I Am Not Junco Omnibus: Books Four – Six, page 8
"I'm not letting you go home."
I have to take a big gulp of air over this bit of sweet talk.
"I know who you are. I know what they do."
I shake my head. "No, you have no idea, John. I'm a—"
His face is dipping down towards me and my words stop as I concentrate on his mouth.
"I know what they've done to you, Junco." His hand slides to the back of my head and he's urging me up towards him. "And I don't think I'm going to let you go home this time. They don't deserve you."
His lips brush up against mine and I almost fall over with the gentle touch. His mouth opens and then his fingers travel up through my hair, along my scalp, sending a shiver through my whole body.
His kiss is slow. He starts with his mouth open, brushing his lips over mine, just slightly, just enough to make me crazy and wanting. I try to keep up with him but my mind is blown. Completely blown with the passion. Then his tongue flicks, asking for more.
I have never felt like this before.
The little flutter kisses continue and then he pulls back and stares down into my soul. "Don't go home, Junco."
"OK," is all I can manage before he's kissing me again. "OK," I repeat it. I won't, I say to myself.
But of course I did go home. Because if I had stayed with John Hando none of this would ever have happened.
I'd be his wife instead of that woman in the picture he showed me. Those babies might be mine. Those golden little babies with wispy brown hair and large dark eyes.
If I had stayed, I might be that girl, and not this one.
It stuns me a little, to know that I have such deep regrets at this young age.
I made a mistake that weekend.
I made a mistake and even if I get my satisfactory end, I'm not sure I'll ever stop regretting walking away from John Hando with nothing more between us than kissing at the top of the world.
I leave the Hando Compound in the eternal darkness of the belly before any of his little sisters can wake up and cry and beg me to stay. It was so hard to see them again knowing I have to leave. Even Vincent looked sad last night when I told them my story, and unlike Cora's version, I did give the details. They deserved the details. They were my only family that senior year of school.
Hand's mom, Gerta, clutched her smaller children to her bosom and tsked her tongue over and over again when I got to the part about Inanna and Gideon. She covered their tiny ears when I described my second stint in the tank. She's a baby machine, that woman. Hand is the fifth child of fifteen and there was a trio of younger siblings clamoring around my legs that I'd never even met before.
The canvas jacket Mia gave me is soft and comfortable and smells like them. A nice reminder to take with me into the world of death that I live in.
Vincent gives me the best grav bike they have even though I tell him I won't need it. He insists, then admits it's hot so why not let me dispose of it? I just laugh as he stocks the storage compartment with food, water, ammo and a loaded TZi with an extra magazine.
Hand mounts his own bike and escorts me to the edge of the belly where we stop on the side of the road that leads north, towards the former RR. He grounds his bike and removes his helmet, then sets it down on the seat and walks over to me. I flip my visor up and force myself to smile and meet his dark eyes. I can feel the sadness building up in my throat and it starts to ache. I push it down but it makes its way out of my eyes as light. If this bothers Hand he never shows it. "Thank you," I whisper.
He pulls me to his chest. "Be careful, OK? And if you need anything, just get in touch." I nod and he pulls back. "I don't believe what Cora said, Junco."
I love him for that. "It's not true, John."
He chuckles at my use of his given name. His father is Hando to most people, after the surname, but even though there are three boys who came before John, none of them were nicknamed Hand. It's like they saved it up for him, the only one interested in carrying on the real family business.
"I know it's not true, Junco. I didn't need to hear you say it. You do what you have to and forget the rest."
I nod. "Yeah, OK. When I'm done with all this I'll come back and stay for a while. Meet your new family and shit."
His eyes are suddenly glassy and sad. We both know that will never happen, but whether he simply feels it to be true, or he knows it for certain, I can't tell. He gives my arm a little squeeze and then walks back to his bike and I get on mine. I pull out and lean down on the gas tank to head north, then catch him watching me disappear when I look over my shoulder one last time.
Texas is huge. Everything's bigger in Texas, that's how the old saying goes, but what they really mean is if you're ever crossing Texas, plan for it to take twice as long as you expected.
I travel the open country using small roads that cut across diagonally and then lead up to a major highway that will take me into Peaks. After seven hours of straight riding I stop and take a room near the border of the Desert Republic using an identity I stole from a self-serve gas station back in Amarillo. In the RR, the second week of September typically has the hint of fall on the wind, but the DR area has none of that cool breeze going for it. It feels just as hot up here in the high desert red rocks as it did down in Dallas.
The DR doesn't even have a border guard up this way, so the next day I pass in and out of their little corner of the world without incident and when I make my way up to Trinidad I pull off at the lake, towards the busiest part of beach, and make myself at home while I wait it out.
The radiation didn't blow this way much, thanks to the southern wind, and the lake is alive with workers who have made Trinidad home base for the clean-up efforts. I lounge on a picnic table and eat the food Vincent packed for me. It's hard to believe I was there with them just yesterday.
The boisterous fun of the day turns into night-time drinking by ten o'clock and pretty soon there's all kinds of men milling around my bike trying to get my attention. Sometimes it's just not fair. Not only that I'm such an efficient killer, but that men can be led around so easily with blonde hair and tits.
I accept the first proposal and get in his work truck with the Republic of Texas logo on it, then hold down my revulsion as he grabs for my hand which makes the vehicle swerve a little because he's a bit on the drunk side. He can barely slip his card in the reader at the hotel but after several failed attempts and few impatient huffs of air from me, he finally ushers me into his rented abode.
I almost throw up from the smell.
I crack him in the head with the butt of my TZi and he goes down before he even has a chance to get his hand up my shirt. I snatch his truck codes, steal his jacket and helmet and walk back out to the parking lot.
From here it's easy. They don't even stop me when I roll through the border check north of Trinidad and I cut off on a little-known dirt road that takes me east, then north again, in and out again through Council 4, until I'm facing the barren land that used to be my home.
Finding the exact area that used to be our family fishing cabin is not easy, but luckily the depression that was once a lake is still there, as is a faint dirt path that used to only accommodate horses and grav bikes. Since all the trees have been burned down, my stolen truck traverses the path with ease. I stop at the end of the road, grab a shovel and a pick from the truck bed, and head on up to where the cabin would be if my dad hadn't nuked the place to the ground. My vision screen scans the area, gives an all-clear as far as radiation goes, then picks up the dense block of lead-lined concrete which shows up several feet down.
I swing the pick until the ground is loose and then shovel the dirt out and repeat the process until I hear the clang of metal on concrete. I drop to my knees and spread the dirt away from the hatch.
A sneaky satisfied grin develops and I continue shoveling until the doorway is clear and the mechanism is accessible.
The combination is not digital. That would never work for a nucle
Pretty much all my access codes are based off one name—Gideon. Because he's the whole reason I stocked this cellar in the first place. I dial the letters and listen carefully as things inside click and change positions.
On the last letter I hear a hiss as the air inside escapes.
I pull the hatch and let it flop over. Fresh air rushes in to trade places with the foul-smelling shit coming out and I sit back on my butt and laugh.
Welcome to after-the-shit-hits-the-fan, Junco.
This whole thing started long before my dad ever went missing. Back when I was about eleven. He took me up here, showed me the hatch in the back of the cabin, and told me what it was for.
Not nuclear war, he said. Although it could withstand that and more.
I remember his words exactly. "It's a place for you to hide, Junco. When the whole world is looking for you. So stock it up when you have a chance and never tell anyone. Not even Gid, not even HOUSE. No one." And when we left he made me change the combination and then turned and said, "Never talk to me about this again. Ever."
At the time I thought it was because of Matthew or Dale or someone involved with the camp who didn't know he'd helped me cheat. But now I know why I wasn't allowed to talk to him about it ever again. Because he knew they'd exchange him someday. He knew. And he made sure I had one last power to get me through before he left. It chokes me up a little, really. The way he took care of me in secret for all those years.
I miss him. And I don't care what his part is in all this, I love him.
There was already food and water in there back when he brought me here, just like we had in the regular pantry under the cabin, so that's not what he meant when he said stock it up. It took me a while to figure that out, I mean, I was only eleven. But when things started getting weird that summer before senior year, I knew it was time.
And then HOUSE sent me that message from James about the first job. That's how it all started. With James. And then the jobs with the Hando family business, and then Gideon resurfaced after months of being missing. He was injured, I was told that, but I never did get to see him.
But James was always there, like a gift. Helping me get ready. Pointing me to friendlies who could get me things. Pointing me down to Dallas to meet the Hando Family.
The Hando Family were part-time pawn-shop owners in the underbelly, full-time hit men for topside big shots. And they were more than happy to pay me in Republic cash, weapons, armor, and ammo for each kill I completed that year.
And then Gideon came home again and this time I did get to see him, only this time he wasn't just injured. He was dying.
I lean down on my belly and sniff the air. It's still foul but not as bad as it was. I swing my feet down and feel for the rungs, then climb until they hit the bottom about a hundred feet below.
It's quiet, not even a drip. When sealed properly this place is completely waterproof. Of course, it’s also airtight, so, you know… tradeoffs.
I take a deep breath and don't get dizzy so that's a good sign. I'll have to leave the hatch open though, unless I want to start the air filters. But I don't. We won't be here long enough. I walk over to the electrical panel and switch on the small emergency lights, then head straight to the weapons and key in the code. It chirps an acceptance. There are only two things in this place that are locked up. This little black box and the door that leads to the room on the other side of the cinderblock wall.
The contents of the black box clank around as I pull it out of the stash and open it up. My smile escapes and a wave of relief washes over my entire body. I don't take them out, I don't need to take them out or make sure they work. I know they do. I just snap the lid closed and stuff them in a pack. I load that up with two more TZi's, eight empty mags, a dozen boxes of ammo, and some throwing knives. A girl should never go anywhere without a throwing knife.
There is only one more thing to do and it's risky. I could kill her for good if I fuck it up, but if I don't try she's as good as dead anyway. So screw it.
The backup drive that holds HOUSE's memory is a massive room in the back filled with hundreds of battery tanks. They will run her for approximately fifteen minutes once she's brought back online and cannot get back to the house where her systems draw the required energy for her survival from the nuclear reactor deep below the ground.
But I am a receptacle. I've already housed one AI for months at a time so this should not be a problem. Except that I have no idea what I was doing, Sera did it all. And HOUSE is very naive compared to Sera. She's like a little kid in terms of maturity. My little sister, that's who she is.
My heart starts to flutter with anxiety and I don't even bother locking it down. What for? Those days are over, why should I have to control my excitement and anxiety? This is a big fucking deal, so for fuck's sake I'm gonna let my heart beat wildly for a change.
I open the control panel on the battery bank and press the start button. The starter whines and I keep my finger pressed down until the generator kicks on. When it stops sputtering and the cloud of smoke seems like it's thinning out, I walk over to the backup panels and wait for it to come to life. I check the time on my vision screen and swallow.
The panel cycles through a series of start-up processes and I wait, tapping my foot, as the sequence counts down the checklist.
I jump a little when it starts barking orders at me. "Enter access codes now. Process will cease in three seconds. Two—"
I enter the code and it barks again. "Enter domain ownership protocol. Process will cease in three seconds. Two—"
I punch in that code. "Retinal scan mandatory. Process will cease in three seconds. Two—"
I flash my peepers. "DNA scan mandatory. Process will cease in three seconds. Two—"
I push my finger down on the small silver pricker and wait.
"Congratulations, Junco Coot. Your AI will be accessible in five minutes."
Shit. I check my vision screen. The batteries have already been running for eight minutes. Why the fuck didn't we get more batteries?
The seconds tick down on my screen and I hold my breath as it reaches zero.
"Press yes to initiate the AI called HOUSE."
I press yes on the screen.
"This is HOUSE, how may I help you?"
"HOUSE? It's me, Junco! Are you OK?"
"Junco, I'm so sorry, I don't know what happened. I'm missing pieces of memory. I am missing one thousand and sixty-two days of memory. I'm sorry—"
"HOUSE, listen to me carefully. You aren't at home, you're in backup and you'll run out of power in"—I check my vision screen and swallow again—"less than two minutes if you can't get yourself inside my body."
"How can I insert myself into your body, Junco?"
"I don't know. Shit. I don't know, HOUSE, but it's possible. I'm gonna put my palm up against the DNA scanner and you just try and get inside me, OK? There's a place for an AI in me, you just have to find it." I check my vision screen and slap my hand back down on the scanner, pricking another finger this time. "Now, HOUSE, find a way in. You only have one minute."
"I can see you, Junco!"
"HOUSE! Please, listen to me! Find a way inside my body right now! That's an order!"
"I am looking, Junco. I think this might harm you, I probably shouldn't do it."
"Now! You are not allowed to disobey me!"
"You're mistaken, Junco. I can if I will harm you."
"Goddamnit! We only have a few seconds, get inside me, I promise you." I stop and think for second. "HOUSE, I sister-swear that I will be OK if you come inside, OK?"
"Yes, dammit! I sister-swear! I sister-swear!"
Her delicate probing sends the chills up my body as the seconds tick down. "Now, HOUSE. Now!"
My whole body seizes up and I crumple to the concrete floor as she enters me, filling me up, just like Sera. Only better. I try to laugh with relief but my head spins and my world goes black.
The snow-stars flicker in my vision field as I try to turn over and open my eyes. A small hand touches my shoulder and warm breath spreads on my cheek. "Are you OK, Junco?"
I moan and fight off the pounding in my head.
I cough and croak out an answer. "Fine, HOUSE. Just fine."
She rolls me over on my stomach and I push up with my arms until I can scoot my legs underneath me and lift my head.
The whole room spins.
I look over at her and smile despite the pain, then fight off a massive wave of nausea and swallow down the saliva collecting in my mouth. "I feel sick."
She takes in a sharp breath.
She shifts nervously.
"I've missed you, you have no idea, HOUSE!"
"Well," she starts in her little-girl voice, "I would've missed you too, Junco. But I was put to sleep." She scowls at me and crosses her arms in front of her chest.
"Shit, you tried to kill everyone." I amend my statement. "Actually, you did kill a whole bunch of them. Thank you for that."
She sticks her lip out and pouts. "He tricked me, that Aren who you said was not dangerous. He was. He tricked me and I almost made a big mistake. Next time I say you should do something for your own good, you should listen to me, Junco."
"Yeah, OK. How long was I out?"
"Twenty-three minutes and four seconds."
My head feels funny and I look over at her for a second. "Did you do something to me, HOUSE? I feel weird."
"Well, I know I didn't have permission but your vital signs were not looking good, Junco. I had to."
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