The Greeks believed thought was as fast as the speed of light. I know better than that now.

If I'd taken the time to think what my response to Mahdi Ahmadi's sword should have been I would have been cut in half. Instead, I had been forced to react by instinct to save myself. The primitive, heady lust for survival took over where logic would have failed. Instinct is faster than thought, it is faster than light.

Avoiding death through dismemberment made life a thousand times more dear. It focused the howling vortex of forces around me into a resonant harmonic, like a wind chime organizing the chaotic wind. This might be Sufi enlightenment, or maybe it was just a flood of neurochemicals in the brain. I was left unsure whether Mahdi Ahmadi was a Sufi Master, whose objective in the preceding swordplay was to bring me to a higher state of consciousness, or whether he was a mad mongrel dog waiting for the opportunity to rip me to shreds.

I suspected he was the mongrel, a mixture of a hundred cultures and ambitions that all competed for light and air in the form of one complex human being. Still, I owed him one, for showing me I possessed an inner strength I'd never experienced before. What bothered me though was that I didn't know where this primitive survival instinct had come from and I was even less sure that it was even mine and not that of stray electrical impulses.

"Are you all right," Laura asked in a mothering tone as she helped me from the floor.

"Hell yes, I'm fine," I blustered as my software went through a restart procedure and I found my feet. "Where the hell is that bastard so I can cut his stupid head off!"

I certainly didn't look like a warrior at that moment. While I'd floundered on the floor, Ahmadi had unceremoniously left the room, headed for bed and one of his innumerable concubines.

"Does that man have a nervous system?" I fumed.

"Calm down, Steve," Laura tried to soothe. "He didn't mean you any harm."

"Didn't mean me any harm?" I shouted. "My God, he almost cut me in two! Coming anywhere near him or any of his lunatic bloodline is incredibly dangerous to my health!"

"Remember, I told you I wanted to talk to you, that there were important things we needed to discuss?"

"This isn't exactly the time to be discussing anything except how I'm going to get as far away from this place as possible!"

"Steven, this is exactly the time to be discussing things because you're not going anywhere without me. I have the car keys, remember?"

She had me there, so I packed up my bruised ego and we went out to the car to get our things, me complaining the whole way.

"Now I guess I get to go up and bunk with some hundred year old bald headed Sufi nun," I continued to grouse. "A perfect ending to a perfect day."

"You can do that if you want," Laura caught me off guard. "But personally, I thought you were going to stay in my bungalow tonight. I never have really asked you what your preference was in women and perhaps grandma Ling Ling will have you, though she's getting pretty particular who she sleeps with in her old age."

"No, I think your bungalow would be fine," I acknowledged brightening to the possibilities of being alone with Laura, though at the same time shuddering with dread. In Laura's offer was the subtle temptation of sex and lovemaking, what did I have to offer her? The paralysis had cut me off from the enjoyment of physical tenderness, though when someone is paralyzed it doesn't mean they have lost their desire, only perhaps that they've lost the means to satisfy that desire.

Or so I thought.

"You seem to be promising me some grand revelation about yourself, but you keep avoiding the moment of truth," I tried to sidestep the awkwardness of the silence that had ensued. We were walking towards a small cabin that was nestled just inside the woods that ringed the meadow, on the side of the ridge.

"We have all night to talk," Laura replied.

"And can I ask what you and I are going to talk about?"

"About everything, of course." Laura replied cryptically.

We reached the bungalow and went in, there was no key needed, there wasn't even a lock.

"Aren't you afraid the cabin will be broken into?" I asked, showing my modern paranoia born of urban terror.

"No," Laura replied. "No one comes onto the hill without us knowing about it. We take care of ourselves."

"So what would you like to tell me, now that you have me here alone," I asked after we'd brought the few clothes and things I'd accumulated at the hospital into the cabin. It was far from a rustic hideaway. Though rustic was the decorating style it was actually luxurious with a small mosaiced kitchenette, a balcony and a view across pine forests to the ocean.

"I want to tell you more about me and who I am," Laura replied. "I think it's important."

"I already know what I need to know," I replied, a bit naively. "I know you're talented singer, a strong woman with her head on her shoulders. I know you care about the people around you. Your heart is in the right place, like the way you protected Sapphire."

"That's not enough, Steven" Laura beckoned. "You need to know me."

She walked towards a back room that I could see was a bedroom almost completely filled with a thick black silk quilted bed. She turned in the doorway and silhouetted against the dark room behind her, she slowly unbuttoned her blouse and revealed what I had long suspected, two perfectly formed breasts with nipples that stood at attention.

"God, you're beautiful," I said stunned.

"Come and tell me who you are," Laura smiled in response.

It was an invitation no man could refuse. After nearly falling over from the shock like the rusted Tin Man trying to prove he had a heart, I joined Laura in the bedroom. We kissed for a long passionate moment and then she proceeded to strip me.

"We don't need the lights I guess," she joked when she had taken my shirt off. She turned off the lighting and my lightsuit sparkled with illumination that seemed to make me physically tingle in anticipation. Erotic anticipation that was of course impossible because of the paralysis.

"No, I come with my own illumination," I smiled as Laura finished disrobing me, and then she left for a moment to turn off the inner room's lights.

I stood there in the dark like a piece of sculpted ice art as the fibers of my lightsuit pricked and dazzled in rainbow hued stars. The nervous system that I wore as a skin transmitted information unfailingly to the distant SuperGrid and gave me motion, but that was the problem. There was motion but no emotions in this technological wonder.

"You're a beautiful man," Laura spoke quietly but with an almost lusty tinge. "I've never made love to a laser beam before." She came close to me and we kissed again.

My mental image of myself was of a jellyfish, a paralyzed mass of flesh without physical dimension. From Laura's look, evidently I wasn't the amorphous blob of flesh that I had fixed in my imagination. The months of use of the lightsuit and the constant bioelectrical workouts had returned the muscle tone to my body and I seemed etched like a rock in the dim light. Laura seemed pleased.

I ran my hands lightly down the sides of Laura's body, making her shiver. Now I helped undress her and in the aura of light I gave off, her body seemed to glow with its own lusty radiance.

Never before in my life had I wanted to make love to a woman more than I did at that moment, though at the same instant I also realized with utmost force that that was impossible. I was merely a machine, the man in me was paralyzed and the lovemaking Laura and I were attempting was little better than a cruel charade. I began to cry, if that is something a man can admit to, because it was all so damn futile.

"I guess this is as far as we can go," I stuttered.

"Why is that?" Laura asked. "You are aroused you know."

How in hell would I know something like that when I was paralyzed from the neck down? But indeed I was physically aroused though I could feel nothing, at least not in the way that sexual arousal usually means. I did sense a confusion, an excitement I wasn't sure I wanted to lose. Whether those feelings were raging hormones or some nebulous psychic connection with Laura, I knew there was no retreat. I was lost in an emotional morass from which I knew there was no escape, the only one who had any chance of saving me from self destruction was Laura Silvan.

"Make love to me," Laura said and I took her in my arms and as best we could we made love that night, though I could in one sense feel nothing of what that usually means.

Yet, may I be damned if the human soul doesn't need love on a far more profound level than that of physical sensations alone. For I needed Laura as you can not perhaps imagine in your wildest drams. So we made love and though I could not touch her nor could I feel her, we touched and I was moved more deeply by these feelings than at any time in my life.

And when we were both satisfied, I looked at Laura and I cried like a big baby.

"Don't cry," she said. "I know how hard it must be, but I'm here to lean on."

"Oh God, Laura," I confessed my agony. "It's as if I were disconnected, as if my soul were floating a million miles away from my body. I'm so lonely I can hardly bear it."

We lay there for a while in each other's arms and though I couldn't feel the woman at my side the way normal people can, I could smell the heady scent of her perfume and hear her heart beat.

"Do you love me," Laura asked quietly.

I responded slowly, but ever so surely, savoring the implications.. "Laura, I've loved you since the first moment I saw you," I admitted. "But do you love me?"

"I don't know, she replied. "I don't know."

There is hardly a more lonely feeling than the one I felt at that moment, Laura had left me hanging by a thread.

"Now it's time to talk," Laura forged ahead, as if by telling me she wasn't sure whether she loved me she had removed a millstone from her neck. "I told you there are some things you need to know."

"Well, I'm listening," I replied peevishly, sulking from not having been proclaimed the Alpha and Omega of Laura's existence.

"Crystal is my daughter," Laura spoke firmly.

The implication was like being hit by a brick. "God, Laura," I sputtered in shock. "You mean the young girl we met earlier? I thought you said she was one of Mahdi Ahmadi's children!" And even as I said it, I remembered Crystal's persian features and suddenly Laura's connection to this place became all too clear.

"Yes, Crystal's my daughter by Mahdi Ahmad," Laura confessed, watching my reaction. "The Mahdi and I were married, at least as far as Mahdi tradition."

"I can't believe this," I sputtered in exasperation. "You've been leading me on all this time as though I meant something to you! I can't believe how you've played me for a complete idiot!"

"You don't understand!" Laura pleaded. "The Mahdi saved my life."

"And what does that have to do with anything?" I asked, by now growing furious. "How could you have anything to do with that creep?"

"I was addicted to drugs," Laura replied, a tear showing in her eye that flowed in a bitter rivulet. "Steven, you think you're the only one who is left alone in this world, but there are fates far worse than yours. You can't imagine what it is like to be a prisoner to a chemical!"

"So what are you, a crack addict who ended up sleeping with Mahdi Ahmadi for a fix?"

"That's not fair, Steven." Laura held back a sob. "I suppose you think my little girl is a creep too?"

"I didn't say that."

"But you meant it. I was only fifteen at the time with no place to go, even my parents had disowned me. I was hooked on Black Orchid, I'd be dead by now if it weren't for the Mahdi."

"I've never heard of Black Orchid, what the hell kind of crazy drug is that?"

"All I can tell you is that it is more addictive than anything you can imagine in your wildest nightmares," Laura whispered. "It's like stepping into another reality. Like stepping into hell."

"So in return for freeing you from your inner demons, you gave Mahdi Ahmadi a child?" I responded cruelly.

"Her name is Crystal, Steven. And you have some nerve talking about her as if she were some ill begotten love child. You don't know anything about Crystal or me. You don't know one damn thing about what we've been through!"

Of course, Laura was right, as usual. I really didn't know what was going on and it wasn't fair to take out my emotional frustration by blaming a child for its birthright. We both lay there quietly for the next few minutes while our blood pressure dropped from the stratosphere.

"I apologize," I finally broke the silence. "I said some things that were inappropriate, shameful."

"I guess I gave you more than you could handle," Laura admitted. "My life is more complicated than a decade of soap operas."

"Well, you weren't kidding when you said you had something to tell me," I began to calm down despite myself. "You've already given me enough to think about for a couple light years." After a moment of thought, I added one question. "Is this all of it?"

"Most of it, I don't think you want me to go into all the details right now."

"No more details," I agreed. "You can save them for the next time I'm having a stroke." I thought Laura would laugh, but she took me seriously.

"If you want to leave now, I wouldn't blame you," she replied.

"I can take you home if you like," and I noticed she was trembling like a leaf.

"No, Laura, I think we should just sleep on it and see what the morning brings."

"Does that mean you might forgive me?"

"That's something I don't know about right now." I replied. "You've just added an order of magnitude of chaos to my life and I'm not sure how to handle it."

I lay there, staring out the small bedroom window at the stars outside, listening to the wind that rushed through ocean pines. Laura lay awake beside me for a long time too, until she finally dropped off into a fitful sleep. I can't imagine all the things that were going through her mind, but I can tell you my thoughts were a meat grinder.

What the hell did Laura expect from me, that I should treat her the same as before after what she'd just told me? On the other hand, who was I to condemn her for actions about which I knew nothing? Mahdi Ahmadi could be the 12th Imam himself come to begin the End Times and I couldn't have figured it out. In any event, it wouldn't be easy sorting this all out with Laura.

I thought about letting myself fall asleep, to just stop thinking about it all, but I remembered how my dreams had been the last few nights at the hospital, a complete white nothingness. As strange as my relationship with Laura Silvan had grown, at least it was flesh and blood real, so unlike the hyper reality I had been experiencing in my dreams. Better to be alone with Laura than to slip into the dream world of Ell.

It was about three thirty in the morning that a neon blue light was seen running up the road from Laura's bungalow. There was the roar of a car engine from the extensive garage Mahdi Ahmadi maintained for himself and in a moment a sportscar blasted past sleeping guards and was on the road along the Santa Cruz mountains.

The driver looked like me, but I wouldn't know. My mind was floating a million miles from earth and I didn't know how to get it back.

---Chapter 21---