Story Excerpt

The Malady

by Shane Tourtellotte

 

Year Zero

The alarm clock rang on a far bench. “Shut that off, Minchita,” said Tehl-Voyf Krinn Hfue Chuul. He never took his eyes off the separation boiler and the wump wine bubbling behind the glassed viewline.

Minchita Prupo silenced the clatter and came back to the workbench. “You’re supposed to see off Simi Chuul,” he said, softly insistent.

“I will, in just a moment.” Tehl-Voyf glanced at his notes, then back to the boiler—to find something staring back. A glehk stood atop a coil, its shiny skin glinting black and gold. “Minchita!”

Minchita saw the glehk and grabbed it before it could harm anything or skitter away. “Sorry, Se Chuul. I’ll spread some more komitehf powder around.”

Tehl-Voyf piped a high note of affirmation. The storage space he’d converted to a laboratory had its faults. It was too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and too easy for pests to infiltrate. But it was his, for a little while longer anyway.

Minchita came back from getting rid of their visitor and slipped close to his ear. “Se Chuul, your wife.” He pinched Tehl-Voyf’s notepad between his left thumbs. “I can handle the separation. Please, go now.”

Tehl-Voyf hesitated, then handed over the pad. “Thank you,” he said abstractedly and made for the door.

He weaved out of the storage spaces and cut through the kitchen, heading toward the reception area at the front of the house, where she met her clients and merchant colleagues. There was Meil-Kahd Hfue Chuul, flanked by three assistants. Her traveling robe ballooned out at her very gravid belly, and a fetching checked veil fell from her chin, decorously covering the feeding pouches now fully distended on her neck.

“Tehl-Voyf!”

“I caught you in time, dearest.” He grasped her wrists, anything higher blocked by her cumbersome sleeves. “Now please, Meil-Kahd, don’t exert yourself too much, not this late.” He raised his voice for the attendants. “Hear me? Make sure you pamper my wife.” Not one showed any sign of listening.

“They’ll do their jobs, so I can do mine. If I get that connection with the regnant family, and that gets me a contract, it will be worth all my exertions.”

“I know. Just . . .” He knew pushing would only make matters worse. “Just keep in touch.”

“I will. Make sure the rooms are ready for Mother. And don’t work so hard in the lab. You don’t have to save the world today.”

His temptation to make reply was cut off, as he heard clopping in the street outside. The coach was here, to take them to the rail-carriage depot. He gave Meil-Kahd’s wrists a quick caress, felt her strokes in return, and had to let her go. He followed her to the street and watched her entourage help her inside to the middle seat. She couldn’t look out or wave as the coach gained speed and joined the flow of traffic.

Tehl-Voyf went back inside, feeling her last comment chew on him. She had been generous supporting his studies but with hints of indulging a favored child’s follies. He did not have long to show that her attitude was mistaken.

The spicy tang of komitehf hit his nostrils the moment he opened the lab door, revitalizing and repulsive at once. “Did it,” said Minchita. “Strong enough to keep them out.”

“I know. It’s almost strong enough to keep me out. Let’s get working.”

The boiler had nearly isolated what they hoped was the active ingredient in the wine. They judged the right moment and measured off the thick fluid into a graduated jar. Tehl-Voyf got out the next wine jars for separation, while Minchita went to a corner and leaned on the wall.

“I’ll need you back, soon as you can,” Tehl-Voyf said.

“The jar makes the wine,” Minchita answered, “and this one is cracked.”

“Who isn’t?” This chiding got Minchita back to work presently. The fatigue was a fact of everyday life, the enemy they fought at such stacked odds.

There had been several names for it throughout the ages, but everybody today knew it as the Malady. It had cursed the yehdol race for at least a thousand years, since the time of the Great War. Some contended that the Malady had always been with them, and that the general moral collapse after the war had led people to whine about their adversity, rather than carrying on with what they couldn’t change. Tehl-Voyf didn’t believe that, especially as he thought he could change it.

The Malady defended itself vigorously. The illness weakened the body, dulled the mind, and eroded a spirit deprived of the support of those two buttresses. All those effects combined to frustrate attempts to analyze, understand, and cure the disease. If it was divine punishment, as some others held, it was a diabolically clever one.

Tehl-Voyf and Minchita ground through their work, trading periodic breaks between them to refill their leaking stores of energy. One always had the sense that one possessed greater reserves, greater potential, that were always out of reach. It brought frustration, and self-reproach, and greater exhaustion as one pushed harder than one really could.

Soon, Tehl-Voyf was at the point where he only wanted to get something to eat, then lie down for the night. After one more jar of wump wine concentrate, he told his assistant they were done for the day. Minchita breathed something in relief, in his own language. That still nettled Tehl-Voyf, but he was too tired to be too angry.

“I’ll see you back here in three days, Minchita, for a full day’s work.” Minchita tooted a weak affirmative. “And you do know my wife’s mother will be here, starting tomorrow?” The toot was weaker this time. “I’ll do my best to keep her away from you.”

“Thank you, Se Chuul. Still night to you.”

*   *   *

Tehl-Voyf had one of his stints at the dyemaker’s plant the next day. It wasn’t full-time labor, but it brought in money for the household, and for his experiments. It even gave him a small pool of test subjects for his Malady treatments. Some of those volunteers got their latest doses of wump wine concentrate during the noon-meal break.

His boss pulled him aside late in the break. “How much wine are you giving them?”

Tehl-Voyf kept his voice low. “If you’re worried about alcohol, Simi Feyn, there is none. It’s been boiled out. But if I get more volunteers when they think there is some in there, I’m not going to correct them.” Feyn frowned sharply but let it pass.

He hurried home once his shift was over, hoping it’d be before her arrival, knowing it wouldn’t be. It wasn’t. He found an unfamiliar woman at the front door just as he opened it. They both fumbled for words. “Se Chuul?” she asked first.

“Yess-Tihn, come away from there. You’re my servant, not his.”

Yess-Tihn backed away from the door. Tehl-Voyf stepped inside just as Muun-Reh Truhf Chuul swept into the vestibule. “You’re finally home, Tehl-Voyf. Good.”

“Bright day to you, Muun-Reh.” He held out his palms to press hands with her, which she matched after an instant. “Are you settled in? How can I help?”

“I’m fine.” She turned with a swirl of her blue-gray gown, almost made to blur where fabric ended and skin began. “Yess-Tihn sees to me just fine, and I’ll make sure she keeps out of the house-duties. Those are your responsibility,” she added with perhaps an intimation of his inadequacy. “My responsibility will be preparing the home for your children.”

She was assuming a multiple birth, which was against the odds, though it did run in the Chuul line. Tehl-Voyf knew that birth preparations were the prerogative of a mother and her side of the family, so he took any presumptiveness in stride. “We’re glad to have you here, Meil-Kahd especially.”

“Of course.” Muun-Reh stopped and turned, Tehl-Voyf nearly walking into her. “Have you been continuing your medical experiments?”

“Why, yes, we have. We think we’ve isolated the component in—”

“Do you think that’s a proper use of your time now? You have a wife, a household, a family almost arriving. Shouldn’t you spend your time on what’s important? No, don’t answer me. I’m too tired from the trip for an argument.” Yess-Tihn stepped past Tehl-Voyf, almost bumping him, to fan her mistress.

“Thank you, my dear. I’m going to rest now, Tehl-Voyf. Yess-Tihn will take care of my dusk-meal.” She swept toward the stairs, Yess-Tihn in her wake.

Tehl-Voyf stewed as he walked to the kitchen. He was spending time on what was important. Still, Muun-Reh was also right: his family was important. Much of his time would very soon be dedicated to that family. That’s why he was hurrying his work, burning a short candle to make it give light while it could.

He gathered some food and drink and took it into the laboratory. He meant to work well into the night. It wasn’t long, though, before the fatigue caught him, in the back of his head and the pits of his stomachs. He pushed through it as long as he could, cursing the irony of his body and mind conspiring to keep themselves weak.

*   *   *

Next day at work came the quizzes. He had given baseline math tests to all his study volunteers, as a gross measure of their cognitive abilities. Now, with some doses of the wump wine concentrate in their systems, he tested them for improvements.

One volunteer refused the test, saying he didn’t feel like it. “So you took all my wine for nothing, Oym-Ohl?” Tehl-Voyf snapped.

“Yes, I guess I did,” he said and laughed. Tehl-Voyf wanted to smack him one, but knew he was impotent in the matter. He gave the other tests, while Oym-Ohl loitered and gave a couple hints.

Once back home, his quizzes had to wait. A table in the reception area held an opened telegram from Meil-Kahd, addressed to him from just outside Firsthold. Her first meetings hadn’t been a breakthrough, but she was still optimistic of getting that connection.

He left that telegram, and the quizzes, in the lab. The kitchen needed his attentions, and the washing room, and the floors. He had let too much slip before his wife’s mother arrived, and he felt the sting of reproach: her implied one, or his own.

He finished those house-duties in time to put together a good dusk-meal. Yess-Tihn peeked into the kitchen at one point, but withdrew when she saw she didn’t have to work. The meal went well, Muun-Reh’s mood improved from the fatigues of yesterday.

Once everything was cleared away and washed, Tehl-Voyf finally returned to the lab. He found the solution keys to the quizzes, scored them, and compared the numbers to the baseline results.

Well, there was always tomorrow.

When Minchita slipped inside by the side entrance, just after dawn-meal, Tehl-Voyf gave him the news. “No real improvement. I’m sorry, Minchita.”

“As am I, se Chuul. So do we try combinations next?”

“That’s our best course.”

They spent the morning preparing new wump wine concentrate and mixing in the right amounts of egnemet root powder. If the concentrate was strong enough to hide the earthy—or more precisely muddy—egnemet flavor, he might not lose any more test subjects.

They both jumped when the door flew open. “Tehl-Voyf,” called Muun-Reh in a voice fit for a room thrice as large, “are you eating noon-meal with us?”

Tehl-Voyf stammered. He hadn’t even thought about food, not for himself. “I . . . usually eat with Minchita when he works here, so we—”

“Ee, not with us, then. I’ll send Yess-Tihn in with your food.”

“One moment, Simi. A guest in my home deserves—”

“Deserves what? I can’t imagine what he can bring to your work.” She caught a glimpse of jars behind Tehl-Voyf. “Of course, wine. That makes sense enough from him.”

This goaded Minchita, who had been trying to fade into the background. “Do you mean the reputation of Greater Thripowaz for good wines, Simi Chuul?”

“I mean the reputation of Thripees for being so dimwitted, drinking makes them smarter.”

“Mother!”

“No, she’s right. Wump wine has that reputation. That’s why you wanted to study it, Se Chuul, along with your local folk remedies. Roots, peppers, fish spawn, and that one powdered rock.” Minchita turned a level gaze on Muun-Reh. “Eating rock, of all things.”

Muun-Reh’s face flushed darker. “You impudent, flat-faced simpleton.” Her backhand caught him flush across the mouth. “Tehl-Voyf, Yess-Tihn will leave your noon-meal outside the door.” She pivoted and left.

Tehl-Voyf stepped up, laying a gentle hand on his assistant’s back. “I’m sorry, Minchita. You know I am.”

Minchita turned and grinned, a glisten of dark blood showing on the corner of his mouth. “I got her good with the rock, didn’t I? Better than she got me, right?”

Tehl-Voyf groped for the right answer, until a clatter behind them broke his thoughts. Two glehks were scurrying away from the beaker of egnemet powder they had just knocked over.

Minchita swore. “Them again!” He dashed after them, grabbing only one, none too gently. “No more komitehf. I’m bringing the strong stuff next time. Out, you!”

Tehl-Voyf helped him hunt down the other, a brief but vigorous affair. Once it was expelled, he finally delivered his reply. “Between us, Minchita, yes. You got her good.”

*   *   *

They brought in four ingredients, all previously tested and found wanting, to add to the wine concentrate. Minchita also brought in chiffi, a much stronger powder to use against the glehks. For his part, Tehl-Voyf added a small icebox to the lab’s equipment. It would hold enough food so Minchita would never need to go to the kitchen and risk running into somebody.

At work, Tehl-Voyf gave his volunteers new math quizzes to reset the baselines. He also had to give out cash. The hope that his treatments might ameliorate the Malady was no longer inducement enough. The loss of confidence stung worse than the loss of money.

He hoped the boss wouldn’t hear of this. Feyn might want her own cut.

He spent his next off-day in the lab with Minchita, distilling, measuring, mixing, labeling. He pushed them both hard, driven by a pressure rising from deep within himself that he couldn’t explain. When the harsh cry of “Tehl-Voyf!” came outside the door, it was as much a relief as an annoyance to be taken from his work for a moment.

Muun-Reh stood a few steps from the door, reading an unsealed telegram. “This came for you, Tehl-Voyf,” she said.

He gaped briefly at the effrontery. “For me,” he repeated pointedly.

“Yes, and heed it.” She handed it over.

Tehl-Voyf turned it, saw his wife’s name, then saw what it said.

Dropped last night. Coming home. Should be there tomorrow.

His insides churned. The baby was early—or the babies—though not dangerously so. It would be a matter of days now. Tehl-Voyf finally knew his deadline, and it was very close.

A cry from the lab spun him around. He dashed inside, to find Minchita already sputtering apologies. He saw a box of chiffi powder overturned and spilled next to a drum of freshly decanted concentrate. “It got in?” he demanded.

“I was reaching for the shelf and—yes, it got in, and I am—”

Tehl-Voyf boxed him hard, once on each side of the head. “You fool! That’s a quarter-day’s work! Even if I could spare the wine, I can’t spare the time!” He reared back for another boxing, but Minchita’s cringing submission stayed his hand.

He hadn’t needed to do this for almost half a year, when Minchita was still new and fumbling as an assistant. Tehl-Voyf had thought Minchita was past needing this—and that he himself was past doing this.

But now, of all times . . . His hand went up, but the sensation of something behind him stopped him again.

Muun-Reh was at the threshold. “Don’t let me stop you.” Tehl-Voyf dropped his arm, far too late to avoid her haughty sneer. “It’s always violence with men. A thousand years since the Great War, and you’ve still learned nothing. It’s why you aren’t suited for intelligent work. Today, of all days, it’s finally time you realized that.”

She must have seen his chastened meekness, just like Minchita’s, and softened her tone. “Which isn’t to say he didn’t deserve it.” She walked down the hall, and Tehl-Voyf shut the door, far too late.

When he finally turned back around, he got a shock. “What are you doing?”

Minchita laid down the dipper with which he had filled a cup. “So it won’t be a total loss, Se Chuul, I’m testing the combination.” With that, he lifted the cup to his mouth.

Tehl-Voyf took a half-step and stopped. Chiffi had been on his original list of folk remedies, though the evidence was too scanty because almost nobody consumed it. This made sense as an experiment—and it made more sense as Minchita’s penance. All he said, once Minchita drained his cup, was, “I don’t know how you can stand that stuff.”

Minchita smiled. “Easy. It’s because I’m not a glehk.” In the time it took to say that, his face had already darkened. Very calmly, he added, “Please, could you pass the water pitcher?”

*   *   *

At work early the next morning, Tehl-Voyf told Feyn that his wife had dropped; tomorrow would be his last day at the dye works. Whether her reaction was restrained or indifferent, he could not gauge. He arranged for a last round of tests using his combinations, then went to work.

He would miss the work, a little. He might even miss one or two coworkers. He would truly miss the support it had given to his true vocation, even if just maybe it had been a mistake all along.

He arrived to find his home in a mild uproar. Yess-Tihn the servant was hurrying down the stairs, as Muun-Reh arrived at the lower landing, her arms full. “Finally! Help Yess-Tihn. She’ll tell you what to do.”

Muun-Reh hurried upstairs, as Tehl-Voyf got a passing glimpse at her burden. Was that the icebox from the lab? Before he could object, Yess-Tihn slapped him on the arm. “Where are your largest pots?”

Tehl-Voyf gave up being offended and started fetching what Yess-Tihn told him to. Pots, towels and linens, extra fuel for the bedroom stove, extra food to go into the pirated icebox, extra ice, and a few items the utility of which he couldn’t guess and wasn’t going to ask. This wasn’t a man’s realm, and he knew it.

Muun-Reh ascended behind him on his ninth trip up the stairs. “That’s enough for the moment. Maybe now you can see to whatever’s shuffling around in your storage space.”

Tehl-Voyf groaned and hastened downstairs. Was there anything strong enough to keep the glehks out of his lab? He didn’t have long to imagine the added damage to his work before he opened the door.

The sound had been Minchita, writing furiously in some cleared space on a worktable. Tehl-Voyf hadn’t expected him today. He got one word into saying so before Minchita hushed him with a brusque wave of his arm. A moment rushed past before he finally looked up at the nearby clock.

“Eleven, exactly.” Minchita picked up the paper and thrust it at Tehl-Voyf. “Get me another.”

Tehl-Voyf looked at the paper. It was one of the math tests. He wanted to ask, but went to a drawer, pulled out a page, and checked that it wasn’t the same one. Minchita snatched it away, glanced at the clock, and bowed his head, pencil already scratching away.

Back at the drawer, Tehl-Voyf dug through the answer sheets. He found the right one, checked Minchita’s quiz, then checked it again. He’d missed just one question—and how fast did he say he did it?”

“Ten thirty-three!” Another page went into Tehl-Voyf’s hands. “I know I’m better,” Minchita said, “and I know I’m faster. Right?”

Tehl-Voyf had never seen such animation in Minchita before, such a glow in his eyes. He found the next key, and again, Minchita had missed just one. By then, Minchita had found the lab notebook and put it under Tehl-Voyf’s eyes. “I took almost twice as long in the baseline,” he said, “and I missed five then.” The other test had an even greater disparity.

Tehl-Voyf slid over toward his medical bag. “How are you feeling?”

The glow spread across his face. “I don’t have the words, or I have too many of them. It’s like the clouds have parted. It’s like . . . I’ve awakened.” He moved to the end of the table, where a bag sat. “I brought more chiffi. More than enough to share with you—and the glehks.”

“If you—” Tehl-Voyf stopped. He heard distant voices echoing in the hallway outside, and he suddenly realized what it was. “I’ll be back,” he said before stumbling through the doorway.

He found them in the main hallway, Meil-Kahd leaning slightly on an assistant’s arm. Her gravid bulge was clearly lower, and her veil now ran from under her eyes to the bottom of her neck. Her eyes brightened on seeing him, and he decided the proper forms could go rot. “Meil-Kahd, dearest, we’ve had a—”

“No more!” Muun-Reh had arrived at the foot of the stairs. “You know better. Yess-Tihn,” she said with a sharp gesture.

The servant swiftly moved athwart his path, as Muun-Reh took her daughter in hand. Tehl-Voyf could shove her aside, but he’d broken custom enough already. He watched his wife be led upstairs to enter her final confinement. He would not see her again until after the birth, unless Muun-Reh relented, and she would not.

But he had so much to say. Or did he?

His feet carried him back to the lab. One person, on one day. Was that proof, or anecdote, or delusion? Or was something else at work, maybe the mania of a habituating stimulant? Not the chiffi spice, but if Minchita was taking something else . . . How well did he really know the man?

Minchita was waiting for him, holding two beakers. “Will you drink with me, Se Chuul?”

Tehl-Voyf hesitated, until he realized it seemed suspicious. “I will . . . but let me draw my own.” That had to seem suspicious, but Minchita showed no offense.

Tehl-Voyf decanted a dose from the drum, took a sniff, and almost reeled from the tang burning in his nostrils. “You won’t be sorry,” Minchita said. “We’ve done it.”

He looked down at the liquid, raised the beaker halfway to his lips, and stopped. With Minchita’s questioning eyes on him, he reached for the water pitcher. “Good idea,” Minchita allowed.

Tehl-Voyf took a final glance and gulped the drink down.

*   *   *

He awoke on the cot in his lab, feeling how early the time still was without needing to look at the clock. He sat up for a moment, taking stock. He had awakened, but it didn’t feel like the clouds had parted.

Through a quick, light dawn-meal and some small domestic chores, he felt nothing shift. He thought briefly of going upstairs to inquire of Meil-Kahd’s condition, but he knew better. It wasn’t his place to ask, not now. Soon he realized he was delaying the reckoning.

Back in the lab, he selected two tests he hadn’t seen lately, but which he had taken to set baselines. Setting one sheet aside, he took the other to the desk, marked down the time on the clock, and began.

With each question solved, he felt a little more peeved. He felt nothing. It hadn’t helped. Minchita had been deluded—or maybe the Thripowaz really were so dim, anything would help.

He finished the last problem, checked the time, wrote it down—and stared at the two numbers. His eyes went back to the clock, and back to the times. He knew this was too fast. He lifted the clock to his ear, but its little metal heartbeat was just right.

Forcing himself to be calm, he checked his work. It was perfect. His lab book showed the baseline test also had been perfect, but painstakingly slow. The work he’d done moments ago, seeming slow, had been anything but.

He grabbed for the other test, then slowly set it aside. Tomorrow, he decided, to show it wasn’t the fluke of one day. For now, though, he had to make some more: for himself, for Minchita, for his coworkers at noon-meal. He’d need to be at work soon, but right now it felt like he had all the time in the world.

*   *   *

The bustle upstairs had been going on a while, since he got back from the old dye works. It had to be happening soon. Three days since dropping was fairly fast for a birth, but what else could the activity mean?

Whenever it came, he felt ready for it now. As a father and as a scientist.

Footsteps descended the stairs. Tehl-Voyf left the kitchen where he’d been pacing to meet whoever it was. It was Muun-Reh, looking fatigued and sober. “How soon now?” he asked.

Muun-Reh’s eyes pierced him. “Soon? It’s already happened. You have one son,” she said, with an air of someone who had expected more, and better. “And where were you?”

He resisted the urge to say, saving the world. “At the dyemaker’s,” he told her instead, “finishing up some work.”

“Ee. I thought you’d left that job.”

“I have, now.” He tipped his head upward. “May I see her—I mean, them?”

Muun-Reh’s visage finally softened. “Certainly. Meil-Kahd will be very glad to see you. Wait, where are you going?”

Tehl-Voyf had returned to the kitchen, to grab his little satchel. He took it upstairs, past a nonplused Muun-Reh, and to the bedroom door, where he rapped the knocker. “Meil-Kahd, may I come in?” There was no answer. “Meil-Kahd?” Impatient, he opened the door far enough to peek his head inside and see why his wife hadn’t replied.

Meil-Kahd’s mouth was pressed against the baby’s, giving him his first feeding. Tehl-Voyf could see the pouch on her now-exposed neck fold in on itself, as it gave the food it had stored and processed to their newborn. The baby’s face was still wrinkled, its eyes still shut, and its skin almost pink in its paleness: the color would come in over the first year. Tehl-Voyf had never seen anything so beautiful, except perhaps the woman holding him.

As he thought that, Meil-Kahd pulled gently away from the baby, dabbed her mouth, and looked at him. He slipped inside and leaned over to touch foreheads, keeping his eyes on the child. “Here’s your father,” she whispered. Tehl-Voyf reached to run his fingers down the baby’s back-ridge, from neck to tail-stub. Its eyes twitched but did not yet open.

“I’m sorry I was late,” he said, “but there’s something . . .” He reached into the satchel. “You need to drink this, a dose every day, and retain some for our son. The taste is strong: be prepared for it.”

Meil-Kahd’s face clouded in confusion, finally showing some of her exhaustion. “What is it?”

Tehl-Voyf briefly thought to temper expectations but couldn’t. Not after Minchita, and his own tests yesterday and today, and the results at work—and how he now felt. “It’s the cure. We found it.” His voice cracked from the collision of twin joys. “We found it.”

Meil-Kahd gently removed one hand from holding the baby, took the small jar, and peered at the dark liquid inside. Her hesitation sent a cloud over his joy. What had she really thought of his project all along? Had she humored him, or believed in him?

She passed the jar back toward him, and his chest went hollow. Then he got his answer.

“Open it for me.”

*   *   *

Year Ten

 “The regnant family held power in the Ustell Holdings because they were considered the most able. Their intelligence was believed to be greater than others’ perhaps because they could resist the Malady better. But that does not make them special anymore.”

Tehl-Voyf’s pupils, ranged in two arcs before him, smiled, with a couple smothering peeps of laughter. Children were spirited nowadays, but these were old enough to know better than to act up in class. They were ten and eleven, with a notable exception.

“People in the last several years have said they shouldn’t be the only ones who can rule,” he continued. “Now, they have agreed. Instead of the family voting on which of their own will rule the country, or a Holding, soon citizens will elect people to have those powers.

“Ours isn’t the only country where governments are changing. Topro Uud sent its monarch out of the country last year—and that’s called what?”

Several answers from the class overlapped.

“I heard ‘banishment’ and ‘exile,’ and both are correct. In Efftrepa, people locked the Triummuliers out of their government offices—” This time a little laughter did bubble up. “It was rather funny,” he said, and they laughed again. “And the Queen of Greater Thripowaz had to ask her citizens to vote on whether she could stay in power. And she won.

“All these things happened, because of what again?” He pointed to the second arc. “Chib-Cheiv?”

She sat up straighter. “Because of you.”

The children laughed again, but Tehl-Voyf waved his hand. “Not correct. Who can tell me Chib-Cheiv’s mistake?” He saw one hand and finally had to yield to it. “Trinn-Viss? You had better get this right.”

His son did not disappoint. “Because of Minchita Prupo and you.”

“That’s better.”

Better it was, but perhaps still not entirely true. Honored as they were for their world-changing accomplishment, Tehl-Voyf and Minchita received restrained praise from the top ranks of scientists. They considered the discovery a freakish stroke of luck, and Tehl-Voyf couldn’t disagree, even if he kept that thought to himself.

Thus, his discovery didn’t translate to immense power or wealth, and the portions of those he did get, he had mostly spent in his drive to ensure the treatment was universal. It had almost broken his marriage with Meil-Kahd to convince her not to monopolize wump wine and chiffi powder for maximum profit. It had broken his partnership with Minchita, now back in Greater Thripowaz and probably better off than he was.

Now, when he wasn’t lending his work and good name to a nearby laboratory on odd days, he was teaching at a local school. There was tremendous demand for educators, now that students could benefit so much more from them. Tehl-Voyf helped fill the need in civics and, naturally, science.

The parents and students felt incredibly lucky to have him. He felt likewise.

He soon led the class to the science: specifically, the gush of inventions unleashed by the Cure. He asked them to name some that had arisen since the Cure. Chib-Cheiv named radio; Luhf-Toyn cited an automobile he had seen running on electricity instead of steam. Yem-Hfid named the movers.

“Actually, they existed about thirty years before the Cure. What has improved lately is the projection equipment, so they can be shown in big mover houses. So you’re still right, mostly. Let me see. Trinn-Viss,” he called, knowing what his son would say.

“Airplanes! I’ve gotten to see two of them flying!”

Classmates raised a jealous clamor. They all wanted to see an airplane. Tehl-Voyf silently thanked his boy. “Class, there is going to be an aerial show out by Lake Ukoymu in about a short-month. Arrangements aren’t complete yet, but I may—may—be able to take the class to see it.”

The children squealed with glee, and it took a moment to settle them down. “There will be a better chance of us going to Lake Ukoymu if you do your home assignments right.” They plunged straight into moaning. “This one may be fun for you. I want you to write about a new invention we don’t have yet, but we could see soon. It could be one you’ve heard of, or it could be one you make up yourself. I’d prefer to see the second one. I want to know how good inventors you all are.”

*   *   *

As they crossed a street walking home, Trinn-Viss spoke up with a sudden question. “Father, did the Malady hurt boys worse than girls?”

“We’re not certain yet. We think it did, by a little.”

“Is that why they treated us worse, didn’t trust us, for all that time?”

Tehl-Voyf answered that freighted question carefully. “They didn’t trust males because they blamed them for starting and fighting the Great War. It destroyed a great deal, and progress crashed to a halt after it. They looked for someone to blame for all the trauma, and found males.”

“And they blamed us for the Malady too?”

To give his mind time to work, Tehl-Voyf gave words and gestures of greeting to a few passersby. Trinn-Viss followed his example. “Not as many, but some. They thought it was another bad thing that came out of the war. Some historians have found old records, though, that say it was the other way. The Malady came before the Great War.”

“Did it cause the war?”

“They think so, because—”

“Because people became too dumb to stop it!”

“Yes, exactly.” The reasons the experts gave were much more complex, but Tehl-Voyf found his son’s clarity refreshing. “People now see it may have been less their fault, and that it was an unfair accusation. That’s undone some damage, and it should undo more.”

“So we’ll be better than girls, then?”

“Bright day, Simi Hwill. Son, it shouldn’t be a competition, where others have to lose for us to win. Both sides can gain together. Maybe it felt different when we all had dulled minds and weakened bodies, but those clouds have parted.” Tehl-Voyf took a glance skyward. “Speaking of which, it’s much clearer than it was this morning. If you get your schoolwork done early . . .”

Trinn-Viss looked back eagerly. “The telescope?” Tehl-Voyf gave an affirmative hoot, and Trinn-Viss dashed ahead for the front door. He had already disappeared into his chamber when Tehl-Voyf came inside.

He looked in on the twins in their playroom, interrupting a children’s song they were singing with their minder, Dif-Cheyf Yith Yuen. Yulk-Vess and Mahl-Viss were not quite old enough for outside schooling, but the family could well afford someone to help them along. Tehl-Voyf joined in the play for a short while, but he had more to attend to.

Meil-Kahd was in the kitchen, tending two slowly steaming pots. With a day away from her storehouses, she had given Tehl-Voyf an early start on dusk-meal. They swapped good tidings about the children as Tehl-Voyf looked over the food and slipped into the cook’s role.

He let the obvious question wait as long as he could. “And what did the doctor say?”

Meil-Kahd did not speak. She dipped a hand into a pocket, and brought out her new veil, bright pinstripes on white.

“My dearest.” They grasped and caressed each other’s forearms, lost in each other until they bumped one of the pots. Domestic matters reasserted their place, and Meil-Kahd left her husband to cook while she looked in on the twins.

Dusk-meal was messy but happy. The family, plus Dif-Cheyf, sat on their usual cushions around the low dining board, the twins still needing backs on theirs at least for a while longer. Dif-Cheyf kept them from spreading their food around too much. Everyone else ate well enough to assure there would be less food to spread around.

Trinn-Viss joined his father in cleaning up, while Dif-Cheyf herded the twins off for a little more music before bedtime. The word “music” made Trinn-Viss stop, then start clearing and washing much faster.

“What’s the hurry, son? Isn’t your schoolwork done yet?”

“It was.” He thrust a cup into the sink and splashed himself. “I mean, it is, but I just thought of a better invention.”

Tehl-Voyf patted his head. “Go, then. I’ll finish up. And when you’re done, join me on the roof.”

*   *   *

He had just gotten the eyepiece focused when Trinn-Viss climbed through the trap door onto the roof. “Is it ready, Father?”

“It is. But first, what was your better invention?”

“Ee, it’s for the movers. What we could do is join a phonograph with a projector. When someone talks or something happens in the mover, you wouldn’t just see it, you’d hear it.”

“Sight and sound recording in one. Interesting.” That would be a real leap. He wouldn’t be surprised if somebody was working on it right now. “Of course, it’s important to have the two linked right, or you’d hear people speaking with the wrong voices.”

“Yeah,” Trinn-Viss giggled. “Maybe the new phonographs, with the plates instead of the drums, would make that easier.”

“Could be. Now, Pilta has risen, but it’s still below those buildings. Would you rather look at Truta, or a planet, or something else?”

“Truta, please.”

Tehl-Voyf had expected that: the telescope was already trained there. Trinn-Viss settled in quickly for his observations and wouldn’t need to move the instrument for a while. Truta barely moved faster than the world’s rotation in its low orbit, needing twenty-eight days to cross the sky once. The little moon was a familiar companion to everyone and with a good glass became an intimately known one.

“We couldn’t fly to Truta, could we?” Trinn-Viss asked. “Unless we had much, much better planes.”

“Not even then. Planes need air to create lift on their wings, and the atmosphere doesn’t go nearly that high.”

“You’re right. The air couldn’t go that high. If it did, it would slow down Truta, and it’d fall to the ground.”

“Good point, my boy.”

It came so easily for them. Today’s children had not only a capacity but a thirst for learning that far outstripped what Tehl-Voyf remembered in his own young self. It could have inspired envy, had he not felt the flood of his own amplified receptiveness, still not abating. He needed it too, to keep up with the students in his classes—and his own wonderful children.

“We have to invent a new vehicle, Father, that could take us to Truta.”

Tehl-Voyf smiled. “What, just the two of us?”

“Yes!” Trinn-Viss paused. “Well, it doesn’t have to be us, as long as it’s somebody.”

It would be somebody, Tehl-Voyf knew. The spirit of this second Golden Age supported no other conclusion. He hoped it would be some Ustellu adventurer. More likely, it’d be someone from Topro Uud, where they embraced the new life of knowledge so fully. Just maybe, if the race wasn’t won too soon, it could even be—

“I want to look!”

Yulk-Vess’s eyes were peeking through the half-opened trap door. Tehl-Voyf turned a firm gaze on her. “Why aren’t you sleeping, child?”

“Because I’m still awake.” She climbed through the door. “And I want to look.”

Tehl-Voyf had his answer preempted. “It’s okay, Father. Come and look, Yulky.” She scampered over, as Trinn-Viss made way at the eyepiece. “Both sides can gain together, right, Father?”

Put that way, there was only one answer. “Right, son,” he said, feeling as proud as he ever had. At least for ten years.

 

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Copyright © 2021. The Malady by Shane Tourtellotte

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