I stop short a couple paces from my bedroom door. Carson’s in the hallway, staring at the wall. Then he touches it, shakes his head, takes a couple steps, and stares again. He’s clearly unaware of me so I send him the lightest of telepathic nudges, a gentle nok.
“Eyan!” he exclaims, hastily distancing himself from the wall and giving an abashed smile. “Hi.”
<Hi… What are you doing?>
<I’m looking for the hallway computer interface.> He gives me what I can only describe as a partial glare, as if it’s my fault he can’t find it.
I laugh, walking past him halfway down the hallway and gesturing at the wall to my right. <It’s here.> I activate it by touching the camouflaged panel at eye level. It’s virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding paint when deactivated.
Carson joins me, shaking his head at the computer. <Why is it hidden?>
<It’s not hidden, it’s discrete.>
He frowns. <What’s the difference?>
<Subterfuge versus aesthetics.>
The corners of Carson’s eyes crease with amusement. <All right. Why are they discrete?>
<Because computers are just tools. We don’t want them dominating our lives the way humans have let them.>
His mouth thins. <I wish you wouldn’t disparage humans so much. We would be just like them if not for the Lyril. That we had the benefit of learning from a species much wiser than ours makes us lucky, not better…but you disagree. You think we are better.>
It’s less a question than it is a challenge. I nod. <We don’t kill each other, take away the rights of those who don’t fit into the majority, or tell people how to live their lives. As long as they’re not causing harm, we let people be.>
<But it’s not entirely true is it?>
<There is some crime,> I concede, <but it’s not comparable. Fewer than .15 percent of Chosen commit crimes of any sort.> A category I now technically belong to.
<And if we look at why we’re that way, we get back to the Lyril and how we’re beneficiaries of their evolved knowledge. Again, not better, just lucky.>
<The Lyril were selective about who they chose. They didn’t just randomly pick people. They went for the ones ahead of their time, the ones least touched by human bigotry.>
<True in many cases, but in others they went to those who were terminally ill and offered them their lives in exchange for a different way of living. Those people weren’t saints. None were bad but they weren’t perfect. Even the ones ‘ahead of their time’ weren’t up to Lyril standards. Those first taken would not have approved of gay marriage or trans people, for example. Not interracial marriage or even the two of us living together. It was the Lyril who showed them a better way.>
Carson gives me no time to interject, continuing, <Our special treatment has left us conceited about those who were left behind. Our very name says it – and here I am just as guilty as everyone else. I use the same words to talk about us and them. We are the Chosen. And what are they? The abandoned? The left behind? The rejected?>
<I’ve never called them any of those things.>
<No. You’ve just called them human. Just human. As if we aren’t. The separation is a dangerous one.> He sighs. <For all the prejudices we’ve overcome, we’re left with a very sad one, one that divides us from the rest of our people just as much as skin color, sex, religion, and sexual orientation divide them from each other. We’re not as evolved as we’d like to think.>
<There is a critical difference between us and them, Carson, and between them and our ancestors. We’re willing to learn, our ancestors were willing to learn and grow. A lot of these people are so stuck to their traditions, stuck to their ideas of how things and people should be, that they won’t consider other options. The hateful people are vocal, most of the others are sheep, and then there are the good people who do nothing but retweet and like Facebook statuses, as if that’s going to change anything.>
Now I’m the one who doesn’t pause. <It’s left to a handful to fight for what’s right. But even most of those people, Carson, will not welcome us. This is more than skin color or religion, more than the sex of who you’re fucking. We have abilities they don’t. They will fear us, their fear will turn to hate, and their hate will make them try to control us. It’s already begun, and most don’t know about us. The DOH, allucinari. Their instinctual reaction was to hunt us down.>
He studies me for a long moment before shaking his head minutely. <Enough for now. Thanks for pointing out the computer interface. Oh, and good morning, by the way.> He says the last with a smile.
<That’s my idea of a good present – thoughtful, not forced by an occasion, and not wrapped.>
Carson smiles. <What do you have against wrapped presents?>
<Just… What’s the point? It’s a waste of resources.>
<Yes, The black hole of manufacturing wrapping paper every year is a worldwide concern right up there with climate change,> Carson deadpans.
<I meant the time people put into actually wrapping the presents, year after year, birthday after birthday, Christmas after Christmas… And the money to buy the paper. I wonder how many years of wrapping paper buying would equate to an extra present per person?>
Carson pauses the Shawshank Redemption. Red is contemplating the harmonica Andy gave him. <It’s part of the experience! Seeing all the presents, all the shapes and sizes, and trying to figure out what they all are! It’s fun! And it extends the enjoyment. You don’t just walk down and instantly see what all the presents are. You focus on one at a time.>
It’s my turn to smile. <I’ll have to take your word for it. I never got a whole pile of presents at once. Most Chosen don’t celebrate Christmas or exchange birthday presents. My amari bought me gifts throughout the year, but I rarely got more than one at a time.>
Carson looks thoughtful. <My parents didn’t at first, but once I got into elementary school they started. I think they didn’t want me to feel more different from my classmates than I had to.>
<I can see that.>
<But for the record,> he indicates the paused movie, <their presents aren’t wrapped because they’re in jail, not because the characters are making a statement against the practice.>
Carson is reading when I enter the kitchen just after 0800. Empty breakfast plate pushed aside, hands loosely curled around a mug, eyes moving fluidly back and forth across lines of text displayed on his tabletop display.
<Good morning,> I greet.
There’s a second preservation plate of food on the stove. Quiche. I take it to the table and sit across from Carson. He continues to read. I eat slowly, savoring each bite.
<Bring up today’s news,> I instruct the computer. A list of articles appears on the table next to my food, divided into categories. Chosen News, Local Human News, Statewide Human News, U.S. Human News, World Human News. At the top is a selection of articles the computer thinks I will find relevant based on my past reading choices.
I skim the titles. I’m not particularly interested in anything serious this morning, so I avoid the ones about suspected hate crimes. I should program a Lighthearted category. The computer probably wouldn’t know where to start in its search for things I might find uplifting. I haven’t ever pulled up images of cute kittens or heartwarming tales of love and friendship.
Nature is something I find refreshing. Windswept forests of glistening greens and rich, deep browns mixed with hues of red. A sky painted pink, purple, and orange by the setting sun, gloriously reflected in the water of an ocean. A little boy sung to sleep with a lullaby of hope, a voice kept afloat by love, the dream of a better day. A standing ovation for a valedictorian speech as broad as life. Sorrow for being accepted not as who I am, but for who I appear to be. The isolation of uniqueness. A mother so proud it shines for the world to see.
Wait. What? Shaking my head, I attempt to follow the train of my thoughts back to its source, attempt to find the line between what I can make sense of and what I cannot. There were images, vivid as any memory, strewn through my imaginings.
I focus on my friend, who is intent, eyes fixed, no longer reading but remembering and letting those recollections tumble out. Carefully, I push into the kaleidoscope of videos and snapshots, cause a ripple of wavering color, a skip in the playback.
The array splits, shatters into fragments, is gone.
<I’m sorry,> he hastens to apologize, <I was lost in my own thoughts and didn’t notice you.>
<That much was obvious. I’ve gotten more out of saying good morning to a cat,> I tease.
Carson smiles. <I’ll be more careful. I don’t think it’s allucinari, not this. Maybe living with humans has made me lazy. I didn’t have to worry about broadcasting because they were deaf to it. Well, except when I saw my parents of course.>
We all must learn to stop ourselves from broadcasting but I suspect it’s more difficult for Carson, that he’s naturally so powerful, visual, and emotive he has to concentrate to contain it. For the rest of us it becomes second nature, a process as unnoticed as breathing until something interferes.
<No,> I protest. <Don’t be constrained on my behalf. I mean, keep private what you want to keep private but don’t…stress about relaxing and being yourself.>
<I don’t understand.>
<What part of it?>
<I mean, I understand what you’re saying but I don’t get it. My parents told me what it’s like. A submergence that sweeps you away before you realize what you’re seeing isn’t yours. Why would you want that?>
Because I felt his pain over being liked for the show he put on and not for what was underneath it. <It’s beautiful, this way you see things. Interesting. A nice change. I don’t mind. It’s a good reminder that there’s more to this world than my interpretation of it. And you should get to be yourself. Even with as open and accepting as we try to be, societal expectations have a way of changing people’s spirit and individuality. You still have yours and that’s good.> I momentarily break eye contact, an indication of embarrassment he won’t miss but may misattribute. I wasn’t raised the way U.S. men are, to leave emotions and thoughts undiscussed. It’s been a long time since I wanted to connect with someone new. I feel wrong footed and don’t know how it’s done.
<You have spirit and individuality too. It shows in your loyalty, your willingness to put yourself on the line for others.>
I look down from his face because I have to. <Thank you.>
Carson remains while I finish my meal. I show him around the Shelter, explain life as part of the community, tell him there are plenty of Shelter jobs, and what some are. He wants to be useful, to contribute, and has specific ideas about how to do so. He thinks the only way to move forward on Earth is with mutual understanding between humans and Chosen. He accepts it will be difficult with humans but doesn’t see why it has to be with Chosen. He wants to teach our children about humans – a combination of their history, culture, and belief systems, interpretation and understanding instead of straight facts in chronological order. I encourage him to write a detailed course outline and petition the Educational Board. The idea surprises him.
<You mean they might let me teach?>
<It’s a definite possibility. What degrees do you have?>
<A PhD in Philosophy and a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science,> he pauses, flushing, <from…Harvard.>
That’s impressive. <How old are you?>
<36.> He’s intelligent, more than I realized. <You’re well educated. That’s crucial. Education is important here, as are presenting multiple points of view. We want to teach our children to think critically and be open minded about new ideas.>
<But… What about pre-requisites? I don’t have any teaching experience.>
<Teachers need to have experience in what they’re teaching. Growing up with humans gives you that. Students here are expected to meet stricter standards. If a student misbehaves or disrupts class, they are sent home and lose all credit for that day. That makes a teacher’s job a little simpler.
<If the Educational Board is interested by your course outline, they’ll meet with you. It won’t be like a human interview; they’ll perform a merging. You won’t have any walls to hide behind – they’ll be there with you, asking questions, feeling the responses. It was usually part of my debriefing process with the Council when I returned from the DOH.>
<How…intimate,> his nervousness is a flock of seagulls startled into flight. <Anything else?>
<If they’re still interested after the merging, there’s a training program you’d have to complete; it would culminate in your teaching classes under the observation of another teacher. I’m sure you’d be allowed to sit in on classes before you start the program.
<They may ask you to prepare a series of classes for them to attend, before or after the training program. There’ll be quarterly evaluations, probably more frequent in the beginning, actually. They’ll talk to the students, to amari, and audit lessons.>
<I’ll get started on a course outline. Thanks.> His tone is uncertain, as if he can’t wrap himself around possibly being able to secure what he wants.
That night Atthya joins us for dinner. Carson has our home skipped in the evening delivery of food and prepares rice and a delicious curry dish with ingredients procured from the kitchens. We relish it leisurely, conversing very little until the bowls are empty save the yellow stains of leftover sauce.
<When do you think President Dabbracio learned about our existence?> Carson introduces a topic while clearing the table.
It’s something I’ve wondered about, not obsessively but often enough for the thoughts to be familiar. At what point does a new president find out about Chosen? Does the previous president schedule a private meeting shortly after his successor’s election, shock the newcomer with reports and graphs, dire predictions, and mundane expense budgets for the DOH? Or do they try to soften the unlikely news?
Maybe Bush told Clinton over a five course dinner, after the Democrat had enjoyed a couple glasses of wine. Clinton could have taken Webber out for a friendly game of golf, slipping it in between the 17 and 18 holes, right after Webber sunk a birdie. I can imagine Webber joining Buhari on Air Force One, informing him of an unsought responsibility in hushed tones, ready to order a shot of whiskey if Buhari didn’t take it well. And Dabbracio? He’d have taken it worst of all, no matter how well Buhari, ever the eloquent peacemaker, phrased it.
Maybe it isn’t done in person at all. Maybe there’s an encrypted drive containing every shred of information on us, and the password and location of this drive are provided to the president on his first day in office.
<After election, I’m sure.> Atthya draws invisible triangles on the table with her middle finger as she answers. <Unless there’s a circle of influential politicians who know about us and the president is always one of them. I’m sure they could enforce something like that without the public knowing.>
<But Dabbracio wasn’t a politician,> I point out. <That was his big appeal – that he wasn’t part of the broken system.>
<Not part of the broken political system…but still part of the wealthy elite, with a lot of connections. Who knows what he knew when he decided to run.>
<I suppose,> I grant, still skeptical, <but that brings us to the question of how many people know. Everyone at the DOH is sworn to secrecy under penalty of imprisonment or exile but they’d have to bug all the soldiers to enforce that. Not that I’d put it beyond them, but they never bugged me. It’s interesting to have something that feels so guarded be common knowledge among a certain group of comparatively powerless men and women. About 200,000 people work directly for the DOH, knowing what it does. As for the people in power…> I shrug. <Who can say?>
<I wonder if any of the presidents have tried to shut the DOH down, or at least repurpose it to something peaceful?> Carson asks.
Atthya scoffs; I harrumph.
<I’m sure they’ve each just made it more insidious than the last. This world is not getting better,> Atthya responds.
Carson gestures us out of the dining room.
<Would either of you care for some wine? My amari have reserve vintages they keep for family and friends that never get sold,> I ask before we leave, grateful for a chance to change the subject.
Carson shakes his head as Atthya says, <Yes, please.>
<White or red?>
<Red. Something sweet?>
Carson and Atthya adjourn to the living room for more comfortable seating arrangements. I join them several minutes later carrying two glasses of red wine. <It’s a dessert wine,> I tell Atthya as I hand her glass over. <My parents like to be silly with the names of wines they don’t sell. This one is called Don’t Forget the Cream Cheese Frosting.>
Atthya blinks. <Cream cheese frosting?>
<This wine pairs well with carrot cake.>
She smiles, taking a sip. <Ooh. This is good.>
<It’s a favorite of mine. One of these days I’ll have to try it with carrot cake.>
Carson and Atthya are on either end of my couch. I sit in the plush chair across from them, placing my glass on the coffee table that sits between us.
<How’s your course outline coming?> I inquire of Carson.
<Very well. I have a rough draft done and will spend the next days refining it,> Carson accedes to the shift in conversation.
<Course outline?> Atthya asks, also setting her wine on the coffee table.
Carson explains his idea, smiling with infectious enthusiasm and bubbling over with yellow, red, and purple tulips in the full bloom of spring, buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies. How much of what he emits is conscious? I glance at Atthya, wondering what part of that, if any, she saw.
Her face is pensive, brow furrowed in contemplation. <If you’re going to teach someone, teach humans,> she says at last. <They need all the help they can get since they’re incapable of learning from their own history.> The bitterness is unmistakable.
Carson takes this in stride. <There is at least one human weakness we haven’t overcome – the tendency to generalize and stereotype to the detriment of the group being categorized and boxed in. Not all humans are alike.>
<That’s true enough, but en masse they are afraid of people who are different, they are threatened by change, and they prefer to cling to their traditions even when those traditions harm other people.>
Like with gay marriage. The example jumps to mind but I don’t voice it. This is the most Atthya has shared about her beliefs. It’s not surprising, given how her friend was murdered by racist fiends, but I’d rather learn more than hear myself repeat what I’ve already said and thought many times.
<Yes,> Carson agrees, <they do. They focus on people’s differences instead of their similarities. They label. They sub label, and then they sub label again. He is this and she is that, neither one is like me. They are experts at otherizing. But that is also exactly what you’re doing to them. You’re not looking at all the ways we’re similar. You’re looking at the ways they are less than or deficient. Surely that tendency does the same harm to us as it does to them.>
Atthya leans back, tapping her right thumb with her left. After some deliberation, she nods. <Yes, I see your point.>
<But it doesn’t change how you feel,> Carson observes, also nodding. <Why?>
Atthya’s reaction is not one of anger, it’s one of lessening. Her expression closes off and her hands still. She looks emptied out.
Carson sees it too. <I didn’t mean to->
Atthya dismisses my friend’s contrition with a single, vague hand gesture.
<So how’s work going?> I try to break the tension. <She invents tools for CIC agents,> I offer as an aside to Carson.
<Well. I’ve created a device that masks the wearer’s appearance by telepathically projecting the image of a different person – one that the wearer Imprints on it. That way an agent doesn’t have to constantly maintain a telepathic illusion, which can be mentally taxing, if they need to hide their identity.>
<Buuuuuut…> Carson draws the word out as he thinks, <regular humans see it?>
Atthya nods. <As you know, there are levels or frequencies of telepathy. The regular one, the one we use on a daily basis, is something humans are essentially blind and deaf to. However, there’s the lower frequency, which a lot of people like to call louder because it requires so much more effort and is like you’re shouting. Regular humans do see and hear that. The mask transmits on that louder frequency. It’s second nature for Chosen to practice selective dampening against this lower frequency so Chosen in the vicinity won’t receive it as shouting and may not notice the telepathic projection as that.>
<All Chosen will see the projected face and some may not realize it’s a projection. That’s besides the point though: humans will see it and Chosen won’t get a headache just by being near the wearer.>
<That’s awesome!> Carson exclaims.
She smiles minutely, the corner of her mouth twitching up. <Thank you. It’s not ready for field use yet, I’m still working out some bugs.> Her eyes go distant again, and I wonder where her mind is. Probably seeing Luecy dead on the pavement.
<Where’d you get the idea?> I ask, hoping to distract her.
<From experiences. Obviously, it’s much more focused.>
<Experiences?> Carson wonders.
Atthya starts to answer but I preempt her with a quick gesture, smiling. He’ll love this. <They come in all the expected varieties – fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, science-fiction, romance…>
Carson shakes his head. <You’re enjoying this.>
<History, science, young adult…>
<Let me know when you want to elaborate.> Carson makes a show of exasperation in Atthya’s direction.
Atthya is watching with a hint of amusement that does little to diminish her detached expression. She’s tapping her fingers again.
<And each category has two types – standard and interactive.>
<Oh, naturally.> Carson’s curiosity is a tangible if restrained force in our mental link.
<Have you seen Star Trek?>
<Think of an experience as having a holodeck in your head. They are entirely immersive, three-dimensional, and – except for news pieces and memories – individual to the experiencer at that exact point. Things will play out differently for each person – sometimes drastically, with, say, a character dying for one person who survived for another, but more often in subtle ways – and even the same person won’t ever enjoy an experience the same way more than once. An individual can spend years creating the details of a single experience, but more often they’re made by at least ten people who each focus on a different aspect of it.>
Carson looks as if I have introduced him to the secret of lifelong happiness. He would be fabulous at creating experiences, whimsical, vivid, unforgettable ones.
Atthya makes an offhand experience recommendation. In spite of she and me each enjoying three glasses of wine, conversation lags, never regaining its easy flow before the evening ends. I explain after Atthya leaves.
<But how do you know it was Atthya’s memory?> Carson presses.
<It all fits with what I know about her life. But… I’ve seen Luecy’s quilt. It’s in her living room.>
Carson grimaces, saying the obvious. <I didn’t realize. She hasn’t healed…>
<Do you really heal from something like that?>
<Attitude is everything. She’s focusing on dislike, bitterness, condemnation. Those things don’t bring peace. Forgiveness and acceptance do.>
I would retort that we can’t allow ourselves to accept bigotry, to accept anything that causes so much harm, if not for grasping the level of Carson’s conviction.
The clatter draws me out of my room, to the closed door of Carson’s. We said goodnight an hour ago, not long after Atthya left. I knock. No response. I could nok but I won’t risk it exacerbating an attack. Gathering my shields as high as I can make them, I open the door. He’s on the floor by his bed, telamp on the carpet beside him, lamp knocked off the nightstand to dangle from its cord over the side. I pick it up, set it back in place, put the telamp next to it. Its screen is still undimmed and I falter when I see that he had started the experience Atthya recommended.
Sighing, I levitate Carson onto his bed, supine, muscles tense, eyes wandering without aim or sight, not for the world in front of him. No, he’s trapped in a realm of nightmare and memory. He looks terrified.
This is the fourth attack I’ve seen. More likely when he removes the stabilizer after wearing it all day, they’re never quite the same. Sometimes he shakes, sometimes his eyes are unmoving, sometimes his telepathy is an assault I’m not strong enough to block. This is the first one that’s called fear to his face. How would it feel if I lowered my mental walls? What would I see?
I do no such thing. Instead, I step into the office, grab ‘The Light is a Lie,’ a Lyril novel, from the bookcase, and return to sit on his bedside. I’ve read most of the first chapter aloud when he convulses, mind spasming along with his body. The nightmare overrides my barriers.
“There’s something not right about you, mate. Gregorio’s not the same since you…talked to him.” A man, no older than 20, sneers at Carson, barely a gap for thought between the words and the punch he lands squarely on Carson’s nose.
Carson staggers back, hands flying to his face. Pain stabs with the pulse of his blood, oozing over his fingers. The next punch is to his stomach, then another and he’s on the ground. The man kicks him again, and again, until all there is is pain and splotches of darkness.
The fit passes. He’s no longer shaking but I am. Nothing hurts but my arms and legs feel weak and the room seems too bright. I focus on my breathing. Shit. Did that happen to him or is it a distorted dream, more hallucination than reality?
My gaze falls to the printed words in my hands. Forcing myself to focus, I pick up reading again as soon as I’m able, not sure where I left off and not caring, narrowing my awareness to the progression of consonants and vowels until the tension eases from my muscles and my hands still.
Carson jerks awake, sitting and twisting away from the bed to vomit onto the carpet and my sock clad feet, which I quickly pull back. He retches repeatedly until what must be the entire contents of his dinner are emptied from his stomach.
“Sorry,” he wheezes, sagging back onto his pillow, curls stuck to his pale face by sweat.
“Do not apologize,” and the intensity of the statement carves the air, draws his eyes to mine. “This is something that was done to you. This is not your fault.”
I release a long breath. A touch of telekinesis slides the soiled socks off my feet. I keep them hovering above the carpet as I stand and tread around the pool of vomit. Once clear, I cross the room, socks floating in front of me. Out the door, down the hallway, I set them onto paper towels that I lay out on the bathroom counter.
I return to Carson with a whole roll of paper towels, a glass of water, a glass of cranberry juice, mouthwash, a wet wash cloth, a large bowl, carpet cleaner, and a waste basket.
Carson’s eyes go large when he sees me carrying the glasses of liquid, the other items clustered at shoulder height about a foot in front of me. I set the glasses on the nightstand, then pluck the other items out of the air one at a time to place them beside the water and juice, all except the trash can, which I set on the carpet next to the throw up.
“Do you feel up to cleaning yourself off?”
I hand him the wash cloth, which he uses to wipe up his mouth and face. While he’s doing that, I get started on cleaning the remains of his dinner. It’s easy to transfer most of the partially digested food into the plastic bag lined bin telekinetically, leaving me to soak up the excess liquid with paper towels.
I glance up to see him watching me, curious and intent. “Never would have occurred to me to clean that up with telekineses.”
“Here,” I reach out for the wash cloth, exchanging it for the glass of water. “Rinse your mouth out and spit into this bowl.” I put the bowl next to him on the bed.
He does as directed.
Giving him the mouthwash next, I have him gargle before spitting that into the bowl too.
“Now drink a little cranberry juice.”
He makes a face after the first sip but it passes pretty quickly, presumably after the foul taste in his mouth gives way. Putting the now half empty glass of juice on the nightstand, he drinks the remaining water.
I finish with the carpet, spraying ample amounts of cleaner that goes a long way toward making the room smell fresh and crisp. Clearing the array of vomit related paraphernalia helps too.
Carson looks much better when I return to his room empty handed, color having spread back into his cheeks. He’s staring at the book I was reading to him. I must have left it on his bed though I have no memory of it at all once he started throwing up.
“You’re welcome. How are you feeling?”
“Better. Just tired. Think I’ll try to get some sleep.”
We bid each other goodnight for the second time. Suddenly exhausted, I force myself to clean up my socks before going to sleep.
I take one look at Carson’s disheveled hair and dark rimmed eyes and stand up to make more coffee. There’s enough left in the pot to poor him a full mug to sip while more brews. He gives me the ghost of a smile when I set the steaming drink in front of him on the kitchen table.
<Do you want breakfast? It’s a Denver type omelet and potatoes.>
<Not yet. The idea of food kind of turns my stomach.>
I sit back down to the sound of coffee trickling into the pot. <Did you sleep at all?>
<Maybe an hour.> He winces, rubbing his left temple. “Maybe out loud is better…”
“You’re not wearing the stabilizer?”
“Not since after dinner last night. I…need to get off it, Eyan. It’s meant to make things easier but I’d rather get it over with than string it out over months.”
“Does it work like that? Like…what, withdrawal?”
“I don’t know about withdrawal but the doctor did say that the longer I use the stabilizer, the longer it will take me to get back to normal.”
“Not exactly. I’m not masochistic. Just a drastic reduction.”
He suffers three more attacks that day, interrupting Howl’s Moving Castle, a movie he picked for us to watch. After the last I’m disgusted. Not with him, with the people who did this to him. With the DOH, with humans, who so easily justify treating people as less than themselves.
“Are you going to tell me this is why I should hate them?” he asks in the stillness that descends after his latest episode. At least he hasn’t thrown up again.
My eyes fly to his face, surprised. I haven’t spoken any of the angry thoughts in my head. Maybe his telepathy has been left unstable going both ways? Regardless, Carson’s had a shit day already. He’s exhausted, has barely eaten, and doesn’t need me to make this worse. “No.”
I think the brevity of my answer catches him off guard. He leans back in his position on the couch, nods, opens his mouth, and says nothing.
“Do you want some wine? Maybe it’ll help you relax.”
“I don’t drink. Even if I did, the doctor told me alcohol could trigger an attack.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize.” Of course that’s obvious, about both, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked. “Why don’t you drink?”
Carson’s face closes off, or goes distant, or becomes pained, I can’t tell which, just that he wishes I hadn’t asked that. I almost say he doesn’t have to answer, but we’re not children so that’s obvious too.
“I can’t lose control.”
It’s a completely honest response. I can tell, though I don’t know him very well yet. He’s tense, waiting for my follow up questions. I have them, of course, just like I have them about all the things I’ve seen during his attacks, but won’t ask. I want him to know this, and the sentiment would be simple to send telepathically, without words, but we’ve been off telepathy all day. I won’t risk in now, settling for the first alternative I can think of. “Is there anything I can get you that would help?”
“I-” he comes up short, pauses for a long time, longer than it takes to think of the words he says. “No, thank you.” Then again, “Thank you.”
It’s a long three days, with Carson only using the stabilizer intermittently to enjoy a little respite, but by the end of them there’s a noticeable improvement. He’s not cured, but the attacks are both less severe and of shorter duration. I decide to try and take his mind off the whole thing.
<Want to go to the San Francisco Shelter market?>
<But we can’t leave the San Calloway Shelter.>
<We can’t leave a Shelter,> I correct, <and we don’t have to. We can take the next ship to the San Francisco Shelter.>
He blinks. <I think there’s important information I’m missing.>
I smile. <We have a public transportation system. I think I’ve mentioned the transportation hub is in the San Antonio Shelter?>
<Well, the ships are kept there when they’re not in use. Otherwise, they fly people between Shelters. There are set routes and times, like with buses and trains. The more popular travel between two Shelters is, the more often ships fly between them. They fly at SLight speeds outside Shelters so they’re not picked up on radar or other human technology. We also have a taxi-like service. You can hire small shuttles any time, as long as the pick up and drop off points are both in Shelters.>
<So…this entire time we didn’t have to be confined to just this Shelter?>
Carson shakes his head and shoves me in the arm, but he’s smiling. <Yes. Yes. Let’s go to the market. Let’s go anywhere. When can we go?>
I laugh. <Next ship leaves in 30 minutes.>
<Wait. Why have I never noticed this? Where are these ships taking off and landing from?>
<The roof of the assembly hall. As for why you’ve never noticed…> I shrug. <Bad timing? SLight speed is fast and they’re only ever not going SLight speed when they’re taking off or landing. Honestly, you haven’t really been here that long.>
Carson takes to the market like a kid to an ice cream parlor. His unabashed, wide-eyed enthusiasm is delightful. He wanders from shop to shop, examining its products, either talking to me about them as if they’re new to me too, or asking about the ones he doesn’t understand.
The market is set up in a single street that uses SEUs. Chosen vendors come from all over the world to sell here, but they don’t all come everyday so the SEUs are adjusted each morning based on demand. The space distortion causes unusual light reflection when looking at the market from beyond their field, like seeing the street ahead through the film of an enormous soap bubble, mostly clear but with areas that progress from yellow to orange to red, from green to turquoise to blue. Once inside their perimeter, the street can look never-ending, as if it just stretches out continually with shops on either side.
Each market stall has a brightly colored canopy to protect its merchandise, some even have matching curtains shrouding them in privacy. Reds, oranges, greens, and blues are visible throughout but the most popular color is turquoise. The street can be dazzling to look at, especially in pictures taken from above. While the stalls themselves are ordinary and low tech, the products they contain are anything but.
Illustrations that look different to every beholder, or different to the same person depending on their mood, experiences of every genre, picture books where the images change each time you open them, or if you come back to them after time away, so that if you want to see how a particular sequence plays out you have to finish in one sitting, jewelry that allows you to decide how people should see it each time it’s worn. Any and everything that can be enhanced with mindcraft is displayed for sale. Silly stuff too, like trick baseballs that fly away from everyone trying to catch or hit them, basketballs that act like they’re afraid of hoops, changing course to avoid them at all costs, sunglasses that remake everyone into the animal the wearer thinks they most resemble, or hats that make their owner look like cartoon versions of themselves.
For an hour it’s Carson discovering different items. <Look, Eyan, a pendant that reads your mood and tells you what it thinks will make you feel better.>
<A game whose objective changes based on your personality!>
<Look, wallpaper that changes to reflect the seasons!>
Then there are the things that perplex him. <A…robot puppy?>
<Look at it, if you didn’t know it wasn’t a real puppy, would you realize?> I defend.
<But…why not just get a real puppy?>
<This one never grows up. It doesn’t chew up your stuff. You don’t need to feed it. You don’t need to take it out to go potty, or for walks.>
Carson pets the artificial beagle, who wags her tail and presses her front paws against his leg. <It even smells like a dog… But real dogs are so loyal and loving…>
<I haven’t personally had a robot pet but they’re made to act as much like the real thing as possible.>
<Except for all the bits that actually cause the owner to put in effort…> He shakes his head, but he continues to pet around the puppy’s ears and smiles when she licks his hand.
<If it makes you feel better, most people go for the real thing.>
Then, sometime later: <What’s in the shops that are curtained off?>
<Yeah, but not magazines or videos…interactive fantasy experiences. There are ones that change based on whether it’s one experiencer or more. And, okay, well, there are magazines, but their content changes in some way. A different fantasy each time, or different according to your mood.>
And: <Why aren’t there people manning the shops?>
<Took you over an hour to notice that?>
His gaze is withering.
<Each shop has a telepathically accessible pricing catalog, which also comes with information about each item. You take what you want to buy and pay at the checkouts before leaving the market. The funds are transferred automatically to the appropriate vendor.>
<So the vendors only need to be here to set up and take down their stalls…>
We leave the market after three hours, and only because he’s gotten a headache. It’s certainly the longest I’ve ever spent there. Normally I hate shopping but Carson was so enthusiastic that the time went quickly. Despite our only having left due to allucinari, Carson’s happy in a way he hasn’t been these last days.