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“THANK YOU, JUDY,” Jason said as his secretary set the tea tray on his desk and left the room.
He put his digital reader down and rubbed his eyes. He missed real paper, but he’d been much advised years before that it simply didn’t do for the owner of one of the world’s largest environmental conglomerates to be seen reading newspapers and magazines anymore. Thus, he’d instituted a company-wide policy against printed reports and distributed the readers to all staff; true comfort came only at home every evening when he indulged in the texture and scent of his old books.
He picked up his cup and sipped without prior inspection, knowing Judy would have made it to his exacting specifications. When he’d insisted on putting “Must be able to make a proper cup of tea” in the job description after Mrs. Carron had retired the previous year, Trish had told him it was sexist. He’d argued that what was sexist was Victorian ladies stealing the idea of manly tea away by wrapping it in lace and putting ridiculously small sandwiches on the side. He told Trish it always took far too long to train Americans on how to make it right, and he didn’t want to have to go through it all again. He also said he didn’t care if a man got the job so long as he could take care of the myriad tasks required of a modern secretary and get the damned tea made as well.
Jason leaned back in his chair with a smug little grin. He liked it when he was right and Trish was wrong. Judy had worked out perfectly, as did the tea, and life was as good as could be expected.
On his third sip, his office door burst open. The shock would have made most spill their tea, but Jason’s hands had acquired unnatural steadiness over the centuries.
“Bloody hell, Don,” he muttered. “It’s 3:34.”
“Jason! You won’t believe it!”
“I believe that it is tea time and you ought to know better.”
Don shut the door behind him and hurried to Jason’s desk, where he plopped his old, beloved workhorse computer down as he asked, “Better about what?”
Jason pointed to the clock.
Don looked at it in confusion for a moment and then shook his head. “This is better than tea time. I’ve found her! I think.”
Jason glared. “Trish? She’s back from her meeting and in her office. Go bother her there. Leave me alone until 3:45.”
Don pulled a chair up. “No, not Trish. Gaia.”
That name did make Jason’s hands shake for a second. He set his tea down. “That’s not a subject to be joked about,” he said darkly.
“When have I ever told a joke at work? Successfully?”
Jason continued to glare at him, but the scientist paid no heed to his wrath, as was often the case. He kept tapping at his keyboard frenetically while explaining, “I was going over some stuff from one of the west coast biotech labs, and something was not right, so I checked it out and …” Don trailed off mid-thought, which also happened frequently.
“Don,” Jason prompted.
“What? Right, sorry. I’m still piecing it together, but I think I’ve found her, or someone like her, or something. I’m not sure. Well, sure enough to come tell you but not sure enough to be really sure.” Jason closed his eyes and sighed. He tried not to think about Gaia at work, despite having named Gaia Global after her. He preferred to do his brooding over her at home, something both Don and Trish knew quite well, yet here Don sat pestering him.
“Hamdon BioTech needed my override for some equipment they wanted for …” Don looked over his computer at Jason’s annoyed expression. “Right, sorry, you don’t need those details. They’ve got her.”
“What do you mean, ‘got her’?”
“I need more details than that, Don, even if I don’t require the minutia of what captured your attention.”
“Sorry. Hang on.” He tapped for a few seconds more while Jason pushed his tea aside and folded his hands on the desk patiently.
“Here,” Don said as he turned his computer around.
Jason looked at the screen. “Paraquat? Why is that name familiar?”
“It’s a very powerful herbicide. It kills photosynthetic material on contact. Nasty stuff.”
“The one we can’t beat with our organic line or get the Third World weaned off?”
“Yeah. It’s ‘restricted use’ here, which means you can’t just go down to the hardware store to pick some up. They’ve been ordering tons of the stuff on the sly because they don’t have a license for it.”
“Do they have a reason to use it?”
Don looked at him as if he were insane. “They’re biotech.”
“Right, so could they be—”
“Using it in some kind of experiment? No, not based on what I know of what they’re researching, and we own sixty percent of them so they shouldn’t be researching anything without us knowing about it.”
“Okay, how does that lead to you coming in here going on about Gaia?”
“Because I thought, ‘Shit, if they don’t have a license, they probably don’t have the proper storage facility,’ since they could probably get a license if they did. And if they don’t have the proper storage facility or licensing, our lab could be on the hook for any legal issues, and I don’t want feds giving us a hard time, so I looked up their building specs, and that’s when I found this,” he said as he brought up a window that displayed a building schematic.
“What am I looking at?”
“There’s a hole in their building.”
Don pointed to the screen. “This corridor goes to an elevator shaft, but there’s no listed elevator.”
“So I looked up elevator licensing records, even though it’s not on their official floor plan. They do in fact have an inspection record for a one-hundred-ninety-foot elevator. But they only got it once when it was first built, and it’s expired.”
“Wait. One hundred ninety feet?”
“Yeah, I know—weird, huh? It looks like they hired a mining company to do some unspecified work just before that, so I’m guessing they’re the ones who dug it. According to the licensing information it only stops at the top and bottom.”
“What the hell are they doing down there?”
“I researched what that depth could mean, were they maybe after the water table or something geological or what. They’ve got aquifers around but not close enough for that to be the explanation. That depth gets them to bedrock, I think, but what’s more interesting is it turns out that it’s significantly further down than any root system outside of a handful of desert trees that wouldn’t grow there anyway.”
Jason’s jaw dropped.
Don nodded at him.
“They’re keeping vegetation away from someone down there,” Jason whispered.
“Seems like it.”
“Oh god, they’ve got her down there.” His heart pounded.
“I don’t know for sure, but when that popped into my head I went through a bunch of other purchasing records—”
“How long have you been looking into this?”
“Couple of days. I didn’t want to tell you until I had something more definite. Anyway, they’re also purchasing pre-made meals from a catering company with a bunch of weird specifications that amount to no raw fruit or vegetables. In fact, they’re using some kind of nasty-sounding vegetable substitute paste stuff along with processed chicken meat for the most part. I did some calculations, and based on their ordering, it’s probably about enough for one or two people a day going back almost ten years.”
“Then I carefully went through their project list, and I found this buried in another list where it totally didn’t belong. This clinches it,” Don said, flipping to yet another window.
Jason read aloud, “‘In an attempt to isolate the Elementum Curans, the blood product will be subjected to the following examinations.’ That’s Latin for ‘healing component’.”
Don sat back in his chair. “They’re trying to figure out how someone heals quickly like you do, and they’re trying to replicate it.”
“It’s got to be her.”
“Or someone like her. It stands to reason that if there are two of you, there could be more.”
“Either way, I want to meet them, and if Hamdon BioTech has anyone locked up underground against their will I want it stopped.”
As Jason began to reach for his phone, Don exclaimed, “Whoa! Whoa! You can’t just call them!”
“I was going to call Trish in here.”
“Oh. Yeah. Do that.”
When Trish entered a few minutes later, she shut the door roughly, crossed her arms, and barked, “How come he’s allowed in here during your precious tea time? You snark on my ass if I come to your office during tea time.”
Jason replied, “Because he found Gaia.”
“Possibly,” Don clarified.
Trish blinked at them and then said in a loud whisper, “You can’t be serious!”
“I’m always serious about Gaia,” Jason said.
They showed her Don’s research, but she was immediately skeptical. “Okay, so you’ve found a bunch of crap that might mean something, but it doesn’t mean she or anyone else is down there. You’ve got no evidence that any of these things are related.”
“It’s not a big company,” Don protested. “They’ve got three lead researchers, one of whom they just hired and has been churning out plenty of work on the projects they’re supposed to be doing. But look at this Dr. Noreen Steele: she’s got a brilliant CV except for these repeated ethics violations.”
“What’s she done?” Jason asked.
“Looks like a string of improperly filed requests to use human test subjects, some violations on how she had people sign disclaimers, and …” Don read for a moment before adding, “and a couple of accusations of not obtaining proper informed consent, but those weren’t substantiated enough to do anything but note them.”
“There’s a long stretch between not getting your paperwork done right and locking someone in a basement for years,” Trish said.
“Not necessarily,” Don said bitterly. “Some of us take care to do things properly because it matters in the validity of the end results. Also, she had a fairly consistent pattern of her own publication credits for years, then there’s a big gap that coincides with a reference in a later publication that’s been redacted. Since then, she’s only cited as an adjunct on stuff published by the other two Hamdon leads.”
“So what, one redacted thing, and you think she’s doing secret military work?” Trish scoffed. “More likely she took time off to vacation or party or something and then just got boring.”
Don replied, “The gap was a year and a half. Most scientists don’t like to interrupt their research that long.”
“By ‘most’ you mean you. Just because you’d never backpack and party your way through Euro-clubs doesn’t mean she didn’t. Or, duh, maternity leave?”
“She’s officially single with no kids. And don’t tell me someone with this CV is content playing second fiddle to her colleagues for the remainder of her career. She’s doing something she doesn’t want publicly noticed.”
Trish gave him a conciliatory shrug.
“Regardless of Dr. Steele’s personal life, there’s enough weirdness at Hamdon for me to want to know what’s going,” Jason said, “even if they don’t have anyone locked up.”
“So phone them and ask,” Trish replied. “You own enough of the company to warrant sticking your nose into their business.”
“And if they are up to something nasty, they’ll cover it up if he comes poking around,” Don warned.
“Not everybody thinks like an evil scientist,” Trish said with a roll of her eyes.
“I’m not evil,” Don said defensively, clearly still annoyed at her previous assertion about ethics.
Trish sighed. “Yeah, I know, sorry. Mostly.” She smiled at him, but he’d already turned back to his computer and didn’t notice.
“You could get me a look in there,” Jason said to Trish.
“Well, yeah, but if you want to talk ethics, hacking into their video security system isn’t exactly playing nicey-nice. Besides, you’re supposed to be my role model for going straight.”
“My role in that regard has been over for some time. Can you at least find out if there’s a camera down that shaft?”
Trish narrowed her eyes at him but then rolled them and sighed. “Fine, but only because that sounds more entertaining than what I was doing anyway. Be right back.” She left his office and returned a short time later with her own computer. She set herself up at a table in the corner and began typing as earnestly as Don, who was still tracking down links and occasionally citing more potential evidence.
While his closest friends worked, Jason sat back once more in his chair, his hands clasped and index fingers bumping lightly on his mouth. Two years ago he thought he’d found Gaia after Don had put some other elements together: an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality report of unexplained, out-of-season plant growth in what was supposed to be a protected area, plus satellite photos of what appeared to be a small shack nearby. The government investigation had concluded a nearby illegal logging operation had been using some kind of unknown, undetectable chemical element to spur tree growth and it had gotten out of their control. But Jason, Don, and Trish all knew Gaia could make plants grow as if by magic, and they’d surmised she might have been trying to erect a barrier against incursion by the loggers.
By the time this information had come to them and they’d gone to the site of the shack, however, it had been severely damaged and appeared to have been abandoned several years before. Jason suspected that something terrible had happened to Gaia, since the area had strange, twisted growths, and the wrecked state of the shack looked to him as if violence had occurred. Plus, he’d found an overturned box of trinkets and mementos that had no apparent value, which led to the conclusion that they were sentimental items and thus not something anyone would willingly leave behind.
“Okay,” said Trish. “I’m in their system, mostly because they’ve been stupid and are using default settings. If they have a camera that looks at that elevator or what’s down in the hole, it’s not on here.”
“Damn,” Jason said.
Trish closed her computer. “I think we should continue this at home. It’s going to be time to go soon anyway, and if we head out early we’ll avoid some of the traffic. That way we can poke around before Henriika has dinner on the table, and she won’t tell us off for letting it get cold while we ‘do ze dilly-dally viss ze compoota’.”
“Fine,” Jason said. “We can speak more freely there anyway.”
“Well, it’s not like your office is bugged,” Trish said. “I did sweep it last month, and you’re not that intriguing to most people.”
“I know, but when this topic comes up, I worry about someone coming in. It’s best to avoid questions.” He grabbed his keys from his desk as he rose.
“I’ll drive,” Trish said.
“No, I came in my own car today,” Jason said with an edge to his tone.
“I know, but you shouldn’t drive when you’re like this.”
“You know, distracted.”
“I’ll be fine. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“Gee, I don’t know,” Trish said with her hands on her hips. “Maybe you could get into a car accident and a hundred people around you with cell phone cameras could watch your splattered guts heal up in a matter of minutes. That’d put an end to your big fat hairy secret pretty fast and make you a lot more intriguing, wouldn’t it? Then again, that’d make it more plausible for you to walk on into Hamdon’s lab and demand—”
“Fine, fine, point taken. I’ll go with you if you’ll shut up about it.”
Trish grinned at him. Then she went to Don, patted him on the back, and said, “Come on, doc, you can keep reading in the car as always.”
“Hmm?” Don said, not taking his eyes off his screen as he picked up the computer and followed Jason and Trish down to the garage.
* * *
As Trish and Don set themselves up at their respective desks in the parlour, Jason picked up a small remote from the end table beside his favourite chair. He clicked it, and the house-wide music system Trish had built for him as a Christmas gift several years before powered up. It was automatically set to a large mix of his preferred classical music—a term he found amusing since he’d attended the London debut performances of several of the songs in his collection.
The first song that came up was Chopin’s “Minute Waltz”, the opening notes of which made him frown. He was not in the mood for a waltz, even a brief one. He pressed the skip button and peered at the small screen. It read, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 13 In F Major, K. 112: II. Andante”. Mozart always settled his mind. He’d often wondered if it was a mystical power of the mad genius, perhaps not unlike his own strange abilities.
Jason regretted never having taken the time to travel to try to meet the great composer. Then again, some of the notable figures of history he had known were far less impressive than their stories would later indicate. Perhaps he would have been disillusioned by Mozart as well.
He set the remote down and eased into his chair, feeling useless as he watched the other two tap away. Usually he read while they were on their computers, but his mind was too scattered to focus on words on a page.
Gaia: the only other person he’d ever known to have a healing power like his own, and he’d never even spoken with her. It wasn’t her real name, but he didn’t know what that was. After he’d first seen her and accidentally witnessed her arm heal from a terrible wound in seconds, he’d learned she was Lady Rose Davidson, a well-to-do London socialite who owned a fashionable boutique. But by the time he’d worked up the nerve to visit her, she’d sold her home and business, set up a trust fund for a girls’ school, and disappeared. That was in 1899.
He’d done his best to trace her history through the shop’s ownership documents filed in the dusty, bureaucratic halls of the British government. It seemed that, like him, she’d changed her identity from time to time when the decades failed to age her appropriately. She might have been known as Anna Yale, the cousin of Rose Davidson, and before that an aunt named Flora Yale who maintained the London shop from various addresses in Scotland, and before that another aunt named Melantha Yale. The latter founded the shop in 1775, so his trail ended there.
In 1775 he’d been Jason Caldwell III, hiding out on the continent intermittently to avoid being drawn into the war in America. He’d still enjoyed battle at the time but had no desire to go beyond France for it, and another skirmish with France was always on the horizon back then. He’d also been doing what he suspected Flora had done: maintaining an estate from afar so he could return as a relative who looked astonishingly like one from a previous generation who had died unseen abroad. It was tedious, but it was the best strategy to avoid questions.
When Rose Davidson left England, she appeared to have left that name behind too. He found hints of her being called Anna again as she went through Europe on her way to India. He had not known what name to use for her until he discovered her amazing ability to make plants grow. They had called her Annapurna in India, but his love of Greek mythology inspired him to think of her as Gaia. Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis several decades later made it seem all the more apropos, as Jason had become fully engaged in environmental research and industry by that time, in no small part as an attempt to get her attention.
It hadn’t worked. He’d grown ever more wealthy and done much toward his other goal of keeping a world he’d likely have to live in forever clean and tolerable, but his persistent dream of Gaia showing up one day to applaud his efforts had never come to pass. He had no reason to believe she’d ever heard of him, and since he’d kept his immortality and other nefarious power so well hidden, he really had no reason to expect her to appear.
Ah, his other power. No growing flowers and food for him. What Gaia could give, he could only take. He looked at his hands, and his heart sank as dark memories began to surface.
Quickly, he clenched his fists and stuffed them between his legs and the chair’s arms. He’d done that so many times over the years that they slid into perfectly fitted indentations.
In an effort to keep memories at bay, he looked back and forth at Trish and Don some more.
Trish was fairly slim and quite attractive. She often referred to herself as a “nerd goddess” since she was a hacker-turned-CTO but could have easily pulled off any career where being pretty counted—though Jason pitied anyone who was foolish enough to suggest that to her. She kept her dark hair short less for style purposes and more to not have to fuss with it unless she felt like it.
Don, by contrast, was entirely average to look at: a round face with plain glasses beneath a receding line of sandy-blond, short, always-askew hair. He wasn’t obese, but he was comfortably soft from so many years spent sitting in labs or behind computers. His warm smile and slightly rumpled clothes gave away exactly what he was: a kind, gentle, friendly scientist.
The two of them were as close to him as anyone had ever been. His cook and his housekeeper knew there was something odd and secretive about him, but as befitted loyal and well-paid servants, they kept their noses out of his business. It was only Trish and Don he trusted with the secret of who and what he was. Well, not entirely what he was. He had admitted to Trish that he had been a monster in his past, but even she had no idea to what dark depths he’d taken his power. And even though both of them shared his excitement at potentially finding another of his kind—if indeed he was a kind of anything—they could not possibly fathom the depth of his need to no longer go through a potentially endless future alone.
As Jason sat letting his heart grow heavy with such thoughts, Don suddenly winced and said, “Oh crap, that’s not good.”
“What?” asked Trish.
“Uh … yuck.” Don groaned as he appeared to be battling between reading further and squirming away from the text.
“What?” Trish repeated.
Don looked at Jason apologetically. “Don’t get mad at me, but I think we need to re-evaluate the wisdom of setting whatever’s down there free.”
“I believe you mean ‘whomever’,” Jason said in a dark tone.
“Just tell us what you found already, sheesh,” Trish complained.
“Two years ago, Dr. Steele sent out an urgent memo out that anyone working on her ‘special project’ was now under severe food restrictions while at work, which pretty much come down to not eating anything that can last in the stomach for any time as a viable seed or plant material. I can’t find any other internal notes or memos about it, but it does coincide with the reported disappearance of one of the lab assistants, Yuko Hansuke.
“The local paper says her roommate reported her missing when she didn’t come home, and Dr. Steele told police Hansuke was feeling ill and left early, which her passcard record confirmed. An article two days later says her car was found just off of I-90 near North Bend, and then a couple of months later her decomposed body was found downstream in the Snoqualmie River.”
“So, what, you think Dr. Steele killed her?” Trish asked.
“No, he thinks Gaia did,” Jason said.
“What? Why? How?” Trish asked, but even as she spoke the words it was clear by her horrified expression that she’d gleaned the answer.
Don explained, “If Gaia can make anything grow, then it’s reasonable to assume she can do so even if the source material is currently inside—”
“Oh my god, don’t say it! I just lost my appetite for a week!”
Don nodded. “Maybe Steele dumped the body to avoid questions that would expose her ugly little secret project. Gaia might have a level of power that we’d never considered before.”
“You have absolutely no evidence that she even knew she was hurting someone,” Jason said defensively. “You know very well I can sense familiar people far away, even behind walls, and unfamiliar but emotionally charged people at a distance. Maybe she can sense plants the same way, which is why they’ve got her so far down in the first place, and if someone came down the elevator having just eaten—”
“Please,” Trish said.
Jason paused and then rephrased his argument. “If someone brought vegetation down the elevator, it could be that Gaia sensed it, locked on to it, and started trying to use it to get herself out of there. That’s a perfectly rational reaction to captivity. If someone had me locked up you’d better believe I’d grab at any chance for escape despite how I feel about killing.”
“The thing is, Jason,” Trish said carefully, “you feel that way because you made a decision not to be a solider anymore. We don’t know anything about Gaia, really, including how she feels about killing us mortal types.”
“She killed some people in India,” Don reminded him.
“No,” Jason retorted but then admitted, “not intentionally, not like a murderer. She defended herself and others. Let’s clarify that right now, shall we?”
He rose, hurried down the little stairs into the ballroom and then up the matching ones opposite, and whisked past the pool table and through the arch into the gallery. He grabbed a key from on top of a cabinet, unlocked the glass door, and withdrew a battered old journal from a stack of books.
He strode back through the rooms until he found Don and Trish tentatively entering the ballroom from the parlour. He waved the book at them and said, “Shall I read from my ‘father’s’ journal then?” He roughly flipped through the pages until he reached one dated March 17, 1923, and then read aloud:
I have finally found the boy Tushar, who of course is a boy no longer, but a man now with children of his own. He is no doubt the same lad cited in Prasad’s account of the events near Cawnpore in 1903, for I can see the resemblance clearly from the photo despite the weathering of age upon his face.
I had feared in approaching him that he would not wish to speak of it, for it had been a bloody event and no doubt entirely traumatizing to behold, especially in light of the reaction of the British forces who had dispersed the populations of both villages involved.
On the contrary, however, to my relief Tushar was all too happy to tell the tale to any goras who actually believed him. He recounts that Annapurna came to his village in late summer of 1902 to the delight of all, for they had heard tell of her miracles in other villages before theirs. Though their harvest looked to be weak—albeit not so poor as it had been in the famine previous—Annapurna only needed to stand among the crops and raise her hands. Tushar wept as he recounted how the leaves strengthened and turned a deep, rich green, how the vegetables became so plump that all mouths watered at the very sight, and how the air filled with the scent of a feast to come.
They fell to their knees in praise, but the great Annapurna would not accept it. As she walked from the field her eyes were sad and she could not be consoled, though she most graciously accepted a meal and lodging at the home of one of the elders. She went from field to field about the town in the next weeks, bringing everything to the same degree of perfection and asking nothing beyond basic shelter in return. She declined all requests to celebrate her magnificence but told them she was greatly fatigued and wished for a quiet place to spend the winter months. She pledged in return to ensure their spring planting would be strong and viable, so the villagers of course granted her request and gave her use of a small hut of her own.
She blessed them through the winter with local foods grown entirely out of season, and the villagers in turn brought her meat and cheese, but otherwise she kept to herself and did not long entertain any visitor.
But before the next planting, men came from another village; they too had heard that an incarnation of the goddess Annapurna was about and had come to beg her to visit their village, which, like all others, had lost many to the great famine and was only beginning to recover. They pleaded that the British were not helping as much as promised and that their need for her was dire. They offered her splendid items of gold and even a necklace with an enormous ruby, but she spurned them and said she would come only after she’d fulfilled her promise to Tushar’s people.
The men became angry and brandished guns and knives. Tushar said Annapurna was not moved by their threats, though the women ran away with their children. Tushar’s mother tried but failed to drag him away as she fled with his younger siblings. The men of the village brought forth their own weapons, and despite Annapurna’s demand that they all cease, a fight broke out and shots were fired.
Tushar was enraptured as he recounted how the goddess knelt upon the ground, her fists upon it as if she were clenching a rug, and beneath each fighting man there grew a tangle of grasses and vines, encircling their feet and legs, up the length of their bodies and knocking the weapons from their hands.
But one man held fast to his gun and shot Annapurna. She fell, and a heavy silence came upon the land as she bled into it. They all gasped when she rose from the pool, tore her bloody dress away from her waist, and looked upon her wound, which closed before the eyes of all. The men wept, for they knew they had done a great evil. She caught the bullet in her hand as divine magic forced it out of her pure form, and she cast it to the ground, saying, “I came to help, to sustain life in the names of those whom I have loved and lost, but I see now that here too there lies only greed and hate and pain upon pain.”
She waved her hand, and the vines that bound them wilted away. The men fell to the ground, except one who ran to one of the dead and screamed, “My brother! My brother is dead! A curse be upon you all!” Then he picked up his brother’s gun and aimed it at another man, but before he could shoot, with a flick of her arm Annapurna brought forth a tree from the ground that pierced his chest, killing him.
Two others cried that she was not Annapurna but a demon stealing the form of the great goddess, and they ran at her. Again she moved, and again life sprang from the ground to entangle them, but this time it went about their throats and strangled them dead where they stood.
All the men fled, but Tushar stayed hidden behind crates. He watched Annapurna go amongst the bodies and regard them all without affection as she waved her hands, making all that she’d grown wither and crumble to dust. But then she sat amongst them and wept until villagers returned with British soldiers from the nearby camp en route to Sikkim.
Tushar said his heart broke when he heard Annapurna lie to the British, saying she was a Christian missionary from Canada, that her name was Anne Parnah but that the villagers had concocted a tale of her as the pagan goddess Annapurna, and that they foolishly believed their unexpectedly good harvest was due to her. The goras believed her, of course, and gladly took her away as they set about relocating the villagers to prevent further skirmishes.
Jason snapped the journal shut. “Do you see? She was trying to do good. There’s no reason to believe she’d harm anyone unnecessarily. Even I still believe in the right to kill if necessary for self-defence or the defence of another. If they’ve got her locked up, I’m going to set her free, with or without your help or blessing.”
“Jason,” Trish said gently, “of course we’ll help. We just need to be careful and sensible. I know that’s a bit weird coming from me, but that’s how important this is.”
“I understand that.”
“I think we should break for dinner,” Don suggested. “With what appetite we have left, anyway. Then we can figure out what to do later.”
“At the very least, I want to go down there and see what’s going on for myself,” Jason said. “She can’t hurt me in any permanent way.” He turned to take the journal back to the cabinet and left them standing there.
After he gently closed and relocked the glass door, he turned to the enormous portrait hanging on the wall to his right. He sighed and closed his eyes, knowing if he looked too long it would draw him in as it always did, and someone would have to come fetch him for dinner. He didn’t want to deal with that, so he forced himself to leave.
* * *
Late that night, after an exhaustive session of reading, hacking, and discussion, Trish said, “Okay, I think we’ve got a plan, then.”
“A risky plan,” Don muttered.
“That’s why you get to stay with the first van,” Trish retorted.
“I still think it’s too dangerous for you to go in there.”
“Oh god, not again.” Trish groaned.
Jason raised his hands and firmly declared, “We’ve been through that. I’m not thrilled either, but she made her point about me needing her in there, and I’ll keep her safe. With Dr. Steele away on conference this week, we need to move now.”
Trish said, “So let’s summarize what we need to do over the next couple of days. Jason, you’re going to have Judy book a hotel suite and a rental van in Seattle, and then I’ll book the second van with one of our generalized corporate cards. Don, you’re going to file the flight plan with the FAA so we have our fake-Seattle-meeting alibi all wrapped up with a pretty bow.”
“Will do,” Don said. “And I’ll schedule it as another test of the plane to add extra veracity, since we haven’t flown three people that far since the last solar cell upgrade.”
“It’ll be safe, though, right?” Jason asked.
“Oh definitely. I wasn’t even going to officially test it after such a small upgrade,” Don said. “It’s just an excuse.”
Jason rubbed his eyes. “Do we have an excuse for why we’d rent a gas van instead of the usual electric limo service?”
Trish thought for a moment and then muttered, “Fuck. Judy’ll notice. And she’ll notice if you book it yourself too. Damn it, I’ll book the hotel and van and tell her I’m using my credit card perk points if she asks why. Then if anyone notices I booked a gas van, I’ll say it was part of the perk package, or something. We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.
“Anyway, I’m going to find that blonde wig I wore at Halloween a few years ago, plus dig out some various-sized clothes so if anyone is down there we can get them into something inconspicuous when we leave. Don, you’re going to get us two lab coats that don’t have any of our labs’ names on them, one that’s too big for me and one too short for Jason, so it makes us harder to accurately describe should anyone notice us.”
“I’ve got that in my notes. Don’t worry.”
“And lucky thing you’re in need of a haircut anyway, Jason, so arrange to get it cut as soon as we’re back. Remember not to shave tomorrow morning or the day after so you’ll have major bush-beard going.”
“I know,” Jason replied. “Maybe I should work from home once I’m really fuzzy so nobody notices at the office. Nobody will care the first day, but after that someone’s bound to comment.”
“Yeah, go in tomorrow but not the next day,” Trish agreed. “In fact, when I do my preliminary set-up of how I’m going to fuck up their security cameras, I should do that from here too, just in case.”
“It could appear suspicious if we all stay home a lot, so Don should still go in.”
“I will,” Don replied. “I’ve been putting other things off, so I’ll be conspicuously around.”
“Okay,” said Trish. “Jason, promise me you’ll stick to the plan to drain and drop her if we get her out and she goes crazy.”
“I said I would.”
“But I know you’re not happy about it.”
“I’m never happy about using my ability to knock out anyone, but I recognize the utility and importance of that aspect. Bear in mind that we don’t know if I can affect her at all.”
“They got her down there somehow,” Don said, “so presumably she can at least be temporarily made unconscious with enough damage, same as you.”
“I will do what needs to be done,” Jason declared, crossing his arms in such a way as to not have to see his hands.
“I guess that’s that, then,” Trish said. She looked at the clock. “Holy crap, it’s after midnight. Bedtime, especially for you old men.”
Jason nodded. “I’ll see you two in the morning,” he said before heading back to the gallery.
Once there, he gazed at the portrait again. It depicted a somewhat Rubenesque woman in Victorian dress, a pleasant smile upon her face as if someone beloved had recently made her laugh. Despite the smile, however, her green eyes bore a certain sadness that had captivated Jason ever since he’d acquired the work. He hadn’t seen her eyes closely enough in real life to discern their colour and had often wondered how much was artistic interpretation versus reality.
After all, his own old portrait across the room was hardly a photographic representation. It matched well enough that, if he stood beside it, an impartial observer might glean a familial resemblance between the two tall, brown-haired, hazel-eyed, strong-jawed, muscular men. However, the late-seventeenth-century styling had rendered his eyes and expression in a flattened way that Trish said didn’t do justice to how handsome he truly was, when she was in a conciliatory mood.
“I’m sorry for being a bit of a bitch earlier,” Trish said as she came into the gallery behind him, clearly in such a mood at the moment.
“Hmm? Were you?”
“You know, deflating the two of you when you were so excited.”
“Oh, that. No, you were raising entirely pertinent questions. I rely on you for that. No apology necessary.”
“Mmm-hmm.” He turned to look at her and saw she was unconvinced. “I am, really. This is a good thing.”
“I know what this means to you. I know what she means to you.”
Trish patted his arm. “I’ll leave you to your brooding, then.”
“I’m not brooding.” She gave him an incredulous look, so he admitted, “Not as much as usual. There’s hope now, and I’m clinging to that.”
Trish walked out, and Jason sat on the small couch to stare at the portrait for a long time before finally heading to bed himself.