Convert this page to Pilot DOC FormatPart 3 of 3 of Battle
Back on Blue Unit, Caroline pushed lightly on the room door, but stopped when she heard voices, hushed but urgent.
"I'm going to tell her." Elizabeth's.
"No, you're not. You're going to keep this to yourself." Doo? "If you know what's good for you."
"Threats. Violence. That's what it always comes down to."
"Maybe 'cause that's what it always takes."
The voices stopped, and Caroline made a show of bustling into the room as if she had been hurrying. Doo, who had been sitting on the edge of Elizabeth's bed, jumped up. He smiled broadly. "So, been down to see the great man? Did he want to commend you for your bandaging skills? Or call you on the tile for using too many clean sheets and hospital gowns?"
"Nothing that important," she answered. She looked at the breakfast tray, which lay, untouched, on the bedside table.
Doo followed her gaze. "I tried to feed her, but she wouldn't eat. Tried to claim you let her feed herself." He spoke to Caroline, but his eyes were on Elizabeth. "I knew she was lying. Good old just-following-procedures Caroline wouldn't break the rules like that. One thing I've learned since I've worked here is not to trust these people. You can't believe anything they say." No longer smiling, he turned on his heel and left the room.
Caroline picked up the tray, preparing to dispose of it. "This food is cold. I'll get you another tray if you want it."
"I'm sorry I told him that."
"Don't worry about it. Doo's my friend. He won't get me into trouble." She watched as a tear slid down Elizabeth's cheek, then another. Setting the tray down, Caroline sat where Doo had been and, with the side of her hand, gently brushed away the moisture. "Elizabeth? What's wrong?" As the dark-haired woman continued to silently cry, Caroline took the napkin that had come with the meal-pack and dried the tears as they fell. "Did he do something to you? Elizabeth? I overheard him telling you not to tell, threatening you. What did he do?"
"Nothing." Caroline didn't believe her but didn't know what to do. Doo was her friend, had helped her through the first rough months on Yellow Unit, had shown her the ropes. His humor had gotten her past the horror she had felt at first. . . . This woman was just a subject, nothing to her really. Looking down at Elizabeth, recognizing her beauty, she could understand how Doo, who was, after all, just a man, could have been tempted.
"Caroline? I want to ask you something."
"I'll see that Doo is never left with you again."
"No, it's not about that." She took a shaky breath. "Don't come to work tomorrow."
"What?" Thinking back to her conversations with Dr. Stephens and with Frank, Caroline felt her own breath catch. "Why would you ask something like that?"
"Something is going to happen." Elizabeth tried to sit up and was stopped by her restraints. Frustration and annoyance crossed her face. She made herself relax and lie quietly. "It may not be safe here."
"What are you talking about? Not safe? For whom?"
"I can't say anything else," Elizabeth answered. "I shouldn't tell you this much. But sometimes you've been kind to me; you're different from most of the others, not completely lost. Just don't come to work tomorrow, and you'll be fine."
Caroline picked up the tray. "I'm going to dispose of this and get you another. If you don't eat, your blood work won't come out right. Then I'll check today's schedule and take you to the exercise room. Where did you go yesterday?"
Elizabeth's eyes were dry and as clear as ever. "The genetics project.
Dr. Leonusco. He said that's the only place I would go from now on."
Caroline nodded, sure of the truth of that statement. "I'll check anyway."
She walked out the door, then found herself leaning against it.
The next morning, arriving even earlier than usual, Caroline decided to stop first in the dissection suite. Having thought about her visit the day before, she knew she had jumped to the wrong conclusion. As she stepped out of the elevator, Doo was just coming through the swinging doors. He didn't look pleased to see her. "Jeannie told me you requested that I stay out of Elizabeth's room."
"I figured she would tell you. Just not this soon."
"That kind of thing doesn't do much for my reputation, you know." His manner was casual, but there was anger in his voice.
Caroline kept her own tone neutral. "I told you it didn't pay to get too friendly with subjects."
"You better tell yourself the same thing." He brushed past her and through the open elevator doors.
Shaking her head, Caroline entered the suite. Last night, thinking through the day's events, she had felt the need to come here, to see again the table, the instruments, that machine. . . .to figure out what it all really meant.
"Do I know how to pick conscientious helpers?" Caroline turned to see Dr. Stephens right behind her, his rubber-soled shoes making not even a squeak on the tiled floor.
"I just wanted to look around again," she explained, unable to come up with any other reason. "I'm sorry if I shouldn't be here."
"It's all right. I'm glad you're that interested." He looked around the room himself. "Sometimes I like to just come down here, too, when it's quiet like this, empty." He brought his attention back to his new assistant. "But I had a purpose for coming down here this time, and you're it."
"Yes, I told that annoying fellow who's always running around the facility to bring up some fresh scrubs. Some small ones." He chuckled as he looked down at her. "I wanted to see that he did. You would swim in Frank's. They should be in the supply room if he brought them."
"It's kind of you to think about something like that," Caroline commented.
"I mean, you're busy and important, and I. . . ."
"And you have to stop being so modest." His expression turned serious. "You are now a member of my team, and soon you'll have the rating-and pay-to go with it.
Now let's go see if that fellow brought the scrubs."
"I'm sure he did," Caroline said. "I ran into him at the elevator."
"Well, good then. You go to the supply room and get a set of the new scrubs. You might as well start wearing them right now. There's a changing room that connects to both the supply room and the suite." He beamed down at her. "Show the world what team you're on now."
"Shouldn't I wait to change until I come back down?" she asked. "Won't I just have to change again before the. . . .the procedure?"
He shook his head. "We follow clean protocols, but not sterile, except for the gathering and preserving of samples, of course. Don't worry. I'll show you how that's done so the samples aren't contaminated."
"Yes, sir," Caroline said. "If you don't mind, I'll get the scrubs and change when I get to the unit." She checked her watch. "I better hurry, or I'll be late relieving night shift."
His tone was serious again. "I left orders for your charge last night: NPO after midnight. It's on the chart."
"Nothing by mouth. Yes, sir."
"And there are orders at the desk indicating that she'll be transferred to her new facility later this morning-and that you'll take her down for the transfer." He made sure she was looking him in the eye before he continued. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir. I think so." She kept her gaze as steady as his.
"Good." He patted her on the shoulder. "You'll do fine."
As soon as he was out the door, she hurried to the supply room. There were three stacks of scrubs, three different sizes. She took one of the packages of the small size and started for the door. Then, after a moment's hesitation, she came back and took a package with L clearly written on it with black laundry marker. In the elevator, she rolled one package around the other.
On Blue Unit, she waved at Jeannie, who was on the phone, and quickly pushed open the door to Elizabeth's room. The usual night shift tech was standing just inside, looking pointedly at her watch. Get stuffed, Caroline thought, but said, "Sorry. Dr. Stephens held me up."
"Oh." Having lost any steam for an argument, the tech pointed to Elizabeth's chart at the end of her bed. "NPO. She's transferring out today." She surprised Caroline by walking over to the bed, instead of bustling out of the room. "I hope things go well for you at the new place. You have some good luck coming. Goodbye."
"Thanks, Karen. Goodbye." The night tech patted Elizabeth's hand and then, with a quick nod to Caroline, she was out the door.
Caroline put the packages of scrubs on the end of the bed and made a show of reading Elizabeth's chart. Then she pulled the chair over so she could face the other woman as they talked. "Good morning, Elizabeth."
"When you were late, I hoped you had taken my advice." When Caroline feigned puzzlement, she added, "Not to come to work today."
"I couldn't stay home. I mean, it's a big day, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're leaving, and I'm starting a new job."
Elizabeth looked surprised. "What new job? I figured you would just return to your old one when I was gone."
"I'm going to be Dr. Stephens's tech assistant." She waited for Elizabeth to speak, and when she didn't, added, "In the dissection suite. You know Dr. Stephens."
"Yes," she said. "I know him. And I've known of him even longer."
"What does that mean?"
Elizabeth shook her head and turned it so she looked at the wall instead of the smaller woman. It was the only freedom she had.
Firmly grasping her charge's face, Caroline took this freedom from her. "Look at me when I'm talking. I'm going to ask you some questions, and you better answer them truthfully. And no stubbornness. We don't have time for it, and I don't have the patience."
Blue eyes blazed; then the fire seemed to go out of them. Elizabeth nodded, and Caroline roughly released her hold.
"You told me you were a writer and that your only crime was criticizing the government. Is that the truth?"
"Yes." Caroline thought she was going to leave it at that, but then she went on. "It was more than criticism. I had been on the government's bad side for a long time because of that. As my father and mother were. What finally got me arrested was starting a series of articles exposing a secret government project, one that was clearly illegal."
"You said you were arrested for contempt."
"I was hauled into court after the first article was printed. The judge said that I had breached national security and ordered me to reveal my sources. I refused, and I was charged with contempt." Elizabeth's voice was flat. "I was jailed and, for a while, she hauled me back before her every week or two and, when I still wouldn't tell, sent me back to my cell. The last time she called me before her, she said that I was obviously suffering from a mental disorder. She sent me for ninety days of observation, and I've been in one institution or another for the last two years."
"I think I was sent there to prepare me for this place, to make sure my attitude would be meek enough."
"What was the government project you wrote about?"
"I think you're familiar with it," Elizabeth said. "It's called the Human Genetics Coding Project."
"You wrote about this place, about Blue Unit?"
"This is supposed to be a private research facility, but it's financed by the government." Her voice became clipped and precise, as if she were dictating a report or article. "Its purpose is to do research that will further the aims of the government, specifically creating a citizenry that is more productive and easier to govern. Early human research focused on criminals, addicts, and the insane, on the traits the government wanted to eliminate. That's one reason subjects from the prisons and sanitariums were the first people used."
"When Dr. Stephens was put in charge, he decided that the project was set up backwards. Instead of focusing on the unwanted traits, the research should explore the desirable characteristics."
Caroline had recently heard what those were, so she supplied them. "Strength, endurance, intelligence and obedience." As she said them, she realized that the woman on the bed possessed at least three out of the four.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, but continued. "To explore those traits, Stephens needed people who possessed them-and few of the unwanted ones."
"He didn't want to use criminals and people with mental diseases," Caroline said. "If you want a superior product, you need to use superior materials."
"But what about the other research labs and the other two units? They don't have anything to do with producing a certain type of person."
"Right again. The other labs are a blind, so that staff and people looking at the amounts of money budgeted won't think the Genetics Coding Project is so important. They're all legitimate areas of research, things that would benefit people, but they've become perverted by the use of involuntary subjects and no need to worry about the harm caused by their experiments."
"Like the Cold Water Lab," Caroline said. "I can see how the experiments would help us figure out how to prevent drownings, like when a plane crashes or a ship goes down. But the only reason Dr. Durvich was so careful not to cause permanent damage to you was because of Dr. Stephens's warning."
"Right. Imagine how many people have probably suffered permanent brain damage because she left them under water a few seconds too long."
"Or died because of the hypothermia." Caroline shuddered over her role in that experiment and quickly turned off that line of thought. "What about the other units? Are they just cover for this one?"
"No," Elizabeth said, "Each of them serves a real purpose. Green Unit holds the patients who are subjects in long-term experiments, some related to the genetics project, some not."
"And Yellow Unit, where I've worked for two years?"
"Yellow Unit stores the debris of Blue Unit, those too damaged or damaged in such ways that they can't be used in long-term experiments or placed in other institutions."
"Why don't they just get rid of them?" Caroline asked, fully realizing the coldness of the question.
"Even for this place, too many deaths might cause suspicion, get the staff talking. You know how rumors can spread." Elizabeth looked Caroline squarely in the eye. "I don't imagine more than a half-dozen people know the truth about the deaths that occur, even the ones that are acknowledged."
"Like Paul's." She wasn't sure whether Elizabeth knew who Paul was, so she added, "He was a healthy young subject who died suddenly. Dr. Stephens said it was a stroke."
"The other deaths are somehow covered up through 'transfers' to other institutions, except that the receiving facilities aren't told a transfer is being made and so aren't surprised when no one arrives."
Caroline swallowed hard.
"Yeah, I kind of guessed," Elizabeth said and managed a weak smile.
Caroline walked around the bed, releasing each of the restraints and helped Elizabeth sit up. She sat down again so that she faced the other woman directly, their knees touching. "Why did you tell me not to come to work today?"
Elizabeth looked down at her hands. "That isn't my secret to tell."
"If I'm going to help you, I have to know."
Elizabeth raised her eyes. She asked quietly, "Help me?"
"Yes, I'm going to help you." Until she said it, she hadn't been sure.
She thought Elizabeth was still going to refuse, but then she said, "There's going to be an explosion, and this part of the facility will be destroyed."
"An explosion? A bomb?"
"I think so. It's supposed to take out Blue Unit, and the floor just under this one."
"The dissection lab. And the stored tissue samples," Caroline supplied.
"What about the people who are here, the staff and subjects?"
"No one is supposed to be hurt," Elizabeth answered. "I'm against the violence, you have to believe that, but the group that's doing this doesn't think there's any other way. I didn't want you to come in case something went wrong."
Caroline checked her watch. "I don't know exactly when you're being 'transferred,' but it has to be soon. I'm only going to ask one more question. About Doo. Did he hurt you? Did he rape or molest you?"
"Why was he in here so much? Did you know him before you came here?"
Elizabeth's lips formed a thin line.
"Tell me." Then more gently, "Please."
"Doo was one of the informants I was protecting. He felt he owed me something."
"What were you arguing about?" Then she understood. "The bomb?"
"Yes, when telling me what was going on here didn't end it, when he heard what was happening to me, he joined a militant organization. Yesterday he warned me about the bomb, said that the facility would be evacuated. He also said that he would figure out a way to get me out of wherever I was sent next."
"What did you argue about?"
"My wanting to warn you." She dropped her eyes before saying, "He said that you were only looking out for yourself, that you couldn't be trusted."
Caroline rose and retrieved the packages from the end of the bed. She handed the larger pair of scrubs to Elizabeth. "Put these on. I'm getting you out of here. Then. . . .do you have someplace to go? I could take you to my rooming house, but that's the first place they'll look."
"I have friends who'll hide me if I can get to them," Elizabeth said. "They tried to talk me into going into hiding, even leaving the country, before I was arrested. But I wouldn't run, not me, I had faith in the system, knew that I was protected by the Constitution." She had her gown off and was slipping into the scrub pants and top. They were big on her, but the length of the sleeves and pants legs were about right. She snugged up the drawstring on the pants. "What about you? You can't come back here after helping me escape."
"Let's get you out of here now, and worry about that later, okay?"
There was a light knock on the door, and both women jumped. "Caroline, come out to the station. Now."
Caroline hurried out the door before Jeannie felt she had to come in. She needn't have worried. Jeannie and what looked like all the Blue Unit techs were gathered at the control station. When Caroline joined them, Jeannie spoke. "Dr. Stephens just called up. We've had a bomb threat, the first one since we stopped using four-legged subjects." There was nervous laughter from a couple of the techs. "In the past, our policy has been to evacuate the facility whenever we've received a threat. However, Dr. Stephens believes that just encourages the pranksters and leads to a rash of threats. So, we're going to stick tight. I was told to inform you, however, so, if we have to evacuate, you'll be prepared."
"How will we know?" a thin, blonde woman asked. "Will you have to come around to each room? Won't that take too long?"
"If Dr. Stephens decides we should leave the building, he'll call a code red. As soon as you hear that, you and the subject in your charge will leave the building immediately, using the stairs, not the elevator. You've all had training in how to do this. Any other questions?" There weren't. "All right. Go back to the rooms. Stay calm, but be prepared."
As the group started to disperse, Jeannie said, "Caroline, stay a minute please."
"Dr. Stephens said that Elizabeth's transfer would go on as planned.
You're to take her down now. He said you would know where to take her."
"Oh, okay." She started back toward the room.
"You have to sign his order before you take her." She put a pen and a form on the counter. Caroline glanced at it. Order to transfer. She didn't recognize the name of the receiving institution.
"Where do I sign?"
"Here, right under Dr. Stephens's signature." Caroline hurriedly signed.
Jeannie held out a BeRt unit and holster. "You never picked this up this morning."
"Thanks." Caroline walked back to the room, trying not to run. Elizabeth was back on the bed, covered by a sheet to her chin. She had put her hands and feet through the restraints, although anyone but a casual observer would see the cuffs weren't fastened. "Get up. We're getting out of here," Caroline said. She ripped open the other package and, tearing off her blue jacket and her tech uniform, she hurriedly pulled on the green scrubs. "Wouldn't you know it? The only time I've gotten anything here that was a perfect fit. I'll get a chair." On the way to the supply room, she strapped on the holster and inserted the BeRt.
When she returned, she motioned for Elizabeth to sit. "I'm going to put the mobile restraints on, but they won't be fastened." She had gotten a blanket from the supply room, which she used to cover her charge from feet to neck. "When we get off the elevator on the ground floor, you'll be staff. The pants are long enough that hopefully nobody will notice you don't have shoes."
"What's the hurry? Is the unit being evacuated?"
"No? What do you mean? Doo promised there would be a phone call at least an hour before the explosion. He said that the disaster plan showed it would take only 15 minutes to have everybody out."
"The phone call was made. Dr. Stephens told everybody to stay put unless he calls a code red."
Elizabeth started to get out of the chair. "But that's crazy! People are going to be killed!"
Caroline pushed her back down. "Am I going to have to restrain you for real? We have to get out of here!"
"But the other people. . . ."
"Dr. Stephens is in the dissection suite, and he just sent for you. When I don't deliver you, he's going to come looking. With or without a bomb, I figure our escape time is fast approaching zero."
"Then deliver me."
Caroline looked at Elizabeth in disbelief. "Deliver you? To Dr. Stephens?
Are you crazy? Do you have any idea what he has planned for you?"
"I have a pretty good idea," Elizabeth answered. She leaned forward in the chair, and Caroline's hand went automatically to the BeRt. Elizabeth sat back a little. "Listen, time is running out, and we just can't let all these people die."
"What about Doo? Won't he say something when he sees there's no evacuation?"
The other woman shook her head. "He's long gone by now, probably boarding a shuttle to another country. The plan was for him to report for work, plant the bomb, and then take off. Another member of his organization was to call in the warning about the bomb."
"I'm getting you out of here," Caroline said stubbornly. "That's all I can do."
"We've got to convince Dr. Stephens that the bomb is real. There's still time to evacuate the building if we do it now. If we don't, think of all the people who will die. Some are helpless prisoners. Some are staff, people you've considered your friends."
"Why do you care about any of these people? I don't The ones down on Yellow are so gorked they don't know where they are, and I don't imagine the ones on Green are much better. And the ones up here? You know how they're going to end up. All of those people are better off dead. And the staff? The people I thought were my friends? And the doctors, the 'gods' I wanted to be like? All liars, torturers, and, some of them, murderers. How can you care about people like those?" She paused for a breath, near tears more of anger than sorrow.
"They're all human beings," Elizabeth said. "They all deserve a chance at the life they were given, to live out whatever destiny is theirs. Ask yourself this, Caroline, if you're so hard and cynical, why don't you just take me down and turn me over to Dr. Stephens? Tell him I told you about the bomb plot. Be a hero, and save everyone's lives. Then, when the rubble has been cleared and a new facility built, Dr. Stephens can give you your first anatomy lesson-on me."
Caroline wouldn't answer her.
"You can't go through your whole life caring only about yourself and one or two other people, Caroline," she pleaded. "That's a start, but it just isn't enough. Sometimes you have to care about people just because they are people, and worry later about what they deserve or don't deserve."
Caroline pulled the BeRt from the holster and shifted it to her left hand. "Sit all the way back." With her right hand, she fastened Elizabeth's restraints to the chair and made sure they were securely locked. "You want to see Dr. Stephens? Fine. We better hurry."
Jeannie looked up sharply as Caroline wheeled Elizabeth past the control station. "You're still here? I had to step away for a few minutes, and I figured you were gone."
"Long goodbyes," Caroline answered. "You know how that is?" She stabbed the elevator button.
"Wait, Caroline," Jeannie called. Caroline pushed the chair into the elevator and stepped in after it, but caught the door. "Have you seen Doo?"
"Not since before I came upstairs. Why?"
"Oh, the Supervisor called a little while ago, and is she ever angry! She sent Doo on an errand right after he came on duty, and she hasn't seen him since." Jeannie smiled. "I know you and Doo had a tiff over that one matter, but since you're friends, I thought. . . ."
"Nope, haven't seen him," Caroline responded and let the doors close.
Elizabeth was trying to get a look at Caroline's watch. "What time was the warning phoned in?"
"I don't know for sure." She glanced at the watch herself as the elevator halted. "Must have been at least a half hour ago, probably longer."
She pushed the chair to the suite doors and stopped. "Aren't you going to ask what I'm going to do?"
"I guess I'll know pretty soon."
Caroline gave a short laugh and pushed the chair into the suite. Dr. Stephens was already standing at the dissection table, and his expression was impatient. "What took you so long? I called for the subject a half-hour ago."
"Sorry, sir. The 'subject' had an interesting story to tell me."
"Really." He looked at Elizabeth for the first time. "I'm sure she's very imaginative." He walked to the PHQ machine. "Get her on the table. We'll get her hooked up and sedated. I like to use a light sedation so that. . . ."
"Dr. Stephens, I think you need to hear what she has to say." His eyebrows raised, but he turned to face Elizabeth. "Since you're about to make a contribution to science, I suppose you should be allowed a few words. A very few, if you please."
"The bomb is real."
"Well, that was short, if not very sweet." He picked up a syringe. "We'll sedate her before putting her on the table. It may be easier that way."
Caroline stepped between the doctor and his subject. "You have to listen. What she's saying is true. If you don't order the evacuation of the building, people are going to die."
"Step out of my way, young lady," he ordered and started to push her aside. Then he added, "Everything this morning has been very confusing and upsetting to you, I know. Change your attitude now and do what's right, and you can still keep your new position."
"Do what's right?" Caroline asked. "Yes, sir, I will." She stepped aside, and he smiled at her, the kindly mentor again. As he leaned over and pulled the blanket from Elizabeth's arm, Caroline drew the BeRt and gave him a light shock. He dropped the syringe in Elizabeth's lap and looked confused. Caroline grabbed him and propelled him toward a wall intercom just inside the double doors. She studied it a moment, then pushed the combination of buttons she thought would take his message throughout the facility and even into the hospital next door. Dr. Stephens's eyes were beginning to lose their glazed look. "Identify yourself and say this is a code red," she instructed him.
"No," he said. "There isn't any bomb."
Caroline stepped back from him. She placed the BeRt against his neck and said, "Obey all staff members." When he shook his head, she flicked the intensity to midlevel and pulled the trigger. He spasmed and fell against the wall.
"No!" Elizabeth yelled. "Caroline, stop it!" She was struggling to free her hands and to move the chair.
"He can't take it as well as you, can he?" Caroline shoved the doctor toward the intercom again. "I'm changing the setting to maximum." She placed the instrument in the center of his back. "When I push the intercom button, you identify yourself and say it's a code red. If you refuse or if you say anything else, I pull the trigger and hold it until the battery dies or you do."
She pushed the "speak" button on the intercom and held it. Dr. Stephens immediately said, "I'm Dr. Stephens. This is a code red."
"Good boy," she congratulated him and, letting him rest against the floor, walked over to Elizabeth's chair. She knelt and began to unlock her restraints.
"Look out!" Elizabeth's warning came too late as the doctor wrapped his hands around the small woman's neck. Caroline fumbled for the BeRt, but, as he shook her violently, she was unable to reach the holster. He thrust her against the table, and Caroline was sure something in her back had broken. She raised her hands, trying to force his wrists apart, a technique she had learned for dealing with violent patients, but his hands were too strong. As she weakened, he took one hand off her throat and slapped her repeatedly across the face. He started to chant, "I am in charge. You don't do that to me. I am in charge. . . ."
Suddenly he stiffened and was silent. At first, his hold on Caroline's throat didn't lessen, and the black spots in her vision grew larger. Then he fell to the floor, and, the pressure gone, she dropped to her knees and drew long, shuddering gasps of air. When she could see again, she looked up into concerned blue eyes. "What did you do?" she whispered.
Elizabeth held up her one free hand. In it was an empty syringe.
"You sedated him."
Elizabeth nodded. "We have to get out of here."
Caroline's hands trembled, but she managed to unlock and remove the other three restraints. Elizabeth jumped up. "Help me get him into the chair." She took hold of the doctor's right arm.
"You have got to be kidding."
The stubborn look came into her friend's eyes, and Caroline took the other arm and helped slide and lift the doctor into the chair. "My friend," she said.
"Never mind. Let's get the hell out of here." They were almost to the double doors when their world exploded.
Caroline and Elizabeth found themselves walking along a riverbank. Around were trees, grass, and flowers, pink, yellow, and blue. They themselves were still dressed in the hospital scrubs and were apparently whole.
"Is this Heaven?" Caroline asked.
Elizabeth stopped walking and looked down on the golden-haired girl.
"Heaven? You're assuming we're dead."
"The bomb went off right behind us, didn't it?"
"That's what it felt-and sounded-like."
Caroline nodded. "Then the choices are limited. We're either badly injured or dead. Are you feeling any pain?"
"Then we're dead."
"Or unconscious and this is someone's dream," Elizabeth suggested.
Caroline looked around. "This place. I knew it looked familiar. It's from my dream."
"So I'm just a figment of your imagination?"
Elizabeth flexed her arms and then spun around, enjoying the feel of the springy ground under her. She laughed. "I don't feel like a figment. I feel. . . .alive!" When Caroline's expression remained serious, she grabbed her by the arms and spun her around and she, too, began to giggle.
"Stop! I'm getting dizzy."
"See? If this were a dream, would you feel dizzy?"
"Maybe I have a head injury," she answered, but continued to smile.
"No, I think you're right. I don't think this is a dream. But I don't know where we are." She looked around. "It's very beautiful here, more beautiful than anyplace I've ever been."
"Well, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
"Kansas?" Caroline studied her companion. "We never were in Kansas.
Maybe you're the one with the head injury."
"Sorry. I was referring to an early twentieth-century movie. I used to be a real film buff." Elizabeth took a deep breath. "You know, more than anything, I feel like I want to run, just run around and yell that I'm free."
"Then do it."
The tall woman looked doubtful. "Really?"
"You don't have to ask my permission."
"Well, if it's your dream. . . ." Then Elizabeth started jogging toward the trees, slowly and self-consciously at first, then, as she felt her heart begin to pound a rhythm, and blood to spread warmth through her limbs, she lengthened her stride. At the line of trees, she turned and raced back toward Caroline, arms pumping, feet lightly skimming the soft ground. Her face showed such joy that Caroline felt tears sting her own eyes. Elizabeth threw herself on the grass and pulled the smaller woman down beside her. Her breath came in small gasps. "I'm out of shape," she explained.
Caroline blushed. "You heard me. I've wanted to tell you that before.
Now that we're dead, I figured why wait."
Elizabeth chuckled and said, "You're pretty cute yourself."
"Do you think the others got out?"
"A change of subject, huh? I don't know. There wasn't much time."
"I know one other person who didn't make it."
"Dr. Stephens?" Elizabeth guessed. She scanned the countryside. "I don't see him anywhere around here."
"That's good," Caroline stated. "Another positive sign about where we are.
Not that I'm real hopeful, in my case."
"What do you mean?"
"Some of the things I've done, how I treated you-and others." She gazed toward the trees, not wanting to meet a pair of clear blue eyes. "I told myself for a long time that it didn't matter. I had a rough life, nobody was going to look after me but me. My mother, my "stepfathers," well, I used all the things that had happened to me as excuses."
"No, Caroline, listen, what happens to us in life does affect what we do, the decisions that we make."
"But they were my decisions, and I knew even as I made them that they were wrong." Now she did face Elizabeth. "I'm sorry for every time I hurt you or humiliated you, every time I tried to make you less than you were."
"I know. I forgive you."
"Just like that?" Caroline shook her head. She picked one of the tiny blue flowers and studied the delicate petals. She had seen a picture of an orchid once, and this tiny bud seemed as wonderful and as complicated as that.
"Just like that." Elizabeth's voice was soft. "Caroline, you were never as tough and as selfish as you think you were. Besides, I always forgive my friends."
Caroline picked another wildflower, pink this time, and handed it to her friend. Friend. She liked that word and hoped she would get to use it often. "Oh, you. You're easy. You forgive everyone."
"Not everyone. There's one person I may not be able to forgive."
Elizabeth shook her head. She reached over and put the tiny pink bloom in Caroline's shining hair.
"You? But you were the victim in all this. You suffered because you wanted to expose what was going on and because you wouldn't betray the people who told you."
"Oh, but I would have."
"I didn't know their names or what they looked like," she explained. "We only met a few times, and the informants wore masks and used code names. I had no idea who they were."
"But Doo. . . ."
"I recognized his voice the first time he came into my room, the day you and he. . ."
Her voice trailed off.
Caroline finished for her, "The day I used the BeRt on you just to prove that I was tough and that I could do it."
Elizabeth nodded. "He realized that I had recognized him and started coming by every chance he got. Just to talk. He needed to talk."
"But didn't you tell the authorities you didn't know anything?"
"By the time I did, they didn't care." She sighed, and for a few seconds, seemed far away. Then she continued, "But that's not what I regret. None of that. It's this: I knew about the bomb, and I didn't do anything about it until it was too late."
"But. . . ."
Their attention was drawn toward the forest by a rumbling sound. Suddenly, down a path that hadn't been there earlier came a team of four black horses and, behind them, a dark chariot carrying one man.
"The Black Knight," Caroline breathed. Elizabeth quickly rose and pulled the smaller woman to her feet. The chariot was almost upon them when the driver pulled the horses to a halt. He jumped lightly down and strode over to stand beside them. As Caroline had described him, he had dark hair and was dressed in black leather and armor, but he carried no helmet under his arm.
"Back again so soon?" he greeted them. "It seems like you just left."
"Hades," Elizabeth whispered.
"You remember me?" he asked, surprised.
"No," she said. "I used to study Greek and Roman mythology. It was always an interest of mine."
"And you?" Hades asked Caroline.
"I used to dream about you, but I didn't know who you were."
"Are you here to judge us?" Elizabeth asked, trying to remember the myths about what happened to the dead. "Is that the River Styx?"
"Not the Styx, no," he answered. "That's the Lethe, a much pleasanter meeting place. And, since you've already made the other trip, I thought that would be a waste of time. As for judging you, yes, that would usually be the next step." He held Elizabeth's gaze. "Your soul has made much better use of this sojourn above. Given ample reason for despair and hate, you held onto hope and love. Perhaps you had enough vengeance in your previous life." He swept an arm toward the forest and the lovely meadows. "This should be your home for eternity."
Caroline claimed his attention. "And me? Where should I be?"
"You, my dear, would be a closer call." He smiled for the first time, a kindly light in his eyes. "After this life, your soul does not shine as brightly as before. You made the right choices in the end, but whether one good day would outweigh hundreds of days when you chose evil . . . ." He shrugged and stopped smiling. "I'm glad that's a decision I won't have to make."
"A decision you won't have to make?" Elizabeth questioned. "Then who will make it?"
"No one." He spoke as one not happy with what he had to say. "You're going back, both of you."
"Back?" Caroline echoed. She turned to Elizabeth. "See, that's what I thought. We're in comas. This is a near-death experience or something, and now we're going back."
"To the hospital? And then where, another "facility" or prison?"
Elizabeth asked. "Not me. I'm not going back."
"You have earned a choice," Hades responded, "but you're not going to get it. My brothers and I have already made this decision. A wrong was done by one of our own, a wrong that kept you from fulfilling your destiny to change the world."
"Change the world? Me?" Elizabeth's laugh was tinged with bitterness. "I tried that once, remember? It didn't turn out very well."
"Maybe when you tried, it was already too late." In his hand there was suddenly a jeweled goblet. "You're both going back, but not to the short lives that were just ended." He walked to the river and, bending down, filled the goblet to the brim. "Come and drink, Xena and Gabrielle."
The two women exchanged glances, but stood where they were.
"Elizabeth and Caroline," Hades amended, "drink and return to find your rightful destinies. Return the world to what it was meant to be."
It was Caroline who spoke their thoughts. "Will we be together?"
"For eternity, I think."
Grasping each other's hands, the two women, one tall, one small, dark hair and light, walked bravely to stand before a god. He held out the goblet, and each drank deeply.
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 smaller 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 shot out a hand that struck Xena in the face. Putting both hands on the hilt of her sword, Xena pushed upward, and the attacker staggered back. He quickly recovered and, after feinting a strike at Gabrielle, which drew Xena slightly off-balance, he directed a hard kick at her left leg. The tall warrior bent, taking the blow on the side of her thigh, instead of in the front of her knee. Then, coming on around, she kicked the man just beneath the ribcage with her right boot and followed with a stunning blow to his jaw with the hilt of her sword. Without a sound, the man went down.
Xena looked around and realized the other raiders were gone. Chasing the villagers? Running away now this man, probably their leader, was down? Gabrielle had regained her feet and was holding her staff in a threatening position over the unconscious man's head. "Are you all right?" Xena asked.
"Fine. I was scared for a minute. I don't know why, but I thought he had the advantage over you."
"Strange. Me, too."
Xena bent over to pull back the man's hood. The raider was blond, with a scraggly beard. "Just another bandit," Gabrielle commented.
"Yeah," Xena agreed. "Ready to go after the others?"
Gabrielle nodded and the two ran down the path to the forest's edge, toward whatever destinies were theirs. Together.