Wyn took them across the long walk to the Centre. Ed did everything she could to distract herself from the empty air below her feet. They were…they had to know what they were doing. They travelled around in space. But still. Her stomach turned over any time she recalled how small their tube was. Like a spider web. Nothing to stop them falling…
At least the bottom half was opaque. She looked up at the black sky overhead.
Just walking on a sidewalk. Nothing weird.
The bubble of the Centre loomed. They were close enough to see windows, and pale dots in them that moved and clustered, following their progress until she realised they were kids. Orphans like Em, peering at them.
“They don’t see many new faces.”
“When do they leave?” Suzie asked.
“If they perform well enough on all of their tests they start their first practica at sixteen. If they pass, they’re enrolled in a regular university or trade course.”
“As much as we can. Our system is a good one. Mistakes are vanishing rare.”
There was no sign of them in the building itself. What she guessed was a kind of reception felt like an expensive spa, maybe. The light was low. A water fountain flowed over pale stones, filling the air with peaceful burbling sounds. She was right, too; up here everything smelled nice. Nothing overpowering like Auggie’s cologne. Just enough to give some life to it. She looked around, scratching her stomach. It felt like an eternity since a good shower and sleep.
Wyn left off a conversation with a woman at the desk. His perfect brow was furrowed.
“We need to speak to Mary.”
His expression smoothed into its usual serene, just slightly amused mask. “Mary is Emma’s counsellor and guide. Her contact here as she approached the age to leave.”
Mary looked like a woman in her forties, wearing a sharply tailored suit and hair that didn’t even hint at stepping out of line. Her office tried to look warm; once the pale, gleaming corridor vanished behind them it was an eerie replica of a wood-panelled teacher’s office, with bookshelves and a desk, and a tea set on a small table. There was a window, even, that looked out over a sunny lawn. But the thing was, it was just trying. There was something off about it that Ed couldn’t figure out.
Besides it being in the sky.
She greeted Wyn warmly, taking his hands and kissing his cheek, smiling like they were old friends. He introduced them by their first names. She guessed that Emma hadn’t told her about them because she didn’t seem to recognise them. Her manners reminded her a bit of Emma. She was really polite in a careful, old-fashioned way.
“This is unexpected, Wyn.” Her eyes roamed over them. “What brings you and your new friends to my door?”
“It’s about Emma.”
“Ah. Yes. That is an unfortunate situation.”
“I think there’s been a mistake. Ed and her family have brought evidence that you need to see.”
“Evidence.” She shook her head. “Wyn, you yourself was witness to her breakdown. That event alone is enough to condemn her.”
“It isn’t the whole story.”
“You always were fond of her. I know that you hoped for her as much as I did. I worked so much with her, to take her safely past her fear. We worked so hard. To see her succumb…” She straightened the tablet on her desk, taking great care with it. “It does you credit, as always. I’m proud of her for inspiring such feeling.”
“But she was telling the truth, Mary. She said that the tablet was acting oddly, and it was.”
“It’s impossible and you know it.”
“It’s what I thought. But we have proof. You need to see this, Mary. We can stop the processing entirely.”
She was quiet. Sunlit leaves rattled outside the window. Completely lifelike. So much so that Ed thought she should feel some breeze stirring. There was none, though. And there was no smell, either. There were bookshelves, and wood, but where was the smell of paper and polish? It was a perfect facade.
“Dear Wyn. You’re too soft. But there is no room for mercy when it comes to these things. You know that.”
“Emma isn’t gonna hurt anyone.”
Mary’s eyes did seem regretful, but hard, too.
“We’ve seen this with your people before. Unlike your kind, we learn our lessons. We will give everything, but if they fail, as Emma did, we have no choice left.”
“But she didn’t. She was right, and we can prove it. Suzie, show her the recording.”
Mary sat back in her chair. Ed watched her, instead of the recording. Every twitch, every flicker of an eye, and Ed thought she would leap up, understanding that Emma was innocent. She’d bring Emma and they could go home. She wouldn’t be ordered around by that machine anymore.
It came to a stop without any drama at all. Suzie took her tablet back, the sound of it rattling loud in the silence.
“You understand,” Wyn said. “This means Emma was telling the truth. The application was faulty.”
Mary shook herself. “Yes. So it seems.”
Ed felt a shiver of wrong.
“I’d like to see her tablet. I need to know what went wrong if I’m going to argue her case.”
“You should have believed her in the first place.”
Mary gave her a sharp look.
“You should have. You said you wanted to help her. If you did, you would have listened.”
“You know nothing of my Emma. Do you think that I do this lightly? I know how desperate her fear must have been to drive her to lie.” Her voice hung in the air. After a moment she smoothed her hands over her desk. “Emma would not be the first to lie to save herself.”
The space before their eyes filled with images in perfect detail. It showed a pile on a street. Auggie jerked back, swearing. They were bodies stacked together. Men, women, children, old people.
“The cost of failure, to your people and ours, is severe. Mobs rarely concern themselves with accuracy.”
“That’s in the past,” Ed said. “Except for the ASeL no one even thinks you’re still here, and everyone thinks they’re crazy.”
“Those images are from eight years ago.”
“Yeah, sure. That would have been all over the news.” Auggie rubbed his hands on his pants. His eyes were stuck on the projection in fascinated horror.
“One thing that we have learned is that paranoia among humans is contagious. We keep such events as quiet as we can.” The images vanished. “We can’t afford to err. Let me see the tablet, please.”
“We left it in a safe place,” she said quickly. “Down—“ she waved vaguely, “down there. In our part of the city.”
“And I suppose you’ve let them make copies of this recording, too. Wyn…”
“They’ve come all this way only to help Emma. I believe that we can trust them not to cause danger to her now. Regardless, I’ve see this recording, and so have you. It’s always been a possibility. Now we’ve seen it happen.” Wyn smiled. “This is why we have protocols in place. We’ve found out in time. We can give her a new tablet and send her on her way.”
“That…that is so.” Mary tugged her jacket straight. “I’ll go set about the release procedures.”
Ed watched her leave, looking at Auggie and Suzie. The door shut. It made a solid sound, too, even though the hallway outside was cool blue, like ceiling glowing down on them.
“Emma may be a little disoriented. The process of being taken to the Sleepers Ward isn’t all that kind. But she’ll be fine with a little help, and she’ll be free of her defective tablet.” He cocked his head. “Will you tell me why you lied to Mary about it?”
“Gut feeling?” She didn’t know, exactly.
“You trust this Mary person, right?” Auggie asked.
“I’ve known Mary since…Oh, since Sparta was young, if that helps your sense of scale.”
“So if she locked you in here you’d trust her with that? Hypothetically.”
“Doors have to be secure, up here,” he said. “But it isn’t locked.”
His fingers brushed over the wood panelling. The surface warped like it was under water, and serene blue wall glowed faintly, briefly, then returned to its fake wood image.
He stood and went to the door. The light flickered and faded.
“She locked us in, didn’t she?” Suzie said.
“I don’t know why she would.”
“Who is she, to Emma?” Ed asked.
“As I said, she’s Emma’s counsellor. Someone to talk to, to help her adjust to life outside of the Centre.”
“Someone to keep her safe?”
He looked back at her. Thoughtful. Maybe thousands of years of knowing someone didn’t preclude you from questioning them.
“May I see the tablet, please?”
She took it out reluctantly.
“I promise you, I’m on your side. On Emma’s side.”
He set it on the table. His hands ran over the case and it clicked free.
The inside was blackened and scorched. His fingers hovered over it.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“For it. For the part of the soul that was in it.”
“You mean the snail slime.”
“Sorry, Suze. Sorry.”
Maybe it was his age that let him shrug it off with an easy smile.
“I suppose we are a little drippy.”
“Wait, you mean that biomechanical stuff Josh was talking about was just…you?”
“Nothing that doesn’t grow back.”
Ed looked at him, feeling ill. He caught her eye and was instantly contrite.
“No, Ed. It isn’t what you’re thinking.”
She closed her eyes, nodding determinedly. “It’s still…weird.”
He returned his attention to the tablet.
“The part of us that is put into the tablets should only be enough to give it a sense of life. Intuition, I suppose you might say. Living logic, instead of the logic of machines.”
“But this was different?”
“So it seems.”
He gently pried the case open. His finger touched the remains inside, and shuddered.
“What is it? What did she do?”
“She put herself inside. Part of her. Counsellors are forbidden from it.” He stood and went to the door again. “This has been hypothesised, but of course no one would take such a risk.”
“Are you sure?”
He paused, and looked at Suzie. “Well, not anymore.”
“What was hypothesised? What are you talking about?”
“A transference of feelings. The tablets aren’t connected to their wards in any significant way. But if they are, it was suggested that the tablet might take on the feelings of its mother form. Not necessarily a negative, but potentially dangerous.”
He struggled with the door. Or anyway she assumed that was what he was doing. What did she know, after all? Ed hugged herself, watching the lights flash obstinately under the fake panelling.
The lights blurred and she wiped her eyes angrily.
“Ah! Oh. Well, a window is something.”
Part of the door had dissolved into transparency. The hall glowed its soft blue beyond.
“Someone will come by.”
“To let us out?” Auggie asked. “Would you let someone out that some of your kind locked away? Cause you guys seem to just assume things are working as normal.”
Suzie gave a short scream. Mary appeared in the window. Everyone scrambled to their feet.
“Mary, you have to let us out. We need to help you.”
“I’m sorry, Wyn. Sorry for this. All of it.” She touched the window, and Wyn mirrored her gesture.
“Why did you do it?”
“You don’t understand.” Her voice trembled. “She was so small. She was so afraid. Wyn, I used to watch the feed from her room. No one else knew, but I did. I saw how she cried alone. I saw how she shook and got sick from worry.” Her careful expression crumpled. “She was always so earnest. She tried and tried and nothing took. I couldn’t give her to this horrible world, friendless and alone. I feared so much for her.”
“The rules were made for a reason. You know that.”
“It got out of hand. I know that. I won’t let it happen again, I promise.”
“All things may be forgiven.”
Mary stepped back. Wyn’s hand hit the window with some force.
“Mary, what are you doing?”
“I’m not going to spend another century alone, Wyn. That’s all it is, you know. That’s what they mean when they say that they’ll help. A hundred years drifting alone in the cold. You can’t imagine it. I made a mistake. I only tried to help. Why should I be punished for that?”
“You can’t do this.”
“I need…I’m so sorry, Wyn.”
“What are you doing?”
The window vanished. Wyn stared at the blank blue wall.
“So,” Suzie said, “you guys don’t have an HR department, or something?”
Wyn flashed a grin at Suzie. “I’ll make a suggestion.” He looked up at the ceiling, then returned to his fiddling. Swirls and dots of light flashed and vanished.
“What’s going on? What is all that?”
“Words.” He frowned.
“Yeah, got that. What do they say?” Suzie asked.
“She’s cut off the air.”
“Can she do that?”
“It appears so.”
“How long do we have?”
“You have a little time. Unless she starts venting the oxygen.” His hands faltered. Some of the words started flashing. “Okay, you have very little time.”
“She’s venting the oxygen.”
“Aren’t there any safety protocols?”
“You learn a few things in thousands of years of life. And apparently she has a bit of a history. She’s blocking communication from this room, somehow.”
“You’ll survive though.”
“I’m going to go ahead and assume that she’s forming some other plan for me. We aren’t actually immortal. Just resilient.”
Ed looked at Auggie.
“Don’t worry about it, Ed.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“Right?” He smiled weakly. “I barged along with you, right? So…half my fault.”
“She didn’t seem like an alien.” She pitched her voice low, so Suzie didn’t hear. She didn’t think she could take a speech right now. Also she didn’t feel much like talking. How long would it take to steal all the oxygen?
He looked at her, eyes narrowing. “She isn’t. You heard Wyn. The whole problem is that she’s too human.”
“And part goo.”
“No one is perfect, Ed. You drool in your sleep.”
She tried a smile. But not even she was convinced.
“Nothing’s really different. She still needs you.” He shrugged. “You were down for it before. You kept coming. What’s really changed? Just…I think you’d regret it if you don’t give her a chance.”
“Unless we die here. Right now that’s what I’m regretting.”
“Well, a bit. But…it’s kinda cool. Doing something good.”
“Dying doing something dumb, you mean.”
“Let’s meet in the middle. Dying doing something good.”
“Window is back! That’s good…news,” Wyn trailed off.
“Oh god.” Suzie stepped back, hand over her mouth.
“What is it?”
She bolted to the door. At first she couldn’t see anything. It wasn’t until she craned to look to the left that she could see.
“Em? Oh god, oh, baby, no.”
It was Emma, yes, but a sick version. Her head had been shaved bare. More goo, silver this time, formed a net over her scalp. Each tendril was no thicker than her little finger, and sometimes finer still. It dripped down the back of her neck, and disappeared into the corners of her eyes. Her rigidly straight posture was gone; she slumped, head down, a shapeless grey robe hanging off her shoulders. Her hands were pressed against the wall, somehow limp, like a doll abandoned by its child in the middle of playing.
“Mary must have brought her here. I’m trying to reach the fire alarm but Mary is using her to block me.”
“Can she hear through this?” Suzie sounded breathless.
“It isn’t soundproof. The web…She shouldn’t even be mobile outside of basic functions. Try to get her attention. Try to get her to pull her hands back.”
Ed pounded on the window. Emma didn’t react.
“Emma, you gotta listen to me. I need your help.”
Suzie slid heavily to the floor. Behind her Auggie coughed.
“Not feeling so great, guys.”
Ed shook her head, trying to focus.
“Emma, step back. Get away from the wall.”
Wyn touched her shoulder. “Something simple. She won’t understand complex language.”
She pressed her forehead against the window. It felt cool. When she closed her eyes light flashed and sparkled like they were moving fast.
What did she respond to? Rules. Commands. Doing things wrong…
“Emma, this is it. We’re home. Hop down quick.” She closed her eyes. “Hurry up, Em, it’s your curfew. Quick. Quick!” She slapped the door with all her remaining strength.