Kaeva winced in the early morning light, blinking until the roof peak of his one-bedroom cabin came into focus. Out of habit, Kaeva counted the Plastamine planks from the wall to the peak—same number as yesterday, same number as the day he’d put them there with his own two hands—and then he studied the dangling wind chimes he’d hung from the apex beam. A soft, misty sea breeze blew through the cracked skylights. The seashells struck each other, and the hollow reeds echoed. He could smell the ocean and the island. The panes of safety glass were beaded with condensate.
Safe. He was safe. He wasn’t out in some unknown field hoping not to get surprised by looters or extremists who would take anything he had and likely his life while they were at it. Nor was he wedged between bodies that smelled like sewers. He didn’t have to wake up with only his eyes, anymore; make sure his body remained soft and his breathing even so he could gauge if a threat was nearby and prepare for the attack. He didn’t have to fight off unwanted hands in the middle of the night, groping for his groin or his pockets. There were no ropes tying his possessions to his body. There was no shelter tag on his wrist about to run out of credits with the free kitchen.
Gradually, Kaeva relaxed. It’d been eight years since he’d found safety on Exile. It’d been six years since he’d started sleeping in this very cabin, in this loft, and on this pallet.
And it’d probably take at least another two decades before the peace of Exile trumped the terrors of twelve years of homelessness in the post-Cure Age. It’d take another fifty to stop seeing Lars’s face every time Kaeva closed his eyes. Lars: screaming and sputtering, purple and red and veined, like an old-fashioned teapot trying to explode. Hell, even a hundred years might not be enough. Some things not even time could fix. Sometimes all time did was ensure that tragedy settled in the bones, rooted deep down in there, all ingrown like a toenail and festering like an infected wound.
Kaeva stretched, shoving the pillow out of the way and the covers off his legs. He rolled side-to-side, luxuriating in the two-person pallet on which he slept alone. He turned his head to look at his calendar. It was a lucky find he’d come across five years ago on one of his last regular visits to the mainland. He didn’t venture off the island anymore. He put in his mainland order with the Expedition crew like the other island citizens who’d rather cut off a limb than go back to the mainland ever again. Exile was the opposite of a prison, but its safety net was another kind of cage. Kaeva didn’t mind that so much. He was an animal that needed to be kept on a short leash.
The calendar was analog, solar powered, and kept the date and time, the white numbers on their black backgrounds tick-turning as the hours wore ever onward. Today was March 1st.
He’d lived for thirty-six years. By post-Cure predictions, he was a baby. People who’d been given the Cure in their eighties were still alive and approaching their mid-one-hundreds. No one was sure how long bodies could go with the Cure’s regenerative qualities at work. Best guesses were regular people could easily live to one-fifty. Those blessed with good genetics and healthy lifestyles might see two hundred. Even three.
Kaeva was not regular, nor was he blessed. He was Estranged, and who knew how long he’d be around. Five more minutes or five hundred more years, nobody had any clue. When the Cure had fucked with Kaeva’s cells, it had fucked with anything that’d been normal about him. There were no rules, no guarantees, and no warnings about how to handle his, what had the doctors called it? Kaeva smirked. Oh yeah, his “unforeseeable anomalies.”
Unforeseeable, Kaeva’s ass. It’d been thirty years since the Cure went on the market, and twenty-five years since they had made it mandatory. A solid generation into the post-Cure Age with two percent of the population officially altered, and the government had yet to acknowledge the side effects that had created the Estranged. Why should they? Most Estranged died, killed themselves, or vanished. Problem solved.
Kaeva sat up and hooked his arms around his knees. He studied his hands and the veins pumping life just under the light brown skin. He’d grown bigger and broader after the Cure, and he’d done it fast. Estrangement was unpredictable. For some it supersized bodies and made muscle easy to maintain. For others, it caused sickness, thinness, and a permanent unhealthy look. Kaeva had been lucky, he guessed. Size mattered on the streets and in the wilds where once there’d been farms and towns and now there were dust and abandoned buildings. It had made the difference between a knife in the back and another day to survive.
And he’d done it. He’d lived. Kaeva flexed his hands into fists. So fuck the doctors and the politicians. Fuck the Estranged, and fuck this line of thinking. He wasn’t one to dwell on where he’d been, and he didn’t want to start now. He was alive. He’d made it to thirty-freakin-six. It was a goddamned miracle. And now he had a home, a food source, a job, and space enough to be left the hell alone. Out here, he was only a danger to himself, and that was the way it needed to be. He liked it that way.
Kaeva shoved himself up and out of bed. He dropped and did pushups and sit-ups before standing to jump and grab the Metaline bar attached to the A-frame of the cabin’s roofline. Toes dangling over the loft’s edge, Kaeva did pull-ups until his shoulders ached and his arms burned. Then he swung safely back into the loft and did the whole routine over again.