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       Fledgling, p.20

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  Joel seemed to respond to my thought. “So some Ina is sicking these guys on us,” he said. “When he sees it didn’t work this time, he’ll send more.”

  “It seems that way,” I said wearily. I sat down. “I don’t know my own people well enough to understand this. I feel comfortable with the Gordons, but I don’t really know them. I don’t know how many Ina might be offended by the part of me that’s human.” I wanted to put my head down on the table and close my eyes.

  “The Gordons will help you,” Joel said. “Preston and Hayden are decent old guys. They can be trusted.”

  I nodded. “I know.” But of course I didn’t know. I hoped. “Tonight we’ll talk to the prisoners. Maybe we’ll all learn something.”

  “Like which Ina have been trying to kill you,” Celia said.

  I nodded. “Maybe. I don’t know whether we can find that out yet. It may be too soon. But Victor isn’t really injured, so we can begin questioning him tonight. The others, though, they might need time to recover, and they might know things that Victor doesn’t. Or we might just use them to verify what Victor says.”

  “You’re sure you can make Victor tell you what he knows?” Wright asked.

  “I can. So could the Gordons. It will hurt him, though, stress him a lot. It might kill him. I don’t believe any of this is his fault, so I don’t want to push him that far.”

  “You remember that,” he asked, “that your questioning him could kill him?”

  I nodded. “I saw his face when I asked him who I was, and he answered. It hurt him. In that moment, I knew I could kill him with a few words. But he’s only a tool—one of eighteen tools used today.”

  “What makes you so sure he’s not a willing tool?” Celia asked.

  “His manner,” I said. “He’s confused, sometimes afraid, but not really angry or hateful.” I shrugged. “I could be wrong about him. If I am, we’ll find out over the next few days.”

  “You’re sure it’s all right to leave him alone upstairs?” Wright said.

  “He’ll sleep until I wake him,” I said. “And when he wakes, I won’t be the only one wanting to question him.”

  Seventeen

  I went upstairs feeling tired and a little depressed. I didn’t know why I should feel that way. I was close to finding out who was threatening me, and I had taken a full meal from Victor, which should have restored my energy after all my running around in the sun and blistering my face until it hurt. Somehow, it hadn’t.

  I had taken off my shoes and was lying down on the bed Wright and I usually shared when Brook looked in and said, “Come to my room and lie down with me for a little while.”

  The moment she suggested it, it was all I wanted to do. I slid from the bed and went down the hall to her room.

  I lay down beside her, and she turned me on one side and lay against me so that I could feel her all along my back.

  “Better?” she asked against my neck. “Or is this hurting your face?”

  I sighed. “Much better.” I pulled one of her arms around me. “My face is healing. Why do I feel better?”

  “You need to touch your symbionts more,” she said. “Temporaries like Victor don’t matter in the same way, and Joel isn’t yours yet. You need to touch us and know that we’re here for you, ready to help you if you need us.” She brought her hand up to my hair and stroked gently. “And we need to be touched. It pleases us just as it pleases you. We protect and feed you, and you protect and feed us. That’s the way an Ina-and-symbiont household works, or that’s the way it should work. I think it will work that way with you.”

  I brought her hand to my mouth and kissed it. “Thank you,” I said.

  “Sleep a little,” she said. “It isn’t likely that there will be any more danger today. Take a nap.”

  I drifted off to sleep in utter contentment.

  “Shori?”

  I awoke sometime after dark and disentangled myself from Brook as gently as I could. I got up, listening. Someone had called my name. Daniel’s voice, not speaking loudly, not in the room with me, not even in the house, but clearly speaking my name to me.

  I didn’t want to wake Brook so I went to the bathroom down the hall. The window there faced the road and the other houses.

  “Yes,” I said aloud, eyes closed, listening.

  “Bring your captive to my house for questioning,” he said. “You can act as his protector, as some of us will scare him.”

  “Other Ina ordered him to kill us,” I said. “He’s their tool, not a willing volunteer.”

  Silence. Then, “All right. Bring him anyway. We won’t hurt him any more than we have to.”

  “We’ll be over in a few minutes.”

  I went to Wright’s and my bedroom and got my shoes from beneath the bed. Wright was there, snoring softly. I didn’t disturb him. I went back to the bathroom, put my shoes on, and washed my face, all the while thinking about how easily Daniel and I had spoken. I had heard him even though he had not left his house, and he had known that I would hear him. I stood for a moment in the bathroom and listened, focusing my listening first on the guest house where Victor and my four symbionts were all asleep, breathing softly, evenly. Then I focused on Preston’s house and heard a female symbiont tell a male named Hiram that he should telephone his sister in Pittsburgh because she had phoned him while he was out helping with the wounded. A male was trying to repair something. He was cursing it steadily, making metallic clattering noises, and insisting, apparently to no one at all, “It’s not supposed to do that!” And a woman was reading a story about a wild horse to a little girl.

  Of course I had been focusing my listening almost since I awoke in the cave, but I had not been around other Ina enough to know how sensitive our hearing could be. It had never occurred to me that someone could awaken me and get my full attention just by calling my name in a normal voice from another house across and down the road. Had I heard because on some level I was listening for my name? No, this couldn’t have been the first time people talked about me when I wasn’t present or wasn’t awake.

  But it probably was the first time someone so far away had spoken to me as I slept. And perhaps that small thing, the tone of Daniel’s voice alone, had been enough to catch my attention.

  I went to Victor’s room and woke him. Then, because I had promised and because it would help me get information out of him later, I bit him again, tasting him, taking only a little blood. He lay writhing against me, holding me to him, accepting the pleasure I gave him as willingly as I accepted his blood. I found myself wondering whether anyone had ever investigated the workings of Ina salivary glands or tried to synthesize our saliva. It was no wonder that Ina like my father worked so hard to conceal our existence.

  When the bite wound had ceased to bleed, we got up, and I took him over to Daniel’s house where all of the Gordons, except those who had flown up to Washington, waited.

  “What’s going to happen to me?” he asked as we went. He seemed frightened but resigned. He had been in Ina hands long enough to know that there was no escape, no way of refusing his fate, whatever it turned out to be.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “You do your best for us, and I’ll do my best for you. Relax and answer all questions truthfully.”

  When we reached Daniel’s house, I saw that the Gordons had gathered in the living room. There were no symbionts present. That was interesting. I had not even thought of awakening my symbionts to bring them along. If Victor died tonight, I didn’t want them to see it happen. I didn’t want to confront them with the reality of what could happen to them if some Ina who hated me got hold of them. But they knew, of course. They were all intelligent people. They even had some idea of what I could do to them if I were to lose my mind and turn against them. But they trusted me, and I wanted—needed—their trust. They didn’t have to see the worst.

  I sat with Victor. He was alone and afraid, actually shaking. He needed someone to at least seem to be on his side. He was the alien among us
, the human being among nonhumans, and he knew it.

  “His name is Victor Colon,” I told the Gordons when we were settled. “Victor,” I said and waited until he looked at me. “Who are they?”

  He responded in that quick, automatic way that said he wasn’t thinking. He was just responding obediently, answering the question with information he had been given. “They’re the Gordon family. Most of it.” He looked them over. “Two are missing. We were told there would be ten. Ten Gordons and you.” He glanced at me.

  I nodded. “Good. Relax now, listen to their questions and answer them all. Tell the truth.” I looked at the Gordons. They must know more than I did about questioning humans who had been misused by Ina. I would leave it to them as much as possible.

  Preston said, “What else are we, Victor? What else do you know about us?”

  “That you’re sick. That you’re doing medical experiments on people like the Nazis did. That you are prostituting women and kids. I believed it. Now, I don’t know if it’s true.” He was trembling more than ever. He jumped when I put my hand on his arm, then he settled down a little. “They said we all had to work together to stop you.”

  “How many of you were there?” This was from Hayden, the other elder of the group. They were centuries old, Hayden and Preston, although they looked like tall, lean, middle-aged men in their late forties or early fifties, perhaps. Their symbionts had told me they were the ones who had emigrated here from England, arriving at the colony of Virginia in the late eighteenth century.

  “There were twenty-three of us at first,” Victor said. “Some got killed. Jesus, first five guys dead and now just about everyone else … Today there were eighteen of us.

  “Eighteen.” Hayden said nodding. “And were they your friends, the other men? Did you know them well?”

  “I didn’t know them at all until we all got together.”

  “They were strangers?”

  “Yeah.”

  “But you joined with them to come to kill us?”

  Victor shook his head. “They said you were doing all this stuff …”

  “Where were you?” Preston asked quietly. “Where did you get together?”

  “L.A.” Victor frowned. “I live in L.A.”

  “And how were you recruited? How were you made part of the group that was to come for us?”

  Victor frowned. He didn’t appear to be in pain. It was as though he were trying hard to remember and understand. He said, “It almost feels like I’ve always been working with them. I mean, I know I wasn’t, but it really feels like that, like nothing really matters but the work we did together. I remember I had been watching TV with my brother and two of my cousins. The Lakers were on. Basketball, you know? I needed some cigarettes. I went down to the liquor store to buy some, and this tall, skinny, pale guy pulled me into an alley. He was goddamn strong. I couldn’t get away from him. He … he bit me.” Victor looked down at me. “I thought he was crazy. I fought. I’m strong. But then he told me to stop fighting. And I did.” He stopped talking, looked at me, suddenly grabbed me by the shoulders. “What do you people do to us when you bite us? What is it? You’re goddamn vampires!”

  He shook me. I think he meant to hurt me, but he wasn’t really strong enough to do that. I took his hands, first one, then the other, from my arms. I held them between my hands and looked into his frightened eyes.

  “Answer us honestly, Victor, and you’ll be all right. Relax. You’ll be all right.”

  “I don’t want you to bite me again,” he said.

  I shrugged. “All right.”

  “No!” he shouted. And then more softly, “No, I’m lying. I do want it again, tomorrow, now, anytime. I need it!” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But I don’t want to need it. It’s like coke or something.”

  I suddenly felt like hugging him, comforting him, but I didn’t move. “Relax, Victor,” I said. “Just relax and answer our questions.”

  The Gordons watched both of us with obvious interest. Daniel, in particular, never looked away from me. I supposed that I was as much on trial as Victor was but in a different way. What did I remember? How well did I compensate for what I didn’t remember?

  Did they still want me? I thought Daniel did. His scent pulled at me. His brothers smelled interesting, but his scent was disturbing. Compelling.

  I sighed and dragged my attention back to Victor. I looked from Preston to Hayden. The others had left the questioning to them so far.

  “Victor,” Preston said, “where were you taken after you were bitten for the first time?”

  “The guy had a big Toyota Sequoia. He told me to get in and just sit there. I did, and he just drove around. He was spotting other guys and picking them up. I guess I was his first catch of the night. He caught five more guys, then he took us all out to some houses up above Altadena, up in the San Gabriel Mountains, kind of all by themselves on a dead-end road. His family was there. They all looked like him—tall, lean, pale guys. And there were a lot of other just ordinary people.”

  There was a stir among the Gordons. They didn’t say anything, but I could see that they knew something. Most likely, they knew which Ina family lived above Altadena in the San Gabriel Mountains. I had no idea how far away these places might be, but they did.

  “Victor,” Hayden said, “when did all this happen? When were you taken and bitten for the first time?”

  He frowned. “More than a month ago? Yeah, it was that long. Maybe six weeks.”

  I could see what was coming. I stared at the rug, needing to hear more, needing to hear everything, but not quite wanting to hear it. It was only reasonable that Victor had been one of those used to kill both my families.

  “So you’ve done other jobs, then, haven’t you?” Hayden continued.

  “Up in Washington State, yeah,” Victor agreed. “We did three jobs up there.”

  “How did you get there?”

  “They flew us up in private planes with all our gear. Then we rented cars. Followed the maps we were given.”

  “So they gave you new identities? Credit cards?”

  “Not me. Five of the other guys. And they gave them plenty of cash. They had cell phones, too. They’d call in when we were ready to do a job and tell us to go ahead. Then they’d call in afterward and we’d be told what to do next, which was mostly to get motel rooms and wait for the call to get into position for the next job. The five guys they chose, they were all ex-military. One used to be Special Forces. They told the rest of us what to do.”

  So by now, with no phone call, their bosses must have realized that something was wrong. I wondered how long it would take these enemy Ina to collect new human tools and send them out to try again.

  “You said you did three jobs,” Preston said. “Where in Washington did you do those … jobs?”

  “One a few miles outside a little town called Gold Bar. Another not too far from a town called … Darlington? No, Darrington. That’s it. And one at a house near the town of Arlington. That’s all up in western Washington. Pretty country. Trees, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, little towns. Nothing like L.A.”

  “You were successful in Washington?”

  “Yeah, mostly. We hit the first two, and everything went the way it was supposed to. Something went wrong at the third. People got killed. The cops almost got us.”

  “Weren’t people supposed to get killed?”

  “I mean … our people got killed. We didn’t know what happened at first. Later we heard on the radio that two got shot and three had their throats ripped out. The rest of us never saw what did that—a dog, maybe. A big dog. Anyway, the cops were coming, and we had to run.”

  I thought about telling him exactly what had killed his friends, then decided not to. None of it was his doing, really. Even so, I didn’t want to be sitting next to him any longer. I didn’t want to know him or ever see him again. But he was not the one who would pay for what had been done to my families. He was not the one I had to stop if I were going
to survive.

  I took a deep breath and spoke to Preston. “Do you know who’s doing this?”

  He looked at Victor. “Who are they, Victor? What’s the name of the family who recruited you and sent you to kill us?”

  Victor’s body jerked as though someone had kicked him. He looked at me desperately, confusion and pain in his eyes.

  Hayden picked up the question. “Do you know them, Victor? What is their family name?”

  Victor nodded quickly, eager to please. “I know, but I can’t say … please, I can’t.”

  “Is the name ‘Silk’?”

  Victor grabbed his head with both hands and screamed—a long, ragged, tearing shriek. Then he passed out.

  I didn’t want to care. It was clear from the Gordons’ expressions that they didn’t care. But I had bitten him twice. I didn’t want him, wouldn’t have kept him as my symbiont, but I did care what happened to him. I couldn’t ignore him. It seemed that the bites made me feel connected to him and at least a little responsible for him.

  I listened to his heartbeat, first racing, then slowing to a strong, regular beat. His breathing stuttered to a regular sleeping rhythm. “What can we do with him?” I asked Preston. “I can talk him into forgetting all this and send him home, but what if the Silk family picks him up again?”

  “You feel that you need to help him, in spite of everything?” he asked.

  I nodded. “I don’t want him. I don’t like him. But none of this really has anything to do with him.”

  He looked around at his brother and his sons. Most of them shrugged.

  Daniel said, “I don’t think the Silks will bother about him. They won’t know he survived. They probably don’t even know exactly where he lived before they picked him up. He’s just a tool. They might have rewarded him if he survived, but if they think he’s dead, that will be the end of it. We need to check what he’s said with what the other prisoners say. If their stories agree, they can all go home. You can send them back to their families.”

  I nodded. “I’ll fix Victor. Do you want me to fix the others, too?”

 
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