The most embarrassing thing about Jo Grant, Sarah Jane thought, apart from streaky gold and tawny hair at the age of about 150 and clothing that a teenager from the 1960’s would have found stylish, was her happiness in caring for Liz Shaw. Sarah Jane found herself the odd man out in her own home. It didn’t anger her, but she wondered how Jo Grant had preserved such remarkable youthfulness: all optimism and exuberance and open tenderness.
After tea and more food, during which Jo helped Liz eat and drink with a kind, almost motherly attention that verged on doting, Jo mended Liz Shaw’s feet with a layer of artificial skin from the first aid kit from the bathroom. Then she borrowed a nightgown from Sarah Jane, and sheets and blankets. She made up the sofa while Liz changed, and with more of that doting attention, she put Liz to bed on the sofa.
Meanwhile, the light of the full moon over the garden slowly waned as the moon set for the night. But the fragrance stayed with them. Jo held Liz’s hands and crouched by the sofa. Even crouching seemed fairly easy to Jo.
“We’re right here, Puddleduck,” she said. “You’ve got to rest up and recover. We know it’s been awful. But things are starting to set right.”
“You’ll be here?” Liz whispered. “If they come, we mustn’t be separated. Please don’t leave me.”
“I will not leave you,” Jo Grant said, and for an instant, her voice sounded exactly like the voice of Fomalhaut, the voice of Jean, old and wise, and filled with the unearthly mercy of heaven. Sarah started and then caught herself, for a moment thinking her former champion had come into the room. Neither Jo nor Liz noticed. “This light,” Jo said, once again merely herself. “This light is somehow our protection. Don’t be afraid. Nobody knows we’re here. Nobody is coming.”
“But you’ll be here?” Liz asked.
“Right here. Right by you while you sleep. You won’t be left alone. One of us will be with you, dear.” And Jo released her hand to smooth back her hair. “After looking everywhere for you, do you think I’m going to lose you again?” Jo tried to make her voice sound like a canny old Yorkshire woman. “I’ve got to keep me eye on you, at least for days and days until I know everything’s all right.” But she could not be quite that playful, and her voice broke. Now she shed tears again and bowed her head, resting it on Liz’s shoulder. “Everything’s all right for now,” she whispered. “We can still win. We’ll find him.” And then they both cried with quieter tears.
Sarah Jane took both sets of tea things back to the kitchen and washed up. When she’d finished, she turned and saw her newest guest standing in the doorway to the sitting room. Jo, her large eyes sober, beckoned to her to come in again. It was time to talk. She had dimmed the lights on the side of the room where Liz Shaw, comforted and peaceful, now slept. They crossed to the locked glass doors that overlooked the dim garden.
Without sitting, Jo looked out over the garden and spoke in a low voice: “Several years ago, when I realized, you know, that only the rich get the surgeries and the rehabilitation stuff for old age, I looked into the care of the elderly. There are poor people who age the old fashioned way. But this culture, this race, this age—they don’t like ordinary old people. Failing health and bad knees and nervous tremors---“
“Well even ordinary people can afford new knees—“ Sarah Jane began.
“But not the poor,” Jo said. “We live in one of the richest societies in the world, and our poor elderly are left to rot. That’s what I thought when I joined some of the Public Welfare Groups to speak on behalf of the elderly.” She shook her head. Her eyes were still lively and intense, but now they were sober and focused inward. “That’s not what I found.”
“What did you find?”
“The elderly, the few elderly who haven’t been modified and yet who live extended lives---they’ve become merchandise.”
“Merchandise?” The first thought to cross Sarah Jane’s mind was Who would want old people? The question itself raised sudden realizations about her own attitude. She wondered, with a sense of awful truth, if she had little respect for the doddering, stumbling elderly among the poor.
“A person too poor to afford modifications deteriorates and usually dies between 75 and 80,” Jo said. “But a few of them survive longer. Those are the people who suffer.”
“The whole question of what makes a person a long liver has become the crux of an enormous research market. A research war.” She paused. “There are nursing homes that are simply fronts for the technology sweepers.”
The sweepers were well known as a group, even to the reclusive Sarah Jane. They were the front line people who picked up preliminary research where the technology scouts left off, the ones who bankrolled numerous projects and clinical trials, who did so much good for society and funneled back pertinent information to the Research and Development companies for whom they worked.
“The sweeps have rules. They have to serve humanity,” Sarah Jane said. “They’re carefully regulated.”
“That’s their facade. They claim to care for the impoverished elderly who cannot afford modifications. And all the while, they’re doing things to them. The ones that they want to study.”
“Look, I don’t want to doubt you---“
Jo Grant continued, her tone not argumentative. “A single successful piece of new technology will bring in billions, especially in the Aging market. The tech sweeps can afford to be kind and generous to scores of people while subjecting a few of the others to invasive research without their consent.”
She lifted her eyes to her hostess. “It’s what happened to Liz Shaw and the Brigadier. They were sucked in.”
“How? Had they become ill? Did they need care?”
“Probably not.” She shook her head. “I mean, look at Liz now. She’s been tortured by those beasts, starved, and she’s still strong enough to hike across the country to escape. No, they were sucked in. Tricked in. Went in for a checkup, or for some small matter, and they were---shanghaied, I suppose. Nobody is alive any more to act on their behalf. Nobody is around to look for them, speak for them. Somehow, the sweeps figured that out. And the sweeps figured out they topped 100 half a century ago.”
But Sarah Jane shook her head. “Why torture a person whose longevity you want to study? Why burn her with hot tea? She told me she was held under water. None of that furthers the study of longevity.”
“No,” Jo agreed. “No, it doesn’t. There are far more gruesome tests to study longevity. But those tests tend to be short-lived. It’s all over for the study subjects within a few weeks. Then their bodies are incinerated and nobody’s ever the wiser.
“So why has she been tortured?”
Jo looked at her again, and Sarah Jane, with a slight needle-prick of annoyance, could see that the kind-hearted Jo Grant was startled by what she considered to be Sarah Jane’s obtuseness.
“Don’t you know---“ Then she caught herself and changed her approach. “Have you ever heard of Retinal Observation Recovery?”
“Yes, it’s a means of helping people reconstruct events from the past. It’s expensive.”
“Well, it’s an investment for anybody looking for new or secret technology,” Jo said. “Provided they have somebody in custody who has some very valuable memories. When you or I think of Retinal Observation Recovery, we think of it as helpful therapy. It’s used to restore memories from amnesia, to help trauma victims reconstruct their lives, or assist lost little children to produce their home address or their parents’ full names.”
“Yes. Nobody can be forced into ROR. It relies on the reactions of the retina as the mind reprocesses peripheral memories---“
“People can be forced to comply with anything, Sarah Jane,” Jo said. She took a long look at her hostess and then, with an apologetic dip of her head, she crossed the darkening room to check on Liz. Sarah sensed that the interview was over, and that somehow she had failed Jo Grant’s expectations. Jo leaned over her charge. “I’m here, dear.” This, in a low voice, to the sleeping Liz. “I’m here with you. And you’re safe.” She rested her hand on Liz’s head.
“Well,” Sarah said. “When are we supposed to go after Lethbridge Stewart then?”
Then Jo raised her head and looked back at Sarah Jane, her eyes doubtful. “We can’t attempt anything until each of us is ready to commit to getting him out.” For a moment, in the dimness, she waited for Sarah Jane to reply, but Sarah made no answer. Jo looked down at Liz. “I’ll stay with her tonight.” Soft and harmless as the words were, they were a dismissal. Sarah didn’t protest.
* * * *
A gray dawn was the anti-climactic follow-up to the day before, a dull sequel to years of hope that had now ended. Sarah Jane opened her eyes and immediately identified the cheerful voice of Jo Grant as she coaxed Liz Shaw up the steps.
“See here? It’s just steps, just ordinary rooms up above. You used to have an upstairs yourself, I wouldn’t wonder.”
“But they make it look ordinary. Maybe we should go back,” Liz said.
“This is Sarah Jane’s house. The house that smells like flowers. Do you think anything horrible could be sitting on the second floor over that beautiful fragrance, dear?”
“We could stay in the flower fragrance in the sitting room and feel better.”
“Well, we have to be kind to Sarah Jane and let her have her sitting room, Puddleduck. And I’m with you. Whatever happens to you will happen to me up here. Only, I know it’s going to be glorious and tasteful. That Sarah Jane keeps a lovely house. And here we are. See?” The volume of her voice strengthened as they reached the top of the stairs.
“Isn’t it grand?” Jo asked, cheerful and satisfied. “All the open doors and look---two lovely guest rooms and a study. I knew it would all be done in good taste.”
“That door down the hallway is closed.”
“That’s Sarah Jane’s room, Puddleduck. She’s still sleeping.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she told me she sleeps up here.”
There was a brief silence as Liz considered the second floor. Sarah wished they would go away. She had asked for Mercy and been given this instead: another tragedy. More bad news. Another weighty task. Somebody else was depending on her, some miserable, suffering soul. The Brigadier, of all people. And he wouldn’t be what he once was. She already knew he would not be the erect, courteous, slightly stuffy, politically conservative, practical and forthright man she remembered. If they found him at all, he was going to be like Liz Shaw: doddering and frail and weepy.
It was one more great big, pointless, relentless tragedy. Why had she ever come to believe in Mercy, anyway? If she had died in the presence of Fomalhaut, she would never have seen all the deaths of others.
And yet, she had begged for her life from Fomalhaut. And the great creature, who already had mysterious and transcendent duties in the heavens to look after, had set everything aside to re-form herself (or itself, or himself), into an image that Sarah Jane could manage.
Why would such a creature humble itself to befriend her and yet not come now, now when the bridge of light would have enabled it to travel right to her? Sarah Jane did not entirely understand these creatures, but she did know that they used the light of the heavens as a sort of pathway. And she knew that when one planet came into focus among the many reflections of the light that always shone across the heavens, these creatures could travel to the focused planet easily.
She didn’t even understand the principles of that focus. It was something the ancients of earth had called the “dignity,” “joy,” and “exaltation” of a planet, but she knew a cookbook way of calculating the focus of light from planetary positions. A night like the previous would not occur for another thousand years in terms of the accessibility between Fomalhaut and earth. It would have been one easy step for Jean, but she had not come.
This had come, instead: a feeble, terrified, disoriented Liz Shaw and an annoyingly cheerful Jo Grant whose boundless good nature cloaked an intense, almost frightening, dedication to a purpose.
Closet doors creaked and thumped as Jo led Liz on an inspection of the guest rooms.
“I don’t think I would want to be alone up here in the dark,” Liz said.
“Oh that’s no problem. I’m sure Sarah Jane’s got one or two of those guest cots tucked away in storage. We’ll find one, and I’ll bunk in with you. Tell you me jokes and stories if you’re wakeful. Those would put anybody to sleep.”
Sarah Jane felt worse and worse. Of course they were making themselves at home in her house. That was how it should be. They’d been allies for over a century. Over a century. When family and friends are gone, there’s always Jo Grant and Liz Shaw to come and move in with you, she thought.
Then she made herself get up, and with an act of will, she pushed these dark thoughts away. She slipped on her robe, thrust her feet into her slippers, and emerged into the hallway, feigning sleepiness.
“Heigh ho, whose that rumbling ‘round me drawers?” she called as she heard them checking the stand of drawers in the larger guest room.
Jo burst out laughing, and Liz poked her head out into the hallway. The eyes at once arrested Sarah Jane: dark and soulful and intelligent. Overnight, Liz Shaw had gone from being a homeless vagrant to a sober elder among women. But that sorrow in those eyes, even when they lit up with a shy welcome, pierced Sarah Jane just as much as the laughter and merriness in Jo Grant’s first look at her. For a moment, Sarah couldn’t speak.
Then Jo’s head popped out. “Hello Ducky,” she called. “What about a bit of breakfast, ey?”
“Jo, we shouldn’t ask,” Liz said gently, but shocked, all good manners.
“I’ll cook for us then,” Jo said quickly. “I’m a fabulous cook. I’ve been told that my omelets can bring people to tears.”
Liz stepped out into the hallway, still clad in the borrowed flannel nightgown. She hesitated, and then held both hands out to Sarah Jane.
“You’re welcome here,” Sarah heard herself say. She took Liz’s hands. “And there’s nothing for you to be afraid of here, dear. All of that is from the other place. This is a house of peace. Let me show you ‘round while Jo cooks for us.”
“Right then,” Jo said. She seemed a little startled at how effortlessly Sarah had taken over, and how swiftly Liz accepted the distribution of tasks. But her cheerfulness was undimmed. “I’ll sing out if I need help. Give us half an hour.”
* * * *
The aroma of sausage, eggs, onions, mushrooms, and fried potatoes mingled perfectly with the lingering sweetness that still hung over the sitting room. Lately, all coffee had begun to taste merely flat and bitter to Sarah Jane, but now when she poured it into each china cup, it made a rich dark well, and it offered its own enticing fragrance when she leaned close. She dropped an ice cube into Liz Shaw’s cup and returned the vacuum carafe to its pad.
Sarah Jane’s kitchen would have been outdated by contemporary culinary technology, but Jo Grant was perfectly at home with decades-old technology. Even the rare, cast iron skillet, normally used only by expert chefs, did not daunt her, and she rapidly slid fresh omelettes onto each plate as she cooked them up. Then came the sausages and the toast.
“Mmm,” Liz said, a hum of agitation and not anticipation. She was slightly anxious at sight of this glorious feast. She was trying to help, but her hands were trembling. The entire presentation of breakfast, and everything it represented: food, friends, peace, was almost overwhelming her. Clad in the same slacks that she had worn yesterday, and a fresh blouse, her hair neatly tied back, she looked far more ordinary and less stark than she had appeared on first arriving. And yet she still flinched if either Jo or Sarah moved suddenly, and it was clear that Liz was always listening and watching, hyper vigilant for the least little sign of danger. She could not still her trembling hands as she brought the silver cow cream pitcher to her hostess.
For the first time, real grief sent an arrow into Sarah Jane. “Thank you for fetching the cream,” she said kindly. She took the tiny pitcher from Liz and set it down on the crowded table. She slipped her arm around Liz. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you found me.”
“Not---not right before we eat,” Liz began, a protest against her own emotions, which were rising. She was about to cry.
“Come here for a moment while Jo finishes up.” She simply didn’t have Jo’s ability to console with such open warmth and affection. But then, Sarah Jane thought, neither did Liz Shaw. She led Liz by the hand into the sitting room; and in the cooler temperature, out of sight of the food, and under the powerful fragrance of the sweetness, Liz became calmer. “It’s just been so long since I’ve sat and eaten like a normal person,” she said after a moment.
Sarah Jane put an arm around her again. “You’ll have to help us. You’ll have to help me, anyway,” she said. “I mean, if we get the Brigadier, he’s going to be in bad shape---“
“He’s in very bad shape. He couldn’t travel. They’ve injured him.” Her sorrowful eyes were suddenly worried, thrown back to him.
“Then we’ve got to get you strong,” Sarah said softly. “So you can help us know what to do for him.” These words revived Liz. Still the highly ethical Liz Shaw of a century ago, Sarah thought.
“Yes,” Liz said. She suddenly became less agitated. She spoke gently, now mindful again of courtesy and manners: “All of this must have been a shock to you. I--I know you wrote that book, decades ago, about the star of Gabriel and the hope of Mercy.”
Sarah Jane started. It had been years since anybody had mentioned that book. Obviously, since she had let the identity of Sarah Jane Smith die, nobody would think to discuss her literary output with her. And even to her, it was almost as though another person had written it.
“I read it with great interest,” Liz said, for a moment sounding like the academic Liz Shaw that Sarah Jane remembered. “It’s never quite gone out of my thinking.” She paused and looked down. “I never was quite sure I understood everything you were saying, but---“ She looked up. “You were right. I am sure of that.” She tried to become more light hearted, but those sad eyes, Sarah Jane knew, would never be truly light hearted again. “All the same, no matter how much you believe in Mercy, it must be a shock to have two guests show up so dramatically and just move in.”
“It’s fine,” Sarah Jane told her. “You’re welcome here.” And if she didn’t really mean it, she was at least starting to mean it.
As they walked into the kitchen, Jo Grant beamed at them triumphantly. “Breakfast is served!”
“Everything is lovely, Jo,” Liz said at once.
Jo smiled at Sarah Jane and said. “And I think we’re just about ready to commit ourselves to get things done. But first, we’ll eat and relax. Then plan.”
* * * *
Food suddenly had better taste to Sarah Jane, and Jo Grant appeared to have the appetite of a young girl. But neither Sarah nor Jo ate as much as Liz did. She ate more slowly than either of them, and there were long moments in the meal when it was so obvious that she was reacquainting herself with different flavors and textures of food that both Sarah and Jo dropped off from speaking and attended to their own plates. It was like becoming quiet to let a scientist work out a calculation or an engineer solve a difficulty in an engine.
Liz examined her food, sometimes between each bite, and there were moments when her eyes were wet. But for the most part, she seemed to be thinking, matching colors, flavors, and sensations from the food with her memories. They didn’t interrupt her. But when all were finished, Liz was sleepy again, unused to eating as much as she wanted.
“You should take a little rest, dear,” Jo said.
“I’ll wash up,” Sarah told them.
Jo nodded. She was concerned for their friend. “I’ll sit with Liz and have a little rest.”
“And I’m Liz,” Liz said uncertainly.
“Yes you are. Our favorite Liz. Come and rest a while. I’ll take a look at those feet and see how they’re doing,” And Jo led her into the sitting room.
* * * *
When Sarah Jane had finished, Liz was asleep again, her feet on Jo’s lap. Jo looked up and smiled, and Sarah Jane pulled a kitchen chair in after herself. She drew it closer to Jo so that they could speak quietly.
“How are we actually going to do this?” Sarah asked. “Where is this place, this elderly care home?”
“About 40 miles from here, country. I can get us there. I’ve got the Zip.” And she jerked her streaked, gray, gold, and tawny head towards the front door to indicate that her Zip was parked out front.
“But---how are we going to transport an infirm old man back with us in a Zip? He won’t fit.” Then she paused. “Do the companies make larger Zips these days? It’s been years since I owned anything like that.”
“No, the three of us will just fit. I have a plan for how to get us all back safely, but we’ll have to be quick and, well, pretty boldfaced.”
Sarah Jane nodded. Then she hesitated. She threw a glance at Liz Shaw. “Can she---“
“With us, yes. And you’ll be surprised at how fixed and determined she can become when it’s a matter of finding him and rescuing him. She’ll forget herself and do what needs to be done.”
Sarah Jane nodded.
“As for how to go about it,” Jo began. “When I first tried to break them out, I just went in, boldfaced, and did it. Right at the exit gate, they stopped me and said I didn’t have custody rights for either of them, and then we all made a run for it. In the Zip. I was so stupid.” She rolled her eyes and leaned back, as though in despair with herself. “They chased us, of course, and I lost them. Oh I was stupid. Liz---“ And she unconsciously dropped her hand to Liz’s feet. “Liz would have guessed it, but she wasn’t herself. They’d been doing ROR on her, that Retinal Recognition stuff. She was only half in and out. The Brigadier was in better shape, at least mentally, but he was afraid for her.”
“You hadn’t lost the pursuit?”
“No, it was a ridiculous trick, and I fell for it. I was with two aged, ailing patients. They were sick. They were in pain. They had to---to use the bathroom, for goodness sake. They were ashamed of how they looked and smelled. It had been days since they’d had personal care. So I drove for just a couple hours and stopped to give them a place to rest: a cheap little motel where nobody would ask any questions. I left them there and went to get groceries.”
“And the tech sweeps closed in---“ Sarah Jane guessed.
“They’d been all around us, all along. Following at a distance. But Liz got away. The Brig couldn’t travel, but he must have helped her get out---created a diversion. Just like him. People from the motel told me that he’d been taken away but she was gone. Well, Liz knew I was coming to find you. We had your latest alias—Linda Whatsit.”
“Blackburn,” Sarah Jane said. “I’m Linda Blackburn now.”
“But I didn’t know what had happened to Liz. I’d never get back into the health care facility. And the Brigadier would never be able to get a message to me. I had to go find a specialist from our Public Welfare network, Benny. He’s a champion network expert. He could use his computer set-up to break into the low level operations networks at the healthcare facility, just far enough to see if any IV bags had been pumped for her, if any treatments had been assigned to her, any meals delivered. Her name and ID would have been changed again in their database after I’d broken her out, but there was no sign of any new person. I wasted a day and a half looking through everything in the records we could access, but then I knew she was out there somewhere, alone.”
“And you came straight here?” Sarah Jane asked.
“No, I looked for her first. Liz is awfully intelligent. She’s traveled 30 miles, on foot as far as I know, without food, water, or money. And she got here. I had no idea she could do it. I wasted another day and a half trolling around the countryside in the Zip.”
Sarah Jane had to confess agreement to Jo’s assessment. “She was so---disoriented when she came, so afraid and frantic. I’m not sure how she did it, either.”
Jo looked up. “Well, she’s worse when she’s self aware. The way they handled her was to erase her self-referencing. Take away her name. Make her feel like she didn’t matter as an entity. She does her best when she’s working on something outside herself. When she can put her concentration outside herself, she can do very well. If she just focused on how to get here, she’d be the clever Liz we know.”
“So finally, you gave up and came here.”
“Well, that glorious moon. I never saw anything like it,” Jo said frankly, with the wonder of a little girl. “But I had the idea that you and I could both go searching for her. Maybe round up some volunteers from the Public Welfare network and search for her while the moon was up. But then, when I got here, I found her here ahead of me.”
“And the Brigadier is this bad off?” Sarah asked.
Jo hesitated. “I think he’s been better trained to withstand the effect of what was done to him. He understands that he must value his identity, his purpose in life---“
“I don’t understand,” Sarah said. “Why torture people just to erase their sense of having an identity?”
Jo’s face lit up with sudden understanding. “To make them believe that anything they do doesn’t matter, Sarah Jane. If you can change around their moral reference points and get them to think that believing in their own power to harm others is shameful---I mean that’s the purpose.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“It’s an old ploy of captors. They make their captives ashamed to believe that their actions matter. Under the right kind of suffering, the captive person starts to think that his own moral reluctance to comply with his captors is mere hubris on his own part. That he’s a proper idiot for thinking his actions even matter. If the captive really begins to believe that he or she is non-existent or unimportant, the captive loses any sense of reluctance to comply with his captors.”
Understanding dawned on Sarah Jane. Jo looked down at Liz and rubbed one of the sound places on her foot. “With a brilliant woman like Liz Shaw or a dutiful man like the Brigadier, their captors had to shortcut all the rational and moral defenses. They went right to shame and started to break them down with that: Fear, pain, humiliation, shame. It goes in a cycle. Keep breaking them down, and eventually, they will have no real moral reason to resist any longer. In fact, they will be ashamed of ever thinking they mattered enough to resist.”
“I still don’t understand what Liz and the Brigadier could have told them,” Sarah Jane said.
“ROR is far more extensive than you realize,” Jo said. “And Liz and the Brigadier know far more secrets than even they know they know.” She glanced around to determine the time. “In fact, you and I know much more than we know we know. If we’re ever found out—if we ever get sucked in by the tech sweeps, our end will be like theirs.” And she nodded down at Liz, who still slept, her reserves of strength spent. “I’ve got to call Benny. He can break into their network to look at the food and med distribution. We can figure out where the Brigadier has been put inside the facility.”
“But how do we get him out?” Sarah Jane asked. “You said yourself we can’t just go in openly.”
Jo beamed. “Oh, I’ve got a scathingly brilliant plan. We shall imitate Benny’s strategy of invading their network. We shall go in on a very low level.”
* * * *
Jo’s Zip, stylish and efficient, was one of the smallest models on the market. Jo squeezed in front, and Sarah helped Liz into the back seat and slid in next to her. She knew her role was to provide assurance, but Liz—after a 90-minute nap—seemed much closer to the Liz Shaw Sarah had once known.
‘Even if we can locate the Brigadier in the building itself, I fail to see how we can safely enter,” she said.
“Well you won’t be entering, dear,” Jo said as she glided them over the magnetized roadway. “Now I’ve got you out of there, I’m not letting them get you again. You’re on point in case things go wrong for us.”
The reality, Sarah Jane thought, was that they could not leave Liz behind, alone. But she was in no shape for this foray. And, truth to tell, Sarah Jane didn’t feel up to it either. Granted, she looked less than half her age, but still, things creaked and joints rebelled against moving too far in any direction. She couldn’t run far and had never been all that strong; less now. The days of rushing into danger, reacting on pure adrenalin, outwitting older and slower (and pompous and conceited) sociopaths seemed quite over.
“First,” Jo said as they slid over the road surface. “We can locate the Brigadier through some good, old fashioned eavesdropping. Whenever a patient exits the facility and re-enters, he goes through an automated re-exam—“
“Yes,” Liz said. “It doesn’t hurt. That’s when the nanites tell them how much they can do to you—“
Sarah Jane realized that this latest foray had not been Liz’s first bid for freedom. She’d been through the automated re-exam.
“I’d still like to know how they get away with all of this—“ she began, but Jo said, “Yes, Liz. But they won’t have got very far with him. And the re-exam isn’t protected information. The Public Welfare Group I work with has got eavesdropping in place. We can locate him through the re-exam info, even if it doesn’t identify him by name or patient number.”
“So where are we going” Sarah Jane asked.
“Eccentric sort of bloke named Benny. Very sympathetic to the elderly. But a bit of a loner. Let’s see, what’s it called? Asbergers?”
“He’s autistic?” Liz asked.
“He has distinct troubles in decoding nuances of socially acceptable behavior,” Jo said. By now they were gliding through a neighborhood of prefab houses made to look like country cottages and bungalows. Square patches of grass in front of each doorway were lined with flower borders. “Benny’s got a sensitive conscience. Never do anything to harm anybody. And he risks a good deal to help them. But he has no social sense. He—he—“
“Yes?” Sarah Jane asked.
“He farts very openly. There, I’ve said it. He insists that our reticence towards gas is mere artifice and very bad for the digestion.” She hesitated. “You do get used to it after a couple hours.”
“And we have to go inside?” Sarah Jane asked.
“It’s essential to respect Benny for exactly who he is,” Jo said, “Essential. We can’t afford to offend him. And besides, Fomalhaut rose right over all of us. We no longer have the latitude to be critical of others.”
There was a pause. “Does he have a lot of gas?” Liz asked.
“Well, he’s got enough. And if you ask him about it, he’ll lecture you no end, so it’s no good. Just act like everybody farts all the time. We need to stick to the business at hand.”
She turned the wheel, and the sporty little zip made a tight turn that would have impossible in a car with tyres. They pulled up before one of the many cottages.
Benny, a youngish man with uncombed hair, flapping clothes, and bare feet, must have had a door scan, for he met them as they walked up the short path.
“’Oy, have you brought the sewing circle?” he asked.
“Oh dear, how does he know what a sewing circle is?” Liz asked.
“Got one of those useless degrees in twentieth century culture,” Jo murmured. “But then, nobody needed to teach him technology. He’s had all that figured out since he was 15.”
“He looks 15 now,” Sarah Jane whispered.
“Oh dear, I smell something—“ Liz began.
“No, he’s not let loose yet. You’re panicking---Ah, Benny, I know this is unexpected, but we do need your craft,” Jo greeted him. “We’ve lost one. He’s back inside that awful place!”
“Right, come inside then and have tea!” His gruffness disappeared at once, and he led them inside.
They entered an unexpectedly dim front room. Sarah Jane saw consoles, finger pads, transmitters, and real, honest-to-goodness cables, everywhere. There was equipment stacked on chairs, on fold-out tables, and piles of it stacked up in corners. Some of it was so modern that she did not even recognize it, but her eye picked out vintage CRT screens. She had to pretend not to be familiar with it, or she would give herself away. But Liz was charmed. “Oh look at that, that big wheel of magnetic tape. Dear me, that’s from long ago: before local computers.”
“And all functional,” he said. “While Jo makes tea, let’s break into the old folks home.”
He forgot to invite them to sit down. Benny, Sarah Jane thought, was truly a thoughtless person. He took for granted that everybody was as comfortable as he was. But he meant no unkindness. He slid into the one nice bit of furniture in the room: an elegant chair designed for office work. The wall screen came on.
Expertly, he tapped digital switches on the arm of the chair, using the latest code: an 8-peg digital command structure that relied on a sort of shorthand language for issuing commands.
“There you are,” he said as columns of information appeared on the wall screen. “They won’t re-enter his name or update his status if he’s escaped and been recaptured. But they will run an automated update on his physical condition. The nanites they inject will send back updated information.”
The kitchen of the small cottage was really just a part of the large front room, and any difference in decor or furniture had been obliterated by the stacks and piles of equipment. But Jo seemed quite at home in the mess. “Have you found him?” she asked as she filled an instant kettle with water and flipped the switch. As steam started to pour out of it, she washed up several cups.
“Yes, here it is. The report was completed last night. He’s been given 24 hours more of bed rest, and then re-evaluation.”
“That’s just code—“ Liz began, frightened. “Twenty-four hours bed rest is code—code—“
Benny turned and Jo hurried over from the tea things. “Yes we know dear. We’ll get him.” Liz had taken a rickety metal chair for herself, and Jo held her and calmed her. “I know he’s suffering, but we’ll get him. Benny, will you see to the tea?”
He nodded and hurried into the kitchen, glancing back at Liz.
“And then,” Jo added. “Find us one of their lorries or mobile care units out for maintenance will you? That’s how we’ll go in.”
“Jo, we’ve got to hurry,” Liz began.
“Not you, pet. Sarah Jane and I will go. You’ve got to stay here with Benny and monitor the system. Benny, two sugars for each of us, dear!” she called. “And an ice cube for Liz!”
He returned with two beakers, passed one to Sarah Jane and set one on top of one of the stacks of equipment.
“I’ll get it,” Sarah Jane said. She felt a rising sense of dismay and clamped down on it. She had to do this. It was right. It was necessary.
“Look,” Benny said. “They’ve got a mobile care unit getting a good wash and hoover. It’s signed out all morning.” He slid into his chair so that he could operate the controls.
“Golden opportunity,” Jo said.
“If you get stuck in that facility, I don’t know if I can bring them down again to help you get out,” he told her. “They’ll be on to us soon if I interfere too much.”
“Not to worry, Duck. We’ll get in and get out. I’ve got a scathingly brilliant plan. But you let Liz look after you, and teach her that remarkable shorthand system of yours, will you? Sarah Jane and I will be back in a few hours.”
Agreeably, Benny took a huge sip of tea. A wave of rotten eggshell odor wafted over from him. Liz started, and Jo said, “Oh, you’re getting used to having us around, Benny! Good!”
Their host glanced at Liz’s startled eyes. “You always want to keep the intestinal track cleared,” he told her.
“Just give us a sealed bottle of gin then, our Benny,” Jo said, using a Yorkshire accent. “And we’ll be ready for anything.”
“Coming right up!” (Brrrrt!) He strode away.
“Now, that one wasn’t so bad,” Jo observed. “Just noisy.”
* * * *
The sense of misgiving only increased as Sarah Jane climbed back into the Zip. She got one glimpse of Liz, at the door, looking forlorn and frightened for them. What have I got myself into? she thought. Is this Mercy at all, or just a hair brained scheme?
“What we need,” Jo said as she turned the Zip on its centerline so that they faced out, “is about 30 grams of copper sulfate. We can get it after we get the mobile unit.”
“How do we get the mobile unit?”
Jo beamed at her. “For that, we need only this!” And she patted the bottle of gin.
Thirty minutes later, with the Zip parked at a good distance, Jo led Sarah down an ordinary neighborhood street in one of the many towns that dotted the countryside. Jo had her raincoat over one arm and carried her hat, as well as the bottle of gin.
“Now, we’re just one street over from the maintenance shop those blokes use to clean the lorries and ambulances,” Jo said. She led Sarah into a fringe of trees and pointed. Not far away, two very ordinary men in white service tunics were unloading bits of medical equipment from a lorry that had been converted to a medical unit. And unlike Jo’s Zip, it had tyres.
“One of those things that can go anywhere, any type of road surface,” Jo observed. “Petrol guzzler, but I suppose emergency vehicles are an exception.”
“Now what?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, they have to take all that stuff out so the maintenance shop can give it a good cleaning inside. They’ll be pretty tired and disgusted any minute now. You wait here, and when I beckon to you, then you come join us.” She struggled into the rain coat and pulled the enormous hat on. “There, do I look homeless?”
“A bit.” Sarah was unconvinced.
“You haven’t seen me doddering old lady act. Wait here until I signal.” Jo thrust bottle of gin into the coat, adopted an ungainly limp, and left their hiding place.
She made her voice soft and wheedling, distinctively cockney, and added about 50 more years to it.
“Hello then young men. What have we here? What have we here?” she asked. Both men, tired, looked up in interest.
“Need a bit of a rest ey? A bit of a rest?” she asked.. She tapped her coat meaningfully.
“What’s this, then?” one of the men asked, his voice cross.
“Aw, she’s harmless. Poor old thing,” the other said. “What are you up to, granny? Got put out on the street for the day?”
“Ey? How about a bit of a rest? Take a little nip before the day gets on,” Jo said. She tapped her coat again. Both men know looked curious. Jo withdrew enough of the bottle for them to see.
“Ey? How about a quiet little nip, a drink with friends?” she asked. She nodded meaningfully at the medical vehicle. “All nice and cozy. Nice and cozy. Have you got glasses in there?”
“What, stop and have a drink at ten o’clock in the morning?” the cross one asked.
“Why not?” the other one said.
“Oooh, you may get lucky. You may get lucky,” Jo said. And she pantomimed a lewd wink. “Once we’re all nice and cozy.”
“I don’t want to get that lucky,” the first one retorted, but this was not real reluctance. He seemed to think he ought to be gruff.
“Get enough gin in you, and you may change your mind,” his partner said. “Awright, granny, let’s all have a drink then. And then you can be on your way.”
“Oh such nice young men. In their clean white suits,” Jo said. Sarah, watching all this, tensed as Jo went first into the back of the medical van, and the other two followed and closed the doors. Jo and one bottle of gin were no match for two hardy men.
An eternity followed, though Sarah’s watch said only ten minutes. She made up her mind to go rap on the doors and pretend to be one of the maintenance shop people, looking for the owners of the van. But just as she would have emerged from cover, the back doors of the van slowly swung open, and Jo emerged. She stepped out onto the grass and waved Sarah in.
Relieved, Sarah Jane emerged from her cover and crossed to the van. “What did you do? What about them?” she asked.
“Oh, sleeping like cherubs,” Jo said. She fished out a small vial from her raincoat pocket. “I don’t care what they say about nanites and the rest, dearie. None of that modern tripe for me. The old remedies are best.”
“What is that?”
“Chloral hydrate, my dear!” Jo seemed surprised that Sarah Jane had not immediately recognized it. “Mix it with alcohol, and you’ve got a tremendous Mickey Finn! Our lads won’t even remember what happened, if we’re lucky.” She thrust the vial back in her pocket and became brisk. “Now come on! Those two will be asleep for hours. We’ve got to drag them into the bushes and take their clothes. They’re a bit big, but a lovely medical van like this will have lots of clips and sticky tape, and we can do some quick alterations!”
Forty-five minutes later, dressed in the white tunics and uniform trousers, they climbed into the van. Sarah Jane tucked their bundled clothing under the front seat.
“Oh!” Jo said, her voice delighted. “Been ever so long since I’ve had wheels under me! But you never forget how to do it, do you?” She let out the clutch and backed them off the grass. It was an odd feeling, Sarah Jane thought. The rumbling of the combustion engine, the smell of petrol, even the ultra-blended petrol used these days, the sensation that you had contact with the ground. It brought back a rush of memories, that sensation of having come from another time that was forever lost.
“Reminds me of my daughters,” she heard herself say. It just popped out. She had not meant to say anything. Embarrassed, she looked down.
Jo hesitated as she piloted them over the road surface in the old fashioned way, watching in every direction and checking her speed. “It’s been easier for me,” she said at last. “I never had children, so I never had to let them go.”
“You never had any?”
“No.” Jo became more casual, more at ease with driving the wheeled vehicle and more at ease with herself. “My first marriage—oh good heavens, 120 some years ago now. It was a disaster. I felt a bit shell-shocked. And then Mike and I took forever to go ahead and marry. By then, I felt past it. I was only in my thirties, but that was considered old back then, at least for having children; do you remember?”
“Yes, I think so.” Sarah Jane had given birth the first time at 32 and then again at 35, but she didn’t say this. She had wanted children so badly, she would have tried at 45, even before that had become an acceptable age for childbearing.
“And then of course, it was all too late. And when Mike was so ill, I felt that I had cheated us both of the joys of children. And yet—if we’d had children they’d have seen their father die at 62. Too young to die.”
“And why?” Sarah Jane asked. “Why? When the rest of us have lived so long?”
Everything about Mike’s death stumped everybody,” Jo said. “The sudden onset, the radiation-like symptoms. How quickly he went down. I think—I think that whatever effect the TARDIS had on us, it went wrong in him.”
“And yet Benton is the youngest of all. Last I checked anyway. He looks fifteen years younger than I look,” Sarah Jane said, and to herself she thought, and 30 years younger than Liz Shaw. Yet Benton had been the least exposed to the TARDIS. Anyway, she supposed so.
Jo knew what she was thinking. The seemingly haphazard way that long life had been doled out to them was impossible to codify. “Liz may have some theories about that,” she said. “The TARDIS was malfunctioning when the Doctor first stripped out the insides. It may be that as he fine tuned things with it, its effects on human beings was altered as well.” She paused. “We may never know.”
“No. And he won’t be back to tell us. He’s gone off to be pied piper with some other species.”
“I don’t think he realized the effects.” Jo’s voice was quiet. “He had a lot of companions before us. They were never effected like us. He didn’t know the harm he was doing.”
“How like him,” Sarah Jane said helplessly.
Jo only shot her a knowing look, slightly sympathetic, but Sarah Jane sensed, even with all the suffering their tenure on Earth had brought them, that Jo Grant was still game to go on and see it out. No pleas heavenward to be delivered would come from her mouth, and yet she wore her courage like a shield of naive, gullible optimism. Sarah knew that part was an act, but she didn't know what lay underneath the armor of breezy happiness.
"The best thing about driving 'round in one of these," Jo said, "is that you get to use their secure line to order lots of drugs." She punched the manual speaker control.
"Hello luv!" she shouted. "I lost me mic! Can you hear me on this thing?"
"Loud and clear!" a voice exclaimed back. "I thought this was Harry's run?"
"Aw he's off his feet today," she called. "See that full moon last night?"
"Who could miss it? Bright as day wasn't it?"
"Yeah, well, the wolves were out, and I think Harry was runnin' with them. But the big place has sent me out to pick up some copper sulfate. You got any?"
"Not much! What are they doing with straight copper sulfate?"
"We're in a pinch for anemia testing. Old ducks, you know. We test them regular. Two hundred grams should do it."
"I can give you a hundred and fifty, with the rest on order."
"That will have to do. We'll be right there." She switched off and glanced at Sarah Jane. "Nothing cleans the pipes like copper sulfate!"
“What are we going to do with it?”
“Well if we hurry dear, we’re going to put it in their coffee for morning tea—the healthcare staff, I mean, not the old ducks. Luckily for us, the staff is as cruel as their employers, and they get nicer coffee and nicer food for themselves, strictly kept separate than the fare for the occupants.”
Sarah tried to think. It had been over a century since she had taken any chemistry, and even then it had been mere secondary school stuff, though she had been a good student back then. “Say, isn’t this deadly?” she asked. “Corrosive to the intestines?”
“Yes, if you swallow it down straight. We’re going to dose the coffee urns. And it will get them sick. Quite sick. But we have only one chance,” Jo said. “We have to be effective the very first time. If they get hold of us, we’ll not only fail to get the Brigadier out of there, we’ll never get out ourselves.”
The words jarred Sarah Jane. She had not asked for this. One day pottering around her old house longing to be taken to the heavens, and the next, racing into a monstrous compound that would imprison and torture her if it got hold of her. Torture, but never death.
“It’s to get him out of there,” Jo said quietly.
“I’m with you!” she snapped. Then she was silent, embarrassed. The words lay between them, a confession of her unwillingness.
“We’ll succeed,” Jo said after a long silence.
And so, less than an hour later, now armed with a sealed, heavily insulated packet of ground copper sulfate, they pulled up to the gate of the great medical and health care facility that hid away the lives of the extreme elderly. Late summer flowers were everywhere, and the lawns were emerald green. It looked like a happy, restful place. Duplexed bungalows with flower boxes formed a tidy semi-circle around a main building.
But as Jo followed the service road and they rounded a curve, Sarah Jane saw that the rear of the main building resembled the yard of a modern prison far more than a charitable health care facility.
“What’s back here?” she asked.
“The service lorries park in an underground garage,” Jo said. “That’s how we’ll get in. They have thumb print detectors, but the service people are usually pretty grumpy about using them. It makes you wait, you see. So they usually cue up at a door and only the first one puts a thumb on the reader. The rest tailgate in.”
“Isn’t that against the rules?”
“Yes it’s against the rules, but where are you going to find people willing to clean up after the elderly, especially the elderly who have been mistreated? Change diapers, bathe them, dress sores, mop up all kinds of bodily fluids. Nobody gets fired from the service staff, unless they steal from the medical staff. Things like improper door procedures just get overlooked. We’ll just park and wait.”
She turned them down a steep ramp, and for a moment the lorry darkened as they sped underground. Sarah heard herself gasp. She gripped the edge of the door on her side. Then she realized that Jo had reached over and rested a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not as hard as you may think,” she said. “We’ll get him and get out.”
Sarah couldn’t answer. Real fear, fear before anything had even happened, gripped her. Long ago, it had never been like this. You rushed into it, believing the person you were with, believing in who and what you were, believing that the rightness that had sent you in would somehow stay with you, even to death. But now she didn’t feel that way. She felt alone and small, and slightly ridiculous. Normal people went to a court of law to get custody of infirm people. Jo Grant led you into a concentration camp for the elderly, armed with a packet of poison. There was a ghastly inappropriateness about all of it. If they were caught, she would feel ridiculous right off.
Yet as they pulled into a slot and parked, Jo nodded at the translucent door on the other end of a pedestrian walkway. “Quick! There’s somebody we can follow in.” And Sarah, without a word of protest, scrambled out after her, into an enormous underground garage hung with the old pungency of petrol exhaust, a smell that brought back decades and decades of motoring, of places from long ago: garages and London traffic and the ringing of petrol pumps as the gallons pumped through the metal-ridged hoses. “They look a little bit like dragon’s heads,” Celia, had announced once, at about the age of nine or ten, and for years after, they were the petrol dragons.
But a new distraction interrupted the bittersweet memory. As swiftly as they strode up the walkway to get to the door just behind the service person who was coming from the other side, a black clad, helmeted man, clearly a security officer, was striding towards them from a tiny booth that Jo had passed without a second look. There had been no gate to stop them.
“You there!” he exclaimed. “Stop right where you are!”