A Game of Keys, Stage 3 – ch. X

The moment I released us from the basement, there were a group of people ready to assist us. They took Cuán from me and placed him onto a stretcher, then left. I was led to the living room in a daze, where Sarah and my elder brothers waited for me, all of them either in tears or appearing worn out. They tried to ask me questions of what had happened, but I was so out of it that I could not speak. Soon, they realized that I was not able to talk, and they left me to sit by myself. I dared not look at my hands or my clothes, which were drenched in Cuán’s blood, so I stared out in front of me, looking ahead but seeing nothing.

It was Sarah who ultimately took me to the bathroom and helped me clean myself up. After that, I was led to my old room where I lay upon the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Every other moment, either Sarah or one of my brothers came to check upon me, sometimes bringing something to drink or eat.

It wasn’t until eight hours later that news came from the DowersBioTech laboratory. It was father, personally calling me. I picked up my cell phone and stared at the image of my father.

“The transference was successful,” he told me. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said absentmindedly. “How is Cuán?”

“His mind has been transferred to the Dowers Network.”

For a moment, neither of us said anything. I contemplated what it must be like to be data now, to spend all days in a virtual network. Then I wondered what father must be feeling, now that his mission of purging the blood of his enemy had come to an end. To that end, I asked him, “Are you happy, father?”

He contemplated my question for a long moment, but then shook his head. “Death is never a happy occasion,” he answered. “However, I am at peace now, Connor. I feel like I’ve finally been released from a dark, dark place. I am free.”

I chuckled lightly. “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”

My father laughed. “Yes– yes, it is,” he agreed.”

“Father,” I said, “there’s something I need to know.” He gave me a guarded look, so I urged him, “Be honest with me. Please.” When he remained silent, I said, “Tell me, father, why did you do all this?”

Another moment passed where nothing was said between us. Then, father sighed, and he conceded to me. “I think you already know by now,” he said. “Cuán must have told you.”

“He did,” I concurred, noting with surprise that father had called Cuán by name again. I remembered that he hadn’t spoken that name anymore, the moment he had revealed to me that his relationship with Cuán had been nothing but a sham. “He said you wanted to kill and replace him. Did you really think I would be happy with anyone else but the real Cuán?”

“But even the real Cuán didn’t make you happy, did he?” father said. “You can’t accept that he is a boy. You see him as your brother. You want him as your lover. And you love him as your other half. Had Cuán been born a girl, you would have accepted her, you would not have had the objections to her that you have today. She would have been the sister of your heart.”

“But he’s not,” I countered. “He is not a she.”

“He could be.”

I started. My eyes met father’s penetrating gaze and I suddenly realized that this had been his final plan. “You were going to make Cuán a girl?”

“I need time,” father said. “I am still unable to create a living body without a mind. I cannot download a mind into a body if it contains one already, the person would develop severe mental disorders if that happened. Also, I still need to figure out how to change the Y-chromosome into an–”

“Stop, father,” I interrupted. “Stop. You don’t have to do it anymore.” When he was about to open his mouth to protest, I said, “I am fine with Cuán as he is. He doesn’t need to change. I’ve… accepted him.”

Father looked stunned. “You… have?”

I nodded. “Yes, I have.” I scrutinized him for a moment, then curiously asked, “How did you… what gave you the idea of cloning? And robots? And the, eh… the whole mind transference thing?”

Father chuckled slightly. “That?” he said. “Connor, we have a vast collection of movies here at home. It isn’t so difficult to find inspiration.” He then sighed. “Well, I guess I should end this call and come home now. Sarah and your brothers will probably have all sorts of questions for me. And no doubt they will try to kill me once they find out what has happened, though I suppose I deserve it.”

“Wait father!” I said, stopping him before he could end the call. “There’s still one more thing I need to know.” He gave me an expectant look, and I asked him, “Will you take good care of C1?” I noticed his eyebrows lifting a fraction. “Promise me you will?” I urged.

He sighed. “I will,” he assured me. He then said, “I really have to go now.”

I smiled at him. “Bye father,” I said.

“Goodbye Connor,” he returned. His image faded away.

I was about to put my phone away, when a new window popped up. It was the D-chat program. At the top of the window, a picture of MysteryMan indicated that I was chatting with an anonymous person. My heart sped up with hope. Could this really be…? Quickly, I entered a message into the input:

 

Cuán, is that you there?

 

Anxiously, I waited for a reply. I waited – and waited – and waited. Nothing. Disappointment coursed through me like an unbidden force, and I sighed deeply. I made to turn off my cell phone when a beeping sound called my attention back to the screen. It was Cuán’s reply:

 

Thank you, Connor. I love you too.

 

 

THE END

***

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kofi41

***

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A Game of Keys, Stage 3 – ch. IX

“No!” I jumped up from the bed and started pacing around like a caged beast. Which I was – at this moment.

Cuán gave me a pitiful smile. “You know we have to,” he said. “If only one of us can get out of here, Connor–”

“I said no!” He started at my aggressive display, but I did not care. I was beyond caring at this point, he was suggesting something that went against everything that I stood for! “You’re telling me to cut you open like a butcher and then take the key out of you, right? Well guess what? It’s not going to happen!”

“There’s no other key–”

“I will not cut you open!” I shouted.

He promptly turned around, treating me to his backside. “Then I guess we’ll both have to die,”  he said, flatly. His answer was plain and simple, and it angered me.

“I will not let you die, Cuán,” I growled. I stopped my pacing. “I promised you that I wouldn’t let you die and I intend to keep to it like a man. Mark my words.”

Abruptly, Cuán pushed himself back up onto his arms. “Obstinate headstrong fool!” he shouted. He was livid – as much at his limit as I was, if not more. Sitting up, he turned to face me. His eyes burned like two hot coals of fury. “There is no other way out, you idiot!”

I ignored his insult, and yelled back, “I don’t care! You will live!”

“Don’t be such a pig-head, Connor!” Cuán cried. “You know this is the only way you can escape, so stop being so immature about it!” He flung his legs around the edge of the bed and stood up. “You can’t bend reality!”

“So?” I stubbornly challenged.

“So– ?” Cuan echoed indignantly. He shook his head in frustration, then stomped towards me. “Either way, I will die,” he yelled into my face, “There is nothing you can do about it, so just accept it!”

I resolutely turned away from him and put my index fingers in my ears. “I am not hearing this!” I repeated. I didn’t care how childish I looked, I was not going to consent to killing my own brother!

Cuán, however, grabbed my arms and forcefully pulled them back down. “Just because you don’t acknowledge reality, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen!” he cried, but he was facing my back.

“It’s not going to happen, Cuán!” I said again, “I won’t allow it to happen!”

“You’re not God, Connor!” Cuán pointed out, “If God wants me dead, then do you really think you can stop it!”

“Fuck God!” I cried out. Then, my breathe hitched in my throat. I stopped. Suddenly, I realized what I had just said. I had– no, I couldn’t have!

Cuán gave me a wide-eyed look, staring at me as if he’d never seen me like this before. He hadn’t. I had never in my life said such unthinkable things before. “C-connor?” he asked me uncertainly.

“I refuse to let you die, Cuán,” I murmured. Though I could not relent on this point, my previous anger had all but disappeared, and all I felt now was shame for my behavior.

“But you can’t– ”

“I don’t care about reality,” I interrupted him, “I will have it bend for you. And if God wants you dead…” I quickly shook my head and rejected this option. “Well, that’s impossible,” I said, “because God is good, so He would never want you to die like this.”

“Connor?” He sounded uncertain.

“I love you, Cuán,” I said.

He stared at me, speechless. Slowly, I bent down and then I pressed my lips against his cheek. Softly. Carefully. My heart thumped painfully against my chest, but I dared not go further. That would be wrong – immoral.

Quickly, I straightened myself and looked away. “So…” I said awkwardly. I received no reaction, so I dared to sneak a look at him. “Cuán?”

He was blushing, and looking as ill at ease around me as I felt around him. Maybe that kiss had been too much, I thought. It was too late to take it back now, though.

Reaching his left hand up, he rubbed at his cheek as if to chase away a ghost. “You– ” he hesitated. “You really love me?”

“I wouldn’t be saying all this shit if I didn’t,” I said to him. There was a certain confidence in my heart as I said this. No matter what other feelings I may hold for Cuán, and whether these feelings were appropriate or not, my love for him would not diminish. That, at least, would never change.

Cuán smiled. Then, he tiptoed and reached up to capture my lips with his. A flash of a second later, he was at the other side of the basement, checking out the See Ex – or whatever it was that pimped out control panel was called.

“C-Cuán?” I stuttered, slightly stunned.

“Hmm… it seems that you only damaged the projector,” he said, utterly ignoring the kiss that we had just shared, and pretending that absolutely nothing had happened between us. Well, it probably wasn’t a big deal to him, as it wasn’t the first time we had done this, I reasoned with myself. Tilting my head thoughtfully, I wondered whether it could be counted as a real kiss, it had seemed more like a quick peck.

“I suppose you turned it off while thrashing the projector. You must’ve accidentally come into contact with the off-button. Well– I think it’s possible for me to connect the Generator CX with the flat screen.”

I carefully licked my lips. The last time we’d shared one of those had been about fifteen years ago. I had been eleven and Cuán had been a baby. I had enjoyed giving him those little pecks back then, as he had been utterly adorable in his earliest years. A teenager kissing an adult, however, was very much of a different league compared to a child kissing a baby.

“Connor, are you listening to me?”

I turned to look at my brother, all grown up now. “Of course I am,” I said. “So how are you going to do it?”

He shrugged. “Just plug and unplug. Very easy. Can you reach the flat screen, though? We’ll have to take it off the ceiling.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I think I’ll manage if I stand on the bed,” I told him.

He gave me his thumbs up. “Let’s do this, Connor!” he said.

I nodded and went to climb onto the bed. In the back of my mind, I once again cursed my little brother for having succeeded in diverting us from the topic that truly mattered. He still wanted me to cut him open for the key.

***

Taking the flat screen off the ceiling, I carefully lowered it, and climbed off the bed. Then, I carried it back to Cuán and the control panel. “Here– ” I huffed and put it down for him. “It’s heavier than I thought.”

“Oh?” Cuán raised an eyebrow, looking up from his inspection of that See Ex thing. “You’re tired?” he asked.

“As you can see,” I said, letting out another pant. Without another thought, I dropped down to sit on the laminated floor. I was out of breath!

“You look really drained.” Cuán sounded like he was thinking about something.

“I think that should be obvious,” I told him. I touched the laminate floor with my hand and idly began to follow its intricate patterns with my index finger as if drawing a masterwork. What was the point of connecting the flat screen with that See Ex anyway? Did Cuán think he could crack C2’s codes? Hack into the system? What chances were there to succeed if even father couldn’t get in?

“You’re getting irritated, Connor.”

I looked up. “No, I’m not,” I said.

Cuán smiled. “Yes, you are,” he countered. “You’re tired and you’re irritated.”

I shrugged in annoyance. “I just don’t see the point in carrying that stupid load down here,” I grumbled. Sighing, I continued to retrace the patterns on the laminate.

“It has been a while since we were brought here,” Cuán said. He thoughtfully tapped his bottom lip with his finger. “I suppose the hour we were given has almost passed.”

That made me stop what I was doing. “What?” I asked him.

Cuán smiled. “The flat screen isn’t heavy, Connor. We’re simply running out of air.” He shrugged and pulled some wires from behind the screen. “It doesn’t have wireless connection,” he supplied, but I didn’t care about his technological babble.

“We’re out of air?” I made to crawl over to him, but he stopped me.

“The more exercise you use, the faster we’ll run out of oxygen,” he said. “Don’t move around unnecessarily.” He turned on the flat screen and pushed its reset button. “Also,” he continued, almost as an afterthought, “don’t get so excited.”

I growled in the back of my throat. The brat was making light of this whole situation! “Why aren’t you out of breath yet?” I asked him.

He shrugged, as he began to reprogram the flat screen. “I wasn’t the one moving this ancient thing around,” he said, patting the old monitor with mock affection. “Besides, I’m shorter and smaller than you.”

“And what does that have to do with anything?” I asked grumpily.

“Well,” Cuán said, and I instantly regretted asking it. He was going to put on his know-it-all attitude. “Obviously, being smaller means that I need less oxygen than you do. You should know that, Connor.”

“And you should know that I don’t think straight without oxygen,” I shot back at him. Cuán chose not to comment on this, knowing that I was right. I forced myself to remain calm, and asked him, “So, why are we connecting the flat screen to the See Ex?”

“It’s called the Dowers Generation CX, Connor – not See Ex.” Why did I love this insufferable wise guy again? “And we are connecting it to the flat screen, because we need to use the CX to unlock the last key. There is still at least one stage left.”

“About that key– ”

“Yes about that,” Cuán quickly interrupted me. “There must be a knife or some other object hidden in this room and we have to find it. It’s the last stage. The CX will surely point us to the right direc– ”

“Will you shut up and listen to me!” I called out. He silently looked at me, but I could see that he did not want to hear what I had to say. I didn’t care, though. “We’re not going to find this knife or whatever,” I said, “we’re both going to get out of here alive! Okay?”

Cuán lifted an eyebrow, but it was clear to me that he did not agree. “Right,” he jeered, “so we’re just going to magically wish ourselves out of this place.” He scoffed at me. “What did you expect, Connor? A miracle? Or maybe you thought that ripping open my stomach with your bare hands was the better alternative compared to the knife? Because, of course, that would most certainly ensure my chance at survival.”

Frustrated, I reached out and grabbed him. “Do you want to be cut open then!” I yelled at him, not caring for the oxygen that I was wasting. “Well? Do you want to die!”

He looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “I don’t.”

“Then why!” Why was he so willing to kill himself off like this?

Lifting his hands, Cuán moved to place them on my shoulders and I felt his warmth seeping into my skin. “I want to be with you, Connor,” he said. “To be beside you. But only if you’ll allow me to.”

“Allow you?” I blinked at him, not comprehending what he was trying to tell me. “What are you saying? You know how I feel about you.”

Cuán smiled sadly. “I know how you feel about me now, but would you still feel the same for me, if I became something you despise?” I opened my mouth to tell him that I could never despise him, but he cut me off, “What if I became something unnatural?”

And then I understood. “You’re telling me– ”

“I can become like C1,” Cuán said, confirming my thoughts. “Even though the C-project was initially set up with the intention of killing and replacing me, its purpose can be overturned – the C-project can actually save me. But it can only work, if you accept me.”

“If I accept you?” I repeated.

Cuán nodded. “It would be pointless to try it, if you do not accept me.” He let his gaze wander, as he continued, “Why go through all this trouble, if in the end I am not even acknowledged as a being? What purpose would this have, if all I’ve become is merely data in the end?”

I let out a difficult sigh. “You want me to believe that technology can save a soul?” I asked.

Cuán smiled at me. “It’s like believing in God,” he said to me. “God is important to you, because you believe in him. But dad doesn’t believe in God. God does not exist in dad’s world, because he doesn’t accept the idea. And in the same vein, when you think about it – I, too, cannot be a part of your world. I’ll be mere data, and I’ll mean nothing to you. Not as long as you don’t accept that I am real.”

I felt Cuán squeeze my shoulders, as I internally debated what I had to do. I loved Cuán, I loved him dearly, but he was asking me to sacrifice the ultimate for him. I wasn’t sure whether I could do this, whether it was in my power to do this. Was it even possible to just up and change one’s own belief? To change what one thought to be real? I knew that if I could, that I would do everything for him, because he was the most important person in my life. But even as I had previously said that I would have reality bend for him, I knew deep in my heart that it was not within my power to make this promise come true. After all, if I were to make the claim that invisible pink unicorns existed, that would not make the statement become actual truth either suddenly – now, would it?

I sighed. There was little time left. I would simply have to go along with this madness for now. “You think father will help you?” I asked.

***

Cuán stood silently, contemplating my question for a long moment there. I did not let go of his gaze. If we were to go through with this plan, it had to be faultless, there could not be any uncertainties left. Finally, he answered me. “Yes,” he said.

“Why?” I asked him. I needed to know his explanation. Needed to know his justifications. “He hates you and has been planning your death since before your birth,” I reasoned with him, “so why would he want to help you?”

“He hates my blood, Connor,” Cuán said, “he hates my body.” He gently let my shoulders go and went back to the Generation CX. He slid his index finger over the touch screen. “I think that, as long as this body dies– that dad will be able to live with me.”

“So that’s the real reason you want to die, isn’t it?” I asked him bluntly. “You want to die so that father will accept you?” The time to dawdle around was over. We had neither the time nor the oxygen for half truths and guessing games.

“Partly,” he admitted. “But mostly…” He passed me a quick glance. “Mostly, I just want you out of here,” he said.

So, Cuán was doing it for us. He did it to be accepted into the family. How many times more did he have to sacrifice himself, before he would be accepted? “Father is wrong, you know,” I told him. “Your blood is your own. You’re not at fault for what that man did to Sarah.”

“And what about the things I did to you?” he suddenly said to me. “Do you not fault me for evoking such feelings inside you?” I stiffened at that. He looked at me and smiled, then casually related all the problems between us. “I am fifteen – you are twenty six. Yet you want to bed me, you want to have sex with a child.”

Biting my cheek, I looked away. “I could wait,” I countered weakly.

“You believe that Adam and Eve were made for each other,” Cuán continued, not in the least bit fazed by my objection. “Remember what is said in Leviticus 18:22? ‘You shall not lie with a man, as with a woman: it is abomination.’ You agree with that, don’t you, Connor?”

I remained silent for a moment, contemplating how I should answer that kind of attack. Assessing the question carefully, I decided to go for the reality versus morality crux. It would be the best counterargument. I slowly shook my head, “I’m not a saint, living according to every letter of the Bible,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse somehow, but I continued determinedly, “You know that as well as I do. I’ve slept around with women. I regret it afterwards, but I do it anyway. So, even though I don’t agree with the relationship between a man and another man, I could still–”

“With your own brother?” Cuán interrupted. He raised an eyebrow, expectant and challenging at the same time. “Could you really do that?” He let out a short lived laugh. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You can wait for a person to grow up. You can sleep with a man and pray for forgiveness in the morning. But you cannot taint your own brother. Even though I am just your stepbrother.”

“I don’t care that you are my stepbrother!” I protested.

“And that’s where the problem lies,” Cuán pointed out. “You want me, yet you still think of me as your own brother, as if we really were sharing the same flesh and blood. Everything is your perception – it’s in your own mind!”

I swallowed hard. “What about you?” I asked. “Your perception. Is it okay to you? Do you want me to want you?”

Cuán shook his head. “I want you to love me,” he said. “I want for you to love me and to treat me with love.”

“In what way, Cuán?” I asked him. I needed his clarification.

He smiled at me then, his eyes serene, as if he already had all the answers to whatever problems there were in our relationship. “In whichever way you choose to,” he told me. He made another sliding motion on his touch screen and a window popped up on the flat screen. “As long as you genuinely love me,” he added.

“So, you’re putting the problem on my shoulders?” I asked him.

“It is your problem, Connor,” he told me. “It’s the problem of your perception. I’m not at fault for evoking these feelings from within you, it is your indecision that is at fault here. You want me, yet you don’t want to want me. You see the dilemma here? You have to choose.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, but I did not carry on this conversation. His answer was clear to me. I would have to decide which course this relationship would take. I was always the one to decide. Whether I should accept him as my brother or my lover. Whether I should run a knife through him to get that key or not. Whether him being made up of complex data would classify him as dead or a non-human entity existing in another level of reality.

I stood up and craned my neck to peer over his shoulder at the touch screen. Various icons were displayed on the large screen, but it was the wallpaper behind it that suddenly caught my attention again. Why this wallpaper caught my attention yet again I did not know, C2 had already used it to open the mirror wall to Cuán. But the strange poem kept repeating in my mind:

 

‘Five each
to breach
out. One key.
I am free.’

 

A morbid thought came to my mind. “Cuán,” I asked, “Do you really think there is a knife hidden here somewhere?”

Cuán looked up. “How else will you get that key from me?” he asked.

C2’s words flashed through my mind again, accompanied by Cuán’s angry outburst. One key, two purposes, C2 had said. And Cuán, in his anger, had unthinkingly suggested that maybe…  that ripping open his stomach with my bare hands was the better alternative compared to the knife.

“Five each…” I trembled as I spoke. “to breach out one key…” I looked at Cuán gravely, but he did not seem to understand what I meant. “The poem on the wallpaper,”  I said.

He nodded. “I know. Wasn’t that the code for– ”

“Five each!” I yelled, cutting him off. “Five fingers on each hand!”

Cuán visibly paled after hearing those words.

***

For a long moment, neither of us said a word. Cuán stayed rooted on his spot, as if he’d just seen a ghost, and I was heaving breathlessly, unable to form a coherent word. Then, finally, Cuán seemed to regain some semblance of life, and with an unsteady voice he spoke to me. “You will accept me then?” he asked. Hopeful.

Seeing him here in this room, at this moment – so vulnerable, yet so determined and strong – I knew that I could never deny him this. So I silently nodded my head in consent.

He smiled at me. “Then will you talk to dad about this? We have only one chance, we cannot fail in this. Everything must be perfectly timed. We should make the necessary arrangements.”

I nodded again and he took it as the signal to make contact with father. When the connection was made, he quickly went out of the way, to avoid father’s ire. I got up and made my way to the CX, where I met my father, who looked none too happy. At least he was reasonably calmed down, I noted in the back of my mind. “Father,” I greeted.

“Connor,” he returned.

“Our air is almost running out,” I quickly went over to business, “Have you found any way to open this door?”

He shook his head grimly. “No. Every possible method I’ve come up with will take too long. You will have died of suffocation by then. But I’m not giving up yet.” His eyes sparked determinedly. “There may yet be something I’ve overlooked.”

“Don’t look,” I told him.

He looked up surprised. “What?”

I sighed deeply. “It’s okay. I know you won’t be able to find a solution in time, father.”

Immediately, father shot up from his place and hovered over the camera. His panicking face took up the entire screen, as he yelled at me. “You’re not giving up yet, Connor, don‘t you dare!” He looked… frightened. I don’t think I’ve ever seen father look like this before. I suddenly realized that this moment was the first time in my entire life that I witnessed the manifestation of father’s true feelings for me. This was how important I was to him.

I smiled up at him and went to placate his feelings. “I’ve already found the last key, father,” I said.

He blinked then, started. “You… have?”

I nodded. “Yes, father, I have.” I licked my lips and decided to go for broke. Taking another deep breathe, I told him, “I want you to promise me something father.”

Predictably, father narrowed his eyes, assessing me. “What is it?” he asked.

“Will you please ready your lab for another mind transference?”

He gave me a surprised look at that answer. “What? Why would you want that?” he asked, not comprehending the intention behind my request.

“I need to save Cuán’s soul,” I told him. His eyes darkened at the mention of my brother’s name. It was clear to me now how deep his hatred ran. But I did not have time for his protests, so I quickly continued before he could interrupt me. “If you don’t, then I won’t use the key and I’ll die here,” I said.

It was manipulative of me, but it was worth it if I could save Cuán somehow… if technology could indeed save a soul. I still doubted this premise. Even so, the current situation gave me little choice, I had to risk this gamble, or else I’d face losing everything.

“I need to save him – why?” my father asked through gritted teeth.

“Because you promised to make me happy.” I was using father’s own words against him and we both knew this. I didn’t care. I would not fail this time. This was the only chance we had and everything would go according to plan. Everything would depend on it. “This is how you can make me happy, father,” I said. “I will never be happy, if you don’t do this for me.” Before he could protest against me, I quickly continued with another argument to make my case, “Also, you said you hated Cuán’s blood. I’m not asking you to save his blood now, I’m asking you to save his mind. You hate the body – not the soul. And lastly…” I gave him my most desperate and pleading look, “because it’s time to let go, father. It’s not good to hate for so long, so please let go of the past. I beg of you.”

My father assessed me for a long moment, but then he sighed wearily and said, “You’ll have to explain the whole situation to me first, Connor.”

And I did as he asked. I told him of how we found out where the last key was hidden. Of Cuán and my arguments while we decided what course to take. And of our final decision to use the C-project to our advantage, to save Cuán’s soul. As my narration came to a finish, I looked at father and I said, “Father, you have two lives in your hands. Use the C-project to help us. Please. I know you. You’ll do what’s right.”

I held my breathe, waiting for father’s final answer. At long last, he lowered his head in concession. “Fine,” he said shortly. “In five minutes.” And then the window containing his image faded out.

Behind me, I felt a slender hand touch my shoulder. “It’s time,” Cuán said and I nodded.

I turned around and watched him, truly looked at him, without jealousy, shame, self-hatred or feelings of lust. I looked at him with a purity of mind that I hadn’t possessed since my loss of innocence. And in that moment, I saw his being. I saw that which was Cuán.

He neared me, until he was almost pressed against me. Then, he went on his tiptoes and his lips met mine in a kiss. He put his arms around my neck and the sheets fell from his shoulders to gather around our feet on the laminate floor. I placed my hands on his hips and pulled him flush against me, using a bit more force to press my lips against his.

Too soon, we parted from each other.

“That’s not a real kiss,” he told me. “You sure you don’t want to do it?”

I shook my head. “No, it’s alright.”

“This will be the last time you can kiss me as a human being,” he jokingly warned me. “You should grab your chance while you still can.”

“This is fine,” I grumbled, half amused – half annoyed.

He chuckled and let go of me. Sighing he splayed one hand out onto the touch screen of the CX. “There will be a chance that I’ll die of shock before my mind is transferred,” he said. “In that case, I want you to live on freely without me.” His fingers thrummed lightly against the touch screen, randomly entering various commands into the system. “I want you to be quick about it. Don’t use your bare hands. We don’t have to play by C2’s rules anymore.”

“What do you want me to use?” I asked him.

Smiling, Cuán gave the CX another light tap. “I think this thing should do it,” he said. “Trash it. I’m sure you can find something sharp in it to use.”

I nodded and did as he told me to. When I had thoroughly mauled the Dowers Generation CX, I took out a sharp object. I had no clue what purpose my makeshift knife had served previously, nor did I care. I bravely held it up for Cuán’s inspection.

He nodded his consent. “It’s fine,” he commented.

“Good,” I panted. The air was thin and I had trouble getting my breathe back.

“Are you alright, Connor?” Cuán asked me in concern, and I quickly nodded my head to allay his worries. He should not be worried about me, when I was not the one going to die here.

Motioning for him to lie down, I held up my improvised knife and calculated the cut I had to make. “Are you ready for this?” I asked him. It was a stupid question, but I had to ask it all the same. When he nodded, I placed the sharp edge of the crude object onto his skin.

“You know I love you, right?”

I gave his fearful eyes one last look, then I sank the makeshift knife into his skin.

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A Game of Keys, Stage 3 – ch. VIII

Zero options. That was his answer. Zero options and that we wait. It was such a disappointing slap in my face, that I felt the little control which I had just regained slipping from me again.

“We wait,” I echoed. “Wait. What do you mean ‘we wait’? We have less than an hour left!” I was trying to keep my cool, but I knew that some of my frustration and desperation must have been visible on my features, because the moment my eyes met Cuán’s, he quickly averted his gaze from me and stiffened.

I bit my own tongue hard to reign in my feelings. The throbbing pain brought me back to my senses. I was supposed to be the older and more responsible one of us, so it was unacceptable for me to break down in front of my brother like this. Panicking would do us no good at all. Taking a deep breath to calm myself, I let out a heavy sigh. “But Cuán,” I said, ignoring the sting in my tongue, in favor of arguing my case, “We can’t just sit around and wait. We can’t give up just like that. It’s not right.”

“I understand,” said Cuán. He hesitantly reached out and lightly placed the fingertips of his left hand on my right elbow. “But I don’t know what we can do in this situation. Our exit is barred by what seems to be extremely advanced technology from dad– I mean, from Dowers Inc. C2 coded these security devices, so he is the only one who knows the way to get out of here. But he’s dead now, so…”

The skin on my elbow tingled at the touch, but I decided not to say anything about it. The touch was distracting, but it was pleasant as well. I wondered if my brother was conscious of its effect on me. Frowning, I realized that he probably was – after all, he was already aware of my feelings for him. Why would he do this?

“We could talk,” I said. Raising and eyebrow, Cuán urged me to explain myself. “We’ll go over what happened so far,” I said. “If we do that, we might be able to extract some clues that we missed in the heat of the moment. It may help us.”

Cuán nodded in agreement. “Yes, you’re right. We could do that.”

When he retracted his hand, I became aware of why he had put it there in the first place. He had been trying to comfort me, to placate my wayward emotions. My skin suddenly felt cold at the loss of contact, and I idly rubbed my elbow with my hand.

Glancing over, I noticed my brother trying hard to pretend that nothing had happened, yet the hand that had previously touched my elbow, was now diligently plucking at a loose thread of the sheet wrapped around him. He was definitely conscious of me.

“Okay, should I start, or do you want first?”

“I’ll go,” Cuán said. He pulled his sheet tighter to himself. “I was in my room, talking on the phone with Eva about our homework.” I suppressed the beginnings of irritation boiling in the depths of my stomach. Now was not the time to become jealous of the President’s daughter. “After that, I don’t remember much, it’s all very hazy in my mind, but when I woke up, I was tied up on that bed, looking at you dealing with C2 on the big screen.” He motioned with his head towards the room that had been hidden by the mirrors. The bed still stood there, now with a stripped mattress, and above it a big translucent screen and an old-fashioned security camera were fixed to the ceiling. “That’s it.”

“Hmmm… that’s not really helpful,” I muttered. “I don’t have much to add to that either. I was in my apartment, fixing dinner, then everything just became a blur and I ended up here with C2, and he started talking about playing this damn game.”

“You too?” Cuán stopped picking at the loose thread. “Suddenly everything is just blurry and vague in your memories?”

I narrowed my eyes and focused my attention on him. “Yes. You’ve got something?”

Cuán shook his head. “No. But I’m guessing we’ve been drugged somehow by C2, before being dragged here. It makes for pliant victims.”

“Little bastard,” I hissed under my breath. Cuán shifted a bit, edging to sit closer beside me, but I pretended not to notice.

“What about the things C2 said?” my brother continued. “I know he spouted a lot of nonsense, but many of the things he said turned out to be important clues.”

Cuán was right. Many of the things C2 said, did turn out to be relevant in the end. “He said I had to play a game,” I recounted, “ He said he’d… do things to me every time I dropped a key. He threatened to rape me when I hadn’t solved the game and freed myself the moment the hour was over. He also hid his scent and voice.”

“No doubt in an effort to hide that he looked exactly like me,” Cuán commented, “but you figured it out anyway.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “It wasn’t so difficult to figure out once he raised his voice to shout at you.”

“I remember that.” There was a deep contemplative frown on Cuán’s face. “That was a conscious move of him. He chose to forgo his hidden identity in order to provoke you. He liked provoking you, it seemed to be some sort of method for him to control you.”

“True, C2 did say that ‘being in control of the youngest son of the powerful Dowers family is the most arousing thing in the world’,” I concurred, choosing to use the exact same words that C2 had used. “Youngest son being me.”

“Have you noticed that C1 and C2 are like opposites?” Cuán suddenly said to me.

I raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Cuán licked his lips thoughtfully and idly rubbed at his navel. “C2 was very controlling and provocative – he had a domineering personality, but C1 on the other hand seems to be very submissive.”

That made me think for a moment. It was true that C1 gave into me the moment I raised my voice to demand something. He also seemed to listen to father’s every word. “He appears to be sensitive to authority,” I supplied.

“C1 is also very affectionate and childish, whereas C2 was a cold and calculating creature,” Cuán continued. “Do you remember what C1 said about himself and C2? He said that he was the better one of them two.”

I nodded. “I remember that. He said that he learned better to be you.” Shaking my head in anger, I growled, “But he’s nothing like you, Cuán. He’s a fake!”

“I know he’s a fake, Connor.” Cuán sighed. “But do you remember what dad– eh, yeah, dad… right.” Cuán raked his hand through his hair in frustration. I noted that it was difficult for him to suddenly change his wordings. I smiled, ignoring his small slip up, and wordlessly urged him to continue, which he did. “Remember what he said to me? One day he’ll replace me. Which means that C1 was the better replacement compared to C2. Not necessarily perfect, but better.”

“But you’re not a subservient person at all, Cuán,” I pointed out to him. “If you were, then you and I wouldn’t have been butting heads all these years. That’s why C1 is nothing like you.”

“Which is exactly why C1 is the better one.” Cuán turned to look me straight in the eyes. “Note that dad wants to replace me. For what reason would someone normally want to replace something? Normally, it would be, because that something is incompetent at its task. So too am I incompetent in dad’s eyes.”

“You’re not incompetent, Cuán,” I argued, but Cuán held up a hand to silence me.

“You’re looking at this from your own perspective, Connor,” he gently chided, “You have to look at this from dad’s point of view. What am I to him?”

I gruffly crossed my arms, but I knew that Cuán had a valid point there. Pushing my thoughts aside, I tried to step into my father’s mind. “You’re the son of the man who raped his wife.” I swallowed thickly. “He hates your blood, because it’s that man’s blood.”

“That’s not all, Connor,” Cuán said. “What about my relation to you? How would dad interpret that?”

Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to continue. “He knows my feelings for you – yet he sees us constantly fighting. He thinks you’re a source of pain to me.”

Cuán nodded. “Yes, I am a source of pain to you. A source that must be eliminated. Connor, like I said to you before, dad loves you very much. Remember what he said? That he promised your mother that he would give you all the happiness in the world? How can you be happy when I am constantly fighting you?”

“And so that’s why you have to be replaced?” I growled indignantly.

Cuán gave me a sad smile. “He would’ve just killed me and be done with it, if it weren’t for the fact that that would hurt you even more.”

“Because I –”

Because I loved Cuán.

I love him.

***

“I… see your point.”

I sighed. This was ridiculous. The cause of all this pain, of all this madness was me. Father created those little monsters for me. Because he loved me and wanted me to be happy. I was the one who had unknowingly started all this.

“So,” I said, “Father created these things to replace you so that I could be happy. Does he honestly think I could ever be happy with such replacements?”

Cuán shook his head. “I don’t think you were supposed to know that I was going to be substituted. And both C1 and C2 were still in an experimental phase, I don’t think either of them were expected to be the final product that would replace me. If I am going to be replaced, then surely the alternative will have to be absolutely perfect. You know how dad is, everything he makes must be faultless.”

I gave a joyless chuckle. “Yeah, his security systems are so perfect that even the secret back doors which he installed into the programs are a disaster to enter. And C2 is so damned perfect that it actually managed to hack into these very security systems. What a nightmare!”

“But I said that my clones are not perfect, Connor.” Cuán reached out to squeeze my shoulder lightly, bringing my attention back to him. “Especially C2 is not faultless. In fact, judging by what transpired, I’d say that he was a mistake. Why else would he so carelessly be blown up?”

I frowned, recalling the incident. “He was trying to say something before he was blown up. You said yourself that it seemed like he was being silenced.”

Cuán nodded grimly. “Yes. Remember his last words? ‘Your father. He is responsible for me. He wants me to…’ And there he was cut off and blown up. And just before that he said, ‘I want money. I need it to buy the things that will make you happy.’ In a twisted way, C2’s wishes are in line with what dad wanted.”

“I do recall his motive of wanting money,” I scoffed. “He thinks that buying expensive things will make me happy? That’s ludicrous!”

“Perhaps to you and me, but not to a person raised in a tube.” Cuán let his hand travel from my shoulder to my hand, and then he took hold of it and interlaced his dainty fingers with mine. I noticed distinctly how much bigger my hand was compared to his, and the warmth I felt tingling through my skin comforted me in an unexpected way. “You are loved by many people, Connor. And I at least have mom, whom I know loves me very dearly. But C2 must have grown up all alone in a lab, with no one to turn to when he needed someone to comfort him.”

It was strange to hear Cuán talk about C2. I suddenly noticed that whenever I referred to the cyborg, I simply spoke of it as a thing, an object, a monster even. But hearing my brother speak of him, C2 almost sounded like a human child with human qualities and human needs. I shifted uncomfortably.

“The only example of a loving person that C2 knows is dad, Connor,” Cuán continued. He tightened his grip on my hand. “And despite that dad loves you, he is still quite an authoritative person, even –or perhaps especially– to you. Before you moved out, dad was the one to tell you how you were to dress, walk and talk. He was the one dictating what people you should and shouldn’t know. And even to this day, you still rely on him whenever you are in trouble. Compared to that, dad paid no attention to my daily life at all. I know you must have noticed this throughout the years we’ve lived together.”

I gave Cuán’s hand a light squeeze in confirmation, and sighed. “I know,” I said. “I noticed, but I pretended not to see it.” I tried to keep the dejection from my voice, but I wasn’t sure whether I succeeded or not.

Smiling slightly, Cuán pulled me a little closer towards him. “It’s okay, Connor,” he said. “Dad may not really love me, but he did buy me many things to show his affection to me.”

“His fake affection,” I countered bitterly.

“And that’s also something C2 learned from dad,” said Cuán.

I started. “What?”

“C2 knew that dad’s affection for me was pretended, but the gestures are still real in their act,” Cuán explained. His free hand traveled upwards to play with the diamond piercing in his ear. “Besides, were you not the one to explain to me that, when you love someone, you should give them a present on Valentine’s day?”

“I…”

I felt a phantom kiss press against my cheek, and I knew then that I must be blushing. I could only be grateful for the darkness in the room that covered my face, and I silently hoped that the redness in my face wouldn’t be too noticeable.

Releasing his piercing, Cuán dropped his hand to place it on top of our interlaced fingers. “Connor,” he said to me, “what C2 did to you is reprehensible, but you should know that he acted upon what he believed to be love.”

I instantly jerked backwards. “That’s not love!” I cried out, disgusted at my brother’s implications. How could he suggest such a thing!

“I know it’s not,” Cuán said, “But does C2 know that?”

I swallowed hard. “You’re suggesting that C2 did what he did out of love for me?” I asked hoarsely.

“Out of what he thought was love for you,” Cuán corrected, “Like you said, it’s not real love, and it’s repulsive. I’m not sure that he even knew what real love was, which is where he and C1 differ radically.”

“You are not telling me that what C1 feels for me is real love!” I warned Cuán. “I will not accept that!”

Cuán scoffed. “Of course not,” he said. He pulled at my hand in an attempt to close the distance that my jerking backwards had created between us. “C1 loves dad, not you.”

“… What?”

 ***

“C1 loves dad,” Cuán repeated patiently. “He’s obedient in character and likes to please the one he loves. Dad made him with the intention of replacing me, so the purpose of his creation is to love you. I think C1 is so set on fulfilling this purpose in order to please dad that he’s feigning affection for you. That’s most likely why he calls you his ‘dearest’, because it is a term of endearment.”

“No.” I slowly shook my head. “I can’t believe that. That just isn’t possible.” It  just couldn’t be.

“Why not?” Cuán asked me.

“Because, Cuán – he’s a robot,” I argued. “It’s unnatural!” It defied the laws of the universe!

“But Connor, both C2 and C1 are man made. How natural could they possibly be?” Cuán pointed out.

“Exactly. That’s what I mean!” I exclaimed, feeling myself getting upset. “Neither of them are natural, therefore neither of them could ever know love.” They were not real. They could not possibly feel anything.

Unexpectedly, Cuán released my hand and stood up from his sitting position. He turned his back on me and left my side to sit on the bare mattress of the bed inside the room that had previously been hidden behind a mirror wall. I flexed my hand. The sudden absence of his presence made me feel strangely cold.

“They may not have been naturally born like us, Connor, but C2 was a living being just like you and I. C1 too had once been alive, before his body died in surgery. His soul is still alive inside that robotic body. They must have feelings just as you and I do.”

I felt myself getting irked by Cuán’s determination to convince me. “I doubt they have souls,” I contended, crossing my arms tightly across my chest. “God created us and gave us souls. These things were man made, they were not from God.”

“Their DNA came from me,” Cuán argued vehemently. “If I am from God, then are they not indirectly from God as well?”

I shook my head fiercely. “No,” I said, standing up. “They don’t feel, that’s why they don’t have souls.”

Cuán would have none of it. “And how could you possibly know if they don’t feel!” he yelled back.

“I know, because they’re not even alive!”

I breathed heavily. Why couldn’t Cuán understand this? What kind of rubbish had been implanted in his head that he could not even see this kind of logic?

“They’re not alive,” I repeated. I had to get this through my brother’s thick head. “You heard what C2 said, didn’t you? He can’t sin. And why do people sin? They sin because they choose evil over good. And they know evil from good, because they have souls.”

“People learn what’s good and evil,” said Cuán. “C2 never had that chance to learn it. He never had the opportunity to. That C2 said that he cannot sin, is simply a demonstration of his ignorance.”

“He’s still not alive,” I maintained.

“C2 was perfectly alive before he was killed off.” Cuan pulled his legs up to sit cross-legged on the bed. “Clones are living beings, Connor.”

“But robots are not,” I argued. “So even if I do admit that C2 has a soul, C1 still does not. C1 is simply made up from a lot of complicated data. He’s software. He’s not real.”

“C1 was once alive!” Cuán countered heatedly. “You said it yourself, the C1 you know is the preserved soul from the dead clone which dad transferred to that android body.”

“Well, then I guess I said wrong!” I crossed my arms in finality. “Robots can’t have souls. C1 has no soul. It’s ridiculous to think that he has one, and it’s certainly ridiculous to think that he knows love.”

“You will stand by your point?” Cuán asked me.

I nodded my head. “Yes,” I said.

“You are certain that a soul cannot be saved through technology?”

“Only God can save a soul,” I responded resolutely. “Humans who think they can do what God does are foolish and arrogant.”

“I see. Then I guess I can’t be saved either.”

***

Can’t be saved?

Perplexed, I uncrossed my arms. “Wha– what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.” Cuán brusquely turned around and dropped himself flat on his back to lie on the bed, placing his left hand on his abdomen to idly scratch at his bellybutton. “I just… I wish you were less– limited… in your views.”

I scoffed in indignation. “Limited?” I said. “And pray tell me – in what way am I limited?” I marched over towards the bed and sat on the edge of it, not caring that Cuán was carefully shuffling away from me as soon as I sat down. “Look, just because you accept robots as human beings and think cloning is okay, that doesn’t mean that you’re morally better than I am. You’re not. Having liberal ideas does not equate to having moral superiority. Got that?”

“I wasn’t talking about moral superiority,” Cuán said.

“Sure you weren’t,” I sneered. I made sure that the sarcasm dripped from my voice. “You just have a much broader view on what’s right and what’s wrong. You just know everything so much better.”

“This isn’t about right and wrong.”

“Oh? Then what is it about, huh?” I cajoled, “Would you please enlighten me? Since you have such a broad perspective on things.”

“Your hand is still bleeding.”

He was trying to change the subject. Apparently he wasn’t ready to confront me on this matter. I huffed and reached out to tear a piece of cloth from the sheet that was still partly wrapped around him. I clumsily attempted to wrap the cloth around my bleeding hand, but was stopped by him.

“I’ll help you bandage it,” he offered and proceeded to do as he had said.

“What did you mean, you can’t be saved?” I was not going to beat around the bushes. This was serious, and I would not let my brother deter me from the subject.

“I just have a feeling,” he replied vaguely. He patted my hand. “Done!” he said.

I suppressed the urge to become mad again. He was still trying to avoid the topic, but this was too important, and I could not lose my temper at this crucial point, otherwise Cuán would use it in his attempts to divert my attention again. I had to stay focused.

“What feeling?” I coaxed him.

Cuán scratched at his navel again. He was doing that whenever he felt uncomfortable. “Connor,“ he said, “I won’t beat around the bushes anymore, but can you tell me one thing first? Tell me honestly.”

I quickly nodded, urging him to continue.

“Are you happy with me?”

I contemplated his question. “Happy – in what sense?” I asked him carefully.

“That I am here with you. Beside you.” He looked at me with hopeful eyes.

I stared back at him, but I did not know how to interpret his words. “Beside me,” I reiterated. Was he asking me whether I was happy that he was beside me because he knew I was in love with him? That I wanted him? “Beside me,” I repeated once more, then added, “As my brother?”

He smiled. “As me,” he said. “As Cuán.”

I gave him another long assessing look, and while I mulled over his words, the way he had phrased them. As Cuán – he had said. As himself – he had meant. Everything that he was and everything that he represented. I smiled back at him. “Yes,” I said.

He nodded, and then his expression turned grave. He was going to speak. Taking a deep breath, he looked me straight in the eyes, and told me – honestly, “I don’t think I will live through this.” This time he did not avert his eyes from me.

Before I knew what I was doing I had taken hold of his arms and pulled him close to me. I refused to believe in his words. “You will live through this,” I said, “I will make sure of it.” I was not going to lose him, I’d be damned before I would let him! I didn’t care how I’d do it or whatever it would take, but my brother would not die here. I would not allow for it.

“But what if I won’t?” He asked me calmly.

“You will! I won’t give you any other options.”

Cuán gave me a grim laugh. “And who are you to decide what options I have? Did you become God when I wasn’t looking?”

I frowned. “I’m serious, Cuán. We’ll make it out of here together.”

Cuán smiled at me, but the smile did not reach his eyes. “Your will has always been strong, Connor, and you’ve accomplished many things by acting on that strength. You constantly butted heads with me because of it. You were able to leave dad’s house because of it, despite the adamant protests of dad, mom and our brothers, and even me. And you also never laid a finger on me because of it.”

I squirmed uneasily at his casual voicing of my feelings for him, but instead of letting him go, I only held on tighter to his bony teen-aged limbs. How could Cuán speak so easily of this? Was he not even the slightest bit appalled by how I felt for him?

Cuán sighed. “I think your will comes from dad. He and you are equally headstrong men when you’ve set yourselves on something.” He wearily continued, “But you still shouldn’t forget that we have less than an hour of air here. No matter how strong your will is, it is still not strong enough to bend reality. We will die, if we don’t get way out of here. And that situation is impossible to avoid, unless we find the right key.”

“And you’re saying that we won’t find a way out of here?” I asked. “That we won’t find this key? You’re quitting just like that?”

Cuán shook his head. “No. In fact, I think I might have a hunch how we can get out of here.”

I felt myself blinking in confusion, and then raising an eyebrow expectantly. “You do? What then? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Something uneasy settled in my stomach, but I ignored it.

Cuán shrugged reluctantly. “I didn’t tell you, because I didn’t really want you to know. I guess I… well, but I suppose it’s only fair to tell you the truth.”

I held my breath. What would Cuán say? Were we going to get out of here?

“I think I may be involved in this.”

Come again?

“I’ve been thinking why C2 had trapped me here with you,” Cuán continued, “and this seemed like the only logical explanation. I mean, he wants to replace me right?”

I pulled him closer to me. “What are you trying to tell me?”

“Did you notice that my bellybutton is bleeding?” Cuán suddenly asked me.

I blinked and looked down. I noticed that there was a slight trickling of blood dripping down his navel. “You’ve been scratching that place ever since I released you from this bed.” I said with a disapproving scowl.

“I know. I think someone messed with my bellybutton. It itches.”

What are you rambling about?” He was starting to digress again, the brat! Cuán tried to pull away, but I only dragged him closer to myself. He was not getting away now. Not while we were so close to getting out of here. “Don’t try to change the subject to avoid talking about what‘s important,” I warned him.

He averted his eyes and said, “Connor, I’m not changing the subject. I think there’s something inside me that doesn’t belong there. I think you have to get it out of me in order to escape this place.”

“You don’t mean…?” I was not hearing this. Absolutely not.

“The best way for C2 to replace me is when I’m dead. You know that.”

This was not happening.

Cuán looked up at me and said, “Connor, I think I’m the last key to your freedom.”

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A Game of Keys, Stage 3 – ch. VII

“I… don’t?” I carefully stood back up to get a better look at my father’s hologram.

“You don’t.”

I gave my father a blank stare. What was he talking about? Of course I knew that father loved me! Though reserved and very strict most of the time – usually towards my four elder brothers and I, he had been a good father to each and every one of us!

“What do you –?”

My father did not let me finish my question, and said, “You are most precious to me, Connor, much more than you realize.” He gave me a penetrating look, but then he lowered his eyes and continued what he had been doing before he had been distracted by C1 and me.

While working, he seemed to hesitate momentarily, before making a decision and speaking, “I adored your mother very much, Connor. She was the most important woman in my life… and when she died, the last thing for me she left behind was you. That’s why, on that day, I vowed to myself that I would treasure you as my most beloved son. I vowed to give you all the happiness that you longed for.”

“I…” What was I to say to that?

“No one can ever replace your mother, Connor, she’s a very special person,” father continued. “However, I realized that you needed a devoted person to take care of you, and I, who had to take care of Dowers Inc., could not be that person. So, I hired Sarah to be your nanny…”

“And you fell in love with her,” I said.

“Yes, I did,” father agreed. “Sarah is a hardworking person with a great heart. She’s taken care of you ever since your mother died. Despite that it was only her job, she had always treated you as if you were her own child, and I admired her for that. But I had never consciously thought about my own feelings for her until then, because back at that time, my thoughts had still mostly been centered on your mother. However, on that faithful day, that incident happened.”

The incident. On that cruel day, my stepmother was raped by a security guard, and consequently, she gave birth to Cuán.

“After that, I finally came to the realization of what she meant to me and how I felt about her.”

“You loved her like you did mother,” I stated.

“No Connor.”

I blinked, confused. He did not?

A small smile tugged at the corner of father’s lips. “I do love her, but she can never replace your mother. Your mother will always be the first woman in my heart, and Sarah knows this. She loves me because she knows the extend of my love for your mother. She calls it… a ‘devoted heart’, or something like that.”

Father gave me a cheeky smile. “You know how she always goes on and on about me being a good and devoted man, but if only…”

I grinned back. “Yeah, yeah… if only you turned that devotion to God, but you don’t.”

“Nope,” father chuckled. “We both know that I’ve never found that stuff to make any sense.”

Father’s look turned grim after he said that. “Indeed, despite my love for her, there are many things about Sarah that I don’t understand. I’ve never made sense of Sarah’s belief in a God. I also never understood why she forgave that man who had done that to her.”

“It’s good that she did it and very strong of her,” I said. “It’s not good to hold a grudge against people.”

“Perhaps…”

It did not surprise me that father seemed hesitant to agree with me on this. He always had seen things differently than Sarah and I had.

As I regarded him, a coldness slowly made itself visible in father’s gaze. I felt a shiver run up my spine. I don’t remember having ever seen this kind of look in father’s eyes before, except for that one time, now more than fifteen years ago. Beside me, I felt Cuán lean closer to me, scratching his navel, and shivering just enough for me to know that he too was scared. I suppressed the urge to comfort him, though I could not help leaning slightly back into him. I quickly squashed my upcoming guilt and made a mental note of Cuán’s neurotic scratching of his navel, which was not a habit I’d seen from him before. Did the pressure from the clones and now father’s intense stare have anything to do with the development of this new habit?

Father continued speaking. “Sarah may have forgiven him,” he said, “but I am not like her. I will never forgive that man.”

“But father –” I tried. I was quickly silenced by the hardening of his steel eyes. He narrowed his eyes. They fixed upon Cuán.

“My grudge is against him… and all his blood.”

***

Blood? Against all his blood…? But that could only mean…

Slowly, I turned to look at Cuán, who had been silent this whole time. As I looked at him, I noticed the rigidness of his form. He was standing deathly still next to me, rooted to his spot, like a marble statue. All color had left his face, making it seem ashen pale, the color of someone who was sick. But then, would I not be sick too, if such a revelation were made to me?

“What are you trying to tell me, dad?” I heard Cuán carefully say the words that I myself had wanted to ask.

“You know very well what I mean, boy, the charade is over,” father said, “There is no need for us to act anymore, so you can quit calling me that.” His eyes were so cold, just like they had been back then, when he had first discovered that Sarah had been violated. This was a side of him that I had never learned to know, a look that had never been directed towards me before, and never would be directed towards me in the future. The coldness was unnatural, so unnatural, it almost made him seem as inhuman as C1. Almost. To see this look now directed towards my little brother, I felt a part of me dying inside. Why? Why, father?

Cuán, however, acted as if he had expected our father to direct all of his hatred towards him in that one look. There was no surprised or questioning look to be detected on his face, and the fear he had held just moments ago was also abandoned, as was his obsessive scratching. All that was left was a great sadness which I felt clinging around his heart and soul. But even though I wanted to reach out to him, I did not. He remained silent, so father continued talking.

“I know that you understand the implications of my words. You’re much smarter than you’re being given credit for, boy. You may have fooled Connor into thinking that you have the insight of an average child, but you cannot fool me. You were the blue print of the C-project. You provided the genes to C2. That means that his intelligence and yours are on par. What C2 can do, you can as well. That’s why I know that, despite the stupidity act you put on in front of my wife and children, you do have a competent brain inside that little head of yours. Your clone would never have been capable of planning this entire kidnapping scenario, if not for you, the donor.”

“I do understand your words,” Cuán said. “But I’ve always wanted to believe that I was wrong. I wanted to believe that I was a part of -”

“You’re not!” father cut him off. The muscles of his face seemed to have become stiff, and his eyes held a hatred so intense that I felt as though they would burn through Cuán. “You, who carry that man’s filthy blood! You, who dared to cause pain to my wife! – and to my son! How dare you even suggest that you could be a part of my family!”

Father!” I pushed Cuán behind me, though I knew I could not shield him from the onslaught of hateful words that I feared would come. “Father, how dare you say that to Cuán! You and Sarah raised him!”

My father scoffed. “I tried to talk sense to her. I tried to tell her to abort that abomination, but of course she would not listen. And you…!” Father bit his lips, then quickly averted his eyes. “You,” he continued, “you fell in love with that boy.”

I stiffened upon hearing that and swallowed difficultly. Father knew of my feelings?

“I knew as soon as I saw that look on your face,” father said, as if he had read my mind somehow. He continued, “The moment Sarah told you that you would be getting a little brother, the moment she asked you to name it… you smiled and glowed – a look of pure happiness.”

A queasy feeling settled in my stomach. Father was implying something even I had not thought of. I had been just ten years old back then… that could not possibly have been the moment I fell in love with my little brother? Cuán had not even been born yet! I distinctly remember when I became aware of my feelings for him. It had been on Valentine’s day, on that day I had given him that ear piercing. He had kissed my cheek.

“You’re thinking that it wasn’t that moment that you had fallen in love with the boy,” father said, reading my thoughts. “You’re thinking that the correct timing should be the Valentine’s day following your fifteenth birthday. But you’re wrong. You were a mere child back then. How could you possibly have known what those feelings you had meant? Only when you were older, on that Valentine’s day, five years later, did you truly start to understand what your feelings for that boy entailed.”

“You’d known before I even…”

“If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be cloning him, now would I?”

I frowned. Father had just alluded to his reasons for making those clones. Yet, I still did not comprehend what he really meant, what his true reasons were. “I don’t understand,” I said. “Why?”

Father gave me a long assessing look, then glanced behind me. “Why don’t you explain to him, boy?” he ordered Cuán in that same hateful tone that he had been using against him ever since C1 had made a connection between our glorified computers.

I turned to give Cuán an expectant look.

“Da–” Cuán hesitated, then bit his bottom lip and started over. “Your father hates me, as you should have noticed by now.”

Why!” I balled my hands into fists. “I’ve only ever seen father doting on you! How can he possibly hate you!?”

“An act to keep you happy, Connor.” Cuán gave me a look of so much pain. Pain that I never knew he had been holding inside himself. Had I really been so blind? How could I not have noticed any of this?

Cuán took a deep breath and continued. “I really wanted to be part of your family, Connor. The name that I carry… mom told me that you had thought of that name, and I wanted to believe that this name could bind me to you. That it could make me a part of your family.”

I had always known that Cuán treasured his name. I had abused this knowledge and ridiculed him countless times. All this behavior I had excused by reasoning that it was done in order to distance myself from him. Yet now, with the knowledge of the reason for his insecurities in the back of my mind, my past behavior, as I reflected upon them, made me feel disgusted with myself. Father had hated Cuán and he had always known this. That was why he felt so insecure about the position he occupied in this family. That was why he clung to his name. And I ridiculed that and trampled upon his feelings just so that I did not have to confront my own. I sacrificed him for my own sake.

But I still didn’t understand. I didn‘t want to understand it. I was not ready yet to face this inevitable truth. Thus, I tactically stalled for time, a mere few seconds, but long enough for me to accommodate to the new situation. I did this by asking for confirmation from Cuán.

“Are you saying that father acted as though he loved you, when in reality he hated you?” I asked him. “And did you play along with him?”

A dogged but foolish and short lived hope fought for survival in my mind. Deny it, Cuán… I silently begged him, though I knew he wouldn’t do it.

Cuán closed his eyes and turned his head away to look at anything but me. “Your father loves you. As he just told you, he wanted to give you all the happiness you wished for. He believed that you loved me, so he pretended to accept me. And I…” I noticed Cuán quiver ever so slightly. Then, he wrapped his arms around his body, as if to protect himself from me. One hand went down to scrape at his bellybutton again. He looked so small right now, even smaller than his height normally already makes him out to be. “I played along because I didn’t want you to know that I was not wanted in this family. You seemed to hate me so much, but then you… you held me close…” The last part was barely above a whisper, but I heard it very clearly. He was referring to the times that I had run after him into this very basement in which we were currently locked. Our ceasefire moments. My weak moments.

In the faint glowing light of the holographic projections I noticed the blush on his face and then became keenly aware of the fact that he was still naked. I felt my own cheeks heating up as well and quickly averted my eyes. To distract myself, I went through my memories of Cuán and father. All memories were of him doting on Cuán. Buying Cuán expensive goods. Indulging Cuán’s whims. But as I went over the memories, I came to the conclusion that Cuán and my father were telling the truth. Despite the pleasant words and gestures, there had always been something tense and stilted in the atmosphere whenever the two interacted with each other, which – I now realized – didn’t even happen all that often. Father had indulged all of Cuán’s material wishes, but on an emotional level, he’d hardly ever paid attention to Cuán. It was almost the opposite of how father behaved towards me.

And all of this was an act for my sake. Probably for Sarah’s sake as well, I thought grimly. And I had wanted to believe that it had all been true. I had wanted to believe that father was the perfect man: faithful to his wife and loving to all his children. He had been the prime example of the kind of man I had wanted to become. I realized that this was the reason why I had never noticed – or rather, had ignored – the underlying tensions between father and Cuán. Because I loved them both, I had wanted them to get along. And they had conformed themselves to my desire.

“Connor had every right to hate someone like you.” Like lightning, father’s words cut through my dark thoughts. “You were hurting my son!” he raged. “Because of you, he became the laughingstock of social gatherings, and consequently could not partake in Dowers Inc. Because of you, he felt as though he were committing the worst possible sin, causing him to grow up a young man full of self-loathing. Because of you, he left home. Because of you, he began picking up those filthy little whores on the street that all looked like you. You, abomination! –why do you have to exist!”

“Father! –stop it!” I cried out. I rushed over to Cuán and pressed my hands over his ears. He did not need to hear any more of my father’s verbal abuse. “You know very well that the reason why I became the butt of all jokes is because of my own social incompetence.”

“And whose fault was it that you became socially incompetent?” my father barked back. “Whose fault was it that you lashed out at the President’s daughter? That you embarrassed Miss Eva so much that time that you could never show your face around another decent woman again!”

“That’s –!”

“Was it not for his sake? For the sake of that abomination you’re holding in your arms!”

I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to hear this. Couldn’t bear to hear my father say those hateful things about the person I loved most! This was not real! It was just a nightmare!

“Abomination!” my father continued, spitting out the word as though it were poison. I wanted to turn away, but I could not remove my gaze from the sight of his eyes. His pupils were dilated, as though he had finally lost it. “Hurting my son! Hurting my wife!”

“Shut –up!” I shouted as I pressed Cuán against me, shielding him as best as I could from the onslaught coming from my father.

His tirade continued, “Abomination! One day, I’ll replace you!”

***

No more! I could take no more of this! I balled my hands into fists within Cuán’s hair. Enough of this! Heaving a deep sigh, I pressed the boy against me, drawing for comfort and strength. When I found it, I let Cuán go and lifted my head to face my raging father.

“Abomination!” The holographic projection, the image of my father, kept going at me, shouting like a madman. Next to it, the hologram projecting C1 showed a small boy who had covered his own ears, flinching in fear.

“I will replace you!” my father continued, “I will replace all of your filthy blood! You bastard child! Demon spawn! Monster!”

Balling my hands, I pulled back my right hook, and slammed my fist right into the middle of the hologram projector, shattering the image of my father. A crack. The light coming from the beamer dissolved and the sound of my raging father abruptly ended.

Darkness. Silence.

I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding.

“Connor, are you sure about this?”

“Let me tell you something, Cuán!” I snapped, turning around to glare at Cuán, my eyes adjusting to the darkness once more. “I am your brother. I will not have you think otherwise of me, no matter what father may think of you.”

No matter what I may think of you, I added cynically in my mind.

Cuán averted his gaze from me. I sighed, my anger quickly dissipating from me to be replaced by a sense of weariness. “I didn’t mean to be angry at you, Cuán,” I tried to apologize, “I was just so – I mean, after just now with father – I just couldn’t… damn it, man!” I ran a frustrated hand through my hair. This whole experience had been wrong on so many levels, I didn’t even know how to express it.

“I understand.” It was a soft whisper, barely audible.

I eyed Cuán, whose eyes had dropped to the floor, and I knew that, despite the composed demeanor he had been displaying thus far, he was only barely holding on. And who could blame him? I bit my bottom lip as I thought of what I could do right now to help him. Reassure him. I had to be there for him!

“Cuán…” Slowly, I walked up to him, and placed my hands on his shoulders. I noticed that blood was dripping from my right hand onto his bare shoulder, but I ignored it for the moment. Lowering myself, I knelt down in front of him, until I was looking up at him. “Whatever may happen, Cuán, I am always your brother,” I told him, gripping his shoulders tightly. “Nothing will change that.”

That’s right, nothing will. Not my father, and not my own feelings. Cuán had been hurt enough by us, and I would not let anything like that happen again. If I had to tie down both my feelings and my tongue, then so be it. God help me, I would make Cuán happy from now on.

I knew he was still uncertain, but he seemed to brighten just a bit by my words.

Standing up, I said, “Let’s find something to cover you up with– ” I hesitated for a moment, but then quickly added, “ –before you catch a cold.”

I heard him chuckle lightly and I blinked. “What?” I said, giving him a questioning look.

Right then, his lips formed into a small smirk. Sinful. “I didn’t know you’d become so worried about me catching a cold,” he joked, “but maybe you could help warm me up a bit?”

The temperature inside the basement must have suddenly increased a few degrees. I clenched my fists and abruptly turned around. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I said and scowled. I stomped towards the other side of the basement, where the bed on which Cuán had been bound still stood, and angrily ripped one of the sheets from the mattress, all the way cursing softly underneath my breath while I was doing it. What the hell kind of question was that!

Stomping back to him, I barked, “Shut up and cover yourself!” and threw the sheet over his head.

He pulled the fabric off of his head and wrapped it around himself. “But are you okay with this?” he asked me.

Was he trying to piss me off? “Of course I’m not okay with this, damn it!” I yelled. “Do I look like I’m okay with this? Would anyone be fucking okay with this?!”

“I- I didn’t mean…” He shrunk back upon my outburst.

The movement made me stop. Damn it, was I breaking my vows as soon as I made them? I had to learn to hold my tongue once! I heaved a breath to calm myself. Still shaking slightly from all the emotions rushing through my body, I sat down onto the laminate floor.

“I wasn’t talking about your feelings for me,” I heard Cuán mumble. There was irritation present in his voice, as if a little of his bratty self was returning to him.

“Oh,” I said.

I didn’t feel any better about his words though. The fact remained that I had the wrong feelings for him, and that was more than enough to make me feel disgusted with myself. I had no energy left to say anything more to him, so I remained silent, waiting for him to continue with whatever he had been planning to tell me.

“What I wanted to say was – are you okay with destroying the Dowers Generation CX?” Shuffling over, he went to sit beside me, but he was conscious about leaving enough room in order to not invade my personal space. “I mean, not only was it our only link to the outside world, it was also one of the keys to unlock this basement. We may have needed it to make progress in the subsequent stages of C2’s game.”

“It’s just a glorified computer,” I replied. “Besides, C2 is dead.”

“But his game is not.”

Shit. Cuán had been right again. The game was still continuing. We were still locked in this basement. How could I have been so stupid as to…? Why did I have to lose control again!

Biting the inside of my cheek, I clamped down those anxious thoughts. They would have to wait. Right now, more pressing matters were at hand. “What can we do now?” I turned to ask Cuán. It was better to ask him first. I now knew that the little brat was most likely a whole lot smarter than me. But the look he gave me crushed what little hope I had invested in him.

“We wait,” he replied. “We have zero options.”

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A Game of Keys, Stage 3 – ch. VI

Final… stage…?

“… the hell!?” I heard Cuán say beside me, voicing my own thoughts on the matter. “What’s going on here?”

I, too, wondered if perhaps this was all a bad dream. A nightmare. Or maybe someone had drugged me. How many copies of Cuán were walking this planet anyway? I decided to ask C1 straight out. This information was crucial, too important to ignore.

Before I breached that particular topic, however, I felt that a different issue had to be addressed. “Cuán…” I cleared my throat uncomfortably. “Would you mind, ehm…?”

Blinking, Cuán turned to look at me, oblivious. “Huh… what?” he asked.

“You’re, uh… erm…” I felt myself blushing and turned away.

“What is it?” he pressed.

“Your clothes,” I said.

For a moment, I sensed no reaction coming from him. Then…

“Oh.”

Finally, my little brother seemed to have realized that he wasn’t exactly covered up. “Uhm… I don’t have any clothes, though. I was like this when I woke up here.” He shrugged, and his hand traveled down to scratch his bellybutton for a moment. He didn’t seem in the least bit to be feeling awkward about his nudity.

I repressed the urge to roll my eyes in annoyance. Yes, of course, he woke up like this. Damn it! Fate was out to get me, wasn’t it?

I sighed inwardly, then forcefully recomposed myself. Keeping control of myself, I turned to glare at C1’s image projected in the hologram. “How many clones of Cuán were made?” I demanded.

C1 smiled cutely at me, but his lifeless eyes betrayed his true self to me. He was not Cuán. “Two,” he answered. “And one of us just died.”

“How do we know if you’re not lying to us?” Cuán asked. He gave his double a suspicious look, but C1 only smiled back at him.

“I’ll answer you the same way C2 did your brother,” C1 said teasingly, “You simply can’t know. You’ll just have to trust me on my word.”

Cuán cursed. “Why the hell should I –”

“And for what reason were you made?” I cut through Cuán’s outburst. Now was really not the time to piss off the one who had just made our kidnapper explode. Who knows, he might make us explode next. It was better to keep the thing placated, and extract as much information from him as possible, hoping that he might be speaking the truth as the other had done.

C1 regarded me with a long indecipherable look, as if he were hesitant of something. Then, finally, he said, “It’s not up to me to tell you this.”

“Then it’s up to my father?”

C1’s silence spoke volumes to me. I instantly knew that it was my own father who was behind the creation of these unnatural things. Another more foreboding thought also came to mind. Was my father possibly also taking part in this twisted abduction?

“Where is my father?” I demanded. C1 remained silent – again, hesitating.

I sized him up momentarily, then felt my manipulative inner-self crawl up to take advantage of the weakness that I had spotted in my new enemy. I suppressed the smirk that I felt tugging at my lips. “Where is he?!” I bellowed loudly. Though his eyes remained lifeless, I noticed the barely visible flinch in C1’s posture. His weakness.

Apparently, C1 was sensitive to authority.

“He’s at the lab,” C1 told me. “He’s working to get you out of the basement as quickly as possible, because your oxygen will run low in fifty eight minutes.”

That information made me frown in contemplation. Father was trying to get me out of the basement? Then father was not responsible for my abduction? I thought about this new perspective a little longer, and decided that I had been foolish to think that father would ever try to kidnap me. Perhaps I’d been growing paranoid inside this basement, because I knew deep in my heart that father was simply not that kind of person.

In retrospect, it had been my own doubt about my knowledge concerning Cuán that had caused me to mistake C2 for him. If I started doubting father too, then I would make that same mistake again.

It worried me that we had only one hour left though.

“Are you behind my kidnapping?” I demanded, making sure to give C1 my most imposing look.

Quickly, C1 shook his head in denial. “No,” he said, “I would never do such a thing! This is all C2’s fault.”

“C2 is dead,” I pointed out to him.

“Yes,” C1 said, “I erased him, when I found out what he had done. I also reported my findings to daddy.”

Daddy? I barely refrained from puking on the control panel in disgust. Was that what this thing called my father? Even Cuán used the shortened and more mature ‘dad’. Hearing such a childlike and affectionate term of endearment roll from this thing’s tongue made my skin crawl.

Taking a deep breath, I said. “So supposedly you saved us from C2. Now what? We’re still locked inside. And what the hell is with this ‘final stage’?”

C1 blinked his lifeless eyes a few times, then said, “The setting was all entirely planned by C2. At the moment, I’m trying to hack into the system, but the protective software installed in the Dowers Generation CX is extremely advanced. This would have been a lot easier, had I been complete.”

“Wait, rewind that,” Cuán interjected. “What do you mean by ‘complete’? You were supposed to be dead, but instead you’re an unfinished product now? Am I missing something here?”

“I’m sorry,” C1 started, “but daddy says I can’t give confidential –”

“Explain!” I demanded, cutting into C1’s excuses. I realized that being authoritative was the best way to deal with this one.

“I… I’m an incomplete android.”

“What a surprise…” I commented sarcastically. “We’ve already been there before, you know.”

“There’s a difference between an android and a cyborg,” Cuán pointed out to me, “An android is a robot with human features, while a cyborg is a human, or in this case a clone, with robot parts in its body.”

Did he really have to be smart about this? Right now, I really wanted to destroy Cuán’s movie collection.

***

“Right…” I said doubtfully, as I tried to make sense of the situation. “So you’re saying that you’re not a clone like C2. But I remember that you said that there were two clones made. And since one died, there should still be one left. Where is the other one?” Seeing that C1 was hesitating again, I gave him one of my stern looks. “Explain!” I ordered.

“I…” He shifted a bit, an indication that he was nervous, but continued despite that. “I used to be that other clone…” he said.

“But that doesn‘t make any sense,” said Cuán. “If you were once a clone, then you should have become a cyborg too, because androids are robots, they’re not alive like clones and cyborgs.”

I quickly made a mental note to confiscate Cuán’s entire movie collection, while I waited for an explanation from C1. Cuán’s mind was young and impressionable, it could easily be swayed by all that rubbish shown in those movies, and I did not want strange ideas to be implanted into my little brother’s head. I was also quite certain that too much TV could not possibly be healthy for his growing body. Call me a hypocrite, but I had the opinion that even a movie fanatic should know his limits, and my limits started where my little brother became involved.

“Well?” I demanded, “we’re waiting for a clarification.”

“C2… he said that I had died, didn’t he?” C1 blinked a few times with his lifeless eyes, another subtle clue to his discomfort. “When I had to undergo the surgical procedure in order to become a cyborg in the same fashion C2 had become one, my clone-body had been unable to handle the pressure. That body did indeed die that day, but the scientists managed to preserve my mind on a computer. Daddy just downloaded a copy of the data into this body.”

“So, let me get this straight,” I said, “Your body is dead, but your soul still lives on?

“Technically, yes.”

Of course. Figured. Not only were there clones running around rampant, but now my father had also found a way to contain the souls of the dead. What was my old man doing? Trying to play God? I realized that this was probably also the explanation for the extreme lifelessness which I had noticed in C1’s eyes. He was a robot, an ‘android’ as Cuán would call it, he was an artificial vessel to preserve the soul.

Grumbling under my breath, I made a vow to myself. I was certainly going to burn Cuán’s movie collection once I got out of here!

“You’re the only Cuán-clone left, right?” I asked. “We won‘t run into a C3 or something of the likes?”

“No,” C1 shook his head. “I am the only one left of the C-project.”

“If you and C2 are both clones of me,” Cuán interjected, “Then why did you die and C2 didn’t?”

Cuán had a point there. The bodies were cloned and should therefore be identical, so why could one body not handle the pressure that the other did? Unless C1 was a failure…? But if that were true, then some other things did not add up. C1 was the one to blow up C2, and from the way he said it, it seemed that he had father’s permission to do it. Why blow up a million, billion or perhaps even trillion dollar experiment? And then there was that other detail… C2 had been under the knife first. Why place the second clone under the knife first? That went against the standard conventions of any corporation, as the first product is the prototype and therefore always used to run tests on. In this light, C1 could not possibly have been the failure between the two.

C1 gave my brother a solemn look as he replied, “I was always the one with the weaker, unstable body, despite that I was the better of our two.”

“Better? How?” I demanded.

“I learned better.”

“Learned what better?” I prodded the clone that apparently was not a clone anymore.

“I learned better to be Cuán,” he replied.

“To be me…? But why would dad make all these copies of me?” Cuán said. He nervously scratched his bellybutton, seeming to be anxious about something that I was not aware of. Something was wrong here.

“I…” C1 hesitated again.

“Tell us!” I yelled, trying to intimidate him. However, this time C1 remained indecisive. I frowned deeply in thought. C1 was clearly sensitive to authority. Yet, this time he refused to yield to me despite my daunt display. Was it because the question concerned the reason why the clones were made?

“I am waiting!” I snapped at him, but then I heard his soft voice.

“… can’t tell,” he mumbled under his breath.

Shit.

It became clear to me that this was one question I couldn’t coax out of him no matter how imposing I pretended to be. It was as if the reason of their creation was something so wicked, that I was definitely not to know of it. This was obviously father’s doing. He was trying to keep me out of the loop of the insane things that were going on. “Bring up my father,” I ordered.

“But –”

“Do it!”

“Y-yes, my dearest!”

If C1 could not answer my questions, then the only person left to talk to was father. That was the only alternative left. And with all that had happened, I desperately needed a long conversation with my old man. My sanity depended on it.

Wait a minute. I stopped my internal musings. Did he just call me…? My what?

***

I balked.

What did you just call him?” Beside me, Cuán was trying to glare a hole into the hologram that was displaying his look-alike. It seemed that he had beaten me to asking that question.

C1 moved about nervously. “I-I…” he stuttered, “I called him m-my… dea–?”

“Connor is not your dearest, damn it!” Cuán yelled. Then, suddenly with a quick turn, he whipped his head around to me and glared with such a burning intensity that I was momentarily paralyzed.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered why he was giving me that look. It was not as if I could control what that clone-android said. Besides, in the first place, why would Cuán care about whatever C1 decided to call me? Wasn’t I the annoying older brother whom he wanted far, far away whenever he decided to bring someone back home? And why didn’t he hate me for constantly belittling him and calling him things like ‘dog shit’ and ‘dog crap’?

Suddenly the memories of that time came back to me. My stepmother, who back then had still just been my nanny, had been pregnant with Cuán. I still remembered clearly what had happened that day, more than fifteen years ago.

“It’s going to be a boy, Connor,” she’d said to me. “If you’d like, you can name him for me.”

Back then, I had glowed with pride and happiness. I was going to be the one naming this baby and he would be my little brother. It would have to be special, I decided, and so I thought deeply of what name I would give him, of a name that would bind him to me.

I licked my bottom lip in thought. What was the perfect name for this baby?

And then, a revelation came to me. My father had once told me that that my name, Connor, meant ‘Lover of Hounds’. If I was a lover of hounds, I reasoned, then my baby brother would have to be a hound, because then I would be able to love him. It was the simple and straightforward reasoning of a ten year old child.

Thus, I had said the following to Sarah, “His name should be Cuán. It means ‘Little Hound’.”

Sarah had smiled at me. “Oh, that’s a beautiful name!” she’d exclaimed, and once again, I’d glowed with happiness.

I knew very well that my little brother treasured his name as the one thing that bound him to our family. Yet, I cruelly insulted this name, calling him anything that was related to dogs. I knew that he had always felt insecure about his position in our family, especially after I began treating him with the cold shoulder, but despite that, I trampled his feelings into the ground. It was my way, the only way I knew to protect him and defend myself against the inappropriate feelings I had for him.

Those harsh words had been defining for our relationship in these last ten years or so, ever since I consciously began to put a safe distance between us. He should have despised me, resented me, for them. Yet, even though Cuán had fought with me on an almost daily basis, I never felt any hatred from his side. Yes, he had been irritated, even angry with me plenty of times, and yes, he had given me many harsh words and even punched me a few good ones. Still, there had never been hatred in his eyes, just the hurt and rejection of a lonely child, who was continuously let down by his big brother.

Why? I had never understood this side of him. It pained me to see him hurt like this, and even though I’d always feared the day that I would see his resentment or revulsion directed at me, I had wished many times that Cuán would just hate me and be disgusted with me. I deserved it. Yet, he never did.

I decided then that I would stop degrading his name. Turning, I focused back to Cuán. “Don’t give me that look, brat,” I said. Then I dismissed him and turned my eyes back to the holographic image.

“Give me my father,” I ordered C1.

“As you wish, my dearest.”

I ignored the endearment directed towards me and put my attention to the new image projected by the hologram. It was the image of my father, his hair graying, and dark circles under his eyes. I regarded him as he was busy typing away on his control board, most likely trying to hack into the system that was keeping me locked here.

“Father?”

My old man looked up from his work and blinked. “C-Connor?” he stuttered. Then, while glaring, “C1, I thought I told you to not let anyone disturb me!”

C1 bent his head down and mumbled a soft, “Sorry daddy.” I caught a glimpse of his eyes, and noticed that they seemed kind of sad, even guilty maybe. And possibly even human…

“Father, what’s going on here?” I asked.

“Not now, Connor, I’m trying to get you out of there.”

“In the first place, the reason why I’m in here is because of your mad experimentation’s. What’s this I hear about cloning Cuán? Saving human memories on computers? And building robots? What the hell is going on here!”

My father remained impassively silent.

“You always keep me in the dark, father, but I need answers now! You cannot expect me to stay silent on this matter, not after what happened here! Your psychopathic clone C2 locked me up here with Cuán and planned to rape me!”

I felt a cold shiver run up my spine as the word ‘rape’ left my mouth. It was as if I had not completely digested the idea up until now, that what had happened here had not been real. Yet, talking about it, voicing it aloud, had given the incident a form. Now that the main threat was gone, I was finally given a chance to reassess the experience and my feelings regarding it, and the full implications of what had been happening to me here finally hit home. I suddenly felt weak in my knees. I sagged onto the floor and breathed heavily.

“Father, please,” I begged, “you have to tell me what’s going on here.”

“I love you, Connor.”

The confession was so sudden, so unexpected, that I looked up. I saw my father giving me his warm smile. Reserved as he was, he had not shown that smile in a long time. It made me smile too, despite the predicament I was in.

“I know you do, father.”

“No, you don’t.”

That caught me off guard. What did he mean – I don’t?

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A Game of Keys, Stage 2 – ch. V

I am one of DowersBioTechs’s experiments. Those were the words that the boy in front of me had spoken. I did not know how to react to it, and remained speechless. DowersBioTechs? Biotechnology? What was I supposed to think of that? Could such a thing even be real?

I hesitated to speak, but knew I could not keep silent on this matter. “Y-you’re…” I started to stutter. I was unable to finish that sentence.

The boy smirked coldly. “Technically, I’m the second clone of your stepbrother Cuán,” he explained. “The first clone died when the scientists tried to install the hardware in him through surgery.”

“Hardware?” I had a difficult time comprehending what was going on.

“Yes, I am also a cyborg.”

When had this horror flick turned into a science fiction?

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. This was overwhelming my mind, but wasn’t that exactly what this thing had aimed for from the start? To confuse me, to throw me off guard, he had done that many times before in order to control me.

“That’s why you know everything about me…” I muttered.

In this moment, I decided to give up on comprehending how this boy – thing – could be a cyborg-clone and instead accepted it as natural fact. Not everything in this world could be understood, some things were meant to stay mysteries. It was better instead to cope with whatever was being thrown into my face. Adaptation was key to survival.

The cyborg-clone pushed a bit of his hair aside to reveal some sort of hole in his neck. “I plug myself onto a computer with this portal,” he continued his explanation, “I make contact with a network, and from there on, I can hack anything and everything I desire. This includes all the camera’s that you’ve installed in both your parental house and your own apartment.”

The thing turned around to face me. “I gave you clues, didn’t I?” he said to me. “I yanked your hair when you said you hated technologies, and I told you before: ‘I cannot sin.’ After all, how can that which is man made sin, when sin fell on God’s creations?”

I froze when I heard that. Then…

… that meant…

… he really never lied to me?

“When you said that you had never been a Christian…”

“I have lived all my life in a tube.”

“You mentioned that you wanted money – riches,” I prodded. He had to have lied at one point, didn’t he? There was no way he could have spoken truth alone. Fervently, I prayed that he had lied at least once, that he had not in every instant been telling the insane and utterly unreal truth to me, because otherwise…

The answer he gave me, however, was positive. “Of course, I need that money too,” he said, “and I will have it.”

I bit my bottom lip, almost afraid of my next question. “Is the real Cuán watching this?”

“Yes.”

I swallowed thickly.

Somehow, the fact that my brother had been watching me being given head by this thing was even worse than if it had been Cuán himself doing it. It didn’t make much sense, but the sick feeling that I had just cheated on the one who mattered most to me, was sinking into my stomach, and I felt that the title of the worst scum on earth, which I had previously bestowed upon myself, was too good for me now.

“Where is he?” Reduced to nothing, my voice was barely above a whisper now, yet I still needed to know.

The thing grinned silently, but did not speak. Instead he slowly walked up to me, like a predator cornering its prey, and when he reached me he twirled me around so that I was facing the control panel again. Leaning in, he whispered, “Watch…” into my ears.

He selected a few icons and menus, dropping another dozen of holographic keys into the basket. “These are on the house,” he said, as if trying to console me, but he only made me feel worse. Another window popped up, which said:

 

PLEASE SPEAK THE FIRST CODE.

 

Without warning, the thing recited the poem, the one that had been written on the wallpaper: “Five each – to breach – out. One key. I am free.”

The window reported to us:

 

CODE ACCEPTED.

 

The thing smiled. “Voice recognition,” he told me, leaning into me and speaking in conspiratorial tones as if I were his closest confident.

A new window popped up:

 

PLEASE SPEAK THE SECOND CODE.

 

Then, he turned to me and asked with a mocking tone, “What do you think ‘five’ means?”

I narrowed my eyes. It could be anything. “I already tried birthdays,” I said, almost conversationally, but it was quite obvious that I was nudging him for hints.

“What about given names?” he suggested with a smile.

I looked at him suspiciously, but decided to go along with the suggestion. Five names. I made a quick deduction. That probably meant us, five brothers – minus Cuán. I took a deep breath, then said, “Cillian, Carrol, Cian, Colmán, Connor.” For a moment, I thought nothing would happen. Then, the window announced to us:

 

CODE ACCEPTED.

 

Suddenly another hologram popped up, the concentrated light filling the space and giving me a clear image so realistic that I could almost touch it. The image made my heart drop to my stomach. It was Cuán who had appeared. His bright eyes, always intensely burning, were staring right into my own.

Before this moment, I had thought that I did not want to see my brother’s eyes again, that I could not possibly bear to see the disgust that I would surely witness in them. Now, this all mattered little to me. It all seemed trivial compared to what I saw.

The hologram was projecting my brother, completely naked, and with his hands and feet bound. He was crying out to me. Begging for my help: –

“Connor! Save me!”

***

The voice of my brother tore through my heart.

Cuán cried out helplessly to me from the bed that he was tied to, struggling with the ropes that bound his hands and feet together. His efforts were futile. “Please, Connor!” he begged, “Don’t believe anything that bastard says to you! That freak is not me!”

“Cuán…?” I whispered. My body trembled, completely shocked.

A cold feeling came over me, as my mind tried to process the situation my brother was in. He, too, was victim to this thing. He was crying, calling out to me. He needed me. My hands instinctively clenched into tight fists. I bit my bottom lip, piercing the skin, and breathed harshly, tasting the metallic tang of my own blood as it trickled into my mouth.

“Damn you!”

I shot up from my chair and tried to turn and reach the clone, but I remembered too late that my legs were still bound to the chair. As I turned, my balance left me, and I fell to the floor, the chair crashing down with me.

“Goddamn you! Why my brother! What do you want from him!” I cried out in pure rage. “Curse you!” He had gone too far. I swore in this moment, that I – when I managed to free myself – and –by God!– I would – that I would murder this fucker for what he had done to Cuán.

The clone merely gave me a bored look, but he answered me nonetheless, “I told you, didn’t I? I want money. I need it to buy the things that will make you happy. Once I take over your stepbrother’s place, I will inherit the money from your father.”

“I will never allow you to do that!” I growled.

“Be that as it may,” he said, “your father has the last word in this matter.”

“Don’t talk about my father, damn it!”

I cursed him in my mind. How dare he! How dare he try to pull my father into this!

“If you know what’s good for you,” I threatened, “then don’t touch my father.” I glared at him, but for all my efforts to intimidate, I only seemed to manage to make him chuckle in amusement. “What’s so funny, you fucker!” I demanded.

He laughed at that. “Your father,” he said, and suddenly there was a wicked gleam in his eyes, “He is responsible for me. He wants me to – !”

Deafening.

A sudden explosion and C2 was no more. His blood and intestines were splattered across the entire room, while pieces of something that was once hardware were scattered over the floor, still melting, making black burned spots on the laminate.

The computer made a beeping sound and then an artificial sounding voice said: “Access granted.”

In a swift sliding movement, the mirrored wall automatically opened to reveal Cuán bound inside. The walls must have been soundproof, I noted. Cursing softly, I worked fastidiously to unbind myself from the chair I was stuck to, and when I could move about freely, I pulled up my pants and ran over to my little brother.

“Cuán!” I cried out. I pulled him up and pressed him against me in a tight protective hug. Thank God he was alright! I lowered my head and dropped a kiss on his crown. “God,” I said, “I – you – what the hell happened!”

The boy pressed himself deeper into my chest. “I don’t know,” he sniffed. “I woke up and I was here. And I saw you and that… that…”

“I should have known that it wasn’t you,” I growled, berating myself. “You’re nothing like that.”

I sighed and looked around. We were still stuck here, and I had no idea how to get out of this place. I pulled Cuán a bit away from me and started to untie his hands and feet. All the while, my mind tried to process what was going on. Why did that clone suddenly explode?

“It’s as if someone tried to stop him from saying too much,” I heard Cuán say.

“What?” I looked up at him, having finally untied his feet. “What do you mean?”

Cuán shrugged in frustration. “You’re a film fanatic too, right!” he snapped. “You should know how it goes in the movies.” He jerked a hand up, rubbing roughly at his eyes to dry his tears. “Think about it. Just when he was about to reveal something important, he explodes!”

My brows creased in a frown, as I thought about it. Cuán was right, the clone had said something about father being involved somehow before he suddenly exploded.

I stopped my train of thoughts regarding the suspicious circumstances in which the clone had died. Something more disturbing made itself present in my mind, a thought that I did not want to have, but that nonetheless came to me anyway.

Cuán was right?

In a moment of panic, I dashed over to Cuán and pushed him back onto the bed.

“What the hell!” I heard my so-called brother yell, but I ignored him as I moved to check every inch of his body, starting by his earlobe, which was adorned with a tiny diamond, then over to his neck where no hole could be found, and then the rest of his body.

Despite the new glasses given to me, I still had a hard time seeing the smaller details in the dark, but so far, I had detected nothing out of the ordinary. I felt a great sense of relief wash over me at that.

The boy roughly pushed me off of him, then proceeded to glare at me indignantly with his heated gaze. That brought a smile onto my face. That glare was definitely Cuán’s glare, he always looked at me like that when he was mad. And with that single look, the last lingering suspicions vanished from even the farthest corners of my mind.

“You’re really you,” I said, convinced of the fact that he was my brother. He huffed in exasperation.

“Of course, I’m – !” He cut himself off when the reason why I needed to examine his body finally seemed to dawn on him. “Oh… sorry,” he mumbled in embarrassment, but I simply shrugged it off.

“Don’t worry about that,” I assured him. I ignored the tingling feeling I felt developing in the pit of my stomach upon seeing his embarrassed countenance. “We have something else to think of.” Cuán blinked at me questioningly, and I explained, “That clone was talking about father. I don’t know why or how, but since that clone is a product of father’s company, then that means it has something to do with him.”

“Good thinking.”

Cuán and I both froze. That sound had come from the computer!

Quickly I scrambled onto my feet and rushed back to the control panel, with Cuán following closely behind me. From the hologram projector there came another image. Another Cuán was waving at us.

“Hello, I’m C1-prototype, the clone who supposedly died according to C2, and you just accessed stage three of the game. This is the final stage.”

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A Game of Keys, Stage 2 – ch. IV

Stage two? A dreaded feeling pulled at me when I heard that coming from my brother’s lips. How many more stages had Cuán planned for me? Would I ever clear all of those stages? It seemed an impossibility to me.

“How many stages have you prepared for me?” I asked.

I heard Cuán chuckling. “Dear stepbrother,” he said, “why would I ever share such important information with you? Besides, isn’t the fun of it all, to leave you in suspense?”

I frowned. He liked playing with my mind, and it was working effectively too, I had been losing my calm several times in this hour already. I balled my fists. Despite the hopeless situation, I had to keep my head cool.

“How do I play stage two?” I asked.

“It’s quite simple.” I heard the sound of wood being dragged over laminate and then I was pushed onto a seat. “You don’t need to walk for stage two, you just need to handle the control panel.” With that said, he bound my feet to the chair.

“So, how does this control panel work?” I was starting to lose my patience. I wanted to get out of this place already! Cuán, however, took his sweet time before replying with a soft laughter: –

“That’s for you to figure out in this game.”

Something was placed onto my nose, and suddenly the blurs became shapes.

“These glasses look much better on you than your own ones.”

I snapped my head around and in the darkness my eyes could make out a slender neck. Slowly my sight adjusted to the darkness. Lifting my gaze, I stared into ice-cold eyes that were hidden behind bangs. It was definitely my brother’s face, but those eyes were not Cuán’s. Even when Cuán was furious, his eyes were never cold. Cuán was never cold. What had happened to him?

I broke our eye contact and inspected my surroundings. Looking around, I realized that I knew this place. As I rightfully guessed before, the floor was covered in laminate. One side of the room was covered in a row of mirrors, and on the far end the keys were still hanging from that wall – there were only six of them left.

“You locked me up in your own basement?” I growled.

He smirked. “You don’t like Cuán’s little hideout?” he sneered.

I shot him a nasty glare. He would know how much he was getting into me. I turned back to the control panel and realized that it was very similar to a computer. Perhaps it was a computer; albeit, a more advanced one, a supercomputer maybe. At the corner of the panel there was a label which said ‘DowersElectronics’, and as my eyes ran over the slick gadget, I almost had the urge to roll my eyes.

Of course, it had to be my father’s company… Was there any scientific or technological project from either legal or underground branches that my old man did not invest in? I highly doubted it. Dowers Inc. was vastly becoming the most lucrative incorporation on this planet.

“You stuffed your basement full with father’s toys,” I stated, rather than asked.

I silently cursed myself. I should have begged father to be part of the family company, despite his objections. Due to a certain event at a social party wherein I had apparently embarrassed the President’s daughter (the fault of which was my own ineptness where the other sex was concerned) my father and elder brothers had deemed me as incompetent in the ruthless world called business, and consequently they had cut me off from Dowers Inc. to protect me from further danger. It hadn’t really mattered to them though, seeing as I was only the fifth son of the Dowers family, it wasn’t as if I had much influence to begin with. However, since I was not involved in Dowers Inc., I knew naught about any of their more complex products, which was posing to be the biggest problem right now.

“You keep calling it my basement,” Cuán pouted, “but it was your basement too.”

I glared at him, before stiffly jerking back towards the giant screen. This basement had been our place of cease fire. When we were still living under one roof, Cuán and I had often fought each other; but always, when Cuán ran away in tears, when I had gone too far and made him cry, I would follow him into this basement; and without saying anything, I would sling an arm around him, and we would sit until he was ready to face the world again. We never admitted these occurrences, but I had an inkling suspicion that Cuán’s mother knew about it. Having been my nanny since my own mother died giving birth to me, she knew me through and through.

Thinking about Sarah, made my thoughts return to that story my father had once told me. Father had hired Sarah as my nanny, because he thought her to be an honest and hardworking woman. On my tenth birthday, when father had left home for business, a security guard had taken his chances and raped Sarah. When the incident had been found out, this security guard was fired immediately, and soon after, he disappeared under questionable circumstances. Sarah, in her anguish, sought solace from my father, and father, who had been a lonesome man ever since my mother’s death, found new love in her. It was in this same basement that father had asked for Sarah’s hand in marriage three years later and accepted Cuán, the child resulting from the rape, as his own. Since then, Sarah had been my official stepmother.

Shaking myself from old memories, I decided not to waste any time on freeing myself from my handcuffs. There were three buttons present at the side of the enormous screen. I randomly picked one of these buttons and silently prayed that it was not a self-destruction button which I had pushed.

***

The touch screen of the control panel flickered to life, while at the same time I heard the clanking sound of metal falling on the floor behind me. Shit.

“Ah, those were the last six keys…” I heard Cuán’s cruel voice dripping with amusement.

“I never touched them,” I protested, but he simply let out a short bark of laughter.

“Touch them? I had it programmed that all the remaining keys were to fall the moment you hit the start button of the control panel.”

I should have known. He had planned this entire scenario from the start, so I was not surprised at this turn of events. Considering the circumstances, the possibility that he would let those keys fall in due time had already crossed my mind, and right now, I had been proven completely right. I intended to tell him this, but he covered my mouth with his right palm in that moment.

He bent forward and whispered, “Don’t try to be smart-mouthed, it will ruin my mood.” Then he let his tongue travel the rim of my right ear, leaving a tingling wet trail, and he took special care to play with the little diamond stud that was adorning my lobe.

I felt a shudder deep inside at the sensations coursing through me. The more this game continued, the more aroused I got. Cuán was building it up slowly though, as if he wished for this to last forever. Maybe he did.

He reached down and I heard a soft clicking. Then, I was freed from my handcuffs. “One key, two purposes… You should be grateful that I feel kind enough right now to give you this one on the house,” he murmured and continued kissing my sensitive earlobe.

It was a move of benevolence from him. Yet, something was off the marker. Well, everything was off the marker when your own little brother had you tied up in his basement… but still, as far as I had known – Cuán, despite his charming looks and gentlemanly character around girls, was not a very merciful person. When we fought each other in the past, he had often exploited whatever weaknesses he could find in me to his advantage, to hurt me. He was the type that would strike the moment he saw an opening, he would never back down from a chance, let alone help me get rid of my weaknesses. Of course, back then, I was usually victorious in our fights, mainly because I was older than him.

Another strange thing was that Cuán had never shown interest in any kind of men before, so the last person on earth he would want to bed should be me, the big brother he hated and with whom he always fought. Or was I wrong on that account?

One more thing I realized was that I had never guessed Cuán to be so extremely intelligent and manipulative. He always did strike me as a clever teen of sorts, but this Cuán was more of an evil child genius. He knew of Dowers Inc.’s most advanced technologies and how they worked; and he knew how to read me like a book. That was not something the Cuán I had known could have done before. In fact, was it not the miscommunication between us that set off all those fights we had in the first place?

I was shaken out of my thoughts, when I felt Cuán’s hand slip into my pants and squeeze my member. Instantly, I let out a low moan.

“You’re thinking entirely too much,” Cuán chuckled. “You should be more wary of me.”

For a moment, I contemplated on whether I should just overpower him or not, now that he had freed my hands. I was physically much stronger than him, the chances of success were reasonable. I decided against it. It was very likely that I would still need him to get out of this place.

He unbuttoned my pants and ordered for me to stand, then pulled the garments in one swift movement down to my ankles and pushed me back to sit on my naked butt. “I think that should count as four,” Cuan grinned. “So what should I do now, Connor?”

“Do what you want,” I managed to get through my gritted teeth, as he went back to fondling my private parts.

“You sure about that?” he teased me, but he kissed my cheek and let me go. “Continue,” he ordered.

I took a deep shuddering breath and looked at the screen before me. In the dim reflection, I saw Cuán, but I couldn’t help feeling that something was off with him. He simply looked too different. It must be those eyes, those cold and lifeless eyes, I thought, but there was something else too, something that I couldn’t quite remember, but it kept nagging at me.

Focusing on what exactly the touch screen was displaying, I frowned. “Why is there a key at the corner of the screen?” I asked.

He leaned over my shoulder and from the corner of my eyes I saw his cold smirk as he explained, “It’s the counting system. See the hologram projector above those three buttons? For every single program you manage to open, it will display one holographic key dropping down… You know what a dropped key means by now, don’t you?”

I chose to ignore his last sentence, and instead focused on what he first said. “What do you mean by program? I have to open them?”

Cuán nodded, his eyes glittering coldly in delight. “There are quite a lot of programs installed on this baby for the purpose of sidetracking you, or hiding and locking down the right program which you must find. See it as a puzzle you have to solve. You must unlock and open the correct set of programs in order to get the code which will be your ticket out of here.”

“Software… I hate technology,” I muttered under my breath, but apparently he heard me, because he yanked my hair harshly as a means of reproach.

I yowled in pain. “That fucking hurt, damn it!” I cried out.

“Get back to work,” he sneered and backed away from me.

Did I touch a nerve again? I rubbed the back of my head to sooth the pain. What did I say that set him off so badly this time? Maybe he was in love with that control panel? I would not put it past him, not any more, now that I know that he’s a psychopathic genius in reality.

I shook my head and rid myself of those thoughts; I was not supposed to trample upon Cuán’s image, I was supposed to save him. I took a deep breath and looked at the touch screen and the wallpaper it supported. How fitting. It was of a bird caged in a white egg. Words making up a seemingly nonsensical poem accompanied the picture. They read:

 

‘Five each
to breach
out. One key.
I am free.’

 

Mulling over the words, I frowned. They were likely a clue as to where my next key was. Sighing, I shook my head. It was time for me to play with this new gadget.

***

I opened a program called ‘DowersCC’, which I knew to be a simple hacking program, and the first holographic key dropped to the bottom where it was caught by a small yellow basket which had suddenly been formed with the beams of light that were projecting from the hologram projector. I ignored Cuán’s grin which I saw reflected on the touch screen in favor of the window which had unexpectedly popped up above the basket and was asking me for a security code.

I didn’t know what the code was, because it was decided on by the person that had installed the software. This person was obviously Cuán.

What kind of code would that kid think up? Birthday dates maybe?

I tried Cuán’s birthday, but that didn’t work. Another key fell into the basket. I didn’t give up yet, and instead tried my own birthday, but that too led to the same results. Finally, I tried entering the birthdays of all my brothers, that of my stepmother and that of my father. Yet all failed.

I frowned.

“How the hell am I supposed to do this?” I growled.

“Hmm… I might tell you…” Cuán teased, “but you owe me nine right now…”

“Get it over with!” I snarled and with a yank I twirled the chair around to face my brother. “Hurry up and do what you want!”

He smirked and slowly leaned in for a soft kiss on my tightly closed lips. “One,” he whispered into my ear and then let his tongue out to play with that diamond bud at my right ear.

My brows knitted together as I remembered where exactly I got that diamond ear piercing from. It was on my fifteenth birthday that I received this gift from Cuán. The little brat had been no more than four years old back then, but it had been the first time he was deemed old enough and allowed to pick a gift for me by himself.

That day, when he picked that gift for me, was also the first day ever that we, officially as legal brothers, went shopping together along with stepmother after her marriage to my father. Of course, he pointed to a lot of toys during the trip, but I refused each and every one he tried to pass off to me. I was a bratty teen by then and, trying to act more mature than I really was, I deemed toys of any kind to be utterly childish, the same way I deemed shopping with my little brother to be an embarrassment to my dignity.

All of a sudden, Cuán surprised me when he pulled on my sleeve and pointed with his chubby finger towards a window filled with jewelery. “There!” he had said. “That one! I want to give you that one, Connor!” When I took a closer look, I saw it was a set of ear piercings he had pointed at. They were simple diamond studs that sparkled in the lights of the display window, but they had a hint of a light blue hue to them.

I smiled. “Yes, I like that one,” I had said. I noticed that behind us stepmother had been smiling warmly at our little display of affection and I felt slightly uncomfortable under her scrutiny.

Later, it had become February, and Valentine’s day had come up.

As expected from a child his age, Cuán had no idea what Valentine’s day was and he had come to me for explanations. “What’s Valentine’s day?” he had asked and I had snickered at that innocence.

“It’s a day when people who love each other give each other presents,” I had told him.

“Will you give me a present too?” Cuán asked me.

I blinked, a little taken aback. “It’s… not exactly like that…” I tried to explain, but my words left Cuán with a heartbroken face, his bottom lip trembling ever so slightly.

“You don’t love me then?” he asked.

I sighed deeply then – who was I to deny him when he looked at me with those eyes? “Fine,” I grumbled, “I’ll give you a present.” I took out my left piercing, and gave it to the child. “That’s for you,” I said, “You’ll have to make a hole in your ear first before you can wear it though.”

Cuán had looked at me then with the most brilliant smile he had ever given me. “Thank you, Connor!” he had said, and he had leaned in to kiss my cheek. He had urged his mother to let him pierce his ear that very same day.

That was the first time something had sparked within me. A seed of a poisonous flower had been embedded in my heart. Following that day, my indifferent attitude towards Cuán slowly but surely changed into antagonism as I felt my feelings slip further and further from brotherly love into something much darker and sinister: I desired him.

I gasped as Cuán brought me out of my thoughts by harshly biting into my ear. “You shouldn’t let your thoughts wander to him when you have me,” he hissed.

He lowered himself and knelt down before me, the palms of his hands resting on my bare knees. “It was your birthday yesterday, wasn’t it…?” he drawled as he looked me straight in the eyes. “And I didn’t even give you a present. Perhaps, I should do that now?”

Those lustful eyes ogled me and I knew what he was suggesting. But that was not the thing I cared about now. I could not have cared less if he were to fuck me hard and painful at this very moment, because my mind and eyes were occupied with something much more outrageous, a factor so important that it could rewrite the entire scenario I had in my mind up until now, and I had not even noticed it until this moment.

All I could see was his left earlobe where no diamond stud could be found. There was not even a hole.

***

Slowly, Cuán encircled his slender hand around my manhood. I shuddered. This was wrong. Everything about this whole thing was wrong. Whose eyes were those that this boy was staring with? Whose ear did he have? Whose mind was it that the face of my brother supported?

He moved his hand up and down, toying with me, cruelly stretching my resolve to my limit.

“Where… is… it?” I wheezed out.

It was torture for me to even speak as he patiently pleasured me. And he knew this. The proudly erect manhood in his hand spoke volumes of my inner desires. My shameful secret was now fully visible in the open air.

“Where is what?” he asked me playfully. He carefully licked his lips and pouted them slightly, all the while never breaking eye contact with me. His eyes were lustful, as they had been from the start, but something else, something I could not place, was in there too. Again, I noted that there were several layers of emotion present here, cautiously schooled behind a mask, but slowly, if one were willing to carefully observe, the mask would give way and the emotions would reveal themselves.

“The – gift.”

He smirked. “I was planning to give it to you now, my dear impatient Connor…”

That was not what I meant, and he knew it!

He, however, dived in at exactly the moment when I opened my mouth to protest. Instead of words, a strange mixture of a squeal and a moan left my lips. Damn, he was good at this!

He slowly bobbed his head up and down and used his tongue to explore each and every inch of my flesh. His touches were at once meticulous and sensual, and his careful movements almost fooled me into believing that he himself was hesitantly experimenting. But then I firmly reminded myself that this could not be the case, as no first timer could ever be as skilled and knowing in the art of sex as he proved to be. It must have been my own wicked desire for Cuán to be the experimenting teenager that he was supposed to be at age fifteen that made me think like that.

“S-stop!” I moaned out breathlessly, but he paid my protest no heed and continued steadily. He did, however, lift his eyes back up, all the while continuing his sinful ministrations, and stared at me penetratingly, as if he were trying to assess me, to read and calculate my reactions.

My reactions were obvious, I had completely surrendered the remains of my shattered dignity and self-discipline by then in favor of the pleasure I received. My voice continued to object, but the force behind it had since dwindled to non-existent. I was like an open book to him. I had utterly lost to him.

Suddenly, I cried out. “Fuck!” I shouted.

Out of the blue he had started sucking me – harshly. He grinned, his lips curling slightly around my erection, and then he started a teasing game of suction, alternating between soft and hard sucking.

It was sinful. Utterly sinful, how his mouth worked on me. In fact, his whole being embodied sin. He was Sin itself, come to earth to destroy me – a temptation brought to me by Satan himself to lure me away from redemption.

And now I was shamelessly embracing this temptation, casting aside all my previous goodwill as I momentarily lost myself in his sweet mouth. I moaned and cried and begged, blabbering all sorts of nonsense, until my voice felt hoarse and then I felt that moment of complete euphoria.

Salvation!

I released myself within his mouth and felt it as he eagerly swallowed what he could. Upon releasing my member a small pearly river trickled from the corner of his lips towards his chin. That was the image of the hell which I realized I had just brought onto myself.

Salvation… had I really thought such blasphemy?

I pushed those feelings of guilt into the back of my mind. I could redeem myself later, but there was something more pressing at hand now.

“That counts as much more than nine,” I said. Bargaining.

“True,” he agreed.

“What will I get in return for it?”

He smirked. “My game, my rules. I can grant you something, if you ask me very nicely. And I want an extra kiss from you.”

“Fine,” I agreed immediately.

He got up from his kneeling position between my knees and leaned over me. As his lips touched me, I opened my mouth for him and let him explore me. He was good, very good, and everything that I should want, as I had been lusting after him for years now – but I did not want him.

He looked the same, and he was sexually much more pleasing than the Cuán that I had always had in mind. He was the hot, sexy little Cuán that I had always fantasized about and he turned me on like no one had ever before. But still, deep in my heart I knew that he was not the Cuán that I desired. I had finally come to that conclusion. I wanted the brat, not the psychopathic child genius.

When our lips parted, I asked him straight out, “Where’s your piercing?”

“Piercing?” He blinked and seemed almost confused.

He didn’t remember…? But that was the one thing I had given Cuán that he still treasured even after more than ten years had passed! How could he have forgotten!

Unless he… didn’t know? And he had never referred to himself as…? Not even truly acknowledged and sometimes even denied himself to be…? He was not…?

“You’re not Cuán.”

I stated this rather than asked it, and I suddenly knew this to be true. There were simply too many things that did not add up. His personality was not the same; his eyes, cold as they appeared, were not the same; even his body, which was almost identical to Cuán’s, was different in at least one area – his earlobe. It simply couldn’t be my brother, but why did he look almost exactly like him?

He gave me a little smirk and said, “Really? Again I’m not Cuán anymore? Which one is it? Am I, or am I not him?”

“You’re not him,” I replied firmly, with conviction. I was certain of this – the brother I knew was not him.

“You still haven’t given me what I wanted,” I continued, “so I’ll ask you now, and I hope you’ll keep to your end of the promise. Who are you really?”

The boy stared at me with those cold eyes again, but this time I could detect a hint of uncertainty. I knew that at this moment I was the one who had outplayed him. And he knew this too it seemed, for he did not know what to do. I wondered, had I finally gotten the upper hand in this game?

He closed his eyes and let out an almost unnoticeable sigh as if defeated. Then he reached up with his hands and started unbuttoning his shirt.

I frowned. “What are you doing?”

His smirk immediately returned upon hearing my question. “I’m not someone who doesn’t keep to his words,” he said and he opened his eyes to look at me. “I will give you the answer you have asked for.”

The last button of his shirt came undone, and he shrugged his shirt off. On his midriff, the logo of Dowers Inc. was unmistakably imprinted, and turning around, his back revealed a combination of a letter and a number: C2. “I am one of DowersBioTechs’s experiments,” he declared.

That piece of information blew my mind.

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A Game of Keys, Stage 1 – ch. III

“Y-you’re not – not my… brother,” I stuttered. I trembled slightly as he placed kisses all over my back, not sure if the trembling was caused by fear or something else. Not willing to even think of it. “Please stop…” I whimpered.

“Why…?” he whispered back, but he continued.

“Because this is wrong,” I replied hoarsely.

But he did not listen. “If I’m not your brother, then this isn’t wrong,” he retorted.

This was madness. Was I going insane? How could he not be my brother when he was using his voice? But if he was my brother then…? Why? How? My brother would have never… could have never…

Something in my mind snapped. “Why are you doing this!” I cried out.

“I told you, Connor,” he replied calmly. “You are the son of –”

“That’s bull!” I yelled. “You are his son too. He acknowledges you, doesn’t he? You could have anything you wanted! You and I both know that father has never held back on doting you, on buying you whatever you want!”

“Well, then I guess ‘father’ won’t hold back on me now either. Because I really want you.”

He… wanted me?

I swallowed thickly when impure thoughts forced themselves into my mind. This was wrong, this was sick. Heaving a sigh, I forced myself to calm back down. Remember, I told myself, this was the reason why I moved out of my father’s house in the first place. Control! I could not let this folly continue – it had to stop. “Cuán, don’t do this,” I ordered.

He chuckled into my back. “I’ll stop if you find a way out. The game is still on after all.”

“Cuán, if you don’t stop now, I’ll kick your ass,” I warned him, trying to regain authority over him. I was his brother, for heaven’s sake, how could he do this to me!? “Cuán…” I warned again, then shouted, “Listen to your brother, damn it!”

“Stepbrother,” he corrected me. “You and Cuán are not related by blood.”

“I don’t care! I’m still your brother and you will listen to me!” I broke out of his embrace, causing him to stumble backwards. Hearing a thud and an “Oof!” I knew he had fallen onto the ground. “Cuán, take these handcuffs off of me now!”

“Playtime is not over yet,” he replied.

I swear I could almost see his cheeky grin, but this only made me angrier. “Stop this nonsense and release me at once!” I yelled.

“Connor, Connor, Conner…” He let out a loud dramatic sigh. “You still don’t understand? I have you bound, so I am making the rules here.”

It was true that he had me within his power, but I was not about to let this slide off so easily. As his brother, I would have him obey me. “Cuán, you’re going way too far now. I’ll tell father about what you did and –”

“You assume that he’ll believe you?” he interrupted me. “You honestly think that your father will believe that little Cuán has his big brother bound and plans to rape him?”

He was right… it did sound ridiculous, even in my own ears, and I was the one going through all this. There was no way father would believe me, unless I had some solid proof. But how could I prove that Cuán was doing all this? By letting him have his way with me, and then go through a DNA-test? No! For heaven’s sake, Cuán was my brother, how could I even think about letting him have his way with me!

I shook my head. No need for any evidence. Better yet, father would never know of this incident! I would solve this situation by myself.

I analyzed the circumstances. Judging by what had happened so far, Cuán had been well prepared. How long had Cuán been preparing this? How well had he planned this out? My thoughts went back to the latest B-movie I had seen in the theater together with Cuán and my father. The kidnapper, the key, the victim. All three of us had enjoyed the morbid scenes. We were film fanatics, it was one of the things that bound us together, despite our differences. I went through the list of campy movies that Cuán possessed. How many of them had he used as inspiration for this sick plan?

I pushed the questions aside for the moment in order to focus on the task at hand: convincing my brother to stop. Threatening had not worked, so this time I tried to use a different tactic to persuade him. “Cuán, come on, stop fooling around,” I pleaded. Surely, as his brother, my influence over him must be stronger than a bunch of badly scripted flicks?

He merely chuckled, but his voice was suddenly coming from behind me. “I like fooling around with you,” he said suggestively and fondled me again. “Now do you still want to play, or do I have to take off your shirt right away?”

I edged away from his wandering hand. “Cuán, we’re brothers, aren’t we?” I tried.

Again he retorted with the usual, “Stepbrothers.”

“Stepbrothers or blood related, I don’t care, you’re still my little bro.” I put as much affection into my voice as I could muster, hoping perhaps that I could break through to him if I sounded like a true loving brother.

“Really?” he seemed to ask hesitantly. “You really think that?”

Was I convincing?

“Yes,” I assured him.

“Then why do you always jerk off at night while calling out to ‘Cuán’?”

***

Why do you always jerk off at night while calling out to your little brother?

What was one supposed to say in answer to that?

I could think of nothing. There was no way for me to answer this question, so it was silent on my end. Silent like the grave. A soundless torture as I waited for what he would say next, what next step he would take to drive me further into the ground. But Cuán too remained quiet. Was he trying to punish me with this mental torture? I wished fervently that he would speak, say something, anything.

I waited… waited… and waited…

Nothing.

Finally, I could not take it anymore. I had to break the silence. Carefully, fearfully even, I softly whispered, “What are you saying?”

The waiting stretched for another agonizing long time, but then, his quiet voice finally echoed. “You know what I’m talking about,” came his accusing reply, cold and deadly merciless.

“But I –”

“Don’t deny it, I have evidence.”

Oh, that’s right. I would have almost forgotten in this turmoil, but I still remember that he had prepared this thoroughly. It should come as no surprise to me if he had taped my entire life from the moment I left home, and perhaps even before that.

“ I… I didn’t mean to…” I staggered in my speech.

Was that my voice? It sounded hoarse, raspy… alien. A suspicious trail of wetness rolled down my cheeks, which were burning with humiliation. Tears, I recognized. Why did he have to know my shameful secret?

He let out a derisive snort. “Of course you didn’t mean to,” he said.

Was he mocking me? The tone of his voice seemed to indicate it, but there was also a coldness to it that was more similar to anger, and… something else… what?

I realized that my Cuán, my younger brother, was looking at me now as I was in this disgraceful state, crying like a weakling. I wondered what look his face was supporting. Disgust? Amusement? Pity? Perhaps both? I feared the answer.

But even more than that, than what Cuán thought of me, I feared my own body. My treacherous body. My thoughts returned to that body and its shameful exhibition of my desires. How could I still, in spite of everything, be aroused, be lusting, even though I was in such a position, enduring such humiliation? I was a sickening man.

It was as if Cuán could read my mind. He said, “Even when in such a situation, you can’t help but lust after your innocent little brother. Are you not the most repulsive human being to have ever walked this planet, Connor?”

He hit the nail right there. What he said was so completely true, it made my stomach churn in disgust. To have such feelings for my brother, it was abnormal. Unnatural. My sins were unforgivable.

“I know there must be many thoughts going through your head right now, Connor,” he continued, “but I suggest you bury them for the moment. The game is still ongoing, after all.”

I noticed that Cuán’s voice had suddenly gone flat. That was not how he had talked to me moments ago. It had been cold, yes, but there had been certain emotions laced in it that were not present now. Where were those indecipherable layers of ice in his voice? Where had they all gone? Suppressed. Hidden underneath.

“Is it not just as disgraceful to force your brother into reliving his sins?” I asked him, trying to wheedle some kind of reaction out of him. “I moved out of home, trying so hard to forget about you, to control myself, to atone for the wrongs I did, but now you’re holding me captive, nullifying all my hard work.”

I didn’t understand why he was doing this to me. If he knew about those feelings I was trying so hard to forget, then why…? What was the purpose of all this?

I suddenly realized I was not the only one who had things to hide. Cuán was hiding as well. It seemed like, unknowingly, somewhere along the way, our relationship had become twisted, building up many hidden layers that were deeply covered. However, now, with the force brought by this wicked situation, they threatened to surface.

It was funny, I thought, how a game of keys would open that which should never be opened and I almost chuckled at the irony of it all. I didn’t mind though. Perhaps this was how it should be. Perhaps it had been time for us to sort this out. And maybe… once the walls around his heart dissolved, maybe he would let me in on the hows and whys of this rotten game.

“You seem amused,” I heard Cuán say.

I smirked. Ah, so little Cuán didn’t like to be left in the dark either. Well, it seemed that we had more in common than I thought.

Not clarifying my amusement to him, I said instead, “I am.”

A quiet spitefulness took over within me. Let him feel the agony he put me through, I thought. Let him be lost in the darkness and wander around, just like how I am right now. It was twisted, how the thought of him suffering as I did satisfied me but at the same time it made me feel sick with guilt. What kind of brother was I?

I felt his irritation as he spoke. “To answer your previous question,” he said, “it might be just as disgraceful for me to force you, to undo your penance, but unlike you, I cannot sin.”

I frowned. Even in these circumstances, the words he just spoke were strange. Unlike you, I cannot sin? What did he mean by that…? Did he mean to say that he was better than me? Too good to sin?

“Connor, stop thinking – start playing. Now.”

He was losing patience. I would have to comply, lest he decided to be true to his words and rape me on the spot. To punish me like this, I was sure that God up there must really hate me. Sighing in defeat, I gave in. For the moment.

“Fine, I’ll bury my thoughts for now,” I said and I bent down, in search for more keys. “But Cuán, one way or another, your game will dig up a coffin.”

***

“That’s one more key…” Cuán said as I put yet another key into my pocket, continuing this twisted game.

I heard him coming to me and wrap his arms around me. “What will you do now?” I asked him.

He placed a gentle kiss upon my naked chest. “One thing at a time, Connor,” he replied. “Or are you so eager to be taken right on the spot?” Chuckling, he brushed his slender hand across the front of my pants momentarily, teasing me mercilessly, as he landed another kiss upon my chest. “It seems that your body is saying ‘yes’,” he murmured against my chest. Then, unexpectedly, he bit into my nipple – hard.

I gritted my teeth together to prevent a moan from coming out. I would not surrender to him so easily! If not to save myself from eternal damnation, then for my brother. At least Cuán should deserve to be saved from this insanity that he cast upon the both of us.

“You’ve done your ‘one thing’,” I replied hoarsely, “I think it’s time for me to get back to the keys.”

“Certainly,” he said and stepped back from me.

I had to give him that much credit, he still had not gone any further than fondling me and talking to me lewdly, and he also stepped back the moment I told him that he had reached his quota concerning the amount of ‘things’ he was allowed to do in exchange for the number of keys I dropped. It seemed that he kept to his word. Perhaps, he had not been completely corrupted yet.

Going back towards the row of keys, I slowly lifted my hands up, touching the wall, until my fingertips met with cold metal. I picked up the key and went back to the door. Holding my breath I tried for the twelfth time to open that damn door. Again, luck was against me, and I let the key slide into my pocket.

I growled in frustration, but turned around to let Cuán do what he wanted. How many more do I have to try before this damn door will finally open!? I screamed inside my mind, as those thin arms once again wrapped around me.

“What should I do this time, Connor?” he asked me, but I remained silent. I would not play along with him!

Snickering, he released me to travel his hands over my naked chest. I shuddered, when he lightly pinched one of my nipples, but then, suddenly, he yanked me down and crushed his lips upon mine.

I squeaked in surprise, but the sound was drowned by his tongue working its way into my mouth. When his tongue brushed against mine, I whimpered and let myself fall onto my knees. It became hot –much too hot– for me to breathe, as his hands seemed to wander all over my chest. I didn’t think I could hold on much longer, my body wanted to kiss back, to touch back, to fuck. But I had to, I couldn’t lose myself, otherwise the filthy beast within me would be released, and then…

Would I lose control?

Did Cuán want me to?

Just as I was about to give in to temptation, his lips left mine. Still shuddering in both pleasure and disgust, I thanked God for stopping this, if only temporarily. At least, with a pause, I would regain some control over myself, if only the slightest bit.

I noted that the air seemed more chilled than it was before. While fidgeting to get some distance between us, I realized that he had slid my shirt off while keeping my mind off track with his sinful kiss, as it was now hanging loosely around my arms.

“Don’t pull that back on,” he said to me. I narrowed my eyes, but I did not know what was going on, I could only hear some rustling, then the sound of fabric ripping, and finally I was released from my shirt. “It’s difficult with your hands still cuffed,” he commented and stood up.

I fumbled to stand up as well, and went for my thirteenth key. Slowly walking across the room with my arms outstretched, I stopped when I felt the cold wall. Sliding my hands across the wall again, I searched for the key, while pondering my chances. I didn’t know how many keys there were left, but Cuán had already taken off my shirt. He was taking his sweet time, but I was not wearing any boxers beneath my pants… which he probably knew as well. If I failed this time, then he would have won.

My hands found another key and I carefully took it off the wall. Clutching it tightly against my chest, I went for the door again. I sent a silent prayer to the heavens, hoping that this was the right key, that the sins tarnishing both my brother and I would be forgiven, and that I would have the strength in me to, for once, do the right thing.

While these thoughts were crossing my mind, something that Cuán had said came back to me: Unlike you, I cannot sin.

He had said that. As if he were above me. As if he were above humans. Never in my life had I heard anyone speak with such pompousness, such arrogance. Never had anyone before spoken such blatant blasphemy in my vicinity. Not even father. I wondered, why would my little brother have said such a thing?

“Cuán?” I asked when I stood in front of the door.

“What?” He was standing right behind me.

“Have you forsaken your faith?”

“Why would you ask me that?”

“You said before that you don’t sin. Do you no longer believe in God? Are you no longer a Christian?”

“I’ve never been a Christian.”

That hurt me. Faith may not have a large role in my life, but I still believed, and so I wanted Cuán to believe as well. Even though I knew that faith could not be forced, I felt badly hurt by those words, by what he had said. Why would Cuán stray from our beliefs? From the faith that Sarah had taught us? Did he truly wish to be damned forever? Even though I knew for certain that I would end up in hell for my sick feelings, I wished fervently that at least Cuán would be saved. I knew that I was not meant to be Cuán’s equal, to be his partner, his lover – so I wanted Cuán to be better than me. Despite those filthy despicable feelings I had for him, Cuán was still my most treasured brother, therefore I wanted the best for him.

A crease formed between my brows, as a new ploy began to develop in my mind. I was going to try it once more, to persuade him. Different tactic, same goal. “I know father chose not to believe in God, Cuán, he chose to let his company delve into underground sciences that mess with God’s creations just to make tons of money. But does money salvage all the wrongs? You were raised by your mother to be a good Christian, to live a moral life, have you forgotten everything she taught you?” I said.

When he remained silent, I tried to pull the guilt card on him, “Sarah would cry if she knew what you were doing. And so would I.”

“You’re not crying,” he retorted, but I continued, pouring as much emotion as I had into the words, making sure I sounded sorrowful and anguished.

“I’m crying in my heart,” I said, “and God is crying for you as well. But he is merciful and will forgive you, if you stop what you’re doing now. Please, Cuán, stop and repent!”

“Stop preaching, Connor,” Cuán replied, his tone clipped, “you’re not a cleric. Like I said, the concept of sin has no control over me. Use that key now, or else I’ll rape you.”

That was an order. He would really do it, if I didn’t obey. I quickly pushed the key into the keyhole and turned.

A click.

I yanked the door open and immediately went in. A loud crash. I had crashed into something… an enormous glass wall of sorts. What was that?

“Congratulations,” Cuán said from behind me, “you’ve cleared stage one and found the control panel. On to stage two of the game…”

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A Game of Keys, Stage 1 – ch. II

Instantly, my body froze up. One…? That meant…

The sound of footsteps approached me. Each step was light, almost soundless, like that of a cat approaching its prey. With my 1.90m and broad shoulders, I was hardly a mouse; yet, the dreaded feeling of being at the mercy of this insane man made me want to shrink in cowardice.

“Don’t be shy…” I heard behind me. I did not move, standing still like a statue. What would he do to me? Would he hurt me?

A finger lightly touched the base of my neck, slowly, almost lazily, trailing down a path across my spine. He stopped and rested his hand on my buttocks, where it remained.

“Nicely firm,” were his next lewd words.

I gritted my teeth. Bastard! He was making fun of me! Did he feel the anger radiating off of me? The fear that made my body shiver? I was sure that he did. After all, I in turn felt the perverseness drifting from him like waves in a deep dark ocean polluted with lusty desire.

There was something else I felt. I wondered whether I was imagining it, but –no– I was not. In my mind, I had thought my captor to be a big ugly monster, yet when I focused on the hand placed on my bottom, I realized that it felt small. I silently berated myself. How peculiar of me to be perceiving such trivialities right now, while I was held captive by this freak. Still, I kept pondering the size of that hand, even as a hint of annoyance arose within me at my own folly. Perhaps it was my own size that made his hand seem smaller, yet I could not help but think that his proportions were off even for a normal guy.

Was I being held captive by a midget? Some odd images of bearded dwarfs with axes appeared in the forefront of my mind, and I cursed my overactive imagination. I must be mad to be thinking of such foolish things at a time like this. Shaking my head once, I huffed softly. It was Cuán’s fault! I was definitely going to blame my overactive imagination on my younger brother’s ridiculously large movie collection. He got me addicted to those campy movies of his!

A sound of a clearing throat caught my attention. “Are you going to continue or do you want me to molest you a bit more?” my kidnapper asked me. To remind me of what kind of position I was, he gave my butt a light slap.

I realized how close the other was standing to me and shivered. “I’m going,” I grumbled, silently berating myself, and I slowly bent to reach for the fallen key. My captor did not follow me, but instead left my buttocks alone, and I was relieved for that.

Crawling over the cold floor, I realized that it was clean and empty. It wasn’t even made of concrete, as I had imagined it, but of laminate. Wasn’t I in a dirty cellar or something? It was cold, like a cellar, but the atmosphere was somehow different. Perhaps my mind was acting up again?

“Where is the key?” I asked. I did not expect any answer, but I got one anyway.

“You mean this key?” he whispered beside my ear.

I froze instantly. He was standing right before me now! How had I not realized! A small chuckle let me know that he was still close to me and I jerked backwards in an attempt to get away from him – right into the wall. I heard the sound of falling objects, some metallic, some plastic, others I couldn’t place.

“That’s two, three… four… and five… ah, six! You are really generous to me, Connor.”

I frowned. This man knew my name. How did he…?

He neared me again, I felt the distance close between us. I cursed myself for falling into that creep’s trap. Now he had six opportunities to… do ‘things’… with me. Things of which I did not wish to know. I feared for the oncoming assault on my body and my male pride.

As he came closer and closer, I suddenly noticed his scent; it was the cologne I always wore – my favorite. Was it coincidence? Or perhaps…?

“Are you hiding your scent from me?” I asked him.

No answer.

“Are you – or not,” I demanded, fully well knowing that I was not in the position to do such a thing, but I couldn’t help myself. I did not want to be left in the dark like this, to be ignorant of what was going on, I hated this feeling. And my kidnapper probably knew how much I hated it.

He bent over and kissed my forehead, more gently than I had expected, and I realized that his skin was smooth. The ridiculous image of the hairy dwarf that my nonsensical mind had provided was inaccurate.

“You are.”

I pulled my own conclusion. He was definitely hiding his scent from me, just like how he was hiding his voice from me – I was certain of it. This psychopathic freak knew exactly what he was doing, as if he had done this before, as if he somehow knew me…

A shocking thought came to me. This man knew me through and through… he knew of my name, my favorite scent, my bad eyesight, and my need to know and be in control of everything around me. He either must have been spying on me for years, or he was someone that I knew. And now –I realized with dread– I was exactly going to find out how much this guy knew of me.

A lick against my ear brought me out of my thoughts. I bit my lower lip to keep myself still. How come he had such an effect on me? He seemed to know exactly where my sensitive spots were. Had he even spied on me as I had sex?

The thought made me feel sick.

“Nervous, are we?” he whispered. “I’m not a random whore you picked up from the streets, after all.”

I did my best to suppress an upcoming growl. He knew about it then. About my non-existent love life. I did not have much luck with the ladies. My tastes ran towards the small and dainty women. Yet, of all the curses, my large posture seemed to be having this intimidating effect on the female-population. That, combined with my tendency to be socially awkward around the other sex, made my prospects of having a girlfriend run very low. To make up for my lack of love then, I had resorted to picking up prostitutes from the streets from time to time.

“You like the petite types don’t you?” my kidnapper continued to whisper, all the while slipping his hands up and down my chest. “Lucky you, I’m not that big.”

“I’m not into men!” I growled, but stopped. To my own shock I sounded aroused. I cursed myself silently, my captor must have heard it as well. His face was likely grinning from ear to ear at this moment. I licked my lips and swallowed. It meant nothing. He knew my sensitive spots and had stimulated them, this was only a physical reaction to that.

“Trying to find excuses?” my kidnapper murmurs. “Still, I beg to differ, you are into me.” He slowly started to unbutton my shirt.

I cursed and my hands shot up to grab him. “Only six things!” I shouted, seizing his hands into my shackled ones. My eyes widened when I started to become conscious of what I was holding.

Small… slender… smooth… hands…?

***

Those hands… were definitely not the rough hairy hands I expected from a dwarf. He was not just a dwarf or a random midget from a campy movie. No, this was a child, probably one in his early or mid-teens, I deduced.

The realization hit me so hard, that I momentarily forgot to breathe. A child was holding me captive? How the hell had this happened! Thoughts of the child started running through my mind in a frenzy. Who was this kid? Did I know him? How could he have done this? Why was he doing this? Did his parents know? Did he even have parents at all?

Sharp teeth biting harshly into my hand made me jolt up from my thoughts.

“Fuck, that hurt!” I cried out.

“You are right,” the voice whispered. “Only six buttons for six keys.” The voice took on a taunting edge. “Tick-tock, tick-tock… Hurry up, Connor. Time is running out…”

Furiously, I bit the inside of my cheek, but I remained standing where I was. “You won’t scare me, kid,” I said challengingly. I knew I was pushing it, but my small retaliation seemed to be working. By putting emphasis on the word ‘kid’, I seemed to have effectively silenced my captor for a moment. This silence, his small hands, and the teeth marks on my own hand confirmed my suspicions that he was indeed a child.

“Hmmm…” A small condescending snort broke the silence that clung in the air. “Good for you to know that I’m not an adult yet,” the boy murmured, seemingly having regained his composure. “But that piece of information won’t save you.”

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded.

“Why not?” he returned. His light footsteps approached me, until he was so close, that I could feel his breath dampening my unbuttoned shirt. His head only reached to my chest. “The Dowers are one of the most powerful families of this nation, having great investments in every legal and illegal branch imaginable. Weapons, biotechnologies, supercomputers… you name it and Dowers Inc. has taken part in it. Don’t you think that being in control of the youngest son of the powerful Dowers family is the most arousing thing in the world?”

Hearing that, I laughed despite the situation I was in. A cold and joyless laugh. So, that was why he kidnapped me? Even though I did not participate in the family business, having been cut off from it by my father for so-called ‘safety reasons’, I apparently still am a great target where the underworld is concerned. Thank you, father – if not for you, I would not be so ignorant of the operations of the criminal world. And now, this psychopathic little mastermind would blackmail the Dowers family for their riches, and in addition to that bring shame to my family’s name by taking his perversions out on me. Thank you again, father, for keeping me so thoroughly unprepared for these situations.

Not willing to admit defeat yet, I turned to mocking my child captor. “Ha,” I said. “I think your research is a bit lacking, genius. I’m not the youngest son, I still have a little brother!”

A snicker told me that he was not in the least impressed. “That bastard child?” he whispered contemptuously. I balled my fists in anger at the insult thrown at my brother. “What worth does he have? He won’t get me any riches. After all, that brat was only taken in by your father when he married that whore of a stepmother you have.”

I snapped.

Enough! How dare he insult my family! I launched myself on my captor and slammed him to the floor. “You will not insult Cuán or my stepmother,” I growled at him, pinning him down with my superior weight.

“Oh…?” My child captor snickered, and then I felt his knee slam into my private parts, making me groan in pain as I doubled over. His footsteps neared me and I felt his breath tickling the skin of my face while he was looming over me. “Since when do you care about that brat of a brother you have?”

“Do not call my brother that,” I hissed out, my face still contorted in pain.

“My, my… so protective suddenly, when under normal circumstances you wouldn’t hesitate to insult that little brat.”

I growled as I wobbled to stand back up. “I love Cuán like I love my brothers,” I said defensively.

I heard him chuckle in delight. “Love him? Even though you always call him ‘little dog-shit’ and tell him to ‘piss off’?” he mocked.

I frowned. Something began to stir in the back of my mind, but I ignored it for the moment. “How did you know that I call him that?” I asked instead.

He grinned softly. “Thought you’d never ask,” he whispered.

Suddenly there was a click and I heard a recorded file being played off.

 

– Connor you bastard! Give that back to me!

– Piss off, you little dog-shit. I’m telling father that you were trying to get laid by one of your little whores.

– You’re just jealous that girls like me and not you!

 

I remained silent, trying to control myself, knowing that my child captor was observing my reactions. The recorded argument had happened three years ago, before I had moved out. It was when I had first caught a young girl on my little brother’s bed and him next to her with a condom in his hand. I wasn’t sure why it happened, but when I saw them together I exploded.

Taking a deep breath I regained my composure. “Did you record my fights with my brother?” I asked my captor.

“Of course, that is what a stalker does, you know.”

“How did you get into our house?” I continued, “It’s guarded by the best security guards and the newest technologies.”

A small snort let me know that he wasn’t impressed by it. “I do believe a ‘genius’ should at least know how to hack a few security camera’s. Besides, those ‘new technologies’ are ready to be put into a museum.”

Grimacing at the thought of this child having spied on all my escapades through the security camera’s, I hissed out a, “Fuck you.” and turned away from him. I bent down in search of the fallen keys, my mind still raving in anger.

How dare that little fucker call my brother such names! How dare he even insinuate that I did not love my brother? I stopped. Actually, that would not be so difficult. Cuán and I were like cats and dogs, we were always fighting each other for the littlest of things. I was also jealous of all the ladies that Cuán managed to charm at age fifteen. I – socially awkward that I was – had never dated before, even though I was already twenty-six. I felt inadequate when in the vicinity of my little brother. I could never measure up to him and be his equal. I knew I should not want to be, that I was not meant to be. Still, it made me feel resentful. Bitter.

I suppose even father’s treatment of us reflected our difference, he always doted on Cuán, gave him all the freedom that a child could desire, while I received tough love.

But despite all that… despite the nasty demeanor I put up in front of my little brother, I knew deep in my heart that I did love him dearly. Sometimes, I even wondered if I did not love Cuán too much. Not that I would ever let him know that.

I shook the thought off and continued my search.

***

When I finally managed to grab a key, I tried to open my handcuffs. As fate would have it, it did not fit. Grumbling under my breath, I marched up to the door and fumbled to place the key in the lock. Again it did not fit.

I was not disappointed by this. I would only have a chance to get out, if I did a thorough job of those keys. I bent down to let go of the key when I heard a chuckle.

“What?” I growled.

“Are you planning to drop that key again?” my kidnapper whispered.

I froze. He hadn’t told me that!

Thinking quickly, I tried to argue my case. “This one was already dropped once,” I said to him.

“I know,” the little bastard replied, “but I never said that those keys don’t count anymore. In fact, I said that I could touch you, whenever you drop them.”

“So, you’re saying that I have to hold on to it?”

“Yes.”

I smirked and placed the key in the pocket of my jeans. “Fine with me.” I could only imagine how pissed off the little brat must look at the very moment. The image alone already gave me a satisfied feeling.

“Seems like you’re not as stupid as you pretend to be,” he whispered. “Not like your little brother.”

“Cuán is not stupid!” I snapped.

“Being protective again?” A chuckle from nearby.

I suppressed a growl rumbling in my throat. Was he making a joke of my feelings for my brother? “I do love him,” I said, more to reassure myself than to convince my captor.

“I’m sure you do,” there was an indecipherable undertone as he said that. It was similar to sarcasm, but much more bitter and hateful. What could it possibly mean? I was snapped out of my reverie when he suddenly started shouting, “Did you hear that! Cuán, your brother says he loves you!”

“He’s watching?!” I exclaimed.

“Of course he is, why else would I talk to him?”

For the first time I heard the kid’s actual voice… I knew that voice! Somewhere, in the back of my mind, it was nagging at me. Whose voice was this?

“You’re wondering who I am, aren’t you?”

I nodded slowly as I bent down to start searching for the other dropped keys. Let him continue talking – let him make more mistakes that may help reveal his identity. If only I could remember whose voice that was!

“Obviously, I’m not telling you.” I heard. Then, his fingers brushed against my arm.

“I didn’t drop the key,” I snarled.

“Of course you did…” he laughed, slowly walking around me like a predator circling around its prey, until he stood behind me, his breath dampening the back of my shirt, “you dropped it in your pocket.”

I jumped when he lightly patted my butt.

“Stop that!” I yelled, “That’s not fair!”

“If I were fair I wouldn’t have imprisoned you here in the first place,” he answered me calmly and continued fondling me.

“Stop immediately,” I warned, my breathing becoming heavy.

“Or what? Why should I stop? Because you don’t want your brother to see you being humiliated like this? Because you don’t want your brother to know what kind of a weakling you are? Or perhaps… because you don’t want your brother to see you becoming aroused by my touching?”

My breath hitched in my throat. The sound of that voice… it was impossible.

A low moan escaped my lips, after he touched a particularly sensitive spot. “You…” I panted out, “…my brother… Cuán…?”

“You wonder what I did to him?”

“You sound exactly like him!” I almost hadn’t noticed it. He had adopted a cold, icy tone that was so unlike him that it had completely thrown me off. My brother had never been cold before, he was a passionate person, and when he was angry he would argue heatedly and his eyes would light up like blazing fires. However, even though he had taken on this frosty persona, even though he downgraded himself so completely, this was unmistakably my brother’s voice!

He chuckled. “Oh, you finally figured it out?”

“Why do you have Cuán’s voice!” I cried out, still not ready to accept the inevitable truth.

“Why do you think…?” he returned. His arms encircled me, and his face pressed into my back, where he gently placed a kiss.

“But…” I resisted weakly, “you can’t be Cuán…”

Cuán would never…

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A Game of Keys, Stage 1 – ch. I

“I’m going to play a game with you.” The voice that spoke to me was barely above a whisper.

“No. You’re. Not.” I shot back, punctuating each word. There was a soft snickering heard inside the pitch black room.

“Sure.”

The answer bewildered me. “Sure?” I asked carefully. Would my captor actually agree with my suggestion? I dared not be hopeful.

My captor chuckled lightly. “Sure… if you’re willing to bear the consequences.”

“Consequences?” I bit the inside of my cheek. Suspicious. This did not sound right.

My captor repeated the word once more. “Indeed, consequences,” he said. The tone of voice which he used was smug.

“What consequences?” I demanded. “Don’t you dare fool around with me!” I felt my stomach churn as I thought of the possible conditions a stalker, kidnapper, or whatever the hell he was, could come up with.

“Patience, patience, my dear. You seem to have a habit of interrupting me at every interval.”

I scrunched my nose in disgust and glowered angrily at my kidnapper. Or, actually, I tried to glower at the direction where I heard my kidnapper’s voice, since I could not see anything. But I did remain silent.

“You may not be able to see it, but I have a set of keys here…”

Keys?

As my captor took a dramatically long pause to let his words sink in, I let myself mull over the situation I was in. My kidnapper had me trapped and wanted me to participate into his twisted games, which involved keys. If the captor was playing fair, which was unlikely, this could only mean that I had to find the right key. If he was not playing fair… then it would likely mean that there was no key to get me out of here at all, and that he was simply messing with my mind. Psychopaths got off on such things after all.

My kidnapper spoke again. “As you may have already guessed by now, among these keys only one will open the path of freedom to you. Now here is where I will explain to you what offer you have just rejected.”

He stopped speaking momentarily, and somehow, I could sense his tremendous glee, as if he had been saving the best details of his lurid plans for me for the last part of his narration.

“Speak. Up,” I bit out, getting impatient with the suspense he was building up.

“Certainly,” he said, and the tone he used to say that word, confirmed my suspicions. The best had been saved for the grand finale. “By playing the game, you had a chance at freedom. But, since you will not be playing the game, you will have lost the game by default. And the penalty for losing a game is… that – I. Will. Rape. You.”

What!” I shouted. My hands formed into angry fists. Outrage. I felt nothing but outrage at his suggestion. “Are you mad! There is no way in hell I will let you –”

“You are in no position to deny me,” my captor interjected smoothly. He was smirking. I just knew that he was smirking, the filthy pervert. He had been anxious to tell me this, to see my reaction towards his crude revelation.

But he was right. I was in no position to deny him. I was bounded and practically blind. Reluctant to give in, but realizing that there was no opportunity to escape my fate if I didn’t play along, I conceded. “Fine,” I said to him, “What’s the game about?”

He chuckled softly. “All the keys are available for your use. Just unlock the door and you are free to go. However, my hands just itch to touch you… so, whenever you drop a key… I get to… you know.”

“You’ll get to rape me once?” I growled. Perhaps I should forfeit this game after all.

“Oh, I am not that forceful,” he replied, “I will undress you, and molest you, but the best shall be served at the end. You will have one hour.”

I narrowed my eyes. “One hour?”

“Correct. But if you still haven’t opened that door within the given time limit… well, let’s just say that watching your back won’t save it. Yes?”

How I wished to just spit in his ugly face! Okay, I may have never truly seen his face, but I just knew that a pervert like this could never be handsome, because if he were then he would not need to resort to me of all people just to get off.

I gritted my teeth as I asked him, “How can I trust you? You might be lying to me.”

More soft grinning. “And why would I lie to a pretty thing like you?” The lust I heard from his murmuring voice made my body shiver. Disgusting pig! And what the hell was with the ‘pretty thing’? How dare he call me that! He was trying to mock me!

I was not so easily beaten, however. “You’ve kidnapped me and taken me to God knows where,” I pointed out to him, summing up what crimes he had committed. “You cuffed my hands and took my glasses from me, robbing me from my sight. And on top of that, you plan to rape me! So why would you not lie to me?” I writhed in discomfort as I growled out in anger. “Tell me! Why should I trust you!”

“Simple,” I heard him answer casually. “You have no choice.”

Indeed, he was right. I was angry and afraid, but I had not lost my sanity yet. My rational mind still functioned enough in order to tell me that I was completely defenseless. My fate lay in this person’s hands.

I knew then that I could not escape the inevitable, but I still dreaded what I had to do – I had to comply with his wishes. I growled in anger at the prospect of having to let him touch me; I would never ever let that happen to me, I refused to even think about it.

“Fine, just give me the keys.”

“They’re hanging here, against the wall, on your right.”

I turned to the voice. “You won’t take off the cuffs from my hands first?” I asked, knowing already what the answer was, but dreading it all the same.

“No.”

Figured.

“Among the keys, there is one to unlock your handcuffs as well,” he explained to me. “And you’re not blindfolded, so when you’ve managed to free yourself, the next task should be easy.”

I growled lowly. “My eyesight is poor,” I complained.

Again, that arrogant soft snickering. “I know that. That’s exactly why I took away your glasses and destroyed the light in this room.” He sighed momentarily. “Well,” he continued, “hurry up. Otherwise, I’ll just start fucking you right now instead of giving you a chance to save yourself.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you hiding your voice from me?” I asked.

“Of course I am,” he answered, still in that soft whispering voice of his. “Have you not seen that latest B-movie in theaters? Any true evil kidnapper would be smart enough to do such a thing.”

I let out an indignant snort, but then stood up, turned a quarter, and marched on. B-movie? Yes, as a film fanatic, I had seen it. In the movie the victim of the kidnapper had been trapped just as I was right now, and just like me she had to search for a key to free herself. The ending had been morbid. A cold feeling washed over me. Was this psychopath inspired by that movie?

Deeply in thought, I wasn’t aware of when I should stop, so when the distance between the wall and me closed, I bumped my nose against cold metal, which then fell, sliding down my cheek and my body, clattering on the floor…

“One…”

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