Kidman held her breath. They’d never successfully disconnected a Core, and with stakes this high…She could feel her anxiety, numb and buzzing in her fingers, as Sebastian staggered to the holding chamber. Kidman took a breath to steady herself.
Sebastian’s hand slammed down on the release.
The chamber depressurized. Air hissed too loud in the empty room.
Kidman swallowed hard. She felt her hands shaking. If Sebastian had done all this, lost Myra and his livelihood for the prospect of getting his daughter back—if he’d done all this only to lose Lily too…he’d never forgive her.
The chamber opened. STEM fluid spilled out and splashed on the floor, a mealy pink-grey against the white tile.
Lily was buckled in with padded nylon restraints that indicated her body had once been larger than this; healthier, even. The ventilator didn't help, only emphasized the red around her eyes and the hollows under her brows. A nasogastric line was anchored in but liquid food and stationary positioning could only do so much in the face of muscle atrophy and the immense strain being the Core placed on the human body.
Kidman couldn’t look at Sebastian. She couldn’t look at him, but it was impossible not to see how his skin had gone grey as shaking hands came up to undo the buckles holding his daughter into the machine. But—it was her turn to help, with the med kit in her briefcase. The girl would have to be disconnected from STEM in a sterile manner to avoid later infection. Sebastian met her eyes just once, and she went in with the kit just to avoid seeing his terror again. Kidman started with the smaller needles in Lily’s hands and feet—meant to observe the activity of the nerves there, and to electrically stimulate them if there was a problem. Those weren’t trouble. Neither was it trouble to remove the NG tube or the ventilator.
The trouble was two implants: one in her brain and the other in her spinal cord. Unfortunately, Kidman was not a neurosurgeon. Fortunately, she’d removed her own chip and figured she knew more now than she had three days prior.
The implants came out too, and were sealed off with sterile bandages. A CS fluid leakage could be disastrous, but if Sebastian kept his daughter lying flat the punctures would heal within a few days.
As she patted down the bandages and took the girl off anesthesia, Kidman surreptitiously looked for a pulse. She blinked in surprise when she found one. It was weak, but it was there, and that…was more than anything she could’ve hoped for. Girl obviously had her father’s resilience. Her mother’s, too.
“Okay, she’s ready,” Kidman said, and almost admired her own steady tone. “Do you want to do it, or should I?”
He looked up at Kidman again. “Is she…gonna be okay?” He cleared his throat. “I mean, is she gonna remember me? Is she going to be the same?”
She couldn’t very well tell Sebastian the truth. She couldn’t lie to him, either. Not like this. “I think so. STEM…really does a number on the people inside, but she’s stronger than most.”
“Like her mother,” he murmured.
Drive it home. “Like you.”
Sebastian held out his hand for the syringe. It was a new drug, designed to pull people out of anesthesia quickly and painlessly. Mobius were the first ones on the market with it, of course. “Into her arm?”
“In the vein, yes.”
He looked at his sleeping daughter for a long moment, and gently—gentle like Kidman didn’t know he could be—administered the stimulant.
They waited for an agonizing few minutes, the lines in Sebastian’s face growing deeper as each one ticked by.
But then her eyes opened.
Kidman held her breath and waited fruitlessly for the girl to say something.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Sebastian said. His voice was painfully soft. “Do you know where you are?”
She was obviously awake, though her eyes were glazed and unfocused.
Kidman knew it was stupid, but hearing the girl’s name hurt.
“Kidman, I think something’s wrong.” His words cut.
She looked away.
She felt nausea creeping up on her.
“Kidman, look at me.”
No, she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t look. This was all her fault. She couldn't.
“Kidman, please. Juli!”
She exploded. “What the hell did you expect, Sebastian? That she’d come out of a machine that used her brain to support half a million people just fucking fine??”
“You…you promised me—”
“What? What exactly did I promise you?” She turned finally, and the man kneeling in front of her was not one she recognized. “I promised you your daughter! That is your daughter! It’s not my fucking fault!”
All the air seemed to go out of him, and he looked at the girl’s shell again. It was breathing and blinking, nothing more.
Kidman told herself it didn’t hurt.
Sebastian closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, then traced the hollows of the body’s cheeks, fingers ghosting over its wet forehead and pushing back slimy strings of hair. Kidman didn’t know why he was bothering. If it were her, she’d—she’d—
What would she do?
“Did this happen to the other candidates?” Sebastian asked, still looking at the body.
Kidman grit her teeth. “None of them survived.”
He kept his head down for a long moment. He looked at the body, nowhere but the body. “You’re right,” he said, and met her eyes again, defiant. “She is my daughter. And I’m taking her home.”
“What? Why?” It’d be kinder of him to put it out of its misery.
Sebastian’s expression softened. “Oh, Kidman.”
She looked again at the little body he held and wondered when Sebastian had stood.
“I love her, Kidman. She’s my daughter. She’s Lily.”
And he turned around and started to walk from the room.
Kidman sank to the floor, teeth breaking the skin of her hand with the force of quieting her sobs.
“I’m gonna make you some mac n’ cheese when we get home, huh sweetheart? That sound good? I bought the Scooby Doo shapes just for you, baby, been buying ‘em for years. I can’t eat all that mac n’ cheese by myself. You gotta help me.”
His voice was starting to echo as he walked down the hall.
Just as well. The big, empty hurt inside her didn’t need anybody else. She released her hand and started to cry in earnest.
“I love you baby. Just you and me, now. I can’t wait to show you the city again.”
If Kidman listened close enough, he was crying too.