In the choreographed chaos of space, she searches for patterns that do not fit. She listens to the hiss and murmur of the interstellar winds; she peers into the visible spectrum and beyond. Whistling particles stream by, and her mind sizes them up, then discards them as harmless background radiation. Just flotsam on the solar winds. Wait, that light— No, it’s just a weather satellite catching a glint of sun. Too close, anyway. She does not let anything approach the planet without scrutiny.
She zooms in, listening hard.
“A-s-t-e-r-o-i-d,” she types out. “Possible collision course.”
There is a scroll across the very bottom of her vast vision. “We see it. Calculating now.”
She looks away. The team is on it. This asteroid could simply be a distraction, and she does not want to be caught unawares. There will be no repeat of last time. Not on her watch.
“It’s a miss,” the scroll says. “Shift’s over. Come on back.”
And her mind contracts, sinking down, down, plummeting back to the surface of the planet, past the colony domes, into the bunkers, deep underground.
Alice gasps through her chest tube as she crashes back into her body.
Mittened hands grope at the metal mask welded to her face, and she’s shocked to realize that they’re hers. She sags forward onto her walker, resting the mask on the padded bar that rings her. She is too tired to call up any video, any audio, and surrenders her overextended senses to nothingness. She struggles to walk forward a few steps, but the seat/body interface chafes, and she works her mouth in a silent gasp behind the metal.
Soft hands are on her back, and she trembles.
With a faint volley of static, her earpieces switch over to internal audio. “It’s all right. Just relax. You’re with us again.”
With her tongue controls, she types out, “Marika.”
And the hands move to the back of her bare scalp, running along the edges of the mask, along super-sensitized skin. “I’m here.”
Alice grips the walker tight in her mittened hands, every part of her body warm and shivery. She clenches around the seat/body interface and lets a hard breath out through her chest tube.
She feels a light kiss on her scalp, and Marika whispers, “They’re watching.”
“I know,” Alice types back. “I don’t care.”
Marika pulls off Alice’s mittens, takes her nailless hands in hers, and says, “My beautiful captive girl.”
Behind her mask, Alice swoons.
She hears the rude buzz of the intercom, and over it, Dr. Qureshi says, “That was a good shift, Alice.”
“Thank you,” she types.
“Dr. DeVeaux, I’d like to have a word with you.”
“I’m busy with Alice,” Marika replies, and gently kneads Alice’s shoulders through her thin cotton gown. Alice’s head swims, and she rocks the mask back and forth across the bar. Why won’t they just leave the two of them alone?
“We need to discuss Selene’s readings,” Dr. Qureshi says.
“I want Marika to stay.”
“I really do need her help.”
Marika leans in and whispers, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She gives Alice’s shoulders a squeeze, and when she lets them go, the shock of absence makes Alice draw in a pained gasp through her chest tube.
And then she is alone, a woman behind a solid metal mask, with ears calibrated for the solar winds, and eyes that can only see the stars.
Marika is kept away all night. Alice has to amuse herself by watching feeds and vids, because her only other options are music, which is too passive to keep her input-starved brain occupied for long, and conversation, which is currently impossible. Jayna is on shift right now, Selene is sleeping, and the caretakers are all busy discussing how to keep her from going even more insane.
They are a shift of three. There can be no replacements.
Alice briefly scans the news feeds, hoping for distraction, and finds that as usual, nothing has changed. The relief convoy from Earth is still on hold, the rebuilding continues to go slowly, and there is still no real information on the mysterious black ships that nearly destroyed their colony ten years ago. The talking heads just keep rehashing all their old theories — that it was aliens trying to drive humans from their first and only extra-solar colony, that United Earth sent the ships to punish the colonists for forming an independent government, that it was the wrath of some angry god, that it was a natural phenomenon that only looked like spaceships, that the colony government bombed its own domes to cover up some unspeakable crime. She’s heard it all before. None of it makes any difference to her. None of it changes her job.
No, the news is no real distraction. Alice pulls up some chamber music and a slideshow of images of happy families that she has made over the years, culling pictures from news stories, from magazines, from movies. Some are real families, some fictional, but she cherishes each and every image just the same — the pigtailed blonde laughing on her father’s shoulder, the teenagers tossing a ball back and forth under the lights of the main colony dome, the little baby curled up in its mother’s arms.
She touches the mask. It’s worth it. For them.
And then she sneaks a peek at the tiny, pixelated picture that Marika doesn’t know she has. It’s the only image she’s been able to find of her. She’s young in the picture, in high school, posing with the rest of the track team under an undomed sky that can only be on Earth. Marika is in the back row, so all Alice can make out are broad, tanned shoulders, a mane of dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a brilliant smile. But it’s enough. It’s something.
She can never tell Marika that she has this. They’re supposed to be faceless for each other. Marika insists on it.
No, this isn’t helping either. A movie will distract her until Marika returns.
Alice searches the mainframe for a film she hasn’t seen. So few get made anymore. The economy can barely support the basic needs of its citizens, and entertainment is a luxury that is rarely indulged. But all she can find is something called Love in a Time of Bombardment.
No. She will not relive the attack. The attack is not entertainment. It can never be entertainment.
She tugs at her feeding tube to try to get it into a more comfortable position, and feels the thick, thumbless mittens being pulled back over her hands. “no no no no no no no,” she types, but her unspoken assailant ignores her and ties the mittens to the walker’s rail.
They’re so afraid she’ll become another Selene. This is exactly the wrong way to go about keeping her sane.
She bangs her mask hard against the walker’s padded rail in protest, then thrashes her head from side to side when her assailant tries to stop her. It’s no use. She is pushed back against the padded chair of her walker and strapped down. The seat/body interface tugs uncomfortably between her legs, and she opens her mouth as far as it will go behind the mask to scream out her silent fury.
Over the earpieces, she hears Dr. Qureshi say, “Alice, you need to keep calm.”
She struggles to type, struggles to get her tongue to work properly. “im jst uncomfrtblee.”
“Alice, you’re not making any sense.”
How can she make sense when she is blind and deaf and lashed to a walker against her will? How can they possibly expect her to…
It doesn’t matter what they expect. All that matters are her actions. She takes in several deep gulps of air through her chest tube, trying to calm her trembling muscles, then types, “My feeding tube was uncomfortable. I was just adjusting it. You didn’t need to tie me down.”
“We need to be safe, Alice. You know that.”
“And we need to keep you that way.”
“I want to talk to Marika.”
“Dr. DeVeaux is busy.”
“I have a right to be with her.”
“Alice, we’ve been over this. You’re in no position to—”
“I’m nineteen years old. I have every right to decide who I want to be with.”
“You only think you love her. She’s been your caretaker for the entire length of the program. Of course you’re attached to her.”
Marika’s touch was the first one she’d felt after waking up in the mask and the chair. She’d held Alice while she screamed voicelessly, sobbed tearlessly, panicking behind the metal. She was the one who sat patiently with Alice until the awkward tongue controls became second nature, and she was finally able to communicate with the world on the other side of the mask. Her hands were the only ones to soothe away the nightmares, to knead her ever more atrophied muscles, to massage ointment into the scar tissue around her implants and mask. They were there when Alice’s body first started developing curves, when she started craving a different kind of touch. Marika is the only one that can make her feel like a woman instead of simply a captive mind dragging a useless bag of bones behind it.
Yes, of course she is attached to her.
“Dr. Quershi, this is none of your business. I’m an adult now, and I choose to be with her.”
“And I’m trying to tell you that it’s grossly inappropriate for her to exploit your feelings by—”
Alice pulls up a loud music file to drown out the rest of the lecture. Marika will come back. She always does. And Alice will wait for her, lashed to her chair by her chest and wrists, as long as it takes.
When she sleeps, she dreams of Marika, of her hands roaming all over Alice’s fragile body. Her skin cries out for more, and Marika grows an octopus’s complement of arms, fondling Alice with an eightfold touch. Two hands reach for the feeding tube, give it a twist, and gently pull it out. Two other hands remove the breather, and still two more lift her from the walker, the seat/body interface coming loose wetly.
The multiplicity of hands lay Alice’s body on a soft, downy surface, caressing her, stroking her, even in places that only the seat has touched these past ten years. Alice reaches for the mask, struggling to pull it loose, and two of Marika’s hands push hers away. “Let me,” her voice buzzes, and all eight hands pry at the stubborn, welded thing.
“Try harder,” Alice says.
Marika yanks, and Alice’s body flops helplessly. The mask will not budge.
“Hang on,” Marika says, and plants one foot against Alice’s chest. “This might hurt.”
And braced against Alice’s chest, Marika gives a great heave.
There is a horrible ripping sound, a great burst of pain—
Alice gasps and lifts her head, then lets it fall back again under the great weight of the mask.
“It’s all right,” Marika says. “It’s just a dream.”
Two hands unstrap Alice from the chair, and she sags her head onto Marika’s shoulder.
“It was just a dream,” Alice types.
“That’s my brave girl,” Marika says, and her hand reaches through the slits on the back of Alice’s gown and caresses the skin beneath. “They’re watching.”
“I don’t care.”
Marika lets out a small chuckle. “Neither do I.”
“They keep trying to tell me this wrong.”
“Well, I am your caretaker.”
“So let me take care of you. They can’t punish me for doing my job, now can they?”
And Alice’s gown is untied and removed, and then a warm, wet cloth rubs across her naked scalp.
Alice sighs and leans into it.
The cloth moves down, rubbing large, firm circles across her back, across her withered, aching muscles. It disappears, then is back on her arms, warmer and wetter, cleaning between each finger, scrubbing at hollow armpits.
“How’s the water? Is it too warm?”
She shakes her head. It’s perfect. Perfect.
The cloth comes back again, caressing her breasts, the water dripping down her torso, tantalizing, and Alice’s breath catches in her chest tube.
She grips the handrail tight in anticipation.
“Let’s make sure everything’s nice and clean.”
Marika moves the cloth down to Alice’s seat/body interface.
For an infinite instant, Alice’s world expands far beyond the stars.
And then her body is no longer her own. It is a trembling, helpless thing, cradled in Marika’s protective embrace. In the haze, she cannot make out the words being crooned into her ear speakers, just the soothing, familiar tone. But it is enough. Enough to keep her safe until her body is back under her control.
She sighs through her chest tube and nestles her mask against Marika’s shoulder.
There is a soft kiss on her scalp. “You’re so beautiful.”
She shakes her head, suppressing a second sigh. “No I’m not. I can’t be.” They have never let her see what she’s become, but she can feel the bones, the scars.
Marika’s voice grows impossibly softer. “Trust me. You are the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.”
“But my face…I don’t even know what it looks like under here.”
“I’m not interested in your face.” Marika caresses the skin around the edge of the mask, and lets one hand drift down to Alice’s breathing tube. “I love you this way, my captive girl.”
Alice rests one hand over Marika’s and just breathes.
“…wakey wakey wakey wakey wakey wakey…”
Alice jerks her head up from the bar, jolted from a familiar dream just in time to keep it from turning into a nightmare. Her parents, a sunny day, a ball, the rooftop terrace. She doesn’t have to relive the terrible shadow, the whistle and crash of the projectiles, the blood, the screaming, the—
No, she doesn’t have to relive it. She rubs her mask with her hands and calls up a fractal pattern to drive the dream images away. “How long have you been typing at me?”
“…wakey wakey wakey wakey wakey wakey…”
“Selene, I’m awake already.”
“…wakey wakey wakey woke?”
“That’s not a word, Selene.”
“wokey wokey donty carey”
Alice grabs the padded bar of her walker and forces herself forward a few steps, the tubes tugging at her puckered skin as she pulls them along. “Is anyone paying attention to Selene?” she types.
Dr. Mishima says, “Don’t worry, we are.”
Alice calls up the clock and feels a sickening buzz of adrenaline. “Why isn’t she on shift? There’s no one on shift right now.”
“She needs a break, so we’re giving her one.”
Alice drags herself forward, raising her heavy head, straining to face what she hopes is the control room. “Hook me up. Put me on.”
“There hasn’t been an attack in over ten years. A third-day without monitoring shouldn’t—”
“There’s no need to shout,” Dr. Mishima says.
“chair hurts spurts furts get me off off off off off off off”
“Shit,” Dr. Mishima hisses, and then the audio connection slams shut.
“What’s going on?” Alice types.
“Somebody talk to me. What’s going on? What’s wrong with Selene?”
“Please. Somebody talk to me. Is anyone in the control room? Anyone?” She drags herself forward until her wheels hit the wall, then turns and painstakingly walks forward until she hits the next wall. “Someone talk to me.”
“Or you could hook me up. I could patrol. Please. Don’t just leave me here. Someone say something.”
She hits another wall, and leans her mask against it.
“Don’t just leave me here.”
“There’s just the two of you now,” Dr. Qureshi says.
“Grt,” Jayna types.
If Alice still had eyes, she would roll them. “Use vowels,” she types.
“Well, that was one vowel.”
“We can’t do full shifts with just two of you.”
“I’ll work extra,” Alice types, pulling up her happy family slideshow for inspiration. “Put me on for a half-day. I can do it.”
“Or have us do quarter-days on, quarter-days off, twice daily.”
“No, that’s unacceptable. We’ll stick with third-day shifts for the two of you, and leave Selene’s shift unmonitored.”
“No, THAT’S unacceptable,” Alice types.
“It’s been over ten years—”
“—since I watched my parents die.”
“Alice, I know you feel—”
“You can’t know.” Alice is seething behind the mask, her happy family slideshow flipping from image to image so quickly that it’s nothing but a blur. “I watched my parents burn. I still hear them screaming in my dreams.”
“Unless you’re sitting in one of these chairs, don’t tell me you know how I feel.”
There is a pause, then just as Alice is convinced that the connection’s gone dead, Dr. Qureshi says, “For all we know, those ships aren’t coming back.”
“For all we know, they are.”
“And what are the chances that they’ll come during the third-day that we’re not watching the skies?”
“About one in three.”
“Thr nt cmng bck?”
“We can’t say for sure.”
“Gt m ot of ths chr.”
“What was that?”
“Gt me out of ths chr. Gt ths fckng msk off m fce.”
“Jayna, I didn’t say the program was coming to an end, just that we don’t think we need captive minds monitoring space all day long anymore.”
“GT THS FCKNG MSK FFFFFFFF M FCE!!!!!!!”
“Jayna, I think you need to rest.”
“GT THSSSSS FKKKKkkk k kk”
The typing stops.
“What did you do?” Alice types. “What happened to Jayna?”
“Just gave her something to help her sleep.”
“You drugged her?” Alice tugs at her feeding tube. “Through this?”
“Why don’t you start your shift now?”
“You drugged her? How could—”
And then her mind is untethered and flying through space, searching for any hint of the black ships, determined to keep any other little girls from suffering her same fate.
When she comes back, Marika is waiting for her. “We’re alone,” she breathes.
Alice grabs the walker tightly as she feels a trail of kisses snaking down her exposed spine.
“They’re in a meeting. About the project. None of the caretakers were invited. They say we’re not objective enough.” Hands reach into the gown to cup Alice’s small breasts, and when fingers caress her nipples, she feels electricity all the way down to her seat/body interface.
The lips plant feather-light kisses back up to her bare scalp, and then a tongue gently caresses the scar tissue ringing the mask.
“We can’t,” Alice types. “We can’t.”
“They’re not watching. They’re finally not watching.” The hands smooth up to the mask, cradling it, fingertips just barely touching Alice’s skin, and with a jolt, she realizes that Marika is kissing the metal right over her mouth.
Alice works her mouth helplessly inside the mask, straining to feel some contact, anything, anything that would make her human again.
But she can’t.
“So beautiful,” Marika whispers.
Inside the mask, Alice feels her face working up into a dry cry. Her lips tremble so hard she can barely type, “I’m not.”
“You have no idea—”
“Then let me see myself.”
“Let me see what I look like if I’m so damned beautiful.”
“I can’t. You know I can’t.”
A hand snakes down to her seat/body interface, and Alice shudders, collapsing forward onto the bar, her arms straining helplessly to push her back up. “Stop.”
“But we’re finally alone. We don’t have to hide anymore.”
“I said STOP.”
The hand vanishes. All tactile evidence of Marika vanishes, and Alice calls up her tiny picture so she won’t feel so crushingly alone. “I’m…I’m sorry,” Marika stammers. “I thought…”
“No. Not like this,” Alice types.
“What do you mean? There is no other way.”
“They’re ending the program, aren’t they?”
Alice sits alone, with no input, just a picture and buzzing speakers, waiting for an answer.
“Please say something,” she types. “Please don’t leave me like this. I have a right to know.”
A shaky hand rests on Alice’s shoulder for an instant before pulling away again. “It sounds like it, yes. Selene’s caretaker told the government about the three of you, and the President’s calling for an immediate end to the whole thing.”
“What do you mean, someone told the government? We work for the government. Didn’t they know?”
“They didn’t know the details. We didn’t tell them. They never would have let us do it if they’d known that we were blinding, deafening, and crippling little orphan girls.”
“You couldn’t do it any other way. We were the only ones—”
“—the right age to accept the implants, I know. I helped design them. We should have found a way to make it work with adult brains. Doing this to little girls was—”
“We all volunteered.”
“And Selene’s gone insane and Jayna just unvolunteered.”
“I want to keep working.”
Marika lets out a hard breath. “I don’t think they’ll let you.”
“But the ships—”
“Never came back. And they say they have machines that can search the sky just as well as you can now.”
“The machines didn’t warn us last time.”
“They’re better now. A lot better.”
Alice gropes at her mask, fingering the indentations over where her eyes once were. “What will they do with us?”
“That’s what they’re discussing right now. They think…they think they can make you normal again.”
“Normal,” Alice echoes, and struggles to remember what that means. Eyes instead of empty sockets, ears not hooked up to speakers, a mouth she can talk with, breathe with, eat with, legs strong enough to hold her up. And no mask.
She reaches up to touch the metal, and for the first time in ages, she wants it gone.
“Are you positive the machines are as good as we are?”
“I think so. I mean, they don’t have the flexibility of a human mind behind them, but humans will be analyzing their data, so…” Another exhale. “We should be safe.”
“And I’ll be normal again.”
In a small voice, Marika says, “Yes.”
Alice struggles to tie the back of her gown closed and says, “When I’m normal, then we’ll finally…” She trails off, not actually able to type the words.
Marika wordlessly helps her tie her gown, then sits with her, holding her hand, waiting for the meeting to end.
When Alice comes to in the hospital, there are bandages where the mask once was, and when she flutters her fingers over them, she can feel their gentle touch on her face. She draws in a deep breath, and is startled to feel it going in through her nose. Her fingers explore further, and find breathing tubes piercing the bandages. Her raw skin crinkles in a smile.
A warm, male voice says, “Can you hear me?”
She nods and tries to type a response, but instead of her tongue controls, she finds teeth.
“I’m Dr. Metz,” the voice says. “I’ll be coordinating your recovery. I’m happy to say that the surgery was a complete success. Your new mechanical eardrums work on a similar principle to your old speakers, so they should be easy to adjust to. The eyes, on the other hand — they’ll take more time. We’ll switch them on in stages once the bandages are off. The program surgeons did some serious rewriting of your visual processing centers. It’ll be tricky to get your brain to process normal human visual input again, but I’m confident you’ll manage with sufficient training.”
Alice finds more bandages on her chest and stomach where her tubes used to be. Her hands drift farther down, and find that there are still tubes in place of her old seat/body interface.
“Once you’re mobile, we’ll work on retraining those muscles.”
She nods again, and feels an odd tug on her arm. She reaches out to find out what it is.
“An intravenous drip. It’s replacing your feeding tube for now, but we’ll have you eating soon enough. Your digestive system was in fine shape.”
She points to her mouth.
“Ah, yes. We’ve implanted artificial teeth and a mechanical voice box, but it’s too soon to switch it on yet. Your gums and lips still need time to heal. Don’t worry. We should have you talking again in a few days and eating soon after that.”
How is she supposed to communicate until then? She raises both hands and gropes at the air helplessly before balling them into fists and bringing them down on the bed.
Dr. Metz takes one hand in his and says, “Just spell out what you need on my palm.”
“Marika.” He gets curiously silent for a moment, then says, “She visited you a few times, but now that you’re awake…” He clears his throat. “Well, I’m sure she’ll be back. Is there anything else you need?”
She shakes her head.
“Want me to put on some music for you? Get a nurse to sit down and talk with you?”
She shakes her head.
“All right. I’ll see about getting a message to Dr. DeVeaux…er, Marika. If you need anything, just press the call button.”
Dr. Metz takes her hand and guides it over to the bed’s rail. The button is large and unmistakable. She nods in understanding, and he drops her hand. She hears footsteps, then nothing but the precious sound of her own breathing.
And until Marika comes to visit, it will be her only company.
The door opens, there are footsteps, and then a hand is in hers. “I’m here.”
The voice is richer and fuller than she remembers. She has never heard it firsthand before, only filtered through speakers embedded in a chair.
This will take getting used to. But she is desperately looking forward to it.
Alice runs her hand up Marika’s arm, up to her face, and cups her beloved’s cheek. There is so much she wants to say that she is grateful she can’t say anything at all, because the peace of the moment would just be lost in a frantic, jumbled mass of words.
“Oh, Alice.” A hand strokes her bandaged face. “You won’t be my captive girl much longer.”
No. Soon she will be something better. Soon she will be able to see the face of the woman she loves, be able to press her body against hers, unencumbered by her walker, to speak endearments in her own voice instead of with sterile text. She will be able to kiss, to stroke, to embrace, to explore. She will finally be able to be a full partner in the relationship, to fully reciprocate with every cell in her body.
And she will be able to do so secure in the knowledge that the planet is safe, that she had faithfully done her job as long as they had needed her, and that she had done it well.
“Look at you.”
Soon she would be so much prettier to look at. No matter how battered her face was, it had to be prettier than a solid metal mask.
Marika’s hands glide down Alice’s body and rest on her bandaged chest and stomach. “It’s like you’re a different person already.”
She shakes her head. No, not a different person. A more complete person. Why is Marika saying these things? Doesn’t she understand—
There is a tone in Marika’s voice that Alice has never heard before. Despair.
“I don’t know if…”
Alice grabs Marika’s hands and shakes her head again and again. This cannot be happening. Not now. Not now that they’re so close. All that stands between them is one flimsy layer of bandages. If Marika just waits, if she can just see the naked devotion on Alice’s soon-to-be-revealed face, if—
Marika sniffs wetly and gasps, “I’m sorry,” before pulling her hands away running out of the room.
Alice shakes so hard that she can barely find the call button.
Footsteps thunder towards her, and Dr. Metz shouts, “She’s seizing!”
Alice thrusts out her hand, her entire arm rigid, and when Dr. Metz touches it, she clasps it tightly and writes, “Put me back.”
“Put me back. In the chair. In the mask.”
She hears other people racing into the room, and Dr. Metz says, “No, it’s all right. She’s fine.” As the others walk back out, he says, “Alice, you’ve just barely begun your transformation. I understand that it’s scary, but—”
“Put me back now.”
“I can’t do that. The program’s been shut down.”
“It’s my body. I decide what to do with it.”
“I want my life back.”
But they don’t listen to her. They call in psychiatrists to talk to her, but she refuses to answer their questions. When they take off her bandages and turn on her eyes, she refuses to open them. When they activate her vocal cords, she refuses to speak. The only things in her life that matter are the job and Marika. The job is gone. So that just leaves Marika.
And Marika doesn’t want her. Not like this.
Dr. Qureshi comes by to visit several days later and says, “This just proves why it was a bad idea to get involved with her.”
With her eyes still closed, Alice faces away from her.
“She only loved you because you were broken. She liked taking care of you, having power over you. You had to know that, Alice. You’re not a stupid woman. You can do so much better than that now.”
She feels tears welling up in her new eyes, and chokes back a gasp as she wipes them away. The skin on her face is still extremely sensitive. She’s having trouble adjusting to that.
“Alice, I know you’re terrified. But you have to try. Just open your eyes. Just see what you’re missing. Please, Alice. Please.”
“No,” she murmurs, and claps a hand over her mouth, horrified at how automatically speech has come after ten years of silence.
“Well, that’s a start.”
“I want…” Her mouth is sluggish, her words slurred. “I want her back.”
“Forget Dr. DeVeaux.”
“I’m here because I need you back on the project. And to do that, I need you to finish your recovery.”
Alice lets her eyelids flutter open, and is hit with a cacophony of shapes and colors that she can barely make sense of. She blinks hard, but it doesn’t help. “What?”
“I’m over here.”
Alice turns towards the sound, and sees a brown blur surrounded by jagged black spikes. There is red somewhere on the blur, and a couple of splotches of white. Light twinkles around its outline like sunlight off a weather satellite. She squeezes her eyes closed, rubs them, then opens them again. The image is the same, only fuzzier.
“The security computers are on line and working perfectly,” the blur that is Dr. Qureshi says, “but we need to have people on the team who are specially trained to interpret any anomalous data. I can’t think of anyone better qualified than you and Jayna.”
“What about Selene?”
The blur shimmies, making Alice’s head swim. “She’s got a long road to recovery ahead of her. We need a team in place within the month. I’ve spoken to your doctors, and they feel that’s a highly aggressive schedule, but they say you could meet that deadline if you really work at it.”
“Will…will Marika be on the project?”
Another shimmy. “No. Her specialty was the brain/sensor uplink, and of course, caretaking. She had nothing to do with interpreting the data you three collected.” Alice hears a small sigh. “What we did to you girls was inexcusable.”
“No, we volunteered.”
“I don’t think little girls can really give that kind of consent.”
“But the ships—”
“Almost destroyed the entire colony. I know. They killed my family, too.” The white splotches vanish from the brown blur, then reappear. “Look, I know how important this project is to you. I want you back on the team. I owe you that, at the very least. No one has more experience interpreting surveillance data than you. No one.”
Alice closes her eyes. It’s too hard to think when she’s trying to puzzle out what her eyes are sending to her brain.
The project needs her. She needs Marika. The project will not help her get Marika back, but it will help keep the colony safe.
Ten years ago, lying in another hospital bed, she was offered that same job. She sacrificed so much for it then.
This time, no sacrifice is required.
When she looks at it that way, the answer is clear.
She reopens her eyes, looks the twinkling blur, and says, “I’m in.”
From that point on, she makes good progress, adjusting about as well as the doctors expect. Her vision is jumpy and often confusing, and many of her muscles are severely atrophied, but soon she’s able to use a motorized wheelchair, and go to the bathroom on her own, and use her new eye controls to filter out confusing input so she can focus on a task.
The day they finally let her go out for the first time, she heads straight for the park. There is warmth on her too-pale skin, a riot of color in all directions, the cries of children playing, and scents that threaten to overwhelm her senses after a decade of smelling only metal.
She steers her wheelchair off the path and onto the grass.
“Hey!” her nurse calls, but Alice ignores her and keeps going until she reaches a shady patch under one of the few trees that looks old enough to date from before the bombardment. She eases herself onto the ground, ignoring the protests of her feeble muscles, and lies on the cool, tickly grass, staring up into beautiful, beautiful green.
She hears a motorized whine, and looks up to see Jayna peering down at her. “There’s a bug in your hair.”
She pats the grass next to her. “Come on down. I’m sure there’s plenty to go around.”
Soon, they are released from the hospital and are given their own apartment, where Alice thrills over being able to do little things like prepare her own food, sleep in a bed, bathe herself, walk. And every day, she and Jayna analyze unusual data from the surveillance computers, doing their part to keep the colony safe. It is so much more than she’s ever had. It should be enough.
But she is lonely.
No one touches her anymore. No one whispers endearments in her ear speakers. No one makes her tremble, makes her head heavy with desire, makes her feel flush and warm all the way down and fluttery in the middle.
No one calls her beautiful.
In fact, from the sidelong glances she gets whenever she goes out, she knows she’s lucky that no one bothers to comment on her looks at all.
“Well, that was new,” Jayna says as they wheel into their shared apartment. “I don’t think we’ve made a little kid cry before.”
“Maybe the chairs scared him.”
Jayna shoots her a glare. “Face it, we’re hideous. Freaks of science. It’s a life of spinsterhood for us. At least for a while you had…well, whatever it was you had.”
“She won’t talk to me,” Alice murmurs.
“You don’t fit her fetish anymore.”
“It wasn’t a fetish.”
“I’m not saying that fetishes are bad things. Hell, I’d love to find someone whose kink I fit. There’s got to be someone out there into scar tissue and wheelchairs.” She wrinkles her mashed nose. “Then again, maybe I should just put in for plastic surgery. Maybe they’ll give me dating lessons too. ‘Hi, I just learned to pee all by myself again. Wanna go out?'”
“I don’t think that’ll work,” Alice says. She levers herself out of her wheelchair and grabs her crutches. She is determined to be walking unaided as soon as possible.
“You’re probably right. I could try, though. I mean, what would it hurt?”
With a smile, Alice says, “You never know. You could get lucky.”
Jayna laughs. “Yeah. I guess I need to find just the right fetishist of my own—”
Alice whirls around, nearly losing her delicate balance. “Will you stop calling her that?”
“What do you care what I call her? It’s not like she stuck by you or anything.”
Alice looks down at her feet. “I know. But I still miss her.”
“So do something about it already.”
“But she won’t see me.”
“She’s fine with seeing you. She just doesn’t want you to see her back.”
Alice’s head snaps up, her eyes focusing beyond the room. That’s it. Why didn’t she see it sooner?
“Thanks,” she whispers, and clops down the hall on her crutches.
“For what?” Jayna asks.
But Alice doesn’t answer. She hobbles into her room, sits down heavily at the computer, and types out a message.
“Marika. I have a proposal. I think we can make this work. Please come visit me. Bring a mask.”
She gets an answer within moments. “I’ll be there.”
Marika arrives the next day. Alice has asked Jayna to answer the door for her and bring Alice the mask. It is a white full-faced hood, and the eyes, ears, and mouth are taped over. Sitting in her mechanized wheelchair, Alice pulls a keypad onto her lap, tugs the mask over her head, lining up the nostril holes so she can breathe, and freezes in sudden panic.
She is crippled again.
This won’t work. It can’t work. She can’t go back to this. At least last time, it was for selfless reasons, but now—
The muffled sound of approaching footsteps snaps her mind out of its panicked spiral. Through the plastic and the tape, she hears the bedroom door close, a body sink into a chair.
She lets out a long breath. No. She has to try. Besides, she can stop it at any time. She has that power now.
Alice carefully positions her hands over the keypad and types, “Can you look at me this way?”
There is a long pause, then through the tape, she faintly hears Marika answer, “Yes…I…I think so.”
The panic screams at her from the animal parts of her brain, but after ten years strapped helplessly into a chair, she’s gotten good at ignoring her flight response. “Do you think you can love me this way?” she asks.
She feels a shaking hand touch the plastic over her face, then jerk away. “I don’t know. It’s not…it doesn’t look like you.”
“We can have a new mask built. It can look just like the old one.”
“But you…” The hand flutters to her chest. “The tubes are gone.”
“I can stay in the wheelchair for you.”
“It’s not the same. You’re… I know you’re whole under there. I know you can get out of that chair, pull off that hood. You’re not my captive girl any longer.”
“I know. But I’m willing to pretend. Isn’t that enough?”
She hears a sigh. “I don’t know.”
“Well let’s find out.”
“Alice, I…I’ve never felt this way about anyone else. Never.”
“I haven’t either.”
“What if it’s because of the mask? What if I can’t love you out of the chair? I’m terrified that we’ll try and…”
Alice nods. “I know.”
“At least if I walk away, I can’t be disappointed.”
“But it’ll still hurt.”
There’s silence, and she hopes she’s struck a nerve.
Finally, Marika says, “This isn’t normal. You deserve normal.”
Alice laughs behind the plastic. “Honestly, I wouldn’t know what to do with normal. Not after…” Not after her senses were hijacked. Not after she spent over half her life crippled and strapped to a walker. Not after she sacrificed her childhood so that other children wouldn’t have to. She lifts her fingers from the keypad and clenches them into fists.
Gentle hands clasp her fists and massage them until they relax.
“You deserve someone who loves you for what you are,” Marika says. “Not for what we made you.”
Alice lays her hands back on the keypad and types, “It’s too late for that. I am what you made me. And now I need you to love me again. You can put me in the old mask, and the old chair. I’ll be the old me for you, and the new me when you’re not around.”
Marika clasps the mask and rests her forehead on Alice’s. “God, I missed you.”
“We’ll make this work,” Alice types. “We have to.”
Marika’s doorbell rings four times. That’s the signal.
Alice logs off of the work database and closes her eyes, letting a deep breath out through her nose.
This is never easy. But these are the rules.
She grabs her canes and limps over to the walker. It’s a terrifying contraption — one that she’d never seen with her own eyes for all the years she spent in it. Dull metal, faded padding, straps and buckles, and that rail circling the entire thing, trapping the occupant inside.
Trapping her inside.
But she doesn’t need to look at it for long.
She pulls off her clothes, straddles the chair, and carefully connects the seat/body interface until it is just right. Then she pulls on the thin cotton gown, tying only the very top tie, letting the rest hang loosely off of her still-thin frame.
And then there’s the mask.
This is the hardest part.
It takes several deep breaths for her to work up the courage. But she finally closes her eyes and pulls it over her face, making sure the breathing tubes and ear plugs are perfectly aligned before tightening the straps around her shaved scalp, sealing her inside the sound- and light-proof prison.
It’s always heavier on her face than in her hands, and she sags forward, shuddering under the weight.
She slides her hands into the thumbless mittens that are now permanently strapped to the rail. Marika won’t walk in until she uses their controls to type the all clear.
And she hesitates, just like she does every day.
No. This is love. And love requires sacrifice. Hers is just more tangible than most.
She steels herself, then types, “I’m ready.”
She feels the air change as the door opens, and there are hands strapping her into the mittens, trapping her in the chair until morning.
And as always, panic grips her with that realization.
But then hands and lips roam all over her, and she’s lost.