Fledgling, p.25
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       Fledgling, p.25

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  I frowned. “I think so. I wonder, though, if the Ina way is so much better than the one the you say the humans have.”

  “It’s our way,” he said. “It’s the system you must work within if you’re to be safe, if you’re to keep your symbionts safe, and if, someday, you’re to keep our children safe.”

  I took one of his long hands and held it in my lap. “All right,” I said.

  “And don’t lose your temper. There will be a lot of questions. Tomorrow, after you’ve told your story, you’ll be questioned by whomever the Silks choose as their family representative, you’ll be questioned by the advocate of the Silks, and you’ll be questioned by any other member of the Council who chooses to question you. It won’t be easy. You shouldn’t make it easy on them either. You get to ask questions, too. And you can—should, in fact—call on us to support your memory of what happened here. On the first night, you and the Silk representative will be the ones asking and answering questions. On the second, both of you can call others to support what you’ve said, and they will be questioned. On the third, the Council will ask any final questions it has, and a decision will be made. This can be flexible. If you or the Silks need to ask more questions on the third day, you can. But that’s the way it will go in general.” He hesitated, thinking. “It will probably provoke the hell out of you. The Council members can question you or the Silks’ representative or anyone either of you call for questioning. So if you get asked the same question ten times or twenty or fifty, give the same answer, briefly and accurately, and don’t let it bother you.”

  “I won’t.”

  “And never answer an accusation that hasn’t been made. Even if you believe someone is hinting that you’re delusional or otherwise mentally damaged, don’t deny what they say unless they make the accusation outright.”

  “All right.”

  “Someone might offer you pity and sympathy for your disability. Make them state the disability. Make them say what they mean. Make them support it with evidence. If they say that you’re delusional or mentally deficient or too grief stricken to know what you’re saying—which, I believe, you definitely would be if your memory were intact—make them explain how they’ve come to that conclusion. Then, by your questions and your behavior, prove them wrong. If, on the other hand, they can’t say what it is they’re pitying you for, they must be the ones who are confused. You see?”

  “I see.”

  “Someone might pretend to misunderstand you, might misstate what you’ve said, then ask you to agree with them. Don’t let them get away with it. Pay attention.”

  “I will.”

  “Everything will be recorded. Every Ina family gets to see and hear Council proceedings these days. It didn’t used to be that way, of course, but now that we can keep an accurate audio-visual record, we do. That means you can ask for a replay if anyone tries to insist on a misstatement of anything you’ve said.”

  “How likely is that?”

  “I don’t know. Most of us have excellent memories. That’s why your amnesia will cause some Council members to distrust you at first. Just be yourself. They’ll know your intellect is all right as soon as they’ve heard your story. Anyway, it’s dangerous for anyone to lie about someone else’s questions or answers. I’ve seen it happen, though. People feel that things are going against them. They’re afraid. We have no prisons, after all.”

  I thought about that and found that I knew what prisons were. Humans often locked up their lawbreakers in cages—prisons. “No Ina prisons? Why?”

  “None of us are willing to spend our lives in prison with the lawbreakers. Maintaining a prison isn’t quite as unpleasant as being a prisoner in one, but it’s bad enough. And levying fines would be meaningless. It’s too easy for us to get money from the human population. For lesser crimes, most likely we amputate something. An arm, a leg, both arms, both legs … If the sentence is death, we decapitate the lawbreakers and burn their bodies.”

  “Decapitate?” I stared up at him. “Amputate … ? Cut off people’s heads, arms, or legs?”

  “That’s right. Amputations and executions are also recorded. Amputations are punishments of pain, humiliation, and inconvenience. Limbs grow back completely in a few months, maybe a year or two for legs taken off at the hip. Of course, when it’s done, people are given nothing for the pain, and the pain is terrible. It hurts for a long time, although once people are returned to their families, the families can help them with the pain. They’re permitted to, not required to.”

  “You’re sure that arms and legs cut off … grow back?”

  He held his left hand in front of me. “I was in a traffic accident ten years ago. I lost three fingers and part of my hand. In about a month and a half, I had a whole hand again.”

  “That long?” I hesitated, then asked, “Did you eat raw meat?”

  “At first. I don’t digest it well, though. If I had been able to eat more of it, I probably would have healed faster.”

  “You probably would have,” I said. And I wondered if he would heal more quickly once he was mated with me. I thought I would like to give him that.

  He continued: “The Silks won’t be having anything amputated, though. What they’ve done is too serious for that. If the Council condemns them, they’ll either be killed—the adults will be killed, I mean—or they will be broken up as a family. Their youngest members will be scattered to any families that will have them, and the older ones will be left to wither alone. They might try anything they can think of to avoid those possibilities.”

  “They … they would lose their children?”

  “Yes. They would not be seen as fit to raise them.”

  “That seems cruel to the children. And … what if they have more children?”

  “It might happen. Or their mates might shun them, blame them for the loss of young sons who have been separated and sent to live thousands of miles apart, probably on different continents. Adoption is not cruel, by the way. There are blood exchanges to ease it and seal it. People miss one another, of course, but by letter, phone, and computer, they can keep contact. I hear they tend not to, but they can. Adoptees are truly accepted and accepting once they’re in their new circumstances. But for the adults, it’s the end. What adult wouldn’t fear such a thing and do almost anything to avoid it?”

  “If they had let my families alone, they wouldn’t be facing it.”

  “They must have felt very strongly compelled to do what they did. And … Shori, if you had been anyone else, they would have succeeded. You not only survived twice, but you came to us with what you knew, and you led the fight to destroy most of the assassins and to question the survivors. They thought mixing human genes with ours would weaken us. You proved them very wrong.”

  We sat together for a while longer in warm, easy silence. I felt that I had known him much longer than the few days that I’d been living at Punta Nublada.

  I turned toward him and opened his shirt.

  “What are you doing?” He was shocked, but he did nothing to stop me.

  “Looking at you. I wanted to see whether you had hair on your chest.” He didn’t.

  “We tend not to have much body hair.”

  He had very smooth skin. I kissed it and ran my hands over it, loving the feel of him. Then I stopped and slipped down off his lap because I wanted so badly to taste him, drink him, to lie beneath that tall, lean body and feel him inside me.

  He watched me, left the decision to me. If I tried to bite him, even now, he would let me do it. And then what? If I died, he, at least, might age and die childless. His brothers might mate elsewhere, but he could not. “How can you risk yourself this way?” I whispered.

  “I know what I want,” he said.

  I decided that I had better protect him from his wants. He wouldn’t send me away, and he should have. I took his hands, his broad hands with long, long fingers that were almost unlined, that were like, but unlike, the hands of my symbionts, larger versions of my own. I t
ook his hands and I kissed them. Then I left him.

  On the first night of the Council of Judgment, proceedings were to begin at nine.

  They would be held in a large storage building a few dozen yards beyond the last house—Henry’s—along the private road. The building had been emptied, and the equipment usually stored in it was sitting outside in the cold, rainy weather—two pickup trucks, two small tractors, a small crane that I’d heard called a cherry picker. Lesser tools had been stored in other buildings. Stacks of metal folding chairs and tables had been rented and trucked in. All this had been done quickly and efficiently by the Gordons and their symbionts with my symbionts and me helping where we could.

  Attending were all thirteen of the Silks, all ten of the Gordons, of course, and two representatives each from the thirteen other families, all strangers to me, or near strangers like the Leontyevs and the Braithwaites. They would judge the Silks … and me and perhaps make it possible for me to get to know myself again and get on with my life without having to be on guard every day against another attack.

  Could a Council of Judgment really do that? What if it couldn’t?

  The thirteen families were Fotopoulos, Marcu, Morariu, Dahlman, Rappaport, Westfall, Nicolau, Andrei, Svoboda, Akhmatova, Nagy, and of course, Leontyev and Braithwaite. One representative would act as a Council member and the other as a substitute. There were six male families and seven female. I asked Preston whether the balance of sexes meant anything.

  “Nothing at all,” he told me. I was working with my symbionts to set up rows of metal chairs, and he was doing something to one of the video cameras that would be recording the Council sessions. “You heard how the decisions were made. The Silks traded names with us until we had a group that both would accept. We have acted as your representative in this because you no longer know these people.”

  “Did I know them all before?” I asked.

  “You knew them. Some you knew well. Others you knew only by family and reputation.”

  “If you tell me about them now, I’ll remember what you say.”

  “I don’t doubt it. But for now, you shouldn’t know them. They must see that you don’t know them, see how much has been taken from you. Just be yourself. They should see that you have been seriously wounded, but that it hasn’t destroyed you.”

  “It has destroyed who I was.”

  “Not as thoroughly as you think, child.” He gave me a long, quiet look. “Did you taste Daniel’s blood?”

  The question surprised me. “I will taste it,” I said. “I will when I’ve survived all this,” I said. “When I believe I can join with someone and not have it be a death sentence for either of us. And when I’ve grown a little more.”

  “He said he offered himself to you.”

  “And I promised that I would mate with him and his brothers. But not now.”

  He smiled. “Good. Even alone, you’re the best mate my sons’ sons could hope for. They all want you.”

  “Daniel said that Hayden—”

  “Don’t worry about Hayden. He likes you, Shori. He’s just afraid for the family, afraid for so much to depend on one tiny female. Once we get through this Council, I’ll convince him.”

  I believed him.

  He left us—Wright, Joel. Theodora, Celia, Brook, and me—to finish making neat rows of a hundred and fifty chairs. There was room for more, and there were more chairs if it turned out that more symbionts wanted to observe, but most of them had intended to be outside roasting meat over contained fires—barbeque pits—and eating and drinking too much. With the rain, many were partying inside the houses. There was even a small party for the children of the Gordon symbionts.

  Wright had decided to stay with me through the proceedings, although I had told him he could go enjoy himself if he wanted to. After the chairs and the folding tables had been set up as Preston had instructed, I told Celia, Brook, Joel, and Theodora that they could go or stay as they chose. Joel stayed, probably because he knew Wright was staying. Brook and Celia went off to renew old friendships, and Theodora went with them. Theodora seemed cheerful and excited.

  “I’ve moved to Mars,” she told me. “Now I’ve got to go learn how to be a good Martian. Who better to teach me than the other immigrants?”

  It surprised me that I understood what she meant. And it pleased me that she was so happy. There was no feeling of stress or falseness about her; she was truly happy.

  “She’s exactly where she wants to be,” Wright said when she was gone. “She’s with you, and you’re going to keep her with you. As far as she’s concerned, she’s died and gone to heaven. People keep falling in love with you, Shori—men, women, old, young—it doesn’t seem to matter.”

  I looked up at him, surprised that I understood him, too. “Why don’t you want to learn from the other immigrants?” I asked.

  “Oh, I do,” he said and grinned at me. “Of course I do. But right now, I want to learn from the Martians themselves.”

  “You want to see how the Council works.”

  “Exactly.”

  “So do I, although I wish I were doing it as just an interested spectator.” We finished our part of the preparation—bringing trays with covered pitchers of water and plastic cups to the storage building. We distributed them among the front tables for the Council members and put some on the tables next to the wall in the back for everyone else. Then we chose seats in the first row. I thought I should be in the front so that I could stand and speak when necessary, and I wanted Joel and Wright beside me since they’d chosen to stay.

  “Have you ever been to one of these Council meetings?” Wright asked Joel, surprising me. With me encouraging them, giving them small commands, they had recently begun to speak to one another beyond what was absolutely necessary.

  “I never have,” Joel said. “There’s never been one here during my lifetime, not while I was at home, anyway.”

  There was something comforting about having them on either side of me. They eased the stress I had been feeling without their doing anything at all.

  Ina and some symbionts had begun to come in and choose seats. This first night of the Council was to begin at nine and run until five the next morning.

  There was no special clothing worn by members of the Council or by audience members except for the many jackets and coats. The building was unheated, and the symbionts seemed to need extra clothing over their jeans and sweatshirts, their casual dresses, or their party clothing. Several symbionts came in from their parties, apparently deciding that they preferred to watch the proceedings of the Council to eating, drinking, and dancing. Earlier that evening, just after it was fully dark, Joel and I had wandered into the noisiest party—the one at William’s house—for a few moments to see, as Joel said, what was going on. It was the first time I could remember seeing people dance to music that was being played on a stereo.

  “It looks like fun,” I said.

  Joel smiled. “It is fun. Want to learn?”

  “I do,” I said. “But not now. Not tonight.” And we had gone back to help with the preparations. I looked back, though, liking the joy and the sweat and the easy sexiness of it all, wishing I could have stayed and let him teach me.

  Twenty-two

  Ironically, the oldest person present was Milo Silk. He was 541 years old—ancient even for an Ina. According to the world history I had been reading, when he was born, there were no Europeans in the Americas or Australia. Ferdinand and Isabella, who would someday send Christopher Columbus out exploring, were not yet even married. All Ina were in Europe and the Middle East, traveling with Gypsies, blending as best they could into more stationary populations or even finding their ways into this or that aristocracy or royal court. That world was Mars to me, and if Milo Silk were anyone else, I would have wanted very much to spend time with him and hear any stories he would tell about the worlds of his childhood and youth.

  As things were, though, I had avoided him and his family until now. And yet, he was
asked to bless the opening of Council proceedings. I thought they should have changed the custom and invited an elder who was less involved in causing suffering and death to speak what Preston had told me should be words of unity and peace. But everyone seemed to expect Milo to do it. After all, he hadn’t been judged guilty of anything—yet.

  Milo Silk stood up in his place directly across from where I had eventually been told to sit. He and I were at opposite ends of a broad arc of cloth-draped, metal-framed tables. Twelve members of the Council sat two to a table. The odd Council member, Peter Marcu, had a table to himself, as did Milo Silk and I and Preston Gordon, who sat at the center of the arc and who was moderating and representing the host family.

  The Gordon symbionts had set up a sound system. They’d scattered speakers along the length of the big room and put on each of the tables a slender, flexible microphone for each person. There was also a standalone microphone centered between the two prongs of the arc of tables.

  Martin Harrison had shown me how to use my microphone—how to turn it on or off, how to take it from its stand and hold it if I wanted to, how close to it I should be when I spoke into it. Wright and Joel had watched all this, looking around as the other Council members and Milo were seated. Then Wright kissed me on the forehead and said, confusingly, “Break a leg.” Then he’d gone back to his seat in the front row where he had left his jacket holding his chair and sat there alone.

  Joel had stayed with me a little longer, holding my hands between his. “Are you afraid?” he asked.

  I shook my head. “Nervous, but not afraid. I wish it were over.”

  He grinned. “You’ll impress the hell out of them.” He kissed the palms of my hands—each of them—then went back to sit one seat from Wright, my former seat empty between them.

  No one had told them they couldn’t sit at the table with me, and I would have been happy to have them there. Even before I sat down at the table, it had looked like a lonely place. But both men had seen, as I had, that there were only Ina at the tables, and they had drawn their own conclusions. They were probably right. Moments later, Brook came in and sat down between them.

 

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