Cerani Encampment, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 25 - Present day
I step inside my tent on tired feet. I had not realized how much Aron’s injuries weigh on me. The importance of his life resonates from the top of my head to a mile deep inside this wild planet. I let out a long breath and a few pained groans escape with it as I rub my aching neck.
“What is wrong?”
I know that voice. “Aron?” I breathe in surprise.
“Yes,” he whispers. “Borrowed your cot. Hope you don’t mind.” He sounds as exhausted as I feel, though my worries are nothing compared to his actual pain.
“You should be in your own tent,” I say, stepping further into the tent.
“Nonsense,” he says. “You were not there.”
I kneel beside my cot and he takes up my hand immediately. “Achad is here,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, “though I am not sure how the men captured him.”
“Intercepted him on his way to Q,” Aron says, breath hitching mid-sentence.
“Are you all right?” I ask, sitting forward.
“Can you help me shift onto my side?” he asks.
“Of course.” I feel down his arm to his shoulder and pull him towards me. He groans as he accidently rolls onto his wrist.
“Ugh, that hurts,” he breathes.
“Remember when I told you that you should have stayed in your tent?” I ask, helping him situate his arm more comfortably.
“Who would help me get my arm unstuck?” he says, grasping my arm and giving it a little shake. “So, Achad.”
“Yes,” I sigh. “I do not know what to do about him. I have one vivid memory of him from the day I was taken to Q. He leered at me about his conquest over the Arci but he didn’t go into detail. All I remember is he talked about the steam and how it made all green-eyed people go blind.”
“He was probably referring to people who have Cerani blood,” Aron says.
“I suppose you are right, though I cannot imagine there are many of them left in Arcis.”
“I saw a Cerani man inside Arcis on my fourteenth birthday,” I realize, remembering the man in green very suddenly. “He sparked himself right in front of the car, but even before that, I saw him outside my father’s house working with a cleansing crew.”
“Likely a brother of ours,” Aron says. “Darius’ perhaps. He lived in Arcis for some time, but I’m not sure what happened to him.”
“Truly?” I ask. “I had no idea.”
“How would you have known?” Aron asks. “He worked on the line. He would send coded correspondence with a trustworthy officer to keep us apprised of the situation in Arcis. It was our only way to know when attacks were planned; he was reporting from the inside.”
“What is the line?” I ask.
“The hospital assembly line. He made barrels for medium range firearms,” Aron says.
“They assemble guns inside the hospital?” I ask.
Aron sits up a little, squeezing my hand. “What do you think Achad does with the people he takes?” he asks.
“Well, he puts us green-eyed in Q,” I say. “And the rest are treated in the hospital.”
“Half true,” he says. “If a citizen of Arcis is ill, regardless of their eye color, Achad takes them in under the guise of treatment and then forces them to work in the hospital.”
“But how could all that be happening in the hospital?” I ask, dumbfounded.
Have you seen a single person come back from the hospital, cured of their illness?”
“No—” I start.
“And what of Quarantine? Do people ever leave?”
“I did,” I say. He squeezes my hand.
“You are the exception,” he says. “Achad is waging war, Z. And the Cerani are the only ones left to conquer. The man you sentenced to a life in captivity has taken nine other colonies on this planet and dispatched them all. He is making weapons.”
“How does he maintain a work force?” I ask.
“The people of his own city. It is easy to take a child from its family if that child is sick, even if it is just a little cloud in her eye.” He brushes my cheek.
“But he did not take me to the hospital,” I say. “He said it was full to capacity.”
“It is—with guns,” Aron says. “He built Quarantine to house all of his green-eyed prisoners, but when he needs workers desperately, he’ll take anyone back to the city. Or out to the quarries to mine the raw materials he needs to produce his guns. And when the workers die, he dispenses their bodies somewhere outside the city and has the family notified that they passed of something related to their illness. Unless they are Cerani, and then he throws the body in the bay and has done with it.”
“And so rise the white tombstones,” I say.
“My father was offered an assignment in the mines, but he turned it down to take care of me.” Thank goodness he did not take that position. I cannot imagine how difficult it would have been.
“It probably prolonged his life,” Aron says.
“But if Achad is killing other colonies and citizens of his city, who will be left?” I ask.
“Just him. When all the teeth of the city are bared, he will have the planet to himself.”
“What is his quarrel with the Cerani?”
“That I do not know,” Aron says. “I suppose he resents the way we live. We are nomadic, we are mystics. We understand the planet and we use it to our advantage.”
“Why would he hate us for that?” I ask.
“His shining city is dying,” Aron says. “He failed to do what we succeed at every day.”
“But why would he care about that?”
“We have a shared history stretching back to a distant home. When our collective ancestors searched out a new existence, one group found this planet. Similar to their home but much more wild, the explorers fought and tamed the land, adapting to the climate and forming new customs.”
“The Cerani?” I guess.
“Exactly,” Aron says, brushing my cheek. “The Cerani have been on this planet for almost a thousand years. The nine colonies that followed seven hundred years later found and failed many other habitats before finding Coelus, and they failed here too. When ten factions each tried to create paradise... they lost or ignored any impulse to use the land. Instead, they raced to create the greatest civilization. There was no sense of unity, no camaraderie, no common goal. And the strange thing is: they do not answer to anyone. There is no one to keep them from slaying each other. He with the biggest gun wins.”
“Achad,” I say.
“Kasimir Achad,” Aron confirms. “The man who bared his teeth.”
“How did he get that kind of technology?”
“Built it? Stole it, maybe. Who knows?”
“The whip Riva used on you—the one from my dream?”
“Yes?” He asks.
“One of his inventions?”
“Yes, it is,” Aron says. “He likes for people to suffer.”
“He is a fool. He will have nobody left,” I say.
“He is not the first despot to sacrifice his own people. He does not have loyalty to anyone. His allegiance is to pain.” Aron shivers and I scoot closer. He rests his forehead against my arm.
“Aron, our scope is too narrow,” I say. “Quarantine is a symptom, but Arcis is the real disease. It is our turn to cure the city.”
“How?” he asks.
“Shut down the hospital. Get those people out of Arcis. At least, if they are dying, we will help them to a peaceful end.”
“We cannot possibly do that considering how many officers are stationed in Arcis.”
“You are right,” I say. I let out a long breath. “This is why we are also going to break into Quarantine.”
“...Which we cannot possibly do.” Aron tries to sit up but the pain is too much and he falls back against my pillow. “Can you please lay down here with me? It is too painful to sit up.”
I release his hand. “What if someone came in?” I whisper, embarrassed by how much I want to lie next to him on my cot.
“You’re the Antista. You can banish someone for looking at you the wrong way.”
“A rule I dislike greatly,” I scowl.
“I beg you, please. I’ll even lay here with my hands at my sides,” he says.
It takes me all of a moment to convince myself to do what he asks, but I don’t want to seem too eager. I sit on the edge of the cot as he scoots as far to one side as he can. Laying back, my whole arm presses against his and I relish the feeling of his skin against my skin.
“We are going to liberate Arcis,” I say, trying to keep the subject as far from the pleasantness of sharing a cot as possible. Fortunately for me, Aron takes the bait.
“There are perhaps forty able-bodied fighters amongst us,” he says, “and I am including children and elderly in that count. Maybe forty more inside Quarantine, maybe less. Maybe none. We do not have the type of firepower needed to fend off Arci officers, and they would get a good laugh over the weapons we do have. We have sticks, Z. Thy have guns that rearrange your molecules. And as for our metaphysical strengths, we do not know how long the Sparks will last, and the Sighted are useless for combat. Z, we are infants. They are giants.”
“That is exactly why we must do it!” I say, gripping his hand. “If we do not try, we are doomed.”
“Zafre, it is a death sentence—” he starts, trying to sit up.
“So is sitting here, waiting for them to kill us.” I press on his chest to keep him still. “We have Achad. We have the power.”
“What if they do not want Achad? I would not. In fact, I do not,” he says. “I wish he was burning in a pit of fire instead of sitting in one of our tents with a proverbial gag.”
“That is not the way, Aron.”
“I know. It does not make it less true.”
“I need your support in this,” I say.
“You have it,” he sighs. “Even though I think the Decuriate might have taken your sanity, I stand behind you.”
“You are an able seer,” I say. “I want you to help me see what is to come.”
“You too are able,” he says. My face gets hot.
“I cannot sense more than sounds and voices, now, but you have shared dream sight with me. Can you read my visions?” I ask.
“As in... break into your dreams and tell you what I see?” He asks.
“I can try.”
“That is all I ask,” I say. We lay in silence. My body has relaxed into his side; I am so relieved to lie beside him and know that he is going to be all right. He speaks well, but then again, Aron is good at talking. Sometimes I think he likes the sound of his own voice, but he has not steered me wrong yet.
“Z—something I have been wondering...” he trails off.
“Whatever it is, I will answer,” I say. I expect he will ask me how I feel to see Achad again. I feel strangely peaceful, but that probably has something to do with Aron.
“Anything?” he asks.
“Do not tease,” I say, heat filling my cheeks.
He considers his question. “I am your blood... what does that mean to you?”
“You are a part of me,” I say.
“Is it that simple?”
“Yes,” I say. “And no.”
He chuckles. “Why is it not simple?”
“Because I am ever-changing, and so are you,” I say. “So long as you are my eyes and my lifeline, you will also be my blood. If a day comes when I no longer need you, or if I die, then you will not be a part of me anymore. But, until then...”
“Until then.” He pauses a while. “Zafirah, I have much to say to you.”
“What about?” I ask.
“Your need for me... and mine for you.”
My nerves are on fire with embarrassment. I take a deep before I reply. “Save your words for the end of our journey,” I say, though I know that is not what he hopes to hear.
“So long?” he whispers.
“What else will we have to speak of when Arcis is free?” I ask.
“Hot. Always.” We both laugh, shaking the cot. I do not know when he falls asleep, but his even breaths are proof that the Decuriate wants us to succeed. He is alive, and he stands by me.