“Oh, that’s lovely,” Jo murmured as the overhead lights dimmed. Out in the hallway that divided the two sets of cells, they heard the main door’s lock spring open, set to fail unlocked as a safety precaution. But their own cell door remained locked. Clearly, the designers had intended that the patrol officers should never be walled off from the detainees in an emergency, but neither could the detainees get out without assistance.
In a moment, the emergency lighting came up. It barely illuminated anything and merely cast a reddish glow over them. But Jo, quite at ease, stood, hooked her left foot over her right knee, and extracted two lock picks from the heel of her shoe.
The lock on their cell door was merely a sophisticated manual lock. If there had been a magnetic coil to keep it firm, that had shut off. Jo reached around the bars and fished the two picks around in the lock. Sarah heard the click and her exclamation of happiness, but the door still didn’t open. “I’ve got to force the bolt back. Come give us a hand,” she said, and Sarah came to help her.
* * * *
“No, don’t shoot her,” the soft spoken man in the lab coat said. “He means it.” He stared at Alistair. All right then, you’re a suicide team.” He cocked his head and stared at Alistair. “Professional, technological, financed, and completely disciplined. And yet you relied on the crudest of methods to actually infiltrate.”
He might have said more, but just then the lights dimmed almost to darkness, and then the reddish emergency lighting came up.
“You have other agents in the plant?” he asked.
“No,” Alistair said.
“Yes, well, it’s time for a little chemical intervention, I think,” he began.
But just then door burst open. Two harsh white beams stabbed into the room, and then a high powered LED lantern sprang to white light, pitching stark black shadows against the wall, behind the man who held it. Liz, up to this moment calm and composed, took in her breath, frightened. Flanked by two men in entirely different uniforms, the man who called himself Satan stepped closer to her and glanced from her to Alistair.
“Mr Sorenson,” their captor said, startled.
“Get out,” the man called Satan said to the man in the lab coat. “Take your patrolman with you.”
The man in the lab coat actually looked frightened. He said nothing more, nodded to his security tech, and they both strode out, as though glad to be gone from the presence of this newcomer. Liz and Alistair refrained from glancing at each other, but there was a definite sense, though he had been a determined captor, that the departure of the man in the white lab coat included the departure of a certain wall of protection.
“You’ve actually come back,” Sorenson said. “Did you think we wouldn’t have your records on file? And yet you came back here.” He seized Liz by her hair and pulled her to her feet. Alistair started up, and one of the uniformed men neatly kicked his legs out from under him and slammed him back into the chair. “To commit sabotage? Revenge at your age? You should have conserved your energy and thrown yourselves over a cliff. Now I’ll ask you once: who’s behind you two?”
“No,” Liz gasped.
The man called Satan looked at Alistair in the stark white and black room. “A power failure and two drunks appear at the west side gate? How stupid do you think we are? And you will talk, and there won’t be any debate.” As though she weighed nothing, he slammed Liz face first into the wall.
“For heaven’s sake, have you no shame?” Alistair asked.
“None, and don’t worry. You’re next.” It was hard to follow his movements in the garish stripes of white light and black darkness in the room, but Sorenson extended a hand, and the uniformed man closest to him slapped something into his palm. “We don’t waste time when the research itself is in danger.”
At first Alistair thought it was a knife, but the overhead lights brightened again. And then he saw that it was a very old fashioned and very large syringe. “Right up into the brain,” the man said. He set the point at the base of her skull and depressed the plunger. Liz let out a cry. It turned into a wail of pain. Alistair started forward and was punched. He fell back, dazed. “In twenty to thirty minutes, you two will tell us everything, because the living electronic devices in this syringe will simply map our everything in your brains and prompt all true answers,” Sorenson said.
He threw her down on to the floor. Writhing in pain, her arms around her head, she stayed there. “And the effects are destructive,” he added. “You’ll be down to drooling within a few hours, unless we choose to give the command to cause them to exit.” He nodded at the two men, and they hauled Alistair to his feet and pushed him into the wall. “You tell us in time what you’ve planned, you may save yourselves.” He stepped up to Alistair from behind.
“No,” Alistair said. He groaned and then shouted as the point went home at the base of his skull. The man called Satan made a sound of disgust. “You mean yes. Anyway, you will, once they complete their mapping and are embedded in the soft tissue.”
He stepped back as Alistair collapsed between his two captors. They dumped him to the floor. “Lock these two away and bring those two from the patrol cells to me.”
“The firewalls have come down,” one of the men said. “We’d have to take them outside and around the building.” He nudged Alistair with his booted foot. “It’s a long way with dead weight.”
“Throw them someplace. I don’t want to hear them moaning and have them puking in here. Throw them into the basement zone and lock them in. Go quick, because they’ll puke their guts out.” The lights in the room suddenly brightened further.
As each of the uniformed men dragged away his captive by the ankles, for neither could stand, Sorenson, or Satan as he liked to be called, looked up and smiled. “Well that didn’t last long.” He strode past them. “I’m going to walk around to the west entrance and see about this. This was no coincidence.”
* * * *
“They’ve come back on!” Sarah exclaimed in dismay as the cells brightened. At the exact same moment, Jo swung their cell door outward.
“Yes I see that,” Jo said in gentle under statement. “But they may go down again. As long as that acid is down there, the power failures could be intermittent.” She gestured for Sarah to wait and then crept down the short corridor and peered out the high, shatter proof window in the door that separated the cells from the guard station. “Looks like the computer systems never went down.” And her voice was disappointed. “Everybody’s still busy, and the monitors are on.”
“That cabling is probably better protected,” Sarah said.
Jo walked back to her, eyes up. “I wonder—“
Just then the door to the cells crashed open.
In place of the bored, courteous grounds patrol man, the man called Satan stood framed in the steel doorway. One of the young patrol men stood behind him, startled and helpless.
“I might have known,” he said, the moment his eyes alighted on Jo.
“Oh, it’s the big brave policeman,” Jo said in her dotty old lady voice, and now Sarah knew her well enough that this was to cover for her fear. Jo was terrified of this man.
“And who is this?” he said with a nod at Sarah.
He drew his sidearm as neither answered. “Well I have four of you, and I can get by with three.” He sited on Jo and immediately fired.
Sarah Jane heard the gasp of the stunned patrol man and felt that immediate, familiar pain that rushed up her arm, across her shoulder blades and down her back. Only now there was no Liz or hot packs or injections to stop the pain. But she kept her chin level and just barely managed not to gasp as she lowered her hand and dropped the metal slug to the floor.
His jaw hung open for a moment, and Jo herself, amazed, stared down at the spent bullet that Sarah had caught in her hand. Then he stared at her, his mouth still open, but rage replaced his astonishment. He sited at Sarah and fired. Again, the aching thunderclap of pain shook her down to her bones, but she heard the bullet ring off the metal bar behind her. It ricocheted and embedded itself into the wall of the cell.
She stepped forward. Her bones felt as though they were twisting with pain, but she stayed on her feet. He abruptly holstered the gun and came up with a broad knife, double-edged. “Let’s see how good you are against this,” he gasped.
“Leave her alone—“ Jo began.
“Jo!’ she barked, and she fixed her eyes on him. “Come on then. You have killed so many others, and I have wanted to die. Come and kill me, violent man.”
He lunged against her and pressed the blade across her throat.
And without fear, he looked into her eyes. She searched and saw—very little front matter to his desire to kill and subject. He did not deceive himself about how evil he was. He was evil, and he liked being evil. Seeing his own evil through her mind would hardly make him pause.
So he will kill me, she thought.
* * * *
Alistair vomited again, felt the hot fluid wash up into his nose and sinuses, and rolled out of it. He sputtered and tried to think of some quick way to dispatch Liz, to save her from this suffering. And then he heard her voice.
“We can still win.” Her voice was filled with the pain of what was being done to her. She couldn’t stand, but she was trying to. As far as he could see, they were in the lowest level of the building. Great pillars of copper in one corner extended from the low concrete roof and then vanished into the concrete floor. There were banks and banks of circuit breaker boxes against one wall, all locked.
“The Electrical team was in here.” She had her eyes half closed, barely able to speak. “There are connections. And tools. It’s a three phase building system.”
“How?” he asked.
She had clear liquid running from her nose, and bloody rings around her eyes. She couldn’t see. “The three voltage lines are tied together. They run to power, to the black cabling. And the white is the common.” She stopped, gasped, sobbed twice, and then bowed her head and threw up.
But she was persistent. She caught her breath and tried to lift her head. “The ground is in here, accessible. We can tie the building current to ground and short circuit every single device in the building.” She again tried to get onto her knees. “F—Find cabling tools. There’s cable over there where the workmen were.”
* * * *
The overhead sprinklers came on, spitting out black, oily water. The men out front shouted and sounded as though they were running back and forth. The patrolman who had seen Sarah Jane catch one bullet in her hand and another pass right through her stayed frozen, exactly where he was.
The man called Satan backed up from Sarah Jane. “I’m not afraid of you!” he shouted at Sarah. “Afraid of you?” The momentary glimpse through her eyes had daunted him, but not nearly with the power that Liz or Sarah’s previous attacker had felt when Sarah had looked into their minds.
Sarah said nothing and watched him. He reached back and jerked the young patrol officer forward and put the point of the knife to his throat. “I’ll kill him!” he shouted. “I’ll cut his throat!”
“Don’t kill him,” Sarah said at once. “Don’t hurt him. Your fight is with me. I’ll close my eyes.” And she did. He pushed aside the security guard, lunged forward again, and seized her by the shoulder with his free hand.
She felt the pain drain out of her, through her, up through her shoulder, and into him. He shouted and fell to the ground on his knees. He dropped the knife is his pain, then actually tried to lunge at her again, and when he next touched her, his breath stopped, his eyes opened wider, and he fell to the floor. He was dead, his face frozen into a rictus of frustrated hatred.
The young man he had threatened caught himself against the bars of one of the cells and stared down at him. Jo made a sound of fear and uncertainty, and Sarah reached back and brought her in under her arm. “It’s all right.”
“How did he touch you and die?” the young man asked. “We heard him shoot, but nothing happened.” He stared at her and Jo. “What do you want?”
“I haven’t come to hurt you,” Sarah said at once. Even Jo was trembling: Jo, so much more like her old self, now vulnerable and frightened at this display of power.
“What’s happened?” Jo asked. “How did you catch that bullet? How did the other one go through you?”
“Fomalhaut,” Sarah Jane said. “Fomalhaut came, Jo. I’ve been so blind. Fomalhaut came that very first night, and Fomalhaut has been with us, from the very first day.”
“Who?” the young man asked. As she looked up at him again, he covered his face with his arm, ready to hide his eyes. “I just thought you were drunk. I never was going to hurt you.”
“I know that,” she said. “I saved your life from him because you’re innocent. Don’t be afraid of me, young man. You’ve been very kind.”
The water was still spraying down on them. He looked from the dead man to Sarah and Jo and back again. “What do you want?”
“To go into the plant.”
He shot a look at her and then looked down, not wanting to behave as though he were contradicting her. “You’ll be arrested. You could legally be killed, if—if you let them shoot you, I mean, for trespassing.”
“But will you let us go in?” she asked.
He hesitated, weighed the matter out, and then surprised both of them. “I’ll take you in, if you want me to. F-for saving my life. I was never going to hurt either of you, not two old ladies.”
“All right then,” Sarah said. “Thank you.”
“And you won’t do that to me?” And he nodded to their dead tormentor.
“In a sense, he did that to himself,” she told him. “Come here.”
He stepped closer, and she rested her free hand on his shoulder, and then the side of his face. She looked into his eyes with all the wealth of kindness that had been shown to her. “I believe in mercy,” she told him.
He became calmer. “I believe in that, too, then,” he said.
“I just want to get my friends and take them home.”
“All right. I’ll help you find them.”
* * * *
“That’s it. That seems right,” Liz gasped. They had found and shut off one of the main lines of the three phase system. The other two lines were carrying the load. No doubt, somewhere, there were power alerts going off, but with the lights flickering on and off and the sprinklers intermittently going off, maintenance personnel were diverted, pulling lab materials and manufacturing products into temporary containment. Everything would be focused on saving the research materials and getting them into emergency temperature controlled environments.
And now Alistair had the cable from the enormous ground columns severed, and Liz, with almost no vision from the pain, had connected it into the first phase line. They moved on hands and knees, and when they worked, their hands and fingers trembled, and they could barely see.
“When we pull the switch,” she whispered, panting, her lips quivering from pain. “Pull the switch, all the electrical systems will short circuit to ground. These—“ she touched her forehead. “They’re directed by controllers—part of the big systems here. The controllers will go dead. Everybody with nannite relays controlling brain, heart, lungs, will have them go dead. Us too.”
“We’ll die?” he whispered.
“I don’t know. Th-they’ll become inert in our brains. Never get rid of them. I—brain damage for sure.”
“All right. Here is the switch on the panel to reconnect the line to the other two. Here’s my hand.”
He guided her hand to the pull switch. She got both hands wrapped around his, and together, they pulled the switch closed.
• * * *
“That way is Finance,” their young guide said as he led them through the corridors, some dim and some brightly lit. “And this is the way to the recombinant protein research projects.”
“But where would Sarah and Alistair be?” Jo asked. “They came into the plant at the maintenance zone. And he said they were caught. He said he had all four of us.”
The young patrol officer pointed ahead. “Maintenance is this way. But he may have moved them to the Gold security cells. He was gold security. The man---b-back there in the cells. I’m not.”
“We’ll retrace their footsteps,” Sarah said. “For all we know, he took them back to the pensioners wing, where there are ready-made facilities for torturing old people.”
Their young guide had been respectful and helpful, but now he was startled. “Who would want to torture old people? That little hospital and nursing area’s actually very nice, Miss.”
“No,” said Jo. “It isn’t. You’ll have to trust us on that. It’s a horrible place for some people.”
And that was when, without warning or preamble, everything went completely dark. Even the air vents shut off. A strange, stark silence fell over the place. Everything had gone dead.
“Blimey,” Jo’s voice said from the darkness. “If they’re caught and we’re caught, who turned out the lights?”
* * * *
Progressing through the research facility, which included offices, research labs, manufacturing pods, hospital facilities, computer control facilities, a machine shop, an enormous cafeteria, and the elderly care cottages on the far east end, now became a much more hazardous and slow journey. If they were hailed by other security teams, their own guide claimed that he was following Sorenson’s orders and bringing them in to the central zone for Gold Security detention. Sorenson, both Jo and Sarah assumed, was the name of the man who had called himself Satan.
But apart from these hazards, they came upon other wanderers, desperate to find a way out from the total darkness. Their guide had a torch, but neither he nor Jo and Sarah wanted people to latch on to them, and so he dissuaded them. And then there were the bodies. Sarah had not been familiar with the nannite technology, but Jo explained it to her. The old days of electronically inert nannites had ended decades ago. These submicronic devices did communicate. Incredibly complex relays of communication, control, and direction were set up everywhere, as completely networked as the telephone lines of old. Feedback and commands were constantly given to maintain each nannite’s tasks as they worked inside their human hosts. There were fail safes, alerts, protections in place. But nothing had prepared anybody for the sudden death of every computerized controller in this shielded environment.
Jo guessed that people outside the research facility area were probably safe, limping along on relay stations that could keep things going. But inside the plant, they stumbled more than once upon bodies lying in the corridors in the dark: older management types, mostly, whose pulmonary systems were dependent upon the nannites. And there were blind people, whose vision was nannite controlled, now without sight. Sarah stopped for each person and tried to speak, to touch, to direct, but the news that Sarah and Jo were being led deeper into the plant was enough to discourage anybody from tagging along.
Hours went by, until at last, their exhausted guide found yet another door and said, “This is where the electrical cabinets are kept.” As he had done with every other door in this area, he unlocked it and swung it open. He flashed the light of his torch around the vast room. “But it looks all intact to me.”
“But surely the plant could be brought down from here,” Jo said. “It’s all the electrical controls.”
He was doubtful “The controls are all locked in cabinets. If this room were attacked to bring down the plant, you’d have to blow it to smithereens.”
But Sarah asked to take a look, and when he shone his torch inside again, more deliberately fixing the light at points a few feet apart, they saw only a quiet and still array of large cabinets. But Sarah’s ears heard something: a quiet sobbing.
“Come on,” she said quietly. They picked their way over many tools and discarded bits of cable. And finally, as they peered under a table, they saw two miserable, frightened figures huddled together, both weeping and holding on to each other.
“Poor lambs,” Sarah said. “Don’t be frightened. Don’t be afraid.” The two of them were hugging their heads and clinging to each other. Sarah carefully crept under their shelter, saw that they did not know her, and touched their heads, for they seemed to be in pain.
“Oh, oh,” Liz gasped in relief at the touch, and she guided Sarah’s hand to Alistair’s head and pressed the near hand to her own head.
“Please come Lambs, don’t be frightened,” Sarah whispered. She held their heads, each in turn, and they wept as though she had relieved a great pain for them.
The patrol officer who had guided them straightened. “I smell flowers,” he said. “Flowers in all this darkness. What is it?”
“Come out, little Lambs, don’t be afraid,” Sarah coaxed them, and they followed her out from their hiding place. But they were frightened. Sarah rested her hands on them and held their heads again, and they huddled close to her and to each other.
“They don’t know us,” Jo gasped.
“No,” Sarah said gravely. “But they’re alive, and they’re ready to come home.”
Their escort spoke again. “I smell flowers.” Puzzled, he shone the torch around the cast room. “All around us.”
Jo saw something outlined in shadow at the edge of the torch light and picked her way over to it. “Here’s water,” she said. “A dispenser. A pressure gravity system. Doesn’t use power.” She leaned closer and then came trudging back, bringing her handkerchief wet from the dispenser.
She made several trips back and forth, using the handkerchief of their guide or her own, rinsing each several times. Neither Alistair nor Liz showed any interest in drinking the water, but under the glare of the torch, Sarah cleaned away the blood and other debris from their faces, necks, and shoulders. All this while, their guard moved closer and closer to her as she worked, drawn in by the scent.
“What are you?” he asked again. “Are you here to help us, or to hurt us? Did you have anything to do with all this?”
Sarah Jane looked at him, while Liz and Alistair held onto each other’s hands and looked around the dark room, comforted from their pain, at least for the moment. They did not respond to speech. They did not seem to recognize her, though her power to assuage their pain had seemed to make them trust her.
“I didn’t plan any of this,” she said honestly. “I came because people were suffering here, unjustly. I was told that I needed to come, and so I came.”
“And what do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Just get us out.” Liz and Alistair whimpered again and huddled close to each other, either from pain or fear, and she stroked their heads to calm them. “That man, Sorenson, he did this to them somehow. I want to take them away from here.”
“Sarah,” Jo said. “We’re not finished yet. Wait.” She groped around the room, and their escort obligingly shone his torch until she found what she was looking for: emergency light sticks in a corner cubbyhole. Holding them, she returned. “There’s still something to be done.”
Sarah looked at her in the dimness. “What?”
“I know the code, the entire script by heart that Liz was going to implant,” Jo said. “I have a falsified clearance.”
“But everything is down.”
“There are small units that will be directly plugged into other units, from mobile power sources. And techs will take them away from here and try to get a wireless signal. We’ve got to get at least one loaded with that script.”
Sarah made an instant decision. “What is your name, young man?”
“Richard, Miss.” He was distracted “Is… are those flowers on you somehow?”
“Sort of,” she told him. “Richard, I would like you to take these two, and me, to the plant fleet. We’ve got to get out of here, and you’ve got to get shut of us, for your own safety. Will you do that?”
“Yes,” he said.
She looked at Jo. “You memorized the plant interior. Can you do what you need to and then find us?”
“Yes,” Jo said. “I’m going to finish this.”
“We’ll wait for you for as long as we dare.”
* * * *
The walk out of the plant was far more difficult than the walk in had been. Liz and Alistair were afraid of everything, and confused, and so the going was much, much slower. There were fewer people in the interior, now. There had been an evacuation, and voices over Richard’s communication device told them that the remaining security personnel, those who had not fled the grounds, were attempting to start backup generators. It did not seem to be working.
The sprinklers were exhausted by now, and oily, slick water covered everything. Alistair and Liz were unsteady on their feet, and at moments seemed to be in pain. One or the other would stop and moan and cover up his or her head, as though it hurt again. They reached for her hands to touch their faces and heads, and yet neither seemed to recognize her, and neither spoke to her or each other. But they held fast to each other’s hands as much as they could.
Sarah stopped each time with them, seeking to ease their pain and calm their fear. But a ten minute walk took over an hour in the darkness, which was now hot and polluted with bad air.
At last, Richard forced open a security door and led them past numerous vehicles, some with doors hanging open, to an impressive German made vehicle that had wheels. Even the zips, at least within the fleet garage, were down, for the magnetic roadway cushion that joined the buildings was also powerless.
Jo was already there, waiting for them. Liz and Alistair, though they had seen her only an hour previously, shrank back from her when she reached out to help them into the automobile.
“It’s all right,” Sarah told them. “It’s all right.”
But still they didn’t speak. Their eyes filled with tears, and they still hung back, until Sarah Jane took Jo’s hand and guided it to Liz’s free hand and then to Alistair’s. She brought them all closer.
“Jo will help us,” she told them. But even though they didn’t seem able to bolt or even inclined to resist beyond tears and flinching, it took several minutes to coax them into the back of the auto. Without a word, Jo helped as much as she could, trying to move gently and quietly.
Richard left them and manually forced up one of the exit gates.
“I just need to hot wire it,” Jo murmured to Sarah. Now she was pale, shaken because her friends were afraid of her. But she adopted a business-like attitude. “Won’t take a minute.” She threw a glance at their guard. “What about him?”
“The guard stalls are empty,” Sarah said. “Nobody will stop us from leaving. We can let him go.”
“And what if he wants to come along?”
“Then he can, but he’ll want to get back to his own life. Go ahead and start it if you can.”
Jo obligingly went around to the driver’s side, entered, and ducked her head under the wheel to get to work on the ignition.
Richard, his eyes now doubtful, approached her from the gate. “The way is clear, I guess.”
“Thank you,” Sarah said to him. And for a moment, she held his eye with hers, her eyes open.
“I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing,” he told her.
She wasn’t afraid of him, and she knew that he was not threatening her. He was merely being honest. “In a world where the only choices are to obey a man like Sorenson or help me, I think you made the right choice,” she said. She rested her hand on his head. “If you want to hold my fate in your hands, then you hold my fate in your hands,” she told him. “You can tell everything you saw, perhaps identify me.”
“No,” he told her. He stepped back. “No. I—I saw what you did. I mean, you have some sort of something. Catching that bullet, and stopping pain and fear. And those flowers. I won’t interfere with you.”
“Thank you then.”
She returned to the car and slid into the back seat with her charges. He closed the door for her, just as Jo brought the engine to life with a roar.
* * * *
Nine-eleven had felt like this, Sarah often thought, as the news casts spread their broad banners across her resurrected home system. Everybody watching the news, everybody numb. The great infrastructure of the world had been shaken. The research facilities were down. First the large plant that they had attacked had fallen, and then, like dominoes, subsequent research centers were reporting information losses. The nannite control systems had crashed first.
It amazed her, how many elderly men and women, though these days they were still considered middle aged, had expired with the collapse of the nannite control systems. The news casters were now calling it the silence heard round the world. And the dead were wealthy, influential, execs and presidents and VPs and general managers, and CEOS, high court judges, prestigious medical researchers, and now, all dead. She did not doubt that the innocent had been among them: people whose sins were no worse than a taste for luxury and a bit of self indulgence. But it was undeniable, this privileged class that Alistair had once identified, the masterminds of the very plan that had incarcerated Alistair and Liz and others, were now dead.
The technology was nearly obliterated, the exhaustive scripts for running the world by controller-driven nannites, all disabled, partially wiped out, vanished.
And yet, here at her house, with her personal home and banking systems restored, and the winter sun just sufficently warming the sitting room, they were fairly isolated from the tumult of governments and industry. For it was only health and medical research that were effected. The smaller industries: finance and transportation and commerce, were fine, or, at least intact.
The green grocer at the market was looking well, though sobered by the current events. The chemist’s shop still had sweets to sell, very useful for comforting Alistair and Liz. Indeed, the little village was unscathed, except that everybody was puzzled about how the great research zones had almost entirely collapsed. And one or two journalists were picking up details of stories of abuse of the elderly. The Protection Society was running at full bore, swooping in and rescuing the people to whom they had been denied access, getting graphics and live action accounts of the torments endured by the innocent. Change was, indeed, in the wind. She hoped so.
But now she had to focus on caring for her friends, for they knew very little and remembered nothing, except that they were a part of each other.
For several days Liz and Alistair were very frightened, and Sarah kept them in the sitting room as much as they liked. They trusted her, except when she separated them, and it was heartbreaking to hear them weeping if they were put out of sight of each other even for washing or going to the loo.
But there was also something comforting in caring for them, as she guiltily acknowledged to herself. To gently and kindly offer each in turn spoonful after spoonful of soup or porridge, or pieces of bread and jam, and to see them, still hand in hand and calm, no longer in acute pain, taking turns to eat as they took food from her hand. She had to make herself remember that this was an international scientist and a brigadier general before her. And yet, to feel that thrill when Alistair recognized the chocolate biscuit she offered him, and how he tentatively, almost fearfully, wrapped his hand around hers and then guided her hand to Liz instead, giving his wife the sweets that she loved. And to feel Liz’s first hesitant direct touch, as with her free hand she cautiously embraced Sarah Jane, an expression of gratitude, as Liz sat at the table, her other hand still held firmly by Alistair, as it always was. Those gentle, quiet gestures evoked a powerful gratitude in Sarah Jane that even the fragrance of Fomalhaut could not evoke. That first week, when they could not speak and needed care, she felt as though all three of them were being cared for. And she felt guilty, later on, for missing it when it was past.
Sarah worried over them and prayed for them to be restored, and yet there was an almost beatific peace that they now shared, when they were with each other and their other fears of noises and the dark had been quieted. She stood over them every night that first week, her hands on their heads, waiting for sleep to come, and she sensed them gradually relax and become drowsy and then sleep in each other’s arms. And once they fell asleep, they slept profoundly, deeply, and for ten hours each night. They had their fears during the day, and they shied away from loud noises or sudden motion, but each night they went someplace else entirely, and stayed there until well into the next morning.
The saddest loss was that they did not recognize Jo at first, and it took several days for them to gradually become accustomed to her. At last, after the first few days, it seemed that something did kick in concerning their memories. They stopped being wary of Jo. And then suddenly one day in the second week they let her interact with them as easily as they let Sarah Jane.
By the second week they were able to walk unassisted and even to talk to a limited extent with each other, though never to anybody else at first. They resumed feeding themselves, their gentle hands hesitantly taking the spoon from Sarah at mealtime, their eyes big with anxiety, as though they feared offending her. She encouraged them and praised them, and under her encouragement they quickly regained the dexterity to use spoon, knife, and fork. And Sarah and Jo learned that if Liz were taught skills about using the loo or washing or fastening buttons or tying shoe laces, that she would immediately teach Alistair.
Every morning when Alistair and Liz woke up and every evening before they went to bed, they wanted Sarah to hold their faces and heads. She could not determine if they still had headaches, or if this had become a comforting ritual for them. But she didn’t mind either way.
By the beginning of the third week, Liz could tell Sarah or Jo if something hurt or if she were hungry or sleepy. And Liz could report the same about Alistair. By the end of the third week, he could speak for himself to Sarah or Jo. Jo tried to entice them to play with rubber balls of various sizes, some of them large enough to sit on. She also brought home brightly colored cards that could be sorted and matched, but though they watched her demonstrate these entertainments with great interest, they seemed entirely unaware of any inclination to join her. Nor did they want to go outside. In fact, they seemed to fear the world outside the windows of the house.
They only looked out the windows with great caution, and the first thing that Liz learned after feeding and caring for herself, and Alistair soon followed her example, was to lock the front door and back doors with the extra electronic locks that had gone unused for decades. They were at it all the time, so that Sarah Jane had to reprogram everything with easy codes that she and Jo could remember, and hunt up the extra keys to hide under the rocks by the doorways. For, the moment she would unlock a door to let Jo in with groceries or to go out and feed the birds, Alistair and Liz would come and lock it right away: knob, deadbolt, and electronic lock. After the first episode, when she was walking ‘round to the garden with the bird seed, and heard the loud click behind her as one of the bolts went home, she knew that she could never rebuke them for trying to feel safe. The misadventure showed her how little she understood of their private world, for even though she rapped gently on the back window so that they could see it was her, Alistair and Liz went and hid in the laundry room, frightened by the noise. The only thing that saved Sarah from having to break a window was Jo, coming down the steps for a late breakfast.
Even the good natured and patient Jo might have chided them for this, but Sarah over ruled her, gently. For if Liz and Alistair could understand that there was no danger, then they would not be so concerned with locking the doors. Fear, clearly, made up a large part of their world.
“If they have to bear what was done to them, whatever it was,” she told Jo. “Then I should bear it with them. I’ll just be extra careful about not being locked out.”
All the same, Jo was an expert at picking locks, and she introduced Sarah Jane to the craft in every spare moment that they had.
By the fourth week, Liz and Alistair added small pieces to the story of what had happened to them. They both remembered that their heads had hurt very much, and that something dreadful had happened, some dreadful decision had been made. But beyond that, they had no memory. They lived in a world where each had been a part of the other for ever, and so they accepted each other, with no qualms or hesitancy. Indeed, the house itself was part of their existence as well, so that they thought it was their house, and Sarah never contradicted them. And they asked Sarah Jane where she had come from, and they wanted to know if Jo “had always been there.”
But, as the days went by, they seemed happy. They kept hold of each other’s hands almost constantly, and they were both timid and vigilant. Noises frightened them, and they were easily startled. They slept a good deal: ten hours at night and two naps during the day. But they were eager to please, gentle and amenable to anything Sarah Jane said. They still didn’t like being separated, but they learned to wait for each other for loo breaks or other small interruptions to their side by side companionship.
By the fourth week, Jo was much less frequently among them, for the Protection Society work now kept her busy. She did as much reconnaissance as she was able to do, and reported back.
“As it turns out,” she told Sarah Jane. “The big boys and girls, the ultra-elite, had a sort of ultra sophisticated nannite control system. Ordinary people, even filthy rich ordinary people, had no access to it. Never even knew it existed. “
“Giving them what?” Sarah asked. “Super powers or something?”
“Rudimentary regeneration of tissue,” Jo told her. Sarah’s eyes widened. “They were far closer to immortality than even we had guessed, Sarah. We may have been only months, maybe only weeks, from the day they would have launched the first assaults to clear out human life from the first selected target areas, and turn the world into their garden.”
“And have we brought that down?” Sarah asked.
Jo nodded. “In fact, the more ordinary controllers were redundant with relay systems all over the world. People are still limping along just fine for the most part, though those within the shielded areas of the plant couldn’t be accessed by the fail safes that were outside the plant.”
“So we killed the innocent,” Sarah said quietly.
“The innocent were unwittingly building the weapons of the wicked,” Jo told her. “I’m not happy about it. But how many of those innocent people suspected what was being done to some of the elderly and closed their eyes, Sarah Jane?” Jo hesitated. “War is hell. I agree with that. But if we had not acted, millions would be slated for death. Including those same people who died when the plant went down.”
“All right,” Sarah said quietly. “I acted with you. I participated.” She hated saying it, but she said it. “I did my part fore the war, Jo. I don’t have to like it. I killed Sorenson, remember?”
This reminder actually seemed to exasperate Jo, but then they both realized that Alistair and Liz had come into the kitchen, where Sarah was making tea. The husband and wife both stood in the doorway, holding hands as they always did, and stared at Sarah.
Jo instantly softened. “Hello ducks. Are you hungry?”
“You killed Sorenson?” Liz asked. “He’s dead, and he can’t find us now?”
Sarah Jane realized that they recognized the name, and were afraid of it. She came out from the cupboards. “Yes, I killed him. He can’t find you now. He can’t hurt anybody ever again.”
“But how did you kill him?” Alistair asked. “He was so strong, and he had big men to help him.”
“He caused me pain,” Sarah told them. “And then, by accident, he made all the pain go into himself, and he died from it.”
“Are you in pain now?” Liz asked. Her eyes were large and concerned. “You could put your hands on your head, to fix it, like you fix us.”
“I’m not in pain, dear. It all went into him.”
The brief conversation threw Jo’s mind back to the events in the cells. “Sorry, Sarah Jane,” she whispered. Sarah opened her arm to her, and Jo came in. This conciliatory gesture also seemed to relieve Liz and Alistair. “He hurt us too, Sarah Jane,” Alistair said. He lifted his hand to his head to show her.
“Do you remember what he did that hurt you?” she asked.
“He hurt us very much,” Liz said. “Up here.” And she patted her own head and then lowered her arms so that she could take hold of Alistair’s hand again. They were never more specific than that. Clearly, Sorenson had done something terrible to them, but Sarah Jane was helpless to know what he had done. And now there was nobody to ask.
“And he hurt me,” Jo added. She came around Sarah Jane, and Sarah followed her. “But all that’s over now,” Jo said kindly. She framed their faces with her hands and made them smile. “No more Sorenson, and if you two are hungry, we’ll have to find you something to eat.” Jo’s youthful eyes became jolly and playful. “Let’s see. What would you like? How about bacon and cookies?”
Liz burst out with laughter. “No, not bacon and cookies.” The once solemn Liz now did chuckle and even laugh outright, if Jo could be silly enough to evoke merriment from her, and Sarah and Jo were grateful for this change. With all that Liz had lost, she had also lost the weighty sorrow that had never been far from her mind.
“Bacon OR cookies,” Alistair said helpfully.
“Bacon goes with eggs,” Liz added. “And cookies go with milk, and sometimes with tea.”
“Yes, now why can’t I remember such things? Come and sit down.” And Jo led them to the table while Sarah rummaged around to find suitable food for them.
Later, after tea and toast with jam, when Liz and Alistair were drowsy and had settled down for quiet conversation and a doze in the sitting room, Jo loaded the AC and said, “What did you mean in the plant, when you said Fomalhaut came. Is that true?”
“That’s how…everything happened for us,” Sarah said. “I was so stupid, Jo. When I first met Fomalhaut, it was on Fomalhaut’s world, so of course the presence of Fomalhaut was over bearing to me. This is my world. That was Fomalhaut’s world. What if a creature made of mud met a creature made of water?”
Jo thought for a moment. “The creature of mud had better watch out.”
“Yes, precisely. Fomalhaut wanted to honor me as a guest, and treat me with all the kindness of heaven, but I also had to be walled out for my own safety. But here on earth, everything is different. This is a fallen and dark world. Fomalhaut doesn’t appear in the glory of Fomalhaut’s world here in this world, not until the end of the world, when Fomalhaut will let loose one of the corners of heaven.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Jo said.
“Here on earth, Fomalhaut is more subdued, more obliqued by the nature of what earth is. But all along, the fragrance, the incredible rejuvenation that we all underwent, the gift of reaching through time and space, all of that was Fomalhaut, holding back the material world for us. Fomalhaut has been here ever since that glorious full moon when I expected the arrival.”
“So at the plant, how did you catch the bullet that was meant for me?” Jo asked.
Sarah shook her head. “I don’t know, except that I was very open to Mercy. I was in a state of being very aware and relaxed. Maybe Fomalhaut prompted me, or maybe it was just fore-ordained, or maybe I just intuitively moved in time to cover you with my hand. I certainly felt that terrible pain that comes from messing about with material reality. And I felt the pain again when he tried to shoot me and the bullet passed through me. The pain was horrible. Even with the thorough drugging Liz had given me earlier.”
“But somehow you passed the pain to him,” Jo said.
“Yes, not consciously. But when he touched me, he became a part of me.” She hesitated. “That had to be Fomalhaut too. Fomalhaut can do that sort of thing, and I think that was what was happening. Maybe, when I accepted it all, that had a role in making me more of a conduit and less of a receptacle. Or maybe, Fomalhaut directed the pain into him, once he made contact with me.”
“So is, is Fomalhaut still here?” Jo asked.
Sarah nodded. “There is a sense in which every officer of heaven is concerned with earth and beholds us,” she told Jo. “So there is a sense in which Fomalhaut is never far away. But there is also a sense in which the immediacy of Fomalhaut’s presence can come and go. And I think, I think, Fomalhaut will leave when the dignity of heaven favors another trip.”
“When is that?” Jo asked.
“When the star of Fomalhaut sits close to the new moon. It will open a doorway of light from here to there.” She saw Jo’s look of puzzlement. “February 21 of this year,” she said helpfully. “But my guess is that there will be gifts left behind. Maybe not as dramatic as we’ve seen recently. But helpful.” And she threw her glance towards the sitting room. After all, she had been graced with the fragrance and subtle influence of Fomalhaut for over a hundred years.
They stepped to the doorway and looked out over the sitting room. Liz and Alistair were sitting on the sofa, hands joined, looking out the large windows at the pale winter sunshine.
“You know,” Liz said gravely. “I think that ducks must feel this way too, when they are as happy as we are.”
Alistair paused, weighing out her opinion. “Yes, I suppose you must be right.”
Sarah and Jo glanced at each other. There was no knowing if they would recover further, nor if it would even be best for them if they should.
“I’d better get back to the Protection Agency,” Jo said softly.
“But you’ll come back?” Sarah asked suddenly. “You won’t leave us?”
“I’ve imposed on you so long, I’ve gotten used to it.” And Jo smiled. “See you tonight.”
“Oh wait, can you do something with this for me?” And Jo pulled out the bright blue chicklet from her pocket. “I need to get rid of it, but I’m afraid of poisoning anything out through the sewer system. But Alistair or Liz might think it’s candy if they should go exploring when I’m not looking.”
“Oh yes, I’ll dissolve it and pour it into the dirt.”
“Thanks. See you later.” Whistling like a little girl, Jo strode out.
Sarah put on the kettle, which boiled instantly. She poured out hot water into a cup, tore open the package, and suddenly stopped as she contemplated the bit of instant death in her hand. For one instant she paused.
Then she dropped it into the hot water and let it dissolve. She carried the cup to the kitchen window, where an empty flower pot stood, filled with soil and clay, waiting for spring. Once upon a time, Sarah Jane would have had a plant in it immediately, but her once empty life had been quite full for months. The pot had gone neglected. She tipped up the bottom of the cup and poured the solution into the soil and clay, where it sank in and disappeared. Then she thoroughly rinsed the cup and discarded it into the dustbin.
Once again, she paused, thoughtful in spite of herself. But then she sensed the fragrance of flowers, and Liz and Alistair called for her from the sitting room. She had quite a lot to do, and there was no use standing in idle thought. She hurried to go and join her friends.