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EVE: The Burning Life
By Hjalti Daníelsson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 CCP hf.
All rights reserved.
"WE WILL EAT THE BODY and sanctify its blood, to let it be born again."
The apartment felt sucked dry of air, replaced with a gaseous formaldehyde that put everything and everyone in stasis. The attendants had formed small clusters, the men standing and facing the floor in grim silence, the women sitting, crying, and comforting each other. It was a young man's apartment, little more than a studio with a small bedroom off to the side. The door to that room was ajar.
Drem Valate, so numb of emotion he felt like a sleepwalker, went and hugged his grandmothers. Each of them had a necklace with a tiny golden vial, and each fingered hers incessantly. "We will consume him, dear," they were saying in a shivering stammer. "We shall take him into our fold and make his blood our own."
It was an old prayer of the Sani Sabik, spoken in hard times, and they murmured it like an endless litany: "We will eat the body and sanctify its blood, and we will consume him until he is gone, to let his soul rise again." They did not cry, for they were too old and weary, but the words fell from their mouths in droplets.
Drem let them go and looked around the room, still avoiding the sight of that half-open door. It was dawn on the colony. People stayed away from the windows, as if the Red God might come and take them away, and through the glass Drem saw the first rays of the nearest sun glide their cold way over the colony dome.
He wondered momentarily if he should walk about and talk to everyone, but he knew it would merely delay the inevitable. He went over to the bedroom door, opened it, took a deep breath, and stepped through.
It was dark inside, and the air was even heavier. The curtains were closed. There was little decoration: some plants in sealed minidomes, and a couple of holoposters on the walls, cycling through images of space. In the corner stood an inconspicuous machine, dark and quiet, laced with all sorts of wires and tubes that had now been wound up in a loop and left to hang off one side. The sight of that machine felt even more like a death sentence, Drem thought, than the body lying on the bed. You died not when you expired but when your life was neatly packed away.
His brother had needed that machine. He hadn't been tied to it; he merely plugged in twice a day for a few minutes and otherwise lived a relatively normal life. Drem had been helping him save up for a more mobile unit. It was just the two of them now; their parents had died years ago on a blood-harvesting excursion.
Drem, on reflection, supposed it was only him now.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and remained quite still for a long time, looking intently at the machine. His fingers, meanwhile, blindly found their way to the body of his brother. They held his heavy hands, stroked his cold, inert cheeks, and ran slowly through his lifeless hair.
Drem wanted to cry but couldn't. He wanted to scream but couldn't. He wanted to think of Leip alive, to imagine some course of events by which none of this was even a reality, but those thoughts were opaque and he was too numb to grasp them. Some part of him, he knew, had realized that everything had changed and had put up a rock-solid dam to stem the flood. There would be no proper grief until everything was over, until Leip had been bled and the rituals completed.
Drem sat there until he began to hear whispering at the door. He got up, kissed his brother's forehead, and left the room, letting one of his grandmothers take his place. The light outside the windows felt preferable to the bleakness in the house — the presence of a dead body, in and of itself, did not bother Drem, but the immense and silent anguish he saw on everyone's faces, and probably reflected in his own, was becoming unbearable. He headed out into the yard and took a long, cold breath of morning.
It was early enough that he could still see trails in the sky from the night's shipping traffic. The entire colony was attached to a moon in wide orbit around the sparsely colonized planet below, and functioned both as a delivery port for arriving interstellar shipments and, to a lesser degree, an assembling plant for various pieces of technology sent up from the planet and bound for somewhere else in dark space. Drem had been raised in another section of the colony, one located nearer to the outlying landing base, and had grown used to the silent tremors of starships taking off in the dark. In wintertime, he and Leip had sometimes sat by the window long after they should've been in bed, watching the bulging columns of smoke as the daily shipments of raw materials were readied to be flown back planetside. Drem and Leip would look at each other, grinning, then in unison place their hands on the windowsill, palms flattened. A few seconds later the soundless vibration from the launch would hit, traveling from the airless landing strip, through the metal of the colony and the stone of its mother asteroid, through the atmospheric shield and the ground beyond, up the walls of the nearest houses and into the bones of their hands, the boys giggling like mad.
Drem rubbed his eyes and realized he was crying.
Someone approached and softly cleared his throat. Drem looked up and saw a middle-aged man, gray of beard and hair, dressed in the familiar red-and-black garb of the Bleeders. They were the combination law- enforcement and religious sectarians of the Sani Sabik. If you ever needed either a priest or a policeman, you'd find a Bleeder. They acted over any religious gathering, from midwives to funeral directors, and it was an old joke that you literally had a Bleeder watching over you from the moment you were born until the last breath of your life.
"Hi, Father," Drem said, not bothering to wipe the tears from his face.
The Bleeder sat beside him on the grass. "Hello, son. I'm Brother Theus. I understand there's been a loss in this house." His lips were fixed in a tempered smile held in place by the many wrinkles on his face — a deep concern woven with experience. Drem didn't dare assume how much of it was genuine and not merely the result of years of practice with the grieving, but he found it calming nonetheless and felt thankful toward the man.
"My brother," Drem said. "Died in his sleep last night, apparently. He was ... well, I don't know." He sighed and looked at the sky. "He'd been having some trouble, what with the sickness and all. But nothing that should've caused something like this."
"Sickness?" Theus asked.
"Sabik's Sepsis. It wasn't severe, but it caused a whole damn headache of problems. Leip had a hemopurifier that he used twice a day, and it helped, but you can't be sick the way he was and get out of it unscathed." Drem's ears caught up with his mouth. "Or get out at all, apparently," he added with a sigh.
"It is always hard when a child leaves the family," Theus said.
"Oh no, he was an adult. Not old, but in his twenties," Drem told him.
"Your brother had permanent blood poisoning?" the priest said to him. It was barely a question and verged on judgment. The worry wrinkles on the old man's face increased, but Drem now found them less comforting.
"Is there a problem?" he asked the priest.
"I must go inside, my son, and see the family. Are you the closest living relative to the deceased?"
"Yes, Father. I am."
"Then we will need to talk."
THE NEXT DAY, Drem, with head full of thunder, went to his grandmother's house to meet the family for the wake. People would be coming and going all day. They had a young man to bury, and, Drem had discovered, a terrible problem to solve.
The house smelled sweetly of spices and of flowers left to dry in the air. Derutala, known to the family as Granny Deru, had been baking and cooking all day, mostly, Drem suspected, out of a need for something to do. When he came in she was in the kitchen, busying herself with an oven that only she could use without burning its contents. Everything was made of steel and patience here, including Granny Deru.
Drem made his way into the living room. His cousin Vonus was there, standing by a shelf and inspecting the metal picture frames. Vonus's wife sat in a chair beside him, cradling their infant child. They were only a few years older than Drem and still building a life. At the other end of the room stood another man whom Drem had seldom seen and had not been expecting: Dakren, his father's brother, a much older man with gray hair and gray eyes.
The infant gurgled happily, and Drem smiled at it. Its mother smiled back at him but with deep furrows of worry in her brows.
Vonus said, "How are you doing, Drem?" in that low voice people reserve for the traumatized, as if sound waves might break them apart.
"I've had better days, thanks," Drem said. "How are you?"
Vonus took his time to phrase the reply. "I'm doing all right, though I have no idea what's been happening over the past few hours."
"The priest spoke to you too, did he?" Drem asked.
Vonus hesitated and looked to his wife. She nodded. "Yes. I think he spoke to most of us there."
Drem looked at the picture frames Vonus had been inspecting. Theirs was a large family, which was common on a workers' colony. Their little community was sitting on a rock floating in the deeps of outer space. There had been nothing natural here: no atmosphere, no running water, no geothermal heat, and no life. It had taken a long time to give this place anything resembling habitability, and it took no more than a look through its dome to remind the viewer just how tenuous that existence was. In a place like this, people clung to whatever provided the safety and comfort they needed to prove their mastery over their own lives. It made for strong faith, sometimes heavy drinking, and plenty of children.
"I had a talk with him, too," Drem said. "Twice, even. First one was yesterday morning, when he came to comfort us on the loss of my brother. Then again early this morning, when he told me what this meant for me and this family."
He glanced at Dakren, who offered no comment. Drem went on, "Leip had a special kind of blood disease. It's rare but not unheard of. What is rare is for the Sepsis to last into adulthood, because for almost everyone who gets it, it starts to fade rapidly by age four, and by the time puberty starts it is usually gone for good. But not for my brother."
The little family sat in dead silence as Drem continued, "As we found out when he was first diagnosed, this condition, among the many other things it made Leip suffer, left him unable to donate blood when required for rescue work or ceremonial purposes. If we were still in the Amarr Empire, this wouldn't matter."
Vonus and his wife winced. The mention of the old world, which their nation had left a long time before any person in the room had been born, was still not done idly. The exodus had taken place for complicated reasons and left wounds in both factions, which, despite the Blood Raiders' extremism, still shared a substantial amount of core beliefs.
"He'd have been treated like any other person with a permanent illness, no more nor less. But this is the Sani Sabik, where we worship the blood. We have ships out there somewhere, raiding the skies in our name, and in the empires they use us as monsters to frighten their children."
Drem reached out and plucked from the shelf a small picture frame, set slightly aside from the others. It cycled slowly through pictures of his brother, one smiling face morphing into another. "Apparently, an adult having poisoned blood, to a member of the Sani Sabik, is a sacrilege. The very idea defies the Red God's laws. I thought I knew a lot about the rules of my faction, but I did not know about this."
He gently stroked his thumb over the image, then put the frame back on the shelf and turned back to his family. "Leip cannot be buried. He can be kept in stasis for as long as it takes, because we Sani Sabik are good at keeping people fresh." He spat the word. "But he can never be buried, not unless by some miracle we convince the clergy to write his name in the Books of the Dead.
"The alternative is that he be stricken from existence, as if he had never lived at all. All records of his life would be expunged, insofar as such a thing is possible. When the priest told me this, I was too numb even to answer, so he added one last streak of piss to this whole disgusting mess."
Drem looked at Vonus's child. "Until this matter gets sorted out, no more children in the family can be brought into the fold. Not even this beautiful little thing here."
He kneeled and stroked the child's head, smiling at it. "Until my brother's life has been erased from existence," he said to it, gently, as if he were soothing it to sleep, "you simply won't exist. You won't go to school, you can't go to the hospital, you'll be banned from our churches. In their eyes, you won't even have a name."
"Drem ..." Vonus said.
Drem got up and faced his cousin, "Adult relatives are safe. Their rights aren't infringed at all, because if they were, the clergy knows that they would revolt. So instead they go after the children, because Blood Raiders understand people's weak points and they know it'll turn you against me." He smiled faintly. "Understand, if I could kill this priest, I would. If I could walk up to him, with his understanding smile and his wrinkles of worry, and shove a nail so far into his eye that it would penetrate not only his brain but those of every single clergy member in the Sani Sabik, I would do it without a second thought."
Behind him, he heard a gasp from Vonus's wife. He turned back to her. "But I can't, obviously. I can't do much about this at all. There are special dispensations for those with money and connections, but we have neither. My only option is to have Leip stricken off the list. That, or see every new child in this family be turned into an outcast."
He sat down on the floor. "Is this what the priest told you?" he asked the couple.
Vonus cleared his throat. "He said that there would be a problem of a clerical nature, and that we would need to convince you to make the right choice. He also mentioned the striking commission."
"Which I would be paid as compensation for losing my brother, or whatever half a life's worth the Sani Sabik think he had. It would even be enough to buy me passage off the colony, away from the memories I'd leave rotting in the ground."
"Will you consider it?" Vonus's wife said, too loudly. "Will you please consider it?"
"No," Drem said. He saw tears form in her eyes, and he looked away, shutting his own eyes and rubbing his fingers over them.
"What do you need?" said a dim voice from the other side of the room.
Dakren was a rare presence at family gatherings. He worked closely with the Blood Raiders, the sect of Sani Sabik who spent most of their lives in space hunting down, attacking, and harvesting the blood of nonbelievers for various purposes scientific and liturgical. There was money in that life, and honor, and not a little craziness. From what Drem had been told, Dakren had gotten both of Drem's parents involved with these harvest missions. Then on some trip into deep space, their victims had fought back, and all Blood Raider ships on the venture had perished. Dakren had rarely spoken to Drem since.
Drem looked at him now. "I need my brother to be given a funeral and a line in the Books of the Dead. I need the clergy to approve his ascension. And I need to punch a priest in the face, but that can wait."
Dakren gave a thin smile. "I'm familiar with what it takes to finagle one's way into the clergy's good graces. The traditional way is to perform a special service to the Blood Raiders, but it can also be accomplished by donating substantial amounts of money."
"Seeing as how I can do neither, it's not really an issue," Drem said. "I hear the service has to be something that's demonstrably in the favor of the Sani Sabik as a people. It can be a new type of highly valuable technology, or a service in the diplomatic favor of our faction, or just something that saves the lives of a lot of our people. I imagine whoever designed Leip's haemopurifier got an easy pass," he added in a bitter tone.
Dakren was silent. Drem watched him closely, then said, "I have tried and tried and tried to figure out a way for this. I have thought harder about this than anything in my life. Do you have any idea," he asked the old man, "how it can be done?"
"It's a difficult matter," Dakren said and looked out the window.
Drem sighed, got up, and left the room.
DREM WANTED TO LEAVE THE HOUSE, but he was afraid that it would look as if he had abandoned his family, and he did not want to add even more drama to their worries. Also, if he left now, feeling like he did, he feared he might wander off until he had left the colony and this life altogether, leaving his brother nothing more than a name crossed out on a list. So he went to his grandmother instead.
Excerpted from EVE: The Burning Life by Hjalti Daníelsson. Copyright © 2010 CCP hf.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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