© Clare London
We walked to the back of the room until I stood only a foot away from the kneeling man. I didn’t listen to any of the other voices, didn’t smell any of the other flesh. I waited for the required response.
None came. He remained with his head bowed and his hands held loosely behind his back. I stared down at the crown of his head. His hair was dark with sweat, but I could see it was dark auburn, thick and curled where it nestled against his neck. His skin was almost hairless, but his shoulders were broad and his arms and legs muscled. He was far from a boy.
“Tell me his story,” I said, speaking above him. For the first time, I saw a flicker of acknowledgment in the pulse below his ear, though he didn’t lift his head. Of course, I hadn’t given permission, but I didn’t think that was the only reason.
The caretaker’s throat bobbed with a heavy swallow. “What can I say? We haven’t been given all the paperwork yet. They dropped him off a while ago.” He glared at the bowed head as if it had caused him more grief than the combined workload of all the other Arrivals he’d ever handled. “But it must have been a grade eight offence at the least. There’s no recommended holding period, or even a listing of mitigation.”
I glanced along the sweep of his bony torso. “No mark?”
“No, sir. Not yet. He must have come straight from Transition. It’s just another sign as to the severity of his case.”
“You said he wasn’t available.”
The caretaker’s eyes looked as if they’d roll up into his head. The fear dripped from him in his sweat. “That was the only paper he did have on him. A yellow slip.” His voice sank to a whisper. “Don’t think I’ve seen more than three of those in all my time here.”
I felt an unusual shiver across the back of my neck. The caretaker was staring down at my hands. An unimaginative man at best, with a tendency to casual cruelty if not checked, he knew enough to watch for warning signs of punishment. It took me an effort to uncurl my fingers and relax the palm.
A yellow slip.
“Outcast,” I said. The body at my feet seemed to shiver as well. “Indefinite confinement, subject only to divine review. Not to be issued a ledger.”
The caretaker was silent.
“No opportunity for redemption,” I added, my voice sounding low and, disturbingly, bleak.
“No, sir,” the man at my side whispered. His tone was dejected. He, personally, had arrived with a medium high grade offence, but even so, his ledger was gradually filling with credit. Every one of my visits added to that, if the Arrivals I took had been properly cared for.
But he also knew I’d arrived with a yellow slip, myself.
I took a step back. “Look at me,” I said to the man on his knees.
The caretaker tensed up beside me, his hand gripping his whip in case of resistance. It happened. This man wasn’t available for general service, but he was still subject to Arrival Hall rules. As, indeed, had I been. That was, until I had learned to use my unique powers to ease my way through the system.
After all, I had many years both behind and ahead of me to practice.
He stirred, the man who wasn’t bound and yet met me in the traditional submissive pose. I didn’t know if he were brave or foolish—or even if he fully understood his status. I couldn’t take him with me against his will. Nor would it benefit him to indenture himself to me, as it would the others. But I could still demand his attention.
He looked up at me. I felt nauseous.
“This is a mistake,” I said.
“Sir?” The caretaker looked aghast.
“This man shouldn’t be here.”