Both Jo and Sarah stopped, and Jo, with a deceptive casualness, stepped so that she was between him and Sarah. The helmet had a visor that hid the security guard’s eyes, but his jaw was set.
“What do you think your doing?” he asked. “Going to stroll right in are you?”
Jo’s voice came out cockney and saucy. “What do you think you’re doing with that helmet, going to ram your head into me? Why don’t you take off that ridiculous helmet, instead of looking like a flat footed peeler from a bad movie?”
The archaic word, movie, didn’t jar him. In fact, he quickly pulled off the helmet, and Sarah Jane saw a man barely out of his teens. “You’re supposed to stop and sign in!”
“Look here, mate!” Jo scolded. “We just got that lorry washed from about five gallons of puke inside! Puke in the back and all the way up the floorboards on the drivers side, where they say the puke can’t get to. And we stink! No, don’t come any closer! It’s revolting. We’ll go get washed up and sign in for you, for goodness sake. But you don’t want a whiff of this! Go on with you! I’m doing you a favor! All you had to do was ask!”
“It isn’t right!” Sarah Jane chimed in.
“All we do is scrub out those ghastly ambulance lorries and their ghastly puddles of puke and other stuff, and all you young security blokes can do is shout at us the minute we get back for not signing in when we’re up to our elbows in dried vomit and soap scum!”
He stopped just short of them, heeding the warning. “Well look, I didn’t mean to sound mad,” he began.
“And we got the bad vans three weeks in a row, and how fair is that?” Jo demanded.
“All right granny! I didn’t mean any harm! In you go then.” He nodded at the door on the other end of the walkway, but their intended target had entered and the door had slid closed. “Get washed up first.”
He hesitated and then stepped back towards the Security booth.
“Well all right then!” Jo exclaimed tearfully.
“Yes, we will!” Sarah added with the same tone. “And the world won’t end if it takes fifteen minutes to sign in.”
“And I’m not putting my pukey thumb on that screen to get everybody else infected with whatever was thrown up all over that van!” Jo exclaimed. “Buzz us in, will you?”
“All right, all right. Give me a minute.” Grateful to have something to do that would get him away from them, he strode back to the Security booth. Jo shot one expressionless glance at Sarah,. And they hurried to the door. From his control panel, he hit the admittance button. The door buzzed and slid open, and they walked inside.
They dared not look at each other again until they were well down the white, gleaming corridor. “Sterile place, here,” Jo said at last. She threw her glance ahead, to indicate the front of the building. “Way up there, they make it look homey. But up above,” and she pointed directly upward. “That’s where the experimental subjects are taken. They disappear from sight.”
Sarah found that her heart was beating in her ears. Nothing had really happened. She had brazened it out successfully, but for a second she couldn’t swallow, and then she heard herself say, with that false steadiness of voice she had cultivated over a century ago, “So how do we get up there?”
“First the coffee, Love,” Jo said, and she patted her pocket meaningfully. She looked at Sarah Jane. And then without a word she rested a hand on Sarah’s arm. Sarah felt the tide of fear subside to a more bearable level. Jo said nothing, and then they continued.
“A sort of tea and coffee dispensing area should be around here somewhere,” she said. “The orderlies take around the coffee and tea to the staff, to keep the old ducks from getting the good stuff back here. Up front, everybody eats and drinks alike, but this is where the captives stay, out of sight and sound of the rest.”
“So the destitute elderly who are cared for---“
“The perfect front,” Jo said. “A charity that looks after society’s outcasts: the people who cannot afford to stay young and cannot care for themselves any longer. And the care in the front section is excellent. Covers up what goes on back here. There it is!”
Jo led her to a sterile room where the faint, welcome smell of old coffee lingered. Numerous vacuum urns stood lined up like pristine steel soldiers.
“We’ve got enough for three of them,” she said. “That should keep the whole place busy.”
She opened the top of the nearest urn, and a cloud of fragrant steam showed them that the coffee break was nearly upon them. Sarah seized a silver spoon from an array of silverware on the nearest counter top. Jo withdrew the packet from her pocket and spooned a heaping dose of blue powder into the urn. She stirred it with a tiny teaspoon. Sarah felt a deep twinge of misgiving. Copper sulfate, even in small doses, would cause excruciating pain to whoever consumed it.
Jo rapidly moved on and dosed each urn in succession until she had used up all the powder. She looked at Sarah and then nodded towards the door. They exited calmly and swiftly, as though very sure of themselves, and strode away very purposefully.
Further up the corridor, they found a utility closet with its door slightly ajar. The great treatment and examination rooms were equipped with automatic doors and pneumatic controls that could hold them open or closed against any pressure. But the utility and cleaning closets had ordinary mechanical locks. They slipped inside.
In the darkness, as Jo stood at the door and peered out through the crack, Sarah listened and collected her thoughts. The sensation of being trapped in hopeless danger had not left her, but she was coping, she told herself. She decided not to think of the outcome: just stay focused on the very next thing to do.
She did not have long to wait. Jo spoke in a low voice: “They’re delivering the carts for coffee break now. We don’t have much time. Come on.”
They slipped into the hallway. “Upstairs. They’ll all be interested in taking their breaks. I think there’s a lift this way.”
“How did you learn the floor plan? Sarah asked.
Jo again nodded ahead to indicate that front section of the building where the veil of compassionate normalcy was maintained. “Floor plan’s consistent front to back, even if the rooms have different purposes in the back half. I learned the front half, and now I know how to get around in the back as well. Here we are.”
The lift was automated, and the door opened as they approached. “Right then,” Jo said. And they entered.
Their stomachs gave a slight lurch as they sped up one floor. When the door opened, one of the orderlies, a man, was passing with coffee on a cart. “Goin’ to take a break?” he asked.
“Just as soon as we can,” Jo said. “Be there in a minute.”
“That douser is three down,” he said with a nod the other way. “Something happened: heart fluttered or something. They got interrupted. So they want you to put him back?”
This unexpected fountain of information stopped them both for a moment. Jo actually looked blank, and Sarah said, “We’re supposed to go see.”
“Don’t know if any medics are there or not. All right. See you.”
He pushed the cart away. “That’s the Brig,” Jo hissed. “Looks like we got here in time.”
She hurried off with Sarah alongside. “Douser?” Sarah asked. “Like what happened to Liz?”
“Submerge him in ice cold water until he starts to go too deep into hypothermia. It’s wretchedly cruel, but it doesn’t leave any marks. They straight-jacket them to do it. But they keep a heart monitor on them. He may have started to go into cardiac arrest.”
She pushed open the door that had been pointed out to them, and they entered a long, narrow room with a great tub that looked like a whirlpool bath alongside one side. Just above it hung a winch and chain. The chain spread out in a web that held a hammock-like rectangle of canvas.
Alongside this fearsome bath, a gurney lay ready, with a man on it.
It’s not the Brigadier, Sarah thought with disappointment. And even as her mind grappled with what to do with this poor unfortunate who was slated to undergo such torture, her eyes started to pick out the shape of the eyebrows, the outline of the bone of his chin, recognizing these signs of the Brigadier’s face in the worn skin, pallor, and edemic puffiness of the skin on his face. He had been punched and slapped.
“Alastair, we’re here,” Jo said softly. She rested her hand on his forehead.
His eyes didn’t open.
There was no sheet on him. He wore a thin hospital gown; and over that, he was straight jacketed.
“Loosen it,” Sarah said, and she started to work on the straps. Jo worked with her, her dark eyes still fixed on his face. They had to release the straps gently or else cause him pain. But as the first knots were undone, his eyes fluttered, saw Jo, and closed again.
“Blankets,” Jo said.
A stack of them, ready to revive him after the frigid water treatment, was waiting at the head of the massive bath. Sarah retrieved two of them. Jo finished with the knots to let his arms lower onto the gurney, and then they covered him.
Jo leaned down and spoke quietly into his ear. “We’re going to take you home now.” She lifted her eyes and nodded to Sarah.
Sarah took one end of the gurney, backed out with him, and opened the door.
But the quiet hallway they had exited only moments before was quite changed. A stench—stark in any setting but more so in this antiseptic environment—assailed them. From an open doorway, they heard several voices groaning, and somebody weakly calling for help. A security alert light at the corner of the hallway flashed a sickly red color at them. Sarah hesitated. “Get to the lift,” Jo told her. “We’ll tell them we’ve got to get this one to hospital.”
Just then the lift doors opened. Two men, clearly of higher authority than mere orderlies rushed out. They flinched at the stench and then stared at Jo and Sarah and their patient.
“Clear the way!” Jo barked. “This one’s sinking, and everyone’s puking their guts out up here. We’ve orders to get him to hospital!”
“You can’t take him out like that!” one of the men exclaimed. “Do you want this place closed down?”
“We’ll strip him and change him in the ambulance. He’s on for ROR. They say he’s got to be revived and everybody’s down! Medics too!”
“All right go!” the other man exclaimed as behind all of them, a great puddle of pale brown vomit suddenly spilled into the hallway from the room where the voice had been calling for help.
The stench of digestive fluid expanded further across the hallway. Sarah’s own stomach lurched, and now the groaning from the break room became several calls for help.
The two men hurried on, as one asked helplessly, “What’s done it? More than half the staff’s doubled over!”
“Something’s mucked with the food,” the other said tersely.
Sarah pulled, and Jo pushed, and then they were in the lift. The door slid closed behind Jo. “Please,” the Brigadier gasped, his eyes still closed. He didn’t know what was happening. “Where—where now?”
Sarah leaned close to him, and his eyes fluttered open. A startled, but unfrightened look crossed his face, and he asked weakly, but clearly, “Who has those flowers?”
“We’re taking you to my home,” Sarah said. “To get well.”
“No, just a house. But nicer than this place.”
Who are you?” he asked.
She didn’t try to explain. She stroked his forehead. “A friend.”
The floor bumped beneath them. With her eyes fixed on his, as she saw a faint light rekindle in them, Sarah would not have noticed that the lift had stopped. “We’re down,” Jo said. “All business again, until we’re out of here.”
Sarah straightened up. His eyes closed, and they hurried him out of the lift. All around them, people were sitting right on the floor of the corridor or had collapsed onto their sides, their knees pulled up. One of the unaffected orderlies, her arms filled with sheets, blankets, and a mop, rushed towards them. “Where are you two off to?” she shouted, but her voice was more panicked than angry.
“Gotta get this one out!” Jo called back. “He’s in danger and there’s naught to look after him here! The quack said take him to hospital.”
“Well one of you stay with him and the other get back here as quick as you can! The coffee was poisoned! That’s what they think!”
“Right you are!”
There was no problem in getting out the exit door. A mass of orderlies, flocking in on emergency procedures, simply held it open to let them get by.
Jo showed Sarah how to lower the gurney to its collapsed position and load him safely into the medic van on the gurney lift. “I’ll drive,” Jo said as the quiet motor of the small lift engaged and raised the unconscious Brigadier into the van. “Your presence comforts him.”
Sarah herself could not smell the fragrance of the mercy, but she understood that he could. She climbed in after him. Jo closed the doors and then hurried to the front and climbed in. “And now, for home,” she said. “Away from here.” She started the engine.
“Not to Benny’s?”
“No, I’ll have him bring Liz to us. I don’t want to keep moving him,” And she threw a look back at the Brigadier.
Sarah Jane rested her hand on his forehead. She heard herself speak, softly, but with a tone of calm authority that surprised even her. “That fear is behind you, and you have to leave it there. Your friends have found you.”
She leaned closer. But now his eyes, not distressed but rather tired, looked quietly into hers. He still didn’t know her, but his heart and mind were steady.
“I believe in heaven,” he said. “Let me be finished here.”
She stroked his forehead. “That’s where I’ve wanted to go, too,” she said. “But I’m not allowed to. I can’t go, and I can’t push you there ahead of me. We have to wait. But I have a comfortable house where you’re welcome.”
“And Liz is there,” Jo called from the front.
Genuine recognition and emotion cross his eyes. “Liz is safe?”
“Yes. Worried about you. So we have to get you straight to her.” Sarah began to untie the knots of the straps at his shoulder. “And you mustn’t see her in this. The clothing at my house is comfortable and fits better.”
He let his head roll so that his face looked away, and he took a breath that ended with a slight sobbing sound, not a sound of high emotion, but of labor to work the lung. She realized that he was injured. His weakness and weariness were not merely exhaustion.
“What is it?” she asked.
“If you’re a friend can you help me?”
“Here. Where he kicked me. It aches all the way across my chest.”
Sarah slid her hand under the collar of the loosened strait jacket. Once, decades ago, when the power from Fomalhaut had rested on her, she had helped the Doctor when he was injured. It had never happened since, as far as she knew.
“Here?” she asked, as she felt the lung move within his chest under her hand.
He nodded. She didn’t press against the chest wall. She could feel that he was laboring to breathe, but she wasn’t skillful enough to know if there was injury to the lungs or merely to the muscles over them.
She felt that she was doing him no good, but then he whispered, “That helps.” He breathed in through his mouth, deeply. She felt the rush of air in his lung as the lung expanded, and she realized that she was helping him. The pain, at the very least, was diminished.
A look, not of exhaustion but of real sleepiness crossed his face. “Are you really ambulance people?”
“No,” she whispered. “We’re old friends. We just dressed up to get you out of there.”
“Coppers,” Jo said from the front. But the Brigadier fell asleep, not heeding the warning. Sarah looked up, out the wind screen, past Jo’s head. Police, in the large, sleek zips that they used for patrol, approached them in a narrow line that suddenly spread across the road in an interception formation.
“They mean to stop us,” Jo said, uncertain about whether to slow down and play along or speed up and make a dash for it over terrain where the zips could not travel.
Sarah Jane’s throat pounded with its own pulse. It wouldn’t be long before her own age, and Jo’s age would be discovered, and then they too would become the helpless inmates of the techs, closed off from all help and legal protection under a system that pretended to protect them. She realized that she couldn’t swallow, but she kept her hand on the Brigadier’s chest, helping him breathe. At least, she thought, I gave him a few minutes of rest from suffering. Before they get him again.
And then the net of police zips broke apart and simply sped around them on either side, rushing down the magnetized roadway on their own errand.
Sarah realized that she was shaking. Of course, on the magnetized roadways, each vehicle generated its own field, and so collisions were far less frequent than they had been when people commonly drove wheeled vehicles. The police took greater liberties in traffic when they were in a hurry. She saw a drop of water splash onto the blanket that covered the Brigadier, and she rubbed her forehead. It was wet with sweat. She realized that her underarms were wet. A wave of nausea went over her, and she clamped down on it, then made herself take a deep, slow breath.
“Everything all right back there?” Jo called.
“Yes,” she gasped. “Alistair is sleeping.” She looked down at him. His face was still turned away, but the grayness had receded from his skin. He looked less troubled, more profoundly at peace. She still had her hand in the strait jacket, holding his chest and ribs at the injury. She felt the quieted respirations beneath the palm of her hand and didn’t move for fear of the pain returning to him.
“Thought we were goners,” Jo said cheerfully.
Oh shut up, shut up, Sarah Jane thought. She could not be cheerful over their escape. She was no longer used to terror, and she felt sick and weak. But she kept her hand in place and lowered her face to his to make sure that he could breathe in that heavenly fragrance.
Her stomach hurt. Jo lurched them over a bump, and she felt the thud deep inside. It sent a wave of nausea over her. I mustn’t be sick, she thought. Liz was emotionally and mentally exhausted and confused; the Brig was injured, and there was only Jo and she to see to them. Anything might still go wrong. They had to get rid of the medic van. Another great drop of sweat fell from her forehead onto the blanket.
Her stomach cramped. “Here we are then. I’ll have Benny bring Liz,” Jo said. She went on talking, laying out their plans, but Sarah’s stomach knotted more painfully than she could ever remember in her long life. This is what we did to them, she thought. The copper sulfate. She tried to let her breath out slowly, as even exhaling felt as though it would make things worse. Sweat trickled down her forehead, throat, and ribs. Jo was asking a question.
Sarah closed her eyes and worked her dry tongue to make it speak. “Yes,” she tried to say, and then she felt the gurney move.
The medical van had stopped, and Jo stood at the back, the van doors open. Jo’s large eyes stared at her in amazement. “What is it?” she asked.
“Take him. I’m going to be sick.”
Expertly, Jo pulled out the gurney lift and then pulled the gurney itself straight out so that it rested on the mechanized arm. Sarah heard the whine of the small motor and fell onto her side. Jo started to climb in.
“Get him into the house,” Sarah gasped. “Then me. He’s injured. See if the room helps.”
But Jo climbed in and leaned over her.
“Just go!” Sarah gasped. “It’s stomach cramps. Nausea. Go!”
“I’ll be right back.” And Jo patted the cuff of her sleeve across Sarah’s forehead twice, and then climbed out, moving swiftly with that youthful agility of hers.
Jo disconnected the gurney from the lift and pulled him across the drive towards the house. Sarah closed her eyes and sank into misery. With Jo gone and the van stopped, the ripping pain in her stomach lessened slightly. But the light hurt her eyes. She kept them tightly shut. After several long moments when breathing became less difficult, she heard herself sob: humiliation, remorse, horror, and even revulsion at herself. She had hung back from helping her own friends. Nobody had seen it; she had not once protested. But she knew it. She was a hypocrite: for she wanted to die and yet would not give up her life. She had been desperately lonely and yet did not want this invasion of her life. She had seen the secrets and mysteries of mercy, and yet danger had repelled her and filled her with resentment against those who needed her.
The pain settled into a constant, hard ache. She rocked from side to side, holding herself. She didn’t know that she fell asleep that way. Nor did she know when Jo came out to get her, nor did she see Jo hesitate to awaken her. Only much later, when she dreamed that Fomalhaut, in the person of Jean, came down a staircase and looked at her, did she open her eyes.
“I failed,” Sarah said. “I don’t know what mercy is. You showed me what mercy is, and I’ve forgotten half of it and failed at the rest. I’m sorry.”
And then the face of Jean resolved itself to a different face: the aged, tired, noble face of Liz Shaw, peering at her with concern.
“Breathe this,” Liz said gently, and Sarah inhaled. The sweet fragrance calmed the aching in her midsection. “Breathe again.”
This was the calm, knowledgeable Liz Shaw, her eyes intelligent and kind, with that learned, self-disciplined, ethical kindness that Sarah had recognized over a century ago.
Sarah inhaled again, and the pain receded enough to let her talk. “You’re better,” she said to Liz.
“Yes, owing to good care and kind mercy.” Liz patted her face and the sides of her throat with a washcloth. “Oh dear, you’re not very comfortable, all alone out here.” Sarah Jane heard a voice behind Liz: Jo, asking a question.
“Shock,” Liz said, turning briefly to answer Jo. “Stress. Goodness, she’s not used to it after all these years. But she saved it up until we were all safe before she let it take its toll. All right, dear.” And this was to Sarah Jane. “Let me lift your head. We have tea here, an herbal tea. Let’s see if you can drink it.”
Jo passed up a spill-proof beaker, the kind used for nursing children or aged people. She must have gotten it from the medic van itself.
“It will help you,” Liz said. Sarah drank, and for a moment she tasted only the welcome warmth and wetness on her dry tongue and throat. Then the muddy flavor came through. She winced.
“It’s pinellia and some herbal rhizomes,” Liz said. “It will release the cramping.”
If she had not been so humiliated at blubbing and getting sick just when the Brig needed her and Jo was counting on her, Sarah may have protested the rest of the draught. But she had no fight left, and she drank down the warm, muddy tasting tea. But the liquid immediately opened the knots in her stomach and relaxed the cramping. She could soon move her legs again.
“All right,” Liz said. “We’ll help you inside the house. And then you need to rest.”
“The Brigadier---“ she began. “His chest, his breathing on the right---“
“Much better. He’s resting. Let Jo get your other side.”
They helped her out of the van and onto her feet. “I’m sorry,” SarahJane said. She couldn’t look at Jo.
“We’re all old and tired and weak now, Love,” Jo said. “And you’ve got a right to it, same as we do.” Only then did Sarah notice that Jo also looked tired. That intense dedication to her mission was much closer to the surface, the jolly exterior worn thin. But her eyes were dark and slightly hollow.
“Thank you, Jo,” Sarah said. And Jo smiled at her, a quick smile of happiness to see her back in the game. She got one of Sarah’s arms across her shoulder, and Liz, on Sarah Jane’s other side, got the other. They crossed arms in the back and helped her inside. It had been years, Sarah Jane thought, since anybody had come, since anybody had been this familiar and at ease with her. In spite of all her worries and her guilty fear, she was glad for the sense of two people on either side of her. It was a comfort she had forgotten over the years, simply being among friends who knew her as Sarah Jane.
“We could make up a bed in the sitting room,” Jo began, but Liz shook her head. “No, upstairs, I think. In her own bed.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane said. “But is the Brigadier all right?”
“Yes, resting well and breathing easily. We’ll get you up the stairs, and then Jo can look after him while I see to you,” Liz said.
“You’re so much better,” Sarah said again.
“I’m still getting my mind sorted out, dear,” Liz replied, her voice slightly aloof. “But this is easy. So I’ll be useful and do this.”
Jo sent Sarah a quick glance of warning, and Sarah remembered Jo saying that the more Liz referred to herself or tried to explain her own history, the more confused she became. So Sarah asked no further questions.
They helped her upstairs. And then Jo went down to see to the Brigadier, and Liz quietly and swiftly made Sarah Jane comfortable, brought her another cup of the muddy tea, and put her to bed with a warm pack to soothe her stomach. As Sarah Jane lay quietly, letting the warmth seep into her midsection, Liz took up her wrist and pressed it with three fingers on the inner wrist. It was a faintly familiar thing to do, and after a moment, Sarah realized it was the way the Doctor had taken her pulse—pulses, according to him.
“Yes, the gall bladder and the lungs are stressed,” Liz said after a moment. She set down that wrist and took up the other, holding it in the same way. “And the stomach is invaded. Longstanding grief, and sudden, acute fears. You’re overstressed.”
She set down that wrist and took up the other hand. “We’ll try to calm things down.” And she pressed her own thumbs very firmly into the web of Sarah’s hand, between thumb and forefinger. Just as it would have become painful, she rocked the balls of her thumbs very slowly over the pressure point.
“I thought you had no confidence in Chinese medicine,” Sarah said quietly. Indeed, even after many decades, Sarah could still see the Doctor, his lined face filled with indignation, as he told her that Professor Liz Shaw had written off his extensive knowledge of the flow of chi as so much exotic “quackery.”
“A hundred and twenty years ago, I didn’t. But I’ve learned a few things over the last century. All Western Medicine has adopted a more universal practice. I tried to stay current.” She smiled briefly. “Though I miss my stethoscope!”
Sarah Jane smiled at the reminder. These days, the electronic survey-bits went right in, inhaled rather than injected, sent back their info on heart, lungs, any inflammation, stomach acids, white blood cell count, and streams of other data, and were easily flushed out through the bowels. In two minutes they provided a more thorough exam than a dozen doctors could have performed over the course of an entire week back when Liz Shaw had been interning. And in a twist of irony, only the extremely wealthy consulted medical professionals who could still get a heartbeat “by hand,” as the saying went: professionals who were still craftsmen and not just medical techs following protocols. Everybody else, the ordinary people, relied on the survey bits and automated testing tools. But in Liz Shaw’s day, every doctor had been a craftsman, or craftswoman.
They had lived through the decades when ordinary people could not afford the latest in medical technology. And now they lived in an era when technology was all that ordinary people could afford. Only the wealthy got personal care these days.
I’m actually rich, Sarah Jane thought as Liz gently straightened her arm and found another nerve point to press, higher on the forearm. Care like this, personal and concerned, was expensive and rare.
Liz was speaking again, but Sarah Jane’s tired mind began to detach itself from any sense of the present. The room was dim and felt safe. And the presence of another person once again became a comfortable thing. She didn’t know when her eyes closed, but she gradually passed from waking to dozing to sound sleep.
From this timeless, dreamless sleep, she returned to a sort of half aware languor. There seemed to be voices far away, downstairs: calm voices that were filled with a happiness that created a hush rather than an outburst of noise. They were speaking clearly to each other, one at a time, softly, articulating words of kindness that carried with them a weightiness that touched her with a sense of sobriety and yet gladness. But she couldn’t make out the words. As more time passed, and as the voices took turns to speak to each other, she wanted to hear them and know them. She realized that she was in a stupor, and she tried to lift her head to wake up more.
“Oh you must be famished. Are you uncomfortable?” somebody asked. Liz was by her bed again. It was the middle of the night.
“I heard people.”
“I think you must have been dreaming. But you haven’t eaten anything nearly all day. I brought you toast and tea.”
“That herbal tea?” Sarah Jane asked.
“No, dear. Real tea.” But the good natured humor in Liz’s voice sounded almost like the joy and kindness of the voices she’d heard moments ago.
“You weren’t speaking to anybody?” she asked. “Not Jo or the Brigadier?”
“No, dear. Alistair is sleeping, all bundled up in blankets downstairs. And Jo is asleep on some cushions on the floor. We’re taking turns. I was sitting up with him, but I came to bring you tea and food. Is toast enough?” She made her voice inviting. “It’s toast and jam.” Apparently, Liz had a great affection for toast and jam.
“Yes, that sounds lovely.” Sarah Jane sat up. She felt better, and now she was ravenously hungry.
Liz had carried a tray up. She lifted it from the chest of drawers and brought it to the bedside table. There was a teapot, a carafe of water, a drinking glass, a tea cup, and a mountain of toast, buttered and spread with jam.
“You have some,” Sarah Jane said.
“All right, we’ll share.”
Liz poured her tea for her and spooned in a teaspoon of sugar. She helped herself to the water while Sarah Jane gratefully sipped the tea. “Oh that is lovely,” Sarah said.
“And you should eat.”
“Yes, all right.” It was one of the oddest meals of Sarah Jane’s long life. Whatever had been done to Liz, she had learned not to speak and not to feel a need to speak in silence. She had cut the toast into triangles, and she kept the saucer of Sarah Jane’s cup supplied with these, while also helping herself from the plate. But if either of Sarah’s hands were empty, she took hold of it, a warm and slow grasp, like a momentary benediction. And then she let go again and returned to supplying Sarah Jane with toast or checking the temperature of the tea pot or pouring more for her and spooning in more sugar.
“You’re so much better, even now,” Sarah Jane said softly. “So much more like your old self.”
“Goodness, I hope not.” And Liz didn’t even try to laugh. “But I think I owe most of my recovery to your house of peace, your gift of mercy towards me.”
“That gift was given to me—“ Sarah began.
“Yes dear, I know.” She paused. “I even remember, long ago, when you first received it.”
At last, Sarah Jane finished, and Liz set aside the plates and cup. She took up Sarah Jane’s wrist and again pressed three fingers into the pulse lines, and then they simply waited in the dim silence. Liz’s presence seemed even more noble and dignified to Sarah Jane: sad and yet somehow gracious and kindly. But the distance between them now felt greater than it had felt when she’d thought Liz Shaw was a wandering vagrant. And Sarah felt ashamed of herself for her original reluctance at first sight of Liz. All people had this dignity and value, whether you saw it in them as plainly as she now saw it upon Liz, or not. And she had known that.
“You’re better,” Liz said at last. She turned the hand and wrist over and took hold of Sarah’s hand in both of hers. “I want you to let your mind rest. Let your heart come to rest.”
She made no move to leave, and Sarah realized that this was still a medical visit. Obediently, she slid further under the covers and slowed her breathing. But as Liz stayed where she was, Sarah said gently, “I think I’m all right, now.”
“I think,” Liz said, “that your life has been invaded, and we have to be careful not to put onto you those anxieties that you were not designed to sustain.”
“I’ll get used to it.”
“It may not be appropriate for you to do that.” And then she became silent for a long moment.
The night light in the room had gradually dimmed almost to darkness, so that Liz’s features became less distinct. And as she became more of a silhouette, the dignity of her voice, a weary and yet regal dignity, became far more obvious.
“I have betrayed everything and been forgiven everything,” Liz said at last. “I don’t remember all the particulars, but I know that much.”
“You were tortured. It wasn’t your fault.”
But Liz wasn’t concerned about rejecting blame. “I’ve been guilty of a great many things. All forgiven. But there are stars in the heaven other than Fomalhaut, Sarah Jane. And they shine brightly too, even when they herald pain and suffering. Still, they display a right purpose, and a real truth.” She fell into that same silence: calm, kind, as though waiting, but not for Sarah Jane. And then she spoke again. “You are free. Do only what you choose to do. But you can choose and will to do something, and it can be the right thing, and—even so—you still have to fight your own fears and your own very real pain.” She stopped again, for a long silence, and now Sarah sensed that Liz was collecting her thoughts, laboring through self reflection, which was difficult for her to do. She had been reprogrammed not to do it. And yet she did it with a methodical, careful patience.
“I fell, and failed, so many times I gave up on myself. Yes the information was tortured out of me. My eyes betrayed me, and my country, and the world. But every day, I was forgiven, and every day, there was more to undergo, and every day, or sometimes the next, I would fail again. And the next day I would recover enough to resist again. And so it went.”
“But you’re forgiven.”
“And it’s over now.”
“No, it has only started. Because now I freely choose to go back and take away from them what they stole from me by torture. But this only comes by a complete abandonment. And I don’t know that I want you, or anybody, to get to that point.” She hesitated. “So don’t choose, if you don’t want to or don’t think you can. Choose to live your life in the way that is right as you understand right.” Another long pause. “For all we know, the time is not right for you to participate in this. We must not reach, and we must not snatch. You may have fulfilled your role with us, and there are other things for you to do.”
“I’m sorry I got sick—“
“Don’t be, dear.” and the voice, though kind, was firm. “I wouldn’t call it a warning, but I would call it a guarantee. The reality of the danger of confronting the technology sweeps—and all that money and respectability that supports them.” Another pause. “It’s a benign tyranny. They’ve imposed peace and prosperity, where only a few people suffer. So there won’t be any Doctor to rush in and save us. Very few people even realize that it’s just another form of oppression—I mean, what they’re really doing behind the facade. Even if we were to win---to recapture and destroy the information they stole from us---there will be no happy ending. We would most likely be arrested for harming technological beneficence for the public good. That’s still a crime, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “But I still don’t understand everything. What was done to you? How did ROR become such a monster?”
The dim figure, with great care, set Sarah’s hand onto the bedcover, and then stood up, less like Liz and more like a mere shadow. “I was interred as a patient at first, and then they started research on me because they realized how old I am. They wanted to understand my longevity. The ROR began later. You know the process as a means of stimulating the retina of the eye with images that the subconscious or unconscious mind has stored away: of restoring memory or coaxing out basic information like name and address from people with amnesia. But it can also be used as a form of interrogation.” Her voice became dismissive and slightly more ordinary and familiar. “Still, we can talk about that in the morning. You need to rest.” The shadow of Liz carried the tray back to the stand of drawers as Sarah slid down the rest of the way into the softness of the bed.
Liz returned. She drew up the covers, and then rested her hand on Sarah’s forehead, now once again the skilled and dignified medical doctor. “Don’t be troubled or afraid tonight. The medic van is gone. Benny took it away. We planted messages in the databases of the local hospital, saying that Alistair was transferred as part of emergency procedures to a specialty clinic in Wales. From there, a false record trail shows him being moved up to the hospices in the Yorkshire Dales. Those places use hardly any technology. The sweeps should be looking for him for weeks, on foot.” She threw her glance towards the draped window. “And while the full moon born of Fomalhaut still has light, I think we will be protected.”
“Yes, all right. But--”
“Yes, dear?” Liz instantly became attentive.
“What did you mean about freely choosing to go back and take away what they stole by torture?”
Liz sat on the edge of the bed, far enough away so that she was a silhouette again. “Didn’t Jo tell you the entire plan?”
And now there was no answer for a moment. Sarah Jane realized that Liz had presupposed a far greater trust between Sarah and Jo than actually existed. Liz rested her hand on Sarah’s head again, a tenderness but also a way of signaling the end of the conversation. “Nothing can be done for now.”
“But you mean to go back there?”
“Only—“ Liz hesitated again. “Only if all the necessary parts of our pathway fall into place. We are too old to wrench or force reality. But we’re old enough to follow out a course if it is laid out for us.”
“I don’t think you’re responsible for what was taken from you by torture.”
Liz almost answered, almost protested, and Sarah realized that a burden of guilt had not been part of any equation on Liz’s part, not in this decision. There was a weight on Liz, a sorrow from having broken her own high code of conduct for herself while a captive. But that had nothing to do with whatever plan had been laid out.
“Please tell me,” Sarah began, but Liz, with that austere kindness that Sarah recognized from a century ago, laid her fingertips on Sarah Jane’s mouth, stopping her.
“For now, we’re all going to rest and recover. We won’t think further than that. And none of us intend to force what cannot be forced, Sarah Jane. If we choose to undertake one more battle, it will be a battle we can win. All right?”
It wasn’t all right. But Sarah knew better than to argue. “All right.”
“I’ll go see to Alistair. Good night.” And Liz rested her hand on Sarah Jane’s head for a moment.
Liz left the bedside, became a shadow again, took up the tray, and left the room. She closed the door softly behind herself. Sarah lay very still in the great, silent, room, and wondered what horrible choices her friends had made, and how much of what she had known of them actually remained.