"I… I'm afraid it's all very, very confused," Laila said. Her voice was the same, but the tone was not the abstracted, impatient one that had last been heard before their transition into the Arena. The scientist's contralto was soft and still somewhat thick from both disuse and crying.
It had taken almost half an hour for the revived woman to stop crying, and another fifteen minutes of quiet argument with Gabrielle Wolfe to convince her that they really did need to try to ask her questions now, rather than later – when memory might have faded. Even so, Ariane could feel her old friend's gaze tracking her like a security cam backed by a rifle. "Laila, it will help if you can remember anything. We're still trying to figure out what happened to you."
Her eyes surveyed the area narrowly, her analytic nature obviously not entirely subdued by her experiences. Given the circumstances, Ariane was glad that Mandallon had immediately left the room when asked; she was fairly sure that Laila hadn't actually seen him, and she was under enough stress as things were.
"This is… not Holy Grail. Or any place I'm familiar with," Laila said finally. "How… how long was I out?"
"Weeks," DuQuesne answered, bluntly. "We'll fill you in later. Right now, we need to know what you remember from the time we activated the Drive."
The biologist grimaced and forced herself to sit up. "Ouch. Yes, even with the nanomaintenance apparently one gets stiff after weeks. Indeed." She studied the others, then sighed. "It isn't pleasant. I wasn't even… me, I suppose." Her voice trembled. "I… there was a sort of 'I' there, in a way, I have a feeling of … of wandering through disconnected rooms, hearing voices. I think some of them were your voices. Others were speaking in languages I couldn't understand. And it was all empty at the same time, cold and lonely. It… it was like I imagine an infant might feel, abandoned, no one there, nothing to tell me who I was or where I came from. I saw… things go drifting by, animals, mathematical formulae, cell diagrams, DNA structures. Sometimes there were echoes of voices, of Linnaeus and Darwin and Crick I think."
She nodded. "They're… gone now."
Simon looked surprised. "You're handling that… rather well. It took me quite a while to recover."
She ran a hand through her brown hair, then grimaced at the stiff, uncombed feel. "Yes… odd, I suppose. But… part of me seems almost glad, as though I never needed them." She frowned, narrow, delicate features furrowing in thought. "Which is very odd."
DuQuesne's expression was hooded; Ariane could tell he was worried, but not what he was thinking. "Go on, Laila. Do you remember anything else?"
"Oh! Oh, yes." She suddenly looked more animated. "I was wandering, not knowing who I was or where or even, really, that I was, and then … it was like there was a beautiful white light, and singing. I don't recognize the singing, it's … very strange, but somehow still beautiful. And as the singing and light got louder, I suddenly heard my name, and I said to myself 'yes, that's my name. I'm Laila Canning.' And when I said that, I heard my name being called from inside the light." She smiled suddenly, a quick sharp flash of white teeth like a lightning bolt. "And… this will sound silly. It already does, I suppose."
"No, not at all. Please, Laila, even if it does sound silly, just go on." Ariane wasn't sure what to make of all this.
"Well, I moved toward this light and the singing and the voice calling my name," Laila said slowly. Her gaze was distant, not focused on anything present. "And… well, I was moving. I mean, walking. There was grass, silvery-green grass with white and gold flowers, and a lovely smell, and there was… someone waiting for me, holding his arms out, the light spilling around him." She blushed visibly, looking uncomfortable. "You know, I'm a scientist, and this sort of cheap romance-sim imagery isn't what I thought my own mind would give me. But…
"… I kept walking toward him, and as I did I was more and more… me. I suddenly thought 'that's very strange grass, I've never seen it before, I wonder what species it is?' and I was thinking of picking a blade to examine it. But then I realized that the person calling me… wasn't a person. Human, I mean."
"Really?" Ariane tried to keep her expression neutral.
"Well, he was generally humanish, I guess, but he had a lot of features that were just wrong. Six fingers on his hand, three pairs of two opposed digits, for one thing. But I wasn't scared… or even all that surprised. And the light behind him…" Suddenly she had an almost ecstatic look on her face. "The light was filled with life. It was life, everything I've every seen or known or wondered… for just a moment, just one tiny moment, I understood life, I knew everything about it, all of the ways it could or has developed on a million different worlds, all the different species Earth has ever had, how to rebuild a Tyrannosaurus Rex from base pairs, exactly how the first living cell came to be… I knew this, it was child's play, all so obvious and beautiful and perfectly clear.
"And then he spoke my name again and took my hand… and… and it all went away, except the memory, and I felt myself breathe, and I remembered the scream as poor Crick cut off, and … well, it all hit me, and I started crying. Sorry about that." Laila Canning's embarrassment was still plain on her face.
Ariane nodded after a moment. "That's good enough, Laila. Sorry to be pushing you so soon after you came back to us. We'll leave you alone with Gabrielle for now, okay? She really wants to examine you, see if you can eat, all that kind of thing."
Laila nodded. "All right. But you have something – I'd guess a lot of somethings – to explain to me, too. I can tell that much."
"You're right," Gabrielle agreed. "But not until after I'm sure you should be discussing it. Now out, all of you."
The rest of them nodded and went to leave. Just as she stepped through, Ariane glanced back. For just a moment, she thought she caught Laila's eyes looking straight at her, brown eyes somehow analytically cold, yet with a vast interest and even amusement mingled in that momentary glance. But even as she thought that, she could see that Laila wasn't even looking at her, but at Gabrielle as the doctor conducted her examination.
This whole thing is really getting to me.
Is it live? Or is it Memorex?