She yawned. The talk had gone around and around. If this was what passed for making a final judgement, then watching the council trying to make a reasoned and lengthy discussion must surely be…
"Ridiculous," a tall man said. "We've never heard of such a thing happening before."
"But she did pass all the tests. We've put her through the machine, just to be sure, and once through, she adapted easily when we gave her the truth of the way things are."
"But that still doesn't rule out the idea that it may be a trick. Like it was with… with Aaron's protege."
The words were forced out slowly, and Sandy refused to listen to them. But even despite herself, she noticed the coldness that passed through the room, the disbelief that oozed from their minds, at the mere mention of the matter. No, they didn't want to listen either. They did not want to listen to the insanity of it all.
"I think we have all agreed that… that one was a special case. A case which will not be repeated. I think we are all firm in our reasoned stance that any prior commands are wiped and made irrelevant once the IH is deactivated. Whatever that man's malfunction was, whatever his particular mental disorder, we have yet to determine, but, we can surely be assured that it was a marginal case. A stroke of terrible misfortune."
"That's not what I meant."
The room sagged with relief.
"What I mean is… Well, what if the IHs are smart enough, that they would decide to release this woman to us, in order to convince us of a weakness they do not have? So that we would commit ourselves to an attack that would be ineffectual, allowing a counter-attack that would eliminate our capabilities to do them harm?"
"That is always possible. But I don't think that's how it works. Surely there are easier ways than to cause an error to occur in all this many IHs… They could easily have chosen another, less costly way."
"It's unbelievable to us. Implausible that they should try it. All the more reason for them to actually do so."
"They are not gods. If they were gods, we would not still be here. Some of us are still alive, aren't we? But apparently not just the cleverest ones!"
The argument crescendoed, erupted into pockets of private talk, wild gesticulation that tore the air. Sandy got up, realising that her presence was not truly useful, and hence not truly needed. Surreptitiously, lest questions be asked, she crept backwards out from the half-open circle of the meeting officials, moved through the veils that lent them dignity, and breathed with relief the chill air that was outside.
The noises, though muffled, continued. She, lost without purpose, considered fleetingly the idea of going back in. But why? Better to explore the places around her, that she already knew. One purposeless act was better than another, one decadent waste of time more gilded than the alternative.
Storerooms, mostly, were all she found. Some full, some empty, some filled with relics from the time before their group arrived. Relics useless now, except as foci to baffle the mind. This place, it seemed, did not belong to this age, and of this she was grateful. She hoped the rogues did not belong either. That they were the preserved jewels of a golden past, and the vanguards of a future of light and joy. Not a breath of wind, not a feeble ghost of the terrible, horrible today.
The dust moved around her feet, and the cobwebs furled, danced in front of her. She turned around, already having recognised the shuffled sound of the steps. Constance was moving in from the corridor, behind her.
"How did you find me?" she asked.
"I followed your footprints." the old lady said, and looking down, she saw them, mostly erased now by Constance's own dragging step, just a shred still remaining. The old lady was smart, and she couldn't help but smile slightly in admiration.
"I wanted to thank you," Constance continued. "Thank you, that is, for saving my life."
"Your life was in no real danger. I'd rather thank you for saving mine…" she protested.
"No, no. I know now what I faced was worse than death. I faced the loss of mind, a mind newly gained. Now I can slowly recover the memories of those I lost, so that I am no longer left with just an empty feeling. Now, I can at least make an effort to mourn."
Sandy felt the weight of her sadness. She felt as though she could not move and that something, something huge and unstoppable was strangling her, choking her, stuffing unbreathable air down her throat. She gagged, incapable of finding an adequate response.
"I am very sorry." She said.
Sorry for what? Sorry for what the world is, girl, sorry for the truth. Did you really feel empty, she wondered suddenly. The IHs were not that weak, surely? It was easy enough for them to kill, so it must be easy enough for them to kill feelings, to kill love? She felt sickened at herself, at comparing such precious things as though they were but chips to be bargained, exchanged, and sold.
But wasn't that what they were?
"Don't be sorry," Constance said. "You have nothing to be sorry about. You have returned to me a sense of responsibility, a sort of power, and duty that I would not be alive without. It's like, like you've raised me from the dead. Made me into bright colours, not the faded, sketched out outlines that I was before."
Sandy felt the flush of embarrassment come to her face.
"Well, don't worry about it. You don't need to pay me back or anything."
Constance shook her head. "No, I don't believe in paying back good deeds. I believe in paying forwards. I've joined your group now, you know."
Had she? The people in the room upstairs would not all agree. But she nodded any ways, a nod of support, and mutual comradeship. Of course she joined the group. Wouldn't anyone?
"So, shall we go upstairs?"
Sandy wondered for a moment at what could be upstairs that Constance would want to see, but then saw the glint in her eyes.
"I'm not sure you have clearance for our meetings."
"Clearance? I thought you were against control and blocking access to people."
"Yes, but…" She supposed that clearances could be negotiated. Certainly, if the old woman would happen to wander into the meeting room while she was watching in another direction, it would not reflect on her too harshly. Certainly less harshly than she felt here, exposed to the other woman's burning expectations. And she…
"I deserve revenge. I need to make the bastards who did in my family, did this to me, pay. I need to do something, or all of this, all of what I have gained is but a selfish luxury. Meaning nothing at all. I don't think I can stand living if I don't believe that all of it is done for something greater than myself."
Wordlessly, Sandy put her hand in Constance's, and felt the leathery skin of her fingers tighten and grip.
The councillors were still yelling at each other. But she was grateful for that, as she dragged Constance through the thin, yet suddenly heavy veil. She had expected outrage, that people would stand up, point and shout at her. The reality was that they were already standing, but were so engrossed in their war of words that they did not even notice the two women's arrival, and continued unabated even after she chose their spot and together sat down on the fur rug where the conference was conducted.
The talk seemed to go around in circles. She felt fatigue creep over her again, and started to nod forwards, unable to keep her head straight. Someone was shouting, trying to put himself over the others by sheer volume.
"Look, we've all been here a while, now. I mean, perhaps we can try to establish some facts we can all agree on."
The room hushed fractionally.
"We know this Constance character was just one of many. We know that the IHs communicate with each other, and I suppose with whatever leads them, if they are led, in a sort of loose network. This is how they coordinate themselves against us, and manage normal life. Right? Usually, I suppose this network is very tenuous indeed, and they only connect and contact either other if they have to, such as if they have a critical update to download, or if they detected something which was seriously wrong. I mean, this is what our technicians tell us? Right?"
He didn't wait for someone to attempt an answer to his rhetorical question.
"We also know that whatever happened to Constance turned out to coincide with one of our largest… no, our largest operation to date. That it happened after an attack in which we sought to make no measures to prevent exposure, made no attempt to hide the effects. That it happened after a huge explosion, an explosion which the IHs were confident of stopping, and which, to most of these people gave them the appearance that they were all going to die. We can be certain that even though some of the IHs knew about the attack, it would be unlikely for them to communicate this fact very far, because it could have alerted us that the whole thing had been compromised. Am I not correct to state this?"
From his casual, almost cheery demeanour, he appeared to be winning the argument. That possibility, however, was rather undermined by the load yelling which almost instantly broke out, which only gradually subsided into mutterings, then murmurings, and the final, defiantly baleful glares.
"So can we not…"
More shouting broke out, and died away.
"At least make a theory, just to theorize that…"
Half a dozen others stood, in preparation to speak. He waved them down with an open hand, palm to the ground.
"I might remind you, I have the most academic experience regarding this, and so one would do well to think twice before talking. At least twice. Now, suppose there is a link between all these facts. Perhaps, then we are left with something reasonable. Suppose, just for this moment that the IHs can be affected by things. After all, they help mediate emotions. Then, we can clearly expect that in the case of something like the attack on the Wall, they are forced to work extra hard… And perhaps, some of them can't handle it. Can't handle the surprise of it all. And meanwhile, the IHs would all try to talk to each other, to help each other out. But then, this fills the air with lots of useless junk. The sum result of this would be that lots of parts of the network can't be in touch at all, because you have only so much bandwidth available for their signals. And then, it would make sense that some IHs, isolated from the whole, besieged by events they could not understand, would simply decide to shut themselves down."
"So what do you think we should actually do?" someone asked.
She cleared her throat. An old lady amongst a council of mostly younger men, standing proud, without any trace of swaying, any trace of trembling. A voice that was insistent, that could not possibly be silenced. Quietly, their jaws dropped.
"How did she get in…"
"Isn't it obvious what needs to be done?" She began. "We need to hit them, and hit them hard. If anything, this tells us that the IHs and the government, for all their show of invincibility, are but a brittle shell which can be crushed with a few, surgical smashes. Pile on the real pressure, face it without fear with the steely sword of justice, and it will crumble into the nothingness and nightmares it is made of. We need to attack, now, when they least expect us to. A visible, brutal attack which would scatter their forces like a thunderstorm, that would restore freedom to thousands at a stroke. With that seed, with that core of people who will realise reality in an instant, realise the essential rightness of our cause, we may at last produce a revolution, an avalanche that they cannot stop."
So soon, and she already had the fervour of a veteran. Sandy could not help but grin, could do nothing but applaud as the others did, a pounding applause that swamped the voices of those who were foolish enough to disagree. Who would have expected to find a visionary, a saviour at this stage? She was filled with a pride, a pride in Constance and a pride in the group that was intoxicating, that make her feel a deep, heavy ache across her heart.
"That's right, comrades. We can't hide what we believe in if we think it is the natural way for things."
"I don't see how anyone can oppose…"
"We can't let them pick us off one by one…"
She had never seen such agreement, before. It was as though all the members were speaking in one voice of approval. It was a sight which awed her, and only barely did she notice the academic who was talking before fold away his papers, shake his head, and nodding to a few of his colleagues, depart through the veil into the approaching day.
It was almost morning, and they had not yet slept. They did not even feel that they wanted to sleep. Sandy drove carefully, but could barely restraint the raging energies which made her want to floor the gas pedal, to dash across town in a blitz of rubber, steel and plastic. Constance, besides her, was also ecstatic. As they drove, they chatted, talked about everything and nothing and anything in between.
It was good, she decided, that neither of them would play a direct role in any attack. Sandy was too exposed since the debacle of the Wall operation, and Constance was obviously not well suited for being a field agent, lugging around the bombs that any operation would probably involve. But why complain, when this would give them all the more opportunity to gossip like schoolgirls, and watch together as the world moved towards a new and brighter future?
She pulled up outside the house, went by foot to the garage door, opened it quietly, drove the car in, and shut the gate behind them, so that for all casual observers, there was no one at the house, just as expected. Opening the connecting door, she showed the old lady into the living room.
She had made some attempts at decoration, to add a little of the quality of home to its bare walls. A few photos here and there. A kettle, plugged into the socket behind where the sofa used to be. A pile of books, and some multicoloured magazines stood beside her sleeping bag.
"Ta da," she said.
"You aren't serious," Constance said.
"Well, its a good enough place to live. Maybe you want to try some of the other rooms?"
"You've gotta be joking. Squatting in an empty shell of a house? And besides, there's the smell."
"Smell, what smell?"
Constance shrugged, and walked back through towards the garage.
"I'm going back to headquarters, or whatever we are supposed to call it. I'll see if I can find some better accommodation. You're free to come – if you realise how terrible this dump is. Just pack quickly."
Sandy gawked at her.
"Well, I can drive, you know."
Sandy looked around. She saw how the wallpaper, the wallpaper she had put on with him on the fourth year of their marriage, was torn. But for all the damage, for all the tracts of brownish plaster, there was still a small patch of stained, dirty colour remaining. A small lemon, she saw, in a diamond shaped island of cream. Suddenly she felt insulted by each word she heard about the room.
"No," she said, and passed over the car keys.
She was certain that Constance would succeed at whatever she would attempt back at base. But as the door clicked shut, she looked around at the darkness of the room, and felt a pang of sadness and fear, instead of the emptiness that she felt before.
She went to bed, and slept till noon.