105: Joanna

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Joanna chose her opening words carefully. “We couldn’t defeat them in an even fight, but I thought we might still get the rock back with a surprise attack.”

After waiting for a moment, with Benjamin still making no comment, she went on. “But somehow, the cop had already merged with the rock, and he had already learned how to use it. I don’t understand how he could do that. I’m sure he was using that same raw fire technique that I use, but it took me weeks to learn that, and he was using it to hit me with a dozen times the flame I ever managed. He was tossing around flux like it was nothing. He had absolutely no control, just hideous, raw power, but there was no way to defend against it. We had no choice but to get out.”

Her words sat for several seconds before Benjamin replied.

“You went after him again.”

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She grimaced. Three of her clansmen had died in that second attack. “I sent my people after him. I remained behind with Tirith. I was hoping our soldiers could overwhelm them with numbers.”

“Why didn’t you join that attack?”

The device in her skull tightened around her mind, and she shuddered. He was demanding to know, but she had to somehow answer his question without tripping any of the hundreds of commands in it that forced her to be respectful and submissive to him. She chose her words with extreme care.

“When Tirith objected, the stone made me accept it. But it was the right call. You permit me to use only the lower-ranked skills and external weapons in front of my people, and none of those would work against those guys.”

The backlash came the moment she recognized she had just blamed the failure on Benjamin. That was one action she was never, ever allowed to take. With a shudder, she put her chin down on the blanket in her hands and endured the mental lashing she had just earned herself.

Be fair, she told the stone. It was simple logic. I was just telling him a plain fact.

It didn’t matter to the soulless thing. It wasn’t something one could reason with, after all.

Please, speak, she begged her master in her heart. Please tell me whether or not you see failure in me. Please tell me what you will do to me.

But when she finally heard his voice, he wasn’t speaking to her. He was simply letting her listen as he thought out loud.

“Those guys were the same group that ruined my setup on Earth. First, that cop picked up my trail somehow, and then the woman joined him at the transfer point. They were obviously working together. I had to use my bolt hole to get away from them. I already knew the Gireidil bitch was after me. I didn’t know about the cop. But I found some interesting information on the cop when I looked into him.”

He moved over closer to her, and began rubbing the back of her head absently.

I’m his pet, she thought bitterly. She could tell he wasn’t happy, but she was beginning to sense, to her relief, that his anger focused on the cop and the Gireidil interlopers rather than her.

“We can be certain they are headed to Aum. The question is whether they are headed from there to Trin or to Earth. The Trin operation is on the lookout for them, and I will head back to Earth.”

A secret part of her heart rejoiced to hear about his imminent departure. She was able to keep it hidden enough to escape the stone’s notice.

“You are to intercept them if possible, but go without your clansmen this time so you can use your full abilities. They know I trade with both sides; you can tell them I asked you to coordinate with Ilidi beasts who would not cooperate if Gireid showed up. Utilize those beasts. Destroy the rock if you have to, but don’t get yourself killed.”

He moved away and leaned down to pick up his boots. That pleased her. It meant he intended to go out right away. He often stayed to watch her dress, which she found disturbing. He took sadistic pleasure in her desperate efforts to cover herself decently with what little remained of her clothes.

She hated the part of herself in the back of her mind that was doing a happy dance because he said he needed her and he wanted her to survive. That wasn’t her own mind making her heart pound; it was the artificial adjustments made by the damned stone.

Did the designer of the slave stones know that they didn’t really change what was in the heart of their victim? That even while they felt, they knew the feelings were being forced upon them?

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If they were anything like Benjamin, perhaps they made it that way on purpose. Her twisted master would probably love to know about the the hell where he had trapped her.

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