From the author: Opening chapter of work in progress, JUSTINE FIXES EVERYTHING: REFLECTIONS ON MORTALITY. For years, Justine Martiniere has been the woman to go to if you have a problem. But Justine is getting old and tired. So when her digital clone brother Gabriel asks her for one last fix, she's resistant at first...but as always, Gabie talks Justine into it. After all, it's easy. She just has to tell stories for a Family history. She didn't realize that in the process, she'll find a way to fix herself.
“Aunt Justine, we’re here,” her great-nephew Ron said.
Justine Martiniere startled awake from a murky dream featuring a mix of her late brother Gabriel—Gabie—their father Philip, and—Mike.
When had she fallen asleep on the drive from Moondance Ranch to the Double R?
Somewhere over northeastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains, up top around Meacham most likely. She and Ron had been making the three-hour trek every other day over the past two weeks. They needed to update Mike on everything that had happened in the Martiniere Group while he had been in pursuit of the killers of Ron’s father Brandon. But his physical and mental condition only allowed for short periods of work.
Justine groaned and pushed herself upright. Was she ready to deal with Mike right now? Fragments of her dream clouded her thoughts, especially since it was a continuation of what she had dreamed last night.
She wasn’t sure she was prepared for Mike today. An uneasiness she couldn’t quite place teased at her as she thought about seeing her—nephew? Father?
Mike. Michael Marcus Martiniere, the Martiniere, head of the closely-held family conglomerate and the Family itself. Mike. Her father’s clone. So unlike the father she had hated—and yet, at times, so much like him. Adopted and raised by Gabie and his wife Ruby, after they’d rescued Mike from Philip’s labs when he was five.
Justine exhaled as Ron plugged in the electric truck and came around to the passenger side. He extracted her walker from the back seat of the crew cab and helped Justine out, steadying her until she had readjusted her sunglasses, put on her sun hat, and had a firm grip on the walker.
“Thanks, Ron,” she said, blinking against the mid-morning sun even with the sunglasses and hat. Eastern Oregon in summer was so bright, the sky a clear brilliant blue. Thunder County, where the Double R Ranch was located, didn’t have the dust and air pollution that Moondance Ranch near Pendleton did during the summer. “Tell Mike and JoAnn that I’ll be in shortly.”
“You okay?” Ron asked. He looked very much like Gabie and Brandon sometimes, even though his skin was a shade darker than theirs. Today was one of those days when the timbre of his voice, his expressions, everything about Ron reminded Justine of his father and grandfather. Even though he was only sixteen.
Justine nodded. “Just need some time to wake up from the drive. Get centered.”
Plus her skin tingled, and she had a vague sense of Gabie’s presence. She needed to get that out of the way before she saw Mike. It felt urgent. She could almost imagine Gabie with his arms crossed, glowering at her, tapping his right foot, muttering hurry up, Tine, we’ve gotta talk.
“All right,” Ron said. “You give me a holler if you need help.”
“I will,” she promised.
He glanced toward the family cemetery a short distance from the old farmhouse, near the horse pasture. “Going to contemplate things for a little bit?”
“You’re awfully damn perceptive for a kid your age,” she retorted. Another likeness to Gabie and Brandon.
“I’ve been around you long enough to have some idea of your habits and what you’re thinking, Aunt Justine.” Ron surprised Justine by kissing her cheek. “I worry about you.” He swallowed hard. “And Mike. You two are the only living close family I have left.”
“Oh, honey. I know.” Justine found it easier to be softer with Ron than almost anyone else—Donald—but no one saw that part of her—over the course of her long life. In the course of a few short months, he’d endured his father’s brutal murder, assumed the role of the Martiniere-in-waiting, temporarily become the Martiniere while Mike disappeared, and dealt with the appearance of the digital clones of the dead members of his close family. He’d grown up fast for a sixteen-year-old. Like she had needed to do, only at a younger age.
Maybe that was why she could be soft with Ron. Shared trauma, plus the two of them had governed the Family and the Martiniere Group for a few weeks, as the Matriarch and the underaged Martiniere who needed her to approve his decisions. Her great-nephew was probably the closest Justine would ever come to having a child of her own, even more so than Mike had been as a kid. Mike had had Gabie and Ruby, herself and Brandon. Ron only had her—and Mike.
But Mike was not exactly reliable right now.
That uneasiness about Mike, more than anything else, fueled her reluctance to go inside immediately. Especially since she wondered if it was a factor in that continual sense of Gabie’s presence. She needed time to steel herself against what she might see in Mike.
Justine leaned against the truck for a moment as Ron left. Then she straightened up and rolled her walker toward the gravel path that led to the small family cemetery—once only for the Ryder family. But now it held Martinieres in addition to the Ryders.
A wry smile came and went. That had been Ruby’s doing. Ruby—and Gabie.
The automated cemetery gate latch opened with a light tap. Mike had installed it after Ruby’s death, just for Justine. She headed for the bench placed underneath the lilac bush that Ruby had planted after Gabie’s death. That gave her the best view of the Martiniere tombstones. A perfect place to deal with that buzzing presence that kept growing stronger.
Give me a moment, Gabie. I’m not as young as I used to be. I need time to get in the right frame of mind to talk to you, much less Mike.
She didn’t say that out loud, though. That would summon her brother.
Justine made herself study the markers before she did anything else. Tolling through her dead, except for Donald. She once thought her grandmother Donna had been silly to do this years ago in the private Martiniere cemetery near Paris—now Justine understood why Donna-gran had chosen this particular form of meditation. Remembering who had come before. Acknowledging their legacy, so much a part of the Martiniere life.
An ordinary, plain granite headstone dominated the Martiniere graveyard section.
GABRIEL MARCUS MARTINIERE RAMIREZ
That was in the center of the big marker. Dominant, just like he had been in life. Gabriel. Gabie. First her beloved cousin and confidante, ripped away when he testified against Philip’s abuses and went into hiding from Philip’s vengeance. Then revealed to be her brother. Equally if not even more cherished because of that relationship. Justine wiped away an unexpected tear. Thirty years apart. The last thirteen years working together as brother and sister had been too damn short.
Damn you, Daddy-poo, for concealing that information and forcing Gabie into hiding.
And yet those actions were just two minor parts of the many evils that their father had been responsible for.
Gabie’s left side.
RUBY MARIE BARKLEY
Gabie’s first and third wife, their first marriage shattered by Philip in an attempt to break Gabie. Mistress of the Double R, rancher, scientist, and one of the most powerful women Justine had ever known, capable of holding her own with Gabie like no one else could. Sister-in-law and dear friend, one of the few women that Justine had ever thoroughly trusted.
Gabie and Ruby. Two people Justine had loved dearly and missed passionately. Even though they weren’t completely gone—now. Justine regretted that she hadn’t taken the time to know Ruby years ago, when Ruby worked at Lora Smith’s stable and Gabie was her secret boyfriend. But she’d been cautious, even after discovering Gabie’s presence when he spent the nights with Ruby. Not wanting to put Ruby in danger if she was indeed Gabie’s dearest love and not a passing fancy.
The same reason that Gabie hadn’t told Ruby who he really was for the years he was on the run. Both of them protecting a non-Martiniere tied to them.
Fucking Daddy-dearest. Justine had no doubt that their father would have found a means to kill Ruby back then, if he’d been fully aware of what she meant to Gabie. The strength that Ruby gave Gabie.
That buzzing sensation grew more intense, tiny pinpricks on her age-spotted pale papery skin, but Justine ignored its insistent pressure. She wasn’t ready. She looked at the other side of the big headstone.
RACHEL CATARINA ALVAREZ RAMIREZ
Gabie’s second wife was not one of the ghosts who haunted Justine. He had married Rachel during his exile, after the dramatic divorce from Ruby forced by their father Philip as part of his punishment of Gabie for his continued rebellion. Oh, she’d met Rachel once or twice, before Rachel married Gabie. For a time, the Alvarezes and Martinieres had been part of intersecting social circles in Los Angeles, and Justine’s half-brother Joseph—the one she didn’t miss, but hated almost as much as her father—had chased after Rachel.
Rachel had been a nice woman, but soft. Not one who could have been the wife of the Martiniere. Not like Ruby, who had fought for Gabie and ascended to the title of Matriarch of the Martinieres, the role that was now Justine’s. No part of Rachel was interred here at the Double R—but Ruby had insisted she be acknowledged on Gabie’s headstone, in part because Rachel had loved both Gabie and Brandon deeply, had been a good stepmother to Bran.
Yet it had been through Rachel that Gabie had connected with Rafael Alvarez, Rachel’s older brother, and started the endgame which finally dethroned Philip Martiniere. Without those eleven years of Gabie’s work with Alvarez Armory, and the valuable data he had collected and created for the Armory, stopping Philip’s crusade toward becoming an American tyrant would have been much more difficult. For that alone, Rachel was an important part of Justine’s meditation on her beloved dead.
Justine sighed again and eyed the next marker with the freshly disturbed earth on one side. Two names.
BRANDON EDWARD MARTINIERE
KRISTA MARKEY MARTINIERE
Her nephew Brandon, gone far too soon, along with his beloved wife Kris. The subject of many late-night conversations with her great-nephew as Ron wrestled with the impacts from his father’s untimely death.
And the last, saddest one of all.
LILIANA ANGELICA MARTINIERE
Ron’s older sister. That death had broken Brandon, more than anyone other than Mike and his wife JoAnn had realized at the time. But Mike and Jo had been present at Lily’s death, along with Brandon, to see the impact on him.
Justine took a deep breath. She had counted and acknowledged her dead. Now she was ready.
“All right, Gabie,” she said, her voice half-exasperated. “Have you been poking at my dreams? What the hell is going on?”
A shimmer in front of her. Then the form of her late brother took shape. Gabie manifested as he had looked in his vigorous early middle age, during the era where he’d developed Moondance Microbials and worked with Rafe Alvarez to build Alvarez Armory into an opponent of Daddy-dearest’s foul initiatives. A figure she only knew from pictures.
Still athletic, slender, unbent by advancing years and the G9 virus that temporarily crippled him; gray infiltrating the black of his beard and hair, face beginning to show lines, brown skin darkened by sun exposure from working outside at Moondance. And that piercing, predatory Martiniere gaze along with a sly come-hither twinkle in his eyes. She recognized the picture that image came from, a casual shot taken by Rachel, when Gabie would have been around forty-five years old.
Justine shivered. She still wasn’t accustomed to the manifestation of Gabie as a digital clone—a digi. Much less cope with the realization that their father had been a digi for years after his death, only banished through the combined efforts of Gabie, Ruby, Mike, and herself.
And Mike’s dogs and horses, she reminded herself. Never a good idea to underestimate Mike’s links to his beloved animals. Ruby had cultivated the ability to perceive activity in cyberspace in both dogs and horses, an epigenetic modification using nanotech that was now a common exploit in show horse training. The bloodlines of Mike’s Heelers, descended from his original dog Smudge, and his reined cowhorse show stallion, Starlight, all carried that modification.
“About time you listened, Tine,” Gabie’s digi said. “I’ve done everything but yell. Thought I might need to force an appearance if you weren’t going to invite me.” He glanced toward the headstones. “Any particular reason for talking here?”
“Contemplation of my mortality,” Justine said, tapping one foot against the grass. She still hadn’t decided if she would release her files and cooperate with the creation of an algorithm to go digi after she died. But that was a soul-searching conversation she’d save for Ruby, not Gabie. And she wasn’t certain she was ready to articulate her concerns about Mike just yet.
Gabie laughed. “You’re still a young thing.”
“I’m older than you were when you died.” And right now she felt every damned one of her seventy-seven years. “Six years makes a big difference at this age. So what’s so damned urgent, Gabie?”
Her brother’s digi—he was repeatedly explicit that this wasn’t him, it was a simulation based on an algorithm he’d twisted from their father, but it was easier for her to think of him as Gabie, beloved brother—joined her on the bench.
“I’ve got a couple of things to talk about,” he said slowly.
Justine sighed. “God, don’t tell me I have to fix something yet again, Gabie. I am sick to death of always fixing things. Will it ever fucking end?”
A pause. Then, “Unfortunately, Tine, fixing things is what you’ve always done best. And the Family would be much worse off if we hadn’t had you there to do just that.”
“I’m tired, Gabie. Really tired. I’m old, and I’m going to die one of these days. Someone else needs to figure out how to fix things for the Family.”
“I understand.” He rubbed his chin, a habit from life which meant he had deep concerns. “This should be simple compared to some of the things you’ve done—and you’re the only one who can do it.”
“Part of it, anyway. They’re interrelated.” A pause, and his image flickered—a sign of data gathering. “Mike’s really struggling right now. Problematically so.”
Oh God. She wasn’t wrong to be feeling nervous about Mike if Gabie was concerned about him.
“I’ve—been worried myself,” she admitted. “He hasn’t seemed to be able to shake off that depression that plagued him during their time away, at least to my eye. JoAnn hasn’t said anything to me about it, yet, and I think she would speak up, ask for help, if he went too far down that road.” Justine leaned her head back and slumped slightly on the bench. “But I have that feeling, you know?”
Gabie nodded. “Exactly. Same for me. He’s just—off. Sometimes he reminds me of Philip. It’s—” he fumbled for a word, raising his hands. “A residual. Or something.”
“I thought we’d gotten rid of those pieces of Daddy-poo’s programming in him,” Justine grumbled. Even now she couldn’t help but refer to their father with sarcastic-toned endearments. It had been her coping strategy for years to hide the deep hatred she had felt for him ever since her early teens, and for whatever reason Philip had never called her out on it.
Gabie shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s just questions he’s been asking. Things he wants to know. Archives he wants to check out that I don’t think are a good idea for him to investigate on his own until he feels better.”
“Such as?” She had a good idea what Gabie was talking about. Their father’s records.
“Choices our father made during my exile.”
Justine exhaled. “That’s what I was afraid of.” Philip had left biometrically sealed records that were only accessible to Mike as his clone. She shivered at what might be in those files. The corruption that she knew about might be nothing in comparison to what was hidden—especially after what she had learned when looking at the details of Gabie’s Alvarez Armory files. “So what are you asking of me?”
“This ties into my other topic. Things happened in the Family when I was exiled, especially Philip’s organizing those damn cult groups as part of his political aims. I don’t know anything other than what’s in the written records. I know that there was a lot to those thirty years than what’s been recorded. I want to understand what happened. And Brandon and Lily would like to know more about the history as well. Lily especially, since she was part of those groups.”
The other Martiniere digis in existence, along with Ruby.
“Don’t the files tell you enough?” She studied her pale, papery-skinned hands. Even the best cosmetic regime hadn’t kept the ravages of age away. “Donna-gran kept pretty extensive records, along with the other Family heads.”
Gabie grimaced. “The files contain the facts but not the personal accounts. We need your perspective on those past events, Tine. What you knew. What you experienced. If you could tell us what happened from your point of view. Making it real, more than just facts, but emotions. Reactions. Not only would it distract and occupy Mike, get his mind away from picking at those damned files before he’s emotionally ready to deal with them, but—it would be helpful for us. Me. Bran. Lily. Ruby. It would give us more data, help us become more complete. Lily in particular.”
Data. From what Justine had seen of digis over the past few weeks since she’d become aware of their presence, data was one of the currencies of the digi world. The more information acquired, the more solid the digi’s manifestation. There seemed to be a whole culture around the acquisition of data, more than what she’d been hearing about from Ruby and Gabie. They had to be getting this information about how digital clones operated from somewhere.
So how many more digis are out there besides the four I know about?
A serious future concern. A reason to keep Mike sane. He seemed to function well as both digi and fizi—physical clone. Justine sighed. Digital clones. Physical clones. Once science-fictional, now a reality.
I’m too damn old for this.
But she was the fixer for the Martinieres, and it sounded like she had a role to play.
“You just want me to tell stories to Mike?”
“Yes. But that would be more helpful than you realize.” Gabie looked up. “And here comes JoAnn.” His voice softened. JoAnn Swait, Mike’s wife, was the youngest daughter of Gabie and Ruby’s late business partner, Jeff Swait. Justine suspected that perhaps Jeff and Gabie had hoped for this match all along, even when Mike’s clone-related illnesses had damned near killed him during his teenage years. Mike and Jo had been close to each other from childhood, both obsessed with programming, nanotechnology, and robotics.
Gabie got up. She felt a faint whisper as his lips brushed her cheek. “Anything you can do, Tine. Anything. I’m serious.”
“I’ll do my best, Gabie.”
A pang flowed through her as Gabie disappeared. She didn’t know why he’d left—unless it was to give her and JoAnn some semblance of privacy.
“Hey.” JoAnn walked toward Justine. “You doing all right?”
“Just had a chat with Gabe.” She didn’t use her nickname for him around the kids anymore.
JoAnn heaved a heavy sigh as she joined Justine on the bench. Mike’s wife was tall, elegant, and graceful. Her tightly curled dark hair was cut short, legacy of the four weeks she and Mike had spent on the run pursuing Brandon’s killers. A faint scar on her cheek showed pale in contrast to Jo’s brown skin—another relic of that desperate quest for vengeance.
“About Mike.” No question in JoAnn’s voice.
“Yes.” Justine exhaled. “We’re both worried about him. There’s something off. Ever since….” Her voice trailed off. She had not participated in that final struggle to counteract Philip’s legacy, when Mike went into digi with Gabe and Ruby to rescue Lily and Brandon’s digis from Philip’s last toxic remnants. At the time, digi Brandon had said Mike would be okay.
But Mike had overclocked his cyborg parts, including his heart. That action had taken a significant toll on him; was one reason why he was sidelined now, struggling to regain the strength to be the Martiniere as well as recovering from the systemic effects of the mechanical damage to his heart.
At the time of Brandon and Lily’s digi recovery, Mike had said there was still a piece of Philip in him. Had that been dealt with?
Before Justine opened her mouth to ask, JoAnn continued. “We’ve pulled that piece of Philip out of him. Brandon, Ruby, and Gabe did that two days ago, nuked the crap out of it in digital with Lily supervising to make sure Philip didn’t slip away.” She shook her head. “But he’s just not bouncing back. I don’t know if I’m expecting too much, too soon, or if something else is going on.”
“What do the doctors say?”
Dr. Sheri was near retirement but she’d worked with Mike for twenty-six years. If anyone knew Mike and how he handled things, it would be her. And Dr. Pramula had managed the cyborging processes that replaced Mike’s heart, lungs, arms, and legs. Kept the mechanical parts of Mike updated and functioning.
“Dr. Pramula says that the cyborg systems have recovered, though she’s worried about the durability of Mike’s heart and the possibility of needing to replace it soon. Dr. Sheri thinks it’s a psychological effect, says that Mike went through a similar depression when recovering from cancer, and before his heart and lungs were replaced.”
Oh God. A return to those years.
Justine remembered that era far too well. Fifteen-year-old Mike collapsing from a heart attack when he and Ruby were feeding horses in the field during a December blizzard. Followed by the discovery that he had cancer. Both direct effects of being cloned from an old man—Philip had been seventy-nine when the cells used for Mike’s cloning had been harvested, and Mike had been his last successful clone, crafted in hopes that Philip could migrate his digital clone into Mike’s body. If Philip didn’t kill Mike in the process of using him as a blood donor.
Daddy-dear was a couple of years older than I am when he created Mike. And while she had, knock on wood, avoided the cardiac and cancer issues that had plagued her father, Mike had gotten all of them because, as he liked to say at times, I’m a young man in an old man’s body.
“That’s bad, isn’t it?” JoAnn asked. “I can see it from your expression. You don’t usually react like that. I mean—that was when he shoved me away, so I don’t know much about that time.”
Justine sighed again. “Jo, he went to a really dark mental place during that time. Gabe was the only one who could talk Mike out of some very bitter thoughts. Even then we had to watch out for the possibility that he would self-mutilate.” She spread her hands. “I couldn’t blame him. A teenager going through a heart attack. Cancer. More cardiac problems, damn near died from heart failure before we could make his heart and lung replacements. And then the arms. Losing the ability to ride horses really broke him. It was a really grim three years, capped by Gabe’s death—and a damn good thing Mike had his dogs. If it hadn’t been for Striker—” That heeler had saved Mike, as far as Justine was concerned, Striker and his son Smudgie.
JoAnn shuddered. “Mike was downright nasty at Gabe’s funeral. Outside of screaming his head off from pain, I didn’t see any of that depression during his leg cyborging, and that was a horrible process.”
“Because he had you.”
“I did see the self-mutilation and depression while we were on the run,” JoAnn said, her voice low, her expression troubled. “But I thought he would get better once he was home.”
“It’s only been a couple of weeks,” Justine said. “The damn kid thinks he’s got to get back up and rolling—and then he never really had time to mourn Brandon’s death before leaping right into avenging him.”
“Gabe suggested that I sit with Mike and talk about the Family’s history during the thirty years he was in exile. In part because Gabe wants the information, especially about those cult groups Daddy-dearest created, but he also thinks it will be good for Mike. Keep him distracted, give him something to think about besides digging into files he really isn’t emotionally ready to handle just yet.”
“You think those files are that bad?”
“I’ve seen enough of Gabe’s Alvarez Armory records about those cults to have some idea just how bad they could be. Plus my own accesses to the lab records. My fucking father did a lot of ugly things, Jo, and some of the worst of it is locked up in records that only Mike can access. If I can keep him away from them for a while, give him a chance to settle his mind and physically recover, it’s worth it.”
JoAnn took Justine’s hand. “I sure as hell hope so, because I’m starting to get scared.”
And that worried Justine even more. JoAnn and Mike’s relationship was as close as the one between Gabie and Ruby, perhaps even closer. She tightened her hand on JoAnn’s. “Then maybe it’s time I went inside and we got started, you suppose?”
JoAnn’s smile was her reward. “Mind if I listen in?”
“Not at all. Help me up, please.” Her hips didn’t always want to cooperate, especially after a long drive, and the damn bench sometimes made things worse.
But the hips were obliging enough that Justine used JoAnn’s arm instead of her walker for support as they walked to the old ranch house. JoAnn carried the walker in her free hand.
“Think you can make it up the steps?” JoAnn asked. “Or should we go to the front ramp instead?”
Justine set her jaw firmly. “I can make it up the steps.” She wasn’t that damn feeble. Yet. “Might take me longer than when I was younger, though.”
They made it up the steps, progressed through the enclosed back porch, and into the kitchen that held so many fond memories of times at the Double R. The ancient green and chrome Formica table that was at least twice Justine’s age, her favorite place to work when staying at the Double R. Late nights drinking with Gabie at that table because both of them suffered from insomnia. Gabie and Ruby cooking together.
Now Ron leaned against the sink, gazing into a glass of water, scowling. He raised his head as Justine and JoAnn came in.
“He’s really in a mood today,” he growled.
“Yeah,” JoAnn agreed. “Mike woke up hurting and pissed because he can’t make it up the stairs to our regular bedroom. Today’s one of his bad days.”
“I had to duck out for a few minutes because his tones….” Ron’s voice trailed off and he shook his head. While he hadn’t been programmed to respond to Martiniere mind control vocal tones, he was still sensitive to them.
“Then I guess it’s my turn to deal with him.” Justine tightened her lips hard. Damn it, she was getting too old for this stuff.
“Want me to come with you?” JoAnn asked.
“Give me a few minutes,” she growled. “If I need to, I’ll call Ruby’s digi up.”
That softened everyone’s expressions, because Ruby even in digi was formidable in her handling of grumpy Martiniere men.
Justine heaved a sigh, and clenched her walker. She rolled it down the hallway from the kitchen to the downstairs bedroom next to the two rooms that served as offices.
The door was closed. She rapped on it. “It’s me,” she said, then opened it.
Mike stared out the window at the winter horse pasture and summer hay field. Fresh-cut hay lay in long windrows, drying. He didn’t turn his head as Justine entered but kept gazing at something outside, scowling, his hand on old Smudgie’s head as the heeler snuggled close to him, ears half-flattened in worry. Smudgie’s young daughter Spot, still a puppy, huddled on Mike’s other side, mirroring her sire’s expression.
Even Smudgie and Spot see it, she thought.
“Hey,” she said, settling in the chair by the bed.
She winced inside as Mike turned that glower on her. It wasn’t as impressive as the fight-you-to-the-death glare that Gabie had perfected during his exile, but it was still pretty damn intense. Today Mike looked like Daddy-damn-dearest in his later years; short black hair disheveled, face devoid of color except for dark circles under those piercing ice-blue eyes, lips drawn tight in disapproval.
“So what the hell has you emulating Daddy-poo today?”
Mike threw up his hands, then slapped the light quilt covering his legs—his own move, not Philip’s. Smudgie recoiled and flattened his ears, whining as he eyed Mike. Spot whimpered and nuzzled one of Mike’s hands.
“God damn it, Justine. A perfectly lovely day out there and here I am, stuck in this fucking bed. I thought I’d be done with this damn stuff once my leg cyborging was done. But here I am once again, damn it.”
“At least you’ve got the prospect of getting better.”
“Do I? Really?”
She lost her patience. “More than I ever will due to my actual biological age, damn it, so stop fucking whining.” Justine snapped the last three words, pushing the control tones hard, using the additional authority invested in her as the Matriarch.
Mike had just enough residual conditioning from his cloning to flinch at her tones. He looked down at Smudgie and caressed the old dog’s head.
“Smudgie, boy, I’m sorry,” he said softly. The dog licked his hand, raising his head to meet Mike’s eyes. Justine kept silent, watching the interaction between man and dog as Mike scratched Smudgie around his ears. Spot gamboled over Mike to shove in between them. That brought a laugh from Mike, as well as an easing of his facial muscles, and Justine relaxed. A little bit. Thank God for Mike’s ties to his dogs and horses.
Would her father have been different if he’d possessed similar connections? Or had Philip been capable of caring about anyone other than himself? He’d never had pets, had barely tolerated their grandmother Donna encouraging her and Gabie to ride horses. Gabie had needed to intervene when Joey tortured and damn near killed her pet cat. Philip had gotten angry at Gabie, not Joey. And the way Philip had treated Renate, the mother of her and Joey…Justine shuddered.
At last Mike rested his hand on Smudgie’s cheek. Smudgie licked Mike’s palm, then settled his nose in it. Spot nuzzled the back of Mike’s hand.
Mike sighed. “I feel like I did before my heart and lungs were cyborged, Justine. That weak. That exhausted. That much pain. Honestly? I’m scared. What if I never get better? What if the last five years were the best I’ll ever get?”
“What does Dr. Pramula say?”
Mike rolled his eyes. “It takes time. But I may need to go back under the knife to replace the heart. If she does that, she wants to upgrade and replace my lungs. I’m—” he blew hard. “Not looking forward to that. Or the recovery time. And there’s still so much to be done. I’ve got to get things in order for Ron in case my systems fail. Finish dealing with those hidden and Loyal indentureds created by my fucking progenitor.” He snapped the last word, a fleeting control tone echoing in her head, but not tugging at her. Just a shared angry resonance. “I just—damn it, trying to root that stuff out is a nightmare. I need to do so many things and I don’t have the energy to do it.”
“Most of it can’t be.”
“Mike, fretting, snapping, and snarling isn’t going to speed up your recovery one damn bit.”
“And Gabe keeps arguing with me, saying I’m not ready to look at some of those new archives we discovered. Damn it, now’s the best time for me to learn about these things! But he says I shouldn’t do it, that I’m not in the frame of mind needed to look at them. That they’ll just contribute to my negative mindset.”
Smudgie nuzzled Mike’s hand as his voice raised. Spot crawled onto Mike’s chest, whimpering. Mike stopped. He stroked Spot reassuringly with his free hand.
“He’s right, you know,” Justine said.
“I feel fucking useless.”
“There is another means for finding out some of these things,” she said. “Gabe wants me to share what I went through. Not just with you but him. Lily. Brandon.”
Mike snorted. “You’ve been pretty damn evasive whenever I’ve asked you about the past.”
Justine took her time to answer that.
“And maybe I was wrong to be that way,” she said finally. “But it’s been part of my own protection. Look. Gabe wants to know more about what I saw of Philip’s political organizing, and what my reactions were. I think you could use that information.”
“Well, it’d be one way for me to start figuring these things out,” Mike admitted. “If you’re willing to do it.”
Justine sighed. “I’d sooner not revisit those days. But Gabe asked. Jo’s interested as well. And the other digis want to know.”
JoAnn joined them, bending over Mike to kiss his forehead and resting her left hand on his shoulder. He closed his eyes, face softening. Smudgie’s stub tail waggled and he oozed up higher for a pat from JoAnn. Spot yelped, vying with her sire for attention.
“I think it’s a good idea, Mikey,” JoAnn said softly, as she patted Smudgie and then Spot. “For all of us.”
“I don’t know if I’ll do it in order,” Justine said. She looked down at her hands. “Some parts will be harder than others.”
“That’s fine,” Mike said. “Anything, right now.”
“Gabie?” Justine took a deep breath. “Can one of you digis record and file these stories?”
Gabie and Brandon both shimmered into being.
“I’ll handle that, Justine,” Brandon said, a faint smirk crossing his lips. He summoned a screen and began inputting.
“Entirely appropriate,” Justine said. Brandon had been a video producer before he became the Martiniere-in-waiting, had spent years crafting ‘casts in opposition to the institution of indentured labor.
Lily and Ruby followed, as Ron entered the room.
“So where are you going to start, Tine?” Gabie asked.
“Let me think about it for a moment,” Justine said. She leaned her head against the chair back, considering. Which memory to begin with? What might be the best introduction to her storytelling?
Ah. That one.
She opened her eyes and coughed. “I think I know where I want to begin. Ron, could you get me a glass of water?”
“Sure.” Ron sprang up. He returned with a pitcher of water and a folding side table, then went back for glasses. He filled one for Justine and set it on the table closest to her.
“Thank you, Ron.” Justine took a sip. “All right. Here we go. I’ve decided that the best route is to start at the beginning, after all. So. Let me tell you how I ended up marrying Donald Atwood. That lays the foundation for a number of other actions that followed.”
She didn’t miss how Gabie winced at that one. Hell, she shrank a little inside just thinking about what came just before Donald got her away from Daddy-damn-dearest.
But someone had to tell this story if they were going to record Family history, and she doubted that Gabie had shared the whole nasty mess with anyone, except perhaps Ruby.
“It’s not a pretty story,” she added.
Exiled heir. Rebel. Husband. Father. In 2029, Gabriel Martiniere testified against the Martiniere Group's forced imposition of mind control programming on unwilling indentured workers. For his pains, he was forced into exile for over thirty years. Forced to divorce the love of his life. But he's still coming. Still bent on vengeance against the man who forced him into exile, Philip Martiniere. Gabe will win...or die trying.
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