Zee hesitated for the second it took the blue light to flash green, then passed through the arch and into the Accident & Emergency waiting room. She gave a little wave to Omar at the security desk.
“Hey, pineapple girl,” he said. He’d been calling her pineapple girl for three months now, even though her mistaken haircut choice had almost completely grown out. She didn’t mind the teasing, though. She could feel his good heart in everything he said.
“How come you’re working Friday night again?”
Zee smiled. “Just lucky, I guess.”
“Must be something wrong with boys these days. Friday night, you ought to be out having fun. This the best place you got to go?”
“Looks like.” Zee walked on fast to hide her smile, a little embarrassed about liking her job so much. Omar didn’t know it, but he’d got it right. This was the best place to be on Friday night, at least as far as Zee was concerned.
The room was crowded, and Zee felt the pop and jangle of Friday craziness flowing around her. It would peak just before midnight, then grow fainter and fainter, all the energy and fights and reckless acts exhausting themselves. Friday was a high-wire act that ended in the peacefulness of Saturday morning.
Zee checked her orders as she changed into her scrubs, balancing on one foot as she read the screen inside her locker door. She saw with dismay that Ellie Hart, who’d received new lungs a few months ago, had been readmitted with an infection and extreme exhaustion. Also a high white blood cell count and enzyme levels that didn’t look good. A sudden heaviness flooded Zee’s chest. Sadness.
Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to have favorite patients, but everyone also knew that sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Zee and Mrs. Hart had hit it off immediately, maybe because, like Zee, Mrs. Hart was an American living in London, or maybe because they’d been born exactly one hundred years apart. Zee thought it had more to do with Mrs. Hart herself. At their first session, she had been sitting up in bed, wearing the usual hospital gown and what looked like a gajillion diamonds. At her throat, in her ears, on both wrists, and Zee even thought she saw a twinkle or two gleaming in her hair.
“Gaudy, aren’t they?” Mrs. Hart asked with a smile. “I hope you don’t mind. They’re my good luck charms.”
Zee could not imagine owning so many diamonds. Maybe Mrs. Hart had read in some book that diamonds had healing properties and rented them. People showed up for sessions with all kinds of mistaken notions. Zee looked at the diamonds again. They had a faint, radiant golden glow, as if sunlight were buried within them. “Are they real?”
Mrs. Hart chuckled, a good sign in someone who’d just had replacement surgery. “Heavens, no. The originals are far too valuable and don’t belong to me anyway. But the settings are real. I designed them.”
“Yes, way,” Mrs. Hart said, extending an arm encircled with bracelets. “Touch,” she invited.
Zee did and instantly felt a surge of joy. Joy and something more. What was it? She closed her eyes. It was complex, as tangled as a ball of yarn.
“My first big success as a jewelry designer,” Mrs. Hart explained. “And my last. The Neptune diamonds.”
Zee jerked her hand away. Of course. The golden glow should have tipped her off. Everyone knew about the Neptune diamonds, diamonds drenched in sunlight and tragedy.
“It’s all right, dear. I designed these settings before anything went wrong. They’re not … that is, I don’t think they absorbed … umm … how would you put it?”
Ninety years before Zee was born, the first generation of robots was sent into space. Zee still remembered how the hologram of the pale blue rocket had leapt out of her social studies book and vanished into the ceiling with a puff of vapor. She loved holos, and that had been an especially good one, so clear she could see Tiffany written on the rocket’s side.
Certain there might be precious gems out there, the famous jeweler had funded a twelve-year mission to Neptune. Without the frailty of the human body or emotions to interfere, the bots endured the tedium of the long voyage and functioned perfectly in Neptune’s poisonous methane atmosphere—an atmosphere that, as Tiffany’s scientists had predicted, rained diamonds. The bots filled a small module with them, launched it on a path back to Earth, and started to build a collection colony.
On Earth, Tiffany held a contest to see who could design the most beautiful rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Ellie Hart, a newlywed, won.
A few years later, things began to go wrong. The robots, though designed to withstand Neptune’s atmosphere, started breaking down. All the systems failed, but none failed all at once or in any predictable way. Instead of going about their tasks until their chips crashed, the bots attempted to repair each other. It became clear that they’d formed friendships and alliances. Their messages back to Earth were full of sadness, and they appeared to care about what was happening to their friends just as much, if not more, than they cared about what happened to themselves.
They gave every appearance of having become human.
Though they are not human! the spokesman holo in Zee’s textbook had insisted. What looks to us like friendship is a programming error. We gave the bots too much freedom to adapt. All that’s needed is a little tweak to future models.… Zee was no more convinced than anyone had been at the time. What was human? How could the scientist be sure?
By the time the sample module of Neptune diamonds reached Earth, the last of the robots had fallen silent. All had spent the last hours of their existence fulfilling the mission, making sure at least one shipment of diamonds was sent back to Earth. The diamonds had become Neptune’s Tears. Two sets of Mrs. Hart’s designs were made. The one with the real diamonds was put on display under bulletproof glass with a plaque that read TO HEROES. The other set was fitted with fakes and given to Mrs. Hart. Mrs. Hart’s were awfully good imitations, Zee thought. Whoever had made them even managed to replicate the unique champagne sparkle of the real thing. People were still trying to replicate the shade, or hunting for it in the diamond-rich mountains of the Antarctic Ocean, but no one had succeeded. Zee wondered who had made these.
Zee looked at Mrs. Hart, suddenly understanding the tangle of emotions she’d sensed earlier. “Disappointment,” she said. “These became bad luck designs, didn’t they? You never got to go to New York, even though nothing that happened was your fault.” For a split second, Zee felt the weight of Mrs. Hart’s disappointment. “That’s so unfair!”
“It was a long time ago now. Almost a hundred years. And these fakes have been my good luck charms all this time, more than you’ll ever know.” She shook her bangles as if clearing the air. “Well, I’d say you’re more than up to your job. Shall we get started?”
* * *
Zee wished she’d been on duty tonight when Mrs. Hart was readmitted. With divesting and two or three patients to see first, it would be two A.M. before Zee got to Mrs. Hart’s room.
Mrs. Hart would be sleeping when their session began, which was fine from a treatment standpoint, but Zee wouldn’t get to talk to her.
She looked at the rest of her patient list. Caroline Neville was back as well. Zee needed to talk to her supervisor about that, because there was really nothing wrong with Caroline except that she was lonely on Friday nights. Zee touched the screen again to see if there were any requests from her patients. Mrs. Hart asked her to think of a lake at dusk with loons calling across it. A new patient, a boy who’d had a leg grown to replace the one he lost from the knee down, asked if she could please imagine him running the 400-meter race at his school’s Sports Day and being the first to cross the finish line.
This was why Zee loved working with kids. They had a gift for healing. His parents had probably reminded him that first he’d have to learn to walk again, or told him that winning was a team effort. But little Antoine with the budding leg had asked for just the right thing. Sometimes you did have to run before you could walk, at least in your heart.
Finished, Zee touched the screen one more time, and it turned back into a mirror. Her eyes appeared where names and charts had been. Her hair! It took two hands to gather it back, and even then a few spiraling strands escaped. She tried tucking them in, without much luck. It wasn’t long enough yet. That pineapple cut really had been a mistake. She snapped a band around it, then slid her ID over her head, making sure the sensors in the cord touched the skin on the back of her neck. Two years training, one interning, and she still felt the tickle of excitement when the sensors made contact and her name tag began to glow with the soft, optimistic blue of her profession: Zee McAdams, Empath.
* * *
Zee pushed through the double doors marked DIVESTING and entered a long, quiet corridor where the light gradually changed from white to shadowy blues and greens. It was like wading into a tranquil pool, the colors reaching first up to her knees, then her waist and shoulders. Another twenty-five yards, and she began to feel like a tadpole swimming beneath a canopy of lily pads.
She had mastered divesting faster than most. In the beginning, it could take interns hours to divest, but Zee had seldom taken more than an hour. And once she divested, she hung on to it. She didn’t get distracted, and she’d never boomeranged, snapping back into herself. Everyone in her class envied her for catching on so fast, but Zee thought it was probably just because she was young and not much had happened to her.
In the divesting room, she found an empty pod, chose her light levels, and programmed sounds and images. Some empaths liked to lie down, some preferred sitting cross-legged on the floor. An ordinary table and chair worked fine for Zee. She dropped her arms to her sides, closed her eyes, and let her head tip forward like a heavy flower. Then she began building the healing bridge, the invisible waves of energy that connected her to each of her patients and would, over the course of her shift, draw her to each of them in turn. No two empaths built their bridges in exactly the same way. Zee’s started with magic beans tossed into the darkness and a quick flurry of vines and leaves, different-colored vines for each patient. When the vines began to glow, a drift of sparkling mist almost always appeared. Zee felt her shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints—oranges, lemons, and limes—grow heavy, and all the things that were her daily self began to flow away through her fingertips.
* * *
Forty minutes later, just as she set out for the pediatric wing, Piper Simms caught up with her. “Dr. Morgan wants you in A&E exam two,” Piper said.
Zee didn’t like to talk to anyone between the time she finished divesting and the time she saw her first patient. Too much of herself might bubble back into the space she’d created.
“Can it wait? I’m on my way to a new patient. Leg bud.”
“The leg’s been reassigned.” Piper flashed her handheld for Zee to see the orders screen. “To me.”
There was no need to look so triumphant about it, Zee thought.
Three years ago, when Zee had started her training, Piper had been the best empath in the unit. Now she was struggling with burnout and seemed to resent each new class of empaths that came along, Zee in particular. Piper’s flashes of meanness were so frequent that Zee had talked to her adviser about them.
“Empath envy,” the adviser explained. “Piper knows you can become as good an empath as she was.”
“But I make mistakes. I miss so many things.” Zee paused a moment. “Why did you say ‘was’?”
“Was. You said I could be as good as she was.”
“Ah.” Her adviser became thoughtful. “Well. Piper’s three years older than you and suffering an affliction hazardous to all empaths. She’s fallen in love.”
It was the first time Zee had ever heard how deeply personal attachments could affect her work. Strong emotions, hate as well as love, could derail an empath’s ability to concentrate. Zee felt truly sorry for Piper.
“Will she ever get it back? I mean, if she gets married and that’s all settled and taken care of, will she be best again?”
“Some can do that,” the adviser said. “Some wash out, and some struggle with it all their lives. There’s no way of predicting. Piper will always be a good, even gifted, empath. But as good as she was? Time will tell. In the meantime, always try to be gentle with an empath who’s suffering. It could be you someday.”
Zee didn’t think so. She had no intention of falling in love—especially now. She had raced back to the dorm to tell the others what she’d learned. And was embarrassed to discover that everyone knew but her, because everyone else had already been in love, and love, they explained, was just the highest form of piercing. Zee knew about piercing, the disturbing phenomenon of being so overwhelmed by attraction to someone that you lost your focus. Zee had felt attraction, but never the piercing they described. When someone else was all you could think of, or you found yourself wearing his T-shirt under your scrubs so you could feel him around you all during your shift, you’d been pierced.
“But that’s against the rules,” Zee said when she heard about the T-shirt. The hospital had a dress code for everyone.
“Yes it is,” Mariko Sanchez said. “But you do it anyway. That’s how you know you’ve been pierced.”
Zee had tried to be patient with Piper ever since, but right now it wasn’t easy.
“Don’t you think you’d better get going?” Piper asked. “Dr. Morgan asked for you especially.”
Zee didn’t argue. Once you started your shift, you had no personal opinions. And Piper, in her present state, would probably report her if she protested.
“All right,” Zee said at last. “I haven’t had any A&Es since Wednesday, so it will be a change of pace.”
“You’re so not kidding it will,” Piper said behind her in a chilly, sunken voice Zee was certain she hadn’t been meant to hear.
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Waggoner