Ursula Major, Ursula Minor
Luz arrived in the last days of Ursula’s life, slipping as silent as a cat through the clouds of white linen that snapped and fluttered in the sea breeze.
Ursula lifted her head a few inches above her pillow and squinted at him. In the cream-colored light, he looked as if he had a full-body halo, like a painting of the Virgin.
“Ursula,” he said. “How’d this happen?”
Ursula sighed and dropped her head back down. She still had the strength to do that, at least. She’d never liked Luz. He always showed up at inopportune times during her life - her sixth birthday, her high school graduation, and now, her death - and lingered on the sidelines of whatever crowd might have gathered, watching but never really participating. He’s a distant cousin, she told her questioning friends, who never looked closely enough at him to realize the truth. Very distant.
“The way it always happens,” she said. “Microbes.” She closed her eyes because her lids had suddenly become too heavy. “How’d you get in here?”
“I asked,” he said. “And I showed the guards my circuitry.” He shrugged and then kneeled down beside Ursula’s bed. “It doesn’t matter. I came to care for you.”
Ursula wanted to say, I don’t need you to care for me. She wanted to say, I never needed you, ever. But then she felt her slowly-desiccating lungs rising up the canal of her throat, and she turned her head and coughed, once, twice, her body curling up involuntarily, blood splattering out of her cracked dry mouth and across the white bedsheets like the tail of a comet.
Ursula was dying of a disease that had originated in the dark and unfathomable vacuum of space. The virus - a pale-green squiggle in the news-feeds, wriggling and squirming against the liquidy background of a microscope slide - had infected the crew of a deep space science ship and was then able to pass onto one of the shuttles that shuffled back and forth between Earth and the space station hanging like an ornament in its orbit. This was in the early days of light travel, when the filters were rough-hewn and unrefined. An accident. Nonetheless, the virus burrowed itself neatly into Earth’s ecosystem, jumping from continent to continent for nearly a century.
Whenever it appeared, they contained it. The hospice colonies were always built along the water. The sand got into everything. It didn’t matter. There was no cure. If you were infected, you were sent to those encampments of white linen and armed guards, and you were given a bed in which to die.
The encampments employed no doctors or nurses. They certainly didn’t allow visitors. Just the constant rustle of the fabric, the roar of the ocean. The encampment here had a few worker automatons who buzzed and whirred amongst the tents, bringing clean linens and fresh water. They looked like fever dreams.