“Just another moment, dear,” a calm voice said. It was Liz. How had she known? “Jo, get that syringe with the blue stripe,” Liz said. “I’ll run it right into the drip.”
Something bit into the back of Sarah Jane’s hand, a minor twinge compared to the cold, pounding ache in her head, spine, shoulders and hips.
“Yes, warm packs on her face. She can’t even open her eyes,” Liz said. “We’re helping you, Sarah Jane.”
Sarah found that her hands were less painful than her shoulders and hips. She opened her right hand and tried to lift it to reach, and Liz must have seen and understood, for Sarah’s hand was quickly taken by another hand, warm and sure.
“Sarah,” Jo’s voice said. “We’re going to take away the pillow from under your head. That will ease some of the pain down your neck and shoulders.”
Alistair must have also been there, for Liz didn’t have to let go her hand, and yet two careful hands slipped under her head and shoulders. She heard that other person moan from pain, and then the pillow was slipped out, and her head came to rest on a soft coil of flannel. But the level surface was easier than the pillow.
“About three more minutes,” Liz said to somebody.
Sarah gasped out with a sob, felt a very warm hand on top of her head, comforting her. Whoever it was had held a hot pack first. She gasped, “I’m thirsty.”
They gave her a straw and she sucked up the warm ginger tea. More hot packs on her stomach and her feet followed, and the pricks of additional injections, and then she was sliding away from the pain. She renewed her grip on Liz’s hand, and Liz’s hand tightened. And then, what seemed a long time later, she could open her eyes again. There was a compress over them, but she could see light under the bottom edge of it.
“Please, what time is it?” she asked.
“A little past two, dear,” Liz said.
Sarah took in her breath. Everything was less constricted. “How long have you been here?”
“I came in and sat by you hours ago, but you didn’t wake up until a few minutes ago. You didn’t see me. You tried to get up before I could stop you.”
“That was just a few minutes ago?”
“Yes, let’s see. About 15 minutes, dear.”
“It seemed like hours,” Sarah whispered.
“Would you like more ginger tea, Sarah?” Jo asked.
With her free hand, somewhat clumsily, Sarah Jane lifted the compress off her eyes. Jo and Liz were on either side of her, and Alistair was on Jo’s other side, in a chair, his eyes concerned.
“You’re on an IV,” Liz said. “So if you stand, you’ll need to roll it along with you.”
“Yes Liz. I’m all right now, Jo. It was pretty bad. It felt like hours. Thank you.”
“You feel no pain?” Liz asked.
“No, just tired.”
“One of us will stay with you. I can increase the dosage on some of the medications.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah said.
“Oh Sarah, this is what comes of reaching barehanded through time and space,” Jo said, and Alistair added, “Yes it is.”
Sarah’s eyes were already closing.
“I’ll stay for a few hours,” Jo told them. “You two get some sleep.”
“And I’ll see to breakfast first thing in the morning,” Alistair added.
• * * *
In the morning, a gray and cheerless morning, with low clouds but no rain, Sarah swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood without thinking. Then she noticed Jo curled up in a chair by the bed, asleep. A sting in her hand reminded her of the IV. She rested her other hand on Jo’s head, and Jo opened those youthful, sleepy eyes.
“Take my bed and have a nap until breakfast,” Sarah told her. “I’m fine this morning.”
Jo nodded, yawned, and stretched, and then sleepily slipped out of the chair and climbed into the bed. “Mind the IV in the shower,” she said, and then fell fast asleep. Of course, Sarah Jane thought, the bed that housed Sarah would smell like Fomalhaut, and that fragrance would compel sleep.
Good, she thought. Jo deserves a good peaceful nap before this other thing.
She would have gone out to the hallway, but Liz, already dressed and moving carefully, pushed the door open a crack, saw her, and entered.
“Let me get you unattached,” she said. “I’ve got to finish off a few things downstairs.” She was pre-occupied with the preliminary tasks of the day, so Sarah said nothing and offered the hand. Liz slipped out the point from the valve, and then lifted the taped ends and cleanly slipped the syringe point out of Sarah’s hand. She pressed a clean wash cloth against it.
Only then did she look up at Sarah. “No headache?”
“No, I feel fine.”
“I’ve got to dose you before we go. And then, maybe eight hours. I’ll leave syringes behind, loaded, in case you can get back here. Other than that,” And she shook her head. “We can only hope that the pain from reaching through the mirror will subside once 24 hours have passed.”
“As in everything else, we’ll have to trust God,” Sara Jane said. “We’ve got enough on our plates today. I just need to be good for the rest of the day.”
“Yes, I can see to that. You’ll wake Jo before you go downstairs?”
“Yes Liz. Of course.”
Liz nodded, instantly going back to her preoccupation, and hurried out.
It was after six, so Sarah undressed and stepped under the dry cleaner in the bathroom and let the air jets and light sweeps give her a good going over. She changed into fresh clothing, let the vanity drive give her a treatment, and went downstairs to see if anybody else was up.
But partway down the stairs the fresh scent of brewing coffee and frying bacon greeted her. There was something masculine, almost military, about the way Alistair made breakfast, all the odors marching up the steps in uniform profile, all the glasses and cups and plates perfectly set out on the table, every beaker the exact same distance from its plate, etc.
“Well,” he said as she entered the kitchen. “I didn’t expect to see you up so soon. Feeling better?”
“Enormously. Breakfast smells heavenly.”
He smiled wryly. “Let’s hope so.”
“Is Liz in the study?”
“Packing the zip for you and Jo and Benny. Is Jo up?”
“No, I’ll go wake her.” Both Liz and Alistair were much further along than she had thought they would be. Clearly, Sarah thought, this was the day. She hurried back up to her room and, reluctantly, rested a hand on Jo’s head.
“Jo darling. Do you want to get up?”
Jo sleepily opened her eyes. Without her wits entirely about her, she looked oddly younger and more innocent as she blinked for a moment, peaceful under the fragrance of Fomalhaut. She paused and then recognized Sarah Jane. “Oh, we’ve got that business pending,” she murmured.
She shook her head and sat up, then ruffled up her own hair. “Right then.” She glanced up at Sarah Jane. “It’s you and me and Benny out at the reservoir, while Alistair and Liz go into the place.”
Sarah nodded. “They’ve packed the zip and are seeing to breakfast. You’d better hurry.”
“All right.” Suddenly all business and optimistic energy, Jo smiled. She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and stood. She threw a glance out the window. “No rain. Perfect.”
Breakfast was a silent meal, overall. Alistair had made oatmeal, toast, and bacon. It was odd, Sarah thought. Nobody felt awkward in the silence, each of them too full of thoughts.
“I’ll clear up,” Jo said. “Sarah, what about the house? I mean, is there any sort of locking up to do, burning of documents?”
For answer, Sarah Jane glanced at Alistair and Liz. “Just a few final notes,” Liz said. “We should take a quick look at the study and make sure we’ve removed everything. But I think most of the destruction is done.”
“I’ll help you,” Sarah said. “I’ll make sure there are no references anywhere to anybody I’ve had contact with.” There most likely wouldn’t be, she thought. For years she had lived a near hermit’s existence, forgotten by the world. But just one pointer to an innocent person: grocer, software advisor, clothier, might endanger somebody who had never known about this dangerous enterprise at all.
“I’ll go over the procedure with Benny,” said Alistair. “He’s just pulling in now.”
* * * *
“I hope it’s not upsetting for you, removing all traces of your life like this,” Liz said awkwardly as Sarah watched the screen on the wall methodically accept the magnetic wave from the Sur-rase drive that Liz had attached to the heart of Sarah Jane’s home unit. Line by line, the screen dictated all that was being permanently and seamlessly destroyed. The Sur-rase drives, which needed physical attachment to a unit and generated incredible magnetic waves across all surfaces, had been declared illegal two decades ago because of how effectively they removed information. Of course Benny had socked away half a dozen of them. As far as Sarah Jane recalled, you could actually go up on charges of terrorism for owning one.
Other than the two of them, the study was quiet. Liz was studying a checksheet, standing by the window, while Sarah sat at the desk and watched the screen on the wall as the Sur-rase worked.
“No,” Sarah murmured. “I’ve erased my life before. It stops mattering.” But this time, she thought, it might be the real thing. Her home had become a happy place over the last several months. There had been purpose and conviviality in it. And this might really be the end. What Kyree and Celia had endured, each without complaint, might at last be her lot. And she was surprised at finding her heart going cold at the prospect of it. She had longed for death, in theory, but now with the fact of it in front of her, she was afraid again. Erased, like the longest lines that appeared and then disappeared on the home unit screen on the far wall of the study: blanked out. Gone. The newness and strangeness of death washed over her again.
She was startled out of her reverie by two warm hands on either shoulder. She looked up at Liz.
“You all right?” Liz asked.
“Just getting my mind ready for today.”
“You may fare well enough.”
And come back here, Sarah thought. Alone again. No, death after over 150 years was better. Push yourself through the veil. She knew, at least intellectually, of the profound Mercy that waited.
“What about you?” she asked Liz. “How are you.”
“Well enough,” Liz said gravely. She brushed back Sarah’s bangs. ‘I feel prepared for this. Everything I could have asked for was given to me: Alistair, friends who know the truth about me all the way back, my health and my mind restored.” She thoughtfully brushed back Sarah’s hair again. “A chance for some perspective. And now I’ve been given all of it, and there’s only this task left. I want to do it.”
“You’re not afraid?”
No, Sarah Jane thought. Liz had contemplated her own death so many times in that place of torment that she knew how to live in this present moment only. If she focused on what she knew she had to focus on, the fearful thoughts of “time running out” would no longer trouble her.
The screen beeped with a long, low, unremitting beep that lasted a quarter of a minute and went stark, cobalt blue. “Done,” Sarah whispered. “All safe.”
She stood up. But Liz wasn’t finished. “I just want to say I am sorry for my pride, Sarah Jane. With everything that has happened to me, it has never left me. I have been dreadfully proud in your home, while living on your charity.”
Again, the towering humility of these people stopped her for a moment. Why was I ever given the gift? Sarah thought. For a sudden moment the ghastly inappropriateness of having seen heaven’s glory while better people had been purposed to suffer such darkness quelled her heart. She feared the very mercy that had been given to her more than she feared death itself, for she knew, with coldness and certainty, that she had squandered her gift far too often. Wasted mercy; wasted life.
But this was not the time to say such a thing. She lifted her hands and framed the face of her friend. “Liz, Mercy was waiting for you here. Mercy waits for you still. For all of us. Nothing takes Mercy by surprise. You’ve been a delight, one of my last and greatest true friends. I could almost wish you had wronged me, so that I could forgive you more. But it’s the other way around. I have never lived up to your wisdom and kindness. I have never so thoughtlessly waited on others like you’ve done.”
The fragrance, she suddenly realized, was all around them, suffusing the house. Liz held on to her hand at the wrist for just a moment, and then she nodded and was all right again. “We’d better see to those injections.” It was time to go.
* * * *
Benny drove the zip. The seat next to him was piled high with cartridges and launchers, safely buckled in, even though the zip’s magnetic field technology had made accidents---even sudden stops---extremely rare. Sarah and Jo sat in the back, with Sarah hugging her arm where Liz had slipped in the final injections against pain. For all their protection against pain, the old fashioned needles still hurt.
Jo was preoccupied, worried about Benny, her great-great-great-whatever-grand nephew. He was still in his early twenties: too young to face death. An elaborate scheme had been worked out to get him out of danger: he was to go back to his current hideaway and monitor communications. Alistair had given the final order, and Liz, Jo, and Sarah had agreed that Benny’s technical expertise was best used this way, as their own communication devices were antiquated, and he was skillful at monitoring both the modern communication technology of the tech sweeps, and the old analog technology that Jo, Liz, Alistair, and Sarah would use.
Of course, his four older compatriots knew that they would never communicate at all, except possibly to distract the tech sweeps. But Benny should live his life. All of Jo’s considerable finances, Sarah knew, were in a trust account that her numerous relatives could access at a given, allotted rate each month. Jo had bequeathed a king sized amount to Benny. He would do very well, and the work advocating for the super elderly would at least continue, even if they should fail today.
But Jo sat in the back seat, regarding him as he drove with a mix of matriarchal solemnity that Sarah had never seen in her before and open maternal worry. How would he manage without her?
Sarah felt her own heart twinge. She knew that look. She had known those worries. You had to let them go, and they always floundered out of the nest. And Benny was so vulnerable, hampered by the Aspergers, although it was the sort of disease that also gave a person a sort of immunity to feeling the pain of slights and any subtle rebuffs. Benny simply did not comprehend anything subtle. And yet, even with the farts and rough manners, he was a decent chap. He risked a great deal to help elderly people. What would he do, Sarah thought, if Jo never came back from this mission?
She reached over, took up Jo’s hand, and wrapped it around her own arm, comforting Jo, but also comforting herself.
“You all right?” Jo asked her.
“Glad you’re here,” Sarah said earnestly, and suddenly, she was. Jo, actually, was more brilliant and resourceful than the lot of them in tight circumstances. If you needed courage to die, Jo Grant was the person to die with you. She’d see it through with you, and never once falter. They didn’t speak again, not for a long time, until at last Benny said, “This looks like the turn-off. We may have to lug the stuff down to the water’s edge.”
* * * *
Going into the research plant as maintenance people had always seemed, to Liz, to be the weakest part of the plan. Security these days was just too good: retinal ID, fingerprint ID, detailed rosters that specified exactly who among the maintenance corps should be performing which tasks, at precisely the assigned places posted for the shift, had all eliminated the cultural acceptance of maintenance people being anywhere at any time within a plant. Nobody spied a flickering overhead light any more and then ran to get a ladder to replace it. The system tracked things like that. The system told the shift supervisor what needed to be done. In some places, the system assigned tasks to each member of the crew. It knew exactly who fixed what and how long the job took.
Coming back here, in her darker moments, had simply seemed right. There was always the slight chance they could pull this off. But really, in many private moments of reflection, and these had become more frequent as time had passed in Sarah Jane’s house, the thought that she should have died in the plant had weighed upon Liz. She had cursed her loved ones, cursed her faith, cursed her God, betrayed her country, betrayed the world, and she should have died. Some things required a life. Even if you struggled to remain true against torture, and nobody blamed you for folding in the end, there were some transactions that required a life. But Alistair had been suffering so, and Jo Grant had been so refreshing, such a beacon of light back to the old days, as though she could ever go back there and be what she had been before she had cracked under torture.
It was only after the happiness of Sarah Jane’s house, and her growing inability to find satisfaction and peace in it, that she understood more fully that she could never go back to the tranquility of the days previous to her betrayal. And she could not live in the current happy conditions of Alistair’s love, Sarah and Jo’s friendship, and the prosperity of Fomalhaut’s fragrance without first standing before the final bar of Justice. Her time to die had passed, and she had not died. So now she had to go back on this errand that seemed hardly likely to succeed, and here she would die. She had to appear at that final bar of justice and hear the decree: either forgiven, with the blessed release of forgetfulness given to her, or her just condemnation.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Alistair said softly. He’d parked them on the far side of the reservoir, in plain view of the plant. People sometimes picnicked here, even though it was plant property. There were invisible fences between them and the buildings, and nobody had ever crossed that grassy lawn to within a hundred yards of the plant without being sent packing—or arrested. But here, at some distance and at the water’s edge, they were simply ordinary people, as far as plant security was concerned, sitting on camp stools and enjoying hot cocoa while Alistair occasionally skimmed a stone across the water. The best place to hide was out in the open. And they had to wait for the water hornets to do their work.
“Just thinking,” she told him. She took his free hand. It was warm from holding the mug of cocoa.
“I’ve never made you happy,” he said after a long moment.
“You saved me from an incredible darkness,” she said instantly. “You rescued me. You really have, darling. I lost my way, and you found me.”
He paused, and his eyes, those large eyes that were so patient these days, crinkled up in some puzzlement. It was a look she had not seen since the old days, and she suddenly remembered all their old collisions with each other. Even their old friction seemed innocent now.
“But it wasn’t enough,” he said at last.
“There’s something that can’t be fixed any more. I lost something in there, something was destroyed by them. Even Fomalhaut couldn’t repair me.” She had not meant to cry, but on this last acknowledgement her voice broke.
He opened his arm and she took up the camp stool and moved closer to him to be under his arm.
“You’re sad about being a sinner, Elizabeth. It’s what everybody is.”
“I have to go and be fixed by God. It’s the only repair now.” She looked up at him. “But—this isn’t boldfaced suicide. I’m with you in this. We have to try this, and we have to try to win.”
“I know,” he said quietly. “I know that you will do your best for this.”
“No foolish risks or suicidal gestures,” she promised. “But I’m not afraid of taking death when they bring it.” She looked away from him. “And—I want it now. Not to leave you, but to leave me.” Her eyes, large and suddenly timid, met his again. “Is that all right?”
He leaned closer and kissed her forehead. “I want you to have peace.” He hesitated, his forehead against hers. “Every day with you has given me joy. You’ve never wronged me.”
* * * *
“I think that’s all of it. Go on.” And Benny threw his glance down the short, steep path that led to the water’s edge.
Laboring with the clumsy metal launch chutes under each arm, Sarah Jane and Jo lumbered down the path while Benny followed them with the lion’s share of the metal boxes stacked in his arms. The breeze turned cold and the sun withdrew behind some clouds. At the water’s edge, Benny collapsed to his knees, set the stack of launch chutes carefully onto the grass, and leaned forward to inspect the water.
“Too shallow here,” he said. “We’ve got to submerge them.” He stood up. “You two go that way and look for a better place. I’ll check up this way.”
Another quarter of an hour passed before they found a suitable spot. The reservoir was enormous: a tremendous man-made lake, carefully groomed with groves of trees, such as the one where they now operated, and open park-like areas, some with picnic tables and patches of flowers. As Benny, on his knees, carefully lowered the launch chutes one by one into water, Sarah Jane looked across the vast lake. She could just make out the very top of the highest buildings of the research facility, on the opposite shore.
“These little hornets will cross this thing?” she asked.
“Yes,” Jo said shortly, preoccupied with helping Benny. She had a type of level in her hands, one end of it resting on the submerged launch chutes, verifying that they were on an even keel under the water.
“As long as the water’s still,” Benny said. “And there’s not a lot of sunshine or wind.”
He lowered the last device and carefully lifted his hands from the water. Then he looked at Jo, and she looked up at him and nodded. “Step back then,” he said. Sarah Jane retreated, and Jo carefully took up the level and joined her. He stood, fished a remote control from his pocket, and pressed a button.
The only visible effect was a sudden bubbling as the chutes ejected compressed air to enable the frail hornets to push against the water pressure. Then, the water barely rippled, but Benny, holding the remote device like a direction finder, seemed satisfied. “About 88 percent effective,” he said, reading the tiny screen on it. “Better than we thought for launch.”
“How many have to get into the piping system?” Sarah asked.
“Seventy percent,” Jo said. “But we estimated a 25 percent loss upon launch and five percent on the journey across. We’ve done better than we expected, so far. It should work.”
“How long until they’re in?”
“Five minutes,” Benny said. He was watching the screen on the remote handler. “They’re making good time.”
+ + + + +
For the third or fourth time, Alistair plucked the small binoculars up from the lunch box and swept his gaze across the vast lake. “There he is. He’s signaling.” In a world of high tech eavesdropping, the safest way to communicate was by the age old device of a flashing mirror. It would pass unnoticed as the reflection from the mirror of a Zip or even the shine from a stainless steel thermos.
Liz rested her hand on his arm. “It’s a go,” Alistair said. “They’ve made it into the water intakes.” He lowered the binoculars. Swiftly, they stood and packed their scant amount of gear into the weighted sack they had brought and dropped it into the water. It fell without a splash, weighty enough to sink to the bottom. It was time to enter the plant.
+ + + +
“Good old Benny,” Jo said quietly as Sarah piloted them down the road in the Zip. She could just make him out in the rear view mirror, peddling the collapsible bicycle they’d stowed in the boot. A fishing rod across the handlebars, he was the picture of a slightly sloppy, ordinary local who’d gone down to see what was biting. According to plan, he had dumped all his electronic gear into the water once he had signaled Alistair and Liz. Even if he were stopped, he had nothing more sophisticated than a rod and reel.
“He’s a pretty capable lad,” Sarah said gently. “He’s smart.”
“He’ll always be lonely,” And Jo, who had never yet cried, shed a few tears. It utterly disarmed Sarah Jane. She had no idea what to say. Jo simply never cried.
“Oh look at me,” she said. “Gone all soft. I just, I just love him so much. Like my son—“ And then she truly cried in earnest. “My son. O God, have mercy on my boy. He doesn’t manage well without me.”
“I’m sorry Jo,” she whispered.
“Go on then,” Jo said to nobody in particular. “Crying won’t help, and I’ve prayed for him. We’ve got to stay focused on this.”
“You ready?” Sarah asked.
“Bleary eyes and a red nose probably help,” Jo remarked, but she was calmer. She withdrew an enormous bottle of gin from her bag. The bottle was only half full.
“Go on, you first,” Jo said. “You’ve got that blessed breath and all. Probably fewer germs.”
“Oh right.” But Sarah took up the bottle in one hand as she drove and took an enormous swig of the gin. She swished it around in her mouth and passed the bottle back to Jo.
“Here, look here,” Jo said in a cartoonish voice. She glanced at Jo, and Jo shook a tiny rubber bulb, pointed it at Sarah, and compressed it. A puff of dust hit Sarah’s eyes. “Oh! That smarts!”
“Mind the wheel,” Jo said.
“Are we veering off the road?”
“We can’t veer off the road, not in a Zip. Of course, maybe a little erratic wheel control is good. We ought to be on their security scan by now. We’re close to the gate.” Jo puffed the bulb at her own eyes and then took a swig of the gin and swished it around.
Sarah rubbed her eyes and her vision cleared. When she checked the rear view mirror, she had lovely bloodshot eyes and her nose had reddened. She took the bottle back and sipped it this time, letting the gin slide down into her stomach. She passed it back to Jo.
“Oi, lookeere!” Jo squeaked in her dotty old lady voice, and then she spit a stream of gin through her front teeth onto Sarah Jane.
“What was that for?” Sarah asked.
“The smell, love. Now act like a lush.”
In a moment or two, they arrived at the side security gate of the great research plant. The gate was down, and a man in uniform and helmet approached, saw them and the bottle, and removed the helmet. He gestured for Sarah Jane to lower her window. She fumbled with the controls on the door, as though unable to find the button. Jo leaned over, pushed aside Sarah’s hands, and then found the button. By now the security guard was exasperated with a gentle sort of exasperation.
“What’s all this then, ladies?” he asked.
“We’ve come to see the parade,” Sarah told him, slurring her speech. Jo, still leaning towards the controls, collapsed into her lap and then dragged herself up.
“Who’s that nice young man then?” she asked in her dotty old lady voice.
He leaned closer, smelled the overpowering stench of gin, and became almost puritanically disapproving. “Now aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? Drunk at this time of the morning.”
“It’s night,” Sarah said. “Tremendous full moon.’
“Ask the young man if he’ll buy us a drink. He could sit down if he likes,” said Jo, all dotty.
By law, even with the extra measure of safety provided by the Zips, the security guard could not let them drive. “Look, you’ll have to step out of the vehicle,” he told them.
“We just want directions to the parade,” Sarah said. Another guard emerged from the tiny roadside guard shack, approached, and removed his helmet as his peer looked up at him ruefully.
“Parade is it?” the second man asked. “Over in town, you mean? The March Lion parade? You’re a bit off course, Love.”
“Well they can’t drive,” the first one said. “Come on ladies, out of the vehicle, then.”
Jo and Sarah tried to talk him out of it and even cried when the young men opened both doors and made them come out. They held onto each other and said it wasn’t fair, and all they wanted was to find parking for the parade.
“Look,” the first said to the second. “Get them into the holding tank for a couple hours, until they sober up.” And then they both cried and were frightened and didn’t want to go to the holding tank. But finally a shuttle came, a Zip with several passenger seats, and they were firmly ushered inside and sent into the holding area of the plant.
+ + + +
Liz expected them to be caught at the maintenance doors when they entered the place, dressed in coveralls, plastic hair nets, and hard plastic protective caps, thirty minutes after shift had started. But the careful retinal entries with their associated counterfeit security clearances that Benny had implanted into the plant database worked, at least at the simple level of getting them into the plant corridors. The doors opened for them, and nobody came to confront them with questions.
Carrying the cases with their precious cargo, they walked purposefully towards the first location designated for the impulse grenade. They had six to set. Liz doubted that they would be able to get through to the more security sensitive areas on their makeshift counterfeit security entries. But Alistair, she knew, was counting on the hornets to bring down a significant part of the electronic infrastructure.
With their hair hidden by regulation hair nets and protective caps, they did not look their age, not at first glance.
He was navigator. He had memorized the walkways of the plant, and he led them, unerringly, to the first point of placing the magnetic pulse bomb that should bring down all electronic devices in the plant. There was a handy niche under a water fountain. While he kept watch, she opened her case, removed the canister that held the two chemical components, and carefully slid it out of view under the fountain. Without even looking, she carefully punched up the three-digit code that would set the device to trigger with the others. It would work only if all of them triggered together.
Behind them, lights flashed, and a security whistle suddenly pierced the quieter sounds of distant voices and small scale machinery.
She stood up. Neither of them ran, and they both adopted expressions of puzzled dismay. But each of them knew, already, that they had been discovered.
• * * *
Mere drunks, of course, were harmless nuisances to the plant. As expected, Sarah Jane and Jo were not processed except that they were asked for their names and communication signatures, in case anybody were out looking for them. They cried and were ashamed and begged not to have their families called and wouldn’t give the names of their closest kin. And so at last they were ushered into a very comfortable security cell with two small beds and a tiny loo behind a screen, and left to sleep it off.
Decades ago, they would have been breathalyzed, but these days people took drugs to fool breathalyzers, so only the police stations had the sophisticated breath analyzing units that could get an accurate measure of alcohol content. And taking blood was not allowed unless a medical person were present.
Apparently, as Jo had guessed, there were enough drunks around the picnic areas by the reservoirs to make such trespassers not entirely uncommon, especially around holidays. And even private security forces, those that patrolled areas with roads and traffic, were now charged with keeping the public peace and safety intact, and so drunk drivers were simply held until they sobered up.
“Technically,” she whispered to Sarah as they sat on their bunks in the cell. “They’re supposed to turn us over to the police, but nobody does. The police won’t come out for a couple drunk drivers who just need a few hours.”
“What about that man, that man called Satan,” Sarah whispered.
“He’s specialized security: investigative. He’s not part of the grounds patrol crew. We’re fine.” She glanced around. “Just need to wait.”
The water hornets, if they were successful, should start taking effect well before they would be released.
* * * *
It was eerie, the way they were treated with such courtesy. Almost like the first capture, Liz thought. Just need to run a few more tests, if you don’t mind. Probably nothing. Please make yourself comfortable. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have tea while you wait, and so on. Until, almost imperceptibly, you were being told that you had no rights, that you had no advocates, and that the soonest way out was to cooperate fully. Except, as far as the techs intended, the only way out was in a box or up a smokestack. And she would have gone that way, except that they discovered that she was also a treasure of ROR information.
The only difference, now that they were caught red handed at sabotage, was that the security techs asked them not to speak with each other. But even then, Alistair was not removed to another detention room. She and he were given hard, plain, but not uncomfortable chairs, and courteously directed to sit down, her with her back to one wall, and he at another, but in plain view of each other. And the security tech, a holstered weapon at his side, stood against the wall opposite Liz and far enough from Alistair so that Alistair was out of reach. But he didn’t cover them or threaten them. He kept the sidearm holstered. He merely asked if they understood that they had been caught trespassing in a licensed research facility, with dangerous, illegal contraband in their possession, and that dressing as licensed facility workers was now also a crime?
They both nodded. He paused, as though assuming they would say more. And when they did not, he said that somebody would be with them shortly, and if the wait were prolonged, they would be given tea.
A few minutes later, a middle-aged man, slender of build and with soft features, wearing a lab jacket rather than a security uniform, entered. He was business like, analytical, and not unkind. Indeed, he seemed almost like a gently grieved school headmaster.
“Well my dears,” he told them. He had one of the seized magnetic pulse grenades in his hand. “This would have done quite a bit of damage, especially if it had been detonated with the other five sets that were found in your cases.”
He held it up for examination, as though giving a lecture to a class of interns. “And it’s not a bad design, for this type of multi-component style attack. Somebody knew what they were about, although this type of design is dated by 25 years or so.” He passed it back to the security tech, who set it onto the floor. Then he continued his lecture. “So you’ve got money behind you, as well as a certain amount of expertise that is quite sophisticated, and yet not up to date.” He closed his mouth and seemed to be doing calculations in his head. “Yes, so who are you, my dears? The way you came in, right through the front door—well, side door, anyway. Nobody’s attempted that either in over a decade. And even then it was rare.” He took a meditative pace forward and then a pace back. “Yes, espionage has been remote for the longest time now: networks and narrow band width commands written directly into refreshable processors. Even the odd narrow laser, working ever so delicately over the miles to wear through lead shielded cable housing.”
He became more breezy and casual. “Quite a slap on the wrist to us, that you actually got inside. That you actually planted the first set of pulse grenades.”
Alistair spoke: “What gave us away?”
The question caught their captor by surprise, but he suddenly smiled, as though genuinely impressed by Alistair’s audacity.
“Well, there’s no harm in telling you, I suppose. Those little magnetic pulse bombs of yours emit tiny streams of energized particles from around the detonation caps. Not very many, mind you. There are some granite samples you could locate out in parts of the USA that actually emit more. All the same, we have strobes, invisible to the human eye, that pick up any particle streams. You were picked up before you’d gone twenty paces into the plant area.” He had been speaking with his hands behind his back, but now he brought them forward and put his fingertips together. “And now, it’s time for you to answer some questions. We won’t even have to ask the first set.”
And he pulled a tiny communication device from his labcoat pocket. He studied the face of it, clearly reading a small screen. “Yes, very quaint the way you both wore gloves, as though we still need direct contact to get your fingerprints. We’ve taken your fingerprints and DNA while you’ve been sitting here. I’m sure a thorough database analysis will be completed in a few minutes. But for the moment.” And he glanced from Alistair to Liz. “As you’ve got each other’s DNA spread around you, you’re lovers.” Then he caught himself. “No, what am I saying? Of course lovers, but more than lovers.” He slid the device into his pocket. “Husband and wife, in my opinion. How lovely to see that some older couples still do things together, although terrorism was hardly a good first choice.”
He now waved the security tech forward, and the young man pulled his sidearm from its holster and stepped forward.
“I am a happily married man,” their captor said. “Devotedly happy. So I know, oh yes I know, how this will be worked out.” He pointed at Liz. “Put the woman in your sites, and when I say so, fire. I want her brains blown into the wall behind her.”
The tech, face expressionless, snapped the weapon up, trained on Liz.
The man in the lab coat looked at Alistair. “Now, to save her, tell me who you are, who fronted you with the money and technology to attempt this act of sabotage, and why you would do such a thing to a research organization.”
Alistair flicked one glance at her. Eyes quiet, sad, and yet ready, she met his glance.
“No,” Alistair said.
“I warn you, I will kill her.”
“Then you’ll have to.” And Alistair looked from his wife to his captor. “Neither one of us is telling you anything.”