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Deus Ex... Mentis. Epilogue.

Despite taking an extra long hot shower, Carol’s eyes were still red and puffy from her breakdown in the locker room. Richard had assured her that nobody would notice,

4 months ago

Latest Post Deus Ex... Mentis. Epilogue. by Edward Shaddow public

Despite taking an extra long hot shower, Carol’s eyes were still red and puffy from her breakdown in the locker room. Richard had assured her that nobody would notice, which was a sweet little lie, but a lie nonetheless. She had tried her best to conceal the redness with makeup but now it looked like she had been crying and had tried to cover it up. Carol closed her compact mirror with a heavy sigh. It’ll be fine, who hasn’t had a mental break at work before, she figured?

Her first stop was the barracks and to apologise to Private Brack. He took it well and the damage to his face was minimal, his pride however was not so lucky.
“Rematch?” He had asked eagerly.
“Are you sure? I almost killed you because I lost control for a moment.” Carol said, not wanting to repeat the past.
“Oh absolutely!” Brack said, “I’ll be ready this time.”
She had left him with another apology and the promise they would try again soon, best two out of three. With the easy part over, the lift doors loomed over her as she tried to steel herself for the next step.

“You have to push the button if you want to use the lift.” Came the deep voice of Janus. Mop in hand as he cleaned the floor behind her, like a bartender wiping glasses between busy periods. The janitorial cart had made no noise and his voice made Carol jump from the buildup of anxious energy in her body. She managed to hold back a string of expletives and called it a win for her self control. “Janus, please, we’ve talked about this. Make some noise or something first.”
The old god looked her in the eyes and coughed into his hand rather pointedly. “Better?” He asked. Carol wasn’t sure if he was messing with her or genuinely trying, it was probably both.
“Yeah,” she said, “better.”
“Do you want me to call the lift for you?”
“No, no thank you Janus. I need to do this myself,” Carol said. Stealing herself, she took a deep breath and pushed the call button. As the down light lit up she exhaled and willed her whole body to relax.
The lift arrived quickly and the large silver doors slid apart, the mirrored box reflecting back at her three fold. Carol’s multiple reflections echoed back the reality that her makeup job was sub par. Richard was such a lier. With a determined sigh Carol drew herself up and entered the lift hitting the button for Ex Libris on the way in.
“The first step is always the hardest,” said Janus as he returned to mopping the floor.
“Doesn’t mean that the rest of the journey is easy,” she said as the doors chimed and slid shut.

The brightness of the entry foyer hit her like walking out into a cool summer’s day. She had to shield her eyes while they adjusted from the regular office gloom that illuminated the rest of the building. She was greeted by an equally bright and cheerful hello from behind the large curved oak desk that served as both the Ex Libris office and service point for the archives.

“You might need to get Ex Machina down here to look at the lights, Chris.” Carol said as she crossed the floor, her eyes still adjusting to the bright light. Christopher’s warm smile only dipped a little as he worked out what she meant. “Oh. No, no I changed them myself. It now mimics actual daylight, isn’t that cool?” His level of happiness and excitement was leagues above her own and for a brief moment Carol wondered if she had enough mental spoons for this.
“Isn’t it bad for the books and stuff?” She asked, mentally pushing aside her anxiety enough to put on a happier face for him.
“Not really, it’s all carefully controlled lux levels and besides, all the fragile stuff is in the stacks out the back,” he explained. Chris’ slight Australian accent strained against every vowel, and he inflicted the tone of words upwards so every sentence sounded like a question. Carol felt her heart warm as she listened to him speak, she loved a passionate nerd.

“I’m still trying to deal with working in a concrete bunker all day,” he continued. “The lack of sunlight outside is bad enough, then I go work in the mines of Moria all day. SAD is a thing you know?”
“Yeah, I’m somewhat familiar with it,” she said. “So it’s a bit like ‘can we have archives outside today? As a treat,’” she said with a genuine grin.
“Haha, yeah that’s exactly it!” Christopher beamed back at her. They both sat in that awkward but comfortable silence that often follows a stupid joke. Their relationship was still in an early flirtation-ship space, still sounding each other out, unsure of where they stood. In the past, Carol had a tendency to overthink things but this time she was trying to let the relationship be whatever it needed to be. Right now it needed to be light and awkward.

Carol had seen Sarah appear from one of the doorways leading into the archives proper, walking through the doorway rather than materialising out of nowhere like she usually did, which was odd yet comforting. Her crisp white blouse contrasted nicely against the light tan of the full length skirt she wore, tied together with thin brown leather braces. Her hair was up in a messy bun that Carol had so often liked, held in place by a twisted wrought iron hair pin that started with an Egyptian ankh and ended in a sharp point. Sarah walked casually up to the desk and flashed a reserved smile at Carol, the kind you saved for old friends when you’re unsure how they feel about you now. Carol mirrored the smile back, trying hard not to let her eyes convey all the years of pain and sadness she felt. She shuffled nervously on her feet and looked down at the charcoal black concrete floor, polished to a light shine. In an instant, all of the lightness she had felt from Chris left her letting the anxiety flood back in its place.

“Chris, love, can you give us a minute please?” Asked Sarah, there was a seriousness in her voice that made Chris look up at her with concern. It took him a moment to realise there was something going on, but he got the hint.
“Oh yeah sure, no worries.” He said getting up from behind the counter. “I have to uh, check on something out the back anyway. You know, archive stuff. See you later Carol, maybe?”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Carol flatly as Chris headed for the same door Sarah had appeared from moments ago. She felt bad, but Chris would understand that’s what she liked about him. The two women waited in silence for him to leave, Carol’s eyes wandering looking at everything but Sarah, while Sarah only had eyes for Carol.

A click of a door rendered them alone and the Ex Libris lobby hummed gently with the sound of recirculating air.
“You didn’t pop in like Barbara Eden this time,” Carol said breaking the silence between them.
“Christopher said it can alarm people when I do that,” replied Sarah. “They need time to notice me and process my presence. A transition period he called it. Did it help?”
“A little.”
“Good.”
Small talk out of the way they fell back into an uncomfortable silence. Thoughts of the conversation to follow weighed heavily in the air around them, so much so that Carol visibly shrank. Her normally tall and confident frame collapsed on itself drawing her shoulders and chin down towards her chest. She had stopped breathing at some point, somehow her body thought that air was less of a priority than the swirl of anxiety, fear, anger, and other complex emotions flooding her nervous system. She forced herself to take a deep breath and count it out. In for one, two, three, four, five. Out for two, three, four, five… The breathing exercise helped her to refocus, and on the next deep breath she willed herself to speak.

“I’m… sorry,” said Carol. “I’ve been running away from you since, well, since you died. I thought I just needed time to process but that just made it worse.” She could feel the warm sting of tears at the corner of her eyes made worse by her previous efforts. Carol touched a delicate finger to her eye, trying to wick away the tears without ruining the fresh makeup too much. When she could see again, Sarah had tilted her head slightly like she was trying to solve a complex maths equation in her head. Carol had seen Sarah do this before, usually when she was accessing the Deus Ex database. After a brief moment Sarah returned to the present and looked at Carol with soft, caring eyes. They were the same eyes that she had spent a lot of time staring into when Sarah, the real Sarah, was alive. It was unnerving to say the least.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” said Sarah.
“Where were you just now?” Asked Carol, sounding slightly annoyed which she instantly regretted.
“Oh right, sorry,” said Sarah, “I was reviewing all of our interactions to see what you were apologising for.”
Carol put a hand to her temple like she was fighting off a headache. “You mean you just, like watched a highlight reel of us?”
“Yeah,” said Sarah. “To be honest I do it quite a lot. It can be, comforting.”
“Comforting?”
“You don’t like to think about the past and feel comforted?”
“Well, I guess,” said Carol thoughtfully. “Depends on what the memory is really.”
“I am nothing but memory,” said Sarah rather matter-of-factly. While it was technically true, this particular truth hit a little hard for Carol. The night Sarah came back was the night they lost Anthony, and while none of them had given up hope of finding him again, the loss was there. Worse perhaps due to not knowing if he was alive or dead. Instead of sharp pangs of grief they had hope, that double edged sword of joy and despair. Closure is a luxury the universe seldom provides, Carol thought.

In an effort not to run away from it all, Carol shifted her weight evenly and pushed her feet into the ground. She was drawing on all of her self-regulation tricks just to stay present and focused on this one conversation. A conversation with your dead girlfriend, she reminded herself.
“I guess we’re all made of memory in some way or another,” said Carol. “It moulds and shapes us like a potter throwing a block of clay.”
“I like it when you get all philosophical,” Sarah said smiling sweetly.
Carol found herself smiling back. “You know, sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re not her.”
Sarah’s smile melted away, “so people keep reminding me,” she said. Instant regret filled Carol’s mind and she stammered an awkward retraction. Sarah held up a hand and gave an understanding but tired smile back. “I know, I know,” she said, “you didn’t mean it like that, it was a compliment, etcetera, etcetera.” She sighed heavily and shook her head, “It’s hard sometimes, being her and me at the same time. I have all of these memories but none of them are mine, they’re like looking at your life in third person.” Sarah shuffled around until her back was facing Carol, her arms folded tight across her waist. “Did you know, of all my memories the ones that came from you are my favourite?”

This took Carol by surprise, “mine? Why mine?” She asked, unconsciously mimicking Sarah’s body language and holding herself.
“Your memories all come with thoughts about what I might be thinking,” Sarah explained. “I guess you can’t help but psychoanalyse people when you’re with them.”
Carol grunted. “It’s called empathy,” she said slightly sarcastically. “But you’re right, it’s hard to turn off sometimes.” She uncrossed her arms rather self consciously. “So my over active thought processes…”
“People pleasing tendencies,” interjected Sarah.
“Hrm,” growled Carol. “My, whatever, brings you comfort? I didn’t really expect that.”
Sarah let her folded arms drop down and clasped her hands in front of her, and turned to look at Carol. Her dark brown eyes softened into a deep kindness as she spoke, “you don’t think about me, her…us, in the same way?”

“Of course,” said Carol a little taken back. “I think about Sarah all the time. Sometimes I just try and hold onto how it felt when I was with her, like bathing in a warm glow.” Carol couldn’t help but feel the tingle of memory as it danced over her shoulders and they twitched involuntarily. Sarah closed her eyes and smiled. “Oh I know,” she said as her own shoulders jerked suddenly. “It’s weird though,” she said letting the smile drop slightly, “like being a little bit in love with yourself.”
Carol couldn’t help but let out a loud sharp laugh. She tried to stifle it behind her hand but it was too late. Sarah looked at her, head titled in confusion. “What? Why are you laughing?” She asked perplexed.
“Sorry, sorry,” Carol said trying to push the residual snickering down. “It’s just, that’s the most Sarah thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Sarah walked towards Carol slowly but purposefully, the lower half of her hologrammatic body passing through the welcome desk.
“Woah!” Said Carol as Sarah closed the gap between them. “What happened to that whole transition period thing?”
“It’s still a work in progress,” she said dismissively. Sarah studied Carol’s face with an intense curiosity, like detective trying to work a confession out of a murderer. “You know, this is the first time I’ve actually seen you laugh,” said Sarah, eventually giving a satisfied nod and moving back slightly, enough to respect Carol’s personal space but still unnerve her.
“I don’t get it,” Carol said, “I laugh all the time.”
“Never with me though,” said Sarah sadly. “I have so many memories of you laughing with the actual Sarah but none of them were from her, my point of view.” Sarah continued to study Carol’s face but it was less invasive this time, more like she was savouring the moment. Committing it to memory.

Not once had Carol thought about how things were for this Sarah. How difficult it must be to only have memories of someone you’re supposed to be, someone so loved for who she was. It was out of character for Carol to not empathise with someone, especially given the deep connection they shared. Her mental walls must have gone up pretty high to shut out the simple thought that she too was hurting.
“You’re doing it right now, aren’t you?” Sarah asked, her eyes wide and head tilted. The interruption to her thought process left Carol lagging behind the conversation slightly. “Sorry,” she said trying to refocus, “what am I doing?”
“Thinking about how I’m feeling.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess I was.”
“You’re empathising with me,” Sarah laughed. “Counsellor, I think we’ve had a breakthrough!”
Carol scrunched up her face in annoyance and tried to push Sarah away but her hand met no resistance. They both looked down at Carol’s arm sticking through Sarah’s blouse, the edges rippling outwards like a disturbed pond.
“Rude.” Said Sarah flatly.

Silence fell over them like a weighted blanket, stifling their rekindled connection. They both sat in the discomfort for a moment before breaking out into raucous laughter. Carol, almost bent in half, had to take several deep breaths to regain control. Tears had once again welled up in her eyes and as she dabbed them away she knew her makeup was beyond help. She didn’t care though, while her closest friend and dearest love was gone forever, she had an opportunity to get to know this Sarah. In time she would grow around the pain and heartache that sat at her core being, until it was small only in comparison to all the love and joy she had wrapped it up in. So seldom is one afforded the chance to say goodbye to those we have lost, and even rarer to heal with them by your side.

Carol looked at Sarah, taking a moment to really see this familiar stranger for who she was and not who she wasn’t. They had made her this way, grown from memories, love, and hope. She could have just been a simple vessel, a means to an eventual end but Sarah was so much more than that. Past the blindness of trauma and guilt was a woman who loved and needed to be loved back, ignoring her was to deny Carol’s own heart and feelings, she could see that now. A soft, kind smile fell over her face as she looked deep into Sarah’s eyes.
“What are you thinking about?” Asked Sarah, her tone curious and playful.
“How much I’ve miss you,” replied Carol, “ and how I’m looking forward to getting to know you.”

The two women stood in comfortable silence for a moment, quietly acknowledging the breakthrough. The chime of the lift cut the air and they watched the doors open to an empty car. Sarah gestured towards it, “fancy a cuppa in the mess?”
Carol screwed up her face, “gods no! Let’s go to the Ex Mentis lounge, I’ve got my own stash.” She said making her way towards the waiting lift.
“And the good biscuits?,” asked Sarah following her.
“Of course,” Carol replied with a grin. She went to press the button for her floor but it lit up on its own. Carol raised a curious eyebrow at Sarah, who offered only a coy shrug in return. Standing shoulder to holographic shoulder they waited for the doors to close.
“Do you fence by any chance?” Asked Carol idly.
“Used to,” said Sarah just as casually. “Had a bit of an accident a while back though and had to give it up.”
“Oh, shame.”
“I like to watch though.”
“Oh I bet you do,” Carol said with a flirtatious wink. As the lift doors slid closed another fit of laughter erupted from the pair and they were on their way up.

Finis.

Edward Shaddow

Published 4 months ago