â€œWE WILL EAT THE BODY and sanctify its blood, to let it be born again.â€
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 manâ€™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. â€œWe will consume him, dear,â€ they were saying in a shivering stammer. â€œWe shall take him into our fold and make his blood our own.â€
It was an old prayer of the Sani Sabik, spoken in hard times, and they murmured it like an endless litany: â€œWe will eat the body and sanctify its blood, and we will consume him until he is gone, to let his soul rise again.â€ 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 hadnâ€™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 couldnâ€™t. He wanted to scream but couldnâ€™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 brotherâ€™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 houseâ€”the presence of a dead body, in and of itself, did not bother Drem, but the immense and silent anguish he saw on everyoneâ€™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 nightâ€™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 shouldâ€™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, youâ€™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.
â€œHi, Father,â€ Drem said, not bothering to wipe the tears from his face.
The Bleeder sat beside him on the grass. â€œHello, son. Iâ€™m Brother Theus. I understand thereâ€™s been a loss in this house.â€ His lips were fixed in a tempered smile held in place by the many wrinkles on his faceâ€”a deep concern woven with experience. Drem didnâ€™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.
â€œMy brother,â€ Drem said. â€œDied in his sleep last night, apparently. He was . . . well, I donâ€™t know.â€ He sighed and looked at the sky. â€œHeâ€™d been having some trouble, what with the sickness and all. But nothing that shouldâ€™ve caused something like this.â€
â€œSickness?â€ Theus asked.
â€œSabikâ€™s Sepsis. It wasnâ€™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 canâ€™t be sick the way he was and get out of it unscathed.â€ Dremâ€™s ears caught up with his mouth. â€œOr get out at all, apparently,â€ he added with a sigh.
â€œIt is always hard when a child leaves the family,â€ Theus said.
â€œOh no, he was an adult. Not old, but in his twenties,â€ Drem told him.
â€œYour brother had permanent blood poisoning?â€ the priest said to him. It was barely a question and verged on judgment. The worry wrinkles on the old manâ€™s face increased, but Drem now found them less comforting.
â€œIs there a problem?â€ he asked the priest.
â€œI must go inside, my son, and see the family. Are you the closest living relative to the deceased?â€
â€œYes, Father. I am.â€
â€œThen we will need to talk.â€
THE NEXT DAY, Drem, with head full of thunder, went to his grandmotherâ€™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. Vonusâ€™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 fatherâ€™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, â€œHow are you doing, Drem?â€ in that low voice people reserve for the traumatized, as if sound waves might break them apart.
â€œIâ€™ve had better days, thanks,â€ Drem said. â€œHow ...