When you enter a Mind, you never know what you will find. Some entry codes look like something cobbled together from kindergarten exercises. Others would take a genius to crack, even after the decay of death has set in. What you hope you’ll find is something reasonably organized.
Engineers or mathematicians are the most efficient, but their minds can be…unusual. You might find a long hallway, lined on both sides with file cabinets, each one appropriately labeled—and yet all of the cabinets flash with a kaleidoscope of colors. Some orderly minds have a library with tiers of books, several stories high, but the shelves sway and hum as though they have a life of their own.
This all goes to show that even the most orderly mind has an inner Weirdness. I laughed my head off the day I entered a mind and discovered a rambling structure that looked like modern art, slithering from one file to the next, looping dizzily in the air, and returning to capture the essence of the memory files and spray it all over the room in a fireworks of color and light. You would have never guessed that the mind of a physics professor looked like a landscape from a Dr. Seuss book.
Artistic types are more distractible, and see connections to everything, so you don’t expect order. You expect chaos, sometimes delightful, sometimes not. You might walk through a garden of slender trees with white, frilly leaves surrounding an upside-down building where purple caterpillars live, and discover thoughts and memories in random nooks and crannies. Other times, the Mind is like a dump for everything plus the kitchen sink. More often, it’s like a dream sequence, where the landscape changes constantly. One moment, you’re on a hill overlooking an urban complex shadowed by alien craft, and the next step you take, you’re swimming through purple sludge in a glowing forest.
We Scavengers have a lot of stories about the wildest Weirdnesses that we have encountered. But there is one thing we never tell stories about, except in hushed whispers.
It always stands in the very center of the mind, its many tendrils reaching out to every corner of the space. There is nothing that is not touched by the Heart. Some will tell you that the Heart may be flawed, but that it is sound at its core. They’re wrong. The Heart is Hell at the center of the Mind.
“Why is it like that?” I asked Old Brag when we sipped a cold beverage in the Scavenger’s Lounge. “Why are Hearts so dark?”
“It’s not so surprising,” Old Brag replied, sipping meditatively. “Even the nicest of us has a corner of the Mind that we don’t even dare explore, the corner where we stuff all the impulses we don’t dare act upon, all the thoughts we would do anything to keep the world from seeing, all the desires and secrets that are so hideous that we pretend they don’t exist. The Heart is that corner.”
All new Scavengers are told the story of a young Scavenger who looked into the center of a Heart. They say he fizzled. I don’t even want to know what that means. So whenever I enter a Mind, I wear my scavenging suit, especially the glasses, which make the Heart transparent to the wearer.
Unlike some other scavengers, who rip through the memories and ideas of a lifetime, I take my time. You never know what gem you might find amongst the rubbish. I once found the memories of a sixty-year marriage, of a caliber so rare that I couldn’t stomach the thought of taking it. It had been a long time since I’d had reservations about taking memories—I mean, the person is dead; she won’t need it anymore—but this one was too powerful. It was the sort of treasure that every Scavenger hopes to find, the sort that could set you up for life. But I just sat down in the middle of the Mind and cried for all the painful beauty I saw.
Then I exited the Mind, locked it again, and burned a seal on its door, as I do after every search. I didn’t put the usual S, signaling that the Mind had been Searched but was free for anyone else to scavenge from. Instead, I scrawled the triangular hazard symbol. This signals that the memories and ideas are of negative value: too violent, disturbing, or patchy to be put to any good use. My lie was illegal, but I didn’t care. No one would disturb the memories of that Mind. And somehow, I felt as if that lost fortune didn’t matter at all.
Another time, I found the half-finished idea of some molecular biology that I did not understand at all. However, after you’ve been in the business long enough, you have a pretty good idea of quality. I took the idea, and showed it to the Evaluator at my next deposit. Not all Evaluators are honest, but I had done my research on her, and she came highly recommended by many of my colleagues. If you brought her garbage, she’d say so and tell you to come back when you had something worthwhile to sell. If you brought her gold, even if you didn’t know it, she told you its worth and recommended you to find more like it. As a result, you learned pretty quickly what to look for. And this old man’s idea was gold.
Instead of paying me in a lump sum, the Evaluator set up a royalty account for me and told me to keep it open for ten years. It wasn’t even four years later that I learned that the half-idea had been completed and was now the buzz of the medical community. The payoff wasn’t monumental, but it was quite comfortable. I could have even retired if I wanted to. But I preferred to keep Scavenging. I’d rather have an exciting life than a comfortable one.
So it was that I entered the Mind that changed everything for me.
The subject was newly-dead, so no one had had a chance to enter before me. But when I approached the door of the Mind, I found fingerprints on the handle, as though the touch of a pure hand had burned away all the corrosion of time. The material was so clean that it glowed white.
Furthermore, the vault was not locked. An open Mind? I had never heard of such a thing. In my experience, all minds were closed on at least one end, if not both.
I edged open the door and stepped inside. The light from a small window poured through a stained curtain into a bedroom with a matted carpet and peeling walls. The central room of every Mind marks a place or thing associated with the person’s most powerful memory. It might be the church where a wedding was held or the podium where an award was given. It might even be the scene of an accident that claimed the life of someone important to the person.
As I glanced at the drab interior, I wondered: What had happened in this room?
It did not take long to find the memory file. I swiped my gloved hand across its glassy surface, and an image of the person—my host—appeared within the room. He sat on the floor, knees up, sobbing like I’ve never seen a man cry before. I knew his expression. He was a man who had looked into his own Heart and seen no hope. It was like a kind of death.
That is when the door blasted open. I whirled. Even in a memory, it was so lifelike that all my hairs stood on end.
I could not see. Whoever strode into the room was like lightning and rainbows, so bright that my eyes burned and danced with ghost-lights when I closed them. But I felt him come nearer, and a numinous terror filled me.
Someone had entered a living Mind.
All Scavengers know better. The goggles only shield one’s eyes from the Heart when the Heart no longer pulses with life, but there is no protection against a Mind occupied by a living Heart. What kind of person could enter a living Mind?
I could not look at the Man, but I could see what he did. Every step he took burned away every sign of age or decay or corrosion. Where his feet walked, the carpet looked brand-new. Where his hands touched, age fell away.
Trembling, I dropped to my knees as I watched.
The Man swept past the host, whose tears had now dried on his astonished and horrified expression. The Man halted before the Heart, which beat every moment as though it were a giant clock measuring time.
He opened the Heart.
I screamed and groped for the memory file, but I was blind to all but the sight unfolding before me.
No one, to my knowledge, had ever opened a Heart before. A lover might speak of glimpsing her darling’s Heart, but she never really saw it, only the facsimile that the Heart’s owner wished her to see. No one could look upon a living Heart, never mind open one.
The Man reached into the Heart and began to empty it, one thing at a time. Even through the membrane of a memory, I could sense every fiber of my being screaming against the horrors that I saw. The life ruined. The emotions wrecked. The crimes committed. The fears unleashed. The desires corrupted.
When it seemed as though the pain could not possibly become more intense, the Man grasped the Heart in both his hands and ripped it apart. The man on the floor screamed.
I had never wished more desperately for death, but death would not come.
As I looked—as much as I could look at someone who burned like the sun—the Man split his breastbone and extracted his own Heart. At least, I assumed it was his Heart, but it did not look like one. It was as though he held a sphere of light in his palm, dancing with colors. I had never seen anything more beautiful or terrible. Its worth would equal more than every treasure of the world combined.
Then the Man broke his own Heart, and the chamber filled with rivers and rivers of something like light, yet that pulsed with life. He placed the core of radiance that remained within the Heart of the other man, and the entire Mind shook as though rocked by an earthquake.
The memory ended. I lay for a long time. I had seen a shattered mind occasionally, and, with a strange numbness, I knew that mine had been shattered. I picked up the pieces one by one and tried to rearrange them, but they missed one important piece—an answer. What had happened?
When I came to my senses, the room was as I had first seen it, but now I noticed something else. The host’s Heart was vacant, its deceased occupant gone, but even now, I could recognize the remnants of an otherworldly glow around its edges.
And somehow, I couldn’t help it. I lifted my goggles.
It was an old Heart, a tired Heart. It was a Heart with many scars and many wrinkles. But it was something else too.
It was a clean Heart.
I felt a drop on my hand and discovered that it was one of my own tears. When had I begun to weep? Inside, my heart tore. I had seen a Man exchange his own Heart for another’s, his own light for darkness, and change a Mind entirely, from the inside out. What kind of Man could do that? What kind of Man could heal a Heart?
If he did it for one man, could he do it for me?
I made my decision. My days as a Scavenger were over. From now on, I would seek for the Man. And someday, I would find him—or he would find me.
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