Broken Mirror – excerpt
Yours is not the only universe. There is another, where I was born. Your universe called to me, and I answered, ignorant of the harm crossing the bridge would cause.
—Victor Eastmore’s Apology
14 September 1990
Victor Eastmore waited in the Freshly Juice Shop’s customer queue, whispering a mantra to fight off brain blankness. Only three people waited in the queue ahead of him, a young woman with copper-colored hair and an elderly couple at the counter. Soon he would have his enhanced juice.
He dry-swallowed a dose of Personil. The timing of the juice and the pill had to be just right for him to arrive at his appointment in a calm but lucid state of mind.
Behind a counter that ran the length of the juice shop, stone fruits, berries, and citrus bathed in a chiller cabinet’s cool mists. Vegetables, still actively photosynthesizing, stewed in irrigation racks on the back wall.
Victor felt radiative pressure from the overhead lightstrips as a pleasurable tingling on his face. He tilted his head back. The side benefits of having a synesthetic brain that perceives one stimulus and translates it into another were few and far between, and he took what he could get.
The queue didn’t move. The friendliest Freshly worker, Ric, liked to chat with each customer. Victor usually took the extra time to study the more “normal” behavior of others—his condition enabled him to visualize people’s emotions as patterns of colors. When he observed Ric’s face, he saw electric blue filaments dancing on a rosy background, an indication of good humor overlaid by excitement. But today Victor’s attention wandered. Dr. Tammet had promised to run him through an extra challenging perception-focusing test today to prepare for his reclassification appointment in a couple months.
Victor appreciated the doctor’s help, but she’d been so ambitious lately and he felt that he wasn’t meeting her expectations. Today was likely to be frustrating. His stomach roiled. He silently formulated a mixture of juice and additives that could quiet a volcano. Adding to his unease, he’d had little sleep last night on account of his nightmares, though that was nothing new.
Victor searched through dozens of Freshly bioenhancer additives listed in the wall-mounted menu. If he factored in the benefits of freshness and the nutrient base of the ingredients, the optimum recipe combined leeks, cabbage, and celery, along with smaller portions of mandarin, apple, and persimmon and two doses of languor and equilibrium.
Victor rehearsed the ingredients’ names to himself while tapping each finger with his thumb two times—two is the best. He also tried to relax by humming, keeping the vibrations low, intermittent, and inaudible to anyone else.
The young woman waiting in front of Victor turned and looked him up and down. Her reddish-brown hair was gathered in a black synthleather band at her neckline. She crossed her arms and said, “Did you say something?”
Victor’s stomach tightened. He looked up at the menu. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see anxiety glistening around her eyes. Her hands moved to her sides and clenched, whiter than her pale skin. She might be readying an attack. All he wanted was his juice bulb and to be on time to see Dr. Tammet.
“You seem . . .” Her voice trailed off. Then she asked in a quiet hiss, “Are you a Broken Mirror?”
Victor kept his gaze on the menu and pretended not to hear her. Broken Mirror was a commonplace slur for people with mirror resonance syndrome. He’d been called it a thousand times since his diagnosis. Next to his nightmares, which left his sheets sweat-soaked every night, name-calling was nothing.
“Hello? I’m talking to you,” the young woman said.
Victor looked down at the woman’s red polo shirt. Faint stains marred the shirt’s coarse-grained fibers, and the collar splayed wide, revealing her freckled, sunburned neck.
“Are you snubbing me?” she asked.
He glanced into her narrowed hazel eyes.
Her anger arced into his brain, locking the breath in his lungs. Sounds from the shop faded, replaced by waves of hostile pressure. Her emotions had infected him. Victor wrenched his gaze back to the menu board. In a quiet, strained voice, he said, “I’m sorry. I’d rather not converse with you.”
Her face drew closer, reddening. “I won’t be shamed by you.”
People turned and stared. Everything in his field of vision undulated. The Personil wasn’t working.
He tried to say, “Of course not,” but his mouth wouldn’t move. His heart thundered in his ears.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” she demanded.
Ice formed in Victor’s throat. Why did she have to be so aggressive?
The woman pointed at him and looked around. “Where is the manager? I won’t be insulted!”
He wanted to gouge out her blue marble eyes. His fingers curled into claws. Victor mouthed Dr. Tammet’s calming refrain. The wise owl listens before he asks, “Who?” The dark forest hides the loudest cuckoo. He tried picturing the doctor’s bird sketches, but in his mind’s eye, the owl clutched the cuckoo and flapped away.
The young woman loomed closer, eyes wide. “What are you saying?”
One of the workers ducked underneath the counter, stood, and asked her what was wrong.
She proclaimed, “I deserve fair treatment—”
Blood pulsed in Victor’s ears, blotting out her voice. His consciousness slipped toward blankspace. Shocks—not now, not here, not like this.
Someone hissed Victor’s name. He looked around and saw Ric at the paybox, jerking his head toward the exit and mouthing, “Go!”
Victor turned toward the door reluctantly and ran.
“You need help!” the woman yelled at his back.
Outside, the sound of sirens filled Victor’s ears. People strolled along the sidewalks, some smiling, some preoccupied, none of them glanced around looking for fire engines or police vans. The sirens were only in his head.
Ric burst out of the juice shop, carrying a bulb of pink liquid.
“Sorry about that,” Ric said as he handed the drink to Victor.
Victor sucked the straw and drained half the juice bulb in panicked gulps. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Why—why was she so upset?”
“Who knows? Maybe she’s on stims. Or off her meds.”
Victor gritted his teeth. He squeezed the bulb, and pink juice spurted from the straw onto the ground.
“Or maybe she’s just wants free stuff,” Victor said.
“Maybe,” Ric agreed. He held up his hands. “Look, I’ve seen her come in before,” he said. “Most times she’s no problem. Other times she complains to get a free drink. Sucks you had to be her scapegoat today. Try to shake it off.”
Maybe she was off her medication. Victor had lost control of himself many times: at dinner with his parents, at work, and even by himself. Maybe the copper-haired woman had mirror resonance syndrome, too. Victor sucked the bulb until the last pulse of sweet, tangy liquid was gone. He needed every drop of calm it could provide.
“Thank you,” he said to Ric. “What did you put in it?”
“I doubled up the languor. I wasn’t sure what else you needed.” Ric wiped his hands down his silver synthsilk apron. “Vic, you’ve been a Class Three for a while, right?”
Victor nodded. Longer than most. Hopefully for a long time to come.
“I thought so,” Ric said. “My brother’s a Class Two. He’s not doing great. I’m afraid they’re going to put him in a Class One facility soon.”
Victor wanted to hear more, but he kept his mouth shut. He didn’t want to be late.
Ric said, “Do you think someone you know could check on him? Your granfa, maybe.”
“Maybe he could,” Victor said.
The Eastmore family’s legacy had always overshadowed his own life. As descendants of both former slaves and slave-owning families, the Eastmores demonstrated the success of Reconstruction. Widespread intermarriage without regard for skin color led the masses to embrace nondiscrimination and equality at the end of the nineteenth century. Over several decades, the Eastmores amassed business interests as varied as energy and healthcare and brokered political favors to speed the Repartition of the United States into the nine nations of the American Union. Then Victor’s granfa, Jefferson Eastmore, cured cancer. After that, people routinely assumed the Eastmores could make miracles happen. Ric must believe that Victor enjoyed all the privileges that came with wealth and power, rather than being an embarrassment and a disappointment to his family.
Ric eyed Victor, looking him up and down. His lips were parted, moist.
Victor could tell when people thought he was attractive, as Ric obviously did. His toes gripped the insides of his shoes. The attention made him uncomfortable. He wondered what it was exactly that others saw when they looked at him, how some could fear him, some could crave him, and some could do both at the same time.
“I’ve got to go,” Victor said. “Thanks again.” He turned to leave, but Ric grabbed his arm.
“You think he’s okay out there on the ranchos? They’re real farms, right? Like summer camp?”
Victor pictured the new Class Two facility in Carmichael, a pleasant few acres of farmland on the outskirts of town. Surrounded by electrified fences and overshadowed by a concrete fortress on a nearby hill that held the catatonic Class Ones, the Class Two facility was most definitely not like summer camp.
Victor said, “It’s not so bad for Twos. He might not be reclassified for years.”
When Victor had visited the Class Two rancho in Carmichael, Granfa Jeff had pointed out all the innovations that had made it a kinder, gentler prison. The Class Twos held elections for a chief who advocated for better food and recreational opportunities. The library had been fully stocked. If someone could resign themselves to a slow, sad decline into catatonia, it wouldn’t be a bad place.
“Ten years he’s been locked up,” Ric said. “They caught him protesting the first Carmichael Law. One cheek swab later . . . He hasn’t been home since. I send him packages of black cardamom seeds every month.”
“Why those?” Victor asked.
Ric shrugged. “It’s the only thing he asks for. He doesn’t want me to visit. You’ve been to one?”
Victor nodded. “Once. When I went back to Carmichael after—after we moved away. My granfa helped set up the visit. They have a patient council with elections, but it still feels like a prison. And Mesh BioLoc transmitters are fused to their bones.”
“Sorry I said that. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.”
Ric’s shoulders slumped. “I hope you’re right. See you next time.” He trotted back into the shop.
Victor reached into his pocket, pulled out his cigar-shaped MeshBit, and checked the timefeed—five minutes until his appointment.
Victor tried to jog on his walk home, but the Personil slowed him down. When he arrived, he climbed carefully in his car and drove along the east side of City Lake, turning onto a sinuous road that led up to Oak Knoll Hospital. He imagined Dr. Tammet’s sad eyes when he failed her tests. He didn’t care what the world thought of him, but he couldn’t stand a second of her disappointment.
On campus, Victor parked and hiked up the paved path to the hospital entrance, a glass facade between two towering, white concrete wings. The Personil blotted out everything except the doors in front of him.
When he approached, the two glass doors failed to slide open automatically.
He checked his MeshBit again. The timefeed read 11:07 a.m. He looked around. His car sat by itself, the parking lot otherwise empty. In his rush and his mind haze, he hadn’t noticed.
Heat suffused his cheeks. He should have realized something was wrong the second he pulled off the main road. At least a hundred cars should be in those spaces.
Victor paced in front of the entrance. His face smoldered like a piece of charcoal about to catch fire. He tried to pry the doors open, but they wouldn’t budge. The precision-cut edges held together seamlessly. There wasn’t even room to slide a slip of paper between them.
Victor felt the urge to vomit. If he couldn’t see Dr. Tammet, he would have to go without his therapy. Panic sliced through the Personil fog. A resonant episode grew more likely every second.
The world blazed sun-white as a shiver ran up his spine. He’d felt panic like this in Carmichael when he was four years old, locked in his house, crying at the sounds of explosions and screams outside, wondering if his parents would ever come home.
Victor also remembered Samuel Miller, whom he’d called the Man from Nightmareland, because his wide, shell-shocked eyes had appeared in Victor’s dreams many times during the weeks prior to the massacre. Samuel Miller had rampaged through Carmichael, stalking the town’s citizens and killing with a stunstick and explosive traps. Thanks to him and his preferred method of murder, “shocks” became a curse word in SeCa.
Victor had seen Samuel from his second-story window and froze with the curtain clutched in his hand as Samuel looked up. He’d held his breath until it felt like his ribs would break. Then Samuel had moved on to help more people “cross over.”
The resonance filled Victor like water gushing into a clogged bathtub. He pounded on the hospital doors and, straining to see inside, shielded his eyes with his hands. He could tell that the large atrium was bereft of people, an unlit gloom. Vidscreens above the information counter were dark.
When he stepped back, his reflection stared back at him.
A mess of hair. A mess of a day. A messed-up life.
Victor stumbled forward, dropped to his knees, and pressed his forehead against the glass, feeling blankness nearby. Was his own rampage about to begin?
As a Class Three, Victor could live a relatively normal life (if one considered taking daily medication and going to multiple therapy sessions every week to be relatively normal). But some day he would become a drooling, insentient bed wetter, and every resonant episode brought him closer to that fate. At some point, the blankness would take over, and he would be gone.
Victor rubbed his palms together, changing the rhythm of the movement every few breaths. That was one of Dr. Tammet’s techniques, and a useful one, especially when there was no one around to see him acting like a frenzied faith healer.
Something in the darkened hospital atrium caught Victor’s gaze. A figure moved closer. It was Granfa Jeff. His white and gray hair floated in wisps. His face, all dark freckles on brown skin, drooped as if he hadn’t slept well.
The doors opened. Granfa Jeff stepped out and secured the doors behind him. He rested his palms heavily on Victor’s shoulders. “I have some news that may upset you, Victor.”
Victor used Dr. Tammet’s techniques to read his granfa’s facial expression. Deep blue sadness dimpled the skin around his eyes and mouth, but Victor noticed something else. He couldn’t tie his intuition to a specific observation, but he noticed a shadow—a different emotion struggling to the surface.
In a low voice, Granfa Jeff said, “We have to scuttle the research into your cure.”
Victor’s mouth felt dry. He blinked, not believing what he’d heard, waiting for Granfa Jeff to correct himself. They couldn’t do that, could they? Victor peered into the hospital’s gloomy atrium. “Where’s Dr. Tammet?”
“I’m closing Oak Knoll, Victor. I let the staff go, you see. Another doctor will see you privately from now on. We’ll make arrangements.”
After years of therapy, hundreds of appointments, and who knew how many ounces of Victor’s blood drawn for tests, Granfa Jeff was going to shut down the research program? A cure was his only hope to prevent permanent catatonia.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Victor asked.
Granfa Jeff’s expression darkened, and Victor felt the blankness rise up again.