My Brother's Keeper

Part Two
of Three

Vansen carefully lined up her shot. One more and. . .

Alvin"You can come out if you like, Gary." Alvin said suddenly and Vansen hissed, looking up to glare at the AI but he wasn't even looking at her, much less paying attention to what she was doing. He was looking at the door behind the bar and the figure standing there. Leaning his stick against a table, Alvin walked over to the bar. "Come on. Twonky'll make you lunch." He held out his hand.

"'kay." Gary said uncertainly, reaching out to grasp Alvin's hand, letting the AI lead him to a nearby table. "Fries?" He said hopefully.

"Of course fries. Don't I always make fries?" Twonky laughed. "Anyone else want grilled cheese? And fries?"

"Sure." Hawkes looked up.

"Sounds good!" West sent a ball rolling into a pocket.

"Same here." Vansen missed her shot and swore, looking at Alvin but the AI was intent on Gary, now sitting in a chair. She straightened, watching as Alvin, still holding the man's hand, listened with patience as Gary tried to explain something to him. The man was obviously growing frustrated by his inability to say what he wanted and stopped abruptly, lowering his head to gnaw on the raccoon's ear, swaying slowly.

"Gary." Alvin squatted down in front of the man, reaching up to stroke Gary's hair with incredible gentleness. "Take it slow. Remember? One word at a time. Relax."

Gary mumbled something around the ear in his mouth.

"Stop chewing on Rikki's ear. It's hell replacing that fur."

Gary raised his head. "'kay." He rocked for a moment before throwing Alvin a sly look. "Can I have ice cream, too?"

"After lunch." Alvin said firmly.

Gary laughed and murmured something to the AI, too low for the others to hear. Alvin smiled slightly, ruffling Gary's hair as he straightened. As he walked back toward the game, he stripped off his jacket, slinging it over a chair and rolling up his sleeves.

"Let's make this interesting. I have to replace Rikki's ear and, well, that cost money."

"Yow!" Said a sudden voice and Vansen looked up to see one of the newer members of the 58th standing in the doorway, a brief look of annoyance on her handsome face, quickly replaced by a vixenish grin. Jamethial Talisman was a tall woman with silver eyes and black hair that spilled liberally down her back. Right now, she was dressed in black leather. Behind her was another Wild Card, Remy Jaeckel. Also tall, Jaeckel's black hair was cut in a mohawk style offset with startling green eyes and a permanent tan. He was dressed like Talisman, black leather and chains.

Vansen noted, with a touch of envy, that both of them carried off leather very well.

"Private party? Or can anyone join?" Jaeckel grinned toothily.

"Only if you brought money." Alvin said. "Make your bets."

O'Rielly was waiting for McQueen outside the bay, a large envelope tucked under his arm. "Colonel." He quirked an eyebrow at McQueen. "Interesting trio you had me look up."

"You don't know the half of it, O'Rielly." McQueen sighed.

"Correction, Colonel. I suspect you don't know the half of it." O'Rielly handed the envelope to a bewildered McQueen and started to slip past him only to pause. "Oh, by the way, sir. I finally remembered where I heard the word twonky' before. Some science fiction book. A twonky was something. . .out of place, I guess would be the best way of putting it." And O'Rielly turned, heading down the corridor.

McQueen watched him for a moment, frowning, then stepped through the hatch, heading for the shuttle. Two fighter squadrons, a total of fifteen people, were crowding on board for their own leave. He let them settle themselves then walked on himself, sitting into a seat away from the others. Unsealing the envelope, he slipped out the papers and skimmed over them, marveling, once again, that O'Rielly had managed to surprise him.

Some of this information had to be classified. How in the universe had O'Rielly gotten a hold of it?

There really was a Alvin Herne. According to the paper on him, he had been born in Seattle some thirty-three years ago. Convenient. What with the series of earthquakes that racked the western coast in 2030 and the hideous plagues that followed, many people who wished to start over were suddenly from Seattle. The information was meager, though, and would never stand up to close scrutiny. It certainly didn't fool O'Rielly any because right behind that sheet was another.

And this one was for Alvin EL-1543.

An AI, built in 2050, just before the AI Wars, Alvin had vanished for several years, finally turning up on the Bacchus, still in the building stages, some eleven years ago. It didn't say how he ended up working the pool hall but it did say that he had arrived with two companions. A note on the bottom of the paper said that Alvin's modem had been removed before his arrival on the Bacchus.

Gary Septon had also been born in Seattle, around the same time as Alvin Herne, with severe head trauma occurring eighteen years later due to a scuba accident. But behind that paper was another for Jake Dugan, an InVitro from the same genetic batch as McQueen who had been killed in the Bellaire Mines less then a year after being decanted. McQueen shuddered when he saw the name of the mines. Where he had been had been bad enough but Bellaire. . . Of the four hundred plus InVitros sent that hellhole over the two-year period it was opened only nineteen survived. No wonder Gary got so upset when he'd mentioned it. He may be brain damaged but apparently some memories remained. And those memories were all bad.

Twonky Wildheart was from New Minyaka, a remarkably small town deep in the Australian outback, born there some 30-plus years ago. Of all three of them, his identification seemed the most complete and the most normal but something about it threw McQueen off. And, apparently, it threw O'Rielly off as well. A series of question marks were dashed across the bottom of the paper with the notation "Will look further."

Smart boy.

McQueen slid the papers back into the envelope and, as he walked off the shuttle, shoved it into the nearest recycle chute before heading for the pool hall. He paused in the doorway, looking in before entering.

Vanessa Damphousse and Remy Jaeckel were sitting at a table with Gary, eating what looked like sandwiches and fries while they talked. Nearby, Alvin had peeled off his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves, watching as Vansen lined up a tough shot. West, Hawkes and Talisman were sitting nearby, also watching. A neat stack of money laid on the side of the pool table.

McQueen"Hungry, Colonel?" A voice said almost in his ear and he barely stifled a start. He turned to glare at a grinning Twonky. "Grill's still hot. I can whip up another grilled cheese sandwich."

"Yes. Thanks." McQueen said through gritted teeth, following the man back to the bar. Gary spotted him and smiled broadly.

"Ty!" He reached out to grab McQueen's hand with his free hand, the other tightly clinging to his raccoon.

McQueen squeezed the hand gently. "I'll be right back in a minute, Gary. Okay?"

"'kay." Gary reluctantly released him and turned back to his sandwich.

McQueen continued his walk to the bar, watching as Twonky went to work over the hot grill, whistling tunelessly to himself. His hands vanished into the darkness of the grill with each flip of his wrist, the black leather gloves glinting each time he moved them back into the light.

"Why is this place closed?" McQueen set the file on the bar.

Twonky paid more attention to the grill then was actually necessary. "Remodeling." He said finally, turning to pick up the file and tucking it under the bar.

McQueen looked around. It didn't look like there was any remodeling being done. Or needed to be done, for that matter. When he looked back at Twonky, a plate was in front of him and the man had turned back to the grill. McQueen suspected he would get no more answers, at least not from him. He picked up the plate, but before he could carry it over to the table, Damphousse appeared at his side.

"Colonel." She murmured then glanced at Twonky's back before discretely leading McQueen away from the bar but not toward the table. "Gary's been telling us. . .in his own unique way. . .about some bad things have been happening here."

"What kind of bad things?"

"He can't quite explain it but it sounds like minor vandalism that's rapidly escalating. And then, something about bad men in the Catacombs. . ."

"He said something about that before."

"Well, this place has been closed for almost two weeks now. And Shane says it hasn't be remodeled at all."

McQueen looked over her shoulder and at Twonky. The man had abandoned his pretense of cleaning the bar and was watching them. It was obvious that he had heard everything they had said. "Well?"

Twonky glanced at Alvin, intent on the game then jerked his head in a gesture for the duo to come closer. "Look, McQueen. None of this involves you. In a few hours, you'll be gone and we'll still be dealing with it."

"If it involves Gary. . ."

"InVitros don't have families." Twonky said and McQueen stiffened. "You have no obligation or rights concerning him." And there was a challenge in Twonky's voice.

Something clicked in McQueen's mind and he eyed Twonky thoughtfully. "No legal right." He agreed. "I wouldn't even try to put it through the courts. God knows where Gary would end up. It wouldn't be with me, even if I could take care of him. And it wouldn't be with Alvin." He turned to look at Gary, earnestly talking with Jaeckel and the raccoon. The young man was listening intently to whatever Gary was saying. He obviously had experience with children, McQueen thought enviously. "But, maybe, I have a moral one. To make sure he's getting the best care possible."

The challenge in Twonky's eyes faded and he nodded. "There's a turf war going on. This place. . .it's a lot like Las Vegas in the 1900's. Rife with corruption. Gangs fighting over businesses, extorting protection money, etc., etc. Ever since Aerotech got disbanded, this station's sorta been up for grabs. About three months ago, this new gang came on board. Wants to run everything."

He paused, glancing at Alvin, intent on his game with Shane. "Beside running this place, Alvin's silent partner in a half-dozen others and has a pretty powerful voice in station. He's one of those who's been here the longest and a lot of folks. . .well, a lot of folks tend to forget he's an AI. So they listen to him. Alvin's not taking sides and this new gang feel it's their duty to bring him around."

"By threatening Gary?"

"I suspect that's for funsies."

The explosion caught them all by surprise as one of the walls erupted inward. Metal fragments flew like shrapnel and, later when he had more time to think on it, McQueen was amazed that more people hadn't been injured. Instead, only Jaeckel was seriously injured. When the dust finally cleared enough for McQueen to see, Jaeckel was on the floor, bright red blood bubbling from his mouth and Vanessa kneeling next to him, her face ashen as she pressed a tablecloth to the wound in the young man's side.

"The medics are on their way." Vansen said suddenly in his ear and he nodded as he looked around. West and Hawkes looked dazed but all right while Talisman had her hands clapped to her bleeding ears and McQueen was reminded of the young woman's abnormally acute hearing. Gary was on the floor, dazed and shaking with fear. McQueen started toward him but Alvin beat him there, kneeling beside Gary and drawing the man into his arms, rocking him gently and murmuring soft words.

Twonky was nowhere in sight.

McQueen ran for the door, ignoring Alvin when he yelled his name. Outside the pool hall the lights were on emergency power and the dust was high, making visibility almost nil. McQueen made his way toward the origin of the explosion, doubting if he'd find anyone but hoping. . .

Two strong hands suddenly locked on his throat and tightened, slamming him back against the wall. Without thinking, McQueen reached for his pocket, scrambling for the butterfly knife he always carried there but then the hands let go as abruptly as they had grabbed and his attacker stepped back.

"McQueen!" The voice was Twonky's, deep and husky with suppressed emotion. His eyes glinted red in the emergency light.

"Twonky." McQueen gasped, reaching up to rub at his throat. It came away bloody. "Find anyone?"

"No, dammit!" The man turned and started back toward the pool hall.

"Know who did it?" McQueen followed.

"Yes." Twonky's answer came without hesitation then they were entering the pool hall.

The medical crew had arrived and were even now carrying Jaeckel from the pool hall. Security was also there, examining the blast area and muttering to each other. McQueen looked around, finally walking over to join the remaining Wild Cards.

"Damphousse and Talisman?" He asked.

Hawkes shook his head. "Talisman can't hear a thing. Damphousse went with her to the medical center."

"What do you mean, an accident?!" Twonky shouted suddenly. "You know damn well what it was, you blithering coward!" The man's voice rose with each word.

The security chief had the good graces to squirm uncomfortably, his face darkening, rather with anger or embarrassment, McQueen couldn't tell. He muttered something to Twonky but Twonky wasn't listening. He was gesturing at ground zero, snarling something back.

"Where's Gary and Alvin?"

Vansen gestured at the door behind the bar. McQueen glanced at it then at Vansen. "Head for the medical center. Get Jaeckel and Talisman back to the Saratoga and tell Ross what happened. He already knows most of it."

"Sir, we could help. . ." Vansen protested.

"You can help by making sure Jaeckel and Talisman get back to the Saratoga." He said sternly.

"Yes, sir." The trio echoed reluctantly as they turned and hurried out of the pool hall. McQueen looked over at Twonky, still arguing with the security force then walked toward the living area behind the bar.

Alvin was sitting on the bed, leaning back against the wall and rocking Gary gently in his arms, murmuring words too low for McQueen to hear. Gary had been cleaned up and was now covered only by a sheet. His eyes were wide and he still shivered slightly, clinging tightly to the AI.

Alvin looked up and spotted McQueen standing uncertainly in the door. The AI hesitated then jerked his head in a beckoning motion. McQueen walked forward slowly.

"Easy, Gary." Alvin was murmuring. "Easy. It's over. Everyone's safe."

McQueen knelt next to the bed, reaching out a hand to touch Gary's shoulder gently. The other man jerked away.

"It's okay, Gary. It's me. It's Ty." And Gary settled, still shivering. McQueen sat on the bed, reaching out to stroke Gary's hair. This time, he didn't flinch. Instead, a hand slipped up to grasp his with a desperate strength. McQueen glanced at Alvin. "He still has memories of. . ." He didn't need Alvin's quick frown to keep him from mentioning the mines. He knew better then that.

"Yes. He doesn't exactly know what they are but. . ." The AI shrugged. "They scare the hell out of him. He'll have nightmares for a week but eventually they'll fade."

Twonky walked in. No, more like stomped in. Gary's shivering grew more violent and Alvin hissed at the angry man. Twonky paused, his eyes flaring red then he took a deep breath and visibly steadied himself. "That idiot. . !"

". . .doesn't want to be caught in the middle." Alvin finished. "And you can hardly blame him."

"Of course I can! If he had the balls to take action when this first started, none of this would be happening." Twonky paced, though with a more normal tread.

"What wouldn't be happening?" McQueen demanded.

"Turf wars, dammit! Those damn. . .!" Twonky cut himself off and glanced at McQueen, flushing slightly.

"Tanks." McQueen finished the sentence. "This new gang are InVitros." He glanced at Alvin for confirmation.

The AI nodded. "Former mine trustees mostly."

McQueen felt like throwing up. He remembered the mine trustees. He remembered them very well. . .the terror-filled nights listening to the sneering laughter and obscene lust all around him, waiting for them to come for him. Which they did. They always did. If not that night then the next. Or the next.

He closed his eyes, swallowing hard.

"You wanna hear something interesting, McQueen?" Twonky said suddenly. "When Aerotech closed down, it didn't really close down. No. People were shifted. The main core of that organization got another name. Everything continued just like before. Took them a few months to get to re-acquiring the Bacchus but when they did, they found out that the occupants had managed to get it turned over to them. How is complicated but they did it. So Aerotech gets together a group of the worst band of InVitros they can, to take over the Bacchus for them."

"And they're the ones doing the terrorizing?

"Sure! Get back the station and give InVitros a really bad black eye in the process. In the end, Aerotech wins and InVitros get painted as a race of psychos. Not a long stretch, considering."

Considering the bad reputation InVitros already had. Damn. He glanced at Gary with concern, remembering something Gary had said earlier.

"Did they. . ."

"No!" Alvin said sharply, tightening his hold on Gary, making the man whimper. He continued in a softer tone, stroking the man's hair gently. "No. They didn't get a chance."

McQueen didn't asked what happened to the attackers. He found himself hoping it involved an airlock and a real slow leak.

"We have to stop this now, Alvin. If we don't. . ." Twonky took a deep breath. "If we don't then we gotta leave because sooner or later, they're gonna win." The man's eyes shifted to Gary, laying cocooned in Alvin's arms, humming softly to himself. "And then. . ."

"No! Never!" McQueen find himself surprised at the sharp tone of the AI's voice. AIs' can't feel emotions!

And InVitros don't dream.

McQueen watched Alvin and Gary with new eyes, seeing, perhaps for the first time really seeing, the gentleness with which Alvin held and comforted Gary, crooning to him, soothing him. Those weren't the actions of a machine. Those were the actions of something sentient. Something alive. Something that. . .loved?

His eyes shifted to the man Alvin held. The childlike way he clung to the AI, the innocence in his eyes and he remembered the mines. The nightly visits by some of the natural-born miners and the InVitro trustees. The things they did to their young, naive charges and how many of them had broken from the repeated abuse. For an insane moment, he was back at the mines, under the crushing weight of the head trustee. But then it wasn't him, it was Gary. Crying in pain and fear and shame and not understanding why. . .

Crying his name. Crying for help.

They would break Gary; use him, break him and discard him like worthless trash. Like the hundreds of other InVitros who didn't survive the mines.

Not while he was alive, they wouldn't.

"What can we do?" McQueen found himself asking.

"You?" Twonky said in surprise. "Nothing. It's our business. We'll deal with it."

"If it involves Gary, it is my business." This time, McQueen's eyes held the challenge.

Twonky studied McQueen for a long moment. "You know, someday people are going start looking past the labels and start seeing exactly what InVitros and AIs really are and what they really can and will do. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Alvin, you know where the weapons are?"

The AI nodded.

"Good. Once we're gone, grab something deadly and seal up the place. You know the routine."

"Yes. Good luck."

Twonky grunted. "Come on, McQueen." The big man stopped behind the bar to shove a section of the marble top of the counter to one side, revealing a cache of sophisticated weapons tucked underneath. Most McQueen recognized, though a couple were still highly classified and supposedly not available outside the testing labs. The rest he couldn't even begin guess at.

"Pick your poison." Twonky reached for one of the unusual weapons. McQueen hesitated, finally reaching for a powerful number he'd used many times before and several extra clips, which he slipped into his pockets.

"How many are there?"

"Not as many as you'd think. Useta be twenty-two of em. Now there's seventeen. The bigwigs wanna be able to control them after they accomplish their mission or, barring that, a lesser number can be killed much more easily."

"And the InVitros. . .?"

". . .are, luckily, not very bright." Humor gleamed in Twonky's eyes. "First generation and all that. They do their work well and they get rewarded. That's all they know. Their leader's, called Rocks, got a few more brains then most but not even he can see too far beyond his petty schemes." He slipped the gun into his belt. "You can still back out, McQueen."

The look McQueen gave him spoke volumes as he slammed a clip home and slapped it to make sure it was held firm. "Let's go." Was all he said.

The Catacombs was a surprisingly well-lit area. For some reason, McQueen would have thought it to be a dark, dank place. Though their weapons were in plain sight, no one made a move to stop them and by the time they reach the underworld of the Bacchus, its corridors were empty.

McQueen"So what's the plan?" McQueen asked.

"Plan? I thought you had the plan."

"I don't suppose they'd listen to reason."

"Ha!" Twonky had fallen behind McQueen. "Actually, I thought we could use the good old diversionary technique." The location of Twonky's voice shifted suddenly and McQueen frowned, pausing to look behind him.

Twonky wasn't there.

"Twonky!" He hissed, glancing around. He was very much alone. In territory run by some of the most sadistic humans alive today. Twonky had set him up.

So now what? He could make his way back to the dubious protection of the pool hall or even to the shuttles and back to the Saratoga. Or he could continue on, creating the diversion Twonky obviously wanted.

Oh hell.

He shifted his grip on the gun, following the directions Twonky had given him earlier. The Tanks had their headquarters in a series of rooms deep in the station. If he could get down there unseen. . .

Well, it was a good thought.

The pipe hit him low on the left side and McQueen stumbled sideways. As he fell to a knee, something came down over his head, a bag perhaps, of heavy cloth. Someone yanked the gun from his hand. He struggled but it didn't do any good. There were too many of them, holding his wrists and arms as they dragged him through the corridor.

The next thing he knew, he was being slammed back against a wall, his arms being wrenched to each side, being bound there by cold wire. Once secured, the hood was ripped from his head.

He blinked in the sudden bright light, eyes darting around the large room. It was a storeroom of sorts with a few crates stacked around. Several men were scattered around, eyeing him with a variety of smug satisfaction and ill-concealed lust. His eyes darted to each side to see that his wrists were indeed bound with wire to strong pipes set in the walls.

McQueen made a mental note to kill Twonky when next he saw him or, barring that, haunt him for eternity.

A strong hand gripped his chin and forced his head around to look into the cold blue eyes of what was obviously the leader of this merry band of Tanks. What did Twonky say his name was? Oh, right. Rocks. In his head, no doubt.

"Well. Looks like we got something to amuse ourselves with until we get that little toy of Alvin's back."

McQueen's breath caught and rage flared in his eyes. The other man caught the look and laughed.

"So. You know about Jake? No. It's Gary now, isn't it? You see, I knew. . .Gary in the Bellaire Mines. He was quite a little piece then." The man smirked, his fingers digging into McQueen's skin. "Looks like he still is."

McQueen's hands clenched into fists. "Damn you! You're worse then any of the natural-borns ever were!"

Something like anger flared across those blue eyes. "We're what they made us." He spat back.

"No. You're what you chose to be. Don't you dare try to blame it on anyone else other then yourself."

Fingers tightened on his face then loosened as the man laughed, though his eyes were ice-cold. "Don't worry about Gary. In a few days, he'll be back with his own kind." The fingers started to stroke his cheek gently. "Better, isn't it, then that cold-hearted AI? Cold in other places too, I bet. What? You didn't know that? Gives new meaning to the term boy-toy, don't you think?"

More crude laughter and McQueen gritted his teeth as Rocks stepped closer, pressing his body against McQueen's, rubbing sensuously against him. The man's free hand wandered over his body, settling finally on his groin.

"Well, we'll take care of that soon enough. Give Gary lots of warmth in lots of places. Until then. . .well, only about half of us are here but I'm sure we can keep you amused until the others arrive." His mouth closed on McQueen's.

For a brief moment, McQueen was catapulted back through time, to a frightened, helpless newborn trapped, like this, against a wall with laughing, jeering men surrounding him. But he wasn't a frightened newborn nor was he totally helpless. He sank his teeth into the other's lip.

Rocks howled, jerking back, blood flowing but McQueen's satisfaction was short-lived. Rocks' fist slammed into the side of his head, which in turn bounced off the wall. Dazed, McQueen hung from the wires, trying to clear his eyes as more hands joined Rocks in tearing off his clothes and stroking his body.

"Get him down." Rocks grunted, lust thick in his voice. "Over to that crate."

He tried to tear loose as his hands were freed but there were too many of them. He fought every step, trying to win free, to. . .but his head was swimming, his vision doubled.

And then the lights went out.

"Damn! Not again." The emergency lights came on, gleaming a dull red. "Jake, check it out. Don't worry. We'll save you some." He grinned at the others. "We don't need lights for this."

McQueen was thrown face-down onto the indicated crate. He struggled wildly, feeling splinters dig into his skin. A lucky shot with his elbow hit someone in the groin and his wrists were grabbed again and held.

"Get the wire and tie him down, da. . !"


McQueen stared at what had landed on the crate in front of him, noting almost absently that the eyelids were still fluttering.

"Rocks." Twonky's deep, husky voice came from the area of the doorway. "Don't be expecting anymore of your bully boys back. They've all met with. . .accidents."

"Twonky. . ." Rocks breathed and McQueen felt his body lift from his. "Get him! He's only one man!"

Twonky laughed, a disturbing sound for a man outnumbered eleven to one. "By all means. Come and get me. I wait. No gun. No knife." His voice dropped into a purr. "No gloves."

McQueen started to straighten, to join in the fight but strong hands grabbed his shoulders and spun him, hard into a wall. He sank to the floor bonelessly, unable to move as his vision darkened alarmingly. . .

Part Three

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