Quarantine, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 14th
Crack! I rub a goose-egg welt on my forehead and my head throbs so hard, my eyes pulsate. A feral boy sits hunched, the whites of his eyes glowing around his glassy green corneas. He watches me over one shoulder. The lights from Quarantine in the distance streak towards me like searching lasers. Gradually, the trails of light recede from flares to flickers as the throbbing in my head decreases, and my eyes tune to the dark. The wild desert is vast and rocky, but also soft, as if the rain and winds have smoothed its edges.
I exhale. The wild boy turns toward me fully, appraising me. His hair is a mussed nest of black twigs. The sunken hollows of his face make him appear savage, but I cannot tell if it is thanks to the sharp angles or the subtle twitches of those muscles. He’d be good-looking if his expression was not so severe.
“You are foolish, little thing,” he says, crouching down to my level.
“You did hit me,” I say. I lean away from his enquiring face, but he persists.
“A mistake.” He steps back from me and holds up his hands.
“I will thank you not to touch me again.”
“To be fair, you were flirting with me,” he says pointing to my hand. I glance down. My fingers are curled around the handle of a small gun. I drop the firearm and step back.
“I do not think I was flirting,” I breathe.
His mouth turns up and he grasps the hem of his tunic, revealing a circular welt on his stomach. “Rubber bullets,” he says. “It tickled. You were flirting.”
I have a startling urge to approach him, to observe the welt, but I hold my ground. This boy knows he is captivating. He demands to be heard.
“I am not flirting with you! Speak nice to me, or do not speak—”
“I speak very nice,” he says.
“I mean with respect.” I open one eye and scowl at him.
The boy threads his fingers into my hair and yanks. I yelp; tears well in my eyes and I squeeze them shut. He twists his hand. Prickles of pain rush to the top of my head.
“Do not talk down to me,” he whispers. The boy pries one of my eyes open and forces me to look at him. “Do you think that I am afraid of you?” His fingers spread around my gullet. He squeezes. My throat constricts and I gasp.
“You shot me. I defended myself. No customs out here, just instinct. ‘Yes, sir, Aron,’ you say.” He presses his cracked lips against my cheek. “Say it.”
“Yes,” I gasp.
“Yes, who?” He tightens his grip.
He releases my hair and throat, but his hands linger on my face. He takes me in with those glowing eyes, and his hands frame my face. Aron cradles my head against his own and hums into my ear.
“That is my heart song,” he says. “She is coaxing you, sweetling.”
“I am not your sweetling,” I growl.
Aron shoves me away from him. He pulls a crude knife from a sheath lashed around his thigh. “If you are not my sweetling, you got a boy in Arcis?” he demands. “You promised to a city boy?”
“I am not promised to anyone,” I say, scrambling to my feet. “We are paired with a compatible mate; we do not trifle with affection the way you all do—”
“You all?′ You mean, the Ferals?” he says. “You do not yearn for a mate? What kind of girl are you?” Aron asks. He passes the knife between his fingers.
“I am the kind you run from.”
The boy chuckles. “I am coming to you.”
I hazard a glance behind me. A silver cylinder lays fifty paces away. If I am quick, I might be able to reach it, but feral people are notorious for their speed and he is armed. Aron continues moving towards me. I retreat in time with his steps, dancing from him as quickly as he advances. He picks up the pace, but so do I. I reach for the pocket of my coat.
“What you got there?”
“A present, for when you catch me,” I say, smiling.
“Do not come around too quickly. Aron likes his sweetlings bone-ragged.”
“What does that mean?” I ask sweetly. My hand closes on its target.
“Too tired to scream.”
“Ah,” I say, pulling my hand out of my pocket. “I am not one to scream.” I hold my closed fist to my lips. “Se, verum oculus,” I whisper. The center catch gives on the disk. “Hold out your hands, Aron.”
He grins, holding his hands out to me. His left hand curls tighter around the knife.
“Now, close your eyes.”
Aron’s brow furrows, but he closes his eyes. He continues to walk toward me, bare feet conspiring with the dirt. I press the center of the disk. Each section of the disk springs free and inverts into razor sharp points.
“Open your eyes,” I say.
The second the boy’s eyelids open, I pitch the disk at him. I spin on my heel and bolt for the tunnel entrance where my hope lies. Behind me, Aron howls in pain. I made my mark. His erratic footsteps thud behind me.
Blinding pain sears my right calf and I fall to the ground, mere feet from the cylinder. Aron’s knife is embedded to the hilt. I cry out, tears streaming down my cheeks. I scramble the last few feet and my fingers close around the cylinder. It slips out of my hands. I pick the cylinder up and press my thumb to the blunted end. The barbed point emerges. Rough fingers curl around my wrist. I flick my hand, unraveling the rest of the whip from its casing, and throw my body weight towards the ground. Aron stumbles with me and I snap the whip, sliding one foot out behind me to catch myself. The whip winds around my captor’s neck and the barb slashes his cheek. He collapses to his knees, struggling to pull the silver cord from around his neck. Where his left eye once was, my disk is impacted several inches into his skull and blood gushes from the wound. I am not thinking of my leg. Only hatred for the boy.
“I told you,” I whisper. “I am the kind you run from.” I stand on my good leg above the boy who is now my captive. I yank the whip and he falls forward. “If you are lucky, your people will find you before you bleed to death and if they do, tell them—”
Thunk! A metal dish hits the back of my shaven head and I jolt awake. Cabbage water sloshes around, but the lid prevents the liquid inside from spilling and scalding my neck. I rub my eyes. Again, I fell asleep on the floor instead of my cot. Strange dreams, too, born of cold cement. My leg still stings as if stabbed by the boy’s dagger; further investigation reveals a triangular cut on my calf. I sit up and prop my foot on the edge of the cot. The ragged trim on the bottom of my pant leg hangs on by a thread, so I tear it off and dip the thin fabric in my dinner broth. My leg twinges as the liquid trickles into the wound, but the stinging subsides. I am nauseous. I am proud and sullen at my dreamy triumph, and also disgusted. The brown broth glints up at me from the bowl but I cannot bring myself to drink it. It is the only thing between me and starvation, but my stomach cannot handle the broth.
My dream felt more vivid than any lucid fantasy I have had in this place. The feral boy was so real, but more than that, my victory over him was real. In the wilds beyond Quarantine, I was a warrior. I was faster, smarter, stronger than him. I took his blood. I marked his skin. I won.
“Patients: step back from your doors and present your dishes.” A booming male voice calls from the end of the corridor. Heavy boots step up to the first cell and the latch unlocks.
The broth! They must not see my full dish. I scramble up onto my left leg and grab the bowl, sloshing the hot liquid onto my hand. I bite my lip to keep from crying out. Kneeling on my cot, I hoist the bowl up to the bars of my window, but it is too far for me to reach. I push the bowl onto the windowsill until it sits halfway on the cement ledge. Grasping the metal bars, I yank myself up, leg forgotten. The bowl will not fit between the bars, so I tip it until the liquid trickles off the ledge and out. The footsteps reach my door and keys jingle at the lock. I slide down the wall, clutching the bowl to my chest, and sit, just as the door swings open.
“Good evening,” I say, breathing evenly in an attempt to slow my racing heart.
The officer enters, closes the door behind him, and sets a silver bag on the floor. He takes my dish and places it inside his bag. “Pull up your sleeve,” he instructs, donning sanitary gloves. He readies a syringe with a clear liquid. Officer Tarq is one of three men who complete the day-to-day evaluations, and the only one who will speak to me. He will not answer anything concerning Quarantine or the medicine of the day, but he will answer innocuous questions. He wants to be here less than me.
“What is the year?” I ask, rolling up my sleeve.
Tarq ties a tourniquet around my bicep and presses his thumb to the crease in my elbow. “It is three-hundred-twenty-four in the Era Vulgaris,” he says, removing his thumb and pressing several times on my swollen vein. He cleans the skin with a silvery film, a liquid that will seal around the needle to prevent bacteria from entering my vein.
“And what is the season?” I ask, wincing as the needle pricks my skin. He eases the needle into the vein and depresses the syringe. The liquid is thick, like I imagine it might feel if my blood turned to gelatin.
“It is the Centennial,” he says.
“The fourteenth.” Tarq removes the tourniquet.
“Is this dose going to kill me?” I whisper, daring him to reveal something more. For the first time in my memory, he looks me in the eye. His blue eyes flicker with doubt. He is conflicted.
“No. Today’s dose will not kill you,” he says finally. His emphasis on today makes me shiver. Tarq pulls the needle from my arm and deposits the empty syringe in a metal canister. He wraps tape around my elbow, securing a piece of gauze over the injection site. I press my hand over the bandage. At least today’s dose is harmless. A week ago, another officer gave me a dose of something that put me into an epileptic fit. I am sure I will be influenced by today’s dose in some way, but it will not be strong. Besides, it is sweltering today; they will have enough trouble dealing with dehydrated patients, let alone ones with seizures. Only fourteen days into the Centennial—wait. The fourteenth day.
“Tomorrow is my birthday,” I breathe aloud.
Tomorrow will mark my fifth year in Quarantine.
Officer Tarq takes my bowl and stands. He pulls a ring of keys out of his silver bag and finds the one he will use to unlock my door.
“Officer Tarq?” I ask. My muscles are weak now, and I suspect the dose is setting in.
Tarq glances at me over his shoulder. My head is twice as heavy as normal, and I slump over on my side. He grasps my shoulders, easing me onto my back. His face is blurry above me as my eyelids threaten to close.
“What is your first name?” I slur, closing my eyes.
“Happy birthday,” he whispers. Tarq steps away from me, unlocks my door, and exits. I try to force my eyes to open, but darkness engulfs my vision and I lose consciousness.