What follows this brief introduction is something I've never done before. When I write a story, typically, that's it. But as happy as I am the way the original Lili came out, in thinking about it afterward, I began to realize it could be a whole lot more if it were taken in a slightly different direction. So I started writing some alternate scenes and on proof reading them, I knew I was really on to something; something I think you'll be pleased with. If you haven't read the original story, you can find it here. At the end of it, there's a link that will lead you back here. Please enjoy.
Incidentally, if you think the design of the crib is a bit.....over the top? Hold on to your hat! I did not make it up. It is, in fact, a faithful description of an actual crib I used to see back in the 1970's, when I worked at the former North Adams Regional Hospital. When my job took me to Pediatrics, that was the very crib I'd see there. They always struck me as being very cage-like.
Incidentally, if you think the design of the crib is a bit.....over the top? Hold on to your hat! I did not make it up. It is, in fact, a faithful description of an actual crib I used to see back in the 1970's, when I worked at the former North Adams Regional Hospital. When my job took me to Pediatrics, that was the very crib I'd see there. They always struck me as being very cage-like.
by Paul W. Marino
She came with her mind a complete blank. A newborn comes into the world with baggage; memories of its life in the womb: The darkness and its cradling warmth, the thrum of the mother's heart, the groans and gurgles of the mother's body in operation, plus the muffled sounds of the world that waited outside. She brought no such comforts with her, so her wails were more of despair than those of the average infant. But someone caught the note of her cries and was attracted by them. Huge hands lifted and cradled her, gentle arms enfolded her and soft voices whispered white noise into her ears. Comforted by the touches and soothed by the whispers, she quieted down. Her cries faded to whimpers and eventually, she slept.
Like any baby, everything she saw, heard, felt and smelled had no meaning to her at all. With no points of reference, they were mere sensations, though some came to be more. She liked the feeling of arms around her, of hands touching her skin and the sound of the voices. What the voices said was just noise to her, but it was a noise that appealed to her, just as the fingers that traced over her soothed her like nothing else. If asked, she could not have explained any of it; it was simply a fact, as real and as true as breathing.
Yet she continued to cry. With no knowledge of speech, she still had to make her needs known and understood. So she cried; when she hungry, when she was sleepy, when she was lonely, when she was upset. By listening closely to her, her keepers soon learned to understand what each cry meant and filled that need.
It took a long time, but eventually she began to make a sort of sense what she saw and experienced. She became aware of sensations first, of air moving over her skin and through her hair, of hands on her body and limbs, of lips and fingers caressing her, the surrounding warmth of her bath and the comfort of encircling arms. Soon, she was attaching definitions. Warm, cool, soft, rough, smooth and so on; not that she would have recognized such words, of course. Her definitions were how things felt to her at the moment she experienced them.
She began to recognize places. Again, not by their names, but by their uses. Every morning she was brought to a bright, warm room filled with nice smells to be given her bath and fed her breakfast. She was taken to another room, bright and warm, to be held, spoken to and passed around from one to another. Sometimes one of them would take her to an even bigger room, where the air moved by itself. When she grew sleepy she was brought to a dark, quiet room, where she slept.
She became aware of words. They coalesced out of the white noise that surrounded her whenever she was awake. Two in particular caught her attention: Lili and cry. She heard these two words more often than any others, so it was logical that she attach meaning to them first. Lili, she eventually learned, was what her keepers called her. She was Lili. With the other word, cry, came nuance; when they said that, they were telling her not to cry.
From this point, she began grasping other words, and quickly. Food, hungry, sleep, wake, sit, lie, stay, good, bad, yes, no, happy, sleepy, wet, dry, love and a host of others. She couldn't say the words, but she recognized them when she heard them and understood—more or less—what they meant. Alone in her crib, when she woke, she repeated the words over and over in her head and tried to form her lips around them, because it wasn't enough to know the words when she heard them. She wanted to say them herself, to make her wants and needs known and to ask questions.
About the same time, she began to know her keepers. She already knew them by their faces and their touch; each one handled her differently. They were always gentle, always careful, always loving, but there were subtle differences and she knew every one. But as she began learning words, she began attaching names to faces. Muh was the shortest and held her with a quiet passion. Dae was the tallest and held her with gentle affection. Siz was like Muh, only taller, though not as tall as Dae. She was very pretty, with a musical voice. She held Lili with joyful abandon, spoke to her often and frequently sang to her.
She became aware of her own body. She resembled her keepers to a degree; their great size meant nothing to her. It was merely a fact of her existence and one that meant nothing, but she came to notice that she had limbs similar to theirs, a head and a face, though her hands were different. Theirs were broader, and not merely because of their size; they had more fingers too. And she had something else. Two somethings. Two lumps of flesh swelled from her upper body. She noticed them partly because her keepers washed them and caressed them and partly because they were hers. Sometimes, alone in her bed, she fingered them in the dark, wondering what they were.
One morning Lili was enjoying a daily ritual. She was in the kitchen sink, being bathed. She sat up to her waist in warm water while Muh rubbed her with soap and then rinsed her. When the bath was done, she'd be handed off to Dae, who enclosed her in a huge, soft towel and gently rubbed her dry. Then Siz took her and dusted her with a smooth, sweet smelling powder before dressing her in a fresh diaper. And finally, she'd be deposited in a highchair and fed.
There were minor variations to this routine. Sometimes Dae bathed her; sometimes it was Siz, but whoever did what, it was a euphoric experience for Lili and she often whimpered with delight. But this morning, something new and entirely unexpected happened. A word crept unbidden into Lili's mind: Breasts. It was not a word ever spoken by her keepers, yet she knew it was a real word. And what was more, she knew what it meant.
Those two lumps on her chest, that felt so good to be touched, to be caressed and handled. Muh was handling them now, gently rubbing lather over them. In a moment she'd be laving warm water over them, rinsing them off. Lili raised a small hand out of the water and touched one curiously. Muh smiled at her, but Lili did not smile back. Instead, she frowned, trying to wrap her mind around this new fact. She had breasts. She didn't know what they were for, nor why she had them. Only that she did.
It came to her one day, like a bolt out of the blue; they were a family! Lili didn’t know where the word had come from; like the word breasts, it popped into her head unbidden. But meaning came with this one. Muh and Dae didn’t look like each other, but were obviously close. She often saw them kissing each other. Siz looked like both of them. There were gaps in Lili’s knowledge, but family seemed to fit. And it was reassuring to her to think she was part of a family. It explained why they were taking care of her, but there was something more as well. Exactly what that something was, she didn’t know. She’d have to think about that.
Not that thinking came easily to her; it didn’t. Her ability to think was hampered by two things. For one, she drifted in and out of consciousness, as if she was two people. Her other self was less deliberate and more instinctive, less interested in planning or calculating and more in its immediate needs. Sometimes she’d feel it coming, feel her hold on her intellect weakening. When she did, the more she tried to hold on to it, the quicker it seemed to slip away. Sometimes the change came without warning. Either way, she was suddenly pushed out of her own mind and banished to a kind of limbo, where thought did not exist.
The other thing was a sort of distraction, but not the common distractions that came from the family. Whenever she was awake, they put her in the middle of things, speaking to her, singing to her, showing her things. Even when they weren’t talking to her, they talked to each other, distracting her from almost anything that had her attention. This other distraction came from inside her own head.
Distractions flooded her mind, coming in dribbles and chunks, in fragments great and small, as images and as words. A word that came to her once was Obaasan. It carried with it some kind of meaning, though she couldn’t define it. It seemed to refer to someone rather than something, but who that someone was, she had no notion. Worse still, it was not a word she ever heard the family use. It was as if it was from a different language altogether. All the words that came to her were like that. And the images? They ran from mildly confusing to boldly disruptive.
Siz was on the porch, holding Lili on her lap. A while ago, Lili had been walking, with Siz trailing her protectively. Sometimes, Lili crawled, but she seemed to prefer walking; when she did, someone either gave her a finger to grip in her small hand, or walked a step behind her. She rarely tried to outpace them, preferring their company to racing with them. Indeed, being chased upset her, so they let her wander as she liked, only turning her aside when they wanted to keep her out of something.
Today, she'd toddled through the flower beds, stopping to sniff the blossoms, one after another. Now and then, she'd sniff one and look up at Siz, tilting her head back until she seemed in danger of falling over. But she had a better sense of balance than they expected. The gesture was just her way of telling her keeper to smell that flower. Maybe it smelled sweeter to her than the others, or perhaps she especially liked the perfume. It didn't matter. Her invitation was always accepted.
This time, she'd wandered the yard for an hour or more, sniffed every flower, plus the leaves of a few shrubs and eventually sat down and yawned. Siz picked her up at once and brought her to the shade of the porch. Lili did not protest. Apart from being tired, she adored Siz; the warmth and comfort of her arms, the tenderness of her caress and the musical lilt of her voice.
With Lili comfortably on her lap, Siz opened a book and began reading out loud. The words meant nothing to Lili; her grasp of the language was rudimentary at best and most of what was said in her presence was just noise to her. But she loved the sound of Siz's voice and listened happily to her. Except that this time, there was a disturbance.
It was subtle rather than loud, and all the more disturbing because of it. Lili was drowsing while Siz read. Thock! The sound boomed over the yard. Thock! Lili opened her eyes and looked around briefly. Thock! She saw nothing of interest and started to close her eyes again, then popped them open in surprise.
Thock! She was in a wide, open space, dancing on the balls of her feet. Thock! A small, round thing, bright yellow, came flying toward her, off to her right. She pushed off with her legs and ran to intercept it, swinging a round, flat thing ahead of her. Thock! The thing in her hand met the yellow thing and sent it flying back. Thock! The ball was coming back, sailing to her left. She sprinted, swinging her racket backhanded. Thock! Her racket met the ball and sent it back over the net, making Nokomi race to meet it.
“Lili?” Siz asked, jiggling her. “Are you all right?” Thock! Nokomi sent it back, a hard drive to the right side of the court. “Lili?” Siz kissed her hair. She felt her muscles burn with the effort. Thock! She put her back into it, two handing the racket and sending the ball back in a powerful line drive. Siz put the book down and looked Lili in the eye. “What's the matter, honey?” Nokomi swung her racket and missed, swearing in Japanese as the ball bounced out of bounds. Lili felt herself jump and laugh as the words three love came into her head.
Lili met Siz's questioning gaze with a look of blank awe. She started trembling, causing Siz to stand up quickly and carry her into the house, but Lili wasn't cold. Neither was it that the tennis game frightened her. It was that she knew it was real. It was not her imagination, but memory.
In her lucid moments, Lili was slowly coming to believe that all was not as it appeared. When she thought about her breasts, she seemed to recall that they were a sign of adulthood, that as her body matured it underwent changes. Changes that included growing breasts. Following this line of reasoning, it began to occur to her that she was not a baby; which the family appeared to assume she was. There were several things that led her to this conclusion, but to her frustration, there were just as many things that contradicted that assessment.
Chief among these things was her inability to control her own body. She had a vague notion that she knew how to use a toilet, though there was no toilet in the house small enough for her. Rather, she wore a diaper. Day and night, she wore a diaper and nothing else. If the air was chilly, Muh put her in a shapeless dress, but the diaper remained. She hated it, and hated it even more because of its necessity. When her bladder was full, it drained at once into the diaper. If her bowels were full, they voided themselves.
As soon as anyone noticed, she was laid down somewhere and the diaper was changed. She hadn’t minded at first, though as she became increasingly aware of herself, as she had come to suspect she was not really a baby--but something more--she’d begun to resent it; indeed, to hate it.
One day, she was in the parlor with Dae. Siz was outdoors and Muh was busy upstairs. She’d been on Dae’s lap for a while and wanted to get down. He released her and let her wander the room. Without warning, her bowels voided. She gave a shriek of frustration and cut it off quickly, not wanting to draw attention to herself, but it was too late. Dae came to investigate. Even as she tried to back away from him, he felt the diaper and hoisted her into his arms.
It was a strange moment. Until now, she trusted Dae implicitly; just as she’d trusted Muh and Siz. But now--and she didn’t know why--she didn’t trust him, didn’t want to be naked in front of him. Suddenly, she was seeing him less as Dae and more as a male; a strange male. He brought her upstairs to the bathroom and laid her on the dressing table there. She looked up at his smiling face and felt an unreasoning fear fill her.
He reached for the diaper and she slapped at his hands.
“What’s the matter, little one?” He asked. Panic was bubbling in her gut. As much as Lili hated the notion of marinating in her own filth, she hated the idea of being undressed by this....man even more. She slapped at his hands again in mounting hysteria.
“I’m only going to change your diaper, Lili,” he said, still smiling. “I’ve done it many times before. It won’t hurt, I promise.” Starting to cry, she resisted further, gripping the diaper with both hands.
Dae frowned curiously.
“What’s going on with you today?” He wondered aloud, then raised his voice. “Muh! Come here!”
“What is it?” She called from another room.
“You’ve got to see this. You’ll never believe it.” A few moments later, Muh walked into the bathroom.
“All right. What won’t I believe?”
For answer, Dae reached for the diaper. Lili squealed, trying to roll away from him.
“You’re right,” Muh said. “I never would have believed this. What’s the matter with you, little one?” She reached for Lili’s forehead and Lili squealed again, panicking even more. Muh stood back and sighed, then reached in and grasped Lili’s chin firmly. “Lili, you stop this nonsense this minute. You’re having your diaper changed and that’s final.” To their amazement, Lili burst into tears, but not before showing Muh something else she found difficult to believe: Naked fear. For reasons unknown, Lili was terrified of them.
She turned her face to the wall and wept while Dae undressed her and cleaned her up with quick efficiency. She was still crying when she was dressed in a fresh diaper and handed off to Muh. Not knowing what else to do with her, Muh put her to bed and stood over her until she’d cried herself to sleep.
Lili began waking in the middle of the night. It didn’t bother her at all, since it was the only time she had to think. From the moment she woke in the morning, someone was holding her, talking to her, feeding her, reading to her and carrying on conversations around her. Sometimes she slept and at such times she was left alone, but she was watched closely, so when she woke she was put in the middle of things again. There were things she wanted to think about—indeed, that she had to think about—but the only time she could concentrate was when she was alone in her crib, in the middle of the night, when the whole house was asleep.
At such times, she lay in the dark and pondered the thoughts that came to her at odd moments, in drips and floods. And when she thought about them, concentrated on them, other thoughts came loose. It wasn’t long before she knew that, no matter how much the family appeared to love her, she was not one of them. There were several clues that led to this fact, not least being the physical difference between them.
Her head was shorter and rounder than theirs. In addition, she had five fingers on each hand; four fingers and an opposable thumb. Her family had seven fingers and a thumb. There was the difficulty she had trying to think when among them. The thoughts she had, that came unbidden into her consciousness came to her in another language, not the one spoken by the family. She was so used to hearing their language, it took hard work to listen to this other language and try to figure out why it made sense to her.
She knew her name, and it was not Lili. It was Caroline. She was twenty years old and worked as a model. Her father was American, her mother Japanese. She herself had lived in both countries. She played tennis whenever she could, usually with her friend Nokomi. She’d gone to high school in Las Vegas, Nevada and started modeling in her junior year. She’d decided to save her earnings and put herself through college when her career started petering out. She had a cat named Seymour and a dog named Archie. She drove a Nissan that her Japanese grandfather gave her when she graduated from high school.
There were a great many gaps in her knowledge of herself, such as how she had gone from that life of normalcy to being a baby in house of strangers, more than three times as tall as she. Where she was, exactly, and how to get back to where she belonged. Because as much as Muh and Dae and Siz seemed to love her—and as much as she seemed to love them—she knew she did not belong there.
Thinking along these lines, she began to develop a distrust of her keepers. How had they shrunk her down to baby size? What did they want from her? How had they taken her from the life she’d known and made her forget it so completely? Why did she tire so easily, especially when she got no exercise to speak of? Why did her mind come and go as it did? Why was she the only one to notice or care? While she had no answer to the first two questions, the only one that made sense to the others was drugs.
They had to be drugging her. They did not dose her with anything, so it must be in the food. And in the milk she’d been contentedly drinking down by the bottleful. And if that was the case, they were controlling her with drugs. But why? To that, she had no good answer.
As a general rule, Lili never left the house. This was partly because she never had to, but also because she didn’t like strangers. She knew and trusted the family--or at least, she had until recently--and based on her reaction to the few strangers she saw, they figured she would react the same to strange places. So they kept her at home. Until one day, when there was no choice.
Lili was alone with Muh. Dae was out, and would be out until after lunch. Siz was at a house down the road, looking after a neighbor’s children. Then Muh discovered the pantry was out of several staples.
“Now how did I let that happen?” She asked herself, then looked at Lili, who was perched in her highchair, polishing off the last morsels of some cut fruit she’d been given. “Lili, would you like to go shopping with me?” Lili looked up at her, her face calm and blank. It was a risk, taking her out to a public place where there were lots of strangers, but she’d been showing signs of increased maturity lately. The signs were subtle, but all three of them had seen and noted them. Perhaps this once?
Muh put Lili in a bunting, hung it around her neck and loaded her bag with assorted necessities: Some spare diapers, a bottle of milk, a few treats and a qeio. Brightly colored, the qieo was also soft, nice to chew on and fit in the mouth like a nipple. Further, it was filled with a mild narcotic, activated by saliva. If Lili got upset and refused all other solutions, the qeio would quiet her in a minute or two. She might even sleep.
With these supplies and a shopping list, Muh set out for the market. Lili whimpered much of the time. She knew they weren’t at home any more and was unsettled by it. But Muh was with her and kept up a running patter of soft nothings. Then Muh climbed up into a machine the size of a house. It was filled with giants. In point of fact, Muh, Dae and Siz were gigantic when compared to Lili, but she was accustomed to them. These new giants were entirely too big. Some of them looked at Lili; a few smiled or waved at her, but most ignored her. Lili panicked and started to cry.
Muh jiggled her, caressed her and offered her treats. She refused them all, preferring to hide her face in Muh’s bosom. At length, Muh sighed and brought out the qeio. It was the work of a few seconds to get it into Lili’s mouth and then the wait of a minute for the narcotic to begin working. Lili closed her mouth on it and whimpered softly. Muh continued jiggling her.
When the machine left them in front of the market, Lili was calm again, so Muh took the qeio and put it back in her bag. Then she fished Lili out of the bunting and put her in the seat of the shopping cart. The bunting was helpful for traveling, but in the way for the serious business of shopping. As long as Lili stayed calm, she’d be fine in the cart.
Muh was looking over a bin full of fruit when a voice called to her and a female came over to the cart.
“Who’s this?” She asked in a hearty tone.
“This is Lili,” Muh answered. Lili, still under the influence of the qeio, regarded the strange giant indifferently. The stranger patted Lili’s cheek and remarked,
“She’s a chubby little thing! When are you planning--....” Muh hastily put up a hand.
“Please! We don’t talk about that in front of her.” The stranger apologized at once. As she and Muh exchanged pleasantries, Lili wondered idly, what didn’t they talk about in front of her? By the time the conversation ended, she was looking at the fruit and wondering what it was.
Knowing time and qeio were not on her side, Muh went through the store with a brisk efficiency, working to keep the outing at a minimum. The merchandise in the various aisles looked much the same to Lili. Being illiterate, the labels meant nothing to her, though some had images on them. She paid little attention to them until she saw several boxes with pictures on them of what looked like stuffing. Like all the words she knew in English and Japanese, this one came to her unbidden.
It looked like stuffing. Behind it, there was the carcass of some kind of bird, cooked brown. It was the same on all the boxes. Or was it? She noticed several others on which the carcass was not a bird. It looked like..... She shook her head and started to look closer, but Muh was already moving, pushing the cart further down the aisle. The stuffing boxes vanished into the distance. Curious, Lili patted Muh’s hands. Muh smiled at her and gave her a kiss.
They were going by a long, high counter with glass all along its front. Inside were big lumps of......things. Giants behind the counter were taking things out of it and cutting slices for giants in front of the counter. Muh stopped to chat with one of the giants in front of the counter. As before, she asked the stranger to not talk about something in front of Lili. But what?
Her mind was clearing now and she tried to listen to the conversation, but there were too many others talking at the same time. It was all so much gibberish. She turned her head to look at the counter and saw the slices being put on little machines on top of the counter, before being wrapped up and handed over. Further back, there were the machines that did the slicing. Even further back, there was a huge glass case, brightly lit inside. Several things were turning in it.
She was just starting to look away when she realized there was something familiar about the turning things. She whipped her head back to look again and a giant stepped in front of her, blocking her view. She leaned forward and back, but she couldn’t see past the giant. Then Muh finished her conversation. The stranger patted Lili’s head and Muh pushed the cart onward. Lili got a glimpse of the turning things again, but not enough to identify them.
A while later they were in the meat department. Muh was moving more quickly here, appearing determined to get away from this section as fast as possible, but she was not fast enough. While Muh was looking something over, Lili looked down into a refrigerated case and her eyes widened. The case was thick with packages wrapped in some clear wrapping. Looking at the contents, Lili felt her heart skip a beat.
Half the packages contained legs; legs that could be Lili’s. She recognized the shape. Others contained arms. No hands or feet. Pale tips of bones stuck out from the ankles and wrists, but there was no question of what she was seeing. She looked at Muh in horror, but Muh wasn’t looking at her.
She turned her head to look around and saw something that made her bowels let go. Further on, there was a bin with a number of giants bending over it, reaching into it. Lili heard whimpering. Then one of the giants--a female--stood up, lifting something out of the bin. It was a human being, as small as Lili herself.....and just as alive. Lili’s mind froze as she watched the human laid in another shopping cart and taken away.
Muh put something in the cart, then saw what Lili was watching and moved the cart, trying to get her away from there. She wasn’t fast enough. Another giant lifted another human from the bin and brought it to a glass front counter. A giant behind the counter stepped forward.
“Can you dress this one, please?” The giant behind the counter took the human out of sight. There was a loud clunk.
Muh exchanged a look of horror with Lili. Then Lili threw up and burst into hysterical tears. Giants came running to clean up the mess and guide Muh to a place where she could change Lili’s diaper, wash her and get the qeio into her mouth. Lili was in such shock that she took it without even thinking what it might be for, but it was several minutes before she began calming. Muh put Lili back in the bunting at once, paid for her items as quickly as she could and hired a ground car to take them home.
Muh kept the qeio in Lili's mouth all the way. It was successful and it wasn't. It was successful in that it calmed her down and took the edge off the horror that she'd witnessed, but having the edge removed didn't keep her from thinking about it. Indeed, Lili was concentrating on it, trying to make sense of what she'd seen and heard.
Can you dress this one, please? Muh often spoke of dressing, but it always had to do with clothes. And yet, the giant didn't seem to mean that. Why not? Partly because of the amputated arms and legs she had seen in the refrigerated case. All bent the same, the skin pale and bloodless, stacked on a holder and wrapped in some clear material. But not just that.
Lili was recalling more and more of her past every day, and while she did not specifically remember being in such a market before, she did recognize it as a store that primarily sold food, or things that were intended to be used as food. If that was correct, then the packaged arms and legs she had seen were meant to be sold to people who would eat them. That meant that the live humans she'd seen were being sold for the same purpose.
But they were being bought alive. Alive, even as she was alive. When the giant asked the one behind the counter to dress the human she'd lifted from the case, it must have had something to do with buying it as food. The word butcher popped in Lili's mind. A butcher was someone who worked with meat; someone who knew how to cut it, how to trim it…..and how to kill the animal it came from. Secure in the bunting, Lili felt her skin crawl. She whimpered, squirming. Muh kissed her at once, caressing her through the cloth and made soft hushing sounds. Her voice was thick with emotion and she was weeping quietly.
The rest of the day was disquieting, to say the least. Muh spent an hour weeping on Dae’s shoulder. Lili spent several hours going in and out of lucidity, mostly in Siz’s arms. She was suddenly wary of Muh and Dae and shrieked when either of them went to pick her up. In truth, she was wary of Siz as well, but she needed to trust someone. She refused food--of any kind--bursting into tears when they tried to press it on her. When she was lucid, she huddled in Siz’s embrace, her breathing ragged and tense. When she wasn’t lucid, she wept.
While Siz was eating her lunch, Muh took Lili from her. Lili struggled against her, crying and whimpering. After a while, she cried herself to sleep and was laid on the couch, tucked into a nest of pillows and covered with a light blanket. She slept deeply for an hour, then began to moan and thrash; she woke screaming and blindly resisted having anyone touch her, even Siz. She refused the qieo too, spitting it out as fast and as often as it could be put in her mouth. The only way to quiet her was to force her into a restrictive embrace and hold her there until she realized the dream was over.
The bin was cramped. It was large, but there were too many squirming bodies pressed against her. The bodies were warm, but their minds were empty. Only Lili herself had a mind, for all the good it did her. Huge faces smiled down at them; unpleasant, greedy smiles. Large, rough hands reached into the bin, probing them—inspecting them.
A pair of hands paused over Lili, poking her stomach. The face nodded and the hands seized her, lifting her up. Lili screamed, squirming and wriggling desperately. The face laughed at her. The hands carried her to a high counter with a glass front. Another giant, dressed in white with a blood stained apron appeared.
“Can you dress this one?”
The giant in white grinned and put out his hands. Lili kicked and struggling, howling in terror as she was handed over the counter. Twisting in her attempt to get away, she saw Muh standing by a refrigerated case. A nude girl sat contentedly in the seat of the shopping cart.
“Can you dress this one?”
Lili went over the counter, kicking and screaming all the way. The giant in white lifted something, something big and ugly. He put her down on a table and leered down at her, raising the ugly thing over his head.
“Can you dress this one?”
She snapped awake and sat up sharply, breathing heavily. It was the same dream—the same nightmare—she'd been having for two days. It tore her awake from naps and from nighttime sleep alike. Sometimes she knew faces. Sometimes the face of the giant that lifted her from the bin was Muh's, sometimes it was Dae's. Sometimes one of them was the giant in white.
The first few times, she'd woken screaming and then reacted with horror when they came running to her aid. She'd struggled and wept when they picked her up and held her. Only Siz did not evoke that fear, though even at that, it always took her a few minutes to realize who was holding her.
By now she was at the point of realizing it was just a dream. A brutal, horrifying dream, but she woke up now knowing it wasn't real. Her heart still thundered in her chest, but she didn't scream or cry anymore. Perhaps the family thought she wasn't having the dream anymore, but Lili knew better. And though Lili didn't realize it, Muh knew better too. She made sure she was close by whenever Lili was sleeping, and checked on her several times a night.
Oddly, Lili found herself craving their touch. True, Siz was the only one she trusted anymore, but she was most at ease when she was in someone's arms or on a lap. She wasn't particular whose lap or arms it was and she fretted involuntarily when they laid her in the crib. She didn't mind sleeping in other places, but the increasingly, the crib put her in mind of a cage.
For quite a long time, she'd been thinking of herself as a prisoner, but what she'd seen at the market had done more than give her nightmares. It tied several other odds and ends together. They made her eat four or five times a day. They made her drink milk by the quart; milk that was thicker and richer than any she had ever known before and it always made her sleepy. The milk had to be drugged. Maybe the food as well.
She didn't exercise and they never encouraged her to. Instead, they carried her everywhere. On occasion, they put her on the floor or on the grass and let her crawl or walk if she chose to. Siz especially took delight in watching her get about on her own. But such activity always tired her out, led her to sleep. Then she was carried again. And they expected her to sleep in a cage.
What did it all mean? The individual elements by themselves meant nothing, but collectively? People like her were kept for food. They could be bought whole or in pieces. Or alive. Lili was alive, and being fed a rich diet. She got virtually no exercise, but slept a great deal. The only answer that made sense was as horrifying as the nightmare. She was being fattened. Eventually, they were going to kill her. And eat her.
The problem was that they appeared to love her; passionately, unconditionally. Whenever she was upset, even the least bit, someone was there to hold her, to soothe her, to comfort her. They fed her by hand, changed her diapers, bathed her, read to her, sang to her, kissed her, caressed her, protected her. She remembered the look on Muh's face at the market: Horror, as pure and unfettered as her own.
Lili had been horrified at what she'd seen and realized. And Muh? Muh had seemed to be horrified that she hadn't been able to protect Lili from what she had seen and heard. If only she'd been faster, more alert, Lili might have been spared.
It had to be an act; something to distract her from the truth. But then, why put themselves to all the extra work? All the extra emotion? Why not just stick her in a cage or a pen in the cellar? That, Lili couldn't answer, but the rest of it made sense. They were planning to kill her. Maybe not today, but eventually. And if Lili was going to stay alive—maybe even find her way back home—she had to make a run for it. She had to escape.
She woke from her nap lying in the crib. No, the cage. Some time earlier, Siz had brought her upstairs and laid her in the cage, then stood over her and rubbed her belly until she fell asleep. Lili was still troubled, not least by her inability to speak. She’d been fretting about it for some time. She had remembered a great deal of speaking in both English and Japanese, but the language spoken by the family still eluded her.
On occasion, she spoke to them, sometimes in one language, sometimes in the other. They always seemed to think it was baby babble. They’d smile brightly and answer Really? I never knew that! or Yes, it is! She never smiled or gurgled back at them; rather, she usually gave a shriek of frustration which resulted in someone holding her and trying to comfort her.
Between her increasing distrust of them and her inability to communicate, Lili was nearly ready to explode. Standing over her, Siz read the frustration on her face. She bent down, kissed her and whispered,
“Oh, what’s the matter, Lili? Tell Siz all about it.” Lili almost screamed. Telling Siz all about it was exactly what she wanted to do. The burst of emotion gave her a matching burst of adrenaline, but it didn’t last. She was already tired and as the adrenaline drained away, she felt her mind going with it. She sobbed out loud and slipped into sleep with Siz still leaning over her.
Now she was awake again, wondering what had happened. Whatever it was, it happened fairly often. She’d be as in control of herself as she could manage and suddenly or gradually, her mind slipped into a sort of stupor. Her thoughts became disjointed, more infantile, more instinctive.
Lying there in the dimly lit room, she could only guess drugs. It was the only thing that made sense. They had to be drugging her. That led her back to the thought that recurred to her so frequently: She had to escape.
It was not going to be easy. They watched her closely. Except when she was crawling or walking, someone or other was always holding her. The only time she was alone--truly alone--was when she was in the cage. Escape began there.
Looking it over, her chances didn’t look hopeful. For a start, the cage was on stilts; the mattress was higher from the floor than she was tall. From there, square bars of steel went up at least as tall as she. And then, there was an extension, a steel frame at least as tall as the cage portion, with some kind of film stretched over it.
Her best bet was to try to open the gate. But the gate was opened by two latches, too far apart for her to reach....but did she have to? She rolled herself into a kneeling position and reached around to the nearest latch. It released easily. Then she crawled fast to the other end and sprang that latch. Nothing happened. She gripped the bars and shook them, then sat back, muttering a curse in Japanese under her breath. The first latch had closed again.
That meant that both latches had to be opened at the same time. But they were too far apart for her to reach......with her hands. Eyes wide, she counted the number of bars between the latches, then lay down and counted them off again. Yes! She could reach one with her hands and the other with her feet! Of course, they were more than halfway up, which meant she’d have to hang herself sideways....no.....not hang......she’d have to climb!
Turning to face out into the room, she planted her feet firmly on the bar where the latch was and reached for its companion with her hands. It was no type of climbing she’d ever done before, pushing in opposite directions with her hands and feet. But hey! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Her American grandmother had often said that.
Her first two attempts were dismal failures, but on the third try she managed to grip the edge of the bar with her toes; she wrapped her fingers around the other bar and pushed. And up she went, an inch at a time, but without sliding or falling. Her whole body was trembling with effort by the time she got up to the latches. Her fingers gripped one easily, but she realized with chagrin that she couldn’t get her toes into the other latch.
She could feel the latch under her heel, and muttered a curse. She’d have to try again, facing into the crib, so she could press it with her toes. She swore softly and dropped as gracefully as she could. She fell something like a bag of cement. The effort had tired her out, but she figured there was no time to waste. She turned around and began a fresh climb. It was harder this time. For some reason, her heels didn’t grip the bars as well as her toes did, but she didn’t care. She only fell once. On the second try, she hauled herself up, running on pure adrenaline. Her fingers found one latch. She was working her toes into the other when a low gasp came from the door.
Lili froze, trembling. Muh’s voice was solemn.
“Lili! What are you up to, little one?” Lili whimpered and dropped to the mattress, then fled to the bars at the other side. She stared out at Muh in terror, her chest heaving. Muh stepped forward and opened the gate. Lili whimpered again and scuttled to one end of the crib. Muh regarded her with eyes that were both amazed and sympathetic. “What’s going on inside your head, sweetheart?”
She reached in and Lili squealed in panic, diving for the open gate. It was a foolhardy move; it was a sheer drop to the floor, the equivalent of at least one story, but Muh shifted her hands quickly, closing them on Lili just as she erupted out of the crib. Lili gave a wail of despair as Muh lifted her to her shoulder and closed her arms around her.
“What are you so afraid of?” Muh whispered into Lili’s hair. Lili was struggling with might and main and starting to cry, but she was trapped. Muh had her firmly in her grasp. She made soft shushing sounds until Lili’s adrenaline began running out. Against her will, Lili was relaxing, settling into the embrace.
Muh brushed her lips over Lili’s cheek.
“What’s the matter? Is it what you saw at the market? Is that it?” Muh was rocking her and let go with one hand to caress her. “Do you think we’re planning that for you? You’re so wrong, little one. We love you too much to ever hurt you like that.” Muh’s free hand felt the diaper. Perhaps in her panic, perhaps in the midst of her escape attempt, Lili had wet herself.
Still crooning, Muh lay her on the dressing table and changed her. Still sobbing, Lili turned her face to the wall. She hated having no control over her body, having to wear diapers, diapers that others had to change for her. Gulping, she turned her head again and stared up at Muh.
She must have been wrong; God knew, she wanted to be wrong. Muh loved her. How could she change Lili’s diapers if she didn’t love her? But the fact that Lili was gaining weight was true, too, as well as the fact that she was not allowed exercise. They carried her everywhere, held her and distracted her, kept her from thinking clearly. Because she was watched constantly. And yet.....
Muh picked Lili up and kissed her again.
“I’m going to knot your hair.” She carried Lili into the next bedroom, the one she shared with Dae and sat her on the huge bed. She took a brush and began brushing Lili’s hair. Lili had long, fine, silky brown hair that flowed over her shoulders to halfway down her back. When properly washed and combed, it separated into six or seven distinct shades. By the time Muh put the brush down, the hair almost glowed with a soft sheen. She slipped her fingers into the hair, drawing out three long strands. Lili sat still on the bed, wondering what to think. Muh appeared to be braiding it.
At first, Lili had been terrified that she’d be punished for her escape attempt. They had never punished her before and the thought of facing that unknown had filled her with dread. But instead, Muh was behaving in a very maternal manner, the way she always behaved toward Lili, always treating her like a baby. A baby that had to be fed and held and looked after. And there was something she never talked about in front of Lili, wouldn’t allow anyone else to talk about in front of her. What was it? That they were planning to eat her was what made the most sense. She was being fed on semi-solid food and drank milk by the quart. It could only be to fatten her. If that was true, then the crib was nothing but a cage.
But she was rarely in the cage. Most often, she was on someone’s lap or in someone’s arms. If they meant to kill her, they sure weren’t acting like it! They often said they loved her, were almost constantly kissing and caressing her. They read to her, sang to her, talked to her. They changed her diapers, bathed her, adored her. They protected her. And yet......what she’d seen in the meat case was unmistakable: Three human legs, the skin a pale, bloodless white, laid on a foam tray and wrapped in clear plastic. Three human arms, packed in an identical manner. There had been dozens of identical packages in the case. What did that say?
“There!” Muh said, kissing her. She lifted her up and held her in front a mirror. “See? Five nice knots. One for each of your sepli.” She held up Lili’s hand and spread the little fingers out. Lili frowned. Sepli were fingers? She looked at the braids, which were surprisingly fine, considering how large Muh's hands were. Muh kissed her again.
“Now let's get you downstairs. We need to have a talk about you.” Lili swallowed a moan. She didn't like the sound of that at all.
Siz was at the bottom of the stairs when Muh carried Lili down. Laughing, she held out her arms.
“Oh! Look who's awake, and has her hair knotted in such a pretty way!” Muh gave Lili to her without ceremony.
“Working in the garden.”
“Bring your little darling; we need to have a talk about her.” Safe in Siz's arms, Lili whimpered. Siz cooed to her, following Muh outdoors.
Seeing the others approach, Dae appeared happy to take a break from weeding the flower beds.
“I see someone's awake,” he said, smiling. Lili didn't return the smile, but cowered in Siz's embrace.
“She's more than awake,” Muh replied. “She's behaving strangely.”
“She was trying to open the crib.”
“I know that, but she was…..working at it. She was trying to open one latch with her sepli and the other with her topli.”
Dae's eyes lit up with interest.
“Was she? Did she do it?”
“No, but she was close. If I hadn't found her when I did...”
“I expect she was just tired of being alone,” Siz declared.
“Oh, do you?”
“Muh, she's such a good girl!”
“She's a good girl for you! For the rest of us, she's getting increasingly difficult to manage. Between the bad dreams and her resistance and now this…...I don't know what to do about her anymore! I’ve never seen a torup to match her.”
Dae caressed Lili's chin soberly.
“Perhaps we should take her to see a phiar.”
“Yes,” Muh agreed. “That makes good sense.” Siz held Lili closer as she began squirming. Lili had no idea what a phiar was and was in no hurry to find out. Siz jiggled her and made shushing sounds.
“Muh, you're upsetting her.”
“Am I?” Muh retorted. “Well, she's upsetting me, so I guess that makes us even.” Still caressing Lili's chin, Dae smiled.
“Maybe you'd better take her inside and see if you can calm her down.”
As she was carried indoors, Lili began to panic. She was squirming desperately and vocalizing her distress. If anything was keeping her from exploding, it was that Siz was holding her. Siz, who always seemed to understand her, who was always less interested in blindly following instructions and more in following Lili's lead. She sat down on the sofa and held Lili close to her, whispering white noise into her ears. When Lili seemed to calm down, Siz lay her face down on her lap and massaged her back.
But Lili hadn't really calmed down. She was still vastly upset, but was tiring, and fast. The energy she's spent in trying to open the crib had exhausted her, while being caught in the act had given her a boost of adrenaline. Then, being threatened with seeing a phiar--whatever that was--had boosted her adrenaline level to a record high. Now it was wearing off. It was good, because she could think now, think clearly. But it was bad too. As the adrenaline drained away, she was swallowed by an overpowering need to sleep.
Sleep! Of all the things to need, sleep was the one thing she couldn't afford! This was the time to act! To slip off Siz's lap, make a run for the door, then a run for the trees. The three of them had longer legs than she and could probably outrun her, but then again…..could they? If she could get to the trees, maybe she could get to the bushes, maybe get herself into a place where they couldn't follow her. Maybe she could actually escape; escape from them and from the fate of the humans she'd seen in the market.
But already, her brain was buzzing with fatigue. As much as she wanted to run, she knew she wouldn't get two steps without sleep. And worse still, she liked the feel of Siz's probing fingers on her back, the warmth flowing into her from Siz's legs and the musical lilt of Siz's voice cooing to her, coaxing her to relax, luring her to sleep. The bitch. Helpless tears blurred her eyes as she drifted off.
Lili was sleeping deeply when Dae sat down next to Siz.
“It's settled,” he whispered. “Tomorrow morning, Muh will take her to the T'haar Medical Center. There's a Phiar Waan that will see her.”
“A physician?” Siz answered doubtfully.
“No, he's a psychiatrist; a specialist in the vortex program.” Siz nodded.
“What about the crib? If she can get it open….”
“Already taken care of. I've wired the right latch to a switch on the floor. You'll need to step on the switch before you can open the latch.”
When Lili woke from her unexpected nap, Dae took her in his arms and brought her outdoors again, saying she needed fresh air. He carried her around the yard, talking to her in a soft voice, telling her how much they loved her, that they'd do anything to keep her happy and healthy and asking her to be a good girl and help them help her.
Lili didn't pay attention to him at all. The sunlight warm on her skin, she studied the yard and its surroundings, looking for escape routes and places to hide. Not that she expected to escape; they watched her too closely for a start and were sure to watch her even closer now. But she needed options. After a few minutes, Dae nuzzled her hair and sat down, putting her on the grass next to him. The grass felt cool on her bare feet and legs, but it made her feel uneasy. Did Dae expect her to play? She would have preferred to have him continue to carry her so she could keep scouting the place.
She climbed to her feet only to draw closer to him. Exactly why, she didn't know; she didn't really trust him and wasn't sure if she should like him or not, even though she had until recently. Perhaps she felt the need to show him that she was trying to be good, that she didn't need to be taken anywhere, that she didn't need to be…..fixed. She sat tense and trembling with his arm around her until Muh called them in to dinner.
There was no clock in Lili's room, so she had no idea what time it was when she woke, only that the room was dark and the house was silent. It was time for her to make her escape. She found the first latch and counted off to the second, then began getting herself into position. Having done it twice before, she had more confidence and a better knowledge of how to proceed. She fell only once. On the second try, she placed her fingers on the latch and hooked some toes over the second. With a smile of triumph, she squeezed with her fingers and pulled with her toes.
A moment later, her toes scraped over the latch and swept out into space. Cursing, she fell to the mattress and rubbed her aching toes. That had hurt! But she wasn't ready to give up yet; maybe the second latch was harder to open. She climbed up a third time, reversing herself so her head was nearer the foot of the crib. Her toes still hurt, but she planned to use her other foot this time. She got her fingers in position and then her toes. She was ready. The latch under her toes opened easily, but the other resisted her fingers. Cursing in both English and Japanese, she struggled to operate the latch until her strength gave out and she fell to the mattress once more.
Hauling herself to her knees, she took the latch in a death grip and struggled for a minute before she gave up. Shit! She was tired now. She'd expended a lot of strength, and for nothing, but she didn't dare give up. There had to be another way out of this damn cage! Still holding the latch, she looked up and studied the extension. Unlike the rest of the crib, it was not made of metal, but some kind of soft plastic, stretched over the metal frame.
Standing up, she pushed her hand against the plastic. It gave a little, but she could tell it was too thick and heavy for her to tear through it. It went up the full height of the gate, making the crib effectively escape proof; for the average baby. But then, she was not an average baby. For that matter, she wasn't a baby at all. She was an adult, damn it!
She went to the corner of the crib, dug her fingers into the space between the plastic and the frame and started hauling herself up, bracing her feet against the bars below. She fell three times, but on the fourth try, began inching her way up, eventually getting high enough so she could get a grip on the top of the extension. She hung there a moment, breathing heavily, then lifted one leg and planted her toes on the lower bar of the extension. Of course, they were her injured toes, but the pain helped her concentrate.
She freshened her grip on the top and pulled with her arms while she straightened her leg, hoisting herself up. Oh, it hurt! She'd forgotten how long it had been since she'd had any serious exercise, but she did it. She was standing on the lower bar of the extension. She had to stop and breathe for a while; she was exhausted, but didn't dare give in to it.
As soon as she could, she pressed her toes against the plastic and struggled to pull herself up. And in a minute or so, she was straddling the extension, feeling both triumphant and terrified. Triumphant, because she'd beaten the damn crib. She was out, she was free! Terrified, because she hadn't thought far enough ahead. She now had a drop of three stories to the floor. Straight down. If she blew this part, she was dead meat. But then, she remembered, she was dead meat anyway.
She leaned forward until she was lying on the horizontal bar, then swung her leg over. Next, she turned 90 degrees, so all her weight was on her stomach and let her legs dangle. Then she began inching her way out over the abyss, working her way backward until she was hanging by her arms….and then by her fingers. No turning back.
Taking a deep breath, she let go and dropped. She grabbed for the bars as they flashed past, caught them and felt the burn as they ripped through her fingers and palms. Then her pinkies smashed into the horizontal bar at the bottom of the gate. It took everything she had to keep from screaming in pain.
Swinging to and fro, she looked down and saw the floor was a lot closer than she expected, but even that was too far for comfort. But there was nothing for it. Waiting for what she could only hope was the right moment, she released her throbbing hands and dropped to a graceless landing. It hurt her feet, her ankles and her knees, not to mention her hands and wrists when she stumbled forward. She sat on the floor and choked on her moans of agony, then took stock of herself.
She was out. She was free….or as near as damn it. Climbing to her feet, she found she could walk, which meant she could get downstairs, which meant she could get out. One way or another, she was going to get away. She stood still and listened. The house was still silent. Any noise she'd made in getting out of the crib had not disturbed anyone. She limped to the door, always left ajar and slipped out into the hall…...where she met Muh, coming to look in on her.
For a good ten seconds, they stared at each other, both aghast; Muh with astonishment and Lili with terror. Then Lili moved, bolting for the stairs. If her ankles weren’t injured, she might have made it, but seeing her move, Muh moved faster, spreading her fingers wide and reaching down. Lili ran hard into Muh’s outstretched hand and was swept upward with a scream of despair. A moment later, with Lili firmly in her arms, Muh walked into the bedroom and stopped, staring at the crib.
When she looked down at Lili, her eyes were dark with an anger Lili had never seen before.
“Lili.....I don’t know what to say to you. I really don’t. The only way you could have gotten out of that crib was to climb out. Do you have any idea how dangerous that was? Do you? You could have injured yourself. You could have killed yourself!” Lili quailed before the outburst of rage. They had never punished her before and the possibilities now were more terrifying than mere death. She cowered in Muh’s arms, too flustered even to think, but then Muh clutched her tighter, beginning to cry.
“Lili, how could you treat us like this? When all we’ve ever done is love you?” Now she was really lost. She could understand Muh being angry, but for her to cry? What was going on here? She huddled in Muh’s arms, trembling with mixed fear and despair and after a few minutes, Muh’s anguish expired as quickly as her anger had. Suddenly, she was caressing Lili soothingly. “There, there, little one. I’m not going to punish you.....tonight. Right now, it’s more important to get you back to bed. And to sleep.”
After another minute, she laid Lili on the dressing table, stepped away and then stepped back, pointing a stern finger at her.
“Stay there,” she ordered. Her voice had a ghost of her recent rage in it. Lili turned her face to the wall, so she didn’t see Muh stepping on the switch on the floor. When Muh lifted her up, the crib’s gate was wide open, like a maw. Lili stared at it with wide eyes and began squirming. She hadn’t risked life and limb to get out of the damn thing just to be put back inside it! She wasn’t a baby, she was an adult! An adult, damn it! She had a car and a job and a boyfriend! If she’d had the leisure to reflect on it, she would have been stunned to realize that she couldn’t remember anything about him except that he existed. For now, she had more important things to worry about.
Muh was carrying her toward the crib, holding tightly against her struggles and whispering white noise to her. In desperation, Lili pushed hard against Muh’s breast so she could look up at her face. Muh frowned curiously, then gasped out loud.
“Please!” The word came out of Lili’s mouth in a low, painful rasp.
“Wh--at??” Muh said.
“Are.....are you.....talking?!” Lili was breathing hard, harder than she had when she was climbing out of the crib.
“Don’ pu’ mi i' ‘air!”
Muh stared at her a full minute, her mouth gaping open. When she spoke, her voice came out in a whisper, a mixture of amazement, sympathy and disbelief.
“You.....you don’t want to sleep in your crib?”
“No,” Lili gasped, and fell against her in relief. She’d been sure of nothing beyond the word please and had been terrified Muh would take it as baby babble. Instead, Muh held her with a fierce tenderness, kissing her hair reassuringly.
“Lili,” she whispered at length. “I don’t know what to make of you. But if it means that much to you, I’ll find another place for you to sleep tonight. Will you be a good girl for me while I do that?” Overcome with emotion, Lili nodded. She recognized that Muh was willing to bargain with her. If Muh could concede, so could she.
She was whimpering with relief when Muh laid her on the dressing table again. Somewhere in the excitement, she had wet her diaper. Muh changed it quietly, but instead of fastening the new one, she continued holding Lili’s legs up. Lili wondered why, but wasn’t really paying attention.
Instead, she was shaking with exhaustion and relief. Her sole coherent thought was that she wasn’t going back into the cage. She blinked as she felt Muh’s finger inside her, pushing something into her rectum. The finger withdrew and reentered. What the....? Then the diaper was folded up and fastened and Muh lifted her again.
She rode on Muh’s shoulder into the bathroom and lay on the dressing table there while Muh washed her hands. The adrenaline was draining away, leaving a deep fatigue in its wake. She was wondering where Muh would put her for the rest of the night, but only on the fringes of her mind. To her numb surprise, Muh carried her into the master bedroom. She whimpered as Dae’s voice cut through the darkness, cold and angry.
“Has she been a bad girl?”
“Of course not!” Muh replied, caressing her. “She’s just lonely. Poor little thing! She woke up all alone in the dark, who could blame her for wanting to get out of bed? So she’s coming to sleep with us.”
With them? In bed with Muh and Dae was the last place Lili would have considered. The only advantages to their bed over hers was it would be easier--and safer--to get out of; if Muh and Dae would let her go, though she knew they wouldn’t. But they had no need for restraint here. She was already exhausted and the two suppositories Muh had given her, because they had to have been suppositories, were already doing their work. Deep in her colon, the wax had melted and the medicine was being absorbed into her bloodstream.
Laid down between Muh and Dae, she whimpered. Making soft shushing sounds, Muh drew her closer. A minute later, when Lili was sleeping deeply, Muh whispered,
“Tomorrow, you’d better fit a cap on that crib. This little one is too resourceful for her own good.”
The morning was an unusual one. Lili slept late. Between exhausting herself and being sedated, it was almost impossible to wake her, so Muh made sure she woke in the most delicious way possible, up to her waist in warm water in the kitchen sink. Before bathing her, they discovered the abrasions on her hands and bruises on her ankles and knees. Her hands hurt so much that she showed no interest in breakfast, so Muh made her soak them in cold water. Even so, they still couldn’t get her to eat. She saw the bunting draped over a chair and remembered she was being taken somewhere, a fact that generated unreasoning panic in her.
She had been away from the house only once. What she had seen at the market had terrified and sickened her. Faced with going somewhere else away from the safety and comfort of the house, she started crying. Not even Siz could comfort her, though Lili clung to her desperately. It flustered Muh terribly, as she had planned on making it as gentle an experience as she could. At length, she sighed and brought out the qieo.
Lili was gulping for air when it was slipped between her lips. She took it without a thought and was relaxing within two minutes. When her sobs faded and her death grip on Siz changed to simply leaning against her, Muh put the bunting on. Cooing softly, Siz slipped Lili in and kissed her. Dae kissed her and Muh turned up the hood. She’d made it especially for this trip, figuring that Lili would be calmer without peripheral vision.
Lili whimpered when the qieo was taken away, but she was well under its influence. She rested her cheek on Muh’s prodigious bosom as she was, for the second time, carried out of the house and into the town. She was quiet over the long walk, though she refused offers of milk. She was hungry, but didn’t feel like taking anything in. This was partly due to the effect of the qieo, but also because of her fear. With the narcotic in her system, she didn’t actually feel the fear, but it bubbled at the fringes of her consciousness, waiting for an opportunity to manifest itself again.
It had its first opportunity when Muh climbed into the big machine, the one that was as big as a house and was full of giants. Because of the hood, she couldn’t see them, but she heard their voices and felt their nearness. She began to whimper and tremble. Muh whispered to her, offering her the milk again, but soon enough it was plain that only the qieo would do. Muh pushed it between her lips and sighed with relief as Lili quieted down.
When they got off the machine she took it away again. The day was warm, so she folded back the hood. Lili looked about her with disinterest, her mind too clouded by the narcotic to make any sense of what she saw. Eventually, Muh walked into a huge building, larger than any Lili had ever seen before. Giants flowed through its lobby and passages. A giant at a counter admired Lili and directed Muh to a room down a long hallway.
Muh found a place to sit and whispered cheerfully to Lili, still offering her milk. She showed her the bottle she’d brought, but Lili continued to refuse it. She was famished by now, but was feeling nervous again. She didn’t know the room, didn’t know the place, didn’t know the people. Her hands hurt and she didn’t know why. Her ankles were sore. The other people in the room were too big. Only Muh was the right size. It confused her, even more than she already was. Nothing made sense to her.
Her thoughts ran without rhyme or reason. Muh’s soft voice, coaxing her to drink her milk became her Obaasan coaxing her to eat some nice sticky beans. That became her father bathing her when she was five. Then she was walking on the street in Tokyo with her mother when she was thirteen. Laughing as she rode in her boyfriend’s car, playing with Seymour, the first time she cooked dinner for her Ojiisan and Obaasan, crying hysterically when she was four, sitting on Dae’s lap, learning to drive, eating an ice cream cone, watching a thunderstorm, flying in a plane, holding a baby, listening to a symphony, a taste of something sweet, being stung by a bee, getting an A on a spelling test, graduating high school, her first modeling job, her Obaasan tucking her into bed, Siz singing to her.....
Her mind often ran like this, hopping from memory to memory, from moment to moment, from dream to reality and to things that she didn’t know were real or not. Such as the most terrifying thing her mind threw at her, worse than what she’d seen in the market and even worse than the nightmares......a sickening sensation of sliding through a long, long tunnel of flashing light and roaring noise that seemed to have no end.....until it did end, with huge hands grasping her and a blinding white light that ripped into her brain and left it empty. When that memory--or whatever the hell it was--came upon her, she often screamed or spat up. It was like being insane.
Realizing that, or remembering it, she was suddenly glad to have Muh’s arms around her. She clung to her, whimpering. Muh patted her back and kissed her, cooing to her. She calmed down, refused a drink of milk and looked around the room. It was still full of giants, though this time she noticed that every one of them was burdened with a small bundle that they patted and cooed to. Other girls like herself? She didn’t know and didn’t want to.
Someone must have called because Muh stood up, but Lili was too distracted to notice until she saw she was being carried toward a door where another giant stood waiting. She cowered against Muh, whimpering. Muh patted her back soothingly. They went into a small room, where the giant drew Lili out of the bunting and lay her on a scale.
“You’re very pretty!” The giant said in a soft, musical voice. “Do you have a name?”
“Lili,” Muh replied. A bright, sparkling smile burst over the stranger’s face.
“You said that without moving your lips!” Muh chuckled.
Lili was moaning, reaching for Muh, but the stranger picked her up instead, holding her gently and cooing to her as she led Muh into another room, one with an examination table in it. She laid Lili on the table and smiled at her.
“Are you going to be a good girl for me while I look you over?” Lili flicked her eyes to Muh and whimpered. The stranger was pretty and her touch was very similar to Siz’s, as was her voice, but she wasn’t Siz. Lili wriggled and reached for Muh, moaning. The stranger made soft shushing sounds and began looking her over, listening to her heart and lungs, taking her pulse, blood pressure and temperature. With Muh standing by, Lili was quiet, but clearly distressed that Muh wasn’t holding her.
“What happened here?” The stranger asked, looking over Lili’s hands.
“She climbed out of her crib last night.”
“Does she do that often?”
“No. It was her first time.”
“I hope it’s her last. Did she get these bruises at the same time?”
“Yes.” The stranger probed one of Lili’s ankles, causing her to cry out.
“We’ll have the phiar look at these.”
Lili was in Muh’s arms when the phiar walked in.
“Hil Taar? I’m Phiar Waan. And this must be Lili?” Lili stared at his smile with suspicion.
“Yes,” Muh replied.
“T’li tells me I need to look at her hands. Put her on the table, please.” Lili squealed when Muh lifted her and sat her on the table, but Muh stayed behind her, with her hands around Lili’s waist. The phiar frowned as he looked at Lili’s palms. “How did this happen?”
“Last night, she climbed out of her crib. It’s a deluxe, hospital style. I don’t know how she did it, but she climbed up over the extension and then got herself to the floor somehow.”
“Without breaking her neck? I’d like to see that!”
“I’m guessing she must have slid down the bars. T’li, Astio ointment and some bandages.” Lili resisted the application of the ointment, so Muh held her wrists while the phiar applied it and swathed the hands in bandages. “You can take the bandages off to bathe her, but otherwise they should stay on for a few days. Apply the ointment three times a day. Now, what else has been going on with her?” Muh hesitated.
“It’s.....it’s a lot of things, but......I’m thinking maybe I ought to have come alone this time. There are things we.....don’t talk about in front of her.”
“Did she have breakfast today?” T’li asked.
“No. She slept late and when she woke, she was too upset.” T’li smiled.
“I have just the thing. Lili.....would you like some nice fruit?” Lili whimpered as she was lifted; she didn’t like strangers, but having been with the woman for a while, she was beginning to feel more at ease with her. But as she was carried out the door, she let out a wail and began struggling. Muh jumped and the phiar put a hand on her arm.
“Hil Taar, T’li is our best psychiatric tian. If anyone can handle Lili as well as you can, it’s her.” Muh listened with misgivings as Lili’s cries faded away down the passage. “Now, tell me about Lili.”
Muh sighed unhappily.
“As I said, it’s a lot of things, some more than others.”
“Start at the beginning.”
“We got her about a month ago. She seemed like a typical torup. She was very sweet. When her personality developed, she was so good! She did what we wanted her to do, she ate well, she slept well. Two weeks ago, she started walking.”
“Two weeks!” Muh nodded.
“It surprised me, too! She never goes far, just a few steps. Unless she’s outdoors. She seems to love the flowers and wants to smell every one. Of course, she tires quickly.” The phiar nodded. "Last week.....last week, several things happened. She began resisting when we tried to feed her.”
“She doesn’t like her food?”
“She always did before. But now she seems to want something else.”
“She seems happiest when we give her vegetables and fruit. But she resists drinking her milk.”
“Do you have any idea why?”
“No. She’ll drink fruit juice and water, but at least half the time, she refuses to take milk.”
“What about the rest of the time?”
“She takes it without any fuss at all.”
“She’s also resists when we change her diaper, especially when Dae is doing it. And sometimes she resists when we undress her for her bath.” The phiar nodded. Muh sighed miserably. “Then there’s what I did.”
“What was that?” Muh sighed again.
“Last week, we were alone in the house when I realized I had to go shopping. I took Lili with me. I was.....in a hurry. She doesn’t like strangers and doesn’t like being in strange places, so I thought if I got my shopping done in a hurry, we’d be out and home before she saw anything bad.” Tears came to Muh’s eyes; the phiar handed her a tissue.
“Thank you. In the......meat section. She saw some packages of torup parts and.....she saw some others being sold alive.”
“You mustn’t blame yourself for that.”
“That’s what Dae said, but I still do.”
“Hil Taar, no one can watch everywhere. People make mistakes, just as you did. And keep in mind, torupi are very much like babies. She might just as easily have seen that and not been affected by it at all.”
“But she was! She started having bad dreams......she’d wake up screaming, and then scream even more when she saw us coming to help her! I honestly think she’s afraid of me now. Phiar, she was never afraid of me before!”
“Is this what brought about her climbing out of the crib?”
“I think so. Sometimes, she doesn’t mind the crib. I’ll lay her down and she’ll go to sleep in nothing flat. Other times, she starts struggling as soon as she knows where she’s being taken. Yesterday, she tried to get the crib open. She climbed up the bars sideways and tried to open one latch with her sepli and the other with her topli.” The phiar’s eyes widened.
“Really! Was she successful?”
“Almost. If I hadn’t walked in when I did.......”
“What did you do?”
“To Lili? Nothing. She was terrified when she saw me; I thought she must still be upset about what she’d seen at the market, so I held her for while. Then I knotted her hair. It seemed to calm her down. Then Dae and I talked and decided to bring her here.”
“And then she climbed out of the crib? Why didn’t she open the latches?”
“Dae wired one to a switch on the floor.”
“So she climbed out instead. She sounds like quite a handful! How far did she get?”
“To the door of her room. Since she started having bad dreams, I’ve been looking in on her three or four times a night. I met her just as she was coming out the door.”
“What did you do?”
“When I saw the crib and I realized how she’d gotten out, I was very tempted to spank her....but I started crying instead. It just hurt so much that she was that desperate to get away from us! Then I decided to just put her back to bed. She’d be seeing you today and we’d find out what’s going on and......and this is where you’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Why would I think that?”
“When I went to put her back in the crib, she......Phiar, she spoke to me!”
The phiar sat up straight.
“Yes. She asked me not to put her in the crib.”
“That’s incredible! She actually used a sentence?”
“Yes.” Muh gulped. “I couldn’t believe it!”
“What did you do?”
“I gave her two Gifit suppositories and took her to bed with Dae and me.”
The phiar grabbed the intercom.
“Yuuki, where is T’li?”
“Observation Room Three. Do you want her to--.....”
“No, no. Just make sure the camera and microphones are active.”
“Yes, Phiar.” He turned back to Muh.
“Am I correct in assuming you still plan to kill her eventually?”
Muh sighed unhappily.
“At least another month from now, and I wish you'd put it another way.”
“I apologize; early death is a fact of life for torupi. As for your issues with her, what she saw at the market may have something to do with it--key word: May--but largely, the changes in her behavior are caused by memories.”
“Of before she came through the vortex. It's not unusual. As you probably know already, torupi are fragmented as soon as they come through the vortex; it doesn't so much wipe their minds clean as rearrange their thought patterns, making it impossible for them to hold on to coherent thoughts. Thus, they revert to an infant state, the mind effectively empty. As they live and interact with us, their minds develop along new lines.
“But as this happens, some memories come to them unbidden. In most torupi, these memories remain insignificant, but in some, they attract more memories; enough for them to begin rebuilding their original minds. In effect, a portion of their minds begin to take on adult qualities. I'd like to do a brain scan on Lili before you take her home, if I may.”
“Will it hurt? I don't want her hurt.”
“It won't hurt at all. She'll be asleep all through it, and you can stay with her, if you like.”
“Yes, I would like that very much, thank you.”
“Excellent. Now, as for treating her, the standard treatment is to refragment her. In essence, it will reset her mind to what it was a month ago. It will be initially disturbing for her, but that will pass quickly. Of course, her personality will be obliterated, but--….”
“No,” Muh said. “Absolutely not. We love her the way she is.”
“I can understand that, but you need to keep in mind that as time goes on, she'll remember more and more of her past life, and that will make her resist you all the more. Fragmentation will prevent that.”
“I don't care. All I want is to modify her behavior, not rebuild her from the ground up.” The phiar sat back, thinking. “Very well. In that case, I'd recommend a Matteria regimen. It's a psychiatric drug, taken orally. It will…..confuse her, keep her from thinking clearly. You'll have to watch her closely, make sure she doesn't get herself into any dangerous situations. For that, I recommend Arnitichia. It's injected into her knees and will make walking painful.”
Muh was shaking her head.
“No. I don't want her hurt.”
“It's the best course of action if you don't want her fragmented. And it's only painful when she tries to walk, and at that, only for a week or so, just long enough to teach her that she doesn't want to walk. After that, it's merely uncomfortable. By the time it's worn off, she'll prefer to be carried, which is exactly what you want.”
“Well.....I don’t like it, but.....all right.” The phiar nodded and turned to the intercom.
“Yuuki, call the pharmacy. I need someone to meet me at Observation Three with two four subunit cups, a bottle of Matteria and some fruit juice; something with a bright taste. And six units of Arnitichia.”
“Yes, Phiar.” He stood, smiling.
“If you’ll come with me, please?”
He led Muh through a maze of corridors, past doors that muffled the cries of other torupi. Eventually, they came to a large window that looked into a room decorated in bright colors. The tian was seated at a table, holding Lili on her lap, feeding her pieces of cut fruit. Lili’s eyes were full of tears, but she still ate the fruit piece by piece as it was offered to her.
“See?” The phiar said, smiling. “T’li is the best.” Someone came up behind them, carrying a tray. “When we go in, Lili will, no doubt, want to go to you. Hold her so she’s looking back over your shoulder.” Muh nodded. “Once we’ve got the Matteria in her, I’ll sedate her so I can give her the Arnitichia; that is painful. After that, we’ll do the scan and you can be on your way.”
When Muh walked into the room, Lili forgot all about the fruit and reached for her, squealing desperately. Muh folded her arms around her and kissed her passionately. The phiar poured a gray fluid into one of the cups, while the pharmacist filled the other with fruit juice.
“Ready?” The phiar said. Lili took one look at him, then clawed at Muh’s breast, pulling away to look up at her.
“M...uh!” She rasped. The phiar and the others gasped out loud. Muh lifted an arm behind Lili’s back to keep her secure. She appeared startled when the phiar turned her so Lili was in the camera’s field of view.
“Yes, Lili?” She asked. Lili though hard a moment.
“H.....om.” She sounded out.
“Home?” Muh asked. Lili nodded in relief.
“Ake mi hom!”
“Incredible!” The phiar breathed.
Muh laid Lili on her shoulder.
“Soon, little one! Very, very soon!” Lili was gasping, close to crying as she rested her cheek on Muh’s shoulder. The phiar picked up the glass of gray fluid.
“Keep her still,” he cautioned in a soft voice. With his free hand, he took hold of Lili’s cheeks and squeezed gently, forcing her jaws open, then poured the liquid in. Caught by surprise, Lili gasped before she began crying. T’li picked up the fruit juice and smiled.
“Here, little one,” she crooned in her musical voice. “This will drive the bad taste out of your mouth.” Lili tried to pull her head away, but the phiar was still holding her cheeks. When Lili was exhaling, the tian gently poured the juice in. Lili hiccuped and went back to crying, but it stayed down. The phiar released her and in a minute or so, the tone of her crying changed. The medication was taking effect.
Patting her head, the phiar took a hypo out of his pocket and pressed it against Lili’s back. She gave a low moan and her head rolled to one side.
“She’ll have to take the Matteria every day; two subunits in the morning should do, followed by some fruit juice. If she resists, just put it in her milk and she’ll never know it’s there.”
The pharmacist handed him a thick syringe. He took hold of Lili’s right leg and pressed the needle into the back of her knee. A few moments later, the left knee had been treated. Then he and T’li led the way to the scanning lab.
Lili woke from her nap lying on the sofa, in a nest of pillows. She sat up and the blanket slid away. She looked around the room with bleary eyes. She didn't feel sick, didn't feel tired. What she did feel, she couldn't define. She had been somewhere with…...she couldn't remember. But she had been there. Someplace. She'd seen a stranger there, who'd talked to Muh. She couldn't remember quite what he'd said, but it hadn't sounded good. She hadn't liked it there, hadn't liked the stranger….whoever he was.
It was all a blur. Except for Muh holding her. That had felt good. It always did. But even at that, there was something wrong in the house. Something…...she couldn't remember what. Something…..something to do with.....something. Like it wasn't safe for her to stay in the house anymore.
Yeah. That felt right. That made it clearer to her. She could remember thinking she had to get out, could remember trying to get out. Not that she could recall why she hadn't succeeded, but she knew she had tried. She clung fiercely to that bit of clarity. She felt it so strongly, she had to try again.
She glanced around the room and saw she was alone. She didn’t bother wondering why, even though she was usually watched closely. She merely took it as an opportunity, or as another. Another, because the inside door was open wide, letting the cool breezes in through the screen door. The screen door that opened…...was it with a touch? She didn't know, but was keen to find out. She pushed the pillows aside, bent over and rolled onto her stomach, then let her legs dangle over the edge of the cushion. She slid down until her toes touched the floor, then the soles of her feet.
She let go of the couch, putting her full weight on her legs. A moment later she was screaming as an agonizing pain lanced up through her body. Still screaming, she toppled backward and sat down hard. All three of them came running. Muh got to her first, lifting her up into a comforting embrace.
“What happened?” Siz asked, brushing her hand over Lili's cheek. “Did you fall off the couch? Poor Lili!”
Lili was crying hysterically. Muh was staring at Dae in horror; he looked back at her in resignation, then turned to Siz, pulling her aside.
“She didn't fall,” he said softly. “She tried to walk.”
“Walk? How can that hurt her?”
“It's one of the medications she was given this morning. Every time she tries to walk, her knees will hurt.” Siz's eyes popped open.
“The phiar hurt her?!”
Dae shook his head.
“No. He just gave her a medication. But that medication means that she'll hurt herself whenever she tries to walk.” Siz gaped in indignation.
“Perhaps. But it will teach her not to walk.”
“Will she be able to crawl, at least?”
“I don't know. But I expect we'll find out in due time.” Siz shook her head.
“That’s not fair. In fact, it’s awful! She’s such a good girl!”
Lili was calming down. She was still crying, clutching Muh in desperation. Muh was weeping too, rocking and caressing her. Dae put a hand on Siz’s shoulder and looked her in the eye.
“That she is. We’ll discuss this later. Right now, there are more important things to be settled.” He gestured with his eyes toward Muh and Lili. “I’ll take Muh; you take Lili.” Siz nodded and went to Muh.
“Give her here, Muh,” she said softly.
Muh looked at her, then at Dae and gently pulled Lili away. Lili screeched in panic, but then she was in Siz’s arms and sank back into crying. She wasn’t certain why she was crying; just that she liked being held by Siz. Siz brought her outdoors and sat on the steps, jiggling Lili gently and singing in her ear. After a minute, Lili quieted down and clutched her in silence. Siz kept singing until Lili relaxed. By then, Lili had forgotten the trauma of trying to walk and contented herself with resting in Siz’s arms.
After a few minutes, Siz moved down onto the grass and set Lili down in front of her. Lili whimpered as Siz moved away from her. It wasn’t far, no more than two arm lengths. Siz smiled and held out her arms, low to the ground.
“Come here, Lili. Come to Siz.”
Lili needed no second invitation. She bent over sideways until her weight was resting on her knees and wrists. She frowned and started crawling to Siz. Just as suddenly, she stopped and sat down, grimacing. Her whimper became a low groan of pain. Siz snatched her up at once and kissed her passionately.
“Oh, poor Lili! That hurts too, doesn’t it?” Lili did not reply, except to wriggle deeper into Siz’s protective embrace. Siz carried her up the steps and onto the porch. She sat down and held Lili on her lap.
Lili pressed close to her. She’d forgotten the pain already, was just aware that something had happened that she didn’t like. It was more important that Siz was holding her. Muh came out, carrying a bottle. She sat down next to Siz and handed her the bottle, then traced Lili’s cheek with one finger.
“It doesn’t hurt anymore, does it?” She whispered.
Siz offered Lili the bottle and smiled to see her take it at once, without any fuss.
“No,” she agreed softly. Lili settled back on her arm, drinking blissfully. Siz frowned at Muh. “Muh, she can’t even crawl! Not without it hurting her!” Muh ruffled Lili’s hair and answered,
“I wish I’d known that this morning. The phiar made it sound so.....reasonable. He even sedated her before he gave her the injections. He said the injections would hurt otherwise. But, oh! How they’re hurting now!”
Siz sighed unhappily.
“How long will this last?”
“A few weeks.”
“Weeks?! But Muh! By that time--......”
“Siz!” Muh cut her off hastily. “Not in front of Lili!”
Siz looked down. Lili had lost interest in the milk. The adrenaline rush caused by the pain of standing on her own had worn off. That and the milk were making her sleepy. Siz put the bottle aside and moved Lili to her shoulder. Muh’s fingers continued probing Lili’s hair.
“It was this or have her fragmented again,” she said softly and with pain. “Her mind would have been destroyed. Not just reset.....obliterated, the phiar said.”
“So she wouldn’t have been Lili anymore.” Siz sounded awed.
“No, she wouldn’t. Did I do wrong? Maybe. But at the time, it seemed like the best way to protect her from herself.”
Siz caressed Lili, who was whimpering softly. There was nothing wrong with her; she just loved Siz so much, loved being held by her that she needed to vocalize. Siz kissed Lili’s cheek.
“You didn’t do wrong, Muh. When I think of her climbing out of the crib, it makes my skin crawl! I guess we can help her through a little pain.” Muh caressed both their heads, Siz’s and Lili’s.
“I hope so, dear. I hope so.” Lili was starting to doze.
A good thing about the Matteria was that Lili was much more submissive. She resisted less at bath time and at having her diapers changed. She cooperated when they wanted her to eat, though she still preferred vegetables and fruit over anything else. She continued to dislike milk, but generally drank it anyway with little fuss. The nightmares were still an issue, but they were the only serious one now. They continued to watch her closely when she slept.
They had finished eating lunch when Lili started yawning. Muh carried her upstairs to put her down for a nap. But as she was carried into the bedroom, Lili frowned. Something about the crib bothered her. She couldn’t remember what it was, only that the crib was bad. She whimpered and Muh kissed her. As Muh began lowering her from her shoulder, Lili did more than whimper. She grabbed at Muh’s blouse, breathing hard. Muh shushed her soothingly.
“Quiet, little one! You’re going to have a nice nap. Sleep?”
Panic was bubbling in Lili’s gut and as she neared the mattress she gave a wail of terror and began to cry, clutching desperately at Muh, who brought her up to her shoulder again.
“What’s the matter, Lili? You still don’t like the crib? I can’t think why. It’s such a nice, comfy crib for a little one.” She carried Lili out into the hall, crooning softly. Lili was relieved, but since starting the Matteria, she tended to stay upset longer.
While Lili’s escape attempts had ended, the crib remained an intermittent issue. Sometimes she could be laid in it and be trusted to fall asleep in seconds. Other times--like now--she panicked at the mere sight of it. Her reaction to waking up in it was equally unpredictable.
Often enough, she’d open her eyes and lie there indifferently, waiting for someone to come and fetch her. Then again, she might just as easily panic and start screaming. Or, she’d keep a cool head about her and try to open the latches. This, of course, resulted in a lot of pain, with screaming to match.
Telling the two scenarios apart was virtually impossible, since whether she was screaming in terror or screaming in pain (or both), she still had to be comforted. At night, Muh generally waited until Lili was asleep before bringing her upstairs. Even before starting the medication, she’d begun to fall asleep more readily in someone’s arms than when laid down somewhere.
Once Lili’s adrenaline ran out, she began dozing on Muh’s shoulder. And not wanting to risk putting her in the crib, Muh carried her into her own room and laid her in the middle of the huge bed. Lili was normally a peaceful sleeper, so, barring bad dreams, she should be safe enough until she woke. When she did, she might try to crawl off the bed, but she wouldn’t get far. For Lili, walking and crawling were equally excruciating.
She was talking more. It was rarely easy to understand her, since her grasp of the language was tenuous at best, but then again, she hardly ever spoke unless she felt an urgency to communicate or was in a lucid state. The Matteria kept such states to a minimum, but when they were upon her, she made the most of them. She often stated preferences over what she would eat or who she wanted to hold her or change her diaper.
But she also spoke of other things. A common question was to ask where she was. If anyone laughed at such a question, she became angry, which told them she wasn’t playing with them. But neither was she contented with answers like, on the porch, in the parlor or at home. Muh in particular found it perplexing because she didn’t know how to probe for more information. Lili knew the kind of answer she wanted, but couldn’t articulate it.
Once, as she sat on Dae’s lap, a serious look crept over her face. She looked up at him and said,
“Oo ah oo?” It took them several minutes to figure out what she was asking them, but she was patient and they finally realized she was asking him who he was. It was an especially curious question for her to ask, since she knew all three of them by both sight and name. Another time, she asked how she got there.
If there was anything that kept these questions from getting worrisome, it was that Lili’s lucid moments didn’t last more than a few minutes at a time. Suddenly, she’d frown; then the “intelligence” appeared to drain from her eyes, leaving her solemn and disappointed. It was heart breaking to watch, as it was obvious that she was losing something--something that was important to her.
After watching this happen a few times, Muh called Phiar Waan to ask his advice. To a large degree, she wanted to know how to answer Lili. But rather than offer advice, he asked Muh to bring Lili to the medical center again. He wanted to see her, do more brain scans and see her speak. When Muh balked--not wanting to upset Lili--the phiar promised to send an air car for them. Muh could stay by Lili’s side throughout the scans. Muh agreed and an appointment was set for the following morning.
The air car touched down on the grass outside the house shortly after Lili had eaten her breakfast. She was slipped into the bunting; Muh put up the hood, but in truth, it only roused Lili’s suspicions. She fretted as she was brought outdoors, but once they were in the air car, She only had to deal with Muh, a fact that did much to calm her down. The pilot was silent throughout, speaking softly and only on occasion into her headset.
The tian they’d met before brought them straight to an observation room decorated in bright colors and containing two chairs.
“Phiar Waan would like to see if you can get her to talk,” the tian explained, seating Muh. Then she helped her extract Lili from the bunting and planted her on Muh’s lap. Lili looked about the room with suspicion and at the tian with distrustful curiosity. She was very pretty and cheerful and her voice had a musical quality, much like Siz’s. Yet she didn’t look anything like Siz. She smiled warmly at Lili and Muh both, offered to get Muh a drink and some fruit for Lili.
“Where is Phiar Waan?” Muh asked.
“He’ll be here shortly. He thought Lili might be more inclined to talk if the two of you were alone.” She pointed to a camera mounted on the wall. “Just keep her facing in this direction, please.”
Almost the instant the tian left the room, Lili looked up at Muh and asked,
“Air ah wi?” Muh smiled down at her. At last, she knew exactly what to say.
“We’re in the medical center, sweetie.”
“Because the phiar wants to hear you talk.” Lili digested that.
“Because it’s very unusual for little ones like you to be able to talk.”
“Why?” Muh laughed, partly from nerves.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I wish I did.” Lili sat back against her.
“Home? You want to go home?” Lili nodded.
“Hom.” Muh caressed her soothingly.
A few minutes later, the door opened and Phiar Waan walked in, smiling. Lili cowered back against Muh at once.
“Good morning, Hil Taar. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Hello, Lili.” Lili pressed herself back further. The phiar took a step to his left, putting more distance between them. Lili relaxed a tiny bit.
“No apology is necessary, Phiar. We weren’t waiting that long.”
“You can thank Lili for that. Frankly, I didn’t think she’d speak so quickly.”
“You were watching?” Muh pointed toward the camera. The phiar nodded.
“Yes, Hil. Along with half the Board of Science. You have a remarkable torup, there.” Muh caressed Lili possessively.
“Yes, we do. But right now, she wants to go home. Can we please get the scans over with?”
“Of course. Has she eaten today?”
“Yes. She had breakfast before we left the house.”
“Good. We’ll get something else into her before you leave. In the meantime, I have a series of eight scans scheduled.”
“Yes. Each scan will examine her brain from a different perspective. None of them are invasive, and none of them will hurt her. In fact, she’ll sleep through all of them.”
Muh was nodding when Lili suddenly twisted in her hands and gripped her blouse in desperation.
“Muh, hom! Please! Ake mi hom!” She wasn’t panicking, but she was building up to it. Muh opened her mouth to speak, but the phiar stopped her. He squatted in front of her and took a bauble out of his pocket. It had a dozen surfaces, all bright and shiny and hung from his fingers by a short leash.
“Lili,” he said in a quiet tone. “Muh can take you home. But before she does, I need you to do something for me. It’s something easy and I know you can do it. I need you to look at this. Can you do that, Lili?” He twisted the leash, making the thing flash and sparkle in the light.
“Lili, honey,” Muh whispered. “Look at the pretty thing.” Lili glanced at it, then relaxed a smidgen and looked again. The phiar moved it to one side. Her eyes followed it. Then he moved it again, this time in the other direction. “Isn’t that pretty?” Lili didn’t answer, but kept her eyes on the thing. She wasn’t feeling particularly lucid anymore and the sparkly thing gave her something simple to concentrate on. When the phiar moved it past Muh’s side, Lili leaned away from Muh to follow it. With his free hand, the phiar took a hypo from his pocket and touched it to Lili’s back. She slumped over with a soft sigh.
True to the phiar’s word, Muh was permitted to stay by Lili’s side throughout the eight scans. They ran the gamut from a few minutes long to over an hour. Trapped in her drug-induced slumber, Lili did nothing but breathe as she was moved from table to table and as massive machines looked inside her head.
At length, they were brought back to the observation room. But before Muh could sit down, the phiar touched her arm.
“Hil Taar, if you would be so kind, we need to have a word with you.”
“If you’d come this way, please?” Muh frowned.
“If you want to talk, why can’t we do it here?”
“Because the Board of Science won’t fit in here.”
“The Board of Science?”
“What about Lili?” The tian with the musical voice stepped forward.
“I’ll stay with her.” Muh shook her head, drawing Lili tighter.
“No. She’ll be waking soon. I don’t want her to wake up in a strange place without me.”
“Hil Taar,” the tian smiled. “Lili will be fine. You won’t be far and you can watch her all the time.” She gestured toward the camera. Muh still balked.
“She won’t leave this room?”
“No. And I won’t give her to anyone but you.” Muh sighed unhappily and handed Lili to the tian. The tian closed her arms around Lili in an embrace as protective and tender as Muh’s. Muh sighed and nodded her approval.
“Hil Taar?” the phiar said, gesturing toward the door.
He brought her to a conference room. A large monitor hung on one wall, showing Lili with the tian. Lili was still asleep. Muh was shown to a seat so she was facing the monitor. Seven other people sat opposite her. Phiar Waan took a chair beside her.
“Hil Taar,” he said. “I’d like to introduce you to some of our Board of Science. This is Phiar Nord Gaan.” The stranger nodded in greeting. “Phiar Ptea Ur.” The next one nodded, smiling. “Phiar Mu Waar, Phiar Kakt Muaar, Phiar Bett Pun, Phiar Wu Xaan, and Phiar Herl Guum, First Speaker.” Muh looked at them with trepidation.
“What’s this all about?”
“Hil Taar,” Phiar Guum said. “We have a proposal for you. Permit me to begin by telling you about Lili. We were all very impressed by her ability to speak. Speech is extremely rare in torupi, but your report that she was speaking in sentences was stunning. For a torup to speak--to ask questions and expect deep answers--is unprecedented. Her conversation with you this morning was spectacular all by itself.
“The scans tell a deeper story. All the data has yet to be calibrated, but the preliminary findings demonstrate that she is learning at a spectacular rate, more than sixty percent higher than any other known torup. And that learning is going on in spite of her being treated with Matteria.”
“Phiar, I can tell this excites you, and I’m happy for you. But Lili is going to be waking up soon. She’ll be hungry and with a stranger. She doesn’t like strangers. Would you please get to the point so I can take her home?” Phiar Waar exchanged a look with the First Speaker.
“Hil Taar,” she said. “The point is that Lili’s brain is like no other brain we’ve ever seen. It needs to be studied.” Muh looked the panel over with suspicion.
“What are you saying?”
“We’re saying,” Phiar Waan said carefully. “We’d like you to leave Lili with us.” Muh gasped out loud.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Hil Taar,” Guum said in a soothing tone. “We understand how you feel about her, but please look at it from our perspective. Lili’s brain is incredible! It has to be studied; not for curiosity’s sake, but for science. For medical science. She has things to teach us about how the torup mind rebuilds after fragmentation, how the torup mind works, how the brain itself works. An in depth study of her brain might even benefit our ability to treat brain disease in ourselves.”
“She would be treasured here,” Phiar Muaar added. “A torup that can participate in her own care? The possibilities are staggering!” Muh shook her head.
“You don’t fool me. She’d be a laboratory animal here!”
“But not a common one,” Phiar Gaan countered. “Her special needs would be accommodated, her diet altered to ensure her long term health. She would have an entire staff of phiars and tians to look after her.”
“No. She’s not just a torup to us. She’s family.”
“Of course,” Phiar Ur responded soothingly. “That bond you share is, no doubt, the main reason she’s developed the way she has. Please forgive my bluntness, but family is not all she is to you. In another few weeks, she is going to stop being family and become something else. When that happens, it will be a painful moment, especially for you. By giving her to us, you are giving her a longer life.”
“But what kind of a life will it be?” Muh stopped suddenly, her eyes riveted to the monitor. Lili was waking up and distressed that Muh wasn’t there. The tian jiggled her and spoke to her. Muh started to stand up. Phiar Waan put a hand on her arm.
“Please, Hil Taar. You’ll recall I told you that T’li is our best psychiatric tian. If anyone can comfort Lili as well as you, it’s her.” Lili appeared to be crying. The tian rocked her. Muh’s eyes filled with tears.
“We don’t need an answer today,” Guum said quietly. “Take Lili home and discuss it with your family. And be advised, we are not proposing to take her by force. We are asking that you give her to us freely and know that she will be well taken care of, that she will be loved. In the meantime--whatever your long term decision--we’d like permission to continue studying her.”
“What? I’d have to bring her back here every day?”
“I should think once a week would be sufficient,” Phiar Xaan replied. “Though as an alternative, we could send Phiar Waan to your home with a remote unit. He could do a brain scan there with a minimum of fuss, record samples of her speaking and then leave. I think we’d all agree that would be best for Lili herself.” The others nodded in agreement.
When Muh got back to the observation room, the tian was happily feeding Lili pieces of fruit. Lili was calm, but not at ease. The tian was nice, but she wasn’t Muh. When she became aware that Muh was in the room, Lili forgot all about the fruit and held out her arms to her, squirming and calling to her. Chuckling, the tian kissed her and said,
“I guess I know when I’m not wanted.” She stood up and handed Lili to Muh. “She’s a sweet girl.”
“Yes, she is,” Muh agreed, clutching Lili tightly. Lili whimpered and buried her face in Muh’s breast.
“She’s also very hungry.”
“We have food here,” Phiar Waan said. “If you think you can get her to eat. Or would you prefer to take her home right away?” Muh listened to Lili’s stomach growl. Without asking, she knew what Lili’s answer would be.
“I’ll take her home, please.”
“I’ll pack up this fruit for you,” the tian said.
Caressing Lili’s back and hair, Muh said,
“Phiar, you never answered my question.”
“When I called you, I told you about Lili’s questions. When she asks who we are, where she is and so on. What do I tell her?” The phiar thought a moment.
“I’m not certain you need to tell her anything. The Matteria keeps her lucid moments to just that--moments. She’s likely to forget the kinds of answers she seems to want. And remember, there are things she only thinks she wants to know, when in fact she’ll be much better off not knowing them.”
“But she’ll ask them anyway!”
“Hil Taar, a fragmented mind is a jumble of disconnected thoughts, memories and experiences. It rebuilds itself on new experiences, using bits and scraps of the old memories when and where it can. Lili appears to be better at recalling and incorporating those scraps than most; this gives her the appearance of maturity, but in many ways she is still a very small child. Look at the way she depends on you for emotional support. That’s not going to change.
“So....when she asks her mature questions, answer them in any way you see fit. Continue protecting her from what she needs protecting from. Tell her what makes sense to you. Even if she doesn’t get the information she wants, it doesn’t matter because she wouldn’t remember it anyway. Ultimately, what she will remember is that she loves you; that you love her and will keep her safe.” Lili shifted in Muh’s arms, moaning.
“Ungri,” she said. The phiar smiled.
“I’ll get you a pilot.”
As instructed in advance, Muh put Lili in an easy chair with Siz standing slightly behind her, just out of Lili’s range of vision. The tian came in, smiling, and came forward slowly.
“Hello, Lili. I’m T’li. Do you remember me? We saw each other last week at the Medical Center. I gave you some fruit. Do you remember?” Lili stared at her in suspicion. The tian stopped a few feet away and sat down on a hassock. She began a running patter in her cheerful lilt, describing their entire encounter, from her preparing Lili for the brain scan to helping Muh put her in the bunting for the trip home. Lili didn’t react, but appeared to be listening.
The tian altered her patter, telling Lili everything she knew about her, which was quite a great deal; the tian had studied Lili’s file as well as the recordings of her speaking. She described Lili’s behavior over the past several weeks and how it had changed, making it seem as if she’d known Lili all her life. All the while, she smiled invitingly and watched Lili closely.
After a half an hour, she saw what she was watching for: Deliberate expression was creeping into Lili’s eyes and over her face; a deep seated curiosity and a hunger for information. Lili was becoming lucid.
“I’ve been talking for a long time. Do you have anything you’d like to say to me?”
“Oo ah oo?” Lili answered at once.
“My name is T’li Aami. I’m a psychiatric tian at the T’Haar Medical Center. Lili--....” Lili’s eyes flashed with sudden anger.
“A’s no’ mi ame!” The tian didn’t bat an eye.
“Your name isn’t Lili? What is your name?”
“Ca-ro-line,” the tian repeated, sounding it out. “Caroline?” Her pronunciation was off, but Lili was satisfied and nodded.
“That’s a pretty name. Where are you from, Caroline?” Lili hesitated a moment.
“Las Vegas, Nevada. Wa am I ow?”
“You want to know where you are now?” Lili nodded.
“You’re on a planet we call Aemi. You came here through the vortex.” Lili frowned.
“The vortex? It’s a kind of a passage. I can’t explain it properly; I don’t know enough about physics. But we believe it links our world with one in another dimension.”
“Wa fa?” The tian sighed unhappily.
“I don’t know, Caroline. I wish I did. I think it was a group of scientists who set it up just to see if they could do it.” Lili shook her head, frowning bitterly.
“Stupid!” The tian cocked her head to one side.
“Stu-pid? I don’t know that word. Can you explain it to me?”
“I’ mins tey din’ unsta’.....din’ un.....un.....” Lili’s eyes flew open and she let out a wail of despair. Her lucidity was going, leaking away. She burst into tears of frustration. The tian scooped her up at once and held her close, caressing her.
“It hurts when it goes away, doesn’t it?” She crooned. “I know it hurts, but it’s all right. It will come back. You just have to be patient.” Caressing Lili’s head, she turned to face the waiting phiar and gave a subtle nod. He drew a hypo from his pocket and touched it to Lili’s back. She was asleep in an instant and the tian handed her to Muh.
“Keep talking to her. Nothing substantive; just enough so she’ll hear your voice.”
“Hear my voice?” Muh protested. “She’s asleep!” The tian smiled.
“Just talk. She’ll hear you. It will help keep her calm.”
As Muh talked softly to Lili, the phiar and tian ran a cable in from the air car. While the phiar went back for the computer, the tian oversaw Lili’s placement on the sofa.
“Caroline,” she said softly as she began attaching the electrodes. “In a minute, we’re going to do a brain scan. It won’t hurt. You’ve done it before. Last week, at the medical center. Do you remember? Just lie still and sleep. It will be over before you know it, and everything will be back to normal again.”
The phiar came back in and began plugging the cables into the computer. The tian slipped the helmet on over Lili’s head and carefully tightened the braces, keeping up her patter. The phiar turned the computer on.
“We’re connected to the Center’s interface,” he said.
“Caroline, we’re going to start now. Just relax and sleep. You’ll do fine.” She stood up and gestured toward the kitchen. The family let themselves be herded in.
“How did you do that!” Muh exclaimed. The tian grinned.
“Years of practice.”
“Does she really hear us when she’s asleep?”
“Yes. The subconscious mind works just as hard as the conscious mind. She won’t necessarily remember what you say when she’s asleep, but it can influence her. Remind her that you love her and that you want to protect her from harm. Ask her to be a good girl. Her grasp of our language is impressive; I’d guess that over time, it will reinforce her feelings toward you.”
“I feel so embarrassed,” Siz sighed.
“All this time, we’ve been calling her Lili and her name is.....”
“Should we call her that all the time?” Dae asked.
“I don’t think so. I called her by that name because I want to build a relationship with her. You already have one. The greater part of her mind is accustomed to being called Lili. I think the smaller part can tolerate being called Lili as well. She knows you love her. Besides that, there is also the question of how strong you want the lesser part of her mind to be.”
“What do you mean?” Muh asked.
“The data from two of the scans done last week indicate that Lili’s mind is, in essence, 25% Caroline and 75% Lili. Or, if you prefer, 25% adult and 75% baby.”
“Adult!” Siz gasped. The tian nodded.
“We tend to think of torupi as babies because when their minds have been fragmented, their minds work like a baby’s. They live and think in the moment, react to their needs and desires alone. And yet, their bodies are adult bodies. Over time, they begin remembering pieces of their lives from before they were fragmented; they get some of their adulthood back. Lili--for reasons we don’t understand--has been remembering things faster, so her adult self is greater and stronger than should be expected. Yet it is still the smallest part of her mind.
“If she were permitted to live indefinitely and in an environment where her adult part was stimulated, it would grow stronger and stronger. It might take over completely; at the very least, it would become the greater part. The question, considering your plans for her, is how much you want to stimulate that part of her. I don’t believe my interaction with her will be harmful in the long run, but if I were you, I would rather not stimulate it more than necessary.”
Muh sighed thoughtfully.
“The head of the Science Board said she’d have a longer life in the laboratory.”
“Yes, she would. But--just between us--I think she is better off here with you.”
“Absolutely. In the lab, she would certainly live a longer life, but it would be the life of a lab animal. Her adult part would be stimulated until she developed as far as she reasonably could. And then she’d be fragmented again.” Muh and Siz gasped in horror. The tian nodded grimly. “And again after that. The Medical Center would treasure her, but only for her brain, nothing more. Here, she will not live as long, but she will be loved; for herself, not for her value to science. She will be happier here.” Muh sighed shakily.
“So how do I answer her questions?”
“Do as I did. Tell her the truth.”
“And if she asks about what she saw in the market?” Dae asked.
“Tell her the truth. Some people buy torupi to eat them. Some, but not all.”
“And when she asks about us?” The tian smiled.
“Telling the truth doesn’t necessarily mean telling the entire truth. You bought her because you fell in love with her. You care for her because you love her. Isn’t that the truth?” Muh nodded.
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“And keep in mind, we don’t know how much of what she hears she actually remembers. The conversation I had with her today may be gone tomorrow. But we are going to ask that you keep a record of what she says to you. Phiar Waan will provide you with a camera on a stand; just position it where it can see her and activate it when she starts speaking.”
“We’ll be happy to do that,” Dae said.
“Thank you. I’m also going to leave my contact information with you. If you need help or advice, contact me at once. Until this study is done, I’m assigned exclusively to Lili.”
“In that case,” Siz said. “What do we do about her crib?”
“Sometimes she doesn’t mind it,” Muh replied. “When she does, she usually starts screaming.”
“Ask her about it. Her first lucid moment. Then call me; no matter what time it is. In the meantime, is there somewhere else she can sleep?”
“Sometimes Muh and Dae take her in with them,” Siz answered. “I’ve taken her to bed with me once or twice.”
“And she sleeps well with you?”
“So far,” Dae said. The tian nodded.
“I think that’s a good short range solution. I’ll have a look at the crib before we leave. But your best option is still to ask her about it. Get her to explain it, and we’ll work on a solution from there.”
The answer, when it came, was initially less than helpful. Asked why she didn’t like the crib, Lili answered bitterly,
“I’s a cage!” Cage, an English word, was meaningless to both the family and T’li. But based on her examination of the crib, she guessed that Lili likened the crib to a prison. Once in, she couldn’t get out unless someone let her out. On T’li’s advice, Muh and Dae took her to bed with them that night.
The next morning, an air van landed on the lawn, carrying T’li, two maintenance workers and a bed, a gift of the Science Board. The maintenance workers dismantled the crib, stowed it in the cellar and then assembled the bed in its place. It was much like a small child’s bed with two low guard rails, except that it was set on stilts.
“Lili’s adult part no doubt resented the crib,” T’li said as she showed it off to Muh and Dae; Lili was outdoors with Siz. “Knowing that she is too old to need one. I am confident that she will appreciate having a more normal bed to sleep in, even if it is larger than she is accustomed to.”
“We appreciate the new bed,” Muh answered. “But will she be safe?”
“Of course she will. Place her in the middle of the mattress, and there will be plenty of bed for her. Still, she’s also clever enough to get out, if she puts her mind to it. The Arnitichia will help deal with that, but so will this.” She drew a small instrument out of her pocket and handed it to Dae. “Would you please take this out into the hall?” Dae took it and walked out. T’li pressed down on the mattress, a few inches from the edge; a high pitched whine sounded from the hall.
“We use these alarms in the psychiatric ward. Keep that unit with you whenever Lili is in bed. If she gets too close to the edge of the bed--in her sleep, or by design--the alarm will alert you and let you get to her before she can get herself into mischief.”
On their next visit, T’li had to wait an hour for Lili to become lucid. When she did, she surprised everyone by starting the conversation herself.
“Hank oo or a ba.” T’li smiled.
“They told you I brought it, did they?” Lili nodded. “I’m glad you like it. Caroline, the last time we saw each other, you used the word stupid. Can you tell me, please, what it means?” Lili thought hard a moment.
“I’ mins ‘ey din’ hink ‘ins tru; ‘ey.....din’ hink.....’bou’ the.....” She struggled for a word.
“The consequences? The results of their actions?” Lili nodded.
“What an interesting word!” Lili paused, frowning. “What’s the matter?”
“Ca’ hink....Why ca’ I hink?”
“Let me see if I can explain this properly. Partly because of your trip through the vortex....your mind works very much like a baby’s. Only a small part of your mind thinks like an adult. The rest of it tends to overwhelm the adult part.”
“You want to be able to think more?” Lili nodded. “I’ll look into that. Do you have any other questions for me?” Lili nodded, yawned.....and her lucidity was gone.
T’li scooped her up and held her close.
“Thank you, Caroline.” Lili babbled some gibberish. T’li turned her around so Phiar Waan could sedate her for the scan.
Whenever Siz was sent to wake Lili, she was greeted with a happy smile. Siz was Lili’s favorite; everyone knew it. But this particular morning, Lili appeared to have left out of the loop. She was staring at the ceiling in a stony silence.
“Good morning, sleepyhead!” Siz whispered, lifting her from the mattress. Lili did not meet her eyes. “Oooh! What’s wrong, Lili?” She went to kiss her, but Lili jerked her head away. Laying her down on the dressing table, Siz asked, “Did you have a bad night? More bad dreams?” Lili remained silent and aloof. Siz changed her diaper quickly and brought her down to the kitchen.
“Muh, there’s something wrong with Lili!” Muh reached for her at once.
“What is it, little one?” She crooned, taking Lili in her arms. “Bad dreams? Or are you feeling sick?” Lili remained silent, her eyes cold. “Lili, tell Muh--....”
“A’s no’ mi ame.” Her voice was cold, colder than they’d ever heard her. Muh gasped in surprise.
“What did you say?”
“A’s no’ mi ame,” Lili repeated, spacing the words to give each one impact.
“I’m sorry Car......Car.....”
“Caroline,” Lili answered icily. Muh was flustered.
“Caroline. I’m.....I’m sorry, Caroline. It’s just that this isn’t like you. Let’s......let’s get your medicine out of the way first and then you can have your bath.”
“No.” Muh gaped at her.
“L--Caroline! What’s the matter with you today?”
“Well it must be something!” She looked toward Dae, who had the cup of Matteria ready; Siz had a cup of juice. She nodded to Dae. “Come on. Let’s get your medicine in you.”
Dae stepped forward. Lili began struggling as Muh reached for her cheeks. Muh gripped her tighter with one arm and took hold of her face.
“Come on, be a good girl for Muh.”
“Fuck oo!” The expletive meant nothing to Muh, but she frowned at the force it was delivered with.
“Sweetie, don’t make it any harder than it has to be!”
“No!” Lili’s voice rose in pitch. Near to tears, Muh squeezed Lili’s cheeks, forcing her jaws open. Dae poured the medicine in. A moment later, he gave a yell as Lili spewed it back out into his face.
“Lili!” Muh barked angrily. “You know better than that!”
“I ‘ow a lo’!” Lili spat back. “Ike mi ame!” Muh returned her glare.
“Don’t you get fresh with me, little one!”
“Pu’ mi ‘own!”
“I’ll put you over my knee in a minute!”
“Pu’ mi ‘own!”
“Muh,” Dae said, wiping his face with a cloth. Muh turned to him. Lili was still struggling and Muh was gripping her with two hands.
“Put her down.” She stared at him in stunned surprise.
“Put her down,” he repeated.
“Are you crazy? You know what happens when she--....”
Dae took Lili from her grip and set her on the floor. Lili grimaced in pain and staggered to a chair, gasping at each step. She grasped the chair in a death grip and leaned against it, gasping in agony.
“She’s not a baby,” Dae said quietly. “And she’s not a little girl, either.” Caught between anger and sympathy, Muh asked,
“Well what would you say she is?” Dae watched Lili breathing in painful gasps.
“Angry. I’d say she’s angry.”
“Angry! What does she have to be angry about?”
“I think you know.” Muh gasped out loud. Dae bent down and lifted Lili into his arms.
“Pu’ mi ‘own!” She groaned.
“In a minute,” he answered, nuzzling her hair. He walked toward the door to the dining room.
“Where are you taking her?” Muh demanded. He paused in the door and turned back.
“I’m going to give her what she wants. Answers.”
“Oh, Dae, no!” Siz cried.
“Siz, you remember what T’li told us: Be honest with her. It’s about time we were.” He turned and walked out toward the parlor.
The baby part of her was dominant when the nightmare struck. The imagery and words meant nothing to the baby, but the horror did. She erupted out of sleep screaming and flailing her limbs. The family came on the run, but Muh got to her first. She picked her up and enfolded her in an embrace that was at once comforting and restrictive and began whispering soft, urgent nothings into Lili’s ear. It took the baby several minutes to realize that the dream was over and that she was safe. She stopped screaming then, but continued wailing. Muh jiggled her, cooed to her and rubbed her back.
After a while, Lili quieted down. She was still crying, still upset. A qieo might have been useful at that point, but Muh had been advised to not mix it with the Matteria. Then the tone of Lili’s sobs altered. The baby was losing control as the adult part became lucid. She woke up confused, crying and disoriented, but soon recognized Muh’s unmistakeable embrace. That Muh was holding her this way made her realize--more or less--what had happened. Muh only held her like this when she was riotously upset.
As she quieted down, luxuriating in Muh’s arms and the soft, constant flow of soothing words, it occurred to her that she was in the unenviable position of taking comfort from the enemy. Not that she had any choice, but she was confident that her Ojiisan would have heartily disapproved.....had he known. Goodness knew, she’d been violently opposed to it at first, herself.
She’d sat in the easy chair, glowering at Dae. To say that she’d been angry would have been a gross understatement. No word had been invented to define the rage that had filled her. The fact that Dae was giving her the information she demanded--freely and honestly--was all that kept her from flinging herself at him and ripping out his eyes or something. She knew he loved her, or claimed to, but she also knew he’d betrayed her. The evidence was in the answers he was giving her.
The answers came in fits and starts, as she went in and out of lucidity. When the baby became dominant, she cried and wailed and was held and comforted. She was fed once or twice. As often as not, she became lucid in someone’s arms, a refuge that initially confused her. She knew she was supposed to be angry, but was instead feeling warm and safe. When she remembered, she demanded at once to be released.
They obliged her, depositing her gently in the easy chair, though it couldn’t have been any easier for them to watch her her flit from helpless and needy to violently independent. But who cared what they thought? Oddly enough, Lili cared, but only at the back of her mind. She still needed answers, answers that she could only take from a position of inner strength. The real question was whether she actually had the inner strength or not. It was waning and she knew it.
Facing down Dae, she was struggling to stay angry. She’d already learned what she’d deduced for herself: That torups were human beings, brought through the vortex to be sold as food. The parts she’d seen in the market were, indeed, human. And the torups she’d seen being sold alive were dead. Butchered, cooked and eaten like any common livestock. And the same thing was going to happen to her, sort of. As much as she wanted to stay angry, she also wanted a shoulder to cry on, to feel arms around her and hear a soft voice telling her it would all be all right. Dae, Muh and Siz were all ready and willing to provide that to her.
And that was what she still didn’t understand. When she had been an actual baby, everyone who had held her, comforted her, spoken and sung to her, bathed her, fed her and everything had all loved her and wanted her to grow up, to become an adult and then go out and live her life. Here, as an artificial baby, she was held and fed and bathed and loved, but with no intention of her growing up or living her own life. Here, she was expected to stay a baby and happily submit to being cooked and eaten. The love, she could understand, but not how it could lead to a betrayal of itself; a betrayal of her and her trust in them.
She sat in the easy chair, trembling. She trembled with tension, with rage, with terror, with anticipation, with despair and a hundred or a thousand other things she had no definition for. Dae looked nervous too, as if he didn’t know where to begin. When Lili spoke first, it was not out of pity. It was more that she knew her moments of lucidity were exactly that: Moments. She didn’t have any time to waste.
“Oo’re gon’ ki' mi, aren’ oo?” Dae nodded unhappily.
“Yes. Yes, we will.” It was the answer she was expecting, yet she still gave vent to an involuntary squeal of of panic. Muh and Siz both jumped. Clasped in each other’s arms, they were both crying, feeling the pain they had wanted to spare her.
“I don’t expect it will comfort you,” Dae continued. “But you are not just food to us. You are far more than that.”
“Oo damn ri’ ‘t’s no com’f!”
“You need to understand our attitude. We don’t eat torup on a regular basis. We don’t buy parts; we don’t have our torupi butchered.”
“No, oo fatten i’ oorsel’!”
“Fatten? I don’t understand that word.” Lili dithered a moment, the spread her fingers wide and pulled her arms away from her body, puffing out her cheeks. Dae shook his head.
“No. We don’t do that. You’ve actually been losing weight lately.”
Lili’s glare turned suspicious.
“We fed you soft foods at first--cereals, puddings and milk--because that’s what the baby part of you could handle. You needed foods that you could swallow without chewing. Later on, when you were able to chew, we gave you other things, but for a long time, all you wanted was what you were familiar with. It’s only lately that you’ve wanted a more....varied diet, based on fruit and vegetables. And we’ve indulged you, because we don’t want you to be....obese. We want you to be happy and healthy.”
She scowled at him.
“Tha’s wi oo had tha’.....stuff pu’ i’ mi ees.”
“That was a mistake, and a bad one. It was supposed to keep you safe.”
“Keep mi fro’ ‘scapin!”
“Escaping? Caroline, where would you go? Anyone you met would see you as a torup--nothing more. And unless they brought you back to us.....their sole interest in you would be as food.” Lili burst into tears. Muh started forward, but Dae held up a hand to stop her.
“I know you don’t understand this; maybe you never will, but as I said, you are more than food to us. We love you! You’re a member of our family. If all you are was food, we could have put you in a pen in the cellar or outside and kept you like an animal. But we didn’t. We kept you clean and dry and warm, we held you; comforted you when you were unhappy, protected you from being hurt. When you let us. And now? Now we’re giving you answers. Not because we want to, but because you deserve them. Because we love you.”
Her tears stopped almost as quickly as they began.
“No oo don’. If oo loved mi, oo wou’n’ ki' mi.”
“It has to do with a lot of things. It has to do with knowing where our food comes from, and appreciating it. That’s why we take such good care of you, to thank you for the food you’ll provide us with. It’s why we put so much effort into protecting you--.....”
“Protec’ mi? Oo’s gon’ protec’ mi fum oo? ‘Ike when oo ki' mi?” Dae looked at her unhappily.
“We will protect you! It won’t hurt....not at all. You won’t even know it’s coming. There will be no pain, no horror.......only love. And when you’re gone.......when you’re gone, we’ll continue loving you. We’ll remember you, always. All the more because you’re so special. There is no one else like you, anywhere.”
She sat, breathing heavily until Dae said,
“Caroline.....may I please hold you?” She stared at him in stunned surprise.
“I can see you’re hurting. And it hurts me to see you hurting as bad as you are. It would make me feel better if I could hold you. May I, please?” Lili looked away, thinking. It was just too crazy. Dae was right; she was hurting and badly and she knew she needed arms around her just then, but Dae’s? Oh, the hell with it! She turned back to him and nodded.
He leaned forward and lifted her from the chair, more gently than she expected, and folded her into his embrace. It was a careful embrace; comforting, though not restrictive. If she wanted out, he would let her go. Instead, she melted into his arms, trembling. As he whispered a soft thank you in her ear, a joke occurred to her, one too bitter to laugh at. It was something her Dad used to say. “Man is the only animal that stays on friendly terms with what he intends to eat.....until he eats it.” That’s not true anymore, Dad, she thought. Somebody else is going for the title now. Muh laid a hand on Dae’s arm, her thumb caressing Lili’s cheek.
“There’s something else you need to know,” Dae said, at length. “If you don’t want to stay with us, there is somewhere else you can go. You’ll live longer there, but I don’t know what it would be like for you.” Lili raised her head and turned to look at him.
“Do you remember T’li? The tian that Phiar Waan brings here to see you?” She was nodding when the adult in her slipped away. The baby whimpered.
Both Phiar Waan and T’li noticed a pronounced change in the family dynamic when they arrived. It was subtle, but there was an undercurrent of sobriety, of discomfort. Whether it was with the two of them or not wasn’t clear. They exchanged glances and decided wordlessly to not pursue it. Things happened in families. Psychiatry was best left out of the equation unless it was solicited.
Lili was set in the easy chair, with Siz in her usual position behind and to the right. Phiar Waan set up the camera and T’li sat on the hassock, her full attention on Lili. The baby was dominant and stared blankly at the tian, listening to the musical lilt of her voice. She bent forward and played with her toes, then looked out the window. The tian continued talking. The baby patted her thighs, paused, and kept patting them, then turned to look about the room. At length, the tian stopped talking. Lili stole a glance at her, then quickly looked away.
“Caroline. You can stop pretending. I know you’re lucid right now. You’re pretending you’re not, but I can tell. What’s the matter?” Lili focused on her and her eyes were not friendly.
“I don’ wan’ ‘alk to oo an’ mor.” The tian frowned in concern.
“Cuz’ I don’.”
“Is it something I’ve done?” Lili stopped and thought hard, then shook her head.
“No. I’m jus’ a ting t’ oo.”
“A thing? No, no. You are far more than a thing!”
“I don’ care. Do oor scan an’ ge’ ou.”
She turned to Siz and raised her arms. Siz snatched her out of the chair and folded her arms around her.
“Can’t you see she doesn’t want to do this anymore?” Siz demanded.
“Yes, but why?”
“Cuz I don’!” Lili shrieked. Patting her soothingly, Siz walked toward the phiar.
“Can we please just get this over with?”
“Please,” Muh added. The phiar and the tian exchanged glances again. Waan nodded and drew out the hypo.
While he was conducting the brain scan, T’li gathered the family into the kitchen.
“What’s going on with her?” She asked. The family looked down at the floor. At length, Dae sighed and said,
“A few days ago, she refused to take the Matteria. In fact, she spat it out in my face.” T’li gasped.
“What did you do?”
“At first, nothing. Muh was angrier than I was. She was threatening to spank her, but it only made Lili more upset. Then I realized she was angry. And realizing that, I also realized she had good reason for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well.....as you said, we think of her as a baby, but she’s not a baby. We expect her to behave the way we want her to because......well.....because we think of her like a baby; almost mindless, I guess you’d say. But she’s not mindless. She has as much mind as we do.”
“And you surmised she was angry at that?”
“No. I think she was putting it all together: Why we were giving her the Matteria, why she can’t walk without pain, why we took her to the phiar. And what she saw in the market.” Muh sobbed out loud. Siz went to her at once and put her arms around her. Dae’s eyes misted. “She knew we’d been lying to her.”
T’li bit her lip, thinking hard.
“What did you do?” Dae sighed.
“I gave her what she wanted. Answers.” T’li gasped out loud.
“Do you really think that was wise?”
“Wise? No. But it was honest. We’ve protected Lili as long as we could, but she was at a point where she needed answers. Only honest answers would do. And she didn’t deserve any less.”
The tian closed her eyes, shaking her head.
“I can see your point, but......how did she react?”
“About the way you’d expect,” Muh answered in a shaky voice. “She cried a lot, especially when she wasn’t lucid.”
“When she was lucid,” Dae continued. “She was angry. Furiously angry. At us, at Phiar Waan, at you....”
“And whoever invented the vortex, no doubt,” T’li said. Dae nodded. “I’m assuming you told her about the Science Board’s offer?”
“Oh, yes! We explained that with especial care. That she’d live longer, have a whole staff to look after her.”
“And yet, she appears to have chosen to stay with you. Do you know why?”
“No. Not precisely. She said she’s screwed.”
“Screwed? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, but I think I can guess.”
It had been a long and brutal day. Lili alternately raged and wept, demanded answers and swore at them. When her lucidity slipped away, she burst into tears of agony and they took turns holding her. When she became lucid again and demanded to be put down, they placed her in the easy chair and answered her questions as best they could. They took her raving, her insults and foreign obscenities with resignation.
Some time in the afternoon, Dae was holding her, his arms folded tightly around her, weeping along with her. After a while, her sobs grew softer, her breathing more ragged. She was becoming lucid again. But once her adult part was in control, she did not try to pull away. Instead, she stayed in his embrace.
“What do you think?” Dae whispered.
“Hink? Wha’ can I hink? I’m screwed.” He rubbed her back.
“There’s always the Medical Center. We’d rather keep you here with us, but if you want to go....”
“Go? Wha’ for? Yul’ on’y kill me once. Dey’ll kill me a doz times! I’m screwed eith’ way!” She began crying again, clinging to him desperately. Then, just as quickly, she pulled back and looked him in the eye, breathing hard. “Please......gimme tha’......stuff.....I don’ wan’ hink abou’ this an’ more! Please!”
It took him a moment to realize what she was asking for. Once he did, he nodded and turned his head.
“Muh! Bring the Matteria!” Muh couldn’t believe it and was trying to debate the matter. Lili kept pleading, growing more hysterical. Dae stood up and carried her to the kitchen. With shaking fingers, Siz poured out the dose. Still crying, Lili opened her mouth and swallowed the medication with a grimace. She refused the fruit juice chaser, waiting only for her mind to fuzz over, wanting only the comfort she knew the family would give her.
“It would appear,” T’li said. “That she chose to be loved. Hardly surprising, really. I will address the Board of Science. I expect they will remain interested in her, but I think I can persuade them to stop the weekly visits. Not that I expect her to, but if she changes her mind, please let me know as soon as possible.”
When the scan was done and the equipment was stowed in the vehicle, T’li held Lili in her arms once more. Still under the influence of the sedative, Lili was sleeping deeply.
“If you need any help with her at all,” the tian said. “Her behavior, her health, anything.... please let me know.”
“Will the medical center approve the use of their resources?” Muh asked.
“I think so. As I told you, I am assigned to Lili until she is in our care or.....well, as long as she’s alive.” Lili whimpered, squirming. “I think she’s waking up.” T’li handed her to Muh, then paused. “I ought to have asked earlier.....when you were answering her questions..... did you record any of it?”
“No,” Muh answered, holding Lili close. “It seemed......like an invasion of her privacy.” T’li nodded.
“I understand. Thank you.”
Siz was holding Lili when lucidity crept over her. The moment often eluded Muh and Dae unless Lili spoke to them, and she usually didn’t. But Siz made a study of her and learned to recognize the signs. Ever since she had pleaded to be put back on the Matteria, Lili had been deeply unhappy. Of course, she had plenty to be unhappy about, but it was worse when her adult part drifted into control. So when she became lucid, Siz was almost always the first to notice and make a move to comfort her.
Comforting the adult side of Lili was nearly impossible, but the blessing was that, thanks to the Matteria, the adult part of her was never in control long. The drug confused her, so whatever she was thinking of soon lost its grip. Sooner or later—usually sooner—the baby part of her personality came to the fore. Easily distracted, the baby was also more readily soothed.
The change was often heralded by a whimper; the baby Lili seemed to know that a change was coming. Whether she was worried or merely anticipating wasn’t clear, but a whimper out of the blue—as often as not—was followed shortly by a brief period of lucidity. Hearing the whimper, Siz watched Lili’s face and saw the intelligence and misery creep over it.
She held her a little closer and kissed her cheek to let her know she was aware of the change. Lili moaned in reply, then squirmed deeper into the embrace. Siz caressed her hair and sang softly. Lili whimpered. Muh leaned over the back of the sofa and touched Lili’s scalp.
“Awake, is she?”
“Yes, Muh,” Siz answered.
“Caroline, would you like some—.....”
“Tha’s no’ my ame,” Lili said, her voice a low, rasping moan. Muh blinked several times in surprise.
“It’s not? I thought......”
“Caroline is dead. My ame is Li—.....” Lili suddenly burst into tears. Siz gripped her more fiercely, beginning to cry herself. Muh sat down so she could embrace both of them, trying to comfort herself as well.
In a few minutes, the tone of Lili’s sobs altered. The baby part of her was back. Muh gave her and Siz a kiss and went to get some cut fruit. By the time she got back, Lili was almost done crying. The fruit, pushed into her mouth a piece at a time, distracted her until she could be coaxed to smile. As soon as the fruit was gone, Muh called the medical center and consulted with T’li.
It was the middle of the night when the bed alarm woke Muh and Dae. Lili was at the edge of her bed. Muh sighed and started to push the blankets aside, but Dae stopped her.
“You’ve had a long day. I’ll deal with this.” He got up and plodded to Lili’s room. Lili was lying against the guard rail, bleary eyed and waiting. Dae couldn’t help but smile. No one had told her about the alarm, yet she’d deduced its existence. She never tried to leave the bed on her own, but was not above using its alarm for her own purposes.
“What’s going on, little one?” Dae whispered.
“Lonely,” she rasped in reply.
“We can fix that.” As he reached for her, she suddenly grimaced.
“Oh, damn!” Like many words that peppered her speech, damn was one that had meaning only to her; except that she only used it when she soiled or wet her diaper. The adult part of her was embarrassed and ashamed that she had no control over her bladder or bowels.
Dae said nothing, only picked her up and laid her on the dressing table to change her. As usual, she turned her face to the wall, trying to endure the unpleasant, but necessary operation. But then she surprised him by looking up at him and speaking.
“Sorr’ Dae.” He smiled at her.
“What for?” She gestured toward her waist.
“Ah. Don’t worry about it. I deserve this.” Lili frowned.
“No oo don’.”
He smiled in reply, bent over her and kissed her. She smiled briefly, but was too sleepy and embarrassed to give any other response. With Lili dressed in a fresh diaper, Dae brought her to the bathroom so he could wash his hands, and then into the bedroom. Laid down between himself and Muh, Lili whimpered softly and drifted off to sleep with neither fuss nor fanfare.
They’d known for weeks that Lili—in baby or adult personality—slept best in someone’s arms, so to give her as long and restful a night as possible, they began taking turns taking her to bed with them. Lili was indifferent as to whose bed she shared, except that when awake, she preferred Siz’s company. So as compliant as she was to the family’s wishes, she was noticeably more willing when promised that she’d go to bed with Siz. The bed in her own room was still used for naps, but otherwise remained empty.
The nightmares never truly left her, another advantage to having her sleep with someone. She rarely woke up screaming, except from naps, but her bed mate was generally wakened by her moaning and squirming and made haste to waken her before the real terror took hold of her. In the warmth of a shared bed, she might still cry passionately, but was as a rule, quickly soothed and eased back to sleep. And even if she didn’t sleep, she was content to lie awake in a pair of comforting arms until the adult part of her drifted away. The baby part--if it knew why it was awake--was easily lulled back to sleep.
Sometime in the afternoon, Lili began feeling tired. Whether the adult was dominant or the baby, she was logy and less responsive than usual. At dinner, she had no appetite. Concerned, Muh laid her in a nest of pillows on the sofa and kept an eye on her while they ate. Before the meal was half done, she was asleep. But while the dishes were being washed, she woke suddenly and vomited. The baby was dominant and burst into tears.
Siz grabbed her and washed her face while Muh hastened to clean up the mess, but Lili wasn't done yet. A few minutes later, she threw up again and twice more after that, each time bringing up less. When she seemed empty, Muh laid her on her lap and took her temperature, discovering that Lili had a fever. As she became lucid, she grimaced at the sour taste in her mouth. Muh helped her rinse her mouth out and bedded her down in a kitchen drawer until the dishes were done.
Then Dae brought a rocking chair upstairs and put it in Lili's room. Muh carried Lili up and sat in the rocker. She gave Lili a little water and encouraged her to go to sleep. She stayed in the chair all night, so whenever Lili woke she was in Muh's arms. If Muh had dozed off, she woke quickly, as if sensing her small charge needed her. She gave Lili a little water each time she woke, just enough to keep her hydrated and urged her to sleep again.
If the baby was dominant when Lili woke, she cried; if the adult was dominant, she huddled close to Muh, thankful for her company. In the morning, Lili was laid in her own bed. She was awake and lucid and didn't fuss; rather, she drank her water and tried to sleep. It wasn't easy, but she drifted off shortly after Muh left her alone.
After breakfast, Muh called the Medical Center; T'li arrived within an hour to examine Lili and draw some blood. She gave Muh a bottle of medicine, telling her it could be administered orally or rectally, whichever was easiest and advised her to stop the Matteria until Lili was well.
A few hours later, when the blood had been analyzed, Phiar Ur of the Board of Science called, explaining that Lili had a viral infection, common to torupi. If the family was willing, the Board would treat Lili at the Medical Center at their own expense. Ultimately, Muh declined, thinking it would make things more traumatic for Lili.
At the phiar's suggestion, she put a thick towel on the dressing table, laid Lili on it and draped another towel, soaked in cold water, over her. They took turns watching her, making sure she didn't roll off the table, talking to her when she woke, giving her drinks and periodically replacing the wet towel with a fresh one.
Once Lili woke in her own bed, somewhere between lucidity and limbo, or was it the illness? She didn't know and didn't care. She felt insulted; abandoned. She was accustomed to being in the middle of things, even when she didn't want to be. Who the hell did they think they were to leave her all alone like this? Especially when she was sick and needed company. She was thirsty and wanted someone to hold her.
Then she remembered the alarm. All she had to do was get to the edge of the bed. That would set off the alarm. The alarm would alert Muh and Muh would come to her, ask what was wrong, give her something to drink. And hold her. Muh would pick her up and hold her, whispering sweet nothings to her, or just make white noise. Let her know everything would be all right.
She was lying on her back and tried to roll over…...and couldn't. She had no energy, no strength. Shit! With a groan, she managed to reach out with one arm, but her arm wasn't long enough. That magic line inside the mattress was out of her reach. She kept reaching, stretching her arm out until her joints ached with the effort. To hell with the water! She wanted to be held! And wanted it all the more because she couldn't have it.
She continued reaching, her moans turning to whimpers. Then—as the baby took control—her whimpers turned to fretful cries. The baby was more familiar with blind frustration and knew what to do with it. She cried, louder and louder, telling everyone within earshot that she was in distress. But by the time someone heard her and came to investigate, she had cried herself to sleep again.
After four days, Lili's fever broke. She was lucid, though just barely, when Muh came to look in on her and take her temperature.
“You're temperature is down,” Muh declared, beaming with pleasure. “Are you hungry?” Not up to speaking yet, Lili nodded. Muh brought her downstairs and gave her a small dish of cut fruit. When she finished it, she was exhausted again, so Dae took her in his arms, where she slept. When she woke, she took some milk and went back to sleep. She slept off and on for most of the day and that night went to bed with Siz.
She spent a few days getting her strength back. Her appetite returned. As her head cleared, she began to miss the effect of the Matteria. It was cleaner than the fever. The fever brought with it aching joints and misery. The Matteria did nothing but cloud her mind.
She'd submitted to it so she wouldn't have to think, but now that she could, she was glad to have the family taking care of her, no matter what the future might bring her way. Though on the other hand, she knew exactly what the future was bringing her way. But until then—or at least until they started giving her the Matteria again—Muh, Dae and Siz loved her, and that was all that mattered.
Lili’s last morning was much like any other, and yet different enough that it set off alarms in her head, a fact that made her end more traumatic than the family wished. The most telling factor was that she was most lucid in the morning, when the Matteria had its weakest hold on her. Once she was given her dose--followed by a small cup of fruit juice to wash the bitter taste out of her mouth--her mind fuzzed over. Then, she became lucid only at odd intervals; intervals that didn’t last.
It started when Muh came to fetch her from bed. That was not particularly different; one or another of them always went to wake her. Whoever it was spoke to her, kissed her, changed her diaper and brought her down to the kitchen, where she had her bath. Clean, dry and powdered, she was dressed in a fresh diaper and given her medicine, whose effect she had once resented. And yet, she’d learned to welcome it. Afterward, she was handed around to be kissed, then was put in the highchair and given her breakfast.
This morning, Muh stood over the bed and watched her for a while, her eyes unhappy. Lili opened her eyes and blinked up at her, wondering why Muh was unhappy. Muh lifted her from the bed and held her tightly, nuzzling her hair as she carried her downstairs.
In the kitchen, the table was covered with some kind of film, topped with some thick fabric. Laid upon it, her diaper was removed but not changed. Instead, Muh cleaned her up and gave her an enema. The enema did not surprise her, per se; she knew what they were, but Muh had never given her one before. So why was she getting one now?
Everyone was trying hard to be cheerful, but there was something about it that seemed false, she couldn’t put her finger on what. With her colon awash in warm water, she was put on a potty, another thing they’d never done before. When she’d voided herself, she was moved to the sink, where her bottom was washed with warm water. Then it was back to the table for a second enema. What the....?
For some reason, they wanted her to be good and empty. Exactly why, she couldn’t fathom, though for the past few weeks, she’d gotten out of the habit of thinking. Having realized she was royally screwed and having no good options, she’d settled for being contented in ignorance. It was a comfortable existence, one that had lured her deep into complacency.
When she came off the potty the second time, things reverted to normal. She was given her bath. Siz was washing her, rather slower and more delicately than usual. An alarm was going off in Lili’s head. Siz wasn’t smiling. She was trying to, but her eyes shone with tears. Lili frowned, wondering what in blazes was going on.
Then Siz sobbed. It burst out of her mouth and she turned away from the sink, her shoulders shaking. Lili watched with wide eyes as Dae touched Siz’s shoulder.
“It’s hard for all of us,” he whispered, so softly Lili could hardly hear him.
“I’m sorry,” Siz mumbled. Dae gently pushed her aside and took over bathing Lili.
“Maybe you’d better go outside and calm down.” He said it with utter tenderness. Siz nodded and went to Muh, who embraced her and walked her out of the kitchen.
She was still gone when Dae drained the sink. Smiling down at Lili with misting eyes, he stepped away just long enough to grab the towel. A few seconds more and she was enfolded by it, luxuriating in the feel of it rubbing over her body and limbs. Muh came back into the kitchen and exchanged unhappy looks with Dae, then picked up the medicine cup and poured an amber fluid into it.
Forcing a smile, she walked over to Dae and caressed Lili’s head with her free hand.
“Lili,” she said softly, her voice shaking. “Be a good girl and drink this for Muh.” Lili looked at it with suspicion. At long last, the wheels were turning in her head. She was putting it all together--the way Muh had held her as she carried her downstairs, everyone being unhappy, the two enemas, Siz crying, Dae’s eyes misting over--the puzzle was fitting together.
“It’s not that nasty tasting stuff the phiar told us to give you,” Muh coaxed. “It’s something nice, I promise.” Something nice? Lili snapped her mouth shut and held out her hand, palm out. Dae shook his head at Muh and nuzzled Lili’s hair.
“What’s wrong, little one?” He whispered, a tremor in his voice. Muh’s lips trembled as she caressed Lili’s cheeks.
“Nee’ ta ‘hink!” Lili muttered, though in fact, thought was the one thing she didn’t want just then. It was time for her to die. This was the bargain she’d made by taking the Matteria, to be loved and adored and cared for.......and then die. To be protected from everything--including her own mind--and then be killed. Cooked and eaten. And fondly remembered.
Now that it was here, she wasn’t ready for it. What the hell kind of people loved and cared for someone like a baby, only to eat her in the end? And not think there was anything unusual about it? And worst of all, expected her to submit to it blindly?
Of course, it was her own damn fault. If her brain didn’t recover from.....whatever the hell it was--fragmenting--if she hadn’t recovered so damn fast.....well, she’d still be screwed, but she wouldn’t know about it. Would she? Oddly enough, she found being held close by Dae was comforting. Even Muh’s seven fingers tracing over her face felt good. What was she thinking?
Her arm was trembling with the effort of holding it out, staving off the inevitable. She should just drink the damn stuff, whatever it was. Poison, maybe, though that didn’t seem likely. Muh and Dae always said they loved her. It was a strange love, but it had always come across as sincere. Even now, the two of them were both trying to comfort her. Did they know what she was thinking? She had a strange feeling that they did and were waiting for her to make the first move.
Thinking along those lines--anything to keep her from thinking about what was going to happen to her--she began remembering what Dae had told her, that everything they had done, they had done to protect her. The Matteria, the stuff the phiar put in her knees, the crib, the way they watched her, held her, everything....it had all been to protect her. To protect her from harm, from hurt feelings, from anything they could protect her from.
Of course, now that they were going to kill her, how could they protect her from that?
The answer crept into her head with chilling logic. They couldn’t protect her from death. But...... But they could protect her from pain.....from horror.....though not, apparently, from thinking too much about it. Still, they were doing the best they could. All she had to do was cooperate.
Cooperate? In her own death? She should have chosen the lab! Or should she? They’d let her grow and develop, encourage her to be an adult....and then wipe it all away. Fragment her again and again until her brain was turned to mush and what then? Toss her aside like an old rag? Shit!
She burst into tears; tears of helplessness, of rage, of misery, of she didn’t know what all. But she did not resist the comfort Muh and Dae were still offering, holding and caressing her, cooing and whispering to her. She shook her head and gasped out,
“Screwed!” Then she turned her head toward Muh and opened her mouth. Muh paused a moment, then poured the liquid in.
To Lili’s surprise, it didn’t taste bitter. It was sweet as it flowed over her tongue and felt cool as it went down her throat. They were both kissing her now, telling her she was a good girl and that they’d love her always, and so would Siz. Starting to feel drowsy, Lili drew her arm back into the warmth of the towel.
She kept on crying, not because she wanted to anymore, but because she didn’t know how to stop. It felt so good to be held by Dae. It always had. And to be held by Muh and Siz. They always made her feel so loved! And so safe. So safe.......so........so...... She didn’t have words for how it felt. And in a few minutes, she drifted off to sleep, lulled by the sounds of their voices, the gentle pillow of Dae’s shoulder and the dimming feeling of Muh’s fingers cupping her face.