Even in her dreams, Izze always felt pulled in too many directions.
“That’s part of your problem,” Severin said when she called him while drinking the morning’s first cup of coffee. “You sleep wrong.” His voice sounded far away, pinned beneath a screen.
“That’s not the problem. All the tests have said it’s electromagnetic, or the Big Heat of ‘37, or genetics, or all of the above. Or none of the above. One said ‘anxiety,’ but screw that one. None have said ‘sleep.’” Izze stared over her mug at the glowing square where her former mentor’s eyes blinked back at her, younger by the minute. “Besides,” she finally admitted, “I’d prefer not to sleep at all.”
Sleep was when she lost things.
Sleep was when her minor joints—the really painful ones—moved around and went on adventures in ways science couldn’t explain, any more than it could tell Severin why he was youthing and re-aging. Any more than it could give anyone answers, really, after the biowars, and especially not after the Big Heat.
“There’s a woman in this sleep study who says we can dream our own reality,” Severin replied from the elevated bed in his room at University Hospital. A band of sensors crossed his brow.
“I’m not doing the sleep study with you, Severin, no matter what you tell me about it.” Izze’s room was lit by the brightest bulbs she could find. The kind of lights that put shadows in the dumpster.
“They suggested I ask you is all. See if you want to try to work out new methodologies.” Severin smiled at her fondly. “You’re done helping people, then.”
“Yup. For all values of people that mean researchers.” Izze pulled her hair back into a ponytail and took another long sip of coffee. “I’ve tried plenty.” She wiggled her foot, the one toe misshapen but not painful. “And I figure I’ve done more than my share.”
Severin blinked, his head pillowed in the hospital’s linens, the room dark, but his laugh bright. “I suspect that’s fair.”
Ten university health studies. It was kind of fair. A batch of inconclusives. She’d wanted answers. Science was all about answers. She got hypotheticals, all while finishing her doctorate, which was awkward. Once the department ended tenure for new PhDs, Izze had stopped agreeing to the studies. But she still adjunct taught for the University, and she still used University Health equipment.
So far, her things hadn’t gotten much worse. Only her smaller joints and bones went missing—no major ones yet, no major organs either. And University Health hadn’t come to take the equipment back, and hopefully wouldn’t, as long as she kept making the rental payments. Izze almost felt lucky.
She kept herself together and in coffee beans by teaching at three different schools. And sometimes by singing—the resonances were supposed to help her joints. And always by talking to Severin.
They’d spoken most days when he was her mentor in the Physics Department. About office politics. About how solitary academic life could be.
Now? They still talked. Just a little more hurriedly. Izze couldn’t afford to be late to any more of her classes. And they never knew how old Severin was going to be lately, any more than Izze knew where her bones would be when she woke.
Today, he was younger. Sometimes his memory was as young as his cells, and he barely recognized her. Not today, though. Today he was pushing her.
Izze stood up and yanked her work jacket over taped-up joints, leaving the chat window open.
The tape stretched and pulled against her skin. A button popped loose from a sleeve and chimed metal against the Faraday-cage-wrapped wall of her small bedroom. Small because that’s all the University Health studies would allow.
Small because she didn’t need much. Just a net, for holding herself together.
This morning, she’d woken to find that a tiny joint in her right foot had been impossible to retrieve. Best she could tell from her equipment, it was out by Kepler 90b.
Casting a net all that way, around several gas giants, was beyond her range.
Plus, unfortunately, also that morning, Izze had hit snooze twice. She’d been dreaming about gathering her bones with her fingers, pressing them back into place through sheer will; about gathering students for her classes in the same way.
Once escape velocity is achieved, no further impulse need be applied for it to continue in its escape. Izze thought, practicing the opening of today’s lecture for two out of her three schools. Teaching helped keep hold of what she knew, and who she was.
She made another coffee. The machine jammed. “Come on, coffee,” she sang. Everything worked oddly inside the hacked and modified Freer-Faraday cage, but until Izze was fully awake, she didn’t dare leave its confines.
Couldn’t afford to lose anything else.
Including the cage.
The modifications she and Severin had made to the cage weren’t standard, and if University Health ever did take the machine back, Izze knew they would not be happy. There were the regrouping sonics, for one, which helped Izze sense where her joints had gone and pull them back. There were containment resonances too. She and Severin had enjoyed applying their research time to the problem, as well as their imaginations, but she’d been shocked when it had actually worked.
Severin hadn’t, not really. “So many things work differently when superheated,” he said, sagely. As if Izze hadn’t been alive during the Big Heat too. She almost remembered forests.
Still, no telling how long anything would keep working. Everything changed, all the time—Izze, job reliability, Severin—everything. She couldn’t be too safe.
Since everyone now was so convinced her joints were moving because of electromagnetics, the cage felt like a safety net. She was going to keep it as long as she could. And it did seem to be helping some. At least, it was keeping things from getting worse. For the time being.
But now Severin was implying her dreams were part of the problem.
Who the hell knows, really, Izze thought. It didn’t keep her parts from disconnecting while she slept. Fending off sleep, fending off electromagnetism just made it all less frequent.
Finally, with a grinding noise, the coffee machine spun around and spat out an espresso. The scent of burnt beans filled Izze’s small room. She would drink the beverage anyway once it cooled.
“In my case, I think it’s the other way around. Reality affects my dreams.” Izze tried to sip at her coffee. Still too hot. “Reality: no more full professorships. Dream: not having to run all over town trying to hold students’ attention. QED.”
Severin looked away from the screen for a moment and played at his plastic ID band. The embedded bio-chip that monitored his sleep cycles glinted in the gaining morning light. “You’re too frenetic. You can’t be in so many places at once, Izze. It’s not good for you.” The plastic snagged on the cuff of his robe, from which Severin’s thin wrists protruded. The hair on his arms had once been white. Now it was brown. Izze noticed a fresh bruise on the top of Severin’s hand.
You can’t be in so many places at once, Izze.
Didn’t she know it. But how could she possibly control that? “Did they take blood again?” She couldn’t conceal her concern, even though she didn’t really have time to linger, or worry.
Severin nodded. “They wanted to see if my blood was getting younger too.”
Izze winced. “Looks like they took a lot.” Studies. Knowledge was a hungry maw, lined with teeth called studies.
“Maybe I can dream up more blood.” Severin’s smile was sad. He watched Izze through the screen. “Research studies are all I’ve got left, Iz. No one else has answers. Your classes are my entertainment. That and your singing.”
“I know.” This could be me someday, she thought.
“Everyone keeps telling me to relax and enjoy the youth, but I don’t want to run out of time without having done something…” Severin gestured in the air. “Meaningful.”
Izze eyed the bruises on her friend’s hand. “Do you ever want to leave the study?”
Severin nodded. “Sometimes. The more tests they run, the more stress, the younger I get.” He shrugs. “I think they’re seeing how far they can push it. When I’m less stressed, I get older again.”
Like most of her graduate students at the three colleges where she taught, Severin looked twenty-two at the moment. But in reality, the professor was seventy two. He’d lived through all the biowars. After the Big Heat, well into his tenure, he’d started youthing and back again, like a few dozen others who’d been on the front lines of both. At first, when Izze began studying at the University, it had been hard to see. And Severin had been good at hiding things.
But he’d been aging mostly in reverse now for twenty-three years, and it was speeding up.
“I signed the forms, Izze. It’s all legal.”
Izze had been three during the Big Heat. Most people had barely noticed the wars, since they moved so slow, until a lot of the big woods had gone, and people started getting sick in strange ways. But Severin was in physics, so he’d been right in the middle of things.
“I get it, I’m just not convinced this study has your best interests at heart.”
“Dr. Rand has great credentials for unusual war and environmental syndromes. He’s exploring sleep variations. The university is fully backing him. He wants to meet you, Iz. And the others participating want to meet you too.” Severin twisted the blanket between his fingers. “I told them how we figured out how to use sonics to guide your joints back. Rand said you’re so young, and you were just an infant during the Heat, you could really make a difference.”
Izze looked at her friend, trying to ignore the irony. “No thank you. I’m not going to be anyone’s lab rat anymore.”
“Not even for science?”
That was a low blow and Severin knew it. As a physics PhD student and now professor, Izze had done so much for science that now, science was all she had. And science had helped her too. Her and Severin’s cage hacks allowed Izze to pull personally resonant objects back from escape trajectories. She could hear her joints groan and twinge when they were nearby, and when they were farther out, they resonated, kind of like stars. Her bones seemed to listen, and she could hear them too. And if you could hear something, you could find it.
And if you could keep something in, or out, you could also reverse purpose and pull things to you, Severin had reasoned. Her joints resonated back to her, as Severin had hypothesized when they made the sonic adjustments to the cage, plus the electromagnetic amplifications and reversals.
Izze’s hearing in the cage was sharp. She could hear her bones, no matter how far away they got.
Once she figured out how to find things, Severin had helped her pioneer several different methods for limb retrieval. “If escape velocity is the speed at which the sum of an object‘s kinetic energy and its gravitational potential energy is equal to zero, then recapture velocity is the reverse. All you need to do is calculate the reversal and inflict that on the object, using the Freer-Faraday cage’s inverse properties.” He’d grinned like a madman when he’d tacked her name onto the tech.
It hadn’t been exactly that easy. Izze had modified a lot of calculations. And the Faraday cage, once she’d gotten out of the university study. She’d added visualizers and grabbers to the electromagnetic nets, and cast them wide, like a fisher, each morning, for parts of herself.
Sometimes this was harder than others.
A week ago, her left talus and calcaneus had made it all the way to the Oort Cloud. So far away that she’d almost missed them, even with all her equipment. Singing the bones out from the tinier rocks and grit had taken a long time, but she hadn’t given up.
Still, singing to your dislocating bones through some kludged equipment in a modified Faraday cage? She’d hate to do that with someone else around. It was too weird.
Izze didn’t know many people besides students, especially after tenure was cancelled. Her mornings sometimes began with a search of nearby planetary orbits and black holes for various joints and limbs. That sort of thing could be dangerous for a partner or a pet, couldn’t it? What if she sent parts of them into orbit? And couldn’t bring them back?
So she lived alone. She had to. Science was all she had.
But now she had to rush coffee with Severin, which she hated to do, in order to get to her first class on time. She’d pull the toe joint in later, or she’d get by.
Severin didn’t miss a beat. “You’re pale. What shifted?”
“Just a toe. Nothing big.”
Severin had come running when both Izze’s hands had tried to make a break for Jupiter. He’d helped catch them with the electromagnetic nets before they got too far. Until Izze learned to work the inputs on her handmade Faraday retrieval rig with her feet.
It didn’t hurt as much now as it used to. The first time one of her shoulder blades disappeared, she’d screamed until her neighbors pounded on the wall. Tape helped. And wine.
But that little toe was still on the loose.
She‘d have to go to work a little wobbly again, that was all.
She grabbed a day-old bagel from the kitchen.
“Bye for now, Doc,” she said, waving.
He waved back. “Maybe I’ll see you in class. Maybe I’ll dream my way there.”
“Sleep well,” Izze said, then bit into the bagel.
When the bagel jarred her jaw so hard that it wound up in the hallway outside her apartment, Izze decided she‘d had enough. Waking up to find parts missing was one thing. Having it happen while she was awake and not being able to get those parts back, plus being later than she could afford, was completely another. She dealt with her jaw and then ran for the bus.
From the bus on the way to her first university, she phoned her doctor.
“Again?“ Dr. Morgani said and upped both her meds and the experimental Freer-Faraday cage’s power. He knew she’d made adjustments to the cage, but hadn’t told the University. She trusted him. He sent her his bills directly. “You should come in, okay?”
“I have class,” Izze said. “I need to pay my bills.” But she made the appointment.
“When instructors are more than fifteen minutes late, students can leave,” Bob informed her at the door to her classroom. “Especially adjuncts.”
“We’re all adjuncts,” Izze said.
“Sorry.” Bob was a legacy kid. He sang in the a capella choir, got gentleman’s C’s in most things. Tended bar at the Liquid on weekends. Izze suspected he’d only signed up for special studies in Physics because of the cute boy—Severin—attending by robo-view from front row. Robo-Severin had no time for Bob. He was there to keep his memory sharp.
Still, Izze liked Bob, despite the adjuncts crack. “Good thing I’m only fourteen minutes late,” she said. She gestured, “go on then,” with one of her crutches, emblazoned with stars. Back into the classroom he went.
Izze’s ankle cracked like a tambura as she descended into the lecture theater. Stairs. Always stairs. “Who knows what solitons are?” She asked the class.
They all should know. If they’d done the reading. The room was quiet.
Severin, via telepresence raised his hand. No one else. “They’re perfect waves,” he said. “They don’t disperse, they’re balanced so they don’t change shape.”
Izze smiled. Her old professor still had perfect timing.
“What mediums?” she asked. “Someone else besides Severin.”
Twenty students in the class. Nineteen silences. Izze sighed. She reached for her professor voice. “In 2002, a singular disturbance crossed from magnetopause to magnetosphere at 8 kilometers per second. A perfect electronic wave.
One hundred seventy years earlier, a scientist, John Stuart Russell, observed ‘a well-formed heap of water,’ traveling in a singular fashion down a Scottish canal, well after the boat that created it had stopped moving. More than a mile after, to be exact.
Solitons have been observed in optics—traveling thousands of kilometers—and in biological systems.
From space to neurons, these singular waves that do not easily dissipate, appear as if charmed out of the substance that forms them, carry on, and then vanish.
She said, looking around, “Where do they go when they’re gone?”
No one answered.
She’d sort of expected him, after that class. Severin lingered on the teleprompter, waiting for Izze, maybe. Cute.
Bob glanced at the screen, then back at her. “How long can a soliton hold its form?” he asked.
Izze had watched Severin change for years, occasionally his face sloughing, his skin shifting texture. Once, his fingers grew so soft, it hurt to hold a pen. The university had grown concerned. But Severin had no family left, just work. And Izze. So he’d fought to stay on.
And then he’d started getting younger. At some point, he might disappear, if the researchers weren’t careful.
Izze tried to focus on solitons. Severin stayed silent.
“It depends,” she said finally. “It’s something we’re researching.”
Bob left after realizing Severin wasn’t going to talk to him after class, no matter how smart the questions. Izze shuffled her papers together, then looked at the screen.
“They give you time off for good behavior?” Her. “Did you sleep at all?”
“They said they’d let me watch your class if I helped them with a few additional experiments, before and after.”
Izze didn’t like the kind of reward systems University Health did sometimes to get study participants. Employment bonuses. Equipment. “What now?” He looked far younger than he had an hour ago, actually. She mentally flipped through the names of doctors who she might call to get Severin out of anything that was harming him.
They shared a couple of physicians at University Hospital. The kind with enough supervisory overlap to gum up a prescription, or an invasive test. Or a study.
The amount of time she’d spent getting tested after the first joints disappeared and she’d found them in the kitchen one morning, then further afield, in the school library another day, wasn’t something Izze wanted her students knowing. Severin knew, of course. He had a time differential that earned him some extra trust. He’d taught her, then mentored her. Now she was teaching him. Sometimes.
Long after the first disconnections, he’d still helped Izze. They’d figured out the singing when four finger bones went to the Kuiper belt. The bones had moved fast. “Good to catch them before they get too far,” Severin had joked. His voice had crackled then, well-sanded with age.
“They roped me into the McKensie study as well as the sleep study,” he said glumly, but with a high pitch and a youthful laugh. “Since I was already there. If I do it, I can keep my emeritus status.” Most Emeritus Professorships had gone away just like tenure.
But Severin had been hanging on to his. Even though right now the professor looked under twenty-one, just.
Izze looked twenty-nine. And was. Most of her. Plus or minus time for certain bones to travel in space notwithstanding.
That one damn toe, which was still out there, would be younger than she was when it returned. That annoyed her.
Still that wouldn’t get her to do the studies. The university had some leverage over her—but not that much. She made a couple grand a semester here. Enough to pay for the equipment they loaned her.
But they had Severin’s pension tied up in the research study now. Izze’s eyes ached thinking about it.
At the top of the lecture hall, Bob coughed. She turned and looked at him. Severin’s robot made a small sound. Bob shrugged and left.
“You should tell him.”
“Tell him what?”
“I don’t know. Something. That you were teaching classes before he was born?” That you’re disappearing and leaving me behind.
“Why?” Severin shrugged, then he grinned. “His fascination is one-sided. I’m not adding to it. Besides, it’s good to have a hobby.” He took a deep breath. His age seemed to shift right before Izze’s eyes.
“About what we were discussing, Severin… the study. I’m worried you shouldn’t have done this one.”
“You may be right? But I signed their papers,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean they own you. Or it shouldn’t. You need to quit it, Severin.” She looked at the clock. She had to be all the way across the city in an hour for her own doctor’s appointment. Impossible to do that if she lingered.
“It’s too late for that. They need data, until they can extrapolate models from doctors’ records. They can make a sideshow case of me for grant money if they want. Hey, I’ll be immortal. You can make a song.” He laughed.
Izze growled under her breath and her wristbones shifted ominously, possibly just from the frustration. Humor, for Severin, was like singing for her. It helped him keep things together. Still, she hated the need for it. Calm, Izze. Stay calm.
None of the studies had helped Izze keep herself together. And now this one was tearing her friend apart too.
“I didn’t know the university sleep study was driving a new grant,” Dr. Morgani said. “I just knew Dr. Rand’s team was getting interesting results.”
Izze sat on the exam table, fully clothed. Morgani didn’t make her change unless he needed to see a specific part. She’d slid her shoes and socks off and laid them carefully on the chair next to the table. She swung her left foot back and forth, impatient.
Morgani looked at Izze’s foot and then helped tape it tight. “I don’t always agree with his methods though.”
Dr. Rand was University Health through and through, Izze knew from talking to Severin. Dr. Morgani wasn’t affiliated with the University. That’s why Izze liked him.
But he was holding back now.
She squinted at him, “You don’t usually have an opinion.”
“I can’t have much of one this time either.” He paused and picked up a vid report, not looking at her. “Rand has powerful friends in the industry. Just be careful, okay?”
He set Izze up with more tape and gel for the pain, extra braces, and an admonishment to try to sleep more carefully. “And maybe try to work fewer places? You’re running yourself ragged.”
“You try to teach these days,” Izze joked. “It’s not me that’s ragged.”
She pulled her shoes and socks back on, her joints clicking like they wanted to disappear. Next gig was uptown. She could walk or take a cab, but the cab was too bumpy, the walk too far.
Izze gave in and took the underground. She loved it down here, everything encased in tile and tunnels. Very deep too, so her ears popped as the train rattled.
She had to be careful: too much shaking loosened everything. But she loved the feeling of speeding away from a central station. Of shooting out into the darkness.
And she loved being on time. She looked at her watch as the underground lights slowed, then stopped beside the train car. Arriving: University Way.
Too bad the elevator at the far end of the station was broken. (It almost always was). Izze struggled with the stairs. She would arrive to class a professional combination of sweating, breathless, and exhausted.
Exhausted and late wasn’t new. That was every day ending in “y” lately.
As she came out of the tunnels, looking up to see the arch of blue sky, and beyond it, plenty of room for objects that can achieve escape velocity, Izze wished she had more coffee.
Her com buzzed.
Two messages from the sleep study, including a personal one from Dr. Rand. One from her Dean. None from Severin. Great.
The second university where she taught had a great view of the river. Wide rooms set in a former warehouse, the city college had taken over more space as students realized physics was their way to the stars. And Izze’s class was a road bump on that trajectory.
Behind her translucent podium, before the large screen, Izze watched the class filter in, students trickling through the rows of seats, sorting themselves into more attentive and more tired.
She knew she had two single parents in the room. And one student working through a healthcare fight—not an illness, a lingering debt from a parent’s illness, which their private insurance had passed on to the heirs. A lot of students who needed the credits, but couldn’t afford the time. They came anyway. She wanted them all to succeed, felt a little bit of how much they were fighting against the gravity of their own lives to be here.
She handed back test results, making sure to make eye contact with each student (all 100 of them) as the rankings went up on the board. There were the usual mutters, but a few (a young mother seated in the second row, nursing her son; a girl all the way in the back; two boys—one an ESL transfer from the community college, and both former students of hers elsewhere who had followed her here)—all made various small happy sounds. It was like a wave that built fast, then fell silent as others groaned.
Izze wondered what these students would make of her soliton question, so she asked it.
One young man in the back raised his hand. “Will we be tested on this?”
It was a valid question. “Would you think about it if it wasn’t on a test?” She shot back before she could stop herself.
This was why her reviews were mixed. She could hear them voting right now.
“It’s a thought problem,” she said. No one responded. “For extra credit.” There, that got their attention.
Same hand shot up again.
Izze imagined it lifting the boy up through the ceiling and into the troposphere, then back down. “Yes?”
“Participation credit too?”
Why not. “Of course. What’s on your mind, Lucas?”
“Maybe solitons are something repeated across medium—the medium DOES matter though. You don’t see them in static objects as much. You see them in fluids, transferences. I bet you could make one with sound.”
The boy deserved all the credit he was milking. Izze grinned and glanced around the room. “Can you all expand on this?”
Several students nodded and then bent to work.
The class was vibrant. The school had tried to run classes remotely for a long time, and video worked pretty well, as long as somewhere along the way, the students connected, and the teacher with them.
But in-person still worked best for retention, this college had decided. The room, once Lucas took the lid off, blossomed into conversation. Izze sat back and listened to the ebb and swell of thesis and counter thesis.
The city college students were sharp as tacks. She made notes for the recruiters again. Hoping to get them interviews. Placement.
When the discussion ended, she dismissed them with, “500 words on solitons across various mediums, by Thursday,” and the groans cascaded.
“No one asks for writing anymore, you can’t scan it,” Lucas said.
“I’m asking. Participation.” She grinned. She wanted to revel in the discussion a bit more. “Plus you have a test on Monday.” More groans. “Remotely,” she added.
A small cheer.
And she packed up her classroom and moved on. One more class today. This one from home.
Izze walked the last leg of the circuit she made across the city. She mentally rehearsed her lecture for the evening. Objects will move away from each other, continually slowing… She didn’t see the cat.
Soon, she was sprawled on the wet sidewalk. Her hand and knees weren’t broken, but parts sure were slipped from their joints. As in, at least one kneecap wasn’t anywhere near her body.
There wasn’t any pain. She’d slipped her knees so often they practically had their own luggage.
Where her pisiform would be was floppy space; one side of her hand hung useless. She pulled a brace from her bag and stuffed her fingers in it.
Pulled the velcro tight. She’d sing her wrists back when she made it home.
Then she grabbed another brace for her right knee. That was all the braces the doctor had thought to put in her bag that morning. She had nothing for her left knee.
“Are you okay? Is something broken?”
“No, just lost. Where’s the cat? I tripped on a cat.” Izze said, hiding as much of the pain as she could from the stranger. Most people thought joint wandering was really scary, and some even thought it was catching. Izze hated those encounters. And because her limbs wandered so much farther than most, she had more of those encounters.
The stranger stayed where she was. When Izze focused on her, she saw the woman held the cat.
And was wearing a medical coat. From the University.
Izze pulled herself to her feet with one good hand on her cane, and hobbled to the nearby bench, shaking off the stranger’s assistance.
“She just scooted out the door,” the young woman said. “I’m Marley.”
Marley had splotchy skin and a weak handshake, which Izze was grateful for. Crusher handshakes were terrible. But she squinted. “I need to get to my class,” she said.
Marley nodded. “I understand, I do. But you should have this looked at.”
“I’ve got my doctor on speed dial. Oh!” Izze raised her com to her ear. “There he is right now.”
There was static on the other end of the phone, which Izze engaged in rousing conversation. “Yes, I know, I should be more careful. Yes, I’ll come back in tomorrow first thing. Yes, I’ll let you know where they went this time.”
She “hung up” and rolled her eyes. “We do this all the time.”
Marley squinted. “You’re Izze Freer. You’re supposed to be in my professor’s study. Dr. Rand.”
Izze coughed. “I decided that I didn’t want to do it.”
Marley’s eyebrows shot up. “But it’s important! You could help everyone else who has something like what you do…” her voice trailed off while Izze just stared at her.
“I said I didn’t want to do it.” She was so angry that she had to keep saying this.
“Okay,” Marley said, cuddling the cat and looking uncomfortable. “Do you want me to call a car for you? You can’t take the subway like this. The elevators are broken.”
“I’m an adjunct. I can’t afford a car.”
Marley laughed. “Me neither. You know the study pays well, right…”
Izze got to her feet and prepared to walk away.
“Wait! I won’t bring it up again. I feel responsible.”
“Call the car.”
Izze got home in time to find her online classroom empty. A second warning from the dean on her email. “Shit,” she said.
She messaged Severin. “Who is this?” came the reply.
“It’s Izze—from the university.”
A long pause. Then: “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
Izze drew a deep breath. “How old are you, Severin?”
Slowly, and quietly, in the bath, Izze relaxed until it was time to cry.
And very slowly, she took her right wrist in her left hand and twisted until every bone popped, but didn’t escape. For a moment, for a change, she felt in control of something. Even if it was letting go.
Back in class on Tuesday, Izze wasn’t surprised to see that Bob had skipped.
“We all find comfort somewhere, I guess,” the line from a song popped into her head. A line that must have been far out somewhere in the cloud, a standing wave of words.
Izze had no time for comfort. She’d found her wrist bones that morning in the garbage floating around Mars, knocking on the car someone launched into orbit for marketing purposes.
The bones sounded tiny and white. She collected them by singing in the dream she’d been having of space, pushing like a wave, rolling but not breaking apart, until she found the part of herself she’d misplaced, and caught it up, and rolled back. Severin’s suggestion. Something she’d been practicing.
Severin had showed her how to do this. And he was disappearing. Forgetting everything they’d learned together.
But Izze remembered. Maybe it was time to try some of his wilder theo-ries. She could do things in her dreams she didn’t know waking. Severin had said she could reach out and grab her reality. Maybe he was right.
But what she wanted to grab was Severin’s sleeve, to tug him out of the study, out of the hospital. That, he wouldn’t let her do.
Izze closed her eyes and prepared to dream the way her mentor had described.
Inside the modified cage, she tried to picture Severin, picture herself finding him and letting him out of his room. But when she felt her bones starting to shift, she panicked.
Izze jumped out of bed with a gasp. The air in the cage smelled electric, like lightning and panic. She took a deep breath and made some coffee.
Marley was waiting outside Izze’s apartment the next day. She wasn’t wearing her lab coat.
“I’m not doing your study. I’m done with studies.”
“So why are you following me?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
No one had asked Izze if she was okay since she’d moved to the city. She’d moved here expressly so no one—not relatives, not friends—would ask her if she was okay.
And this… researcher… was crossing into personal territory. But somehow, Marley seemed to mean it.
Izze couldn’t stop herself. “Thanks, but—”
“Nevermind,” Marley said. She turned on her heel and walked back toward her place.
“Wait,” Izze said. She felt weird, like all her bones were stretching apart. Why was she reaching out?
“Why? You said ‘thanks, but.’ I know what that means. I’m the lab coat. Not a person.” Marley stood there, hands in fists, chin up. But she’d stopped walking.
“But I’m fine. I’m always fine.” Izze had found all her parts, she’d pulled herself together for class. She always did. And Marley wasn’t wrong.
But she’d reached out to check in. That was something.
Izze raised her chin too. “I’ve got class at the University. You can walk with me, if you want. Just don’t ask me about the study.” It was an apology, of sorts.
Marley didn’t say anything, just fell into pace beside Izze.
The next class in the lecture hall, Izze prepared for the stairs by wrapping braces on both knees and ankles. Taping both feet. She’d be fine. Her joints had settled and she’d finally found her toe joint, so she didn’t want to risk them getting loose again.
Putting everything put back into place was always a job, even with the home reassembly kits and braces courtesy of University Health. Izze couldn’t do what she did—live, work, walk with a new friend—without that kind of thing. She’d recover the joints, close her eyes and press hard and—somehow without leaving a mark—they’d be back where they belonged. Quantum dislocations, Severin had called it.
Electromagnetic joint dysplasia, the university had written on her equipment rental documents. Periodic reassessment required.
She hated owing someone, but she couldn’t afford to buy her freedom.
So when her messages blinked, and the cage wouldn’t turn on until she answered, she knew it was University Health.
“We just need you to come in for a minute,” a receptionist said. “After your class, for reassessment.”
Great. Izze juggled her office hours in the lecture hall as she waited for her students. She would have scheduled coffee with Severin after the appointment. But he’d stopped answering her at all. “Fine.”
Bob returned to this lecture. Late. Izze had just asked her students to think about possible connections between different study areas—why are solitons a consistent idea—the same form moving through all these fields. He took a seat, already listening and thinking about the problem. In the face of an otherwise silent room, Bob answered. “The medium they travel through isn’t the issue,” he grinned. “It’s the balanced shape of the wave, the perpetuity of it.”
“Very good,” she nodded. Keep it up Bob.
Bob’s classmates took notes. Bob didn’t look at Severin’s empty screen and neither did Izze.
After class, Bob tried to catch her, but Izze didn’t want to be late for the required reassessment. And she didn’t want to answer questions about Severin. She crossed the big university lawn from the academic side of the school to the medical buildings, went through several sets of doors and metal detectors, up an elevator, and into an office. Buildings were kind of like modified cages, she thought as she settled into an overstuffed chair that would be difficult to get out of. It smelled like lemons and patience.
The room seemed to breathe patience. Even the data screen in the waiting room, set to detail all the things that might go wrong with your body and how you could check for them, spoke with a patient tone.
Sometimes it seemed like a larger percentage of hospital space was dedicated to waiting than it was to healing.
While she waited, Izze thought about how, in her dreams, she could reach out and pull back pieces of herself without machinery. Just her. How getting each mislocated part back where it belonged felt so much easier in dreams. In reality, she had to use the university’s system.
When she woke up to pieces shifting or missing? When she had to use the Freer-Faraday cage and the visualizers? That was when Izze felt the grind of being ill. Being different enough that the University kept asking her to come in for studies, like she studied solitons and galaxies and students.
The data-screen’s simulated clock ticked, the announcer spoke calmly about generational Big Heat effects, and Izze got used to the lemon smell of the waiting room chair. No one else came to sit down. She was going to be so late to her next class, but she couldn’t miss a reassessment. She called the second university to find someone to cover her class.
Finally, a nurse took her to a room where she put on a gown and waited some more. In here, the smell was peppermint. Another clock ticked, maddeningly, but Izze couldn’t find where they’d hidden it. Worse than a mosquito buzzing in your ear, Izze thought: the sense someone was taking your time, and you couldn’t see the clock.
She felt her eyes closing. The cushions of the exam room bed looked so comfortable.
“Wait! No.” Everything about this was wrong. She’d been so used to waiting, she hadn’t seen the trap closing.
The reassessments didn’t usually go like this. Usually, a nurse took her diagnostics, asked her about her joints and bones, and then signed off on the rental again.
Izze slid off the bed and shucked her gown. She was buttoning her jeans and tightening her braces when a new doctor pushed the door open without knocking.
“I didn’t realize you were here! You were so quiet! Welcome. I’m Dr. Rand.” He held out a friendly hand, but clutched a clipboard app on his tablet with the other. The clipboard: a universal symbol of a study.
Izze froze. She wanted out. Now. “I’m leaving. I still have that right.” She hadn’t signed anything.
The doctor sat down in the chair with a sigh. “Don’t you want to help advance knowledge? Help others in the future like yourself?”
No. Izze thought. I’ve done so much of that already. “Advance knowledge? Of course. My knowledge. What I understand about me. I’m tired of advancing yours.” Izze realized she’d like to have the same rights as the doctor: To be late. To not have to wait on people. To decide for herself what she got to do. “Severin told me he can’t leave.”
The doctor scrawled on the tablet, didn’t look at Izze. “Once the study is signed, no, you’d have to stay here for the duration.”
“I have too many classes. Maybe after the semester’s over,” she stalled him. “You got me in here unfairly. I’ll file a grievance. I’ll tell your assistant what you did. Turn my equipment back on.” Marley might or might not help in reality when it came to her boss, but she was a useful threat now.
Amazingly, Dr. Rand nodded and tapped the app, then closed it.
“Done. But we’ll talk again, after the semester’s over.” The doctor closed the door hard behind him, letting her hear the latch slide home one more time, but not lock. When Izze tried the door, turning the handle with her braced hand, she felt the latch move within the wood. And then she was free.
As she walked back through the corridor, Izze looked for Severin’s room. Behind glass, a nurse held a young boy’s arm, as the boy let her take another vial of blood.
Izze touched the doorknob. This was what Severin had wanted. Right? To help?
But not like this.
“I’ll find a way to get you out,” Izze whispered to the door. The boy turned to look at her, as if he could hear through the wood.
His eyes looked old, set in such a young face. The taupe walls of his room, the smooth curves of his medical bed, his hairless arms and collarbone. Everything had a sheen of newness, except Severin’s eyes.
“I’ll find a way,” Izze promised.
That night, Izze didn’t drink any coffee. She made one call. “I need a favor—maybe. To help out a friend.”
“I can’t interfere with a study subject,” Marley said.
“I understand.” Then Izze turned off the modified Faraday cage and waited. This was the first time she’d slept without the cage in years. It was risky. The results might be… very disconnected. If she made a mistake, she wouldn’t be able to work for a while.
She’d grabbed a pamphlet on active dreaming from the sleep study. She’d read it several times. Now she just held onto it for luck. “Objects trying to escape,” she whispered.
Without the hum of the cage, she could hear her bones creaking. She tried to fall asleep while thinking of her fingers on the doorknob in the medical building. Of the doors and detectors, and different kinds of cages. Different ways to escape.
Maybe being several places at once was all right. In dreams, at least.
When she fell asleep, she dreamed her hands fled her wrists. Not just the bones. The whole shebang. That was alarming, but she willed herself not to wake up.
She dreamed her hands gripped a doorknob. Felt it turn.
She felt her fingers touch the cool metal bed in Severin’s room. Shook him awake with a gentle touch. She dreamed she heard the door latch click inside the wood as one of her hands unlocked the door. The other hand passed Severin his clothes, which were far too big now. Then the hand slipped the data chipped wristband from his arm.
The boy was very young now. He was not afraid. His old eyes watched Izze’s hands in the dream. “I didn’t know anyone could do that,” he whispered. “So cool. Show me how.”
Izze dreamed her hands rested on her friend’s shoulders as he walked—scampered, really—out of his room and into the night. A ten-year-old boy with the eyes of an octogenarian. Izze felt relieved to see him in there.
Then she began to sing to them—to her hands, to the boy, to the nights where things went missing. She began calling them back to her.
When someone knocked on her door later, Izze woke. It took some doing to get the door open with her foot, but she managed.
Outside, Marley held a boy by the sleeve. “I found him waiting for a bus when my shift ended. Not from the study, or he would have had a wristband. He says he has something of yours.”
Izze stepped back so that both of them could come inside her small apartment.
The boy passed Izze her hands. “How did you think to do it?” He asked. He waited until she’d turned the cage back on with an elbow.
“You told me how, once,” she said, resetting a hand very carefully.
Severin nodded. “I think I remember.”
She watched Marley looking over the Freer-Faraday cage, eyes wide. “We modified it ourselves. Severin and me.”
“Maybe I could help out here, sometimes? If you need a kind of research assistant?” Marley’s fingers brushed the air over the controls.
“Maybe. You’ll need to know how to work the Freer-Faraday cage and the reattachment tools…” Izze paused. She wasn’t sure if she needed the equipment as much. Maybe only in emergencies.
“How do I keep my funding?” Severin asked.
Izze had no answers. “You don’t need your emeritus funding if you stay here. At least for a little bit. And maybe Marley’s right. She can help us out now and then.”
Marley grinned. “I’d like that.”
“No more studies?” Severin sounded almost gleeful. But Izze recognized the look in the boy’s eyes. His memory was older than his body.
“Not now, at least.” Not until you’re better, Doc. “And I’ll go teach. We’ll keep it together, for as long as we can.”
Severin shook his head. “Might not be that long.”
“Might be time enough,” Izze said.
By the time she was ready for class, Severin was asleep on her bed. Inside the cage, he looked slightly older.
“I’ll be back after my next shift,” Marley said. “We can’t all be in three places at once.”
And that gave Izze an idea.
With one hand, she prepared a keyboard and a recorded lecture. “Maybe I can put being scattered to good use.” The rest of her went to the door.
“I’m off to teach—early this time.”
© 2018 by Fran Wilde