Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Time Is The Best Healer

by Michael Goldberger


Leda allowed herself to burst into tears only when she left his tent. She had to be strong, to smile all the time even though she knew he couldn't see her. He would die, she was sure of that, as she was sure that the sun would rise tomorrow. And yet she sat beside him for hours every day, from the minute she got back from the woods until the night became dark and silent and she had to go back to her tent to sleep.

When she finally got to her tent she would lie down on the cold, hard earth and cover herself with muddy furs and leather scraps she used as a blanket. She would fish small pieces of dried salty beef from her pocket, chewing, thinking. After a while she would fall into a dreamless sleep. Most nights she was too tired to dream. But when she did dream, she always dreamed of them, the People in White. They had a strong unpleasant smell that stung her nostrils, like herbs and wolf urine. Their clothes were the color of new snow, smooth and soft, without fur or leather strips to hold the pieces together.

If it had been anyone but Nuno, the council of the elders would have made sent him out into the white woods. Those who became too old or who fell ill for too long were a burden that the tribe could not afford, and most went willingly into exile for the sake of the community. But Nuno had been their greatest hunter and warrior for many years. The men said that he could stop a running stallion and could chop the largest tree in the shortest time. Nuno courted the prettiest women, drank the largest amount of dama and danced all night without falling off his feet. When the red-backs attacked, it was Nuno who led the men to chase them through black-water. Many red-backs died in that day. Those days were good days -- when Nuno came back from the battlefield, his hands red to the elbows with the blood of his enemies. The men sang and roared. Their eyes shone and sparkled with ecstasy. The clan had a lot of meat in those days. The men drank a lot of dama and gave the women a lot of strong children. It was nothing like today.

It was the beginning of the hunting season but the light of the sun was dim and could not chase away the gray shadows. The air was thin and cold. The earth was frozen and didn't provide anything to eat. The fruits shriveled on the trees. The edible roots hid deep in the ground and were hard and bitter. No one remembered how and when it had all started, who'd been the first to get the disease. Who was the first to find the red marks all over their body, who was the first to cough blood and die suffering great pain? It no longer mattered.

The people of the clan knew they had been bad -- the witch had told them so. She said they hadn't listened to the words of the gods, that they had not followed their commands and whishes. This is why Imma, the goddess of the river, froze it and why Mono, the god of the fruits and vegetables, dried them on the trees and bushes and inside the ground.

The witch demanded they spare a small amount of food to sacrifice to the gods. She promised that everything would change for the better after that. The clan gathered at the center of the compound, bowing as they passed the witch, and left their sacrifices at her feet. When Leda passed her she noticed a small red mark on her neck, a very small mark -- almost unseen.

Leda thought then that maybe the effort would not yield any real change. If the witch herself was touched by the illness, then even her knowledge of the gods' will was worthless.

The people continued to die and the earth remained cold and hard and barren. The witch demanded more and more sacrifices, until the day she became too weak to stand. Within a few days, the red marks on her body were visible to the entire clan. She died after the moon had died and been reborn twice -- and still nothing changed.

####

"It's just impossible to work like this!" Dr.Taro Shimura exclaimed, banging his fist on the table.

Don Matthews nodded "The new policy banning testing of drugs on infected people in Africa will -- impede progress, I know. But you have to understand that we are working on it. We are everything within our power to overrule the decision."

Shimura stood and walked slowly toward the window. He looked outside to the sea of concrete, metal and glass that filled the landscape. Several skycars carved narrow trails of white across the red sky. He turned back to face Matthews again "This problem might even force us to shut down the project completely."

Don sighed. "Yes, I know. It's my job to understand the implications of new regulations."

Dr. Henry McNeal hummed "Is there a work-around? Could we buy some... hmmm ... specimens?"

"Too risky. You know that."

"Of course it's risky, McNeal," Shimura snarled. "This sort of thinking is the cause of all our problems -- you and your dangerous ideas! 'Some specimens!' Where exactly do you think you can find 'some specimens'?"

"My stupid ideas gave you the best substance for research for the last ten years!" McNeal stepped toward Shimura "My stupid ideas made you respectable and rich, and above all, they made Norex the leading company in its field!"

"Stop! Both of you -- right now," Matthews snapped. "I won't tolerate this kind of behavior from respected professionals."

For a minute there was a silence.

"Now please sit down."

The two scientists sat down at once.

Matthews wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. His face was red and he was breathing as if he had just climbed a steep hill.

"Listen, I still have one card up my sleeve, a suggestion that might interest the two of you. Let's discuss it over lunch..."

"What is it, Don? Don't toy with us -- is it a way around the ban on testing in Africa?"

Don grinned. "Something like that. But I think we will all be in a better mood after we eat.".

####

Nuno became thinner. His bronze skin turned gray except for the red marks that grew in number every day. Nothing was left of his once heavy muscles. Most of the time he wasn't even aware that Leda was there. Sometimes he hallucinated and screamed in his sleep.

Leda wet the rags on his forehead every now and than, trying to cool him. She tried to drip water into his mouth, but his jaws were clenched together so tightly that she wasn't sure that any liquid entered. It seemed that his whole body was in spasm, sinews standing out like the poles of a rack used to stretch and dry leather. His breathing sounded like the hissing and crackling of a fire -- a fire consuming his thin, aching, shivering body.

The sides of the tent moved and Geda came inside, her gaze lowered. She didn't say a word, just stepped forward and handed Leda a shriveled apple.

Leda looked at her sister as if she were crazy "What are you doing? Save it for your son. Give it to Imi, not to me."

Geda remained silent.

"What is it, why aren't you speaking? Something has happened! Tell me!"

Geda was pale. Her lips were a thin pink trembling dam barely containing a flood of sorrow, yet she remained outwardly calm. "Take the apple, please. I beg you."

"What is wrong with you?"

"You are killing yourself here, in this dammed tent!"

"Geda, what is wrong! Has something happened to Imi? Please tell me, I'm your sister. In the gods' names, Geda!"

"Eat the apple, Leda, Imi won't need it anymore." She fell to the floor, sobbing.

Leda knelt on the floor beside her sister, holding her trembling shoulders. Geda, weeping, buried her face against Leda's chest, her fingers digging into her shoulders.

"Did ... did he die?"

Geda nodded, whispering, "He died, my little Imi died! I found his little cold ... body ... Ohhh Leda -- he is so small! What wrong did I do to the gods that they make me suffer this kind of pain? First my husband and now Imi."

The two sisters hugged each other, crying, mourning the loss of Imi, and the disaster that had befallen the whole clan.

Sometime later, Leda stood up. She took her stone-craft knife and headed to Geda's tent. She wrapped Imi's little body in the worn wolf skin he dragged with him everywhere, then took him in her arms and went toward White-Fields.

The little body was so light... She was weak and famished and yet it was so light. She kept on going until she saw the first trees of White-Fields. There she knelt and put the small body near her on the icy grass, and started to dig with her knife. Her hands were soon numb from the cold and were cut by small stones and pieces of ice until her fingernails bled, but she could not stop. By the time the sky became golden red she had finished. It was a very small hole but all her strength was gone. She took Imi's in her hands and kissed his forehead. It was frozen cold. The little boy who used to wake her up every morning yelling his throat out, that played hunter-and-deer with her. The little boy with the bronze skin and the white teeth, with the cute dimple in his cheek, lay dead at her feet. She cradled him in her hands, hugging him tight to her bosom. Then she put him inside the hole. She started to cover his small body, first his legs -- so small! -- and then the rest of his tiny, fragile body until only his face remained visible. He looked very peaceful and calm.

"You are protected now, my little friend," she sobbed, tears freezing on her cheeks. She put her hand on his so cold forehead, as if she could pass some heat to the little body. "You are dead now, you don't have to suffer the anger of the gods." She covered his face as if she didn't want him to witness her next actions.

"What kind of gods are you, what evil could this little innocent child have done to you?" She stood, anger giving strength to her stiff and wasted limbs. "Imma! We are your children. You've created us from the mud on the river bank, don't you love your children, don't you love the children of your children?" She spread her hands high in the air. "What kind of mother is this, who kills her young children, who doesn't protect them? And you, Ona, who keeps us warm in the winter -- haven't we respected you enough, haven't we given you our best hunting, our best crops?" She was shouting now and she didn't care if anyone heard her.

"Leave us alone! We are better off without you!" She was sure that she would be punished, that she would be struck by lightning, that the gods would say something to her. Yet all she heard was the wind blowing over the icy plains, so she started to march back to the compound.

When she arrived, she didn't go to Nuno's tent but went straight to her own tent and ate the apple and a piece of dried meat. That night she dreamed about the People in White again. In her dream they helped her, they gave her something to drink. She didn't know what it was, but she had a feeling that they were there to help. So why, then, did she wake up sweating and shivering?

####

"Monika, please send lunch to my room."

The three men sat in the wide room and drank coffee -- good coffee. Don bought only the best of the available products. Not many people could afford real coffee. Most people settled for synthesized tasteless coffee powder. Don's room was furnished with a heavy mahogany table and two armchairs. Real wood furniture was as rare as real coffee.

"Please sit gentlemen, Monika will see that lunch is served in few minute."

He took out a pipe from his pocket, opened a small ivory box took out some tobacco, stuffing it to the pipe: "Sorry, I forgot my manners. Would you care to join me for a smoke?"

Shimura took a pipe of his pocket he took some tobacco from Don's box, stuffed it in his pipe and lit it. He blew a few rings of smoke into the air in silent. He seemed very thoughtful: "Don, I dare say that this is the best tobacco I ever tasted."

Don smiled "I tend to agree with you."

Monika knocked on the door: "Lunch is here sir, shall I send it in?"

"Yes, please do so."

A waiter in a black suit and white shirt brought the food in on a trolley. He set the table for three and waited for them to sit. Don led McNeal and Shimura to the table: "I'm sorry for not asking you what you wanted to eat, I took the liberty of ordering you steaks."

"Oh, it's okay."

"Well then, let's eat."

They sat around the table. Don watched the two men, smiling. It seemed that they were possessed. They couldn't let their forks out of their hands, as if they hadn't eaten for days. After several minutes they slowed the pace a bit and lifted their heads up of their plates.

McNeal wiped his mouth with a napkin "Wow, I just don't know what to say."

"Yes" Agreed Shimura "It tasted like ... well, like real meat. But that's impossible." He glanced at Don.

Don grinned "Impossible -- but true. Gentlemen, this is real meat."

"How in the name of god did you get real meat? As far as I know you can't get real meat anywhere on the face of the earth, only synthesized."

"I ate real meat twenty years ago and even then it was of low quality and so expensive. I remember that I paid a week's salary for one steak."

Don cut another piece of his steak and put it in his mouth, chewing it slowly. He followed it with a sip of red wine, his eye half closed with pleasure. Then he put the crystal glass on the table and said: "Well gentlemen, let's talk business!"

####

Leda: the meaning of the name was the ascent of the rich earth. Her name was a lie. The earth wasn't rich. Its ascent had been consumed a long time ago by the clan or by the gods, she really didn't know. Now, the few people that were still alive had decided to leave, to leave their home -- the piece of soil that had been theirs for many years. They might have considered doing it a long time ago, but they had been occupied with the disease, the death, burying their dead. Now they all agreed that they must leave; they didn't know if moving to a new land would stop the deaths or even if they would find food, but they knew that without food, the whole clan would perish. All the people were ordered to prepare themselves to move at sunrise. Those who could not walk would stay.

Nuno would stay, of course -- the moon had vanished and been reborn several times since he had enough strength to stand and walk. Leda decided to remain with him. Her place was near the man she loved, even if he had never loved her back, even if he had never been aware of the presence of the little skinny girl that admired him from afar, the girl that had waited for a sign from him that never came.

The people gathered at had been the center of the compound only one day before. Now only five tents still stood -- the tents of those that would stay. All the other tents were packed on the backs of the men.

Geda stood among those who would seek a new home. Leda ran to her and hugged and kissed her good bye. It was a hard decision to stay, and Leda knew that she would die along with those too ill or old to travel. She had some dried meat she'd stashed away, which would last for a couple of days. After that there would be nothing but hunger.

The clan started to walk. Some of the people called her name as they passed her, some waved, but most of them had grief written on their faces and didn't lift their gazes from the ground. Too many of the clan now rested in the White-Fields, young and old.

Leda went back to Nuno's tent. When she touched him, his body was hot, so hot. She went out of the tent and came back with a handful of snow. She put some of it on Nuno's forehead and on his neck and chest. The snow started melting immediately, mixing with the sour-smelling film of sweat. He sighed with what seemed to her to be relief, and moved a little. As far as she understood, at this point it was clear to her that she could only ease his pain. There was no herb or even a god that could cure her man now. Nevertheless she stayed with him. She loved him, and she would die with him.

The dried meat would be enough for a couple of days. After that she would begin to starve or become ill herself, lacking the strength to resist the sickness that had killed so many. But she would be with Nuno. Nothing else mattered. They would die together and meet again at Nabi -- the haven sanctuary where their souls will unite, forever.

Now that only the dying remained in the compound, she didn't have to sleep in her own tent for the sake of propriety. She lay next to Nuno and put her head on his chest, his once strong, now hollow and shivering, aching chest.

"My love," she said. "If only the gods gave you enough strength to open your eyes, to see me, to hear my voice. I want you to know that it's me, Leda! I want you to greet me at Nabi. I want you to recognize me. You don't know me now but there you will wait for me -- I know, there is no other way my love."

Nuno sighed as if he understood what she had told him, and that made her happy. She smiled as she fell asleep, hugging him.

That night the People in White came again in her dream. They put a white mask on her face, like the ones the men used to wear before they went hunting to muffle the sound of their breathing and protect against the cold. One of them opened her eyes and held a stick of light against it. The light stung her eyes. She was afraid -- so afraid. Everything was strange to her. There was no mud, nor sand on the floor, no broken bones, no leaves, no dirt. Instead there was a shining substance. She started to scream, and tried to hit everything she could get her hand on.

"Hey, Leda went crazy!"

Oh! By all the gods, they know my name! They know my name!

"Catch her!"

She jumped down from the raised platform on which she had awakened -- soft like fur, smooth like leather, but white, like so many things in this strange place -- and started to run, to kick. Things fell down, broke. Finally they caught her. She felt a sting in her right arm and collapsed on the floor. The only thing that was on her mind before sleep smothered her again was that the People in White knew her somehow, although she had only ever seen them in dreams. They'd said her name.

When she woke up she was back in her tent. It was odd -- she was sure she had gone to sleep in Nuno's tent. She got to her feet quickly and ran to his tent. As she came out she saw her sister.

"What -- what are you doing here?"

"We couldn't leave, Leda."

"What do you mean, couldn't leave?"

"There was something that we just couldn't pass, like a leather wall, although we could see nothing."

Leda scratched her head "I don't understand."

"It just was something that we couldn't pass, if we ran to it we fell back. We couldn't cut it either, and every stone that we threw at it just stayed in the air for sometime and than fell."

"It is the gods, they are so angry but I really don't know why. What could be the reason?"

####

Don leaned back, picking his teeth with a wooden toothpick. Then he said, "Gentlemen, I say again, the steaks were of real meat. The tobacco is real too."

"But this is impossible!"

"Yes, it is. Raising of animals for meat is illegal, importing it just as bad, and the penalties are so extreme that nobody will take the risk. I've told you that I ate my last real-meat steak about two decades ago -- since then everything is synthesized."

"How in the name of god did you ..."

"Well, I did tell that I have one more card up my sleeve."

"Yes ... you did," Shimura said. "It must be one hell of a card."

"We knew the ban on accelerated human testing in Africa was coming. So we started searching for alternative platforms for -- ah -- research. As I mentioned, we are trying to use every avenue open to us to overturn the ban. Diplomatic connections, personal connections, business connections. Unfortunately none of these paths have yielded any results so far. But there has always been another path to explore -- the one we know best. Science."

Shimura and McNeal were really intrigued now. They leaned forward in their chairs, each wondering what trick of technology Don Matthews was about to reveal.

"What do you mean by that, Don?" Shimura asked. "Do we have access to a new technique for cloning or in-vitro tissue farming? "

"Yes, yes and the meat that we just ate -- that came from the laboratory?" McNeal interjected. "It was really good. The technology to manufacture meat like that would be worth a fortune on the open market."

"No -- no it is something completely different, McNeal," Don said. "The meat came from a real cow."

"Which is impossible. Come on, out with it -- unless we are breaking the law, in which case I don't want to know," Shimura said.

Don looked at him. "Okay I'll tell you. It is no secret that experiments in time manipulation are being conducted at several institutes world-wide."

Now the listeners were riveted to their chairs, hypnotized. They couldn't say a word.

"We have working relationships with one of these institutions. We also made several donations over the years. It was hard to justify for a biotech company to put money into something so far from our core business, but fortunately, the Directors were smart enough to see our current troubles brewing. Now that the ban has been implemented, the Board of Directors decided that it's time for us to get something back for our investment."

"What do you mean by 'something' Don?"

"I mean that we intend to use time manipulation to our benefits."

"How ...?"

"Well, We'll send some of our own people back in time to find the right research subjects at the best place and ... hmm ... best time. Of course we will send a professional team. You gentlemen will be part of it."

"But this is illegal, too," Shimura said.

"Yes!" McNeal hissed. "It's a forbidden field. Too much risk of upsetting the current timeline -- except maybe for governmental and military projects. This could be worse than raising actual cattle and lab animals on some secret ranch."

"This is why, my good men, everything I tell you must stay in this room. I won't say that the company would have you killed if the information got out, but I won't not say it, either."

McNeal's eyes got very wide. "Yes, Don. I understand completely."

"Shimura?"

"Yes -- yes of course."

Don Matthews smiled: "We knew that we would get kicked from Africa a long time ago. It's a worldwide trend nowadays with all the 'human rights movements' that swarm around. It has nothing to do with Dr McNeal."

McNeal smiled a triumphal smile at Shimura's direction.

"Most of the pharmaceutical companies are about to get banned from there sooner or later. As far as I know, we are the only one who is really prepared for this kind of scenario. We will conduct our experiments somewhere those damn human rights activists can't find us. And that will be, of course, in the past." Don finished his wine in one gulp and smiled to Shimura and McNeal.

####

"Do you think that the People in White are gods -- or have been sent here by the gods?" Geda asked.

"I really don't know," Leda said. "They took me to the place they live in."

"How was it? Is it anything like Nabi?"

"I can't tell, only that the earth there was smooth and hard, like hard-packed clay. I didn't see any rocks or stones there. Everything was shining and there were so many lights -- not fire, just light, cold light."

"Cold light," Geda chortled. "That is impossible!"

"I don't know -- I don't think they are gods," Leda said. "But they did know who I was."

"What do you mean?"

"My name, they called my name -- they said my name."

Geda looked at her sister with frightened eyes: "I think you've become ill yourself."

"I'm not ill and I'm not crazy," Leda protested. "Stop staring at me like that."

"The things you are telling me now sound crazy!"

"What about the things you told me? You didn't see a barrier, but you couldn't pass through it. An invisible barrier -- that sounds crazy too."

"But I wasn't alone. The entire clan saw it, not just me -- and as for you ..."

"I'm not crazy Geda, please believe me! You have to."

Geda gazed at her sister with querying, frightened eyes.

"You do believe me, don't you?"

Geda got up off the floor and ran out of the tent.

"Geda! No, please, don't run. You are my sister don't go to the council -- don't tell the people." But Geda wasn't there anymore, she'd run out leaving her sister behind, crying."

When the people of the council came back with Geda they didn't find Leda. She had left her love, the clan. She had left everyone and everything she knew and decided not to go back until she found the People in White.

####

Don sat on one of the heavy armchairs that were spread around the room. "It is not an easy task."

"I should think not."

"Yes, well, we have to think about every aspect -- just think of the consequences, of the impact, the changes that could take place here, now, in the future."

"Of course, this could lead to a disaster, to a change that might take place nowadays."

"Indeed! This is why we give great importance to the way we pick a site."

"How very interesting."

"Yes, it is interesting. Can you please explain?"

"We gather a large crew of historians, archeologists, medical doctors. We pick special locations."

"How do you decide which location to pick?"

"This is where our history department comes into the picture: we search for a place that hasn't yielded any great history, ah ... we prefer a place that hasn't shown up in any history book at all."

"Yes -- yes."

"We send a crew of archeologists to excavate the area. If they find a sign of a small settlement -- let's say up to hundred people -- we send a crew there and start our experiments."

"It sounds extremely dangerous. Do you take any precautions?"

"Of course -- of course! We surround the entire area with a force field. No one can get in and no one can get out."

"You know very well it is not enough! The damage can still be beyond anything you can think of."

"Dr Shimura! Please calm down and let me finish."

Matthews seemed a bit upset, his face turned red. He stayed silent for some time and only then continued: "No, it is okay, you're right of course. We do have other ways to make sure everything is under control."

Shimura nodded his head in agreement.

"Apart from the force field we also maintain a very low temperature within the premises, in order to prevent the disease we are currently researching from spreading."

"But this must be very hard for the local population."

Don chuckled. "Few suffers, but billions will be saved -- isn't that what all this is about?"

"That is exactly what it's all about," McNeal conceded.

"People are dying there, is that what's going on there?"

"Just a few, not many -- you know that there is a cost. We are trying the best we can to minimize the number of casualties, but you know very well that when virulent viruses or bacteria are involved, it's a very hard task."

"You are practically destroying cultures, communities that could give humanity a lot more than what Norex could give."

"They are doomed anyway Shimura, we are dealing only with communities that ceased to exist long time ago."

"You can never tell, Don! You can never know what damage you caused to humanity. How can you even pretend to know what the impact of your research will be?"

"We are running simulations, that's how. I'm telling you, these communities will help the human race to live and prosper for another ten thousand years instead of just vanishing from the face of the earth without any impact -- don't you get that?"

"Damn simulations! You're running damn simulations to decide the fate of human lives."

"Oh -- don't be a hypocrite. Machines and computer programs control most aspects of our lives. Simulations determine when metal fatigue will occur, decide what should be the strength of the body of your car should be -- if the simulations are not good enough you die in a car accident. What's so different?"

"The difference is that, as far as I know, no simulator has ever issued a death warrant to an entire community! That is the difference. This is not about the thickness of the steel in my car. At the end of the day, I'll decide whether to buy the car or not -- these people will never have the luxury of choice."

"Was it different in Africa? There we also ..."

"I just can't believe it, McNeal! Or, in your case, maybe I should say that I do believe it. How can you compare people that are already sick and seeking treatment -- even experimental, people that are aware to their physical state, to people who have just invented the wheel, that are not even aware to your presence -- I sincerely hope that they are not aware of your presence, Don."

Don nodded. "We make sure of that, Dr Shimura, you can rest assured."

"Thank God. At least you show some responsibility!" Shimura got up from his chair and headed for the door. "Of-course, Don. I'll never be part of that."

####

The earth was hard and cold, and she skinned her knees again and again. She crawled franticly trying to increase the distance from the compound. She ran until her legs couldn't carry her no more, only then, she allowed herself to sit for a moment. The people of the clan didn't like crazy people. Crazy people carried the spirits of evil. If you were evil you weren't sent to the white woods like the sick people. Those who were suspected of evil were sent to the gods. Humans couldn't struggle against evil on their own. They needed the help of Ona, the god of fire. He was the one responsible for sending the evil spirits through the hot flames. Leda wasn't crazy. She knew that, at least she thought she knew that. Was she crazy?

She kept crawling, thorns spiking her hands, her knees. She didn't mind that at all. She was frightened of Ona -- the most fearsome god. She knew he always found you guilty of being evil. Not even once had he released a human from the flames. Maybe all humans were evil in his eyes.

"Wow! Look at that, Leda is carrying the virus and the antibody."

Dr. McNeal approached the thrilled technician. "Let me see the results please."

"Here they are, Sir." The technician stepped backwards.

"This is remarkable! Could you analyze the structure of the antibody and its connection to the virus?"

"Yes, Sir, right away."

The reflector lit, humming silently in a cheerful electrical buzz. A hologram of two structures materialized in the air. The structures were made of balls of various sizes and different colors that were circling in complete harmony."

"This is perfect, just perfect. You can easily recognize the change at the carbon connections -- look at the change of patterns."

"It is so clear."

"It behaves just like Shimura predicted it would."

"The fourth carbon connection is not used, and here the uracil replaces the oxygen and lets the virus through the cell membrane."

McNeal lowered his head. "If only he was here to celebrate our victory -- his victory. He was brilliant. It is such a loss." He removed his glasses, wiped them with his tie and put them back. "Such loss."

####

Leda heard voices. She wasn't outside anymore. It was the People in White again. She couldn't remember how she got there or how long ago -- it was exactly like the last time, only this time she decided she'd try not to panic no matter how hard it was. It can't be worse then the people of the clan sending her to the god of fire. She felt warm, and she noticed that her knees and elbows were intact, not even a scratch or a scar. It was a sign that people in white were good -- they had healed her wounds -- and yet she was strapped and couldn't move a limb. Were they afraid of her, afraid of what she could do to them? Maybe they weren't gods.

A woman came and stood near her bed.

"Hey, Leda, I know that you are asleep and can't hear me."

Leda didn't open her eyes. A torrent of thoughts rushed through her mind, although the recognized only the sound of her own name. This person -- the Woman in White -- knows my name. Am I the only one they have brought to their home? What is she saying? I don't understand -- why am I strapped down?

"I don't like what we are doing to you, to your clan -- it is not right that you have to suffer only to make our life better." She loosened the straps on the bed. "This is the least I can do for you -- I just hope that God will forgive us for what we are doing to you."

She touched me. It was a human touch! It didn't burn, not a bit. A god's touch burns, Leda was sure of that. Her eyes were still shut. She was scared.

The woman took her hand

Leda moved. What is she doing to me? Is she going to hurt me after all?

"I'm sorry, but I have to take some blood from you. For tests."

Leda felt a sting in her arm. She jumped. The loosened straps couldn't hold her.

"She is running, stop her!"

She frantically darted around the room, breaking, pulling, throwing everything that she could. The floor was covered with broken glass, plastic shreds, liquids. Men and women slipped and fell in an attempt to stop her. Somehow she found her way out of the hall and into a corridor; she kept on running until cold air filled her lungs, until she felt mud under her feet, until she saw the men of the clan standing around holding spears in their hands. This time she knew they hadn't come after her -- she wasn't the hunted. Geda had told them, they believed Geda, they knew.

"They are inside -- don't be afraid, they are not gods," she cried, and turned back into the dark corridor from which she had just emerged. "Come on!" She didn't look back, but she knew that they would come after her.

####

"Hey, look what I found!"

Dr Gibson ran as fast as his legs could carry him toward the ditch. "What is it?" he asked while trying to regain his breath.

"A pair of glasses, like safety goggles or something. Can you believe that?"

Gibson looked, a pair of plastic glasses were stuck in one of lowest layers of the ditch.

"Are you sure that they don't belong to one of the workers?"

"No, Dr Gibson. Look at the depth of the layer they're in." Tamara knelt, pointing at the lowest layer in the ditch, "Besides, look at that, I've never seen this kind of fine, tough and yet clear plastic. It's hardly scratched."

Dr Gibson decided there and then not to tell anyone about this finding and of course not to mention it in the book he was writing.

As it turned out, his decision to conceal the anomalous find was irrelevant. Dr Gibson and his crew died of a mysterious disease in the desert before they could return from the dig, along with the Mongolian herdsmen who had led his party to the site.

The paper's headlines said that Dr Gibson and his crew were lost in the Gobi desert at an undocumented site.

THE END


© 2008 Michael Goldberger

Bio: Michael Goldberger is an engineer at a high-tech company in Israel. His story Ladi appeared in the October 2005 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Michael Goldberger

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