Rickey R. Mallory
took early retirement from her position as Assistant Chief of Pharmacy at
the VA Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi, to pursue her other loves,
writing and art. She is multipublished in short and novel length romance
and science fiction and fantasy. Her short stories and novels have been
nominated for and won numerous awards, and have garnered praise from such
outstanding writers as Tom Easton, Judith Ivory, and Kinley MacGregor. She
has many published novels, including The Lawman Who Loved Her w/a Mallory
Kane Harlequin Intrigue June, 2001 Time Rider (trade paperback) (futuristic
romance) ImaJinn Books July, 2001
Here is one of her short profound works, The Healing Factor.
The Healing Factor
Rickey R. Mallory
Keil dragged himself out of bed, licking dry lips, tasting
the sweet aftertaste of the pseudorphin. He splashed water on his face and
cupped his hands to rinse out his mouth, the ghost of hollow need still
pressing like a stone under his breastbone. He shuddered. He never wanted
to wait that long again for a dose.
In the kitchen, he drank coffee and stared at the vial on
the table -- so tiny, so expensive, and so demanding. Worse than a mistress,
he thought, twirling the vial between his fingers.
The great Dr. Sander Morrison had explained about half life
and renal clearance, but all Keil knew was that the liquid inside this glass
tube owned him, and every three days or so she would tell him so.
Suddenly his mind betrayed him with a flashing vision of
the night before. He vaulted out of the chair, barely reaching the sink
in time. He was violently, brutally sick, heaves so forceful he was sure
he would vomit up blood and tissue.
When his stomach no longer rebelled at the images in his
mind, he turned on the tap. Cool clean water eased his burning eyes and
sluiced the sour fetor of vomit from his mouth and nose, leaving him drained
and saturated with self-loathing for what he had done to earn the money
for the drug. It had been harder than usual to satisfy those ghouls this
time. The pain, the degradation had been more than he'd thought he could
He poured more coffee and carried it into the bathroom, clinging
to the hot cup with both hands. Maybe he could get a job working the infrastructure,
he thought, looking in the mirror. He leaned in close and stared into dilated
pupils that threatened to consume clear, blue-white irises. If it weren't
for his eyes and the faint needle pricks on his neck he could easily pass
for an ordinary fellow looking for work. He gulped the hot coffee then reached
for his dark glasses. Couldn't hurt to try.
Viscous fog shrouded the alleys, the streets ran with filthy
water. A few fires in drums burned weakly but there were too many huddled
around, and Laenei avoided crowds. It hurt her too much to be close to so
Right now, before the scavengers tore themselves away from
the warmth of the fires, she had a chance to find some good food. She crouched
behind a concrete arch and peered up and down, then dashed toward the giant
garbage bins lined up like sentinels guarding the alley.
She found half a chicken and several stale rolls in a greasy
sack, more food than she had seen in days. Swallowing acrid saliva she scrambled
out of the bin. She considered the next one, but a glance back at the huddled
group told her the hardier foragers were already drifting away from the
fire, so she slipped into the shadows, the savory weight of the sack tantalizing
her as she crept toward home.
Suddenly, her head was violently jerked backward.
The material of her jacket ripped against her throat, gagging
her. She clenched her fingers around the sack as another hand encircled
"Hey, Laenei, what you got? Eh? Come here!"
She pivoted, dropping the sack, her arms and legs swinging
wildly. She peeled back a finger of the hand squeezing her throat and bit
into it. Exultant at the taste of blood she ground down with small, sharp
teeth, feeling gristle and bone. The man screamed and let go. Laenei spat
his blood and grime from her mouth, grabbed her sack and ran.
She didn't pause until she reached the junction of the alleys
where she crouched, waiting. A passerby might not notice her huddled form,
and if he blinked she would be gone, only a shadow at the edge of his evening
The rusty grating through which she crawled was identical
to gratings on the other buildings, but this one opened into a tiny chamber
-- a triangular room where she could be warm and dry. As long as she was
careful before entering, no one need ever know.
Laenei wiped again at the foul taste in her mouth from Zegart's
hand. Half a chicken and seven rolls! Just yesterday she had found a bag
of half-rotten fruit.
As she set the sack down her fingers began to tremble from
reaction. She clasped her hands together, squeezing until it hurt, but the
trembling wouldn't stop -- it twined like a worm up her arms to her neck
and head until all she could do was rock back and forth, arms wrapped around
herself, her sobs like silent screams.
Hours later, watery daylight drizzling through the grating
woke her. She'd slept badly, dreaming about Zegart's filthy hands. She knew
from the increasing frequency of groping hands and veiled suggestions and
hints from her own body that her status in her harsh world was changing.
Eventually even sharpened teeth and quickness of mind and body wouldn't
be enough to protect her.
"The time's coming, Laenei. You're growing up." Pilar's words
echoed in her head. "I promised your mother I wouldn't pressure you. but
you can't wait much longer. You're going to get hurt out there. It's time
you moved in with us."
Laenei was fascinated by the women at Pilar's, these women
who did things for men and for other women, things that Pilar told her she
was too young to understand. She went to Pilar's occasionally, when the
line between dirt for protective covering and filth had been crossed and
she craved a bath even more than she craved food. Pilar let her use her
tub and her scented soap, and gave her meals, clothes, and a brush for her
hair. Laenei ate the hot meals, but she seldom brushed her hair, and she
would never wear the clothes until she had torn and dirtied them so they
wouldn't attract attention.
Laenei considered her options as she ate and drank the fresh
water that she collected from a leaky pipe into a precious glass jar. If
the weather stayed cold, the food would keep for a few more days. After
that she was going to have to make a decision.
Her best bet would be to find some rich man to keep her.
There was a girl she'd known at Pilar's who lived on the Fringe now. A gentleman
from the upper city had set her up in her own rooms. Pilar said the girl
had anything she wanted -- clothes, food, things.
Laenei touched her tangled hair. Maybe she could find a gentleman
who would keep her. She started trembling again. Wrapping her arms around
herself, she huddled against the wall and tried to sleep.
Keil rarely spoke to anyone anymore, so to walk into the
construction office prepared to talk was hard. He kept his dark glasses
on, sitting calmly, answering the questions politely and quietly, resisting
the impulse to cover the needle marks on his neck. He explained that he
had recently lost his job carrying mail, (everyone knew they were using
more computerized cars.) He said he just wanted to work, but the foreman
insisted that he remove his glasses and so he didn't get the job after all.
"I'm sorry, son," the man said, sounding truly regretful.
"Why don't you go back to the Institute and let them take care of you? You
know I'll lose my license if I give a job to a Sudor addict."
When he got back to his apartment, Morrison was there.
"What took you so long this time, San?" Keil growled, unlocking
the door and throwing his jacket on a chair. He picked up the vial of pseudorphin
and twirled it in his fingers, watching the amber glass catch the light.
"I told you when you left I'd come after you," the doctor
"You told me a lot of things, the most impressive of which
was that you were going to find a cure for pseudorphin addiction."
"I am! But, damn it, Keil, I need you. You're a scientist,
you can help me. Do you know how important it is that a biochemical engineer
has first hand knowledge of the effects of this drug? Your knowledge is
invaluable to me."
"Forget it. I don't give a damn about what you need. You're
a lying son of a bitch. You don't give a damn about the addicts. All you
care about is your stupid drug."
"I wouldn't have pegged you as a coward, Keil. My God, there
are only three men alive who have a Silver Sun!"
"Give it up, San." Keil set the vial down carefully. "It's
more like two men alive and one living corpse. They gave me that medal because
I was the only one left! It's not mine. It belongs to the shuttle team."
Morrison's gaze, full of pity and reproach raked him. "Look
at you. You're trembling, your eyes are bloodshot, your pupils dilated.
You're pushing the limits of the drug, aren't you? Out here on the street
you won't be able to handle it. You know what happen when that ninety-first
hour comes and you have no pseudorphin."
Keil leaned back in his chair and quoted Morrison's article
in MEDICOTHERAPY JOURNAL. "`At ninety-one hours, there is not enough pseudorphin
left to fill the mu receptors. The subject experiences an overwhelming urge
to end his life. The etiology of this response is as yet unexplained.' How
many have you lost now, San? Fifty-seven, fifty-eight? That leaves seventy-seven
registered pseudorphin addicts, right? Not to mention who knows how many
poor bastards below the Fringe."
Suddenly he crashed both fists down on the table, upsetting
the vial, which his fingers barely grasped before it hit the floor. He gripped
the cool glass like a lifeline.
"Did it ever occur to you that I might welcome death? That
I might wish I had the courage to give in to it? Yes, I'm a coward! I'm
scared shitless of dying! But I'm more scared of what's going to happen
if you don't give up your obsession! Sure pseudorphin is the perfect analgesic.
But it'll never be the panacea you're looking for! How can you use a drug
that's totally addictive after the first dose? It's the worst torture man
ever invented, a living death! I should kill you, only I'm too much of a
coward to do that, too." He laughed without humor. "Hell, who'd leak the
drug to the streets if you die? You're a ghoul, Morrison."
Keil slumped, exhausted by his outburst and the futility
of his raging. "Get the hell out," he whispered.
After Morrison left, Keil went upcity on the chance that
Perez might need a courier. Perez's secretary tried to peek behind his mirrored
glasses as he waited, his scuffed shoes sinking into the carpet, until Perez
gave him the package.
"But it's in the lower city, and it's got to be there in
an hour. Here's the address and your money. You know what will happen if
it's not there on time."
Keil stuffed the bills into his wallet. Five hundred dollars!
More than his stipend for a month. He could buy ten vials. Or get some contact
lenses to cover his eyes so he could work. That would mean less pseudorphin,
but he could make each vial last longer -- three and a half days, maybe.
He felt a pinprick of horror at the thought.
As he walked toward the tram, he examined the carton, wondering
what was so vital to move to the bowels of the lower city in such a hurry.
Knowing Perez, he figured the less he knew about this package the better.
Keil held his breath as he slipped his debit card into the
slot. A smooth click told him the computer had found at least twenty cents
in his account, enough for a tram ride to the Fringe. He watched the blankness
outside the windows, thinking about the lower city as the tram sped along.
In the Patrol, guys always talked about going down there.
They talked about houses where almost anything could be had for enough money.
Keil had never been there, and for all the tales he'd heard, he had never
actually known anyone who had.
He remembered his closest brush with life down there. He
had made three hundred dollars one night by taking a woman to a house on
the lower edge of the Fringe. After she had finished with him, while he
waited for her to become tired or bored, he'd sat at a bar that faced a
piece of black opaque glass. While he drank the glass cleared to reveal
a scene from some surreal psychodrama. A tiny form had scuttled down an
alley, scrambling and burrowing in the dirt, occasionally putting something
in its mouth. Most times it would spit and scrub at its mouth, but other
times it seemed to savor some tasty tidbit.
Just as Keil wondered what depraved playwright would write
such trash, a shadowed hulk appeared and a dark hand grabbed the child.
A faint wail pierced the low drone in the bar as the forms disappeared into
the shadows and the screen returned to opacity.
He stared at the blackened screen, shuddering with horrified
comprehension. The glass was a heat sensing screen, focused on an alley
in the lower city. It would clear when it sensed the warmth of a live body,
and darken again when the alley was empty. The thought of what had probably
happened to the child still nauseated him.
The tram stopped, the sudden quiet startling him back to
the present. He stepped outside into a slow cold rain, turning up his collar
and tucking the package inside his coat. The concrete stairs were slick
with filth and debris, and he picked his way carefully around the worst
of it to enter the lower city for the first time in his life. He glanced
up, wondering what it had been like when this dank underworld was the only
city, wondering why they had just piled the new city on top of the old one.
He walked slowly, trying to match the sketchy map with the
reality of the alleys. The constant faraway teeming of the trams, unheard
in the insulated upper city, lay a muted bass background to the trickle
of the water.
Everything was grey and slightly out of focus. An odor of
decay clung to the droplets that formed on his forehead and ran in rivulets
down his chin. He licked his lips, tasting the fetor and decay mingled with
the everpresent sweetness of the pseudorphin.
Wiping his face, he peered again at the limp sheet, then
at his watch. He squinted through the mist at a hand lettered sign. Pilar's.
According to his directions, there was an alley just beyond the sign.
He doggedly continued.
Laenei shivered and wished the freezing damp would go away.
With her face shadowed by tangles and her loose, filthy clothes, she was
usually taken for a young boy, but today she had braided her hair like Pilar
had showed her. She needed to be seen as a woman. She wondered if this day
would end with her allied to the likes of Zegart. She pulled her thin jacket
closer and tried to keep from crying.
Part of her sadness was bound up in a sense of loss - a hollow
emptiness that occasionally pummeled her with more force than Zegart's huge
Laenei shook her head, willing away the disturbing images.
She didn't want to picture that other room -- the warm room. She didn't
want to hear that beloved voice echoing in her brain from so long ago.
Laenei, littlebit. You're going to have to be so careful.
People will hurt you. You're special, Laenei. More special than you know.
You've got the touch. Your hands are magic. Don't ever forget.
Suddenly she saw him, a gray silhouette in the mist. She
was sure he didn't belong down here. She would have bet he had never been
under the viaducts before. His hair clung damply to his head. His shoulders
drooped in an expensive suit. The way he pulled his coat tight to his neck
and peered about him tugged at something inside her as she stole up behind
Phrases gleaned in the hallways at Pilar's echoed in her
mind. She sorted through them. Most made little sense, but they obviously
worked for the women.
"Hey! I got something --" She hadn't intended to touch him,
but when she smelled the wet wool of his suit and saw the lean fingers brushing
through his hair, her hand reached out.
His arm jerked and she spun. She fell, then jumped up again
immediately, her braid unpinned and her head and her dignity smarting.
"What do you want?"
Laenei drew in determination with a long breath. "I - said
I've got something you need. Want to take me home?" She brushed stray hairs
out of her eyes and looked at him through her lashes, like Pilar's women
He barked a short sound, his mouth twisting. "Move on, sweetheart.
I'm in the market too."
She watched him disappear around the corner, then shrugged
and turned away. A soft grunt coming from the corner stopped her. Then she
heard a thud. Laenei crept along the wall, listening, poised for flight.
"Look! Great! Soo-juice! No! Don't open it, man! That stuff'll
A second voice said something.
"Yeah, right! You can handle it my ass! You know what they
do with this stuff? This is Soo-juice! Shit, man! They make slaves of people
with this stuff. I know a guy who'll pay big money for this! Grab the wallet
and let's get out of here!"
She dropped into a crouch next to the wall, folding her hands
up under her chin. The two plunderers ran past her tight form without even
noticing her. When their muffled footsteps faded she whipped around the
corner to find the man crumpled on the pavement. His face was white against
the blood and water running down his cheek.
Laenei had seen dead people before but she had never touched
one, except for her mother. Her fingers hovered over his forehead. She didn't
like touching people.
She jerked backwards. He lifted a hand toward his forehead,
but it faltered and dropped to his chest, then he opened his eyes and she
gasped. She'd only seen eyes like his once before, in a man who had almost
run her down in his haste to throw himself under the wheels of a big garbage
scow. His eyes had been as big, as black, and irises just as translucent.
Pilar had told her what was wrong with the man. "He was addicted
to Soo-juice, a drug so terrible, so powerful, that no one who had ever
had it could live without it. It has another name, child, but I don't know
it. Just you never touch any drugs, you hear?"
"Soo-juice!" Laenei whispered, remembering.
"Wha -- ." His disturbing eyes closed, and Laenei breathed
a sigh of relief. She made herself touch the wound on his head, her fingers
brushing his matted hair and wiping at the worst of the blood. The pain
in his head echoed through her. His eyes opened again, startling her backwards.
She forced herself to look him in the eye. Had the sense
been knocked out of him? His eyes focused for a moment, then seemed to lose
center. "Who --?"
She placed her fingers back on his forehead, probing the
extent of his injury, his whimper reverberating through her like the engines
of the garbage scows. At his hairline was a ragged, oozing wound and his
left eye was beginning to swell.
"Hey!" She shook his limp shoulder. "Hey! You got to get
up. Get up!"
She tugged at him. His head was hurt bad. If she left him
he would die. People died every day in the alleys. Laenei didn't know why
it was important to her that this man didn't die. All she knew was he needed
her, and somehow she knew he wouldn’t hurt her. "Get up! You got to get
up! Come on!"
Finally he did, leaning heavily on her, stumbling, cursing
someone named San, telling her to leave him alone.
She pushed him into the side alley near her hiding place,
letting him slide down the slimy wall and crouching beside him. His face
was white and streaked with blood and his eye had swollen shut.
"Hey! Listen! You got to follow me, you hear?"
He gagged and retched. She waited until the shuddering heaves
stopped, then shook him again.
"Hey! Watch me. Do like I do." She peered around, and darted
out, not waiting to see if he followed her.
Her stomach lurched when he crawled in through the opening
to her secret place. His broader shoulders almost wouldn't fit, so she pulled
him in then pushed his legs out of the way to hurriedly replace the grating.
She sat for a long moment, listening. She had taken a foolish
chance, letting this man into her hiding place. She huddled in the corner
and watched him, holding herself to control the trembling.
Keil opened his eyes. It was very dark, and he was very sick.
He didn't know where he was, which frightened him, but he'd never lost his
bearings before so he waited, first for the familiar despair, as constant
as the sweet taste of the drug in his mouth, then for the wave of recognition.
The despair washed over him like a morning shower, but the memory of where
he'd spent the night didn't come.
He tensed, instantly alert, and vertigo gripped him, triggering
nausea which trickled through his gut like the sweat dripping down his neck.
He wondered what he had done to make himself so ill.
Then, as suddenly as the blow that had felled him, the memory
hit him -- the package, the attack, and a child who had tried to proposition
him in the street. He tested the swollen flesh of his eye. Where had he
ended up? What had happened to the package?
"Stop it. Be still."
He jerked. The soft voice set an unfamiliar sensation reverberating
in his skull. He groaned and eased his head back as a wet cloth descended
on his face. He plucked weakly at the hand that held it and caught a glimpse
of green eyes and an incredible tangle of hair before he lost consciousness.
Laenei was worried. The man was still sleeping -- only it
wasn't exactly sleeping. She had tried to make him drink some water, but
he wouldn't wake up enough. The only thing that seemed to help him was touching
him, but touching him hurt her so much. Several times she'd tried to move
away to rest, but he moaned and thrashed about so much she'd given up and
just left her hands on him.
Once he opened his eye and looked at her. "Who --?" he muttered
"I'm Laenei," she said. "Who are you?"
He had blinked blurrily at her. "Keil -- Keil," he whispered
and closed his eye again.
The shriek was like a sabre cutting through his brain. The
shard of glass slipped from his numbed fingers. It gleamed redly, a beacon
in the darkness.
His fingers closed around it, searing pain sending a rush
of relief through him which he savored like he'd once savored fine wines.
His flesh ripped like cloth as he sliced at his wrist, his breath sharp
and fast, his eyes full of tears, his nose beginning to run.
Dimly, through the roar of blood in his ears, he heard her
shriek again and wished she would shut up. Then knife-sharp teeth closed
on his fingers. He welcomed the pain even as his bitten fingers dropped
He struck out blindly, wanting her out of the way so he could
get on with dying. Her hands closed around his, sticky and cold. He coughed.
The roar still echoed in his ears, and somewhere in the distance he could
hear someone moaning. All his strength was gone, or all his will, and he
lay quietly with his hands imprisoned by hers, now warm and oddly comforting.
He awoke to a sensation of soothing wet. For a gut-wrenching
moment he was lost, then he remembered.
What day was it? His last shot had been on Friday night!
The horror which always lurked at the edge of his mind overwhelmed him and
he gasped and his heart lurched.
Cool hands placed a wet cloth on his forehead. He moved his
head toward the comforting hands and tried to open matted eyes.
The cloth was coarse, cold, refreshing, but he preferred
her hands. He tried to lift leaden arms to push at the cloth, then gave
up and let himself fall back into unconsciousness.
She moved away from him just as he came to consciousness.
He followed her hands with his eyes, like a starving dog will watch its
master, his head aching when he moved it. The unfamiliar pain reminded him
of the pseudorphin and he braced himself for the horror.
How long had it been? How many times and ways had he tried
to kill himself and why had none of them worked? He remembered the shard
of glass and looked at the scabbed cut on his wrist. It stung.
The horror was still there, throbbing steadily as a heartbeat
at the edge of his mind, but the shock, the overwhelming flood of fear didn't
buffet him. He cautiously relaxed. Maybe he could die now. Maybe the ingrained
human rebellion against death was finally gone, and he could let go without
the struggle -- without the doomed, futile effort at self-preservation.
"How --" his tongue felt thick as he licked dry lips. He
cleared his throat.
Laenei fed him slow trickles of stale water, holding her
hand on the back of his head to steady him. Vague nausea prevented him from
gulping the refreshing mouthfuls he craved, but the feel of it on his tongue
was good, so he held it there. He swished it around to cool his mouth before
he tried tentatively to swallow a little.
"How long?" he said, and licked his lips again. His throat
was raw, and something was strange. He tried to grasp the thought, but it
He nodded, the movement setting his head to spinning. "How
long have I . . . been here?"
"Five!" then his heart did wrench, and he jerked, muscles
cramping and cording like springs wound too tight. Suddenly everything hurt
and he screamed.
"Sh--sh--sh." Cool hands descended again on his face and
miraculously the pain went away. After a while he drifted off to sleep.
"Just a little longer, Keil. Don't let me down. See, I've
got a theory, but the damned drug won't give me enough time to test it.
If I could just find some way to let the body rest! I think the distorted
receptors would eventually relax back into their original shape. Right now
nothing but pseudorphin will fit. The body won't accept anything as a substitute,
not morphine, not even pure heroin."
Morrison's voice droned on and on, an irritating background
noise, like a wasp hovering just out of sight when you were sweaty and hot
and in the middle of a job which required both hands and all of your concentration.
"What's left to try? Sedatives, hypnosis, drug-induced coma:
nothing works. All I get is respiratory failure. There's nothing, nothing
that can take over for the body while the distorted receptors heal!"
Every word was as sharp as a razor, as honed as a fine sword
slicing Keil into tiny, anguished shreds, each separate bleeding cell containing
more pain than he thought he could ever stand.
He screamed. The shriek ripped through his throat like a
knife through rotted cloth.
"Doctor, we're losing him! Doc! Give him the dose -- now!"
He couldn't open his eyes, couldn't move his arms. God, was
he still strapped down? Then he felt the soothing emotional and physical
vacuum that told him he had been given the drug. He moved his head and felt
the tug of the tube in his nose.
He heard the shush-pop, shush-pop of the respirator, and
behind it the subdued blip of the heart monitor. His heart hammered against
his rib cage, sending a flutter of higher pitched, faster blips into the
He had arrested! He had died! Morrison had let him go too
long! And the son of a bitch had resuscitated him!
God damn you, Morrison!
Laenei wanted to run. She didn't know how much longer she
could stand his pain. She could stop the horrible things he seemed determined
to do to himself, but it was almost unbearable. Through her hands she could
feel the horror inside him, the unbearable pain. She could understand why
he searched for pieces of glass that cut so deep the bleeding would never
She wanted to leave her secret place -- leave him to do whatever
he would do, but somehow she couldn't. Something had changed in him, and
it had changed something in her. He still needed her. When he stirred again
she lifted his head and trickled water into his mouth. His body jerked and
through her hands she could feel his nightmare.
She sat back and lifted the jar to drink. When she had to
use both hands to steady it, he whimpered until she touched him again.
He had hardly eaten, a roll softened with water, some pieces
of overripe fruit. She too had found it difficult to eat or to sleep. Besides
the constant vigil and the struggle to keep awake while he was awake, she
had to keep her hands on him even while he slept.
She thought he might be getting better, though. The lines
etched around his mouth seemed deeper, but his skin was no longer clammy
or burning hot. His shallow, rapid gasps had given way to long smooth breaths,
and the sweet smell which had pervaded the air around him was gone.
Now when he looked at her, his eyes weren't so frightening.
The blue of his eyes wasn't so eerily translucent any more, so he looked
human. He was lucid more of the time now, too. He seldom talked to imaginary
people any more, and sometimes he talked to her.
He jerked slightly, then lay still. Laenei took her hand
away from his face and watched him. He looked blurrily at her, his muscles
tensing, then relaxing.
It was the first time in six days she had felt like she could
sit back without touching him. She straightened and stretched her arms,
wincing at the pain in her wrist where he had grabbed her. Then she slumped
against the wall, shudders racking her body. She wrapped her arms around
herself and rocked back and forth.
Keil watched her crouched in the corner, her hands gripping
her shoulders as they had gripped his arms. His eyes lingered on those hands,
waiting for the unendurable longing.
It didn't happen. He didn't need her hands.
A strange thrill pitted his insides at the thought. He licked
his lips, his startled tongue searching in vain for the familiar sweet taste
of the drug. For a moment he was bewildered, then the realization stunned
him like a blow.
He was free.
His throat constricted and his eyes stung. He lay back, staring
at the low ceiling until his jaw relaxed and the dampness left his eyes.
When he could talk he tried out her name for the first time, his voice creaky
as an old ship at liftoff. "Laenei? Have you lived here a long time?"
"Since Mama died. We lived at Pilar's before."
"Do you know what you've done?"
Fear darkened her eyes. "You were sick," she whispered.
"Yes, Laenei, I was sick. And there are lots of others who
are sick like me."
She looked down at her hands. "Mama said it was my hands.
She said her mama had them, too. She said not to tell anybody." Her thin
shoulders slumped and her pale face was a white blur in the dim room. "I
held Mama's hands til they took her away."
He left her alone and lay staring at nothing, repressing
the urge to rub his wrists and ankles, as if scars from shackles bothered
He kept testing his lips and the inside of his mouth with
his tongue, kept waiting for the familiar fear to engulf him, kept wondering
if he would just stop breathing like before. Until finally his mind accepted
that his body was healed.
Hours later he awoke from a refreshing sleep to find her
watching him. She had combed and braided her hair and washed her face. As
he sat up she handed him the jar of water and her little comb.
Keil ran the comb through his matted hair and studied the
child next to him. He could take her outside, out into the wild. What an
He used to go at least once a year, out where there were
real trees, where the dirt was clean, where water ran cool and clear and
the sun was more than just a pallid glow through ultraviolet shaded windows.
She would never have seen a tree. It might take the hopelessness
from her eyes, put color in her cheeks, teach her how to laugh.
"Laenei? Would you like to leave here?"
"Go upcity, live in a real house."
"To the Fringe? You'd buy me things?"
"Further than the fringe, Laenei, much, much further than
the fringe!" His voice broke. He cleared his throat. "You could go to school,
play outside, grow up."
Keil imagined Morrison's eyes when he walked into the Institute
and announced that he was cured. He knew Morrison so well.
Laenei was the key, the unknown factor, and if Morrison had
his way, she would be dissected like any other lab animal, sacrificed to
his obsessive search for fame.
"No way, Morrison!" Keil muttered. "Not if I can help it."
He who'd had nothing to live for six days ago now had two
obsessions of his own -- to protect this child who had saved him and who
now owned his life, and to see all research on pseudorphin banned. Suddenly
life seemed very worthwhile.
"Come on, Laenei. Let's go."
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