Today I heard that they had killed my other son.
I knew as soon as I heard the sharp, hard-edged rapping on my door. Few who live here knock at all, or use the locks our 'protectors' assign us. It is unnecessary where no-one is a stranger and our only enemies installed all the doors. To lock them, even from the inside, would be to admit that we live in prison cells. Knocking means Peace Keepers, arrived before dawn.
I could not hurry to open the door, and they maintained the illusion that it was mine to open. They waited while I raised my limbs from the cold double bed and put on my robe. Perhaps they felt sorry for an old widow - even the most hardened Peace Keeper has a mother somewhere, possibly a commune like this. I had forgotten where I'd put my shoes and was too impatient to look for them, although the sense of urgency was meaningless. There was nothing to do but listen. Peace Keepers never bring good news. Like the parents of soldiers everywhere, I dreaded any word from the front until I had already heard the worst. Now I have heard it twice over.
I was surprised that the woman in black on my doorstep thrust a tiny portable holo-generator into my hand instead of telling me the news herself. The Peace Keepers waste as little technology as possible on us; when the last tractor broke down it took us a dozen weekens and two dozen requisition forms to get it repaired. The last time they sent a holo was when Bialar was promoted to captain.
I watched the soldier stalk back across the compound towards the airstrip, resisting the temptation to play the message then and there. Instead, I washed my face, put on my clothes, braided my hair and straightened my spine. I still could not find my shoes. Perhaps when I return home I will discover that they brought more, a whole new crate full of ill-fitting regulation pairs to give us fresh blisters.
When I left the house I walked into a commune startled into activity by the unscheduled arrival of the supply carrier. Everywhere people were rubbing their eyes and yawning under the harsh spotlights, scrambling to load the provisions that we hadn't finished picking, let alone packing. I heard an officer complaining that the fruit was unripe, and saw my neighbour bite back a retort and nod meekly even though the Peace Keepers are weekens early. I wondered if either of my sons had ever tasted the liquor that they make from our produce, and if it tasted like home.
Some of my neighbours stood listening to messengers, glad for any news of their own soldier children. In another doorway, I saw a black clad man offering jewelry to a sulky adolescent girl. Others were frozen with the same quiet anguish that gripped me when they told me that my boys were among the honoured ones who would be allowed to join their betters amid the stars. By sunset, I will not be the only one here who has lost a child. The thought fails to raise any empathy in me; in our grief we are each alone.
Nobody bothered an aged widow slipping away into the forest; I have done enough in times gone by to earn a morning off. If a farmer had tried to stop me, I would only have needed to show them the little black cylinder addressed to me and a husband dead five cycles. I am glad I didn't have to do that, now no-one will know of this second tragedy until I choose to share it. If I choose to share it.
If a Peace Keeper had questioned me, I think that I would have struck them. The penalty for striking a Peace Keeper is instant execution. At least it would have saved me finding out what the holo-generator said. I kept my face blank and my fists clenched until I had left the town and its interlopers behind, and when I was well away I found a large, smooth rock within sight of the river. I turned the holo-generator over in my hands while I waited for the sun to rise behind me, and when the light was good enough I breathed deeply and pushed the button. An image of a stern man appeared, to give me a message so brief it took less than a heartbeat to hear:
"Your son has been declared irreversibly contaminated."
I switched the holo off, and put it in my pocket although I would probably have tossed it in the river if I could have thrown it that far with my aged arm. Now I know that they sent me a solid artifact in the hope that it would humiliate me, that the farmers here would accept Peace Keeper cultural biases the same way we accept their money and their violence. To them, contamination is worse than death; and in a sense it is worse for me as well, because it means that I have not even that single certainty to cling to.
My son has been declared irreversibly contaminated. Seven words that could mean anything. He displeased someone higher up the chain of command. He had what is euphemistically called an inappropriate relationship with a member of another species, and got caught by the wrong person. He deserted his unit and fled into the uncharted territories. Anything at all. Nothing in particular.
I have a terrible feeling that this has something to do with the last bad news I received.
Like 'irreversibly contaminated', honourable death is a phrase that appears to hold information until you examine it, when its meaning slips away like water running through cupped hands. I don't know if my Tauvo died planetside when someone fired a laser at his head, or in space when his ship ploughed into an asteroid, or in an infirmary after hours of useless surgery. I don't know if he screamed and whimpered for days, or was dead before he had time to notice. I do not know who killed him.
I only know the sick rage that rushed through me when I was told, the conviction that the person who murdered my youngest baby had to die the way we strung Melork up when he killed Balan in a drunken brawl. Blood debts must be paid. I knew that it was the Peace Keepers that stole him that owed me his blood, whoever might have stopped his heart.
Did his older brother feel the same? From my rock, I can see the bend in the river where Tauvo nearly drowned when he was only three. I can remember standing over those who were reviving him, keeping hold of Bialar while he tried to kick free, searching my younger son's face for a clue that would tell me he was alive. I searched the message of his death in the same way, but that time I knew for certain that he would not choke and breath again, that there were no clues to find. What meaning did Bialar find in his brother's death?
The news of Tauvo's end was as insubstantial as the breath of the indifferent Peace Keeper who gave it to me, but I keep the holo they sent me of Bialar in his new uniform under my mattress. The last time I saw him in the flesh he was eight cycles old, and at first I was shocked by the grown man. But I searched for the child I'd given birth to behind the beard and the posture, and heavens help me, I found him. The captain's bars suited him, the uniform was immaculate, but there was something about his eyes that separated him from the creature that gave me the holo-generator this morning.
I like to think that he remembered. The river, the fruit, his father, myself. How could he look at his brother, or into a mirror, seeing my face, and forget? I suspect that the irreversible contamination was in him when he left here, under his skin. That is spilled out with his brother's blood. I cannot know.
There will be no curt message to tell me that he is a corpse in truth as well as in metaphor, no reassurances that he died a good and honourable death as a loyal Peace Keeper. This is the last news that they will ever bring me, and it tells me that my Bialar is not merely dead but obliterated. My youngest child is dust. My eldest child is an un-person an impossible distance from these orchards and herds and his mother. I am an old woman, sitting in the morning sunlight refusing to weep.
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Title: Writing Home
Author: Andraste [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | PG-13 | gen | 7k | 02/10/04
Summary: Bialar Crais' mother gets some news from the front.
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