“Please, I beg of you, find mercy and allow my wife and daughter passage to your new society.”
I’d never seen my father cry before. His eyes were red and cheeks tear-stained.
“I can’t do it,” the man holding a clipboard said. He was the intake coordinator, the one accountable for who goes to the new government cities. Everyone else would likely die.
Starvation is the most likely factor, but it wasn’t the only way to go. There was exposure during the cold nights, disease was rampant, not to mention the predators lurking in the night and not the wild animal variety. The world had become a sick and perverted place.
“How old is the girl?” I heard the intake coordinator ask, glancing me over.
I held my breath and stood tall, afraid my fear might give the truth away. Besides, if I looked and acted confident, wasn’t that enough to fool the man with the clipboard?
“Eighteen,” my father lied. A law broken was punishable by death in Cabal.
I bit down on my tongue. It wasn’t his lie to have. It was mine and if anyone was going to risk their life, it was me. “I’m eighteen,” I said, answering for myself as I kept his secret. I was fifteen months shy of eighteen. I held the man’s stare, refusing to blink or so much as glance away. Two deaths today if we’re caught, possibly three. My mother doesn’t have to say anything, but just being part of our family could be enough to get her killed. The good news is I’m tall for my age and everyone already thinks I’m old enough to be an adult.
From what my father had told me before we’d arrived, they weren’t taking anyone under eighteen. Who knew if there would be a second opportunity in two years or ten years’ time? We traveled for weeks on foot to make the checkpoint. I would do whatever it took to enter the facility legally.
“How was she conceived?” the intake coordinator asked my father.
“The Three Parent Project.” This time he didn’t lie. There was no need. A natural birth hadn’t happened in several decades. Only the government had access to the resources for fertility and childbearing.
Children were precious in our world. I was one of the first successful children born by the Three Parent Project, IVF therapy which involved swapping part of one female DNA with another. As part of the project, two mothers were used, giving the best chance for natural fertilization. Everything about the Three Parent Project worked except to cure future infertility. As a test subject, my parents and I were assured passage into Genesis when the beginning of our new civilization was formed. The only problem, new people came into power. The cities’ resources were limited and the population was still much too big. Ironic, because in a hundred years we would nearly cease to exist.
The government had the technology to ensure new children were born, but dishing it out was like winning the lottery. I didn’t get the winning numbers, but here I was, begging my way to get inside the city. Funny, since I was considered elite because of my perfect genetics. It wasn’t my dark raven hair or pale blue eyes that made me special, I wouldn’t get cancer or an auto-immune disease. “She was one of the first successful births using three donors. A real fighter, strong and obedient too,” my father said. I could tell he was hoping they’d accept me into their new society. The Three Parent Project was destroyed just after I was born, or so I’d heard. The research didn’t get destroyed but the threat and fact of no survivors made the project vanish.
“The Three Parent Project? I will need proof. Show me your wrist.” The intake coordinator ran a wand above my arm, glancing down as it beeped and showed him my identification. He keyed in the number on his computer screen and it slowly filtered through the database of citizens.
I swallowed nervously. Did it show him my date of birth? Would he realize I wasn’t eighteen? Sweat trickled down my cheek and I hoped the man wouldn’t notice.
After what felt like several minutes, the computer screen flashed and spit out my information. I couldn’t see what it said other than my name.
He cleared his throat, glanced me over before giving a brief nod.
“We’ll accept her.” The intake coordinator glanced at the screen for a split second and hit the escape key.
I exhaled heavily, relieved that I hadn’t been caught for lying and even more so that I was being accepted into this utopian dream that the government had set up.
He added my name to his list and I barely had time to say goodbye before I was tossed into a line and pushed forward like cattle. I glanced back over my shoulder and offered the brightest smile I could muster. My parents were doing this for me. They were trying to offer me the best life I could have. I wanted to be grateful, excited, even thrilled for the prospect of such opportunities, but instead I was saddened by the loss. I would forever miss them. There were no visiting days or hours spent sharing stories about the time spent apart. I would likely never see them again.
“Move it,” a girl behind me said, poking me in the back.
A loud voice echoed through the loudspeaker. “Keep the line moving!”
Embarrassed, I hung my head and walked farther into the tent for a brief medical examination and vaccine. Wasn’t that what caused this infertility in our world in the first place, a vaccine?
“What is that for?” I asked the nurse rubbing a cotton swab across my arm before injecting me with a translucent red serum. It burned on its way inside my veins and forced my head to pound along with my heart. Was that a normal reaction?
The room swayed and I took several deep breaths, trying to steady my racing heart.
The nurse wiped the drop of blood away and tossed the syringe into a metal pail. “It’s the perfect cocktail to keep you healthy and immune from disease. We can’t risk infection in such a small town.”
“I’ve already been vaccinated against the Red Plague.” Everyone by now had either been vaccinated or dead. Natural immunity didn’t seem to exist for anyone.
“Move along,” the nurse said and pointed for me to follow through the tent. “Hurry up and get changed. You’re the last batch to come through. Don’t miss the bus.”
Confused by her words, but slightly afraid of getting left behind, I grabbed the gray cotton pants and shirt and took it into a nearby stall. The stall barely covered my body. I was taller than most girls and I ducked slightly to ensure my body was hidden, not that I saw anyone else.
“Do you have any other clothes?” I asked the gentleman standing beside the bins. The pants and top were much too big, even for my height. I’m small in size but these must have been an adult male’s set of clothes.
“You should have been here earlier,” he said. “That’s the last outfit we have.”
“Great,” I muttered beneath my breath. I stepped out in the baggy attire, feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable while he wore a guard’s uniform that fit. It hardly seemed fair.
“Shoes are by the door. Small and large are all that’s left.”
“Wonderful.” I slipped on the large pair, my feet weren’t dainty. Thankfully they fit, at least better than the gray outfit. Squinting from the sunlight, I stepped outside and walked toward the giant yellow bus. The paint was faded but I knew it had been used at a time when kids had gone to public school. I’d read and seen ancient pictures of a society that I had never known.
A guard stood with a clipboard in his hands. “Name?” His voice was sharp, his dialect stiff.
“Cora Manning.” My voice caught in my throat, nervous.
“You’re not on the list,” he said. “How did you get through the security check point?”
I stood tall, refusing to waiver. I was not about to get kicked out. Not when I was so close to making it to the new town. “Check again,” I said. “Cora Manning.”
“I’ve checked twice. No one by the name of Cora is on my list.”
“Wait! Wait!” I spun around on my heels and saw the gentleman from outside, the intake coordinator that had let me through. I’m not sure what convinced him to bring me along. Had they thought I could be an asset because of how I was conceived?
“She’s on my list. Last minute update. Cora Manning.” Rushing over, he handed the list to the man standing in front of the bus, the one in charge.
“What kind of last minute update?” the guard asked, glancing from the intake coordinator to me. “What’s so special about her?”
“It’s above your paygrade.” The intake coordinator avoided answering the question and I felt a sense of relief in knowing that my secret would be safe, for now.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” the guard asked. I held my breath, nervous. “Get on the bus!”
So much for pleasantries.
I have no belongings, only the clothes on my back and they’re not even mine anymore. Everything else was left behind. Climbing the stairs all eyes were on me. I walked row by row, looking for an empty seat. Everyone was strangely quiet. As I examined the group I realized no one older than twenty-five and no one younger than eighteen sat on the bus. It was strange to see no older folks. Did they know something I didn’t? They seemed afraid. I didn’t quite understand what was going on.
In the very last row, there was an empty seat beside the same girl who was behind me in line. How did she get around me? “Is this seat taken?”
“Yes,” she said and scooted over, making sure I knew there wasn’t room for me.
So much for asking nicely. It’s the only seat on the bus and the guard waited for me to sit down. “Move over,” I said, making sure I wasn’t asking nicely. What good was being nice? The world was a tough place. I needed to demand respect.
Four guards and two additional personnel members board the bus. They were the oldest of the group, making me all the more curious what they were doing here. Were they the leaders?
There was no announcement as we lurched forward and the bus drove along the dirt paths and overgrown roads.
I didn’t know exactly where we were going, Genesis was the name of the town but the government had kept the city’s location protected. My parents risked everything to get me on this bus. I couldn’t disappoint them.
We drove into the night. I forced myself to stay awake, wanting to be alert when we arrived.
Up ahead, in the distance, there were bright lights. Is that where we were going? We continued at full speed, bumping along the dirt road that had become pot-holed with time.
Sitting in the back row, I couldn’t see. Curious, I stood wanting to know what lay ahead.
We approached swiftly and metal gates rolled open as we drove inside. Were they trying to keep the rest of the world out or lock us inside? The town was fenced with barbed wire. This wasn’t supposed to be a prison camp. There were two of those that I knew of. One out west and the other along the east coast near the sea. We hadn’t driven long enough to be near either.
“You in the back!” a guard shouted, and I slammed my butt back onto the seat. Maybe they didn’t see who it was? It was dark after all.
The bus slowed once inside the gate and the interior lights flickered on. “You will follow Officer Locke as he escorts each of you to your new living quarters. Tomorrow morning at eight o’clock you will be expected to meet outside for a town hall meeting. Any questions you have will be answered at that time. Understood?”
There were a few people that nodded their heads and others seemed to murmur in acceptance. I couldn’t seem to respond either way. Yes, I understood, but no, I wasn’t sure I could wait until morning. Did I have a choice? I doubted I’d find much sleep tonight.
I waited until the other passengers cleared off the bus before I exited with my friendly seat neighbor beside me.
“Today, would you!” She jabbed me in the side and I spun around on my feet, grabbing her index finger and pulling back abruptly.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” My eyes narrowed and my top lip curled with a snarl.
Her eyes widened and tried to pull away from my grasp. I broke free, letting her escape. I wasn’t here to hurt her, only defend myself.
“You two!” the guard from earlier, who had been trying to determine if I belonged on the bus, shouted at us. “Follow orders or end up back outside the gate. We don’t need dissidents.”
“Yes, sir,” she said and I nodded, muttering the same words under my breath.
I brushed past the guard, down the steps, and off the bus. Three additional buses were parked to our right. There were more of us than I had originally thought.
“You’re going to get us kicked out!” she said, fuming. I’m pretty sure steam came off her body.
“Cora,” I said, introducing myself. Maybe I wasn’t so good with making friends but I really didn’t need trouble.
“You think I give a crap about who you are?” she asked. “Do me a favor and get out of my way!” She pushed past me, slamming her hand against my chest shoving me up against the bus, hard.
Smacking against metal, the echo sounded through the entire town.
“Enough!” the guard that had chastised us on the bus walked up and grabbed the girl’s arm. “Name!”
She stalled for a minute, probably deciding if she could get away with being as snarky to him as she had been to me.
“That wasn’t a question. Name!” His voice was deep and gruff, commanding her to speak.
“Private Lucy Fallon, Sir.” Her demeanor had changed. Her posture was tall and her hands were tight at her side. “Reporting for duty, Sir!”
A military camp? I swallowed my nervousness. What had my parents gotten me into?
I obediently followed the officer through the darkened streets. A single gas lamp lit the path. As we crossed the road, he pointed to the house in front of him. They all looked the same, especially at night. Dull grays and beiges limited any sign of creativity.
“That’s your accommodations. The key is in the door,” he said.
I walked up the patchy lawn. The grass hadn’t quite taken in all spots just yet. Approaching the front door, I found the key sitting in the lock, just as the officer said it would be. Turning the handle I opened the front door.
“Eight o’clock sharp,” he said reminding me tomorrow what time I needed to be out of the house. He probably knew I wasn’t a soldier. Did he wonder what I was doing here?
“Thank you,” I said, and shut the door behind me.
Inside the house, a tiny oil lamp had been lit. “Hello?” I grabbed the only source of light and took it with me, catching a glimpse of all my surroundings. I’m also making sure I’m alone. Who came in and lit the lamp earlier? A guard? Someone that lived in this town already?
I walked toward the window, pushing the thin veil aside. The guard walked alone down the road, back in the direction we came from. I stared out the window as long as I could, curious where he was going, but after a moment he was out of sight. What now? I knew I was supposed to sleep but I wasn’t tired. My mind raced with the possibilities of what this place could be. Were they trying to take back the country? Wasn’t that what the government cities were set up for? To ensure prosperity, safety, and unity. At least the advertisements I’d seen, flyers cascading in the wind, had said that.
I explored the house, curious how to use the stove. My parents and I had spent some time between residences, none our own. My mother had cooked for me, elaborate meals when she had the chance, because most of my life had been spent foraging for food and fending for survival. I missed my family. Would I ever see my parents again?
Finding the bedroom, I collapsed onto the mattress, putting the oil lamp on the bedside table. The watch I wore on my wrist was an antique. It used motion to keep time. Most digital displays disappeared after the Red Plague. Society wasn’t creating new luxuries; we all were just trying to survive. The watch had been my grandmothers, or so my mother told me when she gave it to me on my tenth birthday. It was an important gift then, and just as much now. I saw no clock, no way to tell time. My watch had an alarm feature. My family and I used it a few times in the past. I’d never seen the need, until now. I set the alarm for a few minutes before eight before laying my head on a pillow.
The mattress was soft, plush, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was used to sleeping in the backseat of a broken down car, a tossed out sofa lying beside a highway, anything available that didn’t involve the hard dirt ground.
I shut my eyes and succumbed to sleep.
The alarm on my wrist beeped, startling me awake. The sun had long since come up. I wasn’t used to sleeping until nearly eight o’clock, but the comfortable bed made for an exception. It wasn’t as though I’d never seen a mattress before. My family and I had taken shelter in a few abandoned homes over the last seventeen years. However, we didn’t stay there because food always grew scarce, especially in the cold winter months.
I pushed my legs off the bed and a horn screeched across a loud speaker. Had the alarm been to wake the city? It neared eight. Was this how we’d be greeted every day? It seemed a bit absurd.
Still wearing the cotton gray scrubs provided to me yesterday, I searched the bedroom for additional attire. There was one set of brown pants and a short-sleeve brown shirt to match. An eagle with two joining swords above the creatures head marked an emblem on the sleeve. I’d never seen the design before.
Quickly I changed clothes before slipping on the shoes from yesterday and walked outside. I recognized a few faces from the bus ride, including the annoying girl that was a private in the military. She wore combat fatigues along with a half-dozen others as we headed toward the town square. I’d seen the attire before, in old magazines and books we scavenged over the years. My parents tried to give me a proper education, they taught me to read and write.
Another alarm sounded, the same deafening tone shrieked across the grounds and I lifted my hands to cover my ears. Three sharp tones rang out before silence followed. My heart pounded restlessly in my chest. Would I always be startled by such an unpleasant sound?
As I approached the city square, the crowd had gathered and I knew that all four buses must have been full the previous night. There were probably 200 young adults gathered, waiting for instruction.
An older man, the oldest I’d seen in this town, barely my father’s age stepped across the platform to the center of the stage. His eyes were a dark brown that matched the mop of hair on his head. A microphone was set up for him to speak. He approached and tapped the device awaiting everyone’s attention.
“Welcome! I’m Governor Dechman.”
The crowd grew eerily silent, listening and waiting. Were they as confused as I was?
“Today marks the beginning of a new era. The rebirth of our society and rebuilding of Cabal. It is with great pleasure that our town, Genesis, is one of many built here to repopulate our world and ensure our future.”
The crowd cheered and clapped. I did the same, not wanting to stand out among my peers.
“We have come a long way and we still have a lot further to go. Equality will be met with vigor. For all will have food, shelter, and clothing. These benefits come with the responsibility of remaining inside of Genesis, providing everything we need and supporting the community. For if one man goes down, we all will fail in this pursuit of utopia. You will be expected to meet with a career specialist, as many of you are new faces and not previously registered into our system. We will find work for everyone by the end of today. That is not all. You may be wondering how we can protect our society from the Red Plague, famine, and a host of other diseases ravaging the planet. Our top scientists have ensured our children free of disease, cancer, and illnesses. A stronger immune system and a healthier and brighter future. To guarantee such a future there come sacrifices. A government worker will come to your home and take a DNA sample so we may match you with the best possible candidate for genetic compatibility. More information will be provided to you as you enter the genetics and infertility program. You also should have been able to read about it in the brochure sent to you when you won your lottery slot. There’s no sense in overwhelming everyone today!”
A deafening silence fell over the crowd.
“Please begin by making your way to the Resources Center to meet with a career specialist. Disobedience of the law will result in corporal punishment or expulsion from Genesis. Dismissed!”
“What’s corporal punishment?” I asked a brown-haired boy standing beside me in the crowd. His gray eyes locked on mine. He was the guard from the bus.
He bent his head down, keeping his voice low and quiet. “It’s when they inflict pain as discipline. Probably a lashing but I’ve heard rare cases of beatings and branding. Do what you can and stay out of trouble. I can’t imagine a little thing like you would survive for very long.”
I wanted to retort that just because I was small didn’t mean I wasn’t tough. What good would it do? I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone. “Thanks,” I said under my breath, almost wishing I hadn’t asked.
The good news was that Genesis, our home, wasn’t a military camp. The bad news: the line for the career specialist put me near the very back.
I waited for hours, the sun cresting in the sky blazing overhead. Finally it was my turn; I entered the building feeling the draft of cool air blowing against my skin. It felt heavenly. Sweat dribbled down my brow and I wiped my forehead with my arm. The room swayed slightly.
“Next!” I heard a woman shout but didn’t see anything over the mass of people still in front of me. The line inched forward, my feet shuffled but I’d barely moved my body.
The crowd of people wasn’t friendly. I tried to make polite conversation with the boy behind me and the girl in front. Neither seemed interested in conversing.
As I approached the head of the line, my stomach tensed. What would they ask me? What was I expected to know? They wanted to place me with a job, but what skills did I have? My hands sweat and my heart palpitated. I was certain it had skipped a beat.
“Next!” I held my breath and walked up to the woman sitting behind a desk. There was a clipboard in her hands. “Name.”
“Cora Manning,” I said. It was the one thing I was certain of.
She flipped through the pages, presumably searching for my information. There wouldn’t be anything in their records, at least not about me.
“Molly, I need a file pulled, Manning, Cora,” the woman behind the desk said to a girl not much older than me. Did she already get her work assignment? Was this it?
Molly had strawberry blonde hair and a mess of freckles spattered across her cheeks and nose. Her eyes were wide, frantic looking as she tripped on her feet and stumbled into the metal filing cabinet. “Sorry!” Molly’s voice squeaked and her cheeks flamed. No one seemed to help her or acknowledge the mishap. Straightening herself out, she wiped the invisible dirt away and probably the bruises from the edge of the cabinet where her knee took a jab. Molly opened the cabinet, her fingers sorting through information until pulling a file and carrying it with her slowly over to the woman behind the desk. “Here you go.”
“Very good,” the woman said and opened the file.
I stood awkwardly, waiting to find out what my job assignment was. There was no chair to sit down on and though my legs had grown tired I had a feeling I’d be scolded like a child if I didn’t follow like everyone else.
She flipped through the pages and paused glancing up at me. Her eyes look surprised, but I wasn’t sure what she found. I was a nobody, a kid that grew up trying to survive.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She didn’t answer my question. “Report to the research lab tomorrow morning. Eight o’clock sharp. Take this,” she said and provided me a map of our town. Genesis wasn’t that big. I could have easily found the research lab without her assistance. Though I took it anyway and smiled, trying to blend in. The last thing I wanted was to cause trouble. There was something sinister about this town; I just couldn’t quite figure it out.