The Imperial State of Mind
Lock stood in the corner of the large room as Smith spoke. It aggravated him that Smith had such a nice place to sleep and think while everyone else had to squeeze side by side in the dorms just because he was friends with the founder of the Returners. Smith’s room had mahogany floor, shiny freshly painted walls, walls lined with books, and hand stitched linens on his bed over in the corner. Smith was seated at his desk in the center of the room while Lock lounged and pretended to listen.
To Lock, the real Returners were the ones who risked their lives every day to learn new information, fight battles against the Empire, and leave Headquarters to get necessities like food, clothing, and weapons. Lock nodded at the unimportant air protruding from Smith’s mouth like a waterfall of redundancies.
“I understand you’re a man,” lectured Smith, “Men have needs, I know this. But, she is a nurse and when she has other things on her mind, like you, she can’t be the best medical personnel member she can be.”
Lock was waiting for a break in Smith’s ranting to get a word in, “Am I being whined at because I dated her or because I separated myself from her?”
“Both. I have a new rule within these walls starting today. No dating of any kind.”
“What about the couples with children we’re protecting? Separate em?”
“Of course not. That’s pre-existing so it’s not breaking any of my rules. Speaking of which; you explained all the rules of headquarters to Tara, yes?”
“Hmm, let’s think. Cuz in the last twenty-four hours eight men have tried to capture her, she has seen more bloodshed since dawn than most people see in a lifetime. She was forced to leave her home, which was a very peaceful place. I was almost killed, and we are both a little fucking tired!” Lock screamed at Smith, slamming open the door.
“Prick,” mumbled Lock as he exited the room, not bothering to shut the door behind as he knew that Smith would be annoyed.
He made sure he always left it open after these sessions.
“Let me get this straight,” Tara said, “Supposedly, people think I can gather elements in my ‘INO’ as you call it, and then use them later to burn, freeze, wet, or blow things up with my mind? There has to be a mistake, maybe it is someone else. I can’t do those things.”
“If it wasn’t true, Smith wouldn’t have let you enter our home. He can sense these things; he was known as a prophet long ago. You sure you can’t do anything extraordinary?”
Tara looked around and saw a dried out rose on the floor; she stood and went over to where it lay and picked it up. She held the blackish, faded rose in her left hand as she ran her fingers over the petal. Before Ruthie’s eyes it flourished, the dark green stem brightened into a moist lime color and the petals were springing to life gaining a shiny crimson color as the rose regained a former state of beauty.
“See? That’s it,” said Tara as she handed it to Ruthie.
“Well, that’s all I can do. Except…”
“What?” said Ruthie moving her eyes from the rose and back to Tara.
“Today, I pushed a man as hard as I could when he took aim at Lock. And…well he fell back a long way. I thought it was a pure adrenaline feat of strength or perhaps a miracle. You know, like I was meant to save Lock. But now…” Tara hesitated.
“I don’t think so. Here,” said Ruthie as she handed her book to Tara.
Tara took the book.
“Good or Evil: the curse of the mutated… what?”
“It’s a book about the ancient peoples with elemental powers and special abilities back when the world had ‘power plants’. Apparently they were able to make human beings like we make soup and these ‘clones’ as they call em had powers as well. I started reading it when I heard you were coming so I would know more about you. But, now it appears you need the book more than I do.”
Ruthie let out a soft giggle in an attempt to break the serious air that surrounded Tara. Tara turned and slipped the book under her pillow.
“Come on,” said Ruthie as she rose to her feet, “Time to go see Smith.”
“Okay,” said Tara as she started walking along side of Ruthie, “Tell me, why does Lock hate me so much?”
“I don’t think he hates you,” said Ruthie rolling her eyes at Tara, “He’s just a very cold person when you first meet him, he’s terrible at sensitivity and friendliness.”
“Oh, I guess I don’t know much about boys, even less about men,” said Tara realizing that she was being judgmental of Lock.
“By the way, do you know what the foreign language on his sword means?” Tara asked.
Ruthie began pushing Tara toward the door that led out of the dorm while she talked.
“It’s Italian for ‘For my son’.”
Lock sat at a dining table with a chunk of crusty bread, a lit cigarette, and a glass bottle filled with a light brown liquid. Next to Lock was a man around the same age. He had spiky brown hair, at least three days of growth on his jaw and neck, and sported a plain black T-shirt. Next to him was a faded gray trench coat draped over the bench where he sat.
“Lock, come on. You know we’re the reasons why these people are alive and have food to eat, who cares if Smith realizes it? If it weren’t for us, they’d be dead; one way or another.”
“No shit. Ray, he just pisses me off. Why is he allowed to survive when Alisa isn’t? Dammit, it is just not fair! God is such a-“
“Whoa! Whoa! I’m not gonna talk to you if you’re gonna blaspheme again. You know how I feel about my religion and I know how you feel about yours. Let’s just drop it.”
“Sorry, it’s the anger talking, not the heart.”
Lock took a deep puff on the rolled cigarette and swigged on a brownish liquid in the unmarked bottle. Lock lowered the bottle from his lips as Ray put his hand out, an unspoken gesture to share, which Lock conceded to. Ray took a big drink himself.
“Dammit! I have to talk to him again to get my next mission.”
“I got the info already,” said Ray passing the bottle back to Lock.
“Good. What is it? Partners?”
“Sorry, you by yourself again and I’m with Pearl and Clyde.”
“Damn, is he trying to get me killed. My last five missions have been solo…what is the job?” asked Lock taking another swig from what was left in the bottle.
“You’re doing reconnaissance in Pan’dier for information on the Empire’s next target, but no rescuing or getting involved with the town, you know, stealth. He wants you to be a ghost basically. Apparently, it’s crawling with imperials including a couple Lieutenants and maybe a General. Sound good?”
“You have to enter through the sewers.”
“Come on!!! Geez!! I hate that man so much.”
“But fear not, you don’t have to sneak in till after sun up, so…bottoms up!” said Ray gabbing the bottle and upending the remains into his mouth.
Lock smiled; Ray was one of his oldest friends and good at cheering him up. Lock watched Tara and Ruthie walk through the dining room into the closed door marked ‘Returners’ on the other end of the room leading to Smith.
“Wow, if I was Lock I’d hate him too,” said Tara as they walked past the dining tables talking of Smith and Lock’s history.
“Yeah, but he is in charge, right?” Said Ruthie to herself.
After opening the door, Tara saw yet another long hallway with four doors on the left and three doors on the right as well as a door that stood alone at the end of the hallway before the corridor took a right turn. They walked to the door and Ruthie looked at Tara.
“Here ya go,” she said patting her on the back, “See ya later.”
Ruthie walked back down the hall and through the door leading back to the dining area. Tara took a deep breath and entered Smith’s chambers expecting the worst.
She closed the door behind her and saw the old man sitting to the desk in the center of the room; on the desk was a clean, brand new blue bandana folded in a triangle.
“Have a seat miss Tara,” he said motioning to the wooden chair with no padding that sat across from him.
She humored him and sat down atop the back of her skirt, crossing her legs. Both of them were quiet for several seconds before Smith spoke the first word.
“Tell me, what do you know of the Empire and the Returners?” asked Smith.
She sat there thinking; she didn’t know much about either of them seeing as how she spent half of her life on the southern part of the continent before it was overrun by imperials and the other half of her life alone in a cabin by the pond away from all civilization.
“Umm, well, the Empire is this continent’s government, right? They handle bandits and lawbreakers and collect money for the taxes and various debts. And, uh, well…” she paused.
Everything she had heard about the Returners was negative and insulting so she had to make it sound like hearsay.
“I have heard…um, rumors…that the Returners are kinda…vigilantes…rebels that want to bring down the government and revert us back to the Stone Age. They are against the advancement of civilization.”
“Wow,” exhaled Smith, “Sounds like an imperial flier. The truth is; they break the laws at their pleasure, accuse people of being bandits so they have someone to blame, and they don’t ‘collect’ money, they take it whenever they please. As for our group: the Returners seek the liberalization of the communities from the Empire. We want this to be a peaceful land once again, like when I was a child, by ridding it of the tyranny of the imperials. What you have heard is propaganda to cover the truth; go to any town on this continent and you’ll see the truth for yourself. Rapes, murders….towns being stripped of all their resources to feed the fascists. Children are being abducted at a very young age to be trained as an imperial soldier. If it weren’t for propaganda, there would be no Empire. The people of this land are told what to believe and how to think and feel. And if something isn’t done; the entire western continent will have the same fate and the entire planet will be at their mercy. That is when we will all become their slaves.”
Tara sat there letting everything he was saying sink in.
“What does that have to do with me? I’m no soldier. I can’t see myself helping either of you. Can’t I just go home now?”
“It’s your power Tara.”
When he spoke the word ‘power’ his jaw tightened and she could see that he was not unlike the Empire in the sense that he craved it as well; for good or evil? She did not know.
“Listen, I have heard of this ‘power’ a few times now, I don’t have it. The only things I can do are heal minor injuries and increase the growth and resurrection of plants, that’s all. I can’t hurl fireballs or create tidal waves or whatever it is you think I’m capable of. That being said; I hope you will still allow me to stay here till the Empire realizes I am not who their looking for.”
Smith sat there looking into her eyes, as Tara looked into his, he didn’t believe a word.
“Of course you may stay, this is a sanctuary for those in need. Here,” he handed her the blue bandana.
She hesitated for a moment then finally took it in her hand and looked at it.
“You put that on when you’re ready. I just assumed you knew of your powers; your mother must have kept that to herself. The power was been known to pass down from mother to daughter and just the fact that you can heal is proof you have it to at least a small degree. The only question here is when you realize its true potential.”
Tara looked up from the new article she held and looked into Smith’s eyes,
“How did you know my mother? Or me for that matter?”
“I named you,” he said smiling at Tara like they were kin, “Though you never saw me, I watched over you and your mother for many years.”
She stood from her gripping the cloth tight in her fist and walked to the door. “How did you meet her?” she said hesitating to turn the knob of the door.
“We met up when she was pregnant with you and I offered my help. I promised to help you as well.”
Tara exhaled depressingly; she wanted to more know but she remembered something her mother taught her, Never ask questions, just wait for the answers you seek for they shall come if you are patient and you pay attention.
Once back in the dining room, Tara saw many people were gathering. There were no windows or skylights here so it was hard to tell the time of day, but it seemed near dusk because of the heightened aroma seeping from the kitchen; dinnertime. The dining room was near full; on the side she was standing on was about twenty people that were probably soldiers or spies due to the bandanas and weaponry attached to them: swords, guns, whips, bows and quivers, and the occasional spear. On the opposing side of the dining room was everyone else.
A few mothers and fathers were getting their children settled, a dozen teenagers with dust covered clothes looked exhausted from cleaning all day, and another thirty or so in generic clothing that most likely did various jobs; maybe watchmen.
Then there was two nurses; Helena and Bridget she was guessing. One was a thicker girl but not overweight with thin black hair and dark makeup around her eyes and the other was skinny like Ruthie but much taller, maybe six and a quarter feet tall with long blonde hair and glasses.
Which one was Helena, Tara thought as she glided her hands over her stomach; Tara wasn’t a bony gal, but not thick either, she liked to call herself average seeing as how her ribs didn’t push against her skin. She looked at the girls for a moment. I hope the brunette is Helena, she thought, and then maybe I have a chance. What am I thinking? It’s Lock; he’s much older and maybe too tough for me…but mmmm. She slapped herself on the left cheek getting back to the now. She looked over to the soldier-designated table and saw Ruthie looking at her in confusion.
“Bug,” laughed Tara.
Ruthie smirked and waved her over to where she was sitting, she had apparently saved her a spot. Ruthie seemed like the kind of person that had a lot of friends, you couldn’t help but like this gritty little girl. Tara sat down and noticed all that were in her general area. Ruthie, Lock, Doc, Pearl were close by.
Down the table a bit was a man in a trench coat, a big muscle bound man that didn’t exactly give off an aura of intelligence, and a man wearing the traditional ‘Old Christian’ garb; Tan robe with a lavender trim circling the sleeves and running down center of the chest and crossing at the breast forming the cross of resurrection. Jehovah’s unnamed son came to mind when Tara saw the lavender cross.
“What’d he say?” said Lock taking a glug from a new bottle and sliding it in front and Tara.
She hesitantly wrapped her left hand around the neck and her right hand under the base of the bottle and brought the mouthpiece to her nose smelling it and nearly lost her dried meat. She curled her lip as she put the bottle back down.
“Well,” she said, “Basically, he explained your cause and why the Empire is bad. Told me some things about my mom I didn’t know.”
Ruthie batted the bottle with her right hand, sliding it into the palm of her left.
“Too slow,” said Ruthie jokingly and took a swig, which surprised
Tara due to Ruthie’s very young age.
Lock sat there looking at Tara as she spoke just steaming with anger toward Smith with Ray on his left and Pearl on his right.
WHACK! Lock felt the palm of Pearls hand slam against the back of his head
“Manners!” she said glaring at Lock.
“What?” questioned Lock.
“Fine,” sighed Pearl. “This is Ray. And over there is Clyde,” pointing to each man in introduction.
Tara shook Ray’s hand since he was just across from her and waved at the enormous Clyde as which he lifted his arm, that was bigger than her leg and waved over with a smile.
Ruthie leaned into Tara. “My brother. Older brother,” She whispered.
Tara nodded halfheartedly; her head was still pointed back in the direction the ‘Returners’ door that led to Smith’s room remembering their conversation. Ruthie’s eyeballs strayed down to Tara’s right hand.
“What’s that?” said Ruthie knowing exactly what it was’ a symbol of union.
At the question, Tara lifted her hand forgetting her tight grasp was still gripped around it. Lock’s eyes widened at the sight, Pearl smiled, and the religious man did a silent prayer and got up to leave at the assumption that another casualty was imminent. All was quiet at the table. Lock knew what it meant to wear the small blue cloth; it meant having every member of the empire foaming at the mouth at the thought of sticking a blade in your heart or shooting you in the face just to watch you die. Ironically, Tara was the one that broke the silence.
“Who was that?” Nobody spoke. “The guy with the cross on his clothes, I mean,” she asked.
“The Rev. No one knows his real name, he won’t tell us,” said Clyde who despite his gargantuan size had a small Scottish voice.
In front of Tara’s eyes landed a steaming bowl of white and green slop. Then the young man delivering the bowls began serving the rest of them, except Lock who waved it off and reached for his bottle as he snubbed out his rolled cigarette. Tara looked around; Ruthie was shoveling it into her narrow lips as fast as she could.
Everyone else just sighed before dipping their spoons in the gooey mush preparing for the worst experience of their lives. Pearl brought the filled spoon to her face and closed her eyes while jamming the vile mush into her throat while simultaneously holding her nostrils closed.
“Eat,” said Ruthie to Tara.
Tara looked over at Lock, Lock seems the smartest of the bunch, Tara thought. Lock looked at Tara with squinting eyes; eyes that said I won’t be conscious in thirty minutes and I’m half blind at this moment.
“It helps if you hold your nose closed,” laughed Lock who was obviously mildly intoxicated.
Ruthie waved off Lock’s insult with her free hand.
“Palease, I love this stuff, “looking at Lock as if he was insane.
Pearl swallowed the mess and made a struggled exhaling sound like she had been trapped under water for several moments.
“Yeah, and no one ever said you were normal.”
“Tara,” said Clyde, “it tastes horrible, but very nutritious for you.”
Tara gave him a halfhearted nod and looked down into her bowl as she could now hear Ruthie’s spoon scrape the bottom of her bowl.
“Mmmm,” hummed Ruthie with tranquil look on her face with her eyes tightly shut.
“Here,” said Ray as he slid his bowl in her direction, “bone a petit.”
“Thanks sweetie,” she said with a flirty smile.
Tara looked at the two of them and thought to herself: she’s a kid for god’s sake. Are they…? Tara snapped out of her deep thought and emptied her spoon into her mouth with expectations of gagging or illness.
“Wow!” exclaimed Tara, “This is really really really good.”
Everyone froze in surprise.
“Fuck off!” said Pearl.
“Hmm,” said Ray, “Maybe a chick thing.”
Pearl gave him a cold look.
“What about me? I’m a girl and I think it’s horrible.”
He raised an eyebrow at her.
“Like I said,” he continued.
Lock shook his head and started to stand up and teetered a bit. Ray caught Lock from falling flat on the table.
“Thanks,” said Lock with no emotion in his monotone voice. Tara could tell he was barely conscious.
“Well,” said Lock, “Bedtime, night ladies and gentlemen…and Pearl.”
Pearl grinned sarcastically as she gave him the middle finger.
“Number 1,” said Ray as he drank the bottle Lock had left behind.
Tara noticed that Lock went through the wooden door marked “Returners” and not the one leading to the dormitories. Ruthie finished her two bowls of bile and Tara had her bowl plus the second half of Pearl’s food. Pearl stood after smoking a cigarette and went through the door marked “Returners.
“Ruthie,” whispered Tara, “She doesn’t sleep in the women’s room?”
“Hmmm?” said Ruthie as she turned her head to see Pearl go through the door.
“Oh, high rank soldiers and lieutenants have private rooms to prepare for their missions and have uninterrupted sleep.”
“But, aren’t you?” said Tara looking to Ruthie intently.
“I’m not an official soldier,” said Ruthie interrupting with a smile, “I’m underage, according to Smith. He deems it immoral to send someone under sixteen on a mission that could mean death, but I have already volunteered to go when he allows me. In five weeks I’ll have my room back there. Hell, maybe we both will, yes?”
Tara just smiled at Ruthie, not knowing if she’d be here for that long; Tara just wanted to go home.