Fledgling, p.29Octavia E. Butler
“He was maybe five-three or four,” Eric said.
Joel whistled. “That might mean his Ina was female,” he said.
“Jack Roan,” I said. “His scent was on Theodora. Jack Roan sym Katharine Dahlman. And Katharine Dahlman and her sister are the shortest adult Ina I’ve ever seen. Did Jack dance with Theodora at all?”
“If he did, it was before we arrived,” Eric said. “We were at another party at Manning’s house. She would have had plenty of time to dance with other people before we arrived.”
But she probably hadn’t. Theodora had not left Celia until Eric and Gerald took an interest. I needed to talk with Jack Roan as soon as possible.
But Jack Roan had gone—had left Punta Nublada. I went to the office complex where the Dahlmans were staying and he wasn’t there.
The complex was also where the Braithwaites were staying, and one of Margaret Braithwaite’s symbionts, a man named Zane Carter, told me he had seen Roan go—had seen him take one of the Dahlman cars and leave that morning. Carter assumed Roan had been sent out on some errand for Katherine or her sister Sophia.
Also, the other brown-haired man from the party turned up—the one who had left the party at the same time as Roan. He turned out to be someone that I knew or, at least, that I was aware of. He was Hiram Majors sym Preston, and his scent had not been on Theodora. I was relieved to know that once I knew he was with the Gordons. He came to me on his own when he heard that I was looking for Roan … and heard why I was looking for him.
“I was talking to Jack last night,” he told me when he caught up with me as Joel and I were leaving the office complex. “Turns out he and my sister both went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh at the same time. He knew her. Saw her in some play—she was a drama major—and then ran into her the next day and invited her to have coffee with him.” Hiram shrugged. “I’m cut off from my family out here. It was good to talk to someone from home.”
“Did he leave abruptly last night?” I asked.
“Yes,” Hiram admitted. “I think he had been watching your … Theodora?”
“That was her name.”
“I hadn’t really noticed her until she walked past us and out the door, and Jack looked at her and said he had to go do something for Katharine. Said he’d forgotten until that minute.” Hiram shook his head. “That’s why I remember him so clearly.”
“God,” Joel said. “What a stupid thing for one symbiont to say to another.”
“Why?” I asked, not thinking.
They both stared at me. Joel answered, “You don’t forget something your Ina tells you to do. You can’t. That’s one of the first things you learn as a symbiont. Jack Roan was—I guess—so eager to go after Theodora that he told a really stupid lie.”
I asked Layla Cory, Preston’s first, to let me know when he was awake.
Then I went back to the guest house to talk with Wright, Brook, and Celia.
“Jill Renner saw Jack talking to Theodora,” Brook said when I told them about Jack Roan.
“She recognized him because he’s so short,” Wright said. “She’d noticed him before.”
“Where were they talking?” I asked.
“Outside,” he said. “Near Hayden’s house. It was around two thirty or three this morning. She was on her way home.”
“Jill said she couldn’t hear what they were saying,” Celia said. “But it didn’t look like anything bad was happening. I mean, Jill said he wasn’t touching her or anything.”
As soon as Layla Cory phoned me, I left my symbionts at the guest house, went to Preston, and told him what had happened and what I had learned. We talked in his den, next to his bedroom. The den was a windowless, wood-paneled room with leather-covered chairs, oriental rugs on the floor, and many shelves of old, leather-covered books. It felt, somehow, like a cave—the cave Preston was born from each day.
“Katharine Dahlman,” he said, and he shook his head. “I’ve known Katharine for three centuries. Her family and mine … well, I can’t say we’ve been friends, but we’ve usually gotten along. Are you sure?” We sat facing one another in the vast leather chairs. I had slipped off my shoes and curled up in the chair because it was easier than sitting with my legs sticking straight out or sitting forward on the edge with my feet dangling well above the floor. It was a comfortable chair to curl up in. Under different circumstances, I would have been completely content there.
“I’m sure my Theodora is dead,” I said, “murdered by being hit so hard that part of her skull was broken. I’m sure Jack Roan sym Katharine Dahlman followed her from the party at Philip’s house after lying about why he was leaving the party. Jill Renner went to the same parties as Theodora, and she said early this morning she saw Roan talking to Theodora near Hayden’s house. Sometime after that, Zane Carter saw Roan leaving Punta Nublada. I can’t claim to know more than that, but that should be enough.”
Preston looked at me for a moment, then shook his head.
“I loved Theodora, and she was mine,” I said. “She came to me willingly, eagerly. And now, because she loved me, she’s dead.”
“You don’t know that,” he said.
“I can’t prove it,” I said. “But I know it. So do you.” I took a deep breath. “I promised Martin Harrison I wouldn’t kill anyone before I talked to you or Hayden. And because the Council goes on tonight, I can’t try to track Roan.” I took another breath. “Preston, what can I do? She trusted herself to me. I want a life for her life. I will have a life for her life.”
Preston turned his face away. “Roan’s life?”
I said nothing more. I would have Katharine Dahlman’s life. We would not play the game of killing off one another’s symbionts as though they weren’t even people, as though they were nothing.
I jumped down from the chair, grabbed my shoes, and started to walk away from him.
“Who will protect the rest of your symbionts if you kill Katharine?” Preston demanded. “Her family will come after you. You’ll have stepped outside the law, and they will be free to protect themselves. They’ll kill you, and they’ll kill your symbionts, too, if they try to help you. And of course they will try. Do you want the rest of your people dead?”
“The Dahlmans are the ones who stepped outside the law!”
“I agree with you; they almost certainly have. But that isn’t yet proved.”
“My family is gone!” I said, turning to face him again. “My memory of them is gone. I can’t even mourn them properly because for me, they never really lived. Now I have begun to relearn who I am, to rebuild my life, and my enemies are still killing my people. Where is there safety for my symbionts or for me?”
“Go on with the Council of Judgment.”
If he had been anyone other than Preston, I would have walked away without bothering to comment. But Preston had become important to me. It wasn’t only that I liked him. He was Daniel’s elderfather. And he favored a mating between his sons and me. “Why?” I demanded. “Why should I wait?”
“Think about why this was done, Shori. Think. You were very much in control of yourself last night. If your memory were intact, you wouldn’t have been, you couldn’t have been so calm as you sat in the same room with the people who probably had your families killed. I don’t think you were expected to be calm. I think the Silks and perhaps the Dahlmans expected you not only to look unusual with your dark skin, but to be out of your mind with pain, grief, and anger, to be a pitiable, dangerous, crazed thing. We Ina don’t handle loss as well as most humans do. It’s a much rarer thing with us, and when it happens, the grief is … almost unbearable.”
I looked away from him. “I know what the grief is like!”
“Of course you do. You stand there hugging yourself as though you were trying to hold yourself together. They did this to you, Shori. They want you this way!”
I found myself leaning against the wall, w
“The facts are what the Council is supposed to pay attention to.”
“But Katharine Dahlman is a member of the Council.”
“Challenge her tonight. Tell the Council what has happened just as you told me. Facts only. Let them draw their own conclusions. Let them question you. Then ask that Katharine be removed from the Council.”
“And they’ll do it? All I have to do is ask, and they’ll do it?”
“Yes. They’ll question her. Then they’ll do it because they’ll know you’re telling the truth, and they’ll decide her guilt or innocence as well as her punishment—if there is to be punishment—tomorrow night, when they decide what to do about the Silks. But once she leaves the Council, someone else will have to go, too. Chances are it will be Vlad.”
If there was to be punishment? If? If they didn’t punish her, I would. I would kill her. I would find a way to do it, a way that would not leave my symbionts unprotected. Perhaps I could find a human criminal—a murderer—and have him kill her and then die himself before he could be made to say who had sent him. Katharine’s people would know as I knew, but if she could get away with it, so could I. I had to do something. What I wanted to do was tear her apart with my teeth and hands. Maybe it would come to that.
Then my mind registered the other thing that Preston had said. Vladimir Leontyev, my advocate, one of my mothers’ fathers, off the Council. “Why?” I demanded.
“Numerical balance. All Councils of Judgment must have an odd number of members. If Katharine were to leave the Council because of an injury or an emergency at home, her sister Sophia would take her place. Under the circumstances, I don’t think you or your advocate would find Sophia any more acceptable than Katharine.”
“I agree,” I said. Who knew whether this was something both sisters had agreed to do or something Katharine had thought of on her own.
“Also,” Preston said, “it will strike people as reasonable that both you and the Silks lose your advocates.”
“It’s as though they’re playing a game. After all, I’m not trying to get at her because she’s the Silks’ advocate.”
“It’s not a game, Shori. The Council will know why Katharine must go. But it will be best for you if you do this according to custom.” He frowned, looked at me, then looked away. “You, more than anyone, must show that you can follow our ways. You must not give the people who have decided to be your enemies any advantage. You must seem more Ina that they.”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“You know enough. When you don’t know, ask.”
“Who shall I ask? Who will be my advocate now?”
He thought for a moment. “Joan Braithwaite?”
I had to think about that, too. “If Margaret were the Council member, I’d say yes, but Joan … Just how friendly is she with the Silks?”
“Because of the way she spoke to you last night?”
“That and … when she finished with me, she went over to talk with the Silks.”
“You should have listened to what she said to them, to Milo in particular.”
“She told him to give his place to one of his sons or she would, before the Council, question his mental stability.”
“As he questioned mine.”
“Yes. Stupid of him. But as I’ve told you, you were not what the Silks expected you to be. You should have been, by all reckoning, only a husk of a person, mad with grief and rage or simply mad.” He paused. “I wonder if that’s part of why your memory is gone, not just because you suffered blows to the head, but because of the emotional blow of the death of all your symbionts, your sisters, and your mothers—everyone. You must have seen it happen. Maybe that’s what destroyed the person you were.”
I thought about that. I tried to let his words touch off some feeling, some grief or pain, some memory. But those people were strangers. Right now, there was only Theodora and the pain of just thinking her name. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll never know.”
“Go talk to Joan, Shori. See her before tonight’s session begins.”
I looked into his kindly face, and it scared me how much I liked him and depended on him, even though I didn’t really know him very well. But then, I didn’t know anyone very well. “What would Joan have done differently if she had been my advocate from the beginning?” I asked.
He gave me a faint, unhappy smile. “From what I know of her, I think she would have spoken to you just as harshly as she did speak, perhaps even more so. But she wouldn’t have spoken to the Silks at all, and perhaps Milo would have gone on representing his family and eventually offending almost everyone. Go talk to her, Shori. Do it now.”
I went, stopping at the guest house to check on Wright, Joel, Brook, and Celia. I needed to see them to be certain they were all right, I needed to touch each of them. They were sharing a meal of roast beef, a mixture of brown-and-wild rice, gravy, and green beans with the six Rappaport symbionts.
“I need all of you to come to the Council tonight,” I said. I didn’t think I could stand it if they stayed away, if I couldn’t see them and know that they were all right for so many hours.
“We figured,” Celia said.
“Don’t worry,” Wright said. “We were going to go to the Council hall as soon as we finished dinner.” The storage building had become “the Council hall” overnight.
“Stay together,” I said. “Take care of one another.”
They nodded, and I left them. I went to the offices that the Braithwaites were using as living space. I would have given a lot just to sit with my symbionts, watch them eat, hear their voices, walk them over to the Council hall where I would make sure they got seats in the front so that I could always see them. Instead, I went to find Joan Braithwaite.
I tripped and almost fell on the steps that lead up into the offices. I hurt my foot enough to stand still for a moment and wait for it to stop throbbing. It occurred to me as I stood there that I could not recall stumbling like that since the day I left the cave and had healed enough to hunt. This was what Preston had meant. Theodora had been murdered so that I would begin to stumble in all sorts of ways.
I stood still for a minute more, breathing, regaining my balance as best I could. Then I went in and found Joan.
She was in the office that was her bedroom, sitting at the desk, writing in a wire-bound notebook. She closed the notebook as I came in. The folding bed that had been moved in for her was heaped with blankets that she had thrown aside. Her clothing, books, and other things were scattered around the room. She kept a messy room the way Theodora had. Somehow, that made me like her a little.
“I suppose you’ve come to ask me to be your advocate,” she said in her quick, no-nonsense way.
“I have,” I said, relieved that she already knew. Zane Carter, who had told me about seeing Jack Roan drive away, had probably told both Joan and Margaret everything.
“You haven’t hurt anyone?” Joan demanded.
I shook my head. “I promised Martin Harrison that I wouldn’t. I said I’d wait until I talked with Preston or Hayden. When I talked with Preston, he sent me to you.”
She turned her chair so that she faced me, hands resting on the arms of the chair. “So you’re pretty much in control of yourself, then? You’re over the shock?”
I just stared at her.
After a while, she nodded. “When your rage is choking you, it is best to say nothing. How are your remaining symbionts?”
“Fine.” Yes. Fine. Putting up with me and my need to hover over them.
“There are people on the Council who are going to ask you much more painful questions than I have so far, Shori. Someone will surely ask you whether you killed your Theodora yourself.”
My mouth fell open. “What? I … what?”
I couldn’t say anything for several seconds. On some level, I understood what Joan was doing. I didn’t love her for it, but I understood. Still, it took me a while to be able to respond coherently.
“She had accepted me,” I said at last. I cleared my throat. “Theodora loved me. I bound her to me here at Punta Nublada. She was mine when she died. Before she arrived several days ago, we hadn’t been together often enough to be fully bound, but she wanted to be. She wanted to be with me, and I wanted her. I loved her.”
“Do you understand why I ask that?”
She looked downward, licked her lips. “Symbionts—fully bound symbionts—give up a great deal of freedom to be with us. Sometimes, after a while, they resent us even though they don’t truly want to leave, even though they love us. As a result, they behave badly. I don’t blame them, but—”
“She didn’t resent me. She didn’t really know what she was giving up yet. And … she trusted me.”
“Let me finish. Our senses are so much more acute than theirs, we’re so much faster and stronger than they are that it’s a good thing they have some protection against us. In fact, it’s extremely difficult for us kill or injure our bound symbionts. It’s hard, very hard, even to want to do such a thing.
“Even Milo hasn’t been able to do it. He resents his need of them, sees it as a weakness, and yet he loves them. He would stand between his symbionts and any danger. He might shout at them, but even then, he would be careful. He would not order them to harm themselves or one another. And he would never harm one of them. I think it’s an instinct for self-preservation on our part. We need our symbionts more than most of them know. We need not only their blood, but physical contact with them and emotional reassurance from them. Companionship. I’ve never known even one of us to survive without symbionts. We should be able to do it—survive through casual hunting. But the truth is that that only works for short periods. Then we sicken. We either weave ourselves a family of symbionts, or we die. Our bodies need theirs. But human beings who are not bound to us, who are bound to other Ina, or not bound at all … they have no protection against us except whatever decency, whatever morality we choose to live up to. You see?”
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective / Science Fiction / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes