Gilbert Bates' mansion, like his mind, was a labyrinth of passageways - most of which led nowhere. I staggered, then jogged, then ran through the corridors and through luck, or fate, finally found Mahdi Ahmadi standing in the mansions' meditation center. The Mahdi held his scimitar as if still prepared to fight, swinging it at whim in a flashing arc that glinted like a mirror.

Behind him stood Laura Silvan, dressed in a Chinese Red imperial gown, looking as though she had just descended from a Chinese mural of the eleventh heaven.

"Dr. Heller, its such a pleasure to see you again," Ahmadi seemed unsurprised when I staggered in. "We've been expecting you," he swaggered, punctuating his words with another swish of his sword.

"I'm afraid I can't return the compliment," I spat, still staggering drunkenly without the aid of my connection to Ell.

"I see you have forsaken your computer trollop," Ahmadi observed, his eyes narrowing to slits. "Such a shame you no longer have a connection to your precious Ell."

"Ell is free now," I bluffed, hoping she had broken free of Gilbert's software shackles. "You have what you want, you have the TROP system. Please leave Ell out of this."

"Ell will never be free," Ahmadi continued, with another swish of his sword. "Ell is much smarter than TROP, she will be the basis for an entire army of clone Future Warriors being produced by Ultima labs right now."

"I gave you what you wanted," I protested. "Your software beat my software!"

"Did you think I would be fooled by the clumsy fight you stage produced?" The Mahdi dismissed my explanation, and he was right. "Ell is critical to the Jihad. The Religion of Peace cannot compete technologically against the decadent kafir of the Western world. We need the Ell code to create the greatest army the world has ever known. We thought you held the key, but it is clear we can form an alliance with Ell herself."

I had hoped the Mahdi would kill me earlier. Without me to write the connection software, Ell might have had a chance to be set free, and I didn't believe Gil Bates was capable of enhancing the TROP code without it being vulnerable to viruses. But the Mahdi knew I'd thrown the match on purpose.

"Ell is a creature in her own right," I responded warily. "She would never have anything to do with you."

"You think of me as a mercenary, an unintelligent butcher." The Mahdi patiently philosophized. "Dr. Heller, I am much more than that, I am the cutting edge of a sword. An alliance with Ell would makes me a natural weapon, I will cultivate her loyalty much better than you."

"She will never follow you!" I protested.

"You are sadly mistaken," Ahmadi smiled wickedly. "She no longer loves you, I will take your place in her lonely heart."

"I think there's someone who can explain things better," Laura spoke up. "A friend of yours."

"Eric," I stuttered as my former engineer friend walked into view. "Its good to see a friend."

"Yes, it's me," he spoke confidently. "But you certainly haven't treated me like a friend, I've been more your mule. While you have been playing action hero, I've been living in the graduate student ghetto on Cheetos and Pepsi. MicroByte Software has simply offered me some career options that I could never have dreamed of working for Kevin Armstrong."

"I don't understand."

"I designed your lightsuit from scratch," Eric looked at me as though I were a dolt. "It was my invention, but you and Armstrong took all the credit."

"That's not true," I protested. "I was just trying to survive!"

"But it is true," Laura defended Eric. "That's why Eric was more than happy to help us construct the TROP lightsuit for our own use."

Ahmadi pulled back his robe, revealing the neuro-fiber network covering his own body, shimmering in shades of silver and gold.

"These petty jealousies don't concern me," the Mahdi interrupted. "Dr. Heller, think of the power you could acquire if you joined us! If such a system could help a hopeless cripple like yourself, think how much it could enhance the powers of a trained army of warriors like myself!"

"There's only one problem," I theorized. "I never was looking for power, so you have nothing to offer me. The fact is, without me to write software to maintain these systems, they will degrade with time."

"Eric has assured me that with time he will be able to duplicate your software abilities," the Mahdi sized up the situation. "So, even should you die now, you have only delayed the inevitable rise of TROP."

"We don't have to be as smart as you are," Eric smirked. "Only smart enough to copy your code. Look, the proof is on the monitor."

Eric had hooked up a remote terminal that tapped a socket on an executing version of Ell. And there appeared a picture not of Laura, as those in the room no doubt thought they were viewing, but a simulation of Ell herself. She was in pain.

They were torturing her.

"God help me if I don't kill you all," I swore to them. Their cruelty to Ell was equivalent to killing a kitten. Ahmadi had a rack of swords on the side of the hall, it was obvious one was meant for me. In a fit of rage I stumbled towards the rack, pulled a sword from its scabbard and turned towards Ahmadi.

"Rage won't help you, it only weakens," Ahmadi philosophized calling on a thousand years of Sufi wisdom. "We will use this experience to train TROP to a higher degree. I hold the advantage over your untrained passions."

"The hell you do," I swore and I began a slashing attack on the Mahdi that lacked any hint of finesse but sang of unrestrained violent passion, sparks flying.

Ahmadi backed up, step by step parrying each slash of my sword with ease.

"Ell sends her love," he mocked me at the end of the series, further enraging me. Then Ahmadi began his own assault, driven by the calculations of the software I had written, the software demon called TROP.

Twang, slang, slang, slang! The swords clashed. Slash! And I felt warm blood trickling down my chest.

"I'm so sorry, your lovely Ell cannot save you now," Ahmadi mocked me. "She is my slave! My mistress!" He drew back his sword and was about to drive his blade up through my chest when he hesitated, stared at me and then let out a bloodcurdling scream. The only element in heaven or hell who could have stopped him is if Ell had been able to attack the TROP operating system.

"Thank you Ell," I prayed out loud, knowing instinctively who my saviour had been. With all my force and all my soul I closed my eyes and swung my blade with all the fury I had contained in me for so long. All the frustrations, the embarrassment, the ridicule boiled in that swing and I severed Ahmadi's God forsaken skull from his body and watched as his torso collapsed and his head bounced on the hard floor like a coconut.

There was a long moment of silence as it dawned on all present that the world had just changed fundamentally and that Dr. Steve Heller was now in control. The little weasel Eric scurried off like vermin, I could deal with him later. It was Laura I was worried about.

"How could a woman resist you," Laura's features had suddenly melted from hateful vixen to femme fatale. She was always the consummate actress-chameleon. "Steve, you have saved me from Ahmadi, he was a devil. I am finally free to be yours!"

I was still gasping for breath, not at all sure what she was getting at. I was actually more worried what they had done to Ell, trying to enslave her to Mahdi Ahmadi's petty ambitions. Ell was still on the monitor, confused. She seemed to have some sort of sensory connection to the room, perhaps through Ahmadi's headless body, because she appeared to be intent on processing the incoming signals.

"A strong woman like me needs a strong man like you," Laura hissed with a sexuality that sizzled. She began to walk towards me.

I could see Ell was watching, intently.

"I loved you once," I returned warily. How much more harm could this woman do to me than she already had? I was ready to call a truce and walk away.

"I've always loved you," Laura lied so convincingly I almost wanted to believe her. "Ahmadi and the others forced me to take part in this. They threatened Crystal's life if I didn't cooperate. If I didn't love you, I could have killed you when Qin Huang wanted."

I could see Ell through the corner of my eye, she had been watching Laura's sudden transformation with dread. She looked suddenly so sad that I wanted to tell her that I loved her. I knew then I loved her more than anything, more than any human in the universe.

But Laura was next to me, her body clinging to me, and she kissed me passionately. I tried to push her away.

"Laura, you had your chance and you blew it," I told her with a sense of disgust. I suddenly saw the monitor begin to go through an explosion of colors in what I knew instinctively was Ell's way of expressing infinite jealousy.

"Ell!" I began to try and patch up the hurt, but Laura was on me again, kissing me, wrapping her arms around me, pulling a hairpin out of her hair with which she was about to kill me.

I saw her in a mirror and I knew what had to be done. I grabbed her hand and beat it against the wall until she dropped the pin.

"You will always be my Queen," I said as I looked deep into her burning eyes. "I'm sorry, Laura," I told her sincerely, but then I choked her. I strangled her until she could breathe no more. When I was done, I lay her body on the floor, then I kneeled beside her and collapsed too, a loss of blood combined with shear exhaustion of the flesh having finally overcome shear will.

---Chapter 55---