CHAPTER 35: SAFE HOME
Marie woke up, safe and sound in bed.
Lazily, she kicked her sister in the ribs.
No reaction. Again.
“Marie. Kick me again and I will rip off your legs and…something…sleepy. Go away.” Isabella murmured.
“Stop snoring then.”
“‘M not snoring.”
“Am I? Am I really? Am I snoring right now?”
“No, you’re talking.”
“Then shut up.”
“Preferred it when you were snoring, actually.”
“Oh what I would give for my own room.” Isabella growled.
There was a perfect quiet. A little breeze was hanging around the leaves of the cherry blossom outside and the sun was already high in the sky. Marie sighed and sunk into the soft pillows.
It was going to be a good day.
“Wake up.” she said, prodding Isabella with her toe.
“No.” said her sister.
“Come on. Wake up.”
She received nothing but a grunt.
“Bella? Why are you so sleepy?”
Isabella rolled over to face her.
“You. You kept me up with your bloody dreams.”
Marie gave an embarrassed little smile.
“Sorry. Was I bad?”
“Bad? It was like you were being eaten by a tiger.” said Isabella.
“Oh yes. Flailing, screaming, kicking (ow, by the way)…”
“If you’re sorry, stop doing it.”
“I’m not doing it on purpose.”
“I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care….oh God I would kill for my own room.” Isabella said.
“You’d probably hear me even if you had your own room.”
“I think they heard you on the other side of the village. What were you dreaming about, anyway?”
“I don’t remember.” said Marie “I never do.”
“Girls? Get up, breakfast is ready!” a voice called from the kitchen.
“Coming Papa!” they chimed as one.
Marie didn’t know why it felt so strange to see her father standing over the pot, stirring the porridge.
It was, after all, what he always did in the morning. But for some reason seeing him there, rhythmically stirring the pot, his face blank except for a look of mild concentration, made her soul flush hot and cold.
She felt an incredible joy at seeing him again…
Again? He had never left.
And a terrible fear that something was wrong.
But what could be wrong? It was a beautiful day, and her father had made her breakfast.
She pushed the thoughts away and sat down.
He set the bowl down in front of her and ruffled her hair affectionately.
She grabbed his hand and held on with a death grip.
“Marie?” he asked.
He was here.
He was really here, his great hand was solid in hers.
“Marie?” he said again. Isabella was looking at her, puzzled.
And suddenly she was embracing him, holding on for dear life, and it seemed as if she hadn’t felt his beard rough against her cheek in so long. And she didn’t know why that was. And she didn’t know why she couldn’t stop crying.
“Oh Marie, Marie…” he whispered “Don’t cry. Why are you crying? Isabella, why is she crying?”
Isabella, mouth full of porridge, simply shrugged.
“It’s nothing. I had bad dreams.” she whispered to him.
And deep in the bowels of New Gomorrah, wrapped in wire and swimming in brine, Mabus whispered back: “Sssshhh. Don’t cry. Papa is here.”
“Good morning master. How are you feeling?” said Groethuis pushing a trolley of medical supplies into the throne room.
“Alright, you two go out and play. It’s a beautiful day.”
“Ah, forgive me.”
“See if there are any blackberries growing by the river. Don’t eat them if they’re green, you’ll get tummy ache.”
“I love you too. Don’t cry. There’s nothing to cry about. I will always be here.”
“Ah, the lies we tell our children.” Groethuis murmured, sorting tiny bottles and syringes.
There was silence.
Then: “What do you want?”
“It’s time for the morning regimen.” said Groethuis, unperturbed by the harsh tone.
“Drugs, drugs, drugs.” Mabus growled.
Groethuis laid out the vials, twelve in all. Steroids, immuno-boosters, hormones…so much to keep the ailing sack of tissue in there alive for a few more days. He began to measure out doses with the syringe and injected them into apertures set into the walls of the tank. These would carry the doses through tubes directly to Mabus’ veins.
After a second Mabus hissed.
“And there it is. You know my skin is now so thin I can feel the bulge in my veins as they pass through me?”
Groethuis did not answer.
“Do you ever think of giving up on me Groethuis?”
“Just letting nature take it’s course? Do you ever think that it’s wrong to keep a living thing alive for so long?”
“I regret that right or wrong rarely factor into my considerations when it comes to my work.”
“I know. It’s what makes you such a wonderful doctor.”
The machine that spoke for him gave a sound that may have been a distant descendant of the human laugh, and the tissue in the tank twitched once.
“Don’t.” said Groethuis “Master.” he added quickly.
He laid down the syringe and went to the diagnostic panels, studying them for any sign of injury.
He breathed a sigh of relief. The stitches had held.
“Don’t laugh.” Mabus murmured “Don’t cry. Don’t sneeze.”
The stitches themselves were solid as he could make them, it was Mabus’ flesh that was the problem. Groethuis likened it to suturing jelly.
“I can’t go on like this, Groethuis.” Mabus said.
“Which is why, if you’ll pardon my saying so, we need to act quicker with the Dashonde girl.”
“She’s not ready yet. She still senses something is amiss. She still dreams. She still embraces me every morning as if I’ve been dead for years. We have to get her back. Back to believing that her father has always been with her.”
“Perhaps it is Isabella that is the problem? Perhaps subconsciously she knows that she is not her sister?”
“No. They love each other too much. Take the Hieronimo girl out and you give her something else that’s not right. Something else to trouble her dreams. No. I need you to dose her again.”
“Very well. Doctor Toureil shall pop around….shall we say eleven o’clock?”
“Yes. Just before they go to bed. I‘ll put down some soup.”
“Lovely. How is the simulation, otherwise?”
“Perfect. It’s like being alive again. She must have been a very happy child before…”
“Ah, yes, speaking of Thomas. I believe he may be becoming a problem.”
“Where has he been quartered?”
“He’s been given an apartment in the Urban District. I thought we should keep him close?”
“He rarely leaves. He goes to the Combat Tower and practices. He never speaks to anyone.”
“Sulking. Such an ugly trait in a grown man.”
“I think he believes you’re going to renege on your agreement.”
“Which you are, of course.”
“Insightful and insolent cur. Yes, I‘m afraid Marie Dashonde has more important places to be than sliding down his knife. ”
“When he realises that…people with emotional issues like Thomas are rarely able to deal with bad news in a constructive manner.”
“Oh, he has emotional issues?”
“Well he’s completely bloody psychotic for a start.”
Mabus laughed (?) again.
“Don’t.” said Groethuis again.
“You know who you remind me of?” the machine voice wheezed “You are like a man building a card house in his garden in Djili during the last days of the Raj. I watched him from my balcony, stacking them one after the other. All day I sat, from morning to dusk, watching him and all day he sat, taking the cards up one by one in his long brown fingers, turning them over between the index and the middle and laying down a wall or roof so gently he hardly disturbed the air around them. Up and up it climbed. Three stories, five, eight. He must have gone through four packs. And finally he placed the last card at the apex. And it was so high he had to stand on a stool. And I who had been watching this all day, I stood up and applauded him. Applauded his diligence, his skill and his patience. And because I had been watching him in silent kinship for so many hours, because I had felt so much apart of what he was doing, I forgot that he had no idea I was there. And when I applauded he started and the entire beautiful thing crumpled like a tiny bomb had been set off in it. And there was so many of them, so many cards that they made a noise as they fell. A kind of snap. A sharp noise. And he looked up at me. And my God, but his eyes glowed in his head with rage. And I, who could have aged him to dust with a glance, or banished him to the arctic to freeze to death, or simply collapsed his skull with a blow from my fist…I felt afraid. You remind me of him, Groethuis. I’m your house of cards, and you would kill anyone who you thought would harm me. Who would cause your house of cards to collapse.”
“Perhaps.” said Groethuis.
“I will not fall.” said Mabus.
“No Master. I won’t let you.” said Groethuis, matter of factly. There was some truth in what Mabus had said. It was an obsession with him now, seeing how long he could keep the old man alive. And even so, there was always the temptation to just pull the plug. It was the combination of power and fragility. Mabus was a God, trapped in a body weaker than a premature infant.
What would it feel like to kill a god? Groethuis wondered. But he dismissed the thought as quickly as it came to him.
“Have the Scorpions watch Thomas. Sting him if he gets out of line.”
“I’ll get Cole.”
“Back so soon?”
“Did you get many? Let me see.”
“Ah. I’ll come back later.” Groethuis gathered up his equipment and turned on his heel.
Mabus did not respond, as he was too busy tasting the blackberries that his daughters had picked for him by the river, where the only sound had been the ripple of a lazy currant and a blackbird singing on the stone bridge, chirping fit to burst, and mad with joy.