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Skin Deep II foreward chapter 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 epilogue

Skin Deep II: The Dance
Chapter 10: A Dance of the Homecoming Queen
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved

Terrence Michaels sat in the corner of a small Rouston pub, shadowed in the darkness of the back of the room; hiding from a past he had all but sealed away in some safe cold place in his mind. He had kept it safely locked away until that God damned dream.

He looked at the glass of vodka on the table before him. He was not a frequent drinker but when it came to hard times he could hold his own. If he drank much more he was going to have to leave his transportation parked out front.

It was not the typical vehicle that he drove, Michaels didn't even possess a pilot's license. His was a gasoline-powered dinosaur. There were still several in places like Philadelphia, but his, a 1978 Cadillac Fleetwood, was the last gasoline powered vehicle in Rouston. It had been seven years since he had driven it. When he drove it from the garage today, he had to stop and wonder why the thought to drive today seemed so insistent. It was his habit to walk everywhere now. He enjoyed the quiet time a period of exercise provided. After completing the tasks he had been instructed to do, after the preparation he had made after as a result of his dream, he had needed a break. So he left for his evening walk shaking and shaken, in need of a drink and feeling foolish he had jeopardized everything he had waited for over an hallucination. As he left, he felt tonight a drive seemed the right thing to do. He had actually dismissed the idea, walking outside and starting down the alley when the desire to drive turned to a desperate need. Today, in the depths of his regret at his unfortunate actions, this just seemed right. To dust off his old friend and take her for what may prove to be her last ride.

He had left to think about, not dwell on what had happened after the Shipley family had fled the lab a bitter and broken family. He sat here and he did dwell however. The details of this nightmare plagued him with its sense that it wasn't really a dream, that it was more real than it should have been. There had been too much tactile sensation. The music, the smells and sounds of a dingy little bar filled with college kids had seemed all too real to him to be considered exactly a dream. He would have classified it more of a... a...

What? What would you call that exactly? His mind worked around the problem the effects of the Polish vodka were beginning to do it's magic. Spell? Forecast? Portent of evil yet to come? No, No, No! He thought and then a word came to him that felt as if it might fit and he tried it there.

A vision! Yes, that's what it felt like, a vision!

"Nonsense." Growled Terrence.

And what if it was a vision old man? What if what she offered you was real? Can you afford to turn your back on this? Can you afford not to believe?

Terrence Michaels wasn't a religious man. The concept of God and heaven and an after life were as unrealistic and improbable as natural Passenger Pigeons making a sudden and surprising come back from extinction. The idea of an after life was foolish thinking. Nothing in all his years of scientific pursuit had ever proven the existence of a place such as Heaven. If he thought for one second that dying would reunite him with is beloved he would have cut his own head off years ago. That would have been all the incentive he would have ever needed. Conventional methods may not be enough to extinguish his life but he was certain that decapitation would do the trick.

They had been there; you fool! They were there. You could smell her perfume. Why do you doubt your senses?

"Nonsense!" he cried as his mind wandered the maze of classic denial, a line from Dickens floated into his head as a response. Because, a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.

The patrons of the corner bar turned to see who had yelled out. When they saw it was a young man in a corner booth, alone; they all turned back to what they had been doing and did their best to ignore him.

They saw you too Ziven!

"Don't call me that!" he called out loud to no one. No one answered back. He clutched the drink the girl in the skimpy skirt had brought him and finally brought the glass shakily to his lips, clear liquid danced and bounded within as he raised it to his face. He killed the contents with one deep gulp. He then exhaled deep and long allowing the vapors from the alcohol to float just above the table.

The manager walked from around the bar and approached the booth.

"One more of these my good man and please keep them coming until I am quite dead if you will," Terrence said without looking up.

"Sir, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave or I'll have no choice but to call Police Services," said the manager as he removed his apron anticipating trouble.

Terrence was dumbfounded. He had done nothing except make a few irrational exclamations. Terrence reached into his pants pocket for something. Instead of the kind of trouble John Miles, owner/operator of the Rusty Nail, was used to; a belligerent drunk or a rowdy water ale rotgut construction worker, John Miles got the scare of his life. Without looking up Terrence flashed a red laminated Federal Services badge. The color and meaning of such a badge was well known to almost everyone but rarely if ever seen. The agency that carried such badges had been created over a hundred years ago after a series of terrorist attacks against the then United States of America that started in the later half of the twentieth century. It was a badge of absolute power. For most who carried it, it was a license to terminate with extreme prejudice. Michaels had never been such a man but ever since its issue, he had used it to open doors and disperse the annoying few of this world.

Miles took a step back ward, almost like the badge itself had been emitting some foul, repellant energy. "I... I..." Miles started and decided since there was probably nothing that he could say that was safe, he had best say nothing at all. His family was here; upstairs in the quarters they shared as a home above the small bar. Miles' thoughts turned to getting his family out before something awful happened. He had no idea why a SHOP agent was here but he could only imagine it had to do with him.

He turned and walked back toward the bar to figure out how to get his family to safety when Terrence said, "Bottle! Please bring the bottle to me. That will do my good man."

Miles rushed to the counter and fetched a fresh unopened bottle of vodka for the man. He placed it on the table and backed away quickly so as not to be infected by some invisible spreader of death the man drinking there might have been carrying. Terrence fumbled for his account card and tossed it on the table.

"No!" said the John, "It's yours. On the house!"

"I will pay for my drinks..."

"Your money's no good here. On the house, just leave my family alone!"

"Sir, I'm not here to..."

"Please! Take it." Terrence could see the man was on the verge of hysterics. His eyes darted left and right, the eyes of a cornered animal looking for a small route of escape.

"I assure you..." Terrence began. Then he realized nothing he could say would change the way this man thought of him. Michaels fell silent. He was tired of appearing to be a monster and worse, he was tired of acting like one. He would leave cash chips hidden for this man, some place, in the seat next to his own perhaps. The argument would just circle around to this bottle and the man's desire for no further trouble if Terrence persisted. Michaels waved him off and the man scurried like a mouse back to his bar where he avoided the looks and whispers of the patrons that hadn't fled when then badge made its grand appearance.

He cracked the seal on the new bottle and poured a generous helping of the warm oily liquid, the lip of the bottle clanking on the rim of the glass as his shaking hand poured. Terrence didn't want to think about the vision any longer but his brain was uncooperative today. Again he was subjected to a replay of the events after the Shipley's had fled the lab.

Is that why you made all those entries to the CITREG. Is that why you have a box of falsified documents ready for someone to use? You've completed most of what 'she' wanted you to do and still you deny what you saw, heard and felt.

Maybe it wasn't the vision he was afraid of but what failure would mean if the vision were real. He pulled a long draft off the glass and the vodka burned as it went down. He pinched his eyes against the burn and exhaled. His thoughts turned back to almost two days ago and the moments after his short-lived victory over the thieves of his family.

He had felt victorious for a moment as they ran for their miserable lives, the three of them, and then the horror of what he had done crashed in on him. He had condemned this family to his living hell. Without yet knowing it, he had condemned himself.

He must have fallen asleep there as he wept. He had woken seated at a table to the left of a small semi-circular stage. On the stage was stool. On the stool was a girl. She had a guitar but she was not playing it or performing in any way. Instead she was bent over talking to the empty table next to him. More precisely, her lips were moving but she was not saying anything. She was miming as if she were talking to the table next to him. He stood to get his bearings and the girl on stage spoke to him. "Please, remain seated Terrence, you do prefer Terrence do you not?"

He looked around in surprise. "Do I know you?"

"In a way, yes you do. I'm connected to your family in a very special way."

He shook his head slowly; the recognition didn't come. "I don't recall you," he said.

"I suppose I should clarify. I was there when your wife and child... crossed."

"What kind of foolery is this? They were alone when they died. There was no one with them."

"No, there was another."

"Impossible I would..." then he remembered. There had been another, a young girl in the other HOV. All drowned in the harbor. His wife's HOV had hit and dragged the HOV of a teen-aged girl into the water with her when she had been unable to stop or steer her HOV after rounding a corner on a road that sloped near the water.

"You are having much fun at the expense of an old man's mind," he said. "How do I get out of here?"

"You get out when I'm finished telling you what I need you to hear. Now, will you answer my question?"

He sat down unsteadily. He had the feeling that if he walked out the door behind him he would be lost in this place forever trapped in some formless white void with no door back to this or any other world. "Huh? Question?"

The girl with the guitar smiled her sweet smile and again appeared to be talking to the table next to him; still no sound came from her moving lips.

She then turned to Michaels and said, "Yes, your name. Do want me to call you Terrence or Ziven?"

He was shaken to the center of his being. "Terrence," he said slowly.

She spoke again soundlessly to the neighboring table and then back to Michaels. "Very well Terrence, I have an offer for you."

He couldn't resist asking. "Who do you keep talking to at that empty table?"

"It's part of my deal with you. Would you like to see?" The girl asked cheerfully.

He was suddenly not so sure if he truly wanted to see. He wanted to run. He wanted to run out that door even if it meant he would be lost in limbo forever. Michaels felt certain that if he looked at what this girl revealed to him he would go perfectly and totally insane. Just the same he could feel his mouth form the word and then release it.

"Yes!" he could almost see the word float out and away from his lips, It had the appearance of musical notes and when it was out there a veil, a cloak of invisibility seemed to shed in a shimmering summer's day heat and fall way from the table next to him and there before his stunned and unbelieving eyes were his wife and child. They spoke and laughed in silence. The seemed excited about something, happy and he could see the face of his daughter clearly when she mouthed the word 'Father' and smiled that golden smile that used to light up his day.

Terrence's throat constricted closing off his airway; it made little difference if he could breathe. The SKIN he was trapped in would keep him alive indefinitely. He might become unconscious but he would live. Oh yes, he would live much longer than anyone might ever dream.

"You're excited; drink some water Terrence," said the girl on stage calmly. Terrence looked and there was water. He lifted it to his lips and drank. It was real! If this were real then... His head whipped back to the girls sitting at the table next to him. He reached out to touch the one with her back to him, the one with the auburn hair and he knew, emerald green eyes. His hand only made it so far. It vanished before him just out of reach of the woman he knew was his wife.

"You've been allowed to see, nothing more. They cannot see you or hear what I'm saying to you. Nor can they travel outside of the sphere of their experience. They have crossed, you have not."

"I cannot!" he wailed miserably. "If death could come to me, I would have welcomed it ages ago."

"Yet, you have found a way," the girl said simply.

"Yessssssss." Michaels said with a snake like hiss. He had found a way. His device could deactivate one of the three SKINs that had their "mortality factors" sequenced out of the genetic programming. He had had to use material from his own SKIN to sequence out these same factors for the SKINs he had intended his family to use. This process had linked the genetic matrix of the three together so that one could ever be deactivated at one time, Further, all three had to be activated to push the matrix of one back. Research into the problem revealed that the inboard genetic storage space couldn't indicate that the matrices were, in fact one SKIN not three individuals. If one SKIN was 'deactivated' the system thought that the whole was deactivated and process could not be completed. Then what he had done came flooding back to him. "Oh noooo! I cannot! I have freed another." Terrence pulled at his hair in anguish.

"Pity," said the girl simply and she waved her hand and his family was once again cloaked from his vision.

"No wait! I... I..." He searched with the wild eyes of a starving man offered fresh cooked meat only to have it withdrawn from the table whilst looking for a plate before he could secure even a morsel for himself. The vision was restored. He stood hovering over them, his hand balanced over that space where he knew they were still in this reality, wanting to plunge in and touch their faces. His mind wailed in agony, So long... It's been so very long! Why do you torment me so sprit?

"You can be with them. I will take the stress of doing it yourself from your hands," the girl promised.

"I have to find, Him!" the word Him spoken as if it were some evil thing that might rise from the grave and consume them all that had spoken of Him during the day light hours.

"Then do it old man."

A thought occurred to him, "You know only one can be freed then? You have come here to get me to reverse what I have done. Why?"

"It must be." The girl said.

"They will never be free, either one of them. They shall live forever and never be free." Michaels said just barely over a whisper.

"It must be."

"Daddy?" came the sound of an excited teen-aged girl. His head spun in the direction of the sound The voice was unmistakable. Even when she had spoken Russian with her parents, it had been spoken with an English accent. The music was sweet. As sweet as it had been earlier when this same girl had walked into his lab just hours ago. Her beautiful radiant face glowed beneath a cascade of flaxen hair.

But that wasn't really your daughter, only a genetic copy driven by someone else's life force. Not your daughter.

But this, this was his child. His child. To prove it, she recognized him.

They were standing, arms out, each woman wept and he felt he might collapse from the raw emotion of hearing them again. "Oh God! My Leese! My Beth... Oh God! I missed you both so much." As he reached for them an idea was planted in his head. The idea was a clear set of instructions on what he must do to have his family back again.

As the idea formed and became clear, the vision broke up around him and he found himself back on the floor of the lab where he had been when the Shipleys had left.

"No!" He shouted. He searched the room madly for the table, his hands splayed out on the floor grasping for anything that might return him to that place. "No! No! Please God! No!" He trembled with the force of his anxiety and anger. "Bring them back! Please, All I've ever wanted was my family. Please!" But the lab was silent. Terrence Michaels stood and raced for the door where the Shipleys had left, he dashed out into the alley in hopes of catching them but they were gone. God only knew how long he had been out while the vision had taken place.

Michaels dashed out into the street beyond but they were gone from sight there too. He had to get the young man back. He knew what had to be done but he had to be himself to do it. He had to be Ziven Rocov for this to work; he had to shed his SKIN in order to die. He gassed up his vintage Cadillac and motored it out of the garage and over to his favourite corner pub. He was to wait there. For what he did not know, he did know that he would understand when it was time to leave.

Michaels was now feeling freer in his head, the alcohol was doing it's magic on his brain.

This bargain had come after he had made it impossible to become his former self again. He was now the one who was stuck and he had one clear mission. He must find that man he had freed without raising an alarm and before something happened to him. If he didn't then all would be lost. He could not use SHOP resources. It also meant that if this man had been using the SKIN long enough to have a child then the person he had once been had long ago been declared dead. Where does a man that long dead go to find shelter and comfort? He poured another vodka and prayed for the first time in his long, long life. He prayed for a miracle.

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The two raced into Rouston under the eyes of HTC. Beth's face was awash in the light of the VID in the slightly darkened HOV cockpit. The strain she was under was clear from sight of her clinched jaw and worried eyes. Randy could hear what the reporter was saying but could only glimpse at the screen and then back at his chosen route of flight. The FMS was not programmed to fly this low, Randy was at risk of hitting more than just buildings. There were HOV's taking off and entering the HOVways just above them. This air space was for approach and departure not horizontal flight.

"Mr. Shipley was apprehended early this morning around seven A.M. our cameras were there when Police led the prominent restaurateur and property own from his lavish Old Town apartment to a waiting Police Services HOV," the reporter said.

The image on the screen flashed to a dishevelled and raw looking Gary Shipley being led from what Beth recognized as her home. To Beth, her father looked as if he were a homeless man that had been living on the fringe for years. Not the man they had left only hours prior to his arrest. There was stuff caked into his hair, which stuck up at impossible angles, and there were stains on his rumpled clothes. His face also has some kind of dried crust on it and she realized it was vomit. She gasped an audible and horrified gasp that made Randy steal a glance at the screen.

"God!" he whispered. "I think you've seen enough Beth." He reached to turn the unit off and Beth tenderly stopped him by placing one hand over his. "Please," he begged, "this is more than I can handle. What must it be doing to you?"

"I won't break Randy. I'm not fragile. I need to know what they intend to do with him. It's the only way I can help him." The she added distractedly, "If it's not already too late for that."

"You can't give up hope. You said it yourself; you think you found something you can use. There's hope."

"I know in my heart Randy, this is what we needed to find, but I can only do so much and the clock is ticking. My Mother has to do the rest. She's the only one now who can truly convince the police that nothing has happened. I can't do it. We have to bring my Mother back and I don't even know if that can be done."

As in confirmation of this statement Randy caught the reporter on the VID saying, "The search continues for Mr. Shipley's wife and three children for questioning. The investigation was kicked off when the Shipley's son was reported to have gone to Germany early for a planned summer vacation. When a routine check turned up no travel records or reservations, police were called in to investigate the welfare of the child on the Shipley's behalf. Now it appears the Shipley family has mysteriously disappeared as well. As you might recall, Mr. Shipley was the focal point of the most famous missing persons case Rouston has ever known..."

"On the Shipley's behalf my butt!" Beth cried. "That's what that old fart was doing at school that day. He was checking my school records Randy." Beth was pointing at Callahan on the VID who had put Gary in the HOV and was waving for medical personnel to back away from the area.

"He was at school?" Randy asked surprised.

"Sure was." Beth shuddered as Callahan's dead, flat stare crossed her face from the VID screen. It made her think back to the day he had stared seemingly right through her in the main lobby of the school. It had been the look of a person that has a moment of unexplained recognition. The officer had seemed to be trying to put a handle on the moment when she had been thankfully swept away into the crowd. "That's the guy that was pressing everyone to arrest my father for Mike's murder."

"He was almost on top of it wasn't he? He knew your Dad had something to do with it all right." Randy shook his head amazed at how close he had been.

"I guess they were missing a few of the pieces. The just didn't know that Mike was still right below their noses. Worse, mom had to interview with the police, give my Dad an alibi in her own disappearance. They never knew they were interviewing the victim."

Beth sat and considered the impossible task ahead of them. Once those thoughts were brought to bear, it seemed more than humanly possible. Her own personal quest was over now. Her selfishness had done this to her mother and father, fixing this now was all she could think about. She considered how hard it had been for two people that had lived with her fate for twenty some odd years to think of a way to reverse the process for their child, something they had been unable to do once before. Now, as she thought about her task and the ultimate goal, she wondered if people like her mother, her father and herself had any control in this. She shook the thought from her head. One thing at a time, find Mom, then tell her what you think you found.

Randy touched the back of her hand, "What are you thinking?"

She looked at him and smiled. "That my Mother did awfully well with her fate. She seemed to be happy and she loved her family. She had been a hero as Mike and she just put all that on a shelf and made something new out of what she had. She's amazing." Tears were welling up in her eyes.

Randy nodded. How could one add to a statement that said so much? It couldn't be done. He kept silent.

Beth curled her fingers around Randy's. "I was also thinking that you're pretty amazing too." She didn't look at him; she couldn't bring herself to do that. She new if she did she would start to cry. The stress of the last thirty-five or forty hours not to mention the last two weeks, were starting to have an affect on her emotional state.

When she felt she had herself more under control told Randy something she had half hinted at the night before as they had both read Michelle's journal. "I'm not going to try to go back any more. I'm in the CITREG as Beth Wright. It would be too much risk for my parents to reverse this now. If I can get them back, I'll just stay Beth. If I can do half as well as my Mother did then I think I'll have a pretty nice life a head of me. "

Randy had a serious look on his face as he piloted his HOV low above the approaching Rouston skyline. Beth. She was about to loosen her grip on his finger, worried that he was not interested in her now that he understood her past. Maybe the incident last night was not noble or gallant but had been an act of self-preservation. As she started to release his hand he tightened his grip on her hand slightly holding it in his. Then Randy spoke. "I understand your desire to want to want the trouble to end. To not be the cause of so much heartache and pain, but your parents did what they did for you not because of anything you said or did; but rather because they love you."

"I know but..."

Randy squeezed her hand a little tighter and Beth fell quite. "However, if you decide to stay the way you are. I hope you can build a little space in your life for me. Because I think I'd liked to stay there if it's all right with you. If you decide later you can't do this then I'll do what I can to help you get back to your old life."

Beth bowed her head, grateful and happy. Her amazement with him was complete. No matter where she turned there were these people taking risks and fighting battles for her. Were they doing this when she had been William? She recognized that they had been. She was ashamed that she had never seen it before. She couldn't tell Randy right now that she wasn't going to ever consider being William again. She couldn't tell him just now that she had fallen hopelessly in love with him. She was afraid and uncertain that someone could actually love her after all she had been before. She silently and squeezed his hand. They sat in silence and then the FMS beeped and Randy made a heading correction.

"OK, Rouston is up ahead. We'll be there in five minutes. Where am I going again?"

Beth pulled up the book marked NewsChip article stored in the public information net it was an article of "Where are they now?" that had been published in the Pittsburgh Electronic Gazette on aging pop-stars and where they had faded. This one was on the phenomenal over night success of a star that never was, Mike Vello. The interview had been given by his mother; Rose. At the end of the article the reporter had described in detail the squalid conditions the pop-star's mother was living and gave her address as evidence to that fact. "West side. Down where Washington branches to the southwest. 2716 Washington Ave." Just one lucky break after another Beth thought. Then why do I feel like we're being led by our noses, like something out there was waiting for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place before collecting us.

Randy looked at her. "That is not a good part of town. I hope you're right, I hope Mike's mother still lives there."

"Me too Randy. Me too." It was all the hope they had. As thin as it was, they clung to it as tightly as if it had been a life rope. Somehow though, Beth didn't think they had much to worry about.

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Mike shambled from his bedroom out into the small, poorly lit living room. His attempt at rest had failed and now it felt as if his brain were failing as well. His trouble with walking and maintaining his balance seemed to be washing from his system. Mike reasoned that the fatigue and shock must be wearing off. That however, was the least of his problems.

Mentally, Mike was deteriorating. He was becoming more and more agitated as time went by. He could not sleep, and dimly understood that the problem was getting worse. A state of paranoia had begun to lightly entwine its fingers into the fibres of his being. He was grappling with himself, struggling between what he had been and done and what he now was. The mental gymnastics of memory are so deeply ingrained with our image of self that it was making Mike's self-image collapse in on its own weight. The effect was similar to a yellow giant or a common star collapsing in on itself. What was left was a black hole where nothing of self could escape to satisfy Mikes need for sanity. His maternal instinct was too deeply part of his being to be reversed it seemed. His thoughts flew around his children and his mind tried to reject the idea they were his. He could not have given birth to two girls and a boy and yet he knew he had. They were the things of this world that were the larger part of his soul.

Mike could not explain this torment either. He could not form the words that he felt anyone else would understand. His was an internal struggle, a fight of the mind and the subconscious. He was back where he had once been and part of him wanted desperately to hold on to that, to reverse the deeds of the past and be who he had been born to be. In his mind however, too much time had passed. In a way he had been Michelle much longer than he had been Mike. Was it not true that one only remembers so far back into one's childhood? His earliest recollections were from the age of about four or five. After all was said and done, he had been Mike for only 19 years. Michelle was nearly twenty-one years old since her inception. That put almost six years on Michelle that Mike either didn't have or couldn't remember. The fact was that he simply was more Michelle now than he ever would be Mike.

"Can't sleep?" Rose asked.

"I think I slept too long before Mom." Some of his statement was in fact truth, however, he felt tired and fatigued. If he had been able to, he would have closed his eyes and allowed time to flow around him. He understood one frightening fact; if he didn't get some help soon he was going to go insane. He didn't want his Mother to worry now. No, there'll be enough of that happening when the police get their hands on you and take you away.

There was nothing more that Rose could do for her son except try to comfort him. If she called the hospital for him, there would be more questions than they could answer. The silence was staggeringly uncomfortable and finally Rose decided to turn on the VID to a resonance broadcast. What came from the crystal tower speakers hammered Mike's fragile psyche in to a mashed and bloody pulp. It was a song. It was almost over but there was just enough to drive Mike in the ground like a nail being driven into a coffin lid.

So what do I say to the man
Tell me,
Who hold my whole world within his hands
Help me,
Make him understand the way I feel
I just could not bring myself
to go ahead and turn way
Suddenly, Then suddenly I know,
I know exactly what to say.
You Are...
The brightest star that lights my way
For me,
Always showing me the way
You found the deepest love inside of me
Struggling and fighting to be free
You changed "just me" in a "we"
So I come to you thankfully to say
You Are!
It's just because my love;
You are.

The voice of Michelle came down to both of them. Mike had tried to get up and leave the room but had fallen to his knees weeping his face buried in his hands. Rose had gone to him and knelt beside her son and did her best to soothe him, but he was helpless. She understood what Mike had lost to a small degree. It was exactly the same thing she herself had lost, her family. They were very much alike now and her heart opened up for him for what seemed like the very first time. Gone was the selfishness of guilt and regard for her own pain. In its place was the need of a mother to restore her child. Mike had become a good person in the woman he had been; and that had been striped from him. In that one act, he had lost all the identity he would ever have. He could not go back to being the person he truly was and his heart would not let him go back to being Mike.

"Mike..." she spoke softly to him. "Mike, you have to go back to that man. You have go try to get back home to your children. You're going to die this way."

Mike groaned into his hands.

She pulled his hands way from his face and felt, oddly enough for the first time, something attached to his finger. She pulled his left hand forward and touched the three-carat stone that was mounted there. The ring the stone was mounted in bit viciously into to skin of the ring finger of Mike's left hand. "Mike!" Rose said in a worried voice. "Does that hurt honey?"

"It doesn't matter if it does or not Mom. I can't get it off. It's been stuck there since Gary put it on my hand." Mike worked at it as if to prove it but Rose could see that it wasn't going to come off. Mike's fingers had always been slender as a boy, but this ring was designed for someone with a much smaller hand than his. If it had been stuck then it would be hopelessly so now.

"Honey, please." She begged him. She could feel him shaking uncontrollably beneath her touch. She leaned in closer and whispered in his ear. "You have to go back to your true life as Michelle."

Mike arched back and wailed like a wounded lion. "I can't Mother. It doesn't work like that."

"I know what you've told me, but you have to go to him and make him understand." Rose said sweetly.

The announcer on the radio said something, half heard, about a Gary somebody and Rose stopped talking to listen. A few minutes, she tapped Mike on the shoulder and whispered. "Honey, listen."

Mike did and aghast at what he heard.

"As I'm sure most of you know, that last piece was of course our own local heroes Tidewater with the beautiful and radiant Michelle Shipley. That song goes out to the Shipley family and all the fans Michelle has in the area I know are hoping that the rumours aren't true. Later today we'll rebroadcast an interview I had with Michelle as part of our Light a Candle of hope broadcast. Michelle told me herself that she wrote that for her husband Gary but she had never actually said it out loud before. There's no dedication on the chip cover. She said it was kind of her secret."

The jock sighed a heavy sigh and then continued

"For those of you who may have just tuned in, some of you will already know this of course but it seems now that there are anonymous sources within Polices Services that are claiming that Michelle's husband and owner of The Red Fish restaurant chain will be charged with murder some time later today or tomorrow. Right now there is a desperate search going on for the children of the family. One, their son William is believed to already be dead and the rest of the family is missing, including Michelle."

"I know you join with us in extending our prayers to the family and friends of the Shipleys." The announcer sighed again. "It just boggles the mind. I hope it's not true but it's hard to ignore what happened to Mike Vello so very long ago now. Michelle's husband was connected to that as well. If you'll remember he was Mike Vello's best friend and a major suspect in the crime but when no body was ever found the case went stale and Gary Shipley was cleared.

"I happen to have part of that interview spooled up right now, why don't we listen to just a little of it right now. This was recorded shortly after Somebody Save Me was released, oh... what was it, eight, nine years ago? Anyway, let's listen."

The voice of a ghost flew out of the crystals; "Oh I could tell you quite a bit about the influences of that song. I wrote it for my husband and best friend Gary."

"You're nervous," .he interviewer said, his name and the name of the Jock was Wild Bill Hatman and Mike could remember this interview so very well.

"Yes... I am. I'm afraid I don't do too many interviews. I can sing but I'm an awful speaker."

"You're doing fine Michelle. Don't be nervous, we're just a couple of old friends here. You and I have known each other off and on now for three or four years, right?" Mike listened, he could remember giving that interview. He could remember how reluctant he had been to do a speaking engagement of any kind. He worked himself up so in the interest of protecting his identity that he didn't even give thought that there would be no video with it. He had been terrified of doing more than an album publicly.

"Yes, I'm just being silly. Anyway, the song You Are." Michelle changed the direction of the conversation.

"Yes." Bill said.

"Gary didn't want me to record it. He kept telling me that he didn't want me doing anything special for him like that. I think he felt self-conscious about having a song recorded just for him. He didn't think he had done anything to deserve a song on one of Tidewater's albums. Lame excuse, he's very modest about almost everything except his ability to create. He's quite vain about that." Mike could almost hear the grin on ghost Michelle's face, he could still feel what that smile had felt like. "But I told him, it's how I feel, would you have me deny the way I feel about you?"

"And what did he say to that?"

"Well, it's not so much what he said..." and Michelle laughed a loud and nervous laugh. "Oh my I can't believe I just said that on the air."

"Did she get dropped?" Bill called over his should to the engineer. You could tell because his voice sounded faded. "Tommy says you're fine, well within the guidelines of a family show."

"Good. Well, the song was recorded and mixed in about an hour. I think it was the fastest thing I've ever produced. Heck, it didn't even take me twenty minutes to write it, lyric and verse. It wasn't even supposed to be on the album; but the studio chief heard it and insisted that it go on at the last minute knocking off Foggy Heart which I don't think ever got released."

"Not a bad payday for an hour twenty." Bill said impressed.

"I guess, but I wasn't really concerned about pay. This seemed like something I needed to do; something I needed to say to myself. I mean; it was bouncing around up there in my head but it somehow needed to be out on paper and flowing back into my ears. Maybe one day I'll hear that song again and remember, I don't know, something I forgot. Does that make any sense?"

"The meaning of this song isn't lost on me. I'm sure there are many others out there that will identify with it." Bill said.

"I hope so. But I have to say that where the jet wash cuts the air, it will really only have its true intended meaning for just one person. In that way I guess I was being rather selfish. I just wanted to do something that would always remind him how I feel and where I'm supposed to be." She Michelle was done, Mike looked at the ring on his hand, he held it up and watched the explosion of color as the stone refracted the light of the room. He remembered a time when that color had mesmerized him so. When he feared Gary might not propose and he would deliver a child as a single woman. He remembered how warm and loved she had felt all that day and wonderful night.

That's right, she, you were certainly loved. You were loved no matter who you were but you know something. You felt it more when you were Michelle. You appreciated it more when you were a woman.

Rose turned down the resonator. When she turned Mike was standing. "I have to go Mom."

She said nothing, she understood. She went to him and held him; he was tall and rather handsome for a man in his early forties. Had he not been so racked with emotional pain and metal illness he would have been a most striking man. She knew that no matter what happened now, she was going to lose him, most likely to the police. She was proud of him however. She could not claim bragging rights to character. He had become the person he was all on his own. She would not stop him.

"I want you to know something before you go." Rose said, not taking her head away from her son's chest to look at him, instead she simply listened to the sound of his beating heart.

"I already know Mom."

"I want to say it anyway." Mike said nothing; he only waited. "I love you Mike. I always have."

The resonator broadcast dimmed, Mike held his mother firmly in his arms. Again, Mike was struck by the frailty of her old body and wondered just how much longer she had left. This thing had given him the chance he had been looking for, a way to tell his mother what had happened. If there was to be any good from this gained, then perhaps this was it. They spent a peaceful moment together. It was a moment long overdue. Mother and son in each other's arms, Norman Rockwell couldn't have painted a more touching scene.

Rose and Mike jumped when there was a harsh, rapid knock on the door.

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"You don't seem to understand Shipley. Everyone is saying I've got you this time. I don't need you to talk. In fact, I'd prefer it if you didn't. I don't want explanations. I don't want to find out that I'm wrong, even though I know I'm not."

Gary sat in the small grey room, his hands in magnetic manacles on the table. His face was drawn and pale. It was clear he was not well; for the most part his appearance was due to lack of sleep and a monstrous hangover. There were a few cuts and busies on his face from where he 'fell down in his cell' when he first got here. No one really expected less. A surprising number of Callahan's collars had fallen down in their cells early on back in the days when Callahan was actually arresting people. Many remembered it well. His appearance would get worse however, as reality set in, his mood started to be pulled down even further than his dishevelled appearance might suggest by the idea that he was going to jail, not for murder. Compounded by the fact that Callahan was the officer responsible for escorting Gary to and from his cell.

Gary had to be realistic. He had forwarded the notion years ago to Mike when Gary Shipley and Mike Vello vanished from the face of the earth along with four other young men from Rouston, Pennsylvania. Only five of those teens came home. The resultant investigation never found out if Mike was in deed still alive and well and trapped in the body of Michelle Donavan, which was an invented persona. They never charged anyone with the murder. Marion Callahan had been gunning for Gary Shipley ever since. Gary knew that but didn't particularly fear Callahan. It was rumoured that Callahan was as crazy as they come, driven insane from the pressure to solve a case that would never be solved, from the ridicule and the shame.

Now, however, he was facing jail for a murder that never happened and it was with a sense of historical irony that the man that was the State's best suspect years ago now was implicated in his son's and wife's disappearances and could not produce travel records, financial documents or VID recordings that his alleged alibi was in fact true. That William was in the company of friendlies from the UFS in Germany on a skiing trip, had become injured and his wife had gone to care for him until such time as he could be brought home safely. So the conclusion in Callahan's mind was murder. Insofar as William had been the suspected victim here, he was the only one confirmed missing. However the confusing fact that they had found blood in the master bath and the fact that it matched Michelle's type and genetic cross match was going to seal his fate. When Michelle didn't show up then Callahan would have him again, for killing Michelle. For that he deserved to die. Gary knew Callahan would personally see to that.

He reflected briefly on his life and found he felt no pity for himself. He did however feel pity for his children. They were unwitting victims here. Hindsight told him that perhaps Michelle and he shouldn't have had children. Perhaps they had been playing Russian roulette with the lives of the innocent, people that had no interest or business knowing the world as it was for Gary and Michelle. Children expect their parents to be what they appear to be, not to be traumatized by the harsh realities of a world turned upside down. They hadn't believed at the time that Michelle's SKIN could be reversed and Michelle sent to her grave so unexpectedly. Gary felt the irony of his confidence in his belief he would die before Michelle. He felt sick to his stomach over it. He should have protected her better; he should have gone into the chamber with William. What had he been thinking? The desperation of his soul played over and over again the scene in the chamber. The way his wife had gone in an instant to a person this world had not seen in a generation was more than shocking. It was beyond belief. Mike had simply burst out of the dress like some animated overstuffed cartoon animal that had been inflated with air.

Now their children were on their own. They would have to stay that way unless Beth turned herself in. The only help they could offer as their parents would be to stall the authorities. He would have a chance to talk to his attorney soon, he would set up a safe haven in Miami and then on to Lima or Caracas or some place like that where they would be relatively safe. He could provide assets from the sale of their properties funnelled in to some fake charity. He would have to let his attorney know what was really going on. He would need the information to be able to think strategically, to get his children the most help he could get them.

Gary barely heard Dirty Mary's ramblings. His main concern was surviving this beating so he could finalize the plans for the kids.

He felt bad for Mike as well. It was from Mike that the friendship in his relationship with his wife bore its life from. He understood that better than even Michelle/Mike. They were the same life force in a chameleon like existence. He knew that he would go crazy with the maternal instinct that she had fostered for so many years. That Mike would not be able to shed that feeling from his soul. He would be confused and tormented for the rest of his days if it was true, if he could not return to being Michelle. That is, if it were possible and if he wanted to. Mike spent one long year trying to find a way to get that SKIN deactivated. Now the feelings that had driven Mike Vello in his own life were free to influence the choices and decisions that this person now made. He might not want to go back to being Michelle even if it was possible.

Whatever the outcome, his one focus had to be sharp, clear and steadfast. If he couldn't dodge this one on his own then he would have to fall on his sword to make sure that it was never discovered that Beth was really William. That way, in time, Mike might find a way back or find the will to go back or find some other solution. They were his children as well. Gary knew that would gnaw at him until he did something to return to his family.

Suddenly Gary's chair was kicked out from underneath him. "Did you hear a fuckin' word I said Shipley?" shouted Dirty Mary.

Gary hit the floor, his hands stretched out on the table above him. He winced away from the noise and abruptness of the screaming but Callahan grabbed his hair and turned his face skyward to face Dirty Mary's. "No sleeping when God is speaking to you Shipley..."

"Callahan!" came a shout from beyond the table that Gary could not see from his kneeling position on the floor. "Outside if you will, Detective. Williams, help Mr. Shipley up and back into his chair."

Gary heard footsteps approaching as Callahan took one last sneering look at Gary and then tossed his head aside. Beside Gary were a pair of legs. "Upsy daisy." said a voice from somewhere above the legs as someone took him by his arms and lifted. The chair was pushed back close to the table and Gary sat in it. It was a strange feeling not to be able to leave, not to have the freedom to just take his wrists off the table.

"Thank you." Gary said to the officer.

"Sure," was all the man offered before he too left the room.

'Be grateful.' A voice deep in his soul said to him. 'This is where you would have wound up had it not been for Michelle. She saw more potential in you than anyone else. She was the only one that could make you believe it too. Maybe this is fitting. You have come full circle now. The mistake has been corrected and you're where you should have wound up in the first place.'

"God Michelle, I wish you could hear me. I'm so sorry!"

"If there is a case here Callahan, and I'm not convinced there is yet, you're going to blow it with stunts like flagrant abuse of power. You want him to charge police brutality in the middle of the trial? Duress perhaps? I can see a mistrial heading at us like a steaming locomotive and you've put us all in smack dab in the middle of the tracks." Captain Martin shouted in soft tones at Callahan.

One junior officer asked another in a whisper, "What's a locomotive?" and his compatriot waived him off. Martin ignored them both, choosing to focus instead on the man he wished he had fired weeks ago. But now a Federal Court was involved and an investigation must follow. Callahan had very cleverly gone around his bulldog keepers and managed to pull off the illusion of sanity when speaking to the judge on this matter. So much so that he had been granted a court order for search and seizure with consent to arrest.

Martin felt that Shipley was no more responsible for Mile Vello's murder than Santa Claus might have been. But Gary had made mistakes when he was younger and got on Callahan's bad side with his glib humour. He had even embarrassed him once in public during to the Vello case, on VID camera no less. Callahan had issues with Shipley now. Never mind that he was now a famous and wealthy business owner and contributor to the community, that his girlfriend, now wife, had verified his whereabouts that weekend.

"Now God damn it, Callahan. If you can't give me a body, or something more than a God damn missing listing on a Jump Shuttle for William or Mrs. Shipley to verify they didn't really travel to Germany, then I'm going to turn him loose before you get him into the system and I'm going to use my authority to do it. Do you fucking understand me?"

"Captain... if you'll just calm down..." started Callahan in a causal style that was almost enough to cause Captain Martin to shoot Callahan where he stood.

"Don't you ever talk to me like we're equals, friends or co-workers. You're here because that the powers above me feel that you should retire with full benefits. But I can tell you with confidence that they won't let you embarrass them with a man of this stature and power. If you're wrong, then you'll have no friends in this department, high or low. I don't like you, and if I could I would cut you loose and have you committed here and now. You just get me the evidence I told you to get and keep your mouth shut around me."

"Did you hear what Shipley said after I left?" demanded Callahan pointing at a VID screen that showed an image of a beaten and miserable Gary Shipley. He said he wished Mrs. Shipley could be here. A clear admission that she can't be..."

"You're an idiot!" Martin blasted back. "I believe I remember him saying that he wished his wife could hear him. Since she's not here, I take that to mean that he understands that she can't hear him. That certainly isn't an admission of a crime. He's done nothing in fact to make me believe anything to the contrary that he fully believes that she is alive and simply away and unaware of the mess you've created. As far as I'm concerned, there's a good reason for the presence of the blood and I'm just waiting for someone to come forward with proof if it and blow your piece of shit case to pieces again. I have yet to see any tell me that the amount of evidence found suggest a massive loss of blood. It could be Mrs. Shipley simply cut her foot on a broken piece of glass. It's not uncommon Callahan. We're fragile; when you cut us do we not bleed? I'm telling you now Callahan, if you caused the Shipleys to bleed unnecessarily then this time there'll be no saving grace from above, and I will cook your liver for you and feed it to you."

He turned to Officer Williams who had joined the four other officers in the hall. "You," Martin said pointing a finger into Williams' chest. "You are officially his baby sitter. He does nothing any longer unless I approve it. No more court orders unless I find reasonable cause to warrant one. Then he can go to a judge and ask for one. But you report to me if he decides to do any more sneaking around behind my back. Understood?"

Williams nodded his understanding and agreement.

Martin finished by slamming his hat on to his head and marching off without waiting for a reply.

"I understood that to mean that you are to be my new assistant, isn't that right son?" Callahan prodded.

"No sir," responded Williams. A scowl clouded Dirty Mary's face.

"You aren't a team player officer. Now..."

"No Sir. You are not a team player. You may be a big dog because of your rank, but Captain Martin is a much bigger dog than you, and he sharpens his teeth. You might want to remember that."

Callahan only grunted. The noose was tightening. He was going to have to get slick if he wanted to pound Shipley the way he really wanted to.

Williams added before he walked away, "Consider yourself watched, and return that man to his cell." He finished pointing to the interrogation room.

"The world is filled with pussies!" Callahan said and threw his hands skyward. "Well, if you want to make a fucking omelette, you have to break a few heads!" Callahan opened the door, conscious of the fact that someone may be watching, and began by saying... "So Gary... where were we? Oh yeah, I remember." Callahan again kicked the chair from underneath Gary, this time Gary's chin hit the table improving the size of an already substantial bruise. Callahan chuckled to him self.

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"Randy, I'm scared," admitted the small blonde girl. She stood at the gate of a small modular home. The house was rounded like an igloo. It had several narrower igloo shaped extensions or annexes attached to it. The yard was very small, a foot an a half of dead grass and withered plants that looked like someone's failed attempt to grow vegetables to supplement a their diet.

To Randy, despite her earlier admonition, she looked just like someone who might be fragile enough to break. He stood before her and took her hands and rubbed them lightly. "What are you afraid of?"

"What if he doesn't want to be our mother any more?" she bent her head so he wouldn't be able to see the uncertainty in her eyes.

Randy didn't answer her concern. He couldn't. What kind of answer could he offer to such a question? They would move forward from here if that were the case. They would leave and figure out some other plan. But he would not leave her, not now, not unless she asked him to. "We'll do it together then," he said.

"OK." She said but she waited for him to make the move toward the door first. He did, picking up his cue from her body language; which came in quick, tight jerks of her arms and shoulders. She was visibly upset.

When the reached the door. It was Randy that knocked. He could feel her pull away almost like she wanted to run back to the HOV and wait. He held her hand gently but firmly in his own and kept her with him.

When the door opened a small older woman stepped into the frame of it and asked, "Yes? Can I help you?" Then Mike walked up behind her with a weary look on his face. It was Randy that he saw first; Beth was hidden by his mother, Rose.

"Randy, what on earth are you doing here?" Mike said coming around his mother.

"Mom?" cried Beth from some place where he couldn't see.

"Beth? My God!" He raced around from behind his mother and there she was. "Oh God!" he bent and swept the girl up in his arms. He squeezed the girl and Beth squeezed back with powerful might.

"I almost lost my nerve," she whispered to Mike. "I'm glad I didn't." She kissed the man on his stubbled cheek. "I missed you Mom."

The two hugged for a brief moment and then Mike looked at his mother who was looking around nervously. "We should all go inside. Randy, keep an eye on that HOV through the window."

"Yes Ma'am." Randy said blushing slightly as he closed the door behind him.

"Mike, who are these children?" Rose asked.

"One of them is mine. The other... might as well be mine too." Mike smiled and Randy smiled back feeling more comfortable by the minute.

Rose asked. "Is this William?" It was clear she had missed the names in all the confusion. Rose approached Randy with a smile, her arms out as if she wanted a hug. Randy looked around to Beth and then to Mike with a confused, 'Hey, somebody do something' look on his face as the old woman closed on him.

"Mom, no." Mike put a hand on the old woman's arm.

Beth stepped up and before anyone could stop her she said. "I'm William."

Mike shut his eyes and grimaced

Rose looked at the girl in confusion than a dawning horror enlightened her features. Rose turned to her son with a look of bitter distaste on her face and breathed, "Michael... what's going on here?"

"Excuse me ma'am, but it's not her fault," said Beth stepping forward and speaking of Mike referring to him as 'her'. "It's my fault. I don't know how much my Mother told you but it's clear she told you some of what's been going on." She turned to Mike and said, "I read your diary Mom."

"My what?" Mike asked.

"The diary you wrote when you got stuck. The one you gave to Dad."

"Oh my God," Mike said mortified.

"No Mom, it's good. I think we found something." Beth assured Mike.

"Found something? Like what?"

"Mrs. Shipley, Beth and I were reading the book, when the other boys shed their SKINs, for lack of a better word, you wrote something about ashes at their feet. That the SKIN's kinda burned off."

"Yes, that's right, but I don't..."

"Mom, there were no ashes on the floor when he changed you back to Mike. There was nothing on the floor." Beth explained excitedly.

Mike's eyes shifted back and forth lost in thought as he tried to remember the events in the warehouse, his face was set in a mask of stern concentration. He rolled his tongue between his gums and lips. It looked as if he were working loose a piece of food that may have gotten stuck in his teeth. Then he asked of Randy, "You found this there?"

Randy shook his head. "No, not me. Beth!"

Mike looked at Beth and smiled. "I guess I should go see a man about a makeover. What do you think?"

"Mom, there's more... It's Dad."

Mike crossed the short open space that separated him from his daughter. "I just heard, just before you arrived. I was actually going to go turn myself in and explain... as much as I could."

"Well, now you don't have to." Beth insisted.

"With any luck, no, you're right. We'll go and talk to this man. See if he can put me back where I belong. I'm not hopeful that he'll do it. He was angry about something, and smart enough to find out about me when I thought that secret was very well hidden. What you found about the ashes may be true, but we need a tool to convince him that he needs to consider changing me back and give you back your life too. I think I know what I can use to..."

"No Mom." Beth said suddenly.

"No Mom what?" Mike asked confused.

"We get you back. I've changed. My life is very different now." Beth said moving close to Randy.

Mike recognized what was happening. "You're confused honey. You don't know what you're doing. I know that your feelings are so very overwhelmed right now but I think that in time..."

"I'll feel the same as I do right now. Did you feel any differently about Dad? Even when you tried to deny it Mom, did you really feel differently? Do you now?" Beth was talking about love. Beth was making it clear that even though Michelle had tried to hide from it she had been in love with Gary from the very start. But she was also drawing a correlation bet Michelle's story and her own. She had fallen in love with Randy.

Something else occurred to Mike. He was being given another chance to choose, this time from scratch, from that place where he had always wanted to make that choice. Never mind that the deck was stacked on the house side. The stakes were the same as before. The stage had been set for him. Gary's life hung in the balance, how would he choose this time? He didn't' have to go back, he knew that now. All he had to do was turn himself in to free Gary. He could explain everything. He could do it to the news services and probably not go to jail. Plead his case in the court of public opinion and walk; break it all wide open. He could stay as Mike.

He knew he would gain nothing. He would lose all that he had come to value, his family, the closeness and the love of those that cared for him. His children would be lost to him, his husband too. Even as Mike the sound of it didn't seem that alien any longer. He understood that Michelle was still very much alive inside him. Now he was no long a man sealed inside a genetic reproduction of a woman, quite the opposite. He was now Michelle trapped in the body of a dead man.

Mike knew also that what Beth said was a doubled edged sword. She was asking him to let William go. Beth was asking her to reach back into her memory and remember what it had been like when she had first fallen in love with Gary, the way Beth now loved Randy. Even in the midst of knowing that he had to try to return to his life as Michelle and the happiness that idea brought to him, there was great sadness. He was being asked to in essence to release the sprit of his son from his mothers grasp and take this child to his breast as his own. Mike would let the subject languish where it was for now. Once he was back to normal again he knew he could convince her son to reclaim his place in this world. It would not be easy for either Beth or Randy but it was right. Mike knew it was the right thing to do. A sad knowing smile crossed his features.

"What Mom?"

"Nothing... Let's go get your Father."

Mike turned to his Mother. "I'll come back. You know about me now. If this works, I'll come back, but Mom, I'll be different."

"I'd be proud of you, daughter or son, it makes no difference to me. I'm proud of you," Rose said and hugged her son for the very last time.

Mike kissed his mother.

"Mom, we have to have a plan on how to explain why I'm, er... rather William; why William isn't coming back."

"Don't worry about that, I have a feeling that a guarding angel has that figured out already," Mike said as he moved the children to the door. "I'll be back Mom."

"Mike, I've always loved you," Rose said.

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A forty-year-old Mike Vello stared out of the window of the HOV. They were traveling a HOVway that was only about 70 feet off the pavement but even from this vantage point he could see that garish statue of him in the distance on the campus grounds. He thought about his mother. It was for her that damned thing had been erected in the first place. Hell, it had been erected most by her.

Now, he had abandoned his mother once more, leaving her again with only that ugly bronzed likeness of him to comfort her. During his life as Michelle, he could remember seeing her many times in the park placing flowers at the pedestal of the statue of him. It had always made him feel miserable. These feelings of guilt and despair left her quickly when once again back in the company of her family. With luck, she would be back with them again soon.

There were no guarantees however, it was a very real possibility that this man Michaels would not only not help him out but might possibly arrest him. Mikes intent at that point was to blow the lid off the SKINs facility. The lab was obviously probably only an R&D facility as denoted by the use of the "black boards" and its limited space, but the preservatives facility where Jay had worked was capable of housing a much bigger production facility. Mike was a loose cannon on the deck of a floundering ship now. He was in a position of being recognized. Michaels hadn't thought that one out by turning them out. What had he thought Mike would do if he were found out?

If Michaels wasn't going to help him, them Mike would drag them all through the gates of hell, kicking and screaming if he had to, but that would be their only other choice.

"Mrs. Shipley?" Randy asked. "Are you OK?"

Mike turned from the window, "Hm? I'm sorry Randy, were you talking to me?"

"I asked if you were OK," he repeated. "You look, I don't know..."

"Not well?" Mike asked and then nodded his head.

"I guess that was a stupid question," Randy admitted.

"The only one here that was stupid was me. I have inadvertently ruined the lives of all the people I cared most about in the entire world."

Beth, who had been sitting in the back seat, spoke up. "That's not true Mom. Not true."

"It's not all Carrie's fault either." Mike said. "Most of this starts with me."

"I wasn't talking about her Mom. I was referring to me."

Randy jumped in, "You know, I bet if I looked deep enough in to this little adventure I could even find a little blame even for me in all this. But I ask myself. What does that change? How does blaming myself solve any of the problems? Answer! It doesn't. It solves nothing. In fact the only thing it does is detract from the problem at hand. Now that could be a problem."

Mike and Beth were silenced. They sat staring at Randy with dumfounded looks on their faces while Randy sat staring out the windshield while he piloted the HOV to Dr. Michael's building. Finally Mike said, "Are you sure you're just seventeen?"

"For at least four more weeks Mrs. Shipley." Randy said with a grin.

Mike turned to Beth, "Does he remind you of anyone?" and Beth nodded with a slight grin. He turned to face the front again. "OK. No more self-pity. I will only say this once however, because I believe it needs to be said. I'm sorry for getting you involved in all of this Randy. I wish you never had to find out about... me. It was a mistake I made a long time ago. When I discovered that no one could undo it, I learned to live with it. I learned to enjoy my life as it had been handed to me. My family made it very easy for me." Beth reached up and squeezed Mike's shoulder. Mike covered her hand in his own gently, he closed his eyes, and for just a second, in his mind's eye, they were mother and daughter again. "If I can get back to where I was, I know I can promise myself that I'll never look back."

"Mrs. Shipley, you don't owe anyone an explanation," Randy countered. "For me, this is your unnatural state. Not the one I've grown up knowing. The Mother of my best friend and the lady that for so many years I had a secret crush on."

Mike looked surprised, as did Beth in the back seat. Again, neither said a thing about the comment, nor the fact that Randy had insisted on calling Mike Mrs. Shipley since this odyssey began back at his mother's home. It simply was a fact, that to Randy, he saw Mike in a form that was totally alien to what he believed Mike to truly be. Just as most of Mike's friends twenty years ago had, at first, been a bit surprised to find that Gary and 'Michelle' had actually fallen in love and had an intimate relationship over that long weekend when all this started. They, in fact, had still seen Mike and not Michelle. It is that parody of identity that others see us for. For the most part no one ever recognizes that inner-self in others. They may be vaguely aware of that of its existence, but because it's intangible it remains enigmatic. Because we are such slaves to our senses, we tend to identify persona with our exterior shell. Now Randy and Beth were experiencing the same disconnect in reverse.

The troupe of three pressed on without further conversation until they reached the run-down ramshackle building that was The Federal States Intelligence Agency Rouston's extension of The Shop.

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In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. On the sixth day God created man in his own image who preceded to declare himself God and who created beings in his own image claiming that image for himself exclusively. Man saw that these beings were good. By the year that the World Trade Center was destroyed, one of these self appointed Gods had been a forty-eight year old known as Ziven Rocov. He was a Russian immigrant and a brilliant former student of bioengineering and micro-genetics turned inventor.

There were many years to go before the next great war. When it came, no one suspected that it would be Canada that turned against its old friend and neighbour, the United States. Oh, there had been minor battles to flush out warlords from some isolated third world country whose extremist ideology would find a reason to strike against the United States, but at that time the States had still been the freest place on earth to do business. If you had an idea that you could call your own and if people wanted it, you could sell it there. It was here he had come and planned to market his idea to a consumer crazed population that would gobble up nearly any good idea with a zeal that was almost akin to a feeding frenzy. Price was rarely an obstacle especially where vanity and the correction of perceived physical imperfections were concerned.

Some ideas however, made people feel threatened. Ziven's idea had terrified a select group of individuals in power of the then government of the United States. His invention could manipulate the genetic structure of any human being and transform that person into someone else. In a society where it was becoming increasingly important to know who and where people were, this invention would allow people to transition between identities in the blink of an eye and without detection. It flew in the face of the rational thinking individuals that made the rules by which all other law-abiding people were forced to live.

Ziven had applied for a patent with the United States patent office. His diagrams and schematics had been confiscated and duplicated. However his diagrams were incomplete. Wanting to make sure that his property as he saw it remained his, he had withheld many pieces of the puzzle, frustrating the operatives that represented the agency trying to duplicate and steal his invention. The goal of the investigating agency was to see if this technology was viable. Finally, the agency had gotten hold of a thing this Rocov character was calling a bond-flesh unit. A volunteer was found and the technology was tried. The results were more effective and frightening than they could have believed possible.

The agent had transformed before the eyes of witnesses and fellow members of the agency, into someone they didn't know. Changing him back would prove to be an even more challenging proposal. It would take the inventor himself to deactivate the bond-flesh unit. For the next two years this agent lived in the body of a complete and total stranger until an agreement was reached with the inventor and the agency.

In the course of those two years, the agency, that at the time had been a branch of the intelligence agency, railed to get control of Ziven's invention. The agency quietly blocked the patent, the raising of funds, the rental of space where he could set up a lab to work. They stepped between Ziven and his plans to market and sell his invention at every conceivable turn. Then, after about a year and a half of this the rumours of Ziven's revolutionary invention began to leak out and swirl wildly about in the general public. Imagine an invention that could eliminate birth defects, all defects internal and external. A thing that could heal, beautify and make a person popular all with one application. The information was out there now. All the agency could do was to try to discredit as much as they could. Before that, all evidence of such a thing had to be removed from risk of public exposure. It for this reason that agents showed up on afternoon and confiscated Ziven's property and most but not all of the technology in the interest of "National Security". He was commanded to give all remaining papers and documentation to the government.

He had refused, claiming that in a free country, his idea was still his. How could they take it from him? It had been a good thing for Ziven that in 2005 the country had still been as free as it was, Ziven had been able to take the issue to court. That did not stop the agency from trying to frighten and intimidate him into dropping his case and turning over the much-needed documentation for invention. It was becoming clear to Ziven that they wanted more than to simply suppress his idea, they wanted to use it as their own. They wanted to do what others would do with it. They wanted to get into Cuba at long last and take out a now ancient Castro that didn't seem to want to die on his own. They could now do it with his invention. They wanted to get into the Philippines, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq and Iran; places that don't even exist now. The agency clearly saw this as an attempt to slip in and of aggressive and hostile governments.

A judge had broken the stalemate. No, Ziven could not market this device to the public the risk for abuse and aid in espionage and infiltration to positions of power in this or other governments was too great. Does he have to give it to the United States? No, it was his idea; if the government of the United States was going to restrict or control this technology then they must compensate him based on a realistic fare market value. The government cannot simply take it as their own without fairly compensating him.

The powers in the Government that wanted his device were furious. The agency felt they had every right to take it in the interest of Truth, Justice and the American Way. The judge in the case died quietly at night of an undisclosed disease, secretly diagnosed in the back rooms of the CIA building as TJAW's disease, a year later on the date of his ruling. His family was dead in a month's time. They made demands on the Supreme Court that were all denied, the original decision was upheld. In the mean time Ziven was starving. He could not sell his device or any of the technology what had sprung from it by court order for fear of abuse by a hostile nation and the government was not going to release their strangle hold on what he felt was rightfully his.

In an attempt to breach the stalemate the agency murdered three New York Circuit Court Judges in the case and at least one Supreme Court Justice. Even this was not enough to instil sufficient fear to make them pry what they wanted from this mans fingers. He knew he was kept alive only because he had elements of the technology that would make it work for them. They needed him alive for the transfer of knowledge. Without him, his invention was a massive bubble memory computer and useless numbers and some self-degenerating electrodes that had no one to decipher it. It was scrap without Ziven.

They conceded, and they made an offer. They would hire him as a consultant and he would give all materials to the government.

The answer? Well, it was a resounding, "You have to be joking!"

He knew that if he turned over his knowledge, he would be eliminated. They could not afford to have him hanging around. The risk of exposure was too great. He had to keep his secrets close to his vest. He encrypted everything; he developed a system that could only be accessed by him. He was not of a self-protective governmental discipline, he could not be trusted to take orders, follow procedures and play nice.

As time went by he could sense the anger and hatred for him that these officials had for him. They waited for him to die so they could swoop down on him and take his prize for their own not knowing that now, without his access they would not only not be able to reproduce his technology but they would not even be able to have the option of dissecting it. They kept him in the country; he was not allowed to travel. Out of desperation and hunger he finally agreed to work for them. He would be allowed to travel if watched. He would earn a healthy salary and he would be allowed to live however long that was in peace. It was all he had ever wanted, to profit from his hard work. At the time it seemed an amicable concession.

It did not stop them from trying to possess his technology. They tried to apply reverse engineering to it and failed. His protection was working better than he could have hoped, but it was creating enemies. He was beginning to understand they knew they were going to lose the technology if he died. He reveled in their frustration. He became arrogant and self-important.

In the interim, they paraded him about as their trick pony. They had him create an ideal form for him self. This was marketed to him under the guise of a persona that would he would assume in the presence of others for his own protection. Eventually he spent most of his time as his person that would become known as Terrance Michaels.

At first however they had him come to lavish dinners for important government officials and talk in limited terms about what was possible for the dignitaries of countries the United States wanted to woo for strategic location or resources. He forgot how clever they were. He would put don SKIN he had developed for the occasion. As he aged they had wanted a younger looking whiz kid to represent their interests. He was happy to oblige, he would do their little trick, he would jump through their hoops of fire and in the end they would be left with nothing.

It was at one of these parties some eighteen years into his contract that the mood shifted to a place he could not have anticipated. Ziven, now almost seventy-five and going by the name of Terrence Michaels had seen the best of his years shut in a government compound when all he had wanted was to bring something exciting to the world and make a good living from it. As part of his agreement he had shown an engineer he had been working with how to program and create SKINS from a pre-programmed facility that needed Ziven's approval on the genetic code and an imprint of his thumb before the system would activate. The system was still within his control the only SKIN the technician could produce without his express approval was the one he wore when he was Terrence Michaels. A random supply of them had been needed earlier when he had been transitioning between Ziven and Terrance frequently. Now that he spent most of his time as Terrance, the open protocol had been long forgotten.

This particular function, a dinner party, had started off like many others but it had gone sour fast. He had gone to the bathroom; he in his Terrence Michaels SKIN and two young agents, now dead of old age, had seized him in the stall and dragged him out of the building. He thought at first he had fallen into the hand of foreign agents that wanted his invention, this turned out not to be the case. He had been taken instead to the then and still head of SKIN Acquisition Control - SAC and his boss Russ Gabbert.

"What the in the hell are you doing Russ?" demanded Ziven as he was manhandled and forced to sit in a large comfortable chair in front of Russ' desk.

"I'm glad you could break away from your dinner to join us Terrence. We have a few announcements and felt it would best if the important members of our staff were on hand to hear them. When we're finished you will be returned to the function to finish playing your part for the governor and his wife. By the way, don't you think she's just a charming woman?"

"She picks her nose at the dinner table. Get on with this Russ I want to go home. I'm just about done playing your and the agenciy's little games. I'm too old for this crap."

"On the contrary, how does that old song go? You've only just begun." Russ grinned but Terrance remained stoic. "You're accent is almost gone in that thing, did you know that?" Russ teased. "I always hated your accent. Did you know that Michaels?"

"My name is Rocov and I..."

"Not any more my friend. You see; we here like your work so very much that we've extended your contract. Call it a bonus." Gabbert reached into his desk as he spoke and pulled out a Patch Code Transmitter. He tossed it at Ziven and said, "Here, a souvenir." Ziven caught it and examined it. It was his. Gabbert got up and came around the desk. He bent close to Ziven, one hand on the arm of the chair where Ziven sat the other on the back of the chair behind Ziven's head. He grinned a huge, toothy grin at Ziven and said. "Well, go ahead! You know how I hate suspense!" the glee in his voice and demeanor were undeniable. "Give it a try."

A lump had formed in his throat. He fumbled with the controls and finally purged the system and put in his 'escape code' as it were. The system calculated the formula for returning his genetic code to normal and then the displayed the message:

Unit 1 Out Of Phase

His heart caught in his chest and he tried again. Once again he got:

Unit 1 Out Of Phase

"What have you done?" he asked quickly, clearly panicked.

"Oh lots of things." Russ said with wonderful good humour. "We've partially broken your encryption. Let's see... Oh yes, we reprogrammed your SKIN to lock out all escape sequences." Russ flattened out his grin at Ziven, "You're stuck buddy."

Ziven was up and lunging at Gabbert but he was grabbed by the large agents that had brought him in and forced back into the chair. "Let me out of this!"

"Ah... No! We can't crack the rest of your encryptions and I'm told that to do so could take the whole system down. So what we did was pass your escape codes into the encrypted system. If you want em, you got go get em!"

"Fuck you. I can't just go get a single code."

"I was hoping you'd say that because that means we own your Russian ass." Russ was becoming more hostile by the moment.

Living day after day as Terrance Michaels, this should have been a cakewalk, but Ziven was scared. He was being held prisoner within a body that wasn't his. If he couldn't break the code then the worse case was that he was an indentured servant, albeit it a well compensated, but a slave nonetheless. It was going to mean that he was would live out another sixty years max in this body; it would start to age normally now that it was permanent and couldn't be replenished with a younger SKIN. They had him, but they could only do this trick once. One unintentional flaw in his design was that SKINS could not be used over SKINS. Once activated, they had to be turned off before another SKIN could be used on that same person. Yes, they had him but now only for so long.

"You lose anyway Russ, in time, I'll die still. You still won't have production rights to when I'm gone, all you did was buy yourself another fifty or sixty years depending on how long I live. And you've now burned up your chance to keep me alive with fresh SKIN's." He was triumphant again. He sat back and looked around at men in the room expecting a defeated look. Instead, he was surprised to see they were all smiling at him.

"W... wha... what?" The smile of triumph faltering a bit.

"You know, there was something I knew I had forgotten to mention." Russ went around his desk to his chair and sat down. "We discovered that by sequencing out the genetic codes and DNA sequencing responsible for aging in SKIN's one might live for ever. Hell Terrence, we have rabbits we SKINNED and then shot with rifles and they just fucking healed right up! It was the most amazing, Goddamned thing you ever saw." Gabbert slapped his leg in good humour in all the right places for emphasis. "We've tried everything to kill those little fuckers and you know something? Those little bastards just won't die!"

Ziven felt sick to his stomach. If they had really experimented with the SKIN's genetic sequence then who knew what the hell might happen to him. He might not even be human much longer, but he suspected that if he were going to change, then the changes would have already happened. He had put this SKIN on over eight hours ago now.

That had been in 2028. Mike Vello and his buddies were still some 33 years away from being born; and he Terrance had not aged a day from that day to this. Russ Gabbert had died 2055 opting to forego immortality after seeing that it was nearly driving his old colleague, Michaels insane and taking with him any details about how the codes had been entered into the system. Russ had intended to make a slave out of Ziven and had, for the most part, succeeded. Ziven had no other means of support. The new United Federal States now had him in a Citizen Registry program that tracked his prints, cash and his whereabouts at all times. He had to stay, it was as free as he was ever going to get.

That's when he decided to work on a system that would reverse what they had done to him. He would have probably had completed the system much sooner had he not met Elicia Pradota. He had been relegated to securing funding for SAC, a function he had been performing when he had become Terrence Michaels forever. At one such function she had been there and she of all people had wanted to chat with him. He, a reclusive and guarded scientist, and now one hundred and five years old he felt like a fraud speaking to her. She had been eighteen at the time, Terrence Michaels' physical age had been twenty-four. Just the same, he could not stop the mental image of himself pushing this woman around in a baby stroller from forming in his mind. He burst out laughing at the idea just as she cracked a joke about something unremembered and the tone of the evening had been set.

The evening was spent in conversation and asked endless questions about her home. They talked about the places they had both seen as youngsters. They had been children in villages not two hundred miles from one another. Small towns in western Russia within the Ryazan region, although much had changed between the times the two had grown up there. Terrence almost gave up the gig a few times when he talked in surprise about things that had been part of his childhood only to find out they had no longer existed in hers. Yes, she was a friend of the Russian Ambassador. No, she was not a government employee. She had been talked in to coming along because her friends said she never got out of her house. Yes, she was glad she came, very glad.

She touched him during the course of the evening, on his hand or elbow when he said something funny. She would lay a hand casually on his knee to emphasize a point at while seated at the immense dinner table and Terrence's head felt as if it might just pop off his neck and float to the top of the room and lodge there against the ceiling like a child's lost balloon.

When called to, he did not leave her side voluntarily and she was able to sense this. When he was dragged away by some visiting dignitary or politician, she would politely give him a few minutes to get comfortable in the conversation and then find her way over to him once again slipping in quietly next to him to listen. He would turn and see her there and smile what felt like a silly goofy smile and she would smile sweetly back in return and then direct her eyes to the one speaking so as not to appear rude. No one objected. The woman was gorgeous. Her auburn hair and emerald green eyes gave a fiery life to her beautiful face that was unmatched by any of the women in the room. Others would try to engage her in conversation and she was polite, answering their questions and smiling but making no further attempt to carry the issue beyond her answer. She would however actively engage Terrence much to the dismay of those around and in time they were left alone to follow their own conversational pursuits.

She was impressed with Michaels and at the end of the evening she had pressed a small piece of paper into his hand and gently kissed him on the cheek and said good evening.

Their romance had been hypnotic and fast. A few months into their relationship, Terrence had causally tested the waters and asked if she had ever given any thought to marriage? She had gone absolutely wild with the idea and Terrence realized that in testing the waters he had proposed and she had accepted. He was engaged and without so much as a wedding band to present as an engagement ring. She didn't seem to mind. They were wed in 2060. Leese as he called her was then twenty and the marriage certificate they shared claimed Terrance was then 26 years of age.

Children came in 2063 one child that is, a daughter. She was given an American name as a symbol of their love for the place they lived, loved and had married. She was named Bethany Susan.

Paradise is an illusion for most of us. It shows us glimpses of what it could be, teases us from a distance with a smell or a taste only to be yanked most violently from our unsuspecting grasp in the blink of an eye. Michaels reality was no different. Here, after waiting for a century, after having long given up on love and a family, he had both. And now as the best of all worlds finally met and he was satisfied to be where he was time took hold and his lovely girls began to age. This would not have been an issue; he himself was over one hundred and twenty years old at this point. His problem was that he would never look his age. He would never feel the effects of age, worse he was going to loose his beloved Leese to death. First Leese and then Beth and he would be left behind, alone and bitter. His only hope to escape that fate would be to find a way to deactivate his own SKIN on or before their death.

He pleaded with the agency to let him do for them what they had done to him. The agency had considered this and agreed, the price? The price would be to unlock the technology of the SKIN's project and release it lock stock and barrel to the Shop.

Terrance could not do that. He could not release such a thing into the hands of monsters. He conspired to create SKINs as they had made, SKIN's with Leese and Beth's genetic code and make up. SKIN's that would cease and in the case of Leese, reverse the effects of aging, it would hold her at age eighteen as she had been when they met. He would do this without the agencies permission. Once they were on there would be nothing they could do. He would copy the signature of his SKIN. Give them immortality. Nothing the agency could do would then take them from his grasp.

The night he told her was also the night of Beth's sixteenth birthday, after they had all gone to bed that night. He had spent most of the night telling his tale, explaining why he hadn't aged perceptibly and revealing his plan. To his surprise, she didn't want to live forever. He had begged her to reconsider to join him. He explained he was trapped like this. He could not go back. This was the only way they could be together for all eternity. They had wept in each other's arms. Once the truth was apparent to her, she agreed but he could see that she did not want to do this. She did not want to live forever and she would not allow their daughter to become embroiled in such a horror.

In the days that followed her mood had changed. She was not the woman she had once been. Her days seemed filled with dread and Terrence knew that it had been he that had had filled her days with it. It broke his heart and he resolved himself to dispose of the two SKINs he had made, to release his beloved from her obligation of love. He could not force her into an immortality she did not want, a life where she would, without a doubt, have to watch her daughter and grandchildren die quite possibly going insane in the process. What kind of life was that for the woman he loved so completely? What kind of a monster had be become to even ask such a thing of her?

Since they shared a genetic signature, even if he were able to develop a way of transcending the escape codes, they would not be recognized by the system until all three in the series were activated. Had he never created these and logged the codes for genetic replication he might have found a way out of his own one day. Once these were destroyed his last hope of getting free would be destroyed with them. He had entombed himself.

Things spun out of control rapidly at that point. In May 2079, Michaels had been working late. His intention had been to destroy the SKIN's made for his wife and child before they were discovered. His VID had come on in the office, transmitted from a private address, a mobile address. There on the screen was a watery disturbance. It looked to Michaels as if someone had dropped a VID unit into a bucket of water or something. He sat and watched contemplating what he was seeing when his wife's battered face, bleeding into the water passed floating in front of the screen.

He had screamed for her clutching the screen, he screamed her name, the image had thankfully floated out of the picture but it had been her, his wife, his lovely Leese and he knew they were both gone from his life. He knew with the certainty of a covert government employee. He triangulated the GPS coordinates of his wife's HOV from the location of the transponder codes and dashed out in his own HOV in hope of any recovery at all.

When he arrived, the officers on the scene would not let him approach. Everyone was dead. He explained that he believed that the accident might have involved his wife. How did he know that they had wanted to know? He explained that during the impact the VID system on board must have auto-dialled his office address, he had seen her face on the screen he had to see her. He had too.

The officer was about arrest him and told him so, "Take your choice pal, causing a disturbance or suspicion of foul play. Either way, if you don't calm down, I'm going to arrest you." He had flashed his Red badge at that point for the first time in his life and the cop quickly dropped the subject, turned and acted as if he hadn't even seen the man. Michaels ran to the bank of the harbour where a crane was just pulling the remains of his wife's vehicle out of the muck where it had buried itself from the force of the displacement jets. As he looked on he saw James Islip and Burgeon Wilkes, two Shop Spots or hit men pulling away from the scene. Neither seemed to know he was there, until Wilkes turned and winked at Michaels as he was turning the HOV they had arrived in.

They had found out that he had leaked what he did to his wife. They had found out that he had offered her a chance for them to be together forever. They had somehow found out that he was about the abuse the system. Did it matter that they had abused him in the past? Did it matter that this was only fair compensation? No, what mattered was they were going to be denied the price that they wanted to exact on him and it must be stopped. At all costs, it must be stopped.

He stayed with the agency, with the Shop, what choice did he have? Staying would provide the only opportunity to strike back he would ever have.

In his grief he had forgotten about the SKIN's that he had left laying out for destruction before the image of his dead wife floated before his field of vision. It was months before he remembered about them and only then because he had begun development on a system to free him of his immortality. He could not exact vengeance on the Shop. They were too many and too powerful. The only way to make them pay for killing his family was to kill himself. To deprive them of the thing they wanted most, control of the one thing that would give them absolute control of the world. He would lock the system down forever and then shoot himself. He would die, oh yes and he would drag them all to Hell with him screaming as they went.

The SKIN's however were missing and now even an opportunity to simply die had been taken from him. Without those SKIN's he could not tell the system they were no longer part of his matrix. He could not deactivate his SKIN unless the two made for his wife and daughter were some how activated somehow, completing a chain of information within his own genetically manufactured body allowing the deactivate sequence to launch. Undaunted, he built the device anyway. In theory it would work, and, his device couldn't truly deactivate a SKIN. He could only swap out the matrix array and force the original genetic pattern to the surface. His hope was that with all it's faults, the original would bring with it mortality. There was no way to test it however, not with the other two SKINs either destroyed or at the very least inactive and probably in a vault someplace for safekeeping.

Then, almost three years after his device was underway, his system noted that one of the remaining two signatures had been activated. There was no way to tell which unfortunate agent it had been assigned to. There was almost no chance that the person would be allowed to come to him for help. Those in power would figure out whom the SKIN had been intended for. Once they did, they would hide that person away at one of the many Shop compounds around the world rather than admit the mistake. Terrence didn't care. Let me make one more mistake and he could test his device. He could be free to die.

With out his knowledge, a most improbable had happened. Both SKINs had walked right back into his life. They had been together of all things, claiming to be related, claiming to be helpless. He had long given up hope of the last SKIN sequence ever being activated. So much so in fact that he had not even checked the sequencing element of his system in over a year to see if some unlucky slob was now stuck in body the remaining SKIN would have produced. It had been providence, divine providence. Once more faced with an opportunity to be free to die he had instead, delivered himself into the hands of damnation. His anger and jealousy had gotten the best of him and he had acted rashly. Hurt, he wanted them to understand the depths of his pain. So he had struck out at them, separating mother from child, husband from wife and boy from girl. Once more he had played God and found that he was still not qualified for the job.

Michaels wiped his mouth. His face was slack and the effects of the alcohol were beginning to show. Michaels lurched to his feet. He knew he had made a mistake and was wasting time feeling sorry for himself. He had to find this man, to begin his search for the man he must convince to return to being the living embodiment of the woman he loved when providence once again stepped through the door of the room where he stood.

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"Are you two sure this is the place? Randy asked. "It looks abandoned to me." The three of them stood at the end of a dead end alley. To Randy's right was a building front. To him it appeared abandon. The door, made of steel was securely locked and the one window on this level was tightly boarded up. The alley itself was dirty. It looked to Randy as if no one had been back here in years. There were not even any self-respecting homeless people back here.

Mike was nodding his head. "It is, and we can't stay here too long and expect to look like casual passers-by." Mike assured.

"You sound like you think someone is watching us." Randy said. He wiped a bit of nervous sweat off his forehead. He was not comfortable back here. Now the spectre 'Big Brother' peering through his spyglass at them wasn't helping to set his nerves at ease. Beth and Mike however didn't seem that nervous, perhaps he reasoned; it's because they have nothing else to lose. Can you make the same claim? He realized he did have something to lose. He wanted Beth out of here. He would be able to work with Mike and then Michelle if he had to and do his best to keep her safe, but Beth had overstayed a safe welcome and Randy understood that her safety was now not only important to him but was also more at risk every passing minute. Not to mention this knowledge was a terrible distraction to him.

"Randy, my guess is that someone just very well might be," Mike said in a grim tone.

"So what now? Maybe we should leave and formulate a plan. We can drop Beth off some place safe and come back here and reason with Dr. Frankenstein."

"Drop me off some place safe? What's that supposed to mean? I'm suddenly not welcome?" Beth protested.

"Hon," Mike said. "He's only worried about you. I tend to agree with Randy on this one. This is no place for you to be right now."

"Wait a minute, why the hell not?" Beth asked in a started and shocked voice.

Beth did not get her answer. Mike looked around the ally in confusion. He must be missing something. He assumed that Michaels would be here, that a plan was unfolding and all he had to do was just go with the flow and everything would right itself; just as it had gone horribly askew all on its own. If Erin was controlling this misadventure they were all on, then she was doing a piss poor job of making sure the players were in their appointed places. "We have to roll. We can't stay here. Randy lets... What are you looking at?" He had turned to make sure all the kids were in two when he noticed that Randy was no longer at his side.

Randy had crouched in front of a small single story addition to the building that was attached to the lab building some ten feet away. It was just to the left of the building, tucked back away in the corner of the alley. One would not clearly notice it if one was not standing directly in front of it. On the ground before it was a spot of dark liquid. "I'm not sure. Anyone know what this stuff is?" He pointed to the spot on the ground.

Mike came and knelt next to it. He touched it with the tip of his finger and brought a sample of this stuff to his nostrils. Mike sniffed it. "Motor oil," Mike breathed.

Randy nodded. He couldn't rationalize why there would be motor oil out here on the pavement. "Ah..." He said.

Mike looked at Randy. "You know what we're looking for?" he asked.

"Sure!" Randy said excitedly. Mike didn't respond, he stood and surveyed the surroundings. "Ah, what are we looking for?" asked Randy, the confidence gone from his voice.

"Are you two ignoring me now?" Beth sounded as if she were on the edge of losing her temper. "I want to know..."

Randy looked over at her, held up one finger imploring her to wait just one second and then turned back to Mike who was now inspecting the brick wall of the annexed section of the lab building. Beth's eyes popped open wide in surprise that that she had just been stifled, a small chirp came from somewhere in her throat but much to her credit said nothing and allowed the men concentrate.

"What are we looking for?" Randy asked again.

Beth couldn't help herself. "Brains perhaps, some manners, a clue?" she said sarcastically.

Randy and Mike both looked at her confused. Beth responded, "What?" Both men turned back to their concentrations. Beth started to sniff the air. "Just what is that smell? Oh yes, I remember now... testosterone!"

She marched over to the building and pushed past the men. "Excuse me!" she said. She examined the wall for a second, apparently found what she was looking for, pressed her sneaker down on a small concrete square on the ground at the leading corner of the annex. There was a soft click and she pushed gently back on the wall it rolled up and back into the ceiling of the annex exposing a large garage. Against one wall was a clear poly-tank that held what Mike recognized as gasoline. Tools and tires were stacked here and there and although the condition of the garage was orderly it was still a dirty, oily place.

Beth turned to the two men, hands on her hips and said. "We're looking for a car!"

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Ten minutes later it was Beth again that spotted the car. "There!" Beth pointed below and both men rushed to that side of the HOV but she passed directly over the vehicle, obscuring it from view. "Hold on, I'll make another pass." She swung the HOV around west to east and shot it, nose first down 82nd street. "You see?" she pointed out the windshield of the HOV.

Mike smiled at her. "I'd have been lost were it not for you."

"Just come home Mom. Dad needs you."

"Set it down next to that old hunk of junk. Then you two go home. I can handle it from here." Mike instructed.

Neither child said anything. Their intention was to wait. Both felt it would be best to say nothing and let the event play out without Mike knowing. After all, it could be someone else with a car. One never knew about these things.

Mike did not look back when he entered the smallish corner pub. He pushed the doors open and disappeared inside.

"You!" Mike called harshly. His hand was extended and his finger pointed in Michaels direction. He wore a harsh look on his face. He seemed intent on murder. Terrence's head snapped around in surprise at the sound. He knew the voice. It had burned itself into his brain only thirty-eight hours earlier. It was a voice he had prayed he would hear again if he were diligent and worked quietly. Now the person that owned it had dropped right into his lap. Michaels was suddenly terrified of this voice. He knew that all he had dreamt of was true. It was just as the girl had said.

The man, who appeared older than Michaels, nearly charged the table where Terrence sat. Terrence may be younger in physique, but this man racing toward him was motivated. Sometime that's all it takes to win. Take the Scots under William Wallace for instance.

The bartender made a valiant effort to intercept Mike as he moved in a beeline across the bar floor to the table where Michaels was. Michaels stood and slipped from behind the table, he raised his hand indicating that it was all right. The bartender halted but kept his gaze on the man that approached his feared customer. Gradually, a kind of recognition came to his eyes and John Miles watched as the man he knew as a ghost crossed the bar and confronted the man that had the red government badge. Terrence looked at John and said very quietly, "No matter what happens here, you stay out of this." Then Terrence's look turned harsh. "You've not seen any of this. Make sure they understand it." he said and gestured toward a small group of men and one woman sitting at the bar. John backed up and retreated once again to the safety of the bar to watch.

"You ruined my life!" spoke Mike in a loud tone to help get his point across. Michaels held up both hands to ward off the blow he knew was coming but it helped little. Mike crashed chest first into the man and once more went to the floor as a result of an impact with a Shipley family member.

Terrence propped himself up with one arm and held the other up to defend himself from another blow. "Please, my friend..."

"I'm not your friend!" Mike said and grabbed the man up and shook him like a child might shake a rattle.

"My-i brrrooo-thr th-hen," Michaels said as he was shaken.

"I'm not your brother either!" and with that, Mike shook him ever harder. "I want my life back!" he demanded.

"Pl-lea-sseee. I I ca-an help ya-ou, but no-ot iffff I-m uncon-conscious!" Mike stopped shaking the man, flabbergasted at what he had heard.

He pulled the man close to his face, they were nose to nose and Mike growled, "Don't lie to me."

"I don't suppose telling you that you can trust me would help, would it?" Michaels asked.

Mike felt like laughing. For all he knew this was another trick, perhaps a plot for the scientist to eliminate a witness, clean up where he may have been to frightened to do so before. "If you lie to me then I'll end your short, miserable little life, you worthless bastard. I have very little left to lose."

"I would correct you on all points but, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. You will not know how much you have to lose until you see for yourself." Michaels grinned a nervous grin hoping the man would let go. Mike did not, however let go. The good news was that the shaking had not resumed. Terrence was more than a bit drunk, anymore shaking and he feared he might lose what control he had put down.

"Why should I believe you?" Mike growled again.

"Because, I too have much to lose, same as you!" Michaels said with an honesty so sincere and profound that Mike saw for a moment the deepest sadness in the man's eyes he felt he could ever remember seeing. Mike relaxed his grip a bit and realized he had lifted the man up and off his feet when he had drawn him to him. He couldn't remember the last time he had possessed such physical strength. What frightened him even more was that he understood he had used it without thinking. Am I capable of killing without realizing that's what the result would be? Mike suppressed a shiver.

Mike refocused on the issue. He had to try to ascertain if this was a trap or not. "What could you possibly have to lose boy?" Mike demanded from the much younger looking Michaels.

"It's my last chance. Even if you didn't want to go back to being the person that you still are, by the way. Then I would have you kidnapped and put you back without your permission. The fact remains that I have to set this right."

"Last chance, last chance for what?" Mike insisted.

"I shouldn't say."

"It's a trap!" Mike declared.

Michaels shook his head. "No, it is not a trap but a release. I assure you. You said it yourself; you want your life back, I can make that happen for you. Look around you; right here, right now. You have been recognized. How much longer do you think you can hide now?"

Mike saw the faces of the people in the bar. He had been recognized. It was only out of shock, he surmised that no one had gotten up to call the News Services or Police Services yet.

"Ah, you see you are officially out of time as this Mike Vello person. I can see the truth of it in your eyes," Michaels said. There was an air of cockiness in his voice.

"If you can help then let's get going. If you can't I'm better off dead anyway," Mike said.

Mike grabbed the shirtsleeve of Terrence Michaels and escorted him past the bar, Michaels didn't protest being manhandled. The eyes of the people at the bar followed their progress until they were out the doors. That's when the whispering began.

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"Oh shit, she found him!" Beth said as she got Randy's attention.

"That's him huh? Looks like a kid to me," Randy said.

"A little science envy Randy?" Beth teased. The moment was still tense but they had the Doctor now and he seemed to be coming willingy, maybe he could really help restore her mother. There was hope now, no matter how bad the situation seemed to be, hope always brought with her, a smile.

"Not likely," Randy groused.

Overcome with happiness, Beth bent forward and kissed Randy on the cheek. Randy touched the spot where Beth had kissed him. He smiled and turned a soft gaze to her. "What was that for?" He asked.

"I don't really know; I felt like it I guess, now that you ask, for helping me too. You didn't have to but you did, I just wanted to say thanks." She looked out the window as Mike approached the HOV with Michaels in tow. They could see he wasn't happy they had stayed.

Randy let the passenger side window down as Mike neared. "What are you two still doing here?" he shook his head. "I guess it doesn't matter now. Since you're here then he can change us both back kill two birds with one stone and we'll go get your father and put an end to this...

"No Mother."

"...entire mess and start putting it. What did you say?" Mike shook his head not clear what Beth was protesting.

"I said no Mother. Trying to change me back has caused enough trouble. I'm not going to risk anything else happening to you. Now get in and let's get you back so you..." Mike cut her off

"You have to go back to being William. You don't understand what's ahead for you," Mike explained.

"You did it!" Beth protested.

"Only because I had no choice!" Mike replied.

"And now?"

"Don't do this. Not now, we don't have time for this," Mike demanded.

"Nor is this the place for such a discussion." Michaels added. "I'll take my car and..."

"No, you'll ride with us." Mike snarled at Terrence.

"I am not your enemy my hot tempered friend." He patted Mike's chest to calm him. "I'm not going anywhere but to help you meet your end. But I must insist that your daughter is right. There will be no time to restore her. Your husband, I heard of the trouble I have caused; you will have to get there in a hurry before he is indoctrinated."

"No, she goes back to being my son."

"Mom stop! It's this kind of insistence that got us right where we are. We have to go."

Mike looked between the two of them, Michaels and his daughter. He finally let go of Michaels' shirt. "We'll be there before you, you know that don't you?"

"Give me some time to prep the lab and warm up the boards. Ten minutes." Mike looked about to say something and Michaels held up his hand. "No tricks, I know that you could probably hurt me very badly. It is not to trick you but save you that I wish." Michaels waited for permission to leave and Mike waived him off. He nodded, dashed to his Cadillac and waived as he drove off.

Mike turned to say something to Beth, presumably to resume the argument of Beth's final gender choice when he looked up and saw the inhabitants of the bar with their faces pressed against the plate window of the bar. "Uh oh!"

"What?" Beth asked.

"Nothing, get in the back where no one can see you." Mike climbed in the drivers seat. "I hope the tinted windows hid your faces well enough." He started the HOV and it lifted easily into the air.

"Why would you want our faces hidden Mom."

"Because it seems some very fine people down there in that bar recognized me for who I am."

"Oh crap!" Randy said.

"You are quite the poetic artisan, Randall," lamented Mike.

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The troop of three turned the corner down the street. Michaels waived, turned and retreated inside to wait for them. He no longer cared who saw the inside of the facility. All three would be invited in. He would soon be home with lovely wife. All this was soon no long going to be a concern to him.

There was a knock on the door. He opened it and three people entered the building. This was the beginning of his salvation.

"Welcome... Please hurry, we must hurry. I have the closed VIDs on a loop so they can't see us but it's anyone's guess at how long before someone notices." They stopped and looked at him questioningly. "If you're to help that nice man Mr. Shipley, then we must hurry." That seemed to satisfy them. The memory of Michaels' earlier double-cross was still fresh and painful in the minds of two of these people.

In the lab, here in his domain, Michaels had slipped comfortably into his thicker Russian accent. It was amazing to see how he negotiated the transition according to his proximity to the public without thinking about it, like he had been doing it for a hundred years.

The hurried into the lab, Beth and Mike noticed the box and the small cascade of documents on the table. Michaels started to explain without having to be prompted. "You vill take these vith you. Dhey are proof of your vhereabouts. Dhese are used Jumpshuttle tickets for both you and your son William." He was almost throwing the papers and documents at Mike. Beth had a miserable look on her face. "Dhis is a certificate of death. Dhese are cremated remains of your son. Dhis is..."

"Whoa... Whoa..." cried Mike. "What are we talking about here?"

Michaels looked around in confusion. Then the true meaning of the question struck him. "It is a paper trail, proof that your son was in an accident and killed."

In spite of her desire to remain with Randy, Beth was breathing heavily now. The colour was gone from her face. "Why is he declaring me dead? Isn't that rather final?" she turned pleading to Mike.

"The prospect of severing your ties with your self permanently is not as easy as you thought," Mike said. It made Beth mad to think that she was that weak. If she hadn't come in here she wouldn't have known until it was too late. "I thought you might change your mind. The ticket for your return is a scarce one. We are welcomed here today but a chance to return later... "

Michaels hung his head as they bickered. He was quiet for a time while Mike tried to convince Beth to take advantage of the opportunity to reverse the effects of her own SKIN while the opportunity was present. Michaels thought about the best way to tell Mike and not anger him in the process that he could not change the girl back. He could not and do what it was he had been instructed to do by his spiritual friend. When he spoke his accent was gone, his meaning blunt and clear.

"The truth is I will not change her back. I have made but one offer I have agreed to change you back to the person you call Michelle. I will restore you to their mother, Michelle the wife, Michelle the woman. I cannot undo the paper work you have seen. If I were to try to undo the death certificate or the corpse then I fear I would be sealing all our fates. The trail would lead right back here."

Mike was furious! "You had no right to spin your little web of deceit in the first place, leading us here the way you did when all we wanted was some help freeing our son! Don't you understand that you're screwing around with the life of a child? My child!" Mike paced about angrily. "God damn it! You're telling me that you are going to sentence my son to death?"

"You know that is not the truth," Michaels protested.

"Did you stop to think returning everyone to normal would have solved everyone's problems?" Mike demanded of Terrance. "What gives you the right to play God like this with the life of a child?"

"I thought about many things when I finally decided to 'play God' as you put it.' Michaels was now angry and raised his voice to the surprise of all in the room. "A little phenomenon called 'Transformation regression' for instance. You look confused." He said to Mike. "Well, let me explain. You are more a prisoner of that SKIN you wore then you thought. Tell me, how are you feeling right now, truthfully?

Mike understood exactly where the good doctor was going. "The way I feel is related."

"Do you think you simply caught pneumonia? That would be such an easy explanation for your troubles. I'm sorry but it's not that simple. Let me answer your question with another question. Are the symptoms getting worse?"

"And her?" Mike said pointing to Beth.

"You must remember; I had no intention of an innocent ever getting a hold one of my bond flesh units. They were to be strictly controlled. As with every technology however, when others become involved, control becomes a difficult prospect," Michaels said in his own defence.

"You're telling me that deactivating, it on her will do the same thing to her as well?" Mike said glumly.

"You are both victims of a genetic replacement. You are still more my Leese than you will ever be this Mike Vello person. On the outside you may look like him, but your body is still trying to be Michelle and it will fight harder and harder until it wins or you insane or dead."

Beth's arm was now locked in Randy's. She had the look of a person who had just been told she has cancer and wasn't it a miracle that she had lived this long.

"Beth?" Mike asked, "Are you OK?"

"I'm not going to have a melt down or something like that here am I?" the concern in her voice was plain.

"As long as you live as the girl you are now, there is no chance of that ever happening." Michaels said with a sympathetic tone.

Mike looked at Michaels in stunned disbelief. "That's it? She's stuck?"


Mike looked from Beth back to Michaels, "This isn't over. I'll settle the score at some later date. I'm never going to give up on him."

Beth came and took the hand of the man that had been her mother for years. "Mom, please let it go. How long do you think that will take anyway? By then what will you be achieving? I'm Beth now. I don't want to go through what you put yourself through."

A tear leaked from the corner of Mikes eye and he squeezed the girl's hand. "This isn't what I wanted for you."

"It could have gone a thousand different ways Mom. Who knows how my life would have turned out otherwise? Dad needs you right now, that's what we have to worry about. It's all we have time to do." Beth said quietly. She returned to Randy's side and took his hand. She looked like she belonged there. A girl and her man, and that was the next thing that struck Mike. Randy had become a man in the span of a just a few short days. There was no doubt Beth had been responsible for that as well.

Mike nodded. He turned to the glassed in chamber and caught his reflection in the glass. I don't feel like I'm losing myself this time. I feel like I'm coming home, I really did become Michelle after all.

The door closed and secured behind him. Then the resonator system sparked into life. "Please take de same target you took before."

Mike wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and stepped into the target. He stepped into the smaller of the two rings, this one off set from the center of the room by a several feet and stood waiting for what he knew was going to be a very painful experience. He wondered briefly if he was going to be able to hang on to the blanket that covered him when the writhing started and decided that not all of his clothes would simply fall off after his change was complete. He was probably safe enough. Still the thought of what he was about to experience was almost enough to make him run in terror from the building.

He had almost decided to ask when he lost all the breath in his lungs. He bowed head and fixed his eyes on a single point on the floor. There was an immense headache that faded to nothing almost the minute it made its presence known. Nausea and a feeling of fatigued that also alarmed him quickly faded. The idea that he might be suffering a heart attack popped into his head. His engineered body had, no doubt been responsible for his uncommonly good health and slow aging over the years. No telling what was wrong with his body after years of youthful abuse, mostly at the hands of alcohol. Couple that with extreme sudden aging and that in Mike's mind really wreaked havoc with a person's biological systems.

Mike looked back up to plead for help. As he did the mixed bag of unpleasant and worrisome symptoms vanished. Mike was able to breathe. Then something brushed his shoulder and he flew around in surprise at whatever had touched him there. He heard the squeak of surprise he uttered at almost at the same time he saw the hair he had prided so much as Michelle fly around her head. Her back to the window now, she clutched at her bosom and there under a man's shirt and a blanket were two breasts. The feel and familiarity her own body sparking the acknowledgment that she was back. Gone was the gangly feeling of being too tall or disproportionately shaped. She wanted to cry with relief but she didn't.


And then,

"Welcome back Mrs. Shipley!" it was Michaels voice over the address system.

As her love for Gary flooded her, filled her from head to toe as though it were a new and fresh emotion, she realized that she had gotten her wish. She had made her choice. She was where she knew she belonged.

Beth was talking to the doctor and then entered the chamber. "Welcome home!" she was smiling but still the tears were close to the surface. It did feel like she had been away, lost and facing the prospect of staying lost when suddenly she had been rescued. They hugged and after they were done Michelle kissed her daughters forehead. "Thank you sweetheart. This wouldn't have happened without you."

"I know Mom and I'm sorry," There was regret in the child's voice.

"That's not what I meant. I mean I'm back because of you. That's no small feat. I... we, our family owes you a lot here."

Beth smiled a shy smile. "The Doctor says there is a bathroom out here where you can change. He already had something picked out for you to wear. He seems pretty sure it will fit you. He said it belonged to his wife, that he just couldn't bring himself to throw them away. He said it would be too much like abandoning her."

Michelle nodded. Her own parents had been like that with Erin. Michelle took the suit, a small bag that contained underwear and a pair of shoes. She left the chamber, up to Michaels, stopped and said, "Thank you Doctor." She gently kissed him on the check and spoke something in a language that Randy and Beth both heard but could not understand.

She then left for the bathroom to change.

Randy asked Michaels, "What did she just say to you?"

Beth asked, "Is she OK. Is she having some sort of a reaction to that thing?"

Michaels turned and Randy was surprised to see that the doctor was crying. He swallowed hard but at first the words would not come out. His mouth moved but no sound came out. Then he managed, "That was Russian." Both teens looked at each other with intense surprise. "She said... She..." He seemed to choke on the words. He rubbed his had over his forehead then managed to get the words out. "She's vaiting for me to come home."

Michaels' relaxed and sloppy accent had returned.

"Mrs. Shipley is waiting for you to come home?" Randy asked.

"No." Michaels pulled his sleeve across his face and then scrounged around for a while and then found what he was looking for. He pulled a hologram unit out of the desk and turned it on as Michelle was walking out of the bathroom behind them. She was dressed in older but pretty bright red suit with red skirt and white blouse. Her shoes were also red leather. Beth was pulling up beside her mother when she saw the active hologram, both women gasped when they saw the likeness of Michelle on the counter being project up and out of the projector.

"God!" Beth commented unable to take her eyes off the image of the woman she knew as her mother. The woman portrayed in the project image was older by maybe fifteen years or more. Michelle seemed to be a representation of this woman, back perhaps when she had still been in school.

"Dhat is my vife," Michaels said in a tender and loving voice. "She vas my entire world."

Michelle walked up behind the group who had gathered around the table. "You programmed this and then put it in a batch to be used?" She was unaware of what had prompted the confession. No one had told her what she had said to Michaels or the dialect she had spoken in. They had all but forgotten it with the holograph image that now sat on the desk.

"No, it vas for her."

"Spooky." Said Randy.

"Not half as spooky as vhat I'm about to tell you. This girl here," he said holding his hand out to Beth, "vas my daughter."

The silence was pregnant and heavy in the air. This had to be a lie.

"What are you saying?" Michelle asked. "Are you telling me that over a span of twenty years, two members of the same family got SKINs that were meant for members of the same family. There have to be a bunch of these out there right? I mean, SKINs with the same programming."

"There were only two not including the one I'm wearing now."


"My vife and child both died twenty three years vhen their HOV slid down and embankment on Houston Ave. and carried another HOV over the edge with them and into the harbour. Everyone died including a young lady by the name of Erin."


He turned and took Michelle by the shoulders and said, "I'm sorry but all this is true. I had even forgotten about the young lady involved in this tragedy. Until, that is, she came made herself plain to me."

"No I'm telling you. She's never... "

"Mom... what's happening here?" Beth was pale.

"Nothing honey." She replied but to Beth it didn't look like her Mother believed it was nothing. It looked more like her Mom was about to faint.

"Who is this Erin person?" Beth asked. It was not lost on her that her own sister, her parents' first born, was also named Erin.

Michelle bowed her head and stared at the hologram of her taken by someone she never knew of a moment she had never lived. Quietly she whispered. "Erin was my sister. She died." It seemed there was more to be said but she couldn't finish.

"These SKINs vere for my family but my vife did not want to do this so they were to have been destroyed the night of their accident. When I returned to my lab after the accident they were missing. They remained missing for many years, I suppose these got included in de general population of what ve liked to call product. I don't know how dat happened."

Michelle offered a brief history. "I got stuck in mine after an... accident. It was part of a shipment a friend found in a warehouse. We were just goofing off that night. But I damaged mine and the transmitter wouldn't remove it. I got stuck in it."

Michaels looked amused. "Urban legend. Yours vas never meant to come off. You vere stuck de minute you activated it. There is no true deactivation code for you. When closed the activation loop and assumed this form, you were forever transformed. You did nothing that would have changed or affected the out come."

It was a revelation. The responsibility for Mike's imprisonment lay elsewhere. In a time before that night in the warehouse, let alone that night on the living room carpet of Gary's parents' home. There had been no damage to her body, no responsibility on Gary's part. She had made love to her future husband there on the floor, but even if that act had not happened, she would have remained Michelle. The perceived guilt on Gary's part had served only to cement his commitment to her care and well-being. She was secretly glad that Gary hadn't known this at the time. His devoted caring for her was one of her most precious memories and had caused her to love him even harder than she thought humanly possible.

"More than anything, if I could take back all things vhat I had done, I vould. I never meant to hurt anyvon."

Michelle smiled. "I know that Doctor."

"Terrence, please my name is Terrence. It sounds so strange hearing you say Doctor. She never called me that." The reference was obvious to Michelle; he was talking about his wife. Michaels sniffled. "I'm sorry. That was inappropriate."

"It's quite all right," Michelle said but she was clearly embarrassed.

"Here." Michaels said changing the subject. He turned and gathered the small box from the desk. "Take dis and review it." He shoved the box containing a mass of documents in to Michelle's small hands. There in the box with a strange array of paperwork was also a large brown square plastic box about ten inches tall and six inches wide and two to three inches deep. "Know da contents of dis box so if a piece is quvestioned you vill know vhat something is." He paused, "I can see dat look in your eyes. My own Leese had it vhen she distrusted someding I said."

"I'm sorry, I'm sure you've been very thorough but this is all too fast. You've accounted for so much here. What if you missed?"

Terrence smiled. "Da air carriers have record of dese trips taking place. Everything is in place. I haven't spent the last seventy-years in the service of this country, without I know what to look for and what others will be on da look for. The certificate of death is genuine. If they test de remains, dey are human," he assured her.


"It doesn't matter. Trust me, dey no longer care." He smiled at his rather ghoulish joke but Michelle was not amused. "Forgive me." He bowed and continued. "The passport chip is a reproduction. Please dispose of the original. They must not find a duplicate. This von has his time stamp entry into Germany."

Michelle nodded as the instructions went on and Michaels picked through the papers indicating what was what and when, where and who to use it on. Everything had been officially logged in one system or another and was as legitimate. It was as if each of these events had actually taken place. It was as though this William, the one whose remains she now held had died in a skiing accident. Inexperienced, on the slopes of Europe, he had careened into the woods out of control hitting many trees, was an entirely different person from the girl that stood next to her. These two Williams had been separated by an accident half a world away, the details of which were more gruesome than she could bear. She could almost believe it had happened. Here was a body, and where was her beloved son? It made her weep real tears to think of it. She wanted him to stop with the details but she had to know. These were questions she would have asked and if she didn't know the details, someone would be suspicious.

Michelle clutched at the man's hand for just a moment. Then she looked to Beth and said, "Let's go get your Father."

Michaels smiled, she had given him an out. He had not wanted to lie to her. It would be too much like lying to his own daughter. Now he could answer her without committing that particular sin. "If you come and find me again. Yes, I will help you."

She smiled and then without thinking about or recognizing what she was saying she said perfectly fluent Russian:

He closed the door and busied himself preparing three blanks for phase two of his agreement. He wiped a tear from his face as he thought about the message his daughter, it was... "Thank you daddy. Mother and I will see you very soon. We love you."

"Get movink old man." He said with in a weak voice. "Time's vaisting."

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Michelle Shipley, missing from the face of the planet Earth for the last forty hours picked through the contents of the box presented by Michaels in his Orchard Street lab. The inventory of items was impressive to say the least.

Covered here was a document for every conceivable question that might be arise. So thoroughly covered in fact that the evidence seemed a bit contrived to some degree. Here was a passport chip and display booklet. When activated, it clearly showed the departure date from the UFS to the German Republic on the weekend he had become Beth. A death certificate that was dated only four days ago. William had officially been dead only four days. Michelle guessed however that the ink on this certificate was still fresh.

Michelle glanced up and saw her own green eyes in the long paneled mirror that was part of the HOVs internal surveillance system. They were framed there under soft eyebrows and tender pale flesh. Once she had wanted so desperately to be free of them and the body that surrounded them she would have done anything, paid any price to be rid if them. She was now so grateful to have them back. She was somewhat troubled by some of the things the Michaels had said but her gratitude was such as she was unable to focus on much more than that, her family and the business at hand.

She then turned and noticed the blonde headed girl in the seat in front of her. The girl was rubbing her temples. Michelle could tell by their body language that he had reached over and taken her hand. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly.

She turned to him. Michelle saw a ghost of a smile touch the corners of Beth's mouth. "Tired that's all. I'll be fine." She raised his hand clasped in hers and kissed the back of it. "Thanks."

Michelle watched to friends that had suddenly been thrust into the arms of love and wondered to herself what right did she have now to play God. Would perusing an attempt to free William be an interference with the course of natural events? Was this thing between them the cement that would hold their world together as it had hers and Gary's? Beth was as much in love with Randy as she had been with Gary. The difference was that Beth understood it where she, Michelle had denied it.

"Honey?" Michelle said.

"I'm fine Mom," she said glumly and slumped back in her seat.

Randy's hand was still entwined with Beth's when she began to speak. "I'm ashamed."

Michelle tensed but couldn't have said why. "Ashamed of what, of being a girl? You know baby at first..."

"No Mom, that's not it. Please let me finish." Michelle sat back quietly, ready to listen.

"Everyone has done so much to help me. Look at what's happened. What did I do to deserve this kindness?"

"Honey we love you." Michelle said.

"I know that Mom. But I caused this trouble." She turned to Randy. Randy shook his head but said nothing and kept driving. Beth wanted someone to hear her not someone to participate in a conversation. Randy listened. "We almost lost you Mom, because of me."

There was something more here bothering her, not that she needed another excuse but her mood had changed noticeably since leaving the lab. Michelle could not remain silent. She knew better and had to somehow communicate this to Beth. "No honey, believe me. There are things here that are out of our control."

Beth took a deep breath and then got to the core of what was troubling her. "Back there, that man said he knew you're sister. As I watched and listened I started remembering a dream I had sometime ago. At least I want to say they were dreams but as it comes back to me I remember it felt so real."

"You've been through a shock your mind is bound to play all sorts of tricks on you when you're sleeping..."

"Mom! You're not listening to me. She was there. Your sister. "

"Doctor Michaels didn't know what he was talking about there. Now you're transposing his delusion over your dreams."

"No Mom... I believe this man saw your sister." Michelle was shaking her head no however. Beth continued undaunted. "Let me ask you this then. Was she a thin girl, straight brown hair? Did she stand about five-four or five-five?"

Michelle said nothing.

"Mom, I've seen her. I've spoken with her. I've seen Erin."

Michelle was dead quite. When she did speak it was barely above a whisper. "You know that's not possible." Michelle knew it was possible, even probable. Her sister's name had been evoked twice now. Michelle was afraid that if her name were spoken out loud again all sorts of bad things would start happening.

It was like some freakish ghost tale. What was she thinking anyway? That her long lost sister had come back from the grave was absurd. When you got right down to it Gary had to have been right. She had been in the throes of a physical and emotional trauma at the time the dreams had come the first time.

You know you've considered it already, that small voice of conscience reminded her. The vision she had had almost three weeks ago coming back from the grocery flooded her thoughts, cascading over her consciousness like water over a dam that had filled to capacity.

Beth was turning back around to face the front to allow her mother, "Yes Mother, I did. There's something deeper going on and I think we all realize that now. You should try to think about what it might be." Beth was turning to face the front, presumably to think about what her last statement when something happened to what Michelle was seeing around her.

She gasped a small semi-silent gasp that neither Randy nor Beth heard as her field of vision was replaced by the vision of a meadow in springtime. Rich and unspoiled were the woods that surrounded it. The pasture was full of flowering trees that dusted the air with the pedals of blossoms and the fragrance of nectars. The pedals came to rest on a bed of fresh green grass, soft and thick but uneven. It was not a lawn but a field where sheep might occasionally graze to keep the length back. Birds flew in great abundance and made the air think with song.

Michelle tried to think of what could be happening. She reached out with her hands and saw them in front of her. They were dressed to her wrists in white lace and satin. The sleeves of the garment she wore were tight and ended in a point on the backs of each hand. Pearls and brightly coloured stones decorated the sleeves here and there in irregular patterns.

In her mind she knew this was not real. She was quite and did not speak convinced that the children that were in the seat just in front of her and would hear her having her hallucination. She knew that she could not really feel the satin of the gown that flared out from her waist or the pearls woven into the corset like waist-cincher that the dress was attached to. It couldn't be real! That idea didn't change the fact that she wanted to whimper in fear and retreat to someplace familiar.

She thought and heard herself in here ears, Please God, make it go away. She thought of Shelly along in the vehicle as it sped its way along the HOVWays. No that was before... I've been here before! Oh God! I remember.

Then words that came to her seemed to originate from another source, in a different voice. It had an echoed quality to it as if it had been spoken from some distance. It was Erin's voice. Across the meadow, was the figure of a girl in a dress that must be much as the one she was wearing. Michelle could see the girls lips move but heard what was spoken in her head.

Have you not found happiness?

In the HOV Michelle's body went rigid in the back seat with blank, glazed eyes.

Well? You're not speaking to me now either? I showed you the way home because it was meant to be. You're back now little sister. You chose to do so. No more blaming me for your situation, it's your bed now. When you lay in it, remember who it was that chose the sheets.

Michelle felt guilt flooded her mind, horribly so. There had been years of questioning and underlying bitterness when she had seen Gary playing ball with William when she had felt relegated to playing more feminine with Erin and now Shelly. The thought came to her that her exile from those sports had been self-imposed. She was no less capable of playing sports than she had been as Mike. No doors had been closed, quite the opposite in fact. Many more had been opened. She could still do all the things Gary could do with their children with her life and more. There was always great question in her mind that if she had endured as Mike, there was very little chance that her hard-headed rigid mentality would have allowed him to be truly happy. For Mike happiness seemed to centre around fame and money. The lessons of history taught that was an illusion. Now her sister ran her through with the razor sharp blade of a simple question.

But now her complaint had been only in relationship to her son. Her curse had become her son's curse, why couldn't Erin see that part wasn't fair. Erin seemed to hear her thoughts. She crossed the meadow, a scowl on her face.

Erin's tender voice was now hard and chastising. That's the biggest pile of crap I've ever heard. She knows who she is. Beth has seen who you were, she knows who you are and she knows where she wants to go. There will be doubt in her life, but life is filled with it male, female your gender does not inspire nor protect you from doubt. It simply is. You are the one still hung up on the idea that gender drives who you are. When are you going to see that you are? You gender may drive your physical desires. But are you only a pool of desire for a man? You are the sum total of your life's experiences and that's all. You use those experiences to teach those you bring into the world. That's your job, that's who you are. Let Beth choose her direction and teach her accordingly.

It was almost like having a Sonic Resonator playing in her brain. She tried to respond in thought. She felt her lips move in the vision but the sound was again in her head.

You mean something else when you say she knows who I was don't you? It was a simple question as a test.

The answer came back. You were always a happy, loving mother and wife. Not the behavior of a man trapped involuntarily in the body of a young girl. When they saw you, who did they see? They saw Michelle because it was the person you crafted. It was in truth because you became the happy person you had always wanted to be. It took a more tender body to allow you to enjoy the tenderness that life has to offer. Not the forced harshness you imposed on yourself.

So Michelle asked, Why William? Can I get him back to... the person he was born to be. She felt she had been careful in crafting the thought. She wanted a direct answer to this question but felt from the tide that Erin was not going to give her all the pieces. She would not reveal her hand until it was certain that Michelle could not influence 'the puzzle'.

William was where he needed to be to set in motion the wheels what would drive the change of your fate. He is where is he because those wheels have not yet turned. Your fate hangs in the balance this time Michelle. When this is done, if the ship has sailed its course and can navigate its way back then her choice will be hers. She has agreed to let the ship sail however. She has done this for you and for Gary.

Set things in motion? What wheels? She asked in her mind. What do you mean for Gary and me? Please Erin, what's going on?

There was no response.

Michelle was angry now. God damn it Erin. Throw me a bone here! I want to know what will happen to my lovely son. You listen to me. I want to know and you're going to tell me right now!

The vision melted way. As sight returned to Michelle she found herself in the same moment in time as she had when her consciousness had slipped to another plane. Beth was turning way from her to face forward in the front seat just has she had been when the vision started. Only a fraction of a second in time had elapsed.

There was nothing more from Erin. Michelle could sense that Elvis had left the building or rather Erin had left the cranium.

"God damn it!" Michelle shouted out loud. With the HOV on autoflight, both teens turned around in confusion.

"I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you baby."

"It sounds like you are." Beth countered.

"I'm not. I'm mad at..." Michelle paused knowing how crazy this was going to sound. "I'm mad at Erin, my sister Erin."

"Then you believe me?" Beth exclaimed. Michelle was not sure if she was panicked or pleased.

"I don't have much choice. She's done this kind of thing before, as strange as that sounds. Yes hon, I believe you. I don't want to admit it, but I do, I believe you."

Randy turned around. "I read what you wrote in your journal Mrs. Shipley, and no disrespect. I know you believe it because of what happened at that club during Mike's funeral, but honestly, you both can't believe that someone who died twenty-three years ago is talking and manipulating things, your lives. Think about that statement for just a second."

Michelle answered. "I know it's not logical. It took the better part of a year before I could tell Gary and then I had to do it in writing. I also believe she's up to something. This isn't a prank she's playing. Erin gets involved only when the matter is serious enough to warrant it." Michelle sat and saw the blank stares her statement generated from the teens in the front seat. She realized how that must have sounded. "God, will you listen to me? That really sounded like a desperate justification didn't it?"

Neither Beth nor Randy said a word. Michelle continued. "I know," she said hold up her hands in an admission stance. "It makes no sense. But I believe she's doing this to protect me from something. Me or someone I love."

It was Randy's turn to counter. "By putting you and William and Mr. Shipley through hell?" To Michelle it did feel a bit like Dante's voyage through hell before his entrance to heaven.

"She's set something in motion for some ultimate purpose. It was William's accident that started us looking for a way to get him out. Now look where we are, what could she possibly feel we have to gain from where we are now?"

"When I saw her I was jousting with Dad," cried Beth. "I killed him."

"I saw that too." Michelle admitted. "From the inside of a cage."

"Yes, yes! You were on the other side of the grounds, at the opposite end. I remember that too." Beth was excited with the confirmation. It was a terrible excitement, black and frightening.

Michelle went on. "I saw her again right after I got to Mom's place. I tried to tell her she was a liar. I called her ugly names and tried to get her to go away but that's all she said to me to. She said that what had happened to me was part of... Oh my God."

"What Mom?" Beth looked concerned. Her Mother had gone pale.

"My Mother," she said looking over to Beth. "She's forced me to reveal myself to my Mother."

Randy said, "Your Mother didn't know?" Michelle shook her head no.

"You haven't seen her since Mike vanished?" Randy asked for clarification.

"Longer than that really, by almost a year, maybe more. I didn't see her as Mike anyway. I was angry. I felt they had abandoned me when my sister died."

"Maybe she's trying to reunite you two." Randy concluded.

"I don't think that's it. My Mother would never have accepted what happened to me. In fact, when I went home I got confirmation of that."

"She seemed OK to me when you left. Maybe that's it after all."

Michelle thought about this then asked. "Then why set Gary up?"

"Has anyone considered this may just be a consequence of the situation? If what you say is true, and there seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence to support that, then maybe you're being reunited with your mother and now, being given a chance to correct and unfortunate symptom of this mishap."

"Maybe Randy, I have to tell you though I don't get that warm fuzzy from your hypothesis."

"Well, now you both know. This can't be a good thing. Too many people are finding out, someone's going to get in trouble over this now I can feel it. I wish I could figure out what she's up to."

Randy took control of the HOV from autoflight and landed it street level. "Samuels, Harper and Wright,Attorneys at Law. Next stop, ladies lingerie, underwear, pantyhose..." he turned around with a huge smile on his face, saw the girls were not smiling and said, "...aw, forget it."

Michelle got out and walked around to the passenger side window. "Hand me those documents and that box." Beth did as instructed and before Michelle left she said to them both, "Our secret, right?"

Both teens nodded. "Thanks Randy, thank you Beth." There seemed so much more to say but the words didn't exist.

"We're going to go home before the media finds out he's out of jail," Beth said. "That way I'm already there and the VIDCameras won't see me."

"Good idea, when did you get so smart?"


"Ok, I've always known you were smart." Michelle confessed.

Beth smiled. "I'll call Erin, get her and Shelly to come home, what do you want me to tell her?"

Michelle sighed a heavy sigh. "Tell her I had to get someone to help us make our case. Everything is going to be fine now. Tell her that."

Michelle kissed her daughter on the forehead and let them pull up and away.

Skin Deep chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Skin Deep II foreward chapter 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 epilogue
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