Excerpts for Linked


Linked
Chapter

AS ELISSA and her mother entered the waiting room, the sky above Central Canyon City was a chill, predawn gray, the spaceport a colorless blaze on the horizon. Lines and points of light pricked up from the canyon floor far below.

Elissa walked to the window, trying to ignore the tightness in her chest and that her palms were damp enough to leave handprints on the glass ledge of the windowsill. As she stared, struggling not to give in to her creeping anxiety, the sky changed. First from gray to a thin twilight green, hazy where it curved down beyond the spaceport, then--as all at once the sun rose high enough for its light to hit the desert floor--to endless blue, a color deep enough to drown in.

The light made Elissa's eyes water. She blinked and looked away, just as the waiting-room lights went to sleep and a ripple of cold at the back of her neck told her the air-conditioning had come on, preparation against the scorching heat of late springtime in the city.

Elissa shivered. No one ever got the temperature right for her. Four years--a lifetime--ago, Carlie and Marissa used to joke that she was as cold-blooded as the tiny glass-lizards that scrabbled up the sides of the school buildings to lie on the flat, sun-hot roofs.

Pushing the memory away, she turned to pick her sweatshirt up from the chair behind her.

At the far side of the room, her mother sat, straight-backed and exquisitely thin, a bookscreen in her hands. In the adjacent corner amber lights glowed behind a tiny waterfall that ran over a tumble of pebbles into a small pool. In the background, music--chimes and harp strings--trickled quietly from invisible speakers, and the scent of chamomile and lavender hung in the air. Everything was designed to calm, to relax.

Elissa's hands were still sweaty. She wiped them surreptitiously on the sweatshirt as she pulled it on.

If this guy can't fix me . . .

No one had said it, but Elissa knew very well this was a last resort. How many times now had she sat in doctors' offices, waiting for them to tell her how they were going to fix her, how they were going to make her normal? How many treatments had they tried? The sleep medication, the pain medication, the little electronic device designed to interfere with the signals her brain sent to her body. That last one had seemed to work at first, and her hopes had soared, only to crash when, abruptly, the symptoms returned. Then there was the hypnotherapy and the weird white-noise machine they'd fixed up in her room, which had been supposed to help her sleep but had just filled her room with an infuriating sensation, like a buzz she heard not only with her ears but also with the inside of her head.

The background music segued into a slightly different theme, something with more flute and less harp. The muted lighting behind the waterfall changed from amber to gold. Elissa's mother sighed, flicked a glance up at the clock-shimmer on the cream-colored wall, and brushed her bookscreen to turn a page.

Elissa bit at the ragged edge of her thumbnail.

"Lissa, darling, don't bite your nails."

She dropped her hand and turned back to the window, but the tightness in her chest crept now into her stomach, coiling behind her ribs. Every time the doctors had tried a new treatment, from that very first time, when they'd said it was nothing but out-of-balance hormones, they'd promised she'd get better. They'd promised the symptoms wouldn't last. Promised that the treatment--whichever one it was that time--was only temporary. Give it a week . . . a month . . . four months. . . . You'll be okay for your best friend's birthday sleepover . . . for your date . . . the spring break camping trip. You'll be back to normal, Elissa, I assure you . . .

They weren't saying that anymore. After this last time--the latest terrifying vision, the pain that had made her scream and scream and scream, the bruises as black as burn marks on her neck--they hadn't promised anything. They'd just made her an emergency early-morning appointment with a new doctor. A specialist. Specialist in what?

When the chime came, she almost jumped. She looked around to see the inner door slide open and the doctor--the specialist--step into the waiting room. He was a man about her parents' age, with dark brown skin and a mist-gray suit as elegant as the room.

"Mrs. Ivory? Elissa? I'm Dr. Brien."

Elissa's mother was already getting to her feet. Her mouth was a little tight, and her hand bloodless on the bookscreen, but she appeared, as always, entirely in command of the situation. "Call me Laine, please. You're going to help my daughter. I really don't feel I should stand on ceremony with you." This with a slight smile as she took his outstretched hand.

Dr. Brien's smile included Elissa. "What a wonderful attitude. If that's your attitude as well, Elissa, I don't think we need to worry!"

Elissa took his hand in turn. Hope unfurled within her, warm and glowing. This one would help. Probably they should have sent her to him years before. Years that she'd spent trying, helpless, to hold on to everything that made up her life, watching as it all slid through her fingers and disappeared.

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter about all that wasted time, if I can just be normal now. If I can just have enough of my life back to build a new one.

"Please, both of you, come in. Now, I've been caught up to speed with the problems Elissa has been having, but of course you'll fill me in if there's anything else I need to know. It looks as if Elissa's symptoms haven't cleared up the way we thought they would . . . ." His voice continued, an effortless, reassuring flow of familiar words, as they followed him into his office and sat, obedient to his gesture, in armchairs that matched the couch in the other room. Elissa's chair shifted a tiny bit around her as she sat, and then warmth crept through its surface, cocooning comfort around her tense body.

Across the room to her right, a whole wall was a plate-glass window, treated to eliminate reflections, making it look as if there were nothing there but emptiness. The sky stretched into an infinity of blue.

Almost invisible against the brightness, a shining fragment climbed like a rising star. A ship, setting off on its journey across the impossible distances of space. Then two more, tiny sliding glints of reflected sunlight. It seemed incredible that just fifty years ago there'd been no spaceflight industry on Sekoia at all. No Space Flight Initiative. No government-funded training program. What would Bruce have done, with no space career to aim for? Gone all out for sports instead? Followed Dad into the police force?

Dr. Brien waved the door shut, then took a seat opposite Elissa and her mother, next to the big corner desk where his screen stood.

"Now, Elissa." He smiled at her again, and she smiled back. "I've been looking at the results of all your tests. Just let me make sure I've got everything straight. There's a note here about some nightmares when you were very young, and a prescription for sleep medication. Do you remember that?"

"Yes. Yes, I do."

Except she'd never called them nightmares. They hadn't been scary, so it wouldn't have made sense. The only scary thing had been her mother's reaction when she'd mentioned them. "Sometimes I think I'm a girl who's not me," Elissa had said, and her mother had stopped dead in the middle of unwinding a clean floor across the playroom, looking up with a face frozen in shock. When Elissa had said the same thing to the doctor--that first doctor her mother had taken her to--"nightmares" had been how he'd framed them. It hadn't felt like the right word, but she hadn't known what else to call them, those pictures that came day and night. She'd gone for "dreams" in the end, even though that hadn't felt quite like the right word either.

"And the medication, did it work?" asked Dr. Brien.

"Yes."

It had worked, way back then, but she hadn't liked how it had made her feel. Slow, almost . . . muffled, as if they'd given her invisible earplugs. So when at the end of the month the medicine ran out and her mother checked--Are you having any more of those funny dreams? You need to tell me, Lissa, if you do--she'd said no. And when the dreams had come back, she just hadn't said anything else about them.

She taught herself to ignore them instead. She learned to shut the pictures out of her daytime, learned to forget the dreams as soon as morning erased the darkness from the bedroom. As she got older they came less and less often, until it took hardly any effort to forget they'd ever been there at all.

She'd thought, earlier, how that had seemed a lifetime ago. That time before the symptoms.

If I'd known. If I'd only known I was living on borrowed time, I wouldn't have bothered freaking out about all the tiny things that used to upset me. When I got to high school and Bruce--and freaking Cadan--still kept treating me like a little kid. Not being able to get matching shoes and swimsuit for Marissa's sweet teen pool party. Not asking for help when I didn't understand simultaneous equations and being pulled up in front of the whole class. When I was sure Simon was going to ask me to the Newbies Prom and he never did.

She'd had friends--two best friends, and a whole heap of others. She'd been asked to most of the parties that mattered. She hadn't yet had an official boyfriend, but she'd known, from giggling oh-my-God-don't-tell-him-I-told-you-what-he-said conversations with Carlie and Marissa, that there were at least three boys working up the courage to ask her out. Her grades were good enough. She'd been promised driving lessons, and her own beetle-car if she passed her test the first time.

She'd had everything, and she hadn't even realized.

Until . . .

"Until . . . ," said Dr. Brien, and she nearly jumped, suddenly terrified he was reading her thoughts. But he was looking back at his screen. "Until about a year after you started menstruation, yes?"

Agh. She ought to be used to that sort of question by now, but all the same, heat flooded her face. "Yes."

He picked up a universal pen and sketched a rough square on his desk. The lines glowed briefly green, then the wood finish cleared to show a note-taking surface, smooth and translucent.

"Why don't you tell me about the symptoms, the way they began?"

Again. Going through it all over again, with doctor after doctor . . .

But this doctor was going to fix her. She straightened a little in her chair, determined not to leave out anything that might help him figure out what he needed to do. If it works . . . oh God, if it works this time, I might be okay for graduation. I've been a freak for half my time at school, but if this works, if they can all see me looking normal when we graduate . . .

"Okay." She swallowed. "The pictures--they came back."

For years they'd been nothing but flickers in her mind, fleeting and indistinct, easy to ignore. But when they returned, they were bright, vivid with detail, appearing as if lit by lightning flashes in her brain. And this time they were like nightmares. White-masked people, needles and syringes, huge humming machines she dreamed she was clamped into--and she woke biting down screams.

They brought pain, too. Pain that struck like lightning, white-hot, out of nowhere. She would have been able to hide just the pictures. But even if the pain hadn't been bad enough to make her cry out or faint or--worst of all--throw up, she wouldn't have been able to hide it. Because just as with the pictures came pain, with the pain came bruises.

Dark splotches creeping out from the nape of her neck up onto her jawline, or sometimes unexpectedly around her temples, or in thumbprintlike marks on the sides of her neck. Every morning when she looked in her mirror, she'd flinch from the sight of new marks.

Dr. Brien was nodding as she talked, making the occasional note in scrawly writing that shone a dark, wet green, as if he were using real ink.

Elissa told him everything she could think of that he might need to know. She told him how her grades had slid down to almost failing. How she'd kept blacking out at school. How sometimes the pain wrecked her sense of balance and she fell, adding explainable bruises to the mysterious ones.

She didn't tell him absolutely everything, though. He didn't need to know about the times she hadn't been able to get her makeup to cover the bruises, about the times at school when people had whispered about her--not always far enough behind her back. He didn't need to know that, after one too many no-shows at parties, canceled shopping trips, and sleepovers ruined by screaming fits and late-night emergency calls to her parents to pick her up, even Carlie and Marissa had stopped inviting her anywhere. Or that, after all, each of those three boys had asked other girls out instead.

Nor did she tell him how, to start with, her parents had put their own social lives on hold, but when a year had passed and there was still no sign she was going to get any better, they'd started going out again, leaving her at home with medication, their number to call, and a pillow to scream into. I'm sorry, her mother had said. Really, I am, Lissa. I don't want you to feel abandoned, and we're just on the end of the phone. But it's not like we can even do anything if we stay in with you, and your father's work contacts . . .

Dr. Brien flipped his pen over, touched the nonwriting end to the surface of his notes, and transferred them to the upright screen, leaving the square blank. "So, hallucinations--‘pictures,' as you say. And phantom pain and bruising. They all come together?"

"Yes."

"Every time? You don't get, say, bruising without the pain first? Or the pictures without any pain at all, like you did when you were very young?" He watched her face, waiting.

Not anymore. "No." Then a thought struck her.

"Elissa?"

"I . . . I didn't think before, it was so vague . . ."

He waited, pen blinking its ready signal, a tiny emerald spark at its tip.

"The pain--yes, it normally comes with the pictures. But sometimes, I have just a--well, I guess it's a hallucination, but I never really thought . . ."

"Why is that?"

"It--they--sometimes they come at night, so it feels more like a dream. If there's no pain I don't remember them much. I didn't think . . ." She looked at him guiltily. If she'd thought of this before, if she'd told someone, would it have helped earlier?

He smiled briefly at her. "Don't worry, Elissa. So, you have hallucinations without pain that might just be dreams. Such as . . . ?"

Such as waking up crying in the night, shaking with sobs that didn't seem like hers, bursting with misery and rage . . . feelings that didn't seem like hers either, and that faded almost immediately, leaving nothing but bewilderment behind, and a fatigue that dragged her back down into the depths of sleep.

She'd been looking down at her hands, twisted in her lap--it was easier to talk if she didn't have to watch him listen--but now she glanced up. Dr. Brien had laid his pen down, and was tapping out his notes on the upright screen instead. He'd tilted it away from where Elissa and her mother sat, so she couldn't see what he was writing.

"These particular hallucinations, Elissa. Are they just feelings--emotions? Is that all?"

She blinked. "I . . . Like I said, they don't have any pain with them . . ."

"I mean, do you see anything? Are you aware of your surroundings? When you have your ‘pictures,' they're associated with images of people in white masks--scientists, presumably. In these night pictures, in these dreams, is it the same thing?"

"No. I don't think I really see anything. I guess . . . I'm just in bed."

"Your own bed?"

She stared at him, confused. They were freaking hallucinations. What did the furniture matter? "I don't know. A bed. It's dark."

"All right." He smiled at her. "Don't worry, Elissa. You're doing great. I'm just collecting as much information as I can. Anything that happens in your brain draws on all sorts of other data--movies you've seen, music you've listened to, conversations you didn't even know you'd heard. And sometimes the type of data it's drawing on helps us make a more accurate diagnosis. Now, if that's all you can remember, let's move on to your latest recurrence of the symptoms." He pulled down the corners of his mouth. "It sounds like a nasty one, from what I've been sent. Suppose you tell me about it."

As she obeyed, her stomach cramped. Ever since it had happened, late yesterday afternoon, she'd been sick with fear that it was going to come again. The pain had been . . . oh God, just awful. She'd been at home, thank goodness, and it had come so suddenly, so violently it had taken her feet from under her. She'd fallen, halfway up the stairs to her bedroom, dropping the orange juice she'd been holding, doubling over, retching bile onto the pale carpet.

"And the pictures?"

"White masks. A machine. A huge machine, much bigger than the others. And wires. They were putting wires into my head. Something . . . my hair, I think it got burned. There was an awful smell."

The smell had still been in her nostrils when she'd come around, making her feel sicker, making her think for an insane moment that her hair had really burned, although when she'd put her hand up to it, it had been soft and undamaged.

"So with this one, the pain was worse than before?"

"Yes," she said, not wanting to think about it.

"All right." He tapped in the last bit of information, nodding a little at the screen as if he'd been doing sums that all added up the way he'd expected. "This was yesterday. And you've had nothing--neither pain nor pictures--since?"

She started to agree, then stopped. She hadn't thought before--after that awful pain nothing could have had anything like the same impact, and she'd been thinking of them as dreams, anyway . . .

"I did have another picture. Last night."

Dr. Brien looked up at her, a sudden movement. "Last night?"

"Yes. I-- Do you want to know about it? I don't know if--"

"Yes." An infinitesimal pause, then: "Please, Elissa, if you would."

Something about it--the swiftness of his response, the quick jerk of his head as he'd looked at her--trickled discomfort through her. Suddenly she didn't want to tell him about anything else. Especially not about the dream.

Which was dumb. She'd already agreed with herself to tell him everything that might be useful, anything that might help him fix her.

"I . . . Okay."

It had started with something that was neither pain nor picture. A feeling of heat, of electricity in her hands, of brightness exploding like fireworks in her head. A half-familiar feeling, which she might have dreamed before. But this time it had been like a focused firework explosion, a feeling that she'd summoned it, that it was hers to control. Then a sensation of directing it outward. Of restraints breaking off her wrists. Of triumph.

And then the fire.

"A fire?" His voice was unexpectedly sharp. "Where?"

"In a building. A big building--like a hospital. Or a school, I guess." Like she had earlier, she thought, Why does it matter? It's a hallucination.

"All right. And you were?"

"I was running away from it."

His fingers tapped briefly over the keyboard. "So, a building on fire, and you were . . . escaping it?"

"Yes."

"And this dream, it was vivid, like the other ones you've described? It wasn't what one might call a normal dream?"

"It was vivid."

And it had been. If she shut her eyes she could still see the flames licking up halfway to the pitch-dark sky. She could still conjure up the memory of people fleeing, screaming, of herself running barefoot over rain-wet grass, fighting fatigue like darkness that swelled inside her head. Locking her hands into the wire loops of the fence, pulling herself up and up, knowing the electricity was off and yet having to force herself to keep hold of the metal. Dragging off her hoodie to put over the barbs at the top, still catching her arm on a wicked spike, the adrenaline racing through her veins meaning she scarcely felt the pain. Thinking that after all this time, she'd managed it, she was out, she was free.

When she'd jerked out of the dream, out of sleep and up into full wakefulness, she'd been exhausted, the aftermath of a headache lingering like poison fumes in her head, the smell of smoke still in her nose. As if this dream too had left bruises, but bruises inside her head rather than on her body.

She couldn't bear to say all this to Dr. Brien, though. She described the dream baldly, leaving out the details, the smoke that had smelled of chemicals and hot metal, the feel of the cold grass under her feet. The feeling, wonderful and terrifying, of triumph. Of freedom.

He obviously felt she was telling him plenty, though. He listened intently, his eyes on her face, fingers racing over the keyboard.

Next to Elissa, her mother sat very still, hands locked in her lap.

"Is that all?" asked Dr. Brien. "The dream ended there? When you'd climbed the fence?"

"Yes." The links had cut into her hands, she remembered. And halfway down the other side, her foot had slipped and she'd fallen, landing with a skull-shaking thump on the ground outside the fence. But that was where the dream had cut off short. She remembered nothing else.

"Nothing else? Nothing later?"

"No."

"Not even which way you turned?"

Which way? The unease rose now within her, like cold water creeping up through every vein. He couldn't need to know that. Okay, he'd explained the significance of his questions, but he couldn't possibly need to know which imaginary way she'd turned after she'd escaped an imaginary building and climbed an imaginary fence.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't remember anything else."

"All right, Elissa." He smiled at her, his face friendly, relaxed. "You've done extremely well. I know it must seem extraordinary to have to tell me all these details. But trust me, the more data I have, the more helpful the diagnosis I can make."

She smiled back. In her lap her fingers uncurled. Until this moment she hadn't realized she'd been sitting with her nails digging into her palms.

Dr. Brien tapped the keyboard once more, then glanced back up to Elissa. "Oh, one last thing. If you don't know, it's no problem. But if you do, then, again, it's just very helpful data that we can use."

"Okay."

"In the hallucinations, do you register what you're wearing?"

"Wearing?"

He smiled again, exactly the same warm, reassuring smile. "What our dream selves dress themselves in says a lot about our state of mind. You might put yourself in something you were wearing in real life, or something that doesn't quite fit. Sometimes outfits end up incomplete, or unusual--embarrassing." He chuckled a little. "Trust me, even if you were wearing nothing at all, you wouldn't be the only person who's dreamed that."

"Oh. Okay. I . . . no, nothing weird. Pants, I think. Like . . . yoga pants? Pale--I don't know if they're white or just a light color. And a T-shirt, the same color . . . I think."

"Right. So you were wearing that again in your last hallucination?"

The memory came back, a flash opening up the details in her brain. She'd been running in the dark, keeping to the shadows, knowing her clothes would help conceal her. Knowing too that she'd never have made it this far if she hadn't gotten hold of them, thankful all over again for that careless staff member who'd let her off-duty clothes snag on the edge of her locker, who hadn't checked to make sure the door was properly shut . . . .

She hadn't been wearing the light-colored clothes. She'd been wearing black. Black pants, and a long, hooded top she'd pulled up over her head.

Elissa looked up to tell him and saw him watching her, waiting for her answer. He was still smiling, but the smile was slightly rigid, as if he were deliberately holding on to it. And there was that sharpness in his face again, a look as if she were giving him numbers and he were adding them up--some to make the sums he'd expected, and some he hadn't.

She didn't lie. Never, really. Not to her parents, not to doctors. But now, all of a sudden . . . Obeying an impulse that came too fast to think it through, she kept her gaze steady and held her hands still in her lap, making sure not to make any guilty, betraying movements. "Yes. That's what I was wearing."

"Thank you, Elissa." He made a couple more key taps, then flicked his hand up, opening another page. "Right. Having looked at all your test results and the reports your own doctor sent me, and hearing how your symptoms have escalated, I think it's very clear we've gone beyond the stage of being able to treat this with medication. Do you understand that?"

"Yes."

He leaned forward a little, put his hand on the desk, palm down, as if he were reaching out to comfort her. "Now, didn't I tell you not to worry? We're going to take a more permanent approach, Elissa."

He twisted the screen around, tapped a key, and an image sprang up.

"Look. There's an abnormality here." He glanced at her, smiling. "Don't worry, it's not cancer or anything like that. This is an area that, in the vast majority of people's brains, is mostly inactive. On this map you'd see it as a gray area. Here, though, see these fine lines? That's a sign that, in your brain, this area has become very overactive. Probably because of the stimulus of a hormone surge, as your other doctors have mentioned. I won't confuse you with too much science"--he smiled again--"but basically this area links to memory, imagination, dreams. It's grabbing a whole lot of external data--TV, movies, bits of current news, things you might not even notice you're taking in--and turning them into a kind of ultravivid loop playing in your head. And the more it plays, the more it forces a physical response from your body. Hence the pain. It's like the pain you think you feel in dreams, but it's so vivid it's actually having an effect on you physically. Does that make sense?"

He gave her an expectant look, eyebrows slightly raised.

It did make sense, but . . . My clothes. Why did he want to know about my clothes?

"Elissa?"

She jerked back from the questions repeating silently over and over in her ears. He was explaining how he was going to make her better, for God's sake. She needed to listen. She nodded. "I'm sorry. Yes, it does."

"It's pretty confusing, I know! I've given you the most basic explanation, but obviously there's more to it than that. Now, what we're going to have to do is perform a relatively minor operation. It is brain surgery, so in a sense it can't be minor, but I can assure you that with my team you'll be in the best possible hands. Of course, there is risk involved, but we keep it to an absolute minimum. What we're going to do is use a very accurate laser to kill off some of the brain cells in this area, toning down its potential for activity, as it were. If you'll look at this image . . ."

He explained it well, with carefully chosen, unalarming graphics illustrating his words, but it all came down to the same thing: He was going to open her head and burn something out of it. And now that she'd had a minute to gather her thoughts, it didn't make sense. She didn't understand. She understood the procedure. But the pictures in her head . . . surely if they'd come from random data she'd picked up all the time, they'd vary? Why, in the dreams, was she always someone else--the same someone else? And why did he want to know about the someone else?

"All right, Elissa. Do you have any questions?"

Oh, but hell. It had to make sense. He was the doctor, for goodness' sake. What did she know about the brain and how it worked?

She shook her head, then, collecting herself, answered politely. "I don't think so, thanks."

"Okay, then." He smiled at her, flicked the display away, and tapped the toolbar to bring up another display, this one scrolling pages of text. "This is the agreement, Elissa. Your parents have already given consent, of course, via your normal doctor, but at your age we need your consent too. I suggest you have a quick read of it, make sure you're comfortable with everything."

All at once Elissa was freezing cold, stiff in the chair. As if she'd just heard the words for the first time, she heard them repeating in her head. Surgery. Brain surgery. And: There is risk involved. Relatively minor . . .

Only relatively. "If--if I sign it--"

"If you sign it today, we can get you admitted in just four days, on Monday--"

She interrupted him before she even knew she was going to open her mouth. "Four? Four days?"

"Yes. We've got an opening, so I've provisionally booked you in. Tomorrow's the last day before spring break, isn't it? You'll be out of school for a week? So you won't even need time off. And the sooner we can get it over with--" He stopped, watching her face. "Elissa, you realize your condition is deteriorating? I don't want to alarm you, but I can assure you we don't want to leave this even as long as another week."

His eyes remained on hers, his expression open, his eyebrows drawn together in a concerned frown. Part of her wanted to make him tell her more. What's the risk? How much risk? But part of her seemed to cower, hands over her ears, not wanting to know. After all, what choice did she have?

"I-- Okay. I'm sorry. I just . . . It's so soon."

Mrs. Ivory reached out and put a hand over Elissa's. Elissa turned her hand over, held on with a desperate, tight grip she couldn't manage to relax.

"I know," said Dr. Brien. "But like I said, the sooner we can get this over with the better, right?" He pulled a slim tablet from a slot on the desk and handed it to her. On its screen the same text showed. She scrolled down to the bottom of the document. Her name was already inserted under a dotted line, waiting for her signature.

"You read that through now, all right? Can I offer either of you a drink?"

Elissa shook her head, politeness forgotten, scrolling back through the document. It was all a jumble, medical and legal stuff she hadn't a hope of understanding. She knew all the stuff about never signing something you didn't understand. But her parents had already signed--there were their digi-sigs, next to the space for hers--so it couldn't be anything bad, and she'd never understand some of the language, even if she tried all day, and she was keeping the doctor waiting . . . .

Why did he want to know about my clothes? Why does it matter?

Oh, for God's sake, Lissa. After all this time, someone was saying he could make her better. Not maybe, not probably, not with the stupid drugs and treatments and sleep machines that hadn't ended up doing anything, but with something real. Surgery. Like the way they cured cancer and appendicitis and the injury from that time Bruce hurt his leg playing antigrav-ball. A real treatment, a treatment that was going to work--that was going to make her normal.

She scrolled to the bottom of the document and signed it.

Elissa Laine Ivory.

"Excellent." Dr. Brien was smiling at her again, calm and pleasant, and her anxiety fizzled away. It was just paranoia, based on nothing but nerves and lack of sleep--and the fact that she'd collected even more bruises since she'd been at school yesterday, and she had no hope that no one would notice.

"So, Monday morning, yes?" He was talking mostly to her mother now. "I'd like you both here--and Mr. Ivory, if he's able, of course--at eight. Now, before you go, how about those drinks?"

They had the drinks--a water for Elissa, a no-cal latte for her mother--and Dr. Brien and Mrs. Ivory talked about the current weather programs, the measures the city authorities had taken to contain the latest incidence of Elloran superflu, and a recent news story about how a couple had managed not only to have an illegal third child but also to somehow escape detection for an astonishing six years.

Some twenty minutes later she and her mother thanked him, said their good-byes, and went out to wait for the elevator to take them down to reception.

As the elevator descended, her mother put a hand out to touch Elissa's arm. "Try not to dwell on it," she said. "It'll be over soon."

At the touch, Elissa wanted to lean her head on her mother's shoulder and sob. But it was bad enough she was going to be late for first period--and showing bruises that hadn't been there yesterday. No way could she walk into class with red eyes.

She nodded instead, drawing herself tight as a protection against the tears that wanted to come.

They went out through the reception area and onto the wide, tree-lined shelf where the office stood. Chlorophyll-stained sunlight dappled the ground, and the pavement was sticky with the drops of lime that had fallen from the leaves. This was the rich side of the canyon, with nothing but residential shelves above and below. There weren't even any of the slidewalks that in the last five years had extended nearly everywhere within the canyon. People came and went by beetle-car, or by the private elevators that traveled in shafts inside the cliff, or not at all.

This doctor, he must earn a lot more than ordinary doctors. Well, he was a specialist, she knew that. But all the same, this whole setup, it was way out of their normal league.

Her heart was beating faster than normal. She felt it in the pit of her stomach.

"Mother?"

Mrs. Ivory had reached the wider area at the end of the shelf where the little beetle-car gleamed scarlet in the sunlight. Tiny drips of sticky lime speckled its domed roof. She pointed her key at it, and the sides sprang up to let them in. "Yes?"

"That doctor . . . Dr. Brien . . . Why did he want to know so much about my dreams?"

Her mother slid into the driver's seat, then glanced up at her, eyebrows raised. "Sweetie, he explained. Every bit of data--"

"No, I know. But stuff about the clothes I was wearing? Which way I went? It's just . . . I don't get why he was asking all about that."

"Lissa, really, it's no good asking me how it all works. If I'd thought I was up to graduating at Dr. Brien's level, I'd have stayed in medicine after you were born. I don't have a clue about brain disorders--I don't know why they need the information they do. But honestly, sweetie--get in, you're already late--you can be sure if he was asking for information, it's because he needed it." She smiled at Elissa, reaching across to pat her knee before she started the car. "He wasn't asking for his own amusement, you know!"

"Yeah. I know."

The beetle-car lifted off the ground, the buzz of its propeller sending a vibration like a shiver through the seat and into Elissa's back, then dropped away from the edge of the shelf into clear airspace.

"Mother . . ." The question hovered: What if I don't have the operation?

"What is it, Lissa?"

She couldn't say it. The doctor's voice echoed in her head. Your condition is deteriorating. We don't want to leave this even as long as another week.

"I'm just . . . It's scary."

Without taking her gaze off the glinting spiderweb of the intersection approaching beneath them, her mother reached over and put a hand on Elissa's arm. "I know, sweetie. If any of the other treatments had worked . . . But this is it. We have to take this one. You can't live the rest of your life this way."

The beetle-car connected with the intersection, locking on to the monorail. From the corner of her eye, Elissa saw the shadow of the propeller disappear as it folded itself into the upper dome of the car. Then they were down in the steel spaghetti of the upper levels of the city, other beetle-cars and skycycles clattering past them, pedestrian slidewalks sliding by underneath.

"I'll drop you off on the roof, okay? I thought we'd miss rush hour, but looking at this traffic . . . I'm not spending half an hour on ground level."

"Okay." Elissa pulled her bag up from the passenger-side footwell. If she hugged it to her, she could--sort of--calm the churning in her stomach. Just a bit earlier, when she'd first met the doctor, the surgery had seemed like the answer to everything. But now . . . My condition's deteriorating. I'm having brain surgery in four days.

The yellow reflective lines marking the landing spaces seemed to rise up toward them.

And now--oh God--school.

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