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The Cherry Heart

The Cherry Heart

By Nyle Kai

 

Text copyright 2016 Nyle Kai

All Rights Reserved

Shakespir Edition

 

To Steve, for the best advice I ever received.

 

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Epilogue

 

Prologue

The color of my heart is red. It is not the red of roses or sparkling cocktail dresses, but the red of blood and writhing guts. I have seen the darkness and then been reborn into the blinding light of revelation. I have lived through the terror of my own end and reawakened to life with the knowledge of my own immortal soul. This is the story of my rebirth.

Chapter 1

My first sense that there might be something brighter than ordinary life, something beyond what everyone around me considered to be real, came when I was sixteen. I had mostly kept to myself at school, taking my studies seriously and returning home to my parents’ apartment at The Dominion Complex to read dutifully from my prayer book. School was easy for me, and its courses in proper conduct and preparation for life among other members of my social status seemed to make a simple sense that I found comforting. As a member of the wealthy class, the expectations placed on me also seemed relatively simple: I was to marry a man of my choosing from one of the regular society balls that I would attend after my eighteenth birthday. I looked forward to married life, hoping to meet a man who would care for me in Voia City; he would be trained in all the expectations of civilized marital union from his own schooling. I felt prepared for my future, and largely content.

But the first crack in my destiny came when a classmate named Angelica invited me to go with her to the city park after school. Angelica was tall and lanky, with unorthodox cropped hair and a mischievous glint in her eye. I surprised myself by accepting her invitation, telling myself that it would be good for me to have a break in my routine and socialize a little bit. I had never thought of myself as being lonely before, but when she cracked a joke about my serious expression, poking me in the ribs, I laughed and felt a warmth in my chest that was new and somehow inviting. A void in my heart, one that I hadn’t even been aware of before that moment, was suddenly filled.

I was curious about Angelica’s life, since she seemed slightly different from the other students in my class. Children and adolescents were schooled only with other members of their own social status, so I knew that Angelica must have been from the wealthy class, but she seemed indifferent to the lessons somehow, as though she was more interested in staring at our handsome instructor, Mr. Carp, than in absorbing what she would need to know for adult life.

“Isn’t he good looking like a poet or an artist might have been from the old days?” Angelica crooned as we walked downhill, past the high rise buildings with lines of carefully manicured trees plotted along the sidewalk in front of their grand entrances. Doormen from the service class stood stoically in front of each high rise, pretending not to notice us as we passed.

“It’s not proper to speak of the old days,” I said, looking at my feet uncomfortably. My shoes then were simple sneakers, clean and white, one day to be replaced by fine high heels of the kind my mother wore. “Our state religion, Ereba forbids knowledge of the past.” I wasn’t sure what a poet or artist might have looked like, only that these were vocations abandoned since before Voia City was built. I was ashamed to know even that much, but adolescents were prone to curiosity, and once in a while they would sneak into the southern sector of the city, where deviants lived; often they returned having heard random facts about history, and would gleefully share these tidbits of information for illicit pleasure.

“You definitely need to get out more. Stop burying your perfectly shaped nose in your prayer books and do something crazy before you settle into an even duller life as a married woman,” Angelica said, laughing a high-pitched nasal laugh that was somewhere between cute and irritating. By then we were in the city park, where a few well-dressed women sat feeding birds from brown paper bags, passing the time gossiping before their husbands expected them home for dinner.

“Let the past go the way of the wanderer, and return home only when the journey is done. That’s Prayer 45,” I reminded Angelica, my voice wavering a little bit. “It means that we need not know anything of the past in this life, with knowledge awaiting us only in the next one.”

“You really have been spending too much time at home alone. Live a little,” Angelica said right into my ear. “Here, try some of this. My brother got it in the southern sector last week. I took some from a hiding place I found in his closet. It’s supposed to make people see spirits and the like.” She pulled three pale blue capsules from her jacket pocket and with them, a thin glass pipe with a small circular bowl at the end.

“Is that an intoxicant?” I asked, feeling my face tighten into a scowl. Intoxicants were strictly forbidden by Ereba, and those who dared to use them were known to disappear from normal society, probably to be relocated to the southern sector as deviants.

“It’s a drug called blue mist. It comes from the black market, but I heard a rumor that the high priests of Ereba take it themselves. So how bad could it be. You follow Ereba, don’t you?” Angelica cracked one of the capsules, releasing a blue powder into the bowl of the pipe. Then she struck a match, lit it to the pipe and inhaled. Her expression changed from the quizzical look she often wore to a rapturous glow. Her eyes glazed slightly, and she stared into the distance before passing the pipe to me.

I don’t know why I struck a match to the pipe and inhaled the blue smoke, except that I wanted Angelica to like me. In her company I felt lighter somehow, in touch with a part of myself that at sixteen was only just waking up. It was her sureness that drew me in, her sense that nothing could taint her exuberant appreciation of life. Angelica exuded a confidence that I lacked, and perhaps I thought that if I did what she did, then I could have some of her self-possession.

I felt my face slacken and my eyes widen as I exhaled the smoke. Then, beyond the trees of the park, I saw a bright light. A voice in my mind said, “We are with you, young Voian.” The voice sounded like a chorus of children, singing through the wind. “Secrets are to be found beyond your dimension. Watch carefully for the signs,” the voice continued. The bright light in the sky flashed yellow, then streaked upward beyond the clouds in a magnificent arc of color. It’s beautiful, like nothing I could have imagined to be true, I thought, my mind hurtling forward beyond time and space.

“Did you see that?” I asked Angelica.

She nodded her head placidly, staring in the direction of the cloud cover where the light had vanished. When she spoke, her voice was lower and softer, as though she was in some kind of trance, “They’re here, among us all the time. They just can’t break through yet. We have to wait.” Then Angelica went silent, dusted her slim black pants with her palms, and stood up, facing uphill towards the street where we’d entered the park.

We walked back to the school parking lot at a brisk pace. On the way I spotted a flock of blackbirds perched on the ledge of one of Voia’s tallest high rise apartment buildings. They turned their heads in unison to watch us pass below them on the sidewalk. Then one of them opened its beak, cried and lifted into the air, followed by the others with a great rustling of wings. I felt that this was a sign of my soul finding a new home up above, beyond Voia’s skyline to a realm I could only imagine to be filled with the light of holy wisdom. As the blackbirds passed in front of the sun, I saw a single bird drop from the sky, falling limp to the ground. There’s death ahead for me somehow, I thought. Something was suddenly wrong, something that could not be made right again by simple hope or prayer.

Angelica and I never saw each other again. The following day she did not appear at school, and there were rumors that her family had moved to another city sector. Then, there were whispers that Angelica had been picked up by enforcers as a deviant, and taken to an institution for the criminally insane. The feeling of dread that I had experienced at the sight of the dying blackbird returned when I thought of her bright smile and glinting eyes snuffed out in a white-walled institutional setting with locked doors and metal beds with straps on them for restraint. If it was the blue mist that had led to Angelica’s incarceration and the destruction of her family, then somehow I had been spared. I felt at once a sense of guilt and elation that I’d been protected from harm by an unseen force. If the bright light in the sky had seen me as I observed it with my own eyes that day, then perhaps it had influenced the enforcers to forget me even as they had come for Angelica with their shackles.

But eventually, the memory dimmed and I moved forward with my studies. At eighteen, I attended my maturation ceremony at the Temple of Ereba near my school. I swore to read my prayer book daily, avoid intoxicants and adhere to the expectations of my social status with good faith in the higher power called The Knowing. I understood that The Knowing would guide me through the rest of my days with its omniscient power and sometimes, rebuke me with the hand of its judgment. I pledged to stay in line with expectations, the shadow of Angelica serving as a warning to abide by Voia City’s laws as upheld by the Council and the high priests of Ereba.

Chapter 2

I was twenty years old when I met my future husband at one of the society balls held on the ground floor of my own apartment building. The Dominion Complex was fifty stories high, and Kim lived in the penthouse suite. He had a near constant smirk that unnerved me, but he was the wealthiest man to grant me his attention, and my father encouraged our union on practical grounds. “He will give you a good life in accordance with the tenets of Ereba. You will want for nothing and discover a good life among the upstanding citizens of our northern sector,” my father said over sparkling water and exotic seafood plates served to us by our housemaid, Gabby. The housemaid showed no expression as my father spoke, but when I caught her eye as she cleared the dishes from the table, she gave me a knowing smile, as though my future was bright with promise.

I married Kim six months later. At our union ceremony he presented my father with a gift of ten thousand coins in a sturdy wooden box with ornate gold plating at the corners. Kim was well schooled in tradition, and for that I forgave his occasional comments about my short stature and unpolished fingernails. As a married woman I began wearing my hair loose and long around my face instead of pulled back in the tight bun that had been the style during my schooling. Kim thought my hair looked too unruly that way, but I kept it loose for the feeling of being hidden. When my hair fell just near my eyes it formed a barrier between myself and other people so that I could easily avoid eye contact if I wished. I disliked casual conversation with my neighbors and often rushed past them in the building halls or on the street. They seemed stiff somehow, consumed with maintaining the image of perfectly ordered upper class life to the detriment of their good humor. I almost never saw one of my neighbors crack a joke or break into spontaneous laughter.

The thought of my former classmate, Angelica still haunted me at times. On those rare occasions I would retreat to my study and read my Ereba prayer book. It was a thin volume called The Book of Knowing with a series of numbered prayers on its crisp white pages. Prayer 12 read: “Do not place your individual will over the omniscient will of The Knowing, otherwise you may face unquenched thirst, unsatisfied hunger, and lack.” I wondered if Angelica was still living among the deviants in the southern sector of the city, and if she was, whether she was suffering in hunger and lack.

I felt that Angelica and I had entered a communion with something beyond what was commonly known to be real on that day we had smoked blue mist together. With that sense of otherworldly contact came an abiding suspicion that there was consciousness beyond the physical plane apart from The Knowing. Voices had spoken to me through the depths of my mind, and if they had originated in the bright light I’d seen in the sky, then perhaps they were still watching me. I secretly hoped that they were, and that they perhaps knew of a life more carefree and spirited than my own. Whenever I spotted a blackbird, I thought of it as a sign of my awakening and also of the omnipresence of dread for those of us who feared being labeled as deviant and sent in shackles to the southern sector.

Kim and I observed a regular routine each day, rising early for a light breakfast served to us on neat glass plates. We spent mornings reading The Voia City Press, discussing its frequent articles about the City Council’s plans to contain the problematic citizens of the southern sector and keep them from contaminating the well-ordered western, eastern and northern sectors with their deviant activities. Enforcers regularly patrolled the streets of every part of the city, and there was talk of a barricade to be built across the border of the southern sector to keep Voia City’s good citizens safe from harm. I suspected that the Council and the high priests of Ereba who advised them also aimed to monitor and prevent our exposure to illicit ideas such as explorations of pre-Voia history and to minimize our access to illicit mind-altering substances such as blue mist. Anything that could shake our otherwise stalwart faith in The Knowing and the tenets of Ereba (faith, truth and forgetting) was suspect and unwelcome on our normative citizen sector streets.

As Kim pontificated about “filthy deviants with no sense of life or goodness” I couldn’t help but cringe a little bit. My near brush with the enforcers’ unforgiving scrutiny at sixteen had imbued me with a sense of shame that I somehow could not totally suppress. Enforcers were known to knock on normative citizen’s doors without warning or apparent evidence to support guilt of deviant activities or possessions. The mystery of how they determined their arrests was never discussed in The Voia City Press. Yet while I lived in subtle, ongoing fear of the enforcers, Kim appeared ever confident in his upstanding status. He lived within the tenets and traditions of Ereba so tightly, that I supposed he thought his fate was unquestionably to live and die as a wealthy Voia citizen, his lavish penthouse apartment and comfortable lifestyle somehow granted to him by sheer virtue of his skill at adhering to the laws and expectations of our society.

In the afternoons, Kim and I attended community faith gatherings at the nearest Temple of Ereba, where the high priests would give lectures about The Knowing and how this higher power promised to guide us with its omniscience and invisible hand of judgment. Different high priests cycled through our local temple each day, and whether they were male or female, they all wore the same gleaming white suits with long jackets hanging to their thighs. Each gathering ended with the same advisory to “look upward to The Knowing, which is greater than yourself, but look down to the earth when you fear its hand of judgment and contemplate your errors with due faith that you may be punished.” Then the high priest would raise his or her right hand and give us a blessing, saying, “that you may be safe and secure in your adherence to the faith, and walk with heads held high this day you have pledged yourselves once again to The Knowing.” Kim sat with straight posture, his palms resting on his knees in his cushioned seat, his attention unfailingly on the high priest’s focused gaze. I could not help but slouch slightly, finding the lectures tiresome and repetitive. I counted the minutes to myself near the end of each gathering, waiting for my chance to exit to the street, where I’d be out of sight and out of mind to the members of the temple.

After our time at the Temple of Ereba, Kim and I frequently dined at a northern sector restaurant where the meals were large and rich with butter, heavy sauces and bitingly sweet desserts. One such evening, as I sat eating a plate of fried fish and salad greens, a man approached our table and grabbed my arm. “They’re watching us,” he said, his breath sour and his teeth yellowed. “You need to see the signs before they break through. Otherwise you’re in for a nasty surprise.” The man laughed a hysterical, agonized laugh that bordered on a scream. His denim jacket and work boots were layered with dirt, and his hair was long, falling in frizzy tendrils around his face. As the enforcers stormed in minutes later to arrest him, I realized that this was the first time I had seen a deviant with my own eyes.

“Continue enjoying your meals. The situation has been contained,” the restaurant host announced dutifully as I sat quaking in my chair. The man had torn the seam of my dress at the shoulder, and I could still smell the stink of his breath in the air. If Angelica was living among men like that in the southern sector, then was she safe at night in her bed, or did she feel fearful and watched all the time like an animal surrounded by predators in the forest? I put my fork and knife down on the table and waited for Kim to finish his meal. My appetite was gone, and I could do nothing to hide my sullen expression. To speak of signs and being watched, the man must have been a blue mist addict. His discolored face and bulging eyes had shown me a distinctly different side of blue mist intoxication. What seemed like revelation could turn to a dark lunacy from which there might be no escape. I swore to myself to try harder to uphold the tenets of Ereba and live a good life according to my prayer book, but the promise felt empty even as I left the restaurant, Kim’s hand in mine.

Two weeks later, Kim knocked on the door of my study as I sat reading The Book of Knowing. I heard the loud rapping and cringed, thinking that he must have been ready with another complaint about my table manners or appearance. But instead his words conveyed something much worse: Kim was considering a divorce. “After one year you have still not produced an heir for me. It would be well within tradition for me to sever our union at this point in time.” Kim stared me straight in the eye, his shock of black hair combed neatly away from his face, his blazer buttoned at his narrow waist, making him look stiff and formal, like our neighbors. “Consider that due warning,” Kim said, before turning to exit my study. He hadn’t given me an opportunity to respond. I realized that Kim did not particularly care what my fate might be as a divorced woman. If he did decide to sever our union, I might end up working in the service class, the shame barring me from wealthy Voia society. Marrying another man would not be an option for me, since by tradition divorced women were generally deemed infertile or too flawed for marital union.

I climbed into bed that night in tears, not knowing what lay ahead for me. I thought of Prayer 20 from The Book of Knowing: “The Knowing dictates your fate and guides you to a place where you feel no desire. This is the end to your suffering.” I thought that I should put aside my self-interested desire to stay married to Kim in our comfortable penthouse apartment, since my individual will meant little in light of the power of The Knowing. The higher power of The Knowing would decide the outcome of my situation for the better if I could detach myself from what I thought I wanted.

Still, as I felt the damp patch on my pillow against my cheek, I imagined a lonely life working in the service class and shuddered. I had no preparation for that life. Would I be able to make friends, or even survive? My parents’ housemaid, Gabby had seemed perfectly content, but I lacked her hardiness and practical sense. I might be too delicate, too weak-willed to know how to manage a life like hers. I didn’t know how to cook, or the difference between a mop and a broom. I was clumsy, and often broke things by accident. If I couldn’t fulfill work obligations in the service class as a divorced woman, then my fate might be even worse. I shuddered again and fell into a restless sleep.

Chapter 3

The next morning, I entered the dining room of our apartment to find Kim reading the morning newspaper contentedly, as though nothing unusual had transpired the previous evening. I wrapped my bathrobe tightly around my waist and sat down for breakfast, trying to contain my nervousness about our possible divorce.

“The enforcers came for Mr. and Mrs. Pettiman this morning,” Kim said casually, sipping his black coffee and straightening his paper. “I always had a suspicious feeling about that couple. I heard that Mrs. Pettiman was hiding a collection of ancient books in her study. She should have known better than to taint her mind with that filth.”

I sank into my chair, feeling a shiver of fear at the base of my spine. “What were the books she had in her possession?” I asked, trying to contain my curiosity. It would not have seemed appropriate for me to inquire about the nature of Mrs. Pettiman’s illicit possessions, but I felt suddenly emboldened by the precariousness of my own fate.

“Does it really matter?” Kim asked gruffly. “She defied one of the three tenets of Ereba. Wherever she is now, she would do well to meditate on the nature of her offense.”

“Faith, truth and forgetting are not for everyone,” I said. “Some people might find themselves burdened by questions about the past, and if they indulge that curiosity, it can’t be due to any defect severe enough to merit losing their homes and possibly their very lives.”

Kim flushed with anger, slapping the newspaper down on the table with a crack. Our glass breakfast plates shook for a moment, and his coffee cup balanced precariously on the edge of the table, about to crash to the floor. “When you understand why Mr. and Mrs. Pettiman have been relocated to the deviant sector of our city, then perhaps you will be more worthy of being my wife,” Kim said, his lips quivering in an expression of disgust.

“Oh but I do understand, Kim,” I shot back. “The enforcers and the Council think just like you do, and it’s a manner of thought that keeps us all hiding day in, day out. We’re afraid to speak of what is in our very hearts and it leaves us lonely even in a city teeming with loyal citizens.”

Kim pushed his coffee cup across the table, then delicately wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin. He looked at me with what could only have been pity, his gaze softening for a brief moment before turning hard again. “If it is your desire to speak your heart, then maybe you can speak it more freely in the deviant sector yourself. Is that what you want?”

I felt myself shriveling under that gaze, my body growing cold and limp. “Maybe I’ve made a mistake,” I said. “I won’t speak of this again.”

I retreated to the bedroom without finishing my meal. I had heard so many rumors about the deviant sector that painted it as a volatile place filled with violence, insane blue mist addicts and treacherous people preying on each other over coins and scraps of food. Whoever lived in the southern sector of Voia City suffered in lack, and if they turned to desperate measures to survive there, it was only by instinct, not by freedom of choice.

I stood in front of the bedroom mirror, brushing my hair, feeling the soft waves against my shoulders and neck. I did not want my neighbors to see me so afraid and out of sorts. The thought of them speculating about me as they had about Mrs. Pettiman before her arrest left me wary. Perhaps they already spoke of me in hushed tones of suspicion in the quiet seclusion of their own apartments at The Dominion Complex. I will never be like them, I thought. But I can pretend to be like them for as long as I have to. There is no other choice.

Chapter 4

At midnight I found myself awake as the digital clock by my bedside chimed softly to mark the hour. Just as I was about to close my eyes again, I saw a tall shadow by the window. I thought I might be imagining the shape of a man, but then the white linen curtains rustled a little bit as the shadow moved towards me. Seconds later, the stranger was at my side, hovering over me. Before I could scream, he placed his rough hand over my mouth. “Hush,” he said in a low voice. “Now hush and we won’t let you come to any harm. You must come with us now.”

Another figure emerged in the dim light of the doorway, moving towards Kim as he slept beside me. The man drove a yellow dart into the side of Kim’s neck, and Kim’s breathing slowed. The dart must have been a sedative, intended to keep him from waking. By instinct, I remained silent when the hand was removed from my mouth. I stood by the bed in my satin pyjamas, barefoot, watching the man’s black, gleaming eyes for a sign of what he might want from me. Dressed all in black, with close-cropped hair, he looked foreign. This man was not from Voia City. The dark color of his eyes was a sign of this, as Voians typically had blue or green eyes.

I took my copy of The Book of Knowing from the mahogany table at the edge of the bed as the three of us walked into the spacious living room of my apartment. In the light I could see a smattering of tiny, round scars on the first man’s cheeks, like a pattern of stars in the sky. He looked at me sternly, and touched the knife sheath suspended from his waist by a thick, leather belt. “The balcony. Come with us,” he said, not gruffly but softly, as though he was speaking to an innocent child.

I looked up towards the sky from the balcony as the cool night wind blew my hair in all directions around my face. “Hold on tight and you won’t get hurt,” the man with the scars said, placing my arms around his waist. He was powerfully built, without the soft layer of fat that Kim had around his belly. When he put his arm around me, grabbed a rope from above, and leapt from the balcony, I opened my mouth to yell out but heard only the beating of his feet against the building wall.

I was still mute from terror when we hit the ground, minutes later. To my astonishment, I still held The Book of Knowing in my right hand. We hurried into a silver car parked on the street. “What’s your name?” asked the shorter, smooth-faced man.

“Charlie,” I answered, hearing my own voice come out weakly.

“Charlie likes the book!” he said to his companion, laughing a deep, resonant laugh.

I glanced down at the book in my lap, and the words of Prayer 60 entered my mind: “What suffering you feel now is given by The Knowing. He is telling you to free yourself of the desire for what you cannot have.” The prayer suddenly made no sense to me. My suffering was as real as the men who had abducted me, as real as the blood rushing through my veins. If it was a message from The Knowing, then I struggled to accept that message as benevolent and true. In my moment of deepest fear, I thought of the light in the sky that I’d witnessed years earlier, the day I had broken the tenets of Ereba to smoke blue mist. Was it still watching over me? I placed my hand on the book and prayed to whoever or whatever had spoken to me that day to spare me from harm again. In my moment of desperation, I allowed myself to seek comfort in something apart from The Knowing. Whatever guilt I felt was dulled by the terror I felt at having been wrenched from my bed in the night.

We drove to the outskirts of Voia City at a quick speed, the driver singing along to the radio in a deep, baritone voice. I had heard of deviants listening to music with words to it, but only instrumental music played on Voia City radio, so he invented words to the sounds as he went along. He sang of nature, the warmth of the sun and the glowing moon at night. I felt oddly comforted by my captor’s lyrical words, then guilty for enjoying something deviant.

After twenty minutes, I saw the Marksgate Bridge up ahead. I had only heard of this bridge, but never dared approach it. I knew that it led to The Wilds, a dense forest area beyond Voia City’s boundaries where citizens entered only with military escorts. The Wilds was rumored to be too dangerous for ordinary Voians to enter alone. In school, I’d heard a deviant fable about a group of savages living there, practicing witchcraft and cannibalism, so filled with fury that they fought each other over the slightest offenses and killed any lone adventurer who dared enter from the city.

At the end of the bridge was a tall, locked steel gate. My two captors exited the car, and I saw the taller one press a series of buttons on a keypad mounted next to the gate. The steel structure swung open automatically. I sat in the back seat of the car with my palms pressed against my knees, shivering in the cool night air.

“Charlie, time to move. You come with us now.” The man patted my shoulder and motioned for me to get out of the car. As I stood, my knees buckled and I grabbed the man’s arm in order to steady myself. I could see that they planned to continue on foot through the gates and into The Wilds.

“I have no shoes. I can’t walk there,” I said, my voice trembling.

“You can. You will,” replied the man at my side. With that he gripped my arm and we walked over Voia City’s borders into The Wilds.

Chapter 5

The earth was moist and cold against the soles of my feet as we walked a dirt path through a forest so dense that I could not see the stars. My satin pyjamas gathered moisture from patches of dewy grass dotting the forest floor. I hugged myself as we walked. The two men hummed a song in harmony with one another, every so often singing out words in a language I had never heard before.

After perhaps an hour, we reached a small clearing. Several other men warmed their hands over a campfire. They had the same close-cropped hair, dark eyes and wore the same rough black clothing as the men who had taken me from my bed in Voia City. As we drew closer I saw that they were sharing a carved wooden pipe. The sweet odor of the smoke wafted over with the breeze, smelling of cinnamon and burning my nostrils slightly as I inhaled.

Two men began bickering at the sight of us, then they engaged in a skirmish over the campfire, one grabbing the other’s throat as he fended off blows to his chest and head. They tumbled to the ground, barely missing the fire, separating only after one man cried out for mercy. The winner of the fight approached my two captors, holding each of their hands. “You have her? Good. Let her rest in the tent now with a blanket. We want to preserve her in good health.”

Then the man surveyed me, smiling at my bare feet, displaying a large row of white teeth. His eyes glinted and his full lips drew back tighter. He looked predatory in the light of the fire. “My name is Bartho,” he said. “You are…?”

“My name is Charlie,” I replied.

“A man’s name for such a slight flower of a woman. How curious you are.” Bartho slapped his stomach and laughed heartily. Then he pointed to a large green tent a few feet from the fire. I understood that I was to follow his command and enter the tent. I glanced back at the tall coniferous trees beyond the clearing, their branches swaying slightly in the wind. Whatever lay beyond those trees was likely far more dangerous than what I endured here with these strange men. I did not dare try to run into The Wilds alone, which seemed so filled with unknown predators, insects and poisonous plant life that I doubted I would last there more than a single night.

The canvas flaps of the tent were heavy and moist, and I had to use both arms to move them aside so that I could enter the tent. I saw a man sitting cross-legged in a fine wool suit, rubbing his hands together and grimacing. When he saw me he stood suddenly, knocking his head against the roof of the tent. “They’ve taken you too?” he asked timidly.

“I think I’m here as a hostage,” I said, feeling the weight of my statement for the first time as I spoke the words.

“I’ve been here at least a month, though I’m not really sure of the date now; it could be longer. They took me from a parking lot outside the Municipal Bank, right across from the enforcers’ station.” The man wrung his hands together nervously. I noticed that his feet were bare and dirty.

“Why do you think they’re doing this?” I asked, afraid of the answer that might follow.

“As far as I know, they want to take Voia City for themselves. Now, that will never happen, and no official will be willing to pay a ransom. So if you ask me, I think we’re doomed.”

The man’s name was Peter, and he had worked as a teller at the Municipal Bank for twelve years. He had lived alone in a modest apartment in the western sector of Voia City, where the business and service classes lived. Peter told me that very likely nobody had reported him missing, and that his superior at the bank had by now replaced him with another teller rather than start an investigation into his disappearance. “I’m long forgotten now,” Peter said. “Let the past go the way of the wanderer, as they say…”

“I know the prayer. It’s here in my book, The Book of Knowing. You follow Ereba yourself?” I asked.

Peter at last relaxed his expression. “Ereba has been my touchstone for many years. A few people will tell you that the state religion is for conformists and simple minds, but such people are walking a fine line between skepticism and being labeled as deviants. And furthermore, the prayers kept me sane after my wife passed away prematurely. She was only thirty years old. She had a heart condition.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, hanging my head a little bit in honor of his deceased wife. Following the tradition of giving comfort to the grieving, I recited the appropriate Ereba prayer, “Let The Knowing have embraced her with its omniscient power and let it also have taken her beyond the veil to the light of truth.”

“It’s alright,” Peter smiled slightly, turning his eyes upward. “Peace is bestowed on those who embrace the truth as we know it in the present time. And let this truth strengthen us with its undeniable light.”

“That’s Prayer 40. I know it well. The way of the truth is the way to our freedom. I think that’s the next line…” I opened the book with my hand, looking for the passage. I was happy to have found another Voian in the terrifying wilderness, away from everything I had known before. If we could forge a subtle bond in the name of the state religion, then I was willing to indulge in the recitation of a few prayers with my fellow captive. But something about it felt false to me, the words sounding empty and robotic. I hoped that I might eventually be able to speak more genuinely to Peter, especially if we were going to face a longer ordeal together.

The page I had been reading just before my abduction was marked with a concert ticket. Kim and I had attended a performance by the Voia City Orchestra the week before. Kim had worn his tuxedo. I had consumed sparkling water in my favorite red evening dress. I felt a terror rising in my gut. I might never see that red dress again, or Kim, or our penthouse apartment at The Dominion Complex.

“Here, have some ground nuts,” Peter said, offering me a greyish paste in a small wooden bowl. “You’ll have to eat it with your fingers. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve learned to live without utensils in a month. You will be able to learn as well.”

“I expect that someone will come for me,” I said, feeling my words ring hollow in the damp tent. “The officials will have to notice me missing. My husband will file a report.” I scooped some of the paste into my mouth, feeling new hunger pangs at the scent of the food. I surprised myself by eating ravenously, until the paste was gone.

“Nobody will come. The Voia City Council will not want the populace to know that abductions into The Wilds are happening at all. They’ll keep all this quiet at any expense, even our very own lives,” Peter said mournfully. “I think we’ll have to just wait and see if the Jaguar People kill us or not.”

“Jaguar People?” I had never heard of any race of people with such a name. It intrigued me despite my fear.

“They have lived in The Wilds for at least a few centuries, maybe more. They worship the natural world and with it, the land itself. If they consider Voia City to be sacred ground, then they might be very persistent about trying to claim it, but without military force I really don’t see what they can accomplish towards that end. If they once inhabited Voia City’s land, then that would be ancient history, not really worth examining. Ereba teaches us not to look at history, and better to keep the faith now, even though we’re in The Wilds. Better that we just say our prayers and hope to live another day. When hope is dim, look upward to the sky and let its vast expanse guide you to the high power of The Knowing. Thus you will be spared.”

“That’s Prayer 21. I know it well. The Knowing guides us and watches over us always. We can at least count on that,” I said, holding my book in my hands.

Just then we heard a high screeching sound, followed by several low “Ha!” sounds from the men outside. I peeked through a tiny opening in the tent flap to see the Jaguar men passing a bowl in a circle around the fire. One of them caught my eye with his black, wide-eyed stare. He looked haunted, his mouth gaping. The man next to him vomited on the grass, turning his head to expel the liquid behind him. Then he began chanting in low, indecipherable syllables.

A hand reached through the opening of the tent flap and seized my wrist. It was Bartho. He drew me close to him and looked into my eyes, his face just inches from my own. “You cannot witness this without joining. Those who only look but do not taste are cursed,” he growled. Bartho’s breath smelled bitter and pungent, and his high forehead glistened with sweat. I watched his square white teeth as he spoke, afraid to look into his fiery black eyes.

I followed Bartho to the campfire, where the men sat clapping their hands or slapping their thighs, uttering low words I could not understand. I received the bowl of liquid as I sat down. The soupy substance inside was black as a beetle’s wing and gave off a bitter odor like the exotic leaves my housemaid at The Dominion Complex once used for cooking. I looked at Bartho, unsure what to do. “Drink,” he said. “See the spirits tonight and sleep tomorrow.”

When I sipped from the bowl, I immediately felt a burning sensation down my throat and to my guts. I felt a moment of paralysis, fearing that I might have consumed a deadly poison. My skin started to tingle and burn, and beads of sweat emerged from my forehead. My eyes widened and I gasped for air, beating my chest with my hand.

Then, the visions began. A writhing snake appeared in the fire with glistening white eyes and a darting pink tongue. It was shedding a layer of its black, scaly skin, the older skin gathering at its tail like a husk. The snake spoke to me with its mind: “You are with us now. You must pay witness to the beginning of time, the original light of the world. An animal soul arrived first on this planet. Humans see the light but they cannot fully grasp it. This light belongs to the animals. Remember it.” And then the snake vanished into the light of the fire.

I looked between the tall trees beyond the clearing to see humanlike figures with large white heads and round green eyes peering at me. Then came the voice, so familiar yet so alien, the chorus of childlike tones I’d heard in my mind at sixteen, the day I’d defied Ereba to smoke blue mist with Angelica: “We are the Bayli. We watch you from an alternate dimension beyond your time and space. We will tell you the truth, that you are not free. Watch for the signs of your ascension as you endure the pain of awakening. Listen to us with your energetic body, and see the clear light of truth unveiled.” The small humanlike figures were naked, with small spindly legs and long fingers. They moved more quickly than ordinary men, darting from tree to tree with the ease of wild animals. Their tiny nostrils flared over grimacing mouths, making them appear angry, yet I felt a friendliness in the tone of their thoughts. I felt a warmth of love in my chest as they communicated with me in telepathy, as though these beings cared deeply about my fate. They watched over me like parents over a tiny infant, with mixed anxiety and rapture.

Then I found myself staring at the campfire, my eyes awake to the brightness of it and my nose breathing hot air in rapid beats. The Jaguar men had grown silent, rolling their heads or leaning forward with their arms in their laps. The first light of day was beginning to shine in subtle rays through the trees. Several hours had passed, though it had only seemed like a few minutes. I must have emerged from a deep trance state, not to have noticed the passage of time. I looked for Bartho, but he was gone.

Peter was awake when I reentered the tent, my legs wobbling and my stomach queasy. “Well, what happened to you?” he asked, barely concealing his curiosity.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I drank what they gave me and I just lost track of time, I guess.” I did not want to talk to Peter about what I had seen. He would think I was a lunatic, or worse, he would be frightened if I described the visions to him. “Just go to sleep. I’ll tell you in the morning.”

Chapter 6

As I lay in my rough bed of blankets on the tent floor, the visions I’d seen by the campfire turned over and over in my mind. I felt afraid to sleep, anxious that they might return. The snake had been fearsome yet wise, but its words about paying witness to the beginning of time unnerved me. Everything I’d been taught to that point had led me to feel secure only when the past was forgotten. According to Ereba, thoughts of the past would only lead to distorted notions of the present, thereby tainting the future. I had never dared to imagine something so abstract as the beginning of time. I had hardly tried to imagine what there was before life in Voia City. I assumed that humans had always existed, without starting point or end. Perhaps animals existed before humans, but what power could they have, being just beasts?

I recalled the loving presence of the Bayli, the short, white-skinned men who had appeared in the forest and I hugged myself in my bed. If these were the same beings that had spoken to me when I was sixteen, the day I’d smoked blue mist, then they were somehow as real as I was. I had witnessed them with my own eyes. Whatever they had meant to tell me about my freedom, I wasn’t sure. Their words carried a weight greater than what could describe my captivity among the Jaguar People. Perhaps there was some liberating truth that they had yet to share with me. I shivered in the cool night, picturing their taut, pale faces in my mind, trying to stifle my own curiosity. Ereba had taught me the dangers of peeking beyond the veils of dogma that held Voian society together. I feared these strange beings for what they might reveal to me, yet took comfort in their presence.

I lay still in the tent until I heard the first sounds of movement outside. Jaguar men began to walk near the tent, their shadows tall and angular against the green canvas. I looked over at Peter to see him sound asleep, his fist curled against his mouth, his eyes moving from side to side beneath his eyelids. Whatever he might be dreaming, it was better than what he was suffering here among these strange people.

Bartho poked his head through the tent flap and said, “Time to move. We’re traveling now. Get up.” His skin was rough and pale in the daylight. I could see the thin line of a scar across his left cheek, pink and grooved against the white of his skin. His eyes were now sharp with alertness, no longer glazed and distant as I’d seen them the previous night as we had sipped the potent black brew together.

My feet were cold and caked with dirt, and my pyjamas were damp and stained with grass marks. I clutched my copy of The Book of Knowing and stood up. Then I opened the green volume to a random page, as I sometimes did in moments of worry. Prayer 67 read: “Let the presence of The Knowing be your guide through the dark of indecision. It sees all, knows all, and hears your thoughts. Only The Knowing can foretell the future and lead you to the clear light of truth.” If The Knowing could hear my thoughts and was witness to my life, then what would it think of my visions of the snake spirit and the Bayli? Would I be punished for having taken an intoxicant? Even as I harbored doubts about its power, I feared The Knowing’s hand of judgment, wondering what bad fortune might come to me because of what I had done.

I emerged from the tent rubbing my eyes, as the light of mid-morning shone in dusty rays through the tree tops. I could hear the sounds of birds calling from one end of the forest to another, their songs high and echoing across the vastness of The Wilds. The campfire was now a pile of ashes at the center of the clearing. There were perhaps ten Jaguar men assembling packs for travel, mulling around, or skirmishing with each other. I had never seen men fight each other before, and the violence startled me. Voian men did not so much as pat each other on the shoulder. Perhaps in the southern sector, where deviants lived, there was violence, but I had never dared to imagine it.

Two men took down the tent and folded it into a pack. I heard one of them comment, “Useless Voians, can’t even lower a tent in broad daylight. What will we do with them?” The other nodded silently, continuing his work. He was shorter than the others, but far bulkier. As I looked over, he smiled at me compassionately. So I saw that I wasn’t wholly the enemy to these people, perhaps merely an inconvenience to some or an object of curiosity.

I could see that the men were preparing to move to a new location, perhaps further into The Wilds. I shuddered at the thought of walking again, then steeled myself. As I sat on a large rock, waiting, Peter wandered over to me. “Did you sleep well last night?” Peter asked, lifting his knees as if to warm his joints for the day ahead. I could see that he was trying to put up a strong front, but I noticed the trembling of his thin pink lips and knew that he was as afraid as I was.

“I didn’t sleep. Too nervous, I guess,” I replied.

“Well that’ll change as soon as you get used to all this. I slept like a baby, myself. Never missed a good night’s rest back home, though it wouldn’t be right to speak of that old life. All we have is the present, after all.” Peter placed a cold hand on my shoulder, intending to comfort me; but instead I felt unnerved. He was trying too hard to seem relaxed and confident, which only emphasized how fearful he truly was underneath.

Chapter 7

As we left the clearing, the Jaguar men walked single file along a dirt path through the dense forest. Peter and I walked at the rear, with Bartho behind us. “So, what did you see after you drank from the Verdu cup?” Bartho asked me, gazing up towards the treetops, driving a long walking stick into the dirt in steady beats.

“Last night?” I asked, feeling uneasy already. I had defied Ereba and The Knowing a second time by taking an intoxicant. I thought that if I wanted to avoid a severe punishment, then it might be better to try to put the experience behind me.

But Bartho persisted, “What other night could there be?” he proclaimed with a laugh. “You drank, correct? So then you saw the spirits; to be certain, you did.”

Bartho was taller than I was by a foot or more. He strode along easily on long, powerful legs. I wondered whether he would hurt me if he saw reason to do so. I had already seen him fight another Jaguar man. If these people were violent in their ways, it might be best to indulge them a little bit. “I saw a snake in the fire,” I answered quietly, my voice barely above a whisper. “And tiny pale men in the forest with large green eyes. They called themselves the Bayli.”

“Ah!” Bartho stopped walking for a moment, shaking his fist at the sky with enthusiasm. “You have seen the great father snake spirit. You are so chosen, then. Only a very old soul may witness the snake spirit. He is the wisest and oldest of the spirit talkers. Your soul is mighty then, for a simple Voian woman.”

Then Bartho knew of the snake, and believed it to be as real as anything in the ordinary world. Peter had told me that Jaguar People worshipped nature. Then perhaps Bartho would understand what the snake spirit meant when it said that the animals held the original light of creation. If Jaguar People regularly consumed this drink called Verdu, and they were communing with beings beyond the physical realm, then knowledge of these spirits might be a way for me to gain their favor, and help ensure my safety, at least for a time.

“The snake told me that the original light of the world belongs to the animals. Do you know this to be true?” I asked, glancing over at Peter to see whether he was listening. But Peter was keeping a steady pace just ahead of me, fixed on the trail ahead and lost in his own thoughts.

“Yes. This is the truth,” Bartho said solemnly. “Animals have more spiritual power than any human man or woman. They know the wisdom of the origin in their bodies and souls. As Jaguar People, we are mere custodians of the land, waiting to receive lesser wisdom through Verdu.”

“My faith forbids the use of intoxicants,” I said. “I have defied Ereba twice now…”

“But your god is apart from nature, so he cannot be powerful enough to punish you here. We Jaguar men have seen your city. There is nothing natural about it. Whatever god your people worship is as unnatural as your steel buildings and rigid customs. Here, among the planet’s custodians, you have nothing to fear from that god of steel and blindness.”

“Blindness to what?” I asked. I felt defensive about my faith. After all, it had guided me since my earliest memory.

“To this!” Bartho exclaimed, beating his fist against his chest, just over his heart. “What we know in our hearts is all the truth we need in order to live in health and prosperity. A man blind to his heart is not a real man at all, but a phantom. A weak phantom of a man can only draw the evil spirit talkers to the fire if he takes Verdu.” Bartho looked dubiously at Peter, who walked in step with the man ahead of him, his eyes fixed on his own feet. “But you, Charlie, are strong. I knew it when I first looked into your eyes.”

“And then what about the pale men in the forest? The men with large green eyes, calling themselves Bayli?” I inquired, my curiosity growing.

“The Bayli are the youngest spirits of the other realm. They appear to us to give us news of the future, and sometimes gifts of technology. From the Bayli we have learned of the fall of your city, to take place sometime in the coming year. Then, on that sacred ground called Voia, we Jaguar People may mark a new beginning for our kind. This is what the elders tell us. I believe it.” Bartho glanced at me sideways, appearing to survey my expression for signs of fear at the news that Voia City was to fall. But I remained stoic, unsure whether it might be true or not. I pictured Kim in our penthouse apartment at The Dominion Complex, hiding from unknown invaders or some cataclysmic natural disaster. Kim might have been well schooled in Voian tradition and knowledgeable about how to maintain his status as a man of the upper class, but he was not a courageous man. If Kim had anything in his heart, it was counted in gold coins.

Bartho reached into a pocket in his shirt, producing a thin silver device, about the size of a playing card. It glowed in his hand, and as I moved closer I could see that it had a screen dotted with various colored symbols. “This was a gift to me from the Bayli when I saw them the first time,” Bartho said. “It tells the answers to my questions. It is called an Info-graph.” The symbols on the screen looked like crudely drawn animals or strange round symbols with dots and dashes inside them, like a foreign script. When Bartho touched a circular symbol with his finger, the face of a Bayli man appeared, over a long series of dots and dashes.

“What do those symbols mean, under the Bayli face?” I asked. If the Bayli could cross into this dimension well enough to impart such technology to the Jaguar People, then why hadn’t they shown themselves in Voia City? Surely the manifestation of an alien race among Voians would cause mass panic and disorder. Perhaps the Bayli had reasons to remain hidden to Voians, and the chaos that would be caused by their arrival was one such reason.

“Only the elders can decipher their language,” Bartho replied. “You may ask one of them when we reach the village.” I felt a chill run down my spine. The Bayli were clearly as real as any Jaguar man or Voian. If they had predicted the fall of Voia City, then there might be some truth to their words. But were they watching over us passively, or did they have some power to help us? Would everything I had known of life to that point, my home and culture, the rules I had lived by since infancy all turn to dust? My union with Kim was likely over, but the thought of having no city to return to was terrifying. Once again, I found no relief in prayer to The Knowing. I looked to the sky, half hoping to see a bright light, to hear the voice of the Bayli once again.

Chapter 8

After several hours on foot, our walking party reached the Jaguar village. Several simple huts made of wood stood around a large central building with tall carved pillars on each side of the entrance. For the first time I saw women of the Jaguar kind, dressed in the same rough black clothing. Their hair was worn braided in ornate patterns over their heads, woven with colored string in reds, yellows and blues. One woman spotted us, then rushed inside a wooden hut. The others followed suit as we entered the village grounds.

Several Jaguar men who had been carving large blocks of wood stopped their activity to watch us. I saw a man among them with smooth skin and soft sea-green eyes like a Voian, but he wore the same black clothing and his hair was cropped short like his Jaguar companions. The man stared openly at me as our party approached, then, catching himself in his rudeness, he cast his eyes to the ground. He was shorter than the other men, but muscular. Around his neck he wore a gold chain with an amulet in the shape of the sun. I stared back at him, wondering who he was.

“It’s time to meet the elders,” Bartho said, standing up straight so that I had to crane my neck even more to look at his face. His black eyes had turned harder, more calculating, as though a serious issue was at hand. I backed up, bumping into Peter, who had been surveying the grounds of the village with curiosity.

“Best of luck to us,” Peter said with dismay. “It might only get worse. Who knows what they’re going to decide to do with us. They might just string us up from the trees and leave us to twist in the wind. There’s no telling anymore.”

“We might get some answers,” I shot back impatiently. I was growing tired of Peter’s sour attitude. It was only feeding my fear. I wanted to remain calm enough to find out the truth of our situation, and I didn’t want Peter to drag me down in despair.

We entered the large building at the center of the village. As we walked up the steps to the entrance, I noticed the carvings decorating its pillars. Animal forms such as birds, snakes and big cats were carved in solid wood, with gaping ferocious jaws and large, slanted eyes. Polished stones decorated the eyes to make them shine and seem more lifelike.

“This is the meeting house of the elders,” Bartho declared somberly. “We respect the old and the wise of our people. We do not shut them away in silence as you Voians do.” It was true that elderly Voian citizens were sent to special housing facilities, away from ordinary city life. Their time of utility having run out, they were segregated from those who worked hard at maintaining the business of the city. I assumed that housing for the elderly of Voia City was compassionately run, although I had never visited such a facility.

The inside of the meeting house was decorated with braided rugs and colorful wall hangings. A large hanging on the back wall bore the image of a raven with four wings and four eyes. The black bird stood on a large yellow spherical object. Beneath it was a black snake, much like the one I had seen in my vision the previous night. Four elderly men sat on the floor, playing a game with crude wooden dice. They laughed and gesticulated at one another, enjoying the game and slapping each other on the back with each roll of the dice. Bartho cleared his throat and announced our names. After a moment, the elders paused to look at us.

“She’s very delicate, just like a city woman would be,” said the elder in the center of the group. He had a trimmed grey beard and he sat shirtless, his slight belly protruding over loose grey pants of soft fabric. His eyes were black like those of the younger Jaguar men, but they were yellowed at the edges. The man looked fierce despite his old age. His arms were muscled and lithe, so that I could see the outlines of his tendons as he moved.

Then the old man turned to me and spoke, “Your city is about to fall, as we have heard from the Bayli. You are much safer here than in your original home. Be thankful and join us.”

“I don’t see how a couple of hostages will gain you control of Voia City,” I declared, feeling impatient. “Let us go back to our homes. My husband will pay you however much you want.” I knew in my heart that I was bluffing. Kim would do no such thing for me. Liar, I thought to myself, a coldness seeping into my chest.

“We have little use for your money,” the elder said, touching his beard and chuckling softly. “The Bayli give us what we need to survive in The Wilds. All they ask is that we follow their instructions. We received a Bayli message to take ten Voian citizens from the city. In return for this simple task, we will regain an ancient treasure that is waiting underground in Voia City. The land you so confidently believe is yours was once the spiritual and political center of all our people.”

“Why not ask the Bayli for the treasure?” I asked.

“It is too sacred to be moved from its location. The orb that speaks of ancient wisdom, that once united the Jaguar People, sits in an underground chamber just north of the Voia River. It cannot be touched, much less carried by any man. You can see the orb pictured behind me, underneath the raven’s wings.”

“If you have lived so long without this orb, then why would you need it now?” I realized that the Jaguar People had no intention of trying to gain a ransom or using our capture as political leverage in Voia City. They had simply followed the instructions of the Bayli, spirit men or alien beings from another dimension that spoke to them under the influence the intoxicant called Verdu. It would be more difficult for me to reason with them to allow me back to Voia City than I had thought.

“The year 5550 is approaching in less than twelve months’ time. One thousand years ago, the Jaguar People inhabited the land you now call Voia City. The year 4550 was the mark of a new dawn for us, as the Bayli appeared on the land in great flying ships with what we thought was a mission of peace and goodwill. They gave us the orb, which spoke to us with wisdom of past, present and future. It warned us of dangers and taught us how to work the land for abundant food and water. Then, we realized that the Bayli intended to take some of our women for breeding purposes. Their line had grown feeble, and their numbers were decreasing. Several Jaguar women were taken into their ships to birth a new line of human forms, combining Jaguar hardiness with Bayli intelligence and lifespan.”

The elder continued, lighting a slim wooden pipe and drawing the sweet smoke into his lungs, “The first of these new human forms were educated by the Bayli, but they grew arrogant, wanting to take dominion over all the people of the land. They did not appreciate natural wisdom, and their lust for power overcame any loyalty they may have had to their Jaguar mothers. They seized the orb for themselves and used its power to force us into servitude. Without it we were directionless. Some Jaguar People fled into The Wilds, while others stayed behind, forced to build a great city over which the first children of the Bayli would have dominion. This city is what you now call Voia.”

“And where did the Bayli go during that time?” I asked. “Why haven’t they made themselves known in the open since then?”

“The Bayli considered their breeding experiment to be a failure. They abandoned Voia and the new line of human forms they had created, promising to return in the future with a new attempt to continue their race. The year of their return was to be 5550, according to the ancient stories, and our communion with the Bayli through the Verdu drink confirms this date.”

“Do you mean to tell me that all Voia City’s people are the result of this breeding experiment?” I stood straight in front of the elder, balling my hands into fists. The weight of the elder’s story was bearing on me heavily.

“Yes, this is what I am saying,” the elder said, exhaling another plume of smoke from his pipe. He stood then, approaching me to place a gnarled hand on my shoulder. As he looked into my eyes, he said, “And as this failed experiment comes to a close with the destruction of your city, you and nine other Voians may be the only survivors of that line.”

Chapter 9

As we exited the meeting house, Peter stared at me in disbelief, “The old man is clearly mistaken. In Voia City he would be incarcerated as a deviant. Did you look into his eyes? He’s not the man I want to leave with my fate in his hands. The Bayli aren’t real. None of what he said was real. We’re at the mercy of lunatics.”

“Just be patient,” I said. “We’re among strange people, in a foreign place. We can’t run because neither of us would survive a night in The Wilds on our own. And we have no way of knowing whether his story might have truth to it or not.”

“Then you believe in aliens and flying ships? You dare to listen to deviant stories about our past? You must be straying from Ereba under these fearful conditions. The Knowing is all we have for guidance. Turning your back on it now is not a wise idea, Charlie.” Peter looked dismayed for a moment, then glanced around the village grounds nervously.

“I might have seen something unusual on the first night of my captivity, after I drank with the Jaguar men. I didn’t know that it was an intoxicant until after I had already swallowed a few sips. If the Bayli are real, then the elder is merely telling us what they’ve imparted to him.” I tried to look into Peter’s eyes for a sign that he might believe, but there was nothing but a cold look of resolution.

“You have defied Ereba with an intoxicant?” Peter spat out the words, closing his hand around my arm. “I can’t be a part of that. I’m sorry, but you’re on your own now.” Peter left me then, walking to the edge of the village. I saw two Jaguar men follow him with their eyes as he sat on a rock to stew in his outrage. They would hold us until they saw a reason to send us back to Voia, or perhaps they would never see any reason to allow us back to our homes. Our fates were in the hands of the elders and the Bayli, and both were as unpredictable as the animals that roamed The Wilds. If I had not seen the Bayli with my own eyes, I might not believe it, but I had seen them. Nothing could change that.

I glanced back at the group of men outside the meeting house to see the same strange man with the Voian green eyes and the sun amulet. His prominent cheekbones made him handsome in the fading sunlight. He looked at me again, his gaze fixed on mine without hesitancy or consideration for propriety. This time I stared back at him, flashing anger. Did he not care about my predicament? It was rude to stare at the unfortunate. If the man were truly Voian, he would have known this.

Bartho’s deep voice came from behind me, echoing like a thunderclap, “Jason, over there. Get the lady some food and water.” The man with the green eyes stood, walked to the fire in the center of the village, and gestured for me to go to him.

If he was going to ignore proper manners, I decided that I would do the same. “You look Voian,” I said. “What are you doing here dressed as a Jaguar man?”

“I’m not Voian anymore,” Jason replied a little indignantly.

“Then you were once,” I insisted, meeting his eyes with mine.

“I’m not a captive like you are. I came to The Wilds of my own accord five years ago. Just walked across the bridge, scaled the gate and found my way to a better life. You can learn to like it here too, if you try to keep an open mind. Difficult for you Voian citizens, I know. You’re not very open to thinking beyond dogma, are you now?” Jason reached behind him for some vegetables and began roasting them over the fire on a stick.

“If by dogma, you mean The Book of Knowing, then yes, I follow it. What’s wrong with that?” I was beginning to get angrier, but I was also hungry and the vegetables smelled appealing in the fire.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ereba or its book,” Jason said. “It’s just brainwashing. Some people are happier if they’re brainwashed. I, on the other hand, like my freedom.”

“Then what did you do in Voia City before you so bravely ran here to The Wilds?” I asked.

“I was a janitor at one of the temples of Ereba. You’d be amazed at what a lowly janitor might overhear to inspire him to seek a true education and become a man of the planet. The high priests have access to the history texts, unlike any other citizen of Voia. Didn’t you ever find that strange?”

“No,” I said. “The high priests of Ereba guard our history with their superior wisdom. It’s dangerous for ordinary citizens to look to the past. Perception would be clouded.” I realized that I was blindly reciting what I had thought before my vision of the Bayli under the influence of Verdu, before the elder had told me that I was the result of a failed breeding experiment.

“That’s what you think, but did you ever wonder whether there might be something in the past worth finding out?” Jason handed me the roasted vegetables with one hand and pushed a tomato into his mouth with the other. “Let me put it to you this way: you might not be at all who you think you are. You might be someone completely different. And on the day that you find out your true identity, you might be inspired to drop everything you had before and seek a better life.”

“Like I might find out that we Voians are descended from Bayli fathers and Jaguar mothers as part of a breeding experiment deemed a failure?” I saw the look of surprise cross Jason’s face as I spoke, but only for an instant. Then his expression returned to the easy smile he’d worn before.

“I see you’ve heard the story as told by our elders,” Jason said. “Do you believe it?”

“Not completely,” I admitted. “But I’ve seen the Bayli for myself. I drank Verdu last night. I may not be able to call myself a follower of Ereba after that.”

“You may not want to, after you find out the truth about the high priests,” Jason said, standing. As he walked away I saw him glance back at me, smiling again, the sun illuminating his bright green eyes.

Chapter 10

That night I slept in one of the village huts with Peter against an opposite wall, and Bartho resting near the door. It seemed that Bartho had taken a special interest in me since I had revealed my visions of the snake spirit and the Bayli to him. If what the elder had said was true, that they intended to take ten Voian citizens from the city, then other captives might arrive soon to the village. The thought of Voia City falling to ruin seemed near impossible to me, but a haunting vision of its streets dark and empty rose in my mind like a flock of blackbirds lifting into the sky, eclipsing the sun. If I was chosen to survive, then what would be the purpose of my existence among the Jaguar People?

I wrapped myself in my blankets and tried to sleep, but racing thoughts kept me awake. I turned over on the hard mat that was my bed, looking at Peter. He seemed so contented in his sleep. Nobody would guess how anxious and fearful he was when he wasn’t dreaming. He hadn’t tasted the exotic brew called Verdu that had allowed me to see the Bayli for myself. Maybe if he were allowed to try it, his perceptions might change. But then I remembered what Bartho had said about the dangers of taking Verdu if a person might be blind to their heart. Peter might not be strong enough to see the same visions that I had seen. I had to accept that he wanted to distance himself from me since I had defied Ereba. If his faith in The Knowing kept him strong, I thought, then let him have it to ease his suffering. I had questions though, and my mind swam with confusion. If I could not rely on Ereba to keep me strong, then I would have to find something else.

Finally, I could not bear to lie in bed any longer. I rose and walked towards the door, careful not to rouse Bartho from his sleep. The door creaked as I opened it, but Bartho continued snoring loudly, his head resting in the crook of his arm. I walked out into the night, looking up at the stars that winked white against the clear night sky. The air was cool after sunset, just as it had been in Voia City.

“You should know better than to wander in the night alone,” a voice said. It was Jason, standing over the ashes of the campfire, exactly where he had been the day before. His bright green eyes shone in the moonlight, and his thin lips turned up in a slight smile.

“I’m not wandering,” I said, feeling self-conscious. I was still wearing the same satin pyjamas I’d worn on the night of my abduction from my bed in Voia City. They hardly seemed appropriate there in The Wilds.

“I brought you a present,” Jason said. “Here, have some decent clothes. As long as you don’t mind looking like one of the natives.” He held two black items folded neatly in his hand. I assumed they were a set of cotton pants and a shirt, like those worn by the women of the village.

“Thank you,” I said. I took the clothing and turned to go back inside the wooden hut where I’d made my bed.

“Wait, let me tell you something before you go…” Jason looked suddenly serious. His green eyes narrowed.

“Alright,” I answered. “I owe you for the clothing.”

“You don’t owe me anything. Now, listen to me. I want you to forget that Voia City ever existed. Do you think you can do that?”

“I have a home there, and a husband. I hardly think I can forget my home.”

“It’s not the place you think it is. It has a lot of dark secrets. Those secrets were the reason I left Voia City five years ago to come here. I learned the truth and I ran for my life. Aren’t you curious what that truth might be?” Jason studied me now, his eyes shifting from side to side. He seemed suddenly nervous, less confident than he had before. I could see that something inside him was building tension, something that he would eventually feel a need to express. I didn’t think I wanted to hear it, though.

“You don’t necessarily know the truth,” I said. “Maybe you misinterpreted something you heard.”

“The high priests of Ereba very likely know that you’re here among us, in The Wilds. They have their ways of finding things out. If you ever did go back to Voia City, they might try to keep you silent about all of this. They might not let you live.”

“The high priests of Ereba guide all citizens of Voia City to the light of truth. They are taught the dogma personally by the higher power of The Knowing. They would never harm me.” I was simply reciting what I had heard all my life, but even as the words escaped my lips, I felt a sliver of doubt easing its way into my thoughts. The story that the Jaguar elder had told us about the origins of Voia City haunted me. It might not have been true, but I had seen the Bayli with my own eyes. If these strange beings were our original ancestors, then there might be other secrets hidden in the temples of Ereba just as Jason said there were. Liar, I thought to myself again. Tell him the truth, that you doubt everything now. But I did not share my true feelings with him. Instead, I stood silent, watching the blinking stars against the cold night sky, its infinite blackness like the lonely ache in my heart.

Jason grimaced with frustration. I could see that my words were irritating him. When he spoke again, it was not much above a whisper, but I heard him clearly, “One day you’ll know how much of what you’ve been told all your life is just a fairy tale designed to keep you from ever looking beyond your own nose. And I hope you see the truth soon enough to protect yourself from it.”

I turned and walked back to the hut, frightened by the intensity of what I’d just heard. As I placed the items of clothing on the floor next to my sleeping mat, I noticed the weight of a small object in the shirt pocket. I reached into the pocket to find a small, silver Info-graph, just like the one Bartho had shown to me. I pressed several of the buttons on its surface, until the screen glowed with a display of multicolored symbols. I touched a symbol that looked like a red, coiled snake. Then a large body of text scrolled across the screen in a foreign script with dots and line patterns. A single section was written in my own language: “Let the light of truth guide them not to freedom, but to their own destruction. So it was said in the halls of the temple.”

Then, the face of a big cat appeared on the screen, underneath a pair of twisted strings linked together with strokes of red, green, blue and yellow. I recognized the image of the twisted strings from a page in The Book of Knowing. It was located next to the final prayer of the book, Prayer 101: “The Knowing is the higher power that provides us with the strength to continue forward without pain or doubt. Our future is in absolute faith that a sign will appear to the willing on the day of closure.” I had read this prayer before, but I had never thought much of it. Nobody I had known in Voia City had ever spoken of this day of closure. It was probably thought to be an esoteric piece of dogma better left to the high priests for interpretation.

The images on the screen continued to change, the big cat merging with the twisted strings. A Voian man and woman appeared, dressed in plain white clothing. Then they morphed to become shorter, their heads and eyes growing larger until they appeared as the Bayli men I’d seen in my Verdu vision and on Bartho’s Info-graph. The screen flashed white, then only the big cat remained, standing on its hind legs with the head and hands of a human man. I watched transfixed, yet unable to make sense of the images. The last flash of the screen revealed an image of Voia City, with a round metal object in the sky over the City Towers where officials and high priests performed their business. The streets were empty and the windows of the City Towers were black, as though the building had been abandoned.

Bartho stirred in his bed. In a panic, I pressed the buttons on the surface of the Info-graph until the device turned off. I turned to face the wall, removed my pyjamas and dressed myself in the black clothing that Jason had given to me. The Info-graph fit neatly in the shirt pocket, perfectly concealed. I forced myself to rest in my bed for the remainder of the night, though sleep did not find me willing.

Chapter 11

Three new captives arrived soon after daybreak. I could hear them speaking in the familiar Voian dialect, just outside the hut where I rested. I stood to peek at them, opening the door just an inch. There were two women and one man. One woman looked to be no more than eighteen years old, with straight blonde hair and delicate hands manicured with a blue polish. She looked the most fearful, her hands drifting up and down against her dress, then occasionally to her throat, where she tugged at a silver necklace. The other female captive was perhaps thirty-five, with thick hair tied in a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore a traditional Voian service uniform, and was perhaps a housemaid or a food service worker. The male captive was middle aged, and his skin was blemished and dirty, as though he hadn’t bathed in several days. I hoped that he wasn’t a deviant from the southern sector, but I suspected he was.

Bartho led the three captives into the meeting house of the elders, just as he had done for me and Peter the day before. I assumed that these Voians would be given the same information that we had received. They would hear about the captivity of ten Voians in exchange for the orb, the prophecy of the Bayli’s return and the imminent destruction of Voia City. I doubted that they would believe it. Voians, after all, were very set in their views. If I hadn’t seen the Bayli with my own eyes after drinking Verdu on the first night of my captivity, then I would not have believed it either.

At midday, Bartho invited me and Peter to eat with the other captives. We assembled at the fire in the center of the village, the newer captives looking haggard and anxious. Jason, along with two other Jaguar men, roasted meat and vegetables over the fire. Jason avoided my gaze, staying silent and forlorn. I looked at the faces of the other captives, who seemed to be in varying states of shock. Only the younger woman with blonde hair had tears running down her face.

The male captive spoke to me first, in a gravelly voice that betrayed years of smoking tobacco. He was clearly not a follower of Ereba, since no true adherent would take tobacco any more than any other intoxicant. “I for one don’t mind this a bit,” he said. “It’s better than what I was suffering back in the city. No food, no shelter and nobody but rats to talk to in the only sector of the city that would have me… This is much better.” His name was Michael, and he gave off an unpleasant sour odor, belching as he ate.

“What’s your story?” Michael asked, his eyes moving from my feet to my forehead, lingering a bit on my pocket, where I kept the Info-graph.

“I was taken from my bed in the night as my husband slept,” I answered. “I’m from the northern sector of Voia City.”

“Rich girl. I see,” Michael shot back at me. I didn’t care that he didn’t like me. The feeling was mutual.

“I’m married too,” the woman in the service uniform said. “I miss my husband dearly. If only he were here, he would know what to do.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” the young girl said petulantly. “We just have to wait for someone to come for us.”

“Silence, all of you… Please, be quiet,” Bartho scolded, his baritone voice echoing against the village huts. “Tonight we drink from the cup once again. And you, Charlie, maybe you will see the father snake spirit again. If you are chosen twice then I know you are worth keeping.” Bartho laughed, slapping his stomach. I couldn’t see the humor in what he’d said. I stole a look at Jason, but he was turned away from me, talking to another Jaguar man.

Chapter 12

Peter was housed with the other Voian captives, while I was left alone with Bartho in the hut where I’d slept the night before. I felt that I had been identified as special among the others, perhaps because I had tasted the black Verdu drink and seen the snake spirit.

Bartho sat cross-legged next to the door of the hut, resting his hands on his knees. I decided to take a risk and ask him to show me his Info-graph again. Maybe I could learn to use the one that Jason had given to me by watching Bartho navigate his. “There’s no problem with that, snake woman,” Bartho said, a tiny lilt of affection in his voice. He found his Info-graph in his shirt pocket and pressed a button on its upper edge until the screen glowed bright yellow.

The symbols on the screen danced in a circle, then assembled in rows of three. “This is the symbol that tells future time,” Bartho said, touching a circular symbol with dots and lines inside its border. An image of The Wilds appeared, with several Jaguar men engaged in a fight. One of the men drew a knife and held it to his adversary’s throat. “It shows a battle in the future, over what I cannot know.” Bartho pushed the Info-graph’s power button and the screen went black. Bartho seemed unnerved by what we had just seen, but his expression remained stoic, his hands calm and steady at his sides.

“Is that really going to happen?” I asked.

“Future time is changeable, like winds or other weather. It may not happen,” Bartho replied.

“Then maybe the elders are wrong about the fall of my city. Maybe it won’t be left in ruins, as they say.”

“The elders change what they speak often. And often they deceive. But they possess the greatest wisdom of our people, so we must listen.”

“My faith in Ereba taught me to uphold the truth,” I said. “We can’t always speak the truth, but on important matters, we should try our best.”

“Sometimes deception achieves a purpose. Now rest before we drink tonight.”

I reclined on my sleeping mat and waited for nightfall. When the time for the Verdu ceremony arrived, I would be ready to drink the black brew again. After what the elders had told me and the other captives, I wanted to hear from the Bayli directly, to see if I could find out whether any of it might be true. If The Knowing’s hand of judgment was going to punish me for taking an intoxicant willingly, then I was ready for it. There, in The Wilds, I was far from the high priests of Ereba. I was far from the home I’d known all my life, lost in a strange place with strange people whose actions I could not decipher or predict. My circumstances could not get much worse. If I learned something illicit from the Verdu ceremony, then I promised myself that I would harbor the knowledge without allowing it to break me. I thought of the fate of deviants in the southern sector, rubbing my arms with my hands. My hands were cold as stone.

As the last remnants of light peeked through the forest ceiling, Bartho woke me from a deep sleep. I had been dreaming of Kim choosing a new wife in Voia City as I beat on the door to our apartment at The Dominion Complex, unheard and weary. “Time to drink,” Bartho said. “Are you ready?”

I nodded and followed him to the center of the village, where ten Jaguar men sat in a circle. I noticed that none of the other captives had been invited to the ceremony. I was the only Voian present. I wondered whether my fate might be different from theirs, now that I’d been singled out as special. I felt a wave of guilt pass over me, chilling my bones.

This time an elder prepared the cup, mixing it in swift downward strokes with a thick wooden implement. The elder was shirtless, with long, loose-fitting grey pants that billowed around his knees. I noticed a black tattoo on his chest, precisely drawn and shining in the dim light of evening. It was drawn in the shape of a circle, with three dots and three lines inside its border, much like the symbol I had seen on Bartho’s Info-graph.

“It is time to look into the other realm, to learn what the future holds for our people,” the elder said, chanting the words softly and handing the Verdu cup to the first Jaguar man. “Now, drink and talk to the younger souls, the Bayli. The coming year is one of great promise as we will reclaim the orb that once united us, and will unite us again. Give thanks to the Bayli for this as you drink.”

When the Verdu cup was passed to me, I felt no fear. The liquid traveled down my throat with a familiar heat. I felt my pupils dilate so that the fire appeared brighter, with its orange flames spitting sparks into the air. I saw the faces of the Jaguar men in the circle with greater clarity. Their full lips gaping and their eyes wide and black, they appeared wild, like animals ready to fight. I wondered if I looked like an animal too.

The black snake appeared once again, this time hovering over the fire, rather than writhing deep within the flames. It lashed its tail from side to side, its white eyes glowing yellow in flashes as it pushed its diamond-shaped head towards me. “What do you want?” I asked with my thoughts. But there was no answer. The snake only rose higher, lifting its head. Then there was a second black snake, twisting around the first one before they both vanished.

I looked around the circle to see whether any of the Jaguar men had seen the snakes. Some beat their chests while others looked to the sky, raising their hands. Each was in his own visionary experience, oblivious to the others, the fire and the very earth beneath their feet. For a brief moment, though, Bartho looked at me and said in a low monotone, “You’re not like the others, snake woman.” He pronounced the words weakly, then vomited bile and black liquid between his feet. None of the others appeared to notice, and Bartho quickly lifted his head to the sky, seeming to have forgotten me.

When I followed Bartho’s gaze to the sky, a metal object emerged from behind a cloud, egg-shaped and smooth, with a single white light casting a sparkling beam to the ground. The object descended until it was a mere twenty feet over the forest, just beyond the village boundaries. A voice in my mind said, “Come with us,” and somehow I knew that this voice originated from the metal object in the sky. I left the circle and walked towards the forest, following the white beam as if pulled by the gentle tug of a string.

Chapter 13

I walked only a few paces into the thick of the forest before I saw the metal object over my head. It had moved to meet me. I scanned the trees for signs of the Bayli, but I saw only trees and grass illuminated by the white beam in the sky. I felt myself drawn to the light. I had no fear, only a curious desire to know who or what might be present.

Then a scorching heat came over my body, and I went limp. I collapsed to the ground, unable to breathe. I felt terror, which was soon replaced by the same rapture I’d felt at sixteen when I had smoked blue mist with my classmate, Angelica. I lost consciousness, my eyes staring upward, my hand on my abdomen to cover the Info-graph in my pocket.

I awoke in a silver room, my body weak and limp in a hard metal chair. Three Bayli surrounded me. Up close, I could see tiny slits of black in their wide, jade-green eyes. Their faces were perfectly smooth, like polished stone, and white as chalk. I had been transported into the object that I had seen hovering above me in the forest. The knowledge of what had happened came to me with a potent intuition, and I felt strangely alert and fatigued at once.

“Give her the injection,” commanded the tallest of the three Bayli.

I stiffened with fear as a needle was forced into my leg. I was too terrified to fight, and too awestruck to question it. As the needle entered my thigh, I cried out, surprised at the sound of my own helpless whimpering. One of the Bayli placed a long-fingered hand on my shoulder, as if in an attempt to comfort me. It felt cold and hard, and I retreated from it instinctively.

“You need not fear,” she thought to me with her mind. This one was feminine, as I could hear her nature in the tone of her thoughts. Her green eyes grew softer, with a flicker of compassion. “We are trying to help you. The injection will strengthen you for what lies ahead. You will need it.”

“What is it?” I asked, feeling a numbness spread over the injection site.

“It is a serum that will alter your genetic coding. We know that you, as a Voian lack knowledge of this science. You have lived under the oppression of the rebel high priests for almost a millennia. They would not teach you what they all know so well, having lived since the time or our arrival in your year 4550. But we can tell you that the stuff within you that decides your physical form and mental capabilities is now altered. You will be enhanced with animal qualities in an attempt to strengthen your line.”

“The high priests cannot be one thousand years old…” I thought. I had seen them with my own eyes at my maturation ceremony when I was eighteen and at afternoon temple gatherings. They looked ordinary, not much older than forty or fifty years old.

“Ah but they are. The high priests were our original offspring, birthed from Jaguar mothers and fathered by Bayli males. Surely you must know this by now, having lived among the Jaguar People.” The female Bayli placed a small device on the injection site. I felt a brief warmth as it emitted a blue light. “When the high priests rebelled, taking Voia for themselves, we abandoned them. For travel back to your dimension to be possible, we require that your people attain an awareness of our existence beyond the veil. You must be awake and aware of us. Such interdimensional travel is powered by thought itself. Because the high priests hold your population in ignorance, we have been powerless to return for some time. But in the time that we have been locked in our own dimension, we have developed ways for you to emerge new again, ready to live in awareness of your true nature and history. For the time being, though, we have only this…”

“Verdu?” I asked, this time aloud.

“Verdu and the capsules you call blue mist allow human form minds to connect with our dimension by altering the chemistry within you. They are derived from the same plant source. The high priests of your Ereba faith consume it, yet they forbid the rest of your population from taking it. Some of you have defied this rule, much to your detriment as Voians. But those of you who have dared consume blue mist have seen beyond the veil to the truth. You are awake to our presence, as the others are not.”

The female Bayli continued speaking to me with her mind. I watched her large green eyes and they held a certain power over me to keep me receptive to what she said. Even though I should have been afraid, I was not. I sat still and listened to her words as they pulsed in my mind like a gentle heartbeat. She lifted her hand above my face, almost seeming to smile with her tiny mouth, “We plan to return in the light of day to Voia after one thousand years, but we require an awakening of the Voian people in order to break through to your dimension more fully. The injection we have administered to your leg will heighten your perceptual powers. It is part of the second phase of our ongoing experiment.”

“And then you may enter our dimension even without the aid of Verdu or blue mist?” I was not afraid, only curious. The Bayli female was soothing me with her words, although I wasn’t sure how much more I could bear to know.

“Yes,” she replied simply, closing her eyes for a moment.

“What about Voia City? Will it fall to ruin as the Jaguar elders say it will?” I heard my voice come out hoarse and choked. I was weakened from the shock of having been transported to the ship as if by the force of brilliant light alone.

“We would not ruin our own children, which is what you Voians are to us. But with awakening often comes rebellion. And with knowledge comes the desire for greater freedom. Your own people will destroy each other and your city. We cannot prevent this eventuality. It is the price that will be paid for the return of your original parents.”

Chapter 14

I must have wandered back to the Jaguar village semi-conscious, because I arrived at the fire with no memory of how I had gotten there. Only the elder remained there, sitting peacefully over the flames, his eyes fixed on the distance, as though he was watching something far beyond the simple scene of wooden huts and trees. My thigh ached in the spot where I had received the injection, reminding me that I had just come face to face with the Bayli on one of their ships. I sat on a rock near the fire, staring into the fading light, wondering what they had done to me.

“Bartho tells me that you have seen the father snake spirit,” the elder said, breaking his meditative silence. His words came out low and even in tone, as though he might be half dreaming. “You must be unusual as a Voian. Only the elders have seen the snake. It is a spirit talker for only advanced knowers to see and hear. Perhaps you have a mark on your soul that is of the Jaguar.”

“And how have you come to call yourselves Jaguar People?” I asked. It was a daring question for me, an effort to learn history in defiance of Ereba.

“The first of the elders who entered the Verdu trance saw the spirit of the big cat. Only those who receive immortality may see the jaguar soul under the power of our sacred drink. We know now that escape from death is possible. The first children of the Bayli received this gift. They live on in your city as high priests.”

“And what about the Jaguar elders? Do they live on?” I asked.

“They disappeared in the year 4550, when Voia City was built under the dominion of the children of Bayli, the high priests as you know them now. Wherever they are hiding, they hold the ancient secrets and stories.” Then the elder stood and poked at the fire with a stick. Sparks shot into the blackness and the fire rose up with new life. “You wandered into the forest during the Verdu ceremony. I saw you following the white light. What did they tell you?” he said, watching me with his penetrating yellowed eyes.

I sat silent for a few moments, and the elder watched me patiently. “I’ve seen the Bayli face to face,” I answered. The habit of telling the truth was well ingrained in me from my old faith in Ereba. “They spoke of a heightening awareness among the Voian people, and with it a Bayli arrival in full physical form on our planet without the aid of Verdu or blue mist.”

The elder shook his head and sighed. I could see a slight fatigue in his eyes that I had not noticed before. When he spoke it was with a solemn, labored speech, “The mysteries of the Bayli may be many, but they are as fierce a people as they are benevolent. Every soul has two separate natures within, the dark and the light. When the dark rises up in a man or a woman, it may dampen their heart, blinding them to memories of love and kindness. You will be cautious of the spirits you have stirred up in this night, if you are wise.”

My body tensed, and I could feel blood rushing to my arms and legs. I closed my fists, feeling a new strength in my hands. I closed my eyes and sniffed at the air for a moment, stunned by the richness of scents around me. The elder smelled of vitality; his sweat was sweet and pungent. The evergreen trees of the forest were rich with the odor of sap and fresh pine needles. As the wind changed direction, I caught the scent of a wild animal, perhaps a bear. The bear was thinking protectively of her cubs. I sensed her thoughts in strong, yet imprecise waves. The hairs on my arms stood upright as I felt her fear and aggression. Then she was gone.

“There is a mother bear nearby. Do you sense her?” I blurted the question out without realizing that I was about to speak.

The elder cocked his head, then hummed to himself. It was a strange, high pitched sound from his throat. “Yes, she is out there, protecting her cubs. Voians are typically blind to the natural world. Then you are not like the others. How long have you known yourself to be so gifted?”

“It came upon me tonight,” I replied. “What I have seen has changed me. I’m different now.” I thought of the injection I had received on the Bayli ship. The words genetic coding had been used to describe that within me which would be changed. A code inside me that determined my physical and mental capabilities had somehow been affected by the serum administered to my thigh. Whatever it had done to change me, the Jaguar elder had already experienced. He had sensed the mother bear just as I had, with an ease that suggested old habit.

“Then there may be a chance for your kind after all, Voian woman.” The elder spoke softly, as though he might be speaking only to himself, in the cool night alone. “But we will still reclaim our orb. It has been spoken for a thousand years. The richness of prophecy is in its many levels of truth. What seemed the way to its fulfillment once may be replaced by a new way tomorrow. If you wish to pray for the salvation of your people, then I suggest you direct your prayers to the ones who truly know, the Bayli.”

I thought once again of Prayer 101 from The Book of Knowing: “The Knowing is the higher power that provides us with the strength to continue forward without pain or doubt. Our future is in absolute faith that a sign will appear to the willing on the day of closure.” If the high priests were over one thousand years old, then they had written these words themselves. What had they intended by inviting Voian citizens to anticipate an end to the faith? Could they somehow have predicted a day when their dominion over Voia City might be challenged, and have written it into the holy prayer book as a way to prepare the people to submit once again after the chaos was over?

Yet I had never heard any Voian citizen speak of this day of closure, hidden in the final prayer of our holy book. I thought of Voia City, its citizens working hard every day in the service classes, suffering in the southern sector as deviants, or meeting the expectations of status among the wealthy classes. Maybe Jason had been right that Ereba was a fairy tale designed to keep us in ignorance. Nobody in Voia City had dared examine the truth that rested behind the dogma of the prayer book and the tenets of Ereba. And if they had dared to look beyond the veil, then they had been punished severely as deviants.

“I can’t predict whether you will have your orb again. But when other Voians find out the truth of their history, they may question the high priests of Ereba and defy them,” I said to the elder, my face flushed with sudden anger. “If there is an uprising, then the priests may simply reassert their dominion with the same force they have used for a thousand years. But there is a chance for the Voian people to raise their consciousness beyond the dogma that they have been taught for so long. If I have seen through the veil to the light of truth, then others may follow. Once into the light, a person cannot return to the darkness of ignorance. It is impossible.”

Chapter 15

I rested alone in the village hut that day, watching the light peeking through the window covering, transfixed by what I could hear with newly heightened senses. Whatever the Bayli had injected into my thigh was altering my perceptual powers. I could hear conversations clearly across the village, smell the scents of the forest in the wind, and sense the animals as they moved through the trees beyond. I felt an overwhelming influx of information, and I lay on my sleeping mat covering my ears with my hands, my mind reeling.

In the heat of the afternoon, a skirmish erupted in the village. I could hear two Jaguar men arguing in their native language. One of the other Voian captives screamed. It sounded like the voice of the woman from the service class, the one who had longed for her husband on her first day in the village. “We can’t have these devils here,” a male voice grunted, this time in Voian. Then there was a thump, the sound of a body falling to the ground.

As I ran from the hut to see what had happened, I felt my legs propel me forward with surprising ease and speed. The bottoms of my feet were now insensitive to the rough dirt beneath them, as though they had hardened. As I arrived at the scene of the fight, I saw a Jaguar man lying unconscious on the ground. Bartho stood above him, holding a knife. The man on the ground had a stab wound on his abdomen, and blood from the wound seeped into the dirt beside him.

The female captive knelt on the ground behind Bartho, her head buried in her hands, weeping. Her hands were dirty and her dress was torn at the hem. “Don’t let them take me,” she cried, sobbing harder. When she lifted her head, I could see a bruise on her left cheek, flushing purple and red.

Bartho pulled a small metal wand-shaped object from his pocket. As he held it over the fallen man’s wound, it emitted a blue light. The wound quickly stopped bleeding, then closed. The man shook his head, lifted himself to a standing position, then faced Bartho. “These Voians are going to defile our village and drive the helping spirits away. We’ll be left with only demon spirits and then we will grow sick to madness. This cannot continue.”

“You should know better than to defy the elders,” Bartho said, placing the wand back in his pocket. “Next time I will not heal you, and you will be left to die in the dirt.”

The man surveyed me with a look of bilious hatred. He spat on the ground, then walked in the direction of the forest. Bartho then helped the stunned Voian captive to her feet. I saw trails of dirt on her face as tears ran down her cheeks. Her smooth Voian skin was beginning to appear blemished, and I could see that she might not be hardy enough for the conditions of the Jaguar village. The woman looked fatigued, her green eyes showing the strain of her predicament more than her weathered face.

“What happened?” I asked Bartho, trying to remain calm.

“Dourha tried to take your fellow captive deep into The Wilds to abandon her there. She would have died a painful death by starvation or perhaps been killed by a bear or big cat. It would have been a terrible waste of our efforts thus far. Our wise elders have instructed us to hold you here while preserving your health. Some try to defy the elders out of fear. If your presence here disturbs the balance of the spirit realm, then we must accept it as the price we pay to regain the orb.”

“You look different than when I saw you before,” the woman said. She tried to straighten her service uniform, but her hands were shaking too hard. “What have they done to you?”

I wanted to reassure her. She looked so frightened, that a feeling of compassion welled up in my chest. During my life at The Dominion Complex, I had not witnessed much suffering. “I have met the Bayli face to face,” I said plainly. “Have you heard of the Bayli during your time here?”

“The ones who speak to the elders and promised them an orb in exchange for our captivity? It all sounds like hogwash, if you ask me. I can assure you that you have met no such beings as the Bayli. These people are savages, and they have no rhyme or reason for what they do. I want to go home.” The woman whimpered, fresh tears streaming down her face. She looked at me with mixed suspicion and relief.

“What’s your name?” I asked. “Maybe I can help you. I’m Charlie.”

“It’s Alice. My husband calls me ‘Ally’. Or rather, he called me that. If I ever get out of this, then I’ll thank The Knowing. It watches over us.”

“Yes I know Ereba very well,” I said. I could not bring myself to tell her that I had stopped putting as much faith in The Knowing since taking Verdu and meeting the Bayli on their ship. If the high priests of Ereba were the children of Bayli from one thousand years ago, then they had many secrets yet to be uncovered. If they could not be trusted, then neither could the prayer book we had all been given as citizens of Voia.

“I should have studied the prayers better. If I had done so, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened to me,” Alice said, starting to cry again.

I stood silent, afraid to tell her what had been revealed to me since my captivity. If I said too much of it, then Alice, like Peter, might brand me a deviant and avoid further contact with me. If I was going to help her, then I would have to keep it secret for the time being.

I asked Bartho to give Alice some fresh clothing. He said, “Good idea, snake woman.” Then he helped her to one of the village huts. I was left there, standing in the open air under the hot afternoon sun, staring at the stain of blood in the dirt. I wondered whether there might be more violence to come. Clearly, we Voians were not welcome here by everyone. I would have to be more watchful and more careful of my actions.

Chapter 16

But as careful as we are, at times we cannot evade the danger that looms over us. Fate takes us by the hand and pulls us with its deathly grip. Two nights later, Bartho left me to sleep in the village hut alone. I awoke from a fitful sleep to see Dourha’s face over mine, his expression a sneering mix of rage and fear. Without speaking, he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to my feet. I could smell the anger in his body odor, sour and putrid. “You’re not so special as they say you are. You’re nothing more than a Voian devil, ruining our village with your defiling presence. It’s time you left.”

I knew that I could not overpower him, and as he pulled me from the village hut into the night, my heart sank with dread. If I cried out in the night, he might beat or kill me, so I kept silent. Dourha pulled me into the thick of the forest, his breath heavy and his eyes narrowed. I felt my body grow cold, my heart beating strangely in my state of terror. When I spotted Michael, one of the newer Voian captives tied to a tree trunk, then I knew what Dourha had planned for me. Michael’s head hung limp, and I guessed that he had been knocked unconscious by a blow to the head.

Knowing that Dourha was going to tie me to a tree and leave me to die, I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline. I gathered a fistful of dirt and flung it into Dourha’s eyes. He slapped my face with an open hand, shouting “Voian devil!” I turned and ran with all my strength. My legs pounded the forest floor with a strength I had never before experienced. I clenched my fists, drawing breath after breath into my lungs.

When I finally stopped, I knew that I was lost in the darkness of the forest alone. I had no way of knowing which direction to go in order to find the village, if I even wanted to return there. I crouched and looked upward, towards the stars and said a quick prayer to whatever might be listening. The Knowing could not help me now. I had strayed too far from the faith. As I looked to the moon, I knew that there was no point in seeking solace in Ereba. It suddenly seemed to be little more than a story I’d been told all my life to keep me from discovering the truth about my world, my very own nature and destiny. I thought of the Bayli and wept silently, my tears falling into the dirt. If they could speak to me then somehow, they would tell me what to do next. But there was only the sound of an owl, cooing in the night.

Then I remembered the Info-graph in my pocket. I pressed the buttons on its surface until its tiny screen flashed with a white light. Then I spoke to it, “Where am I? How do I get home?” My voice sounded plaintive, scared.

The symbols on the screen danced in a circle, then organized themselves into rows of three, just as they had before. The screen went black, then lit up again and a Bayli face appeared with blinking green eyes. The text underneath read: “Walk east.” I had no innate sense of direction, and the blackness terrified me even more with my heightened senses. I heard a snapped twig, feeling the presence of a big cat. She was hungry, prowling for food. My body froze, still and silent, waiting for her to pass. I felt her searching, listening in the night. She detected me, then moved on, deciding that I wasn’t worth killing and eating.

At daybreak I walked in the direction of the rising sun, following the Info-graph’s instruction. I came to a dirt road, then followed it uphill. A military jeep came upon me two hours later, finding me parched and exhausted, but ready to return to Voia City.

Chapter 17

An ambulance waited for me at the Marksgate Bridge, and one of the two military men who had rescued me from The Wilds helped me onto a soft stretcher. I was taken into the back of the ambulance, then given intravenous fluids. As the emergency workers checked my vital signs, one said, “She’s going to live.” Neither spoke to me directly, as though I wasn’t a real person to them, but a fragile object they were trying to keep from breaking.

“She’s going to Fairfax, so we probably don’t need to do a full workup,” the other worker said, leaning over me so that I could see the tag on his shirt. It said “Mullin,” which must have been his name.

Fairfax Hospital was an institution for the criminally insane. How could they have been taking me there? I needed medical attention in Voia City Hospital, and to be reunited with my husband, Kim. I tried sitting up, only to realize that my arms had been strapped to the sides of the stretcher. “You can’t take me there,” I cried. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Just lie back, Charlie. That’s your first name, isn’t it? We don’t want you getting too excited. You might need a sedative in that case, and you don’t want that, do you?” The worker smiled down at me as though I was a dangerous, misbehaving animal. His eyes looked kind and soft, but his lips were pressed tightly together and his face was tense. I realized that he feared me for some reason.

Fairfax Hospital was at the eastern edge of Voia City, and I spent the thirty-minute ambulance ride contemplating what I had experienced since my abduction. None of it seemed real anymore, but I recalled Jason’s warning about the high priests of Ereba with a sour feeling in my stomach. He had said that they would have known that I was in The Wilds, that they might not allow me to live after what I had learned during my captivity. Could he have been right? I felt a weight settle on my chest and my breathing grew shallow. Whatever waited for me at Fairfax might be worse than what I had just lived through, far worse.

The high priests all but ran Voia City. The Voia City Council officials consulted them on all matters of state, no matter how small. Had news of my abduction traveled to that level of authority? And how had the workers known my name even though I carried no identification? I couldn’t be sure of the answers to these questions. All I knew was that I was being taken to a warehouse for criminals and diseased minds, for deviants. Fairfax as I had heard was a house for the lost and forgotten.

I realized that I had lost my copy of The Book of Knowing at the Jaguar village. Without it, I would have to rely on my memory to know the prayers of Ereba. I recalled a prayer for justice and mumbled it under my breath as I lay on the stretcher, “Let the light of my faith in The Knowing also be my justice.” I no longer believed, and the words escaped me bitterly.

“None of that will help you where you’re going. Better keep those words to yourself from now on,” the emergency worker named Mullin said, this time seeming less fearful of me. It was a piece of genuine advice from a man who had seemed to view me as an animal when he first saw me. He turned to the other worker and asked for the intravenous fluids to be removed from my arm. We had arrived at Fairfax Hospital.

Chapter 18

“You will need to submit to a brief interview before we show you to your room,” the man in the nurse’s uniform said as we stood in a brightly lit room with brick walls, just inside the hospital.

“I’d rather not answer any questions now,” I said, looking down at my dirty feet, still bare from the night I’d been taken in my pyjamas from The Dominion Complex. I hadn’t worn a pair of shoes in several days, and the soles of my feet had hardened. I barely felt the cold of the tile floor, though the room was so powerfully air conditioned that my teeth chattered.

“The interview is mandatory,” the nurse said. “I’ll take you to Dr. Suffolk now.” He nodded at two large men in white uniforms, and they advanced towards me ominously. I stepped back.

“I’ll submit to the interview,” I said, my voice quavering. I didn’t want the men to touch me, much less drag me to the office of Dr. Suffolk. They looked at me with impenetrable eyes, their faces flat and expressionless. Then they backed away from me again, allowing me to follow the nurse from the room, to a long white hallway.

Dr. Suffolk sat in a roomy leather armchair behind an imposing metal desk. He was balding, with white hair neatly clipped at the sides. His shoulders were broad, and he looked fit for a man of his age. He pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose and shuffled some papers on his desk, waiting a few minutes before acknowledging me. The two orderlies in white uniforms stood in the doorway, motionless.

“You’ll be comfortable here. I’m sure you’ll appreciate a shower and some soap,” Dr. Suffolk said, still not looking up from his papers. I realized that I hadn’t bathed in days, and in the stark clinical setting of Dr. Suffolk’s office, I could detect my own body odor. I smelled of sweat and earth, but the scent seemed natural to me, somehow comforting and not the least bit unpleasant. “Now, how would you describe your thoughts right now? Are they organized?”

“If this is an evaluation of the health of my mind, then I’m perfectly sane,” I answered, bitterly. I still held on to a faint hope that I might be released if I could speak sensibly to the doctor in charge.

“Sanity is not for self-evaluation. It’s not something that one can see for oneself. It is for others to judge. Are you having any hallucinations, like voices in your mind?”

I thought of how I had been able to detect the thoughts of animals in The Wilds, like faint sensations of their intentions and drives. I decided that I would be better off keeping those experiences secret. “No,” I replied.

I had defied Ereba by taking intoxicants, then lost my faith in the religion altogether. Now I could no longer see the harm in such a blatant lie. If upholding the truth might compromise my survival, then I saw little meaning to that tenet of my former faith. I had never been tested before, I realized ruefully. And now in a time of trial I was finding the Ereba faith as useless as my childhood schooling on proper conduct for members of the wealthy class.

“Good. Then how is it that you came to be in The Wilds alone, without military escort or permission?”

“I was abducted by the Jaguar People,” I said, immediately realizing that this might be a mistake to admit. “I was taken from my apartment as my husband slept.”

“There are no Jaguar People, Charlie. Clearly you are demonstrating some evidence of delusional thinking. Does it seem as though the world has a sensation of being unreal to you? Do you ever get that feeling?” Dr. Suffolk sat back in his leather chair with a notepad, jotting quick notes with a silver pen.

“Everything seems perfectly real to me. Maybe I was mistaken about the Jaguar People. I don’t know…” I looked back at the orderlies once again, and they appeared exactly as they had before, steely-eyed and expressionless. Then I heard a scream from beyond Dr. Suffolk’s office and the sounds of a scuffle. One of the orderlies flinched a little bit before his face became stony again. He straightened his posture. With his shoulders back he looked massive to me, perhaps twice my size.

“Don’t worry about the noise. It’s just the way things are here,” Dr. Suffolk said. “Shall we continue?”

“Yes,” I replied, unsure of what else to say.

“If you went into The Wilds alone, then you cannot have been thinking clearly. The Wilds is a very dangerous place, not fit for normal civilians. The Voian City Council makes that clear in all the news releases. Are you aware of the danger there?”

“Yes, it is dangerous,” I admitted. I thought that keeping my answers brief might affirm my sanity, but I didn’t have an acceptable explanation as to why I had been in The Wilds. I worried that my simple presence there would be interpreted as good cause to keep me incarcerated for some time.

“Then you knowingly placed yourself in danger,” Dr. Suffolk insisted, writing another note on his notepad, underlining the comment with a flourish. He seemed to enjoy his position at Fairfax Hospital, and I found myself disliking him more every moment. “Perhaps you need some time here until you are in a state of mind where you will not place yourself in such danger.”

“Do I have any choice?” I asked, feeling my arms and legs gather tension, my stomach tightening.

“No, there is no choice, Charlie. You lost that freedom when you ran off to The Wilds. And as for your thoughts of these Jaguar People, as you call them, we will have to discuss that later.”

Dr. Suffolk addressed the orderlies, asking them to show me to my room. Then he resumed work with the papers on his desk, shuffling them manically in a large pile. As I stood to leave, he was staring at his computer monitor, and I realized that Dr. Suffolk had not thought to tell me directly that the interview was over. I was a patient now at Fairfax Hospital, and I could anticipate that if I lost my status as a normative citizen of Voia City, I might endure more such treatment. I had slipped dangerously close to being labeled as a deviant. If I continued on this path, there might be much worse to come.

Chapter 19

My room at Fairfax was small, about eight feet wide and eight feet deep, with a private bathroom and shower stall. The door was made of heavy metal, with a small square window at about eye level. I was given a pale blue set of clothing, a toothbrush and some soap. Instead of taking a shower, I lay on the mattress in my room, staring up at the ceiling. It was only then that I allowed myself to weep.

When dinner arrived I was summoned to the dining room. I took a meal tray from the orderly behind the dining counter and sat quietly at a round table, across from another female patient. The other patients were mostly male, looking down at their trays and eating hungrily. They seemed oddly comfortable in there, talking amongst themselves casually, glancing my way occasionally with hardened stares. The woman across from me placed her napkin on her lap, appearing to say a brief whispered prayer before delicately biting into a forkful of beef.

After a few minutes, when she still hadn’t acknowledged my presence, I decided to try making conversation with her. “How did you come to be here?” I asked, trying to keep my voice low and gentle. She looked nervous suddenly, looking at her lap with her arms at her sides.

“What?” she asked, briefly catching my eye with a hollow expression. Maybe she hadn’t engaged in conversation in quite some time, because it took her a few moments to realize that she’d been spoken to. “I was arrested for possession of intoxicants. It was my boyfriend’s stash of blue mist, but when the enforcers arrived at my apartment, they pegged it on me. I’m awaiting trial.”

Occasionally the service class or even wealthy citizens would smoke blue mist regularly, but since the illicit pleasure wasn’t worth the threat of arrest to most, I hadn’t known anyone personally who was using the drug since my first experience with it at sixteen. I remembered an article that Kim had shown me once in The Voia City Press. The article claimed that blue mist caused deviant behavior, and those who used it just once became permanently addicted. The penalty for possession was five years’ imprisonment.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

The woman looked at me quizzically, then put down her fork, “It’s just the way of Voia City. Nothing to be sorry about. I’ve learned to accept that nothing will ever change as long as the enforcers have us in their sights all day and all night. Most people have nothing to live for but Ereba. At least I felt something real with blue mist, something that they can’t ever take from me. I’m Mari, what’s your name?”

“Charlie,” I answered. “I come from the northern sector of Voia City. I have a husband.”

“That’s the wealthy district,” Mari said with a little trace of excitement that seemed out of place in the morose, yellow-walled dining hall. “I’m sure you can afford a good lawyer for whatever got you in here. You’ll probably be out of here in a week.” Mari spit a little bit as she spoke, and her glazed eyes wandered side to side reflexively, as though she was constantly checking the corners of the room, yet seeing nothing there.

“Is there a phone here? Could I make a call?” I asked, a feeling of hope rising up in me. I wanted to stifle any thought that I might be released, because the pain of disappointment would be too great if I was going to be branded as a deviant.

“Only with a doctor’s permission,” Mari said, wiping her mouth with her napkin and smiling. Her tiny hands flitted up around her face and she smoothed her light brown hair, tucking it behind her ears. I saw that Mari was hardly eating, just picking at her meal as if the food was a chore she had to face, rather than the satisfaction of any hunger. I could smell the beef on her plate, and it gave off an unpleasant odor, like death.

Another patient, a large man in his twenties with tattooed arms and hands pounded on a table with his fist, then resumed eating. The orderlies at the serving counter shifted their weight from side to side, pushing at their sleeves. They seemed to be readying themselves for a confrontation, but when the man calmed down, they stilled themselves again.

“How do I get that?” My question seemed to confuse Mari, as though she had already forgotten our conversation.

“Get what?”

“Doctor’s permission for a phone call.”

“You have to see him in his office for an appointment,” Mari said, pulling her hair absentmindedly. I wondered whether Mari herself had been able to use the phone, or whether she was merely repeating something she’d heard since her own admission to Fairfax.

“Thank you,” I said. I stood and placed my meal tray back on the serving counter, only having eaten a few bites of bread and some soup. I didn’t feel hungry, even though I hadn’t eaten much in days.

“Oh there’s no thanking me,” Mari chimed from her chair. “I didn’t do anything.”

I returned to my room, only then realizing that I still had the Bayli Info-graph tucked into my shirt pocket. The hospital staff hadn’t thought to search me, otherwise they might have confiscated it. I found the power button on the side and pressed it. The screen lit up red, then blue and yellow before the array of symbols appeared, dancing in a circle then aligning in rows of three.

I touched the circular symbol with lines and dots inside its border, the one that Bartho had told me was an indicator of future time. I saw an image of The Dominion Complex, my home with Kim until just days before, its windows brightly lit. Fireworks appeared in the sky behind the building in brilliant colors, streaking in graceful arcs before fading into the night. Then I saw a gathering of Voian citizens on the sidewalk, all with heads craned upward, looking not at the fireworks but at an egg-shaped metal object in the sky. It was a Bayli ship, just like the one I had been transported into on the second time I drank Verdu with the Jaguar People.

The image flickered, then the screen went black. I decided to try speaking into the Info-graph once again with a question, just as I had in The Wilds when I was lost. “Where is the orb?” I asked, as quietly as I could.

A Bayli face appeared on the screen, the being lifting his hand with his index finger pointing upward. The text below was indecipherable, just rows of lines and dots. But at the bottom, in my own native language, it said: “Underground rail station 17. A door in the tunnel just beyond the railway tracks.”

“What do you have there?” It was the voice of one of the orderlies at my door, a stern looking man with a gaunt face and a thin, pointed nose. His shoulder muscles bulged against his shirt and his eyes flashed around my room. I tried to put the Info-graph back into my pocket, but right away he was next to me, wrestling it from my hand. “You don’t need that. Possession of illicit materials is punishable by twenty-four hours in seclusion, but I’ll let you off this time.” The orderly grunted as he spoke, then chuckled as he left my room, my Info-graph in his hand. I caught he scent of his cheap cologne as he left, and something else about the smell of him unnerved me, as though it was an odor of ill intent or plain malice. I thought again of the injection I’d received on the Bayli ship, the serum that altered genetic coding. I might keep changing. My senses might continue growing sharper and my body stronger. I wondered how Dr. Suffolk might react if he knew what I was experiencing.

Chapter 20

“Tell me about these Jaguar People you spoke of during your initial interview,” Dr. Suffolk said pleasantly from behind his desk. I had only asked to see him with the intention of gaining permission to make a phone call to my husband, but Dr. Suffolk proceeded to question me as soon as I sat down in his office. He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, sniffling a little bit.

“The orderly took my Info-graph. It was an example of the technology that the Jaguar People share with the Bayli race,” I answered, a sinking feeling descending over my body. I knew that I might be making a mistake to discuss what had occurred during my days in The Wilds. The doctor had initially treated my story as a delusion, but if he had seen the Info-graph, then he might have to change his mind.

“There was nothing confiscated from you upon admission. You must be mistaken,” the doctor said. He reached again for his silver pen and notepad.

“I’d like to make a phone call,” I said insistently, my face flushing. I was growing tired of the impenetrable wall I faced with Dr. Suffolk each time I saw him. He simply claimed that everything I had experienced was an error of my perceptions.

“Perhaps when you’re feeling better. You’re clearly not well enough now,” Dr. Suffolk pronounced, writing a note to himself. I found the habit irritating, since he offered me almost no information about why I was held at Fairfax, or how long I might be forced to stay. He merely made notes about my case in his yellow pad and sat behind his big metal desk, looking satisfied with himself. “Do you believe that these Jaguar People exist in The Wilds?”

“Yes,” I said, my frustration overcoming me. “They abducted me according to the instructions of the Bayli, another race of people that I encountered there. The technology that your staff confiscated was Bayli technology. When you find that device, then it will prove my story.”

“There was no such device in your possession. I think that we should consider a drug regimen to help you with these thoughts.” Dr. Suffolk glanced at his computer monitor, then typed a few words with his keyboard. “I think Mordal will help you with that. It’s only one dose per day. You can start this evening after dinner.”

I slid forward in my chair, gripping my knees with my hands. When I spoke, the words came out clipped as I felt a fresh anger boiling up in me, “They warned me that what I’d seen in The Wilds might bring me to harm in Voia City. They were right. But what I know can’t be kept secret forever. Someone is bound to find out.”

Dr. Suffolk glanced at the orderly in the doorway and nodded as if to indicate that everything was fine, that there was no need to subdue me. Then he placed his notepad neatly on his desk and sat back for a moment with his hands behind his head. He appeared wistful, almost peaceful for a moment before he spoke, “Even if what you said were true, which it is not, then you should remember that knowledge of things better kept secret only inspires the desire for freedoms unattainable in a civilized society. Someone in possession of such secrets would be bound to expect a level of freedom that would cause them to behave aberrantly. We cannot allow that in our well-ordered society.” Then he leaned forward again and tapped his head with his finger three times, “Think, Charlie. Your well-being depends on it. You should consider my words before we meet next.”

I left Dr. Suffolk’s office angrier than I’d ever been before. Waves of fury made my heart pound and my chest feel tight as I walked back to my room. I had to find a way to get a message to Kim, who would certainly be stunned at the news of my incarceration. If he could help me then there might be a way out of Fairfax without being forced into the deviant sector of Voia City. Perhaps Kim could be a witness to my stability and past good behavior. It was a long shot but I clung to it nevertheless, since the alternative might be an order for me to relocate to the southern sector without chance of return to normative life.

As I lay in my bed, I remembered Jason among the Jaguar People, his Voian green eyes and his warnings about the high priests of Ereba. He wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that my return to Voia City had gone so badly. If he knew where I was, would he try to find me? I wondered whether I would see Jason again. He was still out there in The Wilds, living a life that he found preferable to the one he’d had in Voia City so many years before. I envied him for his resolve and freedom.

I turned over on the mattress in my room and stared at the metal door with its tiny square window. I was held there like an animal, without anyone to hear my voice or soothe my distress. I’m somehow more alone than I’ve ever been before, I thought. Yet I’ve always been alone. This life is not much different. I clenched my hands into fists and promised myself that I would find a way to better my circumstances, no matter what they might do to me at Fairfax. I would not allow my heart to be snuffed out like a match dipped in water. I would continue to seek the light of revelation that I’d learned to experience in The Wilds.

Chapter 21

In the two weeks before I saw Dr. Suffolk again, I took the orange pill called Mordal each evening after dinner. The drug was administered by a male nurse in a tidy white uniform, who smiled and cheerfully asked me about my day. I ignored his pleasant attitude, which seemed distinctly out of place at Fairfax Hospital, where patients groaned in their beds at night and lashed out at each other unpredictably. I swallowed the Mordal with a small cup of orange juice, finding it to have little effect on me. I slept longer hours at night, and often awoke with a wet spot on my pillow, as though I’d been salivating in my sleep. My mouth was dry during the day, and I felt an unpleasant vertiginous feeling sometimes when I stood. The Jaguar People remained a presence in my thoughts, and I waited for another chance to seek out the Bayli, with what knowledge they might have to share with me about the awakening of the Voian people or the ruin of the city.

I did not dare speak much to the other patients. I sat with Mari at mealtimes, but she spoke little unless I addressed her first. And when I did, it was only over simple matters, like the poor quality of the food or the uneasiness I suffered in the night due to noise from other patients. Mari looked to be in a world all her own, the hospital having swallowed her mind and heart whole, casting her into a void of hopelessness that I hoped would not swallow me in turn.

Dr. Suffolk met with me on a Saturday afternoon. I had by then showered and changed into the hospital issued blue pants and shirt. My hair was washed and tied back in a ponytail, and I noticed Dr. Suffolk’s look of approval as I walked into his office. “Ah, you have adjusted well. I see the Mordal is working wonders for you,” Dr. Suffolk said, reaching for his familiar silver pen and yellow notepad.

“I feel well,” I answered curtly.

“Would you like to make your requested phone call?” he asked, glancing at his computer monitor. “I can authorize it for you today.”

“Thank you,” I answered, trying to hold back tears. I had never truly loved Kim, but I wanted to hear his voice more than anything at that moment, to hear him tell me that it would be alright.

The nurse presented me with a cordless phone as I returned to my room. I dialed the number of the phone at the penthouse apartment I had shared with Kim before my abduction to The Wilds, before the pressures of my confinement at Fairfax had left me reeling in pain and confusion.

“Hello?” Kim answered the phone sounding tired.

“Kim, it’s Charlie. I can’t talk long, but I need to speak with you.”

“Charlie… Where are you? I thought you left me. You just weren’t there one morning when I woke up. I’m more than a little upset with you right now.”

“Kim, I’m at Fairfax Hospital. I’m a patient here. I need you to help me get home.”

“I don’t think I can help you, Charlie. Besides, I’ve already submitted the divorce papers to my attorney. The process was going to be finalized in your absence. We’re not legally bound much longer. You should probably call someone else.”

I was angered, but I knew in my heart that I could not have expected much more from Kim than that. Always pragmatic and never sentimental, Kim would see our divorce as reason to absolve himself of any guilt he might have felt about abandoning me to Fairfax Hospital. No longer bound to him by law, I was no longer his responsibility or care. It was as simple as that.

I hung up the phone without saying goodbye to Kim, and an odd peace washed over me. I knew that I was then completely alone. If I was going to be sent to the southern sector as a deviant then that was a fate I could accept coolly, without tears or cries of injustice. I had defied Ereba by taking intoxicants, but I had peeked beyond the veil to a truth that might liberate me from caring any longer about the price of that defiance.

Chapter 22

I was released from Fairfax Hospital a week later. I was given a supply of the drug, Mordal, which I was expected to continue taking for some unspecified period of time. A city social worker assigned me to a room in a house for deviants and criminals coming out of incarceration. The house was called Plum Tree Place, and this ineptly named facility was located in the southern sector of Voia City. I felt no real fear about going there, since my heart and body had grown cold in response to the events of the past several weeks. I was numb in response to thoughts about who else would be living at Plum Tree Place, or what dangers might be waiting there for me.

I arrived there wearing a set of clothing procured from the donation box at Fairfax Hospital. The jeans fit a bit loosely on my narrow hips, and the sweatshirt was faded with a white stain on the left sleeve. The black clothing that Jason had given to me at the Jaguar village had been confiscated, and likely thrown away or destroyed. Any evidence that I had lived for a short time among a magical, foreign people in The Wilds was gone.

I had nothing: no money, no identification and no thoughts of where I was going to go after my time at Plum Tree Place was over. I expected to gain no money from the divorce with Kim, since I had signed an agreement during our engagement that, in the event of a separation, I would receive nothing. All I had in my possession when I entered the offices of Plum Tree Place for intake proceedings was a bottle of orange Mordal pills.

My room was dusty and small, with a metal-framed bed and a tiny seat under the window. I could see government housing projects through the east-facing window. The lights stayed on late into the night in those buildings, and I thought of the people who lived there, wondering what they said to each other or what they did each day. Did they smoke blue mist? And if they did, did they engage in conversation about lights in the sky and alternate dimensions? Blue mist addicts must have suffered a strange brand of insanity, just on the edge of some epic realization about the truth beyond the veil, but never really seeing it to fruition.

There were nineteen other residents at the halfway house, the majority of them male and under forty years old. I made conversation with a man named Ralph in the dining room as we sat eating bread and cheese cut from a large block wrapped in plastic.

“Is there a temple of Ereba nearby?” I asked Ralph. “I’ve lost my copy of The Book of Knowing and would like to get a new one.

“Not on the south side of Voia. You’ll have to go north to midtown from here. I think the nearest temple is on Murdock Street, next to the bank. Funny you should ask about Ereba. Nobody else in this house practices or says the prayers. You must not be from around here.” Ralph chewed his bread with his mouth open, enunciating each word through a mouthful of food.

“I lived on the north side, but not anymore,” I said. “I’m not sure where I’m going to go from here.”

“Ah, a real Voian aristocrat, right in front of me. I never would have known. Well, you’ll get used to it here soon. Just don’t take any trouble from the other residents, mind your manners with them, and always come in before dark.” Ralph was a large man, with brown hair past his shoulders in unruly waves. He wore a black leather jacket and had a tattoo of a spider on his neck. His breath smelled foul but I sensed a kindness about him that was comforting in the dimly lit, creaky house.

“Is it dangerous after dark?” I asked. I felt foolish asking such a question, and worried that Ralph might think me naïve. I hoped that he wouldn’t think to take advantage of me in that case. As kind as he seemed, we were after all in the deviant sector of Voia City.

“Well, not for everyone,” Ralph said cryptically. “But the enforcers will know who you are now. You can assume that they will if you’re here at Plum Tree Place. They might stop you if they see you out at night. They’ll want to know what you’re doing.”

“How did you get here?” I asked, trying to sound friendly.

“Oh, never ask a question like that here, lady,” Ralph replied, furrowing his brow. “That’s the one thing that will get you on someone’s bad side in this place. But I’ll tell you this: I wasn’t on my way to a temple of Ereba when they stopped me.” Ralph laughed a large, uproarious laugh equal to his size, then pushed his chair away from the table and stood. “You might have to learn a few things, but you’ll be alright. Just show up for work at your assigned job, punch out when you’re finished and keep to yourself after that. That’s what I do.”

Chapter 23

I was assigned a job at a nearby soup kitchen, where the southern sector’s homeless population received meals. On my first day at work I was given a plain white uniform and shown how to use a timecard to punch in upon arrival. The manager who sat in the main office looked me up and down with a scowl. He was fat, with thinning blonde hair combed back from his face. He perspired heavily, with rivulets of sweat running down his face and sweat stains on his shirt. “Show up for work at eight in the morning sharp, and we’ll be good. Just do what the supervisor tells you in the kitchen. Don’t ask too many questions.” He waved me out of his office without saying goodbye.

I was told to serve the meals at noon and five o’clock in the evening from a large set of buffet style trays behind a glass counter. Before meals were served, I mopped the floors, cleaned the bathrooms and stood watching the dining area as the southern sector’s most desperate citizens played cards, arm-wrestled for cash or watched the small television mounted on the wall in the corner of the room. I was paid less than the wage designated for Voia City’s service workers, and half of what I earned was paid to the halfway house for my room there.

My assigned social worker wrote the application to get me a new identification card. I went with her to a Voia City Council building to have my picture taken and sign the new card. I noticed when I received the new card that my marital status was listed as ‘single.’ Kim must have finalized the divorce papers in my absence, and surely my status as a patient at Fairfax Hospital had sped the process. Finding out that our marital union was over in this manner only fueled my determination to make good with the life that I had in the southern sector. If I had lost my whole life of comfort in the northern sector of Voia City among the wealthy, then I could find a new one on my own somehow, there among those whom Voia City had cast into the refuse for daring to break the rigid tenets of Ereba.

I found a bus to Murdock Street in midtown after my third day at work was over. I found the Ereba temple’s large, glass doors next to the Municipal bank, just where Ralph said it would be. Peter had worked at that bank before his abduction by the Jaguar People. I pictured him in his wool suit, clean shaven, walking into the bank branch on an ordinary day. I wondered whether Peter was still a captive among the Jaguar People and shuddered, thinking of Dourha’s wish to kill the Voians in the village. Dourha might have taken Peter as he had taken me. Peter might be dead, for all I knew.

The clerk at the entrance to the Temple of Ereba surveyed me coldly, then asked for my identification. I placed my new identification card in his hand, and he scanned it with a handheld device, looking at a computer screen through wire-rimmed glasses. “Wait here, one moment please,” the clerk said, looking disturbed.

He returned with another clerk, this one dressed in a grey suit and black tie. The man in the suit looked at the computer screen, frowned, then glanced in my direction. Although his eyes were on my face, he didn’t seem to truly see me. It was as though he was looking through me at the back wall of the building, on which there was nothing more interesting than plain white paint. “Deviant,” he said to the other man.

“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can allow you access to this building,” the clerk said, looking down at my white soup kitchen uniform and dirty sneakers.

“I’m just here to try to get another copy of The Book of Knowing. I’ve misplaced mine,” I said. My voice sounded higher than normal, and strained. I was worried about what Ralph had said about the enforcers patrolling the streets of the southern sector after dark. I wanted to get back to Plum Tree Place before sunset.

The clerk with the glasses looked at the man in the suit, then smiled at me sympathetically. His eyes were a cold blue without feeling, and my spine tingled as I felt his stare once again on my cheap uniform. “I don’t see a problem with giving her the prayer book. Do you?”

“Just make sure that she’s out of the building,” the man in the suit said, pointing to his watch with his index finger to indicate expediency.

I left the Ereba temple with a new copy of The Book of Knowing, my hand shaking as I gripped the slim green volume. I took a bus back to Plum Tree Place, my shirt ringed with sweat, my heart echoing in my chest as though there was no other sound but that.

Chapter 24

“What you got there? The prayer book?” Ralph caught my eye as I entered Plum Tree Place. He was wearing the same red shirt and leather jacket that he’d been wearing three days earlier. His spider tattoo bulged as he clenched his jaw.

“It’s a copy of The Book of Knowing. I got it at the temple on Murdock Street, right where you said I could find one.”

“Aristocrat like you of course wouldn’t have the sense to question the state faith. But let me tell you…” Ralph cocked his head to the side and put his big hands in his jacket pockets. His sour breath invaded my nostrils as he spoke, and I saw that his teeth were yellowed and crooked, “There’s people around here who might not like the sight of that book. Especially the ones who call themselves Star Seekers. More of them around here than ever before…” Ralph’s massive form blocked the stairwell, but he seemed oblivious to the fact that I couldn’t move beyond him to my room.

“Who are the Star Seekers?” I asked, shifting my weight side to side, feeling tiny in Ralph’s massive shadow.

“Oh, just a bunch of lunatic blue mist addicts, if you ask me. They think that the prayer book was really written to hide the truth, not celebrate it. I think they call it mind control or programming, not religion. And they believe in an alien race that can reveal the truth through blue mist experiences. Telepathy and the like. I try to stay away from that stuff. It makes a man crumble under the weight of his own thoughts. Dangerous stuff, that blue mist.”

I stood there silent for a few moments, wondering what more Ralph might say about these Star Seekers. If they were in contact with the Bayli through blue mist, then maybe they would know more about the true history of Voia City. If I could find them, then they might be able to help me commune with the Bayli once again. The thought of smoking blue mist again unnerved me, since it brought with it the peril of true insanity, but I was ready to risk it in order to find out whether the Bayli were preparing to enter into the dimension of Voia City in full physical form. When they did, the high priests of Ereba might be forced to resign their tight dominion over the city.

“Ereba discourages looking at the past. To speculate about the writing of the prayer books would be deviant,” I said coolly, hugging my prayer book to my chest. I was feeling Ralph out for a sign of how far he had strayed from the state faith.

“That’s the nature of where we live, Charlie,” Ralph said. “We’re all deviants here already. Once branded, there is no escape. All that talk about Ereba is just the kind of talk the Star Seekers don’t like. They think Ereba’s nothing more than a prison for the mind, one you can’t escape unless you flirt with the lunatic asylum. It’s freedom or death for those people, though.”

“I’d like to meet a Star Seeker, to find out more about what they think,” I said cautiously.

“Alexis used to live here, and now she’s working a service job here in the southern sector and living in the housing project across the street. I could introduce you,” Ralph said. He realized that he was blocking my way and stood up straight again, smiling a little with embarrassment. I could sense his gentle nature in my chest, as though his goodness was momentarily shared by the two of us. My perceptual powers were still strong, despite the Mordal I was taking and the harsh conditions of the halfway house.

I climbed the stairs to my room feeling a little lighter in spirit. I might be able to share my experiences with Alexis, and in turn find out what she knew about the Bayli. I wouldn’t have to keep what I’d learned in The Wilds a secret. And if there were already some people in Voia City who had seen through the veil to the truth about Ereba, then maybe the awakening predicted by the Bayli would soon come to pass.

Chapter 25

Ralph brought me to Alexis’ apartment the following evening. As we crossed the street to the housing project together, I struggled to keep up with his pace. Ralph was a full foot taller than I was, with a long stride and a powerful gait. He seemed to be not much older than I was, but he must have worked years as a manual laborer, because he winced in pain as he walked as though his muscles and joints had seen the strain of heavy lifting.

“She wants to meet a Star Seeker,” Ralph said to Alexis as she opened her front door. The hallway was bright enough for me to see cracks in the walls and tiny holes in the ceiling. The thin blue carpeting in the hall was stained and worn through in places. The air was moist and smelled metallic, as though some harsh chemical materials had been used in construction of the building.

Alexis peered out at me, glancing down at my worn sneakers and back up to my faded sweatshirt, then she smiled warmly. “I can help you with that,” she said brightly. Her hair was deep black and hung loose around her shoulders. She was slight of build, but appeared strong nonetheless. Her biceps flexed as she swung the door open, and I could see a faint tattoo of an eagle’s head just below her right shoulder. A silver chain decorated her neck, with a golden sun amulet suspended from it at the level of her collarbone.

We sat in her modest living room, which had colorful patterned fabrics covering the windows and a faded teal sofa. Incense burned on a round coffee table at the center of the room. The smell of lavender permeated the air, relaxing me and making me feel nauseated at once. Alexis showed me a collection of crystals kept in a box under the coffee table, describing their healing and energizing properties. I touched each one, feeling a subtle sense that I was about to step beyond a border of existence to a realm from which there would be no return.

“There aren’t many of us, but we hold strong to our beliefs. If you’re here with Ralph, then I can trust you, but I wouldn’t ordinarily speak of being a Star Seeker with strangers.” Alexis sat cross-legged on a yellow chair next to the sofa, touching her sun amulet with her delicate hands. Her fingernails were cut short and were unpolished, maybe a little bit ragged. But she was beautiful in a natural sense of the word, without a need for heavy makeup or grooming. “Some of us have heard the alien kind in our minds while smoking blue mist. They tell us of a future for the city where there is no punishment for crimes like listening to music of ancient times, regarding pre-Voian history with speculative eyes or defying expectations of social status.”

“I have lived under the oppression of such expectations,” I said simply. “But clearly I could not be anywhere other than here, in the deviant southern sector. I have defied Ereba and paid the price, but it was in my nature to break away. I think there can be liberation here as much as there may be punishment. We only suffer as much as we allow ourselves to feel the pain of lack.”

“You are an idealist, then,” Alexis sighed. “Some of us do suffer here in the southern sector of Voia City, but it’s more the threat of enforcers and incarceration for any offense they can name that drives us to cower in fear in our homes when we could be enjoying freedoms that normative citizens don’t ordinarily dare to imagine.”

Alexis moved to a shelf on the wall that was stacked with books and papers, along with a few small carved wooden boxes. Kim had kept no books apart from The Book of Knowing in our penthouse apartment at The Dominion Complex. He was too determined to adhere strictly to Ereba to read ancient literature or poetry. Though I had heard of the existence of such books, I had never seen them with my own eyes. “The enforcers don’t search for blue mist here as readily as they might in other sectors of the city,” she said, gently touching the ancient books. “Since we are already deviants, they must assume it can’t drive us any farther from faith in Ereba than we’ve already gone. Blue mist intoxication is the least of their problems here, but be aware that what we are about to do could lead to your arrest and confinement at any time after this day.”

Alexis took one of the wooden boxes from the shelf in her living room and opened it on the coffee table. Inside were about twenty light blue capsules, a book of matches and a round, glass pipe. “It would be better if you would try some of this here with me. I’d feel more comfortable continuing if we could smoke,” Alexis said.

Then she cracked one of the blue mist capsules over the pipe, allowing the pale blue powder to fill its glass bowl. Alexis leveled the pipe to her lips and lit a match to it, closing her eyes and humming softly to herself. Smoke plumed in sweet aromatic clouds from the pipe, and as Alexis exhaled, her eyes took on the wide, glazed look that I remembered from my time with the Jaguar People as we had sipped from the Verdu cup.

When Alexis passed the pipe to me, I lit a match to the bowl, just as I had seen her do. The smoke entered my lungs, burning my throat. As I exhaled, I tasted a sweetness in my mouth. For several minutes, I felt nothing. I glanced over at Alexis, who was sitting meditatively in her chair, her eyes closed and her hands clasped together in her lap. The light fixture on the ceiling emitted a soft glow, illuminating her features and smooth skin so that she looked radiant, almost angelic. I could smell her perfume, which must have been scented oil infused with vanilla and rose petals.

Ralph did not smoke the blue powder. Instead, he sat stiffly next to me on the sofa, his hands on his knees. A reverent silence fell over the room. I could hear Ralph’s heavy, slightly labored breathing, and I could smell his body odor. Ralph wasn’t a violent man, and I wondered whether he’d been incarcerated in a prison, and if so, for what manner of crime. I didn’t dare to ask him, though.

“Do you hear them?” Alexis asked, speaking softly to me, sounding faintly out of breath.

“No,” I answered. I felt strangely euphoric, but the room seemed the same to me, and my mind was empty.

“They say that you’ve been in their presence. Is that true?”

I thought carefully before I answered, looking first at Ralph, who sat peacefully staring at the wall. “I had an experience on an alien craft… Yes,” I replied.

“So that’s why you sought me out,” Alexis said in her soft melodic voice. “I understand better now. You must have been afraid of them. They are very advanced as a species. Did they speak to you?”

“They spoke to me telepathically. I was given an injection and then released. They told me that the high priests hold our population in ignorance, and thereby maintain their tight dominion.”

Alexis opened her eyes again, leaning forward, “When the Bayli land, then we will be liberated. It has been said among the Star Seekers for years now. And how will the high priests be moved to stop punishing us for deviancy?”

“Voia City citizens must become enlightened to the presence of the Bayli in order for them to arrive. Their travel is powered by thought itself. They will enter our dimension in full physical form as soon as the population has reached the right level of awakening.” I paused for a few moments, realizing that Alexis knew the alien beings by name. “The high priests might be overcome by an uprising, but in that event the entire structure of the city would be in peril. Lives may be lost in large numbers. The Bayli have spoken of the ruin of our city.”

“Not everyone in Voia will want to smoke blue mist,” Alexis said. “But if there is an answer to the question of awakening in Voia City, it lies here in the deviant sector, among us.”

“There is an ancient artifact underground in Voia City,” I said, keeping my voice low and calm. “I have an idea of the location. Underground rail tunnel 17. There’s a door just beyond the tracks. I have learned that it is an alien technology that speaks of all wisdom past, present and future. If Voia City’s people witness this artifact, then they will see the light of truth beyond the veil. That may be the profound awakening we seek.” I remembered the words of the Jaguar elder, that the orb was too sacred to be moved from its location. I spoke merely on instinct that the orb would present the Voian people with a revelation they could not deny. If I was wrong, then the price for taking the orb might be very high, and we would be in deeper peril than we could imagine even among deviants in the southern sector.

“I’m pleased to be in your presence, then,” Alexis said. “It’s rare for someone to have such sacred knowledge. The Voian City population knows nothing of their own history, and that is why they live like drones, working every day but seeing nothing beyond the veil. They’re miserable in their ignorance, but they experience it as a strange, monotonous contentment. The prayers reinforce this blind obedience… You know that investigating such an artifact defies Ereba to its core, don’t you?”

“I have already defied The Knowing by taking intoxicants,” I answered. “If I have been punished and branded a deviant, then it is because of the secret knowledge that I acquired in The Wilds, where I experienced the Bayli face to face. The high priests do not want that knowledge to become publicly known. My life is nothing to them already. They value silence and secrecy above a single citizen such as myself.”

The blue mist had loosened my inhibitions. I hadn’t expected to tell Alexis so much. I looked at Ralph again, who sat calmly by my side, showing no expression. His cool demeanor in the presence of such illicit conversation must have been due to his long experience as a criminal and deviant. I could see faint, glowing lights just beyond the patterned wall hangings in the windows of Alexis’ apartment. I sensed that the Bayli were present, though I could hear nothing in my mind to indicate that they were attempting to communicate with me.

“They’re telling me to locate the artifact. It’s an orb, is it not? If we are to reach the next level of awareness, then this is the next step in the process,” Alexis said, her voice trembling a little bit in the stuffy room. The lavender incense continued to burn on the table, making me feel queasy.

I was spooked by the accuracy of Alexis’ statements. “Yes, it is an orb,” I confirmed. I wanted to hear the Bayli for myself, and I sat wondering why I was feeling only a heavy silence in my mind.

“The Star Seekers must know about this. I will tell the others what you have shared with me, Charlie. If there is a risk to you now, it is no greater than what you have already faced being branded as a deviant by the Council and the enforcers. If anything, you can rest easier now. You will soon be among friends.”

Chapter 26

I did not tell Alexis about the effects of the injection that the Bayli had administered to my thigh on that night in The Wilds just weeks earlier. Something inside me told me to keep that detail to myself. If Alexis knew that I’d been altered on the alien craft, then she might press me for more answers than I was prepared to provide. She might see me as something more deeply aberrant than a deviant. Old Voian prejudices about difference still remained, no matter how far from the Ereba path a person may have wandered.

Before I left, Alexis gave me the time and location of the next Star Seekers meeting. Such meetings never took place in the same location twice. The organizers were paranoid, or perhaps legitimately afraid of being watched and apprehended by Voia City enforcers. If they were so flatly against Ereba then they had reason to fear.

As Ralph and I stepped into the cool night air, walking back to Plum Tree Place, I was still intoxicated by the blue mist. Its effects were subtle, not quite like the black Verdu brew consumed by the Jaguar People. I felt elated despite the circumstances, and I laughed with Ralph as we moved up the sidewalk. Ralph did not speak of what had been exchanged in Alexis’ apartment. True to his ways, he was silent about the blue mist and any discussion of an uprising in Voia City.

It was after I climbed into bed that I saw the white light in the sky outside my bedroom window. It should have drawn attention, but when I looked outside, the streets appeared empty. There was a dead silence on the pavement below, as though time had frozen.

A soothing voice entered my mind as I stared at the light, “If you take the orb, then you may die. But death is nothing more than a conversion of matter to energy. You will not feel any pain. Consider that the critical moment of your people is approaching fast…”

I saw a Bayli female standing at the foot of my bed. It was a being like the feminine one who had comforted me after I received the injection on the Bayli craft. She moved a lighted wand over my body. “You’re progressing well,” she said to me with her thoughts. I could feel her benevolent intent in my muscles and nerves. I relaxed as she communicated with me, and I sank limp into the cushion of my mattress. “He’s looking for you. The one with the Voian eyes among the Jaguar People. You can find him in your city soon. He has also received an injection to alter his genetic coding.”

As I drifted into a restless sleep, thoughts of Jason’s face and his sea-green Voian eyes turned over in my mind. He would not have forgotten me. If he was in fact looking for me, then he might travel to Voia City very soon. And what he knew about the high priests of Ereba might be of great value to the Star Seekers.

Chapter 27

If my Info-graph had fallen into the hands of Voian city officials after it had been confiscated at Fairfax Hospital, then the Council might have concrete evidence of a Bayli presence on our planet. This knowledge would never be released to the Voian people. I recalled Dr. Suffolk’s statement about the danger of having secret knowledge. If knowledge only encouraged the desire for such levels of freedom as to inspire aberrant behavior, then I was already in possession of such knowledge. I was branded as a deviant in Voian public records, and there was no turning back from what I had discovered.

I rose at seven each morning and walked ten city blocks to my assigned job at the soup kitchen, punching in with my time card as I arrived. I quietly performed my work there, barely speaking to my supervisor and keeping in line with expectations. I returned to Plum Tree Place at six-thirty in the evening and went straight to my room, thinking of the Star Seekers and their contact with the Bayli.

I waited for the day of the Star Seekers’ meeting to arrive. In ten days I was on my way to a warehouse in the southern district, about two miles from the halfway house. I sat on the city bus, watching the other passengers. They averted their eyes from me and from each other, seeming to live in a tight paranoia. A woman in a service uniform glanced up from her newspaper at me, then pushed her purse closer to her body.

Warehouse 23 was on a dimly lit side street, with old newspapers littering the pavement. A man in a black wool jacket stood outside the high metal door, smoking tobacco and watching the rats scurry on the sidewalk. “I’m Charlie,” I said. “Alexis told me about the meeting. Can I enter?”

“Alexis is like a sister to me. Any friend of hers is a friend of mine. I’m Nicholas. Follow me.” The man opened the heavy door and we walked down a dark hallway to a large room with high ceilings and boxes stacked on vast metal shelves along the walls. I counted ten people in the room, appearing from different sectors of the city. Some were well-dressed, perhaps wealthy, while others were of the service class. Alexis sat in a metal chair at the center of the room, her sun amulet shining in the light.

“Welcome, Charlie,” she said, rising to greet me with a warm handshake. She clasped my hand in hers, then hugged me. The closeness of her body to mine was unusual to me. I hadn’t been hugged since I had last seen my father at The Dominion Complex. Members of the wealthy class rarely showed such affection unless they were blood related or married. “You’re the last member to arrive. We’re all here. Shall we begin?”

“What’s this I hear about an orb underground?” a man in blue jeans and work boots said. He was tall and muscular, with a thick mustache. He looked like he might be a manual laborer, and he grimaced as he spoke. “We have its location. Then we need to take it. If it’s alien technology, then it could be the proof we need to build a resistance.”

“The news of the orb came from our newest member. Charlie, what can you tell us about it?” Alexis looked at me with her large, compassionate eyes, expecting me to speak to the group.

I stammered at first, unsure what to say. “I learned about the orb in The Wilds. There is a race of people living there, calling themselves the Jaguar People. They are in possession of alien technology and use it in their daily affairs. They communicate with the aliens called Bayli through a black hallucinogenic substance called Verdu. I was held captive until I escaped less than three months ago. When I consumed Verdu with the Jaguar People, I saw the Bayli face to face. The Jaguar People believe that the orb is theirs to reclaim, after Voia City falls to ruin.”

“You’ve been to the Wilds?” Nicholas said quizzically. “Nobody goes there alone. How could you possibly have made it back to Voia City alive?”

“I was rescued by a military jeep and taken to Fairfax Hospital. I’m now branded a deviant and living in a halfway house with an assigned job,” I said.

“They don’t want the truth to get out,” the man in the work boots said. “That’s why you’re branded a deviant now. It’s to suppress the knowledge that you brought back with you. It’s suspicious that nobody is permitted into The Wilds without a military escort. The officials and high priests must know about these Jaguar People. If there are people out there in contact with alien kinds, then we should know about it. It’s for our own safety.”

I continued my story, standing up and looking around the room to see how much these people would believe, “When I made contact with the Bayli through the black drink called Verdu, I was taken into a Bayli ship, where I was told that interdimensional travel is powered by thought itself. The Bayli require an awakening of the Voian people in order for them to arrive here in full physical form, without the aid of Verdu or blue mist.”

“If Voia City just wakes up to the existence of the Bayli, then they will arrive?” the man in the work boots said, also standing. He looked heavily muscled and carried himself with a weight that many people might find intimidating. “I think we should start arming ourselves, and we should try to take the orb. That would wake us all up.”

“Ease up, Mike,” Nicholas said. “We don’t know if weapons will be of any use to us at all. The strength of the enforcers is too great for us to overcome them. Their numbers are much greater than ours. And to this point we have been a peaceful organization, simply seeking the truth about the Bayli and rightfully questioning the state faith and the high priests of Ereba.”

“Then let Charlie lead a team to investigate the orb,” Mike said. “She survived The Wilds, so she must be tougher than she looks.” Mike winked at me, his mouth turning up into a smile underneath his mustache. I didn’t think of myself as being tough at all, but a spark in me ignited, a sureness that I hadn’t felt before.

“Charlie can take us to the orb. She has direct experience with the Bayli. If we can reach it in its secret location without having to confront any enforcers, that would be in line with our objectives. Has anyone else here heard from the Bayli recently?” Alexis scanned the room as she spoke.

A woman in a loose-fitting floral dress rose her hand timidly. “I smoke blue mist in the northern district of Voia City, where there is a greater risk of arrest. My husband buys blue mist capsules from a pharmaceutical scientist who trades on the black market. He says that blue mist comes from a plant source in The Wilds. It must be derived from the same substance that Charlie calls Verdu. I have felt the Bayli presence faintly with blue mist, but I have never seen them as flesh and blood beings, as Charlie has done. Verdu must be a more potent form of the drug that allows us contact with higher forms of life.”

“Can you make contact with the Jaguar People again?” Alexis asked me.

“They come to Voia City at times,” I answered. “But I can’t know when or where. They may be looking for me since my escape from their village. They have alien technology that may aid them in finding me. I also was in possession of a piece of alien technology called an Info-graph, but it was confiscated at Fairfax Hospital.”

“The officials know much more than they will ever admit, then,” Mike said angrily. “They know that if we found out for sure about the presence of alien life on our planet, we might question them more aggressively about what else they might be concealing. How can anyone know who will be arrested and when, and for what cause? The official method of information gathering about Voia City citizens has always been hidden from us. We have a right to know how they monitor us…”

A tall woman with curls overhanging her face interrupted, speaking slowly in a syrupy tone that unnerved me, “I’ve seen all the signs I need to see. I know the Bayli personally, in my very soul they speak… Look upward to the moon and see the Bayli face in it. It’s glorious.” She began tittering and rubbing her thighs with her hands.

“Monica, keep quiet,” Mike said. Then he turned to me, “Charlie, there’s a darker side to intoxicants. I’m sure you know that some people have risked insanity in order to commune with the Bayli. And the worst has happened to some of them. There’s a lot at stake here. I’m sure you appreciate how deeply you have become involved. Don’t let us down.”

“We have reason to believe that the officials of the Voia City Council and the high priests of Ereba are aware of an alien presence,” Alexis said. “We have no way of knowing what they might do in the case of a full-scale arrival, even if the Bayli are peaceable and benevolent. The Voia City Press is nothing but official-sponsored stories designed to keep us in fear of any knowledge beyond what we need to have in order to work and stay in line with the laws. The prayer book, The Book of Knowing prepares us all for lives of servitude and ignorance. Ereba is not a faith but a method of dominion. Ereba’s high priests are at the top of the hierarchy that oppresses us and holds us in this ignorance. If they are in charge when the arrival happens, then they will likely order the arrest of anyone who questions them, and they will do so without conscience.”

Monica tittered again. Then she pulled at her curly hair and rubbed her face with her hands. I saw that she was rocking slightly in her chair. She was a casualty of blue mist intoxication. I knew that I was still in my right mind, but the sight of Monica scared me, and I felt the return of the coldness in my heart that I’d experienced as soon as I knew that I was going to be sent to the deviant sector of the city. It was a coldness that blocked all fear. If I was going to be afraid for my fate, this was not the time.

I sat still and silent, watching the Star Seekers in the warehouse room. For the most part, they seemed sane, but any one of them could break under the weight of full-fledged contact with the Bayli. I had seen them face to face and I was still strong in mind and body, perhaps stronger than I’d ever been before. Maybe Bartho had been right about me. I was different somehow. So the snake spirit had spoken to me about the beginning of time and I had heard the story of Voia City’s beginning, and I was still there, present and awake. I knew then that I would not break, that if I continued to listen to my heart, then I might find my way to a life without fear.

I thought again of Jason’s warning about Ereba’s high priests. He had fled Voia City alone for The Wilds after finding out some secret about the high priests that he had never revealed to me. Whatever he knew must have been shocking enough to make him abandon his working life in Voia City for the terror of the unknown. One thousand years of history were kept secret in the temples of Ereba, guarded by the high priests. Secret knowledge might inspire aberrant behavior, but it could also be a source of power, or a means to survival. What I had believed for so long about The Knowing had merely kept me in fear of deviating even slightly from the rules of Voian society. I looked around the room in Warehouse 23 one last time before I left the meeting. Everyone looked awake, somehow more vibrantly alive than ordinary Voians. Yet what dangers would we encounter simply for having woken up?

Chapter 28

The next day, the enforcers came for Ralph at Plum Tree Place. It was early in the morning, just after sunrise, when I saw four men dressed in black, with heavy black boots and guns at their hips. They entered Plum Tree Place without knocking or identifying themselves, but I knew who they were. I had heard too many stories about the enforcers not to know them by sight.

They found Ralph in the dining area, eating a steaming bowl of oatmeal in his leather jacket. When Ralph saw the men, he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “Time to go, Ralph,” the first enforcer said, his voice barking loudly in the tiny room.

“Me?” Ralph asked, looking confused. “I haven’t done anything but my assigned job for weeks. You must be making a mistake.”

“There are no mistakes here,” the enforcer said. “Stand up and hold your hands out in front of you. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

Ralph saw me standing frozen in the doorway, his lips pressed together tightly and his eyes alert and focused. “Go,” he mouthed to me, visibly willing me to leave the scene. But I stood there, watching.

Then Ralph drove his left elbow into the gut of the enforcer behind him. The enforcer coughed and doubled over, his eyes bulging with shock. What happened then was so quick that I hardly took it in. In a flurry of arms and legs, one enforcer drove a stun gun into Ralph’s side while the others shackled his hands to his waist. Ralph swayed on his feet, almost ready to collapse, but he held himself steady with the chair in front of him.

“Listen, lady,” Ralph said to me coldly. “I don’t know who you are but you’d better mind your own business. I don’t know you, so get out of the way.” And then, I rushed upstairs to my room, knowing that Ralph was going to be moved to one of Voia City’s prisons. I was losing the only friend I had at Plum Tree Place, and he had tried to make it seem to the enforcers that we were not associated with each other at all. He must have been trying to protect me. I sat on the edge of my bed, wondering whether the enforcers might be closing in on me or the other Star Seekers. There had been no warning before Ralph’s arrest. If I was going to be taken by the enforcers, it would be just as sudden.

I opened my copy of The Book of Knowing and found Prayer 67: “Let the presence of The Knowing be your guide through the dark of indecision. It sees all, knows all, and hears your thoughts. Only The Knowing can foretell the future and lead you to the clear light of truth.” I pictured the high priests writing these words one thousand years in the past. Arrests were made in Voia City seemingly without evidence for any crime. Was the omniscience of The Knowing real, or was it merely a metaphor for the information gathering powers of the high priests? Ereba praised the truth as one of its central tenets, but the deep secrecy of the priesthood was held in contradiction to its seeming celebration of liberation through truth. The high priests had withheld the truth from the people of Voia City for a thousand years, punishing anyone who came close to discovering it. What we had been trained to think of as a virtue in truth-seeking was in fact a crime for which we could be punished without thoughtful evaluation, without mercy. Ereba was nothing more than a trap, holding Voia City in its grip as its people lived in fear of punishment.

Chapter 29

I began a habit of walking the streets of the southern sector at night. It wasn’t that I was any less afraid of the enforcers, but more a solemn resolution to the fact that they could take me at any time, even at Plum Tree Place. I saw little point in hiding in my room at the halfway house. Instead, I allowed myself to venture out, with a desire for knowledge that only grew more intense the more I learned.

The streets were sparsely populated after dark, with a few homeless citizens curled on benches or sitting in doorways, asking for coins. The windows of stores and apartment buildings were left on, casting a subtle glow in the night. As I passed a brick building with a rickety black fire escape winding up the side, I heard music playing. It was deviant music with lyrics from an ancient time, and the words entranced me as they reached my willing ears. The male vocalist sang of walking down a hallway, looking at images of people he had loved. There was a dark psychology to the song, with base desires and the threat of violence rising to the surface as the singer’s voice turned to a primal yell. I had never heard anything like it, and I stood on the street facing the building, my heart welling up with emotion.

I stepped closer to the building, and as I did, I noticed the form of a woman through a window. A tiny gap in the curtains revealed a sparsely furnished room with piles of books on the floor. The woman was sweeping the floor with a broom, singing along with the music. As she lifted her head, I saw a face that looked very much like the face of my former classmate Angelica. Her hair was long, hanging in curls around her face, and if it was Angelica, she had lost some of the litheness of her youth. If this was the fate of the young girl whom I had mourned on solitary nights in my study at The Dominion Complex, then perhaps she had not suffered as terribly as I had imagined. Angelica may have found a new brand of peace in the deviant sector of Voia City, with a life that I could now almost envy.

Then, someone grabbed my arm. “Charlie, it’s me,” a voice said just behind me. I wrenched my arm away instinctively, then turned to see Jason standing there in ordinary Voian street clothes. He had let his hair grow longer, brushed back from his face to match the style more typical of the city. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, looking a little bit hurt by my reaction. “I’m not going to hurt you, but you need to come with me now.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, faintly glad to see him. But instead of smiling like I wanted to, I felt frozen, oddly cold. It was dangerous in the southern sector at night, and I’d been stunned. Jason looked nervous, so I put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright,” I said. “I was just surprised to see you here.”

“We’re going somewhere we can talk,” Jason answered, backing away from me on the sidewalk. “I know this city sector well, since I came here at night after work was over at the Temple of Ereba where I was a janitor. There’s a bar a few blocks from here. You look stressed. Maybe you could use a drink.”

I had never consumed alcohol before, and I assumed so few people did in Voia City that there would be very few illicit liquor establishments around. But when we reached the bar, there was a line of people at the basement level door, where a large man stood allowing patrons entry. “I used to come here before I ran to The Wilds five years ago,” Jason said, trying to sound cheery. “It has its fair share of dangerous characters, but you’ll be safe with me. The beer is the best you can get in the southern sector.” He grinned then more genuinely, and I saw a trace of the good nature I’d seen in Jason’s face during my captivity in The Wilds. I relaxed and walked through the black door with him, the imposing doorman eyeing us with a grimace before waving us through.

The tables were spaced far apart, with round wooden chairs and paper placemats. I could smell the beer in the air, and several patrons sat solitary, sipping from tall glasses. They looked not so much menacing as furtive, looking down at the tables and stealing brief glances around the room as they drank. “There’s been some fighting at the Jaguar village,” Jason said after we received our beers. “Dourha is dead, but there are others who object to the holding of Voian captives. These are men willing to kill in defiance of the elders. A search party found Michael tied to a tree after you escaped. He was shaken, but alive. The other Voians remain in the village, and Bartho has led the capture of three more.”

“Then why have you come for me?” I asked. I could feel my arms shaking despite the sedating effect of the beer. It tasted unpleasantly bitter to me, but I found an unusual warmth in my body. I leaned in towards Jason, suddenly feeling a closeness to him in that strange, illicit environment.

“Those Voians who were captured were named by the Bayli. The elders say that they must have you back in order to maintain the agreement of exchange for the orb. They want the orb badly. They’ve waited a lifetime for the fulfillment of the prophecy, the return of their artifact.”

“So are you here to capture me?” I asked. I backed up in my chair a little bit. I did not want to return to The Wilds.

“It’s no safer for you in Voia City, Charlie,” Jason said. “The high priests will allow the arrival of the Bayli to cause chaos in the city. They have already predicted the uprising that would result, and they plan to incarcerate thousands of people if they have to in order to reestablish their dominion. If anything, they believe that such an event will strengthen their authority over the city. They want it to happen. It’s part of their plans.”

“And that’s why you ran to The Wilds five years ago?” I asked.

“Yes,” Jason answered, lowering his voice. “And I know how they’ve been using the power of the orb to dictate their arrests in the city. They’ve manipulated it somehow to reveal the names of anyone who is a threat to their dominion. For the slightest offenses, Voians have been arrested for years, but eventually they just began taking people who developed any sense of curiosity about Ereba’s contradictions and hypocricies.”

“Then why haven’t they come for me?” I looked at Jason with a burning stare and when he looked back, I saw the same fire in his eyes.

“They may be biding their time for you, Charlie,” he said, glancing down at his hands, which were placed firmly on the table. “Or they may be allowing you to follow through with whatever plans you may have because it is ultimately in their own interest to do so.”

“I have been with the Star Seekers. They are an organization that questions the state faith and communicates telepathically with the Bayli through blue mist intoxication. They seek the truth about our world, risking insanity and incarceration to do so. Why have they not been named by the orb and arrested?”

Jason paused a few moments, then placed his hand on mine with a delicate warmth. “Whether the Star Seekers realize it or not, they’re playing right into the hands of the high priests. They’re only on the streets because they’re permitted to be there. What they do is going to speed the process of mass incarceration. The high priests allow them to continue their meetings and activities because it will only fuel the fire of the inevitable crackdown.”

I felt a subtle electricity between us, and then I remembered what the female Bayli had said to me as she visited me in my room at Plum Tree Place. Jason had also received the injection to alter his genetic coding. If he could sense the world with heightened senses as I could, then surely he would feel my rising anger. “Come with me and the Star Seekers when we investigate the orb,” I implored. “I saw its location on the Info-graph you gave to me. It’s at an underground rail station, behind the tunnel.”

“The Jaguar elders may not approve of this, but I’ll go with you if you promise to travel back to The Wilds with me after it’s over.” Jason withdrew his hand from mine and stood in the half-light of the bar. “When are you going to go?” he asked.

“The next holy day of Ereba, The Day of Peace,” I said. “It’s in less than one week.”

Chapter 30

The Day of Peace was said to be a celebration of The Knowing, for its omniscient power to protect the Voian people. There was to be a gathering in midtown Voia City, near the Temple of Ereba where I had acquired my new copy of The Book of Knowing. I was granted the day off from my assigned job to attend the festivities, and I spent the morning alone in my room at Plum Tree Place, examining my prayer book.

“Let the past go the way of the wanderer, and return home only when the journey is done.” This was Prayer 45, and it had been my favorite as a child. I had many times sought solace in this prayer during my marriage to Kim, when he had been critical of my appearance or manners. Now that life seemed so distant from my current one that I could hardly accept it as having been my own. It was a phantom world to which I could never return.

The past held secrets about Voian origins, the interbreeding of the Jaguar People with the Bayli one thousand years ago. Each time I had looked into a pair of Voian green eyes, I had realized that those were the eyes of a Bayli descendant, unaware of the true origins of our people. If the high priests, the original children of the Bayli, hadn’t rebelled one thousand years ago, would I have lived in a more harmonious society? What kind of world would we have under the influence of the more advanced Bayli?

Prayer 40 was the one I had recited with Peter when I met him in the Jaguar village: “Peace is bestowed on those who embrace the truth in the present time. And let the truth strengthen you with its undeniable light. The way of the truth is the way to our freedom.” Somehow the prayer was now intoned with a new meaning for me. The religious tenet against examining the past held all of Voia’s people in the grip of ignorance. We had never known true freedom through living in the present moment at all times. This dictate had merely cloaked the activities of the high priests in the secrecy that allowed them to oppress us for centuries. The price of knowledge is suffering, I thought as I closed my prayer book. And the only way to live with what we know is to seek solace in other believers.

I met Jason in the midst of The Day of Peace celebrations that afternoon. As a city-wide holiday, it was a day of rest for Voian citizens, and the city had stopped its ordinary machinations. Shop windows were black, offices closed and people filled the streets, watching a procession of high priests in midtown.

I realized that I could sense Jason’s presence in the crowd well before he approached me. It was more than a scent in the air that I associated with him. It was the feeling of his protective instinct towards me as he drew closer. Did he sense me as much as I sensed him?

“It’s a good day to approach the orb,” Jason said as he stood next to me, his bright eyes flashing over the faces in the crowd, possibly searching for anyone who might regard us as suspicious and report us to enforcers. “All the high priests are in the procession. They won’t interrupt us as we enter the underground cave that houses the orb.”

We found Alexis and Mike at the opening of Underground Rail Station 17. Alexis looked stern, unlike her usual brightly serene countenance. “We’ll have to jump the tracks, but I think we can handle that. You’re strong enough, Charlie,” Alexis said.

“Who’s the new man?” Mike asked, suspiciously glancing at Jason’s sturdy black boots and neat work clothes.

“I’m Jason, and I’m nobody who’s going to talk about this to anyone who matters,” Jason said, looking Mike directly in the eye.

“You better not,” Mike said through gritted teeth. I could see that Mike was even more high-strung than usual. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides, and his brow furrowed in a scowl.

“Let’s go,” Alexis said.

The four of us walked down the stone steps to the rail station corridors. We walked through a rounded hall with tiled walls and large posters with various advertisements and official notices. One poster read: “Let The Knowing be your guide, when in doubt. It sees all and its power is as wide as the open sky.” Below the text was a photograph of a temple, a young Voian woman reaching for the hand of a high priest on its steps. I balked at the blatant illusion that the image represented. Were most Voian people willing to believe that the high priests protected them so benevolently? When they saw this image on their way to work, did they believe in their hearts that it was real?

Chapter 31

The underground rail platform was empty as we arrived. The tiled walls reflected the fluorescent lights with a sickly yellow sheen. I could hear the distant rumble of a train in another tunnel.

Alexis climbed over a metal railing, down onto the tracks, her slight body swinging easily downward. When she dropped five feet to the ground below, she exhaled heavily, as though the air had been knocked out of her chest. I followed her over the railing, then Jason and Mike came next.

We found a red door inside the rail tunnel, only about twenty feet beyond the platform. The door opened with a loud, metallic creaking, and we entered a black hall with wet floors. There was an odor of rot, and I covered my nose and mouth with my hand. As we reached a second door, Mike pulled its handle to find that it was locked. A silver keypad was visible on the wall to the right side of the door. Without speaking, Jason took an Info-graph from his pocket, pointed it at the keypad, then found the code in large bright text on the screen of his device.

“Where’d you get that?” Mike asked. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. Who are you with, anyway?”

“I’m from The Wilds,” Jason replied sternly.

“If that’s Bayli technology, then we have a lot to talk about later,” Alexis said.

“Sorry, but I can’t do that,” Jason answered, focusing on the Info-graph and punching the code into the keypad on the wall.

“Then this will have to be good enough for now,” Alexis said, stepping back against the wall as the door swung open automatically on its hinge.

“Hard to picture a high priest of Ereba coming through this way. They must have another entrance,” Mike said.

“They come down through the temple aboveground,” Jason answered absently. “We should be careful in case someone is already in the chamber where they commune with the orb.”

Mike gave Jason a hard look. He must have been suspicious, since Jason appeared to know about the workings of the high priests. And then, there was the Info-graph, more telling than anything else that Jason was not an ordinary Voian.

The inner room had stone walls, with a single overhead light mounted in the ceiling. It flickered slightly as we entered, casting us momentarily in darkness. A large glass cube sat on a magnificently carved marble block. I saw figures of cats, eagles and snakes etched delicately in the marble, along with the mysterious twisted string pattern that I had seen in my Ereba prayer book.

Jason stepped forward, placing his hand on the glass cube. As his fingers pressed on the glass, it emitted a soft glow of blue light, then turned yellow. “Welcome, Jason,” a voice said. The voice was not a human voice, nor was it produced by anyone in the room. I looked at my three companions before realizing that the voice was in my mind. Its deep, masculine tone had penetrated my consciousness as surely as my feet were on the ground. They looked stunned and enraptured, taking in its power.

“What’s your power source?” Jason asked aloud, speaking directly to the glass cube.

“I am powered by thought itself,” the voice continued. “The energy of thought is measurable, though not by any science you are now aware of. I receive all of Voia City’s thoughts, and far beyond, to a distance beyond your planet. This is my power to know.”

“If the orb is inside that glass cube, then maybe there’s a way for us to break through and take it,” Mike said, shifting his weight with a tension that emanated from his body, right to my bones.

“I don’t think we need to do that,” Jason said. “Let’s just see what it has to say, first.”

Then the orb spoke again, this time more powerfully, “If you are here seeking the truth, then allow me to tell you what I know of this world and the worlds beyond…” Then the top of the glass cube lifted upward, and the glass panels receded down into the marble block. What remained was a bright, yellow spherical object, with veins of white across its surface. A tiny pinprick of light pulsated at its center, flashing the room with veils of yellow.

“This is too easy,” Mike said nervously. “There must be something wrong here, some kind of catch. I don’t trust this.”

“Stay calm, Mike,” Alexis said, stepping towards the orb. Then she placed her hand on it, her deep black hair shining in the light, her delicate features appearing white as chalk against the blackened walls of the room. Alexis stood straight suddenly, her eyes wide with shock. Then, she collapsed on the floor.

“She’s still breathing,” Jason said, taking Alexis’ pulse. I noticed that his hand was shaking as he held her wrist. I had never seen Jason so nervous before.

“Charlie is strong enough to withstand touching my surface,” the orb said. “Her genetic coding has been altered by the Bayli. She has the strength of perception to receive my power and stand strong.”

Mike and Jason both turned to me, questioning with their eyes. “The Bayli gave me an injection,” I said. “They told me that its purpose was to alter my genetic coding and heighten my perceptual powers. I felt different after it was done. I could sense things. I have heard from the Bayli that you also have received the injection, Jason. Is that true?”

“Yes, when I first entered the Wilds and drank Verdu, I found myself among the Bayli in the forest. It helped me to sense the natural world as well as any of the Jaguar People. It helped me to fit in. I saw it as a gift from our true parents, too sacred to mention until now…”

“Then the Bayli have chosen you, too,” I said.

“For what?” Jason asked.

“To be among those with heightened awareness. To be awake enough to bring the Bayli to our dimension in full physical form.”

Alexis had not yet regained consciousness. Jason crouched over her, watching her slow, steady breathing. Her chest rose and fell in tiny beats, and her face looked pallid. Suddenly Alexis looked older than her years, as though the shock of touching the orb had drained her face of its former brightness.

Then, we heard the sound of footsteps from the opposite side of the room. Someone was approaching the other entrance to the chamber of the orb.

“We’ve got to go,” Mike said.

Then I did what seemed the most natural thing in the world to do. I had been prepared by my captivity in The Wilds among the Jaguar People, my unholy confinement at Fairfax Hospital and my new and fiercely devoted life at the halfway house in the deviant sector of Voia City. I reached for the orb, clasping it in both hands.

I felt a jolt of energy through my body, my arms and legs went numb and my mind went blank. I opened my eyes and saw only blackness in front of me. There were no sounds, no smells and no feeling of the ground beneath my feet. My hands gripped the orb and I lifted it from its place on the marble block. It was surprisingly light, weighing only about three pounds. I suddenly thought of Dr. Suffolk at Fairfax Hospital and his statement that knowledge of secret things would inspire the desire for freedoms and aberrant behavior unfit for civilized society. I thought of his smug smile and his unfaltering, pitying gaze.

I blinked my eyes and saw the tall coniferous trees of The Wilds around me. There was a rustling of branches in the wind, amidst a profound peacefulness that swelled my heart with rapture. A black jaguar approached me from between the trees, its yellow eyes fixed on mine, its sharp jaws widening with each step. Then there was a blinding white light in the sky, drenching the jaguar so that it appeared as a mere shadow in the whiteness. “You’re here,” I said to the jaguar. “I see you…”

Then the Ereba high priest entered the room, dressed in his formal white suit and sacramental sash. The sash was bright red against the white cloth of his suit, and at first I thought it was blood on his chest. When he saw the empty space on the marble block where the orb should have been, he drew a tiny silver pistol, pointing it at my chest. “You cannot take it. It is not yours to have,” he demanded, his voice shaking with rage.

Mike lunged at the priest in a blur of sudden force. The priest hit the back wall of the room with a thud, his neck snapping forward. There was a popping sound, and I realized that the pistol had fired a shot. Mike was bleeding from his right arm, the wound oozing a plume of blood across his work shirt like the bloom of a flower. The pistol had landed on the floor, where Jason rushed to grab it.

The priest moaned and opened his eyes, looking dazed. Jason pointed the pistol at him, helping Mike to his feet. “You do not know what you have just taken,” the priest said, struggling to breathe. “Its power can destroy you. Just give it back and I will not name you for arrest.”

“It’s too late for that consideration,” Jason said to the priest. “And when the Bayli arrive, you can’t promise that to any of us, can you?”

“They wait for me just as much as they wait for you, young man,” the priest said between labored breaths. “But my place among the Bayli is as sure as the orb is in her hands at this moment. Do not place your trust in what you do not fully understand. That would be naïve. The Bayli will spare me and allow you to suffer the punishment for your crimes. Their hearts are cold as stone and their intellects are sharp enough to see the grander plan…”

“What would that grander plan tell us about our fates?” Jason persisted, lowering the pistol slightly. I could see beads of sweat on his forehead, his lips trembling.

“The children of the Bayli were never created for the liberties you have sought as deviants. You are deviants, are you not? If you speak of the Bayli, then you have been so branded. The orb is Bayli technology. It can do nothing but their ultimate will, which is to keep our society ordered to perfection. And for that to order to be realized, you must learn to submit to something far greater than yourselves. Your error has been to defy The Knowing and the priesthood. Until all Voia’s people have learned to submit, we must punish those who boldly defy the authority that keeps this great city running like the intricate workings of a faultless timepiece.” The priest struggled to lift himself from his place on the cement floor, pressing his palms weakly against the wall. “Your individual life is nothing to the Bayli. You are no more than an experiment to them. In time you will see that from within the walls of one of Voia’s prisons.”

Chapter 32

I placed the yellow orb in my shoulder bag and Jason lifted Alexis from the floor, carrying her out of the chamber and into the dank hall. Mike held his left hand over his bleeding right arm, sneered at the priest, and nodded for me to follow Jason.

Alexis regained consciousness on the railway tracks, as we climbed to the platform. “Did we get it?” she asked.

“Yes, we got what we came for,” Mike answered. “Are you alright? You had a shock.”

“I’m good,” Alexis said breathlessly. “I thought my heart stopped for a few seconds when I touched the orb. We need to find out more about it before we decide what to do next. It is clearly nothing to be toyed with.”

“If the high priest is going to identify us, then it’s better that we’re out of the city when he does,” Jason said. “I’m taking Charlie to The Wilds, with the orb. The Jaguar People will reclaim the orb after having waited a thousand years. It’s the fulfillment of the prophecy.”

“I’m not hanging around, waiting to be arrested,” Mike said. “Are you with us, Alexis?”

“Yes,” Alexis said, nodding her head. “If there are answers in The Wilds, then that is where we have to go.”

The Day of Peace festivities were still happening in midtown, and we had to walk through hordes of people, all standing around, watching the procession of high priests on the street. I saw a line of enforcers standing around a barricade, directing traffic away from the procession. “This way,” I said, directing Jason, Alexis and Mike to a side street heading to the southern district of Voia City.

Jason used a thin metal tool to open the door of a car parked on the side street. Mike eyed him again, skeptically, “Are you going to tell us how you know so many tricks like that?”

“You’ll know soon enough,” Jason answered.

We climbed into the car, a red older model that creaked slightly as we sat down. The orb vibrated slightly in my shoulder bag and I felt a pulse in my body, as though it was exchanging energy with me. I held Alexis’ hand in the back seat of the car. In time the enforcers would be looking for all four of us, and I imagined that the penalty for taking the orb would be harsh. I shivered at the thought of going to prison, which was rumored to be worse than institutions like Fairfax Hospital.

An enforcer car raced past us, its lights glaring in our faces and its siren wailing against the buildings. “They don’t know who they’re looking for yet,” Mike said. “We have some time to get out of the city.”

Jason started the car with what looked like a key, held on the same ring of tools he had used to open the car door. I wondered how long the Jaguar People had been roaming Voia City, just under the noses of the enforcers and regular citizens. They were practiced at scaling buildings and stealing cars, as I knew from my abduction weeks before. Now they were going to reclaim the orb, but there was no telling whether they would be a match for the full force of Voia’s enforcers if it ever came to a confrontation.

Jason drove twenty minutes to the Marksgate Bridge to find Bartho standing at the gate, waiting for us. As we exited the car, Bartho slapped me on the back and said, “Snake woman is back.” I smiled back at Bartho nervously, unsure whether he understood the danger we were in. As I turned my head to look at Voia City’s skyline, I saw a metal egg-shaped craft hovering over the City Towers, the official building of the Voia City Council. It was just like the craft I had seen in The Wilds before I had met the Bayli face to face and received the injection to alter my genetic coding.

“Do you see that?” I asked the others. “It’s a Bayli craft over the Voia City skyline…”

The others looked in the direction of the City Towers, shrugging and seeing nothing unusual. “You have the sight, now,” Alexis said. “Be careful of how all this has changed your perceptions. Those with the sight sometimes are crippled by insanity under its weight. I’ve seen it happen before.”

“What’s the sight?” I asked Alexis, gripping my shoulder bag as I watched the Bayli craft hover, then speed beyond the clouds in a sharp ray of white light.

“It means that you perceive the Bayli without the aid of intoxicants like blue mist. You are in communion with them always.”

Chapter 33

“Who are these new ones?” Bartho asked, looking at Alexis and Mike, his black eyes darting over them as though inspecting them for clues.

“I’m Mike, she’s Alexis,” Mike said, gesturing towards Alexis, who was now standing beside him, having regained her strength. “We’re looking for answers about the Bayli. We have the orb right here.”

I fingered the edges of my shoulder bag, feeling waves of energy from the orb. Then, I lifted the top flap of the bag to let the soft yellow glow of the orb escape before Bartho’s eyes. Bartho stood straighter, then leaned forward.

For a few moments, we all stood in silence, watching the glowing light of the ancient artifact. Bartho’s eyes grew soft, welling up with tears. “This is not what the elders have told us would transpire,” Bartho said. “The object is of such beauty that the elders will not be able to deny its return in full grace and power, but it has been moved from its sacred location in Voia. We may suffer for this transgression. You must beware of the sacred as much as you may feel inspired by it. Anything of such profound spiritual power may also have the power to harm.”

Bartho produced a thin metal wand from his pocket, and waved it quickly over Mike’s right arm, where the bullet wound was oozing deep red blood. The wand emitted a blue light, stopping the bleeding and closing the wound. “Thank you,” Mike said. “We’re coming with you by choice. We need refuge from Voia City, and we are looking to find out the truth in The Wilds. Treat us as such.”

“There is no choice,” Bartho replied stoically. “You come with us and we will treat you well according to our instructions from the elders. There is no other authority to the Jaguar People. So it must be told.”

Bartho’s serious expression turned briefly to a look of profound peace. When he spoke his words carried the weight of a lifetime spent waiting for the fulfillment of a prophecy, that anticipation now turned sour with uncertainty, “We proceed on foot, then we must find the elders at the village and share the news with them.” Then he punched the entry code into the gate.

We camped after about three hours on foot. Bartho and Jason built a fire, while Mike and Alexis sat shivering against a tree trunk. The coolness of the evening had descended, replacing the heat of the day seamlessly. I watched Jason for signs that he might perceive the natural world as I did. The rustling of the tree branches made my nerves tingle, and I began to feel the sensation of animals prowling just beyond the place where our fire was burning.

“The high priests of Ereba have lost their source of information with the loss of the orb. They may start making random arrests in Voia City now that they cannot target individuals who are questioning the state faith or beginning to feel the presence of the Bayli through blue mist. Now, nobody will be safe,” Jason said.

“They won’t rest until they have complete control of the population,” Alexis said, speaking in a low voice, wrapping herself tightly in her jacket. “Any remaining freedom will be lost, replaced with drudgery and deeper ignorance.”

“What we have done can’t be undone,” Mike said gruffly, standing with his arms folded across his chest. Mike was a large man. He seemed tough enough to survive what lay ahead. I wasn’t so sure of Alexis, who was more delicate, a dreamer with her eyes ever on the sky. She might be shocked easily. “The question is what to do next?” Mike asked, prodding the fire with a stick and watching the flames crackle in the dark.

I watched the clouds drift languidly across the shining moon, and as I did, I felt the orb’s subtle weight against my hip. It had been silent in my shoulder bag since our escape from the inner chamber where the high priests had kept it for so long. I wondered what mysteries it might reveal and what lengths the high priests of Ereba might go to in order to try to get it back.

Chapter 34

I slept with my shoulder bag cradled under my arm, the orb’s gentle vibration soothing me into a deep state of relaxation. I dreamed of the jaguar soul that I had seen when I touched the orb in the chamber of the high priests of Ereba. His lithe body approached me in the forest, then he turned, beckoning me to follow. As I walked behind the jaguar, he began to run, and I picked up the speed of my pace until I was running alongside him. “Your freedom can be found here and within,” he thought to me as we raced through the tall trees, my feet pounding on the ground with preternatural sureness. “You will know no bounds when you are with me. The time is near for your awakening to the realm of energetic spirit. You have escaped death already. You need only believe it.”

I awoke breathing hard, my feet aching as though they had felt the impact of the ground in my dream. I looked over at Jason, who was already awake, sitting over the ashes of the campfire, watching me. “You were dreaming,” he said. “Someone like you must have powerful dreams, as I can see from the way you were twitching.”

“Someone like me, meaning what?” I asked, lifting myself to my feet, careful to hold the orb at my side.

“Meaning, you’re a survivor. You’re powerful, now.”

“It’s still early in the game to know something like that, isn’t it?” I said.

“I think I knew when you first walked into the Jaguar village,” Jason confessed, running a hand over his smooth brown hair. “It’s in your eyes. They speak of someone who has refused to accept easy answers and who has instead chosen to reach beyond the pain of revelation to something more. You have seen something real among us, haven’t you?”

“I have witnessed the snake spirit while in the Verdu trance. I’m waiting to know the full meaning of that vision,” I said. “The animals know more than we can imagine. I feel more at home here in The Wilds than I ever have before.”

“Then stay here,” Jason said, his green eyes burning slightly in the morning light. Then he smiled, but it wasn’t the usual good natured grin he wore; it was a sad look that spoke of lonely days in a foreign wilderness, away from the home he left in Voia City.

“Do I have any choice about that?” I asked, surprising myself with the sharp tone of my words.

“One day you will,” Jason said. “On that day you may realize that the peace of The Wilds is preferable to the paranoia and rancor of Voia City.”

Bartho slapped my back, having appeared behind me without warning. For a tall man he moved silently, like a prowling big cat. “Time to move,” he said in his familiar baritone voice. “We will make it to the Jaguar village in two hours if we start moving now.”

Chapter 35

We heard the military trucks as we reached the village. Voian soldiers had combed The Wilds after the theft of the orb, in what was perhaps a desperate move by the high priests of Ereba. We saw lines of Jaguar People being herded into the backs of the trucks, with men in plain black uniforms pointing rifles at them.

We were approached by two soldiers who spotted us just as we made it through the trees to witness the scene. “We’re clearing The Wilds of deviants. If you’re here, it means you have to come with us. You can get on that truck over there,” the first soldier said, waving his rifle towards a truck at the edge of the village. I saw an elder stepping into its cargo hold, barefoot, his tattoo a shadow on his chest in the morning light. The elder looked at me knowingly and waved. It was a small gesture of defiance to the circumstances, and I found myself looking back at him, my own expression one of doubt and uncertainty.

Mike bristled as Alexis clung to him in fear. “There will be no confrontation,” Bartho said firmly. “We cannot be forced to submit in our hearts, whatever they may do to us, wherever they may force us to go.”

Jason looked at the scene stoically, then met the eyes of the soldiers with grim resolution. “I’m with you,” he said, holding my hand. “We’re together in this. Let’s not forget what we’ve been through until now.”

“I won’t forget,” I answered, squeezing his hand a little bit tighter.

“What do you have in the bag?” the soldier asked, reaching for my shoulder bag.

“It’s nothing,” I said. I tightened my grip on the shoulder strap. But then, realizing that he was going to insist on seeing the contents of my bag, I stepped forward and opened the flap for him to see the orb.

The soldier’s eyes widened and he reached for the glowing yellow orb with his right hand. When he touched it, a surge of energy passed through him. He stood rigidly upright for a moment, then relaxed. His eyes grew soft and rapturous, then he looked up towards the sky.

“You alright?” the second soldier asked him.

“I’m fine,” he replied. “It’s nothing. Let her move into the truck.”

When we boarded the military truck I sat facing the elder. He looked at me with his yellowed eyes, seeming strangely at peace. “Something has changed in the order of the natural world. A shift has occurred, leading to this event. We must pay attention to it as a sign of more unrest to come. There is no sadness, only acceptance. We must hold strong to our ways wherever these trucks may take us.”

“We have taken the orb,” I said, fighting to get the words out. I knew then that the elder would see it as an unholy act, the cause of the troubles we were now facing. When I looked into his eyes, they were unchanged. He received my words calmly. Only the fingers of his hands twitched as they rested in his lap.

“Something so sacred cannot be held in Voian hands without consequence. If you have touched the orb, then you are bound to it forever. And now its power to know and speak has been altered. It influences us as much as it receives our thoughts and prayers. The prophecy will be fulfilled in some other mysterious way. It is not for us to know the precise meaning of prophetic wisdom, only to do our best to prepare and make way for events as they come to pass.” Then the elder glanced at my shoulder bag, knitting his brows, a sudden hunger seeming to overcome him. “It’s there, isn’t it? I want to see it.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, opening my bag, allowing the light of the orb to shine in the elder’s eyes.

“It is just as I thought it would be,” the elder said, so softly that I strained to hear him. “The light of it shines to my very soul. You feel it as well, otherwise you would not be sitting here so calmly. And you have seen the jaguar, of that I am certain. To have seen the great jaguar soul, you have been chosen for a position of great power and influence one day. But to have grasped the orb with your hands, to have moved something so sacred from its resting place of a thousand years, you may suffer for that.”

“How will I suffer?” I asked. I was concerned for the others, who had not understood the sacred power of the orb when we set off to investigate it.

“In order to be worthy of its power, you must suffer trials. You must be strengthened further. If you think you are strong now, you must be stronger still. Be prepared for the visions and the pain that are yet to come.”

“And what about Voia City?” I asked the elder, making sure to meet his leveled gaze. “The year 5550 is approaching. Will it still fall to ruin?”

“If it does, then we will be there to witness that momentous event ourselves,” the elder replied. “What seems like a failure is often merely the ashes from which you may rise as the great phoenix, reborn. If Voia’s people are strong enough to handle the chaos that may befall the city, then you may find yourself in a new world after the year of the prophecy has arrived.”

The truck jerked, then moved forward, its engine rumbling loudly. The soldier who had touched the orb had also failed to lock the door to the cargo hold of the truck. I saw the crack of light peeking through the door, then looked at Jason. “Wait a few minutes, then we can jump,” I said. Jason nodded at me, bracing himself in his seat.

I pushed the door open to see that we were riding along the edge of a great river. Voia City’s river must have flowed through The Wilds, its currents washing the wrongs of the city into the pure wilderness beyond. I gripped my bag, then jumped into the water. Jason followed me with a great splash. Water rushed into my nose as I paddled downstream. I turned to look up at the military truck. The others had chosen to stay, perhaps too old or too frightened to risk the fall from such a height.

We swam about a mile before we were able to crawl onto the river bank. Jason gasped for air, his chest heaving and his nostrils flaring. I lay on my back for a moment, looking up towards the trees and the sky. The sun warmed my face as I shivered in my wet clothes. Then I realized that my bag was empty. The orb was gone.

Chapter 36

Jason and I survived only a few days in The Wilds before the Voian soldiers finally found us. During those few days I experienced a sense of freedom and communion with nature that I had never dreamed possible. We talked long into the night and slept side by side under the trees, sharing the warmth of our bodies. I told Jason about my ill-fated marriage to Kim, my experience with blue mist when I was sixteen and my near constant longing for a more spirited existence since that day. I told him that I had lost faith in The Knowing, but that the abandonment of the state faith had been the release I had been looking for all along.

On the night before the soldiers arrived at our campsite, I had a vision of the Bayli. I saw the brilliant white light in the sky cast by one of their craft, then a few Bayli men standing among the trees just beyond where I was resting. I had what Alexis had called ‘the sight,’ and I knew that I might continue to commune with the Bayli without the aid of Verdu or blue mist. They watched over me, just as they had when I was sixteen. “The day of our arrival is near, young Voian. Watch for the signs,” the Bayli said, their green eyes blinking in the moonlight. It was the only message I needed, and it steeled me for what was to come next.

Jason and I were taken to a high security prison for deviants called Searsdale Rehabilitation. The name of the facility was misleading, since it was nothing more than a massive building filled with holding cells for people who had defied the rules of Voian society. I guessed that the facility could hold ten thousand inmates.

I slept in the women’s unit of the prison, in an eight-foot by eight-foot cell with a metal bed, a rough blanket and a small toilet in the corner. Inmates were given solitary cells of their own, probably to discourage fraternizing, but I heard the news of happenings in Voia City from new arrivals as we ate in the dining hall.

“There was an article in the Voia City Press,” a young fellow inmate said over plastic lunch trays with small portions of mashed potatoes, gravy and chicken cooked to an unappetizing toughness. “A military man gave an interview about an alien artifact that he saw in The Wilds. Because it was from one of their own soldiers, the naïve reporter wrote the story and got it past the editors. Supposedly this soldier wanted the people to know that aliens are a presence on our planet. He must have been smoking blue mist on the sly. It would be impossible for him to do something so patently crazy otherwise…”

I broke my usual mealtime silence to ask her a question, “Did he talk about the exact nature of this artifact? What was it, exactly?”

“Something about a bright yellow spherical object that spoke to him in his mind,” she answered, excited by my interest. “He said it gave him a profound feeling of peace, and revealed to him the nature of our people. Whatever that was, though, he couldn’t speak of it to the reporter. The city went wild over the article. People talked about it for days on end. I’ve heard that blue mist use is up tenfold in Voia City now. They’ll never be able to incarcerate all the people who smoke it. The high priests are very uncomfortable in the temples these days.”

When I returned to my cell after mealtime, I spotted seven blackbirds perched on the southern wall of the prison. When they took flight, I watched them flap their wings in harmony as they ascended to the clouds. I endured my confinement with an open, tender heart, knowing that wherever Jason was, he was thinking of me. I also knew that I had received a taste of the life that I’d dreamed of since I was sixteen. Despite my imprisonment, it felt like I had escaped from an otherwise dull and oppressive life.

I watched my cell window for the return of the blackbirds, but they never arrived. From the Bayli, there was a similar, drawn out silence until the day of their arrival three years later. We heard the wailing sirens and alarms in Voia City from our prison cells. Inmates began slapping the bars of their cells and cheering, not yet sure what the cause of the commotion was.

I heard that some people who witnessed the Bayli arrival went mute, never speaking again. Others attempted to carry on with their daily affairs in a bizarre denial of the fact. If there was a citizens’ uprising, it was brief, and the violence in the streets quickly faded as Voians stood enraptured, looking at the Bayli craft in the sky. I heard that the high priests went into hiding, leaving the rule of the city to the Voia City Council. The Council voted to accept the Bayli as guests, then wooed and intimidated by their superior technology and intelligence, they simply allowed the Bayli to take a place of rule alongside them.

One of the first orders of the new rule was the release of incarcerated deviants. I was given a fresh set of clothes, simple blue jeans and a work shirt, then led to the gates of the prison without ceremony. Inmates were released in groups of twenty, and given small monthly stipends to live on until adequate work could be found. I received this act of mercy with gratitude, not to The Council or the Bayli, but to the power of the natural order to restore itself. I felt a lightness in my heart as I walked into the bright light of day, outside the walls of Searsdale Rehabilitation for the first time in over three years. For the first time in my life, I knew that the beating of my heart held more significance than a mere whimper of will to live and love. What I heard instead was the song of a defiance realized in pain, then converted to the sound of a freedom without bounds. As I stepped onto the sidewalk with nothing but the clothes I was wearing and a new identification card in my pocket, I found the courage to sing.

Epilogue

I met Jason two weeks after my release from Searsdale Rehabilitation. We found ourselves sitting across from each other on a southern sector city bus. Jason had already been free in Voia City for a month, and he was taking in the new order of a Bayli presence with mixed enthusiasm and sadness. After 5550 came without a Bayli arrival or the ruin of Voia City, as the Jaguar elders had predicted, many of the Jaguar People imprisoned in Voia City became disheartened, and strayed from the culture they had known all their lives to embrace a new one. When the Bayli arrival finally occurred, three years later, many had already integrated somewhat into Voian culture and had stopped consulting the elders altogether.

I heard that Bartho had become powerful as a leader among the inmates where he was incarcerated, once saving a fellow inmate from being stabbed to death by a blue mist addict who had turned to violence in a fever of hatred for Voians. Bartho had pledged to return to The Wilds, but for the time being was working a manual labor job in Voia City.

Somewhere in The Wilds, the orb rested in its place at the bottom of the river. The trials I had faced in prison after touching the powerful surface of the orb had been as real as any that the elders might have imagined. If I had paid for the transgression of moving it from its sacred location, then it had been with a long confinement in unrelenting monotony, without the sun to warm my face for three long years. Whether I was stronger for having experienced those trials was really a matter of the way I walked with a new sureness in my step, or the way I spoke confidently with a new vibrancy in my voice. I made new friends in a new life that celebrated connection to others, strength and love for learning.

Jason looked older, somehow, with a few new lines on his face and a steadiness to his gaze that I had not noticed before. When he invited me to stay with him in his southern sector apartment, I accepted. Not much later, we were married. I kept a copy of The Book of Knowing on the shelf in our living room, flipping through the pages once in a while, curious about the nature of the faith I had believed in for so long. But on the same shelf were other volumes from ancient days before Voia City existed. I embraced the ancient poets and storytellers, feeling the pain and emotions of their works as my own. Bathed in the light of the living room I shared with Jason, I thought of what that world might have been like and I dreamed of an ancient culture then long ago washed away by time, yet still lingering through its writings. Whatever world they shared, if it had been magnificent in a way unlike my own, might have been a world I could have lived in with some contentment and peace. As I closed one of my books on a rainy summer evening, I thought of my old friend Angelica and smiled.

 

About the Author

Nyle Kai graduated from The University of Vermont. She has been a waitress, bartender, painter and a student of Biology. She lives in Vermont. The Cherry Heart is her first book.

 

Other Titles by Nyle Kai

The Blood Wonder


The Cherry Heart

Charlie lives among the normative citizens of Voia City, but somehow she feels that she does not quite fit in. Voians who defy the tenets of the state religion known as Ereba are promptly arrested and relocated to the southern sector of the city as deviants, without warning or trial. Charlie has already defied Ereba by consuming an intoxicant known as blue mist, which allowed her a glimpse of contact with mysterious alien life forms. She has kept this defiance a secret, trying to live within the tenets of Ereba while haunted by the alien vision that she experienced under the influence of blue mist. But when Charlie is abducted in the night by a foreign people who introduce her to the idea that these alien life forms are as real as any Voian citizen, she endures a conversion of faith that puts her very safety at risk. No longer able to adhere to Ereba, Charlie finds herself fighting for her sanity and her freedom in a world where difference is harshly punished.

  • ISBN: 9781370616596
  • Author: Nyle Kai
  • Published: 2016-11-02 16:35:43
  • Words: 41605
The Cherry Heart The Cherry Heart