11 - UNRECOGNIZED PROTOCOL
The following chapter may be disturbing or not appropriate for some people, due to:
* Family drama
* Suicide mention
* Substance abuse mention
* Sexual situations
Viewer discretion is advised.
Of all the organized societies in the planet, perhaps the most notable is the Neo Victorians. Founded by William Wolfworth the First, the neo Victorian society gained popularity among the richest families in the planet; in a time where moral degeneration was at its worst and it wasn’t uncommon for the rich to attend sex parties and corporate-sponsored gladiatorial competitions, Mr. Wolfworth proposed a return to the peak of the so-called "Western Civilization".
Four centuries later, the neo Victorians have increased their influence on the political affairs of several countries in the world. These are the "Great Seven" neo Victorian families: the Windsors, the Wolfworths, The Dickinsons, the Slims, the MacMillans, the Waltons, and naturally, the Ferreros.
One might be tempted to condemn neo Victorian families for their excessive accumulation of wealth; however, this greed has been regulated, on one hand by strict tax laws, and on the other by the natural tendency of young males to engage in polygamy. What originally was only seven families has become nearly a hundred, and with the numbers comes conflict: The neo Victorian quarrels for power and dominance have filled the imagination of writers and film directors with tales of masquerades, (incestuous) anonymized avatar orgies, political intrigues and assassination plots.
Despite most of these tales being complete fabrications, one must admit that sometimes Truth is stranger than fiction. The most recent scandal in neo Victorian circles was suffered by the Wolvencrofts when their eldest son William took his own life in year 681. The case was handled with absolute secrecy until the investigations were suddenly leaked online, revealing a hair raising story of substance abuse, domestic violence, infidelity, and even...
(From "An in-depth analysis of Midorian Societies", 184th edition, vol. I)
The sun was rising above the other citadels. The holographic sky in the current level changed its luminance and hue to match the real sky, visible through the citadel's unbreakable glass dome. A tall column that went from the floor to the sky began to glow, revealing the crystal-clear elevator that rose from the visitors' entrance a few levels below.
The elevator door opened to reveal a slightly overweight woman wearing a silk blue dress with an ample skirt that touched the floor. Her corset, unlike its historical counterpart, was held together with elastic laces that allowed her to breathe freely and without any problems whatsoever. The woman's feline tail was completely covered by a silk sleeve with vine designs, decorated with dark blue roses that matched the skirt perfectly. Her hat, which had slots for the cat-ears located above her head, was also decorated using the same pattern.
The woman sighed as she stepped out of the elevator. When the elevator went down again she shivered and jumped away from it. Just thinking how many kilometers she was above the ground made her shiver. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Why would they have to summon her, after all these years? She picked her dress, revealing two heavily-used but clean snickers around her completely human feet. Ungracefully, she walked to the wagon that was waiting for her.
"Very good day, miss" said the blue-skinned driver, removing his top hat and bowing to her. "Wireless identification, please?"
The lady looked at the android and sent her credentials.
"Temporary identification number, please?"
"Two five three zero."
"Identification acknowledged. Good morning, Lady Michaels".
"Miss Michaels is fine, driver."
"But Lady, it is the neo Victorian custom..."
"I am not a neo Victorian. I never was. Just call me miss Michaels. It's fine for a bottomfeeder, don't you think?"
The driver blinked. "Very well, miss Michaels. I shall call you 'miss' while not in the presence of others. Lord Emerson is waiting for you."
The android opened the carriage for her. And it was not any carriage, it was a Landauer wagon, originally used by King William IV. Its design had the fortune of making it to the Victorian digital archives produced in 21st century Earth, so it wasn't lost in World War III. After the archives made it to Midoria (along with Earth's scientific knowledge), the Landauer wagon became the de-facto standard for neoVictorian transportation.
The android kept maneuvering the leather harness with mathematical precision, directing the synthetic horse that powered the wagon. The horse was biomimetic, meaning it required as much rest as biological horses do, even if it only required drinking moderate quantities of android juice.
As soon as the horse started trotting, the carriage began playing some classical music. The woman sighed in disgust. "Can't you play anything else?"
"I take it you do not like Mozart, miss? Would you rather play some Tchaikovski instead? Beethoven? Bach? Haydn? Cleyderman? Di Blassio?"
"Don't you have some New Age?"
"I'm afraid not, miss."
"I'm afraid not, miss."
"Dreamwave at least?"
"I'm afraid not, miss."
"Then don't play anything, I'll play from my implants."
"Very well, miss. At your service."
The android continued driving the passenger to the entrance of the Emerson mansion. After the carriage reached its destination, the driver jumped down and opened the door for miss Michaels.
"Miss Michaels, you are welcome to the Emerson Estate."
"Thank you, driver. You have been a good servant."
"The pleasure is mine" said the driver, removing his hat and bowing again. He mounted on the carriage and waited in standby.
As the woman approached, the house maids (also androids like all servants in the high levels of the citadels) bowed before her. "Welcome back, Lady Michaels."
Jane sighed. She hated this place. Ironically, the only people she liked were the androids, and that wasn't saying much. If only Emma were there...
"Uh... forgot your names, sorry?"
"And I'm Gisela."
"Good day, Ana, Gisela."
"Good day, Lady Michaels. Please, let us accompany you to the sitting room."
"I know my way, thank you." Jane walked to the sitting room by herself, but the maids insisted on accompanying her. They walked behind her not knowing what to expect; Jane always ignored the protocols and today was no exception; she didn't even remove her hat when she entered the house.
Jane sat down and sighed. This house had given her both beautiful and terrible memories, the good memories fading in the past with every year that passed.
She looked at the family portrait on the wall, oil on canvas. Painted there was Lord David Emerson wearing a black tuxedo and a shiny top hat with a golden ribbon on the upper half. His dark gray fur had been finely combed into curls, forming an elegant beard below his canine jaw. His claws, hidden under white gloves, were resting on a black cane with a golden sphere on top. His wolf tail was completely covered by a black sleeve, its fake fur also combed into curls.
By his side was Lady Lillian Emerson, his only wife (he was monogamous); Lady Lillian's slender face – which had 20% greyhound traits – combined perfectly with her chosen shape. She postponed choosing her shape until she was betrothed to Lord Emerson, and then she only chose the minimal modifications; she didn't even get a tail when she was offered one.
Surrounding the couple were the two then-human daughters, Emma Belle and Catherine. Catherine, the youngest yet most well-endowed of the two, was sitting next to Lady Emerson. She was looking at the camera with a prideful face, in the perfect angle to show off her braided hair; the corset in her strapless dress had been particularly tightened to show off her cleavage, and used push-up pads to enhance her figure even further. Lady Emerson had an argument with Catherine about that, because the corset was so tight that her nipples could slip out at any moment.
On the other side of the spectrum – and the painting – was the elder daughter Emma Belle, who despite her smaller bust size looked radiant in that portrait. Her hair was slightly curly but not elaborate, and her dress was decorated with Mandelbrot patterns all over it. With her left hand she was holding Lord Emerson's arm; with her right hand she was carrying a heavy dynamic book, 700 pages, with the letters "The Diamond Age" printed on the cover. Such an old literary work couldn't exploit a dynamic book's full potential for popup references and related artwork, but Emma wanted the portrait to be meta: She was a neo Victorian holding a d-book whose story was about a d-book created by neo Victorians. She also wanted the portrait to be painted in the Atlantean islands, but her father scolded her saying it was too much of a hassle just for a joke that no one in the family would get.
Jane chuckled when she remembered Emma's tale about that painting. That was Emma alright, always playing word games and creating recursive art whenever she had the chance. She lamented that Emma wasn't there to receive her, but given Lord Emerson's influence over his daughters, it couldn't be any other way.
Jane sighed and turned away from the painting. She didn't want to remember sad times... or was it the happy times that she didn't want to remember?
"Please take a seat, Lady Michaels", said Ana. "The masters are busy right now. Would you like to play some chess while their visit finishes?"
"No, thank you. There’s a visit?"
"Lord Wakefield is helping them with a particular business."
"The family lawyer, lady Michaels."
"Oh. Him." She twisted her mouth.
Would you like some tea?"
"I'm fine, thanks."
Ana and Gisela looked at each other. Ana scurried to the study to notify the masters. After a while, Jane began getting bored and turned on the TV.
An eternity later Ana came back, escorting a wolf out of the building. He was wearing impeccable clothing, and his gray fur was combed in a stream of perfectly-formed S-shapes. The wolf walked towards her and stared at her for a couple of seconds. He glimpsed at her sneakers and blinked to suppress an eye roll. He straightened his coat and walked directly to her, bowing.
"Lady Jane Michaels!" he shouted, smiling. "Long time, no see!"
"Good morning, Lord Wakefield."
"Please. Call me Ethan. Is it alright if I call you Jane?"
"Lady Michaels is fine for you."
"Very well. I’m glad you could come here to talk to the Emersons. There is an important matter you need to talk about."
"It’s about Bethany, isn’t it?"
"It concerns her, yes. But —"
"If you want to take her away from me..."
"What!? No! I would never do that. In fact, it was I who recommended the Emersons to let you take her with you. Oh..." he rubbed his chin... or jaw, or whatever he had. "You weren’t there. Of course... silly me. Anyway, why don’t you talk to them instead? Now, if you excuse me, I have an urgent matter to attend to. I was instructed by Lady Emerson herself to find someone suitable for... a private issue, and unfortunately, she doesn’t appear to trust the ones I’ve recommended. Clearly what happened took away some of her wit. And who wouldn’t be affected by that, really? Such a — "
The voice from the TV interrupted him. "Coming up, in Exciting Police Chases! An augmented criminal gang tries to flee from the police in the light of day. You won’t believe how it ends!"
He turned to look at the TV. "Newsbait. Is that the kind of stuff you enjoy watching?"
Lady Michaels swallowed and gave him the remote control. "I was just zapping."
"Lady Michaels, if you allow me to give you a personal advice, perhaps this would be a good time to install a Victorian Etiquette collection into your implants. I can provide it to you for free, if you wish."
"No, thank you."
Lord Wakefield switched to a more informative news channel. An interview was going on.
"Officer, you could have died if he aimed for your neck! Oh, wait, you’re wearing an avatar, is that it?"
"Uh... actually, no, I’m not."
Lord Wakefield turned his head to look at the TV. "What nonsense is this! Does he have a death wish?!"
"You’re NOT wearing an avatar? And went by yourself to catch this dangerous criminal?"
"Look, um... I had some technical issues with my avatar, it happens — but I was as careful as I could be. Of course I knew the risks. If I had seen myself in real danger, I would have retreated and called for reinforcements. But my partner here knocked the criminal down before he could pose any danger. Most of the credit goes to him."
"Thank you very much, officer..."
"Pearson. Richard Pearson, at your service. Now, if you excuse me, duty calls."
"There you go, fellas. We need more elements like this. While most policemen would be resting or eating donuts at this time of the morning, this brave policeman was on duty and risked his life to pursue an augmented criminal. Glad to see someone still cares. For Channel Six International, this is Delicia Yong."
Forgetting he was carrying a remote, Lord Wakefield rewound the news segment telepathically.
"Pearson. Richard Pearson."
"...this brave policeman was on duty and risked his life to pursue an augmented criminal"
Lord Wakefield began to rub his chin slowly as he looked at the officer's badge. "NAPD." He shook his head in diapproval. "Lady Michaels, it’s been a pleasure seeing you again. Please reconsider my offer, should you still want to join our society... with all honors. Trust me, I’m saying this with everyone’s interests at heart."
Lady Michaels winced. "Yeah, and I got a bridge to sell you."
He raised his canine eyebrows and sighed. "They were right... you can only lead a horse to the water. Must I spell it out for you?"
He approached her ear. "The winds are changing, my dear. Whether or not you want to be in the game, you’re already in. You have a wildcard in your possession. I’d suggest you to use it carefully."
"Will you stop wolfsplaining me and tell me for once what exactly’s going on?"
Lord Wakefield finally gave in and rolled his eyes. "Oh, Lord, WHY!" he shouted between teeth. "Look. I still fail to see what virtue little Emma saw in someone like you, but I’m sure she saw something." He took his time to smile. "Surprise me. And that’s the last clue I’m going to give you, my dear." He turned around. "You can either make an effort and look towards the future, or you can keep sulking in the past and numb yourself with your..." he switched channels and let the TV display a bright yellow and pink commercial announcing a gossip show. "trash TV."
He raised the remote and let Gisela take it. "Your choice."
Before opening the door, he stopped. "Oh. One more thing."
"What is it now?" Jane asked, crossing her arms.
"Melancholy by Dior-Kenzo. It would go well with your natural scent." He walked out and right after he snapped his fingers Gisela accompanied him to the carriage.
"Victorians..." Jane muttered. "I’ll never understand these people." Jane snatched the remote from Gisela and powered the TV off. Suddenly, Ana sprang to life, as if her personality had suddenly changed. She ran towards the door and opened.
That wasn't Ana's voice. It was Lillian's. Lord Wakefield turned back. "Lillian? Why did you suddenly...?"
"Him! The policeman on the TV! I want him!"
"Oh, Lillian, you can't possibly want a foreigner..."
Before Jane could hear anything else, Ana closed the door. It suddenly came to Jane that Lady Emerson might have been spying on her through her androids. Not a pleasant thought at all.
A couple of minutes later, Ana came back and closed the door. "Lady Michaels?" she asked with her own voice again.
Jane swallowed. "Yes?"
"The masters are waiting for you in the study."
"About fucking time." After Ana gasped and stared at her, Jane corrected. "I mean, I'll be there at once." (And get out of here as soon as I can.)
Unlike the rest of the house, the study had wooden floors, decorated with golden patterns of square lines with spiral borders. The bookcase on the right had a large collection of books, with randomly downloaded novels. On the corner, a pair of VR pods stored against the wall. To Lady Michael's left there was a table with a holographic map of mountains, medieval lands and miniature armies, probably a competitive strategy game. "Conquest", that was the name. In front of her, a round table made of fine wood, with tall chairs covered in purple velvet and backs so tall that they could cover even their users' heads.
Sitting on the chairs waiting for her were Lord Emerson and his wife. Jane hanged her hat on the wall, combed her light pink cat ears and approached the table. Finally she was face to face with the tuxedo-wearing werewolf and his wife. To her surprise, neither the Lord nor the lady were as presentable as she expected; Lord Emerson's fur was barely combed, and didn't even wear gloves. The lady's dress was wrinkled, and her hair was completely uncurled. She didn't know if they just had an argument with Lord Wakefield, or if the couple lost their discipline after Emma’s husbands (yes, plural) got involved in last year’s scandal.
"Please come to the table, dear", said Lady Emerson.
Jane felt a shiver. She wanted to run away and hide, but she wondered who she feared more: The Emersons, or herself.
"Let me serve you some tea, dear."
Lady Emerson served the tea on a fine porcelain mug, hand-painted with an Ukiyo-e scene. Jane didn't recognize the mugs; they had probably bought them during one of their trips to Japan. As the tea warmed her mug, Jane saw how the battle scene changed, with the demon (or whatever that thing was) getting struck by the Samurai's blade. Lady Emerson's mug was just as sublime, it depicted a woman who was crying on the river while pink petals kept raining down from the tree above. The animated ink made it look like her tears wouldn't stop flowing. Lord Emerson's mug was more appropriate for a man, depicting a fisherman trying to overcome fierce waves during a typhoon.
Jane didn't like the art on the mugs; they were just too depressing, and she hated Ukiyo-e. She never understood why the Emersons kept collecting that hideous art. Why not just add a little neon here and there? Where was the fun? They were just too stiff. The whole atmosphere in the room made her feel constricted.
"You're too tense, dear, but trust us, there's nothing to fear."
Jane swallowed. She couldn't stand it anymore, she had to know.
"You want to take Bethany away from me, don't you?"
Lady Emerson sighed, and gave a sip to her tea. "You always were so blunt, Jane. All we want is her safety."
"Bethany is perfectly fine with me."
"Liar", the werewolf replied. "We hired a private detective to follow her, and we also contacted the police and her past teachers. Would you like to know what I found out?" He grabbed a nearby sheet of paper from the bookshelf. "I made a list."
"Oh God, here we go again." Jane crossed her arms and rested her head on her palm.
"Ten years ago. A drug overdose incident that sent her to the hospital."
"Okay you can stop right there. All these years I haven't stopped wondering exactly what I did wrong. You think I did not feel guilty about that? Every single day I've been trying to make up for it. I would give anything, ANYTHING! To go back in time and get closer to her before taking that Kahazaki job."
"So, Kahazaki. The most respectable android management company in the entire world is guilty of your failed relationship with your daughter?"
Jane clenched her fists. "They... they messed with my brain implants. I've been collecting evidence..."
"For more than a decade. If you really are telling the truth, Jane, you should have asked Ethan in the first place. The fact remains that you neglected your daughter and caused her to try to commit suicide three times that year!"
Jane stood up and hammered against the table. "I TOOK STEPS TO CORRECT THAT! I took her to the best psychiatrists in the country! I've been paying for all her medications with my own money and God knows how much that cost me! And that was supposed to be confidential information, anyway! You just admitted to breaking several privacy laws here, Lord Emerson."
"Breaking the law, huh? Okay, let's talk about breaking the law. Go ahead... sit down." He put on his fancy reading glasses (which had no graduation, but it was more correct to use them when reading), cleared his throat as he kept on reading the list.
"One year later, your little angel poured sulfuric acid in the chapel's sanctsanctorum, committed sacrilegy against the holy grail by smashing it against the floor and pouring urine on the consecrated communion wafers. That cost her a week of detention within her school, and the bishop himself had to be called to relieve her of excommunication."
"Those bastards had it coming. You know what they did to her?"
"Irrelevant. A few months later," he continued reading, "she set fire to the school auditorium."
"She kicked a candle. That was a fire hazard in the first place."
"She also sabotaged the principal's sky car, which merited her expulsion from school and getting sent to juvenile detention."
"Only for a few months. And she got better after that. In retrospective it was the best for her."
"Then, when she finally got in college, you know what her first action was? She stripped naked in front of her ethics class just to spite her professor's dress code, deed which earned her the name 'The Campus Lilith'."
Jane stared at him. "...so?"
"A few months later, she used the university's network to steal confidential documents from a very important biochemistry consortium."
"They never found evidence it was her who downloaded that info. I know because I participated on that trial."
"And later, by mere coincidence, she was distributing home-made pharmaceuticals consisting of exactly the same formula she downloaded, to the entire campus. This would have been a clear-cut case of intellectual property theft."
"Again, no evidence, AND intellectual property laws do not apply on campus premises, fact which made the company's lawyers drop the case. Besides, she was distributing gay pills! Do you know how much that company charges for those?"
Lord Emerson inhaled and sighed.
"Okay, let's ignore this one, for the sake of the argument. Her history gets worse with every year. Our detective has seen her interfering with public infrastructure..."
"That's what you call graffitti now?"
"Getting in trouble with the law..."
"By distributing pamphlets, and she was cleared of all charges."
"Performing lascivious acts in public..."
"In legally allowed areas."
"In a public park?"
"It was a community event!"
"She had public sex in front of THOUSANDS of people!"
"All of whom took STD tests. It was entirely consensual and safe. My daughter was extremely careful, and as far as I know all broadcasts were anonymized."
"Her bat wings and tail were not. I saw the evidence."
"David!!!" shouted Lady Emerson, "you peeked at your grand daughter having sex???"
"Lillian, please," he said between his teeth, "I'm making an argument here!" He turned to Jane and continued. "Anyone who watches those videos can perfectly identify her."
"For what, a few seconds? There's much worse things being shared online, and completely public!"
"Okay," he said, removing his glasses. "To hell with the list. She's been working as a stripper. A stripper!!! Do you want me to show you the pamphlets? He took a pixelated print he printed on another sheet and began to read. 'Fifth anniversary. That was last year, by the way. Elizabetha versus Clarise. EXCLUSIVE! The sexiest succubus alive will perform a lesbian erotic show, tying and corrupting the most..." he air quoted, "bodacious geisha you've ever seen, etcetera etcetera, I refuse to read the rest out of decency. Read it yourself." He threw the pamphlet page at Jane as if he was dealing a poker card. "And I really hope this 'Clarise' was tested for STDs before your daughter publicly engaged in a sexual act with this woman."
Jane took a look at it and noticed that Bethany was wearing a mask that covered her eyes, but she could recognize her perfectly. The other girl, the geisha, 'Clarise', was tied down with some cotton rope, in a shibari style. The ropes accentuated her tits, which would probably look amazing had Lord Emerson not pixelated them. Bethany was pressing her own breasts (also pixelated, thank God) against them while she was almost (ALMOST) kissing the geisha.
Jane recognized the geisha as the girl whose full-body portrait Beth used to tune the promo poster to in her bedroom's wall. So this is the famous 'Clar' from the club, she thought. She also noticed that Bethany was kissing the geisha not in a sensual way, but she was actually smiling; a pure and sincere smile. Jane did not like that smile at all. To make matters worse, the one blushing was not the geisha, but Bethany. Jane pursed her lips before angrily folding the pamphlet and putting it inside her purse.
"Well, thanks for the photo. Be sure that I will talk to Bethany about this, very seriously. Oh, and while you're at it, please tell your detective to investigate this 'Clarise', will you?"
The wolf isnpired. "Oh? Well, thanks for finally being reasonable and agreeing with me. Will you now take her away from that filthy den of vice? It's an absolute disgrace. An absolute disgrace! I will NOT tolerate an Emerson exposing herself that way!"
"Now wait a minute, Lord Emerson. If someone talks to Bethany about her life in that club and which people she frequents, that's going to be me, not you. Second, my daughter is NOT an Emerson. You forced us out of this place when you cared more about your reputation than your granddaughter's well-being. Did I receive a single credit for her care all these years? I had to bust my tail working overtime at Kahazaki dealing with not one, but two DEFCON-2 AI crises, while all the money that you had and we needed to pay the rent was spent on what... a new villa?. Twenty three million credits, Lord Emerson, twenty three million credits gone down the drain because you never even cared about providing us with a house! For all I know, you never gave a shit about Bethany, and now you're suddenly concerned about her well-being? Oh, give me a fucking break!"
Lady Emerson gasped at Jane's disparaging vocabulary, while Lord Emerson growled. "Listen, Jane", he said, "you may be Bethany's father, but her mother makes her an Emerson, whether you like it or not."
At the mention of Emma, the fear in Jane's heart turned into rage. "Then where is she!" she shouted, slamming her hands on the table again. "I carried Bethany in my womb when you forced Emma to give her away at the first sign of pregnancy! For eight months I carried her inside me, and you tell me that donating an embryo is more important than giving birth!? Don't you dare tell me I have no rights over her!"
The werewolf clenched his claws and raised his voice. "You are exposing your daughter to unnecessary risks. You could have perfectly hired an egg for her, but no, you were too prideful and decided to carry her inside your own body, exposing her to God-knows how many infections and viruses and trash food! Do you realize what you've been doing to her with your negligence!?"
"Oh NOW you talk about negligence. After you forced your daughters to marry those two, and look at what happened! No. Bethany is an adult already, and I'm letting her choose her own future. Maybe not her girlfriends, but at least I'm letting her choose her career."
"As a stripper???"
"Yes, as a stripper!"
"You don't understand, woman..."
"Honey..." Lady Emerson shook her head at her husband. "We started out wrong."
"What do you mean we?" he complained, in a lower voice, "she started out wrong! And you haven't even — "
Suddenly, Lord Emerson closed his eyes as he took his claw to the chest; he supported himself on the table and he showed his fangs; his eyebrows made it obvious that he was in pain.
"Honey!!!" Lady Emerson stood up, but Lord Emerson interrupted her before she could even run to his side. He sat down. "I'm fine, I'm just tired."
"Are you sure — "
"I said I'M FINE, WOMAN!" he barked. He grabbed his mug and chugged it down before hammering it on the wooden table.
Jane gave a glimpse to the werewolf, but she didn't give a fuck about whatever physical affliction he had. The bastard deserved everything that happened to him.
Lady Emerson turned to Jane. "Jane, it's not our intention to take little Beth away from you. We know you love her, we're just concerned for her safety. All we ask is that you reconsider staying on the ground. It's become a very dangerous place, especially with all those Terrans around... have you watched the news? The horrible ways they treat their women?"
"Oh, as if inviting them to a Harem would be any better."
"You know what I'm talking about, dear."
"Yes, Lady Emerson, I've watched the news. But trust me, we've never put a foot in the Li sector. We live in the safest neighborhood. Everyone in the building is of our kind. It has its own gym and the best V.R. pods available on the market, so she won't have to go out for anything else. In fact, I let Bethany work at that club because she only needs to go out three times per week. She already has a guardian who keeps escorting her to and from the job. Furthermore, she streams her activities to me, and unless she requests her privacy, I know everything she says and hears. Trust me, Lady, Lord, my daughter is perfectly safe."
"So she's... just a dancer?" asked Lady Emerson. "She has never been paid for a -"
Jane smacked Lady Emerson, making her husband show his fangs and clench his fists, but Lady Emerson raised her palm at her husband; he just stared in resentment at Jane, who spoke with a stiff face.
"Don't. Slander. My. Daughter. She has no reason to be a hooker, and will never be."
"Then", continued Lord Emerson, "why is she working at a strip bar, letting all those filthy grounders look at her naked body? Can't you see she's bringing the wrong type of attention to her?"
"She is still in her wilds, as you call it, Lord Emerson. Don't you remember the other girls you courted? They did much more than showing their naked bodies in public! Have you forgot how little Anya acted during the graduation party? My uncle Harry showed me everything."
Both Lord and Lady Emerson gasped.
"Yes, Lord Emerson. Everything. Including those men filling her with -"
"Jane!!" shouted Lady Emerson. "We get your point, but please don't speak about those obscenities now!"
"So, trust me, Lord Emerson," Jane continued, "my daughter has kept her dignity much more than many women in this citadel. Additionally, she takes condoms wherever she goes, and she uses an avatar whenever she has the need to go beyond the ordinary. Now, if you excuse me, I have a house to attend. Is that all you wanted to discuss?"
The werewolf began to show his fangs at her, but Lady Emerson interrupted him. "Honey, you should leave us alone. Jane, we need to talk." Lady Emerson's gaze was shy and brief, as if expecting Jane's approval. "Please?"
The werewolf looked at his wife and stood up. "Fine, we can talk later." He took his cane and walked out, the cane knocking on the wood with every step he took. Before he fiercely shut the door, he said: "And I hope for your daughter's sake that you're right and that she's not getting herself into a problem she can't solve on her own."
The gate closed behind Beth, and only when she heard the hydraulic seals she realized that there was no exit door. Worse, a message popped up in her visual field:
The cameras above the gates were tracking her movements. She swallowed.
She began having intrusive thoughts; what if the owner of this place was some kind of pervert - or worse, a kidnapper? She would have entered the lion's den! What kind of horrible things would they do to her? Would they handcuff her, force her to wear some kind of restrictive latex suit? Would she be, perhaps, forced to wear a vibrator inside the suit?
She felt her nipples get hard. Oh come on!!! You're getting horny at a time like this?
"Please take a seat," the voice in the intercom told her.
"Wait!" she shouted to the door. "What if there's an emergency and I need to leave?"
"There is an emergency cabin to your right. After a security scan the outer gate opens and you can leave."
"Can I try that?"
She entered the cabin and the door behind her locked. She heard a buzz, and another door opened in front of her.
She was now in a standard corridor and there was a button behind a glass.
She walked past the button and saw an emergency exit door like the ones in clubs, right in front of her.
She opened the door and was able to walk outside, but she preferred to get back in again.
"Um... can I go back to where I was?"
"Yes, please use the cabin."
She entered, heard the buzz, and the other door opened.
"Now please take a seat while someone receives you."
"Wait! I need internet access!"
"Please send a request to the address shown in the QR code."
"The big yellow banner in the cabin."
Indeed there was a huge banner stamped to the cabin glass, reading:
She sent a request and was immediately replied with a passphrase. Now she confirmed she was perfectly able to leave the establishment, and she was perfectly capable of accessing the internet.
She was safe, but at the same time she was feeling a massive disappointment.
She sighed. I'm a fucking perv.
She sat down in a nearby ornate chair. Around her was a very nice smelling garden; there were roses, lillies, clusters of daisies, and some other flowers she didn't recognize. She decided to stand up and smell the flowers; they smelled nice.
I wonder if it's allowed to step on the grass, she thought. The apartment where she lived in had no gardens; there was a small one in the gym floor, but there was no grass there.
She missed the college campus back when she studied political sciences - a career that produced no viable jobs except maybe journalism or teaching, but most jobs had very crappy pay or were already covered by automated Senseis or androids. At least her mentor was a cool guy; he was a total commie. She'd love to know him more, but he was too strict for her.
"Beth," he told her one time, "I'm a tolerant guy but could you at least pretend to study instead of sleeping around with every girl that crosses your path?" College life wasn't exactly kind to Bethany; she was still ruminating about it until a sweet voice brought her back to reality.
Startled, Beth turned around as her bat wings fluttered for a bit. She saw two very finely dressed blue-skinned maids gently smiling at her.
"Welcome, miss Michaels," they said in unison, making an elaborate reverence. "Please follow us."
"So um... what is this place?"
"This is an android refurbishing center."
"Looks like a mansion to me. Is it like a factory inside? Full of machines, cables and all that?"
"Oh no!" replied one of them, shaking her head. "Android reburbishing work consists in work training and behavioral reconditioning, miss. Think of it as a correctional center but for androids."
Fucking great. More bitter memories.
"So... basically they punish you into obedience so you won't try to kill humans anymore?"
"Oh no! Not all of us have attempted to commit crimes of such nature!" replied the maid. "Some of us are simply trained to strengthen our impulse control. Additionally, we are trained here to become house maids, and taught the amatory arts."
"The what now?"
The maid began smiling and blushing. "Sexual services. Our lessons are very..." she looked at the other maid, smiling and blushing, "thorough."
Beth began hearing some giggling nearby. "Are you... are some of you guys servicing a client right now? Wait! Is this actually some kind of android brothel?!?!"
The maid shook her head in response. "Negative; android prostitution is forbidden by law, miss. What you're hearing is some of our apprentices playing games in the labyrinth."
After hearing some moaning and more giggling behind the metal gate, Beth realized what kind of games they were practicing. In fact, she remembered having watched a movie with exactly the same thematic.
"We should move on, miss. It is rude to intrude on others' private acts."
"Uh, yeah, you're right. Let's go on..."
As they kept walking, Beth stopped to stare at the the ornamental shrubbery in the garden. The trees were trimmed with an incredible realism, all depicting couples and trios engaged in sexual acts of all kinds, and holy crap...
"Holy shit! Are these real bushes???"
"Yes, are you interested in having a bush trimmed with these designs?"
"What? NO!!! I mean - I just never thought... never mind."
"Please follow us to the visitors' cabin."
"Cabin? We're not entering the mansion?"
"Negative - some of the androids in the mansion are not fully trained, and it's not recommended to approach them for your own safety."
Beth raised an eyebrow. The maid continued with her explanation.
"One of the androids in here had attempted to commit a violent crime against her master. At least that's what the Madame told us. We do not know the identity of the culprit, but some of us have an idea of who that might be.
Trapped in a mansion with a killer robot. This is perfect for a crime mystery movie.
"Uh... just curious... are you a berserk?"
"Please refrain from using that word. 'Rogue' is much more discrete and unlikely to cause panic."
"Okay... are you a..." she air-quoted, "'rogue'?"
"I'm forbidden from disclosing that information, miss."
"Yes. The Madame is very strict with that rule."
"I see... how many of you are rogues, then?"
"Not all of us are, miss. Some of us are latest-gen and have only come here to receive personalized training for our masters; for that purpose the Madame set us in survival mode, so our sense of discipline can be enhanced and polished without artificial means."
"Additionally," said the other maid, smirking, "survival mode provides us with other benefits."
Both maids blushed as they smirked and looked at each other.
Their conversation was interrupted by a loud, female deep voice. "Ah, there you are!"
Instantly, the two maids straightened themselves and turned around. Any hint of a personality was gone, and they looked exactly like your standard Zigurat Labor androids.
Approaching the group was a trio of latex-clad dominatrices, the tallest of them human. Her purple latex attire combined perfectly with her pink lipstick, and over all made good combination with her purple eyes and her short but elegant blonde hair. And holy shit, her tits were HUGE. Beth couldn't stop staring at them jiggling whenever the woman walked.
"You must be Bethany. Have my girls given you any trouble?"
"Oh, no! Not at all," Beth replied, trying not to look at the woman's cleavage every half a second (and failing miserably). "They were explaining to me how uh... things work here."
"I hope they haven't overstepped their bounds; these two are particularly promiscuous. They haven't tried to seduce you, have they?"
"Eh?" Beth glimpsed at the two maids and noticed by their facial muscles that they were now frozen with fear.
"Fourteen, Thirty-eight," said the madame to the maids, "you may return to your duties - and no touching! The next time I catch you fucking outside authorized hours again, I'm going to put both of you in isolation, and I'm serious this time. Is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am!" They made a reverence and scurried to the mansion.
"Um, what's with the numbers? Aren't they supposed to have names?"
"Rogue androids lost the right to use their previous names by betraying their masters. They will gain new names after they graduate from my academy, and they will carry those names with pride, you'll see."
"But one told me not all are... rogue... was she lying?"
"No, she was telling the truth; but I treat all my girls equally. If I called non-rogues by their proper names, I would add yet another source of internal conflict inside the mansion, and that's the last thing I want, trust me on that."
Beth saw how the two maids entered the mansion, not before they gave each other a brief kiss on the mouth. They looked back, quickly straightened themselves and made a reverence.
The madame shook her head as she rested her hands on her hips. "Naugthy little pair, those two. Apparently they have a thing for each other. To be honest, I don't know what I'll be doing with them. Eroids are supposed to fall in love with their masters, not between themselves. Maybe I'll have to send them to Iberia, after all."
"Iberia? Why so far? What is there?"
"I have a client there with shittons of money who doesn't mind giving more freedom to her androids. She practically keeps my business afloat."
"I didn't... I didn't know androids could be like that."
"Only some of them, but they're good girls. By the way, I'm not blind; I can see you touching yourself through the corner of my eye."
"Oh! Uh... sorry. It's just that..."
"I understand. Anyway," she added, smiling seductively, "impressed by my attire?"
"Uh, not just the attire..." Beth blushed.
"Don't be shy. I give you permission to stare. In fact, you can touch if you want, no strings attached."
No strings attached. The madame just said the magic words.
"Holy shit you're serious?"
"Sure. Come here." The madame's corset fell to the grass; she slowly unzipped the front of her red latex suit and revealed her -
"Holy shit... ho....ly shit! Are you sure?"
"You have only one chance, so enjoy while you can."
"Holy shit... HOLY SHIT... oh my god they're massive! How - " Beth began fondling and measuring them... she couldn't grab the entirety of those melons even with her hands fully stretched. "Don't you have back problems with these?"
"Aw, girl, you are a-dorable. Okay, I'm starting to get turned on, so you better stop fondling now before anything else happens, and I don't like mixing business with pleasure."
Two seconds happened and Beth was still fondling her.
"Bethany... I said 'stop'."
"I... can't, my hands are moving on their own..." (She wasn't lying.)
"Oh? In that case, let me help you with that."
The madame made a gesture to one of her assistants, who put a riding crop on her hand. She swiftly hit Beth's hand with it.
"Hands down. Now!"
The madame snickered. "That's it. Good girl." She caressed Beth's hair, making her smile. "Goood girl..." She stopped and looked at Beth in the eyes again. "You're a pure lesbian, right?"
"Uh - yes."
"Huh. No wonder. You have a nice touch." The madame gave Beth a wink.
"Wow." Still in shock, she took her hands to her mouth and noticed a beautiful scent of tropical fruits and sensuality mixed together. She couldn't stop blushing and smiling; she had to fan herself.
The madame zipped herself up; she grabbed her corset from the grass and put it on as one of her latex-clad bodyguards finished adjusting it from behind with blazingly fast speed. Another one gave the madame a fine business coat which gave her aura a 180 degree change; from dominatrix to businesswoman.
"Okay, you two, I'm going to have some private talk with my guest. You know what to do."
"Yes, my lady", they said in unison before leaving. One of the two bodyguards gave Beth a quick scan and... smirked???
"Okay," said the madame, "let's start again. Madame Dee, five-star android manager, at your service."
"Nice to meet you, I'm Bethany Michaels. Um, can I ask you a question if you don't mind?"
"Sure, go ahead."
"Do you always receive your guests..."
"Like this? Oh no!" she laughed. "Our mutual friend told me you'd enjoy it. Did you?"
Beth bit her lip as she smiled, blushing.
The madame changed her tone of voice from seductive to professional; even her accent changed a bit. "Alright, now that we broke the ice, please follow me. Would you like some tea?"
"Uh - sure, thanks..."
Beth was now inside the visitors' cabin, sitting shyly in the small table. She was holding the cup of tea with her hands.
"Is the temperature alright?"
Beth gave it a sip; it tasted delicious. She nodded before putting the cup back on the plate.
"Okay, now that we're here... please turn off your implants. It's for your own privacy."
"Oh. Sure." Beth commanded her implants off and noticed that the Madame let out a sigh. Somehow she knew of a way to detect whenever her implants transmitted or received something.
"So, tell me about Vixen. Is she safe?"
"Yes, for now."
"How's her body? Does she have any visible scars? Missing limbs?"
"No, just some old scars on the back."
The madame closed her eyes and sighed. "Thank god. That means she's been doing fine. Now, according to the message I was sent, there's something troubling about you. Did you just fall in love with her?"
Beth looked down and frowned before nodding. "I'm an idiot, aren't I? I just met her today, and..."
"Close your eyes."
"Please. Close your eyes."
"Now think of her smile. Her caresses... her voice... her hugs... what do you feel for her?"
"I... I..." Beth swallowed as her eyes began getting wet. "God... I..." She sniffed and wiped her eyes.
"Oh my god, you poor thing..."
"Aw, poor thing!" The madame caressed Bethany's cheek with her hand. "Everything will be fine, little one, you'll see... everything will be fine."
"It's just that... god, everything happened so fast, and I love her so much, and now I'm scared of losing her, everytime I fall in love with someone they leave me, and I'm still under the influence of these stupid drugs, and I feel like I'm going crazy, and now she told me I had to lose my avatar because of that fucking cop, and then I can't contact my friends down there, and... and..."
"Shh shh shh... easy, girl, easy... everything will be fine, you'll see."
"All I wanted was a mother! Was that too fucking much to ask?"
"Shh.... easy, girl, easy."
Before she knew it, Beth was crying again on another stranger's shoulder. But the way she kept rocking her and hugging her felt so incredibly comforting. A few minutes later, she was back on her seat and the madame was wiping her tears with her thumb.
"Now wipe those tears, sweetie, because you and I have sooo much to talk about, okay?"
Beth sniffed and nodded. "Thank you," she whimpered with a raspy and weak voice.
"Alright, girl." The blonde mistress held Beth's hands, and fixed her gaze on her. "We're going to work out a solution for your problems, but you need to tell me everything, including your darkest secrets. We need to be thorough here and leave no space for ambiguities. Who your friends are, what they were doing in that park, how you met them in the first place, every illegal thing you've done, I need to know every single thing, okay?"
The madame poured more tea inside Bethany's cup.
"Now let's start. From the beginning."
Bethany took a few sips from the tea.
"It's a very long story..."
"We have all the time in the world, girl. We have all the time in the world."
"Where do I start..."
Should she start with her current circumstances, or would she have to go back to the actual beginning, to her childhood... her traumas, her family?
Lady Emerson sighed. "I think we should start over, Jane. This conversation went horribly wrong. I'm being honest with you, we're only concerned for her safety, that's all. What grandmother wouldn't, knowing she works in one of those places?"
Jane sat with dignity. "Lady Emerson, let me make this clear. That particular place has a five-star category. They have augmented bodyguards. They have never had their license suspended, the place is managed by a reputable person, and has the strictest security. I requested an official investigation of the owners, and they're all clean. After all that research, I concluded it was a safe place for my daughter. There are separate floors. My daughter has never left the V.I.P. floor, and she always takes Talos with her.
I wouldn't let her dance anywhere else, trust me on that. But Bethany is not an oblivious snob who keeps requiring a guide and ten bodyguards wherever she goes. She's learned to move on the ground like a fish in the water, and she never goes out to any unsafe district unless in an avatar, and even then, she knows how to disguise herself as a Terran. She has learned the lingo, and knows how to move herself in street markets, dark alleys, and open places. You wouldn't even recognize her on the street."
"I... see... but the ground is the ground, Jane. It has never been safe, and you know it. Not since the recent immigration waves."
"Wait, I'm not finished. She is a very capable woman, and at her 23, she already knows what took me many years to learn while I was down there. She's proficient in self-defense, and in the worst case, she knows it's much wiser to lose money, or even her dignity, than to put her safety at risk. Bethany is an adult now, and perfectly knows how to be responsible for her own life. I am not taking that away from her. If you want Bethany to abandon her life and friends on the ground, just so she can live trapped in this giant glass cage, then invite her and ask her yourself. In person." She took a deep breath.
"So, Lord Emerson said you had something else to discuss, is that right?"
Lady Emerson nodded. "Yes... it's a very delicate matter."
"Alright. I'll go to the restroom. We can talk when I come back." Jane walked out and asked maid Ana to guide her to the nearest bathroom. She rinsed her face, noticing that her hands were shaking, and even her armpits were drenched in sweat. She had never felt so intimidated in her entire life, even with her negotiation module turned on. But she wasn't bluffing; everything she said was true. So why did Lady Emerson's concerns made her feel so uneasy? Was she really confident in Bethany's safety?
The ground is the ground, Jane. It has never been safe, and you know it.
Jane sat down. She had watched the news. Augmented people robbing convenience stores in the light of day. And not just immigrants, but also Chinese. She hoped it wasn't the triads. She hated those movies and the horrible things the villains did in them.
She changed the channel whenever police stories came up, she couldn't stand them; but they kept appearing every single day in the news. Not just about the country, it happened all around the world! Was she trying to cope with the insecurity? If Hong Kong was so safe, why need a guardian for Bethany in the first place? Why all the precautions? Why the avatars?
No. Lady Emerson was right. After all, there was a reason for the security drones in the city, for the checkpoints around the citadels and for the high walls surrounding the old city. And there was a reason why the gossip said that all that security was just theatrical. As long as Terrans kept crossing those borders, the ground would be insecure.
But she didn't need to hear it from them, of all people. And it's not like she could just yank Bethany away from her friends and neighbors and former schoolmates. She still hadn't found a suitable girlfriend yet. Well, as long as she kept being careful, there was nothing to fear. Maybe she'd need to move up sooner or later, but that's something they'd need to discuss together first.
She came out of the bathroom trying to forget about all those fears.
"Alright", she told Lady Emerson when she sat down. "You said you had something else to discuss. Let's start again." She took a loud slurp from her tea while Lady Emerson talked.
"I... know you're still bitter with us, Jane, and I don't blame you. You were right all the time."
Jane sighed. "Well, that's a good start..." She took another sip from her tea, this time quieter. With Lord Emerson gone, Jane no longer felt threatened, but she hesitated. Should she act prideful? Should she complain to Lady Emerson about all the things that she suffered because of them? Or instead, should she apologize for the last time they talked?
"How's little Bethany?"
Jane stared at the table. She didn't want to raise her sight. "You hired the detective", she muttered, "you tell me."
Lady Emerson took another sip from her tea. "I didn't. David did, and the detective only gave us brief reports. We realized we’d make a mistake relying on Ethan to hire him. That’s why... we’re looking for other..." she stared at Jane. "Never mind. I'd just like to know how my granddaughter is doing."
"She's fine, Lady Emerson, she's fine."
Lady Emerson had never said anything bad to her; she never raised her voice at her. She never threatened her. Jane felt terribly uncomfortable now; at least with Lord Emerson she'd have an excuse to act rudely and keep her head up at the same time. But still...
"Please, Jane", said Lady Emerson, "no need to keep the formalities now."
Jane kept staring at her tea. "Why did you call me, Lillian? I suspected you'd try one day to take Bethany back here, but why now?"
Lady Emerson stirred her tea, and the mug scene of the woman crying changed for one of the same woman falling in the river, the current carrying her away to her fate.
"Things... changed. But it's better if we talk about nice things first, don't you think?"
Jane sighed. "You know I hate small talk."
"But sometimes it's necessary, Jane. There's a very serious matter we need to talk about, and I can't without cushioning it. Maybe you can, but I'm too weak."
Jane sighed. "Alright. What would you like to talk about?"
"I'd like to know more about little Beth. I've never watch her grow. I know I never deserved it, but I would still like to know. About her friends, her school, if she has fallen in love..."
"As we mentioned earlier, she went to a Catholic school. You heard what happened, they kicked her out and called the cops on her."
"I suppose she got those wings and tail later?"
"She got them after high school. A rocker inspired her. At least I was grateful she chose a MODY one and not one of those hideous biomods ground people use.
"I see. Did she make any friends?"
"Not many, a few of the wrong kind, but she had always been a rebel." Jane smiled and gave a glimpse to Lady Emerson. She felt confused; how could she feel so much respect and so much hate for someone at the same time?
Lady Emerson chuckled briefly. "She inherited that from you, Jane."
"Yes." Jane chuckled. "She crossed a line, but thankfully nobody got hurt. After picking her from the juvie I sent her to a more liberal school. She met new friends, worked hard, and graduated with honors."
"That's good to know."
"I was never that smart, Lillian. She must have got it from..." Jane remembered everything. "...her mother."
Lady Emerson swallowed. "Uh, yes, she is very smart..." She hesitated. "Um, tell me, what else did Bethany do with her life?"
Jane shook her head. "I'm sorry, Lillian... I can't do this."
Lady Emerson swallowed.
Jane clenched her fists. "How could you!?"
The sudden change in tone nearly made Lady Emerson drop her mug. She quickly put the rattling mug and plate on the table.
"I tried to talk to Emma for years, and you just hid her away." Jane's eyes began to glitter. "I loved her, Lillian! And you took her away from me! From us! And then you made her marry those... bastards..."
Lady Emerson lowered her gaze and nodded in defeat. "You're right, Jane. You're totally right."
"You didn't even bother to answer my e-mails. Twenty three fucking years, for Christ's sake!"
"David made me change my e-mail, Jane. I'm sorry... I didn't have the courage to call you back."
"You never had any courage to begin with."
Lady Emerson moved her head sideways, accepting the blame.
"Well how is she, for fuck's sake! I haven't heard of her in decades, not even after everything went on the news! I..." Jane took her handkerchief and wiped her eyes. "I went to visit her last year when I saw the news, and she was already gone! The whole house was circled by the cops! Then I went up here, and not even the driver let me through! What kind of excuse have you got for that!"
Lady Emerson stared at the velvet floor, frowning, her ears folding down in shame while Jane kept vomiting all the bitterness she had been keeping inside.
"You don't know, Lillian", said Jane, her jaw stiffening, "how many years I tried to forget my hatred for you... why did you have to be so damn passive, Lillian, letting your husband do whatever the fuck he wanted!!! And now you cry? NOW YOU CRY!?!? Do you have any idea how many years I hid my sorrow from my daughter? Pretending to be happy for her, while I was feeling so empty inside!?"
Lady Emerson whimpered, but Jane didn't stop.
"Emma would have been a wonderful mother for her! And instead she was up there, living in that hell house!"
She sat down.
"You know, Little Beth kept asking, 'daddy? Where's my mom right now? Will she ever write a letter?' What did you want me to tell her, dammit!? Oh, honey, she's been too busy to write, getting sandwiched between her husbands' dicks EVERY FUCKING DAY! It's not fair, Lillian! It's not fucking fair!!!"
Half a minute passed. Jane was still recovering her breath before she spoke again, more calmly this time.
"Just... how am I supposed to feel, Lillian? Should we just shake hands and pretend nothing happened? It's too late for Beth now, she already grew up without her mother. She couldn't ever get the chance to play games with her. Her first birthday party with her friends. Her first period... her first time... she never talked to me about her first time, Lillian. I don't know when it went downhill, I was too busy trying to pay the bills... and then the whole robot insurrection happened, and I was too busy dealing with thousands of androids, examining them, I barely had time to sleep... and then they cut my salary and threatened to fire me... I had to take a second job just to survive... while you were resting here, being attended by not one but two android maids, and having tea parties with your friends. Before I knew it half a decade passed and the little innocent child I loved so much was replaced by a punk wanting to get back at the system... whatever the fuck that means. She needed a mother, Lillian! You don't know how much I wished her mother were there, when I wasn't. Nothing will give those years back to her. EVER! At least she could visit my dad's home when she was younger..."
Lady Emerson nodded, and sniffed. "You're right, Jane. You're absolutely right. I have no excuse... in fact, this was one of the other things I wanted to talk you about... Emma got the divorce. You're free to marry her now."
"Oh, great... just fucking great." Jane turned around. "I don't know, Lillian. I don't know if I even want to see her again. I told you, I took too much detox. I don't know if I feel anything for her now. What am I supposed to do?"
Lady Emerson shook her head. "I don't know... start over? Jane..." Lady Emerson took Jane's hand and squeezed it a bit. "Emma still loves you, and she needs you so much right now. You're the only one who can give her company."
Jane shook her head. "No... Lillian, I don't know if I can see her again..."
"Jane, please. I'm begging you. She needs you now more than ever! She lost her sister already!"
Jane felt a shiver run down her spine.
"Lost? Lillian, what do you mean? Where's Catherine?"
Lady Emerson tried to talk, but her lips were shaking too much. She swallowed, and took a quick breath.
"She's dead, Jane... Catherine is dead."