Through Fire – Snippet 27

“Ah,” the doctor said. “Ah. Well, we don’t trust you because you are clearly a cultured person, from your speech and… ah… very unusual.”

“In what way unusual?” I asked.

He sighed, as though his confusion was overlaid with exasperation at my slowness of mind. A veiled look at his son and an almost imperceptible shake of the head, which I hoped meant that he shouldn’t shoot me just yet, and he said, “Alors, ‘demoiselle, not many women walk abroad alone, on a night like this, and much less will they know how to shoot as well as you do.”

It was like a bucket of water. There are things you realize, when you’re a stranger to the culture, and some you won’t fully understand, and others you do but forget to take them into account.

In Eden, I won’t say that men and women are exactly alike. That would be almost impossible, would it not? Most unmodified women are not as strong as most unmodified men. In Eden, it would be frowned upon if a man challenged a woman to a fistfight, in the same way someone enhanced for speed would be shunned if dueling a normal human. But other than that, gender didn’t matter much. A woman out doors and fighting in disturbed times would be no more strange than a man out doors and fighting.

I’d observed that Liberte was different, but I’d failed to take it into account. Of course, I seemed strange to them. In Liberte even more than in Olympus, it seemed to me that women were protected. I had a vague notion this might come from the parent culture of the seacity, but I could be wrong.

“And then,” he said, “yes, we should know you, or at least have heard of you. There aren’t many people in our class, nor many who would risk their lives to defend Doctor Moreau.”

“I thought your name was Dufort?”

“And what is your name, M’moiselle?”

I took a deep breath. “Zen. Zenobia Sienna.”

He narrowed his eyes, “The Good Man’s friend? But no. I met her many times.”

“I… they did something in Olympus,” I said. “To make me fit in. Temporary changes to my features and also to the way I move and speak. I’m not sure how they did it, but–”

He studied me through narrowed eyes. He didn’t say it was impossible. He nodded once. “Yes. I see. It is possible at least. But why did you come back, if you’d escaped as far as Olympus?”

I shrugged. “The Good Man is imprisoned. I couldn’t leave him here, at the mercy of his captors.”

At that moment there was a sound of something, like a loud hiss, as though of a projectile or a rocket. And then an explosion rocked the house, and the doctor fell, bleeding from his chest.

“Father!” Corin shouted, hurrying near. His mother came from wherever she’d been, holding some source of light in her hand, that was more or less covered by her cupped hand, save where it was directed. Where it was directed was the doctor’s chest, from which a piece of shrapnel protruded. He bled slowly, the blood trickling out onto his clothes forming a dark stain. At least it wasn’t gushing, which of course could be good or bad.

I knelt and set my fingers on the beat of a strong pulse on his neck, “He’s alive,” I said.

Madame Dufort was looking down. She seemed strangely unaffected. Then I looked at her again, in the half-light of the fires ignited in the explosion, and realized she wasn’t so much unaffected as carefully controlled. She nodded to me. “We must take him where we can care for him.” She had a light accent — French, I thought — but more perceptible than her husband’s or her son’s.

She disappeared and came back moments later with what looked like a tray, which she unfolded into a platform. It didn’t surprise me. It was a floating platform used for carrying the sick in hospitals. In my world of origin, Eden, we used something more akin to a sheet, but Earth and Eden had developed separately for three hundred years.

Another bomb hit the house, but nothing touched us.

The three of us, carefully, got the doctor onto the stretcher. He did not wake, nor give any sign of being aware of what we were doing. The fragment that protruded from his chest was a dull gray, probably a piece of ceramite.

Another bomb and I felt the whoosh of air go by behind me. I moved around to place myself between the front of the house and the stretcher, nudging Madame Dufort aside. She gave me a quizzical look, as she pressed the areas in the stretcher that made it rise, then she half-ran down a corridor to the left. Corin and I followed, managing the stretcher between us as if we’d rehearsed this. We carried him past family pictures showing Corin growing from baby to a young man.

In the half-light the pictures looked like something left over from another time forgotten like debris left behind by the receding tide, lost and out of place on the shore.

When we were almost at the end of the hallway a door opened at about waist level, taking up part of the hallway floor. Mme. Dufort stood by a panel operated by a genlock. She had clearly opened this passage and we hurried past her carrying the stretcher down what turned out to be a long slightly twisting ramp, into a straight hallway. As we hurried half bent over the stretcher, it seems to me we went past shadowy forms in the darker areas around us. I didn’t stop to think, but these forms seemed to be vast glass cylinders in which undefined bulks appeared to move.

From above us came the sound of more explosions and of something have the falling. Mme. Dufort moved ahead of us and opened the door to a room on the left. The room was almost cramped, small and crowded with instruments and machines, some of them covered in material and others exposed showing rows and rows of undecipherable dials and displays.

The only lights were a sort of diffuse emergency lights, concentrating on where we were, and everything else was cast into obscurity save for where light glinted on reflective surfaces. It was like moving in a world of half-perceived glistening great beasts, none of them making much sense.

Doctor Dufort lay on the table. He was still unconscious, though we saw no reason why.

“Shock,” his wife said, after examining him with instruments I didn’t understand and couldn’t see clearly. And then, “Corin, I think they’ve entered the house and it would be time…”

“Yes, Maman,” he said, and he ducked into the hallway. I followed.

He looked, surprised, over his shoulder at me, his face reflecting the scant light, and looking very pale. “Why?” he asked, and it was understood he was asking me why I’d followed him.

“Your mother said there are people in the house. I thought you might need a helping hand.”

He shook his head. “No. We have made… arrangements to protect us, and our… and what Father knows. There is a device in the house. It will detonate. If the party in the house knows what they’re looking for… They might not be the only ones, but they are doubtlessly the most interested.”

We walked back almost the same way we’d come, then ducked into a different room, which I’d missed on my way down. Part of the reason I’d missed it is that it looked exactly the same as the wall around it, save for one small spot, where Corin had pressed his finger.

The room was very small — about the size of a regular closet — and empty.

It was also better lit than the rest of the basement, probably because it was so small and the walls were stark and glistening white. Corin looked over his shoulder at me again, but I couldn’t read his expression, and I didn’t know what he was looking for. He shrugged minutely, as though giving up on whatever had concerned him, then put his finger on one point of the wall. Then on the other. Something beeped. A faint voice said, “Press–to confirm.”

And just as Corin was — I presume — about to, there was a whooshing sound from the door between the house and this annex. Corin slammed his whole palm against the wall, and I jumped out into the hallway.

How do you recognize people? In the half-light, with my burner drawn and ready to shoot him, there was only one thing I was absolutely sure of. The man running towards me was Alexis Brisbois.

He ran with the lumbering gait of very large men, but fast, so fast that I hesitated on the burner for a moment, and he was on me, taking the burner from my hands, shouting out, “Corin, Corin.”