Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(11)

The Girl with All the Gifts(11)
M.R. Carey

This room is the strangest thing Melanie has ever seen. Of course, she’s starting to realise that she hasn’t seen all that much, but there are more things here of more baffling variety than she would have thought the whole world could hold. Bottles and tanks and jars and boxes; surfaces of white ceramic and stainless steel that gleam in the harsh radiance of strip lights overhead.

Some of the things in the bottles look like parts of people. Some of them are animals. Closest to her is a rat (she recognises it from a picture in a book) suspended head down in clear liquid. Thin grey strings like shoelaces – hundreds of them – have exploded from the rat’s body cavity and filled most of the interior space of the bottle, wrapped loosely around and around the little corpse as though the rat had decided to try to be an octopus and then hadn’t known how to stop.

One bottle along from the rat is an eyeball with gaudy streamers of nerve tissue attached behind.

These things fill Melanie’s mind with wild surmise. She says nothing, drinks it all in.

“Transfer her to the table, please.” It’s not Dr Selkirk who says this, it’s Dr Caldwell. She’s standing at a work surface on the far side of the room, arranging shiny steel objects in a precise order. She touches some of them several times over, as though the distance and angles between them matter a great deal to her.

“Good morning, Dr Caldwell,” Melanie says.

“Good morning, Melanie,” Dr Caldwell says. “Welcome to my laboratory. The most important room on the base.”

With Dr Selkirk’s help, Sergeant transfers Melanie from her chair on to a high table in the centre of the room. It’s a complex manoeuvre. They untie her hands from the armrests and handcuff them in front of her. They lock her feet to a restraint bar. Then they undo the neck strap and lift her on to the table. She weighs almost nothing, so they don’t have any trouble carrying her.

Once she’s sitting on the table, they strap her feet into harnesses low down on its sides, which Dr Selkirk adjusts carefully so that they’re tight. Then they remove the restraint bar, which is no longer needed.

“Lie down, Melanie,” Dr Caldwell says. “And hold out your hands.” The women take one hand each, and as Sergeant unlocks the cuffs, they carefully set her wrists in two more harnesses. Dr Caldwell ties them up.

Melanie is completely immobile now, apart from her head. She’s grateful that there’s no neck strap like the one on the chair.

“You need me?” Sergeant asks Dr Caldwell.

“Emphatically not.”

Sergeant wheels the chair back to the door. Melanie takes this in, and reads it right. She won’t be needing the chair again. She won’t be going back to her cell. Tales the Muses Told is lying under her mattress back there, and she crashes head first into the realisation that she may never see it again. Those pages that smell of Miss Justineau are now, and perhaps for ever, inaccessibly distant.

She wants to cry out to Sergeant to wait – or ask him to carry a message to Miss J. She can’t say a word. Misgivings are crowding in on her. She’s in uncharted territory, and she fears the blank, inscrutable future into which she’s being rushed before she’s ready. She wants her future to be like her past, but knows it won’t be. The knowledge sits like a stone in her stomach.

The door closes behind Sergeant. The two women begin to undress her.

They use scissors, cutting her out of her cotton shift.

17

For Helen Justineau, the first hint that something is wrong is when she’s walking down the corridor from the shower to the classroom. She looks for Melanie’s face in the mesh window of her door, but Melanie doesn’t appear.

She unlocks the classroom and stands at her desk while the children are wheeled in one by one. She says hello to each in turn. The twentieth child (the twenty-first, until Marcia was taken) ought to be Melanie, but it’s Anne. One of the deadpan soldier boys deposits her and immediately heads for the door.

“Hold on,” Justineau says.

The private stops, turns back to face her with minimal civility. “Yes, miss?”

“Where’s Melanie?”

He shrugs. “One of the cells was empty,” he offers. “I went on to the next one. Is there a problem?”

Justineau doesn’t answer. She leaves the classroom, walks out into the corridor. She goes to Melanie’s cell. Nothing to be seen there. The door of the cell stands open. The bed and the chair are both empty.

Nothing about this feels right. The soldier is at her back, asking her again if there’s a problem. She ignores him and heads for the stairs.

Sergeant Parks is standing at the top, talking in a low voice to a group of three soldiers who all look very scared – very far from business as usual. At another time that might give Justineau pause. At another time she’d at least wait for him to finish, but she barges right in.

“Sergeant,” she says. “Has Melanie been moved?”

Parks has seen her walk up, but he stares at her now as though he’s only just registered who she is. “I’m sorry, Miss Justineau,” he says. “We’ve got something of an emergency. Potentially. We’re clocking large number of hungries close to the perimeter.”

“Has Melanie been moved?” Justineau repeats.

Sergeant Parks tries again. “If you go back to the classroom, we can talk about this as soon as—”

“Just answer me. Where is she?”

Parks glances away, just for a second, then looks her square in the eyes. “Dr Caldwell asked for her to be sent over to the lab.”

Justineau’s stomach free-falls. “And you … you took her?” she asks stupidly.

He nods. “About half an hour ago. I would have told you, obviously, but class hadn’t started and I didn’t know where you were.”

But she should have known as soon as she saw the empty cell. Once it’s said, it becomes so blindingly obvious that she curses herself for wasting these few precious minutes. She’s off at a run toward the lab complex. Parks is shouting at her – something about needing to get inside – but there’ll be time for him later.

If she’s too late, all the time in the worthless fu**ing world.

18

Dr Caldwell and Dr Selkirk wash Melanie all over her body, very thoroughly, with disinfectant soap that smells just like the spray from the showers. She submits to this in silence, her thoughts racing.

“Do you like learning about science, Melanie?” Dr Caldwell asks her. Dr Selkirk shoots Dr Caldwell a slightly startled look.

“Yes,” Melanie says guardedly.

When she’s clean, Dr Caldwell picks up some sort of tool about the size of a blackboard rubber. She presses on it, and it starts to hum in her hand. She puts it against the side of Melanie’s head, draws it across her scalp in short, straight lines. It sends vibrations through her skin into her skull.

Melanie is about to ask what this thing is, but then she sees Dr Selkirk lift up a handful of blonde hair and drop it into a plastic bin.

Dr Caldwell is thorough, going over the whole of Melanie’s head twice. The second time she presses harder and it actually hurts, just a little. Dr Selkirk scoops away more drifts of Melanie’s hair. Then she wipes her hands carefully with a wet paper towel taken from a dispenser on the wall.

Dr Caldwell applies bright blue paint to Melanie’s scalp, from a plastic jar labelled BACTERICIDE GEL E2J. Melanie tries to imagine what she must look like now, bareheaded and blue. She must be a little bit like a Pictish warrior. Mr Whitaker showed them some pictures of Picts, one time when his voice was blurry, and he couldn’t stop laughing at the phrase pictures of Picts. If someone went into battle naked, the Picts said he was sky-clad. Melanie has almost never been naked. It’s not a nice feeling at all, she decides; it makes her feel vulnerable and ashamed.

“I don’t,” she says.

“What?” Dr Caldwell sets down the brush and wipes her fingers against her white coat, leaving sky-blue streaks.

“I don’t like learning about science. I want to go back to the classroom, please.”

Dr Caldwell meets her gaze, for the first time. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” she says. “Close your eyes, Melanie.”

“No,” Melanie says. She’s certain that if she does, Dr Caldwell will do something mean to her. Something that will hurt.

And suddenly, like seeing the other side of an optical illusion, she knows what that something will be. They’re going to cut her up and put pieces of her in jars like these pieces of other people all around her.

She throws her weight against the straps, struggles desperately, but they don’t move at all.

“Should we try some isoflurane?” Dr Selkirk asks. Her voice is unsteady. She sounds like she might be going to cry.

“They don’t respond,” Dr Caldwell says. “You know that. I refuse to waste one of our last few cylinders of general anaesthetic making the experimental subject feel vaguely drowsy. Please remember, Doctor, that the subject presents as a child but is actually a fungal colony animating a child’s body. There’s no place for sentiment here.”

“No,” Dr Selkirk agrees. “I know.”

She picks up a knife, of a kind that Melanie has never seen before. It has a very long handle and a very short blade – the blade so thin that when it’s edge-on to her, it’s almost invisible. She holds it out to Dr Caldwell.

“I want to go back to the classroom,” Melanie says again.

The knife slips through Dr Selkirk’s fingers and falls to the floor just before Dr Caldwell can take it. It makes a ringing sound as it hits, and again as it bounces. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Dr Selkirk yelps. She bends to pick it up, hesitates, straightens again and takes another from the instrument tray instead. She flinches from Dr Caldwell’s glare as she hands it over.

“If the noise is troubling you,” Dr Caldwell says, “I’ll remove the pharynx first.” And she puts the cold edge of the blade against Melanie’s throat.

“It’ll be the last fu**ing thing you ever do,” says Miss Justineau’s voice.

The two women pause in their work and look towards the door. Melanie can’t at first, because if she raises her head she’ll cut her own throat on the blade of the knife. But then Dr Caldwell moves her hand away, and she’s free to bend her neck and take a peek.

Miss Justineau is standing in the doorway. She’s holding something in her hands – a red cylinder with a black tube attached to one side of it. It seems to be pretty heavy.

“Good morning, Miss Justineau,” Melanie says. She’s dizzy with relief, but the ridiculous, inadequate words are hard-wired into her. She couldn’t keep them in if she tried.

“Helen,” Dr Caldwell says. “Please come in, won’t you? And close the door. This isn’t exactly an antiseptic environment, but we’re doing our best.”

“Put the scalpel down,” Miss Justineau says. “Now.”

Dr Caldwell frowns. “Don’t be absurd. I’m in the middle of a dissection.”

Miss Justineau advances into the room, stopping only when she comes to the bottom end of the table where Melanie’s bare feet are strapped down. “No,” she says, “you’re at the start of a dissection. If you were in the middle of it, we wouldn’t be talking right now. Put the scalpel down, Caroline, and nobody gets hurt.”

“Oh dear,” Dr Caldwell says. “This isn’t going to end well, is it?”

“That’s kind of up to you.”

Dr Caldwell glances at Dr Selkirk, who hasn’t made a move or said a word since Miss Justineau came into the room. She’s just standing there with her mouth half open, her hands clasped to her chest. She looks like someone who’s staring at a hypnotist’s watch and is about to go under.

“Jean,” Dr Caldwell says. “Call security, please, and tell them to come and remove Helen from the theatre.”

Dr Selkirk glances at the phone on the work surface and takes a half-step in that direction. Miss Justineau swings round a lot faster and brings the fire extinguisher down on the phone. The handset breaks in two with a dry, complicated crunching sound. Dr Selkirk jumps back.

“Yeah, look at it, Jean,” Miss Justineau tells her. “The next time you move, you’re getting this right in your face.”

“And you’ll make the same threat if I try to go to the door, or the window, I suppose,” Dr Caldwell says. “Helen, I don’t think you’ve thought this through. It really doesn’t matter whether I call off this procedure or not. You can take Melanie out of the lab, but you can’t take her out of the base. Every gate is guarded, and outside the gate there are perimeter patrols. There is no way you can stop this.”

Miss Justineau doesn’t answer, but Melanie knows that Dr Caldwell is wrong. Miss Justineau can do anything she wants to do. She’s like Prometheus, and Dr Caldwell is like Zeus. Zeus thought he was big and clever because he was a god, but the Titans weren’t scared of him at all. Of course, in the story, the Titans lost in the end – but Melanie is in no doubt about who’s going to win this battle.

“I’ll take it one step at a time,” Miss Justineau growls. “Jean, undo those straps.”

“Don’t,” Dr Caldwell says quickly, “do anything of the kind.” She gives Dr Selkirk a brief, fierce stare as she says this, then turns her full attention back to Miss Justineau.

And softens on the instant. “Helen, you’re not well. The situation here has put all of us under terrible strain. And this fantasy of rescuing the test subject … well, it’s part of your response to that stress. We’re all friends, and colleagues. Nobody is going to be reported. Nobody is going to be punished. We’re going to work this out, because really there isn’t any alternative.”

Miss Justineau hesitates, lulled by this gentleness.

“I’m going to put the scalpel down,” Dr Caldwell says. “I’m asking you to do the same with your … weapon.”

And Dr Caldwell does what she promised. She shows the scalpel, holds it high for a second, then sets it down on the edge of the table, close to Melanie’s left side. She does this slowly, with exaggerated care. So Miss Justineau is watching the hand with the scalpel. Of course she is.

With her other hand, Dr Caldwell takes something small and shiny from the pocket of her lab coat.

“Miss Justineau!” Melanie shrieks. Too late. Much too late.

Dr Caldwell thrusts the shiny something into Miss Justineau’s face. There’s a sound like the hiss of the shower spray, and a smell on the air that’s sour and scalding and takes your breath away. Miss Justineau gurgles, the sound cut off very suddenly. She drops the fire extinguisher, and she’s clawing at her face. She sinks slowly to her knees, then topples sideways on to the floor of the lab, where she twitches and writhes, making noises like she’s choking.

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