Read an Excerpt
The Hour of Lead
By Kathleen De Grave, Earl Lee
See Sharp PressCopyright © 2012 Kathleen De Grave and Earl Lee
All rights reserved.
Tuesday Morning, September 20
Chapter One: Weylan
Weylan Collins stared out the sixth-floor window of the hospital straight into the white morning sky. He wanted to stay there forever and pretend he hadn't done what he'd done. The empty sky let him imagine that there were no consequences, that no boy lay in his hospital bed wrecked because Weylan had tried to save him. In the white sky, no mini-jets zoomed past, no prying drones, not even a bird came into view. If he looked down, he'd see people wearing broad Panama hats to keep off the sun. He'd see the slow-motion conveyor walk taking people from here to there, endlessly. Where they were going, he didn't know; maybe they didn't either. If he looked down, he'd see electric cars and bike messengers on the street, with tuk-tuks moving in and out among them. But if he looked straight ahead, he felt alone in the universe.
From the corner of his eye he saw that to the northwest clouds were slowly moving toward him — they boiled in the distance, black and threatening. As the clouds neared, his chest tightened. What Nietzsche said of the old Greek daemon might be right: the best thing for everyone would be never to have been born, or, failing that, to die soon. Because every breath was horror.
Weylan didn't want to think about the boy, and he didn't want to think about what the clouds might mean. No tornadoes yet, but by the afternoon anything could happen. He turned his gaze down to avoid the clouds, and saw instead the rounded tops of wind-resistant homes: giant concrete igloos, painted a startling pink or blueberry or checkerboard yellow-and-black. They sprouted like strange fungi among the trees. Some of the igloos had skylights of transparent aluminum, tinted blue, with titanium shutters in bright red. No one would get sucked out of those windows; none of these houses, round as tomatoes, would be pulverized by two-hundred-mile-an-hour winds when the next tornado hit. Wherever a house with a peaked roof and square walls had been taken out, an earth-berm home was built into the side of a hill or another igloo took its place, even though they were too expensive for most people. Within his field of view, no peaked roofs appeared, not one.
If he kept his breathing steady and concentrated on the scene outside the window, he could stay in control. But how was he supposed to breathe deeply when his diaphragm felt like it was in an iron clamp? Still, he tried, because to think about the boy was too horrible. He had to think about something else, anything else. He wished he could find some numbness-inducing mantra.
But mantras were rare these days. Nothing fit anymore. The trees that grew near the houses were the wrong colors. When he was a kid, trees had been green — elm, oak, catalpa. He'd learned the names in grade school and could recognize their leaves. The trees he saw now, scattered among the fruit-colored igloos, had a blue tinge or an orange glow. He had heard peculiar names for them like ylang-ylang, jacaranda, neem, weeping fig, octopus. They came from China, India, Australia, Brazil. The native Kansas trees took too long to grow back after a storm. The new trees flattened in the wind and, if they survived, unbent like flowers when the storm was over — at least that's what CorGo (CorporateGovernment) said. CorGo was wrong. The trees grew in bizarre shapes, trunks and branches twisted by the winds.
On his way to the hospital that morning, as he'd pedaled his bicycle down the crowded glide, Weylan had breathed the trees' odors until he choked. The flowers of the catalpa trees used to last ten April days, their smell overpowering; but then the flowers fell and their scent was gone. These gene-altered flowers bloomed too long — it was September and still they spewed perfume. And their colors — magenta, cerulean, salmon — made his skin prickle.
The hospital corridor where he stood was eerily quiet. Now and then a droid came through the double doors at the end of the hall, and each time, when Weylan turned at the sound, the robot nurse surveyed him with its placid gaze, before turning away. Even though the droids had human skin and human hair, Weylan never mistook a robot for a person. Droid faces were too clean and symmetrical, their movements too fluid. The robo-nurses wore the same clothes the other nurses did — orange or banana jumpsuits — and had been programmed to use facial expressions. But something would be off — a smile that was too flat, a crinkling around the eyes that looked like scrunched paper. Robots were cheaper than people, though: they didn't get sick and never disobeyed. CorGo couldn't function without them. If the business model was to be the savior of all things, as CorGo promised, then robots trumped people every time.
Droids were quiet, but this ward was too quiet, unnaturally so. It was for abandoned children. No one visited, no one cared. That's why the children were so valuable.
At the thought, Weylan began panicking again. Mikey, the boy with his mind in pieces, was here because of him. He had sworn he would never hurt a child. Never. He would help children, cure them painlessly. That was the point. A week ago Weylan had believed in what he was doing, he'd thought the hospital did good for all the lost children, left with no one because of the winds, the floods, the fires. The hospital did its best to cure the fungi that grew in the children's spines or the tumors that riddled their bones, the odd diseases that came with drinking water from broken water lines and from breathing the spores that grew in piles of rotting wood.
Psychological wounds were harder to salve, but the hospital lavished daring and costly drugs and psychotherapies on the abandoned children. A week ago Weylan had believed that the hospital was the children's best hope. He'd told himself that his technology, too, was important — he was going to save people's souls.
But he hadn't saved Mikey. And now Weylan was out here in the hallway, afraid to go into the room behind him and see again the boy he'd harmed, his own personal experiment gone wrong.
His mentor, Dr. Mason, told him to stop beating himself up about it. Of the hundreds of displaced children the hospital and CorGo helped, only a few ended up in this ward. "Who else is going to save them?" his mentor had asked just the day before. "If the treatments don't work," he said, "they're dead anyway."
Weylan's stomach turned over. Dead anyway.
Pandora had warned Weylan about Mason as soon as she heard that he was pushing Weylan to try his technology on people, not just in simulations. They had fights about it. He tried to tell her that in the last decade nanites had boosted the immune system and had cured many blood diseases, that nanite spiders could move through the children's veins, seeking out cancer cells. The hospital was giving these children a chance other people didn't get. The kids' families couldn't have paid for that kind of treatment.
Children? Pandora said. You would use nanobots on children? Have your machines infest their brains?
"You make it sound like some horror story, when you say it like that. All the trauma they've gone through? My nanites can fix that. The children need me."
The fights never lasted long, but tell Pandora exactly what he was doing? No. She'd been there when he found out that his procedures had been okayed by the review board, but he hadn't mentioned that he'd start working with people the next day.
He certainly didn't tell her about Mikey. His plan had been to save the boy without her knowing anything about it, and then triumphantly present his success. Up to the moment when Mikey had started shrieking, Weylan had thought he was doing the right thing. The memory of that sound still made Weylan sweat.
Hr steadied himself by putting his hand on the safety bar that ran along the window, and he lifted his eyes to gaze again on the sky. He had to be calm and in control before he went into the room where Mikey lay in bed, almost catatonic. Cancer wasn't killing Mikey; his memories were. Weylan's nanobots should have changed that — gave Mikey a way to understand what had happened to him. Instead, look at where the kid was now. When he'd told Pandora about Mikey, the night she left him, she'd said, You did what? And in that moment, he'd realized the terrible mistake he'd made.
Weylan could feel the door to Mikey's room looming behind him. Each day it was harder to go through it. He didn't have to be here; the experiment was over. It was his choice to come here. Maybe today would be his last day; maybe he wouldn't go through that door at all; maybe he would leave and never come back.
* * *
Standing at the sixth-floor hospital window, avoiding the sight of his failure, it seemed like he was at the end of his career. But two weeks before, it had seemed like the beginning.
Weylan had hung a poster in his new office, showing the 239 varieties of nanites. "One day soon," his mentor said at the party he'd thrown for Weylan, "there will be 240." Weylan's exciting new nanite with its extendable arm would round the number out, he said. Weylan didn't think so. Still, he'd straightened the poster he'd placed in the center of the empty wall across from his desk, glad for the greens and yellows that added some color to the office's drabness. It was the one and only poster in the room. On it, the nanites looked like friendly bugs, even those with arms snaking off their surfaces. Of course these were artists' renditions, since actual nanites were only a couple of microns across, small as a blood cell and invisible to the naked eye.
Weylan's psychobiotic nanobot had passed CorGo's review board. He could use it on humans beginning now. But he knew it wasn't perfect. He'd worked on the design for three years and had always run up against the same problem: the nanites could too easily cause a memory cascade. The truth was, Weylan was stuck. And he wasn't miraculously going to get unstuck, either. It didn't matter what Dr. Mason or the review board said. His nanite was no magic "Number 240."
To ensure that no one had control of his design but himself, at least not before he'd fixed it, he'd left out a bit of code from the version he'd given the review board — and therefore the version CorGo had. No one had noticed that anything was missing because he'd taken the code out of a subroutine that most people would presume was complete. Without that subroutine, the design would fail if anyone tried to use it behind his back. He felt safer that way. He could always add the code again when he had the problems solved.
Still, maybe his design could work even with its flaws if he mixed the technology with the right drugs. First, there was the tiny amount of drug the nanites delivered, along with an electrical pulse. And then there was the tranquilizer the nanites floated in. But the electrical stimulation and the memory-enhancing drug were too powerful by themselves. The nanites stimulated the memory centers so strongly a human mind couldn't handle the instant, overwhelming images and feelings. Still, with the right tranquilizer, the effects could be dulled. That's what he'd thought two weeks ago. But he should have been more careful, especially with a child.
Years ago he had understood that technology needed limits. He'd been fourteen when he learned that his great-great-grandfather had been half Cherokee, with some Olmec or Aztec genes mixed in. It had been a shock, and a sudden possibility. He'd chosen right then to think of himself as Native American, even though he hadn't been raised that way and most of his genes were Irish. He read books on Cherokee culture, on Coronado's visit to Kansas in the 1600s — noting that some of the Indian guides had come with Coronado from Mexico, wondering if one of those men or women might have been his ancestor. But then he'd gone to the Technoversity and studied science and psychology, and that intensely logical vision of the world didn't leave room for anything else. And now, since the day he'd seen Mikey's mind break, Weylan had been thinking of the things he'd learned when he was fourteen — humanity's connection to the earth, the need to allow chaos and mystery — but he didn't know where to go from there. He wasn't fourteen, he was thirty-one. And he was a scientist, not a rebellious boy.
In his office, the only decorations besides the new poster and his Sponge Bob Square Pants cup, which he kept hidden in a file cabinet when anyone was around, were a nanite hand puppet Pandora had sewn for him (sitting like a frog in the back of his drawer) and an antique lamp that she'd given him for his birthday. The lamp was from the 1940s, a hundred years old, with a blood red glass globe that had only a couple of almost invisible cracks in it. The globe had a menagerie of animals etched around its face, and hung from a brass pin at the top of the lamp; the flick of a finger would send it spinning. When he'd turned the lamp on the first time in a dark room, and the red light shimmered on the walls, he'd felt a moment of happiness as the white seals and tigers and horses danced by. The lamp wasn't scientific, but he kept it anyway.
On the day of the party, Dr. Mason sprang for exotic foods: Polynesian taro root for finger dipping, Samoan fa'ausi with coconut and brown sugar, breadfruit, Kava to drink, and hot balls from Papua New Guinea. Then — or Weylan, who didn't like new things — pizza with goat cheese. Everyone was there: the three other post docs, including bald-headed Lynn, who had gotten her appointment only a month before, to improve beam confinement so that the radio waves would activate the nanites more efficiently; a couple of Dr. Mason's favorite undergraduate interns; and John 1 and John 2 (Jianyu and Jong-Pil, from China and Korea) who ran the CNC machine that built the nanobots from Weylan's design. The two Johns had been disagreeing on the best way to construct the nanite's arm, but earlier that week John 1 had finally found a solution they could live with. So, everyone Weylan would expect was there. Then, to his disbelief, he saw Pandora sitting with the others, as if she were part of the gang. That was two weeks before she left him. She'd been saying for weeks that she didn't like his nanobot idea, thought mucking about with someone's memory was wrong and loosing tiny machines in their brain even worse. And they'd had a fight about it just a few days before the party. Yet, there she was, sitting on a lab stool, smiling her half-smile as Dr. Mason gave a speech about the future of psychobiotic nanotechnology and about how Weylan's achievement being a great leap forward.
Dr. Mason had his hand on Weylan's shoulder. Weylan hated how grateful he felt, the same way he used to feel when his grandfather would rest his hand on his back and tell him he was doing a good job shoveling manure out of the horse barn. The feeling was half rage, half desire to weep in thanks that the old man had appreciated him. His mentor's hand was heavy, and Weylan stood absolutely still under it. Everyone was focused on Dr. Mason, who had shifted his weight to one hip, easy in his flowered shirt and safari pants. He wore his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail that said he was just one of them, one of the guys. Dr. Mason's voice was deep and mellow, but his body gave off an acrid musk. Weylan wondered if what he smelled was a new kind of marijuana. He didn't listen to Mason, and instead stared at his and Mason's feet. Sturdy black shoes at the end of his own legs — the leather needed a good buffing; on Mason's feet the newest brand of slider sandals with embedded computer chips that reformed the sole as he walked. Today he was barefoot in his sandals, instead of wearing his more usual brown argyle socks. Weylan stared at the dirt around his mentor's big toenails. He must have been outside and forgotten to get a sonic scrub on his way back in.
Excerpted from The Hour of Lead by Kathleen De Grave, Earl Lee. Copyright © 2012 Kathleen De Grave and Earl Lee. Excerpted by permission of See Sharp Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.