Voices murmured through a soft fuzzy sea of near consciousness. Sensations washed through and around, leaving nauseating waves rocking through her gut. She needed the world to stop spinning–if only for a moment–and right now she’d be willing to barter almost anything to make it happen. Intense voices marked a critical event unfolding just beyond reach. Slowly draft and dampness eased their way in, calming endless vertigo. This gave way to a single conscious action: breathing.
“That’s it. Deep, slow breaths … You’re doing fine.” Someone held her hand and stroked her face, and she was grateful for the contact. “I’m Apprentice Mala, Temple Healer, and your nurse. You’re emerging from deep-sleep. Can you nod your head, Rai?”
Rai? The name didn’t fit quite right.
Rai nodded her head. She sensed calm and reassurance from Mala, and this, in turn, allowed her a small amount of comfort. She wasn’t sure why she’d awoken so anxious, but it gnawed at the pit of her belly, so she focused inward on the thought. The smell of sweetwood hung in the air, an obvious attempt to mask the antiseptic smells of medicinals. Among these odors, something felt out of place, a discordant harmony, but Rai was unable to pinpoint the source.
“Can you open your eyes for me?” Mala asked, interrupting her focus.
Rai opened her eyes and blinked, despite the dim light in the room. She surveyed the expansive space, her eyes refusing to focus with any significant clarity. Her sleek, black, egg-like deep-sleep crèche was one of many, but only the immediate area was illuminated. Regularly spaced units stretched out into the surrounding darkness of the womblike cave. The other crèches status lights blinked, their greens and blues pulsing in the darkness, indicating everyone else rested soundly.
Her crèche’s lid stood open to the side, and the comfortable underlayment cradled her body with the ease borne of off-world Juggernaut engineering. The sidewalls were high, wide, and long–constructed with much larger creatures in mind. Mala placed fluid lines, cables, and other equipment from Rai’s birthing crèche onto a small table next to them. Her tanned face held chestnut-brown eyes framed with matching dark-brown hair, which flowed down her back in a single braid. Mala’s calm demeanor as she worked radiated confidence.
“Your vital functions are regulating on their own again, so I’m going to finish disconnecting your lines. Let me know if the nausea or dizziness gets worse.”
Rai wondered how Mala knew she’d been feeling ill, but realized this must be a common reaction to the crèches. She couldn’t help but smile up at the Apprentice, grateful for her care.
Despite her still blurry vision she caught sight of a robed figure at the back of the room. The face of this Priestess, along with the rest of her, remained obscured behind floor-length, dark-brown robes–the station of an Elder Priestess.
Mala wore the blue, sleeveless, floor-length Apprentice-level robes of her station. Why would an Elder be troubled with such basic administrative duties as overseeing an Apprentice?
Mala removed the last line from Rai’s left forearm and a brief but intense moment of painful pressure brought her focus back to her body. At the insertion site a small wound remained–large enough that it would take the next few days to heal. More troubling was the bright cerulean-blue triple-moon tattoo on the back of her left hand–devoid of any accompanying stars.
The triple moons marked her fulfillment of her Temple duties and subsequent discharge thereafter, according to Az’Un law. To wear the mark indicated your status as a citizen in good standing with the Temples. All women above childbearing age displayed the colors in some form–even if death in childbirth meant the ink saturated cold, stiff skin destined for a funerary pyre.
A twinge of sadness overcame her as Rai surveyed Mala’s tattooed left hand. The expected blue triple moons indicating temple service gleamed in the dim light, but in addition, seven stars surrounded them–five red for boys and two green for girls.
Rai knew she should be disappointed or upset by her lack of stars, but instead, an enveloping emptiness threatened as she recognized her tattoo, minus the stars, as a symbol of her failure to her people, especially her Sept.
“The Temple must be proud of you. Few women are so lucky.”
Mala ignored her compliment, perhaps focusing on the hollow sentiment underneath. “Now, don’t dwell on that which can’t be changed. You should thank the Divine Spirit you’re here at all. You suffered a severe miscarriage and almost bled to death. We felt future pregnancy attempts posed too great a risk. Thus, the Temple declared you barren. You’ve spent the last few weeks in recovery.
“Be reassured, there are many ways you can continue to serve our people, and others will expand our colony, this plague be damned.”
Rai nodded, upset she hadn’t contributed to the settlement, and that she could have died, yet relieved over not being a mother. How odd. “Thank you for helping keep me alive.”
“You’re welcome. Rai, can you tell me what you remember before today while you sit up for me?” Mala asked. She triggered an opening in the front middle of the crèche, which lowered the sidewall, allowing an easier exit.
Rai sat up, taking her time, holding nausea and dizziness at bay for the time being. She turned and placed her legs down the proffered exit step while she considered the Apprentice’s words. Mala’s question evoked fear and panic where memories and recollections should lie.
“I know my name, and the names of everything here, but I don’t remember my time before I woke up, Apprentice Mala,” Rai replied. “I assume what I should remember. Memories of my stay here at the Temple, my past with my Sept, my friends, you know. I’m afraid nothing’s there.”
Mala glanced toward the Elder in the shadows, and then looked back to Rai. “The increased medicinal dosage used during your crisis has been known to cause temporary memory impairments. Usually, this lasts for a few days or weeks, but sometimes it takes longer to resolve.”
Mala’s happy demeanor vanished, replaced with a placid, emotionless expression, which conveyed little. Her movements as she cleaned the fluid lines turned abrupt and jerky. Even without her full faculties, Rai suspected Mala of not being honest.
Rai raised a brow. “I’m sure all things will become clear in time, Apprentice Mala?”
“Let’s focus on your present needs,” Mala replied. “Let me help you to your room. With some warm food and proper rest, you’ll be back to yourself in no time at all. Oh, and please just call me Mala.”
Standing slowly, Rai soon felt her equilibrium return. Mala led her out of the unadorned room, past the rows of undisturbed crèches, her arm around Rai’s waist to steady her. Hobbling past the occupied crèches made her want to move faster, to escape the cavern and all of the women in stasis. When they passed out of the dark cellar, Rai breathed deeply, only then grasping she was free of her confinement.
Despite her foggy state, the Temple corridors appeared vacant to Rai–unlike what she’d expect for any Temple, which were the lifeblood of the cities. As they rounded a corner, the narrow corridor opened into a wide passage with colorful tapestries depicting vibrant, outdoorsy scenes to liven up their underground surroundings. Doors were spaced along the left wall while the right wall contained many large windows hewn through the stone, through which a magnificent natural-appearing amphitheater was visible. The stone in the amphitheater included various horizontal swirls of color gradients within the green, gray, and black ranges, demonstrating the varied geology of the planet. Several Novitiates prepared the amphitheater for the mid-morning meditation. Their beige robes appeared to glow in the hazy mid-morning sunlight.
“Which city are we in?” Rai asked.
“This is Raven’s Call, the largest settlement next to Barrow’s Grove,” Mala answered, with more than a hint of pride in her voice. Raven’s Call had grown to just under twenty thousand under the current Matriarch, so Mala had reason to be proud to serve here. The weather was fair if humid, at this inland city and farming wasn’t a challenge. There were worse places on the planet when all held the same threat. At least the city walls afforded some degree of protection.
“Shouldn’t the Temple be more crowded?”
Mala laughed. “This is an underground facility, so it’s difficult to gauge who’s here. We have about three hundred and eighty women in Service right now, and the staff capacity to care for twice that if needed.
“We’ll have as many as twenty girls in transition, either in or out. Our staff is large enough to handle it, with three dozen Priestesses of varying levels assigned to the Birthing Quarters.
“Still, you won’t see our staff in large groups. We all have our specialties. Most of us spend our time dedicated to the girls in Service or the Medicinal Vaults. However, plenty of other functions the Temple offers citizens keep the Priestesses occupied. This is a very well structured Temple.”
Mala opened the third door down the hallway and ushered Rai into the room. The room was adorned in beige tones and contained a bed, table and chair, and a rounded natural stone bath at the far end. The oblong tub stood hip-height with a set of stairs carved around the front facing, and a utilitarian bathroom with a full-length mirror was located on the far end of the room beyond the curve of the pool. Inviting wisps of steam curled up from the swirling whirlpool, beckoning Rai to enter. The pool was the only source of warmth in this otherwise cold room.
“This room is for your use. Please bathe, as it will help purge the crèche medicinals.” Mala motioned to a set of packets on the shelf next to the bath. “Use these soaking herbs and salts for your bath. They’re quite good at leeching out toxins. Sometimes your body can lose control over its homeostatic balance in the crèche. Considering the crèches’ superior ability to maintain and control bodily functions, your system isn’t always prepared to work as hard at removing cellular waste products when you first awaken.”
“And this is all normal?” Superior technology should leave you feeling better, not worse. How long had she been in the crèche to make her body so dependent?
“Don’t worry.” Mala stroked her arm. “Your hepatic, renal and respiratory systems will catch on quickly–returning to normal capacity within a few days. Let me go get you some food, so you’ll have something to eat after your bath.”
When the door clicked shut, Rai shed her clothes. Thinking two packets were better than one, she opened two of the folded parchment packets and poured them into the water. Stepping into the bath Rai felt the contents of the packages fizzing against her calves. After grabbing a washcloth from the shelf, she moved into the waist-deep water in the middle and on impulse submerged fully. Much to her delight, the fizzing bath salts resonated through her ears.
Rai located a submerged ledge toward the far end of the tub and lounged on it, taking ease in the neck-deep water. Alone in the quiet room, the disjointed distresses of the day flooded her thoughts. Her entire body ached, an apt reflection of her state of mind. The amnesia, when she focused on it, caused anxiety to tingle from her scalp all the way to her fingertips. Rai remembered so many ordinary, day-to-day things, just nothing about herself. The frustration galled her.
However, Mala had said the amnesia would pass, and only existed because of the drugs the Temple staff had used. The knot in her stomach said otherwise.
Rai ran a hand over her belly, the slight curve betraying no hint of either the trauma or the history her body had lived through while she’d slept unawares. Would she feel more connected to the tiny life she’d lost if it had been born first? If she’d had a chance to hold it in her arms? She’d never know for sure, but Rai was relieved: her instincts told her she wasn’t natural mother material.
The far-off murmur of chanting voices and rhythmic drumming sounded from the mid-morning meditation. Still drowsy from the crèche medicinals and comfortable in the water, she closed her eyes and relaxed into the sound, intending to wait out Mala’s return with the food. As the drumming and chanting grew in volume, Rai nodded off into a trance-like sleep.
With sleep came a dream.
Rai stood in a forest full of ancient trees, so tall the crowns were lost beyond her vision. The smallest shimmer of light shone through the dense canopy, not enough to burn away the thick morning fog lying in the valleys. A melodious trickle pointed the way to a nearby stream. Gliding deep into the large grove, she took in a landscape dotted with immense ferns growing out of rocky outcroppings and long-dead fallen trees. The trees had split into great building block sections as if formed into massive tables and benches laid out for a feast. Moist humus squished between her toes. Rai felt like a mere trog bug dwarfed by her surroundings.
Blisters covered the soles of her bare feet. She wore a long brown cape over a simple dress–mud caked the areas around the knees and forearms. Her waist-long red curls contained bits of fern and dirt within their tangled mess. She gasped at the cool, humid air, trying to slow her breathing, then stilled in fright when the rustling fronds of ferns moved in the distance.
The sound of muted voices grew, echoing off the ancient trees. The meaning of the words escaped her, but their tone was all too clear. They were coming to punish her, but where could she go? The voices became a thundering force pushing down upon her, relentlessly pressing her to either run or face their malicious threat.
Filled with terror, Rai ran away from the voices. The forest fought her, fern fronds whipped her in the face, branches ripped at her clothing, and gnarled roots caught at her toes and twisted her ankles as she fled. She caught glimpses of hooded figures in her peripheral vision, and her fear drove even faster. Running through fog and fern the voices pursued, getting closer with every step. She stopped to gauge her path through the dense fog, and the voices abruptly ceased. The entire forest stilled. Something brushed through her hair, took hold, and pulled. Rai let out a frantic scream, striking her fists against her unseen attacker as she fell backward …
Mala’s voice delivered Rai back to consciousness for the second time that day. Rai laid in the bath, Mala leaning over her, Mala wrenching Rai’s wrists in the air between them, her grip burning against Rai’s skin.
“Stop it!” Mala cried out. Her grip on Rai’s wrists tightened.
Shaking in residual fear, Rai relaxed her arms and tried to regain some composure. “Yes, Mala, I’m all right.” A red mark on Mala’s chin stood out against her tanned skin. “Oh, I’m sorry! Did I hurt you?”
“Be still, Rai. It was just a nightmare.” Mala released her grip and stepped back, and then straightened her skirts. “You must be more tired than usual from the crèche. It happens sometimes. Still, for your safety, don’t nap in the tub.”
Rai sat up, bristling over her mistake. “It won’t happen again.”
“I brought some food for you.”
Rai climbed out of the bath, the mention of food twisting her empty gut. She stopped to grab a robe and throw it around herself, not bothering to dry off her still dripping skin. The chairs were wooden and waterproof, which was good because water from Rai’s hair and body continued to drip, forming a small puddle on the floor as she took a seat at the table.
The food was bland and tasteless, but she didn’t complain because it sated her hunger. Sliced, roasted fowl accompanied with an assortment of root vegetables and some brown bread and butter entertained her eyes if not her palate.
“Get some proper sleep after you finish eating. You need it.” She poured Rai a glass of water and then pulled a packet from her pocket, tore it open, and then dumped it into the glass. “This should help you to sleep more … soundly. Don’t get back in the water until after you’ve slept off this sedative. I’ll check in on you from time to time, just in case.” Mala turned to leave.
“What happens now?” Rai asked. “When do I return to my Sept?”
Mala hesitated, looking back at Rai with her calm, controlled face–the one Rai now dubbed as the ‘withholding information’ look. “Today you rest and recuperate. You’ll meet with the Matriarch tomorrow, and all your questions will be answered.” Mala left and closed the door behind her.
It occurred to Rai for the first time that she had no idea what her life might become, and to her great concern, what it ever had been.
Although she’d lost her appetite, Rai tried to focus on the steaming food in front of her.
* * * *
All works and material are copyrighted by Candice Bundy. Any transcription or reproduction is illegal.