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72 days to banishment
It has taken four days of in the quiet room to satisfy Commander Edith’s curiosity. Four days of questioning. Four days of isolation. Four days before I have been allowed to return to my work. These were perhaps the worst four days of my life, due largely to the guilt that plagued me and in part to Commander Edith’s berating.
She came and went frequently, disappearing from the quiet room to somewhere unknown, only to return half an hour later with the same questions as before. This sequence repeated on loop for the first day. She would sit in the quiet room’s only chair and I would be forced to dance around her with nothing to steady my nervous ticks. My hands would fidget, lips quivering, but each time my answer never wavered, and each time she left in dissatisfaction. I would spend this time, usually an hour or two, rethinking what seemed so plain to her as my lies. When the simulated sun was dimmed to the nightly blue, I knew the Commander would not be back until morning. Then, when I was certain to be left alone, I began what had become my ritual of self punishment.
The second day in the quiet room Commander Edith was almost entirely absent. I expected her to show up first thing in the morning, grilling me for truth, but I woke to a brightly lit sim, a tray with toast and one small sausage from yesterday’s sow, and an otherwise empty room. Commander Edith questioned me only once that day, asking a series of questions exactly as she had each time before. She was not satisfied, and I received only a cold ladel’s worth of broth for supper. Again the sim went blue, and again I began my punishment.
The third day I spent in total solitude. Commander Edith did not show even once. The hours stretched from breakfast lunch, and longer from lunch to supper, each meal becoming less filling than the one before. That night, the third night, my hands hurt so badly that I feared the knuckles may be broken. I punished myself still, knowing it was due.
When the fourth day came, Commander Edith crept into the quiet room, her bald head gleaming and her bulging eyes darting from myself to varying elements of the room – the bed, the chair, the simulated sun, the toilet, the sink. She examined each, distastefully judging the room of her own design. I watched this and waited in silence to be asked again what I witnessed in the courtroom. This is what she asked me every time before, and so it is all I expected to come from her sharp lips.
The Commander did not comply with my expectations. She first asked about my hands. I had forgotten for a moment that they were bruised at the knuckles, one split open and coated in a dry layer of blood. I rubbed them absently, remembering the way I had beat the guilt out of them, how I had thrown them into the walls when it refused to leave. I did not explain myself, as I lacked a logical explanation. She seemed to understand what happened, the beating at least if not the reason for it, and moved on quickly.
Commander Edith voiced her demand: “Tell me about the night of Sentry Philip Randen was attacked.”
Part of me wanted to defy the Commander. Some darkness deep within yearned to shout my hatred, to provide her no satisfaction, but this darkness was only small and rather powerless. Rationality bid me do as told, thus I composed myself before the rigid metal chair of which the Commander occupied, and retold the same story as I had every day before.
Oliver spoke first that night. He asked me to speak truthfully. I promised I would. We were not alone. I expected the sentry to leave us, but he stood with his back to the gate and attended the courtroom until we had gone. He listened to everything I told Oliver about his wife and child.
I fumbled through it like a tactless fool, unkind and unrefined in every sense of myself. The comfort I had intended soon fell apart as I told the story of his loss. I choked on details I meant to ease, blushed and battered around the truth, but when I finished, the news was understood.
He asked if she was dead.
Oliver asked about the child. When I confirmed again, the combination of sadness and anger became a rage that overtook Oliver’s familiarly gentle features. I wanted desperately to comfort him, but there were no words. I settled for an apology. It came out pitifully weak, and he did not speak to accept it. I felt foolish, but could not take it back.
Oliver did not cry long. He stared at the gate, the whites of his eyes riddled with red spidery veins. I knew what thoughts he held. The idea of ripping open the gate to Gratis, breaking its lock and flying free into the fearsome night, was tempting. Part of me sympathized, but rationality told me the truth of things. Gratis at night is death to people like us, though the possibility of dying must have been appealing to Oliver in that moment.
This story I told Commander Edith was a truncated version of the truth. One that did not detail Oliver’s attack on Philip. I painted the sentry’s busted lip and marred face as an accident. He fell, I said, in the darkness as we left the courtroom. This lie, I prayed, was spoken by Oliver as well, for his sake and for mine. I did not know if Commander Edith had him in custody as well, or if his turn would follow mine. I only knew that we had agreed on this story from the beginning, practicing it once in the time since the attack and my interrogation.
Commander Edith’s eyes raked over me, searching for a sign of my dishonesty. My fingers itched to toy my shirt hem but I gripped them tight, unsure whether sitting motionless would appear more honest than fidgeting. She would not accept this answer, and I knew it. I knew it before I began to speak. I knew it four days ago when she brought me in for questioning. I knew it as soon as Oliver threw himself at Philip. I would not leave this room unscathed.
“There is something else.” I said to her quietly, my voice horse. “Something I need to confess.”
The Commander’s eyes lit up at this. She liked the sound of that word on my lips. Confess. Confess. Confess. She encouraged me to continue, sitting forward in her interrogation chair.
I thought back on that night, bringing forth truth from all the lies I had spun for her. It tasted bitter to speak such truths aloud, without even a speck of the sweetness I got from defiance, but this was my only option. “That night I considered doing something bad. Something I shouldn’t have-”
“Betrayal of thought,” the Commander said eagerly.
“Yes,” I confirmed, “It was. Despite the standards forbidding our contact, I thought it would not be wrong to place a hand on Oliver’s shoulder. It was for comfort purposes, and at the time I thought this was hardly offensive to Felle’s standards with the given circumstances. I now realize this was wrong.”
The Commander said nothing.
“I admit that I tried to keep this from you.”
She watched me in silence for a while before nodding, accepting my answer once and for all – as though another day of solitude had given me enough time to rid myself of any falsehood. I breathed deeply, flexing my fingers and setting them loose on the shirt hem. Commander Edith took note.
“What you thought was wrong, as was keeping it from me. Confession is the only way to redeem yourself from betrayal of thought.” The Commander paused. “Most deviants would never confess.”
I nodded, awaiting her judgement.
She studied me well, assessing every detail. I could hardly look at her, but I felt the quick motions of her reptilian eyes. “Four days in the quiet room,” she said, “seems time enough for reflection. Return to your work as usual and tell no one of your betrayal. It will all be forgotten.”
Someone beyond the quiet room walls had been listening. As Commander Edith made her statement, the door locks released. I did not know if I was meant to leave, or to await the Commander’s departure. Having watched me hesitate, she approached me. Circling, she continued to speak. “Childbirth is a troublesome thing,” she commented, eyeing me for response. From the tone of her voice, I knew what was expected. Obediently, I nodded my head, showing that I accepted her word as fact. If Commander Edith says it, then childbirth must truly be a troublesome thing. “Women die all the time. Infant mortality is unfortunate, but expected in these circumstances.”
This could have been the truth, but there was no way of knowing. My unfamiliarity with birthing made me dumb to the subject. This made me angry, but I simply went through the motion as cooly as manageable. I refrained from mentioning Oliver’s deviance, but my mind raced. Had he not the deformity in his fingers, would Ellie have been allowed to live? She had been common born, though the Commander’s opinion of her turned with Ellie’s betrayal of custom. She had so much potential, and may have lived well within the community if she only married a common man. Instead she challenged Felle’s standards, becoming involved with a deviant man. Pregnancy complicated these already dangerous matters. Better to say Ellie died giving birth than let the occupants know our government was willing to banish an innocent child. I knew this, without proof, to be the truth of the situation. Oliver knew it as well, and it was this knowledge that drove him to attack sentry Philip.
I wondered about the infant. What deviance had she shown to assure her mortality? These wonderings went unspeakable, of course. I simply muttered the great shame it was to have lost both.
Commander Edith smiled, pleased with my complacency.
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