Burn Bright
Author:Marianne de Pierres

Burn Bright - By Marianne de Pierres

Retra pressed her fingers to her thigh. The intense pain from her obedience strip had receded to a steady throb and nausea. Perhaps that was the worst it would get, now that she’d left the compound.

She glanced back. No shout came. No lights followed her. The rust-mesh fence that segregated the Seal enclave from the rest of Grave rose like a grey fortress in the dark. And she’d climbed it.

Pain can be dismissed.

Her brother Joel had said that to her after Father had beat him one time. Retra remembered that more clearly than anything after he ran away to Ixion. It was the thing that gave her hope. She could control pain. And she could follow him.

So she’d practised. Hours with her arm twisted, or something sharp pressed into her skin; practised thinking and acting, despite hurt.

And now was the time.

The barge would be waiting at the old harbour ramp where the tugs brought in the coal haulers. Down among the filthy, rat-infested dockside streets she’d find her escape.

Others drifted close as she hurried through the city streets towards the water. She heard their boots on cobblestones, and their quick, heavy breaths rasping the damp air. Hurrying like her.

Don’t miss it! It’s here!

The barge comes twice a year, sneaking in under the cover of night, taking the unhappy ones away to Ixion, Joel had told her. No one knows when it will arrive. That’s why the Elders can’t stop it. The confetti falls. We read it but only we know the code.

What code? Retra had said. I don’t know a code.

The Angel Arias are the code.

What’s Ixion? she’d asked him.

He’d laid his face close to hers, whispering so their parents couldn’t hear. Imagine a place where there are no Elders. No rules. No punishment. Only music and laughter and freedom. That’s Ixion, Ret. That’s me.

Soon after, he’d run away and left her alone.

Fog licked Retra’s face as she ran but she barely felt the chill. The pain was back. Waves of throbbing making her slow down and double over. She gasped for breath, staggered a few steps then kept moving, keeping to the side of the street, letting others pass.

She mustn’t stop now. If Father found her here, he’d beat her unconscious. There was no forgiveness for Ixion runaways who were caught. Only rebuke and shame.

But the throbbing radiated along her leg and up into her abdomen, making the world contract. The decrepit buildings seemed to sag towards her; the cobblestones became too large and uneven to balance upon.

She stopped again and brushed her veil aside to catch a deeper breath. Ahead, a string of shifting party lights lit the outline of the barge. She just had to get across the street and down the beach to the ramp. That’s all.

One foot. Follow. One foot. Follow.

Across the deserted street.

But as her boots touched sand, the boat engine rumbled into life and the drawbridge began to close.

Wait … please wait …

Ignoring the crippling pain, she ran the last few steps and flung herself at the closing gate. If she fell short of the barge she would die: the chill, dark water would suck her clothes-laden body down.

If she fell short, maybe it would be best to die.

Her arms slapped the lip of the drawbridge, her fingers missing their grip, and she began to slide.

No!

Then strong, cold hands dragged her up and into the safety of the boat. But her moment of relief ebbed as she stared up at her rescuer. Pale as a dead person alive, eyes cold, hair flowing long and blacker than the night she’d run through to get here, skin tight and gaunt across the bones of his face like a skeleton clinging to its flesh. ‘Welcome aboard the way to Ixion: island of ever-night, ever-youth and never-sleep. Burn bright!’ He gave her a mock salute and disappeared along the long, shadowy deck towards the bridge, leaving her shivering over what she had done.

At least the pain from her strip had ebbed, as if his icy hands had robbed it of heat. She could breathe again.

‘Do you think they’re all like that?’

Jerked from her thoughts, Retra searched for the owner of the voice. It belonged to a girl huddled into the side of the hull against the damp dark and the strangeness. Straight blonde hair spilled past the girl’s shoulders. Retra had never seen hair quite so white. She wanted to touch it to see if it was real or made of moonlight.

‘All who?’ she asked instead, crouching among the shadows near her.

‘The Ripers.’

‘What’s a Riper?’

‘Don’t you read the confetti?’ asked the girl.

Retra thought of the balloon gondola that floated across from Ixion sometimes and littered Grave’s wet, stone streets with flyers. Father had whipped her for picking them up. Then he had burnt them in the wood stove. But Joel had smuggled a flyer home and whispered to her about it. ‘Yes. Once.’

The girl sighed as if Retra was an idiot. ‘Ripers are the Guardians of Ixion. They look after you. They know everything. Even when you’re too old to live there anymore.’

‘What happens to you then?’

The girl shrugged as if she didn’t care, but Retra could see the glittering excitement in her eyes, coloured by the party lights that wound around the ship’s railing.

‘How should I know? That’s ages away for me.’ She gave a wicked smile. ‘I’m only seventeen. I’ve got a lot of partying to do before then.’

Retra’s stomach tightened. ‘I’ve never been to a party.’

The girl stuck a finger in her mouth and sucked it. ‘None of us have. But I’ve been practising what to say if a cute guy wants me to dance. Or go somewhere with him.’ She tittered. ‘Anyway, I’m Cal. What’s your name?’

Hesitantly, Retra leaned into the shifting coloured light and lifted her veil. ‘I’m Retra.’

Cal’s smile faded. She wrinkled her nose. ‘I didn’t see your veil. You’re a Seal. They don’t like Seals in Ixion, it takes them too long to loosen up. Some of them go frossing mad before they do.’

Retra stiffened. Cal’s swearing shocked her. ‘How do you know that?’

Cal inched away as if she might catch something. ‘Stands to reason, doesn’t it? You super-straights are a bit retarded. Give you some freedom and you “snap”.’ She clicked her fingers. ‘Some go into themselves, others go wild – that’s what I’ve heard. Wonder which sort you’ll be?’

Super-straights. Is that what the rest of Grave called them?

Well, Cal might know how to swear but she didn’t know anything about Retra. Seals didn’t just live in sealed compounds. They lived in sealed minds. The first thing a Seal child learnt was how to shield her thoughts and emotions from others.

That’s why Retra missed Joel so much. Only with her brother could she whisper secrets. Only with him did she feel safe to share her feelings. ‘We aren’t retarded,’ she said. ‘We are …’ She searched for the word. ‘Private.’

‘Is that why you don’t go to school or to Council meets? Is that why you live in that stupid compound? ’Cos you’re private.’

Cal’s sarcasm made Retra nervous. ‘We attend Face-School,’ she said.

‘Face-School’s weird, just talking to a teacher-head on a square box.’

‘It’s a proven way to learn.’

‘Proven way to learn,’ mimicked Cal. ‘School’s not about learning. It’s about friends. Everyone knows that. How can you have friends if you never see anyone?’

‘I s-see people. My family and … our ward–’ Retra stopped. She’d said too much.

‘Warden? You have a warden visit? What did you do wrong?’

Retra dropped her head. The warden had been sent to watch her family after Joel left, but she didn’t want to tell Cal that – or anything else.

‘Yeah, well, family still amounts to nothing.’ Cal stood up. She wasn’t very tall, and her white hair fell almost to her waist. In Grave North the girls had to wear their hair bound but Cal had untied hers already. It made Retra feel self-conscious.

She watched the girl walk off along the deck until she reached the barge’s large cabin housing, where she disappeared from sight.

The murmur of voices drifted back to Retra from the same direction. The other runaways would be down there. Perhaps she should join them; there might be food and something to drink. Her last meal had been well over a day ago. Mother had served braised livers with kumara and snake beans. The same meal they’d had the night Joel ran away; the night they’d been put on probation; the night the warden had stapled the obedience patch to Retra’s thigh. Then he’d placed electro-eyes around the house so he could watch her family eat and dress and other private things.

Father had born the intrusion like penance. Mother scarcely seemed to notice, consumed by her sadness. But Retra hated it. She took to dressing in the shower cubicle while she was still wet, and shivering through the morning in damp clothes.

Now hunger pains clawed at her stomach, snapping her back to the present. She uncramped her legs and forced herself upright. She’d starved herself after her last meal, keeping the hunger at bay with cranberry juice.

Pain can make you vomit. Best handled on an empty stomach. Joel had said that too.

But she should eat now, before the weakness became too great. Yet she was afraid. Was the food safe to eat? What if the others on the barge were like Cal? What if they despised Seals? She wasn’t used to groups of people. In the Seal compound, people her age were forbidden to gather together.

That hadn’t mattered really. Not while Retra had Joel. But when he’d left, the loneliness had gnawed at her like weevils at dry bones. That’s when she’d started to practise enduring physical pain. It distracted her from the hurt inside. Now that she was on her way to Ixion, though, the inside hurt had become a hollow fear.

Gripping the handrail, she let it guide her towards the cabin. Counting steps calmed her.

There were 1592 steps from her parents’ front door, across the grey cobblestones of the main courtyard, along the separate walking paths, to the fence of the Seal compound. She’d counted them many times in her head; pushing aside her sadness by filling her mind with the numbers. The compound gate was locked, opened only on Sundays when the Grave traders brought in groceries.

The obedience strip began to glow at 1492 steps, and with it came the pain. A hundred steps before the fence. Stabbing then easing, then stabbing harder. Like a branding iron sizzling skin at first touch, then easing in a rush of endorphins, only to turn into an inescapable agony as it bit deeper into the skin.

Retra knew how branding felt. Seal girls and boys received theirs at puberty. The strong ones didn’t make a sound when the hot iron bit their flesh. Retra hadn’t been strong. Then.

Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven … The pain had eased but now she needed to count for calm.

When she reached the cabin she slowed. Fifty. Fifty-one. Past the corner of the housing. A glimpse of stairs. Then she saw the barge’s wide, flat stern, lit by glowing balls that dangled above a trestle table from invisible threads.

Some of the runaways were gathered around the table and the scraps left on the stainless steel food platters. The rest were huddled in groups, sitting on the floor. Cal was on the floor.

Seventy-five. Seventy-six. Retra reached for the crumbs of some cake and a pastry she didn’t recognise. The others had already eaten, giving her the confidence to try it.

She slipped the food into the pocket of her coat and began to back away until her hands touched the hard texture of a lifeguard ring hanging on the cabin wall.

Return to the bow, she told herself. But her breath caught in her chest; the Riper was back, standing in front of her. What does he want?

Without a word he leaned forward as if he meant to grab her but at the last moment he brushed past her waist, reaching behind her, into the dark hollow behind the ring buoy.

She heard a muffled gasp.

He wrenched backwards fiercely and a body catapulted from the cavity, knocking Retra sideways so that she stumbled over outstretched legs and fell close to Cal.

‘No!’ pleaded a young woman, grabbing at the buoy. But the Riper tore her loose and dragged her away towards the cabin stairs.

‘She must be too old,’ said Cal.

Retra picked herself up. She swallowed to ease her dry throat. Fear made her shivery. ‘What will happen to her?’

Cal shrugged. She turned her head in the other direction. ‘She was stupid to try to come here if she was too old. Everyone knows they don’t let you in.’

It sounded callous, but Cal was only pretending not to care. She was scared, Retra could tell, by the way she jiggled her leg and hugged her arms tight to her body.

Seal silence had taught Retra to understand the things people did with their hands and their bodies. She wanted to say something reassuring but couldn’t think of the right words. And she wasn’t sure if Cal would want it.

Instead, she climbed to her feet and retraced her steps to the bow.

It got colder as the engines propelled them through the waves. Mist stole across the bow and cloaked the barge, so that the dangle of party lights were only a bleary rainbow.

Snatches of conversation drifted down to Retra as she took bites of the strangely flavoured food. It was not unpleasant and it took the edge off the gnawing in her stomach.

‘Rules for everything in Grave,’ one girl said. ‘And the bells. Everything must be done by the bells. I’ve been waiting since I was twelve to come here.’

Others joined in. None of them spoke of missing home or family, only celebrated their escape from penance and prayers and isolation.

I’m not like them, thought Retra.

She didn’t crave parties and fun. All she wanted was to see Joel, and feel safe again. The familiar ache returned to her chest – the one that had driven her from home to find her brother. How long had he been gone? How long, waking up every morning with that heaviness pressing at her heart? Endless, endless days of feeling lost.

Did he cower like me on the bow of this dismal boat?

No. Joel never cowered, not even before her father and the Council of the Seal Enclave. He’d been born with free will in his veins; wanting to read what he wanted, do as he pleased. He’d tried to teach her to be the same but mostly she was too scared. The one time she had, she’d been caught – listening to the Angel Arias. Joel had stood up for her against them all. Taken the blame.

Part of her had rejoiced that day; but another part wished he had kept quiet, the way they’d been taught. Keeping quiet meant Father would not have snake-whipped him and he wouldn’t have run away and left her alone.