When word came that Mrs. Healy was sick, there being no Doctor, the Sheriff went to her bedside. “How are you feeling, Irma?”
“Not long now, Colin. Not long.” She paused to cough. “Doesn’t hurt much. That’s a mercy.”
“Can I bring you anything?”
“There’s pictures, on my tablet. Could you bring it? And the charger…”
“Of course. Food? Something to drink?”
“Couldn’t keep it down. You’re a dear. How’s Emma doing?”
“She’s fine, fine,” he lied. “Sends her love.”
He held up her tablet for her, so she could log in. Every picture was a story. Eventually, she died.
They’d turned one of the closer fields into a graveyard some time ago. A wave and a nod brought a few of the Nephesh over to help dig. The Sheriff envied their long arms and powerful shoulders, and let them do most of the work. They didn’t seem to mind; they never did.
When Mrs. Healy was in the ground he said a few words over her, whatever he could think of, nice things, comforting things, spoken aloud to no one in particular. After, he gave the Nephesh food as was customary; they took it and walked away, out of the zone of Earthlife and back into their own biome.
“Is there any word?”
The Colony Computer never hesitated before answering. There was no subtext to ferret out, no unspoken implication. “No communications from Earth have been received since your previous inquiry, nor has there been any progress on my ongoing analysis.”
He hadn’t really expected any. “Recommendations?”
“Shut down the main reactor and switch to the auxiliary reactor to conserve fuel. Shut down electricity to vacant buildings and domiciles, to conserve power.”
Staying locked up in her house hadn’t helped Mrs. Healy much. “Yeah, sure.”
Louie came in, put his hat on the rack, sat by the air conditioner. The Sheriff had never thought much of his Deputy, but he kept showing up for work, and so maybe he’d been wrong. Louie asked, “Mrs. Healy?”
“I went by the Rossiter place. They’re both sick. They didn’t want me to know, but I could see how sweaty he was through the screen door, and she didn’t even come out of the back.”
The Sheriff sighed. “All right.”
He went back to Mrs. Healy’s place, closed it up, cut off the power. He went by the Cormans’, Henry Liu’s, and the Infirmary, and did the same. He hadn’t intended to stop at the Rossiters’, but when he passed, Ray was standing on the porch.
He stopped at the gate. “Ray, how are you folks faring?”
“We’re both… we’ve got it.”
The Sheriff nodded. They both stood in the moment for a bit. Eventually he asked, “What would you like done?”
Ray considered for a moment. “About the usual, I’d expect.”
“I’ll look in tomorrow. Anything I can bring you?”
Ray shook his head, turned and went back into the house. He left the inner door slightly ajar behind him.
He slept in the cell that night. His place felt empty, meaningless. It was all about the job, now. Not that he’d had a full dance card before, but there had been visitors occasionally. Anne most recently, Penelope Viers before her. In his sleep he made love to their ghosts.
The Deputy came in. “Hey, that crippled Boogey is—”
“Louie, I’ve asked you not to use that word.”
“Sorry.” The Deputy shrugged. “Anyway, the Kaiser, he’s outside. I asked him what he wanted, but he just ignored me. Maybe you can make sense of him.”
They went outside. Waiting at the bottom of the steps was a Nephesh, one arm shorter than the other. When it saw the Sheriff, it took a step towards the edge of town, and gestured for them to follow.
Sometimes you could get them to draw in the dirt, simple pictograms. “What is it? What do you want to show me?”
The Kaiser just gestured again, took a couple more steps.
The Sheriff looked at Louie and raised his eyebrows. “Better draw a couple rifles, let’s see what it wants.”
They followed past the edge of Earthlife into the surrounding density of black-leafed alien flora. The Kaiser led them through it, apparently unhindered by its infirmity, finding handholds and gaps like a child on a crowded jungle gym.
They walked for an hour, further than they’d ever gone, at least in this direction. The flora seemed to get denser and denser, finally seeming like it was all connected, all part of one immense organism. The Kaiser pushed through a black hedge that opened onto a clearing, in the center of which was a bulbous growth the size of a house.
“I slept.” It was a stage whisper, loud, all moving air with moisture bubbling around the edges. The Kaiser had its good arm outstretched, the palm flat against the skin of the bulb.
“They can talk now?” Louis had his rifle pointed at the Kaiser.
The Sheriff waved him off. “You slept?”
“I slept. You were a dream while I slept. ‘The body fights infection’.”
Doctor Orlova had said that to the first patients, over and over, with a smile, to explain the fever, the sweats. The Sheriff looked around. All one organism. “Can you make it stop?”
“We took apart our ship to build the colony. Can you make it stop?”
“‘The body fights infection’.”
Louis had taken off his hat and dropped it on the ground. His voice was childlike. “Colin, what the fuck is happening right now?!”
Louis didn’t come back to work. Ray Rossiter had laid his wife out on the front lawn, under a blanket; he didn’t appear when the Sheriff came for her, not even at the window.
There was help digging, again. This time they didn’t take food, and dug more than the one hole he wanted for Mrs. Rossiter. They were still digging when the Sheriff went home, ten holes, a dozen.