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Episode 13: War of the Minds, Part I

Gabrielle and Zack spent a good portion of their night up working on the program, trying to increase its power and reduce its run-time. At five in the morning, they finally stopped, in the belief that it simply wasn't possible to do anything more to it.

"How long do you figure it's going to run now?" Zack asked her. He had spent the last hour working more on a script than on the program, leaving her to that, as she knew exactly what she was doing.

"Right now, it's going to depend on the complexity of the script."

"We've gone that far?"

"Yep."

"Well, let's try a simple relaxation script, then. I have to get some rest, or I'm going to be worthless today." Zack booted up his rejuvenation script, and readied it to run.

"What am I supposed to do for the next hour?" Gabrielle asked.

"This won't take an hour. Just fifteen minutes. I don't like using it, because I'm not sure what it'll do to the body if you used it all the time, but every once in a while, I just don't have any other good options. Like today. See you in a few."

Zack punched the Execute button, and was assaulted by the program. What had once been a rather beautiful and melodic experience was now anything but enjoyable. The sounds were brash and abrasive, and the visuals were causing his eyes to cross. But twelve and a half seconds later, he was under, immersed in the world of his mind.

Two of his unknown maidens approached him, and made his stay quite enjoyable. He was awakened by his mental climax.

"You look like you're in a good mood," Gabrielle said.

"Good dream," he replied, blushing. "You want to try it?"

"No, I think I'll get my rest the old-fashioned way, since you won't let me go with you."

"I told you, it's too dangerous. I don't want to give Adam another target."

"If he's paying attention at all, he already knows about me."

"But he may think you're just another girl. He probably doesn't realize the danger you represent to him. Look, take this stuff," Zack said, handing her a box with disks and a couple notebooks. "This is everything I've ever done with PAO. If I don't come back, the program is yours. I'd ask you to take care of my family, but other than that, just watch your back."

Gabrielle set the box down. "Do you really think this is that dangerous?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure what's going to happen when I lay out everything I know for him."

"Zack, please be careful," she said, and wrapped her arms around him. He kissed her, and they stayed in their embrace for some time.

-----

"Good morning, Lisa," Zack said to her as he approached her. She was waiting for him at the Martina Airpark, as he'd asked her to.
"Good morning," she said, neither congenially nor hostilely.

"Let's get going."

The two walked into the office, and asked the coordinator if anyone was heading north within the next hour.

"I can't give you that information son. I-" The man's sentence died off when Program Alpha-Omega assaulted him. Ten seconds later, the man shrugged three times.

"Now, once again. Is anyone heading to St. Louis, or further north, in the next hour?"

"Two choices." The man wrote down the information, and Zack took it and left.

"Do you do anything the old way?" she asked.

"Why would I?" he responded simply.

It didn't require using the program to hitch a ride to St. Louis, as the first pilot was more than willing to let them ride along. They climbed into the business jet and buckled in. They introduced themselves to the other two passengers, who nodded, but didn't reciprocate. Zack shrugged to himself, and then sat back, waiting for the flight to begin.

-----

Zack walked into the terminal at Mid-America airport. It wasn't St. Louis, exactly, but he was actually closer to where he was going now. He was surprised, as he entered the terminal, to find someone holding up a sign that said "Griffin".

Zack pulled out his PDA and walked over to the man. "Are you waiting for Zack Griffin?"

"Yes, sir," the man confirmed. "Adam sent me to take you into Belleville and find a hotel."

"Fair enough," Zack said. He quickly raised his PDA and hit Execute. It took only ten seconds, and the man shrugged three times.

Did Adam not protect his people from reprogramming? Or has he programmed them to act like it succeeded? Well, one quick way to check...

"Tell me Adam's last name."

"Sandalwood."

"Good. Take us into Belleville."

"Yes, sir."

-----

Zack checked into the hotel, and they settled in for just a few minutes.

"What do you want me to do?" Lisa asked.

"Check around, and find out what you can about Adamant Computers. Try to be somewhat discreet, but I need information."

"Okay. What will you be doing?"

"Confronting Adam."

"That could be dangerous."

"I know that."

Zack walked out the door and got back into the car that was waiting for him. The driver immediately pulled out and headed to Adamant Computers.

"Have you called Adam to tell him we're coming?"

"No."

"Do you have instructions to do so?"

"No."

"Interesting."

The rest of the ride progressed in silence, until they pulled up to the entrance of an office building, four stories high and quite modern. Zack was duly impressed. His PDA was already in his hands.

Zack walked into the building alone. The driver apparently also had no instructions to accompany him. Zack looked around quickly, and spotted a security guard. He walked over, and before the guard could even speak, Zack had begun the man's reprogramming.

"Where is Adam's office?"

"Third floor. Get off the elevator and take a right. It's at the end of the hall."

"Cute." Anyone would expect the CEO to be on the top floor. This made him harder for someone to attack.

"How well is this building covered by security cameras?"

"There is one in every room."

"Elevators?"

"No."

"Bathrooms?"

"Yes."

"Joy. Write down your contact information." The man took out a small notebook, wrote down some information, and handed it to Zack. Zack pocketed it, and walked toward the elevator. He was collecting the contact info for every person he enslaved. He might need them soon.

A young lady got on the elevator with Zack. "You work for Adam?" Zack asked.

"I'm a programmer," she replied. The next thing she saw was the bright flash of PAO. Zack knew he didn't have that much time to work.

Getting off on the third floor, Zack made his way to the left, intentionally getting the directions wrong. He spotted three cameras covering the hallway, so he knew he'd have to be careful.

Entering the first office he came to, he saw two people discussing code on a whiteboard.

"Can we help you?" the one guy asked calmly. He and his colleague were soon ensnared.

Zack figured he'd just about pushed his luck as far as it could go. He made his way back down toward Adam's office, and then went in.

"Can I help you, young man?" the middle-aged woman at the desk asked. He knew she'd been chosen for her looks, because despite her age, she was still hot. He controlled his urges, however.

"I need to see Adam. My name is Zack Griffin."

"I'm afraid you need an appointment, sir," she replied.

"He'll see me. Just ask him."

The woman cocked an eyebrow at him, but then got up from her desk. Just as she did, another man came into the office. She turned and greeted him.

"Hello, Mr. Chalmers. The directors meeting has been moved back to three o'clock this afternoon."

"Just great. Thanks, Betty," the guy grumbled. As Betty turned to go into Adam's office, Zack took his biggest chance yet. He turned his back to Adam's door, and he aimed his PDA at Mr. Chalmers. The guy turned instinctively to see what this kid was doing, and soon was under Zack's control. He hastily scribbled his information on a notepad and handed it over, then was on his way.

"Adam will see you now," Betty said. She ushered Zack into the office, and closed the door behind him. Zack looked around the large office, which actually had a conference table on one side of it, away from Adam's desk. The room was more high-tech than opulent, though the luxuries were still there.

"You seem to be missing something," Adam said sternly.

Zack looked himself over theatrically. "Nope, all my parts are here."

"Where is Terry? I told you that I wanted her back."

"I can't give you what I haven't got," Zack said. "Not really why I came here, anyway."

Adam glanced at him. He pushed a button and said, "William, come in here a minute."

Zack waited while William came to the office. William glared somewhat at Zack, but didn't say anything. Apparently he had not forgotten his Aikido lesson.

"So, Zack. Why are you here, if not to bring back Terry Meuller?"

Zack began to pace, as he often did while thinking. He began to speak, slowly as he worked through his thoughts. "Well, the thing is this: I've gotten some hints of just exactly what it is you plan to do with the program. What I'm hearing is very disturbing to me."

"Why don't you tell me what you've heard, and I'll try to put your fears to rest?" Adam said.

"I know about the map," Zack said simply.

Adam cocked an eyebrow, and then smiled. He pushed a button under his desk, and a wall panel rolled to one side, revealing the map.

"You mean this one? This is nothing to fear."

Zack stepped closer and looked at the map. It was exactly as it had been described. He noted the number of blue pins in Martina had been reduced from two to one. Zack looked at all the shading, and the legend.

"You're trying to tell me that I shouldn't be worried that you want to control the entire country." Zack's voice dripped with disbelief.

"Well... I don't like to say 'control'. Just influence, really."

"Influence them into giving you whatever you want, whenever you want, for however long you want."

"Well... yeah."

"That's control."

"Semantics..."

"What is it you want? What could you possibly want that would both require your control of the entire country, and not be worrisome to me?"

"Look, Zack. Don't get all righteous on me now. I know what you've been up to. I know about the flashy new car and the nice house. Your hands aren't clean..."

"I never said they were. But the number of people I'm trying to control is limited. What's your limit?"

"About 280 million," Adam quipped. Zack was not amused.

"So I ask again. What do you want?"

"I don't think you have a right to know that, Zack."

"I already know. I know that you have Presidential aspirations. You plan to remake the country into your own weird image."

"It'll be better off," Adam replied.

"For whom?" Zack demanded.

"Well, me, of course. But truthfully, do you believe the country runs well now? I surely can't hurt it that much more than what's currently happening to it, can I?"

"I'm sure you'd find a way."

"Look, Zack, what do you want?"

"I just want to live a nice life. I'll tell you what I don't want. I don't want any part of your little scheme."

"You could always emigrate," William suggested.

Zack glared at him.

Adam stood up, and walked around the desk toward Zack. Zack tensed.

"I'm not sure where you're getting your information from, Zack, but it's flawed. I'm not some evil monster trying to turn the country into a dictatorship. I just want... what you want. A nice life."

"Yeah. Right. I think it's time that we went our separate ways," Zack said.

Adam sighed heavily. He turned back to his desk, and then sat on the front edge of it. "Okay. Let's lay out exactly what that means. What do you want me to do?"

"Don't suppose I can get you to stop your little campaign, hmm?" Zack asked. He had no expectation of a positive answer, but he had to ask.

"Uh, no. No, I can't see that happening."

"Fine. Then what I want is for you to stay out of Martina, and to leave me and my family and friends and town alone."

"Have I intruded on your space before?" Adam queried.

"I know Linda was your operative," Zack said.

Adam nodded. "Okay, fair enough. I wanted to keep an eye on you, in case you were plotting against me. Call me paranoid, but you can't begrudge a guy a little security, can you?"

"I want your guarantee that you will send no more people to spy on me."

Adam thought for a long moment, then said, "Agreed."

"Fine. I don't think we've got anything more to talk about."

"There is still the matter of the cost of the equipment you've been given," William said.

"Which is easily balanced by the value of the programming work I've done for this company," Zack shot back.

Adam waved William off. "It's okay, William. The company can absorb the cost. Is there anything more you require to close out our arrangement?"

"Yeah, one thing. A PDA programmer."

"You realize that those devices are hardwired to report to us, don't you?" William asked. "You are essentially nullifying everything you've just said."

"I know how to get around your little tracking protocol."

"You've never been able to before..."

"Haven't I? Are you sure you've been getting accurate readings?" Zack said, smiling in such a way that William shivered.

"Interesting. Anyway, William will give you a PDA programmer. After that?"

"After that, I don't want to hear from you ever again."

"Agreed."

Adam walked over to shake Zack's hand. Zack looked at him for a very long moment before reaching out and shaking hands with him. Then Zack followed William out of the room and down the hall. In a small, empty office, William opened a cabinet to retrieve a PDA programming device.

Zack could not resist the opportunity. He knew that William was one of Adam's chief lieutenants. As William turned around, device in hand, Zack pressed Execute.

William actually jolted, and he twitched twice during the program's run, but he shrugged three times when the program finished up, ten seconds later.

"Who is your master?" Zack asked.

"You are," William replied.

"If anyone else asks, who is your master?"

"Um... you?"

"Wrong. If anyone else asks, your master is Adam. However, if you receive conflicting orders from him and me, you will obey my orders. Is that clear?"

"Yes."

"Good. Give me that." William handed over the device. "Now I guess you would show me the door. Let's go."

Three minutes later, Zack was escorted out of Adamant Computers. He felt confident that he had a grasp on his future.

∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼

Zack was slightly disoriented when he woke the next morning. He was used to his own bed, and this one wasn't nearly as comfortable. He groaned, and then rolled over. That's when he remembered who was in bed with him.

Lisa was still asleep, her back turned to him. She had not been hostile to him, but she was clearly not happy, either. He wondered how long he should let her suffer before fixing it so she was happy with things, but he didn't really have an answer for that. Looking at her naked back, however, was making him horny.

Zack slid over, gently pressing his body against hers, his cock pressing against her ass. He slid his hand along her side, pulling the covers down to her waist. Now that her breasts were exposed, he slipped his hand onto one and cupped it gently, tweaking her nipple with his finger.

Lisa mewed softly in her sleep, her body enjoying Zack's attention. He continued to massage her tit, making her nipple hard. He leaned in and ran his tongue along her earlobe, and she giggled in her sleep. He could tell she was rising to wakefulness, though.

After a few more moments, Zack heard her inhale sharply, and knew that she was awake.

"Good morning," he said softly, squeezing her breast.

"Hi," she said. She wasn't friendly about it, but she arched her back and pushed her tit into his hand. She could feel his hard-on pressing against her butt cheek, and she was pressing her ass back into him at the same time.

"Did you sleep well?" he asked.

"Fine," she replied, with a soft sigh. She wriggled her body, then asked, "What are we going to do today? Are we going back to Martina?"

"No. We need to do some snooping, to find out more about Adam's company."

"That's going to be tough to do on a Sunday," she warned.

"I know. We'll do what we can. We'll probably stay through tomorrow, so we can get into government offices and such."

"I see," she said, pressing herself back into him. "What do you want me to do today, then?"

"Right now," he said, squeezing her breast again, "I want you to suck my dick."

Zack moved his hand as Lisa rolled over to face him. She let her hand slide down his body, going beneath the covers to encircle his hard cock. She smiled at the thought of it as she began to ease herself down the bed, moving toward his waist.

As Lisa moved, she exposed Zack's cock to her view. It was hard and nearly pulsing with arousal. She bent down and sucked the head of it into her mouth, causing Zack to groan with pleasure. She wasted not a second, but began to slide her lips immediately down his shaft, engulfing as much of him as she could. Then, she started to bob her head, sucking him furiously.

Zack was lost to the pleasure. Her mouth was exquisite, and he closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensations. Lisa sucked his prick energetically, her head bouncing faster and faster on his pole. Zack was grunting his warning in no time, but she didn't seem to notice. She barely slowed down as he gave her a final warning, then unleashed a torrent of cum into her mouth. Once she felt the creamy substance hit her tongue, she slowed her pace, and swallowed it all when he was done. But she kept sucking him, even after his orgasm.

Zack was still trying to regain his breath after coming, and he didn't have the energy to tell Lisa to stop, so he simply let her go on with what she was doing. In only a few seconds, he was fully hard again.

Zack had little time to register Lisa's movements, but she sat up, straddled him, and then impaled herself on his cock in just a few seconds. Zack grunted loudly as she began to slide her cunt down on his prick, and then she started to bounce gently on him.

When Zack had finally regained his breath, he said, "I don't remember telling you that you could do that."

"Do you want me to stop?" she asked pointedly.

"Um... no, I think I'll let you get away with it... this time."

Lisa smiled and began bouncing more vigorously on his pole. Zack put his hands on her hips and began to thrust back up at her, moving in time with her rhythm.

Lisa was quickly rising to her own peak, but just as she was arriving, Zack stopped her movements. She groaned in frustration, but Zack didn't care. He pulled her down on top of him and rolled, so that he was on top. Rising to his knees, he started to thrust inside her.

Lisa was quickly screaming out her orgasm, lost to the pleasure she was feeling. It lasted for a long time, and Zack wondered how she could stand it. Finally, she started to subside, but Zack didn't stop fucking her. He eased off for a moment, but he continued to move inside her.

Finally, when Lisa's orgasm was fully past, he pulled out of her. She sighed at the loss of his cock, but she should have known he wasn't done with her. He rolled her over onto her stomach, and had her get up on her hands and knees. He moved in behind her, but she was not ready when he pressed his cockhead to her asshole.

"I've never been ass-fucked," she said quickly.

"There's a first time for everything," he replied. He pushed in slowly, not wanting to damage her. Slowly, her ass stretched to admit his prick, and then the head of his cock was inside her. She groaned as he continued to slowly push forward until he was halfway inside her. He pulled back out slowly, and then back in, making it a little further.

Lisa was moaning loudly now. She had not realized how wonderful this would feel, only aware that it was going to hurt some. The pain was there, but was so overshadowed by the pleasure that she barely noticed. Zack started to stroke into her ass, moving slowly at first, but picking up speed as she relaxed. He reached forward and pulled her up against him. Her back was arched, and he groped her tits as he continued to fuck her ass. Lisa was lost in pleasure.

It had been a while since Zack had reamed anyone's ass, and he was really enjoying Lisa's. He started to thrust harder and faster as he felt his orgasm approaching. He knew she wouldn't come with him, but he didn't care. He was pinching her nipples now, and ramming into her as hard as he could. She was grunting and moaning and crying out in pleasure.

Finally, Zack loosed his cum deep into her bowel. The hot cum filling her ass sent her senses into overload, and she screamed out, an intense orgasm washing over her. Zack was surprised, but he could do little more than finish up his own climax, and then gently lower her to the bed as her body wriggled and shivered in the throes of orgasm.

He went to the bathroom to wash up, while she slipped slowly back into sleep, having the most wonderful dreams.

-----

"You sure Zack won't mind us going out?" Angela asked.

Steph shook her head. "He said I was in charge, and that if I wanted to do something, that was okay with him. I want to go shopping."

"Good enough for me!" Jill said with a smile. The three girls got in Stephanie's car and drove out. They didn't notice the station wagon following them.

-----

"Hello, ladies," a middle-aged man said to the three girls. They were sitting in the food court at the mall, enjoying lunch.

"Who are you?" Stephanie asked suspiciously.

"No one important. I just needed you to look at something. It should only take a second." The man held up a PDA, and it began displaying a strange sequence of colors and playing an eerie melody. Stephanie stared at it, but when it finished, a half-minute later, she shrugged.

"So what?" she asked.

"Do you like it?" the man asked, covering himself. He wasn't sure what was wrong, but he had his orders.

"Not really."

"What about you two?" he asked the others. He displayed it again for them. Neither of them was at all affected by it. They shook their heads.

"It's dull. What's it for?" Jill asked.

"I'm afraid I can't discuss that. Anyway, thank you for your time. I won't trouble you further. Have a nice day."

As the guy walked away, Steph said, "Well, that was creepy."

The other two agreed, but Angela stared after the guy. "Still," she said, "I can't help feeling like I've seen him somewhere before."

"Where?"

"I don't know. Oh well, it's not important. Where to next?" she asked, getting back to their lunch.

-----

"Are the three of you all right?" Zack asked with concern.

"Yes, Master, we're fine," Stephanie assured him over the phone. "He didn't do anything except play the program, then leave."

"Do you know who he is?"

"No. Angela said he looked familiar to her, but she couldn't figure out from where."

"Okay. It's not important for now. If she remembers, let me know. Anything else going on?"

"Just the usual," she said. "I miss you, Master."

"I'll be home on Tuesday. Promise."

"Okay. Take care of yourself. Don't let that Lisa woman wear you out!"

Zack laughed. "I'll try not to. Tell everyone I said hi. Talk to you later."

Zack hung up, and looked over at Lisa, who was still naked. They hadn't yet left the hotel room.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"I'm not supposed to let you wear me out," he replied. Lisa grinned.

"I'm the one who's tired," she said with a yawn.

"Yeah, but you should get dressed now. It's time to go eat."

"'kay."

∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼

"Hey. What can I get ya?"

"I'll have eggs over easy, sausage, and orange juice."

"Coming right up," the waitress assured him.

Zack sat back and looked out the window. Belleville was a nice enough city, but it held a monster in its midst. Zack wondered just exactly what else Adam would try. He had sent Lisa off to try to find out. She had the reporter's instincts for digging up dirt. Zack would take a more pedestrian approach.

When the waitress came back with his food, he said, "Thanks. Say, do you know anything about Adamant Computers?"

The woman's look was immediately guarded. "Why do you ask?"

Zack shrugged. "Trying to find work. I was wondering if they were hiring, what their industry focus was, that kind of thing."

"You're kind of young to be 'looking for work', aren't you?"

"Just got out of college. I'm older than I look."

"All I know about Adamant is that they're very secretive. I'm told you have to sign all kinds of secrecy forms when you go in that place."

"Really? Do they work on military contracts or something?"

"I don't know, and I don't want to know. The less anyone has to do with Adamant, the better." She walked off, leaving him to eat his breakfast and ponder her words.

So, Adam has worked to establish a reputation in this city. And it's one of fear. That could be useful, somehow... but I'm not sure how.

He ate his breakfast while he mulled over the situation.

-----

"So what did you find out?" Zack asked Lisa. He'd not found out anything terribly useful during his day, except that people were afraid to talk about Adamant Computers.

"The company has been in operation for the last eight years. They hold several consulting contracts with some pretty big corporations, but nobody you'd have heard of."

"Any government contracts?"

"They are the central computer supplier for Scott Air Force Base."

"Hmm. Anything else?"

"Not that I've found on that front. The company has several confidential agreements with other local and not-so-local companies to provide 'services'. That's all the paperwork says about them."

"Damn. How far away is 'not-so-local'?"

"Texas."

"Shit. Anything else?"

"They have applied for six patents in the last two years. One of those patents has been classified for national security purposes."

"I'd bet that's the program."

"Probably."

"Go on."

"They have a standing arrangement with two martial arts schools in St. Louis, and a security firm in Cahokia, Illinois. The place is well protected."

"I figured. Anything else?"

"Not that I've been able to ascertain so far."

"Okay, good work."

The pair were sitting outside a frozen custard shop, discussing the company. Having finished her report, Lisa wanted to get something to eat. She got up and left the table to walk to the outside counter.

Zack paid little attention as a car pulled into the parking lot. He saw it, but dismissed it, until the window rolled down. He saw what was happening, but could not react fast enough to do anything. The shot was fired, and the car sped off. Zack didn't think to get the license number of the car, but instead ran to Lisa...

But that was a losing game. The shot had hit her in the head, and there was enough blood on the asphalt to tell him there was exactly zero chance of her survival.

Zack began to shake, and he went back to the table to sit, before he fell down. He knew that there was no mistaken identity involved here; Adam had ordered the death of Zack's information source. What he didn't understand is why Adam didn't go directly for Zack.

You son of a bitch. If I win this little fight, you are so going to regret it.

-----

Three hours later, Zack walked back into his room at the hotel. The police had questioned him endlessly. He had stated - accurately - that he had no idea who the people in the car were. He did not tell them that he believed Adam Sandalwood to be responsible for the killing; that would have only caused him more grief. He chose not to use PAO, instead relying on simply keeping his mouth shut.

Zack was still shaking, but now he was shaking with anger. He would respond to this, but first, he had to check in with his family.

"Hey, Sweetheart," his mother said on the other end of the phone.

"Hi, Mom. How are you?"

"I'm fine, Honey. Everything okay up there?"

"No, not really. Something's happened. I'm okay, but it's pretty serious. I want you to tell everybody to keep their eyes open. In fact, it might be good if you didn't leave the house until I get back."

"Okay, Sweetheart... what's going on?"

"Hard to explain, but there is real danger here. Lisa just got shot."

"My word! Is she okay?"

"Not unless someone redefines 'dead'," he replied sarcastically.

"Zack! Are you hurt? Is this-"

"Mom, I'm fine. They weren't even shooting at me. I think it might have been Adam trying to send a message. Anyway, just watch yourselves. I'll be back home tomorrow, around noon."

"Okay, Sweetheart. I love you."

"I love you, too, Mom. Talk to you later."

Zack hung up the phone, and then sat for a few minutes.

"So you want to play hardball?" he asked the air. "Two can play that way."

Zack knew he couldn't go around shooting people, but he also knew that the death of a person wouldn't mean much to Adam, anyway. There was, however, something that would.

Zack picked up the phone and started dialing.

-----

Two hours later, Zack met the two programmers he had enslaved at the front door to the building. In a few seconds, the guard he'd enslaved unlocked the door from the inside to let them in. All three of these people had been called in by Zack, to do what they were now doing.

"I need access to the computer where Program Alpha-Omega is being developed," he told the two programmers.

They escorted him to the second floor, and into an office.

"This is it?" he said in disbelief.

"This is the server it's on. The computers out in the lab merely connect to this machine."

"What do you want to do?" the other programmer asked.

"I want to input this virus," Zack said, holding up a disk.

"You know there are backups," the first programmer said.

"I know, but how recent are they?"

"We make new backups every two weeks."

"When was the last one?"

"Last Monday."

"So he loses a full week of data. That's good enough."

The second programmer booted up the system into an administrator account. Zack inserted the CD, and then executed the commands. The virus attached itself to several programs, and waited for them to be executed.

Zack executed one of them.

Five minutes later, Zack was leaving the building. It would be several hours before his mischief was noticed. He would be on a plane by then. He decided to head directly to the airport. He would be back in Martina by sunrise.

∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼

Zack woke up around noon, and stretched. He had arrived back in Martina at five o'clock, ridden his bike home and then gone directly to bed. He had missed two days of class now, but he figured what was going on around him was significantly more important. He would make up the class work.

Around one o'clock, the doorbell rang. Mary answered it, to find Gabrielle standing there. She came in, and saw Zack, going immediately to him and giving him a hug.

"I'm glad you're back safe," she said.

He smiled at her, and said, "For the moment, anyway. Anything happen around here while I was gone?"

"No."

"Good. C'mon upstairs, and we can talk."

She followed him up to his bedroom, and he closed the door. She sat on the bed, and then he told her everything that had happened over the weekend. When he was done, she sighed.

"There's going to be trouble."

"Yeah, I know," he said. "That's why I want you to back out now. He doesn't know how dangerous you are yet, and I'd like to keep it that way. Just pretend I don't exist, until I get this taken care of."

"You know I'm not going to do that. We're in this together."

"This isn't funny, Gabrielle. This could get us both killed."

"I'm aware of that," she replied. "But you need me. Let's face it: you weren't making nearly as much progress without me."

Zack had to admit this was true. "I just don't want you to get hurt," he said softly.

Gabrielle stood up and walked over to him, and wrapped her arms around his neck. "I know. And I don't want to see you hurt, either. That's why someone's got to have your back. That someone is me."

She ended the dispute by pressing her lips gently to his and kissing him for a long moment. Zack rubbed his hands across her back, holding her tightly against himself. He knew she could feel his hardening cock pressing against her leg.

As the couple continued to kiss, Zack reached down and pulled the hem of Gabrielle's shirt up, letting his hands slide across the smooth skin of her back. His hands traveled up her back, and as they reached her bra, he took the opportunity to unhook that, as well. She moaned into his mouth, encouraging him to continue what he was doing.

Zack finished undoing her bra, then moved his hands up further. Finally, they had to part so that he could finish removing her shirt. She lifted her arms, and he pulled the shirt and bra off her body, letting them fall unceremoniously to the floor. He let his eyes travel down her body, enjoying the sight of her curves. Leaning in, he began to kiss her neck. Gabrielle sighed at the feel of his lips on her body, and ran her fingers through his hair.

Zack continued to move downward with his lips, kissing and licking as he went. Finally, his tongue circled her areola, teasing her as he got closer and closer. Finally, his tongue slipped across her nipple, and she groaned out loud. He began to suck on her nipple, and his other hand moved up to fondle her other breast. Gabrielle arched her back, pressing her tit into his mouth and hand, and Zack's other hand rested on her lower back, pulling her more tightly to him.

The two stayed like that for some time, Zack switching back and forth between her breasts while Gabrielle moaned and toyed with his hair. Finally, Zack let his hands drop lower, and he unfastened her jeans, pushing them to the floor. Gabrielle worked her feet to pull off her shoes, and then her pants. Meanwhile, Zack pushed her panties off her hips, and they were soon removed with everything else.

Zack stood up and led the now-nude Gabrielle over to the bed. He gently laid her down on it, and then he knelt. He parted her legs gently, and leaned in. As his tongue contacted her pussy lips, Gabrielle groaned loudly and arched her back. Zack licked up and down lightly, avoiding her clit for the moment. He could see that she was very moist already, and so he stiffened his tongue and pressed it against her hole. He could feel her pussy contracting against him as his tongue made its way inside her. He wiggled the end of it a little, and Gabrielle mewled.

As Zack began to slide his tongue in and out of her opening, he reached up to play with her tits. Gabrielle was rolling her hips, lost in the pleasure of what Zack was doing to her. She was moaning and panting now, her heat rising toward climax.

Zack knew she was getting close. He pulled his tongue free of her pussy, and moved it up to flick across her clit. As he repeated this over and over, Gabrielle's heat rose quickly. She was soon writhing on the bed, right on the verge of orgasm.

Zack wrapped his lips around Gabrielle's clit, and began to suck, hard. This was more than she could stand, and she screamed out in joy, her body wracked with spasms, her orgasm washing over her like a flood. Her juices poured forth and coated Zack's chin, but he didn't stop sucking on her clit until she started to come down from her high, which took quite some time.

Zack stood up and looked down at her. Her chest was heaving with every breath, and that was very entertaining to watch. She smiled up at him, but was incapable of words yet. He went into the bathroom, and she heard water running, but he was soon back in the bedroom.

As he started to remove his clothing, she watched intently from her spot on the bed. He didn't make a show of it, and so he was quickly naked, his hard cock standing proud. She felt her pussy tingle at the thought of it inside her.

Zack reached down to take her hand, and he helped her to her feet. She pressed herself against him, trapping his hard dick between them. He kissed her softly, and then stepped back. He led her into the bathroom, where the shower was finally heating up. He reached in and tested the water before he motioned her inside.

Gabrielle stepped into the shower, letting the hot water run over her body. She loved the feel of it, and turned all the way around to let it coat her whole being. Zack stepped in and closed the shower door, and then came to her. He pulled her against him, his cock still hard as iron and ready for her. Zack moved her over to the side of the shower, and told her to put one foot up on the shower seat.

Once Gabrielle was where he wanted her, Zack reached over and positioned the shower head so that it would wash over her and keep her warm. Then he turned back to her and embraced her body. His cock slipped between her legs, and he felt it run across her pussy lips. She gasped at the feel of it, and smiled at him.

Zack reached down and positioned himself, then pressed forward. His cock slid easily into Gabrielle's well-lubricated pussy. She moaned at the feel of his cock filling her up. He slid in all the way to his balls, and then rested for just a moment. She let him, staring deep into his eyes and smiling encouragement.

Zack began to slide in and out, not moving rapidly. He ran his hands across her back and sides, caressing her everywhere he could reach. He massaged her ass, pulling against her to force himself further into her. She groaned when he did so, enjoying the feel of him inside her.

Zack started to thrust faster as his own pleasure built. He grunted with each thrust, the cum beginning to boil in his balls. Gabrielle's pussy began to squeeze his cock with each thrust, as she tried to pull his climax from him.

With just a few more thrusts, Zack went over the edge, and his cum spewed deep into Gabrielle's pussy, filling her up. He groaned loudly in pleasure as each spasm washed over him, causing his whole body to tingle.

Zack slumped against Gabrielle for a moment as his orgasm subsided. She held onto him, caressing his back and feeling his dick shrinking within her. She moved her foot to the floor, causing him to slip out of her, but that was okay for the moment. She set him down on the shower seat, and moved the shower head to wash him off a bit.

Gabrielle knelt down in front of Zack, and started to lick his balls. He looked down at her in surprise, but she paid no attention. She took each of them into her mouth, and sucked on them gently. After a while, when she felt his sensitivity had subsided, she released his balls, and began to lick his shaft.

Zack sighed in pleasure as Gabrielle's tongue worked him over. She licked up and down his pole repeatedly. Finally, she took the head of his dick into her mouth, and began to suck on it. Zack grunted at the feel of it, and it didn't take all that long before he was fully hard again.

Gabrielle didn't release him then, but she stopped sucking. She bobbed her mouth on his prick, making sure he was good and hard. Finally, she let him loose, and stood up.

"Can you stand?" she asked with a smile.

"I think so," he replied, grinning at her.

She turned her back to him and bent over, putting her hands on the wall. This pushed her ass out, giving him ready access to her pussy.

Zack got the idea, and rose from the seat. He moved in behind her, and pressed his cockhead to her opening. He slipped in just as easily as before, burying himself fully inside her in one smooth stroke.

"You don't have to be so gentle this time," she said to him. "I loved that, but right now, I need something more... vigorous."

Zack chuckled, and he ran his hands up her sides. "Okay," he said, "here it comes."

Zack grabbed hold of her hips, and began to thrust in and out of her. He pulled her back into him as he pushed forward, shoving his prick as deeply into her as he could. She was quickly grunting with each thrust.

Zack leaned forward and then reached up and grabbed her tits, which were swinging with each thrust. He groped them strongly, pinching her nipples and tugging on them. Gabrielle squealed and moaned with his movements, her heat rising again.

After a while, Zack stood back up, thrusting harder into her pussy. She grunted louder as he moved faster. He gave her a couple light smacks on the ass, and she muttered some encouragements.

Taking a chance, Zack reached down and put his hand on the crack of her ass. He bent his thumb and pressed it against her asshole. At first, she cringed, but then she relaxed, letting him do whatever he wanted.

Zack pressed his thumb into her ass as he continued to thrust into her. In a few seconds, his thumb was fully inside her. He picked the pace back up, wiggling his thumb in time with his thrusts.

Gabrielle was very quickly on the brink of orgasm this way. Her pussy was squeezing and grasping at Zack's cock, trying to milk him. The pleasure this caused was pushing him to the edge, as well. The two bucked against each other, moving closer and closer to climax.

Gabrielle was the first to go, screaming out her ecstasy and bucking wildly against Zack. The movements of her pussy on his dick were too much for him to take, and he loosed his seed into her once more. He grunted as his hips rocked out of his control. It was long moments before either of them came down from their high.

Finally, Zack became more coherent, and he slipped out of Gabrielle's pussy. She was still twitching from her orgasm, and she cried out one last time as he slowly pulled his thumb from her ass. He washed himself off while waiting for her to regain her senses. She leaned against the wall, and finally turned around to face him, resting her back against the cool tile.

"That was intense," she said with a grin.

"Yeah," he replied. It was about all he could say.

"That thumb thing... we're gonna have to do that again. Or maybe I need to try out your cock up there."

"I'm game when you are," he assured her.

"You done it before?"

"A few times, yeah."

"'kay. Can I take a nap, now?" she said.

Zack laughed. "Sure. Dry off first, though, or you'll get chills."

"I've already got chills, thanks to you!" she said. She pushed herself off the wall, and kissed him passionately.

It was several hours before they ever left the bedroom.

∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼

"I want that sonofabitch dead!" Adam screamed. "And you find out who helped him, and I want them in my office. Today! We've lost a week because of that kid!"

William kept his cool. "Sir, are you sure that's the best course of action to take in this situation? We might need him yet."

"Listen to me, you bastard. If any of you were half as smart as you led me to believe you were, we wouldn't be relying on a goddamned teenager to make the program work! You're in no position to offer advice!"

"Yes, sir. What would you have me do?"

"Contact our operative in Martina. Tell him to hire whatever help he needs, but that I want Zack Griffin dead by the end of the day! And BRING ME TERRY MEULLER!"

"Understood, sir."

"MOVE!"

William hurried out of the room.

-----

Zack stretched in his lounge chair, enjoying the sun that poured in through the glass roof. Since the family had discovered the joys of owning a pool, they had spent a lot of their time in the pool room, usually with the glass panels open, accessing the back yard for grilling and just generally enjoying the summer.

Zack watched as Wendy dove in, swimming beneath the water. He enjoyed looking at her body as it moved. He looked around at the other girls, as well. Mary and Sharon were by the grill chatting. Stephanie and Beverly were dangling their feet in the pool. Jill was sunbathing. Angela was in the chair next to him, asleep. Shirley and Terry were in the yard, tossing a Frisbee. Brian, Pam and Bonnie weren't home at the moment; they'd gone off to get supplies. Gabrielle was currently inside taking a shower. She'd spent the night, and she wanted to be clean before she got in the pool.

Zack laid back and closed his eyes, enjoying the sunshine. He felt he'd earned this day off.

Little did he know that he was being watched once again. Very close to the spot that Lisa Dunham had once crouched was another stranger. This one had a cellphone, and placed a call. The recipient of that call was in a car down the block. Once the call was made, two men emerged from the car and began to walk toward the Griffin house.

-----

The two men walked quickly and purposefully to the gate leading to the back yard of the Griffin home. They opened the gate and moved through it, moving in step and rapidly walking around the corner of the house.

Terry, who was still playing Frisbee with Shirley, saw the two men come around the corner. She knew that something was wrong by the fact they'd not rung the doorbell, and by the look on their faces.

"Zack, visitors," she called out. This alerted everyone, but they all waited to see what Zack was going to do.

Zack got up out of his chair, grumbling at who would interrupt his day like this. He walked out of the pool room, and into the yard, facing the two approaching men.

As soon as they saw Zack, the two men reached into their jackets in unison. They were still twenty yards or more away, but that didn't stop them. They pulled out their pistols and took aim, firing as soon as they could.

Zack had seen them reach into their jackets, and known that movement for what it was. "Oh, shit!" he uttered, and was moving back for the house as soon as he could. They got off two shots, anyway, before he was under cover.

"Everyone in the house! Go, go, go!" He ignored the frightened screams of a couple of the girls as he herded them all into the house as fast as he could. Shirley and Terry were behind him, and they all ran into the house. The men had started walking more quickly, but didn't know the layout of the house, so didn't want to run into something unexpected.

A few of the girls broke away, but most stayed with Zack as he headed for the front of the house. He stopped in the living room, unsure. He didn't want to go out the front door, figuring there were probably more armed men waiting there to ambush them. He stalled, looking back and forth. The other girls in the room looked to him for advice.

"Get down behind something. Hide."

Everyone ducked behind cover of some kind, waiting for the attack.

-----

Shirley and Terry had not followed Zack, but had ended up in the kitchen instead. While Terry shivered and tried to figure out what to do, Shirley looked around. She grabbed the best weapon she could find, and moved back toward the back hallway.

The two men made their way through the pool room and entered the back hall. The space was crowded, so they could not stand side by side. Shirley let the first one go by as she hid just inside the butler's pantry, but just as the second gunman was about to move past, she stepped out and swung with all her might.

The cast-iron skillet she was wielding connected soundly with the side of the man's head. Her swing carried all the force she could muster, and her aim was dead-on. The man's head snapped over sharply, and the bones cracked. He slumped against the wall, and then slid down it to the floor.

Unfortunately, the man in front was alert, and turned as soon as he heard the sound of cast iron hitting bone. He saw Shirley, and raised his gun. A single bullet left his gun and entered her skull from the side, exploding her brains out of her head and onto the wall. She fell like a marionette with its strings cut.

The man turned around and continued his search for his target.

-----

The girls screamed at the loud report of the gun fired in the house. Zack swore, knowing that couldn't mean good news. He still didn't know what to do, had no clue how to beat these bastards. He still stood in the middle of the living room, not able to take his own advice to hide because he was trying to work out how to win.

The remaining gunman advanced through the house without further challenge. He looked into each room, making sure no one was hiding there to attack him from behind. It didn't take him long to reach the living room, where he saw his target standing in the open.

-----

The world seemed to move in slow motion.

The man lifted his gun to fire.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement from across the room.

His finger depressed the trigger. The gun jerked in his hand.

The bullet exited the barrel of the gun; it could not possibly miss at this distance.

His ears finally reported someone screaming in anger and rage.

His vision reported that his target was no longer visible; another person was standing in the way.

He saw the bullet enter her body. He saw her body shake from the impact. She staggered backward, and fell against his target.

-----

"Steph!" Zack screamed. She had charged across the room and thrown herself between him and the gunman at the very last possible moment. She had taken the shot that would surely have killed him. She collapsed against him, and he staggered to hold her upright. Forgetting his predicament, he lowered her gently to the floor. He could see the wound had not hit her in the heart, but there was a lot of blood.

The gunman, stunned at what had just happened, stood there in shock for a few seconds. He'd killed a lot of people, and had never once seen someone step in front of a bullet for another. His astonishment would cost him, however.

-----

Wendy had been ahead of Zack, and had run for the front door, thinking to escape that direction. When she realized that no one else was accompanying her, she stopped, unsure of what to do. She heard the sirens in the distance, and though she had no idea who had called the police, she hoped they got there fast. She seized the large umbrella in its stand as a way to protect herself, not that she thought it was going to do much good against a gun.

She heard the first shot, and cringed, hiding around the corner inside the foyer of the house. When she heard Stephanie's scream of rage, her curiosity got the better of her. She crept along the hallway wall, moving toward the living room. It was a short distance, and she peered around the corner just after the shot, as Zack was lowering Stephanie to the floor.

Wendy took everything in quickly. She saw the gunman, still standing there, still pointing his weapon. She saw the others peeking out behind furniture, not wanting to expose themselves, but needing to see what was going on.

In an instant, Wendy knew two things. She knew that if someone didn't do something fast, they were all going to die. The second thing she knew was that she had a weapon in her hands.

Rushing into the room, she stepped to the side of the gunman as she swung the umbrella. She had the presence of mind not to swing for his head or body, but instead swung straight down, connecting with his wrist. The hard wood handle of the umbrella cracked sharply across the man's wrist, and he dropped the gun instantly, his hand engulfed in intense pain.

Now that he was weaponless, Wendy swung the umbrella sideways, hitting the man in the stomach. He doubled over slightly, but didn't collapse.

Wendy got one last swing in, cracking him over the back with the umbrella before it snapped. The man did not collapse to the floor, but he was writhing in pain now.

Thinking quickly, Wendy dove for the gun, grabbing it and crawling out of his reach, so that he could not endanger them again.

The man straightened up, then looked around. He didn't see his gun, and he didn't carry a backup. He heard sirens, and they were close. That was all he needed to know. As fast as he could with a broken wrist and some other nasty bruises, he ran out the back of the house. Had anyone tried to stop him, they probably could have, but there were more important issues to be dealt with at the time.

-----

In only two more minutes, the police burst in the door, guns drawn. They quickly fanned out and found the commotion in the living room.

Zack looked up to see the officer.

"We need an ambulance!"

The officer immediately made the call, then he said, "What the hell happened here?"

"Some maniacs tried to kill us!" Sharon shouted from across the room.

The officer reported this, as well. Soon, there were police officers swarming over the house grounds. It wasn't long before the second gunman, and Shirley, were discovered.

Soon, the atonal wailing of the ambulance was heard, and EMTs were soon standing over Stephanie. They looked at her injury, and decided to put her on a backboard. They loaded her onto the stretcher, and headed for the ambulance.

"I'm going with her," Zack said to no one in particular. No one tried to stop him, either. He put the commotion behind him as he climbed into the ambulance with his critically injured friend, and took her hand as the ambulance raced away from the chaos.

Hang in there, Zack thought as loud as he could to her.

-----

About a half hour after Zack arrived at the hospital, many of the girls showed up. Two detectives were also with them.

"Where's Stephanie?" Mary asked.

"In surgery," Zack replied calmly, trying to get himself back together. He was ashamed of himself for freezing like he had; he'd thought he was stronger than that.

"My name is Detective Greene. Can you tell me what happened? No one at your home seemed to have a clue."

"I don't really know, either," he lied. "I think maybe they were after Mr. Danforth. He used to live in the house, but we moved in not too long ago. Maybe he has some enemies. Anyway, no, I don't really know who they were or what's going on."

Greene was writing these things down. "Do you have a number where we can get a hold of this Mr. Danforth?"

"Back at the house. I don't have it with me."

"Okay. I'll have one of the officers get it. I'm sorry to tell you that one of the young women in the house didn't survive the attack."

Zack's blood ran cold. He'd seen Wendy, so he knew it wasn't her, but anyone...

"Who?"

"It's Shirley, Zack," Terry said softly. She gave him a hug as he closed his eyes and hung his head.

"I know it's no consolation, but she took one of the bastards out before she died. The best we can figure, she clobbered one of them with a frying pan so hard it snapped his neck. Unfortunately, the other one shot her at point-blank range. I'm sure she died instantly. There wouldn't have been any pain."

Zack nodded, his body shaking slightly. He wasn't sure if he was angry or scared, or both. All he knew at the moment was that the war with Adam had begun in earnest, and he wasn't ready for it.

"Where's Gabrielle?" Zack asked, looking around.

"She's back at the house, trying to get things organized," Mary told him.

Zack nodded, then lapsed back into silence. The detectives departed, having gotten all the information they were going to get from these people.

-----

It was midnight when the doctor found Zack sitting with several women in the waiting room of the hospital. Zack rose as the doctor walked in.

"How did it go?" Zack asked almost desperately.

"The surgery went well. She will live."

There were several sighs of relief from those present, but Zack heard something in the doctor's voice.

"But?"

"The bullet landed very close to her spine. There's been some swelling. Currently, she is paralyzed. She has no movement below her waist. Now," the doctor said, hurrying on because of the distraught looks he was receiving, "this could be temporary. The condition may go away as the swelling recedes."

"Or it could be permanent," Zack said.

The doctor nodded. "We just have to wait and see."

"Can we see her?"

"Not just yet. She's still in recovery. We'll be moving her up to her room in about an hour. You all should get something to eat and get some rest. I'll have a nurse tell you when you can see her."

"Thanks."

∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼

Gabrielle entered the room to find Zack staring out the window. She watched him for a few moments without him knowing she was there. She could see the tension in his body, could tell that something was bothering him. She wondered if he would talk to her about it, or if it was too personal a hell to be shared.

She walked into the room, and looked down at Stephanie's sleeping body. She had not awakened from her injuries yet, and that had the doctors concerned. It wasn't a coma; her brainwaves indicated it was shallower sleep than that, but the longer she went without waking, the more worried they became.

Gabrielle looked over again, and she simply couldn't leave it alone.

"Zack?" she said softly. She saw him jump; she had clearly startled him.

"Yeah?" he asked, not turned around.

"You want to talk about it?"

"I don't want to disturb Steph," he dodged. That wasn't going to work, though.

<There are other ways to have a conversation,> Gabrielle said into his mind. She felt him cringe slightly, so she didn't intrude further. It took a long time before he said anything at all.

<This is my fault,> he finally said.

Gabrielle shook her head. <You didn't shoot her. You didn't ask her to step in the way of the shot, you->

<Didn't I? I made her my slave. She probably thought it was her duty to protect me, even at the cost of her life!>

<Still. You didn't shoot her. You didn't invite those people to your home; they were sent there to kill us. You couldn't have foreseen->

<Oh, yes I could have. All I had to do was listen to Shirley. She told me time and again how dangerous Adam is. I could have seen this coming, if I'd been paying closer attention. But even that doesn't really matter. Had she not been there, she wouldn't be lying here now. Shit, I should have realized what kind of road I was on when Claudia left.>

<Claudia?>

<The first girl I ever programmed. Hell, my initial goal with the program revolved around her. I never really thought this would go as far as it has... Of course, when I started out, I didn't know about Adam at all. But I still should have known that things weren't going to work out right.>

<What happened with Claudia?>

<I released her when she went off to college. She was very upset with me.>

<Understandable, but how is that important now?>

<Don't you see? None of those girls wants to be there. Not really, not deep down inside. I'm forcing them all. And that got one killed, and one paralyzed and in a coma.>

<She's not in a coma.>

<Whatever. The point is, I should never have gone this far. I should have dumped the program after Claudia left. I should have freed Stephanie then, and just gone on being a normal, nerdy teenager.>

<And you think that would have solved everything.>

<Yes.>

<And then who would have stopped Adam?>

<Don't you get it? I fixed the program for Adam! Without me, there wouldn't be an Adam to stop!>

<Someone would have eventually got it to work. Either someone like you, or someone in his company. Some other person might not have been as ethical as you. They might have thought Adam's plan was a good idea. They might have wanted to join up.>

<So?>

<So then we'd all be screwed! You included! Yes, people have gotten hurt. More may get hurt in the future, before we find a way to take Adam down. But the truth is that someone has to stand in his way, and that someone has to have used the program.>

<Why?> Zack asked, confused.

<How long have you been using PAO?>

Zack thought for a moment. <About three months or so.>

<Four months ago, you'd probably have thought Adam's plan was a cool idea. Run the country, get whatever you want, have all the babes you want. But because you've used the program, you know what it means. You know the limits of how far you should go with this kind of control. Someone who hadn't used the program wouldn't have that knowledge.>

<But Stephanie...>

<Will survive. Injured, yes, but she'll live. Hopefully, she will walk again someday. But even if she doesn't, alive is better than dead. And you are saving her from a worse fate.>

<Am I? How is being one person's slave worse than being another's?>

<Because you give a damn about her. If you didn't, you wouldn't be so tormented now. Do you think Adam would be standing here, watching over her? No, he'd be off plotting some more, or screwing one of his other women. You have to understand that you have certain rules you live by. Sure, they involve you having control of people, but you don't take that too far, and you don't let it get out of hand. That's what makes you different.>

<Right,> Zack said, dubious.

<Believe me or not as you wish, but I'd rather have you holding the program than Adam, any day. I'll leave you alone now, I know you don't really want to talk about this. Just realize that you have a family that cares about you, and they will get you through this.>

<Thanks, Gabrielle,> he said.

She reached out her hand and touched his shoulder. "Any time," she said out loud, and then turned to leave the room.

I wish I could believe you, Zack thought to himself. But this is my fault.

∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼∼≈≡≈∼∼

When Stephanie finally awoke, she saw Zack staring out the window. She smiled to think that he had stayed by her side, despite all that was going on.

"Hi," she whispered. Her throat was dry. Oddly, she felt no other discomfort.

Zack turned around, startled. He came to her side, but he looked stricken. He took her hand and brushed the hair out of her face.

"What's the matter?" she asked softly.

"You were shot," he replied.

"I know. But I'm okay, I guess... ain't I?"

Zack had tears in his eyes. "No," he finally managed. "You're not."

"What do you mean?" she asked, now a little concerned.

"The bullet landed right near your spine. There's swelling, and..." Zack took a big breath, "right now, you're paralyzed from the waist down."

Stephanie closed her eyes, trying to will her legs to move. It didn't work. She couldn't feel the sheet against her legs, either. She had to admit that he was telling her the truth.

"So I'm never going to walk again?" she asked, tears in her eyes.

Zack squeezed her hand tighter. "We don't know that. When the swelling goes down, you might be able to. This isn't a done deal, Steph. We have to keep up hope."

"Okay," she said, and closed her eyes. If there was a chance she could walk again, then there wasn't anything to worry about yet.

Zack noticed the change in her face. He wasn't sure what it meant. "Are you okay?"

Steph nodded. "If you say I might get better, then it's okay."

"Steph, I'm so sorry..." Zack said.

"For what?"

"For putting you in here!"

"You didn't put me here. That guy did. What happened to him, anyway?"

"Wendy hit him with an umbrella, then he ran off before the cops showed up. But that's not the point. That guy was there to kill me."

"Well, I couldn't let him kill my master, now could I?"

"That's my whole point! If I hadn't done what I did to you, you wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed hoping that you'd walk again."

Stephanie shrugged. "Shit happens. At least you're not abusing me."

"Ain't I? If you weren't under the influence of my program, you'd see it differently. You'd probably hate me."

At that moment, Zack realized exactly what he had to do. It was the only fair thing, the only caring thing, that he could do for the girls in his life.

Stephanie didn't know that a decision had just been made. "I doubt that."

"Oh yeah?" Zack said, and unsnapped the cover on his PDA. "I'll prove it."

Zack pulled out his PDA, and pulled up the script he'd written for releasing someone. He hadn't known why he would use this script when he'd written it, but clearly his subconscious had been trying to tell him something.

He pointed the PDA at Stephanie, and pressed Execute. In twelve seconds, she shrugged twice and settled. It took a long moment for her to look at him.

Zack couldn't read her look. "Well?" he asked, with some trepidation. He knew this would not be pleasant.

"Well, what?" she asked calmly.

"What do you mean, 'well, what'? I've been controlling you all summer!"

"Hmmm," she replied, thinking about it. "Not really."

"What?" he asked, dumbfounded.

"You haven't really been controlling me. You changed my attitude toward you, but you never made me do something I didn't want to."

"Oh, yeah, you really wanted to sleep with me."

Steph shrugged. "No, I wanted to sleep with Claudia. And I got to, thanks to you."

"Steph..."

"Okay, I'll give. You did control me at the beginning. But you haven't made me do anything I didn't want to in a long time."

"Because you thought you loved me. Because of the program."

"The program never made me love you, Zack," Steph said simply.

Zack crossed his arms, unconvinced.

Steph continued, "And I still do." She reached out to touch his arm, and he leaned in when she tugged on him. They embraced gently for a long moment, but it didn't change Zack's mind about what needed to be done.

-----

Zack spent quite some time with Stephanie, wanting to be there when the doctor spoke with her and related her chances, as well as what she would have to go through if she ever did walk again. When she dozed off again, however, he knew he needed to head home.

He walked into the house, ignoring the workmen who were repairing the place. The first person he came in contact with was Wendy, who ran up and gave him a big hug and kiss.

"How's Stephanie?" she asked.

"She's awake now."

"Can she..."

"Not yet, no. Can you do me a favor? Can you get everyone together in the living room for me?"

"Sure!" Wendy raced off to do as he'd asked her. He walked into the living room and sat down, trying to figure out exactly how he was going to do what had to be done.

In a few minutes, all the ladies started filing into the living room. They each found a seat, while Zack got up from his chair, beginning to pace the room in nervousness.

Once everyone was there, he cleared his throat, and looked them over.

"Steph is awake and in good spirits, but as you all know, we don't know whether or not she'll ever walk again. There is hope, but we just won't know for sure for some weeks.

"I need to apologize to all of you. I knew that Adam was dangerous, and I ignored the possibility that he might try something like this. That was my stupidity, and it got someone killed, and another person severely injured."

"Zack, you-" Sharon started to say, but he held up his hand to stop her.

"No, I know what you're going to say. Yes, Adam started it, but I should have seen it coming. I should have done something about it. More importantly, I shouldn't have made all of you stay here when there was danger. I should have let you choose. That was inexcusable."

"We'd all have chosen to stay anyway," Mary said.

"Sure you would, because you have to. At least, right now you do. Most of you here already know that I did something to you, to make you stay." Zack pulled out his PDA and showed it to them. "Most of you know what this thing does. The rest of you were actually tricked into watching the program.

"I'm sorry I put all of you in danger. I can't make you stay here and live with myself if something bad happens. I'm going to release all of you. Adam has the same program, but I'm going to make it so that he can't ever program you."

Zack fiddled with his script, and then walked to the nearest girl, who happened to be Jill. He ran the program on her, waiting the necessary twelve seconds.

Once she was free of the program, Zack watched her face change. What he saw was the rage he fully expected to see.

"You son of a bitch," she said. She stood up and slapped him, leaving a mark. "I hope you rot in hell!" She stormed out of the room and up the stairs. He assumed she was going to pack.

Beverly thought to go after her, but he motioned her to stay. "Why try to convince her? In a minute, you'll feel the same way."

Zack ran the program on Beverly, since she had given him the opportunity. He watched as her face contorted in confusion. That surprised him, but he waited for the anger to kick in.

It never did. "I suppose I should be mad at you," she said. "But I learned a lot about myself this summer. Your opinion of me was pretty accurate. I was a spoiled rich girl. I guess having all that taken away... well, I learned a lot, as I said."

"Are you going to stay?" he asked.

Beverly fidgeted. "Though I guess I am bi, I don't really feel comfortable with my relationship with Stephanie. And I'd like to get back to school. I think I need to move back to the dorm."

"Okay," he said. She came over and hugged him, and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek.

"Don't be too hard on yourself. Most guys would have done a lot worse than you did."

"I doubt it, but thanks."

As Beverly left the room, Zack noticed some of the ladies talking quietly amongst themselves. He moved to Angela, and ran the program on her. He really feared her reaction, as he really liked her.

Angela blinked a few times, then looked up at him and smiled softly.

He looked down at her in confusion. "Well?"

"I'd just as soon stick around, if you don't mind."

Zack stroked her cheek, and smiled his thanks at her, then moved on. His next target was Terry.

After her deprogramming, Terry looked up at him, then stood up.

"I'm not mad at you. You did what you had to do, at least as far as I'm concerned. And you're good in bed," she said, causing Zack to blush and the others to giggle.

"But?" he said, hearing it in her voice.

"But I'm scared. I can't stay here and be comfortable. I need to go, at least until the whole thing with Adam is cleared up. I'm sorry."

He hugged her, and stroked her back. "It's okay, I understand." When they broke the embrace, he said, "If you need help finding a job..."

Terry shook her head. "I'll be okay."

"You can stay at our old house until you find a place you like."

"Thanks, Zack. You're a good guy, you know."

"Yeah, right," he said, turning away from her.

Looking around, he asked, "Where're Brian, Pam and Bonnie?"

"At the movies."

"Oh, okay." Zack wasn't sure exactly how to handle them, anyway. He turned to the three remaining ladies: the ones who had been speaking conspiratorially. As he moved to them, they each turned away and closed their eyes.

"Uh, guys..." Zack said, unsure of what they were doing. "This is to release you. Honest. I'm not going to program you further..."

"Did it ever occur to you," Mary said, her eyes still closed, "that we don't want to be released?"

Zack grew slightly dizzy. "What?"

Sharon continued, "We're happy the way we are."

Wendy said, "I like being your girlfriend. If being under your spell is what did that, then I don't want to be free."

Zack sat down in the nearest chair, and sighed. After some thought, he said, "Actually, Wendy... you're not under the program. The only thing I ever had the program do to you was to make you not jealous of me with other girls, and you asked me to do that. But Mary... and Mom... I mean..."

"Don't you want us anymore, Zack?" his mother asked. He could hear the hurt in her voice.

"Mom, it's my fault your marriage broke up! It was an accident, but it was the program that turned you into a... uh..."

"Sex-fiend?" Mary offered. Sharon blushed, and Zack choked a little.

"It's okay, Sweetheart. I'm happy with you. Your father and I were... comfortable, but it wasn't really happiness. It was more like you get used to things being a certain way, and it's not annoying enough to change it. It's not like that with you; you're fun and interesting and you pay attention to me."

Zack sighed.

Mary asked, "Was I an accident, too?"

"Yes and no," Zack answered. "I programmed you intentionally, but I didn't really try to make you want me."

"So how come I do?" she asked huskily.

"I think I removed some of your inhibitions by accident."

"But you came on to me that first time..." she said, confused.

"I know," he said with a smile.

"How come?" she said, opening her eyes slightly to look at him.

"'Cause you're hot," he said. She smiled at him.

"You can open your eyes. I'm not going to deprogram you if you're that set against it. I just can't believe you'd want to stay like this."

"Zack, honey," his mother said, "I may not have known what you were doing when you did it, but I still remember what my life has been like. Except for this last week, this summer has been the best I've had in about fifteen years. Why would I want to change it?"

Zack sighed and closed his eyes. "Y'all are weird," he replied. He felt someone sit gently in his lap. He opened his eyes to see his mother there.

"Maybe, but we're yours. Forever." She kissed him, to end the conversation.

-----

Zack saw Stephanie's eyes light up as he entered her hospital room later that day. She smiled at him, and reached out for him as he came over. He gave her a hug and a long kiss, and then he held her hand.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"A little troubled," she replied.

"How come?"

"I'm worried about things. Zack, can I ask you for a favor?"

"Sure," he said.

"Can you put me back under?"

"Huh? You want to be sedated or something?"

"No! I mean with the program! Can you make me your slave again?"

Zack stared at her in shock. "Why the hell would you want that?"

Stephanie smiled at him. "I was happy. I didn't worry about anything. If you said it was going to be okay, then I knew it was going to be okay. Now I worry about everything. What I'm going to do with my life. Whether I'll walk again. Whether my father will find me and hurt me again..."

"Your dad will never trouble you again. He moved away after the public nudity incident." Apparently Mr. Bromwell had not been able to live down running around naked and waving his dick at every ugly woman he saw. Zack had heard that one of the women he had accosted actually took off her own clothes, right there in the park, and they'd been caught fucking. But he wasn't sure if that was true or not. He did know that Mr. Bromwell now lived in Kentucky somewhere, and that his life was falling apart. That made him happy, but he was disturbed by Stephanie's request.

"That's not the point. The point is that I worry all the time now. I didn't worry when you were in charge. Please? You can fix this for me..."

Zack sat down in his chair, and thought for a long moment. It was only when he realized that she was making a choice to be his slave that he could handle the concept.

Pulling out his PDA, he said, "Okay, but I'm allowing you the opportunity to back out of this at any time."

"I won't," she said with assuredness.

Zack nodded, unconvinced, but worked up the program nonetheless.

Standing up, he said, "Say good-bye to your freedom, Steph," and he pushed the button.

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