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       Fledgling, p.31

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  “What are human, then. What are they to you?”

  He stopped glaring at me and looked uncertainly at Russell.

  Russell said, “What do his opinions of humans have to do with the deaths of your families?”

  “Humans were used as the killer’s surrogates,” I said. “What do you think of using them that way?”

  “Me?” Russell asked.

  “You,” I said.

  “Have you finished questioning Alan, then?”

  “I haven’t. But you did jump in and it’s my time to ask questions. You’ve had yours. If you would like, though, I will question you as soon as I finish with Alan.”

  He looked both confused and annoyed. Since he didn’t seem to know what to say, I returned my attention to Alan.

  “Are humans tools, then? Should we be free to use them according to our needs?”

  “Of course not!”

  “Is it wrong to send humans out to kill Ina and their symbionts?”

  “Of course it’s wrong!”

  “Do you know anyone who has ever done that?”

  “No!” He almost shouted the word. The sound of his own voice magnified by the microphone seemed to startle him, and he was silent for a moment. Then he repeated, “No. Of course not. No.”

  Every one of his responses to my questions about humans were lies. I suspected that his brothers lied when I questioned them. I wanted to believe they were lying. But my senses told me that Alan, with his little twitches and his false outrage … Alan was definitely lying.

  If I could see it, anyone on the Council could see it.

  Twenty-seven

  When the second night of the Council ended, I was exhausted and yet restless. I wasn’t hungry, and I couldn’t have slept. I needed to run. I thought if I circled the community, running as fast as I could, I might burn off some of my tension.

  I got up from my table and joined my symbionts. I walked outside with them, and we headed back toward the guest house.

  “What’s to stop Katharine Dahlman from escaping?” Wright asked. “She could decide to join her symbiont in Texas or wherever he is.”

  “She won’t run,” Joel said. “She’s got too much pride. She won’t shame herself or her family by running. Besides …” He paused. I glanced back at him. “Besides,” he said to me, “she might believe that she has a better chance of surviving if she stays here and takes her punishment.”

  I said nothing. I only looked at him.

  He shrugged.

  At the guest house, the four of them went straight to the kitchen. While they were preparing themselves a meal, I went out to run. I didn’t begin to feel right until I’d had done not one, but three laps around the community. I was the only one running. Everyone else, Ina and human, had trudged back to their meals and their beds.

  When I came in, I avoided the kitchen and dining room where I could hear all four of my symbionts and the six Rappaport symbionts moving around, talking, eating. I went upstairs and took a shower. I was planning to spend the night with Joel. My custom was that I could taste anyone anytime—a small delight for me and for my symbionts, a pleasure greater than a kiss, but not as intense as feeding or making love. I made sure, though, that I took a complete meal from each of them only every fifth night.

  Now it would have to be every fourth. I would soon have to-get more symbionts, but how could I think about doing that now?

  Dry and dressed in one of Wright’s T-shirts, I somehow wound up in Theodora’s room. I wasn’t thinking. Her scent drew me. I sat down on her bed, then stretched out on it, surrounded by her scent. I closed my eyes, and it was as though she would come through the door any minute and see me there and look at me in her sidelong way and come onto the bed with me, laughing.

  A couple of nights after she arrived, she had found me reading one of Hayden’s books written in Ina, and I’d read parts of it to her, first in Ina, then in English. She had been fascinated and wanted me to teach her to read and speak Ina. She said that if she was going to have a longer life span than she had expected, she might as well do something with it. I liked the idea of teaching her because it would force me to go back to the basics of the language, and I hoped that might help me remember a little about the person I had been when I learned it.

  I lay there and got lost in Theodora’s scent and in grief.

  I must have stayed lost for some time, lying on the bed, twisted in the bedding.

  Then Joel was there with me, taking the bedding from around me, raising me to my feet, taking me to his room. I looked around the room, then at Joel. He put me on the bed, then got in beside me.

  After a while, it occurred to me to say, “Thank you.”

  “Sleep,” he said. “Or feed now if you like.”

  “Later.”

  “I’ll be here.”

  I turned and leaned up on my elbow to looked down at his face.

  “What?” he asked.

  I shook my head. “Why did you want me?” I asked.

  “What?”

  “You know what I am, what I can do. Why didn’t you escape us when you could have? You could have stayed in school or gotten a job. The Gordons would have let you go.”

  He slipped his arms around me and pulled me down against him. “I like who you are,” he said. “And I can deal with what you can do.” He hesitated. “Or are you thinking about Theodora? Are you feeling responsible for what happened to her? Do you believe that she was killed because she was with you, and so why the hell would I want to be with you?”

  I nodded. “She was killed because she was with me. She trusted me. Her death is not my doing directly, but I should have left her in Washington, where she was safe, until all this was over. I knew that. I missed her so much, though, and I had to have more symbionts here with me.”

  “If she hadn’t been here, one of the rest of us would have died,” he said. “Theodora was probably the weakest of us, the easiest to kill, but I’ll bet if she hadn’t been here, Katharine would have sent her man after Brook or Celia.”

  I nodded. “I know.”

  “Katharine’s guilty. Not you.”

  I nodded against his shoulder and repeated, “I know.” After a while, I said, “You knew much more than most would-be symbionts. You really should have stayed away, made a life for yourself in the human world.”

  “I might have gone away if you hadn’t turned up. You’re not only a lovely little thing, but you’re willing to ask me questions.”

  Instead of just ordering him around, yes. That would be important to a symbiont, to anyone. “I won’t always ask,” I admitted.

  “I know,” he said. He kissed me. “I want this life, Shori. I’ve never wanted any other. I want to live to be two hundred years old, and I want all the pleasure I know you can give me. I want to live disease free and strong, and never get feeble or senile. And I want you. You know I want you.”

  In fact, he wanted me right then. At once. His hunger ignited mine, and in spite of everything, I did still need to feed. I wanted him.

  I lost myself in his wonderful scent. Blindly, I found his neck and bit him deeply before I fully realized what I was doing. I hadn’t been so confused and disoriented since I awoke in the cave. I needed more blood than I usually did. He held me even though I took no care with him. Afterward, when I was fully aware, I was both ashamed and concerned.

  I raised myself above him and looked down at him. He gave me a sideways smile—a real smile, not just patient suffering. But still … I put my face down against his chest. “I’m sorry,” I said.

  He laughed. “You know you don’t have anything to apologize for.” He pulled the blanket up around us, rolled us over, and slipped into me.

  I kissed his throat and licked his neck where it was still bleeding.

  Sometime later, as we lay together, sated, but still taking pleasure in the feel of skin against skin, I said, “You’re mine. Did you know that? You’re scent is so enticing, and I’ve nibbled on you so often. You’re mine.


  He laughed softly—a contented, gentle sound. “I thought I might be,” he said.

  That afternoon, we were all awake and restless, so Celia suggested we get away from Punta Nublada for a while and take a drive, have a picnic—a meal to be eaten outside and away from so many strangers. I liked the idea. It was a chance for us to get to know one another a little better and a chance to think beyond the last Council night.

  While I added my hooded jacket, gloves, and sunglasses to my usual jeans and T-shirt, the four of them prepared a meal from the refrigerator. Celia told me I looked as though I were about to go out into the dead of winter.

  “Aren’t you hot?” she asked.

  “I’m not,” I said. “The weather is cool. I’ll be fine.” They felt changes in the weather more than I did.

  They took me at my word and packed their food and some cold soda and beer in the Styrofoam cooler that we had bought for our night in the woods in Washington. They had made sandwiches from leftover turkey, roast beef, and cheddar cheese, and took along a few bananas, some red seedless grapes, and the remains of a German chocolate cake. We all fit comfortably in Celia and Brook’s car, and Brook drove us out to the highway and then northward toward a place Joel knew about.

  We chose a space on the bluffs overlooking the ocean where there was a flat patch of grass and bare rock to sit on and from where we could watch the waves pounding the beach and the rocks below. Brook had thought ahead enough to bring along a blanket and a pair of large towels from the guest house linen closet. Now she spread them on the ground for us, sat down on one of the towels, and began eating a thick turkey-and-cheddar sandwich. The others took food from the cooler and sat around eating and drinking and speculating about whether the Silk symbionts hated their Ina.

  “I think they do,” Celia said. “They must. I would if I had to put up with those people.”

  “They don’t,” Brook said. “I met one of them when they first arrived. She’s a historian. She writes books—novels under one name and popular history under another. She says she couldn’t have found a better place to wind up. She says Russell’s generation and even Milo help her get the little details right, especially in the fiction. She says she likes working with them. Maybe she’s unusual, but I didn’t get the feeling that she resented them.”

  Joel said, “I think that doctor who questioned Shori yesterday joined them so he could learn more about what they are and what makes them tick. I wonder what questions he would have asked if he’d had a choice.”

  “He’s definitely hungry to know more,” I said. “He wants to understand how we survive terrible injuries, how we heal.”

  Joel nodded and took a second roast-beef sandwich. “I wonder what he’d do if he discovered something, some combination of genes, say, that produced substances that caused rapid healing. Who would he tell?”

  “No one,” I said. “The Silks would never let him tell anyone.”

  “Maybe he just wants it for himself,” Wright said. “Maybe he just wants to be able to heal the way Shori did.”

  I shook my head. “I don’t believe anyone would want to go through a healing like that. I can’t begin tell you what the pain was like.”

  They all looked at me, and I realized that the doctor wasn’t the only one who wanted to heal the way I did.

  I spread my hands. “I’m sharing the ability with you in the only way I can,” I said. “You’re already better at healing than you were.”

  They nodded and opened more food, soda, and tall brown bottles of beer.

  After a while I said, “I have to ask you something, and I need you to think about the question and be honest.” I paused and looked at each of them. “Have any of you had a problem with either of the Braithwaites or their symbionts?” I asked.

  There was silence. Brook had lain down on her back on her towel and closed her eyes, but she was not dozing. Celia was sitting next to Joel, glancing at him now and then. Her scent let me know that she was very much attracted to him. He, on the other hand, was glancing at Wright who had sat down next to me, taken my gloved hand, kissed it, bit it a little as he looked at me, then held it between his own hands. He was showing off. And for the moment, I was letting him get away with it.

  “The Braithwaites,” Celia said. “Joan could cut glass with that tongue of hers, but I think she’s really okay. She just says what she means.”

  “Are you thinking about moving in with the Braithwaites?” Joel asked.

  “I am, yes, for a while … if they’ll have me. That’s why I’m asking all of you whether you’ve seen anything or know anything against them. If you have reason to want to avoid them, tell me now.”

  “I like them,” Joel said. “They’re strong, decent people, not bigots like the Silks and the Dahlmans and a couple of the other Council members.”

  “I barely know the Braithwaites,” Brook said. “I danced with one of their symbionts at a party.” She smiled. “He was okay, and I got the impression he was happy, that he liked being their symbiont. That’s usually a good sign.”

  I got the impression she thought the Braithwaite symbiont was more than just “okay.” Brook might wind up enjoying our stay with the Braithwaites more than the rest of us—if the Braithwaites agreed to let me visit them for a while.

  “So you’re not thinking of trying to get them to adopt you?” Joel asked.

  “I don’t believe I want to be adopted,” I said. “I can’t remember my female family at all, but I’m part of them. I can learn about them and see that their memory is continued by continuing their family. If I’m adopted, my female family vanishes into history just like my male family did. And I’ve promised to mate with the Gordons.” I thought of Daniel and almost smiled. “I don’t know whether that will happen, but I hope it will, and I’m not going to do anything to prevent it.”

  “So you’ll wind up having six or eight children all by yourself,” Wright said. “Is that the way it will be?”

  “Eventually,” I said. “But I’m thinking about doing what Hayden said last night—adopting a relative, a young girl from a family with too many girls. That way there will be two of us. Preston says I can’t do that until I’m an adult myself, although I can look around. I hope to be able to live with several different families and learn what they can teach me. I’ll read their books, listen to their elders.”

  “You’re trying to get yourself an education,” Joel said.

  I nodded. “I have to re-educate myself. Right now, you probably know more about Ina history and about being Ina than I do. I have to learn. Problem is, I don’t know what my re-education will cost.”

  He smiled. “Better ask,” he said. “Although, actually, I think Joan will tell you whether you ask or not. Learning is good, though. My father made sure I picked up as much education as I could even before I went off to college. From what Hayden has told me, I’m one of maybe a few hundred humans in the world who can speak and read Ina.”

  And Theodora would have been another, I thought.

  “It will be a while before we have a home,” I said. “But as my families’ affairs are sorted out, and we begin to have more money, you’ll be able to have the things you want and do what you want to do. Maybe one of you wants to write books or learn another language or learn woodworking or real estate.” I smiled. “Whatever you like. And there will be more of you. At least three more, eventually.”

  “Seven people,” Wright said. “I understand the need, but I don’t like it.”

  “I like the idea of moving around for a while,” Brook said. “When I was with losif, we didn’t travel much at all. Except for elders going to Councils of one kind or another, most adult Ina do very little traveling, probably because traveling is such a production, with so many people needing to travel together. I’m definitely ready to do some traveling.”

  “Once you’ve traveled for a while, you’ll probably be ready to settle down again pretty fast,” Celia said. “My father was in the army while I was growing
up. We moved all the time. As soon as I made friends or began to like a school, we were gone again. This sounds as though it will be like that. Meet a friend, spot a nice guy, start a project, then you’re on your way somewhere else.”

  “We’ll be staying mostly with female families, won’t we?” Wright asked.

  “We will,” I said. “If it doesn’t cause trouble, we’ll pay short visits to the Gordons and the Leontyevs, but as I understand it, my pheromones are going to give males more and more trouble as I approach adulthood.”

  “Bound to be true,” Wright growled into my ear. The growl made my whole body tingle.

  “Stop that,” I said, laughing, and he laughed, too.

  “So all we have to do,” Celia said, “is get through tonight. Then we can get on with our lives.”

  I talked with Margaret Braithwaite that evening. I went to her office-bedroom before the third night of the Council could begin.

  “Shori, you shouldn’t ask me about this now,” she said. “You should have waited until judgment was passed and the Council had concluded its business.”

  I had found her looking through a book she’d borrowed from Hayden. I hadn’t seen her borrow it, but the book smelled deeply of him and only a little of her. One of his older Ina histories.

  “Why should I have waited?” I asked. “Have I broken some rule?”

  “Oh, no. No rule. It’s just that … It’s just that you might not want to come to us once you hear the judgment.”

  I thought about that. It seemed impossible that anyone had failed to hear the lies that the Silks and Katharine Dahlman had told. The elders were much more experienced than I was in reading the signs.

  “Is it possible that the Council members will fail to see what the Silks have done?” I asked.

  “It is not possible,” she said. “The problem isn’t their guilt and Katharine’s. The problem is what to do about it. What punishment to impose?”

  “They killed twelve Ina—all of my male and female families—and nearly a hundred symbionts. From what I’ve heard, none of the people they killed had ever harmed them. How can they be allowed to get away with what they’ve done?”

 
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