by J. Deery Wray
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," 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.