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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill (40 page)

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
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O
UR HEART STOPS.

A
moment I float beneath her, a starry shadow. Distant canyons where spectral lightning flashes: neurons firing as I tap into 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, and 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 Easter air tangles my hair. Later I will smell apple blossom 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 military truck. 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 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 uniform clamber from the truck and start arguing. The woman screws up her face and says something to the men, moving her lips so that 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 her arms up alarmed, and, as I settle my glasses onto my nose and stare, 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. A technician 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 technician 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 gently pulled the wires from between white braids still rusted with coppery streaks. Beside her the technicians looked worried. Other doctors slipped from adjoining rooms and blocked my view, all with strained faces.

When I was sure they’d forgotten me I dug out a cigarette 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 often tell, but even Dr. Harrow didn’t listen to me this time. Morgan Yates was too important: one of the few living writers whose readers included both rebels and Ascendants.

“She will crack,” I told Dr. Harrow after reading Morgan’s profile. Seven poetry collections published by the Ascendants. Recurrent nightmares revolving around a childhood trauma in the military crèche; sadistic sexual behavior and a pathological fear of dogs. Nothing extraordinary there. 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. “She says she hasn’t written in three years, because of this.”

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 anxious about the chance to reclaim one of the damned and her own reputation, she’d have known, too. Psychotics, autists, 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 myself and others like me to tap into 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 room. 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.

PATIENT NAME:
Wendy Wanders

In front of me the pages blurred. Shuddering I gripped the edge of my chair. 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 my name until with a shout a technician ran to me and slapped an ampule to my neck. I couldn’t bear the sight of my own name: Dr. Harrow usually filled in the charts for me and provided the sedatives, as she had a special lab all in gray for the empath who couldn’t bear colors and wore black goggles outside; as she had the neural bath ready for another whose amnesia after a session left her unable to talk or stand or control her bowels. The technician stood above me until the drug took effect. 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 security sculls silently plied the river. At my feet water striders gracelessly mimicked them. I caught a handful of the insects and dropped them on the crumbling macadam at water’s edge, watched them jerk and twitch with crippled stepladder legs as they fought the hard skin of gravel and sand. Then I turned and wandered along the river walk, past rotting oak benches and the ruins of glass buildings, watching the sun sink through argent thunderheads.

A single remaining restaurant ziggurat towered above the walk. Wooden benches gave way to airy filigrees of iron, and 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 confectionery chair. “Sit.”

I settled beside her, tweaking a cobalt plume, and wished I’d worn the fiery cock-of-the-rock quills I’d bought last spring. Anna was stunning, always: 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.”

Smiling, 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 forehead grazed hers and I felt the cold sting of electrolytic fluid where she strung the wire. I tasted brass: then bile and summer air and exhaust—

Too fast. I jerked my head up, choking as I inadvertently yanked the connector from Anna. She stared at me with huge blank eyes.

“Ch-c-c—” she gasped, spittle flying into the parfait glass. I swore and pushed the straws away, popped the wire and held her face close to mine.

“Ahhh—” Anna nodded suddenly. 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 the wire into her lap along with the vial of fluid and a napkin. “Wipe your mouth, Anna. I’ll tell Harrow I saw you so she won’t worry.”

“Goodbye, Wendy.” She snapped a pocket open and the stuff disappeared. 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 scorching every neural branch that might have helped me climb to feel the sun as other people do. But the drugs stopped the thrashing, the headbanging, 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 eventually made me scream once more, and, finally, exploded a neural dam so that a year later I began to speak. By then the research money was pouring through other conduits, scarcely less complex than my own, and leading as well to the knot of electrodes in my brain.

In the early stages of her work, shortly after she took me from the military crèche, Dr. Harrow attempted a series of neuro-electrical 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. As more empaths were developed and more military funding channeled for research, we lived extravagantly well. Dr. Harrow believed that exposure to sensation might eventually pattern true emotions in her affectively neutered charges. So we moved from the Human Engineering Laboratory’s chilly fortress to the vast abandoned Linden Glory estate outside the old City.

Neurologists moved into the paneled bedrooms. Psycho-botanists 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.

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 and many Raphaels; the famed pre-Columbian collection; antiquarian coins and shelves of fine and rare Egyptian glass. From the Victorian music room with its 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 make possible. Every evening doctors administer syringes and capsules and tiny tabs that adhere to my temples like burdock pods, releasing chemicals directly into my corpus striatum. And every morning I wake from someone else’s dreams.

Morgan sat in the gazebo when I arrived for our meeting, her hair pulled beneath a biretta of frayed indigo velvet. She had already eaten but servers had yet to clear her plate. I picked up the remains of a brioche and nibbled its sugary crust.

“None of you have any manners, do you?” She smiled, but her eyes were red and cloudy with hatred. “They told me that during orientation.”

I ran my tongue over a sweet nugget in a molar and nodded. “That’s right.”

“You can’t feel anything or learn anything unless it’s slipped into your breakfast coffee.”

“I can’t drink coffee.” I glanced around the Orphic Garden for a server. “You’re early.”

“I had trouble sleeping.”

I nodded and finished the brioche.

“I had trouble sleeping because I had no dreams.” She leaned across the table and repeated herself in a hiss. “I had no dreams. I carried that memory around with me for sixty years and last night I had no dreams.”

Yawning I rubbed the back of my head, adjusting a quill. “You still have all your memories. Dr. Harrow said you wanted to end the nightmares. I am surprised we were successful.”

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
11.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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