“A friend who dies, it's something of you who dies.”
~ Gustave Flaubert
It was incredibly hot in the Infirmary waiting room. Cato shook his head.
Focus, he thought.
It was a day after the meeting on the Great Matter, and both Cato and Proxima were waiting. The procedure of making Cato into a Half-Caste would start from today. Proxima knew that it might well end today also.
All night, Viola and Claudia had been pestering again and again for Cato to stop this madness about becoming a Half-Caste – but to no avail. Cato was not to be moved.
The same Cato, who made a fuss about getting blood tests and vaccinations. The same Cato, who hated all doctors right down to their faithless smiles and empty promises. The same Cato, who wouldn’t take painkillers because he feared the side effects. That Cato. That Cato was going to undertake a procedure with a two percent success rate. Proxima sighed, utterly hopeless, and pinched herself constantly just to make sure it wasn’t all a terrible, terrible nightmare. But it wasn’t a nightmare. There wasn’t a wake-up from reality.
Cato eyed her pitifully. He knew this would be hard for her. But there was no other way. Cato promised that he’d be there for Proxima, and if the procedure succeeded, then he would be – in Methum, destroying it for Iago – and if it failed… he’d die knowing that he tried to do something. But Proxima wouldn’t understand that. How would she? It wasn’t a very sane thing to do.
Cato interlocked his fingers, and said, “You know, Proxima…”
Proxima looked up at him, mournful and tears catching in her eyes.
He continued, “Back when you were little I got really pissed with you. You still wore diapers, you’d spit out food when I was feeding you because you thought it was funny, you’d run around the house because you didn’t want a bath, you’d keep me up all night because of the ‘scary man with the long fingers’ – and, by the way, I still don’t know who the hell he’s meant to be – and you just kept annoying me and annoying me and annoying me. But I look back and I think… I think it was all worth it.”
Proxima’s expression didn’t change.
Cato thought of a different line of conversation, “You’re lucky I’m not saying all this stuff on your wedding day.”
The wedding he probably wasn’t going to attend.
“I’d rather you said all this at my wedding,” choked Proxima, closing her eyes, “than do this.”
She swallowed. Bile was rising in her throat and there was a burning sensation in her nose. She didn’t want to cry. Cato needed her to be strong – since she knew he wouldn’t back down.
“Proxima…” Cato sighed, “Don’t think I’m doing this because… because I’m trying to prove something. I know the risks. I know I could die. But… but I promised I’d help you. I promised I’d be with you – every single step of the way. I can’t just sit around here in oblivion, not knowing how you are, and just waiting for your death certificate to be sent to me through the mailbox,” Cato squeezed her hand, “Please, please understand that.”
Proxima looked away and whispered, “I don’t want you to die.”
Cato stroked her hair, not replying to the remark. What else could he say? He probably was going to die. Proxima sniffed, and hugged Cato. He returned the hug, and sat in silence. It was new to him. He didn’t often hug anyone. It felt… reassuring; peaceful; calm.
It felt like home.
Just then, Sheldon walked in. Even he had looked grave at Cato’s demand.
He nodded and said, “Everything’s ready.”
Cato paused and then said, “Give us a minute.”
Sheldon nodded again, and walked back out.
“Proxima?” said Cato. He cupped her face in his hands and wore a serious expression, “You know where all my stuff is. Take anything you need, it’s all yours. Don’t go until they’ve confirmed my condition. Okay?”
Tears poured down her cheeks, but Proxima nodded.
“And… remember this,” he touched the cord around her neck, “never take it off. You never know when you’ll need it.”
Proxima bit her lip, and sniffed.
“Proxima…” he looked at her, sorrow burning him up, There were so many things he wanted to say at that moment. Confessions. Secrets. Evn stories he’d never got around to telling. He wanted so desperately to tell Proxima how much he cared for her and how much he loved her. But all he could muster was a simple, “Be careful.”
“I will,” Proxima replied and, though her voice shook, it was firm.
Cato kissed her forehead, and walked to the door. Everything seemed to shift to slow-motion in Proxima’s mind. Every step Cato took rung like a knell, filling her ears and her mind with misery and melancholy. This wasn’t like a friend departing for a long holiday. This wasn’t like a distant family member flying away to another planet. Hell, it wasn’t even like a parent saying their last words on their deathbed.
This was like Proxima’s entire world being incinerated at the gates of Hades.
She wanted to stop him. She wanted to cry and mourn and wail until he stopped walking away from her. But nothing came. Proxima’s voice was frozen in her throat. Her limbs were heavy – paralyzed. The only thing that seemed to function properly were her eyes – the tears never ceasing, distorting her vision and tingling her nose, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. When her vision cleared: Cato was gone.
Cato was gone.
* * * * *
Proxima remained in the waiting room. She didn’t know for how long. She was just there. Existent, nothing more. She remembered people walking in and out, saying things to her. Their words were supposed to be comforting, or something like that, but she couldn’t remember what they’d said. Not a single word. She couldn’t even remember who it was that had been talking to her. She assumed it was the nurses, maybe Sheldon, maybe Medea or Claudia or Viola or someone else. She remembered the people bringing her food, which she ate mechanically. She didn’t remember what food it was, what it tasted like, or if she liked it or disliked it. It could have been roast chicken and homemade ice-cream or rotten fruit and gutter water. It didn’t make a difference to her; it was just a chewing exercise. She didn’t care. None of the people were Cato.
Proxima traded, all the while, in her mind. If Cato came back, she’d give up smoking. If Cato came back, she’d give up the witty remarks. If Cato came back, she’d give up seeing, hearing, laughing, crying. She’d pay the weight of the world in gold. No; more. The weight of the universe. In diamonds. She’d kill anyone. Everyone. Everything. She’d sabotage the Emperors plans. She’d hang Sheldon by his toes with dental floss. Anything. Anything to get Cato back.
But he wasn’t coming back.
A hand grasped her shoulder. For the first time in ages, she took notice of something. It felt strange to her, like a first-time, the numbness taking a few moments to subside. She turned her head slowly, her sight resting on the hand briefly, and gazed at the hand’s possessor. She narrowed her eyes, trying to remember who he was. She felt ridiculous. She felt ridiculous because her timeless, lonely melancholy had molded her into this… this… zombie. It was like someone had opened her brain up and chucked the memory-card out. He was someone important, but not someone she’d known all too long. It wasn’t Cato [Of course not, she thought sadly]... Cornelius? No… Sempronius? No… Flavius? No… Federico? No… It wasn’t Sheldon, she remembered him [there was no way she could forget him after her time in quarantine] and it wasn’t Emperor Iago either…
Proxima began noticing other things as well. Her eyes were swollen and they burned. She could smell stale sweat; the apparent result of staying in the same, hot room for an unnumbered amount of time. Her mouth was dry and her tongue heavy. She was thirsty. There was a time when the feeling would have been of some importance to her, but now it just seemed like a slight inconvenience. Someone was calling her name. Her senses were still fuzzy, so it took her a while – but she was sure. It was her name that was being called.
She stared at the person who was grasping her shoulder again, and rasped, “What do you want from me?”
She sounded more pitiful than she would have liked.
“Wake up,” he said. His voice was gentle, but the words weren’t a suggestion. They were imperative. A command.
“I… I don’t see a point… a point in…” her tongue felt hevay. She couldn’t put the words together. It was too hard, explaining her situation to someone she couldn’t quite place or remember. She wanted him to go away.
“Wake up,” he repeated.
Proxima sighed, frustrated, “No,” she said.
“I’m not asking you,” he replied, “I’m telling you.”
“Why… why should I listen to you?”
The man shook his head and persisted, “No questions. Wake up.”
“But… No. I can’t.”
The man sucked his cheeks in and pouted, “Why not?” he demanded, angrier now.
“Because… because Cato’s gone,” she said weakly. She would have started crying again, but it seemed that she’d wrung out all her tears.
“You aren’t a child anymore,” sneered the man, dismissing the reply with a wave of his hand, “Wake up. Get over yourself.”
“Leave me alone!” she screamed, “You don’t know… you don’t know anything! I don’t even know you!”
The man laughed at her. She could understand that. She sounded like an angry little rat, squeaking away in fear, in vain.
“What I know,” said the man, “is that Cato wouldn’t want you to be like this. Your friends have been trying to wake you up for ages; I reckoned I could do a better job. I hope I will. Cato isn’t dead. Not yet, at least. But he will be, if you don’t do something about it.”
“He’s alive?” Proxima gasped, “How… how do you know?”
The man looked at her indignantly, “I can’t believe you don’t recognize me.”
“What? Wait, that’s not important, I–” She would have continued speaking but things… changed.
The room suddenly brightened. The mysterious man vanished and was replaced by someone else. People were standing all around her actually. She looked puzzled and dazed, looking from one face to the next. The man had disappeared. In his place, was Roderigo? She hadn’t expected that. He hadn’t even been there. Confused beyond description, she buried her face in her palms and waited for… for someone to say something or do something. Not that she wanted to answer any questions, or chat idly to anyone. She just wanted to be sure she was in the right world.
“Proxima,” said Roderigo, “Who… who were you talking to?”
She ignored the question and said, “How long have I been here?”
“Two days, and a bit,” he shook her, “You were looking at me, but you were talking to someone else. Who?”
“I… I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, “I’m not sure I know, anyway.”
Roderigo exchanged a few words with the other people, and Proxima heard them file out of the waiting room.
“Proxima?” Roderigo said.
“How long have you been here?”
“Not long. They told me this morning that you’d snapped out. I didn’t think it was all that serious, but when nobody came for this afternoon’s Senate meeting I got a little… concerned. I guessed it must have been serious.”
“And you’re the little miracle-man, are you? You just pop in, and everything fixes itself.”
“Hey, don’t you get mad at me!” said Roderigo, “It wasn’t me who you were talking to anyway. You looked like you were possessed…”
Proxima wasn’t listening to Roderigo anymore. She was thinking about the man. How he’d laughed at her for not recognizing him. She’d seen that somewhere before too. Things came back to her bit by bit. He was an old man when she’d met him… he was once very dear to her… he would sit her on his lap and tell her stories… adventures, epics, and myths… he was very good at wrestling… and he was dead…
“Grandpa Quintus,” she murmured.
“Come again?” said Roderigo.
“I was talking to him,” said Proxima.
“But… he isn’t here,” Roderigo laughed sheepishly.
“No. Maybe you aren’t the only nutter around here,” Proxima hugged her legs, “Grandpa Quintus has been dead for nearly seven years now.”
Roderigo looked at her thoughtfully, “…What… what did he say?”
“Said Cato was alive,” said Proxima slowly, “But he wouldn’t be if I didn’t do something about it.”
“Is that why you snapped?” said Roderigo incredulously, “Because Cato could be dead? God, you’d think the two of you were Romeo and Juliet! An old married couple! So what if he dies? People die all the time!”
Proxima walked away from him without answering. She wasn’t mad at him. She just needed time to think.
It seemed strange to Proxima that Cato’s father would journey from the great beyond to bring her back to the world of the living. Or maybe it wasn’t Grandpa Quintus; maybe it was just her sub-conscience. Maybe her muse was made upon the image of Cato’s father. She didn’t know. It didn’t make sense. Quite honestly: that feeling felt… right. Nothing had made any sense since she’d got into the Decagon. She smiled briefly at the thought.
A sharp knock made her look up. Sheldon was standing by the open door, an empty half-smile on his face. She nodded a greeting, hating the look of the doctor. She despised him, even though [she had to admit] most of the things that caused that sort of hostility weren’t really his fault. It was his job. He had to do it.
“What do you want?” she asked gruffly.
The doctor cleared his throat, and then said, “I have some news about Cato… if you want to hear it.”
Roderigo exchanged a look with her briefly.
Proxima nodded, “How is he?”
“Well,” started Sheldon, “As always, there’s some good news and some… not-so-good news.”
“The good news is that Cato is still alive, Proxima. The procedure is a success… of sorts.”
Proxima frowned, “Of sorts?”
Sheldon sighed, exasperated and terrified at the thought of what Proxima might do to him if he explained, “Proxima… Cato’s gone into coma.”
“But he’s in perfect condition,” Sheldon added quickly, “Absolutely nothing went wrong. There’s just one tinie-tiny little hindrance from this being a complete success.”
Proxima looked at him, her left eye twitching.
Sheldon gulped, “The Emperor is trying to save as much energy as possible. That’s why he’s rationing it. Cato… he uses a lot of that energy at present.”
Proxima’s mouth curved into a scowl, “How long have you given him?”
“The Emperor… I’ve tried to push the limit, I swear, but…”
Proxima stood up, her face impassive.
“He’s… Cato has two weeks to get up.”
“What’s the possibility of that happening?”
“Very,” said Sheldon, admittedly, “very small.”
“What happens if he doesn’t get up?”
“He’ll be put down.”
Proxima let the information sink in.
Two weeks. Very small. Dead.
“You’re just going to let him die?” she mumbled, coldly.
“Proxima, please understand I–”
“No, I’m done with ‘understanding’,” Proxima turned towards the exit, “It’s high time I did something.”
“Where are you going?” said Sheldon, fearfully.
Proxima didn’t answer; she just walked out without even considering a backward glance. Roderigo observed her departure, even after Sheldon had scurried out. He thought on all that had been said. All that Proxima had said. He smiled.