Chapter One: Ryder: May 18, 3084
I sat slumped into a small fabric couch that held so many memories of card games and cuddles with my eyes closed tight to hold back the tears that were beginning to make my head hurt. Our small house with its roughly painted blue walls and shaggy carpeting that had seen too many people before us. There were no paintings and hardly enough room for anything; even upstairs where there were two shoebox sized bedrooms held little more than what was necessary.
Beside me were the whispered words of my caretakers, Maiara and Clark Giles, whose bodies lent warmth to the already warm room. It was Maiara’s sixteenth birthday and that meant that this was her last day to live and the last day of my happy childhood at only seven, it was time to grow up now apparently.
I didn’t know how I would survive without Maiara’s constant fussing. She was the one who bandaged all of my cuts when I did something stupid, she was the one who always braided my blonde hair just like her raven locks so that I wouldn’t get lost in public places. She was the one who made me respect her by being strong and independent and she was always helping someone or reading. Her long black hair is always braided back neatly and her dark eyes blend with her Native American skin tone (at least my teacher told me that Native American was the right term).
But she was more than that. She held everything in our house together and always made sure Clark and me were being reasonable. What would we ever do without her? Clark and I certainly couldn’t handle ourselves. Clark has always been fun loving and optimistic with some of my earliest memories involving sitting in his lap and reading or trudging through the woods with him pointing out all the plants and animals. The only comfort on this awful day was the fact that my strawberry blonde guardian’s sixteenth birthday wasn’t until December 24th, just twenty three days after my eighth birthday.
As much as I wanted to block out the pain today would cause, I knew it would happen whether my eyes were open or not and I pried them open through the tears to look at my two guardians who had untangled themselves enough to look at me with their sad eyes. Maiara shifted and placed her arms around me in a gesture she hardly ever gave me.
The tears couldn’t be contained any longer and I buried my head into the crook of her arm, feeling and trying to remember the motion of her strokes in my hair.
“Child,” Her voice was a murmur next to my ear and she used my usual nickname which she had meant as an insult that I had never understood and so the harsh edge on the word had worn to endearment over time. “I am old and it is my duty to die to protect our country. It will not hurt at all.”
“It isn’t fair!” I sobbed into her chest and I felt Clark’s hand begin tracing along my shoulder. “You do so much for our country! They should keep you alive!”
Maiara was a medic in the local clinic and was loved by almost everyone in the slums even though she wasn’t always friendly to them because she was so helpful to anyone who needed her.
“Just promise me you will never forget who you are and you will never let anyone control you.” I lifted my head a bit to nod at Maiara. I wanted time to freeze like this and to stay warmly in Maiara’s embrace forever, with Clark’s arm draped across both of us. She slowly unhooked her arms from around me and placed them behind her neck where she fumbled with the clasp of a small, black, teardrop shaped piece of wood carved with light curlicues.
Just then the door burst open and crashed against the paper-thin wall and the doorknob sailed right through it. My eyes shifted towards the sunlight spilling in and I could see the Head of the Chambers with his ugly, pug-like face and his chilling blue eyes.
He strode into our home and didn’t say a word but grabbed Maiara by the upper arm and roughly tugged her out of the door where a few other soldiers stood waiting. Panic and dread welled up in me and I couldn’t help the scream that welled up as I rushed to Maiara and latched on.
“I promise!” I screamed as the Head of the Chambers gave me a nasty look and called out to one of his soldiers. Suddenly, I was being raised in the air and my stomach pressed against the hard bone of a shoulder blade. Maiara was being shoved down the street ahead of me and I could see our neighbor’s pitying gazes over the heads of the procession of soldiers. “I promise.”
They marched down the street, completely ignoring my cries and the pounding of my fists on the soldier’s back. There was Mr. and Mrs. Jared in their doorway, a small boy in between them. Mr. Thomas was on his front porch and he gave us a salute as we passed by. Even the local animals that would soon be slaughtered seemed to be bowing their heads as we marched past them.
We stopped after what I imagined was quite a long walk, at the center of the town where a low brick building stood, covered in ivy that curled up around the rainspout and towards the black metal roof. This was the building everyone in Admiral City, my home, dreaded. Everyone saw a building similar to this one on their sixteenth birthday when they were executed in order to preserve Beispiel, our country. Maiara and Clark had never told me what was behind the heavy wooden door but the lack of windows made me think that whatever was inside was bad.
For as long as I could remember, whenever we came into the town square, I could see nothing but the low brick building surrounded by tall gray buildings that always had lights on. I could also remember the sounds of repressed sobs in people’s chests as they entered or exited and the memory of getting scolded and pulled away by my attentive guardians would never leave my mind because it had been what put the impression of danger in there from the beginning.
The Head of the Chambers grabbed the door handle and pulled it open with a small squeak from the hinges while he kept his hold on Maiara’s wrist. He pushed her through the door roughly and Clark followed, nearly tripping to reach her. The soldier holding me finally dropped me over his back and I slid to the ground before rushing in after my guardians.
Inside had a single lightbulb that was positioned between two doors, one black and the other yellow. The floor was very old wood that creaked under my added weight as I rushed to Clark and Maiara who were huddled together in the small space. I heard the creaks behind me as one of the soldiers came in and shut the door as slowly and quietly as possible.
“You have a minute to say your goodbyes.” The soldier sounded hesitant and I thought I detected a hint of sympathy in his voice. Clark quickly kissed Maiara and embraced her, whispering words in her ear as he stroked her hair. Tears were welling in their eyes and I silently entered the hug.
“Be brave, child.” Maiara whispered but it sounded like a sob. “Do you still have the necklace I gave you?”
“Of course I do.” I pulled the small pendant out from where it hid beneath my shirt and showed it to her.
“Good. Keep it and remember me when you look at it. I will always be with you. In here.” She pointed her finger at my heart. “And here.” Her lips connected with the top of my head before the guard opened the black door and prodded her in but rather gently compared to how the Head of the Chambers had on the way here. It took me a second to process, but once I had I was banging at the door and screaming at the top of my lungs; I didn’t even see the smack coming towards the side of my face before I was sprawled out on the floor and, where there normally would’ve been fury, there was only shock as I cradled my cheek and the soldier moved past me to open the yellow door.
Clark picked me up, glaring daggers at the taller man, and the guard shoved us through the ugly yellow door. The room beyond the door was the same cheerful yellow as the door and I could make out very little through my tears until I could see that the walls and the couch were yellow but the potted plants that sat everywhere and the pictures of smiling kids added some needed color. The floor was the same wood as the anteroom had been and I wondered how many people had stood here before me.
There were a few other family units in the room as well and they were all crowded against the one wall that wasn’t yellow, it was clear instead and Clark stepped towards it, leaning down so that we were sitting on the floor. On the other side of the glass was a completely black room with no decorations at all except for a wooden bench that could seat about five people.
Then Maiara stood right in front of us, blocking my view, probably on purpose if I knew her at all. I had never seen her look scared in all the years I had known her, including when she had to stitch people back together, but that is the only way I could describe her expression as she sat and watched me and Clark who was holding me tightly against his side; she placed her hand on the glass and said something that got lost in the centimeter thick barrier between us and, instead of trying to answer with words, Clark placed his hand over hers, leaving room for me to follow his example.
It didn’t look like anything was happening in the black room but I knew something was as I saw the fear and pain etched in Maiara’s turned up eyebrows and the light in her eyes flared before it started fading and she removed her hand from where Clark and I still had ours pressed. She turned around so that her back was pressed against the glass and then went completely still along with the rest of the people in the black-walled room. I hadn’t missed the cloud of green that had formed with each breath of the people and was now being sucked into the vents as the green stopped growing thicker around each person.
With the clearing of the green smoke, realization hit me. Maiara wasn’t coming back, ever. A low whimpering sound started in the back of my throat, threatening to turn into sobs as I pounded my fists weakly on the glass, hoping to wake Maiara up.
“It’s going to be okay, Ry. You’re okay baby.” Clark held me close and lifted me so that I couldn’t see the yellow and black rooms or Maiara lying lifeless in front of me. I was aware that we were leaving the building and heading back towards our home in the bright daylight but I felt weak, I couldn’t handle walking the mere mile that would take us to an empty home. It was more painful then Clark’s tears as they tracked down my blonde hair and ran towards my neck.
I had once read a book in my schooling that was about traditions before the cataclysm. One of the most interesting chapters had been about these things called funerals. People dressed in black and mourned the loss of people they loved. They got to say words about how great their lives had been and say one last goodbye.
Our government didn’t afford us such luxuries. Anyone who died in the room was taken to a factory and was cremated. Their ashes are used for some other factory production that had never been elaborated on in the book. I wished that Maiara could have a funeral. Or that we could at least say goodbye properly.
I vaguely processed the change from daylight to the dimmer lighting of our house and I heard the pounding of Clark’s feet on the stairs before I was surrounded by the warmth of the fluffy blanket that I knew belonged to Maiara and Clark, or maybe just Clark now. There was a slight dip added to the bed as Clark lay down beside me and I turned without a thought to bury my face in his shirt that smelled like the forest as it always did. We both lay there crying for what may have been minutes or hours but I couldn’t tell how much time had passed.
I hadn’t known it at the time but it would be the first of many of these nights to come.
Chapter Two: Ace: June 29, 3084
I came towards the front door of our massive and lonely house slowly, dreading entering through the wooden door to find the last image of my guardian, Ari, I would ever have. If Viola, my rather pretty, brown haired guardian with her fancy clothes hadn’t been close behind me, I would have avoided entering the house. Maybe I would have found myself on a random street or in the garden but there was only Viola behind me and the door ahead.
Upon entering, I drank in the white walls and new floors as well as the large descending staircase looming above our heads that reached up to meet the crystal chandelier but never made it. It was my second to last day in the house if my calendar was right, since Ari died today and Viola died tomorrow; that left me with no one and nothing.
In the sitting room, Viola and I found Ari settled on a green-cushioned sofa with his posture perfect and his head of black hair was tilted slightly towards our footsteps with his slanted, dark eyes following us as Viola placed herself as far away from him as she possibly could on the same sofa while I took the smaller sofa across from them and leaned back so the contact could help me stay grounded on the day where the ground began opening up beneath me.
“Ace, you know there is no slouching in my house.” Ari snapped. He was wearing a purple, button-down shirt with a silver tie and I held my breath in the hope that he would have more to say. Life wasn’t perfect in this house but it wasn’t horrible. It seemed Viola and I only got along when we both had a need for breakfast or when guests ventured through our door; any other time, I was hardly a fleeting thought in the back of her mind. As for Ari, the man was strict about all forms of etiquette but that made sense considering he was the Admiral’s best friend. He had really high expectations and every interaction with him was a lesson to make me better at something but I liked to think that was just because he really cared that I had a good life.
“Sorry, sir.” I said clearly and I watched Ari pull his gold watch from his hand.
“Here, I want you to have this Ace.” He extended his hand across the mahogany table and placed it in my upturned palm. The hands must have stopped a few minutes ago because there was no sign of the second hand even twitching to the next second.
“It’s broken.” I looked up with a small hint of water filming over my eyes that I could see reflected in Ari’s.
“It stopped the day time stopped for me and my eternity started.” He reached over to my still-open hand and gently pushed my fingers shut around the cool surface so that I could no longer see the numbers. “But it also stopped the day your life is finally starting.”
“I can’t accept this. I—“ I had my mouth wide open to say anything at all but Ari hushed me with a gaze.
“You have no choice.” He didn’t hesitate as he continued proclaiming. “I wanted to tell you earlier but I’ve got you an internship with the Admiral. It’s a very exciting position and I know you will do well and prove yourself because I raised you for success in this very field! Even more, the Admiral was so generous that, after I told him you would be turned out of our house tomorrow, he requested you be sent to live with him at least until you are eight!”
“I—I don’t know what to say.” Should I be excited or cry? I had met the Admiral several times before but I didn’t know him at all beyond the public façade we all had.
Ari opened his mouth to say something, probably about how great the Admiral was, when he was interrupted by a tentative knock at the door. Viola shot up, straightening her skirt, to let the person in while Ari and I both stood slowly with our attention turning towards the door.
“Hello Lance.” I heard her say smoothly, as though nothing was wrong. “Please, come in.”
Lance was an ugly guard--the Head of the chambers in fact--that I had never liked. I had always thought that the guards should at least look nicer when they are taking you or a loved one to your death. He mumbled a reply that I could almost hear and within a second Viola came back with Lance following a comfortable distance behind.
“Ari. Ace. We must go now.” She looked genuinely sad but not as sad as some of the people I had seen leading a valued family member to the execution room; we filed out of the front door and walked the short block to the oldest building in town. It had been built at the beginning of Beispiel to remind people what happened when children lived to be adults and of the bloodshed that had almost brought humans to extinction which made this building look like nothing. The red bricks didn’t seem very menacing to me, it just clashed with the white and cream colored houses around it.
Once we were inside, Ari knelt down to my eye level. “I’m proud of you Ace. You’re going to have a wonderful life.”
“Thank you.” I said stiffly as we shook hands. He threw Viola a solemn nod which she quickly returned and he sauntered through the black door. Viola led me through the yellow door which had a very bright room behind it but I kept my gaze on the wooden floor.
I avoided looking through the glass for a few seconds before I just had to look up, my curiosity winning out. Most of the people in the black room were pressed up against the window, saying words to their family units that would never be heard. Everyone, except for Ari. He sat against the far wall and waited for his last breath to come.
As soon as the clear gas mixed with his breath and turned green as he exhaled, I knew he was gone. The vents kicking in and clearing the green only confirmed what I knew to be true. My hands started to tremble slightly. I had just lost one of the two most important people in my life and the other one was not far behind.
‘No, he had died for the good of Beispiel and that made it worth it.’ I repeated in my head like a mantra to keep me sane.
We quickly exited the old building and went back to our house without even a glance behind us. Ari wouldn’t have wanted anything to change in his absence that he hadn’t planned himself. Our door was open when we arrived on our block but I found myself numb to any sensation of anxiety at the moment; it was merely how the Admiral liked to make a careless entrance as he had done every time he had been part of the company to come to our house. In our den, the Admiral sat in a reclining chair and watched the servants as they scuttled about, straightening things and trying to give him space.
“Ace!” He exclaimed as he saw me, he seemed genuinely happy that I was here and I recoiled from the complete apathy in his greeting. “The man of the hour indeed.”
I just gave a half smile I didn’t mean in return as he and Viola hugged briefly. The Admiral was not a big kid but his blond hair appeared to almost be white and his blue eyes looked gray in the artificial lighting, making him look way older than fifteen.
“I came with my condolences for your loss. It was necessary but Ari was a great comrade of mine. I’ll miss him dearly. How are you fairing? Do you need anything?” His barrage of questions made me uncomfortable and a little unhappy to be in his company.
“We are fine Admiral, we will get through this. Or, Ace will anyways.” Viola answered for both of us. The Admiral hardly seemed to care that Viola would also be gone tomorrow and he launched into an explanation of how great my job would be and how big my room in his house was but I found myself staring at the door, wishing I was outside. Everything felt less real and pressing when I was out there and I longed for the solitude.
I knew Viola would never let me walk out that door while we had a guest over but I excused myself anyways and went up the staircase to my room with its dark blue walls and the large desk that was strewn with papers and the stacks were overflowing onto the floor. This wouldn’t be my room tomorrow night, at least until December 1st when I turned eight and could come back if I wanted to but I wasn’t sure I would want to.
I sat down at my desk and pulled a history book open as I pondered the subject. My mind may have been spinning but I still had homework to do, even if it was only some light readings.
I must have fallen asleep at my desk because I woke up with an imprint of my history textbook on my face and a blanket draped across my back. I changed as quickly as possible, speeding through my usual morning routine and putting on a nice suit for four o’clock this afternoon when Lance was scheduled to knock on our door once again.
I walked around the house but it appeared to be empty at the moment, which was strange because it was already eleven. Viola was normally up around seven, but I guess she did have a right to sleep in on today of all days, even though I was a little sad she hadn’t wanted to spend every last second with me. Instead of looking for her, I decided to just head for the café without her.
The café was where most people went to eat their meals. If they didn’t eat there, it was at least where their meals were prepared. Most people had kitchens in their houses, no matter how small, but they were only used for snacks and drinks when the family unit had company or wanted something to hold them over until their next meal. The café was a large building with windows on three sides and the ceiling which was impractical because of the awful weather we experienced in town, especially in spring. Inside, the café was brightly lit and the booths were tan leather while the tables were a dark wood color.
No one gave me any weird looks when I entered without a caretaker considering I had been coming here alone since I could be trusted to walk without falling over. I glanced towards my usual seat at the counter which was left open for me as always so I strode through family units to get to the back of the building.
I passed by a group of two families sitting together and laughing at something the little girl had said but as I walked by, the conversation stopped. In a booth across the café, a girl, probably around my age, held my gaze before continuing her conversation with a man with reddish blond hair.
I sat down and all of the conversations instantly started again, but this time I could pick my name out in quite a few of them.
“Hey Ace!” The cheerful waitress that had been waiting on me all week spun around to be in front of me. “What can I get for you today?”
“Eggs and bacon would be great. Thank you.” My reply was as short and closed as I could make it while still being polite. The waitress knew what was going on in my life right now, apparently everyone did, so she didn’t push a conversation. I didn’t mind that, I even liked it sometimes. It was just the constant attention that got to my head and I just couldn’t handle it today.
I couldn’t handle it today, tomorrow, or ever because I knew my life was going to be in the spotlight and that’s not exactly where I wanted to be.
Chapter Three: Ryder: December 1, 3084
“Happy Birthday Ry!” Clark leaned down with an arm on either side of where I lay in bed and kissed my forehead. “You get a job today. You’re so grown up now!”
He picked me up with a smile and twirled me around. Apparently I wasn’t too grown up for him to toss me around. My turning eight only meant that we had to go to the café for lunch today which we barely ever did anymore because we both preferred the quiet of eating under my favorite tree behind the library. I got dressed and braided back my hair as I had done every day since Maiara left us and scampered out the door with Clark on my heels to eat breakfast under our tree because everyone in town was only obligated to eat breakfast at the café once a week, so that you could check in and get money from your job, and we did just that.
“What kind of job do you think I’ll get assigned?” In truth, I had no idea what kind of job I wanted or even all the types of jobs there were.
“I’m not sure Ry; whatever it is, you’ll be great at it. Maybe you’ll be a scientist.” I smiled at that. Clark had been assigned to be a scientist when he was eight. He got to spend a lot of time in the woods looking at plants and animals to catalogue them later. I had come with him on several occasions and I had been slightly bored but I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought, better than school at least.
“I just hope I get a job where I get to stay with you for the next twenty days.” He gave me a sad smile and pulled me into his arms. Very few jobs I knew of involved travelling away from your town. Guards, Admirals and their cabinets, messengers, artifact collectors, and drivers were the only jobs I could name that could involve leaving.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let them assign you to anything where we won’t be together for a while.” He released me so that I could continue eating. “Just remember that they can reassign you whenever they like.”
Getting reassigned was not common. The only times I had heard of it is when a person started a fight or tried to leave Beispiel. But no one really tried to do that anymore and fights only happened about twice a year or so because people were normally too afraid of the guards to argue in public.
With breakfast now complete, Clark and I headed towards our usual destination, the library. The library was a huge building that had pre-cataclysm books along with new ones that writers had made on their own time of course because writing was not a job in Beispiel. Clark picked out a book about animals before the cataclysm for me and found himself a book about something called photosynthesis; we sat on a chair together and read for the entire morning with our legs draped over the sides of our chairs in a very similar manner and our eyes absorbing every letter on the pages.
About a hundred pages in, my stomach began its loud revolt against the lack of food and I glanced towards the old grandfather clock that stood ticking in the corner of the library. It read twelve and I closed my book slowly, sitting up and nudging Clark from his book. Once we were both up, we said hushed goodbyes to the librarian, who was so used to seeing us that she was one of our closest friends now, and we headed out the front door.
The café wasn’t very far from the library, only three blocks, and we set out at a wandering pace. I basked in the feeling of the sun warming my face and my hair even as a breeze swept through and ruffled the small hairs that didn’t fit in my braid. The café was a brightly lit building with an endless sea of booths and chairs but it was always filled with life and there was always a friendly face to be found somewhere.
Clark and I sat down across from each other in a booth and I watched a family unit eating quickly, as though they had somewhere important to be. Behind my head was the obnoxious laughter of some older woman, speaking loudly to her three companions. I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t have to be here; everyone eats in the café on their eighth birthday at lunch so that the waitress can give their job assignments out easily. Once the assignment was given, it was a rite of passage into the workforce and the person would be expected to report to their job the next morning.
I preoccupied myself as I waited for service by looking at the other kids around me and trying to recognize the ones that were born today like I was. It didn’t seem like there were many, if any at all. It seemed like I was completely alone until the door was thrust open and the imposing figure of the Admiral stepped in with a soldier on either side and, following in his shadow, a boy who looked about my age with dark brown hair and the clothes of a rich man.
Clark nudged me so that I would stand, most likely out of respect for the Admiral which didn’t seem like a good enough reason for me. We eventually got called out of attention by the head guard and conversation was restored.
“Why do we always have to stand for the Admiral?” I asked, not really understanding why he was such a big deal.
“He’s the leader of Beispiel. It’s respectful.” Clark answered tersely, in a tone that made me think that he questioned the validity of that reason just as much as I did. Clark had to know by now that respect wasn’t big on my list of responsibilities unless it was earned.
“Well, why is he here?”
“He is allowed to be here you know. Do you see that boy with him?” I looked over at the boy with the neatly combed brown hair and the piercing eyes that seemed to not be one color alone but many mixed together. I nodded and Clark continued. “That’s Ace Elion. His caretakers were Ari and Viola Elion. You may have heard of them, close friends with the Admiral. If my memory serves, today should be Ace’s birthday too.”
“Great. I share a birthday with a stupid rich kid.” I mumbled under my breath so that Clark couldn’t hear. I was spared repeating myself without mumbling by the waitress coming to take our orders. I ordered a grilled cheese just like I did every week while Clark ordered a turkey hoagie which was also on the cheaper side of the menu.
I was starting to get nervous and Clark must have noticed because he stopped any attempts of trying to make conversation. Instead, I scanned the room, looking at the older people sitting with their friends from work and a few with their family units. They all looked so oblivious to the fact that my life was about to change. Except for Ace, he seemed to know exactly how I felt by the way he ignored whatever the Admiral was saying to him and stared back at me.
The food came quickly and with it lay all of the paperwork for my assignment. I opened it slowly and deliberately, almost afraid of what it would be even though I had no preference. The notecard read:
Dear Ryder Giles,
We are happy to announce that your exceptional grades in school have qualified you for a position as an engineer. You will report to work for Richard Jitrey tomorrow morning and nine o’clock at 159 West Crowberry Road. We hope your contributions to the company will be substantial.
The Administration Board of Selective Assignments
I immediately showed the note to Clark who seemed ecstatic that I got such an exciting and important job. He instantly pulled me into an embrace and I beamed at him. Our neighbor, Mr. Wells, had been an engineer and I used to toddle over to his yard when I was about three, giving my guardians quite the scare as I would disappear for hours to watch and help him work. It seemed like a fitting job for someone who was incapable of having idle hands like I was and a smile slowly worked its way onto my face.
“This’s great!” Clark was grinning at me. “You’re gonna be the best engineer Beispiel has ever seen! But you need to eat, you’ll need your energy for tomorrow.”
I was excited but I settled back down and ate most of my sandwich instead of jumping around and squirming as I normally would. My world had just changed catastrophically, and yet, everything else seemed exactly the same. With the exception of one thing. Ace Elion had a small smile on his face. But I felt as though there was something underneath that smile. Something that said he wasn’t so pleased with his assignment. And something told me that things weren’t as laid out as they had always seemed.