The drips had been gone for some time now. Bast still didn’t have a good sense of time – most of Sunshine’s inane babbling didn’t include enough details about her life for Bast to get an idea about how long passed between visits – but the drip had been gone long enough that she’d almost forgotten how maddening it had been getting near the end.
But now that they had been gone, another sound was becoming persistent. The drops had drowned it out for a time, but now that they were gone and she was left in silence, she started to realize how loud the other sound was. Every time the full quartet of researchers was in the room, the sound became a near cacophony.
The sounds of their hearts, echoing in her mind. Maybe I am crazy? It was possible, she admitted to herself. Sane gods didn’t hear every heartbeat and found it nearly drove them to distractions. She wondered if this is what it had been like for Vlad, locked in that tomb that was meant to honor him but became his prison and then his fortress and finally had, ultimately, become his resting place.
Footsteps were approaching. Bast realized she was hoping it was Sunshine, and hated herself for that thought. But she found herself warming to the woman, slowly but surely. It was a process Bast had become familiar with over the centuries. Back in Bast’s day, they’d called it conversion. In more modern times, they’d called in indoctrination, then brainwashing. These days it had a fancy, psychological name – Stockholm Syndrome.
The problem was, because Bast could only blink, their conversations did as much to slake her need for Company as the slow drips of water did to relieve her thirst. Which meant that Sunshine’s name, originally a mockery of her exuberance, had become even more fitting.
When she was there, unobstructed by the clouds that were the other three members of the research time, she brightened and warmed Bast’s day. When she was unable to interact because of the others, her presence as a companion still made the isolation more bearable. And every time she left, it plunged Bast into a never ending darkness. It was torture mixed with kindness, and Bast knew that if it went on too long before her need for Company was filled, she would love this woman whose name she didn’t even know like they were born of the same mother.
That cannot happen. I cannot break like this. Not after I’ve come so far. Not after I got so close.
The door opened. “Good morning!” Sunshine said, walking into the lab. Bast had to fight back a surge of gratitude. Not only was Sunshine there, but she’d given Bast her first clue to time that she’d received since she’d been interred here.
“Mmhmmhmm.” Bast said, as good naturedly as she could manage with her mouth stuck shut. Over the time – days? Weeks? – they’d been speaking the time that she’s been babbling at you Bast had made as much effort to make noises close to words as could be managed.
It also helped down out the alluring beat of Sunshine’s heart.
“Did you manage to sleep?” Sunshine reached over Bast’s head and put down the mirror. It was something she’d started bringing at some point – a mirror that let her see Bast’s eyes for blinks, and let Bast watch her as she worked and talked.
Bast blinked a no to the question, and Sunshine frowned. “Still not? Do you think it’s still the same reason?”
This time, Bast blinked a yes. Sunshine sighed. “You’ve been awake for so long, you should be crazy from insomnia by now. Whatever you’re made of, it’s tough stuff. I just wish we could figure out a way for you to tell me.”
Bast made a noise in the back of her throat, a disgruntled “hmmuh.” That conversation had been one of the only times Bast was glad for Sunshine to leave. Her constant guessing at what was keeping Bast awake, trying every single possible cause for wakefulness – aside from the gnawing hunger that clawed at Bast’s belly – had been a fresh torment all its own.
“Right, I’m so sorry I couldn’t figure it out. You figure with two PhD’s I’d be able to figure it out, but educated doesn’t always mean smart, right?”
“Huhm,” Bast said, a kind of laugh like sound. You’ve mentioned your degrees six times now, Sunshine. Are you worried I’ll forget?
Bast could see Sunshine sitting at her desk in the mirror. That was a nice touch – it helped it feel like she was having an actual conversation. She was looking at Bast with naked curiosity.
“God I wish I could take that mask off you. Being able to hear what you have to say…the stories you could tell! How old are you, anyway? Blink once for each millennia.”
A few blinks later, and Sunshine looked ready to fall out of her chair. “That…that’s older than the Old Kingdom! Do you really predate Egypt?
Sunshine shook her head. “I just…I can’t imagine.”
Take this mask off me and you’ll hear all about it Bast thought, desperately wishing Sunshine was a goddess. If she was, they could communicate even with this damned contraption on her face. And it doesn’t even stop me from doing anything!
That was the most annoying part. Sunshine had at least explained why it was there in the first place. Apparently, Liam played Dungeons and Dragons. Part of casting spells in that game – and in a lot of fantasy literature – involved speaking words of power, the verbal components of spells.
Bast was muzzled because one of the researchers on her team had spent his youth pretending to be an elf wizard in someone’s basement.
“Anyway, I suppose it’s rude to talk about what we can’t do,” Sunshine said, and she frowned a bit when Bast gave a single blink. For a horrified moment, Bast thought she had pushed too hard, that Sunshine would decide she wasn’t worth talking to anymore or that her feelings would be hurt. No, Sunshine, it’s okay, I didn’t mean it.
It felt like an eternity before Sunshine spoke again, and when she finally did Bast wanted to sing. “Sorry. It’s just…I want to help, I really do. But you’re too dangerous. I mean, God knows what you could do with your voice.”
Nothing! I couldn’t do a damn thing besides get my need for Company filled you… Bast’s rage was cut short by Sunshine musing aloud. “Although…none of the Myrmidons have been able to do anything with their voices. Maybe it’d be safe to take it off you. I’ll bring it up with the group.”
And there’s the carrot. If she was trying, she couldn’t be playing the role of indoctrinator any more perfectly.Still, Bast felt a surge of hope.
And another hope presented itself, an opportunity Bast had been hoping for, desperate for. As she watched, Sunshine pulled out a bar of chocolate and unwrapped it.
The sound that Bast let out, a high pitched “nnnnnmmmm,” was even more pathetic than the one she’d used to get Sunshine to talk to her in the first place. The other woman froze and looked at Bast’s eyes carefully.
“What’s wrong? Is it the food?”
Sunshine’s forehead furrowed. “You…ohmygod, is that it? Is that why you can’t sleep?”
Oh thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. Bast felt tears well in her eyes, and had to be careful not to blink more than once to wash them away.
“I never even thought about that!” Sunshine sounded absolutely distraught, and Bast wanted to slap her for taking this long and hug her for finally getting it. “You’re getting nutrients, but no food. You must feel like you’re starving!”
Bast blinked, combined with the limited nod she could manage with her restraints.
“That’s…oh no. That face mask – we can’t give you food any more than you can talk.”
Bast wished she could claim the tears were feigned. The faint smell of chocolate was like having bamboo shoots shoved under her finger nails, and her stomach actually growled audibly. How many millennia has it been since that happened last?
“I…oh you poor woman.” Sunshine was at her side in a heartbeat. “Oh god, all this time and no food.”
Sunshine was right over Bast, and her bespectacled face was furrowed in thought. Bast held her breath. Come on, come on, please please please
“You can’t scream or shout. If you do, I’ll get thrown in jail for treason, and they’ll just put it back on and never take it off, okay?”
Bast gave the slowest, most deliberate, and most important blink of her entire existence.
Sunshine took a deep breath and unlatched the mask. Bast took a moment to work her jaw. “Thank you,” she said with a voice hoarse from untellable days without speech.
“You’re welcome. Chocolate okay?”
Bast nodded greedily, so glad to have her head free. For the next few minutes, they didn’t say anything as Sunshine fed her chocolate. “Thank you,” Bast said again, finally feeling the hunger abating.
“You’re…yeah, you’re welcome again. I guess since it’s already off, we could leave it off for a bit. No one else will be in for another hour. We’ll call it a half hour, to be safe.”
“That would be amazing,” Bast said, wanting again to sing, to dance. A chance to finally converse. “All this time, and I don’t even know your name.”
Sunshine laughed at that. “I didn’t even think about that! I’m Cassandra.”
“Cassandra,” Bast said, trying on the name and finding it fitting. “A Greek name. I never met the first, but I heard of her.”
Cassandra’s eyes grew wide, and even though Bast was no longer hungry, she noticed how Cassandra’s heart rate sped up. Too long. I was Hungry too long. “She was real?”
“Oh, yes. Most figures from myths today are.”
“That’s…oh wow. I have so many questions!” Cassandra bit her lip. “But I’ve done most of the talking so far. It’s only fair I let you talk first. What…what do you want to talk about?”
That kindness was almost too much for Bast to bear and part of her raged that she had been so reduced that the basic kindness of letting her speak first was a monumental occasion. “I…I’m not even sure, I didn’t think I’d ever get to speak again.”
“I can’t imagine what that was like.” Cassandra let out a sympathetic sigh. “Well…how did you become a goddess?”
Bast smiled. “So you know we’re not born?” Cassandra nodded, and Bast continued. “I found it in the Nile. A nanoverse, a fragment of divinity. I was ignorant; I thought it was the eye of Ra.”
“So Ra was a thing? Even before the Old Kingdom?”
Bast nodded and the rest of the half hour was taken up with talking about the pre-Old Kingdom civilization. Bast could tell Cassandra was loath to end the conversation, but neither of them wanted to risk discovery.
“While we still have it off, is there anything else you want to say?”
“Yes. I…don’t know how I’d have stayed sane without you, Cassandra. Thank you.”
The woman gave Bast a small smile and reached up, putting her hand on Bast’s cheek. The goddess leaned into it, drinking in the touch, savoring the human contact, and finally feeling her need for socialization fill. “I’ll take it back off again next chance we can be sure it’s safe,” Cassandra said, fitting the mask back on. Bast gave her a smile of gratitude before it was clicked in place.
By the time the rest of the researchers arrived, Bast was sound asleep.
Hours later, Grace, the woman Bast thought of as Waif, was adjusting her skirt. Oh, Grace, what the hell are you doing? She knew that what she and Liam were doing was wrong – fraternization was strictly forbidden! Every time, they’d swear it wouldn’t happen again. And yet here she was, buttoning back up her blouse, as he buckled his belt.
“S-s-so,” he said, and Grace sighed.
“We need to…we shouldn’t.”
“We always s-s-say that.” He gave her an impish grin. “Unless you’re b-b-begging me not to stop.”
Normally she found that teasing cute, but not today. “Liam. We have to stop this. It’s…it’s been too much. If we got caught, we’d both be off the project – or worse.”
He nodded, but she could see the pain in his eyes and turned away. It hurt too. Good god, are you falling in love with him?
“I know, it’s j-j-just – urk.”
That last sound hadn’t been a word. It had come from Liam’s mouth, sure, but it wasn’t spoken. It had been an oddly…wet sound. She turned around.
Her brain couldn’t process what she was seeing at first. The subject was off the table. The subject was directly behind Liam, leaning to the side so she could peer over his shoulder. Her hair was matted and wild from weeks of being unwashed, caked to her skull with sweat, and there was a wild look to her eyes. Liam was standing straight upright, but his head was rolling to the side, and blood was trickling from his mouth. His eyes were open, but there was no light in them, no life.
That realization, seeing that he was dead, finally allowed Grace to pinpoint the detail her brain kept sliding over like it was an oil slick. From Liam’s chest, slightly to the left of the center, emerged a red pillar. It was the subject’s arm, and in her fingers was Liam’s still beating heart.
Grace let out a sound, a low “ooooohnnnnn” of abject terror as the subject, her arm still through Liam’s chest, bent her elbow and brought the organ around to her lips, where she took a deep bite out of it.
The subject let out a satisfied moan before licking her lips and smiling at Grace with blood-flecked teeth. “That was exactly what I needed,” the subject said, and Grace felt her legs give out as she started to sink to the floor, “I guess I picked up a sixth hunger. Just like old Vlad.”
With that, as Bast began to pull her arm slowly free of Liam’s corpse, Grace finally found the strength to scream.
It didn’t save her.