They found Anthony deep in the archives of Ex Libris, his head well and truly buried in an old tome. His small researchers desk was covered in a a dull orange glow emanating from an ancient green and gold banker’s lamp. Despite the loud and ominous thunks from the overhead lights switching on as Carol and Aaron tripped their motion sensors, Anthony didn’t seem to notice them intruding on his reading. Carol stood quietly next to the archivist, she knew better than to interrupt him mid page, especially if she wanted to talk about things like emotions, and grieving. While they waited patiently she looked idly around the archives, this section was now bathed in a puddle of harsh fluorescent white light. It was if some cruel god was shining a spotlight on the trio, as if to say ‘there they are, those are the ones who killed their friend and lover.’
They had waited long enough that the trail of overhead lights began to disappear back into the darkness. She watched them slowly turn off one by one, erasing their trail through the rows and rows of massive shelving that lent a maze like element to the domain of Ex Libris. It gave her an eerie feeling every time she visited the archives, like a wolf was eating their trail of bread crumbs as they wandered further and further into the deep, dark woods. An involuntary shiver ran through her body as the final light recessed back into the dark ceiling, leaving only the gentle glow of Anthony’s lamp to push back against the overwhelming darkness. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the new light level, spots of colour uncomfortably floating through her vision. Next to her, Richard seemed to relax if anything once the light left, no doubt used to spending hours waiting in the dark for a target, with nobody else but himself for company. They were on opposite ends of the Deus Ex scale but some how Sarah loved both of them just as equally. Sarah loved everyone, that’s what made everyone love her.
Carol hugged herself, suddenly cold at the thought of her lost love. Too soon, she thought. Too soon for thoughts of Sarah’s contented smile as she listened enthusiastically to Anthony recount some story he had read earlier that day. Too soon for the way she looked into Carols eyes with just as much enthusiasm as they held each other. Shaking the thoughts away she tried to bring her attention back to why they were here. Anthony was yet to acknowledge them but she was reaching the end of her patience, especially now.
‘That can’t be good for your eyes, lovely.’ She said softly so as not to startle him too much. She needn’t have worried as he barely registered her, it wasn’t until she placed a hand on his shoulder that he looked up from the pages of the book.
‘Oh, Carol, and is that Richard?’ Anthony said, swapping his reading glasses for his long distance pair. ‘Sorry, I was lost in that book there. Whatever brings you all the way down here?’
‘We were looking for you, love. Wanted to see how you were getting on,’ asked Carol, crouching down to Anthony’s level.
He looked at them both as he answered, ‘oh I’m fine, just stuck in some research. You know me.’
‘What are you reading there, Tony? Anything interesting?’ Asked Richard.
‘Oh this?’ Anthony casually closed the large book, leaving the front cover facing the desk. ‘Just the usual, gods and monsters, that sort of thing. You know how it is.’ He said with a slightly nervous timber to his voice. Richard eyed the book suspiciously before replying, ‘yeah, I’m familiar with that sort of thing.’
‘Yes, hah,’ said Anthony nervously, ‘yeah I… uh, guess you would be.’
Carol stood up and straightened the creases out of her tan dress pants. ‘We were going to go get some dinner and thought you would like to join us. It’s about time you got out of this musty old place.’
‘Dinner?’ Asked Anthony, ‘but it’s only…’ He looked at his watch and tapped it a few times out of confusion. ‘Huh, yes I guess it is dinner time. Time flies as they say.’ His confusion didn’t lessen but the creases on his face eventually faded, replaced with a furrowed brow as he searched for a polite way to turn down the offer. ‘Thank you, but I’m fine. Had a big lunch you see,’ he said, reaching for his reading glasses.
‘We’re not really taking no for an answer here, old chap.’ Said Richard, ‘I think we all need to go out and get some fresh air.’
‘Some people rather enjoy that old book smell you know, reminds them of better times.’ Said Anthony, his tone conveying mild annoyance.
Carol gently removed Anthony’s reading glasses from his hand and guided him up off the chair. ‘You know a learned friend of mine once told me that the smell of old books, that hint of vanilla and grass you get, was from the organic materials in the pages breaking down. It’s the smell of books slowly decaying.’ Carol said while slowly manoeuvring Anthony away from the desk.
‘Bibliosmia, yes. It shows us there is beauty even in death. ’ Said Anthony looking back at his book. He frowned in confusion at both the situation and what Carol was saying. ‘Wait, which friend told you that?’ He asked.
‘You did, love.’ Said Carol with a slight smile on her lipstick red lips, ‘now come along, they won’t hold our table for much longer.’ She walked confidently ahead as the ominous overhead lights thundered on, lighting her way out of the archives.
Anthony paused while he tried to comprehend what had just happened. Richard turned off the small desk lamp and placed a friendly arm around Anthony’s shoulders, guiding him forward, following the light trail left by Carol. They watched her silhouette stride confidently forward, never once looking back at them. Anthony looked at Richard and said, ‘I’ve never figured out how she does that, you know. The way she can make you do something that you know you should, but just don’t want to. I used to think it was part of her demigod heritage, but it’s not listed as a known godly power, those are all a lot less subtle.’
Richard laughed and it echoed joyfully around the dusty shelves. ‘If you ever find out let me know. Drives me crazy sometimes,’ he said smiling and squeezing Anthony’s shoulders. He was still laughing as the light above the lonely research desk switched off and plunged the area into darkness, all but for the soft green glow that leaked out from between the pages of the now closed book.
It had been an age since they had all sat down for a meal together. Friends, lovers, and colleagues all sharing a table, offering each other food and talking passionately about life and work. Carol looked around at the three of them. Richard, all gruff and militaristic with his tightly trimmed hair, olive green pants with too many pockets, and just the right amount of muscles straining against his plain black t-shirt was all smiles for once. He cheerfully passed a basket of bread around insisting that Tony eat something. Without Sarah he’d taken over the mother role it seemed, not at all out of character once you got to know him as well as she did. His beautiful brown eyes, while bright and happy, hid a sadness just below the surface not just for Sarah but for all the people he’d lost over the years. It was something she liked about him but would never say out loud, it seemed insensitive to find someone’s painful soul attractive so she just focused on his kindness and warm embrace.
Anthony, Tony, on the other hand was the polar opposite of Richard. He sat quietly, eventually taking what food was offered to him in spite of his soft spoken protests. While Carol always thought it at odds with his demeanour Tony was a man of taste. His three piece brown suit hugged his body perfectly and added an air of old world charm to him. The thin gold reading glasses had been traded for his usual thick smoky frames, designer of course, that really brought out his soft grey eyes. He’d spent hours picking out those glasses with Sarah, although she had contributed little to the decision making only offering moral support and encouraging words. Tony had a vision for himself and just enough confidence to pull it off, Sarah knew well enough to leave him to it and instead used his impeccable eye to help her with her own wardrobe decisions. Now he was here, amongst friends yes, but without his emotional support extrovert to give him that little push he so desperately needed. Carol had noticed his distance this evening, withdrawn from the others, not even extending a subtle hand to Aaron as was their way in public. Maybe Aaron was right, maybe there was something to be concerned about here. She flicked her attention over to the head of Ex Machina, trying to hide her deeper concerns.
They had convinced Aaron to come out partially because it was their warning that prompted the need for a dinner in the first place, but mostly because Carol knew they were hurting too. Their long grey hair was pulled back tightly into a pony tail giving a sharp frame to their thin, angular face. Among them Aaron stood out only slightly with their chipped black nail polish matching the tight black jeans they wore, a well worn t-shirt promoting some black metal band completed the look. It was the classic uniform of an Ex Machina tech and they were all used it it by now. Where Sarah matched Tony’s sense of style, Aaron rebelled against it and the three of them together made you think Aaron was somehow their grown-up child.
Sarah and Aaron, while as close as you can platonically be, were only ever metamours. It was Aaron and Tony’s love that bound the three of them together. Sarah the ever social one dragging her two terminal introverts along for the ride. They may have hated every second of it but they not so secretly loved her for it too. Sarah was one of the few people who could tell Aaron that they were wrong about something and have the knowledge and skill to convince them of the fact. Carol watched Aaron as they rambled on about some new computer program they were working on, blissfully ignorant that all the other people at the table had no real idea what they were talking about. Still, Aaron’s soft face lit up as they talked at length about neural networks, waving a fork around wildly almost hitting Tony with it.
If she was here, Sarah would have been firing questions back at Aaron with a mouth full of food desperately trying to get Tony involved in the conversation, elbowing him gently while shooting him prompting questions. Yet she wasn’t here, and would never be again. It was just the four of them now, lost in their own private worlds of grief the glue that held their little polycule together was gone and Carol could see how fragile the remaining strands of friendship were. Was Sarah really the only thing holding them all together? That thought alone was enough to start a well of tears that she desperately tried to blink away before anyone at the table noticed. Luckily, she heard her name called, snapping her from the edge of her spiralling thoughts.
‘Carol?’ a voice called through a layer of brain fog.
‘Yes? Sorry, what?’ She said, subtly trying to wipe at the unshed tears that threatened to ruin her eyeliner.
‘What do you think?’ Aaron asked her, his empty fork punctuating the air between them. The others had drifted their gaze towards her, waiting. She desperately racked her mind to see if the question had been absorbed while she was lost in thought. Sadly it had not.
‘Sorry lovely, I was off on another planet there for a second. What were we talking about?’
Aaron stabbed at the vegetables on his plate and let the forkful hover around his mouth as he answered. ‘My holographic assistant program. Everything is there already, it just lacks a personality but appearance wise it’s exactly like her.’ He put the fork to his mouth and between chews asked, ‘so… what do you think?’
Carol was more confused than before the explanation, and looked to Richard to fill in the blanks for her. The disgust on his face was not well hidden and his words came out in that same flat tone he reserved for orders he disagreed with. ‘Aaron has a hologram of Sarah they want to turn on and let run around Deus Ex.’ He shot a disapproving eye towards Aaron, clearly giving his response to the question.
‘You what?’ Carol said shooting up out of her seat. Her hands slapping down on the table, hard enough to rattle all the plates and glassware unfortunate enough to be sitting on it. Aaron, slightly shocked, paused and put down their fork to look Carol in the eye. ‘Sarah was the model for the prototype, she loved the idea of having a double, a way to spread herself around.’
‘Time is our only limited resource,’ said Tony quietly, not lifting his eyes from his plate. Carol shook her head and locked eyes with Aaron, ‘Sarah is gone Aaron, you can’t bring her back, none of us can. I don’t care if she thought the idea was neat then, now it’s just a painful reminder of what we’ve lost. I forbid you to do this!’ She slammed a fist down hard, harder than she had meant as evident by the indent left in the wood. Richard stood up and put a soft arm around her shoulders trying to guide Carol back down into her seat. She shook him off, angrily. ‘Did you know about this?’ she asked him. Richard shook his head no. ‘This is the first time I’m hearing about it, and I also advised Aaron against it.’ He hovered half in, half out of his seat, unsure of how to comfort the clearly distraught demigod at his table.
People had begun to look over at their table in that distinctly disapproving English way but Carol didn’t care. Her friend wanted to parade her greatest failure around the office and they couldn’t see anything wrong with it, quite the opposite in fact. She told them as much through gritted teeth, pushing her anger and rage down below the surface, lest she lose what little control she had left. Carol forced herself to sit and take several deep breaths while running through a mental exercise designed to help ground her when things got overwhelming. Eventually she was able to place her hands gently in her lap and apologise for the outburst. Richard sat back down in his seat but retained an air of alertness about him, she could see the muscles in his arms tense up, ready to do whatever was needed. An unkind thought ran through her mind as she questioned who would he leap up to protect, her or Aaron.
‘The hologram wouldn’t bring Sarah back, I know that, it has none of her memories or personality. It would just look and sound like her, which she consented to I might add.’ Aaron was relatively unfazed by Carol’s reaction and had mostly finished their meal while she was calming herself down. This would have infuriated Carol more but she knew Aaron and how they handled social situations and this wasn’t intentional, it’s just how they were. It did force her to rein in her emotions somewhat, as raw and overwhelming as they felt, a calm rational explanation was what Aaron responded to best. Carol took a breath and said, ‘Aaron, I understand that you are coming from a good place with this idea, but myself and a few others won’t see it that way. Grief hits people very differently, some get over it quickly, others can carry that pain with them for a long time.’ Especially if you were the cause of that grief, Carol all but said out loud.
‘Wouldn’t this hologram allow people to work out their grief? People display photographs of lost loved ones all the time. How is this different?’ Retorted Aaron. It was clear they weren’t quite getting it, Carol decided to change tact. She addressed the quiet and withdrawn Ex Libris beside her, ‘Tony, how do you feel about all this?’
Tony barely looked up, his shoulders slumped as if holding them up was too much of a strain. The man looked more depressed than when they found him in the archive, maybe this dinner wasn’t helping in the way she thought it would. He mumbled something the table didn’t quite hear and Carol encouraged him to speak up.
‘I just want to forget.’ He finally said, locking sad, tearful eyes with Carol. ‘I don’t want to feel like this any more. Part of me has been ripped out and you’re all going around as if nothing happened!’ He slumped back into his chair, exhausted from speaking up.
‘That’s not true, Tony,’ said Richard in that restrained military tone he used. ‘We’re all hurting here.’ There was a small sideways glance towards Carol but Richard stopped himself.
Carol sighed heavily and sank back into her chair, burying her face in her hands. ‘It’s not working is it?’ She asked nobody in particular, the sounds muffled by her hands.
‘What?’ Asked Richard. Carol took her hands away and leant forward, arms folded on the table in front of her. ‘I said, it’s not working is it? This,’ she gestured at each of them, ‘us. Sarah was the glue that held us all together, she knew how to balance our quirks and communications styles and our love for her made us want to be better. Without her…’ she trailed off.
‘I think that’s a bit harsh,’ said Richard, ‘we’re all dealing with a lot right now. I’ve seen units fall apart due to similar circumstances, you lose a team member and people start second guessing or looking for answers elsewhere.’
‘We’re not your Ex Gladius grunts Richard! We’re friends and we’re hurting because we’ve lost the love of our life and nothing, nothing, will bring her back.’ She glared at him, a mixture of anger and sadness had filtered through her tone. She regretted it instantly but by then it was too late, she could see that hidden pain in his sad, brown eyes rise up. Richard cleared his throat and removed the cloth napkin from his lap, placing it beside his unfinished plate. ‘I see. Well, if you’ll excuse me then.’ He said as he stood up from the table.
‘Richard…’ Said Carol weakly. ‘Richard, where are you going?’
‘I have to go look after my Ex Gladius grunts.’ He said, taking out a couple of twenty Pound notes from his wallet and dropping them on the table. With only a curt nod to Aaron and Tony he left, not once looking back.
Carol heard a noise next to her and saw Tony getting up to leave as well. She looked up at him, the pain and sadness that had hung heavy on him all evening was gone, his face was now one of determination. ‘And where are you going?’ She asked, afraid that her voice carried a little too much annoyance, as opposed to the concern she had intended. Tony mimicked Richard’s departure right down to the cash on the table. ‘I was of two minds before dinner and now I know what I have to do. Sarah was too bright a light in my life, and the hole she left burns just as intensely. I’m not strong enough to bear this without help. Divine help.’ He moved behind Aaron and placed a gentle hand on their shoulder. ‘You’re welcome to join me, I’m sure Mnemosyne could help us all.’ With that he pulled on his coat and fedora and headed towards the door. Aaron’s head turned to watch Tony leave, turning back to shrug at Carol they hopped up to follow, leaving her alone amongst the remains of the failed dinner.
Carol felt tired. Her body hung heavy, pulling her down further into the chair leaving her acutely aware that she had managed to drive off everyone she loved and cared about. Carol wrapped her arms tightly around herself and, not for the first time that day, wished that Sarah was here to hold her and fix the mess she had made.
‘You do know that kitchen table polyamory isn’t about loving empty tables right?’ She could hear the stupid grin on her face as Carol’s mind echoed Sarah’s voice back at her. Always one to use humour to help pull her out of whatever sadness spiral she was in, Sarah knew exactly what to say to make things better. Carol hated that.
‘Oh, shut up.’ Carol said to the empty table as tears began to flood her eyes.