“Alas” is pleased to present the third of three short stories by Nisi Shawl. This story will be presented in two parts.
Nisi Shawl is the co-editor of Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press) and the co-author of Writing the Other, a guide to developing characters of varying racial, ethnic, and sexual backgrounds. Her reviews and essays appear in the Seattle Times and Ms. Magazine. Shawl is a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society and serves on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which she attended in 1992. These stories can be found in her collection, Filter House (Aqueduct Press) which won the James Tiptree Jr Award in 2008. Visit her on the web at her livejournal, Nisi-la.
(At the author’s request, comments are not activated.)
by Nisi Shawl
“As out of several hundreds of thousands of the substrate programs comes an adaptable changing set of thousands of metaprograms, so out of the metaprograms as substrate comes something else….In a well-organized biocomputer, there is at least one such critical control metaprogram labeled I for acting on other metaprograms and labeled me when acted upon by other metaprograms. I say at least one advisedly….”
Feels like floatin. Wrong smells come under the right ones, like the last few times. She got the table polished with lemon oil, or somethin similar, but what is that? Stronger than before, what is it, fish? Also stinks like Fourth a July, after all the firecrackers set off. I look around but only thing burnin is the candles, big circle of ’em, waverin on the table in front a me.
Her daughter sittin on the other side, lookin damn near white even with them African beads and robes she wear. Wonder she don’t put a bone through her nose. I laugh at that picture, and the poor girl jump like I shot her. The music stops. It been playin soft in the background, but it cuts right off in the middle a Billy Strayhorn’s solo.
I remember what she named her daughter. “Kressi,” I say, “what you do to that record? Put it back on, girl, don’t you know that’s the Duke?”
“Sorry, ma’am.” She sets back up this little white box she knocked over with her elbow when I laughed. “Chelsea Bridge” picks up where it left off, and I get outta my chair for a look around.
Room always seem to have way too many walls, twelve sides or maybe more, and they don’t go straight up to a proper ceilin, but sorta curve themselves over. All plastic and glass and metal. I don’t like it much. Cold. Black outside; night, with no sign a the moon.
On a bed in one a the too many corners is a man, the reason why she brought me. Face almost black as the sky, and shinin with sweat. He got the covers all ruched up off his legs and twisted around his arms. Fever and chills, it look like. His eyes clear, though.
“Hello there, young man,” I say to him, bendin over. This body light, almost too easy to move. I like to throw myself on the bed with him. “What seems to be your problem?”
“Hey,” he says back, smilin tired. “You must be Miz Ivorene’s Great-Aunt Lona, yeah?” I nod. “Well, I hate to admit it, Miz Lona, but nobody seems to know exactly what the problem is. At first it was just tiredness, and they made sure I was getting a proper diet–”
I keep noddin while he talks, though a lotta the words he uses don’t tell me a thing. Words very seldom do, even at they best. It’s his cloud I’m interested in, his cloud a light. The light around his body, that should tell me what’s wrong with him and what he needs to fix it.
But I stare and stare at this man’s cloud, and I don’t see not one thing wrong. He ain’t sick.
But sweatin and in pain like that he ain’t well, either.
By the time I figure this much out, I have stayed long enough. The young man stopped talkin, and he and Kressi lookin at me, waitin for golden truths. All I know is I got no work to do here. Place starts gettin dimmer and I turn back to the table, to the candles, I go back to the light. As I’m leavin I think of somethin I maybe could tell them; it’s pretty obvious to me, but they so stuck in time, never know a thing until it’s already done happen to them. “Good Boy,” I say, on my partin breath. “Good Boy. Go deeper out. Get Good Boy.” And wonder like always if they’ll understand.
“Some kinds of material evoked from storage seem to have the property of passing back in time beyond the beginning of this brain to previous brains…”
Ivorene McKenna slumped forward in her chair. Her head lowered slowly toward the tabletop, narrowly avoiding setting fire to her short locks. Her daughter Kressi slipped a bota into Ivorene’s hand and cradled her shoulders as she sat back up, helping her guide the waterskin to her lips.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” Edde Berkner had propped himself up on one wobbly arm. He peered anxiously through the gloom.
“Nothing. Lie down and rest. We have to play the session back and talk before we decide what to do.” Kressi did her best to sound cool and professional. Like the rest of the colonists of Renaissance, she placed a high value on the rational and the scientific. They called themselves “Neo-Negroes,” and they didn’t have much use for anything that couldn’t be quantified and repeated.
As a child on their outbound ship, Kressi had enjoyed the lessons on Benjamin Banneker, George McCoy, and technology’s other black pioneers. She’d wanted to be Ruth Fleurny, maverick member of the team that perfected the Bounce. It was because of Fleurny’s stubborn insistence on cheap access for all descendants of enslaved Africans as a condition of the “star drive’s” sale that the Neo-Negroes and a handful of similar expeditions had gotten off the ground.
In her daughter’s opinion Ivorene was as intelligent as Fleurny, and just as stubborn. Maybe misguided, though. Ivorene’s controversial theories, while couched in scientific terms, had a hard time finding acceptance among the Neo-Negroes. Sometimes Kressi wished she would just quit, right or wrong.
“That’s enough, sweetheart.” Kressi laid the bota on the table and picked up Ivorene’s arm by the elbow, walking with her as she took her shaky body to bed. It was always this way, afterwards.
Kressi set her player on “sound curtain,” and the rush of a waterfall filled the room. She aimed it towards Edde’s bed and then stepped behind it into her mother’s silence. The redbrown skin of Ivorene’s face seemed slack and lusterless. Her long-boned hands were clammy. Her daughter chafed them briefly to warm them.
“Well, Kressi, what did Aunt Lona have to say?”
“Nothing. Nothing much.” Kressi shrugged, trying not to show how much she hated having to act like anyone else besides her mom and Edde had been in the room. “I knocked the player over, and she scolded at me to put the music on again.”
“What about Edde?”
“She looked at him, but he did most of the talking. I can show you the–”
“No, save the record for later. If she didn’t say anything….Who else can I ask?” Great-Aunt Lona, the New Orleans roots-woman, had been her only hope. Other egun, accessible ancestral spirits, were available. But none of them knew much on the subject of healing.
“When she was leaving–” Kressi broke off. “At first, you know, I thought it was just that weird way she talks.”
“Right. So I wondered if maybe she meant ‘Good-bye,’ but what it sounded like was ‘Good boy,’ so it had to be a compliment to Edde, I guess….”
Ivorene pushed her lower lip out, brought her eyebrows together. “‘Good Boy.’”
“She said it more than once.”
“How many times?”
“Aw, hell.” Ivorene raised a hand from Kressi’s clasp and flung one forearm across her eyes, fending off the inevitable. “I don’t want to have to figure out how to bring him up.”
“We have an ancestor named Good Boy?”
“No. Goddamit. Pardon my francais, sweetheart.” Ivorene sighed and let her hand fall to the quilt-covered bed. “But goddamit. Good Boy.”
“We know something of the radiation limits in which we can survive. We know something of the oxygen concentrations in the air that we breathe, we know something of the light levels within which we can function….We are beginning to see how the environment interlocks with our computer and changes its functioning.”
Edde wanted to go home. Ivorene had told Dr. Thompson that they’d bring him back to the infirmary when they were through, though, so Kressi bundled him onto their flatbed cart with a stack of fresh sheets and extra blankets. He winced as she jolted the wheels over the ridge between the yurt’s foundation and the ramp down to the colony’s corridors.
“Sorry,” Kressi muttered, embarrassed. The ramp hissed grittily under the cart’s plastic wheels, and a fine white dust rose in their wake. Most of Renaissance City’s surfaces had been sealed with plastic spray shortly after its excavation, but some private passages remained natural.
Kressi held the cart one-handed, only a negligible amount of control needed despite the tunnel’s 35° slope. With her other hand she fished in her robe’s pocket for her remote. As she found and fingered it, the blind at the ramp’s bottom rose.
At its bottom, the ramp leveled out. The wide cart made for a tight fit between the two bench-shaped blocks of likelime flanking the exit. Edde’s berry-dark face shone with sweat. He closed his eyes as she turned into the corridor; vertigo was another symptom on his growing list.
Also, sensitivity to light. The tunnels of Renaissance City were just about shadowless, with frequent fluorescent fixtures on the walls. Kressi saw how his eyelids tightened, and threw a pillowcase over Edde’s face. He hadn’t been this bad on the trip to the McKenna’s from the infirmary. The pillowcase looked weird, but Edde thanked her, in a somewhat muffled voice. Another voice came from speakers set in the ceiling. Kressi listened for a moment.
“–Ship Seven concerns, Captain? As opposed to City-wide?”
Kressi withdrew her attention. She didn’t care much for politics. She knew she was in “Ship” Four, a non-geographical ward named for one of the ten colonizing vessels. She knew that Ivorene had once been active, been elected as the Ship’s Captain, and had lost her position due to her experiments in programming psychology. Renaissance Citizens studied and revered their ancestors, but stopped short of desiring their actual presence. Ivorene’s clinical practice had dwindled to nearly nothing; her status in the City’s economy now rested solely on her position as an Investor.
Kressi headed into the main body of the ancient shallow sea from whose fossilized coral and sediment the city had been carved. As she wheeled her cart along, ramp openings and tunnel intersections became more common. Sometimes the ramps led upward, to storage areas and workshops. More often they led downward. Most Citizens preferred deeper dwellings. Though the atmosphere provided some protection from meteorites and radiation, it would be too thin to breathe comfortably for several generations.
As she approached the opening to one ramp in particular, Kressi’s shoulders hunched in anticipation. They relaxed a little when she came close enough to see its lowered blind, then went back up as the blind began to retract. Kressi might have been able to clear the entrance before the blind rose high enough for Captain Yancey to hail her down. But the Captain would be offended to see Kressi speeding away along the corridor in an obvious attempt to avoid conversation. Besides, she couldn’t race off with poor Edde on the cart. She stopped and waited for her least favorite neighbor to appear.
Captain Yancey had a build like a gas tank. While not precisely cylindrical, she was tall, round-shouldered, and solid. Her floor length robes, usually of dull silver, enhanced the illusion. She accepted Kressi’s respectful greeting as her due, with a nod. Edde pulled off his pillow case, opened his eyes, groaned, and closed them again.
“Edde’s feeling real bad,” Kressi explained. “I’m taking him over to the infirmary.”
Captain Yancey’s jaw relaxed a bit. “Doctor Thompson just told me how his beds were starting to fill up.”
Kressi didn’t wonder why the infirmary’s Head should bother to inform Captain Yancey how things stood there. The infirmary wasn’t her responsibility, or any other Captain’s. But everyone told Captain Yancey everything.
“What are people getting sick from?” The planet Renaissance itself was supposed to be sterile, and the colonists had been well-screened and quarantined, then inoculated with benign “placeholder” microbes designed to discourage harmful ones that could cause diseases. Only 140 beds in the infirmary, and they’d never needed more than a fifth of them for 3500-plus people. There was plenty of room for any who succumbed to illnesses caused by the placeholders’ genetic drift.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Captain Yancey complained. “Doctor Thompson said he didn’t have much time to talk. But as far as he could tell it wasn’t anything catching, more like an allergy. Though how thirty people came to be all of a sudden afflicted with the same allergy he didn’t bother to explain.”
“Maybe I’d be better off at my place,” Edde said in a worried voice.
“No, I’m bringing you back like we promised,” said Kressi. With a polite smile she steered to Captain Yancey’s right.
The Captain shifted so she still blocked Kressi’s way. “Young lady, your mother hasn’t been practicing any of her necromantic mumbo-jumbo on this poor boy, has she?”
Kressi’s hands gripped the cart’s handle tightly. Maybe she wasn’t so sure how legitimate her mother’s work was, but she didn’t have to listen to other people put it down. Not even Captain Yancey. “That’s not the way we prefer to think of it, Ma’am. Doctor Thompson referred Edde to us because he thought a psychological approach–”
“Call it what you want to, I say it’s a disgraceful set of superstitions we ought to have left behind us in Africa. I always thought that your mother was a bright enough researcher, but I fail to understand why she has to clutter up our brand new paradigm with that sort–”
The conversation ended abruptly as Edde succumbed to a fit of coughing (yet another symptom). Captain Yancey retreated back down her ramp, saying over her shoulder that she was sure it couldn’t be contagious, Doctor Thompson had sworn, but just to be on the safe side–The ramp’s descending blind cut her off.
In Renaissance City’s core, the tunnel widened. Citizens sat in small, companionable groups on likelime benches outside ramp entrances.
Kressi greeted the people she knew by name, those from her Ship and several others. More knew her than vice versa. She’d been one of twenty kids on Ship Four. Twenty of 350 passengers. And the other nine Ships had carried even fewer children. Kressi and the rest were celebrities by simple virtue of their age. A seven-year gap, the length of the voyage, separated them from the generation born here on Renaissance.
Of course Kressi knew all her peers, from whichever Ship. Edde was more popular than she was, and as she wheeled him through the City’s center, they accumulated a small entourage. Passela recognized him first. “Edde!” she crooned. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked Kressi accusingly.
“He’s sick.” Kressi didn’t like Passela much. She made too big a deal of her position as the oldest of the hundred-odd ship kids, and she had an irritating way of over-emphasizing every other word. But Fanfan, Passela’s cousin, was cool. “Can I help you with that?” he asked. “You’re headed for the infirmary, right?” Kressi let him put one hand on the cart’s handle, though she could manage well enough on her own. They picked up speed. Passela and her sidekick Maryann stuck with them.
The infirmary lay on the far side of the core’s white tunnels. Here the likelime took on a bluish tinge, legacy of the coral species that had burgeoned in this area of the slowly evaporating sea. The wall outside the infirmary’s ramp housed the delicate remains of a huge, semi-shelled vertebrate. Kressi let Fanfan steer the cart down the ramp as she fondly stroked the fossil’s curving, polished case and lightly brushed her fingertips along the arching trail of its skeletal extension. How had it felt, dying in the drying mud? Had it called upon its ancestors to save it from the sky’s invading vacuum?
Kressi’s lingering communion with the fossil lasted long enough that by the time she got inside the infirmary, Passela had taken over Edde’s case. “He won’t be any trouble, really, he won’t; I’ll nurse him with my own two hands,” she told Ali, the staffer at the admitting console.
“Oh, good,” said Ali. “I was afraid you’d ask to borrow a spare pair.”
“What? Oh, you’re putting me on, we don’t grow limbs for that kind of stuff.”
“I can go home,” Edde offered. “I’m not so–” He interrupted his own protests with another painful-sounding coughing fit. That brought Dr. Thompson from behind the console’s screen.
“Who’s that? Edde Berkner? It’s about time you checked yourself back in here, young man. Seems you’ve started some sort of psychosomatic epidemic. Half the symptoms showing up here this shift are the same as yours. I want you under observation.”
“But, Doctor, we don’t have the staff–” Ali protested.
“I’m bringing in some contingents. And Anna Sloan’s been malingering here long enough. Nothing much wrong with her.” Doctor Thompson reached out one-handed and tapped at the console with barely a glance at its screen. “There. I’m releasing her. Pack up a couple of cold/hot compresses. I’ll go break the news.”
He turned to Passela and smiled. “You come help me get Miz Sloan out of Cot Twenty so you can strip and change it.”
Passela gaped at Dr. Thompson as if she were a fish on an empty seabed and he were a hurtling black meteor headed her way. Kressi stepped between them. “Well, actually–”
“Kressi?” The doctor appeared to notice her for the first time. “Of course. You show her what to do,” he said, dismissing both of them from his mind.
“And who are all these others? Patients? No? More volunteers? Train them or get them out of here, Ali.” With an apologetic shrug, Kressi wheeled Edde around the side of the console in Dr. Thompson’s wake. Passela made no move to follow them.
The infirmary was mostly one big, high-ceilinged ward, with honeycombed screens between the beds for a bit of privacy. Dr. Thompson had gone ahead of her to the cubicle containing Cot Twenty. A high, sharp voice cut through the honeycombing. “My feet, you haven’t done nothin about my feet–” Kressi hesitated at the doorway of the small space. There was barely room for her in there, let alone the cart with Edde. Miz Sloan was someone she’d never met before, but that didn’t matter. “I know you,” declared the woman on the bed. “You’re that crazy Ivorene McKenna’s daughter. You turnin me out for a mental case, Doctor?”
“My mom’s not crazy,” said Kressi. She felt an angry flush creep up her pale cheeks, felt it deepen in her embarrassment at being able to flush so visibly. “Miz Sloan,” she added, a tardy sign of respect for her elder.
Miz Sloan’s feet stuck out from the near end of Cot Twenty. They seemed normal, neither swollen nor discolored, the soles a fairly even pink, but she winced as she swung them around off the side of the bed and lowered them into the see-through slippers sitting on the floor.
“Kressi’s here to help you home, Anna,” Dr. Thompson told Miz Sloan.
Miz Sloan lived close in; still, by the time Kressi had delivered her to the rooms she shared with two sisters, a niece and nephew, and the half-brother of her ex-husband, and listened to a rambling explanation of how Ivorene was crazy, but not pure-D crazy, and everyone knew she meant no harm with her attempts at talking to spirits, going home seemed pointless.
The lobby had held only one patient when she left. Now three more sat beside the closed door to Dr. Thompson’s office, and another four leaned on the counter, talking earnestly to Ali.
Before she clocked in to help them, though, she had to call her mom. She squeezed past the waiting patients and scooted a wheeled stool in front of the screen. Her fingers drummed impatiently on the touchpad as her cursor swam through the city’s directory. Dr. Thompson claimed voice rec caused problems with the infirmary’s patient monitors. Finally, after what seemed like forever, she reached her home room.
Ivorene was logged on. Kressi got her to activate the live feed. Her mother sat in bed, propped up on pillows, working on a tray of food. She ate methodically, absent-mindedly. Her dark eyes, so different from her daughter’s hazel, shifted between the camera and two screens. Kressi could see text on one, but the resolution wouldn’t quite let her read it.
“I’m starting my shift early, I guess,” Kressi wrote.
“You guess?” Ivorene disliked sloppy statements.
“If it’s all right with you. There are so many patients. Lots of them as bad as Edde….”
“Fine. Will you be home on time?”
Kressi glanced at the line of incomers, managing not to catch anyone’s eye. “I’m not sure. Maybe.”
The screen behind Ivorene showed what looked like an elongated brown bowling ball rotating in three dimensions. With each pass, a new three- or four-armed cross appeared on its oblong surface. “Get home as quickly as you can, sweetheart. I have lots more work for us to do.”
Kressi signed off, a little disturbed. It sounded like Ivorene wanted to go under again. If only she’d stick to more useful topics….But Kressi had to put her personal concerns aside.
When her break came, Kressi did a few stretches and went right on working. Three days on, she’d had now, and the patient load heavier than ever. She wondered how she’d adjust to full adult status and the doubling of her hours requirement. One more year. She could hardly wait. She headed for the nearest blinking call light.
“To hold and display the accepted view of reality in all its detail and at the same time to program another state of consciousness is difficult; there just isn’t enough human brain circuitry to do both jobs in detail perfectly. Therefore special conditions give the best use of the whole computer for exploring, displaying, and fully experiencing new states of consciousness….”
Ivorene lowered herself slowly into her tank. Its refrigerator clicked on immediately. She’d been running a little hot lately–maybe coming down with Edde’s mysterious ailment, like a major portion of the colony seemed bent on doing.
The tank was small, but held her without cramping. She hooded herself and checked the breathing apparatus. Like most of the colony’s equipment, it was solidly put together, though based on dated technologies, “breakthroughs” discarded years before their departure.
She’d expected her daughter home almost an hour ago. The fail-safes were fine, but she wished Kressi had come back from her shift on schedule and helped her with this part.
Off with the hood for a moment so she could set the timer on the tank’s lid. How many hours? Three. Good Boy had an affinity for that number.
About to re-hood, she remembered to check the water’s salinity. A little on the low side. Shivering, she climbed out and grabbed a scoop of crystals from the bucket she kept beside the tank.
Salt was not a problem. Renaissance’s seas had left behind plenty of pans and flats. Water was a little more expensive, dug up frozen from deep crevices, melted, and purified. Power was cheaper, about as easily available as salt. The cloudless skies of Renaissance did little to dim the light of its yellow-white star, Horus. The McKenna’s unconventional surface dwelling gave them a great opportunity to convert that constant flood of photons to electricity.
She strapped on her hood again and let the blood-warm waters of the isolation tank lap over her, and the buoyant fluid. The thick liquid’s buoyancy lifted her and let her lose all connection with her physical surroundings. But her consciousness clung stubbornly to mundane concerns. Why was Kressi so late? Had she come down with this mysterious ailment, this Edde-Berkner-illness?
Ivorene’s calls to the infirmary had all been answered by loops. Everyone was to remain calm. No contagious agents had been isolated. Infirmary beds were reserved for those in serious condition, and most complaints could be dealt with on an outpatient basis, no appointments necessary, first come, first served. The main thing, really, was to remain calm….
Which was what Ivorene would do if it killed her. She would not leap from the tank and rush to the infirmary, streaming salt water along the City’s corridors. She would not embarrass her daughter with overprotectiveness, with the same overreactions her own parents had fallen ridiculous prey to. At fifteen, Kressi was as independent and self-sufficient as Ivorene had been able to make her.
And what if she was sick? She was at the infirmary, right? What better place? Dr. Thompson and his crew would do what they could for her. Ivorene would stay here and find out what else was possible.
Uselessly, she strove to still her thoughts. Then she stopped striving, and let a million details wash over her mind, the way the waters of the tank covered her body. This had happened before, in the early stages of her research, the sessions where she’d made first contact with Aunt Lona, and Uncle Hervey, the mechanic. She’d prepared for it. She’d stacked the deck, cramming for the last five hours, filling herself up with facts and speculations, clues for her wayward will to follow in the search for Good Boy, Exu, Papa Legba, Ellegua…his names strung themselves out before her in a mocking procession. Grasp one, gain none. The names grew brilliant feathers and flew off with raucous cries, but they went only a short distance. How to catch them? Salt their tails? But no, Good Boy preferred sweet things.
Candy. Visions of sugar plums danced in her head. Sticky and glistening, striped with pink and green. Ivorene concentrated on a hypnotic looking swirl of red and white, a gigantic lollypop with loads of projectability.
Sure enough, she was able to slow its swirling. The spinning disk resolved itself into a three-legged eye, then sped back up and streaked away.
Ivorene followed it. The disk’s thin edge flickered as images imposed themselves over it at a rate too fast for her to perceive. She strove impatiently to focus beyond their interference. Suddenly, her perspective shifted and she was beside the disk–no, above it. The spinning spread, then slowed and stopped.
The disk’s three legs were now composed of art-nouveau curves of thin red plastic. Its eye was gone, and its center pierced by a tall, silver pole. Legs and pole sat at the center of a papery circle of black and red, surrounded by a large, intricately grooved platter of thicker plastic, shiny black alternating with a duller, deep, dark grey.
She’d seen this sort of thing before. In an antique shop on Earth, during one of her expeditions to uncover portable cultural treasures. She’d decided against this particular one, then changed her mind in its favor, only to find it gone on her return to the shop.
It was a record. On a record player. She raised her gaze to the stone face before her. Shell eyes squeezed half shut, a shell mouth pursed in an amused smile.
“Laroye, ago Elegba!” Stay cool, trickster, the Yoruban greeting ran in translation. Coolness having a very high value in equatorial Africa. Ivorene launched into her prepared petition for Good Boy’s assistance in healing her godson Edde of his strange affliction. She stopped abruptly as the image before her faded and threatened to break apart. Hard to hold abstractions in her current state. She tightened down on her desire. Squeezed. The enormous face before her brightened, though it remained amorphous. Encouraged, she produced for him the lump of her longing. It shone like a milky diamond, lustrous yet clear, then flew off toward him of its own accord. On impact, her prayer spread in ripples that seemed to sharpen and set the stone face, rather than disturbing it.
Shell eyes twinkled. The great head moved. A nod yes? Or instruction, a wish to be imitated? Ivorene looked down again, reading the label on the record. Atlantic. Chic. “Good Times.”
So what did that mean? So Good Boy would help her if she played a record she knew she didn’t have?
The spinning began again. Ivorene seemed now to stand on the record’s surface, swinging around the silver pole as a scratchy song rose from below. Beyond the pole, white walls with gigantic murals pursued a stately rotation. Mushroom-haired women with impossibly long legs raised shapely brown hands against invisible enemies. Bald, athletic, young men in flowing furs saluted crowds of admiring children with casual waves of large, lethal-looking side-arms.
Actually, there were a lot of weapons.
“Boys will be boys,” a nasal voice advised her. “Better let them have their toys.”
Well, there weren’t any firearms on Renaissance. Explosives seemed like a pretty bad idea in a contained and pressurized atmosphere. Maybe the miners….No. “No, sorry.” She shook her head firmly. “No guns.”
The world screeched backwards in its tracks, jerked violently forward with a wheezing shriek. Ivorene fell on her figurative ass as the process repeated itself. She clung to the record’s ridges, shooting back and forth around its axis without warning. An eery choir wailed in time to the wild stops and starts.
The disturbance ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the world’s smooth spin resumed. A new number played, a steady march. “On guard! Defend yourself!” its singers admonished her.
A flash of brilliance at the pole’s tip drew her attention. It grew into a humming globe, an irregularly-rayed ball of slowly coruscating light. Flickering arms of color drew her closer–her prayer? So much bigger, now. So strong—it had to be more, more than she’d asked for. It had to be–
She resisted. But the pole loomed larger and larger. If she touched it–if she grasped it firmly, with both hands, she could call down that ball of lightning on her head. She could know Good Boy in her heart, as her personal savior. She could cure the colony of its mysterious non-epidemic and get the respect she deserved, the respect she’d already more than earned. She could fill herself with the power, the glory–
She could get herself possessed while she was alone, without anyone to help or protect her, or see to it that she ever came back to normal.
On guard. Defend yourself.
She made an effort. A step backward. It turned into a lunge forward. Off-balance, she caught herself on the silver pole and clung there as the light descended, swift and slow.
“… There may be other controls and controllers, which, for convenience, I call supraself metaprograms. These are many or one depending on current states of consciousness in the single self-metaprogrammer. These may be personified as if entities….”
Kressi walked slowly home, leaning heavily on the handle of the flatbed. Maybe she should just lie right down on it. She could have pushed herself along the walls if they weren’t so far apart. She felt very, very tired. A shift and a half she’d worked. The infirmary was now completely out of pulp sheets, which was just as well. The plastic bed pads might be less comfortable, but they cleaned up efficiently.
She hoped her mother wouldn’t be too mad. Ivorene hadn’t said not to work late, not exactly….And Dr. Thompson wanted her back early, too.
At the top of the ramp she hesitated. The yurt’s familiar hollow was filled with darkness. The only light filtered in behind her, shining up the ramp. Power out? She shifted cautiously to her left. No. Two red tell-tales glowed in her field of vision like the mismatched eyes of some squat monster: Ivorene’s isolation tank. Her mother had gone under. Alone. Guilt tweaked at her; she should have come home earlier.
But Ivorene ought to have called her.
The yurt’s polarized glass panels showed blankness. No stars. Not for the next few hours. Horus was setting now, triggering the glass’s reflective properties. Why was she standing there in the dark? “Light one. Light two,” she commanded.
Her stomach grumbled at her loudly. Hungry and tired. Tired and hungry. And she had to talk to her mother about going back early.
She shoved the cart into place next to the ramp and went to the tank to see how much longer Ivorene would be inside. The timer was counting up, not down. Ivorene had been due out of isolation half an hour ago.
Anxiously, she activated the mike. “Ivorene, I’m home. Can you come out now? It’s Kressi,” she added. No telling what state her mother’s mind was in. How could Ivorene have missed the alarm?
A long pause, then her mother’s voice came through the speaker, a bit odd. “Right.”
“Okay.” Kressi eyed the tank suspiciously till Ivorene emerged dripping from its depths. “Rough session?” she asked her.
Ivorene stared around the yurt absently. Kressi assumed she was looking for a towel and brought one over. “Mom?” Ooops. Ivorene hated for Kressi to call her that. But she seemed not to notice the slip-up. Or the towel. Kressi laid it over Ivorene’s shoulders. “I’ll get you a robe.”
When she turned back from the closet, Ivorene was walking around the yurt in great strides, toweling herself off vigorously. But shivering, Kressi saw as she draped her mother in soft red fabric. It must have been bad. Why hadn’t Ivorene waited?
Why hadn’t she come home on time?
She picked the damp towel up from the floor where Ivorene had dropped it. “Let me get your hair for you.” A loud, hoarse cackle made her start.
“Ha! I have my hair already where it belongs, here upon my head!”
“But–I–but it’s wet!” Kressi protested, confused.
Her mother frowned. A drop of water slid down her forehead and trickled along one slanted brow. “You are correct. Remedy this.”
She let Kressi lead her to her chair at the kitchen table and towel dry her short locks, then got up and strolled restlessly around the yurt’s perimeter. She picked up random objects and examined them, then lost interest. A loud crash sounded as Ivorene emptied a jar of trade beads onto the floor. After watching the tiny cylinders of colored glass roll away from her, she moved on, slipping and unconcernedly righting herself whenever she stepped on one.
Kressi was pretty sure by this time that she understood what had happened.
From her mother’s perspective, Ivorene had become possessed. From the perspective of everyone else on the planet, she was insane. Only temporarily, of course. All Kressi had to do was–Was remember her instructions. What to do if things went wrong. And believe they’d work. Her mother stood holding a cube of her ex-husband, Kressi’s father, the white man she’d left behind when she became a Neo-Negro. Her face wore a remote, detached expression.
Kressi’s first memories were of quarantine. She’d never really known her father. She wondered if he’d have been able to help her, if he were here.
Resolutely, she removed the cube from her mother’s hands, held both of them in her own, and stepped firmly on Ivorene’s right foot. Two sharp jerks down on both arms at once–like that–
Laughing, the face in front of her split wide into a most un-Ivoreneish grin. “What, you want for me to leave already? Is your mother’s body, though, and she invited me to come, to solve your mystery. So I am going to stay!”