The blue smoke cleared and nothing was left. Honor’s eyes flew open. As if coming from the cavern of her own mind, Honor heard Siti’s voice calling to her. A cool wind passed over Honor and then she saw a small white pinprick spot in the distance. Siti’s voice was further away now. “Come with me.”
A carpeted materialized in the blackness beneath Honor’s feet leading to the growing spot of light in the distance. Honor followed this carpeted path through a black void so heavy she felt as if her insides were thinning, her breaths came in thick heaves and each beat of her heart labored. When she felt it was too difficult to move forward, her legs too heavy to lift, she heard Siti’s voice come to her on a warm breath of air that like a giant gentle hand carried her forward.
“Come to me.” The small white light had grown into a portal and when Honor came to the end of this carpeted path she found that she had regained her strength and was able to step through. Moments later she found herself in a hall lit with hundreds of candles set into large screens that separated this large room into four sections.
Siti was standing next to her now. She wore a long loosely fitting dress of red and brown velour. Her head and shoulders were wrapped in black lace. Her cheeks were fuller and her russet skin had a healthy pink undertone. Siti’s mismatched eyes were made bright by the candlelight and she no longer seemed to be the sedate weathered woman she’d only moments ago seen in the underground tent.
“This is the sanctuary.” She spread her hands out in front of herself. “I am the keeper.” She walked forward and Honor followed.
“Much like the pilgrims of old who left Europe for the new world, we came here to Segher to avoid persecution, to worship as we see fit.” They crossed through one of the four sections of the massive enclosure. The thick lush carpet muffled their footsteps. “Each village on Segher has a square and each square has a sanctuary. In the sanctuary every faith has a place.”
“Yes, every faith. We are, after all, in the same boat, so to speak. Or, on the same world.” She chuckled softly, her voice made to sound warm and round by the dense carpet under foot. “At a time like this we can’t afford to be enemies to each other. Not like in the old days.” They passed into the foyer, the walls and floor overlaid in dark gleaming wood. Siti stood in the center of the foyer, her expectant gaze steady on the double doors leading outside to the square. Honor had the feeling that she had been here before.
“What are we waiting for?”
Siti whispered, “You’ll see.”
Honor felt her spirit recede from this scene as if she was no longer a part of it, but merely a bystander. To prove this, when Honor whispered back to Siti, “What will I see?” she received no response in reply. Siti behaved as if she was unable to hear Honor.
Seconds later a man wearing a crisp black suit entered through the double doors. He wore his wiry black hair pulled into a long braid at his back. He sat on a bench near the entrance and removed his shoes. He placed them neatly on the shelf next to a half a dozen other pairs. Then he turned his gaze on Siti. “I was wondering if you could help me.”
Siti inclined her head and took a step forward. “That is my station, brother. What can I do for you?”
“I was hoping to speak with the keeper of this sanctuary.”
“You have found her.” Siti smiled brightly. Honor marveled; Siti really was a beautiful woman. “I have just set the kettle to boil. Would you care to share a cup of tea while you explain your business here?”
The man matched her smile and followed her down the hall into a small austere office. He accepted a seat on a narrow wooden chair, crossed his legs and absently picked lint from his crisp slacks. Honor watched as Siti poured a cup of tea from a silver kettle that sat on a buffet along a wall beneath a window. The window overlooked a lawn dotted with small cottages. There were a few children running across the lawn, their giggles like bells that echoed back up to the sanctuary. Honor joined Siti, shared the scene, and something deep in her belly twanged with a numb hungry pain. Still oblivious to Honor’s continued presence, Siti left Honor standing at the window, handed the man the cup of tea and not having poured any for herself, and sat down in the chair opposite from him. She waited for him to speak.
Without tasting the tea, the man sat the cup down on the small end table next to the chair. “My name is McKinley. I am a Scientist from---“
McKinley’s eyes widened.
“Ah, don’t be surprised. We know our old terra mates when we see them. And certainly we know who the Supreme Scientist is. Hashimoto McKinley. You are the architect of the peace talks that got us this beautiful satellite on which we Believers get to live unmolested and able to worship as we please.”
McKinley smiled. “I can’t argue with the truth.”
“Good. Then let’s tell it.” Her smile never faltered. “While only named after the person who created the poison responsible for murdering and maiming our children, you can be credited for crafting the system used to disseminate it among the Believers. You’re a genius and you’re evil.”
“I see.” He sipped the tea this time.
Honor came forward, her eyes locked on McKinley’s face. He was sweating and the tendons of his jaw flexed beneath the surgically taut skin of his face. Honor decided in that moment that she liked this woman Siti. A lot.
Siti waved her hand, as if to wipe the slate clean. “You didn’t come here to listen to me blame you. Besides, what is done is done, right?” She didn’t wait for McKinley to answer. “Tell me, what have you come for? How can I help?”
McKinley cleared his throat. “I was hoping that we could rectify this wrong.” His voice was stiff.
Honor went to stand behind Siti. She leaned over and whispered into her ear, “He is lying. Can’t you see that?” But, Siti paid her no notice.
“We have come to realize the error,” he cleared his throat again, took another sip of the tea, “that we made. We would like to make amends, if at all possible, for the harm caused to the generations of Segherians due to the, uh…” He sipped again.
Siti crossed her legs. “You mean to say that you wish to make up for poisoning our people?”
McKinley nodded. His jaw muscles continued to flex. He spoke through his teeth. “Yes, that’s correct.”
“How do you plan to do that?” Siti clapped her hands together and leaned forward in the chair. “Don’t tell me. You Scientists have figured a way to reverse time. You plan to go backward in time and start over, perhaps by treating us like human beings.”
McKinley’s face shaded bright pink and his lips, set into a hard straight line, paled. “I beg your pardon?”
Siti burst into mirthless laughter. “It was a joke, Mr. McKinley. Considering what we have had to overcome, it is important that we keep our sense of humor. Wouldn’t you agree?” When McKinley didn’t respond she continued. “Please tell me how you wish to make amends.”
“We are interested in finding a cure for the afflictions of this poison.”
“But the affects are so varied. How would you do this?”
“By studying the affected children, we can determine the similarities in impairment.”
Siti’s eyes narrowed. “And, how would you do that?”
“Well, we’d need to sample the DNA of each of the affected children and even of the children who do not appear to be affected. In doing so, we may be able to determine the defect caused by this poison and then make the correction.”
“So, it’s not so much a poison as it is a biological agent.”
“Honestly, we didn’t know this at first. We thought it was benign.”
“A benign poison? Is there such a thing?” The smile that Siti had worn so effortlessly fell away like dust in a windstorm. “The plot thickens and the evil is worse than any of us could have imagined.”
Siti rose and stood by the window. She kept her back to McKinley. Honor went to stand over McKinley and watched him. She leaned down and passed a hand in front of his face. He couldn’t see her and had no sense that she was there, but she could feel his steady breaths on her face. The warm amber of his eyes did nothing to diminish the coldness beneath. Though he was unable to see her, to hurt her, Honor was afraid of this man.
Honor noted a slight shift in Siti emotions when she finally returned to her seat across from McKinley. “I will pray about this situation and then I will talk to our elders. If they agree, I will have our medics procure as many DNA samples as possible to help you find a cure.”
“But what if the elders don’t agree?” McKinley leaned forward. “I mean, they may not trust us.”
Siti shrugged her shoulders. “Then you are out of luck, and so are we.”
“Is that good enough for you?” challenged McKinley. “You are the keeper. You don’t have to depend on the elders to decide matters of this importance.”
“What would you have me do?”
He stressed it again. “You are the keeper. Remember? Keeper of All.”
Siti’s eyes dropped to her lap as she considered his words. Honor could tell that Siti knew full well what he was getting and she didn’t want Siti to give in. Finally Siti raised her eyes and looked at McKinley. Her bright smiling face had transformed, the angles of her cheeks and jaw more prominent, her full lips narrowed, her eyes suddenly matching the coldness in McKinley’s. He felt it too. McKinley stood and backed toward the door.
“You want me to give you the list of names, their locations, their afflictions.”
McKinley nodded. “Yes. We can help them.”
Siti’s smile returned, but it was different now. She approached McKinley, stood so that their noses were only inches apart. “I am one of the afflicted. Did you know?”
McKinley shook his head.
“I know everything.” Siti chuckled at McKinley’s obvious confusion. He took a step back, but Siti grabbed his wrist, preventing him from going any further.
She proceeded to sniff the air around him. The only movement he dared was to wipe the sheen of perspiration forming on his brow. “Everything that I see or touch or smell or hear remains with me forever.” She released McKinley and took a step back, smoothed her dress and straightened the scarf on her head. “Conceivably, if I were to meet you one day in a dark vacuum, I could identify you simply by touching your skin, or even less, by the smell of fear on you.” She threw her head back and laughed. “An affliction? A curse? Or a gift? Which one is it? Hmm?”
“This is tiresome. Will you help or not?”
“You think that I am keeper of a bunch of obscure documents and texts? You think that I have them hidden away in some secret place with a lock and key?” A vein throbbed in the center of Siti’s forehead. “We burned them before you arrived on Segher. Religious texts, birth records, census reports. ” She tapped her temple. “They’re all in here.”
“We only wanted to help your children. If you stand in the way of your own progress, then it is your loss. Not ours.”
“You lie. You want to take our children. Use them for something…I don’t know what. But you aren’t here to help us. More exploitation, that’s all. There is no goodness in you or any Scientist.”
McKinley turned and walked out of the office. Siti followed him down the hall back to the foyer. He sat on the bench and put his shoes back on. He stood. “What would we want with your diseased children? Can’t you take the gift of friendship we are trying to offer you Believers? Does everything have to be conspiracy theory?” He threw open the foyer doors and stepped out into the square.
Siti pointed out to the street. “Then what are the soldiers for?”
Honor caught sight of three lines of armor clad soldiers, each carrying an electro-compliance weapon.
A gust of bitter wind swept through the square and the scene in front of Honor blurred like water colors and then faded to black. Honor fell to her knees. The heavy thinning sensation returned and she struggled for her next breath, hand clutched to her chest, shivering as if her bones had been encased in ice. Just as quickly as the darkness had come, it receded into gray flickering shadows. Honor was able to make out the shapes of men and dull orbs of lights. The wind swirled around her again carrying the sour scent of sweat and acrid scent of laser singed skin. Voices drifted toward her…shouting, crying, pleading. It wasn’t until Honor heard Siti’s voice again, “Come with me,” that she realized she was kneeling next to her. No longer in the royal red and brown velour gown of the sanctuary, Siti was dressed in a black jumpsuit and black boots laced up to mid-calf. She had her own electro-compliance weapon strapped to her right hip. “Come with me,” she said again taking Honor by the arm and they ran along a street, empty, but for patrolling terra officers.
“Why are they here on Segher?” asked Honor.
“Looking for children like you.”
Muffled terrified screams echoed in the darkness, solidifying the chill in Honor’s bones, extending to her heart. Had Siti not been pulling her along, she doubted she would have been able to move because this internal chill weighed her down and fear as she could not ever recall experiencing in her life acted like cement in her very joints. They ran through the dark, along the shadowed sides of buildings, until they reached another sanctuary, smaller than the one they’d been in earlier, and entered through the back door.
They ran down a carpeted corridor. The only thing that Honor could hear was their breathing. Siti still had hold of her arm and her hand shook. They came to the end of a narrow hall and faced a wood paneled wall. Siti placed her palm upon the center panel and a narrow door set invisibly into the wall clicked open. They slipped into the darkness, but Honor could feel that they were not alone.
A tiny voice echoed in the pitch confines of the tiny room. “Siti? Is that you?” Something in the well of Honor’s heart tightened painfully. This voice was etched on her soul so deeply that she could hardly breathe, and yet, she could not name it or place it.
“It is me.” A light just above their heads came on, illuminating several small faces. Twelve children were cramped into the tight space beneath the sanctuary stairs, frightened eyes set into expectant faces, and they all looked lost. Some of them had been crying. Not one child appeared to be older than nine or ten.
Honor was now able to place the voice with the face. It was a boy with bright silver eyes. His face was so familiar as to create a painful longing in Honor’s gut. He spoke again, “I thought you had forgotten us.”
Siti looked down at him, stroked his face. “Only death would have kept me from here.”
“Will you send me to be with my sister?”
“I m afraid not, Truth. It is too dangerous to keep the two of you together. It was the original plan, but things have changed.” She glanced around the small enclosure, laying eyes on each child in turn. “ You all understand what is happening, don’t you?”
“The Scientists have come to take us away,” said the smallest girl.
Siti nodded. “Yes.”
“But why?” asked the boy called Truth.
Siti’s eyes filled with tears. “I cannot be sure. All I know is that we cannot let you be taken. You are all too precious to us.”
“Is that why you are sending us away?” a boy with a port wine birthmark on his left cheek asked.
Siti nodded. “Yes, you will go into the lion’s den, to your guardians to live until such time as---”
An explosion rocked the sanctuary, showering splintered wood and plaster onto their heads. Siti stretched out her arms and tried to gather all of the children in a feeble embrace. “We must hurry. I will help you all to shift.” She took Truth’s hand and told him…
Honor awoke from this vision of the past gasping for air. Her forehead was damp and she shivered, overcome by fear and a sense of helplessness that welled up until it spilled over as tears. She reached out blindly for something or someone to steady herself; for someone or something to hurt.
Siti’s voice came to her out of the fog. “Open your eyes, and for God’s sake, stop thrashing about.” Siti’s pressed her fingers into Honor’s temples and rubbed them. Her voice lowered into a soothing monotone. “It had to be done this way or else you wouldn’t have believed me.”
Honor’s eyes flew open. “Truth,” she gasped. “He is mine.”
Siti nodded. “Yes, he is.”