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Freedom/Feel like a motherless child

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So I wish to you--I have no more time, so I have just one wish for you--the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.
(Richard P. Feynman, "Cargo Cult Science", Commencement address at Caltech, 1974. Engineering and Science 37 (7).)


[1976]

Jade is curled up on her side, proofing Feynman's latest paper, when the listening equipment crackles to life.

She might be expected to jump to her feet, rush over, hair streaming behind her and heart caught in her throat, to grab the earphones and ratchet up the volume. Anyone else could be forgiven for being so excitable. She has been waiting for news like this for a long time.

But Jade is used to waiting. Besides, she can hear the conversation being transmitted just fine. There is a great deal of static and ambient noise, of course, because she had to plant the mic and transmitter behind an air duct in a Crockercorp warehouse, crawling on stomach and elbows for what seemed like dusty kilometers, but she has grown so used to the interference that she it barely registers any longer.

"-- into Plattsburgh, drive to Potsdam," she hears one Crocker minion say. "Take 87 to 11, or 190 West to the fucking boonies."

Her suspicions were correct! If they're being dispatched, then there must be a chance one of the meteorites was carrying a baby. She allows herself a small squeal of satisfaction while grabbing the satchel she keeps packed at all times (false passport, $300 cash, change of clothes and a few different wigs), stuffing the manuscript into the side pocket, and locking the place behind her.

Over the last month, meteor showers have been on the increase over both the Northeastern and Southwestern areas of the United States. Several meteorites have made impact in upstate New York, Vermont, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Crockercorp has done what it can to throw up false leads and misdirection. Most of them are so obvious that Jade ignores them.

Three days ago, however, she made it halfway to Peru, Vermont when the wire service reported a human baby found near one of the impact sites. She only turned back when she thought to call the county department of child services from a diner on Route 7. Upon asking after the baby, all she got was high-pitched, nearly hysterical laughter.

"Getting colder," the voice on the other end said. "Why not just give up, babygirl? Come on home, all is forgiven."

Nausea clenched her body at the unmistakable sound of Betty's voice. Her private voice, the one she used at home, the one that showed rows of shark teeth and thick, red gill slits.

"Never," Jade said.

Before she could hang up, Betty added, "You'll never find them. Any of them. They're all mine, the delicious little monkeys." She made an obscene, spit-heavy slurping sound that echoed in Jade's ears well after she banged the phone down.

But if you come home, Betty continued telepathically, a wheedling tone that drilled right down the center of Jade's spine, I'll let you have the first bite.

*

Betty tries again as Jade drives pell-mell toward Canton, New York. She's nearly there, it's 4:30 in the morning and the snow is falling fast. Mummy loves you, you ugly piece of shit.

"LA LA LA NOT LISTENING," Jade yells, cranking up the AM radio in her green GTO so she can sing along at the top of her lungs to "Afternoon Delight". A deer bounds across the shining black pavement, little more than a smear of light across her eyes.

If she skids off the road and dies in a snow bank, everything she has done for the last fifty years will be for naught. So she taps the brakes, reluctantly, and brings her speed down below the limit.

She can't be traced. Betty can find her mind, but Jade is determined to keep running, forever.

She works off the grid. She only makes calls with a blue box that manipulates dialing frequencies; she gives out the numbers of unused corporate and government voice message systems for when she needs to be contacted. Her correspondence is conducted on borrowed time on university mainframes. (This past year, she has been developing sophisticated transmission protocols for network access and communication over phone lines. Others will get all the credit, but her patent on one aspect -- under the name Lady English -- will help fund two more decades' worth of work.) Electronic correspondence isn't perfectly traceless, but it might as well be for Betty, who's still working with clumsy mind control and self-rising flour.

She makes it to the hospital by seven AM, early enough to change into her favorite leisure-suit hepcat male disguise in the back of her car.

Three of Betty's stooges loiter awkwardly in the hospital parking lot. They all look exactly alike and always have. They are all the man in the grey flannel suit, with neat, mild midwestern demeanor, smooth cheeks and sharp hats. If you get close enough, not that Jade has in over a decade (and she still bears the scar on her upper arm and chest from that encounter in Los Angeles), you might notice that their human skins are pulled uncomfortably over far more insectoid features.

No one ever seems to notice.

They all look like Johnny, to be honest: Handsome, sweet, empty-eyed. That's the main reason Jade never gets too close. She's not sure Johnny is even himself any longer. Betty could have replaced him ages ago.

She rides the elevator up to gerontology, then ducks into the women's room. A nurse is perched on the sink, head tilted against the mirror, puffing meditatively on her cigarette.

"You can't be in here," the woman shrieks, cowering back into the corner.

"I don't know what to do!" Jade cries, collapsing against the wall, years of practice making it easy to bring tears to her eyes and a warble to her voice. "Whatever will I do? Is this a heart attack?"

The nurse jumps to her feet and tosses the cigarette with a sizzle into the sink. "Are you all right, sir?"

"No, no, I --" Jade gulps. When the nurse is close enough, Jade strikes the side of her hand against the crook of her shoulder, catching the nurse with her other arm. "I'm so sorry," she says as she drags the dead weight into the very last stall. She unpins the crisp white cap from the nurse's hair, jamming it on her own head before unbuttoning the simple white dress and sliding it over the nurse's head and off. It fits her fairly well, all things considered, but the sensible white pumps do not. Her feet swim in them, so she steps back into her pointy-toed man's shoes.

The nurse slumps on the toilet, cheek stuck to the tile wall. Jade can't quite repress a shudder at the sight. She looks dead, and it doesn't matter that she isn't.

By the time she reaches obstetrics, Jade is fully in character. She walks right past another Crockercorp clone as he fumbles with his pipe and into the nursery.

There at the back -- no one will come to visit her, poor foundling, so why would they put her at the front? -- is Baby Girl Doe. Her pointy little head is swathed in pale, fine hair that looks almost ivory against her dusky skin, under the fluorescent lights. She opens her eyes when Jade reaches into the bassinette, fixing an unearthly gaze right on Jade.

"Hey, hey, little sis," Jade croons.

The baby rolls away, curling up like a caterpillar when it's poked. Her tiny pajama top rides up, bunching under her chubby arms, revealing a burgundy-dark birthmark across her back. It starts up on one shoulder blade as a spherical blotch that divides into a tangle of branches that reach below her diaper.

Not branches, Jade realizes, leaning in and squinting, examining it even as she tries to pick the baby up again. Tentacles, not branches.

"It's all right, it's all ri-i-ght..."

At that, the baby opens its tiny mouth to reveal a huge, depthless maw slick with spittle and starts to yell.

She ceases when Jade finally gets her up into her arms, but only to look into Jade's eyes again.

The baby squirms in her arms. Her weight is oddly distributed, unpredictable; one moment, she's bottom-heavy, the next, she's extended like a cat. Jade has no idea how to hold her. She raises one shoulder, thinking maybe the baby wants to be upright, but the baby screws shut her eyes and opens her mouth, ready to wail.

"Okay, okay, what about this?" Jade switches the baby around, shifting her weight from right to left, but although the baby's not crying, she still looks unhappy. Unhappy, and somehow reproachful.

Across the nursery, the dapper Crockercorp minion raps on the viewing window. The noise disturbs most of the other babies. They make it known in cranky gurgles and outright shrieks, tiny fists knocking the bars of their cribs, feet churning like egg-beaters in the air.

He waggles his fingers at her and grins. Shark teeth, flickering tongue.

There you are, Betty says, snide and unsurprised, between Jade's ears. That's little Rosie-Posey, I believe? Why, she's barely two mouthfuls!

He licks his lips.

Jade can't bring the baby anywhere near him, but there's only one exit at the front of the room. She left all her guns but one in the car, and that one is strapped to her ankle. She doesn't relish trying to lean over to reach it while holding the baby.

The baby screams in her ear, clutching at first her dress, then her hair, yanking on it until tears spring to Jade's eyes.

Maybe it's not her. Maybe this is just a fussy baby with a weird birthmark and no parents.

Maybe, however, that doesn't matter. Maybe the act of choosing this baby is what matters. Maybe mistaking her for the baby they've all been looking for makes her exactly what they seek.

She should know what to do. Shouldn't she have some rough sort of animal instinct, how to hold the baby, what to say, how to feel? She certainly shouldn't feel quite this uncertain, all at loose ends and knotted up with doubt.

Whatever maternal-instinct she could have had probably bled out like her dog under Betty's claws, great foaming pumps until they were both empty, shrunken and collapsed.

All at once, the baby stops crying. She rests her cheek against Jade's shoulder, eyelashes dipping over her eyes, as if she's about to dream the sweetest dreams. Jade realizes she's clutching this tiny body, entirely too tightly, hanging on for --.

Dear life, no two ways about it.

She draws one shuddering breath, lets it out, and as she does, she knows exactly how they're going to get out of here. She's perfectly certain there is a door just over here, drawn out of space and quivering yellow light.

[2002]

Rose Lalonde is the youngest headliner in the history of the 92nd Street Y's Unterberg Poetry Center. The auditorium sold out within minutes. Monitors have been set up throughout the building to serve the spillover crowd.

The author looks surprisingly warm and gracious; one might have thought, given the mandarin density and referentiality of her prose, that she would be angular, aloof, aristocratic. Instead, she smiles at the audience as the applause goes on and on, looking, it seems, at each person, memorizing their faces, welcoming each to a private reading.

"There's one question I get asked a lot," she says when the applause finally begins to sputter and die down. She pauses and looks down, as if embarrassed, before continuing, "Well, I get asked a lot of questions. But there's one that I want to consider this evening."

"We love you!" a voice calls from the back.

Lalonde smoothes her palm over her pale hair, so closely shaped to her skull, and dips her head in thanks. "Very kind," she says, "but you have no idea how much of a slob I am."

"Take off yer kit!" another voice, thickly, satirically Cockney, shouts, this time from the very first rows.

"David Strider, ladies and gentlemen," Lalonde says, indicating the man rumored to be her paramour with a short sweep of her hand. Her rings catch the lights and dazzle the audience. "Ever the class act, isn't he?"

She clears her throat and runs her finger down the papers before her on the lectern. "As I was saying, there's one question I'd like to consider with you tonight. Where did Calmasis come from? That is to say, I'd like to read you a little bit from book four of --"

The rest of her comment is drowned out by cheering and whooping. Complacency of the Learned's fourth installment is not due to be published for another six weeks. Amazon and all the major bookstore chains have the book embargoed; no spoilers will be leaked, lest the wrath of Lalonde be provoked. (No one wants a repeat of what happened with book two's reveal of Frigglish's sexuality, after all.)

"-- the night was thick as trifle, molasses-heavy with anticipation, crowned with the slowly drip-drip-dripping heavy cream of dread. The group sat together, crowding the small bedsit, yet each was alone, individually hunched and sunken in his or her private thoughts. Only Calmasis, coldly radiant as the moon in their silver-grey suit, the fabric spun so fine that it must have been composed of tears and sighs, was truly awake, present, and, it must be said, astonishingly antic.

"Calmasis swept their wand in the air, once-twice-thrice, then a fourth time, until a shimmering square appeared in the center of the room. It hung there, suspended, divided equally into four smaller squares. It resembled nothing so much as a window in a country home; peering at it, each member of Calmasis's crew thought the exact same thing. Even the panes seemed to be made of old, wavering glass, thick and cool to the touch, gently creaking in their frames.

"'If eyes are the windows to the soul,' Calmasis said, their voice both reedy and lilting, 'then what, my dear friends and most conciliatory comrades, might windows be? Might they not themselves be eyes of the worldsoul? What secrets may we uncover, unpack, and flay bare there?'

"Selaka, the eldest and boldest of Calmasis's merry band of brothers, sisters, and relations yet to be determined beyond the shabby confines of human gender arrays, gasped at this proposal. The sound rumbled through the room like a departing train, shaking each follower as it passed. Annoyed, Calmasis shot a most chilling glare at her, their upper lip curling up over sharp teeth.

"Selaka, whom we will all recall was the subject of The Great Girlchild Battle and Hairpulling Match witnessed by half the Complacency to great amusement, sat up straighter and tried to meet Calmasis's disapproving eye.

"No one could meet Calmasis's eyes. They had none.

"They had so many secrets, so many schemes and canny plans, so many avenues of revenge, that they were closed to all, possibly to themselves as well.

"'Well, well,' Calmasis said, voice as rough and cold as crocodile skin and blood, eye sockets glowing with the same unearthly lunar luminescence that described the window still floating in the center of the room. 'It seems we have a volunteer. Dear Selaka, stupid, silly, stubborn Selaka. On. Your. Feet.'

"Selaka opened her mouth to refuse, but her body was jerked upward, knees bending back the wrong way, toes grazing the floor. Calmasis's wand never moved, but they did smile, a slow creeping twist to their lips that widened as Selaka dangled there. With a groan that seemed to come from the air itself, Selaka was dragged forward toward the magic window. As she neared it, the formerly flat plane began to bulge and spark, swelling as if from within, becoming a cube. She lolled before the cube, which now looked roughly like a compromised child's therapeutic drawing of the Platonically ideal house, the four panes now a window each, two on the first floor, two on the second. An empty space, roughly the height and width of Selaka's body, pulled itself open between the two windows on the first floor.

"The followers watched, agape and disturbed, but enthralled all the same, as Selaka was pulled inside the shining cube.

"She screamed.

"The sound travelled into the room, faint and attenuated, as if from very far away. Selaka now was little more than a tiny figure, struggling in the dark, screaming and screaming.

"'This has become tiresome,' Calmasis said and flicked their wand and the entire construct, house-cube and shaped moonlight, winked out and collapsed. On the floor thrashed Selaka, still screaming until Calmasis drew squiggles with their wand and black barbed wire looped through Selaka's lips, muffling her.

"She struggled to her knees, still wrestling with an inchoate, throbbing blackness that gradually, agonizingly slowly, resolved into the shape of now a snake, now a dragon, now a great fanged roach. The black thing opened its mouth, dislocating its jaws with a sickening crack, and swallowed Selaka's head.

"Calmasis turned to the followers. They crossed their arms, brushed a spot of lint from their cuff, and tilted their head coquettishly. 'The lesson here, my children, my spawn, my terrible little rascals, is clear, is it not?'

"Behind them, Selaka's body struggled on, flailing and jerking, even as the shadowy thing made deep, wet sucking sounds around her head.

"Calmasis nodded. 'Of course it is. We chew and punch and kill our way out of the void and back to the toothéd black shall we return, slime in its intestinal tract, bile over the fissures.'"

Rose grips the sides of the lectern and leans back, enjoying the throbbing, buzzing hush washing up from the audience. Anticipation crumbles away as confusion advances, mixing with a formless sort of admiration.

She smiles and the hush dies, replaced by thunderous applause.

"Thank you, thank you," she says, dropping a quick, loose curtsey. "I'd like to dedicate this reading, as I dedicated the book, to a dear friend and true witch, Jade English."

And with that, the lights go out.

With a swish of lavender velvet, she makes her escape, hustled along by Strider on one side and Jerry, the fourth Wilson brother, on the other.

[1989]

Rose always sat alone at lunch. She liked it better that way. No stupid small talk, no need to make eye contact and pretend to take all these stupid children seriously.

She turned a page in this week's book -- The Magic Mountain, and wouldn't she just love to have consumption? So dramatic -- and brought a forkful of Mystery Hotdish to her lips.

"Happy birthday," someone said across the table.

Rose was startled but, determined to remain calm and slow in all things, she merely lowered the vile food back to the plate and closed her book before looking up. "I don't have a birthday."

The figure across the table looks a little like Geraldine Ferraro -- silver hair, power suit with big shoulderpads -- and a little like David Bowie in her favorite movie, Labyrinth, sharp elfin features and long, romantically streaming hair.

"Me neither," the stranger said, taking a seat. She stuck her hand out; her fingers were heavy with rings, silver and diamonds and turquoise. When Rose shook her hand, the woman squeezed gently and wouldn't let go. "Hi. I'm Jade!"

"Rose," she said carefully. Jade's hand was warm and dry, a little like paper, a lot like silk. She wished she could feel it again.

How did she get into the cafeteria? She acted as if this were all the most natural thing in the world.

"Listen," Jade said, leaning in, stealing a cherry tomato from Rose's salad. Her smile was mischievous, intriguing, and Rose could not help smiling back. "Anything keeping you here this afternoon?"

Rose had a French quiz and lap report due after lunch, but she shook her head. "No."

"Good. Want to come see something cool?"

Rose slid her book into her bag and stood up. "Lead the way."

"It's a birthday present," Jade said over her shoulder as they left the building.

"I don't --"

"Now you do!"

 

[end]