Quarantine, 319 E.V., Cent. 15 - Five years earlier
I want to keep my hair, light and lifeless as it is. Skah says that I have lice—or maybe he said I might get them in here, but either way, I have to lose it. He granted me two minutes alone to run my fingers through fourteen years of growth and my time is nearly up. I suppose it does not matter. It is hair, a strange and aggravating collection of tiny things that do not hold any bearing over whether I live or die. It is not as if he has suggested I lose my leg to prevent possible future breaks, or my brain to prevent sadness. It’s only hair, the thing that tells me when the wind is blowing and how. If I lived because the wind blew, my hair might be of more importance. Most of the time, it hangs beside my cheeks, a ratty reminder of my own laziness and father’s inefficiency. It gets in my face when I sleep or bathe. My hair is the part of my body that is nonessential, and perhaps it is best if it goes.
Doctor Skah will cut it for me, when he returns to this tiny, white room. Everything white in Arcis is stale or unsafe. White steam from the chemicals. The crumbling houses. A bubble car with a fake doctor riding inside. White is a lie. The clothing folded on the table before me is white, though the fabric is rough. I suppose bleach isn’t intended for softening fabrics, just hiding their flaws.
The disk my father gave me sits heavily against my thigh. It is in my possession only until these grey trousers and my plain grey top are replaced by the folded clothing before me, but I am relieved that they have not yet been taken. For a few minutes more, I am still my father’s child.
“Roll up your sleeve,” Skah says as he enters the room. He carries a large black bag.
“I have to roll up my sleeve so you can cut my hair?” I ask.
“I’ll roll it up for you,” he says, leaving me to infer an unvoiced threat. He will not hesitate to hurt me again. My lip throbs at the memory of my chin smacking against the seat.
“When will you fix my eyes?” I ask more gently.
Skah looks genuinely surprised by my question. His lips pull back from his teeth and he shakes his head, choosing to look inside the black bag, rather than provide an answer. He retrieves only three objects from the bag. Shears, which I expected. The syringe and vial of clear liquid are not unexpected but they could be anything; a vaccination for the lice he says I will get (if such a thing exists), a dose of preventative pain medicine, something to help my eyes, something to hurt me... but he intends to use it. That is why I must roll up my sleeve.
“Roll up your sleeve. I won’t ask again,” Skah says, fitting a pair of white gloves over his boney hands. He draws the liquid from the vial and holds the prepped syringe expectantly.
“Why?” I ask. “Do you think I will fight you when you try to cut off my hair?” I look him dead in the eye and pull the shears towards me. He raises an eyebrow.
“Are you going to sedate me first, so I do not thrash?” I inspect the blades. Jagged. Able to gnaw but inadequate for my coarse mane. The shears will fight me. I finger a long lock of hair that falls into my vision and hold up the shears readily.
“Oh, you’re dangerous.” The Doctor rolls his eyes.
“I have done what you will not,” I say. It takes several tries to slice through my hair, but eventually the ashy lock falls onto the metal table. “And I did not blink when that man in green died.” My idiocy is astounding even to me, at times, but I can’t help it. This man has the sort of air that makes me want to provoke him. I want to see his expression when he no longer has control. I want to see his face fall in defeat. Maybe if I am difficult, he will make Officer Tarq take me home so he does not have to put up with me.
“I saw him outside my house before you came,” I continue, sawing at another lock with a single inch of usable blade. Again, the lock falls to the table. “He took off his mask when the chemicals were rising. He was not afraid.” Nor was the man hurt, because I saw him alive not an hour later. The noxious steam did not hurt him. I pause mid-slice and anger washes over my skin in the form of shiver bumps.
“The steam is not dangerous,” I breathe. Skah sets the syringe inside the bag. He crosses his arms.
“Not to some,” he says. “But it serves its purpose. There’s more you wish to say. I can see it in your good eye. Out with it.” Skah leans against the table.
“Why was that man not poisoned by the steam?” I ask.
“How do you know he wasn’t poisoned?” he says. “Because he didn’t die the moment he removed his mask? Had he not taken his own life, he would’ve gone blind within a week.”
“The steam... that is what is responsible for my cataracts?” I ask.
“Yours and anyone else with the wrong blood in their veins. Feral blood.”
“How many Arci have the wrong blood?” I breathe.
“More than you might think,” he says. “But there are still pure citizens left, for whom the steam is merely a fearful symbol.”
“And they fear they will be poisoned,” I say.
“Fear is the poison,” Skah says, walking around the table towards me. “I’ve been washing down the city with my water mixture since I was appointed—well, since we’re being honest—since I usurped this position—”
“I knew it,” I whisper, holding the shears out to keep him from coming near me.
“Yes, you’re clever, we’ve established that,” he barks, rolling his eyes. “But everyone else in Arcis thinks that they’ll die if they leave their houses for the cleansing hour. I did that. Water straight from the bay (plus blue dye and a little enzyme) and they’re all petrified.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I told them to be!” He slams his fists on the table.
“But nobody knows who you are. We answer to the officers, not you.”
“And who do they answer to?” he seethes. “I’m the rumor between bad apples at market. I’m the factory foreman and the lowest man on the ammunitions line. I’m the chemical hour. I’m the doctor and the disease. My face isn’t a symbol of Arcis, but I like it that way. There’s no one to blame for unhappiness—”
“You care too much about what I think,” I say, leaning back in my chair. “I am only fourteen and half-blind. I am not easily impressed. If you run all of Arcis by spreading fearful rumors, why do you care about my opinion? How could I possibly be a threat to you?”
“A threat?” he scoffs, snatching the shears from my hand. “Dear girl, I made you.”
I narrow my eyes. “What?”
“I made this city unsuitable for your eyes, and whoever else has those damned green pupils. I won’t bore you with how, but I can tell who might’ve threatened my city because they are blind now. Or dead. Your cataracts identified you, so I could have you removed.” He circles behind me, pulling a piece of hair away from my head and letting it fall against my nape.
“One thing puzzles me,” he says. “I didn’t expect to see cataracts in one so young. Usually adults develop the problems because their... abilities are stronger. You must be strong.”
“Dabir Adrau is my father. Strength is all I know.”
“Still, you did not inherit his eyes. Your strength comes from your mother. And I am rid of her too,” he says, seating himself on the edge of the table. “But she did that for me.”
“She was struck by lightning,” I say, confused.
Skah raises his eyebrows. “So was the man in green. A green-eyed Feral.” He spits the last word. “So strange and yet so similar to your mother’s exit from this world. Hmmm.”
He wants me to forge a connection between the two but I am at a loss. Desperation was a factor in both deaths, surely, but otherwise...
There is something in the steam that only affects people with green eyes; that much I gathered. But why green, and why does he call them Feral? He talks of ‘abilities’ but I cannot think what he must mean by it. I am not much good at any skilled work, to my father’s chagrin. I am average height and I do not run particularly swiftly or climb well. I am a scapegoat for a much larger threat.
Was there a time that I came in contact with the steam unprotected, other than when I left my father’s house for the last time? No such instance comes to mind. I too feared the white tendrils of steam. Without my knowing, this man controlled me for most of my life, and still he masks his meaning. Why tell me so much about his wickedness? Perhaps he has no companions—or he did, once, until their eyes turned milky. And now, he is a lonely man in a stolen uniform who spends his days trying to impress his teenage prisoners and strike fear into children. Pathetic, really.
“As for my eyes...” I stop. No point in asking a question I know the answer to.
“I’m not in the business of fixing things,” he says. “At least not that. Enough.”
I look up at him and take him in. This man has taken my life from me and I let him. My fingernails dig into my palms. Skah returns to the black bag and readies a dosage of the clear serum. He moves toward me and I press the balls of my feet into the ground. When his hand reaches for the hem of my sleeve, I grasp the hand that wields the syringe and shove it downward into his leg. Skah reels backwards and I bolt for the door, but before I reach the knob—crack!