Destination Anywhere - Tinnean
The world as Blair Sandburg saw it was the color of dirt and dust. Big people talked about the way it was Before, but he couldn't even imagine what it must have looked like.
Truth to tell, the big people they lived with didn't know either, not first hand. It had been a long, long time since this part of the Earth had been anything other than brown.
There were rumors that there were pockets of green, valleys hidden away deep in the mountains, but if anyone had ever found them, they never came back to tell the way.
Of course there had been the Boy. He was from There. Blair had been able to talk to him for a few minutes.
One of the tasks the children of the camp were assigned was emptying the honey pots every morning. Blair always took that opportunity to explore the surrounding area.
The Boy was sitting there when Blair returned this time, and Blair regarded him curiously. Occasionally members of other pockets of humanity would pass near the camp, but they were never encouraged to stay. Brackett said resources were stretched too thin as it was.
"You shouldn't stay in the sun. It's midday."
"I know that." The Boy looked up. His face was streaked with sweat and dirt, and his eyes were a cool blue. "And you shouldn't be out in the sun either."
"I like the sun." He held out a skinny, tanned arm. "It makes my skin different from Brackett's."
"He's our leader. You must be thirsty. Here." Blair offered him the water skin that was looped over his shoulder.
"Thanks." The Boy brought the skin to his mouth with his bound hands. That was when Blair realized he wasn't a visitor passing through.
"Who are you? How did you get here?" Blair touched him lightly, petting his shoulder, his upper arm, his thigh.
"I was looking for food." The Boy took long gulps, then wiped his mouth on his arm and handed the water skin back to Blair. "They came up behind me as I was cleaning my kill. That's the rabbit I shot on the spit. Will you help me, Chief?"
"I'm not a chief! I'm just a little boy." Blair had learned almost from the start to play the little boy card to hide his intelligence.
"Okay, then, little boy, will you help me?" The Boy's eyes crinkled with amusement.
Blair realized he didn't want the Boy calling him 'little boy;' he wanted this Boy to see him as his equal. Still, he wasn't a chief. "You can call me Blair."
"Hello, Blair. Will you help me? They're going to kill me."
"No! All life is precious! Brackett says so!"
"Do you see any boys in your camp who are over thirteen?"
Blair knew that although there were a lot of girls who were older, most of the boys were his age.
"When a boy turns thirteen, Brackett sends him away."
"Yes, but it's on a quest to find Out There!"
"No, it's to die. He sends them in the wrong direction with no food or water."
Blair felt himself turn cold in spite of the midday heat. His friend David had been sent on his quest a few weeks ago. He'd been so excited, his thin chest puffed out with pride.
"Sometimes my people find them," the Boy said.
"I don't come from around here."
"I know that. You have blue eyes." Everyone in their camp except for Blair and Naomi had brown eyes.
"So do you. Why is that, do you suppose?"
"Naomi and I came from Another Place."
Blair felt safe talking to the Boy, so he told him. "From University. What about you?"
"Oh, I'm from Cascade."
"There's really such a place? No wonder why you want to go back. I wish Naomi and I could go with you," he added wistfully.
"Why don't you?"
"We can't. Naomi says we have to stay close."
"Close to where?"
Blair shrugged. Yes, he felt comfortable talking to the Boy, but there were some things it was inbred in him not to talk about.
The Boy seemed to realize that. He changed the subject. "Who's Naomi?"
The Boy looked sad. "I don't have a mama. Not any more."
Blair didn't want him looking sad, so this time he changed the subject. "Were you looking for boys now?" Maybe he'd found David!
"No, I was scouting for game. That's part of my job, to find food for my people."
"But you were caught instead."
The Boy shrugged. "It happens. You'd better go. Brackett is looking this way."
Blair made a sudden decision. He liked this Boy, and he was going to help him. He touched The Boy's shoulder. "I'll be back in a little while."
He ran off, darting first one way and then another, pausing every once in a while to peer intently at the ground, as if there was something fascinating that had caught his attention. When he looked back, Brackett was nowhere in sight, and he sighed in relief.
He ran out of camp and whistled. A young gray wolf came trotting toward him. Blair rested a hand on the furry head and silently communicated with the wolf.
I need you to distract the men. Can you do that?
The wolf looked up at him, a lupine grin wrinkling his muzzle.
Can you do that without getting yourself killed? he clarified.
The animal woofed softly and was gone, his coat blending easily with the desolate landscape.
Blair wandered back to the encampment and was close to the Boy when all hell broke loose.
"That damned animal stole tonight's dinner!"
Blair giggled. That was only fair, since they'd stolen it from the Boy.
"Get the fucker! We'll have him in the soup pot!"
And while the men were busy chasing the wolf and the women screamed and ran for their little ones, Blair cut the Boy free.
"Take this with you." It was Brackett's knife.
"Thanks, Blair. Goodbye." And just like that he was gone.
"But you never told me your name!" Blair realized how silly he was saying that to thin air.
"It's Jim." The words came back whisper-soft on the wind.
Blair would have liked to have gotten to know the Boy – Jim – better, but that wouldn't have happened, because even if he'd stayed, it wouldn't have been for long.
Later that night he approached Naomi. "Mama, how come none of the boys who go questing ever come back to camp?"
"I'd like to think it's because they've found Cascade and are so happy there they don't want to come back, my little man, but… "
"But you don't think so."
Her face became pinched and drawn. "It's hard to survive out here. If I'd realized…" She sighed and stroked his hair. "Brackett is a good man for this environment, but he's not seeing the broader picture. He's like a lion that chases away all the male cubs who would challenge his control of the pride when they reach adulthood. He's not taking into consideration the fact that he and the other men are growing older. They'll reach a point where they can't protect the pride – the camp – any more."
She hugged him. "It won't be pretty. But don't you worry about it, my little man. We're going to be long gone before that happens." She tipped up his chin. "And you know this is one of those conversations that's not to be repeated."
They had plenty of those. Naomi always talked to him as if he were an adult. He nodded and wrapped his arms around her and rested his head against her bosom.
"Now, you go on to bed. I'll be back before morning."
"Be careful, Mama." Blair knew Naomi sometimes stayed the night with Brackett, but he didn't like the man.
"Always." She dropped a kiss on his hair and left their tent.
Blair wanted to stick his thumb in his mouth but he didn't. He was a big boy now. Hadn't Naomi always called him her little man?
She'd never call him that again. He cradled her lifeless body against his, but he couldn't help her.
Slow tears spilled down his cheeks. He was alone with her now; the others had left as soon as they realized Brackett was going to kill her. It was against their law to hurt a woman, but someone had found out that Naomi was doing something so she wouldn't have babies, and that was even more against their law.
She'd fought Brackett, but it had been no use. Blair had tried to help as well, but a back-handed blow had sent him flying through the air, knocking the breath out of him when he landed. By the time he could get to his feet, it was all over.
The wolf had arrived too late to do more than sit beside him and lick the salt tear from his cheeks. And when it had left abruptly, Blair felt more alone than ever.
"She's gone, son."
"I… I know." He'd heard the people coming. That must have been why Wolf ran away. If Naomi was still alive they'd have run away too, but now he didn't care. He sniffed hard and looked up through his tears. The man who stood before him seemed to reach up to the sky.
"I'm Dr. Stoddard."
"I'm Blair Sandburg."
"Naomi's… son." Dr. Stoddard rested a hand on Blair's hair. "It's getting late. We'll bury her, but then we'll have to go."
Blair continued to stare at the man, this time mutely. He was going to be alone, and even though he was smart, how was he going to survive in this harsh land?
His lips firmed. He'd look for Jim.
Dr. Stoddard seemed to guess what he was thinking though. "We've been searching for you for quite some time. You're coming with us, Blair."
Dr. Stoddard nodded.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To University. Would you like to go?"
"Oh, yes! Naomi told me lots about University."
"What did she tell you?"
"It has books. Lots and lots of books!"
"Do you like books, little man?"
"Why do you call me that?"
The man gave the kind of smile Blair had seen on his mother's face sometimes when she thought he was looking the other way. Right then Blair didn't know how to describe it, but he would one day.
The man stroked Blair's hair. "Did Naomi say why she left?"
"She said she'd tell me why when I was older."
"All right, then. Suppose I promise to tell you when you're older?"
"Do you think I'll forget? Big people do that all the time. I won't forget." There was determination in every syllable of that last sentence.
"No, I don't think you will. Edwards! Bring a shovel!"
University was huge. Not only did it contain buildings, but there were more people there than Blair had ever seen, scientists as well as soldiers who were there to protect them. There were even small patches – gardens – that were green.
Along the boundaries of the campus, framework was up to form walls and a roof, and sheets of some clear, durable material were in place.
"It's a biosphere, Blair," Dr. Stoddard had said when Blair questioned him about it. "The membrane allows rain to come through, but it filters out the poisonous elements. You're Naomi's… son, so I won't lie to you. With most of the plant life on Earth destroyed, the atmosphere is getting toxic. Things are bad, and they'll only get worse."
"Can we fix it?"
"Yes, my little man." Dr. Stoddard smiled down at Blair, but even though Blair was very young, he still recognized the anguish in the man's eyes. "We're going to fix it."
Eli stood back, watching as Blair splashed in the tub, his pleasure in the first bath he'd probably ever had in his life evident.
He turned to the nurse. "See he doesn't leave this wing unless he's accompanied by a guardian."
"Yes, Dr. Stoddard. Poor little boy. He's probably riddled with parasites."
Eli made a noncommittal sound.
Had it been wise to bring the… boy here? Things were declining, but there still might be a few who could remember the project Naomi Sandburg had been working on.
He glanced in the corner where one of the prototypes for their Sentinel line stood. It was little more than nuts, bolts, and sheets of metal, but its circuitry was programmable, and at this point it was the best they had. He'd programmed it to recognize Blair as its charge, and it would permit no one to harm the child.
He should never have told Blair that they could fix the problems of University. Oh, they would try, but the odds of them succeeding…
Eli had never believed in taking away a little boy's childhood, even a little boy such as Blair. There would be time enough as he grew older and realized how critical things had become – had always been.
Still, he was Naomi's… son. What she knew, he knew. Perhaps…
He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. Yes, perhaps.
Sometimes Blair found it hard to remember what those years before had been like, when he and Naomi had lived with Brackett, but there were three things he'd always remember: Brackett had killed Blair's mother.
And the Boy, and the wolf.
In spite of how deep in his work he was, Blair knew Eli Stoddard had come into his laboratory. He sat back, pushed the goggles up onto his forehead, and smiled at the old man.
"How's this new model coming along, Blair?"
"The 800 series is very promising, Eli." There was a vast difference between the first ones he'd ever seen, made of wire and tin and cathode tubes, and these which were titanium steel and human tissue. "I just need to replace the chip in this J.I.M. and it'll be good to go."
When Blair had been barely in his teens he'd come across books containing Jacobsen's Theory of Cybernetics. Intrigued, he'd taken the man's schematics to dimensions even Eli hadn't anticipated. A lab at the other end of this wing grew the tissue that was necessary to his creations, and the result was a force of cyborgs that were able to leave the safety of the University biosphere.
Much like the doves Noah sent out to find land, these independent mechanisms were sent to find places where there was still some green.
Unfortunately, they tended to come back in poor condition, if they came back at all. 840 had been missing for almost a year, and its neural chip had been pretty much fried and its titanium skeleton had been left with its organic component in tatters. If it hadn't been found by 852, it would have been lost completely.
852 was Blair's pride and joy. In fact, he was a little in love with him although he was careful not to let anyone know. He thought of the story of Pygmalion and Galatea and sighed. Even Eli would think he'd gone off the deep end. But this J.I.M. was how he imagined the Boy of his childhood would look as an adult, and he'd put everything into it that he could think of. Some of the techs even swore they could smell his sweat.
Normally Blair would say that was ridiculous, but when 852 came back this time, Blair had been inclined to agree.
"Plug in and recharge, Jim."
"Yes, Blair." 852 stripped off his clothes and stepped into the cylindrical enclosure, and connected the cable to the port at the base of his skull. The curved door slid shut and mist began rising. This would cleanse and replenish the nutrient fluid that ran through 852's tubing like blood through veins. Out in the field though, he could ingest food like a regular human and survive on it.
That was something else Blair hadn't revealed to anyone.
He paused in his calculations to admire the firmly sculpted body. There was a dusting of hair that formed a treasure trail down past the navel and surrounded a perfect penis and covered an artfully crafted scrotum. Blair had even given this J.I.M. an anus. If one didn't know of the port at the base of the J.I.M.'s skull, he would have passed for human.
"Playing god?" One of the other scientists had demanded snidely. "Or Frankenstein? Is this thing going to be your boy?"
"You know we're standing on the brink." Blair had been confused. How had Bruckner found out about that? Was he snooping around Blair's lab? "The next generation of J.I.M.s might be the only hope for the future of mankind."
At first the scientists had been enthusiastic about Blair's work, but lately some attempted to pick it to pieces, while others seemed to have lost interest in it completely. There was even a small fraction of them who had to be physically restrained from entering the labs by Simon and the few men he had left. Those scientists had intended to dismantle the lab and destroy all the cyborgs it contained.
"They're machines! They can't reproduce!" Bruchner 's tones became almost strident.
No, Blair's cyborgs couldn't reproduce the way human beings could, but he had no intention of telling the disgruntled scientist that he'd created a parallel line of cyborgs. Eli was aware of it. In fact, he'd encouraged it when Blair had brought him his idea. The population of University was aging, but when they'd first taken refuge in the biosphere, they'd all been required to deposit samples of their sperm or ova.
Unbeknownst to them, although again with Eli's permission, those sperm and ova had been retrieved and stored in this lab.
Within the abdominal cavity was a pouch somewhat similar to a kangaroo's. An embryo could be placed in it and incubated, and the abdomen would expand as the fetus grew. Unlike a human baby within its mother's body, nothing could harm the fetuses those cyborgs carried.
Blair was working on something else: female cyborgs with additional tubing that was super cooled. One tube carried sperm and one contained ova, and when a new life was desired, they were each deposited into a separate pouch where they gradually warmed to the correct temperature for fertilization. Once that was successfully completed, they were released into an artificial uterus. Conception was 100% guaranteed.
Two of the female cyborgs were already successfully carrying twins, male and female, each from completely different parents so the gene pool wouldn't be tainted.
He was looking forward to seeing how viable the births would be.
Blair grinned. With, as he liked to say, a little pressure here and a little pressure there, he hoped they would be able to continue life on Earth.
"I believe this is your best work, Blair," Eli was saying as he stooped to pick up the J.I.M.'s discarded clothing.
"You haven't seen 860 yet." He resumed his computations.
"What is it Eli?"
"Did you program facial expression into this model?"
"It isn't necessary to their function," he obfuscated.
"That's odd. I thought 852 frowned."
"A trick of the light."
"Was it? Blair…"
He realized something had disturbed the older scientist, and he gave him his full attention. "What is it, Eli?"
Eli rested his gnarled hand on Blair's hair. "It's no longer an option for you to stay here."
"You're the best hope this pocket of mankind has for survival, but University is failing, and these poor fools don't see that."
"What do they see?"
"Something- That is, someone who they're expecting to correct their error."
"Me? But of course I'll- Wait, what error?"
"They were so involved with their studies and their experiments that they delayed procreating until it was too late. If I hadn't insisted on those deposits when we first retreated to University… Tell me something, Blair. Do you want children of your own?"
"I…I never thought that would be an option for me. I'm the youngest of everyone here." And truthfully, the women of University had been too old to attract him even when he first should have become interested in feminine curves. Even the men- Was that why he preferred the company of his cyborgs?
"Do you remember that I once promised to tell you why Naomi left here, taking you with her?"
"Yes." The sudden change of topic startled him, but he was relieved that Eli didn't push to know more about his having children. "Living outside the biosphere is extremely hazardous."
"It was, even back then."
Blair nodded. "She mentioned once that if she'd realized how hazardous it was, she wouldn't have taken me out of University."
"She wouldn't have had any choice, my boy. Outside University there were a number of groups constantly striving for control. Well, you were familiar with Brackett. There was always the threat of one of these groups breaking into University because they wanted the safety and security of it. Shortly before you were…" Eli fell silent, seeming to peer into himself.
"Born?" Blair prompted.
"Hmm?" Eli raised his tired eyes and observed him absently. "Oh. Yes. One of the groups managed to find an entry into University; that was when we lost Captain Taggart. The fools intended to set off an incendiary device. Joel couldn't deactivate it in time – he knew that – and couldn't get it out of University in time, so he covered it with his own body, and… "
Blair had never seen Eli look so sad. He rested a gentle hand on Eli's shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
"You would have liked him, Blair. He was a good man."
"I'm sure he was." But why hadn't Simon or anyone else talked about him? And then Blair realized they hardly talked to him at all. He opened his mouth to ask Eli about that, but Eli was continuing.
"At any rate, that paramilitary force took over before Captain Banks could rally what was left of his men. Simon, Henri, Rafe, the others, they withdrew to the furthest outskirts of University, and we, the scientists, kept quiet about them. Those were amazing times. We were all younger then, capable of actions that to this day make me proud."
"What of Naomi, Eli?"
"She was an exceptional scientist. She knew if Kincaid learned about you, he wouldn't have reacted well – he'd have seen you as a threat and would have tried to kill you."
"Why would they find a boy baby a threat?"
"King Herod found a boy baby a threat."
"But I'm not- "
Eli's smile was filled with fondness. "No, you're a… son of man. I managed to get you both out of University. Once she was safely gone… well, let me just say it didn't take Simon and his men long to teach Kincaid's group of assholes the error of their ways."
Blair gave a spurt of laughter. That Eli would use such a term was surprisingly amusing. He'd frequently heard words like that in Brackett's camp, but here in University they were seldom used, except by some of the soldiers.
"As I was saying, we scientists are pragmatists, then as well as now; we knew that as much as University… as Earth… needed every man, woman, and child, we couldn't afford to keep those who only wanted power for themselves. Their desire for that power would hinder the survival of the species."
"We destroyed them, all of them, utterly and without mercy. We all have blood on our hands, but not a single one of us has regretted it."
"And now it's starting again? But surely I'd have heard if University was under attack."
"You've been involved in your lab."
"I'm sorry." Blair felt horrible. "I should have- "
"No, you've done exactly as you should have." Eli suddenly looked drained.
Blair stared at him in shock. Eli is old! What hair he had left was pure white, and his eyes had taken on the opaqueness of incipient cataracts. His face was a mass of wrinkles, and when he walked, his back was hunched, his chest caved in, and his gait was shuffling.
Blair felt himself turn cold. How much longer would he have with this man who he loved like a father?
"There's more to it than that." Eli made his halting way to a chair and sat down, exhaustion in every line of his aged body. "The biosphere is failing, Blair. The membrane is no longer viable. It's unable to keep out the toxins, and that, in turn is affecting their brains. Our brains."
"But I feel fine!"
"You survived out in the Open for some years. That gave you a sort of immunity."
"Well, I guess I can accept that. But- "
"You must also take into consideration that you've been here in the labs for the most part, you haven't seen the mental capacity of our numbers decline, slowly but steadily. Before too long we'll have lost whatever brain function remains."
"There must be some way I can reverse that!"
Eli shook his head.
"Then I can repair the biosphere!"
"No. Oh, we'll keep working on it, trying to fix it, but I'm afraid it's too late for that. Whatever work we do is completely counter-productive."
"One step forward, two steps back?"
"More like five or six. That's why you have to leave. The population that's left – some will become violent, some forgetful, some will just sit and stare at the walls. Once those of us who can help them become too debilitated ourselves, they'll simply wither away. And eventually, so will we all."
"Why did you have me concentrate on the cyborgs? I could have- "
"No. There was nothing you could have done. I feared it might come to this, but I'd hoped… " He sighed. "They won't survive for much longer."
"And you, Eli?"
"My time is limited as well."
Blair felt his eyes well up with tears. "What good will I do away from University?"
"You're the last hope for mankind. Find Cascade. Take 852 and the fems with you. "
Eli struggled to his feet and hugged him. It was the first time in a very long time that Eli had voluntarily touched him. Beneath the lab coat Blair could feel fragile bones; the odor of escalating age clung to Eli.
"Oh, Eli!" he whispered.
"No. No tears for me. I've had a splendid life, and I'm satisfied with how it has been." He pressed a kiss to Blair's forehead. "Now, go, my son."
"Not of my loins, perhaps, but of my heart. My beloved son!"
Blair worked rapidly to create and upload new programs into Jim and the fems.
Eli stood nearby, his eyes disturbingly vague. And then they sharpened. "You'll need water, Blair." He frowned, concentrating. "Freeze-dried food. The packets are compact; make sure you pack enough to see you to Cascade."
"Yes, Eli. Jim, take Lilith and Eve." They were the first of the female cyborgs that he'd created, and he'd named them after the first women. He'd named the others as well, choosing the names at random: Veronica, Megan, Rhonda, Dolly, Maia, Chris, Alex. "Get what you can."
While they were doing that, he laid out clothing and weapons – he remembered all too well what it had been like on the Outside – and prepared a medical kit that contained not only everything necessary for a human but for Jim and the fems also.
"Take this laptop, Blair." Eli handed him one that was the size of a large man's hand.
"It has all the knowledge stored here at University saved on it."
Blair could have wept. Here in University he had the capacity to recharge batteries, but on the Outside…
Eli smiled and patted his cheek. "Oh, ye of little faith. The batteries are solar powered. They're fully charged. As are the spares."
"Thank you, Eli." Blair tucked the old man's offering away in his backpack and began rolling up bedrolls. He'd plotted the route they'd need to take, but no one knew where Cascade was, and depending on the terrain and the weather, it could take them anywhere from a couple months to three quarters of a year.
Jim and the fems returned with boxes and boxes of food that had been stored away and then forgotten. They began the task of packing for their journey.
"Blair, I think we should bring some items for the babies," Lilith suggested.
"Yes." This was going to be even rougher than he'd thought. When he'd started the pregnancies, it had been under the assumption the babies would be born here in University. The fems didn't need special prenatal care, but if the journey took longer than anticipated, they'd need slings to carry the babies in as well as diapers and whatever else the little ones would need.
It was a good thing he'd programmed all that information into the fems.
"Maybe we should wait until after the babies are born." Alex was the most rebellious of the fems. She'd never been pleased about the pregnancy.
"We can't afford to wait, Alex. Finish packing. We need to leave at first light."
She scowled at him but obeyed.
Eli had told Blair of the path that led to a hidden exit. He'd helped them pack as much as they could carry, enough to keep them going until they reached Cascade, including nutrients for the cyborgs and packets of freeze-dried food, canteens, and tablets that would purify whatever water they found if they ran out before reaching their destination.
Hardly necessary, Eli mused to himself as Blair, 852, and the female cyborgs approached the same exit that Naomi had once used to escape University. Blair really wouldn't need those supplies, but Eli had been reluctant to tell the son of his heart the truth about his heritage.
Blair would hate him if he learned that just as 852 and the female cyborgs, he had been created in a lab. He was indeed Naomi's child, but the child of her intellect and skills, not of her body.
Perhaps Eli should tell him. Blair needed to know after all.
Yes, he would do it. They weren't too far down the path. Eli would just hurry along and tell Blair…
"Eh? Yes, Simon?"
"It's time for breakfast."
"I'll be right along. I just have to- " He blinked and shook his head. What was he going to do? He couldn't remember.
Oh, well, it couldn't have been important.
"Breakfast sounds like a good idea."
"It's been a long time since I've been outside of University," Blair murmured as he trudged along beside Jim, skirting an outcropping of rocks. The land was even more sere than he remembered it, and there had been no rainfall.
They'd been searching for the legendary site for what seemed like forever, although Blair knew it was no more than a few months. They'd come across any number of towns, skirting those where it was obvious violence had been done, and that fairly recently, while exploring others where homes and shops were surprisingly intact, down to the child's toy left in a crib and the petrified boxes of cookies on grocery shelves – all remnants of a civilization whose time was long past.
The withered pall of winter hung everywhere, even though this was mid spring.
"Will we ever find Cascade?"
"I'll lead you there safely." Jim rested his hand on Blair's shoulder.
"I know you will." Blair smiled up at him. He had the strongest temptation to rub his cheek against the back of Jim's hand. He didn't, of course. That would put Jim in an untenable position: he would feel he couldn't say no to a human.
"How much further did you want to travel today?" Jim removed his hand quickly, and Blair sighed. He had seen how the men and women of University had always shied away from contact with the cyborgs, and he knew how aware of that Jim was.
Blair had put him into this position not only by creating him, but by somehow giving him emotions and the desire to touch and be touched.
It hadn't been Blair's intention, but somehow that was what had happened.
He wondered if Jim ever-
No, he stopped that thought.
He looked up at the sun, although he really didn't need to see its position in the sky to tell the time of day. He'd always been able to do that. "It's only mid afternoon, and we have at least another four hours of light. What do you think, Jim?"
"We'll keep going until we find somewhere suitable to make camp."
They walked on, the fems following in silence.
"I'd hoped we would reach Cascade before our fems gave birth." They were all visibly pregnant.
Blair had wrestled with the feasibility of terminating the pregnancies, but Eli had persuaded him to let them proceed. "Mankind needs every last son and daughter."
Blair wondered if maybe he shouldn't have listened to Eli.
"I don't like it here," Alex complained. "I want to go back to University."
Jim turned to study her, his pale blue eyes inscrutable. "Do you really? They'd tear you to shreds."
"They'd never! I'm beautiful!"
"You're very attractive, I'll grant you that."
Blair scowled. Yes, Alex wasn't hard on the eyes, even more so now that she was almost nine months pregnant, but he didn't like Jim saying so. And then he scowled at himself. It shouldn't matter to him if Jim liked Alex. That was the way it should be: men and women liking each other.
Why would Jim like another man that way?
"You wouldn't let them succeed, would you?" Alex batted her lashes at Jim.
Where had she learned to behave like that?
"Jim wouldn't be with you." Blair glared at her.
"Why not? 852 doesn't need you for anything! If we return to University, we could rule the entire complex!"
"University is no longer a viable option for us, Alex. Accept it."
"I won't! And if you won't go with me, I'll go alone!"
"How far do you think you'll get? You're pregnant!"
"Then I'll wait until I'm not! Once I get rid of these parasites- "
"You won't have long to wait," Jim announced. "You're- "
"Owww!" Alex doubled over in pain.
"About to have them now!"
"It's too soon! Why am I in pain? There isn't supposed to be pain!" Alex continued to cradle her swollen abdomen.
"We'd better set up camp!" Jim began casting around to find a safe spot. "There's a cave just up this hillside."
"How am I supposed to get there?" Alex was now crying nonstop. "I can't even walk a step without these- OWWWW!"
"We'll take care of you, Alex." Veronica and Megan supported Alex's upper body, while Rhonda and Dolly caught her legs. Even almost as pregnant as Alex, they had no trouble carrying her.
"No, no! I want 852 to carry me!"
They ignored her and began walking toward the site Jim had found.
"Blair Sandburg, you got me into this condition!" Alex's words floated back to him. "When I get these things out of me I'm coming after you! I'm going to drown you like they should have done at birth!"
Eve patted his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, Blair. That's just the imminent birth talking. Once she's delivered her precious burdens, she'll forget all about the pain."
"But there shouldn't be pain. I never programmed that into you! I wouldn't!"
"We know that, Blair." Lilith stroked his cheek. "Eve and I will take care of her."
"The babies are perfect little humans." Eve cleaned off the male child and handed him to Veronica.
"Yes. At least that we can judge." Lilith exchanged glances with her and gave the little girl she held to Megan. "I think the Blair and 852 will be anxious to see our newest additions, don't you?"
"Oh, yes!" All the fems hurried out. Alex's difficulty wouldn't daunt them. They were all still looking forward to the births of their own humans.
"Fuck them!" Alex screamed as she struggled to sit up. "And fuck you! I want out of here, now!"
"Rest for a moment." Lilith ran her palm over Alex's blonde hair, then pressed the spot at the base of her skull.
"Wait! No! You can't- " That was all Alex could gasp out before her neural chip was removed, and she remained frozen in place.
"What should we do?" Eve asked. "We can't destroy it. It's necessary to feed the little ones. At least until we can find another source of nourishment."
"The Blair had better examine it. I've worried from the start that this model might be a little unstable."
"Well, he'll make the final decision, but… We don't have too much time before her core starts to overheat and destroys the ova and sperm she carries."
"We will speak with him about this later, then. Agreed?"
Lilith replaced the chip.
Alex's eyes were wild. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Let's just say this was a little warning. Right now we need you to feed the little ones. Cooperate, and once our humans are born, we'll remove the sperm and ova you carry and you'll be free to leave us."
"You'll let me go back to University?"
"If that's where you wish to go."
"And I can take 852 with me?"
"That will be his decision."
Alex flashed a dimple and fluffed her hair. "He'll come with me."
Again Lilith and Eve exchanged glances. Then Lilith shrugged. "Will you cooperate?"
"Very well. However, keep in mind that we'll all be watching you. Do anything to put this project in danger, and I'll have no qualms in removing your neural chip and using your parts for spares."
Alex made a face. "My breasts hurt."
Lilith sighed. "We'll get your little ones."
Blair watched as Lilith and Eve took the babies, Eli and Naomi, back to the cave. He'd suggested the names, and they'd all agreed.
"We're daddies!" There was awe in his words.
The J.I.M. wanted to smile, but his responsibilities were too grave. "I'd hoped to have you all at Cascade before any of the fems gave birth."
"Well, that's Alex for you, always gumming up the works. Uh… "
"What is it, Blair?"
"Lilith said they had to threaten Alex with the removal of her chip if she didn't behave."
The J.I.M. did smile. "Lilith is a strong fem."
"She was the first I-we-I created." Blair licked his lips, and the J.I.M. wondered what he would do if a cyborg kissed him. He knew how foolish it was, but he loved Blair.
"Will Alex obey?"
"Yes. The thing is, Lilith promised she could leave once the other babies are born."
"I understand why you don't sound pleased." This project had been Blair's work for as long as he'd been at University. The thought of losing one of the fems must be very distressing for him.
"Do you? So suppose you tell me."
"You'll be losing a fem."
"It won't matter. We'll harvest the ova and sperm she carries and divide them between the others."
"Then I don't understand." None of the J.I.M.s were supposed to have emotions. Why did he have to be different?
"She wants you to go with her."
"She wanted me to go with her before, and I said no. Why should that matter to me?"
"She's one of the most beautiful fems."
"I still don't see why that should matter to me."
"Jim, you're not stupid. I know that; I created you."
"Is that what the problem is?"
"That I'm not a real human? That I'm not your Jim?"
"What- how did you know about Jim?"
"Never mind." He hoped Blair wouldn't push for an answer. He didn't want to confess that nights when Blair had worked late in the lab and had fallen asleep at his work space, he'd cracked open the door of his cylinder and listened to his creator's breathing. Blair would sometimes talk in his sleep, and more than once he'd murmured the human Jim's name. "It doesn't matter. I'll never be him, and… and… " He raised his head and his nostrils flared; he pushed himself to his feet. "There's a storm brewing; I can smell it. I'd better see if I can find Cascade."
"Do you have any idea how much further it is?"
"Probably about thirty miles in that direction." He pointed to the northeast. He could have gotten them there a week ago, but he'd wanted to spend this last bit of time with Blair.
"Jim. Be careful."
"I'm a J.I.M. Nothing will happen to me. Now wait in the cave with the fems. And keep this close to you and don't drop it!" He handed Blair a gun, then settled the rifle that hung from his shoulder more comfortably.
The J.I.M. couldn't resist. He leaned forward and pressed his lips lightly against Blair's.
It was like nothing he'd ever experienced. Was this what it was like when humans kissed? There was tingling and lightning strikes and the temperature of his core seemed to be rising…
He drew back and turned, unwilling to see the disgust that must be on Blair's face.
"Oh, no you don't!" Blair grabbed his arm and spun him around.
He shouldn't have been able to do that, should he?
No, of course not. It was just that Jim hadn't really wanted to go.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have- "
"Then why did you?"
"I… I couldn't help myself." Why was Blair tormenting him like this?
"You've wanted to kiss me before?"
"Yes. Look, I have to go- "
"The only thing you have to do is kiss me again!"
Jim stared into Blair's eyes. "You- you… you want me to kiss you?"
"Yes." Blair tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
"But I'm a cyborg."
Blair opened an eye and frowned at him. "What difference does that make?"
"You're human. You have to mate with other humans!"
"Do you see any other humans around here?"
"Um… well… no."
"All right then. Kiss me."
"But the storm- "
"Fuck the storm! Although I'd rather- " Blair growled and pulled Jim's head down to his.
Jim shivered as the warm lips met his. This couldn't- wouldn't- last. There would come a time when Blair would turn to a human woman, but until then, Jim was going to store up each memory, each sensation.
Words spilled from Blair's mouth to Jim's skin, so soft a human wouldn't have been able to understand them, but Jim had no trouble distinguishing what Blair was murmuring. Want you. Love you. Need you.
He couldn't stand it. He was only- He laughed. No, he wasn't human, but whatever he was loved Blair to the bottom of his being.
He took Blair's mouth in stinging, biting kisses. Blair might just as well realize he was toying with a being so strong he could snap Blair in two without even trying.
Only Blair didn't seem frightened. He wrapped his arms around Jim's shoulders, curled a leg around Jim's waist, and seemed to be trying to climb him like a mountain.
Blair finally pulled his mouth free – Jim certainly had no intention of parting from those luscious lips – and brushed his lips over Jim's cheek. "You'd better go, Jim."
"You'd better let me go."
He laughed. "Yes, I guess I'd better." But Blair didn't seem to be in any hurry to release his hold on him.
"Blair!" Lilith called down from the cave.
"Yes, Lilith?" But he still held on.
"The wind is starting to rise." Away from University they'd found windstorms instead of rainstorms. "Come into the cave."
"All right." Blair finally released him, although not before nuzzling the hinge of Jim's jaw, nipping his ear, and kissing him a final time. "You have your thing to do, and I have mine."
Jim felt bereft. Was this what it would be like when Blair dismissed him and went to someone else?
He turned on his heel and broke into the long, loping gait that ate up the distance, heading in the direction of Cascade.
Blair touched his lips, a huge smile blossoming across his face. So this was what kissing felt like.
There was an odd, tingling sensation at the back of his neck, and he rubbed it absently.
"Hmm? Oh, yes. Coming, Lilith!"
The J.I.M. paused on the outskirts of what had once obviously been a city. His inner compass told him these were the coordinates for Cascade, but… He stared around in dismay at the ramshackle buildings that leaned against each other, at the streets and sidewalks that were layers of dirt, dead grass, and yellowed weeds.
Dammit, Blair would need to recalibrate his inner tracking device; this was just another abandoned city.
He wouldn't mind having Blair's hands working on him, but he hated that he'd failed him again.
He was about to turn away, when a soft sound tickled his ears, the shuffling of footsteps. There was someone alive in the poor, shattered remains of this city!
But how could anyone even live here?
He'd have to offer help, even if it was nothing more than a couple of packets of freeze-dried food and a spare canteen of water.
He took his rifle from his shoulder and cocked it, then began to make his way cautiously through the streets in an attempt to track whoever it was.
Yes, he would help, he was programmed to do that, but he wasn't so foolish that he'd risk the undertaking Blair had planned without taking basic precautions.
Windows were broken, doors hung from their hinges. Dust and debris filled entryways.
And then he saw the tarnished, dust-caked plate above a door: Cascade Tribune.
Oh, no! This was Cascade!
Twigs and dried grasses of a bird's nest long abandoned spilled out of the u of Tribune.
How could this have happened?
And what were they going to do? It was obvious there was nothing here for them at Cascade, and they couldn't return to University.
He'd inform Blair. Blair was the scientist, and he'd know best if they should change their route to head north or if it would be better to continue south.
But first he needed to find whoever it was who called this desolate city home. If the person needed assistance, he'd do what he could.
He approached a shop with a mannequin in the window, dust and spider webs the only thing left to cover it.
He knew it was only a matter of seconds, and then, sure enough, someone appeared in the doorway beside the shop.
"You're lucky I have good control," he said dryly. "I could have shot you otherwise."
"You wouldn't have seen me if I hadn't wanted you to. I heard you when you turned onto Prospect."
"That's the name of this street."
That was three hundred yards away. The J.I.M. raised an eyebrow. "I heard you as I entered Cascade."
"You don't want to get into a pissing match with me, Chief." The old man in the doorway observed him sharply, blue eyes faded but still alert. Despite his age, he stood tall. "Unless… Are you a sentinel?"
"I'm a J.I.M."
"You could say it's something similar to a sentinel." He wasn't about to inform anyone that he was a Jacobsen Independent Mechanism, model 852.
"Where are you from?"
"I don't believe you! Why would you leave? University was ideal."
He shrugged. "I gather knowledge of the Outside conditions for the scientists." He had no intention of saying more than that. The location of University was as hidden as that of Cascade. And with its population aging and debilitated, they had no protection from an Outside attack. He continued speaking before the old man could question him further, turning the tables on him. "What's happened to Cascade?"
"Even I couldn't reverse what mankind did to the Earth."
"'Even you'? What do you mean?"
"I was the protector of this city and the people who lived here. I found game, warned when the rains were coming, and when the rains stopped, when the winds would come."
The J.I.M. was struck by the old man's use of the word 'protector.' "So it's… "
"Gone? I'm afraid so. The greenest spot in the country," he waved a hand, his words despondent, "and this is what's left of it."
"But there were people here! They couldn't have all died! Where have they gone?"
"They headed south, at first gradually and then more quickly as it became evident that Cascade was dying. By about fifteen years ago they were all gone."
"If you were the protector, why didn't you go with them?" The J.I.M. would never have abandoned his charges, not while there was an ounce of functioning fluid in his body.
"There were other protectors, my sons. They led them. As for me, I had to stay. Cascade is my home."
"Who are you?"
"I am Jim Ellison."
This couldn't be the Jim of Blair's childhood; he was so old! But maybe his grandson… The J.I.M. didn't want to know, but he had to ask. For Blair.
"You mentioned your sons. Did one of them have a son?"
"Yes. They had quite a few as a matter of fact, and they all had the enhanced senses of the Ellisons. That's one thing I'm very proud of: I passed those down to my descendants so they too could protect and serve."
All right, now they were getting somewhere! "Did one of your grandsons happen to be taken captive by Brackett's band?"
"Brackett's band? Good god, no! Brackett's people finally rose up against him and destroyed him!"
"So he's dead." The J.I.M. knew Blair had wanted to find Brackett and kill him, and of course he would have done everything he could to help, but he was relieved. A human shouldn't have blood on his hands.
"Lord, yes! It must be about forty years now." The old man's expression became thoughtful. "I had been held captive in Brackett's camp, but of course that was before then. I was thirteen at the time. Actually, a little boy named Blair helped me to escape."
The pump in the J.I.M.'s chest stuttered and felt as if it wasn't going to be able to keep the fluid moving through his body. This was Blair's Jim?
"You wouldn't think someone so young would come up with such an ingenious plan, but he did. He had auburn hair and such blue eyes. I called him chief, and his reaction would have made me laugh if I hadn't known Brackett's plans for me. 'I'm not a chief, I'm a little boy!'" His memories must have been pleasant in spite of the dire straits he'd found himself in at the time; a smile tugged up the corners of his lips. He shook himself out of his reverie. "How did you ever hear of Brackett? That was such a long time ago! You wouldn't have been born!"
"Dr. Sandburg talked about meeting a boy named Jim who came from Cascade."
"Blair became a doctor? I'm not surprised. There was something about him… And he's still alive?
"Of course he is!"
"Yes, of course." Blair's Jim chuckled. "He was only about ten years younger than I was."
"I don't understand this! Blair is about thirty!"
"That's impossible!" Blair's Jim looked at him as if he'd lost his neural chip. "The Blair I knew would be in his eighties!"
This was ridiculous!
And then the J.I.M. recalled how the men and women of University had been slowly losing their mental acuity. The same must be happening to this old man. The best thing was to probably change the subject.
"Look, are you okay here? Do you need any food?"
"No." The old man looked dazed, and the J.I.M. was certain it was because he was starting to forget things. "I have plenty. It's… it's really Blair?"
"Yes. Do you want to go to him?"
"I can't leave Cascade."
"In that case, do you want me to bring him to you?" Did that sound as unenthusiastic to Blair's Jim as it did to him?
Blair's Jim studied him shrewdly. "Does he know you're in love with him?"
"You're talking nonsense, old man."
"I don't think so. I never saw the attraction in loving another man, but that was just me. One of my sons and a couple of my grandsons preferred men to women. I don't think the less of you for it."
The J.I.M. was relieved. He would have given Blair up to his Jim, but it would have broken what he used for a heart.
"From what I recall, Blair would have been very easy to love."
"He is," he admitted.
"There's just one thing I don't understand. Blair should be many years older than you. Although now that I think of it- "
The J.I.M. interrupted him. "I have no explanation for that. Blair is a young man. It's growing late. I must get back to him and the fems. Females," he clarified when he saw the puzzled expression on Blair's Jim.
"You're traveling with women? Are you insane? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are still men like Brackett out there!"
"You don't know our fems." He raised his head and listened intently. "A storm is brewing."
Blair's Jim stared at him. "Are you sure?" And then his eyes widened. "Yes, you're right! And you knew before I did! How far away are they?"
"About thirty miles. I can get to where they are before the storm breaks." At least he hoped so. He'd be running into the wind on the return trip; it was going to be tough going. But he would do it. He gave Blair's Jim a tight smile. "It will probably be a day or two before it blows over and we can return here."
"I'm not going to ask how you can cover thirty miles that quickly on foot." Good. Because the J.I.M. wasn't going to tell him. "How many will there be?"
"Twelve. Thirteen, counting me."
"And we should count you, shouldn't we?" Blair's Jim smiled at him, seeming to accept him. "I have four hundred horses you can use."
"What?" He'd come across some small bands of mustangs in his travels, but four hundred of them? Was this old man serious, or was this another sign that his brain was starting to malfunction? How could he care for that many horses? And how did he expect the J.I.M. to handle them?
"Come with me."
Keeping his senses open in case this was a trap, the J.I.M. followed him to a building that was in somewhat better repair than the others.
"This used to be a fire station." Blair's Jim bent down, gave a heave and a groan, and the door slid up. "And I'm getting old." He knuckled his lower back, then flipped a switch just inside. Lights came on, revealing a large vehicle the J.I.M. recognized from his data banks as a pickup truck.
He began to chuckle. "I'm assuming your four hundred horses are contained under the hood?"
"Yes. And I hope you appreciate my offer. I wouldn't even let my sons take out Baby." He quickly sobered. "Do you know how to drive something like this?"
The J.I.M. gave him an ironic smile. "Shouldn't you have asked me before? But yes, I'm familiar with this type of vehicle's mechanism." It was in one of the programs Blair had uploaded to his neural chip.
"All right." Blair's Jim handed him the keys. "I've run her every so often and she's in good repair. She's got enough gasoline in the tank to get you where you need to go. And I have a couple of sealed containers that will be enough to get you back here. You should return to Cascade in good time."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Let's just say I'm very curious to see what kind of man my Blair has grown up to be."
He's not your Blair! the J.I.M. wanted to spit out, but he didn't. He was a cyborg, and yes, Blair had kissed him, but that was when there were no humans around. Blair had said so himself.
He'd be happier with a human.
The J.I.M.'s hand tightened on the keys. "I'd better get going."
Blair stood at the mouth of the cave. The wind caused the lifeless branches of the few trees in the vicinity to bow and snap, and he had a feeling the storm it was the precursor to was going to be worse than the one they'd weathered after Jim had left.
Lilith joined him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "You're worried about 852."
"No, I- " he started to say, but she was smiling in amused disbelief. "Yeah, I am. I shouldn't be." He rubbed the back of his neck. The tingling had eased off, but it had never completely stopped.
"You care about him a great deal."
Blair made a noncommittal sound. He cared for all the cyborgs, but Jim… Yes, he cared for him the most. "The wind is picking up." He'd been able to discern that himself. "This storm is going to be a killer."
There was no need to sugarcoat the facts. The fems themselves were able to detect the various weather patterns and predict the damage they would do.
"Yes. It will probably hit in another hour or so."
"And unfortunately the cave isn't deep enough to shelter us all." He glanced around the bottom of the hill. "Those large rocks – If we stack them around the opening, that should help extend it, block it off enough to keep us safe."
"Good idea. We'll- "
"I can't do anything!" Alex smirked. "I have the babies!"
Lilith shook her head. "Veronica, you stay with Alex and the babies. The rest of us…"
Blair had notice for some time that they seemed able to communicate nonverbally. "I won't be able to move as much weight as you, but- "
Lilith and Eve exchanged grins.
"Nothing, Blair. Your help is always appreciated."
He shook his head. "Let's get started."
Blair mopped at the sweat that was dripping into his eyes. He'd been able to pretty much keep up with the fems, and –
"Blair? Is something wrong?"
"This- the back of my neck is tingling."
"It's been doing that for a while now, hasn't it?
"Yeah, but not as insistent as this." He didn't ask how she knew. The cyborgs were programmed to know all manner of things. He dug his fingers into the spot that was bothering him, then abruptly stiffened and stared into the distance. "Do you hear that?"
"Yes." Lilith went into the cave.
The sound was barely audible above the rising wail of the wind. "I've never heard that before."
"Neither have I. Here." She handed him a gun just as something roared into view.
"It's a vehicle!"
"It appears to be powered by fossil fuels!"
He gave a little gasp, thrust the gun back at Lilith, and began running down the hill.
"How can you tell?"
"I just can!" he called over his shoulder, and he laughed joyously. "Jim!"
The vehicle slid to a stop, and when the cloud of dust cleared, it was facing the way it had come. Jim got out.
"You're back!" Blair threw himself at him. "And you're safe! I'm so glad!"
"Of course I'm safe!" He put Blair away from him.
"Jim?" For a second Blair was hurt, but a sudden gust of wind reminded him they didn't have time for reunions. "Where did you find a- Is this a pickup truck?"
"Yeah." Jim's mouth was a grim line. "In Cascade."
"You found it?" In spite of the knowledge that Jim had discovered the legendary city, in spite of the impending storm, all Blair wanted to do was rub himself all over that big body.
"Listen to me! Another storm is on the way." Jim went to the back of the pickup.
"I know." Blair jogged after him. "That's why we've been trying to build up the cave."
"We can't stay here." He took one of the metal containers from the back of the pickup. Blair could here liquid sloshing inside it.
"Fuel. What you've done is good, but it won't be enough. I felt the beginnings of this storm back in Cascade." He opened the gas tank, unscrewed the cap of the container, and began pouring the gasoline into the tank. "Ugh!" He dropped it.
"What is it?" Blair rubbed soothing circles on Jim's back.
"The- the odor of the gasoline. It's- " He shuddered under Blair's hand.
"Dial it down, Jim!" The odor was really strong, and he yanked him away. "Maia, get that can before any more gasoline spills out! Hold your breath, you don't want to breathe it in! And get whatever is left in there into the tank!"
"Help me, Rhonda!" Maia cast concerned eyes toward north. "We have to hurry!"
"Ye-yeah," Jim stuttered. "We- we have to get- get out of here! The fems, the supplies!"
"It's okay. We're taking care of it."
The other fems were already bringing the backpacks, while Veronica carried the babies. Alex had a palm pressed to her abdomen and another to her lower back, and she made her way down to the truck slowly, stumbling and grumbling every step of the way.
Blair continued rubbing Jim's back. He didn't have to, but he relished the opportunity to touch him.
"Thanks, Blair. I'm better now." He stepped back.
Reluctantly Blair let him go.
"Get the backpacks in the back of the truck." Jim turned to Blair. "All of us in there… It's going to be tight."
Blair looked over the inside of the cab. "Yeah, I can see that."
"According to Ellison-"
"Uh… the old guy I found there. At Cascade. Anyway, he said it'll seat five comfortably, six in a pinch."
"And counting the babies, there are thirteen of us in all."
"Yeah. That's what I told him."
"Okay, so all that means is we'll have to double up. Lilith, Eve, Rhonda, get in the back seat. Megan, Dolly, Veronica, you sit on their laps, and Megan and Veronica, you'll hold the babies. Maia, Chris, and Alex will be in the front seat with Jim and me. Jim, I want to check the cave one last time."
"Okay, ch- Blair."
Alex was standing aside, staring from the truck to Jim. "Move it, Alex!" Blair raced past her. "We don't have much time!"
"852, I can sit next to you, can't I?"
Blair skidded to a stop to snarl that Jim was his, then grinned as Jim said, "Sorry. Blair sits next to me."
"But I'm prettier!" Alex was aggrieved.
"You can complain about it later, Alex." Jim ignored the rest of her grousing and joined Blair on the hill. "We have to hurry!"
There wouldn't be time for anything more than a kiss in the cave, but… "Hurrying, Jim!"
"When do you think the storm will hit?" Blair was worrying his lower lip, and Jim had to make sure he didn't watch.
He wanted to nibble on that lip. He wouldn't though. It was killing him, as much as anything could kill a cyborg, but he wouldn't touch Blair and he wouldn't let Blair touch him.
"Huh? Oh, sooner than I'd like." He pressed the pedal firmly down to the floorboard.
"This must have been a paved highway at one time," Blair observed.
"Yeah. Now it's just a- " Jim swerved to avoid a deep rut in the road. He missed it, but the front wheel on the right went over something that caused the truck to bounce and shimmy. "… dirt road."
"Owww!" Alex's head hit the roof of the truck. She'd insisted on sitting on Blair's lap because he was sitting next to Jim.
"Blair, you're supposed to be holding me!"
"Doing my best, Alex," Blair assured her, but under his earnestness Jim could hear wicked pleasure.
He shouldn't smile, he told himself. His body and senses might be one with the vehicle, but poor Alex was having a hard time of it.
"Well, your best isn't good enough! Don't let me hit my head again!" She wriggled around, causing Blair's thigh to rub up against Jim's.
He swallowed a groan. The drive to Cascade was going to be a nightmare, and not only because the wind was howling behind them like a live thing.
"Everybody okay back there?"
"We're fine, 852. Don't worry about us."
"And the babies?"
"Would you believe they're sleeping?"
"Is this normal, Blair?"
"Why are you asking me? I've never had anything to do with babies."
"But you're human."
Blair scowled at him.
Eli and Naomi were amazing babies. The only time they fussed was if they needed to be fed or needed to be changed, a huge difference from the fem who'd given birth to them.
"You're taking me further and further from University!" Alex whined.
"You can ask Jim if he'll let you borrow the truck."
"Jim?" Of course Blair was curious.
"Your Jim, Blair." Jim cursed his loose tongue. He'd just wanted to shut Alex up. He risked taking his eyes off the track for a second and shot a quick glance at Blair.
"You're my Jim."
"I'm talking about the Jim from when you were a little boy."
"Yes, him." It had never occurred to Jim that Blair could be annoying. "He's still in Cascade. Aren't you curious about him?"
"Yeah, Blair. He's the one you should be curious about," Alex snapped. "852 is better off with me. Cyborgs belong with cyborgs. 852 is mine!"
"Mind hitting another rut, Jim?" Blair spoke the words so softly Jim knew the fems, even with their hearing almost as enhanced as his, couldn't hear him.
He didn't laugh. If Alex threw a tantrum now, she might cause him to lose control of the truck. And there was also that nagging thought that Blair might be trying to spare his feelings.
"Don’t you want to know about Jim Ellison?"
Blair sighed. "All right, how was he?" He seemed mildly curious, not at all desperate to learn how the man he'd thought of so often through the years had fared. Could Jim hope there might be… well… hope for him?
"That's odd." Blair raised his hand to the back of his neck.
"Chief? The Boy called me that once."
"He told me. He called me Chief too. And he's an old man now." He shouldn't keep bringing that up, but the thought of Blair with that old man… "But no, I meant, did the last rut in the road give you… " He paused for a moment, searching his databanks. "Whiplash?"
"Huh? Oh, snap my neck? No, I'm fine, thanks. Why?"
"You were rubbing your neck."
"He's been doing that for a while, 852."
"Lilith?" Jim glanced at her through the rearview mirror. She was regarding him with a bland expression.
Blair glowered at her over his shoulder. "I could have told him that myself!"
"Would you stop that?" Alex groused. Jim could hear Blair's 'Oof!' as she drove her elbow into his ribs. "You almost hit me in the chin!"
"Jim, is it much further?" There was concern in Lilith's voice
"No." He didn't have to ask why she was worried. The last blast of wind had almost sent the truck rocketing off the road. It had been the most violent gust they'd experienced so far.
"Look! Look!" Maia cried excitedly. "Up ahead!"
"Jim, this is Cascade?"
"Yeah, Chief. This is Cascade."
Jim Ellison heard Baby as she rounded the corner on two wheels, even though he still couldn't see the truck. He remembered the J.I.M. saying he'd heard his footsteps from the outskirts of Cascade.
His sons and grandsons had extremely acute hearing, as acute as his. Lately, though, his hearing had begun to fade, as had his eyesight. The results of growing old, he supposed.
But this… person was better than he'd been in his prime.
He'd been waiting for the last two hours for the J.I.M. to return. It would be nice to see people again. Remaining behind in Cascade has seemed like the thing to do at the time.
There were always those who refused to go, who preferred the comfort of what they knew, rather than face the unknown, even though they knew staying might cost them their lives.
Should he have insisted they all leave? But he hadn't. Instead he'd stayed behind with them; he was their blessed protector, after all.
But the years passed and those who'd remained had died off. He should have died as well, but he still lived, and now he was alone.
He was tired of being alone. Maybe he'd leave with the people the J.I.M. had gone to retrieve. After all, there was nothing keeping him here any longer-
Only there was. Cascade was keeping him here. Just as he was Cascade's blessed protector, Cascade, as forlorn and desolate at it had become, was his beloved city.
A blast of wind disordered what hair he had left. In his younger days it was thick and luxurious, but as he reached manhood, it slowly retreated to a widow's peak. Over the years it had become more obvious, and now…
He chuckled. He was really too old to be vain.
Baby was coming closer. And so was the storm. He opened the door of the old fire house and stood to the side.
The truck roared into the shelter and came to a halt, the engine ticking as it was turned off. He patted her fender and went to pull down the door and bar it.
The wind had become even stronger.
"Let me give you a hand with that." The J.I.M. was beside him, pulling down the door with casual ease.
"I'm really getting too old." Jim shook his head. "We've got to hurry. From the sounds of it, we're going to need to get down to the shelter."
He could hear the women getting out of Baby. "Maia, get Eli from Megan. Chris, you take Naomi."
"Blair, watch it! My hair is caught on your button!"
Now, that was one sexy voice! She stepped out of the truck, and body and face matched the voice.
Jim arched an eyebrow, startled to realize how happy his body was to see this woman. It had been quite some years since he'd enjoyed being a man so much!
"That must have been an interesting ride," he said to the J.I.M., not taking his eyes off that vision.
He could hear the J.I.M. tug on the bars that crisscrossed the door, necessary to reinforce it against the winds, and then the J.I.M. grunted. "Is this secure enough?"
"Eh? Oh, sorry. Yes." He gave the bars a brief glance. Once they were in place, it would take an act of god to get through the door. It was fine. He turned back and smiled at Alex. "Yes. Come on. I'll show you the door to the shelter."
He turned around, and facing him was another man. The hair, the eyes… this was the adult version of the little boy he'd seen more than eighty years before.
"Blair?" How could this be? He didn't appear much older than the J.I.M.
"Jim? It's really you? You're so- I mean, it's great to see you after all this time!" And Blair hugged him.
"I don't understand." He patted Blair's back awkwardly. He'd never had a problem touching either men or women, but there was something so strange about all this.
"Neither do I!"
"You said something about a shelter?" The J.I.M. sounded irritable. Why? Did he think Jim had a yen for Blair? He'd told him he preferred women.
"Yes. It's right this way." He crossed to where a large metal ring had been hammered into the floor.
The J.I.M. spotted it and joined him, then stooped to pull it up.
"You're going to need a hand- "
The door rose easily.
All right. Youth. That had to be the reason. When he'd been a young man, he'd been able to do things like that too.
The J.I.M. took a step toward the opening.
"Just a second! You need to turn on the light!"
"All right. Where's the switch?" The J.I.M. looked bored.
"On that wall." Jim pointed toward it.
Blair went to it and flipped the switch. "You might not need it, but I will, Jim!"
"Excuse me?" And then he realized Blair was grinning at the J.I.M. "Uh… " He hadn't been this confused since his father had attempted to explain the facts of life to him. He shook his head. "There's a ladder going down."
"Yeah." The J.I.M. swung around and descended, quickly disappearing.
"Uh… It might be a problem for the ladies with the babies."
A gorgeous redhead smiled at him. "We won't have a problem." She tugged her shirt out of the khaki pants she wore, put one of the babies under it against her breasts, and tucked it back in.
She looked towards the door, her eyes narrowed in concentration. "We have to hurry."
Wasn't that what he'd been saying?
"Eve?" The redhead stepped onto the ladder, one arm cradling the bundle under her shirt. A brunette carrying the other baby followed after her.
"Do you need any help?" he asked the other women… women? There was something strange about them. His senses told him so, and his senses never lied.
"No, we can handle this." They smiled at him and one by one descended.
He frowned after them. They were treating him like a- a- feeble old man!
"They didn't say it, but I will." It was the beautiful blonde. "Thank you!" She leaned forward and brushed a kiss across his lips. She smiled and caressed his cheek, then went down the ladder.
Suddenly he didn't feel so old.
"That's Alex, Jim."
"Alex. What a lovely name."
"You've really been alone a long time, haven't you? Jim said, but… " Blair hunched a shoulder. "A word to the wise. She's trouble."
"Oh, no! How could anyone so lovely cause an ounce of trouble?" He hadn't felt like this since he'd been a young man courting his Carolyn.
"I'm telling you- "
"No, Blair." He frowned at him. Did Blair want her for himself? No, Jim's senses told him his boyhood acquaintance had no interest in the woman, and he relaxed and grinned. "I've been dealing with the female of the species for a very long time. And you know something? Alex reminds me of my wife. We were together for fifty years, and if I could handle a strong-willed woman like Carolyn, I think I can deal with this young woman without too much trouble."
He thought of Carolyn wistfully. They'd been so young when they'd wed, but they'd loved long and well. Their sons had wanted her to accompany them, but she wouldn't hear of leaving Jim. And then shortly afterwards she had. A sickness they'd had no way of battling had swept through Cascade. In spite of their lack of medicines, she'd worked tirelessly to save the population that was left, but she'd contracted the disease, and he'd lost her.
Jim brushed away a tear. He was too old for such a lovely young thing like Alex, but he would enjoy the time these… people… were with him.
While the fems settled in to ride out the windstorm, the J.I.M. prowled around the underground shelter. There were numerous bedrooms, an enormous kitchen and dining area, sanitary facilities, shower rooms, a laundry.
He poked around in a library and a media room which had a vid screen on a wall. "How long has he been preparing for weather conditions like this?"
"Jim, what's wrong?" Blair was quiet approaching him, but he'd always know it was Blair.
"Why are you talking to me?"
"Who else would I be talking to?"
"You're my Jim." He started to reach for him, then fisted his hands as if to force them to stay at his side. "What have I done?"
"I must have done something. You don't want me to touch you. You wouldn't even kiss me in the cave."
"I may be a cyborg, but I'm not a masochist, you know."
"I- There's nothing I want more than to touch you, to kiss you, but you're human- "
Blair shook his head. "Never mind. If you want to kiss me and touch me, why won't you? I have no objections!"
"Because one day you're going to want a human, and then where will I be?"
"Where you've been since the day you first opened your eyes and smiled at me. Right by my side. Except for the times when you were out of University, of course."
Jim scowled at him.
"Okay, so you don't like my sense of humor." Blair blew out a breath. "And as for this hypothetical human… I don't want him."
"Your Jim- "
"How many times do I have to tell you that you're my Jim?" As if he couldn't resist, Blair slid his arms around Jim.
Jim froze, vaguely aware that Blair had also become immobile. The contact was electrifying. He trembled with the force of it.
And it wasn't just him. Blair shook with it as well, moaning softly under his breath. His eyes were huge, the blue a thin ring around the pupil.
It was as if everything that was Jim poured into that bottomless space.
"Jim! What's happening?"
"I- I don't know!" He should panic, he supposed, but the warmth and love that was Blair seemed to envelope him, and all he wanted to do was wallow in pleasure he'd never before imagined.
He wound his fingers in Blair's hair and tugged his head back. Unafraid, Blair offered him his mouth.
"Always you, only you!" he whispered between kisses.
He heard the words Blair murmured, but he knew it would be just wishful thinking on his part. He loosened his hold on him and opened his eyes. Blair looked so blissful. Would he look like this after they'd made love?
He'd have to leave once Blair found the human he wanted more than he wanted Jim. He wouldn't be able to stay. Every look would reveal how much he loved Blair. Humans wouldn't want someone in their midst who was a cyborg lover. For Blair's sake, he'd have to leave.
"I'll let you go when-"
Blair's eyes flew open. "Would you stop being so goddammed altruistic? I'm never going to leave you!"
"You- " The words stuttered to a halt. "Your- your eyes!"
"What's wrong with my eyes? They're the same eyes I've had all my life!"
"They are, aren't they?" And they were filled, not with stars, but with 1s and 0s.
"I think you've done it." Lilith sauntered into the room, Eli cradled in her arms.
"Uh… " Blair turned to face her.
Jim tightened his hold on him. Even five minutes earlier he'd have released him, but that was then, and now he knew beyond a doubt that Blair was his, just as he was Blair's.
"What have we done?" Blair reached up absently to stroke Jim's shoulder, soothing him.
"You've bonded neurally."
"I heard what you said. What I want to know is how we could do that."
"You're the scientist." She smiled and shrugged. "You figure it out."
"… and there's a system that filters the air, so even if the surface air becomes lethal, we won't have a problem breathing it." Jim Ellison was pointing this out to the fems, but he was giving most of his attention to Alex.
"Really?" She looked fascinated.
"Technical things like that never mattered to her before." Blair exchanged glances with the J.I.M.
The J.I.M. shrugged.
"You're such a genius, Blair," Alex snapped, and it was obvious she didn't mean it as a compliment.
Ah. The beauty had a temper. Jim liked that. He'd always enjoyed a challenge. He thought fondly of Carolyn. She'd never made any effort to keep the sharp edge of her temper from him.
Most of the women who'd tried to attract him had never let him see anything other than their best sides. He was no fool, though. They'd wanted him for the sons he could give them. He was a proven, after all. The sons he'd had with Carolyn had been strong and had had his capabilities. And they were good looking, if he said so himself.
Of course he hadn't gone with any of the women, even after Carolyn could no longer have any more children and had said she wouldn't object. Her body language had told him otherwise, and so he'd politely declined all offers.
He didn't enjoy a challenge that much!
He brought his wandering thoughts back to the present, to find Blair and Alex still squabbling.
"Why didn't you come up with something like that at University?" Alex demanded.
"Because Eli was working on it." Blair gave a tired sigh. Poor boy. He'd had so much on his shoulders. "He told me he had it under control."
"And you believed him?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
She sniffed. "Well, obviously he didn't."
"And I'll always regret that I never insisted on taking over. I never saw how old and frail he'd become."
The J.I.M. growled and started to get to his feet. Blair touched his arm, and he sank back down into his seat.
"What happened at University?" Jim asked. He'd been tempted to go in search of it himself, but the weather had become too unpredictable: first the rains that were almost acidic, and then the winds that could scour a man's flesh from his bones.
"The biosphere started to fail, and when that happened, the occupants began to fail also."
"And you never questioned why you weren't affected?" Didn't everyone, but especially orphans, question their past?
"No. Naomi put a block in my mind so I'd never become curious about it. Once the neural bond between Jim and I was completed, I was able to access all the information that she felt I'd never need."
"But she still made sure you had it."
"She was a very clever woman. When we lived with Brackett's band, she never threw anything away." He chuckled. "She said doing that would guarantee we'd need it as soon as it was gone."
"So she wasn't really your mother."
"She was in every sense of the word, Jim Ellison."
Jim noticed that was the way Blair differentiated between him and the J.I.M., although that wasn't really necessary. Just the way Blair said 'Jim' when he was speaking to the cyborg made it obvious to Ellison he wasn't the one being addressed. He was pleased, however. He remembered the little boy who'd been so alone in spite of being in a camp filled with people.
"She cared for me, she loved me, she made sure I would survive," Blair continued, unaware that Jim's mind had wandered to a time long past. "And she gave me this." He tapped his forearm.
"You're her clone?" Alex huffed in indignation.
"Do I look like her?" He laughed at himself. "No, of course you wouldn't know, you never saw her."
"I saw a picture of her, Chief," the J.I.M. said.
Jim found it interesting that the cyborg had picked up on his nickname for Blair.
"In Dr. Stoddard's office. He called me down one time. He thought he was programming me to make sure I would always protect you." The J.I.M. laughed softly and reached for Blair's hand. "He didn't know that was unnecessary. From the first moment I opened my eyes and saw you, the only thing that mattered to me was that you were safe."
Color rose in Blair's cheeks, but apparently it wasn't from pleasure. "He tried to program you?"
"You know I'll allow no one else but you to do that."
"But he tried- "
"He was unable to remove my chip. So he looked into my eyes and gave me a stern warning: under no circumstances was I to allow anything to happen to you. And of course I won't."
They stared into each other's eyes, forgetting for a moment that they weren't alone.
Ah, to be young and in love, Jim thought. He glanced at Alex, pleased when he found her watching him. He winked, and she blushed.
It was going to be lonely here when they left.
"You were saying, Blair?"
"Hmm? Oh!" He cleared his throat. "Apparently the tissue that covers my skeleton was developed from hers, but I'm talking about the nanites she made sure were infused into my bone marrow. They proliferated, and I periodically shed the excess. You got some of them, Jim Ellison."
"When we were boys. You drank from my water skin."
"That's why I've lived so long?"
"Unless you have longevity in your genes, is there any other way to explain it?"
"And that's why the cyborgs I worked on became so much more than any of us expected."
"Eww. That means I need to be grateful to you for creating me?"
Jim could tell just by listening to Blair's heart rate that he was going to turn on Alex, and he really couldn't have blamed him.
Still, the last thing he wanted Blair to do was snap something like, 'I can pull your neural chip, Alex. Any time you're tired of existing, just let me know.'
"Children! Children!" Jim grinned.
Blair turned to him, still annoyed. "After we leave, would you mind returning Alex to University, Jim Ellison?"
He frowned. "You're not taking her with you?"
"She doesn't want to go."
"You'd condemn her to the wasteland that University will no doubt become?"
"It's her choice. She's been whining every step of the way that she wants to go back."
"Er… " Alex looked uncomfortable.
Jim glanced at her, and then frowned at Blair. "But the babies are hers. You'd take them away from her?"
"She merely incubated the embryos. And she was willing to give them up if we'd promise to let her return to University."
"This doesn't put you in a very good light, Dr. Sandburg."
"Don't say a single bad word about Blair!" The J.I.M. bounded to his feet and confronted him. "He's the one who- "
"Jim, no." Blair rested a soothing hand on his arm. "As soon as this storm stops, we'll be moving on, and it won't matter what Jim Ellison thinks of me."
"Alex, do you still wish to go to University?" Jim asked.
"I… " Jim turned to Blair. He felt as if he was biting into a lemon. "I apologize. And I must ask a favor. Will you permit me to join you?"
"Jim, you're leaving me here?"
"What? Alex, you said you wanted to go with them."
"No, I said I didn't want to go back to University."
Blair groaned. "You see what we've had to deal with?"
"Shush. Alex, what do you want to do?"
"I want to stay here with you."
"I'm an old man."
"You're a good man. You're the only one who's ever treated me like I was real and not some incubator whose only purpose was to bear humans."
"Alex!" Blair protested.
Lilith put her hand on his arm. "I think she'll be happier here with Jim Ellison."
"All right, fine. But she can't keep the- "
"I don't want them!" Alex cried shrilly. "I never wanted to be a mother!"
"What are you talking about?" Jim didn't like seeing Alex get so distraught.
"Blair, don't you dare tell him! You can have them, but don't – " She collapsed onto one of the seats and buried her face in her hands.
Jim knelt beside her, groaning a little as his knees creaked. "What is it, dear heart?"
"Jim, you're never going to want me when you realize what I am!"
"I know what you are, or more specifically, what you're not. And that's all right. I want you to stay with me anyway, if you wouldn't mind?"
"If I wouldn't- Oh, Jim!" She wrapped her arms around him.
"Oof!" Jim was afraid for a second that his ribs would crack, but Alex seemed to realize that and eased her hold on him.
"Thank you, Jim!"
"Well, we seem a little superfluous," Blair murmured.
"Let's go see if we can plan out a- "
"I think my babies are about to be born!"
"We'll handle this, Blair," Eve said. "Here, take Eli and Naomi."
The J.I.M. and Blair took the babies, and the fems helped Lilith to one of the bedrooms.
Blair frowned down at the baby he held. Eli was too young to have any coordinated movement, and he'd been assured that infants didn't smile, it was merely gas, but still the baby seemed to be smiling as he reached up and patted his cheek.
"What is it, Chief?"
"I think we may have to stay here until all the babies are born."
"Then we'll stay here. I don't think the Ellison will mind."
"Hmmm?" Jim Ellison lifted his head from Alex's.
Strange. He looked younger.
"Oh." He laughed. "Stay as long as you like!"
They stood on the outskirts of Cascade. The fems had each given birth to twins, and they'd created slings to hold one in front and one in back. Blair held a pair also. Only Jim was baby-free, since they depended on him to keep them safe.
And since they were unable to comfortably shoulder the backpacks, they'd built a cart to hold the backpacks and tents. It wouldn't be smart to sleep in the open.
"Are you sure we can't leave anything for you, Jim Ellison?" Blair asked.
"No. I have everything I need." He slid an arm around Alex. "You have the map I drew?"
"Yes." Although Jim wouldn't need it. He'd taken one look at it and had been able to plot the coordinates.
"All right. As I told you, my sons were heading south toward Seattle. That's the nearest deep water port. If there aren't any seaworthy ships there, you'll have to go further south. But will you be able to sail them?"
Blair exchanged grins with Jim and the fems. "We won't have a problem with them. As long as they're there."
"What?" He suddenly found himself whipped behind Jim. "What is it?"
Jim didn't respond, just yanked a rifle free of its scabbard on his back and aimed it at the huge black cat that strolled down the street toward them.
"Hey!" Ellison cried. Alex must have thrown him to the ground. She stood above him, holding the long knife she wore in a sheath on her thigh. "What the- No, no!" he shouted. "He's not a threat! Alex, he's not a threat!"
"What is it?"
"This is Enqueri. He's a jaguar." Ellison got to his feet and touched Alex's arm. "Put the knife away, please. Thank you. He's my friend."
The jaguar came up to him and butted his head against his hip, purring. Ellison ruffled the fur on Enqueri's head and tugged lightly on his ears.
"It's an old beast. See the gray on its muzzle?" Jim had relaxed but remained alert.
"This is an animal that lives primarily in South America." Blair studied the jaguar carefully. "How did he – Ah. His ancestors must have escaped from the Cascade Zoo."
Jim grinned. "He came down from the hills about fifteen years ago, and I fed him. He keeps the rodent population under control." His smile faded. "I was so alone."
"You won't be alone any more, Jim." Alex slid an arm around his waist and nuzzled his cheek.
Blair looked up at his Jim, a faint smile on his lips.
"All right, Chief." Jim smiled back. "We'd better go. Ready, ladies?"
They said their goodbyes, turned, and began to head south.
"Will they make it, Jim?" Alex asked.
"Yes, I believe they will."
"But if they can't find a ship?"
"Then they'll build one. Now come." He rested a hand on the jaguar's head and slid his other arm around her waist. "We want to show you around our city."
Seattle was a disappointment. The few ships that hadn't been pounded to splinters or crushed and flattened by the extreme waves had run aground, their bottoms slowly rotted out.
They stood some distance from the damaged piers and stared at the wreckage that littered what was left of the port.
"I'd really hoped Seattle had escaped the worst of it." Blair turned away, trying to hide his distress. He'd been so sure.
"There are other deep water ports," Jim said. "We'll just keep heading south."
But Portland had been flattened by an earthquake at some point, and the river that flowed through it to the ocean had been reduced to a swamp.
Coos Bay had been scoured smooth, and Humboldt Bay was just gone.
They finally lucked out in San Francisco, where they found a boatyard off a marina that was more or less intact.
Inside the storage shed was a dismantled yacht.
Blair let out a low whistle. "She's perfect!"
"Yes! We'd better see what her hull looks like."
Blair came up from below deck, a streak of grease across his cheek. "She's got a motor! If we can find fuel that hasn't been contaminated by condensation, we won't be completely at the mercy of the- Oof!"
Jim pulled him into an embrace and brushed his lips over Blair's. "I just want to throw you down and have my way with you!" he growled in Blair's ear.
"I believe we have work to do, 852." Lilith laughed.
"Don’t wash your face!"
After making sure she was sound, they cleaned off the years of accumulated dirt and grime – and to his delight, Blair often found himself being waylaid by Jim.
Finally they got the masts in place and rigged the sails.
"Should we rename her?" Jim had his arm around Blair's shoulders.
"No, Jim. It's considered bad luck."
"Yes, but… Tweedle Dum?"
"Someone liked it enough to christen her that." Blair ran a palm over Jim's ass. "Let's start loading the supplies."
While waiting to make sure the Tweedle Dum was seaworthy, they'd scoured the city and had come across stockpiles of freeze-dried meals, clothes, tools, and weapons. What had pleased the fems were what they'd found for the babies – diapers, material for clothes when what they wore was outgrown, needles and thread, boxes of picture books and primers and toys that would keep them amused for hours.
The day before they were to set sail, a wolf cub wandered into the marina.
"Can we take him with us, Jim?" Blair begged.
A few hours later, Jim was repeating the same words as a young jaguar sat on the pier and watched with mournful eyes.
The next morning, with everything and everyone on board, Blair weighed anchor, then joined Jim at the wheel.
Jim positioned Blair in front of him.
"I like this." Blair leaned back and nuzzled Jim's throat, knowing that once again he was shedding nanites, and that like a magnet, they were attracted to Jim, enforcing their neural bond.
"So do I. Where is everyone?"
"The fems are playing with the little ones in the pool."
"Can you imagine a pool on a yacht?"
"I can if it's as large as this one. Jim, do you think we'll find green in Australia?"
"If we don't, we'll just keep sailing until we do. I've been studying the data Eli uploaded to your laptop, and I think the earth is finally overcoming what man did to her. We'll be coming into a new cycle soon."
"I hope so. I'd like to give our little ones more than I grew up with; more than you've had to deal with." Blair sighed in pleasure as Jim dropped a kiss on his ear.
"I've charted a course for Hawaii. Hopefully we'll be able to restock and refuel there."
"And then it's on to Australia." Jim glanced down at him. "Will that work for you, Chief?"
Blue eyes met blue eyes. "Any destination is fine, as long as we're together."
Jim tightened his hold on him, turned the wheel slightly to correct the course, and smiled at the dolphins that flanked the Tweedle Dum.
Yes, as long as they were together.
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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Patt for the cover artwork.