Read the first chapter of Sanctum 92!
They were doing it again; I heard them moving around inside the glass walls. Their fragile heartbeats fluttered like a symphony in my ears, but every time I turned my head on the cold floor to listen closer, they paused.
As if they sensed me there, trapped in my cage.
Frowning, I turned over my bruised fist and tapped my knuckles against the concrete floor, seventeen times, signaling the words: Are you there?
They didn’t respond until I began to hyperventilate, but when they finally did, their words flowed through the walls, loud and clear.
Don’t eat them, they said. He’ll come back, like always.
I tapped again, my breath coming out uneven. Who is coming? How do you know? Are you all right?
The sudden silence within the opaque walls was troubling. I rapped my hand on the ground and screamed, mindless of the pain in my back. I begged the voices to talk to me. They were there, I could feel them, so why weren’t they saying anything more?
With a defeated shout, I scrubbed the muddy tears from my face and slapped the concrete. Then I crawled over to my corner of the vault and sat with my knees pressed to my chest. If the voices were gone, I was soon to follow. And I’d no longer have to worry about starving to death; I’d become a voice in the walls, too.
“You’re too innocent,” someone said in the stillness.
I didn’t turn my head to look at her, but I could see the faint outline of her form. She’d been sitting in the opposite corner since the Jackets dragged her in several hours ago. I hadn’t bothered to ask why she was there. She only spoke when I made too much noise and woke her up. She never moved … but she always watched.
“I hurt,” I cried.
“You’ll always hurt,” she fired back. “But don’t let them know it.”
“How do I do that?”
“Stop talking to yourself, for one.”
I scrunched my forehead in confusion, but didn’t open my mouth to explain that I knew the voices in the walls were real. That they comforted me—that they made me feel strong, despite the feeble state of my body.
I couldn’t make that up, even if I tried.
“And then you have to harden your heart,” she continued.
“Choose what brings you pain.”
“Harden your heart so you don’t have to feel the full extent of their control over you. They can’t hurt you if you don’t let them.”
“Is that what you’ve done?” I asked, but she didn’t answer right away. Her bright eyes stared back at me in the darkness, and I wondered what I looked like to her. Probably foolish, I thought. My bones were fragile, too skinny to hold my weight for long. On nights when the vault floors grew too cold, they ached. My spine creaked with every sob I released—and admittedly, I cried often.
“It’s what I should have done,” she said, her voice tight. “It’s what you still have time to do.”
Time; they taught me time. There were no clocks inside the vault, and I had no other means of keeping track, but an internal strife warned me that the days were stretching. I knew sunup met sundown in a blazing blur beyond these glass walls. Whether I’d see either of the aforementioned again was as likely as warmth finding me in this prison.
So when she said time, I was perplexed. I had no time at all.
“What if I fail?” I asked, digging my nails deep into my skin.
“If you ever want to spread your wings beyond the Ward,” she answered, “you’ll make sure you don’t.”
I retreated into my mind, taking her words with me. Arguing with her was futile, since she never remained awake for long. Yet her words… I’d tried bargaining my way out of the vault, promising to be good or study my lessons harder. Neither rid me of this hole, but I’d never dared to harden my heart. Close it off to feelings. Seal it away in an ironclad chest and bury it in the pit of my body.
Maybe then the voices will return, I thought with my head reclined against the wall.
Maybe then the torment would stop.
I faded in and out of sleep for what had to be hours. Every sudden movement shot pain down my spine, so I slept upright, the thin fabric of my nightgown clutched in my fists. When they finally came for me, a blue light skittered across the floor from the door, not quite reaching me in my corner.
There were two of them this time, both wearing white jackets. They always came at different times to confuse me, but there were only so many hours in one day, and I was starting to catch on to their patterns. Passing the other girl without a glance, they picked me up and carried me out of the vault, minding my delicate bones. Once we were in the hall, they strapped me in a wheeled chair that would transport me down the blank hallways.
I didn’t fight them.
I’d stopped fighting a long time ago—sometime after the surgeries began.
As the Jackets pushed me down the wide corridor, I turned slightly in the chair to look back at the vault door beside mine. The one with the star above the frame. The one where the voices originated. I’d never seen the Jackets go in, but I often heard them in there with the droning cacophony of their testing machines.
I turned back around as we entered the washroom at the end of the hall, and the Jackets released my limbs from the chair’s metal bindings. Moving on instinct, I stood and carefully shed my nightgown, balling it up in my hands to take to the waste bin. I did it quickly, because the last time I had taken too long to get around the room, I had been refused food for days.
“Go right in,” said one Jacket.
The dark tub sat in the center of the windowless room, and the tiles beneath it were chipped and painfully too uniform. The toilet was hidden behind a green curtain to my right and the soaps and sponges were kept locked in a lab desk to the left. That was where the Jackets stood, readying their equipment and flipping on the multiple monitors that lined the walls. I knew they’d wait about three minutes for me to get settled. Then they’d start writing things down on their boards as the tests began.
They didn’t do this often. Sometimes I was just here for a bath—but those instances were few and far apart.
Unlike the pain they caused me.
Naked, I moved through the chilled room until my shaking hands touched the ceramic tub. I peered into the bottomless waters and cringed at my reflection—my frayed, white hair and pale irises. Every angle of my face was visible, and my collarbones jutted out like sharp blades beneath my skin. I wondered if there had ever been a time when I didn’t look this way, so weak. I watched sadness swirl in my eyes, a galaxy in their depths, and recalled that, yes, there had been.
Right before they gave me wings.
I climbed into the tub without testing the water’s temperature and sunk in up to my shoulders. The sweet scent of the vanilla-jasmine soap comforted me … until I felt a Jacket at my back. He pulled a small table with bathing tools over, and picked up a small, blue comb. Then he dipped it in the tub and began raking it through my hair, tugging the knots free. I watched his skinny, blue-veined hands do this numerous times. He moved wordlessly, and when I tried to peer over my shoulder to see what the other Jacket was doing, he yanked hard on my hair. Several moments passed again before he finally put the comb down and picked up a washcloth.
“Begin,” he said.
I sat still, and through my chapped lips, repeated the lessons I was taught. “Shoot. Detain. Kill.”
“No legionary is free beyond the Ward; no leviathan is safe.”
“My service is to Presidium first, Silo second,” I whispered.
“I am a vassal, a soldier of good. My duty is to vanquish the inherent evil, at all costs.”
My lessons continued this way. I was given cues and had to answer each correctly. The words had passed my lips so many times that I often answered without realizing I’d spoken aloud. At times, when the vault grew too quiet, I’d say them like a song, a melody trapped inside my skull. They either made me feel angry … or nothing at all. They were hollow words, and I only pretended to know their meaning every time I sat in this tub.
I stared down into the sudsy water as the washcloth was moved over the back of my neck, and then down my spine, where fresh scabs met my wings. The synthetic feathers rustled at the Jacket’s touch. They were sensitive; the slightest movement left me in pain for hours. But the wings were the only beautiful thing about me. They stretched from my shoulder blades and framed my sickly body, their iridescent colors shining beneath the fluorescent lights, like carved marble. But even though they made me look whole, I knew I was anything but. Much of what the Jackets told me didn’t make sense, yet one thing was always crystalline: I was a weapon, and these wings were a gift of destruction.
Forgetfully, still rehearsing my lessons, I reached back to touch a scar, and the Jacket slapped me away. I yelped and nursed my reddened hand beneath the water, but the spark of pain ignited a small rebellion in me—a burning hatred for the people who trained and collared me like a beast. It reminded me to harden my heart, and I became so focused on doing so that my words began to slur. I messed up my lines and missed cues. Every mistake was followed by a slap to the face.
I was slapped forty-five times.
I flinched and cried, thrashed my wings, but soon began to feel my mind receding into the murky waters. I unlocked a part of my heart, threw myself in, and barred the door closed behind me. Anger fired its way through my synapses and turned my body stone cold.
“What’s wrong with her?” the Jacket by the door asked.
“She isn’t responding to the key,” the other said, sounding pathetically exhilarated. He gripped my face and turned me to look at him, like he was searching for something, but my vision was hazy. All I could make out were the blue veins crawling beneath his skin.
“Voi…ces,” I slurred, and I felt a single tear slide down my cheek.
“Her pain threshold has lowered. Bring the dosage.”
The other Jacket readied a purple liquid in a syringe, while the one that had been bathing me held my wet arm out of the tub. I slumped against the side, feeling the water slosh up to my neck. The black hole I’d encased around my mind left me conscious enough to sense their panic. And I wondered—no, marveled—at how easily I’d done it. Closed my heart off to feelings.
Did the girl know?
Did she know that her words whispered in our crystal prison would affect me so?
The Jackets sterilized a site on my upper arm, and then punctured my skin with the syringe, adding to my collection of needle scars. When the liquid entered my system, my heart rate tripled to synthesize its chemicals. It was cold in my veins. It leeched into my thoughts and flayed my internal wounds open, baring me to these monsters.
“It’s working,” the Jacket nearest me said. When the syringe was empty, he dislodged it from my body and placed it on the small table with my bath tools. Then he turned my face to him again, and this time I could tell he saw what he was searching for, because his eyes illuminated with unmistakable joy.
“Ghost—0097,” he said with a wide smile. “You have been activated.”
If I could have felt anything but hollowness in that moment, I knew my heart would have shattered, and the splintered pieces would have cut me up from the inside. Because while I couldn’t fully measure the weight of those four words right then, I knew they shackled me to this place. To them.
I finished my bath without struggle, though tears fell from my eyes like the remnants of my heart were bleeding into the water. When they decided I was clean enough, the Jackets dressed my wings with white bandages and clothed me in a new, ankle-length nightgown. They grinned the whole time … as if they were happy I’d closed myself off.
How do I get my mind out of the hole? I wondered.
Did I want to get out?
They brushed my hair one last time to slick the white strands in place, and then led me back down the halls, forgoing my wheeled chair. I walked slowly, my arms linked with theirs as they supported my weight. I felt like a fawn weighing its first move in a maze full of beguiling predators. Every step that put me closer to my vault made me want to scratch my way free. Locking me away and holding me beneath the pressure of lies was too easy for them.
Though my head felt heavy, a noise at the end of the corridor caught my attention. I saw a Jacket dragging an unconscious body into a wheeled chair and shutting the glass vault with a passcode. The body was that of a boy, and he had skin the color of obsidian, hair as silver as mine. The angles of his face were sharp, even as he slept in the chair. His clothes were speckled with blood, and his skinny body trembled. As we grew nearer, I noticed his needle scars matched mine.
He had wings, too.
They took him from Vault 4, the one with the numbers ‘0018’ displayed on the frame. The vault right next to mine. My footsteps ceased as I watched the Jacket wheel him by, and I made all the right connections, even in the blackness of my mind.
This boy… He had to be all the voices in the walls, if he was also the one on the other side. I watched his sleeping form like my mere presence could somehow summon the proof there in the hall, but he kept sleeping. And when the Jacket moved him into a dim room, my breathing grew shallow.
They were hurting him.
He wasn’t strong enough.
I was shoved into my vault before I could say anything more, and I cast what had to be frightened eyes at the open door before it was slammed shut in my face, successfully locking me inside and far from the boy with all the voices.
Or perhaps they weren’t his voices, but mine. Or ours.
Or no one’s.
Time lapsed differently in these vaults, so there was no telling if my sanity was intact. There were a lot of us down here, and while some nights were quiet, most were filled with a ruckus of screams. We were slowly losing our minds, our will, just like they wanted.
I turned to talk to the one who shared my vault, to tell her that the voices were real and that I had seen their source, but her corner was empty, and the chains that would have bound her to the wall weren’t anywhere to be found. Not even a nail in the cement to show that she’d once been there. I scrubbed my eyes, once, and felt around in the darkness for her. It didn’t take me long to fully understand that I was alone, and I began to cry again, slapping angrily at my head. Had the girl been real, or had I manifested her to accompany my loneliest moments? Had I somehow convinced myself to harden my heart?
I was afraid to become the senseless girl in Vault 7, the one who spoke to herself and chased her nightmares down the blank halls. She cried too much, and I’d walked past her room enough times to know that she kept dead clones stacked high in every corner.
I couldn’t become that, even if the Jackets dragged me through the fires of my fears and back.
I curled into a ball and settled into the monotony of silence. I picked at the old scabs on my arms, and when that didn’t do much to pass the time, I began tapping on the concrete floor again.
It was a language the voices had taught me, one steeped in a tight algorithm that had taken me days to crack. It began with one knuckle-tap for the letter A, two taps for B, three for C, and so forth, until the sound of my knuckles on the ground spelled out eurhythmic words and phrases so long they melded together. To lessen the pain in my wrists, I’d combined a set number of taps into phrases. It probably made no sense outside of my head, but it was the only way to communicate with the voices.
When the droning hush abated, it was because footsteps echoed in the hallway and a door on the other side of the wall was opened to the vault—to 0018.
I heard grunting, and then nothing. Had they brought him back?
I waited for the footsteps to retreat down the hall once the vault’s door was relocked, and then pressed my cheek flush to the wall.
Are you there? I tapped, eager for an answer.
I didn’t have to wait long, unlike last time. There was only a singular, strangled sound.
Don’t eat them, it sent through the wall. He’ll come back, like always.
Don’t eat what? I asked.
Then I heard the boy's voice, as if he sat across from me, chained to the opposite wall. “Don’t eat the juniper berries, Ghost. He’ll ruin you. He’ll turn your wings to the darkest night…”