|By Neo Bahamut||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
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Sunday, August 23, 2015
Aroma had not actually had much to record. The patients mostly just sat still and stared in random directions. At one point, the man on the far right seemed to suddenly notice her, and shouted that he was hungry over and over again. Aroma took note of this, but otherwise stared resolutely down at her note pad, doing her best to avoid his gaze and suppress any sniffles. His outburst finally ceased when Dr. Avici shouted that he would be given shock therapy if he didn't "cease that idiotic screaming at once!"
A few hours into her observations, or lack thereof, she heard the prison door slide open. She turned to see the doctor standing in the door frame, a stout Purist visible over his shoulder, sitting on a stool.
"Get out," the doctor growled, "I have a job for you."
Aroma nodded and dutifully set out, avoiding his gaze. She set the note pad down at a table, which Dr. Avici briefly glanced at before returning to his observations of the gray matter, which now seemed to include putting drops of various chemicals on a slice and observing the effects under a microscope.
Aroma approached the man. His hood was off, revealing a pudgy face with brown eyes and short, scraggly brown hair in tufts, parts of it not growing correctly due to scars. He had been wounded before. At this time, he was laying his right arm across a medical cart, atop of which had also been set her medical kit and a pair of sterile steel bowls, filled with water, white rags draped over the rims. Aroma could see that the back of his forearm was a blotchy, blistering red.
"I was fighting firebenders a few minutes ago," the man explained unprompted, "When 1 of 'em shot a fireball at me and I raised my arm to block."
"I am sorry to hear that. I need to test you for sensitivity. Is that okay?"
"I guess so, yeah."
"Then I will need you to face away from me, please."
"No gloves," Dr. Avici told her without turning around, "We can't spare the equipment."
Aroma frowned, but did as he instructed. Waiting until the man wasn't spying out of the corner of his eye, she opened a drawer in the cart his arm was resting upon, digging out a tool that terminated in a wheel with dull spikes all around its circumference. She then pressed the tool head gently on the center of his arm, rolling it around and pressing harder when he didn't react. He squinted slightly, appearing unsure if she was doing anything. But when she rolled it over to the edge of the burn—
"ARGH, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!" he roared, wrenching his arm away from her. When his gaze snapped back toward her, she could see that tears were forming in the corners of his eyes and he was grinding his teeth.
Aroma's shoulders bunched up, but she tried her best to appear unafraid. "I'm sorry, Sir," she explained, "But I needed to assess the extent of the damage. This burn must run pretty deep if it's affecting your ability to feel pain. If we're so short on equipment, maybe we should perform a skin graft now, before this gets any worse."
She looked over at the doctor to see what he thought, but still he did not turn around, merely grunted, "I suppose. Show the girl how to numb pain using chi blocking."
The man wiped his eyes, but looked more miserable than ever after being told that he was expected to teach his doctor such a crucial part of the operation. He pointed to a region on his shoulder and explained, "If you strike exactly this spot hard enough, it'll knock out all feeling in my arm for about 10 to 15 minutes."
"I don't know if that will be enough time."
"Then just do it again."
"Okay. Then I can take the donor skin from your upper arm. Will you be allowed medications?"
"Only whatever I can get over the counter."
So she placed her tracing wheel on the top of the cart and headed back over to the note pad, flipping to a fresh page and writing a pair of brand names. While she did that, her patient rolled up his sleeve. She then tore off the prescription and walked back over to hand it to him. He glanced at it briefly.
"The 1st is a painkiller," she explained as he pocketed it, "Though I would really prefer to be able to prescribe something stronger. The 2nd is an antibiotic that you can get if it becomes infected."
Popping her kit open, she breathed deep and said, "Alright, let's begin."
She then extended her knuckles and drove her fist right in the man's shoulder, eliciting a yelp.
"What did you do that for?!"
"I was trying to block your chi!"
"Well, all you did was punch me in the shoulder!"
"Just keep trying until you get it right," the doctor interjected, "Once you do, it won't hurt anymore."
"O—okay. I'm sorry, Sir." She whimpered. Squinting, she punched him again, and again, he yelped. "I'm sorry, Sir!"
Punch, yelp, "I'm sorry, Sir!" Punch, yelp, "I'm sorry, Sir!"
After this cycle went on about 9 times, the man could no longer stop his tears from freely flowing, and he was breathing in short gasps. But this stopped as he started to slide off of the stool, having to grab it with his left hand to steady himself.
"A—are you alright, Sir?" Aroma asked, breathless and red in the face from punching this guy over and over again.
"Yeah, it's just that my arm couldn't support my weight anymore. I can't feel it—it doesn't even tingle."
"Congratulations," Dr. Avici noted dryly, "You have finally begun to learn Chi Blocking. But you'll be a rather useless assistant if that's how slow you are to learn any techniques."
"I assure you, I am quite competent at the job I've been practicing for years," she said, furrowing her brow as she dabbed her patient's arm with a wash cloth.
"Perhaps. I can certainly sympathize with the difficulty in being passed over for promotions repeatedly, your position given to incompetent water savages."
Aroma's eye twitched, but of course she said, "Yeah, me too."
She picked up her scalpel, noting that her patient had turned pale as he stared at it.
"I suggest you don't look. Why don't you tell me how you joined the Purists?" she asked as she gently placed the blade to his shoulder and pressed down.
He followed her advice, but stole glances out of the corner of his eye. "Well," he began, "I guess I just got tired of having to keep paying the Triple Threats, so I stood up to them. That's how I got this scar." He pointed to a mark discoloring his left temple and part of his ear. "And of course, they burned my store down."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said, dabbing some blood away with a pad of gauze and pressing down to reduce the flow. She had switched to a short, highly curved knife, almost like a tiny sickle, and began peeling the flesh back, cutting strips of glistening pink connective tissue where necessary. But she couldn't help but think that Thiera could cut the tissue out in 2 or 3 swipes.
"Me too. But I couldn't get any jobs after that. Turns out word had spread about the fight and my reputation was ruined. Every employer said they heard I was violent, and that—get this—they didn't want to hire a criminal that might rob them."
"That's really unfair," she said, removing the flesh and placing it out of his view, behind the water bowls. She also dipped the knife in the closest bowl a few times before setting it back down.
"Hey, is it supposed to bleed like that?!" the man asked with a slight crack in his voice.
"Don't worry, Sir, these are just capillaries, it's not as bad as it looks. I'll apply a bandage now. In the meantime, why don't you continue your story?"
"Well—" his voice sounded raspy, but came back stronger after he gulped, "Since I couldn't get any jobs, I turned to pickpocketing. I didn't want to hurt anyone, y'see? It seemed like a victimless crime."
"That's understandable," Aroma answered as she finished winding the bandage around his arm and picked up her scalpel again, wetting it before continuing. Except that you don't know what the word "victimless" means.
"Turns out it takes a lot of skill, and I spent the next 2 years in jail," he continued bitterly, "Didn't have to worry about paying for food or bills then. But my girlfriend dumped me. Said it was the last straw."
"I'm sorry," Aroma said sincerely. She had mentioned to Euryale that she sympathized with the Purists wanting to protect themselves from the Triple Threats, but she never realized before just how bad it was. She'd treated their victims in the clinic, but never heard a story like this before. Probably because the worst cases couldn't talk. They were either in prison or dead.
As she began excising the burned tissue of his forearm, he continued, "I had to get a lot tougher in prison. And in there, I heard things. That if you knew where to go, who to talk to, nonbenders were comin' together to fight back, and take what was taken from us. When I got out, I followed these rumors, and eventually a man took me to some cruddy run-down shop that a woman was staying in. The woman I now call Leader."
"You didn't find out her real name?" Aroma asked, glancing upward, noticing that he was gazing, unfocused, at the ceiling, smiling placidly as if in admiration.
Shaking out of his stupor, he looked at her, and then immediately looked away, retching as he saw her sewing his upper arm skin onto his forearm. When he regained his composure somewhat, he gasped, "No, she...she won't tell anyone."
"I see," Aroma said. She still had some more that she needed to do, so she asked him, "What about Vyanna? Do you know why she joined?"
"I'm guessing it has somethin' to do with that scar of hers."
"I didn't see it."
"Really? It's right across her face."
"Well, I never saw her head-on in good lighting," Aroma answered. "Well, if you don't know about that, then...did you find a new girlfriend?"
"No. You offering?"
"Um—you sound really nice, but...."
"Right. Forget it."
"It's just that it would be a conflict of interest—"
"Yeah, that's what they all say. Just drop it."
"Well...in better news, your operation is almost finished," she announced, snipping the excess stitching. The gurney and his arm were literally a bloody mess, so she grabbed the bloodless wash cloth and started dabbing the latter again.
"Huh—I didn't feel anything...." As he twitched his fingers, he added with a slight edge in his voice, "But it's coming back."
"I recommend you administer more anesthetic," the doctor chuckled to himself.
Aroma and her patient exchanged a fearful glance, but this time it only took her 3 tries to numb him. Then she applied another bandage to his forearm and told him that he was good to go. When he left, Aroma deposited the blistered flesh in the waste basket that apparently counted as their bio-contaminant disposal, soaped up the rag, and scrubbed the cart as hard as she could for what seemed like hours. She then dumped 2 bowels worth of pink water into the sink and set to washing her hands and the equipment.
"What should I do with the rags?" she asked.
"There is a laundry hamper under the sink, just stick them in there."
When Aroma was almost done, Vyanna knocked and stuck her head in. "Hey, I'm here to show you more of the base. Oh, and another drop of fresh blood will be coming with us."
"Ironic phrasing," the doctor observed as Aroma dried her hands and followed Vyanna out of the sad excuse for a clinic. She stood beside a Purist who was taller than she was and broad shouldered, but very obviously female.
"My name is Sankara Lee," this not-so-new woman said, extending her hand, "Nice to meet you."
"A—Aroma Gingiber," she responded, shaking "Sankara's" hand. Euryale met her gaze only long enough to shake hands and then immediately looked away. Aroma tried to avoid showing recognition, but couldn't help but steal glances at Euryale as they walked along behind Vyanna.
"Stop looking at me!" Euryale hissed under her breath, but she did spare a small gesture of reassurance by winking.
Oblivious, Vyanna explained, "I should show Aroma more of the prison block. Not only will that be her home for a while, she may find herself called there suddenly about some of the doctor's experiments."
"Experiments?" Sankara asked.
"He's got all sorts of things he wants to test, but right now he mostly does this thing he calls a lobotomy," Vyanna explained, "He cuts into the brain and changes anything he wants about a person. Our Leader says we're investigating it as a way to remove bending, but of course she knows it's not practical, it's quicker and easier to just cut off the whole head. We're just humoring him because we need his research. He supplies us with new poisons, explosives, and plastics that the boars can't bend but are strong enough to make weapons out of."
Vyanna turned, leading them into a side tunnel lined with cages. "This is Block A. Right now, we have 3 of these tunnels or 'blocks,' devoted to prison cells. Since we don't usually take prisoners, most of them are empty."
"Do you think those are all that we'll need?" Sankara asked.
"Maybe. There are a lot of tunnels we don't know what we're doing with yet. Either way, we'll have a lot more now that we're expanding into the south."
This time, Aroma asked, "But shouldn't, uh, we try to take the industrial sector first?"
"We're not strong enough yet to fight the boars, the Triple Threats, and the Agni Kais all at once. But soon." There was a definite note of satisfaction as she said the last 2 words.
"Does the Purist Leader have any children?" Aroma blurted out suddenly. She couldn't tell what made her think about it.
Vyanna stopped and turned around. Raising an eyebrow and placing her hands on her hips, she asked, "Why do you ask?"
"I don't know," Aroma answered truthfully, "Just curious, I guess."
She glanced at Euryale, who was also staring at her quizzically, but turned back when Vyanna answered, "Not that I know of. Certainly she didn't bring any with her."
"So you've known her for a long time?" Aroma asked.
"You're just full of questions, aren't you? Yeah. I met her on Kyoshi Bridge, just after I got out of the hospital. She said she was looking for fighters like her, who had nothing to lose, but who were ready to take what we deserved from bending scum."
"Why were you in the hospital?"
Vyanna pointed at her face, "I was a bank teller. I told a robber I couldn't give him all of the money in the safe, because I didn't know how to open the safe. He didn't like that. The hospital didn't like that I didn't have insurance, so no face lifts. And the bank didn't like having a scarred employee."
"The man I treated also told me he was fired from his job after he was attacked by a firebender," Aroma noted.
"I bet half of the Purists have the same origin story. You'd think killing the Airbenders would have satisfied them. And they didn't even get them all, so now we have to clean up their mess."
"But...aren't the remaining Airbenders just Tenzin and his daughter?"
"Daughters. The wannabe wind sow popped out another. Of course, the Triple Threats and Agni Kais employ children, too. They grow up to burn off hardworking nonbenders' faces. Now let's go look at the training area."
Vyanna led them down a long, cramped tunnel, made even worse by pipes jutting between the walls, ceiling, and floors in various combinations; sometimes going straight across, sometimes at right angles or even U-turns. At this point, she withdrew a flashlight from her belt and clicked it on to guide them through.
"You'll want to avoid touching these," she announced, "Some of them are hot."
They ducked, stepped over, and squeezed their way past pipes until they eventually entered a cavernous space filled with huge, square concrete support pillars. Flood lights had been secured on the scaffolding, illuminating the area.
"There was once a hotel over this spot," Vyanna explained, "But it was destroyed in a fire. The next developer had no idea this parking garage was down here, he just paved over the wreckage and built over it. So we put in these floodlights, tapped into the power lines, set up some mats, and now we use it as a training room."
She pointed off into the distance, where several figures could be seen throwing things at a wall. As they got nearer, they realized that they were throwing knives at paper targets. Set on some kind of office board, they depicted the generalized shape of a person's upper body. Most of the knives merely clanged off of the wall and collected at the floor.
Aroma stopped walking as she saw the Purist Leader standing nearby, shaking her head. When she noticed them, she scowled, and Aroma looked away.
"This is Sankara Lee," Vyanna explained, gesturing to Euryale, "I'm showing her around, along with Aroma."
"I see. Can you throw knives?" the Purist Leader asked.
Without a word, Euryale stepped forward, grabbing a pair of knives out of a box at the feet of a Purist. She drew her arm back and, flicking her wrist twice, embedded knives right in the forehead and heart of the target.
Vyanna and the Purist Leader whistled at this display, and the other Purists reluctantly joined in, until their Leader calmly but sternly told them to keep practicing.
"Not you," she added to Euryale, "You don't seem to need it."
"Sankara actually said that she wanted to practice with the firebows," Vyanna said.
"That sounds like a splendid idea," her Leader answered. Then she withdrew from her belt a bizarre contraption, which Euryale had seen earlier, but Aroma had not—a metal bow with a very short crossbar, the bolt concealed behind some kind of barrel. The crossbar seemed to be sharpened, and the central beam extended slightly beyond the barrel above it, tapering to a vicious point.
"We can't use these in a head-on fight against the boars," she said, "But they're much safer to fire than the plastic ones, so they're better to use for training. Unfortunately, if you get into a shootout, the non-metal models won't perform as well."
Aroma had no idea what a "shootout" was, and doubted that Euryale did either, but guessed she didn't want to say anything in case the Purist Leader recognized her voice, because she just took the "firebow" and aimed at a target. But she stopped when the Purist Leader grabbed her arm, holding up a box of rubber nubs with her other hand.
"We should put these ear plugs in first. Vyanna, you mind handing these out? Lee, you won't need them, Sankara can take your target. You and I can go over to the sparring area."
Once those 2 had left and everyone else had their earplugs in, Euryale finally pulled the trigger. Aroma slapped her hands to her head as her eardrums started throbbing, neither palms nor plugs doing much to stop the surge of noise. She saw a flash as the weapon recoiled and looked around to see where the bolt was, until she realized that it had somehow embedded itself into the target's chest almost instantly. Her mouth hung open.
Shortly thereafter, J'nani had scrambled through the cramped passageway. Dr. Avici had sent for Aroma, so she squeezed her way back. Inside the doctor's box, on the main table, he had set a long, flexible tube of transparent plastic, a blue bucket of soggy rice, and a funnel. For once, he had his gaze fixed on her, that look he seemed to give everyone, telling them he couldn't distinguish them from the filth beneath his feet. She made an effort to stand up straight with her hands at her side—fortunately, he couldn't see her balled fists under her rain cape—but stared at the feeding tube and bucket.
"I trust you know how to feed an uncooperative subject?" he asked. Aroma clenched her jaw and gave a single nod.
"Then what are you keeping me waiting for, you worthless—!" Once again, the doctor's mood swing gave way to a series of dry coughs that shook his whole frame. The doctor clapped his right hand to his mouth, turning to brace himself on the table with the left.
Aroma slipped by him to grab the supplies, lingering briefly to say, "Let me know if you need a cough drop, doctor," before she proceeded into the cell. The doctor tried to glare at her, but was unable to keep his eyes open between his hacking.
Aroma breathed deep, placing the bucket on the ground about halfway into the chamber. Shutting her right eye and squinting with her left, she grabbed the first man's nose. As he gasped, she began to feed the tube down his throat. He gave a gurgling wheeze as it stuck on something, and she quickly grabbed it with her other hand, readjusting the angle. The man began to thrash, but Aroma pivoted her waist to keep up with him. When he tried to stand, she forced all of her weight down on his shoulders, pushing him back down, and was awarded with a kick to her ankle that caused her to fall painfully to her knee.
Reaching back to grab the bucket, she poured a 3rd of the contents down the man's throat, then began sliding the now slick, sticky tube out of his mouth. He collapsed, rolling to his side and vomiting as she finally let him go, moving on to the next man. He was looking around in agitation, apparently knowing something was wrong, but not understanding how to prevent it from happening to him.
When Aroma turned to set down the bucket and move on to the last man, she saw the Purist Leader standing in the doorway, arms crossed.
"Perhaps we were wrong to doubt you," she mused, "You've proven very efficient. No hesitation. No mercy."
"Thank you, Leader," Aroma said, nodding to her as she removed the feeding tube.
"Don't bother with that last one," the Purist Leader added, "The doctor is expecting new subjects and there is only so much food to go around, so I told him he had to put it down."
"Yes, Leader," she said again, keeping her expression even, not even blinking until the woman looked away. She then asked, "Are we all supposed to keep our identities hidden?"
"What?" the Purist Leader snapped, looking at her. A moment later, her brow relaxed in recognition. "Oh. No, my identity just doesn't matter. I am not the cause, I am just here to teach the helpless how to fend for themselves. That's something I always hated about the Kyoshi Warriors. That the self-absorbed Avatar had the audacity to make a whole village take her name. She spun such fanciful tales of protecting them and bringing balance, but clearly she was just raising her own private army."
"So you were in the Kyoshi Warriors after all?" Aroma asked.
"Of course I was, what kind of stupid question is that?"
"It's just that Kyoshi Island says that there are no deserters."
"Oh. Yes. That. Well, of course they'll never admit to failure. They never admit when they can't browbeat someone into being just like the rest of them."
"And how were you different?"
"I was better! I made the elites look like unlearned barbarians, so they tried to stifle my talents, dressing up their petty jealousy with pretty words like 'loyalty' and 'trusting the team.' The irony is I never wanted to fight in the first place. I wanted to become a seamstress, or maybe a chef. Someone the village actually needed to make their lives better."
Aroma was surprised to hear this, but that was nothing compared to her next realization, the shock of which actually knocked her on her bottom. "It's you," she said softly, though much louder thanks to the acoustics of the cell, "...You're Hikari Hayashi."
The Purist Leader snarled, "Where did you hear that name?"
"I—I overheard Euryale saying it, before I was fired!" she lied.
"Just typical filth-mover rockheadedness," Hikari replied, "There never was a Kyoshi Islander by that name. You can ask them yourselves."
The Purist Leader strode out without another word. With deliberate casualness, Aroma gathered her equipment and came into the makeshift clinic to wash it. The Purist Leader stayed in the corner to watch as Dr. Avici entered the prison, unlocking the chains on the 3rd captive, dragging him out, and securing him to the table via straps over his forehead, chest, thighs, and calves.
To her dismay, the doctor passed her a pre-prepared pair of syringes filled with a transparent fluid she knew to be shirshu venom, and a dark gray poison she suspected to be made out of heavy metals. She had no choice but to take them and walk forward. No choice. She stood over him, injecting some of the shirshu toxin. The victim just continued to stare at the ceiling, head rocking as much as the strap would allow.
"Doctor," she said timidly, looking over her shoulder and trying to think fast, "If we—should we maybe—try something else?"
"If you are seriously suggesting that we spare the—"
"No, of course not!"
"DO NOT INTERRUPT M—" the doctor had fallen into another bout of coughing.
Aroma pressed her advantage, letting the words tumble out before he had time to stop her again, "What I mean is, since we're so low on equipment, perhaps I should just—kill him with my bare hands!"
She shook her left fist, the Purist Leader chuckling at the melodramatic gesture. The doctor waved her off. "Fine!" he gasped, "Just get on with it!"
Depositing the other poison back into the bottle, she quickly grabbed his throat with both hands, hoping it would obscure the fact that she was focusing on a chi point at the base of his jaw. The man gurgled slightly, yanked feebly on his bindings, and fell still, eyes unfocused, pulse slowing to a stop as he exhaled an unusually long, noxious breath. From all available evidence, he was dead.
"Time of death," Aroma said coolly, looking at a cracked clock hanging on the wall, "11:59 PM."
"I will be the judge of that," Dr. Avici spat, but the Purist Leader held out her arm to stop him. Instead, she walked over, placing a hand over his heart.
"He seems to be dead. Find someone to throw him into the sewer, I'll take Aroma back to her quarters."
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