Behind me, Sherman chuckled. “She didn’t say ‘no,’ Ronnie. You do know how much I love surprises.”
“Surprising people with neural shorts isn’t nice,” Ronnie snarled. She climbed into the van after me, slamming the door behind herself and leaving Sherman outside.
I didn’t even have time to hope before Sherman was opening the front door and sliding into the passenger seat. He waggled his fingers at me, drawing my interest, and then pointed exaggeratedly at the massive man who was sitting behind the wheel. I couldn’t see the new man’s face, just his long brown hair and broad shoulders. The hands that gripped the wheel were each individually large enough to have covered my entire face.
“This is Kristoph,” said Sherman. “He doesn’t talk, but he’s an excellent driver, aren’t you, Kristoph?”
As if in answer, the massive man turned on the engine. The van grumbled to life, and he carefully reversed out of the space where he’d been parked. I fumbled to get my seat belt on, feeling encouraged by the care he was obviously showing. Maybe he really was an excellent driver, and this was going to be okay.
Kristoph’s foot slammed down as soon as my seat belt clicked into place. The van lurched forward. My stomach leapt into my throat, and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t breathe—
“Oh, damn,” Sherman swore. There was a thumping sound, and then his hands were grasping mine, clamping down and squeezing until the pain broke through the fugue state that had been threatening to overwhelm me. “Sal? Sal, can you hear me?”
I didn’t respond. It didn’t seem important. We were in a car, we were rocketing through the night, and I couldn’t control it, and I couldn’t stop it, and I was going to die. I knew it. There was no way out this time.
“It’s all right, Sal,” said Sherman, his voice pitched low and earnest. There was no trace of mockery or frustration in his tone: now that I really needed him, it was like things between us had never changed. “You don’t know Kristoph, but I promise you he’s a safe driver. We need to get away from here before someone sounds the alarm, and that means we can’t go slowly. But Kristoph will get us home safely. You’ll see. It’s safe.”
I forced myself to nod, trying to focus on the pressure of Sherman’s hands and the comforting repetition of the word “safe.” Once, when I was back at SymboGen, he had tried to explain why it was so nice to hear the same thing over and over again when I was upset, something about psychological conditioning and forcing the world to conform to an implanted expectation. I honestly didn’t care why it worked. Just as long as it did.
Sally Mitchell died in a car crash. I nearly did, too. The trauma of the impact damaged her body in ways that were nearly fatal for me, soft, unprotected thing that I was. Then, after I woke up, everyone was happy to tell me how traumatic it had been, how damaging and horrible and how it was responsible for all my lingering psychological problems, like the amnesia that everyone was convinced would eventually clear, leaving Sally Mitchell restored to her proper place once more. That didn’t happen, obviously, and I shouldn’t have been as terrified of car crashes as I was. The phobia was her christening gift to me, the one thing she could pass on to the stranger who had claimed her body. Her gift, and SymboGen’s—I spent my infancy and childhood, brief as they were, hearing about the terror of vehicular transit. Was it any wonder that the idea of being in another car crash was the worst thing I could possibly imagine?
Eyes still closed, I focused on the steady beat of my heart until it seemed to swell and fill the entire world, becoming the distant, reassuring sound of drums. I breathed slowly in and out, counting to ten each time, until the hot warm dark blossomed behind my eyes, and I was safe, and nothing in the world could hurt me, or would ever hurt me again. I was safe, down in the dark, surrounded by the comforting sound of the drums.
“What is she doing?” Ronnie’s voice was distant, confused, almost drowned out by the drums.
“Meditating,” said Sherman, keeping his hands clamped over mine. “This is how she deals with excessive stimuli. It’s a good short-term solution, even if it’s probably going to get her killed one day.” He sounded sad about that, or I thought he did, and it was nice to think that, so I let the thought remain. It was easy to edit things that way when I was down in the hot warm dark. It was only when I rose again that I would have to face reality.
I didn’t like that idea. I sank deeper, away from anything that could possibly resemble the physical world. The drums were beating too slowly, out of synch with themselves. That might have explained some of my fear and lassitude. I focused on them, encouraging them to beat faster, to return to normal. It would be good for me, I was sure of that much, even if I wasn’t sure exactly why.
Bit by bit, the drums responded, and the hot warm dark returned to the equilibrium it was supposed to have. I curled into it, content, and forgot that I had ever wanted to leave. This was home. This was where I belonged.
Sherman shook my shoulder gently, snapping me out of my reverie. “Much as I hate to disrupt what’s proven to be a fascinating exercise in biometric control, I need you to wake up now,” he said. “We have reached our destination.”
“That means move, or we’ll move you,” added Ronnie.
I opened my eyes.
We were still in the van: that was good. It was rare for me to sink so deep that I could be moved without noticing it, but after the night—or nights, I didn’t know anymore—that I’d had, I couldn’t count on that. The drums were quiet, although if I focused, I could hear the distant beating of my heart, which seemed to have resumed its normal speed and rhythm. I felt better, although it was hard to say whether that was a function of my heartbeat, or just the fact that the van wasn’t moving anymore.