Fledgling, p.19
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       Fledgling, p.19

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  I nodded. “Can you collect Theodora?”

  “Give us her address.”

  I called Wright, described Theodora’s location three doors east of his uncle’s house, and he told Wayne how to find her.

  “Theodora Harden,” I said. “I’ll phone her and tell her you’ll be there … when?”

  They worked that out. They would pick up Theodora on their way home on the third night.

  “Thank you,” I said. “Be careful. Someone should always be awake and on guard.”

  They nodded and went out to their huge, boxy car. Joel told me it was called a Hummer and that it cost more money than some houses.

  Then they were gone.

  The next day, Punta Nublada was attacked.

  Sixteen

  The attackers arrived just after ten the next morning. Except for me, all Ina were asleep. I had spent nearly an hour on the phone with Theodora and was thinking about her, wanting her, looking forward to seeing her. Then I heard the cars.

  They drove into the community in three large, quiet cars, each almost as big as the Gordons’ Hummer, and I heard them before I was able to see them from my perch at one of the dormer windows in the guest-house bedroom that Wright and I shared. I didn’t know who the newcomers were. They weren’t talking among themselves. They weren’t making much noise of any kind, but the moment I heard their approach, I was suspicious. I phoned two other houses and told the symbionts there to alert everyone else.

  “Wake everyone,” I said. “Wrap your Ina in blankets and be ready to get them out of the house. These people like to set fires. Watch. If they carry large containers, if they try to spread any liquid, shoot them.”

  I was worried about innocent visitors being killed by frightened symbionts, but I was even more worried about the Gordons and their symbionts being killed in their sleep, perhaps because of me or something to do with my family.

  I pulled on my hooded jacket and put on my sunglasses and gloves. The sun was shining outside. There were no clouds. Finally I ran downstairs and found Wright in the kitchen. He hadn’t spoken to me at all today because I had spent part of the night with Joel. I grasped his arms. “This may be an attack,” I said. “Get Brook, Celia, and Joel. Get guns. Watch! Don’t show yourselves and don’t fire unless you see gas containers or guns.”

  I needed to be outside so that I could keep an eye on things and take whatever action was needed. I went out the back door. I had my phone in my pocket—set to vibrate, not ring—but no gun. I would kill quietly if I had to kill.

  The cars came down the private road that led to the Gordon houses. They stopped before they reached the first house—the guest house—and men spilled out of the doors. Each carried some burden in his hand, and at once I could smell the gasoline.

  I phoned the nearest house—Wayne’s house—and said, “Shoot them. Now!”

  There was a moment when I thought they would not obey me. Then the shooting started. The symbionts had a wild mixture of rifles, handguns, and shotguns. The sound was a uneven mix of pops, thunderous roars, and intermediate bangs. Somehow, most of the invaders went down in that first barrage. They were used to taking their victims completely by surprise, setting their fires, and shooting the desperate who awoke and tried to run. Now it was the raiders who were running—at least those still able to run.

  I heard someone running my way, around the side of the guest house toward the back, away from the road. The runner was human and smelled strongly of gasoline. He was spilling gasoline as he ran. He never saw me.

  I let him come around the house to me, let him get completely out of sight of his friends, and then hit him with my whole body. As he went down, I broke his neck. He was too slow to understand fully what was happening. He made no noise beyond the rush of air from his lungs when I hit him.

  I left his gun and his gasoline can out of sight behind a garage, then I ran along the backs of the houses, hoping that if anyone saw me, I would be moving too fast for them to aim and shoot. I ran around the community, killing three more men as the symbionts went on shooting and as someone set fire to Henry’s house, then to Wayne’s.

  I saw that Henry was being looked after—three of his symbionts were carrying him from his house thickly wrapped from head to toe in blankets. They took him into William’s house. The rest of Henry’s symbionts poured out of his house, too, and three of them found hoses and began to fight the fire. The other two guarded them with rifles.

  I felt a particular duty toward Wayne’s symbionts because he had gone up to Washington to help me. I made sure everyone was out of his house, checked with the symbionts flowing out the doors, and told them to count themselves. All were present and healthy, three of them carrying young children whom they took to William’s house. The rest got hoses and shovels and began to fight the fire. They needed no help from me.

  I went through the community, looking everywhere. There was no more shooting. All the intruders seemed to be dead or wounded. Then I heard footsteps and caught an unfamiliar scent. I realized there was at least one intruder still alive and trying to get back to one of their cars. I spotted him moving behind the houses. He took off his shirt as he slipped past Preston’s house. He wanted to blend in, look, at least from a distance, like one of the male symbionts who had been awakened unexpectedly and were now fighting the fires or tending the wounded, shirtless.

  Shirtless or not, this man smelled of gasoline and alienness. He was an outsider. There was nothing of the Gordon community about him.

  I ran after him as he sprinted from the back of Preston’s house toward one of the buildings that housed offices and studios. This did not take him closer to any of his group’s cars. He couldn’t have reached them without running across a broad open space. But the building was unlocked, and it would have given him a place to hide and bide his time. It was his bad luck that I had seen him.

  I caught up with him, tripped him, and dragged him down just as he reached the building. He fell hard and knocked himself out on the concrete steps in front of the building. I was glad of that. I wanted him unconscious, not dead. I had questions to ask him. I took a full meal from him while he lay there. I didn’t need it yet in spite of the running around and fighting I’d done, but I needed him cooperative.

  He came to as I finished and tried to buck me off him.

  “Be still,” I said. “Relax.”

  He stopped struggling and lay still as I lapped at the bite just enough to stop the bleeding and begin the healing.

  “All right,” I said. “Let’s go see how things stand between your people and mine.” I stood up and waited for him to get up. He was a short, stocky, black-haired man, clean shaven but disfigured by the beginnings of a big lump over his left eye and a lower lip rapidly swelling from a blow that had probably loosened some of his teeth.

  He stumbled to his feet. “They’ll kill me,” he said, mumbling a little because of the swelling lip and looking toward the clusters of people putting out the fires, gathering weapons, moving cans of gasoline away from the houses, checking dead or wounded raiders, keeping children away from the bodies.

  “Stay close to me and do as I say,” I told him. “If you’re with me and if you don’t hurt anyone, they won’t kill you.”

  “They will!”

  “Obey me, and I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

  He looked at me, dazed. After a moment he nodded. “Okay.”

  “How many of you were there in those three cars?” I asked, glancing back at the cars. None of this group should escape. Not one.

  “Eighteen,” he said. “Six in each car.”

  “That many and your gear. You must have really been packed in.”

  I walked him back toward the houses, made him pick up his shirt and put it on again. Then I spotted Wright. He came toward me, looking past me at the raider.

  “Don’t worry about him,” I said. “Are Celia, Brook, and Joel all right?”

  “They’re fine.”

  I nodded, relieved,
and told him where to find the men I’d killed and their guns and their gasoline. “Get other symbionts to help you collect them,” I said. “There should be a total of eighteen raiders, living and dead, including this one.”

  “Okay,” he said. “Why is this one still alive?”

  “I’ve got questions for him,” I said. “Are any of the rest of them alive?”

  “Two. They’re shot, and they’ve been kicked around a little. The symbionts were pissed as hell at them.”

  “Good. Make sure the dead, their cars, and the rest of their possessions are gathered and shut up out of sight in case the noise or the smoke attracts outside attention.” The Gordons had no neighbors who could be seen from the houses, but the noise might have reached some not-too-distant farm. And the smoke might be seen, although there was much less of it now. The fires were almost out. Two houses had been damaged, but none of them had been destroyed. That was amazing. “Where are the survivors?” I asked.

  He pointed them out in the yard where they had been laid, then he said with concern, “Shori, your face is beginning to blister. You should get inside. If it gets any worse, you might have scars.”

  I touched his throat just at the spot I had so often bitten. “I won’t scar anymore than you do when I bite you. Thank you for worrying about me, though.” I left him. My raider followed me as though I were leading him with a rope.

  The two surviving raiders were battered and unconscious. They lay on the grass in front of Edward’s house. “Don’t hurt them any more,” I told the symbionts who were guarding them. “When they can talk, your Ina will want to question them. I will, too.”

  “Our doctor will look at them when she gets around to them,” a man named Christian Brownlee said. He stared at my raider, then ignored him. My raider inched closer to me.

  “Are all the symbionts alive?” I asked.

  He nodded. “Five hurt. They’re in Hayden’s house.”

  I knew the Gordons had a doctor and two nurses among the ninety or so adult humans in the community, and I went to Hayden’s house, expecting to find her at work there. She was.

  The doctor was one of Hayden’s symbionts. She was an internist named Carmen Tanaka, and she was assisted not only by the two nurses, a man and a woman, but by three other symbionts. She was busy but not too busy to lecture me.

  “You stay out of the sun,” she said. “You’re blistering.”

  “I came to see whether I could be of use,” I told her. “I don’t know whether there is anything I can do to help heal symbionts not my own, but I want to help if I can.”

  Carmen looked up from the leg wound that she was cleaning. The bullet had apparently gone straight through the man’s calf. “If any of them were in danger or likely to be in danger before their Ina awake, I’d ask for your help,” she said. “But as things are, you’d just cause them unnecessary pain and create problems between them and their Ina.”

  I nodded. “Let me know if anything changes,” I said. “I’m going to do what I can for the raiders who survived. We’re going to want to talk to them later.”

  “Is this one?” she looked at my companion.

  “Yes.”

  She looked at the bite wound on the man’s neck and nodded. “If you bite the others, you’ll help them avoid infection and they’ll heal faster and be more manageable.”

  I nodded and went out to tend to the raiders. Once I finished with them, I took my raider back to the guest house, gave him a cold bottle of beer from the stock we’d found in the pantry, and sat down with him at the kitchen table.

  “What’s your name?” I asked him.

  “Victor Colon.”

  “All right, Victor. Tell me why you attacked this place.”

  He frowned. “We had to.”

  “Tell me why you had to.”

  He frowned, looking confused. It was a kind of confusion that worried me since it seemed to me that it could mean only one thing.

  Celia and Brook came into the kitchen, saw us, and stopped.

  “Come in,” I said. “Did you come to get food?”

  “We missed lunch,” Brook said. “We probably shouldn’t be hungry after all this, but we are.”

  “It’s all right,” I said. “Eat something. Fix some for Victor here, too. And sit and talk with us.”

  They didn’t understand, but they obeyed. They cooked hamburger sandwiches for themselves and one for Victor Colon. They had found loaves of multigrain bread, hamburger meat, and bags of French fries in the freezer, and had put the meat and bread in the lower part of the refrigerator to thaw. Now, they fried the meat and the potatoes in castiron pans on the stove. There was salt and pepper, mustard and catsup, and a pickle relish in the cupboard but, of course, no fresh vegetables. At some point we were going to have to find a supermarket.

  Once they all had food and bottles of beer from the refrigerator, and I had a glass of water, the confused man seemed more at ease. As he ate, he watched Celia and Brook with interest. He was seeing them, I thought, simply as attractive women. He stared at Celia’s breasts, at Brook’s legs. They knew what he was doing, of course. It seemed to amuse them. After a few glances at me, they relaxed and behaved as though Victor were one of us or, at least, as though he belonged at our table.

  Celia asked, “Where do you come from?”

  Victor answered easily, “L.A. I still live there.”

  Brook nodded. “I went down to Los Angeles a few years ago to visit my aunt—my mother’s sister. It’s too hot there.”

  “Yeah, it’s hot,” Victor said. “But I wish I were there now. This thing didn’t go down the way it was supposed to.”

  “If it had, we’d be dead,” Celia said. “What the hell did we ever do to you? Why do you want to kill us?” Oddly, at that moment she handed him another bottle of beer. He’d already finished two.

  Victor frowned. “We had to,” he said. He shook his head, reverting to that blank confusion that so worried me.

  “Oh my God,” Brook said. She looked at me, and I knew she had seen what I had seen.

  Celia said, “What? What?”

  “Victor,” Brook said, “who told you and your friends to kill us?”

  “Nobody,” he responded, and he began to get angry. “We’re not kids! Nobody tells us what to do.” He drank several swallows of his beer.

  “You know what you want to do?” Brook said.

  “Yeah, I do.”

  “Do you want to kill us?”

  He thought about that for several seconds. “I don’t know. No. No, I’m okay here with you pretty ladies.”

  I decided he was getting too relaxed. “Victor,” I began, “do you know me? Who am I?”

  He surprised me. “Dirty little nigger bitch,” he said reflexively. “Goddamn mongrel cub.” Then he gasped and clutched his head between his hands. After a moment, he put his head down on the table and groaned.

  It was clear that he was in pain. His face had suddenly gone a deep red.

  “Didn’t mean to say that,” he whispered. “Didn’t mean to call you that.” He looked at me. “Sorry. Didn’t mean it.”

  “They call me those things, don’t they?”

  He nodded.

  “Because I’m dark-skinned?”

  “And human,” he said. “Ina mixed with some human or maybe human mixed with a little Ina. That’s not supposed to happen. Not ever. Couldn’t let you and you … your kind … your family … breed.”

  So much death just to keep us from breeding. “Do you think I should die, Victor?” I asked.

  “I … No!”

  “Then why try to kill me?”

  Confusion crept back into his eyes. “I just want to go home.”

  “Victor.” I waited until he sat up and faced me. “If you leave here, do you think they’ll send you after me again?”

  “No,” he said. He swallowed a little more beer. “I won’t do it. I don’t want to hurt you.”

  “Then you’ll have to stay here, at least for a while.


  “I … can I stay here with you?”

  “For a while.” If I bit him a time or two more and then questioned him, I might get the name of our attackers from him—the name of whoever had bitten him before me, then sent him out to kill. And if I got that name, the Gordons would probably recognize it.

  “Okay,” he said. He finished his beer. Celia looked at me, but I shook my head. No more beer for now.

  “You’re tired, Victor,” I said. “You should get some sleep.”

  “I am tired,” he said agreeably. “We drove all night. You got a spare bed?”

  “I’ll show you,” I said and took him upstairs to our last empty bedroom. I had intended to give it to Theodora. We would have to get rid of Victor soon. Maybe one of the other houses would have room for him. “You’ll sleep until I awaken you,” I told him.

  “Will you bite me again?” he asked.

  “Shall I?” I didn’t really want to, but of course I would.

  “Yeah.”

  “All right. When I awaken you, I will.”

  “Listen,” he said when I turned to leave. “I didn’t mean to call you … what I called you. My sister, she married a Dominican guy. Her kids are darker than you, and they’re my blood, too. I would kick the crap out of anyone who called them what I called you.”

  “You only answered my question,” I said. “But I need more answers. I need to know all that you can tell me.”

  He froze. “Can’t,” he said. “I can’t. My head hurts.” He held it between his hands as though to press the pain out of it somehow.

  “I know. Don’t worry about it right now. Just get some sleep.”

  He nodded, eyelids drooping, and went off to bed. I felt like going off to bed myself, but I went back down to the kitchen where Celia and Brook were waiting for me. Wright and Joel had joined them. Wright spoke first.

  “All eighteen attackers are accounted for,” he said. “No one got away.”

  I nodded. That was one good thing. None of them would be running home to tell the Ina who had sent them that they had failed, although that would no doubt be obvious before long. And what would happen then? I sighed.

 

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