Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2007: Diminished Capacity

DIMINISHED CAPACITY Illustration

Diminished Capacity

Andrew Zimmerman Jones

 

The boy and girl danced together in a ballroom, neither quite sure how they got there.

A soft sound came from him and, pulling back, she saw that he was crying. She kissed him on the cheek. The lights began to dim and she kissed him again, this time on the lips.

He returned the kiss, arms folding around her. Her hands ran up along his back as they clung to each other. She sighed pleasantly. His touch was soft, so different from other boys.

Billy’s hands moved up, unfastening her dress. Meredith began removing his clothes. Their hands met bare flesh, slipping slowly and warmly along each other. A bed now sat in the center of the ballroom, covered in fresh lilac petals.

They fell onto the bed, naked bodies rolling against each other, searching each other with the zeal of explorers in a new land, intoxicated with the scents of lilacs and bananas. Meredith smiled, her body feeling hot, like she was on fire.

Then she screamed. Her body was on fire. Billy’s eyes went wide as he grabbed pillows to try to beat out the flames. Her scream rose in pitch, and the walls of the dance hall began to crack. The walls ruptured as the room fell in two, collapsing apart. They both tumbled through a black void, losing touch with each other.

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The courtroom was a flurry of activity, from the hovering holovid cameras to the crowd that had gathered. Elaine Robinson sat among them with her client. The bald man seemed quite excited to have a chance to watch such a media event, though he expressed concern about whether the press would clear out before his turn. Elaine assured him that they would.

The papers referred to the case, in large splash headlines, as “The Teen Brain Rape,” though rape was only the layman’s definition of the crime.

In legalese it was “first degree psionic assault” and Malcolm Price, the defense attorney and colleague at her firm, was quick to jump on anyone who referred to it, even in passing, as rape.

But she had a hard time viewing it as anything else. Violently forcing yourself into someone’s mind was surely as much of a rape as any physical assault.

The judge sat on his bench, partially obscured by the shimmer of holotext displays. “Will the defendant please rise?” He paused a moment as the boy, William Matthews, stood up next to Malcolm. His dark hair was trimmed extremely short.

“Mr. Matthews,” the judge said, “your case is unique. I’ve received a motion to charge you as an adult. Clearly, you are a young man of tremendous intelligence, but you are accused of an invasive and brutal crime. Though your body is juvenile, I judge that your mind is much more. As such, you will be tried as an adult.”

Price raised a clenched fist high. “Your Honor, I demand an evidentiary hearing before this decision is final.”

The judge slammed his gavel. “The decision is final, Mr. Price. Sit down.”

“I object, your Honor.”

His eyes fixed on Price. “I said sit down, Mr. Price.”

Price slammed his fist onto the table. “This is an outrage, your Honor. I demand a change of venue.”

Elaine noticed the boy’s face—which she could only see in profile—contort. Billy’s hands went to his head, as if attempting to contain a headache.

“Mr. Price,” the judge continued, his tone calm but bewildered, “you have two seconds to sit down, or you will be held in contempt.”

Price reached down, grabbing the thick wooden table. With a fluid motion he flipped it, sending his notes and files tumbling to the ground. “You and your contempt can go to hell, your Honor. This is a good kid. He deserves our compassion.”

The bailiffs rushed toward the lawyer, but they didn’t make it in time. Price screamed and collapsed. His head smacked the hard wooden floor, the sound resonating throughout the courtroom.

Billy’s head lolled forward, as if he, too, had lost consciousness.

Elaine’s jaw went slack as she stared at the scene in front of them.

“Is our case going to go better than this?” her bald client asked.

“I’d imagine so,” she mumbled as she rushed past him, her cell phone out.

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Before Elaine was completely through the door, Billy said, “So, you’re the new lawyer? Is Price dead?”

She shook her head, taking the opportunity to look down the long table at the boy. He was shackled to a large metal chair. Thick leather straps held his wrists in place along the armrests. A tight metallic helmet covered his head, extending over his ears and flowing down in front of his forehead to the tip of his nose. It looked so positively medieval that she half expected a hooded executioner or knight to burst through the door.

One look around the room made it clear that wasn’t going to happen. Though the restraint chair was anachronistic in appearance, the room itself was not. Smooth white walls surrounded them. Pure twenty–first century sterility strangely reassured her at the moment.

“No, he’s not,” she said, finally replying to his question. “I’m Elaine Robinson.”

There was a quick, dismissive snort. “You’re fairly young. Probably been begging for a high–profile case for months. Then they give you the case that no one else wants.”

She frowned, not wanting to admit that he’d pegged it a little closer to the mark than she was comfortable with.

Billy cleared his throat. “This place gives me headaches.”

“Okay, William, I’ll see what I can do about that.”

“Billy,” he said. “I hate being called William.” His voice softened as he said, “My dad called me William.”

“Billy, then.”

For a moment his long, narrow face looked like it was twitching. Then she realized that he was nodding to the extent that the restraints allowed him.

She pulled out her LegalPad 2050 and began making notes with the stylus. “I understand that you want to plead a straight not guilty. I should make it clear that an insanity plea—”

“I’m not insane.”

“Of course,” she said without emotion. “Not guilty it is.” She jotted down some notes. When she glanced back up, her breathe caught in her throat. His blue eyes were staring at her intently. She felt like he was looking right through her . . . or inside her.

“Am I making you uncomfortable?”

She glanced down, upset that she’d been the first to look away. “Of course not. Now that I’ve met you, I will begin reviewing the details of the case.”

Again he gave one of those twitches that was really a nod. “You’ll look into doing something about the headaches? Preferably acupuncture or aromatherapy. I’ve had enough of drugs in this place.”

She looked at him, but didn’t, couldn’t, connect with those eyes. “Certainly.”

“It was an accident,” he said.

With that, she did meet that bright blue gaze. “The law doesn’t really allow for accidentally raping someone, Billy.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop herself.

“The law is wrong.”

“In my experience, the old ‘the law is wrong’ defense rarely works.”

He smiled faintly. “You should be, you know.”

She blinked. “Should be what?”

“Uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

Another twitch, this one appearing to be an attempt at a shrug. “I could make you a drooling vegetable.”

She stared down at him and spoke with a sudden bravado. “You think that worries me? I’m a drooling vegetable every day of my life. Two cups of coffee and I’ll be good as new.”

Billy laughed. A loud, eerie sound. “That’s the first joke anyone’s told me in over a year,” he said.

She turned and left, followed down the white halls by the haunting laughter of a fifteen–year–old boy. When she got to ground level, walking through the streets of New York, she almost thought she still heard him.

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Billy watched the door close behind her. Coffee. Good one. At the memory, he laughed some more. The sound of scraping metal began as the sliding door behind him opened. The chair moved backward on its metal tracks.

The door closed again, separating his cell from the meeting room. The smartclamps on his straps released and the mechanized robot arm on the back of the chair removed the helmet from his head. He sat still through all of this, knowing the guards were watching for any attempt to tamper with the chair.

His headache eased the instant the helmet broke contact.

Once free from the chair, he grabbed a banana from his meal tray and flopped onto the bed. He was in trouble. Price was out of the picture and this new lawyer wasn’t going to be able to help him.

She’d try. She seemed like the kind of person who worked hard, but things were really stacked against them. He had no illusions about his chances.

But if he went down, he was going to do it fighting, on his own terms.

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Holotext displays shimmered in the air around Elaine’s desk. She’d gone through twenty–five years of psionic cases and was now researching much older precedents, dating back to the aspects of common law upon which the psion legislation had been based. She sprinkled nutmeg onto her coffee as she read through the text.

Price had kept meticulous notes, but there was still a lot of material to go through. After what had happened with Price, no one else wanted anything to do with this case and the partners didn’t seem willing to push the issue. It would be nice to have help, aside from the SmartSearch programs that helped her sift through the data.

The judge wanted the case over with and had refused further requests for continuance. Now she was stuck with the most cramming she’d had to do since the bar exam.

John Dunlow walked into the office, after a brief and irrelevant tap on the door. “How’s it going?” John was one of the firm’s partners and, in the year since she’d come here, he’d become something of a mentor.

She glanced up from her LegalPad and shook her head. “You know, in college I wanted to be a therapist. Times like this that looks like a better idea.”

John smiled. “I knew that you had a psychology undergrad. Lots of people going into pre–law start out in psych.”

“I wasn’t in pre–law at first. I wanted to work with kids.”

“Well,” he said, “you’re getting your chance.”

“That kid is weird,” she said.

“The case is weird,” John replied. “At least if it tanks, no one can really blame you. The other partners and I know you’ll do your best.”

“Thanks,” she said, though it wasn’t exactly the vote of confidence she’d been hoping for.

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The youngster curled defensively under the banana motif sheets.

He bolted upright, hands flying to his head as his mouth opened wide in a scream. The window shattered. He scrambled from the bed, throwing up on the floor.

Silence. His teeth ground together, eyes filled with pain and anger. Pushing himself up, he ran from the room.

Down the stairs he raced, grabbing the banister to keep his balance as he turned sharply. He ran through the kitchen, nodding slightly to Elaine, who was sitting at the counter with a chimpanzee, both eating bananas. Hers was covered in sprinkles of nutmeg.

She put the banana down. As she started to follow the boy, she paused just long enough to pick up the banana peel.

Billy ran through the back yard, fourteen years old now. Five men in black cloaks stepped from the shadows of the trees that lined the yard. They raised their hands toward him. He stared at one and the man screamed, collapsing to the ground. Billy turned and ran for an opening. Another man dove toward him, but exploded in a flash of light.

A club swung, smacking the back of Billy’s head. Blood burst from the wound. Another blow came, this time striking him in the small of the back. The third swing glanced off his face. A kick followed.

Elaine watched, a tear coming to her eye. She brought the banana peel to her face, to wipe it clean.

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“Don’t I have the right to face my accusers?” Billy said. “Are you scared to have me there?”

Elaine folded her arms on the table and leaned forward. “Listen carefully. Anything that I do is to win your case. If you are in that courtroom, all anyone will see is that restraining chair. You’ll appear dangerous.”

Billy considered this then gave a twitch–shrug.

She continued. “I don’t think the prosecutor will contest this. A fifteen–year–old in something that looks disturbingly like an electric chair wouldn’t play with the media.”

“Then maybe I should be in the courtroom.”

She shook her head. “No, because having you out of the courtroom establishes something else. A serious medical condition needs to be presented to keep you out of the courtroom. In your case, it’s your psionic ability. This will set a precedent that we can play up.” She forced herself to meet his keen gaze. “I want to change your plea to not guilty by reason of mental incapacity.”

“I’m not retarded.”

“Of course not. I will be arguing that you are so psionically strong that you were not aware of your actions when you entered that girl’s mind. You had a diminished capacity to recognize the consequences of your actions.” She paused a moment. “That is valid, is it not?”

He sighed. “I suppose.”

“I am inferring this from the fact that you assaulted the police psi–blockers while you were fleeing. Normally that would take intense concentration. All indications are that you did it instinctively. You didn’t even slow down. And your chair had to be specially designed.”

“No kidding. They kept me drugged up long enough while they were getting it ready.”

She paused a moment. “It would really help if I knew exactly what happened, from your point of view. You haven’t spoken about the incident itself to anyone, including Price.”

He shifted uncomfortably. “It was an accident, okay. That’s all you need to know.”

“No, it’s not. If it were, you wouldn’t be getting defensive. I’m trying to help you. To do that, I need to know whether or not I can put you on the stand. You entered a girl’s mind and she’s in a coma now. There were pictures of this girl, as well as unsent love letters, found in your bedroom. Your psiprints were all over her mind. Two psi–blockers were knocked out trying to apprehend you. I need something that I can get a group of totally average people to understand, or they’re going to throw you into a cell for the rest of your life.”

She stared at him. “If they nail you on this, nothing short of a lobotomy will get you out.” Her hands shook. She was pushing him too far. This child could, despite her earlier flippant reply, shred her mind like wet paper. Despite the chair, she was nervous.

He looked up at her. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt you. But I will say this just one more time: I am not insane.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath in. “Now get out.”

Elaine wanted to protest but then thought better of it. She left the room, followed this time by a silence every bit as haunting as the previous laughter.

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The Warden shrugged at Elaine. “There’s nothing we can do for the headaches that he claims to be having.”

Elaine leaned back in her chair, one leg crossed over the other. “I find that hard to believe.”

“But it’s true. We’ve offered him painkillers, but he won’t take them. We’ve allowed you to send in that aromatherapy crap. There’s nothing else that can be done.”

Elaine uncrossed her legs and leaned forward a bit. “Can’t you please at least look into modifying the psionic dampers so that they don’t cause the headaches?”

The Warden smiled faintly. “We are the only maximum security psionic facility in the country. No way can we reduce the dampers just to alleviate some headaches.”

“He says that it’s worse in the chair.”

“Of course it is. The chair monitors his body much more closely than the sensors in his room. As they detect physiological changes related to his psionics, the chair introduces negative feedback.” He tapped his finger on his desk. “Listen, no one really understands exactly how these psionics work. We can detect the physiological changes—neurology, biochemistry, that sort of thing—but the actual mechanism is unknown. Presumably there’s some kind of field generated, but no one’s successfully detected it. All we can do is inhibit the physiological indicators when they’re detected.

“If the dampers are giving him headaches, they’re probably on the right frequencies. If we modify them somehow … Well, let’s just say that I sure as hell wouldn’t be in the same room as him.”

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Billy stared at the ceiling. The headache this time was minor, touching lightly on the fringes of his mind.

He’d gotten a letter of support from the National Psion Rights League. He was a symbol of the persecution of psions everywhere, apparently. The letter told him what a precious gift he had.

They can go to hell. He wasn’t going to be any kind of martyr or symbol. He just wanted to be left alone. Maybe they could launch him into outer space. At least there wouldn’t be psionic shielding giving him headaches.

There had to be some way out of this. Even if he was found innocent, he’d never really be free. Not the way he wanted to be. He’d always be a prisoner of the damn “gift” that he’d been given.

For a moment, he thought he smelled nutmeg, but then it was gone. He shifted uncomfortably in the bed until he finally went to sleep.

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A large man with a drum sat behind a geriatric Billy in the courtroom. The man banged the drum forcefully every five seconds, causing the entire room to shake.

Billy turned toward Elaine, his words old man shaky. “Can you please make him stop. It gives me headaches.”

Elaine blinked. “Why are you asking me? He’s your lawyer.” She motioned to Malcolm Price, who sat on his other side.

Malcolm smiled. “Don’t worry, Billy. No hard feelings.”

Billy nodded slightly. “Still have a damn headache.”

The judge banged his gavel and Billy looked up with a start. It was his father, in a flowing black gown and an archaic white wig. “Enough talking. Appeal to be tried as a juvenile is denied. This man’s clearly an adult.”

Billy mumbled, “This is a load of crap.”

The gavel smacked down, somehow reaching across the room to hit Billy on the wrist. “Court finds defendant contemptible. Dunk him.”

Suddenly, Billy was sitting the end of a long wooden lever, strapped into a chair. The lever arm dropped, dunking him into a tank of water. He was wearing a black witch hat.

Elaine shook her head. “Your Honor, I object”

“Someone get this girl out of here. This is serious work. Adult business, kid.” He pointed to Elaine, who was now six years old.

Malcolm stood up. “Your Honor, I object.”

Billy was brought up swiftly, water dripping from his body. He screamed, and a lightning bolt shot from his head, connecting with Price’s head. Price collapsed.

The six–year–old Elaine shrieked. “This job sucks!”

The judge sighed and looked at Billy. “Did it again, William. I hereby find you guilty, to be locked up far away from everyone for eternity.” The judge shook his head again. “Did it again…”

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“I want to discuss a plea bargain,” Billy said.

“They haven’t offered one in the last year,” Elaine replied. “They don’t want you out. They want to lock you up.”

He nodded slightly. “They want me locked up because I’m dangerous. If that isn’t the case, then they’ll let me go.” He looked at her. “I want you to tell them that I’ll have a lobotomy if they drop all charges.”

Elaine stared at Billy, literally unable to think of anything to say for several moments.

Billy took the opportunity to push his point. “You said yourself that this is probably the only way I’ll get out.”

“I was being sarcastic!” She shook her head. “This is an excessive means of atonement.”

“It isn’t about guilt. I have always wanted a normal life. Do you know what it’s like to remember with perfect clarity your first word? Or to meet someone and instantly know things about them that no one was supposed to know? I’ve seen so many dark and horrible things that sometimes I can’t sleep at night.

“I didn’t know what was happening. All I knew was that I’d get funny looks when I said something. I’d reply to something, and then realize that nothing had been said. I was a freak.” He tensed against the straps in his chair as he spoke. “But I learned to hide it. I didn’t talk to people. I got A’s in school without ever cracking a book, because I instantly absorbed everything the teacher knew. Half the time I knew more than them, but teachers get angry when you’re smarter than them. So I walked the line. Do well, but don’t give anything away.”

Elaine said, “I didn’t know.”

His face twitched as he shook his head. “Just do it. With a lobotomy I will be perfectly mediocre. I don’t have to worry about scaring or hurting people.”

“Billy, I can’t . . . I can’t do this.”

Billy gave one of those twitch–nods that she was coming to know well. “Yes, you can. Because, if you don’t, I’ll demand another attorney.”

“That’s not fair,” she replied.

“I’m currently residing firmly in the ‘life ain’t fair’ camp.”

She nodded, smiling despite herself. “Okay, Billy. I think you’re wrong, but I’ll put out feelers. I doubt they’ll go for it.” She glanced at him. “Is it really that bad?”

His laugh was a sharp bark. “Oh, Christ, you have no idea. Do you remember being fifteen?”

“I suppose. Feels like a few lifetimes ago, though.”

“Imagine all of the insecurities of that age. Imagine everything you went through. All of the concerns that you were different from everyone else. Now go a step further and imagine that you were actually being put on trial for being different. Explain to me what could possibly be worse than that and I’ll be impressed.”

She smiled faintly. “People do tend to grow out of that phase, Billy.”

“Yes, they do. Because they’re given the freedom to. I’ll be here, with the knowledge that the entire world knows what a freak I am. It will grow and fester inside of me. I’ll never go away to college to reinvent myself. Never move to a new city to build a life for myself. For the rest of my life, regardless of my age, I’ll be a teenage freak.”

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The Devil cleared his throat. “Give me that.” He took the ticket from Billy. “Ah, yes. I believe you know Elaine. She’ll be your tour guide and lawyer for your stay in Hell.”

Billy glanced around, wiping his nose to get the stench of the brimstone out. Elaine stepped over next to him. “How charming,” she mumbled.

Billy was his actual age this time. “I thought you were going to get me out of here. Some lawyer you are.”

“Lawyers are experts at getting into Hell. We don’t know a lot about getting out.”

A small demon walked over with a tape measure. He wrapped it around Billy’s head, and jotted down the results on a notepad. “Excuse me. Just taking some measurements.”

Elaine raised an eyebrow. “What?”

The demon blinked. “Measurements. Can’t very well have some psion walking around Hell without knowing how he rates up, can we?”

Billy sighed. “Who knows, maybe it’ll get me a bigger room or something.”

The demon chuckled. “Oh, I doubt that.”

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They had sat across from each other for a full minute without a word as Elaine wrote in silence on the LegalPad. “Sorry,” she said when she finally raised the stylus. “I had some ideas for the case, and wanted to be sure to get them down.”

“There’s a case? So they didn’t accept?”

“No, they didn’t. They said that would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Of course, keeping you drugged for nearly five months because they didn’t know what to do with you constitutes that in my opinion, but that’s another case for another time.” She stood up and began walking around the room. “My guess, however, is that they don’t want a martyr.”

His eyes followed her movements. “I see. So much for my plan. Guess I have to put my faith in you.”

She smiled. “Good. So we’re going with the diminished capacity defense.”

“I suppose, if you must.” He paused for a moment, then said, “You’re out of your seat.”

She glanced around. “Yes, I am. Is that a problem? I think better moving around.”

“No problem. You’ve never stood up before, except to leave. This means you’re comfortable with me.”

“I seem to recall someone telling me that I should be uncomfortable. Something about a drooling vegetable.”

He smiled. “I have my good days and my bad days.”

“Yesterday was a bad day, I take it. I suggest that you not make decisions about lobotomies on bad days.”

“Advice noted.”

She rested a hand on the table. “We have to establish that you are powerful enough to have done this without intent to harm anyone. Your psionic tests for the restraint chair will help, but they’re inconclusive. We need to run comparison evaluations between you and other powerful psions. Set a benchmark for standard abilities. I can then argue that you are well beyond those abilities and that, in fact, society failed you by not having sufficient resources in place to deal with someone like you.”

“I don’t really want to be part of some political statement.”

“Too late. We just have to figure out the best way to use it. You can bet that the prosecution will. The case opens tomorrow and they’ve got no shortage of witnesses. Specialists in psionics. People who knew you, to testify that you were always a ‘little off.’ I’ll be objecting a lot.” She tapped a fingernail on the table. “You know that your father is one of their witnesses.”

He nodded. “He was always scared of me.” Billy sat quietly for a moment, then asked, “What will happen if I get released?”

Elaine blinked at him. “Well, I’m guessing that you’ll go back to school. Although if you tested for a GED, I’m sure you would pass.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean, it’s only a matter of time until something happens again, before someone else gets hurt.”

With a frown, Elaine replied, “I don’t see why that has to be the case. You’re aware of it now. I’m sure, with practice, that you’ll be able to control your abilities in time.”

“How is Price doing?”

Her body tensed. “He’s in a coma. You’ll be charged with that separately when this trial is over.”

“You know his family?”

She nodded faintly. “I’ve met his wife at parties.”

“Tell her that he loved her very much.”

She backed away, hand running along the surface of her table until she sat down. “How do you know that?”

“When we had meetings, I wasn’t in the chair. He was sure that I wouldn’t hurt my own attorney. He was a good man. That’s what hurt him, in a way. I was expecting to be tried as an adult, but Price deluded himself into thinking it wouldn’t happen. When the ruling came, there was such anguish. I couldn’t block it out. It spilled into me, this quiet, righteous rage. A sort of synergy started, the rage building. His anger fueled mine, and mine fueled his. I didn’t mean to…” He broke into sobs, his face turning red as it became covered with tears.

Elaine glanced around, not sure how to react or what to say.

“Meredith was similar. See, what no one knows is that when I came to her in the dream, I felt so warm. Her mind was so welcoming. We danced, and she stroked my cheek. She had a crush on me, too, but she couldn’t say anything. She was shy, but rich and popular. Everybody would have turned on her if she showed interest in me.

“At the time, I thought these were just dreams. Wishful thinking. But I was actually in her dreams. One night, the same synergy swept me up. Our emotions blending together, feeding off each other. Pure passion, so beautiful. So potent that it destroyed her.”

Elaine leaned forward. “Billy, I think you should get some rest.”

He didn’t seem to hear her. “Touching another mind isn’t like hearing a voice or seeing a picture. It’s more subtle. Like a smell: nauseating or intoxicating.”

He looked across the table at her, his face and eyes still red, face covered in tears and a bit of mucus. “Set up the test. Do what you have to do; I’ll do what I have to.”

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Elaine had spent the last four hours on the phone, arranging the tests for the next day. John knocked on the door and stepped in just as she got off the phone. She nodded to him. “The tests are set up,” she said.

John gave a brief nod. “We’re all very impressed with the dedication you’ve shown on this case.” He scratched his cheek. “Just don’t … Elaine, we aren’t expecting any miracles out of this. Don’t feel bad if you can’t win.”

Her lips set in a thin line. “I think I have a shot, John.”

John sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of. Be realistic here. That kid brain–fried Mal in front of the judge. I know that’s a separate case, but you can rest assured that the prosecution will bring it up. Every juror in that case has been reading about Matthews for a year. They know what he’s guilty of and no amount of legal maneuvering is really going to be able to get him off. Maybe before what happened to Mal but not now.”

Elaine folded her arms, staring at John. “That’s damn negative. It sounds like you don’t have faith in me.”

“Oh, it’s not that. You’re a good lawyer. But this is an impossible case at this point. Do your best. I’m just warning you not to get your hopes up.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong. Not intentionally. I have to convince the jury of that.”

John shook his head. “Even if that were true, you can’t do that.”

“You had faith in me a few days ago,” she reminded him.

He frowned. “Listen, I just don’t want you to feel too bad when this doesn’t go the way you expect.” He turned to step out of the room.

“You expected me to fail at this, didn’t you?” She shook her head, a bitter bark of a laugh escaping her mouth. “That’s why it was so easy to get this case. You needed someone competent, but not good enough to actually win it.”

John froze in the doorway and turned slowly back toward her. “It’s not like that, Elaine. You wanted it and you were most qualified.”

“Bullshit!” She stabbed a finger at him. “A case this major is a career maker. There are tons of lawyers with more experience. You chose me because you don’t really want to win this. After all, we get paid either way.”

“Christ, Elaine.” He stormed back up to her desk. “You were there! You saw what he did to Mal. The kid’s guilty. He needs to be locked up. I believe in the system, so he’s getting the best damn defense that we can give him: you. Anyone with more experience than you would have thrown this case, intentionally or not. I sure as hell couldn’t stand up there and defend the person who did that to Mal. At least by assigning you, we knew we’d have someone who would give it their best.”

She glared at him. “And you also knew that my best wouldn’t be good enough.”

John looked about to say something, then threw up his arms and spun to walk out. “Good luck, Elaine.” The door swung closed behind him.

Elaine grabbed her LegalPad off the desk and hurled it at the door.

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A squirrel, resting on a low hanging branch, nibbled on a round nut. On the table between Elaine and Billy sat a chess board.

Elaine moved her black bishop. “I don’t think things are going well, kiddo.”

Billy moved his pawn in response. “I know.” He glanced at the sky. “The clouds are dark here. I don’t like it.”

Elaine’s queen moved and took the pawn. “They say every cloud has a silver lining.”

Another pawn moved forward. “They say that, but I don’t see any silver linings.”

The black queen took the exposed knight. “Maybe you aren’t looking with the right eyes.” She glanced at her side of the table. “You know, you’re losing a lot of pieces.”

Billy nodded in response. “I know.” He moved a rook. “Checkmate.”

Elaine blinked, staring at the board. “How did you do that?”

Billy shrugged.

The squirrel sat up on its haunches and glanced at them both sagely. Then it said, in the chattering talk of squirrels, though somehow both were able to understand it, “Sometimes you have to give up some things in order to gain what you really need.” With that, the animal scampered off.

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Billy watched as Elaine entered the room. The straps from the helmet strained against his cheeks. “So, how’d I do?”

“Let’s put it this way: according to the prosecution’s lead expert, the results of your scans today should not have been possible.” She raised her LegalPad, showing him a flowing holotext display above it.

“So, what exactly does that mean?”

She shrugged. “This is still a young science, Billy, so no one’s sure, but we will argue that it means you’re substantially more powerful than any other studied psion.”

Billy was silent for several long moments at this pronouncement. In a soft voice he said something, of which Elaine could only catch “that explains.”

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Billy said. Clearly changing the subject, he said, “If this is all you wanted to show me, I think I’d like to go take a nap. The headache is really getting to me today.”

Elaine tilted her head at him slightly. “Billy, are you okay?”

He gave a twitch–nod. “Yes, I’m fine. Just tired.”

She turned off the holotext and put the LegalPad back in her briefcase. Bringing a hand to her mouth, she yawned. “Guess I’m tired, too.”

As she moved toward the door, Billy said, “Elaine.” She looked toward him. “Whatever happens,” he said, “I want you to know that what you’ve done, the work you’ve put into this case . . . ” He paused, as if weighing his words. “It means something to me. It means a lot. You’ve done well.”

She glanced away, awkwardly bringing her hand up to her cheek to wipe away an inexplicable tear. “We’re going to get you out of here,” she said as she moved toward the door.

“Yes,” he said as the door closed. “Yes, we are.”

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Billy followed his instinct to the place that he’d avoided for over a year but, finally, he found it. The ballroom was there, fragmented in a corner of his mind. He looked around and called out, “Meredith?”

No response came, though he was vaguely aware of the room flowing back together, stitching itself whole again in response to his presence. It looked odd, like it had been through an earthquake and patched together by a church youth group that was funded through bake sales. Nails and raw, unfinished boards were clearly visible throughout the room, holding the pieces of it together in a patchwork.

He sniffed the air, then noticed a large black pit in the middle of the ballroom, near the bed. He walked toward it. From the pit wafted the scent of the lilacs.

He dove. Gravity pulled him downward for what seemed like an eternity as he spun wildly in the blackness of the pit.

Finally, hands caught him. Firm yet tender, they brought his fall to a halt and drew him close. The lilac smell engulfed him.

There was no light, but his hands reached up to touch the scarred, burned flesh of Meredith’s face. “I’ve been lost,” she said. “So lost.”

He tried to speak, but realized that he couldn’t get words out. His face was covered in tears and throat was choked up. Pain wracked his body and mind as he touched Meredith’s face. “I’m so sorry that I did this to you.”

He leaned toward her and kissed her on the cheek. His tears touched her and, as he drew away, he saw — no, he felt — the burn scars healing.

Collapsing to the ground, he held her hands. “I’m so thankful,” he said.

“I remember you.” She leaned down. “It was an accident, Billy. Please don’t cry.” She knelt and held him close, as his tears touched her and continued to heal her wounds. “We’re still trapped in the pit,” she said.

“Oh, help will come. But we have a lot to do and not much time.” He glanced around. “There’s someone else down here.”

Meredith nodded anxiously. “Yes, I think I’ve seen him. He’s lost and hurt, like I was. But you’re hurt, too. I can tell.”

Billy wiped the blood from his nose. “I’ll be fine. Lead me to him, quickly.”

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Elaine was in a ballroom, or what had once been a ballroom but now looked like it had been through a disaster of some sort. In the center of the room was a pit. She called down into the blackness. “Hello?”

“Please,” a female voice called. “He’s hurt. We’ve got to get out.”

Elaine found a rope nearby. Actually, it was a string of bananas end to end, like German sausages. She flung one end into the pit. When she felt a weight on the other end, she began to pull it up. A chimpanzee stood behind her, helping.

Meredith came out of the pit first. Elaine recognized her instantly, in shock. “You’re the girl,” she said, feeling foolish as soon as the words were out of her mouth.

Malcolm came out next, gripping an unconscious, bloody Billy in one arm. He sat the boy down on the bed, which was bent and banged up with a ripped and scorched mattress.

“He was healing us, or something,” Malcolm said. “But he kept bleeding. Said something about his head.”

“The dampeners,” Elaine replied. “This is… it’s not a dream. At least, not my dream.”

“Elaine,” Billy said softly. His lips barely moved as he spoke. “We touched . . . each other.” There was a brief smile. “You smell like nutmeg.” He gripped her hand. “It all meant something. Measurement dream and tests, that’s how I finally figured it out. Knew I was strong enough to find them . . . to save myself.”

“Don’t talk,” she said, stroking his bloody cheek. “Rest. Or wake up, maybe. Just get better, okay?”

He smiled up at the three of them. “Got my good days and bad days, Elaine.” He laughed, coughing up blood. “This is a good day.”

With that, his head rolled to the side and the ballroom began to dissolve away.

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Elaine, Meredith, and Malcolm stood next to the bed, looking down at Billy’s unconscious body. No words were spoken; they weren’t needed.

Then, as a trio, they knew that their vigil was done. Meredith leaned down and kissed Billy on the lips softly, blushing as she looked up at the other two.

They turned and walked from the room. Elaine led the pair to the front door. “I’ll let you know, of course, if there’s any change,” she said.

Malcolm smiled. “We miss you at the firm.”

“And yet, oddly, I don’t miss it in the least.” She leaned in and gave him a brief hug. “I love my new job.” Six months earlier, she had left the firm to take a position as Director of the Department of Education’s Youth Psionic Education Initiative.

Meredith hugged Elaine, a bit less briefly than Malcolm. The girl still had a slight limp from her year of muscle atrophy, but doctors had assured her that continued physical therapy would take care of that. Malcolm offered his arm to help her back down to her car.

After the two left, Elaine leaned her back against the closed door and smiled. She walked into Billy’s room and ran a wet washcloth over his forehead.

“One of these days,” she said, “you’ll have another good day. There are people here waiting for that.”

As she walked through her house, where she cared for the boy who had gone from freak to hero, she found it reassuring that every room smelled like bananas to her, even though she never had any.

 


Andrew Zimmerman Jones is an editor in educational publishing and maintains the About Physics website (http://physics.about.com/). His short fiction has been published in The Four Bubbas of the Apocalypse, International House of Bubbas, KidVisions, and ChimeraWorld #2. Two of his stories have been named finalists in the Writers of the Future contest.

 


 

Story © 2007 Andrew Zimmerman Jones. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press


 





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