Vicious Grace

(The third book in the Black Sun's Daughter series)

A novel by M L N Hanover

To Sigrid Drusse


I would once again like to thank Jayné Franck for the use of her name; my editor, Jennifer Heddle, for her attention and support; and my agents, Shawna McCarthy and Danny Baror, for making this project possible. And also Carrie Vaughn, whose friendship and intellectual company have made this a more interesting book.


Kim arrived at the fMRI suite twenty minutes later than she’d intended. It was in a wing of the hospital she rarely passed through, and late at night, there were few people to ask for directions. As she swiped her card through the passkey protection, she had a sense of being tardy for class. The doors opened silently onto a long, empty corridor. Only one in three lights glowed, giving the space a sense of twilight and darkness. The smell of antiseptic and electricity seemed to cover something deep and earthy. The closed doors of the individual rooms couldn’t quite shut out the clanks and thumps of the machines. A man in a white coat much like her own leaned out of a door halfway down the hall, his eyebrows raised and his mouth set in a scowl.

“I’m here for Dr. Oonishi,” she said, and his scowl shifted into something odd—relief, perhaps? Anticipation?

“You must be Kim,” the man said, waving her forward. “I’m Mohammed. He’s in his office. He said to send you back as soon as you came.”

Kim forced a tight smile and nodded curtly. She knew her reputation in the hospital and at the university, and she more than half expected this all to be a prank. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had seen fit to make fun of the kook, and Kichirou Oonishi had a reputation of his own. Media appearances, popular books, combative letters in the journals, appearances before Congress. Large grants for flashy, headline-grabbing research. He had a lot of pull in the academic hierarchy, and his sense of humor wasn’t to be trusted.

But even if she was walking into her own private Punk’d moment, she would see the research in progress. That was worth something. And she trusted that she could maintain her dignity. God knew she had enough practice at that.

Oonishi’s office could have belonged to an accountant. Desk, filing cabinet, worn carpet with old stains, the smell of stale coffee. Only the sixty-inch touch-screen monitor on the wall hinted at the grant money behind the project. Oonishi leaned on the desk, his gaze flickering over the computer screen. Six individual panes were open on it, each showing confused jumbles of grainy black-and-white images. A seventh pane spooled green characters on a black background too quickly for her to process. The wallpaper image behind it all was Oonishi shaking hands with a former president.

He glanced up at her and then back to the screen. His face wasn’t rugged so much as cragged, and the white at his temples made Kim feel younger than she was. Or at least less qualified.

“So,” Oonishi said, without preamble, “you understand how all this works?”

Kim crossed her arms.

“It isn’t in my area of expertise, but I imagine that I understand the theory. At least as well as you understand parasites,” she said.

He blinked at her. The light from the monitor blued his skin and deadened his eyes.

“I don’t know shit about parasites,” he said. The matter-of-fact tone might have meant anything: that her work was beneath him, that she wasn’t expected to understand his experiments, or that even a mind as broad and deep as his own had its limits. Kim took a deep breath. If it was all a joke, the best thing she could do was be gracious. Kill him with kindness and let him look like the asshole.

“Fair enough,” she said. “I know a little about what you’re doing here. I read your article about the Miywaki study. Computational neuroimaging. Using blood flow to specific parts of the early visual cortex to reconstruct observed images.”

“Yeah,” Oonishi said, his gaze shifting back to the flickering screens. “The bitch of it is the neo-cortex isn’t all one-way streets, you know? There’s more neurons feeding up to it from the deeper parts of the brain than there are coming in from the eyes. We don’t have a baseline for that feedback, so that’s what I’m looking at. What visual activity you get when there’s no conscious direction or sensory input.”

“Watching people’s dreams,” Kim said.

Oonishi shifted his shoulders, an impatient expression ghosting across his face. It wasn’t, apparently, a description he liked. Never mind that it was accurate.

“It’s not as hard as it sounds. We spent a few months with the subjects doing standardizing studies. Seeing which regions fired when the subject saw particular lines in particular parts of their visual fields. Building up functional maps. Then when they’re asleep, we see what’s firing, and use the maps to put the puzzle back together. Simple. Worst part was finding people who can sleep in an fMRI machine. Bastards are loud. And the subjects can’t move. But . . .”

He pointed to the screen. The gray, grainy images on the monitor flickered and danced. For a moment, a face appeared in one, openmouthed and distinctly feminine despite image resolution so blocky as to approach the abstract. Another showed something that might have been a house with a wide staircase rising up to the door. The image flickered, replaced by something that was clearly a moving object, but too blurred for Kim to make out.

A little thrill passed through her at peeking into another person’s private world. The theory was interesting enough, but the experience had a dose of voyeurism more powerful than she’d expected. And more than that, the sense of witnessing something . . . not miraculous. Better than miraculous. Something unexpected and reproducible. Standing witness as the limits of human knowledge changed. If it had been in her own field, she might have fought with a little professional jealousy. As it was, she started running down how Oonishi’s machines could be adapted for measuring parasitic behavioral modifications. She’d almost forgotten the man was in the room with her when he spoke again.

“You’re looking at five years of my life. I’ve got twenty graduate students who have put their hearts and souls into this research. They’re betting their careers on this.”

“It’s good work,” Kim said. “Very impressive.”

Oonishi shook his head. He pressed his lips so tight, they all but vanished. The silence in the room was fragile. Kim felt a little clench in her belly. If this was a joke, the setup would begin here. She had to stay on her guard. Oonishi tapped on the huge screen, closing the dusty windows into the sleepers’ minds.

“Look at this,” he said, tapping an icon and resizing the resulting window with a sweep of his fingers. Again, six windows flickered. The time stamp in the corner said September 4. A little more than a week earlier. A bare breast appeared in one of the screens, almost startling in its detail.

“Subject three,” Oonishi said, smiling at her reaction. “We can always tell when he’s been watching porn.”

“Tell me that isn’t why you asked me here.”

“It’s not,” Oonishi said. “Here. Now. Watch.”

The six screens shifted. A cooling fan within the computer kicked on, as much hiss as hum. Kim’s neck began to ache, just at the base of her skull. All six images shuddered at once, and then synchronized. Not perfectly, but almost so, like six cameras trained on the same object. In the blocky gray scale, it could have been anything roughly rectilinear—a box, a machine, a coffin—set into a lighter gray. Black, with strong lines. In each screen, the thing

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