tilly with the others: part 49

"Yah," the woman in the brown leather jacket breathed, giving a sharp nod of satisfaction to the apartment corridor and gesturing for Tilly and the man in the boiler suit to return to Tilly's flat. They did, using the sliding steps that the woman had instructed them to, the better to keep the tinfoil on the floor in one piece.

The entire corridor, walls and ceiling and floor, was covered in tinfoil. The only parts of the original decor which were visible were the fluorescent light fixtures, because the woman in the brown leather jacket said they had enough metal in them already to count as non-carbon. The hostiles could eat the plastic covers if they could reach them, she said, but that would only buy them minutes before they starved to death.

Back in the apartment, Tilly locked the door behind them. "That still leaves my neighbour, or what used to be my neighbour," she said. "Not to mention, there has to be a permanent solution to all this. Even bedbugs can be got rid of if you're thorough about it."

"And that's why I'm going to leave now, and get something that will destroy all the hostiles in the neighbourhood, permanently," said the woman in the leather jacket. "It's like one of my light grenades, but bigger."

"Why on earth didn't you use that in the first place?"

"Um... because it's harder to explain," said the man in the boiler suit. "I know you think we're doing a terrible job, but we really are trying to be discreet."

"It's big enough and bright enough to blind any humans that look at it directly," said the woman. "It's going to cause a lot of notice."

"I suppose I should just cover my eyes, then," said Tilly.

"You'll already be with our study team," said the woman. "We're going to set up that door."

"You think I'm going to leave behind my family, my planet, just like that? Everything I've ever known?"

"It's not forever," said the man in the boiler suit. "Just one of your planet's orbits. That's not even long enough for you to be declared dead. We checked."

"But even a year —"

"Look," said the woman in the brown leather jacket. "You just helped us wallpaper an entire corridor in aluminum foil. And that hostile colony occupying your neighbour's body... she's going to appear dead once the bomb goes off. Things are going to get weird enough as it is. We can drop you off right back here in a year."

"Wait," said Tilly. "Both of you, be quiet. I need a moment."

"We don't have much time," said the man in the boiler suit.

"Fifteen minutes," said Tilly. "Can I have fifteen minutes? And if, if I come with you, what do I need to bring?"

The woman shrugged. "Clothes, at least enough to last about ten changes, to give us a chance to make you more. Any mementos you want to bring with you. Some books to last until we can show you how to work our libraries. I expect you'll want to read about our history, since that's your speciality."

Tilly flicked on her computer and then headed to the bedroom without bothering to wait for the bootup to complete. She returned to the living room after a few minutes, dragging a large wheeled suitcase behind her. "This is everything but the books," she said. She laid the case on the floor and flipped it open, revealing tidy stacks of clothes and a photo album. She tossed a few books from her shelf into the suitcase, then stepped over to the computer and logged in. She completed a search, checked a web site, and switched to her e-mail application. She sent three e-mails, started to write a fourth, cancelled it, and shut down the machine.

"Ugh," she said. "I need to wash the dishes from the sandwich and tea I had."

"I'll do them," said the man in the boiler suit. "I know how."

"You do?" said the woman in the brown leather jacket.

"I've observed it enough times," said the man. He went into the kitchen. Tilly and the woman heard water being run in the sink.

"So when I leave to get the light bomb, you're coming with us, aren't you?" said the woman. "You never actually said, but you're packing your suitcase."

Tilly tossed a few more books into the case. "When you drop me off in a year, does it have to be this exact geographical position?" she said.

"Where else did you have in mind?" said the woman.

"British Columbia," said Tilly. "There's a cherry orchard in the Okanagan Valley. It's not a commune anymore, but it's a co-op, and it's still there."

"That's not any more difficult than returning you here," said the woman. She played with the zip on her jacket. "You might get accused of murder, you know."

"They'd have to show it was murder first, wouldn't they?"

"I suppose," said the woman. "But your judicial system has always seemed very arbitrary to us."

"It's very arbitrary for lots of us, too." Tilly closed and latched the suitcase. "I'm putting my life in your hands with this, you know. I don't want to be vivisectioned or probed or... well. Or die."

"You could be snatched off the street by your own kind and have that happen to you," said the woman. "But it generally doesn't happen. No, we just want your reaction to our collected observations, even though I think they will be largely unflattering."

"I don't know about that," said Tilly. "I don't think my husband ever saw you."

The woman gave Tilly a hard look. "Are you sure about this? We want you to come to complete the research, but we aren't allowed to kidnap you."

"If it really is only a year, then I'm sure," said Tilly. "I only get to see my grandchildren about four times a year as it is. And," she scanned the room, "I thought this place would give me a break. And it hasn't."

"The dishes are washed," said the man in the boiler suit, returning from the kitchen.

Tilly grasped the handle on the suitcase. "All right," she said. "Let's go before I change my mind again."