I wrote this to Joanna Stabler-Kimmel’s prompt “I would like to see antagonists being more cheerful and helpful and kind to the protagonist than the protagonist's allies usually are.” For those of you who track such things, this may or may not be a new world, but it is one that has hyper abilities, otherwise known as super powers. It came in at 6,921 words and because I couldn’t find a good place to break it into pieces, I am posting it in one fell swoop. I hope you enjoy it.
Merser realised that her eyes were closed and opened them. It was harder to do than she expected, and she realised that she felt groggy as well. Her body ached in enough places that it felt like she hurt all over, and she was lying on her side. When her eyes sorted out the whole focussing thing, she was looking at the green and grey flecked gravel road surface. She'd been riding her bike in her teammate's slipstream for the speed boost while they got away from Slicker's men and then, suddenly, there'd been a school bus stuck in the intersection when Fixer had forced the lights to change for them. She closed her eyes again as she tried to recall what had happened next - Zimma, on the faster and more mobile bike, had zigged but Merser had been blocked by traffic on either side of her and hadn't had that option.
That was where her memory stopped.
"I know you're awake." The soft male voice was kind. "You need to open your eyes and talk to me. We're worried about concussion so now you're awake we don't want you going back to sleep before the ambulance arrives. Nice save on the bus, by the way."
"I remember the bus," Merser admitted, carefully opening her eyes again. "Can't remember what I did about it. My bike...."
"Will need a lot of work, almost as much as you," the voice told her. A pair of black combat boots stepped into her field of vision. "Don't try to look up or roll over," he said. "We're worried about your head and spine. An ambulance is on the way so we can get you to hospital for x-rays and scans."
"Can't go to hospital," Merser would have used her left arm to push herself up but it was splinted to correct the break she'd gotten in sparring practice earlier in the week.
"You dropped your bike to the road, then it and you went all the way under the bus on your side," the voice told her. "The kids on the bus are fine, didn't get a scratch. You, on the other hand, should be very pleased with your protective gear because on your left side it's down to the lining and that could have been your skin." The owner of the combat boots and, presumably, the voice squatted. He was wearing kneepads embossed with Slicker's logo.
"You work for Slicker." She tried to get up, but a hand pressing down on her upper shoulder was all it took to keep her in position.
"And you're one of the Guild's baby vigilantes, but this isn't a fight. This is a group of concerned citizens helping someone they saw making the best of the bad choices she had. No-one's going to hurt you more today, little girl."
"I'm an adult!" It seemed important to her to make that point.
"As of when? Some time later this month?" He chuckled. "Back in my day, you were a minor until you were twenty-one, not eighteen. Let the grownups take care of you today." He wasn't laughing when he added, "Your friend hasn't come back to see how you are. Even from a distance."
Merser hadn't expected Zimma to, but she didn't say that aloud. "What are you going to do with me?"
"Put you in an ambulance. Make sure the hospital does the right thing by you and your injuries." The hand stayed on her shoulder, keeping her in place. "Why don't you want to go to a hospital?"
She wasn't going to give the enemy the whole list of reasons. "I just can't."
"If there are issues with your identity, we can conjure up a whole new one for your admission, no strings attached," he told her. "It doesn't have to have one of us as your responsible adult or emergency contact, so the hospital won't share your data with us."
"Why would Slicker or anyone who works for him help me like that?" Merser was beginning to feel tired again.
"Hang on, stay awake, little girl. The ambulance is almost here." He touched her face with his other hand. He was olive-skinned, like someone from a Mediterranean background. "Us minions got to stick together. Stay awake, little girl. Don't leave me now."
Then the paramedics were there. They shone lights in her eyes, took her blood pressure, put her on a back board, then a trolley and loaded her into the back of the ambulance. Merser still didn't want to go to a hospital, but she couldn't sit up on her own even without someone holding her down and so was prepared to accept that maybe she did need that sort of help. She was rather hazy about the details of the trip in the ambulance and the emergency room was a blur of bright lights, needles, prodding, and then being whisked around on her trolley for x-rays and scans. She didn't remember anything after the scanning technician introduced themselves.
When she woke up, she was in a white walled room lying on a hospital bed with a drip in her right arm, her left forearm in a purple fibre glass cast, and she was hooked up to tubes in places she'd never had tubes before. She was wearing a hospital gown and she was aware of various aches, but they were at a background level. Hers was the only bed in the room and the large window gave her a view of the morning sun in the northeast sky. She seemed to have misplaced the end of the afternoon and the entire night that had followed it.
At that point, a red-haired nurse with copper-brown skin came in and was cheerful at her. The woman took Merser's vital signs, got her to drink some water, and promised her breakfast shortly. "It won't be exciting," she told her, "because you're on a clear fluid diet for now, but it will be warm. Now, your surgeon will be along to see you in an hour, when she does rounds, and now that you're awake, I'll bring in your flowers so that you can enjoy them."
"Excuse me, and I'm sorry if I'm being dumb, but where am I?" Merser looked out the window and added, "This doesn't look like the view I'd expect from Suburban Public."
"Their Accident and Emergency was on diversion yesterday afternoon," replied the nurse. "Something about a gas leak on the City Underground Transit. We were the nearest available hospital. You're in Surgical Ward Three at Longview Hilltop Hospital."
"That's...a long way out," replied Merser.
"Everything closer was full with gas victims, and I heard that two ambulances after you they had to divert from us too. There are a lot of intercity transfers going on right now." The nurse put the chart back down on the foot of Merser's bed. "Now, because they couldn't get a clear answer from you about your name yesterday afternoon you've been allocated a use name for your stay. Your notes say that you're Teresa Francisca Colón y Sebastian. If you don't want to be Doña Teresa Francisca, then please let us know how you would like your notes labelled." She smiled brightly.
"Someone's labelled me as a lady?" Noblewoman was what her brain was telling her, but she put that down to too many historical romances.
"As someone worthy of respect," corrected the nurse gently. "Now, press the call buzzer if you need anything or if you want to go to the bathroom - I'm afraid that's all going to be a bit awkward for a while. You're getting things for pain in your drip but if your pain levels increase, press the buzzer. I'll just go and get your flowers for you."
She left the door open while she was outside and Merser could see that the corridor walls were a pale green. The flowers took the nurse three trips and after the third one Merser asked, "Are you sure these are all for me?" When the nurse nodded in affirmation she went on, " But who are they from?"
"Well, these tall orange and purple ones are from Tyler Penwraith, Head of Security, Slickman Industries." The nurse put the note on Merser's table. "The daisies are from Román Venegas y Carpio, Corporate Operations, Slickman Industries. Oh, all of these are from people at Slickman Industries. Do you work there?"
Merser's brain suggested several clever things but she managed to say, "No, but I think they were the people who looked after me before the ambulance got to me yesterday."
"Well, they've sent you some lovely flowers. The scarlet and pink arrangement is from Miles Hanrahan, Associate Director Public Relations. The gladioli are from the Perimeter Security Office." The nurse added those notes to the one already on the table. "The orchids are from Nakamura Zenkichi, Corporate Operations, and there's some lovely oriental calligraphy on this one. And the last one is the green and pink basket from Antwan Smith, Corporate Operations. That's all of them so far." She smiled and put the last two cards down. "Remember that I'm only a buzzer away, and your breakfast will be here shortly," and with that, she bustled out of the room.
Merser had never been given flowers before and receiving them from the enemy just seemed wrong. She knew that her uncle, who was her guardian and mentor, would be upset both because now Slicker's men knew her face and there was an official paper trail involving both the ambulance and the hospital that proved that she existed. On the other hand, she dug the thought out of a brain that was very happy with its current medicated state, Slicker's people had given her names. They had paid for these beautiful flowers somehow, and she knew who they had paid for the flowers - there was a little logo on each envelope. There were people in the Guild who could work with that.
Her doctor arrived after she'd had her breakfast, a meal that had been more enjoyable than 'clear fluid diet' had suggested. Dr Robespierre was a brisk woman in her late thirties with her brown hair in a high ponytail that was held together down its length by four seats of elastic bands. She wore a white coat and a stethoscope over a set of green hospital scrubs, and a few pens in the coat pocket added a small flash of contrast to her outfit. After introducing herself, she made her own observations of Merser's condition and then asked. "So, how do you feel?"
"Like I should be grateful you put me on the good drugs?" Merser essayed. "I don't mean that I'm in pain, it's just that I can sort of feel that there's something unpleasant going on at the edge of my awareness, if that makes sense."
"It does," replied Dr Robespierre. "Particularly if you're someone who has certain hyper abilities. Do you?"
That Merser had no qualms about answering. "No, I don't. That doesn't stop people from expecting me to though."
"Awkward," acknowledged the doctor. "Now, aside from getting knocked out when you went under the bus yesterday, you passed out when you were here because of internal bleeding causing a blood pressure drop. Fortunately, it was a slow bleed into your abdomen - I went in last night and stopped that. You've got a drain in the wound for now and that's connected to the bag with the blood in it. The other bag is connected to your urinary catheter. One of the reasons it’s there is that we want to check how your kidneys are doing - you've got a lot of bruising from the accident and we're not sure how deep it goes. Speaking of bruises, do you want to tell me anything about those older big round ones?"
"There was an incident with a cephalopod. It got a bit touchy-feely." Merser gave an embarrassed grin. Truth be told, it had picked her up and thrown her at Zimma and Marcie with excellent accuracy.
"An incident with a cephalopod that left you with four-inch bruises from your left thigh, across your stomach, around your waist and up your back to your left shoulder." If Dr Robespierre, who was beginning to remind Merser of someone else, had been wearing glasses she would have looked over the top of them at her patient.
"You may have noticed that we put a cast instead of a splint on your left arm," went on the doctor.
"Oh, that was just a training accident on Monday," Merser told her helpfully.
"I was going to say that the splint was damaged in the accident and that when we x-rayed the arm we found that the rotation on one of the bone pieces was wrong, so we corrected that while you were under anaesthetic. You should have a much better result now." Dr Robespierre looked down at her notes. "Now, while I'm here, could you please clarify how old you are?"
"Eighteen," replied Merser confidently.
"Are you certain?" The doctor added, "We do get patients who overstate their age for various reasons. One of my obligations to and for minors is to protect them from abuse and to avoid abusive situations. Bluntly, if you're trying to avoid or get out of an unsafe situation, it's my job not to send you back there."
"Really, I am eighteen," replied Merser. "I know I look younger, for some reason. The year I started schoolwork was the year we had the big tsunami warning - I remember being excited because I was going to see one and being disappointed because I didn't."
The doctor asked, "Why do you say 'started schoolwork' instead of 'starting school'?"
"I was home schooled," answered Merser. "I'm sorry, but you've been reminding me of someone I've met. Are you related to a woman who goes by the professional name of Dr Hellebore?"
"You do put it nicely." The doctor gave a bitter laugh. "Yes, she's my sister, Amelia."
"That would explain why my uncle keeps calling her Amy," commented Merser. "She really doesn't like that. Anyway, how's Quercus doing?"
"Why are you interested in him?" The doctor was looking over her metaphorical glasses again.
Merser blushed. "He's sort of the cool guy whose family and friends don't get on with my family and friends. But no Romeo and Juliet thing - aside from wanting no-one to die, I don't have leaves and I don't flower so even if I was interested, I have nothing to offer."
"I see. He's studying botany and environmental studies. I won't tell you where." Dr Robespierre looked at her expectantly.
"I don't expect you to." Merser added, "Could you please tell him that the fish kids' human godparent said hi?"
The doctor's look sharpened. "And if I tell him that will he give me a different name for you?"
"He might," admitted Merser, "but that's up to him."
"I see." Dr Robespierre nodded. "I'll tell him that you said hi. Now, I need to discuss some further medical options with you, but you had a general anaesthetic last night, so I'll come back this afternoon to lay them out but you can't make any decisions on them until tomorrow. If we wouldn't let you travel home alone today, I'm not going to let you decide elective medical options now either. For now, sleep if you want, eat your lunch, stay off social media, and don't make any big decisions. I'll see you later." With that she left the room and Merser was alone.
She wound up watching children's educational television for much of the morning. There was a channel running primary school level language lessons and she got caught up in a French video class featuring a talking fish character. The nurses came in regularly to take her vital signs and ply her with fluids. Lunch was more jelly and juice, and after that was done, she slept.
Visiting hours began with her being woken for more vital signs measurements and then, almost as soon as the nurse left the room, Merser's uncle and two other members of the Guild sidled into the room. Uncle Elber was wearing a black overcoat with the collar turned up and a black hat pulled low over his face. Together the collar and hat made it hard to see that he was wearing his uniform's mask over his nose and mouth, which probably meant that he was wearing his uniform under the overcoat. Dr Noropolis and Autocrases were wearing overcoats too, but neither of them looked like they were trying to hide and their prostheses and cybernetic implants glittered, shone, and flashed in their normal fashion.
Uncle Elber was barely inside the room when he stopped, looked at her and said, "We have to get you out of here."
Dr Noropolis and Autocrases had gone straight to the foot of the bed to look at her notes, and it was Autocrases who said, "Not so fast, Elber. You do realise that she's hooked up to an IV, a urinary catheter, and a wound drain, don't you?"
"We can unhook her. She doesn't need them to get from here to base."
"I don't know about that." Dr Noropolis was still flicking through the notes, but he looked up and asked Mercer, "How are you doing, honey lamb?"
"I'm on the good drugs," she told him, "and I have an interesting set of bruises down my left side. Also, apparently something inside me wasn't up to being thrown around under a bus because they had to go in and stitch it up."
Dr Noropolis threw back, "What's this about a broken left forearm that they had to reset?"
"That was from training on Monday," Uncle Elber told him. "Nothing for you to worry about."
Dr Noropolis turned to look at him. "She broke a bone and you didn't bring her to one of us for assessment and treatment?"
"I can take care of simple breaks without bothering you, so I did," Uncle Elber brushed him off.
"Except this one didn't just need splinting straight," Dr Noropolis came straight back. "Elber, we've had this conversation before. You're a good field medic but you're not a doctor. When team members or trainees get hurt, they need to see a doctor, not just you."
"She didn't need any more treatment than I gave her," retorted Uncle Elber.
A female voice chimed in from the doorway, "And is that why the Guild have so many cyborgs? Because you don't let anyone get appropriate treatment until their bodies are so broken that they can't be fixed?" Dr Robespierre pulled Uncle Elber around by a shoulder and then shoved him. "What sort of idiot lets a child and a teenager have foot and hand fractures go untreated so that she has these problems by her age?" Dr Robespierre stalked over to a light box set into the wall, shoved a couple of x-rays into the holding clip and turned the unit on.
Autocrases and Dr Noropolis moved over for a better look. Autocrases looked at the x-rays, turned to Merser and asked, "Do your feet hurt much?"
"Not right now, but sometimes, yes."
Dr Noropolis turned to look at Uncle Elber and said, "You could have brought her to see us, you know. Medicine is one of the things we both do. Now...her metatarsals are a mess. Refracturing, growth plate deformities, and incipient stress fractures. It's going to take a lot of work to sort this mess out."
"She's supposed to be tough," snapped out Uncle Elber.
"No-one's supposed to train through broken bones," pointed out Autocrases.
Dr Robespierre interrupted, "Wait, she broke foot bones as a child, you made her continue athletic training while they tried to heal, and you didn't get her medical attention. You do realise that's abusive behaviour, don't you?"
Uncle Elber glared at Dr Robespierre, then turned to his two friends. "I said that we need to get her out of here."
"And who are you to make that decision?" Dr Robespierre had folded her arms across her chest.
Uncle Elber snapped back, "I'm her uncle and her guardian!"
Dr Robespierre gave him an almost feral smile. "Interesting. Doña Teresa Francisca here told me that she's an adult. Can you prove your statements and your legal authority over her? As her treating doctor, I recommend that she remains in hospital for some days yet."
"Elber, I agree that she's receiving appropriate care and treatment here," put in Dr Noropolis. "If you care about my opinion."
Merser added, "I don't think I can get out of bed on my own, honestly. If I went home, I'd only have to go into sickbay anyway."
"That would be an inferior solution to what you have here," pointed out Autocrases. "In terms of care, comfort and facilities."
Uncle Elber was cut off by Dr Noropolis who said, "We can discuss your issues later, without troubling the good doctor here or our young friend. If you can't visit nicely, then we can leave." He just looked at Uncle Elber without saying anything.
The awkward standoff was broken by the voice Merser remembered from the aftermath of the accident speaking from the doorway. "Ah, have we come at an awkward time? Is this a medical consultation or an inquest into what went wrong yesterday?" The speaker was a muscle-solid man of upper medium height with black hair, Mediterranean olive skin, and expensive casual wear. He was accompanied by a taller, black skinned man with a narrow face, high-bridged nose, close cropped hair and a neatly kept beard. Neither of them included their eyes in their smiles.
Uncle Elber almost spat when he asked, "Why are you here?"
"We pulled a brave little girl out of a nasty accident yesterday. Why wouldn't we stop by to check on her? The shorter man's smile became ingenuous. Merser didn't believe that expression for a minute. "We're just concerned citizens doing our bit to keep our little part of the world moving along nicely. I would hope that you're here for similar reasons."
"I'm her uncle," said Elber shortly.
The taller newcomer raised an eyebrow and said, "I hope you're going to encourage her to get new friends who don't just leave her lying on the road after she's come off her bike."
"And gone under a bus," added the first one. "Don't forget going under the bus. I know I won't. You know, I'm sort of surprised that you weren't here last night, given that you're her uncle...and everything."
Merser was trying to work out exactly what he'd been implying when Autocrases put his hand on Uncle Elber's offside arm, the one that had twitched.
"Or maybe he doesn't care enough to break his nightly routine for her," suggested the taller man. "It would explain why the other girl had better equipment. Not that yours was bad," he told Merser, "but yours was top of the range commercial gear and hers was definitely better than that."
Dr Robespierre switched her focus to Merser for a moment and then turned back to the visitors. "If all you're going to do is make my patient cry, then you can all leave." Her voice was firm and although she concentrated on Uncle Elber, she included everyone in the sweep of her gaze. Merser realized that she did have tears starting to run down her face.
The tall black man was fast, agile, and he was beside the hospital bed before Merser had realized that he'd started moving. He thrust a clean, ironed handkerchief at her. "Here, take this. I'm sorry - I didn't mean to make you cry. I'm Antwan, by the way."
"Thank you." Merser took the handkerchief, unfolded it and dried her eyes and face with it. "You sent me the pink and green flowers, didn't you? Thank you for those too." She gave him a smile. "Apparently I'm Doña Teresa Francisca Colón y Sebastian - my paperwork says so."
He smiled back. "I know. I helped Román over there pick it out for you. We thought it would suit."
Uncle Elber cut in, "Wait, why did you two give her a name?"
Román replied, "Because last night she wouldn't tell anyone who she is, and you weren't here."
Merser blew her nose into the handkerchief and said, "I don't remember anyone asking my name."
"There was a time between being scanned and getting into the surgical suite when you were passing in and out of consciousness," Román told her. "The staff tried to find out who you were and who to call but you wouldn't tell them anything. In the absence of anyone else, we acted as your responsible adults."
Antwan observed, "I doubt it took you lot until now to find out where she'd been taken."
Dr Robespierre remarked, "And what did I say before? Are you going to take your fight away from this hospital or am I going to have get security to make you leave?"
Uncle Elber, Román, Antwan and Autocrases all gave her 'are you serious' looks.
"Doña Teresa Francisca has received a series of major injuries within the space of a week. Some actual concern for her wellbeing would be appropriate." Román and Antwan looked chastened. Dr Robespierre just looked at the others.
"If the rest of you cannot behave yourselves, then yes, we should leave," said Dr Noropolis. He turned to Merser and added, "I believe that you are receiving the appropriate treatment for your injuries here, and that you should stay until your treating doctors recommend that you be discharged. Tomorrow I'll bring in the paperwork that'll have me registered as your treating general practitioner if you want that. You don't have to decide whether you want to use it immediately." With that he nodded goodbye and proceeded to herd Uncle Elber and Autocrases out of the room. Román stood aside to let them leave.
"Should we leave as well?" Antwan asked the question of Dr Robespierre while Román was still looking down the hallway in the direction Uncle Elber and the others had gone.
Dr Robespierre sighed and collapsed into the visitor's chair. "Are you planning to unnecessarily upset my patient some more?"
"Not deliberately," replied Román helplessly. "But you wouldn't have come here just to scare off the disruptive visitors. Should we go and get coffee and then come back?"
They did just that, and while they were gone Dr Robespierre laid out treatment options for Merser. Her old foot and hand injuries were considered, the new arm fracture was included, as were her recent soft tissue injuries. Dr Robespierre also asked Merser to consider whether she would like to speak to a psychologist. There was, however, no pressure for Merser to make up her mind on anything and the doctor left before the two men who worked for Slicker returned.
Román and Antwan were individually and jointly charming. They didn't mention Uncle Elber, what Merser and Zimma had been doing that led to them being chased, or their boss. They did talk about popular movies, television, and some music. They avoided politics but chatted about going to a friend's wedding. Merser found herself wishing that they really were her friends, and after they left, she wondered whether it had all been some sort of ploy.
Aside for the nurses taking her observations, Merser had no more visitors until after dinner. Zimma and Fixer came first, both dressed in leather jackets and holding hands, and Merser wasn't sure if that was a cover or for real. Fixer spoke first, "Merser, I am so sorry. I didn't know how I managed to put you under a bus, but when I went back into the system, I realised that I hadn't been the only one in there changing the traffic flows yesterday. On top of that, they got in there a good hour before me and started running fake feeds for a bunch of cameras, so I wasn't even seeing what was really there." He stopped and swallowed. "Then I found logs of the real footage from the intersection where you had your accident. Merser, the bus turned in front of you - you went under its full length. When Slicker's men pulled you out from under the front of it, you weren't moving...and you looked so small."
Merser carefully raised her right hand to interrupt the flow of words. "Wait, so you didn't see the accident when it happened?"
Fixer shook his head. "When Zimma told me that she was through, I'd switched to the next intersection. I found out about it when the emergency calls started going through. Realising that it wasn't on my screen was what started me looking for the video loop, and I wasn't the only one - Traffic Management has got forensic IT people in there looking to find out what happened so I had to dodge them while I poked about."
Zimma said, "You didn't tell them anything, did you? Slicker's people, I mean. And why didn't you follow me through that gap?"
"Because you used the gap up," Fixer told her. "She got boxed in. Besides, her bike's just not as fast as yours."
Merser leaned back against the pillows. "I haven't even told them my name. Oh, and your concern for my wellbeing is very comforting. So far my enemies have been more worried about me than my partner."
Fixer started awkwardly, "That's...."
"Concerning," a deep male voice from the doorway finished. Manchurian stood there in a neat, dark blue suit instead of his usual generic East Asian combat outfit. His personal appearance was generically East Asian too. Merser suspected he did it on purpose to make his background harder to track. He was carrying a large bouquet of flowers. "Did neither of you think to bring our colleague, Zimma's partner, a gift?"
Zimma asked, "Why would we?"
"Empathy and moral support." He sighed. "You know, team building. Perhaps to show that you're worried about her?"
"We won't be partners for long," replied Zimma. "It's just a temporary matchup for this job. I'm not even sure why she was along anyway - she didn't even realise we'd been made."
"Been made doing what, exactly?" Manchurian asked the question with a quirk of his eyebrow. "Sitting in a public park, reading a book, and listening to music on headphones? Why would you care about being found doing that?"
Zimma didn't say anything.
Manchurian went on, "You were the team lead and you made both the call to bail, and the choice to do so...dramatically. You might want to consider whether you made the best available choices."
"I wasn't going to let those goons get their hands on me or get a good look at me," replied Zimma. "They were coming out into the park and they were heading right for us."
"They were heading for the outdoor exercise trail," interrupted Merser. "The way they do, two or three times a week. Where we were, they had to walk right past us to get there. They might have made us, but they weren't going to do anything about it."
Zimma sighed and tossed her head. "And that's why I'm the lead. You weren't going to do anything."
"I was going to look up from my book and ogle," corrected Merser. "That was my excuse for being there if anyone asked. A group of very nicely maintained male muscle sets in tight tee shirts walking past on a regular basis might have that effect."
Zimma looked offended. "If they caught us, you were going to tell them that you were there to perve at them going to PT?"
"Yes." Merser shrugged. "Why not? Odds are at least some of them would be flattered, and embarrassment at being caught would explain a hasty retreat right afterwards."
"It sounds at least halfway reasonable," allowed Manchurian. "I can see a couple of potential problems, but it's a beginning of a low conflict plan. Nothing wrong with low conflict or avoidance. Nothing wrong with them being conflicted over how to deal with a pair of pretty girls who might fancy them either."
"I like my solution better. Sir." Zimma was getting her hackles up.
Manchurian quirked that eyebrow again. "You used a stun grenade in a public place. Luckily, you didn't hit any bystanders with it, and you didn't take out your partner either. We will talk about this later, in another place. For now, you both need to know that there are already consequences."
"What sort of consequences?" Merser had a sinking feeling.
Manchurian sighed. "Slicker's people are claiming that you were 'obviously coerced' by Zimma and that you're now under his protection. He's even hired lawyers to keep you out of the charges Zimma's facing for throwing that stun grenade. Zimma is going to have to lay low while we see if we can get her out of that trouble."
"We're the good guys," hissed Zimma, "so why would there be charges? And why are we having this conversation in public?"
"Because we're the good guys we shouldn't go throwing explosives around in public," Manchurian told her. "As for the other, thanks to a gizmo maker I know, I have an active privacy screen in my pocket. Eavesdropping on this room is exceedingly difficult right now. We are also having this conversation now because it will be some time before you and your partner will be in the same place again. You're confined to the base from tonight and she will be here in hospital for some time - no matter what Elber thinks he wants."
Zimma narrowed her eyes and asked, "What are you going to do if I don't go straight back to the base after I leave here?"
Manchurian sighed again. "We are trying to avoid you being arrested. Confining you to base will minimise potential legal entanglements. Actions have consequences so yes; you are in trouble. Push back on my advice and you will find the consequences are worse than they would have been otherwise."
"Why?" Zimma's arms were folded across her chest.
"Because I will make sure you feel the full consequences of your actions." Manchurian gave her a thin smile.
"I'm leaving." Zimma tossed her head. "When I get back to base, I'm going to ask for a partner who's good to go. Fixer, you'll have to find your own way back. Merser, get well so they stop using this 'you could have killed her' bollocks on me. See you all around." The last sentence came as she strode out of the room."
Fixer watched her go with a look of regret and a few moments later said, "We'd better follow her to make sure she does go back to base without causing problems, hadn't we?"
"We had," agreed Manchurian. He turned to Merser and said, "I'm sorry to cut our visit short but we'd better follow her."
"I'll try and get back tomorrow," promised Fixer as he went out the door behind the older man.
Merser's final visitors of the evening came barely fifteen minutes before evening visiting hours finished. Antwan and Román came first, checking the room like they were bodyguards clearing it for their principal to enter. When they were done with checking behind closed curtains and in the bathroom, they took up positions on either side of the door and then Slicker walked in.
He was a clean shaven, olive skinned man of her uncle's age, wearing a charcoal coloured three-piece suit.
"Mr Sao Paulo," she greeted him politely and nodded her head.
"Doña Teresa Francisca." He inclined his head then surveyed her thoughtfully. "I'm glad to see that there has been some improvement in your condition since you were admitted. I'll have my people bring you some suitable nightgowns and a dressing gown. Hospital gowns aren't anyone's choice of dress - outside of a few particular groups. What are your favourite colours?"
"Mr Sao Paulo, thank you for the kind thought but I don't think should be accepting gifts from you." Merser would like to have been sitting up, proud and defiant while she said that, but she was doing well to raise her head to a more upright position from her reclined sitting position on the hospital bed. Slicker gave Román a sideways look and the younger man walked over to her and slid another pillow in behind her head and upper back, settling her back into position once he'd done so.
As Román walked back to his position, Slicker said, "What you and your companion were doing in a public park opposite the back entrance of my business complex was no-one else's concern, until she threw a stun grenade at my employees. You were none of my concern until she dragged you away and threw you at your bike. You kept up with the idiot madwoman until she left you with nowhere to go except into or under the back of a bus. You chose the option that wasn't going to kill anyone on the bus but might still have killed you, and that makes me prepared to take responsibility for your care." When Merser didn't say anything he added, "Oh, and extra points for dropping the bike on your non-dominant side."
"I don't remember making those decisions." Merser's voice was very quiet. "Idiot madwoman?"
"Your companion, partner, whatever." He waved a hand dismissively. "I started out as a getaway driver. She's a lousy driver. You're much better. She's not a team player, but you are. Whoever issues your equipment cares more about her than you."
"You're very good at this, aren't you Mr Sao Paulo?" Merser wanted to sound amused but she just sounded tired. "Buttering people up and then slipping a shard of doubt into their minds."
"Yes, I am." His face was stark now. "But here's a plain serving of doubt for you - Elber claims to be your uncle and guardian, but he doesn't take good care of you. You deserve better. He came to visit you today and didn't think to bring anything for you to wear or use. You will take the clothes I give you and you will wear them. You will look like someone cares about you and you will learn what it feels like to be taken care of." He gave her a feral smile and added, "And then I hope you have a conversation with Elber, the idiot madwoman, and the rest of their cronies." The smile went away. "You'll have more visitors tomorrow; they'll organise your clothes and toiletries. I will visit again at least once before you leave hospital. Rest up and get well." Then he was gone, with Antwan and Román following behind him. A few minutes later the nurse came in to take observations and settle Merser down for the night.
On the drive back to Slickman Industries Mr Sao Paulo, otherwise known as Slicker, observed to his men, "She certainly didn't get her manners from Elber. Speaking of which, if he's her uncle then her mother must be his sister Gala - they've no other siblings and he's never married. The trouble with that is I used to know Gala and she can't have kids - long story from when we were all younger. Your job is to find out who Doña Teresa Francisca really is."
Antwan said casually, "I might have gotten us a head start on that." He pulled a small zip lock bag with a handkerchief inside it out of his pocket. "Her Guild visitors this afternoon made her cry, so I lent her this. Snagged it again before we left. There might be some useful DNA on it."
Slicker gave his feral smile. "Get it to the standby crew in the lab. Let's find out what good, old Elber's been lying about for all these years."
At much the same time in another part of town, Fixer was asking Manchurian a question. "Why does everything about the Guild feel so...unstable now? I don’t think it’s just that Zimma isn’t who I hoped she was."
"It's because we're about to fly apart, again," replied the older man. "The Guild's been in existence for twenty-five years or more and over time the internal pressures build up. People argue, members go off on their own for a while or forever, and the organisation restructures. It probably doesn't show as much to you as to me but there's two major factions right now and I think that the whole thing is going to split down the middle. One half will follow Dr Noropolis and the other half will follow Elber. I'm not sure what Autocrases and a few of the others will do."
"Which will you join?" Fixer had turned to watch the older man's face as he answered.
"Neither. I've had enough of being Sergeant at Arms for a while. I'm thinking of going and doing some quiet work up on the north coast - I'm hearing enough to tell me that something out of the ordinary's going on up there but not what or who." Manchurian paused. "Want to come with me? I'll be trying to bring Merser too. She needs to get away from Elber, not that she realises it. If he keeps pushing the way he has been, he's going to get her killed."