Mar 24 2014 8:00am
Check out Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty, a mind-bending thriller available April 22nd from Tor Books!
It begins in Toronto, in the years after the smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and internet connection can download recipes and print drugs, or invent them. A seventeen-year-old street girl finds God through a new brain-altering drug called Numinous, used as a sacrament by a new Church that preys on the underclass. But she is arrested and put into detention, and without the drug, commits suicide.
Lyda Rose, another patient in that detention facility, has a dark secret: she was one of the original scientists who developed the drug. With the help of an ex-government agent and an imaginary, drug-induced doctor, Lyda sets out to find the other three survivors of the five who made the Numinous in a quest to set things right.
The Parable of the Girl Who Died and Went to Hell,
Not Necessarily in That Order
There was a girl who lived on the streets in a northern city. She was sixteen years old when she found God, and had just turned seventeen when God abandoned her.
She didn’t understand why He would turn His back on her now, after He had saved her life. She’d been living rough for two years. At night she navigated by bunk-finder apps, competing for space in the shelters with the thousands of other teenagers roaming the city. She did bad things to get by. She worked the crowded sidewalks, beaming her profile pic to the dashboards of the trolling cars, climbing into front seats and climbing out again fifteen minutes later. She stole, and she beat other teenagers who tried to steal from her, and once she did something terrible, something unforgivable.
When she thought of what she’d done, even glancingly, a black tunnel seemed to open up behind her eyes. Anything might trigger the memory: a word, the sight of an old woman, the smell of soup burning on a stove. On those days she thought the black would swallow her whole.
Then one night, at the end of a week of black days, she found herself in the Spadina station looking over the edge of the platform, measuring the short distance to the rails. She could feel the train coming, growling to her, pushing its hot breath down the tracks. The concrete rumbled encouragement to her feet. She moved up to the yellow line, and the toes of her sneakers touched air. The only way out of the black tunnel, she realized, was through it.
She felt a hand on her arm. “Hey there.” It was a friend, one of her first on the street, a tall black boy older than her by a few years who maintained a crazy rectangular beard. He said, “You doing anything?”
She didn’t know how to answer that.
She followed him up out of the station. A while later, an older man with hardcore prison tattoos picked them up in a rusting SUV and drove them a few miles to a strip mall. Most of the stores were empty. The man, who said he was a pastor, opened one of the doors and said, “Welcome to our little church.”
People began to filter in and take seats in the circle of folding chairs. The service began with singing, songs she didn’t know but that sounded familiar. And then the pastor stood in the middle of the circle for the sermon. He turned as he talked, making eye contact with the people, making eye contact with her, which made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t remember now what he’d spoken about.
At the end of the service, everyone stood up and formed a line in front of the pastor, their hands out, mouths open like birds. Her friend looked at her questioningly; it was her decision. She stood up with the others, and when it was her turn the pastor held up a piece of paper with a single word printed on it: Logos. “This is the word made flesh,” he said.
She wasn’t stupid. She’d eaten paper before, and knew that the ink could contain almost anything. She opened her mouth, and he placed it on her tongue. The paper dissolved like cotton candy.
She felt nothing. If there was anything mixed into the ink or the paper, it was too mild to affect her.
That night, as she lay on a bed in a shelter that the pastor had lined up for her, the black tunnel was still there. But there was something else, too: a feeling, as if she were being watched.
No: watched over.
She made her way back to the church the next day, and the day after that. The feeling of a loving presence grew like sun rising over her shoulder. The pastor called it the Numinous. “It’s knowledge,” he said. Proof that we are all loved, all connected.
Her problems weren’t solved. She still slept in restaurant bathrooms, and lifted snacks from gas stations, and gave blow jobs to men in cars. Still struggled with the black tunnel. But she could not shake that secret knowledge that she was loved. She could not yet forgive herself, but she began to think that someone else might.
One night, a month after that first church service, just a few days before her birthday, the cops swept through the park, and she was arrested for solicitation. Because she was underage, they would not release her until they found her parents. She wouldn’t help the police; the last thing she wanted was to let her parents know where she was. God, she thought, would provide a way out of this.
But as the days passed in the detention center, something was changing. God’s presence faded, as if He was moving away from her, turning His back on her. She began to panic. She prayed, and wept, and prayed some more. Then a female guard caught her creating her own sacrament, swallowing scraps of toilet paper, and thought she had smuggled in smart drugs. They took her blood and swabbed her tongue and made her pee in a cup. Two days later they transferred her to a hospital west of the city, and locked her up with crazy people.
On her second night in the hospital, a red-haired woman appeared in her room. She seemed familiar, and then suddenly the girl remembered her. “You let me sleep on your couch once.”
The woman stepped into the room. Her red hair, the girl saw now, was shot with threads of gray. “Wasn’t my idea,” the woman said. “But yeah.” It had been ten below, and the red-haired woman had found her shivering outside a gas station. The girl had thought the woman wanted sex, but no; she’d fed her pizza and let her spend the night, and the girl had slipped out of the apartment before morning. It was the kindest thing a stranger had ever done for her, until she met the pastor.
“What are you doing here?” the woman asked. Her voice was soft. “What did you take?”
How could she explain that she’d taken nothing? That they’d locked her up because she’d finally realized that God was real?
“I’ve lost it,” the girl said. “I’ve lost the Numinous.”
The woman seemed shocked at the word, as if she recognized it. Perhaps she was part of the church? The girl told her her story, and the woman seemed to understand. But then the woman asked questions that proved she didn’t understand at all: “This pastor—did he tell you the name of the drug? Where he got it? How long have you been in withdrawal?”
The black tunnel seemed to throw itself open, and the girl refused to say any more. After a time the red-haired woman went away, and the nurses came to her with pills that they said would help her with her depression, her anxiety. A psychologist brought her to his office—“just to talk.”
But she did not need antidepressants, or soothing conversation. She understood, finally, why God had withdrawn from her. What He was trying to tell her.
When she was full of God’s love, she couldn’t do what she needed to do. God had to step back so that she’d have the strength to do what she should have done months ago. So she could make the required sacrifice.
At her next meeting with the psychologist, she stole a ceramic mug from his desk. He never noticed; she was practiced at lifting merchandise. An hour after that, before she could lose her nerve, she went to the bathroom and smashed the mug against the edge of the stainless steel sink. She chose the largest shard, then sawed apart the veins in her left arm.
God, she knew, helps those who help themselves.
“So you want to leave us, Lyda?” Counselor Todd asked.
“It’s been eight months,” I said. “I think it’s about time, don’t you?”
Dr. Gloria shook her head, then made a note on her clipboard.
The three of us—Todd, Dr. Gloria, and I—sat in Todd’s closet-sized office in the NAT ward. Three chairs, a pressed wood coffee table, and no windows. Todd leaned back in his chair, flicking his smart pen: snick and the screen opened like a fan; clack and it rolled up again. The file on the screen appeared and disappeared too fast to read, but I could guess what document it was.
Todd liked to portray himself as a man of the people. A white man who favored work shirts that had never seen a day of work and work boots that had never touched mud. This in contrast to Dr. Gloria, who occupied the seat to his right. She believed in the traditional uniform of doctors: white coat, charcoal pencil skirt, femme heels that weren’t so high as to be impractical. Her nondigital clipboard and Hot Librarian glasses were signature props. I did not want her in this meeting, but neither Todd nor I had the power to keep her out.
“Lyda,” Todd said in a knowing tone. “Does your desire to leave now have anything to do with Francine’s death?”
Francine was the girl who had killed herself with Todd’s mug. I presented my I’m-not-quite-following-you frown.
“The transfer request was placed two weeks ago, on the day after she died,” Todd said. “You seemed upset by her death.”
“I barely knew her.”
“You broke furniture,” he said.
“It was a plastic chair,” I said. “It already had a crack in it.”
“Don’t quibble,” Dr. Gloria said. “It’s the display of anger he’s worried about.”
“I was mad at you doctors,” I said. “I told you to put her on antidepressants—”
“Which we did,” Todd said.
“Too Goddamn late. Jesus, her symptoms were obvious. I couldn’t believe no one had taken steps. Her parents should be suing the hospital’s ass off right now.”
“We haven’t been able to find them,” he said.
“Perfect. Homeless orphans can’t sue either.”
Dr. Gloria put down her clipboard. “Insulting everyone who works here isn’t going to help you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just—she was so young.”
“I know,” Counselor Todd said. He sounded suddenly tired. “I tried to talk to her.”
Todd could be an idiot, but he did care about the patients. And as the only full-time counselor on the ward, he worked essentially alone. The neuro-atypical ward was a lab for the hardcore cog-sci docs, the neuropsych researchers. They didn’t much care for talk therapy, or for talking therapists like Todd.
So as Todd became more isolated, he couldn’t help but grow attached to the people he spent the most time with: The patients had become, without him realizing it, his cohort, his troop. I knew that my degrees intimidated him. He suspected that because of my résumé I was more aligned with the neuropsych folks—which was true. But my highfalutin background also made him secretly desire my approval. Sometimes I used my power to get the lab to do the right thing for the patients, but I wasn’t above using it to get myself out of here.
Todd did his best to pull himself back to counselor mode. “Were you disturbed by Francine’s symptoms?”
“They were so similar to your own. The religious nature of her hallucinations—”
“A lot of schizos have religious delusions.”
“She wasn’t schizophrenic, at least not naturally. We believe she’d been taking a designer drug.”
“We haven’t figured that out yet. But I was struck by the way she talked about God as a physical presence. That was how you used to speak about your angel.”
Dr. Gloria looked at me over her glasses. This was her favorite topic. I stopped myself from glaring at her.
“I’ve been symptom free for months,” I said to Todd. “No angels. No voices in my head. I didn’t think the antipsychotics you prescribed would work, honestly. My hallucination’s been so persistent, so long, that…” I shrugged. “But you were right, and I was wrong. I’m not too proud to admit that.”
“I thought they were worth a try,” he said. “When you showed up here, you were in a pretty bad place. Not just your injuries.”
“Oh no,” I said, agreeing with him. “It was everything. I was fucked up.” I’d been sentenced to the NAT after creating my own drive-thru at a convenience store. I swerved off the road at 60 KPH and plowed through the wall at three in the afternoon. My front bumper crushed a woman’s leg and sent another man flying, but nobody was killed. The owner told a reporter that “somebody up there was watching out for them.”
God gets the easiest performance reviews.
I said, “I feel like I’ve finally gotten a handle on my problems.”
I glanced up. I’d delivered this statement with all the sincerity I could muster. Todd seemed to be taking it in. Then he said, “Have you been thinking about your wife?”
A question as subtle as a crowbar. Counselor Todd trying to pop me open.
Dr. G said, “He noticed that you’re touching your ring.”
I glanced down. The wedding band was polished brass, six-sided on the outside. A friend of ours had forged a matching pair for us.
I placed my hands on the arms of my chair. “I think of her every day,” I said. “But not obsessively. She’s my wife. I miss her.”
Perhaps this struck him as an odd thing to say about a woman who had tried to kill me. Instead he said, “It’s interesting that you use the present tense.”
“She has been dead almost ten years,” Dr. Gloria said.
“I don’t believe that there’s a time limit on love or grief,” I said. A paraphrase of something Counselor Todd had told me very earnestly in my first month on the ward. I was detoxing then, vulnerable and wide open, sucking in Todd’s bromides as if they were profound truths. When you can’t get the heroin, take the methadone.
“And your child?” he asked.
I sat back, my heart suddenly beating hard. “Are you working through a checklist there?”
“You’re sounding angry again,” Dr. Gloria said.
Todd said, “You mentioned her only once in our therapy sessions, but according to your file…”
If he flicked open that damn pen I was going to leap across the table at him.
“I don’t have a child,” I said.
Dr. Gloria looked over her glasses at me, the Medical Professional version of an eye roll.
“Anymore,” I said.
Todd pursed his lips, signaling disappointment. “I’m sorry, Lyda, I just can’t sign off on this. I think you’re trying to get out of here so you can score, and you still haven’t addressed some key issues in—”
“I’ll take the chip.”
He looked up at me, surprised.
“The terms of my sentence give me the option,” I said. “All you have to do is sign. You know I’ve been a model patient.”
“But you’re almost done here. Two more months and you’re out. If you go on the chip, that’s a mandatory year of tracking. You won’t be able to leave the province without permission.”
“I understand that.”
He gave me a long look. “You know they can’t be spoofed, yes? Not like the old chips. Your blood alcohol levels will be sent to us every ten seconds. Anything stronger than aspirin throws up a red flag. And any use of a controlled substance, other than those prescribed to you, gets immediately reported to the police.”
“Any drug can and will be used against me,” I said. “Got it.”
“Good. Because the last time I brought up the chip, you told me I could shove it up my ass.”
“Well, it is very small.”
He suppressed a smile. Todd enjoyed being joked with. Made him feel part of the troop. And as the least insane person on the floor (if I said so myself), I was the person he could most easily talk to. The only question was, would he be insecure enough to keep me here, just so we didn’t have to—sob—break up?
Time to seal the deal. I looked at my feet, feigning embarrassment. “I know this may not be technically allowed after I leave, but…”
“This room is a safe place to say anything,” Todd said.
I looked up. “I’d like to keep in touch with you. If that’s all right.”
“I’m sure that would be fine,” Todd said. “If I sign on for this.” But of course he had already made up his mind.
The NAT ward was small, a population of twenty-five to forty, depending on the season. News traveled the floor with telepathic speed. Two of the residents believed they were telepathic, so who knows.
I was packing when Ollie appeared in my room. Five foot two, hair falling across her face. Quiet as a closed door. And like everyone on the ward, Severely Fucked in the Head.
She stared into the room, eyes pointed in my direction. Trying to work out the puzzle. That stack of shapes probably belonged to one thing, those horizontal shapes to something else. Once sorted, labels could be applied: bed, wall, duffel bag, human being.
To help her out I said, “Hi, Ollie.”
Her face changed—that slight shift of recognition as she assigned the label “Lyda” to an arrangement of red hair and dark clothes—then went still again. She was angry. I’d made a mistake by not telling her I was leaving. Not as big a mistake as sleeping with her, but enough.
At last she said, “Can I see it?”
“Sure,” I said. Ollie concentrated on the changes in the scene: The object that swung toward her in her visual field must be, logically, my arm. From there she found my wrist, and slid a finger along my forearm. Tactile information integrated more easily than the visual. She peeled back the Band-Aid, pressed the tiny pink bump. She was as unself-conscious with my body as with her own.
“So small,” she said.
“My new portable conscience,” I said. “Like I needed another one.”
Her fingers lingered on my skin, then fell away. “You’re going to look for that dead girl’s dealer.”
I didn’t try to deny it. Even on meds Ollie was the smartest person I’d ever met, after Mikala.
She closed her eyes, cutting out the visual distraction. She looked like a little girl. Told me once that her Filipino mother was 4’10”, her white Minnesota father over six feet, and she was still waiting for those Norwegian genes to kick in.
“You can’t know that it’s the same drug that hit you,” she said without opening her eyes. “There are thousands of countertop tweakers out there. Somebody just happened to whip up something with the same symptoms.”
The glories of the DIY smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and an internet connection could download recipes and print small-batch drugs. The creative types liked to fuck with the recipes, try them out on their friends. People swallowed paper all the time without knowing what they were chewing. Half the residents of the NAT ward weren’t addicts; they were beta testers.
“You’re right,” I said flatly. “It’s probably not the same drug at all.”
She opened her eyes. Now seeing right through me. “I can help you,” she said.
There was a certainty in her voice. Ollie used to do things for the US government, and the US government used to do things to Ollie.
“I don’t think they’re going to let you walk out of here,” I said. Ollie was not one of the voluntary patients. Like me, she’d been convicted of a crime, then sent here because the docs thought she was an interesting case. “Just stay here,” I said. “And heal.”
Heal. That was a NAT joke.
She said, “I can be out of here in two—”
“Nurse,” I said in a low voice, warning her. We residents did this a lot on the ward, like kids playing in the street calling “car.”
“Seconds,” Ollie finished.
Dr. Gloria and one of the day-shift nurses walked toward the room. “Ready?” the nurse asked me.
Dr. G looked at Ollie, then back toward me, a knowing smile on her face. “If you’re all done here,” she said.
I picked up my bag. “I’ve got to go,” I said to Ollie. I touched her shoulder on the way out. This is me, the touch told her. This is me moving away from you.
“She’s in love with you, you know,” Dr. G said.
“Hospital infatuation,” I said.
We stood on the sidewalk outside the hospital, waiting for my ride under a gray sky leaking sunlight. Dirty snow banked the sidewalk, peppered with black deicer pellets. Behind us, staff and visitors passed in and out of the revolving doors like ions through a membrane.
I folded up the plastic bag that contained my prescription and jammed my hands into the pockets of my thin jacket. It had been early fall when I went in, and my street clothes had failed to evolve while in storage. But I was not about to go back inside that building, even to stay warm. I was a free woman—tethered only by the plastic snitch attached to my vein, broadcasting each taste of my bloodstream to the ether.
Dr. G had followed me out. “You’d be better off staying with her and finishing your sentence inside,” she said. “Less temptation. You were staying clean, Lyda.”
“Edo’s making NME One-Ten.”
“You don’t know that.”
“All Francine could talk about was ‘the Numinous.’ That is no fucking coincidence. Edo broke his promise.”
“He never made that promise,” she said.
“Yeah, well, I made a promise to him.”
“Listen to yourself,” Dr. Gloria said. “You’re pissed off. Have you considered that you’re overreacting to the girl’s death? You have a blind spot for little lost girls.”
“I’m responsible for the drug that killed her.”
“Even if the substance is the One-Ten, which is doubtful, that doesn’t mean that it’s Edo Vik.”
“Then I guess I have to find out who is making it.”
A car pulled up to the curb, a decrepit Nissan hybrid. The cost of the gas had to be enormous. The driver jumped out of the car, ran to me with arms out. “Lyda!”
Bobby was a could-have-been-handsome white boy, twenty-three years old, with stiff black hair and almond eyes, so maybe a little Asian in the mix. A former ward-mate, and batshit crazy. But a good kid. More importantly, he lived in Toronto, and he owned a car.
I let him hug me. The price to pay for the ride.
“You look all healthy,” he said. Hanging from a leather thong around his neck was a small plastic treasure chest, one of those aquarium accessories with Real Working Hinge. He never went anywhere without it.
“Where are we going?” he asked me.
“Take me to my dealer.”
He blinked in surprise. “Uh, are you sure?”
“Relax. I just want to talk to him.”
“You just got out of the ward. Don’t you want to go home?”
“I don’t have a home. That apartment is long gone.”
“Oh, then maybe a hotel?”
“I’m getting cold out here, Bobby.”
He opened the passenger door for me, then hustled around to the other side.
Dr. Gloria said, “I can’t protect you if you don’t listen to me.”
“Then stay here.”
“Oh, you don’t get away that easy.” Dr. Gloria’s wings unfurled from her back with a snap, and the world vanished in a blaze of heavenly radiance. I winced and looked away.
“Lo, I am with you always,” she said. I opened one eye. She pulsed like a migraine aura, throwing off megawatts of holy glow. Then her wings convulsed, and she was airborne.
Afterparty © Daryl Gregory, 2014