The boy was strapped to the bed. His pale blue eyes darted side-to-side, as if trying to read graffiti on speeding train cars. His right wrist jerked, slamming his hand against the sheets, as it had for the past hour. Rimona Rose continued reading in her low, calm voice.
“. . .and the river, diverted in that manner, flowed through the filthy Augean Stables and washed away the years of accumulated muck. And so Heracles completed this impossible labor in one day.” Rimona closed the book. She tucked behind her ear a long strand of brown hair that had worked its way out of her thick braid.
The boy’s eyes twitched and his hand fell again and again on the mattress, jarring the intravenous tube that rose up to his drip bag of medications.
Rimona placed her plump hand on the boy’s emaciated face. His freckled cheeks sagged inward and orange fuzz emerged from his shaved scalp. He looked like a skull dressed up in skin for Halloween. “Tomorrow, we’ll find out how Heracles captured a huge bull.” Rimona didn’t expect a response; Jimmy’s condition met the medical criteria for “hopeless.”
She stepped out into the hall. Miles, a pediatric nurse, was waiting for her. Rimona always had to struggle to treat him professionally and not gawk at his beauty. He was tall, with beaded corn rows pulled into a thick pony tail.
When she saw the concern in his eyes, her throat went weak. “Bad news?”
Miles put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s Ariel.”
Rimona leaned on the wall.
“She’s just been admitted.”
“It’s my fault,” Rimona said. “Of all people, I know the dangers of. . . How did I let this happen? My sister would kill me.”
“Your sister would know it’s not your fault.”
Rimona nodded, searching the pockets of her lab coat for a tissue. “It’s just. . . I saw this coming and I wanted so much for it not to.” Rimona shut her eyes. “What am I going to do?”
“You’re asking me? You’re the mythologist. I’m just a nurse.” A smile opened up his face. “Come on. I’ll go with you.” He took her hand and pulled her down the corridor.
Rimona resisted, walking behind him. “How bad is she?”
His hesitation gave her the answer before he said it, “Bad.”
She swallowed hard and tried to be flippant. “Miracle time?”
Miles set a faster pace toward the emergency center. “Fortunately, she has an aunt who’s in good with Hercules and Noah and Odin and Coyote and all those guys.”
“You’ve been listening.”
Miles shrugged. “They’re interesting, those myths. I notice you leave the big words in.”
“It’s good for them to hear words they haven’t heard before. It helps encourage dreams.”
“Well, the stories are sure getting into my dreams. Last night, I dreamed I was looking for some oranges and then, out of nowhere, the whole world was on my shoulders. The actual world, like a globe. Where did that come from!” He turned and pushed a swinging door with his back.
They entered an operating room with a floor gently sloped toward a drain in the center. Brown ringlets lay on the white tile; Ariel’s curly hair had been shaved. Ariel lay on a padded table under a cluster of strong lights, an eleven-year-old girl in a purple sweat shirt, jeans, and three-hundred-dollar basketball shoes that had never stepped on a basketball court. Her fingers typed air, at least a hundred words a minute. Her pupils, fixed on a far away point, seemed to fibrillate. Rimona kissed her cheek, flushed pink with fever. Ariel was in a solipsistic coma nothing could penetrate.
The doctor cleared his throat. Dr. Franklin, the famous neurologist the hospital had recently recruited. Rimona had expected him to be a demanding egomaniac, but so far she found the bald man with the gray beard to be cooperative, if a bit brusque. “What’s unusual about this case–”
“This case,” Rimona said, “is Ariel.”
Dr. Franklin lifted a hand in a gesture of apology. “Ariel’s condition is acute, but very new. I estimate the onset to have been only a month ago. The cessation of neural function in Virtual Syndrome is generally a gradual process. The pace of Ariel’s illness is unprecedented. She must be abnormally sensitive to neural input. I’m sure you know the main concern.”
“Right.” Rimona tried hard to concentrate and listen. “What?”
Dr. Franklin spoke gently this time. “She may not make it through the night.”
“Right.” Something was wrong with the air. Was there a chemical leak in the room? “Sorry, what did you just say?”
“Her condition is critical,” Dr. Franklin said. “Usually, we stabilize the patient with medication and start rehabilitative therapies: physical therapy, dog therapy, music, mythology; much as we do for stroke victims. But we haven’t got time with this patient.”
“Of course.” Rimona looked into Dr. Franklin’s eyes and realized they were the same pale blue as Jimmy’s. His comment had scared her, but it hadn’t offended her. She understood his frustration. She was sick of watching the children die.
“I want to try neurokinetic transference,” Dr. Franklin said. “Are you familiar with the procedure? Just as a dead battery can be started from a live one, I jump-start a damaged brain from a healthy–”
“I know, I know.” Rimona felt Ariel’s arm through the purple sweat shirt. At least Ariel hadn’t lost much weight. That had to go in her favor. “Has it ever worked?”
Dr. Franklin coughed. “Unfortunately, I’ve only received permission to use it in hopeless cases, after months of comatose states. I have reason to believe neurokinetic transference must be done at once to be effective. You see, a coma is addictive. Victims just wait to respond to something, and wait and wait until they die. By channeling normal synapses through their brains, they immediately have the means to regain consciousness.”
“So no one has been saved.” Rimona wondered if there any chance to escape death. Orpheus almost brought Eurydice out, but he looked back too soon and lost her. Had anyone returned to the real world? Persephone. And that was only on a half-time basis. Persephone was required to return to Hades six months of every year, to reign as Hades’s wife and the Queen of Dreams.
“Not yet,” Dr. Franklin said. “But this girl is the best candidate I’ve seen. Her hypersensitivity makes the syndrome worse, but increases her chances of being revived as well. Of all the VS victims I’ve seen, she has the most to gain and the least to lose from this procedure. You share the same genetic pool as her mother. Are you willing to try?”
“Yes.” Rimona had always identified with Persephone; she spent half of her life in hell, here at the hospital, working as a mythology therapist, trying to rouse dreams in comatose children. To her thinking, Persephone must have sympathized with the other prisoners in hell. After her release, she chose to return each year, just as Rimona chose to come to work each day. It struck Rimona that the ancient Greek myth of Hades was the literal truth for victims of Virtual Syndrome. The Greek “underworld” was their “innerworld.” Rimona clasped Ariel’s frantically typing left hand. “Ariel and I come from a long line of imaginative women. We’ll make it work.”
Miles walked with Rimona to the admittance office.
He touched her braid. “They’ll cut off your hair.”
Rimona felt for the end of her braid at her waist and held it up. “This thing? It was a pain to wash, anyway.”
“I’ll miss it.”
“It’ll grow back.”
Miles stopped her arm. “Did Dr. Franklin tell you about the risks to the volunteer?”
Rimona cut in quickly. “I didn’t want to know.”
Miles looked at his white shoes. “I’ll do whatever I can for you.”
Dr. Franklin insisted on sedation. “It’s better for both of you. Anxiety can create neural spikes.”
Rimona watched Miles slide a catheter into a vein on the back of her hand. Her head felt oddly exposed and lightweight. The electronic cap crinkled on her bare scalp. The sedation wasn’t working. She’d tell them in a minute, but she was too tired to speak. Miles asked her to count backward from ten. “Ten, nine . . .” Funny, she couldn’t remember what came next. Nine children had survived. Maybe. What came after nine?
Rain burst from the sky, bouncing off the planks of the ship. Rimona ducked as the mainsail boom swung over her head, and the deck tilted sharply toward the roiling ocean. She tightened her grip on the rope in her hand. It was her job to tail the winch as the captain brought the sail down. He knew what he was doing. His beard was gray and his pale blue eyes focused only on the task at hand. From the hold below, she heard the squawk of monkeys and bellow of cows. Even the air on deck reeked of wet fur. The ship righted itself as the captain’s steady hands hauled the twisted sail down.
“Look for a wheel,” he ordered. “That’s your control.”
Rimona crouched on the deck for better balance, afraid of slipping on the drenched boards. Gray water churned past, carrying chunks of walls and toppled trees. She saw a whole wooden wheel, with a multitude of spokes. As it came toward the boat, she lay on her belly and stretched her arm overboard. Yes, here it was. Closer, closer . . . now! But when she grabbed it, its weight pulled her into the water, and the current vacuumed her up.
Static surrounded her, a chaos of particles, hissing loudly. This was her enemy, this river. Fighting the current of static, she twisted the wheel in her hands.
And she was out. From the bank, the river was black, but clear. Rimona could see to the bottom, to gray granite rocks, and crevices that captured a coin here, a finger bone there, to the spot where Odin had found the Norse runes. For nine days and nine nights, Odin had suffered, hanging upside down from a tree. Finally, he had plunged his hand into the glacial water, and, frozen beyond feeling, grasped the sacred runes which gave knowledge, magic, and power to those who knew them.
Rimona looked at her wheel. It was marked with the rune rad, which stood for travel, change, movement. Kinetic movement.
Then, the image of a beautiful man appeared in the water. He was a head taller than most men, and his body was strong and graceful. His black skin gleamed with health, and his hair was done up in a multitude of tiny braids, decorated with gold and lapis lazuli beads. His brown eyes met hers in the reflection.
Rimona recognized him. “Heracles!”
“I’m not here in person,” Heracles warned her. “I am only your bridge. Use my body to cross the River Styx safely. If you touch the water, you will drown, and remain in the underworld forever.”
Rimona knew his voice. “Miles?”
“We have no time to talk! Walk on me. I’ll hold the river as long as I can. Go, before my strength fades. Go!”
Rimona clutched her wheel and placed her bare foot on Heracles’ leather sandal. She felt neither icy water nor animal hide, but something resilient like plastic. She stepped on his calves and thighs, his tunic and breast plate of armor. She didn’t want to step on his face.
“Hurry!” he urged her, as his arms buckled in the river. She bravely placed her foot on his nose and, as his arms vanished, leaped to the bank. She made it; then slipped backward in the mud. She grabbed a clump of grass.
The static surrounded her again, this time in sharp interruptions. After a few seconds of static, she found herself clinging to the tough grass. Then a quick slice of static, and a longer moment pulling herself onto the ground. A spell of static, a brief flash of river, then static again. Then it stopped.
She faced a large pit bull, its shoulders as high as her waist, its thick neck curved, hackles rising as it growled. She held the wheel in front of her like a shield. “I know who you are. Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades. You’re only nice to your mistress Persephone. Well, I’m playing the role of Persephone. Care to sniff my hand?”
The dog snarled and snapped its jaws. Saliva dropped on the ground.
“Okay, forget that. Are you hungry? Collar too tight? Can I help with something?”
The dog backed up, whining.
Rimona slowly moved forward. “Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your current employment situation. How would you like to be a therapy dog? I’ll audition you right now. Can you act friendly? Show me your cute puppy imitation.”
The dog sat and cocked its head.
“Not bad, not bad.” Rimona moved the wheel into her right hand. The dog’s gaze followed the wheel and its stub of a tail thumped on the dirt. “Oh, you want to play fetch?”
At the word “fetch,” the dog stood up and circled her, panting, whimpering, tail stub held erect, eyes fixed expectantly on the wheel.
Rimona was torn. The captain said the wheel was important. Was she supposed to toss it aside for the dog, or keep it? Cerberus wanted it, and she had to get past him to find Ariel. Would she need the wheel, though, to bring Ariel out? Her hair was still wet from the rain and a trickle of cold water ran down the back of her dress. On the other hand, if the pit bull knew the word “fetch” perhaps he would bring it back, like a frisbee.
The dog, waiting, began to growl.
“Okay, fetch!” Rimona flung the wheel into the sky.
The dog jumped up and caught the rim in his teeth, and both wheel and dog continued to mount the sky, higher and higher in the east. At the apex of the sky, the wheel turned into a sun and the black and gray landscape of Hades exploded into red, white, yellow and green. The dangling pit bull let go; he had turned into a coyote. Coyote danced ahead of the sun, pulling it behind him as he ran in an arc down the west side of the sky. As the sun lowered, the colors settled into a sunset of gold and pink.
When the coyote reached the tips of the fir trees at the horizon, Rimona felt the presence of someone behind her and her heart squeezed tight. Ariel was with her: safe. It had all been a mistake–the VS,the hospital, the coma. It was too much joy for Rimona to embrace right away. She stood still afraid to move. Then, as she was about to turn, Heracles reappeared in the sky.
“Take my hand.” He stretched his elegant hand toward her. “Come back!”
Rimona knew she would. But first, she had to see Ariel, just one look at her real, living face. She turned around.
She faced a blizzard of static. Nothing to see except specks of white light and black light constantly colliding. Nothing to hear except the crescendo of hissing and spitting. Her feet and dress vanished. Her own hand held in front of her face eroded. Her face. Her. Eight, seven. Thought. Her. He. Enin. C-ca. Try. Xis. . .
The wind blew light rain against glass. Rimona turned her head toward the sound and opened her eyes. Gray light washed in through the window. White light burned down from the ceiling. Someone’s IV hung over her head. She followed the tube of pink-tinted fluid to the crook of her own arm. Her arm was thin, her fingers slender instead of plump. How could she have lost so much weight in a few hours?
Her head ached and her mouth was dry. When she moved her head, her nose hurt; a tube of green gel went from one nostril up to a feeding bag. Next to the bed, she saw her heartbeat beeping a green line on a perpetual graph. An alligator clamp trapped her middle finger. She took the clamp off and the beeping stopped.
The door banged open and Miles charged in, red alert mode, shouting orders to people in the hall. When he saw Rimona, he stopped mid-sentence. He told someone to call Dr. Franklin and approached her bed. He held her hand, discreetly taking her pulse.
“Hi,” she said. Her voice didn’t work well. Maybe because her throat was lined with sandpaper.
Miles shone a light in her left eye, right eye. “Do you know where you are?”
He was testing her cognition. Why? “Hospital,” she choked out. She pointed to her throat.
Miles pushed her tongue with a probe and glanced inside. Then he took a swab from the bedside table and wet her mouth. “Better?”
“Thanks, Miles,” she said.
He grinned. “You know who I am!”
Something must have gone wrong with the procedure if he hadn’t expected her to know him. Rimona couldn’t remember anything after her dream. On impulse, Rimona reached for her head and pulled out a hair. She stared at it. It was the length of her thumb.
Miles answered before she asked, “It’s been six months.”
Half a year, gone. Rimona startled. “Ariel!”
“She’s fine,” Miles said firmly. “Ariel came to a few minutes into the neurokinesis. Cured. It’s you we’ve been worried about. You crashed when she revived. Dr. Franklin figured you share her hypersensitivity and her brain damage overloaded yours. I was ready to kill him.” Miles took a breath. “Franklin’s been promoted to God status at your expense. But, hey, it’s over. We don’t have to talk about him.”
Rimona reached for Miles’ hand, the hand that pulled her out. She could feel his strength, his health, his compassion. Odd to be so tired after doing nothing for six months. Or maybe not; sleep without dreams offered no rest, no restoration. “I want to see Ariel.”
“You’ll see her soon. She’s dying to tell you about her dream.” Miles raised his brows in mock exasperation. “She tells everyone about the wolf who brought her the sun. Ten times over. Minimum.”
“It wasn’t a wolf. It was Coyote.”
Miles leaned over, curious. “You know?”
“It was my dream, too. I guess hers started where mine stopped.”
Miles nodded seriously. “You passed the baton.”
“Actually, it was a wheel.” Her head throbbed. “Ezekiel!”
Miles’ voice tightened. “Rimona? Do you know who I am?”
She wanted to tell him her dream wheel was Ezekiel’s wheel, full of spokes and gleaming. Ezekiel said the spirit of the living was in wheels. ‘And when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheel rose.’ Ezekiel restored hope to the helpless. It all fit. And the myths fit together, too, like spokes in a wheel. She had to tell Miles, but her mouth couldn’t manage it.
“Rimona, do you know who I am?” Miles repeated.
She coughed, and forced herself to speak. “Heracles,” she whispered. Her eyes shut and her body seemed to spin, weightlessly, like a wheel in the sky.
Sara Backer, author of a novel, American Fuji, has recently published fiction in Read Short Fiction, Perihelion, Best Fiction, Gargoyle, The Pedestal Magazine, and The Lorelei Signal. This year, she’s also published sf poetry in Asimov’s Science Fiction and A cappella Zoo. Once a world-wanderer, she lives in New Hampshire where she leads a reading group at a men’s prison and teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. For links to other work online, visit http://www.sarabacker.com.