keaalu: A word cloud generated from my novel "memento mori" (MM tagxedo)
[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] memento_mori_11
     Whether Rae's trick worked, or there simply weren't any blights in the neighbourhood, the two laima's rest went undisturbed for the rest of the night. Rae was somewhat disturbed to wake up and find Blink asleep sitting on the windowsill, and she in turn was disturbed to find she'd developed a painful crick in the neck for sitting there, but after a flurry of reassurances from each other that no, they were all right and yes, the crick would go away on its own, both finally packed away their belongings, and set back out into the city.

     The same procedure that they had used for getting to Kust, the two laima now used for moving through the city. Every day, they would travel as far as they could, as safely as they could, until the sun had dipped most of the way to the horizon, then they would call a halt, and find somewhere secure to rest. They travelled shorter and shorter distances every day; the further they got into the city centre, the grander the buildings, but the harder it became to find good ones for resting in. If they hadn't already been looted or destroyed, they were completely impregnable.

     Travelling across the silent farmland hadn't been much of a problem, but the derelict, abandoned city streets made both laima uneasy. Grass now grew on streets that should have been full of businessfolk and shoppers and their vehicles. Trees sprouted in shop doorways, vines grew up buildings and blocked out their windows. The woven nests of the flying wildlife clustered along the rooftops and in among the fancy stoneworks. None of that had a patch on the empty silence, which was so total, it felt as though it had a physical presence, pressing down in the ears. Even the calls of the native wildlife seemed reluctant to stir through the quiet.

     Their forward motion was also hindered quite significantly by Rae himself. The further they travelled, the more determined he seemed to find some kind of long-distance radio, to call for help.

     Midday found Blink poking through the ruined remains of the stationery section of a department store, while Rae hunted fruitlessly through the electronics. Like every other shop they'd tried so far today – and yesterday, and the day before – the place had been stripped of anything useful by looters, particularly the communications devices that Rae was so desperate to find.

     Loose sheets of ancient paper covered the floor, crackling underfoot as Blink walked around. Most of the stationery was ruined – whether it was by a sprinkler malfunction, or rain, or something else, water had saturated the remaining stock, turning delicately coloured pages into bricks of wrinkled, yellowed paper, most of whose pages couldn't even be separated. They could still be useful. We could burn them for warmth, if we're still stuck here in the winter. She sighed, not sure if it was the concept of being stuck forever, or the idea that it was probably right, that made her sadder.

     A bright flash of yellow and orange caught her eye; up on one of the shelves, one notebook alone had survived the flood that had spoiled all its comrades. Blink picked it up, turning it over in her hands. Still wrapped in its protective film, the hardback notebook looked as though it had only just been delivered to the store. It would be nice to keep it, she mused, running a finger down the cover. In a world where everything else was wrecked, something nice might help keep her spirits up...

     “What have you got there?” Rae's voice wondered, very close by, making her jump.

     “Nothing!” Getting caught in the middle of thinking about keeping it triggered an instant guilty response. “Just a, a... stupid bit of paper!”

     “I'm not about to arrest you for shoplifting, Bee,” her friend chuckled. “No-one is going to mind if you keep it.”

     “I can't.” She hastily put it back down on the shelf, among the other stationery, and covered it over. “It doesn't belong to me.”

     Rae covered his face with his hand and counted to five before speaking again. “Blink. I understand that you feel guilty, that you weren't brought up to steal. But the place is derelict. Abandoned. If you don't take it, it'll just sit there until the insects nibble through the film, and then it'll rot. That's if the building doesn't fall down around it, or catch fire, or get flooded by a tidal wave.” He picked it back down off the shelf. “If you take it, at least it's not being lost for nothing.”

     She tucked her hands up against her chest, suspiciously, watching him.

     “Ages ago, you told me that you'd always kept a journal, as a child. You put your thoughts in it, and your pictures, and it always helped you when you couldn't think what to do, or say.” He unwrapped the film from the notebook, gently tugged her wrist away from her chest, and placed the book into her hands. “Even if it doesn't help you, when you get home? You can give it to your family, and it'll be the mother of all adventure stories for your children to read. Mama's Adventures on an Alien World.”

     Blink sighed and stared at the object in her palm, leafing open the cover. Its pages rustled enticingly.

     And if all else fails, and you die here? Maybe someone will find it, and take it home for you, so someday your family will finally know why you never came home.

     Guiltily, she slipped the notebook and a handful of pens into her satchel. “I'm really sorry,” she whispered, to anyone that might have been listening. “I promise I'll make good use of it all.”

     Rae stood out watching and waiting for her in the street. His features were pinched with disappointment, in all likelihood because of his continued failure to find any of the electronics he wanted. “We're losing daylight. We ought to think about finding somewhere to rest up for the night.”

     “We'll find a radio eventually,” she lied, feebly, trying to inspire hope in the same way he'd done for her. “We'll find a shop that hasn't been looted and we'll call for help, and we'll be rescued. Right?”

     “Well said, that woman.” He smiled, gratefully, and gave her a little squeeze. “And if all else fails, you can make one for us, huh?”

     Unsure how much of a joke it was meant to be – because more than once, Rae had alluded to her using her “engineering brilliance” to make them a radio, or a ship, or some other useful electronic item – Blink just laughed along with him, trying to hide her dismay. She'd tried explaining that she didn't think she could, that most of her vast electronic storehouse of engineering knowhow had vanished with her giant body, and imagined that he'd be crushed when he realised she wasn't just being modest.

     They made their way down another couple of short streets before Rae called a halt. “This looks like a good place to stop for the night.”

     Blink moved closer to his side, and gave the elegant little stone building a quick visual appraisal. Vines had grown up the windows, but the sturdy metal grids protecting the windows were still in place. The battered front door stood ajar, but it looked like it had been forged of solid iron several inches thick. Just visible on the other side of the twisted metal outer was a short hallway and then a more modest wooden one, apparently locked. In all, it looked like a squat, urban fortress.

     The symbols engraved into plaques on either side of the front door told a different and surprising story. “Is that a doctor's surgery?”

     “Yeah, I think it is.” Rae glanced down at her. “Should be pretty secure, right?” At her dubious glance, he added, “...well, secure from hungry monsters, anyway.”

     Reluctantly, Blink nodded. “Unless they have a key, am I correct?” she echoed, hollowly.

     While Rae bent to do battle with the broken doors, Blink stood guard, watching up and down the street with all her senses on red alert. She still hadn't quite managed to lower herself down, after being bitten-

     A rustle from above made her jump, startling her back away from the door. Expecting a creature to leap down on her at any second, she was surprised to find the ledge-... empty?

     No, not quite empty. Up above, in among the weedy bushes that had sprung up in the guttering, she spotted a small fuzzy brown head with two large, smooth, dark brown eyes, and two long jointed antennae. Some sort of giant insect? And yet-... such a weird sense of alien intelligence in that face. She could have sworn it was looking straight at her. “He-... hello...?” she greeted, in an uneasy little whisper.


     She glanced back down to find Rae watching her.

     “Is everything all right?” he prompted.

     When she looked back up, the insect had vanished. Disappointed, she nodded her agreement. “No, it-... it's fine.”


     She smiled, tersely, and repeated; “It's fine.”

     “Well, that's good, because we're in. Come on, let's get in and get that door shut, eh?”

     At some point in the past, the surgery had been ransacked, and the dispensary stripped of all and any drugs, but the small consulting rooms were still in fairly good order and after a bit of hunting, the sluice produced some bottles of distilled water, antiseptic scrub and saline. One of the examination rooms even still had the wide blue streamer of protective paper down the bed.

     They elected to use the last of the useful light to get Blink's injury cleaned up. Standing beside a dust-filled sink in an old bathroom, Rae peeled back the dressing on her arm, and hmm-ed approvingly. “Looking better already,” he said, and although it was only a marginal improvement, at least the inflamed, infected look of the wound had disappeared.

     “You think?” Blink watched as he unscrewed the lid of the bottle of saline, and winced as he gently rinsed the scrape clean.

     “Oh, definitely. This should heal up completely, in a little while.”

     “It still hurts.”

     “...I know.” He bumped cheeks, gently. “I’m sorry. But that’ll stop too, eventually. Just give it time, eh?”

     Once her arm was finally dressed, Blink retired to the waiting room, whose chairs were old and had been very well-used (and abused) down the years, but were at least still comfortable. On the low coffee table at the centre of the square of seats there was a big pile of magazines. She remembered Rae had joked long ago that it was like some unwritten law that all doctors surgeries must have a big pile of old magazines in their waiting rooms, but until now had always figured it was mostly hyperbole, never once imagining it had such an sizable element of truth to it! She leaned over the pile of magazines, wondering if there would be anything interesting to read through while she ate supper.

     On top of the pile was a journal titled “Sublime”. It looked like a fashion magazine, if the photographs on the cover were anything to go by, but one of the cover headlines caught her eye, staying her hand just before she pushed it aside.

     Kust University's Last Stand? the bold white writing blared, and just below that, We speak to the Science Institute's Director of Medicine about Heff, and what we can hope for the future.

     Curious. Kust Science Institute was where Larissa had been heading. Blink leaned closer, pulling the magazine across the table to herself, and leafed carefully through the brittle pages until she got to the article. It wasn't much more than a brief editorial, but at least it might give her a clue about why “the Institute” was so popular.

     She spread the magazine out on the low table, to read. In a little box in the top left of the article was the author’s picture – a stylised piece of linework, but recognisable as a golden-brown ondraii, with similar looks to a certain photograph she had seen very recently. Blink tried not to think about how it might very well have been the woman in whose house they slept, that first night in the suburbs. Instead, she read on...

     It has been close to three years since the viral Hesgeri Haemorrhagic Fever escaped the government laboratory in the south of Qaarra. Since then, “Heff”, as it has become known, has spread to all four corners of the planet. Most people understand we are at a tipping point; some believing that we are about to lose the fight and we should accept our fate gracefully, others standing firm in the belief we are on the verge of the breakthrough vaccine that will save us all.

     With exclusive access to Kust Science Institute's medical director, Sublime's own science editor Umua asks, is there anything left that we public can do to protect ourselves, or is it time we faced facts, and accepted our fate?

     Dawn breaks on such a beautiful early autumn morning, it’s hard to believe all the fear and suspicion in Kust is anything more than a bad dream. The nightmare soon reminds us it’s real, as my small team and I arrive at the Institute’s peaceful grounds under armed guard, and have to endure the standard rigorous testing procedure to ensure we’re both clean before they’ll allow us in.

     The medical director, an elegant kiravai cob called Daavi, meets us in the foyer. He looks like he's been pacing for a while, so our delay in processing probably alarmed him. Even forewarned, it's surprising to see him in the flesh – a defector from the kiravai imperium, the silver male towers over all of us, and it's difficult not to feel a little intimidated.

     Politely, he bows to my photographer and I, and most of the tension dissipates. After a brief tour of the laboratories, we get down to business.

     The main question on everybody's lips is: What should we do if a member of the family is bitten?

     “Unfortunately there's not a lot anyone can do, at the moment,” our guide apologises. “Right now, once you have viral particles in your nervous system? That's it. That's why we're working to develop immune antibodies, to halt disease progression. It won't cure the virus, but it will stop it getting any worse, and that will hopefully buy us the extra time we need to produce an effective cure.”

     He sighs, and takes a sip of water from his glass. “The best thing you can do for your family, as callous as it sounds, is get them immediately to one of the fever hospitals, where they can at least be monitored closely, and get the care they need.”

     My doubt obviously shows in my face, because he raises his hands apologetically and elaborates;

     “I don’t deny that those places are unappealing – they have little money, and few staff – but allowing an infectee to stay in your home as the virus incubates is doing nothing but putting your entire family at risk. The only way we can prevent the relentless spread of the disease is by being a little ruthless ourselves. By removing its path to new infectees, we can slow down the rate of new infections, or maybe even stop the disease clean in its tracks.”

     But to achieve this, what you’re basically saying is that we should consign our relatives to the plague pits, I challenge. That it’s somehow kinder to send a frightened member of the family away – a mother, a son, a cousin, a grandfather? To a prison, essentially, whose only inmates are infectees even more twisted and mutilated by this horrendous disease. How can you ask that any sane person subjects their loved ones to that?

     Daavi bows his head. “I have no doubt that my opinion will make me very unpopular, miss Umua, but I have watched too many people succumb to this disease. Misinformation is so rife, no-one knows precisely what to do.” He spreads his hands, a gesture of pleading helplessness. “Madame si’Ventni kept her son from fighting and killing when he developed the fever because the poor spur caught the placid form of the disease – and we’ve proved it, histologically – but now there’s whole communities out there trying to spread the ideal that all an infectee needs is to be treated with love and respect.”

     So families should not love and respect each other any more?

     “That is not what I’m saying, ma’am, as you know very well. While I applaud their optimism, gentle treatment will not change disease progression. In fact, it will probably increase exposures, cause more deaths, and speed up the spread. Once bitten, the majority of infectees will ultimately become aggressive, as their nerves grow inflamed. No amount of kindness and tolerance will change this.

     He points at his computer, on which a model of the virus is turning. “People must not lose sight of the fact that this-” He taps the screen for emphasis, “-is bioterrorism. This hideous disease was designed in a laboratory, to create the most fear possible in the shortest time. I have spoken to a lot of dying infectees, a lot of whom have been my own staff! And those that lose their minds and turn into animals most quickly are the lucky ones. They don’t have to endure the slow decline.”

     So what chances do we have? How are we ever going to cure this?

     “This is an engineered virus, miss Umua, and natural immunity hasn’t yet had time to develop, but we are beginning to see those with greater resistance, and they are our best hope of finding the final cure.That is another reason it is so important that infectees are monitored – so we can find them. Track down the lucky ones, and find out what makes them so special.”

     “It will be hard,” he acknowledges. “And the road is long. But I know the people of Kust are stronger than this disease, and by working together? We may yet be able to cure the disease ourselves, without even having a vaccine.”

     Blink sat and stared at the page in the magazine for a very long time, after she’d finished reading. It... didn’t seem possible for the words she’d just read to be true. The little box of facts and figures at the side of the article just cemented her despair firmly in place.

     ...transmitted through a bite... fatal disease... average 6 month life expectancy...

     She groaned and covered her face, miserably.

     Rae ambled through, at last, seeming oblicious. “Your shoulders look pretty stiff,” he commented, leaning down over the back of the chair and bracing his palms against her back.

     Blink shrugged him off, roughly. “Don’t touch me.” It took every ounce of self-control not to bare her teeth at him.

     “Yikes, all right. What’s got you so touchy, all of a sudden?”

     She glanced up from her magazine at him. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s probably nothing, since you don’t seem concerned. I mean... When were you going to tell me, Rae?”

     “Huh?” He looked down at her. “Tell you what?”

     “Tell me about the disease, Rae. The disease they quarantined the planet for?”

     His face fell and she knew immediately that she was on the right track.

     “The disease spread by a bite? Just like I have in my left arm, right now, that you’re so happily telling me will heal up any day soon!”

     Rae backed off, hands up, alarmed by the anger in her voice. “I-I was only trying to help you, Bee- I was trying to protect you!” he stammered.

     “Protect me?! How is not telling me I have a fatal disease in any way protecting me!”

     “I-... but-... I just though you’ve, you know... got enough on your plate to be worrying about already. I didn’t-... think you’d want to be worrying about this as well, you know?”

     “So when were you going to tell me? When I started to get symptoms? Or when I went psychotic? Or how about when I got injured and bled to death?” She threw up her hands. “I have no more than six months to live, Rae, and that’s the optimistic estimate! Six months before I lose my mind, fall down and die, and rot away into the dirt, and I’ll never even be able to tell my family what happened to me!”

     “Blink, please-” He held out his hands, imploringly.

     “No. You stay away from me, do you hear?” Blink backed off, into one of the examination rooms. “I can do without your kind of help!” The door made a satisfying bang as she slammed it.

     Oh sweet mercy, what do I do now? She sagged against the door, sliding slowly down it into a crumpled heap on the floor, and covered her face with her hands. The magazine said six months, but that was an average. I could be dead – and certainly crazy – in just one...

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