Barb slipped quietly into the hall. She kept her head down, From what she could tell, she was in a wing with lots of other med rooms. What were the odds Dirth was in one of them?
She heard a woman's muffled voice come through one of the doors. Then she heard the door open. Before Barb had a chance to think, she pulled open the door to her immediate right and darted in. And there, there, was Dirth.
He was lying on a med bed, facing the ceiling. His face was swaddled in some bandages. But she could tell by the dirty waves of hair falling off the table that it was him. There was no mistaking it.
He seemed to be asleep. Barb quickly stepped over to his side and touched the top of his arm. It was warm. She couldn't believe it was him.
"Dirth," she whispered. He didn't move.
"Dirth!" He stirred lightly, pulling his arm away from her.
"Dirth!" she whispered again. His head slowly rolled to the side so he faced her.
"Hrm..." came his muffled voice.
Barb reached over and delicately peeled back the bandages covering his eyes. His eyes were closed. The skin under the bandage was pink and moist.
"Dirth," she whispered again, this time closer to his face. His eyelids slowly blinked open. He took in her face for a few moments, without any sign of recognition in his eyes. Barb bit her lip. What had they done to him?
"Why do you keep saying that?" he said, the words crumbling out of his dry throat.
"Uh…" Barb shook her head uselessly, tears threatening to fall, feeling like a needy teenager again, "cause that's your name?"
Dirth's blue blue eyes stared into hers. He blinked.
"How do you know my name?"
Barb looked directly at him then, this Digger leader who she'd come to care for so much. He didn't know her at all. He didn't even know himself.
Suddenly there was the sound of footsteps outside the door. Barb quickly ducked under the bed. She felt the tug of Dirth's hand, holding onto hers. She smiled. Muffled voices outside the door paused and then moved on. She felt his hand lift her gently back up.
She stood, angled partly away from him, unsure of what to do next.
"Turn towards me," he said quietly. His voice was less hoarse now.
Barb turned slowly, with her face still turned down. It was hard to look at him when she knew he looked back through the eyes of a perfect stranger.
"Look at me, please," he asked.
She raised her eyes. Dirth stared into her then, penetrating.
"You're…" She saw a flash in his eyes. "The girl –"
Girl? That was pretty much the last thing she wanted to be called by him right now. And not very specific.
"The girl I… lost… somewhere gray." He lowered his head back onto his bed. "It was cold." Without really understanding why, Barb just ached to hear him say her name. But before he had the chance, Dirth's body jerked upwards, as though his abdomen was being drawn towards the light above his bed. Without warning, his torso slammed back down, then up again, and back down. Barb took two steps back, her hand covering her mouth to stifle a scream. Dirth was lying very still on the bed. She leaned forward. He was breathing heavily, but she could tell he was trying to contain it, to steady his heaving lungs.
"Sorry…" he said finally, quiet. "That's been happening."
"What? Why? Dirth, what have they been doing to you?" rushed a million questions.
"I don't know." He laughed a little. "Until a minute ago, I didn't even know my own name." He turned towards her. "I still don't know yours."
"Uh… it's Barb." she said softly.
"Yes," he said, as though a huge weight had been lifted off his chest. "Barb." He breathed out and seemed to settle comfortably into the table. "That sounds very… familiar…" His eyelids began to trail down.
She stepped back to his side. "Hey, no sleeping! What are you doing? We gotta get outta here!"
"Not right now…" he murmured. "I can't…" The daze was pulling him down.
Barb shook him. "Dirth, what are you doing? Get up! We gotta go! The Diggers need us!" she cried desperately.
He wasn't listening. He was completely passed out. Barb heaved a big breath out in disbelief. What was going on?
She looked around the room. The walls and counters were bare except for a blinking display that seemed to float just in front of the wall. On it, she saw the terms of a medical contract with a space at the bottom for a signature. There, in the space, sat a series of jagged lines, perfectly up and down, with no meaning; she supposed that that was how Dirth had signed it, not even knowing his name.
The door burst open. Adams slipped in, suddenly aware of the scene playing out in front of him, and quietly shut the door.
"What do you think you're doing?" he whispered vehemently.
"I'm rescuing Dirth!" Barb whispered back.
"I told you we were on it!"
"You said finding him was 'your next mission,' and look, I found him! Didn't need any fancy techno-gadgets either."
"Well good for you," Adams replied, "except that you almost blew our entire cover at the Atrium, and if that happens, there IS no next mission, for any of us! OK?" He swiped the hair out of his eyes. "You do care about Jimmy, right?"
"What? Of course," Barb replied, without thinking.
"Good! Then let us worry about Dirth, and you stay in the med room like I told you to!"
"Hey I don't know if that's how you talk to women over here, but in Pureside –"
"Oh my agatha," Adams groaned, "you are not about to lecture me about feminist politics right now. Do you know how many weeks we spend learning about that when we're four?"
"Like, years old?" Barb answered.
A pulse on Adams' comm brought him back to the mission. "Look, we need to work together. That's it. End of story. If we do that, you and Dirth go back to Pureside, hopefully all in one piece, and Jimmy gets to come back safe and sound. And then we'll all feel some lovely inter-Divide respect and understanding for the rest of our lives. Cool?"
"OK good," Adams replied. He threw a gray uniform over to her. "Now put this on."
Paltron sat in her leather chair, facing out towards the gallery below her. She watched the pills being piped in and reflected on the joy she had felt days before when the collapse had happened and she was eagerly anticipating the break. Today each pill represented fear. She was scared of what each microtext might bring – what news, unknown to her, would break in front of her screen. What more she might learn about the men in her life.
A swift whoosh through the Glide portal could only mean Ros. She swiveled. He stood there, bruised and disheveled.
"Ros? My god…" Behind him stood Monica Davis, holding him up by the scruff of his neck so he wouldn't keel over.
"Oh christ," Paltron began, "if you think this is blackmail –"
Davis raised Ros's stunner and fired it straight into Paltron's naked chest.