By Will Greenway
The techs back at cyber-silicon called me a man obsessed and I was readying to prove it when I noticed her crawling through the snow. Alone on the cornice, skis tuned sharp and legs tight, I blinked and studied the run again. She wore strange buff-colored clothing and didn’t look like a fallen skier. The wind fanned her inky hair as she slithered up the incline, clawing up the icy slope with bare hands. Seeing the curve of buttocks and thighs, I realized why her clothes seemed unusual. There weren’t any.
I swiped at my goggles, no way could I be seeing this right. A gust of frigid Rocky Mountain air shrieked across the peak creating icy banners against the crystal-blue New Mexico sky. She continued up the hill, breath making plumes in the sub-zero air. My heart sped and I gulped a breath, the scent of pine working its way into my ski mask. I scanned the slope below her. Taos ski valley lay a mile below, concealed by swaths of fog and trees.
It would take an hour to climb this high on foot. How could she even move? The woman climbed mechanically, like the results of one of my less successful natural motion programs.
Better help her fast.
As I started forward, a wave of dizziness made me halt. My vision blurred as something pulled at my insides. It felt demanding; ravenous.
I shook my head. The dizziness went away but a claw still kept itself hooked in my guts. Right then, she looked up and fixed me with electric blue eyes. Neither pain nor fear showed in her expression.
Instead I saw hunger.
Gary, you’ve obviously overdosed on CRT radiation. This picture didn’t scan right. As I fixed on those intense blue eyes my stomach knotted in recognition. When I started this vacation, I’d seen her at the Lindbergh terminal. A cry made me look back. A striking woman wearing a bikini rushed through the crowd toward the line boarding the plane. Stewards grabbed her after she’d injured two people trying to tear her way through the press. As they towed her away our eyes had locked. She screamed a word.
On the flight, I spent a few minutes wondering about her desperation. What did she mean by obsessed? What kind of nutty girl wore only a g-string on a blustery San Diego day? Didn’t she feel the cold? With no answers, I opened my laptop and forgot the incident. I didn’t need mysteries to ponder. Freshly liberated from a sixty-hour workweek filled with software bugs, deadlines and drill-sergeant project-managers, I planned to work off my Christmas flab and cut some snow.
She followed me.
As if my thoughts were fire to a fuse, she rocketed forward. Her eyes never left mine as she scrambled through the powder. She rose, looking like a fairy tale ice-princess. Paralyzed by her stare, I didn’t flinch until she reached for my face.
I pushed back with my poles. With that uncommon quickness, she caught me before I went far.
She gripped my face, making me meet her eyes. The force of her fingers nearly ripped my mask and goggles off. I grunted and struggled. Her eyes hardened. Pain shot through my jaw as she squeezed. I held still.
“You’re the third,” she said in a thin desperate voice.
I tried to pull away, but her grip held like a vise. My own voice shook. “What do you want?”
“You must take Mephist’s gift,” she answered, feeling my head as if she’d never seen a ski mask and goggles. “You’re the last. I’ll be human.”
This lady has a serious glitch in her software.
I tore away when she loosened her grip to probe.
A Taos double diamond hill, I didn’t know which was more insane; the woman or the ski-run? The slope looked like rumpled white bedspread studded with rocks and trees. My stomach turned to lead.
The woman screeched. I prayed. She grabbed. I plunged.
My skis thudded as I hit the snow at the bottom of the cornice, I chopped hard into a turn. Powder sprayed as my edges bit. I punched into another curve, boot bindings groaning over the sound of slicing snow.
Oh God, tell me I set them stiff enough.
I turned up-slope and glimpsed her racing down the hill.
I ducked between two giant moguls only to run into a third the size of a VW. The shock drove my knees into my gut. Whirling my poles, I leaned into the next bounce. One— two— one— two— the bumps hit like blows from a prize fighter. The trees and rocks became a blur.
Still up and going. I could manage the slope. Could I handle the she-devil? The word ‘obsessed‘ echoed across the bowl behind me.
The sound of the voice seemed much closer than it could possibly be. I glanced back.
I shouldn’t have.
My left ski caught an edge. Thrown off balance I flailed on one wobbling skid, then a snow embankment flipped me. My right ski flew off. Pain shot through my arms and legs as I tumbled. A pine halted my progress with a crack of pain through my side. The air abandoned my lungs. Wrapped around the tree I could only lie there and cuss. Moments passed. Paralyzed by the pain I couldn’t move.
A woman wheezed. Snow crunched nearby.
I tried to stand. Agony stopped me.
“I followed you a long way,” she said. “Don’t run. I must be human.”
I rolled onto my belly. My hand brushed one of the ski poles.
She knelt in the snow, apparently winded. The ice around her legs steamed. Ebony hair fell across her face like strokes from a painter’s brush. Her sapphire eyes glittered. She looked too perfect.
She fixed me with that hungry gaze. “I should have known Mephist would twist my wish. Besides this,” she ran a hand down her body. “The gift lets me see inside my brethren. Mephist said obsession makes you vulnerable. You’re as focused on your machines as I was my body.” Her tone became pleading. “Let me feel again. You must take the gift.”
Mephist? Mephistopheles? She’d experienced a major system crash. Her clusters were cross-linked in a big way. This gift giving didn’t sound like a request. I struggled to my knees. “Fine, my birthday is in June. Give it to me then.”
Her expression clouded. “What?”
“Lady, you chased me down to give me a present?“
“My name is Sarina, not ‘Lady’.” She rose.
I clenched my hands. “Get near me and I’ll hurt you.” It had to be drugs. What else could make her that strong or immune to the cold?
The thought of hurting this alluring woman made my muscles knot. I wanted to meet a nice girl. Why did this one have to be a cross between Cindy Crawford and Lizzie Borden?
She approached. I righted myself with the pole. She lunged. I clubbed her with my fist. Even through the glove it felt like hitting a stone.
Sarina went down.
Oh god. Chest tight, I staggered back, moving clumsily in heavy ski boots. She wasn’t perfect after all. A black nodule jutted from the skin behind her ear. My throat tightened. I doubted it was a wart.
Sarina hopped up. Professional boxers recovered slower. “You must take Mephist’s gift. I couldn’t find another. Pass it on, if you must. I will be free of his narcissistic prison. I want to feel.”
My ribs burned and my hands shook. “Keep your frigging gift. Stay the hell away!”
She leaped. Adrenalin gave me a surge of strength. My boot caught her in the midriff. I grabbed the pole. The aluminum rang as it crashed against her skull. She didn’t cry out. She started to rise. Again. Sarina kept on like a machine. Again. Blood dotted the snow.
Dear Lord, please stop… Again…
She lay still. My hands trembled. There was as much red as black in her hair now. Why wouldn’t she stop?
A shudder went through her. She gasped. I readied the pole to plunge it into her back. How could a human stay conscious after that?
“Jesus, Sarina,” I pleaded. “Just goddamn lie still…”
She flipped over, blue eyes boring into mine. Tears trickled down her face. “Please…” Her lip quivered.
I hesitated—stupid me.
Her foot jammed into my groin. The blast of pain erased any thoughts of counterattack. I dropped. Next I caught a glimpse of Sarina with a rock in her hand…
* * * * * * *
I opened my eyes and found myself lying in the snow. Every piece of clothing from my waist up was missing. I sat up and examined myself. Snow covered me. It didn’t feel cold. I felt nothing, not the ice under my butt or wind blowing my hair. Frostbite?
I rose easily. Nothing indicated that I’d even been in a fight or crashed into a tree. That blow in the head must have given me nerve damage. I collected my equipment, and trudged down hill. The frozen skis seemed to weigh nothing.
Halfway down, a patch of soft snow gave way and pitched me into a tree. I heard my forehead smack the bark. Confused, I stood again. No pain. After rubbing my scalp, I looked at my hand. No blood.
What in the hell..?
I grabbed a handful of snow and held it.
No feeling of cold, no weight or texture.
My tactile senses were gone.
I concentrated on discovering other changes. My hearing and sight seemed more acute. I couldn’t taste my saliva or smell the pines. Muscles had replaced Christmas flab, and cords ran through once sticklike arms. The hollow vessel was perfect—ageless.
I closed my eyes. An overwhelming sense of being trapped swarmed over me. Sarina had ranted about wanting to feel again. It must have been like this. I touched behind my ear. I couldn’t feel it. I feared it would be there. The black nodule I’d seen on her.
Sarina had stupidly made a pact with the devil. I’d paid the price. The unfairness should have made me angry. I wasn’t; only numb.
I stared up at the sky and felt a pulling, as though I were a kite and someone very far below was tugging on the string. Already, I was hungry for sensation. I concentrated and images flashed through my mind. I felt the person at the end of that tenuous thread. The perceptions were faint, like sipping water through the eye of needle. The word obsessed rang through me. He could receive Sarina’s gift.
As I dug around in my newfound awareness, I realized there were weaker threads. These tied me to dozens of others. They were like me— without feeling. I could envision what they were doing. Some went about their now aimless lives. Others searched for people vulnerable to the gift. Obsession. What kind of criteria was that? It must be more involved or Sarina wouldn’t have been so desperate.
The cursed lusted after their humanity. Sarina said to be free she needed to pass on the gift. I’d been the third—her last. If I were to get my feelings back I would have to follow that tugging kite string. I would have to imprison three others in the cages of their bodies. Mephistopheles had a sick sense of humor. If one begot three, those became nine and 27… In time, Sarina would be back in her narcissistic prison. Everyone would share it with her.
As the fog swallowed me, I wondered how long I would last. A week? A year? A decade? How long before I ran through the world naked and crazed, searching for others to put in Mephist’s prison?