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When the tall, muscular man stepped out of the airway, those who knew him stood aside. As any of his enemies could testify, Carlon was not one to be taken lightly. Even the Nevian business longsuit could not hide his broad back or the way he moved through the crowd. Perhaps it was the ease with which he pressed forward, an athlete’s grace. A person might suspect his pocket held a gun or a knife. Few dared to find out.
But Carlon knew the truth. In his youth he had proved to enough of the street vermin that he could hold his own, so no one dared to bother him now. But the older he got the less safe he felt, not that twenty-seven was old, just that his only exercise anymore was the two-larga walk each way to and from the airway tube. It kept him trim, but not fit. Karra could take him on.
Carlon frowned. Uneasy memories wriggled every time he thought about her; something had been wrong with her for a long time now, and nothing he had tried worked.
It all began the day they went into hiding. Their father had stocked a one-room apartment in the next building with food, furnal oil, a heating-cooking unit, blankets and clothes for the day the Security would arrive to arrest him and his wife. Each child knew what to do. They had practiced their escape until it took scant minutes.
The day finally arrived. Security burst into the apartment. The children screamed and scattered to their assigned rooms, locking the doors behind them while the parents offered no resistance, but tried to delay the Security for as long as possible. Every time he remembered the night that changed their lives, he heard his father’s whisper.
“Go, Carlon. Keep them safe. Keep them out of the Nevians’ hands.”
No matter the incredible obstacles, he had obeyed his father’s last words to him.
Karra’s job had been to seal the secret closet filled with their father’s illegal collection. The older children fastened the little ones into a cradle arrangement that slid each one of them from one building to the one across the few prems of space that separated them. Karra sealed the closet, making her the last one to leave. From across the way, Carlon willed her to hurry. The other cradles had just been disconnected. Their ropes trailed down from the windows of the apartment they had just vacated, leaving the impression that the children had lowered themselves to the ground. He wanted to shut the window so the Security would never think to check the next building. In practice it had taken her half as long.
“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” he whispered, as if the force of his thoughts could make it happen.
Finally he saw her sit in the cradle. He tugged with all his might, moving the line so quickly she nearly lost her balance.
“What took you so long?” he hissed at her.
“This wasn’t for practice,” she explained. “This was for real. I had to make sure nothing showed. What if they find it, Carlon? What if they find the magnetic lock, or measure the rooms? Daddy said nothing’s foolproof. He said it could be found if they looked hard enough. What if they find it?”
“You brat!” he hissed at her. “What if they find us? How will Daddy know where we are if Nevians relocate us to work centers or a children’s home? What will I tell Mama if they adopt out the babies?”
“Don’t you care?” Tears sparkled in her eyes. “Don’t you care if they find his work? It’s important, isn’t it? Why would he spend so much time on it if it wasn’t important?”
“You never answered my question. What took you so long?”
“I couldn’t find the book.”
“Daddy’s last book. You know, the Zarindan history. Daddy’s story. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find it. Then I heard one of them trying to get in the room and I had to leave. What if they find it, Carlon?” She burst into anguished tears.
Carlon hadn’t cared. Their father’s politics had kept them in poverty, and had haunted them their whole lives. As far as he was concerned, Dad could rot in prison. But one look at his little sister told him he’d better never say so aloud.
Carlon was the only one permitted to leave their apartment. At his parents’ request, he had been working under an assumed name for two previous years. Although he had wanted to attend the Public Academy then attend one of the professional academies, financial necessity had cut his education, and his plans, short. The apartment, in his name according to the lease, stated he was the only resident and that he was actually two years older. If the children, by being noisy, let any of their neighbors know that they lived there, he could lose his apartment, and he would face his worst fears—homelessness as well as a family to feed.
Too old to be placed in a children’s home, but not really involved in his father’s work, he doubted they would send him to the prison camp where they had placed Dad. But there were work camps for young men past their sixteenth birthday. Both he and Jem would probably be sent to one of them until they somehow convinced the authorities they had never been involved in Dad’s subversive nonsense. Suzin, being only twelve, and not yet considered an adult until she turned sixteen, might be sent to work as a servant.
But the little ones would definitely be sent to a children’s home. They would adopt out the two youngest, Kata and Benej, not even caring if their mother still lived. Carlon had asked Dad why Nevians would adopt Homelander children, especially since biologically the two species did not combine.
“They don’t want to breed with us,” Dad had said. “They want Nevian humans. Those Others want people who are like them in culture, but are more capable of reproduction than they are.”
Dad had said much more during that and several other long discussions, but Carlon had blocked out most of it. He never again wanted to be hounded or poverty-stricken because of politics. As his father explained Nevian culture, he found it far more desirable than fighting for his own.
He found it attractive that most Nevian couples were lucky to produce one child. A significant number produced no children at all. A few birthed as many as three children, which was almost scandalous. They treasured children, but hated “unrestrained” reproduction. In their opinion, which became law when they took control, any woman bearing a child outside of marriage must resign herself to forced sterilization. Not long ago they took the child as well, although that had changed recently.
“It’s their way of controlling us. They would rather destroy us completely than have us overpower them in sheer numbers. Sann’s Health Center isn’t about health at all. It’s about extermination, not as us as a species, but as our diverse cultures. Through Sann’s, the promiscuous are bred out. I wish those Others would return to Nevia and leave us alone. We did much better without them.”
It was Dad’s favorite argument. Carlon had heard versions of his father’s position most of his life. But what he knew was that eight children consumed more food than Dad was able to bring home. The small Nevian families, consisting of couples and possibly a single child, sounded very attractive to Carlon, and as the handspans stretched into mooncycles, no children sounded even better.
Of all his siblings, Karra alone refused to remain in hiding. Once Security stopped patrolling the neighborhood, she left the apartment daily. He tried reasoning with her, explaining the situation and the incredible need for her to stay put. But, no, she had to find a safe place for Dad’s small library. When reasoning with her failed, he tried physical coercion, hoping the beatings he gave would stop her daily ramblings. They didn’t. She then chose to slip out when he slept or worked. No matter what he did, from that time on he had no control over his little sister. Could she have been only eight at the time?
That year, all of them closed up into that tiny apartment, turned Karra from an obedient child into someone else entirely. Something hard lurked behind her eyes. While Jem argued with Carlon to his face, Karra chose more devious ways to rebel. Outwardly compliant to Su’s requests for help with the four younger children, she often slipped away leaving tasks undone. Instead, when she returned home, she brought gifts, a packet of soy, a jar of milk, a fistful of red dits, always beggars’ fare. Carlon still felt shame when he remembered how she would turn her tiny offerings over to the family rather than using them for herself, even though by that time the food had run out. Any surplus money needed to be spent on furnal fuel. Carlon’s income could not meet the needs of all eight of them.
He was never sure when he became convinced that Karra no longer begged for food or coins. Working as many plus hours as his employer allowed kept him away from paying attention to her meanderings. Not until their mother returned the following year, sick and dying, did he realize that what Karra brought home was much more than a beggar’s fare.
A few days before Mama returned home, Jem, who had already moved out and was busy establishing himself in the Homelander Front, arrived just as the family was sitting on the floor to eat a meal. Suzin placed cups of milk in front of the two youngest. The others looked at the milk longingly, but all knew that everyone else drank water. The meal was beans and flatbread. It would be the only meal either he or Suzin would eat that day so that the younger children, who were too young to eat very much at any one time, could at least have another meal in the morning. Karra would probably go out foraging for something more, he had no doubt. He knew by now he could not keep her inside. But Karra looked pale, and did not touch her food.
“She came home with her dress all bloody,” Suzin whispered to him. “I had her change clothes and wash up, but she wouldn’t let me see where she was hurt. I’m worried about her, Carlon.”
“Then she can just stay home where it’s safer.” He had no energy to spend on his one rebellious sibling. At least Jem had moved out.
The lock in the door clicked. All heads turned. Being in hiding had made all of them hyper-alert.
“Hello, all,” Jem said. He wore a grim expression and carried a pot. “Look, I brought us some hot, right off the stove, soyham—I’ll need the pot back after supper, Su—and a bag of apples. It’s a regular feast.” His eyes stole toward Karra and he hesitated. “Has she told you yet?”
“Told us what?” Carlon asked.
“She was there. I think the crowd trampled her in their panic. She had blood on her dress.” No one hurried him. They were all more interested in the soyham and apples, and looked at Suzin expectantly.
“Sit down, Jem, and join us,” she invited.
“Sure.” He took the bowl Suzin offered and found a place on the floor.
He spent a moment watching Suzin dish out the soyham along with the beans. She would cut the apples into slices later, and each one would get a few slices, not a whole piece of fruit.
“I went to the prison camp to see Dad. They were taking prisoners to the new facility, and Dad’s group was next to be loaded in the transport. But he never made it. Suddenly guards started firing rifles, and they took out the whole line of prisoners, including Dad.” His voice broke. “Dad’s dead, guys.”
Suzin rushed over to where Karra still sat, unmoving, not touching her food. She made comforting sounds, but Karra seemed not to hear. Neither did she accept Suzin’s attempt at comfort.
Carlon watched, his face impassive while his gut churned in anger. “Are you sure?”
Jem also watched Karra. “Ask her. She saw it too.”
“Don’t you dare ask her anything!” Suzin snapped at them. “Look at her. She’s barely functioning as it is.”
At that, Karra got up and ran out of the apartment. Where she had been sitting lay a red full five-wen note.
Suzin burst into tears.
Carlon felt suddenly very old. No doubt about it now. The whole responsibility of his siblings’ survival rested on him. He had just turned seventeen. Would a children’s home be better? He did not think so, and he intended to honor his father’s final request: Keep them safe. Keep them out of the Nevians’ hands.
Two days later, upon returning from work, Carlon found Mama sitting on a pallet, a sweet, weary expression on her face. She did not look healthy, but she looked at peace.
“Suzin tells me you’ve been caring for all my babies for me. I am so proud of you, Carlon. Sit down and tell me about it.”
Her children, except the two babies who no longer remembered her, and Jem who had not returned since bringing the news of their father’s murder, had crowded around her, but they made room for Carlon.
“Sit down, everyone,” Suzin said. “Karra brought home some sugar, so we’re having an apple dessert tonight after supper.” Supper was bean and soyham soup, and strips of dried flatbread.
“They let you go,” Carlon said, amazed.
“Except as leverage against my husband, I’m of no value to them. They hoped to catch one of you older children as a witness against him, but we made sure you children knew nothing, and repeatedly told them so.”
“Mama,” Suzin said. “Was it bad?”
A fit of coughing kept her from responding immediately. Flecks of blood dotted her lips. Suzin handed her a rag, already bloodstained.
“For your father, probably. For me? Not really. They were hardly gentle, but those of us in the women’s section were not abused. You see, they assume that because Other men run their women’s lives, human women have no lives apart from their husbands either. I suppose in their opinion that was true of my life as well. They never understood that my husband never ran my life, that caring for my children was my chosen career. But it was not true of every woman in our part of the prison camp.”
“Were you involved in the Homelander Front?”
“They thought so. They still do. Su, baby, we were never part of the Homelander Front. We fought against it as well as the Nevians. A military solution is no solution, for then we trade one tyrant for another.”
Carlon believed otherwise. Dad had definitely been involved in the Front, no matter what he had told their mother. But he would never share his doubts with his mother. It was too good having Mama home to let dissention spoil it. Her presence eased the harsh grip of bitterness on his soul. When he went to work the next morning his steps resounded with renewed energy. He would work harder, find a doctor, get Mama some medicine…
She never lasted that long. Mama died before the spring snows melted. Carlon was devastated. He had found a doctor willing to come to their apartment, and had requested medicine, but the doctor merely shook his head. She needed intensive hospital care. Her disease was well past dosing with medicine.
They all crowded around Mama’s pallet. Carlon closed her sightless eyes and he gently wrapped her in a blanket. Suzin’s eyes were swollen and red from weeping, although her tears no longer flowed. With Jem’s help, Carlon continued wrapping their mother. Like Suzin, they had cried earlier when they told the younger children that their mother had passed on. Dugaan and Saril clutched their mother’s blanket, sobbing, not yet willing for Carlon to fold the corner of the blanket over her face. The two youngest, Kata and Benej, clung to Suzin and wailed, but not because they missed their mother. Suzin was their mother. They cried because she was upset. Each one wore sorrow like a cloak. But Karra reacted strangely. She scowled, her eyes remaining tearless.
Suzin, seeing the familiar look, watched helplessly as Karra stormed from the apartment.
“I’ll get a cart,” Carlon said, grateful for something to do. He would borrow a pushcart, and he and Jem would load their mother onto the cart and parade her through their neighborhood. Others would join them, singing and praying to the Maker, until they reached the Mound. After spending some time celebrating her return to the Maker, they would place her onto the Mound.
More than likely there would also be a few other bodies, with their mourners in attendance. Some mourners, unwilling to leave their dead, would remain until the Deathcart came. Because the Irelli no longer roamed the Northland Wilderness, no funeral pyres were allowed. Besides, no one could afford the fuel to burn a body, as was the Irelli custom. The Zarindan, Daddy had told them, used to ship their dead out to sea. He wasn’t sure what they did with their dead after the Nevians took control. But here in Sector Five, at least the Nevians honored Irelli dead by allowing a Deathcart, which arrived every evening at the Mound, to remove the dead and take them to a public incinerator.
Karra never made it to the funeral. In fact, Karra did not return home at all. As each day passed, Carlon found himself hoping she had found other living arrangements, and then a moment later would feel guilty for wishing that a child of ten was no longer under his care. But she didn’t act like any ten-year-old he had ever known.
She was gone for nearly a full mooncycle, returning just as the family loaded the last of their belongings into a borrowed cart. Karra accused him of moving away while she was gone so that she would never find them again. In truth, the money he had saved for his mother’s medicine and hospital stay could now be spent on a better apartment. He had also secured a job under his own name, and now they could afford to move. Karra had been gone so long, no one even knew if she would return. And no one, except possibly Su, had any energy left to care.
His struggles with Karra never ended. She refused to explain how she made her money. She often disappeared. Each time Carlon hoped she would remain gone. She came home drunk for the first time the year she turned twelve. The beating he gave her, intending to put a stop to such nonsense, resulted in her once again leaving the apartment. That time she remained gone for two years, and he thought he had succeeded in finally ridding himself of her. But like a disease, she returned, this time with a brat.
Carlon finally secured a job with a future. The fact that he could both read and write in Nevian, plus the fact that he could sell the coat off a freezing man, eventually led to the position he now held as vice president of sales in a Nevian firm. At the time she brought the infant Chalatta into their home, though, all he knew was that he needed to keep his position safe from entanglements with Jem whose work with the Homelander Front sometimes brought Security to their door.
Karra was nowhere near his thoughts when he arrived home that evening. Expecting supper, he found Karra sitting on the couch nursing an infant.
Karra, however, no longer cringed from his wrath. She calmly handed the baby to Suzin who slipped into the girls’ room, locking the door behind her. Karra planted herself in front of the door, daring him to intervene. He tried, using his bulk to intimidate her. It had worked in the past. But her quick knife sliced his palm and forearm, ripping a gash in his new longsuit. The rip in his longsuit bothered him more than the cut in his skin, even though it would require stitches. He still wore a scar on his wrist and palm. The longsuit had been harder to replace. Incensed that she had ruined the sleeve of his longsuit, he charged at her again. This time she cut his cheek just under his eye.
“I could have killed you then,” she told him in a voice too young to be that deadly. “Please be reasonable. Chalatta will stay and you will allow it. I promise that you will never need to be responsible for a single dit of her care.”
To her credit, she kept the promise. But he always doubted that she earned her living by barebacking, as she claimed. Street paygirls made far less than Karra brought home to support her daughter. She was involved in something illegal, he was positive. He hoped that once Chalatta entered school, she would take her brat with her to whatever hole she called her home.
But recently Karra decided she couldn’t just crawl away into a hole somewhere. No, she was going to “better herself”’ by taking advantage of the Second Start Option, designed for people who had passed their sixteenth birth year and not secured the Primary Basic. True, all of them had promised their mother they would try to graduate from Basic, if not the Public Academy, and perhaps even attend one of the upper level academies for a profession. Their father had been an educated man. She wanted the same for her children. But to Carlon’s way of thinking, Karra had used up her chances. It was time she lived the life she had chosen, and remove herself and her ill-begotten child from his home.
“You already work a profession,” he had told her just two days ago. “Whether by barebacking or whatever else strikes your fancy, take it somewhere else. Better yet, take your brat with you!”
“Carlon!” Suzin gasped.
But he ignored her. “What kind of an influence do you think you’re leaving on this family? All your life decisions have been warped, twisted by whatever you consider when making choices.”
Karra regarded him with an expressionless calm that made him think of ice.
“I never asked for your permission,” she said, her voice low, almost seductive.
“That fact I know. You come here telling me that your sister will care for your youngster while you pursue something grander? Well, I won’t have it. You’re well past your sixteenth birthday. Get your freetin’ backside out of my home!”
“You know I will leave soon enough,” she said. “But I only wanted to know if Suzin would mind being home when Chalatta arrived here after school. She costs you nothing, so what’s your problem?”
“I’ll tell you my problem, you ungrateful freet slappin’ witch. It’s you coming here as if you belonged. Well, I don’t know where you belong, but it isn’t here with decent folk. You take whatever you have left here and never come back!”
Suddenly Chalatta darted forward. “Don’t you tell my mama to leave, Uncle Carlon! She’s my mama, and even if you don’t want her here, I do!”
In that moment, Karra lost her icy calm. She pulled her daughter to her in an unmistakable gesture of motherly protection, and glared at him. Carlon would never have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.
“You stupid little backside,” he shouted, regardless of what the girl thought. “Don’t you see what you’re doing to your daughter? You’re no more than trash, a cold, hard and ugly lump of something that only appears human. You’re worth no more than rubble on the streets, good for only being walked on, and either you’ll make your precious baby just like you, or she’ll learn to hate you for what you are.” He was pleased to find that her face paled slightly, that finally he had gotten through, if only for a moment.
Carlon threw more explosive words at her, fully aware that words were all that remained in his arsenal. He insisted that she should return to her felonious friends, and quit moving in and out of his life. But it changed nothing. True to form, once Su agreed to be home for Chalatta, Karra left.