In Transit

by Angus MacDonald

The loudspeaker hissed, then spoke. "Careful, the doors are closing." The doors did close, of course, and the voice continued: "Next station--Petrogradskaya." The train jerked slightly as it started again.

Liliya wondered how often the station announcements were updated, or if they ever were. Her father had once remarked that the Metro had been speaking in the same voice since his boyhood, in Brezhnev's time. Must have been a tape loop back then, she thought as the train slowed. She rose from her seat automatically and slouched before the doors until they opened. As she stepped onto the platform, a lump of hunger burrowed from throat to belly; she'd forgotten to eat again that morning.

The two transit policewomen in the escalator control booth, prissy made-up faces squinting from under blocky caps, looked up from their screens and stared at her as she reached the bottom step. They had always watched as if wanting to berate her for her appearance, the cultivated sullenness and bohemianism, only the sight of her badge stopping them. Of course, in the last few weeks their glares had gotten worse. It galled her that her regular passage was almost certainly adding years to their lives.

"That's the one." She heard the whisper as she was carried upward past the booth. "Glory to God that they're not all like her."

"I'm afraid of them all, as long as they let her keep --" The voice faded below her as the escalator rose.

During the long ride up to street level, she stared at the people coming down on the other escalator. As usual, some averted their eyes from her, recognizing her face from news pictures. Ingrates, she thought. An acid burp rose out of her empty stomach; she swallowed spit to keep from gagging.

Out of the station, she stared at the spotless vending machines full of newspapers: yesterday's Evening Petersburg, the Russian edition of the Asahi Shimbun, and the right-wing Leningradskaya Pravda. A headline caught her eye: "Andreyeva: Cure Worse Than Disease?"

Still angry, she tried to think of what to do next. A faint greasy food smell reached her, and she spotted a piroshki cart next to another Metro exit across Kirov Avenue. Her belly churned as if anticipating consummation of an unpleasant love affair. It was still nearly four hours till the end of her shift, and she had to keep moving, but a few moments eating something wouldn't hurt anyone.

I should have taken the other stairs out of the station, she thought. Knowing that the next surface crossing was a half kilometer up the avenue, she decided to jaywalk.

All Kirov's lanes were empty for blocks in both directions. She stepped off the curb and started toward the other side.

"Dyevushka! Miss! It's forbidden to cross here! Stop!"

The barking alto grated against her ears. "Bitch," she muttered, glancing back at the doughy, uniformed woman running toward her from the traffic kiosk.

"What's wrong with you?" the cop went on. "Are you mad? You could be killed." There was still no traffic visible, but Liliya felt the woman's blood pressure and heart rate rise with each huffing step.

"Maybe I'd rather be killed now than live to wind up like you, grandmother." She put as much sneer as she could into the nominal honorific as she turned the rest of the way around.

The cop flushed deeply. In obvious preparation for a full tirade, she took a breath, then let it out suddenly. Her eyes fixed on the word "Healer," large red letters outlined in gold, across the badge pinned to the modishly scuffed leather of Liliya's Karelian Army jacket. She closed her mouth and glared, then gestured curtly toward the opposite curb. "As you please," she said, and started back to her kiosk, grumbling. Short fingers punched a cancellation code into the citation terminal on her belt.

Liliya spat on the asphalt, then returned to the sidewalk anyway. At least the woman hadn't recognized her face; apparently she was among the many who now assumed most Healers were scofflaws in matters either vital or trivial.

Her hunger had gone for the moment, and she was supposed to take the long way around from the Petrograd Side to Vasilievsky Island, going on foot north before heading southwest again, probably by bus or tramway. Though with the schedules reduced this year--fewer people had to travel about the city, with the information sieve finally linked in all the districts--it might be just as quick to walk the entire route. Of course, quickness was not the point. She started up Kirov, trying to calm down and think of the microscopic proto-cancers dying, the fat-plated arteries softening in the unseen rooms of the buildings she passed.

The echoes of burgeoning health and retreating sickness seemed to bounce around in her skull while she walked. As always, she wanted to move rapidly, to get through the day's assigned route as soon as possible. As always, she forced herself to move slowly, heading up side streets, letting her involuntary emanations blanket the neighborhoods. Part of her mind kept track of the mental eight-dimensional models whose rotations and inversions somehow tightened the ordering of nearby living tissue. Bored as always by cataloguing shapes she could feel, but not quite consciously imagine, she occasionally glanced in apartment windows. Her glimpses of residents working at slates and keyboards in cozy living rooms made her resent those who weren't condemned by unsought talent to wander across the city every day, leaving a wake of statistically verified health.

She felt vague guilt over her resentment, though it was long established that Healers' moods had negligible influence on their beneficent effects. Even so, the State Committee for Prevention and Recovery continually stressed the importance of maintaining a positive attitude to the work. Since her recruitment after routine tests at age ten, she had managed to stay as healthily cynical as any of the children in her training groups. Still, over a decade of indoctrination had left an inevitable mark on her psyche.

I could be a priest after that much catechism, she thought as she crossed the bridge onto Apothecary Island. I am a holy pilgrim, healing the masses as a vessel of Modern Mathematics' immortal power. She grimaced in embarrassment at the conventional rebelliousness of the idea. During adolescence, the trainees had voiced such inverted blasphemies almost daily. The instructors always laughed along with the class, not bothering to mouth even the mild reprimands given ordinary students. It paid to let the talented feel that they were privileged in thought as well as in comfort.

Past the bridge, she noticed an old man waving as he approached her from the opposite direction. He walked a large dog and wore a veteran's medal dating from the Uzbek Annexation. Kleikov. He looked genuinely glad to see her. She was thankful that he had long made a point of not following the news, and so remained ignorant of her worsening reputation.

With an effort to appear cheerful, she smiled and called "Fyodor Maksimovich! You are well, I presume?" as their paths met in front of a blue and white news kiosk.

The old man reined the dog in and bowed. "Oh, very well, Liliya Maksimovna." The name their fathers shared had been a running joke when Liliya had treated him for brain cancer. Though she'd been only fifteen, he always greeted her as "Elder Sister" when she arrived at the clinic for the sessions. He was her first major case, and the remembered triumph of his recovery warmed her as she looked at him now. The old enthusiasm rose to the surface of her mind: she retraced the focusing of perception, the dulling of his pain receptors, the coalescence of cloudy illness-feelings into specific awareness of cancerous masses she could smother with higher geometries and her trained will.

The memory contrasted sharply with how her work affected her now. She wondered if she'd always resent how rarely bona fide Healings were needed after decades of Healers' preventive wanderings.

"I have news that may interest you," the old man continued, pulling her attention back to the present. "My niece in New Jersey wrote me that her son has been recruited for training as a Healer. The Red Bank Mutual indemnity firm has retained him."

Liliya suppressed a frown. The child--for recruitment always occurred before puberty--would face the same problems that made the work of other American Healers (at least the ones she'd met at conferences at resorts on the Red Sea and in the Bahamas) so difficult. The discovery and refinement of Healing abilities had made feeble weapons against the lack of preventive care in an uncaring, illiterate population.

Still, if the boy's talent was pronounced enough for an insurance company to take him on, he might not be so badly off. He would certainly live better than the children some counties drafted and raised in barracks.

Making herself smile at the old man, she said, "Wish him good fortune on my behalf, Fyodor Maksimovich. And treat yourself well."

"I will, I will," he answered, nodding. "Good wishes to you as well." He replaced his hat and tugged the dog's leash. "Doh svidaniya, Liliya Maksimovna."

"Doh svidaniya," she said as he walked past. She turned north again and her face sagged back into the habitual scowl. Three and a half hours left, and she still hadn't eaten.

A block or so up, she reached a small cafeteria she often patronized when her route took her up Kirov. When she stopped before the doors, however, they remained closed. She looked up at the heat sensor, then waved her hand in front of it. Nothing. She looked through the glass and saw several women in coveralls looking back at her and pointing to a sign hanging inside the door: "Under Repair." The old-fashioned phrase reminded her of her father; it turned up in several jokes from his youth. She peered in again at the women, who had resumed pulling up a worn carpet, and remembered her father stopping with her in front of another closed cafeteria, maybe twenty-five years before.

"Ha," he'd said as they turned away. "At least they're really fixing things. When I was your age, they'd put the sign up half the time, because they were short of food or of workers to serve it." He always went on like that, about how much easier it was now, how there used to be waiting lists for all cars, not just imports, and how nothing useful ever got done. In the old days.

Diesel fumes from a passing truck enveloped her. The smell both deepened her hungry nausea and brought to mind her father's old rebuilt Mercedes. She remembered the last time she'd ridden with him, when he'd come up to Petersburg for one of his occasional New Year's visits. The odors of the car's exhaust mixed with those of the worn leather seats and his cologne.

"You're lucky, Lilotchka" he said, "I'm lucky too, my research makes me happy, but you can know you're measurably helping society, helping everybody, with your job. My first post after University, I had no real function. We were supposed to prove that oil drawn from the privately run wells was of higher quality. It was a joke, of course: private crude was the same as State crude. We all sat in the lab every day and waited until the shift was over, until it was time to go home and drink."

He had paused, then laughed. "You would have been a clockwatcher, too. You were always impatient as a little girl." He could only remember her as a little girl; he'd hardly seen her after the recruiters had discovered her talent and taken her to the school on the Black Sea. Parents were routinely offered jobs and houses--not just nice, roomy flats, but houses!--nearby. He had chosen not to follow her, however, preferring to stay with his post at the Petroleum Institute, proceed with his research, and occasionally visit his wife's grave. Liliya felt a rush of resentment when they met or parted: why hadn't he been there to see her grow up? But he said he was proud of her, happy for her. "Your generation has so much, not just Healers, but all of you. You know you can make a future, finally."

Did I make this future, Papa?, she thought as she strode around a blocked-off section of freshly poured sidewalk. Do I make the circular routes I travel through the city, the complacent faces that shun me?

She stepped off the curb, berating herself for wishful bitterness.

Her stomach knotted again as she crossed Chapugin Street, where the rusting television broadcast tower loomed over the empty sanitarium. On impulse, she cut left and raced across Kirov into the park, ignoring the grandmothers who called reprimands to her from benches as she swung over a low metal fence. She hunched in her jacket and strode along a path, hoping to get to the center of the open space, away from the apartment blocks full of bodies she couldn't help but heal.

She felt the determination behind the official voice before she heard it. "Miss! A moment please."

She halted and ground her teeth. Without turning, she glared over her shoulder at him, focusing first on his grey-blue cap, then his face. He had started his terminal printer; a rhythmic whine came from his belt as the citation emerged on paper. His eyes came up to meet hers and stayed. "A bit old for hooliganism, aren't you?" he asked.

The sneer in his voice gave her an object for her anger, and she began to visualize the life working inside his uniform. She saw, then heard, and finally felt his lungs absorbing and dissolving air, the crowds of cells in his glands sorting bitter toxins and sweet nutrients, his heart muscles pushing blood. It was the same focus she first had as a girl with Kleikov, and with so many patients and enemies since.

Her own breathing grew shallow, and her eyes stayed on his. The rest of the world, the green smells of the park and the bright clothes of the passers by who had stopped to watch the confrontation, fell back to the edge of her awareness. Her fists clenched and rough-bitten fingernails dug into her palms. She started to shake, both from rage and from the effort of keeping hold on his metabolism. It was harder to control another's flesh standing in the open than lying on a soft bed in a clinic.

"I suppose I am," she whispered, then turned fully around so he could see her medal and her face. She slid her mind into his body, adjusting the chemical balances of several million muscle cells, and so stopped his heart.

His eyes widened and he began to sway. His fingers, still on the keypad, slowed and stopped. He turned his head slightly and looked into the small crowd. His eyes dilated and went out of alignment. His mouth opened very slowly.

She closed her eyes in agony and elation, fighting to stay inside him as long as she could stand it. It seemed somehow important to experience what she was doing. She saw an unfocused, doubled image of the crowd beneath a big black crescent: the bill of his cap. The pain in his chest burned through her, out along her arms, down past her belly. She felt her own blood rush to her face and loins as her breathing hastened. Finally a blurry blue sky swung down over everything as he fell, landing clumsily and hard on his back. The blue faded to grey, then to nothingness.

When she opened her eyes, she still couldn't see clearly. Where were the nurses, the orderlies? When would they change the bedding? After a moment she realized that her face was pressed into the bare dirt surrounding a tree. She lifted her head, blinking at the sunlight. It was very quiet. Several emergency vehicles were parked on the grass nearby. Some medics had already covered the body and were loading it into an ambulance. The crowd had gotten smaller, dispersed at the instructions of newly arrived police groups. Liliya rolled over and sat up, feeling their eyes and hatred on her. Her limbs felt relaxed and torpid; she leaned back against the tree. Most of the cops hung back by their cars and the remaining onlookers, but one was walking toward her with a pair of medics.

Three meters away, they stopped as if at a line drawn on the ground. One medic spoke. "Healer, do you require medical aid?"

Liliya squinted at her and considered the question vacantly. After a moment, she remembered to run a quick self-examination. Her pulse and blood pressure were a bit low, her elbow was bruised from the fall, and she had bitten her tongue --the taste of blood was faint yet constant-- but nothing major was wrong. She decided she might let the elbow heal by itself, rather than doing anything about it: she tended to make small, internal sacrifices after events like this.

She licked her lips and answered, "No. Nothing's wrong."

The medic nodded, then turned and walked away with her partner.

The cop, an older man with lieutenant's insignia, remained. She felt his heart race as he sweated in the heavy uniform. His expression, however, remained largely impassive, with only an occasional lip tremor betraying his fear and anger. She abstractly admired his self-control, and wondered whether he would blink more if his eyes were not shaded by the official cap. She also wondered if he had known the dead officer well, but pushed the question away from herself. She always pushed that question away from herself.

The lieutenant pressed a button on his belt, and a red light began blinking: he had started the recorder. He recited the date, the location, and the name of the dead man. Then he paused, and said "Healer, do you . . ."

She took a breath and cut him off. "Healer Liliya Maksimovna Andreyeva acknowledges the incident and accepts responsibility for the death." The words of the formula came easily. She went on, "I pledge to cooperate fully with any investigations conducted by the State, the local authorities, or other entities with legitimate concern or jurisdiction."

She knew there would be no further investigation; there was no question what had happened. And this time, there was no question what would happen. She thought for the first time of the man's family and caught her breath, then looked up expectantly.

The lieutenant had turned off the recorder and walked away without speaking.

Most of the cars were gone. Only a few police and stragglers remained. She got unsteadily to her feet and brushed her clothes off. She realized her face must be smeared with dirt and saliva, then decided she didn't care. There were several small rips in her jacket. She remembered wondering, as a child, if she would ever have the chance to heal a heart.

As the ambulance pulled away, she saw that Kleikov had been standing on the other side of it. Not wanting to look him in the face, she stared at his dog. The animal was frightened, turning its head from side to side and trembling. Faint whimpers reached her ears.

Suddenly the dog moved as Kleikov tugged it away. Liliya realized that he must have seen her facing him.

She looked around for a public phone, spotted one across the park, and walked carefully over to it.

She dialed the Committee's local operations line. Before she could speak, the voice of her supervisor addressed her: "Andreyeva. So good of you to call." The receiver smelled of stale bread.

"I wish to report . . ." she began, but he interrupted.

"No need for that. Excellent work, Andreyeva." The sarcasm was unmistakable. "You've managed to cross the bottom line. You'll be, ah, promoted now. You are not surprised, of course. We warned you last time, before your probationary leave."


"Quiet. Tomorrow you will come to the office and complete the application forms that will be prepared for you. We will send them to Moscow immediately. With my recommendation and those of your colleagues--whose eagerness to see you move up and out of their company, by the way, exceeds even my own--you will certainly be accepted. You will likely move to your new seacoast home by the end of the week."

He paused, probably to let Liliya remember the visit to the site they had made her take the month before. The house was luxurious, perched on a cliff above the frigid Pacific, fully automatic, and absolutely isolated. No one would ever come within range of her abilities -- except other Healers, who could detect, and defend themselves against, any attacks she might make.

The voice continued. "I think you will have but little time to acclimate yourself, however, before you receive a visitor requiring the first performance of your new duties. Word is that the mass-murder trial up in Zelenogorsk will end within days. Sentencing should then follow in a week or so."

He stopped again. Liliya bit her lip hard, wanting to shout that they could use gas or doctors' needles as in the West, but remained silent. She knew that no one wanted her training wasted.

"Congratulations on your new post, Citizen Executioner."

Liliya found her voice. "I, ah . . . I could do the forms today? To get--"

"No, you could not," he snapped. The brief anger was replaced by his earlier irony as he continued. "You will finish your day's assigned course. We have no one to substitute."

She stared at the soccer graffiti scratched into the booth's plastic windows. Dynamo shall win. Spartak is meat.

"Besides," he went on, "you can use the rest of the shift to savor your accomplishments. Despite your youth, you've already made yourself a figure of legend, a hag from the fairy stories. Now you will be a more fearsome deterrent than the cold-hearted gallows could ever be." He fell silent, apparently waiting for her reply.

Finally she spoke. "I'm going to get something to eat first."

There was a click before the line went dead.

She left the booth and started walking. A few hundred meters along, she stopped to buy an ice cream from a cart, then kept going, her pace neither rapid nor slow.


Copyright 1996, Angus MacDonald