“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection.”
~ Sigmund Freud
Cato sat nervously, twiddling his thumbs and whistling an old Legion song out of tune. He’d been sitting in the Infirmary waiting room for nearly a whole month; only leaving to use the bathroom or eat in the cafeteria; and he was getting worried. For the past few days, he’d even been sleeping in the waiting room. During this time, there had been no news about Proxima, and Sheldon and his posse of nurses refused to give information. And it didn’t help that the room was almost always deserted. If he had to wait another week, Cato would end up talking to empty chairs.
But above all things, Cato hoped that Proxima was all right. In a sense, she was the only person he’d ever been so attached to. He had family, but they were far too up their arses for Cato’s taste, and not very healthy either.
Stick them in a jungle for a day, Cato had once thought, And they would last about two minutes.
And friends weren’t something Cato liked to keep. He never trusted anyone with anything if he could help it, and friends tended to disappoint Cato a lot when it came to trust.
But Proxima was different. She wasn’t like his family or his friends. Cato had watched her grow up; he had disciplined her and taken good care of her. Cato had gone from Uncle Cat [and for a time, Uncle Kate] until he was just Cato – especially after he had told Proxima that he had adopted her; which she never seemed to mind too much. He had taught her plenty of life-skills too – should she ever need them – and Cato liked to imagine that if he did ever have a child [which wasn’t within his plan of life at the present], he would want that child to be like her. Cato never told Proxima, but he… loved her – even if he hated the word with all contempt. And of all the small slips Proxima had made, she’d never betrayed him or lost his trust. Even if she did something abhorrently wrong, she’d tell Cato about it and hope that he’d be able to fix it.
Though, thought Cato, smiling for the first time in ages, She’s not very bright.
One of the doors swung open, and Cato – thinking it must be Sheldon – stood up and was prepared to beat living excrement out of him. But when he saw who it really was, he lowered a clenched fist.
“Lamarke? Viola Lamarke?” he said.
A stocky Black woman in standard Legion uniform stood in the doorway, smirking, “I know we haven’t seen each other in years, Cato, but must you really stand up?”
Cato sat back down, “I… I thought you were someone else. What are you doing here?”
“I’m waiting for a report on Federico.”
“You weren’t the only one discharged with a Half-Caste child to take care of, you know.”
“Oh,” said Cato, pretending to know who she was talking about, “Federico.”
Viola came and sat opposite Cato, “They put your Proxima in quarantine too, then?”
Cato shook his head; “She’s been in there for four whole weeks! I haven’t had a wink of proper sleep since.”
“Aw, look at you being all fatherly and that.”
“Federico’s been in quarantine for almost three weeks, Cato, but you know Sheldon: He’ll take care of them.”
“He’d better,” Cato muttered.
“So… thinking about rejoining the Legion?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to. I’d rather get my butt out of here while I still have it.”
“You know it’s not going to be easy, especially if you want to take Proxima with you.”
Cato nodded, “I know.”
“It’d be good if you rejoined, though. Everybody misses you.”
“Who’s everybody?” snorted Cato, “Have you rejoined?”
“Of course,” Viola revealed the tattoo on her arm, “See, nine years now.”
“Nine years is nothing, Viola.”
“Oh, shut your face, Cato. You’re only two years ahead of me.”
“I believe they measure military value by rank, not years.”
“Yeah, so if you rejoin, you might be made a Tribune!”
“By God, Viola, I don’t want that! I want nothing else to do with this nonsense! Next thing I know, the lot of you are going to be voting me in as the next Emperor!”
“But the Legate wants you back in the Legion, Cato.”
“Legate Cornelius was the one who kicked me out!”
“He didn’t ‘kick you out’! He was discharging you on orders from the Emperor – you know that! And besides, Cornelius speaks so highly of you we all thought for a while that you were dead! If you don’t get yourself back in the Legion, Cornelius will be tying you to a chair and torturing you until you agree!”
“Yeah. He must love me.”
The two paused as another door swung open, and three people passed out. There was a woman who looked like a scared mother and a traumatized girl in a hooded sweater who looked about ten years old. They scurried by – nodding at Viola and Cato in hurried greeting – leaving quickly. The third person – Sheldon – stood by the door, referring to his clipboard with the hints of a smirk playing on his lips.
Please don’t say anything, thought Cato, If it’s not to do with Proxima, please don’t say anything.
“Amazing,” said Sheldon, beaming with delight, “Absolutely amazing.”
Shoot me, Cato inwardly retorted.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I find amazing?” said Sheldon, addressing Cato.
“Do I have to?” Cato muttered.
“Of course,” Sheldon paused, “That’s how you move a conversation forward.”
Cato sighed, “Fine. Humor me.”
“Did you know that Proxima had a spare digit on her left foot?”
Cato stared at Sheldon, but he straightened on hearing Proxima’s name.
“No, Holmes, I’ve been living with Proxima for fourteen years and didn’t have a clue that she had an extra toe,” he remarked sarcastically.
“Yes. Wonderful that I got rid of it, don’t you think?”
Cato’s mouth fell open, “You. Did. What?!”
Sheldon looked at Cato curiously, “Hmm… I sense tension on your part.”
“Tension?” Cato stood up and grabbed the doctor by the collar, “I’ll give you tension! You miserable little bugger! I’ll kick your balls so hard they’ll come out of your nostrils! The castrated dogs will be laughing at you! Who the hell gave you leave to amputate Proxima’s toe? It’s not something ‘untrustworthy’, is it?”
“Now just one moment, Cato,” Sheldon hesitated as he tried to pries free of Cato’s grip. Viola hurried to the scene and tried to calm Cato – but all in vain.
“Let me see her, Sheldon!” he yelled.
“I can’t…” Sheldon hesitated, “You need a pass from the Senate!”
“Heh, heh,” Sheldon looked nervously at Cato, “I probably should have told you about that, shouldn’t I?”
“I’ve waited four whole weeks and now you decide to tell me about a ‘pass’? I’m going to hang you by that scrawny little neck of your and leave you to the buzzards!”
“Cato, please, calm down!”
“Where. Is. Proxima?”
“I’ve told you: I can’t tell you,” Sheldon sighed, “Cato, I can’t break rules. The Emperor would kill me. Proxima is fine. But you need that pass to see her.”
Cato breathed heavily, steam pouring from his ears and his face up in flames, but his grip loosened, “Holmes… You don’t know what it’s like! I can’t go to the Senate; they’ll never give me a pass! I don’t want to smuggle her out of the bloody country, Holmes, I just want to see her,” Cato bowed his head and whispered, “I just want to see my daughter…”
Sheldon’s brows raised, mildly surprised, and whispered back, “Room eleven. But if anyone asks: you didn’t hear it from me.”
Cato looked up at Sheldon, a light of gratitude in his eyes, and barged passed in a hurry.
* * * * *
It took Cato a while to find the right room. The doors where marked in Roman numerals, rather than Arabic numerals. It was when he came across a door marked ‘XI’ that he sighed in relief. Though… now he didn’t know if he wanted to see Proxima in such a state. If Sheldon had had the liberty to remove a toe, then what else had he done? And what if Proxima was awake? Cato couldn’t take that. He wouldn’t have any answers. But Cato sighed, and remembered that Sheldon would be in a whole bunch of trouble as it was for letting Cato through. Cato had to remember that Proxima – no matter how badly he wanted it – didn’t belong to him any more; and Father Emperor could do what he saw fit.
Cato placed his hand on the cold, metal knob of the door, and took a breath. As he opened the door – click – the lights switched on immediately. Cato stepped in, and found the room was almost bare. The walls were a deep blue and padded. There was an eerie silence that made Cato shiver, and all sounds were amplified tenfold.
Thump, thump, thump.
A steady heartbeat… His own?
In the center, there were two tables: one bearing many surgical instruments – needles, scalpels, surgical thread, bandages, and the like – and the other bore Proxima herself.
Thump, thump, thump.
Her body was hairless, and her head bare – even her eyebrows were gone – and there was a scar on her forehead that suggested a biopsy. Her fingernails and her lips were cyan, as only thin sheets covered her and the room was awfully cold. Proxima’s abdomen was heavily swathed in bandages, but blood still found its way through to stain. There was a splint attached to her left foot, where Sheldon had performed the amputation. Above all this, her form was lifeless. Asleep, but it was so deep that she may as well be dead.
Terrified out of his skin, Cato walked over to his Proxima – his legs like lead – and collapsed in front of her.
“What have they done to you…?” he murmured, “Biopsy, sterilization, amputation…”
The different surgical procedures spewed from his mouth, like he’d known them all his life, all the while howling inwardly like a dying dog. He placed his head on the cold table and he could hear Proxima’s steady breathing.
“They’ve dissected you like a frog,” Cato mumbled, “Like an alien in Area 51. But I’m forgetting, that’s what you are, isn’t it? This is what this damned place is! That’s how they fashioned you and this is what they’ve subjected you to!”
Cato’s cracked voice echoed across the bare room, but Proxima – of course – said nothing.
Plip, plip, echoed Cato’s scarce tears as the crashed onto the table.
Cato gently placed his hand on her cheek, and – feeling the sudden heat of the hand – Proxima’s eyes flew open.
Her breathing increased and tears caught in her eyes. Her head began to shake wildly, like she was being possessed. Her mouth opened, an eerie scream shook the room.
* * * * *
Cato sighed, putting down the cigar. It was two in the morning, and he couldn’t bring himself to sleep. Proxima had been discharged from the Infirmary a few days after Cato’s unauthorized visit, but in such a state that it made Cato shiver. She wouldn’t talk properly, eat properly, sleep properly, or do anything like she used to. She couldn’t even walk properly, because of the unnecessary amputation of her toe. When she spoke, she couldn’t go beyond a few words, and even then – her syllables were all separated and everything she said sounded like a question. When she ate, she had no more than three bites before aimlessly staring into a distance and chewing on a fork or spoon until her gums bled. In her sleep – when she did get some, that is – she’d mutter, or cry, or [to Cato’s extreme concern] scream. Proxima’s time in quarantine had indeed changed her, and for the worst.
Cato looked behind him; to see the lady in question dressed in her pajamas, leaning against her crutches. Her hair was starting to grow back, and from a distance she looked like a lithe, athletic young boy if she wore her baggy sweatshirt and loose trousers. But her face was a permanent poker face, and she stared blankly at Cato, even if he knew she was wondering what on earth he was doing at this time of night. To Cato, she looked like a life-size porcelain doll with a bad hair day.
“Xima?” said Cato, “Can’t sleep?”
Proxima shook her head, “Go?”
Proxima turned to leave and Cato understood.
“No,” he said, hurriedly, “No, no, don’t go. Look, I’ll make you chocolate!”
Proxima paused, then turned back slowly and sat down at the table.
Cato dowsed the cigar in the sink and rushed to make hot chocolate for two. He placed the two steaming mugs on the table, but Proxima appeared not to notice. She was looking up at the lights on the ceiling.
“Xima?” said Cato.
Proxima looked at Cato, “Cat?” she said.
Proxima nodded, and sipped at her mug. She smiled a little at the burning sensation on her lips, “Good,” she said.
“You want a cookie, Xima?” said Cato.
Cato frowned, “Are you sure?”
Proxima stared at Cato blankly, before returning her attention to the mug.
Cato tried to pick up a new line of conversation and nodded at Proxima’s leg, “Do you want a chair for that leg, Xima?”
Proxima’s head snapped up on the word ‘leg’, and she shook her head vigorously, “No,” she said softly, “Hurts.”
“Shouldn’t the bandage have been changed by now?”
“No. No, change.”
“But the smell is rank, Xima. It needs changing.”
Proxima’s eyes went wild with fear, “No!”
“Alright, alright,” Cato held up his hands in surrender, “I won’t touch it.”
Cato swept aside his unfinished mug, the mug banging against the wall and spilling a few brown droplets, and he placed his head on the table.
I can’t get her to do anything, he thought miserably, She’s scared and I can’t even blame her for it. Anything and everything can set her off in tears if I’m not careful. Stupid Sheldon.
Cato looked up to find Proxima’s face etched in concern and a little confusion. She frowned, and pushed Cato’s mug back to him. A trail of brown liquid followed after it as the mug made a scraping sound on the table. The sound brought Proxima a slight shudder.
“No,” he said carefully, “Just… tired.”
Proxima paused – like she was considering something – then lifted her bandaged leg up and said, “Change?”
This is new, thought Cato.
“Xima, you don’t have to,” he said.
“Cat, change,” she said firmly, “Rank.”
Cato sighed – a little in relief, a little in frustration – and said, “Alright, Xima, let me just get the first-aid kit.”
But just then the lights blinked, and the power went out. Cato bowed his head.
Typical, he thought.
But he was glad that Proxima managed not to notice or was ignoring it or whatever.
Cato lit a candle, and brought out the first-aid kit. Placing the candle on the table, Cato knelt beside Proxima’s leg and slowly started peeling the bandages off her foot. Cato winced every time the linen caught or made a tearing noise and expected Proxima to start pulling away or worse, but she remained still whilst Cato cleaned and redressed the wound. When he was done, Cato found Proxima intently staring at the candle.
He paused a moment before saying, “Xima?”
She ripped her eyes away from the beauty of the flame and said, “Flame… pre-tty.”
Cato smiled a little.
She said two syllables in one go, he thought happily.
“Yeah, it is pretty isn’t it?” he said, “But it goes out if you blow on it.”
“Yes. But only if it’s weak, Xima,” Cato lifted up the tray on which the candle was placed and blew the flame out.
“Shh,” said Cato, carefully, “Wait and see.”
Slowly the dying light of the wick began to darken. Proxima frowned. She didn’t like this. Then the wick began to brighten a little, and then emerged a small spark, a small flame that once again danced on the pinnacle of the candle casting dancing shadows on the walls.
“Come… back…?” said Proxima.
Cato nodded, and replaced the candle on the table. He cupped Proxima’s face between his hands and said, “Look, Xima, I know what they did to you was horrible. I know they hurt you more than anyone could possibly bear. But you have to be strong, like the flame. You have to come back.”
Proxima whimpered, her voice cracking, “Hurts, Cat.”
“I know, Xima, I know. But you can’t let that destroy you. You are strong, Xima, you have to use that strength and come back.”
Proxima paused, her expression blank, before saying, “Cat, hurt, ting?”
Cato looked away, and murmured, “You can tell, eh?”
“Sor… sor…” Proxima stuttered.
“I know, Xima. Don’t be,” Cato spread his hands, “It’s not your fault.”
“Xima… Xima, try… for, Cat.”
Cato smiled, “Thank you, Xima.”
Proxima smiled back, and got up with a little help from Cato. She used the crutches to hop her way to the door. But then she turned and said, “Cat?”
“Yes, Xima?” he replied.
Cato laughed and he laughed hard, “No, Sheldon’s not dead. But you can always kill him when you get better, eh?”