“I really did hope I would not have to meet with you again Jax.”
Counselor Pierce is sitting hands folded on the desk with her back so rigid you can imagine a metal pole strapped behind her. She is facing me, but I feel as if she was looking through me at something just behind my head. Her eyes have always made me uncomfortable. They are pure black so that she looks as if she just has giant pupils. The effect is only amplified by the fact that her black hair is pulled back in a bun so tight that from the front it appears to be painted onto her head.
I shift about in the hard metal chair, scanning the room to avoid her intense stare. I wish there were something, anything, of interest to look at. It’s just like almost every other room on campus. Windowless and cold. It’s all steel and concrete. Sturdy, functional items that have lasted the years, lacking the smallest hint of personality.
“62 hours”, she finally continues. “That’s how long you average per week this quarter”
I say nothing.
“Do you know how this compares to the average?”
“Erm, less I’m sure.”
“26 hours less. Not really insignificant is it?”
She lets that hang there for what seems like hours.
“You take a full day off every single week in fact.”
“Yes. For recovery and mental health. I’ve been told before that this is encouraged.”
“Encouraged? A rest day is allowed, but I doubt anyone on our staff would have ever
said encouraged. If we encouraged it, why are you the only one taking them regularly?”
Her tone makes me want to scream. Like she is talking to a child unable to understand even the simplest of concepts. I might be slow, but I’m not a moron. I almost spit back that Dr Monroe was the one who told me, but then I realise that’s not really going to help my case. Why risk getting him in trouble?
“I need those days. They help me reset for the next week.”
“Well Jax, I am very happy with the explanation. I really would be, anyway, if it were not for the fact that you work shorter hours on every other day as well. If you have a reset day, while your classmates do not, then shouldn’t you be working harder and longer the rest of the week?”
“Look, I don’t know. I just get to the point where I can’t take anything more in. I really am trying.”
“You can’t take anything more in, yet you spend 15 hours a week in your dormitory reading.”
“That reading relaxes me. It’s not the same thing.”
“Of course not. It’s pointless rubbish.”
I feel as if I’ve been slapped in the face. “It’s not rubbish! They are classics!”
“Look if you want to spend your recreational time reading made-up stories, then fine. If it wasn’t for the fact that you are also in the VR room as often as everyone else,” she explains.
She is right. I’m normally the first to leave the study area for the night. I do the virtual holiday experiences where I can escape to the past as most other people here do. Afterwards, I retreat to my room to read. It’s a routine that keeps me sane. Sane enough at least.
“You should be able to work as hard as anyone else here. You know that your capacities are the same as theirs. Yet you seem to rebel.”
I catch myself almost rolling my eyes. I’ve heard it many times. I was tested when I first started as the facilitators were sure there was some sort of mix up. That for some reason the lab messed up my genetic makeup not allowing me the intellectual abilities of my peers. Yet, my code is all right, but I just can’t do what they can.
“I'm not trying to rebel.”
“Then please, explain it to me.”
I’ve thought about this long and hard. I give her the only explanation that I have ever come up with.
“Ok. Certain traits in our DNA are the same between all of us. But we also have these ‘diversity’ traits. Those random ones that don’t really matter that much in making us good scientists, right?”
“That’s true, for now, but what’s your point?”
For now? This gives me pause, but I have to finish my point.
“Well, what if something in my diversity code is holding me back from learning?”
“Everyone is diverse, but only you have any trouble.”
“Right, I mean, the code they’ve created is really strong and all but maybe the combination of the rest is really unique. There could be enough factors going on that make things harder for me. If the odds of it happening are, say, 1 in 10,000 then it makes sense that I'm the only one.” I’m leaning forward now, feeling confident in my explanation.
Her elbows are on the table and her fingertips are gently holding her head up. She is looking at the desk shaking her head slightly. Her defeated posture tells me she doesn’t buy it.
“Or maybe they make you rebellious. Defiant. Traits you could overcome if you were motivated to.”
“But I am moti-”
“This is unprecedented. What the outcome will be I don’t yet know. I suggest that you don’t make us find out.”
With that, her focus shifts and she starts interacting with the display on her desk like I’m not even there. I know it’s my cue to leave.
As I exit the door tears burn in my eyes. I just need to get away from that office. I take a sharp left toward the lifts and hit something solid.
“Hey are you alright?” a voice asks me.
I’m stunned silent. I can’t bring myself to look up to his face, but through the tears I see a blue hue, distinctive from our dishwater grey uniform. He’s from the military, either a student or graduate, it’s hard to say as they dress similarly. I guess that makes sense. No one from my campus would care enough to ask.
For some reason trying to speak makes me just cry harder. Am I alright? No, of course I’m not! My life was hard enough already, trying to keep up with the workload. Any more and I feel that I’ll just snap, but what choice do I have? I desperately want to trade places with this stranger in blue. I hear the military are like family. I need that. Besides, whatever they do to train has to be better than the pressure we are under to study.
He continues to talk in a kind soothing voice “Look I know this world feels hopeless sometimes. We are so lucky to be safe here in the Hub.”
At this, I cover my face with my hands and start to bawl. As hard as it’s been I always felt secure, but even that is gone now. Now here I am making a complete fool of myself! Feeling like I have nothing left to lose, I do something so odd and unexpected. I throw my arms around his neck and hug him fiercely. I inhale deeply and get the smell of that awful soap we all use but it’s mixed with something else which is not at all unpleasant. It only takes a moment for me to come to my senses. Horrified by my actions, I push away and run past him. I hear him say something after me but I can’t hear it over my heart beating in my ears.
I wake the next morning feeling exhausted. After my incident with the stranger, I did my best to study harder than ever. It was difficult. It was my first time touching someone else and I keep replaying the moment in my mind, trying to figure out how I feel about it. Mostly humiliated, but there is something else as well. I had to forcibly push it out of my mind. I told myself I would be the last one remaining in the study area if it killed me. I didn’t make it. I stopped taking in any information by 6. I continued on, faking it by scrolling through articles with a lecture playing. Everyone multitasks with multiple screens going so I pretend to as well but even when I’m fresh I can’t manage to take it in. By 8 I felt myself cracking, eagerly watching for the last ones to leave. By 9 I gave up. The remaining students looked like they could go on all night.
Is this going to be my new life? I couldn’t even do the one thing I love, reading stories, afterwards. What choice is there? Dr Pierce’s words have been ringing in my head all night. She said she doesn’t know the outcome if I don’t shape up. What options could there be?
We are made either to be scientists or for our military. I can’t hope to compete with the other scientists here who are far more advanced than me. They have never needed to test us as there’s never been a need, but if I start a placement it would be clear immediately. Obviously, I don’t have physical attributes to protect the Hub, nor any of the training, even though I’d love it if I could. There are other jobs in the Hub of course. Working with young children before they go to their designated campuses, preparing our daily meals, and cleaning tasks. These are all taken by the elderly, people born to actual parents. Someone will need to fill these roles eventually. However, they are treated poorly and work tirelessly for their allowance of water, food and space within the Hub.
I am thankful for a distraction from all that today. At 8 am I arrive to class. This is the only scheduled class available. Dr Monroe’s room, which serves as both his classroom and office, has more life in it than anywhere else on campus. Ornaments are haphazardly placed around his desk. The wall is covered with pictures, maps, pages from books and other assorted bits of paper. An antique globe proudly stands by the doorway. Best of all his bookshelf contains actual books of various sizes and colours, however, they all have clearly been well-loved and look as though they will fall apart at a touch. The room smells of wet clothes that have sat bunched up too long. It is my favourite place to be.
There are only six of us. His class is optional and most think of it as a waste of time. The only reason the class exists is that he was one of the founders of the school, and insisted on being allowed to teach it. I’m surprised Dr Pierce didn’t mention my enrollment in our meeting, but I suppose one hour a week isn’t even worth bringing up. Although science is our focus, he feels it’s important for us to have a well-rounded education and teaches us history, often on controversial topics.
Dr Monroe doesn’t quite look himself today. His eyes now look dull and his skin has a tinge of grey to it. I always thought his eyes had so much soul to them and I used to think it’s because he wasn’t born in a lab like the rest of us. I realised as I got older how silly that thinking was. His lecture, which will still be the highlight of my week, lacks any enthusiasm. Despite his age he’s normally practically bouncing off the walls, but today he just sits at his desk and talks.
Dr Monroe is talking about the extreme measures that could have been taken to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate disaster. Things such as cutting off all unessentials like travel or limiting the number of offspring people could produce.
“What do you think Jax?”
More often than not he calls on me for discussion. I asked him about it once. He said that I was the only one that gave thought to my responses instead of quoting something they memorised from the readings.
“Well, I mean, of course, they should have. If it would have prevented the collapse, who cares if the fat cats couldn’t go on their next big holiday?”
“So you think the government should have banned air travel?”
“Among other things, yes.”
“Ok so Germany bans air travel and the UK instates a one-child policy. The US is doing next to nothing as we know they were well behind at this stage. How do you think the residents of Germany and the UK would react?”
“Not well, I’m sure. Global changes were needed.”
“Ok, great. A world government is implemented to deal with this crisis. Are all countries considered equal?”
“I imagine they would have to be,”
“Done. So tribal communities with virtually no carbon footprint and no understanding of the issues going on can now only have one child per couple, even though that child is unlikely to make it to adulthood.”
“Well, perhaps not them,” I add sheepishly.
Our debate continues for the rest of the time left in the class. No one else chimes in. As class ends, I do my usual routine of hanging back. My in-class debates with Dr Monroe are my second favourite part of my week. The first is our after-class chats. It’s the only casual banter I get all week and I crave it even more than reading my books. I honestly don’t know how I could survive here without him.
As the others leave, I pretend to check my device. I always wait for him to initiate our chat. It’s a given at this point, but it feels rude of me to assume he has time for me. He is sitting leaned back in his chair with his feet on his desk. I envy that chair of his. It must be the only chair on campus, maybe even the Hub, that has any kind of padding. The wheels that would have once been on the base are long broken off and about 8 layers of duct tape plead with the relic to hang in there a little longer. Yet in a place that we sit for such long hours that bit of softness, I imagine, would make such a difference for my bony body.
“Still believe survival is the end all goal?” he says as the last student exits the room.
“Well yeah,” I reply. “We might be the only intelligent life in the universe. We’ve got to survive.”
“At any cost?”
“I get it. I know you believe in human’s rights and all, but what good are rights without humans? At least if we can survive we have a chance to return to being free.”
He smiles. I know we don’t quite see eye to eye but he appreciates the debate.
“What’s going on with you Jax?”
“You’re active on the council right?” I ask.
“Active is a vague term. I go to their meetings. But yes, to answer your next question, I know about your predicament. I was the one that urged for more time.”
“Really? Oh. Thank you.”
“I would not plan on getting too comfortable.”
His sudden change in demeanour gives me pause. This isn’t going to be one of our normal chats.
“I’m not.” I say, “I have a plan. I’m going to work a lot more hours than before.”
“I don’t think that’s going to help much. There are going to be changes soon.”
“Leadership in the council shifted recently. They think we’ve been running this place with a far too easy going attitude.”
“Easy going? Here?”
“Do you remember in one of my lectures when I talked about when fossil fuels were running low? I said they needed to use the remainder on creating renewable sources. Instead, they just kept burning through them all.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Think of your time here in that way. You need to use your resources to figure out things while you still can. Make a plan for a life outside the Hub.”
“Outside?” I ask. “But, there is nothing outside.”
“Listen to me. For you, and for me, there is not going to be anything inside either.”
“For you?! You can’t be serious. You’re a founder!”
“And by new standards a useless old man. Just a drain on the dwindling resources. Don’t worry about me, I have my own plan. Worry about yours.”
I pause, trying to take it all in. Finally, I ask “where would I even start?”
“I think you need to find out more about yourself Jax. You know you don’t belong here. I think you need to know why.”
“But how would I-”
“The birthing centre. Find Gina, a nurse there. She’s a friend of mine. She may be convinced to talk to you.”
Chat with CPierce
Subject: Birthing Centre visit
I would like to request a visit to the birthing centre to learn more about the possible placements there.
You have previously stated that your interest was in agriculture, particularly Antarctic food production.
I have a newfound interest in genetics. I believe this may be what I need to be properly motivated in my studies. Finding the right specialisation for me.
Report to Dr Ryan in the genetics lab on Thursday at 1 pm.
I stick to my plan to increase my study hours while I wait for my appointment. I even switched over to looking at genetics material to make the story I told Pierce more believable. I am surprised to admit that I quite enjoyed it. I’m not sure if it was the topic itself or the fact that I could start over with the basics. It is a refreshing change of pace after years of overly technical content. I’m honestly shocked that Pierce didn’t argue against it. They told us when we picked our specialisation to be sure because there is no switching once you start.
I had visited the birthing centre previously. At the age of twelve, we had to pick our specialization to study. Before deciding we got to visit all the usual job sites that we could end up. I loved that week. Not only did we get out of campus for once, but it was also a week off of studying. After the visit, I had immediately crossed off this option. I found the development labs creepy. Vats of babies growing in pods until they mature at twenty-two months. While not my genre of choice, I have read my share of sci-fi and it feels like a scene right off their pages.
I head to the centre through the narrow dimly lit underground tunnels. The tunnels aren’t generally used that much as everyone mostly sticks to one building. Light and oxygen are set to the bare minimum to conserve resources. My head feels fuzzy and I walk. I try to ease my breath, a difficult task considering my anxiety about the situation I am heading into. Will I really find some answers at last?
I emerge from underground into a lobby. The centre was once a hospital. The building is much older than our campus and it shows. Although kept clean the walls, once white, are a dingy yellow and cracks appear over every surface. I find my visitor pass in an old envelope sitting on an unmanned reception desk. It’s just a plain card with a scannable strip on it. From the looks of it, it has been used about a million times before.
Instead of following the signs to the genetics lab, where I would be expected to go on this visit, I wander the halls. I’m on the hunt for some kind of nurses’ station where I can find this Gina lady. The corridors feel like a maze of unused rooms. Just when I think that I am in a deserted section of the hospital I see a set of solid double doors. Whatever sign was once above them has long since faded. The room doesn’t appear unused. Through the little windows on the doors I can see flashes of light. There is even a chair against the wall outside with a half-empty water bottle sitting next to it.
It’s the most promising looking room I’ve found so far so I figure I should attempt to get in. I am met with complete resistance as I give the door a solid push. I consider the small green strip of light glowing on the wall beside them. Last time I was here I can remember the scientist putting something up to a similar strip to open a door. I take out my visitor pass and give it a go, not really expecting a result. A happy chime greets me and a loud click at the doors signals they are unlocked. I give them a push again and this time they swing open.
I enter a small lab, as plain as the ones I am used to on campus. A soft hum of equipment running fills the room but no one is around. I snoop around a bit, finding nothing that interests me until I find the only display that’s currently activated on the far side of the room. It has a 3D model of two bodies. One is dark skinned and strong. The other is pale and very small, almost like a child. I fiddle with the display and find plenty of information on both of their genetic makeup. A lot of it is far too technical for me but I get bits here and there of code sequences I’ve learned over the last few days. They denote abilities that we alter the genetic code for. The small one is obviously built for learning, and the larger seems to be more about physical attributes, probably for the military path. It seems to me that the entire genetic code is figured out for these two, not only the key abilities. I’m curious why they would put so much work into these two individuals.
I figure I shouldn’t hang around too long as I have more important things to do. I exit the lab through the double doors. The chair that was just empty is now occupied with someone in their military outfit. She’s young, maybe 18, and has a hard look about her with hair shaved right to the scalp. When she looks up her eyes go wide and she jumps out of her seat.
“Who are you?” she barks.
“I’m a visitor from the campus,” I say “I was looking for Dr Ryan and got all mixed up.”
“Dr Ryan? He’s in the main genetics lab. What were you doing in there?” she points to the doors forcefully.
“Like I said, I wasn't sure where to go. I was just seeing if I could find someone. It’s like a ghost town around here.”
“But how did you get inside?”
I pull out my visitor pass and show it to her.
“That… doesn’t make any sense. You should only be allowed to get into the main areas with that.”
I give a small shrug as if to say, beats me. Because it does.
“You’re going to have to come with me.” She says firmly with her hand closing tightly around my bicep. She’s strong and my twig of an arm feels like I might snap under the pressure. It’s very different than the last, and only other, interaction I’ve had with someone from the military. She’s leading me back down the hallway the way I came. Trying to be quick on my feet I suddenly say.
“Oh, are we going to your superiors?”
She only gives a grunt in reply.
“Ok,” I say, “they’ll be interested to hear about how I was able to walk right in.”
She looks at me sharply.
“It’s your only job to watch that one door right? And you let a child walk right in. Where were you anyway?”
I’m hoping I’m reading the situation right. She’s young and has a crap job and therefore needs to prove herself to advance. She wouldn’t want to give those in charge more reason to doubt her.
Her resolve falters. “What did you do in there anyway?”
“In the lab? Nothing, what was there to do? All the displays were off or locked.” I lie.
“And you are one of the science kids right?”
“Yup. I’m quite behind. I was in the hospital for a while and missed all the tours with my group so I have to do it all on my own” I say. The lies are coming out so easily. I’m hoping by saying this she’ll think I’m 12 or 13 tops, and absolutely nothing to worry about. Not that I am anything to worry about, but I might as well use my small size to my advantage.
“Well, since your just a kid I probably shouldn’t waste their time.”
“If that’s what you think,” I say.
I’m still shaking slightly after leaving the guard. This must be adrenaline, something I’ve read about but never experienced. I’m surprised at myself being able to think on my feet like that.
I feel confident, almost cocky, after my encounter but I’m trying to remain logical. Even though I want to find Gina, I know taking a second unauthorised detour is risky. If it does get out that I was in the secret but boring lab then it would be even more suspicious if I kept wandering about. I decide to go see Dr Ryan and perhaps I can find Gina on my way out.
Dr Ryan is tall with strong features, dark hair and blue eyes you could notice across a room. I think about how my books talk about men and realise how appealing he would have been considered. However, what he exudes in attractiveness, he completely lacks in charm. The man is as dull as the blank walls around him and has zero interest in talking to me.
After a short monotone spiel about what they do at the lab and a quick look at how they alter the code, he tries to hand me off to a nurse to show me the development labs where the babies are grown. Not interested in that I start throwing him some questions about the display of genetic code in front of us.
“Do they ever change those grey areas of the code?”
He’s completely thrown. Obviously, he doesn’t normally need to answer any questions from someone as insignificant as me and seems perplexed.
“Well no, that's why they are greyed out. We change the green highlighted areas. I did just explain that.”
“Yes, and thanks again for that, but I’m wondering if there are exceptions. Wouldn’t there be benefits changing other attributes as well?”
“What kind of benefits?”
I think of the 3D image of the tiny body in the lab and it occurs to me. “To consume less. Food is so scarce and those of us at the science campus don’t need to be big and strong. They could make us all be super short, no more than 50kg. Could cut back on calories needed per person hugely.” Next, I think of the large model. “Or skin tone. You could make darker skin tones for people that would need to spend time in the harsh sun. Like the military members.”
He’s considering this. “I suppose. We don’t do that though. It’s against our protocol.” I can see him motioning toward the door, trying again to get rid of me.
“Just one more thing and then I promise to be out of your hair.”
He sighs and gives a tiny reluctant nod.
“Is there any way someone from the science campus, with those modifications, could perform far below everyone else?”
Nurse Brenda is walking me down the hall towards the incubators. Like the other nurses, she is an older woman that looks overtired and malnourished.
“Do you know Gina?” I ask.
“Gina? Yes, sure I do. How would you know Gina?”
“I’m a friend of Dr Monroe. He suggested I have a quick chat with her.”
She seems completely perplexed by this and gives her head a quick shake trying to make sense of it. The scientists don’t really have chats, particularly with someone in Gina’s position.
“She’s in the nursery, with the little ones.”
“Can we go there instead?” I ask.
“Well, I can’t see why not...”
The nursery is a much more lively place than the rest of the building. Children aged up to 4 years live here until they are separated into the introductory programs for their designated schools. Half are playing puzzle games quietly by themselves with displays set on the floor. This would be my group. The other half are playing in groups. The lucky military brats. They are having a blast. I see one group has a large display on the floor where they jump between platforms trying to stay out of the lava. I get a flash of memory. I think I remember being here. I wasn’t doing a puzzle, but I was jumping around laughing with the others.
My thoughts are broken when Nurse Brenda introduces me to Gina.
“This is the student getting more information about working in genetics,” she tells her.
Gina is even older then Brenda, almost as old as Dr Monroe I’d say. She looks extremely confused, yet very kind.
“Oh you must love children I bet, but you know there wouldn’t be any position for you in the nursery, right? You’d be very welcome to visit if you worked in the building though! I mean, none of the scientists have but I can’t imagine that it would be an issue.” Gina says cheerily.
She is beaming at me like we’re old friends. I immediately have very warm feelings towards this woman. She looks very familiar to me. Maybe from when I was here as a little one.
Nurse Brenda has already wandered off, leaving us to talk.
“Thank you, but I really just wanted to have a word with you,” I say.
“With me dear? Whatever could you need to talk to me about?”
“Dr Monroe said I should. That you might know something that could help me.”
“Terry said that?” She seems almost frightened. She calls out to another nurse in the room that she’ll be back shortly, and leads me into a small storage space.
“JX..?” She asks.
“I go by Jax.”
She swallows hard and shuffles her feet uncomfortably.
“Do you remember me?” I ask
“Oh yes,” she replies. “You are hard to forget.”
“Because I was different, even then?”
She looks at me with sadness in her eyes.
“Oh, Jax. We did what we thought was best at the time. I’m sure it’s been hard for you. I’m so sorry.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I mean I’m sure you know by now you aren’t one of them. I mean, how could you not.”
I’m standing there speechless.
“We thought you’d be ok with Terry’s help. He doesn’t know the whole story but I trust him so when I asked him to look out for you, well with his high standing and all, I figured it would be the safest place for you. Has he looked out for you?” She asks.
“Well, I mean, yes, but things seem to be changing. He seems to think there is no longer a place for either him or me.”
“Seriously? He said that?”
I take a deep breath and prepare myself. “Please, I need to know as much as possible. Tell me my story.”
Chat with TMonroe
Need a meeting to discuss that special project you assigned me. About the fossil fuels.
After next class.
Sorry, no. I urgently need clarification.
My office, 7 pm.
“Why wouldn’t you tell me sooner?!” I yell after barging into Dr Monroe’s office. Since my visit this afternoon I have done nothing but sit and stew on the information. As soon as I open his door, I feel like a dam has busted.
“For Pete’s sake, sit down and lower your voice.”
Doing as he asks I say with forced calmness “Why didn’t you send me there sooner?”
“I was working with limited information. I was told to look out for you. I had done that. I did my best to keep you here. It was working. Then when it seemed no longer an option I knew you needed to know the whole truth. Now, will you please fill me in because now I’m the one in the dark.”
“Yeah? The same way I’ve been in the dark my whole life. Not great is it?”
The look he gives me says it all. That I’m being a child and he’s not going to engage with me in this state. I try and put my bitterness aside and continue.
“I’m not one of them. Not at all. I’m like you and Gina. I was born to a woman. My mother I guess.”
“I didn’t think it possible, but it makes sense. And your mother was…?”
“She was natural born as well. Living in some kind of community outside of the Hub.”
“You know it?” I ask.
“I knew there was one at some time. The military would keep an eye on them. They were geographically in the best place, but without the technology growing adequate food and getting enough drinkable water is nearly impossible. They were having a really hard time of it. That would be around the time you were young.”
“Yeah. That’s why my mother approached her great Aunt Gina. They waited until I was the right age. Around a year old since humans give birth so prematurely. Then they slipped me into the birthing lot when they came out of the vats.”
“There is a set number each year. How could they add another child?”
“She wouldn’t talk about that,” I say remembering how she outright refused to get into it.
He swallows hard. “The testing they did on you?”
“Gina made sure she took the samples. Swapped out the samples with a child from the nursery.”
“She hasn’t heard from your mother since?”
Every time that word is said I get an odd sensation in my stomach. Mother. I have a mother. I have no idea how to feel about that.
“Not for 10 years at least. Gina kept her updated while I was in the nursery. After I left they stopped communicating. So what does the military say about the community now?”
“They stopped monitoring them when they were doing so poorly. Realised they weren’t a threat and used their resources elsewhere.”
“Do you think they made it?” I ask.
“It’s hard to know. I’d say it’s not particularly likely, but I hope so.”
“You’re going there aren’t you?”
“I figured as much.”
Chat with CPierce
You will report to my office at 10am today for a meeting.
May I ask what this is regarding?
CPierce has ended the chat
The last few days I’ve been waiting for Dr Monroe to tell me it’s time. He’s working on getting us supplies, most importantly, some kind of vehicle which we, of course, need to make the journey. In the meantime, I still pretend to study, but instead of agriculture, I’ve been looking at genetics, mainly how the different hubs handle creating their workers. I’m surprised when interrupted by a message from Dr Pierce requesting to see me. I’ve never had to see her twice in such a short period. I’m feeling brave regardless, knowing that I don’t have to put up with her much longer.
Not one to waste time, she gets right into it.
“Interesting study you’ve been doing lately.”
“Well, I’ve become passionate about genetics and I think that it is the field I should be working towards.”
“Passionate? You think we live in a world where passion matters? Those books have you stuck in the past. You are 15. Those of your birthing lot will soon be joining the workforce. Do you really think you can start over now?” Her tone is condescending.
“So why let me go for a visit?” I snap back.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter at this stage. I was working out what to do with you so what you did in the meantime wasn’t my concern.”
“What are you doing with me then?”
“I contacted many places within the Hub to see if anyone would want to give up resources for you. One of the outer farms in the east had considered taking you as a lab tech but the fact that you wouldn’t be able to help with any manual labour dissuaded them.”
“I’m only weak now because I get no opportunity to exercise. I could grow stronger.”
“Wasn’t worth it to them, I’m sorry to say.” She’s obviously not one bit sorry.
“What then?” I ask.
“Since you are so interested in the birthing centre you can go there, at least temporarily. There will be a particularly large number of infants reaching maturity in coming years so they’ll need extra hands. It’ll keep you busy for a few years.”
“What happens after a few years?”
She laughs. “You should be very thankful for this opportunity. Worry about the next bit later.”
“Why are you bringing in more young? With the resource shortages that seems a bad idea.”
“I don’t really see how that’s any of your concern!”
“I mean, if I’m going to be working there it kind of is,” I say.
“Look, we obviously need to make changes. We can’t get ahead as we are. The more we advance the more difficult the obstacles get. We won’t survive the way we’re going.”
Suddenly it all clicks.
“So you are going to make the population more efficient. Get rid of diversity. More minds and bodies working on the same amount of resources as before. Could be enough to put us ahead.”
“How could you possibly-”
“Well, it just makes sense, doesn’t it? Russia is really aggressive with how they make their hub members. They alter most of the code. Maine hardly touches it. One is thriving and the other is almost gone.”
“You’re more clever than I thought,” she says, “You shouldn’t know this. We weren’t ready to reveal this to the Hub yet.”
“Yeah, well, who am I going to tell.”
She doesn’t seem to be listening. Instead, she is typing something on her device. Finally, she looks back up and says “No, that’s not my worry. It’s how chummy you seem to be with Dr Monroe. He’s known for creating issues and trying to hold back our advancements.”
“So what? I don’t have an issue with what you’re doing. It makes sense to me. We make the advancements we need to survive and then we can always go back.”
“Even so. We are suspicious of Dr Monroe’s current actions and we don’t want you tipping him off before we’ve dealt with him.”
“So what are you going to do with me?”
As if on cue, two people in military uniforms enter and I realise just what she was doing on her device moments ago.
“Well, for now, we’re going to isolate you so you can’t talk to him.”
“Then I can go work at the birthing centre?” I ask.
“I can’t see why not.”
They take me to a room in the military camp, not much unlike my dorm room. It’s a tiny square just big enough for a bed, yet this one feels like a cell. Without my device, it’s completely different. It feels like punishment as they could have just cut me off from the network so that I couldn’t communicate. Yet they don’t even allow me access to my books, so I’m stuck with my thoughts.
I was so concerned about myself, I hardly took in what she was saying about Dr Monroe. I feel awful for him, but can’t help but feel relieved. I have the security of the Hub back. The job in the birthing centre will be awful for sure, but at least I have a place. I just have to get through my stint of isolation here. Isolation I’m plenty used to.
The guards are nice enough. They bring me bread, water, and escort me to the toilets. They tell me I’m not a prisoner but that seems disingenuous. They’ve taken to walking with me around the hallways so that I can stretch my legs. I guess that seems important to them, but my kind are used to sitting all day. I welcome the break from my cell. I try and get any information out of them but they always change to a lighter subject. They obviously know more about small talk then we do.
I get a late visit one day. I have no idea what time it is but the cell light goes out at 9 and I feel I’ve been asleep for a while. When the door opens I’m shocked by the dim hallway lights that seem blinding in comparison to the pitch black I was just in. I see a dark figure in the doorway. He looks smaller than most of the male guards.
“Hiya Jax,” he says cheerfully. The guards are friendly enough, but he’s being all too familiar. As my eyes adjust I can see he’s quite young, not much older than myself. He’s got kind eyes and his genuine smile shows in them.
“What’s going on?” I ask groggily.
“What do you say you and I get the hell out of here?”
“What? They’re letting me out?”
“Nah, not the cell. The Hub.”
I stay sitting on my bed with my mouth slightly ajar. I must still be dreaming.
“You planned to with Terry right?”
“Dr Monroe? I’m going with him?”
“‘Fraid not,” he tells me. “They’ve already discharged him earlier today. Luckily he made a backup plan. Can’t get nothing by him, can they?” He adds with a chuckle like it’s an inside joke between us. “Hopefully, he managed to last the day out there. We’ve got a meetup point.”
“So we’re leaving for the community? The three of us?”
“I very much hope so. Otherwise the two of us. Just me if you’d rather hang here.” he adds scanning the room with a look like he picked up a bad smell.
“Why would you want to go?” I ask suspiciously. I always thought of the military camp as having the good life, at least by my standards.
“Look, I’d love to stand around and chat the night away with you but time isn’t exactly on our side. I’ll tell you my story in route. We going or what?”
He says this so sweetly. Suddenly I realise where I know him. I didn’t see his face at the time but I’m sure of it. I feel embarrassed again and hope he doesn’t realise. With that, it’s decided. Screw the Hub and their crap job. Maybe I have a chance at something much better.
We exit the military camp without coming across anyone except for two. At first, I think they are practising some kind of wrestling hold. Then it occurs to me they are in a romantic embrace. I blush hard having never seen a display of affection like this. It doesn’t seem to even register with my companion.
When we enter the underground tunnels that connect the Hub and it seems like a good time to talk, but I can’t seem to manage it. I need all of my breath to keep up with him. He’s hurrying through with ease. I’ve lost all sense of direction so when we emerge I have no clue whereabouts in the Hub we are. It seems like a deserted building. It’s pitch black so the boy uses his display to create at least a dim light. He takes my hand at this point. I feel a flutter in my belly at the sensation.
We make our way to some sort of underground garage. He leads me to a rugged looking vehicle that looks like something between a car and a tank. He helps me in and I notice all the knobs, pedals, and a wheel. This is an actual vehicle that needs manual control, like in the old days. He couldn’t possibly be able to control something this complex. Then he proves me wrong as he expertly handles the machine like it’s just an extension of himself.
Leaving the garage, it all seems surprisingly easy. We travel along a crumpled road past the long-abandoned buildings of the city. The only time I ever moved this quickly before was in a simulation. The fact that my body is moving along with the visual input is disorientating and I feel a bit queasy.
“Will they try and stop us?” I say once I finally feel confident enough.
“We’ll pass by the military outpost where my brothers are on shift. They know to look the other way.”
“Yeah, you know, some of the boys from the group I grew up with,” he states it like it’s obvious. Like surely I must think of the others born in the same vat as family.
“I thought you guys were all about loyalty to the Hub?”
“Sure, they drill that into us from the start. But all those years of living together, eating together, training together, it tops whatever they could teach us.”
I feel a pang of jealousy. Why on Earth would he leave all that? Before I can ask my queasiness turns to nausea and I feel it best to keep my mouth closed.
As we leave the city we head down to what must have been a highway. I feel a bit better now that we are on a straighter path. We are passing barren brown hillsides and deserted farmlands. I’ve never seen it in person. I think of the way these places would have been described in the books I read. How they were long ago. Green and fertile. Now everything looks as if touching it will make it turn to dust.
The boy, who finally introduced himself as CJ, steers the conversation with as much ease as the vehicle. He asks me about my past with great interest shocked by the fact that I never shared a dorm room or that I’ve never really spoken to my classmates. He tells me stories about what they got up to at his school, which he only left about a year ago. When I tell him about my love of books he asks me all kinds of questions about what I like about them. We even get into a lively debate about what period in history we’d prefer to have lived. I chose the late 1800s before any real destruction begun and ‘visiting’ was a day long activity. For him, it was the early 2000s when there was loads of tech available and life was easy but things weren’t falling apart yet.
I want to ask so many things. About his connection to Dr Monroe and his motivations for going on this journey. I wonder if he’s like me and doesn’t belong. He’s obviously fit from the training but his smaller frame might suggest he wasn’t made for it. However, I’m a passenger in this conversation and I’m enjoying the ride too much to risk setting it off course.
An hour or two must have passed when he pulls over in what seems like it was once a small town.
“Come with me,” he says, leaving the car and grabbing a backpack.
I follow him eagerly. “Is this where we meet with Dr Monroe?”
“Well…” he says cautiously as we stand outside an old storefront that is in less shambles than the rest. “Look, Jax. I really am sorry. This is where I leave you.”
“What do you mean, leave me?”
“Pierce’s orders. She felt you were a threat to the Hub.”
“Pierce?” I ask, trying to make any sense of the current shift “A threat?! No. No, you’re mistaken. She said I could work at the birthing centre. Help with the new members.”
“Yeah, well, that was the plan for a minute. She thought you were harmless but got a bit concerned when you figured out about the changes at the birthing centre. Then when she learned you were in on a plan to take resources and leave with Dr Monroe she thought he might have gotten ideas into your head that could cause issues in the future.”
“This doesn’t make any sense. How could she know?”
“Does that really matter now?” he asks.
“So where is Dr Monroe then?”
“I dropped him off here a few days ago. You might find him if he hung around.” He thrusts the bag into my arms. “You’ve got some supplies in here. They won’t last too long. This building here is a decent base for your shelter but you’ll have to find a source of water and food. Please, don’t try to come back north. That’s just asking for problems. Good luck.” he says just as cheerily as if he had not just given me a death sentence.
With that, he turns and walks back to the car, without a glance back. I stand there, mouth open. I can’t believe what is happening. Then I realise my stupidity. I first encountered him outside of Pierce’s office. Of course, he works for her, why else would he be there? I felt such a kinship with him, but I was just a task he had to do for his job. For some reason, that realisation is hurting me more than the bleakness of my situation out here in the middle of nowhere.
I sink to the ground with my face in my hands sobbing as I think of all that I lost. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. Then I remember Dr Monroe’s words and not wasting limited resources. I’ll have to use what I have to get south, all on my own. I have to at least try and find the community. That hope is all I have left.
6 months later
As I raise the bowl to my lips, I notice a ripple of movement under the skin of my arm. I chuckle to myself. I actually have some semblance of muscle now.
“But what happened after the boy dropped you off?” she asks impatiently as her tiny hands peel beans with an efficiency that no longer surprises me.
“That’s the boring part.” I say “I came here. It’s all a blur. Three days, maybe five. I just walked south in a daze. I can remember my skinny legs feeling like they’d break under me. My feet were bleeding in shoes never meant for the outdoors. Then I came across Greg. The rest you know.”
She knows the whole story but loves hearing it over and over. She’s clung to me from the moment I got here. I have come to think of her like a little sister.
“Yeah but what about that Doctor guy?”
“Couldn’t find him.”
I always lie when this comes up. Dr Monroe was in that building. Weak and out of resources. CJ lied. They discharged Dr Monroe earlier then they had said. They had given us very little. A bottle of grade B water, the stuff we used to wash ourselves with in the Hub, and some expired MREs. He had finished his in three days.
I would love to have told you that Dr Monroe was brave to the very end and told me to go, but he didn’t. He was scared. I could have stayed with him and shared my morsels. We could have spent his last days talking and giving comfort to each other. I can’t say it wasn’t tempting. Where would that get me anyway?
I had so little resources that I needed to use every bit getting somewhere better. I couldn’t waste any time. At least he didn’t fight me or tell me to stay. I heard a sob from him when I walked out and it nearly broke me, but I kept going. The journey was the hardest thing I ever had to do.
“Do you miss it at all?” she asks.
“The Hub? There are things that were nice to have-”
“Virtual holidays?!” She’s obsessed with the idea.
“Sure. Those were great. So was my device loaded with books. Air conditioning and always knowing just where my next meal would come from was nice too. Look, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s harder here in a lot of ways.”
“I wish I could go. Just for a little bit.”
“Trust me peanut,” I tell her, “The Hub, all the hubs really, they might be the best chance of survival, but they just are not for you or me.”
She takes a break from her work and considers this. She comes over to me, puts her head on my shoulder and mutters, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m glad you’re here.”
I rest my head on top of hers. “Me too.”