It was all very well to talk about changing the design of aerial “hornets,” as the four of them called the mechanized invaders, to submarine hybrids; and it was all very well to talk about culturing acid-forming bacteria. But in reality, drafting, prototyping, unit testing, and producing first runs of both the engineered and biological sides of their weapon took weeks. The sun emerged from Libra into volatile and dangerous Scorpio. The leaves outside fell away, and cold rain and winds stripped the trees and dulled the grass.
Nothing could be done on traceable media, so Alistair and Benny built a drafting table, a venerable and heavy edifice for real, paper drafting. And Liz showed them how to construct the wire and steel framework that would help assure precision. She calibrated the steel edges of the machined strips of metal herself to keep measurements exact.
Sarah despaired of finding other necessary tools, but Benny hunted up hand crafting artists and purchased fine-pointed pencils and erasers from them.
At first, the discussions on where to get materials and how much risk to allow for pressure, heat, etc., were as animated and friendly as any they had ever shared over tea and beer after supper. Sarah Jane pushed away dismal thoughts of what it was all going to lead to, a bloodless but deadly coup to free her own elderly peers. For the moment, they were a team again, the happy team of over a century ago, solving the great difficulty, working from the highest motives of assuring the freedom and safety of the helpless. Only now, there were no ego problems at all. Nobody shuffled aside the opinions of others.
Benny, she soon realized, was almost as mathematically brilliant as Liz herself, though hampered by the Aspergers Syndrome. They all worked to be kind to him, but Benny himself could withstand only so much human interaction, and then he had to extricate himself or else become irritable. Over time, the effects of being with Sarah Jane seemed to help him, but he was still Benny.
It was too dangerous for him now to return to his little bungalow, and Sarah invited him to stay. But he declined. He borrowed a tiny, single-room studio from a friend and lived there in anonymity. The farting kept the neighbors out, and so few people asked him questions about where he had come from. Some days he would stay to supper at Sarah’s house, eating, laughing, and farting away. And other days he would leave promptly by tea time, as though avoiding any truly personal contact. It exhausted him if it came in big doses.
But the happy productive days of team work eventually waned. Alistair, as project lead, eventually stopped communicating the finer details of the plan to them. When it came right down to the day itself, they would all know what to do. But for security, they agreed that final plans would be made known, revised, and memorized only at the very end, right before they went into action. So Alistair locked himself away in the upstairs bedroom at Sarah’s old writing desk and learned and relearned the operations and construction of the site they planned to infiltrate.
Just as the sun moved from secretive Scorpio into the intelligent, educated sign of Sagittarius, the intricacies of working out the algorithms to develop the bacteria in the final fermentation phase fell solely to Liz. She also had the final changes of the “water hornets” as Jo called them, to make and approve. By this time, even Benny could no longer follow the intricacies of physics and bio-chemistry to help her. And so she took over the downstairs study and the drafting table. Benny returned to his semi-hermit, gathering information that Liz needed, and looking for materials for the project. Jo could now be identified by the tech sweep security forces, and so Sarah became the factotum. She took the tiny Zip out to meet Benny in his new quarters and pick up samples for Liz or drawings for Alistair.
“I’ve got to send you to one of the black marketers,” Benny told her one day.
“Me?” she asked. “Alone?”
“He’s an old chemist. He won’t hurt you. He’s trying to finalize the nutritional broth for the bacteria for Liz. He has to turn over the samples and his latest test results.”
“Well if you know him, can’t you go?” she asked.
“You know the rules: twice only and then 10 weeks off,” he reminded her. His voice was cross. “It’s dangerous for me to be around those blokes. The security forces are looking for me. If I get pinched, they get pinched too. And you know I’d give in. And then Jo and the rest of you would get pinched soon enough. You’ve got to go.”
“As though I wouldn’t break too, if I were to get pinched,” she told him.
Her retort annoyed him more than she had ever seen before. “That gift that’s on you will protect you,” he told her, as though amazed that she should doubt that she enjoyed perfect safety and perfect immunity from all danger. “It has so far.”
She realized with a slight jolt that they had all been subjected to pain from the tech sweeps. All except her. Even Benny had bashed his knuckles and sprained a wrist fighting them. But she had never been harmed, never even detected.
Cor, no wonder they think I’m enchanted, she thought. But she could not argue further.
“All right,” she said.
“Tell him you’ve come to ask why your honey bees are dying off. And offer him a chocolate bar.” And he passed her an ordinary, at least at first inspection, bar of chocolate.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Got a key in it, an encoded strip that will give him electronic access to his payment.”
“Wouldn’t cash be safer?”
“Not if he’s caught with a bag of notes. That would be downright suspicious, wouldn’t it?” He threw an exasperated glance at the door. “Off you go. Good luck.”
There was no other complaint to make. She simply had to go. So she slid behind the wheel of the Zip and glumly piloted it down the magnetized road to locate the chemist. Jo, she knew, never worried about danger. Anyway, she never seemed to. Or she always had some sort of backup plan ready. It amazed her, given her remarkable lack of ability to maneuver in this world of elderly outlaws, youthful anarchists, illegal chemists, and the ever vigilant tech sweeps, that her own friends would just plunge her into it without any preparation. Nobody worried about her. After all, she had this remarkable gift. They thought it equipped her for anything.
And it went against her instincts to be doing this in broad daylight. Jo had painstakingly explained to her that operating at night was for amateurs. The tech sweeps were so good at vigilance and surveillance that night and day no longer mattered when it came to covert operations. They tracked body heat, heartbeat, and breathing. The best times to act were breakfast times and tea times, for even now in this modern age, people were still distracted by fatigue and the thought of food.
But it felt dangerous. And there were no back streets any more, no dark corners to meet and make transactions. Poverty had been done away, and industry was now automated, clean, and hygienic. She realized with a slight jolt that this was another evidence of what Alistair had told her. The population was diminishing. The output of goods was abundant over demand. Businesses could automate to the final degree, no longer worried that a spike in demand or rise in population would force them to expand with crude, ready-made machinery and manual labor.
She gazed at the gray, early winter countryside, the occasional trees, now bare but stately and graceful, the tidy bungalows and their fallow gardens. This, she thought, was the sign of tyranny, the sign that the population had been given a death sentence and would slowly be eradicated. Could such evil, she thought, as she scanned the sky above, now clouding up for a winter rain, could such evil really be in power?
She navigated to the correct address, a bungalow that was just a shade less blandly cheerful than the others she had passed. One of the front windows was cracked: a rarity, given the superior performance of modern glass. She parked, exited the Zip, and as she walked up to the front door, she wondered at what forcible explosion from within the place had cracked that glass? Expert chemist indeed.
Nobody opened at her approach. As she lifted her hand to knock, she heard a noise off to her right. Something dark and big flitted past her vision on that side. Before she could knock or ring, the door opened and she was shoved through from behind. She fell over the threshold and landed face down on the wooden floor. The force of the shove sent her sliding forward on the smoothly polished hardwood.
“Here now,” an older voice said in shocked protest. “She’s come knocking.”
“Who the hell is she?” another, younger voice said, coming in behind her.
Nobody made a move to help her up, so Sarah shakily stood up of her own volition.
“Why did you do that?” she asked the young, dark haired man in the executive clothing who now faced her.
With agile expertise, he strode up against her, slipped two fingers into her side pocket, and twitched out the candy bar. He passed it to the older man.
“We may as well let her have the results,” the old man began, his voice conciliatory. Sarah glanced at him. She took in the perfectly ordinary front room: furniture, pictures on the walls, a vase of artificial flowers. And she felt the points of impact where she had hit the floor: knees and shins starting to smart, twinges in the fronts of her shoulders, sudden pain in both forearms. And her toes, unexpectedly, hurt.
The young man pushed his arm like a bar across her throat and pressed her back into the wall. “You know, for an old thing, you’re halfway still attractive,” he told her. His breath fell down her face.
Her voice came out with far more command then she felt. “Get off of me. You don’t know your own danger.”
“For heaven’s sake, David. She’s an ally!” the old man exclaimed, but he made no other move to protect her.
Without quite turning to him, her captor said, “We have the money. It’s nothing to get rid of her, say she never came, and demand another payment for the work.” He scanned her face, and then he stroked her chin with his other hand. “I know a dozen places to get rid of her body.”
“What do you even need that much money for?” she asked.
He pushed his forearm harder into her throat, cutting off her air. She looked up at him. She had time only to notice that she felt far less fear than she would have thought. More like a determined curiosity, a need to look into his eyes and see what he was, why he was doing this. He met her eyes with his, glaring down at her with a sneering self satisfaction. But then the forearm eased off just a hair, allowing some breath, but not enough. She had to struggle to breathe, but he didn’t want to kill her right away.
She stared up at him, searching his gaze, rapidly looking. But she couldn’t find anything beyond the resentment, the need to be powerful, the burning anger against anything beautiful and fragile. She sorted through the emotions in his eyes swiftly, looking for that point of contact, while her own vision began to redden from the insufficient air.
From a great distance, she heard the old man whimper a senseless question, “What is it?”
She heard a great roaring, but it was the roaring of her pulse, and she knew it. In a moment she would pass out, and then he would do as he liked.
But then he fell away, right onto the floor, on his back. She nearly fell forward, pulled in a great breath, and caught herself. He skittered backwards on his elbows, away from her, his eyes suddenly amazed and fearful. She took in another breath, felt a moment’s nausea, and only then did the elderly man step forward to help her before she fell. “What is it? What is it?” the old man asked her.
She meant to say, “I don’t know what you mean,” but nothing came out.
The old man saw that she could stand, and he hurried out of the room, through a doorless doorway that led to the back of the small dwelling. She turned and looked at the younger man. He had backed away, still on the floor, halfway across the front room, his eyes still fixed on her with that amazed fear. He had one hand half raised, as though poised to cover his face.
“It’s my nephew; it’s my nephew,” the older man said, returning with a sealed plastic box that said PHOTOSENSITIVE FLOWER SEEDS on the side. “He has strange ideas. I’ll help you. We’ll load some potting soil and flower pots into your vehicle. You take this. It’s got what your scientist needs.”
Again, Sarah heard herself speak, her voice far more under control than she felt: “All right.” She took the container that held the electronic results of his testing and the broth samples.
He rushed out, not looking her in the face. She turned to the young man on the floor. She tried to ask him what had happened, but no words came out. She crossed to him to see if he was all right.
“No don’t, please! I’m sorry!” he exclaimed. “I’m sorry! Don’t do it!”
He threw his face into his arm. She stopped. Then she said, without thinking, “I won’t hurt you. I’ll go.”
“I’ll stop,” he said into his arm. “I’ll stop, I promise.”
“All right, but I will hold you to that,” she said. “Don’t dare break your word on that.”
He began to sob, but he nodded, still keeping his eyes hidden in his arm.
She straightened, still unable to figure out what had happened, and then she walked out. The older man was just closing up the back of the Zip. “There you are. Anybody asks, you just got some special hybrids from me for a greenhouse project.”
“All right,” she said. She felt dazed. She would have gotten into the Zip with her precious cargo, but he stopped her, his face anxious and frightened.
“Will he be all right?”
“Tell him not to break his promise to me,” she said. “Over time, he’ll be all right. But only so long as he keeps his promise.”
“I’ll tell him.” He dipped his head and hurried away.
Sarah slid into the Zip, set the package onto the floor in back, and turned the vehicle around. She sped away. It was not until she arrived back at her own home that her hands began to shake, and she sobbed a few teary sobs over what had almost happened and the bizarre ending. The wintry skies let loose with a sudden burst of cold rain over the Zip. She sat inside the vehicle and shed her tears.
Everybody inside the great house was busy, and so nobody even noticed that the Zip had returned and was sitting in the drive in the pouring rain. Sarah Jane finally collected herself and wiped her eyes. She wished for a cup of good strong coffee and an hour or two of silence. Or perhaps Italian opera playing over the sound system.
What she really wanted was her solitude, and the normalcy of a rainy winter afternoon, and the comfort of coffee and music. Then she abruptly took up the sealed parcel and opened the door. She knew full well that the moment she entered the house that she would love her friends and want them with her. These rambling thoughts would undo her.
She scrambled out into the cold rain. It revived her. She closed the door and ran for the house, the parcel under her arm.
* * * *
Jo met her in the kitchen. “Hullo you! I’ve just taken tea all around for everybody. Can I make you a cup?”
“Could it be coffee, Jo?”
“Of course. In a jif!” Jo hurried to the cupboards. “You get everything all right?”
“Yes. Ever been to that man’s place?”
“No. Never had dealing with him before. He all right?”
“I think so.” She barely hesitated. “Got a nephew who’s a loose canon.”
“Did they give you the materials?” And now Jo was concerned. About the materials. She paused to look at Sarah Jane.
Sarah held up the parcel. “Right here. Right as rain.”
“You’d better take it in to Liz. I’ll have your coffee ready in a minute.” And Jo went back to the cupboards.
Sarah passed through to the tiny study where, once upon a time, she had held her final elaborate devotions in the hopes that Fomalhaut would come and take her away. She felt acutely embarrassed by the memory now. All this suffering and she had simply wanted to leave. Of all the people manifestly unfit to have ever written a Pulitzer Prize winning book on the effects of mercy in restraining society’s evils, she was the very least fit. All that intellectual understanding, even an endowment of Mercy as a gift, but not very much where it mattered: in her heart and mindset.
She tapped on the door and entered. Liz, looking remarkably like the younger version of herself that Sarah remembered, eyes intent on her paperwork, face revealing only complete focus, looked up. For a moment, that harsh, impatient annoyance that Sarah also recognized flashed across Liz’s eyes and face. “Yes Sarah?” she said, keeping her voice calm and polite, and Sarah knew it was with an effort. So the former Liz was not entirely burned away by suffering.
“The samples,” Sarah said.
“Of course dear, put them on the shelf there if you will. Please let Jo know that I won’t need anything until supper, will you?”
It was a dismissal, the most courteous one that Liz could manufacture when she was trying to think something out.
“Certainly,” Sarah said. She set the parcel down. “See you at supper.”
Liz didn’t answer as she returned her attention to her work, and Sarah exited.
She decided that she hated being a paragon. She was too ashamed to sit and have a good pout, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to do. Jo met her in the hallway with a tray. “Nothing better on a rainy afternoon,” Jo said cheerily.
It was laid out with the coffee pot, two slender beakers, and large wedges of chocolate torte. Sarah followed her to the sitting room.
“Now you sit there, and we’ll while away the afternoon with some good old gossip about the old days!’ Jo said. “Nothing but monsters and adventures. No sad business.”
“All right, then.” Sarah realized that she had not openly and candidly discussed her travels with the Doctor in over a century. She sat down and reached for the beaker that Jo passed her.
“Oh!” Sarah exclaimed, as her arm protested. “Oh dear.” She pulled back and rubbed her right shoulder.
“Sarah what is it?” Jo asked.
“I—I fell, Jo. I caught myself on shins, knees, and forearms. But the shoulders took a good jarring from it.”
“Fell? What made you fall? Are you dizzy?” And Jo peered at her and then waved at one of the lamps in the dim room. It instantly brightened.
“Well, to be truthful, I was pushed.”
“That old chemist?” And Jo’s mouth opened in surprise. “He went to shoving you around?”
“No, his nephew. Young bloke. Very nattily dressed. Pushed me right down for a how-do-you-do, and then suggested that they kill me and relay back to you that I had never come. So that they could get double payment.”
Mouth still open, Jo sat down in one of the chairs. Sara was on the sofa. “And you talked him out of it? Or did the old man stop him for you?”
“Well the old man wanted no part of it, but I think he’s afraid of the young one. In the end, I---I talked him out of it,” she said. “Skin of my teeth and all that.”
“And you’re all right? Let me see.”
Jo stood up again to get a better look at her. “Jo,” and Sarah could help smiling. “You can barely see at all!”
“Oh no, I’m loads better. If the lights are bright I’m good as new.” She waved at one of the other lamps, and it brightened. “Perfect.”
Sarah herself had not stopped to examine her injuries, and they were minor, though colorful. But Jo was very good at tsk tsking over the bruises on her forearms and the redness on her shins, and she would not be satisfied until she had propped up Sarah Jane’s feet on cushions and put skin ointment and cool compresses over her shins. She drew a blanket up over her and gave her the larger piece of torte. And when Sarah remarked that for some reason her toes hurt from the fall, Jo moved away the cushions, took Sarah’s feet onto her own lap, and gently rubbed them along the base of the toes.
“Your toes bent back when you fell like that,” she said. “Of course they hurt.”
All in all it was very soothing and restorative. And the richness of the chocolate torte and Jo’s happy, gentle commentary on her adventures when she had been young, made Sarah almost forget the odd events in the chemist’s bungalow. It wasn’t until Jo looked around, decided that dusk was falling, and said, “We ought to see about making supper,” that Sarah recalled that something inexplicable had driven her attacker back: terrified him and—apparently---shamed him. For just an instant she debated about describing the confrontation, and then she decided not to. It would just make them treat her with even more reverence and greater reluctance to bring her near danger, and she didn’t want that.
She had felt sorry for herself and wanted somebody to feel sorry for her. But now that some decent pity and a large piece of chocolate torte, with coffee, had all worked upon her, she knew that she had to participate in their desperate bid to stop the tech sweeps.
“I’d better start supper,” Jo said. “You don’t have to move. Sleep off that chocolate.” She slipped out from under Sarah’s feet. As she stood she said, “It’s a good thing you were able to talk your way out of it. But we can’t count on that a second time. We’ll have to make other arrangements in future.” She threw a glance back at Sarah Jane. “What did you say to him?”
“Well, uh---“Sarah stopped for a moment, at a loss. “Just stared him down, really. Asked if he really needed all that money. Stayed eye to eye with him.”
Jo gave a brief nod. “We’ll make different arrangements. Make sure the old man meets one of us alone. Shouldn’t be too hard. I’m glad you’re all right.”
She hurried to the kitchen. Sarah sighed and once again considered the strange scene in the bungalow. At last she carefully slipped her feet back into her shoes, stood up, and—limping slightly---crossed the room to a small mirror on the wall.
She stared at herself. She tried to recreate what she had felt in the bungalow: the urgency to search him out, to see and know his thoughts. But when she tried it on her reflection, nothing happened, and she could not recreate that insistent search that had been her mindset. She simply stared harder and harder at the mirror.
This isn’t it at all, she thought.
“Sarah,” And the cold amusement in Liz’s voice startled Sarah. “Whatever are you doing?” Liz asked from the hallway, her face puzzled and annoyed.
Sarah glanced at her and then threw a regretful look at her own reflection. “Looking.”
For one moment, the expression of superiority, touched with condescension, that Liz had once used as a perpetual mask crept over her face. She entered. “Looking at what?” Her tone was faintly sarcastic. And she arched an eyebrow with a half smile. She was the former Liz, or at least very much like her. Sarah had not heard that tone nor seen that expression in nearly a century.
To the end of her life, Sarah would never know if she willed what she did to humble Liz deliberately, or if it just happened. But she met Liz’s eye and instantly the mindset to search was on her. She searched again, sorting right past the façade to that dangerous, encroaching pride and anger, that impatience that assumed it had a right to exist by virtue of its superior intellect. Sarah saw the self-deception, a present entity among everything else in Liz, and gasped, startled.
But Liz turned away, so quickly that she nearly ran herself into the wall. She hid her face in her arm, and her outcry, an inarticulate sob of pain and grief, would have wrung any human heart.
“Liz!” Sarah exclaimed. “I’m sorry!”
Jo rushed in from the kitchen, spoon in hand. She dropped it and ran to Liz’s other side. “What’s happened?”
“Go out, Jo,” Sarah said. “Go out and let me help her.”
She had no idea why Jo should obey her, but Jo instantly turned away and hurried out.
“Come to the sofa,” Sarah said. “Sit down.”
“Forgive me, please forgive me.” Liz put her face into her hands and let Sarah lead her to the sofa.
“I forgive you, if you’ve wronged me,” Sarah said. “Tell me what happened.”
“I knew it. I knew it inside me. You showed me.”
“What did you know?”
Liz let out a sob. “What I still am. What’s still in me. It will never go away. Don’t look at me again. Don’t show it to me, please!”
Sarah took her head between her hands, but Liz was too afraid to look up. “Please Sarah, don’t make me.”
“I’m not going to make you do anything, but it won’t happen again,” Sarah said. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t more careful. I didn’t realize what I was playing at.”
Liz sobbed into her hands, and Sarah smelled the fragrance in the room increase. “Forgive me,” Liz said again. She was calmer, but shaken. Her ears, Sarah noticed, were cold: the effect of shock and fear. Liz took Sarah’s hands away from her face but didn’t raise her eyes.
“All your sins are forgiven,” Sarah reminded her. “All sin can be confessed. All of us live in that state of confessing, forsaking, and trusting God to preserve us from what we are. God forgives sin.”
“Yes Sarah.” Liz’s voice, chastened, was almost child-like, almost like Kyree as a little girl, confessing shamefacedly to some childhood wrong, truly grief stricken.
“Don’t be afraid of me. Please don’t, Liz.”
“No Sarah.” But she was still frightened.
Sarah did what she should have done, she told herself guiltily, that very first day when Liz had crept inside her door. She held her and rocked her until at last the rigid fear in Liz slowly ebbed away, and then as Liz smelled the heavenly fragrance, timidly at first, she held onto Sarah. How like Kyree. For a moment the likeness wiped out all thought of Liz, this present time, and the danger of their mission. Instead, she felt her trusting and tender hearted little daughter, clinging to her for rescue after some heartfelt confession of wrongdoing. With an effort she came back. This was Liz. The fragrance rested on them, and Sarah let it work until Liz breathed it in with a sound like a sigh, her spirit restored but deeply chastened.
“Can you look at me now?” Sarah asked.
“I’m afraid to.”
“I don’t think—I don’t think it will happen again, Liz. It’s a new part of the gift, and I have to control it better. But I think I can control it.”
Liz glanced up at her and then away, but as no harm came from it, she looked up again. Sarah made her expression as kind and concerned as she could, and the fear left Liz’s eyes. But she had gone white, and she was shaken.
“I think a drop of brandy would do you a world of good,” Sarah said. She kissed Liz’s forehead and then rose and walked with halting steps to the low cabinet where she kept the spirits.
“You’ve hurt yourself,” Liz said. “And I was laughing at you.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t wonder but that I deserve a good laugh, poking around with heavenly things and getting myself in a muddle,” Sarah said. There were clean glasses in the low cupboard. She poured the brandy into a whiskey tumbler and returned.
“Drink this, dear. And don’t worry about anything. You’ve sacrificed great things to help others, and you’ve been patient and kind with me.”
Liz’s hand was shaking as she took the glass. “No Sarah. I’ve always been a prig, and I still am one. Nothing kills it. I only think it’s dead, and then it comes back. And it hurts the people I love best. I have always been a traitor to my dearest friends.” And as she sipped the brandy, tears sparkled on her eyes. Sarah cursed herself for having searched her.
“You have not.” And Sarah rested her hand on Liz’s head. “Stop those thoughts, now. Be released from them. You have greatly loved others and are greatly loved. We forgive the rest, and we pray for our own sins to be forgiven, Liz. Everybody needs those transactions of forgiveness. Not just you.”
Liz looked up at her, grateful to have the dark thoughts dismissed by Sarah, and when she looked at Sarah she was not afraid, and Sarah realized that even if she had wanted to search Liz right then, she could not have done so. Whatever triggered that sense of sorting through a person’s thoughts was not acting on her. Something seemed to evoke it from her, and while the fragrance and its power often seemed to have a mind of its own, Sarah didn’t think this part of the gift was that arbitrary. But it had to be evoked, triggered.
She didn’t bother to sit, and she gently stroked back Liz’s hair as Liz sipped the brandy.
“Everybody all right?” Jo asked, coming to the doorway and taking up the discarded spoon from the floor. Liz flushed and inclined her head, and Sarah said, “Yes Jo. Just a new part of the gift. We’ll talk about it later if you like.” She paused but still didn’t voice permission for Jo to come in. “Shall I come help you in the kitchen?” she asked instead.
Jo glanced back the way she had come. “Oh, in a minute or two.” She smiled and went out again.
“I need your forgiveness too, Liz,” Sarah said. “I knew it was being triggered. Whatever it is that happens, I sense it. But I looked right at you, anyway. I beg your pardon. I used a powerful gift that I don’t even understand to hurt one of my truest friends. I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”
“Of course.” And Liz took her hand in both of hers. “Please always remember to be kind to your friends, Sarah. We don’t have such powers. Please be kind to us.”
The plea sent an arrow of shame through Sarah. “I will. I am sorry.”
They heard tromping on the stairs. “Hullo!” Alistair exclaimed. “Do I smell supper?” He entered the tiny room and instantly became quieter. “Hullo darling. Is everything all right?”
“Will you keep Liz company while Jo and I finish the supper things?” Sarah asked.
“Yes of course.” Alistair asked her no questions, but as Sarah hurried out, he sat next to his wife and instantly took her in his arms. She heard his whispered questions as she left the room.
* * * *
“Everything all right?” Jo asked, concerned, as Sarah went right to the dish cupboard to set the table.
“I’ll explain it to you later. Tonight if you can stay up,” Sarah said. “After I know that Liz is all right.”
Jo nodded, and they worked quickly in silence to set out the meal. When Liz came in, she was subdued and still pale. And Alistair looked troubled. He kept his eyes down, uncertain of the risk of looking at Sarah. Puzzled, Jo didn’t remark about it but spoke kindly, and cheerily served them. And Sarah imitated her, both of them trying to set them, especially Liz, at ease.
But it was a swift, awkward meal.
“You know, I think I can clean up tonight,” Jo said brightly, a signal to Liz that she could escape if she wanted to. “Alistair, you and your wife have been working at your desks for days on end. You should do exactly as you please tonight.”
“Perhaps a little rest,” Alistair said. “We could make an early night of it.”
“I’ll clean up,” Sarah said in her Perfectly Ordinary Voice. “After all, I’ve been jaunting around all day. Jo can bring you up a nightcap.”
“Now won’t that be nice?” Jo asked as she stood to help clear.
“Yes it’s all been lovely,” Liz said, trying to sound cheerful.
“Come on, my darling, if they let us skip out for a night, we shouldn’t dawdle over the dishes.” And Alistair stood and helped Liz up as Sarah turned to put on the tea. After they went out, Jo and Sarah worked in silence, with Sarah cleaning up from the abbreviated meal and Jo assembling another tray. After twenty minutes, Sarah’s chores were finished, and Jo was putting the final touches on a tray of tea and the last of the chocolate torte. “Take the brandy up as well,” Sarah suggested. “There are tumblers in the cabinet.”
“Right then.” Jo nodded and hurried out to find the seldom-used distilled spirits. But when she brought the bottle and tumblers in, Sarah lifted a hand to stop her. She poured a generous slug of the brandy into a tea cup for herself. With a nod of thanks, she passed the decanter back to Jo.
“Not a bad idea,” Jo said. “Nobody should drink alone.” She took down a teacup for herself and half filled it. “Plenty left for them.”
* * * *
“So I don’t know what did it, and when it happened, I didn’t even know what was happening. He just let me go and tried to get away from me. Couldn’t look at me,” Sarah told Jo as she concluded her account of the confrontation at the bungalow.
“You know, I always did wonder if there was a flip side to this gift,” Jo said. “Something more than restoration and rejuventaion. You know, the terrifying justice that destroys people who try to grasp it. You ever think about that?”
Sarah shook her head, then stopped herself and nodded. “Yes, once upon a time, I thought about it. But it’s not that way. There is no flip side to it, no dark shadow. It is what it is, front and back. I mean, I learned that up there. Fomalhaut’s presence would have killed me, because she—or he—or it—was so empty, so void of placing an expectation on what was to be received, that I almost died in her presence—its presence. The emptiness was terrifying, freezing, and ---and just huge, Jo. It was the most terrifying thing, I think, I ever allowed to get near me. But not, not repulsive. Not ugly. Not evil.”
She paused and took another sip of the brandy, which Jo had thoughtfully mixed with a little sweet vermouth and some bitters. A cherry bobbed in the cup. Her toes felt much better. Warm.
“Almost like being swallowed,” Jo said. “The Mouth of the Fish.”
Sarah nodded. “And I understood that I could never approach that emptiness without protection, and caution and fear. But it wasn’t a shadow of what she was. That was Fomalhaut: this waiting expectation of the Goodness of God. And when goodness and mercy were poured out to her, she didn’t alter them. There was no part of her mixed in when she poured out that mercy. Not unless she had to make food for Athena, and then Athena made food for me.”
Sarah waved it away. She did not want to get sidetracked into telling an adventure story.
“So there was this thing—this other presence. He tried to get me, to capture me. And when he sensed Fomalhaut, he tried to capture her. That’s what did him. He kept trying to encapsulate and conquer this great emptiness. He died trying to do it. She covered me with her presence, and she kept me alive.” She glanced at Jo. “You’d think it was glorious. And I guess it was. But—oh! It was painful—“
“Pain?” Jo asked.
“Yes, to be in that emptiness. And to be part of it. Heavenly creatures and human creatures don’t easily stand side by side. Not without a really good interface. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever been through. And I felt his death, like my death. And I think Fomalhaut felt it too.”
“So she never really took action to fight,” Jo began.
“No, never.” And Sarah took another comforting sip. She wondered why she had ever stopped drinking anything stronger than light ales. This concoction was really very nice. But then, Jo knew far more about mixing drinks than Sarah did.
“All right, so there’s no flip side, no dark side,” Jo agreed at last. “Is it the emptiness working a different way? The mercy has been hanging on you, emanating from you? Have you become a channel for justice? For judgment?”
“I didn’t feel like I was judging anything. I felt like I was—looking. It was like the telepathy thing I’ve felt from time to time, but more searching. Both times, I felt like I could brush away the front matter—“
Jo cocked an eyebrow. “Front matter?”
“Um, the leading thoughts in them, the distraction from what was really going on inside them.”
“I don’t follow you,” Jo said.
Sarah was surprised. “Well his savagery was something he was working himself up to do, but it was also just a front. He was strutting out how evil and powerful he was. And then, here—well, I’m sorry. I’m sorry—I don’t like—“
“Go on,” Jo said. “Say what you saw.”
“Liz, on a far lesser scale, was strutting too, I suppose. She was play acting the great scientist. She was just getting ready to make fun of me, feel superior.” She shook her head. “I was wrong to sort her. I brushed her facade aside to see what she was really thinking.” She hesitated. “Somehow, for both of them, they knew what I was seeing, and they saw it too. Better than I did, in fact. It horrified them. He wanted to kill me, and Liz only made a joke at my expense, but both revelations were too quick for me to really get beyond a glimpse. But they saw what I uncovered. In much greater detail and much closer to home.”
“Do me!” Jo exclaimed.
Sarah nearly dropped the cup. “What? Jo are you mad?”
“No! Do me, Sarah. I want to know. And, and I want another person to know the great big fake that I am.” Jo set down her cup, and she seemed energized by the prospect of the mind bending experience that had reduced two adults to emotional and physical collapse and tears. “Go on. We’ll try out your theory. It may help us when we try to infiltrate, so we ought to know what it can do.”
“Jo, it made them almost hysterical with fear.”
“Yes but we’re right here, right where Fomalhaut bestows her gifts, right by you. And I want it,” Jo said. “It may set me right.”
“Set you right?”
“Fix me. I am a fake, Sarah. A terrible fake. I’d rather be fixed, repaired. Even if it hurts. At least if you saw it, you might find some way to…to unfake me.”
“You’re not a fake,” Sarah whispered. “You’re a devoted and protective friend.”
“I jolly well am a fake!” Jo said, and her voice stayed energized and optimistic about this bold new idea, but Sarah saw her eyes suddenly moisten. Jo was telling the truth. “I’m not cheerful on the inside or full of enthusiasm. I’m not even all that nice. I used to be, but something changed me.”
“And now you want to go back to what you used to be?”
“No, but I want to be more honest. I don’t want to lie about what I am, not to others and not to myself.”
“Oh dear, Jo!” And now Sarah felt truly dismayed. “We’re all sort of fakes, don’t you think? We keep our voices and manners nice when we’re grumpy. We use tact instead of being blunt—“
“But I’m a colossal fake. And besides, we have to know just what it is you’re doing. So try it on me.” And Jo arrested her eyes with her own gaze. Without thinking, Sarah saw that determination: vulnerable and yet poised. And she felt the ability to sort through it, for Jo’s determination seemed to know, in and of itself, that it was only “front matter.” She had not seen such self awareness in either Liz or her previous attacker.
Like a curious scientist seeing a new form of life, she forgot herself and looked past the determination. Jo didn’t move.
For a moment, Sarah thought she was looking at a physical tunnel, and then she realized it was only the pupils of Jo’s eyes. She refocused and made herself calmly look, but this time she saw the physical structure of the eye far more than she had previously.
“What do you see?” Jo asked, and in that instant, it was like a door opened just a crack. Sarah saw the reality of what Jo was, and then the door closed.
“I’m mostly seeing your eye,” Sarah told her. “It is unusual—I mean, I’m looking at—I think I see your retina, as though I have one of those opthamolly things from the old days.”
“Really that is quite anticlimactic. Nobody ever cleansed their soul by having somebody take a look at their retinas!”
The moment of inspection ended. “Sorry,” Sarah said.
“Why not me?” Jo asked. She was not complaining, She knew Sarah had used the gift on her as surely as Sarah had used it on Liz. “Didn’t you see anything?”
Sarah covered for herself by swigging down the last of the brandy and vermouth. “The real problem is that we still don’t know what this is. You just got through the scrutiny like it was an eye exam. I wasn’t expecting that.”
“That’s because it didn’t work.” And Jo scowled, joking and yet not joking. “I’ll always be a riddle to myself.”
“No Jo,” Sarah said. “No, actually I think you’re more honest than most people.” She looked into her empty cup. “Is there any more?”
“We’d have to go upstairs to get the bottle.” And Jo threw her look towards the door to ask if Sarah wanted her to fetch it.
“Oh no, poor lambs. Let them sleep.”
“What about you then?” Jo asked, now sleepy from the anti-climactic finish to enduring Sarah’s stare, as well as the brandy and vermouth. “You sleepy?”
“Not a particle, dear. Go on with you. I’ll just sit a while.”
“All right then.”
* * * *
“We’ve got it,” Liz announced two days later. She emerged from the room that had become her office and lab.
Alistair was just coming down the steps, and Jo entered from the kitchen. Sarah Jane looked up from the sofa. Nobody asked for particulars. But Alistair said, “I’ll put in a call to Benny.” He strode away. Jo looked at Sarah.
“What now?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Alistair and I must go with Benny for a few hours,” Liz said. “To do some testing.”
“That’s very dangerous,” Jo began, but Liz shook her head. “It’s all going to be dangerous, Jo. We’ve got to test it to be sure. I’ve encapsulated the information so that the Protection Societies can decode the information if anything happens to us.”
“I don’t want you to go out there without me,” Jo said.
Liz held out her hand. “Jo,” she said, kindly. Jo came and took her hand. “I’m the outside person, the driver!” Jo told her.
Liz’s voice was kind. “Alistair and I know what they can do to us. But we’ve all agreed to this. You stay here. We will come back. Nobody knows where we are. Nobody’s been watching Benny.”
Sarah added her voice. “It is all right, Jo,” she said gently. Only she saw the massive act of will in Jo that made Jo stop insisting. “All right,” Jo said at last. It was more like a gasp.
“Come here,” Sarah Jane told her, and Jo, meekly as a child, let go of Liz’s hand and came to her. With one look of helpless concern at her friends, Liz walked out after Alistair. Sarah and Jo stood in silence for a long time, listening to Liz and Alistair in the hallway, as Liz said, “The bacteria strain has been isolated. It can reproduce to sufficient levels, generating acid, within about 10 hours of being introduced into the water system.”
Alistair’s deeper voice answered something, and then Liz, more softly, said, “A day or two before we can get the launching equipment assembled. And then we’ll be ready.”
The two of them went out front, discussing their plans. They heard the door close. The house, even with Jo there, suddenly seemed huge and empty. I never wanted this to begin, Sarah thought, and now I don’t want it to end. But Jo, for once, was near despair.
“And so we sit here and have tea,” she exclaimed. “Like...like nothing!”
“They’ll come back, and then things will probably happen very quickly.” Sarah felt sharp amazement at Jo’s dissatisfaction with being left out. Soon enough, each of them would be playing their appointed role in this horrible plan. But she made her voice coaxing.
“Come on, then. Let’s give the place a good overhaul and get it cheered up a bit for them.”
Jo cocked her head incredulous. “Do housework?”
Sarah nodded. “Exactly. It’s all we can do, and I’m not about to sit around moping until they get back.”
For a moment, Jo looked ready to fight this idea, and Sarah wondered if they were about to have a truly earnest row about the whole matter. But then Jo, with that same tremendous act of will, gave a single sharp nod. “All right then, we’ll stay busy.”
Even Sarah thought it ridiculous, but she wouldn’t admit it to herself. Still, even though in the early days she had felt that her cherished house had become messy all too often, now there was not enough work to do to fill the hours of stillness. The little hoover buggy, once Jo had re-programmed it weeks earlier, now worked at peak efficiency. So there was little dust and no small debris on the carpets, floors, and rugs. And the self dissolving scrub ducks only needed to be released into tub and shower to do their work and then quietly go down the drain in tiny clouds of lemon scented freshness. Every loo was self cleaning, as were all the mirrors.
After an hour and forty-five minutes, they had cleaned everything and changed all the bed clothes. Liz and Alistair had done all the laundry only the day before, and so there was little enough of that left.
“We’ll cook up something fabulous for dinner,” Jo said, and she retrieved the hard copy recipe books that both she and Sarah preferred over the programmable recipes.
Time was hanging fire. Sarah got up and paced restlessly while Jo sat on the sofa and pored through one of the books. “What about red wine marinated beef skewers?” Jo asked. “I wonder how long the marinade takes.”
“What in the world did the cleaning mechanism do to that mirror?” Sarah asked.
They were in the sitting room where the sense of Fomalhaut resided. It was their favored meeting place. The mirror was a small one, mounted above and to one side of the tiny, unused grate where Sarah had installed a basket of dried flowers.
“The glass has gone all dark,” Jo began.
“But it’s reflecting something. Where is it pointed?” And Sarah glanced around the room. Then she stepped up to the mirror. Jo set aside the recipe book and stood.
The glass of the mirror grew lighter, passing to gray. It reflected motion and shapes. “Blimey,” Jo whispered. “”It’s people.”
“That’s the man who hit you,” Sarah whispered, and she sensed Jo tense. Indeed, she sensed the cold fear that raced through Jo, and without a second thought she opened her arm to Jo, and the room filled with the fragrance of Fomalhaut’s presence. Jo came under her arm, for once as earnest as a child.
“He can’t see you,” Sarah whispered. She realized she should have spoken calmly and naturally, but it went against all instincts to speak loudly while able to see the face of one so brutal so close at hand.
“Do something, Sarah Jane,” Jo whispered.
“I don’t know what it means.”
The man, in fact, was speaking. He turned, and they saw another man. The second man held up what looked like a gun for a moment, and then Sarah decided that it looked more like the old radar guns that traffic wardens and police had once used. Jo must have noticed the same similarity. After a moment she whispered, “It’s for tracking. They’re aiming and shooting out a signal to track movement.”
The first man, the man who had called himself Satan when he had beaten Jo, waved the other man’s arm away, and the second man set the radar-type gun down. From their perspective it looked like he set it on a ledge right on the other side of the mirror. But then Sarah realized that both men were sitting in the front seat of a vehicle. The junior man was at the wheel, with the man called Satan navigating and giving directions. The man called Satan took up another device and brought it into view.
“A plotter,” Jo said. “It tracks the signal and detects anything that the signal echo outlines.”
Sarah lifted her other hand and felt Jo tense. But the faces, which had been visible only darkly at first, now looked so clear and so real that she felt she could touch them. And the radar-type gun was right there, right up to the mirror, but on the other side.
“It’s—it’s difficult,” Sarah gasped. Something was resisting her, not just the glass, for she had not yet reached it, but some force resisted her as she tried to reach. She felt as though her hand were pushing through heavy syrup or dough.
“What’s happening?” Jo asked.
“Help me, Jo. It hurts—“
Jo instantly got both arms around her and tried to push her towards the mirror, to get her hand to reach it. Both of them felt the forceful pushing back, the damping down of their strength. Sarah realized that she could no longer breathe. But with Jo’s weight pushing her forward, she reached the glass of the mirror, and she realized that her hand was through. She grasped the cold, metal, tracking device and withdrew her hand.
“Oh goodness that hurts!’ she exclaimed, and then it was over.
“My hand hurts!” she heard herself say, and she threw down the gun without thinking, trying to shake off the pain.
She couldn’t see. “To the sofa,” she heard Jo say, and she was guided to the sofa. She fell onto it, but Jo collapsed alongside her, in bad shape as well. For several minutes, she began to recover, and then the roaring on her ears started again and waves of weakness went over her. “We can’t be dead when they return,” Jo whispered, her voice revealing more fear for Liz and Alistair than for herself. The rest was lost to Sarah in the haze of weakness and the slow, hard pounding of her pulse.