Fledgling, p.16
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       Fledgling, p.16

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  He shook his head, then put his arm around my shoulders, his expression going from angry to bemused. “That is the most unromantic declaration of love I’ve ever heard. Or is that what you’re saying? Do you love me, Shori, or do I just taste good?”

  “You don’t taste good,” I said, smiling. “You taste wonderful.” I grew more serious. “I would rather be shot again than lose you.”

  “More and more romantic,” he said and shook his head. He bent, lifted me off my feet, and kissed me. I nipped him, tasted him, and heard him draw a quick breath. He held me hard against him, and I closed my eyes for a moment, submerged in the scent, the feel, and taste of him.

  Then Brook came out with her own suitcase. She had taken it from the back of her car to get at her toiletries. “We’d better get going,” she said, noticing the way Wright and I held each other, then looking away.

  We sighed. Wright put me down, and we let each other go.

  Celia came out carrying the sandwiches, each bagged with the apples and bananas that Wright had had in the cabin. She handed a bag to Wright and one to Brook, then said, “You guys got everything?”

  We nodded, and Wright went to turn off the lights and lock the door.

  We drove, Wright with me in one car and Celia with Brook in the other. We drove through what was left of the night and into the day. By daybreak we had reached Salem, Oregon. We were still, according to the maps, hundreds of miles north of San Francisco Airport. We got two motel rooms at a place that did not force us to park our cars where they could be seen from the street—just in case someone was hunting us. We picked up a map of the area, the others ate the food they had brought, and we all went to bed.

  I lay awake for a while next to Wright, wondering whether I should even be in bed. Perhaps I should stay awake, keep watch. But I couldn’t quite believe that humans would have been able to follow us without my noticing them. And I couldn’t believe they would be willing to kill a motel full of humans unrelated to Ina if they did find us. Also, the motel was filled with windows—eyes—and perhaps with curiosity. Our enemies liked concealment and quiet. I could sleep. In fact, this was an excellent place to sleep. I let myself drift off.

  Once Wright had slept off some of his weariness, he woke me up and told me to try biting him now and see what happened.

  I laughed and bit him. I didn’t take much blood because I had taken a full meal from him only two days before. Still, I was eager to see what happened, and he didn’t disappoint me.

  After a few hours, we got up and got on the road again. We didn’t hurry. We stopped for meals, stayed within the speed limit, and, as a result, spent one more night in a motel. This time I was hungry enough to leave the room while Wright was asleep and wait until I spotted a stranger letting himself into his room. I slipped in with him before he realized I was there. I bit him and had a nourishing, but unsatisfying, meal. Afterward, I told him to keep the bite mark hidden until it healed and to remember only that he’d had an odd dream.

  Sometime later, after we got underway on our third night, I realized that I should be riding with Brook to do what I could to encourage her memory. I didn’t really know whether she would remember more clearly or focus her attention more narrowly if I were there to prod her, but I meant to find out. When we stopped for gas, I switched cars.

  “Do you want me to send Celia to keep you company?” I asked Wright. “Or would you rather have some time to yourself?”

  He hesitated, then said, “Send her. I’ll ask her questions and find out more about this symbiont business.”

  I looked at him and saw that he wasn’t asking me to send Celia to him, he was daring me. And he was smiling a little as he did it.

  “Ask,” I said. “I’m afraid for you to talk to them and learn what they know—because I know so little. But you should talk to them. We’re a family, or the beginnings of one. We’ll be together for a very long time.”

  “It’s all right,” he said, immediately contrite. “A little solitude might be good for me.”

  “No,” I said. “Talk to her. Get to know her. Ask your questions. It isn’t all right, but it will be.” I walked away to where Brook was putting gas into her car.

  “What?” she asked.

  “I’m switching cars,” I said. “I want to do what I can to prod your memory.”

  She sighed. “I’m still afraid I won’t remember.”

  “I’ll drive, then,” Celia said through her open window. “We’re more likely to survive the trip if the driver isn’t looking all around trying to remember stuff.”

  She was right. Brook hadn’t been driving when she visited these people before. Best for her not to be driving now. I went back and told Wright he would be driving alone after all and told him why.

  He grinned. “Decided you didn’t want me to know everything, then,” he said.

  I grinned back at him. “That must be it.”

  They went into the store that was attached to the gas station and bought more maps, food, bottled water, and ice. Then Wright and Celia consulted over the new maps. Somewhere in Sonoma or Mendocino County in California we decided to use State Route I instead of U.S. 101 as we’d planned because Brook said State Route I “felt” like the right road. This apparently had to be discussed again. Then, finally, we were on our way. Celia led off.

  Brook and I sat in the backseat, and she studied a huge, sheetlike map. Finally she put the map down and looked at me. “We’re close enough,” she said, “but I don’t recognize anything yet.”

  “Are you still worried about your memory?” I asked.

  She nodded. “Of course I am.”

  “You will remember,” I said. “When you see things you’ve seen before, you’re going to recognize them. You’ve been to this place before. You’ve seen the way, going and coming. Now you’ll see the way a third time, and you’ll get us there. Look out the windows. Don’t worry about the map.”

  She took a deep breath and nodded.

  And yet we drove all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge before she began to see things that looked familiar to her. By then we had to cross the bridge, then find a place to turn back. On our way back, though, she kept seeing familiar landmarks, businesses, signs.

  “I think I paid more attention when we were traveling to Punta Nublada from the airport,” she said. “We were headed north, the way we are now, and I know this place now. It all seemed so new to me when I came this way with Iosif. I hadn’t been anywhere far from home for a long time. I was so excited.”

  Just over two hours later, a newly confident Brook had us turn down a narrow paved road that took us to a gravel road that led, finally, to Punta Nublada, a community of eleven large houses with garages and several other buildings scattered along either side of the road. It was almost a village. Behind some of the houses, I could see the remains of large gardens, most of them finished for the year, stark and empty. The community was dark and still, as though it were a humans-only place and everyone were asleep. I wondered why. I could smell Ina males nearby.

  “Which house belongs to the oldest son, or perhaps we should see one of the elderfathers?” I asked, then had another thought. “Wait, which is the home of Daniel Gordon, the one you said first approached Iosif.”

  “Daniel?” Brook asked. “He is the oldest son.”

  “Show me which home is his.”

  “Third house on the right.”

  We stopped there. I got out and understood something interesting and frightening at once. There were people—human and Ina—watching us with guns. I smelled the guns, I saw some of the people hiding in the darkness. I smelled them and knew they were all strangers to me, but I sorted through them anyway. The scents of the Ina were very disturbing. These people were nervous. Some of the humans were frightened. At least none of the humans present had been among those who attacked Wright, Celia, Brook, and me. That possibility had not occurred to me until I smelled all the guns.

  “Don’t get out yet,” I said to Celia and
Brook. But behind us, Wright had already gotten out and come to stand beside me. It frightened me how vulnerable he was, how vulnerable we all were, but if these people wanted to shoot us, surely they would already have done it.

  I took Wright’s hand, or rather, I touched one of his huge hands and allowed it to swallow mine, and we walked to the front porch of Daniel Gordon’s house.

  “This the guy who wants to be your mate?” he asked in a soft voice that I thought he tried hard to keep neutral.

  “Things have changed,” I said, knowing that he was not my only listener. “I don’t know what they want now. But for the sake of the past, I hope they will speak with me and not just point guns at me.”

  Wright froze, drew me closer to him, and I realized he had known nothing of those who watched us. He saw no one until the tall, male Ina stepped into view on the broad front porch.

  “Shori,” he said, making a greeting of my name.

  Of course, he was a stranger to me. “You’re Daniel Gordon?” I asked.

  He frowned.

  “If you and your people are this alert,” I said, “you must know what’s happened to my family—to my mothers, my sisters, my brothers, and my father. It almost happened to me, too. I had a serious head injury. Because of it, I don’t remember you at all. I don’t remember any part of my life before getting hurt. So I have to ask: Are you Daniel Gordon?”

  After what seemed to be a long while, he answered, “Yes, I’m Daniel.”

  “Then I need to talk with you about what’s happened to my family and, very nearly, to me and my symbionts.”

  Daniel looked at Wright, at our joined hands, at the two women in the car. Finally, he nodded. “You and your people are welcome here,” he said.

  There was an almost-silent withdrawal of armed watchers. I saw a few of the humans around Daniel’s house and the houses of his nearest neighbors lower their guns and turn away. I turned to the car and beckoned to Brook and Celia.

  They came out of the car and up to us, and Daniel looked at them, lifted his head and sampled their scent, then looked at me again. He recognized them. I could see that in his expression—realization and surprise.

  “Those two …” He frowned. “They aren’t yours, Shori.”

  “They were my father’s and my brother Stefan’s. They’re with me now.” I knew they smelled wrong, but if he knew what had happened to my family, he must know why they smelled the way they did—of both the dead and the living.

  “We must question them,” he said. “We’ve heard what happened on the radio, read about it in the newspaper, seen it on television. Two of my fathers even went up to look around. And yet even they don’t understand any of this. Who did these things?”

  “We’ll share everything we know,” I said, “although that isn’t much. We came here because we need help against the assassins.”

  “Who are they? Do you have any idea?”

  “We don’t know who they are, but we killed some of them when they attacked us.” And I repeated, “We’ll tell you all we can.”

  “How did you survive?”

  I sighed. “Call your brothers and your fathers from the shadows, and let’s go into your house and talk.”

  His fathers and brothers had gathered around us in near silence and just far enough away to prevent my symbionts from seeing them. They were listening and sampling our scents and looking us over. I didn’t see that it would do them any harm to examine us in comfort and with courtesy.

  Perhaps Daniel thought so, too. He turned, opened his door, switched on a light, and stood aside. “Come in, Shori,” he said. “Be welcome.”

  We went up the steps into the house, into a large room of dark wood and deep green wallpaper. A large flat-screen television set covered much of one end wall. Beneath it on shelves was a large collection of tapes and DVDs. At the opposite end of the room was a massive stone fireplace. Along one side wall there were three windows, each as big as the front door, and between them and alongside them, there were tall bookcases filled with books. On the other side wall there were photographs, dozens of them, some in black and white, some in color, most of them of outdoor scenes—woods, rivers, huge trees, rock cliffs, waterfalls. They would have been beautiful if they had not been so crowded together.

  There were a great many chairs and little tables around the room. We and the brothers and fathers who came in after us found places to sit. Wright, Celia, Brook, and I sat together on a pair of two-person seats at the fireplace end of the room. The fathers and brothers Gordon sat around us, surrounding us on three sides, crowding us. Our world was suddenly filled with tall, pale, vaguely menacing, spidery men, and I was annoyed with them for being even vaguely menacing and scaring my symbionts. I watched them, wondering why I was not afraid. They seemed to want me to be afraid. They stared at the four of us in silence that was as close to hostile as silence could be. Or maybe they only wanted my symbionts to be afraid.

  My symbionts were afraid. Even Wright was afraid, although he tried to hide it. He couldn’t hide his scent, though. Celia and Brook didn’t try to hide their fear at all.

  I looked at Daniel who sat nearest to me. “Do you believe that I or my people murdered my families?”

  He stared back at me. “We don’t know what happened.”

  “I didn’t ask you what you knew. I asked whether you believe that I or my people murdered my families?”

  He glanced back at his fathers and brothers. “I don’t. I don’t even believe you could have.”

  “Then stop scaring my symbionts. If you have questions, ask them.”

  “You’re a child,” one of the older men said. “And the two women with you are not your symbionts.”

  I looked at him with disgust. He had already heard me answer this. I repeated the answer exactly: “They were my father’s and my brother Stefan’s. They’re with me now.”

  “You don’t have to keep them,” he said. “They can have a home here … if you took them only out of duty.”

  “They’re with me now,” I repeated.

  The older man took a deep breath. “All right,” he said. “Tell us what you know, Shori.” And the pressure on us eased somehow, as it had when the guns were lowered outside. I felt it, even though I hadn’t been afraid. I looked at my symbionts and saw that they felt it, too. They were relaxing a little.

  I turned back to face the Gordons and sighed. After a moment of gathering my thoughts, I summarized the things that had happened to me. I talked about awakening amnesiac in the cave, about Hugh Tang, finding the ruin, finding Wright, and later finding my father, who told me that the ruin had been the community of my mothers, then losing my father and all of his community except Celia and Brook, going to the Arlington house and almost dying there, discovering that our attackers were all human …

  One of the Gordons interrupted to ask, “Were you able to question any of them?”

  I shook my head. “We killed several of them. The rest escaped. We only just escaped ourselves. The fire had attracted attention, and I didn’t want to have to deal with firemen or the police.”

  “You weren’t seen,” Daniel said. “Or if you were, it’s being kept very secret. There’s been nothing in the media about cars escaping the scene, and none of the sources my fathers created have phoned to tell us about anyone escaping. The police seem very frustrated.”

  “Good,” I said. “I mean I didn’t know whether or not we were seen. We spent the next night in our cars in the woods. Then, because Brook had been here once, I thought I could get her to bring us back here.”

  A Gordon who looked about fifty and who was, almost certainly, one of the two oldest people present spoke with quiet courtesy: “May we question your symbionts?” He had a British accent. I had heard BBC reporters on Wright’s radio back at the cabin talking the way this man did.

  I looked at Celia and Brook, then at Wright. “It’s all right,” I said. “Tell them whatever they want to know.” They looked alert but not afraid or even unco
mfortable. I nodded to the older man. “All right,” I said. “By the way, what’s your name?”

  “I’m Preston Gordon,” he said. “I’m sorry. We should all introduce ourselves.” And they did. Preston and Hayden were the two oldest. They were brothers and looked almost enough alike to be twins, except that Hayden was taller and Preston had a thicker mop of white-blond hair. Their sons were Wells, Manning, Henry, and Edward. And they in turn were the fathers of Daniel, Wayne, Philip, and William. William was, I suspected, only fifteen or twenty years older than I was. Although no one said so, I got the impression that I’d met most of them, perhaps all of them, before. What did it say to them that I couldn’t remember any of them now? It embarrassed me, but there was nothing I could do about it.

  Preston directed his first question to Brook. “Did you recognize anyone among those your group killed? Had you seen any of them before?”

  “No,” Brook told him. “I didn’t get to see all their faces, but the ones I saw, I had never seen before.”

  William asked, “How many did you kill, Shori, you personally, I mean.”

  “Three,” I said surprised. “Why?”

  “Three men,” he said and grinned. “You must be stronger than you look.”

  I frowned because that was a foolish thing to say. Of course I was stronger than I looked, just as he was stronger than he looked.

  Daniel said, “Shori, we didn’t know about your mothers. There was apparently no news coverage. Do you know why that was?”

  “Iosif and two of my brothers covered it up. He said they did. And even so, there was some local coverage. He convinced local reporters and apparently the police that my mothers’ community had been abandoned, that someone burned a cluster of abandoned houses. That’s news, but it’s not important news. And he saw to it that some of my mothers’ neighbors kept an eye on the place. He thought the killers might come back to gloat.”

  Preston shook his head. “I see. Iosif must have worked very hard to keep things quiet. Brook, did he say anything to you about his effort to cover up and, perhaps, about his effort to investigate?”

 

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