Chapter 2:

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 489

 
She couldn’t quite tell where his hands were unless they were north of the small of her back. He sure was spending a lot of time down there.  She could feel him really shoving hard because the hardboard support above her mattress was abrading the bottom or her rib cage. It was starting to irritate.
“Are you kneading my fanny again, Ollie?” asked Diane. “Because you’re spending a lot of time down there. I’m having serious doubts about your gayness. You wouldn’t be having any straight thoughts lately, would you?” She giggled.
“Nope. Not going over to the dark side anytime soon.”
She heard a few butt smacks—his cue that he was finished. She felt the towel buffing down the length of her back, removing the excess oil.
“Got to keep the junk off your trunk,” said Ollie. “I just finished up. Prepare to capsize.”
“Aye, Cap’n.”
He rolled her over onto her back. Ollie swiped the towel from her breasts to her toes, threw it in a hamper, then stood back to admire the results of his massage. “Mighty fine work if I do say so. You’ve still got great muscle definition, and you’re all blushed up nice and pink for your date. Too bad he won’t see it. Unless you get lucky.” He gave her an exaggerated wink.
“He’s not going to get lucky. It’s not that kind of a date.”
“I just don’t see the sense in getting all pimped out if it isn’t going to be appreciated. It’s like hanging a masterpiece in a gallery and putting a dust cover over it. You have to let that baby hang out there for all eyes to ogle.”
“I’m not looking to hang things out. I’m not interested in getting gigged.”
Ollie put his hands on his hips. His eyes turned to slits. “Now where did you pick up a word like that? Isn’t that something southerners do to amphibians?”
“I heard it at the park. Never mind. It’s not important.”
“I’ll have to use that sometime.” Ollie scratched his jaw. “Sidle up to some big bear and ask him if he wants to get the gig on.” He put his hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh.
Diane gave a chuckle. Ollie had been her live-in massage therapist and physical trainer for the past six years. He weighed all of 135 pounds, most of it knuckles and forearms. Upon their first meeting, she wondered about his health, since he unashamedly confessed to being gay. He was “clean” he told her, just underweight and underappreciated.  She gave him one of the downstairs bedrooms, where he could play his classical music at full volume and entertain friends whenever the need arose.Sometimes his gerbils would stink up the lower half of the house, prompting them to open all the windows to flush the odor out. But he always kept her in stitches with some delightful barb, usually directed at Bibi. That alone earned his keep.
Diane pushed herself up against the headboard. “Where’s Bibi?”
“She’s downstairs running the lint brush over your gown. I take that back. The house is shimmying. That means she’s on her way up the ramp.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that.”
“What’s she gonna do? Give me another black eye?”
Bibi brushed through the doorway, holding the black satin evening gown high enough off the floor so it didn’t trail. She hooked it on the fringe of the canopy frame then went to Diane’s chest of drawers. She began to lay out undergarments: slip, panties and hose. “You checking out Di again?” she asked over her shoulder. “You should take your ass down to your room and run the air filter machine. Those rats are starting to stink the place up something awful. You’ll have our guest pinching his nose in disgust”
“They’re gerbils,” said Ollie. “And I was just finished with the treatment. So if she won’t be needing me anymore…”
“Thanks, Ollie,” said Diane. “It was wonderful, as usual.”
Ollie walked to the door then turned around. “I hope you knock him dead, princess. Don’t let him get away with anything, and make sure he picks up the tab. You tell him that if he doesn’t bring you home at a decent hour there’ll be hell to pay.” He curtsied to Bibi. “As for you, my pallet load of preponderancy, you should go off and get gigged.” 
Bibi blew out a gusting sigh. “Git, you little hedonist. We’ve got work to do.” She carried the clothes items to the bed and laid them out. She held up a pair of panties. “How about we do the Brazilian Tanga tonight? No? Okay, the thong.”
“Briefs are fine, Bibi. I’ll wear a bra, too. No advertising tonight.”
“All right, then. The boy panties and boulder holders it is, but I think you’re missing out.” She worked Diane’s legs into the garment, pulled it up and then inched a slip up to her hips. A lace brassiere followed.
“Sheese, I don’t know what I’m saying,” said Bibi. “I don’t even know if I trust this dude. I mean, he’s coming off telling you that he’s going to make you walk, or maybe even run a marathon. I still think I should be going with you. You said he had a chopped off hand. Maybe he put that hand some place where it wasn’t supposed to be. This man gives me the creeps, if you don’t mind me saying so. You just tell him that you always have a chaperone to come along because—“
“It’s going to be okay, Bibi. Really. I just have a feeling he’s not the dangerous type, aside from his fashion sense. There’s something about him, and I can’t explain it. I think he’s too tied up with his own thoughts to be an evil planner. He’s also kind of clumsy, in a masculine sort of way. Harmless, but not defenseless.” 
Bibi wiggled her into the gown and fastened it. Once she hefted her onto the wheelchair, Diane rolled to her vanity mirror. She began applying her makeup. Bibi fastened small diamond studs to Diane’s ears, then used a brush to tease her hair. 
Diane looked at her watch. She was running a tad late, owed to Ollie’s extended massage. She quickened her pace, finishing the makeup, adding a shot of perfume to her cleavage and neck. Bibi draped a light, white summer sweater over her shoulders then stepped back.
“Hurrah!  That’s mighty fine, lil Miss Nine. I think you’re set to bust a move.”
The front doorbell chimed from the upstairs speaker. 
Bibi slapped her forehead then strode out of the room. “Dude’s early!”
Diane could hear her assistant’s frenzied steps down the ramp. She motored out of the bedroom and down the spiral ramp. She took the outside hallway, circumnavigating the sunken living room, then pulled into the entrance foyer just as Bibi swung the door open.
Chet Strauss stood on the porch stoop as stiff as a chess piece, holding a bouquet of white roses. He wore a baby blue tuxedo, brown oxfords, and a pink bowtie. He looked pensive, thought Diane. Or totally frightened out of his mind. The image of Bibi standing in front of him with her hands on her hips did not help matters. She nudged Bibi gently from behind. The large woman took the bouquet and headed for the kitchen in search of a vase, mumbling under her breath.
“Would you like to come in for a minute?” asked Diane.
“We might not have time if you’ve made reservations.”
She could tell he was poised to go. “I haven’t, but we can get into the wind.” She rolled through the doorway just as Bibi reappeared at the door.
“Now no funny business,” said Bibi. “That happens to be one primo lady right there, and I don’t stand for anything under the table. I wouldn’t push things past the midnight hour because she needs her beauty sleep. You hear all that?”
“I did, baby, I did.” He gave her a curt bow.
“It’s Bibi.” She slammed the door.
Chet escorted Diane around to the rear of his utility van, which sat parked on her frontage driveway. He pushed a button on the side panel. A lift gate lowered from the rear, exhausting a pneumatic hiss. He tried to assist her in, but she propelled herself easily onto the ramp and inside.
“You’ll have to forgive Bibi,” said Diane.  “She’s very protective.”
“Already forgiven.” He raised the platform.
Chet entered through the side door and began tie-strapping the chair mid-center to the floorboard eyehooks. Once in his seat, he fired up the engine and they drove off.
“Noel’s Seafood is my favorite restaurant,” she said. “It’s on Pacific Coast Highway. They have chair access there—any of the tables will accommodate me.”
“Ah, I know it well. That’s a great choice. Spitting distance, too. You look very lovely tonight.”
“Thanks for that.  I need a small army to get prepped, so I can’t take all the credit.”
Chet drove past the guard station and made a squealing right turn onto the highway. He punched the accelerator hard while whipping his head from side to side, checking both rear view side mirrors. He merged instantly into the fast lane then increased his speed. Yanking the wheel hard, he passed a car on the right that was doing the speed limit, then he swerved back into the fast lane. Diane braced against the dizzying maneuvers, wondering why he felt the need to rush. He swerved again, nearly missing a slower vehicle.
“The speed limit is forty-five here,” Diane warned. “We don’t have a reservation. It’s first come, first served. You can relax.” 
He did not relax, but kept his head pivoting. His suit jacket rode up his back as he fought with the wheel. For a moment, Diane thought she could see a small stream of sweat reflected off the side of his cheek. She had no idea what had aroused him to peel down the highway at such breakneck speeds, but could only hold on and remain quiet. She could not risk distracting him, pulling his attention away from the forward view. 
After five minutes, the van lurched again then side-skidded into the restaurant parking lot, nearly taking out a decorative planter. Chet abutted the van up against a parking stop and shut the engine off. “Well, we’re here,” he said.
“I can see that,” she gushed. “We couldn’t have gotten here any faster if we’d taken the concord. Do you always drive like that?”
He exited the vehicle and dropped the lifting ramp before answering, “Well, I don’t like to dally. I can’t abide transits unless they’re swift.” He unfastened her tie straps and helped to guide her onto the ramp. Once on the ground, she gave him a few stern words about his driving skills.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said, keeping pace next to her on the way to the entrance. “Maybe I owe you an explanation.”
They entered the restaurant, a rustic, wood-paneled abode with a low ceiling. Large fishing nets hung from the rafters, filled with dried starfish, conch shells and sea urchins. Shark’s jaws adorned the walls, and within each mouth a photo-bio of an historic sea captain was displayed. The tables were adorned with decorative candles fashioned in the shape of small lighthouses. 
A male host, with menus in hand, met them on the fringe of the dinning room. He bowed curtly when he recognized Diane.
“So wonderful of you to join us this evening, Miss Nine! We do have an open table for you. If you would follow me.”
They were led down a carpeted thoroughfare to a private booth at the back of the restaurant. Diane pulled to the outside of the table and snuggled in. Chet refrained from sliding into his seat and, instead, pulled her wheelchair back then lifted her into the booth seat opposite him. He then took seat directly across from her. It had happened so fast she had no time to object.
“Sorry, I prefer the head-on view. Hope you don’t mind.”
“It’s actually a better perspective,” she said, once again surprised. This man did not ask. He took charge and did whatever he damn well felt like doing.
They both ordered fillet of sole, with baked potato and coleslaw. An opening salvo of breadsticks and clam chowder arrived a moment later. Diane dipped her breadstick, trying to relax, but her eyes did not leave Chet Strauss. He was either wonderfully bold and confident, or a few cherry slices away from a full fruitcake. She couldn’t decide which. She hoped she hadn’t made a mistake.
A small girl made her way down the aisle, her face flushed a rosy pink. When she reached the table, she looked shyly at Diane, then  produced a napkin and a writing pen. The child stammered at first, but finally got it out. 
“I wish Endura would write her name for me so I can remember her for always,” said the girl.
Diane looked down the aisle. She saw a mother with an apologetic look on her face standing next to a booth.
Diane took the napkin. “Oh, you bet. Endura is glad you came to see her.” She made a small freehand sketch of the cartoon figure on the napkin. “What’s your name, dear?”
“I’m Stacy.”
Diane finished the autograph with a dramatic swirl then handed it back. “Now Endura will always be with you.”
“She sure will!” The girl skipped down the aisle, waving the napkin at her mother.
Diane noticed her dinner guest had taken it all in patiently. No revulsion to children.
“So where do you park your engineering self, Chet?” 
“I live off Talbert Avenue, actually. I have some property in the abandoned oil fields up on the hill. Granddad got in on the early Orange County land rush when he bought several encyclopedia lots in 1920. As you probably know, investors were reluctant to build up there in the gullies, until oil was discovered. Granddad built a warehouse and small bungalow on the property.  He used the warehouse for a tractor repair business. My dad inherited the property and business, until it languished and fell into disrepair. When dad passed, I was bequeathed the property and structures.”
“Sounds like quite a project.”
“Took me awhile to renovate the place for my needs, but I managed to do just that by fashioning the main building into a workshop. I also moved into the shack to save on rent. So, I guess you could say that I am the little hermit that lives up on the hill. The only access in is a dirt road. I have a lovely view of the coastline, even the pier. As for neighbors, I’ve got jackrabbits and sidewinders.”
“Sounds positively reclusive.” She hadn’t noticed it before, but his good hand was a roadmap of nicks, scratches, chips and cuts – most of the wounds were old, but a few were recent. Definitely the hands of a mechanic or technician, she decided.
“I don’t move around much and prefer it that way,” he went on. “My residence is one-point-seven miles from the library, four miles from the pier, and nine miles from my old high school, Marina. I live and work within that sphere. It’s my little bubble.”
She waggled a breadstick at him. “It’s a good thing I live in your bubble. Sounds like everything else is foreign territory to you. Have you been driving long?  Hate to harp on it again, but you have a peculiar way of getting from one point to another.”
He gave her a sheepish smile. “I’ve been driving for 30 years.I’m not as reckless as you might think. It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve resorted to moving around quickly, watching my back. I can assure you there is a reason for it. I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
“I’m always up for a thrill ride. I just wondered if you had a glove box full of speeding tickets.”
“I’ve had my fair share,” he said, sipped some chowder, dabbed his mouth. “I don’t know whether it’s a blessing or a curse. Most of my projects have involved high security, ‘eyes only’ access. A lot of it has been government research projects—sensitive material that requires top-secret level three clearance.I still have a valid clearance for one military department that is directly associated with the project I’m involved with. I’ve never had to take anything home that would get me in trouble. But my association with such work has become gradually known to questionable outside factions.”
I t took him a long way around the mountain to say that he thought he was being followed, thought Diane. “I guess that stigma goes with the territory,” she said. “Did you ever think that your paranoia might be unfounded? I don’t mean to insult or pry, but many scientists and politicians throughout history were delusional or unconnected from reality. You know, the monsters under the bed— things that bump in the night, kind of thing.”
“It’s not a question of an overactive imagination. I know I’m being followed—watched. Only I can’t put my finger on who it is exactly. I do know that it’s not my own government. I complained of it several times. The department put some men on my case to check it out. But the mystery spies cooled off and never showed themselves. The minute my spotters were pulled from surveillance, the ghosts showed up again.”
“This has something to do with your current project?”
“The past two years of it. The stalking has increased in the last three months.”
“Do you think they know where you live?”
“No question of it. They’ve never followed me onto the property, having always turned off before I hit the ‘dirty, dirt’ road, I like to call it. I’ve been picked up on the way out, though. It’s always a different vehicle. I’ve only glimpsed the occupants—they’re never the same. No singular nationality. I’ve seen Hispanics, Caucasians, Asians and African-Americans at different times, different places.”
“I’m surprised they haven’t stormed your property and robbed you.”
“Too heavily fortified. I’m sure they’re aware of that. Motion detectors, screech alarms and lasers are just a few of the traps waiting for them. I’m hardwired to two security outfits, so any unauthorized breach is transmitted to law enforcement. I think that’s enough of a deterrent to keep them out of my bubble.”
When the food arrived, Diane nibbled, preoccupied with what she was hearing. Swallowing all of this espionage drama, she wondered if she would have room for dinner. She said, “Do you think they’re actually looking to harm you, or prevent you from completing your work?”
He diced up his fish steak, drenched it with lemon juice. “I think it might be more serious than that. A kidnapping would solve a lot of their problems. Getting a few prototype blueprints from me would be a boon, but if they had my entire knowledge bank, they would have all the archives of everything I’ve worked on in my lifetime. That includes anything that I had clearance for.” 
“You think this combat skeleton is what they’re after? Why would they want it?”
“Military combat exoskeleton. It’s really a miracle of technological evolution—a foot soldier’s dream. It’s a form-fitting, adjustable titanium alloy chassis connected to a power source that feeds telepresence sensors, which in turn motivate the servomotors. Simply put, it’s a covering of synthetic tendons and muscles. Only it possesses much greater torque and load pressure. It gives the wearer some superhuman qualities, not to be found in any other combat suit. It has snap-on carbon-carbon pads, which cover the vital organ groups—a bulletproof armor. The tactical helmet is projectile resistant and equiped with infrared, night vision, telescopic and laser range-finding, com links, and interior systems and data array.”
She took her first bite, chewing quickly. “You’re describing something like a robotic suit that’s impervious to damage. Sounds like my Colonel Chaos character in the Aurora Series.”
“Not nearly as clumsy. Extremely lightweight and non-intrusive. Minus the helmet and armor padding, you could wear it under a double-X jogging suit nearly without detection.  Dry-weight is 48 pounds, including the power pack. The implications are staggering, particularly to a military complex that supports a large infantry.”
“Hmm…how is that significant?”
“The advantages would be optimal in guerilla and urban warfare. Imagine an infantry of one-million strong wearing such super suits. They would expend less energy, carry more ammo and supplies, and be resistant to anything up to heavy machine gun fire. If they were dispersed over a wide area via airborne drops, how would you target them and take them out?  Hand to hand combat with such a soldier would be one-sided—over in seconds.”
“I see what you mean.”
They ate and chatted for the next 20 minutes. She had a lot to digest other than the food. Her date had just confessed that he believed he was a serious target of some foreign regime bent on jacking him for military secrets. She saw this as a lousy forecast, as far as a future relationship was concerned. If it was true, how could one adjust to such a cloak and dagger existence? She knew that any relationship could be complex, with a certain amount of emotional expense. She’d been prepared for it.  But this man carried baggage that stretched comprehension.
Chet finished his plate, reached for his coffee cup. “This is nonsense. I’d love to hear about your interests. So, tell me, where in the world did you come up with the idea of the Aurora universe and your main character?”
The question caught her completely off guard. Yet she was no stranger to being drilled about her work, especially from the media. She would not give him the rehearsed answer. She would offer him something more intimate or personalized. Like the truth. 
“You could say that Endura is everything that I’m not. I first envisioned her much the same as she appears today. She’s tall and stately, almost Amazonian. This gives her a perspective that allows her to see others from an equal eye-to-eye vantage point, or in some cases, she gets to look down upon someone.” Diane crossed her eyes then stuck her tongue out. “It’s my way of getting back at all you tallies.”
Chet put his hands under his chin. “What’s that force field around her? Where did she get that?”
“That was issue number one. During a deep exploration probe, her ship got too close to an event horizon, where she was “de-molecularized.’  Upon barely escaping the black hole, her atoms reformed, leaving her with that aurora shield, which is a plasma envelope. She carried that attribute back to her when they landed safely on earth. She then discovered that the aurora shield had some pretty unique properties—like nothing could penetrate it. It provided her with some neat qualities, like added strength and speed. While nothing could get through the force field, it was also true that she had lost the ability to physically mingle with her own kind. She couldn’t be touched by human hands without adverse affects. Her sense of touch was lost forever.
“Sounds almost autobiographical.”
“Oh, it is. Endura was desensitized to her environment—she lost some basic human traits—physically and emotionally. She was not like the others anymore—the change was profound, irreversible. She saw herself as a freak. A bit hard on herself, but that’s the way she saw it. What was left to do other than complete the visage and adopt a new persona? She added a one-piece latex suit to her ensemble, a mask, and a hip pouch of sling blades. Shazam! Crime fighter extraordinaire.” Diane laughed. “She’s a brooding superhero, who performs most of her exploits at night, levying justice against anyone who shows disregard or hostile intentions to the underdogs of society. She’s the number one poster child for race, creed and color equality.”
Chet cleared his throat. “What does Endura seek?  Does she have anything to look forward to other than a solitary existence?”
Diane looked at him coyly. “She only lacks some of the basics that keep her from living the way she wants. I know that she would love to walk on a park side hill, with the grass between her toes. Maybe a stroll on the beach without all the curious eyes. She wonders what it would be like to have a cat nuzzle her leg. I think if she had her wish granted, she would prefer not to be so infamous. If she could blend back into society, I think happiness and peace would find her again. It’s not so much to ask. But it’s an impossible dream to fulfill. Nevertheless, she endures. Pardon the pun.” 
“I notice she goes it alone. Men are quite attracted her but she spurns their advances.”
“They’re always attracted to her for the wrong reasons. Most of them are afraid of the strange outer light, neglecting the inner one, which was always much more accessible.”
She watched his facial expression soften, knowing she had reached an inner part ofhis core. That had been her intent. Her kitchen was hot. He could always leave if he couldn’t stand the heat.
Chet looked at her across the table with an expression that could only be described as dopey. “Well, I like her! It sounds like she’s made fruit punch out of lemons. I would only remind her that love and understanding is not something beyond her reach, no matter how pessimistic things appear. She’s special. I think she requires a special type of love.”
Right answer. You don’t flinch, either.
When the desert came, Diane found that she was the one who wore the dopey expression. She liked this guy. They swamped forkfuls, her apple pie to his strawberry shortcake. She nearly slipped under the booth while leaning forward, but he caught her, bracing his leg against her limbs under the table. Once she steadied herself, she said, “Thanks. I go rag doll at the most inopportune times.”
“I’ve never minded catching dolls,” he said, gazing over his fork.
“How many dolls have you caught?”
“Just one so far.”
The check arrived via a waiter Diane knew very well. They had performed a ritual for the past two years. Tonight would not be any different.
“Have you heard of that new drug Damnitol?” asked the waiter.
“No,” said Diane. “What does it do for you?”
“You take two pills and the rest of the world can go straight to hell for up to eight full hours.”
Diane laughed, slapped the table. “It ain’t got nothing on Peptobimbo. Two full cups swallowed before a date increases breast size, lowers intelligence, and prevents conception.”
The waiter gave a loud hoot. They both looked at Diane’s dinner guest.  Chet cocked an eyebrow, and without missing a beat said, “That’s nothing. You can take Dumberol with Peptobimbo and it can result in the enjoyment of country music, gun racks, and pickup trucks.” He looked around nervously.
The waiter gave Diane a nod. “Not too shabby. An improvement over the last one. Now can I get you folks an aperitif to polish the festivities off?”
“I’m good,” said Diane.
“Ditto,” said Chet, handing the waiter his credit card.
As the waiter excused himself, Chet rounded the table and gently hoisted her into the chair. He said, “I have something I’d like to show you. It’s never had an audience before. Besides, I think the two of you should meet.”
He rolled her out into the parking lot and secured her in the van. He promised to take it easy with the ride, started up, then drove down the highway. She hadn’t the vaguest idea of what he had planned but decided to go along with it. He hadn’t shown any signs of being a serial killer up to this point. Contrarily, he had earned some valuable points, demonstrating some refreshing camaraderie.
Chet took a small side street off the highway then entered a maze of dirt roads amongst some small arroyos. At one point, they passed a sign that read BOLSA CHICA CONSERVANCY AND WETLANDS. She knew that they were taking the back road into his property, an area she had never visited before. There were no reflective markers or streetlamps. All she could see were some rusted chain link fences clogged with scrub brush. Several dark structures turned out to be broken down oil wells, frozen in ghostly stasis.
They crested a small hill. The van headlights fell onto a distant structure that was partially illuminated by several small flood lamps. Diane could make out a corrugated tin warehouse and a small clapboard building. Chet stopped the van, pulled a device down from the visor and aimed it out the window, stabbing his thumb on it several times. It was a remote.
“Have to shut everything down,” he said. “Or else we’ll drive into a fireworks demonstration.”
She nodded, guessing that he was turning off his security systems. They continued on, Chet rolling the van to the end of the warehouse, which was equipped with a large swing door and a smaller entrance door. He operated the remote again, the large access door swung upward, revealing a dark cavernous maw.  He drove into the structure then shut the van off, while the door swung shut behind them with an audible clang. Fluorescent lights popped on overhead.
“You’ve got this place wired,” said Diane when he lowered the lift gate to the concrete floor. “I’m impressed. It’s like trying to get inside a bank vault.”
“It requires quite a few input codes to get in safely. I wrote the program myself. I’ve got movement sensors on the property 100 yards out, plus split screen security cameras covering every compass direction.”
Diane began to roll slowly down the length of the hangar-like warehouse. She was struck dumb by the shear number of presses, lathes, grinders and other hardware that took up the floor space. Workbenches defined the perimeter, laden with every hand and power tool known to man. Some of the machines were totally foreign to her. She saw something that looked like a large gun barrel with mirrors on its end. She did recognize two electron microscopes, having seen such devices in labs at college. But she had to stop and read a label on one very peculiar box-like apparatus, having no idea what it was.
GAS CHROMATOGRAPHY-MASS SPECTROMETER
“It’s used for forensic metallurgy,” he explained
“I imagine it is,” she said, a bit overwhelmed by all of it.
Diane motored further down the length of the warehouse floor. She passed up several full-sized chalkboards that were riddled with equations. It became apparent that certain areas of the warehouse held separate stations involved with the production of different materials. She saw rolls of a fabric sitting next to a hot press induction mold. Fifty-gallon barrels held shiny metal rods; she supposed these were stock parts for the chassis frame that he had talked about. When she came to the last station, a large desk arrayed with computer hardware and monitor screens, she gave a gasp. At first glance, she thought another human occupied the warehouse. A moment later revealed the still form to be a suit of camouflaged panels, strung together over thin tubing and hinged framework that hung from a tall T-rack. Nothing bulky or obvious. But a graceful, formfitting suit that included thick tread boots, gloves and a gold visor helmet.
Chet stepped up to the suit. “Miss Nine, meet TACS. My acronym for ‘Tactical Armored Combat System.’ This is the version I plan to introduce to DOD.”
She rolled closer to it. “So this is what all the fuss is about. Looks like something out of Buck Rogers.” She rolled a circle around it, noting a small backpack the size of a thin suitcase. A canister, the size of a thermos bottle, sat under the backpack.
He explained, “A compilation of several disciplines—four years of research and development, with six years of production. The armor is an improvement over the Ceradyne boron carbide. I developed tri-hook Velcro fasteners. I did retain the Nomex fiber to make it fireproof. The rest of it is mine, especially the pneumatic piston servos and the mini-compressor. Don’t ask me about the nuclear power drive. I can’t even begin to tell you where I found that. Suffice to say, the US Navy is missing some components that they’ll have trouble locating.”
“Don’t you think this belongs in a more secure facility?”
“And risk some black op agency stealing my patent? I love my country, but I’m not prepared to hand something over to them without due process or a signed contract. I’m ready for a demonstration, but I haven’t seen the suit on a proper test subject yet.”
“Why haven’t you tried it on yourself?”
“I need to be an observer. Besides that, I’m too familiar with the applications and systems. This needs testing on the everyday military recruit. He has to go through the instruction process to make all of the errors or missteps. That’s all part of the acclimation process. All the bugs have to be evaluated while it’s being field-tested. Then the tech writers have to write the instruction manuals. It’s an elaborate process.”
“What’s holding you back?”
“The proper test subject.”
“Ah, now I get it. You needed a pilot for your little cockpit. That’s why you were talking about me walking again.”
“It’s more than that. It’s helping me along with the process, but I’m offering something in return. I have the means to duplicate all or part of TACS. You can benefit in a different way from it—the mobility application. With a few tweaks, I could customize the frame and retrofit the propulsion feature to work specifically for you. I’ll provide you with your own version in exchange for the research. Diane, were talking about a miracle here.”
“Just as long as I don’t glow in the dark afterwards. When do we start?”
“That’s fantastic. I need to take some fitting measurements and record some data. That’s first.”
“Where do you want me?”
“Now?”
“Why not? It’s going to past my bedtime by the time I get home. I might as well give my roommates something to really howl about.”
He pointed to a long stainless steel table. “I’ll need you stretched out on that. Then I can do a full torso scan and record the data. Problem is…” The hint of a small blush appeared on his face. “You’re wearing a dress and shoes.”
“You’re good at taking things apart. Remove what you don’t need. Unless you’re shy.”
“Not that shy.”
“Problem solved, then.”
He had her maneuver her chair next to the table and then placed a cotton pad over its surface. He lifted her gently onto it, holding her on her side. He unzipped the gown and began to work it down her body, shifting her trunk, inching it past her hips. He next removed her shoes then flattened her on her back, legs straight out, arms at her side. Next he rolled a portable halogen lamp next to the table, directing it down on her. She closed her eyes against the glare. He spoke as he worked.
“I’m running a tape now, getting the limb measurements. That’s so I know where your joints meet.” He left for a moment then returned to place a pair of sunglasses over her face. She opened her eyes, seeing him entering numbers into a calculator. He rolled the combat suit next to the table and began removing the armor pads with hard yanks, which produced ripping sounds. She watched him dismantle the skeleton frame with nimble finger movements, laying the individual parts on the table.
He held the framework pieces next to her, starting with the legs. “I’m using a scratch awl to mark the frame components, along with some additional points that will allow extra support straps. Normally, any soldier can stand under his own strength. In your situation, the frame will have to be modified for both balance and propulsion. Tricky, but doable.”
“How will I keep my balance?”
He scratched his chin. “Probably gyros and weight sensors. That’ll be the hard part.”
“Okay.But how am I going to make my legs move? If my legs don’t move, the robot parts can’t follow. Right?”
He left from her sight for a moment. She could hear him tearing through tool chests, upending boxes on tables, causing a calamitous ruckus. It sounded like he was tearing the place apart looking for something. When he arrived at her side, he asked her to hold out her strong hand.
He took the pinky finger on her right hand and depressed it into a glob of putty, molding the pliable substance around the finger. “I’ve just taken a mold of your digit. I think I have a way for you to operate the lower chassis.”
Diane let him prod, lift, stick and poke. She had no clue of everything he was doing. She was literally in Chet Strauss’s hands. If there was any possibility that she might walk as a result of the experiment, she vowed that she would give it a chance. 
As she lay there, she fell into a dreamy comatose. Her thoughts took her away. She found herself walking barefoot over a hill, feeling the grass between her toes. A chorus of birdsong drifted on the wind, tickling her ears. Several people were at play in the grass, but as she passed, not one of them looked up to stare at her. It felt so normal that she actually felt out of place. She heard someone call out to her from behind, and then felt a hand on her shoulder, someone touching her in a friendly embrace. She looked behind her but saw no one. They had disappeared. Then she heard the voice again.
“Diane!”
She opened her eyes, turned her head. A familiar face came into focus. Chet, her date. He looked thrashed, she thought. “Oh, darn,” she said. “I fell asleep. Sorry, I was bored, just so relaxed.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It made things easier. I’ve got you completely mapped out. It will take me a couple of days to implement the changes.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
He looked at this watch then laughed. “About two hours. Baby is really going to have my ass on a platter.”
“It’s Bibi.” She couldn’t help but notice that he couldn’t keep his eyes off a few places of her anatomy. He’s got that dopey expression on his face again. What was she thinking? She had some dopey thoughts running through her mind at the moment. It gave her the shivers, in a naughty, reckless sort of way. 
She didn’t know why she even considering it. It was even possible she might regret it. But it was too late. The only thing left to do was say it, so she drew a deep breath and let it out. “I know how we can really piss Bibi off,” she said huskily. “And it has nothing to do with being late.”
He stared down at her for a long moment, until a burst of comprehension alighted upon his face, showing her that he understood the suggestiveness of her comment. He did not hesitate when he propped her to undue her brassier. He arched her hips to remove the panties. In the next moment, he was nude upon the table. His fit of passion surprised her. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect with the lovemaking session. A tiny part of her felt disgust and shame. Another part of her yearned to discover the passion that had been so absent in her life. Yet another part convinced her that she didn’t have to give a damn about what anybody thought or said. The inner turmoil within her struggled only briefly.
The I don’t give a damn won out that night.


Submitted: December 24, 2009

© Copyright 2022 Chris Stevenson. All rights reserved.

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