Ashei Tamarres looked out over the snowfield wistfully, contemplating the unchanging landscape before her; snow, more snow, and the steel mesh fence that separated her from the world outside. She knew that fence was for her own safety, yet a part of her resented it anyway.
"Thinking about the Blue?" A voice called from behind her, and Ashei turned to see her best friend since childhood, Leila Faran, hurrying toward her through the snow, her long black hair blowing in the icy wind.
"Yeah," Ashei sighed, "I wish the virus had never come. I wish that we could live outside this enclosure, and that we didn't have to conform to everything this society wants from us."
"Ashei..." Leila sighed, "This is about my marriage, isn't it?"
Ashei looked away, her eyes fixed on the fence, not daring to look back at Leila, "I just don't think that you should marry somebody you don't love. It's not in your best interests."
"Ashei, I know you care about me, but I have to marry Toma and bear children. This is one of the last colonies of red-bloods left on this planet, and our genetic diversity is low. Testing showed that Toma is the best match for me. You know that."
"What about your children?" Ashei said, "What kind of world will they live in? When they grow up, who will they marry? Is it really fair to keep pushing forward when there's no hope for the future?"
"We have to try to survive!" Leila cried, "Humans have suffered many plagues throughout the centuries, yet despite huge losses, we've always survived. If we're going to make it, though, we have to sacrifice our personal feelings!"
"Damn the Blue!" Ashei cursed, through the tears welling up in her eyes, "Sometimes I feel like breaking out, like going out there and getting infected, just so I can be free!"
"You'd be dead in six months," Leila said, "You know what the Blue does to you. First your blood turns blue as the parasite infects your haemoglobin. Then you ache, and struggle to breathe as the blue blood struggles to get oxygen around your body. Then you're permanently cold, no matter how many blankets you put around you... After that, it's just a matter of time before you die..."
"I know all that," Ashei said, "I wouldn't go outside, you know that. I just wish the world was different, that's all."
"Don't we all," Leila sighed, and wrapped her arms around her friend, holding her close as the snow settled in their hair, "Don't we all."
The day of Leila's wedding to Toma came, and Ashei sat with her in the side room of the church, holding her hand gently. Ashei was overcome with emotion as she gazed upon Leila in her wedding dress.
"You're so beautiful," Ashei sighed, "Toma is a lucky man."
Leila nodded and sat quietly, thinking about all the years they had spent together. They had been children when the Blue came, and through the fear of death and the loss of all the people they loved they had held fast to each other. It seemed strange for her now to be marrying somebody else, doing intimate things with somebody she barely knew while she had never touched the one closest to her. She sighed inwardly. It was not from a lack of want, but a sense of responsibility that she had held herself back from Ashei, and she closed her eyes and resolved that she had to carry out her duty and bear children, for the sake of the small community of virus-free people who still survived. Toma wasn't a bad man, he was kind to her, and also shared her sense of responsibility to the human race. She would be content, even if she would not be truly fulfilled.
"I suppose it's time," Leila said, standing up, making her way to the door, but she stopped in surprise as a man in an environmental shielding suit blocked the way. Turning to look behind her, she saw that all the entrances were blocked. She moved to return to Ashei's side, but Ashei was standing stiffly with a glazed expression on her face.
That look opened up a wave of understanding in Leila. Before anybody in the camp could marry, they had to take a test for the Blue. She had taken a test without even thinking about it, since it was only a formality. Nobody ever left the camp. How could she have been infected with the Blue?
"The test results... they were... positive?" Leila's flowers slipped from her hand and hit the floor, the petals tearing free from their flowers and scattering all over the floor.
One of the men in the environmental suits nodded as best he could in the bulk of the suit. "Yes," he said, in a distant, canny, alien voice dimmed by the thickness of the shielding, "We have to place you, your family, Ashei and anybody else who's been in close contact with you in quarantine until further tests can be done. I'm sorry, Leila."
"I don't believe it," Leila said, "I don't believe it... It can't be happening... It can't!" Ashei took a step towards her, but Leila backed away, "Don't come near me!" she cried, "You'll get infected too!" Ashei backed away, with a sad expression on her face. She'd always been able to comfort Leila, to hold her when she was sad or afraid, but now the Blue kept them from even that simple contact. The Blue would tear them apart forever, keep them from touching ever again. Leila would be sent into exile, or have to live out the remainder of her existence in quarantine, their only contact being through thick glass or a virus shielding suit.
When Ashei woke, she was in a small, white room with a simple bed and no comforts, with a glass window looking in. She walked up to the window and looked out, and saw only a stark, white corridor that seemed to go on forever.
She had never been in the hospital before, had never needed to go there. When others has sickened from the Blue, she had never had the heart to go and say her goodbyes to them, and they had passed away quickly. She had never imagined that some day, she would be the one with the Blue, looking outwards from the hospital quarantine cell, wishing for visitors.The only way to stave off her fears of the Blue had been to be complacent about it and not even let herself think she could ever really catch it.
Ashei felt deeply sick and wondered if it was the virus, already destroying her from the inside. She must have it, mustn't she? She spent so much time with Leila that she had to have caught it, and the fear tore at her. Yet that fear was nothing compared to her fears for Leila. Her beautiful friend was doomed to die from the Blue, waste away and suffocate in her own skin and gain the sickly blue tint that everybody with the blue blood acquired in time. They would never be able to hold each other again, never be able to run in the snow and laugh and be together. They would never be able to kiss and make love, a dream that Ashei had always held onto, despite Leila's impending marriage.
She sat there for days, thinking of their childhood together. Those precious memories before the Blue, when they had been children, going to the same school. Then the virus had come and they, as children had been shipped away to relative safety in the camp as everybody came down with the Blue. The camp had been their home ever since. They had wooden houses to live in, snow to melt for water, and trees to cut for fires, even some electricity fueled by generators that ran on stolen oil, but a fence surrounded the area which was guarded day and night by an army made up of the residents. It was to keep out those infected by the Blue, but Ashei had always felt like a prisoner. It had been Leila who had always made life bearable for her, and she seemed to flourish, even in the limited area they had. They had been placed with families who raised them, and Leila had bonded with her family so well that she considered them to be her real relatives. They were in quarantine too, no doubt wondering if they would see out the next six months, or if they would ever see Leila again.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, a creaking happened on the outside door, the sound of air being sucked out, and the second door into the quarantine room opened, and a person in an environmental suit came in.
"It's good news," the woman said, "You're free of the Blue. We're satisfied with your results, and you can go home now."
"What about Leila?" Ashei asked quickly, "What's going to happen to her?"
"We tested her again, and she's definitely positive. She has the Blue. She's thought long and hard about it, and she's decided it might be easier if she opts for euthanasia. She has as long as she wants to change her mind, but she seems determined." the woman explained.
Ashei's heart sank, "No..." she said, "She can't! She... just can't! Please, you have to let me see her!"
"She's in room three-hundred and nineteen, the woman in the environmental suit said, "Come with me, and I'll set you up with a suit. I'm not supposed to really, as it's supposed to be immediate family only, but you're as close to family to Leila as anybody else in this camp is."
"Thank you," Ashei said.
Ashei felt like she was in a spacesuit as she waddled down the hallway in the environmental suit. She was sure that one could adapt to the suit, but she had never worn one and so she felt like a penguin as she made her way to Leila's room.
She looked through the window and saw Leila curled up on her bed, trembling. Ashei's heart sank again, and she hastily hurried through the first door, which the scientist closed behind her. When the door was sealed, the second door opened up and Ashei stepped into the room. That door closed and the air was sucked out.
"I'm ready," Leila whispered, in a shadow of her own voice, "Please, do it quickly, before Ashei finds out. Otherwise, she'll try to change my mind, and I don't think I could do it if I saw her beautiful face again."
"I won't let you do this," Ashei said, "There has to be another way."
"Ash!" Leila said, surprised, "What are you doing here? I know you're clear, they told me. You should get away from me, forget about me! I'm lost... I have it, Ashei."
"I know," Ashei said, "I won't let you just curl up and die, though. You should go into exile, get out of here, see the world! Maybe out there somewhere there's a cure by now. If you die here, there's no hope at all!"
"I'm scared, Ashei," Leila cried, "They told me that the world out there is completely destroyed, that most people are dead or dying... I don't want to be alone out there! I'd rather die here, while there are people who will mourn for me and bury me."
"I'm scared too," Ashei said, "Even though I'm clear, it's almost like it doesn't matter... I feel no joy, because you're going to die. I can't imagine a life without you, Leila... You've always been there for me. I wish that I could take the virus from you. I wish that I had been the one who was infected!"
Tears started to roll down Leila's cheeks, "Don't say that, Ash... I was so happy to hear that you were all right. You should go, get out of here and live your life... This is a one way trip for me, but there's still hope for you."
"There's still exile!" Ashei said, desperately, "Please, I'll go with you! Anything so that you don't die here, in this horrible place!"
"You can't go with me, Ashei," Leila said, "You're clear. You can't wear that virus protection suit forever, you have to eat, and being outside it with me will get you infected sooner or later. I won't do that to you, Ash. I love you too much to ever hurt you."
Ashei was crying now, hearing those words from Leila's lips for the first time. Deep in her heart she had always known that Leila returned her feelings, but they had never spoken of it, never given voice to what they felt for each other. She moved closer and took Leila's frail form in her arms, cradling her through the thick suit. It was unsatisfyingly distant through the layers of thick plastic, but it was all they could have.
The radio in the suit chimed in, and the voice of the scientist came through loud and clear into Ashei's suit.
"Ashei, you should come out, now. Say your goodbyes and be done. There's nothing that can be done to save your friend, and we haven't tested the suit's protection capabilities for long periods of time with infected people."
Leila heard it through the suit, and managed a wan smile, "The world is calling you," she said, "Go outside. I'll tell them I've opted for exile, instead."
Ashei took a few steps towards the door, then turned to soak in Leila's beautiful features, "I'll still come with you if you want," she said, "I don't care if I die, if it makes you happy. I love you, Leila."
"I love you too, Ash," Leila said, "I always have. I wish we could have had more time."
The first door slid open, and Ashei looked up and saw several scientists gathered on the other side of the window, along with a priest. It was then that it all made sense, and she turned back to Leila.
"What's wrong?" Leila asked, "Ash, go on, don't worry about me. We'll see each other again before I leave."
"There is no exile, is there?" Ashei asked.
The scientists outside the window started to look concerned, and the radio blared up again, "Of course there is, Ashei. Come now, we need to make arrangements."
"You're all liars!" Ashei said. She reached up and started to undo the seal on the suit's hood, as Leila looked at her with a horrified expression.
"Ash, no!!" Leila cried, "Please, don't!"
Ashei took off the hood and let her long, brown hair tumble down her back, and began tearing at the rest of the suit to get it off. Stepping out of it, she had a peaceful expression on her face as she approached Leila.
"You were never a good liar, my love," she whispered, as she took the shocked Leila in her arms and kissed her passionately. They were both crying, both holding on tightly and kissing each other lovingly, even as they heard the woman's voice over the speaker.
"Ashei, you have been exposed. I'm sorry, but we don't let anybody who has been exposed leave the camp... You see, things are not as they seem. Your memories are inaccurate. Indeed the Blue struck down much of the world, but it was traced to a certain gene. Those people spontaneously develop the parasite inside themselves because of the genetic mutation, and pass it on to people with or without the genetic defect. Using testing, the government was able to find the people with the defect, those who would develop the parasite, and placed them all in camps. Because we were able to seperate you, instances of the Blue have decreased significantly in the outside world, and the plague has been brought under control."
"But I was going to get married... bear children!" Leila said, breaking from Ashei's kiss, "What would you have done with my children?"
"You were never going to get married," the scientist said, "You were chosen to test a substance that can bring the Blue "out" in people with the faulty gene. That 'test' you took for the Blue... that was it. We wanted to see if it would come out in you, and if the people close to you would catch it right away. It came out in you, but none of them caught it from non-intimate contact. It's promising data to start out with, but now you're a dangerous biohazard, and we're not ready to continue with the research beyond this point at this stage."
"But why?" Ashei cried, "Why did you do this to Leila? How could you?"
"You are all doomed to die anyway," the scientist said, "Outside, outbreaks of the Blue still occur. We need to learn more about how it works so we can develop a vaccine. Over half of the population of this country is dead because of the Blue. We need to use desperate measures to control it. We've done our research on you, and collected our data. The safest thing we can do, and the kindest for you, is to let you die painlessly. It was not our intention to involve you, Ashei, as it was not your time, but now you have exposed yourself directly, and learned the truth, there is no way we can let you go."
"You told me I would die," Leila said, "I accepted death, and was ready to face it when you told me that euthanasia was compulsary for people with the Blue. But this... how I can I go peacefully knowing what you have done to my love? I would have given my life up for the future of the human race, but Ashei's life was not yours to take!"
"Ashei has doomed herself," the scientist said, "We had nothing to do with it."
"You knew we loved each other!" Leila said, "Yet you never let us be together! You always filled us with this duty that we had to procreate, to save the human race. I gave up everything because I thought I was making a difference, but it was all a lie!" She collapsed sobbing into Ashei's arms.
"Hush, sweetie," Ashei said, "Let it go. We're together, now. Even if it's just for a little while, hold me for that time."
The scientist sighed, "Forgive us, but we had to do it. We had no choice... I'm sorry..." She motioned to the scientist on her left, who pulled a lever.
Ashei heard a slight hissing, and knew it was gas. She kissed away Leila's tears, cradled her defeated, deflated body in her arms and comforted her.
"We'll still go away together," Ashei said, "I'm sure there are other lives. I'm sure next time, we'll find a way to be together."
"Ash," Leila said, "I'm sorry I put duty before you... If I could take it back, Ash, I would. I wouldn't care about anything but you! I've let you down all these years..."
"Leila," Ashei said, "It's your goodness, your purity of heart that made me love you in the first place. Your sense of commitment and loyalty to what you believe in always inspired me. You have nothing to be sorry for."
"I'm so tired..." Leila said, "I want to lay down with you..."
Ashei stumbled to the bed, dragging Leila with her. They flopped down onto it and lay down awkwardly. Ashei lifted her hand and gently stroked Leila's black hair, then let her hands explore Leila's face as her eyes closed, remembering the details, wanting to take the image of Leila with her.
"Love you..." Leila said.
"Go to sleep now," Ashei said, "It's all just a bad dream..."
Leila jerked and fell silent, and Ashei, too, felt exhausted, too tired to care about anything, and she slipped away into the darkness, her last thoughts being of them living in a world free of the Blue.