Furniture of memory latex and plasteel; ceramics decorating walls and floors; windows of smart glass. A clean, harsh, efficiently depressing air bringing the silence of the tomb to the hospital.
Emily and Tasha were with the specialist. The door opened and Dr. Heres motioned James inside, pointing to a solitary chair on the far side of the room. James seated himself quietly.
Tasha glowered at him, a seven year old well versed in the social mores and norms placing her above all men, her father included. Father. A word out of time, an anachronistic biological label. None of his genes resided in Tasha, nothing of who he was. A man was simply of use, every woman requiring an other for certain necessary tasks. They knew best, said it made for a better society. Twenty-eight years of conditioning told him so; centuries of history simply reinforced the belief. It was as it was, as it should be, and he was Emily’s.
Dr. Heres drummed her fingers on the desk. James had let his mind wander again. He settled, hands in lap, silent.
“I will make this as simple as possible for you James. If Emily wishes you to know more it is up to her.”
“Tasha has a very serious illness. It will be extremely difficult to treat. For the next five months you must be extra careful and attentive and make no mistakes. Most importantly do not upset or anger her. Is that clear?”
“Yes. No mistakes, no anger, no upset.”
Dr. Heres turned to Emily. “I will leave any further discussion to you. Obviously mortality projections are beyond him.”
Emily smiled. “It’s best not to confuse him. This much is enough.”
He sat quietly. He’d told no-one he had learned to read, write and had read many books. Illegal, it was forbidden by law and church as a folly taunting men into believing they could leave their pre-ordained place. He did not know what mortality meant, but he knew mortal was about life so maybe Tasha was in deep trouble.
Dr. Heres ushered Emily and Tasha out, ignoring James’ thin, quiet frame nestled in the corner. She was just about to shut the door behind her when she noticed him.
“Shouldn’t you be following Emily home?”
“She’s dying isn’t she?”
“I’ve told you all Emily wants you to know.”
James stood, hesitated before stepping through the door.
“Please, you know they will tell me no more.”
“It’s for your own good. You have a home to run. It’s too much to worry your pretty head about.”
“At least let me have a name for what she has.”
She looked at him, her scowl softening to pity. Stupid men never know when to stop, when it’s better not to know.
“Fine. It’s called Kavoort’s Syndrome. Now hurry up, go.”
They were waiting under the awning, looking at the car through the rain. Emily barely glanced at him, Tasha with folded arms contemptuously ignoring him. He took the umbrella and escorted them across the three meter gap being careful to keep them perfectly dry. Once seated, car door closed, he folded the umbrella and went to the open driver’s compartment. Driving home the wind-blown rain fell harder, scouring his face.
* * *
She’d required him that evening. His energy had risen to meet her need, now she lay propped up against the pillows watching him dress. He stood, back towards her in mock bashfulness, careful to make sure the mirrors reflected him back to her as he knew she liked.
Tasha lay absent-mindedly on her bed in the attached room. She was disinterested now, but the time would come when Emily would introduce her to this pleasure through him, with him. She would learn her skills at his hands before selecting her own. If she lived.
The tiniest flicker of sorrow showed before he recomposed himself, pulled the veneer of thankful ecstasy back. It was not unnoticed, Emily pointing to the bed beside her, motioning him to sit.
She ran her fingers through his dreadlocks.
“This is why we don’t tell you everything, it only worries you. It’s nothing you can understand. There’s more tests, more examinations. If you want to help just keep doing your best around the house.”
“Now off you go.”
James stood, made his way back to his quarters.
* * *
Leon closed the washer and hit the deep cycle button.
“Well of course she’s right, just settle down and keep house.”
He sat next to James, the plastic chair gently protesting against his thighs.
“Why on earth you’d want to interfere in women’s business I have no idea. Here I was thinking you were a fine upstanding boy and you’re wanting to disturb the natural order of things?”
James bristled slightly.
“It’s not that, I just want to help. I feel so useless, what good’s a clean house and fresh clothes if she’s so sick?”
Leon jabbed his finger at him, cigarette ash landing on James’ knee.
“It’s the foundation of the family, stability to weather the storms of life.”
He quoted directly from Sunday school.
“Adam came first imperfect and flawed, then Eve next to be obeyed and adored. Our job is to support and help, not interfere.”
“I suppose so.”
“No suppose at all.” adjusting his codpiece, trying to avoid the chafe. “Let them take care of the big stuff.”
Katie waved at James from behind the counter, motioning him over. She owned the launderette and was on society’s fringe, a threat to the girls, friend to the boys.
“So what’s up Jim, trouble in paradise?”
He told her, although it hurt his head just remembering the details.
“Well they’d say that wouldn’t they. Do you want me to find out for you?”
She pulled out her interface.
“It’s not good. Tasha’s dying Jim.”
Although he suspected, hearing it spoken was like calling it into existence. The cold gnawing at him wasn’t from the air-conditioner.
“So what’s the cure?”
“It’s weird, they don’t say.” She leant forwards, tapping and scrolling for a few minutes.
It was more than James’ inbred politeness could take.
“What’s wrong, what do you see?”
Katie looked up, made sure they were alone.
“Only if you can keep it a secret. And I’m serious, not even to Leon.”
“Yes, yes, whatever you want.”
“There’s no cure here. But it seems like there is one off-world, and if I read it right it’s just one injection and it’s done.”
“So I could just buy it?”
“No, it’s banned. They’ll never let it in.”
“Hon, it’s based on boy hormones. Only girls get the disease, it’s rare and always fatal. But if boy hormones cure it then that makes girls dependent on boys and that is not allowed, you know that.”
“That’s not fair, I’ll do it anyway, I’ll get some and bring it to her.”
“Nobody travels off-world, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s only the automatic cargo ships that visit and they’re guarded.”
She looked at his face, surprised it was streaked with tears.
“You love Tasha don’t you?”
“If there was a way —”
“In a second, of course I would.”
“I thought so. If it was very risky, very expensive?”
“Maybe, just maybe I can help. Sit here and wait, don’t go anywhere.”
She stood up, moved to a small curtained doorway.
“I’ll be a few minutes, I need to talk to someone. Take care of the store and don’t leave.”
* * *
When Katie stepped back into the empty launderette it was a huge relief for James, having spent the last few hours alternating between fear of the responsibility thrust upon him and pleasure seeing the other boys’ faces as they came in. She walked past him and threw the bolt on the door, flipping the sign to ‘Closed’.
“If you’re still serious there’s a way, but it’s going to cost you three days, seven hundred creds. Can you get the time and money?”
Time was no problem, he had just over a year’s vacation in hand. The money was a third of his life savings but that didn’t matter. He offered Katie his forearm.
“Yes, yes I can, right now if you like.”
She pushed it back.
“Not so quick, hear me out first. My friend can get you out and back as live cargo, sealed in a coffin carrier. When they unload someone will give you the treatment, send you home the same way. We unpack you three days later when you get back. But you have to go tomorrow.”
“Fine. But how do I go to the toilet or eat? Three days is a long time.”
“Not for you it won’t be. It will be three days here but to you it will be three to four hours. It’s all FTL, all you do is go before they seal you in.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to hon, don’t worry your pretty self over it. Just trust me. Now are you in?”
Katie took his arm, swiped his wrist over the terminal. Once it had flashed confirmation she let go.
“Come back here first thing tomorrow morning, bring a blanket and no food or drink from now on.”
* * *
James hit his head on the bulkhead of the ground car as it came to a halt. Feet moved outside, the trunk opening to blinding light, hands hurrying him out.
“No time to waste, let’s go.”
He stood inside a large, cluttered storage shed. Katie stood with two other women in front of a black, rectangular box. She pointed to it.
“That’s it, lie as flat as you can, get as comfy as you can. Denise managed to get you a padded one.”
He tucked the blanket in tightly around him, tapped the stopwatch function on his bracelet.
“Thank you Katie.”
They brought the lid over, hooked it to the end of the box.
“Now remember. You’ll go from here to the cargo ship, get loaded on and go. About an hour later you’ll be offloaded and someone will hand you the treatment. Don’t do anything, don’t get out of the coffin, keep quiet. They’ll load you back on and in three hours we’ll unpack you. Any questions?”
“Happy travels Jim.”
They lowered the lid, sealing out the light and noise, sealing him in with the faint glow of his wristband.
* * *
It was smooth, silent, cold. He’d toyed with not bringing the blanket but was now glad he had one that could be tucked right around him, behind and in front.
His wristband barely flashed 01:29 when the lid opened a crack, admitting a pale shaft of yellow light. A hand thrust itself in, clutching a small flask. James stared at hairy, stubby fingers ending in cracked and dirty nails, the middle finger beyond the second knuckle missing. It was a boy’s hand, an ancient boy’s hand.
It wiggled, agitated. James reached up, tugged the flask easily away and placed it snugly by his side. The hand slid out, the lid dropping and sealing with a hiss.
“Harriss, you got another one there?”
Tony looked up, his supervisor favoring him with a bored and listless gaze.
“You know how it is Ted, a bit extra for the kids and missus.”
“Yeah, and now your boss. What this time?”
“Broad spectrum hormones, single shot.” He jabbed a thumb at the coffin. “Got one shipped himself in and out as cargo just to pick it up.”
“Morons. You’d think they’d lift the embargo, make it easier. Anyway he’s got more trouble now. They’ve reassigned the FTL, all this is going back standard lightspeed.”
“You’re kidding, sixty years objective?”
“I know, I know, that’s the government for you, just flick of a switch. Anyway, can’t keep him here, no visa.”
“You got paid didn’t you?”
“Up front, of course.”
“No issue then. You’re paid, he’s got what he wanted and he won’t know until he gets back home.”
“Still seems rough, maybe I should tell him?”
“Nah, wouldn’t bother. He’ll only get upset, you know how they bring them up. Anyway, any chance to stick it that damned bunch of amazons is a good thing.”
Tony smiled, hit the customs seal. “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll load them up straight away.”
* * *
James was worried. His wristband showed 05:46, he was uncomfortable, there was no sign of Katie, and no one had opened his lid. How long until my air runs out, or I get another serious cramp, or heaven forbid my bowels can’t hang on any longer?
The lid came off without warning, one instant pitch black the next blinding white light. James lay frozen, blinking as his eyes adjusted. A face framed by red hair, raised eyebrows and a yellow vest gazed down at him.
“Now just what have we got here?”
She pointed to a bench leaning against the nearest wall.
“Get out boy, go sit.”
James hopped out, sat down. He started to knead his protesting calves, pushing away the pins and needles. The woman just stared at him.
“Long trip I’d guess. You hungry, thirsty?”
“No ma’am, no thank you.”
“Well at least your manners are good. What’s your name boy?”
He looked around, his eyes now used to the light. He was sure it was the same storage shed, the logos and roof were identical but it seemed dirtier, ragged around the edges. Faint daylight of an early morning sun cascaded through open doors. He couldn’t see Katie anywhere.
“I said, what’s your name boy?”
“Sorry ma’am, it’s James.”
She scowled at him, took a step backwards.
“Well James, you have some explaining to do. Stay right here until I get back.”
She walked to a small staircase. Once she came back, once they found out where he’d been these past three days he was sure he was in serious trouble. More importantly Tasha would not get the cure, Katie was clear about that, they wouldn’t let her have it.
She stopped at the top of the stairs, turning to give him one more scowl. She opened a door and stepped inside, disappearing from sight.
James grabbed the flask from the coffin and ran through the open doors, down the pathway and along the street. It was cold, the street slippery under his bare feet, but he hardly noticed. He ran past a parked taxi, stopped, went back and jumped in.
“Presier 26C, North View please.”
The driver pointed to a screen on the seat back. James placed his arm on it, the fare jumped across, and the taxi pulled out into light traffic. The screen briefly flashed up his savings balance, sixty-two thousand one hundred creds. He shook his head as the numbers faded, it was clearly wrong, way too much but there were bigger things to worry about.
The driver stared at him in the rear view mirror.
“Aren’t you a bit chilly hun?”
“Well, yes ma’am, a bit I guess.”
“I mean I like the old fashioned gear but it’s winter you know, you gotta take care of your assets.”
“I know it’s last year’s but I had to get dressed in a hurry this morning.”
“More like last century, but each to his own, each to his woman’s needs.”
The taxi came to a halt.
“This be your stop. Have peace.”
James hopped out, watched the taxi move off. Snowflakes landed on his nose and hair, soft wet splotches. The wheels in his mind started to grind. Winter? It was summer when I left, hot, sticky, raining. Katie got it wrong, I’ve been gone months! Tasha? Is she still alive, am I too late? He clutched the flask tighter, turned to face the house.
He was sure it was the right place, but the garden was gone, replaced with sculpted concrete, a low stone wall and water features. The house was the wrong color, the curtains plain not floral, roof aerials replaced by a single silver-grey dish. The cold reached into his bones. So much change, so quickly? His feet carried him to the door, his hand reaching for the doorknob, cold brass pressing chilled flesh. He hesitated, pulled his hand away and reached instead for the doorbell.
A boy his age in a satin sash and toga answered the door.
“Now just how do I go about helping you bro?”
The words seemed to stick, jumbled as they fell from his mouth.
“Tasha, Emily, I, I’m, James, home.”
“I see. No, I really don’t. Wait here.” The boy closed the door on him.
I’m gone three days, three days or even a few months and Emily’s replaced me with that?
The door opened. A vaguely familiar face stared at him with contempt. It was lined, aged, thinning grey hair, her stooped frame leaning on a walking stick.
“Well well, you finally come skulking back do you now?”
“I’m sorry Emily, it took longer than they said. I think they lied to me.”
He held the flask out to her with both hands.
“But I got it, I got the treatment for Tasha, she can be cured, get rid of the disease.”
She glowered at him, then lashed out with the walking stick sending the flask crashing into the ground. The vial inside bounced free, hit the concrete and shattered. James watched on in horror as the orange-yellow liquid drained out.
The walking stick swung back, catching James across the knees, sending him down in front of her. The point caught him under the chin, lifting his face up to look at her.
“Idiot! She’s been dead these past twenty years and you know what, all she worried about was where you had run off to. The diagnosis was wrong, didn’t we tell you not to worry?”
“She’s dead? Tasha’s dead?”
The woman laughed, a coarse hacking noise.
“You always were stupid James. I’m Tasha, it’s Emily that’s dead!”
“Tasha? No, you can’t —”
“Yes, it’s me. Sixty-one years you’ve been gone. No-one waits that long.”
Tasha turned to the boy, slowly walked back into the house.
“Reggie, please dispose of the old furniture.”
Thanks for reading my story. I’m really keen to get your feedback and to know if you liked what you read. Please leave a quick comment if you could.