“It’s not our way,” she said. The words—our words—human words passed through the resonant chambers of her throat and came out sounding deep, with a slight vibrating echo.
I turned away from her, turned to the human examiner and gave a single nod. “Go ahead,” I said, so the verbal confirmation would be recorded on video.
The examiner glanced over at Wylda and crinkled his brow a little, a quick apology before his face turned away and down at the body on the metal table.
He had his work to do. I had mine.
I rested a hand on Wylda’s shoulder—a gesture I’d been given permission to do, but I still went slowly in case her two guards wanted to shove my hand out of the way. Better that than blasting it away.
“The same thing that’s been killing your people might have killed ours,” I said, saying aloud what she already knew, because sometimes turning thought into sound was necessary to make the thought feel real. “Your way hasn’t worked. And if we don’t want more to die, we have to try it our way now.”
“I will watch,” Wylda said. “I will witness.” She raised one of her fingers, a finger half the size of my whole hand, and the two guards dispersed.
They didn’t leave the room. They just vanished in imploding puffs. Seven months and I still couldn’t get used to it. I didn’t want to get used to it. Wonders aren’t wonders anymore if you get used to them.
“I’ll watch with you,” I said.
We both turned toward the examiner, one of my people, who was about to cut into the wood nymph, one of Wylda’s people.
It all started with a paper cut.
At least for us.
It wasn’t our fault. Then again, it wasn’t theirs either. We don’t know for sure what’s happened and how to stop it.
Of course there’s exchange between the borders of our two towns. There always has been.
We’re curious about each other. We always have been.
Humans have fairy stories.
Fairies have human stories.
In their stories, we humans, we’re clever. We don’t have magic inside ourselves like they do. So we have to be clever. Clever enough to build machines that do what magic does.
Summon and harness lightning and fire. Raise towers of stone and metal.
Sometimes our curiosity causes destruction that we don’t mean to cause.
Sometimes we are the villains.
And the only way to defeat a human?
Make it so she can’t be clever. Make it so she can’t think.
That’s why so many fairies are taught to confound us, cause mischief, cast illusions.
We shared such stories with each other, when our two towns were built next to each other.
And stories weren’t the only things we shared.
It’s not as if we didn’t see something like this coming. We prepared ourselves as best we could for the disadvantages and even dangers of coming together as we were doing.
But the danger we had prepared for most, the danger we thought was most likely, was the danger we might pose to each other.
Two neighboring towns. One human. One fairy. An experiment in living openly and peaceably with each other after generations of legend and lore had taught caution and suspicion as well as curiosity and wonder. But something had gone wrong.
And it started with a paper cut in the human town.
But the guy didn’t report it at first.
One of the workers in the Office of Mutual Resources—which we now know is a significant detail—got a paper cut when he put his hand into a file cabinet, and slid the back of his index finger against the edge of a stack of contracts. (The thought of that makes me wince despite everything that’s happened since).
As expected, the cut started to hurt. As expected, it stopped bleeding almost right away, and was forgotten for the most part, except when the worker washed his hands or applied any skincare products to that finger. But the next morning, he woke up to the sight of strange bright pink lines radiating from the wound, which was seeping and oozing a red-orange liquid that definitely wasn’t blood.
Not human blood anyway.
But the thing is, after the initial shock and panic, the worker realized that he felt fine, calm even. Rested and calm. So he went about his day. He covered up his finger with a bandage so it wouldn’t be distracting, but he mentioned it to a few people in his office. One of the sprites warned him that it sounded like an infection that sprite kids sometimes get when their first set of wings come in. She urged him to get it checked out.
The next day, he did. By that time, the wound had healed again. The bright lines had faded.
Before the tests from the human doctor came in, and before the fairy doctor could return from a house call to examine him, the worker passed out.
He hasn’t woken since. But at least he’s still alive.
The second infection was also a human, a courier who we later discovered had delivered a package to the Office of Mutual Resources a day prior. She had no cuts or obvious wounds. She didn’t go anywhere that no one else had gone. We still don’t know how she became infected.
The third was also human. A repair technician whose last job was fixing a small leak in one of the pipelines that distributed water between the two towns, before it became a bigger leak. He didn’t have any injuries either. But in the course of his repair, he’d gotten sprayed with water in the face.
They both gave use clues while they were alive.
And they both were alive when I was first brought in to manage the incident.
Tests revealed strange tiny organisms that seemed to appear and dissipate, the way most fairies are able to.
So the first thing we did was let the fairy healers do their thing. And that’s when my counterpart was brought in, Wylda, the fairy town’s deputy mayor—by human reckoning.
That’s also when the first infections were found among her people.
Our first meeting with the doctors and healers was a scary one.
“On the fairy side, it started the way a typical human infection would,” the chief of the fairy healers said, “with fever, chills, and exhaustion.”
“Strange symptoms for a people who can just use magic to dissipate infections,” I said.
“Magic is having no affect,” an ogre healer said. “We can only increase the intensity of efforts so much for your people. Human bodies are solid but delicate in ways that ours are not.”
The chief fairy healer nodded. “But even the fairy patients are not responding to magical treatments. Once infected, their own magic doesn’t seem to work, other than some basic reflexes, which aren’t helping. So they can’t heal themselves.”
I frowned. “Have we confirmed the nature of this illness? Are we sure it’s a fairy infection?”
“We know what they are,” the chief among the human doctors said. “That is, we’re able to see them.” She pointed to a screen in the meeting room where an image blinked into view. “These things are microscopic, and they look like parasitic worms. But they’ve been sowing a different kind of chaos in each host, which made it difficult at first to determine whether or not all of these people even have the same infection.”
“We’re fairly certain the three fairies who have it all drank the untreated water from that line that was repaired,” Wylda said.
One of the administrators from water processing was present and assured us that the infectious creatures were not detected in treated water. Something in the treatment process either killed them or filtered them out. A team would be performing extra testing on the water to make sure it remained untainted.
We dispersed after making some decisions and assigning actions.
We humans would work the scientific side, while the fairies would search their records of legends and lore. Their records were more complete and accurate than human records, but they did not distinguish between legend and history.
In the meantime, human strategies for dealing with infections—to treat the symptoms, to boost the patient’s own defenses, to help those defenses flush out the invading organism—all failed to work any better than fairy magic had.
If the parasites encountered anything they didn’t like, they just disappeared and then reappeared later when the offending thing was gone. And it would have to be gone eventually. Human and fairy bodies were different, but they both had to maintain equilibrium. And any treatment given for too long destroyed that equilibrium.
We lost two patients.
The autopsies on those first deaths—two humans—didn’t reveal anything. The worms were gone.
Some began to fear that the worm might be something new, a result of our two peoples living and working more closely together than we ever have. Maybe this was a parasite whose life cycle exploited that proximity. Maybe it needed both a fairy and a human host, or maybe it was just adaptable enough to infect either people. Some of the worm fairies objected to the parasite being called a “worm.” Maybe it was something else in the shape of a worm.
But most weren’t so convinced about the parasite’s newness. Humans and fairies were not two peoples who were encountering each other for the first time. We had always existed together. The only difference now was that we were living together in open acknowledgement of each other’s existence.
When the first fairy died, a wood nymph, the fairy examiner didn’t find anything. But her examination did not require cutting into the deceased’s body.
When the nymph’s family gave the human examiner permission to perform an autopsy, Wylda too agreed.
And so we both found ourselves standing outside the room where the human medical examiner started his autopsy.
“Where do you go…when you dissipate like that?” I asked, thinking about Wylda’s guards, and about the parasites.
“Where do you go when you dream?”
I glanced over at Wylda.
She turned to me and smiled. It was a small smile, but a real one. I hadn’t seen her smile in a week. I felt the tension in my shoulders ease a little at the comforting sight.
She explained. “We don’t really know. We just call it ‘the ether.’ And I think I know why you’re asking.”
“They haven’t found any traces of the worms in any of the water, treated or untreated, for three days now. The parasites have all found somewhere else to go. We know based on patterns of infection that it’s not person-to-person. It’s not airborne. But it’s spreading somehow. Our doctor thinks that the worms might be traveling through the ether and infecting people that way.”
Wylda shook her head. “It shouldn’t be possible. We can’t corporealize inside of another solid corporeal object.”
“What about liquid?”
She shook her head again. “Not even vapor, unless you’re very small.”
“These things are very small.”
We met with both the fairy and the human examiners after the autopsy was finished and their preliminary analysis was completed.
“We found what we expected to find,” the human examiner said. “Which is to say, nothing.”
Wylda lowered her head. “Then there was no reason for desecrating her body.”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean nothing.” He glanced between Wylda and me.
Wylda raised her head and leaned toward him. She hadn’t meant for the gesture to be threatening. It was just her way of focusing her attention. But the medical examiner leaned back.
“I just meant that we didn’t find any worms,” he said.
The wood nymph’s corporeal body was more like a plant’s than an animal’s. Her cells had cell walls, which I took to mean that human cells didn’t have cell walls. The examiner explained how our imaging technology was no longer working to help us see the worms because the margins of their bodies seemed to be fuzzy, so the image fused with the margins of their hosts’ bodies.
And once the worms dissipated, they seemed to leave no trace behind—at least in the human bodies.
The wood nymph’s body, however, retained the shapes of the invaders. Presumably this had something to do with cell walls, or cellulose. I only understood that the examiners had found some clues.
“…and in some areas, we were able to see the shape and size of the individual worms,” the human examiner said.
The fairy examiner then spoke for the first time. “They are bigger, much bigger. Big enough for even the human eye to see.” She glanced at Wylda. The natural scintillation within the examiner’s black eyes stilled. “With the body cavities open to my inspection, I was able to perceive traces of the dissipation pathways.” She turned to her human counterpart. “Your theory about the parasite traveling by ether—while terrifying—may have some basis in our observations.”
“Please tell me you found some pattern in those pathways?” I asked.
“Not yet, but we are working on it.”
The human examiner nodded. “Doing some models and extrapolations.”
Wylda released a groan. I couldn’t tell if it was a thoughtful groan, or a tired one, or even a hopeful one. Maybe it was all three. “In the meantime,” she said, “we may be able to protect our patients, and the rest of our peoples, by shielding them. Human lore has more to say on that matter, I suspect.”
I answered her with sigh. “May come in handy more than human medicine at this point.”
The worms weren’t getting bigger.
When the examiners first declared that, I could tell from their expressions that it was not good news. Then they explained why it wasn’t good news.
The worms were bigger, but they weren’t growing bigger. They were bigger because they were fusing together, like a whole bunch of tiny water droplets merging together to make a bigger drop.
Someone asked the obvious question. Why?
No one had an answer yet.
The worms were getting bigger and bigger.
Like the monsters in human fairy tales. Like the machines in fairy human tales. Growing so big it would devour and destroy unless some hero came forth and vanquished it first.
“We know now that it’s resistant to fire,” the human examiner said. He was pacing back and forth in the meeting room. “The flame fairy’s entire body combusted in an effort to burn off the infection. The worms didn’t even break a sweat.”
The fairy examiner’s black eyes sparked. “They are resilient. Resistant.”
“And so much for acid,” said the human examiner. “The bloodstream of an undine can change from neutral water to sulfuric acid in a matter of minutes. Her body rained acid down on them. Did nothing to slow the critters down. They didn’t even put on an extra coat to go outside.”
Wylda peered at me.
I turned to the examiner and said, “Are these metaphors medically necessary?”
“It’s been growing in each of our peoples,” the fairy examiner said. “Learning our weaknesses.”
“And meanwhile we know nothing of its weakness,” the human examiner said, stopping behind his chair.
“If only it was taking on our weaknesses too,” said Wylda. “Then we might at least know where to start.”
The fairy examiner grinned. “You might have something there, Wylda. We go through life picking things up—bad as well as good. If the worm is learning how best to live in the environments of our bodies, optimizing itself, then some environment that is not like our bodies may weaken it.”
“That reasoning might work if you were only considering human bodies,” the human examiner said. “We are all so similar as to be near-identical when compared to the vast variety of fairy forms.”
“True, but we have a profile of the two groups of hosts that the parasite has infected so far,” the fairy examiner said, glancing at Wylda. “And if we can have your cooperation, collect a diverse enough sample of fairy tissues, we can maybe set up a test to see what conditions the parasite thrives in, and what conditions it fails in.”
“Assuming there are any conditions that are not ideal, or better yet, hostile to these unwelcome creatures,” Wylda said.
The fairy examiner inclined her head. “Yes, assuming. But that’s a reasonable assumption. Given that every other being you’ve ever encountered has weaknesses, it’s reasonable to assume this one does.”
The doctors, healers, thinkers, and experimenters worked and studied. They made progress. They found a way to halt the infections, shielding magic from human lore.
But we lost three more people.
We had five more patients in comas. We’d put them in isolation. Shielded them from each other and from the world.
But we were now discussing taking those shields down.
We had a plan, at last.
A reckless plan, but that couldn’t really be avoided.
A week ago, there were thirty seven infected people in the hospital that stood in the human side of town. That’s because we needed human machines to monitor these people. The fairy healers moved over to where their patients were.
While trying to keep all the patients alive, we also tried to observe and learn as much as we could about the parasite’s life cycle, so we could figure out how to disrupt that cycle, break it.
The worms were fusing in all of the patients. They would reach a certain size and then dissipate from one host and reappear in another, following a pathway that arced between and among all the patients. By the time they dissipated, the worms had taken over some of the mass and vital functions of the host. Their sudden dissipation meant sudden death for the host.
Once we figured that out, we set up alarms to alert the fairy healers. With the worms gone, their magic would work, fixing in seconds what human medicine would not have been able to fix at all.
The toll was high on the fairy healers. Using magic to heal a broken arm was exhausting at best. But using magic to heal multiple organ failure required multiple fairies, and it collapsed the consciousness of all of them.
It only took them a day or to recover, if they were tended to by their fellow fairy healers.
That would have meant more people dying, if it wasn’t for the shielding.
The shielding didn’t disrupt the life cycle of the parasites. But it did delay it.
The doctors and healers set up a system where the stronger patients, the ones who seemed able to withstand infection for just a bit longer—typically the fairies—remained shielded longer.
We would drop the shields around the weaker patients. Typically, those who were hit harder, or who’d been infected longer.
But as the parasites merged and got bigger and bigger, they put the hosts in more and more danger.
Our best guess was that the worms would keep converging and merging until they were in one host, one final host. We didn’t know what would happen at that point in the life cycle. But so far, we hadn’t detected any eggs, or budding off, or anything indicating reproduction, so the fear was that this last host was meant to be an incubation chamber for a whole lot of new little parasites.
Whoever it was probably wouldn’t survive, no matter how much magic and medicine was used to try and save them.
We would still try, of course. We had uncovered a probable environment that might be hostile to the parasite.
The examiners nodded to each other before they turned to us.
The fairy spoke.
“We have decided that the best course of action is to force the macro-parasite into the fairy’s body. He should be better able to tolerate the changes we need to make to immobilize the parasite, and he has better odds of surviving the surgical extraction.”
Two patients remained. One human. One fairy.
The healers had saved the other three.
“You’ve found a way to direct the parasite’s last movement?” Wylda asked.
“Based on its past movements, and on what is logical,” the fairy examiner said, “we believe the parasite will choose the stronger of the two hosts. So it would likely choose the fairy anyway. But we will give his body a boost of energy before we drop the shield between the two. We’re hoping that will serve as enough enticement to direct it toward the fairy.”
I rubbed my forehead as I gazed down at their detailed report, unable to focus on any of it. “But he’s in a coma. He can’t agree to this procedure. Who gave permission on his behalf?”
“He has none who can speak for him here,” the fairy examiner said. “I made the determination.”
“We don’t have much time left,” the human examiner said.
Wylda rose from her chair. “What do you suppose would happen if a healthy, uninfected person were to be in the room when those shields are dropped?”
I sat up. “That would be a bad idea.” I turned to the examiners. They were both gaping at Wylda.
“This is a bad idea,” I said, again.
But there was no talking her out of it.
“My affairs are in order,” Wylda said, “if anything should happen.”
“Are you ready? With our plan?”
I nodded. “We’re ready.”
I left the room.
I stood behind a window, flanked by the two examiners. One human. One fairy. We watched.
On one cot lay the last human patient, an elderly man, who had chosen to retire in our town, and have one last, quiet adventure. On another cot lay the last fairy patient, a sprite, his body no bigger than my hand, and his wings—his first pair of adult wings—glittering under the dull hospital lights.
Between them lay Wylda, deputy mayor of the fairy town.
We dropped the shields.
Nothing happened at first. Or it did happen, but we just couldn’t perceive it.
Then, all at once, the monitors on the two coma patients started to alarm.
Wylda lay still.
We raised the shield around her, so that the fairy healers could go in and heal the other two, while human staff wheeled everyone away, out of the room.
“Okay, let’s turn on the—” I stopped talking. I’d had my eyes on Wylda the whole time.
Between one blink and the next, she had woken.
She was sitting upright. Then she was standing. Then she was in front of me, nothing separating us but a solid pane of glass.
Half-ogre. Half-elf. Wylda was tall. I had to throw my head back to look her in the eyes.
“Turn it on, now!” I said.
In minutes, the chamber that Wylda was standing in would become cold. Very, very cold.
The parasite wouldn’t die, but it would slow down, enough for us to extract it before the worm could dissipate and before the host—before Wylda—froze.
The team of human surgeons stood by.
I couldn’t let them go in until I was sure that none of them could get infected if the worm was still able to dissipate.
I kept my eye on Wylda.
And so I saw what happened to her next.
Wylda’s body began to dissipate.
I gasped. That shouldn’t have been possible while she was infected. Either she wasn’t infected or—
Wylda didn’t vanish. Instead her form hovered between solid and vapor. The vapors swirled around the solids, twisting her tissues inside out, and her body started to solidify again, into a new form.
A familiar form.
Long fleshy segments with no limbs, no appendages, just smooth. No eyes, no features. Just smooth.
A giant worm.
The worm banged against the window.
A security team, humans with deadly weapons, and fairies with deadly spells, arrayed themselves against the window, and the one exit from the room.
They swept me behind them as the worm that was once Wylda banged against the window again.
A crack formed. I thought it was a crack, but it wasn’t. It was frost.
I turned to the surgical team and shook my head. “You should go. We can’t extract anymore.”
“We can try.”
“We expected the worm to be inside Wylda. Now it’s fused to her. This…this must be the last stage of its life cycle.”
“Let me get the healers,” the fairy examiner said.
“But they’ll be—”
“If nothing went wrong with the healing, there should be a handful of them still conscious and able.”
“You really think you can extract the worm?” I asked. “With magic?”
The fairy examiner shook her head. “Not the worm. Wylda. We can dissipate her.”
The examiner called the fairy healers that were assigned to stand by. There were three of them, and the examiner made four.
The worm was contained. That chamber we put all the last patients in was built to withstand extreme temperatures and extreme force.
If we wanted to be safe, to be sure, all we had to do was wait.
If we wanted to be reckless, if we needed to be reckless, then we would open that door.
The security team already knew what to do. But I spoke to them anyway, needing to heard my thoughts become real. “Flank them, be ready to attack the worm with everything you’ve got,” I said.
I went in with them.
The fairies struck as the worm swung its smooth body toward them. The cold was affecting them. They struggled. I was immediately useless. Someone had given me a weapon. I was so cold, I couldn’t even lift it.
But I saw the mist of dissipation. I saw the fairies pulling, drawing something out, taken something from the worm.
And then the fairies were struggling to hold up a fifth fairy, with lavender skin and dark purple hair.
Security pulled them back and out. They pulled me out.
They shut the door against the worm.
A technician handed me the latest report. I scanned it and exhaled with relief. I turned to the fairy lying in the hospital bed and smiled at her.
I didn’t know how long Wylda’s sleep would last, but at least it was not being caused by any parasites. Her last panel of tests showed that she was still clear. The fairy healers were confident that she would recover. Their magic was working on her. But they were healing her slowly. For her own sake, as well as theirs.
Their biggest concern was that her extraction by dissipation had been rough and imprecise. It wasn’t something fairies commonly did to each other. There may have been parts of her missing. Parts so small they may not be obvious at first. The healers had spent their best concentration and focus on extracting Wylda’s mind. Their confidence was quiet and serious. So I believed them.
I should have had cause to be hopeful and relieved. But when my friend finally woke up, I would have troubling news to give her.
We had succeeded in freezing the giant worm. We had left it in the secure chamber, while we planned on how to keep ourselves protected. But our imaging machines were working on the worm now that it was solid. And we could see that even though it was still frozen, the worm appeared to be changing. It appeared to be breaking back down into smaller and smaller worms. Maybe that was how some or all of the parasites would survive, in an icy hibernation, until the conditions were right again.
Until they were just right.
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel