Arcis, 319 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 15 - Five years earlier
We are not going to the hospital. Officer Tarq did not slow down as we drove past the massive medical campus and Doctor Skah remains silent beside him. If it was a mistake, I am sure Skah would have said something. Each hospital window at ground level is covered with white paper from the inside, making the buildings appear to be deserted.
“What about the hospital?” I ask, leaning forward despite the seatbelt that crosses my chest. Neither man says a word as the car turns onto the main road. We are several yards from the front gate, now, but a slew of officers block the road. Through the clump of thick necks and black helmets, I can just make out a man in a vibrant green chemical worker uniform. He clutches a gun, desperately gripping the machine, and yet pointing it upwards as if he is afraid he might shoot someone on accident.
“Another?” Skah says.
Tarq stops the car. “Radio silence, Doc. Nobody’s talking.”
“Who ordered radio silence?” Skah says. He rubs his eyes in frustration. “If this is another case, someone should be talking about it.”
Tarq unlatches his chest restraint and turns the car off. “I will find out what is going on.”
“You do that,” Skah says, waving the officer away.
OfficerTarq gets out and walks towards the nearest clump of his comrades. Several men salute him immediately. The man in the green uniform takes a decided step toward the clump of officers and many of them raise their weapons in warning. The man does not pay them mind. Instead, he trains his eyes forward, through the crowd—to the car. And he runs. Stunned officers step out of the man’s way, allowing him to break free of the mass and set himself between us and the gate. Only Tarq has the thought to engage the man, tackling him to the ground. But the man is quick and strong and he slips out from under Tarq. Again he makes a break for the car. Skah dives into the driver’s seat and throws the car into reverse.
As we travel swiftly back from the man in green, he slows, tosses his weapon aside, and looks towards the sky. A bolt of lightning strikes the man in green where he stands and Skah stomps on the breaks. The flash is blinding and sudden; no thunder accompanies the bolt. The man rises in the air for a moment, suspended in the adrenaline of the charge and then falls to the ground, dead. Tarq stands, weapon poised in case the man makes one final attempt. Once he sees into the man’s eyes, Tarq holsters his weapon and shouts orders to the crowd of dumbfounded officers. Two men trot forward readily, but seem to have no idea what to do with the man in green’s body. Tarq returns to the car and shakes his head when he sees Skah in the driver’s seat. He opens the driver’s side door and leans against the frame.
“It is best if we get through the gate now, before the hour is up,” Tarq says.
Skah nods, returning to his seat. Tarq peers back at me for a moment once he is seated, eyes filled with concern. He turns back to the console.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Skah says.
The engine hums to life and Tarq guns the accelerator, weaving around the body of the man and sending officers diving out of the way. When we reach the gate, Tarq presses a button and the driver’s side window slides open. He shows his badge to an enquiring officer.
“When will you be returning?” The gatekeeper asks.
Skah says nothing but inclines his head towards me. The officer nods and gestures towards the control booth. Moments later, the gate rises and our vehicle slips underneath it.
The whole world stretches before me. It is white and wild, as I knew it would be, chalky soil whipping into a haze with the savage winds. Far to the East: hills. One hill stands taller than the rest, crowned by a cluster of blinking green beacons at varied heights. I wish to go there and see the lights for myself. Can I touch them?
Rocks surround the car on all sides, jutting into the sky and threatening to pierce clouds, when the come. I unlatch my harness and turn in the seat to look at the city behind me. I am so relieved to be outside those massive walls, out in the open wilds where the sun will kiss me if I let it. Where there are no hours spent in fear of noxious chemicals, or men in green uniforms to frighten me. Why was I so worried to pass that dismal hospital, when this awaited me? Vast and strange wilds. I could not have supposed what the wilds were like, even if I had known I was leaving Arcis.
“Latch your belt,” Skah insists, in a manner that makes me think he has seen the wilds a thousand times and never once been thrilled by them. I glance up at Officer Tarq who pays me no mind. Skah turns back to me when I do not comply. Skeletal fingers yank my ankle and I knock my chin against the seat, biting hard into my bottom lip. I yelp and slide down the smooth leather, blinking back tears. Coppery liquid fills my mouth. I press my sleeve to my bleeding lip. Father would have helped me wash out my mouth, but neither man even asks if I am all right. I suck on my lip. The skin is split and swollen, and my neck aches.
A blue light flashes twice on the front console. “Report,” Tarq says, pressing a button beneath the indicator light.
“He was not a citizen,” a broken voice says, sound emanating from a speaker beside my head. Skah affixes a semi-circular device over his ear and holds the button on the console until the light turns red.
“Quickly,” Skah grounds out.
The voice babbles into the earpiece, unintelligible but frantic.
“Was he seen?” the doctor asks. The voice delivers an unsatisfactory answer, but I know the truth. I saw him. Me, Zafre the bleeding girl in the back seat. Twice I saw his green eyes. I saw the officers shy away from him. I saw lightning strike him, and I saw him rise up in death. I also witnessed Skah’s fearful dive for the driver’s seat. It is hard for me to fear him now that I have seen him afraid. He is merely a skinny man in a stolen uniform.
“It shouldn’t be difficult to put a body on a cart, Norde. How many saw?”
Again, the voice titters.
“If he wasn’t a citizen, what does it matter?” Skah says. “Dispose of him, and then find out how he got in.” The earpiece collides with the front console and the red light turns off. Skah huffs. He remembers me, then, snapping his head to eye me sideways.
“Your life is not your own, now,” he whispers. “You’ll see as much as I allow you to see and nothing more.”
He presses a button on his door panel. The windows darken and I cannot see the wilds any longer. A screen lights up on the console with symbols I do not recognize, but they seem to indicate our direction. Tarq appears to understand them, at least.
We drive in silence for what feels like hours. I imagine the way the wilds are swirling around us, white soil stirring like fog. And rocks, jutting up at the base of rolling hills, protecting the rises from people in the way that the wall around Arcis protects us from curiosity. I could not have imagined the wilds, even if they had been described to me. Perhaps, when no one is looking at them, the wilds simply cease to be. They seem to offend Skah, or at least my curiosity about them does. Curiosity that lead to punishment and pain.
My lip stopped bleeding but it is fat and irritated, and neither of my travel companions cares. I haven’t seen my own blood in a long while. Though I have been hurt before, the instances were few and minor. This is different. This man hurt me, the false doctor with stolen authority. For once, it was not the result of my own clumsiness.
He is much too thin for a doctor. Perhaps he is ill. His hands don’t shake like they should for lack of muscle, but he keeps them curled. He looked powerful when he sat in my father’s front room, but here, his shoulders slump forward and he makes his body small. Next to Officer Tarq, Skah is miniscule. The longer we sit, the smaller he gets. Something weighs on him; he is protecting his weakest points, though no one in this car threatens him. I wonder where his mind is at right now. Does it wander back to the image of the man in green as he is struck? My mind does. Skah didn’t look surprised, though—just scared. I know that my fear sometimes hangs with me longer than the origin. Maybe the same is true of him.