Tooth and Talon
by Alex Hernandez
Copyright © 2017 by Alex Hernandez
Earth - 2258 A.D.
Oya Valette was lost.
The antigrav plane, on loan from the Hominocracy, sped over the Caribbean Sea. Its onboard computer sifted through old data and triangulated satellite beams, trying to find a tiny, desolate island within the archipelago that made up the Lesser Antilles. Oya had been born on the island of Chandeleur almost half a century ago. She knew it was somewhere between St. Lucia and Barbados, but she no longer remembered its exact location. She hadnít been on the island since she left for college. Then she had gotten a job flying tourists around the inner solar system, and thatís when Super Storm Theresa decimated the whole place and left her no reason to return.
"Target identified," rang the planeís computer. Oya steered the black, triangular vehicle toward the small isle. She finally caught sight of a green patch shaped like a tear drop amidst all the blue.
It wasnít nostalgia that drove Oya back to her home now. It was her grandmother, the only person stubborn enough not to have evacuated the insignificant dot of land when the 17,341 other residents fled. Apparently, when she retired from Avant Genomics, she had begged and coerced several large organizations into funding a restoration project. Sheíd been living in a mobile home on the island, planting trees, ever since.
Oya wheeled above Chandeleur until she spotted her grandmotherís high-tech trailer a kilometer from the beach, hidden among mangroves and palms. She wasnít sure, but she thought it might be in the same place where their large old house had once stood. She settled the plane on the shore and got out.
The Caribbean sun immediately began to burn her naturally dark skin, and it reminded her why she never missed this place. She stretched, interlocking her fingers and lifting her arms as high as they would go, and then she pushed them further, arching her back until she achieved that delicious point between pleasure and pain.
Oya Valette moved as if threating to take flight.
Her tall, lean physique gave the impression that sheíd been born on some celestial body with much lighter gravity, like Luna or Mercury. But she had been born and raised on covetous Earth and had grown tall in defiance of its full and unfair one gee gravity. And so, her entire manner had remained insolent throughout her life.
She stopped to tie her long black hair into a loose bun and then sprinted toward the rectangular box veiled by the tropical forest.
She moved inland, away from the surf and the caw of seagulls, and into the shade of the young caimito trees and banyans. Gone were all the little pink and blue houses that clung like pastel barnacles to the slopes of Mont VÚl. It was as if Oya had been transported to the islandís primeval past, where all that existed were immature trees and birds. She plucked a violet fruit from a tree and played with it, tossing it from one hand to the other. Oya had to give her grandmother credit; the island was an absolute Eden. Even with its many ecological disasters, Earth was still beautiful. Why would anyone want to leave such a lush, green world, so perfectly suited for humans, and willingly adopt the hostile, poisonous environs of space? No, her grandmother wouldnít understand her joining the Hominocracy. This trip would end in argument.
Oya was drenched in sweat when she got to where the town square ó what the locals unpretentiously called Downtown ó used to be. A trio of white ibises glided in and landed on what had once been PwŤmyť Street. They poked in the soil with their long, red beaks. She recalled voluptuous, bronze-skinned women parading down the boulevard in little more than colorful plumage. They smiled and sambaed to the Calypso rhythms of the steel pans carried by bare-chested men. The scent of curried crab and kabobs wafted up from the vendor carts. A little girl, wearing a crown of yellow feathers, danced to the music and pageantry, shouting, "Se yon bon tan!" with hands outstretched for candy and beaded necklaces.
It was all gone now, and Oya watched a different procession as little emerald hummingbirds zipped around the red blooms of a Royal Poinciana. It amazed her how quickly the birds from neighboring islands had colonized this rock. It was a testament to life. She wondered if she would long for this steaming, flamboyant mess once she was cooped up on a sterile space ship light years away. She had never missed it before.
But it was too late for second thoughts now. She had accepted the full complement of permanent curators into her system. The cost of those tiny machines that fastidiously repaired and maintained her genome like ó well, like doting curators, had been extraordinary. She was contractually bound to serve in the Hominocracy for twenty years to pay off the debt. They needed experienced spacecraft pilots trained in Antigravity Aviation. She would use them, and they would use her. Besides, she thought, what was twenty years to someone who could potentially live forever? She had to tell her grandmother, though. She was prepared for a fight, as had happened many times before, but she owed her the truth.
Oya knocked on the trailer door twice, took a deep breath, and opened it without waiting for a reply. Her grandmother, wearing a white cotton house dress, lay on a cot reading a beat up old birding guide. In her old age, Oyaís grandmother had taken up painting, and splashy watercolors of macaws and flamingos adorned the aluminum walls.
"You made it." Osala had always been an imposing, big-boned woman, so seeing her shriveled and frail struck Oya more than the oppressive heat.
"Sa ou fŤ, gwan man man?" The long-dormant KwťyÚl came pouring out of Oya like sweat. She carefully leaned over and hugged her grandmother.
"Iím fine. Come and eat something."
The oily smell of fried yams invoked even more childhood memories and would probably cling to her hair for days. Oya cracked open a frosty can of coconut water and sat at the pullout table for two.
"Howís that British husband of yours?" her grandmother asked, placing the deep orange slices of sweet potato in front of her. Her hands were enflamed and warped by arthritis.
"Isaac? Weíre no longer together. Havenít been for about a year." Oya ate a slice, mentally commanding her curators to take care of all the grease and salt before it was absorbed by her body.
"Thatís eight years of marriageÖ†Were you unhappy?"
"Not really." Wasnít she? "We were just on different trajectories." This was her fourth serious relationship. After a while, they all got stale. Wasnít that part of the reason she had joined the Hominocracy, to do something different, something exciting?
"You make it sound so businesslike."
Oya raised her can in a mock toast and winked at her grandmother. "I guess Iím just not the romantic type."
Osala kissed her on the head and patted her shoulder. "No, girl. Itís hard to bond with someone when there are no children who need you, when you donít grow old together and need each other. Youíre forever young and independent and quick to move on."
Her grandmother had a way of making the things Oya appreciated sound like bad things. "I donít really want to talk about it. You make it seem like Iím doomed to be alone." Oya cleaned the plate with the last piece of yam and downed it.
"Not alone, just never in a lasting, rewarding relationship. Come on." The old woman hobbled out of the camper with Oya silently in tow. "I wanted to show you something out back." She disappeared behind her modest dwelling.
Oya waded through a small garden packed with leafy plants she recognized as yams and malanga, surrounded by neat rows of papaya and banana trees. She followed the hints of white from her grandmotherís dress amid all the overwhelming green. The scent of damp soil mingled with the sea salt on the breeze, and Oya realized she had just eaten from this garden. This is what her gwan man man lived off. She sustained herself from the bosom of Chandeleur.
Oya heard the loud chirping before she saw the hundreds of little wooden cages containing delicate lemon-yellow birds. The cages were stacked in the shadow of a large avocado tree. "What is this?"
"Sunny warblers. You used to love them when you were a little girl. You always wore a coronet made of their feathers for carnival. Donít you remember?"
"I was just thinking of that on the walk here, actually."
"You know this particular subspecies is endemic to our island, and they went extinct years ago. I think Iíve restored the native vegetation and insect populations enough to release them."
"How do you have so many if they were extinct?" Oya was afraid her grandmotherís mental faculties were slipping. In fifty-three years of life, Oya had never experienced naked old age before. Like the birds and children, the elderly were an endangered subspecies of humanity.
"I used my obeah science to bring them back from the dead." Her grandmother smiled, and the brown leathery skin on her face creased unpleasantly. "I cloned them from your old collection of headdresses. You didnít think I kept those dusty things, but I did. I had to insert genes from the Jamaican yellow warbler breed to fill in the damaged sections of DNA, but theyíre mostly original. I just hope we donít get any hurricanes this year. The birds need time to settle."
"Gwan me, the birds are nice, but how are you feeling?"
"Iím fine, love, old age is not a disease. I donít need you to worry."
"A hundred and eighty-six is hardly old!"
Osala waved at her concerned granddaughter as if she were talking nonsense and said, "Did you know that the TaŪno name for this island was Biekibogiael, which means Ďsmall island of birds.í When the French got here, they saw the trees teeming with these flame-colored warblers and thought the whole display looked like a candle mass, so they called the island La Chandeleur. These yellow birds have defined this island for centuries." Her grandmother swayed a bit and put her hand up to her forehead. "Releasing them will be a fine bookend to my project."
"Are you okay?" Fear seized Oya. Or was it guilt, because she rarely thought of her grandmother when she was away?
"Itís just too hot. I should take a nap in the trailer. I was dozing off when you barged in," Osala said with that wrinkly smile again, this time a little fainter. "Weíll release the birds at sunset. Itíll be cooler then, and they really start to sing when they stake out their roost for the night."
"Iíve talked to your doctor. He said that if you took, at the very least, a temporary dose of curators into your system, youíd be fine."
"I took the genetic treatments when I was younger, but I donít want those things creeping around inside my body. I donít want to live forever. Iím tired, and itís unnatural. They rob you of something vital. I donít know what it is, but they make you less than what you were." She stopped and peered suspiciously at her granddaughter. "You look younger, like you did when you were twenty. Have you taken another shot of those things?"
"Just enough to smooth out the wrinkles," Oya lied, and it pained her to do so.
Her grandmother shook her head. "I just need a damned nap."
Oya ushered her back to the cot in the shade of the trailer and helped her lay down. Her grandmother pointed to a downy wreath hanging on the wall. "Thatís the only headdress thatís left now. I couldnít bring myself to dissolve it."
Oya went and touched the soft, blonde crown as if the object itself contained her childhood memories.
"Did you like the birdies, dear?"
"Yes, theyíre lovely."
"Iím sorry about killing them all, but I brought them back for you," her grandmother whispered, and then fell asleep.