Science fiction has a long and noble past as the fiction that explores what it means to be human, that wonders how much of our inevitable coming change humanity can endure and still be what we are. This story by Elisabeth Vonarburg lives well within that tradition.
«Is it a lady, Mommy?»
The small girl looks at me with the innocent insolence of children who say out loud what adults are thinking to themselves. A skinny, pale, fair–haired child of five or six, she already looks so like her mother that I feel sorry for her. The mother gives an embarrassed laugh and lifts the child onto her lap. «Of course it’s a lady, Rita.» She smiles excuse–her–please, I smile back oh–it’s–nothing. Will she take advantage of it to launch into one of those meaningless, ritual conversations whereby neighbors assure each other of their mutual inoffensiveness? To cut her off, I turn towards the window of the compartment and look purposefully at the scenery. Heading to the north the train follows the system of old dykes as far as the huge gap breached four years ago by the Eschatoï in their final madness. The scars left by the explosions have nearly disappeared, and it almost seems as though the dykes were meant to stop here and that the waters had been allowed to invade the lowlands as part of some official scheme. We cross the narrows by ferry, and are once more in the train, an ordinary electric train this time, suspended between the two wide sheets of water, to the west rippled by waves, to the east broken by dead trees, old transmission towers, church spires, and caved–in roofs. There is a mist, a whitish breath rising from the waters like a second tide ready to engulf what is left of the man–made landscape.
Is it a lady? You obviously don’t see ladies like me very often in your part of the world, little girl. Cropped hair, boots, army fatigues, a heavy jacket of worn leather; and the way I was sitting, grudgingly corrected when you and your mousy mother came in — a real lady doesn’t sprawl like that, does she, even when she’s by herself. The lady actually likes to be comfortable, believe it or not, and in her usual surroundings she doesn’t have to worry much about what people think. The lady, little girl, is a recuperator.
But she couldn’t tell you this; she didn’t want to see your big, stupid eyes fill with terror. All the same, you don’t get to see a real live bogeywoman every day. I could’ve told you a few things. Yes, I know, If you’re not good the Recuperator will get you, and he’ll say you’re not a real person and put you in his big sack. As a matter of fact, we don’t put human specimens in our big sacks right away, you know; only plants and small animals. Big animals are injected with tracers once they’ve been put to sleep for preliminary tests. If the Institute researchers discover something especially interesting, they send us back for it. I could’ve told you all this, little girl, you and your mother, who would probably have looked at me with superstitious fear. But who cares what recuperators really do, anyway? They go into the contaminated Zones to bring back horrible things that in other times might have been plants, animals, humans. So the recuperators must be contaminated too, mentally if nothing else. No, no one apart from the Recuperation Agency cares what the recuperators really do. And no one, especially not the Institute, wonders who they really are, which suits me just fine.
«Why did they break the dyke, Mommy?» asks the small girl. She’s sensed that it would be a good idea to change the subject.