Quinda woke to find herself warm and comfortable. Sunlight streamed down and, beneath her, she felt the giving embrace of a softly padded bed and pillow. There was a burbling sound from someplace nearby and a scent like the aroma of flowers in the air. Quinda felt the sensations resonate with long distant memories in her mind and found herself pulled back to when she was a little girl.
She’d slept like this in her grandfather’s cottage. Her parents were often away, traveling to the continent on the affairs of business and science. They had left Quinda in her grandfather’s care and from him her love of reading and writing had sprung.
His passing had scarred her, and turned the tales that she wrote to a darker hue. The was no coming back from the dark veil of death, but she’d written about it nonetheless. Never about him coming back, never about anything good coming back. She knew that sort of thing wasn’t real and so in her stories she tried to make sense of the world by showing why what she most hoped for could never be allowed to exist.
The stream of memory trickled away as Quinda opened her eyes.
She felt wrong. Fundamentally alien. She remembered the dreams she’d had. The nightmares she’d conjured into the world with pen and paper. Centuries separated her from those tales, but the gulf between what she had been and what she had become was even wider than that.
“You’ll want to take it slow.”
Quinda looked to the side of the bed and found the young blonde woman in the leathers of a king’s watchman sitting on a chair beside the bed. A book lay open in her lap, but Quinda had the impression that the woman had been asleep as well until a moment ago.
“Where am I?” Quinda asked.
“Safe,” the woman said. “More precisely, you’re at the home of a friend of mine. She patched you up last night and then gave you a treatment to help you rest until your body was finished with the reconstruction it needed to do.”
“Reconstruction? What do you mean?” Quinda asked.
“Easiest to show you I think,” the woman said and offered a handheld mirror to Quinda.
The face that looked back from the silvered glass was one Quinda had never seen before. It wasn’t the face she’d worn in her first life or the reconstructed face the academics had given her. Even her hair was different.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You were damaged badly enough that Marcella had to do more than just stitch you up,” the woman said. “Also the king’s watch had an alert out for you, so I asked Marcella to put in some extra effort on putting you back together.”
“When you burned the academics experiments you did me a favor. I wanted to repay you,” the woman said.
“Aren’t you with the king’s watch though?”
“No, I just like how they dress. My name is Way and I guess you could say I work for a higher authority.”
“I can’t imagine who that would be,” Quinda said.
“Don’t worry about that. Just know that what you did prevented some serious problems from arising with what you did,” Way said.
“Owen!” Quinda said, remembering the last bit of the academic’s ‘Great Experiment’ that remained.
“Here as well my lady,” Owen said. Except of course he wasn’t the Owen that Quinda remembered. In place of the disembodied head she had stolen from the University’s lab, she saw a small figure in the shape of a man but composed of lightning standing in a glass sphere the size of a large melon.
“Owen?” Quinda asked, not believing her eyes.
“I suppose you could call me ‘Owen’s vital spark’. I’m given to understand that you were the one who rescued me before I could permanently ensconced within a cadaver?” Owen said.
“I took a head from the lab, your head?”
“Yes. Ms. Way and Ms. Marcella were responsible for extracting me from that gross material before it was too late.”
“You can think of Owen there as the Vitalization energies that were imbued in the head and the spirit that was called back by the bones they used,” Way explained. “We had to extract him from the head or he would have slept until a body was prepared for him.”
A body that would have required multiple fresh corpses. Quinda understood why they hadn’t pursued that route.
“What is to become of me then?” Quinda asked.
“I would like to ask you a favor,” Way said.
“She wants you to be a nanny to me,” a new woman said.
Marcella rolled herself over to the foot of the bed and Quinda noticed that the small room she was in adjoined a fully stocked lab room like the University possessed. Or rather had possessed before Quinda lit it on fire.
For a moment Quinda wondered if she’d fallen back into the clutches of her enemies but then she met the Marcella’s gaze and saw a different sort of spirit lurking there. The academics had looked on Quinda with amusement and self-congratulation. She’d been a validation of their work and they stood to earn fame and fortune from her presence. Marcella’s gaze on the other hand held equal parts madness and daring.
“Marcella helped me as well,” Way said. “But I’m afraid I can’t easily repay the favor she did for me before I go.”
“I don’t understand why you need to move on,” Marcella said with a frown.
“I miss my wife,” Way said. “And there are other people who need me. Battles to be fought, calamities to be averted, the lost to be found. More problems than you would believe could exist. But mostly I just miss my wife.”
Quinda noticed that a pink ring shimmered on Way’s ring finger and seemed to pulse with a living heartbeat. For a moment she had the sense of a shorter, black haired young woman standing behind Way with her arms draped over the chair and wrapped around Way’s shoulders.
“You don’t need to repay me like this,” Marcella said to Way. “I’ve done fine on my own for two years now, I can take care of myself. Ms. Quinda here can do whatever she wishes. I won’t have her stay here as a matter of obligation.”
“Perhaps we should give the lady time to collect her senses?” Owen suggested.
“Of course,” Marcella said. “Come with me Owen. We need to take the morning samples and then put on some tea.”
She extended her hand and the glass sphere with the lightning man inside it flew to her grasp. Setting it down on her lap, Marcella rolled herself out of the small bedroom and off into the lab and the rooms beyond.
“I can give you time too,” Way said. “But perhaps you’d prefer more answers?”
“I don’t know,” Quinda said. “I can’t think where to begin.”
“Perhaps try starting with this, how do you feel right now?”
“I’m fine. I’m ok,” Quinda said.
“You’re clutching the covers very tightly for someone who’s fine,” Way said.
Quinda looked down and saw that her hands were wrapped like talons into the bed sheets that were spread over her. She opened them immediately but the message they sent was clear.
“I’m not ok,” she admitted.
“Then how are you?” Way asked.
“I’m wrong,” Quinda said. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Marcella doesn’t mind having you here. She’s just sensitive about people presuming she’s less capable than she is,” Way said.
“No, I mean my skin is wrong. Everything about me is wrong. I’m not myself. I’m made up of bits of other people.”
“Do you remember who you once were?” Way asked.
“Only a little,” Quinda said. “Pieces of memory. Just enough to let me know that I’m not her anymore.”
“Is that important?” Way asked.
“I don’t know,” Quinda said. “I don’t know if who I was mattered at all.”
“You mattered to some people,” Way said.
“Yes, to the academics for whatever reason they chose to bring me back,” Quinda said.
“More than that. You mattered to everyone who read your stories.”
“My stories? But they were written centuries ago.”
“And they’re still read,” Way said. “You foresaw the Vitriatic Sciences and guessed at the shape of the problems that would confront people as they made advances with bringing back the dead. You died too early, and wrote too little, but what you gave to the world has been remembered.”
“I can’t believe that.”
“Doesn’t this look familiar?” Way said and passed the book in her lap over to Quinda’s hands. In it, Quinda saw a collection of all of the tales that she’d written, bound in richer paper than any she’d ever worked on in her first life.
Tears started falling from her eyes and Quinda closed up the book before they could stain its pages.
“These aren’t my words,” she said. “I don’t remember the girl who wrote these words. She’s lost to me.”
“Do you want to be her again?” Ways asked.
“No, she was innocent. I’m built from the sins and suffering of others.” Quinda said.
Way grasped her shoulders at that.
“This body you wear isn’t your sin,” she said. “I know how you were brought back. I know what it cost and I know the girls who lost their lives to make it happen. You played no role in their murder and bear no blame for what happened to them.”
“I am inhuman,” Quinda said.
“Your body is unique, but the humanity that you’re talking about isn’t part of your skin, or your heart or your brain,” Way said. “What you’re talking about lies deeper in you than any of that. It’s in the decisions you make, the desires you nurture and who you choose to be.”
“I can’t see that. I can only see hands that aren’t mine and a face I’ve never known.” Quinda said.
Way was silent for a moment and then took Quinda’s hands in her own.
“I can change that,” she said. “I can give you back the body of the girl you were, or I can take you from this body and let it crumble to dust.”
“What would be the cost?” Quinda asked.
“To you? Nothing. But it was leave a hole in the world where this version of you should be,” Way said.
“No one would miss me,” Quinda said.
“You may not think that Marcella and Owen care for you much yet, but don’t be sure you know what the future holds,” Way said. “There are connections that run from you now that you can barely perceive. Everything you do affects so many more lives than you know. Upset that by denying your own future and you’ll leave a wound that the world may never recover from.”
“So I have to stay like this, an abomination, forever?” Quinda asked.
“No,” Way said.
“What else can I do?” Quinda asked.
“There are a lot of paths you can walk,” Way said. “Marcella’s research lies in areas that may transform you. The world is wide open and holds secrets beyond what you can imagine. But I think you have an option even closer to your grasp.”
“Accept yourself for who you are,” Way said. “You speak of being an abomination, but you’re not. Those hands and that face are yours, whether to embrace or to change. You own them. You can even throw them away, but I hope you won’t. This world needs more people like you in it.”
“Can I think on it?” Quinda asked.
“For as long as you want,” Way said and got up to leave.
She paused at the doorway and turned back to Quinda.
“I do need to leave, but I’ll listen for you,” Way said. “If you need me, just call my name.”
Quinda heard Way’s footsteps depart from a half dozen paces before they vanished into the background noise of the lab.
Accepting herself sounded like the advice one would give a child. Simple and comforting but too nice to be practical. Looking at the future, Quinda saw so many obstacles that would rise before her. If she felt bad lying in a comfortable bed how much worse would it be when the horrible times came.
And yet what was the alternative? Oblivion? A dreamless slumber of non-being? She felt the smooth leather of the book in her hands and smelled the rich scent of its paper. Her stories lived! Even so removed from them, there was a tiny thrill that ran through her to know that. How many other little victories and exaltations would she miss if she called Way back?
Quinda couldn’t find the calculation that weighed the bad against the good that lay before her. Facing the future seemed impossible, but she didn’t want to give it up either.
Outside the bedroom, she saw Marcella wheel herself over to a set of tall shelves. Without calling for help, the mad scientist pulled herself out of her wheelchair and began the arduous process of reaching a box of tea leaves that lay on the topmost shelf. It was difficult and potentially dangerous work, but Marcella didn’t appear interested in letting that dissuade her. Not even when she lost her grip and fell back onto her chair.
Quinda rose at that point and went out to help.
“Thank you, but I can manage this,” Marcella said.
“You’re going to make tea for me too?” Quinda asked.
“Yes, of course,” Marcella said.
“Then I would like to assist you if I could,” Quinda said. “I haven’t done anything to repay your hospitality yet. Maybe I can boil the water?”
“The pot’s already on,” Marcella said. “Since you’re so tall though, I suppose I could let you get the fresh tea. You’ll need the ladder from the end of the aisle. I can steady it for you.”
“How did the tea get up there?” Quinda asked as she fetched the ladder.
“My new delivery boy,” Marcella said. “I told him to put it wherever he could find room and the idiot put it up there. I shall have to fire him.”
“In the oven?” Quinda joked.
“Tempting, but no,” Marcella said. “That would contaminate the other experiments I need to run today.”
Quinda wasn’t certain at first whether Marcella was serious but the wry little smile that played at the corners of her mouth gave the mad scientist away.
“As I said before, you needn’t feel obligated to stay here, but if you would care to though, there are some experiments I need to conduct on Owen today that I believe you could assist with. For the moment however, we have tea to concern ourselves with.”
Marcella smiled at that and wheeled herself off to pour their cups full and set out the assortment of biscuits and cookies that accompanied the snack.
And so it went that day, and the next, and the one that followed, the needs of the present rising to consume Quinda’s time and awareness until she found herself in a different place than she’d ever imagined she would be, leading a life that held unforeseen joys and miseries but that was uniquely and solely her own.