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Follow Me Down

Terry Hickman


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ernell Grisbeck was just a sales clerk in the music crystal shop we Academy girls sometimes visited after school. I never noticed him until he spilled his soda on me. He targeted me, from our bunch of giggling, squealing girls.

He told why, me later.

I was fourteen, and no smarter than any other fourteen- year-old girl. Like millions of others in the Galaxy, what brains I had were totally occupied that spring by Mondarin Lethargy. You remember them, the five guys whose second sound-and-vision crystal blew apart the "youth music" business. They'd got the cannabis DNA to release its chimes and thunder to their crystal etcher, something those boring botanists had never even thought of doing.

ML didn't stop there. They dredged up holos of archaic musical instruments and disk recordings, and they'd rebuilt the instruments so they'd make the same sounds as those old disks. They'd hooked up the DNA to the instruments and their etchers, and unleashed sounds like nothing anybody had ever heard before.

And Keith Lampert--well--it didn't seem fair, having song-writing genius like that, on top of being the most beautiful male in the Universe. We thought he'd given the whole plant kingdom its voice; we thought he was God. We never thought about what the crazy fame and adulation must have done to him.

ML broke up just after that second crystal came out, and the other guys disappeared into the music biz, or real estate.

Nobody knew what happened to Keith but when he disappeared I had just been captured.

I mean rescued.

I don't know what I mean.

Anyway, Pernell had noticed me, all right. And he decided to pounce that afternoon.

You could get "special" crystals at that store, if you knew who and how to ask, and had the chippos. You could get your favorite band's crystal with an added little... boost. It'd look legal; if you popped it into your S & V socket it'd play like its innocent brothers.

But if you licked it.... They were coated with Boost. Took a couple of minutes to reach your brain, only lasted a couple of hours, and there was no hangover. Get caught boosting and you'd go to prison for life, was all. That was enough to keep me away from it. I was Original Virgin. I had a future.

Jen, Katie and I sneaked into the crystal shop with some other O.V. academy girls. I'd finally saved enough of my lunch money to get my own ML crystal, that second one, The Cannabis Cry. Laughing and chattering, I handed over my credit chips. The guy at the register reached under the counter and brought out my crystal.

I squeezed it in my hand, my heart beating a zillion miles a minute. Katie brayed, "Plug it in! What're you waiting for?" but I waited, my palms getting damp, savoring this moment before I snapped it into my temple socket.

And then the clerk--Pernell Grisbeck--spazzed out and dumped the soft drink he'd had sitting there, splashing it all over the glass top and me.

I jumped back, swiping at my clothes, and dropped my crystal. It rolled under the counter. Katie dove for it.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Miss!" Grisbeck babbled, "Oh gosh what an oaf," and Katie found my crystal and gave it to me. Grisbeck daubed at my clothes with a dirty rag. I jerked away. The crystal didn't look dusty or anything so I popped it into my temple socket, and licked the soda off my fingers.

The album started--the crystal shop disappeared and I was out in that sunny meadow with Keith Lampert and Neal and the other ML guys, and--well, you know that first cut. Everybody's done it a million times:

"Kindred atoms coiling round,

You are us and we are you.

Long we sought and never found,

Still our kinship struggles through.

Follow me down,

Follow me down...."

I could still hear Grisbeck muttering about being an oaf, and Katie and Jen asking me "What's it like?" and the shop door opening, letting in traffic sounds, and some boys' rough laughter--but all that was way, way behind the music and the beauty of that summer field.

Then--how to explain it--the cloud-studded blue sky behind Keith's gorgeous face dissolved, and opened, and I was falling up... wonderful. The stars popped out as the sky darkened to midnight-black, and I could smell the grass-roots growing, and my skin was expanding, and I could taste the light rays from the quasars, I could feel the flying frogs on Ellis' World and smell the currents of the stars spinning down into Arcturus' Asshole and I could feel the blood humming in Keith's veins as he sang--

Dimly I heard some boy's puberty-cracked voice say, "Uh-oh, she's trippin'!"

--and I don't remember anything else.

Next thing I knew, his pear-shaped shiny face was peering down at me. The air around us hummed. I tried to sit up. Grisbeck stopped me. "Take it easy, there!" Acting all concerned.

"Let go of me!" I shook his hands off and sat up. Looked around--"Oh my God! Where are we?"

"In my Ford Neustar VI," he said, like I was supposed to be impressed.

"You take me home right now!" Angry, not shrieking, because the fear hadn't yet hit me. "Let me out of here, you creep!"

But he just looked smug, and walked away to what I now saw was the control bay of the Neustar VI. I was in one of the two passenger benches behind that. The hum came from the hydrogen-drive engine behind the rear bulkhead. This was a brand-new model and I knew from the ads that this buggy could hit FTL speed, the first family-sized interstellar vehicle.

I leaped forward and grabbed his shoulder, hard. He was soft like pudding and he winced away from my grip. Now I could see his view-screen and I gasped--the screen was black. If we'd been going any reasonable speed there would've been stars out there.

"Where are we?" Now shrieking and crying, seeing that black screen.

He wrenched my arm, forcing me to sit in the co-driver's seat. "Shut up. We're together now, O.V. Lucia, and there's nothing you can do about it, so sit back and enjoy the ride."

When he called me by my formal title, my racing heart slowed and my brain went cold. He hadn't given it any particular inflection, but under the circumstances, it was as menacing as a knife. Original Virgin, and I'd never been alone with any man except my father, but they'd told me often enough what happened if a man got you alone. Well, not the details, of course, but that you'd lose your status and we O.V.s are the Hope of Humankind and we're rare and precious.

I sat down, watching him tap the dashboard keys. "So where are you taking me?" My voice was steady.

He smirked. "It's a secret. But you'll like it."

"You're gonna be in so much trouble! You'd better take me back home!"

He looked even smugger. "Fat chance, my lady. I've been working and planning and saving up for this for too long."

The sight of his pasty, oily scalp under his sparse hair made me shudder. "You can't--You can't--" I couldn't say the word.

"--can't rape you?"

Shocked numb, I whispered, "It's a capital crime. They'll kill you."

"Have to catch me first."

"But you can't anyway," I blurted, "My belt--"

"Ha. You think any basic mechanic's torch can't cut that belt off you?" He smirked at me again, but then he saw my face. "Don't worry. If I wanted that I could buy it, easy. Wouldn't have to go to all this trouble. What--you didn't know that? No, I guess you wouldn't. They do keep O.V.s ignorant, don't they." He rocked back and forth in his seat. "That's good, that's good. You have to be pure. That's why I picked you."

"--picked me?"

"Oh, yeah, I been watching you for months. You and those silly girlfriends. I watched you all. You're the only one who never once looked at the boys... like that."

"Like what?"

"Never mind. Those others, they have impure thoughts. Not you, though. You really are pure, and that's how I knew. You're the one appointed for me."

"'Appointed'? By who?"

"God, of course! What're you, stupid? No, no, you're not stupid," he corrected himself, rocking some more. "God would never put His Perfect eggs in a stupid girl."

I looked at his pudgy hands, kneading the arms of his seat. Sick and dizzy, I couldn't think. If he wasn't going to--to rape me--"But why?"

"I have an assignment from God. I've followed it to the letter, do you understand? To! The! Letter!" The words exploded in my face, and I cringed away. He waved his fat paw to calm me. "You and me, we're God's Anointed. As per His instructions, I've found a virgin world where you and I will live and reign together, away from all those Unclean...."

"I want to go home!" It sounded like a baby but I couldn't help it, I wanted to see my father's face so badly. "Right now!"

"There, there, don't be upset. It's God's design and you'll be happy with me on--where we're going."

"How dare you speak for God!"

"Oh, yeah, I forgot, that's the privilege of the Ministers, isn't it? Like your daddy." He made it sound dirty. Daddy and I had had arguments in recent months but now I wanted to kill this greasy creep for even mentioning him with his dirty mouth.

"You shut up! You can't talk like that about my father! He's a holy man, he wouldn't be a Minister otherwise!"

"Oh, yeah? Tell me this, Miss O.V. Lucia; do you know how you came into the world? Do you know what your parents did to get you?"

"Yes! My father told me--they prayed and prayed for three months, day and night. And God heard them and saw they were good, and sent me to them!" I clamped my arms across my chest and glared at him. "So there. Think you're so smart!"

He got a sickly look on his face and stared at me, and as he stared, with one hand he unzipped his trousers. I gasped and twisted away from him but with his near hand he grabbed my arm and squeezed so tight that I yelped. "That's a story for a baby, O.V. Lucia. Here, this is what he did, watch--you have to watch so you know the truth of their wickedness!" His other hand was moving, fast, in his lap. Through his harsh breaths I thought I heard him rasp something like a prayer--

Five minutes later I was crumpled in a ball in my seat, sobbing. He was punching again at the car's controls, ignoring me, for which I would have been grateful if he hadn't just destroyed my life, shattered all my beliefs, shredded my heart into tiny pieces.

Lies, all of it, everything I'd believed in was lies. Pernell Grisbeck had told me--as he demonstrated the awful truth--where babies come from. It had to be true--no one could make up something so awful. When he was done, he said God gave him permission to do that, that disgusting thing, just this one time, to break my ungodly illusions so I would go with him as a dedicated, truly pure, lamb to do God's will.

It nauseated me. My father--the Ministry--the whole protective structure around an O.V.'s existence--lies. I sobbed until I was too exhausted to cry any more. Then the questions burned their way out. "But why did they do it? Why make up those lies? If we're not--if the O.V.s aren't the Hope of Humankind?" I must have sounded like I felt, utterly wasted.

"Oh, but they are, at least as near as they can be. You and me, O.V. Lucia, are the real hope. Only us. But the part about one in ten million babies being born without The Virus, that's true. That phony religious crap, they just made up to help them control the O.V.s.

"You ever wonder why you never saw any boy O.V.s around? Boys are harder to control than girls. So as soon as a newborn boy tests negative, whisk him away to be raised in a monastery." He smiled a superior smile. "I'm the only one who ever escaped. See? I'm an O.V., too!" He grinned like he thought I'd be pleased and excited about it.

"You--O.V.?? Escape?" I didn't know which I disbelieved more.

"They think I'm dead. I sneaked out, and found a guy my size, and I killed him, and I put him in my bunk, and set the whole place on fire--"

"That was you?" Even I remembered that dreadful catastrophe, though I was only a child at the time.

"Yep. That was me."

"But 10 people died in that fire!"

His proud expression didn't change. "God guided me. Even then, at only sixteen, I did everything right. God said sacrifice was a necessary part of His plan for me."

And it finally penetrated my foolish schoolgirl head, This man is insane.

Looking back, it was in that moment that I grew up. Not earlier, when he'd performed his disgusting show and tell. That had only shattered my ignorance. This sudden realization that he was totally insane, put me back together. A clear-headed calm came into my mind and body. The first--the only--order of business was to escape from him alive.

His "demonstration" was the only sexual incident in all of my captivity. I know that idiot newscaster MacIlvain said Grisbeck had raped me, and I know that the Raskovich "You Are There" series S & V novel about the whole thing said Grisbeck harvested my eggs to sell them. If either of those things had happened, maybe I would have felt differently about Grisbeck. Those would at least have been understandable motives, however crazy.

But he'd caught me up in his insane God-fantasies, stolen me from everyone I knew and loved, heeding those evil lunatic phantoms inside his skull. I'd never hated anyone before, and it was sweet as a razor.

This wasn't some kind of big adventure. For the month that Grisbeck was dragging me all over the Galaxy, I was bored to death most of the time. He hadn't brought along anything for me to do. Not a single S & V crystal, not an etching deck, nothing. He wouldn't let me listen to the news broadcasts.

All I had was my Mondarin Lethargy crystal, which he'd forgotten to take out of my temple socket. The crystals back then, you know, weren't as advanced as today's. They'd play once then you had to remove them and put them back in to start them up again.

A couple of days out, I remembered it, and when he wasn't looking I hid it in a little hole in the waistband of my slacks. I couldn't play it for fear he'd discover it, but at least I had it. Sometimes when he was sleeping I'd dig it out and just hold it, turn it over and over in my fist.

He'd go days without speaking to me, especially when the Galaxy police were hot on our trail. I gave him a wide berth then. I thought of hitting him with something, but what? Everything was bolted or molded together in that car. Even if I could kill him, I didn't know where we were, or how to get help.

We landed several times to pick up supplies. He'd inject me with a drug so I'd conk out while he was gone.

When he wasn't boring me to tears with silence, he'd bore me to a stupor bragging about how he'd amassed his wealth--selling Boosted crystals--and how great his Neustar VI was. Lord he must've told me a hundred times how the hydrogen-drive worked, and how the Masking field he'd installed made it invisible to sensors or eyes. Or he'd babble about God.

I acted impressed and tried to ask a jillion questions, in some dim hope that I'd learn something I could use against him. I knew my father would keep looking for me, and I hoped I could do something to help him find me, so I could go back home, back to the life I knew.

And then, when he did hand me the key to my freedom, I almost missed it. About the thousandth time he started a sentence with, "I thought of everything--" my mind turned off, my eyes glazed over, and I didn't snap-to until the words "safety tracer" penetrated the fog.

He'd taken the cover off the co-driver's dashboard. Said he'd been getting interference, way out here on the edge of the Galaxy, in the Galactic Center News broadcasts, and he thought he knew where the problem was. He fiddled with some gadget, and seemed satisfied, then poked at another gadget with a dirty finger.

"See that? I even thought of that. Know what that is? That's the safety tracer. Sends out location signals every hour. They put it in when the market research showed that families were afraid they'd get out in interstellar space, have a breakdown, and nobody'd be able to find them."

He had my full attention now.

"--fifty chippos to manufacture and they tack on a thousand to the sticker price." I tried to look breathlessly admiring.

He went on: "I could've just taken it out--" he snapped the transmitting unit out and held it up--"but I thought I'd have some fun. This little beauty--" I held my breath; it looked just like my Mondarin Lethargy crystal--"it's an 'incoherent' crystal, a signal randomizer. It drowns any receiving unit in false signals that seem to come from ninety directions at once--none of them our true location." He chuckled, then re-inserted the crystal and put the dashboard back together.

A few days later we had the closest scrape yet with a Galaxy cop. Grisbeck's hair stood all on end, and he chewed his rubbery lips. We were just leaving orbit around some podunk moon, as the cop was entering the same orbit. The cop made a U-turn and started after us. Grisbeck's abrupt shift to FTL threw me to the floor, and I yelled at him.

That was stupid, because when he dropped us out of FTL, he'd lost the cop, and he turned his fright into fury--at me.

He did beat me up, the pig. That time and others. Those were the worst times, and not just the beating. The bile that spewed out of his mouth, cursing society, the Ministers, my father, all the people who'd thwarted and tried to control him--that made me sicker than the hurt.

He'd snarl, spittle flying, "Don't ever think anybody cares about you! You're nothing but a packet of eggs to them, they hope to purify their filthy race by using your pure body. It's never occurred to any of them that O.V.s are God's choice, that He sent them holy children, not just sperm and egg factories! Nobody gives a damn what we want, what we feel, we're just a commodity--" and on and on, hitting me till his arms got sore.

But that time, when he'd worn himself out, he fell onto his bunk and went to sleep. The tension of the chase and excitement of beating me up had exhausted him. He started snoring, the long, even snores that meant he'd be deeply asleep for some time.

I lay on the floor for half an hour, working up my courage. Then, so slowly it made my muscles vibrate, I crept toward the co-driver's seat, timing my movements with the crescendos of his snores to cover any sound.

Once up front, I felt around underneath the dashboard for the safety tracer module. My hand shook and I fumbled around forever before I realized that it was the first object I'd touched.



I knew removing the false-signal crystal would make a noise. I breathed, terrified, for another eternity listening to his snores, and then I just did it. Snap! I froze. But the next snore came, just like the others.

I dug out my ML crystal and got it oriented the right direction and it clicked into place. Froze again with my heartbeats thundering in my ears. The false crystal went into my waistband. Sweat blurred my vision.

I tiptoed to my bunk and lay down. I didn't even know if it would work. I could only hope that a traceable signal would light up some drowsy cop's scanner.

But--it's old news that it worked, and even better--Grisbeck never figured out how they found us, so his wrath never fell on me.

At the last hour, when he knew there no escape, he turned to me. His face was horrible, his eyes flat black, inhuman. Only the sweat pouring down his cheeks had any sparkle of life.

"I've failed," he said in a chalky whisper. "But I won't be taken alive! They won't have the satisfaction--" He stopped, seeing my terror. "Oh, no, O.V. Lucia," he said in a more normal voice. "Not you, I won't take you with me. You're still pure, you haven't failed. You have to carry on the message."

What message? I thought crazily.

He rushed to the passenger area, pushed a lever above his bunk, and hydraulic pistons lowered a six-foot cylinder to the bunk. A lighted keypad toward one end twinkled waking-up patterns.

He punched some keys, and a hatch yawned open in the top of the escape pod. He turned and held out his hand. "When it's safely away from the car, I'll signal them you're inside it. They'll pick you up. Then I will blow up this car."

I took his clammy hand, and he helped me climb up and into the pod. Through the hatch port I saw him staring down at me. A vein jumped in his throat. Of course he didn't apologize, the bastard. I was too frightened to speak.

They did pick me up. But his courage failed. Instead of blowing up the car, he used their preoccupation with my retrieval to make a last, desperate lunge to escape--and it worked.

The cops took me to the nearest system's capital, where they whisked me into a surface van and took me to a hospital through the underground parking lot. I kept asking for my father, while people in white uniforms poked and peered and asked me the same dumb questions, over and over. Somewhere during the second day of this, it dawned on me that I was being treated like a criminal.

I folded my arms and told them I wasn't saying another word till I saw my father. They said he was on his way.

I stayed mute for another two days before he finally arrived. He took me off-guard; another bunch of quacks had just streamed into my room, and suddenly there he was, among them.

"Daddy!" I flew off the bed and into his arms. He held me for a minute, and I could feel him shaking. I pulled back to look at him. "What's wrong?"

His face had a grayish hue, and his usually dapper hair looked dry and disheveled. I saw shadows under his brown eyes that I'd never seen before. It reminded me of holos of my mother, taken just months before The Virus had activated and killed her. My father was only thirty.

"Daddy, are you sick?"

"No, no, sweetheart, I've just been so terribly worried about you," he said, but he didn't move to hug me again. I figured it was because of all the strangers around. He'd always been very reserved, mindful of his Minister's dignity.

He asked the doctors to leave us alone, and they filed back out.

We sat on the couch and he took my hands, gazing at me with a strange, serious expression. Fatherly concern, and something else I couldn't read.

"They tell me you're all right."

"Yes! I just want to go home, Daddy."

"I mean--that monster didn't--"

"No! I'm all right, really."

"Because if he did--"

"I told you, Daddy, I'm fine." The dark memory of Grisbeck's revelation skittered through my mind but I shut it off. I'd deal with that later. "And you said the doctors told you, too."

"There are some things that instruments can't detect." He kept looking into my eyes, searching. Then he shifted gears. "Have you seen the news coverage? Do you know what's been happening?"

"No. He wouldn't let me."

"It's been crazy--the newscasts have run nothing but your abduction since you disappeared. I've had to shut off our phones, keep the gates locked. I couldn't even get to work! They had to relay me out here in three different ships. The news-hounds kept intercepting us. I got here, but so did about a dozen reporters. They're outside right now. The staff caught one climbing up the garbage chute to sneak inside, to try to find you."

I stared at him, trying to hide my excitement. All those reporters after me? I was top-holo news all over the Galaxy? I couldn't wait to get with Jen and Katie.

"When can we go home?"

"Probably tonight. We'll have to try to sneak you out."

My disappointment must have shown.

"Those press people would be all over you--you don't want that, do you?"

There was a tone in his voice that hadn't been there. I'd heard it when he was cross-examining errant choir boys or one of our maids suspected of theft. He'd never spoken to me like that, and I didn't like it. From somewhere I summoned up craftiness I didn't know I had.

"But if we talk to them here, it'll all die down sooner, won't it? They'll see I'm okay and lose interest, won't they?"

He chewed on a fingernail. "I suppose that's true. A press conference before we leave... if the news of your safety reaches home a couple of days before we do, it might calm down before we get there."

"And I can get back to school!" I added, thinking this would bolster his support. Already I anticipated the lights, the microphones. Maybe they'd let me say hi to Jen and Katie on the news! Those two would never get over the glamour of hearing their names broadcast all over the Galaxy.

But Daddy's face had gone cautious. "We'll see. You may need to take some time off from school. Recuperate."

I tried to argue with him but he brushed it off. He left then, set up a press conference.

It wasn't anything like I'd imagined. All that those reporters wanted to ask about was Grisbeck, the mass murderer, and whether he'd raped me. They said that word, right on the air! I told them, Daddy told them, and the doctors told them over and over again that I was still O.V., but it was as though they couldn't hear.

When one of them shouted in my face, whether Grisbeck had harvested my eggs, I couldn't hold myself together any more. I started sobbing, clinging to my father. Then there was a lot of shouting, and then we were in the hall, heading for the underground parking, and people were crowding and shoving and screaming their nasty questions in my face.

Through it all, my father held me up and kept me moving. I can still feel the strength of him, feel his arm under his tweed coat, guiding me. Through the noise and confusion and fear, he was there. But he wouldn't look at me.

We'd guessed wrong: It was just as bad when we got home. More reporters clamored at the spaceport, even more mobbed around the gates of our house. By then the cops were closing in on Grisbeck, still at large, and now the reporters wanted to know how I felt about that. Before I could answer, Daddy told them, "All we want is to see that freak put away for life, to pay for his murders, so he can never do this again." Then we fought our way through the gates and were home.

I was so happy to be back in my own room, with my Mondarin Lethargy holo, my stuffed animals, my own soft comforter. The cook made my favorite--pork chops and applesauce--and I wolfed it down. Daddy had the phone plugged in all evening, dealing with his Ministers and his office staff, trying to catch up on his neglected duties, he said.

I went to bed that night thinking how good it was to be back to my normal life. Home. Safe.

When I came to the breakfast table, Daddy was already there, dressed for work. He looked surprised to see me.

"What are you doing up so early?"

I blinked his surprise back at him. "I always get up now. I have to, if I'm going to get to school on time."

"Um, honey, I thought I'd told you, you won't be going back for awhile."

"But I'm fine! I slept good and I feel great! I want to see my friends, Daddy. I want to get caught up in my classes."

He looked uncomfortable. "I know you do, honey, but the Academy feels like your returning so soon after all the notoriety--"

"`Notoriety'? I didn't do anything--Well, true, I shouldn't have snuck over to the crystal shop, but boy, you can believe I'll never do that again--"

"Just the same, Lucia, they're concerned that your presence there, so soon, would cause a commotion. Distract the other girls."

I stared at him. Of course it would cause a commotion--that's why I couldn't wait to get back. "But it wouldn't last, Daddy, you know that. What's half an hour of commotion? We all have our studies to do--they wouldn't let it go on long."

His mouth was set. "They won't let it go on at all."

His flat tone scared me. "What do you mean?"

"I'm afraid, Lucia, that you won't be going back to the Academy."

I couldn't get air into my lungs. My "What?" came out a feeble wheeze.

"You know that O.V.s are monitored constantly. Your behavior, attitudes, reactions, all must fall within certain standards. The standards were designed for the utmost protection for O.V.s. I'm afraid the results of the doctors' observations indicate that--" He took a deep breath and went on, his voice low and shaking: "--indicate that you're no longer O.V. material."

"That's crazy! That creep didn't do anything to me. You know that! Those doctors know that!"

"My own observations, unfortunately, agree with theirs. It's not physical, Lucia, it's your attitude. You've changed somehow." His voice was granite. He'd retreated from me. I felt the first ripping, inside, of a loss so enormous that it felt likely to destroy me. "Your responses are no longer suitable for an O.V. girl."

"You can't mean this! Daddy, you know me! Sure, anybody would be upset by getting kidnapped--but it'll wear off. You're a Minister, Daddy, you can make them give me more time, test me again--"

"I helped refine the criteria, young lady, and I swore to uphold them. There can be no exceptions, not even-- especially not--for a Minister's daughter." He slumped a little, and for a moment he looked more like my Daddy. "Try to understand, Lucia, we're trying to save the human race. The standards must be maintained or soon there wouldn't be any O.V.s--and our entire species would be contaminated. With every generation The Virus is killing us off at a younger age. Your mother was only nineteen. I'm just lucky I've lived this long. The virus-free germ plasm the O.V.s provide represent humankind's only hope for survival."

His words hypnotized me. "Just packages of eggs and sperm," Grisbeck had said. It occurred to me that just because a person was crazy didn't mean he was wrong.

I sat stunned, as the servant came and went, pouring coffee, taking plates.

When I was finally able to speak, my lips felt like cold wax. "They don't teach us about the Harvest Sacrament until next year. Since I'm out of the Academy now, will you tell me what it is?"

Reluctantly, he did. "There must be six Ministers present, three women and three men. We perform the religious thanksgiving parts of the Sacrament. The Harvesting is really a surgery. The ovaries or the testes are removed. It's done under general anaesthetics and the O.V. doesn't feel any pain then, or afterwards. The organs are installed in the Preservation flasks. The flasks keep them alive and healthy and growing. They will eventually be fully functional, providing healthy--Virus-free--gametes. These are used either for study, or to generate fertilized eggs."

He stopped, looking troubled. "We are still perfecting the latter."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that we have failed, so far, to bring a Harvest fetus to full term."

Buzzing in my head. "What happens to them?"

"Most of them simply die, at early stages."

"And the rest?"

He swallowed, and licked his lips. "So far, the rest have had to be terminated." He glanced quickly at me, then away. "Their development makes that the most merciful course to take."

Our babies, I thought, Our poor babies!

"But soon we'll get it right, Lucia, it's just a matter of time. We have to. It's a deadly race; the Virus takes researchers, too; so far others have always been ready to continue the work. But eventually...."

"...we'll run out of researchers, too," I finished for him. "But why do you keep us ignorant of all this? Why can't a girl and a boy be alone together?" Then it came out without my intending it--"Why don't you tell us how babies are really made?"

His eyes were shocked. "What do you know about that?"

"That creep told me."

"He lied."

"No, Daddy, he didn't. He showed me--no, he didn't touch me, he--he touched himself, and showed me what happens. You can't lie about it any more. I know. But why is it such a secret?"

His face bleached gray again. "I knew it," he muttered, "I knew you'd learned something that ruined you."

"Why, Daddy?"

"Because the same natural act that makes a baby also transmits The Virus, both ways. If one partner is O.V., doing that with a non-O.V. risks contaminating the O.V. and all of his or her reproductive cells. We have to keep you innocent, you can't be getting those ideas."

"Why couldn't you have trusted us? Don't you think we'd want to save the human race, too? These lies--now I'll never know what to believe again!"

"These questions and statements only convince me that we're right to discharge you from the Academy."

We faced each other across the table, this stranger who used to be my Daddy, and I. I said an inward good-bye to my old life, and to the life of privilege and ease that's granted to a Harvested O.V. in compensation for his or her sacrifice. "So, Daddy, what will I do for a living now?"


My father's house is filled with light. Tall, thin windows march along the east and west walls, and the rooms shimmer.

We moved through that light-drowned mansion like ghosts that day, as Daddy made call after call to colleges and universities looking for an educational institution that would accept his tainted daughter. We paced in a silent ballet, which somehow always kept us out of sight of each other. I heard him occasionally, from two rooms away, using the reasonable tones of diplomacy as he spoke to colleagues current, then recent, then past.

Once, climbing the stairs to seek refuge in my room, I glanced down into the ballroom and saw him strolling absently with the phone plugged in, his white shirt glaring yellow as he passed a window, flicking to cool blue when he moved into shadow, sun-yellow again, then blue-shadowed.... I couldn't hear his words but his voice throbbed with undercurrents of increasing desperation. So high are Original Virgins held in the world's esteem, when we stumble it's a long fall to the bottom. I went to my room.

I was wrapped in my comforter staring at the Mondarin Lethargy holo when he knocked on my door hours later. Standing just inside the sill, he looked more haggard than ever, but tension ran through the lines of his posture.

"I'm sorry it's taken so long," he began, "but at least I have good news."

I sat up, half-afraid.

"You've been accepted at the Institute of Engineering, right here in town."

I didn't even know he knew anyone there; it must have been very old friendships indeed that he'd had to resort to. It isn't a big school, but it's well-thought- of.

"Your math and science grades qualify you. All things considered, engineering will be a good career."

Meaning, fairly well-paid, and out of sight.

"I'll work hard, Daddy. You'll be proud of me." I tried to smile.

His eyes glittered as with tears or fever. "There's more news," he said, watching me again with that strange intensity. "Grisbeck. They caught him."

I think I gasped.

"Well, they had him cornered, anyway. But he blew up his vehicle. He's dead."

A fetid, heated mushroom cloud ballooned in the pit of my stomach, and forced itself out through my mouth as a horrifying bark. I couldn't get my breath--my hands clenched the blankets-- and then came the crying, great whooping sobs washed in tears. I didn't even know what my emotions were--but they choked my speech even as I watched my father go blank with shock, saw his eyes go hard, and the familiar topography of Daddy's face change, carved into cold, remote stone.

Without a word he turned and left me. When my storm had passed, leaving me limp in the twisted bedding, I wondered, what had he expected? Probably joy, probably something pleasing and pretty. I really couldn't blame him. I hadn't known that relief could be ugly, either. But he hadn't even asked why I reacted like that. He'd just assumed it was grief, assumed a bond between me and Grisbeck, I'd read it in his eyes. There would be no explaining; I saw that, too.

So I lived in that stranger's lovely house while I went to engineering school. My days were classes and my nights were study. I wore out my temple socket on crystal-texts, had to have it replaced. My father and I treated each other with courtesy. Taking their cue from him, even the servants acted as though I was merely a long-staying guest. I was as alone as if I was living on the Moon.

There was no question of any contact with my former friends. Once, I saw Jen and Katie window-shopping with some other O.V. Academy girls. It brought me up short. I stood and gazed at the silly gaggle in their bright uniforms, cruelly reminded of how things used to be. They moved on to another store, but Katie lagged behind looking in a window, and when she looked up she saw me. My loneliness must have been painted all over my face. She stood still and stared back, and her answering sorrow was too painful to endure. I wheeled around and ran away.

Dutifully I handed over my grade reports to my father each quarter. Dutifully he looked them over and murmured approving words. His health eroded. Nurses were brought in to care for him. In my senior year he began preparations for his death, setting up his Ministry for the one who would take his place. The house and appurtenances were not heritable; everything would be taken over by the next Minister. He gave his attorney all the instructions and materials needed to conduct his funeral as he wanted it done.

He said I should begin looking for a job and a home of my own for after graduation. It wasn't hard. I took the first of each I found. A menial, entry-level, toy-crystal programming job. Using part of my mother's trust fund I reserved a cramped, two room walk-up. The plans brought an odd security: A place of my own. My own work. Alone. Safe. Mentally I decorated and re-decorated my flat a hundred times in the dead of sleepless nights.

I've sleepwalked through these last weeks. I felt as though my father already died, the day Grisbeck killed himself. I had to feel that way. To feel what was happening would have sent me screaming into the streets.

He was too ill to attend my graduation six days ago, and when I returned to his house after the ceremonies, he was dead.

I stayed by his grave yesterday after the distinguished mourners left. There were hundreds of them. They trampled a wide path over the grass getting to, and departing from, the graveside service. They were polite to me, coolly sympathetic for the duration of one dry handshake each, and then they forgot I existed. I sat out the ceremony on a stone bench nearby.

They left, and still I sat under the lowering sky. The sky's luminous gray light that made the trees and grass look impossibly green.

I sat there a long time before a voice behind me jarred me to awareness. The grave-digger. During the service I'd been dimly aware of a dark figure halfway up the hill, leaning against a tree.

"You all right?" he asked me. Hard-muscled in a black overall, no more than sixteen. The hand that offered me a cigarette from a crumpled pack was grimy, and sported a wedding ring.

I took the cigarette, and he sat down on the bench next to me. My eyes must have widened because he grinned, and ran a finger down the five ridges that encircled his throat.

"What's that?" I asked, and instantly regretted my rudeness. Too blunt, all my social skills rusted.

But he grinned and said, "It's the freak, y'know? 'Sky'--it's rings under the skin--Kite Music."

For four years I'd heard no new music. "Kite" must be the current thing.

"Didn't it hurt, putting them in?"

"Yah, but not as much as this." He showed me the inside of his forearm. Ropy scar tissue spelled "Born to Die," carved in the skin. I winced.

"'Sky'?" I meant the scarring.

"Nope--'Flash'! Get it? Flash--flesh. That was two years ago." He lit my cigarette and took a drag off his own. Dark, dirty hair fell over one ear. His eyes were startling, palest gray under black slashes of eyebrows. He peered at me. "Are you all right?"

I nodded.

He pointed at the open grave. "You know that guy?"

"My father."

"Ow. Sorry."

Traffic sped past on the highway at the bottom of the hill. The clouds rumbled but withheld their rain. We sat and smoked in silence for a while. Then he grunted and pointed at the lowest branch of a nearby oak. A scroungy-looking bird flapped its wings but its claws still gripped the bark. "That little fella's been trying to work up the courage to fly all morning. His brothers and sisters all took off yesterday." We watched the bird. It was just a starling.

"I'm Lucia."


We shook hands. The warm grip sent a jolt through me, and I realized it has been four years since anyone has taken my hand like I was a real human being, or struck up a casual conversation.

"You're married? Any kids?"

"Yep. Two," he said proudly, "Boy and a brand-new girl." I didn't ask if either was O.V. The chances are so slim. But that question always lurks when someone announces they have kids. Josh would have the smiled-upon six before he was twenty. Overpopulation isn't a concern, with hundreds of new worlds available at the end of a short FTL voyage. The important thing is to run up the numbers--hope the proportion of O.V.s stays stable, or even improves.

"Look!" he said, and the little bird had finally done it--he flapped, and launched, and we watched as he flew twenty feet up, then gaining confidence he swooped down across the lawn. The arc of his flight lifted my heart--then took him over the highway straight into the path of a milk truck. The carcass bounced to the far side of the road with a spray of black feathers.

"Oh!" I said, the pain cracked my icy cocoon, and the grief came spilling out.

Josh put his arm around me. "He had to try, didn't he?" The softness of his voice told me he knew I was grieving for much more than a bird. "And look, he did it, he learned to fly. Think how happy he must have been."

The rain finally started, a fine vertical drizzle. What an incongruous pair we must have looked, and how grateful I was for his presence.

When I dried up enough to talk again, I thanked him for the shoulder.

He just shrugged and smiled. "Part of the job."

I gave him a disbelieving look. He nodded toward the open grave. "We'll all be there soon enough, won't we? Bein' nice to each other is free. Look," he said, digging into a pocket. "It finally came to me who you are. O.V. Lucia, right?"

"Just 'Lucia,' now."

He hesitated, then said, "But still virgin anyway, I bet, huh?"

Well. I had been rude to him first. So I nodded.

He handed me an S & V crystal. "Here. It's yours. Don't get caught with it, though."

"Why? What is it?"

"Keith Lampert."

"Mondarin Lethargy?" I almost laughed. In his circles ML must be Ancient History.

"No. It's Keith."

"But he never--what is it?"

"He calls it Virgin Surprise."

"You're kidding! I didn't know he was back."

"He's not. Look, don't let anybody else know about it, okay? It's jail time."


"The Under-est."

"Is it good?"

He bit his lip. "It's not like Cannabis Cry. But--just take it. You--it looks like you need it." He stood and hefted his shovel, squinted into the drizzle. "My job's gonna be messy this afternoon." His eyes flicked toward my father's grave. I took the hint and rose to leave him to it.

"Josh--thanks for being here."

Again that grin. "I'm here every day. Nice meeting you, Lucia. Good luck."

So it was a teenage grave-digger who helped me take my first step toward joining the human race. Doorman between life and death, he was the first non-O.V. to ever--ever--treat me as just another human being. I grieve to think how short his life expectancy is, compared to mine. Then I remember that he's cramming his every day with life, even among the tombstones. I'm just a beginner, next to him.

I came home--I have two weeks to vacate the Minister's palace-- and I plugged in Keith's crystal.

It was etched under the crudest circumstances, using outdated equipment, so the total-immersion experience is lacking. He's in a small room with stone walls, which waver with shadows flickering by lantern-light. From out of camera-range I hear water dripping, and an occasional clanging echo, as of a heavy, iron door slamming. It might be a prison, or a cave.

Keith Lampert is no longer the angel-faced boy of my fourteen-year-old daydreams. His curls have grown long and are tied back in a tail, wiry strands escaping here and there. His face is thinner, more chiseled. He hasn't shaved for a few days. He looks weary. There's a straight scar across the bridge of his nose, cutting the lower lid of his left eye almost at the rim. The scar healed badly, pulling the lid down just enough to reveal a thin crescent of the pink of its lining. He looks like a pirate. In his eyes there's a strange glow. I wonder about his sanity.

But his expression is calm. He says that he has found a home and his purpose in life. Then--my astonishment strikes me blank--that he is an Original Virgin, too! I unplug the crystal to give myself time to absorb the shock. In all the millions of words about Mondarin Lethargy and each of its musicians that I've read, never was this revealed. Grisbeck spoke truly, you never saw an O.V. boy in public. I go back to Virgin Surprise.

"My parents got a special dispensation to allow me to have a public life," Keith goes on in a precise, comforting murmur. "They all decided that, with my talents, it would have been a crime to keep me shut up in the O.V. monastery, and to deprive my parents of gleaning the money a youth music career could earn. The conditions were that my O.V. status would never be disclosed, that I had to continue my O.V. instruction under a tutor and keep up with my classmates, and that I could never--not for one minute, even to visit the toilet or take a shower--be left alone. The Ministers were so determined that no one discover an O.V. boy was outside a monastery, they hired the highest-rated professional bodyguards to take shifts, keeping me company." The wide, mobile lips hover on the edge of a bitter smile, but then relax.

"So there I was, climbing the music biz peaks, with kids screaming and chasing me and weeping at my feet in concerts, and above all, throwing their money at me, in public-- while in private, I had no privacy. They let me make my music. That was all that kept me sane. But they went over every lyric, every note, to make sure I didn't let the secret slip. Remembering some of the fights I went through, trying to keep my work honest, keep them from wrecking it, hurts. I got very good at obscure symbolism. Cannabis Cry was my greatest achievement in that art. If you go back and plug it in now, you'll find it in every song. And it made staggering amounts of money.

"And then I was eighteen, and it was time for the Harvest.

"They orchestrated a Mondarin Lethargy breakup, very discreet but very final. They paid off my band-mates to keep the secret. That hurt the most. I'd thought those guys were my friends. I felt like they'd betrayed me. Looking back, I think I was too hard on them. My parents no doubt convinced them that it was in my best interests. It wasn't just the money and careers they were offered.

"But of course I'd known all along what was coming, they teach us the Harvest Sacrament when we're fifteen. For a couple of years after that, I guess I shoved it to the back of my mind. When you're fifteen, three years is forever. That last year, though, even through all the work and excitement of the music, it never strayed far from my thoughts.

"Nor from the thoughts of a couple of my paid 'companions.' They didn't like me, it was obvious. Just being with someone who didn't have the specter of The Virus haunting every day of his life was painful for them. That, and the spotlight, and the money, and the adoration of all those kids. It was too much, too cruel to expect them not to feel jealous. I tried to be friends with them, but they couldn't help making comments, when no one else was around: About the surgery, sly digs about singing soprano afterwards; even nastier comments about never having children of my own. But they weren't saying anything I hadn't tortured myself with already.

"So I planned. And after the band broke up, but before they could get me back to the monastery, I escaped. I won't detail how; it would get at least one of my keepers in trouble... if he's still alive.

"I got away, and lived vagrant for awhile, then worked my way into the underground economy. And eventually I signed on to a rattletrap old interstellar merchant ship. It wasn't much better than a canful of pirates, and I banged around some pretty weird, and pretty rough, places. Then I heard about Lars and Danielle.

"See, all this time I thought I was the only O.V. loose in the Universe. I'd avoided sex, afraid to catch The Virus, and I figured I'd always be alone. Some kid in a bar latched onto me and we got drunk together, and sometime during a three-day binge, he recognized me, and he told me about them. I expect you've never heard of them, either.

"Lars and Danielle weren't the first O.V.s to escape, but they were the first to envision a better way to deal with the threat of humanity's extinction. They were from different planets, but they met somehow, and they came here.

"And they conceived this idea, and they started to build their O.V. army." He stops, and laughs. "If--when--you meet us you'll see how funny that is. There aren't even two hundred of us yet. Life's not easy where we are; it's a constant struggle to stay alive. We don't have--or want--any weapons but our hearts.

"What Lars and Danielle saw was that the O.V. system is based on fear. It started with a very realistic terror of what The Virus is doing to mankind. But it's poisoned our thoughts and feelings toward, and treatment of, each other. To the point where they're afraid not to enslave O.V.s, not to use any means necessary to keep us imprisoned, to keep escapes a state secret lest other O.V.s get the idea. It's made them cruel and heartless even to their own children, the worst thing that can happen to a human being.

"And the saddest thing is, it's not working! Their attempts to come up with an artificial womb continue to fail. Thousands of O.V.s have lost their ability to have children--children who, if both parents were O.V., would be O.V. themselves. The percentage of O.V.s could be increased that way. But that would take too long, for the scientists. They want a glass womb, to manufacture babies by the thousands. All those lives, ruined and wasted, for nothing.

"We're not meant to be conceived in sterile glass containers. We need a real mother and a real father."

Keith shifts in his seat and sighs. "We, here in this lonely, desperate colony, are the real hope for mankind. But we're not completely alone! If you're viewing this, you've already met some non-O.V. who has put his or her short life on the line to help us reach other O.V.s. Right now our real limitation is technological. We're poor and have few resources to reproduce crystals like this. If we had the technology, we could make more. We could get them distributed fairly easily--I learned all about distribution with ML. The numbers of O.V. rebels would soon reach critical mass--we could return to our homes in large numbers and confront our sisters, brothers, Ministers, politicians, researchers, teachers and neighbors, and there would be too many of us to suppress. We here live in the belief that we can head off extinction in a bloodless, loving revolution. Somehow, we'll do it.

"I said I found a home and a purpose in life." He stops again, pressing his lips together, and blinks. His eyes are damp. At last I recognize that strange glow. It's a joy so fierce it looks painful. "For the first time I'm among people I understand, and who understand me. And more than that. I found a wife. And--" He leans off-camera and comes back holding a tiny, curly-haired child. "We have a baby. Of our own. Say hi, baby," he whispers in the child's ear, but she just keeps sucking on a knuckle and staring solemnly at the camera. My own eyes fill up.

He puts her down, out of sight, and faces the lens again. The joy has been replaced with something resembling sorrow. "If you let this crystal get into the hands of a Minister or lawman, they will be able to find us, and my little girl will end up in an O.V. academy, if she survives the fight (and we will fight.) You will never hear of any of us adults again. Believe it. They have murdered before. Our lives are in your hands.

"If you don't want to come help us, please find the person who gave you this crystal, and give it back to them. It's too dangerous for you to keep it.

"But if you want to come join us, you'll find directions to our location, and a list of things you'll need here, embedded deeper in the crystal. You can plug the crystal into the guidance system of your vehicle, and it will bring you to us, at the same time emitting a locator-signal scramble.

"We hope you'll come. I'm not kidding; it's not easy here. It's hard work and some of it's dangerous," and he rubs at the scar on the bridge of his nose with a callused finger, "but it's a home. It's family; it's hope. It's a reason to live. Come help us save the world."

Then he simply smiles and waves, and the scene dissolves.

I walked the floor for hours last night. I've already had my life wrecked by one maniac out to save the world. Just because I adored Keith Lampert when I was fourteen doesn't mean he isn't just as crazy as Grisbeck. Or that he didn't perform that whole statement under duress; how do I know he wasn't forced to do it, to lure potential O.V. rebels to reveal themselves? Even if he is telling the truth--what about his appearance? It is obviously a hard life, and look at that scar....

I have a safe job lined up. I have my nest to flee to at the end of a working day. I don't have to connect with anyone, anyone who could hurt me, ever again. What are the odds that this plan is for peaceful revolution, as Keith claims it is? What are the odds that they're hatching something much worse? I paced, and my stomach tied itself in knots.

The rising sun caught me at one of the ballroom windows. I stopped, and leaned against the sill, pressing my forehead against the cool glass. In the bushes outside, the leaves stirred. They shook again, and ejected a ball of feathers. For a tremulous moment, the sparrow clung to a twig and glared straight at me. Then he leaped, and soared, up, up and out of sight. I was left staring through tears at the sky.

I have enough trust fund money left to buy a Ford Neustar VI.

"Okay Keith. I'm coming."




© 2001 Terry Hickman

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