“You’re not Meg.”
Jack suddenly had a very businesslike gun in his hand, pointed at the woman before them. “Hsieh, get some lights on. You, whoever you are, don’t move. Not a muscle.” Behind them, Lynda heard the slight whine that signaled Ruthie activating her stun gun.
Before Hsieh could obey Jack’s order, the woman spoke. “You’re right. I’m not the woman you knew as Meg. But I am your friend.”
(“But she fell,” “Yes” “You?” “Yes.”)
“Oh.” Lynda was the one to gasp now. “Jack? I think she’s the Voice.”
He didn’t take his eyes off the woman, and the gun muzzle didn’t waver. “Is that true?” Nothing in his tone betrayed what he might be thinking.
“I am.” The woman in front of them had Meg’s scratchy alto, but none of her vocal patterns or rhythms. Her speech was flat and measured. Lynda was reminded of Iris. No, she corrected herself. It wasn’t quite like that. It was, rather, a voice unfamiliar with the aural intricacies of spoken language, ignorant of dynamics. The Voice voice, she thought, only preventing a hysterical giggle at the last moment, by pressing one hand over her mouth.
“And you’re somehow in control of Meg’s body?”
“Oh my god.” Hsieh said behind them. He still hadn’t left the lift cab, Lynda noted. “You killed her?”
“No. She was dead when my servos brought her body here. After the dampers slowed her fall and dropped her to the shaft bottom. She was gone then.”
The security officer sounded incredulous. “How are you doing...how are you doing this?”
Very slowly and smoothly, the woman in front of them tilted her head to one side, not breaking eye contact with Jack. She heaved a long breath, almost as if she had forgotten until just then to breathe (perhaps that’s the truth, does a dead body need to breathe?)
“It is...complicated. Hsieh, if you want to turn the lights on, the controls are to the right of the lift.”
Lynda felt as if she’d been nailed to the floor. She couldn’t move as Hsieh exited the lift. He stayed behind Jack and her, and well away from the woman in front of them, but he must have found the switches because the room became significantly brighter. There was no single origin for the light, and it was still hard to see things at the far end of the room, but Meg — Meg’s body — was completely illuminated.
“I hate to insult a lady when she’s standing in front of me,” Jack said after a moment. “But you look like death warmed over. And believe me, I don’t like speaking ill of the dead.”
This time, Lynda couldn’t stop herself. She doubled over in laughter, horrified, but incapable of stopping herself. “Sorry...oh god, sorry! I’m so....oh my god!”
“Jesus, Lynda,” Jack said.
(“Death warmed over? You said it, you can’t blame me for laughing.”)
(“...Yeah. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.”)
The conversation’s spit-second duration allowed Lynda to control herself, but she remained perilously close to screaming.
Meg’s body was visibly injured. A bruise spread across her left cheek, wandered over her chin and reappeared on her left shoulder, visible through a large hole that had somehow been ripped in her top. And the body itself wasn’t standing straight. It listed to one side, with the left shoulder canted forward and the right leg slightly bent.
“I’m sorry about that. It’s just ... I didn’t expect ... Uhm, listen, can you feel anything?” she asked, focusing on immediate things. “The body...Your — Meg’s body. It’s injured. Can you feel it?”
Meg’s head swivelled to face her, still tilted. “I can feel the injuries. As I control the body, so it also controls me. I had ... forgotten ... what it is like to feel.” Then the face smiled slightly. “I do remember, now. Hurting doesn’t seem so bad, if it means that this nervous system is working for me.”
Without warning, Meg’s body folded in upon itself and slid toward the floor.
Lynda caught it before it hit, staggering under the weight. “Wha — uh ... what’s wrong?”
“I need to eat. I must stabilize this body. My body.”
“Why should we let you do that?” Jack said, kneeling. The hand he reached out to help Lynda maintain her balance was gentle, but he didn’t sound particularly solicitous. “Most human worlds consider possession a crime.”
“When there are laws, yes,” the Voice whispered with Meg’s tongue and vocal cords. “There are no laws here. And I must survive.”
“I deserve to.”
Jack and Lynda looked at each other. Hsieh said nothing, but Ruthie moved to Lynda’s side.
“I can help,” she said. “Try this. It’s an energy wafer. I have some water, too. The wafer’s a little dry.”
“Thank you,” the Voice said, taking the proffered package gratefully with Meg’s hands. She scrabbled ineffectively at the wafer’s plastic cover until Ruthie retrieved it, opened the package, then wordlessly handed it back. The Voice shoved its crumbling entirety into Meg’s mouth. She coughed and retched, but seemed to have enough control over chewing and swallowing to complete the process. “Water, please?”
“Here you go,” Ruthie said in a professionally soothing sing-song. “This’ll help.”
Lynda watched, fascinated, as Meg’s throat worked, methodically gulping down the water.
“No, don’t drink so quickly,” Ruthie said. “Scoosh the water around your mouth.” She watched intently as the Voice followed her instructions, and smiled so briefly Lynda almost missed it. “There you go.” Then she looked at Jack. “Captain? We need to get this ... lady up to a bed. I’d say infirmary, if it wasn’t in vacuum, but that’s out. Let’s get her back to the suite, shall we?”
Lynda remembered how the little guard had once looked at Jack as if he were beautiful, but dangerous. Now, Ruthie watched the being in front of them as if it were dangerous, but beautiful — and in need of help. That was Ruthie’s weakness, Lynda thought. She always wanted to take care of people. How in the world had she managed to end up on Game Station, and as a security guard?
No matter, Lynda thought. She was right.
“Jack, Hsieh, can you help us?” she asked aloud. “Ruthie’s right. She doesn’t look good.”
“She’s not Meg,” Hsieh said, coming around to Lynda’s side. He had a gun out, too, and when Ruthie saw it, she grunted with displeasure. “Commander, we know that. Does that mean we can’t help her? Do you really want to leave her here? Really?”
“I will die,” the Voice said faintly. “I need you to rescue me. I asked you to. I thought that was why you came here.” Lynda was fairly certain that what little color had been in Meg’s body’s face when the light first struck it was nearly gone.
(“Jack we owe her.”)
He turned to her, grim. (“Do we? I’m not fond of body snatchers.”)
Without words, she sent him pictures — the tunnel into the main shaft, the weapons cache, the codes. And then she sent him her last memories of Meg, as she shook and cried, then fell and faded from sight. The last one Lynda sent particularly forcefully, and Jack blinked quickly, several times, as he received the images.
(“She’s riding in a dead woman’s body.”)
(I know that. But we couldn’t have saved her. Maybe we can save the Voice.”)
He didn’t respond, but addressed the subject under consideration. (“Why should we help you?”)
The Voice didn’t answer . Her eyes were closed, and she was now taking shallow sips of breath, quickly and erratically.
(“Can you hear me?”) Lynda sent, experimentally. There was no answer, and Meg’s body didn’t betray any sign of having received the message. (“Jack, she can’t hear us. I think she’s lost her connection to us.”)
Somehow, that seemed to move the Captain as her previous argument hadn’t.
“Oh, hell. Hsieh, give me a hand, will you?”
The two of them did a fireman’s carry, and braced themselves when Lynda and Ruthie helped the Voice sit Meg’s body down on it. She fell against Jack, who twitched, but allowed Meg’s head to loll on his shoulder.
The ride back up was quick enough, but surreal. When they got to the tunnel, the Voice insisted on trying to walk again with Meg’s legs. She lasted three or four steps before reluctantly accepting the fireman’s carry again.
“I am not strong,” the Voice said; no one, no matter how emotionally tone-deaf, could have failed to notice her self loathing.
“Not surprising,” Jack said as he carried her. “Doesn’t mean you won’t get stronger.”
The Voice lifted Meg’s head from his shoulder with that unnaturally smooth movement of hers, and tilted it to look at him. “I hope so.”
*********** ********** **********
“You don’t need to watch her, do you?”
Ruthie didn’t stir. “I think someone should be there for her when she wakes.”
Underneath Crosbie’s counterpane, the woman in Meg’s body was curled into a near foetal position. She was breathing deeply and evenly, and Lynda thought she had finally stopped shivering.
Meg’s body was still mottled blue and black, and both the left side of her face and her right shoulder were unpleasantly swollen. But the Voice inside her had become calmer once she’d tucked into the last four cafeteria run containers, delivered by Govinda upon her arrival. Everyone had stood there, watching her inhale the food. It was eerie, almost frightening, to see the intensity of her hunger.
After she’d eaten everything given to her, she began to move Meg’s body again, testing it. She had told her observers that she didn’t think her shoulder or her ribs were broken. Then she had yawned. “I have to sleep now,” she said, after considering the yawn. “I haven’t done that before.”
“Could have fooled me,” Govinda had whispered to Lynda after they and Ruthie had helped get the Voice to Crosbie’s bed. “I think she was asleep before we pulled the duvet over her.”
Ruthie had dragged a chair from the bedroom corner and settled in to watch her charge, with a brief, calm nod to the two others. “You go.” Lynda reluctantly acquiesced.
She was glad Govinda and Davitch were back, not least because Govinda’s reaction to word about Meg and the Voice seemed so low-key. When Jack told her why they needed the food, she’d taken it in stride.
“Not a problem,” she’d said. “We’ve got loads to fill you in on, and I’d rather do it in person — Orrin, have you got those reports burned to the read-writes? Yeah, thanks, I’ll take them. You’re a brick — so I’ll bring everything along, including some nosh. Resurrection again, huh? What a bloody madhouse. We’ll see you directly — I’m out.”
By the time she and Davitch joined them, she’d lost her equanimity and looked her usual slightly irritable self. Odd how we can find so many different ways to look unhappy, Lynda thought. We certainly have a basket full of them these days.
“What’s up, ‘Vinda?” Jack nodded at Davitch over the shorter programmer’s head. “What have you got for us?”
She grimaced. “We got hold of Hidden, thanks to those codes. They allowed us to access relays that routed everything to nodes I never knew existed. There are stations out there — seriously, way out there. Out in the sanctioned sectors. I thought humans couldn’t go to those systems anymore ... well, never mind that, we got a message to them.
“And you can’t believe — I can’t believe — what’s going on out there.”
“It’s pretty bad,” Davitch agreed. “Jack, they thought they were the last sane humans anywhere. We had to convince them we weren’t some sort of trick— ”
“Wait, wait, wait. Last sane humans?” That rather offhand comment didn’t escape Jack’s notice. “Did they give you any idea what they were talking about?”
Davitch scratched his head, then put both palms together and up to his mouth, in what looked to be unconscious mimicry of Jack. “Can we go into the living room? I need to sit down and collect my wits.”
Once they sat down — Jack in the big chair, Lynda perched on one arm beside him, Govinda and Davitch together on the couch, Hsieh standing next to the entry foyer — Davitch began.
“Remember what Iris told us? That Sol-out had been down for, what, three weeks? We thought she was barking, but ... ” Davitch trailed off, shaking his head, then resumed. “She was right, apparently, at least for some systems. It’s such a cockup I’m not sure if anyone knows for certain just what worlds were cut off and which ones were still getting transmissions. Or what those transmissions were, for that matter.”
He gestured to the pile of read-write pads he’d dropped on the table. “Here’s the printouts. They probably say it better than I would.”
Jack picked up one of the flimsy pads and looked it over intently, pursing his lips at what he saw. He looked up. “So Hidden got an influx of refugee ships from other systems? Hell of a way to learn that the neighbors are having problems.”
“They’d gotten no information for a week or so, and then the ships started pulling into orbit and asking for sanctuary. It’s the downside of being, well, hidden, I’m afraid,” Davitch said. “Pun not really intended.”
Jack looked at another pad for a moment. “The last two days of reports they forwarded — when our people talked to them, did they say whether Hidden’s security is sure they picked up Facilitators trying to hide and sneak in on the ships?”
“I’m not sure they asked, but from the stories the ships’ crews were telling, it wasn’t hard to spot them, and they were all killed. Not quickly, either.”
“Why’s that?” Lynda asked. She looked over Jack’s shoulder at one of the read-writes. The flickering image with “Fatalities” floating like a black banner over the blurred but still-too-recognizable pics and vids tightened her gut. “Oh my god. What did they do?”
“It’s ugly,” Govinda said. “The bigger systems, like Virginis, were apparently rotten with them. Thousands of them in government positions, hundreds of thousands of them in top information posts. That may not seem like a lot in a 12 billion strong population, but — ”
”Actually, that’s a horribly large number,” Lynda said, overwhelmed at the idea of that many Iris Anders out there. “And the Voice told us there were Facilitators who were a lot more efficient than Iris and her people.”
Govinda nodded grimly and resumed. “Yeah. Well, about three weeks ago, just when Anders said the Sol-out grid went south around here, a wave of deaths — assassinations as well as accidents, or apparent accidents — started hitting any office that had anything to do with communication. My guess is that they were trying to scrub departments of non-Facilitators.” She shifted position on the couch. “Jack, hand me the read-write — no, the one on the table in front of you. Yes, that one, thanks.”
She keyed through the information on the pad, until she found what she wanted. “Here it is. After the killings, regular grid communications went down all over the colonies. Everything — personal, corporate, retail, transportation, everything. Finally, our daily feeds were blocked, and the Facilitators started pumping their own messages in.”
“What kind of messages?” Hsieh asked from his vantage point against the wall.
She shrugged. “Nothing that you wouldn’t expect from a cult of completely mad bastards who worshipped psychotic killing machines. That the human race was under attack by its betters, people should make their peace with their fate, and that this was not a test. That sort of thing.”
Davitch took up the narration again. “It was a horrible combination. You had the killings, the regular grid collapse, loss of our feeds, and the substitution of their messages. I don’t know where those originated, because I can’t imagine we wouldn’t have spotted them if they were Earth or station-based — anyhow, it generated riots.”
He paused. “When the grid collapse started preventing deliveries, things like meds and food, and preventing people from getting in touch with each other, everything went completely belly-up — if they hadn’t already done that. Riots, places being torched, people being lynched. The scary thing, though? I think the first violence was anger at losing our regular entertainment feeds.”
“Ah, humanity,” Jack chuckled, completely without humor. “Starve me, isolate me, kill me dead, but don’t take my game shows.”
“Right,” Davitch said. He looked sad. “If we’d known what we were doing ... ”
“You did,” Jack said.
Davitch looked, if anything, sadder. “Suppose you’re right.”
There was another moment of silence before he started again. “The riots spread across Virginis, throughout the biggest cities. Same with Gliese Prime and with the outer systems like Chamaeleon and Eridani. The big ports were shut down by government fiat first, then a number of them were just rendered inoperable — fire, explosions, the sort of thing the security forces would normally handle. Except a lot of those forces were riddled with Facilitators too.
“Any place the Facilitators got full control of, they started mass killings. Men, women, children, it didn’t matter. So what the initial violence didn’t affect, their pogroms did.”
“Well, that explains the rough justice on Virginis ships,” Jack said. “Mother of worlds.”
Davitch nodded, then looked at Govinda.
“As far as we can tell, these ships got to Hidden by accident, or fluke,” Govinda said. “Not that it’s really hidden. If you go looking for it, it’s there on the maps. But...well, anyway. A lot more ships lifted from the other worlds, trying to get away, but they didn’t make it. They were destroyed, or if they made it to another world, it was just dropping back into the arms of the Facilitators. Poor bastards.” She looked ill, but kept going, looking at her read-writes again.
“So far, the affected worlds include everything in Sol, Virginis, the Cygni systems, excepting Tau Boot of course. We’re not sure about any of the Draconis worlds, but given they were major vid consumer markets, let’s not look for much from them.”
“I don’t like this at all,” Jack said after a moment, looking grim. “Do the whack jobs on those worlds know about Earth? Do they know about the disappearance of the Daleks? The colony attacks all seem to have predated what happened here. Why? They couldn’t have known the shit was hitting the fan here, because it hadn’t.”
Lynda pulled a leg up under her, and nodded. “You’re right. How far ahead were they looking?”
“Well, I suppose they must know something,” Davitch said, looking worried. “Remember that comment one of the Daleks made? About ‘the plan must move forward!' ?”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “You do a horrible impression of a Dalek.”
“I’d hate to do a good one,” the tall programmer said. “Anyhow, my point’s valid. Here on the station, everything happened early, because of the Doctor, but it would have happened regardless, don’t you think?”
Jack nodded. “Therein lies the problem.”
Govinda abruptly stood up. “Look, sorry, must be a bit thick so pardon me for asking, but shouldn’t we be asking Hidden for help, instead of talking about the Facilitators, for god sake?” She crossed her arms over her chest, waiting for an answer.
If she’d expected any support, she was disappointed. Lynda shook her head slightly at the other woman, and Davitch shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, looking at Jack.
“No, you’re not thick, ‘Vinda,” Jack said. “But think it through. These reports make it very clear that we are in an incredibly dangerous position. If only Hidden is free of Facilitators, we’re in the minority, and we’re in trouble. Facilitators on the worlds they took have access to ordnance and ships, the will to slaughter everyone who isn’t them in the name of their gods — and they are, very probably, sending ships to us right now.”
Govinda looked as if she’d been kicked in the teeth.
Hsieh blew out a long breath. “God on a surfboard.”
“You said it,” Jack said. “Any questions?”
“Well, yeah,” Govinda said. “What the hell do we do?”
“Perhaps I can help.”
Lynda almost fell off the arm of her chair when the Voice spoke from the hallway. Everyone else started, too.
“What — ” Jack started to speak, but the woman in Meg’s body interrupted him, holding up her hand for silence. He subsided, and she stood taller, smiling a bit crookedly.
“I am Elisabeta. And I can bring others to our aid.”
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