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´╗┐Title: Home Again, Home Again
Author: Doctorow, Cory
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Home Again, Home Again" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



Copyright (C) 1999 by Cory Doctorow



Home Again, Home Again

Cory Doctorow

From "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," a short story collection published in
September, 2003 by Four Walls Eight Windows Press (ISBN 1568582862). See
http://craphound.com/place for more.

Originally Published in Tesseracts 8 (Tesseract Press, 1999)

"'Home Again, Home Again,' is at once intimate and spectacular."

	- Farren Miller
	  Locus Magazine
	  Issue 512, Vol 51, No 3
	  Sept 2003

--

Blurbs and quotes:

* Cory Doctorow straps on his miner's helmet and takes you deep into the
  caverns and underground rivers of Pop Culture, here filtered through SF-coloured
  glasses. Enjoy.

	- Neil Gaiman
	  Author of American Gods and Sandman


* Few writers boggle my sense of reality as much as Cory Doctorow.  His vision
  is so far out there, you'll need your GPS to find your way back.

	- David Marusek
	  Winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award, Nebula Award nominee

* Cory Doctorow is one of our best new writers: smart, daring, savvy,
  entertaining, ambitious, plugged-in, and as good a guide to the wired world of
  the twenty-first century that stretches out before us as you're going to find.

	- Gardner Dozois
	  Editor, Asimov's SF

* He sparkles!  He fizzes!  He does backflips and breaks the furniture! Science
  fiction needs Cory Doctorow!

	- Bruce Sterling
	  Author of The Hacker Crackdown and Distraction

* Cory Doctorow strafes the senses with a geekspeedfreak explosion of gomi kings
  with heart, weirdass shapeshifters from Pleasure Island and jumping automotive
  jazz joints.  If this is Canadian science fiction, give me more.

	- Nalo Hopkinson
	  Author of Midnight Robber and Brown Girl in the Ring

* Cory Doctorow is the future of science fiction.  An nth-generation hybrid of
  the best of Greg Bear, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling and Groucho Marx, Doctorow
  composes stories that are as BPM-stuffed as techno music, as idea-rich as the
  latest issue of NEW SCIENTIST, and as funny as humanity's efforts to improve
  itself.  Utopian, insightful, somehow simultaneously ironic and heartfelt, these
  nine tales will upgrade your basal metabolism, overwrite your cortex with new
  and efficient subroutines and generally improve your life to the point where
  you'll wonder how you ever got along with them.  Really, you should need a
  prescription to ingest this book.  Out of all the glittering crap life and our
  society hands us, craphound supreme Doctorow has managed to fashion some
  industrial-grade art."

	- Paul Di Filippo
	  Author of The Steampunk Trilogy

* As scary as the future, and twice as funny. In this eclectic and electric
  collection Doctorow strikes sparks off today to illuminate tomorrow, which is
  what SF is supposed to do. And nobody does it better.

	- Terry Bisson
	  Author of Bears Discover Fire

--

A note about this story

This story is from my collection, "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," published
by Four Walls Eight Windows Press in September, 2003, ISBN 1568582862. I've
released this story, along with five others, under the terms of a Creative
Commons license that gives you, the reader, a bunch of rights that copyright
normally reserves for me, the creator.

I recently did the same thing with the entire text of my novel, "Down and Out in
the Magic Kingdom" (http://craphound.com/down), and it was an unmitigated
success. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the book -- good news -- and
thousands of people bought the book -- also good news. It turns out that, as
near as anyone can tell, distributing free electronic versions of books is a
great way to sell more of the paper editions, while simultaneously getting the
book into the hands of readers who would otherwise not be exposed to my work.

I still don't know how it is artists will earn a living in the age of the
Internet, but I remain convinced that the way to find out is to do basic
science: that is, to do stuff and observe the outcome. That's what I'm doing
here. The thing to remember is that the very *worst* thing you can do to me as
an artist is to not read my work -- to let it languish in obscurity and
disappear from posterity. Most of the fiction I grew up on is out-of-print, and
this is doubly true for the short stories. Losing a couple bucks to people who
would have bought the book save for the availability of the free electronic text
is no big deal, at least when compared to the horror that is being irrelevant
and unread. And luckily for me, it appears that giving away the text for free
gets me more paying customers than it loses me.

You can find the canonical version of this file at
http://craphound.com/place/download.php

If you'd like to convert this file to some other format and distribute it, you
have my permission, provided that:

* You don't charge money for the distribution

* You keep the entire text intact, including this notice, the license below, and
the metadata at the end of the file

* You don't use a file-format that has "DRM" or "copy-protection" or any other
form of use-restriction turned on

If you'd like, you can advertise the existence of your edition by posting a link
to it at http://craphound.com/place/000016.php

--

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###

Home Again, Home Again
======================

The kids in my local bat-house breathe heavy metals, and their gelatinous bodies
quiver nauseously during our counseling sessions, and for all that, they reacted
just like I had when I told them I was going away for a while -- with hurt and
betrayal, and they aroused palpable guilt in me.

It goes in circles. When I was sixteen, and The Amazing Robotron told me he
needed to go away for a while, but he'd be back, I did everything I could to
make him guilty. Now it's me, on a world far from home, and a pack of snot-nosed
jellyfish kids have so twisted my psyche that they're all I can think of when I
debark the shuttle at Aristide Interplanetary, just outside my dirty ole
Toronto.

The customs officer isn't even human, so it feels like just another R&R, another
halting conversation carried on in ugly trade-speak, another bewilderment of
queues and luggage carousels. Outside: another spaceport, surrounded by the
variegated hostels for the variegated tourists, and bipeds are in bare majority.

I can think of it like that.

I can think of it as another spaceport.

I can think of it like another trip.

The thing he can't think of it is, is a homecoming. That's too hard for this
weak vessel.

He's very weak.

#

Look at him. He's eleven, and it's the tencennial of the Ascension of his
homeworld -- dirty blue ball, so unworthy, yet -- inducted into the Galactic
fraternity and the infinite compassion of the bugouts.

The foam, which had been confined to just the newer, Process-enclaves before the
Ascension, has spread, as has the cult of the Process For Lasting Happiness.
Process is, after all, why the dirty blue ball was judged and found barely
adequate for membership. Toronto, which had seen half its inhabitants emigrate
on open-ended tours of the wondrous worlds of the bugout domain, is full again.
Bursting. The whole damn planet is accreting a layer of off-world tourists.

It's a time of plenty. Plenty of cheap food and plenty of cheap foam structures,
built as needed, then dissolved and washed away when the need disappears. Plenty
of healthcare and education. Plenty of toys and distractions and beautiful,
haunting bugout art. Plenty, in fact, of everything, except space.

He lived in a building that is so tall, its top floors are perpetually damp with
clouds. There's a nice name for this building, inscribed on a much-abused foam
sculpture in the central courtyard. No one uses the nice name. They call it by
the name that the tabloids use, that the inhabitants use, that everyone but the
off-world counselors use. They call it the bat-house.

Bats in the belfry. Batty. Batshit.

I hated it when they moved us into the bat-house. My parents gamely tried to
explain why we were going, but they never understood, no more than any human
could. The bugouts had a test, a scifi helmet you wore, and it told you whether
you were normal, or batty. Some of our neighbors were clearly batshit: the woman
who screamed all the time, about the bugs and the little niggers crawling over
her flesh; the couple who ate dogturds off the foam sidewalk with lip-smacking
relish; the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla.

I don't want to talk about him right now.

His parents' flaw -- whatever it was -- was too subtle to detect without the
scifi helmet. They never knew for sure what it was. Many of the bats were in the
same belfry: part of the bugouts' arrogant compassion held that a couple never
knew which one of them was defective, so his family never knew if it was his
nervous, shy mother, or his loud, opinionated father who had doomed them to the
quarantine.

His father told him, in an impromptu ceremony before he slid his keycard into
the lock on their new apt in the belfry: "Chet, whatever they say, there's
nothing wrong with us. They have no right to put us here." He knelt to look the
skinny ten-year-old right in the eye. "Don't worry, kiddo. It's not for long --
we'll get this thing sorted out yet." Then, in a rare moment of tenderness, one
that stood out in Chet's memory as the last of such, his father gathered him in
his arms, lifted him off his feet in a fierce hug. After a moment, his mother
joined the hug, and Chet's face was buried in the spot where both of their
shoulders met, smelling their smells. They still smelled like his parents then,
like his old house on the Beaches, and for a moment, he knew his father was
right, that this couldn't possibly last.

A tear rolled down his mother's cheek and dripped in his ear. He shook his
shaggy hair like a dog and his parents laughed, and his father wiped away his
mother's tear and they went into the apt, grinning and holding hands.

Of course, they never left the belfry after that.

#

I can't remember what the last thing my mother said to me was. Do I remember her
tucking me in and saying, "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite,"
or was that something I saw on a vid? Was it a nervous command to wipe my shoes
on the way in the door? Was her voice soft and sad, as it sometimes is in my
memories, or was it brittle and angry, the way she often seemed after she
stopped talking, as she banged around the tiny, two-room apt?

I can't remember.

My mother fell away from speech like a half-converted parishioner falling away
from the faith: she stopped visiting the temple of verbiage in dribs and drabs,
first missing the regular sermons -- the daily niceties of Good morning and Good
night and Be careful, Chet -- then neglecting the major holidays, the Watch
out!s and the Ouch!s and the answers to direct questions.

My father and I never spoke of it, and I didn't mention it to the other wild
kids in the vertical city with whom I spent my days getting in what passed for
trouble around the bat-house.

I did mention it to my counselor, The Amazing Robotron, so-called for the metal
exoskeleton he wore to support his fragile body in Earth's hard gravity. But he
didn't count, then.

#

The reason that Chet can't pinpoint the moment his mother sealed her lips is
because he was a self-absorbed little rodent in those days.

Not a cute freckled hellion. A miserable little shit who played hide-and-seek
with the other miserable little shits in the bat-house, but played it violently,
hide-and-seek-and-break-and-enter, hide-and-seek-and-smash-and-grab. The lot of
them are amorphous, indistinguishable from each other in his memory, all that
remains of all those clever little brats is the lingering impression of loud,
boasting voices and sharp little teeth.

The Amazing Robotron was a fool in little Chet's eyes, an easy-to-bullshit,
ineffectual lump whose company Chet had to endure for a mandatory hour every
other day.

"Chet, you seem distr-acted to-day," The Amazing Robotron said in his artificial
voice.

"Yah. You know. Worried about, uh, the future." Distracted by Debbie Carr's
purse, filched while she sat in the sixty-eighth floor courtyard, talking with
her stupid girlie friends. Debbie was the first girl from the gang to get tits,
and now she didn't want to hang out with them anymore, and her purse was stashed
underneath the base of a hollow planter outside The Amazing Robotron's apt, and
maybe he could sneak it out under his shirt and find a place to dump it and sort
through its contents after the session.

"What is it about the fu-ture that wo-rries you?" The Amazing Robotron was as
unreadable as a pinball machine, something he resembled. Underneath, he was a
collection of whip-like tentacles with a knot of sensory organs in the middle.

"You know, like, the whole fricken thing. Like if I leave here when I'm
eighteen, will my folks be okay without me, and like that."

"Your pa-rents are able to take care of them-selves, Chet. You must con-cern
your-self with you, Chet. You should do something con-struct-tive with your
wo-rry, such as de-ciding on a ca-reer that will ful-fill you when you leave the
Cen-ter." The Center was the short form for the long, nice name that no one ever
used to describe the bat-house.

"I thought, like, maybe I could be, you know, a spaceship pilot or something."

"Then you must stu-dy math-e-mat-ics and phy-sics. If you like, Chet, I can
re-quest ad-vanced in-struct-tion-al mat-e-rials for you."

"Sure, that'd be great. Thanks, Robotron."

"You are wel-come, Chet. I am glad to help. My own par-ent was in a Cen-ter on
my world, you know. I un-der-stand how you feel. There is still time re-main-ing
in your ses-sion. What else would you like to dis-cuss?"

"My mother doesn't talk anymore. Nothing. Why is that?"

"Your mo-ther is. . . ." The Amazing Robotron fumbled for a word, buried
somewhere deep in the hypnotic English lexicon baked into its brain. "Your
mo-ther has a prob-lem, and she needs your aff-ec-tion now more than e-ver.
What-ev-er rea-son she has for her si-lence, it is not you. Your mo-ther and
fa-ther love you, and dream of the day when you leave here and make your own way
through the gal-ax-y."

Of course his parents loved him, he supposed, in an abstract kind of way. His
mother, who hadn't worn anything but a bathrobe in months, whose face he
couldn't picture behind his eyes but whose bathrobe he could visualize in its
every rip and stain and fray. His father, who seemed to have forgotten how to
groom himself, who spent his loud days in one of the bat-house's workshops,
drinking beer with his buddies while they played with the arc welders. His
parents loved him, he knew that.

"OK, right, thanks. I've gotta blow, 'K?"

"All-right. I will see you on Thurs-day, then?"

But Chet was already out the door, digging Debbie Carr's purse from under the
planter, then running, doubled over the bulge it made in his shirt, hunting for
a private space in the anthill.

#

The entire north face of the bat-house was eyeless, a blind, windowless expanse
of foam that seemed to curve as it approached infinity.

Some said it was an architectural error, others said it was part of the
bat-house's heating scheme. Up in nosebleed country, on the 120th level, it was
almost empty: sparsely populated by the very battiest bats, though as more and
more humans were found batty, they pushed inexorably upwards.

Chet rode the lift to the 125th floor and walked casually to the end of the
hallway. At this height, the hallways were bare foam, without the long-wear
carpet and fake plants that adorned the low-altitude territories. He walked as
calmly as he could to the very end of the northern hall, then hunkered down in
the corner and spilled the purse.

Shit, but Debbie Carr was going girlie. The pile was all tampons and makeup and,
ugh, a spare bra. A spare bra! I chuckled, and kept sorting. There were three
pennies, enough to buy six chocolate bars in the black-market tuck-shop on the
75th floor. A clever little pair of folding scissors, their blades razor-sharp.
I was using them to slit the lining of the purse when the door to 12525 opened,
and the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla emerged.

My palms slicked with guilty sweat, and the pile of Debbie's crap, set against
the featureless foam corridor, seemed to scream its presence. I spun around,
working my body into the corner, and held the little scissors like a dagger in
my fist.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was clearly batty. He was wearing
boxer-shorts and a tailcoat and had a halo of wild, greasy hair and a long,
tangled beard, but even if he'd been wearing a suit and tie and had a trip to
the barber's, I'd have known he was batty the minute I laid eyes on him. He
didn't walk, he shambled, like he'd spent a long, long time on meds. His eyes,
set in deep black pits of sleeplessness, were ferociously crazy.

He turned to stare at me.

"Hello, sonny. Do you like to swim?"

I stood in my corner, mute, trapped.

"I have an ocean in my apt. Maybe you'd like to try it? I used to love to swim
in the ocean when I was a boy."

My feet moved without my willing them. An ocean in his apt? My feet wanted to
know about this.

I entered his apt, and even my feet were too surprised to go on.

He had the biggest apt I'd ever seen. It spanned three quarters of the length of
the bat-house, and was five storeys high. The spots where he'd dissolved the
foam walls away with solvent were rough and uneven, and rings of foam encircled
each of the missing storeys above. I couldn't imagine getting that much solvent:
it was more tightly controlled than plutonium, the subject of countless
action-adventure vids.

At one end of the apt stood a collection of tall, spiny apparatus, humming with
electricity and sparking. They were remarkable, but their impact was lost in
what lay at the other end.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla had an ocean in his apt. It was a clear
aquarium tank, fifteen meters long and nearly seventeen high, and eight meters
deep. It was dominated by a massive, baroque coral reef, like a melting castle
with misshapen brains growing out of it.

Schools of fish -- bright as jellybeans -- darted through the ocean's depths,
swimming in and out of the softly waving plants. A thousand neon tetra, a flock
of living quicksilver sewing needles, turned 90 degrees in perfect unison, then
did it again, and again, and again, describing a neat, angular box in the water.

"Isn't it beautiful? I'm using it in one of my experiments, but I also find it
very _calming_."

#

I hail a pedicab and the kids back on my adopted homeworld, with their accusing,
angry words and stares vanish from my mind. The cabbie is about nineteen and
muscular as hell, legs like treetrunks, clipped into the pedals. A flywheel
spins between him and me, and his brakes store his momentum up in it every time
he slows. On the two-hour ride into downtown Toronto, he never once comes to a
full stop.

I've booked a room at the Royal York. I can afford it -- the stipend I receive
for the counseling work has been slowly accumulating in my bank account.

Downtown is all foam now, and "historical" shops selling authentic Earth
crapola: reproductions of old newspapers, reproductions of old electronics,
reproductions of old clothes and old food and other discarded cultural detritus.
I see tall, clacking insect-creatures with walkman headphones across their
stomachs. I see squat, rocky creatures smearing pizza slices onto their
digestive membranes. I see soft, slithering creatures with Toronto Blue Jays
baseball hats suspended in their jelly.

The humans I see are dressed in unisex coveralls, with discreet comms on their
wrists or collars, and they don't seem to notice that their city is become a
bestiary.

The cabby isn't even out of breath when we pull up at the Royal York, which,
thankfully, is still clothed in its ancient dressed stone. We point our comms at
each other and I squirt some money at him, adding a generous tip. His face,
which had been wildly animated while he dodged the traffic on the long ride is a
stony mask now, as though when at rest he entered a semiconscious sleep mode.

The doorman is dressed in what may or may not be historically accurate costume,
though what period it is meant to represent is anyone's guess. He carries my bag
to the check-in and I squirt more money at him. He wishes that I have a nice
stay in Toronto, and I wish it, too.

At the check-in, I squirt my ID and still more money at the efficient young
woman in a smart blazer, and another babu in period costume -- those shoes look
painful -- carries my bag to the lift and presses the button.

We wait in strained silence and the lift makes its achingly slow progress
towards us. There are no elevators on the planet I live on now -- the wild
gravity and wilder windstorms don't permit buildings of more than one story --
but even if there were, they wouldn't be like this lift, like a human lift, like
one of the fifty that ran the vertical length of the bat-house.

I nearly choke as we enter that lift. It has the smell of a million transient
guests, aftershaves and perfumes and pheromones, and the stale recirc air I
remember so well. I stifle the choke into my fist, fake a cough, and feel a
self-consciousness I didn't know I had.

I'm worried that the babu knows that I grew up in the bat-house.

Now I can't make eye-contact with him. Now I can't seem to stand naturally,
can't figure out where a not-crazy puts his hands and where a not-crazy puts his
eyes. Little Chet and his mates liked to terrorize people in the lifts, play
"who farted" and "I'm gonna puke" and "I have to pee" in loud sing-songs, just
to watch the other bats squirm.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla thought that these games were unfunny,
unsophisticated and unappetizing and little Chet stopped playing them.

I squirt extra money at the babu, after he opens my windows and shows me the
shitter and the vid's remote.

I unpack mechanically, my meager bag yielding more-meager clothes. I'd thought
I'd buy more after earthfall, since the spaceports' version of human apparel
wasn't, very. I realize that I'm wearing the same clothes I left Earth in, lo
those years before. They're hardly the worse for wear -- when I'm in my
exoskeleton on my new planet, I don't bother with clothes.

#

The ocean seemed too fragile to be real. All that caged water, held behind a
flimsy-seeming sheet of clear foam, the corners joined with strips of thick
gasket-rubber. Standing there at its base, Chet was terrified that it would
burst and drown him -- he actually felt the push of water, the horrid, dying
wriggles of the fish as they were washed over his body.

"Say there, son. Hello?"

Chet looked up. Nicola Tesla's hair was standing on end, comically. He realized
that his own long, shaggy hair was doing the same. The whole room felt electric.

"Are you all right?" He had a trace of an accent, like the hint of garlic in a
salad dressing, an odd way of stepping on his vowels.

"Yeh, yeh, fine. I'm fine," Chet said.

"I am pleased to hear that. What is your name, son?"

"Chet. Affeltranger."

"I'm pleased to meet you. My name is Gaylord Ballozos, though that's not who I
am. You see, I'm the channel for Nicola Tesla. Would you like to see a magic
trick?"

Chet nodded. He wondered who Nicola Tesla was, and filed away the name Gaylord
for making fun of, later. In doing so, he began to normalize the experience, to
structure it as a story he could tell the other kids, after. The guy, the ocean,
the hair. Gaylord.

A ball of lightning leapt from Tesla/Ballozos's fingertips and danced over their
heads. It bounced around the room furiously, then stopped to hover in front of
Chet. His clothes stood away from his body, snapping as though caught in a
windstorm. Seen up close, the ball was an infinite pool of shifting electricity,
like an ocean of energy. Tentatively, he reached out to touch it, and Tesla
shouted "Don't!" and the ball whipped up and away, spearing itself on the point
of one of the towers on the opposite side of the room.

It vanished, leaving a tangy, sharp smell behind.

The story Chet had been telling in his mind disappeared with it. He stood,
shocked speechless.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla chuckled a little, then started to
laugh, actually doubling over and slapping his thighs.

"You can't _imagine_ how long I've waited to show that trick to someone! Thank
you, young Mr. Affeltranger! A million thanks to you, for your obvious
appreciation."

Chet felt a giggle welling up in him, and he did laugh, and when his lips came
together, a spark of static electricity leapt from their seam to his nose and
made him jump, and laugh all the harder.

The guy came forward and pumped his arm in a dry handshake. "I can see that you
and I are kindred spirits. You will have to come and visit again, very soon, and
I will let you see more of my ocean, and maybe let you see 'Old Sparky,' too.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, for dropping in."

And he ushered Chet out of his apt and closed the door, leaving him in the
featureless hallway of the 125th storey.

#

I had never been as nervous as I was the following Thursday, when my regular
appointment with The Amazing Robotron rolled around again. I hadn't spoken of
the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla to any of my gang, and of course not to
my parents, but somehow, I felt like I might end up spilling to The Amazing
Robotron.

I don't know why I was worried. The guy hadn't asked me to keep it a secret,
after all, and I had never had any problem holding my tongue around The Amazing
Robotron before.

"Hel-lo, Chet. How have you been?"

"I've been OK."

"Have you been stud-y-ing math-e-mat-ics and phys-ics? I had the supp-le-ment-al
mat-e-rials de-liv-er-ed to your apt yes-ter-day."

"No, I haven't. I don't think I wanna be a pilot no more. One of my buds tole me
that you end up all fugged up with time an' that, that you come home an' it's
the next century an' everyone you know is dead."

"That is one thing that hap-pens to some ex-plor-a-tor-y pilots, Chet. Have you
thought a-bout any o-ther poss-i-bil-i-ties?"

"Kinda. I guess." I tried not to think about the 125th story and the ocean. I
was thinking so hard, I stopped thinking about what I was saying to The Amazing
Robotron. "Maybe I could be a counselor, like, and help kids."

The Amazing Robotron turned into a pinball machine again, an unreadable and
motionless block. Silent for so long I thought he was gone, dead as a sardine
inside his tin can. Then, he twitched both of his arms, like he was shivering.
Then his robot-voice came out of the grille on his face. "I think that you would
be a ve-ry good coun-sel-or, Chet."

"Yeh?" I said. It was the first time that The Amazing Robotron had told me he
thought I'd be good at anything. Hell, it was the first time he'd expressed
_any_ opinion about anything I'd said.

"Yes, Chet. Be-ing a coun-sel-or is a ve-ry good way to help your-self
un-der-stand what we have done to you by put-ting you in the Cen-ter."

I couldn't speak. My Mom, before she fell silent, had often spoken about how
unfair it was for me to be stuck here, because of something that she or my
father had done. But my father never seemed to notice me, and the teachers on
the vid made a point of not mentioning the bat-house -- like someone trying hard
not to notice a stutter or a wart, and you _knew_ that the best you could hope
for from them was pity.

"Be-ing a coun-sel-or is ve-ry hard, Chet. But coun-sel-ors sometimes get a
spec-ial re-ward. Some-times, we get to help. Do you re-ally want to do this?"

"Yeh. Yes. I mean, it sounds good. You get to travel, right?"

The Amazing Robotron's idiot-lights rippled, something I came to recognize as a
chuckle, later. "Yes. Tra-vel is part of the job. I sug-gest that you start by
ex-am-in-ing your friends. See if you can fi-gure out why they do what they do."

I've used this trick on my kids. What do I know about their psychology? But you
get one, you convince it to explain the rest to you. It helps. Counselors are
always from another world -- by the time the first generation raised in a
bat-house has grown old enough, there aren't any bats' children left to counsel
on their homeworld.

#

I take room-service, pizza and beer in an ice-bucket: pretentious, but better
than sharing a dining-room with the menagerie. Am I becoming a racist?

No, no. I just need to focus on things human, during this vacation.

The food is disappointing. It's been years since I lay awake at night, craving a
slice and a brew and a normal gravity and a life away from the bats.
Nevertheless, the craving remained, buried, and resurfaced when I went over the
room-service menu. By the time the dumbwaiter in my room chimed, I was
practically drooling.

But by the time I take my second bite, it's just pizza and a brew.

I wonder if I will ever get to sleep, but when the time comes, my eyes close and
if I dream, I don't remember it.

I get up and dress and send up for eggs and real Atlantic salmon and brown toast
and a pitcher of coffee, then find myself unable to eat any of it. I make a
sandwich out of it and wrap it in napkins and stuff it into my day-pack along
with a water-bottle and some sun-block.

It's a long walk up to the bat-house, but I should make it by nightfall.

#

Chet was up at 6h the next morning. His mom was already up, but she never slept
that he could tell. She was clattering around the kitchen in her housecoat,
emptying the cupboards and then re-stacking their contents for the thousandth
time. She shot him a look of something between fear and affection as he pulled
on his shorts and a t-shirt, and he found himself hugging her waist. For a
second, it felt like she softened into his embrace, like she was going to say
something, like it was normal, and then she picked up a plate and rubbed it with
a towel and put it back into the cupboard.

Chet left without saying a word.

The bat-house breathed around him, a million farts and snores and whispered
words. A lift was available almost before he took his finger off the summon
button. "125," he said.

Chet walked to the door of the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla and started
to knock, then put his hands down and sank down into a squat, with his back
against it.

He must have dozed, because the next thing he knew, he was tipping over
backwards into the apt, and the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was standing
over him, concerned.

"Are you all right, son?"

Chet stood, dusted himself off and looked at the floor. "Sorry, I didn't want to
disturb you. . ."

"But you wanted to come back and see more. Marvelous! I applaud your curiosity,
young sir. I have just taken the waters -- perhaps you would like to try?" He
gestured at the ocean.

"You mean, swim in it?"

"If you like. Myself, I find a snorkel and mask far superior. My set is up on
the rim, you're welcome to them, but I would ask you to chew a stick of this
before you get in." He tossed Chet a pack of gum. "It's an invention of my own
-- chew a stick of that, and you can_not_ transmit any nasty bugs in your saliva
for forty-eight hours. I hold a patent for it, of course, but my agents report
that it has been met with crashing indifference in the Great Beyond."

Chet had been swimming before, in the urinary communal pools on the tenth and
fifteenth levels, horsing around naked with his mates. Nudity was not a big deal
for the kids of the bat-house -- the kind of adult who you wouldn't trust in
such circumstances didn't end up in bat-houses -- the bugouts had a different
place for them.

"Go on, lad, give it a try. It's simply marvelous, I tell you!"

Unsteadily, Chet climbed the spiral stairs leading up to the tank, clutching the
handrail, chewing the gum, which fizzed and sparked in his mouth. At the top,
there was a small platform. Self-consciously, he stripped, then pulled on the
mask and snorkel that hung from a peg.

"Tighten the straps, boy!" the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla shouted, from
far, far below. "If water gets into the mask, just push at the top and blow out
through your nose!"

Chet awkwardly lowered himself into the water. It was warm -- blood temperature
-- and salty, and it fizzled a little on his skin, as though it, too, were
electric.

He kept one hand on the snorkel, afraid that it would tip and fill with water,
and then, slowly, slowly, relaxed on his belly, mask in the water, arms by his
side.

My god! It was like I was flying! It was like all the dreams I'd ever had, of
flying, of hovering over an alien world, of my consciousness taking flight from
my body and sailing through the galaxy.

My hands were by my sides, out of view of the mask, and my legs were behind me.
I couldn't see any of my body. My view stretched 8m down, an impossible,
dizzying height. A narrow, elegant angelfish swam directly beneath me, and
tickled my belly with one of its fins as it passed under.

I smiled, a huge grin, and it broke the seal on my mask, filling it with water.
Calmly, as though I'd been doing it all my life, I pressed the top of my mask to
my forehead and blew out through my nose. My mask cleared of water.

I floated.

The only sound was my breathing, and distant, metallic _pink!_s from the ocean's
depths. A school of iridescent purple fish swam past me, and I lazily kicked out
after them, following them to the edge of the coral reef that climbed the far
wall of the ocean. When I reached it, I was overwhelmed by its complexity,
millions upon millions of tiny little suckers depending from weird branches and
misshapen brains and stone roses.

I held my breath.

And I heard nothing. Not a sound, for the first time in all the time I had been
in the bat-house -- no distant shouts and mutters. I was alone, in a vast,
personal silence, in a private ocean. My pulse beat under my skin. Tiny fish
wriggled in the coral, tearing at the green fuzz that grew over it.

Slowly, I turned around and around. The ocean-wall that faced into the apt was
silvered on this side, reflecting back my little pale body to me. My head
pounded, and I finally inhaled, and the sound of my breathing, harsh through the
snorkel, rang in my ears.

I spent an age in the water, holding my breath, chasing the fish, disembodied, a
consciousness on tour on an alien world.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla brought me back. He waited on the rim of
the tank until I swam near enough for him to touch, then he tapped me on the
shoulder. I stuck my head up, and he said, "Time to get out, boy, I need to use
the ocean."

Reluctantly, I climbed out. He handed me a towel.

I felt like I was still flying, atop the staircase on the ocean's edge. I felt
like I could trip slowly down the stairs, never quite touching them. I pulled on
my clothes, and they felt odd to me.

Carefully, forcing myself to grip the railing, I descended. The guy who thought
he was Nicola Tesla stood at my side, not speaking, allowing me my reverie.

My hair was drying out, and starting to raise skywards, and the guy who thought
he was Nicola Tesla went over to his apparatus and flipped a giant knife switch.
The ocean stirred, a puff of sand rose from its bottom, and then, the coral on
the ocean's edge _moved_.

It squirmed and danced and writhed, startling the fish away from it, shedding
layers of algae in a green cloud.

"It's my latest idea. I've found the electromagnetic frequencies that the
various coral resonate on, and by using those as a carrier wave, I can stimulate
them into tremendously accelerated growth. Moreover, I can alter their
electromagnetic valences, so that, instead of calcium salts, they use other
minerals as their building-blocks."

He grinned hugely, and seemed to want Chet to say something. Chet didn't
understand any of it.

"Well, don't you see?"

"Nuh."

"I can use coral to concentrate trace gold and platinum and any other
heavy-metal you care to name out of the seas. I can prospect in the very water
itself!" He killed the switch. The coral stopped their dance abruptly, and the
new appendages they'd grown dropped away, tumbling gracefully to the ocean's
floor. "You see? Gold, platinum, lead. I dissolved a kilo of each into the water
last night, microscopic flakes. In five minutes, my coral has concentrated it
all."

The stumps where the minerals had dropped away were jagged and sharp, and
painful looking.

"It doesn't even harm the fish!"

#

Chet's playmates seemed as strange as fish to him. They met up on the 87th
level, where there was an abandoned apt with a faulty lock. Some of them seemed
batty themselves, standing in corners, staring at the walls, tracing patterns
that they alone could see. Others seemed too confident ever to be bats -- they
shouted and boasted to each other, got into shoving matches that escalated into
knock-out brawls and then dissolved into giggles. Chet found himself on the
sidelines, an observer.

One boy, whose father hung around the workshops with Chet's father, was
industriously pulling apart the warp of the carpet, rolling it into a ball. When
the ball reached a certain size, he snapped the loose end, tucked it in and
started another.

A girl whose family had been taken to the bat-house all the way from a
reservation near Sioux Lookout was telling loud lies about home, about
tremendous gun-battles fought out with the Ontario Provincial Police and huge,
glamorous casinos where her mother had dealt blackjack to millionaire
high-rollers, who tucked thousand dollar tips into her palm. About her bow and
arrow and her rifle and her horses. Nobody believed her stories, and they made
fun of her behind her back, but they listened when she told them, spellbound.

What was her name, anyway?

There were two boys, one followed the other everywhere. The followee was
tormenting the follower, as usual, smacking him in the back of the head, then
calling him a baby, goading him into hitting back, dodging easily, and
retaliating viciously.

Chet thought that he understood some of what was going on. Maybe he'd be able to
explain it to The Amazing Robotron.

#

I never thought I'd say this, but I miss my exoskeleton. My feet ache, my legs
ache, my ass aches, and I'm hot and thirsty and my waterbottle is empty. I'm not
even past Bloor Street, not even a tenth of the way to the bat-house.

#

The Amazing Robotron seemed thoughtful as I ratted out my chums. "So, I think
they need each other. The big one needs the little one, to feel important. The
little one needs the big one, so that he can feel useful. Is that right?"

"It is ve-ry per-cep-tive, Chet. When I was young, I had a sim-i-lar friend-ship
with an-other. It -- no, _she_ -- was the lit-tle one, and I was the big one.
Her pa-rent died be-fore we came of age, and she left the Cen-ter, and when she
came back to visit, a long time la-ter, we were re-ver-sed -- I felt smal-ler
but good, and spec-ial be-cause she told me all a-bout the out-side."

Something clicked inside me then. I saw myself inside The Amazing Robotron's
exoskeleton, and he in my skin, our roles reversed. It lasted no longer than a
lightning flash, but in that flash, I suddenly knew that I could talk to The
Amazing Robotron, and that he would understand.

I felt so smart all of a sudden. I felt like The Amazing Robotron and I were
standing outside the bat-house, _in_ it but not _of_ it, and we shared a secret
insight into the poor, crazy bastards we were cooped up with.

"I don't really like anyone here. I don't like my Dad -- he's always shouting,
and I think he's the reason we ended up here. He's batshit -- he gets angry too
easy. And my Mom is batshit now, even if she wasn't batshit before, because of
him. I don't feel like their son. I feel like I just share an apt with these two
crazy people I don't like very much. And none of my mates are any good, either.
They're all either like my Dad -- loud and crazy, or like my Mom, quiet and
crazy. Everyone's crazy."

"That may be true, Chet. But you can still like cra-zy peo-ple."

"Do _you_ like 'em?"

The Amazing Robotron's idiot lights rippled. _Gotcha_, I thought.

"I do not like them, Chet. They are loud and cra-zy and they on-ly think of
them-selves."

I laughed. It was so refreshing not to be lied to. My skin was all tight from
the dried saltwater, and that felt good, too.

"My Dad, the other day? He came home and was all, 'This is a conspiracy to drive
us out of our house. It's because we bought a house with damn high ceilings.
Some big damn alien wanted to live there, so they put us here. It's because I
did such a good job on the ceilings!' Which is so stupid, 'cause the ceilings in
our old house weren't no higher than the ceilings here, and besides, Dad screwed
up all the plaster when he was trying to fix it up, and it was always cracking.

"And then he starts talking about what's really bugging him, which is that some
guy at the workshop took his favorite drill and he couldn't finish his big
project without it. So he got into a fight with the guy, and got the drill and
then he finished his big, big project, and brought it home, and you know what it
was? A _pencil-holder_! We don't even _have_ any pencils! He is so screwed up."

And The Amazing Robotron's lights rippled again, and a huge weight lifted from
my shoulders. I didn't feel ashamed of the maniacs that gave me life -- I saw
them as pitiful subjects for my observations. I laughed again, and that must
have been the most I'd laughed since they put us in the bat-house.

#

I'm getting my sea-legs. I hope. My mouth is pasty, and salty, and sweat keeps
running down into my eyes. I never even began to realize how much support the
exoskeleton's jelly-suspension lent me.

But I've made it to Eglinton, and that's nearly a third of the way, and to
celebrate, I stop in at a coffee-shop and drink a whole pitcher of lemonade
while sitting by the air-conditioner.

I got the word that they were tearing down the bat-house only two weeks ago. The
message came by priority email from The Amazing Robotron: all the bats were
dead, or enough of them anyway that the rest could be relocated to less
expensive quarters. It was barely enough notice to get my emergency leave
application in, to book a ticket back to Earth, and to finally become a murderer
all the way.

Damn, I hope I know what I'm doing.

#

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla told me all kinds of stories, and I was
sure he was lying to me, but when I checked out the parts of his story that I
could, they all turned out to be true.

"I don't actually _need_ to be here. I've come here to get away from all the
treachery, the deceit, the filthy pursuit of the dollar. As though I need more
money! I invented foam! Oh, sure, the Process likes to take credit for it, but
if you look up the patent, guess who owns it?

"Master Affeltranger, you may not realize it to look at me, but I have some
_very_ important friends, out there in the Great Beyond. With important friends,
you can make a whole block of apts simply disappear from the record-books. You
can make tremendous energy consumption vanish, likewise."

He spoke as he tinkered with his apparatus, which hummed alarmingly and
occasionally sent a tortured arc of electricity into the guy who thought he was
Nicola Tesla's chest.

It happened three times in a row, and he stamped his foot in frustration, and
said, "Oh, _do_ cut it out," apparently to one of his machines.

I'd been jumping every time he got zapped, but this time, I had to giggle. He
whirled on me. "I am not trying to be _amusing_. One thing you people never
realize is that the current has a _will_, it has a _mind_, and you have to keep
it in check with a firm hand."

I shook my head a little, not understanding. He waved a hand at me, frustrated,
and said, "Oh, go have a swim. I don't have time to argue with a child."

I climbed into the ocean, and the silence embraced me, and the water tingled
with electricity, and my consciousness floated away from my body and soared over
an alien world. Like a broken circuit, I disconnected from the world around me.

#

Chet's father came home with a can of beer in his hand and the rest of the
six-pack in his gut. He walked over to the vid, where Chet was researching the
life of Nicola Tesla, which took forever, since he had to keep linking back to
simple tutorials on physics, history, and electrical engineering.

Chet's father stooped and took the remote out of Chet's hands and opened up a
bookmarked docu-drama about the coming of the bugouts. Chet opened his mouth to
protest, and his father shouted him down before he could speak. "Not one word,
you hear me? Not! One! Word! I've had a shithole day and I wanna relax."

Chet's mother dropped a plastic tumbler, which bounced twice, and rolled to
Chet's toe. He stepped over it, walked out the door, and took the elevator to
the 125th floor.

Chet burst into the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla's apt and screamed.
Nicola Tesla was strapped into a heavy wooden chair, with a metal hood over his
head. Arcs of electricity danced over his body, and he jerked and thrashed
against the leather straps that bound his limbs. Unthinking, Chet ran forward
and grabbed the buckle that bound his wrist, and a giant's fist smashed into
him, hurling him across the room.

When he came to, the electric arcs were gone, but the guy who thought he was
Nicola Tesla was motionless in his straps, under his hood.

Carefully, Chet came to his feet, and saw that the toe of his right sneaker had
been blown out, leaving behind charred canvas. His foot hurt -- burned.

He hobbled to the chair and gingerly prodded it, then jerked his hand back,
though he hadn't been shocked. He bit his lip and stared. The wood was quite
weathered and elderly, though it had been oiled and had a rich, well-cared-for
finish. The leather straps were nightmarishly thick, gripping the guy who
thought he was Nicola Tesla at the bicep and wrist, at the thigh and calf and
ankle. Livid bruises were already spreading at their edges.

Chet was struck by a sudden urge to climb into the ocean and _stay_ there. Just
_stay_ there.

Under the hood, the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla groaned. Chet gave an
involuntary squeak and jumped a little. The guy who thought he was Nicola
Tesla's body snapped tense. "Who's there?" he said, his voice muffled by the
hood.

"It's me, Chet."

"Chet? Damn. Damn, damn, damn." His right hand bent nearly double at the wrist
and teased the buckle of the strap free. With one hand free, the guy who thought
he was Nicola Tesla quickly undid the straps on his upper body, then lifted away
the hood. He pointedly did not look at Chet as he doubled over and undid the
straps on his legs and ankles.

Gingerly, he stood and stretched, then sighed tremendously.

"Chet, Chet, Chet. I hope I didn't frighten you too badly. This is Old Sparky,
an exact replica of the electric chair at Sing-Sing Prison in New York. Edison,
thief and charlatan that he was, insisted that his DC current was safer than my
AC, and they built a chair that used my beautiful current to execute criminals,
by the hundreds.

"Nicola Tesla and I became one when I was eight years old, and I received a
tremendous shock from an electrified fence. I was stuck to it, glued by the
current, and after a few moments, I just relaxed into the current -- befriended
it, if you will. That's when the spirit of Nicola Tesla, a-wandering through the
wires for all the years since his death, infused my body.

"So now I use Old Sparky here to recharge -- please forgive the expression -- my
connection with the current. I once spent eight years in the chair, when I
needed to disappear for a while. When I woke, I hadn't aged at all -- I didn't
even need to shave! What do you think of that?"

Chet was staring in horror at him. "You electrocute yourself? On purpose?"

"Why, yes! Think of it as a trick I do, if it makes you feel better. I could
show you how to do it. . ." he trailed off, but a look of hunger had passed over
his face.

#

I get all kinds of access to bat-house records from the vid in my apt on my new
world. No one named Gaylord Ballozos ever lived in any bat-house. Apt 12525, and
the five above it, were never occupied. The records say that the locks have
never been used, the doors never opened. It won't be searched when they evacuate
the bat-house.

That's what the records say, anyway.

Electricity gives me the willies. The zaps of static from the dry air of the FTL
I took home to Earth made me scream, little-boy squeaks that made the other
passengers jump.

I don't remember that it was ever this hot in Toronto, even in the summer. The
sky is all overcast, so maybe it's a temperature inversion. Up here at Steeles
Avenue, I'm so dehydrated that I spend a whole dime on a magnum of still water
and power-chug it, though you're not supposed to drink that way. Almost there.

#

The other kids in the abandoned apt on the 87th floor ignored me. They'd been
paying less and less attention to me, ever since I started spending my
afternoons up on 125, and I was getting a reputation as a keener for all the
time I spent with The Amazing Robotron.

That suited me fine; the corner of the gutted kitchen was as private a space as
I was going to find in the bat-house. I had the apparatus that Nicola Tesla had
given me plugged into the AC outlet under the sink. I closed my eyes and
breathed deeply, concentrating on the moments after my breath left my chest,
that calm like the ocean's silence. Smoothly, I reached out and grasped the
handle of the apparatus and squeezed.

The first time I tried this, under Nicola Tesla's supervision, I'd jerked my
hand away and squeezed it between my legs as soon as the current shot through
me. Now, though, I could keep squeezing, slowly increasing the voltage and
amperage, relaxing into the involuntary tension in my muscles.

I'd gotten so good at it that I'd started using the timer -- I could lean into
the current forever without it. I had it set for three hours, but when the
current died, it felt like no time at all had passed. I probed around my
consciousness for any revelation, but no spirit had come into my body during the
exercise. The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla didn't know if there were any
other spirits in the wire, but it stood to reason that if there was one, there
had to be more.

I stood, and felt incredibly calm and balanced and centered and I floated past
the other kids. It was time for my session with The Amazing Robotron.

"Chet, how are you fee-ling?"

"I'm well, thank you." Nicola Tesla spoke well and carefully, and I'd started to
ape him.

"And what would you like to dis-cuss to-day?"

"I don't really have anything to talk about, honestly. Everything is fine."

"That is good. Do you have any new ob-ser-va-tions about your friends?"

"I'm sorry, no. I haven't been paying much attention lately."

"Why hav-en't you?"

"It just doesn't interest me, sorry."

"Why does-n't it in-ter-est you?"

"I just don't care about them, to be frank."

The Amazing Robotron was absolutely still for a moment. "Are things well with
your par-ents, too?"

"The same as always. I think they've found their niches." _Find your niche_ was
an expression I'd pirated from the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla. I was
very proud of it.

"In that case, why don't we end this mee-ting?"

I was surprised. The Amazing Robotron always demanded his full hour. "I'll see
you on Wednesday, then?"

"I'm af-raid not, Chet. I will be gone for a few months -- I have to re-turn
home. There will be a sub-sti-tute coun-sel-or arri-ving next Monday."

My calm center shattered. Sweat sprang out on my palms. "What? You're leaving?
How can you be leaving?"

"I'm so-rry, Chet. There is an em-er-gen-cy at home. I'll be back as soon as I
can."

"Frick that! How can you go? What'll I do if you don't come back? You're the
only one I can talk to!"

"I'm so-rry, Chet. I have to go."

"If you gave a shit, you'd stay. You can't just leave me here!" I knew as I said
it that it didn't make any sense, but a picture sprang into my mind, one that
I'd been carrying without knowing it for a long time: The Amazing Robotron and
me as an adult, walking away from the bat-house, with suitcases, leaving
together, forever. I felt a sob hiccough in my throat.

"I will re-turn, Chet. I did-n't wish to up-set you."

"Frick that! I don't give a shit if you come back, asshole."

#

Chet went straight to 87 and plugged in to the apparatus. He didn't set the
timer, and he stayed plugged in for nearly two days, when two fighting boys
tumbled into him and knocked his hand away. He was centered and numb again, and
didn't have any sense of the intervening time. He didn't even have to pee. He
wondered if he was trying to commit suicide.

He checked his comm and got the date, noticed with distant surprise that it was
two days later, and wandered up to 125.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla shouted a distant "Come in" when Chet
tapped on the door. He was playing with his ocean again. Chet felt his hair
float up off his shoulders. He stopped and watched the coral squirm and dance.

"I spent nearly two days on the apparatus," Chet said.

"Eh? Very good, very good. You're progressing nicely."

"My counselor has left. He had to go home."

"Yes? Well, there you are."

"What were your parents like?"

"Nicola Tesla's father was a bishop, and his mother was an illiterate, though
she was a gifted memnist and taught me much about visualization."

"No, I mean _your_ parents. Mister and Missus Ballozos. What were _they_ like?"

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla shut down the ocean and watched the
lumps of ore tumble to the sand. "Why do you want to know about _them_? Are you
having some sort of trouble at home?" he asked impatiently, not looking away
from the ocean.

"No reason," Chet said. "I have to go home now."

"Yes, fine."

#

"The hell have you been, boy?" Chet's father said, when he came through door.
His father was in front of the vid, wearing shorts and a filthy t-shirt, holding
the remote in one hand. Chet's mother was sitting at the window, staring out
into the clouds.

"Out. Around. I'm okay, okay?"

"It's not okay. You can't just run around like some kind of animal. Sit the hell
down and tell me where you've been. Your counselor was here looking for you."

"Robotron? He was here?"

"Yes he was here! And I had to tell him I didn't know where my damn kid was! How
do you think that makes me look? You know how worried your mother was?"

Chet's mother didn't stir from her post by the window, but she flinched when
Chet's father spoke. Chet swallowed hard.

"What did he want?"

"Never mind that! Sit the hell down and tell me where you've been and what the
hell you thought you were doing!"

Chet sat beside his father and stared at his hands. He knew he could outwait his
father. After half an hour, Chet's father turned the vid on. Four long hours
later, he switched it off, and went to bed.

Chet's mother finally turned away from the now-dark window. She reached into the
pocket of her grimy bathrobe and withdrew an envelope and handed it to Chet,
then turned and went to the apt's other room to sleep.

My name was on the outside of the envelope, in rough script, written with
awkward exoskeleton manipulators. I broke its seal, and it folded out into a
single flat sheet of paper.

DEAR CHET, it began. At the bottom of it was a complex scrawl that I recognized
from the front of The Amazing Robotron's exoskeleton. It must be some kind of
signature.

DEAR CHET,

I AM SORRY TO HAVE TO LEAVE YOU SO SUDDENLY, AND WITHOUT ANYONE ELSE TO TALK TO.
THERE IS AN EMERGENCY AT MY HOME, BUT I WOULDN'T GO IF I DIDN'T BELIEVE THAT YOU
WERE ABLE TO HANDLE MY ABSENCE. YOU ARE A VERY PERCEPTIVE AND STRONG YOUNG MAN,
AND YOU WILL BE ABLE TO MANAGE IN MY ABSENCE. I WILL BE BACK, YOU KNOW.

YOU WILL BE ALL RIGHT. I PROMISE.

THIS ISN'T EASY FOR ME TO DO, EITHER. IT MAY BE THAT I AM THE ONLY ONE YOU CAN
TALK TO HERE AT THE CENTER. IT IS LIKEWISE TRUE THAT YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I CAN
TALK TO.

I WILL MISS YOU, MY FRIEND CHET.

The writing was childish, with many line-outs and corrections. Reading it, I
heard it not in The Amazing Robotron's halting mechanical speech, but in my own
voice.

I didn't cry. I held the letter tight in my hand, as tight as I ever held the
apparatus, and leaned into it, like it was a source of strength.

#

They haven't even started work on the bat-house. There are bugout saucers
hovering all around it, with giant foam-solvent tanks mounted under their
bellies. A small crowd has gathered.

I take off my jacket and lay it on the strip of grass by the sidewalk across the
street from the bat-house. I pull off my soaked t-shirt and feel a rare breeze
across my chest, as soothing as a kiss on a fevered forehead. I ball up the
shirt, then lay down on my jacket, using the shirt as a pillow.

The bat-house is empty, its eyes staring blind, vertical to infinity. The grotty
sculpture out front is gone already, and with it, the sign with the polite,
never-used name. It is now just the bat-house.

I check my comm. The dissolving of the bat-house is scheduled for less than an
hour from now.

#

The new counselor was no damn good. It wore a different exoskeleton, a motorized
gurney on wheels with three buzzing antigrav manipulators that floated
constantly around the apt, tasting the air. It called itself "Tom." I didn't
call it anything, and I limited my answers to it to monosyllables.

The next time I came on the guy who was Nicola Tesla in his chair, the letter
was in my pocket. I took a long swim in the ocean, and then I stripped off my
mask and spit out the snorkel, took a deep breath and dove until my ears felt
like they were going to burst. I stared at my reflection in the silvered wall of
the tank. Through the distortion of the water and the sting of the salt, my body
was indistinct and clothed in quicksilver, surrounded by schools of alien,
darting fish. I didn't recognize myself, but I didn't take my eyes away until my
lungs were ready to burst and I resurfaced.

The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was still thrashing away at his straps
when I climbed down from the ocean's top. At one side of Old Sparky, there was a
timer, like the one on my apparatus, and a knife-switch for timed and untimed
sessions.

I stared at him. My life unrolled before me, a life distanced and remote from
the world around me, a life trapped in my own deepening battiness. Before I
could think about what I was doing, I flipped the switch from "timed" to
"untimed." I took one last look at the ocean, looked again at Nicola Tesla, my
friend and seducer, stuck to his chair until someone switched it off again, and
left the 125th floor.

#

I took the apparatus apart in the kiddy workshop, stripped it to a collection of
screws and wires and circuit boards, then carefully smashed each component with
a hammer until it was in thousands of tiny pieces.

It took me two days to do it right, and not a moment passed when I didn't nearly
run upstairs and switch off Tesla's chair.

And not a moment passed when I didn't visualize Tesla's wrath, his betrayal, his
anger, when I unbuckled him.

And not a moment passed when I didn't wish I could plug in the apparatus, swim
in the ocean, take myself away from the world and the world away from me.

The Amazing Robotron returned at the end of the second day.

"Chet, I am glad to see you a-gain."

I bit my lip and choked on tears of relief. "I need to leave here, Robotron. I
can't stay another minute. Please, get me out of here. I'll do anything. I'll
run away. Get me out, get me out, get me out!" I was babbling, sniveling and
crying, and I begged all the harder.

"Why do you want to leave right now?"

"I -- I can't take it anymore. I can't _stand_ being here. I'd rather be in
prison than in here anymore."

"When I was young, I left the Cen-ter I was rais-ed in to attend coun-sel-ing
school. You are near-ly old e-nough to go now. May-be your pa-rents would let
you go?"

I knew he had found the only way out.

I started work on my father. I wheedled and begged and demanded, and he just
laughed. For three whole days, I used begging as a way to avoid thinking of
Tesla. For three days, my father shook his head.

I cried myself to sleep and wallowed in my guilt every night, and when I woke, I
cried more. I stopped leaving the apt. I stopped eating. My mother and I sat all
day, staring out the window. I stopped talking.

One morning, after my father had left, I dragged a stool to the window and
pressed my face against it. My mother clattered around behind me.

"Go," my mother said.

I gave a squeak and turned around. My mother had folded my clothes in a neat
pile and had laid a canvas bag beside it. She had the vid remote in her hand,
and on the screen was a waiver for me to go to school. We locked eyes for a
moment, and I moved to go to her, but she turned and stormed into the kitchen
and started to clean the cupboards, silent again.

I left that day.

#

The saucers lift off to-the-second on-time. The crowd, which has grown, sighs
collectively as the saucers disappear over the haze, then a fine mist of solvent
rains down on our heads. It's as salty as sea-water, and the bat-house trembles
as it begins to melt. Streams of salty water course down its sides.

The top of the building comes into view, the saucers chasing it down as it
dissolves, spraying a steady blast of solvent.

I tense as the building's top reaches what I estimate to be 150. My calves bunch
and my breath catches in my chest. I feel like I'm drowning, and the building's
top crawls downwards, and my feet are sloshing to the ankles in dissolved foam,
that runs off into the sewers.

I stay tense until the building's top is far beneath what _must_ be 125, then I
exhale in a whoof of air. My head spins, and I brace my hands against my thighs.
I'm not looking up when it happens, as a result.

The first sign is when the great tide of green, scummy, plant-stinking water
courses down over us, soaking us to the skin, blinding me and sending me reeling
in reverie. Did I see hunks of dead, petrified coral crashing around me, or did
I imagine it?

A brief second later the building's top emits a bolt of lightning that broke
even Tesla's record for man-made lightning, recorded at nearly a kilometer in
length. A clap of thunder accompanies it, louder than any sound I have ever
heard, and it its wake I am perfectly deaf, submerged in silence.

The finger of lightning crawls through space like a broken-back rattler, and my
hair rises from my shoulders. In the presence of so much current, I should be
petrified, but it is magnificent. The finger seeks and seeks, then contacts one
of the saucers and literally blasts it out of the sky. It plummets in
slow-motion, and as it does, the building's top descends even further, and I
_swear_ I see the chair falling from the building's edge, and the man strapped
inside it had not aged a day in all the lifetimes gone by.

#

Chet's comm died somewhere in the lightning strike, but the emergency crews that
took him away and looked in his ears and poked him in the chest and gave him
pills take him back to the Royal York in a saucer, bridging the distance in a
few minutes, touching down on Front Street. The Royal York's doorman doesn't bat
an eye as he gets the door for him.

The elevator ride is fine. He is still wrapped in the silence of his deafness,
but it's a comforting, _centering_ silence.

Once Chet is back in his room, he fires up the vid and starts writing a letter
to The Amazing Robotron.

--







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