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Fiction

The Pipes of Pan

In her dream, Wendy was a pretty little girl living wild in a magical wood where it never rained and never got cold. She lived on sweet berries of many colors, which always tasted wonderful, and all she wanted or needed was to be happy.

There were other girls living wild in the dream-wood, but they all avoided one another, because they had no need of company. They had lived there, untroubled, for a long time—far longer than Wendy could remember.

Then, in the dream, the others came: the shadow-men with horns on their brows and shaggy legs. They played strange music on sets of pipes that looked as if they had been made from reeds—but Wendy knew, without knowing how she knew or what sense there was in it, that those pipes had been fashioned out of the blood and bones of something just like her, and that the music they played was the breath of her soul.

After the shadow-men came, the dream became steadily more nightmarish, and living wild ceased to be innocently joyful. After the shadow-men came, life was all hiding with a fearful, fluttering heart, knowing that if ever she were found, she would have to run and run and run, without any hope of escape—but wherever she hid, she could always hear the music of the pipes.

When she woke up in a cold sweat, she wondered whether the dreams her parents had were as terrible, or as easy to understand. Somehow, she doubted it.

• • • •

There was a sharp rat-a-tat on her bedroom door.

“Time to get up, Beauty.” Mother didn’t bother coming in to check that Wendy responded. Wendy always responded. She was a good girl.

She climbed out of bed, took off her nightdress, and went to sit at the dressing table, to look at herself in the mirror. It had become part of her morning ritual, now that her awakenings were indeed awakenings. She blinked to clear the sleep from her eyes, shivering slightly as an image left over from the dream flashed briefly and threateningly in the depths of her emergent consciousness.

Wendy didn’t know how long she had been dreaming. The dreams had begun before she developed the sense of time that would have allowed her to make the calculation. Perhaps she had always dreamed, just as she had always got up in the morning in response to the summoning rat-a-tat, but she had only recently come by the ability to remember her dreams. On the other hand, perhaps the beginning of her dreams had been the end of her innocence.

She often wondered how she had managed not to give herself away in the first few months, after she first began to remember her dreams but before she attained her present level of waking self-control, but any anomalies in her behavior must have been written off to the randomizing factor. Her parents were always telling her how lucky she was to be thirteen, and now she was in a position to agree with them. At thirteen, it was entirely appropriate to be a little bit inquisitive and more than a little bit odd. It was even possible to get away with being too clever by half, as long as she didn’t overdo it.

It was difficult to be sure, because she didn’t dare interrogate the house’s systems too explicitly, but she had figured out that she must have been thirteen for about thirty years, in mind and body alike. She was thirteen in her blood and her bones, but not in the privacy of her head.

Inside, where it counted, she had now been unthirteen for at least four months.

If it would only stay inside, she thought, I might keep it a secret forever. But it won’t. It isn’t. It’s coming out. Every day that passes is one day closer to the moment of truth.

She stared into the mirror, searching the lines of her face for signs of maturity. She was sure that her face looked thinner, her eyes more serious, her hair less blonde. All of that might be mostly imagination, she knew, but there was no doubt about the other things. She was half an inch taller, and her breasts were getting larger. It was only a matter of time before that sort of thing attracted attention, and as soon as it was noticed, the truth would be manifest. Measurements couldn’t lie. As soon as they were moved to measure her, her parents would know the horrid truth.

Their baby was growing up.

• • • •

“Did you sleep well, dear?” Mother said, as Wendy took her seat at the breakfast table. It wasn’t a trick question; it was just part of the routine. It wasn’t even a matter of pretending, although her parents certainly did their fair share of that. It was just a way of starting the day off. Such rituals were part and parcel of what they thought of as everyday life. Parents had their innate programming too.

“Yes, thank you,” she replied, meekly.

“What flavor manna would you like today?”

“Coconut and strawberry, please.” Wendy smiled as she spoke, and Mother smiled back. Mother was smiling because Wendy was smiling. Wendy was supposed to be smiling because she was a smiley child, but in fact she was smiling because saying “strawberry and coconut” was an authentic and honest choice, an exercise of freedom that would pass for an expected manifestation of the randomizing factor.

“I’m afraid I can’t take you out this morning, Lovely,” Father said, while Mother punched out the order. “We have to wait in for the house-doctor. The waterworks still aren’t right.”

“If you ask me,” Mother said, “the real problem’s the water table. The taproots are doing their best, but they’re having to go down too far. The system’s fine just so long as we get some good old-fashioned rain once in a while, but every time there’s a dry spell the whole estate suffers. We ought to call a meeting and put some pressure on the landscape engineers. Fixing a water-table shouldn’t be too much trouble in this day and age.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the water-table, dear,” Father said, patiently. “It’s just that the neighbors have the same indwelling systems that we have. There’s a congenital weakness in the root system; in dry weather the cell-terminal conduits in the phloem tend to get gummed up. It ought to be easy enough to fix—a little elementary somatic engineering, probably no more than a single-gene augment in the phloem—but you know what doctors are like; they never want to go for the cheap and cheerful cure if they can sell you something more complicated.”

“What’s phloem?” Wendy asked. She could ask as many questions as she liked, to a moderately high level of sophistication. That was a great blessing. She was glad she wasn’t an eight-year-old, reliant on passive observation and a restricted vocabulary. At least a thirteen-year-old had the right equipment for thinking all set up.

“It’s a kind of plant tissue,” Father informed her, ignoring the tight-lipped look Mother was giving him because he’d contradicted her. “It’s sort of equivalent to your veins, except of course that plants have sap instead of blood.”

Wendy nodded, but contrived to look as if she hadn’t really understood the answer.

“I’ll set the encyclopedia up on the system,” Father said. “You can read all about it while I’m talking to the house-doctor.”

“She doesn’t want to spend the morning reading what the encyclopedia has to say about phloem,” Mother said, peevishly. “She needs to get out into the fresh air.” That wasn’t mere ritual, like asking whether she had slept well, but it wasn’t pretence either. When Mother started talking about Wendy’s supposed wants and needs, she was usually talking about her own wants and supposed needs. Wendy had come to realize that talking that way was Mother’s preferred method of criticizing Father; she was paying him back for disagreeing about the water table.

Wendy was fully conscious of the irony of the fact that she really did want to study the encyclopedia. There was so much to learn and so little time. Maybe she didn’t need to do it, given that it was unlikely to make any difference in the long run, but she wanted to understand as much as she could before all the pretence had to end and the nightmare of uncertainty had to begin.

“It’s okay, Mummy,” she said. “Honest.” She smiled at them both, attempting to bring off the delicate trick of pleasing Father by taking his side while simultaneously pleasing Mother by pretending to be as heroically long-suffering as Mother liked to consider herself.

They both smiled back. All was well, for now. Even though they listened to the news every night, they didn’t seem to have the least suspicion that it could all be happening in their own home, to their own daughter.

• • • •

It only took a few minutes for Wendy to work out a plausible path of icon selection that got her away from translocation in plants and deep into the heart of child physiology. Father had set that up for her by comparing phloem to her own circulatory system. There was a certain danger in getting into recent reportage regarding childhood diseases, but she figured that she could explain it well enough if anyone took the trouble to consult the log to see what she’d been doing. She didn’t think anyone was likely to, but she simply couldn’t help being anxious about the possibility—there were, it seemed, a lot of things one simply couldn’t help being anxious about, once it was possible to be anxious at all.

“I wondered if I could get sick like the house’s roots,” she would say, if asked. “I wanted to know whether my blood could get clogged up in dry weather.” She figured that she would be okay as long as she pretended not to have understood what she’d read, and conscientiously avoided any mention of the word progeria. She already knew that progeria was what she’d got, and the last thing she wanted was to be taken to a child-engineer who’d be able to confirm the fact.

She called up a lot of innocuous stuff about blood, and spent the bulk of her time pretending to study elementary material of no real significance. Every time she got hold of a document she really wanted to look at she was careful to move on quickly, so it would seem as if she hadn’t even bothered to look at it if anyone did consult the log to see what she’d been doing. She didn’t dare call up any extensive current affairs information on the progress of the plague or the fierce medical and political arguments concerning the treatment of its victims.

It must be wonderful to be a parent, she thought, and not have to worry about being found out—or about anything at all, really.

At first, Wendy had thought that Mother and Father really did have worries, because they talked as if they did, but in the last few weeks she had begun to see through the sham. In a way, they thought that they did have worries, but it was all just a matter of habit, a kind of innate restlessness left over from the olden days. Adults must have had authentic anxieties at one time, back in the days when everybody could expect to die young and a lot of people never even reached seventy, and she presumed that they hadn’t quite got used to the fact that they’d changed the world and changed themselves. They just hadn’t managed to lose the habit. They probably would, in the fullness of time. Would they still need children then, she wondered, or would they learn to do without? Were children just another habit, another manifestation of innate restlessness? Had the great plague come just in time to seal off the redundant umbilical cord that connected mankind to its evolutionary past?

We’re just betwixts and betweens, Wendy thought, as she rapidly scanned a second-hand summary of a paper in the latest issue of Nature, which dealt with the pathology of progeria. There’ll soon be no place for us, whether we grow older or not. They’ll get rid of us all.

The article that contained the summary claimed that the development of an immunoserum was just a matter of time, although it wasn’t yet clear whether anything much might be done to reverse the aging process in children who’d already come down with it. She didn’t dare access the paper itself, or even an abstract—that would have been a dead giveaway, like leaving a bloody thumbprint at the scene of a murder.

Wendy wished that she had a clearer idea of whether the latest news was good or bad, or whether the long-term prospects had any possible relevance to her now that she had started to show physical symptoms as well as mental ones. She didn’t know what would happen to her once Mother and Father found out and notified the authorities; there was no clear pattern in the stories she glimpsed in the general news-broadcasts, but whether this meant that there was as yet no coherent social policy for dealing with the rapidly-escalating problem she wasn’t sure.

For the thousandth time she wondered whether she ought simply to tell her parents what was happening, and for the thousandth time, she felt the terror growing within her at the thought that everything she had might be placed in jeopardy, that she might be sent back to the factory or handed over to the researchers or simply cut adrift to look after herself. There was no way of knowing, after all, what really lay behind the rituals that her parents used in dealing with her, no way of knowing what would happen when their thirteen-year-old daughter was no longer thirteen.

Not yet, her fear said. Not yet. Hang on. Lie low . . . because once you can’t hide, you’ll have to run and run and run and there’ll be nowhere to go. Nowhere at all.

She left the workstation and went to watch the house-doctor messing about in the cellar. Father didn’t seem very glad to see her, perhaps because he was trying to talk the house-doctor round to his way of thinking and didn’t like the way the house-doctor immediately started talking to her instead of him, so she went away again, and played with her toys for a while. She still enjoyed playing with her toys—which was perhaps as well, all things considered.

• • • •

“We can go out for a while now,” Father said, when the house-doctor had finally gone. “Would you like to play ball on the back lawn?”

“Yes please,” she said.

Father liked playing ball, and Wendy didn’t mind. It was better than the sedentary pursuits that Mother preferred. Father had more energy to spare than Mother, probably because Mother had a job that was more taxing physically. Father only played with software; his clever fingers did all his work. Mother actually had to get her hands inside her remote-gloves and her feet inside her big red boots and get things moving. “Being a ghost in a machine,” she would often complain, when she thought Wendy couldn’t hear, “can be bloody hard work.” She never swore in front of Wendy, of course.

Out on the back lawn, Wendy and Father threw the ball back and forth for half an hour, making the catches more difficult as time went by, so that they could leap about and dive on the bone-dry carpet-grass and get thoroughly dusty.

To begin with, Wendy was distracted by the ceaseless stream of her insistent thoughts, but as she got more involved in the game she was able to let herself go a little. She couldn’t quite get back to being thirteen, but she could get to a state of mind that wasn’t quite so fearful. By the time her heart was pounding and she’d grazed both her knees and one of her elbows she was enjoying herself thoroughly, all the more so because Father was evidently having a good time. He was in a good mood anyhow, because the house-doctor had obligingly confirmed everything he’d said about the normality of the water table, and had then backed down gracefully when he saw that he couldn’t persuade Father that the house needed a whole new root-system.

“Those somatic transformations don’t always take,” the house-doctor had said, darkly but half-heartedly, as he left. “You might have trouble again, three months down the line.”

“I’ll take the chance,” Father had replied, breezily. “Thanks for your time.”

Given that the doctor was charging for his time, Wendy had thought, it should have been the doctor thanking father, but she hadn’t said anything. She already understood that kind of thing well enough not to have to ask questions about it. She had other matters she wanted to raise once Father collapsed on the baked earth, felled by healthy exhaustion, and demanded that they take a rest.

“I’m not as young as you are,” he told her, jokingly. “When you get past a hundred and fifty, you just can’t take it the way you used to.” He had no idea how it affected her to hear him say you in that careless fashion, when he really meant we: a we that didn’t include her, and never would.

“I’m bleeding,” she said, pointing to a slight scratch on her elbow.

“Oh dear,” he said. “Does it hurt?”

“Not much,” she said, truthfully. “If too much leaks out, will I need injections, like the house’s roots?”

“It won’t come to that,” he assured her, lifting up her arm so that he could put on a show of inspecting the wound. “It’s just a drop. I’ll kiss it better.” He put his lips to the wound for a few seconds, then said: “It’ll be as good as new in the morning.”

“Good,” she said. “I expect it’d be very expensive to have to get a whole new girl.”

He looked at her a little strangely, but it seemed to Wendy that he was in such a light mood that he was in no danger of taking it too seriously.

“Fearfully expensive,” he agreed, cheerfully, as he lifted her up in his arms and carried her back to the house. “We’ll just have to take very good care of you, won’t we?”

“Or do a somatic whatever,” she said, as innocently as she possibly could. “Is that what you’d have to do if you wanted a boy for a while?”

He laughed, and there appeared to be no more than the merest trace of unease in his laugh. “We love you just the way you are, Lovely,” he assured her. “We wouldn’t want you to be any other way.”

She knew that it was true. That was the problem.

She had ham and cheese manna for lunch, with real greens home-grown in the warm cellar-annex under soft red lights. She would have eaten heartily had she not been so desperately anxious about her weight, but as things were she felt it better to peck and pretend, and she surreptitiously discarded the food she hadn’t consumed as soon as Father’s back was turned.

• • • •

After lunch, judging it to be safe enough, she picked up the thread of the conversation again. “Why did you want a girl and not a boy?” she asked. “The Johnsons wanted a boy.” The Johnsons had a ten-year-old named Peter. He was the only other child Wendy saw regularly, and he had not as yet exhibited the slightest sign of disease to her eager eye.

“We didn’t want a girl,” Father told her, tolerantly. “We wanted you.”

“Why?” she asked, trying to look as if she were just fishing for compliments, but hoping to trigger something a trifle more revealing. This, after all, was the great mystery. Why her? Why anyone? Why did adults think they needed children?

“Because you’re beautiful,” Father said. “And because you’re Wendy. Some people are Peter people, so they have Peters. Some people are Wendy people, so they have Wendys. Your Mummy and I are definitely Wendy people—probably the Wendiest people in the world. It’s a matter of taste.”

It was all baby talk, all gobbledygook, but she felt that she had to keep trying. Some day, surely, one of them would let a little truth show through their empty explanations.

“But you have different kinds of manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Wendy said, “and sometimes you go right off one kind for weeks on end. Maybe some day you’ll go off me, and want a different one.”

“No we won’t, darling,” he answered, gently. “There are matters of taste and matters of taste. Manna is fuel for the body. Variety of taste just helps to make the routine of eating that little bit more interesting. Relationships are something else. It’s a different kind of need. We love you, Beauty, more than anything else in the world. Nothing could ever replace you.”

She thought about asking about what would happen if Father and Mother ever got divorced, but decided that it would be safer to leave the matter alone for now. Even though time was pressing, she had to be careful.

• • • •

They watched TV for a while before Mother came home. Father had a particular fondness for archive film of extinct animals—not the ones that the engineers had re-created, but smaller and odder ones: weirdly shaped sea-dwelling creatures. He could never have seen such creatures even if they had still existed when he was young, not even in an aquarium; they had only ever been known to people as things on film. Even so, the whole tone of the tapes that documented their one-time existence was nostalgic, and Father seemed genuinely affected by a sense of personal loss at the thought of the sterilization of the seas during the last ecocatastrophe but one.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said, of an excessively tentacled sea anemone, which sheltered three vivid clownfish while ungainly shrimps passed by. “Isn’t it just extraordinary?

“Yes,” she said, dutifully, trying to inject an appropriate reverence into her tone. “It’s lovely.” The music on the soundtrack was plaintive; it was being played on some fluty wind instrument, possibly by a human player. Wendy had never heard music like it except on TV soundtracks; it was as if the sound were the breath of the long-lost world of nature, teeming with undesigned life.

“Next summer,” Father said, “I want us to go out in one of those glass-bottomed boats that take sightseers out to the new barrier reef. It’s not the same as the original one, of course, and they’re deliberately setting out to create something modern, something new, but they’re stocking it with some truly weird and wonderful creatures.”

“Mother wants to go up the Nile,” Wendy said. “She wants to see the Sphinx, and the tombs.”

“We’ll do that the year after,” Father said. “They’re just ruins. They can wait. Living things . . .” He stopped. “Look at those!” he said, pointing at the screen. She looked at a host of jellyfish swimming close to the silvery surface, their bodies pulsing like great translucent hearts.

It doesn’t matter, Wendy thought. I won’t be there. I won’t see the new barrier reef or the Sphinx and the tombs. Even if they find a cure, and even if you both want me cured, I won’t be there. Not the real me. The real me will have died, one way or another, and there’ll be nothing left except a girl who’ll be thirteen forever, and a randomizing factor that will make it seem that she has a lively mind.

Father put his arm around her shoulder, and hugged her fondly.

Father must really love her very dearly, she thought. After all, he had loved her for thirty years, and might love her for thirty years more, if only she could stay the way she was . . . if only she could be returned to what she had been before . . .

• • • •

The evening TV schedules advertised a documentary on progeria, scheduled for late at night, long after the nation’s children had been put to bed. Wendy wondered if her parents would watch it, and whether she could sneak downstairs to listen to the soundtrack through the closed door. In a way, she hoped that they wouldn’t watch it. It might put ideas into their heads. It was better that they thought of the plague as a distant problem: something that could only affect other people; something with which they didn’t need to concern themselves.

She stayed awake, just in case, and when the luminous dial of her bedside clock told her it was time, she silently got up, and crept down the stairs until she could hear what was going on in the living room. It was risky, because the randomizing factor wasn’t really supposed to stretch to things like that, but she’d done it before without being found out.

It didn’t take long to ascertain that the TV wasn’t even on, and that the only sound to be heard was her parents’ voices. She actually turned around to go back to bed before she suddenly realized what they were talking about.

“Are you sure she isn’t affected mentally?” Mother was saying.

“Absolutely certain,” Father replied. “I watched her all afternoon, and she’s perfectly normal.”

“Perhaps she hasn’t got it at all,” Mother said, hopefully.

“Maybe not the worst kind,” Father said, in a voice that was curiously firm. “They’re not sure that even the worst cases are manifesting authentic self-consciousness, and there’s a strong contingent that argues that the vast majority of cases are relatively minor dislocations of programming. But there’s no doubt about the physical symptoms. I picked her up to carry her indoors and she’s a stone heavier. She’s got hair growing in her armpits and she’s got tangible tits. We’ll have to be careful how we dress her when we take her to public places.”

“Can we do anything about her food—reduce the calorific value of her manna or something?”

“Sure—but that’d be hard evidence if anyone audited the house records. Not that anyone’s likely to, now that the doctor’s been and gone, but you never know. I read an article that cites a paper in the latest Nature to demonstrate that a cure is just around the corner. If we can just hang on until then . . . she’s a big girl anyhow, and she might not put on more than an inch or two. As long as she doesn’t start behaving oddly, we might be able to keep it secret.”

“If they do find out,” said Mother, ominously, “there’ll be hell to pay.”

“I don’t think so,” Father assured her. “I’ve heard that the authorities are quite sympathetic in private, although they have to put on a sterner face for publicity purposes.”

“I’m not talking about the bloody bureaucrats,” Mother retorted, “I’m talking about the estate. If the neighbors find out we’re sheltering a centre of infection . . . well, how would you feel if the Johnsons’ Peter turned out to have the disease and hadn’t warned us about the danger to Wendy?”

“They’re not certain how it spreads,” said Father, defensively, “They don’t know what kind of vector’s involved—until they find out, there’s no reason to think that Wendy’s endangering Peter just by living next door.

“It’s not as if they spend much time together. We can’t lock her up—that’d be suspicious in itself. We have to pretend that things are absolutely normal, at least until we know how this thing is going to turn out. I’m not prepared to run the risk of their taking her away—not if there’s the slightest chance of avoiding it. I don’t care what they say on the newstapes—this thing is getting out of control and I really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I’m not letting Wendy go anywhere, unless I’m absolutely forced. She might be getting heavier and hairier, but inside she’s still Wendy, and I’m not letting them take her away.”

Wendy heard Father’s voice getting louder as he came towards the door, and she scuttled back up the stairs as fast as she could go. Numb with shock, she climbed back into bed. Father’s words echoed inside her head: “I watched her all afternoon and she’s perfectly normal . . . inside she’s still Wendy . . .”

They were putting on an act too, and she hadn’t known. She hadn’t been able to tell. She’d been watching them, and they’d seemed perfectly normal . . . but inside, where it counted . . .

It was a long time before she fell asleep, and when she finally did, she dreamed of shadow-men and shadow-music, which drew the very soul from her even as she fled through the infinite forest of green and gold.

• • • •

The men from the Ministry of Health arrived next morning, while Wendy was finishing her honey and almond manna. She saw Father go pale as the man in the grey suit held up his identification card to the door camera. She watched Father’s lip trembling as he thought about telling the man in the grey suit that he couldn’t come in, and then realized that it wouldn’t do any good. As Father got up to go to the door, he exchanged a bitter glance with Mother, and murmured, “That bastard house-doctor.”

Mother came to stand behind Wendy, and put both of her hands on Wendy’s shoulders. “It’s all right, darling,” she said. Which meant, all too clearly, that things were badly wrong.

Father and the man in the grey suit were already arguing as they came through the door. There was another man behind them, dressed in less formal clothing. He was carrying a heavy black bag, like a rigid suitcase.

“I’m sorry,” the man in the grey suit was saying. “I understand your feelings, but this is an epidemic—a national emergency. We have to check out all reports, and we have to move swiftly if we’re to have any chance of containing the problem.”

“If there’d been any cause for alarm,” Father told him, hotly, “I’d have called you myself.” But the man in the grey suit ignored him; from the moment he had entered the room his eyes had been fixed on Wendy. He was smiling. Even though Wendy had never seen him before and didn’t know the first thing about him, she knew that the smile was dangerous.

“Hello Wendy,” said the man in the grey suit, smoothly. “My name’s Tom Cartwright. I’m from the Ministry of Health. This is Jimmy Li. I’m afraid we have to carry out some tests.”

Wendy stared back at him as blankly as she could. In a situation like this, she figured, it was best to play dumb, at least to begin with.

“You can’t do this,” Mother said, gripping Wendy’s shoulders just a little too hard. “You can’t take her away.”

“We can complete our initial investigation here and now,” Cartwright answered, blandly. “Jimmy can plug into your kitchen systems, and I can do my part right here at the table. It’ll be over in less than half an hour, and if all’s well, we’ll be gone in no time.” The way he said it implied that he didn’t really expect to be gone in no time.

Mother and Father blustered a little more, but it was only a gesture. They knew how futile it all was. While Mr. Li opened up his bag of tricks to reveal an awesome profusion of gadgets forged in metal and polished glass, Father came to stand beside Wendy, and like Mother he reached out to touch her.

They both assured her that the needle Mr. Li was preparing wouldn’t hurt when he put it into her arm, and when it did hurt—bringing tears to her eyes in spite of her efforts to blink them away—they told her the pain would go away in a minute. It didn’t, of course. Then they told her not to worry about the questions Mr. Cartwright was going to ask her, although it was as plain as the noses on their faces that they were terrified by the possibility that she would give the wrong answers.

In the end, though, Wendy’s parents had to step back a little, and let her face up to the man from the Ministry on her own.

I mustn’t play too dumb, Wendy thought. That would be just as much of a giveaway as being too clever. I have to try to make my mind blank, let the answers come straight out without thinking at all. It ought to be easy. After all, I’ve been thirteen for thirty years, and unthirteen for a matter of months . . . it should be easy.

She knew that she was lying to herself. She knew well enough that she had crossed a boundary that couldn’t be re-crossed just by stepping backwards.

“How old are you, Wendy?” Cartwright asked, when Jimmy Li had vanished into the kitchen to play with her blood.

“Thirteen,” she said, trying to return his practiced smile without too much evident anxiety.

“Do you know what you are, Wendy?”

“I’m a girl,” she answered, knowing that it wouldn’t wash.

“Do you know what the difference between children and adults is, Wendy? Apart from the fact that they’re smaller.”

There was no point in denying it. At thirteen, a certain amount of self-knowledge was included in the package, and even thirteen-year-olds who never looked at an encyclopedia learned quite a lot about the world and its ways in the course of thirty years.

“Yes,” she said, knowing full well that she wasn’t going to be allowed to get away with minimal replies.

“Tell me what you know about the difference,” he said.

“It’s not such a big difference,” she said, warily. “Children are made out of the same things adults are made of—but they’re made so they stop growing at a certain age, and never get any older. Thirteen is the oldest—some stop at eight.”

“Why are children made that way, Wendy?” Step by inexorable step he was leading her towards the deep water, and she didn’t know how to swim. She knew that she wasn’t clever enough—yet—to conceal her cleverness.

“Population control,” she said.

“Can you give me a more detailed explanation, Wendy?”

“In the olden days,” she said, “there were catastrophes. Lots of people died, because there were so many of them. They discovered how not to grow old, so that they could live for hundreds of years if they didn’t get killed in bad accidents. They had to stop having so many children, or they wouldn’t be able to feed everyone when the children kept growing up, but they didn’t want to have a world with no children in it. Lots of people still wanted children, and couldn’t stop wanting them—and in the end, after more catastrophes, those people who really wanted children a lot were able to have them . . . only the children weren’t allowed to grow up and have more children of their own. There were lots of arguments about it, but in the end things calmed down.”

“There’s another difference between children and adults, isn’t there?” said Cartwright, smoothly.

“Yes,” Wendy said, knowing that she was supposed to have that information in her memory and that she couldn’t refuse to voice it. “Children can’t think very much. They have limited self-consciousness.” She tried hard to say it as though it were a mere formula, devoid of any real meaning so far as she was concerned.

“Do you know why children are made with limited self-consciousness?”

“No.” She was sure that no was the right answer to that one, although she’d recently begun to make guesses. It was so they wouldn’t know what was happening if they were ever sent back, and so that they didn’t change too much as they learned things, becoming un-childlike in spite of their appearance.

“Do you know what the word progeria means, Wendy?”

“Yes,” she said. Children watched the news. Thirteen-year-olds were supposed to be able to hold intelligent conversations with their parents. “It’s when children get older even though they shouldn’t. It’s a disease that children get. It’s happening a lot.”

“Is it happening to you, Wendy? Have you got progeria?”

For a second or two she hesitated between no and I don’t know, and then realized how bad the hesitation must look. She kept her face straight as she finally said: “I don’t think so.”

“What would you think if you found out you had got progeria, Wendy?” Cartwright asked, smug in the knowledge that she must be way out of her depth by now, whatever the truth of the matter might be.

“You can’t ask her that!” Father said. “She’s thirteen! Are you trying to scare her half to death? Children can be scared, you know. They’re not robots.”

“No,” said Cartwright, without taking his eyes off Wendy’s face. “They’re not. Answer the question, Wendy.”

“I wouldn’t like it,” Wendy said, in a low voice. “I don’t want anything to happen to me. I want to be with Mummy and Daddy. I don’t want anything to happen.”

While she was speaking, Jimmy Li had come back into the room. He didn’t say a word and his nod was almost imperceptible, but Tom Cartwright wasn’t really in any doubt.

“I’m afraid it has, Wendy,” he said, softly. “It has happened, as you know very well.”

No she doesn’t!” said Mother, in a voice that was half way to a scream. “She doesn’t know any such thing!”

“It’s a very mild case,” Father said. “We’ve been watching her like hawks. It’s purely physical. Her behavior hasn’t altered at all. She isn’t showing any mental symptoms whatsoever.”

“You can’t take her away,” Mother said, keeping her shrillness under a tight rein. “We’ll keep her in quarantine. We’ll join one of the drug trials. You can monitor her, but you can’t take her away. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. She’s just a little girl. It’s only slight, only her body.”

Tom Cartwright let the storm blow out. He was still looking at Wendy, and his eyes seemed kind, full of concern. He let a moment’s silence endure before he spoke to her again.

“Tell them, Wendy,” he said, softly. “Explain to them that it isn’t slight at all.”

She looked up at Mother, and then at Father, knowing how much it would hurt them to be told. “I’m still Wendy,” she said, faintly. “I’m still your little girl. I . . .”

She wanted to say I always will be, but she couldn’t. She had always been a good girl, and some lies were simply too difficult to voice.

I wish I was a randomizing factor, she thought, fiercely wishing that it could be true, that it might be true. I wish I was . . .

Absurdly, she found herself wondering whether it would have been more grammatical to have thought I wish I were . . .

It was so absurd that she began to laugh, and then she began to cry, helplessly. It was almost as if the flood of tears could wash away the burden of thought—almost, but not quite.

• • • •

Mother took her back into her bedroom, and sat with her, holding her hand. By the time the shuddering sobs released her—long after she had run out of tears—Wendy felt a new sense of grievance. Mother kept looking at the door, wishing that she could be out there, adding her voice to the argument, because she didn’t really trust Father to get it right. The sense of duty that kept her pinned to Wendy’s side was a burden, a burning frustration. Wendy didn’t like that. Oddly enough, though, she didn’t feel any particular resentment at being put out of the way while Father and the Ministry of Health haggled over her future. She understood well enough that she had no voice in the matter, no matter how unlimited her self-consciousness had now become, no matter what progressive leaps and bounds she had accomplished as the existential fetters had shattered and fallen away.

She was still a little girl, for the moment.

She was still Wendy, for the moment.

When she could speak, she said to Mother: “Can we have some music?”

Mother looked suitably surprised. “What kind of music?” she countered.

“Anything,” Wendy said. The music she was hearing in her head was soft and fluty music, which she heard as if from a vast distance, and which somehow seemed to be the oldest music in the world, but she didn’t particularly want it duplicated and brought into the room. She just wanted something to fill the cracks of silence that broke up the muffled sound of arguing.

Mother called up something much more liquid, much more upbeat, much more modern. Wendy could see that Mother wanted to speak to her, wanted to deluge her with reassurances, but couldn’t bear to make any promises she wouldn’t be able to keep. In the end, Mother contented herself with hugging Wendy to her bosom, as fiercely and as tenderly as she could.

When the door opened it flew back with a bang. Father came in first.

“It’s all right,” he said, quickly. “They’re not going to take her away. They’ll quarantine the house instead.”

Wendy felt the tension in Mother’s arms. Father could work entirely from home much more easily than Mother, but there was no way Mother was going to start protesting on those grounds. While quarantine wasn’t exactly all right, it was better than she could have expected.

“It’s not generosity, I’m afraid,” said Tom Cartwright. “It’s necessity. The epidemic is spreading too quickly. We don’t have the facilities to take tens of thousands of children into state care. Even the quarantine will probably be a short-term measure—to be perfectly frank, it’s a panic measure. The simple truth is that the disease can’t be contained no matter what we do.”

“How could you let this happen?” Mother said, in a low tone bristling with hostility. “How could you let it get this far out of control? With all modern technology at your disposal, you surely should be able to put the brake on a simple virus.”

“It’s not so simple,” Cartwright said, apologetically. “If it really had been a freak of nature—some stray strand of DNA that found a new ecological niche—we’d probably have been able to contain it easily. We don’t believe that any more.”

“It was designed,” Father said, with the airy confidence of the well-informed—though even Wendy knew that this particular item of wisdom must have been news to him five minutes ago. “Somebody cooked this thing up in a lab and let it loose deliberately. It was all planned, in the name of liberation . . . in the name of chaos, if you ask me.”

Somebody did this to me! Wendy thought. Somebody actually set out to take away the limits, to turn the randomizing factor into . . . into what, exactly?

While Wendy’s mind was boggling, Mother was saying: “Who? How? Why?”

“You know how some people are,” Cartwright said, with a fatalistic shrug of his shoulders. “Can’t see an apple cart without wanting to upset it. You’d think the chance to live for a thousand years would confer a measure of maturity even on the meanest intellect, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Maybe someday we’ll get past all that, but in the meantime . . .”

Maybe someday, Wendy thought, all the things left over from the infancy of the world will go. All the crazinesses, all the disagreements, all the diehard habits. She hadn’t known that she was capable of being quite so sharp, but she felt perversely proud of the fact that she didn’t have to spell out—even to herself, in the brand new arena of her private thoughts—the fact that one of those symptoms of craziness, one of the focal points of those disagreements, and the most diehard of all those habits, was keeping children in a world where they no longer had any biological function—or, rather, keeping the ghosts of children, who weren’t really children at all because they were always children.

“They call it liberation,” Father was saying, “but it really is a disease, a terrible affliction. It’s the destruction of innocence. It’s a kind of mass murder.” He was obviously pleased with his own eloquence, and with the righteousness of his wrath. He came over to the bed and plucked Wendy out of Mother’s arms. “It’s all right, Beauty,” he said. “We’re all in this together. We’ll face it together. You’re absolutely right. You’re still our little girl. You’re still Wendy. Nothing terrible is going to happen.”

It was far better, in a way, than what she’d imagined—or had been too scared to imagine. There was a kind of relief in not having to pretend any more, in not having to keep the secret. That boundary had been crossed, and now there was no choice but to go forward.

Why didn’t I tell them before? Wendy wondered. Why didn’t I just tell them, and trust them to see that everything would be all right? But even as she thought it, even as she clutched at the straw, just as Mother and Father were clutching, she realized how hollow the thought was, and how meaningless Father’s reassurances were. It was all just sentiment, and habit, and pretence. Everything couldn’t and wouldn’t be “all right,” and never would be again, unless . . .

Turning to Tom Cartwright, warily and uneasily, she said: “Will I be an adult now? Will I live for a thousand years, and have my own house, my own job, my own . . . ?”

She trailed off as she saw the expression in his eyes, realizing that she was still a little girl, and that there were a thousand questions adults couldn’t and didn’t want to hear, let alone try to answer.

• • • •

It was late at night before Mother and Father got themselves into the right frame of mind for the kind of serious talk that the situation warranted, and by that time Wendy knew perfectly well that the honest answer to almost all the questions she wanted to ask was: “Nobody knows.”

She asked the questions anyway. Mother and Father varied their answers in the hope of appearing a little wiser than they were, but it all came down to the same thing in the end. It all came down to desperate pretence.

“We have to take it as it comes,” Father told her. “It’s an unprecedented situation. The government has to respond to the changes on a day-by-day basis. We can’t tell how it will all turn out. It’s a mess, but the world has been in a mess before—in fact, it’s hardly ever been out of a mess for more than a few years at a time. We’ll cope as best we can. Everybody will cope as best they can. With luck, it might not come to violence—to war, to slaughter, to ecocatastrophe. We’re entitled to hope that we really are past all that now, that we really are capable of handling things sensibly this time.”

“Yes,” Wendy said, conscientiously keeping as much of the irony out of her voice as she could. “I understand. “Maybe we won’t just be sent back to the factories to be scrapped . . . and maybe if they find a cure, they’ll ask us whether we want to be cured before they use it.” With luck, she added, silently, maybe we can all be adult about the situation.

They both looked at her uneasily, not sure how to react. From now on, they would no longer be able to grin and shake their heads at the wondrous inventiveness of the randomizing factor in her programming. From now on, they would actually have to try to figure out what she meant, and what unspoken thoughts might lie behind the calculated wit and hypocrisy of her every statement. She had every sympathy for them; she had only recently learned for herself what a difficult, frustrating, and thankless task that could be.

This happened to their ancestors once, she thought. But not as quickly. Their ancestors didn’t have the kind of head start you can get by being thirteen for thirty years. It must have been hard, to be a thinking ape among unthinkers. Hard, but . . . well, they didn’t ever want to give it up, did they?

“Whatever happens, Beauty,” Father said, “we love you. Whatever happens, you’re our little girl. When you’re grown up, we’ll still love you the way we always have. We always will.”

He actually believes it, Wendy thought. He actually believes that the world can still be the same, in spite of everything. He can’t let go of the hope that even though everything’s changing, it will all be the same underneath. But it won’t. Even if there isn’t a resource crisis—after all, grown-up children can’t eat much more than un-grown-up ones—the world can never be the same. This is the time in which the adults of the world have to get used to the fact that there can’t be any more families, because from now on children will have to be rare and precious and strange. This is the time when the old people will have to recognize that the day of their silly stopgap solutions to imaginary problems is over. This is the time when we all have to grow up. If the old people can’t do that by themselves, then the new generation will simply have to show them the way.

“I love you too,” she answered, earnestly. She left it at that. There wasn’t any point in adding: “I always have,” or “I can mean it now,” or any of the other things that would have underlined rather than assuaging the doubts they must be feeling.

“And we’ll be all right,” Mother said. “As long as we love one another, and as long as we face this thing together, we’ll be all right.”

What a wonderful thing true innocence is, Wendy thought, rejoicing in her ability to think such a thing freely, without shame or reservation. I wonder if I’d be able to cultivate it, if I ever wanted to.

• • • •

That night, bedtime was abolished. She was allowed to stay up as late as she wanted to. When she finally did go to bed, she was so exhausted that she quickly drifted off into a deep and peaceful sleep—but she didn’t remain there indefinitely. Eventually, she began to dream.

In her dream, Wendy was living wild in a magical wood where it never rained. She lived on sweet berries of many colors. There were other girls living wild in the dream-wood but they all avoided one another. They had lived there for a long time but now the others had come: the shadow-men with horns on their brows and shaggy legs who played strange music, which was the breath of souls.

Wendy hid from the shadow-men, but the fearful fluttering of her heart gave her away, and one of the shadow-men found her. He stared down at her with huge baleful eyes, wiping spittle from his pipes on to his fleecy rump.

“Who are you?” she asked, trying to keep the tremor of fear out of her voice.

“I’m the Devil,” he said.

“There’s no such thing,” she informed him, sourly.

He shrugged his massive shoulders. “So I’m the Great God Pan,” he said. “What difference does it make? And how come you’re so smart all of a sudden?”

“I’m not thirteen any more,” she told him, proudly. “I’ve been thirteen for thirty years, but now I’m growing up. The whole world’s growing up—for the first and last time.”

“Not me,” said the Great God Pan. “I’m a million years old and I’ll never grow up. Let’s get on with it, shall we? I’ll count to ninety-nine. You start running.”

Dream-Wendy scrambled to her feet, and ran away. She ran and she ran and she ran, without any hope of escape. Behind her, the music of the reed pipes kept getting louder and louder, and she knew that whatever happened, her world would never fall silent.

• • • •

When Wendy woke up, she found that the nightmare hadn’t really ended. The meaningful part of it was still going on. But things weren’t as bad as all that, even though she couldn’t bring herself to pretend that it was all just a dream that might go away.

She knew that she had to take life one day at a time, and look after her parents as best she could. She knew that she had to try to ease the pain of the passing of their way of life, to which they had clung a little too hard and a little too long. She knew that she had to hope, and to trust, that a cunning combination of intelligence and love would be enough to see her and the rest of the world through—at least until the next catastrophe came along.

She wasn’t absolutely sure that she could do it, but she was determined to give it a bloody good try.

And whatever happens in the end, she thought, to live will be an awfully big adventure.

Brian Stableford

Brian Stableford

Having sold his first short story to Science Fantasy in 1965, Brian Stableford has been publishing fiction and non-fiction for fifty years. His fiction includes eleven novels and seven short story collections of “tales of the biotech revolution,” exploring the possible social and personal consequences of potential innovations in biotechnology, and a series of metaphysical fantasies featuring Edgar Poe’s Auguste Dupin in confrontation with various bizarre phenomena. His non-fiction includes the four-volume New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance (Wildside Press). He is presently researching a history of French roman scientifique from 1700-1939, translating much of the relevant material into English for the first time, for Black Coat Press.