Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 33
Stories
The Other City
by J.S. Bangs
Small Creatures and Large
by Michael Haynes
Thirteen Words
by J. Deery Wray
IGMS Audio
The Other City by J.S. Bangs
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Thirteen Words
    by J. Deery Wray

Thirteen Words
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

When I first saw Mr. Evans, he didn't look any different from my regular patients. If it weren't for the restraints at his wrists and ankles, I would have questioned Nurse Eileen's insistence on personally walking me through his medical chart. But cymbies don't need restraints.

"He's not a cymbie, Nurse Sophia," Eileen said. "He'll wake soon. You'll see it then. He still remembers how to use his tongue. Only knows about ten words, but he does love to say them. He'll fight you every chance he gets. I've had to spoon feed him for the last ten years because they won't let me put him on an IV feed. But that's your problem now."

And it was.

"Forty, clover, key," Mr. Evans shouted.

I wiped the spittle from his chin. He jerked away from my touch which still surprised me, but in a good way. A patient responding to stimuli shouldn't seem strange, but I'd worked with nothing but cymbie patients for so long; six weeks wasn't enough time for the novelty to wear off.

"Happy, harmonica."

"Happy harmonica," I replied.

The words were an even greater novelty. He'd say "glass" next, then "tar," "box," "house,","weapon," "orange," "barrier," and "forgive." Nurse Eileen had been wrong. He knew thirteen words. They'd become a litany I repeated to myself as I tended to my cymbies.

"Glass, tar."

I couldn't help but smile. Tending to Mr. Evans had become the highlight of my day. Sure, he wasn't getting any better, but he also wasn't getting any worse. And I could accept that. It was harder to accept that cymbies just get worse.

"Box, house."

Like everyone else I knew, I followed the cymbid research, or rather the lack of it. In the early days, I'd been too young to understand the pull of it. I just saw my father smile more when the newscasts spoke of a bright new line of inquiry, less when the studies failed to pan out, then more again at the appearance of a new possibility. But as I grew older, as all the treatments and herbicides proved futile, I came to dread those newscasts. I watched them because I had to hope, but what I felt when I watched them was fear.

"Weapon, orange, barrier," Mr. Evans spat out.

No matter how much we struggled to find answers, the cymbies never struggled. The end came sooner for them, and the rest of us . . . How long before we're all infected? But no, it was no more useful to think of the end of humanity than it was to think of the research lost back on C-day. If there'd ever been any research.

"Forgive, fort--"

An unending beep sounded as Mr. Evans' heart stopped.

"He has a few days, maybe a week at best," Dr. Reyes said.

I frowned, but said nothing. If only I could feel nothing. The doctor replaced the chart at the foot of the bed and left the room.

"House, weapon," Mr. Evans said.

His voice was raspy now, but still he spoke the words. I wanted to assign meaning to them, especially now, but I'd studied his chart in depth and hadn't been able to. It contained little information about his past, just a street address in the old city. No mention of family. Not surprising, considering the timing. He'd suffered a traumatic brain injury twenty years past, on the fifth of August. The same day as the accident at Cymbid Corporation's La Jolla Research and Development Center.

I didn't like to think about C-day. So instead I wiped the spittle from his mouth, and felt helpless.

I pulled on my biohazard suit after work, and headed for the elevator. I'd made a note on Mr. Evans' chart that I wanted to be notified if he coded again or died. It seemed the least I could do, for him and for me. I knew what it was like to have no one to list under next-of-kin, and I didn't fancy returning to work only to find his room empty. Not without some warning.

When I reached surface level, I switched to my portable air source, double-checking the gas pressure in my tanks before I passed through the last check point and stepped outside.

As I waited for the shore boat, I scanned the sky. A few green clouds lurked in the distance, enough to make me nervous. I adjusted the flow on my regulator to make breathing a bit easier, even though the price of clean air had been climbing recently.

One good thing about working in New San Diego and living in one of the original shelters in the old city: I made enough money to buy as much air as I needed. I hadn't breathed unfiltered surface air since I was five and didn't plan on taking the risk. I'd spent too many hours each day with people who had. A single cymbid seed sufficed. It took root in the lungs, then entered the blood where it hitched a ride up to the brain. And that was it; bye-bye consciousness.

My father had died that way, never knowing I was at his side.

I disembarked my tram a few stops early, too antsy to sit still. Three blocks from my shelter, I stopped walking, unable to stomach the thought of heading home. Home had once meant safety, family; and though my room at the shelter was safe enough, it left me feeling empty. I checked my tanks' pressure gauge. I had enough air left for three hours, more than sufficient to visit the address from the chart. But wandering around in the old city could be dangerous. Besides, I feared it would make me feel worse -- the way I'd felt when I'd visited my childhood home after my father's death.

But if I could find the meaning behind just one of Mr. Evans' words, the reason his brain had held on to those thirteen . . . I didn't know if he could understand me, but if I could allow him to communicate before he died, to say something and be understood, that would be more than I could ever hope to achieve with any of my other patients. It would be more than I'd achieved with my father.

I started walking once more toward my shelter.

The problem was, if I found Mr. Evans' home, I might also find there was no meaning to his words at all. Cymbid seeds filled the skies, dispersed across the world by their parachutes, turning mammals into less than plants, a stage in a cycle; there was no plan behind that. There was no purpose. Just some mad corporate experiment gone awry.

The cymbies were mindless creatures. Mr. Evans was a brain-damaged patient who spouted nonsense.

And I was alone in the world.

The vibration of my wrist-unit woke me at two fifty-five am. Notification by text message, curt but informative. Mr. Evans coded. He lives.

"For now," I whispered.

I let the words die away as I listened to the familiar hum of the shelter's ventilation system. Sleep eluded me, and in the dark I pictured Mr. Evans: how he must look in his bed, the straps at his wrists and ankles, the words spitting from his mouth. Would he be that way until the very end?

My mother's end had come too suddenly for any deathwatch. She'd been in the Navy, a petty officer aboard a helicopter. The pilot had reported a mechanical malfunction moments before they plummeted into the ocean. Two sailors lived, but she wasn't one of them. A simple training mission gone wrong.

My father's mind had already checked out before he was dead. I'd sat at his side as he slipped away like all cymbies do, one minute breathing, the next his lungs stilled, the very thought of life forgotten. No drama, no hysterics. No communication.

But Mr. Evans . . . the will power he must have to come back from not just one code, but two! He fights to live, fights to speak.

Three weeks ago one of the shore boats had caught fire. The engine exploded; there were no survivors. I could die going to work or at work. Hell, these days just breathing the air is a death sentence. Or I could try to do something more than just my job. I could go find his house, see if it contained anything that might shed light on his thirteen words, or maybe find a next-of-kin.

It was a foolish idea fueled by a ridiculous hope. His house could be in a hazardous neighborhood and I would likely learn nothing by going. But hope is life, just as fear is. And I knew which one made my father smile when they talked about it on the news.

I didn't sleep well. I'd risen before the sun, hours before my shift was set to begin, feeling a little more cheered for the sleep and the lack of further notifications. I checked the maps for the locations of shelters near the house, then put on my suit and left before I could talk myself out of it. It was a seven mile walk, but I caught one of the trams, and made it to the correct street by the time the green clouds began to lighten with the rising sun. There were more of them today, and they were closer.

While the clouds congregated on the horizon, the streets around Mr. Evans' house were virtually unpopulated. I wasn't too surprised as the maps had made clear it was located in a remote residential suburb a good fifteen to twenty minute walk from the closest shelter. I felt myself relax, since most crime, like most people, tended to center around the bigger shelters and the beachfront by the docks.

The house at 32 Cherry Wood Street looked much like its neighbors. Peeling paint and broken windows; dirty, abandoned. I pushed at the door. It was locked, but it gave. I ghosted through the house, feeling like a trespasser, not wanting to disturb the dust and the scattered cymbid seeds. Living room, dining room, kitchen. They'd each been ransacked years ago; it wasn't until I reached the first room at the top of the stairs that I felt compelled to touch something.

Musical instruments dotted the wallpaper. There was a white desk and a book-lined shelf against one wall, a small bed along another. And dolls. So many dolls. But it was the picture frame that drew my hand. It was worthless, the type of painted cardboard cut-out made by a child in arts and crafts, but it held the first picture I'd seen. Mr. Evans, his grayed-hair black, his gaze focused, a smile on his face as he knelt beside a young girl -- maybe seven -- that looked to be his daughter: same crook in the nose, same set to the eyes, though hers were brown where his were gray.

I placed the frame back on the desk and snapped a picture of it.

Next I opened a few of the chapter books; on the inside cover of the second there was a sticker with the words "Property of" printed on it. Written in large block letters beneath that were two other words: Clover Evans.

My world spun, reordered itself. One of his words -- Clover -- it did have meaning. It wasn't a plant; it was a name. I could show him the picture I'd taken, let him know I understood who Clover was. Such a small thing, communication, and yet it felt huge.

I checked my air-pressure gauge and the time. I had just over two hours of air and just under two hours before my shift began. I'd had a taste of knowledge, and I wanted more. I could spare another hour. What other words might I find the meaning of?

One other thought niggled at the back of my mind, that this might be my last chance. If I left now and Mr. Evans died today, I didn't think I could bring myself to come back here. There could be some clue here not only to his words, but to his daughter. Did Clover yet live? If so, where might she be and did she know her father was still alive? Could I give Mr. Evans back a real next-of-kin?

I turned the journal over in my hands, wishing I could feel the leather cover. But the gloves of my suit prevented that. I'd found the journal in the master bedroom, in a dresser drawer that had also included a bank slip and a key. Should I open it? Read the private thoughts of a man who now spoke but thirteen words? At what point does the desire to communicate cross the line into invasion?

I opened the journal and flipped to a random page, but it wasn't until the third page after that I found the entry that changed everything.

. . . project was a mistake from the start. I'm beginning to think he's right. The seeds were a miracle, but a miracle that blinded me to its truth. For it wasn't our miracle. A seed that could survive forty thousand years in the tar pits and still be viable? How I wish it had been a fossil instead.

February 5th

It's official. Cymbid's contracted with the DoD to weaponize the tar seed. The early tests of its ability to pacify primates were too . . . phenomenal seems the wrong word. Terrifying? I can't tell if the animals have lost the will or the instinct to live. Either way, I'd hate to think this might ever be used on a human. I'm a researcher, dammit, not a mad scientist.

I read page after page of angst and worry, and my own horror grew with it. Cymbid and seeds; weaponization and pacification. The last entry was dated August 4th.

I did something I shouldn't have. I smuggled a copy of my data out on a flash drive.

I see the road they're travelling; they won't be able to contain this plant, not if so much as one seed escapes on the wind, and yet they insist on testing it in a real world environment. If what I fear comes true, we'll need to engineer a defense against its dissemination; we'll need the best minds in the world sharing that data and working toward a cure. That can never happen if they cover it up.

Clover was with me when I paid for a safety deposit box. She asked why I needed it. I told her it was to keep things safe, things that are important. If something does go wrong, will I ever have the nerve to tell my daughter the truth about my role in it? Could she forgive me if I did? Perhaps I should destroy the plants myself tomorrow, but if I'm jailed for it who will raise my daughter? Maybe I just won't go in to work at all.

I felt numb as I closed the journal. Had he tried to destroy the plants? Is that what had gone wrong, how the seeds were released into the atmosphere? But no, everyone who'd been present that day, even the first responders, had been infected. Those few who had survived when the complex exploded, they were the first of the cymbies. Only now, I wondered. Had it exploded or had it been blown up in a failed attempt to halt a containment breach?

I had no answers, only questions. And one more place I could go for information. The safety deposit box.

I looked up when I stepped outside the house. The sky was neon green, completely socked in by cymbid clouds. There were no shelters nearby, at least none of the free ones. Not even the most foolhardy natural-breather would risk being caught out in a rain; and yet, when I looked at my air pressure gauge, I realized more time had passed than I'd realized while I'd been reading the journal. I had twenty minutes of air left, not enough to get to work or to my shelter.

I made for the closest shelter I knew of, at the quickest pace I dared. Move too quickly and I'd speed up my air consumption. My father had taught me that: to control my movement and my breathing, to conserve as much air as possible. Air's a precious commodity, he'd said, and you never know when you'll need to stretch it just that last bit. So breathe slow and deep, Sophia, slow and deep.

When his shelter's air-filtration system failed, I'd been away at school, studying for exams. I never heard the sirens go off, never had to scramble into my biohazard suit in the middle of the night. I'd never had to shuffle out of the shelter, one among many, the smell of my own sweat mixed with what little air was left in my tanks while my gloved hands uselessly rubbed at the glass of my faceplate.

Such a massive outflux of people, all looking for safety at the same time. The surrounding shelters quickly filled and shut their doors. He'd spun further and further out, looking for just one shelter that would let him stay the night, or at least allow him to enter long enough to refill his tanks, but he ran out of air first, pulled off his mask, and breathed in the unfiltered air. He started to show signs the next day and was hospitalized soon after.

I didn't even hear about it until after my exams were over, when I returned home for break. He hadn't wanted to interrupt my studies, and by the time I returned, he'd already lost the will to move, to speak, to see. Before he cymbified, he'd begged his nurses to write down his last words to me: what had happened that night, how he loved me, how proud he was of me, and how I shouldn't blame the nurses for not contacting me sooner. They'd held off at his insistence.

I blamed neither the nurses nor him. Only myself. I should have checked in more often, returned when I realized I couldn't reach him. I should have been there to say goodbye when he could still speak his final words. Instead, I read them. Then I burned his letter. I couldn't bear to ever again read the words that I'd never heard spoken.

The rain began to fall before I reached the entrance, but my sweat-laced air held out just long enough. The price I had to pay for temporary shelter was high, but nowhere near as high as the price of remaining outside.

After my tanks were refilled, I waited for the rain to stop before I headed for the bank. Work could wait. I'd already missed the start of my shift, and the questions I needed Mr. Evans to answer were beyond his current vocabulary. As I walked to the bank I repeated Mr. Evans' thirteen words in my head. Clover, his daughter. Box and key, my access and destination. Tar and weapon; those I did not want to think of. Barrier I had guessed; the blood-brain barrier, the progression from the lung to the blood to the brain, from human to cymbie.

Forgive. That I didn't think I could do. My father had died because of research that Mr. Evans had begun. That he'd had second thoughts about it, that he'd hid a copy of his research -- none of it would bring back the dead.

After I reached the bank, it took a while to find the safety deposit boxes. There were hundreds of them, each numbered. I made a guess, tried box number forty. The key fit.

One more word down.

I opened the box. I had expected to find a flash-drive in there, and I did. I hadn't expected to find an orange harmonica. It was made from plastic, a child's toy. I took both.

The streets grew more crowded as I drew nearer to the docks. I barely noticed.

I'd figured out two more words at the bank: orange and harmonica. My mind kept returning to the journal. Why was the harmonica in the box? Had Mr. Evans put it in, or had Clover? So many questions that I'd never have answers to.

I was let my mind remain focused with the harmonica because it was something I could grasp. I couldn't wrap my mind around the magnitude of Mr. Evans' involvement with the cymbid plant. I cut through an alleyway.

I was still focused on the harmonica when I was shoved forward.

I dropped it and the flash drive, my hands flexing of their own accord as I sought balance. I fell anyway. My suit mask cracked as it slammed into the asphalt.

I tried to get my knees under me but couldn't. Someone was holding me down, and I knew what they were after. My air.

I couldn't let them take it. Even through my fractured faceplate, I could see the ground covered with a neon green mat -- seeds from the earlier rain.

I heard my suit rip, smelled a musky scent I'd only ever heard described.

Cymbid.

I hated that my hands were pinned, hated that my broken mask steamed up as I screamed, hated watching the pool of tears grow as I wept.

But I couldn't stop them.

When they left, I curled up on my side, shocked by the feel of the hot summer air against my skin. I couldn't find the will to stand. What was the point? In a few more days, I wouldn't have a will left. I wouldn't be me. Wouldn't speak again, or eat, or make another connection with anyone. Some other person, dressed in a uniform I'd so often worn myself, would see me as I'd come to see my own patients: a cymbie, an empty husk of a human, an end.

I lay, eyes open, unseeing until they began to focus of their own accord. A haze of orange, a harmonica. Even Mr. Evans, in his diminished state, had tried to communicate. Or, at least, I preferred to think he had. I pulled off my suit's helmet and my gloves. After wiping the snot from my nose and the tears from my face, I picked up the harmonica, then searched the seed-covered ground for the flash drive.

I still had time before I'd become a full-fledged cymbie; months, maybe, before my body shut down completely. The flash drive didn't merely contain information; it contained the seeds for hope. And even if a cure didn't come soon enough for me, it might come soon enough to save humanity. And hope . . . that was worth fighting for.

It wasn't much to pin a future on, but it was better than what we had now.

The nurse wheeled me into Mr. Evans' room, though I could have walked. Not without support, but I still could. I wouldn't be able to for long. It stung that their rules had prevented me from doing so this one last time, but at least they'd allowed me to come see Mr. Evans.

I'd turned over the flash drive, but not the harmonica. When the nurse wheeled me next to Mr. Evans, I gripped the side of his hospital bed and pulled myself to my feet. I waited until he looked at me, then held the harmonica out to him. When his eyes focused on it, I opened his hand and placed it against his palm. He clenched his fingers around it.

"Orange harmonica clover happy," Mr. Evans said.

He spit the words out as he always did, but the order had changed, and I understood. I didn't know what had happened to his daughter; I probably never would. But I realized something. I could forgive him. For everything he'd done, he was a father, and I was a daughter.

"Yes, father," I said. "I'm happy. I forgive you."

He smiled and closed his eyes.

I smiled too as I collapsed into my chair. My legs were failing me, but even now an army of scientists, doctors, and even nurses were hard at work trying to find a cure. Their research had been reinvigorated by a wealth of knowledge they'd never dared dream of, Mr. Evans' and my gift to them.

I held on to my smile and my hope as best I could. As the nurse wheeled me out of the room, I tried my best not to wonder if I would ever smile again.


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