It’s a new year, and we have new fiction at Futurismic once again, courtesy of a familiar face. We’ve published more stories by Jason Stoddard than any one other author, and if you can read White Swan and still wonder why that is… well, I don’t know what to tell you!
“White Swan” sees Jason taking on a different style and voice, and very successfully. It’s a tale of small bright hopes in a dark and difficult future, and a shining example of why optimistic sf doesn’t have to be unrealistic, trite or panglossian. Read and enjoy. 🙂
by Jason Stoddard
The tiny room stinks of kid-sweat and puke, and greasy Portland rain, endless, rattles the thin plastic window. Little Beny thrashes in his narrow bed, clawing unseen monsters.
This is the hardest time, Lili Antila thinks.
Hardest because she knows Beny’s cries are echoing through the thin walls to reach his mother and father, who drip exhausted tears on screens bright with electronic hope. Hardest because this is when she always thinks, What if it doesn’t work this time? Hardest because it brings back gauze-wrapped memories of bright-lit hospital rooms and hard-faced doctors and soft sheets rough like sandpaper on her own changing skin–
Lili blinks back tears and turns to the wall, which is playing one of her favorite movies on a window not much bigger than her hand: Bad Girl. A black-and-white James Dunn is waxing on about his dream of owning a radio store. Lili knows what a radio store is. A physical location to house goods for sale, electronics so hopelessly primitive that they were not even interactive. She also knows it is a sad and impossible dream in the First Depression. The screen is smart enough to know this, and it displays the movie with no floaters, no contextual hints.
There is a scuffle of feet at the door. A polite noise. Lili waits for Freya to walk up behind her. She can feel Freya’s body heat in the chill room.
“How is he?” Freya asks.
“Better,” Lili tells her, turning around and offering her hand. Freya takes it, her hands like a iced vice.
Lili makes herself nod.
“I’m sorry to make you do this–“
“I just wish–“
“You don’t need to–“
“Yes. I do.” Lili squeezes Freya’s freezing hands, looks into her dark, darting eyes. Freya is a small woman, brown hair pulled back into a bun, yellow smartag from work still dangling from her plain cotton blouse.
Freya suddenly makes herself smile. She takes her hands back. She goes to Beny and kneels by the bed. Beny mumbles in his delirium. His eyes are half-open, but he does not see his mother. Lili sees tears like dew, reflecting the glints of light from her ancient movie.
Freya stays there for a long time, saying nothing. “You can make the screen bigger,” she says to Lili, pointing at Bad Girl. “We have the energy credit.”
“That’s all right,” Lili says. She doesn’t want to explain that the movie is so old it doesn’t look better on a larger screen. She shouldn’t be watching it at all. Blind bugs can only be so blind.
Beny cries out, loudly this time. Lili can see steam rising off of his uncovered arms. His temperature is near peak. It’s almost time for the final step.
Lili needs to get Freya out of the room.
“It’s okay,” Lili says.
Unless this time it isn’t.
Freya looks up with silver-cut cheeks, wanting to believe.
“I know you have work to do,” Lili says. “Go work.”
Freya’s eyes dart to the door. She has work. They all have work, in the nanoelectronics slum of Portland’s Pearl district. Atomic force microscopes run on 16-hour shifts, new discoveries to win more energy credits, more tiny luxuries, more badges of status. Especially hard for mid-scoring people like Freya, who had already been tested and sorted and slotted into the not-so-visionary side of the Long Run.
“I… I can’t,” Freya says, sobbing in exhaustion at Beny’s bedside.
Lili gambles. “I was going to get Beny some water–“
Freya beats her to the door. “Let me!” she calls from the hallway.
Lili has only a few moments. She bends over Beny, pretending concern. His eyes are wide open, and for a moment they seem to see her.
Under Beny’s covers, she finds a vein. Exposes the smallest part of his arm. Makes the final injection. It is hurried and clumsy. She is certain a hundred bugs have seen, and not all of them are blind.
The old song speeds through her head. Blood to blood. Lymph to lymph. Spine to spine.
“Is he–“ Freya says, rushing to his side.
“Almost fell out of bed,” Lili said, pulling the cover over him.
“Oh!” Freya tries to get him to take some water. Beny shies away, thrashing.
Lili watches her. Above Beny’s bed are physical tokens of his life. A large printed photo of Beny and Freya and Tim, in an old-fashioned gilt frame. A paper birth permit. Pine cones. Softly rounded river-pebbles from some nearby creek. Even a tiny trophy, probably printed illicitly on a company fabber. It reads: Best Storyteller, and it featured an etched image of a man hunched over an old-fashioned typewriter.
Eventually, Freya goes back to work, and Lili turns back to Bad Girl. She watches it until the end, when James Dunn asks to hold his baby for the first time. And in that expression, she sees Beny. Tiny, sickly Beny, a hero in his own right in this reduced world.
Beny is now sleeping quietly. Lili puts her hand on his forehead. It is still slick, but sweat no longer runs free. His eyes are closed. He may even be in honest sleep.
Time to go.
The thought is pain. She wants to see Beny wake up tomorrow. He wasn’t Down’s or SCID or any of the others she recognizes. More likely genetic fallout from the Stew, one of those no-name things they like to pretend never happened.
She wants to see his face, the first time he awakens, whole.
And a whole lot more.
But this is what you have to do.
Lili waits as long as she can, then lets herself out into the midnight rain.
She’ll never see Portland again.
Lili goes to Ecuador, because it is far away.
She sees bugs behind every sugary graphic-novel poster in the crowded little train. I Watch Because I Remember, says the square-jawed hero with kind blue eyes, betraying a quivering hint of sadness. If she watches long enough, she will find he lost his family in the Stew, or some other appropriate trauma. If she watches even longer, she will learn about his wife and their desire for a child, and the games he loves, and the food he eats, and the Very Very Bad Things he has stopped.
She dreams of being awakened by a strong man wearing a London Fog overcoat. He is black and white. His hands are steel vices.
She rises with a cry in a crowded sleeping-car. Some people glare at her; one man smiles. She closes her eyes. Kids are always the worst. So many bugs, watching that precious new life. She should never try to fix them.
But how can I not?
Ecuador is Portland, but warm. Lili doesn’t believe she has ever been there. The narrow, lumpy streets of Quito spark no memories. She gazes up with honest wonder at the thin black line of the space elevator. Shards of their previous failure still pile in the rainforest to the east.
She quickly hates Ecuador. Energy- and resource-credits from the space elevator have showered down, lifting people into those same old classes. They are looking for old-style servants. They want to look down on her, or see her in bed. They are building an old-style greedocracy. She thinks of bouncing north to another free destination. She dreams of leaving the loose confederacy of the American Union altogether, but of course that is impossible.
She finds a young man, a boy, really, not yet out of his 20s. She shines in his eyes. He reaches out to touch her white hair and murmurs, “Bonita–” before the translators kick in and give her bland VO English. He makes her look at herself in the mirror. Her hair, the lightest of blondes, is tangled and rough-cut. Dark moles stand out on her pale skin. Her blue eyes are summer sky. Many have told her she’s pretty.
Lili lets him touch her, always in the dark. She is happy for some moments. Until she sees the display flicking inside his eye, and he disappears at night, never explaining. The kid is a bug. Or proto-bug.
Lili fixes him. He smiles at the first needle, thinking it a drug. By the third injection, he is too delirious to resist. She watches all of Kings Row as she waits. She imagines him waking up, legless, asking, “Where is the rest of me?”
But he will wake up, whole. And a whole lot more.
She bounces north to Mexico.
Manzanillo is much better. They’re doing honest work in the dirty turquoise sea. Rebuilding the reefs. Backbreaking, exhausting work. Work she can do. For the first time in–
–she isn’t standing at the outside, helping plugged-in megabrains decipher the last of the material mysteries, or kowtowing to men who should be living in the 20th century. She can see herself staying here, forever.
Lili Antila lays out on the beach at night. Sometimes she can see traces of gossamer structures growing from the space elevator’s tether. And on those nights she can believe she is living in the first years of the latter half of the 21st century.
And that what they’re doing just might be the right thing.
Manzanillo has several children, and in the warm summer sea, they make fun of Lili’s wetsuit. “Caliente! Caliente!” they cry, splashing water and making voluptuous shapes over their little stick-bodies. They think she is a prude.
Lili smiles at them. Yes, she is la gringa loca.
Eventually, they smile back at Lili. It’s impossible to hate a truly happy person.
“They work so hard for you,” says Willie Glass, one day. He is head of the reef-building project. Wisps of white hair are plastered to his hopelessly sunburned skull. His skin sags and droops like leather poorly stretched on a curing-frame. How old is Willie? Eighty? Ninety?
“They like me,” Lili tells him.
Willie just nods. He looks at her wetsuit just a fraction longer than necessary. It is a warm fall.
“They make fun of you.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
More silence. The cries of the kids are far-away. She should check in on them.
“Are you… ” Willie begins. He raises a hand out of the water as if to touch her, but he never completes the gesture. He looks at her with eyes as dark and heavy as lead. And in that moment, she realizes Willie has been through the Stew in a very personal way, maybe not even through it, but actually a part of it, and that he might suspect a tiny fraction of what she is.
“I’m sorry,” Lili says. “The kids, I should–“
A jerky nod. Then Willie calls: “Have them move the balls three hundred meters north and a hundred meters out.”
Lili stops. “But the simulations say–“
“The simulations are wrong.”
“Trust an old man.”
Lili nods and goes to work with the kids. They make their fun. She sees Willie watching, pretending not to watch.
That night, she looks up the reef plans and sees the changes he has made. Where he’s changed it, reef growth exceeded expectations. Left to the simulation, much of the work failed.
What’s in your head, old man? she wonders.
She stays in Manzanillo for eleven months. She might have stayed eleven years or eleven centuries.
But when Willie Glass falls ill, and the medical staff tell him to prepare his wife for being a widow, what else can she do?
She goes to his house. It’s a very, very old adobe with dirt floors. It’s very tempting to think, There are no bugs here. But every dancing dustmote can be an eye. And there can be only so many blind bugs, turning their head when the algorithms shout, turning their head to forgive an act of kindness.
“It’s good of you to come,” Willie says, formal and cautious.
“I should have come earlier.”
“There’s nothing you can do.” But his eyes dart from her to the door and back again.
“Who leads the project in your absence?”
“Geraldo. He’s a good man.”
“As good as you?”
A wince. “He follows the simulations.” Then, when the silence grew long: “You can help him. It’s a matter of looking at the algae–“
Lili shakes her head and opens her palm, giving Willie a glimpse of a small hypodermic.
Willie sits up in bed a little straighter. “I want to stay as long as I can.”
Lili nods. “Of course.”
She shows him the hypo again.
Willie’s eyes go wide. He opens his mouth. For a second, Lili thinks she will have to stop him from saying anything. Then he closes his mouth. He nods at the hypo concealed in her hand and raises his eyebrows. She gives him a little thumbs-up.
Willie lies back and closes his eyes. He looks like a corpse. He stays like that for a long time.
Then he nods.
She gives him the first injection. When she comes back the next day, Willie is sweaty and crying out in pain. She’s lucky the wife allows her a minute to see him.
Coming back the third day is the hardest, but Willie is delirious, and his wife needs help holding him down. She is out of the room only a moment, but it only takes a moment.
Before Lili goes, Willie grabs her arm.
“What are you?” he asks.
Lili just smiles.
Manzanillo is dead to her.
Detroit is one of the few free travel options. Spontaneous organization is an important component of happiness, she thinks, imagining clips from H.G. Wells’ Things to Come. She knows she should be happy that the right to travel was part of the Long Run’s charter at all. She makes herself smile.
Detroit is an empty city. Gray-green biodynamic blobs huddle at the base of blasted Cobo Hall and stretch tendrils to reach the top of the Renaissance Center. Its crochet of life is still under the gray winter sky, as the first flakes of snow filter down like fallout.
Nobody lives in Detroit, they tell her. Detroit is an experiment, they tell her. In twenty years it will be something you see on a brag-screen, glittering with captured stars, they tell her. In twenty years, they have no idea what it will be, they tell her.
They take her 50 miles outside the city to plant trees. Special trees that will reforest the area in tens of years, rather than thousands. They show her more images: their brilliant green city rising from the middle of lush woodlands.
In many ways, this work is best of all. The think-work is largely done. This is simple labor. This is something Lili can do. She can stay covered up. And her co-workers, descendants of descendants of auto-assemblers and bail-bondsmen and shop-foremen, are old and hard and focused. Only a handful are under 50. Millenium babies, born at the end of the time when everything always got better. They’ve been through the Rethink and the Stew, and they are grateful to have work of any kind. It is sad that their kids have moved away, and it is even sadder so few have grandchildren.
Their flat Midwestern accents are hard and grating after over a year of musical Spanish. But that is all right. Lili enjoys the work, and she likes being the child of the community. They invite her to dinner. They make her Jell-o.
But they talk too much about what was. About factory jobs and thermoses and camaraderie that sounded movie-script fake. The fantasy crowds the reality and always wins.
And there were things that they could never talk about. Lost Indianapolis, the beginning of the Stew, still clicking radioactive after all these years. They are too close to it. Lili is happy to avoid the topic. She wonders if she may have been born in the Midwest.
She is less happy with their blind faith in the trees. Any questions are diverted. The trees are divine. There is no possibility they could have an unexpected excursion. They will not discuss the logic of growing a new city, given the world’s population trajectory. The Michiganders have new faith, and their faith is absolute.
Lili is very, very lucky that one of them shows her the new game White Swan, where a mysterious white-haired girl travels from city to city, promising cures but delivering death. Lili scores very badly. The man looks at her afterwards, his mouth set in a hard line.
Lili feigns ignorance. “I’m not good at games.”
“That girl looks like you.”
Lili smiles. “Have I ever cured anyone?”
And with that, the fire is gone. Lili’s heart is twisting a thousand times a minute. They’ve noticed her. They’re seeding the memepool. Which means the blind bugs will have to become less blind.
She stays for several more days, then bounces to Cambridge.
In the train, she reads the legends about herself. The stories prominently feature Fedro Tejeda, the heroic bug who stalks her. In the game, that’s the player POV. In the movie, he’s the hero. She transforms into a snarling, ugly thing at the end, before Fedro puts a bullet in her skull.
Why don’t they just bring her in? she wonders. But she knows the answer. Because the blind bugs still smile on her. Because they know.
But it is a warm fire in a cold house; she shivers.
In Cambridge, they want volunteers for experimental augmentation. Lili squeezes back tears. It is like a trap.
In the spring streets of the ancient town, Harvard students mix with people twisted by genetic fate, Downs and SCID and double-x’s and PAR and all the unnamed fallout from the Stew. Lili looks right at home, and she catches trailing glances of many a student as she passes, perhaps wondering if she is a new classmate. She feels completely transparent. But better to go naked of face than dye her hair and don new fashions. The algorithms are excellent at picking that out, and blind bugs are only so blind.
Her travel pass has gone red for three months. She works in a mediastore and goes to the free lectures. Harvard professors talk about their charter: To improve all of humankind. Its most liberal interpretation is in play. The experimental augmentation is a part. They can help lift us out of what we are. But their eyes are chill, and even colder gazes watch from the shadows.
She lives with a family that has come here for the augmentation. Their little girl is blonde-haired and blue-eyed and she has myeloid leukemia and her name is Kerry Pearlman. Lili does not want to play with her, because myeloid leukemia is so simple, so insignificant, that Harvard should not be posturing about experimental treatments or making noises about how it may not work. But then again, children shouldn’t be sickly, and there should be more of them, and there shouldn’t be any old people at all–
And that is the end of the world.
Kerry cries when they tell her she cannot be cured.
Lili takes her frail hand. Kerry looks up at her, her sunken eyes broad and hopeless. The edges of her vision are burning. Soon, she won’t see anything at all. Lili’s tears run freely, and not for the first time she wishes her tears were all she needed to transform someone, but that would be too angelic, too perfect, too poetic. It was blood to blood, lymph to lymph, spine to spine.
Lili runs the moment the last injection is made.
It is too late. Her travelcard goes red. It tells her to report to the bugs. She expects Fedro to appear on the screen, plain-clothed and polite. She throws the card away before that can happen.
She catches the end of a freight train, like a hobo from the past. It is something familiar, like a hospital bed viewed through wax paper. She has no idea where the memory comes from.
Her tears splash on the metal, freezing in the cold.
She hops off as the train slows to take on fuel, in the middle of a crop of winter sugarcane. The glow of a city paints the night sky in the east. Wispy clouds stream past the full moon. It has grown warmer, and the smell of the land brings back something, something very familiar.
Lili wanders to crumbling blacktop roads. She walks down the middle of them, wondering where they’ll take her.
There is a splash of light behind her, and the whir of a car engine. She dashes into the cane and watches.
The car slows and stops.
She turns to run.
The sound of a car window. A voice, behind her: “You always come here.”
Memory unfolds like a carnation, bright and ruffled. That voice. That familiar voice. The hospital in Kansas, in the middle of golden cornfields under perfect blue skies. Before the Stew was the Stew.
The man who stopped. The man who looked at her differently. That strange direct stare that she could not decode. She didn’t know if it meant he wanted to hurt her more, or if he was there just to do his job. She had never seen that look before.
He gave her a candy bar. She didn’t know what it was. She did not know that food could taste like that.
Lili remembers him through tears, laughing at her joy.
Lili wakes in a room brilliant with golden sunlight. The ceiling above her is carved into intricate reliefs of science and leadership: a man with a primitive light-bulb like a halo behind him, powdered-wig ancients arguing over a document, two men in awkward sweaters, standing in front of a wooden box full of circuitry, a man with a cigar and a man in a wheelchair, shaking hands, a woman holding a petri dish with spiky structures growing towards an idealized sun.
“How do you feel?” That voice, that same voice.
Lili pushes herself up. She is in a bed. A bed so large she cannot reach the edges of it. A man — the man — is bending over her. There is an ornately upholstered chair sitting by the bed. A rumpled blanket and a glowing slate sit on top of it.
“Do you remember?”
As if on cue, more memories open like doors. She sees the man — Scott — coming to the hospital. Usually with other men. They shout at the doctors. The doctors sometimes have guns. But Scott and the other men come back, again and again. Sometimes he talks to Lili. Sometimes he talks to other children. He tells her they are going to right the world.
A smile. Scott is dark-haired, dark-eyed, with a severe square-cut beard. He looks like a portrait of a Victorian scientist. He looks exactly the same as he did in the hospital. At the end of the Stew. Over twenty years ago.
Lili pushes herself the rest of the way up in bed. Her fingertips are pink and sensitive. Scott sees her looking at them. “You had some frostbite.”
Lili itches of clean. She runs a hand through her hair. It is short-cropped, soft, and smells of lavender.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Scott says.
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what she minds yet. She stands on wobbly legs and goes to the window. Beyond the gauzy curtain, fields of northern sugarcane stretch away into the early-morning mist. A low sun paints the fields in shades of gold. Polite mechanical harvesters spider their way slowly through the plants, like a surreal CGI scene from a turn-of-the-century movie.
This is the world they want, she thinks. Green and empty.
“Lili,” Scott says, laying a hand on her shoulder.
She shrugs it off and pushes him away.
“Is Fedro yours?” she asks. “Did you invent him to push me here?”
“The bug, the heroic bug, the one who corners the white-haired monster.”
Scott shakes his head.
“You support it!”
Lili paces. Lili realizes she is wearing a thin white nightgown, open at the back. She crosses her arms violently, though Scott has seen her, Scott has seen all of her.
“You’ve been hard to ignore,” Scott says. “A wrench in our gears.”
Lili stops, looks at him.
“Like a system fault, critical error.”
“I understand you.”
Lili shakes her head. “Only two decades into immortality, and you’re already acting like gods.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Long Run. The system. Your perfect system. You’ve set it up and made the rules: here’s what we’ll reward. Here’s what we won’t. All rats in a lab for the Long Run.”
Scott looks away. “What else can we do?”
All the old arguments come rushing back: This is the most humane thing we can do. It’s this or wipe out 90% of the population in a single shot. A Long Run down to a billion in 100 years is chancy enough.
She goes for his fear: “What happens if your immortality fails? Who says, two hundred years out, you don’t all fall down dead? Or go sterile?”
Scott’s eyes dart left and right. He retrieves his slate and shows her videos: the first rats have just had their 25th birthdays. Rich, cold scientists hang little silver medals from their necks. One of them bites the scientist, hard, and there is blood and cursing.
“In human terms, our Constant rats are pushing into their seventh century.”
“So what if they all die in their eighth? You’ve still doomed us all.”
“We’ll always maintain unmodified humans–“
Lili’s eyes spill tears, as red rage tinges her vision. “Unmodified humans? You mean my friends? The people I live with? Like farm animals!”
“They’re not animals. They’re where the advances will come from. Advancement requires new perspective, we know that. We baked that into the plan. Your . . . friends . . . are the most important people on the planet.”
Who live and die so you can move forward. “Thank you, oh selfless master.”
Scott blinks, and says nothing.
Lili cries. “How can you be nice to me, but not them?”
A sigh. Lili imagines him saying, Because we had to. Because this was most fair.
“How many of our invisible rulers were poor, before the Stew?” she asks.
Scott opens his mouth, but words don’t come. He looks away. He goes back to his seat and picks up his slate, drums it on his fingers. He looks down at the chair. “You cannot simply go around and make people Constants. That man down in Mexico received a lot of attention. We had to be very, very persuasive.”
Meaning Willie probably had a new face and new memories and had been fed back into the reef-building program on the opposite side of Mexico. She wondered if he would still be able to second-guess the simulations.
“So the critters in the barnyard don’t know what they’re missing,” Lili says.
Scott looks at her. “I know you don’t do it to expose us.”
Scott goes to the door, then pauses. “Why, then?”
Lili sighs. Because I’m still human, she wants to say. Because they deserve better, she wants to say. But she realizes it isn’t just that. It has never been just that.
“Because you never know where the answers are going to come from,” she says.
Scott turns to look again, his face a rumpled mask of confusion.
“Because no system is perfect,” Lili says. “Not even yours.”
The door and windows are locked. Lili is not yet ready to break the beautiful house, so she has the wallscreen play a comedy for her. I’m No Angel, with Mae West. It’s one she’s seen a dozen times. Even in black and white, the characters are so alive. Nobody has pointed them down their path. There is no Long Run. There are no bugs, blind or otherwise. It seems like such a wonderful world. She dreams of stepping through the screen to live in it.
And then Tira goes to Rajah for prognostication:
Rajah: Ah, you have a wonderful future. I see a man in your life.
Tira: What, only one?
Rajah: But this is one very particular man. He is very wealthy, enormously wealthy.
Anger simmers in Lili’s mind, but she pushes it down. Tira’s intended is not a man like Scott Poole. And she is not like Tira at all, except perhaps in name. Lili Antila. Is it a product of a random name generator? She does not remember growing up. She does not remember her parents.
And Tira is beautiful.
Lili lets the thin nightgown fall from her, and she stands in the brightness of mid-day, streaming in from the windows. Below her small breasts, her skin turns dark and ridged, like the pads of a dog’s foot. Small translucent sacs, three of them, bulge with liquid. She must milk them soon. Scott has taken her hypodermic; she may have to let the invaluable treatments run down her body. She imagines eternal frogs in the sewers below, living to the end of the world. But the system does not work that way. Three painful injections, carefully timed, is what it takes. Scott has told her she is an early prototype. They do not become Constant on the backs of people anymore.
But how far is he willing to go, in the Long Run?
Scott invites her down for dinner. She puts on a long silken dress, like a summer breeze. She has never felt anything like it. She takes Scott’s long, slim hand, and for a moment imagines herself as Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. She feels suddenly nauseous, and takes her hand away from him. Scott pauses for a moment, then click-clacks after her in his fancy, too-hard shoes.
“Are you going to talk to me?” he asks, as they sit down at the opulent table. A deep orange soup sits in front of her, an little dollop of cream artfully stirred into a little icon of a leaf.
Lili picks up her spoon. She does not want to plunge it into the heart of her dinner art. She puts it down again.
Scott shakes his head. Shovels soup into his mouth. Kaleidoscopic fragments of memories assemble. Scott and others took Lili and the other transformees to a restaurant after they’d finally left the hospital. Dirty people, cold eyes, backs hunched over warm drinks, as if hoarding the stolen calories. The world is big and empty and silent. His own eyes, sad and distant. A fragment of conversation: It’s too bad it can’t stay like this.
And then off to… off to… somewhere.
“Do you remember how bad it was?” Chuck says.
Lili looks up at him.
“During the Stew?”
Lili shakes her head.
“It wasn’t just the garage genetics. It was Anonymous and their government shutdowns. It was the GMO inversion and the famines. It was the president losing his implant. It was automated surveillance and the lockup. It was John Kozma and his 99% solution. You don’t know how close we came to that. What else could we do, but this?”
“What else could I do, but this?” Lili echoes him, rubbing a hand down the front of her dress.
“You don’t grow the needles. Injecting them is your choice.”
“What else could I do, but this?”
Scott shakes his head.
“You could stay,” he says, after a time.
“I could,” Lili says.
She leaves that night. She sees Scott’s silhouette in one of the house’s grand windows, watching her go.
She goes back to Cambridge, thinking, Let’s see what luck is in the world. Let’s see how blind the bugs really are.
And of course they have done a good job already. Many families know the story of Fedro and the white-haired monster. But when Harvard’s promised uplifts fail to materialize, they are more willing to whisper to her, late at night, in the dark. Lili brings one, two, three, seven, ten miraculous transformations.
The word begins to bubble out: the white-haired angel, not monster. Trust in her eyes. She has seen the cold black crystal heart of the world.
She thinks of shaving her head. She thinks of running from city to city. She knows it will do no good. She looks up proudly into the dust-motes as she transforms child after child, teen after teen, adult after adult.
And of course, Fedro Tejeda comes. His story has grown long and twisted like the shadow of a stained-glass window. In the tiny basement apartment that Lili calls home, the people who have come for treatment part for him as if choreographed, while simultaneously squeezing back tears and choking back whimpers. Lili’s time has passed, and they have passed with her.
Fedro stops in front of her. Lili is cradling a tiny Down’s baby in her arms. It shakes in the final stages of fever. She looks at Fedro and pushes the needle deep into a vein.
Fedro looks back at her. He is a tall, thin, dark-skinned man who wears an old-fashioned fedora. He has been caught and transformed by his story.
He looks at her, tips his hat, and walks back into the crowd.
Lili’s heart thuds, hard. She feels lightheaded. Around her, the room erupts in cheers.
She has won. A bug has seen, and walked away.
Four hours later, six bugs come. They have that blinkered look of people who live in front of screens. They are very polite, but also very insistent.
Lili offers them a sad smile and holds out her hands.
They take her.
They are all very polite at the Office of Public Observation, which is where Lili learns the bugs come from. A brilliant, friendly blue eye is their sigil. It covers the dirt-streaked space where another government shield had one hung; the building is last-century concrete grim. At the desks and in the cubicles, eyes glance sidewise as she passes.
There is no trial, no reading of charges. They know what she has done, and so does she.
They take her to a tiny room with a window that looks out over the city. The sun is rising, painting the buildings in garish shades of orange and charcoal. They make her sit back and put something on her head.
“Will it hurt?” Lili asks.
“No.” The man is young and dark-skinned and good-looking. His hands tremble a little. “We’re just changing your neural weighting.”
“So I won’t help people.”
Lili looks out the window. Boston is a pretty, happy slum, its millions turned towards the bright and shiny things that will ensure humanity has a future. It is a perfect cage, the best outcome they can calculate.
“I’ll come back,” she says.
The young man keeps adjusting something at the back of her head.
“No matter what you do, I’ll do it again.”
The young man looks down at her. His eyes are hazel, perfect, pure, unreadable. He disappears for one last tug at her cap.
A whisper, tinged with cinnamon: “You already have.”
And she goes away. For a time.
Jason Stoddard is an evil technology marketer/electronics engineer/author (though not necessarily in that order). He’s a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and Sidewise Award finalist, and editors at Futurismic, Sci Fiction, Interzone, Strange Horizons, and other publications have been crazy enough to buy his stories. His first book, Winning Mars, is available for pre-order at Amazon (hint, hint). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, fellow writer Rina Slayter. Feel free to contact him at jason [at] strangeandhappy [dot] com.