Toni rose the instant the End of Education tone sounded. Slinging her pouch over her head and slipping it to ride on the small of her back, she threw the theater’s double doors open and began to thread the throng, aiming for the green sport fields outside Education.
This pain in her skull wanted to kill her. It gnawed at her right temple, strong jaws working sharp teeth deeper with each step. Keeping her beam secure on her face, she stayed in alignment and stepped carefully, if briskly, focusing on her goal.
To get to the wilderness trail.
To find something to merge.
No one had started practice yet, but they were spilling out of the building in their white uniforms. She had just a few moments to disappear before someone asked her where she should be. She dug her big toes into the ground, as her father had once showed her to do when she wanted to go faster, and hiked her skirt up to tie it in a knot, letting her legs fly free beneath her, warmed by her thick tech-tights.
She hit the trail at full stride, cinched her pouch up to keep it from banging her hip, and felt herself begin to loosen up as she took off.
She nearly always had a headache by the end of Education. With every truth she suppressed, it got worse. There was an entire person, bigger than her, jailed inside her body, that screamed and fought to get out.
And she had to keep her inside, even if it meant unrelenting, hot pain.
Marcus would be waiting to walk her home in about half an hour, and she had to feel better by the time she saw him.
Before she had dinner with her mother.
To the bridge and back, with a stop to merge, and she’d be fine.
She pelted up the trail, resisting the urge to go faster, knowing that a steady pace was more sustainable. As she got farther away from Education, fewer people were on the trail. Almost no one really used it anymore, preferring the ease of the moving sidewalks to get around Sherwood. But she liked it — the stony path, the dirt that built up on her footgear, the arched trees, the open fields, the river that danced to it’s own music. It was iced over for the winter, but Toni could still hear its burble and roar.
The trail was a relic of the Nostalgic Age, and would probably be destroyed someday, but for now TaRAM felt it was good to keep it as a monument of a time when people lived closer to the dirt than they did now. It was good to remember where you came from, and why you liked the way things were run now. And, for Toni, it was just good.
When it had been five minutes since she’d seen anyone, Toni started easing her headache in earnest.
She slowed to a walk and found a smooth, gray stone. It felt cold as she pressed it between her warm palms. The steadiness of the compressed earth calmed her. She stood for a moment, just feeling the stone in her palms.
With a slow in-breath, she closed her eyes and drew that stone feeling into her body, until she felt the same sensations inside, this time in her belly. She opened her eyes and her hands, cupping her palms together, to watch the swirl of golden light rise like a fine dust from her hands. An icy breeze caught the dust and took it, leaving her hands empty.
Her headache was now a cool, firm, steady throb. Farther down the trail, she picked up a twig from the trail and merged that, too, taking the dry in, sighing with relief as the swollen pain in her head dwindled to nothing. This time the golden dust glittered as it leapt out of her hands, climbing a weak winter sunbeam, losing itself in the daylight.
Toni started running again, letting herself feel happy for a little while, content in the motion and the lack of pain.
Healing this way left her feeling elated, unlike after a pain-tech session, when the pain simply ceased.
Merging — her word for this weird, secret thing she did — triggered such immense joy in her that she could barely keep it in.
Which is why she couldn’t do it unless she was very much alone.
And why no one could ever, ever find out that she still did it.
Of course, Marcus knew about Toni’s merging, because he’d been the first one to ever see it happen.
Toni was five, and he was eight, and it was Summer Leisure Period, and Marcus was with her in her new back yard in their new home in Sherwood.
Aleta and John Sunning were inside, officially inducting Sarah and Anthony Shew into their new home. It would take hours to orient them to the Sherwood regulations — which were very different than the ones back at Caliph Research Facility. And it was plain to Gram, Marcus’ grandmother, and the most senior Advocate in Sherwood, that Sarah Shew was going to make a lot of special requests for modifications to their new home in the Science Sector.
Anticipating a long session, the adults suggested Marcus take Toni out to the new garden his Gram had designed with her in mind.
Marcus had smiled at her, his bronze skin, dark, wavy hair and wide blue eyes looking like the pictures in her mother’s Genetic Catalogs. When he held out his hand, Toni took it, and smiled back.
Marcus was the consummate Advocate’s child. Even at eight, he knew how to make people feel comfortable and how to start a conversation. Toni usually felt shy, but his interest in her new garden made her feel friendly and warm.
So she showed him what she could do.
She’d never shown anyone before. She’d only been doing it for a little while, and it felt like a secret, somehow. But Marcus was so open and warm, Toni knew she could trust him.
She laughed as his mouth dropped open and his eyes widened as she merged flower after flower, scattering the golden dust into the air after each one, just to see his head tip back as it caught the breeze.
“Your cheeks are so pink!” he exclaimed, staring at her face, her lips, her eyes.
“I know,” she said, “whatever I merge becomes part of me. It’s fun! Try it.”
He did. He clasped flowers, and then earthworms, and even ants. He ended up only sticky and bitten.
Meanwhile, she merged the breeze for the first time, pressing her face into a slight current of air, letting it flow into her nose and lips, lifting her hands, allowing it to blow air through her bones, whistling in the spongy hollows.
They both heard it. She giggled, delighted. Marcus frowned, trying to understand.
But nothing worked for him. Throughout the afternoon he pressed his hands to rocks, trees, more flowers, the stream that ran through the corner of her garden. Nothing.
Later that night, after trying to merge with his mirror-tech, his education-texts, and his furniture, he gave up, pounding the desk in frustration before collapsing in an exhausted ball of misery on the floor, sobbing.
A maid-bot, summoned by the unusual noises, found him, and went to find his parents.
John and Aleta listened carefully as Marcus told them about his strange day and Toni’s weird ability. The maid-bot put his room back to order, they fed him some warm milk with honey, and stayed watch while he fell asleep.
In the morning, they explained the process of filing a Citizen Report, and then helped him to compose one on Toni — his first CR, ever. When he received the confirmation that it had been properly filed with TaRAM, his Gram gave him a slim gold ring with the initials TA carved into it, to celebrate his first act of TaRAM Advocacy. That night, all family members on their compound came over to celebrate him in the glass-walled hall reserved for special events.
Marcus’ CR on Toni, when published on the mirror-techs of Sherwood, caused a lot of talk. She was very young to have a CR filed, and the nature of the report was so strange that many Sherwood citizens came by that morning to see for themselves this strange child and her exotic, scientist parents.
Sarah and Anthony Shew were shocked by the casual interruption of their breakfast. When they turned on their mirror-tech and saw the CR, they were even more so. They turned to Toni, sitting with her juice in the seat between them.
Sarah’s eyes grew huge as she spoke.
“Toni. Can you show me what you showed Marcus yesterday? With the … flowers, or whatever?”
Toni knew that Sarah’s eyes only looked like that when she was angry, but she didn’t know what she had done. Nervous, she answered her mother’s question as best she could.
“I … I guess so.”
Sarah waited, the skin over her cheekbones stretching as her eyes grew even wider.
It was like being slapped, when Sarah spoke like that. Toni jumped out her chair and hurried to the garden, followed closely by her parents and the other Citizens.
“Disappear that rose.”
Her mother’s command brooked no argument, so Toni closed her hands around the thorny stem, wincing. Roses weren’t fun, unless you picked their petals off. But they didn’t like that. With roses, you had to take the pricks with the petals.
As the golden dust rose in the breeze, her mother’s already bony face turned sharper and shadowed. She looked greedy, like Toni was a juicy apple she wanted to bite down to the seeds.
Anthony’s face was round and his mouth was shaped like an O. His eyes were watery as he looked down at her. He’s sad, Toni realized.
“Thanks for your company, but it’s time for me to understand what’s happening with my daughter,” Sarah told the Citizens, still gathered, gawking.
“This involves all of us, surely,” a neighbor, still dressed in her house clothes, protested.
“Eventually, I’m sure it does,” Sarah beamed at her. “But right now, I’m afraid I’m going to have to pull rank and ask you all to leave me to my work. Official TaRAM business, of course. This is something we need to… study.”
The Citizens shuffled and sighed, but left, beaming and looking forward to filing their own CR’s on Toni as soon as they got home to their mirror-techs.
Sarah waited until they were out of sight before turning to Toni.
“Show me what else you can disappear.”
“Merge,” Toni corrected her.
“Whatever,” her mother snapped. “Just show me.”
The two of them went through the garden, and Toni merged everything her mother pointed at. Her father trailed them for a while, but eventually wandered back to the house and his reading-tech.
Hours later, Toni sat miserable and hunched with exhaustion, hungry and teary from the strain of her mother’s unrelenting attention.
Squinting her hard, glittery eyes at Toni, Sarah realized her daughter was about to collapse. She had a maid-bot feed her and sent her to sleep.
Anthony was already in bed, but Sarah stayed up through the night, reviewing her mirror-tech recordings of the disappearances, filing her own reports to her colleagues in genetics back at Caliph Research Institute.
She returned to her daughter’s side in the early morning, gently patting her shoulder to wake Toni up. Her daughter was turned toward the window, and she couldn’t see her face. Their cat, ShooShoo, was curled against Toni’s back. When Sarah sat on the bed, ShooShoo rolled her eyes open and stared at her. Her green eyes grew wider, then narrowed, forbidding. It was like she wanted Sarah to leave Toni alone.
“She’s my child, cat,” Sarah hissed.
ShooShoo made no move.
“Toni. Wake up,” Sarah said.
She felt her daughter’s shoulder stiffen under her hand. She was awake. Sarah waited for her to roll toward her, but Toni didn’t.
“Toni,” Sarah said, her voice a warning. “Look at me. Wake up, and look at your mother.”
Toni hesitated, but then rolled on her back to look at Sarah. ShooShoo, still glaring, refused to move.
That cat was hateful. Always had been, since Anthony had brought her home as a kitten. What was he thinking she would want a cat for?
“Toni, I have something I need you to disappear. Come downstairs.”
She rose from the bed, but turned at the door.
“Bring that cat.”
Toni lay in bed for just a few minutes, but the maid-bot came in to help her dress. When she was ready, she picked up ShooShoo and draped her over her shoulder to carry her downstairs.
The maid-bot took her to her mother’s new laboratory. It was quiet, because none of her experimental animals had come from Caliph yet. So quiet, Toni could hear the whistle of ShooShoo’s breath in her ear. It made her feel safe to listen to it.
“Put the cat on this table,” Sarah instructed, and the maid-bot lifted the cat to the steel surface.
“Now disappear it.”
Toni burst into tears and reached for ShooShoo, but the maid-bot grabbed the cat and held her up out of reach. ShooShoo hissed and scratched, but the maid-bot’s skin was impervious to pain or puncture, and there was nothing the cat could do.
Sarah grabbed her daughter by the shoulders and shook her, hard.
“And STOP crying.”
She lifted her daughter to sit on the table, and instructed the maid-bot to put the cat next to her.
Toni gasped as the cat leapt into her lap and crawled up to nuzzle under her chin. Toni wrapped her arms around ShooShoo and the two of them turned identical, baleful stares at her. The cat’s green gaze set next to her daughter’s hazel one was unnerving.
“Now,” Sarah commanded her.
Toni shook her head, hyperventilating, unable to speak. Her little face was slick with tears, and a thick sheen of mucus shone on her upper lip. She really was a disgusting specimen.
And she was being very, very willful.
Sarah felt her rage build inside, threatening to spill out of her arm. Her palm was hot, ready to strike that awful little face.
“Do it, Toni, or this will end very badly. For both of you.”
Toni sucked in her breath and held it as close as she was holding ShooShoo. ShooShoo was so warm, and so alive.
Merging her would feel wonderful — but it would mean she would never get to pet her again. It meant she would not have a friend. It meant she would not have this love, that she could hold, and look at.
The cat leaned her face against hers, turning to lick the salt she found there. The rough tongue felt reassuring. Real. Here.
But her mother was still staring at her. The fierce, gaunt expression on her face kept Toni from letting her breath out. If she breathed the wrong way, her mother would kill her. She knew it.
The maid-bot slammed the table, causing Toni to jump and tighten her hold on ShooShoo, yowling with irritation.
Sarah, Toni, and ShooShoo all stared as the maid-bot raised her hand to show them the perfectly flattened housefly pressed to her palm.
The fly’s wings glittered, and Toni blinked, slightly dazed.
And that’s when she first felt her something. Something deep, something still, something inside.
And then, the deep stillness spoke, inside her head.
Be quiet. Be Still. Hide.
Sarah grasped her daughter’s chin, forcing her to look up and into her eyes. She pinched the bone under her fingers, watching the dry eyes well up once more.
“Time’s up. Disappear that cat. Now.”
She really did have the most unusual eyes, Sarah thought. Mostly green and brown, but lots of dark gray, and flecks of blues and amber.
Toni blinked, and squeezed out a quiet answer. “OK.”
Sarah was startled, as she always was when her daughter just gave up. She certainly was not that easy at her age. She would have endured, much, much worse to get her way.
But not Toni. Toni was soft, and weak. Despite everything that Sarah had done for her.
And now, she was gazing up at her mother, with a pathetic little smile, as if she was feeling sheepish. Little idiot. She shouldn’t have fought at all. What was the point? She would never win.
“Why do you put me through all of this, Toni?” Sarah asked, brushing a dark curly off her daughter’s forehead. “Why do you make me yell, before you do as your told?”
“I’m sorry,” the girl whispered, sniffling a little, hugging ShooShoo tighter.
Sarah felt herself soften a little. That cat really did keep the little girl company. She would really miss her when she was gone. She let her hold for a little while longer, before saying, in as gentle a tone as she could manage, “Ready?”
“Well. Go ahead.”
And Toni went ahead. She listened to the deep still something inside her, and held ShooShoo close, just as she had the roses, the ants, the wind. She held her close and closed her eyes and drew in her breath, just as she had before.
But the deep still showed her how to raise an internal pressure to meet ShooShoo, so that they couldn’t merge. It was the opposite of the feeling of merging, when she melted inside and let the other pour through her.
Now, the part that normally fell away, was pressing up, holding ShooShoo apart. She kept holding ShooShoo close, stayed still.
It looked like she was trying to merge. It looked like she was trying, and failing. She was very convincing.
ShooShoo, fidgeting at the tight hug, finally yowled and squirmed away to flee. Toni opened her eyes, and when the maid-bot brought the cat back, she held ShooShoo again.
But nothing happened.
“I’m sorry,” Toni breathed, barely able to look at her mother.
The deep still something reminded her:
Stay still. Hide.
ShooShoo dug her claws into Toni’s arms and squeezed out, fleeing the laboratory.
Sarah, staring after the cat and the maid-bot in pursuit, asked, “What happened?”
Toni hung her head, keeping her lips pressed tight on the truth that her tongue tried to say. The deep something inside her reminded her again:
Stay quiet, stay still, stay hidden.
That morning was more disappointment for Sarah, and more toil for Toni, who grew more and more tired as she worked to suppress her merging.
For hours, Sarah handed item after item to Toni, but none of them disappeared in a golden swirl. She yelled at her to try harder, but Toni kept failing. The more Sarah pressed her daughter, the more her daughter hardened herself inside.
The more Sarah insisted that she do it now, the more convinced Toni became that she should not, under any circumstances, do as her mother asked.
The louder Sarah became, the louder the deep still something warned Toni:
Be still, be quiet. Hide.
Lunchtime came and went, and dinnertime came and went, and Toni still hadn’t performed, so Sarah sent her to bed hungry.
For the next two days, the battle of wills continued, with Sarah insisting that Toni disappear something, and Toni pretending that she was unable to do so. Sarah refused to feed her, and Toni did not ask to be fed.
As she felt her body grow weaker, she felt her will grow stronger. The more her mother pushed, the more sure she was that this was the right thing to do. The deep still something was right: she could not, ever, let her mother know that she was still capable of merging.
Her resolve was like an iron wall inside, and she leaned on it, letting herself rest against it’s unyielding mass.
Finally, worried that her daughter would starve herself to death, Sarah had the maid-bot feed Toni a small meal. For weeks afterward, she followed her everywhere, waiting to catch her merging something. She watched over her all night long, and even while she slept, she set up her mirror-tech to record Toni’s every movement, every sound.
She was determined to catch her doing this strange, remarkable thing that she called merging, and Sarah called disappearing.
Trapped under her mother’s gaze like a rat in a maze, Toni felt herself growing small and hollow. Unable to draw strength from stone, beauty from flowers, or ideas from air, she spent most of her time staring out the window, wishing she could be with the sun and the birds.
Eventually, Sarah stopped observing her so carefully. There were a few routine CATs administered by other Citizens, and Toni never scored anything but completely average.
Her daughter, it turned out, was not special. Despite everything.
Things were never easy between them after this. It was the beginning of what Toni came to think of as the Great Silence — twelve years of not speaking to her mother, twelve years of not being spoken to. Only the most basic information was ever exchanged.
Sarah’s great disappointment and anger was like a hot lake of black velvet; if Toni ever stepped into it, she would disappear, smothered.
Marcus remained her friend, and the memory of her extraordinary childhood ability was, along with her remarkable beauty and her sweet, gentle fragility, irresistible for him.
He proposed to her on her fifteenth birthday, offering her the tantalizing glimpse of a new life, leaving the prison of her mother’s home for a marital alignment. Just two years away, on her seventeenth birthday.
Just weeks away, now.
Being with Marcus was the one thing that had sustained Toni’s hopes for a better life over the years. The deep still inside had never let her show him that she could merge — but after they were aligned, surely, she would be free to be herself in their home. And he would be so happy, to know that she was still the girl he’d met so long ago.
Meanwhile, Marcus had never shaken a feeling — a truly inappropriate thought that kept coming unbidden — that he had caused Toni’s strained relationship with her mother. That somehow, his original CR on Toni had set into motion a series of events that had hollowed out a happy family home. While Toni and Sarah maintained their Great Silence, Anthony had gone back to Caliph after Toni’s sixth birthday, staying there to work, with the exception of Mandated Leisure Periods.
Toni barely knew her father, really. And she was alone in that cold house, with her cold mother. Trapped, like one of her mother’s experiments.
So, Marcus had promised her, he would never file a CR on her again. And he would take her out of that house, as soon as he could. And so he told everyone — his family, TaRAM, that she was his desired mate. They were a good match genetically, and socially their parents were of equal — if very different — ranks.
It was a good match.
But her father still had to officially approve.
And TaRAM had to officially approve.
And then they had to go through all the official rituals.
And then, after the final marital alignment, they would move into their Seventeen Twenty home — the starter home all new breeding pairs were assigned — and begin their life together.
And she would be able to merge, in private, as often as she liked. And he would not betray her again. Of that she was certain.
She would still need to keep a lot of secrets, like all the other things that made her weird — like knowing the answer to each question asked in her hearing — but at least, she could have some privacy, behind the walls of mirror-tech that lined their home, workplaces, and the moving sidewalks of Sherwood.
But she could keep that from him. From everyone.
So he could stay safe. She could stay safe. Their children could be safe.
No one would ever pin her for inspection, take her back to Caliph for study. People like her mother, opening up her genes for study. Once you were opened up, it was unlikely you would go back together. The animals in her lab certainly didn’t, not the way they had been before. And if you were no longer interesting? You were scheduled for your Darkness.
That thought made her shiver, and Toni decided to outrun her dark thoughts and dark memories. She pounded up the trail toward the bridge, but slowed to a walk when a long, keening howl cut across the water. The sound made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She could feel the breeze on her sweaty neck. Fear choked her, like nausea.
The wolvers were out, patrolling the ruins of the ancient structure. Hopefully on the other side, separated from her by slippery ice and partially submerged beams.
Time to turn around, before they caught her scent, and were compelled to investigate.
She was too late. A gray shape bounded out of the tree line near the old bridge. She turned and sped back toward Education, but it caught up to her easily, with the unnerving speed of its beastly ancestors. It loped alongside her, sniffing, panting, it’s glowing yellow eyes narrowed, its front claws flexing as it pulled ahead.
The wolver slammed to a stop in the trail, forcing her to either collide with it or try to hurtle around it. Its prey instinct was already up, so she stopped to let it sniff her.
The creature, the result of decades of genetic splicing of genes from a giant wolf common back in the Nostalgic and men who were particularly violent by nature, panted through a fanged grin, its tongue hanging out of one side of its mouth. It circled her, sniffing and feeding information into the mirror-tech looped on a belt around its waist. It didn’t reach out to touch her, though.
Good. She never wanted a wolver to touch her.
Toni kept still while the wolver finished its report, kept still while it circled one last time, and kept still when it stood directly in front of her and stared into her eyes. It wanted her to flinch. She didn’t.
The wolver’s eyes narrowed, and his lips curled up tight, revealing his large, sharp fangs. Toni stayed composed, breathing deeply to keep her heart from racing. She hated wolvers, hated the fact that her wild places were being patrolled. Hated that he was filing a report on her. Hated him. She stared back at him, stone-faced.
His eyes flared open and he lunged at her, hands stretched out in front, like a small boy trying to scare an adult.
“Boo” he grunted, and Toni’s composure broke — she stepped back, heart pounding.
This was more to the wolver’s liking. He took a step forward, quickly, and grabbed for her arm, sniffing deeply at her armpit, inhaling her fear.
He wasn’t supposed to touch humans without explicit permission from TaRAM, but that didn’t seem to matter. He lifted his face and looked at her.
His eyes were yellow, and rimmed in red, and all too human in that wolfish face. Most of the wolvers were incorrigible criminals, serial murderers, rapists, thieves, who were modified at Caliph — combined with wolves who had been tortured, raised to fight and kill.
The human brains were kept for their logic and intelligence and ability to communicate with other humans — but the wolf donated his heart, strength and most of his limbs. The personalities of the deranged wolf and inhumane human halves came together neatly, it turned out. Each wolver was a unique member of a pack of mercenary soldiers. The wolvers were some of Sarah’s best work, as she often said after too many glasses of wine.
She’d done shoddy work with this wolver, though. He had clearly decided his orders were less important than his urges. He looked hungry as he leaned in, letting his mouth hang open loosely, tongue lolling, breath warm and fetid, eyes wide and soft, as if he were drinking in the details of her face.
Keeping her gaze, the wolver lifted a clawed finger to her cheek. Toni froze, limbs turned to icy stone, barely breathing. If he let himself touch her again, she was suddenly sure, she would die. He would lose all control and rip her limb from limb, but only after doing something else — something really, really bad.
The gorge that had been rising in her throat went higher, and the feeling of numb panic in her chest grew painful, as if bursting out of her ribcage. She screamed, but without being able to breathe, the scream came out as a shuddering pant. No sound.
Except inside her body, where the scream was very loud, indeed. Where the scream woke up that deep something once more, that deep something that she hadn’t heard from in years, and that deep something said:
Breathe, and relax, this will not hurt.
And even though it seemed wildly stupid to do it, she did. She trusted that deep still something, and breathed, and relaxed, and watched as the world around her went from full color to grayscale. The wolver’s face turned fuzzy and distorted, stretched out. He swung his head from side to side, as if looking for something, and grabbed at her, right through her arms, her head.
But when he grabbed, his hands landed in air, squeezed only air.
He was gray, and she was somehow, safe from him.
Toni didn’t think she could run, because she felt so weak and … gone. But she could, it turned out. She ran straight forward, through the wolver, which felt like an icy cobweb, and pelted down the trail, heart pounding at her daring. She ran, and ran, and ran, barely registering the effort it took.
The trail, the trees, the sky, even the birds flying home to roost for the night were all fuzzy and gray. She was running through clouds, not touching a thing. It was like she was flying.
Toni ran, and ran, and ran, until she found herself near the playing fields. She didn’t see the ball at all as it hurtled toward her, and barely felt the impact as it swished through her head — but the sensation distracted her, and was enough to make her stumble, and land on her ankle in a weird way.
The world was back, suddenly, with a loud crack of noise, an explosion of color and texture, and a nauseating pain. She fell, heavily, and felt only a slight relief as the world went back to gray, as if disappearing down a black tunnel that opened up in front of her.