The aroma of coffee and bacon, and the friendly, familiar sounds of amiable people preparing breakfast together brought her back. The great old house, which had become almost unbearable except that it took up her empty time as she kept it clean, now wore a cheerful mantle of conversation and gentle whispers from downstairs and occasional bits of laughter.
Sarah Jane suddenly felt a great anxiety of missing it, of being forgotten up in her room, or—at the very least---of not being called to participate in the happy busyness of working together. She rose at once and raced into her private shower.
Twenty minutes later, dressed and feeling quite well, she came downstairs. She was just in time to see Jo through the side window, filling the empty bird feeder and spreading peanuts for the squirrels. The downstairs had become quiet.
Sarah stepped into the small sitting room that had become the center point of the house. Rather, she would have stepped inside, but the murmur of voices stopped her. It was a tone she had not heard in decades. She peered around the corner from the kitchen and saw Alistair, his white hair now neatly combed back, the old hospital gown exchanged for slacks and a flannel shirt.
He was the person speaking, and he was sitting on the sofa, holding Liz, her head under his chin, her eyes closed. He was stroking her gray hair and speaking, his voice so glad that its sobering gladness reached Sarah Jane, and yet it was sad as well.
“No it’s all right now,” she heard Liz say.
He leaned closer and whispered to her. If this was lovemaking, it was of the most serious sort, she realized: two people repairing each other, two people reinstating all that they have held dear in each other. He spoke with that same tone, but a few distinct words reached Sarah Jane: “gave me the strength to live, to come to today”. Sarah withdrew at once. She would no sooner eavesdrop on auricular confession or private prayer than stand and listen to their first words to each other now that they were free.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure what to do, as any sound she might make would interrupt them. But then she distinctly heard Liz say, “I think Sarah Jane has come downstairs.”
And Alistair asked a question. Then Liz said, “The fragrance is stronger. It gets that way when she gets closer. We’ll have breakfast now.”
And then, unmistakably, the sound of a kiss: not a passionate kiss but the sort that a husband and wife give each other when they have to postpone being with each other to see to the children, or go off to work, or attend to errands.
“And none of this trying to get up, Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge Stewart,” Liz’s voice said as she pretended to scold him. “I’m the general of the sitting room, and you need to rest a good long while.”
The side door opened and Jo’s voice called. “All right you two, time for breakfast!” And Alistair said to Liz. “I’ve become remarkably good at doing what I’m told, madam. And you’re so much prettier than those dreadful orderlies.”
“Hullo you!” Jo exclaimed as she entered the kitchen from the other end and saw Sarah Jane. “You look much better.”
“I’ve lazed around long enough,” Sarah Jane said. “Thought I better help you eat breakfast!”
“It’s warming. Alistair is awake and sitting up. You’ve done him a world of good.”
It was an invitation to go in and see him. Just then Liz came out. “Oh Sarah, I thought you’d come down!” And Liz framed her face in her hands and smiled at her. “Go in and see Alistair and tell him to stay put. We’ll dish up breakfast.”
“Right then,” Sarah said. She suddenly felt shy, but she went through to the small sitting room.
“Sarah Jane Smith,” The Brigadier said, and for a moment, it was his familiar voice, though quieter, weakened. But she saw him as she had seen him once upon a time. “But it isn’t Smith any more,” he added, catching himself. And the memory of him as he had been faded. He was very different now.
“It’s not even Sarah Jane any more,” she told him. He was sitting up, but he still looked pale and too thin. She sat next to him and without a second thought put her hands up on his face and then, as though somebody moved her hand, she rested her left hand over the right side of his chest. “No that’s still not right.” She unbuttoned two of the buttons on his shirt and slipped her hand against his ribs.
“I suppose I ought to protest,” he said, and his eyes twinkled for a moment, but he took a deep breath to show her the extent of his recovery.
“Does it help?”
“Yes. Can’t you smell that lovely fragrance? It’s like heaven. It helps me breathe.” He paused. “Yesterday I thought I might die no matter what help came. Today I feel like I need another day’s rest and I’ll be fit as a young man.”
She smiled ruefully. “Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But you need to rest today.”
“What about you? You were ill yesterday. This gift of yours—did it make you take some of my weakness onto yourself? Is that what happened?”
“Oh dear, no, I don’t think so. I think it was stress and fear. I’m out of practice with these cloak and dagger rescues. I was a wreck.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Good. You had enough to contend with.”
She looked at his dark eyes, those same eyes, even though the face around them was pale, tired, and aged. His hair had thinned and gone white, and he looked as though he had endured starvation. His skin sagged on him and his shoulders seemed too boney, even through the shirt.
“You have suffered.” She found her other hand alongside his face again.
“I was better at resisting. So they were worse with me, at least physically.”
She felt two tears sting her eyes, and now she could smell that fragrance of flowers and sweetness. It didn’t effect her as it did him; she was much more accustomed to it after a lifetime of its intermittent manifestations. But he suddenly drew closer to her, moving on an instinct to grasp her, to hold her. Even the Doctor had felt it once, when the power of Fomalhaut had first rested on her.
He stopped himself. “Goodness, I’m a married man. What am I about? Putting my arms around a woman,” he asked, looking down with that odd shame that she had also seen in the Doctor.
“It’s all right. Just breathe,” she said.
He kept his head down. almost like a schoolboy. “You know, I’ve failed in so many ways. I’m sorry.”
“Everything’s all right here. You’re very welcome. We’ll help each other.”
“Is it the same mercy that gave Elizabeth to me? That made her love me?” he asked. “If it is, thank you.”
“I’m just like you, Alistair,” she told him. “I receive this mercy. I don’t command it or send it. But it rests on me from time to time.”
He nodded, eyes still down. “I see.”
“I’m a sinner, too,” she said. “Look at me. I’m just like you---well, truth to tell, I’m not nearly as kind and brave as you.”
He looked up, right into her eyes, and the depth of humility in his tired eyes hurt her. He had suffered far more than she, and yet he was humble, and grateful for the gift of his wife, of Liz.
She felt more tears. But she made herself speak: “How’s the breathing?”
He nodded. “Even better. Thank you.”
Jo came in, carrying a loaded tray. “We’ll eat together in here. So much more cozy.” Liz was right behind her, carrying plates, cups, and saucers.
“We’ve been giving Alistair porridge, oatmeal, and plain toast since yesterday,” Liz said. “Perhaps he’s ready to try some heartier fare this morning.”
“Tea and toast and oatmeal still sound like a feast to me,” he told her. “It’s all wonderful.”
Jo pulled up the coffee table, and she and Liz set out their ample breakfast. But then Sarah Jane stood to let Liz sit next to her husband. The Brigadier could eat only slowly, as though unused to it. Liz helped him, holding his tea and watching over him. Jo and Sarah Jane sat across the table from them.
“See, you like this,” Liz said to him, offering him a triangle of toast. “Jam.”
“Oh I do like jam, darling,” he agreed, and bit into it, straight from her hand. He chewed thoughtfully and then swallowed. “You didn’t give me jam yesterday.”
“No, dry toast for the first 24 hours, dear. But I made sure we saved plenty for you, for today.”
So like them, Sarah Jane thought. And yet unlike them. Parts of who they had once been had dried up as they had aged, and fallen away. Or else, she thought, they had been burned up. Humility seemed natural on the Brigadier now, organic, albeit disarming. And Liz, so much more grave, so much more patient, had lost that impatient, fiery edge to her intelligence. Once upon a time, Sarah Jane had felt very much on her best behavior around Liz, very aware that there must be no nonsense around this great scientist. She still felt that way now, but now it was much more natural. Not Liz’s impatience or brusqueness, but rather her rich dignity, a quietness in her that quieted others, evoked a sense of sober quiet and attention. The younger version had simply been a rough sketch of this, even a mere caricature. But this was the real thing.
But as the meal progressed, with Sarah Jane and Jo quiet as their two guests helped each other and ate, it became clear that the Brigadier and Liz were going to need their privacy. That brief moment of repairing each other had been only a beginning, a forward.
“Well I think,” Sarah Jane said airily. “That Jo and I can clean up and air out the master bedroom upstairs. I can move my things into the next room down so that you two can have the room with the bath.”
“We can’t take your room,” Liz began.
“It will be easier with the attached bath,” Sarah said. “I want Alistair to be able to go back and forth from bath to bed easily. It will still be a few days until he’s really mended.”
Alistair took his wife’s hand, the gentlest sign that she should agree with their hostess. “Well, it will make it easier for me to look after him,” Liz conceded. “For a few days.”
* * * *
Jo and Sarah Jane would have washed up after breakfast, but Liz asked Jo to rest and watch over Alistair in the peaceful, fragrant sitting room. She helped in the kitchen. Part of this request, Sarah Jane realized, came from Liz’s determination to be more than a helpless survivor. She wanted to participate responsibly in sharing the work. But as they put away food and cleared up, Sarah also sensed that Liz wanted to be in her orbit: Liz was still the curious scientist, amazed at the phenomenon of Sarah’s gift, and—more serious and grim---Liz was also the sorrowful person who was still recovering. Her hands still trembled sometimes, and there were moments when she seemed to go blank and her eyes looked lost, as though her mind were suddenly thrown back to some darker place. One soft word from Sarah Jane could recall her to the present: one light touch on the arm or hand could restore her.
Sarah Jane slowed down the pace of the chores to let the influence of her presence and her voice work on her guest. But it was with some dismay that she realized that she had been given this gift of mercy over a century ago, and yet only now was she bringing deeply traumatized people into her home and sphere of influence.
But even with Sarah Jane’s presence that was restorative to her mind and outlook, Liz had also been through physically harrowing events. After the washing up, she was tired, and she was glad enough to settle down in the overstuffed, reclinable chair in the small sitting room while Alistair dozed on the sofa. Jo and Sarah Jane left them to have a good rest, and they set about preparing the large bedroom upstairs for its new guests.
For ninety minutes they dusted and rearranged things while the Hoover Buggy trundled about, sucking up dust and sterilizing the cotton rug. Jo changed the sheets, and Sarah Jane packed up her things to clear out space for her guests. They removed the half-filled bottles of toiletries from the bath, switched on the cleaning processors, emptied a batch of cleaning ducks into the tub, and while they waited for the bathroom to clean, they dug out fresh supplies.
It had been years, Sarah Jane thought, since she had prepared for guests. She had been quite hospitable once: in her youth, ever ready to leap up and go. Share and share alike on journalistic adventures or the rather more demanding outings with the Doctor. And after that, she had enjoyed offering finery and comfort to guests at her house: the giggling, gleeful friends of her daughters as they raced through the halls and up and down the steps, and the more staid, quiet family friends when the children were grown. But that had been long ago.
But Jo joyed in folding up hand towels in the shape of origami ducks and swans and lining them up on the bathroom counter top. Sarah Jane had an entire drawer filled with small soaps and candles, and Jo would not be satisfied until they explored all of it and assembled a matched set of accessories that would suit the décor of the bath.
And Sarah began to enjoy herself. In whispers, Jo confided that the Brig and Liz had married during their imprisonment: a secret ceremony in which a doddering fellow inmate had perfectly recited the marriage sacrament, proof enough that he had been a trained minister, once. Two other suffering souls had been witnesses. The sacrament had been a race to assemble in secret, utter the sacred words, exchange the vows, and then be caught and punished for communicating with each other. Alistair and Liz had been thrown back into their separate cells, out of sight from each other. And marital union, for them, had been no more than secret, shared hand clasps when they passed, sometimes after weeks out of sight from anybody, and one or two stolen kisses, as far as Jo knew.
But with freedom there seemed to be no temptation to dissolve their unconsummated union. They took it as seriously as any marriage borne from grand ceremony and pomp. Indeed, Sarah thought with a bittersweet longing, their shared suffering had been a far better consummation than anything else. That brief scene downstairs had shown her that they devotedly loved each other.
But Jo’s enthusiasm was infectious. She found all the beauty of the room: the way the sunlight fell across the bed and onto the wall, the lovely view, the beautiful sheen of the old wood of the bed and dressers. She sat in the rocking chair experimentally and looked out the window. Then she kept re-positioning it until the view was perfect.
Finally, when all was dusted, cleaned, polished, re-stocked, and arranged to perfection, they went down the steps, where Liz and her husband dozed in the gentle fragrance, their hands clasped together.
“Poor little lambs,” Jo said. “Waken them, Sarah.”
It was an odd command, but Sarah Jane knew that her friends had enormous faith in that power that had bestowed its fragrance onto her. So to her would be left the tasks that required gentleness and care.
She stooped down so that she could see Liz’s face where Liz napped in the reclined chair, her head turned to the side. “Liz dear, Liz,” she called, and she sensed the sweetness in the room increase. The refreshed fragrance awoke Liz. Her large, solemn eyes opened and she breathed in. Her hand tightened on Alistair’s hand. On the sofa, he stirred, turned his head towards the fragrance, and woke up.
“Hullo, ducks,” Jo said kindly. “Would you like to see your room?”
Sarah thought they might be sleepy and move slowly. In fact, she was ready to tell them there was no rush. She would have preferred letting them sleep. But at the invitation, Alistair got more color in his face than he had yet shown, and he sat up very readily. “Why, I think so,” he said.
“Oh yes, how lovely,” Liz agreed at once.
Jo shot an openly naughty look at Sarah Jane but then instantly became as matronly and hospitable as a parson’s wife as Liz and Alistair stood.
“Come on then,” Jo said briskly. “Alistair, you may need some help up the steps. Lean on us.”
Sarah and Jo had to help him up the long climb to the second floor, with Liz close behind. It took some effort. And Sarah Jane realized, even with the help given to him from the healing mantle that rested over the sitting room, Alistair still needed time to recover. All the same, he didn’t complain, and the readiness in his expression as they labored up the stairway showed that his spirits were fine, especially in anticipation of his first tryst with his wife.
He rested for only a moment at the top of the steps, and then he offered his hand to Liz, and with her beside him, he walked by himself up the hallway. Jo and Sarah led them to their room. Sarah Jane gave them a quick tour: spare towels, extra sheets and pillows, the temperature control, the bedside tea kettle that worked on a timer, and the cache of tea and packaged biscuits in the nightstand.
“If you need anything,” Sarah said when she had finished. “Please let me know.”
“We’ll bring up lunch for you,” the ever practical Jo said. “And then let you have your privacy.”
* * * *
A quietness settled over the great house. To Sarah’s surprise, Jo had business to attend to. She delivered the tray upstairs and then appeared at the doorway of the sitting room, wearing her coat.
“Benny’s coming to pick me up,” she said. “I’ll leave the Zip here, out of sight. But I expect it will be a quiet day.” She knit her eyebrows. “I think we pulled it off.”
“What’s left?” Sarah Jane asked, startled at the sight of Jo ready to sally forth yet again. “Liz said something yesterday about going back. That she wants to go back and steal back the information they got from her.”
The information startled Jo, but only for a moment. But Sarah realized that Liz’s candor with her had been given without Jo’s knowledge. “We have a lot of decisions to make,” Jo said. “And, certainly, Liz and Alistair will choose to do some costly things. We should wait for them to regain their strength and get their bearings before we talk about it.”
“Can’t you tell me where you’re going?”
Jo, Sarah knew, would help her friends do whatever they laid out for themselves. But Sarah herself was still the outsider.
I can heal them, Sarah thought. Rescue them, feed them and clothe them, but I’m still not trustworthy.
“Just to check with Benny about some things and cheer him up a bit. He does get lonely and feeling left out from time to time. I told you he’s got Asperger’s. He hasn’t many friends.”
The answer was vague, and Jo’s evasion rankled. And yet, Sarah thought, they both knew it was Sarah that was hanging back. She did not know if she was truly willing to go into danger, worse and worse danger, even for the cause of her few remaining friends. She wasn’t certain she could face it even for the good of innocent people who might be harmed by the data that the tech sweeps had wrenched out of the minds of their captives.
“Well all right then. I’ll see you later.”
She retired to the sitting room, sat down on the small sofa, and then lay down. It wasn’t even noon yet, not nearly, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to do. The place was clean. Alistair and Liz would not want anything else, she supposed, and she wasn’t hungry. She couldn’t smell the fragrance that the others still noticed in the room, but the garden, even in late summer, was still pretty. She idly considered making coffee for herself. That flavor, she thought. She could taste it again. Everything had tasted better over the last few days. Except that muddy tea. But even that, she thought, was distinct. Everything in her life had been going gray, losing its zest. How long had it been since she had tasted something so truly muddy and unpleasant as that tea? In a sense, it was better than the flavorless days that had preceded it.
She opened her eyes and for a moment thought that her half-hearted admiration for pinellia tea had been rewarded with the scent of it hanging over her. Then she realized that the shadows in the room had changed and lengthened. It was late afternoon. And Liz, her hair now tidy and swept back into barrettes, was setting down a tray on the coffee table.
“What are you doing here?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Oh, Jo’s come back, and she brought me a stethoscope from Benny,” Liz said. She flourished a vintage stethoscope and then slipped it round her neck. “And it’s been just 24 hours since your stress attack, so I thought it was time I checked on you.”
“Did you make that tea?” Sarah asked.
“Yes dear, I did. It’s good for you. I know you don’t like it, but it will help your stomach. Let’s take those pulses.” And Liz took up Sarah’s left wrist and adopted a thoughtful, listening expression.
“What about Alistair?”
“He’s resting. I asked Jo to read to him for a half hour or so. Hmm. Still some stress on the liver. Let’s try the other.” Sarah gave her the other wrist. Liz smiled briefly. “You’ve been such a kind hostess, Sarah Jane. We are truly grateful to you. And I’m not going to leave you alone, ill, while I go off and honeymoon. You’ve given Alistair back to me. You’ve given my mind back to me. He and I both are grateful to you.”
“No, Liz,” Sarah whispered, for the claim actually frightened her. “Something else, someone else, did that. It just rests on me from time to time.”
Liz nodded, her expression still thoughtful. She set down the wrist and put the prongs of the stethoscope into her ears. “Yes. Let’s have a quick listen.” She set the sensor over Sarah Jane’s lower ribs, on the right. “Is that tender?”
“Yes, a little bit.”
“Gall bladder, which is part of the liver system.” She moved the stethoscope and listened. “There’s a little bit of a good swish-swish,” she reported. “Well, you’re better today, but still stressed.” She took away the sensor and removed the prongs from her ears. “Your prescription is one steaming cup of pinellia tea.” She tilted her head and for one moment her eyes were the familiar, judicious, austere eyes of Liz Shaw. “To be taken with thanksgiving for God’s provision,” she said emphatically.
The slight joke twinged. If Liz, who had suffered so much, could still remind her of the duty of gratitude, then Sarah Jane could at least try to be grateful. She sat up as Liz poured the tea. “I’ll have a cup too,” Liz said. “It shouldn’t go to waste, and it is good for strength of digestion.” She passed a cup to Sarah Jane.
It tasted just as bitter as it had the day before, but Sarah didn’t complain. And after the first sip, she felt her stomach relax further. Liz sat next to her with her own cup. “How is it?”
Sarah pulled a wry face. “Well, it tastes like it’s good for me.”
A light of good natured humor flashed across Liz’s eyes, and she sipped the tea. “Oh yes. But it hits the spot. It has its purpose.” She paused, her eyes cast down to the cup. “You wouldn’t serve it at a birthday party, or a wedding. But on a cold night, or when the coldness has settled into your stomach, it’s very rejuvenating.” Another pause. “Everything according to its purpose.”
She glanced at Sarah Jane. “You wouldn’t loosen a bolt with a hammer, or pluck up a teacup rose to swat a beetle, would you?”
There was a point to this, but Sarah didn’t understand. “No,” she agreed. “You would use a tool that works for its purpose.”
Liz took another sip and then set aside her cup. “Drink your tea, dear. I’m getting ahead of you.” And Sarah obediently drank.
“I know it’s the Mercy that goes through you, and not you, yourself,” Liz said quietly. “But that Mercy is vast, full, and free. And yet it doesn’t come and hang over each person like a cloud. Not every person’s hands direct its grace to alleviate suffering.”
“No,” Sarah agreed after a moment.
“I don’t want to see such a flower uprooted,” Liz said gravely. “For the sake of the mercy that has gone through them, I don’t want to see the hands subjected to—“ She caught herself. Her eyes suddenly looked lost and dark. Without thinking, Sarah set aside her cup and put her hands on Liz’s shoulders.
“Liz, you’re with me, now.”
“Don’t go into that darkness. Don’t send her there,” Liz said, not seeing her.
“The Mercy goes with me,” Sarah said at once. “I don’t leave it behind.”
“They’ll make you think you have.” Her hands began to shake.
She was reliving her suffering. Sarah realized that Liz had been goaded, tortured into betraying what she had loved. All part of that process of showing her she had no worth. For one instant, Sarah went blank, not knowing what to do, and then she said, with a voice that hardly sounded like hers for its kindness and quiet authority, “Elizabeth. Come out from there. Come back to your loving friends. Alistair is waiting for you, your husband.”
Two great tears rolled from Liz Shaw’s eyes, but she breathed in and straightened up. Her trembling stopped, and Sarah could see that the seizure of dark memories faded. “All our sins are forgiven in the death of Jesus Christ,” Sarah said. “And they are removed by the power of His resurrection. Do you believe that?”
“I do.” Liz’s voice was chastened. But she looked at Sarah, her eyes no longer lost, but sad, and as vulnerable as she had been that first day.
“Come here,” Sarah said, and took her in her arms. It surprised her to have the authority, however momentary, to command both Liz’s freedom and her comfort. “It’s all over, now. It’s all over. We’re here, at my home, and you’ve been treating me for stomach ache.”
“Yes that’s right,” Liz gasped. “And nobody who mattered heard me say those awful things. Nobody could be hurt by them.”
“And even if you said dreadful things because dreadful things were forced from you, dear, anybody who cares about you would know it was only torment doing it. Not for real.”
But then Liz began to cry, and Sarah simply waited, and hoped that the fragrance of the room would build, an evidence that mercy was abundantly poured out to Liz, no matter what she had done. But she felt a sharp twinge of her own conscience, as she recalled that only two days ago she had felt profound unwillingness to admit this noble, gentle, suffering woman into her home and, perhaps even worse, had been reluctant even to touch her. She felt no such reluctance, on either point, now. Indeed, the greatest concern Sarah felt now was that she might miss some article or act of kindness that would further console and restore Liz or Alistair.
Her previous prayer to escape this world suddenly troubled her. And for just one instance, a sense that Liz had saved her, rather than the reverse, entered her mind. A fleeting sense of having been prevented from demanding an incredibly inappropriate courtesy of heaven struck her, but it was instantly eclipsed by the reassuring sweet fragrance, which strengthened, as though the heavens themselves were determined to console Liz.
Liz breathed deeply and soon became calmer. “Every gesture of goodwill has been given to me,” she said at last. “Your kind mercy. And Alistair, and Jo. I don’t deserve any of it. It’s simply kindness.”
She straightened up then, and Sarah, with no more thought about it than she’d ever felt with Kyree or Celia, gently wiped the tears from Liz’s face with the backs of her fingers. But, though calm, Liz was sober and certain. “You should be spared from ever going into that dark place again,” she said, now with more of her familiar self-possession. “There are graces given to certain people. If you’ve housed the manifestation of mercy and restoration, it isn’t appropriate for you to go into a place that could tear you apart. You’re fitted for something else.”
The wrongness of Liz’s conclusion struck Sarah Jane almost like a dash of cold water in her face. She almost spoke, but suddenly stopped. It was too soon either to contradict or agree with her. Liz wasn’t ready for such a discussion, and Sarah herself didn’t know enough about the previous history or future plans of her guests.
“Mercy raises no expectations,” Sarah Jane said. “Even though I’m full of expectations. I’m always fighting my inclinations, trying to keep an open mind and attitude. But we can make plans later, when it’s time to make plans. Now the time is right to recover and get your strength back. Don’t worry or be troubled about anything.”
Calmed, Liz nodded and met her eye. And Sarah saw that, even as Sarah feared what lay ahead, Liz feared what was past. “Yoo hoo!” Jo called, coming down the stairs. “Alistair asked if he’s missing anything.”
Liz instantly stood. “Not a particle!’ she exclaimed. “I told him not to stir. Is he breathing comfortably?”
“Oh yes. Wants tea and sympathy from his wife, I think.”
“Right then!” Liz hurried after Jo to the kitchen.
“Tell him we’ll have supper in 90 minutes,” Sarah called.
* * * *
Life settled in a gentle routine over the next several weeks. The autumn came, creeping in slowly with flaming colors on the trees and cooler days and nights. The venerable old house was never entirely tidy any more. It lost its vacant sterility. Sarah passed through the rooms and picked up bits of clutter, and then Jo came through and fussed that something was left out and put it away, and then Liz came through and arranged things to be tidy. Alistair took hedge clippers outside every few days and made some desultory clips with it and raked up the leaves. The little mechanized cutter took care of the grass with near-perfect precision, so his chores in the garden were light. He patrolled the exterior of the house and stuffed steel wool filling into any crevices that he found, to keep the mice out.
Everybody slept later than they expected, every single day, sometimes not getting around to breakfast until eleven. But they all felt better. Sarah’s stomach pains faded. Alistair breathed better. Liz had fewer and fewer dark moments, and Jo became jolly, endearing, and funny all over again.
Sarah had expected minor tiffs and frictions, but these were rare and small. And they became more rare as the weeks passed. As Sarah had supposed, her guests gathered enough strength and composure to speak coherently about their experiences. What she had known only in pieces began to form into a single story.
“I was taken—oh, custody placed under review, I think they called it,” Alistair said one night as they sat around teacups and beer in the kitchen. “Just after a physical. I don’t know how they deduced it. But they knew. The orders were transferred while I sat like an idiot in the hospital waiting room. Next thing I knew, men in white tunics were helpfully escorting me to a room. Told me I could have anything I wanted. Just said there was evidence that I might be carrying a rare disease—“
“You believed them?” Sarah Jane asked.
He nodded. “Oh yes. After my life, I could see that I may have picked up some strange germ somewhere. You never know after UN service, or after visiting all those strange places and meeting all those odd creatures with the Doctor.’ He arched an eyebrow. “I started to work on my options: where I could go to stay in quarantine. All that. Took me a few days to realize I was a prisoner. Took me another day or so to realize what they were after: the secret of my longevity.”
“That part was bad, at least where I was,” Liz said. “Bad enough. Skin samples and tissue samples and being made to walk and walk to exhaustion. And then run. And then the stress tests: pressure, hot, cold, oxygen deprivation—“
‘I never got that far,” he told her. “I mean, I knew it was all coming. By then I’d been transferred into a genuine medical research prison. All the illusions were gone. I had no rights. I had no real name any more. There was nobody left to come looking for me—“
“There was me,” Jo said at once.
“Yes, thank God for you, Jo,” he said. And Liz nodded.
Jo looked at Sarah Jane. “There have been other long livers. Not as long as the four of us. But they do exist. I’ve been working with the Longevity Protection Society for over ten years. They got word about Alistair to me, and then—much later--of Liz.”
“But you two didn’t see each other in captivity?” Sarah asked.
The married couple shook their heads. “We were in different facilities,” Alistair said. “We didn’t know about each other being captive. It was the ROR that put us in the same place.”
“One day it was seeing how long I could last sitting up in a room slowly losing oxygen,” Liz said. “Before I would pass out. And then suddenly it all stopped—all the harsh treatment, all the cruel testing. They fed me up, gave me a room with a window, let me read books, and then they put me in front of a great light, hooked me up to it, and showed me a picture—a sketch. Asked me if I recognized it.”
“A picture of what?” Sarah asked.
“A police call box,” she said. “I told them yes, I knew what it was.” Sarah started. But then she saw that Jo and Alistair already knew full well that the tech sweeps understood—at the very least—that somebody had used a police call box to hide a tremendous and secret technology.
“But that was just the measuring phase,” Alistair added. “They give you a view of a bit of secret technology they know you’ll recognize, and they measure the reaction of your retina. It tells them how keenly you recognize it, how tightly tied it is to your actual emotions—“
“Emotions?” Sarah asked.
“I never felt much emotional warmth for the TARDIS,” Liz said. “But at sight of it, all kinds of microscopic reactions went off in me because of its associations in my mind: my time with the Doctor, my time at UNIT, all the people I’d known, my youth. They can measure all of that. Not the thoughts, but the profoundness of the response. And when I told them a half-truth, that it was a police call box, they knew exactly how my body responds when I’m lying.”
“So from then on,” Alistair added. “They measure just the retinal response as you look at shapes, pictures, sketches, photos that you no longer consciously recall. Your retina will react, however slightly, to anything you’ve ever seen in your life.”
“Even if you no longer consciously recall it?” Sarah Jane asked.
Both he and Liz nodded. “The mind does record everything,” Liz said. “And on a very low level it remembers everything. But it selectively brings memories to our conscious minds. We still don’t know how it prioritizes. But to relive a memory takes energy. To put a memory into words takes energy. To ponder it takes energy. So to spare energy and keep our thoughts orderly, the mind reflexively shuts off higher consciousness from unimportant memories. There is some part of us that recognizes anything we have ever seen, smelled, or heard. But another part of us regulates 99 percent of it to non-conscious processing: low-energy storage.”
“And these blokes figured out how to start to unlock that system. Through ROR,” Alistair added.
“It takes forever,” she said. “But slowly, line by line, they use your retinal responses to re-create drawings and blueprints of things you may have merely glanced at once upon a time. And because of the nature of the research I have done, I was handing over all that information to them: secret information. Dangerous technology.”
“As was I,” Alistair agreed. “So I started to resist. I could make my eye ‘jump’ so to speak to confound the observation recorders that were measuring my retinal responses. And Liz, of course, also figured that out. Probably far sooner than I did.”
“Even a sudden deep breath,” Liz added. “If you time it properly, will make the retina react and ruin the validity of your retina response.”
“And so they tortured you?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Not quite then, for me,” Alistair said. He glanced at his wife. They were holding hands on the tabletop. She shook her head to agree with him as they looked at each other for a moment. Then she looked at Sarah. “They doped me first. That will work for a while. But they have to keep you at a certain level of consciousness to look at the pictures. And pretty soon you can start fooling them with false responses.”
He nodded and looked at his wife.
“Then,” she said. “The torture started.” She looked down, and Alistair tightened his hand on hers, his fingers through her fingers.
“If they can get you to comply, just to end the torture, they will. But I knew that wouldn’t last long,” he said. “I could resist beyond their patience. So then they have to get you to stop seeing yourself as doing the right thing to resist. They have to get you to stop seeing the decisions you make as crucial and responsible—“
“They break your will,” Liz said, looking up and then looking down again. “They make you do dreadful things, so that you see you’re not truly standing for anything good and right. You’re just a fake, a liar.”
He put his arm around her and drew her in. “But they underestimate the grace of God, and the power He has to forgive our sins” he said. “They isolated Liz. Put her in a sort of tall box---“
“Smaller on the inside than the outside,” she added.
“We had about four of us going through the ROR,” Alistair added. “All men. We knew they had a woman in the box. So narrow she couldn’t sit or lie down. I had no idea it was Liz. But we managed to get messages to her. To tap to her through the side of the box when we were able. Just to let her know we knew she was there and we wanted her to pull through.”
“How long were you in there?” Sarah asked.
Liz shook her head to show that she didn’t know.
“Weeks,” he said. “But she knew Morse code. It wasn’t just taps after the first few times. When I had a few seconds I heard the entire message she was sending: “I Liz.” He looked down at her, his eyes tender. “I hardly dared to think it. Could this be Liz Shaw? Whoever was in there, I knew, had to have gotten caught, trapped, ensnared maybe as I’d been ensnared. And she had to be a woman of sterling character and tremendous will. It sounded like Liz Shaw.”
“So you got a message to her?” Sarah asked.
“Not then. You see, we could only tap to her for a few seconds, on the way to the washroom or traveling to the next interrogation or medical exam. She could tap whenever she heard us passing. It was difficult for us to get in more than a single tap back. But later. When they moved her back to a cell, I tapped out a message to the fellow in the cell next to her, until he learned it, and he tapped it to her.”
“What was the message?” Sarah asked.
“’Brigadier,’” Liz said quietly. She took hold of his other hand. “I fell in love with him then.” She put her head against him and said very softly. “I did. No matter what came after.”
Jo, who had been silent all this time, went to the toaster. She inserted four slices of bread.
“What came after was their viciousness,” Alistair said. He rested his free hand on her head. “By the time they’re finished, their poor victim will say anything. Just babble, just the result of exhaustion and pain and fear and grief.” He kissed the top of her head. Then he answered Sarah Jane. “Just knowing she was nearby kept me going. By then they’d figured out how to crack my resistance with fatigue, and they could get snatches of genuine ROR reactions out of me. I was betraying my oaths, betraying my country, handing information over to the enemy. But I knew God forgave me, because He’d brought Liz and me together in that hellish place to comfort and help each other. And what a comfort. What a tender and brave friend.”
“I failed,” she whispered.
“You recovered.” He kissed the top of her head again. “You got me through, Elizabeth.” She closed her eyes.
“Liz, every sin can be forgiven, even the sins we never expect to commit,” Sarah heard herself say.
Alistair nodded to Sarah, a gesture to ask her for patience.
“Who wants toast and jam?” Jo asked, returning with a plate. She set it down on the table. Liz opened her eyes, and after a moment’s sober inspection, she took up a piece and quietly began to eat.
* * * *
“Getting nippy out there!” Alistair exclaimed one morning after “making the rounds” as he called his semi-daily morning duties of looking out for mice at the woodwork and emptying the dust bins from inside the house into the mechanized recycler/receiver outside. His cheeks were rosy from the fresh, late September air.
Liz came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “And look at you, out there with a scarf but no coat!’ she said gravely. “Oh Alistair, you’re not 22.”
“I’m not even 122!” And he kissed her forehead. “Passed that ages ago! When’s breakfast?”
“We’ve got Vermont Harvest Pancakes just finished,” she told him. “If you’d like to wash up and come join us.”
“And how many cups of Vermont does it take to make Vermont Harvest Pancakes, my dear?” he asked.
“Oh you are frisky this morning!” She stroked his cheek and then led him inside.
He followed her, unwrapping his scarf. “I know what will settle me down.”
“Hush, you,” but she sent him a naughty smile.
He paused in the tiny washroom in the hallway to wash his hands. Sarah was setting the breakfast platters on the table. Jo came in from the study. “The sun does not behold Fomalhaut today,” she announced. “And for the rest of the month. And the moon is dark.”
“And the sun is in his fall,” Liz added, not especially troubled, to judge by her face and voice. “So the heavens are dark to the earth.”
“We still have the fragrance of Fomalhaut here,” Sarah Jane pointed out.
“Yes, but rats like the dark,” Jo added. “So while the heavens are dark, we should be careful and watch out for rats. They’ll likely get about more for the next 30 days.”
Alistair entered on this. “Ah. And rats like to bite,” he said from behind Liz.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, and jumped.
“Let’s have breakfast and be thankful,” Sarah told them.
“Lord, for what we are about to receive, we give You thanks,” Alistair said, and they sat down together.
* * * *
“What’s on for today?” Alistair asked. Now that four weeks had gone by, he seemed more like his old self, at least in terms of his readiness to get things done. He and Liz and Jo had spent many a morning together over the previous fortnight, poring over hard copy drawings, huge sheets of paper that Benny brought them. Sarah had glanced at them at first. They were schematics and interior layouts of large buildings, at least one of which was the lair where she and Jo had rescued their friends.
She didn’t like to look at them. In fact, if she stared at them long enough, a small ache would begin in her midsection, warning her. It was the place where death for any of them would be prolonged, agonizing, and humiliating. Yet they spared her from long planning session with them. Liz could take one look at her face and say, “Sarah Jane, that’s enough for you today. We don’t want another person to learn the details. If we’re caught and questioned, we don’t want to betray anybody.”
At the very first, Jo had not entirely agreed with these decrees, but she never raised a protest. It soon became clear to Sarah Jane that Liz wanted to protect her; that Liz, in fact, would have doted on her at times. All three of them believed that their food was blessed if Sarah Jane prepared it, that the virtue of Fomalhaut went into it from her. They all helped with the laundry, and Jo and Liz had privately worked out chores for themselves so that Sarah would be freed up. They had actually taken the lion’s share of the housework, which was still fairly minimal these days, but they wanted her to fold their clothing, for they believed that her hands on their clothing blessed them. They wanted her to set the table so that she touched their plates and silver ware, and they wanted her to help with cooking even when she wasn’t on the schedule to oversee things in the kitchen, so that she was near their food.
Sarah Jane didn’t think her gift extended nearly this far, but she never tried to disillusion them, because they were so comforted by the least little thing that she served them or did for them, especially Liz and Alistair, who had seen so much suffering.
All three of her guests were anxious to keep her happy, not because she was their hostess and they lived in her house. They believed that she was in some way extraordinary, and their deference towards her, Sarah guiltily realized, was not deserved. She had never developed the patience of Alistair, the humility of Liz, or the courage of Jo. She had been handed a gift of mercy, and even that gift seemed, to her, to be more unstable and uncertain than they thought.
The manifestations of Fomalhaut had been absent or very low level for decades as far as she had perceived, and now the manifestations were returned. But she supposed they could vanish again just as quickly. She could not call the fragrance back if it disappeared. And she had not suffered to accrue its power. Once, over a hundred years ago, in pain and fear, she had begged something she didn’t even understand for mercy. And it had bequeathed this titanic gift to her, this gift that she could not control or keep. But because of it, because mercy had come and settled on her, her reticence to look into the fearsome depths of the place that had imprisoned Liz and Alistair was regarded as appropriate. And they spared her as though it were their duty to protect her from the same horrors they had endured.
But even Jo, eventually, would be excused from the discussions over the drawings. Jo, Sarah understood, had a role to play in the audacious plan to re-enter the research facility and bring it down. But Jo’s role was a preliminary sort of thing. She and a partner, probably Benny, Sarah Jane supposed, were intended to bring down the security system by some ingenious plan that the three of them had developed but had not shared with Sarah.
But Liz herself, and Alistair, would actually make the entry and carry out some dreadful task. They never spoke of it, except as “doing it,” and they never showed any fear about it. They were calm and cool, their voices never faltering or expressing doubt in their murmured conversations with each other. They might speak with each other, quietly, over the drawings, for an hour or two with neither Jo nor Sarah in the room. And then they rolled up the drawings. Alistair burned them in the fireplace, and after a day or two, Benny would bring fresh copies. This, Sarah realized, was a way to protect her so that she would never be caught with contraband drawings stored away in her house.
But she also realized that it was the way for Liz and Alistair to learn and relearn the details of the drawings, memorizing them together and then using the next copies to test themselves.
Now, as they finished up the pancakes, Sarah supposed that the three of them would hold another committee meeting that morning, for Benny was coming. But when Alistair asked, Jo said, “Oh, Benny and I have to go look after some things. We’ll have to beg off.”
“Is he bringing drawings?” Liz asked.
Jo nodded. “But can you manage without me for a day?”
“Yes, we’ve plenty to do,” Alistair said.
Liz stood. “And as Sarah did the lion’s work of the cooking, I shall clean the kitchen.”
“Oh, I can help,” Sarah said, also standing
“There’s Benny!” Jo exclaimed, peering out the window. “I’ll get my coat.”
And so, once the kitchen had been cleaned, and Jo had gone off with Benny in his Zip, Liz and Alistair met privately in the study over the new drawings. Sarah donned her own coat to go out for a brisk walk in the crisp autumn morning.
It was hard to think that the sun was in his fall on such a glorious morning, when his light, clear but not very warm yet, made the scarlet and golden landscape glorious. The blue sky almost seemed to glow. Yet, according to the ancients, the sun could not properly behold Fomalhaut, and neither was his light powerful across the heavens. And the moon, she thought, was also darkened: a new moon. But the day was fair and bursting with the ripe beauty of late September.
Sarah had been cooped up far too long, or so she told herself. It was a silent fall morning, with only the distant sound of crows breaking in now and then on the great stillness. For several minutes she focused only on striding purposefully up the next hill, letting a film of perspiration under her arms and around the base of her neck form and seep into her cotton undershirt. She huffed in the brisk air and watched her breath dart out in faint plumes of white from her mouth. She reached the top of the hill and looked around at the mowed, browning fields of stubble all around. Only her own house, now half a mile away, had its luxuriant green patch of grass. The sky was like a blue bowl, radiant with light.
She started down the far side of the hill, not ready to go home. The ancients, she knew, believed that evil held the earth in chains until the resurrection of Christ had burst the bonds. And yet there was still war between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Evil. And today, in their worldview, was a day when earth, if not acutely embattled, was like a battlefield where the largest watch fires had gone out, and all that was left were a few torches here and there. It was a day to be cautious about evil. Nothing could undo the great and glorious power of the resurrection, but challenges to it could still be made, and today was a day ripe for just such a challenge.
A great loneliness began to fall on her. She noticed that the intermittent calls from the distant crows had stopped. There was no wind. The cheerful morning began to take on a sterility and emptiness. She tried to outwalk her sudden uneasiness, but after another fifteen minutes she turned around. The silence was everywhere.
She supposed that walking back towards the house would assuage her feelings. But instead, her anxiety grew, and she quickened her stride. Even so, she had traveled a good distance out, and it took her nearly twenty minutes to reach the boundary of her own property.
The great house sat silent and peaceful in the vast stillness. But now Sarah felt genuine fear and worry. The house itself looked so silent that an idea began to grow in her that she would return to find it empty: Alistair and Liz gone, with no explanation and no sign of having left. She had to fight not to break into a run. She hurried to the door, swiped her finger over the pad, and entered, panting. The house was silent.