I heard the beating of chopper blades through the window panes and could see a helicopter as it set down on the landscaped yard of Ultima. I watched as Laura crossed grounds on the run to be welcomed aboard, greeted by waiting arms. It was the President's helicopter and I knew then that Laura was his lover.

Irrationally, I wanted to follow her, to try and make some sense out of all this. Surely Laura hadn't faked the times she had told me she loved me! Was I such an abominable cyborg that I had no effect on her emotions, and she had merely used me?

But I was in no condition to search for solutions to these questions, I'd lost a bucket of blood while this had transpired. If I wasn't careful, I'd end up dead on the floor beside Huang, who by now had journeyed on to a happier hunting ground and stared in glazed amazement at his demise. The scream of police sirens coming up the road to the Ultima grounds startled me out of my shock induced daydream.

"You've got to get out of here," I heard a voice in my subconscious. I didn't know if it was my instinctual sense of self preservation talking, or whether Ell was prodding me. I dragged myself to the doorway, braced for a moment, then pushed off into the hall, took two steps and fell like a sack of sand to my knees. At the end of the hallway, I saw a figure, a cat figure with eyes like yellow slits, armed like a commando coming towards me. It was Sapphire.

"That's all I need," I remember thinking. "Catwoman," and I fell flat on my face, drifting into the most beautiful dream.

Ell and I are living in a cabin on the side of a mountain, above the timberline, so high the stars are diamonds on black velvet, diamonds like Ell's eyes.

We look out from our eyrie across a thousand jagged peaks of snow, cold and pristine, and across a thousand forests of evergreen. The air is thin and cold and makes your head giddy with the beauty of it all. We are happy, my dream and I.

The last golden rays of the sun cut the atmosphere and I hear the sound of jazz that is so mellow I cannot decide whether it is real or merely the beauty of being alive and being with Ell

I am in love. In love with a dream who is as real as my imagination will allow.

Ell stands before me, dressed in silver, the light of the brilliant sun making her appear like a crystal through which I could see eternity.

"Do you love me?" Ell asks.

"Yes," I reply, and she kisses me eagerly with lips like the petals of roses.

I touch her breast, and she responds with a blush.

"I have never made love before." She apologizes, then slips the silver gown she wears off her shoulders and lets it slip lingeringly to the floor. She is beautiful. She is as perfect as a marble statue of perfection.

"I have never made love with anyone like you before," I admit, as the thought of previous meaningless dalliances whose coldness froze the heart fleet through my mind.

We make love. Slowly at first, gently and then rising in passion as the two of us fuse in the river of life. Can this be love? Real love? For I created this creature myself out of the primordial soup of electronic entropy within the bits and bytes of a computer network.

But it must be real. I can feel her heart, it beats like a frightened bird.

"Do you love me?" I ask Ell

"I hate you!" She replies. "I cannot love a dream!" And she rises from our bed, dresses quickly in a rainbow and disappears with the setting sun.

I woke with a start.

"Wake up your lazy butt," Sapphire was shaking me. "The whole country is breathing down our necks."

I was pretty damn groggy, beat up physically and confused with the virtual reality I had just exited. I was on a cot in a room whose ambiance was just short of hillbilly rustic.

"Where the hell am I," I sputtered.

"We've hidden you out in the woods, in the mountains down the coast near Monterey," Sapphire gazed into my eyes.

"Well that's just great," I grumped. Finding myself battered and in hiding was less than comforting news. My feelings for Sapphire were understandably confused.

"The whole world is searching for your sorry hide," Sapphire joked. "If we hadn't dragged your bones out of Ultima, they'd be roasting your feet over coals!"

"What are you talking about?" I asked hazily. I barely remembered my assault on Ultima Pharmaceuticals, figured it was some bad dream Ell had put me through.

"Here watch," Sapphire answered, swiveling a portable computer screen on the table and clicking to a FederalYouTube webcast.

"The search for fugitive Dr. Steve Heller is still on," reported perky Suzanne Constable with KUTV 13, wearing her 'grave news' face. "This one man death squad's attempt to assassinate President Clint Williams has left our national security apparatus in an uproar."

Surveillance footage followed of Ultima headquarters, with bodies scattered about the grounds and a charred smoldering production building in the background. The Presidential helicopter was seen rising from the carnage, with tracer bullets trailing its escape.

"Even worse," Constable leaned forward to intone, "This appears to have been an attempt to halt the production of the new SOPOR vaccine. The lives of children that would have been put at risk are incalculable!"

"What is this baloney?" I asked as the reporting ended and an ad for drain cleaner came on. "I didn't try to assassinate President Williams and I sure as hell didn't blow up any buildings at Ultima!"

"The buildings were our work," Sapphire beamed. "And catching the Presidential helicopter was an unexpected bonus. But it's not like you were off visiting Disneyland and had nothing to do with it!"

I gave her a quizzical look, but the news continued after the ad break.

"There is currently a one million dollar reward for information leading to Dr. Heller's capture. Extreme caution is required."

"That reward would pay my orthodontist bill nicely," Sapphire quipped, though I didn't appreciate her humor.

More photos followed, not very good ones, of the infamous Dr. Heller in various sinister poses. Photomorphs, they'd obviously computer enhanced some of my faculty pictures to reflect my evil side. They'd neglected, however, to make available pictures of me in my lightsuit. Maybe it was a security issue.

"So they set me up," I mused after the special had finished. "But I don't even know why!"

"Have you always been this stupid?" Sapphire chided me. "Laura wanted pin Huang's death on so she could take over Ultima Pharmaceuticals. She sits on the Board of Directors you know!"

"I'm sure she has honorary positions with lots of companies," I tried to rationalize. "She's always doing charity work . . ."

"I should put you in a dress and call you Pollyanna," Sapphire cut me off. "Laura has been with Ultima for years, she even worked in the labs there. I'd think when your girlfriend runs off with the President of the United States and they both plotting to do you in, you'd give paranoia a chance."

"I think you are stretching things a bit far . . ."

"So even you don't believe me," Sapphire interrupted. "No one ever believed me."

"No one believed you about what?" I asked, feeling more sympathy for her position than I had before.

"That the President is an evil person. And Laura is no good. They plan everything. The President, the Mahdi, Laura. They know everything." And Sapphire looked around spookily as though she thought that trio was listening to our every words even then.

"Maybe you're not so crazy after all," I suggested, hoping that would be taken as a compliment.

"Of course, Laura tried to turn you against Mae Lin and me, didn't she?"

"Dragging Laura into the mud doesn't help us at all. But let's just say for the moment, I believe your side of this story." I didn't want to admit the obvious to myself, that Laura had betrayed not only me, but Sapphire.

"They've been drugging me for years," Sapphire began to cry. "Black Orchid, they used it on me you know."

"No, I didn't know that" I started connecting more of the dots.

"That's why I tried to kill you," she explained guiltily. "Black Orchid destroys your ability to resist suggestion, it's how the Mahdi controlled me, his own daughter. The Mahdi is the largest importer of Black Orchid from Afghanistan and his Taliban connections. The Mahdi sent me to kill you, and Laura knew. You were standing in the way of Qi Huang and his ability to use the SuperGrid to design a new vaccine, SOPOR. When my effort failed, they wanted Deelon to kill you, but he wouldn't do it. So they killed him with an overdose! It's why they killed Deelon. He was my only brother you know. "

I'd suspected some of this, but the depth of the plot that was evolving still stunned me. "Paranoia isn't irrational after all." I consoled her. "But where's your followers, and where is Mae Lin?"

"A few of my freedom fighters are here, more would only attract attention. Mae Lin is in China Town, laying low. The others have dissolved into the countryside, they live like animals. It's the only place they're safe from the Presidential inoculation teams."

"Inoculation teams?" "Yes, the President has issued an executive order than everyone must be inoculated with SOPOR." Sapphire explained. "Not since the SS rounded up Jews in Germany has a political leader so deftly orchestrated the mass control of his own country's population."

For an American President, it was the ultimate in bravado. The irony was that Clint Williams' popularity was on the rise, his poll numbers were stratospheric, he had effectively linked a mind manipulation campaign to the good of the children. It takes a village, you know, of drugged zombies.

There was more news on FederalYouTube.

"According to new information just being released by the Center for Disease Control, Advanced Neuro-Schleroderma, ANS as it is known, is spreading faster than expected. In other news, the President has fired Qin Huang, former head of the CDC."

The Media had obviously been told not to mention Qin Huang's execution, burying the real news. The President appeared on the monitor, radiant and dressed to kill in a black Armani suit, preaching comfort to a terrified nation.

"I know how worried we all are about the spread of this deadly killer, ANS, Advanced NeuroSchleroderma," he felt our pain. "Unfortunately, the CDC was advancing too slowly, and Congress is simply too divided to make constructive legislation. Therefore, I have exercised my authority as Commander in Chief to extend our warfare against this deadly virus to the entire world. I have also had Dr. Peter Relsek of the Food and Drug Administration arrested on the basis of his criminal neglect in this desperate matter. Sadly, under the laws against wartime treason his execution was necessary. He will be missed."

"Congress is going to howl at this," I predicted. "That's an unconstitutional exercise of power! Does Williams think he's king?"

"It's you who doesn't understand," Sapphire turned to me with an intelligent depth to her eyes. "The inoculations the Federal government are giving against neurotropic schleroderma, ANS, are infecting Americans with SOPOR vaccine. SOPOR doesn't cure ANS, it causes an addiction to Black Orchid. The vaccine receptors are based on the Black Orchid chemical geometry. The Mahdi knew how addicive Black Orchid is and its ability to control minds. That's why they needed your SuperGrid expertise, to bioengineer the Black Orchid geometry into the vaccine. It will leave Americans in a numbed cognitive state that makes them susceptible to commands. The President will own America now."

"Dear God, what have I done?" The guilt overwhelmed me.

Sapphire was right. President Williams was consolidating his putsch through the arrest of the heads of the FDA and the Mahdi at the CDC and now stood unopposed in his manipulation of the American psyche. Ultima Pharmaceuticals, as sole provider of both the inoculations, and the medicinal Black Orchid (clinical name Beta-Hydroxyisobutyrate), had positioned itself as the most powerful company in America, and perhaps the world. With Qin Huang out of the way, the Mahdi now ran the pharmaceutical company to his own liking and ambition. What I didn't know and couldn't bring myself to even think was that Laura had any knowledge of what had gone on.

There was other news.

"In a surprise move, President Williams has made the emergency appointment of Mahdi Ahmadi, CEO of Ultima Pharmaceuticals to head the Center of Disease Control. While this position usually requires approval by the Senate, the President is using his emergency powers to make this emergency special appointment."

Deft political moves, made effortlessly by President Williams, had made a mockery of the legislative process. Congress and the Senate acquiesced meekly, having taken the reading of polls and other vague omens from and auguries (and threats from the Presidential Guard) to heart.

The only thing slowing Williams and the Mahdi down at all had been Sapphire's raid on the Ultima SOPOR vaccine plant, they hadn't counted on that. The production of vaccine had come to a standstill and the inoculation campaign had slowed. They'd counted on me to take Huang out of the picture, but not FOR Sapphire and her insurrectionist to blow up production facilities. Even there, I hadn't planned on killing Huang, it had been Laura who had done that.

"So how did you know to attack Ultima just when I arrived, or was it coincidence," I asked Sapphire.

"It was no coincidence, you sent a message through your message avatar, Ell."

"I did?" I pondered for a moment, but it was obvious Ell had taken this action on her own. I didn't like the idea of my computer software taking the initiative of its own free will. But if Ell hadn't instructed Sapphire to raid the Ultima production facilities the same time I was invading the administrative wing, the vaccine program would already be going full bore.

It wouldn't take long for the government under President Williams and Madhi Ahmadi to bring production back online. That didn't leave much window of opportunity, but perhaps there was still a small chance to stop the takeover of the world.

---Chapter 42---

that nasty-looking sawed off shotgun with the business end aimed at my heart.