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She gives me the bird. It’s tiny, sculpted out of mud, and then dried. It feels weighted and earthy in my palm, and the feathers, tiny torn pieces of green silk, only cover the wings.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. “The feathers—are they—”
“From the square of silk the Society sent me after my Banquet a few months ago,” she says. “I didn’t think I needed it anymore.”
She wore green, too.
“Don’t hold the bird too tightly,” she says, “it might cut you,” and then she pulls me out from under the tree’s shadow, and the parts of the bird that aren’t feathered turn starry. They glitter in the sun.
“I had to break the glass to get the silk out,” she says, “so I thought I might as well use it. I crushed it, and then, when I’d made the bird, I rolled it in the pieces. They were almost as small as sand.”
I close my eyes. I did something similar, back in the Borough, when I gave Ky the piece of my dress. I remember clearly the clean snap when I broke the scrap free.
The bird shimmers and seems to move. Glitter of glass, feathers of silk.
It looks so close to living that I have a momentary urge to toss it to the sky, to see if it will take wing. But I know I will hear only the thud of clay and see the scatter of green when it hits the ground, the shape that made it bird, flying thing destroyed. So I hold it carefully and let this knowledge rise within me like a song.
I am not the only one writing.
I am not the only one creating.
The Society took so much from us, but we still hear rumors of music, hints of poetry; we still see intimations of art in the world around us. They never did keep us from all of it. We took it in, sometimes without knowing, and many still ache for a way to let it out.
I realize all over again that we don’t need to trade our art—we could give, or share. Someone could bring a poem, someone else a painting. Even if we took nothing away, we would all have more, having looked on something beautiful or heard something true.
The breeze dances the bird’s green feathers. “It’s too beautiful,” I say, “to keep to myself.”
“That’s how I felt about your poem,” she says eagerly. “I wanted to show it to everyone.”
“What if we had a way to do that?” I ask. “What if we could gather together, and everyone could bring what they’d made?”
The Museum is the first place that comes to mind, and I turn and look at its boarded-up doors. If we could find a way inside, the Museum has glass cases and glowing golden lights. They are broken, but perhaps we could repair them. I imagine sliding open a door to one of the cases and pinning my poems inside, then stepping back to look.
A little shiver goes through me. No. That’s not the place.
I turn back and the girl watches me, her gaze level and measuring. “I’m Dalton Fuller,” she says.
We’re not supposed to give our names away as traders, but I’m not trading. “My name is Cassia Reyes,” I tell her.
“I know,” Dalton says. “You signed it on the poem you wrote.” She pauses. “I think I have a place that will work.”
“No one comes here,” she tells me, “because of the smell. But it’s starting to get better.”
We stand at the edge of the marsh that goes to the lake.We’re far enough away that we can only see the shore, not what might be washed up on it.
I’ve wondered about those dead fish bumping against the dock, my shins, my hands—was it a last-ditch effort on the Society’s part to poison more water, the way they did in the Outer Provinces and in Enemy territory? But why would the Society do something like that to their own lake?
As the Rising has cured the Plague, they’ve made the stillzone smaller. I’ve seen air ships lifting the pieces of the barricade back up into the sky, pulling the other pieces in more closely. Some of the buildings that were once within the barricade are now back outside of it.
The Rising brings the unused pieces of the barricade out to this vacant ground near the lake. Taken apart, the white pieces of the wall look like art in themselves—curving and enormous, like feathers dropped to earth by giant beings and then turned to marble, like bones risen from the ground and then turned to stone. They are a canyon shattered, with spaces to walk between.
“I’ve seen this from up on the air-train stops,” I say, “but I didn’t know what it looked like up close.”
In one place they’ve dropped two pieces closer together than the others. The pieces form what looks almost like a long hallway, curving toward each other, but not meeting at the top. I walk inside and the space underneath is cool and a little bit dark, with a neat line of blue sky streaming in light from above. I put my hand against a piece of the barricade and look up.
“Rain will still get in,” Dalton says. “But it’s sheltered enough that I think it would work.”
“We could put the pictures and poems on the walls,” I say, and she nods. “And build some kind of platform to hold things like your bird.”
And if someone knew how to sing, they could come here and we could listen. I stand there for a moment, imagining music echoing along the walls and out over the ruined, lonely lake.
I know I need to keep trading to get to my family, and sorting to keep my place in the Rising, but this also feels like something I have to do. I think Grandfather would understand.
I’m sending a group of new patients your way,” the head physic tells me over the miniport.
“Good,” I say. “We’re ready for them.” We have empty beds now. Three months into the Plague, things are finally tapering off, thanks in large part to the increase in immunizations provided by the Rising. The scientists and pilots and workers have all done their best and we’ve saved hundreds of thousands of people. It’s an honor to be a part of the Rising.
I go to the doors to let the transfer medics inside. “Looks like we had a minor outbreak in one of the suburbs,” one of the medics says, pushing his way in and holding on to one end of a stretcher. Sweat drips down his face and he looks exhausted. I admire the transfer medics more than almost anyone else in the Rising. Their work is physical and exhausting. “I guess they missed their immunizations somehow.”
“You can put him right over here,” I say. They move the patient from the stretcher to the bed. One of the nurses begins changing the patient into a gown and I hear her exclaim in surprise.
“What is it?” I ask.
“The rash,” the nurse says. She points to the patient and I see red stripes running across his chest. “It’s bad on this one.”
While the small red mark is more common, now and then we see the rash extending all the way around the torso. “Let’s turn him and check his back,” I say.
We do. The rash extends to the patient’s back. I glance down at my miniport to enter a notation. “Are the others like this?” I ask.
“Not that we noticed,” the medic says.
The medics and I examine the rest of the new patients. None of them exhibit the acute rash, or even have the small red marks.
“It’s probably nothing,” I say, “but I’ll call in one of the virologists.”
It doesn’t take the virologist very long to respond. “What do we have?” he asks, his tone confident. I haven’t had much interaction with him, but I know him by sight and reputation as one of the best research medics in the Rising. “A variation?”
“It looks that way,” I say. “The acute viral rash, formerly small and localized, is now manifesting on dermatomes all around the torso.”
The virologist looks at me in surprise, as if he didn’t expect me to use the right language. But I’ve been here for three months. I know which words to use and, more importantly than that, I know what they mean.
We’re already gloved and masked, as per procedure. The virologist reaches into a case and pulls out a cure. “Get me a vital-stats machine,” he tells one of the other medics. “And you,” he tells me, “draw a blood sample and get a line running.”
“It’s nothing we didn’t anticipate,” the virologist says as I slide the needle into the man’s vein. The head physic watches us from the main port on the wall. “Viruses change all the time. You can see different mutations of a single virus showing up in different tissues, even in the same body.”
I hook up the fluid-and-nutrient bag and start the drip.
“For a mutation to flourish,” the virologist says, “there would have to be some kind of selective pressure applied. Something that made the mutation more viable than the original virus.”
He’s teaching me, I realize, which he doesn’t have to do. And I think I understand what he’s saying. “Like a cure?” I ask. “Could that be the selective pressure?” Could we have given this new virus the opportunity to flourish?
“Don’t worry,” he says. “What’s more likely is that we have an immune system responding uniquely to the virus.”
He looks at the patient and makes a notation in the miniport. Since I’m attending, it pops up on my miniport as well. Rotate patient every two hours to prevent skin breakdown. Clean and seal affected areas to inhibit the spread of infection. The instructions are the same as those for all the other patients. “Poor fellow,” he says. “Maybe it’s best he stays under for a while. He’s going to hurt before he heals.”
“Should we quarantine the patients from this transfer in a separate part of the center?” I ask the head physic over the port.
“Only if you’d prefer not to have them in your wing,” he says.
“No,” I say. “We can quarantine later if necessary.”
The virologist nods. “I’ll let you know as soon as we have the results from the samples,” he says. “It may be an hour or two.”
“In the meantime, start them all on the cure,” the head physic tells me.
“Nice work drawing the blood,” the virologist says as he leaves the room. “You’d think you were still a medic.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“Carrow,” the head physic says, “you’re long past due for a break. Take one now while they’re running the sample.”
“I’m fine,” I say.
“You’ve already extended your shift once,” the head physic tells me from the port. “The nurses and medics can handle this.”
I’ve started taking all my breaks in the courtyard. I even bring my food out there to eat. It’s a little patch of trees and flowers that are starting to die because no one has time to take care of them, but at least when I’m out there I know whether it’s day or night.
Also, I figure if I stay in the same place most of the time, there’s more of a chance I’ll see Lei and we can talk about our work and what we’ve noticed.
At first, I think I’m out of luck because she’s not in the courtyard. But then, right when I’m finishing my meal, the door opens and Lei comes out.