Fledgling, p.9Octavia E. Butler
He nodded. “That sort of thing is necessary whether they understand or not. How many do you have other than Wright?”
“I’ve drunk from five others, but Wright doesn’t know about any of them.” I paused, then looked at him. “I don’t know whether they’ve come to need me. How will I be able to tell about the others? Will you look at them and tell me?”
“It isn’t sight,” he said, “it’s scent. Did you notice Brook’s scent?”
“She smelled of you.”
“And Wright smells of you—unmistakably. The scent won’t wash away or wear away. It’s part of them now. That should give you some idea of how we hold them.”
“Something, some chemical, in our saliva?”
“Exactly. We addict them to a substance in our saliva—in our venom—that floods our mouths when we feed. I’ve heard it called a powerful hypnotic drug. It makes them highly suggestible and deeply attached to the source of the substance. They come to need it. Brook and Wright both need it. Brook knows, and by now, Wright probably knows, too.”
“And they die if they can’t have it?”
“They die if they’re taken from us or if we die, but their death is caused by another component of the venom. They die of strokes or heart attacks because we aren’t there to take the extra red blood cells that our venom encourages their bodies to make. Their doctors can help them if they understand the problem quickly enough. But their psychological addiction tends to prevent them from going to a doctor. They hunt for their Ina—or any Ina until it’s too late.”
“Until they die or until they’re badly disabled.”
“Yes. And even if they find an Ina not their own, they might not survive. They die unless another of us is able to take them over. That doesn’t always work. Their bodies detect individual differences in our venom, and those differences make them sick when they have to adapt to a new Ina. They’re addicted to their particular Ina and no other. And yet we always try to save their lives if their Ina symbiont has died. When I realized what had happened to your mothers’ community, I told my people to look for wounded human symbionts as well as for you. I knew my mates were dead. I … found the places where they died, found their scents and small fragments of charred flesh …”
I gave him a moment to remember the dead and to deal with his obvious pain. I found that I almost envied his pain. He hurt because he remembered. After a while, I said, “You didn’t find anyone?”
“We didn’t find anyone alive. Hugh Tang, the man you killed, found you, but we didn’t know that.”
“All dead,” I whispered. “And for me, it’s as though they never existed.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t even pretend to understand what it’s like for you to be missing so much of your memory. I want to help you recover as much of it as possible. That’s why we need to get you moved into my house and dealing with people who know you.” He hesitated. “To do that, we need to clear away the remnants of the life you’ve been living with Wright. So think. Which of the humans you’ve been feeding from has begun to smell as much like you as Wright does?”
I carefully reviewed my last contact with each of the humans who had fed me. “None of them,” I said. “But there’s one … she’s older—too old to have children—but I like her. I want her.”
He gave me a long sad look. “Your attentions will keep her healthy and help her live longer than she would otherwise, but with such a late start, she won’t live much past one hundred, and it’s going to be really painful for you when she dies. It’s always hard to lose them.”
“Can she stay here?”
“Of course. There’s a large guest wing on the side of the great room opposite my family rooms. You and yours can live there in comfort and privacy until we get your house built.”
“You’ll need more than two humans.”
“I don’t like the others that I’ve been using. I needed them, but I don’t want to keep them.”
He nodded. “It goes that way sometimes. I’ll introduce you to others. I know adult children of our symbionts who have been waiting and hoping to join an Ina child. Some of them can’t wait to join us; others can’t wait to leave us. But before you meet them, you’ll have to spend the next week going once more to each of the ones you don’t want. You’ll have to talk to them, tell them to forget you, and become just a romantic dream to them. Otherwise, chances are they’ll look for you. They don’t need you, but they’ll want you. They might waste their lives looking for you.”
We began to walk again. He said, “I’m taking you to see your youngest brother, Stefan, because you were close to him. You spent the first twenty-five years of your life with him at your mothers’ community. The two of you were always phoning each other after Stefan moved here. While you’re with him, though, don’t mention Hugh Tang.”
“Did you kill Hugh because you’d gone mad with hunger? Did you eat him?”
“I thought so. He was Stefan’s symbiont. He had met you several times, and Stefan chose him to be part of the search party because he knew Hugh would recognize you. I’ll tell your brother what happened later.”
We entered one of the smaller houses through the back door. In the kitchen, we found three women working. One was stirring and seasoning something in a pot on the stove, one was searching through a huge, double-doored refrigerator, and one was mixing things in a large bowl.
“Esther, Celia, Daryl,” Iosif said, gesturing toward each of them as he said their names so that I would know who was who. Two of them, Esther and Celia, had skin as dark as mine, and I looked at them with interest. They were the first black people I remembered meeting. And yet the genes for my dark skin had to have come from someone like these women. The women turned to look at us, saw me, and Esther whispered my name.
“Shori! Oh my goodness.”
But they were all strangers to me. Iosif told them what had happened to me, while I examined each face. I could see that they knew me, but I didn’t know them. I felt tired all of a sudden, hopeless. I followed Iosif into the living room where he introduced me to my youngest brother, Stefan, and to more of his human symbionts—two men and two women. The symbionts left us as soon as they’d greeted me and heard about my memory loss. I did not know them, didn’t know the house, didn’t know anything.
Then I did know one small thing—something I deduced rather than remembered. I could see that Stefan was darker than Iosif, darker than Wright. He was a light brown to my darker brown, and that meant …
“You’re an experiment, too,” I said to him when we’d talked for a while.
“Of course I am,” he said. “I should have been you, so to speak. We have the same black human mother.”
I smiled, comforted that I had been right to believe that one of my mothers had been a black human. “Did I know her?”
“You were her favorite. Whenever I did something wrong, she’d shake her head and say I wasn’t really what she had in mind anyway.” He smiled sadly, remembering. “She said I was too much like Iosif.”
“And someone murdered her,” I said. “Someone murdered them all.”
“Why? Why would anyone do that?”
He shook his head. “If we knew why, we might already have found out who. I don’t understand how this person was able to kill everyone—except you. Our Ina mothers were powerful. They should have been … much harder to kill.”
“Could it have happened because humans thought we were vampires?” I asked. “I mean, if they thought we were killing people, they might have—”
“No,” Stefan and Iosif said together. Then Iosif said, “We live in rural areas. People around us know one another. They know us—or they think they do. No one had died mysteriously in my mates’ home territory except my mates themselves and their community.”
“I don’t mean that we have bee
Iosif and Stefan looked at one another. Finally Iosif said, “I don’t believe that could have happened. Your mothers and sisters were even more careful than we are.”
“I don’t believe humans could have done it,” Stefan said.
“I was burned and shot,” I said. “Anyone can use fire and guns.”
Iosif shook his head. “I questioned several of the people who live near your mothers’ community. There was nothing wrong, no trouble, no suspicions, no grudges.”
“When I went to the ruin today,” I said, “someone had been there. He was human, young, unarmed, and he’d walked all around the ruin. Did you notice?”
“Yes. He prowls. He lives in your general area but down toward the town of Gold Bar. He’s sixteen, and I suspect he prowls without his parents’ knowledge.” He shook his head. “We combed the area very thoroughly. He was one of the people we checked. He didn’t know anything. No one knows anything.”
I sighed. “They don’t and I don’t.” I looked from one lean, sharp face to the other, realizing that they had drawn away from me a little, and now they looked oddly uncomfortable. They fidgeted and glanced at one another now and then.
I said, “Tell me about my family, my mothers. How many mothers did I have anyway? Were they all sisters except for the human one? How many sisters did I have?”
“Our mothers were three sisters,” Stefan said, “and one human woman who donated DNA. Also, there were two eldermothers—our mothers’ surviving mothers. The two eldermothers were the ones who made it possible for us—you in particular—to be born with better-than-usual protection from the sun and more daytime alertness.”
“They integrated the human DNA with our own somehow?”
“They did, yes. They were both over 350 years old, and biology fascinated them. Once their children were mated, they studied with humans from several universities and with other Ina who were working on the problem. They understood more about the uses of viruses in genetic engineering than anyone I’ve ever heard of, and they understood it well before humans did. They were fantastic people to work with and talk to.” He paused, shaking his head. “I still can’t believe that they’re dead—that someone would murder them that way.”
“Could their work be the reason they were murdered?” I asked. “Did anyone object to it or try to stop it?”
Stefan looked at Iosif and Iosif shook his head. “I don’t believe so. Shori, our people have been trying to do this for generations. If you could remember, you’d know what a celebrity you are. People traveled from South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa to see you and to understand what our mothers had done.”
“There are Ina in Africa, and they haven’t done this?”
“Was anyone visiting just before the fire?”
“Don’t know,” Iosif said. “I hadn’t spoken to your mothers for a week and a half. When I phoned them in the early morning and told them I wanted to visit the next night, they said they would be expecting me. They said if I came, I had to stay a few days.” He smiled, apparently taking pleasure in his memories, then his expression sagged into sadness. “They told me to bring at least five symbionts. I took them at their word. The next night, I gathered five of my people and drove down there. Vasile had wanted to use the helicopter for something so I took one of the bigger cars. When I got there, I found smoke and ashes and death.” He paused, staring out into nothing. “Once I’d seen it and understood it, I called home to get Stefan and Radu to come down with some of their symbionts to help clean things up, to hunt for survivors, and to keep our secrets secret.”
So that was how Hugh Tang had wound up at the cave looking for me. “What have you learned since then?” I asked.
He turned away from me, paced a few steps away, then the same few back. “Nothing!” The word was a harsh whisper. “Not one goddamned thing.”
I sighed. Suddenly, I’d had enough. “I think I need to go home,” I said. “Let’s go get Wright, and you can take us back to the ruin.”
“You are home.” He stood in front of me and looked down at me with an expression I couldn’t read, except that it wasn’t an altogether friendly expression. “You must think of this place as your home.”
“I will,” I said. “I’ll be glad to come back here and learn more about my life, my family. But I’m tired now. I feel … I need to go back to things that feel familiar.”
“I was hoping to convince you to stay here until tomorrow night,” he said.
I shook my head. “Take me back.”
“Shori, it would be best for you to stay here. Wright has hidden you successfully for this long, but if anything went wrong, if even one person spotted you with him and decided to make trouble—”
“You promised to give us a week,” I said. “That was the first promise you made me.”
He stared down at me. I stared back.
After a while, he sighed and turned away. “Child, I’ve lost everyone but you.”
Stefan said, “All of our female family is dead, Shori. You’re the last.”
I wanted more than ever to go home, to be away from them and alone with Wright. And yet they pulled at me somehow—my father and my brother. They were strangers, but they were my father and my brother. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I need to go.”
“We Ina are sexually territorial,” Iosif said. “And you’re a little too old to be sharing territory with the adult males of your family—with any adult Ina male since you’re too young to mate. That’s what’s bothering you.”
“You mean I feel uncomfortable with you and Stefan just because you’re male?”
“Then how can I live here?”
“Let’s go back to Wright. I think you’ll feel better when you’re with him.” He led me away from Stefan toward a side door. I looked back once, but Stefan had already turned away.”
“Is he feeling territorial, too?” I asked.
“No. He’s willing for you to be here because he fears for you—and for himself. And you’re not mature yet, so there’s no real danger …”
He led me through the door, and we headed back across the lawn.
“We are not human, child. Male and female Ina adults don’t live together. We can’t. Mates visit, but that’s all.”
“What is the danger?”
“As your body changes, and especially as your scent changes, you will be perceived more and more as an available adult female.”
“By my brothers?”
He nodded, looking away from me.
Another nod. “We won’t hurt you, Shori. Truly, we won’t. By the time you come of age, I’ll have found mates for you. I was already talking to the Gordon family about you and your sisters … Now … now I intend to sell your mothers’ land. That money should be enough to give you a start at a different location when you’re a little older.”
“I don’t think I want to live here.”
“I know, but it will be all right. It will only be until you look more adult. Your brothers and I have our genetic predispositions—our instincts—but we are also intelligent. We are aware of our urges. We can stand still even when the instinct to move is powerful.”
“You said I’m a child.”
“You are, now more than ever with your memory loss. You can play sexually with your symbionts, but you’re too young to mate. You can’t yet conceive a child, and you’re not yet as large or as strong as you will be. Your scent right now is interesting, but for us, it’s more irritating than enticing.”
We went back into his house. “You’ll take us back to the ruin tonight,” I told him. “You said you would. Were you speaking the truth?”
“I was, but I shouldn’t have said it. I’m afraid for you, Shori.”
There was a long silence. Finally he agreed. “I will.”
We went down the long hallway again and into the great room. There, Wright sat alone in one of the large chairs. The other three humans had left him. I went up to him, wanting to touch him from behind, wanting to lay my hands on his shoulders, but not doing it. I wondered what Iosif’s symbionts had said to him, what they had made him feel about being with me. I walked around and stood in front of him, looking down, trying to sense his mood.
He looked up at me, his face telling me only that he was not happy. “What happens now?” he asked.
“We go home,” I said.
He looked at Iosif, then back at me. “Yeah? Okay.” He got up, then spoke to Iosif. “You’re letting her go? I didn’t really believe you would do that.”
“You thought I was lying to you?” Iosif said.
“I thought your … paternal feelings might kick in and make you keep her in spite of your promise.”
“She’s tough and resilient, but I fear for her. I’m desperate to keep her.”
“She wants to go … and … I understand why. Keep her hidden, Wright. Except for my people and hers, I don’t believe anyone knows she’s alive. I even got that boy, Raleigh Curtis, to forget about her. Keep her hidden and bring her back to me on Friday.”
Wright licked his lips. “I don’t understand, but I’ll bring her back.”
“Even though you don’t want to?”
They looked at each other, each wearing a similar expression of weariness, misery, and resignation.
I took Wright’s hand, and the three of us went out to the copter. Wright said nothing more. He let me hold his hand, but he did not hold mine.
Wright and I didn’t talk until we reached the car. We had flown all the way back to the ruin in silence, had said goodbye to Iosif and watched him fly away. When we got into the car and began our drive home, Wright finally said, “You have others already, don’t you? Other … symbionts.”
“Not yet,” I said. “I’ve gone to others for nourishment. I can’t take all that I need from you every night. But I haven’t … I mean none of the others …”
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective / Science Fiction / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes