Later, Louise stretched luxuriously on the bed and said, “Just having this body is… well, it’s nice not to have the aches and pains, but I’d forgotten how much I missed being…”
“Lush?” Mick said, sliding a hand over her lasciviously.
“Fat,” Louise said, swatting Mick’s hand and getting out of bed. “Fuck those damned pain meds and the holes they blew in my guts.” She eyed herself in the full-length, bronze-rimmed mirror and ran her hands over the generous curves of her breasts, belly, and hips. “I look like a goddamn prune in real life, all shriveled up.”
Mick opened her mouth to say something, but she was interrupted by the sound of a large bell or gong being struck repeatedly. Mick reached for her jeans and looked at Louise significantly.
“I knew there had to be a catch,” Louise said heatedly, pulling on her t-shirt and shorts. “It doesn’t sound like a school bell. Are we summoned for chapel or some shit?”
“It’s not that bad,” Mick said, scrambling into her clothes as well.
When they got to the great hall on the first floor, other women were there, about thirty in all, all in their early twenties. Louise noticed that some of the women’s hairstyles were fifty or sixty years out of date. The right time for our collective youth, she thought.
“It’s coming in from the forest,” said a pale, freckled woman with long, straight brown hair. (Mick whispered, “That’s Sheila.”) She pulled a cord and a hand-drawn map unscrolled from a hidden roller in the wall.
Someone with some talent had drawn the thing. Louise could pick out mountains and forests and rivers and streams and lakes, and the large red square that was apparently the “You Are Here” sign.
Suddenly, the map started to glow. Dim reddish lines spidered over the surface, linking bright points and dark holes.
Sheila tapped a halogen-white spot that burned in a sprawling forest sheltered by the arms of a small mountain chain. “Looks like the direction that’s our usual source of trouble these days. Category 3, about 3.4 kilometers to the southwest, traveling at 6.25 kilometers per hour.”
Many of the other women nodded and made noises of agreement or interest. Louise peered at the map, trying to make heads or tails of the marks, and failing.
“You’ll show our newest member the ropes, Mick?” Sheila said, gesturing toward Louise. Most of the women turned en masse toward a door at the far end of the room.
“Of course,” Mick said, and glanced at Louise with a little doubt and a lot of appeal in her face.
Louise raised one eyebrow, and silently followed Mick to the doorway. When she saw what was beyond, she couldn’t restrain herself from hissing, “You have got to be shitting me.”
The room was a long, low-ceilinged, dimly-lit armory, hung all round with shields, walls punctuated by spears, space broken up by racks containing swords of various sorts.
She gripped Mick’s arm hard and drew her out of the room. “You didn’t mention that our utopic virtual reality was actually some sort of multiplayer roleplaying game,” she snarled in a low voice. She pawed back in her memory to her brother’s long ago videogame obsession. “When do I get to see my… my hit points?”
“Look,” Mick said, tense, “we come here, we get to be young and smart, and sometimes we fight things. Sometimes it’s monsters from the south. Other times, we get spaceships and alien invaders from the north, or weird armies from the east. We just deal with it.”
“I don’t know how to use a sword!” Louise said in a louder voice that drew eyerolls from some of the other women.
“Then take a goddamn club,” Mick said, turning toward the armory. “We don’t have time for this.”
It was a snake. A giant snake. A giant snake made of blue flowers.
Louise kept to the back of the group and watched the other women—including Mick, who seemed to relish the game—beat, slash, and impale the thing, which was surprisingly tough. It bludgeoned them with its head and tail in return, sending blue petals flying. The women who were knocked down usually bounced right back up and kept fighting.
She watched the snake though, and finally noted to one of the other women near her, “Why isn’t it biting? Snakes usually bite or constrict or both.”
The woman looked at her, startled. “You’re right! The payload must be in its mouth!” She ran into the fight, shouting this.
“Payload?” Louise repeated to empty air. “Couldn’t it just be shitty programming?”
The fight strategy abruptly changed, half a dozen women shouting unintelligible phrases that were apparently some kind of invocation. Women’s silhouettes appeared in the air, looming above each of them, then settling over them. There was a moment where their clothing rippled away, leaving them nude and shining with light, and then abbreviated bright blue military-style jackets and short pants shimmered into existence.
“Oh, no,” Louise whispered, as the weapons in those women’s hands glowed purple. “Did all the old men get together in a corner and come up with the worst possible world to stick us in, complete with short shorts?”
One of the women—was that Mick?—pried open the snake’s mouth with her sword, and another woman—Concepción?—jammed her spear in to hold it open. A third woman lunged inside and withdrew a spit-slimed bundle of some sort. “Got it!” she shouted.
There was more shouting and a crackle of purple energy, but Louise had turned away in disgust and walked away by then. There was a spattering sound, punctuated by thunks, as pieces of snake and flowers rained down behind her.
“So what was in the package?” Louise asked Mick on the walk back to the castle. Mick, she was pleased to note, had changed back to shirt and jeans. The short-shorts and bolero jacket had not suited her at all.
“We’re not sure,” Mick said. “We don’t open them. The council comes down and picks it up.”
“The council,” Louise said, leaving the phrase flat but with an implied interrogative.
“A bunch of women who live, um…” Mick trailed off. “I’m not even sure where. They always come down the stairs to the great hall, but I… don’t know where their rooms are, if they have them. Anyway, they were some of the originals here, so they can stay all the time.”
“Are they dead?” Louise said. “Or are they comatose?”
Mick didn’t answer, just kept walking along through the knee-high green grass, trying not to tread on the bright sunflowers sprinkled through the meadow.
“How often do people die after a battle?” Louise said. “I can hear what I think is my actual heart pounding pretty good and I wasn’t even doing anything.”
Mick still didn’t answer. She swung petulantly at tall weeds with her sword.
“Why the monsters?” Louise continued. “Why the boy-fantasy uniforms? Are we under surveillance here? Is someone getting his jollies from all this?”
Mick swung around on her, eyes wide and appalled. “You think someone is watching us?”
Louise snorted. “So you do talk despite the sulking. I think it’s possible. What does anyone actually know about this place?”
“We’re young and smart and fast and strong here,” Mick said, returning to her stomp through the field. “If someone wants to watch old women get it on with each other, more power to ’em.”
“If I wanted someone watching me,” Louise said archly, “I’d be willing to do for myself at home. The thing is, without a purpose, without questioning the purpose, what sort of freedom is this?”
Mick turned on her again, and there was something Louise had never seen before in her face. “You can still walk,” she said in a low, furious voice. “You can still swallow solid food and wipe your own ass. You don’t spend your days fucking stoned out of your mind because you’re in too much pain to live. When you lose any of these things, you can fucking talk to me about freedom.”
Mick was breathing hard, her shoulders heaving with restrained emotion. Louise stared at her for a long moment, then said, “I didn’t know.”
“Yeah,” Mick said, and started to say something else, but there was the sound of a bell again, and Louise looked around for the source. Mick watched her narrowly, then said, “See you tomorrow night, sweetheart,” as Louise faded into consciousness.