Dirth writhed in pain. A searing image of a girl, pale with brown hair, shooting into the sky. Other images: a baby, crying; two men, fighting; a trio of characters sitting around a living room table – sunlight streaming in on the black man’s drawn face. Dirth’s whole body shuddered.
“Are you okay?” A kind woman with her hair in a ponytail, wearing a white lab coat, turned to face him. “You’ve been shuddering a lot.”
Dirth held the left side of his rib cage, where he felt bruised. Every time he had a flashback, a part of his body seemed to revolt and go numb. Every time he came out of it, it took him a few minutes to remember where he was.
“Am I” – he began.
“You're not dead,” the woman answered, "if that's what you're wondering. You're in a med room. What you’re sitting on is a med bed. And you're on the Outside.” She swiveled, holding a pen that emitted a bright light and reached for his eyes. “Look left for me.” Dirth looked left. “Look right.” Dirth looked right. “Do you know what it means to be Outside?” She put her pen down and looked straight into his eyes.
He returned her stare, unsure of the answer. “To not be inside?” He looked around the room. It was minimally appointed.
“That’s a good answer,” she said, turning back to her counter of supplies. "You know you're causing quite the stir around here." She unwrapped a small glass bottle and stuck it with a syringe. Dirth watched as a clear liquid filled the tube in her hand. “Do you know what it means to be Inside with a capital I?”
Dirth slowly shook his head.
“Do you remember what your name is?” She turned towards him again, this time wielding a needle rather than a pen.
“No, I…” His brain fumbled for letters, numbers, words, anything. He held up a hand. “If you just give me a second, actually, I think I can think of it. I think…this has happened before.”
The woman hesitated and held the needle in mid-air, propping her elbow up with one hand.
“Do you?” she asked, concern etched on her face. "You remember something like this happening before?"
He squinted to keep out the bright light descending the ceiling. "Yes, a needle. A bright light. There was a voice. And I couldn't stop shuddering…" He coughed to clear his lungs and felt them rattle.
The woman took a step towards him and put one hand gently on his arm. “Hey, it's okay. We have lots of time, and that's a good start. Let me know if you remember anything else like that. We’re trying to help you remember a lot more. I don’t want this to come as a shock to you, but it seems that you’ve suffered some serious cognitive damage. You may not recall this, but we’ve actually had you in here for several hours. We’ve been asking you all kinds of questions like how long you’ve been here, how it is you got here, what the last thing is you remember…” She smiled. “My name’s Virginia. A bit earlier you and I discussed this treatment” – she waved the needle slightly, “to see if it would help you recall anything. You agreed to it.” She nodded her head towards a screen on the wall that seemed to radiate a signature. “You can still change your mind, if you like.” She paused. “We just want what’s best for you.”
Dirth, without knowing why, found himself nodding yes.
“Okay, good,” she said calmly, placing a warm hand on his wrist.
“Wait” – Dirth placed his free hand on hers. She stopped.
“Do you know what my name is?”
She smiled sadly. “We don’t.” He felt the needle prick his skin. “But just relax… and you might remember when you wake up.” Her voice became distant. The clear liquid filled his veins. As his eyes drifted closed, he felt her hands lower him gently back down on the bed.
Paltron sat bent over her desk, her breasts just grazing its surface as she drew deep breaths in and out of her lungs. It was all over.
Her last call with Collinsworth had put her out of her depth. He had been the one she’d always loved, always respected, most wanted, despite playing coy… always coyest with him. And she'd known he loved her back. Now she somehow had to grapple with the fact that he’d been hiding an entire operation from her, and that he'd intended to keep it that way. What was he doing at Calendula Sands? He had never trusted her. How could she trust him? If he had just told her – if she’d had even an inkling – she would never have staged the collapse there.
And Baldsmith. Her call with him still left a bitter taste of metal in her mouth. Something had changed with him. She wasn’t sure what it was – he was obviously still attracted to her – the thought of the idiot circling his desk, pressing his dick against it, made her smirk. But the smirk quickly faded. He was still attracted to her, and yet… his affections were no longer enough to control his actions. And if she wasn’t the one dictating his actions anymore, then who was? Or what was? Was it money?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t just spurring him on, it was spurring him against her.
She thought of Ros. Despite everything, she still had Ros. She thought of his angular jawline, his rock solid body, his steely brown hair. Even for an Outsider he looked good. She imagined him crossing into Pureside, doing her bidding. She thought fondly back to the way he did her bidding in the glider on their last trip, right after rescuing her from Monica Davis.
She slammed a hand down on the table. Davis.
That bitch was where it really all began.
Paltron sat up, calm and resolved. If all was going according to plan, Ros would have Davis in front of her before the day was done. And the Abolitionists would be dead.
Disheveled as she already was, Paltron stood up and smoothed the wrinkles in her dress. She’d always considered this tight little number her lucky charm – it had never failed to help her close a deal. But not this time. She reached down to its bottom hem and slowly peeled it off. Her perfectly light skin tingled. Paltron kicked off her heels. She slid her lace underwear down her thighs and unfastened her bra.
The truth was, her luckiest charm was her birthday suit. She felt her most powerful naked. She lay artfully across her desk and felt the cold surface warm to her back.
“What are you doing? We have to go back!” Barb shrieked as the glider she sat imprisoned in soared on through the night.
“Sorry, Barb, can’t do that,” came a girl’s voice. “Just sit tight for me, OK? And please don’t touch anything.”
“Who are you?” Barb replied frantically. It felt like it’d been ages since she’d heard another girl’s voice.
“This is Lisa. I’m a Monitor in the EIU, where Jimmy and Adams work. I’m the one driving your glider right now. I’ve been following your case since the beginning, so don’t worry, I’m totally up to speed.”
“Up to speed…?”
“Yep, I’ve been monitoring you since Jimmy first spotted you crossing the collapse site with the 3-2 male.”
“Why? Cause you were alive – do you know how excited we were to see someone alive? We’d been clearing dead Pures for like ever before you showed up.”
“Oh.” Barb replied. She still found it very weird to hear herself called a Pure.
“Sorry,” Lisa apologized. “I just mean… everything we’d been looking at until then had been very… depressing.”
“It’s okay,” Barb responded, appreciating for the first time the Outsiders' help in the situation.
“Anyways, Jimmy in particular… wanted to make sure you were OK.”
Barb understood the suggestion. “Right.”
“We’re his friends, so…we’re just trying to help.”
“Right. Except his ‘friends’ just left him behind.”
Lisa let the barb hang in the air. “Look… Jimmy gave us… pretty clear instructions before he left. To save you, no matter what.”
“Right. The damsel in distress.” Barb swallowed her anger. She had half a mind to tell Lisa everything that had happened up to now – about Connor dying and her dad’s Shave of Grief. About her and Sandy striking out on their own to find the Diggers; how going to the factory with Dirth had been her idea, and how she was actually the brave one. She might not have crossed the Line like Jimmy had, but she had been brave too. She had gotten herself into the situation, and she would sure as hell have been able to get herself out. Right as the words threatened to slip off her tongue, she felt the scratch of her wrists on the cuff of her jacket. She reached down and traced the hardened lines with the pads of her fingers. A sliver of doubt crept into her mind. But was she really? Was she really so brave?
“But don’t worry, Jimmy’ll be fine!” Lisa’s voice chimed through. “He’s trained. And besides, Outsiders have Abolished –
“Violence against others, right…” An image of the shrunken man’s hands nearing Jimmy’s neck flashed through her mind.
“Yeah! Did Jimmy tell you that?”
“No…” Barb replied slowly, realizing there was probably a lot left for him to tell her. “He didn’t.” She paused, watching the dim lights around her whiz by. “Where are you taking me?”