Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Last Flight of Doctor Ain

Dr. Ain was recognized on the Omaha-Chicago flight. A biologist colleague from Pasadena came out of the toilet and saw Ain in an aisle seat. Five years before, this man had been jealous of Ain’s huge grants. Now he nodded coldly and was surprised at the intensity of Ain’s response. He almost turned back to speak, but he felt too tired; like nearly everyone, he was fighting the flu.

The stewardess handing out coats after they landed remembered Ain, too: a tall, thin, nondescript man with rusty hair. He held up the line staring at her; since he already had his raincoat with him, she decided it was some kooky kind of pass and waved him on.

She saw Ain shamble off into the airport smog, apparently alone. Despite the big Civil Defense signs, O’Hare was late getting underground. No one noticed the woman.

The wounded, dying woman.

Ain was not identified en route to New York, but a 2:40 jet carried an “Ames” on the checklist, which was thought to be a misspelling of Ain. It was. The plane had circled for an hour while Ain watched the smoky seaboard monotonously tilt, straighten, and tilt again.

The woman was weaker now. She coughed, picking weakly at the scabs on her face half-hidden behind her long hair. Her hair, Ain saw, that great mane which had been so splendid, was drabbed and thinning now. He looked to seaward, willing himself to think of cold, clean breakers. On the horizon he saw a vast black rug: Somewhere, a tanker had opened its vents. The woman coughed again. Ain closed his eyes. Smog shrouded the plane.

He was picked up next while checking in for the BOAC flight to Glasgow. Kennedy Underground was a boiling stew of people, the air system unequal to the hot September afternoon. The check-in line swayed and sweated, staring dully at the newscast. SAVE THE LAST GREEN MANSIONS—a conservation group was protesting the defoliation and drainage of the Amazon basin. Several people recalled the beautifully colored shots of the new clean bomb. The line squeezed together to let a band of uniformed men go by. They were wearing buttons inscribed: WHO’S AFRAID?

That was when a woman noticed Ain. He was holding a newssheet, and she heard it rattling in his hand. Her family hadn’t caught the flu, so she looked at him sharply. Sure enough, his forehead was sweaty. She herded her kids to the side away from Ain.

He was using Instac throat spray, she remembered. She didn’t think much of Instac; her family used Kleer. While she was looking at him, Ain suddenly turned his head and stared into her face, with the spray still floating down. Such inconsiderateness! She turned her back. She didn’t recall his talking to any woman, but she perked up her ears when the clerk read off Ain’s destination. Moscow!

The clerk recalled that, too, with disapproval. Ain checked in alone, he reported. No woman had been ticketed for Moscow, but it would have been easy enough to split up her tickets. (By that time they were sure she was with him.)

Ain’s flight went via Iceland with an hour’s delay at Keflavik. Ain walked over to the airport park, gratefully breathing the sea-filled air. Every few breaths, he shuddered. Under the whine of bulldozers, the sea could be heard running its huge paws up and down the keyboard of the land. The little park had a grove of yellowed birches, and a flock of wheatears foraged by the path. Next month they would be in North Africa, Ain thought. Two thousand miles of tiny wing-beats. He threw them some crumbs from a packet in his pocket.

The woman seemed stronger here. She was panting in the sea wind, her large eyes fixed on Ain. Above her, the birches were as gold as those where he had first seen her, the day his life began. . . . Squatting under a stump to watch a shrewmouse he had been, when he caught a falling ripple of green and recognized the shock¬ing girl-flesh, creamy, pink-tipped—coming toward him among the golden bracken! Young Ain held his breath, his nose in the sweet moss and his heart going crash-crash. And then he was staring at the outrageous fall of that hair down her narrow back, watching it dance around her heart-shaped buttocks, while the shrewmouse ran over his paralyzed hand. The lake was utterly still, dusty silver under the misty sky, and she made no more than a muskrat’s ripple to rock the floating golden leaves. The silence closed back, the trees burning like torches where the naked girl had walked the wild wood, reflected in Ain’s shining eyes. For a time he believed he had seen an oread.

Ain was last on board for the Glasgow leg. The stewardess recalled dimly that he seemed restless. She could not identify the woman. There were a lot of women on board, and babies. Her passenger list had had several errors.

At Glasgow airport, a waiter remembered that a man like Ain had called for Scottish oatmeal, and eaten two bowls, although of course it wasn’t really oatmeal. A young mother with a pram saw him tossing crumbs to the birds.

When he checked in at the BOAC desk, he was hailed by a Glasgow professor who was going to the same conference at Moscow. This man had been one of Ain’s teachers. (It was now known that Ain had done his postgraduate work in Europe.) They chatted all the way across the North Sea.

“I wondered about that,” the professor said later. “Why have you come round about? I asked him. He told me the direct flights were booked up.” (This was found to be untrue: Ain had apparently avoided the Moscow jet to escape attention.)

The professor spoke with relish of Ain’s work.

“Brilliant? Oh, aye. And stubborn, too; very, very stubborn. It was as though a concept—often the simplest relation, mind you—would stop him in his tracks, and fascinate him. He would hunt all round it instead of going on to the next thing as a more docile mind would. Truthfully, I wondered at first if he could be just a bit thick. But you recall who it was said that the capacity for wonder at matters of common acceptance occurs in the superior mind? And, of course, so it proved when he shook us all up over that enzyme conversion business. A pity your government took him away from his line, there. No, he said nothing of this, I say it to you, young man. We spoke in fact largely of my work. I was surprised to find he’d kept up. He asked me what my sent¬iments about it were, which surprised me again. Now, understand, I’d not seen the man for five years, but he seemed—well, perhaps just tired, as who is not? I’m sure he was glad to have a change; he jumped out for a legstretch wherever we came down. At Oslo, even Bonn. Oh, yes, he did feed the birds, but that was nothing new for Ain. His social life when I knew him? Radical causes? Young man, I’ve said what I’ve said because of who it was that introduced you, but I’ll have you know it is an impertinence in you to think ill of Charles Ain, or that he could do a harmful deed. Good evening.”

The professor said nothing of the woman in Ain’s life.

Nor could he have, although Ain had been intimately with her in the university time. He had let no one see how he was obsessed with her, with the miracle, the wealth of her body, her inexhaustibility. They met at his every spare moment; sometimes in public pretending to be casual strangers under his friends’ noses, pointing out a pleasing view to each other with grave formality. And later in their privacies—what doubled intensity of love! He reveled in her, possessed her, allowed her no secrets. His dreams were of her sweet springs and shadowed places and her white rounded glory in the moonlight, finding always more, always new dimensions of his joy.

The danger of her frailty was far off then in the rush of birdsong and the springing leverets of the meadow. On dark days, she might cough a bit, but so did he. . . . In those years, he had had no thought to the urgent study of disease.

At the Moscow conference, nearly everyone noticed Ain at some point or another, which was to be expected in view of his professional stature. It was a small, high-caliber meeting. Ain was late in; a day’s reports were over, and his was to be on the third and last.

Many people spoke with Ain, and several sat with him at meals. No one was surprised that he spoke little; he was a retiring man except on a few memorable occasions of argument. He did strike some of his friends as a bit tired and jerky.

An Indian molecular engineer who saw him with the throat spray kidded him about bringing over Asian flu. A Swedish colleague recalled that Ain had been called away to the transatlantic phone at lunch; and when he returned, Ain volunteered the information that something had turned up missing in his home lab. There was another joke, and Ain said cheerfully, “Oh, yes, quite active.”

At that point one of the Chicom biologists swung into his daily propaganda chores about bacteriological warfare and accused Ain of manufacturing biotic weapons. Ain took the wind out of his sails by saying: “You’re perfectly right.” By tacit consent, there was very little talk about military applications, industrial dusting, or subjects of that type. And nobody recalled seeing Ain with any woman other than old Madame Vialche, who could scarcely have subverted anyone from her wheelchair.

Ain’s one speech was bad, even for him. He always had a poor public voice, but his ideas were usually expressed with the lucidity so typical of the first-rate mind. This time he seemed muddled, with little new to say. His audience excused this as the muffling effects of security. Ain then got into a tangled point about the course of evolution in which he seemed to be trying to show that something was very wrong indeed. When he wound up with a reference to Hudson’s bellbird “singing for a later race,” several listeners wondered if he could be drunk.

The big security break came right at the end, when he suddenly began to describe the methods he had used to mutate and redesign a leukemia virus. He explained the procedure with admirable clarity in four sentences and paused. Then gave a terse description of the effects of the mutated strain, which were maximal only in the higher primates. Recovery rate among the lower mammals and other orders was close to ninety percent. As to vectors, he went on, any warm-blooded animal served. In addition, the virus retained its viability in most environmental media and performed very well airborne. Contagion rate was extremely high. Almost offhand, Ain added that no test primate or accidentally exposed human had survived beyond the twenty-second day.

These words fell into a silence broken only by the running feet of the Egyptian delegate making for the door. Then a gilt chair went over as an American bolted after him.

Ain seemed unaware that his audience was in a state of unbelieving paralysis. It had all come so fast: A man who had been blowing his nose was staring pop-eyed around his handkerchief. Another who had been lighting a pipe grunted as his fingers singed. Two men chatting by the door missed his words entirely, and their laughter chimed into a dead silence in which echoed Ain’s words: “—really no point in attempting.”

Later they found he had been explaining that the virus utilized the body’s own immunomechanisms, and so defense was by definition hopeless.

That was all. Ain looked around vaguely for questions and then started down the aisle. By the time he got to the door, people were swarming after him. He wheeled about and said rather crossly, “Yes, of course it is very wrong. I told you that. We are all wrong. Now it’s over.”

An hour later they found he had gone, having apparently reserved a Sinair flight to Karachi.

The security men caught up with him at Hong Kong. By then he seemed really very ill, and went with them peacefully. They started back to the States via Hawaii.

His captors were civilized types; they saw he was gentle and treated him accordingly. He had no weapons or drugs on him. They took him out handcuffed for a stroll at Osaka, let him feed his crumbs to the birds, and they listened with interest to his account of the migration routes of the common brown sandpiper. He was very hoarse. At that point, he was wanted only for the security thing. There was no question of a woman at all.

He dozed most of the way to the islands, but when they came in sight he pressed to the window and began to mutter. The security man behind him got the first inkling that there was a woman in it, and turned on his recorder.

“. . . Blue, blue and green until you see the wounds. O my girl, O beautiful, you won’t die. I won’t let you die. I tell you girl, it’s over. . . . Lustrous eyes, look at me, let me see you now alive! Great queen, my sweet body, my girl, have I saved you? . . . O terrible to know, and noble, Chaos’s child green-robed in blue and golden light . . . the thrown and spinning ball of life alone in space. . . . Have I saved you?”

On the last leg, he was obviously feverish.

“She may have tricked me, you know,” he said confidentially to the government man. “You have to be prepared for that, of course. I know her!” He chuckled confidentially. “She’s no small thing. But wring your heart out—”

Coming over San Francisco, he was merry. “Don’t you know the otters will go back in there? I’m certain of it. That fill won’t last; there’ll be a bay there again.”

They got him on a stretcher at Hamilton Air Base, and he went unconscious shortly after takeoff. Before he collapsed, he’d insisted on throwing the last of his birdseed on the field.

“Birds are, you know, warm-blooded,” he confided to the agent who was handcuffing him to the stretcher. Then Ain smiled gently and lapsed into inertness. He stayed that way almost all the remaining ten days of his life. By then, of course, no one really cared. Both the government men had died quite early, after they finished analyzing the birdseed and throat spray. The woman at Kennedy had just started feeling sick.

The tape recorder they put by his bed functioned right on through, but if anybody had been around to replay it they would have found little but babbling. “Gaea Gloriatrix,” he crooned, “Gaea girl, queen . . .” At times, he was grandiose and tormented. “Our life, your death!” he yelled. “Our death would have been your death, too, no need for that, no need.”

At other times, he was accusing. “What did you do about the dinosaurs?” he demanded. “Did they annoy you? How did you fix them? Cold. Queen, you’re too cold! You came close to it this time, my girl,” he raved. And then he wept and caressed the bedclothes and was maudlin.

Only at the end, lying in his filth and thirst, still chained where they had forgotten him, he was suddenly coherent. In the light clear voice of a lover planning a summer picnic, he asked the recorder happily:

“Have you ever thought about bears? They have so much . . . funny they never came along further. By any chance were you saving them, girl?” And he chuckled in his ruined throat, and later, died.

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James Tiptree, Jr.

James Tiptree Jr.

James Tiptree, Jr., was the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon (1915-1987), who before turning to writing had been an artist, a newspaper art critic, a World War II photo-intelligence officer, a chicken farmer, a CIA agent, and a research psychologist.  After earning her PhD in psychology in 1967, she started writing science fiction short stories—using a pseudonym to protect her new academic career, and a male name to fit in better at the magazines. As Tiptree she published two novels and eight collections of short stories. She won two Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards (one as Raccoona Sheldon, an occasional second nom de plume) and one World Fantasy Award. An award for gender-based science fiction was named after Tiptree in 1991, and a biography by Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, was published in 2006.