OK, this is an interesting one. As I have often recounted, Marseguro, which won the 2009 Aurora Award for best Canadian science fiction novel in English, began with a single opening line penned as a morning exercise in the Writing With Style program at the Banff Centre, in a science fiction-writing class taught by Robert J. Sawyer (at 9:15 a.m. on September 20, 2005, to be precise–I love computers).
That opening was:
Emily streaked through the phosphorescent sea, her wake a comet-tail of pale green light, her close-cropped turquoise hair surrounded by a glowing pink aurora. The water racing through her gill-slits smelled of blood.
As the week progressed, I attempted to turn that opening into a short story. And did so–but I never submitted the story. Before I got back to it, DAW picked up Lost in Translation, and Ethan Ellenberg agreed to be my agent, and we needed something to propose to DAW for my next book. I constructed an entire novel around that initial opening sentence: Marseguro. Terra Insegura followed, and this April, the omnibus edition of the two of them together, The Helix War (that’s its cover above, obviously).
But lo and behold, that never-submitted short story still lurks on my hard drive…and here it is. Those who have read Marseguro will see a lot of elements here that made it into the final book. If you haven’t read Marseguro, well…you should! And you can, when The Helix War is released on April 4.
Without further ado…
Sins of the Father
By Edward Willett
As his hoverboat burst into flames, Richard Hansen plunged into the water.
Thanks to the envirosuit, he felt no shock of cold, no sensation of pressure as he let himself sink into the darkness. But he was shocked and under pressure all the same.
The hunterbot had fired on him!
By God, I’ll have someone disfellowshipped for this when I get back to Safehaven, he thought.
He looked up at the bottom of the hoverboat’s hull, outlined by the red glow of the fire consuming it. If I ever get back, he amended. Something cold wound its way down his spine, and for a moment he thought his envirosuit had sprung a leak. But then he recognized the sensation for what it really was:
Without the hoverboat, the only way he was going to get back to Safehaven was to swim. He hadn’t come more than twenty kilometers or so since he’d left the harbor that morning, so it wasn’t impossible–but it wouldn’t be quick, or easy. Especially not for him. He might be a Superior Deacon in the Office of Developing Omniscience, but he normally worked surrounded by dataspheres and holodisplays, not out in the field. He wasn’t exactly fat, but he wasn’t exactly fit, either.
Well, he’d do what he had to. One problem at a time, and his first concern was the hunterbot.
He needed information. “Jihad Revelation,” he said, and his faceplate lit with the head-up display for his Indweller, the microputer implanted at the base of his neck. “Display Safehaven Purification briefing material relevant to term ‘hunterbots.'”
Words appeared, apparently floating in the black water. “Despite the best efforts of the Holy Warriors, it is inevitable that some of the merpeople will escape; we have no technology on board capable of blocking the five-kilometer-wide mouth of the harbor. It is imperative that these escapees not be permitted to reach and warn other merpeople pods currently at sea or in other communities.
“In addition to warriors in hoverboats tasked with searching for and destroying any survivors, we will deploy a large number of hunterbots, programmed to detect, track and destroy merpeople, which they can locate through a variety of means, including infrared signature, visual recognition and DNA traces. To ensure maximum effectiveness, a positive ID through any one of these means will be sufficient to trigger an attack.”
It must have been the envirosuit, Richard thought. It made me look like a merman to that stupid ‘bot, never mind the fact I was driving an OHD hoverboat.
A stolen one, another part of his mind insisted on adding, but he argued it down. It all belongs to the Church of Humanity Purified, and I am a servant of the Church.
The argument would have held more water if he had bothered to tell the servants of the church actually responsible for the hoverboat that he was going to “borrow” it.
“Page,” he said, and another screen of text appeared. “Hunterbots come in a variety of specialized forms. Aerial ‘bots will identify targets and attack those that they can. Targets which cannot be attacked by the aerial ‘bots will be tracked and attacked by submariner ‘bots as soon as they can intercept.”
“Jehovallah preserve me!” Richard whispered.
How close would the submariner ‘bot be?
No way of knowing, but it wouldn’t be far away, not if it was meant to support the aerial ‘bot. It could arrive any minute.
He needed shelter. “Light!” he snapped, and his headlamp came on; it showed nothing but drifting white specks, thick as falling snow.
It might also show the aerial ‘bot or the probably incoming submariner ‘bot exactly where he was, he realized.
“Light off!” It wasn’t doing him any good anyway.
“Sonar!” he said instead. It would give him away even more surely than the light, but it was his only hope of locating any hiding places that might–please Jehovallah, did–exist among the rocks of the nearby cliff or the seafloor blow.
His display lit with a sonar-generated image of the surrounding five hundred meters or so. His heart almost stopped when he thought he saw a moving blip, but it vanished before he was even sure he had seen it. If it had been a submariner ‘bot, it wasn’t homing on him yet.
Probably just some local wildlife, he thought. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
“Analyze,” he told his microputer. “Identify possible caves.”
Instantly the display showed him two bright green spots. One was far below his current depth, but the other was above him–right at the water level. Perfect, he thought. The deep one was designated 1 and the higher one 2. “Guide me to Target 2,” he said, and a spot of red light appeared in his faceplate, well off to the left. He turned until it was centered in the display, and swam toward it.
He kept the sonar sweep active–no point trying to hide now, he suspected–so he could see how close he was getting to his target. He was about twenty meters from it, and the red dot had grown into a ragged red, almost-circular opening sketched against the blackness, when the microputer beeped at him. “Moving target acquired,” its uninflected male voice murmured inside his head. A red blip appeared on his display, tagged, “Submariner Hunterbot Mark III.” Numbers below that told Richard the target had been acquired at 465 meters and was closing at 5.2 meters per second, and would intercept him in…
Less than two minutes.
Richard said a frantic prayer, but he said it silently: he needed all his breath for flight. He kicked as hard as he could, forcing his way through water that only pushed back harder the faster he tried to go, as though doing its best to hold him up for the hunterbot to catch.
The mouth of the cavern became visible in his helmet lamp–and at the same instant a red gleam like a single baleful eye appeared in the water behind him.
He hadn’t thought to read far enough in the briefing material to find out what weapons the submariner hunterbot was armed with. Just as he swam in through the cavern opening and dared to think he might yet escape, the first torpedo caught up with him. Only the fact he had turned abruptly upward, following the path of the cavern entrance, save him. The torpedo impacted on one of the rocks outside the cave mouth.
The explosion hit him like a hammer blow, hurling him upward in a welter of bubbles and mud, spinning over and over, out of control. Dazed, he felt himself slam into a rock, then another–a knife-like pain stabbed him in the chest–he collided with something else, this time more yielding–and then he erupted into open air, tossed up in a fountain of water like a leaf.
He splashed back down, went under, then rose to the surface and floated, face down, dazed, consciousness fading.
In the last instant before he blacked out, he saw the face of a young girl, eyes closed, drift upward into the light of his helmet lamp.
An insistent beeping roused him, an indeterminate time later.
He opened his eyes. He was floating on his back. His helmet lamp reflected off a wet rock ceiling, just a meter or two above his head. He hurt all over, but the worst pains seemed to be coming from his chest–he must have broken a rib–and his shoulder, which he thought he must have dislocated. “Revelation Jihad,” he whispered.
“Revelation Jihad,” he said louder.
The shockwave must have disabled my microputer, he thought, and felt the first budding of panic.
Those buds blossomed into full-fledged terror when a girl suddenly erupted out of the water beside him and stared down into his face.
He screamed, and her eyes widened and she screamed back, then disappeared under the water again. That didn’t reassure him; she must be underneath him, and he knew what she was:
A mergirl. There could be no mistaking that strange face, with eyes the size of an old Earth anime character, a nose whose nostrils were sealed tight into almost invisible slits, a mouth filled with sharp, triangular teeth–and the triple-frilled gill flaps on each side of her shapely neck.
She was one of the very abominations he had brought the S.S. Simon the Zealot to this planet to destroy, and if she found that out…
He was hurt. He was unarmed. The merfolk were much stronger than ordinary humans, and they could breathe underwater. All she had to do was open his faceplate and drag him under, and she could finish the work of the hunterbots.
Maybe the hunterbots weren’t after me after all, he thought. Maybe it was really chasing her, and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That might explain the sub-bot, but it didn’t begin to explain the air-bot.
He couldn’t stand the thought that she might be sneaking up on him from underwater, so he rolled over. The envirosuit, having gotten him to the surface (even if that surface was inside a cave) had no intention of letting him go under again without a fight. The buoyancy it had established made it possible for him to recline comfortably on top of the water; it also made what he intended to be a swift, decisive move into a clumsy, floundering, splashing struggle.
At the end of it, he was pointing face down…and there was the face again, looking up at him. Underwater, it looked less alien than it had in the air, more as if it belonged. The gill slits were open, pulsating gently as the frills weaved a slow, silent wave. The eyes glowed in his helmet lamp. A halo of close-cropped, green-tinged hair surrounded her skull.
He could see her body now, too, naked except for a silvery smooth belt around her hips. Her hands and feet were out of proportion to her body, bigger than they should have been. Her toes were almost as long as her fingers, and webbed; her fingers were also webbed. But the rest of her was disturbingly human–disturbing, because the sight of her nakedness woke in Richard a sexual urge that shamed him. It would be like mounting a sheep! he thought, deeply disgusted by his weakness. She may look human, but she’s an animal.
And then the “animal” spoke. “Who are you?” she said.
The sound was high-pitched and inhuman–whatever method she used for producing it obviously didn’t involve moving air over her vocal cords, since she didn’t breathe air–but perfectly clear in his ears.
Don’t answer, a wary part of him insisted, but, “Richard Hansen,” he heard himself saying. I’m trapped in here with her, he defended himself to himself. (He wanted to think of her as an “it,” but she was all-too-obviously female). I can’t very well ignore her. He didn’t give his title, though. She probably had no idea who had attacked her colony, or why–but some part of him, remembering those sharp teeth, seeing her sleek, muscular form, so at home in the water, thought it the better part of valor not to give her immediate reason to connect him to the slaughter of her friends and family.
“My name is Emily,” she said. She paused, as though having her own second thoughts, then finished, “Emily Hansen.”
Richard felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach. “We have…the same last name?” he finally managed to squeeze out through his constricted voice.
“I am a descendant of the Shaper,” Emily said. Her voice didn’t change–or if it did, he lacked the skill to interpret it–but her face showed pride. “Direct in line from his grandson, the First.”
Richard felt sick. His great-great-grandfather had not only polluted the human genestream, he had modified the gametes of his own son–Richard’s great-great-uncle–and his wife so that they gave birth to the first of these monsters.
He swallowed, hard. Throwing up in an envirosuit was a really bad idea. “How old are you?” he asked instead, trying to regain his mental balance.
“Nine and a half.”
Richard did the mental math. One Safehaven year equaled 1.42 Earth years, so that made her…it took him a few moments–he’d gotten used to having his microputer calculate things for him…
Oh, God. Not quite 13 1/2. Now he felt doubly ashamed of his lustful urges. She was only a child…
No. She was not a child. She was a monster–a young monster, perhaps, but a monster. And among monsters, she might very well already be a mother many times over. Maybe they gave birth to whole litters before they were ten and another one every year thereafter. He must not think of her as a human being…
…not when everyone she had every known was being turned into bite-sized bits of fish food back in the harbor.
She watched him closely, obviously wondering if he was going to say anything about her age. When he didn’t, she said, “Why do you wear that thing? How can you breathe?”
She doesn’t know, he thought. She doesn’t know who or what I am.
“It’s a…protection,” he said. “Things here are different from my…home waters. This keeps me from…getting sick.”
“Would it protect you from the machine thing outside?” she said, her voice going even higher. Eagerness? Fear? He couldn’t tell. “Could you help me get past it? I have to get back home. My mother will be worried.”
She doesn’t know, he thought again. She doesn’t know what has happened!
“Why were you out here?” he asked.
“Allie and I were camping,” Emily said. “Down in the Featherbed Fish Canyon. It’s a protected area, no large predators. My church has a cave down there. Allie and I are prayer buddies.”
Richard heard the words, but couldn’t believe he was hearing them. Didn’t want to believe he was hearing them. “Church?” he said. “Prayer?”
“Are you all right?” Emily sounded concerned.
No. No, I’m not.
Animals don’t go to church.
Animals don’t pray.
“Where’s your friend? Allie?”
Emily’s eyes blinked rapidly. For the first time, Richard saw that she had a nictitating membrane that slid back and forth from side to side. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m so worried. When the machine thing came into the canyon we got separated…the machine went after her, first…I swam the other way. I was trying to get home, to get help, but the machine…” her voice trailed off.
Allie was almost certainly dead. Richard knew it, and suspected Emily knew it, too, but wasn’t allowing herself to think it, yet.
“The machine chased you, too,” Emily said. “What were you doing out here?”
“I was just…arriving. From my trip. My hoverboat–”
Suddenly remembering she thought he was a merman, he broke off, but she’d already noticed.
“Hoverboat?” She stared at him. “Oh! You’re an air-breather! Why didn’t you say so?”
“You’re not…frightened by that?” he asked, taken off guard. Of course they had known there were surface dwellers here as well as the abominations, but they’d assumed the two groups had nothing to do with each other…
“Why should I be? I have many air-breathing friends.”
There would be a great deal of work to be done in Purifying the land community, too, then, Richard thought, but did not say.
“I didn’t know how you would react,” he said truthfully. “I’m from…very far away.”
“Do you know what those machines are?”
Tread carefully, Richard thought. She’s still dangerous–and amoral.
“I think they came…from another place. Another…planet.” Would that mean anything to her?
“You mean one of the other worlds settled by the Ten Thousand Ships?” she said, her eyes widening. “But why would they attack us? We’re all of Old Earth.”
Once again, she caught him off-guard. She knew so much. He’d always assumed the merfolk would be simple barbarians, barely intelligent enough to talk–more like glorified dolphins than anything else.
She has as much of Joseph Hansen’s DNA as you do, his inner voice reminded him. Maybe more.
Modified DNA, he snarled silently back.
“I think…they came from Earth itself,” he said out loud.
“But Earth was destroyed!”
“No…we…” He thought quickly. “Where I live, we recently were visited by a space trader. He said he had run into a ship from Old Earth. It seems there was a…” Miracle? No– “…extraordinary bit of luck. Another asteroid collided with the Killer before it struck. It hit the moon instead of the Earth.”
“But…” Emily looked bewildered, insofar as he could interpret her strange features. “But why would Earth send machines to kill us? What have we done? Earth was our home…”
Not your home, Richard thought. Never the home of people like you.
He realized he had just thought of her as a person instead of a thing, and felt confusion again.
What to tell her?
Tell her the truth, he thought. See how she reacts. Valuable information for further Purification efforts.
He almost convinced himself.
“After the Ten Thousand Ships left…we were told…many of those left behind were convinced that the Killer was an act of God, a punishment for the wickedness and licentiousness that had descended on the planet.” He had heard this story so many times he could tell it in his sleep. “And so it came to pass that they rose up against the irreligious, the irreverent, the immoral and the ignorant; rose up and Purified the Earth with blood and fire, and the smoke of the burning cities had a sweet savor in the nostrils of Jehovallah, and he repented of his decision to destroy mankind. He sent the Savior, the second asteroid, to strike the Killer. But as a warning, he sent the Killer into the moon, where it destroyed Apollo City, a haven of sinfulness, the place where many of the abominations of the bio-meddlers had fled the Purification of the Earth. And so was the Third Covenant sealed. God would withhold punishment so that mankind might have one more chance to Purify itself. And if we succeed, then Earth will never again be threatened with destruction, and Jehovallah will bless his Chosen People, Humanity Purified, through all of space and all of time, forever and ever, amen.”
As he came to the end of the lesson, he realized what he had just done, but by then it was too late. Emily might be an abomination, but she was no fool, as she had already shown.
“My God,” she said. “You’re one of them. You’re from Earth. You brought those machines!”
“No,” he said. “But…I arrived with them.” And I found your planet in the first place and told those with the machines where to bring them, he thought. And your family is dead, and you don’t know it yet, and I brought the Holy Warriors who killed them…
He felt his heart pounding in his chest.
“How many of them are there?” she demanded. “Are they all over the planet? Are they in Safehaven?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re lying,” Emily said flatly. “I can hear your heart pounding, hear the tension in your voice. You airbreathers have no control.”
Think fast. “All right,” he said. “It’s true. They’re in Safehaven. But they’re not all over the planet.” Not yet. “The Holy Warriors are attacking one community at a time.”
“Holy Warriors? Is that the name of the machines?”
“No…there are humans, too. Soldiers.”
Her reaction wasn’t what he expected. She blinked. “Soldiers. Unmodified human soldiers?”
“Are they all wearing envirosuits?”
What an odd question. “No…the air here is breathable.”
She suddenly flipped over and swam out of range of his light, then back again. “What have they done to the settlement?” she said. “If the machines attack on sight–what have these Earthlings done?”
Richard said nothing.
“Answer me!” she demanded, and then, faster than he would have thought possible, she darted forward and seized the suit’s air hose. “I can rip this out and you will drown,” she said. “What have these Earthlings done?”
Richard swallowed. “They have Purified the village,” he said.
“Purified?” Her face was suddenly pressed against his faceplate. “Killed?” she shrieked, the sound so loud, so high that he tried to clap his hands over his ears even though it was pointless inside the suit. “My parents? My brother? My friends? They killed them all?”
“I don’t know for sure…” Richard began, but she squeezed the air hose closed and his next breath failed. “Yes! Yes!” he choked out.
She released the hose and vanished again. “Jehovallah preserve me,” he whispered under his breath. “Jehovallah preserve me as you preserved the Earth. I am pure, oh Lord, preserve me. I obey you, oh Lord, preserve me. I–”
Emily was back, fluttering her hands and feet, agitated. “Who is this Jehovallah?”
“The Creator. The Lawgiver,” Richard said.
Richard recoiled. “Those names are forbidden,” he said. “They reflect an imperfect understanding. The Church of Humanity Purified worships the One True God behind the false gods of the past, the one they saw through a glass darkly, but we now see clearly: Jehovallah.”
“I worshipped God,” Emily said. “We have…” she grimaced. “Had…a large congregation. We are Christians here.”
“That would not have saved you, even had we known,” Richard said. “Christianity is anathema. Along with Islam, and Judaism, and all other religions from before the Miracle. If you were air-breathing humans, you would still have been Purified.”
“You would have slaughtered non-modified humans the way you slaughtered my people? What kind of monsters are you?”
You’re the monster, Richard wanted to say, but he didn’t dare. “They would not have been slaughtered,” he said. “They would have been detained and re-educated, taught the error of their ways.”
“But because we breathe water instead of air, we’re fair game?”
Richard swallowed. “Yes.”
Emily shook her head, a human gesture beyond doubt.
“Great-great-grandfather was wiser than we knew,” she said. “He warned us all. We didn’t listen.”
That got Richard’s attention; her great-great-grandfather, after all, was also his. “Warned you? How?”
“He said that the rest of humanity might not understand what he had done here, that just as the Ten Thousand Ships fled the Earth to try to ensure humanity would endure among the stars, so his creation of the merfolk would help ensure humanity’s survival by opening up entirely new worlds for us to inhabit. He said some humans might not be able to see that. And so he made sure that even the airbreathers of Safehaven were not unmodified humans. They all, every one of them, underwent a minor modification that has been passed down successfully since.”
Richard shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
Emily swam close. “Great-great-grandfather also modified a local microbe. He made it lethal. And then, after everyone on the planet had the modification that made them immune, he had it spread around the planet–everywhere, from the seas to the air to highest mountain peaks. It is ubiquitous. It is deadly. Symptoms don’t appear for about 36 hours. When they do, the progress of the disease is rapid. Most victims die within 12 of the onset of symptoms. And there is no treatment.”
Richard swallowed. “I don’t believe you.”
“Wait a few hours.” Emily swam even closer. “There is only one way to save you or any other human who has breathed the air of our planet,” she said. “You must undergo massive genetic modification.”
Emily’s face was now only inches from his own, though separated by glass and water. “Am I? How are you feeling? Take stock, Richard Hansen. Are your lungs a little thick? Does your head ache, just a little? Are your joints feeling sore?”
In fact, all those things were true, Richard thought, with something approaching panic. The power of suggestion! he told himself. “No,” he lied.
“Then you may have a little longer. But the infection, and the outcome, is certain.” She suddenly flipped on her back and swam out of his headlight.
“Come back!” he yelled. He suddenly didn’t want to be alone.
But she remained out of sight.
He swallowed. His throat hurt. There was a dull ache behind his left eye, an ache that had surely spread since he first noticed it. He took a deep breath, and felt a strange resistance in his chest.
She’s telling the truth, he thought. Oh God, she’s telling the truth!
He had to get out of the cave. Had to…
Had to what? He was many hours’ swim from the harbor. Most victims die within 12 hours of the onset of symptoms, Emily had said. And he would most likely be too sick to swim within far less time.
And if she spoke the truth, if he did make it to the harbor, what would he find there? Dead and dying Deacons.
And on the ship…?
There had been constant traffic between the ship and surface since they had arrived, with no decontamination procedures–after all, they knew humans lived on the planet successfully, so there couldn’t be anything here that could harm them, right?
We were fools, he thought. I was a fool.
Soon to be a dead fool.
Unless Emily’s offer…
No! He recoiled from the thought. How could he accept genetic modification? How could he join the abomination?
The Christian scriptures were forbidden, but those in the Church hierarchy had studied them to know the heresies they must combat. He remembered something that was not forbidden, something that had made the transition to the Pure Book, the scripture of the Church of Humanity Purified: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but lose his soul?”
If he saved his life by accepting the mergirl’s offer, he would lose his soul. He would no longer be Pure, and he would be cast out of God’s Kingdom.
He swallowed, hard. It hurt.
Great-great-grandfather Joseph must be laughing his head off in hell, Richard thought bitterly. He has had his revenge.
Emily reappeared in his helmet-lamp light so suddenly he gasped, which triggered a fit of coughing. When it subsided, he felt substantially weaker.
“So it begins,” said Emily. “I came to tell you the machine has left. I cannot hear it within swimming distance.”
“That…doesn’t make sense,” Richard said. But he felt cold. It did make sense…if the Deacons of Holy Destruction had realized something was wrong, if they were falling ill, and had already withdrawn from the planet.
No one would look for him, if that was the case. He was on his own.
“Nevertheless, it is true,” Emily said. She swam up until her face was once again just centimeters from his. “There is still time for genetic therapy to give you a fighting chance for survival,” she said. “I can take you back to Safehaven. The vector we use results in a rapid delivery of the necessary genes to enough cells to halt the reproduction of the disease virus. But you must decide now. If you wait much longer to begin treatment, nothing can save you.”
And there it was. The martyr’s choice. Die for what you believe in, or live–and kill the part of you that believes, or else live with guilt and the knowledge of certain damnation.
Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief, was another line from Christian scripture.
“Leave me to die,” he said.
“As you wish,” Emily replied. She flipped on her stomach and disappeared into darkness.
Almost Richard called out to her, begged her to come back…but he bit his lip, held in the cowardly cry, until he was certain she had left the cave and could no longer hear him.
Then he took a deep, painful and constricted breath, and followed her.
When he emerged into the open water, he tried his microputer again. It still wouldn’t activate.
Well, he didn’t need it to find his way back to the harbor. All he had to do was follow the coast north.
He set off.
He managed to swim fairly strongly for the first hour. But each breath and each stroke was incrementally more painful than the last.
The second hour, he moved much more slowly, and the pain increased.
The third hour, his forward progress slowed to a crawl, and every movement seemed torture. His breath crawled in and out through slime-choked channels in his lungs. Ground glass seemed to have been injected into his joints. Occasionally, his vision blacked around the edges.
Sometime in the fourth hour, he came to to find himself simply floating, face up, three or four meters beneath the sun-dappled surface of the water. His breathing seemed less painful, but he felt no desire to move. He watched the play of light and water until it blurred and faded and finally went black.
When he woke again, he was no longer wearing the envirosuit…or anything else.
He lay naked beneath a thick white blanket, staring up at a white ceiling. Air moved easily in and out of his lungs. There was a faint discomfort in his left wrist that after a moment he realized must be caused by an IV line, which explained the bottle of clear liquid hung on a shiny metal stand to his left.
With difficulty–he felt as weak as a kitten–he turned his head in that direction. Through a window, he could see purplish leaves and a cloud-flecked blue sky.
He turned his head the other way. He was in a plain white room. Aside from the IV, the bed, and a table beside the bed, there was nothing in it except a simple wooden chair…and in the chair, a woman he had never seen before.
He frowned. Or had he? Her face looked…familiar.
She rose when she saw his head turn toward her. She wore a white lab coat and simple blue shoes. She walked over to him and stared down at him. She didn’t smile. “So, you’re awake.”
He licked his lips, tried to speak, failed, and tried again. “Where…where am I?” His voice was little more than a croak.
“Pinkshore Hospital,” the woman said.
“Pinkshore…? ” The name was familiar; after a moment Richard’s brain, which seemed to be spinning up to speed with agonizing slowness, managed to attach additional information to it. “I’m still on the merpeople’s world?”
“You are,” said the woman.
“But…” Many things came back to him. “You didn’t–Emily didn’t–I haven’t been…modified, have I?”
“You have not,” said the woman, her voice hard.
“But Emily said…”
“Emily,” the woman corrected, “told you the truth. Every one of the murderers you brought to our planet is dead in orbit above us. But you survived.”
“I’ll let her tell you herself,” said the woman.
She went out without another word.
Richard’s mind raced. Everyone else was dead? Was that true? She could be lying to him…after all, he was alive. Maybe the plague wasn’t as fatal as they claimed. They might just be sick up on the ship. If he could get to a radio…
The woman–nurse? guard?–reappeared, pushing a cart with a vidscreen atop it. She positioned it at the foot of the bed. “Emily will be with you in a moment,” she said, and went out again.
Richard stared at the screen. Nothing happened for several seconds, then it suddenly lit with the face he had last seen just centimeters from his own on the other side of the envirosuit faceplate.
“We meet again,” the mergirl said.
“I didn’t expect to,” Richard said.
“Nor did I. I was more than willing to give you your wish, Richard Hansen. If you wanted to die, I wasn’t going to stop you.”
“So why did you?” Richard said hoarsely.
“I didn’t. A patrol from Pinkshore pulled you from the water when they went to investigate what had happened at Safehaven. By then you were too ill to treat genetically. They took you back to the hospital and waited for you to die…but you didn’t. And you won’t.”
“I guess your plague isn’t as perfect as you thought,” Richard said. “I think I see God’s hand in that.”
“Do you, Richard Hansen?” Emily smiled, showing sharp white teeth that reminded Richard of a shark. “Then God has a strange sense of humor.” Her smile widened. “You lived, Richard Hansen, because you already have the genetic modification that protects you from the plague.”
He felt cold. “You’re lying.”
“You’re always telling me that, but you’re always wrong. You became sick because you haven’t grown up with the microbe, like we have, but you are every bit as much genetically modified as every other human on this planet. Great-grandfather Hansen modified all his children, Richard Hansen…not just the one who came with him here. You are not, and never have been, a Pure Human. You are, in your way of thinking, an abomination.
“You’ve come home, Richard Hansen. You’ve come home…and for the rest of your life, you will live here, among the people you despised, among the people whose friends and family were slaughtered because of you, because they were modified just as you have been, because they bear the same genes you did…because, in fact, they are of your own blood.”
And then her shark-smile faded. “And here’s the difference between us, Richard Hansen, between what we abominations believe and what you Pure Humans believe.
“We forgive you. You will walk out of that hospital a free man. Your identity will be known to only a few of us. You may tell people what you wish, or nothing at all.
“We forgive you. Whether you can forgive yourself, or whether your God can forgive you…only time will tell.”
The screen went blank.
And Richard Hansen…wept.