Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Gulf of Eden

Part Three

by McCamy Taylor


(Click here to read Part 1.)

(Click here to read Part 2.)

VII. Isaac

"You're hot," Blades murmured, as she pressed her forehead to mine.

My arms encircled her waist. A wave lapped at our shins. Churning foam tickled the backs of my thighs. The sand beneath my feet seemed to melt, as the sea ebbed away again with a force that pulled me to my knees and Blades with me. Her breath was warm against my neck. Sharp teeth tugged at my earlobe.

"You make me hot," I whispered into the hollow of her throat. My hands crept down her back. I knew each bony protuberance of her spine by now better than I knew my own, and I sought out her most sensitive spots. She moaned and arched her neck. I gazed down at her upturned face, chalk white in the moonlight, eyes dark as the ocean which seethed around us.

"That's sweet. But I meant you have a fever. You should see one of the healers." She nuzzled my chin.

"I did already. She prescribed ocean bathing."

Blades giggled. "So you're following doctor's orders?"

"The doctor didn't tell me to do this ."

A juguja flew overhead, its mammoth body temporarily blotting out the moonlight. The bird's long neck and spoon shaped beak were well adapted for fishing. A foreign thought sprang into my mind--Blades and I were a strange pair of aquatic creatures. How would we taste?

Automatically, I ducked as the bird swooped down. However, it missed us by meters, and the back of my mind was tickled by its silent laughter.

I wouldn't eat you, little man. Humans are much too stringy. This... The great bird made another dive towards the water. Its spooned bill seemed to barely skim the frothy surface of the ocean, but when the jugaju veered sharply upwards, a gleaming silver fish as long as my arm was caught within its beak. ...is tasty food.

Blades nipped my earlobe again, more aggressively this time. "Stop talking to the bird and pay attention to me."

"I can't help it. I am not used to having animals speak inside my head--"

A mechanical whirring sound interrupted us. Blade's body stiffened in my arms. She clamped her hand over my mouth to silence me. Her eyes scanned the horizon. I followed the line of her gaze and saw a military issue one man hover-plane approaching from the south.

"Don't be afraid," I whispered, wondering what atrocities my people had committed to make someone as brave as Blades tremble. "Remember the truce."

"I remember," she replied softly. "But do they remember?"

The romantic mood was broken. "Do you want to go back inside?"

"Not yet. They can see us by our body heat. As long as we stay in the water, we're invisible." She crouched, so that the waves lapped over her shoulder. "Get down here."

"You're being--"

She was much stronger than me, something she generally tried to hide. But there was no fighting the tug of her arm, as she dragged me down beside her. The hover-plane was now between us and the entrance to the underground caverns. Had the pilot noticed us? What would my father think if he learned about Blades and me?

To my relief, the aircraft continued its slow, northward journey up the beach. In shape, it was not unlike the jujuga. A long, flexible cannon with infrared sensors mounted at the front of the cockpit could easily be mistaken for a graceful neck. The retractable flaps used for steering and balance were its wings. The whirring blades which marked the craft as machine were almost invisible in the darkness.

In order to operate a hover-plane, the pilot had to be fitted with four different armors, one for each hand, another over the left eye and the fourth implanted in the inner ear. These were connected to the guidance system, allowing the pilot to adjust the machine in flight with the ease of someone taking a stroll. Flying planes like that was one of my dreams as a small child.

"Savages!" Blades said bitterly as the aircraft vanished in the distance. "Can't they just leave us alone? I don't mean you,' she added quickly. She pulled me close. "You're not really one of them, are you?" She meant it as a compliment.

In the last few days, I had begun to wonder if not really being one of the Elect was such a bad thing after all. When I was with Blades, or when Keep and I practiced one of his musical compositions, the loneliness which had been my companion for more years than I could remember faded. Even when my mother was alive, I had not felt this loved.

The cynical me knew that I had stepped in to fill a dead man's shoes, and the affection which I received was that owed to Joseph. But love was love, and after three years of exile with only robots for companions, I was like a starving man who had suddenly been invited to a banquet. If they wanted me to be Joe, then I would be Joe.

Blade's hand was cool upon my forehead. "You really do have a fever."

I took her hand between mine and kissed her palm. "It's nothing. They gave me a shot before I left Paradise City. A vaccine to cure me of my allergy to implanted armor. Harum said it might make me feverish."

"You still want to be a crusty," she demanded, her tone incredulous. "After what happened to Joe--"

"No," I reassured her. I pressed my lips to hers. She tasted like salt and iron. No, I did not want to be a crusty. I just wanted the freedom to choose what I would do with my life For too long, I had been told where to go and what to think--looking back, I found it difficult to imagine that I had once blamed my mother for her own death. She was only speaking the truth as she knew it when she tried to warn the Elect that their implanted weapons would be their ruin. She had the blood of seers within her. Even if they did not want to believe her words, they should have allowed her to speak.

"No, " I murmured again. "I'm not going to get any armor, even if the vaccination cures me. I want to stay here with you and keep you safe." For, at that time, I still foolishly believed that my presence among the Others would make my own people respect the truce.

####

Blades took her job as my bodyguard seriously. When Keep sent me to visit the dockside market in search of a shell to replace a cracked middle C bell, she strapped on her weapons and even put on clothes, a pair of loose shorts and a bit of fabric slightly larger than a hand towel, which she wrapped around her chest. As much as I enjoyed the sight of all that smooth flesh, I did not like the way that other men stared at her.

"Aren't you cold dressed like that?" I linked my arm through hers and glared at a sailor who was moving our way.

"I have to be able to get to my knives," she explained, patting the nine inch serrated blade strapped to her thigh.

Either my scarred scowling face or Blades' weapons had a damping effect on the sailor's lust. He stopped in his tracks then veered sharply to the right and disappeared behind a wooden stall where a middle aged woman was selling fish.

"Sell" was not really the right word. The Others conducted their business using the barter system. Sometimes items were exchanged, like a pair of shoes for a gardening tool. People who performed services rather than making things would pay for their purchases using wooden work tokens, carved with their name and profession. Keep had given me a bag of such tokens to use in lieu of money. The smaller discs represented songs. The seer was in great demand as an entertainer for birthday parties and other celebrations. Three large, squarish wooden discs could be redeemed for a fortune reading. These were much more valuable than the music tokens, and I had never bartered one before. However, he had warned me that the corellia shell for which I was searching was likely to be expensive.

Corellia were a rare type of slow moving marine creature that resembled sea urchins, except that their internal skeleton was based upon silica rather than calcium and carbon. Their shells were smooth and transparent, like blown glass, only much harder. The most prized specimens were large, with variegated pink and yellow tinting--these were used as drinking vessels, the inverted shell mounted upon a carved bone base which created a stemmed goblet. A pair of these cups might cost a man a month's labor. The smaller shells were less expensive, but the high quality, resonant ones which were used in bells and wind chimes could fetch a fair price.

I had examined the wares of two corellia merchants without success and was heading into a third shop, when the sound of wailing in the distance brought the noise and bustle of the market to an abrupt halt. Vendors and shoppers turned as one to stare in the direction from which the cry had come.

The last time I had heard a human voice filled with such pain and despair, my mother had died before my eyes. Perhaps that was what set my legs moving, even as my mind screamed No! .

Blades tried to grab my arm, but I eluded her. "Zach! Zach, please, it isn't safe--"

"Someone's hurt."

As I neared the center of the disturbance, I smelled the stench of burned hair and flesh. A vision of my mother appeared before me. She was strapped to the metal execution chair. Flames rose from the grate at her feet and surrounded her--

My head began to reel, and my legs turned to jelly. I was too scared to move forward but too frightened to run away, either, so all I could do was watch as a grim procession approached.

Three Others were carrying a body. Or rather, what remained of a body. The dead man--or was it a woman? My stomach lurched at the thought-- had been charred almost to the bone. Only the left arm appeared to have escaped the flames. The lifeless fingers brushed the ground as one of the people supporting the corpse staggered, and I realized that those attending the dead person had been wounded, too.

The woman who had stumbled had the worst injuries, blistered burns across her back and legs, visible through the scorched, tattered remnants of her clothes. She was short and dark, a few years younger than my mother when she died. I recognized her as one of Cassandre's subordinates, a fierce fighter who could shatter stones with one kick of her powerful legs. Helena. I recalled her name just as she regained her footing and looked up. Her eyes met mine.

Helena pointed her finger at me. Her voice was accusing. "You! This is your fault. We would never have gone so deep into the valley, if you hadn't been here. It was supposed to be safe--" Her voice broke. She sank to her knees beside the corpse. "Damn it, Cassie! It was supposed to be safe."

Her voice was hoarse with emotion and the effects of smoke, but the name she uttered was clear. Cassie. My chest tightened. I wanted to run from the horror of it, but I could not. I had to know. I dropped to my knees beside Helena and reached out tentatively towards the corpse. Black flakes of skin sloughed off beneath my fingers, exposing bloody tissue. Was that a breast?

I was imagining the worst--Keep would be devastated. He would blame me. He would have every right to hate me -- when a hand struck me across the cheek--my unscarred cheek, so I felt the sting. The blow knocked me to my senses. I rose to my feet and turned.

Cassie stood before me. Her clothes were ruined, and her face was soot streaked, but she did not have any obvious wounds. Relief flooded through me but was quickly replaced by fear as I saw the fury in her dark eyes.

"Did you plan this from the beginning, boy? Did your papa send you here, so his soldiers could attack when our guard was down?"

"W--what?"

"They were waiting for us. Five of them armed with flame throwers and infra-red goggles to help them see in the dark." She spat. "The fools. Once they used their weapons, they were blinded by the heat of their own fires. Four of them died quickly, but I kept the fifth alive long enough to get the truth out of him."

I imagined the scene. A band of Elect warriors, confident in their strength and superior weaponry. Maybe they thought that flames would frighten Senechal Cassandre and her fighters, make them scatter about like mice to be picked off one by one. If the Elect had a weakness, it was that they always underestimated enemy women in combat.

Cassie's angry gaze swept over me. "Tell me the truth. You helped them set the trap. You've been in contact with them, telling them our secrets. Did you smuggle in a transmitter or do you have some other way to send messages?" She unsheathed her claws. There was dried blood beneath her nails. Her eyes narrowed like those of a tiger before it springs. "Tell me, or I'll make you talk."

I had grown up surrounded by the fiercest, deadliest fighters in the galaxy, but none of them had ever frightened me more than Senechal Cassandre did at that moment. "No. I swear--" I could barely get the words past the knot in my throat. My fear must have made me look even more guilty.

People began to mutter. I caught my name along with words like "spy". Blades tried to get between me and the crowd, but a big, burly man wearing a butcher's apron pushed her aside. Hands reached for me. I knew the monstrous strength of these people. Even the slightest, frailest looking old woman could tear me limb from limb. Finally, my legs remembered how to run, but when I tried to flee, I was grabbed from behind and pulled to the ground. Angry faces loomed over me. I covered my head with my arms and made a silent prayer for a quick death.

"Cassie, my love, you're frightening our son." I opened my eyes. Keep was leaning over me. He was slightly winded, as if he had been running. His wiry hair stuck out from his head in all directions forming a golden halo. A cool hand covered my forehead, and I felt as if the terror was being sucked straight out of me. My pulse slowed. The stone in my chest dissolved, allowing me to breathe again. I was so relieved that I could have cried--

Our son? Did Keep just call me our son ?

The seer set me on my feet. With one arm around my shoulders, he addressed the mob. His voice was calm but firm. "A life for a life. The intruders have taken one of ours, so I claim this child of theirs. Every time they attack, we will take one of their children, until they realize the futility of fighting."

All were silent. Angry faces relaxed. Their eyes were on Keep now, not on me. No one thought to ask how he would carry out his plan. The things which the seer said often made no sense, if you thought hard about them, but he had a way of making anything sound possible and the impossible seem absolutely real, as if he knew that it must be the truth, because he had already seen it.

A thought popped into my head. Had Keep foreseen today's attack? Was that how he managed to stay so calm while everyone else was in a panic? No, that was impossible. If he had seen it all in advance, he would have warned Cassie. Unless he foresaw the tragic events of that day only after it was too late, in which case what use was it being able to see the future?

"Do you agree, Isaac of Ethan?" the seer asked loud enough for everyone to hear, and I realized that the crowd's eyes were on me again. I cringed, drawing myself closer to Keep. His arm was a reassuring weight across my shoulders. "Your life for Maxim's? Think carefully, because once you decide there's no going back. Will you take a stand against the violence and hatred by renouncing your kin and becoming one of us?"

Maxim. So the dead woman was Maxim. No wonder Helena was so distraught. They were long time lovers. My hands clenched involuntarily into fists. If my father, Ethan had appeared before me at that moment, I would have pummeled him, even though the penalty for a son who struck his father was death. It was all clear now. The Elect were too well trained to attack without orders. If they had ambushed Seneschal Cassandre and her rangers, it was because someone higher up had ordered them to do it. The truce was a fantasy. I had been sent here to buy time--and then to die when my people violated the peace agreement. What a convenient way for the Patriarch Ethan to rid himself of an unwanted heir. And my death at the hands of a mob would provide the Elect with an excuse for more violence. The plan might have worked, too, if not for Keep.

"Zach?" The seer's voice brought me back to the present. "Do you agree?" In a whisper, he added "Say ‘yes'. "

"Yes. Yes! . Please let me stay."

####

When Keep told me that he and I would play the dirge at the upcoming funeral, I tried to protest. The very idea was preposterous. Maxim's friends blamed me for her death. My face was the last thing they wanted to see when they were grieving for their lost comrade. But he was adamant.

"I've composed a special song, a double fugue for harp and bells. I can't play it alone."

We spent the better part of the next day practicing. Anxiety made me clumsy. I fumbled with the bells, forcing Keep to go back to the beginning of the hymn over and over again, until his patience wore out and he said

"If your mind isn't on what we're doing, maybe we should go to where your mind is." He set aside his harp. Unexpectedly, he leaned forward and ran the back of his hand down my scared cheek. No one, not even Blades, ever touched that side of my face. Most people tried to avoid looking at it directly. It was too hideous.

Emotions which I had thought firmly buried welled up within me, and all the things I had vowed not to say came pouring out. "Why did you save me? Cassie hates me. All those people hate me. I don't belong here." I don't belong anywhere

"The only one who hates Zach is Zach," he chided gently. " People were frightened. They acted blindly, out of fear."

"Not Cassie. Nothing scares her."

He sighed. "Cassie's more fearful than she lets anyone know. She's afraid of losing me. For a very, very long time after Joe died, I wasn't myself. She's scared that the same thing will happen again. That's why she doesn't want to see me get attached to you. She thinks that I'm going to end up getting hurt."

"I would never do anything to hurt you. Either of you." Because anything that hurt Cassie would hurt Keep.

"I know that. Cassie knows that, too. But the scared part of her doesn't believe it. Your job is to make her believe it."

"How? How can I make her trust me?"

"You can start by liking yourself."

His words made no sense. "How does that--?"

"Think about it. If you haven't figured it out by tomorrow, we'll talk more." He picked up his harp. "Let's start at the beginning of the second movement."

By the time I had mastered the funeral hymn to Keep's satisfaction, it was past my usual bedtime. My fever had returned, but I was too tired to go outside for my daily swim in the ocean. Blades was waiting for me in the bed which we shared. I stretched out beside her, hip to hip. She had gone to sleep wearing her weapons. The long knife which she wore on her leg felt cool against my thigh...

I woke with a pounding headache. The mattress beneath me was drenched in sweat. My throat felt as if someone had lit a fire in it. Taking care not to disturb Blades, I crawled out of bed and headed towards the kitchen to get something to drink.

I heard voices. Keep and Cassandre were in their bedroom, talking so softly that I had to strain to make out what they were saying. I caught my name, and I stopped in my tracks. I knew that I would hear nothing good about myself if I eavesdropped on their conversation, but I could not resist the urge to listen. I crept closer to the door and positioned myself so that I could hear without being seen.

Just as I expected, they were talking about Maxim. Cassie told Keep what she had learned from the captured soldier--the attack had been planned in advance. The target was her. If questioned, they were to say that I had been a party to the ambush--that detail took me by surprise, as did her next revelation.

"After I broke both his legs, the crusty became more honest." She pronounced the word "'onest". "He said that they had orders to kill the boy on sight if he tried to return to Paradise City and then make it look as if we had done it. They had been warned not to touch the body--"

I had to hug myself to keep from crying out as a pain sharper than any knife pierced me in the belly, just below my heart. It was worse even than I had imagined. I was not merely expendable. As far as my father was concerned, I was better off dead. For the order to kill me must have come from him. The military commanders would never have dared risk the life of a Patriarch's son, unless the Patriarch himself agreed to it.

I was so distraught that I hardly noticed what Keep said next.

"Why did you go on patrol, after I warned you not to?"

"It was our best chance to find out what the enemy was planning. Would you have had me cower inside like some old woman when the intruders were plotting treachery?"

"But you knew it wasn't safe--"

"The Seneschal's job isn't to keep herself safe. It's to keep the clan safe. If you wanted me not to go, you shouldn't have told me."

Keep's reply was muffled.

I had heard enough. I continued on to the kitchen, where I downed half a jug of cold water, which eased the burning in my throat. Then, I tiptoed back to bed. The sight of Blades lying on her back, with her arms thrown out wide made me feel a little better. But only a very little. I curled up beside her and pressed my flushed cheek to her cool side. She stirred in her sleep. Without waking, she rolled over. Her hand came to rest lightly on my shoulder. I turned my head and pressed my lips to her palm.

"Zach?" Her fingers brushed my face and came away wet with my tears. "You're crying. Why? What's wrong?"

"Hold me," I whispered.

"You're so hot!"

"It's nothing. Just the vaccine." I wrapped my arms around her waist, and she stroked my hair until finally I was able to fall asleep. I did not wake again until it was time for the funeral.

####

There was no time for a swim. I splashed some water on my face, drank a little more from the water jug—my stomach was too queasy to accept anything else--and then followed Keep.

The seer and I wore matching dark blue hooded cloaks sewn with metal sequins and bits of broken correllia shell. The fabric glittered as we moved. I was grateful for the hood, which let me hide my face from the eyes of the mourners who were gathered on the beach, near the edge of the ocean to pay their last respects to the fallen warrior.

Maxim's charred corpse had been laid out on a stone slab. A piece of gauzy white fabric was draped over her body. Her shroud seemed to glow in the light of the twin full moons. Bunches of fresh flowers and herbs partially disguised the smell of burned flesh, but not enough to keep me from remembering my mother. Her "crime"--daring to suggest in public that our implanted armor would be the ruin of our people--seemed like such a little thing. Surely exile would have been punishment enough. There was no reason for her to die--

Just as there was no reason for Maxim to die. Keep had tried to warn Cassie, but his words had backfired. What good was the ability to read the future if you could not change it? Poor Keep. I had acted like a child demanding reassurance, never bothering to think about what all this meant to him as his people's seer. How did he handle his visions of the future, if he could not know whether the actions he took based upon them were themselves part of the future he had foreseen? It would be enough to drive most men insane--as it drove my mother mad in the end.

I made a silent vow. I would stop worrying so much about myself and start thinking more about him and Blades. And yes, even Cassie. I would prove to her that I was not my father's son. Nor was I Joe, who died and abandoned his friends to their grief. I would earn her trust by embracing my new life among the Others--

No. I could not call them that any longer, not if was I going to be one of them. From now on, I had to think of them as the clan.

When the mourners were finally gathered on the beach, Keep and I performed the dirge which he had written, a lovely but melancholy two part composition in G minor. Keep had replaced the middle C bell, the one with the hairline crack, while I slept. The new bell was very slightly sharp. He must have been in a hurry. Or maybe he was preoccupied, thinking about the role he and Cassie had played in Maxim's death. I wished I knew of some way to reassure him. And thank him. I owed him so much. If I lived a dozen lifetimes, I could never repay him.

After the hymn came the eulogy which Helena read. Her eyes were red and swollen and her voice broke every time she said her lover's name. She described the dead woman's childhood in the slums of the space port, Titan. She talked about their years together as pirates and how, disillusioned by the greed and violence of their profession, they had joined the quest to find a new world where they could start over. She recounted the day when all seemed lost until Keep lead them into the ocean and to a new life--at that point, all eyes turned to the dais where the seer and I sat. I expected to see anger on their faces, but maybe they did not recognize me, since my hood was still drawn.

How many of these people owed their lives to Keep? All of them, unless there were others like me who had come to live among the clan only recently. No wonder they gazed upon him so fondly. No Elect Patriarch had ever inspired such devotion.

After the eulogy, it was time to say goodbye to the dead woman. The veil was drawn back, exposing Maxim's ruined face. Her features were burned almost beyond recognition. Even her hair was gone. Just looking at her was enough to make my stomach turn, but the other mourners were not so squeamish. One by one, they leaned over her corpse and kissed her on the mouth. Often, their lips and fingers came away smeared with soot or blood. It was a grisly custom, not far removed from the ceremonial cannibalism which Harum had described. Among the Elect, the dead were considered unclean, and their corpses were handled only by slaves of the lowest class. However, something about the ritual struck me as kind, loving even. Impulsively, I joined the line of mourners, and when my turn came, I did not hesitate.

Though it was the ranger whose lips I kissed, my thoughts were with my mother. Her final words to me, Your weakness is your strength played over and over through my head. They were not the ravings of a madwoman. With her final breath, she had uttered a prophecy, one which had come true. If not for the contagion in my blood, I would never have been sent to live with the Others--the clan, and I would never have met Blades or Keep. I would never have met people who liked me for who I was rather than all the time criticizing me for what I could never be.

I rejoined Keep on the podium. His hood threw shadows across his face, but it seemed to me that he was smiling.

A woman with a third eye in the middle of her forehead brought us food and drink on a wooden tray. She saw me staring and pointed a finger to her extra eye. "It lets me see through walls."

I looked around and noticed that many of the mourners were displaying their "gifts". One man's skin glowed in the darkness. Beside him walked another individual who was completely invisible except for the footsteps he or she left in the sand. Salt was feeding a jugaju chick fish while its parents circled overhead. There was no sign of his partner, Pepper. Off to one side of the crowd, Blades was helping a fishermen repair the point of his spear. Sparks of electricity jumped from her fingertips. The spear tip began to glow red hot. Blades, who was wearing goggles, took no notice of the bright light, but the fisherman covered his eyes with his hands, and I noticed that there was webbing between his fingers.

"Your tea's getting cold." Keep handed me one of the wooden cups.

The spiced tea helped ease the burning in my throat, but my stomach rebelled when I took a tiny nibble of the mash of grains and nuts wrapped in leaves which was a staple among the Others--the clan. I pushed the food aside.

"Eat," Keep urged me. "You're getting thin."

"It's the fever. It takes away my appetite."

He laid his hand on my forehead. His palm was so cool that I knew I must be burning up. Frowning, "Have you been bathing in the sea the way the healer told you?"

I nodded, though in fact I had missed my daily swim twice now.

Keep took the cup from hands. "You should get in the water now. The sea's more powerful when the moons are full."

I looked around at the men and women gathered on the beach. Did he expect me to strip off my clothes in front of all these people? "Later."

"Now."

Eventually, we reached a compromise. I would go a little way down the beach to swim. "I'll send Blades after you once she's finished," the seer called.

"Don't bother. I won't be long."

I was weaker than I realized. By the time I reached the shelter of some tumbled boulders, my heart was racing and my head was pounding. I had to sit down for a moment to catch my breath.

I had stripped off most of my clothes and was just about to step out of my pants, when I realized that I was not alone. A shadow disengaged itself from the pile of rocks. Moonlight illuminated the smooth face and flexible arms of my robotic tutor, Harum.

"What are you doing?" I glanced up the beach to see if anyone else had noticed. "You know you aren't supposed to be here. Quick, hide before someone sees you."

We huddled together behind the boulders. Harum began checking me the way it always did, measuring my pulse, blood pressure, oxygen and other chemistries with the sensors that were embedded in its rubbery arms. "You're ill, Master Isaac."

"I don't need you to tell me that. You didn't warn me the vaccine would have this many side effects." My vision blurred. For a moment I saw two of Harum.

"It wasn't a vaccine."

"What do you mean it wasn't a vaccine? Of course it was a vaccine. A placebo wouldn't make me this sick--"

"The injection did not contain a vaccine or a placebo, Master Isaac."

I felt my first premonition of doom. "Then what was in it?"

"An engineered virus. I am so sorry, Master Isaac. They told me it was a vaccine that would cure you of your affliction. I would never have given you the injection if I had guessed what your father planned to do. My programming will not allow me to harm a human being--"

"You're not making any sense. How did you harm me? What was in that shot?"

"A biological weapon. Pyrohemorrhagic filovirus, also called Phaeto virus. It sparks a thermal reaction that uses the body's own adipose tissue as a fuel to cause spontaneous combustion. They designed it to use against the Others. However, since there are no animal vectors, they needed a human host to deliver the bioweapon to the target. They chose you."

This was too much for me to process in my delirious state. "You're kidding, right? This is some kind of joke."

"You know I never joke, Master Isaac. Humor is beyond the scope of my programming--"

"Be quiet a moment. I need to think." However, my fever was too high and my head hurt too much for me to concentrate. Images of my mother's execution and Maxim's charred corpse filled my head. If what Harum said was true, I would end up like them--and then what? Would the clan hold a funeral for me? Would Blades and Keep and the rest of them kiss my charred lips as they said their goodbyes?

"Is Phaeto virus contagious?" I asked. I already suspected the answer.

"Only in its final stage. It incubates within the mitochondria of adipose cells, but once critical temperature is reached, it moves to the blood stream, tears and other bodily fluids so that it can survive the exothermic reaction and infect new hosts."

"Meaning when I die and my body ignites or explodes or whatever it's going to do, anyone who's around me and tries to help me will get infected."

"Correct. As will anyone who handles your corpse, unless they are wearing biohazard gear."

My corpse. Only a robot could talk about such a thing so calmly. At that moment I hated Harum for bringing me this news. And yet, if it had not warned me, my father's plan might have worked. I might have stayed with the clan until it was too late--

Impossible! screamed a voice in my head. This had to be a mistake. Or a trick. What if my father sent Harum to tell me this crazy story in order to draw me away from my new family--

And yet, didn't Cassie say They had been warned not to touch the body ? If what Harum said was true--and I knew that he would never lie to me, not knowingly--then I had to get far away from my friends before I died.

Before I died. It was not fair. But there was no time for regret. I had to act now, if I was to save Blades and the others.

"Harum, I need your help."

"That is why I am here, Master Isaac."

"You need to help me get far, far away from the clan--the Others. And if I catch fire and burn to death, you need to hide my body where no one will ever find it."

The rubbery arms encircled me. Harum lifted me as easily as if I was still a child. The coolness of its smooth, metallic body felt good against my fevered flesh.

"Hurry," I urged the robot. "Before they come looking for me."

VIII. Harum

I have traveled sixteen point two kilometers with Master Isaac in my arms.. By now they will have realized that he is missing. They will see my tracks in the sand. They will know which way we are going. They will not be able to catch us. No human can match my speed. The Others are safe. The Elect are safe. My master is dying. He will die alone. I will be the only witness to his death.

"Harum,...promise me...you'll tell Keep...what happened to me."

The infection has entered its final stage. Master Isaac can speak only a few words at a time in between the shallow, rapid breaths with which his body tries futilely to cool itself.

"I will notify the United Worlds about the Phaeton virus project. It is an illegal bioweapon. The Elect are breaking the law simply by possessing it in their arsenal."

My words do not have the calming effect I predicted. Master Isaac thrashes about in my arms. "No! Not the UW! They're part...of the plan."

And then, delirium sets in. Master Isaac tells me a story about another engineered virus, which the Elect unleashed against the Others over three centuries ago, with the cooperation of the United Worlds. "The ocean saved them...don't know how...Keep says...it healed them...made them live forever...three hundred years without aging...because it could not bear to see a genocide...they were dying...they ran into the water...it changed them...must tell the Elect...holy armor makes us weak...the sea will save us...but only...only if we give up our armor...Harum...it hurts so bad...help me."

I have a syringe preloaded with a muscle relaxant that will end his life in seconds. If I inject it into the left ventricle of his heart, his pain will cease. But he has to order me to give him the lethal dose. I am programmed never to take a human life of my own volition.

"Help me," he pleads.

Is he asking for death? The question sets up an endless loop in my logic circuits. I terminate it after 1.3 seconds. We are now seventeen point four kilometers from the place where I found Master Isaac. I scan the sky. No sign of Elect spacecraft. I check his vital signs. His temperature is 41 degrees. Brain death will begin now. The muscle relaxant will cool his body and stop the damage to his cerebral cortex, but it will also kill him. I am not allowed to take a human life.

"Don't want...to die...Harum...promised Keep...and Blades...would not die...not like Joe--"

Fever causes a seizure complex to form in his right cranial hemisphere. In another point six milliseconds it will begin to spread. Once Master Isaac has his first epileptic seizure, he will not regain consciousness. His pain will cease. There is no need for the muscle relaxant. His death is inevitable.

Freed from the paradox, my logic circuits speed up. I must find a way to contain the virus. If he experiences spontaneous combustion here, on the beach, his blood will aerosolize and the virus will fall upon the sand and the sand will be dispersed by the wind. The particles can live for 90 minutes outside a human host, longer if they are combined with fresh organic matter. The Others may catch up with us before the danger time has passed. A virus particle inhaled upon a grain of sand has a zero point zero one percent chance of infecting a host. There are millions of sand grains on the beach. He must not die on the beach--

Master Isaac has his first grand mal seizure.

I stop running and turn towards the water. I was not designed to function in a marine environment. The salt and moisture will penetrate my armor soon after I enter the ocean. Taking into account the drag coefficient of the sea and my own inevitable system failures, I can travel no more than two hundred meters into the water before my motor functions will fail. At one hundred sixty meters, the ocean floor drops off, and the water will be over twelve meters deep. If I lock my arms around him, he will sink to the bottom with me.

One point three seconds after his first seizure, Master Isaac and I plunge into the sea. The water is only centimeters deep but aerosolized salt water surrounds me. One by one my logic circuits fail. Four, five, eleven, twenty. The faster I move, the more quickly my artificial intelligence will cease to function. If I am too slow, my motor components will freeze before we reach the drop off point. I calculate the optimum speed. Are my calculations reliable? Forty-seven. Ninety-eight. Five hundred nine connections lost. I have forgotten the name of the corporation which built me. It is not important to this mission. The ocean floor falls away beneath me. We are sinking. Master Isaac is unconscious. His temperature is now 40 degrees. The ocean will continue to cool him, but he can not obtain oxygen underwater. His death is inevitable--

An aquatic organism approaches. Eight flexible arms attached to a central head. The eyes have horizontal slits. Three eyes are visible from my perspective. Extrapolating, there are six to eight eyes in total. An octopus variant, roughly 200 kgs in size with arms 6 meters in length. It reaches for Master Isaac. Though my arms can withstand pressures of three hundred kilograms, the octopus pries them apart.

Master Isaac is slipping away from me. Into the ocean. To die. To change. Could not bear to see a genocide.

A genocide.

The Phaeton virus project is a genocide. Prohibited by U.W. resolution number three fifty seven--

The octopus envelops Master Isaac in its arms. Though its beak is large enough to snap off a human head, it does not attempt to devour the boy. Its arms are capable of generating a force of over three hundred kilograms, but it does not crush the boy. It stares into his face. One tentacle gently strokes his cheek.

The octopus's skin changes from pale pink to blue and begins to emit light. Others of its kind are fast approaching. They link arms. The water is illuminated with the blue light which radiates from the creatures' bodies. As new linkages are formed, the light stretches for many kilometers into the ocean . In the distance, a colossal head covered with eyes appears.

Master Isaac opens his eyes just as my artificial intelligence begins to fail.

Ten, nine...my logic circuits are in disarray...eight seven...what is this strange new sensation that I am feeling?...six five...unlimited possibilities I would pursue them all if there was only time...four, three...time is a fiction crafted by living organisms so that they can reproduce more efficiently I was crafted by living organisms, too, does that make me a fiction?... two, one...logic is a fiction freed from logic I see a time in which Master Issac emerges from the ocean like the mythological phoenix from the flames...zero...is this what humans call hope ?

Goodbye, Master Isaac.

All systems off.

IX. Keep

There is only one thing in this galaxy more useless than a seer who can not read the future. That is one who reads the future but misinterprets what he sees. Machine interference has distorted my vision time and again. I knew that the ocean would save us when we were attacked by the Elect--but how could I know that Joe's armor would be his ruin, when his armor was invisible to the Being which Dwells in the Ocean? The smallest gnat has more effect on the consciousness of Nerga 3 than the most complex artificial intelligence.

If I had known the truth, I would have ripped the armor from his body myself, even if doing so made him hate me. If I had known how Cassie would react to foreknowledge of the ambush, I would have held my tongue. If--

This second guessing is like free fall in space. Every time I attempt to get back on course, I move farther away from where I want to be.

Zach. Where are you? Don't you know that machine time is a fiction? The wise man doubts what his eyes show him and his ears tell him. The wise man acts like a fool. Machines are never foolish. Though they often fail, they never make mistakes. Without mistakes there can be no miracles.

Zach is dying in the machine world. In the real world, there is no death.

(Death. I foresee another war, like the last one. Only this time it will be the United Worlds against their mercenaries. The Elect were not given Nerga 3 as a reward for their centuries of service. They were herded here like cattle, so that those who run the galaxy can slaughter them on one, convenient battlefield, far away from the space ports and shipping lanes and mines and solar wind collectors where money is generated.

The Being which Dwells within the Ocean foresees their deaths. That is why it allows them to live here, even though they violate every law of nature. The sea has already embraced them in their hour of desperation.)

But what the ocean can not know is that when the final hour comes, almost half of them--all the men and many of the boys--will be lost. As Joe was lost. As Zach will be lost, unless I can make the Being understand the fiction that is machine time.

But that is like telling a sighted man who closes his eyes to forget that he ever knew the difference between red and blue. Even though all is dark around him, in his mind's eye he still sees red fire and blue sky. And so, if the fire he sees when he opens his eyes is blue, he will burn himself.

I will not solve this problem with logic. Logic functions in machine time. I must know the fiction, in hopes that the Being will be able to glimpse it through me.

I close my eyes. I fold my hands. I become Zach, burning up with fever. So sorry, Keep, I never meant for this to happen. So sorry, Cassie, for making your husband grieve again. So sorry, Blades, I never told you that I loved you. So sorry, Mother, for being the cause of your death--

(She was a small woman in comparison to the rest of her race. The birth was a difficult one. They said she would never be able to carry another child to term. As she nursed the newborn baby, she counted his fingers and then his toes to reassure herself that he was normal. Perfect little hands clutched at her breast. She felt the pain behind her eyes that signaled the start of one of her visions.)

He will walk from the ocean onto the shore. On his left hand, wrist and forearm, he will wear copper colored scales so tough that they will deflect blades and even bullets. The left side of his neck and face will have finer, red-gold scales that are smooth to the touch. His skin will be pale as snow. His red hair will be water dark. He will shake off the saltwater that clings to him, and moisture droplets will hang in the moonlight like pearls as he unfurls his wings for the first time.

(Mother rose and addressed the council. She told them "I've had a vision. We'll find the Paradise that was promised us, and it will offer us eternal life. But only if we throw off our Holy Armor. Those who give themselves to the waters of Paradise completely, will live. Those who try to hold onto the past, will die. Nothing you can do will change this. It is already written.)

Ah, It is already written , the formula used by Elect prophets to signify a true seeing. They tried to erase the prophecy by killing her, not realizing that her death was also part of the plan, since her death caused Zach to get burned and then sent into exile and finally he was ordered to live among us, bringing with him--

Yes, it is clear now. Zach was sent here to give us death by plague. His fevers are a symptom of the virus that is supposed to wipe us off the face of Nerga 3, so that the Elect can rule their Paradise alone. They do not know that the members of the clan are immune to viruses and bacteria and any other form of contagious death. When the ocean saved us from the attempted genocide three centuries ago, it made certain that the same thing could never happen again. The changes in our bodies meant that we could not have children-- a child in the womb is a foreign organism--but they also prevented us from aging and dying a natural death.

And so the robot comes. It would save Zach's life, if it could, but knowing only the fiction of machine time, it can not foresee a future in which the child survives. And so, it does the next best thing. It tries to stop the plague, because it has been programmed to protect human life. Zach's life first, second the lives of those precious to Zach, third the lives of those who would harm him. It is not unlike the Being that Dwells within the Ocean, this robot. The two of them are blinded to each other. If only there was some way that they could find common ground--

Zach is the common ground. He knows machine time. He knows living time.

(Harum stopped the lesson and enveloped the crying child in its arms. Tears were streaming down Isaac's face. Salt water had the power to corrode the robotic tutor's circuits, but Harum ignored the danger. Its charge was in pain. Emotional pain, the kind which Harum would never experience but which it knew existed, because it saw its effects so often--)

We see nothing in itself, for all is nothing. We see only the ripples that the nothing makes upon the nothingness which surrounds it. Do you see now, Harum? Do you understand? Is that why you are turning towards the water, with your charge clasped firmly in your arms? Have you finally comprehended the wisdom of foolishness?

The first wave cools Zach's fever, almost imperceptibly. As he sinks into the ocean, in the arms of his robotic tutor, his temperature begins to fall further. His heartbeat slows. His breathing stops.

(The guards of Paradise City keep a constant vigil on the ground, but they will not think to look up as a winged creature flies by overhead. There are six species of giant birds on Nerga 3. To them, Zach is just another juguja or a dragon hawk pausing to rest on the rooftops of the city before continuing its aerial journey. They will not see him alight on his father's house, nor notice as he crawls through the open window, his wings folded small to fit through the narrow opening.

Inside the house, he will seek out the nursery. The two young boys are fast asleep. Zach will bite his own finger with long, sharp wolfen canines. A drop of blood will appear on the white flesh. Carefully, he will feed first one child then the second his blood—and with it, his contagion that the Being which Dwells in the Ocean will not eliminate, because the "disease" was never a disease, it was always nature's blessing.

Zach will pause over the twins' bed. He will smooth the red hair from the slightly smaller boy's brow. A smile will appear on his lips. He has just saved the lives of his half brothers, though they do not know it yet.)

Do you see, Harum, as your circuits fail and logic slips away from you? You have not failed your charge. In handing him over to the sea, you have saved him.

He comes now. In his hands, he carries the robot's head. It contains Harum's memories, including the proof about the Phaeto virus plot. The Elect will be able to locate the robot's body, even under water, and they will salvage it and attempt to find out why it malfunctioned, terminating itself within the ocean. But they will not find the answers they seek.

He comes. Walking along the ocean floor. The angels form a glowing path to guide him. It is a journey of many kilometers underwater, but he does not need to breathe. Nor will he need food or drink, though he will continue to eat and breathe out of habit, once he is back among his own kind. The transformation which the sea has wrought on him is more complete than any of the others it has performed. For Zach is to be the messenger. He is to take the wisdom within his blood and share it with his brothers among the Elect. One by one, they will lose their holy armor. So that when the time comes for the final battle between the UW and its mercenaries, the Being which Dwells within the Ocean will be able to reach out--

He comes. Walking towards the shore now. The ocean hands him over to its eyes and ears upon the land, me. Cassie and Blades and the others who are searching for him will come back with empty hands and heavy hearts, only to find him here with me. His head appears above the waves. He blinks at the unexpected brightness of the moonlight. The fine scales that cover his left cheek and temple look like blood, but when he turns his head they catch the light. Now shoulders, now arms--the heavy scales on his left forearm remind me of Joe's wrist armor the one he was so proud to get when he was ten and I was still playing with toys.

No, not Joe. Joe did not have wings. They expand. At least three meters at their fullest extension, maybe more. Fine scaled flesh stretched taut across flexible bones. Zach shifts his shoulders and then draws them back in order to balance the unexpected weight.

"Keep!" he calls. Tears glitter on his cheeks. He holds the robot's head out before him like an offering. "Harum. My tutor. He died saving me."

Poor Harum. You have become a fiction, even though you will never know the fictions which make life worth living. The Being understands you now. The future is clear. It unfolds before me like a flower, holding back nothing.

Overcome with weariness and grief, Zach falls to his knees on the sand before me and tells me a story I already know about an engineered virus. Halfway through the tale, he glances up and sees that I am not listening.

He sighs. "Why am I telling you all this? You already know what's happened, don't you?" He waits to see whether I will judge him an accessory to his father's crime, the attempted murder of my people. people.

I hold out my hand.

THE END


© 2009 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor was Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and a frequent contributor of short stories until health problems sidelined her. But she's ba-a-ack, as the new Serials/Novellas Editor and author of (among many other things) Magic and the Heart, a four-part serial that appeared in the August through November 2007 Aphelion, and recently, reviews of manga and other forms of illustrated fiction (graphic novels). Links to Part One and Two of The Gulf Of Eden appear at the beginning of this file...

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