The Red Card – Episode 7

(A little delayed by sleep apnea related fatigue.  I guess it’s good that I have the ability to set my own schedule, but I’d rather have more control over my body.   Alas, I don’t.  Here we go.)

When it came to dealing with people in this place I got used to the “Hurry up and wait”, and sitting in the in-processing offices was a whole lot of that.  It was nearly 8 am, which was my appointed time, but they didn’t see me until nearly 9 am.  Same shit, different day.  From what I hear, this has been true of military organizations of the modern era for more than 150 years.  Lots of dotted lines and stuff you won’t be able to remember signing 6 months from now.  And when you are a “Stain”, you have extra hoops to jump through.  The church controlled society, and they would only tolerate your existence as a marked individual if you had powers and played by the rules they set for you, stacked against you, and used to make sure that you’d never be unable to usurp their power.  As I sit there awaiting for the final in-processing appointment to end, I rub the scar on the back of my neck.  “No”, I mumble to myself, “You’re not going to get all reminiscent on me now, we need to focus Alira.”  It took three days of careful surgery to take that thing out of my neck.  The very same device they carefully implanted into me without leaving so much as a scar when I came out of breach, without my permission.  It was a stone cold reminder of the kind of world I lived in.  Within the walls of this Citadel Academy it was easy to forget that this was an organization of oppression.  So long as you weren’t under their thumb, anyone could pretend that this was truly a righteous and worthy institution.  But if your existence had given them any reason to do so, there was never a doubt in your mind.  Everyday was a battle, every moment you lived in fear of your life.  But it was easy in that orderly chaos to be lulled into complacency.  The video they played was a classic piece of religious propaganda talking about the “Glory of God”, and how “Serving this academy was your ticket as an abomination to full forgiveness from the church” who was apparently there to “stand up for God’s Justice” or whatever sort of non-sense.  I was the first known trans* person who didn’t, and couldn’t be forced into detransition prior to entrance, and I was the oldest to actually survive long enough to get into one of its official military level schools (or at least that is what I was told).

For years before this day, my few allies within the church, and those I held favor with in the temple spent countless attempts and consistent effort in trying to get me back in the school from which I had been exiled by my mark.  It was my only hope for a long life, but also it was the more dangerous of many paths I could’ve take.  Surprisingly, it was only because I was adopted into that moderate, conscientious mosque that I even had a chance.  So many others fallen.  Those with less power, or just with less luck than I.  So long as I was tied to that sect the church was forced to accept me in lines with the sect’s stance on me.  And by the time I got here it was too late to reverse the changes done to my body.  Anything they removed I could regenerate.  They didn’t like it, but some of their power, in many senses, depended on their peace with that sect of healers.  The church actually protected that mosque simply because they couldn’t afford to deal with social unrest without the use of our services.  But, I can’t tell you how many times tense shouting matches went down between the temple leader and the Diocese.  The unfortunate thing about my room was that it was neither shielded from sound above, nor below me. However, I was in the most protected place in the temple and for good reason, and I was not allowed out without guards.  The church wouldn’t have abducted me directly, because of my powers, but they were not against using the “motivation of the people” and “the sizable reward for bringing in powerful angel class clerics”, even marked ones.

The video really irritated me.  I couldn’t help but want to turn off the teal light blinking between my eyes so all I could see was the blurry screen.  They’d tested my vision and I failed the later part of the test, meaning that for the first time in my life I’d have to wear glasses on a permanent basis.  Apparently the lighting coupled with lots of tests on computer “unmasked my farsightedness“.  It was really odd for me, considering I had a ‘thing’ for girls with glasses, and now suddenly I’d be joining their ranks.  Might have something to do with why I fell for Yuzuho so hard.  I’d forgotten she had glasses up until then, but my memory from before breach was splotchy at best.  They were solid-framed, digitally adjustable lenses, and they were set up for my mild farsightedness.  Go figure, an astronomer with farsighted vision…  It’s almost cliché.  Go figure.  I used to wear reading glasses to get by, but never got a prescription pair.  They had more advanced ones that basically used some sort of electrical field in the lenses to make the lenses completely invisible when not reading, but the cadets all got the “basic issue” that looked like something a librarian would wear.  I continued to fidget with my new glasses frames while the video droned on.  They pretty much calibrated and issued them to me on the spot.  All the lenses where the same, it was the LCD layer inside that was modified to fix my vision.  To be honest turning them on and off was more amusing than the video to me.  But I tried to pretend to pay attention.  All they did was constantly tout about the prowess, eliteness, and power of the “Only Church of God” they felt they represented, and talked endlessly above the graciousness of the church, yada yada.  It was the worst propaganda video I’d ever seen.  However, most of the people in the room, 5 out of 7 excluding myself, had been so thoroughly brainwashed by this point that they bought it, hook, line, and sinker.  As the video played, I could hear Richard Dawkins’s, Christopher Hitchens, and other famous atheists’ corpses turning over in their graves.  But I’d long since lost the urge to fight back and speak up, and especially not so in present company.  The film rolled to an end and the lights came back up to full power again.  The in-processing officer stood up, handed us our promissory statements, pens and stood waiting for us to sign them.  I opted to sign my name while I was in the temple, verses my full personal name which I finally remembered in entirety 5 years ago.

We were lined up, military style by the door leading out of the office by a chaplain.  There was so many mini-chapels in this building it was not uncommon to see one in every building you entered.  Some people’s duties disallowed them from attending services, which were mandatory once a month, and optional every other week.  So they had mini chapels managed by various chaplains all over the military academy side.  As the semi-elderly man chanted a prayer and did the “anointing with oil”, I thought about how uncomfortable these displays of religiosity made me.  Priests always made me nervous, and this was no exception.  But after the day I’d been having, I was amazingly composed, almost numb to what was going on.  Upon completing the prayer, we were ushered out, and released to go to our first classes.  It was 10:20am already, and we’d be entering classes with everyone already seated and accounted for, thereby “drawing more attention to us”.  I kind of feel this was intentional, as all of us were marked.  One boy was marked for being able to recall too much, and washing out of the elementary grade levels of the Academy of the Diocese.  There was a lesbian there, and another boy who was gay.  I didn’t know what the other marks meant, but they related to petty crimes, no doubt.  The lesbian mark was similar to mine, just missing one character, the backwards J-like character.  It was abundantly clear to me that they lumped sexuality in with gender in this organization being that our marks were so similar.  She looked back at me while we walked to our classes, and rolled her eyes at me.  Yes, there was even discontent among the ranks of the abominable, most likely fostered by the church itself.  Other than me, she was the only one there in the conference room that wasn’t smiling like a brainless idiot at that briefing.  However, my mark differentiated me from her, as do all the marks.  And therein lies their power.  They keep us from uprising but sowing dissent among us, and the only way to do that is to afford different levels of privilege on the basis of one’s mark.  Insidious, indeed.

This building was the size of a city, cumulatively, and that made finding anything like finding your way through a maze.  The Citadel, as it was called, had a population of nearly 20,000, all crammed into a 25 – 120 story conglomerate that existed in a space more confined that any place I’d seen.  It had the classic Gothic flare of a cathedral all over, the coloration and architectural reminders of the Ancient Presidio of Spain, mixed with a little modern jury rigging, and technological objects clung to it like barnacles.  Everything about this world, that I’d seen just made me feel this world was so “surreal”.  I felt as though I was a character in some far-flung sci-fi movie.  Sometimes I wished it were so, so that I could change the channel or press the stop button.  This world was one that no character, regardless of merits or action, should be exposed to.  This world was an atheist’s worst nightmare… A technological, oligarchical theocracy.  Mind you, none of that tech was made by said theocracies, only enjoyed by them.  Most of it was made in Iceland.

I’d finally circumnavigated this particular building 3 times, and on the final lap I descended three flights to enjoy the view of the central garden, praised around the domains of the church as the most beautiful in the world.  This detour led me to the first sign that actually made sense.  I crept down the eerily calm hallway, to what appeared to be the room.  X2503.  It’s 10:35am.  Let’s just say, I got a little lost.  I read a sign on the door, and it says “knock before entering – Lessons In Progress”.   So I knock.  I hear some chatter, and rustling, but no response.  I wait a few moments, and begin to knock again, as the door flings open sending a burst of air out the opening door into my face.  A decrepit looking priest is standing at the door, leering at me through the top of his digital bifocal lenses.  My eyes immediately become affixed to the green flashing light on his nose piece as I attempt to avoid his intimidating stare.  He reaches out aggressively grabbing my chin, and twisting my face to the right side, and brushing my hair away with the other.  Clearing his throat, “We have a true sinner here, eh?”  Unable to move for fear of giving the establishment a reason to harm me I just accept this disgrace.  I let the cool numbness I’d taught myself to hold to protect myself wash over me.  No look of defiance, not a single look of disgust, just stone cold military bearing.  “I pray you find the mercy of the maker, little one”, he belches at me.  He releases my face and pulls to door back to invite me in, “Let’s welcome our new student.  She may not be here long, but we should do our best to show the love our teachings demand of us for our fellow man.  I pray you all behave as the Diocese has instructed you.”  There is a seat in the corner, and I am motioned over to it.  It’s fairly isolated from the rest of the desks, even though all the others in the room are neatly arranged into rows and columns.  I didn’t break a sweat over this, not one drop.  I was pretty used to it.  On the scarf like object that all the priests wore, was a Diocese Church Rank, and a name tag.  “Pastor Barclay”, it said.  I took my seat, and many of the students, if not all stared at me at some point.  The teacher walked to the front of the class, and their eyes shortly followed.

One pair of eyes in the crowd stuck out to me.  The hateful brown eyes of the boy who’d carded me that morning in the cafeteria was there.  He looked at me, and grinned in staunch arrogance.  His glare took a shot at my military bearing a bit as I felt a little bit of anger towards him well up in me, but I quelled it quickly.  The class was made up of mostly Blue and Red Shoulder boards, speckled with a few Green.  Out of the corner of my eye, I felt a particularly familiar stare pointed in my direction.  Over my shoulder in the back row of the class, there she was again, as if she was my brand new stalker.  Fallon.  I tried to pretend I didn’t notice her gaze, but it made me so nervous still that I had to force myself to ignore her.  The urge compelled me as if her gaze were a magnet, so I looked at her, and she at me and I thought I was going to fall out of my desk.  I returned my attention forward, but I could still feel her looking.  Something about the unease it made me feel prompted me to check my uniform for discrepancies, straighten it out, and double-check to make sure my skirt was tucked properly under my legs, and not scrunched up against the seat as I sat in it.  The feeling felt familiar in a way and strange in another.  I can’t say that I’d had a woman look at me like that in the last decade really.  Chastity was the word-of-the-day, everyday in the temple.  I felt as though I was a teenager all over again, just trying to deal with the chaos of high school.  Which, in some sense, was true though I was 160 years old, technically.  I often had trouble internalizing that reality.  The last person who looked at me so intensely had likely died more than century ago.  But, I couldn’t speak with any certainty about the nature of her gaze.  She wasn’t blushing, that I was certain of.  Just a kind of “Dead Stare” like a vampire would have looking at its next meal.  Her face unsettled me, not because it was displeasing, or overly normal, or because she scared me, but because it was both unusually cold, strangely piercing and also stunningly beautiful to me.  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, it seems, as the other students avoided her like the plague.

As I looked up I realized I’d smudged the lenses of my glasses.  I wasn’t used to them being there so I was constantly poking the lenses with my fingers, like when trying to itch around my eyes, or clear mascara from the corners.  My eyelashes were long enough that I could occasionally feel my lenses with them.  It was a weird sensation to me.  The teacher pounds the board with his pointer, “Okay, eyes up.  We are going to discuss power control.  Now, in order to control your tempest, you must have faith inside you.  You mustn’t use your powers out of Ungodly emotions, or you will taint your power.  You must pray to your maker to give you the needed fortitude to use your power without being corrupted by the lust which such power can reap.  Now, practice seeing your emotions as a candle flame in your minds.  Sit still with your hands on your belly…. (he begins pacing)  Now push all your emotions inside that flame.  Inside your mind say a prayer to God, a prayer that you can use this power for his will.   When you complete your prayer, blow out the candle in your mind.  But don’t let go of the emotion.  Hold it inside you.  With that emotion, now reignite that flame.  Reignite it and control it.  Be one with it.  Think of your prayer and be mindful of your thoughts and your heart, as they will deceive you.  Accept God into your heart, and he will guide your hand.”

The old man stops his pacing, and quickly turns and swats the board, “Now… I’d like some volunteers to come up a demonstrate this technique while using their tempest in a meditated state.”  The students rustle about, and my brown-haired tormentor stands and walks forth.  He stands at the front of the class, and makes the electricity of his power arch across his body while only emitting minimal sound.  He hardly looks to be meditating, more like arrogantly showing off.  “Now, this is the type of control you should exhibit”, the old man barks, then clears his throat again.  “You, stand… “, he says while swatting the desk of a young-looking girl in the front row with red shoulder boards.  She stands, and does the meditation though taking significantly longer, and starts to look out of phase with the light in the room with a warm, red, wispy glow around her.  The old man swats her leg with the pointer, “Your composure is weak, but it’s a good effort.  You need more practice.”   Her red glow and phased appearance sputters for a moment and then resumes.  My mind wonders for a moment thinking about the similarities with the meditations I was taught in the temple.  They were anything but religious in nature though, unlike everything else.  Their meditations were clearly Buddhist in design, and I found meditation time to be a much-needed respite from the daily occurrences of the temple.   I was left alone for many hours during meditation and it allowed me rest where I wouldn’t often be afforded otherwise.  It’s probably how I kept my sanity.  Tempests, like myself, could destroy their own bodies if they were to ever go full tempest mode.  It was highly demanding, very violent, and highly uncontrollable.  The damage caused by that to ones own body could literally disintegrate you.  Healers seldom had collateral damage, but a power user once blew up 3 city blocks in New Zion, and killed nearly 500 people instantly.  He screamed as his body disintegrated, and likewise disintegrated the bodies of others, buildings, cars, and objects around him.  It was a giant ball of plasma consuming everything within 175 meters and searing anything beyond that, much like a bomb going off.  The balance between usage at max level and rampancy was a fine line.

With a whistling swoosh, I am snapped back to reality.  There is a pointer in my face about a millimeter away, and it startled me so much that I nearly knocked my glasses off my face.  “Our new student, who seems fit to space out in my class will demonstrate composure now as a healer”, the old man shouts in his spitting voice.  I can’t help by wince at his spray of hostility and saliva.  As he turns away I wipe my face with my sleeve, and stand up.  I walk to the front of the class and I can feel the eyes of all burning into me.   “She is going to suck”, “She’s so defenseless, her power is worthless in a real fight”, “Why did he have to pick her”, I can hear gently bellowing out of their chatter.  “Silence”, the old man shouts, “Alira, is now ready to demonstrate proper control.  I mean, she must have long ago mastered the technique to controlling her flames if she can space out during my lessons.”  I can hear giggling from behind me.  I stand and turn to face the crowd, who is now staring so intensely at me that I find it unsettling.  Out of the corner of my eye I see the arrogant smirk of Cadet Ensign Crowder, my red carding nemesis.  “Stop”, he says, “Alira…. You must be really talented to get into this academy with a ghastly mark like that.  We are going to see you do this without being allowed to meditate. ”  He waves his pointer at the blues (those with blue shoulder boards) in the front row.  Now standing to the side of the front row, “Now, I’d like for you three to use your static shells to cause constant, but mild electrical shock to her skin.  No more, no less.”  The old man stands there gloating of his superior reasoning in doing this to me.  I can see Fallon start to give an expression of dissent, then quelling it when she catches my glare.  “Zap!”, I twitch a little, and I am now visibly shaking from the current of their plasma fields, only giving off a slightly blue glow around the fabric of my uniform.  It hurts a lot more than I thought it would, and I clinch my fists and teeth tightly trying to muffle the response.  But it’s clear to others that their technique is working, if only a little.  “Now, give her a little more.  She was brought up on the streets after-all, she can withstand more than this”, he says as their field intensifies to a new height causing me to squeak out a noise while straining to resist it.

The enjoyment of the moment dulls a little for Instructor Barclay as he notices I’d resumed a state near my earlier composure.  He barks at me again pointing from a distance, “Now, Alira, without meditating, and with these three static fields up to prevent that, attempt to use your tempest and demonstrate your ‘apparently’ superior control.”  I shutter to think of what will happen in this moment, as I am quite well aware, electric shock is the most potent way to restrain a healer, as they have no speed to evade or phase out, and they don’t have control of electricity themselves to channel it.  The instructor knows it, the class knows it, and I know it.  This is the first time I have been in a field, or under duress in such a way in nearly a decade.  My control has surely grown since then, but even I am unaware of how I’ll be able to repel this field.  Electricity is a healers worst enemy.  Our bodies are too highly conductive, and too ill prepared to handle such things and it overwhelms us, and at rather smaller levels than normal people, much less other clerics.  All this rolls through my mind as the he barks yet again, “Demonstrate for us the reason why they let you into our prestigious academy.”  He turns to the class and folds his arms in confidence that he has usurped my control.

Without even a second thought, as if by second nature I push my power forth.  Restrained at first for only a moment my flames then burst forth with little to no real effort on my part, much to my surprise.  Not only that, but I am far more composed in this moment than even I would have thought.  Furthermore, in the anxiety of the moment, and the duress I was under I had actually over done it a little.  I had my green yellow flames coming from my right hand, and my turquoise from the left with the core of my body glowing deep green.  My flames spiraled like little tornadoes up from my feet and around my body like the helix of a strand of DNA.  I had no pain, and you could see the static field arcing back to its users, and everyone’s jaw dropped, awestruck.  The instructor practically fell over, as my flames made a whoosh sound when they emerged.  Not a single arc of electricity could touch me.  Even Crowder was shocked, and broke his concentration and let his power subside.  The girl next to me tried to parallel me shortly after seeing my flames.  She looks over at me defiantly, hoping that her display will downsize me in some way.  But I just don’t care.  I am not really putting out any effort, and yet my aura field (the power field of a user) is still twice the size of her airy red glow.  She begins to sweat profusely now turned to completely face me, head-on, phasing her arms into 8 in a pattern that looks like Shiva’s dance of destruction.  Through the red, her face begins to turn pale, and her field then collapses and her shortly after.  I immediately drop my flames and kneel at her side.  She is in a full-blown state of tempest sickness, the state arising from the over use of your power.  She begins to convulse on the floor having depleted her body’s energy and electrolytes, and I crawl up besides her head, as some of the students begin to rise to go get help per the instructor’s shout, ‘MEDIC!’

Calmly, unlike the tension and shock and chaos of the other students, I sit down on my feet before her igniting my entire arms in brilliant deep green flames, even the likes of which I’d never seen.  The power is so intense that it levitates her body now engulfed in these green flames.  The students stop in their tracks, as the room is bathed in green light the likes of which none of them has ever seen.  Even the instructor is captivated by this display.  She stops convulsing.  Her color returns.  She begins to move, ever so slightly.  She opens her eyes, and looks towards me.  Seeing that she is awake, I gently set her down, and let my flames slowly subside.  Taking in a deep breath, I prime myself to stand with my hand out reached to her, whose name tag I can now see, ‘Partridge’.  I remember seeing that name elsewhere, but I can’t recall at this moment.  She takes my hand, and I pull her up while standing myself as though it were effortless.  Some of the students returning to their seats gasp, while all eyes are still affixed to me as if they are expecting fatigue to show across my face as I turn around towards them again.  I turn back to the class, and their eyes go wide as they realize I am not in the least bit fatigued by the fantastical use of my power, and the fact that Cadet Ensign Partridge looks completely fine now.

She is unbalanced for a second but quickly regains composure.  Realizing I am still holding her hand she yanks it away in disgust, and says “Thanks” in a half polite, half condescending way.  “Everyone, butts in your seats”, shouts the instructor now banging the desk with his pointer again.  He looks a little flushed, but otherwise fine.  I return to my seat and everyone watches me, but their gazes feel different from before.   Tempest sickness can be fatal, just as heat stroke or over exhaustion would be.  The one student who left returns with the administrator, a burly man who looks like he is afflicted with Gigantism, and a nurse comes in.  She walks over to the Cadet Ensign, and begins to shine a pen light in her eyes, “She shows no signs of Tempest Sickness. Is this a joke?  She must have just fainted.”  In an instance, 3 people point at me sitting over near the corner, and the instructor pipes in, “The Cadet Ensign in the corner is the one responsible for reviving her.  She is a tier 1 healer.”  He sounds very reluctant in this statement, and it sounds as if said against his will.  The nurse looks over at me, and then flips the light into her breast pocket.  I can still see it glowing in her pocket for a moment, then it shuts off.  She comes over to me, and stutter steps a little noticing my mark glowing on my face.  She kneels down in front of me, and unlike the other student’s reactions when I entered the class, I sense no animosity from her.  Reaching into her pocket she pulls out a modified electronic BTTG (Bio-analytical Tempest Test Gauge), a tester commonly used to assess and test tempests, and medically treat them.  It’s coloration and glow tells the nurse that I am fine, but that my electrolytes did indeed take a hit, but were recovering fine.  “She looks fine.  I had no idea that you had a tier 1 in here, otherwise I’d never have come 3 buildings over,” she says as I notice the metallic glimmer of a badge on her chest.  It looks like the medical emblem of a hospital, but the twin serpents were around a cross, and there was three glowing green dots at the top of its proportionally diamond like pentagon shape.  “You have nice, healthy hair”, she says while feeling the texture of the hair nearest my head beside my face looking for signs of prolonged MTS (Mild Tempest Syndrome).

“Just to be safe though”, she ignites her right hand and places it against my cheek.  It reminds me a bit of Danielle as I absorb a little of the power of her flames.  I close my eyes, and for the first time in this strange day I can feel my emotions without the fear and tension that had plagued me all day.  My muscles at ease, and the relief makes me aware of the degree of strain I put on my body during my display.  She stops and notices the red cap of the Cherry beverage protruding from the top corner of my shoulder bag.  “Drink this… All of it, and then I’ll leave you be”, she says as she pulls it out and puts it into my face with a single, vigorous jerk.  I grab it and twist the lid off, hearing the popping sound of its plastic retaining ring breaking free.  I feel a sense of reluctance as I put the lip of the bottle to mine, as it isn’t often I get to be cared for by someone.  Usually I am the one picking up the bloody and brutalized from the floor.  It reminds me of the days of longing for “sick days” when I’d overused my power.  In recent years, those days became even fewer and farther in between as my stamina improved.  Considering the kindness of this blonde haired, brown-eyed Gothic-dressed nurse, I’d say I preferred her company over returning to the same hostile classroom I’d been in.  She cared for me with no concern for my mark, status or station.  She reaches up and repositions my glasses to the top of the bridge of my nose.  “You’ll be fine”, she says smiling up at me, now kneeling to take my pulse and listen to my breathing and heartbeat through my clothing.  It was reassuring to know that not everyone hated me, and in some strange way made the hate of others that little be more palatable.   As she stands again her coat flips up my skirt a bit, high enough for my garter on my right leg to show.  I few students notice it before I can pull my skirt back over it.  I look up at the gargantuan administrator, and he furrows his brow and grunts a little seeing it.  Blue card pouches are all distinguishably marked, and there is no doubt that he knew what it was.  Not to mention the fact he seemed a bit flustered, with a little bit of redness in one cheek that I could see.  I’d seen that look from men who knew I was trans* before, so I knew it all too well.  I was ‘too attractive’ for his bigotry to tolerate.

“She’s okay now”, barely irking from her lips as the Admin brushed her aside.  “Stand at attention, Cadet”, he shouts down at me making me flinch at his abrupt and harsh tone.  “Nurse Roe”, he grumbles now in a more militaristic tone, “Remove Cadet Ensign Roe’s garter.  It’s against regs for her to have accoutrements other than what is offered at this school, or addressed in Dress Code rules Alpha 23-5.1.”  She hesitates and stares at him blankly, “Now”, he orders again.  She reaches up my skirt and pulls the garter down and my blue card deck with it.  He turns his face away and tries to maintain his composure and hide the shame of finding me attractive, something more clear in his expression now than previously.  Now holding the garter full of cards in front of him, he sighs in disgust at them, “Drop them off at my desk, Nurse Roe.”

I fidget when I hear this uttered now a second time, as I feel the need to ask her questions, her having the same last name as me and all.  She doesn’t look like anyone I know, and she certainly doesn’t look like my mother in the least bit.  She doesn’t look terribly at all like any family I can remember or are aware of.  It’s likely a coincidence, but I can’t help but wonder.  I have no contacts and no family in this new world order aside from Ed, and Danielle that I see seldom these days.  “Let’s go!  You’re lucky I didn’t also give you a demerit for that”, he shouts and with a hand wave the nurse stands up and walks out of the room with him.  The rest of the students seat themselves as I replace the cap on the beverage I just finished and reach out to toss it to the can.  Luckily my desk is close to that.  “Order now…  Compose yourselves” snaps Instructor Barclay.  Everyone resumes their original positions as if nothing has happened, as it this was standard fanfare.  Suddenly a bell rings, but class isn’t over.  “Okay, all competition team members are free to go from classes for the afternoon.   Several students rise, and among them is Cadet Ensign Crowder, much to my surprise and relief.  He’d carded me once today, and after lunch he would be permitted to do it again.  Now defenseless against his attack, I was a bit shaken.  I always felt this kind of unease having my cards taken from me.  I always kept them on my leg, either as a pouch, or a garter, and to say it lightly I felt naked with out them.  I felt as though I had been stripped nude in front of the class by the administrator.  I couldn’t help but feel violated though they really hadn’t done more than take a band of elastic off my leg.  The chill of its absence against my thigh makes chills go through my entire body.  In fact, wave after wave of cold chill surged through my body.  I could feel that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and waves of sweat chilling across my skin as the salty taste arose in my mouth.  Fear for my life fills this moment.  For the rest of class I sit there, unable to concentrate, unaware of the occasionally glances of other students noticing how pale I have become.

At lunch, Fallon, followed me around like a body-guard, but stayed at a fair distance, watching me the whole time.  She sat at the furthest corner of the same table and watched me almost anxiously, but still mostly expressionless.  It was a strange feeling.  I was just hoping to have a chance to slink off and get a new deck of cards and garter.  I was terrified and a little upset, as anger just couldn’t penetrate my fear in this moment.  I was stripped of my first line of defense, and as all would and should know, healers are no good in a fight.  If I were red carded I’d be forced into a duel.  Duels weren’t uncommon here, and there was a high number of the Regents that presided over them who had “Blood thirsty tendencies” when it came to those bouts.  Even my fingertips lightly tingled with anxious fear over the potentials.  However, Crowder, the most likely person who would card me was in dispose.  But it didn’t ease my mind all that much, as anyone with red cards could come after me.  I didn’t think to have any cards hidden anywhere else, as what I usually did was always sufficient.  And I dared not rebel in the classroom otherwise I’d have to duel the headmaster, who was a vicious man.  We was known as only “Gods Almighty Hand” at the academy, and few knew his actual name.  Disobedience was highly frowned upon, and he was their ultimate enforcer.  He’d killed, and brutally so more than 600 cadets in his 20 year reign, 90% being branded souls like myself.  The schools unofficial policy was to mess with you as much as humanly possible to “get rid of you”,  either through Red Cards, or 12 Demerits, resulting in a bout with the headmaster.  Luckily, the Inspector General was a healer, but he was only able to stop a few bouts, maybe a fraction of the total carried out.  There were kindred spirits in these halls, but they were a minority of minorities.  This was the way of the world now.

In the last period of the day all I could hear was the droning of my anxiety, and less so the droning of the instructor.  Most people had begun to ignore me, and with the Angry Jock Squad (The name given to Crowder and his lackeys) there was no encouragement for them to incite further unrest.  His uniform had chains on it, permitted items for the Spear Squad he was a part of.  The jingle of the metal rings was rather distinct, and occasionally he’d play with it in class as an intimidation tactic.  His father, Arch Bishop Crowder, was the Head Regent of the School, so the instructors allowed more from him than from the other students.  Quite frankly the kid was a pain in the ass.  Privileged, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy, and pompous.  There is no irony in why those things tend to go together.  But, he wouldn’t be back in class today, so perhaps I could make it out the door without being noticed.

The bell rang and I acted as slowly as humanly possible to get my notes and other things put away.  My notebook had several pages of long spirally squiggles of me using my pen to ease my tension but doing little more than making a mess of the paper.  I did it before when I was stressed.  By this point in the day I was light-headed from the stress of the events that had transpired in it.  I shoved my ink-stained pages into my bag, and walked towards the door.  The hallway felt as though it was at least 1 million paces longer than I remembered it that morning.  My head was awash in anxiety and that funky disorienting dizziness I get when I am on the precipice of a panic attack.  My mouth was dry and felt as though it had rocks in it.  My body felt so heavy, but as I progressed closer and closer to the long narrow hallway that led to the medical dorm I felt lighter and lighter.  30 meters from the door I felt even lighter still.  The halls are empty, and there is only the distant sound of footsteps of people leaving school.  10 meters, and I stop to take a breath that I’d been holding for nearly 15 seconds.  Still feeling light-headed I look around for a rescue fountain (A water fountain that basically dispenses a more watery version of the beverages in the cafeteria).  I look to the right, only a water fountain.  I look 2 – 3 meters back up the hallway wall when I spot it.  A fountain marked with the 3 dots.  I am hesitant, but I feel as though I’ll faint if I don’t, so I opt to go the 2 meters two extra meters to quell my lightheadedness.  The water takes like electrolytes and sugar ever so slightly and it is pleasing, cold and refreshing.  I am very thirsty so I drink for a few moments more when I hear footsteps behind me.

I am no longer drinking but I still have my mouth pressed to the stream, and the button depressed.  The footsteps appear to be moving away now.  It’s doubtful they’d recognize me like this.

However, the footsteps stop.  There is now more than one person slowly walking up behind me.  All I hear is footsteps.  Still pretending to drink I close my eyes and hope they aren’t anyone of any consequence, or that they just need a drink.  After noticing they aren’t moving I go to stop pretending to drink… And then… I hear it.  The jingle of metal against a pants leg.  “How the…”, I whisper to myself.  I release the button and stand up completely.  No sooner than I do, I feel the whoosh of a thin object whisking by my face, brushing up against my cheeks as it passes.  With a tink sound as it bounces off the metal plate wall and flutters down flipping end, over end, over end.  I am frozen dead in my tracks as I watch the red surface of the card flutter to the ground behind me as I had many times before.

I move to turn without uttering a word, without releasing my breath…

My thoughts evaporate against this wall of conscious anxiety so intense as to make the moment of what is transpiring feel unreal to me.  A fear of death wells up inside my chest, and I continue to turn releasing my eye lid from a blink at the same time.  Standing behind me is the Administrator, and Cadet Ensign Crowder standing behind me.  “Did you think you could get away from me, Stain”, says Cadet Crowder.  It appears to me that the two planned this event, and somehow had a clue as to where I would be.  Anxious tension is my current existence as I see the burly, enormous man picking up the card off the carpeting of the floor.  “Looks like you have a duel, little Missy!”, he belches victoriously.  Crowder is smirking the annoyingly arrogant smirk that he always does and I am frozen in bone chilling terror.  My feet feel as though they are nailed to the floor, and I feel the sweat beading up on my brow.  Surreal horror…

Hoping for anything I pat my clothing down looking for any salvation.  In no part of my uniform can I find the crisp stiffness of a Blue Card that would rescue me.  All I found was the semi-rigid outline of my body wrapped in Gothic Clothing and Fear.  “7 Pm tonight, Triarch Arena, be there or face the head master”, chimed the Admin.  The Triarch was an expensive arena in the Citadel, but it was also known for being the most blood thirsty.  Those who had monetary control over it were very vengeful, hateful people.  My heart was beating like a scared rabbit.  I’d been cornered and I had no defense, and Crowder had surely been informed that the Garter was my Blue Cards.  Blue card pouches are supposed to be protected items, but he’d likely use the regulation to feint ignorance, and to take them from me and plan the ambush.  So predatory, so cool and collected they were, assured that they had “Finally Gotten Their Prey”.  The Admin pulls out a PDA and sends the word confirming the duel they’d planned, revealing the depth of the set up.  They walk away to go prepare.  Still frozen there staring at the wall, I lean back against the fountain causing the water to turn on… Hoping… Just hoping that the water sound it made would wash me away with it to some other place and time.  Out of the corner of my eye I see a dark silhouette.  Fallon is standing there looking at me with a very slight of appearance of sombre emotions showing on her face, but not enough for me to see the true expression through the glare of the light shining through a window behind her.  “What will I do,” I mumble to myself… Indeed, what will I do.  I am shaking uncontrollably.

To be continued…