Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Echea This story first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 1998. Nominated for Best Novelette. ------------------------------------------ From Asimov's
Echea, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I can close my eyes and she appears in my mind as she did the moment I first saw her: tiny, fragile, with unnaturally pale skin and slanted chocolate eyes. Her hair was white as the moon on a cloudless evening. It seemed, that day, that her eyes were the only spot of color on her haggard little face. She was seven, but she looked three. And she acted like nothing we had ever encountered before. Or since. We had three children and a good life. Wewere not impulsive, but we did feel as if we had something to give. Our home waslarge, and we had money; any child would benefit from that. It seemed to be for the best.
It all started with the brochures. We sawthem first at an outdoor café near ourhome. We were having lunch when weglimpsed floating dots of color, a fleeting child’s face. Both my husband andI touched them only to have the displays open before us: The blank vista of the Moon, the Earth over the horizon like a giant blue and white ball, a looming presence, pristine and healthy and somehow guilt-ridden. The Moon itself looked barren, as it alwayshad, until one focused. And then one saw the pockmarks, the shattered dome open to the stars. In the corner of the first brochure I opened, at the very edge of the reproduction, were blood-splotches. They were scattered on the craters and boulders, and had left fist-sized holes in the dust. I didn’t need to be told what had caused it. We saw the effects of high velocity rifles in low gravity every time we downloaded the news. The brochures began with the Moon, and ended with the faces of refugees: pallid, worn, defeated. The passenger shuttles toEarth had pretty much stopped. At first, those who could pay came here, but by thetime we got our brochures, Earth passage had changed. Only those with livingrelatives were able to return. Living relatives who were willing to acknowledge the relationship–and had official hardcopy to prove it. The rules were waived in the case of children, of orphans and of underage war refuges. They were allowed to come to Earth if their bodies could tolerate it,if they were willing to be adopted, and ifthey were willing to renounce any claimsthey had to Moon land.
They had to renounce the stars in order tohave a home.
We picked her up in Sioux Falls, thenearest star shuttle stop and detentioncenter to our home. The shuttle stop was adesolate place. It was designed as anembarkation point for political prisonersand for star soldiers. It was built on therolling prairie, a sprawling complex withlaser fences shimmering in the sunlight.Guards stood at every entrance, andseveral hovered above. We were led, by menwith laser rifles, into the main compound,a building finished almost a centurybefore, made of concrete and steel,functional, cold, and ancient. Its hallssmelled musty. The concrete flaked,covering everything with a fine gray dust.
Echea had flown in on a previous shuttle.She had been in detox and sick bay;through psychiatric exams and physicalscreenings. We did not know we would gether until they called our name.
We met her in a concrete room with nowindows, shielded against the sun,shielded against the world. The area hadno furniture.
A door opened and a child appeared.
Tiny, pale, fragile. Eyes as big as themoon itself, and darker than the blackestnight. She stood in the center of theroom, legs spread, arms crossed, as if shewere already angry at us.
Around us, through us, between us, acomputer voice resonated:
This is Echea. She is yours. Please takeher, and proceed through the doors to yourleft. The waiting shuttle will take you toyour preassigned destination.
She didn’t move when she heard the voice,although I started. My husband had alreadygone toward her. He crouched and sheglowered at him.
"I don’t need you," she said.
"We don’t need you either," he said. "Butwe want you."
The hard set to her chin eased, just abit. "Do you speak for her?" she asked,indicating me.
"No," I said. I knew what she wanted. Shewanted reassurance early that she wouldn’tbe entering a private war zone asdifficult and devastating as the one sheleft. "I speak for myself. I’d like it ifyou came home with us, Echea."
She stared at us both then, notrelinquishing power, not changing thatforceful stance. "Why do you want me?" sheasked. "You don’t even know me."
"But we will," my husband said.
"And then you’ll send me back," she said,her tone bitter. I heard the fear in it.
"You won’t go back," I said. "I promiseyou that."
It was an easy promise to make. None ofthe children, even if their adoptions didnot work, returned to the Moon.
A bell sounded overhead. They had warnedus about this, warned us that we wouldhave to move when we heard it.
"It’s time to leave," my husband said."Get your things."
Her first look was shock and betrayal,quickly masked. I wasn’t even sure I hadseen it. And then she narrowed thoselovely chocolate eyes. "I’m from theMoon," she said with a sarcasm that wasforeign to our natural daughters. "We haveno things."
What we knew of the Moon Wars on Earth wasfairly slim. The news vids werenecessarily vague, and I had never had thepatience for a long lesson in Moonhistory.
The shorthand for the Moon situation wasthis: the Moon’s economic resources werescarce. Some colonies, after several yearsof existence, were self-sufficient. Otherswere not. The shipments from Earth, highlyvaluable, were designated to specificplaces and often did not get there.Piracy, theft, and murder occurred to gainthe scarce resources. Sometimes skirmishesbroke out. A few times, the fightingescalated. Domes were damaged, and in theworst of the fighting, two colonies weredestroyed.
At the time, I did not understand thesituation at all. I took at face value acynical comment from one of my professors:colonies always struggle for dominancewhen they are away from the mothercountry. I had even repeated it atparties.
I had not understood that itoversimplified one of the most complexsituations in our universe.
I also had not understood the very humancost of such events.
That is, until I had Echea.
We had ordered a private shuttle for ourreturn, but it wouldn’t have mattered ifwe were walking down a public street. Iattempted to engage Echea, but shewouldn’t talk. She stared out the windowinstead, and became visibly agitated as weapproached home.
Lake Nebagamon is a small lake, one of thehundreds that dot northern Wisconsin. Itwas a popular resort for people fromnearby Superior. Many had summer homes,some dating from the late 1800s. In theearly 2000s, the summer homes were soldoff. Most lots were bought by families whoalready owned land there, and hated thecrowding at Nebagamon. My family boughtfifteen lots. My husband’s bought ten. Ourmarriage, some joked, was one of the mostimportant local mergers of the day.
Sometimes I think that it was no joke. Itwas expected. There is affection betweenus, of course, and a certain warmth. Butno real passion.
The passion I once shared with anotherman–a boy actually–was so long ago that Iremember it in images, like a vid seendecades ago, or a painting made fromsomeone else’s life.
When my husband and I married, we actedlike an acquiring conglomerate. We toredown my family’s summer home because ithad no potential or historical value, andwe built onto my husband’s. The ancienthouse became an estate with a grand lawnthat rolled down to the muddy water.Evenings we sat on the verandah andlistened to the cicadas until full dark.Then we stared at the stars and theirreflections in our lake. Sometimes we wereblessed with the northern lights, but nottoo often.
This is the place we brought Echea. A girlwho had never really seen green grass ortall trees; who had definitely never seenlakes or blue sky or Earth’s stars. Shehad, in her brief time in North Dakota,seen what they considered Earth–the browndust, the fresh air. But her exposure hadbeen limited, and had not really includedsunshine or nature itself.
We did not really know how this wouldaffect her.
There were many things we did not know.
Our girls were lined up on the porch inage order: Kally, the twelve-year-old, andthe tallest, stood near the door. Susan,the middle child, stood next to her, andAnne stood by herself near the porch. Theywere properly stair-stepped, three yearsbetween them, a separation consideredoptimal for more than a century now. Wehad followed the rules in birthing them,as well as in raising them.
Echea was the only thing out of the norm.
Anne, the courageous one, approached us aswe got off the shuttle. She was small forsix, but still bigger than Echea. Annealso blended our heritages perfectly–myhusband’s bright blue eyes and light hairwith my dark skin and exotic features. Shewould be our beauty some day, something myhusband claimed was unfair, since she alsohad the brains.
"Hi," she said, standing in the middle ofthe lawn. She wasn’t looking at us. Shewas looking at Echea.
Echea stopped walking. She had beenslightly ahead of me. By stopping, sheforced me to stop too.
"I’m not like them," she said. She wasglaring at my daughters. "I don’t want tobe."
"You don’t have to be," I said softly.
"But you can be civil," my husband said.
Echea frowned at him, and in that moment,I think, their relationship was defined.
"I suppose you’re the pampered baby," shesaid to Anne.
"That’s right," she said. "I like itbetter than being the spoiled brat."
I held my breath. "Pampered baby" wasn’tmuch different from "spoiled brat" and weall knew it.
"Do you have a spoiled brat?" Echea asked.
"No," Anne said.
Echea looked at the house, the lawn, thelake, and whispered. "You do now."
Later, my husband told me he heard this asa declaration. I heard it as awe. Mydaughters saw it as something elseentirely.
"I think you have to fight Susan for it,"Anne said.
"Do not!" Susan shouted from the porch.
"See?" Anne said. Then she took Echea’shand and led her up the steps.
That first night we awakened to screams. Icame out of a deep sleep, already sittingup, ready to do battle. At first, Ithought my link was on; I had lulledmyself to sleep with a bedtime story. Mylink had an automatic shut-off, but Isometimes forgot to set it. With all thathad been happening the last few days, Ibelieved I might have done so again.
Then I noticed my husband sitting up aswell, groggily rubbing the sleep out ofhis eyes.
The screams hadn’t stopped. They werepiercing, shrill. It took me a moment torecognize them.
I was out of bed before I realized it,running down the hall before I had time tograb my robe. My nightgown flapped aroundme as I ran. My husband was right behindme. I could hear his heavy steps on thehardwood floor.
When we reached Susan’s room, she wassitting on the window seat, sobbing. Thelight of the full moon cut across thecushions and illuminated the rag rugs andthe old-fashioned pink spread.
I sat down beside her and put my armaround her. Her frail shoulders wereshaking, and her breath was coming inshort gasps. My husband crouched beforeher, taking her hands in his.
"What happened, sweetheart?" I asked.
"I–I–I saw him," she said. "His faceexploded, and the blood floated down."
"Were you watching vids again beforesleep?" my husband asked in a sympathetictone. We both knew if she said yes, in themorning she would get yet another lectureabout being careful about what she put inher brain before it rested.
"No!" she wailed.
She apparently remembered those earlylectures too.
"Then what caused this?" I asked.
"I don’t know! " she said and burst intosobs again. I cradled her against me, butshe didn’t loosen her grip on my husband’shands.
"After his blood floated, what happened,baby?" my husband asked.
"Someone grabbed me," she said against mygown. "And pulled me away from him. Ididn’t want to go."
"And then what?" My husband’s voice wasstill soft.
"I woke up," she said, and her breathhitched.
I put my hand on her head and pulled hercloser. "It’s all right, sweetheart," Isaid. "It was just a dream."
"But it was so real," she said.
"You’re here now," my husband said. "Righthere. In your room. And we’re right herewith you."
"I don’t want to go back to sleep," shesaid. "Do I have to?"
"Yes," I said, knowing it was better forher to sleep than be afraid of it. "Tellyou what, though. I’ll program House totell you a soothing story, with a bit ofmusic and maybe a few moving images. Whatdo you say?"
"Dr. Seuss," she said.
"That’s not always soothing," my husbandsaid, obviously remembering how theHouse’s Cat in the Hat program gave Kallya terror of anything feline.
"It is to Susan," I said gently, remindinghim. In her third year, she played GreenEggs and Ham all night, the House’s voicedroning on and on, making me thankful thatour room was at the opposite end of thehall.
But she was three no longer, and shehadn’t wanted Dr. Seuss for years. Thedream had really frightened her.
"If you have any more trouble, baby," myhusband said to her, "you come and get us,all right?"
She nodded. He squeezed her hands, then Ipicked her up and carried her to bed. Myhusband pulled back the covers. Susanclung to me as I eased her down. "Will Igo back there if I close my eyes?" sheasked.
"No," I said. "You’ll listen to House andsleep deeply. And if you dream at all,it’ll be about nice things, like sunshineon flowers, and the lake in summertime."
"Promise?" she asked, her voice quavering.
"Promise," I said. Then I removed herhands from my neck and kissed each of thembefore putting them on the coverlet. Ikissed her forehead. My husband did thesame, and as we were leaving, she wasordering up the House reading program.
As I pulled the door closed, I saw theopening images of Green Eggs and Hamflicker across the wall.
The next morning, everything seemed fine.When I came down to breakfast, the chefhad already placed the food on the table,each dish on its own warming plate. Thescrambled eggs had the slightly runny lookthat indicated they had sat more than anhour–not even the latest design in warmingplates could stop that. In addition, therewas French toast, and Susan’s favorites,waffles. The scent of fresh blueberrymuffins floated over it all, and made mesmile. The household staff had gone togreat lengths to make Echea feel welcome.
My husband was already in his usual spot,e-conferencing while he sipped his coffeeand broke a muffin apart with his fingers.His plate, showing the remains of eggs andham, was pushed off to the side.
"Morning," I said as I slipped into myusual place on the other side of thetable. It was made of oak and had been inmy family since 1851, when my mother’speople brought it over from Europe as awedding present for my many-greatgrandparents. The housekeeper kept itpolished to a shine, and she only usedlinen placemats to protect it from theeffects of food.
My husband acknowledged me with ablueberry-stained hand as laughter made melook up. Kally came in, her arm aroundSusan. Susan still didn’t look herself.She had deep circles under her eyes, whichmeant that Green Eggs and Ham hadn’t quitedone the trick. She was too old to comeget us–I had known that when we left herlast night–but I hoped she hadn’t spentthe rest of the night listening to House,trying to find comfort in artificialvoices and imagery.
The girls were still smiling when they sawme.
"Something funny?" I asked
"Echea," Kally said. "Did you know someoneowned her dress before she did?"
No, I hadn’t known that, but it didn’tsurprise me. My daughters, on the otherhand, had owned only the best. Sometimestheir knowledge of life–or lackthereof–shocked me.
"It’s not an unusual way for people tosave money," I said. "But it’ll be thelast pre-owned dress she’ll have."
Mom? It was Anne, e-mailing me directly.The instant prompt appeared before my lefteye. Can you come up here?
I blinked the message away, then sighedand pushed back my chair. I should haveknown the girls would do something thatfirst morning. And the laughter shouldhave prepared me.
"Remember," I said as I stood. "Only onemain course. No matter what your fathersays."
"Ma!" Kally said.
"I mean it," I said, then hurried up thestairs. I didn’t have to check where Annewas. She had sent me an image along withthe e-mail–the door to Echea’s room.
As I got closer, I heard Anne’s voice.
"…didn’t mean it. They’re old poops."
"Poop" was Anne’s worst word, at least sofar. And when she used it, she put all somuch emphasis on it the word became anepithet.
"It’s my dress," Echea said. She soundedcalm and contained, but I thought therewas a raggedness to her voice that hadn’tbeen there the day before. "It’s all Ihave."
At that moment, I entered the room. Annewas on the bed, which had been carefullymade up. If I hadn’t tucked Echea in thenight before, I never would have thoughtshe had slept there.
Echea was standing near her window seat,gazing at the lawn as if she didn’t darelet it out of her sight.
"Actually," I said, keeping my voicelight. "You have an entire closet full ofclothes."
Thanks, Mom, Anne sent me.
"Those clothes are yours," Echea said.
"We’ve adopted you," I said. "What’s oursis yours."
"You don’t get it," she said. "This dressis mine. It’s all I have."
She had her arms wrapped around it, herhands gripping it as if we were going totake it away.
"I know," I said softly. "I know,sweetie-baby. You can keep it. We’re nottrying to take it away from you."
"They said you would."
"Who?" I asked, with a sinking feeling. Ialready knew who. My other two daughters."Kally and Susan?"
"Well, they’re wrong," I said. "My husbandand I make the rules in this house. I willnever take away something of yours. Ipromise."
"Promise?" she whispered.
"Promise," I said. "Now how aboutbreakfast?"
She looked at Anne for confirmation, and Iwanted to hug my youngest daughter. Shehad already decided to care for Echea, toally with her, to make Echea’s entranceinto the household easier.
I was so proud of her.
"Breakfast," Anne said, and I heard a tonein her voice I’d never heard before. "It’sthe first meal of the day."
The government had fed the childrenstandard nutrition supplements, inbeverage form. Echea hadn’t taken a mealon Earth until she’d joined us.
"You name your meals?" she asked Anne."You have that many of them?" Then she puta hand over her mouth, as if she weresurprised she had let the questions out.
"Three of them," I said, trying to soundnormal. Instead I felt defensive, as if wehad too much. "We only have three ofthem."
The second night, we had no disturbances.By the third, we had developed a routine.I spent time with my girls, and then Iwent into Echea’s room. She didn’t likeHouse or House’s stories. House’s voice,no matter how I programmed it, scared her.It made me wonder how we were going tolink her when the time came. If she foundHouse intrusive, imagine how she wouldfind the constant barrage of informationservices, of instant e-mail scrollingacross her eyes, or sudden imagesappearing inside her head. She was almostpast the age where a child adapted easilyto a link. We had to calm her quickly orrisk her suffering a disadvantage for therest of her life.
Perhaps it was the voice that upset her.The reason links made sound optional wasbecause too many people had had troubledistinguishing the voices inside theirhead. Perhaps Echea would be one of them.
It was time to find out.
I had yet to broach the topic with myhusband. He seemed to have cooled towardEchea immediately. He thought Echeaabnormal because she wasn’t like ourgirls. I reminded him that Echea hadn’thad the advantages, to which he respondedthat she had the advantages now. He feltthat since her life had changed, sheshould change.
Somehow I didn’t think it worked likethat.
It was on the second night that I realizedshe was terrified of going to sleep. Shekept me as long as she could, and when Ifinally left, she asked to keep the lightson.
House said she had them on all night,although the computer clocked her evenbreathing starting at 2:47 a.m.
On the third night, she asked mequestions. Simple ones, like the one aboutbreakfast, and I answered them without myprevious defensiveness. I held my emotionsback, my shock that a child would have toask what that pleasant ache was in herstomach after meals ("You’re full, Echea.That’s your stomach telling you it’shappy.") or why we insisted on bathing atleast once a day ("People stink if theydon’t bathe often, Echea. Haven’t younoticed?"). She asked the questions withher eyes averted, and her hands clenchedagainst the coverlet. She knew that sheshould know the answers, she knew betterthan to ask my older two daughters or myhusband, and she tried ever so hard to besophisticated.
Already, the girls had humiliated her morethan once. The dress incident hadblossomed into an obsession with them, andthey taunted her about her unwillingnessto attach to anything. She wouldn’t evenclaim a place at the dining room table.She seemed convinced that we would tossher out at the first chance.
On the fourth night, she addressed thatfear. Her question came at me sideways,her body more rigid than usual.
"If I break something," she asked, "whatwill happen?"
I resisted the urge to ask what she hadbroken. I knew she hadn’t broken anything.House would have told me, even if thegirls hadn’t.
"Echea," I said, sitting on the edge ofher bed, "are you afraid that you’ll dosomething which will force us to get ridof you?"
She flinched as if I had struck her, thenshe slid down against the coverlet. Thematerial was twisted in her hands, and herlower jaw was working even before shespoke.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Didn’t they explain this to you beforethey brought you here?" I asked.
"They said nothing." That harsh tone wasback in her voice, the tone I hadn’t heardsince that very first day, her very firstcomment.
I leaned forward and, for the first time,took one of those clenched fists into myhands. I felt the sharp knuckles againstmy palms, and the softness of the fabricbrushing my skin.
"Echea," I said. "When we adopted you, wemade you our child by law. We cannot getrid of you. No matter what. It is illegalfor us to do so."
"People do illegal things," she whispered.
"When it benefits them," I said. "Losingyou will not benefit us."
"You’re saying that to be kind," she said.
I shook my head. The real answer washarsh, harsher than I wanted to state, butI could not leave it at this. She wouldnot believe me. She would think I wastrying to ease her mind. I was, but notthrough polite lies.
"No," I said. "The agreement we signed islegally binding. If we treat you asanything less than a member of our family,we not only lose you, we lose our otherdaughters as well."
I was particularly proud of adding theword "other." I suspected that, if myhusband had been having this conversationwith her, that he would have forgotten toadd it.
"You would?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"This is true?" she asked.
"True," I said. "I can download theagreement and its ramifications for you inthe morning. House can read you thestandard agreement–the one everyone mustsign–tonight if you like."
She shook her head, and pushed her handsharder into mine. "Could you–could youanswer me one thing?" she asked.
"Anything," I said.
"I don’t have to leave?"
"Not ever," I said.
She frowned. "Even if you die?"
"Even if we die," I said. "You’ll inherit,just like the other girls."
My stomach knotted as I spoke. I had nevermentioned the money to our own children. Ifigured they knew. And now I was tellingEchea who was, for all intents andpurposes, still a stranger.
And an unknown one at that.
I made myself smile, made the next wordscome out lightly. "I suspect there areprovisions against killing us in ourbeds."
Her eyes widened, then instantly filledwith tears. "I would never do that," shesaid.
And I believed her.
As she grew more comfortable with me, shetold me about her previous life. She spokeof it only in passing, as if the thingsthat happened before no longer mattered toher. But in the very flatness with whichshe told them, I could sense deep emotionschurning beneath the surface.
The stories she told were hair-raising.She had not, as I had assumed, beenorphaned as an infant. She had spent mostof her life with a family member who haddied, and then she had been brought toEarth. Somehow, I had believed that shehad grown up in an orphanage like the onesfrom the nineteenth and twentiethcenturies, the ones Dickens wrote about,and the famous pioneer filmmakers had madeFlats about. I had not realized that thoseplaces did not exist on the Moon. Eitherchildren were chosen for adoption, or theywere left to their own devices, to surviveon their own if they could.
Until she had moved in with us, she hadnever slept in a bed. She did not know itwas possible to grow food by planting it,although she had heard rumors of suchmiracles.
She did not know that people could accepther for what she was, instead of what shecould do for them.
My husband said that she was playing on mysympathies so that I would never let hergo.
But I wouldn’t have let her go anyway. Ihad signed the documents and made theverbal promise. And I cared for her. Iwould never let her go, any more than Iwould let a child of my flesh go.
I hoped, at one point, that he would feelthe same.
As the weeks progressed, I was able tofocus on Echea’s less immediate needs. Shewas beginning to use House–her initialobjection to it had been based onsomething that happened on the Moon,something she never fully explained–butHouse could not teach her everything. Anneintroduced her to reading, and often Echeawould read to herself. She caught onquickly, and I was surprised that she hadnot learned in her school on the Moon,until someone told me that most Mooncolonies had no schools. The children werehome-taught, which worked only forchildren with stable homes.
Anne also showed her how to program Houseto read things Echea did not understand.Echea made use of that as well. At night,when I couldn’t sleep, I would check onthe girls. Often I would have to openEchea’s door, and turn off House myself.Echea would fall asleep to the drone of adeep male voice. She never used the vids.She simply liked the words, she said, andshe would listen to them endlessly, as ifshe couldn’t get enough.
I downloaded information on childdevelopment and learning curves, and itwas as I remembered. A child who did notlink before the age of ten wassignificantly behind her peers in allthings. If she did not link before the ageof twenty, she would never be able tofunction at an adult level in modernsociety.
Echea’s link would be her first step intothe world that my daughters already knew,the Earth culture denied so many who hadfled to the Moon.
After a bit of hesitation, I made anappointment with Ronald Caro, ourInterface Physician.
Through force of habit, I did not tell myhusband.
I had known my husband all my life, andour match was assumed from the beginning.We had a warm and comfortablerelationship, much better than many amongmy peers. I had always liked my husband,and had always admired the way he workedhis way around each obstacle lifepresented him.
One of those obstacles was Ronald Caro.When he arrived in St. Paul, after gettingall his degrees and licenses and awards,Ronald Caro contacted me. He had knownthat my daughter Kally was in need of alink, and he offered to be the one to doit.
I would have turned him down, but myhusband, always practical, checked on hiscredentials.
"How sad," my husband had said. "He’sbecome one of the best InterfacePhysicians in the country."
I hadn’t thought it sad. I hadn’t thoughtit anything at all except inconvenient. Myfamily had forbidden me to see Ronald Carowhen I was sixteen, and I had disobeyedthem.
All girls, particularly home-schooledones, have on-line romances. Some progressto vid conferencing and virtual sex. Onlya handful progress to actual physicalcontact. And of those that do, only asmall fraction survive.
At sixteen, I ran away from home to bewith Ronald Caro. He had been sixteen too,and gorgeous, if the remaining snapshot inmy image memory were any indication. Ithought I loved him. My father, who hadbeen monitoring my e-mail, sent two policeofficers and his personal assistant tobring me home.
The resulting disgrace made me so ill thatI could not get out of bed for six months.My then-future husband visited me each andevery day of those six months, and it isfrom that period that most of my memoriesof him were formed. I was glad to havehim; my father, who had been quite closeto me, rarely spoke to me after I ran awaywith Ronald, and treated me as a stranger.
When Ronald reappeared in the Northlandlong after I had married, my husbandshowed his forgiving nature. He knewRonald Caro was no longer a threat to us.He proved it by letting me take the shortshuttle hop to the Twin Cities to haveKally linked.
Ronald did not act improperly toward methen or thereafter, although he oftenlooked at me with a sadness I did notreciprocate. My husband was relieved. Healways insisted on having the best, andbecause my husband was squeamish aboutbrain work, particularly that whichrequired chips, lasers, and remoteplacement devices, he preferred to let mehandle the children’s interface needs.
Even though I no longer wanted it, I stillhad a personal relationship with RonaldCaro. He did not treat me as a patient, oras the mother of his patients, but as afriend.
Even my husband knew that.
Still, the afternoon I made theappointment, I went into our bedroom, madecertain my husband was in his office, andclosed the door. Then I used the link tosend a message to Ronald.
Instantly his response flashed across myleft eye.
Are you all right? He sent, as he alwaysdid, as if he expected something terribleto have happened to me during our mostrecent silence.
Fine, I sent back, disliking the personalquestions.
And the girls?
So, you linked to chat? Again, as healways did.
And I responded as I always did. No. Ineed to make an appointment for Echea.
The Moon Child?
I smiled. Ronald was the only person Iknew, besides my husband, who didn’t thinkwe were insane for taking on a child notour own. But I felt that we could, andbecause we could, and because so many weresuffering, we should.
My husband probably had his own reasons.We never really discussed them, beyondthat first day.
The Moon Child, I responded. Echea.
There was a silence, as if he didn’t knowhow to respond to that. He had always beensilent about my children. They were linkshe could not form, links to my husbandthat could not be broken, links thatRonald and I could never have.
She has no interface, I sent into thatsilence.
Not at all?
Did they tell you anything about her?
Only that she’d been orphaned. You know,the standard stuff. I felt odd, sendingthat. I had asked for information, ofcourse, at every step. And my husband had.And when we compared notes, I learned thateach time we had been told the samething–that we had asked for a child, andwe would get one, and that child’s lifewould start fresh with us. The past didnot matter.
The present did.
How old is she?
Hmmm. The procedure won’t be involved, butthere might be some dislocation. She’sbeen alone in her head all this time. Isshe stable enough for the change?
I was genuinely perplexed. I had neverencountered an unlinked child, let alonelived with one. I didn’t know what"stable" meant in that context.
My silence had apparently been answerenough.
I’ll do an exam, he sent. Don’t worry.
Good. I got ready to terminate theconversation.
You sure everything’s all right there? hesent.
It’s as right as it always is, I sent, andthen severed the connection.
That night, I dreamed. It was an odd dreambecause it felt like a virtual realityvid, complete with emotions and all thefive senses. But it had the distance of VRtoo–that strange sense that the experiencewas not mine.
I dreamed I was on a dirty, dusty street.The air was thin and dry. I had never feltair like this. It tasted recycled, and itseemed to suck the moisture from my skin.It wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cold either.I wore a ripped shirt and ragged pants,and my shoes were boots made of a lightmaterial I had never felt before. Walkingwas easy and precarious at the same time.I felt lighter than ever, as if with onewrong gesture I would float.
My body moved easily in this strangeatmosphere, as if it were used to it. Ihad felt something like it before: when myhusband and I had gone to the Museum ofScience and Technology in Chicago on ourhoneymoon. We explored the Moon exhibit,and felt firsthand what it was like to bein a colony environment.
Only that had been clean.
The buildings were white plastic, coveredwith a filmy grit and pockmarked with timeand use. The dirt on the ground seemed toget on everything, but I knew, as well asI knew how to walk in this imperfectgravity, that there wasn’t enough money topave the roads.
The light above was artificial, built intothe dome itself. If I looked up, I couldsee the dome and the light, and if Isquinted, I could see beyond to thedarkness that was the unprotectedatmosphere. It made me feel as if I werein a lighted glass porch on a starlessnight. Open, and vulnerable, andterrified, more because I couldn’t seewhat was beyond than because I could.
People crowded the roadway and huddlednear the plastic buildings. The buildingswere domed too. Pre-fab, shipped updecades ago when Earth had hopes for thecolonies. Now there were no moreshipments, at least not here. We had heardthat there were shipments coming to ColonyRussia and Colony Europe, but no oneconfirmed the rumors. I was in ColonyLondon, a bastard colony made by refugeesand dissidents from Colony Europe. For awhile, we had stolen their supply ships.Now, it seemed, they had stolen them back.
A man took my arm. I smiled up at him. Hisface was my father’s face, a face I hadn’tseen since I was twenty-five. Onlysomething had altered it terribly. He wasyounger than I had ever remembered him. Hewas too thin and his skin filthy withdust. He smiled back at me, three teethmissing, lost to malnutrition, the restblackened and about to go. In the past fewdays the whites of his eyes had turnedyellow, and a strange mucus came from hisnose. I wanted him to see the colony’smedical facility or at least pay for anautodoc, but we had no credit, no means topay at all.
It would have to wait until we foundsomething.
"I think I found us free passage to ColonyLatina," he said. His breath whistledthrough the gaps in his teeth. I hadlearned long ago to be far away from hismouth. The stench could be overpowering."But you’ll have to do them a job."
A job. I sighed. He had promised no more.But that had been months ago. The creditshad run out, and he had gotten sicker.
"A big job?" I asked.
He didn’t meet my gaze. "Might be."
"Honey, we gotta use what we got."
It might have been his motto. We gotta usewhat we got. I’d heard it all my life.He’d come from Earth, he’d said, in one ofthe last free ships. Some of the others weknew said there were no free ships exceptfor parolees, and I often wondered if hehad come on one of those. His morals werecertainly slippery enough.
I don’t remember my mother. I’m not evensure I had one. I’d seen more than oneadult buy an infant, and then proceed toexploit it for gain. It wouldn’t have beenbeyond him.
But he loved me. That much was clear.
And I adored him.
I’d have done the job just because he’dasked it.
I’d done it before.
The last job was how we’d gotten here. I’dbeen younger then and I hadn’t completelyunderstood.
But I’d understood when we were done.
And I’d hated myself.
"Isn’t there another way?" I found myselfasking.
He put his hand on the back of my head,propelling me forward. "You know better,"he said. "There’s nothing here for us."
"There might not be anything in ColonyLatina, either."
"They’re getting shipments from the U.N.Seems they vowed to negotiate a peace."
"Then everyone will want to go."
"But not everyone can," he said. "We can."He touched his pocket. I saw the bulge ofhis credit slip. "If you do the job."
It had been easier when I didn’t know.When doing a job meant just that. When Ididn’t have other things to consider.After the first job, my father asked whereI had gotten the morals. He said I hadn’tinherited them from him, and I hadn’t. Iknew that. I suggested maybe Mother, andhe had laughed, saying no mother who gavebirth to me had morals either.
"Don’t think about it, honey," he’d said."Just do."
Just do. I opened my mouth–to say what, Idon’t know–and felt hot liquid splatterme. An exit wound had opened in his chest,spraying his blood all around. Peoplescreamed and backed away. I screamed. Ididn’t see where the shot had come from,only that it had come.
The blood moved slowly, more slowly than Iwould have expected.
He fell forward and I knew I wouldn’t beable to move him, I wouldn’t be able tograb the credit slip, wouldn’t be able toget to Colony Latina, wouldn’t have to dothe job.
Faces, unbloodied faces, appeared aroundme.
They hadn’t killed him for the slip.
I turned and ran, as he once told me todo, ran as fast as I could, blasting as Iwent, watching people duck or cover theirears or wrap their arms around theirheads.
I ran until I saw the sign.
The tiny prefab with the Red Crescentpainted on its door, the Red Cross on itswindows. I stopped blasting and tumbledinside, bloody, terrified, and completelyalone.
I woke up to find my husband’s arms aroundme, my head buried in his shoulder. He wasrocking me as if I were one of the girls,murmuring in my ear, cradling me andmaking me feel safe. I was crying andshaking, my throat raw with tears or withthe aftereffects of screams.
Our door was shut and locked, somethingthat we only did when we were amorous. Hemust have had House do it, so no one wouldwalk in on us.
He stroked my hair, wiped the tears frommy face. "You should leave your link on atnight," he said tenderly. "I could havemanipulated the dream, made it intosomething pleasant."
We used to do that for each other when wewere first married. It had been a way tomesh our different sexual needs, a way todiscover each other’s thoughts anddesires.
We hadn’t done it in a long, long time.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" heasked.
So I did.
He buried his face in my hair. It had beena long time since he had done that, too,since he had shown that kind ofvulnerability with me.
"It’s Echea," he said.
"I know," I said. That much was obvious. Ihad been thinking about her so much thatshe had worked her way into my dreams.
"No," he said. "It’s nothing to be calmabout." He sat up, kept his hand on me,and peered into my face. "First Susan,then you. It’s like she’s a poison that’sinfecting my family."
The moment of closeness shattered. Ididn’t pull away from him, but it tookgreat control not to. "She’s our child."
"No," he said. "She’s someone else’schild, and she’s disrupting ourhousehold."
"Babies disrupt households. It took awhile, but you accepted that."
"And if Echea had come to us as a baby, Iwould have accepted her. But she didn’t.She has problems that we did not expect."
"The documents we signed said that we musttreat those problems as our own."
His grip on my shoulder grew tighter. Heprobably didn’t realize he was doing it."They also said that the child had beeninspected and was guaranteed illnessfree."
"You think some kind of illness is causingthese dreams? That they’re being passedfrom Echea to us like a virus?"
"Aren’t they?" he asked. "Susan dreamed ofa man who died. Someone whom she didn’twant to go. Then ‘they’ pulled her awayfrom him. You dream of your father’sdeath–"
"They’re different," I said. "Susandreamed of a man’s face exploding, andbeing captured. I dreamed of a man beingshot, and of running away."
"But those are just details."
"Dream details," I said. "We’ve all beentalking to Echea. I’m sure that some ofher memories have woven their way into ourdreams, just as our daily experiences do,or the vids we’ve seen. It’s not thatunusual."
"There were no night terrors in thishousehold until she came," he said.
"And no one had gone through any traumauntil she arrived, either." I pulled awayfrom him now. "What we’ve gone through issmall compared to her. Your parents’deaths, mine, the birth of the girls, afew bad investments, these things are allminor. We still live in the house you wereborn in. We swim in the lake of ourchildhood. We have grown wealthier. Wehave wonderful daughters. That’s why wetook Echea."
"To learn trauma?"
"No," I said. "Because we could take her,and so many others can’t."
He ran a hand through his thinning hair."But I don’t want trauma in this house. Idon’t want to be disturbed any more. She’snot our child. Let’s let her becomesomeone else’s problem."
I sighed. "If we do that, we’ll still havetrauma. The government will sue. We’llhave legal bills up to our eyeballs. Wedid sign documents covering these things."
"They said if the child was defective, wecould send her back."
I shook my head. "And we signed even moredocuments that said she was fine. Wewaived that right."
He bowed his head. Small strands of graycircled his crown. I had never noticedthem before.
"I don’t want her here," he said.
I put a hand on his. He had felt that wayabout Kally, early on. He had hated theway an infant disrupted our routine. Hehad hated the midnight feedings, had triedto get me to hire a wet nurse, and then ananny. He had wanted someone else to raiseour children because they inconveniencedhim.
And yet the pregnancies had been his idea,just like Echea had been. He would getenthusiastic, and then when realitysettled in, he would forget the initialimpulse.
In the old days we had compromised. No wetnurse, but a nanny. His sleep undisturbed,but mine disrupted. My choice, not his. Asthe girls got older, he found his own waysto delight in them.
"You haven’t spent any time with her," Isaid. "Get to know her. See what she’sreally like. She’s a delightful child.You’ll see."
He shook his head. "I don’t wantnightmares," he said, but I heardcapitulation in his voice.
"I’ll leave my interface on at night," Isaid. "We can even link when we sleep andmanipulate each other’s dreams."
He raised his head, smiling, suddenlylooking boyish, like the man who proposedto me, all those years ago. "Like oldtimes," he said.
I smiled back, irritation gone. "Just likeold times," I said.
The nanny had offered to take Echea toRonald’s, but I insisted, even though thethought of seeing him so close to acomfortable intimacy with my husband mademe uneasy. Ronald’s main offices were overfifteen minutes away by shuttle. He was ina decade-old office park near theMississippi, not too far from St. Paul’snew capitol building. Ronald’s buildingwas all glass on the river side. It stoodon stilts–the Mississippi had floodedabominably in ’45, and the city stillhadn’t recovered from the shock–and to getto the main entrance, visitors needed alift code. Ronald had given me one when Imade the appointment.
Echea had been silent during the entiretrip. The shuttle had terrified her, andit didn’t take long to figure out why.Each time she had traveled by shuttle, shehad gone to a new home. I reassured herthat would not happen this time, but Icould tell she thought I lied.
When she saw the building, she grabbed myhand.
"I’ll be good," she whispered.
"You’ve been fine so far," I said, wishingmy husband could see her now. For all hisdemonizing, he failed to realize she wasjust a little girl.
"Don’t leave me here."
"I don’t plan to," I said.
The lift was a small glass enclosure withvoice controls. When I spoke the code, itrose on air jets to the fifth floor anddocked, just like a shuttle. It wasdesigned to work no matter what theweather, no matter what the conditions onthe ground.
Echea was not amused. Her grip on my handgrew so tight that it cut off thecirculation to my fingers.
We docked at the main entrance. Thebuilding’s door was open, apparently onthe theory that anyone who knew the codewas invited. A secretary sat behind anantique wood desk that was dark andpolished until it shone. He had a blotterin the center of the desk, a pen andinkwell beside it, and a single sheet ofpaper on top. I suspected that he did mostof his work through his link, but theillusion worked. It made me feel as if Ihad slipped into a place wealthy enough touse paper, wealthy enough to waste wood ona desk.
"We’re here to see Dr. Caro," I said asEchea and I entered.
"The end of the hall to your right," thesecretary said, even though the directionswere unnecessary. I had been that waydozens of times.
Echea hadn’t, though. She moved throughthe building as if it were a wonder, neverletting go of my hand. She seemed toremain convinced that I would leave herthere, but her fear did not diminish hercuriosity. Everything was strange. Isuppose it had to be, compared to the Moonwhere space–with oxygen–was always at apremium. To waste so much area on anentrance wouldn’t merely be a luxurythere. It would be criminal.
We walked across the wood floors pastseveral closed doors until we reachedRonald’s offices. The secretary had warnedsomeone because the doors swung open.Usually I had to use the small bell to theside, another old-fashioned affectation.
The interior of his offices wascomfortable. They were done in blue, thecolor of calm he once told me, with thickeasy chairs and pillowed couches. Achildren’s area was off to the side,filled with blocks and soft toys and a fewdolls. The bulk of Ronald’s clients weretoddlers, and the play area reflectedthat.
A young man in a blue worksuit appeared atone of the doors, and called my name.Echea clutched my hand tighter. He noticedher and smiled.
"Room B," he said.
I liked Room B. It was familiar. All threeof my girls had done their post-interfacework in Room B. I had only been in theother rooms once, and had felt lesscomfortable.
It was a good omen, to bring Echea to sucha safe place.
I made my way down the hall, Echea in tow,without the man’s guidance. The door toRoom B was open. Ronald had not changedit. It still had the fainting couch, thework unit recessed into the wall, thereclining rockers. I had slept in one ofthose rockers as Kally had gone throughher most rigorous testing.
I had been pregnant with Susan at thetime.
I eased Echea inside and then pulled thedoor closed behind us. Ronald came throughthe back door–he must have been waitingfor us–and Echea jumped. Her grip on myhand grew so tight that I thought shemight break one of my fingers. I smiled ather and did not pull my hand away.
Ronald looked nice. He was too slim, asalways, and his blond hair flopped againsthis brow. It needed a cut. He wore asilver silk shirt and matching pants, andeven though they were a few years out ofstyle, they looked sharp against his brownskin.
Ronald was good with children. He smiledat her first, and then took a stool andwheeled it toward us so that he would beat her eye level.
"Echea," he said. "Pretty name."
And a pretty child, he sent, just for me.
She said nothing. The sullen expressionshe had had when we met her had returned.
"Are you afraid of me?" he asked.
"I don’t want to go with you," she said.
"Where do you think I’m taking you?"
"Away from here. Away from–" she held upmy hand, clasped in her small one. At thatmoment it became clear to me. She had noword for what we were to her. She didn’twant to use the word "family," perhapsbecause she might lose us.
"Your mother–" he said slowly and as hedid he sent Right? to me.
Right, I responded.
"–brought you here for a check-up. Haveyou seen a doctor since you’ve come toEarth?"
"At the center," she said.
"And was everything all right?"
"If it wasn’t, they’d have sent me back."
He leaned his elbows on his knees,clasping his hands and placing them underhis chin. His eyes, a silver that matchedthe suit, were soft.
"Are you afraid I’m going to findsomething?" he asked.
"No," she said.
"But you’re afraid I’m going to send youback."
"Not everybody likes me," she said. "Noteverybody wants me. They said, when theybrought me to Earth, that the whole familyhad to like me, that I had to behave orI’d be sent back."
Is this true? he asked me.
I don’t know. I was shocked. I had knownnothing of this.
Does the family dislike her?
She’s new. A disruption. That’ll change.
He glanced at me over her head, but sentnothing else. His look was enough. Hedidn’t believe they’d change, any morethan Echea would.
"Have you behaved?" he asked softly.
She glanced at me. I nodded almostimperceptibly. She looked back at him."I’ve tried," she said.
He touched her then, his long delicatefingers tucking a strand of her pale hairbehind her ear. She leaned into hisfingers as if she’d been longing fortouch.
She’s more like you, he told me, than anyof your own girls.
I did not respond. Kally looked just likeme, and Susan and Anne both favored me aswell. There was nothing of me in Echea.Only a bond that had formed when I firstsaw her, all those weeks before.
Reassure her, he sent.
I have been.
Do it again.
"Echea," I said, and she started as if shehad forgotten I was there. "Dr. Caro istelling you the truth. You’re just herefor an examination. No matter how it turnsout, you’ll still be coming home with me.Remember my promise?"
She nodded, eyes wide.
"I always keep my promises," I said.
Do you? Ronald asked. He was staring at meover Echea’s shoulder.
I shivered, wondering what promise I hadforgotten.
Always, I told him.
The edge of his lips turned up in a smile,but there was no mirth in it.
"Echea," he said. "It’s my normal practiceto work alone with my patient, but I’llbet you want your mother to stay."
She nodded. I could almost feel thedesperation in the move.
"All right," he said. "You’ll have to moveto the couch."
He scooted his chair toward it.
"It’s called a fainting couch," he said."Do you know why?"
She let go of my hand and stood. When heasked the question, she looked at me as ifI would supply her with the answer. Ishrugged.
"No," she whispered. She followed himhesitantly, not the little girl I knewaround the house.
"Because almost two hundred years ago whenthese were fashionable, women fainted alot."
"They did not," Echea said.
"Oh, but they did," Ronald said. "And doyou know why?"
She shook her small head. With this idlechatter he had managed to ease her passagetoward the couch.
"Because they wore undergarments so tightthat they often couldn’t breathe right.And if a person can’t breathe right,she’ll faint."
"That’s right," he said, as he patted thecouch. "Ease yourself up there and seewhat it was like on one of those things."
I knew his fainting couch wasn’t anantique. His had all sorts of diagnosticequipment built in. I wondered how manyother peopl
Certainly not my daughters. They had knownthe answers to his questions before comingto the office.
"People do a lot of silly things," hesaid. "Even now. Did you know most peopleon Earth are linked?"
As he explained the net and its uses, Iignored them. I did some leftoverbusiness, made my daily chess move, andtuned into their conversation on occasion.
"–and what’s really silly is that so manypeople refuse a link. It prevents themfrom functioning well in our society. Fromgetting jobs, from communicating–"
Echea listened intently while she lay onthe couch. And while he talked to her, Iknew, he was examining her, seeing whatparts of her brain responded to hisquestions.
"But doesn’t it hurt?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Science makes such thingseasy. It’s like touching a strand ofhair."
And then I smiled. I understood why he hadmade the tender move earlier. So that hewouldn’t alarm her when he put in thefirst chip, the beginning of her own link.
"What if it goes wrong?" she asked. "Willeverybody–die?"
He pulled back from her. Probably notenough so that she would notice. But Idid. There was a slight frown between hiseyes. At first, I thought he would shrugoff the question, but it took him too longto answer.
"No," he said as firmly as he could. "Noone will die."
Then I realized what he was doing. He wasdealing with a child’s fear realistically.Sometimes I was too used to my husband’srather casual attitude toward the girls.And I was used to the girls themselves.They were much more placid than my Echea.
With the flick of a finger, he turned onthe overhead light.
"Do you have dreams, honey?" he asked ascasually as he could.
She looked down at her hands. They wereslightly scarred from experiences I knewnothing about. I had planned to ask herabout each scar as I gained her trust. Sofar, I had asked about none.
"Not any more," she said.
This time, I moved back slightly. Everyonedreamed, didn’t they? Or were dreams onlythe product of a linked mind? Thatcouldn’t be right. I’d seen the babiesdream before we brought them here.
"When was the last time you dreamed?" heasked.
She shoved herself back on the lounge. Itsbase squealed from the force of hercontact. She looked around, seeminglyterrified. Then she looked at me. Itseemed like her eyes were appealing forhelp.
This was why I wanted a link for her. Iwanted her to be able to tell me, withoutspeaking, without Ronald knowing, what sheneeded. I didn’t want to guess.
"It’s all right," I said to her. "Dr. Carowon’t hurt you."
She jutted out her chin, squeezed her eyesclosed, as if she couldn’t face him whenshe spoke, and took a deep breath. Ronaldwaited, breathless.
I thought, not for the first time, that itwas a shame he did not have children ofhis own.
"They shut me off," she said.
"Who?" His voice held infinite patience.
Do you know what’s going on? I sent him.
He did not respond. His full attention wason her.
"The Red Crescent," she said softly.
"The Red Cross," I said. "On the Moon.They were the ones in charge of theorphans–"
"Let Echea tell it," he said, and Istopped, flushing. He had never rebuked mebefore. At least, not verbally.
"Was it on the Moon?" he asked her.
"They wouldn’t let me come otherwise."
"Has anyone touched it since?" he asked.
She shook her head slowly. Somewhere intheir discussion, her eyes had opened. Shewas watching Ronald with that mixture offear and longing that she had first usedwith me.
"May I see?" he asked.
She clapped a hand to the side of herhead. "If it comes on, they’ll make meleave."
"Did they tell you that?" he asked.
She shook her head again.
"Then there’s nothing to worry about." Heput a hand on her shoulder and eased herback on the lounge. I watched, back stiff.It seemed like I had missed a part of theconversation, but I knew I hadn’t. Theywere discussing something I had neverheard of, something the government hadneglected to tell us. My stomach turned.This was exactly the kind of excuse myhusband would use to get rid of her.
She was lying rigidly on the lounge.Ronald was smiling at her, talking softly,his hand on the lounge’s controls. He gotthe read-outs directly through his link.Most everything in the office worked thatway, with a back-up download on theoffice’s equivalent of House. He wouldsend us a file copy later. It wassomething my husband insisted on, since hedid not like coming to these appointments.I doubted he read the files, but he mightthis time. With Echea.
Ronald’s frown grew. "No more dreams?" heasked.
"No," Echea said again. She soundedterrified.
I could keep silent no longer. Ourfamily’s had night terrors since shearrived, I sent him.
He glanced at me, whether with irritationor speculation, I could not tell.
They’re similar, I sent. The dreams areall about a death on the Moon. My husbandthinks–
I don’t care what he thinks. Ronald’smessage was intended as harsh. I had neverseen him like this before. At least, Ididn’t think so. A dim memory rose andfell, a sense memory. I had heard him usea harsh tone with me, but I could notremember when.
"Have you tried to link with her?" heasked me directly.
"How could I?" I asked. "She’s notlinked."
"Have your daughters?"
"I don’t know," I said.
"Do you know if anyone’s tried?" he askedher.
Echea shook her head.
"Has she been doing any computer work atall?" he asked.
"Listening to House," I said. "I insisted.I wanted to see if–"
"House," he said. "Your home system."
"Yes." Something was very wrong. I couldfeel it. It was in his tone, in his face,in his casual movements, designed todisguise his worry from his patients.
"Did House bother you?" he asked Echea.
"At first," she said. Then she glanced atme. Again, the need for reassurance. "Butnow I like it."
"Even though it’s painful," he said.
"No, it’s not," she said, but she avertedher eyes from mine.
My mouth went dry. "It hurts you to useHouse?" I asked. "And you didn’t sayanything?"
She didn’t want to risk losing the firsthome she ever had, Ronald sent. Don’t beso harsh.
I wasn’t the one being harsh. He was. AndI didn’t like it.
"It doesn’t really hurt," she said.
Tell me what’s happening, I sent him.What’s wrong with her?
"Echea," he said, putting his handalongside her head one more time. "I’dlike to talk with your mother alone. Wouldit be all right if we sent you back to theplay area?"
She shook her head.
"How about if we leave the door open?You’ll always be able to see her."
She bit her lower lip.
Can’t you tell me this way? I sent.
I need all the verbal tools, he sent back.Trust me.
I did trust him. And because I did, a fearhad settled in the pit of my stomach.
"That’s okay," she said. Then she lookedat me. "Can I come back in when I want?"
"If it looks like we’re done," I said.
"You won’t leave me here," she said again.When would I gain her complete trust?
"Never," I said.
She stood then and walked out the doorwithout looking back. She seemed so muchlike the little girl I’d first met that myheart went out to her. All that bravadothe first day had been just that, a coverfor sheer terror.
She went to the play area and sat on acushioned block. She folded her hands inher lap, and stared at me. Ronald’sassistant tried to interest her in a doll,but she shook him off.
"What is it?" I asked.
Ronald sighed, and scooted his stoolcloser to me. He stopped near the edge ofthe lounge, not close enough to touch, butclose enough that I could smell the scentof him mingled with his specially blendedsoap.
"The children being sent down from theMoon were rescued," he said softly.
"I know." I had read all the literaturethey sent when we first applied for Echea.
"No, you don’t," he said. "They weren’tjust rescued from a miserable life likeyou and the other adoptive parentsbelieve. They were rescued from a programthat was started in Colony Europe aboutfifteen years ago. Most of the childreninvolved died."
"Are you saying she has some horribledisease?"
"No," he said. "Hear me out. She has animplant–"
"No," he said. "Sarah, please."
Sarah. The name startled me. No one calledme that any more. Ronald had not used itin all the years of our reacquaintance.
The name no longer felt like mine.
"Remember how devastating the Moon Warswere? They were using projectile weaponsand shattering the colonies themselves,opening them to space. A single bomb woulddestroy generations of work. Then some ofthe colonists went underground–"
"And started attacking from there, yes, Iknow. But that was decades ago. What hasthat to do with Echea?"
"Colony London, Colony Europe, ColonyRussia, and Colony New Delhi signed thepeace treaty–"
"–vowing not to use any more destructiveweapons. I remember this, Ronald–"
"Because if they did, no more supply shipswould be sent."
I nodded. "Colony New York and ColonyArmstrong refused to participate."
"And were eventually obliterated." Ronaldleaned toward me, like he had done withEchea. I glanced at her. She was watching,as still as could be. "But the fightingdidn’t stop. Colonies used knives andsecret assassins to kill governmentofficials–"
"And they found a way to divert supplyships," I said.
He smiled sadly. "That’s right," he said."That’s Echea."
He had come around to the topic of mychild so quickly it made me dizzy.
"How could she divert supply ships?"
He rubbed his nose with his thumb andforefinger. Then he sighed again. "Ascientist on Colony Europe developed atechnology that broadcast thoughts throughthe subconscious. It was subtle, and itworked very well. A broadcast about hungerat Colony Europe would get a supplycaptain to divert his ship from ColonyRussia and drop the supplies in ColonyEurope. It’s more sophisticated than Imake it sound. The technology actuallymade the captain believe that thererouting was his idea."
Dreams. Dreams came from the subconscious.I shivered.
"The problem was that the technology wasinserted into the brain of the user, likea link, but if the user had an existinglink, it superseded the new technology. Sothey installed it in children born on theMoon, born in Colony Europe. ApparentlyEchea was."
"And they rerouted supply ships?"
"By imagining themselves hungry–oractually being starved. They wouldbroadcast messages to the supply ships.Sometimes they were about food. Sometimesthey were about clothing. Sometimes theywere about weapons." He shook his head."Are. I should say are. They’re stilldoing this."
"Can’t it be stopped?"
He shook his head. "We’re gathering dataon it now. Echea is the third child I’veseen with this condition. It’s not enoughto go to the World Congress yet. Everyoneknows though. The Red Crescent and the RedCross are alerted to this, and they removechildren from the colonies, sometimes onpenalty of death, to send them here wherethey will no longer be harmed. Thetechnology is deactivated, and people likeyou adopt them and give them full lives."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Perhaps your House reactivated herdevice."
I shook my head. "The first dream happenedbefore she listened to House."
"Then some other technology did. Perhapsthe government didn’t shut her offproperly. It happens. The recommendedprocedure is to say nothing, and to simplyremove the device."
I frowned at him. "Then why are youtelling me this? Why didn’t you justremove it?"
"Because you want her to be linked."
"Of course I do," I said. "You know that.You told her yourself the benefits oflinking. You know what would happen to herif she isn’t. You know."
"I know that she would be fine if you andyour husband provided for her in yourwills. If you gave her one of the housesand enough money to have servants for therest of her life. She would be fine."
"But not productive."
"Maybe she doesn’t need to be," he said.
It sounded so unlike the Ronald who hadbeen treating my children that I frowned."What aren’t you telling me?"
"Her technology and the link areincompatible."
"I understand that," I said. "But you canremove her technology."
"Her brain formed around it. If Iinstalled the link, it would wipe her mindclean."
He swallowed so hard his Adam’s applebobbed up and down. "I’m not being clear,"he said more to himself than to me. "Itwould make her a blank slate. Like a baby.She’d have to learn everything all overagain. How to walk. How to eat. It wouldgo quicker this time, but she wouldn’t bea normal seven-year-old girl for half ayear."
"I think that’s worth the price of thelink," I said.
"But that’s not all," he said. "She’d loseall her memories. Every last one of them.Life on the Moon, arrival here, what sheate for breakfast the morning she receivedthe link." He started to scoot forward andthen stopped. "We are our memories, Sarah.She wouldn’t be Echea any more."
"Are you so sure?" I asked. "After all,the basic template would be the same. Hergenetic makeup wouldn’t alter."
"I’m sure," he said. "Trust me. I’ve seenit."
"Can’t you do a memory store? Back thingsup so that when she gets her link she’llhave access to her life before?"
"Of course," he said. "But it’s not thesame. It’s like being told about a boatride as opposed to taking one yourself.You have the same basic knowledge, but theexperience is no longer part of you."
His eyes were bright. Too bright.
"Surely it’s not that bad," I said.
"This is my specialty," he said, and hisvoice was shaking. He was obviously verypassionate about this work. "I study howwiped minds and memory stores interact. Igot into this profession hoping I couldreverse the effects."
I hadn’t known that. Or maybe I had andforgotten it.
"How different would she be?" I asked.
"I don’t know," he said. "Considering theextent of her experience on the Moon, andthe traumatic nature of much of it, I’dbet she’ll be very different." He glancedinto the play area. "She’d probably playwith that doll beside her and not give asecond thought to where you are."
"But that’s good."
"That is, yes, but think how good it feelsto earn her trust. She doesn’t give iteasily, and when she does, it’sheartfelt."
I ran a hand through my hair. My stomachchurned.
I don’t like these choices, Ronald.
"I know," he said. I started. I hadn’trealized I had actually sent him that lastmessage.
"You’re telling me that either I keep thesame child and she can’t function in oursociety, or I give her the same chances aseveryone else and take away who she is."
"Yes," he said.
"I can’t make that choice," I said. "Myhusband will see this as a breach ofcontract. He’ll think that they sent us adefective child."
"Read the fine print in your agreement,"Ronald said. "This one is covered. So area few others. It’s boilerplate. I’ll betyour lawyer didn’t even flinch when sheread them."
"I can’t make this choice," I said again.
He scooted forward and put his hands onmine. They were warm and strong andcomfortable.
And familiar. Strangely familiar.
"You have to make the choice," he said."At some point. That’s part of yourcontract too. You’re to provide for her,to prepare her for a life in the world.Either she gets a link or she gets aninheritance that someone else manages."
"And she won’t even be able to check tosee if she’s being cheated."
"That’s right," he said. "You’ll have toprovide for that too."
"It’s not fair, Ronald!"
He closed his eyes, bowed his head, andleaned it against my forehead. "It neverwas," he said softly. "Dearest Sarah. Itnever was."
"Damn!" my husband said. We were sittingin our bedroom. It was half an hour beforesupper, and I had just told him aboutEchea’s condition. "The lawyer wassupposed to check for things like this!"
"Dr. Caro said they’re just learning aboutthe problem on Earth."
"Dr. Caro." My husband stood. "Dr. Caro iswrong."
I frowned at him. My husband was rarelythis agitated.
"This is not a technology developed on theMoon," my husband said. "It’s an Earthtechnology, pre-neural net. Subject tointernational ban in ’24. The devicesdisappeared when the link became thecommon currency among all of us. He’sright that they’re incompatible."
I felt the muscles in my shoulderstighten. I wondered how my husband knew ofthe technology and wondered if I shouldask. We never discussed each other’sbusiness.
"You’d think that Dr. Caro would haveknown this," I said casually.
"His work is in current technology, notthe history of technology," my husbandsaid absently. He sat back down. "What amess."
"It is that," I said softly. "We have alittle girl to think of."
"Who has been used." I shuddered. I hadcradled her the whole way back and she hadlet me. I had remembered what Ronald said,how precious it was to hold her when Iknew how hard it was for her to reach out.How each touch was a victory, each momentof trust a celebration. "Think about it.Imagine using something that keys intoyour most basic desires, uses them forpurposes other than–"
"Don’t do that," he said.
"Put a romantic spin on this. The child isdefective. We shouldn’t have to deal withthat."
"She’s not a durable good," I said. "She’sa human being."
"How much money did we spend onin-the-womb enhancement so that Anne’ssubstandard IQ was corrected? How muchwould we have spent if the other girls hadhad similar problems?"
"That’s not the same thing," I said.
"Isn’t it?" he asked. "We have a certainguarantee in this world. We are guaranteedexcellent children, with the bestadvantages. If I wanted to shoot crapswith my children’s lives I would–"
"What would you do?" I snapped. "Go to theMoon?"
He stared at me as if he had never seen mebefore. "What does your precious Dr. Carowant you to do?"
"Leave Echea alone," I said.
My husband snorted. "So that she would beunlinked and dependent the rest of herlife. A burden on the girls, a sieve forour wealth. Oh, but Ronald Caro would likethat!"
"He didn’t want her to lose herpersonality," I said. "He wanted her toremain Echea."
My husband stared at me for a moment, andthe anger seemed to leave him. He had gonepale. He reached out to touch me, thenwithdrew his hand. For a moment, I thoughtthat his eyes filled with tears.
I had never seen tears in his eyes before.
"There is that," he said softly.
He turned away from me, and I wondered ifI had imagined his reaction. He hadn’tbeen close to Echea. Why would he care ifher personality had changed?
"We can’t think of the legalities anymore," I said. "She’s ours. We have toaccept that. Just like we accepted theexpense when we conceived Anne. We couldhave terminated the pregnancy. The costwould have been significantly less."
"We could have," he said as if the thoughtwere unthinkable. People in our circlerepaired their mistakes. They did notobliterate them.
"You wanted her at first," I said.
"Anne?" he asked.
"Echea. It was our idea, much as you wantto say it was mine."
He bowed his head. After a moment, he ranhis hands through his hair. "We can’t makethis decision alone," he said.
He had capitulated. I didn’t know whetherto be thrilled or saddened. Now we couldstop fighting about the legalities and getto the heart.
"She’s too young to make this decision," Isaid. "You can’t ask a child to make achoice like this."
"If she doesn’t–"
"It won’t matter," I said. "She’ll neverknow. We won’t tell her either way."
He shook his head. "She’ll wonder whyshe’s not linked, why she can only useparts of House. She’ll wonder why shecan’t leave here without escort when theother girls will be able to."
"Or," I said, "she’ll be linked and haveno memory of this at all."
"And then she’ll wonder why she can’tremember her early years."
"She’ll be able to remember them," I said."Ronald assured me."
"Yes." My husband’s smile was bitter."Like she remembers a question on ahistory exam."
I had never seen him like this. I didn’tknow he had studied the history of neuraldevelopment. I didn’t know he had opinionsabout it.
"We can’t make this decision," he saidagain.
I understood. I had said the same thing."We can’t ask a child to make a choice ofthis magnitude."
He raised his eyes to me. I had nevernoticed the fine lines around them, thematching lines around his nose and mouth.He was aging. We both were. We had beentogether a long, long time.
"She has lived through more than most onEarth ever do," he said. "She has livedthrough more than our daughters will, ifwe raise them right."
"That’s not an excuse," I said. "You justwant us to expiate our guilt."
"No," he said. "It’s her life. She’ll haveto be the one to live it, not us."
"But she’s our child, and that entailsmaking choices for her," I said.
He sprawled flat on our bed. "You knowwhat I’ll chose," he said softly.
"Both choices will disturb the household,"I said. "Either we live with her as sheis–"
"Or we train her to be what we want." Heput an arm over his eyes.
He was silent for a moment, and then hesighed. "Do you ever regret the choicesyou made?" he asked. "Marrying me,choosing this house over the other,deciding to remain where we grew up?"
"Having the girls," I said.
"Any of it. Do you regret it?"
He wasn’t looking at me. It was as if hecouldn’t look at me, as if our whole livesrested on my answer.
I put my hand in the one he had dangling.His fingers closed over mine. His skin wascold.
"Of course not," I said. And then, becauseI was confused, because I was a bit scaredof his unusual intensity, I asked, "Do youregret the choices you made?"
"No," he said. But his tone was so flat Iwondered if he lied.
In the end, he didn’t come with Echea andme to St. Paul. He couldn’t face brainwork, although I wished he had made anexception this time. Echea was moreconfident on this trip, more cheerful, andI watched her with a detachment I hadn’tthought I was capable of.
It was as if she were already gone.
This was what parenting was all about: thedifficult painful choices, theirreversible choices with no easy answers,the second-guessing of the future with nohelp at all from the past. I held her handtightly this time while she wandered aheadof me down the hallway.
I was the one with fear.
Ronald greeted us at the door to hisoffice. His smile, when he bestowed it onEchea, was sad.
He already knew our choice. I had made myhusband contact him. I wanted that muchparticipation from Echea’s other parent.
Surprised? I sent.
He shook his head. It is the choice yourfamily always makes.
He looked at me for a long moment, as ifhe expected a response, and when I saidnothing, he crouched in front of Echea."Your life will be different after today,"he said.
"Momma–" and the word was a gift, a first,a never-to-be repeated blessing–"said itwould be better."
"And mothers are always right," he said.He put a hand on her shoulder. "I have totake you from her this time."
"I know," Echea said brightly. "But you’llbring me back. It’s a procedure."
"That’s right," he said, looking at meover her head. "It’s a procedure."
He waited just a moment, the silence deepbetween us. I think he meant for me tochange my mind. But I did not. I couldnot.
It was for the best.
Then he nodded once, stood, and tookEchea’s hand. She gave it to him aswillingly, as trustingly, as she had givenit to me.
He led her into the back room.
At the doorway, she stopped and waved.
And I never saw her again.
Oh, we have a child living with us, andher name is Echea. She is a wonderfulvibrant creature, as worthy of our loveand our heritage as our natural daughters.
But she is not the child of my heart.
My husband likes her better now, andRonald never mentions her. He hasredoubled his efforts on his research.
He is making no progress.
And I’m not sure I want him to.
She is a happy, healthy child with awonderful future.
We made the right choice.
It was for the best.
My husband says she will grow into theperfect woman.
Like me, he says.
She’ll be just like me.
She is such a vibrant child.
Why do I miss the wounded sullen girl whorarely smiled?
Why was she the child of my heart?