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Saving Isobel

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“This is the containment unit. The codes to uncloud the viewports are restricted to authorized researchers. You will not require authorization to carry out your duties.”

There is something of the Green inside the unit. That’s all I know – all it is deemed necessary for me to know. I am familiar with these sorts of units from my time serving with the foragers, only ours were a much smaller scale, just for collecting samples from beyond the walls. I’ve been assigned here because I understand the tech – I know how to read the level fluctuations, how to make adjustments to maintain environmental stasis inside. I nod. I want to ask if I will have access to the base requirements of the organism contained, but I don’t want to push too much on my first day. I’ll figure it out when there are less terrifying supervisors around.

I already know why I’m here, and what they are not going to admit – that the levels inside are unstable, and they don’t know why.

“You will report to Supervisor Rhell. He will report to me.”

Rhell is better, but I am still nervous. Chief Supervisor Kiony is very exacting, yes, but also very perceptive. I nod, remaining silent.

“Bear in mind – this is a research tower. You are not in the wilds. We must take care, here especially, to avoid all contamination. Your initial supervision will reflect this dedication to extra care.”

I nod again, though I bristle internally. I do take care! The idea that some supervisor or researcher understands the Green better than me – better than even the newest forager recruit – is insulting. We’re the ones constantly exposed to its tricks. That’s why we always work in pairs. But it is different here, and that’s true. We entered the lab through a decontamination room, but there is no bulky suit to strap on, no five-day waiting period before passing into the inner walls. If something happens in here, the whole facility will be sealed, and the sterilization protocols activated. The Center can’t afford the risks inside the city. If something goes wrong in the tower, everything in here – including the science team – will be charred to ash.

“Before engaging with the equipment, you must complete the safety and compliance training holos. Your certificates will be forwarded automatically to Supervisor Rhell, who will provide you with more parameters for your operations at that stage.”

Kiony looks at me for a response, but she doesn’t actually seem interested, and a third nod satisfies her. I am not the first person to occupy this position, and she probably doesn’t expect me to last either. She directs me to the holoterminal, and disappears into her office. I feel like I am being watched. I sit, looking up at the containment unit, its glass walls all clouded and grey, and force myself to turn my attention to the training.

There is holo training to join the foragers as well, because ostensibly the Center directs our – their – activities. But beyond the wall, there is more value put on experience and instinct than on cut and dry regulations. There are the golden rules, but I have even heard tales of Head Guides who compromised their envirosuit seals for various reasons – to save a comrade, to win a fight, to catch a particularly evasive sample. Those stories don’t all end well, but they show the mutability of rules out beyond the walls. The Green is everchanging. We have to be ready to respond to anything, and absolutes cost lives. But here it’s different. We’re meant to be in total control. It’s hard to adjust to that kind of thinking, and I almost fumble some of my answers. I wonder if Rhell will be able to tell; if he’ll report that up to Kiony.

It’s late when I’m finished. The Unit remains clouded. I can’t hear anything from inside, of course. I walk around its full expanse, touching nothing, pretending to take note of the instruments and readings. It could be a tree – the ceiling is tall enough – but I suspect some kind of animal. Maybe a whole habitat? That would explain the dynamism. I’m not meant to be so curious, and it is going to be difficult to contain myself. But like the unit itself, I must remain clouded.

I return to the decontamination room, standing in the scanner with my arms extended, legs spread, looking back towards the unit. It chimes at me softly, and I walk away. Those who work in the towers must remain within them. There is a small lounge where monitors can socialize, but I’m the only monitor that I am aware of on this floor, even though there are additional bunks. I retrieve a nutripack and wonder if it contains anything I helped collect. The contents are unrecognizable post-processing, and there are thousands of foragers serving the city. It’s unlikely, but as I eat I can’t help thinking of my old work, and the samples we’d bring in – berries, fruits, leaves, insects. Herin and I caught a small creature once, with four wide-spaced legs and a lashing tail, covered in tiny scales. It had snapped its serrated teeth around the finger of my glove as I dropped it into the portable unit, but it hadn’t managed to penetrate the polymer weave. It had stared, hissing, as the unit slapped shut. Our guide had bought us a congratulatory round at the Interrim during the decontamination period.

I’m tired, and grateful that there is no one here to ask about the doses I take before sleeping. They are, ostensibly, to help me sleep peacefully. They keep me from thrashing, from crying out or speaking when I dream. I still have dreams, but I keep them to myself.

Often, they go like this:

I am walking in the intermediate zone, beyond the walls. I am not wearing my enviro suit. I am not wearing anything at all. I can feel the grass tearing at my feet, slashing into my soles. I leap for what looks like a stone, but it is some kind of slimy fungus, and I can feel the spores flowing into me, poisoning my blood. I try to run, but can’t control my legs, and I stumble and fall, and the Green is all around me – tearing thorns and biting insects and above all a sound. It’s so familiar, and despite the ravaging of my body, all I want to do is listen, to grasp at what lies just beyond my comprehension.

I usually wake up then, but because of the doses, I can’t move. My mind tries to reconcile logic with dreams, with more success on some nights than others. Tonight I’m more confused when I wake, because these quarters are unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, but I know that I am not lying dead or dying in the wilds. I am not with Herin, and never will be again. The ceiling above my cot is the same grey as the clouded glass of the containment unit, and I imagine I am looking into it, trying to pierce its mysteries. Eventually my thoughts drift and I fall back asleep. The dose has worn off by the time my alarm sounds in the morning.

When I return through decontamination, Supervisor Rhell is waiting in the containment room, examining the environmental readouts. He smiles broadly when he sees me enter, rubbing his hands together.

“Ahh, excellent! My new monitor. I received your certificates, and Kiony tells me you’ve already met Isobel!”

“Isobel?” It has a name. I feel dizzy – I never expected them to reveal anything so telling.

But Rhell grins more broadly and laughs at my reaction. “Yes! Isolation unit – Iso, and bel – Botanical Element Level. Really, it’s Isobel 37, but why be formal when it’s just us here.”

I stare at him, recovering slowly. “So it’s a plant,” I say flatly. I don’t know what the scale is, but 37 sounds high.

He grins and slaps me on my back. “Sure. Tell yourself that: Isobel is a plant. A big leafy tree. Or one of those ones with the sharp needles, maybe. You were a forager right – did you ever see any of those?”

“No, sir.” I’d seen the charred husk of one, after the Patrols had neutralized it. We’d been trained to spot all of the typical floral hazards, but the vines were the worst I’d ever encountered, and they were everywhere. I’d seen plenty of leafy trees, but they were too slow to be real threats. They’re generally believed to be scouts, or to serve as some kind of communication network, but no one really knows how the Green works. Just that it wants us all dead. “Not live.”

“That’s too bad.” He knocked on the glass. “Say hello! We have a new monitor out here, Isobel! Maybe now we can figure out what you’re up to, hmm?”

I stared at him again. “You talk to it?”

“Oh yes. Well, Kiony doesn’t approve of course, but it’s nonsense to pretend that the Green can’t understand us. Why else would we use codes outside the walls, hmm?”

I nod, as that seems safest. Whether it can understand us is not the point, but I don’t want to elaborate. It could be a test… He’s still waiting. I clear my throat. “Hello…. Isobel.” I sound nervous. The glass of the unit remains clouded, but one of the environmental screens flickers with a new reading.

“Ahh there – she likes you!”

I feel deeply uncomfortable despite Rhell’s easy grin. “Does…she…usually respond to vocal stimuli?”

“She doesn’t ‘usually’ anything, not with any pattern we can discern, and she’s been here for nine seasons.”

Nine seasons, and almost as many monitors if what I’ve heard is correct. I wonder if this place was purpose built, or if someone had been very optimistic about capturing a large sample. “And before that?”

“Before that she was held at a temporary holding facility in the Interrim.”

He’s watching me, trying to see what I can put together. It must have been Westhub; it’s the only place big enough that they could have kept something like this secret. And nine seasons ago we had a protocol shift. It was extended to every Hub, because that’s how the Center works. But if they were holding a large and volatile sample… I wonder where it (she) had come from. Maybe one of the long-range Patrol groups had manage to get her back to the city, somehow, with no one noticing or any rumours spreading… Well, there are always rumours, I suppose. I shake my head. “Maybe we already know each other,” I say to the grey wall. Rhell seems pleased, but he reacts as quickly as I do when the terminal blinks again.

“The internal temperature of the unit just increased by 5 degrees,” I say, with Rhell peering over my shoulder. “Is that within parameters?”

“More or less. We have been seeing spikes more frequently. Part of your job will be to record the time, duration, and any obvious stimulus. You may as well start with this.”

He shows me the log file and how to make comments. The system records all the changes, of course, but a human monitor can make the observations more quickly. Now that I’ve been certified, I’ll be on call, and responsible for making records overnight. I don’t mention the doses – they’re in my hiring file, and if they overlooked that in the suitability screening, I’m not going to draw attention now. As a former forager, though, I have priority selection for certain types of jobs, and they have to be willing to make accommodations. Maybe they thought they were lucky I just have a registered sleep disorder, and anyway, I can review the feeds and make notes in the morning if need be.

This work isn’t complicated, but they’re right that there don’t seem to be any patterns. Temperature, humidity, even the atmospheric mix fluctuates with no discernable causes, no predictable timing. I don’t know why I thought I could do any better than my predecessors, but everything I think to check has already been investigated as I scan back through the logs. That isn’t my job anyway - I’m just a monitor. I’m not even sure it falls to the supervisory staff, or if they’re just here to keep us organized and the workplace safe. The data is passed along to offsite researchers, who pass their own directives on to the supervisors. It lowers the risk to the researchers, and I’m sure the Center believes the isolation has other benefits. I wonder if they are allowed to look past the clouded grey glass. Maybe they have some kind of internal feed. Maybe there are no codes to uncloud the view.

Rhell is right that there has been an increase in frequency. That’s the only thing I can make sense of. I log two other responses throughout the day - a spike in methane, and a cooling period that lasts nearly thirty minutes. Rhell talks a lot, and he tries to draw me into his conversations, but I resist. It doesn’t feel right. It’s too familiar. But why would someone who has never been in the wilds respect the Green? The only Green they know is contained. Defeated.

At one point, he slaps me on the shoulder and chides me for being afraid. “She’s well contained,” he says, “even if she doesn’t behave herself.” The cooling starts not long after that, and it takes me all day to bring the temperature back up. In the end, I’m not sure it’s anything I’ve done at all. He disappears sometime in the afternoon, and doesn’t come back before my official duty shift ends. When I sleep, I dream of lying on a bed of moss. It burns my skin - gently at first, like the chem-showers in first stage decontamination, but with building intensity. I don’t get up - vines are holding me in place, and I can’t move. I feel the insects crawling on my skin, but I can’t turn my head. I can see them out of the corner of my eyes - black writhing bodies, a flutter of colourful wings. All I feel is burning and I imagine my skin melting from their chemical secretions…

I jerk awake, hearing the monitor alarm. It is quiet, coming from the other room. This isn’t anything critical, it’s just designed to alert someone who might not be paying attention – or who is sleeping – that there was a change registered in the system five minutes ago that hasn’t been acknowledged. I can’t get up to look, or to turn off the alarm. It will sound for half an hour unless someone stops it, or some other change is left unacknowledged. My sense of time is skewed from the doses and my dream, but it doesn’t feel like very long before it stops. Maybe the sound took a while to penetrate. I’m starting to drift back to sleep, and I think I hear something. A voice? But it’s too quiet, and I’m too drugged.

Supervisor Rhell looks tired the next morning when he arrives. I’ve been watching the systems for an hour, but nothing has happened. I’ve logged the incident from last night as well.

“Did the alarm wake you last night?”

Did it wake him? I frown, concerned. “No, Supervisor. I mean – yes. It woke me, but I-“

“It’s all right,” he cuts me off, raising a hand. He’s watching me very intently, and I don’t know why. “It isn’t a problem if you don’t get up. I can have the alarms rerouted so they don’t disturb you.”

I nod. He said rerouted, not disengaged. Routed to him? Somewhere else? Somewhere, I’m guessing, above my clearance. “Thank you,” is all I say.

There are no changes that are out of parameters today, but the changes within parameters are rapid and frequent. I make a note in the log, and Rhell comes out to watch the monitors with me for a while, asking ‘Isobel’ what ‘she’ is up to in there. I wonder the same. I wonder what it is like to live in a containment unit. Isolation unit. Would it be peaceful, or maddening? The Green is a whole, though elements can act and maybe think independently. Can it (she) sense or communicate with other elements, or have we been successful? Are the changes we see some kind of attempt at contact, or expression? These questions, too, are above my clearance.

Nothing awakens me in the night. I don’t remember any dreams, but I wake up thinking of Herin, and I wish the doses were still in effect. When you are in your suit, the vines aren’t much more than an annoyance – they tangle around you and try and trip you up and slow you down, but they can’t do much real harm. But they moved quickly into the breach in her suit, twining around her neck, thorns tearing into her skin, toxins burning… It was over quickly. I was judged unfit for duty due to trauma after that, but it wasn’t true. I was already unfit for duty. We both were, but I was more of a coward. Herin may have been too, if not for chance. I wondered, after that, how many accidents beyond the walls were not accidental at all. No one ever spoke of it. We’d thought we were the only ones, but now I think it couldn’t be true.

Supervisor Rhell still looks tired, and his conversation is more muted. But he still seems pleased with me. He pats me on the shoulder when I ask him if he is all right. He tells me I am doing very well, though I don’t think I am better than any of the previous monitors. He then tells me that our parameters for monitoring Isobel have changed. At least for today, they are narrower, and today is busier as a result, with six incidents to report. Four of those are because of the new parameters, and two we would have recorded anyway: spikes in carbon dioxide and humidity. I still don’t see any patterns, though three of the four other incidents are temperature related. Isobel has more hot flashes than anything else.

I don’t take my dose right away after I eat my nutripack tonight. There is entertainment available – books, holoprograms, games – but I’m not any more interested in those than I ever am. I’m still thinking about Herin. I’m supposed to report to my counselor if I have traumatic thoughts, in case they want to issue more doses, or have more therapy sessions, or find me more sociable work. But I know I won’t be any more honest now. I lie on my bunk in the empty room and think about the hole in her suit filling with vines, filling with insects as they swarm over her, over us both, pouring into the widening gash in the polymer. I held her hand, glove to glove, and she looked up at me. But I wasn’t ready.

I’m not sure Herin was ready. She’d fallen, tripped by vines. It’s a common trick. There was a root lance jutting up from the ground. She started to catch herself, and then she stopped, letting the weight of her body and her suit and her pack of samples bear her down, letting it tear her open. At the end her face looked peaceful, the fear in her eyes eased even as her skin turned purple and then black. She’d never screamed, and neither had I. The only sound was the rustling of leaves, the hum of insect wings. In my dreams, I hear something else, dancing on the edge of my consciousness.

I think about Herin. I think about Isobel in her cage. I think about how beautiful the Green is, and how much it hates us. I think about not taking my doses. There is no one to disturb, no one to overhear any dangerous talk. I get up and take them, and my dreams are back, and I lie there and listen as someone in the monitoring chamber talks tiredly to Isobel in the middle of the night, and I think about peace, and rest.

Rhell asks me a lot of questions the next day about the readings. I am not sure if it is because of anything significant, or because he is too tired to think these things through today without help. Mostly these are mundane questions about the relationships of the current levels to the parameters, and similar readings we’ve had from her before. It is another day with a lot of fluctuations right outside of the new parameters – and just outside, as if she’s not able to keep things within bounds and outside of our notice.

“But how do the temperature spikes correlate with the psychic energy readings?”

I haven’t seen any psychic energy readings. There’s nothing here that looks for anything like that. I didn’t think anyone believed in it, but of course they do. We know the Green communicates with itself. Why not call that psychic? Why not try to measure it, to monitor it? But it isn’t a standard parameter, not something the containment unit can read. It must be something new, and new means above my clearance level. I haven’t said anything, but for a moment Rhell looks sharp. Then he runs a hand through his hair, and pats me on the shoulder.

“Just forget about it,” he says, dismissive, as if it wasn’t important. “I just mean – she seems angry, doesn’t she?” I nod.

That night I dream about the Green whispering at me, telling me to shed my protective gear, to come home. When I wake up I imagine I can still hear it, but it is only Rhell whispering in the other room, talking to Isobel and trying to learn what she’s thinking, what she’s saying. Harin and I foraged together for six years. We saw the same things, heard them, felt them. Should I have stopped her? Should I have followed her? I told myself that it was too late now that I was back in the city. But is it? Rhell’s voice goes quiet after a long time, and I think that we will both be tired the next day.

But Rhell isn’t there. It isn’t unusual for me to arrive in the chamber first, just because I’m closer, but I’m alone for two hours, and it’s Chief Supervisor Kiony who comes. Maybe Rhell has taken some time off, or maybe not. She doesn’t talk to Isobel, she just glares at the unit, and at me. She seems especially furious today, and I’m more concerned for Rhell. Things continue as randomly as ever, with one exception.

Kiony is out of the room. She has too many other things to supervise, and can’t spend her time with Isobel (the specimen, she spits out) and I. “I’m sorry,” I tell Isobel, “Rhell didn’t respect you, but at least he liked you.”

The temperature spikes – as hot as it was the first time I spoke to her. I record the change, but I hesitate, and write ‘stimulus unknown.’ Kiony comes back shortly afterwards, and I wonder if she was watching me. She says nothing to either of us as she double checks my work, and I don’t see her for the rest of the day. When I speak to Isobel again, there is no response.

That night, I dream I am not alone. Herin is with me, lying naked on the grass as it slices into us. I hold her hand, skin to skin. The monitor alarm wakes me up. Rhell is not here. Kiony doesn’t want to deal with it, and it has been rerouted to me. It will have to wait, tonight. Tomorrow, maybe not.

When I look back through the readings in the morning, I see another temperature spike. This is the hottest I have ever seen and, extrapolating from the units I used to work with in the wilds, may be pushing the capacity of the unit to contain. I flag my report, since Kiony isn’t here, and check the systems. They all seem fine, but Kiony runs another scan when she comes in anyway.

“You were in the monitor quarters all last night?” It’s a question, but she phrases it like a statement. I nod. “You take sleeping doses, and they leave you immobilized. So you can’t answer the alarm?”

“Yes, supervisor.” I stammer. It isn’t just that they know. That’s why they wanted me: they don’t want me to get up.

“There won’t be any more alarms. Continue your monitoring during your shifts only.”

Her words are meant to end the discussion, but I have too many questions. I’ll have to find my answers elsewhere.

I have second thoughts as I prepare for sleep. What if I’m being monitored? What if this is some kind of test, and they expect me to do this? What if I fall asleep, and I hurt myself, or damage something? What if I’m reassigned, or fired, before I find any answers? What if there are no answers? There are consequences in each case, but at the moment they feel acceptable. I slip the capsules away unswallowed, and lay down.

An hour later my doubts are stronger, but by then it is too late. If I were to take my doses now, I wouldn’t be conscious and mobile by the time I’m supposed to be on shift. My plan seems more nebulous as well. How would I know if there was an alarm? Are they what matters? Should I get up and check on the unit? There haven’t been alarms every night – I always check the logs, so maybe nothing will happen tonight. It doesn’t take me long to go through decontamination here, but I’m not sure how many times I want to do it in one night. I manage to lie still for almost another hour, thinking about the Green, before I get up.

The room is dim, probably because there is no monitor scheduled and the lights are out. But the displays are on, and they are enough to get around the room. I could turn on the lights but… I don’t want to. I check the panels, and see nothing out of parameters. I pace around the unit, then I reach out and touch the glass.

The glass is thick, and there are two layers of it, with the space between rigged to spray some kind of inert foam that hardens instantly, in case it was breached from either side. I know this, but it is clouded grey, and it is easy to imagine that I am close to Isobel, whatever she is. I climb up on the monitors, careful of my steps, then stand on my toes on the lip of titanium that separates them from the glass. My arms are extended around it, for balance, and with an ear pressed against the unit, I listen.

“I want to go home,” I say, but I still hear nothing. My calves begin to tire, and I step down. There are no alarms in the next hour, and I return to my room.

As I fall asleep I think of how selfish I am, and I feel guilty. What does Isobel want?

I wake up when my morning alarm sounds, tangled in my oversheet and lying across the floor. I don’t remember what I dreamed, but I must have tried to get up, and fallen. My wrist is sore, but not broken that I can tell. I find a brace in the medical supplies, and some analgesics, and that helps. There are bruises forming on my knees as well, but they are less painful for now. I’m lucky it wasn’t worse.

I come up with excuses to cover the injuries, and my evident tiredness – I tripped while getting into bed, the painkillers interfere with my sedative doses – but there is no one to supply them to. I don’t see Kiony all day, even though there are four different alarms. I record them all. I tell Isobel I’m sorry, but I can’t bring myself to face the clouded glass. By the end of my shift, my eyes hurt as much as my wrist from staring too intently at the screens.

That night, I go to bed without the sheet, and without my doses.

I wake up to a sound of ringing, or humming. I look up from where I lay on the floor in the containment room, and the glass is clear. Isobel is there, and she is beautiful. She looks like Herin, her dark brown skin made of smooth bark. Her hair should be black, tied up, but instead a cascade of leaves tumbles freely down her back. She is singing, with a voice of insect wings and small hissing creatures and branches creaking in the wind. There is a moth perched on her outstretched hand.

The alarms are signalling a significant decrease in carbon dioxide.

I feel like my chest is being crushed – I can’t breathe. It’s too warm, and there’s not enough air. I stagger back, trying to brace myself on one of the monitor banks, but my wrist won’t hold, and I fall.

I wake up in the decontamination room, the chime from the scanner ringing in my ears. I feel my head, but there are no fresh bruises. My wrist is no more tender than when I went to sleep. The isolation room is quiet and dark, any alarms running on mute. It was only a dream – my imagination getting carried away with itself. It’s only been two hours. I weigh my options, and decide to take a half dose and turn up the volume on my alarm. I don’t have any more dreams, but I wake up groggy and can’t shake the feeling until halfway through the morning.

There was an alarm though. If I imagined it, I imagined correctly: a drop in carbon dioxide levels.

That afternoon, Kiony returns. She stands in the decontamination chamber, and orders me to come with her. I feel my heart race, and the tightness in my chest is back – she knows.

“You are being called in for a psychological assessment.”

“I don’t understand.” I fight to appear calm. Kiony doesn’t elaborate. I follow her through this level’s security, down three floors, and through another security scanner. In the room beyond waits Counsellor Viridan, smiling benignly. Kiony indicates that I should sit, and when I do she leaves, and the door slides shut behind her.

“Your supervisor has reported that you have been skipping your doses,” Viridan says calmly. “Can you tell me why?”

Viridan is the counsellor I spoke with after Herin’s death. I lied about so many things then, and I must keep on lying. “I don’t know,” I say, but this isn’t entirely untrue.

“That’s interesting. I see that you’ve hurt yourself.” He gestures to my splinted wrist. “Is that why? Did you want to hurt yourself?”

“No!”

Viridan gives me an admonishing look, and I hang my head.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I must try and be calm. My mind is racing with questions that I can’t ask, and trying to find the right, the acceptable answers at the same time. That makes it difficult. “I wanted to do better at my job.”

“Your job? The monitoring?”

“Yes. There’s no one to record the environmental fluctuations at night.” Not since Rhell disappeared.

Viridan nods, putting on a stern face. He’s like an actor changing a mask. “That isn’t your job. Your job is to listen, and do what you are told. What were you told?”

“I was told to monitor during the day shifts only. But-“

“No buts. This sounds to me like self-sabotaging behaviour. I was concerned for you before, that you might have unmanaged psychological trauma, and now I see that I was right. It is a good thing that your supervisor notified me.”

Now I wonder if they did know for sure I skipped my dose, if I could have denied it and stuck to my story. But I didn’t see Kiony yesterday… “How did she know?” I blurt out, even though I shouldn’t.

Viridan shakes his head. “What is your job?” He asks.

I settle back down into my seat. “To listen, and to do what I am told.” I am terrified. I don’t know what is happening, or why I am here, or what I have been hired to do. Maybe there is nothing in the unit. Maybe they are testing me, testing my loyalty. I sit quietly, hoping that Viridan can’t hear my heart racing from across the room.

“Very good.” He nods, replacing his benignly smiling mask. “I am going to give you a new dose, to take in the mornings. It will help you manage these self-destructive thoughts.”

I feel ill, but I nod meekly. I don’t want them. I don’t need them. I can’t harm myself the way I want to here anyway, if that’s what I want at all. Viridan indicates that I should rise, and as I do the door slides back open and Kiony is there.

“I will provide your supervisor with your new prescription, and she will ensure that they are properly administered.”

Kiony leads me back downstairs. She seems angry, but she always does. “You are not required to finish your shift today,” she tells me, and then leaves again. I return through the security and decontamination and sit with Isobel, wondering what is happening here, and what is being monitored, and whether she is real at all. There are no incidents to record for the rest of the day. There were three while I was away, but I do not log them.

I don’t feel like eating that night, and so I don’t. My hand shakes as I take my dose, and lie down. I dream of being held by vines, a purple moth crawling across my face, and singing in her voice as my open mouth is filled with leaves and mold and pollen until I can’t breathe.

In the morning, Kiony meets me in the decontamination room. She gives me a little cup with a white pill – it looks almost exactly like my nighttime doses, but the number printed on the capsule is different. She watches me swallow, and I half expect her to check my mouth. She stays in the room with me for the first hour, glaring at the monitors.

My thoughts feel disconnected as the drug kicks in. I can’t control them, but they don’t evoke any reaction, either: I wonder why Kiony hates the Green so much, and why she is so angry. I don’t think she is angry at me, but I could be wrong. She hates Isobel. She hates this project. I don’t know what the project is anymore, or why I am here. Kiony doesn’t tell me to record anything, but I do. I wonder about the other monitors, and Rhell. They weren’t former foragers with prescriptions for sleeping medication, but that is why they chose me. Viridan didn’t want to speak to me, he wanted me to obey and agree. I don’t even know what the doses are, either of them. I just do what I am told. I swallow it all. I wonder why the Green hates us, why it is so angry. It’s so beautiful. I miss it. I want to see Isobel again. I hope she’s real. I miss Herin. I’m a coward. I should be dead too. I should have given myself to the Green when I had a chance.

By the end of the shift my mind feels only marginally clearer, and I can’t tell if I’m nauseous or hungry. I nibble on half a nutripack, and then give up. I’m no longer wearing my splint, and my hand is shaking even worse. But I don’t feel connected to my fear or resentment, and I swallow them.

I dream. I’m running through the woods, vines and thorns tearing at my skin. There is a swarm behind me, but instead of buzzing I hear her voice, her singing. I stop, because I can almost make out the words, and the dark mass descends upon me. I don’t fight. I open my mouth and swallow their poison with my swelling throat. I want her to know I’m hers. Her: Herin, Isobel. I’m not sure of the difference. I’m not sure it matters.

The next day is more of the same. Kiony gives me my morning dose. My job performance suffers, but she doesn’t say anything, when she is here. I spend half the afternoon staring at the greyed out glass, until my mouth is so dry that I almost split my lip when I swallow. I forget to eat. My hands are shaking, still, but I don’t know now if it is nerves or something else. I swallow my dose quickly. I think about taking more, about not getting up in the morning, and not losing my mind to whatever they are putting in my system. My stomach is sore as I drift to sleep, but it is too late, and I can’t get up. At night I dream of Isobel in her lonely tower, reaching out her hand, singing to me, wearing Herin’s face. She is Herin, changed and made beautiful and deadly, and I would do anything for her.

When Kiony passes me the pill the next morning, I slip it under my tongue and only pretend to swallow. I’m not sure where the idea came from, but it was in my head when I woke: resist. Later, I tuck it up into my sleeve. I still feel lightheaded, and I must remember to act as though I am still drugged. I let myself be slow to respond to the alerts, and am less fastidious about my notes. I hear Kiony when she comes in, looking as angry as ever.

“They’re talking about upping the dosage already – it’s dangerous and stupid,” she says, looking over my shoulder. She never talks to me like this, not so bluntly. She sounds so frustrated. I look up at her.

“What? I mean, yes.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

She didn’t say anything. When she speaks out loud, I can tell the difference – I hear the echo, the thought running faster than the words.

“I’m sorry,” I say, staring at the monitor. “I’m just confused.”

She looks at me sharply, wondering about psychic inhibitors and how well they are working. She’s thinking that this is moving too fast, that we can’t trust the Green, that it will twist this somehow. They – the researchers – don’t know what they’re doing. She doesn’t want to lose anyone else. She’s mad about the other monitors. About Rhell. Her thoughts are disjointed and they’re fading, but I can pick out the gist of the matter before she leaves again to go file some report of her own: a report on me.

I feel worn thin. I notice that the acidity in Isobel’s prison doesn’t return to normal until Kiony is gone, and all is silent in my mind again.

I do manage to eat my nutripack that night, and though my hands are steady, I drop my doses. The number printed on the side of the pill is not the one I remember – has someone been replacing them in my bottle? I don’t take them. I don’t pretend.

I wake up inside the containment room, seated on the floor in front of the unit, looking up. This time it is Isobel who is pressed up against the glass, looking out at me. I hear her voice in my mind, the grass and wings and trees, the hissing and other animal sounds I don’t recognize.

“The others fought,” she says. It isn’t really words, but I understand her anyway.

“They didn’t love you.”

“Yes, you are already mine. Will you come home? Will you let me in?”

I think of the Green, of all the power she contains, of all the life and beauty and wonder. I think of the city, with its high walls and sterilization showers and fear and tests and lies. Isobel has killed, but so have we. I will let her in. I will be free, and beautiful, with Herin.

“Close your eyes,” she says, and I do, lying back on the floor. All I see behind my eyelids is green. The sound of her voice pours into my ears, and my head feels like it’s about to burst. I feel something crawling in my throat, and I swallow.

We’re lying here together when Kiony comes – she won’t enter past the decontamination room. She knows something is wrong. I hear her call for someone. A team. They argue. They want to restrain me. To continue the testing. To use me, somehow, against the Green. Against Isobel. But it’s too late. I feel her in every breath. I cough a thick cloud, the taste acrid and dry in my mouth. Kiony is screaming – “Activate emergency protocols!” – and I can feel her terror. I almost feel bad, but she’s one of them. My hand stretches open, fingers uncoiling into vines as the temperature rises around me. We laugh together, Isobel and I, every breath a million heat resistant spores ready to rise on the smoke and be free.