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4. Essopee for Shocky

Merola woke up in a garishly lighted room that was swaying from side to side. She slitted her eyes and, without moving her head, permitted herself a surreptitious look around. This was the cabin of some sort of vehicle, perhaps a small saucer—except for the jolting gravity fluctuations. Facing her were two paired metal panels holding view screens, or was it possible they were actually doors with windows made of fragile, fused silica? The view beyond them showed gray city buildings constructed of steel beams, stonework, and mirrored glass panes—all receding at dizzying speed but still at ground level.

Not a saucer then. And this was not a rescue.

A moment of panic seized her. Whoever had taken her was physically removing her from the scene of … whatever had happened. And the place where she had been was also her last time on mark. According to Jongleur protocol, if she failed to return from a mission, a rescue team would be sent immediately—perhaps even before the “whatever” happened—but only to her last known location. And she was moving rapidly toward a new and unknown place.

Rydin, her section chief, would be so angry. Merola had allowed herself to be ambushed, trapped like a trainee on her first Search, separated in one stroke from her ship, the resources of her biosuit, her intelligence, and … nearly killed? That last part was still hazy. She almost hoped the Troupe would not send Rydin after her, because she could not stand the contempt she would see in his face. Rydin was not only her trainer and mentor; he was her friend—and maybe something more than friend, at least in Merola’s imagination. But he was also resourceful. Rydin, if anyone, would be able to find her wherever these people might be taking her.

As she watched the world slide away behind the vehicle, the city blocks where she had been picked up were replaced by less substantial dwellings of cream-colored stucco and painted wood. All of this movement was accompanied by dizzying sounds: the roaring of some kind of mechanical engine, the squealing from friction of rubber tires on pavement, and alternating, amplified wails, whoops, and chirps that were meant as warning to other vehicles.

She moved her head a bit more to inspect the insides of this cabin. To her right and left, the wall surfaces displayed oblong hatches secured by simple pressure latches, probably storage compartments—but for what? Merola herself was lying on a thin pad covered with white cloth and attached to some sort of pipework frame.

She was held in place with straps.

A needle and clear tube came out of her arm.

Berzher’s naked entity was no longer clutched in her hand.

But everything depended on Berzher now. Merola’s fingers moved convulsively and immediately brushed against the glass sphere, which was rolling around on the pad just below her right hip. She scooped it into her palm and held it tightly.

“You thought you’d lost that, I bet,” said a voice above her head.

Merola looked up and found a dark-haired man sitting on a low bench opposite her restraining rack. He was letting his body sway easily with the cabin’s movements. His hands were sorting supplies into the various hatches, but he was keeping one eye on her. The man wore a white uniform, suggesting a servant or attendant of some kind, but his manner was more watchful—like a jailer’s.

“Mine,” Merola groaned, tightening her hold on Berzher.

“Wouldn’t touch it for the world,” he said, raising his hand.

“Where am I?” she asked.

“Ambulance. Going to Esseff General.”

Merola digested that, trying to interpret.

“And why am I being restrained?”

“It’s essopee for a concussion,” he said. “You were knocked out.”

“Knocked out?” she said blankly. “How?”

“Oh, I get it. Some short-term memory loss, too,” the man said. “Well, it seems a gas main blew up under the toy store. Took out the whole back half of the building and pancaked the rest. Luckily, you were up near the front, actually blown out onto the street.”

“What are you doing with my arm?” Merola asked suspiciously, nodding toward the needle and the transparent tube, which attached to a plastic bag hanging from a hook over her head. From what she could see, the bag and tube contained clear fluid—not the red of flowing blood. So, either these people had filters on their sample extractors to block platelets, or the flow was reversed, going into her arm rather than out. The position of the bag—high in the air, to let gravity assist the flow—suggested this as well. But Merola waited to hear what the man had to say.

“You looked kind of shocky, so I started a saline drip with norepinephrine.” He paused. “That’s a—”

“It’s a neurotransmitter and vasoconstrictor,” Merola said. She felt within herself to confirm the fluid was doing nothing more. As an interrogation technique, giving her salt and hormones would prove ineffective. “Just medicine,” she decided.

“Say! How does a little girl like you know such big words?”

“It’s essopee.” She let her head fall back on the pad.

Pumping twenty-first century nostrums into her bloodstream was a harmless diversion, as Merola’s body was adapted to compensate for a wide range of poisons. What she had to guard against was anyone taking samples out, whether by intention or inadvertence. When she left this cabin—this “ambulance”—she must be awake in order to destroy that needle. Even the smallest sample, such as a tissue plug caught on its inner surface, would be enough to type her and reveal far too much about her situation.

As the ambulance careened onward, Merola closed her eyes and prepared for a convulsive thrust that would enable her to destroy the evidence. She was a prisoner now, subject to interrogation. It would take all her strength, all her sense of purpose to remain anonymous and get on with the job of connecting with Rydin or, failing that, finding a way to get herself—and Berzher—home.

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