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The Rising has thoroughly infiltrated the Army throughout the years. It’s strongest in Camas, where most of the Army is stationed. Things should go smoothly here. It’s deeper in the Society where we might have some infighting. But with the Pilot the only one speaking from the ports, the rest of the people should follow soon.
Another fighter ship comes over, protecting a heavier-looking ship that drops down to land. When I get to the door of the medical center, it’s guarded by Rising officers. They must have already secured the inside. “Xander Carrow, physic,” I tell one of the officers. He glances at his miniport to check my data. Runners wearing black sprint from the landing field where the ship came down. They carry cases marked with medical insignia.
Is that what I think it is?
The officer waves me inside. “Physics report to the office on the main floor,” he says.
Inside the medical center, I hear the Pilot’s voice again, coming from the ports all over the building. He’s singing the Anthem of the Society. What would that be like? I catch myself wondering. To hear the music in your head and then have it come out sounding right?
Two officers drag an Official past me. He’s weeping and holding his hand over his heart, his lips moving along to the Anthem. I feel sorry for him: I wish he knew that this wasn’t the end of the world. I can see how it would feel that way.
When I get to the office someone hands me a black uniform, and I change into it right there in the hall like the others are doing. I roll up the sleeves because it’s time to get to work, and I throw my white Official uniform down the nearest incineration tube. I’ll never wear it again.
“We separate the patients into groups of one hundred,” the head physic on duty tells me. He smiles. “As the Pilot said, some of the old systems from the Society will remain in place, for now.” He points to the rows of patients, whom the Rising personnel have been referring to as the still. “You’ll be in charge of making sure they get proper care and of overseeing the cure. Once they’ve recovered and moved on, we’ll move new patients to your area.”
The ports are silent. Right now they’re flashing pictures of the still in Central.
Central: where Cassia is. For the first time I feel a hint of worry. What if she didn’t join the rebellion and she’s watching this? What if she’s afraid?
I was so sure Official Lei was part of the Rising.
Could I be wrong about Cassia?
I’m not. She told me that day on the port. She couldn’t say the words outright, but I heard it in her voice. I know how to listen, and I could tell she made the jump.
“We’re waiting for more nurses and medics to come in,” the head physic says. “Are you comfortable giving the cure for now?”
This is not like the Society. The lines are already becoming blurred. The Society would never have let me do the work of a medic after my promotion to physic.
“Of course,” I say.
I scrub my hands and take one of the tubes from the cases. Next to me, a nurse does the same. “They’re beautiful,” she says over her shoulder, and I have to agree.
I remove the cover on the syringe and slide the needle into the line so that the cure flows into the patient’s vein. The Pilot’s voice comes over the ports in the medical center and I have to smile because his words fit perfectly. “The Society is sick,” he tells us, beginning his message again, “and we have the cure.”
I can’t wait here any longer. My whole body trembles with the cold.
Where is he?
I wish I could remember what happened earlier today. Did the Rising’s sort come through? Did I do what they needed?
For a minute, anger shivers through me along with the cold. I never wanted to be here in Central. I wanted the Rising to send me to Camas like Ky and Indie. But the Rising didn’t find me fit for flying or fighting, only for sorting.
That’s all right. I am allied with the Rising, not defined by them. I have my own poems and I know how to trade. Perhaps it’s time to use the papers from the Carving to bargain my way out of this place. I’ve waited long enough.
I look down at all the little fish bodies bumping along the shore, slapping into each other. I shudder at their glossy, dead eyes; their scaly, slick stink. They’ll brush against my hands when I reach into the water to get the box. Their smell is so strong that I think I can taste their flesh in my mouth. It will linger on my skin when I’ve finished.
Don’t look. Get it done.
I prop the flashlight on the ground under the dock and peel the papers from my wrists and set them down. I draw my hands up in my sleeves just enough to cover them over so I have a barrier between my skin and the water. As I wade out, I try not to feel the fish against my legs, the steady bump-bump of dead little bodies in a lake that used to be a safe place. I hope my clothes are enough to protect me from whatever poisoned this lake.
The smell is overpowering and I can’t breathe as I put my hands in. I have to try not to throw up as I feel scales and fins and eyes and tails touching me.
The box is still there; I pull it dripping out of the lake as fast as I can, fish swarming my shins, pushed by the motion of the water. As I wade my way to the shore, little corpses part around and follow behind me.
I carry the box across the grass and away from the lake and crouch down for a moment, hidden in the tangles of brush. As I wipe my hands off on a dry spot on my shirt, I make sure not to drip on the papers I left here earlier.
Would I know the value of these fragile pages if I hadn’t seen the place where they’d been hidden? If I couldn’t picture Hunter looking through them to find a poem to write on his daughter’s headstone? Perhaps that’s why I wear them against my skin. Not only to hide them, but to feel them, to remember what it is that I carry.
I think of making myself a garment of words; something tiled and layered like the scales of the fish behind me. Each page protecting me; paragraphs and sentences shifting to cover me as I move.
But the scales of the fish did not protect them in the end, and as I open the box I recognize something I should have noticed earlier, when I first lifted it. But I was too distracted by all the little bodies.
The box is empty.
Someone’s taken my poems.
Someone’s taken my poems, and Ky didn’t come, and it is cold.
I know it’s too late, but I find myself wishing I hadn’t come here tonight. Then I wouldn’t know everything I’d lost.
As I draw closer to the City and look up at the apartment buildings, I realize that something else is wrong, not just the lake.
It is the middle of the night. But the City has not gone to sleep.
The color of the lights seems strange—blue instead of gold—and it takes me a moment to realize why. The ports in all the apartments are on. I’ve seen Society-wide broadcasts like this on winter evenings before, when the sun goes down early and we are awake for part of the dark.
But I’ve never seen people watching ports this late.
At least, not that I remember.
What could be so important that the Society would wake everyone up?
I pass through greenspaces, now colored cool blue and gray, and I find my apartment complex and slip through the heavy metal door after entering the keycode. The Society will note my lateness; and someone will speak to me about it. An hour unaccounted for here or there is one thing; this is half a night, the kind of time that could be spent in a myriad of nonapproved ways.
The elevator slides as noiselessly as an air train up to my floor, the seventeenth, and the hallway is empty. The doors are well made, so none of the port light seeps through, but when I open the door to my apartment, the port waits in the foyer, as usual.
My hands fly to my mouth, my body anticipating my need to scream before my mind has taken in what’s before me.
Even after my time in the Carving, I could never have conceived of this.
The portscreen is showing me bodies.
It’s worse even than those burned, flung-aside, blue-marked corpses on top of the Carving. Worse than the stone rows of graves in the settlement where Hunter put his daughter down with care and farewell. The sheer numbers make this terrible, make it nearly impossible for my mind to take in. The camera goes up and down the rows so that we can see how many bodies there are. Up and down and up and down.
Why are we watching?
Because they’re showing the faces. The camera lingers on each person, long enough for us to register either recognition or relief and then it moves on, and we are afraid again.
And then another memory comes to mind—the tubes inside the Cavern in the Carving, where Hunter took us.
Is that what they’re doing? Have they found a new way to store us?
But I see now that the people on the screen are alive, though far too quiet and far too still. Their eyes are open and unseeing, but their chests move up and down. Their skin seems strangely dusky and blue.
This isn’t death but it is almost as bad. They are here and not here. With us and gone. Close enough to see but out of reach.
Each person is tethered to a clear bag with a transparent tube running into their arm. Do the tubes run all the way through the patients’ veins? Are their real veins gone and now they’re threaded with plastic? Is this a new plan of the Society’s? First they take our memories, then they drain our blood, until we are only fragile skin and haunted eyes, shells of who we used to be?
I remember Indie’s wasp nest, the one she carried all through the Carving, the papery circles that used to contain humming, stinging creatures and their busy, brief lives.
In spite of myself, my eyes are drawn to the blank, unseeing gazes on the patients’ faces. The people don’t look like they are in pain. But they don’t look like they are in anything.
The point of view shifts, and now I think we’re watching from the ports mounted on the walls of whatever building houses these people. We’re looking from another angle, but we’re still looking at all of the sick.
Man, woman, child, child, woman, man, man, child.
On and on and on.
How long have the ports been showing this? All night? When did it begin?
They show the face of a man with brown hair.
I know him, I think in shock. I used to sort with him, here in Central. Are these people in Central?
The images keep coming, merciless, pictures of people who cannot close their eyes. But I can close mine. I do. I don’t want to see anymore. I think about running and I turn blindly toward the door.
And then I hear a man’s voice, rich and melodic and clear.
“The Society is sick,” he says, “and we have the cure.”
I turn slowly back around. But there is no face to put to the voice; just the sound. The ports show only the people lying still.
“This is the Rising,” he says. “I am the Pilot.”
In the tiny foyer the words echo from the walls, coming back to me from each corner, every surface in the room.
For months I have wondered what it would be like to hear the Pilot’s voice.
I thought I might feel fear, surprise, exhilaration, excitement, apprehension.
I didn’t think it would be this.