The sky was dimming when she woke up. She pulled on a sweater and hurried downstairs.
“Jo,” she said softly, as she saw Jo, now standing at the French doors that led to the garden, her face towards the light. “Jo, how are you?”
The bruised face turned to her. “Better, thank you. If I look out right here, I can see that it’s light, a square—a window.” Jo raised a hand to her left eye. “Through this eye. But nothing through the other.”
“Let me see to it,” Sarah said, and she crossed to Jo and rested her hands over the bruised eyes. “Is there pain?”
“Not like yesterday. You’ve helped me very much. Thank you.”
She sensed the sorrow, the sprit subdued by his savage beating. “You stood up to him very well. He didn’t quite know what to make of you.”
Jo was startled. “How do you know that?”
“I—I saw him. I saw him doing it to you. In a sort of dream.”
“You never told me you could do that,” Jo said.
“I never could. I don’t know if I will again.”
She smelled the fragrance getting stronger and without thinking, as though Liz were there and nudged her hands, she slid her fingertips to the outer edges of Jo’s eyes, where the bone led up to the nerves under the eyebrow.
“My right eye sees light,” Jo whispered.
“All right.” She paused. “Put your face into my hand.”
Jo bowed so that her eyes were visored by Sarah’s hand, and Sarah used her free hand to hold her head. After a moment, Sarah slowly withdrew her hand from Jo’s eyes. “I see color,” Jo said. “I see the shape of your hand.” She looked up at Sarah, the eyes focusing. “I see your face. But everything is still dim, as though it’s through a tunnel.”
“When the fragrance strengthens again, let me know,” Sarah Jane said. “I can’t always smell it.”
“Thank you.” She took Sarah’s hand in both of hers and dipped her head. “Thank you Sarah Jane.”
“Jo, I was never worthy of this gift. I never will be.” And Sarah felt that same helplessness. They were so much better than she, but she could never convince them of this.
“But we’re talking about mercy, not worthiness Dear,” Jo said, head still bowed. “Thank you.” And she held Sarah’s hand to her forehead. “I didn’t like being blind. Thank you.”
“We’ll keep at it,” Sarah said. “You’re—you’re welcome.”
“The problem is that the hornets were such a perfect surprise,” Alistair said that evening as he set down his beer. Dinner had been cleared away and the dishes washed, and though normally they reserved this time for happier topics, the capture and rescue of Jo, and all its ramifications had to be faced. There could be no delay, at least, not in the opinion of Alistair, Liz, and Jo.
Liz interrupted her husband, her voice coaxing: “Sarah, perhaps you should rest before we serve dessert. You could have a lovely lie down.”
All three of them, even Jo, whose eyes were still bruised but who could see faintly, looked at her, waiting for her to agreeably get up and leave.
Sarah Jane shook her head. “No,” she said clearly. “I have to know. Just like you.”
Alistair thought for a moment. Then he said, haltingly, apologetically, “It’s just that, we don’t think it’s quite appropriate for you to go into that place.”
“It was appropriate the first time, Alistair.”
“But it made you very sick,” Liz told her.
“Well it was far worse on you two, wasn’t it?” She looked at them, and Jo looked down.
“But we were taken in against our will,” he began.
“Whoever goes in there suffers. And if I suffer, I still may have to go. You can exclude me from the mission when it’s time. But I should at least know what to do.” She glanced at the two of them and then at Jo. “Because now we know that things can go wrong. We can lose somebody. And I should be able to fill in.”
“Your gift is sacred—“ Liz began, her voice sad more than anything else.
“Liz,” she said quietly. “The gift doesn’t exclude me from the same duty that you have: to do good and protect the innocent.”
For a moment, a very long moment to Sarah Jane, the three of them were silent, looking at her and waiting for somebody else to speak. Then Alistair said, “Well we’ve lost our only advantage: the element of surprise. I don’t see how we can get inside without being stopped within ten feet of the doors.”
“We shall have to find another way to surprise them,” Liz said immediately. “We developed the hornets. We can develop something else.”
“What exactly were the hornets supposed to do?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Get inside through the air intakes,” Alistair told her. “Follow behind the zips and lorries and get through the perimeter. They were to land on anything that generated any type of signal, in clusters. Once in place, on a cue from us, they were to send out their own counter frequencies. It would have frozen the electronic systems within seconds. No surveillance response, no information pipeline, no alarms.”
“And then we could get inside and set off the impulse grenades,” Liz said. “One massive, timed burst of magnetic energy: a wave rolling outward. It would have brought down everything: erased it all.”
“How did you plan to escape?” Sarah asked.
“If the pulse failed, the hornets could have attacked on command from the off-site controller,” Alistair said. “They were preprogrammed to identify us and leave us alone. Wasn’t a sure bet we’d get out, but a chance.”
“But if the pulse were to succeed, it would knock out the hornets with everything else,” Sarah said. “What would you have done then?”
Liz shook her head. Alistair said, “That wasn’t in the plan. We cannot survive and defeat them. So we just have to defeat them.”
There was a short silence as Liz and Alistair looked at each other. “And that’s why—“ Liz began, looking at Sarah.
“Liz!’ Sarah exclaimed. Liz looked down.
“Look, there’s no use worrying or wondering about dying inside now,” Jo said, sounding almost like her old self. “Now Alistair and Liz can’t get inside at all. Not unless we come up with another plan.”
“But wouldn’t it have taken ages to manufacture the hornets?” Sarah Jane asked.
Alistair shook his head. “Five thousand hornets were sufficient. I mean, money is hardly a problem any more. We’ve inherited from our spouses, our own children, our nephews and nieces. Every time I’ve changed identities I’ve had to leave some behind in accounts under my old name, but there’s still plenty, what with investing.”
“Yes, those trips to the 21st century back in 1970 were a bit of insider knowledge,” Jo added. “I just remembered the billboards and labels and invested in those companies when they went public.”
Sarah Jane nodded. That had been her method as well.
“So I put up the money with a little secret lab,” Alistair said. “They can produce a hundred in a day. We had the full supply ready to go. Benny was testing them for us.” He cocked an eyebrow. “In fact those silly techs put in a lot more bells and whistles once they got the idea. I told them to take them right out again.”
“No, the idea should be simple,” Liz added. “They’re barbed, to be able to attach into cabling, walls, even softer metals. And they generate a frequency range, and they can identify targets, though they need some controlling guidance to act—somebody to push the buttons.”
Alastair, his eyes lowered in thought, cocked an eyebrow again. “They were designed for flight—“
“From Day one,” Jo said. “Decades ago, when the Master tried to use them. That’s where we got the basic design. Remember?”
“Yes. But I wonder, if we added some weight to them, dispensed with the aerial capabilities. You see, there are other insect pathways,” Alistair said. “Not every insect enters a house through the air.”
Liz realized his point. “But Darling, the hornets are submicronic: developed in ovens where their logic components are grown from crystallization processes. It’s impossible to use that method to develop any type of ambulatory system for something that small.”
“Ambulatory?” He was startled. “Ah! Creepy crawlies! No, I wasn’t thinking of that at all—“
‘You mean through the water system?” And now Liz’s interest was piqued. “There are filters, of course, several levels of filtering—“
“But water filtering these days uses membranous filters,” Sarah Jane said. “I did a story on it years and years ago, when reverse osmosis was new.”
“There’s nothing all that protective in the filtering system,” Alistair told them. “An agent—an insect, if you will--that can swim and attack the filter screens could cut right through them and get into the water system. It could spin like a drill bit and get through.”
“Yes, but then it would go into piping, under the structures,” Liz added “What good is that, except to clog the toilets?”
“We could arm the water hornets with cargo, something to clog up the entire water system and cause the pressure to build until the pipes burst—“
“So the facilities would be distracted, but probably not disabled,” she told him.
“Then load up the water hornets with something else,” Jo said. “Worse than pipe cloggers.”
For a moment they all stopped and looked defeated. Then Liz suddenly added, “We can load the water hornets with material that becomes an acid when released into water. And that will be easy, even in small payloads. We shan’t burst the pipes but eat through them.”
Alastair brightened at once. “Yes, and eat away all those cables in the walls and in the cable runways.”
Liz inclined her head. “Precisely. The water hornets will go in and release acid forming bacteria into the piping. It won’t take long. The bacteria will multiply geometrically and keep producing acidic waste until there’s no more water to sustain them. The acid will eat through everything within the walls. That should bring the facility systems down.”
“Then the current design has to change,” Alistair said. “Our lads can do that, but it will take time.”
“And we have to obtain the materials for the payload,” Liz told him. “I mean, it’s all very well to talk about acid-forming bacteria, but now we have to find some. And cultivate it.”
Jo waved that away. “There are other groups that are in sympathy with the Protection Societies. Benny and I can contact them. They can help us.”
By “other groups,” Jo could mean only one thing: anarchists. The discussion was now firmly on illegal footing. And Sarah realized that, even if they should escape the tech sweeps, even if it worked out that she never did enter the facility, she would still be arrested when all was done. Techno-terrorism, and threatening the public welfare by interfering with the progress of Research, both carried hefty sentences. And, of course, it would not take long in prison for her to be picked out as a long liver. Sooner or later, she was going to end up a captive of the tech sweeps, just not these particular tech sweeps.
“It’s only going to start all over again,” she said. “Even if we’re successful. Ultimately, we’ll all be captured and have all the knowledge we’ve ever seen ripped from us.”
“There are other components of the plan,” Alistair told her. “And nobody knows every component. But if we can bring down this research facility, we can start a chain reaction that will impair the tech sweeps and stop this mad dash to infallibility and immortality.”
The revelation startled her. She looked at Jo. “Other components? Other players? Other groups? How big is all of this?” She hesitated. “These Protection Societies…are they mere fronts? Are they terrorist organizations?”
“They’re organizations dedicated to restoring humanity to dignity and kindness,” Jo said. “Not terror. But yes, there is more to them than the legal system knows.”
“They found us,” Alistair said. “They saved us.”
“Jo saved you. Your old friend saved you. I saved you—“ she began.
“But we have saved others,” Jo told her. “And it was the Protection Society who first homed in on them, and that was how I found out about them.”
“You’ve got to explain all of it, or none at all,” Liz said suddenly. “Tell Sarah Jane.”
Sarah Jane looked from one to the other of them. “Tell me what?”
Jo and Liz looked at Alistair. “The world’s population is decreasing, Sarah Jane,” he said. “Haven’t you realized that? When were you last in London?”
She had to stop and think. London, the busyness of city life, the theatres, restaurants and other diversions meant very little to her now. “Almost 20 years ago, I should say.”
“Even then, did you not notice the airy quality? The roomier buildings replacing the old narrow constructions?”
“It was part of the Environmental Restructuring,” she told him.
“It occurred because there were far fewer people,” he said back to her. “Mankind is not producing enough to sustain the population—“
“But nobody’s forced—“
“No, but they’re conditioned. It was all supposed to be for the good of the planet. But it’s past that now, if that ever was a genuine motive.”
“But why are you blaming the tech sweeps?” she asked.
Liz spoke: “The tech sweeps are just a part of it, Sarah Jane. The world has fallen prey to democracy, raw democracy. The majority keeps winning. People kept voting in what they wanted, and the big political machines set up the votes. So poverty was voted out---“
“By financing poor people to accept permanent contraception,” Jo added. “And abortion on demand.”
Liz nodded. “Yes, in lovely, resort-like settings, with plenty of free tranquilizers and narcotics and lifetime plans to stay on them.”
“So poverty was done away with, and technology performs the menial tasks,” Alistair added. “And then, nature was preserved. The best lands have been cleared of their human populations, and those populations were relocated and also given their rewards for no longer producing offspring. It’s all been very gradual. But we are left with a worldwide population of educated, fairly wealthy, free and democratic people who are neither free, nor all that democratic, once they take their votes.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that the plight of the long-lived elderly has been brought before the judiciary twice before now,” Alistair said. “There have been pleas for investigations, but these are turned away for ‘lack of evidence’.”
“And you cannot get evidence until you investigate,” Liz added.
“Soon,” Jo said. “The voluntary nature of it will be done away with. There will be votes by the wealthy, affluent, and most highly educated, and everybody else will have to obey the popular vote.”
“But what’s the point?” Sarah asked.
“To save the world for a small, privileged fraction that will turn it into their private garden,” Alistair told her. “All they need, to make it all go forward, is a better assurance that they can make themselves immortal. And even if we were to kill ourselves to prevent that, we still could not assure that there are not naturally occurring long livers from which the secrets could be extracted.”
“And ROR will put everything, all human knowledge, even the knowledge that ordinary people don’t know they know, into the hands of the elite,” Liz added. “The nannites, the psycho-therapies that use ROR, the free medical care facilities: they are all gathering up all the information this world has stored up across millions of different people, and they are handing it over to the elite that runs the large corporations and governments.”
“So when they have enough information,” Jo said. “We expect that they will simply begin to exterminate the remainder of the diminished population. The elite can retreat to the remote islands of the Pacific and unleash whatever agents they choose to cleanse the earth: nannites, or a real plague, or poison, or something we’ve never even dreamed of.”
“Then the technology cleans it all up,” Alistair finished. “Or it may be done in such a way that there’s very little mess: some specific virus or bacteria unleashed in people from within, from nannites they have willingly inhaled. If it’s flesh eating, the decay process would be complete within a few years.”
Sarah had no answer. She had holed herself away, and she knew it. But as she considered, she began to remember that, when she had first purchased and refurbished this great old house, decades ago, there had been simply more people, more day to day contact with people, even out here in the country.
Sarah stood up. “I don’t know,” she said. “This means that we would have to kill as well.”
“Our goal is to destroy a technological infrastructure,” Alistair told her. “We can try to avoid bloodshed. But their purpose is to destroy the non-privileged, the merely ordinary. All people not in the elite.”
“And we fight them the same way?”
Liz stared at her, eyes stricken by this assessment. “Not at all,” Liz exclaimed. “We fight by destroying the technology.”
“You don’t know what these people will do to their fellow man,” Alistair told her.
“If we generate a great magnetic pulse from the inside of that place,” Sarah said, thinking it out. “Anybody with a life support system implanted in their heart or lungs will die. I mean, if its powerful enough to overcome the shielding on the information systems, it will overcome all device shielding—“
“And all the medical research prisoners will then be freed,” Jo replied. “All the people who would have died by being submerged in ice water or put under high pressure, or losing air, or being exposed to pathogens, for no other reason than that they are naturally long livers, will be spared.” She was also staring at Sarah Jane, her eyes horrified, but not like Liz. Jo was horrified by Sarah Jane’s reluctance. “Who are we not to do this?” Jo asked.
“Well what do we do when they’re gasping for air and begging for help?” Sarah asked her, not raising her voice, with an effort.
Everybody was silent at the question, but Sarah could see they were not swayed. At last Alistair said, “We finish what we came to do.”
“We would be like them. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to fight that way.” She turned, abruptly. “No decision has to be reached tonight. I’m going to bed.”
But Jo stood up. “Do you think because you’ve locked yourself away for ten years that you’ll be allowed to avoid it? To save yourself? Do you think you can close your eyes to it like you’ve closed your eyes up to now?”
“Jo!” Liz exclaimed.
“Good night,” Sarah said. She walked out without looking at them.
* * * *
She had a knot in her stomach. She entered her small bedroom and changed, trying not to think. They were still talking downstairs, their voices low and not articulate from the floor above.
Sarah crawled into bed, holding her stomach, and the lights dimmed. She lay, still and frozen in her mid-section, for a long time. Then she realized that the voices had stopped. The discussion had ended. Her door opened a crack, and she felt no fear. She knew it would be Liz.
“Sarah?” Liz asked. But Sarah closed her eyes.
“All right,” Liz whispered. She crossed the room, and Sarah didn’t speak or act as Liz gently settled the soothing hot pack over her hard, hurting midsection and waited as the heat seeped in. Liz hesitated and then rested a hand on Sarah’s forehead. “It’s all right.”
“We would take their lives from them,” Sarah said, and she was surprised when a sob escaped from her. She opened her eyes.
“No decision has to be made tonight,” Liz said gently. “I’m going to wrap your feet. Don’t be overwrought.” She covered Sarah and then went to the foot of the bed and lifted the duvet and blanket from her feet. The air in the room was cool, and when Liz wrapped the warm towel around her foot, it was comforting.
“Don’t hold onto it, Sarah Jane,” Liz said. “The Mercy that found you, saved you, and has used you won’t desert you now. If you are commanded to stay back, then stay back.” Her voice was slow and calm, and Sarah felt that urge to sob and be angry and have hurt feelings diminish. “And if,” Liz said. “That Mercy commands you to tell us differently, obey it. But make sure it is the Mercy that is prompting you, and not human reticence.” She carefully rubbed Sarah’s foot, then dried it, covered it, and began on the other one.
Now genuine sleepiness washed over her, but she made herself focus and answer: “It’s the human race. It always does this. If we intercept this evil, people just make new evil. Maybe…maybe the only way to work is to stop resisting.”
“Stop resisting evil?” Liz asked gently.
“Like Jesus didn’t answer back. That way. Resist evil in ourselves but be harmless.”
“I see.” She finished the foot, dried it, and covered it.
She came to the head of the bed and rested her hand on Sarah’s forehead. “I don’t know, dear. I hadn’t thought about the people we would surely harm, because I was thinking about the difficulties of creating the magnetic pulse. But I was also thinking of the people I have seen suffer, the people with whom I have suffered. They are suffering now. They will be suffering when we open our eyes in the morning. I’m not sure that there is a way to take either path in a way that avoids suffering. But I don’t want to be simply pragmatic. I want to be merciful.”
“Yes Liz.” And now Sarah’s voice was chastened.
“But there are more stars in the heaven than Fomalhaut. There is Algol, and Antares, and even Michael with his sword.” She sat down on the edge of the bed. She looked weary and wise and noble and unshaken to Sarah Jane. “We’ll pray,” Liz said softly. “I’ll go first.” She bowed her head, but after a long moment of silence, Sarah Jane realized that she wasn’t praying out loud. So Sarah waited, wondering when she should pray.
But gradually, the warmth from her feet, the warmth on her stomach that was letting her insides settle down again, and the small spot of warmth where Liz’s hand rested on her head, all seeped together. And she quietly drifted into sleep.
“The strong man intercepts the fist…like this,” the Chinese man said. He looked old and frail and leaned on a cane. But as Liz Shaw, a very young Liz Shaw, eyes huge with curiosity and a touch of fear, threw a straight punch at his face, his boney hand caught her fist, and with one quick twist, he made her groan and fall back, holding her hand close, tears of pain in her eyes.
“Can you intercept the fist so ably?” he asked her.
“No Sifu.” She made herself straighten up, but as Sarah Jane watched, Sarah could see that Liz felt some regret about asking for this lesson. But now she was afraid to try to excuse herself from it.
“What? No? Then why should you propose violence if you lack the means to be violent?” he asked her.
“I want to know if violence is right or wrong,” she said. “How it is right or wrong.”
“Right or wrong!” He said it with a tone of derision. “What do the young know of right and wrong? Tell me, is love making right or wrong? Is it right or wrong when a man makes love to his wife? Is it right or wrong when a man overpowers a woman and defiles her? Even if he calls that love?”
“It can be used rightly or wrongly,” she said.
“Yes, but if a woman loves a man and devotedly gives herself to him as his wife, and he used her beauty and charm to ingratiate himself with the wealthy. And thus as he rises in life he oppresses the people beneath him, is she still right? Or wrong?”
“She doesn’t know—“
“What does that have to do with it?” he asked. “Perhaps she ought to know.”
“Nobody can know every outcome—“
“Ah!” He raised his hand. “So she cannot know all outcomes, even of her most well intended behaviors. So what can she do? What can any person do?” He beckoned to her. “You! Defend against my punch. Ready!”
Sarah felt a small thrill of admiration as she saw the elegant Liz raise her hands as an experienced fighter would, even though her eyes betrayed her fear. And Sarah felt Liz’s realization that he would strike hard enough to cause her pain. He shot out a punch, a quick snap, but even Sarah could see that it was not meant to be so fast that Liz could not deflect it. Liz slammed her opposite forearm into his wrist as she swerved her head sideways, the rich reddish hair flipping out like a wave.
He stopped, and after a moment, he rubbed his arm and smiled ruefully. “Why did you hit so hard?”
“To block the punch, Sifu,” she told him.
“So much force. It is called striking the corners. A third of that power would have ably deflected the punch, but because you fear my ability to punch, and because I can punch harder and faster than you, then you resort to violent defense. You must bruise the enemy who is stronger or smarter than you. You must. If you let him stay on his footing, he will defeat you. So you strike hard in blocking. You scrape him with your feet; you do everything to wear at him with pain.”
“So violence is necessary,” she said.
He straightened up and leaned on his cane. “Violence is unavoidable to the weak, the imperiled, the desperate. And anybody may be weak, imperiled, or desperate. They must resort to violence. So the time to consider outcomes and violence is long before violence threatens you. At the very beginning, when you take up a matter, know if the gamble of violence is worth the risk.”
He paused. Liz dipped her head, and Sarah felt another throb of admiration for her: this brilliant scientist, physician, and researcher, who could step out of those roles to understand a completely different way of life and mindset. “Yes Sifu.”
“But the stronger, wiser, and craftier you become, the more you can afford to avoid violence. And that is better, for everybody else, and also for you.” He looked around. “The sun is halfway between midheaven and setting. You should invite me in for tea.”
“Yes Sifu, please come inside.”
* * * *
“How is she?” Alistair asked as Liz slid under the covers and came into his arms.
“Sleeping. Unsure. Troubled.”
“And how are you?”
She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of him: the moistness of his breathing, his cologne, the menthol rub that he insisted on using on his chest every night. “I’m all right now.” She opened her eyes, smiled, and slipped her hands up around his face. “You cheer me up.”
He kissed her forehead and then the tip of her nose. Then he asked, “Should we re-calculate? Have we gone wrong in adopting a plan that may harm others? Even the people who are mistreating and killing our own?”
She let out her breath and looked up at him: his hazel eyes and the scanty gray hair that had once been so rich and black.
“What do you think?” he asked her.
“I am not eager to kill. And yet, there can be no real victory against such an entrenched danger without real risk, real warfare, and that means real killing.” Her voice was sober, but certain. “We are going to have to make people suffer, the people who made us suffer.”
“And yet we are commanded to forgive them. And if we could,” she added. “If we could love our enemies, we would have in hand the power that will raise us from the dead.”
He arched an eyebrow. “It’s the same power that raised Christ from the dead.”
Then they were both silent. At last he said, “Darling, having to fight a war is not the same thing as wanting to fight a war.”
“But we will kill them.” She still didn’t sound uncertain. Just sad.
“If we are successful, the older ones will die. The ones with implants.”
She lifted her eyes to his again. “Can you live with that, Alistair?”
He tried to force a smile at her forgetfulness. “I’ve sent my own men to their deaths, Elizabeth. In my other life, I was a Brigadier General. I have killed, as you well know.”
“Yes I---I forget about that sometimes.”
“Yes, I can kill. Not from heat or rage, but because no other path is open, and we must act. They are harming the innocent now. There have been exterminations already in remote places. We must act.” He paused. “And if God justly chooses to end our lives with theirs,” He hesitated, and then finished: “We will not complain or beg.”
“No,” she said quickly, her voice soft. It was a discussion they’d had before. “No. Nobody is meant to live forever, not in this estate. And if our lives are taken as we take theirs, I’ll accept it.” She slipped closer, fitted her head under his chin, closed her eyes, and breathed in.
“But not tonight,” he whispered.
“Are you comfortable?” she asked. “Can you sleep?”
“I’m very happy, here with you.” He stroked her hair until he felt her become drowsy. He thought he should pray, He felt responsible, with an archaic sense of being the man of the house that he thought even Liz might find funny, to pray for each of them. And tonight had been their first night of real disagreement and friction. So, as he felt her fall into sleep, he framed the words and began to pray in his head, but after a moment, the cadence of her breathing, her breath against his shoulder and chest, and the scent of her hair, all worked on him, and after a moment or two he was sliding away into peaceful sleep.
* * * *
Jo lay and listened to the quieting house. There had been no sound from Sarah’s room since she’d heard Liz softly close the door. And the murmur from the master bedroom had quickly become muted and then silent. She fingered the outer edges of her right eye and wondered at herself for raising her voice to the agent who had given her sight again.
“I ought to be condemned,” Jo thought, but it was an admission with very little real feeling. She knew perfectly well, had known for decades, that she’d never quite gotten it right with her life. She’d never put together all that the Doctor had been trying to tell her. She’d gone and married the wrong man on a whim, an empty and silly idealistic dream. Then when she’d married the right man, she’d gone without having children.
She’d always been thankful too late. Always hit upon the truth just when it did nobody any good. Always done the right thing just moments after it would have mattered the most. Forgiven her enemies with religious devotion but neglected her dearest friends. And so the realization that she had come to hard words with Sarah Jane sank in on her with less weight than others might have felt. For she had given up on ever getting it right decades ago. Now there was just the realization that she must mend the rift as best as she could. And she felt a certain pity for Sarah Jane, who would never be whole hearted about what had to be done.
But Jo knew that Sarah Jane would do it. Sarah would join them. It was the delay and hesitation that frayed Jo’s nerves at times. But she knew, in the end, that Sarah would act with them. Sarah would push the buttons that would kill, if she had to. When it came right down to Liz or the tech sweeps; or Alistair or the tech sweeps; or Jo herself or the tech sweeps, Sarah Jane would die to protect them, and she would kill to protect them. The great difficulty was in trying to protect her from having to make such choices.
Mike had been that way, in a sense. Yes, he would act with drastic necessity. But later, over the years, it ate at him. Guilt. Remorse. Shame over having killed, even killing the wicked. And, of course, Mike had inadvertently allowed the deaths of the innocent. But innocent and guilty weighed on him alike. Sarah would be like that.
The remarkable thing, Jo thought, was that she herself had become so able to tolerate all that she had to do to act on behalf of the innocent. She wasn’t especially able to shoot a man down in cold blood, not that anybody did such things any more. But she could push the button that would send out the magnetic pulse, without a qualm. Whoever it killed, it killed. There had to be an end to the genocide of the minority. There had to be a war to save them. And Jo could fight that war.
The warm, vulnerable, sweet Jo had gone someplace. Not dead, Jo thought, not entirely. For there were moments: like when Liz had first seen her here at the house and remembered both her grief and Jo’s capacity to console it, that Jo had felt her old self take over. Still alive in there somewhere. The warmth, the heartfelt tears of sorrow for another, they had rushed to the surface and she had been Jo again.
But she knew full well that most of the warmth she showed was from practice, not feeling. She loved her friends, but she didn’t feel the warmth of that love. It was almost like a dedication to running a marathon or training for a race. All that intensity and dedication, but no real feeling underneath, nothing beyond an ethical sense that all was as it should be, that she could let her intensity rest when her friends were safe and well.
Nor did she feel much grief for the decline of the original Jo. Even the sense that she was a fake troubled her far less than it should. Because when she looked at them, seated around the kitchen table, she felt that the rightness of that, the rightness of their peace, the rightness of Liz and Alistair coming back to wholeness, was right enough to require the sacrifice of her previous self. The original Jo could never have pulled off the rescues, never have engineered the plans to infiltrate so many of the elder care centers. And so the original Jo had to go away. And the new Jo, the metal Jo with the smooth, quiet engine, had to take her place. But her exterior still had to be the soft, endearing, whimsical exterior that the first model had worn.
She opened her eyes in the darkness and could not see well. So she closed them again and rolled over to work at going to sleep.
* * * *
Alistair had a great big beef burger in his hands, the kind you could never get any more. It was cooked just right, with the juices running onto the bun. Nobody was minding him as they clattered around this cafeteria. So he took a great bite of it. It was delicious. Even better than he remembered. His only regret, he thought as she chewed, was that he needed a really good beer to go with it. Something light like a lager.
And just then, Liz emerged from the people who were milling around and getting their food. She was carrying two bottles of lager, opened.
“Hello my darling. Did you want a beer?” she asked.
“Why this is perfect! You could have half of this!”
She sat down next to him. “A small half, then, thank you. It’s quite a lot.”
He obligingly broke the burger into a larger half and smaller half. “Wouldn’t you like anything else, my dear?” he asked her.
She set his bottle before him. “No, I have everything I want.”
He took another bite of the delicious burger, and she sipped the beer and looked at him with merry eyes, as though she thought his delight in this simple fare very sweet and endearing. It was so good to see her smile again. He realized that he had never been happier than this.
* * * *
Sarah opened her eyes as the clear autumn sunlight brightened the window. The house, she thought, felt tense now. Then she dismissed the thought as rubbish. She felt tense. The house was fine. But its residents could not escape each other. There had to be breakfast, and as they had never eaten separately before today, they would not do so today.
She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and sat up. Then she gave herself a mental shake. Jo’s eyes were still dim, and every other weight that each of them bore was still there. Whether they had separated last night with disappointment in each other and hard words or not, there was still the human neediness of each of them, herself included. No, she had to go down and meet the faces she had turned away from less than 12 hours ago. She made up her mind and then showered and dressed.
But the downstairs, as she came down the steps, was silent. For a moment she thought she was the first one up, but as she came around the corner, she saw Jo, seated on the sofa in the room that overlooked the garden: Fomalhaut’s room.
“Good morning Jo.” She could see that in the semi-dimness of the room, Jo could not see very well. Sarah slipped her hand across Jo’s eyes and smelled the fragrance of the room strengthen. “Were they hurting you?”
“No, just restlessness. I’m sorry about last night,” Jo said, but she didn’t lift her face from the comfort of the hand on her eyes. Sarah didn’t answer. It seemed to her that a sense of darkness, more profound than the darkness of injured eyesight, was coming into her hand. She could feel it, but not as a sensation. She felt it as a thought, a perception. For one brief instant she saw grief and resignation, and that intense dedication that she knew was Jo’s. But she had never guessed the rest.
“It’s all right, now,” Sarah whispered. “I’m sorry for my harshness, Jo. For being so shocked, so easily.” She held Jo’s head with her other hand. “For being so afraid of what’s next. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to go—“ and Jo would have moved the hand off of her eyes to speak, but Sarah moved her hand back into place, gently over the eyes, but without hesitation. If she couldn’t fight, she could jolly well heal, and she was going to do that much. And to her surprise, she felt Jo almost laugh in surprise. Jo had sensed the thought.
“Do you know what I’m thinking?” Sarah asked.
“I did just then,” Jo said. “Came through my eyes. Through your hand.”
“All right.” She quieted herself, made her mindset gentle, and felt Jo become quieter in response. So the odd telepathy was at work.
“This is new,” Sarah said after a moment.
“The mercy at work?” Jo asked.
“Yes. The actions of mercy are always new, always adjusting to the needs of the moment. But it’s always the same mercy.”
“Let me try to see, Sarah. You can take your hand away, I think.”
Sarah did as she asked. “How is it?”
Jo blinked up at her. “Better. Not perfect, but better.” Footsteps from above told them that Alistair, the heaviest footed of them, was walking about.
“We should see to breakfast,” Sarah said.
Guilt, Sarah had learned was not supposed to have any place in the mindset of the Christian. Maybe that’s why it all came out in her cooking. Stacks of crisp waffles, hand whipped heavy cream in a bowl, sweet butter, shaved bitter chocolate, chopped nuts, scrambled eggs with onions and bits of mushrooms, toast and butter and jam, and sausage were all on the table, with the coffee ready and the tea carafe in its place, when Liz and Alistair came down.
“Oh what a lovely feast!” Liz exclaimed at sight of the loaded table. And then the fragrance wrapped itself over all of them. Even Sarah smelled it. Alistair said, “Well let me ask the blessing over the food.” And he reached out, blindly for a moment. Sarah grasped his hand, guided it to Jo’s hand, and then took Jo’s other hand and joined hands to Liz.
“Father, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful,” Alistair said. And the weight of those words, even with the fragrance all around them, steadied them. They sat down and began to eat. For several long moments, nobody said anything as they passed the bowls and plates back and forth. None of them knew what to say. And the food was so good it was distracting. Then it became so good that they forgot about talking. And then, as they enjoyed it, their shyness slipped away, and they began to talk about cheerful things. For a half hour or so it was at it had been on most mornings. But Sarah realized it was the beginning of the end of that happy season.
Quietly, without any more struggle, she understood that she had to join them. She had to fight, too. And she knew that they understood that as well. Peace, when it comes like a season, ends, she thought. She was not good enough to have the changeless inner peace of the heavenly creature she had seen. And outer peace, this happy, recuperative time they had shared, could not last forever in a world of pain. Sooner or later, it had to end. But better to grasp one’s fate than run from it.
“There is just one cup of coffee left, and it’s got your name on it,” Jo said, and demonstrated her improved vision by pouring the coffee faultlessly, though slowly, into Sarah’s cup.