipped around her as she watched the heavens.   He turned her face towards him and began to kiss her again, not the anxious kisses of earlier or the playful ones of the lab, but amazing soft kisses that promised everything. Just as suddenly as he began, he released her to a small whimper of protest.

“You’re hungry, remember?” he reminded her.

“In more ways than one.”

“Good.”

“I don’t want dinner,” she smiled. “We can sneak down to the kitchen afterwards.”

“After what?” His hand explored hers, running over her fingers and caressing her palm in a way that made her weak-kneed. His fingers ran up her wrist, lingering at the crook of her elbow, and finally tracing across her breasts.

“After…” she took a very deep breath. “After we make love.” Her voice vibrated with her desire, shaking Maximus into action. “Now? Please?”

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