Calling the Children

By David Wesley Hill

Author's Note This was the second piece of fiction published by the late e-zine, H.M.S. Beagle. The first story they published was by Bruce Sterling. It was a pleasure to follow such a fine writer in the table of contents.

They sent him into the interstellar dark on a mission of mercy. They froze him and packed his living corpse into a ramscoop and pointed it toward Ophiuchi. They skimmed him across three hundred years of time and space because of the cry that had reached a receiver several astronomical units beyond Pluto. And so he forsook all that was known to him and all those to whom he was known and he went out into the beyond. It was his duty. His name was Harmon Gynt, and he was a doctor.

He awoke above the blue planet from which had come the message summoning him across the centuries and 17.4 light years—

We die. There is plague. Help us.

From orbit Harmon Gynt deployed a thousand probes and the machines returned with the life that seethed in every ecological niche of the world named Blessed. Most displayed a common biological heritage built around a chemical sequence that was not quite DNA. But he also discovered bacteria and viruses with terrestrial genetic templates. So it was with hope that Harmon Gynt directed his telescopes and infrared scanners and mass sensors downward, and it was with gladness that he located the village beside a river not far from the sea. Some had survived.

He set down his shuttle a half mile away and walked toward the cluster of adobe dwellings across a vale of windswept vegetation that fulfilled the function of grass in the ecology of Blessed. He walked slowly, insulated from the environment in a sterile suit. He took his time while walking so that his approach would be noted and so that the villagers would not be frightened. They gathered to greet him before the settlement. They were a tall people with pale skin and blue eyes hooded by epicanthic folds.

"You called to Earth and I have come," he told them. "My name is Harmon Gynt, and I am a doctor."

The people gazed at him in puzzlement.

"We did not call," said one.

"The grandfathers of your grandfathers cried out in despair and so I was sent to bring a cure for the plague among you," said Harmon Gynt.

Their perplexity grew greater.

"There is no plague," said another.

One by one they approached and gave him their names and clasped his gloved hand. To his wonder the last several were not men at all but creatures with gray hides and webbed feet and meshes of gills to either side of their buttonlike mouths. Their eyes were gentle and they bobbed their heads before Harmon Gynt while pressing spatulate fingers to his faceplate.

"What manner of folk are you?" asked Harmon Gynt.

"We are the first born of Blessed," they said.

"They are the first born of Blessed," repeated a man beside them. "When we ourselves were no more than beasts, the first born gave to us the gifts of fire and clay and cloth. For these kindnesses we love them even as we love the flesh of our flesh."

This explanation confirmed to Harmon Gynt that there had indeed been a plague, and then an interregnum, during which the colonists had lost the skills of civilization. But intensive analysis failed to detect the antibodies that would indicate that immunity had evolved among them in response to viral or bacteriological pressure. The single curiosity was that not one man or woman appeared older than forty Blessed years, these each shorter than those of Earth. Harmon Gynt pondered this fact while listening to the strange music of the first born drifting through the twilight. In the morning he returned from the shuttle to the village.

"You have told me there is no plague," said Harmon Gynt. "Yet none among you has more than forty years of age. How can this be?"

The people looked at each other in wonder.

"Such is the span of a man’s life," answered one.

Another came forward. "I myself have lived forty years and I have felt my own mortality approaching. I will share this time with Harmon Gynt so that he may understand of what we speak."

He seated himself while the others began a slow chant. His face was composed until a spasm distorted it and from his mouth streamed blood and vomit. Wriggling in the mixture were worms with suckers for mouths and tiny fins. Harmon Gynt captured one and placed it in a vial as the rest writhed through the grass toward the river. The man died.

Harmon Gynt asked: "If this is not sickness, tell me what it is."

"It is old age," they answered.

By this Harmon Gynt realized that the people of Blessed had been infested so long and so uniformly by the parasites that they had lost any conception of natural death. He returned to his shuttle laboratory and compounded a vermifuge. But this was only part of the task before him. The fact that the worms lacked both sexual and asexual reproductive apparatus indicated that they were a transitory stage in the life history of some more complex creature. Any real long-term cure must disrupt this metamorphic cycle and prevent the endemic infection that had afflicted the people of Blessed for so many generations. Thus again Harmon Gynt deployed his probes and took samples of the organisms that flew or swam or crawled throughout the countryside. A microscopic rotifer shared the same not-quite-DNA with the worms, as did a legged mollusk the size of a pinhead, and a gnat with a proboscis the length of its thorax. It was in this form that the parasite impacted the human population, biting through skin and becoming a worm and attaching itself to the stomach lining, where it fed for decades while preparing for the next stage in its personal evolution, when it would exit the body of its host.

Harmon Gynt focused on developing a biological countermeasure. With ruthless concentration he created a viral antagonist to the gnats. It was a beautiful, deadly thing, perfect in its toxicity. Not only was the virus insanely contagious and indestructible behind crystalline protein walls, but in the absence of a host it could estivate for hundreds of years until the appropriate chemical cues awoke it to strike again. On the day he released the virus Harmon Gynt called together the people of Blessed and said:

"Disease has robbed you of your heritage for so long that you have forgotten the truth about your own nature. The span of a man’s life is not two score years but twice that. Here I hold the cure that will restore the lost decades that are your birthright."

He uncapped the tube and set free the virus.

"For this gift we thank you, Harmon Gynt," said the people.

"It is my obligation to do what I have done," he answered. "I am a doctor."

For the first time Harmon Gynt stripped off his sterile suit and breathed the air of Blessed. Within weeks his probes were unable to discover a living gnat in a ten kilometer radius. Soon the radius expanded to twenty kilometers, and then to thirty. Incidence of parasitical infection dropped in half, and then in half again, and then to zero. Harmon Gynt gazed at the twilight with satisfaction. He had performed his duty and that felt good. To his ears came the music the first born sang each evening by the river. Finally he had leisure to pursue trivial matters.

"Why do they sing so every night?" he asked idly.

"They are calling the children" was the answer.

"Calling the children?" asked Harmon Gynt.

"The first born are not like us, who bring forth our children live from the wombs of our flesh. They scatter their seed upon the wind and their young are born far from home. The music calls them so that they may be trained in the ways of civilization."

The music changed timbre and tempo. Harmon Gynt hastened to the river in time to see a gray slug wobble from the water on unsteady new legs. Its appearance was so familiar that he was sickened by the suspicion that occurred to him. But it was his responsibility to know the truth and so Harmon Gynt did what he had omitted doing before. He went to the first born and took scrapings of skin and bits of blood and sputum. He examined their not-quite-DNA and compared it to that of the rotifers and mollusks and gnats and worms.

Once again Harmon Gynt deployed his thousand probes but this time they returned to him empty. His virus was too perfect and remorseless. There was no way to undo what he had done.

Afterward he lifted the shuttle and returned to his ramscoop.

In his mind echoed the melody of the first born and he knew that it would linger no matter how long he lived nor how far he traveled. So he pointed the ship above the galactic plane toward deepest night. Entering his cryogenic bunk, he keyed the switch that would free him of his shame. His name was Harmon Gynt, and he was a doctor, and where his duty was to cure, he had killed.

It seemed to take forever before the chilling flash came. Long enough for him to hear again the song the first born sang. The song calling the children. The children who would never come again.