Decimal

-------------------------

"Get up."

"No," I whispered. "No, not yet..."

Something heavy slammed into my abdomen. "That wasn't a request."

I cracked my eyes open, wincing at the brilliant whiteness of the flashlight inches from my face. Agape knelt on the floor beside me, her lips pressed in a worried line. I curled in a ball and groaned softly.

"What do you want?"

To my surprise, it was not Agape who answered. "I want to know who you're trying to break out of prison."

The flashlight disappeared behind a woman's face. Like Agape, she had pressed her lips together so tightly they seemed white; unlike Agape, she was smiling.

"What makes you think I'm breaking anyone out of prison?"

The woman grabbed the flashlight from Agape and slammed it down across my stomach. "As I'm sure you will agree, Madam, there are few good reasons anyone would want to be arrested."

"What makes you think I wanted to be arrested?" I gasped.

"Viral containment fluid is expensive," she said softly, as if letting the information sink in. "Effective, undoubtably, but highly inconvenient for frequent use. You had this planned in advance. I want to know why."

I shook my head and said nothing. She tapped the flashlight against her thigh, her expression unreadable.

"Very well," she said after a moment. "Keep your secrets. We'll just have to watch you extra carefully."

She rose in one fluid motion, pulling Agape up with her. Her brown eyes glinted as she lit the bare bulb hanging over my bed.

"When we meet again, you had best be ready to tell me your name." Her smile widened, as if she were trying to stretch her lips as far as they would go. "They call me the Marquise."

"Why?" I asked, pulling myself into a sitting position. She shrugged and left the cell, letting the door slam behind her.

I soon found out.

-----------------------------

Agape brought me a pen and paper later that day, along with a tray of what passed for food. The bread wasn't horrible--hard and dry, but not undigestably so--but the soup tasted like sand and seaweed, with a little bit of salt mixed in. The Ocean Special, Agape had called it. I wondered if she'd meant it literally.

I spent a few hours after lunch with the paper spread out on the bed before me, pen in hand and no idea what to say. I had to write something to August, that much was certain. But where could I possibly begin? I sighed and brushed the paper into a pile, careful to avoid crumpling the edges. My letter would have to wait until I thought of some way to deliver it.

Agape had explained that I was to be let out twice a day for meals with other prisoners in the cafeteria. Meal times would be rotated, she warned, to prevent any conspiracy-breeding relationships from springing up between us. The good news was that I was bound to run into every single prisoner in the building eventually--including August.

The bad news was that I would have very little time to speak with him.

And so it was necessary for me to write. Something brief, certainly, and vague enough to avoid incriminating us if it were intercepted.

I gave my head a rough shake and swallowed some metallic-smelling water from the closet sink. Who was I kidding? Letters between prisoners would be brutally opposed, no matter what they contained. And it certainly wouldn't go unnoticed.

That left me only one option. I knew that, if they suspected me of conspiracy, my guards would be closely watching my every interaction. The only way to have August and I escape their notice was to leave a trail of red herrings.

I was going to be the friendliest little bitch the Marquise ever had to supervise.

The thought brought a smile to my face, the first one in days. Who knew what kind of people were Removed to this prison? Maybe I could make a few connections while I was at it. I bit my lip to hold back a laugh and turned back to the paper.

It was a strange, uneven reddish color, obviously recycled. I made a small line in the upper left corner of one page; the ink was brown-black and smooth. Pressing my tongue against the back of my teeth, I began writing the date.

December 18, 31 ACE.

No. I crossed the letters out with one thick line. August didn't care. I didn't care. This date, this world was not important. Nothing was important but getting back home.

Dear August,

I love you.

I folded the paper and tucked it under the mattress.

"What are you writing?"

I gasped and dropped the mattress, crushing my fingers between the springs and the edge of the bedframe. I hadn't even heard Agape come in.

"That's none of your business."

She made a small sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. "I brought you the paper."

"Yes." I glanced at her over my shoulder. She stood leaning against the doorframe, hands folded at her waist. She seemd to be waiting for something. "Thank you."

She laughed again. "Is it poetry? I see a lot of that. Horrid stuff. Are you much of a poet, Ms...Freeman?"

There was no way in hell I was going to correct the name for her. "I couldn't say."

Three steps brought her to my side. She lowered herself onto the edge of the bed and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her thighs. "Who are you writing to?"

I snorted and didn't answer.

Agape leaned in until I could feel the heat of her breath on my ear. "Is it for your baby's father?"

It felt as though she had punched me in the gut. The world went red around the edges of my vision, and my teeth sunk through my bottom lip as I fought to keep from shouting. I rose slowly and began to pace the room. So she knew. How? I looked back at the bed, where she sat perfectly still, her fingertips leaving sharp dents in the skin of her cheeks.

"It was the blood test, wasn't it?"

Agape shrugged. Her eyes had not moved from my face.

"Please," I said, pointing to the door. "It's none of your business."

"I'm not leaving until I get an answer."

"Why do you care?"

"Because," she said, "I might be able to find him."

I felt a sharp pang in my chest, like the wind had been driven out of me. The logical questions of who she was and why she would want to help all melted away in the face of one bitter, unbearable irony.

"By using the baby's DNA?" I whispered.

She nodded.

I buried my face in my hands, shaking my head. "The man I'm looking for," I said softly, "is not my baby's father."

---------------------------------

After that, I didn't see Agape again.

Days passed--at least, meals passed, which were the only sign of passing hours in the windowless cell. After that first meal, the Marquise took me down to the cafeteria, where I was shown to an assigned spot at one of the three long, low tables. The room was never crowded, and the other prisoners made no attempts to start a conversation.

I spent the time composing my letter to August. I wrote of everything I could think of--of Nike and Rhys, Océan and Nickolas, of the University and Galatea and everything I had learned since stepping out of the Decimal. When I ran out of news to share, I wrote about my cell and the worry that had become a constant gnawing in the pit of my stomach. My the time I was done, the bundle of papers was too thick to hide up my sleeve, and I had to settle for tucking it into my boot.

After a while, the Marquise began asking questions. I would look up from the scrap of paper I had been sketching on to find her staring down at me, her dark eyes like two puddles of oil in the light of a flame. One wrong move, and she would explode.

"We will not wait forever, Madam," she said, kneeling on the floor beside me. No difference in height would ever put her beneath me, and she knew it. I pretended not to.

"You're asking for information I don't have," I said. "I think you'd better get used to waiting."

In one motion, she pulled something from her pocket and pressed it against my abdomen. "I think you'd better get used to answering questions."

I tried to fight back a whimper and failed. Whatever she held in her hand, the edge was sharp. The fabric of my shirt parted before it like water.

"There is no arm-twisting here," she hissed, her mouth nearly touching my ear. "How old is your child, Madam? Two months?" Her hand shifted slightly, leaving a sharply stinging line in its wake. "You won't show for a few months yet. And your baby..so small, and yet, already all the organs are there. You see this?" She pushed my head down with her free hand, so I could see the razor glinting on my stomach. "Just a common razor blade, and yet, think of all the damage it could do if I just moved like this..."

I jerked away from her touch, nearly slipping off my chair. Her fist in my hair kept me planted. "Of course, it doesn't need to be razors. We could slip something in your food, or pump ammonia and cholorine through the ventilation shaft..."

"What do you want?" I demanded, forcing my voice level. "I'm not after anyone--"

"I think that's a lie." The razor moved up to my neck. "And I'm not in the mood for that kind of game."

"I'm not trying to break anyone out of prison."

"Then prove it."

I turned my head just far enough to bring her face into view. "That will be rather difficult to do with your razor blade at my neck. Madam."

Her backhanded slap sent stars dancing behind my eyelids. "What's your name?"

"Oh, please," I hissed. Fear made me reckless. I wrapped one hand around her wrist and yanked the blade away from my throat. "Not that game again."

"Did you choose Tamora for any particular reason?"

I couldn't think of a satisfactory answer, and so I remained silent. It took me a few moments to realize that line of heat running down my side was blood.

The Marquise twisted her razor again, and the pain hit me like a wall of fire. "What is your name?" she repeated.

"I've..." I took a deep breath, as if to assure myself I still could. "I've always been partial to Lavinia."

"Lavinia." I've never hated a sound more than I hated my name as it came from her lips. "Do you happen to have a last name, Lavinia?"

"I'm also finding myself partial to Freeman."

"Really." She lifted her razor from my side began wiping the blood from its blade.

I shrugged. I had a poor track record for honesty, and to be honest, I didn't see much point in changing that now.

"I know a Freeman," she said, as if to herself. "Victoria. Perhaps you've met her? You don't look much like her, you know." She tapped a finger against her thin lips. "Do you know the reason for that?"

"Maybe I married into the family?"

She stood and began pacing the room, tossing her razor and catching the blade between two fingers. "Victoria Freeman was a rather special child, you may recall. Poor Tamora never had your luck."

"My luck?"

She turned to me with a sickly grin. "She couldn't have children."

She wanted me to say something, anything. I clenched my fists, forcing every ounce of bitterness into my voice. "Well, I suppose she really regretted missing the morning sickness--"

"You know the truly wonderful thing about science, Lavinia?" the Marquise interrupted. "It knows when to stop. Victoria Freeman is the only one of her kind. The only child ever built in a laboratory, from the ground up, as it were...every gene hand picked by the leading doctors of the day. A wonder of modern science. True, she looked nothing like her family...looked nothing like anyone, when she was younger...but truly a wonder. It's a shame her father--or should I say, her mother's husband--didn't feel the same way."

"Her father?"I latched on to the only part of her words I could think about, the only part that wouldn't make me sick with myself. "What about her father?"

Maman never talked about him. I wonder if he was there when I was born, or if he left before that.

"He saw to it that the experiment was discontinued. That was before the Revolution, of course. He would have been removed for it afterward." Her smirk widened. "Truly removed, too, not just locked up here for life. He vanished after that. Poor little Victoria...a sickness runs in the family, you may recall. Her mother died young." She paused, and an almost thoughtful expression came across her face. "Sickness. That's how they describe it now, you know. Of course they couldn't remove Tamora like a common criminal. But a little bit of something slipped in her meals, off and on for some thirteen years...And then there was Victoria's son."

"What?"

The Marquise shrugged. "I'm not surprised you didn't know. I suppose we can stop pretending you're a Freeman now, can we? Then again, even if you were, I doubt you would have known...Rhys Mertin is hardly the man you want to be fathering any child, much less the child of a veritable Pandora. And so the boy was sick. A tragedy, of course--"

"How do you know all this?" I interrupted, leaping to my feet. "Victoria herself doesn't know what happened to her father!"

"Does that mean that no one does? Her dear Grandmother, for example...Océan Anes. A dear friend of Tamora's." I didn't have the strength to look shocked any longer, and the Marquise didn't seem to mind. "Of course you didn't imagine there was any DNA shared between those two. Océan is quite the puzzle, even if she isn't, ah, entirely French. But I'll bet she knows a good deal more than the rest of us combined. She took the girl in, after all, when Victoria was no more than thirteen."

"And what made Océan the perfect woman to raise your little Pandora?"

She shrugged. "She's mad, of course."

I caught her wrist and pulled her to a halt. "Mad enough to agree to her friend's execution? Mad enough to agree to the murder of her great-grandson?"

We stood still for a moment, both of us breathing heavily as though we had just run for miles. Finally the Marquise broke my grip on her arm. "Yes. Mad enough for that, I think."

She paused at the keypad in front of the cell door. "You know, Lavinia, it's a very odd coincidence."

"What is?" I asked, sinking into my chair.

"I'm quite certain now that you have no relationship with Tamora Freeman, blood or otherwise." She pursed her lips. "Though there is a certain similarity of coloring. And that viral containment fluid you injected yourself with…" She shrugged.

"What is it?" I demanded. "Tell me, or I swear I'll—"

The Marquise cut me off with a wave of her hand. "Nothing. I was just going to say, that viral containment fluid you injected yourself with created a strange similarity between your DNA and Tamora's. And if, as some of us suspect, you never injected yourself with viral containment fluid…?"

The door slammed shut. I went into the bathroom and spend the next hour being sick.


Author's Note:

I know it was a long wait for this chapter, and you probably forgot most of what happened before this. Your comprehension of this chapter was further compromised by the fact that I wrote the last two/thirds while taking a large amount of cold medicine. Please, please point out any inconsistancies or otherwise confusing points here, and I will do my best to clarify them. Thank you very much for your time and your patience.

And if your initials are SLC, thanks for reminding me that this poor story needed an update; this chapter is dedicated to you (the parts that don't sound like they were written while I was doped up on cold medicine, at least. Which means basically the title down to the third paragraph. If you like, I'll print 'em out and sign a copy for you).

Bitter Irony