Cort woke with a start. He was sure that something had woken him, but the room seemed quiet and dark now. He lay perfectly still – quite easy as he was still restrained by the semi-intelligent nylon bands – and listened carefully. He closed his eyes after a couple of seconds; even though there wasn’t much to see in the gloom it helped him concentrate. For a few moments there was nothing and then… something. Something faint, on the edge of hearing. Ah, something trying to match his own breathing. Cort held his breath and listened harder. Sure enough, someone breathed softly and slowly, exactly when he would have breathed himself. There was someone in the room with him.
He allowed himself to start breathing again, aware that complete silence would be a give-away as much as if he started shouting, and twisted slightly as though trying to turn over in his sleep. The bands tightened, but it was more of a warning squeeze than aggressive, and as they did so he stretched his arm until it reached his toes. He’d discovered this trick while playing backgammon with Bad Kitty, as it meant he could throw the dice himself. Curiously, after he’d done that he’d stopped unaccountably losing in the end-game every game.
With his hand at his feet he had enough flex in his arm now to reach the emergency button on the headboard of his bed, so he walked his fingers gently up the covers until he got there and reached up to press it. It clicked very faintly as he depressed it, and then – nothing.
“You’re awake then, Cort?” The voice was warm and friendly, even slightly familiar, and for several moments Cort thought that it was the Doctor back from the dead for a fourth attempt. He tensed, and the bands squeezed back like a strait-jacket. “Don’t you remember me?”
“Doctor?” Cort shook his head even as he said it, remembering that the Doctor was dead and that he, Mr. Stretch, was in lock-down while his sentient mucus was checked-out. “No. Bad Kitty?”
“Getting warmer,” said the voice. “Are you always this slow to wake up properly?”
“Yes, sort of now,” said Cort. “Chip. Chip Inside. I haven’t seen you in years. What are you doing in my room?”
“Well, it’s not really your room, is it?” said Chip. He sounded amused, and pleased that Cort had finally identified him. “This is one of the general rooms of Surgery 2. They’ve got you in here in case more of that mucus turns up and they need to stop you producing more of it.” There was an odd note in his voice, and Cort easily deduced what was meant by ‘stop.’
“As in, Terminate with Extreme Prejudice?”
“You’ve got the slang down, daddio,” said Chip. “It’s hard to believe you’re in a retirement home.”
“It’s hard to believe you’re pretending to be normal and holding down a government job! With a pension!”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s not so cool, but, well, there is the matter of the pension. It’s tracked as well, it’s a good one. And the work is interesting a lot of the time.”
“Anything you can talk about?”
“What do you think?”
Cort laughed, a slightly gaspy noise as the nylon bands weren’t sure what to make of the chest movements and kept gripping.
“So why are you in my room?” he said. “Are you the committee for bringing bad news?”
“Not exactly,” said Chip. “I’m here discretely, on other business. Your mucus is fascinating stuff, but it looks like a one-off, one of those little oddities somehow connected with our mutations and super-powers. It’s not about to eat London, if that’s what you’re scared of. No, I’m here instead on behalf of Sylvestra.”
“I’m too old for a job,” said Cort. He laughed a little again. “I can’t even imagine what she could have in mind.”
“Not much of a job, really,” said Chip. “But important in its own way. And if you agree we think we can get Bad Kitty to pitch in too.”
“Oh I see, that’s it is it? You really want Little Miss Hairball and I’m just the easiest way to get to her.”
“No. Really no, Cort. I want you, and if we get Bad Kitty as well then that’s a bonus, a little bit of icing. But you’re the cake, Cort. All of it.”
“I’d be shaking my head if these restraints let me,” said Cort. “I don’t believe you for a minute, but let’s pretend I do. What do you want me to do?”
“Watch what? Bad Kitty undressing? Her burlesque days are long gone, Chip!”
“I should hope so!” Chip sounded a little alarmed at the thought of an elderly lady with too much hair dressed in a tightly-laced corset and thigh-high heeled boots. “We want you to watch for visitors to Fizz.”
Cort stayed silent for several seconds thinking about that. When he spoke again there was a note of fear in his voice.
“Fizz isn’t allowed visitors.”
“I know. But we think she’s going to get them, and we need someone on the inside, someone who can let us know if that happens. That’s all, Cort, nothing else. Just keep the embargo on Fizz Mission the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Sure,” said Cort. “Of course I will. You know, sometimes I wonder just how lonely she must be in there, you know?”
“She barely knows,” said Chip. “The drugs they have her on mean she sees one day where the rest of us see sixty. She doesn’t have enough time to feel lonely before something happens to distract her.”
“I see,” said Cort. “Could be a blessing, really.”
“I hope so,” said Chip. “Will you watch her then? Let us know if anyone tries to visit her.”
“Sure thing,” said Cort. “When do I get out of these straps then?”
“Tomorrow,” said Chip. “Better to go through standard protocol really. Thanks, Cort. Sylvestra will be grateful for this.”
“No problem,” said Cort. “Fizz is a sweet girl really.”