Fledgling, p.28Octavia E. Butler
I found myself on my knees beside Theodora making sounds I could not recall ever having made before. She had come to me because she trusted me, loved me. She had been so happy when I asked her to join me here at Punta Nublada where she should have been safe. I had promised her a good life, had had every intention of keeping my promise. I would have kept her with me for the rest of her life. How could she be dead?
I wanted the people around me gone. I wanted to be let alone to examine Theodora, to understand her death. I must have made some gesture because the watching symbionts all took a few steps back. I knelt on the ground alongside Theodora, selecting out scents that were not her own, separating them into odors and groups of odors that I recognized. Theodora had gone to at least one of the parties, and that made for a confusion of scents—sweat, blood, aftershave, cologne, food and drink of several kinds, sexual arousal, many personal scents. There were fourteen distinct, personal human scents.
The odor that screamed loudest at me was the strong blood-scent in Theodora’s hair—her blood. I looked and found the wound there. Her hair was stiff and matted with dried blood. Dead blood. I touched her head, ran my fingers over it, and found the place where there was a softness, an indentation. Someone had hit her so hard that they broke her skull.
Someone had murdered her.
Who had done it? Why? No one knew her here. No one had reason to harm her. No one would have harmed her … except, perhaps, to harm me. Would someone do that? Murder one person in the hope of causing pain to another? Why not? Someone—the Silks, surely—had murdered nearly two hundred people, human and Ina, in the hope of killing me, killing all that my eldermothers had created.
I closed my eyes, tried to quiet my thoughts and focus on Theodora. After a moment, I breathed deeply again and continued sorting through the scents. She had been in contact with fourteen different humans—Gordon symbionts and visitors. I didn’t recognize all of them, but six I could picture. These were people I had met or had had pointed out to me. The others … the other scents I would remember. When I found the people they belonged to, I would know them. Any of them could have killed her, or perhaps they had only brushed against her at one of the parties. Perhaps they had danced with her or touched her in some other casual way. She had not had sex with anyone recently.
There seemed no way to tell which of the fourteen might have hit her, but … Had her blood splashed on the killer? Had the killer kept the weapon used to kill her? Had the killer touched her at all beyond battering her to death, perhaps to examine her to be certain she was dead?
I put my face down closer to her broken, bloody head. But then the scent of dead blood, of Theodora’s beloved body, ten or more hours dead, became all that I could smell, and I had to turn away from it after a moment. I stood up and stepped a short distance away, gasping, sick, desperate for clean air.
Someone spoke to me, came near, and I shouted, “Let me alone! Get away from me!” A moment later, I realized that I had shouted at Wright, my first. I had told him to go away. Stupid of me. Stupid!
I looked up at him, saw that he was already backing away, not wanting to go but going.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Stay here, Wright. Stay near me while I finish this.”
I breathed deeply for a moment, then turned back to Theodora and tried again. I rolled her from her back onto her side so that I could see and smell whatever had been trapped under her. The significant odors were more blood, of course, and the scents of five more people. Again, I recognized some of them—three of the five. Through the night, then, nineteen people had had enough contact with Theodora to leave their scents on her—nineteen people, any one of whom might be her murderer. I would have to find each of them and speak to them or to their Ina.
I stood up, finally, and went on looking at my dead Theodora. I would have to go to her daughter and son-in-law and tell them that she was dead. They couldn’t know everything, but they had a right to know that. After I found her killer, I would go to her family.
I looked around for Martin. He was still there. The onlookers had gone away, but Martin and my four symbionts still waited.
“Has anyone left the community today?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
“Could someone have left without your knowing?”
“Of course. I have to sleep, too, girl.”
And William Gordon had bitten him early this morning. I looked back at Theodora. “I don’t know what should be done with the dead, Martin.”
“She should be cleaned up, given a funeral, and … well, buried. We have our own cemetery here.”
I still didn’t know what to do. Theodora should be prepared for burial. A memorial service of some kind should be arranged. Her killer should be caught, should be killed. And yet in a few hours the Council of Judgment would begin its second night, and I would have to be there.
“Shori, girl,” Martin said. He spoke with such gentleness that I wanted to run away from him. I could not dissolve emotionally and lose myself in grief. I did not dare. There was no time.
“Shori, we’ll take care of her body. We’ll prepare her for burial. We can have services for her after the Council is over. You go find out who did this. That’s what you want to do, isn’t it?”
I looked at him, and all I could do was nod.
“Leave her to us.” He almost turned away, then stopped and drew a deep breath. “Two things, Shori. They’re important.”
“All right,” I said.
He looked down and met my gaze with a different expression—harder, unhappy, but determined.
“Tell me, Martin,” I said. “You’ve been a friend. Go ahead and say whatever it is that you don’t want to say.”
He nodded. “Don’t kill anyone. No matter how certain you are that you’ve found the right person, don’t kill. Not yet. Chances are, the murderer is one of the visitors—one of the Gordon family’s guests. You are more than a guest. You’ll be mated to the sons of the family in a few years. But still … Tell Preston or Hayden what’s happened before you take a life.”
I stared at him, unable to answer at first. Until that moment, if I had learned that Martin himself had killed Theodora, I’m not sure I could have stopped myself from killing him. And yet, I understood on some murky emotional level and from slivers of recovered memory that it would be a serious offense against the Gordons to kill one of their guests. I couldn’t remember anyone ever doing such a thing, but I felt enough horror and disgust at the thought of doing it to know that I must not.
“I won’t kill anyone,” I said finally.
“And don’t bite anyone.”
That one was even harder. But I could see the reason for it. If I found the killer, he or she would be the symbiont of someone here. Again, I knew—again without understanding fully how I knew—that it would be wrong to interfere with someone else’s symbiont.
“The Ina might be the guilty one,” I said. “Probably would be.”
“All the more reason not to abuse the symbiont.”
“I won’t bite unless someone attacks me,” I said. “I would rather bite than break bones or tear flesh.” And I walked away from him. My symbionts followed me.
When we were alone, Wright pulled me to him and hugged me and held me for a while. I felt as though I wanted to stay that way, safe with him, breathing his good, familiar scent. It mattered more than I would have thought possible that he was alive, that he loved me and wanted somehow to comfort me. I knew that if I let him, he would take me home and put me to bed and stay with me until I fell asleep. I knew he would do that because I had come to know him that well. I longed to let him do that.
But there was no time. If possible, by the time tonight’s Council session began, I wanted to know who had killed Theodora. I wanted to prevent the murderer from leaving or killing anyone else, and I wanted to put this new crime before the Council to see whether they would deal with it. If they didn’t, I would.
I pushed back from Wright and realized that he had lifted me off the ground and was holding me so that I could look at him almost at eye level. I kissed the side of his mouth, then kissed his mouth and said, “Put me down.”
He set me on my feet. “What do you want us to do?” he asked.
And I almost disintegrated again. He understood. Of course he did. “I need you to stay together,” I said. “Protect one another.” I looked at each of them, missing immediately the face that was not there. “I don’t know whether Theodora’s murder has anything to do with the other attempts on us or with Council of Judgment, but it seems likely.” I paused. It hurt to say her name. I took a breath and went on. “Go talk to Jill Renner sym Wayne. She spent some time with Theodora last night and left her scent for me to find. She wouldn’t have hurt Theodora, but she might have seen her having trouble with someone or leaving a party with someone. Was there a party at Wayne’s house last night?”
“Sym Wayne?” Wright said, frowning. “Is that how you say it, then, when someone is a symbiont? That’s what happens to our names? We’re sym Shori?”
“You are,” I said.
“Something you remembered?”
“No. Something I learned from hearing people talk. What about Wayne’s house? Was there a party?”
“Not at Wayne’s,” Celia said. “But there was a party at Edward’s and a big party at Philip’s. Jill, Theodora, and I were at both of them. Theodora was a little shy at first, and she kind of hung out with me at Edward’s. We ate there and talked with a lot of people. But at Philip’s she met a couple of guys. They got her dancing, and the three of them just sort of stayed together, dancing and flirting and enjoying themselves.”
Wright frowned at Celia as though she had said something wrong, but Celia ignored him.
“Who were the two men?” I asked.
“A couple of older guys. I don’t know their names or who their Ina is. They were both graying, maybe five-ten, well built. They could have been brothers. They looked a lot alike.”
“Did you touch them?” I asked. “Shake hands or squeeze past them?” She shook her head.
“Tell me what you can about them. See them in your memory, and tell me what you see.” We were walking toward Wayne’s house where Jill Renner was probably still asleep.
Celia frowned and looked desperate for a moment, as though she were grasping for something that she couldn’t quite reach but had to reach. She glanced at me, then closed her eyes, focusing, remembering. Finally she said, “They both had the same salt-and-pepper hair—black with a lot of white. One of them had a mustache. It was salt-and-pepper, too. They aren’t with the Gordons. I’m sure of that. Westfall! I think they’re the two male Westfall symbionts. The rest of the Westfall syms are women. These guys talk like they’ve been here for a long time, but every now and then you could hear a little English accent …” She let her voice trail away. Then she said, “The one with the mustache, he has a scar on his forehead, or maybe it’s a birthmark. I’m not sure which. I don’t know how big it is. It starts just below the hairline and goes back into the hair. It’s a red oval, or I think it would have been oval if I could have seen all of it.”
“All right,” I said. “Relax. I know who you mean. I’ve never spoken to them, but I saw them and got their scent when the Westfalls arrived. Their scents were on Theodora. You’re right. They probably are brothers. I’ll find them. The rest of you go talk to Jill Renner.”
“Let me stay with you,” Joel said. “I know a lot of the visitors, and they know me. I might be able to help.”
I glanced up at him and nodded. “You three, watch out for one another.”
Brook, Celia, and Wright went off to knock on Wayne’s door, and Joel and I went down the road to Wells Gordon’s house where the Westfalls—Harold and John—were staying with their eight symbionts, including the two who may have been among the last people to see Theodora alive.
I didn’t suspect them of killing Theodora. The Westfalls, from what Preston had told me, were not closely related to me or to the Silks, but they were very interested in the success my eldermothers had had mixing human and Ina DNA and giving me the day. They were not offended by it as the Silks were.
I thought about Milo, about his contempt for me and his less lethal, but no less real, contempt for symbionts—probably for all humans. Ina could not survive without humans, and yet Milo seemed to consider them little more than useful domestic animals. What must life be like for his symbionts?
And how did families who thought like the Silks get along with other Ina? Joan Braithwaite had said that there were many who loved Milo. They must have loved him in spite of his arrogance. Or perhaps they loved him for what he had been when he was younger. He was far from lovable now.
I had read in one of the books I’d borrowed from Hayden about the periods of feuding between Ina families during which Ina fought mainly by doing what the Silks had done to my families—using humans as weapons—using them to kill members of one another’s families. Hayden said that hadn’t happened anywhere in the world for centuries. It was considered as barabaric among Ina as boiling people in oil was among humans.
And yet, somehow it had come back into fashion.
“I need to see the two male Westfall symbionts, “I told Dulce Ramos, the Wells Gordon’s symbiont who happened to be awake.
She nodded and said, “Okay.” Then, “Hey, Joel,” and took Joel and me upstairs and into to the house’s guest quarters. “Those two are brothers—twins, I think—Gerald and Eric Cooper. Eric’s the one with the mustache.” She paused. “I heard what happened. I’m sorry.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“Do you think the Westfall syms did it?”
“No. But they might have seen something.”
The Westfall symbionts were asleep, keeping the same hours as their Ina. Awakened, the Cooper brothers came out together, short salt-and-pepper hair standing up in spikes all over their heads. They wore handsome robes made of very smooth, deep red material. They were just as Celia had described them, now sleepy but interested.
“I had heard you could stay awake during the day,” Eric said. “But I didn’t believe it until now.”
I shrugged. “I can,” I said, “but while I was asleep this morning someone killed one of my symbionts.”
Both men went very still. “Theodora?” Gerald asked.
“Theodora,” I said.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Killed? Someone killed her? My God.”
“Early this morning. She’s been dead now for about ten hours.”
He nodded. “And you’re talking to us because we spent some time talking to her last night.”
“I’m talking to you because both your scents are on her,” I said.
“We both danced with her,” Eric said. “She was so happy, having such a good time. She was a delight.”
“She talked mainly about you,” Gerald said. “She made us remember what it was like to be in a brand-new symbiosis. She was very much in love with you, said she thought her life was pretty much over until you broke into her house one night, swept her off her feet, and confused the hell out of her.”
I wanted to laugh about that. Then I wanted to run away from these strangers, find a dark corner, and huddle there rocking my body back and forth, moaning and mourning. They were speaking honestly about Theodora as far as I could sense, and yet I hated them. They had been with her talking to her, listening to her, touching her during her last hours. They were strangers, and they had been there with her. I had not.
Beside me, Joel took my hand and held it. That helped a little, steadied me a little.
I struggled to keep my voice and my expression neutral because frightening these men would not get me the information I wanted. And I couldn’t just stir their memories by telling them to remember. They weren’t mine. The best I could do would be to ask their Ina to nudge their memories when he awoke. For now, I could only try to persuade them. “Do you re
“She left us,” Gerald said. “She said she was tired and wanted to go to bed. Said she wasn’t used to having a social life again. I think it was around two this morning.” He looked at his brother. “Two?”
“Closer to three,” Eric said. “We offered to walk her home, but she just smiled and kissed us both and went on her way. I saw her go out the front door. That’s the last time I saw her.”
“Did you see anyone paying attention to her?” I asked.
Both men frowned, then Eric shook his head. “I was looking at her. I might have missed what someone else was doing.” He glanced at me. “No offense, but I would have taken her to bed if I could have.”
I nodded. I had understood that. “I don’t think she was ready for that yet.”
“She wasn’t.” He paused. “As soon as she was gone, though, two men left. I don’t know them or which families they’re with. Hell, I don’t even know if they were together. They did leave at the same time, though.”
“Tell me what you remember about them,” I said. “Did you see their faces?”
“Only for a moment,” Eric said. “Young-looking men. Brown hair. Medium brown. Both of them.”
“Another pair of brothers?” I asked.
They looked at one another, then back at me. “No, I don’t believe so,” Gerald said. “They were a Mutt-and-Jeff pair.”
“A tall fellow and a short one,” Gerald explained. “And they didn’t look alike at all except for the hair. Just two guys.”
“How short was the short guy?” Joel asked.
Gerald frowned. “Too short to be a symbiont, really. I think most Ina would worry about taking on a such a small man.”
Mentally, I went through the list of people who had left their scents on Theodora’s body. Of the ones I could identify, three of them were brown-haired men. Only one might be called short by everyone except me. Gerald was right. The man I was thinking of was slender and short, actually too small to be a symbiont. Most Ina worried about hurting smaller humans. In great need, even I might take more blood than a small human could survive losing. “Estimate the height of the shorter man,” I said, just to be sure.
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective / Science Fiction / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes