L. B. Garrison

Combining stories soft science fiction with action and engaging characters.

Have you ever watched the stars on a warm summer night and wondered if someone was looking back? Thoughts of dinosaurs, magic, and aliens dominated my childhood. Adult concerns came later, but the wonder never went away. I think that’s why we write and why we read, to experience other worlds from a different point of view and to learn about ourselves along the way.

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Featured Book

The Ghost and the Machine

Desperate to pay off her debts, Mandy agrees to have her mind mapped for a mysterious AI research project. She wakes in the forests of Demeter, hunted by a terror much older than humanity. Her shortcut to freedom soon becomes a desperate race for survival.

Rin is the avatar of a star destroying warship in search of redemption. A sentient nano-machine fog threatens to devour millions of colonists on Demeter, but she can’t stop it alone.

To end a billion-year-old war, Mandy and Rin must work together. But it might cost one of them everything. Can they learn to trust each other in time?

Read the first two chapters of The Ghost and the Machine now.

Chapter 1

Mandy scampered along to keep up with Dr. Gibson’s long strides. The chill of the tiles seeped through her ankle socks and the pungent odor of bleach tickled her nose. She adjusted the gap in her lilac colored exam gown for the umpteenth time.

Dr. Gibson cleared his throat. “The screening agency was supposed to explain the project to you. Do you have any questions?”

“You’re going to take a bunch of scans of my brain, right?” Judging by the psychological screening she had, they must be looking for a special type of mind too. That would come in handy.

“Correct. We’re using a NMRNM. Think of it as a big camera.”

Mandy smiled. “A nuclear magnetic resonance neuro-monitor uses magnetic fields to stress hydrogen bonds and then reads the radio signals emitted when the field is released and the bonds snap back into their normal conformation.”

He stopped and stared down at her.

Mandy blinked up at him, letting her eyes widen just a bit. That’s right, I know stuff and such. “I’m getting a degree to be a chemical psychiatrist—you know, to help people.” And to figure out her own issues, but she never told anyone that part.

His brow rumpled. “I see.”

After navigating the twisted hallways, they stood before a heavy metal door worthy of a super bad guys’ hideout. The butterfly mood tat on her inner wrist fluttered. Its azure wings faded to gray.

Mandy rolled her eyes. The tat worried too much. It would probably be fine. She shook her hand, rattling the tattoo. It gave an exasperated shake of its wings, but its color brightened a little.

Dr. Gibson stepped forward and the door slid open. The room was crammed with shiny equipment. A dozen people in white coats with data pads roamed among the machinery. A graying Asian man in a charcoal-colored suit watched them enter. All this busyness was focused on her. Mandy smiled for anyone watching and concentrated to keep her rapid breathing under control.

The doc indicated the older man. “This is Mr. Moto from the Wakahisa Corporation. He’s the financial director for the Prometheus Ascension Project.”

Great. It even sounded like a world domination plot. Hopefully, no superspies would show up to spoil things until after she got paid.

“This is Amanda Clementine,” Dr. Gibson said.

“Mandy,” she corrected, automatically. Maybe she shouldn’t have, but it came up so often that it was sort of a knee-jerk reaction. “I know it’s late and we all want to get this over with and go home. I’m not trying to be difficult. Only my dad called me Amanda so . . . I go by Mandy.” And my butt’s getting cold.

Mr. M exchanged a glance with Dr. Gibson and bowed slightly. “Miss Clementine.”

His shallow bow might have been a sign of disrespect. Mandy glanced at the doc, but he was no help. He might not even know the customs. She returned a deeper bow. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Mr. M walked around her, inspecting her like a new car. He’d better not kick the tires.

“I read the files. She is not the same caliper of mind our competition is scanning.”

The doc stepped closer to Mandy. “She is the one we want to use as part of the model. I’m sure of it. She is very capable.”

Mr. M stopped in front of her and handed a data pad to the doc. “I’ve made my recommendation. The board has sided with you, for the moment. Let us begin.”

Smiling, the doc handed the pad to Mandy. “Here’s the contract. There is just one formality before we begin. I need you to sign a waiver.”

Mandy accepted the pad from him. They were obviously well funded. If she was going to make a play, it would have to be now. She scrolled through the legalese and straight to the side-effects. Her research showed that the risks were minimal, but there were always side-effects. She needed to pick a good one.

“Hair loss? Gee, Doctor Gibson, I don’t know about that.”

The doc glanced toward Mr. M. “All these adverse reactions are unlikely, and the hair loss would be temporary, even if it happened.”

“A girl needs her hair.”

“People have lower-power versions of these scans all the time for medical reasons with no issues whatsoever,” the doc said. The pitch of his voice rose slightly, a stress indicator.

With all the testing she had undergone, whatever they were looking for must be rare. They needed her as much as she needed the money. “Sixteen dollars an hour is practically minimum wage. I just don’t know.” She pouted for emphasis.

“I’ll pay eighteen,” Mr. M said.

“I was thinking thirty-two. If I need a wig, I want human hair.”

Mr. M turned to leave the imaging lab. “Perhaps I misjudged her. Handle the trifling issues, but you must begin tonight.”

The doc tapped the pad and changed the hourly rate. “An interesting negotiation tactic.”

Mandy scribbled her name on the pad. “I need the money, but he kind of cheesed me off. Doctor Gibson? It seemed like you stuck up for me there.”

He took the pad back and touched her on the elbow to guide her through a second set of double doors. “Since I chose you for this phase of the project, we’re partners of a sort.”

The gleaming neuro-monitor dominated the next room. It looked like a ten-foot doughnut, sitting on its edge with the black exam table running through the center. A fluffy pillow sat on the table.

Mandy walked around the machine, careful to keep the back of her drafty gown towards the wall. She drew her hand along the cold exam table. The reality of her situation settled over her, making her stomach flutter. After she got out of debt, she needed to rearrange her priorities. “How long have you worked on this?”

“Ten years. I’ve practically lived here for the last seven. I even have a cot in the back.”

Mandy looked up at him. “Seven years? It wouldn’t hurt to take a night off, now and then. Go on a date.” As if she knew much about such things. Landin was her first serious boyfriend and she had only dated him for about a month. Anxiety always made her so chatty.

The doc’s cheeks turned rosy. He was cute when he blushed. “I never had much of a social life. Besides, people all over the world are working on artificial intelligence. This is a race.”

Mandy looked up from the exam table. “Artificial intelligence? That’s what we’re talking about?”

His cheeks didn’t look so rosy anymore. “I probably wasn’t supposed to say that, but yes. I should remind you that you’ve signed non-disclosure agreements. We’re trying to build a virtual human brain by studying a real one.”

“That would be me?”

“Well, yes. The team that cracks it will be part of history.”

Mandy frowned. “What good is it to be remembered, if you didn’t have fun?”

“You’ll understand when you are older.” “I hope I never get that old,” she murmured.

“If you’ll lie down on the table, we can get started. Do you want a step stool?”

Mandy hopped onto the table. “Nope.” It wasn’t that she was short, at five feet and a quarter-inches, but rather that average people were freakishly tall. No one seemed to get that. She lay down and adjusted her gown, so her bottom wasn’t touching the cold plastic. Her head sunk into the pillow. They probably sanitized these things anyway.

“Don’t worry. I’ll personally monitor your progress and we’ll discontinue at the first sign of anything unusual. Okay?”

Mandy glanced from the ring to his eyes and nodded. He did seem to be the sincere sort.

He moved out of view.

“Hey, Doc?”

“Yes.”

“Now that the contract’s signed and all, I’ve been wondering something and what Mr. Moto said cinched it. All kinds of people must have applied. People smarter than me, I’m sure. So how come I’m the one you picked?”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, and computers are smart enough. We were looking for something else. High EQ.” > “Emotional quotient?”

“That’s right. We’re more concerned about how well you play with others. AIs are going to be like humanity’s children.” p> That made the hair prickle along the back of her neck. “I never thought of that. It’s kind of scary.”

“That’s why I’m not trying to model the human mind. I’m trying to model the human heart.”

“Oh.” Somehow, that was better than being smart.

After a few moments, his voice came over a speaker. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Mandy replied.

The ring spun up, producing a steady hum.

“Close your eyes and relax.”

Mandy closed her eyes and tried. With a lurch, the table moved her into the humming ring.

“We’re going to take a series of scans while your mind is active, doing different things, like math problems. We’ll start with something simple. Think of something sad, like a favorite pet dying. The more emotional the memory is, the better the reading.”

Mandy should have asked for forty. The puppy had been a long time ago and those were mostly happy memories, so she couldn’t squeeze much sadness from that turnip. One memory lived in her most troubled dreams, but she never tried to recall it on purpose.

“Are you concentrating?”

She needed the money. Mandy focused and opened a door that normally remained locked.

Tumbling sky. The taste of blood, like sucking on a penny. The smell of singed hair. A clean white room and a bed too large for her eleven-year-old body. She stared at the ceiling, not daring to disturb the tubes and wires, while fear rested its full weight on her chest. The monitors counted her heartbeats and a door creaked.

Something unseen held her head straight, but she could move her eyes just enough. In the doorway, a blurry figure with frizzy hair and a faded Hawaiian shirt turned its back on her. She raised her small arm, sending a trickle of prickly cold through her fingers. p> “Daddy? Daddy, don’t go . . .”

Chapter 2

Through fitful dreams of dark places and distant pain, Mandy heard scratching in the walls. In the depths of winter, the rats came to seek warmth. The furless rodent stopped its perpetual grooming to stare at her with glossy black eyes. “What are you looking at? Mandy? Mandy!”

She shot up in bed. “Rat!”

Sage squealed and jerked, thumping her frizzy head against the half-open bedroom door. “Holy, what the hell!”

Mandy withdrew inside her oversized T-shirt and slid a shaky hand across her clammy forehead. Pressure pounded against the inside of her skull with every heartbeat, shoving childhood nightmares aside. A curse fought to escape her lips, but a swear jar, overflowing with IOUs, glowered at her from a messy desk.

“Crumples, Sage what are you doing?”

Sage smoothed her dark curls and stepped into the cramped room. “Checking on my roommate. You’ve always been one of those annoying morning people and it’s nearly noon. If you died and stank up the place, I would never get the deposit back.”

Mandy massaged the pressure points on her temples, but it only moved the throbbing to her eyes. “You know very well I’d have the decency to crawl outside first.”

Sage stood by the edge of the bed with her arms down and hands clasped, like a nun or something. “On a serious note, you’re scaring me a little.”

“Sage—” Mandy’s stomach clenched. She clamped a hand over her mouth to keep last night’s dragon roll from escaping. The Zen Sushi Bar had become their place since she confessed to Landin about her scars. The physical ones at least. A fishy burn crept up her throat.

“Headache again?”

Mandy swallowed the bile. “They usually fade a few minutes after I wake up.”

“BRB,” Sage said and navigated the sliver of space between the bed and desk. A yellow light came on in the hall bathroom.

Mandy’s nose tickled. She brushed her hand across it. Bright blood stained her fingers. That was new. The headaches had gotten steadily worse during the last two weeks of the project, but this? She should tell the doc—if she ever saw him again. He had been off the project since the second night.

Mandy plucked a hand full of tissues from the bubblegum-pink box on the nightstand and pressed it to her nose. It can’t be that bad. This might not even be related to the scans and it was just one more night. They said that they would suspend the study if anything came up. Right?

The blood stopped. The medicine cabinet clicked, as Sage closed it. Mandy balled up the tissue and crammed the bloody evidence under the covers. Sage would positively freak if she saw that.

Sage spread a half dozen pill bottles on the desk, pushing aside the pile of ninety six origami cranes and a half-read book on the importance of staying focused. She glanced over her shoulder. “It’s Saturday. You’re not going to work today, are you?”

The sun peeked through the mocha blinds. Definitely late morning. “I need to and I’ve got to get ready soon too. There’s something else I need to do before I go.”

Sage selected a couple of bottles and turned to Mandy. “You know what I think? I think you should sleep all day and skip work. I don’t like what it does to you.”

Mandy shook her head, making the room spin. She gripped the zebra print comforter. “It’s almost all paid off.”

Sage narrowed her eyes. “I could loan you the money.”

Mandy had to look away from Sage’s intense stare. “No. Whether it’s you or Mom, I don’t want to be the ditzy blonde that everyone has to rescue. That can’t be the part I play my whole life.”

Sage stood by the bed and touched Mandy’s chin. “Is that how you think I see you? Is it? You weren’t even supposed to live after your accident and forget about walking, but you did both, you stubborn girl.”

By reflex, Mandy rubbed her hand across the bumpy scars on her stomach. Sage placed a cool hand on Mandy’s wrist and gently drew her arm away from her side. “Of course, you’re a work in progress, but I don’t see you as a damsel in distress. You’re a friend. Now promise me you’ll take the night off.”

The symptoms were getting worse and Mandy wasn’t fooling herself that the blood wasn’t related. Maybe she should wait until she could talk to the doc. “Okay.”

Sage’s eyes searched Mandy’s face, then she popped the top on a bottle and took out a couple of bronze capsules. “I believe you. In other news, it’s your B-day or did you forget?”

Mandy frowned. She wasn’t thinking of it right that moment. She had a lot going on, what with the blood and all. “I didn’t forget.”

“Neither did I. I’ll be late tonight, but when I get back, we’ll have cake and ice cream. Just the two of us. But first, we need to get you better. A couple of these will fix you right up. Remember, they will only help the pain. The cause is still there, whatever it is.” Sage held the caps under Mandy’s nose. “Breathe deep.”

“You’re planning something, aren’t you? I said no party.” Sage growled. “Breathe.”

Mandy took a deep breath and Sage snapped the capsules. Cinnamon filled the air and static surged through Mandy’s head, washing the pain and nausea away. Even the burn in her throat stopped.

Sage put the bottles on the nightstand and wrapped Mandy in a firm hug. Tentatively, Mandy reached around and squeezed in return.

Sage pulled back. “It’ll always be us against the world, no matter what. Also, we all need to be rescued now and then. It doesn’t mean we’re weak.”

Mandy’s legs squirmed beneath the covers. There might never be a better time to tell Sage how much she meant to her. Still, that was a lot to ask before one’s first cup of coffee. Instead, Mandy stared and let her eyes widen. “That’s sage advice.”

Sage rolled her eyes. “You ruined the moment and that stopped being funny when we were nine. Ten tops.”

“You’ll think it’s funny later.”

Sage put her fists on her hips. A smile tried to sneak across her lips, but she caught it.

Wait. Sage didn’t have clinicals on Saturday. Why would she be out late? And she was wearing her best ivory blouse and black skirt, though the skirt was a little threadbare.

“You’re going to see him again, aren’t’ you?” It came out as more of an accusation than Mandy intended.

Sage crossed her arms over her stomach and took a step back, a defensive posture. “I know you don’t like Austin, but, Mandy, you don’t know him.”

“He—he’s okay.”

“You’re a crappy liar.”

Mandy traced a black stripe on the comforter with her finger. “You’re right. I don’t like him, but you don’t give me any grief about my boyfriend. So, if you trust my judgement with Landin, I should trust yours with Austin.” She glanced toward the open closet door. “I want you to wear my black skirt—the Armani skirt you like.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Sage took the pleated black skirt and draped it over her tiny waist with a smile. “I’ll make it look darling. I promise.” She removed the hanger and held the skirt to her chest. “You know, I like sharing clothes. It’s almost like we’re real sisters.”

Mandy couldn’t help smiling. “We might as well be. Also, it’s not to borrow, I want you to have it.”

Sage rested her teeth on her lower lip. It was her anxiety tell, something she had picked up from Mandy. “I appreciate you want to give me the Armani, I do, but you worked so hard for this. I wouldn’t feel right.”

“It means more to me for you to have it, than for me to wear it. Does that make sense?”

Sage stood for moment, then crawled across the bed to touch foreheads with Mandy. “You’re the best. I tell everyone so.”

Mandy touched Sage’s hand. “I’ve been talking to Landin on our sushi bar excursions. I told him about the scars and he didn’t care. I spent all that money on clothes to hide the imperfections from him and make me feel better—and he likes me for me.”

Sage smiled. “You sound surprised. I’m not.”

Mandy withdrew her hand. “Anyways. Tonight, I want to divvy up the rest of the clothes. I’m done with worrying what I look like and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate that.”

“We’ll talk about it this evening. Get some rest.” Sage shifted her eyes away. “I’m glad you decided to stay home on your own.” Sage gathered the skirt and crawled off the bed. Mandy frowned. “What does that mean?”

Sage picked up the other pill bottle and rattled its contents. “Remember like a month ago when I accidentally took a couple of these and it knocked me on my butt for a whole day?”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Love you.” Sage pulled the door shut.

“Pfft. Glad she’s on my team.”

Mandy pulled the wad of tissues from the covers. The blood had turned brown. Yeah, she needed the night off and it was her first birthday in a strange place. Without Mom. A little hollow grew in her chest where home used to be. She shook her head. Damn Sage and her infectious mushy-itis.

“Doctor Gibson. Voice only.”

The slow moans of a base bassoon solo filled the bedroom, like a funeral march for whales.

Thankfully, the music stopped when someone picked up.

“Miss Clementine?” The voice’s rounded vowels made her name sound exotic.

“Mr. Moto. I think I have the wrong number.”

“I took the precaution of having your calls to this number forwarded.”

Precaution? An odd word choice. “I want to speak to Doctor Gibson.”

“You can speak to me.”

Mandy clutched the comforter. “Fine. I want to take a few days off.”

“No. A competitor made a breakthrough this morning.”

“I have some concerns.”

“Need I remind you that there is a considerable penalty for not completing the project tonight? You signed the updated timeline.”

She really should read before signing things. “I’m just asking for a little break.”

“Miss Clementine, are you aware that your mother took out a second mortgage and has maxed out most of her credit to keep you at university?”

Mandy swallowed, her mouth dry as sand. That was so like Mom not to say anything. “I don’t like snoops.”

“She could hardly afford to pay the penalties if you don’t finish this evening.” Mandy sat up straight. “I’m eighteen. Leave Mom out of this.”

“The staggering debt will make obtaining work or credit impossible for you. Supporting you will fall on her. Why are you voice only?”

Because she wasn’t decent and neither was he. Mandy crushed the moist tissue in her hand. She couldn’t let her screw-up hurt Mom. The corners of her eyes stung. Anger made her cry and no one took the ire of a blubbering girl seriously. That made her madder, which made her cry more. She sniffled. Dammit.

“Mandy—”

“Amanda.”

“Miss Clementine then. I understand I have pushed you very hard and your profile indicates you respond more to positive rather than negative inducements. Wakahisa Corporation has a scholastic grant program and I am willing to offer you a full scholarship. It would cover books, fees, tuition, and living expenses.”

“What’s the catch?”

“Consider it compensation for any inconvenience—for your concerns.”

If she could do this on her own, she wouldn’t be a burden on Mom, or anyone again. Mandy tossed the tissue into the swear jar. “I want it in writing and I want Doctor Gibson there tonight.”

“Agreed.”

Mandy closed her eyes. “I’ll be there.”

She closed the connection and touched her nose. Her hand came away clean. She rolled out of bed and stood unsteadily, letting the world soak into her brain. The meds were a little stronger than she expected.

She checked the time using her Izzy phone clip. Her inbox had two missed messages and a birthday card from Mom. Always time to read those later. She jumped in the shower, blow-dried her hair and threw a burgundy scrunchy on her head. The scrunchy climbed back and forth, combing out her tangles.

Landin’s smiling picture sat on the nightstand, watching her dress. She would make the arrangements and tell him tonight. Those were jitter-inducing thoughts. Excitement tussled with anxiety for dominance, giving Mandy warm tingles. She wasn’t certain how she should feel, but she had put this off long enough. It was something she wanted too, right?

Using Izzy, she brought up the page for E-Romance on the bedroom’s programmable wallpaper, splattering the room with pink and violet hearts. She ran her finger over the wallpaper’s fine ridges as she scrolled through the list of packages. Most of the options were blush worthy and too advanced for her. Landin had dated more than her, a lot more, but he had let her go at her own speed. The picture of a petite blonde woman judged her from the desk corner.

“You did it too at my age, or you wouldn’t be my mom,” Mandy said, with her chin held high. She turned mom’s picture around. Why was she born terminally shy?

She made a quick package selection that included dinner, contraceptives, a gossamer teddy and a few self-heating lotions. Really, what could you do with those? The scrunchy finished detangling her hair and crawled into place to form a loose ponytail. She had meant to pick the braided ponytail scrunchy. Her fault for buying two of the same color.

The December air chilled her face as she stepped from the toasty warm apartment. Orange and tan leaves whirled in the wind, rasping against the red brick sidewalks. Mandy stood outside, holding the doorknob until the outdated lock finished scanning her palm-print and slid the bolt into place with a soft click. She turned, bumping into a cardigan wall with a hint of deep musk.

“Landin?” The romance package popped into her head. See-through teddy. Contraceptive. Her cheeks warmed. She counted the shopping days until Christmas, but the distraction didn’t work. Despite the winter breeze, her face grew hot.

“Mandy? I’ve never seen you so flushed.”

Damn. “I’m just—so, what are you doing here?”

He held up a white sack with a green Jade Dragon emblem curled across the front. “Sage posted you weren’t feeling good, so I brought wonton soup. I hate to think of you at home, sick and alone on your birthday.”

“That’s so sweet.” She warmed all over. Izzy beeped a reminder. “Uh, I am feeling better, so I decided to go to work. I’ve got to be there pretty soon.”

“Could we drop it inside? It won’t take long.”

Mandy touched the knob again. It clicked. “I guess I’ve got a couple of minutes.” Thank God, Sage was a neat-freak and the living room was immaculate, unlike her bedroom. She slid the warm bag into the nearly empty fridge, which responded through Izzy that the milk was out of date. Nag, pester and harass. Technology could be a pain.

Landin leaned his broad shoulders against the door frame. The sweet, dark scent of his cologne filled the kitchen. The dim light from the shade-covered windows gave his skin a golden hue. He had more of a swimmer’s body, than a weight lifter’s, she decided.

Mandy shook her head to clear it. If Mr. M came through, she would be financially ahead for the rest of her college career. That was worth a slight risk. Maybe, it was time to take a risk and get her relationships in line too.

She shut the fridge door. “Have you got time to walk with me?”

The path wound through the campus, under the ever-blue West Texas sky. Mandy was distracted and he knew it. Small talk dwindled to a drip. She had to strike, before it turned awkward. “I want to discuss something with you.” Yeah, awkward.

Landin slowed. Despite her promises, between classes, the library and work, they had only seen each other a couple of times in the last two weeks. Could he think she was breaking up with him? She reached up and rubbed her hand on his shoulder. “It’s nothing bad, but I don’t think we have time to do this properly. Can you meet me at the Student Union about seven? I know you said you were busy tonight, but I want to talk.”

They dodged across Louisville Avenue and into the cold shadow of the hospital’s research wing.

“Seven? Uh, I don’t know.”

Mandy stepped off the sidewalk and pressed against the wall to make room for a couple of hospital regulars. She nodded to them as they passed.

“Okay, fess up, Landin. What’s going on?”

“Sage planned a little get-together for your birthday at your place. I’m supposed to pick up Rachel around seven. Happy birthday. Don’t tell her I said anything. Everyone thinks she’s so cute with her big brown eyes, but she scares me.”

“She’s only scary till you get to know her—and occasionally thereafter.”

“You want to talk at the party?”

Discussing the subject with Landin sent her stomach tumbling and she was glad to have the delay. “Um, no we can talk about it another time.”

“Your turn to confess. It must be something important.”

Mandy leaned back, closed her eyes and let her head drop back to rest on the cold brick. Here goes. “Sage is leaving for Christmas before me and I’ll be in the apartment alone for a week. I thought . . . I’ve been resisting for a while and shouldn’t have.”

She imagined a goofy grin on his cute face, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to look. A pregnant pause hung in the air. Oh. My. God. Why did that word come to mind?

His sweater brushed the brick beside her. “Does that mean what I think it does?” “It means, we’re going to plan something that should be spontaneous—and I’m a dork.”

The heat from his body warmed her face. He must be very close. “Only if you’re ready. I mean that.”

That opened Mandy’s eyes. “Not the answer I expected. Once I actually said yes, I mean.”

His eyes searched hers. “It’s a big step for you. Be sure you’re ready.” What could she say to that? Warmth blossomed in her cheeks and three little words came to mind. Just three words that opened such possibilities and complications. The trembling in her stomach melted from nervousness into cautious excitement. Physiologically, she knew the sensation was the same and it was her perception that shifted, but she didn’t care.

Izzy beeped again. Mandy rolled her eyes. “I am ready, but I’ve got to go.”

When she met his eyes again, the chill and the crowded sidewalk went away, leaving only them in the world. Her body responded, quivering so that only the wall kept her standing. Her heart revved. Just say it. What was wrong with her?

And then his lips warmed hers. Moving tenderly. His hands held her, pulling her towards him. Her fingers slipped through his curls, pulling tight. She didn’t know how they got there. Prickly tingles crept down her spine. She needed to breathe and the need made the heady dizziness more intense.

He pulled back. “Well, I’ll see you at the party then.”

She gasped twice before she had breath to answer. “I hate you . . . a little . . . right now.”

He chuckled and stroked her hair.

She touched her fingers to her trembling lips and tried to hold on to the feeling as she watched him leave. When did this get so serious?

She should have told him, but she couldn’t be expected to get over her emotional constipation all at once, could she? And it didn’t seem right to confess her love and then leave. Right? Maybe she could get him alone after the party.

The changing room was brighter, the lilac exam gown more vibrant and Mandy tied it behind her back like a champ. She dropped Izzy on top of her clothes and stopped. Was she humming? She never did that.

Three knocks rattled the door. “Miss Clementine? Are you ready?”

Mandy cracked the door open and peeked. It wasn’t the doc. “Hi, Carl.”

The balding man in hunter-green scrubs raised his eyebrows. “We only met once.” “I’m good with names.” Mandy led the way through the twisted halls, making sure to gather the fabric in the back of her gown to keep the gap closed. No thrills for poor Carl.

The room bustled with techs in white coats. There seemed to be more than ever. Mr. M stood at the center of the chaos, holding a data pad.

“Where is Doctor Gibson? I wanted to talk to him before the scan. That was the deal.”

Mr. M handed her the data pad. “Our deal was the scholarship and that he would be here. He will. You will find everything in order.”

Mandy grumbled. He was up to something, but she wasn’t sure what. Carefully, she read through the scholarship offer. As she perused the document, a green hedge of scrub clad orderlies formed behind her. Actually, there were just two, but they were grande size. “Back it up, guys.”

The contract seemed straight forward. Her stomach squirmed and she started over. She read it two more times, but if there was something hidden in the text, some trick, she couldn’t find it. She should have gotten a lawyer app.

Mandy tapped the pad. “I can’t believe you added a testing deadline that’s just a couple of hours from now. That’s pushy.”

“As I said, a rival made a breakthrough. This isn’t five years ago. Technology moves very quickly now and if we don’t get the patents, we lose our investment in you. If you want the scholarship, you sign now.”

Mandy scrawled her signature on the pad and handed it to Mr. M. He nodded to the orderlies, who moved to tower over her on either side.

“I know the way.” She pushed through the crowd and into the instrument room. Her hands trembled when she touched the cool exam table. This is no different than all the other times.

“Do you need the step stool?”

Mandy sighed. “No Carl. Thank you.”

Carl checked readouts on the ring and avoided her eyes.

“Doing okay, Carl? You seem tense. Everything all right with Mrs. Carl and the little Carls? A boy and a girl, right?”

“What? Oh, yes. I’ll be back after the test.”

The table jerked as Mandy moved under the ring. The lights dimmed.

Carl’s voice crackled over the speakers. “Think of something happy.”

Mandy closed her eyes and reached far back in time. She chased a fluffy puppy through towering piles of discarded red and green wrapping paper. The sweet cinnamon aroma of Snickerdoodles filled the air. Christmas at Grandma’s. The memory flickered. Faces, warm summer nights and the smell of grape popsicles blended with Christmas. An electric chill coursed through her.

The world popped and went frothy.

Had time passed? The lights were on again and people rushed around her, just out of sight. Something bad must have happened. It took a couple of tries, but she managed to touch her face with one clumsy hand. Dabs of blood freckled her fingers. It was a nice shade of red. So bright. I should have called Mom this morning.

The click of men’s dress shoes drew close. The cadence wasn’t right.

Mandy wanted to sit up, but she had forgotten how or maybe she was part of the table. “Doctor Gibson was never coming, huh, Mr. Moto?”

“I have had him working on other aspects of the project. He couldn’t know that I compressed the schedule or that I authorized high-power scans for better resolution. Something about knowing the position of a particle very precisely, changes other attributes.”

She dropped her hand to her chest. So strange. She should be scared, she supposed, but it was like she couldn’t be bothered to feel anything. “You did this for money?”

“I did it for all of us. The competitor is scanning people as well. Smart, aggressive people.”

She rolled her head towards his voice, but couldn’t focus beyond the tips of her twitching fingers. The mood-tat had faded to the purple-green of a deep bruise. “People like you.”

“Clark was right. See what I have done to reach my goal? Humanity would not survive a future with machines based on people such as me.”

Crackling static interrupted her thoughts. Her concentration ebbed and returned. The room had changed again. More people moved in her peripheral vision. “What happens now?”

He moved away. “I have written a resignation letter taking full responsibility. You wrote a letter as well, saying you knew the risks and, whatever happened, you wanted your contribution to the future to live on. It’s quite touching, really.”

“And fake.” The room tasted like hunter green. Synesthesia?

“Just so. Even with that, I may well go to prison. Depending on how things turn out.”

Her throat tightened. “If I die, you mean.”

“Try not to fall asleep.”

The mood-tat was still. “So, suddenly you’re a doctor—”

Hands yanked her from the table. She sunk into something soft. Lights in the ceiling rushed by. Little firecrackers popped at the edges of her vision. She kept forgetting to breathe. Is this dying?

Mandy grabbed an orderly’s scrub and pulled weakly with all her strength. “My Izzy . . . need it. Please.”

He glanced at the guy on the other side of the gurney and muttered about stupid teenage girls.

Hot tears trickled down her face. “Damn you. I should have told Sage . . . this morning . . . have to say the words to Landin—to Mom.”

The orderly wrenched her hand free and placed it on the sheet. “You have more important things to think about.”

“I’m so stupid . . . what was I afraid of?”

Nothing hurt anymore. The room smeared to black.

© 2019 *L. B. Garrison
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