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Part One: The Boy in the Tree.
Our heart stops.
I AM WITHIN HER, a cerebral shadow. Distant canyons where spectral lightning flashes: neurons firing as I tap in to the heart of the poet, the dark core where desire and horror fuse and Morgan turns ever and again to stare out a bus window. The darkness clears. I taste for an instant the metal bile that signals the beginning of therapy. Then I'm gone.
I'm sitting on the autobus, the last seat where you can catch the bumps on the crumbling highway if you're going fast enough. Through the open windows a rush of spring air tangles my hair. Later I will smell apple blossoms in my auburn braids. Now I smell sour milk where Ronnie Abrams spilled his ration yesterday.
"Move over, Yates!" Ronnie caroms off the seat opposite, rams his leg into mine, and flies back to pound his brother. From the front the driver yells, "Shut up!" vainly trying to silence forty-odd singing children.
On top of Old Smoky
All covered with blood
I shot my poor teacher
With a forty-four slug ...
Ronnie grins at me, eyes glinting, then pops me right on the chin with a spitball. I stick my fingers in my ears and huddle closer to the window.
Met her at the door
With my trusty forty-four
Now she don't teach no more.
The autobus pulls into town and slows, stops behind a truck carrying soldiers, janissaries of the last Ascension. I press my face against the cracked window, shoving my glasses until lens kisses glass and I can see clearly to the street below. A young woman in rags is standing on the curb holding a baby wrapped in a dirty pink blanket. At her ankles wriggles a dog, an emaciated puppy with whiptail and ears flopping as he nips at her bare feet. I tap at the window, trying to get the dog to look at me. In front of the bus two men in faded yellow uniforms clamber from the truck and start arguing. The woman screws up her face and says something to the men, moving her lips so I know she's mad. The dog lunges at her ankles again and she kicks it gently, so that it dances along the curb. The soldiers glance at her, see the autobus waiting, and climb back into the truck. I hear the whoosh of releasing brakes. The autobus lurches forward and my glasses bang into the window. The rear wheels grind up onto the curb.
The dog barks and leaps onto the woman. Apple blossoms drift from a tree behind her as she draws up her arms in alarm, and, as I settle my glasses onto my nose and stare, she drops the baby beneath the wheels of the bus.
Retching, I strive to pull Morgan away, turn her head from the window. A fine spray etches bright petals on the glass and her plastic lenses. My neck aches as I try to turn toward the inside of the autobus and efface forever that silent rain. But I cannot move. She is too strong. She will not look away.
I am clawing at the restraining ropes. The Aide pulls the wires from my head while inches away Morgan Yates screams. I hear the hiss and soft pump of velvet thoughts into her periaqueductual gray area. The link is severed.
I sat up as they wheeled her into the next room. Morgan's screams abruptly stilled as the endorphins kicked in and her head flopped to one side of the gurney. For an instant the Aide Justice turned and stared at me as he slid Morgan through the door. He would not catch my eyes.
None of them will.
Through the glass panel I watched Emma Harrow hurry from another lab. She bent over Morgan and pulled the wires from between white braids still rusted with coppery streaks. Beside her the Aide Justice looked worried. Other doctors, all with strained faces, slipped from adjoining rooms and blocked my view.
When I was sure they'd forgotten me I dug out a cigarette—traded from Anna that morning for my dosage of phenothiazine—and lit up. I tapped the ashes into my shoe and blew smoke into a ventilation shaft. I knew Morgan wouldn't make it. I could usually tell, but even Dr. Harrow didn't listen to me this time. Morgan Yates was too important: one of the few living writers whose works were still sanctioned by the Ascendants.
"She will crack," I told Dr. Harrow after reading Morgan's profile. Seven poetry collections and two authorized Manifestos published during the last insurrection; an historical novel detailing the horrors of the First Ascension's century-long Night; a dramatic recreation of the biblioclasm, performed before the new Ascendant Governors passed the Dialectic Malediction. Since then, recurrent nightmares revolving around a childhood trauma in the janissary creche, sadistic sexual behavior, and a pathological fear of dogs. Nothing extraordinary; but I knew she wouldn't make it.
"How do you know?"
I shrugged. "She's too strong."
Dr. Harrow stared at me, pinching her lower lip. She wasn't afraid of my eyes. "What if it works," she mused, and tugged thoughtfully at her cropped gray bangs. "She says she hasn't written in three years, because of this. She's afraid they'll revoke her publishing sanction."
I yawned. "Maybe it will work. But she won't let me take it away. She won't let anyone take it."
I was right. If Dr. Harrow hadn't been so eager for the chance to reclaim one of the damned and her own reputation, she'd have known too. Psychotics, autists, Ascendant artists of the lesser rank: these could be altered by empatherapy. I'd siphoned off their sicknesses and night terrors, inhaled phobias like giddy ethers that set me giggling for days afterward. But the big ones—those whose madnesses were as carefully cultivated as the brain chemicals that allowed me and others like me to tap in to them—they were immune. They clung to their madnesses with the fever of true addiction. Even the dangers inherent to empatherapy weren't enough: they couldn't let go.
Dr. Harrow glanced up from the next room and frowned when she saw my cigarette. I stubbed it out in my shoe and slid my foot back in, wincing at the prick of heat beneath my sole.
She slipped out of the emergency lab. Sighing, she leaned against the glass and looked at me.
"Was it bad, Wendy?"
I picked a fleck of tobacco from my lip. "Pretty bad." I had a rush recalling Morgan wailing as she stood at the window. For a moment I had to shut my eyes, riding that wave until my heart slowed and I looked up grinning into Dr. Harrow's compressed smile.
"Pretty good, you mean." Her tight mouth never showed the disdain or revulsion of the others. Only a little dismay, some sick pride perhaps in the beautiful thing she'd soldered together from an autistic girl and several ounces of precious glittering chemicals.
"Well ..." She sighed and walked to her desk. "You can start on this." She tossed me a blank report and returned to the emergency lab. I settled back on my cot and stared at the sheet.
NAME & NUMBER: Wendy Wanders, Subject 117
Neurologically augmented empath approved for emotive engram therapy.
The pages blurred. I gripped the edge of my cot. Nausea exploded inside me, a fiery pressure building inside my head until I bowed to crack my forehead against the table edge, again and again, stammering for help until with a shout Dr. Harrow's Aide ran to me and slapped an ampule to my neck. He stood above me until the drug took effect, his hands poised to catch me if I began head-banging again. After several minutes I breathed deeply and stared at the wall, then reported on my unsuccessful session with the poet.
That evening I walked to the riverside. A trio of retrofitted security sculls puttered down the river, colored yolk-yellow like dirty foam upon the water. I had always assumed the sculls kept watch over those of us at HEL; but the Aide Justice had told me that their true business lay across the river, within the overgrown alleys and pleasure gardens of the dying City of Trees.
"Smugglers," he had said, tugging at the bronze ear-cuffs that marked his rank and credit level. "The Ascendants trade with the City Botanists for opium and rare herbs. In return they give them precious metals and resins. And sometimes their generosity is overwhelming, and they leave us dying from some new plague."
A tiny figure on one of the sculls raised an arm to wave at me. I waved back as the boat skidded across the water. Then I turned and wandered along the riverwalk, past rotting oak benches and the ruins of glass buildings, watching the sun sink through argent thunderheads.
A single remaining service ziggurat towered above the walk. It shadowed the charred ruins of a refugee complex built during the brief years of the Second Ascension. That was when there were still refugees and survivors, before the Governors began to fight the starveling rebels with the first generation of mutagens.
Or so the Aide Justice had said. He was from the City, and knew many strange things, although he spoke little of his people there.
"Do you miss them?" I asked him once. We were awaiting the results of a' scan to determine if a woman I had been treating showed evidence of schizothymia.
He shook his head, then smiled ruefully and nodded. "Yes, of course I do," he said. "But they are simple people, it's not like here...."
I could tell from his expression that he was a little ashamed of them. The idea excited me: shame was not an emotion I tapped often at the Human Engineering Laboratory.
"Are they smugglers?" I asked.
Justice laughed. "I guess some of them are."
He told me about the City then, a history different from the one given us by Dr. Harrow and the sanctioned educational programs of the Fourth Ascension. Because at HEL we learned that after the Long Night of the First Ascension the abandoned capital had been resettled, set up as an outpost where a handful of researchers and soldiers stood guard over the Museums and Archives and Libraries of the fallen nation. But with the Second Ascension the City was forgotten. Those who had commanded the City's few residents were killed or exiled to the Balkhash Commonwealth (even then its vast steppes and mountains saw the deaths of more prisoners than there were now people in the world). And those who lived in the City were forgotten, abandoned as the City itself had been after the First Ascension exterminated its inhabitants. They were not worth capturing or remanding, the few hundred researchers and soldiers and the prostitutes who had followed them to the City by the river. Their descendants were squatters now, living in the ruins of the capital, kept alive by cannibal rites and what they could wrest from the contaminated earth.
But the Aide Justice spoke with respect of the Curators. His own people he called the Children of the Magdalene. Only the lazars were to be feared, those who fell victim to the viral strikes of the rebels and the guerrillas of the Balkhash Commonwealth. Lazars and the geneslaves who haunted the forests and wastelands.
"It is beautiful, Wendy: even the ruins are beautiful, and the poisoned forest ..."
But we had been interrupted then by Dr. Harrow, calling Justice to help her initialize the link between myself and another patient.
The riverwalk's crumbling benches gave way to airy filigrees of rusted iron. At one of these tables I saw someone from the Human Engineering Laboratory.
"Anna or Andrew?" I called. By the time I was close enough for her to hear, I knew it was Anna this time, peacock feathers and long blue macaw quills studding the soft raised nodes on her shaven temples.
"Wendy." She gestured dreamily at a concrete bench. "Sit."
I settled beside her, tweaking a cobalt plume, and wished I'd worn the fiery cock-of-the-rock quills she'd given me last spring. Anna was stunning, always: brown eyes brilliant with octine, small breasts tight against her tuxedo shirt. She was the only one of the other empties I spoke much with, although she beat me at faro and Andrew had once broken my tooth in an amphetamine rage. A saucer scattered with broken candicaine straws sat before her. Beside it a fluted parfait glass held several unbroken pipettes. I did one and settled back, grinning.
"You had that woman today," Anna hissed into my ear. Her rasping voice made me shiver with delight. "The poet. I think I'm furious."
I shrugged. "Luck of the draw."
"How was she?" She blinked and I watched golden dust powder the air between us. "Was she good, Wendy?" She stroked my thigh and I giggled.
"Great. She was great." I lowered my eyes and squinted until the table disappeared into the steel rim of an autobus seat.
"Let me see." Her whisper the sigh of air brakes. "Wendy—"
The rush was too good to stop. I let her pull me forward until my cheek grazed hers and I felt her mouth against mine. I tasted her saliva, the chemical bite of candicaine: then bile and summer air and exhaust....
Too fast. I jerked my head up, choking as I pulled away from Anna. She stared at me with huge blank eyes.
"Ch-c-c-," she gasped, spittle flying into the parfait glass. I swore and grabbed her chin, held her face close to mine.
"Anna," I said loudly. "Anna, it's Wendy—"
"Ahhh." Her eyes focused and she drew back. "Wendy. Good stuff." She licked her lips, tongue a little loose from the hit so that she drooled. I grimaced.
"More, Wendy ..."
"Not now." I grabbed two more straws and cracked one. "I have a follow-up with her tomorrow morning. I have to go."
She nodded. I flicked a napkin at her. "Wipe your mouth, Anna. I'll tell Harrow I saw you so she won't worry."
"Goodbye, Wendy." A server arrived as I left, its crooked wheels grating against the broken concrete as it listed toward the table. I glimpsed myself reflected in its blank black face, and hurried from the patio as behind me Anna ordered more straws.
I recall nothing before Dr. Harrow. The drugs they gave me—massive overdoses for a three-year-old—burned those memories as well as scorched every neural branch that might have helped me climb to feel the sun as other people do. But the drugs stopped the thrashing, the head-banging, the screaming. And slowly, other drugs rived through my tangled axons and forged new pathways. A few months and I could see again. A few more and my fingers moved. The wires that had stilled my screams made me scream once more, and, finally, exploded a neural dam so that a year later I began to speak. By then the Ascendant funding poured through other conduits, scarcely less complex than my own, and led as well to the knot of electrodes in my brain.
In the early stages of her work, shortly after I arrived at HEL, Dr. Harrow attempted a series of neuroelectrical implants between the two of us. It was an unsuccessful effort to reverse the damage done by the biochemicals. Seven children died before the minimum dosage was determined: enough to change the neural pattern behind autistic behavior; not enough to allow the patient to develop her own emotional responses to subsequent internal or external stimuli. I still have scars from the implants: fleshy nodes like tiny ears trying to sprout from my temples.
At first we lived well. Then the Governors decided this research might lead to other things, the promise of a new technology as radical and lethal as that which had first loosed the mutagens upon the countryside nearly two centuries before. As more empaths were developed and more Ascendant funds channeled from the provisional capital, we lived extravagantly. Dr. Harrow believed that exposure to sensation might eventually pattern true emotions in her affectively neutered charges. So the Human Engineering Laboratory moved from its quarters in a dark and freezing fouga hangar to the vast abandoned Linden Glory estate outside the ruins of the ancient City.
Ascendant neurologists moved into the paneled bedrooms. Psychobotanists imported from the momentarily United Provinces tilled the ragged formal gardens and developed new strains of oleander within bell-shaped greenhouses. Empties moved into bungalows where valets and chefs once slept.
In an earlier century Lawrence Linden had been a patron of the arts. Autographed copies of Joyce and Stein and the lost Crowley manuscripts graced the Linden Glory libraries. We had a minor Botticelli, two frayed Rothkos, and many Raphaels; the famed pre-Columbian collection for which a little war was fought; antiquarian coins and shelves of fine and rare Egyptian glass. From the Victorian music room with its decaying Whistler panels echoed the peacock screams of empties and patients engaged in therapy.
Always I remained Dr. Harrow's pet: an exquisite monster capable of miming every human emotion and even feeling many of them via the therapy I made possible. Every evening doctors administered syringes and capsules and tiny tabs that adhered to my temples like burdock pods, releasing chemicals directly into my corpus striatum. And every morning I woke from someone else's dreams.
Excerpted from Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand. Copyright © 1992 Elizabeth Hand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 18, 2015
A very fun novel--Elizabeth Hand's first, I believe. If you are a fan of hers, I recommend it. If you like fantasy/sci-fi, I recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.