The Dance Continues
Lena heaved herself forwards. The white dust had dried her throat, swallowing was an effort. Her arms and shoulders were screaming with tiredness, her back wet with sweat. But she was here, she had arrived at the vent nearest to the clones. She sat up, glad to rest her arms, to stretch her back. Then she leant down and peered through the grill. There was nothing to see, all was white, an empty corridor. She felt into the cloth bag at her side, located the screw remover, looked at it. She had never used one before but had seen them many times. She attached the end to the first screw in the screen, depressed the ‘on’ button, felt the tiny vibrations as it did its job, watched it turn the screw, hoped the high pitched whirr would not be heard. Hoped many things.
Max was still sleeping. The nurse replaced her computer back on the stand and moved to his side. She checked his vital signs, all good. Then she began to prepare him for the operation, to sterilise and shave his head, to place protective covers across his shoulders. The boy slept on. She worked quickly, they would come for him soon, he needed to be ready.
Mel4 was pacing the room. She held her computer as she walked, eyes glued to the screen, waiting for messages from the bots, using their cameras to scan the crowd, checking for anything unusual.
She saw Midra stand, go to the podium, prepare to make his speech. The camera was behind him, she could see a bald patch in his thin dark hair, his head moving as he spoke. He was clasping the lectern with both hands, his wiry arms protruding from his black sleeves, hair speckling his wrists.
In front of Midra, she could see several delegates, their faces politely attentive, their posture rigid, their eyes bored. There was no shuffling among the seats, no checking of computers—all eyes were firmly on the global leader, even if their eyes were unseeing and their thoughts elsewhere. But that was not the concern of Mel4, she simply had to ensure his safety.
She checked the time. All was to plan. She would be glad when this was over, when her job had returned to the more mundane. Her mind wandered to lunch, she was hungry.
On the island, Den was packing a bag. The family didn’t have many things, only what they could carry when they arrived. Agnes had given him some food, wrapped in a brown paper package. Lucy was standing next to him, chattering: asking where they were going, when would Lena and Max return? Were they going by boat or tube? Could she take the models she had made from sticks?
Den told her to leave the models here. He could not answer any of her other questions. His mind was full of worry, organising, asking God to keep his family safe. There was too much that could go wrong, he knew how much he could lose.
In the channel above the hospital ceiling, the third screw was loose and Lena carefully picked it out of the hole, placing it with the others next to her. She tested the vent—was it secure or would it fall, crashing to the ground when the last screw was removed? It felt firm enough but it was not worth risking. Lena shook her head, reminded herself to be cautious. If the vent cover fell down, it would alert the guards, Lena would be arrested, all hope of saving Max would end. She hooked her nails round the edge, used her other hand to steady the screw remover, to continue unwinding the last thread. It came out easily, was put in the pile with the others.
She began to move the grill. Gently, gently, watching flakes of dust drift downwards, pausing, waiting for shouts or alarms. None came, all was silent. She twisted the grill, allowing it to fit through the gap, lifted it into the chamber, lowered it with a shaking hand, lay it next to the screws, waited. Still no sound, no shouts, no alarms. She leant forwards, putting her weight on her arms, lowering her head through the gap, wanting to see what was there—what was waiting for her.
The vent was above a small corridor, a short pathway really. On one side was a room with beds, three patients. They must be the clones. On the other side, beyond a glass wall, were two human guards. They stood, straight backed, legs apart, facing away from the clones, towards a door which she guessed led out of the room, to a general corridor. She stared for a second at their backs, then scanned the rest of the room. There was no one else, no nurses or doctors. At the moment.
Lena pushed herself back up into the space above the vent. She sighed. Now what? The chances of her being able to climb down from the vent, to lower herself onto the floor without causing herself an injury were slim. The chance of doing that unseen by two trained guards was pretty much impossible. If they saw her, they would probably shoot her, restrain her at best. She would then be unable to meet Max. Would her attempt to reach the clones be sufficient? Would John’s helpers, this hidden army of star-counters, be willing to remove Max from the hospital? Would they risk their jobs, their anonymity, to help take Max somewhere safe? She didn’t know.
There was too much she didn’t know. She had heard Nargis say there would be a delayed reaction to the poison she was carrying. How then would injecting the clones cause a diversion? Or was she herself the diversion? Did the planners of this scheme assume she would be caught, that the chaos over her own capture would divert attention away from Max, away from her son, so he could be taken to safety? If she had been told that, she would willingly have complied—saving her son was all that mattered. But no one had actually told her that. No one had actually told her anything. She felt like a pawn in a great game of chess, moved around by greater minds, useful but expendable.
Memories of Max flooded her mind. She remembered before he was born, the solid lump moving within her, how she would stroke her belly, pray for the baby to be born safely. Even then she loved him, would have given her very life for him. Then watching him when he was tiny, seeing his father’s eyes staring at her, her own mouth set in a determined line as he struggled to achieve something. Her body remembered the feel of carrying the toddler Max on her hip; she knew just how he had fitted against her when she carried him around. She had always read him well, even now, as he was changing from boy to man, she often guessed his thoughts, read his mind in a wisp of knowledge carried to her by his expression or tone of voice. He might be physically separate from her but the bond tying them was very strong, almost physical in its intensity. Sometimes she felt overwhelmed by her love for him.
So she was now unwilling to risk being caught. If she knew he would be safe, she would try, she would risk her own safety. But not if that was tantamount to abandoning her son. She had no idea what to do.
In despair, she lowered her head. “God,” she prayed, “this is way beyond me. I don’t even know how I managed to get into this mess. I’m scared for me and terrified for my son. Could you please just tell me what to do? Should I give up and go back? Should I try to find Max on my own? I am so tired…”
There was no answer, no bolts of lightning, no inner voice telling her what to do. Lena felt utterly alone. She waited, held her breath, eyes screwed shut, waiting for a revelation, a direction from above.
There was nothing. Silence surrounded her, the white dust uncomfortable in her throat, her mind in turmoil. She rested her head on her knees, felt tears well behind her eyes and flow down her face, wetting her cheeks and falling to her neck. She was so tired, so completely worn out, and now it had all been futile.
Max was ready. The nurse had been joined by two porter bots. There was no risk of waking the boy, he was heavily sedated. His breathing was regular, heartbeat strong, temperature level. His carer nodded, pleased that he was stable. She didn’t stop to wonder who he was, why he was being sent for treatment. It was easier to not think these days, to do your job and comply with instructions. No one had told her that he was special, needed to be watched. The authorities knew that not everyone agreed with their policies. Sometimes it was safer to not announce things, to let people become lost in the system. If the nurse had known the boy was ‘high risk’, she would never have left. However, she might also have mentioned it to someone. In deciding to avoid the latter, the authorities had not foreseen the former.
She checked the information on the bot’s screen. The boy should be gone for about half an hour, perhaps fifty minutes. That was good, she hadn’t had her break yet, she could nip down and get a drink, be back in the room by the time they returned him.
She crossed to her computer, sent the updated information, then slipped it into her pocket. She watched as the two bots wheeled the bed from the room, taking it towards the operating room. Then she gathered her things, double checked she had her computer in her pocket and set off for the canteen. The authorities often forgot lower level staff breaks. When there was an emergency, they were expected to work straight through. Which was fine in theory but there seemed to be an awful lot of emergencies.
Her mind wandered. Hot chocolate, she thought, that would be nice. They had a new one now, extra thick and creamy but low in sugar, so the sugar tax didn’t apply. She could use a break, a chance to switch off for a few minutes. She would be back in the room well before the boy was returned, no one would even know she had left. She began to hum as she walked, she could almost taste that chocolate already.
Mel4 was beginning to relax when it happened. She had watched Midra make his speech, had kept the volume low—it was hardly going to be earth shattering, no need to listen. Then he had moved to shake the hand of a delegate.
There had been a shout—barely heard on her monitor, but still audible. She spun her camera away, in the direction of the noise, then a bubble of information appeared on her screen, every bot in the holy place sending her information, the bots next to her buzzing as they processed the information, sent her reports to scan and actions to sanction.
Mel4 must sanction action: Shoot to kill or tranquillisers? Removal of patient already actioned, car sealed, patient in transit. Did she sanction local hospital or hospital 05? Bots recommended 05, bot in car reported replacement organ likely to be necessary, bleeding under control, heartbeat dropping, fluids administered.
Her brain was bursting with information, using the bots’ advice to decide the best course of action, knowing that her decisions were slow in comparison, that speed mattered.
Mel4 swallowed. Her fingers flew across the keyboard.
‘Detain perpetrator, continue medical intervention to stabilise patient, bring him to 05.’
It had happened, Midra had been shot.
She examined the preliminary reports that were being sent from the car. The wound was extensive but unlikely to be fatal. He would need more blood and possibly a transplant, depending on what the bullet had touched. The on-board medical scanners were limited; they would know more when he reached hospital. She decided that 05 was the better option. Then if there was extensive internal damage, if a transplant was necessary, it could be done immediately. She sent the decision, issued instructions to prepare for his arrival, turned back to her other screen.
In the holy place, there was pandemonium. Another man had been shot, probably fatally. One of the human guards had decided to act, to minimise damage. Mel4 suspected he had panicked, shot before he had evaluated the situation. She frowned, now they would have problems finding out who the instigator was, if it was a lone action or part of something bigger. Mel4 told them to try to save the shooter, to take him to the nearest hospital. A team would be waiting for him, they would find out what they could. The guards and bots at the holy place were securing the area, overseeing the safe departure of the delegates.
The bots were still sending her information. She told one to action the safe arrival of Midra to the hospital. The machine whirred, finding vacant rooms, actioning a bed to be prepared, messaging medical staff to leave what they were doing and to be waiting in the correct areas. They cancelled treatment on the boy, that was low priority, and they could use that theatre to treat Midra. They checked security and arranged for further guards to cover the entrances and corridors that the leader would travel down. Within minutes the bots had processed information and made decisions. Mel4 struggled to keep up. This was her job, her fast mind was her main skill, her ability to sanction decisions or cancel them. She was the human element in this, she hoped that was not a hindrance.
The porter bots wheeling Max received the message almost instantly. They stopped moving while they processed the information, then turned, wheeled the bed back to the room.
In the rest area, the nurse was just ordering her drink, she was not expecting her patient to return for nearly an hour. She was tired, it was near the end of her shift. She felt her computer vibrate in her pocket, decided to ignore it. She would be back on duty in a few minutes, she would sort out the message then. Sometimes the authorities forgot that nurses weren’t machines, couldn’t work continually without a break. It was dangerous, irritated her and put the patient’s well-being at risk. No, whatever it was, it could wait, it was hardly likely to be urgent. She would mention it at the next staff feedback session. This really did happen far too often.
The porter bots wheeled Max into the room. It was empty. Their instructions did not mention being met by a nurse, they had not been alerted that this patient was a high security patient. They were machines. Machines do not worry about possibilities, they respond to instructions. They placed the bed back in the room then continued to their next job, informing the waiting computer that they would be slightly later than expected due to a change in schedule.
Max lay in the bed, his shaved head resting on a pillow, one arm flung from the sheet that tucked him securely in place. He slept on, alone in his room.
Lena heard a noise and peered down. She was at the point of abandoning her task, of crawling back to the start and trying to find Max on her own. Before she went, she looked down to see what the noise was. With the grill removed, she could hear quite clearly.
One of the guards was reading a message. He turned to his colleague, said there was a security emergency in zone 26, they should go at once. A high priority patient was arriving; it took precedence over their current position. They both drew their weapons and hurried from the room.
Lena watched them go, their uniformed backs departing through the door. The room was now empty of people. She could hear machines, beeping, whooshing, sucking, but no people. Now what? She knew that the room might not remain empty for long, if this was a chance to inject the clones unseen, then it would be her only one. She was here now, she had come without thinking, driven by tiredness and despair, carried along by other people’s will. But she was here. She may as well continue.
She looked at the distance from the hatch to the floor. It was too high. If she jumped, she would break a leg, if not worse. There was nothing near to climb onto and she had no rope or anything with her, even if she were strong enough to climb down a rope, which she doubted. She turned onto her stomach and lowered her legs through the hole, aware that if anyone happened to enter the room they would see her before she could react. Then she slid her body, further and further through the gap in the ceiling. The cloth of her tunic snagged on the rough edge, she hoped it wouldn’t tear, continued to lower her body. Her weight shifted, pulling her down. There was nothing to hold onto, she grasped the edge of the shaft with her fingers, felt herself slipping, tried to hold her weight on her arms. She was too tired, too unfit, her fingers were not able to keep hold. With a cry, she fell.
Lena landed heavily, twisting her ankle, all the air bounced out of her, a new bruise on one elbow. She didn’t pause, no time to recover, she scrambled to her feet. When she stood, a bolt of pain shot hotly up her leg, her vision blurred, she fell to the ground. She waited, remembered to breathe, in out in out, waited for the pain to subside, her head to clear. If anyone arrived now, she would be defenceless, unable to do more than crawl.
But no one arrived.
Lena waited until she had recovered enough to try standing again. Cautiously, little by little, she lifted her head. The world did not spin. She did not vomit. She edged upwards, putting her weight on her good leg, crawling towards the nearest bed, using it to haul herself upright. Then she stood there, on one leg, gazing down at the first clone, wondering how long before the guards returned.
To be continued on Wednesday. . .
Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you: UK Link Here!