By the Light of the Moon / Page 31

Page 31

He pointed to the laptop screen. 'I've sourced up an interview that Proctor did a few years ago. It's in layman's terms, easy to grasp. Even I understood it.'

'Why don't you condense it for me?'

'All right. First, an application or two. Imagine a machine tinier than a blood cell, composed of a handful of atoms, but with the capacity to identify plaque on blood-vessel walls and the ability to remove it mechanically, safely. They're biologically interactive in function but fashioned from biologically inert atoms, so your body's immune system won't be triggered by their presence. And now imagine receiving an injection containing hundreds of thousands of these nanomachines, maybe millions.'


He shrugged. 'Millions would fit in a few cc of a carrier fluid like glucose. It'd be a smaller syringe than Proctor used with us.'


'I suppose when the first vaccines were developed, people back then thought it was creepy to be injected with dead germs in order to build up an immunity against live ones.'

'Hey, I still don't like the sound of it.'

'So anyway, these millions of nanomachines would circulate endlessly through your body, searching out plaque, gently scrubbing it away, keeping your circulatory system as clean as a whistle.'

Jilly was impressed. 'If that ever hits the market, welcome to the age of the guilt-free cheeseburger. And you know what? This is starting to sound a little familiar.'

'I'm not surprised.'

'But why should it?'

Instead of answering her question, he said, 'Nanomachines could detect and eliminate colonies of cancer cells before the tumor was half as large as the head of a pin.'

'Hard to see the downside to all this,' Jilly said. 'But we know for sure there is one. And why're you being enigmatic? Why do you think this should sound familiar to me?'

In the corner, Shep said, 'Herethere.'

'Oh, shit!' Dylan bolted from his chair so fast that he knocked it over.


Closer to Shepherd than Dylan was, Jilly reached the kid first. Approaching him, she didn't see anything out of the ordinary, no red tunnel to California or to anywhere else.

Shepherd no longer leaned with the top of his skull jammed into the juncture of walls. He had taken a step backward. He stood erect, head up, eyes focused intently on something that appeared to be a lot more interesting than anything Jilly could see.

He had raised his right hand again, as if taking an oath, but he hadn't started to wave. As Jilly arrived at his side, Shep reached in front of his face, to the point in midair at which he'd been staring, and between his thumb and forefinger, he took a pinch of... a pinch of nothing, as far as she could tell. When he tweaked that pinch of air, however, the corner of the room began to fold in upon itself.

'No,' Jilly said breathlessly, and though she knew that Shepherd often recoiled from contact, she reached in front of him and put her hand atop his. 'Don't do this, sweetie.'

Multiple segments of the tricolored stripes on the wallpaper, previously mismatched only at the corner, now bent every which way at radical angles to one another, and the corner became so distorted that Jilly could not follow the floor-to-ceiling line of it.

At Shep's other side, Dylan placed one hand on his brother's shoulder. 'Stay here, buddy. Right here with us, safe with us.'

The folding motion halted, but the corner remained tweaked into a surreal geometry.

Jilly seemed to be looking at this small portion of the world through an octagonal prism. Her mind rebelled at the spectacle, which defied reason to an extent that even the radiant tunnel in the wall had not done.

With the palm of her right hand still against the back of Shep's right hand, Jilly was afraid to struggle with him, for fear that any movement she made would further fold here to there, wherever there might be this time. 'Smooth it out, honey,' she urged, tremors creasing her voice as strangely as the walls were folded before her. 'Let it go, sweetie. Smooth it out like it ought to be.'

Between thumb and forefinger, Shepherd still pinched the fabric of reality.

Slowly he turned his head to look at Jilly. He met her eyes as directly as he had met them only once before: when he'd been in the backseat of the Expedition outside the house on Eucalyptus Avenue, just after Dylan had rushed away without explanation. Then, Shep had flinched from eye contact, had looked at once away.

This time he held her gaze. His green eyes appeared as deep as oceans and seemed to be lit from within.

'Do you feel it?' he asked.

'Feel what?'

'Feel how it works, the round and round of all that is.'

She supposed that by transmission through his hand, he expected her to feel what he felt between his thumb and forefinger, but she was aware only of his warm skin, of the sharpness of his metacarpals and his knuckles. She expected to detect tremendous tension, as well, to have an awareness of how hard Shep must be straining to achieve this incredible feat, but he seemed to be relaxed, as though folding this place to another required no more effort than folding a towel.

'Do you feel the beautiful of all that is?' he asked, addressing her with a directness that had no element of autistic detachment.

As beautiful as the secret structure of reality might be, this close an encounter with the mystery of it did not delight her as it seemed to enchant Shepherd, but instead crystallized an ice of terror in her bones. She wanted not to understand, but only to persuade him to close this gateway before he fully opened it.

'Please smooth it out, sweetie. Smooth it out again so I can feel how it unfolds.'

Although her father had been shot to death a year ago in a drug deal gone bad, Jilly had the fearful notion that if Shepherd didn't unfold this, if instead he folded it all the way and took them from here to there, she would abruptly come face to face with her hateful old man, as she had often opened the apartment door to the sight of his dangerous smile. She expected Shep to swing wide the gate to Hell as easily as he opened a gate to California, facilitating a father-and-daughter reunion. Come to collect the eye insurance, baby girl. You got the eye-insurance premium? As though Shep might unwittingly give her father a chance to reach out from Beyond to make good on his unfulfilled threat, blinding her in not one eye, but in both.

Shep's gaze drifted away from her. He refocused on his thumb and forefinger.

He had tweaked the pinch of nothing from left to right. Now he tweaked it right to left.

The wildly angled stripes in the wallpaper realigned themselves. The unbroken line of the corner, floor to ceiling, became clearly visible again, without a single zig or zag. What she had seemed to see through an octagonal prism, she here saw undistorted.

Squinting at the pinch point where Shep still squeezed something between thumb and forefinger, Jilly thought she saw the air dimple like a puckered film of thin plastic wrap.

Then his pale fingers parted, releasing whatever extraordinary fabric he had held.

Even viewed from the side, his green eyes appeared to cloud, and in place of the ocean's depth that had been revealed, there came now a shallowness, and in place of enchantment... a melancholy.

'Good,' Dylan said with relief. 'Thank you, Shep. That was just fine. That was good.'

Jilly let go of Shep's hand, and he lowered it to his side. He lowered his head, too, staring at the floor, slumping his shoulders, as though, for an instant liberated, he had once more accepted the weight of his autism.


Dylan moved the second chair from the table near the window, and the three of them sat in a semicircle at the desk, in front of the laptop, with Shepherd safely in the middle, where he could be more closely watched.

The kid sat with his chin against his chest. His hands lay in his lap, turned up. He appeared to be reading his palms: the heart line, head line, lifeline – and the many meaningful lines radiating out of the web between thumb and forefinger, that area known as the anatomical snuffbox.

Jilly's mother read palms – not for money, but for hope. Mom was never interested solely in the heart line, head line, and lifelines, but equally in the anatomical snuffbox, the interdigital pads, the heel of the hand, the thenar eminence, and the hypothenar.

Arms crossed on her chest, Jilly sat with her hands fisted in her armpits. She didn't like having her palms read.

Reading palms, reading tea leaves, interpreting Tarot cards, casting horoscopes – Jilly wanted nothing to do with any of that. She would never concede control of her future to fate, not for a minute. If fate wanted control of her, fate would have to club her senseless and take control.

'Nanomachine,' Jilly said, reminding Dylan where they had been interrupted. 'Scouring plaque off artery walls, searching out tiny groups of cancer cells.'

He stared worriedly at Shepherd, then nodded and finally met Jilly's eyes. 'You get the idea. In the interview there on the laptop, Proctor talks a lot about nanomachines that'll also be nanocomputers with enough memory to be programmed for some pretty sophisticated tasks.'

In spite of the fact that all three of them appeared to be living proof that Lincoln Proctor wasn't a fool, Jilly found this chatter of technological marvels almost as difficult to believe as Shepherd's power to fold. Or maybe she simply didn't want to believe it because the implications were so nightmarish.

She said, 'Isn't this ridiculous? I mean, how much memory can you squeeze into a computer smaller than a grain of sand?'

'In fact, smaller than a mote of dust. The way Proctor tells it, with a little background: The first silicon microchips were the size of a fingernail and had a million circuits. The smallest circuit on the chip was one hundredth as wide as a human hair.'

'All I really want to know is how to make audiences laugh until they puke,' she lamented.

'Then there were breakthroughs in... X-ray lithography, I think he called it.'

'Call it gobbledegook or fumfuddle if you want. It'll mean as much to me.'

'Anyway, some fumfuddle breakthrough made it possible to print one billion circuits on a chip, with features one thousandth the width of a human hair. Then two billion. And this was years ago.'

'Yeah, but while all these hotshot scientists were making their breakthroughs, I memorized one hundred and eighteen jokes about big butts. Let's see who gets more laughs at a party.'

The idea of nanomachines and nanocomputers swarming through her blood creeped her out no less than the idea of an extraterrestrial bug gestating in her chest a la Aliens.

'By shrinking dimensions,' Dylan explained, 'chip designers gain computer speed, function, and capacity. Proctor talked about multi-atom nanomachines driven by nanocomputers made from a single atom.'

'Computers no bigger than a single atom, huh? Listen, what the world really needs is a good portable washing machine the size of a radish.'

To Jilly, these minuscule, biologically interactive machines began to seem like fate in a syringe. Fate didn't need to sneak up on her with a club; it was already inside her and busily at work, courtesy of Lincoln Proctor.

Dylan continued: 'Proctor says the protons and electrons in one atom could be used as positive and negative switches, with millions of circuits actually etched onto the neutrons, so a single atom in a nanomachine could be the powerful computer that controls it.'

'Personally,' Jilly said, 'I'd rush out to Costco the moment I heard they were selling a reasonably priced teeny-tiny microwave oven that could double as a bellybutton ornament.'

Sitting here with her arms crossed and her hands in her armpits, she could barely make herself listen to Dylan because she knew where all this information was leading, and where it was leading scared the sweat out of her. She felt her armpits growing damp.

'You're scared,' he said.

'I'm all right.'

'You're not all right.'

'Yeah. What am I thinking? Who am I to know whether I'm all right or not all right? You're the expert on me, huh?'

'When you're scared, your wisecracks have a desperate quality.'

'If you'll search your memory,' she said, 'you'll discover that I didn't appreciate your amateur psychoanalysis in the past.'

'Because it was on target. Listen, you're scared, I'm scared, Shep is scared, we're all scared, and that's okay. We—'

'Shep is hungry,' said Shepherd.

They had missed breakfast. The lunch hour was drawing near.

'We'll get lunch soon,' Dylan promised his brother.

'Cheez-Its,' Shep said without looking up from his open palms.

'We'll get something better than Cheez-Its, buddy.'

'Shep likes Cheez-Its.'

'I know you do, buddy.' To Jilly, Dylan said, 'They're a nice square snack.'

'What would he do if you gave him those little cheese-cracker fish – what're they called, Goldfish?' she wondered.

'Shep hates Goldfish,' the kid said at once. 'They're shapey. They're all round and shapey. Goldfish suck. They're too shapey. They're disgusting. Goldfish stink. They suck, suck, suck.'

'You've hit on a sore point,' Dylan told Jilly.

'No Goldfish,' she promised Shep.

'Goldfish suck.'

'You're absolutely right, sweetie. They're totally too shapey,' Jilly said.


'Yes, sweetie, totally disgusting.'

'Cheez-Its,' Shep insisted.

Jilly would have spent the rest of the day talking about the shapes of snack foods if that would have prevented Dylan from telling her more than she could bear to know about what those nanomachines might be doing inside her body right this very minute, but before she could mention Wheat Thins, he returned to the dreaded subject.

'In that interview,' Dylan said, 'Proctor even claims that one day millions of psychotropic nanomachines—'

Jilly winced. 'Psychotropic.'

'—might be injected into the human body—'

'Injected. Here we go.'

'—travel with the blood supply to the brain—'

She shuddered. 'Machines in the brain.'

'—and colonize the brain stem, cerebellum, and cerebrum.'

'Colonize the brain.'

'Disgusting,' Shep said, though he was most likely still talking about Goldfish.

Dylan said, 'Proctor envisions a forced evolution of the brain conducted by nanomachines and nanocomputers.'

'Why didn't somebody kill the son of a bitch years ago?'

'He says these nanomachines could be programmed to analyze the structure of the brain at a cellular level, firsthand, and find ways to improve the design.'

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