Rain beat a tattoo on the hood of the transport vehicle as it bounced its way down the rutted roads. All the hard won ground Katharine and I had put between us and the castle over the last two days, diminished to nothing in a matter of hours under the muddy swish of the wheels. I sat across from Ian who dared me to move with a dangerous hunch of his shoulder. Shivering, I clung to one consolation: they hadn’t found Katharine. She was free — one way or the other.
Back at the castle, Jamie sighed when Ian finally dragged me into his office. “Nine, You’re one of our best coders. We just want you to be happy here. A little gratitude wouldn’t be amiss either. You have food, shelter, employment, and from what I gather, Ian saved your life. Would you rather have drowned in the River Glenraikes?”
I cast my eyes downward in silence, remembering the warm peace of sinking under the water, relieving me from the exhausting freedom of escape. Katharine was the only reason I left; she was the brave one. It was she who always whispered my name.
Ian glowered in the corner. “Your sister is probably dead,” he spat. “We didn’t find any trace of her. No way she survived that current.”
I looked at Jamie in surprise. “Yes.” Jamie nodded. “We knew Ten was your sister. And against my better judgment we let you two socialize, but I see it was a mistake. Clearly, for you socialization of any kind is a path towards discontentment. We’re glad you’re back with us, but there are going to be some changes to your situation. Some reduction of privileges. Perhaps in time, if we feel we can trust you, some of them may be restored. Productivity is key of course and you’re a valuable member of our team. Right now, we really just want you to practice being grateful and content. Can you do that, Nine?” I nodded, but I heard Katharine’s voice thudding in my ears.
I expected Jamie to transfer me to a solitary workspace, but I was returned to my old bunk as though nothing had happened. In the morning, I rapped twice on the wall behind my bed out of habit, and then I remembered Katharine wasn’t there to answer. When I reported to my cubicle, I was self-conscious, thinking that all eyes would be on me, but no one so much as glanced in my direction. At lunch in the canteen, I sat by myself in the corner and I might as well have been invisible. I decided to conduct a small experiment. After placing my own lunch tray on the conveyor belt to the washing machines, I “accidentally” lurched into the tray Two was carrying, scattering his dirty dishes and cutlery across the floor. I apologized and bent to help pick up the mess but he looked right through me, as though I were a ghost.
Back in my cubicle, I swiveled my chair towards Eight, who’d shared his real name with me once and had made the occasional joke about the shape of Ian’s head. “Psst. Did Ian tell you not to talk to me?” Eight paused to cough and resumed typing on his keymat double time when the sound of Ian’s approaching boots thundered through the corridor.
The next morning instead of knocking on the wall, I whispered my own name to myself. Then I took my soft canvas and rubber shoes and soaked them in the basin until they were dripping. I walked down the corridor squeaking, squishing, and slapping the concrete floor. No one turned their heads, but I could see by the shape of their backs that they wanted to. At lunch I beat loudly on the table with my knife and fork but to no avail.
The following morning when I got out of bed, my shoes were gone and at lunch I was given no cutlery. I sat in the corner of the canteen in my socks, moodily picking at pieces of potato and shoveling them in my mouth with my fingers. Across the canteen, Three giggled quietly with Two, until she thought better of it and drowned her laughter in a glass of water.
A few seats away, Eight, eating his lunch in solitary silence, happened to look up and make inadvertent eye contact with me. I caught the alarm that rippled across his face before he glanced away and I jumped out of my chair. “Eight!” I shouted. “Look at me, Eight!” I hurled the remains of my potato across the canteen at Eight’s face where it exploded like a starchy bomb. “I know you see me!”
I watched Eight, red and flushed, eating his carrots in frightened silence, not even daring to wipe the potato off his cheek and the courage of desperation surged through me.
I stood on my chair and yelled at the top of my lungs. “Look at me, Timothy!” And with that, everyone turned, their eyes fixed on me in frozen horror — at last. Ian burst through the door of the canteen, his face purple with fury, and dragged me bodily to Jamie’s office.
Jamie sighed, his disappointment immense. “Nine, why can’t we just be friends? You know that I like you. Your contributions are important.” I stared at the floor in silence. Ian grabbed my chin and tilted it upwards forcing me to make eye contact. Jamie fixed me with his soft brown eyes, a pleading look on his face. “Is there something you’d like to say to me?” I nodded in apparent contriteness. Jamie looked at me expectantly. Tiny muscles around his mouth trembled towards a smile. “Well?” I took a deep breath and looked straight into his eyes. “My name is Siva,” I declared. I saw Ian make a quick movement, then all I saw were stars.