by Pat Cadigan
[Continued from Part 1]
"Are you all right?"
The man bent over her, hands just above his knees. Most of his long hair was tied back except for a few long strands that hung forward in a way that suggested punctuation to Nell. Round face, round eyes with hard lines under them.
See. Hear. Smell. Taste. Touch. ________.
Hand over her right eye, she blinked up at him. He repeated the question and the words were little green balls falling from his mouth to bounce away into the night. Nell caught her lower lip between her teeth to keep herself from laughing. He reached down and pulled the hand over her eye to one side. Then he straightened up and pulled a cell phone out of his pocket. "I need an ambulance," he said to it.
She opened her mouth to protest but her voice wouldn't work. Another man was coming over, saying something in thin, tight silver wires.
And then it was all thin, tight silver wires everywhere. Some of the wires turned to needles and they seemed to fight each other for dominance. The pain in her eye flared more intensely and a voice from somewhere far in the past tried to ask a question without morphing into something else but it just wasn't loud enough for her to hear.
Nell rolled over onto her back. Something that was equal parts anxiety and anticipation shuddered through her. Music, she realized; very loud, played live, blaring out of the opening where the men were hanging around. Chords rattled her blood, pulled at her arms and legs. The pain flared again but so did the taste of night. She let herself fall into it. The sense of falling became the desire to sleep but just as she was about to give in, she would slip back to wakefulness, back and forth like a pendulum. Or like she was swooping from the peak of one giant wave, down into the trough and up to the peak of another.
Her right eye was forced open with a sound like a gunshot and bright light filled her mouth with the taste of icicles.
"Welcome back. Don't take this the wrong way but I'm very sorry to see you here."
Nell discovered only her left eye would open but one eye was enough. Ms Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne, the social worker. Not the original social worker Marcus had sent after her. That had been Ms. Petersen, Call-Me-Joan, who had been replaced after a while by Mr. Carney, Call-Me-Dwayne. Nell had seen him only twice and the second time he had been one big white knuckle, as if he were holding something back -- tears? hysteria? Whatever it was leaked from him in twisted shapes of shifting colours that left bad tastes in her mouth. Looking away from him didn't help -- the tastes were there whether she saw the colours or not.
It was the best they could do for her, lacking as she was in that sense. At the time, she hadn't understood. All she had known was that the tastes turned her stomach and the colours gave her headaches. Eventually, she had thrown up on the social worker's shoes and he had fled without apology or even so much as a surprised curse, let alone a good-bye. Nell hadn't minded.
Ms. Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne, was his replacement and she had managed to find Nell more quickly than she had expected. Ms. Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne, had none of the same kind of tension in her but once in a while she exuded a musty, stale odor of resignation that was very close to total surrender.
Surrender. It took root in Nell's mind but she was slow to understand because she only associated it with Ms. Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne's unspoken (even to herself) desire to give up. If she'd just had that missing sense, it would have been so obvious right away.
Of course, if she'd had that extra sense, she'd have understood the whole thing right away and everything would be different. Maybe not a whole lot easier, since she would still have had a hard time explaining sight to all the blind people, so to speak, but at least she wouldn't have been floundering around in confusion.
"Nell?" Ms. Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne, was leaning forward, peering anxiously into her face. "I said, do you know why you're here?"
Nell hesitated. "Here, as in…" Her voice failed in her dry throat. The social worker poured her a glass of water from a pitcher on the bedside table and held it up, slipping the straw between her dry lips so she could drink. Nell finished three glasses and Ms. Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne, made a business of adjusting her pillows before she lay back against the raised mattress.
"Better?" she asked Nell brightly.
Nell made a slight, non-committal dip with her head. "What was the question?" she asked, her voice still faint.
"Do you know where you are?" Ms. Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne, said.
Nell smiled inwardly at the change and resisted the temptation to say, Same place you are -- here. There were deep lines under the social worker's eyes, her clothes were wrinkled, and lots of little hairs had escaped from her tied-back hair. No doubt she'd had less rest in the last twenty-four hours than Nell. She looked around with her one good eye at the curtains surrounding them and at the bed. "Hospital. Tri-County General."
She could see that her specifying which hospital had reassured the social worker. That was hardly a major feat of cognition, though; Tri-County General was where all the homeless as well as the uninsured ended up.
"You had a convulsion," Call-Me-Anne told her, speaking slowly and carefully now as if to a child. "A man found you behind the concert hall and called an ambulance."
Nell lifted her right hand and pointed at her face.
Call-Me-Anne hesitated, looking uncertain. "You seem to have hurt your eye."
She remembered the sensation of the spike and the needle so vividly that she winced.
"Does it hurt?" Call-Me-Anne asked, full of concern. "Should I see if they can give you something for the pain?"
Nell shook her head no; a twinge from somewhere deep in her right eye socket warned her not to do that again or to make any sudden movements, period.
"Is there anyone you'd like me to call for you?" the social worker asked.
Frowning a little, Nell crossed her hands and uncrossed them in an absolutely-not gesture. Call-Me-Anne pressed her lips together but it didn't stop a long pink ribbon from floating weightless out from her mouth. Too late -- she had already called Marcus, believing that by the time he got here, Nell actually would want to see him. And if not, she would claim that Marcus had insisted on seeing her, regardless of Nell's wishes, because he was her husband and loyalty and blah-blah-blah-social-worker-blather.
All at once there was a picture in her mind of a younger and not-so-tired Ms. Dunwoody, Call-Me-Anne, and just as suddenly, it came to life.
I feel that if we can re-unite families, then we've done the best job we can. Sometimes that isn't possible, of course, so the next best thing we can do is provide families for those who need them.
Call-Me-Anne's employment interview, she realized. What they were trying to tell her with that wasn't at all clear. That missing sense. Or maybe because they had the sense, they were misinterpreting the situation.
She tried to pull her arm out of the social worker's grip and couldn't. The pressure was a mouthful of walnut shells, tasteless and sharp. "What do you want?"
"I said, are you sure?"
Nell sighed. "There's a story that the first people in the New World to see Columbus's ships couldn't actually see them because such things were too far outside their experience. You think that's true?"
Call-Me-Anne, her expression a mix of confusion and anxiety. Nell knew what that look meant -- she was afraid the situation was starting to get away from her. "Are you groggy? Or just tired?"
"I don't," she went on, a bit wistful. "I think they didn't know what they were seeing and maybe had a hard time with the perspective but I'm sure they saw them. After all, they were made by other humans. But something coming from another world, all bets are off."
Call-Me-Anne's face was very sad now.
"I sound crazy to you?" Nell gave a short laugh. "Scientists talk about this stuff."
"You're not a scientist, Nell. You were a librarian. With proper treatment and medication, you could --"
Nell laughed again. "If a librarian starts thinking about the possibility of life somewhere else in the universe, it's a sign she's going crazy?" She turned her head away and closed her eyes. Correction, eye. She couldn't feel very much behind the bandage, just enough to know that her right eyelid wasn't opening or closing. When she heard the social worker walk away, she opened her eye to see the silver wires had come back. They bloomed like flowers, opening and then flying apart where they met others and connected, making new blooms that flew apart and found new connections. The world in front of Nell began to look like a cage, although she had no idea which side she was on.
Abruptly, she felt one of the wires go through her temple with that same white-hot pain. A moment later, a second one went through the bandage over her right eye as easily as if it wasn't there, going all the way through her head and out, pinning her to the pillow.
Her left eye was watering badly but she could see Call-Me-Anne rushing back with a nurse. Their mouths opened and closed as they called her name. She saw them reaching for her but she was much too far away.
And that was how it would be. No, that was how it was always, but the five senses worked so hard to compensate for the one missing that people took the illusion of contact for the real thing. The power of suggestion -- where would the human race be without it?
Sight. Hearing. Smell. Taste. Touch. _________.
The word was a poor approximation but the concept was becoming clearer in her mind now. Clearer than the sight in her left eye, which was dimming. But still good enough to let her see Call-Me-Anne was on the verge of panic.
A man in a white uniform pushed her aside and she became vaguely aware of him touching her. But there was still no contact.
"The Taste of Night" is one of fifteen original stories included in the anthology Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern, and forthcoming from Daw Books on June 1. For more information on this anthology, start here.
Pat Cadigan is the author of fifteen books, including two making-of movie books, four media tie-ins, three short-fiction collections, one young adult book, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novels Synners (1991) and Fools (1994). She tweets as Cadigan, faces Facebook as Pat Cadigan, lives out loud on LiveJournal as fastfwd, and still finds time to roam around London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler.