The Infirmary (450 Years After Arrival)
Kale was on his hands and knees. The fabric of his khaki trousers was coated in a fine layer of dirt, the grime adhering stubbornly in the crevices of his fingernails. He knew his mother would scold him and he would need to scrub twice to be clean enough for dinner, but that thought was distant from his mind. He crouched in the dirt and swept the soil away from the triangular object.
“Dri!” he yelled. “Dri! Come here!”
A voice called from several metres away. “Where are you? I can’t see you!”
Kale’s head and shoulders peeked up from the rustling, blue grass. He waved emphatically to the other figure, a child with the same deep brown eyes, matching hair, and stocky build as his own. Drimys shaded his eyes with one hand, the other on his hip, and Kale ducked once he had gotten Drimys’s attention. Drimys ran through the field and halted behind him.
“Look!” Kale exclaimed, and his twin dropped to the ground. “It’s an arrowhead!”
“There are arrows everywhere. The riders use them all the time. We can’t be adventurers with the same arrows everyone else uses.”
“This one is different.” Kale’s fingertips dug deftly around it, ignoring a tawny, slithering insect that emerged from the dirt. “It’s wider, not like the ones they use now.”
Drimys’s forehead creased in concentration, beads of sweat at his hairline. The twins examined the artifact more closely. Kale wasn’t sure whether the arrowhead was tarnished because it had been buried or because it had belonged to the thieves from his books who had fought to protect their gold. He plucked it out of the ground and touched the point with his finger, jabbing but not breaking the skin. He pulled away quickly.
“It’s still sharp,” Kale said. “Maybe Rufus can tell when it was made.”
“We might need it when we search for the treasure. The world’s greatest adventurers!” Drimys grabbed the artifact from Kale’s hands. “It’s mine.”
“I found it. A second ago, you didn’t care.”
“Your side of the room is too messy to keep it safe. It’s too important to lose.”
“I’m keeping it.” Drimys pocketed the arrowhead. “Let’s go show Rufus. He might still be in the Centre.”
Kale was too excited about their discovery to be annoyed at Drimys’s claim. Brushing the dirt from his pants, he broke into a run after his brother, pushing the grass aside as he emerged from the field. Drimys was just ahead, veering from the path to the open stable doors. In the day’s dimming light, a small figure scampered on all fours through the entrance. Kale followed Drimys, who ran after the animal.
The stable smelled of grain, raw meat, and the underlying musty stench of veelox droppings. Half the veeloxes had been penned for the evening. Slender necks rose above the gates, and slimmer beaks snapped lazily at the surrounding flies.
Apart from the penned veeloxes, the barn was empty. Some of the riders had left the city of Mesidus to gather medicine, and the others were still out in the fields, busy with their last duties of the day.
A veelox extended its neck out from the fence, startling Kale. The reptile tucked its narrow beak inward, then bumped his head in a friendly manner. Kale petted it with one hand, wondering where his brother had gone. He was too big to hide in the piles of hay in the wheelbarrows. Drimys could have slipped into one of the pens, but Kale was almost sure a veelox would repel the intrusion.
He peered around the barn, but the pen doors were solid wood, and he couldn’t properly see through the narrow spaces between the planks. Maybe Drimys meant to jump out and scare him. Kale turned suddenly, but no one was behind him. Ahead was a closet door, hooks on the wall, and a familiar ladder that led up to a loft and balcony along the perimeter of the stable.
A scuffling sounded to the left, and Kale’s gaze darted to the darkened corner beyond the pens. Drimys was hunched on the floor with his back to him.
A flash of fur dashed away, and Drimys howled. He turned to face Kale. Blood oozed into the collar of his linen shirt and he touched it, smearing the blood around his neck and over the palm of his hand. Kale sucked in a breath.
“It tried to take it!” Drimys pressed his fingers against the wound. “Kale, it tried to take it.”
Cries of pain stirred Kale from his shock, and his mind stuttered. Riders, Father, infirmary—Drimys would never go to the infirmary himself, nor let Kale take him—Mother. “You have to go to Mother.”
Drimys flew past him and out of the stable. Before he followed suit, Kale checked the corner, wondering where the terquin had gone.
The terquin emerged from the darkness, hissing at him and baring its fangs. Kale jumped.
The creature’s claws were out, ready to attack. Frightened, Kale took a step back. He noticed one of its eyes was bloodshot. The terquin darted for a hole in the fence.
Kale eyed the hole in the pen, but the terquin hadn’t emerged and he needed to follow his brother to the Healing Centre. He hurried out of the stables and across the open field. Kale bumped into passersby as he took the road leading to the familiar stone and brick building. He ran past the bike racks and up the front steps. Nothing. Unsure if Drimys had heeded his instruction, he clattered through the Centre and down the hallway to their family’s apartment. The door was already standing open. And then, through the silence, he heard their mother shriek his brother’s name.
Several rooms over, Iberis closed the door to the nursery. Most of the babies were idle or asleep, but he recognized the one that was crying. He scanned the incubators as he walked to a smaller, inner room painted in soothing tones and decorated with murals of baby animals. Vica was evidently flustered, trying to rock the swaddled infant to sleep.
“He’s going to wake the others if he doesn’t quiet,” she said as Iberis approached.
“He’s nursed already?”
“Yes, and she left a supply. He’s always like this after she leaves. We’re not who he’s looking for.” Vica noticed the lilac shawl folded neatly over his shoulder and his tan, short-sleeved shirt and pants, the healer’s uniform. “That colour doesn’t suit you.”
Iberis smirked. “It’ll help with who he’s looking for. I had her leave it behind.”
Sergen’s face was flushed and streaked with tears. Iberis was now mostly accustomed to the sound of children crying, but Sergen’s high-pitched wails of desperate need affected him. Careful to support the infant’s head, Iberis took Sergen from Vica and pressed him to his chest. The child thrashed and whined, kicking against the lilac shawl.
Then another infant cried out in the nursery. Some of the children were ill and others were newer than Sergen, but most would be home soon. It would take several minutes before Sergen’s panic dissolved and his shaking lessened.
“Sometimes, I wonder what gets into the heads of these mothers.” Vica was bitter. “Why have children if they can’t take care of them? The Healing Centre—”
“Will do its best to give him what he needs.” Iberis had little tolerance for any negativity on this topic, even when Vica was stressed, and his disapproving look was enough to silence her. Vica loved healing, she treasured the children, and had a sixth sense for their care. She was also strongly principled.
Iberis nodded at the door and eased himself into a rocking chair. “Go look after the others. I’ll take over.”
He rocked the child back and forth until Sergen slipped into a calm but tentative state, his breathing more regular. Iberis liked to think it was his own ministrations that helped, but he knew the clothing with the mother’s smell had done most of the work. Kissing Sergen’s dark hair, he leaned back, cuddling the infant.
The warm bundle wriggled. Iberis spent every spare moment he had with Sergen, between surgeries and appointments, during lunch, and after work late into the night. He had always been dedicated to his field, but now he was lying to his wife about the time he spent tending to Sergen. If he was called to perform any emergency surgeries, then his stay in the infirmary could extend to a couple of days.
Iberis sighed, frustrated. Both he and Selene were young, but out of necessity and circumstance he had grown more mature while she remained carefree. He knew that eventually her youthful enthusiasm, independence, and social circle would diminish and she would begin to resent his absence. Conflict would follow, but he needn’t worry about that tonight. Tonight was about him, and Sergen, and the mother’s shawl.
Something changed in the room, and Iberis opened his eyes. A child stood in the doorway, his wavy hair unruly, a cheeky smile on his face that might easily flip to mischief. A dirty smudge traced down his neck. Despite his roguish looks the child didn’t interfere, but merely watched.
“Good evening.” Iberis spoke in a soft voice, mindful of Sergen’s little ears. By now Vica would have tended to the children, then retired to her office around the corner. Once in the room, Kale would have slipped by unnoticed. “How did you get in here?”
“Healer locked the door but I was too fast.”
“You wanted to see the babies?”
The boy made a face. “No. I didn’t know where I was until I got in.”
“Where were you trying to go?”
Kale shrugged and looked sheepishly away. “Nowhere.”
Young boys were always getting into trouble. The morgue, Iberis decided. “You can’t get to the morgue. It’s locked.”
Kale’s shock at Iberis’s accuracy was replaced by quick defiance. “I got in here.”
“It doesn’t matter. You can’t wander around the infirmary, Kale. It’s not safe for you or the patients.”
“I’m not wandering,” Kale protested. “I’m supposed to be here. A terquin slashed Drimys, and a healer is helping him.” His small mouth twisted into a frown. “How did you know I’m Kale?”
“Healers can tell the difference.”
“Not all healers, only you. Father can’t. Mother does, even when Drimys tries to blame me for things he did.”
“What types of things?”
“I don’t know. Things. But some people can tell us apart now. Drimys lost a tooth.” He bared his teeth and pointed at one of his canines. “This one. He lost it a month ago.”
“You haven’t lost yours yet?”
That was perplexing. Iberis hadn’t been Kale and Drimys’s healer for long, but their biological milestones tended to occur in relative unison. It was one of the mysteries surrounding identical twins that they still didn’t fully understand, even after years of research.
Iberis felt a restless arm wriggle against his chest, and he glanced at the infant. Sergen’s eyelashes were fluttering. A tiny fist pushed out through the tight layers of fabric.
“Babies cry a lot,” Kale continued confidently. “That’s all they do all the time. They eat, poop, sleep, and cry. Erod’s sister is like that. Every time she wants something, she cries.”
“That’s the only way they know how to communicate. Do you want to come closer? His eyes can’t focus very far.”
Kale shuffled a few steps closer, then reluctantly reached for Sergen’s hand. Sensing his touch, the baby clamped down hard on Kale’s index finger. Surprised and delighted, Kale looked to Iberis.
“That’s a reflex babies have. When you touch their palm, their fingers grasp yours in a fist.”
“He’s so small.” Kale bent closer to the infant.
“You used to be small like this, too,” Iberis said. “All of us were. His name is Sergen.”
Kale’s smile disappeared. “Is he sick?”
“Then why is he here?”
Iberis had difficulty explaining this to the other healers, let alone a nine-year-old child. Unlike his adult interactions, he couldn’t be defensive with Kale, nor could he couch his motives in medical language. “Sometimes people can’t care for their babies, even though they want to.”
“Like if they’re sick, too?”
“Like that, yes.”
“Oh...so he’s all alone here?”
“His mother visits daily. And he has me.” Iberis's answer didn’t satisfy, and Kale still seemed perplexed. “If you want, you can visit him, but only if I’m here. We can tend to him together. Otherwise, the healers won’t let you in.”
“Okay. I think he’s falling asleep. He’s blinking slowly.”
Iberis could feel the little hand fall as the infant drowsed. “Hmm, you’re right. We should get you back. Your parents are probably wondering where you are.”
The healer kept Sergen clasped to his chest as Kale followed them through the nursery. Vica had returned and was startled at Kale’s presence. Iberis scanned his retina at the door, then led Kale through the maze of the infirmary’s shortcuts. He prompted Kale to tell him about the things he was learning in school as they walked, and the boy was still talking when a screech rang out in the tiled hall.
“Kale!” His mother stood before him as Drimys cringed, guilty, at her side. “How many times have I told you not to wander off?” Marie’s strong brow creased with concern. Her manicured nails were glossy, and her embroidered tunic and pants hugged her curves. “Iberis, I’m so sorry.”
The twins shared a look of collusion. Drimys was naked from the waist up and his stained shirt was bundled in his mother’s hand. A bandage was secured to his neck and below that his collarbone was covered with a dry, flesh coloured bump. With a confident scan, Iberis deemed the injury had missed major blood vessels, but it was serious enough to warrant something stronger than rapid-seal gel. Iberis’s family had owned terquins when he was younger. Despite their claws, the animals were mild by nature. A wound so severe was bizarre; whatever Drimys had been doing with the terquin, the creature had reacted.
“It’s all right.” Iberis forced his eyes from Drimys. “Kale was with me. He couldn’t find his way back.”
“These boys, I need two of me to look after them.” Marie brushed her hand against Sergen’s blankets, admiring the sleeping infant. “What I would give to have them this young again.”
“Children are curious. It’s partly why the security is so high, especially with residents living in the Centre.”
“With these two, you might want to tighten it even more.” She urged the boys forward with a wave of her hand. “Come on, back home now. We haven’t had dinner yet.”
Kale stood on his toes and kissed Sergen’s hair, to his mother’s confusion. “Can I see him tomorrow?”
“Sure. Remember, you have to come see me first, so I can take you in.”
Marie and Iberis chatted for a few more minutes, but Iberis’s gaze kept drifting toward Drimys. Kale rejoined his twin.
Drimys muttered in a low voice, so the adults wouldn’t hear. “You’re using the baby to find the morgue? Why didn’t I think of that? We should have done that before.”
“No, I’m going to visit him tomorrow.”
“He’s so alone. He doesn’t have anyone.”
Drimys rolled his eyes. “I’ve been waiting here for you forever. You already have a brother. The only people who care about dumb babies are babies.”
“I’m not a—”
“You’re not coming tomorrow.”
“—baby. But Drimys—”
“Don’t be a debillus.”
“Language!” Marie reprimanded, shooting the startled twins a sharp glance before returning to her conversation.
“I thought she was talking,” Drimys complained, frowning. “I said you’re not coming.” He pulled out the arrowhead from his pocket and handed it to Kale. “Here. No one wants your dumb arrowhead anymore.”
Hands on his hips, Iberis paced the length of his supervisor’s office. Julian picked his glasses from the clutter on his desk and perched them low on his nose as he examined the files Iberis had loaded on his computer. Images of Kale and Drimys’s blood chemistry, dental records, and x-rays reflected off his rectangular lenses.
Coming up behind him, Iberis pointed at the screen, at test results for Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone and Human Growth Hormone. “Kale is the sixth kid in the last two months. This is a problem—”
A clattering of footsteps passed Julian’s closed door. The commotion was moving toward the emergency rooms of the infirmary and Iberis stood back, expecting Julian to rise and attend to whichever patient had just been rushed in.
Julian waved dismissively, his gaze on the screen. “Amaranth’s got it.”
“This is a problem,” Iberis repeated. “Their results are—”
“Not enough for me to declare a public health emergency.”
“I have someone else to compare him to. His growth hormone level is lower than his brother’s.”
“Twins are never exactly twins, you know that.”
Iberis regarded his colleague with disappointment. “Your assessment leaves something to be desired.”
The senior healer shot him a sharp look. “I’m going to attribute your insolence to your youthful passion for your field.”
Iberis fiddled with the fine-linked chain that hung from around his neck. His mind was racing, reviewing the files he had studied, trying to form links and shape diagnoses.
“You know I’m excellent at my job,” Iberis finally said. “These kids aren’t growing. We’ve seen this before. I think Kale has Pediatric Arrested Sension Development Syndrome—which means the virus is spreading.”
Julian leaned back in his chair and rested his foot on a small stool. The middle-aged man was due for surgery in a couple weeks, and his ankle pained him. “We already have enough panic in the streets. I have adults infected with ASDS—Prosenents—coming into the infirmary only to end up dying months later. Some Prosenents experience lung failure before they can rapidly age. Now to say that kids aren’t growing when we don’t even know why the virus is causing GnRH to drop their growth hormone level? That we don’t know why the impacts are so severe and why our hormone replacement therapy for both adults and children isn’t working? That we’re not even sure about this next batch of cases? The infirmary would look incompetent.”
“That’s what you’re afraid of?” Iberis asked. “A public relations nightmare? I’m worried about these kids.”
“So am I. But a two-month assessment on six children isn’t enough. Have you isolated Kale?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You can administer him treatment like the other children, but we need more evidence before we announce anything or take formal precautions. It’s important for the public to have confidence in the Healing Centre. That includes not prematurely announcing that Pediatric ASDS is in population again.”
Iberis resumed his pacing. “You sound like a politician.”
“I sort of am one,” Julian said.
“We need to go to dweller territory.”
“Ha! You think I’ll be able to get you permission to go? The only way I can get you there is if you use the forest dwellers as test subjects.”
Iberis’s face darkened. “You really are a politician. Whatever the cause, this started among the forest dwellers.”
“If they started it, we’d be putting Mesidisian lives at risk.”
“They’re as desperate as we are, but they could already be making progress on treatment. We can’t see the dwellers as our enemies here. We need to work with them. Either we go there or they come here. We need to figure out what’s going—"
Screams erupted from outside. Iberis rushed out of the office and down the hall without saying a word. Julian grabbed his cane and hobbled behind, scanning the healing rooms as he went. Up ahead, Iberis turned and burst into a room on the right.
The guards at the city gates prohibited dwellers from entering the city, but they must have allowed him entry. This one lay splayed on a cot, one arm hanging limply over the edge. Iberis hardly noticed the unkempt appearance that came with trekking barefoot through the forest, rather his eyes were drawn to the mess of the man’s torso. The patient had a respiratory mask on his face and his eyes were open, but his pupils had rolled back in his head.
A guard from the Security Division stood over him, breathing heavily and holding a bloodied knife. Red spattered his uniform. A woman healer cowered against the far wall, her arms thrown up to protect herself.
Iberis automatically raised his hands up and behind his head. Seconds later, two more members of the Security Division burst in from a doorway behind the assailant, tackling him to the ground.
The danger neutralised, Julian now entered the room and bent over the patient. The woman lowered her hands and Iberis recognised his colleague Amaranth, shaking and fighting back tears.
He went to her, clasping her by the arms. “Are you hurt? What happened?”
“He tried to kill me!” the rogue guard shouted, his arms now bound behind his back. The two men from the Security Division jerked him roughly to his feet.
“He was defenseless!” Amaranth screamed. “He was unarmed!”
Julian jerked his head at the guards. “Get him the hell out!” The assailant launched into a nonsensical defense, but no one was listening. The Security Division muscled him from the room.
“Iberis.” Julian now gestured for his colleague to approach.
The healer in Iberis took over. He pushed his shock aside as he moved to stand by the bed. They initiated chest compressions and attempted to resuscitate the dweller’s breathing as they attempted to save his life. Bracing herself against the wall, Amaranth watched on in horror. Eventually, Julian called the time of death. Iberis held the edge of the bed, adrenalin still coursing through his body.
Julian swore out loud. “You want to work with the dwellers? This is what happens when populations mix.”