Emma staggered back against the far wall of the corridor, sliding down as bonelessly as a puppet with cut strings. Ed gagged for air, collapsing to her knees. Auggie was sprawled on the floor. Suzie kept her eyes stubbornly open.
The blue walls turned red. A high pitched whistle vibrated through her skull. She covered her head, whimpering.
“Just a little longer. Hold on.”
She thought of Emma squeezing her breathless.
I don’t care what you are. I know who you are.
She heard noises outside, and finally — oh god — fresh air flooded over her. Gentle hands carried her into the hall. Her body burned. Someone held a mask over her face. Suzie and Auggie were brought out, strangers fussing over them like doctors. Suzie was still awake, more or less.
“Auggie…” She batted at the mask clumsily. The helping hands became more firm, keeping her in place. “Auggie!”
Finally she saw his hand flail. She let out a sob of relief and sagged back, letting the flood of air and the cool, smooth floor stop her sweaty shakes. The world stopped swirling, and sparks stopped jumping.
When she rolled her head over the other way she saw Emma slumped exactly where she’d fallen. Her legs were bare, sprawled out in front of her, hands limp on her thighs.
Ed pushed the mask off and crawled to her.
“Em?” She took her hand. Her fingers were just as soft and cool as she remembered. She didn’t react when Ed kissed them. Now that she was close she could see how the gel seemed to move on its own, pulsing like the snail slime had. It came out of her eyes like tears. Ed lifted her chin. She didn’t focus, or react at all. Her eyes were open but it was like she was asleep.
She reached out, but couldn’t make her fingers touch the goo.
“Oh god oh fuck what did they do to you?”
“Miss, you need to rest and recover.”
“Fuck you. Get this shit off of her. Take it off!”
“I’m sorry, miss. I can’t do that. Please, you ought to come with us. Someone will take her back to-”
“I’m not leaving her alone.”
She tucked her arm around Em’s shoulders, bracing herself against them dragging her away the way they’d dragged Em into the van. Maybe because everything was confused, but the man nodded and left them alone. She looked back at Em. She seemed so very breakable.
But not broken. She’d heard Ed, hadn’t she? So she was still in there,
“Hold on, Em. We’ll fix it.”
Auggie and Suzie came to sit with them. They didn’t say anything. Auggie slouched against the wall beside Emma, looking just about as sick. After a minute Suzie pulled the ugly grey robe down over her legs. She’d be cold, and she liked to be modest.
Or Mary wanted her to be. Maybe she’d be a different person now. Maybe she’d be wild or hate Ed.
I can take another break up. It wouldn’t matter, as long as she gets to be herself.
She felt Wyn just before he crouched down beside her. He touched her shoulder, and it felt reassuring, even if he was goo.
“Get it off her.”
“We have to get her back to the special ward. The Sleepers Ward.”
“What did you do to her?”
“I’ll explain. Let’s get her somewhere comfortable, first.”
“I’m not leaving her.”
“I know. That’s okay. You don’t have to.”
He had a small controller that flickered and danced with their language. Emma got to her feet. Another command sent her shuffling silently along the hall. Ed felt sick every time she caught a glimpse of the pulsing gel. Ed held tight to her hand. Somewhere inside Emma could feel it, she was sure.
There was an odd, fluid chair that gathered her up and cradled her. Others sprouted like mushrooms. Later she would think of it with disgust but at the moment she didn’t care. She didn’t take her eyes off Emma until she was sure she wouldn’t be swept away.
“Mary is secured. We’ll deal with her later. It looks like she meant to lay it all on Emma.”
“How could she be responsible for anything? I mean, look at her. She’s catatonic.” Suzie waved at the chair.
“There seem to be some complications.”
“We aren’t idiots,” Auggie said. “How about you give us some information?”
“Like what you did to her,” Suzie added.
Wyn sighed. “All those years ago, we readily agreed to leave. We were horrified by the reaction, and the fear, that we’d caused. Of course we would leave. But some of our young couldn’t Travel, as we Travelled. So we struck a bargain. We would gift you with advanced technology. In exchange, our young could stay, as long as they’re normal. In order to make sure of it, we established the Centre. If they’re orphaned, or need help, they come here. And if they fail, they’re also brought here. So we promised.”
A projection filled the air. It was old, familiar to all of them: the history of the riots and revolts that had followed the revelation that the Mimics had lived among humans for years.
“We didn’t mean any harm. It was always our way of learning. We had never before encountered a species so…alarmed by our presence.”
The images changed to faces. Innumerable faces of families and children.
“As I said, interbreeding is unpredictable. Sometimes our nature skips generations. We keep close watch, those of us who stay, and protect them. And watch them. And watch over them.
“We teach our young how to hide. We give them the applications to help them. We promised your people that our young would be the cause of neither pain or strife. The rules are rigid, and the cost of failure is withdrawal from your society and ours. Here, to the Sleepers Ward.”
“Why this? She’s…she’s like a vegetable. Why keep them like this?”
“It’s more humane than the isolation visited on criminals, or death.”
“They’re just zombies forever?” Suzie’s voice was sharp with disgust.
“They sleep, they know no pain.”
“Or joy or anything,” Auggie said. “Why bother? Why don’t you just kill them?”
“We do not murder our young. They pass a peaceful existence, as we always have. They die a natural death. Then…”
“It’s been the case in the past that even people like Emma, in all ways human, might live again, as we do. It’s a byproduct of our natural death process. We have yet to find a way to replicate it. Well, such research is difficult to do without being deeply unethical, I suppose.”
“She might still turn into one of you?”
“She might transcend. She might Travel.”
“So you warehouse them for years, just to see?”
“The time that they spend in sleep isn’t even the blink of an eye compared to the life ahead of them should they receive this last inheritance.”
“All for not following your stupid rules.”
“Emma’s application was abnormally strict. Most are only intended to hide our presence. Whatever her intent, Mary has created a disaster for Emma.”
“You said before that you guys found out in time,” Suzie said. “Is this…Did that bitch do this?”
He nodded. “Mary rushed Emma into the web, fearing that her mistake-”
“Mistake?” Suzie asked sharply.
“Crime, then. She was afraid it would be discovered. Emma tried to tell me. She was beginning to realise that her application was unreasonable. She was starting to rebel. Later than most…”
“So you know she was right. So take it off.”
“The webs aren’t designed for removal. They have sometimes been, but the results are uncertain. She might return to normal. She might have varying degrees of impairment. She might die, cutting short a life that could last thousands of years.”
Ed kissed her hand, holding it against her cheek. She thought she felt her fingers twitch. The web pulsed and squirmed. It might have been her imagination.
“You have to try.”
“This is what she was afraid of! Every minute of every day. You can’t make her live her worst nightmare for the rest of her life.” She looked at Wyn. “The only time that you know for sure that she has is this time. This life. You don’t know what will happen after that. You’ll steal the only life that she has for sure, on the off chance that there might be more later?” She swallowed past a lump of fear. She was sure that she was right. She was still terrified.
“How dare you try to steal the only thing she has! How fucking dare you? You have to take it off. You can’t keep her like this.”
“Are you so sure?”
“I was there. I saw. It was enough to turn that application thing crazy, wasn’t it? She was scared of this. Don’t make her live like this. It isn’t right. It’s sick. Just let her…let her go.”
They took her away, to try what Ed asked. Ed tried not to think about how Em might die. She didn’t want to think about how it would be because of her.
They were given a broad, silvery blue room. There were tables that seemed like proper tables, in that they didn’t lurk nearby like dogs that wanted to perform tricks the way the chairs did. When she tried poking at the wall near the door the language flared to life. It seemed to her that there were two clusters, the way you might have two buttons. When she toyed with them she found that they opened and closed the door, and they weren’t locked in.
At least the bathroom looked more or less normal.
She sat by the window, looking out to where the stars and the earth met, right there in front of her. Ed’s eyes followed the line of it, restless and tired. It was breathtaking. It was…She ought to try and memorise it. How many people would ever see it? People like them. Normal people. This was the stuff that you saw in movies.
If Em were here, it would be beautiful.
The chair was strangely relaxing. Usually this or that bit got numb after awhile, but she’d been sitting there for hours and it was still like a cloud. Like being hugged. Her head kept drooping, and she’d feel it shift, coaxing her to relax. Then she’d shake herself awake and it would patiently reconstruct itself into a proper chair.
Auggie had long since given up. His snores provided a constant background noise. They were usually a little further away, but it was a sound from home. She looked at him sprawled comfortably over the chair thing. It had successfully turned itself into a bed. Maybe her chair thing was jealous that it had lost the competition to the other chair thing.
She looked up when the door opened. Suzie entered with a tray of food. She forced a little smile despite her heart sinking. No one else came with her. There wasn’t any news.
“There’s so much food. You need to eat something.”
“Where? Where does it come from?”
“The walls. God, this place is amazing, Ed.”
“Auggie thinks like that, too.” She picked up a little covered ceramic pot and lifted its lid. There was a white stew inside and her stomach growled obligingly. “Did you hear anything?”
“They’re still removing it. Wyn said that after that they’ll let her sleep until she wakes up on her own. Then we’ll have a better idea.”
She should have chased Wyn down herself and demanded answers, instead of Suzie doing it.
I will. I’ll do it. I have to.
She pulled her feet up, resting the pot on her legs, and nibbled at a carrot.
“I was kinda hoping for a lecture. It feels like the right time.”
“A little squabble might be a nice distraction. I don’t like hospitals.”
Ed watched her spear a chunk of apple. She looked unruffled as always.
“I don’t know how to lecture on this one, Ed. I don’t think it’s lecture-worthy.” She smiled. “I’m not used to thinking about you as a plotter. You always just sort of jump in. I don’t know. Maybe what looks like crazy is just your kind of logic.”
“Probably not. I wasn’t thinking when I swiped her tablet.”
“But you were right. And whatever happens, now the right person is being punished. And maybe they’ll act more slowly the next time. Or someone will benefit from all this, anyway.”
“It doesn’t help Emma.”
“It might. We don’t know yet.”
Coffee curdled in her stomach. Suzie watched her dump milk into it.
“Wyn said it was a long shot, her even hearing you, let alone responding. According to their records Mary put it on her the day after she came. After so long, usually they only respond to the…to that controller thing Wyn used.” She paused. “So the web thing is more active than it would normally be. He said that means the person is fighting it. From what you said and…the way things are…It doesn’t sound like she had much in her life. It makes me think that it’s you. You made her fight.”
For a minute Ed couldn’t do anything but bask in that feeling. Like it really was love, and it was on both sides. Finally she looked down.
“I bet there’s a downside to that.”
“It’s better to know, right?”
“It could mean more severe side effects. They don’t really know, since there haven’t been many removals.”
Ed abandoned the coffee. Suzie put her arm around her. It felt like something caving in. She didn’t even care that Suzie might think she was weak. She cried.
Her chair had happily become a cradling bed by the time she woke up. Suzie and Auggie were gone. She stumbled to the bathroom, which had been supplied with everything a girl could need to fix days of being a fugitive and near-death by suffocation.
She meant to be quick, but seeing the shower instantly made her feel itchy. She stood under the hot gush of water, the sheer pressure of it against her face restoring her. She felt good enough to reach for a scrubber and go to work on herself. By the time the shower was done she felt as though she’d been boiled and peeled, red like the lobster they’d had at her parents’ anniversary dinner. The towel was thick, and nearly big enough to go around her twice. She burrowed her face into it, wondering if the orphans had similar things. There were all those novels about orphanages, and they never sounded great, but Wyn seemed to hint that they cared about their young.
But they condemned them to living death, too, so…
She reached for her underwear and finally noticed that all of her clothes were gone.
“Where did you take my stuff? For fuck’s sake, aren’t they good enough?” She ranted at the blue walls for awhile, aware that she sounded like a madwoman.
The wall lit up with its alien language.
“What, you can understand but you can’t write something I can understand? What good are you?”
It chimed at her. Her energy deflated in the face of its cheerful…wallness…and she sat on the toilet. She propped her head in her hands.
A few minutes later there was a rumbling whoosh, and the clothes appeared, clean and dry, in a hole in the wall.
“Fine. Thank you,” she added begrudgingly.
The wall chirped.
Suzie and Auggie were already spruced up, sitting at a table with Wyn. The remains of breakfast hadn’t been cleared yet. At least in front of them. Maybe Wyn didn’t eat. Maybe he’d wrinkle if he did. Maybe he absorbed food like something from science class.
“Is it done?”
Wyn nodded. “The web was removed. She’s in recovery.”
“How is she? Is she awake?”
“Her scans are stabilising. We’re comparing them to her last health check, but she hasn’t woken up yet.”
“If she isn’t well, will she have to stay here?” Suzie asked.
“It depends on the level of impairment.”
“I’ll take care of her.”
“That’s a lot to take on,” Wyn said.
“Maybe. But she might be fine. You said it.” She couldn’t look at her family. “If I’d be with her when she was healthy, why wouldn’t I if she was sick?”
“You won’t be alone,” Wyn said. “Wherever she is, whatever help she needs, I’ll share the burden.”
“You could move in with her for awhile,” Auggie said. “Until things are better.”
“We’ll arrange a new apartment for her.”
“You mean you took away her things?”
“I’m afraid Mary was ruthless.”
“That’s cold, man,” Auggie shook his head.
“We take the safety of our young seriously. Though Mary had her own reasons, of course, what she did wasn’t unusual, only the speed with which she did it.”
“You’ll be compensating her for that, I’m sure,” Suzie said. “And for any lingering issues related to her health that prevent her from working. I imagine rehabilitation will take some time.”
Ed was glad that Suzie was on her side.
I need to be like that. Emma will need someone strong, until she’s back to good.
“Of course.” Wyn smiled. “In any case, Luck may yet be on your side. As it happens the application was supporting her financially through expert levels of stock manipulation. Proof, if any was needed, that AI shouldn’t be allowed in finance. We’re still tracking down accounts and funds.”
“That all goes to Emma, of course,” Suzie said quickly.
“Of course.” He seemed impressed by her.
A series of lights blinked in the wall.
“It’s time. She’s waking up.”
She barely had time to panic. Wyn stopped in the hall and gestured for her to go in. Still, Ed hesitated. The small, plain chamber glowed a peaceful, faint violet shade. One of the chair things held her protectively as she made those little movements that people did just before they woke up. She watched, glued to her spot.
“Want us to go in?” Auggie asked.
She shook herself. “It’s okay. Just…give us a minute.”
“Good luck,” Wyn said.
She still looked like she was sleeping. When she got up close another chair thing grew for her, considerately close, and she sat by her side. There were painful-looking red lines where the web had been, and both eyes were black. She didn’t respond even when Ed took her hand.
“Hey, Em. Long time no see.”
Was there a flicker? Or just wishful thinking?
“Hope you don’t mind. I thought maybe you needed a ride home.”
Her eyelids flickered when Ed moved closer, and opened. Her eyes focused briefly, then slipped away. Ed reached out and touched her cheek. It was a little puffy and swollen, but she didn’t flinch.
“Come on, baby. You have to wake up. We’ll go to baking class. Or a hotel, anyway.” She tried to smile. “We’ll go out for a ride. I’ll take you out of the city again.”
Her eyes closed, lashes delicate as ash against her skin.
“Ah, shit, Em, you can’t give up now. Please.”
Her breath was the only sign of life. The grey gown scarcely moved.
Ed climbed onto the bed thing and stretched out beside her. It shifted effortlessly to accommodate her. She pressed herself close around Emma, warming them both. They fit so well together that Ed wanted to cry again. She kissed her cheek and started talking, watching for any sign of life. Once she got started she realised how much she’d been daydreaming about all the things she wanted to do with Em. She told her everything she could think of, and some new ones, just off the cuff.
“Oh, hey. Hey, I just remembered. I found something for you. Remember that time at the mall?”
She fumbled with her tablet, propping it between them. The music floated up into the sterile air, filling it with colour and life. She kissed her shoulder.
“I know why you stopped messaging, Em. I don’t care, I promise.” Her fingertip followed the soft arch of her eyebrow.
“I know what you are.” In her mind she saw Emma’s reddish hair on the pillow. It would grow back, she thought. “I don’t give a shit.”
“I know who you really are. It’s cool. I mean…I haven’t found a deal breaker yet.”
She didn’t move. Ed fought back a rising wave of fear.
God please, Em. Please don’t. Please. You and I can be good, finally. Please.
“Okay. This is it. This is the big deal. I’ll tell you my real name. I’ll even let you call me it. Just you, though. Anyone else gets my death glare.”
She took a deep breath. “Edna. Edna Isabelle. I’ll let you call me Edna, if you want. Only you.”
Emma’s eyes fluttered open. They focused with great effort.
“Hey, Em.” She held her breath, fearing the worst, but her eyes stayed open, exhausted, but she was there behind them.
Tears spilled out of her poor, bruised eyes. Her hand lifted. There was a tremor in it, so her fingertip brushed Ed’s lips clumsily. Her eyes skipped over Ed. She smiled, crinkling up her crying face, until Ed was laughing for joy. “P-p-pink! P-pretty. Love.”