Louise stretched her shoulder carefully, but it barely twinged now. Paradise Living might be oppressively posh in some ways, but the on-call massage therapists were a luxury she was currently very glad of. When she arrived in her room, however, her Minder had its cybernetic undies in a bunch.
“Louise! You are late for both lunch and dinner!” the Minder exclaimed in artificial alarm. “If you had been any later, I would have notified the security network.”
Louise rolled her eyes. “If you had consulted the network, you would have found I was checked in at the spa,” she said in her most reasonable tone.
“That is not one of your listed destinations,” the Minder replied primly.
“That’s because I don’t normally use the services,” Louise said, “but I chose to do so today.”
“I will record it as one of your listed destinations,” the Minder said. Was she imagining the petulance? She must be.
“Fine,” Louise said, and sat in front of her screen with a sigh. The Minder was certainly becoming annoying now that she had Cognition 2.0 installed. She wondered whether she could get a reevaluation on Cog and be rid of the Minder.
She ate diffidently, having grabbed a random sandwich from her supply, staring at her screen as she paged painstakingly through the postmarketing reports—without using the half-finished script she had written.
And she started to see a pattern: since Cog had been fast-track-approved by the agency, there had been some deaths of patients taking it. There were those who just sort of died and happened to be taking the drug. And there were those who were taking Cog at night and dying in the night. And they were all women.
Where were the men on Cog?
She remembered the patient registry that she now guessed was the agency’s requirement for approval. If Penelope or she could get into that registry…
“Louise, it is very late,” the Minder said.
Louise bit her tongue to stop herself from shouting at the device. Instead, she shut the panes on her screen, flushed the cache, and got up obediently. No point alerting the Paradise Living watchers that anything was amiss either.
She did, however, take three Cogs before going to bed. Maybe things would be clear enough that she would see the next sword—if there was a next sword—coming for her back.
When the woman in the hallway didn’t react to her presence, Louise reached out to touch the woman’s passing arm. She was unsurprised to find that her fingers passed through the fleshly illusion, and that the woman continued on a little way before fizzling out in a most un-ghostly fashion.
“God damn!” Louise jumped and turned to find Debbie Jo, a lanky woman with frizzy red hair and freckles, standing nearby. Debbie Jo shifted her gaze from where the ghost used to be to Louise. “I am never gonna get used to that shit.”
“It’s fucking weird,” Louise agreed. “But then, isn’t everything here a little weird?”
Debbie Jo smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth in a charmingly lopsided grin. “I saw a ghost when I was no more’n seven or so, and it scared the bejeezus outta me. I don’t mind the other weird shit here but I intend to stay away from ghosts.” She paused a moment, then winked at Louise. “All of them.”
She waved a hand breezily at Louise as she spun herself around the newel post with the other, seated herself on the polished oak stair rail, and slid down to the floor below.
All of them, huh? thought Louise, following at a more sedate pace down the broad staircase. Like the Council maybe?
Mick met her on the stairs. “I was just coming up to look for you,” her lover said in her husky voice, catching at Louise’s t-shirt from a few steps below.
“I was coming to look for you,” Louise said, embracing Mick, willing herself to concentrate on the moment: on Mick’s hard body under her hands, on the scent of pot smoke in her hair, on the warmth and strength in the arms around her. Tonight was a Road Runner night, she told herself. The sword wound had been too close a thing.
Later, Louise was drowsing vaguely under Mick’s weight, when Mick said, “We couldn’t find her,” in such a tone of apology that Louise was immediately awake.
“Oh,” she said.
“We checked everyone’s weapons,” Mick said, shifting to pillow her head on one of Louise’s generous breasts so she could watch Louise’s expression. “There wasn’t blood anywhere. No one ‘fessed up either.”
“Well, I suppose that’s to be expected,” Louise said. “The woman who did it might have woken up by that time, and we don’t know how the programming handles the state of the weapons, that sort of thing.”
“It’s all imaginary,” Mick said, closing her eyes. “It’s all ephemeral. There’s no physical evidence, ever.”
“Did you all manage to find the payload anyway?” Louise said.
“No,” Mick said. “It doesn’t matter.” Her dark eyes opened. “What’s important is that you came back.”
“Sweetheart,” Louise said, stroking Mick’s cheek, “I’ll be here as long as you are.”
Mick closed her eyes and turned her face away, but squeezed Louise breathtakingly hard around the middle.
They were settling back into a peaceful doze when the thrice-damned bell started up. Louise groaned and tried to rise, but found Mick on hands and knees over her.
“What are you doing, Mick?” she said. “We’ve gotta go, right?”
“You stay here,” Mick said hoarsely. “Hell, I’ll stay here too. We don’t have to go every time.”
“Are you sure about that?” Louise said, resting her hands on Mick’s shoulders. “Haven’t you always gone?”
Mick’s mouth trembled alarmingly, and she looked to the side. “I just… I don’t want something bad to happen to you. I couldn’t…”
The bell insisted on in the distance, its sound amplified by the castle’s corridors.
Louise could feel the tension in Mick’s back, the occasionally little jerks like she was about to get up, but caught and stopped herself each time.
“Mick, lover, you have to go,” Louise said, releasing Mick’s shoulders. On examining her own reaction, she could sense a compulsion to react in herself. Is this our programming at work? Has it been here all along and I haven’t noticed? Aloud, she said, “I’ll go too, but I promise I’ll stay in the back and be careful.”
Mick looked her in the face again, and Louise was deeply disturbed by the wildness of the gaze. “Really?” Mick said, and Louise noticed she was breathing hard.
“Promise,” Louise said, and almost instantly, Mick was on her feet, grabbing her clothes.
They dressed and ran downstairs together, joining the group in the Great Hall as before.