The Harvest of Young Minds

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 9
The Time of Fear

Finally finished, the dugout looked pretty good. Seaworthy, even. The pale wood had darkened with stone-burnishing and the oil of a local (deliciously edible) nut. The outriggers would hold, for its crafter had practice making more complicated objects from worse materials. The paddles, shaved of the same wood, would smooth the water lovingly into place. The store of fruit, roots, and seeds would last as long as the journey required, supplemented by the line and hook along the way. The stolen jugs of water would more than suffice.
Swift, shaking hands veiled all in leaves and vines again. One last trip back, for the freshest of the food, and then return. Tonight. While the skies remained clear, and all the stars wheeled unhidden overhead–the stars that differed not at all from those that shone above the Earth and every other transfer-world. A self-taught sailor could navigate far according to their light. Yet this season without rain would not last forever. It would have to be tonight.
Freedom at last seemed within reach.
Miles away, the once-packed infirmary began to loosen up a bit. Cots no longer in use piled up in the hall, so that nurses didn’t have to squeeze between the remainder anymore. Regular beds mingled with them, needed neither here nor in the dorms from which the medical personnel had drafted them. Nurses (and now doctors; T.L. had recently imported a flood of them) had lost the shadows underneath their eyes with increased rest, and now looked merely broken down, yet calm about it, as those who have done with wrestling against reality and found peace in their surrender. Once again the antiseptic smells overwhelmed the odor of illness, but it did not mean victory.
Rob Roy tossed in his fever, his pillow soaked in sweat--again. “He still holds on,” Lute murmured to Xochil beside her, in a tongue so swiftly evolved that the grown-ups no longer even tried to keep up with it. “It should have killed him weeks ago. Why does he hold on?”
Xochil gazed sadly on the skeleton that used to be Rob Roy, taking her turn at sponging the beaded brow. “It’s all he has ever known how to do,” she answered. Then she did a double-take on Lute, the former Sweetie-Pie, the former Sondra. The white girl’s face had gone paler than usual, except for the rose-flushed cheeks. “How do you feel?”
“I...never mind about me. I’m just...oh God...”
Xochil caught Lute when she fainted. “Sick! Sick!” she cried out as loud as she could in the grown-up’s English. “Lute’s gone sick!” A nurse came running, no surprise in his face. “She belongs beside Rob Roy!” Xochil insisted, gesturing emphatically. She ran to wheel the latest vacated cot over and shove it next to the ailing boy. “Lute stays here no other place.”
“Okay,”the nurse said. “I don’t have a problem with that.”
Xochil panted after the exertion of moving the cot, surprised at herself. She had always taken pride in her athleticism. She used to run between the mountain villages, carrying messages, when phone service had shrunk down to a few urban centers. She had once run a circuit of this very island, not too long ago, swimming where steep slopes offered no foothold, and returned before the weekend ended. Now moving a wheeled cot from the hall wore her down. She paused, hands on her thighs, catching her breath, and the tropic heat oppressed her. She felt a growing truth burn inside her, hotter and hotter. More slowly she brought another cot to the other side. “And my here,” she told the nurse as he stripped down Lute’s limp, indifferent body. Xochil caught her breath–again--and felt her grasp of English slipping away, “My sick turn soon.”
In another building, Bos combed his sister’s workshop one more time for clues. His stubble had progressed to a recognizable beard, and his eyes looked old. He found another button, a wisp of thread still dangling from it; it didn’t tell him anything. He came across the toggle-switch, too, but didn’t recognize it as anything but a lump of solder, some mistake perhaps, adhering to a metal plate that didn’t even have any wires going to it. He’d found the tubing almost from the start, by the second day of Connie’s absence, and had the traces of their contents analyzed. A few days ago he’d learned that the stuff had almost the same molecular structure as the rocks that Connie liked to gather. “Oh Sib,” he moaned. “What have you done?
Mr. Dennis leaned in just as Bos emerged from under a desk, dust on his knees and forearms, a cobweb in his hair from an Earth-born hitchhiker. The teacher told Bos, “The last of the downloads have arrived.”
“Don’t tell me about downloads. Tell me where I can find my sister.”
“But...they’re the last.”
“And I won’t go there.” He climbed to his feet, slowly. “She must have figured out what she can eat out here. She must still live.” He thought about her thinness before she even left, and his brow crinkled. “I would have felt her heart stop beating if it had, I think. Surely any twin must know.” He dusted off his clothes absent-mindedly. “Okay. Distract me. Tell me about the downloads.” He plopped into Connie’s empty chair, as Mr. Dennis sat down on a stack of boxes and began his report.
“The virus destroyed some information for good, but we did manage to reconstruct...” Despite the grimness of the report Bos felt a comfort steal over his heart. It took him a moment to realize why. He could still smell a trace of Consuelo’s sweat upon the chair, or thought he could: that scent known to him from birth, a faint familiarity that he’d never thought about before, had never imagined gone from his life. No world could seem entirely real without it.
“I wish I had better news to report,” Dennis droned on, but he tried to pay attention. “We did the best we could.”
“Gone? All of it? All human medical lore?”
“Not quite all. We found a hospital in Elbasen, Albania, and another in Sangba, Ubangichari, whose computers had missed the virus.”
“That’s its latest name. You might have known it as the Central African Republic, or South Chad, or an eastern corner of the Congolese Empire, or...”
“Enough. I get it. Continue.”
“Yes, sir. We downloaded all the medical information that we could from these two hospitals. So have most of the rest of the world’s medical facilities.”
Staring at his dust-grimy hands, Bos asked, “Anyone know who set the virus loose? Not that it matters, of course”
Dennis looked away, disgust on his face. “Any of a number of possible nations engaged in one of the Resource Wars could have done it, if not a private terrorist. Somebody might have tried to sabotage their enemy’s hospitals, unaware that all the world’s doctors share information for humanitarian reasons. Or one of those emerging cults might have attacked the hospitals, one of those that blames overpopulation and planetary degradation on medicine circumventing God’s will. Or perhaps some sadist did it on purpose, just because he could. Hell, maybe somebody simply set loose a stupid bit of code with harmless intent, courtesy of deteriorating education. We’ve got a planet full of suspects, and nobody with the time or energy to track down the right one, though I imagine various people will punish whatever scapegoats come to hand.”
Bos glanced up from studying his hands. “You didn’t join us because you had no choice, did you, Dennis?”
The man turned back to stare at him levelly. “I’m sorry you even have to ask that. But yes–I already had a secure position teaching biochemistry to rich men’s children, after I got tired of all the budget-cuts to the Los Angeles Forensic Division.”
“So you jumped from a sinking ship, to one afloat, to another sinker.”
“I thought you and your sister might have found an answer–at least you folks tried.” He laughed briefly, humorlessly. “I got sick and tired of everybody else just giving up. And if your methods didn’t always meet the strict criteria of legality...well, I tried legal already.”
They regarded each other a moment before Bos sat up straighter, pulling some order into his rumpled shirt. “So...back to the downloads. What do we have?”
“On the medical front? We did save a great deal of the basics, and that will help. But nothing sophisticated, like organ regeneration. Those two unscathed hospitals weren’t exactly on the cutting edge of research.”
Bos shook his head. “We’ll just have to hope that whatever this epidemic is, it doesn’t require organ replacement.”
“What if it does, sir?”
Bos’s face turned hard. “Earth still has plenty of orphans not nearly as important as these child prodigies we’ve gathered here.”
“They’re all important to somebody, sir.”
Bos’s voice caught when he answered, “Do you imagine, for one moment, that I would let all of my sister’s hopes, all of her research, all of her labor go to waste? Do you think that I would spare the world’s presidents, premiers, and kings, do you think I’d spare the Pope himself, if it meant giving up on keeping her dream alive? I tell you, I would tear out the Pope’s heart with my own hand to save the smallest child on this island–those are her children out there!”
The teacher studied Bos. “We can’t know for sure that she’s dead, sir. You and your sister have got to be two of the most resourceful people I have ever met.”
Bos composed himself. He straightened in his seat. “Tell me more about the virus. How’d the technical sector fare?”
“Better, though still with some grave losses.”
“But our own network stayed clean?”
“Actually, the earthside network got wiped out completely. Fortunately we knew that before the daily transfer-upload, and shut everything down until we could dislodge the virus. All the information remains intact on this side, and we’re downloading it back to the other.”
“But we got everything, otherwise?”
“Every last crumb of information that survived. Yes. Literature, history, philosophy, science, the works. How-to’s from accordion-playing to zookeeping. Copies of the world’s great art. Technological Laboratories now owns the largest library of human information ever gathered in history.”
“Well, that’s something, anyway.” He glanced out the window, at the rows of classrooms, empty of scholars. When Dennis left for his stint at the infirmary, Bos spun the chair to the computer, hoping that Consuelo might have left more clues there, but found nothing he hadn’t seen before, apart from some notes on the symbiotic lifestyle of an insect and a weed. And some puzzling abbreviations. “Sap = psg.” “No paraps., now paraph.” “Psg–blood exch., dust in air. Getting in the veggies.” He stared at them, trying to understand, until his eyes hurt.
Outside, some ways beyond the workshop window’s view, Marie took a step, paused, rested, took a step, paused, rested, the pillow and the teddy-bear wobbling on her bald head. Sometimes she had to raise a hand to steady it, but she kept on. Another step. And another. The wind fingered at her hospital-gown, but it didn’t matter when it exposed the frail little buttocks, off and on, because nobody walked between the quonset huts anymore. Classes had ceased. Adults either huddled in their rooms, rarely daring to come out even to eat (though few of them had fallen sick) or else volunteered in the infirmary, sleeping there at night, close by their students, in case a tossing hand might reach out for a clasp, in case the stuporous whimpering might start up again, calling for an absent mother.
So nobody but Marie saw the jeweled woman, with the wild mass of tangled, wired hair, walking straight through the compound, carrying a basket of alien fruit. Consuelo nodded at Marie; Marie did not dare nod back, just stood her ground, swaying a little, concentrating on keeping her burden from falling, till the apparition passed. The woman almost looked familiar. “Fever Dream”, Marie muttered, as she resumed her struggle to make the last few steps to the infirmary.
“Marie! You shouldn’t be out of bed!” One of the day-nurses scooped her up; Marie barely grabbed the pillow and bear in time.
“Give these to Charlotte,” she said. “Charlotte ain’t home lessn’ she has her pillow and her Ted.” Weary beyond belief, Marie’s tongue fell back on old habits of speech. Carried in the strong man’s arms, she saw Charlotte in the bed next to her own. A faint blonde fuzz made the shaven scalp appear to glow.
(Far away the prow touched the water for which it had been born. Far off, on a protected cove, where children once had danced with the dead, where Ulysseus had fallen into Circe’s arms under a spell greater than her own, and Penelope ran miles through the jungle to reach him, on that same beach, a new Odyssey began.)
The nurse settled Marie down, and then, at the girl’s insistence, handed on Charlotte’s most sacred objects. For a moment Charlotte’s face took on new animation, smiling hugely. And though her own dark face had turned to gray, Marie managed a weak smile in response. The nurse helped Charlotte replace the clinic pillow with her own, and then the little girl hugged her bear, and drowsed back away from them all again, but with this change, that a bit of the smile lingered on her face.
Marie lay there, struggling to stay awake, regarding her best friend. She heard the breathing of all the other patients in the infirmary, intermingled with the occasional delirious murmur. (How many different languages had colloquial terms for “Mama” that sounded so much alike!) Sometimes the murmurs passed in waves, as though the patients handed their fever-visions from bed to bed. Sometimes queer snatches of song whispered harmonies across the room.
(Marie heard the paddles dip into the water. She heard the ocean sigh, lifting up the dugout. She heard a faint tinkling, like a brass windchime.)
The healers may have bourne the lines of despair permanently sagged into their faces, but they’d all seen worse. At least clean conditions prevailed here, even during the overcrowding. At least they had enough help to allow them regular sleep. And neither bombs nor gunfire ever disrupted the eerie serenity, nothing but the songs of birds, the lazy buzz of insects, and the gentle sussuration of the wind in foliage ever broke the silence behind the soft tread and subdued voices of doctors and nurses, and the sounds of the patients themselves. Whenever Marie closed her eyes, visions of those other hospitals filled her aching head as though she’d been there. She could recall the precise smell of them.
“Guns...” Rob Roy murmured, in Grown-Up English. “I need my guns...”
“No, no,” Xochil replied in the student patois, her own voice weary with building fever. “Rest, my darling. You are quite safe from anything that you could shoot.”
(A sudden clench of panic made the rower pause a moment at the oars, and the waves spun the boat around, out of control. “What on earth am I doing?” she cried. But then she remembered that she wasn’t on earth anymore, the rules had all changed. No island remained visible behind her anymore. She had nothing left to do but regain control of the dugout and direct it where she had to go. Even if all she wanted to do, suddenly, was sleep and sleep and sleep. Even if all belief in what she did had passed, a crackle in the mind that had subsided, leaving her in the middle of a stretch of treacherously shallow ocean full of coral reefs.)
“Mommy,” Charlotte barely breathed the words, but Marie immediately tuned all else out. “ pretty!” Her eyes opened, so dilated that Marie could barely see a rim of blue around the pupils. “She’s here, Marie. I get to go back to her.”
Marie fought to sit up. “Don’!” she hissed. Somehow, and quite suddenly, she knew that the “extraction experts” hadn’t simply kidnapped, Charlotte, they had killed her mother, out of Charlotte’s sight. And Charlotte knew it, too, as surely as they both knew the smell of hospitals in countries they had never visited.
And...and her own parents! Somebody must have murdered Roy and Emma Boykins–no other way would Mama and Papa have let anyone carry off their only daughter. The knowledge hit Marie in the pit of her belly; she sank back down onto her cot like she’d died right there. She moaned then, twisting in her sheets, and the tears flooded down, instantly too cold on her fevered cheeks. Mama! And Papa! Oh, the wind could not carry enough moans!
(Yet a way existed.)
Marie could barely say the words, “Don’t give up. Don’t give up.” She didn’t know whether she spoke to Charlotte or herself.
(Yet she already knew.)
“Don’t...” But her words broke off into sobbing, shaking against her pillow, biting the pillow when she tried to stop, crying helplessly anyway.
(The moment the fever took her. She’d known the truth back then, deep down, and the answer to the truth.)
In seconds both Marie and Charlotte stopped speaking, stopped moving, and closed their eyes. Within the hour the nurses noticed that the little girls had slipped into comas. It wouldn’t take long, now. Maybe a few days more.
Bare, unsteady feet made their way between the beds. Miss Ramona walked in her hospital gown as though one blind, half her long hair still hanging over her shoulder, the other half falling out with every step, though the nurses had yet to touch a razor to her scalp. “I know,” she husked, to no one in particular. “I know the truth.” A nurse came and guided the sleepwalker back to her bed.
“My guns...” Rob Roy’s voice rose, rising and falling in weird inflections, stretched out and hardly conscious, yet growing in strength nonetheless. “I need my guns!”

Previous Installment Main Page Next Installment Dream Notes