Claimer: yomimashou's and mine.
Rating: PG-13 for violence
Warnings: non-graphic violence
The unanimously satisfied feeling of an assignment completed successfully was still in the air in the Revolt Management Wing of the Western Branch of the Maintainers of Public Order, tucked neatly in around the officers like a comforting blanket, and I decided that this was my best chance. Our unit had just returned from a raid of a known rebel location—a civilian home in which outlaws were being hidden. We had been prepared for the worst, but everything had run smoothly; we had gone in, located and dispatched the rebels, apprehended the civilians for questioning, returned to the office, victorious. Even the looming threat of completing forms and reports on the event did not dampen our mood, and the captain had congratulated us before returning to his office. At his departure, everyone, feeling pleased with him or herself, had set off, back to his or her desk, to begin the paperwork, the tedium and dreariness of the forms, especially in comparison to hunting and gunning down criminals, buffered by the captain’s praise. But I drifted away from the rest, out of clusters of identical gray cubicles, and towards the dark mahogany of my superior’s door.
The door had been left open, and I hesitated in the doorway, peering inside to assure myself that the captain was in an acquiescent mood before bringing my request before him. The curtains were drawn, and the office was obscured by long shadows stretching across the floor and up the walls, cringing away from the light let in by the door. The captain himself sat before his computer, humming to himself contentedly. Thus reassured, I took a step forward, voicing, “Captain?”
The captain moved to face me in his swiveling chair, a pleased smile still remaining on what I could see of his lips. As he turned, shadows played across his face as if it were the moon, speeding through its waxing cycle to the half-way point, and when acknowledged me, I could only make out half of his face, the rest hidden by a thin mask of darkness. “How many times have I told you that can call me George? Even though I am your superior, you can feel comfortable around me. Now what is it, Carraway?”
I smiled hesitantly. “Thank you sir—George. An excellent raid today, if I may say. Everything was very well planned and executed, sir.” A little flattery never hurt, after all, and our captain was, of course, a Classification 5, and thought highly of himself. That wasn’t to say, of course, that I didn’t admire him; he was quite talented at what he did, and I was honored to be his Lieutenant. It was the highest rank I could acquire, being only a Classification 4, and I was proud to work alongside such a talented captain.
“Oh it’s all in a day’s work, Lieutenant,” the Captain replied, seeming pleased. “You did follow your orders very well, though. I do appreciate all that my subordinates do to further our cause against the rebels.” That was the response I was looking for, and I jumped on the opportunity.
“I do everything I can to help keep the people of this country safe,” I responded zealously. “But that brings me to my point, sir. I was wondering… if it’s not to forward of me to ask… since I’ve been staying so late at the office lately and prices have been rising… if you might give me a raise?”
I couldn’t read my superior’s face as he remained silent for a moment, perhaps in thought, perhaps not. Half of his face was still hidden from me, and I held my breath in anticipation of a response, wondering if the situation would seem clearer to me in the light.
Finally, he spoke, coolly and calmly. “I would like to reward you, Carraway, because your performance lately has been quite remarkable. I need to speak to the higher-ups, though. I unfortunately do not have the authority to grant raises.” A smile once again rested in an easy, flattened catenary on his lips, and I exhaled, relieved and pleased.
“Thank you, sir,” I responded happily, bowing my head to show my appreciation. “I’m really much obliged. I’m so glad that you’re pleased with my performance.” Even if my request was denied by the higher-ups, with the Captain’s praise, I could be consoled. But with George 426 arguing my case, I was confident that I would receive my raise.
“You’re very welcome,” the Captain said with a smile. “I do need to get back to my work now, but please, come any time you have a concern. You know I always want my subordinates to feel comfortable around me.” With that, he swiveled back to his desk, back into the shadows.
“Thank you, sir,” I repeated, then retreated from the doorway, contented. As everyone around me was being to lose the gusto with which he or she had originally set off to complete his or her forms, I returned to my cubicle and began my own with renewed energy at the prospect of a raised salary. A large stack of papers had been placed on my desk for me to sign, and I diligently wrote out my 8-digit identification number (I left the 4 off the front; that was only required for legal documents), then signed “Carraway 895” beneath. Time went by at an even pace, and soon, I began to place my belongings back into my briefcase, ready to leave.
The evening air was brisk as I walked from the train station to my small, boxy, gray house, one among many on a lane of small, boxy, gray houses, and I hurried to my own home, eager to be inside and wishing that it were legal for Classification 4s to operate vehicles. As I approached it, however, I realized that something was not right. The distorted shadows cast by the street lamps formed eerie shapes out of bushes, the gardens, houses, then trickling in disturbing black pools on the walkways and porches. But yet, I could see even from a block away a mass on my porch, made apparent by the shadows. The obstruction could not possibly be a package, for it was law that all packages must be in government-approved and regulated boxes, nor could it be my monthly delivery of food-rations, as it was only the thirteenth, and nowhere near the beginning of the month. No, this alien object could be nothing legal or legitimate; it was large, covering most of the surface of my porch, and irregular, like a pile of crumpled papers, else a large, immobile animal.
I was startled, frightened by this foreign object so completely barring my path, and for a moment, I stood in indecision. Should I approach to find out whatever the objects was, or was the unknown mass dangerous, in which case I should alert the authorities? There was no legal situation in which such an unfamiliar object should be on my porch, but then again, it might be a harmless accident; a bush being blown over or some such. After some mental bolstering, I decided that this must be the case, and strode in my best air of false confidence to the doorstep and carefully peered down.
The object was not a bush. Nor was it crumpled paper, nor a wild animal. The object was, in fact, a human being, collapsed and unconscious before my door. At this, I was flabbergasted. What sort of situation would cause an adult to drop as if dead on a foreign doorstep? Only then did it occur to me—maybe the person was dead. Quickly, I dropped to my knees and rolled it over, placing my hand over the person’s heart. It beat, and I breathed a sigh of relief. No matter what, finding a dead person would be unfortunate. As I tried to figure what to do from there, I felt a wetness on my palms, and looked down to realize, in the dim light of the street lamps, that my hands were covered in thick, red blood. Gasping slightly, I looked down at the body before to realize that an open wound bled from the arm, and that I must have overlooked it in my worry. Not knowing what else to do but not wanting whomever this person was to suffer, I lifted the person into my arms and struggled my way into the house.
In the gray light of my living room, I came to the realization, though I must have noticed before, that the person I now held was a woman. She seemed to be young, in her late teens or early twenties, with long brown hair and tan skin, and though it was marked with scars, I found her facial features attractive. Her clothes struck me as odd; her blouse was red and cut to show a stretch of tan skin at her midriff, her pants yellow and short enough to show most of her tan thighs. So far as I knew, no occupation or classification allowed such flamboyant dress, and it struck me as something that must be illegal. But there was no time to be worrying about that now, and I scolded myself for gawking as I hurried to find something with which to stop the bleeding.
No civilian outside of the government-regulated medicinal fields was allowed to keep any sort of gauze or bandage or antibiotic ointment in their own home, but were encouraged to visit 24-hour clinics located on every street in any case of injury, and so I found myself lacking in materials with which to help the unknown woman. However, I knew that I didn’t have the strength to carry her the mile to the clinic, and something held me back from pressing the large black button on my telephone, the one that immediately alerted emergency personnel. I didn’t know what, but something about this brightly-dressed woman made me want to wait until she woke, to find out her story. And so finally, I settled on a clean wash-rag, wet with warm water, from a kitchen drawer and returned to the living room.
The woman was right where I had left her, lying on the sofa. I knelt beside her, finally getting a good look at the wound. It appeared to be caused by a projectile or some kind; the fabric of her brightly colored sleeve was ripped, and beneath was a deep cut. When I dabbed at the bloody area, however, it appeared the bullet grazed her and had not fully punctured the skin or been lodged in the arm. For that, I was thankful, and I did my best to finish cleaning the wound before tying the rag around it to keep it from being exposed.
Just as I was finishing my knot, I felt the woman stir, and stood, startled. She, too, was startled as she came fully into consciousness, and sat up hurriedly, looking around frantically. “Where am I?”
“Relax,” was the first word that came to my lips; as a Maintainer of Public Order, it was a word I used often, towards spooked civilians who had seen a criminal or newer, more nervous officers. “I’ve cleaned up your wound. You were hit pretty badly, but it seems you were lucky. May I ask what happened?”
The woman eyed me warily, and the expression was unnerving on her attractive face. Something in her bright blue eyes gave me the unsettling feeling like she could shift the world as I knew it, could change what was so strictly laid out for me, and in an instant, I recognized her, from posters at the office, from signs on the streets, from news bulletins played across the television.
My jaw dropped. “You’re… you’re the known revolutionary, 3 46363 747, who goes by the name Aureliana Ferdinanda Esperanza! You—what are you—" I was at a loss for words. A wanted criminal sat less than a foot away from me in my own living room. What was I to do? Should I call for emergency help? Try to tackle her alone? Yet, I felt the desire to do neither of those things, but rather a curiosity deep in my stomach, as if I wished to converse with her, to ask her about her life. It was a bizarre, novel feeling, but not a bad one, and I didn’t know what to do as both of us remained stone still, staring the other down.
Finally, suddenly, unintentionally, words fell from my lips: “I won’t turn you in.” What?! What was I saying? But somewhere in me, I knew that if I turned her in, she would be executed, possibly on the spot, as the law called for, and something inside me didn’t want to cause that. Something about this woman just seemed so different, so vibrant, so illicitly alive that I couldn’t find it in my heart to bring her to an end.
She stared still, wary. “What is your motivation?”
I didn’t know what to say, and was caught off-guard. I stared for a good minute before deciding to avoid the question. “My name’s Carraway. I’ll set you out tomorrow, somewhere no one will see you. Then you’ll be on your own.”
Something in her eyes flickered, and I couldn’t read her expression, but it reminded me of the expression of a subject in some illegal painting, which had been deemed “art” and therefore burned, that I had seen on the news as it was lit aflame. “Why?”
She looked me dead in the eye, and I stumbled over my words. “I—I just don’t want to have anybody die. That’s all.”
She stared me down a moment longer, then nodded, seeming to accept this. “All right. You’ll have to excuse my manners, but I never know who I can trust. Thank you for your hospitality.”
I shrugged and shook my head. I didn’t know what else to do.
“As to what happened…I’ve been hiding in a storage cellar for some time, but today, I happened to see some officers harassing a little boy who was playing in the street. They were telling him that he was breaking the law, and when he didn’t leave the street quick enough, they started beating him with their magnalights. I couldn’t tolerate it—I guess it was stupid, but I went out after them. Of course, when they saw me, they chased me down…” She shrugged. “I have to find someplace new to stay now.”
Stupidly, I almost found myself saying, “Stay with me,” but caught it before it hit my lips and said nothing. The story alarmed and disconcerted me. How could Maintainers of Public Order harm a small child just like that? It was completely beyond the scope of my imagination. I had always prided myself in being with a force that protected the people, not harmed them… It occurred to me that the revolutionary must be lying, but why, then? She didn’t know who I was. There was no need to cover anything, to impress anyone? My head spun slightly, and I forced the thought from my consciousness, nodding at the woman. “I’ll let you on your way tomorrow morning, Miss.”
“Don’t be so formal,” she responded with a laugh, leaning back against the gray cushion of the sofa. “Call me Aureliana. There’s a reason I dropped all those numbers, you know. Everyone here’s all the same, but me, I’m going to make a difference. I’m not a number. I’m a person.”
I nodded slowly, trying not to think about her argument, about what I planned to do, about anything. Tomorrow, I’d send her out; I’d never see her again. Things would go back to normal. All in order, lawful, normal. Turning, I took a few steps into the dark of the hall before glancing over my shoulder one more time at the radiant woman lying in the light. “Good night, Aureliana.”
The sun shone brightly down on the street as I walked briskly along beside Aureliana, who was disguised to the best of my ability in a pair of nondescript gray slacks and a white blouse, her long hair pinned up beneath a gray hat. The crisp morning air nipped lightly at my cheeks as I strode as quickly as I could without seeming suspicious. I had, at first, adopted a slower pace, with the thought in mind that Aureliana, being slight in stature, might not be able to keep up with my long-legged strides, but I was surprised when she was easily able to keep up with me.
We had established that I was to walk her into the commercial part of the city, then leave her to fend for herself. She had promised not to tell anyone she knew me, and I knew I wouldn’t be telling anyone about her, so, with a communal feeling of safety, we made our way along the long, gray-black asphalt streets towards the shopping district.
Everything was going according to plan, and I was just beginning to feel less nervous when the resounding noise of a door slamming somewhere down the street behind us met our ears. I tensed, but Aureliana jumped noticeably, then, with a spooked look visible in the dramatic blue of her eyes, took off in a run.
“Wait--!” I called after her, but it was of no avail, and I quickly clamped my mouth shut, not wanting to attract attention to us. Glancing around to make sure no onlookers were present, I broke into a run after her, following her as she disappeared around a corner.
Rounding the corner as well, I could see Aureliana already halfway down the block, and to my horror, there was another figure as well, coming towards her. I sped up, hoping I’d be able to find a way to avert any violence when the man stepped in her path and Aureliana came to a halt in front of him. Only when I managed to get a little closer did I realize that it was none other than George 426, my captain, and my heart froze. What was I doing? What was I going to do? Suddenly, my mind was in a frenzy, and I couldn’t figure myself out. Why was I trying to help a criminal? Because I didn’t want her to die… but she was responsible for so many atrocities against the nation… but she had been trying to protect the citizens, the child who was attacked… by someone like me… I just didn’t know… I just didn’t know.
I was drawn out of my confusion by my arrival within proximity of Aureliana, whose hat had fallen from her head, and the captain, and the captain was speaking, his voice amused with an edge. “Really,” he said condescendingly, "Why must you insist on calling yourself such unusual, cumbersome names? The numbers work so much better. Now, you still haven't told me what in the President's name you're doing here!"
I felt as if I should say something, but I was torn, caught in the rift between two entirely different worlds, and in my indecision, I missed my chance, and Aureliana spoke again, her voice haughty, confident. "Excuse me for wanting to be an individual. I forgot it was a crime here.” She took a step forward, and I could see the captain tense. I tensed too, though I still had no idea how I would act, if I were to act. “Now I don't have time for nobodies like you, so why don't you just step aside? Who knows, maybe then you'll have done something useful in your life."
With those words, she broke into a sprint again, moving to go around George 426, and I held my breath. She could still make it—
A shot rang out.
Aureliana’s body crumpled to the ground.
Hot, red blood flowed, pooled, congealed.
Time flashed before me in stop-action frames in slow motion, snippets of actions processed in my mind as still-lifes. Slowly, as if I were a panoramic camera, my eyes moved from the bullet wound in Aureliana’s back, where the spray of red blood elegantly dotted the crisp, white blouse, along the river of coagulating blood, to the gun in my superior’s hands, black and metallic, to the dark expression still hanging over his face, though evaporating steadily. Suddenly, he turned to me, gun still raised, but lowered it immediately.
“Lieutenant! Wonderful job finding this rebel!” he finally spoke to me, steadily, with a smile. I looked to him blankly. What was he talking about? But then I realized: he had seen me running after Aureliana. He thought…
I nodded. My thoughts were a mess, I could find no words. Should I have been apprehending Aureliana, should I have killed her? But no, that wasn’t what I had wanted. I had wanted to avoid death. So then, ought I to have thrown my body in the way, saved her? I could have, I suddenly realized, I could have protected her, protected the one who could change the world. But should I have? What should I have done? My throat was dry, I couldn’t speak.
He continued, as if nothing were wrong. Nothing was wrong. Nothing. "But come, we should get to the station and let people know what happened. The higher-ups will be pleased when they hear about your contribution! I could ask them about your raise at the same time, what do you think?" Again, I nodded, following him automatically, without a word.
Nothing’s wrong, I told myself. The right thing was done. Nothing’s wrong.
But even as I walked away, I found myself looking over my shoulder. Clouds were appearing in the sky now, obscuring the blue, obscuring the sun. They cast a long, ugly shadow over Aureliana’s body, over the city, over me.
Nothing’s wrong, I told myself, as the rain began.