Being an anxious over-thinker is hard. You usually scare yourself. -- Anon Guest
Why, oh why, did clinging to the very bottom rung of the social ladder feel like hanging desperately from a trapeze... roughly a hundred Sidu's up and with no safety net? CL-3 tried not to hyperventilate and faint -again- as things continued to deviate from her expected norm. Not that she had been much better within her expected norm, but at least there was a routine. Everything changed into certain uncertainty when the soldiers came.
They had come during free play, a time in which CL-3 attempted to hide in one of the cubbies from the bigger, meaner girls and play quietly with a stuffed poppet. She had screamed as the big suits came crashing through the ceiling and huddled up over her toy baby as they made loud noises. She'd wet herself when the big, armoured hands scooped her out of the cubby and carried her to a pod. The mean girls had laughed.
This wasn't like the other times, when she was told to walk along a path in her underthings, turn around, and go back. She wasn't going to be Selected. This was different. She was Taken. Admittedly, she was taken to a place with much warmer rooms, softer beds, and nice colours, but it was too different. There were no pictures on the walls with helpful signs of what was right and what was wrong. Green ticks with arrows showing the picture of the reward. Red crosses with arrows showing the punishment. There was no right way. There was no wrong way, and CL-3 now lived in a permanent haze of fear.
Well. She had before, but the difference now was in the sharpness of it. In the unfamiliar twist added to the familiar. There were still rooms, but there were no roommates. No three other people for midnight whispers or to hold when the dreams went bad. Everything was so clean that CL-3 was afraid to touch it.
She had a bed, a desk, a chair, and a little room off to the side with the necessities. There was also a mysterious white tub dominating a corner. It was big enough to lay down in with room to spare. More than enough room for a grown one to do the same. CL-3 was too scared to touch it, lest she get punished for doing it wrong. She was too scared to not ask permission to use the necessities. There were no voices or chimes to tell her what to do and when. There were no guards with big guns patrolling the upper levels. There were no upper levels.
There were, however, the soft people. People who talked in quiet voices and offered choices that CL-3 was too scared to take. People who told her things. Things like, "These are vegetables," or, "This is meat," or, "This is gelatine." They'd use strange words like 'broccoli' or 'carrots' or 'beef' or 'strawberry flavour' or 'mango flavour'. Then they'd ask her what she wanted. They were not like the grown ones who came to Select. They didn't grab and drag. They asked if things were okay.
On the seventh day of this, the softest person came. Big and lumpy and looking like she was made out of pillows and stuffing, wearing red, like all the other soft people, but this one was all... wavy. Wavy and soft and very, very careful. CL-3 flinched in spite of herself.
"It's all right," cooed the Softest. "I'd like to talk with you, if that's okay."
CL-3 didn't know what 'okay' was.
"I won't hurt you. I won't touch you. You're going to be okay. It's all right."
'Right' was a word she knew. CL-3 felt her breathing become so much easier. "I'm... right?"
"Yes," said the Softest. "The talking room is over there. Would you like a hand to hold on the way?" She offered it.
CL-3 shrank in on herself, protecting the only thing that had come from her former residence, the toy baby. "What's right?"
"Whatever you choose is right," said the Softest. "There aren't any bad choices if you're not hurting anyone."
Every word made sense on its own, but together? CL-3 couldn't figure it out. The Softest wanted her in the talking room, so CL-3 went there. Choosing whether or not to hold a hand... there had to be a right choice. "There has to be a right choice," she said out loud. "There's always a right choice."
"Do you think you're going to hurt anyone by holding my hand?"
CL-3 shook her head.
"Do you think you're going to hurt anyone by not holding my hand?"
Again, she had to shake her head.
"Then they're both right choices. You can choose. It's... right." Again, the Softest offered an open palm. "I promise I won't hold any harder than you hold."
Heart pounding in her chest, CL-3 stood from her huddle and laid her hand cautiously on top of the Softest's, who smiled.
"Thank you for trusting me," said the Softest.
Inside the Talking Room were a lot of soft things. Everything in this place was soft. There were lumps with fuzzy stuff. Lumps with loops. Lumps that were just... lumps. Big pillows and a squishy, soft floor and soft walls and... A cubby! CL-3 took her hand from the Softest and dove for the shelter of the small, pink box with her toy tight in one arm. Sure, the light could come through the pink walls and ceiling, but she felt so much better with the walls around her.
Outside of the cubby, the Softest laid down so that they were eye-to-eye. "It's right to want to feel safe," she said. "We want you to feel safe. We'd also like it if you talked to us. Is that... right... with you?"
She almost nodded, but she feared the punishment that would happen if she did that, so she managed a strangled, "...'es."
"Okay," cooed the Softest. "My name is Mbali. Do you know your name?"
Three deep breaths, this was something more familiar. "Girl, serial number WY-9 TT-J CL-3 reporting for roll! SIR!"
The Softest had flinched at that. Her dark eyes were... sad? But CL-3 had been good. That was what she was supposed to do... wasn't it? "Do the other girls call you something shorter?"
CL-3 nodded. Everyone used the last element of their serial. "CL-3," she murmured.
"Okay. Right. Is it right with you if I call you 'Ciel'?"
There were no others who used the CL- serial. She nodded.
There had been a surface in this soft room that was harder than everything else. Rectangular sheets of white had laid on it and so had sticks of colour. The Softest - Mbali - took one of each, a sheet of white and a stick of blue and made shapes. "See," she said. "Eye... Ee... El. Ciel." She held up the shapes so CL-3 could see. "Does that look right?"
They made no sense to CL-3, but nodded anyway. Dared to reach out and touch them in the way the shapes had flowed from the stick. Curves like the soft people. Straight lines like the way things were meant to be. "Ciel," she whispered. Then retreated back into the cubby.
Mbali left the paper and the shapes just outside the little hole in the pink cube that was the only way in or out. "You can keep it if you want. It's right."
CL-3 almost took it. Then she remembered just in time that red was the 'no' colour. Doing things in the red cross pictures meant punishment. Were the soft people in red because they were bad?
Some little light dawned in those sad, dark eyes. "Is red a wrong colour?"
She had to nod. Of course it was. It was always wrong.
"Can you show me the right colour, please?" Mbali sort of... rolled out of the way, so CL-3 had an easy path to the colour sticks. "I want to learn what's right."
Oh. So they weren't bad. They were just stupid. All the same, CL-3 needed a lot of deep breaths to leave the cubby and pick up a stick of green. Then, on a new sheet, she drew the best tick she could possibly make. Big and thick with all the straightest lines her shaking hands could create. Then she announced, "I need the necessities."
"You can go," said Mbali. "I'll be learning. Thank you."
Ciel's green tick joined about a hundred others from a hundred other girls. "This is how they were shown right from wrong," said Counselor Mbali Ngo. "Of course they're afraid of us. We're in the wrong colour. We've marked ourselves as bad people before we walked in the door."
Counsellor Chen Hersch nodded. "We'll work on their fear of red, later. For now... solutions. I'm thinking we change our uniforms for in-house care to green. Let the botanical department know, of course. I think a tick motif would be overplaying it, but that's just me."
"No, it's me, too," said Counsellor Kira. "Green... fine. We could plausibly pick a green similar to this nauseatingly intense green they've all used and leave it at that."
"Practically glows in the dark," said Counsellor Mbali. "I don't mind being visibly good to these kids. As long as it gets them out of the hell inside their heads."
"From your lips to the Powers' ears," sighed Counsellor Chen.
It was never easy reforming young ladies who came from places like that. One day, they hoped and prayed, there would be an end to them. All of them would be grateful to be out of that particular line of work.
 Sidu - pronounced 'sid-oo', slang form of 'Standard Distance Unit', which is roughly a meter in length.
[Image (c) Can Stock Photo / Appstock]
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