While the Captain makes sure no one will free the Colonel in the night, the Bearer walks to the Presidential suite with one Guard. The empty Palace of Parliament is huge, corridors stretch on with column after column of brown realStone with gilt. The Bearer and the Guard go up a flight of stairs, through another corridor with columns and doors, columns and doors, columns and doors, columns and doors… Their steps resound on the hard polished tiles.
Bearer of STATE for 16 hours, 0 minutes and 43, 44, 45
S. rubs her front, and wills the digits to disappear. Here and now… Here…
Slowly, the columns grow.
The Bearer and the Guard go up, another flight of stairs.
> Where is she now?
> dunno and don’t care, she’s as good as dead anyway
> hail the President!
> hail STATE!
> I wouldn’t type that, if I were you my friend. almost got her tonight, he did, and he will get her tomorrow, I hope
> Hope? she is ouw hope!
> our Hope
> as long as she lives, he’ll punish us for it, don’t you understand? He won’t stop killing until he has killed that woman
> but she is the Bearer of STATE! Hail STATE! You saw what she did to that heli
> shut up if you wanna keep this channel open, friend
> hail the President! He is probably solving this little problem right now
More gold, more stone columns, more doors. Columns and doors. Columns and doors. Columns and doors. The dark brown realStone here has a reddish sheen, and it is veined with crystal. The decorations on the doors are slightly more exuberant; the intricate details get intertwined when S. tries to take them in.
She rubs her eyes.
The Bearer and the Guard go up, yet another flight of stairs. The marble steps of these are covered with carpets, softening the sound of their footsteps. Again, a long corridor with columns and doors stretches to the left and right of them. The light is softer here, and another long red carpet covers the hard stone floor. Passing various smaller staircases, the Guard purposefully walks to the end of the corridor.
Columns and doors. Columns and doors. Columns and doors.
The columns wobble and lengthen, grow to absurd lengths, then shrink until they are squat and S. is surprised they do not touch her.
Her head starts to hurt, a strange headache enveloping all of her scull, pain seeping between the brain and the bone.
S. rubs her head.
Before her, the figure of the Guard moves from sharp-edged dark blue-black to fuzzy. She continues walking, but the corridor stretches on endlessly, the carpet’s wool around her feet. She has to walk and walk and walk to move forwards even one little step.
S. starts to sweat.
The whole floor tilts like the deck of a ship, and S. has to focus to keep standing. Then, a piercing grass-bitter taste makes the conclusion unavoidable. The Colonel has activated her Mark. She has 24 minutes left to live.
When the Guard halts to open a door for the Bearer of STATE, she grabs hold of him to steady herself. Her unsteadiness, her pale complexion and the small drops of sweat affirm his expectation of that the Colonel had done. The Guard also knows that a sweet, any piece of sugar, will be irresistible for her now… ‘While lessening the pain temporarily, it would accelerate the process of dying. So’ He was never quite convinced of that thief as Bearer of STATE, and was only temporarily mind-washed when he was touched by her this morning. His fingers search for some candies he keeps in his pocket.
The Bearer suddenly straightens herself and walks through the hole of the door. ‘We are near the Presidential suite, I must give the sweets to her now, quickly, or I will be spotted doing it…’ Suddenly, the Bearer turns and faces him. “Don’t…” she says, swaying. “I know you can, STATE knows you would, but also, that you won’t…"
And somehow the Guard cannot do it. The fact that she knows changes everything. His intentions open to her gaze, he suddenly is confronted with the knowledge that this woman truly is the Bearer of STATE, not some passer-by stealing it. ‘I have vowed to protect the Bearer of STATE… We all serve STATE. We all serve the Bearer of STATE…’ Dropping the sweets back into his pocket, he helps Her Grace to the former Presidential chambers.
The Guards guarding the suite are shocked when they see the Bearer. As quick as they can, one of them goes to alert the Doctor, who had already gone to install himself in one of the suite’s chambers.
>what has he done, that traitor? free Helner for me, now!<
>what? what has she done to him? as good as brain-dead? leave him, then. we will get to her soon, and then we will take out that Captain first, in an appropriate manner. we will enjoy that, yes, we will<
20 minutes left.
S. sits on the white Presidential bed, holding her left arm, throbbing with piercing pain, on top of STATE. She has to use all of her panic-containment training to stay like that.
“Give me your scalpel,” the Bearer orders when Doctor Jan enters.
Jan quickly approaches Her Grace and then he sees what she is holding. In the bluish flesh, the black Mark contrasts with the veins, also more blue than usual and swollen. He recoils. Also for him, a Marked one is unclean, and he has to force himself to look at the Bearer.
“It will kill me within 19 minutes,” she says. “A scalpel, now!"
“But… Ahmn… Your Grace,” Jan says, “you do know that removing it will make it explode!"
The three Guards present look uneasily at each other.
“OK, give me the scalpel and GO, ALL OF YOU!” the Bearer shouts. At that moment the Captain enters. “What is the matter, Your Grace? Whatever is grieving you…"
“That Colonel has activated the Mark, Captain. Get me a scalpel and get out!"
Jan gets his bag, digs up his scalpel and attaches a clean knife. He tries to offer Her Grace a painkiller, but she hits the pills away. “I have to keep my wits to be able to do this. I am the only person whom STATE will allow to do this.”
Some Guards are afraid and stay as far as they can, but Jan and the Captain kneel close to Her Grace. Her death would be theirs anyway… But they cannot do anything; STATE and the Mark do not allow any touch or comfort.
16 minutes left.
S. clenches her jaw and sinks the knife in her arm. She closes her eyes for a moment to focus. When she opens them again, she sees only the Mark.
15 minutes left.
She has had to operate on herself before, and in less favorable circumstances, but never with something so lethal working on her. Luckily, she is trained in severe mental control techniques, to prevent her from spilling information when caught, and she is using all her skills now.
14 minutes left.
She cuts and cuts into her own flesh, separating her movement from her pain. The knife is slippery. The smell of blood is thick.
13 minutes left.
Her hand starts to shake uncontrollably so she has to stop and slumps over STATE, slipping from the bed onto the ground. She just leans against the bed, then recommences.
12 minutes left.
The scalpel touches on a protrusion on the Mark and involuntary she closes her eyes, expecting explosion, but nothing happens. The pain only becomes worse and worse, temporarily paralyzing her. Clenching her left fist, her right hand starts to cut again, deeper and deeper.
10 minutes left.
The blood is spurting from the wound very close to the arteries, and with some difficulty she presses to close the wound. But the Mark hurts and she cannot leave it there, so she starts to cut again.
9 minutes left.
More blood comes as she slowly circles around the Mark, stabbing the knife deep enough to free it, the pain getting to a blinding state very close to total insanity.
8 minutes left.
This is not her flesh she is cutting into.
This is not her blood.
This is not her body.
This is not me.
I am nothing… I am nobody… I am nothing…
7 minutes left.
The knife’s blade moves through the swollen tissue, metal and blood gleaming in the bright lamp light. More and more of the darker metal of the Mark is bared. That thing!
That thing, hurting her all these years.
That thing, betraying her all these years.
That thing, marking her as an outcast, all these years. That thing has to go out.
It has to go out!
5 minutes left.
The poison now pulses in the veins of her arms and shoulder, making her neck muscles cramp.
4 minutes left.
Out… Please… out…
The muscles on her jaw are tight cables and there is perspiration on her white forehead, but the Bearer continues hawing into her flesh, poking the knife under and around the Mark, until the Mark is free. But instead of going out, the Mark sinks deeper into the damaged flesh. There is almost no time left before she will loose consciousness and all is lost…
All of a sudden, Jan understands. “STATE pulls the Mark down! Your Grace, turn your arm around! Turn your arm!”
S. barely hears what he is saying, but instinctively does what he says. She throws away the scalpel and uses the corner of STATE, suddenly honed to sharpness, digs it in the wound.
3 minutes left.
It is a terrible sight: the grey satin bedcovers and pale brown carpets bloodstained and Her Grace ferociously stabbing her arm onto STATE, like jutting a huge knife into a finger to wrench a splinter free.
2 minutes left.
Finally, STATE hits onto the Mark, pierces it. The Mark stays stuck, while S. slowly, very slowly withdraws her arm, pulling out the Mark, its tiny connectors poking out. Several nerves are severed. The poison is throbbing inside her: 49 seconds left, 48, 47, 46 45, 44, 43, 42, 41, 40… Out…
As soon as the Mark is out, the Bearer loses consciousness on the blood-smeared carpet. While Jan and the Captain watch, STATE absorbs the Bearer’s blood and the Mark, the surface returning to a matte dull metal and the sharp edge slowly rounding.
Jan very carefully cleans and binds the deep arm wound. Her Grace seems to have survived the poison and the operation. Relieved, they lift Her Grace and put her to rest on the downy Presidential bed.