Zafirah in the Wild

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Chapter 3

Quarantine, 324 E.V., Cent. 15 - Present Day

The watchtower bell wakes me when the shadows on the floor are short, indicating mid-day; this bell tolls much later than the usual sunrise alarm. On the first day of my nineteenth year, I have trouble opening my eyelids. That last dose of medicine was potent. I must have slept through the wake-up bell. My head is light, but my ears are closed off, like I am underwater. The bell rings again, twice this time, a low and vibratory hum that vibrates my bones. Two rings means new patients arrive today, and all of them are feral.

I arise from my cot and take a seat on the floor, folding my legs beneath me to meditate. My knees are shaking, which could be from hunger or exhaustion or the dread I feel waiting for the screams of the feral women to reach me. Their screams are more chilling if I do not center myself. They scream while the hair is shaved from their heads to inspect for lice, when their clothing is stripped and their bodies washed. They scream when their doors are slammed shut, and they scream in their sleep. Their sorrow echoes through the air ducts and down the hallways, reaching into my bones and echoing there too. The hairs on my arms perpetually stand on end. I remind myself that my reprieve will come in the morning, when the feral women’s throats are hoarse. If I saw their faces, or if I told them how long I have survived here, would they be comforted? That would defeat the purpose of being kept in Isolation.

Today, the wails curdle in the humid air.

“Patients: sit against the wall, away from the door,” Officer Tarq calls.

This is protocol when new patients are admitted to this floor. It is drilled into our heads. We are all dangerous, we are all sick. Sit against the wall, or we might catch something.

“One. Feral.” Tarq’s voice echoes. It is strange to have only one admitted to this ward; there are usually several women brought into Isolation, shutting our ward down for an hour as they struggle. Only one today. I suppose that is the best present I could receive on my birthday: a reprieve.

The officers’ boots thump as they escort the woman past my door. Tarq’s limp is marked with a heavy scuff. The woman says nothing as they pass. She must be very ill. The door to the woman’s cell and the shackles on her wrists are unlocked. Tarq cries out. A loud thump sounds: bone on concrete. A second thump follows. I crawl to the feeding slot at the bottom of my door and press my cheek to the concrete. Both officers are slumped against the wall, eyes glossed with a thin film of red fluid. Tarq, my daily visitor, and another officer of equal size, his brother, maybe. Though he is not kind, Tarq is a flickering light, and my longest acquaintance besides my Father. Both men are made of sheer muscle, and yet, the short feral woman stands above them like the conquering hero, fists clenched and panting for oxygen. They must be dead; neither man blinks the red film from his eyes.

The woman makes eye contact with me and the air is electric. Her eyes burn; were it not for those two green suns, her cheeks would be soft and round, but the glow casts a harsh shadow across her cheekbones. A deep furrow pulls at her eyebrows, accentuating the wrinkles in her worn complexion. Heavy, determined footsteps echo in the stairwell at the end of the hall, drawing the woman’s attention from me. As soon as the footsteps move up to the next floor the feral woman turns back to me. She points to her own forehead, then to me, and takes off down the hallway with the swiftness of a young girl. Her hands connect with the door at the end of the hall, and the alarm blares as she slips into the stairwell.

I sit back on my heels. I rub my arms to banish the prickling, but the static intensifies. My shirt clings to my stomach and my pants to my legs. I am sure if I had hair on my head long enough to fly, it too would cling to my skin.

The watchtower bell peals outside my window. I stand, climb onto my cot, pull myself up on the window bars and peer down into the courtyard. Two officers drag the struggling feral woman to the middle of the courtyard and deposit her in the dirt. The woman’s clothing hangs from her shoulders in ribbons, exposing her breasts. On her head, the recently shorn hair is regal. She stretches out her arms and raises her face to the sky. The executioner’s unit lines up and each man loads a long-barreled rifle with a single bullet. Above them, clouds form in a dark mass that extinguishes the sun. Impossible clouds, which do not form during the Centennial. Only the woman’s eyes still shine in the gloom.

The officers train their guns on the wild woman and she stares them down. One of her attending officers begins a countdown from ten. Electricity tickles the metal rods adorning the roof. The arcing energy makes the air vibrate; the lamp in my cell surges and the light bulb bursts, scattering a minefield of glass shards around the room.

The first officer shoots his gun before the countdown has ended, and the woman is struck in the right shoulder. She reels backwards for a moment, but finds her feet and stands.

“I am Vesper, a votaress of the Wayward Cerani,” she says, speaking Arci with unexpected mastery. I hear her inside my head, like she is speaking only to me. “This vulgar planet was ours until they came, and it will be ours again when they abandon it.” She points at the second officer and his weapon fires. He staggers backwards in surprise as the gun recoils. A bolt of lightning strikes him where he stands and he falls, dead. The woman’s left shoulder bleeds from the second bullet wound.

“We will honor our mother planet, Coelus. The moon of Lunea will light the sky at night as we destroy this fortress of disease and pain,” she growls. “We owe our life unto Paria, our sight unto Somni, and our visions unto Visus.” Two more guns fire and the officers cower in the dirt, afraid of what she might do to them. Bullets strike her in the leg and forearm. She bleeds profusely, but she does not pay her wounds, or the disarmed officers, mind. “I impart my life unto Mors.” A bullet enters her chest, and she staggers towards the remaining officer. He is paralyzed. She grabs the barrel of his gun.

“I am a prophet of the one to come, the one, true Eye, the Eleventh Star—a daughter of Arcis, who dreams of more. Se, verum oculus! She will come into her own, and then we will triumph. Ignis!” A bolt of electricity arcs from the sky and through the woman’s body. For a moment, the officer and the woman are magnetized to the gun, yet repelled from each other, as they strain backwards into the uncharged air. The last officer drops. He is unconscious but alive. The woman hangs in mid-air. When she collapses, three bodies lay in the dirt.

Sunlight escapes into the courtyard, illuminating the dead and three warily approaching officers. I have to squint now, but I am in awe of the sight below me. From the tips of her fingers to the ends of her toes, the feral woman is surrounded by a branching tree-like pattern in the dirt. The sand markings glint against the sediment. One of the officers reaches for a shard of the newly smelted glass. A faint ribbon of light dances on his shoulder, emanating from the prism.

From several floors up, the feral women chant, “Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus!” The bell rings four times, a signal unknown to me. The officers below shout at us to step away from the windows.

I climb down from the cot. My arms shake and my heart hammers against my ribs mercilessly. I struggle to fold myself into a meditative pose. The last words of the feral woman fill my floor, eradicating the once-poisonous silence. Se, verum oculus! Every being with lips echoes that mantra. The feral sisters in the cells above me also cry her name: Vesper. All I see in my head is her body as each bullet strikes it, over and over in never-ending repetition. Eventually, I cast most of the woman’s image from my brain, but I cannot forget her eyes. There were galaxies in them.

The midday mealtime passes and no nourishment is provided to me. I suppose they mean to make an example of Vesper; she killed three men, so her sisters will suffer. That woman was dead before she touched an officer, because she was feral. She did not look any different from an Arci woman, though. If anything, she was superior.

I tiptoe around the edge of my cell, scooping up the largest shards of glass from my burst light bulb. No Tarq left to clean up after me. I have to pick up the dangerous mess. It seems as if I hold the whole bulb in my hand, just jumbled, but still I find more tiny pieces, as if something, once broken, will never be fully whole again. Well, I suppose that’s true for the light bulb. But if this glass cuts me, as it inevitably will, my body will heal. I am not made of glass. I am not unfixable. I drop the handful of glass over the window ledge and down, into the garden of broken things. I am frightfully hungry.

To dispel my hunger, I stretch out along the cool floor and practice several of my exercises. One hundred abdominal constrictions, a hundred more body lifts from the bars on my window until my arms shake. By the time I have completed my routine, I barely note the coil in my stomach. My heels drop to the floor, and I sit against the wall, allowing the cement to temper my muscles. I ache more than I should, given the activity, but I suppose I ache for the death of the feral woman, and for Officer Tarq. He was more... forthcoming than I expected. I wonder if it was his voice that kept me going. Maybe it was the knowledge that he was just as trapped as I am.

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