Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Puppet Dance


The Puppet Dance

A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.

Max stirred. He could hear the soft fluttering of someone moving in his room. Eyes heavy, he opened them a crack, peered out. The world was bleary, and white—harsh lights; he closed them again. The someone moved closer, he smelt almonds, felt a machine on his neck.

It whirred and hummed as it measured his temperature, heartbeat, fluid levels. Then another prick, sharp, in his thigh.

“Another bee,” he thought, “way too many insects. . .” He floated back to sleep.

***

Mel4 was back in her office. She sipped the bitter coffee in her hand, stared at the screen. She could see Midra leaving his underground garage, the car flanked by two others. The glass was black but she knew he was inside, accompanied by a human guard, with a bot fastened to the ceiling. The bot would be monitoring all passing traffic, anything unusual. The human guard would be armed. She switched to an inside monitor; all was as expected.

All human guards carried firearms, tiny guns that could shoot either instant tranquillisers or, more rarely, lethal bullets designed to kill. Neither guaranteed the immediate removal of danger as it depended on the aim of the marksman when the target was hit—which meant there had been calls for the rearming of bots. Mel4 hoped that would never happen. She remembered too well the mistakes of the past, the malfunctioning bots who had killed innocent bystanders, the over-diligent bots who had removed enemies they would rather have interviewed. It was still too difficult to write code that tempered absolute obedience, code that would enable bots to balance more than the physical elements of the situations they were in. Humans, though unreliable, were still considered more reliable than bots when it came to weapons. They were still able to weigh up situations and vary their decisions accordingly. There were fewer absolutes in the human mind, more variables. For ten years now, security bots had been armed only with sedatives, ones that worked fairly instantly but were never fatal.

Mel4 shook her head; she was day-dreaming, and there was no time for that today. She took another sip, then rested her cup on the desk. She would need to move that if her boss came, the roaming bot that floated around the corridors checking workers, sending instructions to her terminal. Liquids and machines were not a good mix, despite all the manufacturer’s assurances that computers were watertight. She would be careful. It had been a long week; she needed the caffeine. She read through the data that had arrived so far. The holy place was secure; the delegates were on their way. They would be met by Midra at 9am, they would nod, smile, make meaningless speeches, then Midra could return to his safe bunker and the delegates could leave, knowing their importance had been acknowledged.

Her next job would be to make a decision on the boy from the island.

***

Lena was standing in an inspection room with the nurse. He had locked the door, moved the trolley bed to under a hatch in the ceiling and smoothly climbed onto it. He was now unscrewing the clips, lowering the metal plate. Lena was watching. Did he really expect her to climb up there? To shuffle through tunnels? She fingered the borrowed barcode clipped onto her borrowed uniform. She felt her feet, pinched by the borrowed shoes. She wondered if she would need to use the toilet before she got back. Heroes in stories never used toilets, she had noticed that. Women with children did though, and the nurse had made her drink a lot, watched her swallow every drop of the sweet liquid, told her the fluids and sugar would do her good.

She glanced down at the map in her hand. She had nearly forgotten to bring it, had left it in the side pocket of her bag. He had reminded her, raised that eyebrow again, suggested it might be useful unless she had committed it to memory. His sarcasm was irritating, made her want to slap him.

The nurse finished removing the hatch and he sat on the bed, holding it, looking at her. He reached into a pocket and took out a cloth bag attached to a thin belt.

“Put the vials in here. There’s not much room up there so you would do better to wear them at your side, there isn’t enough space to have them at the back, and you’ll need to shuffle on your stomach. You don’t want to break them. Do you know how to administer them?”

Lena shook her head. She had no medical training, how would she know such a thing? He stood and crossed to a cupboard, pulled out a small tube.

“They look like this inside,” he told her, his voice full of forced patience as he explained. “Slide them out of the holding tubes and you will see two buttons.” He held it so she could see. “The first one,” he depressed it, “extends the needle”.

Lena looked at the long point as it shone in the light. It looked sharp and cruel. She swallowed.

“You insert it, a thigh or arm will do, or the neck if that’s quickest, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s in a good centimetre.”

Lena shuddered. She didn’t much like injections, though had given them to the children when necessary, when the drones had brought them from the pharmacy after an online medical examination. This looked much the same, though was slimmer and had no instructions attached.

“Then you just press the button at the end,” the nurse was telling her, “just like a normal injection. The chemical will be pushed out, count to five, that will be long enough. Then inject the next clone. We think there are three but we have given you five, just in case”.

“In case of what?” wondered Lena. “In case there are more clones? In case I drop one? In case I decide to murder someone extra on my way out?” She kept quiet. He didn’t look like he would appreciate her thoughts.

The nurse was standing again, climbing back up onto the trolley bed. He clearly had no time left, needed to send her on her way. He passed her the screw remover, watched her add it to the cloth bag, managing to remain silent, to not tell her to hurry up, but every muscle in his face tense. He reached out a hand to help her up.

For a moment Lena stood, stared at his hand, did not move. After a pause, she took hold of it, her own small hand swallowed up in the mass of his, let him help her onto the bed. She stood next to him, peering upwards, not at all sure she was strong enough to climb up, the gap was very small, very high. Then, with no time to think, the nurse hoisted her upwards as easily as he would have lifted a child. She swung her legs into the space and peered forwards. There was a long white tunnel leading away from the entrance shaft. It was lower further on but she had room to sit here, to remain upright. Below her, the nurse was raising the hatch back into place.

“Wait, what are you doing? How will I get out?”

“Don’t panic,” he told her, his voice rough now, in a hurry. “I’m just putting in place, so no one notices. I won’t secure it. When you get back, listen. If the room is empty, stamp hard, and it will fall down. Then you can get out. Go back to the washroom. You remember the way?”

Lena nodded. Realised he couldn’t see her, said, “Yes”. Her voice sounded strange, hollow and hoarse.

He paused, lowered the tile again so he could see her.

“Good, then go there—to the same washroom. At ten o’clock I will come. I will have Max. You can both leave. There will be a car waiting, it will be ordered with a different barcode, make sure you disable the on-board camera. It will take you to the port. Someone will meet you. That’s all I know.”

He did not tell her to trust him. She had no choice. He did not tell her it would all be fine. He doubted that it would be. He looked up at this woman, saw her exhaustion, her acceptance that she had no options, her determination to find her son. In his mind he wished her well, prayed she would have the strength she needed. He nodded, fixed the tile in place, and left. He did not expect to see her again.

Lena wanted to call after him, to tell him to stay, she couldn’t do this, it was stupid to even try. Through the small grill in the ceiling, she watched the top of his head go towards the door, then he disappeared from her view. She tied the belt around her waist, hearing the vials jangle against each other. She hoped they were stronger than they looked. Then she leaned forwards into a crouch and began to half crawl, half shuffle, along the narrow vent. She held the map in her left hand. It was folded so that her current position was showing. She needed to go forward past three more vents, then turn right. She felt like a marker in a computer game, wondered if she glowed red.

Crawling was uncomfortable but not difficult. Every so often, she lifted her head and looked ahead. She could hear nothing from below, hoped her own shuffling was unheard. She crawled along the narrow space, a fat black cable lying beside her. She tried to not touch it, there was something threatening about that cable. She arrived at the first vent and peered down.

She was looking into a room. There was a nurse in the corner and a bed with a tray next to it. She strained to see around the edge of the vent, to discover who was in the bed. If it was Max, she would abandon her mission in an instant, would find a way to get to him.

It was not Max. It was an old lady, her white hair flowing over her shoulders, her head resting on a pillow. She was very thin, with paper-thin skin and when she lifted her arm, Lena saw bones with flesh hanging, the movements shaky and slow. The woman appeared barely alive. Lena shuffled on.

The tunnel had no discerning features, a long dust-filled hollow stretching before her. Lena used her elbows to propel herself forwards, her stomach dragging along the floor, the unsecured sections of hair hanging in her face, the air dry.

The next vent was over a corridor. People passed beneath her, she paused for a moment and watched their heads. Snippets of conversation floated up, none discernible, a general babble of sound. That helped her relax a little, to think that she herself was unlikely to be heard unless she coughed or shouted when above a vent. Whatever the ceiling was made of, it was clearly well insulated, containing both heat and sound. She continued.

At the next vent there was a crossing of routes. She checked the map again, took the fork to the right. Her arms were beginning to tire now and her throat was dry. The tunnels were dusty, dry, uncomfortably hot. She wondered what her uniform must look like now, imagined it was far from the pristine white it had been a few minutes ago. That would be a problem when she came to leave. There was nothing she could do now, so she continued, taking her weight on her arms, shuffling with her legs. An uncoordinated caterpillar.

***

Mel4 was watching her screen closely. She could see that Midra had arrived at the holy place. He had left the car and was moving into position, walking through the clapping public, through the arched doorway and along the aisle. All seemed to be going to plan. She watched the live feed, switching between monitors until he was in his seat at the front. He would be introduced, then would stand and make a speech.

She reached for her keyboard and turned her second screen on. It flashed blue, then she called the island reports back into view. She had made her decision. They could not alter the boy, that was too severe, held too many risks. She thought it was an unreliable method of control, disliked the number of ‘failures’ her department had been forced to cover up. No, she would not sanction that.

However, her bot had given her three options and the second, the decision to wipe a part of his medium-term memory, seemed sensible. He was young, he would have many more years to build new memories. A few gaps wouldn’t matter.

She entered the codes, sent her decision. They could do it this morning. He could then be returned to the island; she saw no reason to remove him permanently from his family. Her understanding was that they were planning to leave soon anyway, they could be reunited and go. Then they wouldn’t be her problem anymore. It was not as if they were a security threat, they held illegal views, that was all. Mel4 did not agree with the law as it stood, but her job was not to make judgements about that, it was to ensure it was upheld. She finished writing and sent her conclusion. Then she turned back to watch Midra.

***

Lena reached the next vent. She sat up, easing her back, stretching the muscles. This was physically very tough, she wondered if it was going to be possible, she would be tired when she eventually arrived. She peered down, adjusting her position so she could see through the gaps in the vent, squinting her eyes, looking for her son.

She seemed to be over a cafeteria, she could see heads moving, smell something spicy. It made her feel nauseous. A tendril of hair was tickling her nose. She pushed it back, swept all the escaped hair together, hooking it back into the hairband—it didn’t matter what she looked like now. She noticed her hands were dusty, dry, she wished she had gloves. Wished a lot of things.

Lena checked her map, refolding it so her current position was at the top. The exit shaft, the one near the clones, was now on the same square of paper. She was getting closer. That was good, she told herself, nearly there, nearly at the right place. She stopped there—not wanting to consider what came next, what she must do when she arrived and the myriad of things that might go wrong. She had no sense of time but she felt she had been crawling for hours. She checked the vials were still in place, moved them slightly so they didn’t knock against her leg, then leaned forwards, continued moving.

“I can do this,” she told herself, willing her arms to keep moving, clawing her way forwards, heaving her body through the vent. “I can do this, I can save Max. . . ”

 

***

On the island, John’s computer beeped. A message. He opened it. It was sent in code, talked about monitors being fixed, awaiting collection. He smiled, they had located the boy. He checked the time, rubbing his hands together, the slightest smile flickering on his mouth. This was all going to plan.

John rose and went to find Den, to tell him to pack, he and Lucy would be leaving on a boat before nightfall. Whatever happened, it would not be safe for them to stay now. Too much was going to change.

To be continued on Sunday

Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. Amazon Link Here

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