Could selfish love for another human be worth risking the future of the entire world? Millions have sacrificed their souls for the common good, while I seemed destined to sacrifice my soul for love. Rationalizing that I certainly wasn't the first didn't make it feel any better. Perhaps that is why Cupid carries his arrows, they aren't needed to make people fall in love, they are needed for the bloody consequences.

"Is it true what Ahmadi and Qin Huang told me Laura?" I asked uncomfortably after I found Laura. "That you have a disease caused by Black Orchid addiction and I'm the only one who can save you?"

"Yes, Steven," Laura hesitated, looking so helpless, but she'd known already what was being asked of me. "I didn't want them to tell you!"

"Why the hell didn't you tell me yourself?" I asked, feeling hurt. "I mean, its not like I don't wear my own medical problems on the outside," I pointed to the neurological web I wore as a skin. "And you've dealt with my, ummm, limitations. I would like to be someone for you to lean on too."

Laura smiled a little, but didn't respond immediately. Instead she looked distantly out the window towards the green manicured lawns of Ultima Pharmaceuticals that stretched below.

"I have a dreadful disease, Steven. Your paralysis caused you to lose touch with your body, but I will lose my mind as my disease progresses. Because I was addicted to Black Orchid, my own nervous system is being progressively destroyed by genetic mutation. Your body may not function as before, but at least your humanity still remains. With me there will be nothing left. . ."

"Come now Laura, you don't lose your humanity just because you have a genetic disease." But I was at a loss how to console someone pouring out such devastating news.

"That's a lie, Steven, and you know it!" Laura burst out and then began to cry. "I will be a vegetable! It is even worse than Alzheimer's! They lose their memory of the world but I'll be conscious of everything, in an unending nightmare!"

"Laura, I don't know how to help", I responded helplessly. "I thought Black Orchid caused euphoria, I didn't realize it has such negative effects."

"Steven, for the first year, addicts live on a constant high," Laura confided. "But then the nightmares come. People on Black Orchid commit suicide when the nightmares become too strong, that's why you hear so little about it. People just drop out and disappear."

"I read it was just an opiate from poppy pods," I mused, "just another type of heroin. But heroin doesn't automatically make people suicidal."

"That's because Black Orchid was originally a biowarfare agent, not just another form of heroin. It wasn't intended to make people suicidal, it was meant to make them controllable. In essence, it's genetically modified heroin, grown from poppies it is not only an addictive opiate, but a mutagen. It's nasty stuff, only a crazed human could have believed it would be useful in war."

"And how would you know all these details?" I asked incredulously. "That isn't something you learn from getting a biochemistry degree."

"Dr. Huang has been advising me," Laura admitted. "About what I'm facing. Black Orchid was originally produced by Wuhan Lab, by Qin Huang's father in fact, so he knows the dark details." Laura seemed expressionless, as if this meant nothing.

"My God, so Qin Huang is responsible for this!?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Steven," Laura continued matter of factly. "In fact, Qin Huang is trying his utmost to make amends for his father's actions, which is commendable. You must remember, Huang's father was working during the illegal war of America against the Taliban, fighting the American imperial expansion. There were mistakes made, and Black Orchid has become a moral millstone around Qin Huang's neck."

"But, how did you get addicted in the first place?" I asked the most obvious but nagging question.

"I was at the University of California doing my biochemistry degree. Like many others I was caught up in the nihilist Earth Movement," Laura beamed, oddly proud. "We sincerely believed that the rape of the Earth precluded humans from being in charge of this planet. The only avenue that seemed to offer redemption was to drop out, mentally and physically, to give the Earth a chance to heal!"

"Now that was a stupid idea, " I began to bloviate, but I thought better of it. "At least you were trying to affect the world in a positive way. I'm just not sure that dropping out of the fight for civilization was the way to go."

"I realize that now," Laura admitted. "But there was an entire movement. The only person who seemed to care was the Mahdi. He saved me from annihilation, pulled me back from the brink. He made a woman out of me."

"How in the world did the Mahdi find you?"

"The Mahdi came to lecture on campus, promoting the Religion of Peace movement. His words were comforting to me. He told us we are not the Masters of our planet, but that He had a plan for us."

"A plan??"

"To save our souls! To bring peace to the world. The Mahdi helped me break from taking Black Orchid, he gave me the meditation skills to break free. But the addiction is permanent, it progressively attacks the genetic coding of nerve cells. It was the Mahdi who then brought me to Dr. Huang."

"So the meditation was not a cure?" I questioned.

"No, it broke the cycle, but Black Orchid is a biowarfare agent. The only reason I have done well so long is because Qin Huang was able to inhibit the progressive DNA recoding, though he couldn't stop the progression totally. He failed completely with Sapphire, that's why I hope you can forgive her, Steven."

"Sapphire is in the end stages of the disease? That makes a lot of things clear," I admitted. "But I don't understand where I can help."

"Steven, you are the only one who can help!" Laura continued almost bitterly. "I assume they told you what needs to be done. Now you have to prove you love me, and you love Crystal!"

"I assume you mean by stealing a virus, a virus so deadly its locked in a steel vault by the CDC?"

"Yes, if that's what you have to do! You know it's my only alternative. Our only alternative."

"I don't know, Laura. You know I'd go to the ends of the earth to save you. I'll even steal this damn virus if that's what is necessary. But it doesn't seem right, it just doesn't seem quite right."

Laura was completely agitated now, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. I was afraid she was about to have a blackout. Her eyes were yellow, with black slits for pupils. I had seen these eyes before somewhere, in a nightmare perhaps, and they nearly provoked a flashback. They were Sapphire's eyes.

"Perhaps I need you to prove you need me," Laura's mood suddenly changed. "Perhaps you need to show just how much you love me!"

Laura sidled up to me like a purring cat, dependent on its owner for its next meal and willing to provide whatever instantaneous affection was needed to obtain another bowl of catfood.

She locked my head between her hands, looked deep into my eyes and then began to kiss me in such a passionate way, rubbing her knee up my side, I thought we were both going to explode, though where those sensations came from I didn't know.

"Laura, this might not be appropriate," I protested weakly. The instantaneous passion was exhilarating, but the office of Ultima was hardly the place to be indulging in an orgy.

But Laura couldn't be denied her animal frenzy and she pushed me onto a sofa, literally climbing on top to straddle me. Her leather mini-skirt hiked up, she began what was as close to male rape as might be imagined, and the emotions were so overpowering that I responded.

My primitive hormonal responses are the same as any man's; my severed spinal cord had not affected my biochemistry. But responses that involved my nervous system, emotional responses, were subject to my software. Software that wasn't necessarily under my control.

Ell was my software. While Ell had started as a low level collection of command and control software code, now she was a highly evolved feedback network full of complicated twists and algorithms. I had the feeling a software shutdown was building, a dynamic collapse that seemed like rage, like passionate jealousy.

"Laura," I protested again, my head spinning crazily.

"Make love to me, here! Now!" She begged, demanded.

"Laura," I protested again, my head spinning with a paintpot of colors. A conflict between the emotions of sex and the emotional revolution that had overtaken my software threw me into a violent spasm. I'm not quite sure what happened next, whether I made love to Laura then and there, or whether I was teleported to Timbuktu for all I knew.

I simply passed out in a black fog.