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The Circle's Begin

On the second night in the loft, once Carey got to sleep, Justin again lit the candle and started asking Chris about his past.

"So what happened to Jan?"

"I don't know." Chris wrinkled his forehead. "I mean... "

"You didn't know her all that well, I guess."

"No! That's not true. It's not that I don't care. It's just that... you've got to understand that I'm having trouble remembering some things. I know Jan was the most important thing in the world to me." It was a hot night, but it wasn't until the questions started that Chris began sweating.

"Jan was at her mother's funeral after she got the Death, but Jan was sick too, and then she died. I wanted to go to her funeral but they stole her body before there could be one."

"So her mother died from it first, that makes her the second to get the Death. Who stole her?"

"No, she wasn't the second, she was the first." Chris was soaking wet with sweat now. "I'm sure she was the first."

"You're not making any sense," said Justin, now convinced that Chris was only confused about knowing the first people to get the Death.

"No!" Chris grabbed Justin by the shoulders and held the boy close so that he could see into the green eyes. "Listen. Jan was the first to get the Death, but she was young. So she didn't die for a few weeks. But Jan's mother got it from her, and she was 45. She died in just a few days. When Jan's mother suddenly dropped dead from a strange disease, I thought Jan would become my wife. But she wasn't feeling well, and not just from her mother dying. She was sick, and looking much older every day, just like her mother had. It was so bizaare.

"Then by the time she died," suddenly there was that ache in the sinuses again, the pain he had felt in the desert, "others were getting it. Soon everyone in town. Everyone in the world. Everyone but me."

"You said somebody took her."

Chris leaned back against the wall and Justin moved to lay against his chest, as he had the night before. "She was in the hospital, and then she was in the morgue, waiting for a special team of doctors who were going to do the autopsy. But then they couldn't find her body. It was missing from the morgue. And then the FBI and everyone was called in, but they always died before they could find out anything much.

"They were asking me all kinds of questions, but none of it made any sense. The last I heard was they thought she had been taken in a small private plane to a little town called Marfa."

"You really miss Jan, don't you? You really loved her, I guess."

The pain in his head suddenly became overwhelming; the dam burst. Chris' body began to shake, he sobbed involuntarily. For the first time since it all began, he allowed the tears to flow.

"Look Justin, maybe I am crazy, but I've got reason to be, really."

"We've all got reason to be."

"Yeah, I know, but maybe me most of all. How many adults do you know who are still alive?"

Justin didn't say anything, but Chris felt that he'd gotten the point.

"It's an absolute fact that Jan was the first person in the world to get the Death, and her mother was the first to die from it."

"How do you know that? I mean if that's true, then the people close to you got it first, and you are the last one alive. Everything really is crazy."

"The FBI knew. They don't go around checking out everybody who dies from some disease, you know. But they were really interested in Jan, and they wanted know who else could have been interested enough to nab her body before the doctors could autopsy it."

"Maybe they suspected you. Maybe that's why they wanted to talk to you."

"Maybe so. It was just a little wierd then, but now you have to consider that I'm the only adult left alive on earth, at least to the best of my knowledge. I'm the only one left and I'm immune. That means something. It's crazy, but it means something, and I have to find out what it is. This thing isn't over with, you know. Kids are still dying as soon as they hit puberty, just as Jan did. Maybe there's nothing I can do about it, but I have to try. I've got to do everything I can, and fast. If there is any chance of doing something about it, it means I've got to know what happened."

Chris continued, "But you've got to understand that I really am crazy. Don't expect me to act like I'm not, at least not all of the time. Something has happened to me that I don't understand. I found myself alone in the desert near Marfa, hallucinating. The time just prior to that is completely gone from my memory; I don't know how I got to the desert, but I think something awful had happened to me just before. My life before that comes to me in fragments, some of it I've remembered for the first time tonight, trying to explain things to you. I've got to try to put the pieces back together, and some of it is really painful." The sharp pain gripped his sinuses again. He added in an almost inaudible whisper, "It really hurts. It's easier to forget." The tears filled his eyes again. "It's dumb to think I can change things, why should I torture myself with the past? Why can't I just forget the whole thing?"

"If what you say is true, and the only reason I think it might be is because you do seem to be the only one left; if what you say is true, then somebody was trying to hide something."

"When I was in the desert, there were these flashes of something, somewhere I'd just been. I can remember that there were images, memories of the recent past, but I can't remember what they were any more."

"Maybe if you went back there, back to the desert, maybe then you could remember."

Chris smiled. "That's good therapy, sir. Yes, maybe it would help, but getting there under the present conditions wouldn't be easy. There's a limited supply of food left, very little being produced, no doubt, no distribution system for what new food is being produced, no production of fossil fuels to maintain energy for city services or transportation; there's no such thing as medical care. I could go on, the list is endless."

"Yeah, all that is bad, but it isn't hopeless." Justin's youthful energy and optimism was showing. "The kids can deal with that, a lot of us will die, but many won't. We're already doing more than you know, and we're going to do a lot more. We could survive, for sure.

He lowered his voice again and got more serious. "What we can't survive is if the Death continues like this. We've got to be able to make babies, or it's the end, no matter how good we are. If there's any chance, one in a zillion, that you can do something about it... "

"You've probably got the odds about right. But it's true, I've got to try."

"Even if it kills you. I mean it. I love you, I want you more than anything, but even if it kills you, you've got to do it, and right now. It's just the way it is."

Chris stared in the flickering candlelight, trying to see into the eyes of the boy who, in such a cold and businesslike manner, told him to die. "You're right, of course. But even if I find out what happened, find whoever was trying to hide something, I don't know what difference it could possibly make now. So keep in mind that nature may give you another chance besides me, and possibly a better one."

"You mean that the virus may change and leave us alone, like the black plague did?"

Chris was shocked. The boy was three steps ahead of him. All he could manage was a weak "Yeah."

"You're surprised I know about the plague killing millions of people and then just changing into something harmless? Maybe I'm only twelve, but I listen, and that's what all the grownups were talking about up till the end of them."

"I see what you mean," said Chris.

"Forget it," said Justin authoritatively. "This is something different. It's not just killing thirty percent or half or even 95 percent of us, it's getting everybody over puberty." The boy smiled and added, "Present company excepted. This isn't like the black plague or something. We can't expect it to just change into something else and quit killing us, and even if it did, it would have to be soon to make any difference."

In place of the condescending reassurance Chris had planned to give, he found himself just listening to the young boy.

The child wasn't finished with him yet. "I've spent the last week reading everything I can about genetics. There is one other possibility. Your kids, if there were any, might stand a chance of being immune like you are. But that means we're going to have to find you a mate who'll live long enough to have a baby. If you were getting hundreds of girls pregnant, maybe one would live long enough. There is a chance."

Now Chris knew why Justin had asked him if he had any children. "Do you really think I ought to start mating with every 11 year-old female in town?"

"Maybe, but Sal knows all about artificial insemination. His dad was a vet. If you did it at just the right time of the month with girls who have started having periods, we'd have the greatest chance of success. Sal and I have been making a list of girls. We're going to print up leaflets and spread them all over town."

Chris felt his mouth hanging open and closed it. "You what? Without saying anything to me? How can you just assume that you can do whatever you want with me, or my sperm?"

Justin sighed. "But I am telling you, now. It's only logical. We've got to do everything we can, the situation is desparate. You can't just say you're going to hoarde your sperm because of some stupid personal reason."

Chris pulled his hand away from Justin's. "In some ways you're just like Travis, Justin. I'm not saying I won't do it, or that it's unreasonable. I don't know yet, I have to think about it. But you'll get a lot more sperm, or whatever you want, out of me by being a little more up front, and well, diplomatic. Don't just come to me and say you've printed up leaflets to mate me with hundreds of girls starting tomorrow. Or are they already waiting in line at the bottom of the ladder?" He lifted up the curtain and peered through the gate down into the darkness. "I may be a little nuts, but I'm not a vegetable, or," he added with a grin, "a monkey."

Justin sighed with a certain bit of tolerance. "Don't be silly. We haven't printed the leaflets yet, we're still working on what they should say. I'm telling you now so you'll have time to think about it. We're not sure it will work, anyway. The girls die too soon after their period starts, we think. But we have to try everything.

"It looks like our best hope, slim as it is, is for you to remember everything. We've got to find out what happened to you. Especially if what you say is true. If you are not only the only person who is immune, but you're also the person who started the Death... Hmm." The young scientist furrowed his brow, "maybe you should start telling me whatever bits you can remember. Even early stuff, like about your parents, your family, your childhood, and all that."

"I understand how important it is for you to find your answers," Chris said, "but I've had enough for one night." He took Justin's hand in his again. And I find you a lot easier to talk to as a boy than as a scientist or a detective."

Justin smiled and softened his tone of voice from the businesslike to the personal. "Make up your mind, then."

"I told you I was crazy."

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The Clubhouse

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The Gene Institute

Copyright ©1995 R. Verner

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