Healing Generations, a Scifi Story
"Healing Generations" by Tamara Wilhite
"He looks so healthy, I guess, but he's so -"
"Human." Jedda's harsh word was almost a curse word.
"Let me do a follow up," I offered. I took the child and hurried out the door before he might harm a child that looked too human and not enough like him.
"Where are you going?" the mother said. I couldn't remember the girl's name, despite my telling Jedda she was a genetic match, her DNA compatibility index forefront in my mind. She was just another data point for me. "Health check," I said.
Jedda knew what I meant. He took the baby from her and the kinswoman who had acted as a surrogate grandma to them both. He handed me the baby. The girl began shrieking; her first, I knew, that had a chance at living. Jedda was silent, knowing the verdict elsewhere would be death simply for the crime of being his son if others knew his genetics. For the girl, she made the assumption that I was taking her first success away. The kinswoman didn't do much more than animal comforting sounds, in case I made my verdict. Christ, didn't they know I never killed kids? Let grown ups die, sometimes, but I was never a murderer. I even had to call out someone else to do euthanasia, and that was only if the person asked. That made me odd here, I thought as I carried the baby to the lab.
My aversion to taking life was the result of seeing a few billion people die in the span of a decade and many, many others since. And I had always been pro-life. That's why the others had picked me through some kind of selective criteria. Not a lottery, because the simulations we'd made said they needed specific skills that only some of us had. Not a vote, which was too often a popularity contest, and I'd never been Miss Popular. No, it was more of a "what do we need and who knows how to do that" crossed with a best guess as to personal immunity to all the plagues let loose by "clean the Earth" crowds and genetic engineering gone amok from smashed labs. That came up with a short list of a couple dozen people out of thousands. Add in the group choices of ranking who would best stick it out for the next century or two and the random chance of surviving life extension treatment - and half didn't - and you got about two dozen people like me. Add in the vulnerability to fire, bullets, drowning, murder, and a wild case of Ebola Charity died of, and there might be six of us left. I don't know. I only know if they show up. Unlike others, I'm slowed down by my labs scattered in a geographic area close to the Center, though that area will still be uninhabitable to all but us for another few centuries. When I truly must run for my life or need a few months far from anyone else, that is my Sanctuary. The rest of the time, it was the lab.
Closed doors that only let me and a few others through, a wonder to everyone else. The technology here was 21st century if not 22nd century by my efforts; most of what was out there mid 20th century at best.
They'd been fertile together. They'd not just conceived but she'd bore a living child. And there was no horrifically obvious failing in biology. It was breathing on its own and not wracked by being born by illness. Most women in the towns spent their lives pregnant, though full term living births were rare. Start at 15, end at 45, and that didn't change unless you died for in between. Make born living four kids and hope two grew up and maybe one was fertile. That Jedda brought his pregnant wife here brought no suspicion. Helping save lives was my specialty. The only restricted knowledge was how much experience I had.
"Be a midwife to an improved society," I had been asked. High tech medical manufacture plus long life span courtesy of the promise was to create sustainable low tech medical production. It would take time to figure these things out as society fell apart. It would take time to adjust and adapt failing technology as population fell and people rebelled against the technology they blamed even as the ecosystem we'd cleaned up was re-polluted as they destroyed everything they blamed.
My age was my greatest secret. Those who had been patients as children or that I'd delivered knew to bring their children here. I made antibiotics and sold the cultures at a modest profit. I traded in surgical tools, many of which ended up in the hands of the medical students the main stream schools wouldn't admit except for dissection.
The baby whimpered from cold. I wrapped it up, glad the grandma type had cleaned it properly. I remembered the surrogate I had delivered her from. It was funny how many locals I knew, though they often didn't know me. I'd found genetically compatible partners for many, delivered their babies, cured their family members, sold medical supplies ... printed off and sold medical reference books. Traded in information. Gave manufacturing advice for their stainless steel medical tools, antibiotics, rubbing alcohol made from bamboo and other stuff that still grew, vitamins from the herbs they had, breeding back potatoes for the vaccine to TB it had been engineered for, gluten free breads because so many were now intolerant because of the genetic quirk of immunity to super-stomach bacteria that made you intolerant to wheat while many of the worlds' survivors were Mormon.
All I didn't do was surgery. Didn't have the skills, didn't have the stomach to perfect it. If Joel were here, he could ... a perfect compliment, if he were alive. He'd been a teacher at the Army - Guard - pick a military branch of the modern day school out East of here. He was so good saving lives that they asked him to teach. He said yes. He stayed too long and time caught up. Or, at least, others realized time wasn't catching up with him well enough. He disappeared, and nothing else was known.
I was close to the Center, the bombed, torched, dead-zone. I could cross it fast and be somewhere that news couldn't get yet in a few weeks. Start a new life on the other side. Wait a decade or two, make the trip back or go another cardinal direction. If all else failed, wait at the Center until sanity returned and then return to a place I'd left a good impression. Jedda's father knew me, and how I'd saved him from a genetic imbalance courtesy of genetically engineered traits gone bad from inbreeding. Not brother-sister or cousins but merely descendants of the same clone batch, thus genetic siblings and cousins from the get-go.
The baby did look very human. Bits and pieces of memory floated about, other memories threatening to come back. I didn't look over 40, but I felt 140. OK, maybe not that different from when I was 140. My grandfather's descriptions of the ever-present now that one lived in with Vietnam came to mind. Then I remembered my kids and shut down all thoughts of the past.
The blood tests showed most things in the normal range. The hepatitis C, D, and E vaccines were normal for me to give, though everyone else was still debating whether it was a good idea to use such retrograde techniques. I tried to explain small pox to cow pox but meant nothing to the visiting students. Then I explained the West Nile virus protecting against the super-encephalitis, mothers leaving babies out to get mosquito bites and a little sick to save them from the violently engineered form that had put tens of millions in a coma to death and millions more to be left weakened and with palsy or paralysis or mental defects. It was the polio of today, though polio, thank Gods, was still rare.
I sang an old light rock song no one else in the world would have remembered to keep the baby from crying. I check the internal organs via sonogram. That’s illegal in the places that understand it. Maybe Asia or Europe are better off than North America, but I have not been able to leave the continent. Hoshi went to the Kuril Islands to check out the high tech refugees of the Korea and Japan. Hadn’t heard from her since saying how packed Alaska was, about 60 years ago. God, I missed her. Japanese with a Texan accent, Texan with a Japanese accent, Spanish that sounded like the tele-novellas we’d watch together, though only she understood it. I think the song I was singing was called “Al Corqui”, from a Spanish language kids show that was the last thing I’d watched together with her. My last friend, trying to cross the new language divide with me, before disappearing off the face of the Earth.
The baby just listened to someone talking to it and responded to the soothing tones, despite its internal discomfort. The baby’s digestive enzymes were off spec. I swabbed the back of the baby’s throat, despite the squalls that caused. I was glad for the sound proofing, though I wondered what the design was used for when I gave it to some enterprising but not always nice protective locals. They’d killed the would-be rapist, so I offered them the ability to not hear screams – I used it for patients. I didn’t ask what they did. Hadn’t seen them in 30 years. And because of my ingrained patterns, I was still a lousy liar. Made people trust me, the personality profile said. Made for a big need for protection when I couldn’t say I was my own daughter.
I did a check of the swab’s results again. Enzyme disorder, mild to moderate, treatable with what I had. The genetic results were more interesting. The girl’s family claimed pure blood. They had no genetic enhancements nor “cures” for inherited genetic disorders. If your ancestors didn’t have a genetic cure, you were too genetically perfect to need it. If your ancestors weren’t enhanced, they weren’t unnatural. Both groups had been minorities before the Disaster. Both were large minorities after the Disaster. Both had a majority genetic presence after, because they had the lowest death rates and highest birth rates.
Jedda was culturally a Southern redneck or independent Western rancher. He was thus more local than the genetically engineered soldiers he partially resembled, though their DNA was dominate. Then again, they’d quickly taken in female refugees with young female children to make up for the missing half of their population; to take care of the babies and young male soldier types, to take care of the men as they wanted to be provided for. If the way to a soldier’s heart is through his stomach and the engineered fellow has never had anything other than tailored paste, there wasn’t a problem there. Once the sexual barriers were down – and the girls took the lead so the soldiers were more protective of them – there were eventually mixed children. Gods, counseling those soldiers on what to do when the girl wants to have sex and he has no idea what to do … yet he had killed hundreds with little more than his bare hands. The girls liked them, those that would tolerate them, because the soldiers had been conditioned never to harm female caregivers or cooks and housekeeping, never beat women out of social controls to never harm a human unless it was the enemy, didn’t have sex unless she wanted it … though some of them came to want it later. But compared to the trade sex for food for you and the baby and hope you aren’t beaten as a whore by radical evangelists or killed for being fertile by the environmentalists, being with a genetically engineered solider was sometimes better, despite what the mainstream villages said. And he was disciplined to protect, which some men didn’t, and didn’t drink alcohol or do non-medical drugs, which was great if you wanted that and didn’t want Mormon or Muslim. So babies came within two or three years of the war.
Many were freaks, though, hence the bad reputation for the stock. Add in first generation mixed mating with younger human daughters of the women who sought shelter there, and you had mostly human people. Like Jedda. But the reputation stuck, even as humans had their own genetic and environmental accidents. We’re not like them, “humans” said.
The child’s condition was proof that there was a soldier in the mother’s ancestry. I could treat it, because I’d been treating it for decades for the soldiers’ descendants. Each year, genetic selection decreased the number and severity of those affected.
I gave the child a shot of the under-produced digestive enzymes. If he had fed on his mother’s milk, he would have reacted as if it were poison. Not lactose intolerance, but a rejection of human tissue / chemicals instead of engineered formula.
I held the baby as it wailed. “I know shots hurt, baby. But so does vomiting every feeding until you’re dead. You’d be dead in 24 hours without this. Can you deal with that?” The howls of pain and hunger still hurt, reminding me of my own children when dying. When I’d refused the Project to be home with the kids, to try to save them, to take a chance even when genetic simulations said they had their father’s immunity despite my eyes and coloring. They’d lived twice as long as expected, because I was really, really good at figuring out cures and did it with off the shelf stuff when the hospitals refused to touch us in quarantine at home. That had gotten me the near perfect rating of my peers as perfect for the future without nano-bots or custom genetic engineering cures and MRIs and so many other wonderful gadgets …
The fungal stuff I used to make the enzymes bubbled in the corner. The baby finally conked out, exhausted. I dared not give it a dose of the pure synthetic formula food that I knew it could digest. Not at the risk of another child that would be unable to eat anything else again, thus left to starve to death for my cure. Another secret no one understood … the parents had a sick baby and it died, I tried, how could they blame me for trying or my tears?
Habits are come from experience, and I have had too much of it. Jedda is right. The baby looks very, very human. A few shades of eye coloring indicative of the enhanced color vision, night vision and thermal range are here. Not as good as a pure soldier’s, but a far better vision than “pure human”. That’s why Jedda’s people made better hunters. And mercenaries, sometimes, and spies, more and more often. Like the elves of old stories, now replaced by magical mutants.
I checked the swab a few hours later. The baby woke up and wailed like a cat in heat. The vocal cords, then, could go up to a soldier’s range. Would that make Jedda pleased with his son? The genetic activation compounds had triggered production of the chemicals his body by waking up genes his solider DNA had put into silent mode. I shut the baby up with sugar water. Not perfect, but was enough for silence. After a few more hours, I gave a dose of re-engineered digestive bacteria to root in the gut. This would protect the re-engineered stomach lining from casual infections that might render the first treatment ineffective. After a bottle of electrolyte, I changed the baby’s diaper. All the remaining biology was within spec, so to speak. He’d live now. I brought the baby out as it fell in love with a silicone pacifier.
The mother was sedated. Jedda was stone still, expecting a death sentence. His first mate had died of genetic rejection of the fetus, a massive rejection of it as if it were a tumor or infection, when it was really her body deciding the baby was a foreign thing to get rid of. Killed the baby and the placenta, and she bled to death because her body couldn’t heal itself when mistaking mixed fetal – maternal blood as something to keep fighting. It killed some humans, too, from the heavy inbreeding plus new species immunological responses. It would make for a fascinating paper in human immunology if there were a place to publish it. Or understand it.
Jedda’s eyes were internally reflective at the angle he glared at me. “What is your verdict?”
“I have a list of things he will never be able to eat.” No one criticized that statement, not even Jedda’s parents who had arrived at some word that she’d had the baby. The list wasn’t too long, but it had its hassles. Then again, half the population couldn’t eat something or another. “No milk until he is six months of age.” Major, major problem, but one I could solve. “I have soy based formula he can tolerate. I can give you enough to last those six months.”
“How much?” Jedda asked suspiciously.
“No cost,” I said.
“What do you expect instead?” Jedda asked. No one tolerated debts anymore. Life was too close to the edge, and unpaid favors led to starvation or worse.
“A favor.” Remembering the audience, I added, “If you’re willing.” Don’t tell a former soldier he has to do anything, much less over your dead body.
“Who do you want dead?” Jedda asked.
Jedda’s father remembered favors and trading them. And then he clearly remembered me. That familiar calculus ran through his head. The grandma figure was gone, but Jedda’s mother had a similar appearance. And a similar expression. I’d been here 25 years before. A generation for many, a life time for too many. “Will the baby live?” Jedda’s father asked.
“Will others live?” the new grandfather asked.
“Yes. Not even with the same condition.”
“Is this the fault of being a first born?” Jedda asked. There were chemicals, sometimes, poisons that collected in the body and passed on to the first pregnancy. Later pregnancies in these cases, mercifully, were free of the poisons collected in the first decade and a half of life.
“No. Just happens.”
Jedda was confused. Was I condemning the baby to death or not?
“Jedda, I’ve fixed what as wrong. He’s got as much chance to live as any other child. The problem was the stomach, and I’ve fixed it. Other than that, he’s perfect.”
“Human,” Jedda said.
Was being in an inter-racial relationship so hard for him? Who was pressuring him for it? Or pressuring him to stay for the sake of the children that it was supposed to bring that being pure wasn’t giving enough of? Or did he think the baby was too much like the mother, that he was losing some heritage by the baby being too “human”? But if that baby wasn’t human enough for humans willing to tolerate mixing with gen-alts and gen-alts willing to try to make peace and families with humans, it wouldn’t live in many places. Anywhere, really. And what did that make me?
“He has your eyes,” I said gently. “Can you see the future that gives him?”
Jedda’s expression relaxed a little. He dared look at it, at the face. The facial structure was more the mother’s than his, but the genetically enhanced eyes were his. “Is he to live?” A question one didn’t ask for fear of a negative response most of the time. Or asking it led to the healers who joined the profession for the right to kill doing so just to keep the obedience.
“Yes. He is to live.” Then noting those listening in the dark past the door, “If you’ll keep him.” I begged deities no one remembered that they not ask me to take the baby. I couldn’t and still enter hibernation.
“He has my eyes ...” It was half question, half affirmation. “Of course, I’ll keep him.” Then a curiosity about me. How did I know that of the child’s eyes? They welcomed the cures and knowledge to make them, but the all too human suspicion was also growing.
The gen-alts were growing more human. The humans, despite their protests, were mixing with the gen-alts.
Jedda’s father finally said it aloud. “You were here, when I was a child.”
I’m a lousy liar, and Jedda’s father could see into the thermal range of a blush, a natural lie detector. I’d even recommended it to him as a job, though the lack of trust between peoples kept it from sticking. “Yes,” I admitted.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“I was an adult, before the disaster.”
“Why do you always try to save the children?” he asked.
“Because I lost my own children, long ago. In the Disaster.”
“How do you do it?” Jedda asked.
“From what I learned trying to save my own, and everyone else’s.”
“There are stories of babies born to human women that aren’t human –“ Jedda’s father asked.
“Those were surrogates. Using human women to carry gen-alt children. That isn’t done anymore.” Not here, not by me. Hopefully, not done anywhere else in the world. “This child is a natural mixture of both peoples.” True, but on levels the others didn’t understand.
“Is he healthy?” Jedda asked.
“Will others be?”
“Yes. Healthier, actually, due to the immunity of both peoples’ and fewer genetic recessives – the bad genes get watered down or lost when both peoples mix.” Genetics for dummies, I thought. “Gen-alt – your people – to human, will make more healthy children, healthier than alone and only breeding among themselves. More children, too, probably.” Because of my actions to help Jedda’s people, they were the only large population of gen-alts I knew of. But I’d pushed them to outbreed, to prevent speciation. Maybe the out-breeding was happening on its own … or a human girl from the first soldiers’ generation of babies left and lied and said it was a freak instead of mixed … too many unknowns. “Your son will live,” I said. “And his future siblings will, too.”
“I think my other children need these kinds of pairings,” Jedda’s father said. “If it will give me far more grandchildren.” The ancient Israelites had measured immortality in numbers of descendants. That view now wasn’t unreasonable.
“First generation crosses will be the most successful. Second generation will do well.”
“I’ll tell our Council,” Jedda’s father said.
They had a Council? Civil government? That was news. Picking up human government, not just elders’ guidance. “That is your choice.”
“Why did you choose to help us?” Jedda’s father said.
“I’m a healer. That is the profession I chose.”
“No. You have helped my people for generations.”
Was this why I’d been able to travel the region for decades while peers died and I heard rumors and late night tales of their deaths years later? Because I was a local legend myself? “I sought to help all people.”
“You’re still people.”
“We’re not human.” I wanted to argue genetics, genetic engineering, cross-breeding proving it otherwise … but the argument would set me apart in knowledge and make me even stranger to them than I already is. “And neither are you,” he added. I shrugged helplessly, not knowing how to describe genetic rewriting plus cybernetics and artificial teeth and tissue grafts all to make a me made to last a few centuries.
“I was, once. Your ancestors were, once. I just want to create a future for everyone.”
“Does that mean we have to – you said once, marry?”
“Breed between. Use your own words, your own ceremony.”
“The pure humans in the East are dying out. Almost all freaks born, far worse than what they ever accused us of being,” Jedda’s father said.
“We don’t have many of those,” Jedda added.
“Those close to us don’t have as many, but still have some. Are we a cure for that?” Jedda’s father asked. A leader, seeking an answer.
“It is not as if your blood will cure them – not like an amulet. Your people are already part human. The soldiers – the gen-alts – the ancestors you think of as not human, were engineered humans. They also had to pick human wives, breeding partners, to make children. You’re human with a few additional genes … you’re human. They’re human. You’re just a little …” what had I told the soldier hybrid, the first one who’d been curious – “a little better made. That’s why you’re healthier. But with humans in the pairing, you gain their fertility. And a broader gene pool to prevent the crosses that make most freaks.”
They knew from their own observations that my words rang true. They seemed to register that I myself was telling the truth.
“Tell them that it is a choice between prejudice and death.”
“More grandchildren or nearly none,” Jedda’s father corrected me.
Jedda was almost bitter. “Many humans won’t like those words.”
“Love your wife as you love yourself,” I tried to console Jedda. Jedda’s father laughed out loud. “She’s the mother of your child, and of a whole new future. The differences are tiny -” genetic – “but together, it creates something wonderful. Don’t you want to make that?”
Jedda let out a little boy’s giggle before stifling it. He walked to his woman’s side and took her hand. He started to wake her up before Jedda’s father came over with the baby. “Mary-ya, your son is acceptable,” the gentle male voices told her.
Mary … mother of a new hope in bridging a new species gap? Perhaps a new species would result. Or the gen-alt traits would breed through, creating a new but hardier species with human fertility and no humans in the way. If humans did find their own solutions on another continent, was it new Neanderthal versus post-Apocolpyse-Magnon? Who would win this next round?
I began to pack. I began laying out items to give away to those who would need it, to trade for safe passage to the Dead Lands, and to sell at small cost to those who would not accept a free gift. A distribution of five years of work to those I’d been around. Another act of charity before resting and starting over somewhere else. I left the family alone and went into the lab. What could not be passed off as gifts or trade was set for torching. Better not to leave it behind for negative myths to start from.
I stayed there until the security system said I was alone. I exited the quarantine pod with by pack, surprised that what I had left packed outside was also gone. Jedda’s people had never stolen from me before.
From an old military issue camouflage suite came a soldier. “Where are you going?” Jedda’s father confronted me, as he removed the mask. “Why are you leaving us? You’re the only thing keeping us alive!”
“No. Your people have done that for years without me.”
“So many more die when you aren’t here! We have the memories of it, the numbers for it!”
“The humans will kill me if they know of me.”
“We’ll protect you!”
They had, off and on, since before the Disaster and on. “If your people have me here, it will seem something unnatural is your advantage, not your own blood lines. If you are to mix, I shouldn’t be here.”
“Why do you want us to mix?”
“I want your people to survive, too.”
“To help us? To help humans?”
“To help everyone!”
“You saved my mother once. She died of another illness after you left – one you knew how to save.”
“I gave medicines, know how to make more –“
“That’s not the same! For you to leave is to let more of us die unnecessarily!”
“I have a right to go home.”
“The dead lands are dead!” he spat. “Are you a ghost?” he asked me suddenly. “Staying alive to save us because you didn’t save your own children.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“I cannot tell if you are lying.” Jedda’s father leaned over and was nose to nose with me. “Look in my eyes.”
“Look in them or I will cut them out.”
I could heal from much, but not bodily part removal. Not here, far from the Center. And I could not get there blind. I looked.
“What are your eyes?”
“Artificial retinas to replace those that did not work well.”
“Burned by the death fires?”
How do you say I had had glasses, but that wasn’t good enough for the Project? “No. To fix bad eyes.”
“A birth defect?”
“If I was born in this age, I would die as an infant, yes.” Severely premature then, I would have been a still birth here. One reason I was such a high tech medical expert, was from being a patient and having Napoleonic compensation to know what was wrong and what was being done to and for me.
“Do you have to go back, to stay … alive?” he asked.
I wanted to lie. I really, really, wanted to. “Do you know about me?”
“You saved my grandson’s life.”
“You saved my life. My mother’s, for a time. Her sister’s uncle. I don’t know others specifically.” Genealogy means little when so many family relationships are rewritten by death and remarriage and abundant borrowing a brother when your husband is sterile.
“I do not want to stay long in one place.”
“I wait for others, sometimes. Far from here.”
“Where only ghosts can go?”
“Something like that.” I wanted to listen to music of my era, to have high tech checks to show I would not go blind again, familiar food of a gone era. Maybe I was a ghost. At least I didn’t fade of existence.
“Let me go home for a while. Take what you want, need. When I’m ready, I’ll come back here, to the edge of your territory. If your people still want me, I can stay.” If you’ll protect me, I almost said. Let them have time to think it over, as I needed. Time, a funny thing for an immortal to need.
I walked out, a small squadron of soldiers in retro-military gear out. Pretending to be their ancestors. “Go abduct a human wife! It’s better for your future!” I yelled at them. I felt funny, and it might have shown in my tone. No one looked at me or signaled understanding.
“Why do you make sexual references?” Jedda’s father asked. He had quickly caught up to me.
“What sexual references?” I asked.
“Love your wife as you love yourself, have sex with her not your hand. Focus on the future, stop griping, do her. Make a future, make a baby.”
When I heard it, I remembered my pep talks to talk a traumatized soldier after he’d been reluctantly seduced by a bored and frustrated cook who had lost her baby and wanted another one and would not go back to the human men who had raped her into having the first one. I had said many of the familiar slogans from the martial upbringing and added in sexual references, to make it sound like his duty to be a father as well as a protector and provider. Those words had apparently struck a chord and been repeated. Through the generations, it now appeared. I’d only said it to that one man, who’d gotten the girl pregnant within two months. Other pregnancies quickly began. One learned and taught others … not the legacy I thought I’d leave, but the descendant of that soldier was now repeating my words back to me. My pep talk to do his duty to the species was now sexual innuendo. A weird immortality that was at least a billion years old.
“Am I welcome here?” I asked.
“You said I’m not human,” I said.
“Even though you said we are,” he challenged. “If we can tolerate humans as mates and mothers of our children –“
“And husbands for your daughters and fathers of their children,” I added.
He scowled. Prejudices, then, did go both ways. “Then we can tolerate a mother of our people.” I said nothing, not sure of where that idea had come from. “Did you not work in the birthing bays?”
“I didn’t work there, really. I just go there when the bombing started. Captain Black said the units were failing in the power outages after the environmentalist attack, and I knew the biology and mechanics and told him a few things to do to minimize the death rate. He got me across town and told me to tell others what to do. The attack was supposed to kill all the unborn gen-alts, while another attack destroyed the genetic banks – leaving only the adult soldiers and no way to make more. I managed to get a few people who had some skills to keep some of the units going until decanting was done. I had to rewire the nutrient feeds to keep going during the power interruptions. Captain Black lost a few hundred men protecting the decanting units. But I explained that when the government has turned its back on its people, they have to return to the source, their people. Protecting their own unborn, their future, they understood. They died protecting me, and some strangers who didn’t disagree with me. I saved about 40 gen-alts. Out of over 400 units. That’s not what I wanted.”
“We were to be made extinct. You saved 43 lives, including my own father’s line. Captain Black said you held him as a baby.” I vaguely remembered catching a tiny figure from a decanting unit, thinking it was dead and stroking a cheek in regret. It moved, so I opened the mouth to check for air. That set off events of clearing the air ways and it screamed, the youngest decanted gen-alt we saved that day. “You left soon after. He let you go, though others said you had to stay to save more –“
“I had to go home to save my family, when the mist deploying weapons and bombs hit. You were hit first, but everywhere was burning or dying.”
“You didn’t save them.”
“No. I saved Captain Black’s kindred gen-alts, then he had an escort rush me home. They still got sick, but they let me stay at home and provided basic supplies instead of torching the place per orders.”
“An exchange of favors.”
“Something like that.”
“You saved a baby’s life today.”
I shrugged. “I remember the ones who didn’t live more.”
“You are a ghost,” he decided. “You merely happen to breathe and – do you eat?” I nodded. “Because of the high technology of a dead world.”
“At least I help keep this world alive, to create a future.”
“You said there are others.”
“What wonders do they do?”
“I don’t know. But we said to meet at home, in the dead lands. I want to go back, to see if any are home.”
He decided for me and for his people. “Go home. Your supplies will be used if you are not back in a year.”
“Use what you need when you need it. Don’t save it for me. I’ll make more if and when I return.”
The bunk was creaky, but it could not rust. In the familiar darkness, in a where I could pretend the intervening years could be ignored, the memories came back in force.
“You saved your family when we said they were going to die and denied medical treatment. You added months to their lives, with over the counter compounds … that is the kind of radical ingenuity we need.”
“I don’t care.”
“You signed up for the lottery before they died.”
“Yes, because I wanted to live then – in the hopes of helping all of them live.”
“You wanted to replicate what we did for you in others.” The voice behind the screen was masked, but I knew it was in judgment.
“Doesn’t matter now that they’re dead.” And I didn’t care.
“You only qualify now because of the expertise and capabilities you demonstrated in your efforts to save them.”
“We have to be certain that this investment is for the long term. You were always pro-life” – an insult, back then, so rare, so strange, so retrograde – “do you no longer hold those views?”
The computer could not, would not pick someone with a suicide risk. I knew the criteria, though I had no way of influencing them. “I could not save my own children. Perhaps I can save someone else’s.” It was said with bitter irony then. But the computer processed it as a yes, I will save lives. I went into treatment hoping that I was one of the 50% to die. When I woke up, I knew the result was as permanent as others had died hoping it would be. I could not roll over and die now, for the friends that had died wanting to be what I was now. The guilt would last me an eternity.
I slept, remembering the pain I felt then. When I awoke, the familiar guilt and grief felt far away. That was the first time since the Disaster I could awaken in the Dead Lands and not wonder whether I was better off dead or wishing I was with them.
Sometimes healing took generations. I thanked God that I was alive for those healing generations. It was reassuring to know that there were finally as many people each generation as the prior one, instead of a dwindling few. Time was healing all things. It just took time.
And I felt grateful for the chance to help those healing generations to come to pass. I laid down in the bunk, wondering yet again how “immortality” treatments intended to make me age infinitely slow reacted to hibernation. What was my physical age, except the chronological one? How much time did I get by sleeping and skipping forward years in addition to that I already had? Maybe centuries? Maybe millennia? But there were limits to technology. And what would happen when the languages changed so much I couldn’t understand it? Then the fear came that the unit would fail while I slept, and I’d die that way. Neatly put away in my frozen coffin.
These people had seen me save generations of their families. Another 25 years forward, another war might push them away. Strangers or worse could arrive.
I’d finish the system checks for the Center and for myself. Then I’d take back Jedda’s family’s offer. Maybe talk to the Council about a formal school, to teach what Joel’s humans had been afraid of. If time was making things better, healing old biases and prejudices, maybe those generations passing was healing many faults of the human spirit. Including my own.
I compromised and set the unit for five years. That’d been long enough to see Jedda’s son start school.
© 2019 Tamara Wilhite