“Milord, I have cleared the building. There are no further threats.” 231’s eyes scanned the empty hall, always keeping Sophia’s back in the corner of his eye.
“Good. Stay sharp, two-three-one.” And the Coordinator’s voice was gone. Command must have the comm channel open, 231 realized.
“The crafts room… no, it was… darker…” Sophia mumbled, her head craning to look around the corner as they passed each open doorway. She had turned away from the corpses and started walking, her breathing slow and measured. She hugged herself tightly, her shoulders hunched.
“What are you looking for, Milady?” Something at the back of his skull tingled at the impropriety of asking a question like that. But she had told him to. He had to remind himself.
She looked back at him, her brow furrowed. Unhappy. “I remember looking for paint. We…” Her eyes widened. “We ran out.” Sophia turned and quickened her pace, letting her arms swing free. She stopped in front of the door two rooms ahead of 231 and stared. “There.”
231 had checked that room minutes ago. He peered inside, and saw the same shelves of art supplies, the same paint-spattered floor in the shafts of early morning light that slanted in from the hall windows. Nothing. He looked down at Sophia, who bit her lip and continued to stare.
She sighed. “I can show you, if you want.”
“Please.” 231 expected her to point to something. Instead, she closed her eyes.
“Try not to think about anything too hard,” she said, and drew in a deep breath.
The walls rippled.
231 blinked, then realized. She was projecting. Remembering, and broadcasting her memory to him. The light seemed to dim, the shadows to shift. The Goliath felt the slightest buzz just behind his forehead. He nearly jumped as a spectral image of Sophia wavered into being. Amazing.
Sophia, eyes still closed, walked into the room, stepping into her mirror image. Her form seemed to stutter as she mimicked her memory’s movements.
“I was here, getting more paint,” she said, reaching for a tube on the low wooden shelf. “And-”
Her body jolted as the gunshot echoed from down the hall.
231’s head snapped toward the sound. It was certainly small arms fire, likely from a handgun, but the sound was distorted. It faded in sharply and echoed, as though the world shuddered with the sound.
Sophia stepped haltingly toward the door, peeking around the corner, fingers clutching the doorjamb. Her memory-self split from her, creeping into the hall. “And I saw-”
Everything disappeared but Sophia, and the world went bright gray.
231 shook his head, hard, and the hallway returned. Morning again, and only one Sophia. She stared at the floor, her head slumped, her eyes unseeing.
Not again. The anger began to swell.
Sophia squeezed her eyes open and shut. She let go of the doorjamb and left the supply closet, staring down the hall.
“Is that all that came back?” 231 asked.
Sophia shook her head. “I think… there’s something else.” She took a few steps down the hall, then slowed. Hesitant.
So much of what 231 had been taught about children was contradictory. He had heard some talk about them as though they were barely human, barely worth more than a clone. Some officers had told him that children were more important than adults.
Competing ideas rolled through his mind about how to proceed. Tell her to snap out of it, like a soldier. But that didn’t seem right. Especially not considering how she treated him.
“I’m here to protect you, Sophia,” he said, wondering if comforting her was the right thing to do. “I’ll help you however I can.”
When she looked up at him, she had tears in her eyes. She nodded, wiped her nose, and stepped to the edge of the open door two rooms from the supply closet. Sophia glanced back at him, then slowly peered into the room.
A small warmth lit in 231’s chest. He had-
The warmth went cold as Sophia shuddered and pressed herself against the hallway wall. Her eyes pressed tightly shut, and the hallway shuddered again.
Inside the room, 231 saw the Sophia double appear again, on her knees next to a deep shadow. No. It was a person, wearing all black. Memory-Sophia was leaning over the figure, shaking and weeping. The black form had no face, only a flesh-colored blur. A red pool spread from the figure.
“Doo-bye,” the figure wheezed. “…doo-bye…”
“Dubai Colony,” 231 whispered. It had to be.
The light fluttered from the memory of afternoon to the present morning. Sophia raised her head, biting her lip again. She looked at him, stricken. “Dubai is a colony?”
“Yes, it is,” came Coordinator Marx’s voice over the comm. “We’re arranging telepad passage for you now.”
231 felt a surge of annoyance which he couldn’t explain. It faded quickly.