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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Wildness and Wet

Lee Hallison lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has been published several times in Daily Science Fiction. She is a member of the Codex and Liberty Hall writers groups, and blogs at leehallison.com.

Faint music stirs the night and trickles through the sheer curtains into Leah's room. She looks up from her book when the street outside explodes into sound. Heart pounding, she pushes up the open window to watch a wild dazzle of zebra-like dancers.
She leans out to better see the midnight flash dance--striped figures twirling through light-beam shadows on wet streets. Around them, joy splashes, changing the smell of rain-soaked asphalt to the washed air of a summer-sweet thunderstorm. Communion thrums, passionate. Dancers spin in a nimbus of electric delight.
They are stunning.
Boys, stripe-shirted, reach toward mist hovering around bright overhead lights. Girls twist black-white skinsuits and turn under-over-under each spinning boy. Pounding, soaring, zebra frenzy!
These are the ones--the ones not long for this world. The ones her father warns against. Leah agrees but still yearns. Still wonders and wants what they have.
She reaches out, nail-bitten hands and white-clad arms stretching toward the group.
"Please," she calls. "I am lonesome."
The flash mob swells and morphs, subsides and stretches, amoeba-like to the sidewalk below her window. Leah sees young faces between the toss and wave of long loose hair. She touches her chest where it aches.
She reaches out.
The mob disgorges one slender figure. Stripes swing up the drainpipe and over the windowsill. The others dance away, music fading, steps and legs and arms and glorious bends and bows disappearing into the night mist.
Leah stares at the boy by the window, dressed in ragged black and white. Words hum the air.
Can you not join us? Join the web?
"Father says the webbing is an abomination. But I'm so alone."
We are never alone. We connect.
The thin boy holds out one arm. Veins from his wrist to his elbow twist around silver cables. She touches the translucent skin covering one cable.
It is warm. It tingles. He smiles while his eyes look inward.
Her father's voice rings in her mind, strident with vehement opinion. He abhors waste.
The webbing began nearly ten years ago. Teenagers, children, who could not bear to be separate, became so tightly interwoven from constant contact they began to function in webs of social connections. Some bright mind invented a way to amplify that connection via surgical implants. They ran like lemmings to get the new procedure.
"How utterly typical, to create something popular that turns out to be life-sucking." Her father's face reddens when he rails. "A need seen, a need satisfied. No thought to consequences!"
They live as glorious fireworks, bright shadows blinding as the implants burn their life force away. Each day a few more fall to the deadly attraction.
"To lose one's life at its most intense time!" Her father forbids, protects, and educates her, his precious child. He guides her to science, weaves her into his mission to fix the world. Her focus on the implants increases her research skills, and so he tolerates her drive to help the addicted ones. She wants to make the implants safe, not make the people reject them. She never speaks this wish aloud.
She also never speaks to him of the attraction, only of the need to circumvent the artificial synaptic impulses from blocking body functions. Never of the emptiness inside herself, only of the mystery of wireless communication between implanted people.
Never of her utter, unsatisfied thirst.
Having a bright flare fall into her house is a bittersweet pleasure, one her father would surely deny.
Leah pours lavender tea from a treasured china teapot. Her guest crinkles his eyes at the scent and shakes his head gently. He cannot drink; he cannot eat her kind of food. The implant supplies his energy. He is no longer her kind of human.
She strokes his arm.
"Can you stay here with me?"
I cannot. My web calls. I can only visit for another moment. Your home is warm and safe. But I cannot stay.
She follows his eyes to the stuffed bookcase, the flames flickering in the gas fireplace, the couch cushions so soft and deep she needs her feet under her to sit upright.
"Visit for a moment, then." She leads him to the couch, and curls up with his head in her lap.
Warm and safe. His eyes close and a small smile rests his lips.
She twirls a finger in his hair as she looks around at her lovely room, her studies, and the work that earns her father's respect.
He will glory if she solves the puzzle, share her fame if she fixes the broken children. But the close heat of her father's house suffocates her. Rules and lectures encircle her like an iron birdcage. She watches silver pulse under skin and remembers the wildness and wet of the dance.
We dance the wind. His eyes are open. Gold speckles his hazel irises. Long black lashes and high cheekbones give him beauty she has seen in dreams.
Come with us. He jumps up and kisses her lightly, swings his supple body out through the window and stops, mid-sill, to hold out a hand.
She looks out at the mist sparkling under the streetlight, then at her room, where her father's shoulds thicken the air. Where emotion takes a back seat to intellect. Dense books lie scattered on the floor, open to neurological system diagrams. A storm of scribbled paper covers the table, ideas about hormones and gene therapy. Sketches of gene molecules that cannot cleave, cannot make the hunger hormone, essays on bodies that no longer have the receptor that sends life support messages.
She has spent hours studying the way the implants are woven into the nerve pathway to the parietal lobe. She should persevere. She should focus. The answer plays hide-and-seek just this side of her mind. She should chase it down, even if it takes years.
The boy and his rain-soaked energy wash the dusty air just by standing there.
He tilts his head, smiles a dazzle smile, and welcomes her into his wiry arms. She feels the humming joy where the piercing-pure woven threads connect him to others.
Time stops.
A beat, a measure.
He offers her a place to belong; he offers her love.
But the shoulds dampen the dazzle; someday her work will offer his kind life.
She chooses.
Leah's empty hands reach out as he leaves. Wet blurs her last sight of him, sliding over rain-slicked asphalt, dancing into the wild night wind.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Author Comments

I've been fascinated by my daughter's inability to leave her phone and/or computer off--she is constantly connected. This story is about what might happen if that connection were taken a step further, as well as about the choices people make--another idea I am fascinated by. The title comes from my favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins--the images of water and wildness against the advanced tech idea is perhaps a subtle echo of his plea for wilderness.

- Lee Hallison
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