“You mean it’s … terminal?” Anwen’s arms tightened around her three-year old daughter as she cast a glance at her husband Dermot. The girl cradled against her squeaked, so she loosened her embrace.
The doctor sat on the front of his desk instead of behind it. He’d drawn a screen across the window to soften the light, but the towering mountains that crisscrossed much of the planet Hin still cast their silhouettes through the filter. He clasped his hands together and inhaled deeply before replying.
“The disorder does atrophy the muscles before moving into the internal organs. So … yes, I’m sorry to say that’s usually the case.”
“Usually?” Dermot’s voice was hoarse, but Anwen appreciated how he otherwise appeared calm. “What’s the exception?”
“Your daughter does have one chance, but it all hinges upon if she’s an appropriate match to the donor.”
“Match? What donor?” Anwen stroked her fingers through the child’s dark curls. The motion soothed Rejali, who relaxed against her chest.
Why did their eighth child, whom they called their miracle baby because most people their age didn’t bear offspring, now face a life-threatening illness? Little Rejali was as beautiful and healthy as any baby could be when she was born.
But over a year ago she complained about stiffness and soreness, and her coordination worsened. She became less active. The local doctors couldn’t figure it out, so they sought the help of specialists.
Luckily for them, they didn’t have to leave Hin to find those experts. The native Trepetti had been agreeable to human colonization, so this was one of the more heavily settled planets. Many resources were already here.
The doctor leaned forward. “Rej’s condition is extremely rare. It only manifests in children born to … parents in their fifties. And even among that small number, very few are afflicted. So this isn’t an inherited disease where we could just harvest pluripotent cells and reprogram them to repair her defective cells.”
“But you can cure her with somebody else’s cells?” Dermot’s gaze was locked on the doctor.
“Maybe. Any form of transplant carries certain risks, especially the chance a patient’s immune system will reject them. That chance is lessened the better the recipient’s DNA matches the genetic makeup of the donor.”
“So how do you find a donor?” Anwen hugged her delicate child again.
“The cells already exist. Our facility maintains a backlog from a … particular donor.”
Dermot frowned. “How particular?”
“You’ve heard of this … historical figure. The fact he was genetically engineered does make some people hesitant to receive his line of cellular therapy.”
She drew in a sharp breath and cast a glance at her husband before returning her attention to the doctor. “Cells from centuries ago are still available?”
“We’ve maintained production from his line because it provides great efficacy at treating certain disorders, and Rej will need that level of potency … if they match well enough.”
Anwen’s heart fluttered as Dermot asked, “How does his engineering play into the treatment?”
The doctor shrugged. “The fact he was designed with enhanced physical prowess is why his line works so effectively with some of our toughest cases. But that’s as far as it goes.”
Her gaze remained locked on him. “If Rej does turn out to be a match, how well will this treatment work?”
“That depends on how close the match is.” His head tilted. “If she shares only minimal parameters for the therapy, she’ll be able to get around and live a protected life that goes well into adulthood. The more characteristics she shares with him, the more her life would be completely normal, extending all the way to old age.”
Dermot sat up straighter. “Then let’s get this started.”
*** Two Years Later ***
“Let’s go to the top this time!” Rejali always used the local Trepetti language with her friend, and grasped Preeta’s hand to tug her back toward the unfinished rock wall.
Preeta giggled and lumbered slightly to keep up. Since her short legs and long arms made her walk with her knuckles, being pulled by one hand made her scamper funny. Trepetti build also included folds of tawny skin that stretched from wrists to ankles, although it was concealed beneath the loose garments they wore.
That physical characteristic gave them an ability to glide, which meant one of Preeta’s favorite games involved learning that activity. Rejali couldn’t glide, but still liked to see how far she could jump.
Preeta always encouraged her. “Bet you can’t go as high as me!”
“Maybe one day.” Rejali let go of her friend so they both could scramble up the side of the wall that looked like uneven stairs. “But not today!”
“You’re always first!” But really, she didn’t mind. Watching Preeta jump into the air to see how far she could soar helped Rejali figure out how to make the leap herself, even though she wasn’t Trepetti.
Today wasn’t a work day, which was why the men who were building the wall weren’t around. Mama had left with Preeta’s mother to run errands in town. Going to the Trepetti town was fun sometimes, but the spring weather was so warm today. The friends convinced their mothers to let them stay in the community where Rejali’s family lived. After all, her brother was home to watch them.
He’d allowed them to go to the wall to play because he could see it from their house. So surely he’d seen all the other jumps they’d made already, going a little higher each time. Hopefully he’d see how high she could go this round.
Although … as she strolled with bare feet a few paces along the top, it seemed higher than it looked from the ground. She already knew it was as tall as Papa’s shoulders, but standing up here was different from when he gave her a ride on his back.
Rejali stopped and glanced over at her friend. Preeta was also looking at the green grass striped with blue beneath them, and her smile had faded. She reached up with one hand and dragged short fingers through the brown, bristly hair that grew from her scalp down her neck.
Preeta’s voice grew softer. “I never jumped from this high.”
“Ah, you can do it.” Rejali kept her own voice level even though she could have easily sounded like Preeta. “Your people fly off the mountains.”
Her friend cast a sideways glance at her. “Your people call it falling with style.”
The reminder made Rejali smile, partly because it helped her confidence return, at least a little bit. “That’s what we’ve been doing the whole time. We got practice lower down. Now we can do it from up here.”
“Well….” Preeta looked at the grass again, and her grin returned. “You’re right. Let’s do it!”
Her friend took a step away so she could spread her arms. Her blue garments fluttered as the skin unfolded from her sides. She made a small hop, and then flung herself upward and forward.
The skin bulged and stretched as she sailed downward, and forward several meters. Her landing was marked by a soft thump and she staggered a little. Lucky Trepetti….
“I did it!” Preeta spun around to face the wall. “I even flew farther this time!”
“I knew you could!” Rejali shifted from one foot to the other. Goodness, this wall was high. She’d never be able to match the distance Preeta covered, but maybe she could stick the landing better. All she had to do was fall with style.
She took a deep breath and murmured, “Here goes.”
With a small hop, she flung herself upward and forward. She spread her arms and legs because she liked Preeta’s jumping style. And for a perfect instant she was suspended between the lavender sky above and the grassy ground below, a ring of mountains providing silent witness.
Mama’s screech reached her ears.
Rejali flinched. The unplanned motion knocked her off balance, and she landed on her left foot first. Pain jolted up that leg even as her right foot struck the ground at the wrong angle. She tumbled to the left and landed on the grass that barely cushioned the ground.
For a few seconds she couldn’t draw in any air. Both Preeta and Mama called her name, and her ankle throbbed with every beat of her heart. Just as panic started to flicker, she sucked in a thin wisp of air.
Mama dropped to her knees beside her. “Rej! Don’t move yet! Are you hurt anywhere?”
She managed another breath, but her voice was still thin. “My ankle.”
Rejali pointed toward her left foot as her throat tightened and eyes misted. No, she wasn’t going to cry in front of Preeta.
While Mama placed her hands over the injured ankle, her friend’s mom came to a halt on her other side. “Do you need my help?”
Pain jolted from her ankle again as Mama felt around it. A yelp escaped through Rejali’s gritted teeth, and the tears that welled only frustrated her more.
Mama released a loud breath before she replied, “Thank you, but at least it looks twisted and not broken.” Her gaze returned to Rejali’s face. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“No.” Her voice still squeaked. “Maybe. I couldn’t breathe.” She dragged her arm across her nose so it wouldn’t drip.
“I’m surprised it’s not worse.” Mama stroked her fingers once through Rejali’s curls as she glanced toward Preeta’s mother. “Thank heaven, she’ll be all right.”
“I thought humans were too delicate for such heights,” Preeta’s mom replied. “Such a relief it’s not more serious. I’m sorry, Anwen. We’ll have a discussion with Preeta.”
That could only lead to boring grownup talk, and Rejali looked over at her friend. Preeta stood beside her mother, eyes wide.
“It’s not your fault.” Rejali’s ankle continued to throb, and her voice remained squeaky. “I wanted to go on top.”
Preeta’s head tilted to one side. “I thought you could do it.”
And Rejali would have, too, if Mama hadn’t broken her concentration. She remembered those days of feeling weak, when just walking was a challenge. When her strength finally began to return a little each day, she pushed herself to the limit because it helped her grow stronger. After all, life was much more fun this way.
After a round of farewells, Preeta and her mom left, and Mama scooped Rejali up in her arms to carry her.
“I can walk.” She squirmed.
“You’ll be limping for a while.” Mama switched to speaking Esperanto as her arms tightened. “Rejali, you must stop being such a daredevil.”
She was in trouble when Mama called her that instead of Rej.
“The doctors said keep trying harder things.” She also switched to their common language.
Mama exhaled, and carried her toward the house. “They didn’t say to try and break your neck.” Her voice dropped to a grumble. “So this is what happens with the most perfect match they’d ever seen.”
Rejali frowned. “What match?”
“You’re still too young to understand. Just remember, you can run and play like all the other children now, so you don’t need to push anymore. We’ll take care of that ankle when we get home – and find out what your brother’s been up to instead of keeping an eye on you.”
She didn’t want to cry in front of him, either. Rejali pressed her lips together and tried to ignore her sore ankle. Was Mama right? Now that she was no longer so tender, should she stop trying to see how far she could go with her reclaimed strength?
That didn’t sound like any fun.
So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this time is Tender. Don’t miss out — be sure to check in on the other submissions!