She wasn’t annoyed enough to shout, and waited until I was close enough for her to keep her voice pitched low before she demanded, “What was that about?”
“I wanted a hug. Your job when you’re my handler is to supply me with anything I want or need, within reason. As hugging me did not cause physical or emotional harm to either one of us, it was within reason.” I looked flatly at Chave, anticipating her response to my next question: “Would you rather I hugged you next time?”
Chave took a step backward, looking so alarmed that I thought for a moment she might fall right off her heels. I managed to bite back my smile. “That would be entirely inappropriate,” she said, half-raising one hand in what looked like an involuntary warding gesture.
It wasn’t necessary; I stayed where I was, watching her as she recoiled. After a moment, she seemed to realize I wasn’t planning to throw my arms around her. Her hand dropped, and her alarmed expression dissolved into her more customary mild hauteur.
“If you’re quite through making your little jokes, it’s time for you to meet Dr. Banks for lunch,” she said. Her voice had somehow managed to become even stiffer than usual, something I would previously have said was impossible. “I certainly hope you won’t try hugging him.”
The idea made my skin crawl. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Good. Now follow me.” She turned on her heel, practically stomping toward the doors to the executive cafeteria. I adjusted my grasp on the strap of my shoulder bag and walked hastily after her.
The doors of the SymboGen executive cafeteria were automatic, and slid smoothly open as we approached. The smell of roasting meat and fresh-baked bread wafted into the hallway, accompanied by the sound of gently rattling glasses and the clink of silverware against bone china dishes. It was the sound of money, and it was something I only really had the opportunity to hear on those occasions when I was invited to dine with the company’s founder. Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy some of the best meals I’d ever eaten, and I wasn’t disappointed to be eating another one.
Chave walked through the door about three long strides ahead of me. I kept trying to catch up, and was moving faster than I should have been when she froze midstep only six feet into the room. I nearly collided with her suddenly motionless form. I managed to swerve to the side at the last moment, and stumbled, going down on one knee.
“Chave?” I looked up at her, my new position giving me a perfect view of her face. She was staring slack-jawed at the far wall. There was no animation in her eyes. She could have been one of the dead fish waiting in the kitchen for the frying pan. Her arms had dropped to her sides, dangling limply now that all of her tension was gone. I was dimly aware that my heart was beating too fast, hammering itself against the inside of my rib cage like something trapped. I was trapped. Whatever was about to happen, it wasn’t something I wanted anything to do with.
“Chave?” I repeated. My voice came out small and uncertain as I clambered awkwardly back to my feet. There was an expanding bubble of silence around us, created by the people who were slowly realizing that something was going on. They put down their forks and spoons, stopped drinking from their glasses, and turned in our direction. And Chave didn’t move. I reached for her arm. “Chave, are you okay?”
“Miss Mitchell, please step back.”
The voice came from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. I could feel myself beginning to tremble, despite my best efforts to stop. “It’s okay,” I said, to the brown-uniformed SymboGen security officers who were standing in the open doorway. “I’m with her. She’s my escort. I’m allowed to be here.”
“No one’s questioning that, Miss Mitchell, but you need to move away from Ms. Seaborne now. Please step back.”
“Sally, please.” I turned too fast, almost unbalancing myself again. Dr. Banks was in front of us, his hands held out in front of him in a beseeching gesture, palms turned upward. “Just come here. Come here quickly.”
Chave was still standing there, staring blankly into the distance. Some imp of the perverse made me step closer to her, following an impulse I didn’t understand. “Why?” I demanded. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with her?” I’d seen the sleepwalking sickness before, but I couldn’t find the words to ask the questions I wanted. Why was this happening? Why did it keep happening?
More security was flowing into the room through the main door, circulating with quick efficiency through the maze of tables. The executives were abandoning their seats now, leaving half-eaten meals and half-full glasses of wine behind as they hurried to the exit, or to the far end of the room. They were putting as much distance as they could between Chave and myself, and that didn’t seem like a good sign to me. Neither did the guns that some of the security guards were holding. I didn’t know much about firearms; I tried to tell myself that they were stun guns, and for the most part, I was able to make myself believe it.
“You need to move aside, Miss Mitchell.” The officer who seemed to be in charge of this—whatever it was—looked frustrated, and drew his sidearm, holding it at hip level. “We’ll be happy to explain when the crisis situation has been averted.”
“She was showing no signs on her last blood panel,” said another voice, sounding as much confused as panicked. I turned toward it. A man I recognized from the research floor was pressed into the mass of executives, staring at Chave like she was a problem to be solved. “I don’t understand.”