Theora couldn't believe she was back here, standing in the hallway outside her apartment like nothing had happened. Well, almost nothing. She touched the burned-out vidilock. So this was how they had gotten in without waking her.
"Sorry about that," Edison said. "With all the excitement, I guess nobody remembered to call the super."
Theora nodded, but she wasn't really listening. She felt as though there was a layer of gauze separating her from the rest of the world. Everything seemed indistinct and not quite real.
"Are you OK?" Edison asked.
She nodded again, and pushed open the door.
On some level, she'd known what she would see, but it still made her catch her breath. The sheets had been torn from the bed as she'd been dragged out of it, and were splayed across the floor. They'd knocked over lamps and screens and chairs in the struggle. Some drawers in her dresser and nightstand still hung open; she was confused until she remembered Edison telling her that he'd searched her apartment for clues. "I peeped in your bottom drawer," he'd said sheepishly.
She didn't look at him, but she knew he was watching her. Hovering, in that presumptuous but sincere way that he had. She was grateful – beyond grateful – that he was there, but –
"Right. I need a bath," she said suddenly. It was too much.
Thankfully, Edison didn't pry. "Good idea," he said. "You want me to order some food?"
"If you're hungry," she replied, going to her dresser. No, not pajamas. Something more substantial. She pulled out a sweater and slacks. "Whatever you want is fine."
She hurried to the bathroom. Unlike the rest of her apartment, it didn't appear to have been touched. She turned the small television to a music video station – she never tuned this one to Network 23, not with the prospect of Max showing up at any time – and began to run the water.
She stripped off the VFA jumpsuit. It sat in a heap on the floor, a malign invader in her home. She opened the trash and dropped it in, touching it as little as possible, then stepped into the tub. The water stung at first where her skin was cut and scraped, but the heat was a relief to her sore muscles. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the sound of her own breathing. Images tried to intrude, pain and heat and blood, but she pushed them away. She was home, and safe. She hadn't let them win. Inhale, exhale.
A sudden knock at the door startled her.
"Everything OK in there? Theora?"
Heart pounding, she replied, "Yes, I'm fine."
"The food's here."
Only then did she notice that the water had gotten cold. How long had she been sitting there? "I'll be right out," she called. She quickly rinsed off under the shower, dried off, and dressed.
The first thing she noticed when she came out was that Edison had made the bed. He'd even picked up the stuffed animals and piled them haphazardly on top. The television was straightened up, the lamps at the foot of the bed were upright again, and he'd hung up her viewphone and closed all the drawers. It was sweet of him, but she couldn't help noticing that everything was still subtly out of place. Her muscles tensed, and she found herself sweeping her gaze across the apartment for any more signs that things were not as they should be. She'd have to clean the whole place, put everything right.
Edison stood at the table, unpacking a Zik Zak Snack Attack bag. She could see wrappers for bacon cheese sticks, crunch fries, and bison kebabs. Her stomach roiled.
"Sorry about the food," he said, glancing up at her. "There aren't a lot of places that deliver here."
"That's fine, thanks for getting it." She supposed she probably ought to be hungry. She picked up a kebab and looked it over. It looked revolting, and smelled worse. No, food wasn't what she needed right now. She put it down and sat at her terminal.
"What are you doing?" Edison asked as he came over to stand behind her. As was traditional, he averted his eyes while she entered her access code for the Network 23 mainframe.
"I need to find out who these people were. Who they were working with. If there are any more of them out there."
"OK – but can't you do that in the morning?" She didn't acknowledge him. "Theora, you're exhausted. You should get some sleep. You'll think better when you've had some rest anyway."
She whirled to face him. "Edison, these people knew the name the Bests gave me. They knew about a phobia I'd had since I was five years old. How could they have known that? I need to find out, and I don't need anyone telling me not to for my own damn good!"
He held up his hands. "You're a big girl; you can do what you want. I know you don't like to have people take care of you. I just wish you'd take care of yourself."
"This is how I take care of myself. Gather information, make a plan, and act. It's what I've always done."
He looked at her for a moment. She looked back, impassive. Finally he nodded. "What can I do?"
"I don't know yet. I need more data." She turned back to the console and started to pull up the news archive database. "You can go home if you like; I'll call you in the morning and we can follow up then."
Edison glanced over at the door, with its broken lock. Theora decided not to mind his protectiveness when he said, "Maybe I'll just stick around a while. In case you come up with anything you want me to look into right away." He grabbed some fries. "Besides, we've got all this food."
"Fine." She turned back to her terminal. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him flop down on the couch and start flipping through channels on the television. She noticed that he didn't tune to Network 23 either.
She searched the database for news stories about the Video Freedom Alliance. Nothing. Either they were a new organization, or Network 23 was behind the curve. She guessed she wouldn't have much trouble convincing Edison and Murray to do a story on them.
For now, maybe she'd have better luck identifying her kidnappers. She logged out of the news archive and onto the Diogenes mainframe. First, Borgia. Name (or was it an alias?), image reconstruction, accent, probable birthplace. She compared her result to the VidIdent database: nothing. No match. A Blank? It didn't seem likely. Plastic surgery and a pseudonym, perhaps.
She could feel some of the tightness in her chest easing. This was her element – gathering information, making a plan. She'd even have help acting, this time. Part of her felt like a shirker sitting at a terminal and watching while Edison put himself on the line, but she knew he wouldn't have it any other way. He loved it. She smiled to herself. And she loved what she did.
Billig was next. She constructed his composite quickly and efficiently. One match in the database. Minor criminal record, no connection to Borgia or to the networks. It was something, anyway. She filed the information away.
Now, there was nothing for it but to look for the third kidnapper. She pulled up a fresh template, but couldn't quite bring herself to put fingers to keyboard and begin. Instead, she took a detour to the R&D filesystem and passed some time embedding a "thank you" message in Bryce's new steganography project. It would only take him about six seconds to decode, but it was the thought that counted.
That done, she forced herself to get back to identifying Slauson. She entered in his name, and a guess at his nationality. The composite program came up, waiting for her to fill in a description. She hesitated, then put in his height and hair color. His voice had been low and gravelly. He'd been sweaty, but then they all had, in the heat. She couldn't be sure of his weight, but he'd been heavy on top of her.
She shook her head. That was no good. She needed his features to feed into the program. She needed to remember what his face looked like --
covered in blood from the wound on his skull
She let out a small cry. Her breaths were coming faster and faster, and she had to work harder and harder to pull air in. Her vision began to darken. She needed to slow her breathing down, to get it under control, but every time she tried it felt like drowning.
She felt hands on her. Panicking, she jerked away, almost knocking her chair over.
"Hey, hey, it's all right, it's me. Theora! Can you hear me? It's Edison."
He kept talking; she couldn't keep up with everything he was saying, but she could focus on his voice. She concentrated on that, let it pull her back into the world outside of her head. Her breathing slowed, and the edge of terror dissipated to a sudden overwhelming tiredness. She slumped over, bracing her elbows on her knees. From the corner of her eye, she could see Edison kneeling beside her chair. He rubbed her back in slow, steady strokes.
After a long silence, he asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"
She didn't, exactly, but she knew she needed to get it into the open. "I'd outlived my usefulness," she began, without looking up. "Just before you arrived, one of them took me out behind the house. He was about to … " she trailed off. She wouldn't say out loud what he'd been about to do. Unburdening herself had its limits. "He would have killed me. He saw the chopper and turned around, and I picked up an iron bar and bashed his head in." She could still feel the iron in her hand, a man's life at the other end of it. "I killed him."
Edison took her hand between both of his. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know it probably doesn't help, but you did what you had to." It didn't help, really. But she was cold, and his hands were warm, and that did.
They stayed that way until she noticed Edison subtly shifting to take some of the weight off of his knees. She was getting a bit stiff, too, come to think of it. The idea of stretching out in her own soft bed was suddenly so tempting that she couldn't imagine why she hadn't done it hours ago.
"I think I'm done for tonight," she said, rising and shutting off her terminal.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" Edison asked. He followed her as she walked over to her bed.
"I made a start. I need to cross-reference the information I have on the kidnappers with John Best's personnel files, and he keeps those on a non-networked computer." She sat down and leaned back against the pillows. Edison gave her a look that said, "Is this OK?" and sat next to her. "I'll have to wait until morning and ask him for access."
"You call him John Best?"
"What should I call him?"
Edison didn't respond to that. "I met him."
"Yes, I thought you might have."
"He seemed all right. What happened with you two? If you don't mind my asking."
Her first impulse was to mind. Intellectually, she knew that Edison asked about her because he was her friend, but it was hard to get over years of resisting people who felt she owed them explanations for how she lived her life. "We were never close. He barely even talked to me – his entire life was television. He wanted me to be Simone Best, scion of Network 2. And I couldn't be."
"And he didn't understand why."
"No. I think he wanted what was best for me, in his way, but he barely knew me. You knew me better after a week than he ever did."
Edison smiled wryly. "Some days I feel like I barely know you at all. Like when I saw you walking across that compound with a gun."
"No, but you do. Maybe not the details, but you know what's important to me. You know how to talk to me."
"Well," she smiled a bit, "that's always the way with men and women."
He chuckled. "For what it's worth – maybe you're right about who he wanted you to be. You probably are. But he cares about Theora Jones." He took her hand again, lacing his fingers through hers. "I do, too."
"Flatterer," she quipped automatically. Her heart was pounding. Her throat was so dry she could barely swallow.
"You know me," Edison continued, placing his other hand over his heart. "Dedicated to speaking the truth as I see it."
She let out a shaky breath. The sound came out as something halfway between a laugh and a gasp. "I'm not letting you get on a transport ever again," she blurted out.
"You didn't let me get on this one," he said. She shook her head, not sure what he meant, and he continued, "I couldn't leave without knowing what happened to you."
She felt like she'd been punched in the stomach. She hadn't realized. If she had woken up safe and sound and gone to work on Tuesday morning as always, he'd be dead. She looked down at their joined hands and murmured, "Well. At least some good came out of it."
"I can't say I like thinking about it that way."
"No, it's all right." She looked back up at him and smiled. "It actually helps, a little. Gives it some meaning." A tiny part of her mind bade a heartfelt fuck you to Borgia. Take that.
She'd kissed him, back there in the desert. She'd been so exhausted, and so overcome with relief and joy at seeing him alive, and it had felt so good to hold him, and before she knew it she was sighing against his neck, brushing her lips along his jaw, his lips.
"I think I'm going to take your advice and get some sleep," she said.
"Good idea," Edison replied. Neither one of them moved.
He'd kissed her back, gently. Intimately. She wanted that again.
"Stay," she said.