Faustina lay in the dark, panting; her breath slapped against the invisible walls of her safe room. Her eyes looked for any light to catch themselves on. There was none.
“Safe,” she muttered, although she didn’t feel it.
She slowed her breathing like her years of meditation and yoga training taught her. She tried to find the center of her racing thoughts – the eye of the tornado inside her. She couldn’t locate it. In her mind, variations of the word “betrayed” bounced between the inner walls of her skull.
Red spots filled in the darkness where her eyes scanned. She clamped her eyes shut, but the dots remained. “Don’t hallucinate,” she muttered to herself. “Keep it together.”
She kept her eyes closed and focused on how her hands felt. They were flat against the old hardwood floor she sat on. Her right index finger looked for a crack in the slats. She found a jagged space where she remembered her hammer accidentally hit the floor when she was building this secret room.
She focused her senses on that finger, feeling the sharp and dull edges of the wood, running her finger across the edge and imagining what it looked like. She remembered seeing the crack a number of times in the past; its imperfection always bothered her.
She smiled as she realized that the imperfection was helping her center herself at last.
Her breath calmed, the tornado in her mind began to unravel – the howl of words and recent memory decaying into a whispering storm. She continued feeling the wooden edge with her index finger and slowed her breathing as best as she could.
The word “betrayed” became a sorrowful sigh.
She tried to think if anyone she knew were aware of the secret room she created, dug carefully after many months of suspicions. She was always attentive to detail and was certain that the entrance to the secret room from her dorm closet was invisible to even the most sensitive scanner. If she could just clear her mind completely, neither an ultrasonic scanner nor an empath could find her there.
She built the safe room over a long period on campus, once she was certain that things were going badly at the academy. The safe room was shaped out of an hollow space she detected behind her closet. She started the design after she detected whispers about her from other people, stares from her once-trusted instructors, subtle changes in tone and posture among the administrators. Any single instance could have been written off, but the changes were steady.
She was certain it was paranoia at first – just a mental imbalance that could be adjusted with meditation, perception, and medication. All she thought she needed were easy adjustments to mental chemistry and an ear to bend. But the suspicion grew.
In time, her instructors were hostile. She monitored herself to see if she had made any changes to invite this sort of hostility. She took careful notes through the day in addition to her required bi-daily diary. She adjusted her behavior as the thought appropriate. She worked harder than ever in her courses, even though previously she had been the top student. She was growing too eager to please, trying anything to find her way back into other peoples’ esteem. She was aware of becoming obsequious.
Throughout the dark time she had only one friend: Jarissa. Jarissa became her support because she was going through the same ordeal. People seemed to turn on her as well. Only two years younger than Faustina, they never talked much until they recognized a safe haven in each other. Then they grew close over the months, fellow sufferers in isolation.
When she noticed that her attempts to placate drew even more hostility, she started her escape plan. Build a safe room, wait out the eventual search, and then her and Jarissa could sneak out once the guards were relaxed.
It took nearly a year to find the perfect place for her bolt hole, gather the materials, gather supplies and rations, and then complete the room. She laid down the wooden floors using salvaged scraps from a new construction site on campus. She drew electricity for the room from multiple sources, leaving a small wattage worth of power drawn from multiple locations – untraceable because of its diffusion. Jarissa was the only person she told about her secret room. There was just enough room for the two of them, should it come to the worst.
Then Jarissa disappeared. People acted as though she never existed. She knew this happened from time to time. Students would disappear and everyone was told that the student had graduated, and that it was an exercise to honor the memory of the student and ease them into the past by not discussing them.
“They way out cannot be the way back,” her instructors would intone. “Let them pass, and know you will see them again.” Before, it felt like a beautiful release – letting go of the past and learning to live exclusively in the now. But now, it felt ominous and terrifying.
She hoped she would never have to use this safe room. Towards the end, the hostility was intense. Some instructors were actually tripping her in the hallway. All of her efforts at education were judged as failures. With Jarissa’s disappearance, she had never felt more isolated. Until that last night, she never knew how terrible this had gotten.
Two weeks after Jarissa disappeared, Faustina was wandering alone in the hallways, walking and thinking about her situation. She was running out of options. She was supposedly nearly finished with her education, and it all seemed to be slipping away. The hostility felt out of control. She’d always considered herself to be the best in the school among her peers. Yet now, she was the pariah.
She almost rounded a corner when she heard whispered voices.
She overheard one of her favorite mentors, Faulk, tell his mate, Damia the martial arts instructor, “tomorrow. We have all had enough. She’s hanging on too long and it seems to be interfering with the whole program. Faustina must be destroyed by tomorrow night.”
She snuck away quickly before she could hear Raul’s answer.
Now, a week later, she huddled inside her safe house, depressed that all of her world had shrunk to this small sub-closet. She had no more freedom of movement, no more standing among her peers, and no more regard from the instructors whom she had held in such esteem.
She found her breathing sharp and quick again. That was no use. She had to master herself again. She focused on her right index finger – how the rough edge felt. She worried at the edge with her fingernail. She allowed no memory, nothing in the past and no thought of the future. Just now and the scar in the floor. She slowed her breathing down to thirty seconds in, thirty seconds out. She envisioned a green light going in her feet and escaping blue out of the top of her head with each breath.
She had no idea how long she was focused before she felt the footstep. It was a tentative, sneaking thing that would have been imperceptible were she not meditating. Her breath froze and she stretched her palms out on the floor, feeling for the slight impact tremor of footfalls in her abandoned room.
Her eyes still shut, her senses reached out to feel the presence in the room. There was a slight tremor on the floorboard. Sensing foot impacts was the whole reason she had chosen wooden floors to begin with. The floor was built like a spider’s web, each slight tremor around the room radiating towards her.
The foot shifted and she felt the vibration. Then a step. She calculated the weight of the step. The person was sneaking but still making a comparatively heavy footfall. “Ninety kilos on the outside,” she thought. Another step, then they entered the room. She heard a percussive click – they turned on the lights.
Someone else entered the room. “Two,” she thought. “I could ambush one, but two…” she shook her head.
A third person entered the room. She held her breath. The murmur of a conversation leaked through the wall.
“How many times to we have to check here?” The first person asked. “She’s gone.”
“Is she?” The second person asked. “There seems to be no egress out of the facility, everything has been thoroughly searched. We should be a closed system. If indeed we are, she’s not outside. So she must be inside.”
“Deductive reasoning?” The first person asked.
“Common sense,” The second said. “Everything exists somewhere.”
A third voice chuckled. “The way out doesn’t seem to be the way back, yet here we are searching a room we’ve searched four times before.”
“There’s something else this time,” The second voice said.
“What?” The third voice asked. “The room’s been sniffed over – electronically and psychically. No trace.”
Faustina calmed her mind again, made her thoughts a vanishing point. She pushed back her lizard mind into the prebirth nothingness and held it there. A mouse would have made a larger empathetic footprint.
“Yes,” the second voice said, “True. But they searched for a common student. They didn’t skip their tunnel and look for what we are looking for.”
“Oh?” They first voice asked.
“They looked for a student. They didn’t look for Faustina,” The second voice said.
They walked closer to her position.
She felt her body flood with adrenaline. It was unreasonable and would be a dead giveaway if anyone out there was a skilled empath. Her heart raced. She tried to slow her breathing down but her body wouldn’t behave. She suddenly had to piss.
She had over twelve years of training in meditation and yoga as well as martial arts, computer science, engineering, physics, analytical psychology, linguistics, comparative religion, mathematics up to abstract algebra and complex analysis, in addition to music theory and painting. No answers came to her. Only the howl of terror in mind, the shiver of a cornered animal. It was fight or flight or…
Freeze. The door opened. She saw Faulk lean down into the doorway, Raul and the chief administrator for the school, Tomas. “Very clever,” Faulk smirked.
Faustina was lead into the tribunal by two guards who she recognized as Damia and Phoebe (a music theory instructor). She was bound by her wrists behind her back. The flood of adrenaline had long since passed and she had never felt so tired. Biologically, she knew she was facing the inevitable crash after an adrenaline rush. Psychologically, she felt utterly alone.
They marched her in front of a tribunal. At the head sat Tomas, with Faulk to his right. To his left was the meditation instructor, Rina. They were wearing black robes and were seated on high benches, an intimidating solid metal desk in front of them, decorated in bands of copper and magenta bondmetal. It was a tight, dark room highlighted by pillars of light – the perfect home for her fear. They scowled down at her.
There was already someone kneeling to one side of the tribunal. It was Jarissa. Her hands were free and she was staring up at the tribunal silently, slightly swaying.
Faustina was forced into a kneeling position beside her. She turned slightly to Jarissa and felt a heavy hand slap the back of her head. “Eyes forward, dead woman,” Damia growled.
“Jarissa,” Faustina whispered, “How long have they had you?”
Jarissa never moved her head. She stared forward at the judges. “Goodbye, Faustina,” she said with no emotion.
“Do it,” Tomas intoned. “Let her watch,” he added, indicating Faustina.
Phoebe strode forward, leveled a gun at the back of Jarissa’s head, and fired. There was a loud flash of light and Jarissa fell forward.
Faustina stifled a cry and faced forwards again with a hunted rabbit’s eyes. The three judges looked down on her.
“Why?” Faustina asked as they dragged Jarissa away.
Tomas raised his eyebrows. “Why?” He asked. “Because we can.”
“That…” she spluttered, and raged inwardly “that makes no sense! Why raise me for over a decade and then kill me? It makes no sense at all.” All she could say was again “why?”
She felt a gun press against the back of her head. She stared forwards at Tomas. Tomas held up his hand. “No.” He intoned. The gun was removed.
Tomas made a come-hither gesture to someone behind Faustina and said, “she gets to see it.”
Damia walked forward. Faustina was tempted to lunge at her, kick her feet from under her, do anything to at least hurt someone before she died. The idea died inside of her before she could move. It would not stop her from dying. There was no escape.
Damia held the gun up. “Wait,” Phoebe said, “Faustina and Jarissa were close at the end.” She walked forward with her gun out.
She switched weapons with Damia. “Kill her with the same weapon. Preserve their sisterhood.”
Damia grinned slightly as the room chuckled. She took the weapon and cocked it.
Damia blocked Faustina’s view of Tomas. All she could see was the weapon slowly lowering towards her head.
“Damia,” Tomas intoned, “Are you ready?”
“Eager,” Damia said.
“Why?” Faustina whispered again as she saw a charging red light build in the middle of the gun muzzle.
She focused on the light seconds away from dying, that beautiful red light. It was like the light of a flashlight through fingertips, when one wants to see the shadow of their finger bones at night. It was a sunset light, a power indicator red, fresh like blood. It was the color of the spots she saw in the dark, the color of a hot filament, the color of the world of the almost born. Time slowed down to a crawl.
Something fell away from her, like armored scales from her body. Her education, her training, her accomplishments, her place in the school, her place in the universe. The past, the future, the present, gone. She felt like she was sinking down a hole in the floor, or that something was lifting her up.
Her shoulders slumped, a smile draping her face as she sighed into death. Faustina the ego, Faustina the achiever, Faustina the daughter, Faustina the son, Faustina the fearful woman she knew died and was glad to die at last.
The people in the room faded until there was nothing left but her and the red transitioning to white light of the gun. Then only her. Then only no one. All there was in the room was the void, and the room was the void, and the void was everything. And she was in that void. And she was that void. She had never felt more peaceful. She was ready to die.
“That’s why,” she whispered and smiled beatifically.
The gun disappeared.
“Welcome, sister, at last,” Jarissa whispered in Faustina’s ear, then kissed her ear lightly like a breeze.
“An initiation, a real one, happens in terror,” Faulk said to Faustina later on. “The egos we build around us, the little clumps of identity we sculpt into something we call ‘I’, they don’t come off easily. They are like barnacles on a ship, only imagine the barnacles imagined that they were not only the ship, but also the ONLY ship.”
Fasutina sighed. The emotions were still raw. So was the peace she glimpsed. The connectivity she felt for the first time in her life… something she had always read about and assumed she could meditate towards as a goal. It never occurred to her that it required not only doing nothing, but becoming nothing.
“Barnacles cannot be coaxed off. They have to be chiseled. There are a few ways to do that, but terror and dread are the most effective, fastest way. To put it in another boat metaphor, the ego can be likened to a rat fleeing a sinking ship. We had to convince you that you were truly sinking.”
Faustina started to say something, then stopped.
Faulk nodded. “Why did we do this? Because you wanted to be a Shaman, that’s why. Willingly or no, you chose this end. You dedicated your life to this. If it wasn’t what you thought it was, who owns that? We never gave you any expectations.”
“Would you have killed me?”
“Yes,” Faulk said matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” Faustina said.
“We haven’t had to kill anyone yet,” He said, “but what you know – what you have learned – it’s very dangerous once you put the information together. Combine that with ego, and it becomes something we fight against. Everyone can have ideas. We know how to plant and control them. Left unchecked and that seems to be a downfall of our species. Our brains grew thanks to evolution, and they have made us the apex predator. They can also kill us.”
Faustina nodded wearily.
“You will feel rage eventually,” Faulk said, “and it will seem justifiable. The question you should ask yourself is who is doing the justifying? And it would be bullshit to tell you that we did this for your own good, even though that was the intention. We did, but it was terrible.
“I knew you heard us that night two weeks ago, and I didn’t lie. Faustina had to be destroyed. We had to break you out of what you thought we wanted you to be. It is up to you to shape you now.”
“Into what?” Faustina asked.
“Whatever you decide, Faustina. You’re not taking orders anymore. You’re giving them to yourself. What happened is the culmination of everything we ever taught you. That it is pointless to give you data and skills if you cannot determine for yourself how best to use them and instead expecting to follow our whims or the ideas of others. Because what is an idea?”
Faustina smiled slightly through her exhaustion, remember the lessons drilled into her head. “An idea can be seen as a seed to action, or inaction.”
“Who determines which?” Faulk asked.
She smiled brighter. “I guess I do now.”
Faulk smiled. “What we did was a betrayal. Never call it anything else. Never excuse it if you don’t wish to. But I advise you to understand it and why we did it. When your anger and fear returns, it signals the return of your ego. Beware of it. If you ever suspect that you know who you are, change. If you can guess the patterns to your mind, lose it.”
Faulk stood up, “I advise you to take your rest. Be with Jarissa if you want. You are ready.”
“For?” Faustina asked.
“To stop being a student. You have seen the illusion of ‘I’. You now know the reality of you and the keys to perception. You have a taste of true peace, and you know that what your ego keeps you from that peace. There is so much more to discover, but I am no longer your teacher. I am, if anything, your research partner. You now know you were conditioned. What are you going to do about it?” Faulk smiled, sighed, and then walked out of the room as Jarissa walked in.
She sat down next to Faustina and slid her arm through Faustina’s arm.
“How’re you doing?”
Faustina shrugged. “Exhausted. Was that peace real?”
“As real as our anxiety,” Jarissa said. “Or anything else.”
“What, is anything real?”
Jarissa shrugged, “the real question is does that matter? And if it matters, does it matter that it matters?”
“This is a hell of a school we’ve attended,” Faustina said.
Jarissa laughed. “I’ve had only three weeks to process this, but I know this: the outcome you and I have had – it was hinted at throughout our whole education. We were always told about this peace and power, but it was never revealed how or when it would happen. We knew we were being trained unlike anyone else – that we were going to hold a special place in society. We always assumed it would just happen with enough work.”
Faustina nodded. “It did happen, but definitely not in the way I thought it would. I remember sloughing off all of those pieces of me. What was the last bit that fell off of you?”
“Anger,” Jarissa said. “You?”
Jarissa nodded. “I think this indicates the first thing we should beware of. That’s what stuck around the longest in either of us.”
Faustina nodded. The peace she felt, the all-embracing everything, was still in fresh in her mind. She was somehow here, arm in arm with her dearest friend, past a point where she had, in some sense, died.
She felt that if she thought about this now, it would kill this moment. So she shied away from analysis and let herself be inside this present, feeling the body heat of the person she loved most, and resting her head on Jarissa’s right shoulder.