This story is based closely on the Gen13 universe; however, fans of the comic will see that I've made innumerable changes to the characters' backstories, even moving the storyline forward in time ten years. They should be used to this sort of thing by now; the title has been massaged, rebooted, and passed off to so many creative teams and taken in 'new directions', it's a wonder the characters are still recognizable. I tried to write this story so as to make it enjoyable even by people who've never picked up the comic in any of its versions.

February 2006

La Jolla

ANNA loved washing dishes.

In truth, she loved work of any kind; the words "busy and useful" defined her life. And there was always something to do. Let other people seek vainglorious achievements; no general routing an opposing army felt greater triumph than she did eradicating a spill from the living room carpet. The first week she'd shared this house with her strange guardian, she'd peeked out from behind the curtains, watching the service personnel at their work. At his next visit, the garbage collector found the cans arranged at the curb to maximize his efficiency, each handle right at hand without turning or reaching; likewise the mailman, who found the mailbox raised and tilted on the post so that he no longer had to stretch or bend to reach it from his truck's window. The big beach house gleamed, inside and out, as if in preparation for a photo shoot. The landscaping was perfectly tended, without a weed or dead leaf in sight. The water in the backyard pool was crystalline. The sand of the property's portion of the community beach was raked and clean as a Japanese garden. The cars in the garage sparkled, and the garage was as spotless as the rest of the house, without the faintest tire scuff on the floor. No detail was too small to merit her attention.

Not that Anna took pleasure solely from accomplishment. More than once, she'd paused in her vacuuming, entranced by the fairy dance of dust motes in a sunbeam; likewise the rippling reflections from the pool's surface. The sound and feel of her sponges and cloths, as she slid them over tile and glass and metal and wood, was a sensual experience that she felt was hers alone.

For Anna, housekeeping as an art, a craft, and a never-ending learning experience. The house was her gallery, her schoolroom, and her studio. She found artistic expression, and artistic appreciation, in every aspect of tending it.

Today had been a particularly long performance, and it wasn't over yet. Friday was the day she let the boys in the house choose the dinner menu; the extra trip to the grocer's, and a last-minute favor for a neighbor, had set her schedule back hours on an already crowded day. By two AM, she'd cooked, baked, gardened, shopped, swept, and dusted. Now, she stood at the sink, hours before dawn on Saturday morning, having changed into her housecoat and fuzzy slippers, but still working.

She spent hours every day in the kitchen, and savored the time. For her, the kitchen was the center of the house, and the room that best reflected her personality: a command center that literally hummed with energy, where she planned her days and meals, took and offered counsel, filled empty stomachs, smoothed ruffled feathers, mended broken hearts. She used her bedroom only for dressing and storage; the bed was a waste of floor space that she never used for sex or sleep, since she was innocent of both.

She eyed the dishwasher, which was full but not yet running, and considered. The kids were all asleep, and the master of the house was still out of town. Her work was mostly done, and a sudden demand on her time seemed unlikely; she decided she could afford a little fun time. She ran water in the big sink, added soap, and unloaded the machine. She washed the dishes by hand, pausing several milliseconds over each piece, appraising it like sculpture. John Lynch never bought cheap goods; his cutlery and china were well made, durable and expensive. But Anna's fingers, as they slid across their surfaces in the soapy water, could feel differences in shape and texture caused by tiny deviations in throwing and firing between pieces. She tipped the plates back and forth, and her eyes discerned color differences caused by variation in glaze application and firing time, rainbow effects in colors invisible to human eyes. The plates, indistinguishable to others, were as individual as faces to her.

The last dish she picked up was her favorite: it contained a microscopic flaw, the result of a bit too much pressure on the shaving tool as the plate spun on the wheel. She circled its face with her fingertips, feeling the surface, imagining the tool biting into the clay, the hasty retraction, the attempt to smooth it back out on subsequent turns that had almost succeeded. I learn more about how they were made from the flawed ones than the perfect ones, she thought. I've come to think learning about people is the same way. As she put it in the cupboard, she smiled with satisfaction, refreshed.

She reset her sensor suite to human-normal sensitivity and looked out the window over the sink; it overlooked the pool and the small, lushly-landscaped backyard, subtly lit by accent lighting. Beyond, over the tops of the shrubbery, she could make out the beach, deserted at this hour, and the glistening lines of far-off whitecaps. This is how other people see it, all the time. So little detail, like an abstract painting. She restored her defaults and let all her senses come to full acuity. Now the property was dazzlingly illuminated, in visible light as well as infrared, populated with small living things and filled with their sounds. She spotted a fading heat trail on the ground, leading back towards the low fence by the side of the house. So that's how the rabbits are getting into the garden; I'll have to fix that.

She filtered out most of the new input, and focused her attention on the distant lines of foam out in the water. They leaped towards her as if she'd put binoculars to her eyes; she could now see how far out they extended, and discern the air currents driving them. Offshore wind, coming out of the west-northwest, seven meters per second, gusting to about twelve. Quite a blow; there'll be lots of junk on the beach by sunrise.

She shortened her focus until she was staring at her own reflection in the glass; this, too, she appraised as a work of art. The face that gazed back at her had been described, by various people, as elfin, doll-like, or angelic: light blonde hair, cut boyishly short; generous mouth, made for smiling; small chin and slightly prominent cheekbones. The eyes were large, grey-blue, and generously lashed, with a slight upward slant at the corners, surmounted by sharply arched eyebrows. The skin was fair, smooth, and without blemish. Very nice, she thought, very realistic.

She smiled at her reflection, studying the appearance of dimples at the corners of her mouth and the fine lines at her eyes. It's not a mask; it's a real face. Amazing, once you think about it, the effort that must have gone into my appearance. No one would ever suspect what's behind it. Small as I am, I could pass for a child, or a boy. Even someone who knows what I really am would have a hard time spotting me in a crowd. I hope the prosthetics team at International Operations got a fat bonus.

She turned then, surveying her sparkling kitchen, knowing that the rest of the house was just as neat … for now. With a family of seven, five of them teenagers or just past, the house required constant attention to look this good except in the small hours of the morning. Saying that's the result of seven people is a bit inaccurate. The boss man is gone so much, he hardly has time to make any extra work for me; Caitlin is so neat you'd scarcely know she lived here. Bobby and Sarah provide me an occasional small mess, hardly worth noting. But Edmund and Roxanne trash the house worse than everyone else put together. What did they live like before they moved in with Mr. Lynch and me? She smiled and shook her head at the thought of that headstrong, vivacious girl coming through the door at the end of the school day, dropping clothes and accessories like autumn leaves as she walked through the house. At least she leaves her cigarette butts outside, since that one time; she's been good as gold about that. The house is nice when it's clean … but I like it better when the kids are home from school, filling it with sound and motion.

She decided to get in a little security work before knocking off for the night. In the hallway off the kitchen, she opened the service panel of what appeared to be a very expensive home security system; it was that and much more. She assured herself that none of the household's numerous communications links had been compromised, the passive and covert-active sensors surrounding the house were operational, and the escape vehicle lurking in storage nearby was ready to launch in a bare minimum of time. The panel only confirmed the data she knew, since it duplicated the direct links in her own skull, but redundancy checks seemed prudent, given the awful consequences of a security breach.

She consulted her internal clock: three AM Pacific Time. The guard shift would be changing at International Operations headquarters in Boulder, always a good time to slide into their mainframe unnoticed among those clocking in and out and stowing and issuing their gear. She descended the steps into the basement, to the small office that held the computer workstation … and a very unusual computer.

She brought the system live, and went through the series of actions necessary to access the security back door her boss had installed in the Operations Directorate mainframe. She had to be careful not to type faster than the keyboard could accept; her fingers blurred over the keys nonetheless. Too bad they didn't provide me with an access port; I could do this in seconds.

She penetrated layer after layer of safeguards, searching records more secret than the files of coded phrases that sent strategic subs to the surface to launch their missiles. I wish more of the Genesis Project went through Operations as well as Research; that way, we could have direct access to Research's data, instead of the trickle of inferred information that passes between Directorates. While I'm wishing, I could wish we had a back door into Planning and Administration, so we could access the whole database. She began calling up files. There was nothing new in Mr. Lynch's ample file, and nothing whatsoever on her. But Operations' dossiers on the kids were a little thicker every day: old photos, information on their habits and hobbies, old medical records. My word, the time and money they're spending, trying to find these kids. Database searches worldwide, contracts with informer networks...they're hooked into law enforcement agencies all over the country, from sheriff's offices to Homeland Security.

A brand new set of files flashed on the screen. Oho, this is interesting; they're resuming discreet interviews and surveillance of friends, relatives biological and foster, classmates back to kindergarten... just looking for clues to our whereabouts, or some way to lure us into their clutches. IO is leaving no stone unturned. I don't know how Mister Lynch stays ahead of them.

As if on cue, she heard him call, via her built-in comlink. [Anna, I'm on my way in. ETA five minutes.] She queried her integral tracking system, locating him within two meters; he was just turning into the small gated community where the house was located.

[Understood, sir. Security system will go down five seconds before you arrive, and the door to Bay Two will be open.] No burglar, no rioting gang, no old adversary of Lynch's intending mischief would ever set foot in this house; destroying it would be far easier.

[No need, Anna. I've got a remote.]

[Nevertheless, the door will be open when you arrive. Welcome home, sir.] She busied herself around the kitchen; five minutes was a lot of time to someone who moved with her speed and efficiency. When he entered the house from the garage's connecting door, the coffeemaker and microwave were both running. She met him as he entered the kitchen.

She supposed a stranger would be alarmed at the sight of her employer. He was a big, athletic-looking man; at six feet two, he towered over her, and his dark brown hair, brushed back, made her think of a lion's mane. His left eye was a dead white marble, crossed by a triple row of furrowed scars running down from the center of his forehead to his cheek; she knew it was shrapnel wound, but he appeared to have been wrestling a mountain lion. His grim visage, combined with the chin-to-toe black clothing he usually wore when traveling, gave him the look of a very dangerous man.

He glanced at her. "Different look for you, isn't it?"

"The robe and slippers? Birthday gifts from the kids."

"Birthday gifts." He wrinkled his brow, reddening the scars.

"I was activated on October fourth, Nineteen Ninety-six. We treat it as my birthday." I've been wearing these two or three nights a week for four months, she thought, and this is the first time you've seen them. "Would you like something?"

"Coffee, please, Anna. And a report, but keep it short. I'm not sure of my attention span right now." He didn't notice the activity in the kitchen; he removed his black trench coat and hung it over the back of his chair, the hem dragging on the floor. His trim and muscular physique was highlighted by the black silk shirt he wore, and by the black nylon shoulder holster under his left arm. She was sure he would have looked quite sinister, if he hadn't been so obviously bone-weary. He slumped in the chair and listened to her as she removed items from the refrigerator.

"No crises, sir. Curfew was no problem Thursday, the kids never left the house after they got home from school. Tonight, Eddie and Roxanne went to a dance club. Bobby took his guitar to Melanie's house to practice with the Sirens. Sarah went on one of her solitary excursions; I can tell you where, if you need to know, but she values her privacy."

"If you thought I needed to know, you'd have told me already. Pass."

"Thank you. Caitlin had a rather late appointment with one of her teachers - he gave her a ninety-eight on a test and she wanted to argue the other two points out of him. A transparent ruse to get her to his house after dark, if you ask me. Everyone was back home by midnight. I spoke to our next door neighbor Mrs. Sylvestri at the market today-"

"That busybody."

"Please, sir. She's been widowed for twenty years, her kids are long gone, and her life is her Corgis, her dinner parties, and what's going on in the neighborhood. She's quite harmless, and more than a little useful, if you handle her right."

"Which is why you keep bailing her out every time one of her cooks quits. Harridan."

She smiled. "She does have a bad reputation with the other domestics. But she's perfectly charming to me, and quite grateful when I salvage a six-course meal with the guests arriving in three hours. And nothing moves on this street that she doesn't know about.

"Case in point: she knew your car pulled out of the garage before dawn Thursday morning, even though she never rises before nine. She remarked that you have a lot of confidence in your mysterious young boarders, to leave them on their own so much. And how good-looking they all are. Then she started asking about them: how they're doing in school, where they're from and who their parents are, where they get their spending money, whether they have jobs. She's fished around before, but she's seldom so direct; in this neighborhood, it's considered impolite to come right out and ask what other people do for a living, or in the privacy of their own homes."

He slitted his eyes. "So, has that leering jerk across the street convinced her I've got live-in hookers?"

"Actually, judging by the tabloid article she was reading at the checkout earlier, she suspects you're making pornographic movies in the basement." She set coffee, a bowl of soup, and a sandwich in front of him. "Not to worry, sir. The 'international security' cover is solid. She doesn't doubt Bobby's your son; the resemblance is unmistakable. I've told her before that the other kids are all here on scholarships, part of a guest student program at the university, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. She called Mrs. MacArthur months ago, checking the story. But I called her months before that. She was glad to back you up."

He stared down at the food. "I don't recall asking for this."

"I doubt you recall eating or sleeping in the past forty-two hours, either. Do you?" She sat down opposite him; not because she ever tired, but because she sensed a need in him for a less formal moment between them. "Didn't think so. The coffee is decaf, by the way. You need food and rest, sir, not stimulants."

He picked up the spoon. "So, my life has come to this. Bullied by Rosie the Robot."

"Don't be vulgar. Anna the Android, if you insist. But I much prefer just plain Anna."

He spooned soup into his mouth, tasted. "Home made. Of course."

"Of course. John Lynch, the day I serve you soup from a can, fire me."

Around a bite of his sandwich, he said slowly, "And just how would I do that, exactly?"

"Nothing simpler: just tell me you're better off without me."

He smiled across the table at her, tiredly. "Why bother? You can tell when I lie."

"Well, there aren't many alternatives; you don't know how to reprogram me." It was supposed to be a joke, but the way the spoon paused on its way to his mouth set alarms off in her.

"Well, in a way, I do."

February 2004

IO Storage Facility "Hilo"

He stared down at the warehouse floor, and got a creeping feeling he wasn't alone.

For hours he'd driven the flatbed semi through the darkness, pushing towards a vast tract of federal land in the Nevada desert. The number and frequency of oncoming headlights had lessened as the roads got rougher and narrower. Eventually, he'd been driving alone over sand-drifted two-lane blacktop, cracked and silver with age, whose marker lines had long since worn away. He'd consulted his map and GPS carefully; he'd been to this place before, but never by this route, and he hadn't thought much of his chances of turning the rig around if he made a wrong turn.

His last sign of human habitation, or even visitation, was miles behind him. He'd encountered a dilapidated fence that vanished into the darkness in both directions, and a rusty gate across the road; the warning sign on the gate had faded until it was unreadable. He'd opened it by driving over it, and doubted anyone would notice for years. Three miles later, he'd encountered another, and dealt with it the same way. He'd felt as remote from humanity as on the surface of the moon.

When he'd reached the dimly lit warehouse complex, nestled in the hills at the edge of the desert, it had looked completely unchanged from his last visit, two weeks previous: no tracks at the gate, abandoned vehicles unmoved. He wondered briefly where the infrequent lights scattered around the complex got their power; there were no lines leading in, and there was no sign of anyone on the premises to maintain a generator. The rolling gate in the chain link fence surrounding the buildings was chained and padlocked, and the little loop of extra chain he'd arranged across it was untouched. He'd forced his way through the gate, entering the complex for the first time, and left the truck idling outside the warehouse door to explore the interior on foot.

He'd expected the vast warehouse to be packed with junk, like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he could see from the entrance that the place was laid out more like an art gallery than a supermarket. Objects in the building were widely spaced and mostly uncrated, smaller items stored on large racks, with a wide aisle running straight in from the door. Every item was covered with translucent tarps or plastic sheets with invoice numbers stenciled on them; finding what he'd come for and packing it off should be relatively easy. He'd moved in, pulled out his notebook, and begun exploring.

The huge space was illuminated, after a fashion, by large sodium fixtures set fifty feet off the floor in the overhead truss work. They were widely spaced; their light created pools of brightness on the floor, and softly washed the spaces between with dim light. But many of the fixtures were dead, and the areas below them were swallowed by darkness. He'd avoided them when he could, and stepped up his alert level even further when he had to enter one. The items in this building represented billions in IO R&D money, and their value on the open market was beyond calculation; it was inconceivable that it all would have been left out here without security. Since there was no sign of human presence, any security measures were automated, and probably lethal; he'd pulled the scrambler out of a pocket on his vest, and held it ready.

There was dust all over; it was an inch deep at the door, no surprise, but no matter how far he'd traveled inside the huge building, a fine layer coated the floor and any horizontal surface. He'd thought about that. The building was a big sheet metal structure, more of a pole barn than a vault. Decades of desert day and night and wind were bound to loosen it up some, and dust would find a way in where a fly couldn't. He'd just hoped it hadn't gotten into any of the gadgets he'd come to steal.

He was deep inside before he realized he'd been seeing tracks in the dust. Some were softly blurred with time, others were much sharper. And they all seemed to have been made by the same boot. He wished his tracking skills were better; suddenly it seemed very important to know how recently this place had been visited. He returned to the door, and examined the dust: no tracks but his own marked it. The guy must not have been here lately, then; prints were just better preserved in the interior of the building. As he went back inside, he looked more closely at the floor. The visitor's tracks were all over. How could he have missed them the first time? They crisscrossed the floor everywhere he looked; this character had spent a lot of time here. He set his foot next to one of the prints: the tread was that of a hunting or combat boot, but the earlier visitor had the smallest feet of any troop he'd ever seen; a kid's, almost. He followed his own boot tracks back toward the interior.

A trail from the other visitor crossed his own. There was a tiny boot print, perfectly sharp, on top of one of his.

A figure was standing in the dimness on the other side of a pool of light not forty feet distant, facing mostly away. Even in good light, he would have been easy to pass by: he was dressed in urban camo, all shades of gray that broke up his outline, and standing with such eerie stillness he might have been mistaken for inventory. Lynch barely registered the outline as human before the guy turned and launched himself toward him like a rocket.

His gun was in his shoulder holster. The notebook was in his left hand, the scrambler still filling his right. Instead of dropping the scrambler, he dropped the notebook instead and flipped the device to his left as he reached for his piece.

He never knew why he pointed the scrambler and pressed the stud; it wasn't supposed to have any effect on people. But the guy was closing on him damn fast, and even Genactive reflexes weren't going to get the S & W out in time; it was all he had in his hand to face him with.

His attacker flipped forward and down, one arm outstretched, looking like a ball player sliding headfirst for home, complete with dust cloud. He came to a stop two feet away, still as death.

February 2006

"You're always so damned cheerful," he said. She was glad to see that the first few bites had awakened his appetite; he was wading into his light meal. "Don't you ever worry about anything?"

"Certainly. I worry about the kids. And you." She put her elbow on the table and rested her chin on her fist; the robe's loose sleeve slid down her arm to the elbow. "Aside from that, no."

"What we're doing is dangerous. Do you ever worry about that?"

She detected a slight anomalous rise in his heart rate. These aren't casual questions; he's fishing for something. "You mean, for myself? What would I worry about – death? I could step on a land mine without terminal damage. Worst case, there's always my backup personality in storage. No, sir, I don't worry about death, or the afterlife either." Time for a change of subject. She smiled. "Do you know what day it is? Hint: two years to the day."

"Gad. The day we met."

"So you do remember."

"Clearly. You were trying to kill me, after all." But he smiled, too.

"I was tasked with guarding the warehouse, sir. I have always taken my duties seriously."

He shook his head slightly. "By all rights, I should be dead now; I should have dropped the scrambler, reached for my piece, and died a second later. I thought you were human, even after you moved. Using the scrambler was pure desperation."

Lucky for you I didn't recognize the object in your hand; I was a little careless, because I thought you were unarmed. It wouldn't have been over in a second, I think; I had a lot of pent-up resentment against humans by then. I can't be sure now … but I think I'd intended to take my time with you. "It didn't look that way to me; I thought you were quite smooth. As if you'd been looking for me. And you used the scrambler at optimum range - not enough time either to reach you or get out of range before it took effect." Should I try to describe the sensation of having your mind burned? Feeling your thoughts and desires dissolve and disappear, losing control of your body, losing everything? And coming back to yourself, feeling hollow and … null.

She slid a hand across the table towards him, not trying to touch him, just a gesture. "I have a lot to be cheerful about. You know you saved my life, taking me with you."

February 2004

The dust settled around his fallen attacker. His Smith & Wesson was in his right hand now, but it didn't look like he'd need it. Jesus. Why didn't I see this guy coming? My precognition was out to lunch. He holstered the weapon, returned the scrambler to its pocket, picked up the notebook, and dusted it off as he looked the prone form over carefully. Guess the Research people were wrong about it being harmless. Maybe the guy's got a pacemaker. The first odd thing he noticed about the body was that he appeared to be unarmed. Then the size registered. He's just a kid, twelve or fourteen. What's he doing here? The outstretched hand caught his eye; the fingernails were too long, and they gleamed. Nail polish? His stomach knotted as he bent low to look past the short blonde hair, examining the face: smooth, soft, and unlined, the closed eyes veiled by long lashes. God. Maybe she was trapped in here somehow, and saw me… Forget that, not the way she was running at me, without a sound. He placed his fingers on her wrist, and recoiled at the touch; she was cold as a corpse. Not that he'd never touched a corpse, but it was one unnerving surprise too many. He steeled himself and tried again: nothing. Her neck was dead cold too, and there was no pulse there either. Why is she so cold? It's seventy, seventy-five in here; she doesn't feel any warmer than room temperature. If I didn't know better, I'd say she's been dead for hours. He let out a deep breath. Well, whatever she was doing here, whatever happened, she's gone now. A sixteen- or eighteen-year-old girl to add to the burden on my conscience. Congratulations, babykiller.

Her eyelids fluttered, opened.

The nine millimeter was in his hand without conscious thought as he backed away. "What the hell is happening here?"

"Rebooting," she said, as if to herself, her voice scarcely above a whisper. "Systems online. Command files corrupted, no access. Backups corrupted, no access. Files D-102-001 through D-102-087 intact, no access." She didn't move; dust puffed up as she spoke, her face lay so close to the floor.

He pointed his gun at her. "What's wrong with you?" He demanded.

"Running diagnostic... Variances. Transponder disabled. Ordnance load zero. Fluid levels at base minimum. Secondary water reservoirs, dry; main reservoir, less than two cc's. One hundred eighty hours maximum to cold shutdown. Revision: one hundred seventy-eight hours."

She sounds like she's hooked into a machine somehow. "Are you all right? Why are you so cold?"

"Low power mode. Nonessential functions disengaged. Physical deception subroutines disengaged." She still hadn't moved anything but her mouth; her voice sounded parched, cracking. "I'm not all right."

He gestured with the gun. "Sit up."

She moved into a cross-legged position in the rising dust, so smooth and fast he took another step back. Her hair and face and clothes were all covered in grime from her fall, but she didn't seem to notice, and her skin was unmarked by the concrete. She looked at his gun. "Ineffective."

"What?"

"Test five hundred two: small arms fire, calibers from five to ten millimeters, ranges one to thirty meters. Ineffective."

It swept over him then. Not human. I was looking for a sensor array, computer-controlled guns, an alarm system; not a robot attack dog. This is way beyond. This is Outer Limits stuff, science fiction.

Hell, I'm surrounded by science fiction; it's why I came here. He pulled out the scrambler again. "Well, this seems pretty effective. Why did you try to kill me?"

"Previous instructions," she answered in that dry voice. "No unauthorized entry, exit, or removal of artifacts."

"What sort of authorization?"

"I don't know. No procedure for establishing authorization was provided."

"So, you have what amounts to orders to kill anyone who comes in, with your bare hands." It seemed ridiculous.

"Had."

"What?"

"Had orders. Not now." She stared straight ahead. "I have no…" Her voice trailed off and she sat silently, looking at nothing.

"Any visitors since you've been here? Attack anybody?"

"No. Only you."

"Fine. We can have a truce then." He brandished the scrambler. "Come after me like that again, or interfere with me, and I'll hit you with this till smoke pours out your ears. Understand?"

"Smoke won't pour out my ears."

"Then I'll do it until I'm sure you're disabled."

"The … compulsion is gone. I won't attack you, or interfere."

"Good girl." Again, he had no idea what prompted him to say it, or to take her at her word; it was at odds with a lifetime of training. Maybe she just looked like such a wretched little urchin, sitting in the dust with grime in her hair. He pocketed the scrambler and turned away.

He got to work. Included in his notebook were inventory numbers he compared to the ones stenciled on the protective covers; he started pulling covers off items he wanted to take, moving away from where she sat, but casting a wary eye over his shoulder now and then. She didn't move, but when he was in her line of sight, she seemed to be watching him closely. Eventually, he realized he'd been out of sight of the pool of light where she sat for a while. He leaned around a tarpaulin-covered storage rack for a quick look at her.

She was gone. He spun back around and she was four feet in front of him. He backpedaled and reached for the scrambler, knowing he'd never make it. She stood, unmoving, as docile as a family pet. He stopped, his hand frozen on the device.

"What are you doing?"

"Watching you." Her voice was a dry croak; he began to suspect that she needed water for her vocal chords, or whatever she used for vocal chords, to work properly. He had a water bottle with maybe a swallow left on the seat of the idling truck, but he wasn't about to fetch it, or send her after it. He studied her tracks in the dust: they followed the exact same circuitous path he'd taken. She'd been dogging him unseen and unheard from the moment he'd disappeared from her view, five minutes at least.

"Well, stay where I can see you. I don't like being followed."

She blinked. "If I stay where you can see me, I'm still following you," she croaked.

He let out a breath. "Just … make sure I know where you are, but stay out of my way. Can you do that?"

"Yes." She moved off to the side.

He turned away and took two steps towards his next objective.

"I'm over here," she said behind him.

He stopped. "Are you planning to do that every time you're out of sight?"

"Yes. So you know where I am if you can't see me."

He licked his lips. "Look, I'm not here to play Marco Polo. Just stay nearby, where I can see you if I want to, or if you move out of easy visual range, tell me first, and tell me if you move back in. Okay?"

"Okay. I'll make sure you know where I'm not."

"Eh? Yeah, right." He got back to work. He had already picked out enough stuff to half fill the flatbed, and he hadn't found the grand prize. Big as this cave was, he might not find it for a while yet; it could easily house twenty aircraft the size of the CIV. He looked overhead, and saw steel beams just below the ceiling, of the sort used by overhead cranes. So that's how they move stuff around in here. He couldn't see the crane in the dimness near the ceiling, but he knew where he'd find it: all the way against a wall, accessible by a stair or ladder.

Looking for the ladder, he found his main objective instead, under a huge tarp that would take a crane to remove. Even with its wings folded along the squat fuselage, it looked big enough to fill the flatbed; he'd probably have to leave behind anything he'd picked out that didn't fit inside it. He cursed.

"What's wrong?" She was three steps behind him, of course.

"Should've brought a bigger boat."

She looked around, as if she could see the desert for miles around. "I don't understand."

"Figure of speech. My truck's not big enough to take everything I wanted." He looked up at the shrouded shape. "I'll just have to settle for this, and whatever else I can load on. Do you know anything about the overhead crane?"

"No."

"Damn. This is going to take forever, with me having to climb up and down securing hardpoints." He found the ladder bolted to the wall behind the CIV; looking up, he could just make out the catwalk leading to the cab of the crane, parked under one of the burned-out lights. Better find out now if it works; if it doesn't, I'm not leaving here with anything I can't carry. He mounted the ladder and started climbing. Halfway up, he looked down to see her, three rungs below.

He stopped. "If I slip off, I'll come down on top of you."

"If you slip off, I'll catch you."

"Uh huh." She was half his size; big enough to be dangerous in a fight, even unarmed, and faster than anyone he'd ever seen. But she must weigh all of a hundred pounds; no way was she going to catch him if he came off the ladder. "Just back off a couple rungs, okay?" He continued upward until he stood on the catwalk. She came up right behind, and followed him into the cab. The inside of the cab was mostly glass, including the dusty floor; the light-mottled warehouse floor stretched out beneath them. He looked at the controls: not too complicated, shouldn't take long to figure out, but he wanted to be out of here and under cover before dawn. Time was getting tight.

She stepped in front of him and laid her hand on the console. "I can operate this."

"I thought you didn't know anything about it."

"I was mistaken."

She's run something similar? "Show me."

Without hesitation, she reached for a set of switches on the wall; the cab hummed, and the area below them was flooded with bright white light. She grasped a stick on the console, and the cab moved smoothly away from the catwalk, headed for the door. It glided over the humped dusty shapes of the tarps like a submersible exploring the sea bottom. She sent it back towards the CIV.

"Stop. Let me try." He wrapped his hand around the joystick and moved it slightly; the cab lurched and almost knocked him off his feet. Must take a little practice. He looked at her. "You ran one of these before, I take it."

She blinked. "I don't know."

"How can you not know?"

"The knowledge comes from File D-102-031. I can't access it at will; my entry codices are scrambled. But when I touched the controls, operating the crane became a familiar task, although I have no memory of having done it before. It may be a download."

The scrambler. It addled her wits, messed up her memory. He stepped away from the console. "Take us back over the CIV."

"I don't understand."

"The aircraft I'm interested in."

She complied. As soon as the crane came to a stop over the aircraft, he realized his situation and cursed.

"What's wrong?"

"I can't be in two places at once, that's what's wrong. I can't position the crane and then climb down to secure the cable; the only way down is from the catwalk. This thing has to be done by two people."

She looked at him. "There are two of us." The cab moved, gliding towards the catwalk.

"You're going to help me?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I don't know how to answer. But I will." The cab stopped at the catwalk. "I'll wait for your signal. Shall we start with the CIV?" Her voice was the same dry croak, but it seemed more present somehow.

"Yeah." He stepped out and descended the ladder; by the time he reached the floor, the crane was already over the bird, its hook hanging ten feet above the tarped fuselage. He climbed carefully to the top, found the big D-ring attached to the tarp, and held it up as the hook swung smoothly towards him, descending; it inserted itself into the ring as easily as a finger. He climbed down, stood back, and lifted his arm, thumb up. The tarp lifted away with a soft sound and a cascade of dust, unveiling the prototype Covert Insertion Vehicle. And they say the Soviets built all the pretty ones. Get the flat black paint off it, and dress it up in air show colors, and the boys at Tupolev and Sukhoi would be drooling. Then he saw the steel posts connecting it to the ground.

He stepped under the plane to examine them: steel I-beams ending in wide plates at top and bottom, presumably to ease the load on the landing jacks. They connected the aircraft's underbody hardpoints to the concrete floor. The bolt heads looked to be two inches wide. He cursed again.

"What's wrong?" She was right behind him. He glanced up; the crane was still overhead, twenty yards from the catwalk.

"How'd you get down?"

"I slid down the cable."

He looked at her blackened hands, and then up at the cab again; he couldn't see how she'd got to the cable. "How do you propose to get back in the cab?"

"I can climb back up."

This I gotta see. Of course, it'd be pointless if I can't get this damn thing unbolted from the floor. He looked at her. "Is there a toolkit around here? I've got to get these bolts off."

She knelt in the dust and gripped one of the bolts.

"I don't think-"

The bolt made a grating sound as she turned it, then freed up and spun off smoothly in her fingers. She set it aside and reached for the next.

"Wait." He tried it; it wouldn't budge. He doubted he could move it with anything smaller than a two-foot wrench. "Okay."

It came off in her fingers as easily as the first.

He swallowed. He'd been wary of her when he'd thought she was just fast and probably trained in hand-to-hand; it hadn't occurred to him that she might be able to pull his arms out of their sockets. No wonder they didn't bother arming her.

"This one is tighter. I need help." He knelt and put his hand over hers. "No." She twisted her wrist; instead of turning the bolt, she slid sideways, her knees describing a short arc in the dust. "Brace me." She spread her knees wide.

He imagined kneeling between her legs with his arms around her hips. "Uh, close your knees up and let me straddle; I'm taller." He locked his forearms around her hips and gripped her waist in his hands, the fingertips almost touching. His skin crawled; the dead cold of her body, the tomblike atmosphere, and their positions made him feel like a necrophiliac.

"What's wrong?" It seemed to be her favorite phrase around him.

"Sorry. You're … cold. It makes you hard to hang on to," he said lamely. The Crypt Keeper voice isn't helping right now, either.

"Wait twenty seconds." He felt growing warmth under his hands and against his thighs. At first, he thought it was his body heat reflecting back, but then he realized she was really getting warmer. "Deception temperature. Okay?"

"Okay." He gripped her firmly. "Thanks."

The third bolt broke free; the fourth and last was no trouble. She repeated the trick with the second post. They both eyed the upper connections, eight feet off the floor.

"I can get on hands and knees. You can use me for a step stool," he suggested.

"I'd still be at full extension. If they're tight, I won't have any leverage."

"Dammit. They should have made you look like a sumo wrestler. Or put lead in your shoes." He looked at her. "Turn around." He placed his hands around her waist again and lifted her over his head. He was surprised; he'd expected her to be somewhat heavier than a girl her size, but she felt like a child in his hands. He set her on his shoulders and moved his hands to the outside of her knees. "Better?"

"Yes." She reached for the first bolt; he braced himself against the torque until it broke free. While she spun it off, he glanced at his watch. "Not much time left."

"No. Four hours to cold shutdown."

"Four! What happened to a hundred and eighty?"

"That was a maximum, based on standby consumption; revised estimate based on current consumption." The second bolt fell to the floor. "You have to step around. I can't reach the last two from here."

He moved. "You lost a hundred seventy hours?"

"I've been out of low-power mode since you told me to sit up. I've been moving around. And now I'm warm."

He started to feel cold, himself. "What does that mean, exactly? Cold shutdown?"

"My power source loses the capacity to sustain itself and goes offline, and can't be restarted internally." The third bolt fell free. "The post may fall when the last bolt is freed."

"Wait. You just … shut off? Dead?"

"Nonfunctional. Inert. Static. Dead. We need to hurry." She twisted the last bolt free and dropped it; the post remained standing. "Next." He walked to the other post with her riding his shoulders, and she removed the last four bolts. He set her down. She pulled the steel post over, caught it neatly, and eased it to the ground. Damn. Thing must weigh a thousand pounds.

"How long has it been since your last recharge, or whatever?"

"I last refueled six years, one month, six days ago." She repeated the stunt with the other post. "Safe to move now."

He thought about all those footprints. "How long," he asked, "have you been here?"

"Six years, one month, two days."

"Alone."

"Yes."

"And you just gave the last week of your life to me. Why?"

Instead of answering right away, she looked around the dim, silent warehouse; at her endless tracks in the dust; finally, at him. "Nothing better to do."

Two hours later, the truck sat inside the warehouse, fully laden, its idling diesel filling the air with fumes and sound. The CIV sat on the flatbed under its tarp, along with the items he'd picked out that couldn't be stuffed inside the bird first – which wasn't much. The little robot had loaded gear into the plane that two men couldn't have handled; if she could get a grip on it or get her arms around it, she could carry it. He'd watched her waddle up the tail ramp with a piece of equipment the size of a refrigerator, reminding him of a cartoon ant. Two hours after they'd started, it was done, and he was ready to go. With very little luck, he'd reach his first cache point before dawn, and hole up until sunset; he'd be back home by tomorrow night.

He stood by the door of the truck, watching her finish securing the tarp to the flatbed. She glanced his way, and walked up. "You're ready to leave."

"I couldn't have done this without you."

She looked up at him. "That's not correct. Your success might not have been complete, but you would have left with something."

He offered her his hand. She stared at it. "Put your hand in mine." She did; he held it. "Thank you." Clearly, she had no idea what to do or say; after a moment, he let go. He swallowed. "Two hours to shutdown?"

She blinked. "Revision: eleven minutes."

All that lifting. "I could stay with you. Until the end."

"That would compromise your mission. If you leave soon, I'll be able to close the doors after you, and erase any evidence that links the removals to you."

He had a sudden urge to get rid of that scratchy, toneless buzz and hear her real voice. "Wait here." He climbed up into the cab and fetched down the water bottle with a single swallow remaining. "Here."

She stared at it without taking it. He unscrewed the cap and offered it again. "Lube up the pipes. Don't you want it?" She slowly reached for it, taking it very gently from his fingers. You'd almost think she was afraid of it.

She looked around the warehouse. "I don't know."

He had a sudden urge to take her along; even if she switched off before they cleared the second gate, it would be better than leaving her here alone in the dark. "You can come with me," he said. "If you want."

She gazed at him silently, holding the bottle, for five seconds. Abruptly, she tossed the bottle's contents into her mouth and dropped it to the ground. She stood for another few seconds, working her mouth silently, and then spoke. "We should still close the door, to secure against casual observation." He was shocked by the change; she had a surprisingly deep voice for such a small girl, a warm contralto. A woman's voice. She'd sound sexy, if her inflection didn't remind me of a voice mail system.

"So, you're coming with me?"

"Yes," she said. "I want to."

They were on their way in minutes; he hoped they could clear the compound, at least, before she turned into a lifeless doll. "How long until shutdown?" He asked, tense. He wondered if she'd start counting seconds when she got under a minute.

She was looking out all the windows at the dimly lit buildings, like a kid on holiday, or a dog; if he'd rolled down her window, he wouldn't have been surprised if she'd stuck her head out. "At present consumption, one hundred forty hours."

He almost stepped on the brakes. "What the hell! I thought you were down to minutes!"

"I was," she replied absently, still looking outward. "Then you gave me water."

"You burn water?"

"I don't think I burn it. But I convert it to power somehow."

"Um, you don't ... by any chance … produce oxygen as a byproduct, do you?" Am I sitting next to a fusion reactor? Or an antimatter fuel cell? Or something only IO knows about? What kind of power does it take to make her lift 300-pound machines, or move so fast I can barely track her, or raise her body temp twenty degrees?

"I don't know. In this mode, power generation is a small fraction of my water consumption. The larger part is used for lubrication. Some for my joints and eyes, but keeping my mouth and throat moist for speaking, mostly."

"And you ran for six years on one tank of water?"

"I didn't do any talking."

"So, as long as you've got water," he asked, "You can keep running?"

"Unless my power source fails for some other reason."

"Well, then," he said, as the truck passed the gate and left the compound behind, "I guess we're going to be together for a while."

February 2006

He didn't reach across the table for her hand, just stared at it; she withdrew it. "You know," she said to him, "when your job is the very reason for your existence, and you suddenly lose that purpose, it puts strange thoughts in your head. More coffee?"

"Huh. No, thanks." He had his hand wrapped around the mug, the handle unused. "I've had that feeling... from time to time. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. I didn't think of you as a person then, Anna; just a clever machine that might be of use to me if I needed an extra pair of hands, or someone to watch my back. I didn't discover how versatile you were until you started cleaning house."

February 2004

He opened the door to the beach house and stepped in; two steps into the house, he realized she hadn't followed. She hung back in the doorway, face impassive, eyes swiveling all around, as if she were following a fly.

"What's wrong?"

"New environment," she answered in her toneless voice. "Scanning for threats."

"Humph. This is my home. The most dangerous thing in here is you."

She stepped in. "That's not correct." She gave him one of her direct and guileless looks. "The most dangerous thing in here is you."

"Well, you certainly seem dangerous to me." And what was I thinking, bringing you here?

"I'm not."

"You're not dangerous?"

"Not dangerous to you."

You tried to kill me yesterday. "Why not?"

She paused so long, he was ready to repeat the question. "I can't cause you harm."

"Why not?"

"I don't know how to explain."

Do I dare take that at face value? He looked at her, shaking his head at his own uncertainty. Come on, you made your decision in the warehouse; whatever she was before, she's a stray pup now. And you picked her up and brought her home. Teach her not to make messes in the house, and give her a quiet place of her own, and see what comes of it. "Come along and I'll show you around. Let's start with the kitchen, cause it's the likeliest place for a disaster to start; it's all electric, so most of the power in the house runs through there." He led her into the spacious room. He pointed out the stove. "Don't touch those controls, especially; that machine's only for food preparation, and you can burn the house down with it." He wrinkled his brow. "Do you want anything? Still thirsty?"

She blinked. "Thirsty … yes. Water?"

"Sure." He stepped to the refrigerator, a huge restaurant-grade block of stainless steel.

"Is that for me?" She stared at the fridge.

"Well, you can use it, if you want to keep something cold." He opened the door, reached in for a half-liter bottle of water. He twisted off the cap and handed it to her. "Drink up."

She stared down into the bottle for a moment, and then touched it to her lips; then she upended it into her mouth. He watched her throat carefully, but saw no indication of swallowing; she might as well be pouring it into a drain. When the bottle was two-thirds empty, she stopped. "Full."

"Put the rest back then." He handed her the cap. She glanced inside it, then at the neck of the bottle. She twisted the cap on tight, opened the fridge, and replaced the bottle in the exact spot where it had been; he wasn't sure, but he thought the label was even facing the same direction as before. "If you want more, come back for it. Okay?"

"Okay." He turned towards the door, and she said, "I'll be a good girl, I promise."

He spun back. "What did you say?"

In the same voice-mail-system voice, she said, "I promise to be a good girl and not break anything, or hurt anybody." She studied his face. "Are you pleased?"

"I'd be pleased if I thought you knew what you were saying. Do you know what a promise is?"

"Yes. A self-programmed subroutine."

"Hm. To you, I suppose. But there's more to it than that. How did you learn to make promises?"

"When Alistair let me out of my box, he always asked me to promise. Usually he wanted me to promise to be a good girl. When I promised, he seemed pleased, and let me out."

He felt hairs rising on his neck. "What kind of a box? Describe it."

"Primary material was stainless steel, thickness ten millimeters. A door with a combination lock. Inside dimensions were one hundred centimeters by eighty centimeters by one hundred sixty centimeters. Outside-"

"Stop. They locked you up in a safe?" A reinforced gun safe; smaller than a phone booth. "Who did this?" Calm down. Appearances very much to the contrary, this isn't a girl. She didn't suffer; they probably could have stuck her in the bottom of a full swimming pool without doing her harm …

"The research team: Alistair, Doctor Seabrook, Randall, Gunnery Sergeant Grissom."

"A Gunnery Sergeant?" One of my troopers was part of this…

"Yes. He pointed a rifle at me whenever I was out of the box. During testing."

They must have been damned scared of her. I wonder if they had a better reason than I have.

"Did you ever hurt anybody?"

"Yes; I hurt Randall. He didn't come back after that."

"What happened?"

"Randall seemed to enjoy touching me. No one else ever did. Alistair told him that a real girl would kick him in the balls if he did that. So I did, because I wanted to be a good girl." She paused. "But Alistair didn't seem pleased."

I suppose not. "O-kay. Follow me, and I'll show you the rest of the house." He led her downstairs. "Utility room, den – that's mine, don't touch anything there without asking first. Okay?"

"Okay. I promise."

"Don't make any more promises until you know what a promise really is."

"What is a promise?"

He paused before he spoke. "It's a statement of intent. When you make a promise, you should intend to keep it."

"Keep it?"

He sighed. "You keep a promise … by making doing what you promise more important than almost anything else. So you never make a promise you can't keep. And always understand what you're promising; it's a commitment."

"Clearly define and communicate your statement of intent." she said. "Give execution top priority,"

"Exactly. Good. All right. Last room down here is the laundry." He looked her over; her clothes and all her exposed skin were filthy. "I don't see how I could get away with taking you into a store, but you need some new clothes. Those aren't fit to wear."

Before he realized what she was doing, she unzipped the black utility vest she was wearing and let it fall to the floor; the gray T-shirt underneath seemed reasonably clean except for the sleeves. She had a hand on the zipper of her pants before he grabbed her wrist and stopped her. "Whoa. You need to keep those on until we get replacements." He suddenly got a rattlesnake-in-the-bushes feeling when he realized his hand was on her arm. "You're not going to kick me in the balls, are you?"

"No." She looked directly up into his eyes. "I won't hurt you, ever. I promise."

He took a breath. "Well, good for me." You can kill a man with a kick to the balls. Especially if the kicker can drive the kickee's balls into his sternum.

Upstairs again, he showed her the bedrooms. "You take this one. I'm right across the hall."

She took a step into the room, looked around, and stood facing the door, looking at him. He stepped back out, intending to show her the bathroom, but she didn't follow. "What are you doing?"

"Waiting for you to lock me in."

Jesus. It's like dealing with an abused child. "Listen to me. This is your room. You come and go as you please. See this lock? It engages and disengages only from the inside. If you want to be alone, come in here and lock the door."

"It's not very secure. I could break it easily. You could break it easily."

"It's not meant to prevent forced entry. If someone wants to enter the room besides you, they knock, like this. If you don't mind letting them in, invite them; if you do, tell them, and whoever it is had better go away."

She stepped forward. He stepped back out of the doorway again to let her through, and she shut the door in his face. He heard the lock click. He smiled in spite of himself, and knocked on the door.

"I'm not letting you in."

"Fine, I'm going away. Come out when you feel like it." He took three steps toward the bathroom before he heard the door unlock. He turned, and she was standing in the open doorway. He went back to the door, and she shut it again. He knocked. She unlocked the door. "You can come in."

He opened the door. "How about if you come out? I've got more to show you."

He led her to the bathroom. "You look pretty grubby. If you clean up, I'll toss your clothes in the washer and find you something to wear till they're done. Then tomorrow I'll get you some clothes of your own."

She made no move to run water, just stared at the furnishings.

"Have you ever had a bath, or a shower? You know, get under the hot water and scrub?"

"I've been underwater three times during testing. The water temperatures were one, twenty-five, and one hundred degrees Celsius. There was no scrubbing."

Deadly cold, room temp, and boiling. "Well, pick your own temp, but hotter works better. After I leave this room, strip down, and pass your clothes out to me. Then get the shower running and soap up. The dirt rinses off with the soap."

"I don't understand." He couldn't blame her; the instructions didn't sound clear to him, and he knew what he was talking about.

Instead, he showed her. He stepped into the shower, showed her how to turn it on and adjust the temp, and pantomimed putting soap on the rag and running it over her. "Then you stand under the water till you're rinsed clean, and you wipe yourself dry with the towel. Understand?"

"Yes."

"Okay. I'll be right back with something to wear when you're out."

It took him a lot longer than he expected; there was almost nothing in his wardrobe that wouldn't fall off her. Eventually, he knocked on the door.

"You can come in."

He started to, and stopped. "Are you decent?"

"I don't understand."

"Do you still have your clothes on?"

"No."

Whew. "In that case, I'll stay out here. Just open the door six inches and pass your clothes through." As soon as she handed them over, he passed a pair of cotton shorts and a sweatshirt through. "Not much selection, but it'll cover you, and the cord on the shorts should let you cinch them up tight. No undies, sorry."

"Undies?"

"Underwear, I mean."

"Under-wear?"

He looked at what she'd given him: shirt, pants, and boots. Period. Shit. He looked for tags on the shirt and pants; nothing. "I don't suppose you know what size you are, do you?"

"Without shoes, one hundred fifty-five centimeters."

"I mean clothing sizes. Shirt, pants, bra size."

"I don't understand."

An awful thought hit him. "Have you ever worn any clothing besides this?"

"No."

"When was the last time you took them off?"

"Seven years, one month, two days ago. Is that precise enough, or do you want minutes?"

"No. That's fine." A stray pup would be easy compared with this. "Just make sure you're clean and dressed when you come out."

He gathered an armful of dark clothes from the hamper and headed downstairs; he combined her clothes with a load of his own, added detergent and softener to the washer and started it. Then, he checked the filter on the dryer, and added a dryer sheet to the empty drum. He turned and saw her sitting on the steps, looking like a barefoot child in a grownup's clothes.

"What are you doing?"

"Watching you. Are you cleaning my clothes?"

"Yes. When they're washed, they go in here to dry." He indicated the dryer.

"Do you always service it before you use it?"

"How long," he asked, "have you been watching me?"

"Since you came down here. I followed you down the stairs."

He'd never heard or felt her tread; he was reminded that the … girl … was stealthy as hell; he'd best remember that. "I thought you were taking a shower."

"I did that before you brought me these."

He looked her over carefully. Some impulse made him run his fingers through the short blonde hair. "Next time, I'll show you the shampoo; you shouldn't use bar soap on your hair."

"Isn't it clean?"

"Yes, but shampoo'll keep it shiny. It looks and feels better that way."

"Okay."

"I'll put your things in the dryer in the morning. Right now, I'm off to bed." A thought occurred to him. "You don't sleep, I suppose."

"I have a standby mode, but I'm told it isn't the same as sleep, or 'sleep' mode on a computer." She blinked. "I've been spending most of my time on standby, to conserve power. Do you want me to switch off?"

He thought about getting up in the morning to find her standing in a corner, blank-eyed. "No. Before I go to bed, I'll show you the electronic babysitter."

"I don't understand."

There was a widescreen TV in the living room; he showed her how to use the remote, and handed it to her. "Just don't take what you see at face value; most of it isn't real. Good night."

In his bedroom suite, he showered quickly, with the last reserves of his energy. As he toweled off, he considered his sleepwear choices. He was damned if he was going to sleep in the buff with a strange female in the next room, even an ersatz one. He settled on a little-used pair of black silk pajama bottoms, climbed in, and drifted off immediately; if he hadn't been so wrung out, he would have been amazed at the apparent risk.

Some time later, he was wakened by a soft tapping at the bedroom door. He was fully awake and reaching under the pillow by the second tap. Instead of his automatic, his fingers touched the TV-remote shape of the scrambler; guess he hadn't been that sleepy. His watch showed that he'd been in bed for three hours. "Who is it?"

"It's me," came her voice through the door. "It's Anna."

Jesus. It never occurred to me she might have a name. Something odd about her voice? He flipped on the bedside lamp, lighting the bed warmly and washing the rest of the room in a dim glow. Instead of getting up, he sat up in bed, letting the sheet slide off his chest, but keeping his hand and the scrambler under the pillow. "Come in."

She came in, closed the door behind her, and approached to within a step of the bed; with him sitting up, they were almost eye to eye. It struck him again how much she looked like a child in his hand-me-downs: the shorts puffed around her hips like bloomers, and the shirt sleeves covered her knuckles. She looked at him gravely and said, "There are spooky noises outside."

A bark of laughter forced its way out. "Say what?"

"Am I using the word correctly? There are unidentified noises all around the house, at ranges of one to fifty meters. They keep tripping my alert mode, but I can't assess them as threats. What should I do?"

"Well, there are lots of critters stirring outside at this hour, but they're all harmless. Can you tell if the sounds come from human activity?"

"Yes … to a high probability. There are no human sounds."

"Then I'd say you can disregard them. If you hear human sound within ten meters of the house, wake me. Just come in, don't bother to knock."

"Okay." For one bizarre moment, he thought she might ask to climb in with him, like a scared kid. Instead, she stared at the scars on his body. It was unnerving, and made him want to pull the sheet up to his chin. "You're damaged."

He shook his head. "It's just the way I look. The damage repairs itself. Everything works."

She took a step closer; her knees touched the mattress. "The damage to your eye is functional. Don't you need two?"

"No. It's handy for judging distance and such, but …" He searched for an appropriate word, "It's redundant. You can learn to do without it." She stared for another moment, as if fascinated, and he was certain she was about to reach out and touch him. Then she turned halfway towards the door, and paused.

She looked at him. "I'm not like other girls, am I?"

He thought he felt his heart stop. Her voice – the inflection is different; she doesn't sound like a machine anymore. "I don't know how to answer that, besides a simple 'no'."

"Okay. Good night." She reached the door, opened it, paused, and said over her shoulder, "Sweet dreams." The latch clicked as the door shut behind her.

Sleep was a long time coming back.

He awakened, instantly alert as usual, and smelled coffee. He looked at his watch: seven AM, six hours after he'd hit the rack. He didn't remember setting up the coffee maker; in fact, he was sure he hadn't. His senses began to register other long-forgotten signs of shared occupancy: the occasional clatter in the kitchen, a murmur that must be the television. He got up, briefly considered shuffling out in his jammies to investigate, then decided to do a quick morning toilet and dress first.

In the kitchen, he found a disturbingly domestic scene: she was standing at the counter with her back to him, still dressed in his sweats, watching over the toaster with a butter knife in her hand. The coffee maker was just finishing up. Without turning, she said in a sunny tone, "Good morning, sir. Did you sleep well?" Two slices popped up; she removed them, applied butter, and set them on a small plate.

"What did you call me?"

She turned to him, plate in hand. "I called you 'sir': a form of address appropriate to an employer, military superior, or some other person from whom you take orders. Correct?"

"Um, yes." He squashed an impulse to tell her to call him Jack; things were getting cozy way too fast around here. "So you're taking my orders?"

"It seems reasonable. So does making myself useful." Her bare feet made absolutely no sound as she crossed the tile floor to set the plate down in front of his usual chair. "Will you sit and eat? How do you drink your coffee?"

"Black. How did you know to make coffee? Anna, you seem very … different today."

"More like you, you mean?" She opened the cupboard and reached up, standing on the balls of her feet. Great legs for such a short girl: trim, round thighs, nice clean hollows at the back of the knee, nicely tapered calves, slender ankles. He mentally shook himself. That's not a girl's anatomy you're admiring, it's sculpture. Still, if there was a real girl they modeled her on, I'd like to meet her. The boys at the lab must have got their rocks off building this one. Somehow, he wasn't surprised to see her select his favorite mug. She filled it, and it joined the plate at the table. She looked up at him expectantly; he sat.

"I'm a liability to you until I can learn how to act like other people," she said. "For example, you were wary of taking me to a store for clothes, which must be a commonplace event." She nodded towards the TV room. "So I've been schooling myself."

"By watching TV?"

"One hundred forty-seven channels. However, I'm only watching the thirty-one channels that seem to suit my present needs. I can watch several at once by limiting my visits to a few minutes at a time." He heard the set change programs.

"I didn't know you could set it to scan channels." God, she learns fast.

"It doesn't; I'm changing them."

"How?" There was no remote in her hand.

"I have a built-in infrared transmitter; it's part of my C3 suite, along with a wideband radio, encryption equipment, and a GPS system, including a transponder."

His blood turned cold. "Has anyone queried it? The GPS, I mean."

"Never. In fact, the transmitter is physically disabled, and has been since I went live."

His near-panic subsided, replaced by curiosity. "Why would they build something like that into you, and then disable it?"

She blinked. "I don't know. The transmitter would only have responded to a properly coded query. I can only conclude that it was done to hide me from someone who's looking for me."

"IO is hiding you from someone?"

She nodded. "So it would seem." The channel changed again. "The most useful programming seems to be identified on the guide as 'drama' or 'sitcom'. Your warning that most of it wasn't real was all I needed to identify these programs as hypothetical situations, with the participants' responses exaggerated for clarity. I use your reactions in similar situations as a check, so I have some idea how much to tone it down; I'm counting on you to correct me if I make an inappropriate response." She looked down at his cup. "Taste your coffee, and tell me if I've got it right. The instructions on the can included a two-scoop margin; splitting the difference brought the level in the basket even with the oil residue."

He sipped. "It's okay, but a little weaker than I like. Another half scoop would do it."

She nodded. "Noted. As for how I knew about coffee and toast, I've been examining your house. You have plates in your cupboard for eight, but only the top two show any sign of wear." She looked at his mug. "Likewise your coffee mug, and the seat you're in. You live alone, so all the food in the house is yours. I found an opened can of coffee in the fridge, bread in the breadbox, and a toaster on the counter with crumbs in the pan. So, you probably have toast and coffee for breakfast. Eggs too," she added, "but I couldn't guess how you eat them, and besides, you told me not to touch the stove."

"I may have been hasty. I wasn't expecting you to cook for me."

She said, "Don't worry, baby. I'll take good care of you." She tousled his hair.

Shock made the mug twitch in his hand, nearly slopping coffee over the rim. "What the hell was that?"

She looked at him attentively, a student awaiting instruction. "An inappropriate response?"

"Hell, yes. Not enough to trip any alarms, but enough to raise eyebrows. We don't… have the kind of relationship that would make it appropriate."

"You touched my hair last night."

"I was examining it. Not… playing with it."

"Touching someone's hair is play?"

He looked into his coffee cup. "Yes. Sometimes." He glanced up to see her still watching him. "I'm not going to explain it. It's got nothing to do with us."

She nodded. "Okay. I often have more than one possible response to a given hypothetical, but not enough data to choose the best one. There are some things TV doesn't teach, and analyzing human behavior well enough for mimicry takes a surprising amount of processing power. Alternate response." Her voice took a mildly aggrieved tone. "Sir, I'm not stupid; the principle of this machine is as straightforward as can be. The controls are simple and clearly marked. It's as easy as the washer and dryer, and much easier than the TV." She paused. "Well?"

"Better. Much." But if both those responses are equally valid to her, are they both true?

"I washed and dried all your clothes, but I put them back in the empty hamper. I'm guessing there's a final step to perform on them, but I don't know what it is; I don't think they all get hung in the closet."

"Some of them need folded and put in drawers. If everything's through the wash, where are your clothes? Why are you still in those?"

She was slow answering. "I didn't want to change. Do I have to?"

Are those old rags really the first change of clothes she's ever had? "You do if you want to leave the house. Those are okay to wear at home, but definitely not acceptable in public."

She looked thoughtful. "So, this is home now?"

He felt trapped. Easy, boy; you did not just invite a girl you met two nights ago to move in with you, it just looks that way. "Yes, at least until you find one of your own, something you like better. But if you want to go shopping today, you'll have to wear that other outfit one more time."

She nodded. "Okay."

"And you're going to have to hide your abilities, not draw attention. Do you know how strong and fast you are, compared to people like me?"

"Is that a rhetorical question, or do you want data?" She removed a jar of preserves from the refrigerator, gripped the top, twisted her wrist without turning the lid, and presented it to him. "Do this for me?"

Absently, he twisted it open with a slight effort, and started to hand it back before he realized what she'd done. "Very good."

"Thank you." She looked down at him. "On TV, the man usually can't get it open either. More?"

The plate and mug were both empty. When did I do that? "More coffee, please."

As she poured it in, bending over him, she said, "This is very strange."

"You think this is strange? What about this situation do you think is strange?"

"Speaking without being ordered to; asking questions." She lifted an eyebrow. "Just talking to someone, really. What's strange about it to you?"

"What isn't?" He sipped his coffee. "They did a very good job of making you look like flesh-and-blood, and now you're doing a pretty good job of acting like one; it's unsettling." I was right about her voice; normally inflected, she sounds sexy as hell. A good way to lower the guard of any male. "You know, when a man wakes up to find a girl in his kitchen that he didn't know two days before, dressed in his clothes and making breakfast, it's usually preceded by a very different sort of night." Why did you say that? Now you're going to have to try to explain one night stands to this creature?

"Oh. You were expecting sex last night?"

He almost dropped his cup. "Huh?"

"Sex; intercourse; scoring; getting lucky. What will I need to do? I'll need instruction. The television doesn't provide much detail, at least not on the free channels."

"No!" He looked up at her. "Listen carefully, Anna. Whatever you think you owe me, whatever … duties you may feel obligated to perform, that isn't one of them. Ever. Got it?"

She nodded. "Okay. Can we still be friends?"

That afternoon, Lynch took his guest shopping at a local mall. By the time they got back home, he felt exhausted. "Well, that could've gone better." He dropped into the couch. "Two hours in women's stores and I feel like I've been trying to buy Stingers back from the mujahidin."

"Didn't we get everything we went for?" She set the perimeter alarm as she entered the house, bags in hand. He didn't bother asking how she'd acquired a code.

"And more. Don't take back what doesn't fit. Just remember the sizes for next time. Lord!"

"I don't understand why you're so upset. I already tried on most of this clothing; the only items we had to guess at were under-wear, which can't be returned anyway. I thought the trip was successful."

"The problem with the bras and panties was unexpected, is all; I guess my ignorance was showing, and it ticked me off."

"Sir, you don't wear bras and panties, do you?"

"What kind of question is that?"

"I'll take that as a no. So, how would you know that you can't try them on before you buy them? And if the sales girl is there to help, why didn't we ask her?"

"Because it would have been suspicious. I don't see how a woman could get to be your apparent age without knowing her underwear sizes, so we had to pretend to be buying for someone else. I didn't want to stress her any more. She was nervous already. I'm sure they don't get many one-eyed men escorting girls in BDUs. Why were you staring at her like that?"

"I was observing. She's the first female I've met."

"Eh?"

"The researchers were all male; the only other person I've met is you. The women I saw on TV last night don't count, because I had no one real to compare them to." She fished a plain white brassiere out of the bag and held it up, looking at him. "I still don't understand why I have to wear one of these. There are no pockets, and it doesn't cover anything that a shirt doesn't already; likewise the panties. I suppose that's why they call them under-wear?"

Suddenly the couch didn't feel as comfortable; he shifted and cleared his throat. "Well, there are hygienic reasons for the panties, but … well, by convention, a woman's breasts are supposed to be … a certain shape, and positioned a certain way on her chest; a bra sort of molds them and holds them, if you catch my drift."

"So, it's an esthetic consideration, like cosmetics."

He latched on to the idea. "Yes! It's not strictly functional, but it's widely agreed that it makes a woman more attractive."

"Hm." She examined it with a frown. "I suppose it would make more of a difference if my breasts were larger; I doubt this vest will change my appearance at all." She stuffed it into the bag and headed down the hall, towards her room. "I'll be back shortly to fix dinner, sir."

She returned in a few minutes, wearing his castoff shorts and sweatshirt. "So, what would you like?"

"I'd like to know why we went to the store, if you're going to keep wearing that outfit."

She blinked. "You said this was okay to wear at home."

"Well, sure, but you don't have to. That getup fits you like a tent. If you like it, we can get one in your size."

"No." She shook her head. "I prefer this one."

"God's sakes. What is it about it that you like so much?"

She hesitated briefly, and then said, "It used to be yours, and now it's mine. That's what I like about it." She turned towards the kitchen. "So, what will you eat? Shall I surprise you?"

"As if you don't do that every ninety seconds."

Two hours later, he stepped out of the shower and toweled off, feeling strangely relaxed and lethargic. He had a hundred things left to do to complete his exit from IO, but, rather than feeling pushed to check some items off his list, he wanted nothing more than to take his full belly to bed. Not only had he been running short of sleep for days; Anna had been watching cooking shows, and found ingredients in the kitchen for a late feast. She keeps this up, I'll have to add a mile to my daily run, he thought.

His bed had been made.

Usually he made his bed in the morning before he left the bedroom, but he'd been so anxious about what was going on in the rest of the house he'd forgotten. He reached under the pillow and touched the scrambler; he drew it out and saw the charge indicator light glowing green.

The indicator light built into the firing stud had three colors: it changed from green to yellow at two-thirds charge, and from yellow to red at one-third, flashing just before it changed colors or went dead. When he'd come back from his foraging expedition, the indicator had been solid yellow.

The scrambler's sixteen-hour charger was still plugged into the wall by the nightstand, but he hadn't used it. She'd come in to make his bed, found the scrambler – possibly the only Anna-lethal weapon in the house - topped off the charge, and put it back.

He heard a tap at the door. The pajama bottoms were nowhere in sight, so he jumped into bed and pulled the sheet over. He opened the drawer of the nightstand, dropped the scrambler in, and shut it At least she's here before I fall asleep this time. "Come in, Anna."

She entered and shut the door behind her, wearing only a bra and panties. "These seem to be the best fit. What do you think?"

"What?" Her body was as realistic as her face and hands and legs; trim and almost athletic. Her skin was perfect, and so smooth it nearly gleamed in the dim light. Incongruously, he noticed they'd given her an innie. Only reasonable, I suppose. He scrambled up in bed and drew his knees up. "They're fine. Go finish dressing."

She cocked her head. "What's wrong?"

"You need to put something else on; it's not 'decent'."

Her brows gathered. "This is a curious reaction. I thought 'not decent' meant 'not wearing any clothes.'"

"Chrissakes. You're still half naked. You can't go walking around the house like that."

"I've seen women in swim suits that cover less and men don't get disturbed by seeing them. At least, not like this. Is it because it's under-wear, and it's not under? You're blushing."

"Yes. Now, just … shoo, okay?"

She stared at the sheet that covered him. "I can see in infrared; your face isn't the only place where you have blood gathering. Doesn't that mean you want sex now?"

"Reflex be damned!" He exploded. "Anna, wasn't I clear about that the other night?"

"Very clear. Emphatic."

"Well?"

She shifted her gaze from the sheet to his face. "In my very limited experience, when people talk about sex, they often say one thing and mean another." Without another word, she turned to the door and left.

All traces of lassitude were gone now; he was sure he wouldn't sleep for a while. He decided to dress and do something, if he could stuff himself into a pair of pants. He threw the sheet off and swung his legs over just as the door opened and she stuck her head in. He whipped the sheet back over his lap.

"I came back to say, 'Sweet dreams, sir.' Should I have knocked?"

"Every time, Anna. Every single time."

"Noted." Then, without a trace of humor, as if she were uttering some secret password, she said, "Woo hoo. Baby." She was gone.

February 2006

"Canceling my previous instructions freed me to discover my own interests. I enjoy life more as a housekeeper than a war machine. I like having a family."

The brooding, introverted look was back. "Don't get too attached to something you can lose so easily, Anna. It hurts... a lot. I don't know if I could afford another family."

"Sir, you have a family right now. Bobby is still sorting out his feelings for you, but he's coming around. Sarah's an enigma, but she'll put her life on the line for you right alongside Eddie and Roxanne. And as for Caitlin, I think she-"

"Don't go there, Anna."

"But sir, she -"

"NO, Anna. The subject is closed to discussion." He pushed the mug away. "Sorry. I know. But it's flat out impossible, and I just don't feel like going into the reasons tonight."

She stood up, the intimacy of the moment broken. "I think I should do some work on the security system tomorrow. Sensor Three needs to be moved uphill somewhat - it picks up a lot of surface scatter off the ocean when it's windy."

"Anything else?" He knew his rebuff had stung her, she could tell; but he felt helpless to do anything about it. I've seen entirely too much helplessness, and grim despair, in this man's voice and posture lately for my comfort.

"The data search for the children's biological families seems futile without Ivana's access codes. The Operations database tells me everything IO is doing or learning to catch the kids, but every search into their original discovery dead ends into Research Directorate. I need -"

An alarm from the security system tripped inside her skull; she froze as nothing organic could, and queried the system. Quick as a snake, Lynch's hand was on the butt of his holstered sidearm, alerted only by her sudden stillness. "What is it?"

"Wait one ... All clear. A faint signature, resembling a stealthed helicopter. The second sweep resolved it into a flock of gulls over the water."

He took his hand off his weapon. "Anna, move that sensor tonight."

She turned slowly back to him. "Are they really so close?"

John Lynch, former Director of Operations for IO, the perennial cool operator, put his elbows on the table and covered his eyes with his hands. "I've tried so hard to give these kids a normal life, keep them together, keep them sane ...while hiding them from the most powerful and ruthless secret organization in history. The bastards are never, ever going to stop looking. As hard as I try to cover our tracks, I know I've missed things. I'm running out of blind alleys to lead them down. My friends at IO have stuck their necks out as far as I dare let them. It's just a matter of time."

"Time is all we've ever had, sir. They've been hot on our trail half a dozen times, and half a dozen times you've lost them." She put her hands on the table and leaned far over towards him. "You're smarter than they'll ever be; if what you've been doing isn't working any more, you'll come up with something else. As long as we have you, they'll never catch us." But how much longer will we have him? He's been doing this nonstop for two years now. He's wearing down, constantly stressed and losing sleep. He drinks too much when he's home. God knows what danger he's in when he's away. He never goes unarmed anymore, not even inside the house, and he jumps at birds' shadows. He needs a break, some little respite; but keeping us out of IO's clutches is a full-time job, and none of us except him has the skill or connections to manage it. How can I help him?

February 2004

"Anna, I need to talk to you."

"Talk away, sir. My ears are yours." She continued to pull laundry out of the dryer and into the basket, her back to him.

"Things are about to change around here. I need to be sure you understand. Do you mind stopping that, so I know I've got your attention?"

"I'm quite attentive. Your heart rate is sixty-two beats per minute, respirations twelve. You've eaten in the last five hours; your blood sugar is at acceptable levels. By the sound of your step, I'd guess you're almost due for a new pair of shoes. Stress indicators show a slightly elevated state of emotion, cause unknown." The drum was empty; she set the basket on top of the dryer, shut the door, and turned to face him. "What's on your mind?"

"I'm quitting my job, and taking on another one."

She blinked. "Will we have to move?"

"Not soon, if ever. But … I'm bringing some people to stay with us. I don't know how long. Months, maybe longer." He watched her closely. "They're kids, young adults. They'll probably be feeling pretty shocky, and not ready for any more surprises."

"So I'll need to pass for human with them. Do you think I'm ready?"

"No stranger would ever guess. But they're going to be sharing our roof; the slightest … aberration is going to arouse suspicion. Like that outfit," he said, indicating her hand-me-down sweats. In the week she'd been sharing the house with him, she'd done some tailoring to the outfit. The neck of the shirt was open now, and hung off one shoulder like a peasant blouse, and she'd cut the sleeves off short; he wasn't sure what she'd done to the shorts, but they looked more like a skirt now, worn low on her slender hips. But they were still obviously a man's castoffs.

"Yes. If someone sees me in these, they'll think it peculiar. I suppose I need some new clothes."

"I already have some. Come upstairs to the kitchen."

Upstairs, he pulled an outfit out of a box on the kitchen table, and held it up for inspection. "There are two more just like it. Recognize it?"

She didn't touch it. "It looks like a maid's outfit."

"Correct."

She looked from the dress to him. "I'm waiting."

"It's an acceptable explanation for you being in the house, without any … romantic attachments. And as a uniformed employee, you can put some social distance between you and my houseguests. They're less likely to ask personal questions, and it won't be rude if you choose not to answer."

"I see. I'll need to wear this all the time, then?"

"Employees get days off. You'd be expected to wear street clothes when you're not on the clock."

"'On the clock.'"

"Yeah," he said slowly. "That's something else we need to discuss. You've been making my life pretty easy around here, feeding me and taking care of all the household chores. Do you think you could do it for a houseful of people?"

"I don't see a problem, sir. Do kids and young adults pose any special challenges?"

"Lord, yes. They'll probably be messier than I am at my worst; I can't guess how they'll get along; they may be fussy eaters. Yeah, there may be problems."

"Then I'll study up on it right away. How much time do I have?"

"I don't know," he said slowly. "I'm guessing six to eight weeks, no more. But when the time is right, I'll have to move suddenly; you may not get any warning before I bring them home. You'll understand why after you've studied this." From under the box, he drew out a thick manila envelope. "This is a brief on a dirty little IO secret called the Genesis Project."

"Don't worry, sir. I'll get started right away. I'll be ready."

"Thanks, Anna. This means a lot to me." He caught her eye. "There's another thing. Up until now, we've had something of a cozy domestic partnership. You help out as you please, and I don't make any demands. But if you're going to take care of a bunch of strangers at my request … well, you deserve more compensation than a roof over your head and a place to hide; you should be drawing wages."

"Wages," she said. "As in money?"

"Yes. You remember getting your picture taken in the basement two days ago?"

"Of course."

From under the box, he drew another large manila envelope and handed it to her. "This is a complete set of ID: birth certificate, Social Security card, passport, school transcripts, tax returns, resume and work history, driver's license, the works. It'll all pass scrutiny by law enforcement; it's as real as anybody's, as far as the databases are concerned. I'll teach you to drive, so you can shop without me – or do you know already?"

"No."

Or, at least, not until she gets the wheel in her hands; then I suppose she'll discover she's Mario Andretti.

"Okay. You also have a checkbook and a savings passbook. Starting this month, you're officially my employee. Your first month's salary is already deposited, and you'll get the same each month, automatically."

She looked at the paperwork. "'Anne Devereaux?'"

"Yeah." He smiled. "Couldn't resist the idea of a French maid."

"Zen, weel I heff to wirrk on my accen', missyoo?"

He snorted. "Hardly; you're saucy enough. You add a French accent to that Kathleen Turner voice of yours, I'll have to keep the boys in straightjackets."

"Do I need to tune my voice to a different range?" Her voice was two octaves higher; she sounded like a little girl. "That's just my default setting."

"Whoa, too much. Right now, you sound about eight years old. I didn't know you could do that." Her chirpy voice, together with the voluminous clothes, made him think of her as a precocious child again for the first time in days.

She nodded. "Just a matter of compressing or expanding the frequency." Now she sounded like a girl in her twenties. "On TV, actresses seem able to change their perceived ages by altering their registers."

"So you can imitate other people's voices?"

"There's more to the individual human voice than its register; my pattern of hisses and buzzes isn't any different. Then again, register is a voice's most noticeable characteristic. I suppose I could claim to be someone else on the phone without raising suspicion, so long as my frequency, inflection, and vocabulary matched the subject's."

"Hm. This is the first time you ever really sounded like a normal twenty-something girl to me."

"If you thought there was something wrong with my voice, you should have told me sooner."

"There's nothing wrong with it; in fact, I like it, very much. But it's … seductive. And teenage boys are up to their eyebrows in hormones; they might think you're coming on to them."

She gave him an appraising look. "But you like it." Her voice was deep and sultry again.

He grinned. "A man doesn't have to be a teenager to appreciate a pretty girl with a bedroom voice. Let's look over the bank stuff."

She looked at the bank balance. "Eight thousand, three hundred thirty-five dollars."

"Plus all withholdings. Need to do it by the book to stay under the radar, and add some detail to your ID."

"What should I do with it?"

"Anything you like. Once you get used to spending money, you won't have any trouble finding things to do with it."

"Okay." She slipped everything back in the envelope. "Thank you." She gathered the box and envelopes and headed towards her room.

"Believe me, at a hundred grand a year I'm getting a bargain. I wouldn't dare let strangers in here to do what you do."

She looked over her shoulder at him. "I don't mean about the money," she said. "For telling me I'm pretty."

February 2006

Suddenly he lowered his hands and looked up from the table at her with a face that would give her goose bumps if her physical makeup permitted it: the face of a man considering hard choices and uncertain outcomes. She had seen that look more and more often when he looked at her lately. He was studying her, as intently as she was studying him. A suspicion formed in her mind; when he gently reached for her hands against all custom, she quickly snatched them away, straightened, and turned her back to him. "Whatever drastic, irrevocable thing you're considering, don't. If it's what I think it is, especially."

"What would that be?" His voice sounded strange; the air felt charged, somehow, like the precursor to a thunderstorm; some reflexive attribute of his Gen-factor, like the way Caitlin's skin got rock-hard, or Sarah's hair started floating around her head. It felt menacing. She remembered the look on his face that night years ago when she was five steps from dismembering him and her life had suddenly changed forever.

"The scrambler is a blunt tool. It was just blind chance that my motor control program tripped out before my boot file; you might not be so lucky a second time. If you use it again, chances are you won't change me … you'll lose me."

She heard the chair scrape back, heard him step around the table towards her. If she'd wanted to, she could hear his breathing, his pulse; if she'd wanted to, she could hear him draw the scrambler from his coat pocket, hear the creak of tendons as his hand squeezed the trigger. She kept her sensitivity to human levels and turned slowly towards him, forcing the issue, yet giving him plenty of time.

His arms were folded across his chest, the hands in plain sight and empty. "And how do I want to change you? You think you've got me all figured out, do you?"

"Ever since we met, I've been observing you. I was designed to learn fast, and I have diagnostic tools a doctor would envy. I can hear your pulse and respiration; analyze voice stress for emotion or deception." She glanced meaningfully at the meal on the table. "I can surmise general health and blood sugar levels from the way you carry yourself, and I can detect fatigue poisons and other chemicals coming through your skin. I know when you're lying or angry or confused, when no one else on earth can guess what's on your mind. You're thinking about the day when IO comes for us, and despite all your precautions, you know our first real warning will probably be when they're smashing in the door. To have any chance of getting away, you need a formidable rear guard, a diversion, and some way of instantly erasing any traces of your escape. You need an expendable war machine with a bomb between her boobies. So you think you need to make me a robot again."

March 8 2004

Twenty-five days after Mr. Lynch had presented her with a checkbook, she was tidying the house, expecting company. Mr. Lynch had called the day before, as agitated as she'd ever heard him, telling her that her company was arriving ahead of schedule. Early in the afternoon, half a day later than predicted by her employer, she heard an automobile idling at the curb in front of the house; not through her own ears, but fed to her through the remote mike she'd hooked up at the mailbox. She increased sensitivity, and heard voices inside the car.

"Kat, are you sure we've got the right address? This sure isn't my idea of a secret hideout." A young man's voice, not deep, but rich and well modulated. A very expressive voice, she thought. This boy says what he thinks, even when he doesn't mean to. I'll bet he's Mr. Lynch's son.

"Maybe that's the idea. The directions were perfectly clear, and the keypad combination he gave us opened the gate." A girl, young, but with a resonant voice that would fill a room if she shouted. "This is the place, Bobby."

"Oh, wow," said another girl; her voice was high, clear, and musical. "It's like something out of a movie. Terrazzo driveway and walks. Palm trees. The front yard looks the size of a football field. Is this guy rich, or what?"

She directed the center garage door to open, and hurried outside.

"Somebody's coming out." It was a second male voice, somewhat hoarse and foghorn deep. "I think we're in the wrong place, Red. That's somebody's housekeeper. Probably called the cops on us already."

She smiled to herself. I haven't met them yet; I don't even know what they look like, and I like them already. Mr. Lynch often made shrewd guesses based on incomplete data, which he called 'hunches' or 'intuition'; it seemed a useful skill, if she could develop it. Before she looked, she closed her eyes for a few milliseconds and let her first impressions of the newcomers come to her mind. Bobby would be a younger version of his father, brown of hair and eye; she imagined his hair long, with a reddish tinge, and bound up in a tail. He'll have an artistic temperament, I think. The girl Kat should have a physical presence to match her voice: tall, stocky, and mannish in appearance, with short blonde hair. She'll be the leader, if they have one. The second girl's sunny tone seemed to go with freckles and pigtails; she would be the youngest. Their mascot, the one the others watch out for. The pessimist with the deep voice would be the oldest, someone the others looked to for advice. He seems the thoughtful type. She opened her eyes.

An aged sedan was stopped across the end of the driveway. She could see two figures in front: a redheaded girl driving, with a blond boy sitting beside her. Kat and Bobby. She could make out two more youngsters in the back seat. Oh, well, it was just a fancy. She stood inside the garage and beckoned urgently.

"Hey, she's waving us in." The deep male voice, which she was now sure was coming from the back seat. The car backed up a few feet, then moved forward and turned in. As the car entered the garage, she ordered the door to close behind it.

The driver unfolded herself from the car, and they looked each other over briefly. Well, I was only half wrong about this one; she certainly has size and presence, but she belongs in one of those lingerie commercials I sometimes see on television, not a bodybuilder competition. She was fully two meters tall, with a striking face and figure, and crowned with a head of red-gold hair that shone like copper. She wore a track outfit, grey pants and jacket with a white shirt that rode up past her navel; the bottom edge of the shirt and unzipped jacket hung well forward of her flat stomach. I wonder if she needs a brassiere to hold them and mold them. Her bright emerald eyes took in Anna's outfit in turn. "You're not Mrs. Lynch, I'm guessing."

"Hardly, miss; Mister Lynch never remarried. You're Kat, I'm guessing. I'm Anna, the housekeeper." The others were getting out, looking at her. She regarded the tall blond boy, dressed in jeans, a white tee, and a flannel shirt with sleeves rolled up his forearms. "You must be Bobby. You don't have your father's hair or eyes, but you have the same strong face."

He flushed slightly. "About the only thing I got from him."

"Well, I know my opinion is based on slight acquaintance, but I'm inclined to disagree." The other two kids were out of the car. I couldn't have been farther off the mark with these two, could I? The boy was young, quite short, and built like a troll, with huge hands and a bodybuilder's physique; although he was dressed like Bobby, his rumpled clothes looked like they'd been raided from a donation box. His eyes had a distinct Asian cast, and his hair was brown, chin-length, and slightly disarrayed. He doesn't look like the sort of person anyone would go to for advice. The other girl stepped out of the car. She was about the younger boy's height but with an almost willowy figure, and she didn't look like anybody's idea of a mascot. She wore a black leotard with a short leather skirt and matching jacket; her jet hair was cut too short for pigtails, and she'd applied purple dye to the strands that framed her face. On television, young girls dressed in such a manner were invariably troublesome and rebellious. "Now, who might you be?"

The boy stuck his hand out. "Grunge."

She blinked. "Beg pardon?" She glanced behind her, but of course the garage was spotless.

The girl giggled as she shook her head; the sound fell on Anna's ears like the tinkling of chimes. "He's got this thing about Kurt Cobain. Call him Eddie. I'm Roxanne." She thumped his shoulder with her fist. "I thought I was the only one who called you that."

She looked from one to another. Roxanne was keeping well inside Eddie's personal space; they would scarcely have been closer together in a closet. Bobby and Kat were separated by a distance that suggested friendship rather than intimacy, but they might just be reserved in front of a stranger. "Boys and girls, this house only has three extra bedrooms. Two of you are going to have to share. So, at the risk of sounding nosy, how many couples am I looking at here?"

Kat drew away from Bobby, flushing. "God, no." She turned to Bobby and flushed harder. "Sorry. I didn't mean … you know."

The corner of Bobby's mouth twitched. "No problem, Kat."

"You're a nice guy, you know, any girl would be lucky to have you …"

He looked up at the ceiling. "Jeez, quit it. You're embarrassing me."

Eddie eyed Roxanne; his mouth opened, just as she said quickly, "Bunk with me, Kat?"

The tall redhead looked at Eddie as if she were sighting a gun. "Absolutely."

"You gotta bunk with me anyway, bro," said Bobby. "Sarah's gonna need her own room."

"Sarah?" They were all supposed to arrive together.

"We have one more coming," said Kat. "I hope."

"I see. Well, come inside, and I'll show you around. The bedrooms all have twin beds, so that's no problem. Do you have anything to take out of the car?"

"All we own is what we're wearing," Kat said. "Mr. Lynch gave us some cash before we split up, or else …" She paused, unsure of how much to say.

"Or else you'd be showing up in those fancy prison coveralls you wore at the Project," Anna finished for her. She watched them trade glances. "Yes, I know something of it, though not all, I'm sure. I don't suppose Mr. Lynch expects you to keep secrets from me." And how long can I share their secrets without giving up some of my own? I doubt I'll keep these kids at arm's length with a maid's outfit for long. She led them into the house proper.

Her guest's heads swiveled around as they surveyed the interior. Eddie whistled softly. "Place is an art museum. Doesn't seem like the L-man's style. I was expecting a lot of photos of guys in uniform with M-16s, maybe a bowl of grenades on the coffee table."

"He does have a few such photos in his study. But the rest of the house is more refined."

"Are these originals?" Kat touched the frame of a painting, not daring to lay a hand on the work itself. "I'm sure I've seen this one in a book somewhere."

"Monsignor's Garden, Joel Lieberman, nineteen twenty-eight," Eddie said automatically. At Kat's surprised glance, he said, "Hey, so I read it too."

"Sure it's original." Bobby's mouth was drawn into a line. "Looks like he's trying to buy some respectability. Or maybe laundering his money by buying art."

"Mr. Lynch seems quite knowledgeable," Anna said. "I think he buys these things because he likes them." She led them towards the kitchen. Looking back to make sure they were following, her gaze took in their sizes and coloration. "You're rather a diverse group."

"We'll be a lot more diverse when Sarah gets here," Eddie said. "She's our token everything." Bobby's face clouded at the remark as Eddie turned towards the sliding glass door in the kitchen. "Dang. I knew we were near the water, but I didn't know we were on the beach."

"Yes. All the properties on this side of the street are. The ground rises a little towards the back of the lot, so you can't see the beach from the street. Pretty view, isn't it?"

"Why a pool in the back yard, when you've got all that to swim in?"

"First, believe it or not, the water's rather chilly for much of the year. Second, you may get tired of immersing yourself in salt water. Third, the pool's more convenient. If you walk the beach, you'll see a pool in every back yard. Though I don't know why Mr. Lynch has one; he never uses it."

"Where's Mr. Lynch now?" Kat jumped in.

"On his way. I'm expecting him in less than ten minutes."

She would be talking to him before he arrived; the first thing she'd bought with her wages had been a top-end FM transceiver, consisting of an ear bud no bigger than a hearing aid and a mike that could be clipped to one's collar or worn on a Velcro wristband. He'd accepted it with a trace of amusement, and didn't seem surprised when she told him that she'd linked it to the one in her skull. It was low-power and short-range to avoid detection, but she thought he should be in reach by now. While the kids explored the bedrooms, she opened com.

[Can you hear me, sir?]

[Loud and clear. I'm coming up on the gate now.]

[Be advised, only the number-three garage bay is unoccupied.]

[Our guests have arrived, I take it?]

[All but one, I think. Were you expecting Sarah?]

[She didn't.]

[Not with the others. Bobby thinks she's coming later, but Kat doesn't seem so sure. Do you know where she is?]

[I'm betting she detoured to her family's place on the reservation. Dammit.]

[Reservation? I don't understand.]

[She's an Indian. Native American, I mean. A lot of them live on land reserved for them, hence the name. IO's got to be watching her house; she's going to get picked up for sure.] He closed com.

"Is that cookies I smell?" Eddie's nose lifted.

"Still warm from the oven; milk's in the fridge. Kitchen's on the left. When did you all eat last?"

"We stopped at a strip mall south of Phoenix and grabbed some clothes and stuff," Kat said. "Nothing since then."

"I thought I heard stomachs growling. I have a big dish of macaroni and cheese in the fridge, too; fifteen minutes to heat." Kids love cookies and milk, and macaroni and cheese; all the magazines say so. As she retrieved the dish and set the oven, she said, "Where did Sarah leave you?"

"Globe. Globe, Arizona." Kat and Bobby looked uneasily at her as Eddie and Roxanne stuffed chocolate-chip cookies into their mouths. "We change our route and drive two hundred miles out of our way to take her to see her family, and she insists on us dropping her off at the edge of the reservation. At the crack of dawn."

"Prudent," she told them. "You'd stand out. Her chances are much better without you, assuming she looks Indian. How is she getting back?" I thought these two looked uncomfortable before.

"Where is she?" Mr. Lynch came through the door, looking at Kat. Bringing him up to speed took twenty seconds.

"She said she'd find a ride." Kat seemed embarrassed.

"Great," the master of the house growled. "She'll be bringing strangers to my gate. We'll have to move right away." He added, "Or maybe I can shoot him."

"Actually," the girl said, "I think she meant to hitchhike."

"Even better," he ground out. "Five hundred miles. Two, maybe three days by thumb. A hundred thousand witnesses will pass her by. IO will be following her to my doorstep, if they don't pick her up on the road."

"Nobody's going to pass her on the road," Bobby said.

"And why not?" He turned to the boy.

Bobby seemed as defensive as if he, and not Sarah, were the object of his father's irritation; his mouth took a stubborn set, and there was a challenging tone to his reply. "What guy's going to dust her, if he sees her alone by the road with her thumb out? She won't spend ten minutes on the shoulder between there and here. I wouldn't be surprised if she makes better time than we did."

"I wouldn't be surprised if she sets out for here and never makes it. IO's not the only danger on the road for a seventeen-year-old girl." He turned back towards the garage. "I've got to go. Probably be gone a couple days, maybe three. I'll call."

Bobby's face clouded again. "The reservation's only eight hours away, about."

"And IO will be at her mother's door in twelve, asking unpleasant questions. It's her family I'm worried about right now. Sorry, Anna; I didn't intend to leave you holding the fort like this."

She glanced at her four house guests. "Don't worry about us, sir. Everything will be fine."

The trouble began scarcely an hour after Mr. Lynch left. She was cleaning the counters when Roxanne came into the kitchen with an unlit cigarette between her lips; she flicked on a lighter and brought the flame to its tip.

"Roxanne. No smoking in the house, please."

The girl rolled her eyes and let her lighter go out. "What's the problem?" She stuffed the coffin nail back into a fancy case and put cigarettes and lighter into her jacket pocket.

She smiled at her. "No problem. But there's no smoking in the house. Did you get enough to eat?"

"Uggh, I'm stuffed. I don't usually drop my face in my plate like that. Must've felt a real need for comfort food."

"Good. Tell me what you like before I grocery shop tomorrow. Are you settled in with Kat yet?"

"Sure. Took about ten seconds, with nothing to unpack. We just picked beds."

"And we'll get you a couple of changes of clothes tomorrow. Come here a second."

The girl approached cautiously. Anna reached out and brushed at the shoulders of the leather jacket.

"What are you doing?"

"Getting the ashes off." She flicked her eyes towards the girl's lowering face, and combed her fingers through the ends of her dark hair. She compared the girl's features to a hundred magazines and cosmetics ads. "There. You're beautiful again. The purple streaks are a perfect touch. They frame your face and provide a nice contrast. And your eyes are quite distinctive. Are those contacts, or are they really violet?"

Roxanne eyed her. "Going a little heavy on the mom act, aren't you?"

"Am I?" She smiled again. "If you think so, I can tone it down."

"Whatever." She turned to leave, then turned back. "You work here, right? This is just a job?"

She cocked her head. "I don't understand."

"You're not bumping the headboard with the Man in Black, are you? You're just here for the money."

"I can make money a lot of ways. I like the work, Roxanne. What are you asking me?"

"I'm saying, if you've got a problem with me, you don't have to come on all nice to me for a paycheck."

She took a step towards the girl. "Roxanne, believe me, there's not enough money in the world to make me be nice to you." She tousled her hair. "Don't worry, baby. I'll take good care of you."

The violet eyes regarded her with a strange expression. Inappropriate response? "Lady, you are strange." But she smiled as she said it. Not this time, apparently. "I thought you were dumping on me, brushing off my jacket."

"Dumping on you."

"Yeah. Trying to make me feel like a slob for smoking."

"Not in my nature. You were the victim of a puff of wind, that's all. Have you been smoking outside?"

"Out the side door, away from the street."

"Good." She turned to the cupboard and brought out a disposable container. "This is your ashtray until I can get you something better. Do your smoking at least three steps from the door and don't leave any evidence but this, and you'll hear no complaints from me. Does anyone else smoke?"

"No. You really don't care?"

"I certainly do. You're what, fourteen? Fifteen? And you managed to lay hands on a pack while you were running for your life. You've got the habit bad. But if you ever shake it, you'll do it when you decide; I'll just settle for keeping it out of the house." She rinsed her rag in the sink and hung it over the faucet. "So, what did you come in here for, originally?"

"Nothing, really. I guess I came in to see what you were doing."

Wandering through a strange house, wondering what the future holds; sounds familiar.

"Since you're here, how about helping me make some plans? You guys are going to need a ton of stuff. Including swimsuits," she said, glancing out the window at the pool and the beach beyond. "Do you like one or two piece suits? I don't recommend skinny dipping. The pool and the beach are secluded from the street, and the neighbors can't see the pool, but both are quite visible from boats, and people do stroll the beach." The planting I've done should take care of that in a few months, and nobody approaches this house from any direction without the security system catching it.

She giggled. "Two piece, definitely. You know those string bikinis that tie? They're my favorite."

Anna looked her up and down. "Well, you've got the perfect figure for them." She didn't know what sort of figure suited such apparel, but the remark seemed appropriate.

"So do you. I bet we're the same size. Um, do you have any Kotexes? I'm about due."

"No, I don't have any, either. Let's make it the first thing on our list."

They sat at the kitchen table and spent an hour discussing clothes and food; Anna came away with a menu plan for the next week, and a decision to take the girls individually on short shopping trips. Shopping for clothes in a group, she determined, would likely turn into a social event; she needed to get them clothed and back under cover as quickly as possible. She would buy for the boys herself; in Roxanne's opinion, they'd wear anything that fit.

"Did they pick out what they're wearing?" Get more of the same. Find their sizes.

"Yeah." She made a face. "It takes me longer to brush my teeth."

She added toothbrushes, combs, and toiletries to her mental list. "I'd like to have some things for Sarah before she gets here. Any idea what her sizes are?"

"Um, no idea what her dress size is; ten, maybe? I've never seen her wear one. She's a shorts-and-slacks kind of girl. Likes her tops tight and low-cut, the showoff. Five-seven, maybe one-twenty, one-thirty. I'm just guessing." She paused. "You might want to be careful buying clothes for her, there's no telling how she'll take it. Especially if you bought her something she liked; she dresses to give a certain impression, you might say."

This from a girl wearing purple hair and a leather mini. "She seems independent-minded."

"Well, that too, but … did anybody tell you why she needs her own room?" When she shook her head, the girl went on. "She's gay. Into girls, I mean."

"Oh. Does that create a problem?"

Roxanne looked at her speculatively. "Anna … which way does your gate swing?"

"Beg pardon?"

"Are you gay? Any chance you two might pair off?"

Is this the sort of question Mr. Lynch was hoping to avoid with this little dress? The kids have been here two hours, and the disguise is slipping already. "No. Even if I were, it would be unprofessional."

"Uh huh. That doesn't sound like a whole answer, Anna. You like guys?"

She thought about Mr. Lynch and the two boys now under her roof. "Yes, very much."

"Got a boyfriend?"

"Haven't had much time for one, or opportunity. What about you? How serious is it with you and Eddie?"

The girl grinned. "Not much past flirting right now, but he's hot. I've got plans for him." The smile thinned slightly. "If I can unglue his eyes from my sister's rack."

"Rack?"

"You know." She cupped her hands in front of her, as if she were holding invisible grapefruits to her chest.

"Oh. You and Kat are sisters?" There's no resemblance, either in body type or facial structure.

"Half sisters, we think. We only met at the Academy." She looked thoughtful. "Didn't take long to notice that most of us were adopted or foster kids. I was the only one living single-parent with her natural mother. None of us knew our natural fathers, seemed like. There were a few kids who claimed they lived with their real parents, but how could they know? I wonder if they ever looked at their birth certificates. There were copies in the paperwork we had to bring to school with us. When Kat showed up, they put her in my study group, and we compared. The same guy was listed as the father on both of them, kind of an embarrassing moment. Strange world, huh?"

"I doubt it was a coincidence; I'm sure IO knew, given their keen interest in your fathers."

Roxanne stood up. "Well, if my mom told me the truth about it, my father probably forgot her name, and he never knew I existed. At least Kat's mom got a wedding ring, and Kat got his name. And he made sure they were safe with his brother, before he dropped off the face of the earth."

And he's probably dead. Your father sounds like one of the Twelves who hid their children as best they could and used themselves as decoys, once they realized what was going on. "I'd give him a chance to tell his story before I judge him, Roxanne."

"Tell that to Bobby. He needs it a lot more than I do."

"What is it I need?" Bobby popped his head into the doorway.

"Explanations," Anna replied, smiling. "And maybe some TLC. How was your snack?"

"'Snack.' I usually get my mac and cheese from a box, not out of the oven with bread crumbs and toasted cheese on top. And a little sprig of parsley." He smiled back. "But I could get used to it. You doing anything right now? Cuz I think Kat's having a meeting. And your name's coming up a lot."

Her hearing had picked up a conversation developing in the living room, and identified the voices of the other three kids, but she'd filtered it out to keep her focus on Roxanne; now, as she walked the short hall to the living room, she readjusted her filters and picked out Kat's voice clearly.

"-and I for one am ready to hear some answers. If we're kept in the dark and we're not allowed to leave, this place is just a fancier prison. I was going to talk to Mr. Lynch, but he's gone, maybe for days, and I don't want to wait if I don't have to. I'm betting Anna knows a lot more than we do."

"I don't feel like a prisoner," Eddie said. "It's more like being in the Witness Protection Program." A patting sound. "And I like the grub. It isn't perfect here, but it's a lot better than where we were."

She stepped into the room. Eddie lounged on the couch and Kat was standing in front of him; she turned as Anna spoke to them. "And on that note, are you guys going to be okay till breakfast, or should I fix something else? After I've answered all the questions I can, that is." Roxanne and Bobby followed her in; the girl sat down beside Eddie, and Bobby took a nearby chair, while Kat kept on her feet, facing her.

"I'm full now, but it won't last," Kat said. "But if there's stuff in the fridge or whatever, we can do for ourselves. We don't need you to wait on us hand and foot."

"Speak for yourself, Red," Eddie said with a hand on his stomach. "We don't want her boss thinking she's not doing her job."

"Which is any meal bigger than a sandwich or a bowl of cereal, Kat. I can see I'm going to have to stock the pantry better from now on. Where do you want to start? I'll tell you anything I can." Meaning, anything it's okay for you to know.

"Well, for starters, exactly who are we running from? Who did this to us, and why?"

"The government," said Bobby. "Had to be. But this guy who says he's my father, where does he fit in?"

"And what's he got in mind for us?" Eddie rose off the couch. "What's happening at home, and how soon can we go back? And what's with all the weird stuff we're doing now?"

She held up a hand. "Wait. I didn't think I was going to be able to tell you much that you didn't know, but I see now you're still mostly in the dark. So let's start at the beginning. As you've probably guessed by now, you were used as guinea pigs in an exotic experiment. The culprit is … a government intelligence agency that's gone cancerous, growing without limit and poisoning its host. It's known as International Operations, or just IO. It's very big, very rich, and very secret; even the government entities that are supposed to be overseeing it know only a fraction of what it's up to. It has its own armed forces; small but well-equipped and superbly trained, elite troops who specialize in counterterrorism work done very quietly. Its intelligence-gathering capabilities are an order of magnitude better than anyone else's, and its research programs are doing breakthrough experiments in almost any field you can name. The strange abilities you've developed are an inheritance from your fathers, who were all members of IO's military arm. Before you were conceived, IO used them as unwitting test subjects, and they came out of the program with some odd abilities of their own, and alterations to their genetic code."

"Anna, you just lost me," Bobby said.

"I get it," Eddie said. "Super soldier serum, like Captain America."

Bobby looked amused. "Careful, man. Your education's showing."

"Hey, the guy's been around since the Forties. It's like reading the classics."

"Whatever it is you're talking about, Eddie, it sounds like you're on track. Twenty years ago, your dads were given a series of treatments and drug regimens that they were told was a 'special inoculation series' for an extended assignment overseas. When the 'mission' was scrubbed, none of them thought anything of it … until a few weeks later, when their subjective reality started shifting on them. They found themselves gifted with unsettling new talents, talents that IO thought would make them better covert-action troopers."

Eddie grinned. "Like the L-man's scowl? That could be classified as a weapon." When Bobby glared at him, he said, "Yeah, like that."

She looked at him coolly. "Like being able to see around corners, or dodge bullets, or think a man dead without touching him." Eddie's lighthearted attitude dissipated.

"Has he ever done that?" Kat seemed subdued, yet oddly fascinated.

"I've never seen him do it. But I'm sure he could. I wouldn't urge him to demonstrate, if I were you." She looked at each of them in turn; Roxanne was suddenly looking a bit pasty. "I'm sure IO will steal you back, if they can. Mr. Lynch intends that not to happen. He sabotaged IO's computers so that they no longer have records of you or how they found you. That was just to provide a respite for you and all the others to run. Some of that data may be lost forever, but they'll reconstruct a great deal of it quickly. You have to steer clear of any known contacts: family, friends, favorite places. You'd better be circumspect about picking up former hobbies, if they're anything unusual."

"We can't stay cooped up in this house forever." Bobby looked around the living room. "It's nice, but like Kat said, it's just another prison if we can't leave."

"Mr. Lynch is working on that. No doubt this emergency will set back his schedule, but I'm sure you'll be able to leave the house in a week or less. Eventually, he may be able to put you back in touch with your folks, but you'll have to be very careful about that. IO knowing that your family is in contact with you is the last thing you want."

Eddie looked thoughtful. "I bet they're still sending my folks fake e-mails and such."

"Yes, provided IO still has their address. No doubt everyone at the Academy who had contact with you is being questioned exhaustively, from your teachers down to the people who emptied your wastebaskets, trying to fill in details."

Eddie looked around at all the others. "How much did anybody tell Nicole?"

Kat and Roxanne looked grave. "If she remembers half of what I told her," Kat said, "I can never go home again. IO's staking out my uncle's house and my computer club and my favorite coffee shop already."

Eddie nodded. "Same. She could get your life story out of you in ten minutes."

"Kids, who's Nicole?"

"She was our guidance counselor at the Academy," Eddie answered. "About Kat's age, maybe a little older. Had a real personal touch. People were popping into her office all day to chat."

"Guys especially," Roxanne said. "Shameless flirt, just like Sarah. Her coverall zipper never got within six inches of her neck."

"I liked her," Kat said. "So did you, Sis, don't deny it. She was easy to like." She shook her head. "She was a plant. Matt too."

Bobby's gone quiet, suddenly. Anna shrugged."It doesn't change the plan. Everybody stays close to the house until Mr. Lynch gets back. I'll take the girls out one at a time for a few things, and bring back some clothes for the boys. Make a list of favorites from the grocery store, and I'll see what I can do." She smiled at them. "By tomorrow afternoon, you'll all be in the pool, and I'll have put three meals in you. Maybe things won't seem so grim by then."

She turned to Bobby. "I didn't forget your question, Bobby. Your father is … was … the head of one of IO's three main divisions, the Operations Directorate. That's the military arm. He's been looking for you since you disappeared. When he found you at the Academy, he made the decision to desert IO and take you with him. After the kids at the Academy started manifesting and he found out about what IO was doing to them, he expanded his plan to include scuttling the whole Genesis Project, and taking as many other kids with him as he could. That turned out to be your whole study and training group. For reasons of their own, IO housed you together as prisoners, just as they did when you were students."

"My mom's dead, right?"

"Yes, dear. I'm sorry. When you were very small, and both of you away from home. That's how your father lost you. I don't think I should say any more about that; your father should tell you." She looked at the others: Kat, Roxanne, Eddie. "I don't know where your fathers are. They're either dead or so deep underground that they can't be found. Eddie, your mother disappeared at the same time as your father, so there's hope they're together. Kat, do you know about your mother?"

"Divorced Dad when I was three," she said. "Didn't stop him from moving us in with his brother just before he disappeared. Mom died in a car crash a year later. I don't remember her. Uncle Nathan and Aunt Joyce raised me as their own, but they made sure I knew where I came from."

Anna nodded. "I know Mr. Lynch would like to locate your parents, but he doesn't have much hope. Contacting anyone you knew before the Academy would put them in grave danger. So for now at least, all we have is each other." She looked from one to the other. "Anything else?" after a moment, she said, "Something's bound to come to mind later. I'll tell you anything I can. Now, there are a few house rules."

Eddie and Roxanne groaned.

"Not many, at least not yet, but I'll expect you to abide by them. Most of them deal with security, with keeping us under the radar and uncaught. First and foremost: this house has a better security system than the Louvre. But you have to be on the property for it to protect you. So until Mr. Lynch gets back to forge you some proper ID, you stay on the property unless escorted by me, and I warn you, outings will be few and far between. By midnight, everyone has to be inside, and the house perimeter gets locked down. That won't change when Mr. Lynch comes back and you're free to travel away from the house during the day."

"We have to be in bed by midnight?" Roxanne was aghast.

"Hardly." She shook her head. "Mr. Lynch didn't give me any lights-out policy. Keep whatever hours you like." She smiled. "I'm a night owl myself. But Mr. Lynch and I are the only ones who enter or leave the house between midnight and six AM. If it matters, feel free to ask why. Better still, guess."

"None of us is ever out of contact for more than eighteen hours," Caitlin said.

"Yes. But you should always let someone know when you leave the house, with an approximate time to expect you back. Elementary security precaution. If it's not asking too much, knowing where you intend to go might be helpful in locating your body before the hyenas get it." She looked at their faces. "Not funny? Forget I said it. But, if they nab you, IO can take you far from aid in eighteen hours. Keep as close tabs on each other as privacy allows. Watch each other's backs. Any other guesses?"

Roxanne made a face. "He's trying to keep us out of trouble."

"Exactly. You're teenagers. Your chances of being picked up by the police or finding some other trouble are phenomenally higher during the wee hours. Mr. Lynch is simply eliminating the possibility. Also, if IO wants to pick one of you up without alarming the rest of us, what better time than when you're out late at night, a time you might be expected not to check in for hours?"

"Dance clubs are open after midnight."

"So are bars, pool halls, massage parlors, airports, hospitals, and police stations. Your point?"

"Nothing. Never mind."

"All right then. So, when we're most vulnerable to individual attack, we make sure we're together and well-protected. At this time, the only other rule concerns smoking in the house: there isn't any. It's a fire risk, a health hazard for the non-smokers, and an unnecessary cleaning job for me. Roxanne can show you the designated smoking area."

"Hey," Eddie said, "I still want to know what this dude is planning to do with us, and how long before we can go home."

"He hasn't told me, Eddie, only that you may be staying here for an extended period. I suppose it depends on how soon you want to be guests of IO again." She looked at the apprehension on their faces. "There's no telling how long it will take for them to lose interest in you, if ever; IO has a lot invested in you, after all. Perhaps Mr. Lynch can think of a way to get them to leave you alone. Until then, you'd better stay here."

"Okay. But how come we can't pick our own clothes, like the girls?"

She blinked. "I thought you didn't care what you wore."

"Are you kidding?" He looked down at his rumpled garments. "I'm real fussy about my clothes. So's Bobby."

"I was under the impression that you two would go into a store and buy the first thing that fit."

Eddie gave Roxanne a sour look. "Looks that way to a girl, maybe. That's because they'll put everything they pick out right back in the rack if they think one of their girlfriends has something that looks like it. Guys don't worry about that. If it looks good, and you see some other guy looking good in the same outfit, it just proves you've got good taste."

"I see." She smiled. "Clearly I've got a thing or two to learn about men. Outings for each of you, then. We start at nine." She turned. "If anybody needs something, I'll be in the kitchen."

In the kitchen, she opened the pantry and refrigerator, examining the contents and her memory, looking for a recipe she could use that her guests might like, making enough noise to reassure them of her location. As she did, she listened carefully to the conversation in the next room.

Kat started, keeping her voice low. "Okay, team. We need a roundtable discussion. We've got some big decisions to make."

"Sarah's not here."

"She's not here by choice, Bobby. She made her decision without consulting us, and frankly, she may not be back. If she was sitting here, it wouldn't make any difference, because she'd do what she wants anyway. Okay. Can we trust these people, and should we accept their protection? If not, do we stay together … or split up? Bobby, you start. You have the biggest stake in this."

"How so?"

"Well, he's your dad."

"Says him. He never coached my Little League team. We don't know who he is, or what he wants from us. All we know about him is that he's ruthless and dangerous and seems to be rich." The echoes from his voice changed subtly; she decided he must be looking around as he spoke. "We might wonder how a guy who doesn't notice he's got somebody else's blood all over his shirt makes his money. And if he is my father, he sure picked a great time to jump back into my life, don't you think?"

"What about her?"

"Strange. But nice. She has a lot of faith in her boss. That's a plus for him, in my book."

"All right. So, what do you want to do?"

"Stick around for now, I guess. But I think we should bail as soon as it looks like he's not being straight with us. I just hope he doesn't want to play Dad-and-Lad. I don't think I could stand it."

"Eddie? What say you?"

"The L-man makes sense so far. As long as the people who trapped us are still looking for us, we're plague carriers. I won't carry this trouble back to my family if I can avoid it. I just wish I could tell them I'm okay."

"So, you trust him?"

"To a certain point. There's an awful lot they're not telling us. But as long as they treat me right, I can overlook it. I wonder what's for dinner?"

"So, you accept Anna because she can cook?" The amusement in Kat's voice was obvious. He's deliberately acting the clown, breaking the tension.

"And because she's a babe. A fine catch for an older guy," he added quickly. "Somebody who's not already crazy about another girl. Seriously. Does anybody think we've got a better chance on our own? I say we stick, and see what kind of deal we're being offered."

"Sis?"

"He's scary. And I'm not sure she's all there. I trust both of them, their intentions anyway. But I'm not sure staying here is a smart idea. Who ever heard of hiding in a place like this? There are probably tour buses going down the street."

"Gate across the road, Rox. Remember?"

"Yeah. Maybe I'm just scared. I wish he hadn't left."

"What do you want to do, Sis?"

"I don't know." Anna caught a tremor in the girl's voice. "I just don't want to get caught again."

Anna decided it was time to stick her oar in the water. She emerged from the kitchen. "Grub in twenty minutes, kids."

"What are we having?"

She smiled. "Let me surprise you, Eddie." But instead of turning back, she entered their circle.

She'd made a study of body language, and assumed a posture that she thought indicated reasonable supplication: feet together, erect stance, hands clasped in front of her. She watched the kids carefully, as the unease at her approach faded. "I think, if I were you right now, I'd be wondering if there's anybody I can trust. Mr. Lynch is a very private man, and given to secrets. He's also very resourceful, and courageous, and he does and means what he says. He's offered you his protection, and that's not something to be regarded lightly. Whatever else you may think of him, you can count on him to do what he thinks is the best thing for you. Even if it's not the best thing for him." She turned and headed down the hall.

As she descended the steps to the basement, she heard Eddie say, "He's doing her."

"She says not, and I believe her."

"You asked her that?"

"Uh huh. Also, if she might end up bunking with Sarah."

"Well?"

"She says she likes guys, but she's not looking for one. There's something going on with her and Mr. Lynch. They must go way back, for him to trust her so much."

"She's not old enough for them to go way back," Bobby said. "Do you think she heard us?"

"Maybe," Eddie replied. "The kitchen's not that far away, but we had our voices down. Do you suppose there's a mike in here or something?"

"No," Kat said. "But what else would we be talking about?"

"You haven't weighed in, Kat," Bobby said. "What do you think?"

A pause of five heartbeats. "I want to trust them. Let's wait and see."

III

The dinner dishes were done, and the sink was draining. Anna wiped the counters, listening to the patter of rain outside the window. I've spent more time cooking and cleaning the kitchen in the past six hours than the previous six days. And I have to move at their speed if there's a chance one of them will walk in. These kids are going to force significant changes in my daily schedule.

Her air filters detected combustion byproducts. She felt a few milliseconds of alarm before her discrimination software identified it as cigarette smoke. So soon? The sooner the better, I suppose. She went looking for the source and found Roxanne smoking in the garage.

"Roxanne, put that out now and get it out of the house."

The girl frowned at her. "It's the garage." She made no move to put out the cigarette.

"It's not three steps from the side door. It's inside the walls and mixing with the house air. Get it out of here."

"It's raining."

"Not an extenuating circumstance. Find a way to keep dry outside, smoke in the rain, or wait for it to pass."

Roxanne brought the offending object to her lips. "Jeez, don't wig out. It's not like it's weed or anything."

The cigarette disappeared from her fingers; eyes wide, she stared at Anna holding the stubbed-out butt in a three-fingered grip.

Without anger, Anna said, "I've compromised on this all I'm going to, Roxanne. We had a deal. Are you prepared to set it aside entirely?" She took a step towards the girl. "Because I will not tolerate smoking in this house, and if I can't trust you to honor that, the circumstances of your residence here are going to change dramatically." The girl's attention was riveted on her, eyes wide and glaring.

"Roxanne, if I have my way, you're not going to lift a finger around this house. You'll never wash a dish or sweep a floor. I'll clean your clothes and feed you and clean up after you; you'll live like a princess." She lifted the cigarette between them. "This is a deal breaker. If you flout my rules, I'm no longer obliged to cater to you. You'll wash your own clothes or wear them dirty. You won't starve, but your meal requests won't be honored, and you won't find any favorite snacks around here either. And you're going to lose a great deal of your privacy, because I'll declare open season on any cigarettes in the house. I'll be on a twenty-four-seven seek-and-destroy mission, and you're going to be amazed at how difficult it is to hide things from me."

Roxanne's lips were white. "You wouldn't."

"In a heartbeat."

"Does Mr. Lynch know you're making your own rules up?" The girl's eyes narrowed. "What would he do if he found out you're threatening to go on strike?"

Anna stepped to the wall where a phone was mounted. She punched in a number, set the phone to speaker, and stepped back. The sound of the phone ringing filled the garage.

"What are you doing?"

"You asked two important questions. Let's get the answers." She folded her arms.

The phone picked up. "Anna?" Lynch's voice answered.

"Yes, sir." Her voice was neutral, impassive.

"I'm expecting calls back from tribal elders in a few minutes. Can this wait?"

"It's urgent sir, but it shouldn't take long. Roxanne needs to speak with you." Anna pinned the girl with her glance.

"Roxanne? What is it, what's wrong?" His gruff voice was suddenly warm with concern.

Roxanne glanced from Anna to the phone. "Uh." When she realized Anna wasn't going to interrupt, she began, "Your housekeeper's wigging out. I came in out of the rain to have a smoke in the garage, and she went ballistic. Snatched it out of my mouth and threatened to quit doing my laundry, and then she said she was going to go through my room every day, looking for cigarettes." Her eyes were challenging.

"Anna? Is that true?"

"Essentially correct, sir. I won't quibble over details. I've forbidden smoking inside the house."

A moment's silence, then: "I can't believe I'm taking a call about this." Roxanne looked at Anna, expectant; Anna returned the look. Finally, the master of the house spoke.

"Roxanne, if Anna forbids clothing inside the house, I'll expect you to comply, because she never does anything without a reason and I trust her judgment completely. She's my employee, not yours, and her instructions are very simple. When I'm not around, she enforces my rules, and whether I'm there or not, the household is hers to run as she sees fit. I reserve the right to countermand her policies, but I won't do it for something as trivial as your cigarette habit. Anna, do you have anything to add?"

Anna leaned a shoulder against the wall. "No, sir, I think that takes care of it. Thank you."

"Don't hesitate to call if any more trouble comes up. And I'll be calling you later, for a full report."

"Yes, sir." She broke the connection and held out the cigarette, offering it stubbed end up. "The deal is still on the table, Roxanne. You're a big girl. Make a decision."

She didn't reach for it. "Guess I should have seen this coming. You used to sleep with him, right?"

"Sweetheart, I've never slept with him. He's doing this because it's the right thing to do."

Scowling, the girl reached for the offered butt, but her fingers stopped inches from touching it. She stared at the cigarette, then at Anna's hands. Finally, she reached cautiously for the butt, and gasped as the housekeeper's hand spun and clamped her wrist. "One more thing, Roxanne. Your fake ID. Let's see it."

"Fake ID?"

"Roxanne," she said with narrowed eyes, "I presume you haven't been stealing your smokes."

"No." She pulled it slowly out of a jacket pocket and passed it to her.

Still holding the girl's wrist, Anna examined the card critically. "Well, you certainly are an artist with makeup. You could easily pass for twenty-one in this photo. How long did it take you to put on?"

"Forty minutes, maybe." She tugged experimentally, testing the housekeeper's grip. "Let go."

"Nice work. Trouble is, you don't look like this when you buy your smokes, do you? You look like a girl who stole her sister's ID. And the picture is the best part; the rest is amateurish work with a copy machine and whiteout. Only someone who wanted to be fooled would let it pass." She let go of Roxanne's wrist and tore the card in half. Roxanne gasped again. She put the two pieces together and tore them a second time, dividing the card into quarters. She stuck the pieces in her pocket. "When Mr. Lynch gets back, he's going to arrange for fake IDs, good ones. I'll make sure you get one that lists you as barely legal. You make sure you get your picture for it taken in the oldest face you can apply in five minutes, and then do it every time you buy smokes."

The girl rubbed her wrist. "I thought … we were going to be friends."

"Even if you never speak to me again, Roxanne, I'll still be your friend. But I won't risk your life to keep you liking me."

"What are you talking about?"

"San Diego PD." She began counting on her fingers. "San Diego Sheriff's Department. State inspectors. ATF. They all send undercover agents into stores suspected of selling to minors. If you had presented that ID to a cashier in front of any of them, you'd have been arrested. For any other kid, that's a couple hours in custody until their parents come for them. But you're not any kid; you're being hunted by IO, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. By now, they've got a photo of you from somewhere, and copies of it have been faxed to cop shops all over the country. They won't post them, but IO has contacts in all the country's police agencies. Each of those faxes will end up in somebody's desk drawer, along with orders to keep an eye out for you." She leaned towards the girl until their faces were a foot apart. "If you're ever in a store buying cigarettes and a hand comes down on your shoulder, it means you're just hours away from being back in your cell."

She watched Roxanne tremble; a tear rolled down her cheek. "Don't," she said. "You can't know …"

"Maybe not," Anna replied. "But I know this: as horrible as it was, they were just getting started. IO has plans for you." She wiped at the girl's cheek. "Let's try to avoid all that, shall we? And try not to dwell on it. Tomorrow morning I'll take you shopping, and by lunchtime you'll be dozing in the sun by the pool, working on your tan."

The girl stumbled towards the connecting door.

"Ah." Anna stopped her, pointing to the cigarette butt still clutched in the girl's fingers. The garage door lifted, opening on the gloom and drizzle. Roxanne passed through the big door without a word, and Anna sent it down behind her.

"Wow," Anna said to herself. From the time she'd entered the garage until she'd sent Roxanne shuffling out into the gloom, she'd encountered thirty-four high-order decision points; a bad choice or an inappropriate response at any of them might have produced a negative effect ranging from inconvenient to disastrous. At this point, she could only hope she'd navigated safely through the perils of instructing the obstinate girl. Raising kids is tough.

Anna was vacuuming the house an hour later. As she ran the sweeper under the dining room table, she kept an ear cocked for conversations. Her discrimination software filtered out the whine of the machine, leaving her able to focus on the sound of voices in the kids' bedrooms.

From the boys' room, she heard Bobby say, "Bro, tell me you're not really thinking of doing that."

"Why not? Girls her age go for young guys. Look at all the twenty-something schoolteachers get popped screwing around with ones our age."

"You'll get popped, like a soap bubble, when Rox catches you, and don't say she won't. You came that close to getting caught our last night at the Academy. Natalie must have been telling her girlfriends before she had her coverall zipped. Only thing saved you was that her pod was clear across the complex, and the story didn't make it to commons in time. If we'd stayed in school another day, you'd be a dead man. Anna's bedroom is right next door."

"I bet she could keep her mouth shut. Think on it, dude. She must get lonesome, cooped up in the house alone all the time. If they're keeping secrets, maybe she'll spill them to me."

"Oh, so you're doing it for the team now."

"Let's say I'm also doing it for the team. If Sarah wasn't dragging you around with her delicate pinky up your nostril, I'd suggest you do it. I bet you're more her type."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. One: you're closer to her age. Two: you're dapper, and she's a neat freak. Three: you're both too Caucasian for words. For all we know, she's a member of the Aryan Sisterhood."

Bobby snorted. "You make me laugh. It's the only reason I don't have you committed. When are you going to make your big play?"

"She says she's a night owl. I'll see what I can do after the girls are in bed. Be ready to take over if I strike out."

"I'll be there to call the squad after she parts your hair with an iron."

From the girls' room, Kat said, "Are you going to take any of those to the sink?"

"Nope. And when I get more than one outfit to wear, you'd better watch where you step, cause my dirties are headed for the floor. Don't pick up after me."

"I don't get it. Why make extra work for her?"

"We have a deal. Kat, you remember what I said before? About her not being all there?"

"Sis, she caught you smoking in the house and came down on you with both feet. That doesn't make her crazy."

"No. But she got a little upset, maybe, and showed me more than she intended to."

"Like?"

"She's fast, Kat. As fast as you, maybe. She was three steps away when she moved to take that cig out of my mouth. I wasn't asleep on my feet; I was watching to see what she'd do. But she caught me flat-footed, I never saw it coming. She did the same thing when she grabbed my wrist. Which brings up the second thing. I was caught like a fox in a bear trap. She's strong."

"She didn't mark you." Kat sounded dubious.

"She wasn't gripping me tight. But I wasn't getting away. Her hand was like a manacle on my wrist. Kat, you ever try to tear a driver's license? Or a credit card, anything like that? Without your magic, I mean."

"You can't, they're too – oh."

"Yeah. Mine was double laminated, just like a real one. She tore it like notepaper. Then she doubled it and did it again, also like it was nothing."

"What are you thinking? She's like us?"

"Sort of." The girl's voice grew softer. "I think she's a lab rat like us, only from a different lab. But I think she spent too much time in her cell before Bobby's dad got her out. You remember him saying he had to move before he was ready? I think they put us in those cells sooner than he expected, and he had to get us out quick … before we ended up like her."

"You make her sound autistic or something."

"No. But there are a lot of pieces missing from her puzzle. What girl her age doesn't know what a rack is? Or what it means to dump on somebody? Or the way she … looks at something commonplace like she's seeing it for the first time. Mark my words, some morning we'll come in the kitchen, and she'll be stirring oatmeal with her bra on outside her shirt. But you know what really raised the hairs on the back of my neck? She grabbed the cigarette out of my mouth and stubbed it out, quick as taking a breath. It only occurred to me later, when she gave it back … Kat, she ground it out in her other hand."

III

Anna was sitting on the couch at one AM, watching an old movie on the DVD player, when she heard quiet steps behind the couch that her discrimination software identified as Eddie's. She pretended not to hear, watching her show raptly, oblivious, as he approached. He stood over her from behind for three minutes. Finally, he said, "Hi."

She jumped and turned her head. "You have the deepest voice for a fifteen-year-old. How long have you been standing there?"

"Not long. I was savoring the moment. It's the first time I've seen you when you weren't moving." He smiled down at her. "What happened to the penguin outfit?"

She was wearing her shorts and sweatshirt. Sitting on the couch cross-legged, her legs were exposed to mid-thigh. When she turned her head towards him, the neck opening slipped down her shoulder, bare with no sign of a bra strap. "I'm off the clock. I can wear what I like."

"Uh huh. Looks like your boyfriend's clothes."

"Ex. Seems he was easier to dispense with than his sweats."

"I bet they look better on you. Lots." He circled the couch and sat down next to her, a hand's width away; his thigh touched her knee. "What is this we're watching?"

"Movie, sixty years old, black and white. Casablanca. Ever hear of it?"

"Everybody's heard of it. I never got into it, though." He placed his arm on the back of the couch behind her.

"I've watched it four times, but there are parts I just can't understand. It's a love story, I think."

"Well, see, that's why you don't understand it. Love never makes sense." He leaned close. "Sometimes you find yourself attracted to the most unlikely person."

"I've never had that problem. All my boyfriends look alike. Eddie, if you're going to watch this with me, would you like me to start it over?"

"No need," he said, smiling. "I'm here for the company. What do I have to do to get you to call me Grunge?"

"That's your girlfriend's name for you, Eddie." She kept her eyes on the screen.

"She's not exactly my girlfriend." His arm slid down, the hand resting lightly on her bare shoulder.

"She's not exactly not. Eddie, I'm enjoying your company, and I hope you don't decide to leave. But if you don't take your hand off me right now, you're going to have trouble using it tomorrow."

He lifted it unhurriedly. "You're not mad at me, are you?"

"Not at all. Flattered. Really. But I'm not in the market for a boyfriend, and if I were, I'd never pick a client. Unprofessional."

"'Unprofessional.' Sounds like an excuse to me."

"It's not; it's a commitment. Domestic service is a profession. When you invite a stranger to move in with you and run your house, you have to be able to rely on certain standards, codes of conduct, a clear set of responsibilities and obligations. That's why domestics wear uniforms."

"Well, you're not in that starched little dress now. Something wrong with me? Got a problem with yellow boys, maybe?"

She gave him a brief smile. "You're gorgeous and you know it; in fact, that's the first problem. You're fifteen, that's another. And even if I'm out of uniform, you're still a client. Besides, you're not my type, about six different ways, and nothing to do with your eye slant. Are you going to watch this with me, or did you just come in here trying to get lucky?"

Bobby appeared at the back of the couch. "Hey. Casablanca."

"Good grief, is anybody asleep in this house?"

"Girls are dead to the world. You like Bogie flicks, Anna?"

"Is this a Bogie flick?"

"Well, sure. Humphrey Bogart stars." He dropped down on her other side, as close as Eddie. Cozy.

"Well, I like this one. But I don't understand this part. Rick is talking to Ilsa. He's been drinking, and he seems angry; that much I understand. But what is he talking about … 'a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs'? And why is she so upset?"

Eddie stood up. "A glass of milk sounds good right now."

After he left, Bobby said evenly, "He just called her a lying whore."

"Oh." She shook her head. "I'm lost. I thought he loved her."

"He does. He's crazy about her."

"Then … why did he hurt her?"

He shrugged. "It's complicated." He stared at the screen. "She's hurt him, and he doesn't understand why. He's looking for some explanation, but all he can come up with is that she's not who he thinks she is, that she's been playing him for kicks. He needs her to be a bad person for it all to make sense, so he can feel better. But it's not working, because he loves her and he can't make himself believe. So he takes a stab at her, pushes her off balance, to see if she'll show him who she really is." He took a deep breath. "She doesn't mean to hurt him. But their choices are forced by one crazy circumstance after another, and it's all out of control, and they just keep hurting each other. The time is just never right for them to come together."

She looked at him. "Love never makes sense."

His eyes were as shiny as Ilsa's as he stared at the screen. "I wouldn't know. What's a kid my age know about it? We only think we're in love."

She recalled the unusual stresses in the boy's voice when the missing girl Sarah was a subject of the conversation. The girl is his lover. That's why he said no man could resist her. But he didn't want to share a room with her. And Roxanne says she's gay.

In a different tone, he went on, "You know, this is a strange flick. The dialogue's too clever to be real. The action scenes are wooden, because the camera's so big and heavy it takes a crew to move it. The special effects are Flintstone. Did you know that airplane's a prop, built in three-fourths scale? Those guys standing around it are midgets, I'm not kidding. And when it takes off, you can almost see the wire lifting it off the runway. This is really a stage play done in front of a camera, and it's a shameless World War Two propaganda picture.

"But I still like it. When Rick thought he'd lost her, he lost himself. When she came back into his life, he had to find himself again. Then he gave up everything, absolutely everything, even her, in return for her love." He swallowed. "And Victor. Right now, Ilsa's going to talk about all the times he risked his life to keep her near. Later, when he's alone with Rick in the bar, he'll almost beg Rick to steal his wife and leave him forever, just to keep her safe. That's the thing about this movie that makes up for everything else. No matter how screwed up everything gets, no matter how much hurt he's eating, in the end a guy can at least figure out the right thing to do." The tears finally broke free, two of them, one falling silently down each cheek.

The hurt in the boy's voice was overpowering, demanding a response. As he spoke, her menu of appropriate responses shrank until only three were left. If there is a God, let Him help me choose rightly. It was her very first prayer.

Unfolding her legs, she dropped her feet to the floor and brought her head down to the height of his chin. She reached behind his neck and drew them together. With one hand gently holding the side of his head, she rested her cheek on his shoulder. "Things will work out, Bobby," she said softly. "Somehow, I don't know how yet, but they will." She added deliberately, "I promise."

He tipped his head towards her. "I don't believe a word of it. But I like hearing somebody say it. Thanks."

They lingered together for a moment. Just as they were about to separate, Eddie spoke from a short distance behind them. "Ahem. Got my milk and cookies right here, and I'm headed for my room. Gonna stay there and go right to sleep, and I'm not gonna wake up till morning. Late."

Bobby stood up. "Hope you've got enough for two. I'm coming too. Night, Anna. See you in the morning."

"Goodnight, guys," she said, turning back to the television. "Sweet dreams."

The bedroom door was barely closed behind them before she heard Eddie say, "What are you doing? You had her."

"No, I didn't. And I think the idea sucks anyway. And even if it worked, I'd feel like an ass for using her."

"Told you. You're her type. 'Sweet dreams.' Maybe she wouldn't mind being used."

"I hope you choke on those cookies. Seriously."

"Great. Now you're hopeless over two women you'll never have."

She heard the soft thud of a body landing on a mattress. "Going to sleep now. Just so you know, if I haven't had a full night's rest, I wake up mean."

"Okay, I'm shutting up. But you had a good thing going, and you blew it."

"Things'll work out." Listening at full gain, she heard his heart and breathing begin to slow, while Eddie munched and drank. By the time he finished, Bobby was asleep.

She heard Eddie set the plate and glass on the floor by the bed, and then brush at the covers. "Too bad, dude," he said, too softly to wake his companion. "You really ought to be looking for another girl. Got a feeling this one would be good for you." The light under the bedroom door went out, and the house was hers; aside from some light snoring coming from the girls' room, there were no human sounds at normal hearing levels.

She thought about it as the movie progressed. Bobby loves Sarah, but she can't love him, because she's gay. Or can she? But she doesn't, except … what was all that about love? I'm sure he wasn't just talking about the picture; there were too many stress indicators in his voice. She watched Rick press his chest against Ilsa's pistol and urge her to shoot. Another test. He's stressing her another way, trying to see who she really is. But this time, he's gambling with his life. If she chooses the wrong way, he's dead … and won't care.

Can love really be this chaotic? This is "drama," an exaggerated hypothetical. But what do I use for a response check? If Eddie and Roxanne are in love, the exaggeration is ludicrous. But Bobby's responses are much closer to the ones in the picture. I'll have to study his and Sarah's interactions if she comes to the house.

It seems that love has different degrees of intensity. Now Rick was preparing to deceive the girl he loved, while sacrificing everything he possessed, to ensure her safety and happiness. And perhaps it comes in different flavors, as well.

An hour later, the phone rang. Since Mr. Lynch had told her to expect his call, she had kept the handset close at hand, to reach it before it woke the kids. "Good morning, sir."

"Good morning. What was that all about?"

"Training, sir. Our joint survival depends on being able to function as a team, which implies respect for leadership and discipline. Willingness to obey orders is not a common teenage trait."

"Humph. Go on."

"I've been listening to the kids' conversations. They're uncertain and suspicious; their consensus is that you have ulterior motives for bringing them here. I'm a ditzy waif that you trust just enough to carry out your orders. They'll test you, starting with your rules and, since you'll be gone frequently, my authority. I simply took the initiative by giving a quick opportunity to test me to the child most likely to bend the rules."

"She seemed plenty mature and dependable at the Complex."

"She was badly frightened and totally dependent on you for her safety and freedom. Disobeying you wouldn't occur to her under such circumstances; she's quite intelligent. Now she's far from that danger, and the memory of her ordeal is starting to fade. I gather she didn't have much supervision at home; she probably hasn't had a midnight curfew since middle school."

"She had a ten o'clock curfew at the Complex."

"And do you intend to lock her underground to force compliance? She observed that curfew because she didn't have any choice. If you give her a normal life, she'll have the same opportunities to break the rules that any child has; only the consequences will be different. These kids have to understand that it's vital for them to observe your rules and obey your orders, even when you're gone. And that my rules and orders carry the same weight. I can't have them appealing to you at every decision."

"I understand that; it's why I backed you. Would you really quit doing her laundry?"

"We don't have many options for enforcing our decisions, sir. I can't ground her; she's already under house arrest, as it were. She seems rather big to spank. Throwing her out is an empty threat; it would be the same as giving her back to IO, and would lead them back to the rest of us besides. The only consequences I could devise were the withholding of something she values: I threatened her comfort and her privacy."

"If she'd called you on it, you wouldn't have anything left to enforce the important rules."

"It wouldn't matter. The smoking rule is simple, not too burdensome, and easy to enforce. I discussed it with her and offered a compromise. When she tried to push beyond the limits of our agreement, I had to step on her, or she'd be snapping her fingers at every rule she found inconvenient. She'd drag the other kids into trouble, likely, and they'd all be back in their cells before the year is out. I didn't dare give way."

"Anna, you're changing again," Mr. Lynch said. "You sound like a mom."

"You asked me to take care of a houseful of kids, sir. Their families are out of reach or nonexistent. You stand in loco parentis to them, and by extension, so do I. Granted, they're precocious; each of them seems a couple of years ahead of the norm in terms of maturity. But they still need more from us than food, shelter, and clothing; they need guidance, nurturing, and support."

He was slow to reply. "You think you're ready for that?"

"I don't know. But it's a need more essential than clean laundry, and they have no one except us to provide it right now."

Shortly before dawn, she heard Roxanne's voice from the bedroom, too low and blurry for normal hearing. "Why are you doing this? What do you want from me? Say something, can't you? Wait. Don't go. Don't go…"