When she next opened her eyes, Alistair was peering down at her, his eyes concerned.
“Thank God,” he whispered. She couldn’t lift her head. But she saw Jo, across the room in the reclinablechair, wrapped in a blanket, with Liz giving her tea. Jo looked white and frail.
Alistair fitted his arm under Sarah’s head. “Sarah Jane, are you warm enough.”
“Will you have tea?”
“No. Don’t leave me. Don’t let me go.” It was a warning, and he knew it.
He held her. “Stay a little longer. Stay with us. Stay with us, my dear.”
She closed her eyes, still not sure if the translucence of the mirror would not claim her as well. But as she breathed in the smell of him and heard his voice, and behind his voice, the soft sounds of Liz speaking, and Jo answering in whispers, she gradually felt more solid and stable. At long last, she could feel her own body warmth, and she knew she was anchored into time and place. She tried to tell him that she thought she would be all right, but the words were lost in a perfectly normal wave of sleepiness.
The smell of food awoke her. Liz, now looking very calm and kind, very doctorish, but very tired, was looking down at her. Liz smiled as she saw that Sarah was awake and back to herself.
“You must have something to eat dear.”
“Just that tea if I could, Liz, that pine—pine—“
“Pinellia. I’ve got water hot. I’ll steep some right now.”
Sarah made herself sit up. “How is Jo?’ she asked, but Liz had stepped into the kitchen, and the room was empty. Sarah let her head fall back onto the top of the sofa cushions. Her eyes noted the strange gun-like device. It had been disassembled, some of its pieces laid out on the end table.
After several minutes, Liz returned with a tray. “Is your vision steady?”
“Yes. I don’t know what happened. I mean, I know what happened. I saw another place through the mirror, and I reached right into that place. But I don’t know how it happened.”
“I don’t know that any of us know that, dear,” Liz said. She set down the tray and rested her hand on Sarah Jane’s forehead and then put both hands on either side of her neck. Sarah noticed that she was wearing her treasured stethoscope.
“How is Jo?”
“Exhausted. We put her to bed, and Alistair is sitting by her, just to make sure her breathing is all right. She seems back to normal. She was able to describe what she witnessed.” And Liz threw her glance back to the mirror, which now reflected only part of one lamp and the wall.
“For a moment,” Sarah said. “I knew I could reach right through it. I knew that matter was a barricade, but not all that great of a barricade. It seemed so obvious. But we had to fight for me to do it, to get hold of the gun. Jo had to help me.”
Liz sat down. “You are made of matter, Sarah Jane. Whatever was going on, altering the nature of the matter of the mirror and the distance between you and those men, and enabling you to overcome matter and distance, endangered the material part of you.”
“Then something protected me,” Sarah added. “But afterward, I did feel that I might dissolve away, like the glass of the mirror. You know, become insubstantial. It was painful. It actually did hurt.”
Liz cocked an eyebrow. “Any pain now?”
“No, just weariness, and a sense of weakness. I thought that tea might help.”
“Yes, drink up.” And Liz passed a steaming beaker of the muddy tea to her. It did go down well, Sarah Jane thought. At long last, she had learned to drink the bitter and earth-tasting tea. She drank it all right down.
“What about you?” Sarah asked as she cradled the beaker in her hands.
“I’m fine. How about some food?”
“Thank you, no.” And Sarah shook her head. She realized that at this point, Liz and Alistair may have finalized all plans. But they might not yet confide in her until after they had confided in Jo. But Sarah risked a question: “So what next? What about you and Alistair?”
Liz looked both rueful and tenderly concerned for a moment. “Two days,” she said. “Maybe three.” She rested the back of her hand against Sarah’s cheek for one instant. “You should stay here.”
Sarah kept her voice, and especially her eyes, gentle, not wanting to take on the attitude of rebuking her friend. “You know I can’t, Liz. I must go with you.”
“Not to see us kill...or...or be killed.” Liz said the last part with some effort, but not for her own sake. Sarah knew that Liz dreaded exposing her to harshness and death far more than Liz dreaded those things on her own account. “You have a gift,” Liz began.
Sarah nodded over to the pieces of the gun. “Those men were tracking you and Alistair. That was why it was shown to me.”
“Yes, you saved us. You took away their tracking tool. So perhaps you should stay by the mirror.”
Sarah shook her head. “No Liz. Jo has to go with you, and I couldn’t manage another reach into that thing, at least not without help. And we don’t know that anything will ever appear to us again, or if it does, that it will use that particular mirror. I must go. The gift will go with me.”
“But it’s...it’s sacred, Sarah. Your gift is sacred.”
“If you die, it will die with you. If you are...profaned, it’s profaned as well.” And now the sadness that was almost always a part of Liz shone in her eyes. She looked, for a moment, very old, and very wise, and very sad.
“The Son of God came to earth and was profaned, and died,” Sarah said. “It’s not an amazing thing to follow that model. We can’t forcibly cling to the good gifts we have to preserve them.” She glanced around. “I hid myself away here, and my gift went dormant, even from me. Then nobody enjoyed it. Nobody was protected.”
She felt sudden tears as she realized how truly self centered she had been. She had simply wanted Fomalhaut to come and take her away. It was ghastly. Inappropriate. Miserly. And then, with a red hot streak of shame, she remembered how at first, Liz’s appearance had been an inconvenience to her.
She looked down, ashamed to meet the sad and patient eyes of her friend. Good Lord, I don’t deserve any of them, she thought. What have I done? What have I wasted while people have been suffering? While my friends have been suffering? She suddenly realized that she had been given the gift, unworthy of it, a century ago, and then had given up on trying to understand it, and had then profited from it and become worldly wise from it, but never truly wise, and then she had hidden it away.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “In the end...I mean, when we all get judged, I won’t be anybody then. But you will. I never used what I had the right way, and I’m sorry.”
She felt Liz take the beaker out of her hand, and then Liz’s arms slipped around her. “Nobody uses their gifts in the right way. And every sin is forgiven. Don’t cry.” And then with a softer shock, Sarah realized that in decades of not comforting others, she had also cut off herself from being comforted. But now, she was being comforted. And by a person who knew exactly what it was to lose your own children, to say goodbye to them as death took them, and how the long passing years felt, with them gone and life now lifeless.
For one instant, as she smelled Liz’s cologne and soap and the softener that scented her clothes, she thought about Jean with a sudden longing. But then her memory righted itself. Jean’s world had been a sterile place. Sarah had forgotten the surreal details of sterility over the intervening century, but now they came back to her. Jean had tried to create a livable, familiar world for Sarah Jane, to make her comfortable, and it had never been quite right. For Jean had never been able to duplicate a world where time passed, where death came.
Fomalhaut knew very little of time and its changes, for Fomalhaut, if he or she changed at all, did so only very gradually, and never towards death. And Fomalhaut’s comfort and care, though perfect in terms of pure motives, had always had an edge to it, a tinge of the strange and alien. With a slight jolt, Sarah realized that she had never actually seen the real Fomalhaut, only an image that Fomalhaut had given her: the image of Jean. And Jean had said she was more real than Sarah had assumed, but they had both known that, at least in part, she was a shadow of something that would have killed Sarah Jane by its very presence.
But this frail comfort, the weariness of Liz, her sobered kindness: they were the real thing, at least for Sarah Jane at this moment. Sometimes a sinner was the best comfort for a sinner. Sarah buried the side of her face against Liz’s neck and shoulder, under her chin. She told herself she must let Liz go off and get some sleep, but for one moment, she clung to the ephemeral comfort of another human being who had also undergone what she had undergone.
“You’ve been a comfort to all of us,” Liz said kindly, and held her head. “Such a stabilizing influence when my moods go dark, or Alistair goes towards despair, or Jo is too restless. It doesn’t say a thing against you if at times it’s been difficult for you. You did what you were appointed to do. When you didn’t get what you wanted in life, you still saved your friends.”
Sarah looked up at her. “It was that obvious?”
“No,” Liz said. “You have a gift for accepting what comes. But I could see these events were strange to you at times. And it is a horrible world, Sarah Jane. It is a very horrible world. I could see the moments when it repelled you, and you had to make yourself go into it. That’s why—“ And she let Sarah straighten up. “That’s why my preference for you is that you stay here.”
“I think I must go with you,” Sarah whispered. “Or at least, participate. I think that’s part of my appointment.”
“All right.” Liz would not argue with her. “All right dear. Can you manage the stairs?”
“Yes. I’ll look in on Jo so that you and Alistair can get your rest.”
* * * *
The pain in her shoulder and arm began in the middle of the night. It began as an ache way back on the shoulder blade, right where it joined into her spine. The ache became colder, and it seemed to send a cold spark into her right bicep. And then the cold ache from the bicep settled into the bone. After an hour or so of tossing and turning, Sarah Jane sat up in the bed and held her cold, aching arm. She could move it and flex it, but the ache didn’t improve no matter what she did.
This pain, she knew, would never resolve with mere heat. She stood, found her robe and struggled into it, thrust her feet into her slippers, and went downstairs to their sitting room.
In the dimness, she could smell the fragrance slightly. Simply entering the room made the pain more bearable, but she didn’t know if that truly was a direct effect of Fomalhaut or merely the conditioning of months of seeing her friends comforted here.
She sank onto the sofa. The coldness in her shoulder blade spread over her right shoulder, but it seemed less severe. She pulled the wool blanket that was kept over the back of the sofa onto herself. There was nothing to do but wait and see if she worsened or improved.
What Sarah Jane had not counted on was the upset her pain caused her friends. The next morning when Jo found her, Jo didn’t even hear Sarah ask her not to bother Liz just yet. Jo shot up the steps to get their resident physician, and Liz, normally so careful to appear neat and tranquil, came hurrying after Jo, wearing Alistair’s robe. Her hair, normally so neat, was askew.
Sarah Jane felt Liz’s fear and concern as Liz checked glands, forehead, eyes, skin.
“It’s from the mirror,” Sarah said. “It’s just pain Liz, and it hurts but it’s not wracking me. I even slept for an hour.”
“Coldness and pain,” Liz said. “Numbness?”
“My hand tingles—like, down my arm to my fingers, and when it does that the fingers are numb,” Sarah Jane told her. “But it’s not constant.”
“Can you stand, dear?”
“Of course!” And Sarah was surprised to see both Jo and Liz anxiously ready to catch her if she fell.
“All right, this hand here,” and Liz positioned Sarah’s left hand on Sarah’s right shoulder. “This hand on the opposite side. I’m going to give you a quick pull from behind. Try to relax.”
Liz and Jo turned her around, and Liz executed a very nimble chiropractic “pull”. Sarah heard and felt her spine react and adjust. For a split second the coldness warmed, and then it was cold again.
“Well, you fixed something,” she told Liz. “But the coldness is still there.”
“Hot packs?” Jo asked Liz.
Already dressed, Alistair hurried down the steps. “What is it?”
“Just some of the aftermath from that mirror stunt yesterday,” Sarah told him.
He shot a quick, appraising glance from his wife to Jo. “I’ll make breakfast,” he said. “Tea first.”
“Please boil water for hot packs!” Jo called after him.
“Immediately!” he exclaimed as he hurried to the kitchen to get to work.
Sarah Jane gave up protesting. Jo had been beaten into blindness by the man called Satan, and Liz and Alistair had undergone months of torture. And yet here they were, fussing over her with an aching shoulder and arm. Liz and Jo plied her with hot towels, and Liz tried acupuncture on the shoulder blade, and they rubbed in liniment and gave her tea. Jo rubbed her neck and shoulders, hard, to break up what Liz called congestion of the chi. And then Liz wrapped Sarah’s feet with warm towels and stayed right by her side, with only tea and toast for herself for breakfast. Jo and Alistair, meanwhile, strode back and forth from office to front door, unloading oddly shaped parcels from the zip. Apparently something needed to be assembled, and Sarah Jane heard the words “launch chutes” tossed back and forth. Some type of apparatus to direct the water hornets.
This was inescapable, Sarah Jane thought. She was not worthy of her friends. But if you were found by suffering people, and you showed them unearthly kindness, simply because it had been given to you, they would be distressed by your suffering. More so than over their own. She’d never talk them out of it. But the day was getting on. Nothing else was being accomplished.
“You know, she said at last, “I think it is a little better.”
All three of them perked up.
She flexed the arm back and forth. “Yes, I really think it is.” She smiled brightly at Liz. “What’s next on the docket?”
“The guidance system,” Liz said. “The water carriers are too unrefined for sophisticated navigation. They’ll be navigated by remote, from their starting point.”
“Oh dear!” And Sarah’s mind raced over her sketchy history of circuit building. “I don’t think—“
Liz suddenly smiled. “No, dear. The real technical work is done. We just have to load the carriers into their chutes and practice putting the pieces together so you can quickly submerge them in the reservoir. It’s more like snapping together the old Lego’s we played with as children than anything else. Loading the carriers will be tedious, of course.”
Loading the carriers, or water hornets, as Jo called them, was tedious. It was, Sarah Jane later thought, the most tedious thing she had done in half a century. Each pellet-sized carrier, its carbon belly filled with acid forming bacteria, had to be dropped into a cartridge with its peers. The cartridges were small metal boxes, honeycombed with tiny chutes, each cartridge fitting 200 water hornets, 40 to a chute. First you dropped them into the chutes, until the chutes seemed full, and then you had to use a tiny plunger to push the hornets back and pack them in, for each tiny chute was actually spring loaded. And then you packed the chute until each slot was full again. And even then Liz had to check it to make sure the alignment inside each slot was good enough. She then slid a slim but heavy metal lid over the open end, and that was one cartridge filled.
The springs occasionally released an instant after being set, and more then once a spray of water hornets shot up into the air as they worked. And the cartridges and water hornets were so primitive that it was possible to load a chute so that the alignment of water hornets was skewed, a guarantee that they would misfire when the cartridge was triggered to open. Liz would ruefully shake her head when she checked it. And then the whole cartridge had to be emptied out and the job done over.
Sarah Jane’s arm protested at first. The tedium of the task seemed to aggravate it. But she worked on. Nobody even tried to make conversation, except to guess at better ways to load the little carriers in so that they lined up properly the first time. At four o’clock, Jo stood and said it was time for tea. To her own surprise, Sarah felt sharp annoyance. It was her role to announce tea. She squelched the feeling, ashamed of herself. And she almost rubbed her shoulder, but then she saw Liz glance at her and she stopped.
“You put the water on, Jo,” Alistair suggested. “And we’ll try to get to stopping points.”
“All right, Sarah?” Jo asked cheerfully, but Sarah knew that her friend had seen the flash of resentment.
“Yes, good thing you thought of it, I was too wrapped up in this miserable little thing.” And Sarah laughed.
“Oh, my stomach’s always been a proper clock for me. Right then.” And Jo stood and hurried into the kitchen, but Sarah realized that she was embarrassed. Jo felt that she had made herself a little too much at home in somebody else’s house. And it was Sarah’s fault that she felt that way.
I just wonder, Sarah Jane thought, if even on the brink of death, I could ever not be such a pig sometimes.
A warm hand slid across her aching right shoulder blade. “You’re at a stopping point now, dear,” Liz said. “Don’t try to set the spring, just leave it for half an hour.”
They had made the tiny study their work area, out of sight of the kitchen and the sitting room. It was, Sarah Jane thought, a wise choice, for as they emerged from the cramped room, the calmness of the house cheered them, even though nobody especially felt like talking.
Alistair went to help with tea, and Liz retrieved her bag for another treatment of Sarah Jane’s shoulder and arm. “It’s really not too bad, you know,” Sarah Jane told her as Liz directed her to lie on her stomach on the sofa while Liz extracted the rechargeable hot packs from her kit and twisted them to renew their heat.
“Well we’ll give you another treatment to keep up the healing,” Liz said, her voice conciliatory, not wanting to contradict her hostess.
“The thing is, I can keep going.”
“We’ll put some heat on it and then try acupuncture, once the blood is moving.” Liz’s voice was reassuring. In a moment, the warmth, slightly moist, radiated through the back of Sarah Jane’s shirt as Liz settled the first hot pack onto the shoulder blade.
“Is that better?” Liz asked.
Sarah meant to say yes, for it was a great deal better, and the cold ache that had not yielded that morning now at last seemed warmed by the heat. Her knotted, cold shoulder blade and back relaxed. The cold pain drained out of her bicep and hand. She meant to speak, but before she could even realize that she was going, she was asleep, so soundly that she never felt or knew when Liz drew the soft wool blanket over her and tucked it in around her feet.
She opened her eyes and noticed that the room was dim, with a few long rays of lamp light from the doorway of the tiny study, stretched across the ceiling. She realized that it was night and abruptly sat up. Her arm was fine. She leaped to her feet.
Liz, who stood in the doorway to the study, conversing with whoever was inside, abruptly turned.
“I slept?” Sarah cried in horror. “I slept through it?”
Startled, but swiftly adopting her kind and professional demeanor, Liz hurried to her. “It’s all right, dear. We’ve finished. Everything is all right.”
“You finished?” She couldn’t check the tears of abrupt dismay. “It’s done?”
“The cartridges are loaded,” Liz said kindly, and Sarah broke into tears, so stormy that she had to sit down again. Puzzled and dismayed, Liz sat alongside her.
Jo and Alistair rushed out to join them. Sarah sobbed into her hands. “I slept through it---why did you let me sleep through it when you were working so hard?”
“Because your shoulder was hurting so much,” Liz said gently.
“Did I show it? I was trying not to show it—“
“Of course you didn’t show it. Sarah, whatever is wrong. Please don’t cry—“
Liz was at a loss, and Alistair and Jo, crouched on either side of Sarah’s knees, also looked up at her with concerned but uncomprehending eyes.
Sarah looked at their eyes: sad, patient, and kindly, and tried to stop the storm of tears. It was frightening them. She looked down and swallowed and steadied herself.
“It’s just that—in all of this—in all my life for decades, I haven’t done anything. I ran from pain. I hid myself away. And now I’ve missed it again. I wanted to—to work through it—to know what it’s like—to—to be one of you—“ And now it did seem ridiculous and pathetic even to her. They had suffered to such an extent that trying to load cartridges with a bad shoulder and arm seemed trifling. And yet still, she had slept through it. Her tears started again.
“Oh Sarah, that isn’t even how it works,” Jo whispered.
“No indeed,” Alistair said, taking her hand.
They commiserated with her, and Sarah made herself stop crying, but it was the bitterest moment she had known for many years. For, even as they held onto her and spoke kind words to her, she felt walled off from them.
But she could not grieve at a time like this. Or, as she had already muffed it and then blubbed, she had to regain herself and give them back to each other. In a day or two they would be going back into that hellish place, and they deserved her quiet and dependable hospitality, all the comforts she could offer.
“Look I am sorry,” she said as she felt her own spirit quiet down. “I am so sorry. I guess, in the end, I feel like I’ve never lived up to you.” This, of course, evoked their protests, but she was more herself now. “All right, all right,” she said gently, stroking their heads and faces. “I know you don’t look at it that way, and never mind. The main thing is to get you fed after your hard day’s work.”
“We ate hours ago,” Jo said. “But we kept some warm for you.”
“Well drinks then. Please tell me I’ve got beer set by.”
“Oh yes!” Alistair told her, with just the right amount of enthusiasm.
She stood, and they stood with her, still concerned and not quite sure why she had become so distressed. But ultimately, and she realized this with a sense of how ghastly inappropriate her influence was, they would obey her. So she gently directed them to get glasses and drinks from down cellar, while she rummaged up some odds and ends of food for them and her own warmed up plate with her belated supper.
Sarah ate quickly while bottles, glasses, and plates were prepared. They had drinks in the quiet sitting room. Nobody especially felt like saying much, but the days of even needing lively conversation were past.
“Certainly has been a jolly good week for winter,” Alistair said. He was on the sofa, with Liz next to him, her shoes off and her feet pulled up onto the cushions. Sarah had directed Jo into the larger of the two cushioned chairs.
“We’ll need to set out a good store of seed in the morning,” Liz added. “So the birds won’t go hungry.”
Jo nodded. “I just got them a new block of suet. Peanut butter.”
Alistair cocked an eyebrow. “Have you verified that?”
Everybody smiled. “No,” Jo told him, her eyes happy at his joke.
Sarah went from one to the next, filling their glasses and bringing the plate around again.
“You should sit and be comfortable, Sarah Jane,” Alistair said.
She rested a hand on his head. “I’ve been sleeping all day. Now I have energy while you need your rest.”
There were no further protests. The fragrance rested on the room, producing, not the merriment they had known previously, but a quiet happiness in them, a relief from thinking about the next day or the day after. For the moment, all they had was now, and that was sufficient.
The quiet conversation diminished. Sarah took up the glasses and napkins and carried them away. And then when she crossed the threshold again into the room, she sensed the richness of the silence, the presence that had covered them with such sweet calm.
“I suppose we should say good night,” she said gently. And it wasn’t odd or unusual: she kissed each of them on the forehead as they filed up the stairs. And then she was alone in the sitting room. She could have switched off the lights with a wave of her hand, but she extinguished each one the old way. And she knew that this was the last night, the close of the happy interval of peace for them. Come morning, it would be true war. She wondered at herself for not feeling anything, not even regret, and then she silently climbed the stairs herself and went to bed.
* * * *
The sounds of birds in the morning called Alistair from sleep. Liz stirred as he extricated himself from the covers, but she rolled over to collect the last few minutes of sleep. He went into the bath to wash his face and comb his hair, and then he shrugged his way into his soft flannel robe.
Every afternoon, Liz cleaned and filled the portable kettle and filled the tiny sandwich bin with cut up fruit and bread and butter for their morning tea. Now, while she sleepily rose from bed and made her way to the bath, he activated the kettle and righted the cups.
She emerged a few minutes later, brighter, and interested in the food. He kept an arm around her and sipped his hot tea as she took up the food, a piece at a time, and ate nearly all of it. She was always far more hungry than he, first thing in the morning.
“You should have some,” she said gently, a discreet ploy to see how much he wanted so that she could have the rest.
“I think all I want is one little corner of bread,” he said. He kissed her on the top of her head as she took up the rest of the pieces, one at a time, and ate them with the enjoyment, and speed, of a much younger person.
“Listen to those birds,” he murmured. “You’d hardly think it’s winter.”
“Jo must have put out the new suet. I’ll draw back the curtains.”
She left his side and pulled back the old fashioned curtains, brightening the room further. He raised the blinds. Dawn was about 30 minutes past, the morning still fresh and young. She came into his arms before the windows and they looked out at the rolling landscape together, with her head nestled against his arm and chest.
“I hear your heart,” she said gently. He tightened his arms.
“You could stand out,” he said quietly. “Not go in with me.”
“No, I should go.” They both fell silent, and then she looked up at him. “To keep you steady.” And she smiled. He stroked her cheek. It was true that he would act more decisively to end both their lives than to save them if he knew that their fate otherwise would be a return to their former prison. He could endure his death or her death, but her imprisonment a second time was unbearable to him. It was a sentence to unending torment.
“You know we both have to go,” she whispered.
“I do.” He rested the backs of his fingers against her face. “I just wish that you, your life, your beauty could go on—“
“Someplace else,” she said. “We continue.” And then she smiled, with a slight touch of her familiar skepticism lighting her large eyes. “And my beauty faded years ago, Alistair.”
“Oh no.” He kissed her. “No it hasn’t.”
They both waited, catching each other’s breath, and listening to the birds for a long moment. And then she lowered her eyes. “We should get ready for breakfast. We’ll have to be timely today.”
He kissed her head. “Can you lay out something suitable for me? Something right for espionage that’s still fairly smart?”
“Go on with you then, I’ll see to it.” And she shook her head with good natured resignation at his poor fashion sense and went to the spacious, walk-in closet see about their clothes.
* * * *
“Oh dear, we’re out of green peppers,” Jo murmured as she rummaged in the large cooler. “You can’t have decent omelets without green peppers.”
“We could just scramble them,” Sarah Jane said. “The eggs I mean. Fried potatoes alongside and bacon—“
“Now that’s what I call going out in style. No more fear of cholesterol.” And Jo smiled at her own dark humor.
“As if anything we ate would kill us. I still wonder why.” And Sarah’s eyes became more distant as she once again pondered the odd fate, and the biological possibilities, of living for more than a century and a half.
Jo was far less philosophical, at least this morning. She emerged from the cooler and closed the door with her toe, her arm full of breakfast ingredients. She methodically set out a brick of butter, a sealed slab of sliced bacon, a bowl of brown eggs, and a pouch of whole milk, all onto the counter top. “I suppose it was all meant to be,” she said, her own voice also sounding distant as she counted up the mathematics of serving breakfast to four people. “Let’s see, Alistair does like fried eggs, sunny side up, and nobody else does.” She put a finger to her lower lip and went to the pantry, still considering all options. “What about French toast? Is there whipping cream?”
They heard Liz and Alistair coming down the steps.
Sarah Jane glanced into the pantry. “We’ve got walnuts if you like. Don’t know if we’ve got time---“
Alistair’s voice, alarmed, hallo’ed them from the sitting room.
“Uh-oh!” was all that Jo had time to say, and they rushed out, right past Liz, who was coming to get them.
“It’s the mirror!” Alistair exclaimed. He was frozen in front of it.
Sarah Jane rushed closer and spread out her arms, signaling them to fall back. “Behind me,” she said. “I’m the only one they don’t know. If they see us this time, I want you out of the way.”
The molten, silvery white of the mirror clarified, and they saw, not a human face on the other side of it at all, but a small array of leather cases, each snapped closed around metal objects.
“Are those weapons?” Jo asked.
“Or worse,” Alistair guessed.
“On a table,” Liz told them. “It’s an armory. Look at the padded black vests hanging in a row back there.” As though to confirm her assessment, a young man with broad shoulders walked from left to right before them, clad in dark trousers but a light gray under shirt. He was tucking it in. He walked out of their line of vision.
“Arming for an assault,” the Brigadier said. “Going out into the field.”
“To find us,” Jo guessed. “How much do they know?”
They all jumped as the man called Satan stepped right into view before them and appeared to look right at them. For the first and only time in all the weeks they had been together, Sarah Jane heard Jo make a sound of fear. Oddly, the sound ignited a flame in Sarah, and all her own fear burned up in an instant.
“This is a gift,” she said, and her voice, even to her, sounded deep, calm, and resolute. “He’s looking across the room, the room where he is standing, perhaps at a clock or an assignment board. He doesn’t see us.”
She stepped forward, and that force that she had felt before pressed against her even before she could reach into the mirror. “Help me,” she said. All three of them got hold of her, pushing. Alistair would have pulled her, but she shook her head. “No, let me stay between you and the glass.”
He obeyed her, and they held her and forced her forward. Liz took up Sarah’s right arm from behind, and already Sarah could feel the coldness from the previous injury, as though an old wound had opened up. Liz used both hands on the back of Sarah’s upper arm and pushed the arm forward. All of them could feel the pressure now, forcing them back. Alistair didn’t dare let her go, for it seemed the force would have thrown her back if he did.
And then suddenly her arm was through. Fire and ice raced from her right hand all the way down to her right foot, but she grasped onto something, felt leather and a metal eyelet, then let it go and reached further, sweeping her arm around a pile of leather and metal clad objects to pull in all the pieces of equipment they had seen.
“Pull me out,” she gasped. The pain shot across her shoulder blades and down her left arm to the elbow.
They reversed their pushing and tried to pull her back, but now the glass seemed to hold her in place.
“Are you holding onto to the pieces? You’ve got to let go of them,” Liz gasped. “They won’t come through.”
“I can’t! It’s what we need!”
Alistair and Jo dropped lower, out of sight of the mirror, got in front of her, and put their shoulders to her waist, Alistair on one side and Jo on the other. They pushed against her like tacklers. The strain on her arm increased, and for a moment it seemed that they must pull her apart from it at the shoulder. The pain and coldness burst up her neck and across her sinuses and eyes. Like Jo, when he blinded her, Sarah thought. But from a long distance away she felt her arm, still hooked around the small leather packets, come free of the pressure. She was out of the mirror. She heard the pieces of equipment drop to the floor. Now I’m in an avalanche, she thought, as the coldness roared all around her.
A long time later, she heard somebody moaning, almost like a song: voice and breath in cadence, in and out. It was a song of pain: low and long. And then warm heat was laid across her blind eyes and aching, cold sinuses, and the singing quieted. She opened her eyes.
Liz and Jo were exchanging hot packs on her, removing spent ones and replacing them. The room was filled with steam and aromatics of eucalyptus and rosewood. When Liz saw her eyes open, she expertly fitted a straw to Sarah’s lips, and Sarah Jane sucked up warm ginger tea.
“Who was crying?” she asked. “Did you see to her?”
“That was you, darling.” And Liz took up Sarah’s wrist, checking her pulse. “How’s the pain?”
“I’m not in pain. It must be somebody else. We have to find her, then.”
“No it was you, puddleduck,” Jo said gently.
“I’ve filled you full of painkillers,” Liz said gently. ‘Bennie went out and got them.”
“Did I sleep through it?”
“No lamb,” Liz said. “We haven’t started out yet.”
“Did I ruin it?”
“No,” they both told her, their voices gentle.
“The time wasn’t right,” Liz told her. “We’ve been given a gift. You seized locators. Do you understand me?”
“She does,” Jo said.
“The tech sweeps can tune locators to metabolisms,” Liz said carefully. “It’s tedious and difficult, almost the same as doing a door to door search. They are looking for us in earnest. They are ready to go street by street and acre by acre to find metabolisms that would be close to ours, to Alistair and I, and to Jo. You pulled the searching devices back through the glass.”
“Could I have gotten all of them?”
“We think so.”
“It hurt so much.” She started to sit up, and they assisted her, keeping the blankets around her and rearranging the hot packs. “Why don’t I feel pain?”
“Because I’ve injected you full of painkillers,” Liz said gently.
“I still have to go with you.”
Jo nodded as though to agree and then stood and hurried to the kitchen.
“Yes dear, of course,” Liz said. “But the locators have got to be analyzed first.”
Sarah looked around. The room, the garden outside, the entire house, were dim. One tiny light from the kitchen, where Jo had gone, sent out tiny rays. “If they’re looking that hard, it’s just a matter of time,” she said. “We’ve only delayed them, and perhaps not by much.”
“Jo is going to look after you,” Liz told her. “I’ve been examining the locators as I’ve been able. I’ll need a few more hours.”
“If you can keep the pain down, I can go with you,” Sarah said. “I need to go.”
Liz became soothing. “Yes dear, you are still in the plan.” She nodded. “Control of pain, even with just chemical intervention, is very sophisticated. Benny is trying to get some sterile IV tubing for tonight. Or I can dose you up again in the morning, and you’ll be good for eight to ten hours. After that, the pain may return. It took you 24 hours last time to really recover. This time seemed more severe.” Her eyes were concerned, but Sarah forced a smile.
“It may not matter. And, well, it can’t. We have to go ahead.”
“Dinner,” Jo said, appearing at her side with a plate.
She managed knife and fork well enough, but she noted a slight muzziness in her coordination. Painkillers, she knew, had improved enormously over the last century, perhaps more so than any other chemical therapy, before the nanites had been configured to control pain. The nanites were more durable and cleared out of the system more effectively. But a hangover likely wasn’t going to be a concern after tomorrow. Liz could give her as much as was needed to keep her going.
She was fully able to carry her own plate to the kitchen when she was finished, even though Jo stayed by her side, apparently having seen just how many injections Liz had supplied.
She felt a slight disorientation and so was surprised, when Alistair entered the house through the side door, to realize she had not noticed his absence. He took off his hat, looked at Jo and her almost sheepishly, or ruefully, Sarah was not sure which, and hurried to the small study where Liz was working.
“Where did he go?” Sarah asked blankly.
“Seeing to final touches,” Jo said. “Finished with the plate? I’ll run it through the AC with the other things.” AC, Sarah thought, not air conditioner any more. Those had become EC’s—environment controller. AC, oh yes, autoclave: the new name for dishwashers.
Jo pressed a button and the AC’s door slid up and sealed tight. “Guess we’d better give it a run before breakfast,” Jo said, and she pushed the Start.
Alistair entered through the sitting room, behind them. “Well ladies,” he said gravely, his voice kind with a kindness Sarah Jane had never heard in it before. They turned to him. His eyes were shining, but with the faintest hint of tears, Sarah thought, though she couldn’t be sure. “Perhaps we should have one last sit down before morning.”
“You got them?” Jo asked.
He nodded. “Sarah, dear, how are you? Liz said you’re head should be pretty clear.”
“Just moving a little slowly,” she told him. “But yes, I’m coherent. Do we still have more planning?”
“A few decisions,” Jo said. “Come on, if Liz can spare a few minutes. Let’s get this settled.”
And to Sarah Jane’s surprise, Jo took her hand, but it may have simply been to guide her in the dimming room. Twilight had come.
Alistair led them back to the study. Liz was clearing bits of the new equipment from the work table that had held the cartridges. Liz looked up and let a very conventional jeweler’s glass drop from her eye into her hand. “Well all right,” she said at sight of them. “But this is a private decision.”
“Yes, but we should all know,” Alistair said.
“Know what?” Sarah Jane asked.
For answer, Alistair reached into his pocket, and instead of producing the illegal tobacco that he had recently come to fancy, he drew out four tiny bags and set them on the table. Each clear packet looked like it held a piece of gum, what had once been called Chicklets.
“They are candy coated,” Alistair said. “The candy has an abrasive in it to cause small wounds along the gum line. Each pill is filled with weaponized and refined Saxitoxin. Just bite down and chew on it. It will infiltrate through the gums and death would occur within minutes. There is no antidote and no reversal.”
“But why would we kill ourselves,” Sarah Jane asked.
“If we are captured, dear,” he said. “This isn’t a suicide party. But everybody who wants one can take one, and if there are any left, I’ll dispose of them safely. We can’t just leave them lying around if we don’t come back.”
“I pass,” Liz said quietly. “Into God’s Hands, as before. I’ve already betrayed all secrets. There is nobody else to protect outside of this circle. If we fail, I pray that God gives me death. But it’s His will.”
Alistair inclined his head. “Where you go, I go,” he said. “I pass.”
Jo took up one of the wrapped pieces and pocketed it. “I choose death. I can betray others, and I know I won’t last against torture, not forever any way.”
They tried not to glance at Sarah, but each one of them did, as they waited for her choice. “Pass,” she said quietly.
“Then I’ll dispose of these,” Alistair said, sweeping up the three rejected pieces.
“I still need a couple hours,” Liz said. “To finish with their equipment.”
“Any chance of a few last drinks?” Jo asked cheerfully. “Hate to think I’ve had my last of that brandy!”
“I can see what’s left if Sarah Jane is still wobbly on her pins,” Alistair said.
Liz cast a judicious eye at Sarah. “Probably none for you, Sarah dear, not with all that I’ve got stuffed into your veins right now.”
“Hot cocoa?” Sarah asked hopefully.
“Yes, that would be fine.”
“I’ll see to glasses,” Jo said, and the three of them would have cleared off, but Liz added, “And don’t drink it all, mind. I won’t be in here all night.”
Much later, after drinks and clearing up and more kisses to say good night all around, Sarah lay in her bed in her dim room and tried to think it all through. Come morning, a jaunt with Jo out to a lake to launch the cartridges, while Alistair and Liz went in first to the great research center, the very hub of it, to plant the magnetic pulse grenades and then try to infiltrate the extensive database system. It was a simple plan, in one sense: while the plant was vulnerable from the water hornets and the magnetic pulse damage, send in a false alert of system download, and the system itself would go into an emergency erase and destroy program. The trick was to carry a virus into the security level operations that would keep duplicating the alert so that the system kept erasing and destroying its contents. Within 10 – 15 minutes the entire, massive database network: all patient information, all client information, all research information, all the specs on all the thousands of medical devices, all the crystalline lattice recipes that made the nannites: everything. And best of all, any research company that was surreptitiously scanning the databases during that time would pick up the same bit of security code and implant it in its own home system. The chain reaction would start all over again.
It will be the end of the world, Sarah Jane thought. Everybody would be thrown back onto books; at least, all medical research would be. Like being thrown back to the Stone Age. So it would be the end of the world for the techno elite, the artificially enhanced people. For all biotech manufacturing was connected into the great tech databases. Everything, literally everything that created the artificial paradise of modern earth would be halted.
Whatever nannites and independent systems survived the destruction of global research knowledge would quickly be hoarded. A new class system, or rather a very old one, of poor people, was about to be recreated. For people were going to have to work again: forage, labor, grub, gouge, wangle, barter, and argue to get what they needed. And they would all be infirm.
Infirmity, she thought, actually slows us down. One-legged people cannot kick down doors. Weak hearts prevent daring thefts and swift getaways.
But it was no pleasure, not even a relief, to think that after tomorrow, if all went well, she would have played a role in restoring infirmity to the planet. Goodness and mercy were supposed to stop infirmity. When mercy met her on a distant planet, mercy gave her water and food, healed her from disease, restored her vision, dressed her in fine clothing, and imparted a fragile but persistent glory to her. That was how she still understood mercy. Still, she prayed, how else can they be stopped from destroying everybody else?
Hours later, she woke from a throbbing across the bridge of her nose. The pain was coming back. It radiated out, rushed across her forehead and down the back of her head, then across her shoulders, down to her hips, and down each leg. She went rigid from it. It was even worse than before.
I’ve got to get to Liz, she thought, but when she tried to move, everything wrenched, and the pain shot across her eyes. She couldn’t lift herself off the bed. She tried to breathe deeply, but any motion, even of air, across her aching sinuses inflamed the pain further. She had to pant. Her mouth went dry. She couldn’t scream; she couldn’t even call out.