You won't have much time.

I just have to make sure she's safe.

And then you'll be ready?

Yes.

BLACK ORCHID THE UNKNOWN #1: "Everything in the World"

She woke gently, to the soft feel of a hand on her forehead. It took her
eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light from the hallway, coming through
her bedroom door. "Mom?"

She could just make out the smile. "You were muttering in your sleep. Is
everything ok, hon?"

Suzy-Michelle Starrling rubbed her eyes sleepily. "Just a weird dream, I
guess. I was ... I don't remember what it was about."

Her mother leaned over and kissed her forehead. "Ok babe, go back to sleep.
Remember we have to get up early, we've got a lot to do tomorrow."

Suzy-Michelle felt the shift in the bed as her mother stood up. "Mom?" she
called out quietly. "Do we have to move? I like living up here in the
mountains with just you and Dad."

The older woman stood silhouetted in the doorway, the light of the hall
against her back. "You know we have to move because of your father's work,
hon. You'll like California, and it'll do you good to mix with some other
kids your own age."

Suzy-Michelle gave an exasperated grunt, and pulled the covers back over her
head theatrically, curling up. Her mother sighed. "I'll wake you up at
six, Suzy-Michelle. At least try to look forward to this a little, ok?"
The lump under the covers remained silent, so the woman closed the door
gently and the room returned to darkness.

It seemed like no time had elapsed when the ceiling light was switched on.
"Time to get ready, sleepyhead." Suzy-Michelle scrupulously avoided giving
the impression of being awake, even trying to remain immobile when her
mother whipped the blanket off her, though she squinted as the light hit her
closed eyes. "C'mon sleepyhead," she heard, "Are you going to be a brat
about this, or are you going to be helpful? Should I have your dad come in
to carry you bodily into the shower?"

The young girl opened her eyes and glared, "No no no, I'll be good." She
shifted her position so she was seated on the edge of her bed, pushed the
tangle of blonde hair out of her face and rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
"Are we having breakfast?" she asked hopefully.

Her mother shook her head, "We'll grab something on the way, We'll stop at
an IHOP, all right? You can have all the pancakes you can eat."

Suzy-Michelle nodded, "Okay I guess," and grabbed a handful of clothes she
had set aside the previous morning and plodded into the bathroom. She came
out a half-hour later, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and carrying her pajamas
and damp towel and an armful of bathroom miscellany which she dumped on her
bed. Her mom had already stripped it to the bare mattress, and folded the
sheets. The girl sealed her bathroom items into a large plastic baggie
which she had left out the night before, and stuffed the sheets and the
other cloth items into a big yellow laundry bag. The baggie went into a
suitcase which she pushed closed with a grunt and zipped shut. She ran her
hands down her hair, squeezing out the last few drops of wetness she could
and letting the drops fall to the floor, wiping her hands dry on the
mattress. She finally tied her hair back into a ponytail and picked up the
suitcase and laundry bag and went downstairs.

She followed the scraping sound of sealing tape into the living room, where
her father was putting the finishing touches on some large boxes. She
dropped her bags and walked over to give him a tight hug around his waist.
He looked down, "Good morning sweetie," and returned the hug with a smile.
She peered up into his face, narrow and professorial looking with his thick
glasses but still quite handsome and looking as young as he was the day he
was married. "Good morning Dad. Anything I can help with?"

Her father's eyes roamed around the room. "I think we've got everything
pretty much under control. Why don't you carry your bags out to the car?
Then you can come back and help me bring out the last few boxes."

She nodded and lifted her bags again with a grunt, carrying them outside.
She squinted in the sunlight and walked around to the back of the trailer,
where her mother was rearranging boxes. "Mom! Where do you want these?"
she called out.

Her mother turned around and hopped out of the trailer. The sunlight
complemented the fine gold of the older woman's hair, making it glow.
Suzy-Michelle always felt gangly and intimidated by her mother's glamorous
looks. She had aged well, like her father, and could have easily passed for
twenty. The young girl hadn't yet reached the point where she could see her
parent's well-preserved looks as providing hope for her own future. "Good
morning sweetie," she said, and hugged her daughter. "Throw the laundry bag
in the back, it's pretty full. We'll put the suitcase in the back seat of
the car so we can get at it during the trip."

Suzy-Michelle passed the laundry bag up, and wandered back in the house.
She and her father carried out the last of the boxes, passing them up to her
mother to arrange. When the bulk of the work was done, her father turned to
her. "Want to do a last check, sweetie?" She nodded quickly, and ran back
inside the house.

Her eyes drank in the gleaming white interior. Stripped of the personal
touches, the streamlined furniture, most of it built-in, looked oddly
futuristic and antiseptic. She ran upstairs and went from room to room,
opening shelves and drawers, and brushing her hands across every surface,
trying to commit them to memory for one last time. With a final look, she
closed the door, turning around to greet her parents, in the same position
she'd left them. Her father smiled at her, "Ready? I know you'll miss the
house."

She sighed, "I'd much rather just stay here ... yeah." She looked a bit
sullen again as the three of them piled into the station wagon. She
listened to the crunchy sound of the tires rolling along the small rocks in
the driveway path, one more thing she must commit to memory. She waved to
the great domed house as they drive off.

The car threaded its way through the mountains for hours. Her father playing
with the radio on occasion, flitting through channels. She ground her teeth
at the constant static and interrupted songs, but knew the rules: the
driver gets to be in charge of the radio. Finally he settled on a jazz
station and drove for a bit. A solo started and he glanced back towards
her. "Ok Suzy-Michelle, who's this?"

She smiled and sat forward, tilting her head to listen. The tune was
old-fashioned to her ears, but plainly be-bop in style. The recording was
slightly scratchy. The soloist was playing an alto saxophone in an
accelerated, quicksilvery style. She felt it whirring through her head.
She smirked a little. "Oh duh, Charlie Parker. That's too easy Dad, give
me a hard one next time!"

Her father grinned back at her. Suzy-Michelle's eyes widened, and she
pointed out the front windshield, "Dad, look out, there's a ... "

He noticed the man in the middle of the road at the last moment, and tried
to swerve to avoid him. He cut to the left, but went into a spin.
Suzy-Michelle screamed as the car went over the side of the roadway. She
felt hyperaware as it bumped down the side of the cliff, thinking that it
was just like watching it in a movie. Even the sound of the crash when they
hit the bottom seemed distant.

She didn't remember afterwards when she realised that the gas tank had
ruptured, or how she managed to crawl out of the car. She was in too much
shock to feel pain from the collision or the burns, and the part of her
brain that was conscious understood that. She choked on bile and tears when
she saw the explosion which decapitated her mother.

The head rolled in front of her, Suzy-Michelle barely managed to choke out,
"Mom?" Wires trailed from the detached neck. Her mother spoke haltingly,
"I ... I love you sweetheart ... never for ... never forget that ... don't
let the project ... interrupt program 1777 consciousness program abort
initiating emergency security override warning irreparable bodily impairment
warning warning security compromise initiate self-destruct cycle."

Then, all Suzy-Michelle saw was red.

Then, all Suzy-Michelle saw was black.


The man in white smiled down at his new charge. "So, you're awake. The
nurse told me you were stirring. Good morning."

Suzy-Michelle looked around, trying to place herself. A hospital room?
Yes. "Uh." Her head hurt.

A label pinned to his chest read Dr. Thomas Barrow. "Can you tell me your
name?"

"Uh. Suzy-Michelle Starrling. Um. Where am I?"

Dr. Barrow adjusted his spectacles. "You're in Elmond City Hospital. Do
you know where that is?"

Suzy-Michelle tried to think. "Elmond's by the coast isn't it? Central
California? Uhhh I'm supposed to be in San Francisco ... " She tried to
get up, but her muscles weren't cooperating.

Dr. Barrow put his hand on her shoulder, pushing her down with a touch as
light as a feather. "I don't think you're going anywhere now, young lady.
You're going to get some rest. I'll leave the TV remote with you, and
tomorrow we can talk about getting you some books if you like. Is there
anyone you'd like us to contact?"

She shook her head, "Just my parents ... my parents are dead." She felt the
blackness crowding her vision again, and she surrendered to it.


She awoke in the dark, to a small sound. "Mom?" she whispered. Had she
been muttering in her sleep again?

Her mother wasn't there. She realised where she was when the window
shattered inwards. She screamed, fear and shock and memory crashing in on
her mind all at once. "You ... you're the man in the road."

The figure strode towards her purposefully. He was dressed in the same
loose-fitting, tattered garments she recalled from that quick image of him
in the dark, illuminated by her father's headlights, but she saw now that
his face wasn't a man's at all, but rather a metallic facsimile.

Its voice sounded like it came across old telephone wires. "Target
located. Initiating termination sequence." A metallic hand reached over,
grabbing a handful of her blonde hair. She was too startled even to scream.
The figure raised its hand.

It did not lower it. Suzy-Michelle's eyes took in a woman's bare hand on
the figure's forearm. The figure stood immobilised for what seemed like
several seconds, before releasing its grip on her hair and turning to face
the new figure.

Suzy-Michelle shook her head, trying to clear it, watching the new arrival.
She was a tall woman, her body lean and well-muscled beneath a midnight blue
bodysuit. Maroon boots ended mid-thigh, with matching wristbands and
military-style stripes down the sides of the uniform. Concealing her
identity was a deep violet mask and hood, the front of which was decorated
with a complex florid design in black. The design repeated itself on her
billowing cape, which attached to her wristbands to give the image of a
great orchid.

The strangely attired woman crouched down, as if preparing herself for
battle. The metallic figure moved towards her swiftly in an attack, and she
countered just as swiftly. Suzy-Michelle's eyes could barely track the pair
as they whirled in combat. But the metal man was just a bit stronger, or a
bit faster, and the woman found herself on her knees. "Termination sequence
resumed," the metallic voice announced.

Suzy-Michelle reached out to try to stop him ... she knew she had to do
something, anything. She screamed as twin beams of fire leapt from her eyes
and pierced the metal shell of its torso. The figure froze again and turned
around slowly to face her. Its voice was static. "Late ... too late," it
emitted, and went to move towards her again. She could barely see through
the pain in her eyes.

"No, too late for you," said a woman's whisper. Powerful hands reached
inside the ruptured body, pulling out its mechanical innards. Suzy-Michelle
felt the woman's arms embrace her, and when the pain vanished from her eyes,
she saw the woman holding a small silver object in front of the girl's face,
which whirred softly. "Better now?" the woman whispered.

Suzy-Michelle nodded, dumbly. The woman smiled at her, and pressed her
finger to the girl's lips. "Our secret," she whispered. She whirled around
and scooped up the remains of the metal assassin, and stepped out the
hospital window to vanish into the darkness.

"Good lord," said Dr. Barrow as he burst through the door, surveying the
wreckage of the hospital room. "Susan, how did you do all this? Why ... "

"Not Susan," she interrupted him. "Suzy-Michelle."

TO BE CONTINUED ...