I walked along the meandering path feeling sorry for myself. Although walked was not the operative word here, limped was more likely. I was in a dirty blue skirt that fell to my ankles showing calf length scratched high-heeled boots underneath. I wore a dusty blouse the arm of which was torn and a spare top wrapped around my arm as a temporary bandage. Across my shoulders was a backpack and slung at my hips was a canteen. I was a sorry sight with my body a mass of scrapes and bruises. Note to self never climb a cliff in a skirt and high heeled boots. It had been a stupid idea and now I was paying for it. I was lucky it hadn't been worse. A wind blew through the waist-high grasses that lined the path. It was a peaceful scene too peaceful almost unreal. I was still sure even after my accident that it wasn't real. I had heard about places like this from before the AI war. Places so perfect that they only existed in virtual reality. The war changed that. Those places, many had fled to escape the chaos became death traps killing all that used them.
I limped on a sprawling farmhouse surrounded by tall trees my goal. It looked as if it had come out from one of those ancient vids about westerns. It even had a picket fence skirting the edge of the property. I thought about a short cross to the farmhouse but that meant climbing over the fence. In my present state not the best of ideas. So I gritted my teeth and hobbled on I'd have to deal with the pain. The farmhouse loomed up in front of me. There was a porch and a set of steps up to it. On the porch were two rocking chairs and table between them. The front door opened to reveal a screen door. I opened that and stepped into a comfortable living room fitted out with a couch, armchairs and tables. It was a large room with a carpeted floor and cabinets lining the walls. There three doors leading off the living room two on the right one on the left. The left hand door led to the kitchen. I froze hearing sounds from the kitchen.
I cast around looking for something to use as a weapon, [The room was styled in late twentieth century furniture with a minimalist look] and could not see anything weaponlike I could use. I was supposed to be here on my own the Keepers had dumped me here and left promising to come back later. I edged to the door my aches and pains forgotten. The sounds were more distinctive closer to the door. It almost sounded like the clink of crockery. Stealthily I gripped the door handle and pulled it slowly down opening the door a crack and peered around its edge. The kitchen was in the same style as the living room with a cooker, refrigerator, cabinets and sink. In the centre of the room was an oval table surrounded by four chairs. A figure leaned over the sink washing my discarded crockery. I had just left them there unwashed when I decided to go on my little jaunt. Thirika would have had punished me with hard exercise for being slovenly. The thought made me feel a little melancholy.
The figure was tall with my colour hair to her waist. She wore a skirt and blouse in mauve. The blouse was long sleeved and currently had the sleeves rolled up as she washed my dishes. Even seeing her from behind I recognised Mouse. It suddenly occurred to me that it might not be. She didn't have wings, these same wings I had stupidly thought were some elaborate cape. She had displayed them when she had confronted the Guardians little knowing what they had done to me.
"Mouse?" I hazarded unsure if it really was her.
The figure turned and relief filled my heart. Mouse was taller than I with an angular face that had my features as if she was me a couple of decades older. The Keepers had used my DNA to remake themselves so they all looked like a variation of me.
"Gwen Hunter," she said then her eyes narrowed and she sighed. "Oh Gwen what have you done?"
Mouse using the same tones as my mother had done nearly broke me. A wave of homesickness threatened to overwhelm me. She strode over to me her hands wet and guided me to a chair at the kitchen table and sat me down.
"Are you ok?" she asked concerned.
I had to be truthful. "I ache all over." I gave her a suspicious look. "You told me I'd be safe here?"
"You should have been," Mouse replied studying my bruises and cuts in minute detail. "But I can't protect you from your own stupidity."
I choked on her comment she was right about that. I glared at her. "I wouldn't be here if not for you?" I accused her.
"Ah Digger," Mouse uttered.
I turned to see Digger standing behind me her expression hard. I wasn't sure if she was angry with Mouse or me. "What have you been doing girl?"
I bristled at her comment. Before I could form a reply she pulled me out of the chair and had me standing straight. Her touch was firm but gentle.
"Now let me have a look at you?" Digger scowled her eyes on Mouse. "Clothes off!" she said to me.
I stared at her shocked. "What?"
"You heard me the first time. Don't be a prude I've seen it all before?" Digger seemed to be taking on more human mannerisms. But that was a far as she went unlike Mouse she had retained her wings.
I knew I couldn't win so I stripped off sure she would have done it herself if I didn't comply. Which made me more uncertain of whether I was in a virtual world.
Standing naked on the kitchen floor Digger circled me taking note of my injuries as if they were some sort of personal affront to her.
"Nothing that can't be fixed," she said. "Be more careful in future."
She reached out and touched the gash on my arm. I winced as she ran her finger down it. I watched it fade and vanish not even leaving a scar behind. She did the same to all my scrapes and bruises. I watched in amazement as they all disappeared before my eyes. This was faster than the cell stitchers the Confeds used.
"Better now?" Digger asked me in a softer tone than she had been using.
"Yes, thank you," I replied flexing my formerly gashed arm and not feeling any pain or stiffness.
"Just don't do that again. Now grab a shower. Mouse's been dying to show off her culinary skills she'll fix you something to eat."
I noticed Mouse giving Digger a flinty look. I decided that I should have a shower it was better than listening to them arguing. As I bent down to pick up my clothes Digger spoke.
"Leave those, Miss Domesticated here will do them."
I could feel the heat of Mouse's glare at Digger. Mouse's reply was in the odd language that they spoke. It sounded like something half way between birdsong and screeching sounds that could have never been mimicked by a human voice. I hurried out rather than get caught up in their heated discussion.
Stepping out from a refreshing shower I slowly regarded my reflection in the full-length mirror I had there. The image staring back at me looked like me and as hard as I tried I could find anything to tell me any different. Even though I couldn't find anything I still had my doubts. With that thought in mind I crossed the short distance to my bedroom. It was a large room, with a double bed and closets and a dressing table the theme from the living room and kitchen carried on in here. I noted the bed had been made. I suddenly felt guilty about that since I hadn't bothered making it when I decided to go on my trek. I selected clothes from my closet and dressed. Not that I had that much choice in my selections. The closet contained skirts and tops in a multitude of colours. That was that it was all there was. I had a drawer that contained underwear that had more variety. Dressed in a comfortable skirt and top in teal with matching underwear I headed to the kitchen.
Digger was nowhere in sight when I returned. Mouse was stood at the cooker cooking which had me shocked. I hadn't even thought she'd be capable of that. Digger's snide comment about Miss Domesticated seemed more than just a sneer. My stomach rumbled at the thought of food.
"Sit down Gwen," Mouse said without looking at me. She loaded up a plate and turned to me.
I seated myself at the table there was already a place setting for me. It looked like Mouse had gone the whole way. I had to wonder if she had an ulterior motive in her actions. She placed a plate of food in front of me and stepped back regarding me critically. I examined what she had placed in front of me. I would have sworn blind I was looking at bacon and eggs except there were no pigs and no chickens to be found anywhere I had explored in my time here. Even I wasn't that ignorant as how food was produced. My stint on Alfheimir had included farm work and wilderness survival where I had find and kill my own food or starve. I was aware of her every glance as I ate the food she had made.
"Is it good?" she asked anxiously.
I hadn't the heart to tell her it tasted bland. All I could do was nod.
"Good, good," she replied sounding unconvinced.
As much as didn't want to I had to ask. "Two weeks!" I blurted out.
"What?" Mouse sounded surprised.
"Two weeks or that's how it felt?" I was sure I'd been here two weeks then I wasn't sure about anything here. "You dumped me here and promised to come back. I waited two weeks. I couldn't stand it any longer!"
Mouse's expression was sad. "Oh Gwen, I'm so sorry. I hadn't realised." She gave me the eye. "That isn't the real issue here is it?"
"I want an explanation of how I'm here and I'm not?"
Mouse sighed. "I did explain at the time. I really thought you'd understood?"
"Well I don't!" I paused, my expression set. "Is this place even real?"
"I told you and will keep telling you it is. As you are."
I remained unconvinced. "But...?" I leaned forward my gaze intense my hands flanking the plate on the table.
"What would you rather be. Stuffed in stasis or walking around interacting with the world around you?" Mouse queried me.
I hadn't an answer for that so I went on to my next problem. "But this isn't me?" I indicated my body.
"That part is true. We did transfer your essence to a copy of yourself. We had to maintain the fact you are still in stasis. Anything else would have set off alarm bells with your abductors."
"I'm a clone?" I was having difficult accepting what Mouse was saying. I was so confused.
"That you are not!" Mouse stated firmly.
"I can't see the difference?"
"A clone would be an exact copy of you without your essence. It would be a body without the life experiences that make you, you." Mouse shrugged. "You're better asking Digger about that. It's more her field than mine?"
Mouse stood opposite and composed herself before continuing. "You are you, your essence is what makes you, you."
I still wasn't getting her distinction. I felt I was in way over my head with no clear idea of what was happening.
"We just transferred your essence to this body we created."
"I'm…" I hesitated trying to order my thoughts into a single coherent thought and failed dismally. "Not sure what to think," I said lamely. "Why did you not leave me where I was?" That was the bit I couldn't comprehend. If stasis worked the same way as cell stitchers worked I wouldn't have even known I was there?
"Because your body may have been in limbo your mind will not be."
"That's not possible you have no concept of time within a cell stitcher?"
"Anyone else but you." Mouse reached out and touched my hand reassuringly. "You are a different story."
"I don't understand?" I seemed to be saying that a lot. This wasn't a time to keep my repeating words to a minimum.
"I can't be that complicated?" I responded.
Mouse seemed to be avoiding my question. "It is."
I knew she was lying. I wasn't sure how but I could see her squirm. "Part of your mind will always remain awake. It's how we are able to contact you so easily," she said lamely.
I considered her words. It took me time to respond. "That's not…" I trailed off and re-ordered my thoughts. "No that's…" I trailed off again. "Hell I don't know anything anymore. If you meant to confuse me, well done you've succeeded?"
Mouse pulled out a chair and sat down heavily a sad look upon her face. "We don't want to. But it's hard to explain something that is beyond your concept to understand. I don't want you be hurt because we said nothing." Mouse rubbed her forehead in a very human gesture. "I'm sorry."
I wasn't sure what to think. "Ok," I said finally and changed the subject looking for firmer ground. "Right I'll just have to accept that." I hadn't wanted to but I was starting to get a headache. The last thing I wanted was for Digger to return. "Do you know where my real body is. Who took me, why and where are they taking me?" My last coherent memory was going to the bathroom at a club on Davenport. I had been there with Monica and Alicia, the women celebrating their newfound freedom before we boarded a ship heading for Saros. That was my last memory, my next was standing in this kitchen with Mouse.
"You are currently in hyperspace as you call it. The second you abductors are Enari. We do not know why we can't read their minds. And the last you are going to Alfheimir."
"Oh wonderful," I said sarcastically.
Mouse took my words in the wrong context. "You are pleased?"
"No I was being sarcastic."
Mouse looked at me her expression serious. "I see, there is much you can teach us. We can learn together."
Despite my confusion with everything going on around me she surprised me with her earnestness. She suddenly looked up her eyes distant a distinct frown on her face. She returned her glance to me with sadness.
"I have to go the First One wants to talk to me." Some expression on my face made her speak up. "The First One made this world for us."
I swallowed hard unbelieving what I was hearing. "They can do that?" I felt such an idiot asking that. They had done the same for the T'Arni creating them gift worlds for compensation for their slavery by the Rhosani. I wondered if there was a parallel between the First Ones and the story of creation in the bible. I refused to speculate on that I'd got enough of a headache just processing what was current.
"But they cannot restore my race only you can do that."
Before I had a chance to ask her what she meant she vanished. I stared at the place she disappeared from for a while. I shook myself and cleaned up. Tired and with a headache threatening I went to bed.
The sound of movement woke me from a less than restful sleep. I threw off the covers on my bed and slipped out of bed a quietly as I could. I stalked to the door of my room not bothering to get dressed. I eased myself into the hall that separated this side of the house from the living room clad only in my underwear. I had trained with the Valkyrie wearing less but I had to be ready for anything. Quietly I entered the living room to see a figure facing the window out running a hand along the frame. The stranger was a Keeper but not one I recognised. Then I'd only ever seen Digger of Mouse and it was neither of them. The Keeper had long dark hair that almost hid her wings, She wore a long dress in muted yellows that reached to the floor. I must have made a sound but I had been as stealthy as I could. She turned and I found myself looking at her face. Like all Keepers I'd encountered and there had only been two. I could see my face in hers although a younger version of me with a Keeper's angular features.
"Oh hello," she said.
Something clicked in my mind I'd heard her voice before.
She waved at the windows. "This place is fascinating." I heard simple enthusiasm in her voice.
"Who are you?" I asked rather curtly I hadn't meant to I was ready for a fight.
"Scout," she replied.
Suddenly it clicked. I'd heard her voice on Davenport where I rescued Monica and Alicia.
"I must say you look less intimidating in the flesh as in your mind." She paused seeming to be thinking. "I was more that a little scared when Mouse… I was told to call her that when speaking to you, passed this assignment on to me."
"Sorry wrong word," Scout apologised. "I'm to learn from you and I am being punished although that's not quite the word for it."
"For judging your actions too quickly. I must learn from others and not be too quick to condemn them. Mother… I mean Mouse was clear on that."
I stared hard at Scout. "You are Mouse's daughter," I asked disbelieving.
"Not at all. Mouse made a promise to my parents." I heard Scout's voice catch and I swear I could see her eyes shine with unshed tears. "To look after me." Her words stumbled out and a single tear trickled down her cheek. "I wanted to be an exile. Then I could of… No I couldn't be like them."
I could hear the pain in her voice. "Scout?"
She continued stuttered her words out. "When…when I saw them killed. They just sat with the others and sang songs while they were slaughtered." She put her hands to her ears her hands shaking. "They bought us time to escape."
I felt my heart lurch. I stepped close to Scout and hugged her while she cried onto my shoulder. I stood with her clutched to me as she poured out her traumatic tale. My blood ran cold on listening to her story. Human history was fraught with atrocities but they paled into insignificance as to what had happened to Scout's people. I hadn't comprehended it when Mouse has told me of her war with the Guardians. Scout's tale was darker. I couldn't believe what had happened. Ours was bad Nazi concentration camps, racial genocide none as totally barbarous as this. Even with in the Succession War when we, as in the Empire nuked five cities on Davenport. The total population of those cities were less than the population of Nagasaki. This was far worse countless lives lost for what? I didn't know how to answer that I'd no words to express what I felt at that moment.
I stepped out of the hug and regarded the tearful Keeper in front of me.
"You'll be ok?" I wondered why the Keepers had sent her to me I couldn't teach her anything. It didn't seem logical.
"Thanks," Scout sniffed.
I was lost for anything to say finally I asked. "Are you hungry?"
Scout's lower lip trembled she hesitated before saying. "Yes, um is it permitted?"
A thought occurred to me, I'd never seen any of the Keepers eat. "You do eat?"
"Of course but not live food?"
Scout's statement threw me. "Live food?" I hadn't even considered that. I knew some animals eat their food alive it had never occurred to me that it might have applied to the Keepers. For some reason I had the impression that they were herbivores.
"What no meat?"
It limited the availability of food I had to hand. Well that was the last time I'd looked. Mouse had cooked what looked and tasted like bacon and eggs for me without any qualms.
"No," Scout said emphatically.
"Ok," I said. "Do you mind if a ate it?" I enjoyed the taste of voedi the Valkyrie cattle but that didn't make me a carnivorous savage.
"Why should I be?" Scout looked at me. "You are not me." She paused. "No that's not true, part of me is you."
I remembered Mouse saying the computer used my DNA to remake the Keepers after I'd inadvertently released Mouse from her imprisonment as a column of data. "I see."
I ended making Scout a bowl of oatmeal and honey I conveniently found in the store cupboard. They hadn't been there the last time I'd looked in the cupboard. I suspected this had been Mouse's doing. After Scout had eaten her meal I showed her how to wash up. Then we cleaned the house. At the sun set I glanced at my new companion and wondered why she had stayed so long.
"Are you staying here permanently?" I asked Scout.
"If you permit me?" she replied hesitantly as if I was angry with her. "Can I stay for the full six weeks as you measure time?"
"That was I was told and then you go back to you original body."
I considered her words six weeks wouldn't be that long. I was wrong it was six weeks of hell.