“Hello, Shane. My name is Claire Saunders. I'm the head physician here at the Dollhouse,” Dr. Saunders said as she stepped into her office. Shane had been sitting on the examination table for quite some time, waiting for Saunders to arrive, and when she did, she barely looked at Shane, seeming almost determined not to meet her eyes. Her hair was just a little shy of shoulder-length, curling sweetly around her face, long bangs falling over her left eye. “Ms. DeWitt told me that you prefer Shane, is that correct?”
“Yeah,” Shane said quietly, nodding as she folded her hands together, fitting them between her knees as she watched Dr. Saunders move over to a nearby cabinet and retrieve a stethoscope from one of its drawers.
“All right,” the doctor replied, sound a little harried as she moved about the office. “I'm not in the habit of calling people by their first names, but it was recently brought to my attention that can give people the impression that I have a stiff and unfriendly demeanor, so... I'm trying to work on that.”
“Okay,” Shane said with a small, bewildered chuckle.
Tossing a file folder – Shane's file, presumably – down onto the stainless steel counter top, Dr. Saunders opened the file and flipped through it, reading over the information inside even as she looped the stethoscope around her neck. She lifted the lid of a stainless container on the counter and pulled out a wrapped tongue depressor, stuffing it into the pocket of her lab coat as she pulled a pair of latex gloves from a box of them sitting open on the counter. She was in the process of wriggling her hands into the uncooperative gloves as she turned and crossed back over to the examination table.
Shane couldn't say for sure why, but she found herself smiling as the doctor approached her. Probably nerves. Doctors always made her feel uneasy. Still, there was something about Dr. Saunders that didn't make her feel threatened – to the contrary, it almost seemed as though Saunders expected Shane to lunge at her. There was something tentative, wary, about the way Dr. Saunders moved, as though she could feel laser sights trained on her from every corner of the room and any sudden moves of any kind would be the end of her.
Dr. Saunders glanced up and finally met Shane's eyes, offering her a small, tight smile, and Shane's eyes inevitably caught on the scars on the woman's face. Obviously the result of a brutal attack of some sort. There was a short, mostly vertical slice on both her upper and lower lips close to one corner of her mouth and there was also a long, particularly nasty gash clear across her forehead, bisecting her right eyebrow and ending just over her eyelid. Although Dr. Saunders's hair covered them, Shane thought she could see two more cuts on the woman's left cheek, peeking out from beneath those beautifully-arranged curls. Saunders drew the stethoscope from around her neck, fitting the ear pieces in each of her ears as she grasped the chest piece, fingers curling around the cold metal and warming it with her palm for a moment before reaching to lightly settle it over Shane's heart.
“Deep breath,” Saunders said quietly and then listened carefully as Shane complied. “Again. Deep as you can.” Shane drew in another, deeper breath through her nose and Saunder's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “How long have you been a smoker?”
“Too long,” Shane murmured, meeting Saunders's eyes with a wry smile. When Saunders didn't return the smile, Shane cleared her throat a little, feeling a little uneasy. “Uhh, since I was fifteen?”
“All right,” she said, lips pursing a little. Letting the stethoscope drop from her hands, Saunders reached up, fingers locating the glands on either side of Shane's throat and gently palpating there. “Have you ever tried to quit?”
“No. A couple of my girlfriends tried to talk me into it, though,” Shane replied, lifting her chin a little to assist her. “Couldn't stick with it, I guess.”
“It's easier when you have moral support from your friends,” Saunders said, retrieving the depressor from her pocket and tearing off the sterile white paper. “Open your mouth, please?”
“Umm, not – I didn't mean girls who're friends,” Shane noted with a soft chuckle. “I meant “girlfriend” like... y'know, the other way. We were together.”
Saunders blinked, just once, and then nodded. “Oh,” she said, not sounding surprised, but you wouldn't know it, from the way her hand was poised, still holding the depressor in mid-air as though she was about to put it in Shane's mouth and had simply forgotten to do so. “I see.”
“Yeah,” Shane said with another throaty laugh. She looked over and remembered Saunders's instructions, lips forming a soft 'O'. “Sorry,” she added, before opening her mouth as the doctor had asked. Before she'd distracted her, that is.
Retrieving a pen light from the breast pocket of her lab coat, Saunders clicked it on and shined the light into Shane's mouth, bending down a little as she studied the inside of her mouth and her tonsils, gently keeping Shane's tongue in place with the depressor. “You never had your tonsils out?”
“Nn-nn,” Shane hummed, the depressor still flattening her tongue to the floor of her mouth as she gave her head a little shake.
“What about your appendix?” Saunders asked as she carefully withdrew the depressor, giving Shane a curious look.
“No, I'm still all here,” she replied with a small smile. There were a few beats of silence as Shane lowered her eyes. “So how many of these have you done?”
“Exams? Uhh -- a few,” Saunders said, looking at Shane curiously. “Why?”
“I was just wondering how many of the ones that make it this far actually... make it,” Shane said quietly, brows creasing as she gave Saunders a meaningful look.
“I – well, I don't have exact numbers for that, but... I'd say your chances are very good,” Saunders replied with a little nod. She watched Shane for a moment, watched her take in that information before she felt comfortable in turning to retrieve Shane's file from the counter nearby. She returned to the examination table, setting the open file down next to Shane on the table, eyes scanning the information printed there. “Your tox results show that you had cocaine, opiates and methamphetamines in your system, but it was from quite a while ago. Have you used any illegal substances more recently?”
“How did you – how did you know about that?” Shane asked, blinking in astonishment as she twisted about in her seat, craning her neck to try to read the charts that Saunders was poring over.
“Remember when we took a sample of your hair?” Dr. Saunders answered a question with a question, lips quirking in a small smile as she looked at Shane. “It showed up when we tested it. It's been a while, though, hasn't it?”
“Yeah, uhh... about two – two and a half years?” Shane replied, glancing worriedly at the file even as she sat back in her seat, rubbing her palms over her thighs. She looked up at Saunders, that troubled look lingering as she met her gaze.
“Don't worry. This won't take you out of the running,” she assured her, that same enigmatic smile shaping her lips. “Provided you aren't still...?” She trailed off, arching her eyebrow a little as she looked at Shane.
“What? Oh, no – no, I – I haven't been,” Shane said earnestly, giving her head a shake. “I mean, I smoked some pot this one time at a party about a month or two ago, but that's all. Nothing... nothing else.”
“Okay,” Saunders said, nodding as she made a notation in Shane's file. “I believe you.” Once she was done jotting down her notes, she lifted the pen, holding it out in front of Shane's face. “Follow this for me without moving your head, okay?” Shane straightened up a little in her seat, hands still resting on her thighs as her eyes slowly slid from left to right, north to south and then back again, following the steady movements of the pen in Saunders's hand. “Good. That's good.” More scribbling. “Now, do you wear any kinds of corrective lenses? Contacts?”
“Yeah, I have to wear glasses when I'm working,” Shane replied, nodding. “I'm nearsighted.”
“Okay,” Saunders said, flashing her a quick smile as she flipped through a few pages, adding a scribble here, a scribble there.
“The rest of the time, I don't wear 'em,” she added.
“Your vision's fine for driving and other everyday activities?”
“Okay. Good.” Saunders initialed a few forms, making some notations about Shane's smoking habit for Topher. “This is the last round of testing before the board makes their final decision,” she noted.
“Yeah,” Shane said again, voice sounding noticeably tense.
Hearing that, Saunders looked up, light brown eyes studying her face carefully for a moment. “Are you – uhh, no, never mind,” she shook her head and hurriedly dropped her gaze.
“What?” Shane asked, frowning in confusion as she looked at her.
“No, it's – it's nothing.”
“No, really – what?” Shane insisted, leaning to one side and tipping her chin down just slightly in an effort to better see Saunders's face.
“Are you scared?” She asked as she forced herself to look up and meet Shane's eyes.
The question gave Shane pause. Sitting back a little, she folded her hands in her lap again, watching as her thumbs pressed against the sides of each of her index fingers as her hands were clasped together. Before she realized it, she reached up and rubbed fitfully at her nose for a moment. “Kind of,” she finally admitted, the words coming out on the crest of a sigh as she let her hand drop back into her lap. “But this is what I signed up for, right? This is what I want.”
“Is this really what you want?” Saunders inquired, her tone even and careful.
Shane nodded slowly after a moment, lips pressed in a thin line. “It's all I have left,” she whispered. “Knowing there's this one thing I can do and get it right.”
“So that's why you're doing this? Is this about your friend?” Saunders asked hesitantly.
“Girlfriend,” Shane corrected her very softly. “Best friend. My best friend in the world. She was everything to me.”
“Sorry,” Dr. Saunders said, face pinched a little in dismay at her slip. “I'm sorry. I – I'm prying.”
“No. No, you're – you're not,” she murmured with a sad laugh as she shook her head. “No, she was... she was in love with me. She told me. And I – I just treated her like... like all the others. Like all those stupid girls, just like she said.” Shane kept right on shaking her head, eyes growing brighter even as she spoke. “I let her down. And I hurt her. A lot. But she's gone, so... now I can't take any of it back. I can't make it better. But I can't – I can't stand to look at myself in the mirror anymore, so... I had to do something. Another friend of mine, she had these connections and said she heard about this place – maybe they could help. I guess she thought you guys were shrinks or something.” Another pained chuckle.
“I'm sorry for your loss, Shane,” Saunders said softly.
“Me, too,” Shane whispered, ducking her head. There were a few moments of silence and then she drew in a breath as if to speak, but hesitated, her lips pursing around the question, uncertain. Finally deciding, she licked her lips and looked up at Saunders. “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” she said, slender eyebrows knitting together a little in concern.
“Does it – does it hurt?” She asked, and although her tone and expression were impassive, Saunders thought she caught a glimpse of a spark of fear deep within her eyes. Just the briefest flicker, but it was unmistakable.
“Yes,” Saunders replied honestly, though her tone was softer than the officious one before. “Some of it will. Most of it... will. Probably more than anything else in your life.”
Shane tensed even and took a deep, deep breath. She then slowly exhaled and nodded, all of the tension seeping from her muscles as she did so. “Okay,” she said softly, still nodding as she bowed her head. “Okay.” She jumped a little, startled, as Dr. Saunders reached out and gently took her right hand, lifting it and turning it over to scrutinize the faint bruising on her knuckles with a furrowed brow. Shane's fingers curled reflexively, closing around hers in a delicate clasp – Saunders's skin was warm and very soft against hers.
“Do you need anything for these?” Saunders asked quietly.
“No, thank you,” she said, her voice equally as hushed, eyes tracing over the delicate bone structure of the doctor's slender fingers.
“Is there any pain?” She asked, the pad of her thumb lightly brushing along the backs of Shane's fingers a moment.
“Mmm, no.” Shane shook her head. She lifted one shoulder in a negligent shrug. “I guess I just... got a little carried away with the pounds-per-inch test.”
“Were you wearing gloves?” Saunders asked, a bit of an alarmed edge to her words, as though she was gearing up for a lecture.
“Yeah, I was,” she said after a moment of hesitation. When she finally looked up at Saunders, she could see her giving her a strange look she couldn't quite place.
“I see,” Saunders said, releasing Shane's hand and seeming almost reluctant to do so. She reached over and grabbed up Shane's folder, closed it and held it out to her. “You're free to go. Take this over to Topher Brinks in the scan lab and tell him for me that I'm done with your physical. Upstairs, directly across the way from here.”
Shane blinked a little at the folder that had been thrust at her, but took it. “Thanks, Doc,” she said quietly as she moved to ease herself down off of the table.
Dr. Saunders took a step back and turned, walking briskly over to her desk and taking a seat behind it. Shane was reaching for the doorknob when she heard Saunders voice over her shoulder. “Tell Mr. Gillette to give you thicker gloves for training.”
Glancing over her shoulder, Shane let out a husky chuckle. “I will,” she said, giving Saunders a polite nod as she waggled the folder. “Seeya.”
Claire Saunders's smile was polite, but with a bit of inexplicable tension to it. “Goodbye, Shane,” she replied simply before taking a folder off the top of a tall stack sitting on the corner of her desk and placing it in front of her. She opened it and promptly buried her nose in it, already endeavoring to push any unprofessional or highly inappropriate feelings to the back of her mind.
When Shane had first set foot into the Dollhouse complex, she hadn't been entirely sure what she expected, but the sight that greeted her when the double doors first opened … hadn't been it. In truth, she hadn't thought much about what the place would look like, but the name of the complex – the business – itself brought to mind a child's toy. Pink and filled with miniature furniture and suitably miniature people to fit inside it, but the reality was about as far from the toy as you could get. Everywhere she looked, there was hardwood – banisters, floors, doors – all polished to a keen shine, and the all the doors were glass. Some were clear, others frosted or textured for privacy, but there was glass everywhere she looked.
It looked like a place where tense board meetings would take place, but the energy of the space itself felt more like a spa -- with comfortable, overstuffed couches and armchairs, throw pillows and water fountains gurgling here and there. There were quite a few people who could be frequently seen walking about, a few of them in sleek, well-tailored suits or dresses, but there were considerably more people ambling about in yoga pants and tank tops, barefoot and smiling placidly as they made their way to their destinations. As Shane had passed by, she could have sworn that she'd seen a woman stretched out on a table, nude beneath a clean, white towel and receiving a massage. Yep, definitely more spa than evil empire.
Once the initial shock had worn off, she'd been led to the small room that was meant to serve as her quarters while she was being tested. Much like the rest of the complex, the interior design of her quarters was rich, yet simple and functional, comprised of a single full-sized bed dressed with soft cotton sheets, a couple of pillows and a light blanket; a small dresser and nightstand with a reading light and a small en suite bathroom with a shower, commode and sink. There was also a closet, as had been pointed out to her, where she could store her small backpack of personal belongings and, when she'd opened it, she had also discovered four sets of workout clothes inside – clean, perfectly pressed and waiting for her - on the hangers, along with socks and a new pair of sneakers.
The testing would go on, DeWitt had explained, for five to seven days and in that time, they would be able to determine whether or not she would be suitable for service. Five to seven days between her and oblivion and Shane couldn't remember when she'd last felt so anxious, so eager to just get on with it.
So lost was she in her thoughts as she crossed the complex – her attention divided between her musings and taking in her lush surroundings while she also tried to locate the office Saunders had indicated – that she plowed right into someone, the folder falling from her hands and sending papers scattering everywhere.
“Oh! Shit!” She gasped, immediately taking a step back, reflexively reaching up to grasp the shoulders of the person she'd run into, so that she could make sure they were all right. When she finally had a chance to focus herself, she realized she was holding onto a petite young brunette with long, dark hair and wide green eyes that were gazing up at her in startlement. “I'm so sorry. Are you okay?”
“I am fine,” the young woman answered serenely, her smooth forehead furrowing just a little as she looked up at Shane. “Are you okay?” Something about the way she spoke unnerved Shane – not exactly robotic, but not entirely human, either. It certainly sounded as though she was trying to speak casually, but it sounded casual the way a computer's voice sounded casual as it tried to replicate human speech. It sounded slightly stilted, halting, uncertain -- the words a bit too precisely enunciated, more like she was mimicking Shane than actually asking her a question.
“Yeah,” Shane said, nodding a bit as she released her. “I'm sorry I bumped into you. Did I hurt you?”
“No, you did not hurt me,” she replied, seeming even more confused than a moment ago. “I've never seen you here before. What is your name?”
“I'm Shane,” she said with a smile as she bent down to gather up the papers that had wound up all over the floor. “What's yours?”
“My name is Echo,” the brunette replied as she knelt down, gingerly picking up more of the scattered forms.
“That's a pretty name,” Shane mused, glancing up at her. Echo was wearing a soft blue tank top and a pair of burgundy yoga pants, like many of the people she'd seen walking around the place, her dark, shoulder-length hair falling in waves to her shoulders. “Do you … work here?”
“This is my home,” Echo said, smiling warmly as she stacked the papers together in her hands as she picked them up, careful not to crumple them. “I like it here. The people here are very nice.” She paused and sat back on her heels, tilting her head as she favored Shane with a curious look, so open and unguarded that her demeanor was almost childlike. “Do you work here?”
Shane chuckled as she rose to her feet, stepping around Echo to fetch the folder where it had landed a foot or so away. “No. Well, not yet, anyway,” she replied, holding the folder open and smiling as Echo carefully placed the loose pages inside. “If everything goes the way I hope it will, maybe I will be working here, soon.”
“I would like that,” Echo decided, smiling up at her.
Smiling, Shane closed the file folder. “Well, I gotta get going,” she began hesitantly, pointing to the office she'd been heading to when she'd run into Echo. “Maybe I'll see you around, okay?”
“Okay!” Echo said brightly, beaming at her. “It was nice to meet you, Shane.”
“You, too, Echo,” Shane replied, reaching out to give her shoulder a gentle squeeze before turning to go. “Thanks for helping me pick up this stuff.”
“Friends help each other,” Echo said with a sincerity and conviction that caused a jolt of regret and sadness to hit Shane squarely in the chest.
“Yeah,” she said, her smile slightly dimmer than it was a moment before as she released Echo's shoulder and headed towards the staircase.
Shane followed the cagey Dr. Saunders's directions and arrived at a large office with frosted glass doors and opened the door, poking her head inside to take a look around. There was all sorts of tech equipment scattered around – computers and banks of monitors and other things with blinking lights and complicated-looking controls that she couldn't identify at a glance – and in the midst of the chaos, seated at a desk at the far side of the office, there sat a man. Mop of blond, shaggy hair, hipster geek clothes, and he was hunched behind a monitor, the sound of fingers typing away and the soft hum of computer fans filling the otherwise eerily quiet office.
“I guess you're Topher?” Shane said quietly, so as not to startle him.
“That is me,” Topher replied, not looking up from his work. “Who are you?”
Smirking a little, Shane crossed over to the desk and held up the folder Dr. Saunders had given her. “New guy.”
Something seemed to click with Topher and he blinked as he looked up from his computer monitor, eyes widening when he saw her. “Oh! Hi!” He blurted, letting out a sudden, uncomfortable bark of laughter. “Uhh, hi. Yeah, I'm Topher... and you're the... new guy.”
“That is me,” Shane said with an easy smile, mimicking his own response, as she held out the file folder. “Dr. Saunders sent me. She told me to tell you that she's done with my physical and said to give you this.”
“Oh, thanks,” Topher said as he took the folder, opening it and placing it on his keyboard, picking through the loose pages inside. He was quiet for a couple of minutes, eyes scanning the information printed and written on the forms and read-outs, his right hand turning the pages while his left hand was upraised, fingertips resting against his bottom lip as he read.
The silence lengthened and Shane found herself looking around, examining all the strange instruments and panels and buttons that seemed to line every wall of the place. When she'd finished studying everything from where she stood, she glanced back at Topher, who was still reading – only this time, he'd pulled out a notebook and was making some kind of computations that didn't look like any kind of math she could ever remember seeing. But then, she hadn't even completed ninth grade in high school, so that wasn't surprising.
Finally, Shane cleared her throat a little, trying to get Topher's attention. He kept right on scribbling. When it seemed that he wasn't going to respond, she cleared her throat a bit more loudly. “Uhh, do you still need me to --”
“Just a sec,” Topher replied, holding up his left hand as he scratched out a few more things on his notepad. Seeming satisfied with what he'd written there, he nodded a little, mumbling under his breath to himself before finally looking up at Shane again. “Okay. Sorry about that. Big brain stuff.”
“Right,” Shane said, eyes narrowing a little uncertainly as she looked at him. “So, umm, should I go?”
“Actually, no. You should come with me,” Topher replied briskly as he stood up from his desk, grabbed up the file and notepad he'd been scribbling on and gestured for Shane to accompany him. “C'mon this way.” He started for the office door, Shane following behind and feeling more than a little puzzled as she did so, and Topher led her to another office a couple of doors down.
Upon opening the door, he stepped inside, immediately crossing over to another desk with yet more computers and equipment Shane couldn't recognize and began fiddling about. There was a chair set up in the center of the room that looked vaguely like a dentist's chair, though it had some extra bits, including a strange fitting built in around the headrest with what looked like a black slot in the center of it. Shane hovered at the door and watched as Topher adjusted this or punched in that on a keypad, the young man moving about with obvious ease and familiarity.
Topher turned to Shane and gestured to the odd-looking chair with a solicitous grin. “Have a seat,” he said.
“Okay,” Shane replied, still eying the chair uneasily even as she lowered herself into it. Almost immediately, the entire chair began to shift, the back lowering gracefully while the leg-rest lifted, essentially stretching her out on her back. She was faced with a rather uninspiring view of the fluorescent light panel overhead, but from this vantage point, she could also take a closer look at the strange fitting on the headrest.
It was a semi-circle, built so that a person's head could fit comfortably through the space at the bottom to settle on the headrest itself – only just - and was rigged with a thin, long panel of frosted glass, possibly plastic of some sort, rimming the inner edge of the circle at the top. She'd also noticed similar panels of white plastic on the surface of each of the flat, unpadded arm rests. There were no wires that she could see from where she was and she wasn't sure if she should feel relieved or more anxious about that fact. The apparatus loomed over her, sitting about even with her shoulders and curving up and over her head.
“Okay, sooo... if you'll allow me a moment to introduce my handsome self, my name is Topher Brinks,” Topher began and Shane could hear more sounds of fingers tapping on keys and what sounded like metal casing sliding over metal. Kind of like when Max was working on his computer – she recalled him installing a new hard drive on Jenny's Mac and the sound was very similar, to her admittedly untrained ears. “I'm the resident genius, here at the Dollhouse, and according to the lovely Dr. Saunders's notes, it seems that you are ready to enter one of the last phases of your prep. You lucky little newbie, you.”
“Um, okay,” Shane said, feeling the urge to sit up so that she could see Topher, but stayed supine for the moment. “What's this phase?”
“Now, now. Patience!” Topher tutted. “Everything in good time. Now. This funky-looking device that you find yourself currently seated in is our neuro scanner. What this does, is it … well, it... scans your neuros, basically.”
“What?” Shane asked, frowning a little in confusion as she glowered at the fluorescent panel overhead, since she couldn't see Topher to glare at him.
“Well, see, here's the thing. This is what we – well, mainly just me, since I'm the only one who touches it – this is what I call the halo. See, the scanner in the halo fires off all these tiny little waves and frequencies and they vibrate on a particular wavelength,” Topher explained, sounding quite bored. Shane could have sworn she even heard him yawning. “These little waves can penetrate all through your skull and your gray brain meats and give me what's essentially an x-ray of the inside of your brain. Neural pathways, blood vessels, molecules, brain chemistry... the whole enchilada. It's kinda like an MRI met a CT scan, they fell in love, and then they had super scanner-babies.”
“Will I feel anything?” Shane asked, biting her lip as she forced herself to remain still.
“You won't feel any pain, but you might feel a low-level vibration – kind of like when a dentist is going at your teeth with a drill,” Topher replied, sounding distracted as he stepped away from the computer he'd been typing commands into and slipped around to stand over Shane. “Make sure to keep your head perfectly still. Otherwise it could screw up the scan. You can blink or close your eyes, if you want -- but other than that, don't move. Got it?”
“Yeah,” Shane said. She only just kept herself from nodding and heard a chuckle over her head. Rolling her eyes back, she could see Topher adjusting some settings on another panel, this time on the chair's panel.
“It's okay,” Topher said, leaning down so that he was peeping into her field of vision. “I haven't started, yet. Breathe. Before you know it, it'll be finished and you'll be wondering what you were worrying about in the first place.”
“Right,” she said with a soft chuckle. Taking a deep breath as Topher instructed, she fixed her eyes on the plastic light panel overhead.
He was right: what was the point of getting all worked up? It would all be over soon enough.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Shane starts her final round of testing and meets a few more members of the Dollhouse staff.
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