Milada had never before asked herself why she had never wanted a child.
She’d never asked because the answer was so obvious. Because the hands of her biological clock turned no more quickly than she aged, no more quickly than a year every century. Because by the most precise measurement Kammy could devise—the length of their chromosomes’ telomeres—she was twenty years old, and twenty-year-olds did not quit power-suit careers and empty out their savings accounts at fertility clinics. Because it was impossible for a twenty-year-old to believe that she’d ever turn forty and that at forty she would give anything to have gotten knocked up at twenty.
And because she could not. Simple as that. Because her eggs were all dead. Dead as doornails. Dead for centuries. The virus had seen to that.
She could adopt. Michael had no opinion on the matter, if only because the matter never came up. She’d informally adopted Jane. Jane was almost a member of the family. When Milada first hired her, they had looked the same age. Now Jane was in her late thirties, an older sister. Soon, she would become like Milada’s mother, then her grandmother. Duffy, Michael’s manservant, was heavily into late middle age, graying, paunchy. And because she saw him and Michael less often these days, with every encounter came that shock of realization that humans changed so much over time, grew old, and eventually died.
It was a hard-enough fact to face between employer and employee. Between immortal parent and mortal child, it would be intolerable. So what explained her attraction to this little girl?
The elevator doors opened on the transplant unit. Milada approached the nurse’s station. “Good evening, Doctor,” the nurse said.
Milada smiled. She hadn’t said she was a doctor but had allowed a casual touch and a practiced air of authority to dissemble for her. “The charts for Jennifer Forsythe?”
The nurse delivered them to her. Milada flipped through the folder. She had studied up on the subject enough to know what the numbers meant: FDP up, ANC down. She nodded and returned the charts.
The nurse offered hopefully, “Dr. Ingebretsen still thinks there might be reason to hope.”
Milada nodded. Rachel was right. They were all quietly hammering nails into her coffin.
She sat in Jennifer’s hospital room feeling enormously depressed. What was the real reason Kammy would not see patients? She wouldn’t risk accidentally exposing children to the virus in her blood. No, not by accident. The dangers of infection were simply not that great. Or perhaps she felt the tug of the same temptation—the temptation to do what Rakosi had done and what Milada now thought of doing.
Milada turned Jennifer’s gene survey over in her hands. The single-page printout was worn and wrinkled from being repeatedly taken out and stuffed back in, but she read it yet again: Jennifer was positive for the CCR5-D32 mutation on both alleles. Milada knew she had to destroy the printout and forget it existed. But she held onto it like a talisman, as if the paper and cardboard would speak to her and tell her what to do next.
Her faith in the intangible was as foolish as Rachel’s.
If I’d only acted upon this information the first time, Jennifer might have been strong enough—
She shook her head. No. That was Rachel’s sense of desperation insinuating itself into her rational mind. Milada knew what it was like to act in true desperation.
And yet—Jennifer was going to die anyway. I cannot change the past, but this child’s future I could. Milada ran her hand lightly along the child’s fragile arm, her fingers coming to a rest at the bend of her small elbow. She had never infected another human being, but she knew how it was done, having observed Rakosi’s failed efforts often enough: drive the tip of her fangs down into her gums, wait for the capillary action to draw the blood into the hollow channels, then find the vein and—
Startled, Milada glanced up, her heart pounding madly, tasting Jennifer’s blood on her tongue, mingling with her own. There was nobody else in the room. Her body trembling unnaturally, she stole to the door and peeked out. The hallway was quiet and dusky, the only occupant at the nursing station absorbed in a novel.
Milada returned to her seat. A child’s voice said again, “Milada.”
Her gaze fell on the hospital bed. The child looked at her, her eyes wide and clear. Young eyes, yet eyes banked with ancient fires. Something like her sisters’ eyes, yet pure. She knew the difference. Her sisters’ eyes, her own eyes, had long since been defiled.
“Jennifer—” Milada gasped, grasping the bed railing so tightly it began to deform under the pressure.
“What did my mother ask you to do?”
Milada shook her head.
A note of severity crept into Jennifer’s voice. “Don’t hide from me what she said.”
“She asked for you to live.”
“And so you have done what is good in your eyes.”
The question didn’t sound like a question to Milada, but the reality of what she was saying suddenly overwhelmed her. “Oh, God,” she moaned, covering her face with her hands. “Oh, God.” A plea, or a statement of horror. She didn’t—she was sure she hadn’t—but when she looked again, the two needle pricks on the child’s wrist had already closed, blending in among all the other wounds she had suffered.
“Why?” the child asked.
“You were going to die.”
“Is that what troubles you? Why life is given to the bitter of soul—”
“—whose way is hidden and whom God has hedged in.”
“If he wills that you tarry till he comes, what is that to thee?”
“What is it to me?”
“Perhaps a time to prepare to meet God. Perhaps you need more time than most. Perhaps you needed some help.”
Milada almost laughed. “If God exists, it is not a meeting I look forward to. And neither should he.”
Jennifer smiled. “Perhaps if you spent less time trying to atone for the past and more time trying to do right by the present.” The girl turned away, as if listening to a person speaking to her on the other side of the bed. She turned back, her eyes sparkling. “The old man—there’s no need to fight him any more. Give him what he wants and he will be happy. And so will Kamilla.”
She smiled again, a friendly, reassuring smile, as if they had known each other for ages, and settled her head on the pillow. “I’m glad we finally got to meet, Milada.” She closed her eyes. “God never walks away from an honest wager. Tell my mother that. And remember what you said in turn, Milada.”
And then she was still. Very still.
Milada blinked. “Jennifer,” she said. The child did not respond. “Jennifer!” Her voice tore from her throat.
The desk nurse leaned over the counter and peered through the glass at her. A candy striper paused in the doorway. “Is something the matter?”
“Is something the matter? The child was conscious!” Milada gesticulated wildly at the comatose body. “She spoke to me!”
The woman stood there like a post, stunned.
Milada roared, “Do something!”
Suanne Lane rushed into the room and scanned the monitors. “Who’s on call?” she barked, taking her stethoscope from around her neck.
“Page him and Dr. Ingebretsen.” She said to Milada, “Ma’am, you’re going to have to leave. Now.”
Milada nodded. She wandered out into the lobby and stood there, not knowing where to go, not knowing what to do.