Note: this story was originally written under the penname L. A. Helms.
The Bloody Death. It rages across the small world of Idoku. The only hope the people have? Working together to find a cure. But the leaders of Idoku hate and mistrust each other. Can they overcome their differences before it's too late?
"Hanging Separately" by Laura Ware (writing as L. A. Helms) is free on this website one week only. The story's also available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and other ebookstores.
Laura Ware (as L. A. Helms)
Qab’s concentration as he read off his computer screen was broken when the volume of the wallscreen in the common room suddenly rose to a roar.
“…and I assure you,” Prefect Uto, the leader of the Uzbi party boomed, “that we will not be stopped by the opposition, who as usual seek their own power and glory to the expense of the people…”
Politics again. Qab sighed and got up from his desk. The wallscreen in the common room took up an entire wall, which made the prefect appear twice as large as a normal man. No one sat on the comfortable pastel couches that Qab and his mate Ayi selected only last winter. Sounds in the kitchen that told him where Ayi was and why the wallscreen’s audio was set so high.
She was preparing the evening meal, moving with graceful motions from stone counter to stone counter. He took a moment to admire her – her brown hair that swung in a braid down her back; the black dress that clung to her willowy body; her skin a healthy shade of blue.
He had to raise his voice to be heard above the din in the common room. “Can we turn that down?”
“What?” she said, looking up from the colorful vegetables she was mixing together in a green ceramic bowl.
He looked around and found the control for the wallscreen near the cooking unit. He hit the mute button and the Prefect’s voice vanished in mid-sentence.
“I said,” he repeated, “that I’d like that turned down. I’m finishing up some research and the noise is interfering with my concentration.”
Ayi frowned. “But it’s important. I need to know what’s going on in the world. You know how the Enpi are – always jockeying for position.”
Qab didn’t roll his eyes because he knew that would anger his wife. The eternal struggle between the two ruling parties of the planet, the Uzbi and the Enpi, was constantly discussed on news broadcasts, with accusations flying back and forth between the leaders.
Privately, Qab wished both parties would wander into an active volcano. But he couldn’t say that to Ayi; she devoted much of her free time working for the Uzbi party and bristled at his lack of interest in politics. It was the only thing they argued about.
“My love, the news will not change that greatly in the few minutes you are in here preparing dinner,” he said, sidestepping the whole issue of politics.
He looked over the gleaming kitchen. Ayi had wanted many glass cabinets and a place to grow her own herbs. Qab had been thrilled to indulge her, installing growth lights over the shelves that held fragrant herb plants in small brown pots. The fact that all this left no room for a wallscreen in the kitchen was an added bonus.
She looked at him with a gently reproving smile. “Qab, the news could report the end of the world and you would ignore it, your nose buried in your research papers and your eyes glued to your magnifier.”
He laughed. “The world will not end because people like me bury our noses in research and glue our eyes to our magnifiers. My work keeps us safe and healthy.”
“And my cooking?” she asked, waving her knife over the vegetables in the bowl and the cut herbs on the clear cutting board next to them. “Does that help keep you healthy?”
“It might play a small part,” Qab said with mock solemnity.
She laughed, as beautiful today as when she became his mate four winters ago. “All right. I’ll lower the sound for your sake. But I wish you would pay more attention to what’s going on around you.”
“I have you for that, my love,” Qab said, kissing her on the top of her downy hair. She lifted her head and kissed him on the lips. He enjoyed the sensation for a moment, then turned the volume back on and lowered it so that it was still audible in the kitchen, but softer than before.
As he crossed the common room, he heard a newscaster speaking. “There are reports of a new strain of flu, affecting a number of people in the Haje district…”
Hmm, he thought as he sat back at his desk. New strain? Maybe there will be a report on it.
Then the news item was forgotten as he buried himself in the latest biological journal.
He didn’t know he’d just heard the first mention of The Bloody Death. Sadly, it would not be the last.
* * * * *
“This is a disaster.”
Qab sat in a videoconference with five other biologists and Prefect Uto. Qab could have done without the prefect, but the Uzbi was the majority ruler and controlled the government. And like it or not, the government was needed at this time.
Uto was speaking. “This flu – t-this Bloody Death - already it has killed 100 people. Thousands more are coming down with it, and it seems to be spreading. What are you doing about it?”
Qab spoke up. “We have just received samples of the virus here. I can’t speak for my colleagues but a solution will take time.”
“I don’t know how much time we have,” Uto said. He wrung his hands together on top of his shiny black desk. “The people are getting upset. They want us to do something. The Enpi are already implying that they can do a better job of working on this than we are.”
Qab rolled his eyes. “Shouldn’t we be more concerned with curing this than publicity?”
Uto frowned at Qab. “You should remember that you have your position because of the Uzbi. Of course we want people cured – but we need to do it before people doubt us.”
“What about the Enpi?” Qab persisted. “Have they reported anything about this flu in their area?”
Uto shrugged. “Some reports, but who can believe what they say? If they were here in the ruling territory they’d probably deny the flu existed.”
Both the Enpi and the Uzbi had permanent territories on the world of Idoku. The ruling territory switched hands depending on the will of the people, taken in a vote once every 10 winters.
“Perhaps we should speak with some of the Enpi biologists,” Qab persisted. “They might have some insight on this virus.”
“Absolutely not!” Uto said. “We will not give them any information!”
“But…” Qab began. He was cut off by Hueh, a fellow biologist who he often argued with.
“It isn’t necessary,” she said, her voice smooth and compelling. “We don’t need them to solve this problem.”
Qab felt his face flush purple. He despised Hueh, who used her skills with words to ingratiate herself with the Prefect. She already had the best lab in the district and was granted the most funds for research, though Qab found her science to be lacking.
“I have every confidence in you,” Uto said, bowing. “I will leave you to your work. Biologist Hueh, would you mind being my liaison? The rest of you – all of you quite skilled, I am sure – can report your findings to Hueh, and she can relay them to me.”
“I would be honored to serve you in this way,” Hueh said, inclining her head with a smile.
And take what credit you can, Qab thought.
“We will do all we can to eliminate this ‘Bloody Death,’” she continued. “The people will see that the Uzbi will take care of them.”
Qab dropped his eyes before anyone could see the contempt he felt for Hueh and her blatant politicking. At least he could agree that they would all work on solving the problem of The Bloody Death.
* * * * *
“Hueh was named liaison?” Ayi asked, frowning as she handed Qab a chilled glass of green fruit juice.
He sighed, wishing he’d said nothing when he came home. But he was still angry over the way the meeting had gone, and spoke out of that anger.
“It’s nothing,” he said, sipping his juice. The cold tartness refreshed him.
“That is not true!” Ayi said, her long gold and blue earrings swaying as she shook her head. “To be named liaison in this situation is prestigious. It should have gone to you – you’ve served as a biologist far longer than she has!”
“Well, it didn’t,” Qab said. “And frankly, I don’t care.”
He turned to go into his office, but Ayi blocked his way. “Why do you think you weren’t selected?”
Qab grimaced. “I don’t think it matters.”
Ayi planted her hands on her gorgeous hips. “I work very hard for the Uzbi! You have seniority! It would makes sense you would be considered as liaison. So there must be a reason.”
“Please, Ayi, this shouldn’t be about politics.”
“Qab, when will you learn everything has to do with politics?” Ayi sighed. She stared at him, her yellow eyes narrow. “Did you give any indication you aren’t loyal to the party?”
“I don’t know!” he snapped. “I’m worried about people dying of this Bloody Death, not what Uto and his cronies think of me!”
Her eyes widened and she bit her lip. “Do you consider me a crony too?”
He placed his empty glass on the black counter. “No, of course not. I’m upset, Ayi. We need to gather as much information as possible and apparently we’re not even going to be consulting with Enpi biologists…”
“You didn’t suggest that?” Ayi asked, her expression changing from hurt to shock.
“Why not? It is a wise thing to do. They are reporting symptoms as well…”
“So? We don’t need them interfering with the government,” Ayi said, her voice rising. “You know if the government offered them anything they’d use it to their advantage, not caring about what’s best.”
“Spoken like a true Uzbi,” Qab snapped. “You know the Enpi say the same about us?”
“I don’t care what they say,” Ayi said. She bit her lip, then continued in a softer voice. “Qab, you need to be more careful. I see now why you weren’t given the post of liaison. You’ve given Uto reason to question your loyalty.”
“I don’t care what Uto thinks!” Qab snorted. “But what do you think, Ayi? You think I hate our people?”
“No, of course not,” Ayi said, embracing him. “You’re a good man, Qab. But you don’t understand that it’s not enough to be good…you must also be right.”
Qab stroked her back, resigned. “And who determines who is right? It seems to be something not found in magnifiers and test tubes.”
“It isn’t,” Ayi said. “It’s found in the Uzbi.” She planted a swift kiss on his jaw then pushed him towards his office. “Go – find a cure to this flu. It’s what you do best. I’ll look out for our best interests.”
“Which is what you do best,” Qab said, dropping a kiss on her cheek before getting to work.
* * * * *
The flu virus that was sweeping the area was a resilient and deadly microorganism. Those who were infected would first display symptoms of congestion. Their subsequent coughing and sneezing sent the virus into the atmosphere, where it was inhaled into other people, adding to the number of victims.
Approximately two days after the first symptoms showed up (it varied, depending on a person’s immune system) the bleeding began. Blood seeped from mucous membranes, clots of it were coughed up by the ill. 80% of those afflicted died, drowning in their own bodily fluids.
The disease spread so quickly that even though a few recovered, enough people were struck down that services in areas of the districts were all but non-existent. Stores closed, the owners not wanting to risk exposure to The Bloody Death. Medical care was spotty as health care providers sickened themselves. Bodies had to be buried in mass graves or burned in heaps.
The Uzbi government outlawed large public gatherings and declared martial law. The Enpi accused them of using the “situation” as they called it to grab more power for themselves at the expense of the people. They further claimed the government was ignoring the needs of their territory’s sick and dying. The Uzbi denied it and accused the Enpi of trying to gain sympathy with false statements.
Qab became obsessed with seeking a cure for The Bloody Death. He dutifully sent his reports to Hueh and studied the findings of his fellow biologists, hoping to find something they missed.
He chafed at the restrictions the government placed on sharing information with the Enpi. It was as if he were being asked to do his job with one eye closed. Foolish, in his opinion, but he knew voicing that opinion would change nothing.
Ayi fussed over him – he wasn’t eating enough, wasn’t getting enough rest. Qab tried to pay attention to her concerns, knowing she spoke out of love for him. But at the same time, he knew she was proud of him for the work he was doing.
One evening he heard her coughing in the kitchen when he returned from a progress meeting. Qab felt a chill of fear as he went in to check on Ayi. She stood over the cooking unit, stirring what smelled like a savory stew. As he watched her for a moment, he saw her lift a hand to her mouth and cough lightly.
He tried to keep his voice casual as he stepped to her side and brushed her temple with his lips. “How was your day, my dear?”
She looked up from the stew and he saw her eyes swam with tears. “Qab, I’ve been coughing all day. My nose is stuffed up. Am I – do I have -”
“No,” he said quickly, wrapping his arms around her. “I’ve taken every precaution working with the virus. I wear a mask when I go out and you’ve stayed home…”
She shuddered in his arms and he felt panic rising in his chest. “Ayi! You haven’t gone out, have you?”
She sobbed against him. “It looked so beautiful yesterday, and I hadn’t felt the sun on my skin in so long…” She began to cough, her body shaking. When she could speak again, she continued. “I just went to the park. You remember how we’d walk there?”
He tightened his hold on her. “Ayi, it isn’t safe. Did you see anyone? Anyone who might have been ill?”
“There weren’t many…I did see old Advu. He was sitting on a bench. He looked so tired.” She gave him a pleading look. “You go out, Qab. Doesn’t that mean I can?”
Qab shook his head as he held his wife close. “I go out because I have to – and I take precautions!”
Qab closed his eyes as he thought of what he should do. Ayi straightened up. “I need to finish the stew,” she said, moving to the cooking unit. “Qab…if I have the Bloody Death, you are in danger, aren’t you?”
He shook his head. “Don’t think about that.”
She gave him a sad smile. “How can I not?”
“You’re going to be fine,” he said. Qab went to his office and gathered his disks of data. “I must go out for a while, my love.”
“But you haven’t eaten!” Ayi protested. She took a step towards him but then began coughing again.
Qab watched her carefully, looking for signs of blood. When he saw none, he allowed himself to hope. “Please, Ayi. I need to check something to do with this plague. Eat something, and then rest. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“All right.” He stepped towards her to kiss her, but Ayi raised a hand to stop him. “Please, Qab…just in case.”
He knew that if she had the Bloody Death he was probably already infected, but decided not to press the point. He kissed his fingers and held them towards her. “I’ll be back soon, Ayi.”
She nodded, a trembling smile on her face. Qab forced himself to put on his breathing mask and leave his home, his mate who might be dying. He couldn’t help her by simply comforting her.
First he went to the apartment complex where Advu lived. He remembered the old man, his hair yellow with age, who spent every sunny day on a bench in the nearby park, regaling those who would sit with him with tales from his youth. Qab wasn’t sure how true some of those stories were – to hear the old man tell it he single-handedly kept the Enpi from spinning into the sun – but Qab never let his doubts show.
He knew where Advu lived because he and Ayi had walked the old man home once or twice when the weather turned inclement. As Qab crossed the park he tried not to remember how it looked before the Bloody Death – children running through the yellow grass, lovers walking hand in hand along paths flanked by fragrant and colorful blossoms. He and Ayi had been among those couples.
The apartment complex stank of decay and neglect. Qab heard a moan as he passed one apartment, but the complex was eerily silent. No children laughing. No one quarrelling. Not even the sound of a wallscreen turned up high.
He stopped before Adyu’s apartment door, feeling his fear for Ayi rushing back.
The old man’s door was marked with a black X – the sign that someone there had died of the Bloody Death. Qab had seen other doors in the complex marked the same way. He’d hoped he wouldn’t find the mark here.
He’d played by the Uzbi rules because he thought he had to. But Ayi might have the Bloody Death. He didn’t have time to worry about what those in power wanted.
Qab went back home. Ayi urged him to eat and he acquiesced, consuming a bowl of stew while she picked at her own portion. He then urged her to go to bed and rest.
After he made sure she was comfortable, he went into his office and locked his door.
Once he activated his communications console he hesitated. He had only called this researcher, an Enpi named Gazol, one time. They’d met at a biology conference several winters ago and Qab had been impressed with the man’s knowledge.
Qab contacted Gazol to discuss some research he was in the midst of at the time – a method to reduce the risk of rotmold on the growing grain.
Not long afterwards Hueh came to him and questioned him closely on the call. “What did you tell him?” she demanded.
“I shared with him what I was working on concerning rotmold,” Qab said. “His insight was helpful.”
Hueh threw her hands up in the air. “Who said you could consult an Enpi biologist? Are the Uzbi biologists not knowledgeable enough?”
Qab was surprised. “I am not aware of any laws forbidding such contact.”
She scowled at him then left his office. Soon afterwards a memo came down from High Prefect Uto stating that contact with Enpi scientists “must first be approved by the government.”
The animosity between the Enpi and the Uzbi had gone beyond stupidity as far as Qab was concerned. But he complied for the sake of peace and for Ayi, who would be appalled if he took such a public stance against the party.
But now, Ayi might be dying. Qab and the other Uzbi had been studying the Bloody Death and did not yet have answers.
Maybe the Enpi’s research had turned up something. Let Uto, Hueh, and the rest of them do what they wanted – Ayi was in danger, and that was all Qab cared about.
He entered the contact information for Gazol. After a few minutes of swirling colors Qab found himself looking at the Enpi researcher.
Gazol looked far older than Qab remembered him. Purple shadows gave his eyes a haunted look and his shoulders slumped as if they bore a great weight. He frowned as he stared at his screen. “Qab?”
“I am pleased you remember me, Gazol,” Qab said. “I apologize for intruding -”
“Do your superiors know you are contacting me?” Gazol asked. He glanced over his shoulder. “Qab, if my people learn I’m talking to an Uzbi scientist…”
“That isn’t important,” Qab said.
“No?” Gazol asked. “And you haven’t initiated contact with me for two winters because our last talk was unproductive?”
Qab sighed. “No, you’re correct. But things are different now.”
“I wish that were true,” Gazol said. “When you contacted me that one time my superiors interrogated me quite harshly. The only reason I kept my post was that you were the one who contacted me instead of the other way around.”
“Gazol, my mate may have the Bloody Death,” Qab said. He hadn’t meant to blurt it out but felt the Enpi scientist needed to know what the stakes were.
Gazol’s eyes widened. “I am sorry to hear that.”
“Please. I’ll share with you what we’ve discovered. It’s possible you and your fellow scientists have discovered things we haven’t. Together we might find a cure for this plague before it consumes us.”
For a minute the Enpi biologist was silent. Then he sighed. “You are right. I will tell you what I know. The lives of our people are more important than these petty politics.”
“Thank you,” Qab said. He grabbed a data stick. “Let me feed you what we have…”
For the next half-hour Qab and Gazol went over the data. Qab’s instincts had been right – the Enpi had gone in a different direction with their research, and they had uncovered things about the microorganism that had eluded the Uzbi.
Qab felt hope beginning to rise. As he and Gazol examined the data, he saw a possibility – a line of research that could lead to something. It would take time, but perhaps he could rush some of it, get something that they could at least test –
The communication screen went dark.
Qab stared at the blank screen, not understanding what had happened at first. Then it hit him and he pulled the data stick from the port. He scanned the room frantically as he jumped from his seat, wondering what else he should take –
The door to his office burst open. Two Uzbi security guards stood there, weapons out. “Please come with us, Biologist Qab.”
* * * * *
Qab had never met Prefect Uto in person before. The man was shorter than he appeared on a wallscreen, but his rage made him appear much larger.
“Treason!” Uto shouted. “What did you think you were doing, transmitting information about our research to the Enpi!”
Hueh stood nearby, her arms folded, a smug look on her face. She had been the one to discover what Qab was doing, and she had been the one to report him.
Qab shook with anger. “I thought that private communications were private,” he said to her.
“You should know better,” Hueh said. “In this time of crisis we need to be sure there are no leaks. It does no good for someone to undermine our work.”
“I was not undermining our work,” Qab argued. He turned to Uto. “My mate serves the Uzbi well, and now is ill. Your guards frightened her with their tactics.”
Uto narrowed his eyes. “Your mate is in custody at the moment, Qab. We know she is ill – we have placed her in quarantine.”
“In custody! She had nothing to do with this!”
“So you say,” Uto shrugged. “What did you tell the Enpi, Qab? How badly have you damaged us?”
“Gazol and I were working together to find a cure for the Bloody Death!” Qab yelled. “Isn’t that what’s important? Together we’ve made more progress than we have apart!”
Hueh snorted. “I doubt it.”
Qab pulled the data stick from his pocket. He extended it to Hueh, his hand shaking. “Look. Look at what we’ve done. You’ll see, we are on a path to finding a cure – but we weren’t finished!”
Hueh glanced at the Prefect. When he nodded, she took the stick and left the office.
“While we wait, I would like to see my wife,” Qab said.
Uto frowned. “You are hardly in a position to make demands.”
“I’m almost certain she has the Bloody Death,” Qab said. “She has served the Uzbi all this time – you would deny her the comfort of her mate?”
After a moment’s consideration, Uto nodded. “Very well. I’ll have Security escort you.”
* * * * *
“Qab!” Ayi, pale under the glaring white lights sat up in bed. Qab barely heard the door slam behind him as he sat down and embraced his love.
Ayi put up her hand, fingers not quite touching the mask Qab wore. “It’s true, isn’t it?” she said, tears swimming in her eyes. “I do have the Bloody Death.”
“Perhaps not,” Qab said. He reached up to pull the mask off, but Ayi grabbed his wrist.
“My love, don’t.” She tried to speak again but began to cough. Qab grabbed a cloth on the small metal table near the bed and gave it to his mate who pressed it against her mouth. When she lowered it, the bloodstains glistened darkly against the white material.
Ayi began to sob softly. Qab wrapped his arms around her, swallowing his own tears. Hueh must convince Uto to let us continue to work with the Enpi. She must.
* * * * *
Qab lost track of time. There was no way to turn off the light in the room and no one answered his calls on the intercom.
Ayi dozed off finally, her hand gripping his tightly. He watched her sleep, noting the dark circles under her eyes and the beginning of bruising on her arms under her skin. She’d had two more bleeding episodes, and the cloth he’d been using was badly stained in spite of his rinsing it out in the sink.
The door opened and a guard gestured to Qab. He gently released his mate’s hand and came to the door. “What is it?”
“Prefect Uto wishes to speak to you.”
With a final glance at Ayi, Uto followed the guard out. Before being allowed to see the Prefect, Qab was required to take an antiseptic shower. Qab doubted that such precautions would do any good if he was infected, but he supposed it made someone feel better.
Prefect Uto waved Qab to a chair. The Uzbi leader looked tired and not quite as officious as he’d been at first. Qab sat, wondering where Hueh was.
The silence in the office stretched into minutes. Qab tried to be still. But he had to know what the Prefect was considering. “Sir, will my mate be permitted to return home?”
“What?” Uto look startled. He rubbed his eyes. “Forgive me, Qab, but I’ve had to make some difficult decisions.”
“What kind of decisions?” Qab asked. “Did Biologist Hueh examine the data?”
“Yes, she did,” Uto nodded. “She said she was quite…impressed…with the progress you and your Enpi counterpart made.”
“So we’ll be allowed to continue working together?” Qab asked, feeling a stab of hope energize him.
“I contacted the Enpi prefect,” Uto said, as if Qab had been silent. “We discussed pooling our efforts in order to find a cure for the Bloody Death.” Uto turned to gaze out the large glass window behind him.
Uto shook his head, and turned back to face Qab. “It’s not simple, I’m afraid. As a scientist, I know you don’t understand the Uzbi’s duty to retain our power.”
“What does retaining power have to do with anything?” Qab asked.
“The Enpi have made demands in return for their cooperation,” Uto said. He slammed a fist down on his desk. “We’re in a crisis, and they want to address petty issues! They want early elections! More of a presence in our government beforehand!”
Qab stared at Uto, unable to speak for a moment. Then he burst out, “This is a crisis! They want to discuss politics now?”
“What can I say?” Uto said, spreading his hands. “There is nothing I can do. We can’t give in to their demands, certainly.”
“But…but…perhaps a compromise can be reached…negotiations…”
“Negotiations?” Uto said, looking shocked. “You can’t be serious! The Enpi need to turn this Gazol over to us so we can find the cure! That’s the only solution!”
“But if they won’t…let me go to them!” Qab said.
“Impossible,” Uto said.
“Why?” Qab said, on the edge of his chair.
“Do you want the Enpi to claim they cured the Bloody Death? Do you have any idea how we will look in the people’s eyes then?”
“It doesn’t matter how we look!” Qab screamed. He was on his feet, leaning over Uto’s desk, his face inches from the Prefect’s. “People are dying! The only hope we have is to work together and forget about politics!”
“You may have made progress in finding a cure, but you are a fool, Qab!” Uto said. He thrust his face forward, forcing Qab back. “What can we do if we don’t retain power? Nothing! It’s all fine to talk about negotiations and working with our enemies, but if we don’t have power we can do nothing!”
“If we have power but no cure we will die,” Qab said softly.
Uto shook his head. “I have every confidence you and the other biologists will come up with a cure.” The Prefect smoothed his shirt, becoming calm again. “Biologist Hueh has agreed to step aside to allow you to take the lead in the research. It is an honor you well deserve.”
Qab clenched his teeth against the bile that filled his throat. “I don’t want or need your ‘honors.’”
“I understand,” Uto said. “But it is done. And think of your mate – she will receive the best care as a reward for your work.”
The mention of Ayi was the only thing that kept Qab from storming from the room. He knew that she was his one weakness, the one hold Uto and his ilk had on him.
For her sake he’d swallow his anger and do what he had to.
“Very well,” he said, his voice sounding as dead to him as any victim of the Bloody Death.
* * * * *
Three days later, Qab sat beside Ayi’s bed, holding her hot hand in his. She was barely conscious, the drugs in her system freeing her from pain as she slipped away.
She looked at him as she gasped for breath. “I’m so sorry…sorry I got sick.”
He shook his head. “Hush, Ayi. You’ve done nothing wrong.” He looked at the monitors that recorded her failing vital signs. Knowing it was almost time, he removed his mask and leaned over her to kiss her.
She tried to stop him. “Qab…the Bloody Death…”
“I’m immune, my love,” he whispered. “I just found out.”
Tears trickled down her cheeks as he kissed her. When he raised his head, her eyes were lifeless.
He embraced her body, hoping that if Ayi existed on some other plane, she would forgive him for his lie. He had no idea if he was immune or not. He simply didn’t care.
* * * * *
Winter came. The death toll among the Enpi and Uzbi rose. Medical services were overwhelmed, and the air stank of death and burned bodies.
Qab lived at the lab. He hadn’t been back to his home since Ayi died. The part of him that had lived and loved with her in that place had perished with her.
It was late one night. Cold pressed against the windows of the lab. His communications console beeped. Without glancing at the screen, he flicked it on. “Qab.”
“Biologist Qab? You are the one who contacted the Enpi Scientist Gazol a while back?”
Irritated, Qab turned to the screen. The man who stared back at him was unfamiliar. “Are you Uto’s replacement? He said there would be no consequences from that.”
“Prefect Uto of the Uzbi is dead?”
Qab’s eyes narrowed. “He died last night.” Qab had heard of the prefect’s passing in a communication passed around the staff. He was only sorry the fool hadn’t caught the Bloody Death sooner. “Who are you?”
“My name is Diam. I am the new Enpi Prefect.” He swallowed. “Our prefect also died recently. The Bloody Death?”
“What else is it these days?” Qab asked. “What do you want of me? The new Prefect hasn’t been named yet as far as I know, and I have no doubt he’ll want to continue the current policy of not speaking to each other.”
“That’s what I want to address, Biologist Qab,” Diam said. “I believe we need to reexamine this policy.”
“You do?” Qab asked, an eyebrow raised. “And tell me, Prefect Diam, where have you been all this time? Why is this the first I’ve heard of it?”
“Qab, you must understand…I had to keep my views on this quiet, given the political climate here. Had I spoken out, I would never be in the position to change it. I’m sure the politics are similar among the Uzbi?”
Qab said nothing. He stared at the prefect, his mouth a thin line, his eyes blazing.
Diam cleared his throat. “I was hoping the two of us could prevail on your prefect to open the doors between us. Working together, we have a chance to find a cure to the Bloody Death.”
“No,” Qab said.
“No?” Diam looked alarmed. “But you once thought that working together that was possible.”
“I did believe that. And I still do,” Qab said. “I simply do not wish to find a cure any longer.”
“Because,” Qab said as he reached over to end the communication, “I don’t believe we deserve to live.”
The screen went dark. Qab sat staring at it for long moments.
He began to cough.
He’d finally caught the Bloody Death.
He was glad.
Hanging Separately. Copyright © 2011 by L. A. Helms.
Cover image is courtesy of NASA and the NSSDC Photo Gallery.
No endorsement of this story by NASA or the NSSDC is suggested or implied by the use of this photo.
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.