Evening in the Library Arcanium was still quite full of activity. Mostly because it was still midday for many people, and those who didn't have obligations in Real Life were coming on duty just as those for whom it was past dinnertime were beginning to relax.
Alice was introducing Robert to Enya music and helping him on his archive binge for his exam while Louise sat on the floor of their room and puzzled out a new red Magic deck. Red and Danielle were having a 'dye-off' in one of the largest public bathrooms, challenging each other to get the funkiest colour. There was a large TF2 campaign going on in the Library's main auditorium, plugging the games consoles into the eye-wateringly massive screen.
Down in the basement, Tash and Rhia were trying to make the chore of feeding the Sues into something more fun. The latter was the one officially on duty, but roping in the former's enthusiasm to help with dinner had made things much easier. They had seen a cooler full of ingredients, a portable stove and the largest wok anyone had ever seen being brought down into the duty office and dinner for twenty-four hungry inmates made fresh instead of being boringly replicated from base proteins and sugars.
The smell of the properly authentically-prepared stir fry permeated the prison, chasing away some of the residual sour smells from repeated hoarding attempts. Many of the inmates savoured the aroma, bellies rumbling in anticipation; for several months the food had been very good, but though while many were enjoying the new diet, some of the more cynical Sues were still adamant that it wouldn't last.
But once more, these skeptics were reduced to a chuntering, but mostly semi-grateful silence as the high-spirited Tash began doling out large, full bowls of a delicious-looking jumble of meat strips, vegetables, noodles and sauce, all bound together and glossy with richness and freshness. She started in the cells closest to the door and began to work her way back, often disappearing back for more while those who had been already presented with their bowl fell upon the meal with great relish. Several even called for seconds, to be answered with Rhia's giggle and a reply of "Wait until everyone's fed their firsts first!"
A low, satisfied banter rumbled softly around the basement as Tash gave Block C their dinner. She handed a bowl to McLaren, who gave a grunted "Thank you" in response. It was clear that the Stu was hungry as, after first looking through the contents of the bowl, he twisted some of the noodles around his fork, and shoveled them into his mouth.
It tasted very good, just as good as it had smelt; although there was something at the back of his mind. Like a tiny warning signal. Something was wrong.
He looked around at his fellow inmates. Tash was just finishing off doling out D Block's dinner, and the others were eating with gusto. It was obvious that no-one expected this change of attitude to last, and were going to make the most of it.
McLaren placed a hand briefly on his stomach. He was beginning to feel a little nauseous. Maybe it was the lack of food that had been there previously.
He twisted a second forkful of noodles up, and started to eat them. It was a little harder to eat this forkful. A knot in his stomach was trying to tell him that something was most definitely wrong. He forced the second mouthful down, wincing a little as he swallowed.
Leaning forward, McLaren felt his head spin. His breath was now coming in short gasps, but he was determined to finish his dinner. With slightly shaking hands, he clung to the bowl as he inserted the fork for a third mouthful, but the utensil slipped through his fingers as he picked it back up, and clattered to the floor.
Bending down slightly to pick it up, he heard Holly's voice from the next cell over. Their beds were on opposite sides, and in using it as a seat they faced each other.
"McLaren?" She sounded concerned.
"Fork…" he gasped, still trying to reach it.
"Oh dear," she said, leaning through the bars and collecting his fork, and handing it to him. McLaren's fingers wrapped around the metal, but as Holly released it, there was a loud clatter as it hit the floor again.
Holly was now really worried. She reached as far through the bars as she could. Fingers just brushing McLaren's hand, she gently asked, "McLaren, what's wrong?"
McLaren had leant forwards, his elbows resting on his knees. He was shaking and his breath was now panicked gasps.
"Ryouga," Holly called to McLaren's other neighbour, "can you hold McLaren up? Make sure he doesn't fall off his bed…"
Ryouga turned, saw that something seemed off, and nodded. His bed was practically touching McLaren's on the long edge, with just a wall of steel bars separating them. He reached through his bars to hold on tightly to McLaren's shoulders.
Holly looked around. The leader had long finished dishing up the first round of stir-fry and had retreated to the office to have her own helping. Neither she nor the agent on duty had no idea that McLaren was ill.
"McLaren…" Ash now came to the corner of his cell, which joined on to both of theirs. Reena was watching silently, and Kerrie was beginning to panic herself.
"Leave off him, Ash." Holly defended to sick inmate, but the look on Ash's face told her that he was just as concerned.
McLaren was wheezing, seemingly unable to get enough air. His vision was tunnelling, his arms and legs were tingling enough to become painful, there was a hot feeling in his chest and an inexorable sensation that he was about to die. Holly's fears rose further as she noticed a growing puffiness around his eyes and red welts forming on his skin wherever Ryouga touched him.
Ash looked in shock at the growing emergency, and then down at his bowl.
Ryouga was beginning to find it tough to keep both of them upright. "Holly, we need to get help."
"They won't listen!" shrieked Kerrie.
"They will – there's no way this isn't real," said Holly.
"We need to GET them to listen first," said Reena, thinking logistically. "We're too far down from the office…"
"Hey! B Block guys!" hollered Ryouga suddenly. Somehow, a lot of them hadn't noticed the drama, but at his yell many looked over. "Get the agents' attentions! We need them down here. McLaren's ill. Pass it on!"
Declan, alone in A Block and the only current inmate in green, realised his name was being shouted through his reverie of a good book and a good meal. He could see the struggle playing out two blocks away, and the notes of alarm in the voices of those shouting at him to act.
And act he did.
"TASH! RHIA!" He licked his fork clean and banged it against the bars. "GUYS!"
Rhia, mouth full and hogging a bowl of her own, popped her head out of the office on a wheely chair. "Huhwha?"
"Rhia, someone's become ill. People are worried. They need help. C Block I think –"
"Someone's ill?" said Tash, popping her head out at a taller height than Rhia.
They just about made out a cry of "he's barely breathing!" from somewhere deeper within.
Tash was galvanised into action. Throwing her bowl on the side, she swept up C Block's keys and grabbed the green first-aid box from a shelf. She bounded down to the third group of cells – and paused to take in the scene.
There was only one thing that could elicit such wheezing, swelling and bright red hives like this…
"Oh shit, he's going into anaphylactic shock!" she said, scrabbling for the right key to McLaren's cell. "RHIA! Get the med staff down here!"
Rhia vanished, and a low alarm began to sound that would only be heard in the hospital wing.
Tash threw the barred door open and hurled the box onto the bed. "McLaren? Okay, listen to me – we've got to get you to calm down. Ryouga, keep him up for me…"
She wrestled with the bowl he still clutched, placing it under the bed. He grabbed for her hand and mouthed 'help me'…
"We will. We are. I promise. We need you to breathe. Breathe…" She dug around in the first-aid box with one hand, growing frustrated as she slowly realised this box had no adrenaline autoinjectors whatsoever…
McLaren was beginning to turn blue, almost pleading with Tash silently to not let him go. It seemed an age before she heard Phoenixia and Valerie's voices.
"Have you injected him?"
"No! There's none in the box!"
"Damn it! Hold on… Val, take his other hand!"
"Guys, we know you're lovely, can we borrow some pillows?"
They laid McLaren down with a pile of pillows propping up his head, and Phoenixia dug a packet of autoinjectors from her larger, EMT-stocked medical case. The first one she cursed at and tossed away for being out of date. The second was acceptable; she pulled off the cap and pushed the tip of the pen against McLaren's thigh, holding it in and allowing the needle to penetrate the fabric of his trousers and into his skin.
"Will that work?" came Holly's voice again.
"It won't be enough. Get him stable and then we can get him out…"
All they could do was try to keep him breathing, which was a losing battle.
Further up the basement, some of the girls who made up the right-hand edge of B block heard footsteps and a swish of fabric; they saw Adrian respond to the alarm and stop to take in the situation.
"Adrian!" shrieked Deliha, causing the Librarian's head to snap towards them.
"Something's happened to McLaren!" said Aaliyah, kneeling on her bed and clutching onto the bars.
He took a step towards them. The entire block stared at him fearfully.
"Tell me more," he demanded.
"I – I don't know, he was just eating his food, and then – and then he just fell down," gabbled Maria.
"Nixie was saying something about not having enough –"
Tiffany was cut off by Adrian nodding. "Right. Thanks girls – I think I'd be more useful upstairs." And without a second glance he turned and ran for the stairs.
By now Phoenixia had intubated McLaren; despite the adrenaline, it was going to get worse before it got better, and she decided the risks of attempting to get the tube down his swelling throat were not worth the increasing danger of shutting off his airways all together. Valerie and Tash's hands were nearly getting crushed; wherever something touched his skin, violently red wheals rose up.
Finally the three took a stretcher, fed into the cramped cell by Rhia, strapped the Stu to it and the two medics raced for the stairs.
And suddenly the energy in the basement dropped. With no more drama to see, the shock from the inmates was near tangible. Tash and Rhia stared at the empty cell, then looked up at the silent press of yellow, punctuated with orange, blue and a singular green around them. Dinner had been almost forgotten…
Ash broke the silence by hurling his quarter-empty bowl out the slot in his barred door, turning his back on it as it shattered on the concrete floor. He pointed straight at Tash.
Several Sues jumped at the smash, and at that single electrifying word, stared at him in disbelief.
"That's it, isn't it? You've gone through all this pretense of better food and better timing all to cover up the FACT, proven now, that you are planning to kill us all off." He turned to address those in his block and in the block behind. "Better get ready people, this is the beginning. They're bumping us off one by one. We're never going to see him again."
Both Rhia and Tash gaped. To their disappointment, several Sues nodded slowly in assent.
"Are you insane?" choked out Tash. "What would we have to gain from that?"
"Oh I don't know; suddenly a lot less work for you!"
"Our reputation's already down the toilet! Why would we make it worse?" said Rhia, her voice rising through the octaves.
"Look," said Tash heavily, trying very hard to stay coherent. "If we were going to knock you all off – which we're not – why would we go to the trouble of poisoning you and then calling for help?"
"To make it look better, obviously!"
"No! We wouldn't have done it. Look, we cooked the entire thing in the same huge wok, which I don't think has been used before today. The bowls are unmarked, the food is the same, Tash gave them out randomly. Only one has fallen sick!"
"Then how come I've lost my appetite?" came Fabian's accusing voice from behind them.
"Yeah, seems mighty convenient to me," agreed Alexander Whitestone, still in orange, from D Block.
"Rubbish!" yelled Declan from nearly at the entrance.
Many voices rose as the argument threw back and forth. Others were silent, wondering if this was the end of good treatment. The cell at the other end of C Block seemed completely empty, but the girls knew the inmate well enough to know that Tabitha would be hiding under her bed. Her neighbour on the other row was the only Sue in the basement who hadn't bothered to care about the drama and the ensuing argument whatsoever; Roxelana continued eating nonchalantly, reading a magazine.
Tash growled angrily. "This was an allergic reaction, for God's sake! No one else is going to get sick! This was not poison, and it's not an illness. It was bad luck. That's all there is to it!"
"But what could he have reacted to, Tash?" asked Rhia, turning towards her. "Especially to that extent. What did we put in?" She glanced to the ceiling, trying to remember. "Noodles, chicken…"
"He never said he had an allergy this bad, otherwise we would never have fed him anything that could have set him off. It was all normal fresh food, and we'd have known by now if he reacted to any of that!"
Rhia had paused in the middle of counting the ingredients on her fingers, her eyes suddenly wide. "Tash…we cooked it in peanut oil…you wanted it authentic…"
The taller woman's breath caught in her throat. "Crap. That's very possible." She bit her lip and met the gazes of the Sues around her. "But – why didn't he tell us? Oh God, that's stupid, not to mention dangerous!"
"Oh, so you DID poison him!" Ash grinned triumphantly. "That's a confession, you murdering bitch!"
"For the love of Christ!" gasped Tash. "Are you deaf or just stupid? I just said we didn't know! He never told us!"
"Cut it out, Harth!" snapped Matthew Slaymaker, the third blue T-shirt of the basement and in the block behind the two agents. "You're over-reacting. She didn't know of the allergy and neither did we."
"Thank you, Matthew!" said Rhia.
"Believe what lies you bloody want, and more fools you if you keep eating their shit. But you mark my words; no-one's making it out of here alive. And to think I almost believed that this hellhole was getting better."
"Y'know what, I don't have to listen to your garbage. Because that's what it is, GARBAGE!" Tash turned on her heels and almost ran for the exit.
"Tash – where are you going?" Rhia ran after her. She could tell that Tash was about to burst into tears.
"Fuck knows!" she yelled over her shoulder.
As the basement door banged shut, there was a last tense moment, and then several of the Sues sighed, almost deflating. Others glared towards Ash, who looked morbidly triumphant.
"Well done Ash, you twat. Well done," grumbled Reena, staring at McLaren's empty cell.
The clock on the sterile pale walls read two in the morning. By now everyone was either asleep or beginning to think of it.
Out of the usual inhabitants, one individual had more need for regular sleep than the others. And rather stupidly, but adamant that she could catch up later, she was the one awake enough to watch the clock hand tick over.
Alice yawned and sat back in the padded plastic chair that was one of those seemingly spawned endlessly by hospitals. This room was one of the couple of multi-functional individual units that were tucked away on one side of the hospital wing, and contained little more than her chair, the bed, associated medical paraphernalia, and of course that damned clock.
In the bed was McLaren, still recovering from his severe allergic reaction in the basement – and several subsequent relapses each an hour after the last, just as they thought he was out of the woods. He was being pumped full of adrenaline and fluids, and the constriction had lessened enough to allow him to breathe unaided again, after having passed his breathing test, even though he was still being assisted via an oxygen mask and the monitors kept a close eye on him.
The med staff had adhered to the tenets of their occupation, but they weren't happy with him. Few others could bring themselves to feel much more than contempt for the arrogant teenage Stu, but the leaders were frustrated that all their hard work over the past couple of months could have gone down the drain, as it proved McLaren still didn't trust them enough to tell them such important medical information. Alice herself thought he had been very silly… but there was something else that kept her by his bedside, waiting for him to wake so she knew he would be okay.
He had been her first and only capture, her only tangible success during her entire time in the Society, and technically it wasn't solely her own.
He was blithely prideful and refused to listen, two things Alice did not value highly. He was caught in the Warhammer 40k fandom, a massive and dangerous universe where any Sue would likely die quickly, and be so obvious that those they could not influence could detect it and commence orbital bombardment, let alone catch the attention of the Society. Or, she smirked as she recalled her first mission, the 'Ordo Maria-Rosa', as had been blurted out randomly on the spot.
She did feel pity, the fearful looks on his face when all had gone wrong – seen against the Crimson Fists, momentarily during his brief rebellion in the Basement Incident, and when he lost control and succumbed to the allergen only a few hours ago – remaining a poignant thought.
As the clock ticked onwards, she finally watched McLaren stir in his bed, and mumble softly.
"McLaren?" Alice rubbed his arm gently. "We had to bring you to the hospital wing. You're going to be all right now."
He glanced around blearily, his gaze settling on Alice.
"Do you remember what happened?" she asked.
"I… I ate…" His voice was muffled by the oxygen mask.
Alice nodded, and he realised what he'd done. Heaving a sigh, his head flopped back into the pillows.
"Why are you here?" he asked; with his lucidity returning, so to was his usual egotism.
It took Alice several moments to respond. "I had to make sure you were okay…"
He didn't reply any more than a shake of the head. Alice patted his arm one last time and stood up. "McLaren, it's half two…I need to go to bed. I'll come visit you later, 'kay?"
"Sure…" he murmured, half-asleep, but clearly not believing her.
"Well, this is going to be interesting…" Alice murmured to herself as she wandered the corridors.
The meeting called that late morning, waking her up, had summed up a few items of news that they already knew. Unexpectedly a new mission demand had come up at the same time; in her usual exuberance she volunteered to go, pulling Robert in with her. She paused briefly as she wondered whether he actually wanted to go, and hoped he was all right with it…but then she remembered they were heading into Sea Monsters, and always enjoying a well-made documentary, she couldn't resist. She wondered whether she'd get to see a Tanystropheus, her favourite long-necked piscivore archosaur.
After the meeting and the subsequent lifesaving lesson from Harriet, they had gathered in the Wardrobe, and issued with their gear for the boat. Alice wore a bright yellow T-shirt and knee-length blue shorts, belted securely and topped off with a buoyancy aid vest. She was always a little dubious about shorts as they showed off her legs, which she considered to be a little too meaty for viewing…at least she had no need for a wetsuit, as she would not be diving because it was far too great a risk to her epilepsy. Not that she minded.
They had been given half an hour to gather some personal stuff or faff while they finished packing the yacht. Alice, bag in tow, had decided to check one last time on McLaren.
Past the beds of sedated agents recovering from Plot Bunny bites, she slipped past Phoenixia – who was plugged into some personal music player and was bopping silently as she did a few chores around the Hospital Wing – and pushed open the door to the individual unit. She heard the latch click closed behind her.
McLaren was awake, and sitting up in bed. He wasn't hooked up to so many monitors now. A plate strewn with toast crumbs sat on the side table, but he looked bored.
"Morning," she chirped cheerily.
He looked at her, and past the moment of surprise, the usual resentment of his long-term situation settled back in his expression.
"You look a lot better," she continued, suddenly worried about his scowl. "How are you?"
Angrily, he lifted his right hand and tugged furiously on the strap locked around his wrist, handcuffing him to the bed rail. "How do you think?"
Alice's face fell, and she sighed, sinking into the chair by the side of the bed. She clutched her own wrist, memories coming thick and fast…and the singular thought that if Dave knew of this, he would be soundly pissed. "Oh dear…I'm sorry."
"No you're not," he snapped.
"McLaren…I am. I've been in your situation."
"They strapped me to my bed after the Basement Incident." She glanced at the look of cautious surprise, and gave a half-smile. "I was being violent."
"They said it's to stop me escaping," he said, a little less livid then before.
"Well…" His allergic reaction was long over, and after a good night's sleep in an actual comfortable bed and several rounds of buttered toast he was back to normal again. None of the individual wards had locks on the doors, so policy remained to handcuff any potentially mobile prisoner to their bed. She understood why, but knowing the helpless feeling such restraint gave… she didn't like it.
He watched her sigh, and slowly look up to meet his gaze. His eyes switched from black and grey to blue and yellow – matching Alice's clothes. "They said…" she continued, haltingly, "…they said that you're good to go back to the basement tonight."
"Oh, joy," he said, dripping with sarcasm.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "But surely… surely it's not… as bad as it was?"
He glared at her. "I'm not fooled. You'll forget about us soon enough and then it'll be back to starvation rations!"
"No, no…" She shook her head, trying, desperately trying to deny it. "You saw Harriet's big apology to you. We meant what we said… we… I meant it."
He snorted. "Really? We're getting punished now for hoarding."
"But that's really unhygienic!" she protested. "It goes all cold, and mouldy, and icky… I mean, it's not food any more. There are people getting stomach aches from that, how long until we get an E. Coli breakout, and…"
She trailed off under his withering glare.
"Stop being sorry. You're still lying. I've no reason to trust you or any one of you."
"What about Robert?" Alice asked softly.
McLaren paused for a long moment. "He's not been back since his hearing. What…what have you done to him?"
"Nothing! He's – I'm his – he's doing really well. He's taking the entry exam soon –"
"You've forced him to betray us!"
"No! No, this is his – his own choice! He's desperate to help you!"
"Bullshit!" He rattled his restraint further.
"It's because of what he said at his hearing that things have improved. Harriet wants him to be your go-between. Someone you have as an advocate. She's already preparing to name him Basement Welfare Officer once he passes – I've seen the brass sign for his door and all. This is really happening… I swear it is."
The surprise was evident on McLaren's face, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. He and Robert had been cell neighbours and they had more-or-less got along… as well as anyone in the basement could when faced with all McLaren's bluster. Ryouga had taken Robert's old cell when he had been put up for parole and moved to A-block, and he had not been as diplomatic as Robert.
He sighed. "Why do you care?"
Now Alice was silent.
"I… I felt… responsible. And nobody else… really…"
"You got me locked up here," he said, his voice now lowered, but with a sharp accusatory tone.
Alice nodded. "I did… I know. That's before I knew what it was like."
McLaren made a 'pfft!' sound, but he settled back into his pillows. He still looked very tired. Alice tilted her head at him.
"You need to rest…"
He merely grumbled something about being shocked that they even gave him a bed.
"You trust Nixie and Val? They wouldn't ignore your health just because you're a Stu. I saw you when they brought you upstairs…but you must have had a reaction before?"
"Hmm…" he mumbled. "I was eight. Before my powers kicked in. I didn't know it would come back because of this," he flicked the Prohibitor around his unrestrained wrist, avoiding the drip line in the back of that hand.
There was a moment of silence. Alice watched him go to speak several times. So many things left unsaid…
"What were you doing in 40k?" she asked eventually.
"Are things really going to change?" he asked at the same time.
She smiled for the first time. "McLaren… Robert's said that he wants us to help. He doesn't like the…the stress and the bias of the hearings, he wants us to try a different tactic, almost like rehab… Tash is already inadvertently trying this, because she's been talking to Tabitha about joining this little dance group thing, and she's jumping at the chance…"
"…because the current parole system sucks monkey biscuits, and, er…" She watched McLaren nod enthusiastically, and she smiled. "I have a Ford KA, and a new little car I'm sending for its MOT before I bring it here…" She was beginning to ramble. "Well, what I mean is, would you want my help? …To start getting you towards parole one-on-one, like Tabby? I mean I really want to try… not keeping you locked up forever."
"I…" Slowly the glimmerings of hope came into his eyes, which changed to an almost normal brown and hazel.
"I'm willing if you are. But – you're still ill, so don't decide yet, mull over it for a while."
His mind was already made up, but he nodded anyway.
"You've got a nice big bed – god those bunks down there are like tissue paper, I think Robert's looking for better mattresses – so I'd enjoy it until tonight. I've got a mission to go for in – " she checked her watch, " – ten minutes, so I'd better skedaddle. I really do mean what I say, you know. Erm, but let's see – here," she handed him a remote control from a drawer.
He glanced up to a television in an upper corner. "What day is it?" he asked. "Anything Grand Prix-related on?"
"Probably, they're near the end of the season…there's always Dave and its constant reruns of Top Gear…"
McLaren nodded. Alice dithered for a moment, still recovering from the heavy accusations of not three minutes ago, and suddenly glad that she had Robert as a trump card. It seemed his coming role might be useful indeed.
"You've got a mission to go on, haven't you?" he said – unusually, almost uncharacteristically quiet.
"Yes. Er, sorry. I'm sorry about the anaphylaxis thing. I'll come see you when we get back from Sea Monsters."
She turned and headed for the ward door.
"Alice?" he said, just as she was about to step outside. It was the first time he'd ever used her name.
"I was in 40k… because I was trying to get my hands on a Land Speeder."