Earlier that day, Lydia had appeared before a seated line of her top bosses and been reprimanded for her poor adjustment rates. She stood silent, eyes fixed on the heavy oil portrait hanging above the panel's heads.
"This is your last test, Lydia," one of them said. "The amount of time and money spent on your program is significant, but we must have a deadline. If you cannot make progress with Bacchus, it will be the end."
"Yes, sir," she had answered, as was expected of her. "I will do my best."
Now, in the present, Lydia pulls on her regulation lab coat, rolls her shoulders. She knows not to fidget—it's in the manual—but the coats never fit her properly.
Bacchus enters a moment later, swiping his keycard to unlock the far entrance.
"Ah. You must be my new handler."
"Vinea," she says, not extending her hand.
Bacchus snorts. "Out of decent codenames, I see. Surely your handlers see why a drunken god cannot be managed by a vineyard."
"Managed, perhaps not," Lydia acknowledges. "But influenced by?"
"An interesting interpretation, I'll give you that."
Lydia smiles. "Why don't you tell me about your current project?"
"I think I shall pass."
"Despite this charming workspace and the efforts to fool me into thinking I'm independent, there is still a cell I must return to every evening and an outside world I'm forbidden from seeing."
Lydia lets the challenge hang in the air between them for a long pause, holding Bacchus's gaze. "If you have no other requests, then I will leave you to your work."
"And how am I to do that in a lab that has not been upgraded since it was used by a middle school?" Bacchus calls after her.
Lydia surveys the lab when she returns to the ancillary monitor booth, her gaze stopping on a poster telling a kitten to hang in there.
The cat poster is gone by the time she returns. She could not, however negotiate the removal of the Hippocratic Oath, nor the peeling celebrity encouraging them to READ Frankenstein.
"An improvement," Bacchus acknowledges. "Your higher-ups are aware, surely, that I have a Ph.D. and am thereby exempt from Do No Harm?"
"I doubt it."
"Oh? I thought your programming dictated you defend your organization at all costs."
"All organizations have controversy. It seems a waste of energy to try and deny that."
Bacchus wheezes out a surprised laugh. "You're already more interesting than my last handler."
"If you require more work materials, I've put spare request forms in that drawer."
Lydia leaves through the monitor booth again; this time, it's occupied.
"Should you be insulting the company like that?"
She shrugs. "So what if it's not in the handbook?"
Her coworker's mouth tightens into a frown. "Seems risky, is all."
"It'll be my head that rolls off."
Day five with Bacchus shows marginal improvement. Lydia expects it has something to do with her lack of blind loyalty.
"I had been concerned I'd be given tinker toys."
"You weren't provided a workspace previously?"
"Detox, my dear. Not allowed my usual vices."
Lydia's grip loosens on the clipboard. Her hand's gone numb again. Lydia shifts the clipboard to her other hand and grips it tightly against her body, until it digs into her ribs.
"Just how many portraits of that quack are in this blasted place?"
"How many do you see every day?"
"You don't know?"
"I know only what I need to."
"How charming." Bacchus pauses, frowning at the READ poster. "There are three: this poster, one in the hall, and a rather large reproduction of the titular doctor himself in my cell. And how many are you subjected to?"
"And pray tell, my dear, where are they?"
"One in my office. And." Lydia turns her I.D. badge over. "One with me wherever I go."
"Charming," Bacchus says again. "The Patron Saint of Good Intentions."
Lydia tucks her badge back into place.
"You know quite a lot about me, but I know nothing about you. Isn't that a bit unfair?"
"Fair was not in the agreement."
"Perhaps not. Humor an old man whose career is, shall we say, in the toilet."
"I used to run marathons."
"Why did you stop?"
"I got a bad knee."
It still hurts her after walking everyday, the knee. There's no scar, modern medicine for you, but she ices it all the same.
"Homework? I've proven myself to your higher-ups, have I?"
"The expected time frame and requests for materials can be found at the front of the file. I'll monitor your progress, as will an administrator."
"It doesn't bother you that someone is monitoring your monitoring? Aren't you rather experienced for such supervision?" Bacchus tosses the packet on a table.
"Regulations. For our protection and yours."
He snorts. "Somehow I doubt you'd ever be a deer in headlights."
The dig is at a former coworker who had been compromised. He hadn't been careful enough or got too involved—it depended who you asked. After sprouting fur and a set of antlers, he'd been transferred to the state park owned by a company subsidiary. That was before the new program for primary monitors had been proposed.
"I have no desire to be anything more than myself."
Bacchus is silent for days. Lydia guesses he is preparing another psychological attack, a dig at her most closely-guarded secrets, and she wonders if her memories are buried deep enough.
In the meantime, she attends the required physical therapy courses. Lydia swims laps until she's exhausted. Still she sleepwalks every night, weaves through the neighborhood like a ghost, waking up only when the cuff on her ankle beeps.
"Tell me, Vinea, what happened in your past to warrant a career choice such as this?"
Lydia thinks. It's hard to remember her past most days, push away the frost-glass settled between Vinea-her and past-her.
"Death," she says, finally.
Bacchus's mouth tightens. "Oh yes. I know that motivation well."
Bacchus's assignment turns out better than expected. Lydia is awarded a commendation, a sheet of paper someone pins on the wall of her cubicle while she's elsewhere. It hangs next to the photograph of a much younger Bacchus, before he became what her superiors call a menace. She feels her gut curl when she looks at that photo and the smile Bacchus no longer wears so easily.
She asks why Bacchus had begun to fight against, rather than alongside.
"It might explain, sir," she starts, "extenuating circumstances."
"We can't waste time with that. The why is unimportant—you should know that."
"Sorry, sir. Old habits."
"You do not have old habits."
She could dig through old files for her answers, but the pull of curiosity isn't quite strong enough yet.
Weeks click by. Bacchus produces another invention, made to the specifications requested by her superiors, and another commendation is stapled to her cubicle. They tell her she ought to be feel proud, these faceless administrative apparitions that drift in and out of her vision, steer her along a set path.
Her knee buckles at her next visit with Bacchus, and she breaks her elbow against the lab table on the way down. Bacchus wraps a cold towel around the back of her neck and ties her a sling, keeping her upright until the secondary monitor calls in help.
"Careful, my dear," he is saying to her as he braces her arm, "you can't just get a new one."
Vinea clenches her teeth to hold in a scream.
She is back at work the next afternoon, and Bacchus looks surprised to see her.
"Surely you can afford a personal day."
"Has your work ethic failed you already?"
Bacchus frowns, but otherwise doesn't acknowledge the shift in subject.
Physical therapy increases with the broken arm and buckled knee. They strap her into a cast and a brace, give her painkillers and bone growth boosters that make her dizzy, and send her home with instructions to rest. The clinic staff give her sad looks when they think she can't see. Everyone watches when they think she can't see.
Anger swells in her chest until she can hardly breath around it. Lydia buys running shoes on her way home. She laces them too tight and her legs protest at every step, not running, never for running.
The cool drop of the moon is overhead when she staggers home, the universe watching her with one eye.
She dreams. Cypress coffins, yolky corpse eyes, her own burning skin.
"Why did you decide to do what you did?" Lydia asks.
"Surely there is some kind of file on me," Bacchus answers, not looking up from his work. "Your bosses do so love to psychoanalyze."
"They're very need-to-know." The words feel like lead in her mouth.
"And yet I'm supposed to be reformed and become a productive member of society." Bacchus hands her a folder. "Whose society."
Lydia grips it, lightheaded. "What is this?"
"The portfolio for my latest invention. Toasts the perfect s'mores every time." He offers her one, but she declines.
After dropping off the paperwork, Lydia goes outside and lays face-down in the damp grass until a troop of nurses pull her inside, muttering to themselves about her latest episode, her delicate health.
She is half-awake when they pull her strings, detangling her so she can be moved again. They pull on her nerves, twisting them together like wisteria around her bones until a crackling pain replaces the numbness in her arms, and she longs to be asleep again.
Bacchus's file isn't hard to find. No one thinks Lydia is capable of deception or breaking the rules outright. Need-to-know dips in her favor.
And yet the file provides no surprises. A promising career, outspoken disenchantment with the priorities of a new government, and nonviolent protests that did not remain so. Lydia returns the file before she can read the details of the pivotal moments in Bacchus's development, but she knows death winds through them. She feels unsettled, sick.
She dreams she is called Gina, and her hand never healed properly after breaking it in a car accident.
She dreams she is called Laurel, and she hates running.
She dreams she is called Jess, and she nearly cracked a rib in a soccer scrimmage.
She dreams she is called Amber, and her skin burns.
Lydia longs to be asleep again.
The pull is strong enough and the archives unguarded. She is not, after all, supposed to question or be curious.
The file on Bacchus is slim. The one on her is not. Inside, Lydia sees the mosaic of her body laid out.
She is Amber, paused for a moment in time, her skin burning.
She remembers. Anger swells in her, filling her lungs, and she can breathe.
"You seem different, my dear," Bacchus says to her.
"Oh?" Lydia shrugs. "What are you working on?"
"Energy convertor," Bacchus answers, after a pause.
Lydia moves towards the box, pried open on the table. She steps away, dizzy.
"And what does it do?"
"Removes fear, channels it towards a greater good." He says this without inflection, without tone, but the blankness is telling. He taps a packet on the table. "As specified by your employers."
Lydia glances at the packet, only half-interested.
"You look unwell," Bacchus observes.
"I have delicate health."
"I very much doubt that."
She remembers no previous work assignments, no prior warnings, no training. A fiction, like her.
Lydia grows tied of her visits, her duties. Fatigue tails her through the lab, and she hardly sees what Bacchus is working on.
One night, she does not sleep at all and arrives to the facility first, following the trail of commendations to her cubicle. The commendations have company.
"Field trip?" she asks.
Bacchus drops the file—her file—he's holding and for once, Lydia feels she has the upper hand.
"I don't recall signing a permission slip."
He scowls, all polite pretension vanished. In the hours before the rest of the world wakes, this is when Lydia sees his true self. The man whose file recommended he be kept in an isolated cell for the rest of his life.
"I imagine that's part of the appeal of this location—condescension already included."
"How did you escape?"
He is silent, smiling. This is how he will take back some power in the situation. Lydia searches for conviction, finds it waning. The gun, hidden in a holster under her arm, seems pointless.
"Tell me, why is your desk so empty? Nothing personal, all business items."
Her fatigue returns. The idea of Lydia shivers.
Her hand is numb when she draws her weapon. Surprise flickers across Bacchus's face.
"What are you holding?" She asks.
Bacchus smirks. "I suppose I am to be afraid."
In reply, Lydia's shoulder drops, and she fires. Bacchus howls and collapses, gripping his leg.
She is Amber, and she is furious.
"What are you holding."
"The box! The energy convertor!" Bacchus points. He's dropped it in the fall.
The box is small, not much larger than a shoebox, and it is built to a schematic Lydia saw in the file. Her memories fracture and split, and Lydia sees the mosaic of her body clearly. The Patron Saint of Good Intentions.
"I need a doctor."
"You are a doctor," Lydia replies. "And I suspect you know what I am."
He is silent, confirming what Lydia already knew. Bacchus, the final test. To see if she could outwit or survive a psychological challenge. If she were nuanced enough to adapt. Lydia supposes that she has passed.
The convertor hums at her feet, pulling away the fear and anxiety holding her together. Lydia puts her heel on the top, leans forward until it collapses and dies with a low whine. Bacchus does not make a sound when he dies.
Lydia kicks off her shoes and throws away her I.D. badge. She lights her file, her stack of commendations and leaves only ashes behind.