Some days I think we should just let the viruses win. Viruses are simple. Viruses are easy. Sure, they might mutate in the blink of an eye and wipe out our species, but at least they don’t have feelings. But no, survival instinct is stronger than misanthropy and so I kept working, trying to save people I can’t stand from death and pain by mosquito-borne disease. Which is why I was sitting in a rickety chair, waiting for Larry to get to the lab meeting agenda item that said “publicly castigate Kay.” Life choice regret levels: high.
At last he turned to me with a shit-eating grin. “Kay.” Another lab manager might have spoken to me privately, but that wasn’t Larry’s style. He was all about “public accountability” and that kind of shit.
Resisting the urge to sit up straight in my chair, I replied, “Yes, Larry.” Technically we were a co-op, doing science as best we could in a crumbling building with chipped glassware and homegrown agar. Government funding was a thing of the past, but there’s always going to be a hierarchy, and being young and new meant I was low in the pecking order. All the hard work had happened when I was a kid, stranded in Cairns like so many people were, not understanding why we couldn’t just get on a plane and go home. When I was old enough to join the co-op, they had food growing everywhere and a functional library (OK, so some of the books were getting tattered) and if you were tenacious and smart enough to learn the science as you went, you could get on a work roster and try to find a supervisor.
“We’ve discussed mutual respect and teamwork many times, Kay. And somehow it doesn’t seem to sink in. I’ve lost track of the amount of times you were unacceptably rude to me or someone else.”
“What about not talking to people when they’ve finally got a chance to use the cell culture hood? After other people have been hogging it forever?” Under the hood, it’s hard enough keeping two thoughts in your head: whatever you’re actually doing, and keeping everything sterile. Put a lid down the wrong way and you’ve wasted half a day’s work and a bottle of reagent. Do that enough times and you’ll be assigned to the distillery to brew up more ethanol. (I know brew isn’t the right word, shut up.) Point is, it’s boring as batshit compared to actually growing viruses so you can try to mass murder them—the viruses, I mean. Which isn’t even that exciting if you forget the endgame: no more dengue, chikungunya, zika, and everything else those bastard bloodsuckers carried around.
“That kind of attitude is exactly what I’m talking about. You can’t just think about yourself, or even just your own subgroup.”
Just because there were already dengue and malaria vaccines (even if they were kind of shit), and zika was so important because it involved babies and pregnant women. Yeah, I know, I’m all unnatural and not a proper woman because I don’t want babies, but noooo thank you.
Chiku and “other” were left for the rest of us, but “other” was where I liked to play. It was less about vaccine development and more about studying the way the viruses mutated, trying to predict what might come next and kill us all while we worried too much about Guillain–Barré syndrome. It was the closest to basic science that I could get, seeing as basic science was a luxury and we were never, ever getting our jetpacks. “My subgroup gets the least time under the hood, and you had to pick right then to talk to me.”
He hadn’t even put on his lab coat. In the wet lab. And he stood way too close to me, hood or no hood. When I finally had a turn while the zika team seemed occupied with something super exciting. Fuck being polite under those circumstances, seriously. Especially when you should know better.
But no, he wasn’t going to be drawn into any discussion about his shortcomings, and no one seemed willing to back me up. He sighed deeply and shook his head; if he was putting on the seriousness for a show he was actually doing a pretty good job of it. “What you need, Kay, is a secondment on another team. Learn to work with others, properly. We don’t have the luxury of silos here. The epidemiology team needs another body for some fieldwork.”
“You can’t move me to epi.” I couldn’t keep the whinge out of my voice. “I’ve got no expertise. I don’t even do my own stats. I have cultures in the incubator and they’re really, really important!” Great, now I sounded like the zika team. Not what I was going for.
“The rest of your team can handle them, and epidemiology really needs you. It’s not a punishment because it’s busywork.” He grinned around the faces at the lab meeting. “It’s a punishment because you don’t want to do it, Kay.” Oh, he’d practised that one, I was sure of it.
The chairs squeaked in protest as people shifted in their seats, not meeting my eyes or Larry’s.
I sank back into my own chair, defeated by the silence and by Larry. “So, what do you guys need?”
“We’re heading out to the field to recruit for the next phase of the vaccine study.” Fiona, who headed the zika epi group, folded her dimpled brown hands in her lap as she spoke, looking at the rest of her people rather than at me. I knew little about her, other than she was one of the last people to make it over from Thursday Island in time, before the whole Torres Strait went under. Oh, and she was a brilliant epidemiologist, but I’d kind of never paid attention. Nothing against that branch of science, I knew it was important, it just seemed so bloody boring. “Mike’s farm was hit hard in the last cyclone. I gave him leave to go home to help his family rebuild.”
“Recruitment?” My voice graduated from a whinge to a squeak. “Talking to people? Getting permission to stick them with needles? Oh, hell no.” I was a virologist. Really, what I wanted to do was work on a project to squash every mosquito in the world, but apparently that wasn’t a workable solution because whatever filled the niche in the ecosystem would spread the same diseases anyway, or similar ones. (Also, that’s what you learn when you talk to scientists who can’t take a joke.) So I settled on the next best thing and learned how to grow the viruses that they carried in cell cultures, in the hopes of developing vaccines that actually worked. Point was, I was not a people person and never would be.
“Without Mike, we really need someone.” Fiona’s voice was calm and level. “It’s too much work for two, between the driving and keeping us safe and fed, apart from the actual work.”
“Well, I can do some of that, anyway.” Curse my traitor of a mouth, but I was realising that she was pretty, and there was something mesmerising about her soft voice. “I’d hate to muck up your science.”
“You did the phlebotomy course last year. Get a refresher this week and we’ll fill you in on the rest.”
“You read my file.”
She didn’t even blink, and as she replied I decided that I liked her. “Well, obviously. I wouldn’t risk the study taking someone who couldn’t pull their weight, no matter how hard Larry leaned.”
Larry wore the expression of a man whose thunder had been well and truly stolen. He waved a hand at Fiona. “Work out the details on your own time. Next item?”
• • •
Finding myself unwilling to disappoint Fiona, I traded off a phlebotomy refresher for a session of cleaning and autoclaving the pathology lab’s glassware. Fiona poked her head in as I practised attaching a tube to a child-sized needle. “Do the kids really sit still through this?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “It helps if we can get a supply of local anaesthetic, numb the area first. Sometimes they freak out a bit, though.”
She patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry, you can leave the tricky ones to us. Winnie—my nurse practitioner—is wonderful with kids.”
“Bet you are, too,” I found myself saying. Super smooth, that’s me.
To her credit she didn’t roll her eyes at me, just smiled politely and excused herself. That just made me like her more. Godfuckingdamnit.
• • •
We finished our preparations and packed up a few days later; I won’t bore you with the details but of course we had to be self-sufficient and prepared for disaster, even though it wasn’t cyclone season. All the supplies for the study, food, biodiesel, and camping gear made for a pretty packed Land Rover. Together with some of the other scientists, Larry waved us away as we left, his smug brain no doubt thinking of how nice it would be in the lab without me to tell him what a shithead he was.
Fiona had checked in with me regularly during the prep time, but I didn’t meet Winnie until we were loading up the car. I guessed she was about my age, but it was hard to tell because she was super petite. She had a delicate look about her that made me think I’d snap her bones if I tried to hug her, so it was just as well she limited our meeting to a cool handshake. Whatever, she’d probably heard what a giant bitch I was. I’d sussed out that her team respected her practical skills, but not much more than that.
Winnie took the first shift driving while Fiona navigated and I sat crammed in the back seat with the gear. I had nothing in particular to do, so I practised keeping my mouth shut and sneaking glances at Fiona when I thought I could get away with it. She had a definite plan for where we were headed, although settlements rose and fell and moved quickly out here, so we had to stay flexible. It would be nice if people stayed put for follow-up in a year or more, but they weren’t necessarily going to. Fiona and Winnie had to take so much into account with this kind of study, I was learning. I was as much in awe of their science as I was Fiona’s unflappable demeanour. They chatted about their work and other things as we travelled, often in voices so soft I wasn’t sure if they were even speaking English. When Fiona didn’t need to navigate, she looked back at me occasionally but spent most of the time looking out the window or at Winnie. Probably making sure she wasn’t getting too tired.
• • •
Our first stop was Mareeba, where there was a large, stable settlement with a dynamic Aboriginal Medical Service. A rusted sign with a faded smiling sun greeted us as we rolled in. “Low-hanging fruit first,” Fiona said, and she wasn’t wrong. Everyone seemed to know her, at least by sight. Winnie got a few nods as well, but mostly she hung behind Fiona. You’d have thought it would be a chance for Winnie and I to bond a bit, but you’d be wrong. Every time I tried to make small talk I got a one-word reply. If I was lucky. Small talk isn’t exactly my strong point, but damn if it wasn’t like talking to an agar plate.
After a while, I gave up and concentrated on setting up our clinic space in the AMS while Fiona organised the paperwork. Neither task took long: setting up for bloods and vaccinations was easy enough, and Fiona didn’t exactly need to strain to convince the staff that the study was important and would benefit the community. The building was in better nick than most of the town—don’t get me wrong, the town was doing OK but the AMS was squeaky clean, its stark white paint job eased by colourful dot paintings. Winnie had disappeared; annoyed as I was that she wasn’t helping, it was kind of a relief. It was easier to stay quiet while I shifted boxes alone than it was with a wall of silence next to me.
Just as I finished unpacking the last carton, Winnie rounded the corner with a gaggle of kids, all following her like she was a tiny Pied Piper. They chattered excitedly while their parents trailed behind at a slower pace.
“School just finished,” she said to Fiona. “Thought we may as well get started.”
“The clinic will recruit for us, too. We’ll probably be here most of tomorrow, at least.”
Winnie nodded. “I promised these ones a game while we wait. And you-know-what after.”
“Lollies!” The kids’ screeching drilled into my skull. Fucking hell, how did such small people get so loud?
Fiona just smiled, head tilted a little as she watched. “Well, we’re ready, and Kay can assist me. Who’s first?” As they clamoured around her, she put a hand on my shoulder. “The eager ones shouldn’t be difficult. This is a good place for you to start.”
Swallowing the nervousness in my throat, I nodded. She flashed me a quick smile, her teeth bright white in a grin that lit up her whole face.
My job was easy enough. I set out the equipment for each participant while Fiona explained the trial to the parent and sorted out the consent forms. Then I gloved up, found a tiny vein, and slipped the tiny needle in for the blood test while Fiona distracted the kid by asking about school or whatever. As soon as I had the needle out, she grabbed their upper arm tightly and gave them the jab—the new dengue–malaria–zika shot for the trial group, or the old dengue–malaria vax for the controls. If I couldn’t find a vein, Fiona did both, working as fast as she could to keep the trauma brief. Most of the kids were fine but some of them cried, each scream stabbing a knife into my brain.
The crowd never seemed to get any smaller, as word-of-mouth passed through the town and more people turned up. People wanted protection from the bugs, of course. But they were also thrilled to be in a study, even if they got the control shot. For some of the tiny kids, especially, it might have been their first encounter with structured science, and even I had to admit that was kind of cool. I wondered how many of them might show up in Cairns in a decade or so, begging for a job the way I had.
But the shine of that enthusiasm wore off as the evening dragged on. My head hurt and I was hungry. And still people kept coming. At eight o’clock, Winnie handed out tokens for the last ten participants and sent everyone else home, promising the kids that the lollies would still be there tomorrow. When one of the Aunties showed up with a basket of hot food, I nearly hugged her. But I wasn’t the hugging type, and hugging an Aboriginal Elder I didn’t know definitely wasn’t my style. We went to sleep soon after, aware that we’d be doing the same thing the next day.
• • •
And so we were, until the last kid and woman of childbearing age was stabbed and jabbed. The second day was much like the first, except that as the day wore on there were more difficult kids, just like Fiona had predicted. Some of them clung to their parents like limpets; more than one wouldn’t let me near and screamed for Winnie, who entered smug mode whenever she had to snap on her gloves for one of those.
“Why doesn’t she just do all the bloods then, instead of playing with the kids?” I muttered to myself.
Unfortunately for me, Fiona heard. “Because then you’d have to keep the kids out there happy,” she said, one eyebrow arched. “Happy kids out there makes our job in here easier. It’s real work, you know. Unless you’d rather do it.”
You’ll be glad to hear I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the day, even after we left Mareeba and set up camp that evening. Impressive effort on my part, I know.
That night I lay awake for what felt like hours, trying my best to will away the throbbing in my head. My ears were still popping from the undulating road through the Tableland, too. After a while I heard one tent unzip and rezip, then the other. Soon there were soft voices talking, laughing, and eventually moaning. Every muscle in my body clenched in a futile attempt to protect myself against the simultaneous arousal and disappointment. Of course Fiona and Winnie were together, keeping it on the down-low to avoid scrutiny (or worse) from Larry. Of course no one wanted to cuddle me—or do anything else with me—in a tent in the middle of nowhere. I wondered if Mike felt the same way when he was on these field trips, but no, he had a partner and a little baby. It was 2 a.m. in Far North Queensland and I’d never felt more alone.
Of course, it was about to get worse.
• • •
The next day, it took me an extra coffee to feel awake enough to drive. I tried a new technique for keeping my mouth shut—clenching my teeth together tightly enough to hurt. It worked, apart from a couple of brow-furrowed glances from Fiona. Winnie loitered at the campsite until Fiona climbed into the passenger seat behind me. Did I smell bad enough that neither of them wanted to sit next to me? It was worse than primary school, being one of the interstate strays that no one wanted or cared about. Fiona slammed her door shut with uncharacteristic vigour. Blinking, I shrugged and turned the ignition. No clue what that was about, and I didn’t think I wanted to know. It’s bad enough to think that nobody likes you, but being sure would be worse.
Uncomfortable silence hung in the Land Rover as we hurtled down what used to be a highway. The government used to maintain the roads, but that was left to the locals now. If there were any. More than once, I had to slow down to circumvent a pothole so deep that even the Land Rover wouldn’t cope. And once I swerved around a pack of wild boar, but I couldn’t imagine the government doing much about those. Feral species were truly here to stay.
We drove for hours without seeing another vehicle, let alone a settlement. I was wondering how close to Cape York we’d get when I saw it: just a shimmer in a valley up ahead. “Is that a township?” I asked.
“I don’t see anything,” Winnie said.
Leaning forward in her seat, Fiona frowned a little. “I’ve got no record of a community here. Slow down, would you?”
We crept closer, looking for the obvious hallmarks of anything that might be dangerous; there were cults out here, and straight-up gun nuts. A wire fence encircled the settlement, but it wasn’t barbed or particularly high. Clusters of small wooden huts seemed to have been placed at random inside, and patches of sugar cane and fruit tree saplings filled the spaces between. You could almost smell the patchouli from here. “Looks like harmless hippies to me,” I said.
“I don’t like it,” Winnie said. “They weren’t here last time we came through. We should come back with a bigger team.”
Fiona was quiet for a few moments before she spoke. I could have sworn she was counting to ten. “If they really are hippies they’re not likely to sign up.”
“But you never know, do you?” I tried my best to be chirpy. Fake optimism is better than none, right? “Don’t you want to get home quicker?”
The silence was deafening that time, despite the rattle of the engine. Fiona’s expression didn’t change but her eyes slid away from me.
Finally, Winnie spoke, tone gentle as though she were speaking to a child. “That was rude.”
“What the fuck?” I’d stepped in it, I knew that, but I had no idea how.
She looked at Fiona pointedly. “Some people can’t go home.”
I killed the engine; we’d idled long enough. “If you’re going to be overly literal about it, neither can I. Unless you have enough biodiesel to get me down the coast. Then all I’d have to do is swim across Bass Strait, easy. Seriously, what’s your problem?” I wasn’t touchy about the word home, and at least mine was still there (as far as we knew), but it hurt all the same.
“That’s enough!” Fiona said, before Winnie—who, I’ll give her credit, was looking a bit chagrined—could reply. Fiona’s hands were balled into tight fists on her lap. “We’ll check out this settlement. If only to get back to Cairns sooner.”
Winnie flounced back in her seat and I started the engine again. It should have felt like a victory, but I had a feeling that nobody had won that round.
• • •
After parking the Land Rover at the correct distance, we wordlessly followed the protocol for approaching a strange settlement. Weapons remained in the vehicle, along with all our supplies. Fiona carried her tablet over her head, its screen blank white to show we meant no harm. My guts churned and my head was stormy, but even so it was a bit of a surprise when the gates swung open of their own accord. Pretty high-tech for your garden-variety hippies.
Right after we’d stepped inside, Fiona said, “Shit, the back-to-base message.”
I unlocked my own datapad. It wasn’t picking up any sort of signal, not even the local radio network. “Fuck.”
The gate slammed shut behind us and my heart dropped into the pit that was already festering in my stomach.
• • •
They made us wait. Classic intimidation. After a while, Winnie started complaining, but she shut up when Fiona elbowed her. Good. At least I didn’t have to deal with it. I got over being scared and moved on to angry, my fists clenched by my sides and my heart thundering. Fight or flight, flight or fight. Fleeing would be the best move, of course, but goddamn if I didn’t want the fight.
There was another gate a few metres ahead, so we were trapped between the two. At long last, a man appeared on the other side of the inner gate. He wore the crumpled hemp you’d expect, and his hair had been shaved so recently it was impossible to tell what colour it was. His face and forearms were tanned dark, but his skin was noticeably paler around the cuffs and neckline of his T-shirt. “Place your hands where we can see them and state your purpose.”
We’d ended up standing back to back, forming a little triangle. That pit in my stomach gnawed; we were three women, outnumbered and vulnerable. By unspoken agreement, Fiona spoke for us. “We’re from the university in Cairns and we’re vaccine researchers.”
“Scientists, here to experiment on us? Isn’t that ... interesting.”
“If your community doesn’t want to participate, we’ll move on,” Fiona said hurriedly.
“Yes, you will. But we’ll need to scan you before you can leave.”
“Scan us? For what?” Winnie’s voice was so soft, I could hardly hear it.
“GMOs, pesticides, any devices that emit a signal.”
“How are you going to—” Fiona asked, at the same time as I said, “Why, if you’re going to let us go?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Who knows what you’ve already released without us knowing it? Something airborne, maybe, or tiny robots?”
“Nanobots are just slightly outside our funding capabilities these days,” I snapped.
“So you say.”
Fiona mirrored his position. “Yes we do. And as we’ve done nothing of the sort, you’re more than welcome to scan us. We’d like to be on our way as soon as possible.”
Yellow-stained teeth appeared as his mouth curved into an unkind smile. “I’ll need the keys to your vehicle.”
Hands shaking, Fiona held the key out. “Please be careful with our supplies ... they’re important to many people, if not you.”
Sneering, he carelessly dropped the key into a colourful pocket. “So you say.”
Fight took over me then. My face felt like a furnace with ears for exhaust pipes. I grabbed his arm, tight as I could. “Hey, most people around here would rather avoid dengue, even if you’re happy to have it ’cause it’s natural, you mung bean.”
Shaking off my hand easily, his expression hardly changed apart from his blue eyes burning. “What’s that? You’d like to be locked up while we search your things and scan your bodies?”
“No!” Fiona pulled me back by my shoulders. “She doesn’t mean anything by it, she’s just upset. Isn’t that right, Kay?”
He ignored her and pulled out a walkie-talkie, requesting backup. For a second, I forgot how angry I was; I was too dumbfounded by the hypocrisy.
Fiona let go of my shoulders and gave me a look that shrank me down to a five-year-old. “Great work, Kay. Really well done.” Winnie just stood there, trembling. No doubt I’d cop her reaction later.
Tilting my chin up defiantly, I put on my best brave face. “They won’t do anything to us, I’m sure.” Fiona’s expression didn’t change. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, I swear.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” she said.
“I will!” I said. “And you’ll fix it, you’re good at the diplomacy thing. I ... I’m sorry.”
And that was all I had time to say, before another two dudes showed up and marched Fiona and Winnie in one direction, while Bald Mung Bean took me in another.
• • •
Over my shoulder, I could see them taking Fiona and Winnie into a nearby building. Apparently, I had a longer walk, along a gravel path lined with sugar cane (organic, I assumed). Up close, I could see how hastily the buildings had been constructed; the wood still looked pretty new and splintery, and there were gaps between the planks that would let mosquitoes in. I wondered if they used bed nets here, with or without insect repellent. That aside, this place would be screwed if a cyclone hit. If there were proper cellars, I’d eat my datapad.
Taking deep breaths, I tried my best to take in my surroundings, to stay calm. To not think about the possibility that I was about to be raped and/or murdered. I could take this guy if I had to. If he didn’t have a gun, which he probably did. Would he hesitate to use it, out here where no one apart from his own people would ever know?
I had to look around, see if I could see anything useful, and definitely not think about the dodgy truck driver who’d tried to convince Mum that he could drive us back down to Melbourne, that he knew a guy who crossed the strait all the time, luv. How he leered at me more than her. This guy wasn’t like that. Oh, how I hoped I wasn’t just telling myself that.
It was a gorgeous day: balmy, but it was still pretty early and safe from UV. And there were plenty of people around; they hadn’t sounded an alarm and must have known we were harmless. But there were no kids playing outside, like you’d imagine hippie kids doing. Just adults, mostly men, but a few women, and not dressed like cult slaves either. At a guess, not more than thirty people lived here. I stored that bit of information to think about later and walked along obediently. Sure, I could have made a run for it, but with Fiona and Winnie (and the Land Rover keys) elsewhere, there wasn’t much point. There weren’t going to be any heroics from me; Fiona would smooth things over and we’d be on our way, hopefully sooner rather than later. It’ll be fine, I repeated to myself as we walked. I’d only run if I absolutely had to. After kicking Bald Mung Bean in the nuts. Only if I had to.
We stopped at a rather large building on the very edge of the settlement. Bald Mung Bean grinned. “There’s a lovely broom closet for you to ... wait in,” he said. As if on cue, a wailing noise started up from inside the building, soon joined by others, each more aggravating than the last. I’d found the kids. He couldn’t have devised a worse form of torture if he’d known me. Every muscle in my body stiffened and he had to half-drag me in. Clamping my jaw shut, I willed myself not to beg as he shoved me into a cupboard that hardly had room for me among all the other crap.
“We’ll have a chat to your friends and scan them, and we’ll be back for you soon. Won’t be long!”
Pulling my lips in behind my teeth to keep myself quiet, I ignored the false cheeriness. He shut the door and turned the key, and I was alone in the dark. With screaming all around me.
• • •
It was hard to keep a sense of time. Bald Mung Bean had confiscated my datapad so I had no clock and no light source. At least it wasn’t pitch black; a bit of light shone in from the cracks in the door frame, and my eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness. Not that there was anything much to see. The kids didn’t scream all the time, but when they did I curled up and jammed my fingers in my ears as tight as I could.
When they were quiet, I listened for the whine of mosquitoes and slapped them dead as they landed. It was the least I could do, given that we weren’t going to be vaccinating these kids. Not that I owed the little shits any favours, but even I knew that they weren’t doing it on purpose. No, I saved all my anger for Bald Mung Bean and his mates, who were doing this to me to build up their egos and justify their bullshit philosophy. Fiona would sort him out and then I’d be out of this cupboard that was really a bit too much like the storage crates in the back of a truck—I pushed that thought away and listened out for the kids, who were pretty quiet right then.
There were no sounds of happy playing either, though. Was it nap time? Did kids nap in the morning? Was it even still morning? I had no idea but these kids sounded nothing like the (mostly) happy bunch at Mareeba or the kids I saw in Cairns (from a distance, admittedly). I didn’t know enough about kids to work this out. Winnie or Fiona could have, but I wasn’t them. So I did the only thing I could think of. Banging as hard as I could on the door, I yelled, “I need to pee! Please! Somebody!” Nothing. “I guess I’ll have to pee on the floor then.”
Footsteps, and an anxious woman’s voice outside. “Promise you’ll go back in when you’re done or Derek will kill me.”
“I won’t cause any trouble. I swear.”
The lock clicked open and a tall, pale woman opened the door. Her eyes had a vacant look about them, and she seemed to be several months pregnant. “Good, because we have enough.”
All right then. She pointed to the left and I started walking, looking around as best I could without being too obvious and craning my neck. She walked along behind me, breathing loudly, as though it was an effort. I had almost despaired of seeing anything when she told me to turn a corner. “It’s to the left,” she said, but to the right I could see the answer to the puzzle.
Through the doorway was a room filled with about five cots, each with a baby or small child in it. These days, anyone can spot microcephaly a mile off. The kids here all had it, to some degree or another. The distended heads, the scrawny, out-of-proportion limbs. Vacant stares and drool and the smell of shit and vinegar. I wasn’t in the daycare; I was in the hospital.
Jaw hanging loose, I stood as though rooted in place. “So many ...”
“Please, you need to move,” she hissed urgently.
“Right.” Forcing my head around, I turned and went into the bathroom, and used it (I really had needed to).
She was waiting for me outside. For a moment, we just stared at each other. “That door’s supposed to be closed,” she said.
So was my mouth, but some promises were meant to be broken. “Yeah I’ll bet. Derek wouldn’t want anyone seeing what you lot have swept under the rug. This is fucking child abuse, you know. There are people who can help, in Cairns. Speechies and OTs.” I spared a thought for those speech and occupational therapists. Overworked but so compassionate ... more than I ever could be. “They teach parents a lot, you might not even need to stay there.” I looked pointedly at her belly. “But why risk the WiFi signals for that, hey?”
She burst into tears. “There’s nothing left in Cairns, the cyclones got everything.”
“The beachfront hotels, mostly. The uni’s still there, and we built a hospital on the campus. And we’ve rebuilt a lot. What rock have you been living under?”
“You’re ... you’re rude.” She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve.
The tears quenched my first response, to say something even nastier. “I ... I am. I’m sorry. This must be difficult.”
She nodded. “I have to take you back now.”
When she opened the door and motioned me in, there was nothing left to lose. “Is this what you want for your baby? Nearly everyone’s had zika these days, and I can’t smell any insect repellent. The herbal shit does nothing.”
She shut the door and locked it. Started sobbing as she walked away. What a waste that it was me here and not Fiona, who could have actually made a difference. I could only hope she wouldn’t risk telling Derek, in case she got herself into trouble. Fuck, this place was weird. It didn’t look culty, but it had the feel of it, and it galled me that I couldn’t do anything about it. I sat back on my heels and listened for mosquitoes again.
• • •
At least twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. “Uh ... come in?” I scrambled to my feet.
The door swung open to reveal a group of five women, including the one from before. “I’m Kate,” she said, “and we want the vaccine. I haven’t had zika, I’m sure of it. I’ve been careful.”
“We want to know exactly what’s in Cairns for our babies,” another said.
Standing there in shock for a few moments was probably a good thing, because I had time to remind myself to be polite. “I, um ... what about Derek?”
“We’ll talk to him.”
“I’m electrosensitive,” Kate said, and I used all my strength to stop myself from scoffing. “But I’ll take the headaches if it’ll help my baby. Is ... is there ultrasound at the hospital?”
I opened my mouth and closed it a few times. “Look, I’m a virologist, I work at the university. I’m not a clinician and I can’t give you specific details or anything, but I know that they exist, and if we can radio in, you can ask them. But, like, you do know how jammers work, right? They’re emitting a radio signal, and you’re using walkie-talkies and scanners here ... but you’re not—” I bit my tongue as Kate crossed her arms over her belly. “I’ll shut up. What do you want me to do?”
“Just tell us what you do know, and what you’re doing here. Then we’ll put you back in and speak to Derek.”
• • •
So I did, and they did. Apparently most of the kids here had parents who couldn’t deal, and one mother had died in childbirth. There were other kids around, with and without birth defects. Not knowing how long Derek was planning to leave me in there for, we made it quick. If I thought I was tense before, the wait while they went to confront him was an agony of guts churning and head aching. I still killed mosquitoes, aided by the wind-up torch Kate had left with me, but it wasn’t my best effort.
At long last, though, the door swung open once more, and Kate was there alone. “He said I may as well get you and bring you to the others.” She was silent and calm during the walk, and I followed suit. Or tried to, anyway.
As well as Fiona, Winnie, and Derek, a handful of men and at least ten women were gathered in the office Kate led me to. Word must have spread, and they spoke to each other in low voices. Fiona and Winnie seemed worn and baffled. I just looked at them, too nervous to even wave. Fiona gave a tiny smile. Winnie looked away.
The talking didn’t stop when Derek cleared his throat; he had to try a second time. “Apparently,” he said, venom dripping, “the values of our community aren’t very important to some people here, who’d rather pump chemicals through their bodies and expose themselves to radiation than have natural remedies—”
One of the men interrupted. “When was the last time you changed nappies in the hospital, Derek?”
“One of those kids is yours,” Kate said. Well, fuck me dead, no one had mentioned that before. “We deserve to make this decision for ourselves, not to sit around while you lock people who can help us in a broom closet.”
Derek threw his hands up. “If you don’t want what I’m offering, fine. Leave.”
The room buzzed with conversation. I kept myself quiet, quiet, quiet.
“I’d like my keys back now, please,” Fiona said. Her voice was so soft and yet it cut through all the talk, which died off almost immediately. Derek made a weird sort of incoherent screaming noise and handed them over. Fiona curled her fingers around them tightly and spoke a little louder. “We’ll be outside at our vehicle for the next hour for anyone who wants our help, or just wants to ask questions. We require consent forms before we give any vaccinations.” She glared lasers at Derek, then walked out the door without a backwards glance.
• • •
We moved the Land Rover a little further away from the settlement, just far enough to get a signal again. No one had followed us out after the gates swung open; they might have all had a change of heart, but I was pretty confident that they were just giving us some space. Nice of them. Fiona opened the pop-up tent and I put out some folding chairs underneath it. As Fiona set down a citronella coil, Winnie collapsed onto the ground, crying with great hiccupy sobs. Of course, she’d waited until the tent’s tarp was conveniently beneath her. Fiona dropped the matches and ran over to wrap an arm around Winnie, stroking her hair with the other hand.
I lit the mozzie coil and walked around to the other side of the Land Rover, resting my elbows on the bonnet and my head in my hands. Winnie would definitely want space from me, and so would Fiona. As much as that stung, I needed it, too. Not to cry, just to breathe the fresh, unimpeded air. So it was a bit of a shock to feel a hand on my shoulder.
“You did good,” Fiona said.
“I did shit, but thanks.” My voice came out muffled by my hands, but I wasn’t ready to look into her gorgeous eyes just yet. “Winnie okay?”
“She’s fine. Just shock.” Her hand was still on my shoulder, the pressure warm and gentle.
I stiffened, unsure of whether I could handle the contact even if she meant nothing by it. Other than not completely hating my guts, anyway. “It wasn’t fun. I’m sorry.”
She moved her hand away and leaned in to peek through my curtain of hair. “I mean, your methods might not be ideal. But I think you got us more participants than we would have otherwise.”
And by the crowd of people pouring out of the gate, it looked like she was right.
Winnie had stopped crying and gave us—me!—a very tiny smile. Fiona nodded at each of us in turn. Taking a breath, I let myself smile too.
Copyright © 2017 Rivqa Rafael. Originally published in Ecopunk (Ticonderoga Publications). Reprinted with permission of the author.
Rivqa Rafael writes speculative fiction about queer women, Jewish women, cyborg futures, and hope in dystopias. Her short stories have been published in GlitterShip, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres’ Resist Fascism, and elsewhere, and she recently co-edited award-winning feminist robot anthology Mother of Invention. She can be found online at rivqa.net or on Twitter as @enoughsnark.