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       Fledgling, p.21

           Octavia E. Butler
 
“Once we’ve questioned them, you might as well. You’ve already bitten them.” He didn’t sound entirely happy about this. I wondered why.

  “Is there transportation back to L.A. from somewhere around here?” I asked.

  “We’ll get them back.” Daniel looked uncomfortable. “Shori, I think your venom is the reason this man is still alive, the reason he was able to answer as many questions as he did.”

  This was obvious so I looked at him and waited for him to say something that wasn’t obvious.

  “I mean, your venom. If one of us had bitten him instead of you, I think he’d be dead now.”

  I nodded, interested. That was something I hadn’t known.

  “And that means that if the Silks do get him again somehow and question him, he won’t survive. There may be female relatives of the Silks—sisters or daughters—with venom that’s as strong as yours. They could question him, but chances are, they won’t. And he wouldn’t survive being questioned by males. Their venom would make it necessary for him to answer but not really possible. The dilemma would kill him. He’d probably die of a stroke or a heart attack as soon as they began.”

  I looked at Victor and sighed. “Is there anything we can do to keep him safe?”

  “No,” Preston said. “It really isn’t likely that the Silks will pick him up again. He’ll probably be all right. But unless one of us wants to adopt him as a symbiont, we can’t keep him safe. Daniel only wanted you to know … everything.” I heard disapproval in his voice, and I didn’t understand it. I decided to ignore it, at least for now.

  I looked at Daniel and thought he looked a little embarrassed, that he was staring past me rather than at me. “Thank you,” I said. “So much of my memory is gone that I’m grateful for any knowledge. I need to know the consequences of what I do.”

  Daniel got up and left the room.

  I looked after him, surprised, then looked at Preston. “When should Victor be ready to go?”

  “A couple of nights from now. After we’ve questioned the others.”

  “All right,” I paused. “Can one of you take him? I don’t want him back at the guest house.”

  Preston glanced at the doorway Daniel had gone through. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll take care of him.”

  “Thank you,” I said with relief. Then I changed the subject and asked a question I had been wanting to ask since I arrived. “Are there … do you have Ina books, histories I could read to learn more about our people? I hate my ignorance. As things stand now, I don’t even know what questions to ask to begin to understand things.”

  It was Hayden who answered, smiling. “I’ll bring you a few books. I should have thought of it before. Do you read Ina?”

  I sighed and shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. We’ll find out.”

  Eighteen

  To my surprise, I did read and speak Ina.

  Hayden brought me three books and sat with me while I read aloud from the first in a language that I could not recall having heard or seen. And yet as soon as I opened the book, the language seemed to click into place with an oddly comfortable shifting of mental gears. I suppose I had spoken English from the time I met Wright because he and everyone else had spoken English to me. If I had heard only Ina since leaving the cave, I might not know yet that I spoke English.

  I shook my head and switched back to English. “I wonder what else I’ll remember if someone prods me.”

  “Do you understand what you’ve read, Shori?” Hayden asked.

  I glanced at the symbols—clusters of straight lines of different lengths, inclined in every possible direction, and often crossed at some point by one or more S-shaped lines. They told the Ina creation myth. “Iosif told me a little about this,” I said. “It’s an Ina myth or legend. The goddess who made us sent us here so that we could grow strong and wise, then prove ourselves by finding our way back home to her.”

  “Back to paradise or back to another planet,” Hayden said. “There was a time when Ina believed that paradise was elsewhere in this world, on some hidden island or lost continent. Now that this world has been so thoroughly explored, believers look outward either to the supernatural or to rather questionable science.”

  “People truly believe this?” I frowned. “I thought the story was like one of the Greek or Norse myths.” I had run across these in Wright’s books.

  “There was a time when those were believed, too. A great many of us still believe in the old stories, interpreted one way or another. What you’re holding could be called the first volume of our bible. Your parents believed the stories were metaphors and mythologized history. We do, too. None of us are much interested in things mystical. I don’t believe you were either before, but now I suppose you’ll have to read the books, talk to believers as well as nonbelievers, and make up your mind all over again.”

  “How old is this book?” I asked.

  “We believe that its oldest chapters were originally written on clay tablets about ten thousand years ago. Before that, they had been part of our oral tradition. How long before that had they been told among us? I don’t know. No one knows.”

  “So old? Are there human things ten thousand years old?”

  “Writings, you mean? No. There were wandering family bands, villages of human farmers, and there were nomadic human herders. They left behind remnants of their lives—stone tools, carved stone figurines, pottery, woven matting, stone and wood dwellings, some carving on bone and stone, painting on cave or cliff walls, that sort of thing.”

  I nodded, interested. “What signs did we leave?”

  “We had already joined with humans ten thousand years ago, taking their blood and safeguarding the ones who accepted us from most physical harm. I suspect that by then we had already been around for a very long time. Whenever we evolved or arrived, it was much longer ago than ten thousand years. Ten thousand years ago, we were already thinly spread among human tribes and family bands. Even then, that was the most comfortable way for us to live.

  “Our earliest writings say that we joined humans around the rivers that would eventually be called Tigris and Euphrates and that we had scattered north and west into what’s now Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and those regions. Some of us wandered as nomads with our human families. Some blended into stationary farming communities. Either way, we were not then as we are now. We were weak and sick. I don’t know why. The stories say we displeased the goddess and were suffering her punishment. The group that believes in an outer-space origin says that our bodies needed time to adjust to living on Earth.

  “For a while, it seemed that we might not survive. I think that’s when some of us began to find a new use for the writing we had developed for secret directional signs, territorial declarations, warnings of danger, and mating needs. I think some of us were writing to leave behind some sign that we had lived, because it seemed we would all die. We weren’t reproducing well. Our children, when they were conceived, often did not survive their births. Those who did survive were not strong. Few mated families managed to have more that one or two children of their own. Everyone took in orphans and tried to weave new families from remnants of the old. We suffered long periods of an Ina-specific epidemic illness that made it difficult or impossible for our bodies to use the blood or meat that we consumed, so that we ate well and yet starved. We believe now that the disease was spread among us by Ina nomads and by families traveling to be near mates.

  “Our bodies were no better at dealing with this illness than our human contemporaries were at dealing with their illnesses. But while our attentions helped them deal with their infections, defects, and injuries, they could not help us deal with ours. We died in greater numbers than we could afford. It got harder and harder for us to find mates. Then, gradually, we began to heal. Perhaps we had simply undergone a kind of microbial winnowing. The illness killed most of us. Those left were resistant to it, as were their children.

  “Even when we were fit, though, we had to be careful.
Nonsymbiont humans might attack us and murder us to steal our possessions or because we were careless and lived too long in one place without seeming to age.” He shrugged. “Some humans wanted to know how we could live so long. What secret magic did we possess to avoid growing old? What could be done to us to force us to share our magic with them?

  “Suspicions about us grew out of control now and then down through the ages, and we had to run or fight, or we were tortured and murdered as demons or as possessors of valuable secrets. Sometimes they hacked at us until they thought we were dead, then buried us. When we healed, we came out of our graves confused, mad with hunger … perhaps simply mad. Well, that’s how in some cultures we became the ‘walking dead’ or the ‘undead.’ That’s why they learned to burn or behead us.”

  “What about the wooden stake through the heart?” I asked.

  “That might work or it might not. There’s nothing magical about wood. If the stake leaves enough of the heart intact, we heal. One of my fathers was buried with a stake in his heart. He lived and … killed six or seven people when he came out of his grave. As a result, my families had to leave Romania and change their names. That’s how my brothers and I happened to grow up in England.”

  He sighed. “Even in the most savage of times, when there were Ina family feuds that were like small wars, it almost never happened that we wiped out whole families. What is happening now, what happened to your families, Shori, is rare and terrible.”

  “And by coming here, I’ve brought it to your family,” I said. “I’m sorry for that. I just … didn’t know what to do or where else to go. And I was afraid for my symbionts.”

  Hayden nodded, watching me. “I don’t believe my sons’ sons would have wanted you to go to anyone else, although you’re already making Daniel’s life uncomfortable.”

  I wasn’t surprised, but I didn’t know what to say.

  He smiled. “You didn’t know, did you?”

  “I thought I might be. I’m sorry.”

  “You needn’t be. It’s normal. Daniel apologizes for his behavior. He knows you’re much too young to make the kind of commitment he’s thinking of. And your efforts and warnings have kept us safe so far. No one is seriously hurt. What we do next, though … well …” He sighed. “I suppose we will do what we must. These murders must be stopped.”

  He wouldn’t talk about what he and his family meant to do next. He only told me to keep the books as long as I needed them and to come to him when I wanted more or if I wanted to talk about what I’d read.

  When he was gone, instead of reading more, I went up to where Wright lay sleeping. I undressed and climbed into bed beside him. He awoke enough to curl his body around mine.

  “You okay?” he asked, his chin against the top of my head.

  “Better,” I said. “Better now.”

  “Do they know who killed your family or, rather, who’s idea it was?”

  “They know one family name, and where they live. The two injured captives can’t be questioned yet.”

  “Is Victor alive, Shori?”

  “He is.” I swallowed. “Even though he remembers helping to murder both of my families. He even remembers attacking the house at Arlington where you and I and Celia and Brook could have died.”

  “But it wasn’t his idea.”

  “It wasn’t. So far, the Silk family seems to be guilty of all three attacks.”

  “Silk,” he said. “Interesting name. I wonder if you knew them before.”

  “I don’t think so. None of the Gordons mentioned any connection between them and me, and I think at least one of them would have.”

  “What will be done to them?”

  “I don’t know. Hayden wouldn’t tell me. But I don’t think anything will be done until the other two prisoners are questioned.”

  “You bit them.”

  “I did. It will help them heal quickly.”

  He moved me so that we lay eye-to-eye and took my face between his hands. “It will help you question them.”

  “Of course it will.”

  “What will happen to them after that, to Victor and the other two captives?”

  “When we’ve finished questioning them, I’ll help them forget us because I’m the one who bit them. Then they’ll be sent back to their families.” I rubbed his shoulders. “They’re not anyone’s symbionts, Wright. They’re only someone’s tools. People who never wanted them, never cared about them, kidnapped them and used them to kill my families.”

  He nodded. “I understand that, but … they did what they did.”

  “The Silks are responsible, not Victor and the others.”

  He nodded again. “Okay.”

  He didn’t sound happy. “What?” I asked.

  “I don’t know exactly. I guess I’m just learning more about what I’ve stumbled into and become part of.”

  I was silent for several seconds, then asked, “Shall I let you alone tonight? I can go sleep with one of the others.”

  “Not with Victor?”

  I drew back, staring at him.

  “Where is he?” he asked.

  “At Daniel’s house. Daniel had room for him, and Theodora will be here soon. And … I didn’t want him here.”

  After a while, he nodded.

  “Shall I go?”

  “Of course not.” He pulled me against him. He caressed my face, my throat. Then, as he kissed me, he slipped his free hand between my thighs. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

  I shook my head against him. “No, but I want to be close to you anyway.”

  “Do you? Good. If you taste me, I want you to do it from my thigh.”

  I laughed, surprised. “I’ve heard of doing it that way, although I don’t know whether I ever have. You’ve been talking to someone!”

  “What if I have?”

  I found myself grinning at him. A instant later, I threw the blankets off him and dove for his thigh. He had nothing on, and I had him by the right thigh before he realized I had moved. Then I looked up at him. He looked startled, almost afraid. Then he seemed to catch my mood. He laughed—a deep, good, sweet sound. By touch and scent I found the large, tempting artery. I bit him, took his blood, and rode his leg as he convulsed and shouted.

  The next night, the Gordons and I questioned the other two prisoners. Hayden and Preston questioned them while I prodded and reassured them. I had bitten each of them twice. They trusted me, needed to please me.

  They, too, told us about what sounded like members of the Silk family abducting them at night. One had been in downtown Los Angeles, looking for one of his girls—one of the prostitutes who worked for him. He was angry with her. He didn’t think she was working hard enough, and he meant to teach her a lesson. Hayden had to explain this to me, and at last I found out what a pimp was. The explanation made me wonder what other unsavory things I didn’t remember about human habits.

  The other captive had been on his way to the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena to pick up his mother who was a nurse there and whose shift was ending. Her car had stopped running the day before, and he had promised to meet her and give her a lift home.

  One prisoner was a pimp. The other was a college student keeping a promise to his mother. Both had been collected by members of the Silk family and sent north to kill my family and me. Neither had any information beyond what Victor had already told us.

  When both captives were unconscious, much stressed by being made to talk about things that they had been ordered not to talk about, the Gordons and I looked at one another. Again, except for the captives, the company was all Ina.

  “What can we do?” I took a deep breath and looked at the younger Gordon males—men who might someday be the fathers of my children. “These people have killed my family. Now they’ve come after you. They’ll probably come after you again.”

  “I believe they will unless we stop them,” Hayden said.

  Daniel nodded once. “So we stop them.”

  “Oh my,” Preston
said, his head down, one hand rubbing his forehead.

  “What else can we do?” Hayden demanded.

  “I know.” Preston glanced at him sadly. “I’m not disagreeing. I’m just thinking about what it will mean, now and in the long run.”

  Hayden made a growling sound low in his throat. “They should have thought about what it would mean.”

  Wells, one of Daniel’s fathers, said, “I’ve been thinking about it since yesterday. We need to start by talking to the Fotopoulos and Braithwaite families, and perhaps the Svoboda and the Dahlman families as well. The Dahlmans are related to the Silks through Milo, aren’t they? All these people are related in one way or another to the Silks and to Shori.”

  And I thought, I still have relatives. I didn’t know them, didn’t know whether they knew me. But they were alive. What would that mean?

  “Don’t phone the Dahlmans yet,” Preston said. “Make them your eighth or ninth call. Try the Leontyevs and the Akhmatovas, and perhaps the Marcu and Nagy families.”

  “You believe we’ll have time to bring together a Council of Judgment before they try again to kill us?” Daniel demanded.

  Hayden and Preston looked at one another—the two elderfathers of the Gordons. Apparently they would decide.

  “As soon as we get agreement from seven of the thirteen families, I’ll call the Silks,” Preston said. “I know Milo Silk, or I thought I did. How he and his sons have gotten involved in all this, I can’t imagine. Anyway, once they’ve been notified that we’re calling a Council of Judgment, that we have the first seven families, they won’t instigate another attack. They won’t dare.”

  “Why not?” I asked.

  Everyone looked at me as though I’d said something very stupid.

  I stared back at them. “My memory goes back a few weeks and no further,” I said. “I ask because I don’t know, and I don’t want to make assumptions about anything this important.” And because I was annoyed. I let my tone of voice say, You should all realize this. I’ve explained it before.

  Hayden said, “If they attack us after we’ve called for a Council, the judgment will automatically go against them. Our legal system is ancient and very strong. That part of it in particular is absolute. It’s kept feuds from getting out of control for centuries.”

 
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