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Spooky Action at a Distance

It had been a long day with more clients than I usually saw: a few small emergencies with an almost entirely nonverbal teenager who was acting out strangely (she had started having menstrual migraines, and couldn't find a way to communicate it to her mother) and a young man with severe cerebral palsy who his grandmother suspected was being abused or bullied at his school (and who was). Heavier stuff than usual, but good and useful.

I was trying to decide whether or not to take my end-of-day meds. I thought I would probably sleep fairly well, and I didn't have any sense of lingering connection to any of the kids. I try to avoid taking my "as needed" medications too often. As I have learned over the years, telepaths medicate -- or self-medicate, or are medicated -- a great deal. If you are unfortunate enough to be a lower-class teenager of color with telepathy, you either end up in an institution, like I did, or you learn to self-medicate with whatever comes to hand. We're very fond of central nervous system depressants, and the easiest to come by is, of course, alcohol. Drink and maybe you won't hear what everyone is thinking of you. Drink and maybe you can't feel everyone else's pain. Drink yourself into a stupor and maybe you won't have someone else's dreams.

I didn't have a chance to take it up before I found myself in a lockdown unit. The doctors spent years trying to find the perfect cocktail of medications to shut me down without admitting they were shutting me down. No one wanted to believe in my telepathy -- paras were still thought of as all being like the World War 2 bulletproofs well into the 1980s, and the less showy powers put a lot of people in denial. The idea that there might be someone who could rifle through your brain as easily as most people rifle through cluttered drawers... well, I can understand the drugs.

Still, they made a lot of mistakes. Costly mistakes. Mistakes that traumatized a lot of staff and patients around me, and one grand mistake that left me wide open, like a phone left off the hook, like a microphone left switched on, and half a city experiencing electroshock therapy without any helpful medications. Ruth has never told me how many people died that day, and I have never looked it up, but it was the key event that put me into her capable hands.

So you might understand when I say that I try to find alternatives to medications. Because all medications interact with your particular state of being at that moment, and one never knows when you'll have a side effect you've never had before. I was far, far under Wonder City, but I could still walk in and out of the minds of just about everyone there, by intent or accident.

One of the very best alternatives I've found is the Internet. I understand this is pretty common.

So there I was, in my fuzzy garnet robe and matching slippers, sipping chamomile-mint tea and spending the early evening looking at cute animal pictures and horrible autocorrect errors. And I was struck by a fancy to pop over and look at the Wonderful House website.

My sisters would give me the side-eye if they knew I was turning into such a junkie for that show. Hell, I give myself the side-eye some days.

You see, they post video clips on the site, so you can always get more Wonderful House than just the hour once a week. They say that every week, they film over a thousand hours of footage. They have staff on the video feeds all the time, picking out snippets that were interesting enough to end up on the show. And then they have to sift through all of those and edit them together to make the show. Meanwhile, Terabytes of video end up on the virtual cutting room floor. So they share some of the gems.

The first one I ran into was "Brandon's Bathroom," and he's always a giant train wreck, so of course I clicked.

He was talking to the camera, sitting on the closed toilet in his unspeakably filthy and cluttered bathroom. He was flushed of face, wearing just a pair of shorts, his blond hair even more mussed and cowlicked than usual. He clutched a large Wonder Beer and stared down at it moodily.

"I'm glad I've got you to talk to, man," he slurred. "Everyone here hates me."

"Haters gonna hate, man," a strange man's voice said, and I realized it was the cameraman who he was so friendly with. "You're successful, you have more fans online than they do -- you'll always be better than they are and they know it."

Brandon smiled briefly at the camera and drank from the can. Then he stared at it again, and the smile oozed off his face. His mouth trembled a little, and his eyes were oddly bright -- I think he was on the verge of tears. "But they really hate me," he said, gesturing with the can and sloshing some of it on himself. His voice broke. "I didn't know you could be alone in a house full of people."

"Dude, it doesn't matter," the cameraman said, reaching out and patting Brandon's shoulder. "You just have to get through all three months and you've got a wad of cash to blow on a spring break trip or something. And everyone you meet will love you." He paused. "All the girls you meet will love you, too."

Brandon hiccoughed and smiled again. "Yeah," he said.

"You just have to man up, B," the cameraman said. "Suck it up. You're the only one with balls in this house, and you know it."

"Almost literally," Brandon hooted, scratching his crotch. The video chose that spot to freeze on, and ended. I scrolled it off quickly, before my eyes rolled clear out of my head.

The next clip that caught my eye was, "An Evening Event," so I clicked it. There was a longish buffering time, and then the words, "Welcome to the Wonderful Live Feed," flashed up. The picture came on too fast for me to realize what I'd done and then I was there.

I have tried again and again to describe what it's like to end up in this sort of situation, with no warning and no defenses and no meds. It's never quite enough to convey it, but I'll try again.

Imagine you suddenly have twenty pairs of legs, twenty pairs of eyes, twenty pairs of arms. You have twenty heads and twenty bodies, twenty pairs of ears, twenty noses. You are feeling through twenty skins, every itch and pain and pressure and heat and cold.

Think about how much sensory information you don't pay attention to every moment -- the sounds and rhythms and stinks and scents and lights and colors and shadows, the touch of your clothing, of the chair under you, of your hair on your forehead or the back of your neck. Think about not having those filters, and then think about having all that for twenty people. And you will understand that people's thoughts are not the thing that puts me in a fetal position when I'm surprised.

And I'm caught, like a fly in a spider's web, every kick or struggle done without leverage, every motion away getting me more firmly caught in the web.

I've spent years working out coping mechanisms to get me out of situations like this. I studied with all the most experienced (mostly self-taught) telepaths in the world. I worked with alien telepaths that Ruth took me to visit, who had all sorts of techniques and defenses taught to them in their schools from the first day they're born. I have figured out how to shut down the input, but it takes time and a fucking lot of effort.

Snapshot:
I'm wet. I'm freezing. My toes are numb. My sinuses ache with cold wind. I don't have a heavy jacket. The wind cuts right through me. Rain stings my face. My head hurts. My feet hurt. My fingers hurt. My teeth hurt.

Put a blanket on it, mug it, shove it through a door, slam the door. Every inch of my body will throb with pain for a week.

Too many voices. The director shouting, the generators thrumming, Brandon's huh huh huh laugh like nails on chalkboard. Jeshri's voice, light and breathy. Cameramen and women chattering. Shrieking feedback from a microphone. Tom's voice, low and blunt. The truck engine whines. The onlookers muttering. Simon's voice, husky and resonant. The shattering of a police siren. Screams from the onlookers, cheers from the crew. Lizzie's voice, strained and sharp.

I have to be deaf, deaf, deaf. I stick my fingers in my mental ears. I stuff cotton in my mental ears. I swath my mental head in layers of soundproofing. I focus on the sounds of my home: the hums of the computers, the low strains of Billie Holiday telling me that the systems had detected my distress and had set off my focus-assisting programs.

Everything stinks: sweat and diesel fumes and hot metal and menstrual blood and food and cigarettes and nausea and makeup and warm plastic and ozone and cheap beer and fear and desire and sour milk and garbage...

Pinch my nose shut. Duck under the surface of water. Anything to stop that visceral assault on my lizard brain. Sweet jasmine incense was burning not far from where I sat, wreathing me in its comforting smoke.

Too bright. Too many colors. Too much movement.

Close each set of eyes until I can actually see.

Simon is draped over the stone wall behind the house in his Gold Stars jacket and tight black hipster jeans. Jeshri is standing near him, hugging herself in her Wonder City U hoodie and black yoga pants and knee-high black boots. Lizzie, in a bomber jacket and jeans, is speaking to them in a furtive way, glancing around to make sure no cameras are near. Tom, shivering in a t-shirt and jeans, is being harangued by the director. I can't tell what they're supposed to be shooting out here in the back yard, in the horrible March weather. The sound people are huddled together for warmth with the camera crew. Brandon is chatting with them and drinking beer, flirting outrageously with one of the female sound engineers. The director claps his hands and everyone drags tiredly into position, production assistants fluttering around them like startled pigeons.

I close the last set of eyes and open my own. Now I can hear thoughts -- just surface thoughts, fleeting scattered things that come with several layers of meaning, memories, and disordered images. It takes some time, but I start sifting them out into distinct, coherent thought-bytes.

I hate this. I hate this. I'm so cold and tired. Poor kid didn't even give her time to shower or change she smells of sweat and terror and oh she's on the rag too poor kid. She looks like hell how dare they put her up here for the shoot? Everyone thinks she looks terrible... Should short out the generators and give us all a break. I haven't been working out this week I must look like shit why can't I put on a damn jacket? So tired, so tired, just get it over with... Oh christ you asshole just make up your mind how you want to shoot this one and get it over with we're all freezing our balls off. Beer beer beer wow nice how can she have cleavage in winter clothes? This fucking camera is fucking up again the picture's shit oh he's going to rip me a new one if he gets another day of shit footage... Want a cig, want a cig, god, why can't I just light up here? So hungry, but I'm out of points for the day, so I shouldn't go near the catering table, everyone will remind me of that huge lunch I had...

Then, from out of this morass, an icy-sharp-stinging-hate stabbed me behind the eye:
I'd like to feel her throat in my hands. It would feel so good, and I would crush it so slowly, and she would try to hurt me...

This was accompanied by vivid memories of doing exactly this thing. Memories. Plural.

Usually, I don't shut things down fast. It sometimes backlashes on me if I pull out of a big group situation too fast. But I have been in the minds of too many murderers in my life to want to spend any more time in this one's mind.

I came to with one of the maintenance robots -- Eliot -- gently shaking my shoulder and saying, "Renata? Renata? You are safe here, Renata, please wake up." It had very careful programming for situations like this.

I missed my dog Liza anyway, and her big cold worried nose poking under my chin and in my ear with loud snuffles and tiny little fretting whines, and the happy little dance she did with her front paws when I woke up.

My arm was bruised where I caught myself on the floor, and my hip was bruised where the arm of the chair had caught me as I threw myself sideways in unconscious physical mimicry of my psychic reaction. I had the taste of bile in my mouth, but I did not appear to have tossed my supper, for which I was grateful.

It took me a few moments to get myself back into my chair, leaning on Eliot to get there. I sat there, breathing deeply and slowly, for a long several minutes. Finally, I drank the rest of my tea, cold, to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

The browser window had been shut down in the emergency procedures. I stared at the blank computer desktop, trying to think of what to do.

The police were out. Even if I were willing to trust them to do the right thing, my information was vague and, more damning, telepathic. No one can legally act on a telepath's tip.

I was clicking open my telephone menu before remembering that Ruth was off-planet, searching for cures for Sophie.

I flipped down my telephone contacts, and selected one.

The phone rang twice before the deep, comforting tones of my therapist answered. "Pearl Wong, can I help you?"

"Pearl, it's Renata," I said, pleased that my voice wasn't shaking.

"What's happened?" she said, and I could feel her focus in on me keenly.

"I did something stupid, Pearl," I said. "I stumbled into a live feed of a film crew."

"Oh," she said, and there was a touch of relief. "How did getting out go?"

"Badly," I said. I took a deep breath again. "I know where that serial killer is, Pearl."

"I see," Pearl said, and the relief was snuffed out. "How are you feeling?"

"Shaky and sick," I said. "I'm planning to eat something for grounding and go for a swim later to clear things out."

"Sounds like a good plan," she said. "How about your meds?"

"I'm going to see how I feel after food," I said.

"Don't be too conservative," Pearl said in a light, reminding sort of way. One reason I love her is that she doesn't get maternal at me. I have quite enough people trying to be my mama; I don't need to pay someone to do it too.

"I won't," I said. "Pearl, what do I do?"

Pearl said, "Do you want to talk about where he is?"

"He's... someone on the set of It's a Wonderful House," I said. "I can't be more specific. There were a lot of people. It could have, I suppose, even been someone watching the filming, so even one of the neighbors? Or a passerby. Or... this isn't very specific, is it?"

"That's one of your curses, Renata," Pearl said wryly. "Specificity is hard-won with you. But this gives me some ideas of where to go with the information."

"Really?" I said.

"Yes," Pearl said. She paused, then said, slowly, "What I'm thinking about isn't strictly professional, but I think the situation warrants a little break. I won't mention you."

"Okay," I said, rubbing my face to remind myself where I was. "Okay."

"I promise that I will find someone who will listen to this, Renata," Pearl said.

"Okay," I said. "Okay, thank you."

"Right," she said. There was a pregnant pause.

I knew what she was expecting. "I promise I won't go spelunking," I said. "I don't want to. I don't want to see inside that man's head again."

"All right," she said. "I'll let you know what I hear back, okay?"

"Okay. And I'll go get something to eat." I did another deep breath. "Thanks, Pearl."

"It's what I'm here for," she said.

"One more thing," I said.

"Hm?" Pearl said.

I said, "I think I'm ready for that new dog now."

---

From the Author:
I got up way too early this morning to be entertaining, alas.

Remember that, through May, I'm running the commenting incentive again, because reading your comments is the most fun on the Internet I have all day. So if I get 50 total comments in May, I will post twice weekly through June. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through July too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through August.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction. We're doing better, but we've done better before--Click! Click! Okay!







Date: 2011-05-19 05:01 pm (UTC)
kyleri: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kyleri
...well, that certainly does draw the plot together quickly.

*blink* *blink*

Date: 2011-05-28 01:54 pm (UTC)
kyleri: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kyleri
Not the slightest, tiniest bit.

Date: 2012-01-28 07:39 am (UTC)
the_leaky_pen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] the_leaky_pen
Same here. I was definitely caught by surprise with that. Well done!

And I want to give Renata all of the hugs as well, and aware that it is not possible what with her telepathy and not being able to have human contact.

Date: 2016-04-30 07:11 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
ITS TOMS CAMERAMAN CALLING IT NOW

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