Laura must have heard me when I first noticed the Blue Crowned Dragon butterfly land on my windowsill.
It was an infant so I wasn’t concerned.
But within hours it grew from a delicately filigreed, iridescent, blue-membraned creature a few gentle inches in diameter to a foot-wide raptor with talons half an inch long that bit into my rotted wooden window like it was the rice pudding I so loved back on earth.
I’d heard of them, or at least been warned. On this fragile, tattered shithole excuse for a penal colony of a planet, there were so many foreign species, who could tell what was myth or beyond our collective grasp had suddenly become an instant, terrifying reality?
In the distance I saw Laura running across the perimeter of the open field—great, long athletic strides that covered the low-gravity ground as though she was a predator herself. When she spotted the Crowned Dragon on my windowsill, she fell to her knees in the tall grass that surrounded my small cabin and slowly made her way to my back door.
I was surprised and relieved to see her.
“I came as quick as I could,” she said without taking her eyes off the butterfly as it released and gripped the windowsill again and again, testing the measure of its growing strength.
What I knew about butterflies could fit into a thimble, except for reading a long time ago that they inhabited tropical areas, forests, marshes, rivers, swamps, farmlands, and gardens, and butterflies had taste sensors on their feet, so by standing on a leaf they could taste to see if it was edible.
The Blue Crowned Dragon Butterfly was something very different. With only a week to live this otherworldly evolved raptor quickly consumed the flesh of any animal it landed on.
“It’s a monster,” I said.
“I was dressing when I heard you, and it sounded serious.”
“It is,” I said, knowing Laura had already sensed the terror in my brain and the certainty of what would follow.
“I never expected to see you so soon,” she said, looking around the scrub of my cabin, my sanctuary since being convicted and losing my wife and child, who were taken as part of my sentence.
I was told they were being transferred to one of the better camps. I knew that was a lie. For my crime against the State they would suffer along with me. Neither of us would ever know the fate of the other, like she not knowing the man she married who eventually pledged himself to a political cause more precious than family.
“Fortunately, not all my fears are possible to hide.”
She squatted down next to me, a marvel of simplicity whose story was a mystery since she was transported here last year. I was thrilled with possibilities when I first saw her months ago, but she bolted when she spotted me, as if I was part of the evil of her new world. Two inch-long, small unhealed scars crested her right eye and were somehow offset by two sweet dimples.
There is something about a woman that can calm and soothe, something a wounded soul needed—something I didn’t fully understand I was missing until I first saw her.
I knew so little of her story other than her ability to read me from a distance. I could actually feel her sensors reading me. That was a strange and peaceful comfort. I was never alone, even when she lived miles away. At some point in my past, she would have had reason to fear me. Hopefully, she couldn’t see that far back. I know I didn’t want to relive that past.
I tried to sit up on the only chair I had, but the pain in my hip and rib cage from the fall trying to repair the leak in my roof yesterday made sudden movement an impossible journey. I knew we would both be dead in days anyway.
“I’m glad I heard you.”
“You’ve been on my mind.”
“And you’ve been on my mine,” she said, glancing down at her tattered shirt. “I used to look much nicer, beautiful sometimes, with makeup and my hair cut fashionably instead of chopped off at the neck like I was some ignorant animal.”
“Like everyone else on Earth.”
“A Life of Community, a Life of Honor,” Laura echoed sarcastically, as hundreds of millions who survived on Earth echoed every day to affirm their commitment to the Third Restoration and the great humanity it disingenuously served.
“A Life of Lies and a Life of Servitude is the reality of that bullshit slogan.”
“Don’t say it too loud or we’ll both pay.”
“I’ve spent the last four years scratching out an existence on this shithole. I’m out of tolerance for sloganeering, mindless or otherwise. Anytime they want to come get me, they know where I live, if you call this torment living.”
Laura glanced at my hands. They were dirty, like the rest of me. In a world where water was scarce, you wasted none of it on your flesh.
“On my way over I spotted a K4 Tracking Drone maybe a mile from here.”
“I’ve seen drones a few times. If they spot the swarm forming, they’ll relay the information back to Earth. They’ll land and withdraw their external antennae to make themselves less of a target while the butterflies wipe out every living thing in the valley.”
“Every living thing?” she asked.
“Then they will reactivate and go from cabin to cabin, counting survivors. The Blue Crowns devour flesh and bone until all that’s left is a pale shadow of residue,” I said.
“Isn’t there any way we can avoid detection?”
“You mean if we survive the swarm?”
“K4s can track from twenty miles away. You roam the three-mile limit from your cabin, you’re presumed to be trying to escape, and they’ll hunt you down and vaporize you.”
Laura slumped down next to me without looking away from the Blue Crown. It was a simple comfort, to have a woman at your side before you die.
She had fine, blonde hair identical to my little Helen’s. My baby was eight when they arrested me and a week later sentenced my entire family. I had come to accept that my darling child would not have survived the camps, and her mother, my childhood sweetheart, hopefully would be better off dead than being traded from guard post to guard post for favors.
Rules and guidelines had become the emotional fabric of the Third Restoration. They controlled your life, your stray thoughts, your possibilities, and replaced them with subtle fears, which at first were welcomed as innocent advice. As the decades advanced, they grew more invasive, always insistent they were designed for our greater benefit.
There was a way, remote and risky as it was, to return to Earth, not for redemption but as an appeal by which you proclaimed you had so reformed yourself you were worthy to be readmitted into society. According to what little I knew of the process, if accepted, you would be on probation for the rest of your natural life. If you strayed, you and the life of every living relation would be forfeit.
If the signal designed to bring you back was on a wide-enough frequency to hear your request, the return trip itself often led to complete molecular disruption and instant death.
She turned to me as if she knew what I was thinking. Laura was a High Sensor, a generational mutation and natural threat to the Restoration. Early on I considered she had been turned and was a plant sent here to get a better read on the remote gulag of political fugitives. That she had enough water to look scrubbed only heightened my suspicions.
“Do you know how many times you saved my life?”
I was so overtaken by her closeness I forgot the throbbing pain in my hip. “That makes no sense.”
“It does to me.”
“You’ve been here a year, and this is the second time I’ve seen you.”
“I’ve watched you nearly every day, how you hunt, how you make traps from small twigs and set them for fish and the few fowl, how you gutted and prepared and cooked what you found. I set up the same primitive wooden scoop on my roof to capture the few showers we get here. Without your help I wouldn’t have lasted a week.”
“I never thought about how you were surviving.” That was a lie. Like so much of my past, it came all too easily enough to my lips.
“I’ve thought about you. I needed someone to believe in, and you were available and easy, and I didn’t have to get too close to do it.”
“Now you’re telling me this?”
“How much time do you think we have?”
I glanced around my cabin, nothing more than the shack I found, though I don’t recall the actual mechanics of how I got here, only why I was condemned to inhabit this abandoned encampment.
I never gave much thought to how many others who had been victims of our new society were sentenced to live and die here. I just considered myself fortunate to survive.
The Blue Dragon had stopped flapping its wings, which they do when fully grown, as a way to conserve energy.
“I’m guessing we have half an hour, maybe a little more before the swarm attacks,” I said as the Dragon shot up into the sky and disappeared in a plume of red and green cloud vapors.
The gathering masses would soon blanket the valley for hundreds of miles in every direction, killing all animal life until they were so engorged with flesh they exploded and fell from the heavens, and in their death throes released a thousand eggs each, which would bury themselves deep in the soil fertilized above by the remains of their parents and come to life years later to repeat the deadly process.
“I wish I wasn’t so afraid of you at first, and everything else here.”
“When I was first exiled, I came close to dying a dozen times before I found ways to save myself.”
I tried to think back to when I arrived in the valley. I winced at the life I led, and the time and love I would never get back.
“Jonathan, are you okay?”
“Do you trust me?”
“If it matters, yes. Why?”
“Because I think I may have a way out of here.”
She came near as if I possessed the most important secret she had ever heard.
“I’m going to say a phrase, a few words that you need to repeat exactly as I intone them.”
“Oh my God, you know the code for the Appeals routing?”
“I do, or think I remember it.”
“I’ve been here less than a year. If I get through, they wouldn’t believe I’m reformed and will vaporize me on sight.”
“You can always take your chances with the Dragons.”
“If we get through, your bringing me back so soon after I got here may well condemn you too.”
“I considered that.”
“So, we go back together no matter the outcome?”
My recall of the phrase was exact, my recall of my life before uttering it, a transient, guilt-ridden haze.
“Wait. If the drone is out there and it tracks us, the closer we are to it, the greater chance it will pick up our appeal? Does that make any sense?”
“More than you know. If it’s a mile away and the swarm takes time to form up and get here in force, it’s worth a try.”
“It was less than a mile away when I spotted it on my way over. Couldn’t have been hovering more than twenty or thirty feet in the air.” Laura adjusted her pants and shirt. “Shit, man, okay, let’s make a run for it,” she said, holding out her hands to me.
I whispered the few words, which she repeated perfectly.
“It’s better if we don’t leave together. You go first and I will follow. A half-mile’s not a problem. I’ll track your direction from the window. If you can’t find it, we’ll repeat the appeal together anyway. Even if we don’t find the drone, we’ll probably be a lot closer to it than from here, where reception is crap.”
She squeezed both my hands in hers. “You better be right behind me.”
“On the count of three, you run out the back door and I will count to twenty and follow. Don’t look back or wait for me.”
“I love you,” she said and shot through the back door.
I waited a few seconds before collapsing back into my chair and counted off the seconds and knew Laura was gone and didn’t look back.
She trusted me.
For the first time in years I gave myself permission to imagine a woman caring.
Before the distant whisper became a thunder of a million Blue Crowned Dragon butterfly wings darkening the valley floor, I imagined a future with Laura.
I closed my eyes and repeated the code a few unconvincing times and, though doubting I could love again, prayed that if I made the passage, Laura would be there on the other side of the universe to welcome me home.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times and in Crain’s New York Business, taught at The New School and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has been published in over eighty journals and a single-author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, received the 2018 Write Well Award for excellence in short fiction and, twice nominated, received Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. Additional background at http://www.talesofourtime.com, https://www.amazon.com/Arthur-Davis/e/B00VF0GDG4 and at the Poets & Writers Organization (https://www.pw.org/content/arthur_davis).