Chapter 1- Meeting
Solstice Meridian stepped into the atrium. It was filled with people, most with masks, some elaborate. Some even of animals or inanimate objects.
Fear washed over him.
It was the first time he’d been with people besides his family since….the incident.
No. That was too tame a word. A word to hide behind. And he was done hiding.
I must face the world if I am to change it.
He turned on his saber-tooth cat holomask and stepped into the fray.
Someone bumped him. A shock jolted through him and he tore away.
He closed his eyes, letting the music wash over him, letting go of the tension, grasping for faith that not everyone here meant him harm.
Someone bumped him as they danced. He resisted the urge to open his eyes, dash away, and flee out the door, back to his home and his mother.
She had been so supportive for the past few weeks, as he recovered, physically and mentally, and got back to school. Studying the Book of Truth, scouring it for words of comfort, words to bolster him with strength.
He’d thought he’d found them, but it was different, reading about something, rather than living it.
He let himself sway with the beauty of the music, let the stringed instruments and drums carry him to a place of serenity and peace.
Someone grabbed his arm. His eyes snapped open and he jerked away.
“Sorry!” said the girl in front of him, wearing a black zaxa bird mask. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“That’s okay.” I can’t expect instant recovery, he reminded himself. And random touch is one thing, but grabbing—
The boys holding him down, pain snapping into his back, their harsh laughter above him—
“If you want to dance by yourself, that’s okay,” said the girl.
“No—I would like to dance.”
Her large bird eyes lit up. “Really? I can tell you’ve got an ear for music, by how you were dancing just now. Most of these guys—well, they’re not exactly the sensitive type. Especially if they’re on Flicker. I can’t stand the stuff myself.”
“Oh! Sounds like we might get along.” There was a smile in her voice, although he couldn’t see it beneath the mask’s beak.
He slid his hand in hers, forcing himself not to flinch, to feel the nuances of her hand, to open himself to her own desires and pain and fears and loves. He could feel the pulse throbbing softly in her palm …and beneath that, dully, he could sense a quiver of trepidation, along with a surge of excitement and even a dash of attraction.
Heat rose to his cheeks whenever he thought of someone being attracted to him. It was a closed book to him….but at the same time, it was connected in a twisted way with—
A knee grinding into his back. Fingernails scraping his scalp as rough hands yanked his head backwards. A snap of lightning—he cried out with the pain—
No. I can’t let it get in the way. I want this girl to have a good time. I want to have a good time. Put all that behind me.
His other hand grasped her lightly around her waist, which was soft with shimmering black feathers. She slid her other hand to his shoulder and he let himself accept it as the benevolent touch it was.
He sought a rhythm with her. It was awkward at first, until he let himself relax and really listen to the music. It took longer than before, because he couldn’t shed the tension completely, but he was able to feel how she wanted to dance, and adjust his own instincts to hers.
His mother was right. Empathy was good. It took him out of himself—even though—that day—empathy had ripped him apart—He could sense their thoughts, see through their eyes as they—He didn’t think he wanted to ever touch anyone again—
But he was here. Now. And he was having a good time—at least, as long as he focused on the girl, her innocence shining through the eyes of the mask, the melody of the song piercing his soul with its ethereal beauty.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Zenith. What’s yours?”
“Sol. Short for Solstice.”
“Oh, that’s a lovely name! Our names are kind of similar. I mean—Solstice is when the sun’s at its zenith.”
“We have rather musical names. Music of the universe.”
“You know, I think that way too. What we see, feel, and hear—it’s all part of a symphony, working beneath the surface.”
“Like the philosophy of the Marches. There’s a structure beneath all of it that connects it, unifies it.”
She nodded. “That’s more mathematical than anything. I like to think there’s more to it—there’s something we can’t quantify. Like souls, music—something mysterious that we’ll never know totally, but we touch it every day, and we’re a part of it, like a grand tapestry by—oh, some great designer.” She laughed.
He felt a smile spread across his face of its own accord. “That’s more like our philosophy. I mean, that of my people.”
“What do you—Oh. You’re a cult member.” Her voice became distant, her hands cold.
“No. The Sojourners aren’t a cult.”
She drew her hand away. “I—I don’t think I can….I mean—thanks for the dance.” She spun away, leaving him stunned, his hand still tingling from her contact.
He might have gone after her, another time, but he didn’t have the strength. Dark sorrow poured through him, leaving him in shadow, the beauty of the music dulled.
On the Outside, Sojourners were accepted. Or at least tolerated; no one could do anything against them because of the law. But inside Quarantine—most people just wanted to keep their heads down, hope they’d be able to earn their way out, and so they kept away from people who they saw as outsiders. And besides the oversight of Ms, who made sure that no one seriously injured another, there was little true law and order inside Quarantine. The Purity Patrol—well, they were part of the problem.
Purity Patrol. His heart thudded hard against his chest. They could be anywhere. They blended in with the crowd, unless they were on the attack, but now –there was no way to tell where they were, beneath the masks. At least they could not tell who he was.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Though at the same time, he realized he was still hiding.
One step at a time. It’s enough just to come here. I can’t accomplish anything if I don’t let myself heal.
He slipped through the crowd and made his way to the table laden with food, near the spiral staircase. Tiers of cakes, tarts, buns, and hors d’oeuvres spilled over the gold and white cloth. Delicate foods that people in Quarantine only saw during Festival, now produced in abundance. People were clustered near the table, laughing, drinking, talking, dropping glittering iridescent Flicker onto their tongues.
A temptation squirmed inside of him. Flicker. To numb the pain, at least for a little while… To forget—to fall headfirst into an imaginary world of his own making and to wholeheartedly believe it was real…. Ah! To escape the constant nightmares and the shadows that dragged at him and the stabs of pain that ate at his soul—
But no. There was another way. A better way. It wouldn’t lead into numbness and oblivion—which would only make it harder, or impossible, to emerge in a healthy condition.
He picked up one of the little tarts. Flakes of crust fluttered off as he touched it. He took a bite the tang of ra’ay berry spilled over his tongue. He reveled in each little spark of taste and texture.
He took another. He’d forgotten to eat lunch. Again. His mother complained he was skin and bones….
This time it was a little cake and it was delicious. He relished its sponginess and the smooth sweet cream at the center. Mmmm. It made him feel better.
It doesn’t help my recovery to be malnourished, he thought, realizing it was good to eat—and it was the first time he’d really tasted food since it happened.
After taking a crispy hors d’oeuvre, he looked around for someone else to talk to. Longing clutched him to connect with someone. None of his friends had wanted to come to Festival, and some of his friends had deserted him—because of his own withdrawal from the world, and because some of them had learned what had happened and didn’t want to be connected with the shame of it.
A tall girl sidled up to him. Long blonde hair, marking her as Nobility, cascaded over her shoulders. “Hey,” she said. “I saw what happened with that girl. Too bad some people have such stupid prejudice. My best friend on the outside was a Sojourner—until me and my family got stuck in here.” She held out her hand. He forced himself to grasp it, and beneath its strength he felt a quiver of vulnerability, but also honesty and empathy. “I’m Symphony. The reason I noticed you was because I overheard you mention a symphony and for a second I thought you were talking about me.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m here with my family, but they scattered. Rhyth’s probably playing Warzone, and I don’t know where Cade and Tan ran off to.”
Something clicked in his mind. “Cade—is that short for Cadence?”
“Yes. Half our family is named after musical terms, back before the trend went to offworld names. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
He shook his head.
“You’re missing out. They can be a pain sometimes—some more than others—but I love each one of them. You must be in Quarantine with family, though? Most kids our age have parents that supposedly did something wrong.”
“My mom. And my grandparents. They were leaders of the democracy demonstrations.”
“Ah. That makes sense. That’s what most of the Sojourners are in here for. What about your dad? Is he on the outside like mine is?”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I might as well not have one. He didn’t even try to contact us after our sentence. Didn’t want to be associated with us. So I try not to think about him too much. If I may ask….what happened to your dad?”
“My mom…wasn’t married.” Heat suffused his cheeks. He knew she had nothing to be ashamed of….but that didn’t stop other Sojourners from scorning her.
“Oh. I know what that means to your people. That must’ve been hard.”
“We were practically shunned. So were my grandparents, who stood by us.”
“We're in here because Mom had an affair with Flash Vale. So—the people who at least pretend to be against the Vales have nothing to do with us—and the regs are in awe of us. So we’re kind of isolated too. I hardly notice, since I have my family—there are nine of us, counting Mom. Throw a stone in Quarantine and you’ll hit a Savannah, they say.” She laughed. It was an easy, musical laugh, and it shot a bolt of happiness through his heart. “Anyway, if you’re feeling cut off from things, I know how that is….and if you ever feel like you need someone to talk to, I’m here. I’m sure we can provide you with an extended family if you need it.” She laughed again, her blue-violet eyes dancing.
“Thank you.” It felt like a soothing salve had spread over his heart, which had been aching, nearly shattered. He hadn’t realized how much he’d needed positive human contact till now. Tentatively, he reached out a hand and touched her arm, letting her know how much her acceptance meant to him. Through the brief contact, he could feel a surge of gratification, a genuine liking of him without a hint of attraction (which he could appreciate), and beneath it all, an undercurrent of sorrow, pain, a shadow…which he wished he could heal, as she was starting to heal him, just by her radiant presence.
“No problem.” She snatched up a little cake and bit into it. “Mm, this is good. Too bad we don’t have ambrosia here, though. That tastes like heaven. But we’ve lost that privilege…. Did your mom take part in the democracy demonstrations?”
“She wasn’t a leader, but she marched in the streets. She even took me sometimes.”
“I remember seeing the people down there and wanting to join them. I still think democracy’s a good idea. It’s not like the democracy advocates were violent, either. Not like the anarchists. Most of them, anyway. I’m guessing your grandparents were the nonviolent type.”
He nodded. “They wanted to be able to vote so we could break away. Form our own country again.”
“But we all must be unified,” she said with a hint of sarcasm. “That’s what Mag City is…. Except for us exiles.
"Even though I'm Nobility, I don’t really care about being above other people. I’d rather have democracy. It’s too bad it didn’t work. Now, who knows if we’ll have a chance again. But if we do—I’ll join the democracy movement.”
“You shouldn’t voice such seditious thoughts,” said a boy beside Sym.
One of Sol's attackers.
His blood ran cold.