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Once, not long ago, there was a city. The boisterous, beaming city of Gold, and everyone who lived there was perfectly content. Jobs were prosperous, families grew every year, and crops sprung up without fail. Gold was a shining star in the dark sky, a place that would never fall. A place that could never be taken away.
Until the day that someone decided it wasn't good enough. The city that was alive with happiness and success did not live up to his standard. The sad part was that he had power. Lots of it. Enough to easily make changes, but never all at once. But even though he had power, he was also clever. He knew that if something happened too quickly, if there was a drastic shift in the atmosphere of Gold, everyone would figure it out right away and the plan would be ruined. The plan to fix the genetics of virtually everyone in the city. Because this man of power believed that everyone's genes were tainted, spoiled. No good. If they could only be fixed… if he could help to rejuvenate them, he'd be forever remembered as the hero of Gold. The city would be perfect. He could give everyone a better future, a better life.
But there was something he needed to do first. He'd been working on this project for years, putting together different vaccinations, different doses, different theories—but he'd never had the time, or patients, to test them. What if, now that he was officially going to retire, he could make the time? He could ask a few trusted people to help with the experiments. It would be easy. All he needed was a bit of space. A place where he didn't have to worry about looking over his shoulder. Somewhere he could carry out the necessary experiments in peace.
It dawned on him, one day, while he read the daily newspaper, sipping his tea. The heart of the city. The place no one dared to go. The sacred quarters, right at the very centre of the city of Gold. Why hadn't he thought of it before? He needed to get right to work. He needed to gather his supplies, smuggle them in without anyone noticing. Over the next while, he had a lot of work to do. After all, it's never an easy task altering someone's mind, emotions, feelings, right down to the very cell, is it?
Braid paced nervously around the small room of the infirmary. She didn't get home until late the night before, so she didn't get much sleep. Caldor, the sole doctor in Copper, was slouched over in a chair, snoring lightly. Braid arrived just before dawn, usually the time the infirmary opened, but she didn't want to wake him. He didn't get much sleep lately, either, what with so many house calls.
When sunlight started pouring in through the blinds, Braid walked quietly to Caldor's chair. Before she reached him, she stumbled a bit. Despite the few hours of sleep she'd had, they should have been enough to keep her from feeling so lightheaded. She laid her hand on the back of the old armchair, turning her head left and right to make sure the dizziness had passed. "I should grab a glass of water," she thought. Another ray of light peeked through the blinds, reminding her of the time. "Caldor," she said softly, "you need to wake up. It's past dawn." She tapped him lightly on the shoulder. He flinched, raised his head, looking around as if confused about where he was. "You fell asleep here last night. I didn’t want to wake you." Caldor shook his head, waving it off.
"No, it’s fine. Thanks," he said, still in a daze from his extremely short sleep. "Can you go and get the supplies? It might be a busy day." Braid nodded and scurried off, anxious to move, to stretch her legs. Sitting down was her least favourite thing to do. In the back room, she scanned the shelves for the equipment they'd need for the day. Her heart sunk a little lower each time she entered the room, frowning at the supplies that dissolved a little more every time they treated a patient. Soon there wouldn't be enough to go around, and they'd only have the roots and herbs to work with—and crops were getting harder to grow.
Braid banned the negative thoughts from her mind, knowing that it would be impossible to focus if she was thinking such depressing thoughts. She found the bandages, the gauze, some tape, a dose of morphine, a bit of allergy-reducing medicine, and cream that was used to slow down bleeding. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of it. Maybe a month's worth—after that, there was no way to make any more.
Again, she stopped thinking about it. The only thing that mattered was helping Caldor, helping the patients. She grabbed a few more things she thought they'd need to last them until evening, and returned to Caldor's side, where he was talking to an older man.
"We need you at the house. My wife isn't able to walk and I don't think I can carry her all that way—"
"Don't worry about it," Caldor said, interrupting his explanation and dismissing it immediately. Braid liked this about Caldor. He didn't care how far out of the way a patient was; what mattered was bringing the necessary materials so that whoever was ill could get better as soon as possible.
As they followed the man across town, Braid's glance strayed to the right of Copper, past the tall trees in the forest. That was where the ruins of Gold were, and sometimes she thought she could see a yellow glint over the peaks of the evergreens. But she knew that was crazy, surely a trick of her mind.
It was almost midday by the time they finished with the elderly man's wife. She was dying, very weak and Caldor was conflicted. Braid could see it in his face. He wanted to help this woman but she was hanging by a thread and had a few hours, at best. Despite the inevitable slowing of her breaths, despite her peaceful descent into sleep, Caldor kept giving her morphine. He'd already used more than half the supply Braid took with them. She wanted to stop him, to tell him that there was no use wasting it… the woman was ready to die peacefully and drifted in and out of consciousness.
Her pain wasn't nearly as bad as her husband thought it was—nonetheless, Caldor kept the stream of liquid relief going. Braid sat hunched in a chair in the corner of the room, trying to drown out the muffled sobs of the old man as he clutched his wife's hand. Every once in a while, while her eyes were open, she gave him a sad smile. Finally, she lifted her other hand, with much difficulty due to her weak state, and rested it on his shoulder. He stopped crying, trying to give her one more peaceful moment before she drifted away, releasing her from the pain and suffering.
If there was one thing Braid didn’t like about her job, it was this. This… waiting for someone to die before moving on to the next patient. She hated it. She wished she could run from the room, run from the pain, the hurt, the terrible essence of death permeating the air.
But that wouldn't be fair to Caldor. It wouldn't be fair to the old man, and it certainly wouldn't be fair to his wife. Braid knew that. It was her job to be there to help clean up, to make burial arrangements and do most of the talking for Caldor. She knew he felt the same way as her, like it would be so much easier to just run away, but she was better at staying calm and together than he was. He put the near-empty bag of morphine back into the backpack he carried, and silently nodded at the old man before slipping out the front door. A few minutes later, Braid went out to join him, ready to ask about who was next on the list. When she saw his face, crumpled and fighting back tears, her eyes instantly lowered to the ground. She wanted to say something, anything that would take that terrible frown off of his face. But she knew, just as well as he did, that there was nothing she could ever say that would erase what just happened. Above anything else, she felt anger. Anger towards the town, the government… the world. It wasn't fair that people as young as Caldor had to become the town doctor. It wasn't fair that he had to watch helplessly as people died in his town… people that, if Gold still existed, wouldn't have to suffer like this.
Despite her outrage, Braid snaked her arm around Caldor's side, knowing that he'd be able to compose himself with her next to him. After a few deep breaths, he managed to keep the tears from spilling onto his cheeks. As he blinked them away, Braid opened his backpack and grabbed his address book, finding the places they needed to visit today, starting with the most urgent.
The last stop was Ella Miner's house. Braid clutched Caldor's hand nervously as they stood on the front porch, moonlight washing over the threshold of the door. Ella Miner was a rather young woman in the town of Copper, living all on her own since the end of the summer. Her younger sister, Vera, whom she was raising all on her own, had been taken by the kidnapper from the other side of the forest. Braid was the exact same age as Vera, and she couldn’t lie that she was definitely scared for her life.
Ever since Braid was fifteen years old, people were going missing. No one could ever figure out exactly when it happened, just that it was in the middle of the night. Anyone who tried to patrol the town never accomplished anything, and the trail was always ice cold. Whoever this kidnapper was, they knew what they were doing.
The bridge in the forest between Copper and Gold was the only thing in the way of going over there. Of course, it was only a bridge—it would be easy to cross. But ever since the military came in and blew up the entire city, they were warned against setting foot on the other side of the forest. They said that there were probably risks of being exposed to radioactivity, and as much as everyone wanted to catch the kidnapper, no one was willing to risk their life to do it.
Caldor gave Braid's hand a reassuring squeeze, and he reached up to ring the small bell at the side of the door. When Ella appeared, ushering them inside, Braid couldn’t speak. She was almost unrecognizable. Her usually long, flowing blonde hair was tied up in a messy bun, wisps of it hanging limply around her face. Her face! Braid almost gasped aloud. It was so skeletal-looking, so thin and lifeless—not even close to the Ella she used to look like. Even her eyes, which were almost always a rich green colour, were cold and empty in the dim light of the hearth. When she spoke, low and raspy, Braid's heart broke into a million tiny pieces. She’d been suffering from a chest cold for the past month, and the herbs and flowers (or what was left of them) weren't making it any better. She graciously asked for something to aid her cough, and Caldor nodded vigorously, reaching into his backpack for the cough syrup.
"I'll get a container to pour some in," she said, her gloomy face lighting up a bit at the sight of the medicine. Her breathing must have picked up a bit too quickly, because she started coughing immediately, uncontrollably. Braid felt a tickle in her throat and she cleared it. Something about being around patients got to her on a really deep level—so deep that, at times, she could almost feel their physical pain. Almost.
"No—keep this bottle. It might come back… it's cold season, you know," Caldor said. Braid could hear the pity in his voice, echoing off the brick walls. Ella held out her hands, and Caldor dropped the bottle into her palms. Braid noticed how small and bony she was, and wondered if she was eating okay. Caldor told her to come to the clinic if she had any more problems, and turned to leave.
"I'll be out in a minute, Caldor," Braid said over her shoulder. When she heard the front door shut behind him, she took Ella's hand in her own.
"Ella," she began, "have you been eating much? I mean, I know food is scarce these days, but you don’t look healthy—"
"I'm alright," she said, cutting her off. "Really. I'm okay. I'll live." She smiled reassuringly at Braid, or at least tried to. She didn't have a lot to smile about these days, and she was definitely out of practice.
"Well, I've got a couple of vegetables growing in my backyard. They've been coming out okay lately—they're a little tough, but the flavour isn't bad. You should come over to my place to eat. I've always got leftovers." Ella's mouth turned up at the corners.
"I'll think about it," she said. Braid nodded, leaving her to take her first dose of cough syrup in peace. She walked outside and onto the street, watching Caldor's fists clench and unclench in the amber light of an oil lamp Ella kept at the edge of her house. It was in case Vera ever returned to Copper and somehow couldn't find her way home—Braid halted that thought abruptly. She contemplated her own home; did she even have one? Where would that be? The clinic, she thought. It had to be. It was the place she slept most at night when Caldor was busy with patients long after the sun went down, and the other place—the small bungalow that was only big enough for one—was just somewhere she went when she needed to rest and restock. The clinic had a shower and a refrigerator, so there was no need to even go back. But all of Braid's clothes were there, and it would be a little embarrassing asking Caldor to clear out a drawer for her. They'd be living together, under the same roof; even though that was pretty close to their situation now, something felt odd about making it official.
Caldor must have felt her presence because he turned around to face her. "I heard what you told Ella," he said. "That was… really nice. I wish I would've thought of it." Braid shrugged.
"You have a lot going on already. Usually I have to remind and force you to eat—how are you going to feed someone else?" He smirked. Braid wouldn't admit it, but she didn't like the idea of someone else eating with Caldor. That was her job. Not anyone else's. She shook the thought away, cringing at how childish it sounded.
"Good point," Caldor said, bringing her out of her daze. He looked so tired; she didn’t know how he handled doing this every day. Even in the dark street, as they walked further away from the oil lamp with only the light of the full moon guiding them, he looked a thousand years old. They talked about clients and medicine, and just the thought of it sent Braid into a coughing fit. Caldor halted in the middle of the street, so she could collect herself and move along. It didn’t happen for a few minutes. She coughed and coughed, and just when she thought the painful throb in her throat had been cured, it set off another wave. Somewhere in the midst of her fit, Caldor wrapped his arm around her, patting her back, trying to help her. When she finally calmed down, she slouched a little, crumpling against him, and felt completely worn out.
"Sorry," she said finally. Caldor's brows knitted together in confusion.
"Why are you apologizing? I should have acted quicker—I'm sure we have something with us that would have been able to help—"
"I'm fine," she interrupted quickly. She hated people fussing over her. It was just a stupid coughing fit. "I don't know what brought that on," she said. She'd never been sick a day in her life. It was part of the reason she was such a trusted beta to Caldor; she never missed out on helping a patient because she wasn't physically able to.
"Braid," Caldor said suddenly, an exclamation—he was trying to get her attention.
He didn’t finish his sentence. He just stared, in the middle of the street, at Braid's eyes. They were different, she knew that. They were bright green, greener than the stems of the flowers, even the grass—well, the grass that used to be green. All that was left of it now was brown, dried up strands of a mess you couldn't even call hay. But her eyes were such a deep, rich colour of emerald that it was hard not to get lost in them sometimes. She knew that. People had told her that her whole life.
"What about my eyes?" she asked. But there was something she saw in Caldor's face she didn't like. Fear.
But he didn't answer. He didn't have to. Braid watched as a small, olive glow lit up his face. For a moment, she was confused. Where was it coming from? She'd never seen anything like it. She meant to ask him, she even turned around, but she saw nothing. Then it dawned on her. She turned back to face him, staying very still, watching his face. Slowly, she reached her hand up, closed her left eye and covered it. She stood, mesmerized, as the right half of his face darkened a bit. She took her hand away, opening her eye again. His face glowed green, but she knew he wasn't the one responsible for it.
"Caldor," she said, in a voice sounding much calmer and quieter than the nervous wreck she was inside. "Am I doing this?"