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“Carrow,” she says, sounding glad. She must have been looking for me, too, which feels good. She smiles and gestures to the people in the courtyard. “Everyone else has discovered this place.”
She’s right. I can count at least fourteen other people sitting in the sun. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” I say. “Something interesting happened in our last transfer.”
“What was it?” she asks.
“A patient came in with a more acute form of the rash.”
“What did it look like?”
I tell her about the lesions and what the virologist said. I try to explain selective pressure to her but I do a bad job of it. Still, she catches on. “So it’s possible that the cure caused the mutation,” she says.
“If it even is a mutation,” I say. “None of the other patients have a similar rash. Of course, it could be that they haven’t had time for it to manifest yet.”
“I wish I could see them,” she says. At first I think she’s talking about the patients, but then I see that she’s gesturing in the direction where the mountains would be if the walls didn’t block them out. “I always wondered how people lived without mountains to tell them where they were. Now I guess I know.”
“I never missed them,” I say. All we had in Oria was the Hill and I never really cared about that. I always liked the little places—the lawn at First School, the bright blue of the swimming pool. And I liked the maple trees in the Borough before they took them down. I want to build all those things again, but this time without the Society.
“My other name is Xander,” I say to Lei suddenly, surprising us both. “I don’t think I ever told you that.”
“Mine is Nea,” she says.
“That’s good to know,” I say. And it is, even though we won’t break protocol and use each other’s first name while we’re working.
“What I like best about him,” she says, her tone and the change of subject almost abrupt, “is that he is never afraid. Except when he fell in love with me. But even then, he didn’t back down.”
It takes me longer than usual to think of the right thing to say, and before I can come up with anything, Lei speaks again.
“So what do you like about her?” Lei asks. “Your Match?”
“All of it,” I say. “Everything.” I hold my hands out to my sides. Once again, I’m at a loss for words. It’s an unfamiliar feeling and I’m not sure why it’s so hard for me to talk about Cassia.
I think Lei’s going to get frustrated with me but she doesn’t. She nods. “I understand that, too,” she says.
My time’s up and the break is over. “I’ve got to get back,” I say. “Time to see how they’re all doing.”
“This all comes naturally to you,” Lei says. “Doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Taking care of people.” She’s looking in the direction of the mountains again. “Where were you living last summer?” she asks. “Had you already been assigned to Camas?”
“No,” I say. Back then, I was home in Oria, trying to make Cassia fall in love with me. It feels like a long time ago. “Why?”
“You remind me of a kind of fish that comes to the river during the summer,” she says.
I laugh. “Is that a good thing?”
She’s smiling, but she looks sad. “They come all the way back from the sea.”
“That seems impossible,” I say.
“It does,” she says. “But they do. And they change completely on the journey. When they live in the ocean, they’re blue with silver backs. But by the time they get here, they’re wildly colorful, bright red with green heads.”
I’m not sure what she thinks this has to do with me.
She tries to explain. “What I’m trying to say is that you’ve found your way home. You were born to help people, and you’ll find a way to do that, no matter where you are. Just like the redfish are born to find their way back from the ocean.”
“Thank you,” I say.
For a second, I think about telling her everything, including what I really did to get the blue tablets. But I don’t. “Time for me to get back to work,” I say to Lei, and I dump the last of the water in my canteen on the newroses near our bench and head for the door.
I walk along the backs of the houses in Mapletree Borough, near the food delivery tracks. Even though it’s late and no meals are being delivered, I can hear the soft scrape-whine of the carts in my mind. When I go past Cassia’s house I want to reach out and touch one of the shutters or tap on a window, but of course I don’t.
I come to the common area for the Borough, where the recreation areas are clumped together, and before I even have time to wonder where the Archivist is he appears beside me. “We’re right behind the pool,” he says.
“I know,” I tell him. This is my neighborhood and I know exactly where I am. The sharp white edge of the high dive looms in front of us. Our voices whispering in the humid night sound like locust wings grating.
He climbs over the fence swiftly and I follow. I almost say, “The pool’s closed. We can’t be here,” but, obviously, we are.
A group of people waits under the high dive. “All you have to do is draw their blood,” the Archivist tells me.
“Why?” I ask, feeling cold.
“We’re taking tissue preservation samples,” the Archivist says. “We all want control of our own. You knew this.”
“I thought we’d be taking the samples the usual way,” I say. “With swabs, not needles. You only need a little tissue.”
“This way is better,” the Archivist says.
“You’re not stealing from us the way the Society does,” one of the women tells me, her voice quiet and calm. “You’re taking our blood and giving it back.” She holds out her arm. “I’m ready.”
The Archivist hands me a case. When I open it up I see sterile tubes and syringes sealed away in plastic. “Go ahead,” he tells me. “It’s all worked out. I have the tablets to give to you when you finish. You don’t need to know any more than that.”
He’s right. I don’t want to try to understand the complicated system of trades and balancing. And I certainly don’t want to know what these people have paid to be here. Is a trade like this even sanctioned by the other Archivists or is this man conducting transactions on the side? What have I stumbled into? I didn’t realize that black market blood would be the price of the blue tablets.
“You’re going to get caught,” I say.
“No,” he says. “I won’t.”
“Please,” the woman says. “I want to get home.”
I put on a pair of gloves and prepare a syringe. She keeps her eyes closed the whole time. I slide the needle of the syringe into the vein near the crook of her elbow. She makes a startled sound. “Almost done,” I say. “Hold on.” I pull the syringe back out and hold it up. Her blood is dark.
“Thank you,” she says, and the Archivist hands her a square of cotton that she presses against the inside of her arm.
When I’ve finished, the Archivist gives me the blue tablets. And then he tells the others, “We’ll be here again next week. Bring your children. Don’t you want to make sure you have samples for them, too?”
“I won’t be here next week,” I tell the Archivist.
“Why not?” he asks. “You’re doing them a service.”
“No,” I say. “I’m not. The science doesn’t exist yet to bring people back.”
If it did, I thought, I’m sure people would use it. Like Patrick and Aida Markham. If there was a way to bring their son back, they’d do it.
Back at home, using a little scalpel stolen from the medical center, I perform the only surgery I’ll likely ever do, slicing very carefully along the back of the tablets, cutting the paper from the Archivists’ port into strips, inserting them, and then holding the packages over the incinerator to melt the adhesive back together.
It takes almost all night, and in the morning I wake up to the sound of screaming in the Borough as they take Ky away. Not long after that, Cassia leaves, too, and thanks to me, she’s got blue tablets to take with her.
I walk back to my wing to check on the patients. “Any adverse reactions to the cure?” I ask.
The nurse shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Five of them are responding well. But the rest, including the patient with the rash, are not. Of course, it’s still early.” She doesn’t need to articulate what we both know: Usually we’ve seen some sort of response by now. This isn’t good.
“Has anyone else manifested with the rash?”
“We haven’t checked since they came in,” she says. “It’s been less than an hour.”
“Let’s do it now,” I say.
We turn one of the patients over carefully. Nothing. We turn another patient. Nothing.
But the third patient’s rash circles her entire body. Her lesions aren’t yet as red as those belonging to the first patient, but the reaction is certainly atypical. “Call the virologist,” I tell one of the medics. Carefully, we turn the woman back over and I catch my breath. Blood seeps from her mouth and nose.
“We have a patient with different symptoms,” I tell the head physic over the port. Before he can answer, another voice comes over my miniport. It’s the virologist. “Carrow?”
“I analyzed the viral genome taken from the patient with the circumferential rash,” he says. “It reveals an additional copy of the neural-insertion envelope protein gene. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
We have a mutation on our hands.
At dusk the evening light gilds the white of the barricade into gold, and the sky is cool and blue except for the spot where the sun burns down beyond the horizon. That’s when we gather, more of us each day. One person tells two people, and two tell four, and it increases exponentially, and within a few weeks of beginning we have what I think of as an outbreak of our own.
I don’t know who started referring to this place as the Gallery, but the name caught on. I’m glad people cared enough to name it. I like it best when I hear the whispers of those who are here for the first time, who stand before the wall with their hands over their mouths and tears in their eyes. Though I could be wrong, I think that many of them feel as I do whenever I come here.
I am not alone.
If I have a little time and can stay for a while, I show whoever wants to learn how to write. Once they’ve seen me do it, they make their own marks, clumsy at first, then definite, confident.
I teach them printing, not the ornate cursive Ky taught me. Printing is easier because of the separate, distinct lines. It’s the joining together—the writing without ceasing and the continuous movement—that is most difficult to learn, that feels so foreign to our hands. Now and then I do write in cursive so I don’t lose the feeling of connection to what I’m putting down, and more importantly, to Ky. When I write without lifting the stick from the ground or the pencil from the paper, I’m reminded of Hunter and his people, how they drew the blue lines on their skin and then onto the next person.