That night, Louise went for a stroll through the lower levels of the castle, intent on exploring the great hall briefly. She found Sheila there, sitting at a large mahogany desk in the corner, sorting through stacks of papers and the editable polymer flimsies that had just come into use when Louise had retired.
Louise crossed the room almost soundlessly with her bare feet, considering the fixedly sour look on Sheila’s face. “Hey,” she said when she was close enough not to shout.
Sheila didn’t even startle, just looked up from the flimsy in her hand. “Oh, hello. Louise, wasn’t it?” The sour look didn’t go away.
“Yes,” Louise said. “You’re Sheila, right?”
“Yes,” Sheila said in a tone that suggested that the interruption better be worthwhile.
Louise glanced down at the flimsies and noticed that they were blank. The little animation that had caught her attention on one was just visual static. The graphics boxes were all greyscale nonsense. She tore her attention from them and looked at Sheila’s unpleasant expression. “I was just wondering if you could tell me more about the council.”
Sheila’s expression changed only slightly. “The council oversees our defense efforts,” she said, the nasal twang of her words becoming more pronounced.
“Do you know who they are?” Louise said.
Sheila glanced down at the tabletop, then back up to Louise. “No, not really. They’ve been here longer than anyone else, though, and it’s their power our warriors tap to fight.” She folded her hands over the flimsies.
Louise restrained herself from rolling her eyes, knowing it wouldn’t win her a friend in this woman, though the terminology reminded her of some very fluffy middle-class pop psych books of her youth. “Could I meet them, you think?”
Sheila’s lip almost, but not quite, curled at the suggestion. “They come when they’re needed,” she said with nearly religious irritation. “We don’t demand their time.”
Louise changed her tack. “Those… shadows during the fight with the snake,” she said. “That was the council?”
“Yes,” Sheila said, her lip sliding back into its usual straight line. “They give us the power we need when we need it, so we don’t have to have the strain of harboring it ourselves. Since we’re all rather frail in the flesh,” she added as an afterthought, looking Louise up and down as if she could see the old woman’s body through the youthful illusion.
Louise said, “Sheila, how did you know all those numbers about the snake? The distance, the speed, that sort of thing?”
Sheila blinked in surprise. “I just felt them. Didn’t you?” When Louise shook her head, Sheila gave her a small, quick, prim smile. “Once you increase your dose, you will. I didn’t sense them really clearly until I was on six per day.” Sheila drew another apparently blank flimsy off her stack and turned her gaze to consider it, as if she were actually reading.
Louise walked away, frowning. She hesitated outside the great hall for a moment, then turned toward the conservatory.
Deniece was there, again, reading, again. Louise suspected that Deniece was one of those women she would have liked at any point in her life. Deniece looked up and gave her a smile. “Hey, girl, you came back!”
“Well,” Louise said, cocking an eyebrow and an edge of a smile, “it’s not like I have anything more interesting to do with my nights.”
“Once you get to know more people,” Deniece said, sitting up to make room on the couch for Louise, “it’s better than a soap opera, let me tell you. Some of the girls think this is their second chance at being teenagers or whatever. And you wouldn’t believe how many of them bitch about there not being any men. I’m just like, so what? Does it really matter any more? Once I hit 70, I’d buried two bad men and one good one, and my best friend had buried four bad ones. And it wasn’t like I was going to meet any more men who didn’t want me to take care of ’em.”
Louise threw herself onto the couch with her. “So, did you and your friend get together?”
“Honey, we shacked up for 10 years,” Deniece said, laying a hand on Louise’s arm confidentially. “She was five years younger than me and kept me young and flexible, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, I know,” Louise said, grinning.
“It isn’t fair I outlived her and ended up in a home,” Deniece said, a little mournfully. “We always said we’d go out together, with a bang.”
“Mick and I always said the same thing,” Louise said, remembering suddenly.
“How did that happen anyway?” Deniece said. “You all not seeing each other and such.”
“Oh, just stupidity,” Louise said. “And pig-headedness.”
“Mick’s pretty pig-headed, I gotta say,” Deniece said thoughtfully.
“Well, it was on both sides,” Louise admitted. “I wouldn’t travel with her and she wouldn’t settle down.”
“You get comfortable,” Deniece said sagely, “you get into habits.”
“Well, this is a totally new habit,” Louise said, waving around the room. “I guess it is possible to teach an old bitch new tricks.”
Deniece cackled in a most unteenagerly way.
Louise found the other woman’s barely-covered decolletage vividly distracting. She thought about it and figured that if the Cog was standing in for her brain circuitry, it could be renewing the connections in her libido too. Or maybe libido was always in the mind, rather than the brain, and the new environs just gave her permission to feel it.
She started to rub one of Deniece’s tiny feet. Deniece grinned and fell back against the pillows. “Mmm, that’s nice. Not looking for Mick tonight?”
“Later,” Louise said, running her thumbs along the arch. “I started out looking for answers to questions.”
“Ohhh, so you’re bribing me to answer your questions, eh?” Deniece said, letting her eyes close and humming along with the motions of Louise’s thumbs.
“We don’t get bribed much these days, do we?” Louise said.
“Oh, no,” Deniece said. “Except with sweets, like a little kid. And they’re terrible sweets, those diabetic no-sugar things.”
“My place doesn’t even do that for me,” Louise said. “‘Healthy’ eating and all that shit.” She put a bit more muscle into the outside of the foot.
“Mmmm, baby, you can ask me anything, just keep doing that thing,” Deniece said.
“I just asked Sheila this,” Louise said, “but the woman looked at me like I was something on the underside of her shoe.”
“Girl gives everyone that look,” Deniece said. “Ask away.”
“Do you know who the council members are?” Louise said, obligingly working the outside of Deniece’s foot.
“I think,” Deniece said, opening her eyes (which were hazel, Louise noticed, a striking contrast with her dark skin), “that they’re women who died in here.”
Louise raised both eyebrows. “Do you know of any women who died in here?”
“Yes,” Deniece said. “Well, I think so, anyway. There were a couple that disappeared in the middle of a nasty fight—we were fighting this giant poison-spitting purple toad thing—and we never saw them again.” She absently started doing up her hair in twists. “Honestly, I think Sheila’s actually been gone for a while.”
“Why do you think that?” Louise said, working on Deniece’s heel.
“Because she’s always here,” Deniece said, her fingers nimbly sectioning her hair and twisting it as she spoke. “Whether I fall asleep in the middle of the day or sleep at night, she’s here. And she never goes out with us anymore.”
“Huh,” Louise said. “Are there other women you think might be dead?”
“I don’t know,” Deniece said. “I might be wrong about Sheila. After all, that might just be her personality, you know?”
Louise snickered, moving to the ball of Deniece’s foot. “Obsessive? Or dead?”
“I always pegged her for the nice white lady who wants to run everything,” Deniece said. “So she can order us out to fight her battles and nonsense like that.”
Louise frowned and switched feet. “I noticed most of the women I’ve seen aren’t white,” she said after a moment.
“When they are white, they’re poor as churchmice, like Debbie Jo,” Deniece said, looking up at her, and continuing to work on her hair.
Their gazes met, and Louise knew they were both thinking Tuskegee (and, well, any other instance of people testing their chemicals on poor and/or brown people), but neither wanted to be the one to say it.
Deniece closed her eyes. “I don’t have much politics left in me at this point. I used to be some kind of agitator, let me tell you. But I’m not much for thinking about all the things goin’ on here.”
Louise made a vague noise that could have been, she hoped, agreement, because she really didn’t agree. Then, “Deniece, how much Cognizoid do you take?”
Deniece hummed again as Louise hit what was a particularly good spot. “One in the morning and three at night,” she said. “It makes it clearer in here.”
“Clearer?” Louise said, leaning into her massage more.
“Oh, yeah,” Deniece said, opening her eyes. “The sights and sounds and everything—sensations—” she added with a lascivious wink “—are more intense the higher the dose.”
“Didn’t the doctor tell you it’s hard on the liver?” Louise said.
“Oh, yeah,” Deniece said, waving dismissively, “but I ran outta kidneys, girl, and if this kills me sooner, would it really matter?”
Louise made another noncommittal noise and thought about Concepción’s remark and Mick’s comment that they had about three hundred women “registered” on the board in the great hall, but only sixty or so women active. How many women were coming here once, only to avoid their nighttime doses because they still had some pieces of life on the other side? Was this place essentially a hospice?
She dragged her attention back to Deniece and her wiry, soft, late-teen body, and reminded herself that Deniece was 85. Deniece grinned at her with that strikingly sexy mouth, and Louise found herself saying, “So, you want to go somewhere?”
“Louise,” Deniece said, curling her toes around Louise’s fingertips, “I thought you would never ask.”