Illustration: “Herr Highness” © 2005 by Romeo Esparrago
“A ship landed at the port!” Danny said, pacing frantically. “I saw it! I know I did! This one is real!”
“How long has it been since your last episode, Danny?”
“I’m not seeing things! Not this time.” Danny whirled about to confront Leslie.
“I’m sure you’re not,” Leslie agreed as she appeared. She hugged her lab coat tighter, though I could still see the crystal the size of a fist dangling from her neck. Her eyes fell to his ankle. “When did you cut yourself?”
“I did?” A long, narrow gash revealed itself when he twisted his leg. “I don’t remember.”
“It needs to be cleaned.” Leslie was in professional mode now.
“I am not going to be administered to by a witch!” Danny’s eyes went wide at her sudden grin. “Don’t tell me she’s back into acupuncture again!”
“Surely you’re not afraid of needles, now, are you?” He needed little reminding of his days as an addict, or of Leslie’s attempts to cure him of his cravings with acupuncture.
“She’s not a real doctor.” Danny’s coal-black eyes narrowed as he glared at me. “Just a med student. I can’t get real treatment from her! And she’s crazy!”
“Close enough to a doctor to do the job,” I told him.
Leslie began to lead him away. “And a white witch, thank you. And someone who used to run in a gang questions my sanity?”
“That was not crazy, it was survival!” Danny protested as they left.
Nigel materialized from the shadows. “The greenhouse figures.” He dropped a pad of paper on my desk. “Tell Leslie I’m all for a ceremony tomorrow night, and let Kenneth know he’s invited.”
“There’s a full moon tomorrow night?” I should have remembered. “Is Kenneth still asleep?”
“In the basement broom closet again. He says it guarantees he won’t get caught in sunlight.”
“Two days ago he was almost normal.”
Nigel shrugged. “I think he’ll want blood tonight.” Nigel’s tone carried a hint of worry, and disdain.
“You’ve had your bad days — and nights, too, Nigel.”
“I don’t think I’m a vampire. Or drink blood.”
“Only on his worse nights. And he hasn’t killed anyone.” Recently, and to our knowledge, a voice in my head whispered. Should I mention Nigel’s own antics every full moon? Hunting some creature down and eating the raw meat to satisfy the werewolf burned into him by the fever… but I knew better than to remind one of the Afflicted that they weren’t sane. Why I, one of the few surviving Immune, bothered taking care of them led to rumors that I wasn’t one of the sane in this present madness. But a space ship wasn’t one of Danny’s usual delusions. He wouldn’t report it if he didn’t see it. “Where’s Jeremiah?”
“Making crop circles.”
“Not our fields, I hope?”
“You know I’m careful about that. And no, he hasn’t seen any UFOs lately.”
“Did you ask?”
“Don’t have to. If he thinks they’re coming, he goes nuts. And he isn’t that nuts right now.”
Nigel left again to check up on his greenhouses. Despite his occasional wrath toward animals, he was dedicated to his plants. I wished I could have spoken with Jeremiah, the only set of eyes I reliably had on the spaceport. I decided to drop in on Selah to ease my growing dismay. I couldn’t take Danny at his word. If Jeremiah backed him up, then there was indeed hope amid our plague of madness.
Selah was somehow managing to play with Mischa, Celina, and Riko at once. A born caregiver, she finally noticed me watching the melee between shows of affection. “Oh. Hello.”
Celina toddled away from Selah and clung to my legs. “Mommy?” I tousled my daughter’s hair affectionately. She rubbed her eyes. “I want Josey.”
“Josey?” I echoed, looking to Selah. I felt guilt. I was so busy with all the others who needed me, I hardly had time for my own flesh and blood.
“Her favorite teddy bear.” Selah tossed me the stuffed animal, then began changing Riko’s diaper. “Mischa has started crawling like mad.” The blonde infant gurgled on cue. “Will she start babbling in Russian next?”
Was she joking, or was it another mental lapse? “They only babble in the language they hear, not their parents’ native language.”
“So Riko won’t start talking in Japanese?”
“No.” Celina curled up on my lap with her Josey.
“Doran’s not cute anymore,” Selah remarked.
“You have three little ones to look after.”
“In three years, even Mischa won’t be cute anymore.”
“Surely you can take care of them past the third year?”
“No.” Selah was absolutely firm. Her three-year-old twins had died during the Plague. She’d cared for children of all ages before then. Now, she would never care for a child older than her own had been. Older, and they were as good as dead to her. Too much like her own children, who never grew up. At least she realized that her charges weren’t her own children.
“Do you want someone to have another child by then?” Selah tensed suddenly. She was thinking ahead to prevent an empty nursery. That thought was too painful for her to bear.
I said, “We’ll see.” She held Riko tightly to her until he squealed, realized she was hurting him, then lavished attention on him until he was smiling again. Celina awoke at his giggles and wiggled down from my lap, determined to join the fun. I decided to check on my other charges.
Juana had been a teacher before the Plague. Kirk had found her teaching lessons to an empty classroom. Here, at least, she had real students. Toshio, Adrienne, and Dominic were sprawled on the floor on one side of the makeshift classroom. They ranged in ages from ten to twelve and had bonded into an inseparable unit when brought here after the Plague six years prior. They weren’t Immunes, but they had a strong resistance to the virus. They were young enough to adapt to the effects of the disease, developing almost normally. When they drew, violent images were as likely to unfold as peaceful ones. I suspected the images were memories from before they had been brought here, from those weeks they spent foraging for food in a cold, chaotic, and crazy world. Dominic had been found next to his dead parents. The other two had been found alone, hiding, scared. Now, surrounded by people who acted more like adults should, they recovered something of a childhood. Maybe they’d be fully functional adults in their own right from the precious stability I’d built.
Doran was sitting at a desk by himself, practicing letters and numbers. “You’re doing good work.” I was proud of my elder child — five years old, and he already was able to read.
Doran handed me a colored page. “Uncle Kirk said I should do one for you.” It had a picture of the family with him off to the side.
At first thought, I said, “I’ll put it up on the refrigerator.” There were days it was hard to believe he was actually mine, he looked so little like me and so much like his father… the man who’d abandoned me for orbit and never came back. And the distance that caused was showing, based upon his drawing. “Don’t you like Kirk?”
“Yeah, but he likes Celina better.”
“He cares about you, too, Doran.”
“I know.” Doran kicked at the desk leg.
“Who’s been teaching you how to play soccer? Who’s going to teach you to throw a softball?”
They why does it matter whether you’re related? You’re part of the family.
“But why don’t I have his last name?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Mrs. Rodriguez had me write names today. I’m Doran Neumann. You’re Talina Elliot. Celina is Celina Romano.”
“You have your father’s last name. Celina has her father’s. I have my father’s last name.”
“Uncle Kirk is Celina’s father.”
“But not my father.”
“Who is my father?” Remembering the dead, he asked, Was?
I hadn’t expected this question for another couple of years, so I didn’t have a practiced answer. What should I say? Could I say that he would think I’m dead, along with 8 billion other people, and he never knew that you existed? Or that he didn’t care enough to come back and check if he had survived? “Uncle Kirk has been your father all these years and loves you as much as a father would.” He nodded mechanically. “I want you to remember that, okay?”
The rest of the day was spent as most were, trying to keep the dysfunctional extended clan working. Evening came, and it was my time with my children. After hours of play and games, Doran and Celina were asleep. It was my only time to rest. I could hear Leslie and Nigel’s laughter through the window. They probably were dancing around the moonlit stone outcropping they claimed was a spiritual site. It was hung with wind chimes and dreamcatchers for the souls lost since the Plague, like Mischa’s parents and the half-dozen others who had once danced with Leslie and Nigel. Believing yourself to be possessed with magical powers was common. At least it had been a long time since anyone had tried to fly.
Kirk’s advice to me surfaced when I originally proposed this effort. The delusions were burned indelibly in their minds during the fever, he had said. Tolerate the harmless aspects. Redirect the more dangerous tendencies, and the best of them will be almost normal. They will cooperate with your efforts to help them and will work for you, if you work with them and reassure them that their bit of insanity is OK or even normal. Fight it, and they will fight you. But don’t hesitate to defend yourself; most of them will be dangerous if they start acting violent, even if they don’t realize what they are doing. Use lethal force if necessary. You’re the sane one, the healthy one… and more valuable than they are.
So I was a counselor, a manager, and a confidant. Kirk was Immune as I was, but had no interest in shepherding those Afflicted who had survived. The vast majority went insane for a few weeks before mercifully lapsing into comas. Danny was the worst one here. Anyone worse than Danny got themselves killed one way or another. Some of the Immune like me had died at the hands of those who weren’t. Kirk’s advice of lethal force had been necessary more times than I wanted it to have been. I could ignore the dead when I compared it to the good I did for the survivors.
Many died even when you tried, and there were days I wanted to quit. But I’d taken up a burden that no one else wanted… so I left my children in the care of a half-mad woman as I tried to care for those with varying degrees of reality, so I had the time to care for the Afflicted….
I rolled over and looked out the window, hearing the sound of a gun being loaded. I could see Kenneth, staring into the distance, a rifle with tranquilizer darts held ready in his hands. He pulled a small bottle from his pocket and took a swig. Kenneth took a second sip before putting it back in his pocket. He wiped away a red trace from his lips. If he hadn’t been a pacifist in his other life, would he be out murdering someone right now to get his fix?
Marco, Doran’s father, would have said this was insane. He had left for the orbital station right before the viral weapons had been used. Would he have risked having a child in this world? I didn’t know then I was pregnant with Doran, so his father never knew that he’d left a family behind, not just me.
My marriage contract to Marco had expired two months after Doran’s birth. Fortunately, I had found Kirk before going into labor. Kirk had helped — and moreover — had stayed. And most important, he didn’t argue when I refused to give up Doran. He even waited a full six months after my marriage contract had legally expired before asking me to commit to him. Celina was born two and a half years later. After this place was pieced together. After Kirk trusted this world enough to allow his child into it. Though Kirk couldn’t stay here.
Kirk couldn’t stay in any one place. I thought it was a symptom before realizing he’d had wanderlust long before the Plague. He was content to have a family unit to return to after his regular wanderings, and I needed the freedom to care for these people, so the arrangement worked. Most of the factories built shortly before the Plague were automatic, requiring little supervision and fewer repairs. The surviving Immune lived off the output. Churning out clothing, tools, computers, other necessities and luxuries; the machines went on as if nothing had changed. Kirk traveled between the supervised factories and here, providing company and transport of goods.
He also was the local law enforcer. More Afflicted survived than Immunes, but the Immune survivors had seen fit to eliminate the Afflicted they found. I never asked how one’s sanity was tested. To ask might risk being tested, and failure was fatal. My “charges” were tolerated because they were supervised. If anything happened to me, Kirk’s comrades would leave no survivors.
Orchards of fruit trees. Freshwater fish farms now set to restock the wild populations, since human demands were now minimal. This place was a haven from the piled-up bodies in the cities. Plenty of food, little maintenance… this had been the right place to come to. And the view of the spaceport. That had been my deciding factor.
It was not possible to see the strong diamond cable that went up to orbit from here, but it once was possible to see the shuttles. I used to watch the shuttles go up every evening, wondering when Marco was coming back. I still remembered our last day, our last parting.
“Where will you be staying tonight?”
“Up top. I’ll be there for the next few days.”
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.” Another kiss. “If I’m up there, you have priority for the next flight up.” A hand in the hair. “The traveling is the only way to get the job track we both want.” Hand around my waist. “I’m going to miss you.” I reached for him.
* * *
I hadn’t dreamed of our last night together for years…. Laughter floated on a chill breeze up from the meadow. The whole episode still floated in my mind, hazy and painfully clear at once. I was on fire and freezing in ice at once as darkness claimed me.
Sensation came back slowly. Leslie was standing over me. “Try to relax. It was a new strain, but you fought it off.”
“Celina? Doran?” The words were a struggle to get out.
“Doran didn’t even get sick. Celina will be bad-tempered for a day or two, but she seems to be Immune like you are. With two Immune parents, she ought to be.”
“How did I get sick?”
Leslie handed me a potion that looked more noxious than the fever’s effects. “Drink it.” I could taste aspirin, ground-up vitamins, and bitter herbs. “You’re surrounded by viral carriers. Mutations happen.” She shrugged. “Kirk arrived this morning, although in poor condition.” She saw my expression. “No, no, just exhaustion and exposure.” Leslie smiled. “He even says he’s spoken to Jago.”
“Genuine wildlife,” I whispered.
Leslie helped me stand and walk toward the living room. Kirk was waiting for us. “Leslie, can you leave us alone? I’ll take care of this.” Leslie’s eyes flicked between us. She smiled slightly before going towards the children’s rooms. “I’ll just check on Celina again.”
“Can you walk?” There was an unfamiliar urgency in Kirk’s manner. “We need to go outside.”
“Yes.” Kirk helped me to get dressed. I was unsteady on my feet as he guided me outside and towards the orchards. “No one is out tonight?”
“The full moon was last night.” It was dark. The stars were coming out. “What’s going on?”
“Trust me.” Kirk let me lean against a low wall. He walked up to the gate, and he softly rapped on it four times.
“Who?” demanded an unfamiliar voice.
“Us — Kirk and Talina.”
A lean, once-burly man stepped out from a hiding place. Deep-set eyes darted nervously, taking in every detail. He stance was tight, ready to fight or run. The dirt and hair nearly hid a ragged pair of shorts.
“She was sick. I brought her as soon as I could.” He sighed. “Talia, Jago. Jago, Talina. She is Celina’s mother. I’ve told you about Celina.”
“Yours?” The creature gestured toward me.
“Yes.” Kirk moved carefully, slowly, and deliberately. “Tell her what you told me.”
“A shuttle landed.” He looked like the ones that Kirk advocated hunting down and killing. Had Kirk cultivated this one as an information source? Did he have hopes of bringing Jago into our community? Jago might have been sane enough to not get caught in the hunts. Or was lucky enough to be paranoid enough to escape. “People came out. They cleaned up the spaceport. They are making repairs.”
“Thank you.” Kirk tossed the man an apple. Jago took it before fading into the shadows. “Jago can’t tolerate people. He knew me… before, so he tolerates and talks to me now.” Kirk shook his head. “It took a lot of persuasion to get him to come here, but the information was too important to trust secondhand. I thought he’d say more.” Kirk stared off into the shadows.
“What would have happened if someone else had found him?”
“Jago probably would have killed them.”
“I’m too tired for this.”
“I can put the kids to bed, then I’ll join you.”
* * *
“Talina! Brunch!” Kirk yelled from across the apartment.
I felt better. I showered quickly before padding into the living room. Kirk was wrestling with Doran on the floor, Celina watching. “Doran’s winning,” I said between bites of toast. Doran hit Kirk a blow to the face. Kirk flopped back and twitched, pretending to die. He subsequently lay still. The children crawled forward to check on him. When they were within his reach, Kirk jumped up and grabbed at them amidst screams and laughter.
“Doran, you need to go to class,” I said to my son.
“I want to stay. Can you give me my lessons, Uncle Kirk?”
“Ask your mother.”
“Can I, Mom?”
Didn’t Doran need male-bonding time? Especially given his prior questions? “Oh, all right.”
It was mid-afternoon when the first vehicle lumbered down the main road. Nigel went for binoculars before sending Danny to get me. Selah rounded up the little ones and their lunches before herding them into a back room. Juana dismissed class before retreating to her room. However, her students were glued to the windows.
Kirk called up the local sensor web on his computer. “It’s headed towards Nakamura’s place.”
“Nakamura?” Doran chimed in.
“Jiro Nakamura, Riko’s father. Runs a factory. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with Riko until he knows shell be normal. Since her mother was crazy, we wont know until shes older,” I rattled off the history while studying the screen. I wondered about the story of that child’s conception and birth, and whatever happened to her mother. And about the odds of a sibling arriving one day. “And we’re getting company.”
A vehicle drove up. It slowed when they were able to see us. Given the images of the surface before communications died, caution was warranted. Kenneth held back, staying deep in the shadows. He wore long sleeves, gloves, coat held close, a hat pulled low over his ears, sunglasses. At least today was one of his better days; he was actually out during daylight. Jeremiah continued talking to Leslie, oblivious at first to the company. Phrases could be heard, bits about planetary consciousness, aliens, psychic energy. Fortunately, he quieted down before the strangers were within earshot.
One stranger looked vaguely familiar, a middle-aged white man. The other three were completely unknown to me. A half-black woman stepped forward and asked, “Who is in charge here?”
“I am,” I said, stepping forward.
“Very well.” The woman was about to make introductions when it hit me.
“Marco! Marco, it’s you!” I ran up to him, stopping two paces short as he shied away. Was he afraid of disease? He stared at me in shock before recognition came. His comrades were yelling about quarantine.
“Talina?” To say he was surprised was an understatement. I saw Kirk stiffen. I began introductions, hoping everyone was in the best frame of mind.
* * *
“Whew, it’s been years since I’ve had a real hot shower that long.” Marco began toweling his hair while pacing around in a pair of Kirk’s pants. Seeing him brought back memories I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with. The visiting medic had decided it was safe enough to take the protective suits off. “With all the water rationing Up Top, I only get 3 minutes every day. This is wonderful.” I could see Doran in him, mostly in the bone structure of the face. “Talina, Tal… I noticed the man — Kirk? — you were with…”
“I married him six months after our marriage contract expired.” How to explain….
Marco grimaced, the dream reunion dashed. “I found someone else, as well. The odds of your survival, Talina, were so low… I hope you understand.”
“I know. Marco, there’s something I need to tell you –”
“Mommy!” Celina dashed to my side, obviously awake now from her nap. Marco’s eyes went wide at Celina’s word choice. He stared at her for a long moment as she clung shyly to my legs, staring up at the stranger. He choked out the syllable, “Yours?”
“Yes. My daughter by Kirk.”
“Oh, sweet — uh, Tal, I didn’t mean — she looks so much like you — almost like the child we never had….” His voice faded to silence. I was about to tell him everything when Kirk entered. We both saw Kirk as Doran tried to burst into the room, desperately wanting to follow Celina. Wanting to see it all for himself.
“Marco, this is Doran… our — your son.” Doran shied back at the introduction. “He’s five.”
“Doran…?” Marco fell to his knees, so that he was eye to eye with Doran. He was studying Doran’s face. Marco could see the resemblance. He glared at me in anger. “Why didn’t you tell me as soon as –!”
Kirk pulled Doran close. “Don’t yell in front of the kids.” His voice was low but so intense Marco fell mute.
Finally: “Talina, we leave in an hour. Come with me.” Marco stated it as if I wouldn’t argue.
“What of Celina? I won’t leave her.”
“Bring her along.”
“She’s Kirk’s child.”
“Doran is my son! You’re the mother of my only child. If you want to take both children, OK. But I can’t leave him here. I can’t take him without you. My wife will understand wanting to have my son –”
“And will she understand me?”
“You’re Doran’s mother. She’d understand that.”
“And what of Celina? Or do we bring Kirk along to make it one big family unit?”
“That couldn’t get approved before we have to leave.”
“But a rescued son would?” I asked. Could I keep Doran from the father he craved? Could I give up my son to a man who had finally come back, but hadn’t expected to see us? If Doran left with his father, would he ever come back? If I left, everything here would fall apart. Would I be better to lose a son and keep my world, or lose the man I’d held onto through the worst and hope the survivors I’d shepherded could wander alone together now? My son or my new family?
Kirk broke in. “Is he really your son?”
“I don’t know….”
Kirk pushed on. “What were his first words? Who taught him to walk? Where were you then?”
“I wasn’t there, but….”
“You are a total stranger to him! You have a wife on the Station; would she want you to drag back a new family? An ex-wife with another child that has no ties to you? You can’t make a family out of that. Go home! If you really love them, you’ll leave him be! You know that people you cared about survived. That’s more than most dared dream. Don’t destroy the lives they’ve made in your absence.” Kirk let the passion die back. “For all our sakes, do what is best for them. If you love them, you would.”
Marco stepped back. “Doran, we cannot stay long; the immunizations only last so long. We don’t know how long they’ll be good for.”
Doran looked at me, an uncertain expression on his face. “Where would we go?”
“Up to the station,” Marco answered.
“How long would we stay?”
I could see Marco’s anguish. Doran wanted to visit, not go forever. “Doran, if you come with me, you’ll get to grow up there. I can give you a better life, a better future, than you could ever have here.”
Doran’s confusion was causing tears of frustration. “Why aren’t you talking about Mommy and Celina?”
“I think your mother is staying here.” Even after all the years, Marco still knew me. “And Celina is better off with her mother and father.”
“I don’t want to leave them.”
“Then you have to stay here.”
“You could stay here, too!” Doran offered up his perfect solution. “If you’re here, everybody gets their Mommy and their Daddy!”
“The vaccinations….” Marco decided not to try to explain the limits of vaccinations and the odds of his own survival without the shots. My old family was being ripped apart because of the new family I’d created to give Doran a family in the first place. And Marco realized this. “I wish I had been there for you.” Marco turned around; with a final pained look, he walked out of our lives.
* * *
“Talina?” Nigel put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Doran wants to know when you’re coming for dinner.” I could only stare out the window, waiting to hear the shuttle launch. I couldn’t stand to go outside to where the shuttle launch was unobstructed by the trees. “He wants dinner with family.”
“In a while.”
Nigel stared out beyond horizon. “What are you thinking about?”
“I wonder what it would have been like if I’d gone up to the Station back then.”
“You wouldn’t have met Kirk and had Celina. You wouldn’t have had the chance to help all the people you helped. Besides, the doctors on the other side wouldn’t have let people from the surface go back. They would have learned that the virus had mutated, instead of the idiots just checking the air. They’re probably taking the version you were infected with a few nights ago back with them, immunizations or not. You might have ended up a lab rat if they realized they had access to an active virus sample — you — and a new infection on their hands.”
“Is Doran going to understand all of this?”
“If Doran still has questions, I’m sure Kirk is answering them.” Nigel was hesitantly quiet. “Talina, I used to think it was your delusion, so convinced Doran’s father was still alive and might even come back. After all, so many satellites were shot down in the war.” He shook me slightly. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think they’ll come back here again. Enjoy your life. Enjoy your family. It will all go back to normal.”
Outside, the sounds of the pagan gathering had started. An owl screamed as someone began the sacrifice. *
About the Author: Tamara Wilhite is a full-time technical writer, part-time science fiction writer, and always a mother of 2.
(c) 2005 Tamara Wilhite TamaraWilhite@hotmail.com
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago long ago gave up the Way of the Raygun for the Way of the Raypen.
(c) 2005 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com