“How long?” I asked, though it was more a reflexive thing than conscious, a way to let quantum uncertainty rise to entanglement, a way to buy myself some time to process the worst news a mother can get.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about the Kitui virus, Gail,” Dr. Abraham said, “we know less about it after ten years than we did about HIV in its first decade.” She leaned across the arm of her chair and cradled my hand in hers. “We aren’t yet sure what triggers the onset of symptoms. It could be years before Beth shows even preliminary symptoms.”
“And when she does? How long then?” Outside, a crow squawked and was answered by its friends. What a racket. I hate those birds. Dirty, filthy, noisy, greedy. I snatched my hand back.
“Depending on how strong her immune system is, and how careful you are with her nutrition, anywhere from six to sixty months.” The doctor’s eyes searched my face. I could feel them on me, digging into my brain. Peeling back the layers of hair, skin, tissue, and bone until she could steal the thoughts right out of my head.
“Can I take her home now?”
A soft sigh. “We need to bring her temperature down a bit more and get her fully hydrated. It’s best if you leave her here overnight, and if she responds well you can take her home in the morning.”
I jumped up. “Thank you, Doctor.” I couldn’t look at her. “How long before my GP has all this?” My eyes burned with pending tears, and I needed to get away, to be alone. By the time she answered me, I had tapped my thumb pads against my middle fingers from the second knuckle all the way up to the pad, then all the way back down.
“It usually takes two business days for updates to reach practitioners, as long as they run updates every night.”
I remembered to aim a nod in her direction before I bolted. I didn’t quite make it to the emergency stairs before the dam burst, but at least I was able to hold onto the sobs. Beth, my darling little girl, just five years old. The door clicked shut behind me and I fell to my knees, the sobs ripping through me as if my lungs wanted to fly away, taking my heart with them. How could this happen? It was unfair in the extreme, she was just a little girl! It should be some bad guy who got sick and died in pain from an incurable illness. Good people deserved good things, and Beth was good. Good, dammit! I sobbed and raged, pounding my fists against the wall until I’d bloodied them. It was wrong, so very wrong, for a mother to bury a child. I could not let this happen.
The lighting in my basement workshop was bright by design, but my eyes protested the amount of time they’d been exposed to it. I scrubbed them with my knuckles, willing the burning away. Just one more test and I’d let myself collapse for what remained of the night. I clicked the Execute icon and held my breath. I must’ve run the Now-Slice program a thousand times in the last week, and I always held my breath, hoping each time it would work. It didn’t this time either. I let my breath out in a gust and shut down the computer, my fingers as heavy as my heart. Maybe tomorrow would be the day.
I staggered upstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of juice. I glanced at the clock on the stove. Oops. It was almost four in the morning, and I’d promised my husband I’d be done before Beth’s bedtime. Glass in hand, I lurched up to the second floor, bumping against the wall tiredly. When I got to the top of the stairs, I could see the light on in our bedroom. Strange. I opened the door and froze, fatigue forgotten. Matt was sitting on the still made bed, head in his hands, my packed suitcases at his feet.
“What’s going on, Matt?”
He looked up at me, a flash of anger in his eyes chased away by grief. “You are leaving.”
“Leaving? What are you talking about? I’m not leaving. You can go if that’s what you want.”
“No. Beth needs one parent to care about her, at least, and I’m not taking a seven year old from her home.”
Rage boiled up, making my vision blurry. My hand tightened on the glass, my wedding band cutting into the meat of my finger. “Everything I’m doing is about Beth. I’m busting my ass to cure her.”
“You’re not a doctor, Gail, you’re a bee programmer. You can’t find a cure. There are hundreds of scientists trying to find a cure for Kitui. Let them find it. No matter how many times I say it, you don’t seem to get that Beth needs a mother. You’re the only one there is.” Matt had gotten up and was coming at me, his voice rising with each step, his fists clenched. I backed away from him, rage giving way to visceral fear. Juice slopped out of my glass, the thin line of orange running down my forearm distracting me momentarily from the thunder in his face. When I looked back, he had stopped and was standing, breathing hard through flared nostrils, knuckles stretched white in clenched fists, corded muscles in his arms bulging out. That was what he always did when he got mad.
“You want me to be a better mother,” I said, softening my voice into a plead, staring over his shoulder at the shear fluttering in the open window, “but how can I be any kind of mother at all if you make me leave?”
“This isn’t a discussion. Not again. We’ve talked this through half a hundred times in the last two years. Beth needs her mother to be present. If you can’t do that, she’s better off without you than getting pushed away all the time. All she wants is for you to spend time with her. For Christ’s sake, you can’t even bake cookies with the kid!”
“That’s what this is about? That I didn’t bake cookies tonight?”
“Tonight, last night, last week, last year. Gail, you haven’t been here since her diagnosis. She thinks you’re mad at her for getting sick.” Matt’s nostrils flared again. “It ends. Now. I won’t let you keep hurting my little girl.” He picked up the cases. “You can call me to arrange pick up of your lab equipment after you’ve found a place to live.”
I backed out of the doorframe to get out of his way, still holding the juice glass, and he was down the stairs without another glance. He set the suitcases down next to the front door and opened it, glaring at me.
How long I stood there looking down at him holding that door open I couldn’t have said, but it felt like forever. Finally, I set the glass down on the ledge, for once not caring about the sticky ring it would leave. I marched myself down those stairs, shrugged into a jacket, picked up my keys, shoved my wallet into my jacket pocket, collected my suitcases, and walked out the door into the wet Vancouver night. First thing in the morning, I’d call a lawyer. No way was he going to take my baby girl away from me.
“This is going to pinch, darling.”
Beth looked up at me from where she lay on my couch, anticipatory tears welling up in emerald eyes. I took a deep breath and gave her a big smile. She replied with a tentative smile of her own, blinked her incipient tears away, and rolled her head to bury her face in the cushions. It tore at my heart that at ten years old she knew intimately how much it hurt to get blood drawn and, while this was my first time doing it, she’d been getting blood drawn every few weeks for half her life. I waited a moment, and sure enough, she relaxed her arm then made a fist to raise the vein. I got the needle in with only the barest whimper from her. I released the tourniquet and she relaxed her hand again. I don’t know why time slows down so much when you’re doing something you loathe doing. It really isn’t fair that the universe works that way.
It felt like it took longer to draw the blood than it had to get my bees to recognize the United Blood Nation’s bulldog tattoos. On reflection, though, it felt like less time than it had taken to work out how to cram the electro-magnetic field generator into the bee thoraxes. The field had to be tough enough to keep the blood carried in the legs from getting irradiated, and I had to keep the EM drive in the abdomen or risk damaging the solar converter. In the end, I’d had to make the thorax proportionally larger than a real bee’s, which changed the now-slice math. The last thing I wanted was to have the swarm arrive too late. I needed them to land in the mid-twenty-twenties. That would give the medical establishment forty years to solve Kitui. To have a vaccine for it as part of infant immunizations by the time Beth was (is?) born.
“All done, sweetie.” I pressed a square of gauze over the needle mark, and Beth turned back to face me.
“Can I have my juice now?”
“Of course,” I said, helping her sit up before I passed the waiting glass to her. “After you have a few sips, I want you to hold down the gauze so I can get these samples into the fridge. Then we’ll go for ice creams. How does that sound?”
There’s nothing that can bring a smile to a kid’s face like the promise of ice cream.
One by one I loaded my special bees into the tray, careful to keep their Kitui laden legs—with attendant needle-sharp ends—flat to their bodies. If this enterprise failed the first time, I needed to be healthy enough to try again. Five years to get to this point. Five years and a very ugly divorce—the custody battle still ongoing even after three years. Matt wouldn’t accept fifty-fifty, and he kept spending ridiculous amounts of money on child psychologists for “evaluations” that confirmed his delusion that I’m a bad mother. Thankfully, my job paid well enough that I could pay for evaluations of my own.
My bees had become a source of pride. I didn’t design them, but I’ve tinkered with the base design enough that they feel like my own creation. Once released by the drone in high orbit, the constructed bees would begin their race to light speed and beyond. Their gossamer wings would collect all the dark energy they needed to generate the microwaves that would propel them deep into space at five times the speed of light, swing around the target star, and bring them back. Back in time, as well as back to their home. The hardest part of the process would be getting them to decelerate enough once inside high orbit again that they’d ease into the atmosphere without vaporizing. Weeks I’d spent on that.
I finished filling the tray and clicked it onto the stack in the fridge. One last tray to fill, and I could launch my little drone, guide it via infrared laser to high orbit, and wake the bees up. I had to take a breather after that thought. Everything that was now would change. One day soon I’d wake up and Beth would be healthy, and the world would have seen less gang violence. I had zero regret about using the bees to infect gang members. They’d only feel a little sting when the bees landed on them, leaving six little prick marks behind. They would’ve just been killing themselves anyway, and maybe I’ve saved some innocent lives.
Matt and I would still be happy together. I wouldn’t remember how much he had wounded me, how horrible he’d been, and how hard he’d tried to turn Beth against me. I wouldn’t have spent countless nights sobbing about what he was doing to me.
It took twenty breaths to calm the shakes enough for me to get back to loading Beth’s blood into the last tray of bees.
“How long?” I asked, though it was more a reflexive thing than conscious, a way to let quantum uncertainty rise to entanglement, a way to buy myself some time to process the worst news a mother could get.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about the HTRQ virus,” Dr. Mitchell said, “we know less about it after ten years than we did about Kitui in its first decade.” She leaned across her chair arm and cradled my hand in hers. “We aren’t yet sure what triggers the onset of symptoms. It could be months before Beth shows even preliminary symptoms.”
“And when she does? How long then?” Outside seagulls cried and fought over garbage bits. What a racket. I hate those birds. Dirty, filthy, noisy, greedy. I snatched my hand back.
“Depending on how strong her immune system is, and the new medications available, anywhere from two to twenty-four months.” The doctor’s eyes were searching my face. I could feel them on me, digging into my brain. Peeling back the layers of hair, skin, tissue, and bone until she could steal the thoughts right out of my head. Until she could take away my ability to do something – anything – to keep my baby safe and healthy.