Lou stalked behind the guard Winston had nicknamed Butch. He was still compliant, under their control, not showing any signs he was in any way slipping control of the wiper. Winston had issued the first command to the bulky man.
“Lead us to the lab.“ Winston had said as he detailed the route he had planned using the cameras. “And keep any other guards off our backs, OK?“
The man nodded.
When they reached the first place they expected to find a pair of guards, there were none. Lou began to feel on the edge of disaster with every step, every second, wondering when something was suddenly going to jump out at her. Every corner turned was a rush, and then more anxiety. Soon they were just outside the area which contained the lab, standing in front of a door, which, according to what they had seen on the cameras, should have two guards on the other side of it.
Lou leaned over to whisper, “What happened to the other guards?“ Winston shrugged, looked around. “Dunno, it does seem weirdly calm and quiet...“
“Well, what now?“ Lou asked.
“We need a distraction. Draw them out, then ambush them.“ Winston said. "I still want to know what happened to all the other guards though. They have to be somewhere...“
Now Lou shrugged. “You're lucky, remember?“ Winston gave her a mocking grin and a little laugh.
“Right.“ he said.
As if talking about them had made them appear, two blank-faced, similar-looking guards rounded the corner Lou and Winston had just come from. They must have been close behind us. As soon as they came into view, saw Lou and Winston, their faces were no longer blank. They both snarled slightly and immediately reached into their blazers at the same time.
“Winston!“ Lou called. To the guard they had wiped, Winston barked and pointed, “Get them!“ For a long nerve-wracking second the man just stared at Winston. Has he slipped control? Then his face constricted into a snarl like that of the two interlopers, and he rushed at them. She could see him in the same perspective as the two new guards now, saw he was actually quite a bit larger than either of the others. His attack was quite a bit more fierce, forceful. Does the tone of the command given have some effect? It made her head swim just thinking about that could be possible.
“Winston we have to get this door open!“ Lou said her voice strained.
“I know, I'm trying....“ Winston said, face hovering around the access panel, “I think I got...it!“ A click sounded. The door swung inward. One of the new guards was already lying on the floor, unconscious. The two remaining were also on the floor, grappling with each other. The wiped guard bled from a gash on his head.
Lou didn't think Butch could last much longer. The new guard was already gaining the upper hand. Lou made a snap judgment. She ran over to the pair, threw a hard roundhouse kick into the face of the new guard. He managed to look up at the sound of her approach, just the right moment to catch the heel of her foot square across his nose and cheek. His eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed into a heap across the wiped guard.
“Are you OK?“ Lou asked, forgetting for a moment he wasn't her friend and she needn't care about his well-being. The man grunted, threw his limp opponent off his chest. He got, swaying, to his feet. A cut, just above his eye, provided at least some of the blood cascading down his face and over his uniform blazer. He seemed unaffected for the most part otherwise.
“Go in there...“ Lou pointed towards the door Winston had opened. “..and take out any guards in there.“ Again the guard paused, stared at her, slack-jawed, as though he hadn't even heard her, or if he had, hadn't understood. She repeated her instructions, this time more forcefully, louder. He blinked at her and started to walk in that direction, stopped. His head shook gently from side to side, as though he were trying to shake away a sneeze.
“He's slipping control!“ Lou said urgently. Winston swore. A sound distracted him, his head turned back towards the door. It had swung further open. Lou's hopes crashed to the floor. Four guards were on the other side of the now-opened door. They rushed towards them. They were of a size with the two lying insensate on the floor, smaller than Butch, they looked focused. Their eyes fixed upon Winston and Lou, Butch of no mind.
Remembering her thought, that tone of voice, urgency of command might have some effect on a wiped mind, Lou screamed at Butch. Winston moved away from the door, a Taser suddenly in his hands, crackling with potential. “Attack them! KILL THEM!“ Lou shouted, angry, full of anguished fear, and a little shame. The wiped guard blinked again. Snarling, he threw himself at his four fellows.
They saw it coming. Two broke off, tackled the wiped guard. The ensuing tussle on the carpeted floor consumed all three. The other two came at Lou and Winston, now standing shoulder to shoulder. Lou was bounced on her feet, her fists slightly raised.
Relax. Breathe. Don't panic. Both men were larger than her. If she could control her emotions, focus her mind, she might be able to beat one of them. Even though the last time she'd fought a wiped guard she had nearly been killed, only a passing subway had saved her. It is what it is. Winston will have to handle the other.
It didn't happen that way.
Both guards rushed Winston. Perhaps they had seen the Taser, thought it the most serious threat so they attacked the teenage boy. He was overwhelmed in seconds. The Taser never even came close to connecting. Lou watched, stuck to the spot, as one guard pressed Winston face first, and roughly, into the wall. The guard carefully plucked the Taser right out of Winston's hands. It was like watching a grown man handle a toddler.
Time seemed to slow down. Lou took in the whole scene around her. Butch had the two guards, both had now awoken, on the floor occupied. He was clearly weakening, wouldn't last much longer. Butch won't win this time. Winston's eyes rolled like a terrified horse, the guard who had plucked his Taser now had a hand over Winston's throat. Lou had some inkling of what he must be feeling. The depth of fear she had felt the first time someone had forcefully overwhelmed her, the first time she had truly felt powerless, weak. Completely unable to do anything, at the mercy of someone stronger. That fear rushed back to her as empathy. She could even see the face of the security guard from the orphanage who had inspired her first fear. The first time she had been manhandled and beaten.
It was a tsunami of buried rage being released. Years of holding back her emotions, years of walling those parts of her psyche up, years of not letting anything slip past her fortified gates, all of that crashed back. Rebounding ten times as strong. A hundred. A thousand. The rush was so strong her whole body shook. Her clenched fists dug her nails deeply into her palms, the hardness of her fingernails caused a pain which didn't hurt, but rather sharpened her focus. Channeled her rage. Had she been able to see her own face the transformation would have shocked her, it was as if she had been wiped. Her features went blank. Slack-jawed. Calm. Her mouth tightened. Her eyes opened wide and the irises narrowed.
Lou was a blur of movement. Leaping into the air, her first punch took the advancing guard directly in the throat. Her flattened, tensed hand smashed against the man's vocal cords with perhaps the most satisfying crunch she had ever felt. All the pain she had felt gone. Her side no longer hurt. It was as if the beating Alexander had given her had not happened. The guard she struck in the throat went rigid, his eyes widened in brief pain, but not shock. They were still blank and expressionless, staring at her, and nothing, simultaneously. He collapsed, clutched at his throat, made a horrible gurgling noise while he writhed on the floor. Lou hardly noticed, she was already spinning around. Her outthrust leg caught the guard holding Winston just below the knee, toppling him to the floor. Before he could recover Lou braced herself against the body of the other fallen guard and kicked with both her feet, heels out first. She struck the second guard in the midsection, one foot smashed into his rib cage and the other his love-handle, just above his kidney. She felt and heard another crunch. I broke at least one of his ribs, maybe drove it into his lung.
Seconds later she was on her feet, towering over the guard, who was curled into a ball, gasping for breath, clutching at his mid-section. One arm cradled across himself, trying to reach his side, as if he could somehow rub the pain away. He shouted a wordless wheeze of pain, devoid of anything but raw physical response. Lou was still caught firmly in the twirl of her surging rage. Blood pounded against her temples and throbbed in her chest. She felt invincible, strong, but disconnected. She didn't even blink as she brought her foot hard down across the wheezing guard's face, breaking his nose and forcing some of his teeth down his throat. A second kick and his eyes were swollen shit. A third and he was reduced to a twitching mass of woolen blazer and useless muscles.
Lou saw none of that, she was already moving forward after her last kick, her hand upraised, bristling with fury. Unaware of the throbbing in her foot which told her she might have hurt herself.
“Lourdes! NO!“ A shout pounded against her ears, a familiar voice from some distant time, some long ago, when she was a different person. Something other than the force of nature she was now. That familiar voice echoed in her mind. Faces flashed across her mind's eye. A beautiful, thick-haired Latino woman who vaguely resembled Lou herself, her features fuzzy and strange, like she was two dimensional and had been cut out of a photograph. Next, a beefy, thickly-mustached man, young and dashing, in a full-body pilot's suit, his frame stacked with muscle and hidden menace, his face split by a grin of such happiness, such pride, it made him glow. He too looked as if he had been culled from a photograph and blurred around the edges. Other faces flashed by as quick as her mind could summon, notice, and dismiss them.
Each one screamed the same thing, “Lourdes! NO!“ Finally one face flashed by and stayed, a familiar, pleasant face of an always smiling teenage boy with a decidedly mischievous twinkle in his eye. A handsome boy, ash-blonde hair wavy and precisely unkempt.
“Wi... Winston?“ Lou mumbled hazily. Her fist stopped inches short of smashing his handsome face. She quivered, fist shaking, not lowering. Hovering like a pointed, armed missile. Winston's face slowly came fully into focus, smiling. But it was a desperate, worried smile. His forehead dripped sweat, he was shaking, body pressed as hard against the wall as he could. As though he were trying to dissolve himself into it. “Lou, please! No!“ Winston said, emphatically staring at her while she had him pinned to the wall.
Lou lowered her fist and nearly fell to her knees. She was bent over, side throbbing in pain. Her foot ached nearly as bad. Her elbows balanced on her knees, she took deep, gulping breaths. She felt she had just run thirteen miles at a clip, the run ending with her smashing full force into an unexpected concrete wall. Her body shook with emotion. The rage which had consumed her was not gone, only ebbed. For a moment, an hour, a day, a year, Lou had no idea.
Somehow she had completely lost control. As the fugue receded, she realized she had enjoyed it. She had been powerful, unstoppable, and she had loved it. It was like a whole different person lived inside her skin, waiting for her to let her guard down, so it could pounce on the wheel and steer for itself. Do wiped people or those with implants feel something similar.
A disturbing idea.
The thought of a wiped person brought her mind back to Butch. He was unconscious, on the floor, next to a guard bleeding from the nose and mouth. The bleeding guard was all fours, coughing up blood and shaking violently. The other guard rose, and though his face looked like it would be heavily bruised in a few hours, he was otherwise undamaged. Worse, he had a gun and was advancing on Lou, drawing a bead on her through a squinted eye.
He shot at her, barely missing, the bullet slamming into the wall behind her. His glance took in the whole scene. He clearly saw Lou was the threat, spared no attention for Winston. Lou slowly raised her arms up, palms outward and her mouth opened as she exhaled deeply, angrily.
“Please, don't shoot me!“ Lou managed to say, “Please! I won't...“ But she didn't get anymore words out because the advancing guard suddenly began violently shaking. His gun fired again. Lou dove for the ground, arms wrapping around her head as she tucked into a roll. She kept her eyes on the man as long as she could. He continued to shudder and shake, gun firing several more wild shots, until he collapsed to the floor, mouth foaming and his gun balanced on his flaccid palm. Lou waited a few seconds, hands clasped over the back of her head before she looked up.
Winston on his knees, hovering over the prone shape of the still twitching but otherwise incapacitated shooter, clutching a humming Taser in his left hand. A sickly little smile lit up the boy's face, though he panted as well. He saw Lou looking at him, blushed furiously.
“You OK?“ Winston asked.
“Yeah. I... I thought I was going to die. But yeah.“ Lou said. "I... thanks.“
Winston grinned more, “I owed you one, or two, or three. When that guy had me pinned against the wall I just knew he was going to snap my arm off, if he didn't choke me to death. I don't think I've ever been that scared. Like ever. “ Winston shuddered as he spoke. All the faces she had seen came back to her, the memories flooded her mind. Only this time not riding a tidal wave of rage. Her mother, her father. Girls from several of the homes she had lived in. Girls from Juvie. Women and men who staffed those places. Guards, Police. The horrid L'Jean. Social Workers. Counselors. It was like her whole past had just played through her mind's eye, one face at a time. Each moving so quick the image was gone in nanoseconds, leaving only an afterimage of memory behind. Lou looked down at her fists and her stomach clenched. She had to struggle to keep from vomiting.
“You look... green. Are you sure you're OK?“ Winston said.
“Yeah. Come on. We've got to destroy those wipers.“ Lou said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. As she walked towards the door Butch shuddered and started to rise, a look dawning on his face when saw Lou and Winston. He's no longer under the control of the wiper. Butch's mouth tightened and he lurched toward her. But his body had been used hard. He stumbled, fell forward. Lou kicked him in the face, almost casually, the expected crunch sent a warm tingle up her spine. This feels great. When Butch shook and fell to the floor, but moved as though he would get back up, Lou turned her back on him and calmly picked up the gun dropped by the guard Winston had Tased. Her hand wrapped around the warm metal. Without pausing, without thinking, she twisted around, placed the barrel of the gun against the back of Butch's head.
“Lou, please! NO!“ A shout came, as if from a long, deep tunnel. More like an echo of a shout, a whirling menagerie of faces mouthing the words before Winston's face settled in her vision, his mouth moving as he said, “Lou, please! NO!“
She blinked and pulled the trigger.