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The Return of Darkness: An "A.I."/Lord of the Rings Crossover

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The Return of Darkness:
An "A.I."/"Lord of the Rings" Crossover
 
by Time Lady Quasar
 
 
[Archivist's Note: This is one of the most ambitious and ingenious crossovers I have seen anywhere in any fandom. Once the author started posting it on the "A.I." fanfiction Yahoo! Group, I placated the writer to let me archive it here. (Confession: Besides being a Mecha-hugger and a "Matrix" geek, I'm also a Tolkien nut.) Scroll down to find new chapters... It may take a while but it is well worth it.]

street.jpg

Chapter One
 
Joe knew he was different from other Mechas on the street.  In saving
his brain, David had also changed it in subtle ways.  He was more
aware of things outside of himself and his customers.  He was even
more aware of his customers, questioning why they came to him, a thing
most of them saw as a non-living entity possessed of nothing more than
the perfect dick.  He noticed things he hadn't before; bruises on
their bodies, low or even nonexistent self esteem, questions about
their own sexuality, so much pain . . . he preferred those that were
just curious, either about physical sexuality in general or about
Mechas like him.
 
He rarely danced anymore, only the occasional hop-skip-jump to impress
a prospective client, but his heart wasn't in it, or in any of his
other duties.
 
Heart.  That was a word he would never have used in reference to
himself before David's small hand slipping with such trust into his
had touched something besides his physical body.  But the little Mecha
had possessed a heart, without question, and had painfully discovered
that those that had a real, flesh-and-blood one present in their body
often didn't know how to use it.
 
Joe had been relieved when the pernicious Bevins man had confessed
under heavy questioning after a family friend had pointed out the
suspicions of several family members, and that Professor Allen Hobby,
for reasons of his own, had intervened on Joe's behalf over the
question of the missing police `copter.  Of course he'd been relieved.
But he'd been unable to find David's whereabouts after being granted
freedom, or at least the Mecha's version of freedom.  The boy robot
must still be searching for his blue fairy, in a futile quest for
reality and the love of an Orga.
 
He should have stayed with Joe.
 
Joe wandered the streets more frequently now; his client list, while
hardly small, had fallen off.  Some of his more perceptive customers
were less than comfortable in his presence, describing him as
"melancholy."  He would be replaced, soon, of course, then it would
either be deactivation, dumping, or a flesh fair.
 
Walking up a less populated side street towards one of the seedier
parts of town, Joe was attracted by a loud "bang" and altered his
course to investigate.  Down another street that was lined with
assorted shops, all closed, he encountered a vehicle with steam
billowing from under its hood and a young woman in the driver's seat,
repeatedly hitting her forehead against the steering wheel.
 
This odd sight piqued his interest enough for him to cross the street
and tap on her window.  She squeaked, looking at him with wide eyes,
and opened the window.  "If you're going to ask me if I'm looking for
a date . . ." she started suspiciously over the horrible grinding of
the car's wildly vibrating engine.
 
"Do you require assistance?  Are you injured?" Joe asked.
 
"I know you boys can contact the police, fire department, and
ambulance, but I suppose a mechanic's out of the question?" the woman
asked without much hope, yanking the key out of the ignition, which
stopped the noise and the steam.
 
"Alas, yes.  Roadside assistance was not deemed an emergency service,"
Joe answered.
 
"Great.  The airline lost half my baggage, including my phone and most
of my clothes, my rental's a total lemon, and I'm stranded," the woman
snorted.  She eyed Joe with a shrewd kind of speculation he didn't
care for.  "What's your rate?" she asked suddenly.
 
Joe cocked his head curiously at this abrupt change of subject, but
answered obediently.  "Fifty an hour, five hundred for a full night,
price not negotiable."
 
"Little steep isn't it?  Well, guess I've heard worse.  I can put it
down as a business expense."  Smiling tiredly, the woman got out of
her car, pointedly kicked the side panel, and pushed a small button on
the key to open the trunk.  Lifting out one huge bag, then another,
she thrust them into Joe's arms.  "You must know the area, where's the
closest hotel?  I can call the rental agency from there tomorrow."
 
Inclining his head back the way he had come, Joe hefted the bags
easily.  "There are several in that direction, quite close."
 
"Good."  Taking two smaller bags out of the trunk, she slammed it
closed and waved Joe on.  "Let's go."
 
Joe regarded his new companion as she walked beside him.  She was
pretty, he decided, in a chubby, short, pink-cheeked way.  Her deep
brown, wavy hair fell loose and free to not quite the middle of her
back, longish bangs falling like a pony's forelock to shadow dark
brown eyes that were as deep and soft as crushed velvet.  They held a
sparkle of humor too, despite her obvious exhausted annoyance, her
plump lips lifted at the corners in a pleasantly friendly expression.
The top of her head didn't even reach his shoulder; he calculated her
height at 5'1" or close to it, depending on her shoes.
 
"Been in Haddonfield long?" the girl asked casually, easily keeping up
with his longer stride.
 
"Two years, six months, seventeen days," Joe supplied with Mecha
accuracy.  "I was sent here directly after my trials in Rouge City."
 
"Rouge City?  Wow, I bet you miss it."
 
"I wasn't there for very long after my initial activation," Joe
answered, eyeing her.
 
"So you consider this your home then?" the woman asked, profound
wistfulness softening her pleasant voice.
 
"I have no permanent residence," Joe told her.  "I go to the offices
of Electric Nights, the company that purchased my licence, for
necessary maintenance and occasional repairs.  Otherwise I go where
customers bid me."
 
Frowning, his companion glanced away.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to
pry."
 
"You've done nothing to apologize for."  Joe wondered at her line of
questioning.  Even the customers he serviced that were simply curious
about Mechas never bothered to ask him what they might term personal
questions.
 
They reached the better illuminated red-light district and paused. 
"The Pleasure Inn is not expensive, and the rooms are clean," Joe
supplied, indicating an eight-story building several blocks down the
street.
 
"What about that one?"  His escort pointed to a smaller but flashier
building in the opposite direction.  "It's closer."
 
"The Shangri-La is quite adequate," Joe answered stiffly, his face
blank.
 
"Good.  Let's . . . hey, are you all right?" the woman asked, gazing
up at him, concerned. 
 
"What do you mean?"
 
"You seem a little tense."
 
"I am a Mecha.  We do not get tense," Joe said promptly.
 
"Uh-huh.  If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine.  I need a
bed ASAP.  The Shangri-La will do."  She strode with not-so-grim
purpose towards the garish, overdone front of the hotel and Joe had no
choice but to follow.
 
The edge of his shoe struck something, sending it rolling into the
front of the cement steps leading to the lobby.  What ever it was
tinkled when it hit the pavement, chiming like a tiny bell.  The woman
stopped and crouched, picking the object off the ground; it was a
ring, a simple gold circlet without embellishment.  "Pretty," she
commented, dropping it into the pocket of her denim jacket before
opening the door and holding it for Joe.
 
The clerk was not Mr. Williamson tonight, but a younger man who wore a
bored, jaded expression as he handed over a door key, not giving any
indication that he recognized Joe.  Pursing her lips at the desk
clerk's expression but remaining silent, Joe's companion motioned for
him to follow.
 
She had been given room 100, straight across the hall from where
Samantha Bevins had died.  Her murderer was now in jail awaiting
trial, but Joe couldn't delete the scene from his memory; her flesh,
still warm but somehow too heavy under his hand, the hot, sticky feel
of her blood . . .
 
His companion opened the door, peeking in at the tacky but clean room
with a groan; whether of relief or disgust Joe couldn't tell.  "Well,
it doesn't stink and I don't see any bugs," was her verdict.
 
"The rooms are soundproofed as well," Joe supplied unasked, entering
at her heels and settling the heavy bags next to the small wardrobe.
 
The woman eyed him, then smiled.  "If you're a frequent resident, I
think I'm glad of that," she chuckled.  Dropping her own bags on the
bed, she opened one, rummaged inside it, and pulled out a purse. 
"What did you say, fifty an hour?" she asked, pulling out an
assortment of bills and thrusting them in his direction.
 
"Payment isn't expected until after . . ."
 
"Wha . . . oh, no!  I'm sorry, I thought you understood.  I just
needed help getting my stuff here," the woman cried, abashed.  "I'm
sorry, I should have made myself more clear.  I didn't mean to . . ."
 
"No, don't apologize," Joe interrupted, registering a strange
sensation of disappointment.  "I misunderstood your intentions."
 
"I'm too tired tonight anyway," Joe's ephemeral customer added,
blushing lightly.  "Not that I . . . ugh, never mind.  Like it or not,
I'm apologizing.  But I really do need to get some sleep, so . . ." 
Forcing the money into his hand, she looked into his eyes, frowning. 
"I am sorry.  You seem like a nice guy, but . . ."
 
"Nice?"  Who ever described him as "a nice guy?"  Joe shrugged
elegantly.  "I am only built to serve."
 
"Thanks for the help," the woman said, politely opening the door for
him.  "I don't see many people who would stop to help, human or Mecha.
I appreciated it."  She smiled, and he could easily pick out evidence
of her exhaustion in the weary lines around her mouth and the dark
shadows under her eyes.  Some of his regret faded with the realization
that she very likely would not enjoy his services.  The woman grinned
suddenly.  "By the way, I never even asked.  So much for manners. 
What's your name?"
 
"I'm Joe," Joe answered, already halfway out the door.
 
"Joe . . . Joe!  Wait!" the woman cried, grabbing his arm.  "You're
the one I was sent to find!"
 
Joe glanced at the small hand encircling his wrist with a surprisingly
strong grip.  "Pardon?"
 
"You're the lover Mecha they call Gigolo Joe, right?  The one that was
with the kid Mecha?  The one who . . ." she stopped mid-sentence, all
the color ebbing from her face so suddenly that  Joe stepped nearer to
be in a ready position to catch her if she fell.  "The Shangri-La . .
. oh my dear Lord, I am so sorry!"  Slumping against the wall, the
woman covered her face with both hands, evidently horrified.  "I am
such an idiot!" she cried, the sound muffled.  Lowering her fingers
enough to peek out at Joe with wide, white-ringed eyes, she flinched
and withdrew again.  "I'm sorry!" she said again.
 
"Are you all right?" Joe asked carefully, backing a step or two away
when he determined that she was in no immediate danger.
 
"I'm fine, I'm just the biggest featherbrain the world has ever seen,"
the woman snorted, then sighed and held out her hand.  "This isn't how
I planned it, but . . . Hi.  I'm Frederika Bashir, please call me
Freddie.  I'm a writer for Popular Science and I'm doing a piece on
the child Mechas which will be available to the general public in six
months," the woman, Freddie, intoned as if repeating a memorized
speech.  "My editors wanted to get the full story, from both sides,
and when they heard about some of what happened with the David
experiment, they sent me to cover it.  I just got in from Manhattan,
where I interviewed a marginally helpful Professor Allen Hobby.  I
wanted to talk to you, to get your side of it as well."
 
Joe stared at her until she shifted in place uncomfortably, but she
held his gaze.  "So . . . can I interview you?" she asked, her eyes
shining with fresh energy.
 
"Interview?" Joe repeated.  What would his owners say about a
situation like this?  They were already uncomfortable with the infamy
of his name, though for a few weeks it had brought increased business.
"How long would it take?"
 
Freddie sighed.  "I was given fifteen hundred in case I had to rent
your time.  Would the normal rate for a full night satisfy your
owners?  If you have customers waiting, I could schedule an interview
for a later date.  I've got two weeks to finish the assignment."
 
"I have no customers scheduled for tonight," Joe informed her.  "I
believe the normal rate would be satisfactory."
 
"Excellent."  Her smile brightening, Freddie handed over another four
hundred and fifty dollars.  "Let's get started."

teaserposter1lotr.jpg

Chapter Two
 
They talked for over an hour while Freddie recorded the interview and
took notes.  She didn't ask many questions, mostly using them to
direct his story in one direction or another or dig for more details,
especially about the Flesh Fair incident and David's relationship with
Teddy.  When he finished telling his story up to his return to his
owners at Allen Hobby's insistence, the woman looked at him, her dark
eyes piercing, and asked Joe what he thought of David.
 
It was not the sort of general question he was accustomed to answering
but he did what he could, though once or twice he did trip over what
he wanted to say, his words ungainly.  He was a Mecha, built to
benefit others, and was not suppose to give opinions to his Orga
creators.  However clumsy his answers seemed to his own auditory
centers, they seemed to satisfy his interviewer.
 
"Do you think the love he felt for Mrs. Swinton was real, then?"
Freddie asked.
 
Joe nodded without hesitation.  "Misplaced, perhaps, but real enough."
 
Freddie nodded and lay down her pen, reaching over to switch off her
recorder.  Hugging her knees, she regarded him thoughtfully from her
perch on the center of her bed.  "I don't like it," she finally
murmured.  "It's frightening.  Forcing a helpless being to love
somebody, without even knowing what they're like . . . did you know
that most distributers aren't even requiring background checks?  There
are some really sadistic people out there," she finished with an
emphatic shudder.
 
"It is our function to serve our masters as they see fit," Joe
answered, his elegant shrug, as most of his movements, as graceful as
any dance.
 
"You and your compatriots would know that more than most, wouldn't
you?" Freddie whispered, shifting so she sat cross-legged.  Slipping a
hand into her pocket, she rubbed the ring she'd hidden there in a
rhythmic, absent motion.  Glancing at her watch, she sat up straight
with a small yelp, swinging her legs off the bed.  "I've been awake
for over thirty-six hours now," she said with a tiny laugh as she slid
from the high mattress.  "I have got to get some sleep."  Digging in
her smallest bag, she pulled out an oversized T-shirt with a look of
anticipation more hungry than most of his customers' on his busiest
nights.  "At least they didn't lose my underwear bag," she snorted. 
"I don't have to sleep in my jeans."
 
Joe took her preparations as a hint to leave, but she waylaid him
halfway to the door.  "You know, Joe, there's still a few hours left
in our contract.  If you'd like you could stay here for the rest of
your time."  Her eyes twinkling at him with a warmth he rarely
received, she smiled encouragingly.  "Come on, you deserve a break and
I bet you don't get the chance very often.  I suppose the TV doesn't
show much but pornography, but I brought some books if you like to
read."
 
"I . . . yes, thank you, I will stay," Joe answered slowly.
 
Freddie beamed at him and disappeared into the bathroom.  She smiled
even brighter when she emerged in her knee-length men's shirt to find
him still in the chair, now perusing her collection of Shakespeare. 
"I always bring sources for possible quotes," she explained.  Heaving
herself onto the bed, she bounced in place like a small child, the
image enhanced by the bed's overstated stature.  "Do you like him?  I
could see you acting out a few of his characters," she commented,
crawling under the thick bedclothes.  "Petruchio, maybe.  Puck,
definitely."
 
"Puck is a fairy?" Joe asked, very quietly.
 
Freddie's smile faded by degrees.  "I don't know if there are any
fairies anymore, Joe," she told him, her voice low.  "I'm sorry."
 
"David must find his Blue Fairy," Joe told her stoutly, his voice
almost sharp.
 
"I hope he does," Freddie whispered, studying him intently before
abruptly turning out the light.
 
Sometime later, after he had put her book back in her suitcase and was
about to leave, Joe heard a low whimper coming from the bed.  He
glanced over to see the covers thrashing and Freddie whimpered again,
then cried out louder, sounding terrified and in pain.  Striding to
her side, Joe grasped her shoulder through the comforter and shook her
gently, but got no response.  She wailed quietly, a long, drawn out
"nooo," and he pressed a hand to her forehead, then jerked back.  She
was hot, painfully so, as though with an impossibly high fever. 
 
Leaning over her, Joe gripped both her shoulders and shook harder,
calling her name.  She struggled against him for a few seconds, then
gasped, her eyes flying open.  She looked around blindly in the dim
lighting from a single outside streetlight, her head whipping from
side to side in a frantic search for anything familiar.  Focusing at
last, her brown eyes fastened on Joe, some of the flush fading from
her warm face to leave her looking pale and washed out.  Joe brushed
the back of his hand to her cheek; the deadly heat had diminished, but
she was still warm to the touch.
 
"What happened?" Freddie asked him, befuddled and groggy.
 
"You cried out in your sleep.  You were hard to wake, and you have a
fever.  Are you ill?  Shall I call an ambulance?"  Joe asked quickly.
 
"No . . . no, I'm all right," the girl answered, gently pushing his
hand away and sitting up, rubbing a sleepy fist over her eyes.  "It
was just my nightmare.  I've had it since I was little, something
about being inside a volcano with horrible, ugly monsters all around
outside.  But . . . I don't remember it ever being this . . . real,"
she finished unsteadily.  Shaking her head, she waved Joe away and
looked at the watch she still wore.  "I'm all right, don't worry.  Go
on, Joe, your time's up.  I don't want you to get in trouble." 
Freddie looked up at him earnestly, a frown tugging her plump lips
downwards.  "Go on, Joe.  Thanks."
 
Joe left slowly, keeping a watchful eye on Freddie, but she had rolled
over so her back was to the door and he couldn't see her face.  He
could see that she lay stiff, nowhere near sleep and not likely to
approach it any time soon.  Nevertheless, Joe closed the door softly,
keeping his step light.  He didn't even look at the empty room across
the hall.
 
Two days later he found himself at the Shangri-La again.  He was
skipping down from the third floor after a session with one of his
most loyal customers when Mr. Williamson stopped him with a knowing
grin.  "Hey, Joe, you did it again," he said cheerily.  "My new tenant
has been asking after you.  She's sitting in the lobby now," he added
with a nod towards the small but surprisingly cozy room just off to
the side of the clerk's desk.
 
"Tenant?" Joe repeated.
 
"Yeah, that Bashir bird.  Odd, she doesn't look Mid-Eastern or Indian.
She won't say what she wants."  Winking, the clerk shook his head. 
"Not that I can't guess."
 
"This one may surprise you," Joe murmured.
 
"Is there a problem, dear?" his recent customer asked, following him
down the stairs.
 
"No, Mrs. Robinson," Joe answered.  "A woman would simply like to
speak with me."
 
"Now that I find hard to believe," the woman chuckled, her lips
twitching.
 
"Yes, Mrs. Robinson," Joe agreed, one side of his own mouth crooking
upwards.
 
"Why, Joe, dear, I believe you are beginning to develop a sense of
humor," his paramour twittered, wrapping an arm around his elbow. 
"Come, let's go speak to this friend of yours."
 
Freddie looked up from a thin sheaf of papers as Joe entered, her
brows drawing down when she observed his companion.  "I told Mr.
Williamson not to bother you!" she gasped.  "I said it could wait
until later!"
 
"Oh, don't worry, Miss Bashir," Mrs. Robinson scoffed, waving one
cultured, faintly royal hand.  "Joe and I have been friends for years.
I just came out of curiosity."
 
Freddie looked Mrs. Robinson over with a quizzical expression she
tried to hide.  The tall, slender woman, who looked to be in her
mid-fifties but which Joe knew to be closer to seventy, was dressed
with a formal refinement that was not only out of place, but of time,
strongly hinting at what Joe's attire tried to emulate and modernize.
She was a strong, handsome woman, her tasteful makeup expertly
applied, her silver hair coiffed in an elaborate sculpture of tamed
waves and ringlets.
 
"I know I don't look like what you'd expect to be hiring an escort,"
Mrs. Robinson said with a laugh and light blush.  "But since Charles
died, I've been lonely.  And I do so miss dancing."  Her coolly blue
eyes softened with a momentary wistfulness, but she quickly eradicated
the vulnerability in her expression.  "Please, dear, ask him what you
needed."
 
Smiling at the older woman, Freddie inclined her head.  "I finished
the article, Joe," she said shyly.  "I'd like you to read it before I
send it to my editors.  To make sure I didn't get anything wrong." 
Handing Joe the pages, she stepped back.  "Ordinarily this would be
against all rules of journalism, but in this case I really don't care.
Somehow it needs to be done.  Do you have time to read it?"
 
"May I as well?" Mrs. Robinson questioned.  "I can always say this was
part of his service."
 
Freddie nodded.  Joe sat in the chair next to her and Mrs. Robinson
slid another chair close enough to read with him.  He angled the
papers for her, then the room was silent but for the gently rustle of
each page he turned.
 
"That was wonderful," Mrs. Robinson whispered a few minutes later,
discreetly dabbing at her overly bright eyes.  "Simply wonderful . . .
there was so much feeling put into it, but it was all direct
observation.  You remained so objective.  I don't think I could have
done it."
 
"Thank you, Mrs. Robinson.  Joe?"
 
"That was exactly what happened, Miss Bashir . . ."
 
"Freddie."
 
"Freddie.  That is precisely what David was like."
 
"Thank you," Freddie smiled, retrieving the pages.  "I'll send it as
soon as I get back to my room.  Which leaves me another week free
here."  She laughed.  "I didn't expect to be finished this soon.  I
had wanted to get an interview with Lord Johnson-Johnson, but he's
unavailable for comment since he's been arrested for murder."
 
Joe's eyes widened.  Seeing it, Freddie nodded.  "Something about
Trenton.  They're being very hush-hush about it as yet, but the word
is they're going for second-degree murder and are hoping for negligent
homicide at the least."
 
"Odious man.  I'm hardly surprised," Mrs. Robinson sniffed.  "He's
nothing but a beast."
 
"I agree."  Standing, Freddie tucked the article under one arm,
stuffing her hands into her jacket pockets.  "May I accompany you
outside?  I need to stretch my legs."
 
Joe bowed theatrically, making both women giggle.  Mrs. Robinson
tugged him upright and Freddie walked beside him, rubbing at something
in her pocket.  She pulled her hand out, her thumb tracing along a
shiny object in her hand.  A car horn beeped raucously nearby just as
they stepped outside and Freddie jumped, dropping the thing she held.
 
The ring hit the pavement with a resounding knell nothing like the
quiet tinkle it had made when he'd kicked it on the sidewalk.  It
rolled down the steps, ringing every time it hit the ground.  Freddie
squealed in dismay; Joe bounded after the ring, catching it as it
stopped rolling.
 
He had trouble getting his fingers around it, and when he picked it
up, the ring felt heavy in his hand, much heavier than it should have.
Turning, her found Freddie's warm eyes cold and glaring.  When he
held his hand out to her, she snatched the ring off his palm and leapt
back as though afraid he'd try to take it from her.  "It's mine!" she
snapped.
 
Mrs. Robinson stared at her in horror, and just as suddenly, the
girl's face cleared and she looked ashamed.  "I am so sorry.  I don't
know what got into me.  It's just that it . . . it's so pretty.  It's
precious . . ."  Pressing a hand to her forehead, she gave both her
companions a pleading look.  "Ugh, I think I've just been working to
hard.  Thank you for getting it, Joe."
 
"Well, I think you need to . . ." Mrs. Robinson began coldly, stepping
into the street.
 
Joe wasn't facing the right direction; he heard Freddie scream a
warning before he saw the motorcycle himself.  Reaching out, he tried
to snatch Mrs. Robinson out of the machine's path but he was too late,
though he saved her from a direct hit.  Still, the glancing blow was
hard enough and she cried out, collapsing against him clutching at her
leg.  As Freddie ran back inside, Joe stared after the familiar
wolf-headed motorcycle and its unfamiliar black-clad occupant. 
Lowering Mrs. Robinson to the ground, he supported the hoarsely
gasping woman as best he could, still gazing in consternation at the
corner around which the bike had disappeared.
 
Mr. Williamson was beside him a few seconds later, kneeling next to
Mrs. Robinson.  "I called the police, they have an ambulance on the
way," he explained hastily.  "Damn those flesh fairs.  These bastards
have been around the last few days.  I think they're going after you
and your associates' customers," he growled.
 
"The ambulance will be here in a couple minutes, Mrs. Robinson,"
Freddie assured the older woman, taking her hand and stroking the
back. 
 
"Thank you, dear," she answered weakly.  "Did anyone get the licence?"
 
"I don't think it had one," Freddie told her darkly.
 
"They don't," Mr. Williamson agreed.  "They come out of nowhere, and
afterwards no one can find them.  I hope they get caught and strung up
by their . . ."
 
Mrs. Robinson cleared her throat significantly and the desk clerk
stumbled to a halt, blushing.  "Er . . . by their toes," he finished
lamely.
 
Sirens announced the almost simultaneous arrival of the police and
ambulance.  Police and paramedics herded around them in a sudden,
seemingly disordered swarm that had a moaning Mrs. Robinson strapped
on a stretcher in seconds.  As soon as Joe was no longer supporting
the old woman, the police moved close in a crowd of hostile, sometimes
familiar, faces, a few drawing the magnetic weapons used to disable
unruly Mechas.
 
"Hey, what's the problem?"  Freddie squawked.  "He didn't do
anything!"
 
"This is the second time this Mecha has been involved in suspicious .
. ."
 
"Suspicious nothin'!" Mr. Williamson shot.  "I told `em what happened
when I called it in.  It was one of those anti-Mecha bast . . ."
 
"If it hadn't been for dear Joe," Mrs. Robinson interrupted with a
queenly coldness from the stretcher," "I probably would have been
killed."
 
The cops exchanged what seemed to be an excessive number of glances,
eventually lowering their weapons but making it clear that the action
was against their better judgement.  "Take the lady to the hospital,"
one ordered the paramedics who had halted at a curt command from their
patient.  "We'll take her statement there."
 
"You'll certainly get a statement," Mrs. Robinson promised direly,
giving them all a disdainful sniff.
 
Joe's pager started to flash suddenly; an almost panicked look crossed
his face as he thought what the owner and manager of Electric Nights
would say about his renewed involvement with the police.  Freddie's
keen eyes caught the hesitation, and his expression.  "You're with me
for tonight," she said quickly.
 
Joe's brows raised a fraction.  The woman shrugged.  "What can I say?
You've got a cute butt and I want to keep it out of trouble."
 
His lips curling in a quirky half-grin, Joe reached up and brushed his
long fingers against his pager.  It calmed, and he was able to turn
his full attention to the unfriendly cops.  Both he and Freddie gave
statements to separate officers, then Mr. Williamson was questioned
about both the evening's incident and the bikers' recent activities. 
All three stories corroborated the others, but the police officers
were still reluctant to release Joe until an angry Freddie wordlessly
grabbed the Mecha's arm and led him back into the Shangri-La.
 
With no legal reason to keep them, the police had no choice but to let
them go.  Joe shot Freddie his overly bright, dazzling smile and he
heard Mr. Williamson chuckle as the man repositioned himself behind
his desk.
 
Freddie winked at the desk clerk.  "Wait here, Joe," she said
cheerfully, waving the now slightly crumpled pages of her article. 
"I'll send this in quick and grab my purse.  I'm starving and you can
keep my company at dinner.  I'll bring your payment right away, too,
so brilliant me doesn't forget later."
 
Joe and Mr. Williamson both watched her deceptively small shape bounce
up the stairs.  "Firebrand, eh, Joe?" the clerk laughed.
 
"Indeed."
 
"She didn't make many friends there, though.  Cops didn't like it when
she turned her back," the man commented, bending over an assortment of
papers.  "If she'd have been a guy, they might have done something
about it."
 
"Most certainly, had she been Mecha."
 
Mr. Williamson regarded him closely for a few moments.  "Yeah," he
finally agreed quietly.
 
Freddie appeared a few seconds later.  "Ok, Joe.  Sorry I took so
long.  Had to make up another five hundred in business expenses, you
know," she explained with a grin.  "Hey, Mr. Williamson, know anywhere
close that has a decent menu?  A place that actually knows what a
vegetable is?"
 
"You sure that's a good idea?" the front clerk asked doubtfully. 
"Those maniacs are still out there."
 
"Cops are looking for them now, though.  And If I'm any judge, Mrs.
Robinson with make sure they look seriously this time.  Or at least
her money will."
 
"True.  Yeah, couple blocks down.  It's just a little all-night diner,
but they can whip up a pretty good stir-fry or salad."
 
"Great."  Linking her elbow with Joe's, Freddie tugged him out the
door.  Letting go once they were down the front steps, she walked a
step or two ahead, glancing at the place where Mrs. Robinson was
struck.  "Hope she's okay," she murmured, stuffing her hands in her
pockets. 
 
She wasn't watching her step; her toe caught on a crack in the
sidewalk and she stumbled with a quiet curse . . . and vanished.
 
Joe blinked.  That wasn't at all right.  Closing his eyes, he ran a
quick diagnostic of his systems and found them all at one hundred
percent.  Odd.  Re-opening his eyes, his optical centers cleared and
the girl appeared back where she was suppose to be, staggering. 
Catching her arm, Joe steadied her and she leaned against him
gratefully.  "Whoa.  Sorry.  I got dizzy for a minute . . . or
something," she said.  After a moment she shook him off; Joe let her
stand, but kept a solicitous hand pressed lightly against her back,
just in case.  He felt her shiver once, despite the warm night, but
she didn't say anything until after they left the restaurant, where
she had eaten very little of her meal.
 
Freddie seemed downcast as they walked slowly back to the motel.  Joe
tried to get her to talk, but her answers to his questions were, while
not unfriendly, short and distracted, her right hand working
frantically at the ring in her pocket.
 
A gleam caught his eye; a bright stone sat incongruously in the middle
of the grimy sidewalk.  Nodding towards it, Joe nudged it with his
toe, drawing Freddie's attention to it.  Stooping, she picked it up,
holding it out on her flattened palm. 
 
It was a pretty thing, all pinks and browns and whites that sparkled
subtly like a shy jewel, rather like the girl herself.  Freddie smiled
a little.  "Pretty.  I wonder what it is?"
 
With startling suddenness, the stone sprouted wings, then cocked
bright, beady eyes at them.  A bird sat in her hand, unafraid, looking
rather like a pigeon but colored as the stone had been, its soft
feathers glimmering with iridescence.  Ruffling its feathers, it rose
up on little pink legs and fluttered its wings, sparkling as it flew
through the harsh circle of a streetlight, then disappearing into the
growing darkness. 
 
Joe watched the bird very carefully, then examined the frozen girl's
hand with even more intimate attention.  "How did you do that?" He
finally asked, articulating each syllable with utmost caution.
 
"I . . . I . . . I . . ." Freddie stuttered, her eyes white-ringed.
 
"She didn't.  I did," said a strong voice from a direction Joe knew
had been empty seconds before.

artif03.jpg

Chapter Three
 
Flinching, Freddie spun in place to behold the man who patiently
regarded them from less than six feet away.  The street had been empty
but now, impossibly, he watched them with eyes that were crinkled at
the corner by gentle amusement, the only concession to humor in an
otherwise serious mein.
 
He was old, his face craggy as weatherbeaten cliffs.  The beard and
hair that floated nearly to the ground was the purest white Joe had
ever seen, so white that it seemed to glow with a light separate from
that cast by nearby streetlights.  He wore a suit of the same hue,
except for his shirt, which was the softest of dove grays, matching
the head of his cane.
 
All together it was too much for his delicate optics; Joe had to shade
his eyes from the glare and saw Freddie next to him doing the same.
 
"Forgive me," the figure said in a powerful but not unkind voice.  "It
has been a long time . . ."
 
The glow muted until Joe and Freddie could gaze comfortably on the
man's strange countenance.  He smiled, held his cane up in a kind of
salute, and nodded.  "Greetings, Frederika Bashir."
 
Freddie stiffened, drawing closer to Joe.  "How did you know my name?"
she demanded.
 
The old man cocked his head at her, his eyes piercing.  "I know much
about you.  Probably more than you know about yourself."
 
"Uh-huh."  Backing away, Freddie grasped Joe's arm, tugging him with
her.  "Come on, Joe.  Let's get out of here.  Mr. Williamson was
right, this was a bad idea."
 
"Wait, please," the old man called after them, holding out an
imploring hand.  "Miss Bashir, would you really walk away from your
destiny?"
 
"Destiny?  What are you talking about?" the girl snapped with growing
uneasiness. 
 
Freddie's hair whipped in a sudden wind, Joe's coat flapping like
bat's wings around his legs.  The man's face carved itself into grim
lines, shadows moving in an eerie dance over his radiant shape.  "I am
talking about the ring you carry with you, and the one who wants it."
 
"Ring?" Freddie repeated.  "How did . . . I don't have a ring."
 
His smile back, the old man shook his head.  "Come now, Miss Bashir. 
You know precisely what I mean, and I think you already have an
inkling of how supremely dangerous it is.  You wore it, didn't you?"
 
"I . . . accidentally," Freddie gasped, her eyes flying to Joe's.  How
did this man seem to know so much?  "I tripped and it slipped on."
 
"And what happened then?"
 
Shivering, Freddie leaned unconsciously against Joe.  "I don't know."
 
"You do know.  You stepped from this world into a shadow realm.  And
he saw you, didn't he?  Just for an instant."
 
"I . . . someone, maybe . . . who was it?"
 
Putting a comforting arm around the girl, Joe listened to the old
man's answer.  A eclipse seemed to fall over his face as he spoke,
leaving only his exceptional eyes out of the darkness.  "The ring you
carry was to have been destroyed over ten thousand years ago.  Most
thought it was, but its master reached out with the very last of his
power to protect it.  At the time, he could do no more and he lost it,
but instead of being destroyed in the fires that created it, it was
shielded by the molten rock around it, cocooned and buried.  Where,
even its master didn't know, for his power was spent and he could no
longer keep his connection to this world."
 
Joe and Freddie exchanged glances.  The old one was obviously crazy. 
And yet . . . Reaching into her pocket, Freddie slowly drew out the
ring.  It lay passive in her palm, but there was a malevolence in the
way it gleamed in the yellow beam of surrounding streetlights. 
Freddie gulped, holding it away from herself.  "If you're saying you
want your ring back, you can have it," she said hastily.  "It's not
that pretty."
 
The old man considered her for a moment, then reached out as if to
take it.  Freddie's hand started to jerk back, but she caught herself,
holding her arm steady though it trembled with the effort.
 
The man drew away.  "Good.  It hasn't taken complete hold yet.  You
must not let it.  You must resist its allure, and above all the
temptation to use it.  It calls to Lord Sauron.  When it was found and
freed from its prison, he felt it and was able to find his way back to
the world, back to this New Earth.  He would have found it if I hadn't
felt it too, and put it in your path."
 
"My path?  Why?  Why can't you take it?" Freddie asked desperately,
and Joe could feel it too, now, a pull that drew his eyes towards the
golden circlet.
 
"I dare not.  I would use it.  I would use it to try and destroy
Sauron and in trying to save others I would become as evil as he," the
old man explained sadly, his own gaze locked on the tiny object
resting in Freddie's hand.  "I would destroy the world as surely as he
will if he gets it in his possession."
 
Cupping her hand, Freddie cut off the man's view, and Joe's own.  Joe
found he could look away now with little difficulty.
 
"Why my path?" Freddie whispered.
 
"I did all I could," the old man murmured.  "I hid it from Sauron's
awareness long enough to put it within reach of the person most likely
to succeed."
 
"You mean him?" Freddie asked, looking at Joe.
 
"No."
 
"Me?!" the girl shrieked.  "Why me?"
 
Sighing deeply, the man leaned on his cane.  "Once there were nine. 
Nine companions that set out on a mission to take the Ring of Power to
Mordor and Mount Doom, there to cast it into the fires from whence it
came."  Looking at her with tired, narrowed eyes, the old man nodded.
"Now, after ten thousand years of laying quiet and unnoticed, the
ring again beckons to the darkness that created it.  And now, after
all the world has forgotten, when no one remembers a time of warring
for the world's very soul, after Mount Doom itself no longer exists,
when all evidence of the old world has been eradicated, now the
bloodlines that produced seven of those companions converge into one."
 
"Me?" Freddie whispered.
 
"You."  Folding his hands over the head of his cane, the man tipped
his head forward until he looked at her from the shadow of his brow. 
"Your name was the only to survive in any form through the eons."
 
"Bashir?"
 
"Yes."  With a tiny smile, the man chuckled.  "When goblins and
griffins still had a foothold, your name would have been `Baggins of
the Shire.'  You are a cousin hundreds of times removed of the last
ringbearer."
 
"Baggins," Freddie repeated.  "Baggins."  She sounded as though she
was pleased with the sound, tasting it as she spoke.  "Yes, it sounds
. . . right," she agreed.  "But who are you?"
 
"I . . . I was one of the nine.  My name is Gandalf.  Gandalf the
White."  Raising his arms, the old man seemed to stand taller.  His
hair and beard flowed in a nonexistent breeze, his expensive suit
flapping around him, flowing like his hair into long white robes.  His
cane grew, lengthening into a tall staff of carved white wood. 
Gasping, Freddie pressed close to Joe, staring.  Gandalf stared back,
his face proud but softened by an unnamed emotion.  "There is
something of a resemblance to your cousin," he commented quietly,
almost to himself.  "And to the others . . . Aragorn, Pippin, Sam . .
."  Cutting himself short, Gandalf pointed theatrically to the small
form in front of him. "Frederika Baggins, do you accept the quest?"
the old man thundered, seeming to grow until he filled the street.
 
Gravely gazing out from the circle of Joe's protective arms, the girl
nodded.  "Yes."
 
Joe dropped his arms and backed away.  His electronic brain was
reeling, struggling to accept what it knew couldn't be true.  But his
eyes had seen it, his ears had heard it; it had to be real.
 
Then, unexpectedly, Gandalf's burning eyes fell on him.  "And what of
you?"  Moving closer, his eyes squinting, the old man tapped Joe's
chest with his staff.  "What are you?"
 
"I . . . am a Mecha," Joe answered blankly.
 
"Mecha?"
 
Freddie and Joe exchanged glances again.  "He's a machine," the girl
finally explained.  "A thinking machine."
 
"A machine?  How wonderful," Gandalf said, taking another step closer,
moving around Joe to inspect him from every angle.  "Extraordinary. 
And what is your function?"
 
"I . . ." for some reason, Joe didn't want to answer the man.  To so
many, his kind were the lowest form of electronic life, the least
useful and most vile. 
 
"He's a companion," Freddie answered hastily, laying a hand against
his arm and squeezing gently. 
 
"Ah.  A companion, eh?  Perfect."  Staring Joe full in the face in a
way no one ever had before, Gandalf put a hand on his shoulder.  "It
will be dangerous.  I'm not even certain how the thing may be
accomplished.  She will need friends.  Will you accompany her?"
 
"I?" Joe repeated in genuine surprise.  "I cannot.  My owners would
never allow me . . ."
 
"Owners?" Gandalf said with a disgusted snort.  Using his staff to
pull back the collar of Joe's shirt, the man revealed the luminous
green of a Mecha's operating licence.  He considered for a moment,
then tapped it once with the tip of his staff.
 
At once Joe felt lighter, freer.  There was no compulsion telling him
that he must return to his owners once Freddie's time ran out. 
Invisible bonds let go in the center of his brain.  Looking down, he
saw his licence gone, his chest smooth and unblemished.
 
"I ask again, will you accompany her?" Gandalf murmured, smiling,
already knowing the answer.
 
Joe didn't speak.  Wrapping the chain of his blank, empty pager around
his fist, Joe wrenched viciously, snapping it, and let the disk fall
to the pavement.
 
Gandalf's smile spread wider.  "The company grows," he said.

gandalf.jpg

Chapter Four
 
"Gandalf . . ." Freddie began, frowning at the old man.  "If this
Mount Doom is gone, how can the ring be destroyed?  If that was the
only way and it failed last time, how can I do it now?  Do you want me
to drop it in a nuclear reactor or something?  If the thing is that
powerful, I wouldn't want to be around to see what happens afterward .
. ."
 
Joe and Gandalf both glanced at the small hand that clutched the ring.
Seeing the direction of their attention, Freddie carefully withdrew
it, settling it firmly in her pocket.
 
Gandalf leaned heavily on his staff, gathering his robes closer around
him.  "There are stories from long ago, rumor mostly, but the world's
only hope that I can see."
 
"What might those rumors be?" Joe asked.
 
Gandalf hesitated, his gaze drawn to something behind Joe's left
shoulder.  He tried to look grim, but a broad smile he couldn't hold
back ruined the effect.
 
"Are you still telling tales?" scoffed the figure that strolled up the
sidewalk towards them.  "Dragon's fire indeed.  Even if it were true,
Bilbo Baggins helped the men of Laketown destroy the last dragon over
ten millennia ago.  If that is our last hope, then we are indeed
lost."
 
"Legolas," Gandalf greeted, still smiling.  "You doubt me?"
 
Legalas halted beside the old man.  He was tall and slender, around
Joe's apparent age but holding himself with the easy surety of one
much older.  His skin was fair and perfect, his ripe-wheat hair
falling halfway down his back, tamed only by a pair of tiny braids at
his temples.  He wore a pair of grey cotton slacks and a white
long-sleeved T-shirt under a long, loose hooded garment of an
indeterminate color somewhere between green and grey that was more
cloak than coat.  His smile was slightly mocking, but it did nothing
to mar the perfection of beauty that would almost have named him Mecha
if it hadn't been for the bow and full quiver of arrows he carried,
and the glint of sharpened steel that flashed at his belt when his
coat moved.
 
"I don't question you, Gandalf, only the wild imaginings of
desperation."  Pushing back his hair, the young man revealed startling
ears that swept gracefully into sharp points.
 
Freddie gawped, and Joe was as close to the expression as he had ever
come.  His powerful Mecha senses could detect differences that his
human companion could not; pulse, respiration, body temperature, none
of it fell within normal human limits.
 
Gandalf clucked his tongue.  "You must forgive an old man's wandering
mind, all of you," he said.  "Frederika Bash . . ." catching the
girl's raised brow, he stopped, inclining his head.  "Frederika
Baggins, and . . ." he stopped again, and it was his turn to raise an
eyebrow.
 
"Joe," Freddie supplied, abashed.  "This is Joe."
 
"Frederika Baggins and Joe.  This is Legolas of the woodlands. 
Legolas is Elvenkind."
 
"He's an elf?" Freddie repeated dubiously.  She glanced once at Joe,
then again, her face lightening with a sudden grin.
 
"What is it?" Joe asked.
 
"A hundred and fifty years ago, people would have said you were just
as impossible," the girl replied.  "Why not an elf?"
 
Joe thought a moment and nodded solemnly, which for some reason made
her giggle.  The girl was right.  As a Mecha, he did not possess the
human talent of denying one's own senses; every one of Joe's told him
that this young man was neither human nor Mecha.  Elf was as good a
description as any.
 
The mocking light vanished from Legolas's expression, leaving it
softened by remembered fondness.  "She's very like Frodo when she
smiles," he murmured.
 
"And like Aragorn when she's serious.  And like Sam when she's
worried," Gandalf agreed.  "Every light and darkness shows a different
face of our friends; I've a feeling she holds some of Gimli's steel in
her soul, and Merry and Pippin's mischief, possibly even Boromir's
pride.  She will do."
 
Sweeping his coat out of the way, Legolas went down on one knee before
her in a theatrical gesture such as Joe might have used.  Reaching to
his neck, he unclasped a delicate chain and held it out to her.  She
paused before taking the beautiful thing, holding a hand out
hesitantly.  Legolas dropped the chain into her palm, curling both his
hands around hers.  "This was made from a few links taken from a coat
of mail belonging to Frodo," he explained.  "It is Mithril, a kind of
silver mined and worked by dwarves into the strongest chain mail, able
to turn any sword and deflect any arrow.  Use it to keep the ring safe
from those that would try to take it from you."  Releasing her, he
rose to his feet and bowed low.
 
"Thank you," Freddie whispered, staring entranced at the tiny,
delicate strand.  She wordlessly handed it to Joe; running it through
his fingers, he could feel the inherent strength of the metal despite
its almost aluminum lightness.  "Remarkable," he commented, handing it
back.  "I've never felt a stronger metal."
 
Legolas tossed his head with the shadow of a haughty sneer.  "Many,
many old talents have been lost despite the new technologies that
complicate and pollute the world," he answered bitterly.
 
"When I felt Sauron reawaken, you were the only one who wanted to
accompany me back to the world," Gandalf reminded the elf gently. 
"The others wanted to leave this place to its fate, having felt the
changes wrought by Man.  They requested that I destroy all evidence of
the old magics a thousand years ago for fear of discovery, and thought
that should be an end to it.  You came by your own choice.  Don't
punish our friends for a history they couldn't control."
 
"Not all the others would have stayed behind," Legolas countered, but
in a slightly subdued tone.  "There were two who would have come to
your call."
 
"Two others who have been through enough on my account," Gandalf said
sharply.
 
"Thank you," Freddie murmured softly, interrupting what sounded like
the beginning of a possible argument.  Taking the ring out of her
jacket pocket, she slid it onto the chain and gravely hung it around
her neck, slipping it under her mauve-pink T-shirt.  "Now what?"
 
Gandalf frowned.  "Now I have some questions that I didn't have time
to ask before I came here.  I can't take you with me; you must take
the ring into hiding, somewhere it will be difficult for you to be
followed.  Do you know of such a place?"
 
Freddie glanced at Joe, who read her answer in the odd smirk that
crooked her mouth.  "Rouge City," he said.  "Even if they expect us
there or we are followed, it will be difficult to find three in two
million anonymous faces."
 
Gandalf nodded slowly.  "Yes.  That sounds as good an idea as any.  I
will meet you there three days from now.  But don't go there directly,
take unexpected paths, and watch your step.  Trust no beasts or birds,
and tell no one of your mission.  And do not repeat the name Baggins
anywhere," the old man ordered.  Spinning on his heels, he strode
away, his robes once again melting into a neat white suit and carved
cane.
 
"But how will he find . . ." Freddie started to protest, moving to
follow.
 
"He will find us," Legolas assured her.  "He is the greatest of
wizards, and a wise man, even when he pretends not to be."
 
"All right then," the girl shrugged.  "Let's go back to the Shangri-La
so I can get some clothes and the rest of my money.  Then it's off to
Rouge City."  She smiled at Legolas.  "You're going to LOVE this," she
said with a mischievous sweetness.
 
They had just come within sight of the Shangri-La when Freddie
murmured low in her throat, crouching beside something that lay on the
edge of the sidewalk.  "Joe . . ." she said, picking it up and
cradling it in both hands, her voice trembling with a sudden terror
that made her arms tremble when she held the object out to him.
 
It was a small, pigeon-like bird, its wings spread over her palms and
its head lolling.  Its iridescent feathers still sparkled brightly,
but its jeweled eyes were already fogged over.  Joe took the bird,
examining it with gentle, nimble fingers.  There were no visible
wounds, and no indications that it had been struck by a passing car. 
The creature was still warm, but its heart was still, stalled in
mid-flight.
 
Legolas came near, frowning at the lifeless form.  "What is it?  Its
only a bird.  Sad, yes, but all too common a sight."
 
Freddie shook her head, taking the pink and brown bundle from Joe and
laying it on a small patch of grass, the only green visible on the
block.  She folded its wings and stroked its tiny back for a moment. 
"You don't understand," she said, glancing around uneasily as she
stood and brushed off the knees of her jeans.  "It was Gandalf's
bird."
 
The elf's eyes widened, more white showing around the blue.  He began
to exhibit signs of Freddie's horror.  "Gandalf's?  We'd best get
inside quickly," he suggested.
 
No one argued.  Mr. Williamson looked up at their entrance, both
eyebrows raising when he saw the companion Joe and Freddie had brought
with them.  "Hey, Joe," he said with a mischievous gleam, obviously
misidentifying Legolas.
 
"Hello, Mr. Williamson," Joe answered quickly.  He saw the man's eyes
fall on the blank space where his licence used to be, flick up an inch
or two to search for his missing pager, and his brows flew further
skyward. 
 
"I'll only be a couple minutes," Freddie told the men hastily.  "I'm
paid up until the end of the week.  I may be gone for a few days, is
it all right if I leave some of my stuff here?" she asked the clerk.
 
"Room's paid for, none of my business what you do with it," the man
answered, still staring at Joe.  "Joe, what did you . . ."
 
Freddie disappeared up the stairs.  Joe didn't know how to answer, and
Legolas was completely ignoring the man.  "Keep watch, Joe," the elf
told him.  "Something isn't right."
 
A distant roar made them both tense.  It quickly got louder, coming
closer, closer . . . much too close.  Lights slashed across the small
room, making the clerk squint against the glare.  Joe looked through
the glass door to see a single burning headlight barreling up the
front steps; behind it, where he should have seen the rider's face,
there was only a blank patch of shadow much deeper than the darkness
surrounding it.
 
"Get down!" Joe cried, leaping over the desk and dragging Mr.
Williamson to the ground, shoving him into a hollow space beneath the
desk.  The crash of splintering glass and tinkling shower that
sprinkled them with sharp, biting glitters and sparkles was followed
by the echoing growls of an engine in a room too small to contain it.
Another followed, then a third, until the room was full to the brim
with noise and exhaust, cloying chemicals that Joe couldn't scent but
could sense and measure in other ways. 
 
Mr. Williamson choked next to him, covering his mouth and nose, his
watering eyes wide with fear and outrage.  "My motel!" he cried in a
muffled voice.  He tried to rise, but Joe pushed him down.  Legolas
was on the other side, an arrow ready on his bow.  Glancing at Joe, he
drew back the string and nodded.  They rose at the same time, Legolas
to battle and Joe to protect to the limits of programming that would
not allow him to harm a human, no matter what the circumstances.
 
The three motorcycles didn't have room to maneuver around one another.
Their black-cloaked riders screeched in high-pitched wails, sniffing
the air audibly, like beasts.  Legolas's bow twanged next to his ear,
the thick wooden shaft burrowing into the tattered voluminous cloak of
the nearest rider.
 
The rider paid no heed; it seemed as though the shaft passed straight
through the center of its cloak without touching flesh.  Which was
impossible.
 
"You shall not have it!" Legolas bellowed, reaching to his belt and
drawing a pair of short swords, standing straddle-legged with a blade
clutched expertly in each fist.  The riders turned as one, their
faceless hoods towards the elf as each one drew a long sword in
perfect unison.  Hefting their blades, the figures glided towards
Legolas, not even seeming to touch the ground.
 
Joe stood for one helpless moment, certain he was about to watch the
young man slaughtered, then his senses buzzed with a new insight. 
 
Whatever these creatures were, they weren't alive.  They moved, and
showed awareness, and spoke to one another if their squeals were
speech, but they were not alive. 
 
He could not hurt something that did not live. 
 
Leaping to Legolas's side, he pried a blade from the elf's grasp. 
Faster then the elf could move, he was between Legolas and the
black-cloaked bikers.  The first swung at Joe, but it could not beat
his Mecha reflexes.  Though he had never held or even seen a weapon,
he grasped his blade in both hands and deflected the jab as neatly as
though this was what he was programmed to do, followed through with
his own swing, and brought the blade back in a vicious backwards slash
before the biker had a chance to adjust the hold on its own blade.
 
Joe's sword sliced through the rider's neck with less resistance than
there should have been.  He staggered, his balance thrown by the
strength of his swing, and jumped back defensively to regain his
equilibrium and be ready for the next attack.
 
The lead rider's sword clattered noisily when it hit the floor, but
nowhere near as noisily as the wails rising from the other two.  Their
leader's hood fluttered to the ground, empty.  The headless body
flailed for a few seconds, then it fell, the cloak deflating until it
pooled on the floor, as empty as the hood.
 
The other two riders retreated one step, then another, then they fled
through the twisted metal supports and broken shards of glass that was
all that remained of the door.  Joe stood very, very still as he
watched them leave, the sword still held ready to swing.  Slowly, he
lowered it until it hung loose from his hand and turned to find
Legolas gaping at him and Mr. Williamson peering white-faced, peeking
over the edge of the front desk.  Freddie cowered halfway down the
stairs, a mostly empty bag clutched to her chest.
 
"What kind of trouble are you in now, Joe?" Mr. Williamson gasped
hoarsely, easing out from behind the barrier to stare at the empty
cloak spread across his floor.  It looked much less imposing when not
filled, a collection of dusty, torn rags held haphazardly together. 
 
"Very bad, I think, Mr. Williamson," Joe answered, his voice not as
calm and unflappable as a Mecha's should have been.
 
"What were those things?" Freddie asked shakily, coming slowly down
the stairs as other residents of the motel began to peek out uneasily.
 
"Nasgûl," Legolas answered, his dark blue eyes narrowed as he regarded
Joe.  "Also known as ringwraiths.  They were once men, but Sauron made
other rings, rings the main Ring of Power could control.  He must have
had enough power to enslave more wraiths.  We must act quickly if he
is growing so strong this fast.  Their hunger is insatiable.  The One
Ring calls to them endlessly.  We must go now, while they need to
regroup."
 
"Ring of Power, ringwraiths . . . I don't know what's going on Joe, or
what you've gotten yourself into, but . . ."
 
"Please, Mr. Williamson, it's not Joe, it's me," Freddie hastily tried
to sooth the shaken desk clerk.  "They're after me, not him.  They
want something of mine.  They . . ." she paused, then her eyes
brightened.  "They're terrorists," she finished.
 
"Yes.  We must leave now, Mr. Williamson, before they come back," Joe
supported the girl.  "As you can see, they don't care who they hurt."
 
The clerk hesitated, glaring at each one in turn, then his gaze
dropped again to the cloak.  "Sounds like something out of James Bond
to me.  All right, if you need to leave, you'd better go now.  I'm
sure someone has already called the cops."  He kicked the black rags.
"Got this for evidence now, maybe they can help this time.  Here . .
." bending, he wrestled one of the abandoned bikes upright.  "You'll
go faster on this.  Looks like it has a full tank." 
 
Legolas looked uncertain, but Joe and Freddie thanked the man and
grasped the handlebars, holding the motorcycle up between them. 
Sirens were audible in the distance now; Freddie looked imploringly at
the man.  "Got a back way out?"
 
"There's a service entrance behind my office," Mr. Williamson
supplied, pointing.  "Down that hallway, leads to the alley.  Go now,
or they'll catch you."
 
"Good thing I ran into you, Mr. Williamson," Joe said with a slight
smile.  "Thank you."
 
The clerk blinked at him, then waved them on.  "Don't know why I
believe you, but I do.  Good luck.  I have a feeling that you're
really going to need it."
 
"More than you realize," Legolas commented with a dark wryness.  "My
thanks," he called back as the little group rolled the motorcycle into
the alley.
 
They stayed still, hidden in the shadows behind a dumpster while red
and blue lights flashed across the alley.  When the harsh police
voices had disappeared inside, they crept the opposite way, rolling
the bike silently until they came to the other side of the alley. 
There, Joe started the engine, and Legolas sat gingerly behind him. 
Freddie squeezed on last, slipping on the backpack she carried, then
clutching Legolas's waist.  "Rouge City, here we come," she said.

legolas.jpg

Chapter Five
 
The wolf-headed motorcycle roared underneath them, carrying them at
high speed out of town and onto the highway.  Legolas held himself
stiff, his face a little pale as he watched the scenery whip by.  "Is
this a common form of transportation?" he called over the engine and
screaming wind.
 
"Yeah," Freddie yelled back.  "Cars are the most common, but a lot of
people ride motorcycles for fun."
 
"It seems a bit . . . excessive to me," Legolas commented a little
greenly.  Freddie gave him a sympathetic grin, but the elf didn't
smile back. 
 
Freddie temporarily lost all ability and desire to smile when the bike
shuddered, sputtered, and rolled to a suddenly quiet stop.  Joe,
frowning lightly, tried turning the key and gunning the motor, with no
results.  Sighing, Freddie clambered off the bike. 
 
Legolas slid off gratefully the instant Freddie's grip on him was
gone.  Joe remained straddling the bike, carefully examining every
gauge.  "There's no oil," he finally decided.  "There must be a crack
somewhere."  Easing off the motorcycle, he rolled it into the ditch
and left it lay in the long grass.
 
"Brilliant," Freddie snorted.  "We're lucky it didn't start on fire."
 
"We could ask for a ride," Joe suggested, nodding towards a passing
car.
 
Legolas frowned.  His brilliantly blue eyes swept across the highway,
measuring the river of cement and gauging the amount of traffic that
passed.  "Is this one of your main roads?" he asked.
 
"Of course.  We need to follow it to get to Rouge City," Freddie
answered.
 
"Then we should get off it.  They'll be looking this way.  We need to
keep hidden.  The Dark Lord could be using anything as his spies.  We
have no way to know who or what might be his servants."
 
"Dark Lord?" Freddie snorted.  "Now that's going too far.  Doesn't
think much of himself, does he?"  Glancing at her android companion,
she shrugged.  "What do you think, Joe?  He could be right.  Gandalf
said something similar."
 
Joe looked at Legolas and nodded slowly.  "We don't know what guise
the riders in black might take next," he agreed.  "Perhaps we do need
to show more caution."
 
Legolas gazed around, pointing into the thick forest that bordered the
highway.  "Can we go through that way?"
 
Freddie gazed with badly-hidden trepidation.  "The last time I went
camping, I was about four years old.  Joe?  Can we cut through here?"
 
"We can keep to the trees for nearly half the way, but no longer," Joe
supplied.  "If we continue to avoid both roads and cities from there,
the way will be mostly flatlands."
 
"Imperfect, but still unexpected," Legolas said.  "There are ways to
hide your passage on any kind of landscape."
 
"If they figure out where we're going, they'll get there first,"
Freddie countered.  "Wouldn't it be better to try to find a ride and
take the back roads?  Gandalf wanted us there in three days."
 
"We could make the trip in three days," Joe remarked, drawing a mild
glare from Freddie.  "If indeed these creatures are following us and
they track us to this point, there are at least four cities we could
be traveling towards.  If we avoid encountering any of their number,
it may take them some time to guess our destination."
 
"Fine.  We'll go your way," Freddie grumped.  "Walking to Rouge City.
I don't believe I'm doing this."  She hefted her backpack, settling
it more firmly on her shoulders, and started into the trees.  "I
didn't exactly plan on this.  We don't have any food."
 
"I can provide what food we need," Legolas promised.  The words could
have been boastful, but he spoke quietly, simply stating a fact.
 
Freddie, however, seemed less than appreciative.  "I don't know if I
could eat anything that I knew had just been alive," she commented
doubtfully.
 
"Chickens are alive, and you ate the muscle tissue from a chicken not
long ago," Joe reminded her. 
 
"Thank you Joe.  Thank you so much.  You make it sound so fabulously
appetizing!" Freddie exclaimed.  Catching the small smile that passed
between her companions, she stuck out her tongue.  "Men," she snorted.
"Even cross-species, they're all the same."  Raising her nose in the
air, she stalked ahead in a mock huff.
 
Joe increased his pace to catch up.  Taking her arm, he gently stopped
her in her tracks, relieving her of her burden.  "I can carry your
pack," he stated firmly when she tried to protest.  "It will make no
difference to me."
 
She could not refute his logic and simply acquiesced with a murmur of
thanks.
 
Hours later, nearly three in the morning, Freddie was too tired to do
much but agree with anything.  She stomped glaze-eyed in Joe's wake,
followed by Legolas.  The elf showed none of her physical discomfort,
seeming as wide-awake and fresh as he had before they'd taken their
first step.
 
Freddie jerked to full awareness when a snapping branch and soft growl
announced immediate company.  Without thinking, the three of them
stood back-to-back-to-back, Legolas slipping Joe one of his twin
blades while he arranged the second close to hand while notching an
arrow onto his bow.  Freddie grabbed a nearby dead branch that was
shorter than Legolas's blades but sturdy.
 
Red eyes gleamed through the trees like hostile Christmas lights, more
and more blinking to life around them until a dozen or so large, burly
dogs emerged into the moonlight.  It was too dark to tell their color,
but none of them was purebred anything, their shaggy coats patched and
mangy, their twisted muzzles showing crowded batteries of yellow
teeth.  "Ugly things," Freddie muttered.
 
"Servants of Sauron," Legolas whispered, pulling back his bow and
letting his first arrow fly.
 
He almost missed, the dogs' attack was so sudden and swift.  One fell
as it leapt, an arrow entering the front of its chest on one side and
emerging from behind its massive shoulder on the opposite side. 
Legolas managed one more shot before the dogs were too close and he
had to draw his remaining sword.
 
The pack swarmed over them, ignoring their fallen mates.  They were
clumsy but fast and strong, feral but unafraid as real wild animals
never were.  They circled the trio, snapping and biting as Joe and
Legolas sliced at them and Freddie swung her makeshift club like a
bat, not doing as much lethal damage but making them feel every
strike.  A few growls turned to yelps; Legolas slit the throat of one,
sending blood spurting over the pack where it glistened in their fur.
Freddie swung and got in a lucky hit that cracked the skull of
another.  Joe dispatched a third by stabbing it in the chest as it
hurdled towards him, but his blade got momentarily stuck, giving
another the opportunity to seize his hand between its heavy jaws and
rip away large chunks of his epidermis.
 
Fortunately Legolas saw and decapitated the creature before it got its
teeth deep enough to do damage to any of his joints, but metal gleamed
through his silicone skin, his inner workings exposed to the elements.
Worse, his pain receptors didn't stop firing once the damage ceased,
making his hand more difficult to control with any kind of precision.

The battle was over relatively quickly.  None of the dogs escaped,
most brought down with their throats or vital organs slashed, a couple
with their head or ribcage battered in.  Blood splashed across fur,
flowed across grass, and splattered the three protagonists, but Joe's
was the only injury.
 
Freddie dropped her blood- and fur-smeared club with a twisted
expression of disgust, turning her back on the carnage to take Joe's
hand in hers, examining his tattered skin and gleaming metal skeleton.
"How bad is it?" she asked seriously.
 
"My hand is eighty-nine percent functional," Joe told her.  "The
joints, hydraulics, and lubrication systems were not damaged."
 
Legolas stared wide-eyed at the gaping, bloodless wounds.  "What are
you?"
 
"I am a robot, a Mecha.  A machine that can make decisions and act on
its own," Joe explained patiently.  "My shape is humanoid for the
comfort and convenience of my human makers."
 
"Strange," Legolas muttered.
 
"So speaks a sword-wielding elf," Freddie snorted shakily.  Joe
instinctively pulled her closer into the embrace of his undamaged arm
and she cuddled against him for just a moment before pulling away and
walking over to one of the dead dogs.  "Why did they attack us?  Can
Sauron really control their minds?"
 
Legolas had already crouched to examine one of the more intact
animals, carful to avoid a nearby pool of blood and innards.  "I
believe they have Warg blood.  If descendants of Sauron's creatures
are still living, we must be doubly careful.  He will have an inherent
connection to such things."
 
Frederika's friendly face was thunderstorm clouded as she trudged nest
to Joe.  She huddled deep into her jacket as if cold, yet bright
droplets of sweat stood out on her face.  Joe didn't say anything, but
he noticed their elf companion looking increasingly grim whenever his
glance happened to fall on the girl.  Black memories oozed behind
Legolas's expression, his aristocratic lips twisted in worry.
 
Joe wondered if he too could see the dark energy beginning to seep
from the ring onto Freddie.  It was a slow process, but the thin
fingers reaching to encircle her had grown since the beginning of
their trek.
 
The Mecha's concerned inner reflections, another gift from his time
with David, were interrupted by a soft brush of extreme cold on the
side of his face.  A second later, another icy feather touched his
cheek, then another kissed his forehead.
 
Freddie halted in her tracks, looking up.  Joe followed her eyes to
find the sky suddenly filled with tiny flecks of sparkling white.  A
quick analysis showed them to be nothing more than frozen water that
had crystalized, sometimes around tiny impurities.  Freddie watched
for a few moments, then turned to him, her face pure befuddlement, and
Joe knew he shared a t least a measure of the expression.
 
Not noticing their uneasiness at first, Legolas glanced up once
impassively as he passed them.  He stopped when he realized that they
weren't following and turned back with both brows raised.
 
"What is it?" Freddie whispered, holding out a hand to catch a few
specks of the unfamiliar substance.  The white fluff glittered like
diamond dust before melting into plain drops of water.
 
"I have never seen such a thing," Joe murmured in return, his generous
lips pulled into a slight, puzzled frown.
 
"What?  It's snow," Legolas said incredulously.  "You have never seen
snow?"
 
"Snow," Freddie repeated slowly, rolling the word on her tongue. 
"Snow . . . yes, of course, I've read of it, and studied it in school,
for science classes.  No, Legolas, it hasn't snowed anywhere on Earth
for nearly four generations."
 
The elf stared, his face both incredulous and grief-stricken.  "So
many changes," he whispered to himself.  "The world doesn't belong to
itself anymore.  It has become a slave."
 
Freddie looked away in shame, and even Joe had difficulty meeting the
elf's eyes.  It was true; man had only truly paid attention to the
world around him when the environment was damaged beyond repair.  It
was the very reason Mechas had been built, the necessity for help that
wouldn't consume scarce resources. 
 
Freddie shivered suddenly, hard, wrapping both arms around herself. 
It broke the mood, and Joe resumed the lead, marking a sharp drop in
temperature.  It very soon became clear that Freddie would need
shelter from the weather.  Legolas, too, though more hardy than the
girl, was not going to withstand the cold for much longer.  In a short
time even Joe began having difficulties, unused to such a slippery,
unpredictable surface.  Worse, the lubricating fluids in his joints
were threatening to freeze.  None of them were equipped for
temperatures that hadn't been experienced for over a hundred years.
 
Things only got more desperate when the wind began to pick up.  Joe
and Legolas kept Freddie between them, as protected from the bite as
possible, but she was shuddering constantly now, her teeth chattering
and her lips an unhealthy shade of blue.  "We must find a way out of
this!" Legolas called.  "Is there any shelter nearby?"
 
"Not unless a Flesh Fair has set up nearby," Joe answered.  The irony
of hoping to run into such a show if only for his charges' sakes was
not lost on him.
 
In the middle of breaking a path through a drift, Joe stopped,
knee-deep in snow while he cocked his head curiously.  "Music?" he
murmured.
 
"What?  I hear noth . . . wait, yes.  What is it?  It almost sounds
elvish."
 
"How about we stop wondering and go find it?" Freddie snapped.
 
"Yes, of course," Joe said, quickly forging a path in the direction of
the music.
 
The singing grew quickly louder, and soon a light was visible through
the trees.  Legolas stopped, his eyes narrowed.  "Wait . . ."
 
His warning came too late.  Joe and Freddie stepped into a clearing,
from snowy, frozen ground onto summer-warm grass.  There was no
obvious source for the light; the only other things in the clearing
were a ring of large, grey-white mushrooms that seemed to form the
boarder and several small creatures flitting around.
 
It seemed to be they who were singing.  Legolas floundered through the
snow to Freddie's side, took one look at the brightly-winged beings,
and snarled a single word.  "Fairies."  He grabbed Freddie's arm in an
attempt to drag her back into the snow, but the fairies noticed them
before they'd taken a step.  The singing stopped, and two of the
fairies flew nearer. 
 
They were tiny but perfectly-formed human things, femininely
androgynous with wildly-hued insect wings.  Their pretty faces
contorted into terrible snarls, showing small but needle-sharp pointed
teeth.  The buzzing wings darkened to reds, purples, and blacks, their
tiny fingers curled viciously.  The few in the clearing quickly became
a multitude, uncounted numbers of jewel-yellow eyes gleaming in hungry
malice.
 
"This is not good," Freddie murmured.  She tried to back out of the
circle, but the fairies had completely encircled them.
 
Legolas drew both his blades and swung them in a fruitless attempt to
clear a path.  The three of them drew together, but this time it was
more for comfort than any kind of defense.  "Fairies are meat-eaters,"
he told his companions, glancing at Joe.  "I don't know what they'll
make of you, metal man."
 
"I'm thinking that right now they don't care as long as they can tear
him apart," Freddie said, trying to watch every direction at once.
 
"They'll find a way, the vicious little . . ." Legolas began, but the
buzzing grew so loud that he stopped trying to make himself heard and
steadied himself, balancing easily in a way that would let him leap in
any direction.
 
The light brightened suddenly, flaring painfully, then dimming to no
more than bright moonlight.  "You know better than this," a strong
feminine voice chided.  "Visitors are always welcome in my wood,
provided they possess the will to see me."
 
A tall, slender figure stepped into the center of the clearing. 
Silver hair fell to her feet, flowing around a dress the exact green
of new leaves.  She moved with a calm grace, her lined face still
beautiful.  Something there reminded Joe strongly of Mrs. Robinson,
but this woman was like Legolas, humanoid but not human.  She wasn't
an elf, in fact was even more different than Legolas, but her dark
brown eyes were kind and as warm as spring sunbeams.
 
"Leave them, little ones, or I shall have to become stern with you,"
she laughed, though there was a serious note there, too.
 
The fairies' buzzing sounded reluctant, but they dispersed quickly
until they had all disappeared.  The strange woman watched them leave,
her eyes crinkled with humor, then turned to the trio.  "Welcome,
strangers.  You will need warmth and comfort on this night," she said
in a voice like a chuckling stream.  "Come with me to the house of
Goldberry."
 
Joe glanced at Legolas.  The elf had relaxed to the point of smiling.
Trusting his judgement, Joe inclined his head in acceptance and
followed her back into the storm. 
 
The snow melted under her svelte feet, easing their path through the
drifts.  Still, Joe frowned deeply until, noticing, Freddie asked him
what the matter was.
 
"Is that the nature of the creature David seeks?" Joe murmured.
 
Freddie thought silently for a few seconds, then shook her head. 
Laying a hand on his arm, Freddie looked into his eyes with an earnest
expression.  "I don't think that was the same kind of fairy.  David's
Blue Fairy has the power to grant wishes.  I don't believe those
beasts had the power to bring anything but pain."
 
Joe brushed her fingers with his unblemished ones, smiling silently 
In a short time they had come to a little cottage that appeared to
have grown from the forest floor instead of having been built.  She
opened the door for them, ushering them into its single room with a
rueful smile.  "It's small, I'm afraid, but there is food for all, and
places for you to sleep away the storm.  The Dark Presence isn't yet
strong enough to make it last long."
 
"This is Sauron's doing?" Legolas asked. 
 
"Yes."
 
"If you know of him, then you know why we are traveling through your
wood."
 
"Yes, I know that as well."  Moving to Freddie's side, she laid a hand
on the younger woman's shoulder.  "The burden you carry is heavy, and
will only get heavier as his power grows," she said solemnly.  "Yet
hope is not lost.  You can finish the quest that was begun untold ages
ago."
 
Freddie's eyes were wide but she nodded.  Goldberry brushed her face
lightly, then clapped her hands.  "You are hungry and tired.  First
food, then sleep.  I'm sorry that all I can offer is beds of straw,
but it is clean and fresh-smelling.  Since the death of my husband Tom
Bombadil long ago, my needs are simple."
 
Legolas jumped.  "Tom Bombadil . . . that is a name familiar to Elvish
folk.  He is dead?"
 
"Many centuries ago," Goldberry replied sadly.  "When Industry
overtook Nature as the dominant force on this world, he faded
quickly."
 
Groaning softly, Freddie dropped her head.  Goldberry tipped up her
chin with slender but still strong fingers.  "You have too much to
carry already.  You cannot shoulder the sins of an entire race.  Don't
create more of a burden."
 
"Thank you," Freddie whispered.
 
"Now," Goldberry said merrily, clapping her hands, "let us eat." 
Winking at Joe, she grinned in delight.  "You can simply rest your
gears."
 
Joe smiled in appreciation, sitting at the table with the others and
watching them devour sweet breads, savory cheeses, ripe fruits, and
assorted nuts.  "Delicious," Freddie proclaimed when she was done,
seeming to be in much better spirits.
 
"Good," Goldberry said, rising to clear the dishes.  When the others
leapt up to help, she waved them off.  "This won't take me long.  Now
you sleep.  Rest may be hard to come by later."  She directed them to
two piles of straw that lay against opposite walls.  "You may find
your accommodations odd, perhaps, but soft and warm."
 
Murmuring gratitude, Freddie and Legolas snuggled into the straw. 
Legolas was asleep almost at once.  Freddie remained awake for some
time, drawing out the ring to look at it, putting it back, then
fingering it through the thin fabric of her shirt before taking it out
once more.  Finally Joe sat next to her, letting her curl close with
her head in his lap.  He stroked her hair until she eased slowly into
slumber.  When she became restless, her face flushing hot, he petted
her cheek until she relaxed, sighing contentedly.
 
Looking up, Joe found Goldberry observing him from quite close. 
"You're a good man," she said quietly.
 
"I'm not a man," was Joe's automatic response.
 
Shaking her head, Goldberry took his damaged hand between both of
hers, not touching but so close that he could feel the tiny electrical
charges every time her nerve endings fired.  She passed her hands over
his.  When she drew back, his hand was unmarred, without a sign that
it had been damaged.  "Yes you are," she said, and withdrew to
wherever she was going to spend the night. 

goldberry.jpg

Chapter Six
 
 
The morning dawned clear and cool with no sign left of the snow but the
puddles that soaked the forest floor.  Joe waited patiently for
his companions to wake, stroking Freddie's soft hair now and then,
lifting it to let the satin strands slide through his fingers.
 
The sun had been up for a very few minutes when Legolas woke, going
through none of a typical Orga's ritual grogginess.  The elf was
simply asleep one moment, aware the next, his dark blue eyes
flickering over the room.  When he observed nothing more threatening
than Joe, Legolas's hand relaxed away from the weapons at his belt and
he sat up.
 
Goldberry seemed to sense his waking; she glided into the room
preceded by the palpable warmth of her gentle smile.  Gently shaking
Freddie awake, Joe helped the girl sit up.  "Good morning, my lady,"
Joe greeted the older woman, rising with a bow.  "Your lovely presence
brightens a morning until the sun envies the light of your eyes."
 
Tinkling a laugh, Goldberry curtsied deeply, a light blush touching
her cheeks.  "Why sir, the sun does loosen thy tongue to wax poetical
in a most delightful song," she replied.
 
"And I can see why the girls went nuts over you," Freddie snorted
creakily, hiding a yawn.  She grinned.  "I called Electric Nights to
ask a couple questions.  They had a few interesting things to say."
She stretched and scrambled to her feet.  "Good morning, Goldberry.
Thank you.  I don't know what we would have done without you last
night."
 
"I am certain you would have discovered something," Goldberry told her
in a more serious tone.  "The White Wizard would not choose you for
your stupidity and cowardice."  Gesturing to the table, she indicated
a breakfast already laid out.  Fruit, new milk, and honey gleamed
fresh and inviting amidst the sunbeams.  "Breakfast, then I'm afraid
you must go.  Time is short.  Possibly shorter than any of us
realize."
 
Reminded of their purpose, Freddie lost her cheeky smile.  Settling at
the table, she and Legolas began to eat.  When they were done,

Goldberry showed them to a clean, crystal pool where they washed and
refreshed themselves.  Then they were each presented with packs filled
with food, bottles of water, and supplies.  To Joe she gave Freddie's
pack, stuffed as full as the other two.  "It contains food and water
for the others, but you may find uses for the other gifts," she
explained.  "Now come, there's something I want to show you all."
 
The three of them hefted their packs and followed the slender woman
outside.  She led them a little ways into the woods, onto a small
knell in the middle of a clearing.  Hesitating, she looked at them
all, pressing a fond hand to the side of Freddie's face, her
expression soft.  "I'm not sure why, but I think you need to see
this," she said softly.  Turning from them, she raised her arms to the
sky.
 
Freddie and Legolas gasped.  Joe stared around in wonder.  They seemed
to be standing on the edge of a huge, dark, green forest.  The trees
stretched out to the horizon on one side, rolling like a sea whose
very waters were alive.  In front of them lay a plain, the long
grasses green with spring newness.  A breeze blew around them without
touching them, sending branches swaying and grass undulating without
touching his clothes or hair, or leaving the slightest sensation
against the sensitive receptors in his skin.
 
Light streamed down on them without giving any warmth, yet the sun
seemed larger, closer.  The place seemed both fresh and new, and
incalculably ancient, looming with a mix of beauty and menace.  "What
is this?" Joe murmured.
 
"It's the world I once knew," Legolas answered in a reverent whisper.

 "The world Sauron knew when he was powerful."  Glancing at Goldberry,
the elf shook his head.  "Why have you shown us this?"
 
"To show them what Sauron was willing to destroy, what he wanted to
destroy," Goldberry answered calmly.  "He has no mercy, no goodness.
He only lusts for the power to destroy."  Dropping her arms, she let
the vision fade until they were standing in the poor facsimile of a
forest she now lived in.
 
Freddie stood in place with her hands balled into fists, tears
standing in her eyes.  "He has to be stopped.   He has to."
 
"Yes," Goldberry murmured.
 
Gasping once, then again, the girl regained a measure of control.
Turning to Goldberry with an appeal almost lost to utter despair, she
swallowed hard.  "But even if we do, we can never go back there, can
we?" she whispered.
 
"No," Goldberry answered in her gentlest voice.
 
Looking down, Freddie nodded, sadness lining her face.  Joe wondered
if anyone else noticed how the dark energy had retreated back into the
ring, the smoky tendrils around her at less than half strength, burned
away by white-hot grief.  "Let's go," the girl said quietly.  "He's
not going to get what's left."
 
"I wish I could go with you," Goldberry murmured.  "But I must remain
here, and care for what's mine."
 
"I wish I could stay and find a way to help you," Freddie replied in
the same low tone.
 
Goldberry's smile encompassed them all.  "Knowing there are a few left
who care does help," she said.  "Now go, before it becomes too hard."
 
Joe and Legolas both bowed low before turning away.  Freddie gazed
back a moment longer, lifted her hand in a farewell, then followed the
men hastily.  Joe tried to stop and let her rest once, but she
refused, threatening to keep on without them if they tried.  She was
in an obvious hurry to leave the forest, so Joe complied with her
wishes, his infallible internal sensors leading them on.  They were
all tense and watchful, but saw nothing more threatening than two
battered old abandoned Mechas that scrambled to avoid them.
 
The trio left the forest that evening.  Only then did Freddie agree to
stop, throwing herself to the ground and digging into the pack
Goldberry had provided.
 
Flanking her watchfully, Joe and Legolas crouched on either side.  "We
should see how much food we've got," Freddie murmured, unpacking
curiously.  "How much longer will it take to get there, Joe?" she
asked.
 
"Two days to reach the bridge," Joe answered slowly.  "But . . . if
those creatures are watching the roads, and they guess our
destination, then we dare not cross there."
 
Freddie groaned.  "So how do we get there?"
 
"We can cross at a different place and circle . . ."
 
"Huh-uh, no way.  Do you have any idea how far out of our way that
will take us?"  She looked out over their path, open country dotted
with trees.  "They might not figure out which way we went.  "I still
don't see the problem with trying to hitch a ride there.  We could be
to Rouge City in a few hours.  Those . . . things . . . were pretty
shaken up.  And they didn't seem all that smart."
 
"They don't need to be," Legolas warned.  "You don't know the Nazgul.
 Our only chance is to stay away from them."  He nodded towards Joe.
"Especially now that they know what to expect.  They have ways.  We
must keep ourselves hidden."
 
"Yeah.  All right.  I don't ever want to see one of those again,"

Freddie agreed reluctantly.  "But we can at least try the main route
first.  We only have two days before Gandalf said to meet him.  If
there's any sign of trouble, we can find another way."
 
Joe and Legolas exchanged glances.  Legolas raised his shoulders a
millimeter.  "She's right, Gandalf will be waiting for us."
 
"Will he know about those . . . what did you call them, Nazgul?"
Freddie asked, looking up from the bundle of fabric she had just
pulled out of the bottom of her pack.
 
"He will be expecting them," Legolas answered grimly.  "But perhaps
not this soon.  I'm not sure he knows how powerful Sauron has grown."
 
"He knows," Freddie declared.  She spread out the fabric; it was a
hooded cloak, woven of a greenish fabric something like the coat
Legolas wore, but thinner and finer, like a cross between cotton and
silk.
 
Seeing the cloak, Legolas gasped, reaching out to brush the fabric
with long, slender fingers.  Its colors shifted as it moved with a
radiant iridescence, but it was all earth-color, greens and browns and
greys depending on light and shadow.  "This is elven made," he said in
wonder.
 
"It's beautiful," Freddie murmured.
 
"And warm.  It will also help hide us from unseen eyes."  Opening his
own pack, Legolas pulled out another, larger cloak.
 
Joe as well found one folded in the bottom of Freddie's backpack.
Like the other two, it was made as specific for him as though exact
measurements had been taken.  When they settled down against the
approaching dark, centered in the nearest grove of maple trees, Joe
found that even up close, his optic centers had a more difficult time
picking out his companions in the deep shadows under the leafy
branches.  The cloaks seemed to soak up the color of the shadows,
taking on the subtle hues around them.  It held heat well, too,
keeping his organic counterparts comfortable in the night chill as
they ate a quick meal before settling down to sleep.
 
Joe didn't need protection against these less extreme temperatures, of
course, but the fabric was soft and smooth against his epidermis, like
nothing he'd ever felt before.
 
It didn't rival the sleek warmth of Freddie's body, however, when she
cuddled close to sleep.  She moved hesitantly at first, as though
afraid he'd refuse, but when he only held an arm out and shifted his
position to make her more comfortable, a small smile curved her lips
and she curled into his embrace, closing her eyes more readily than
she had the previous night.
 
But even asleep, her hand clutched unconsciously at the ring hidden
under her shirt.
 
"You're a machine that can think," Legolas's voice floated quietly out
of the dark.  Joe looked in the elf's direction, but all he could see
was an outline and the gleam of Legolas's blue eyes throwing back a
beam of moonlight.  "Can you feel as well?"
 
"I sense both pleasure and pain.  I can tell heat from cold.  My
tactile processors are more sensitive than an Orga's . . ."
 
"I did not mean with your hands," Legolas interrupted.
 
"No.  I am programmed to emulate emotions, not feel them."
 
Legolas's eyes flashed doubt, looking from him to the woman bundled in
his arms, then puzzlement.  "What is `programmed?'" he questioned.
Joe opened his mouth, then closed it.  How was one to explain the
advent of computers to someone who had never even seen a mechanical
mode of transportation?
 
"It means that someone else built his brain, and told him how he is
allowed to think," a sleepy voice murmured from Joe's lap.  One
half-open eye gleamed at Legolas as Freddie snuggled deeper into her
cloak.  "But Joe is learning how to do it for himself," she finished.
"You were sleeping," Joe said sternly.  "You need rest."
 
"When I sleep, I can feel someone watching me," Freddie whispered,
suddenly sounding scared and little-girlish.  "It was like knowing
there was a monster in my closet when I was a kid, only this is worse.
 The closet is all around, and there isn't any door to close."
 
"Sauron is looking," Legolas said.  "He doesn't sleep."
 
"He can't find us here," Joe reassured the shivering girl.  "Sleep,
keep up your strength."  Flicking his head quickly to one side, he
accessed his music files, sending the soft strains of "I Only Have
Eyes for You" wafting across the grove of trees.  The leaves seemed to
rustle in time to the music, and Legolas gaped at him.
 
Freddie giggled quietly, humming along with the tune.  A song and a
half later, Joe sensed her sink into slumber, her breathing and
heartbeat slow and even.  He let the music gradually fade, so as not
to disturb her uneasy sleep.  Glancing up, he found Legolas still
staring.  "You are like nothing I have ever seen before, metal man,"
the elf said.
 
"Others can do as much and more than I," Joe answered shortly.  "If I
am a source of amazement, our destination will be an endless stream of
the miraculous.  You, too, should conserve your strength.  If not
human, you are still Orga."
 
"Orga?"
 
"It means not machine.  Real."
 
"You were real enough to destroy one of the wraiths," Legolas snorted.

 Stretching out, he gave Joe a small smile before closing his eyes.
His lithe body seemed to meld with the ground in perfect comfort, as
though he were on a feather bed with silk sheets.  "These trees have
never seen an elf," he murmured to himself.  "They seem glad of the
company."
 
Joe didn't comment, simply watching the elf drop into a light but
efficient sleep, his hands near his weapons.  The surrounding trees
were somehow oddly aware of their presence, circling protectively.
Once Joe saw a branch move overhead, just before he heard the strident
cry of some bird.  There was no wind.
 
*         *        *       *         *
 
The next morning the sky was clear, blue, and uncomfortably hot, a
fact that must have had the Orga weather forecasters utterly
discombobulated.  Freddie, who had slept in fits and starts after a
night punctuated by an unusual cacophony of bird calls, woke
hollow-eyed.  Legolas rose as alert and ready as ever, but he too was
quiet and unusually solemn.
 
Breakfast was eaten in a wooden and unnatural silence.  Legolas dined
on the fruit and bread, still fresh and sweet, with the attitude of an
epicure at a fine restaurant.  Freddie nibbled a few grudging bites,
her eyes flickering from side to side, lingering on the sky then
touching every nook and shadow of the tree grove.
 
"You should eat more," Joe chided when Freddie tossed aside a
half-eaten pear.
 
"Not hungry," Freddie murmured indistinctly, kicking at the
golden-hued fruit.
 
Joe opened his mouth to further admonish the girl, but Legolas caught
his eye with a quick, negative shake of his fair head.
 
Glancing at Freddie's drawn, closed-in face, Joe withdrew, remaining
silent even when the small woman sidled closer to pull the hood of his
cloak over his head, hiding his face from any overhead observers.  The
only time she spoke was to look tiredly at Joe and ask "Which way
now?" in a heavy voice.
 
Besides that single short sentence, their trek began in utter silence.
Joe took the lead once more, an unusual position for a Mecha.  Freddie
walked behind him and Legolas took the last position, one hand always
hovering near his weapons.  Through the day Joe glanced back, keeping
watch on his companions.  Legolas continued as watchful and energetic
as on the first steps of their journey.  Freddie, however, dragged
herself behind him in an exhausted shuffle he deemed quite extreme for
her age and level of physical health.  Physically she was nowhere near
the elf's strength and endurance, which seemed to approach that of a
Mecha, but she looked more ill than tired.  More and more frequently
her hand was to her chest, directly over the ring.  Most terribly, the
ring's dark essence was once again seeping onto Freddie, the invasion
growing at an exponential rate.
 
They needed to get to Rouge City and Gandalf.
 
Freddie must have sensed something herself because she refused to stop
for lunch, pressing on even when Joe and Legolas both glowered at her.
 She did submit enough to eat some berries and half a piece of bread,
but insisted on eating while they walked.
 
Mid afternoon found them hesitating on the top of a small knoll,
observing a lonely home in the distance.  "I don't believe anyone is
there," Legolas finally determined, shading his eyes.  "Shall we
investigate?  The water won't last."
 
"I believe that would be an advisable course of action," Joe conceded.
Moving cautiously, alert for any signs of being watched, the small
group made their way to the front door.  Before they reached it, Joe
snatched out a hand and caught Freddie's upper arm, stopping her.
"Something isn't right," he said tensely.
 
Freddie looked at him questioningly, then at Legolas.  The elf was
balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, one of his blades drawn.

"What . . ." Freddie started to ask in a small, uneasy voice.
 
"The door is open," Joe whispered.  "The house is dark."
 
"We should leave," Legolas grunted.
 
"No.  No, someone could be hurt," Freddie whispered.  "We should at
least check.  If it was just a burglar or an absent-minded homeowner,
we can leave."
 
"I don't like this," the elf growled.
 
"I don't either," Freddie agreed.  "C'me on."  She edged towards the
door, Joe following protectively close.  Using her elbow to nudge the
door open, she kept her hands well away from any surfaces as she
stepped inside.
 
Freddie stopped with a gasp, one hand over her mouth.  Joe crowded
behind her and froze just as she had, his eyes wide.
 
Hearing the girl's distress, Legolas followed them inside.  "Nazgul,"
he whispered hoarsely.
 
There was no sign of whoever had lived here, except for massive
amounts of reddish-brown that painted the floor and two walls, flaking
in places, thick and gummy in others.  Fat black flies buzzed happily
around the room, taking no notice of anything but the old blood.
 
"This is old," Legolas said.  "Several days old.  This happened before
we were attacked the first time."
 
Joe backed up a step.  This went far beyond bad trouble, too far,
worse even than discovering Sam Bevin's body.  Catching his reflection
in the nearest window, he didn't recognize his own face.  Gone was the
serene, somewhat vacant expression of a Mecha.  His eyes, slightly
narrowed, flicked nervously in an almost human manner.
 
Freddie turned to look at him, her face pasty and greenish.  She
searched his face, then shivered and took him by the arm, pulling him
away from the grisly scene.  "I'm so sorry, Joe.  You shouldn't have
seen that," she wavered, tears coating the surface of her large eyes.
 "I'm so sorry."
 
Joe didn't answer.  He'd seen the after effects of car accidents, even
murder, but this was different.  Despite the uses and abuses of his
customers, his was still an innocent soul.  The people inside that
room, more than one without a doubt from the amount of blood pooled
everywhere, had been butchered, slaughtered like food animals.  That
such things happened was a known fact, but to see it, experience it,
and to know how they must have died, to have seen the sharp-edged
instruments of such careless, indifferent destruction was a shock to
his programming.
 
"We must leave here," Legolas murmured, joining them.
 
The others followed him mindlessly until they were out of sight of the
house, then Freddie stopped, still white-faced.  Taking Joe's arm, she
sat him down in the sun-warmed grass, lowering herself next to him and
guiding his head onto her shoulder.  "It's all right," she murmured in
his ear, stroking a hand through his hair.  "It's all right, we're
going to stop the bastards.  We're going to stop them."
 
This was a new experience.  Joe had done quite a lot of comforting,
both emotional and physical, but had never been on the receiving end.
Strangely, another's presence truly did seem to make events easier to
bear.  The small hands petting his hair and rubbing the back of his
neck were soothing, reassuring, somehow right.  Looking into her eyes,
he saw fierceness there, a determination that was not overcoming the
ring's influence but was holding it, for the moment, at bay.  "This is
going to end," Freddie hissed.  "I can't let them hurt anyone else."

Chapter Seven
 
Rising to her feet, Freddie stood with her legs straddled and her
hands on her hips.  "No more stopping unless we absolutely have to,"
she said firmly.

"Frederika, you cannot walk to Rouge City without a rest," Joe
protested, scrambling to his feet. 

"I can damn well try," Freddie huffed.  "Legolas, did you notice
anyone following or watching?"

"No.  There was nothing.  The wraiths passed her several days ago."

"Good.  Let's go."

Joe looked to Legolas in a silent appeal for sanity, but the elf only
nodded towards Freddie's already retreating back, prodding Joe to
follow.  The Mecha jogged to her side, as eager as the others to get
as far from the grisly scene as possible; perhaps distance would calm her.

Obviously shaken, grey-faced and grim, Freddie urged Joe into a faster
pace that had her panting in short order, but when he tried to slow to
a more suitable speed she snarled at him to move it.  Legolas of
course had no trouble keeping pace, although he too was troubled and
deeply unhappy.

Joe's core programming screamed for him to comfort both of his
companions, but this time he simply didn't know how, other than what
they were already doing.  The physical succor he offered was
inappropriate in either case, and his verbal abilities had never been
tested or tried in such circumstances, so he simply did as he was bid,
remaining silent and alert.

It wasn't until Freddie's legs were visibly shaking and Joe flatly
refused to go any further that the girl agreed to a short rest.  They
found a shallow valley between two  rounded hills that would hide them
from observation from anywhere but directly overhead.  Legolas harried
Freddie into walking slowly for several minutes to cool her muscles so
they wouldn't freeze when she finally sat down. 

When he finally allowed her to stop after the flush faded from her
face and her steps were steadier, she flopped on the ground between
her friends.  "I'll pay triple your normal fee if you can find me a
shower," she grunted to Joe.  Curling into a ball, she used her pack
as a pillow; after a few seconds her eyes closed by themselves,
ignoring her determination to battle them open.

Balling sleepily tighter, Freddie began to shiver even under her elven
cloak.  Brushing her face, Joe found her flesh cooler than it should
have been, and clammy with sweat.

Ticking his head to one side twice in quick succession, he raised his
body heat to its maximum setting, which simulated a human temperature
of 38 degrees Celsius.  Laying next to her, he removed his own cloak
and wrapped it around them both, cuddling around her in a tight embrace.

He tried to move as slowly as possible, but one bleary eye slid open
and glanced at him.  Freddie didn't react except to snuggle even
closer with a small contented sigh, and her temperature began to warm
to a normal level, but Joe was not happy with her condition.

She slept, yet her body never relaxed.  It was not an ever-present
alertness such as Legolas exhibited even in repose, such as now; the
elf was on his side, facing Joe, his brilliantly blue eyes closed and
his face at ease, but with a constant sense of readiness.  Freddie was
stiff and restless, trembling as though terrified or enraged, and none
of Joe's caresses or quiet, comforting murmurs did anything to ease
the lines etched into her brow.

Inefficient as her sleep was, it only lasted an hour and seven
minutes.  Her eyelids snapped open without warning or prelude; rolling
on top of Joe, she held him down with her hands propped on his
shoulders.  "Wha . . ." he tried to ask, but she clamped a hand firmly
over his mouth, staring up over the crest of the taller hill.

Awakened by the flurry of her movements, Legolas's eyes too were open,
staring in the same direction though he was otherwise still.

Time ticked by silently as the three of them stared into the darkness
of a moonless, overcast sky.  Suddenly a shriek rang out, short and
cut off, then again, unearthly screeches that clawed at Joe's auditory
centers.

"They know, dammit," Freddie whispered hoarsely.  "They know, and
there's too many out there."

Legolas rose to a low crouch, drawing his twin swords.  "They'll not
take the ring while I live."

"No," Freddie argued.  "That won't work.  We can't fight them all off."

"Then what?  I will not surrender," Legolas growled.

"I'm not asking you to," Freddie snapped back.  She looked around the
little valley, to Legolas, then to Joe.  "They know I have it," she
mused to herself.  Another screech grated through their ears;
Freddie's eyes flinched towards the sound, her jaw clenching until the
muscles stood out diamond-hard.  Moving slowly, she lifted the Mithril
chain from around her neck and unhooked it.  Sliding the ring off the
chain, she clenched her hand around it for a moment, then held it out
to Joe, her arm trembling.

Brows drawn in with a puzzled expression, Joe didn't react until
Freddie shook her hand emphatically.  Staring at her, he reached out,
still hesitant, with his hand outspread.  One moment stretched into
several until Freddie opened her fingers with a spasmodic jerk, her
eyes narrowed as though she were in tremendous pain.

The ring dropped into Joe's grasp.  It's dark thread of connection to
the girl stretched out and snapped, but the corruption that had
already touched her did not fade.  Its weight was a pressure not just
in his hand but over his whole body. 

"They know I have it," Freddie grunted hoarsely.  "If I lead them away
. . ."

"Madness," Legolas scoffed angrily.  "They only know the ring is with
us, not who carries it."
 
"They know."

"Even if that is true, they can sense the ring.  They'll know you
don't have it with you."

"Perhaps not," Joe said softly.  The darkness still wrapped around
Freddie like a storm cloud's embrace.

"What do you mean?" Legolas demanded, frowning at the way Joe studied
the girl.  "You see something, metal man.  What is it?"

"They'll know she carried the ring.  That might be enough," Joe
replied.  "But you don't know the way to Rouge City," he directed at
Freddie.

"Not a problem.  I can make for the main highway and hopefully catch a
ride.  If I can get ahead of them . . ."  She trailed off, not
mentioning what would happen if she failed.

Legolas looked from one to the other several times, his handsome mouth
pulled into a deeper frown with each circuit.  Finally, with a chorus
of shrieks closing around them, he held out one of his short blades,
handing it to Freddie.

"At least you're not leaving me with a stick this time," the girl
snorted, taking it.  "And this, after Mom worked so hard to teach me
not to play with knives."  She eyed Legolas, shook her head, and
pointed to the ground.  "Hide.  If they notice you, they won't follow me."

Grudgingly obeying her orders, Legolas curled into a small depression
in the grass and threw his cloak over himself, effectively
disappearing from Joe's optical sensors.  His ultra-violet function
picked up nothing, and only a very pale, flickering heat reading
registered.  Interesting stuff was elven-made fabric.  Joe huddled
under his own cloak, certain he had become as nearly invisible as
Legolas, yet he was able to see with very little obstruction.

He watched Freddie examine them both, reach out to tug a small fold
from Joe's cloak, nod in satisfaction, the disappear over the crest of
the nearest hill, towards the loudest wraith-speech.

The noises increased in volume and excitement suddenly, followed by a
squall of thumping footsteps heading away from the tiny hidden valley. 

Chapter Eight
 
It grew quiet after Freddie's running steps faded.  Watching the blank
patch of ground that was Legolas, Joe waited for a signal to move on.
 While waiting, he closed his eyes and began running his diagnostics
program; unaccustomed to this kind of use, he'd begun running it at
three times his usual frequency.
 
Everything checked clear until he tried to assess his central
information processors.  A single alarm flashed behind his eyes, then
everything went red.  It was hot, sulfur and brimstone boiling and
smoking around him, the air thick with foul pollution.  He was
wrestling, his thin, sinewy arms wrapped about an unseen but wildly
struggling foe.
 
Heat and steam billowed thickly around them but he ignored it, ignored
all but the desire screaming in his brain, powerful hands holding his
brain in an uncompromising grip, wanting the tiny golden circlet that
was his own, his precious . . .
 
Suddenly he felt its cold brush against his fingers, burning him.  He
knew the feel of his precious better than he knew the feel of sun on
his face, or cold night caressing his sickly hide, or the taste of
slippery fish sliding down his skinny gullet. Grabbing at it, he
caught it with both hands, grasping but unable to wrest it from its perch.
 
Finally, desperate for it, he brought it to his mouth, biting with a
set of sparse but sharp and jagged teeth.
 
Spitting, he felt a small yet heavy circle of metal land in his palm
still connected to a bit of warm flesh.  At last, after too long, he
was whole.  Happiness filled him such as he never thought he'd feel
again, making him young.  His adversary, visible now, tried to take
his beloved away, but it was a futile effort against the strength of
his joy.  Leaping on bony legs, he danced and sang for his precious
until he found he was trying to dance on air.  He plunged into the
liquid fire below, still triumphing, until the grip around his brain
loosened, letting the ashes of his mid trickle from between weakening
fingers, to close again on the ring . . .
  
"Joe.  Joe, wake up!"
 
Joe's eyelids snapped up, leaving him staring into Legolas's brilliant
eyes.  Was this what Freddie saw every time she closed her eyes?  Were
these images the ones that made her moan and thrash in her fevered sleep?
 
The elf looked more frazzled than Joe had yet seen him.  The hand
vigorously rubbing the side of his face was warm as though with a mild
fever, the skin retaining the velvety softness of a small child,
belying Legolas's practiced, easy skill with his weapons.  What must
the females of the species be like, if the males carried such casual
beauty?
 
"What happened?" Legolas asked when Joe sat up after quickly
rechecking all his systems.
 
"I do not know," Joe answered.  "All my systems register at normal
function."
 
"Good.  We need to move quickly.  If Freddie is journeying towards the
main roadways, she will likely reach out destination first."
 
"Do you truly believe she will return?" Joe asked quietly.
 
Legolas shook his head, but there was a stubborn set to his graceful
jaw.  "I know the blood that runs in her veins."
 
Remaining silent, Joe didn't voice his doubts.  It was not in his
nature, or his programming, to bring early grief or kill hope, false
as it must be.  Realizing the ring, as icy now as the recently fallen
snow, was still clutched in his hand, he stored it carefully in his
inside pocket. 
 
The girl's rash actions seemed to have drawn off their enemies.  The
pair moved carefully, well wrapped in their cloaks, but there was no
sign of wraith speech or glinting blades.
 
Without needing to alter their pace for Freddie, Joe and Legolas
traveled half again their former speed.  The lights of Rouge City came
into sight as the next night fell, before the morning they were to
meet Gandalf.  Though Mechas did not know hope, Joe found himself
joining Legolas in watching for a small figure to join them.
 
She did not.  He and Legolas alone surveyed the road leading into the
city, Joe's hand in his pocket, caressing the gold.  It was smoother
than any woman's skin, the most precious thing he had ever touched.
 
The elf stared blank-faced at the sculptured bridge and past it at the
endless multitude of lights.  "Are there truly so many living in one
place?" he murmured with a small shudder.
 
"There are over a million Orga residents, half that amount Mecha, and
often as many tourists," Joe supplied.
 
"Mechas . . . beings such as you?"
 
Joe hesitated before answering.  "Yes."  But were they really?"
David's earnest, trusing face flashed through his memory banks.  No
Mecha ever looked at another that way.  No Mecha ever took on a
responsibility because of such a look.  He wondered if David was still
under the saltwater waves, or if his Blue Fairy had come.
 
"Is this the only way into the city?" Legolas asked, his narrowed eyes
watching the flowing river of head-and tail-lights move steadily over
the bridge, through the bright pink lighted lips of a woman's head.
 
"No.  There is a smaller bridge that leads into the residential
areas," Joe replied.
 
"Lesser used?"
 
"Much."
 
"Perhaps we should go that way."
 
Joe shook his head.  "Mechas are not allowed in that entrance."
 
"So we won't be expected to make it through?"
 
Joe blinked, looked at the elf, and nodded slowly.  "It is not far."
 
"Good.  Gandalf and Frederika will be waiting."
 
Joe didn't reply to the futile hope.  Silently leading the way, be
broke into a quick lope that Legolas had no trouble matching.  The
two-and-a-half mile journey took them twelve minutes, a feat few Orgas
could duplicate.  He slowed as they approached the smaller, dimly-lit
bridge, wary and attentive for any other presence.  He was petting the
ring again, as though it were a tiny cat.  

The long concrete expanse appeared empty, the only sounds from the
wind and an occasional bird call.
 
Legolas's eyes, shadowed by the hood of his cloak, scanned the road.
"I don't see anything, but there is a car approaching."
Joe frowned doubtfully, then crooked an eyebrow when he heard the roar
of an engine.  Impressive.
 
Retreating from the road, the pair watched a single pair of headlights
approach much too fast and scream to a stop just before reaching the
bridge.  The passenger door opened, letting a small figure out into
the road.  She waved at the unseen driver, shook her head at an
unheard question, and shut the door.  The car continued on its way alone.
 
Joe stared.  Legolas, smiling, jogged forward to greet Freddie.  The
girl grinned tiredly.  "I knew you'd show up here."
 
"What happened?" Joe asked.  "Where did you go?  Where are the wraiths?"
 
Freddie's grin disappeared.  "I don't know.  I got to the highway and
hitched a ride back to Haddonfield.  The wraiths stopped following me
sometime between leaving you and the highway.  I don't know where they
went."  Her gaze flickered to Joe, her expression changing.  "Where is
it?"
 
"Safe," Joe told her, resisting the urge to back away.
 
"Give it back."  Holding out her hand, Freddie advanced on him.
 
Joe's hand automatically reached for his pocket, then stopped,
covering the small, precious lump in his jacket protectively.  "No."
 
"What?"
 
"No."
 
Her face glowing, Freddie bared her teeth, her hands rising with her
fingers curled claw-like.  She didn't say anything more before
charging him.
 
Unwilling to hurt an Orga even by accident, Joe skipped out of the way
of the girl's attack, but she kept coming, her movements more erratic
and less ruled by reason.  She succeeded in grasping his arms and they
grappled for a few seconds, but Joe's greater strength let him throw
her off easily.
 
But the girl kept coming, more enraged with every failed attempt at
hurting him.  Legolas tried to intercede but she ducked out from under
his grip and produced the sword she had given him.  Brandishing it
clumsily, she slashed at Joe with wild, unpracticed swings.
 
The blade was sharp, slicing a gash in his jacket over his chest.  Joe
reacted before his processors had time to evaluate the situation;
passing by Legolas, he slipped the second blade from the elf's belt,
bringing it down on Freddie's blade and knocking it from her hand.
Seeing nothing but the ring, he brought his own sword up, aiming it
straight for her heart.
 
He heard shouts but didn't register any of the words.  When a pair of
slender, strong arms wrapped around his shoulders and dragged him
backwards, he wrenched himself free, swung around, and stabbed.
 
There was a flash of blinding light; the blade grew heavy in his hand,
slowing its deadly course as though passing through something on the
way to its mark.  He tried to drop it, but before his fingers could
loosen their grip, the tip slid several inches into Legolas's side.
 
Screams piled in herds from Freddie's throat, but there was no fear in
the sound.  It was primal, from a time before people could be
classified as human, or even sentient.  Even Joe, a Mecha not
programmed to understand such things, recognized the pain and fury
boiling from the deepest, darkest dregs of her soul.  Staring first
into Legolas's shocked expression, then Gandalf's horrified eyes, he
wished he could make such a sound himself.     

ib_rougebridge2.jpg

Chapter Nine

Joe stepped back. The point of his blade was coated with ruby fluid,
too jewel-bright to be human. Dropping the sword, he watched Legoalas
grimace and press a hand to his wound. Blood trickled from between
the elf's graceful fingers.

Gandalf, gleaming in his floor-length robes, stepped around Joe. The
wizard gently lifted Legolas's hand, bending close to inspect the wound.

"It's not bad," the elf gasped, but his face was white and strained.
Freddie sobbed once, her hands clapped over her mouth.

Still silent, Gandalf regarded Joe gravely. Joe stared back for a
second or two, then fell to his knees, hands cradled over his face.
Cold withered his processors, a new sensation that made him feel that
he was sinking into the soil, polluting it with his presence.

Despair. He'd seen it often in his customers. How could he have
tried, with his shallow physical comforts, to banish such a thing?

"No, boy. No." Taking him by the shoulders, Gandalf forced him to
his feet. "You weren't to know. Either of you," he said, including
Freddie's snowy face in his burning gaze. "There is nothing that
could prepare you for such a thing, no words that could describe it."
There was forgiveness in his expression, even pity, but there was
also a sternness there that said quite clearly that the old man
expected them to learn.

Freddie gulped, recognizing his expectation as well. Joe nodded
mutely. He finally understood why they must be rid of the ring, and
why Gandalf did not trust himself or Legolas with the task. What
could the ring do in the hands of someone powerful, who knew how to
use it?

Removing the ring from his pocket, he held it out to Freddie. The
woman took a step back and for a second it looked like she would
refuse to take it, but then her face subtly twisted, her eyes lighting
with predatory hunger. She snatched it from his hand, cradled it,
murmuring to it as though comforting a baby, and slipped the chain
over her head.

"Come," Gandalf ordered gently.

"But . . . Legolas," Freddie protested, looking up from the ring. The
reflection seemed to stay in her eyes, a circlet of gold around each
pupil, yet her face gentled into an expression of concern. "He's hurt."

"It's not bad," the elf repeated, and his voice did sound stronger,
although he remained in a slightly bent position, one hand clamped to
his side.

"I . . . am truly sorry," Joe whispered.

"It was an accident," the elf said curtly. But when he picked up
Joe's blade, he returned it to its place in its sheath, beside its
mate. "There is no time. Follow Gandalf."

Freddie obeyed, giving Legolas a worried look, which the elf utterly
ignored. Passing Joe, she took his hand in hers, squeezing gently for
a moment before taking her place behind the tall wizard, whose robes
had morphed back into the white suit.

The group hadn't gone far along the road before they were blinded by
headlights coming around a wide curve. The car slowed, then stopped,
colorful lights flashing in their eyes. The driver stepped out and
seemed to unfold, and kept going until he looked three times too big
to fit in the police cruiser. "No Mechas on this road," he said. His
voice was calm, but still rolled like thunder from his
amphicopter-sized chest.

Gandalf was eyeing the man impatiently when Freddie stepped forward.
"I know. I'm sorry, but we had an accident. We were heading for the
main bridge, but we lost the car and didn't know what else to do.
There was some . . ." she glanced back at Legolas's impossible beauty
and pointed ears. "There was some damage," she finished.

Clever; the man would likely take Legolas's blood, which looked like
each cell were faceted like a diamond, for some kind of lubricating
fluid, or possibly the inner layer of a chamaeleon dermis.

The policeman's eyes traveled over each of them in turn, then he
smiled. "I can see that," he said. "I can take you to a repair
facility," he said, indicating the cruiser behind him. "Or do you
need a hospital?" he asked with a glance at Freddie.

"We don't need to stain your car," Freddie answered hastily.

"Our place of residence is close," Gandalf added, with a quick smile
at Freddie. "We appreciate the assistance, but it is quite unnecessary."

"My . . . grandfather owns a brothel," Freddie put in. "These two
were rented out for a bachelorette party tonight. He has most of the
repairs done in-house." Tugging Joe's sleeve, she pulled him a few
inches to one side, attempting to hide Legolas's increasingly
disgruntled expression. "Thank you, though. And thank you for
letting us through. Now, if you'll excuse us, we need to call the
insurance company."

Still uncertain, the policeman waved them on. Freddie blew out a
relieved breath. Joe, who had been expecting far more trouble,
noticed Gandalf give his walking stick a subtle wave, aimed back
towards the policeman. Interesting.

Out of earshot, Gandalf stopped, turned, and faced Freddie.
"Grandfather?" he said. "A brothel?"

"Well . . . right now, you fit the part," Freddie shot back,
continuing down the road.

"Well . . .!" Gandlaf huffed. Head high, he re-took the lead, his
suit flowing into robes that billowed imposingly around his form.

Legolas smiled, aiming a wink in Freddie's direction that was
carefully kept out of Gandalf's view. Joe trailed behind, his eyes
roving along the sides of the road. The city was still a quarter-mile
away, only an occasional house built out here, away from the noise and
lights, by some of the more affluent residents. It was too similar a
setting to where they had found the Wraith's handiwork.

In contrast to the lights, noise, and bustle of Rouge City's tourist
areas, the outskirt of the residential area was dark and too quiet.
The little group slowed, the younger members drawing near to the
wizard in their midst. Joe's processors were set so high that they
popped now and then, sending bursts of subtle white noise into his
auditory centers. Freddie stayed so close to his side that now and
again she brushed against his cloak, or even the slick vinyl of his
jacket. He didn't protest; even Gandalf's face was unusually grave,
and Legolas was watching what seemed like every direction at once, his
eyes gleaming with a faint, catlike glow. "Something isn't right,"
the elf murmured.

Gandalf merely grunted, but Joe saw him clutch his staff tighter,
holding it in front rather than at his side. There were no street
lights here. The dark was of no consequence to Joe's eyes, which
included functions in the heat-sensitive and ultraviolet ranges.
Legolas and Gandalf both moved as casually as if this were a sunny
summer afternoon, but Freddie was cursing to herself, occasionally
stumbling over obstacles. She resisted Joe's attempts to help her
until he heard her gasp in pain after kicking a tree root. After
that, she allowed him to take her arm and guide her path.

Which was fortunate, or she might have tumbled into the shallow pit
that loomed in their path. Joe stared at the broken metal and bits of
fake flesh strewn across the bottom, gazing into blank eyes that
glittered with the false life of reflected moonlight. It was a Mecha
graveyard, like the one he had fled to and been captured at. Like the
one that, in the end, had led him to David. For a moment he thought
the small, warm hand clutching his belonged to the throwaway boy,
until he looked into Freddie's drawn face.

For once she was looking at him without any of her attention on the
small lump under her shirt. Her large eyes were sad when they dropped
to what for her must have been mostly reflections and silhouettes.
Joe automatically followed her gaze.

Orgas came to Rouge City with assorted tastes, many that were
unacceptable and even illegal in other places. Children were not
allowed to be harmed, even facsimile children, but almost any other
interests could be fulfilled. Sometimes the most battered Mechas
could fetch as good a price as the newest, top-of-the-line models, at
least in the more specialized brothels. Most of the Mechas here were
well-used; few in Rouge City were abandoned while still functional.

Yet something moved in the pit, shifting around in the shadows. An
arm scuttled towards them, then stopped. A half-fleshed foot lifted
from a pile of broken inner components, settling on the edge of the
pit. Then a huge form lifted itself from the center with an electric
crackle.

Freddie screamed shrilly, backing away until she was pressed tight
against Joe, and trying to go farther. Legolas muttered something in
an alien, musical language that, while beautiful, sounded somehow
impolite. Even Gandalf gasped, his face gone white.

Joe didn't move, he just watched the monstrous figure pull itself up
on eight long limbs, each one made from the arms and legs of broken
Mechas, the wiring tangled together like viscera, the hands gripping
each other like puzzle pieces. The torso was cobbled together using
dozens of pieces. Heads, some without lower jaws, some without outer
dermis, some nearly whole, jutted from the body haphazardly, all with
their eyes aimed at the four companions.

Two of the heads, one masculine and one feminine, both blonde and
healthy-looking, were attached where a spider's head would be. Their
mouths moved silently and their expressions were blank, utterly
vacant. Pulling itself to its tallest height, almost twice Joe's own,
the thing took one heavy step towards them, then another.

"Do you like my new pet?" a mocking voice asked out of the darkness
behind the creature. Coming forward into the dim moonlight, a tall,
slender figure cocked his head in Gandalf's direction. "There were
some interesting changes, my friend, were there not?"

Joe, Freddie, and Legolas all turned to see the old wizard's reaction.
It was not encouraging. Gandalf was dumbfounded, shaking his head.
"No. It cannot be. You . . . you were . . ."

"Looks can be deceiving, as they say," the new character chuckled.
"You should know that better than anyone." Dressed in black clothes
that accentuated his height and pleasing slimness, the dark-haired,
neatly goateed man was handsome for an Orga. The arrogance and
madness in his face detracted from it, however, giving his narrow face
the desperate self-centeredness of a sewer rat.

"Who is he?" Legolas asked, bewildered.

"He once served a wizard known as the Necromancer," Gandalf whispered.
"It was what the Dark Lord called himself before any knew his true
name. But his servant was destroyed eons ago . . ."

"You thought I was," the man corrected smoothly. "But even then I had
protection such as you could not even imagine. And I learned from my
master." Leaping lightly into the pit, the sorcerer stroked one leg
of his creation. "The materials here are much more fun to use than
soft flesh and bone," he laughed. Glancing up at the mechanical
beast, he smiled indulgently. "Go," he ordered softly.

The creature lunged much faster than such a clumsy contraption should
have been able to move. Pushing Freddie behind him, Joe retreated in
pace with Legolas. Gandalf moved more slowly, raising his staff and
releasing waves of light so pure it was impossible.

The thing hesitated long enough to close its dozens of eyes, then
forged towards them, pulling itself lightly from the pit and looming
closer.

Flourishing his blades with a grace that belied his power, Legolas
slashed at the nearest limb. The keen edge sliced through silicone
dermis, but clashed ineffectually against the aluminum skeleton.

Then things got as bad as they could. Calling out with eager shrieks,
the eight remaining ringwraiths formed a half-circle behind the tiny
group, trapping them within the Mecha-spider's reach.

sauron.jpg

Chapter Ten

Was this fear? This knowledge of imminent destruction, along with the
stubborn refusal to accept? The desire-yes, desire, the thought
actually set off some of his pleasure centers-to hurt whatever
threatened? All his joints and gyros and hydraulics trying to lock at
once and impede his ability to deal that hurt?

No, he decided. The self-proclaimed "Lord" Johnson-Johnson was fear,
had Joe recognized it at the time. This was deep, program-freezing
terror.

The wraiths glided closer, herding them towards the grotesque spider.
The Necromancer's acolyte watched from the edge of the Mecha dumping
pit, his face curved into a mad smile that stole most of its
handsomeness, the glitter in his eyes poisonous.

Gandalf, Legolas, and Joe automatically formed a protective flank
around Freddie, the unarmed, physically weakest, yet ultimately the
most important among them. The cobbled-together monster reached for
them with a limb that ended in too many hands. Stumbling, it ruffled
the air inches from Joe's head and swayed backwards, the eyes on its
central heads rolling.

The sorcerer frowned and raised a hand. Something invisible yet
palpable flowed between him and his creation. The monstrous Mecha
regained its footing, focusing on the small group. Only with its two
main heads.

"See the weakness?" Legolas murmured beside him.

"Yes."

Pushing his swords into Joe's hands, the elf drew his bow. "I'm too
slow right now. I'll distract it."

Joe replied with a sharp nod, hefting the swords. The creature lunged
again; Legolas sent an arrow to embed itself into the body where one
leg attached. It jerked, then continued reaching. Joe lashed out
with both blades, half severing one hand when it ran into one sword
while trying to avoid the other. The limb pulled back reflexively.
It still had working pain receptors. Good.

"Joe, wait," Gandalf called. His eyes were on the enemy wizard, and
the Mecha thing, and the wraiths still waiting behind them. Why were
they waiting? Ah, yes, he could hurt them, couldn't he? And if he
could, so possibly could the monster. They would wait for him to be
incapacitated and the spider called off.

He didn't know what Gandalf wanted him to wait for, but he obeyed,
using Legolas's blades for defense, making sure he was always between
Freddie and the nearest leg.
A limb tipped with two ragged, nearly fleshless hands managed to grasp
Joe's arm, but he severed half a dozen fingers, breaking their grip.

Freddie and Legolas both screamed. A low groan escaped Joe. Gandalf,
held by too many arms to fend off, rose into the air, more than a
dozen hands scrabbling for a better hold on his body while the legs
smoked and crackled wherever his staff touched.

Joe lurched forward but was stopped by a glare from the wizard. "No!"
the old man snarled. His beard whipped around him as he was shaken,
but he turned to watch not the monster but its master.

Pausing in its intent to shake Gandalf to pieces, the Mecha slowed.
The sorcerer raised his hand and Gandalf waved frantically at Joe.
"Now!" he barked.

Darting between the thing's front limbs, Joe staggered when a smaller
figure pushed past him, ducking and dodging a flurry of legs.
"Freddie!"he yelled.

"Joe! Do it!" Legolas shouted, his bow humming with the speed of his
shots.

Joe fought his way past the creature's limbs; it was becoming
confused. Struggling with Gandalf, trying to catch Freddie, fending
off Legolas's arrows, and watching Joe took too much out of its
damaged processors.

Legolas's bow stilled after a double dozen shots. "I'm out!" he warned.

Joe swing both swords, scissoring the blades. The thin metal whined
at the abuse, but as the blades fell to his sides during the
down-stroke, two heads thudded at his feet.

Dropping Gandalf, the monster began to vibrate, its limbs jerking and
flailing like a wounded spider's. Its creator screamed in pain,
unable to break whatever connection fed the creature its power. The
invisible energy turned a hot red, then flared to white.

Joe tackled Legolas, pushing the elf's head to the ground and curling
over him. Gandalf threw himself over Joe, raising his staff.

The Mecha beast exploded. Wraith shrieks took on a new note that
could have been called pain, maybe even alarm, and they fled. Debris
bounced in every direction, propelled by Gandalf's staff. Smoke
curled around them and melted plastic spattered onto the grass,
hissing where it hit; despite recent rain that left the grass damp and
cold, small fires dotted the ground around them.

Gandalf pushed himself to his feet. Walking to the edge of the
dumping pit, he used his staff to retrieve the remains of a tall,
wide-brimmed grey hat, muttering darkly about the scorch marks and
holes while he tucked it back into his gleaming robes.

Scrambling to his knees, Joe freed the elf. Legolas heaved himself up
more slowly, his arm held tight to his wounded side. He looked at Joe
with sober eyes, then in the direction Freddie had run.

The three of them picked their way across the pit, following the sound
of thick-voiced moans. They edged around burning pieces of Mecha.
Legolas looked sickened. "They were like you, metal man," he said.
"What kind of people do this? It looks like the work of the Uruk-hai!"

Joe shrugged. "It's the normal fate of a Mecha that has grown too
obsolete."

Legolas stared at the piles of broken pieces under his feet and shuddered.

Gandalf reached the far edge of the pit first. Climbing out nimbly,
he stared down at something, trying to look severe. The twinkle in
his eyes and twitch at the corners of his mouth ruined the expression.

Joe followed the wizard and was startled into a grin himself. Freddie
knelt on the sorcerer's shoulders, one elbow planted into the back of
his neck. The man grimaced in pain, pale and sweating, his hands red
and scalded.

Freddie was in little better shape. The back of her shirt was
scorched, and blood dripped down her cheek when something burning had
struck, leaving a smear of ashes around the cut.

"Let him up," Gandalf said.

Freddie glowered but obeyed, rolling to her feet ready to spring if
the downed man tried to run.

He didn't run. He rose gracefully and faced Gandalf with his head
high. "Fools. You are all going to die."

"What do we do with him?" Freddie asked.

"Leave him. He's no more danger to anybody," Gandalf answered,
staring into the dark wizard's face.

The tattered man sneered. Gandalf only leaned on his staff, watching
him without much interest. Smoothing back his black hair, the
sorcerer turned and walked away, muttering under his breath. "Fools."

"How did you know that would happen?" Legolas asked after the quartet
had started to move towards the city.

"What?"

"You know what. How did you know that thing would . . ."

"Overload," Joe supplied.

Gandalf opened his mouth, but Joe smiled and answered for him.
"Goldberry answered your question before it was asked," he said. "`
When Industry overtook Nature,' do you remember? Magic and technology
are not compatible." Hearing extended silence from Gandalf, Joe
lowered his head. "I apologize. I . . ."

Waving a hand, Gandalf cut him off. "You explained that . . . very
well, my boy."

Joe looked up, answering the wizard's smile with one of his own.

Legolas glanced at him, then at Gandalf. Sudden understanding widened
his brilliant eyes and pain darkened them. He took a breath, ready to
speak, but Gandalf shook his head firmly. Legolas subsided
uncertainly, but his eyes continued to flicker, and for the first time
Joe thought there might be fear in the elf's immortally handsome face.

Twenty minutes later, Freddie growled. "We should have asked the cop
for a ride," she said. "We would have been there already. And we
would have missed the nutcase."

"But then he would still be free, with his powers intact," Joe
reminded her.

"All right. Good point. It worked out. Just as long as we can find
someplace to take a shower," the girl grunted. She aimed a
half-hearted glare at Legolas's amused smile. "Yeah, keep laughing,
Mr. I'd-look-perfect-in-a-hurricane."

"I made no sound," Legolas answered lightly.

"You wanted to. Admit it, you feel sorry for us poor, mortal human
beings."

Legolas cocked his head thoughtfully. "Sometimes," he admitted. "But
I need not feel sorry for you, not for that reason."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that Aragorn, one of your ancestors, wed an elf. Her name was
Arwen."

"Really?" Freddie asked after a long, surprised silence. She glanced
down at herself. "I don't see . . . wait. What do you mean, her name
was Arwen? What happened?"

Now Legolas's smile was sad. "Arwen chose . . . another path, one
that led away from her people."

"Oh." Freddie walked with her eyes cast down for several steps, then
looked at the elf, searching his face intently. "Did that path make
her happy?"

"Yes. Yes, I think it did," Legolas answered.

"That's . . . that's good."

A few minutes later, Joe broke the heavy silence, raising an arm to
point. "We're here," he said.

Passing the last row of houses and coming over a small hill, the group
paused to survey the ocean of lurid neon lights and outlandish
buildings that was Rouge City's business center.

rougecity21.jpg

Chapter Eleven

Legolas was tense as they walked onto Rouge City's central street,
which was littered with lurid neon signs and more-than-suggestive
light sculptures, more tense than he'd been in any situation they had
encountered so far. "This is unnatural," he growled. "Nobody was
meant to live like this. No trees or water in sight, not grasslands
or mountains . . . even the sky is hidden."

His comments drew three different looks from his three companions;
mute incomprehension from Joe, who had little experience outside of a
city, and none besides the tiny glimpse granted by Goldberry that
would inspire him to seek out the wilds, understanding and empathy
from Gandalf, who had shared Legolas's world, and a vague sympathy
from Freddie, who had been born and raised in cities but who seemed to
share the common Orga thirst for surrounding greenstuffs.

"We need to find a place to rest," Gandalf said, "where there is no
chance of being over heard."

"A hotel room," Freddie answered firmly. "With a shower." She
frowned thoughtfully and eyed Joe. "You've spent a lot of time around
here. Know any places where we'll be inconspicuous?"

Joe surveyed his companions and broke into a sudden grin. "In Rouge
City, the harder task would be to find a place where we would be of
any particular note. But I believe I know the perfect location."

The motel was small but not seedy, clean and pleasant, priced low
enough for those seeking an hour's entertainment yet cozy enough to
attract some looking for a less garish, longer-term stay.

Freddie headed directly to the shower, dumping her pack and cloak on
the Queen-sized bed. Joe watched her start to slip the delicate
silver chain over her head and stop with a pinched look about her eyes
that Joe had seen on the faces of his human counterparts, and
sometimes customers, usually mixed with the marks of needles on
assorted areas of their bodies. Shoulders slumping, Freddie let go of
the chain. Avoiding everyone's eyes, she scuttled into the bathroom.

Gandalf didn't look happy but he mostly ignored it, directing Legolas
to sit on the bed and let him examine the stab wound Joe had dealt.
The elf complied without bothering to protest; he obviously knew better.

"It's deep, but not as bad as it could be," Gandalf pronounced after
examining the slash, prodding gently around the bruised flesh. "You
should rest while you can."

"So what's next?" Freddie asked from the bathroom door.

The three men turned to face her, and Joe frowned. Her clean face
only served to emphasize her pale, drawn features and her darkly
shadowed, red-rimmed eyes. The graze on her cheek stood out like
neon, raw and bruised with soot embedded in the scrape, matching the
tendrils of dark influence than writhed from the ring, throbbing
around her like a sick corona.

"We need to find the last dragon," Gandalf answered her solemnly.

"Good. And how are we to do this?" Legolas asked, a trace of sarcasm
winding its way into the elf's pleasant tone.

"She is sleeping, near a place called Manhattan."

"How do you know this?"

"There are a few of us left in this world," the wizard answered, his
gaze drifting to the window. "Bare few, but like Goldberry, they
remember."

"Manhattan?" Joe repeated.

Freddie gave him a sympathetic look, biting her lower lip. "You'll be
okay, Joe?" she murmured, her voice rising in a question, and he
realized that she was showing concern for his feelings.

"Of course," he answered her with one of his high-voltage smiles, but
she didn't look convinced.

Legolas slipped past them into the bathroom. For several minutes, the
only sound was the shower, then silence when the elf emerged, his damp
locks in their usual perfect order.

Joe gave himself a quick, cursory inspection, cleaning the worst
smears of dirt from his face and finger-combing his hair into
something like its usual gelled perfection. There was nothing he
could do for the tears and tatters in his clothes; they were simply
not made for the kind of abuse he had subjected them to. But there
were no customers to impress and he doubted his appearance mattered to
their enemies.

Freddie walked to the small window, her black-circled eyes scanning
the street. "Let's go," she said abruptly. "They're here."

Gandalf and Legolas exchanged looks and moved to the window, leaing on
either side of her to follow her gaze.

The street was dark and oddly empty. Even a small corner of Rouge
City such as this was a gathering place for the vice-ridden and the
simply curious. "Something is not right," Joe agreed.

"Let's hope they don't think to check the airport," Freddie grunted
tiredly, wriggling into her pack.

Joe's processors buzzed. "The airport is on the other side of the city."

Freddie paused to throw him a half-smile he couldn't read. "Nervous?"
she asked. "Good. We'll need to keep our eyes open."

"Indeed," Gandalf murmured.

Leaving the room card on the table rather than taking the time to
leave it at the desk, the quartet of travelers left the hotel through
the back door. Freddie suggested that they remove the elf-made
cloaks, but Joe waved off her concerns. If they were too conspicuous,
he told her, it would be because they looked too average.

He was almost right. The city was emptier than he had ever seen it.
The Orgas that did wander the streets were edgy, quickly seeking
shelter with whatever brand of Mecha ran to their taste.

It was even more apparent that business was desperately slow when they
were able to stop the first taxi they hailed. The Mecha driver,
plainer than Joe but with an open, friendly face designed to inspire
immediate trust, gave Joe a cool examination when Freddie told him
their destination.

"I am not a rogue or a runaway," Joe assured him. "I belong to these
good people."

The driver accepted his statement. Freddie turned in her seat beside
him to stare at Joe.

It was only then that Joe realized; he had lied. Supposedly an
impossibility for a Mecha, and something he had never before
attempted. He glanced at Gandalf over Legolas's oblivious head. The
old man gave him a slow wink, and Joe suddenly suspected that the
wizard knew more about things than he was willing to reveal.

Unfortunately, so did Sauron. They were almost to the airport when
the car turned a corner. If the driver had been Orga, they would have
hit the blockade. The driver stopped, his face hard and blank. He
must have been through a violent mugging; the usual Mecha response
would have been mild confusion.

Four more motorcycles growled behind them, joining the four in front.

"Sorry about this," Freddie said to the driver. "I hope they let you
go when we get out."

Now the driver looked confused, especially when his other three fares
left the car and the motorcycles immediately moved to surround the
quartet. Freddie watched the taxi leave with dull eyes. "I hope he
doesn't call for help," she murmured. "I don't want anyone else to
get hurt."

"Let's end this quickly," Legolas said, his face grim. Joe moved up a
pace to stand at the elf's shoulder, facing the opposite direction.
Freddie stayed a few steps back, her eyes black with frustration, the
Ring's influence winding tighter around her.

The Nazgúl dismounted from their motorcycles, their eight swords
drawn. The stoutest of them stayed half a step ahead of the rest,
surveying their prey.

They wouldn't get out of this one, Joe was certain. The enemy was
more prepared, and knew what he could do. And there were eight of the
creatures, surrounding them on a flat patch of road that gave all the
advantage to greater numbers. It didn't require a Mecha's high-speed
processors to analyze the mathematics.

Chapter Twelve


Eight swords were leveled at them, and with a small sign from the
leader, the black-cloaked riders charged. Joe, Legolas, and Gandalf
parried the blows, keeping Freddie in a protective semi-circle.
Gandalf's wooden staff deflected the blades as though it were made of
the heaviest stone. Legolas and Joe, both much faster than the
viciously methodical Nazgْl, warded off any attack within reach, but
Joe knew it couldn't last. Wizard and Elf or no, Gandalf and Legolas
were Orga, and would tire. And Joe would never be able to hold off
all eight. His strength and reflexes were already being tested more
rigorously than the most intense of his trials ever had.

The riders' numbers were already beginning to tell. Three to eight,
with the three trying to protect an unarmed fourth, would eventually
prove too much.

It was pure luck when Joe turned to block one blow and saw another
coming from the corner of his eye. Following through with his
original swing, he brought his shorter sword down in a powerful swipe,
slicing through his attacker's arm just above the wrist.

The Nazgْl flinched back with a hoarse shriek like metal against
corroded metal. A scrap of threadbare black fluttered to the ground,
following an empty gauntlet that still clutched a wicked sword.

Crowing softly, Freddie darted in between Joe and Gandalf, snatching
the fallen blade. Face tightening, Joe crowded her, forcing her back.
"Stay behind me!" he barked. "Keep out of reach!"

Her face flushed angrily, but Joe didn't give her a chance to disobey
out of a misplaced desire to prove herself, or worse, the ring's
desire to be captured. It did ease some of their burden now that she
had a means of defense, but as the only true human, or nearest human,
among them, she lacked the speed and strength of her companions.

Legolas seemed unhampered by his wound, but there was a growing red
stain on his side. Then, for the first time ever, Joe saw the elf
stumble under a double onslaught. The Mecha sprang to protect his
companion, leaving a space open between him and Gandalf.

Three riders swarmed to take advantage of the momentary lapse.
Freddie was surrounded. She was doing an acceptable job of repelling
her opponents, but they were trying to circle behind and cut her
completely off from her friends. She took a precious moment to
analyze the situation, reached under her shirt, and yanked the chain
over her head. Her face twisted and tortured, she tossed it. "Joe!"
she screamed.

Joe snatched at the ring. The point of a sword raked his wrist,
slicking through about half the tactile sensors and setting off an
intense pain response in the rest. His hand clenched automatically,
almost making him miss the ring. Instead of being caught in his palm,
it slipped onto his littlest finger.

A roar filled his ears and the world around him consisted of muffled
shadows. Except for the riders. They were no longer clack, amorphous
shapes. They had faces.

Faces he knew. He stared into the nearest, lead, Nazgْl's shrunken,
skeletal face, his processors running fast and hot.

Even without the lines of hard living on the road and the weight of a
cheap, fat-laden diet, the man-former man-was still recognizable. How
had "Lord" Johnson-Johnson come to this fate?

The eyes that looked at him flickered, recognition dawning. There was
no life in his face, but there was desperation, terror, and pain.
Pain such as Joe had never seen, not in the loneliest, most abused of
his customers, not in the lowest drug-riddled waif of his Orga
counterparts. The Nazgْl stared into his face, the heavy sword lifted
in hands that trembled slightly. He lifted it higher, over his head
for a killing strike, but his empty eyes begged.

Joe's lips thinned. No one deserved this. Lifting his own blade, he
swung.

Gratitude flared in Johnson-Johnson's face just before his head parted
from his body.

Joe pulled the ring from his hand, bringing himself back to light and
color. He watched an empty cloak drift to the ground at his feet.
When he looked up, it was over. Four more cloaks fluttered in the
breeze, decaying at an accelerated rate. Freddie panted over him, the
cut on her cheek weeping blood, streaking her grimy, grey face
crimson. Her teeth were bared with a ferocity he hadn't expected from
her, and Legolas and Gandalf watched her with raised eyebrows.

"Two of them went for you," Legolas told Joe. "She took them both.
The last three left."

"Give her back the ring," Gandalf suggested. The old man's voice was
calm, but it held a warning at the edges.

Joe held it out to Freddie. She stayed still, fighting some dark
impulse within. After a few moments, she slowly retrieved it. She
didn't snatch it, or strike out at him, or hurt him in any way, but
she cradled the ring to her, stroking its smooth, cold surface. Joe's
eyes followed the movement; for an instant, he wanted to take it back.
He could do much with such power. He could find David, and either
assist the little Mecha on his quest, or simply take him away . . .

When he forced his gaze away, Gandalf was watching him. "We go to
Manhattan," the wizard said.

"Manhattan," Joe agreed.

A short plane ride brought them within a mile of the ocean. After
their journey, it was an easy walk to the shore. They stood, toes to
the tide, and pondered their next step.

Freddie stared across the water. "Now what?" she asked, rubbing at
her neck where it was red and chafed.

"Now we find a way to reach Manhattan," Gandalf answered, his voice
serene despite the slight worry that weighted his expression.

Picking up a rock, Freddie threw it as hard as she could, watching it
splash into the waves. "Why me, anyway? I am hardly the best person
for this. I'm short, I"m weak, I'm useless . . ."

"You are not useless," Gandalf snapped. "And weak doesn't belong in
your vocabulary.

"Legolas would be better. Or Joe! They're both . . ."

The elf was shaking his head silently, still facing out to sea, and
Gandalf raised a hand to still her outburst. "The ring would not
accept them as it has you. It would take them within hours, as it
would me."

"It almost did," Joe reminded her quietly.

"What do you mean, it wouldn't accept them? Why would it accept me?
Fate?" The girl sneered.

"You have an advantage over all of us. Call yourself a catalyst that
links magic and modern life. It recognizes you. Call it fate, if you
will. You were born to this. You may not be a direct descendant, but
the Baggins line is a strong one. You are the last living relative of
the Ringbearer, and of the Fellowship."

"Seven bloodlines out of nine," Legolas murmured. "No one else could
do it."

"And just let me guess, you and Gandalf are the final two. I've read
enough fairy tales, I know how these things work."

Gandalf smiled. "`These things' rarely work as expected, but yes, we
are."

Her head drooping on her shoulders, Freddie almost laughed, but the
tiny sound she made was savage. "I guess it's good to know that my
family has a history. A lot of history, from what you've said."

Taking the ring out, she glared at it. "Why can't we finish it now?"
Yanking it off, she held it dangling over the water. Even now, when
it should have sparkled innocently, vulnerable on the end of a slender
chain held in a shaking hand, there was an air of evil around it. Its
dark aura was twisted into Freddie Baggin's so tightly that Joe
doubted it could ever really let go. "Let the fish take it," she
said, with desperate longing but no conviction.

"No," Gandalf said.

"Why not?" Pulling her arm back, ready to throw it, she looked
defiantly at the wizard. "Why can't I get rid of it?" Joe could hear
both meanings behind the plaintive question, knowing there was no way
for him to erase the angry tears that brightened her eyes like false
hope. "I hate it!!"

Reaching out, Gandalf folded his long fingers over her straining hand,
gently easing her arm forward. "Hold onto that hate. You will need it."

For a moment it looked like Freddie would fight, then she relaxed.
"Everything's so out of control," she muttered in a calmer tone.
"It's like the whole world is using me."

Joe slid an arm around her shoulders, giving her a soft squeeze.
Freddie glanced up at him with a wince. "I think I know why Gandalf
wanted you to come with us," she said.

Joe didn't answer, just squeezed tighter and let go. Freddie leaned
tight against him for a few seconds, then tucked the ring back in its
usual place. She looked thoughtfully out at the ocean. "Too bad
there aren't any commercial flights to Manhattan. Though I suppose
there isn't enough left of it. Joe, is there anywhere near hear that
rents boats?"

"Perhaps. The main highway isn't far from here," he answered.
"However, our destination lays several miles from shore. Is there any
of us who has the expertise to pilot such a craft that distance?"

Gandalf cleared his throat. When he had their attention, he nodded to
the inert figure beside him.

Legolas was still staring at the water, his eyes dreamy. Freddie
raised her eyebrows. "Is he all right? He looks like he's on drugs."

Gandalf's lips twitched. "Elves have a racial-deep love for the ocean
that boarders, and sometimes crosses past, obsession."

"It leads home," Legolas explained, his voice almost drowsy.

"A boat, then," Joe said with a smile that was softer than his usual
bright grin.

Their journey was shorter than expected, and surprisingly obstacle
free. At the edge of a small dirt road, they came to a slightly
run-down marina aimed at deep-sea fishermen. The middle-aged man who
owned it beamed when Freddie inquired about rentals. "Perfect day for
it," he commented.

"Indeed," Gandalf returned, his eyes on the horizon.

To Be Continued...