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Disclaimer: The characters Xena and Gabrielle are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are being used without permission. This is a work of fan fiction and no attempt is being made to profit from their use.
Warnings: This is a dark story that may violate some of your beliefs about the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. It could be upsetting to someone who believes that Xena's and Gabrielle's souls could never be separated by circumstances or that these two could ever be less than soulmates. There is some violence, including physical abuse of one of the main characters and allusions to sexual abuse. If you are under 18 or if you feel dark themes will upset you, my advice is that you not read this story.
The battle for a human heart is fought
In darkness unrelieved by sun.
The wounds, while deep, don't bleed bright red,
And no one sees the damage done.
The battle for a human heart is fought
Through gentle words or violent deeds.
With promises made and falsehoods said,
No rule the onward charge impedes.
The battle for a human heart is fought
Between the lines of love and hate.
For mastery of the human soul,
Fair virtue and impulse debate.
The battle for a human heart is fought
Both from within and from without.
While some aim to cherish and others control,
A human heart's fate is still in doubt.
Xena knew they were in trouble when the raiders continued to pour into the village out of all proportion to the numbers she had expected. Standing her ground at the village's center, she used taunts and sword flourishes to draw as many bandits as she could to her position. "Fall back," she shouted to the villagers who had not already cut and run. Hoping they would remember these words signaled a retreat, not a rout, she chanced a look over her shoulder to where she had last seen Gabrielle. What she saw chilled her heart. Gabrielle stood with her back to the village alehouse and, with skillful use of her staff, was more than holding her own against two of the raiders. However, a dark-robed and hooded figure had just emerged from the alehouse door, and, from his demeanor, Xena instantly concluded this was no friend.
The tall warrior yelled her battle cry and, in the instant of hesitation this engendered in her attackers, she whirled in a complete circle, her sword cutting down all who were opposing her. Before leaping toward her friend's position, she launched the shining silver disk she wore at her side, and, when it hit the sword that was poised above Gabrielle's head, Xena was already there and pushing the small woman to the ground.
"No!" she yelled, but the deflected sword started another deadly, downward arc. This time it was her sword that stopped its descent. The hooded figure laughed and almost casually shot out a hand to strike Xena in the face. Both hands needed to keep her sword from being forced to the ground, Xena was unable to defend herself from the ferocious assault of punches and kicks that followed. Never, she thought, had she faced such strength and ferocity, unless it was when. . . .
Gabrielle regained her feet and realized that all the raiders save this one were gone. Chasing the villagers? Sparing no further thought to the enemies who were not there, she turned her attention to the one who was. Never having seen Xena engaged in a struggle it appeared she might not win, she determined to help. Grabbing up her staff, the young woman swept it at knee level behind the dark-robed man. It connected with a satisfying shock, and she expected to see the raider go down. Instead, he put both hands on the hilt of his sword and, with a mighty effort, pushed Xena away. Gabrielle held up her staff as she realized his intention, but the dark stranger's blade cut through it as if it were a twig. Only her roll to the side gave Xena the time she needed to leap between her friend and the death that was rapidly descending. As his sword found the warrior's breast instead of the bard's, the stranger gave a cry that seemed a mixture of triumph and of pain. He kicked out to free his blade, and Gabrielle cried out, both at this brutality and at what she instantly knew was her friend's death. She threw herself over Xena's already lifeless body as the bloody blade descended once more.
Hades, ruler of the underworld, god of the dead, sat upon his throne and looked down upon a seemingly frail form. When, he thought, had he lost his reputation as the pitiless and inexorable sifter of souls? When, he admitted, had he lost control of this situation?
"So," she was concluding. Oh, he hoped she was concluding. "You can see how unfair it is for me to be in Elysium and for Xena to be in Tartarus. First, Xena has more than made up for her deeds as a warlord. Secondly, to separate us in this way is to punish me . . . ."
"Enough!" Hades roared, finally silencing the voice that would doubtless have gone on to thirdly, fourthly, and beyond. "I've already heard all of your arguments. I have already weighed Xena's accomplishments against the evil she has done and found them wanting. She is in Tartarus and will remain there for all time, no, beyond the passage of all time. You, on the other hand, are a pure soul and belong in Elysium. If you don't like it there, you may elect to be reborn, as may any who have earned paradise. This interview is at an end." As the girl, or rather this shade of a girl, opened her mouth to speak again, the god donned his helmet of invisibility and exited the chamber.
Entering his own private quarters, Hades removed his helmet and gave a relieved sigh. Those two had never been anything but trouble. How he wished they were still above, plaguing the gods who ruled there. Let his brothers Zeus and Poseidon deal with those two for all eternity!
"Dearest." It was the voice he loved to hear more than any other sound, the voice he missed more than any other when she sojourned above. He felt strong, gentle hands kneading the tight muscles in his neck and back. "Dearest," she repeated, and he relaxed into the peace she engendered in him. "I want to talk to you about Xena."
The god turned to look into the beautiful face of his wife Persephone. "Not you, too?" he protested, the little taste of relaxation gone. "That woman is consigned to Tartarus, and that's the end of it. She hasn't earned her way into Elysium."
"And whose fault is that?" the goddess asked. "Please listen, my husband. From birth, Xena was charged with a special destiny. Because of unfair interference, that destiny has not been fulfilled. Would you assign her eternal punishment without giving her a chance to do that which she was fated to do?"
Hades focused on one phrase. "Unfair interference?"
"You know who I mean."
"Who told you this?" He laid his hands firmly on his wife's shoulders.
"And what is your interest in it?"
"The answers to those two questions are similar and not what you want to hear."
"Xena has a special place in my mother's heart," she reminded him. "The warrior is one of her initiates, and, when my mother's temple was threatened, Xena saved it and asked for no reward."
"I considered that in my deliberations," Hades said. At her look of doubt, he added, "I promise that I did."
She nodded and looked sorry for doubting him. "My mother sent word that Xena was killed by no mortal, but by one who would profit greatly from her early demise."
"My nephew. But why would he kill Xena now? Always before, he has tried to win her to his side."
"There are some on Olympus who say Ares meant only to eliminate the influence of the bard. However, his intentions make no difference." Her next were those of one who had fully accepted her responsibilities as queen-and protector-of the dead. "When a god has interfered with a mortal's destiny, why should that mortal be punished forever for what is the god's fault? And, because she and her companion will be forever separated, the punishment is doubled for both the troubled and the pure soul."
"What would you have me do?" her husband asked. "I can't let Xena into Elysium. She hasn't earned it. And I can't let the little girl share the punishment when she bears no blame."
"Then give Xena another chance to fulfill her destiny."
"Send her back?" he asked. "Not a chance. All of Greece knows that she died. Again. Sending her back now will make a mockery of death and its permanence. I won't do it. You say all this is unfair? Why should existence here be different than above the ground?"
"Because here you are in charge," she answered simply. And waited.
The god turned away for some minutes and then again sought his love's eyes. A slow smile played across his usually solemn face. "I said that sending her back now would make a mockery of death. So I won't send her back now. I will send her back later." Although puzzled, Persephone stepped forward to kiss that unaccustomed smile.
The technicians sat in the staff ready room and swapped jokes and lies. Doo, the oldest and rowdiest of the group had just finished a particularly ribald story about a gorked client, when the Supervisor walked in. Things got very quiet. The Supervisor was nearly 200 pounds of thinly disguised hostility.
She stopped beside a young girl who was wiping up coffee she had spilled on the table during the punch line of Doo's joke. The girl stopped wiping and looked up. The Supervisor dropped a metal-jacketed chart in front of her. "Caroline, you have a new charge. Coming through Emergency. Room 3. Do what needs to be done and take her to Blue Unit. Stay until you're relieved."
"What about my other clients?" the girl asked.
"This is special duty. The others will be reassigned." Her eyes swept the room. "It looks like no one else is too busy." Allowing for no more questions, she turned and stalked out.
Everyone but Doo and Caroline hurriedly vacated the ready room. "All right!" Doo congratulated. "Special duty. And you just a lowly Tech 2."
Caroline stood up, the chart under her arm. "Maybe. She's coming in through Emergency, and you know that means trouble."
Doo shook his head as Caroline left the room. So young and so pessimistic, he thought. And so cute.
Room 3 was still empty when Caroline entered. She automatically checked supplies, bandages, disinfectants, suture kit, before turning her attention to the bed. It was standard Blue Unit equipment. Good. The client wouldn't have to be transferred to another bed when she was ready to be moved. Subject, she reminded herself. On Blue Unit, they called them subjects. Caroline made sure the restraints were in place and in good working order. She checked the chart for a name. Elizabeth. She had been told during training that numbers had been used when Blue Unit first opened, but it was found that subjects responded more readily to their own first names. Age: 29. She looked at the height and gave a rueful chuckle. Sometimes she thought the Supervisor got perverse pleasure out of assigning her the tallest charges. Other times she was sure of it.
The door burst open as two white-coated attendants forcefully rolled a gurney into the room. They were followed by a tall, broad-shouldered nurse, who helped them transfer the woman from the gurney onto the bed. He dismissed the attendants with a nod and began fastening the bed restraints to the woman's wrists and ankles. That done, he looked across the bed at the young tech and said, "Well, Caroline. Good morning. Got a little something for you."
"Hi, Matt." She arched her eyebrows. "Little?"
"I don't mean her." He tossed Caroline a blue tech's jacket. "When I heard you had been assigned to Blue Unit, I grabbed the smallest one I could find."
"Thanks." Caroline exchanged her yellow jacket for the blue, which was only a little too large. "Hey, I've worked here two years, and this is the closest thing to a fit I've had."
Matt smiled, then turned his attention to the new admission. Caroline opened the chart and started taking notes as he spoke. "Name's Elizabeth. You should have her statistics. Coming to us from MONCUS. Emergency call said she collapsed during interrogation." He paused to make sure Caroline understood the significance of his words. She did, having seen a number of new admissions sent from the district's high security detention facility.
The nurse went on. "Status of consciousness unknown. She was heavily sedated when she got here." Caroline nodded, having noted the indelible red S on the back of the woman's right hand. "She's bleeding, right leg, but BP is 120 over 70, heart rate 62 and steady; respiration is hard to get because of the sedation, but it seems within normal limits. Any questions?"
"Extent of injuries?"
"Unknown. I suspect you'll find she hit the floor a few times when she fell, maybe landed on a couple of sharp instruments. You know the drill, kid: undress and assess. Let me know what you need."
Caroline had a pair of scissors in her hand before he was out the door. She briefly studied the woman's face. Some puffiness around the mouth and above the eyes, bruises just starting to form. She lay the scissors aside for the moment and, pulling the shoulder-length dark hair out of the way, manipulated the woman's neck, back and forth and side to side. No stiffness. Still had her hair, must not have been at MONCUS long. Inmates usually had shaved heads-and they were usually a lot thinner than this one.
Caroline fished her penlight from her pants pocket and, peeling back each eyelid, flicked the small beam on and off. Equal and reactive. Also a startling blue. The tech noted her findings in the chart, omitting the observation about eye color. It seemed unlikely the woman was suffering from serious head trauma, which was a common side-effect of collapsing at the prison.
She retrieved the scissors. The woman's prison grays looked brand new, the material stiff and still bearing the creases from being folded in the package. It seemed a shame to cut the grays, but that was standard operating procedure in Emergency, especially when the admission was restrained. Taking the uniform off any other way would require removing the straps from the woman's wrists and ankles, and Caroline wasn't willing to risk it for a few rags that belonged to the district.
Without further thought, she cut up each sleeve and down the sides of the loose-fitting top. This allowed her to lay it open and, with effort, to pull it out from under the unconscious woman. There were no undergarments beneath it, and Caroline took quick note of the bruises on the woman's rib cage and breasts. In the chart, she noted the size and location of each bruise but did not write that they were in various stages of healing, the oldest probably a week or so old. She palpated the stomach and abdomen. No rigidity. With the patient so heavily sedated, it was hard to tell about tenderness, but she checked "no" on the examination form.
Picking up the scissors again, she cut along the outside seam of each leg of the woman's trousers. Again, there were no undergarments and, unfortunately, what she found did not surprise her. The woman's legs were a mass of new and old bruises and small burns. A crudely applied bandage covered one thigh, and blood was seeping redly through it. Caroline had been working with one pair of gloves up to now, but she quickly slipped on a second pair. When she separated the woman's legs to cut and remove the bandage, what she saw made her go to the intercom. "Matt?" she asked.
"Yes," he responded.
"Could you step into Room 3 for a minute?"
"Just a sec."
Matt's head soon popped in the door, and his nurse's eyes took in the situation at a glance. He stepped into the room and made sure the door had swung closed behind him before he spoke. "What do you want to do? Do you want a kit?"
"It's SOP," Caroline said carefully. Standard operating procedures, the best substitute for one's own judgement.
"I know, but what do you want to do?"
Caroline calculated her chances for a positive outcome. She could ignore the implications of the woman's injuries. But, with her being sent to Blue Unit instead of being returned to MONCUS, someone superior to Caroline would undoubtedly discover the injuries and know she had bypassed procedures. On the other hand, calling for the kit could mean there would be an investigation. . . . Suddenly Caroline understood the significance of the woman's new prison uniform and the fresh-scrubbed condition of her skin. No one had anything to fear from an investigation.
"I'm waiting," Matt reminded her.
"Get me a kit." She noticed his surprised look before he disappeared through the door. While he was gone, she removed the bandage and examined the wound on the front of the woman's right thigh. Deep and nearly eight centimeters long, it was an incised-type cut, not the usual razor cuts they got following MONCUS interrogations. Unbandaged, the cut bled profusely and, since it was not life-threatening, she let it. She wondered why the woman had been brought to Emergency for an injury like this one. Perhaps she had been destined for Blue Unit before it happened.
Matt returned with the kit. "There's a bag for her clothing. Small bags for the swabs you take. Disposable flash camera. Be sure you seal and initial everything. Need any help?"
"No," she said. "I was trained to do this, and I've helped with a couple."
Opening the kit, she immediately set to work.
"Buzz me when you're through. I need to check the kit back in." She nodded without looking up. Matt studied her for a moment. Such a little thing, looked frail, but he had seen her hold struggling six-footers down while they were being sedated. Long, red-blonde hair secured above her jacket collar, such clear, innocent-appearing green eyes. He shuddered, not sure why. Where do they find them? he wondered as he slipped into the hall.
Caroline's mind ticked through the steps of the prescribed procedures and, satisfied that she had followed them to the letter, she summoned Matt. Again, he appeared quickly and accepted the sealed kit. "You have to sign for it on her chart," Caroline reminded him, and he did so.
"Want me to send a doc to suture that?" he asked, indicating the wound.
"No, I can handle it." She was already replacing her outer gloves with another, sterile pair. As he watched, she unrolled a suture kit that already lay on the metal instrument table beside the bed. "You know I sew better than most of the docs."
He smiled in acknowledgment of her skills, but said, "A shame, isn't it?"
"What?" She was already preparing the wound.
"Well, her, Elizabeth, the hell that she's obviously been put through."
Not bothering with local anesthetic, since the patient was still unconscious, Caroline took her first stitch, small and precise. "A shame? No, not really. No one ends up at MONCUS without committing some terrible crime." She cut the suturing silk and began another stitch, careful not to pull it too tight or leave it too loose. Unlike the always tired and hurried doctors, she took her time and knew her work would leave only a faint scar.
Matt watched her nimble fingers and thought what a nurse-or doctor-she would have been. "So you figure anything they did to her she deserved?"
"Something like that." Working on a third stitch, as perfectly placed as the first two, she didn't look up.
"You go on believing that, little girl," he said. She glanced up sharply, either at his tone or the "little girl," he wasn't sure which. "When you're done, give her a shot of antibiotic. Use that new stuff, Prosporin. There are still a few organisms that aren't immune to it."
She nodded and returned her gaze to the wound, which was closing nicely, the fourth stitch as perfect as the others. Caroline knew how important it was to take pride in your work.
Having waited until past midnight to be relieved, Caroline found herself nodding off the next morning as she sat beside her charge's bed. A mumbled question brought her instantly awake. "Where?"
Caroline gave her the standard answer, which was a lie. "You're in a hospital, Elizabeth."
"Hospital?" the woman repeated. She struggled to open her eyes, which were foggy with pain and the aftereffects of heavy sedation.
"You were injured, Elizabeth, but you're going to be all right."
"Who are. . . ." Her speech was slurred, but her eyes were tracking.
"I'm Caroline. I'm here to take care of you."
Caroline filled a glass from the pitcher of ice water she had earlier placed on the bedside food stand. Inserting the straw, she reached behind the woman's head and held it up so she could take a sip. "Easy. Just a couple of sips. You can have more in a few minutes." The woman tried to reach for the cup and was stopped by the wrist restraints. She looked up at Caroline, a question in her eyes.
"You have to wear those until you're fully awake," Caroline told her. "So you won't hurt yourself."
"Elizabeth, don't argue," the young woman admonished her. "We know what's best for you."
The door opened, and a gray-haired man walked in. Dr. Stephens, Caroline knew. He was one of the most important people at the facility and was in charge of Blue Unit. Of medium height, he wore a rumpled, long blue clinic coat over green scrubs and carried an old-fashioned black leather medical bag. He walked to the bed and put out his hand, which Caroline promptly filled with Elizabeth's chart. He skimmed the first couple of pages before speaking. "Elizabeth, I'm Dr. Stephens. I'm glad to see that you're awake."
"How long?" she asked.
"You've lost almost a day," he answered. "I need to examine you, make sure you're all right." He didn't wait for permission but stepped back for Caroline to pull back the crisp white sheets and to remove Elizabeth's gown. The blue cotton gown was open in the back and snapped at the shoulders so removing it from a subject in restraints was no problem.
Elizabeth gave a slight gasp but made no objection.
The doctor used his stethoscope to listen to her lungs and heart, then palpated her stomach and abdomen, as Caroline had done the day before. "Hurt here?" he asked, pressing on one particularly livid bruise. She shook her head. He reached around her body and ran one hand along her spine. "There's a little knot here," he commented when he reached her lower back. Then he turned his attention to her legs. He stopped as he examined her inner thighs. "Was this reported?"
Caroline knew then she had made the safe decision the day before. "Yes, sir. An evidence kit was submitted."
He nodded at this information. "Don't remove the ankle restraints, but lengthen the tethers." Anticipating what he wanted, Caroline lengthened the tethers and bent Elizabeth's knees. The doctor took a speculum and other tools from his bag and made a quick gynecological examination. The woman winced a couple of times but did not resist. When he had finished and returned the instruments to his bag, Caroline pulled Elizabeth's legs down and tightened the ankle restraints.
Dr. Stephens made notes in Elizabeth's chart while Caroline pulled scissors from her jacket pocket and let them hover over the bandage she had changed only an hour before. At his nod, she cut through the gauze and removed it. Peering at the wound, the doctor commented, "Someone did a nice job. Must have been a resident in his first eight or ten hours of duty." He pushed on the edges of the wound. "Should do nicely if it doesn't get infected."
"She had an antibiotic shot, Prosporin," Caroline quietly informed him.
She was already rebandaging the wound.
"Good as any, I guess." As he wrote findings and orders in Elizabeth's chart, the doctor spoke them to the young tech. "Except for the effects of her fall, she seems to be healthy. I'm accepting her onto Blue Unit, so she won't be returning to MONCUS. When she's fully awake, feed her and then take her to the exercise room and put her on the machines."
"Just upper extremities for a couple of days. Take the stitches out in, oh, four or five days. You know how to do that?"
"After that, I want her on a full exercise program. She's a little dehydrated. Probably blood loss. She didn't have an IV in Emergency?"
He made another note in the chart. "Push fluids. No limits. Okay?"
"You can continue the antibiotic. Oral medication. Discontinue sedation."
"Yes, sir?" A little doubtful.
The doctor really looked at the young tech for the first time. "That doesn't mean to take chances, girl. Continuous restraints and. . . .you know how to use a Bio-electric Retraining Unit?"
"A buzzer?" she asked. "Yes, sir, I was trained in all methods of restraint and correction." She didn't add that she had done almost all of her duty on Yellow Unit, where violent clients were kept so sedated or "gorked" that buzzers weren't necessary.
"On Blue Unit, we call them by their proper name or merely BeRts," he informed her. At her hurried nod, he added, "You can check one out at the desk. Wear it at all times."
Finally, the doctor turned to Elizabeth, who had been silently following the conversation. "Behave yourself. You'll find it a better place to be than the last few places you've been."
After he left, Caroline put a fresh gown on Elizabeth and pulled up the sheet. She gave Elizabeth another drink and then went out into the hall herself. The control station or desk was in the center of the unit, which was set up like wheel, with the control station as the hub and the rooms situated along the outside rim. Caroline was surprised to see a bright yellow jacket at the station and, inside it, her friend Doo. He was leaning his long, thin frame against the circular counter and flirting outrageously with the woman in charge of the shift, a pretty brunette Tech 1 by the name of Jeannie. "Doo!" Caroline greeted him. "What are you doing on Blue?"
"The Supervisor sent me up with some supplies." He answered Caroline but continued to make eyes at the Tech 1. "She doesn't come up here, says she too busy. I figure she can't climb the stairs and the elevator won't lift her big ass this far from the ground."
Jeannie laughed and turned to Caroline. "What do you need, hon?"
"A Prosporin pill."
"Got an order?"
Caroline handed her Elizabeth's chart, open to Dr. Stephens's orders. The tech-in-charge unlocked the medicine cabinet beneath the counter and dispensed the medication in a small plastic cup. "Anything else?"
"Yeah, I need a BeRt," she said. "The new subject isn't going to be sedated."
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "These doctors up here. All of them feel that sedation ruins their experiments. But we're the ones who have to control the subjects and get them to do what the doctors want." She unlocked another compartment beneath the counter and handed the small woman what looked like a web belt and small vinyl holster. While Caroline strapped the belt around her waist and pulled it into the last hole, Jeannie held out a shiny black instrument. Rectangular in shape, with a small pistol grip attached, it was about fifteen centimeters in overall length. As Caroline took it, Doo said, "Make sure it's fully charged." He pointed to a readout window on the side. "See this icon? The one that looks like a battery? If the red inside moves past the halfway mark, the charge is too low."
"You have to turn it in at the end of each of your shifts. We store them between shifts in a recharger, so you shouldn't have a problem," Jeannie said. "But Doo is right. Check it at the beginning of each shift and after every use."
Caroline nodded and put the BeRt in the holster. It felt solid and reassuring where it rested against her side. She thought she might like working on Blue Unit. "Thanks for your help, Jeannie. Uh, Doo, could I speak to you for a minute?" If you can tear yourself away, her look implied.
"Sure, babe. See you later, beautiful." He walked with Caroline to the door of Elizabeth's room. "What's up?"
Caroline hated admitting any weakness, even if it was just a lack of experience. When she hesitated, her friend guessed, "You don't really know how to use a buzzer, do you?"
"BeRt," she corrected him. "No, I don't. The instructor went over it briefly in training, but we never got to practice, and since I never had to use one on Yellow Unit. . . ." Her voice trailed off, as she turned up green eyes in unconscious pleading.
"No problem," Doo assured her. "Give me the buzzer. . . .sorry, BeRt." He held it in his hand and pointed out the major features. "You hold it just like a pistol. The trigger is here. Keep your finger off that unless you intend to use it. You barely have to press it to activate the instrument. The end with the little metal prongs sticking out is the business end. It will administer a shock from as far as six inches, but you get best results if it's actually touching skin-or clothing. If you keep it in contact and keep holding down the trigger, you'll cause a burn or a heart arythmia. Otherwise, there are no long-lasting effects."
She was listening intently. "What about setting the intensity?"
"See this thumb switch above the inside of the grip? Move it up to increase intensity, move it down for a decrease." He turned the instrument so she could see the small readout window. "This icon shows the intensity level. It's set at midlevel right now, which is about right. NEVER use it below that level. If you use it at midlevel, and your subject doesn't respond correctly, just slide your thumb up and give her a jolt at full. She'll come around real quick."
He handed the BeRt back to her. "It's time to try it out." He pushed open the door.
"On her?" Caroline asked as they stepped into the room. "But she hasn't given me any reason."
"Listen, honey," Doo said, completely serious for once. "This is your life we're talking about. When dealing with an unsedated subject, you always give them a taste of what will happen if they don't obey you. It makes life easier for you and for them."
Elizabeth's eyes were on them as they approached her bed. "Hello, Caroline," she said tentatively. She looked uncertainly at Doo.
"Elizabeth," Caroline said, "I need to show you something so you won't have any doubts about who's in charge." Placing the end of the BeRt against the woman's stomach, she slid the intensity switch to maximum and pulled the trigger.
Caroline followed this lesson with Elizabeth's antibiotic and breakfast. She had found that, in order to accommodate differing research schedules, subjects' meals were available at any time on Blue Unit. You just got a prepackaged meal from the supply room for that quadrant of the unit, heated it in the little microwave oven provided, and it was ready to be served to the patient. Water was the only beverage allowed, so that simplified things, too. Elizabeth took her pill and ate her breakfast without any trouble, so Caroline felt satisfied and firmly in control. She decided to transfer Elizabeth to the exercise room in a chair instead of keeping her in the bed. This would mean switching restraints, but she would have to do that anyway when they reached the exercise room.
She got a chair and a set of mobile restraints from the Unit's equipment cubicle and brought them to the room. Elizabeth gazed at her steadily as she rolled the chair close to her bed. "I'm not going to cause you any trouble."
Caroline pulled herself up to her maximum height. "You bet you're not.
You know what you'll get if you try."
"I'm not violent. Really," the dark-haired woman said. Her voice was low and deliberately soft. "I've never hurt anyone."
"Yeah," Caroline answered, "that's why you were at MONCUS. Because you're such a gentle person. Everyone knows only violent criminals end up there."
"I never committed a crime."
"Right." Caroline had the mobile ankle restraints ready. "I'm going to release the bed restraints on your ankles and put these on. I'm allowing you a few inches of play. Don't take advantage or you'll be hopping the rest of the time you're here." She followed her words with actions and was glad to see that Elizabeth stayed calm as the bed restraints were replaced by the ones that would enable her to move around. Caroline moved to the head of the bed and continued the conversation. "You're totally innocent. That's why you were in the toughest prison in the district."
"I wasn't in the prison, just in detention."
Caroline released the bed wrist restraints and quickly replaced them with the mobile restraints. She would have to loosen these in the exercise room, but, for now, she pulled them tight, causing the subject's hands to be pulled together. "Detention. Jail. It doesn't matter. It's still being in prison."
"Yeah, like this is being in a hospital."
Caroline looked sharply at Elizabeth, even though the woman's tone had stayed mild. She decided to let it pass. This time. She grasped Elizabeth's wrists and pulled her into a sitting position. "Slide off the bed and into the chair." As the taller woman put her feet on the floor and attempted to stand, she swayed, and Caroline had to step against her to steady her. When she had regained her balance, Elizabeth took the step necessary and sat gratefully in the chair. "Thank you," she said. "I was dizzy for a second."
The tech, busy pulling the chair strap tightly around her charge's chest, didn't acknowledge her words. She wheeled the chair into the hall and then realized she wasn't sure where the exercise room was. Oh, well, the unit was a circle. She couldn't exactly get lost.
After taking the long way around the unit, Caroline saw a door marked "GYM." She wheeled Elizabeth inside and found a small, but well-equipped, weight room.
Just inside the door was a small table that held a sign-in book and a stack of exercise records. Caroline logged in their arrival time and added one of the record sheets to Elizabeth's chart. She picked out the upper body machines and circled their pictures on the record: upper body exerciser, biceps press, chest press, lat pull-down. Any other? Oh, yeah, rowing.
"Do you know about these machines?" Elizabeth asked.
Caroline nodded. Unlike the medical staff, the nurses and doctors, Caroline couldn't afford on her meager tech 2 pay to belong to a health club. "There's a public gym near my apartment." The gym was within walking distance of her sleeping room, and she went there whenever time-and energy-allowed. On this job, it paid to keep in shape.
With help from Caroline, Elizabeth was able, in spite of the ankle restraints, to mount the UBE or upper body exerciser. Called by some a hand bike, it consisted of a bicycle-type seat and two chest-high cranks mounted on each side of a geared cylinder. A speedometer-type dial indicated revolutions per minute and allowed for setting time and resistance variables. As soon as Caroline had her charge mounted on the seat, she realized the dilemma. Even with the wrist tether let out to its maximum twelve inches, a length Caroline had been taught was more dangerous than no restraints at all, Elizabeth couldn't separate her hands far enough to grasp the crank handles. Surveying the other equipment, Caroline soon confirmed her fears: the same was true of all the upper body equipment, with the possible exception of the chest press. Damn doctors anyway. Tell you to keep a subject in full restraints and tell you to exercise them, too.
"I'm not going to try anything," Elizabeth stated, holding out her hands.
"Even if I got out of this room, where could I go?"
Used to dealing with clients who were either "gorked" or out of control, Caroline was struck by the woman's calm logic. You got so used to thinking of them as lower life forms, then one of them would. . . . She quickly cut off that line of thought. "I'm going to take the restraints off your wrists," she said, almost before she realized that she had made this decision. "But if you even look wrong. . . ." She touched the BeRt in lieu of finishing the sentence.
"I understand," Elizabeth said and again held out her hands.
Careful to stand so the front of the machine partially shielded her, Caroline worked the small combination lock that sealed the restraint cuffs. Deciding it was better to have them off completely, even though they were soft and wouldn't make much of a weapon, unless used as a garotte, she removed the cuff from the other wrist and slipped the entire restraint into her jacket pocket. "I'm setting the machine at a resistance of 60," she explained. That was the usual level for beginners. "Let's try 2 minutes." She punched the timer button twice. "Keep the rpms at or above the first red line."
Elizabeth started turning the handles and soon had the needle well past the second red line on the dial. At the end of 2 minutes, Caroline doubled the resistance and set the timer with 3 clicks. "Keep the needle right on the second red line." Elizabeth did so, cranking steadily and not letting the needle go above or fall below that mark. The buzzer sounded again. Caroline noted that Elizabeth wasn't even breathing hard. She noted the times and settings on the exercise chart before helping her charge off the UBE and pushing her in a shuffling walk to the chest press.
"This is my least favorite machine," Caroline admitted. "Let's get it over with first." After months of effort, Caroline had been able to push 40 pounds for 3 sets of 15 repetitions. She was stuck at that point and could advance no farther. Instead of starting at 10 pounds, the lowest setting and working up, the tech decided to start Elizabeth at the 40 pound setting and work downward to a weight the woman could easily handle. Setting the pin in the fourth plate, she said, "Put both feet on the foot rest and keep your back tightly against the back of the seat. Push forward only with your arms." Elizabeth followed her directions exactly and steadily and smoothly lifted and lowered the plates until Caroline stopped her after 20 repetitions. Caroline added a half-plate, another 5 pounds, and Elizabeth still had no trouble doing 20 repetitions. She then moved up in 10-pound increments, and the tall woman had no difficulty accomplishing the exercise until they reached 75 pounds. Even then, Caroline suspected she could have done that weight if her muscles were not already fatigued from working her way up to it. "Are you a professional weight lifter?" Caroline asked, half in jest.
"No, I'm a writer."
"Well, have you worked out a lot?"
"No. I've always been strong." She smiled as she seemed to remember a happier time. "I was good at sports. Running, tennis, baseball. Basketball, of course."
"Of course." Caroline motioned her to get up and move to the biceps machine. This time she started her at 75 pounds, and Elizabeth managed 3 sets of 10 although she had to strain. When she pushed her charge toward the lat pull-down the tech saw that she had another decision to make. Both the pull-down and the rowing machine required the lifter to straddle a small bench, something that was impossible with the ankle restraints. Elizabeth stood beside the pull-down and waited for Caroline's decision. "Oh, well," she said and leaned over to remove those bonds as well. Later, she couldn't believe she had put herself in such a vulnerable position with a subject, but, after all, the big woman was about the meekest person she had ever met.
Elizabeth had no more trouble with the pull-down and the rower than with any of the other machines. Caroline finished recording the settings and her performance. "Women do better on the lower body machines," she noted. "I can hardly wait to see what you can lift on those."
"I could try now," Elizabeth offered.
"No. We'll wait for that leg wound to heal a little." The tech took the wrist restraints out of her pocket. "Hold out your hands. Close together." When she had her charge back in the chair, she put the ankle restraints on her as well. "Don't tell anyone these were off. You hear?" Even knowing that anyone who thought about it would know she had had to remove them, she put on her fiercest expression.
"I hear you." Caroline thought Elizabeth chuckled, but she decided to ignore it.
When they returned to Elizabeth's room, Jeannie was waiting for them just outside the door. She held a "vampire" kit. "Good. Glad you're back." She held the door open so that Caroline could push the chair into the room. "Doctor Stephens wants blood drawn." She helped get Elizabeth into the bed and properly restrained. "Starting tomorrow, you're to take a blood sample before breakfast, another after exercise, and again an hour before dinner and an hour after."
"Is that all?" Caroline asked.
Jeannie laughed. "Actually, no, but the other samples will be the responsibility of the night shift."
Caroline took the kit and put on the two pairs of gloves it contained before extracting an alcohol swab and a piece of rubber tubing. "Venous or arterial?" she asked.
"Venous" was the welcome answer.
She tied the tubing tightly around Elizabeth's upper arm and swabbed the area. Efficiently, she found the vein, made a quick puncture with a syringe, attached the test tube and filled it. She fixed a slide while Jeannie labeled the tube. She handed the slide to Jeannie as well and deposited the used sharp and other materials in the kit for sanitary disposal. "I'll take it this time," Jeannie said, and Caroline slipped the used kit under the tech 1's elbow. "From now on, just pick up a kit at the station each time you need one and return the samples and used materials there when you're through. Okay?"
"Got you," Caroline said.
"You better feed her lunch early. They want her in the sensory deprivation lab this afternoon. Dr. Kabota. 1:00. Sharp. She'll get along better if she hasn't eaten for a couple of hours."
On her way out the door, Jeannie added, "You're really quite skillful at bloodletting, you know? Some of the techs need about a dozen stabs."
After she was gone, Elizabeth said, "Guess I'm lucky, huh?"
Caroline didn't answer her. "I'll get your lunch."
"I'm not hungry."
"Better eat," she told her. "You don't know when you'll get another chance."
Elizabeth nodded, but, when Caroline returned with the food and picked up a plastic fork to feed her, she just looked at it. "I really don't want to eat." She had an idea. "Where do you eat lunch?"
"I don't usually." She didn't say that staff wasn't allowed to bring food into the facility. And that she couldn't afford the high prices in the employee cafeteria. "I'm on a diet. I don't eat until I get home."
"You're dieting?" The older woman shook her head. "I weighed more than you when I was ten years old. Why don't you eat this meal? I'm not hungry, and why should it go to waste?"
"We're not supposed to eat patient meals. I have to write down everything you eat and drink. That reminds me." Caroline filled the water cup and held the straw for Elizabeth to drink. She drank thirstily and asked for more. Caroline gave her another cup of water and, to emphasize her words about recording food and liquids, recorded the amount in the chart.
"So write down I didn't eat my lunch and then eat it yourself," Elizabeth urged. "What's the difference whether you eat what's left or throw it away?"
Caroline's stomach growled, obviating any argument that she was not hungry. Taking the cardboard tray and fork to her chair, she sat and tried to eat slowly, as if this were one more unwelcome chore. When she was finished, she met Elizabeth's eyes and saw a look she couldn't quite interpret. "Better sleep now," she said. "I'll wake you in about an hour and change your gown and bandage before taking you to Dr. Kabota's lab."
"Couldn't we talk instead?"
"Then you talk. I'll listen, and maybe I'll fall asleep."
"I don't have anything to say." Caroline tried to remember what her training had said about special duty. She remembered something about making the subject feel at ease for maximum cooperation. But there was also some sort of warning against forming a personal bond. She determined to dig out and review her notes when she got home. If she wasn't too tired, she thought, as she stifled a yawn.
"I'm sorry," Elizabeth apologized. "You're doing twelve hour shifts, aren't you? You probably need me to just shut up so you can rest."
Caroline sat up straight. "I'm here to work, not rest. I need you to shut up just because I need you to shut up." Then she relented. "What do you want to talk about? It can't be anything about your past."
"How about your past?" Elizabeth asked.
"Don't have one."
"Well, where did you grow up? Go to school?
"I grew up right here in the city," Caroline responded, figuring there was no harm in that question. "I went to Gates High School just a few blocks from here."
"College? Technical school?" Her voice showed genuine interest. "Where did you learn to do this job?"
"The facility has its own training school for technicians," she explained. "It was a great opportunity for me. Closest thing anyone in my family ever came to being a professional." She thought about this and decided things were getting too personal. "Now shut up and sleep. I have a feeling you'll be up late tonight."
Things got very quiet after that, with the subject staying awake and the tech falling asleep. Caroline awoke with a start when there was a slight tap on the door. It was a male and a female attendant, both wearing the beige scrub tops that showed they were from one of the research labs.
"Ma'am?" the young woman said, and Caroline realized that here was someone she outranked, if only by a little. "We're here to take a subject to Dr. Kabota's lab."
"You're taking her?" Caroline questioned. "She's my responsibility, and she doesn't leave this room without me. Not on my shift. I take her down and come back up with her."
The attendant handed her an order sheet and explained, "We always take the subjects down and back. This is a sensory deprivation test. She'll be in the tank at least 12 hours. Unless she gorks out totally before then."
Caroline read the order and saw that the young woman was correct. The attendants were to take Elizabeth, and she wouldn't be returned until sometime during the next shift. "I was going to change the bandage on her leg and put her in a fresh gown."
"Waste of time," the male attendant spoke up. "She can't wear anything in the tank, not even a bandage. Let the night shift worry about that when she comes back up."
Caroline stepped back and let the attendants roll their gurney into the room. "Why not just take her down on her bed?"
"Procedures," the girl answered, and Caroline didn't question her further.
With confidence, Caroline undid both sets of bed restraints.
"Scoot over onto the gurney, Elizabeth," she ordered. The woman meekly followed this order but, when the male attendant started to fasten the chest belt, she exploded. Before any of the three staff members knew what was happening, the struggling woman had leaped off the gurney and started for the door. The male attendant made a flying tackle and brought her down. The young woman blocked the door as Caroline stood over the pair on the floor. "Get off of her," she said firmly. "And stand away." When he was no longer in contact with the subject, who now lay quietly, Caroline said, as she had been trained to do, "Obey all staff members." Then she applied two brief touches with the BeRt. "You're going to be good now, aren't you, Elizabeth?" Tears running down her cheeks, the woman nodded. "Then get up and get on that gurney."
Caroline was almost late the next morning, and when she hurried off the elevator, a group of women was standing at the control station. One was Jeannie, another a day shift tech who had special duty just down-or around-the hall, the other a night shift tech Caroline had expected to be with Elizabeth. Before saying good morning, she noticed that the day shift tech, Robin, she thought her name was, was crying. "What happened?"
Jeannie answered, "Paul, the subject Robin's been working with, died during the night. She's been with him over an month and got sort of attached."
"It's not so much that he died," Robin explained through her tears. "It's that it was sudden, and I didn't even get to see him again, not even after. He died near the end of the night shift, and they just rolled him down to the dissection room. I should have been the one to prepare him. He was my job."
"Robin, I think the night shift people, the tech and the tech-in-charge, were just trying to spare you." Jeannie glanced over at Caroline, who was so new to Blue Unit. "We all liked Paul. He was so nice and easy-going. The subjects up here tend to be like that, not like the clients on the Yellow and Green Units. And we've had a couple of other deaths lately, so we knew Paul's would hit hard."
"All the subjects up here seem so young," Caroline commented. "Do you have a lot of deaths?"
The night tech, whose name Caroline couldn't remember, responded, "It seems to run in cycles. We'll go a couple of months with no deaths and then there will be two or three in a row. Dr. Stephens came up when Paul became ill, and I heard him tell the night tech-in-charge it was a stroke. Very sudden."
Caroline didn't know if it was the time, but she had to ask. "Is Elizabeth alone?"
The night tech didn't seem to take offense. "No, Doo's with her."
"Yes, he's been doubling shifts, and he came up with supplies near the end of night shift. That's when Robin got here and learned about Paul's death. Doo offered to stay with Elizabeth until you came. You're always so early, I figured Doo would only have to be with her a few minutes."
"Anything I need to know?"
"She only got back to the room an hour ago." The tech shrugged. "She was asleep when they brought her back and was still sleeping when I left her with Doo."
"Maybe. It should be in the chart, if she is." Caroline remembered why she had never bothered to learn this woman's name. Giving Robin what was meant to be a sympathetic look, Caroline walked across the hall and entered Elizabeth's room. Doo had pulled the chair up close to the bed and was talking to Caroline's charge, whose heavy-lidded eyes indicated that she was sedated.
Doo stopped talking and looked up, "Hi, babe. Robin settling down?"
"I guess." She picked up the chart from the end of the bed. "You trying to keep her awake for some reason?"
"No. Myself." He grinned. "I've been on duty twenty-four hours. I'm supposed to be off. . . ." He checked his watch. ". . . .right now. She's too sleepy to be much company." Rising and stretching his long limbs, Doo sauntered toward the door.
She stopped him with a question. "Do you think it's a good idea to be alone in a room where you aren't assigned? Especially with a female patient as attractive as Elizabeth?"
He turned and fixed her with a glare. "Are you saying that you think I would touch a woman who was tied up and sedated?"
"No," she answered steadily. "I'm just saying the situation could be misunderstood by someone who doesn't know you as well as I do."
He relaxed and nodded. "Duly noted. Easy enough to get in trouble in this place. I may have to work at MONCUS someday, but I don't want to be an inmate there."
When he was gone, Caroline turned her attention to her charge, whose eyes were now fully closed. She noted the dark circles under those eyes and the drawn appearance of her face. Gently, she lifted the sheet and moved aside the gown. Not only was the gown the same one Elizabeth had been wearing the day before, but the leg wound was unbandaged and looking red and puffy. Shaking her head at some people's irresponsibility, she set about remedying this situation. A half hour later, she had Elizabeth bathed, her gown changed, and the wound disinfected and bandaged-all while barely rousing her from her deep sleep.
When Jeannie came into the room, she noted the indications that the young tech had been busy and smiled. "I see you've got everything squared away. Listen, you can let her sleep a while longer before taking her to the gym.
She's not going to be able to do much until the dope wears off anyway."
"Will the gym be available then?" Caroline asked.
"Yeah, unfortunately." Jeannie explained, "Eleven o'clock to noon was Paul's time. Why don't you get the pre-breakfast blood drawn, see if you can get her awake enough to eat, then let her sleep until you take her to the gym. She doesn't have to be anywhere until 2:00."
"What's at two?"
"Scanning lab. Dr. Basil. Then, after that, the genetics project. Dr. Stephens and Dr. Leonusco." As the tech-in-charge gave the schedule, Caroline made notes on the subject's chart. "I think they try to schedule passive stuff like that after Dr. Kabota's had his turn at them. They aren't good for much else for about twenty-four hours."
"Do I accompany her to those labs?"
"Yes. Sensory dep is the only lab that sends its own people. And that's just because of the time involved." She paused at the door. "I heard you impressed a couple of attendants with how you handled that situation yesterday."
"It was routine," Caroline replied, trying to hide her pleasure at Jeannie's recognition. "It was probably my fault she got the jump on us."
"Don't worry about it. Sometimes even the meekest ones will surprise you. That sort of thing is why a special duty tech is needed. If you had been handling the transfer by yourself, it probably never would have happened."
Caroline took care of the other routine morning chores and, later on, when she couldn't rouse Elizabeth enough to eat, recorded this fact and then ate the breakfast herself. She finally got her awake enough to move to the chair and then to the exercise room. She put on the mobile restraints for the trip down the hallway, then took both sets off before helping her mount the UBE. Elizabeth surprised her by saying, "May I do this longer this time?"
"Sure. How long do you want to try?"
"I guess. You sure you feel up to it?"
"I want to try." She studied Elizabeth's face, which was still pale and drawn. She would have to remember to push water when they returned to the room. Didn't want her to get any more dehydrated. She set the timer for 10 minutes.
"Don't be afraid to stop if you get tired."
The exercise session went along companionably, if almost silently. Near the end of the hour, Elizabeth asked, "Will I have to go back?"
"Back? What do you mean, to MONCUS?"
"No. I mean to that tank. Where I was yesterday." She had a look in her eyes that was part fear and part resignation.
"Probably not." When the fear began to win out, the tech amended her answer to "No. I don't think you'll have to repeat that lab. Why?"
"It was terrible. They put you in a tank of water, body temperature, I think. Then they put a lid over you. It's completely dark and silent. After a while, you can't even feel the water." She turned haunted eyes toward Caroline. "You think maybe you're floating in nothingness. That you always have been there or that you always will be. That there might not be anything anywhere but your mind."
"It's just an experiment, Elizabeth. All the experiments end sometime."
She nodded. "I told myself that. I tried to tell myself stories, remember things I've written."
Although discussing a subject's past was discouraged, Caroline couldn't help asking, "You said you were a writer. What did you write?"
"Newspaper and magazine articles mostly, just routine stories," she answered. "Then I made the mistake of taking a job in this district, editing a small independent newspaper."
"Why was that a mistake?" Caroline thought it sounded exciting, getting to be the boss, telling other people what to write.
"I started writing about certain things going on in the country, in the government. I reported about some things that were happening to some of the citizens."
"Were they lies?" Caroline knew that people got into trouble for telling lies about the government.
"No. They were the truth, things I had been told by government employees."
Caroline had fallen under the spell of Elizabeth's words, but now she shook her head. "No way you got into MONCUS by writing what some civil servants told you. You must have stolen money from the newspaper or shot your lover or something." Increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of this conversation, she gestured for Elizabeth to get off the rower and back into the chair. She leaned down to replace the ankle restraints.
"I was arrested for contempt."