PARAGON OF SANITY
His vision came and went, sharp details fading into a blur and back again. On his way to the hospital the morning light had been viciously bright, metal-reflected sunlight leaving streaks across his eyes.
The walls of the hospital were riddled with Focus, but not the marks of midnight. Rex could see new things now, traces of daylighter hands, the impressions left by their minds as they solved problems, worked their tricks with numbers and alloys and clever machines.
It had taken all morning for him to realize what these new visions were: tracks of prey.
For a hundred thousand years darklings had pursued humans, learning to track them, to read their places and their paths. As the last predators to dare hunt them, they knew humans better than any other beast alive, better than the half-blind bipeds knew themselves. Rex could see these signs now, could feel the manifestations of everything the darklings hungered for… and feared.
An intercom overhead barked out some emergency call, and he flinched. There were machines everywhere in this place—bright fluorescent lights, devices for measuring blood and flesh, thousands of clever tools. Rex longed to run for the door and into some open field, away from all these overwhelming signs of human ingenuity. They made his hands shake, the fear strung tight across his shoulders.
But he had to see Melissa and show her what the change had done to him.
He looked up at the number on the door he was passing, and the world blurred again momentarily.
He hadn’t brought his spare pair of glasses; he didn’t seem to need them anymore, now that the Focus clung to almost everything. But there were moments when his vision faded. They hadn’t changed him all the way after all. He was still a human, still Rex Greene—a seer, not a beast.
An X-ray machine flashed nearby, its violet flare reaching his eyes through the walls of the hospital, and Rex flinched again, hissing through his teeth.
He had to find Melissa and share this with her. He needed her touch to make him feel human again.
Around another corner he found her hallway, the code of numbers and letters finally making sense. He hoped he wasn’t losing his ability to read human symbols. It was probably just exhaustion from waiting for three hours in the emergency room last night. It had taken that long before they’d admitted Melissa and sent him home, finally believing their story—that she’d lost her ID in the accident, was eighteen, and had no parents to call.
As he made his way down the hall, something sharp caught Rex’s eye ahead, a figure glowing with Focus.
An old woman, leaving Melissa’s room.
Rex came to a halt. The marks were deep on her, detail worked into every line on her face.
She was looking at him with an expression of recognition, a smile playing across her aged, pale features.
“Rex! My boy.” She held out a gloved hand, and he shrank away. What trick was this?
She shook her head. “Poor Rex. Still jumpy, of course. It was a near thing last night. As near as anything I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m… Melissa’s godmother. Madeleine.”
He shook his head. There was no such person, not that he could remember. But remembering was hard today. Rex had tossed and turned all night, trying to untangle everything in his head, all he’d learned from Melissa when they’d embraced on the salt flats. And later when they’d touched each other in the emergency room, swapping their pain back and forth like two kids with something too hot to hold…
But this morning he’d hardly had time to sort through the changes in himself, much less everything Melissa had shared with him. This woman Madeleine had something to do with Dess’s calculations and with the lost generation of midnighters, that was all he could remember.
“I thought I’d visit her,” she was saying. “You see, I may not have much time left. And I’ve always wanted to get to know her better.” She shook her head. “My fault, really, leaving it so late like this.”
An X-ray flashed again, and Rex spun toward it, a tremor running through his body.
She didn’t notice the animal reaction or pretended not to and repeated softly, “All my fault, really I was so scared, so horrified by what I’d done.”
He stared at her again, and a measure of his old vision returned. Rex realized that her Focus was the most familiar kind, the mark of midnight.
“You’re one of us,” he said.
“Yes, Rex. But Melissa will tell you all about it. We’ve been visiting, you see, getting to know each other. She’s waiting for you.”
The woman brushed past him, and as she strode away down the hall, Rex saw that she was wearing only one glove.
He turned and ran toward Melissa’s room.
Her eyes were closed, her face pale in the buzzing fluorescent light. The wounds, two on her forehead and one stretching down her cheek, were stitched now, crosshatched with pink thread binding the skin together. The stitches were made of some synthetic; Rex could sense its awful, clever newness.
She had the same Focus as the woman in the hall.
“Melissa?” he called softly. Wondering what the old mind-caster had done to her in her sleep.
Her eyes opened, and she smiled. “Looking good, Rex. Like the hair.”
He sighed with relief and exhaustion. Melissa seemed like her old self.
The other bed in the room was empty, and he sat down on it, rubbing his palm across his shorn scalp. He’d buzzed it down to half an inch, cutting all the burned locks away. “Thanks. Looking good yourself.”
She snorted. “Thanks, Rex. And I was worried that these scars would tragically affect my popularity at school.”
He laughed, but the sound was hollow. There were too many machines in here—call buttons and intercoms, special wall plugs for heart monitors, a whole infrastructure of cables and steel around them. And suddenly Melissa was rising toward him like a mummy, the bed’s tiny, clever motors making it flex at its center.
“You taste weird, Rex.”
He looked at his shaking hands. “You think?”
“Kind of… psycho-kitty. They changed you, didn’t they?”
He blinked, then nodded. There was so much in his head, new species of tastes and visions, wild thoughts bubbling up from some animal buried inside him. But one question made it through the confusion.
“Who was she?” he asked.
Melissa smiled. “My godmother, like she said. The godmother of us all.” She sighed. “Until they find her, anyway. They’ll be looking now.”
Rex closed his eyes, his head racked with too many new sensations and now more information crowding it. Coming here had been a bad idea. He needed to head to the badlands, to find some place bleak and empty to sit and think.
“Come here, Rex.”
He shook his head. “You’re too weak. You won’t be able to take what’s in my head.” He looked around at the walls, marked with handprints of sick and dying humans, easy prey to cut from the herd. “Especially not while you’re in this place.”
She laughed. “Not a problem.”
“I thought you hated hospitals.”
“I hated everything, Rex.”
He frowned, some part of his mind recalling the intricacies of grammar. “Hated?”
“Not anymore.” Melissa reached out, taking him by the arm. She drew him toward her and, for the first time, pressed her lips against his.
She came into him—not with the usual mad flood of emotions, but in a fashion measured and controlled, shaped by the technique of a hundred generations of mindcasters, an artistry passed from hand to hand across the centuries. Dess’s numbers had found it, the thing Rex had always searched for, the connection to their past that the severed lore had never offered. And Melissa had been given it here in the flesh, this morning, by Madeleine and the host of predecessors in her memory. Finally a bond with living history; at last, for Melissa and the rest of them, the human touch.
Even carrying those centuries, the kiss was between the two of them alone, their old friendship turning suddenly and completely inside out, overwhelming him almost as much as his transformation in the desert.
And Rex knew he would survive.
He might be half a beast, afraid of the marks of humanity all around him, wounded by the darklings that had reached inside and turned one part of him against another, but he had her to carry him.
Nothing had ever tasted this sweet.