I haven't slept in forty-eight hours.
It's part of the Special Operations Assessment and Selection course, twenty-eight days of grueling work. The two days of no sleep are meant to disorient us, part of discarding our former selves. There are three hundred of us trying to figure out how to do what we're told, when we're told to, and how to do it correctly. Jay and I weren't assigned to the same platoon, which was unexpected. I'm in the "civilian" platoon; we're the ones with skills that don't generally require brute force. I think Jay is in some kind of elite group because I haven't seen him, I've only seen the G-men platoon. They are all about brute force; they're the ones that opted for genetic enhancement at age thirteen without the supervision of the Devotees. But Special Forces is, well, special, so they have to prove they've got more than muscle and I've gotta prove I've got more than a quick mind.
If I don't make it to Special Forces, my life expectancy in the regular army could be pretty short. And if I'm a complete washout, I'll have to go to my assessment with the Devotees and they'll find out about me, making my life expectancy even shorter. I seriously need to pass.
Zero dark thirty is when I have to haul myself out of bed in the so-called morning. My drill sergeant has been yelling at me for most of the past two days. The word "why" has been surgically removed from everyone's vocabulary. Any individual hesitation in following orders means at least one private is getting smoked, if not the whole platoon, which usually means push-ups. We've done a lot of push-ups. I stare straight ahead as the drill sergeant walks by me and continues down the row of privates. I made the mistake of "eyeballing" him yesterday.
Never. Eyeball. A drill sergeant.
Three weeks earlier—May, 2125
My mother thinks I'm a Deviant.
It's the kind of thing that can really throw a girl for a loop.
The Devotees missed it when I was born, she said, but one day they would come for me. That was a few years ago, she didn't know I was home when I overheard her; I got out of there lickety-split.
And it's not as if I haven't noticed the way my mother looks at me sometimes. If they had taken me when they had the chance, maybe her other baby would still be with her. I'm pretty sure that's what goes through her head when she looks at me.
So the early assessment notice wasn't entirely unexpected. It doesn't necessarily mean anything. Lots of kids are called for early assessments and nothing happens; they show up at school the next day. Some of them are all excited because they got called to become a Devotee.
But some of them, well, they don't come back.
I'm in the parking lot of my high school, West Liberty. It's prom night, and I came with my best friend, Jay. He's still inside; he likes this sort of thing. I haven't told him the early assessment notice came this afternoon. I didn't want to ruin tonight for him. The humidity has made my dress even more uncomfortable than it was inside. Jay owes me. At least he won't mind if I go home; it's not that kind of date.
A car door slams shut. There aren't a lot of kids who can afford the fuel to drive their own car to the prom.
I take a step back. Blake is a popular kid, with the right look, the right home, the right pedigree.
Despite my attempts to blend in and stay in the background, Blake noticed me this year. When I didn't respond like all the other girls do, I became his target.
His car keys jangle as he drops them in his jacket pocket. I stand still; maybe he hasn't seen me.
"Hey, freak," he calls as he comes around the blue pickup I was hoping would shield me. "Not leaving, are you?"
I smell alcohol as Blake backs me up against the truck.
His slicked-back hair smells slightly astringent, and his tongue slides over his upper lip as he looks me over from top to bottom. A shiver of revulsion goes through me. I can't imagine what girls like about him. I can hear some voices, but they're at the other end of the parking lot. It's just me and Blake.
"I've got an early graduation present for you," he says quietly. His face is close to mine, and I can see beads of perspiration on his forehead. Slick from the humidity, his hand glides down my bare shoulder, as if he's entitled to touch me.
I don't think I want a present from Blake.
I'm surprised when my hand moves. There is a wet sound as Blake's head snaps back.
Blood spurts, and it seems as if time has gone into slow motion. The blood sprays toward me. I move my head to the side to avoid it, and watch it slowly drift by, suspended in the air.
I turn back to Blake and a thrill zips through me. Thick, glossy blood creeps down his chin from his mashed nose. His mouth is open in shock; blood colors his teeth and gums. He moves sluggishly, and each blink seems to take effort.
Drip by slow drip, the blood falls from his chin onto his shirt. Fascinated, I watch each droplet burst on his crisp white collar.
A wet plonk hits my forehead as a sudden coldness envelops me. The grin I'm shocked to find on my face sags. Fat droplets of rain release the pressure in the air and mix with the blood on Blake's shiny shoes.
Hands to his face, he doubles over as time suddenly speeds up again. The rain pelts down now. I take two steps to the side and run. I hear a sob and realize it's me.
What just happened?
It's the morning after prom, and Jay saunters along beside me as we walk back to my house. I met him half way, as per my usual. His t-shirt is a bit wrinkled, but that's on purpose, to go with jeans that are a little baggy in back. He's over six feet and gets asked if he's a model, which he laughs at, but I know he's pleased. He could be quite popular if he wanted, but he hangs out with me instead.
Jay and me are Fifth Generation. We're the ones born between 2100 and 2120. We found each other in the seventh grade. We were the last two kids left when we all paired up for gym class. He asked me why I wasn't moving when we were supposed to be heading out to the field. I explained that I was trying to activate my special powers so that I could use them to transport me far away. Usually that kind of talk would send kids running, and they'd whisper that I must be a Deviant. But not Jay. He blinked at me, then asked if I would take him with me, should my special powers ever actually work. We've been best friends since, and tell each other pretty much everything.
"So, can you come to the thing?"
I think I'm supposed to know what he's talking about.
"Uh, when is it again?" I stall for time. What thing?
I push my hair behind my ears to help me think. It doesn't always work. I have shoulder-length brown hair, parted on the side. My no-nonsense look is how I think of it. I still don't know what the thing is.
"Wait. Jess. You're joking, right?" Jay says with a laugh that's on the edge of anger.
"I'm sorry." I do my best pleading cringe. "I'm a little distracted."
The early assessment and whatever that was with Blake last night are the distractions. I can't quite believe I punched him, broke his nose by the look of it. He's probably going to have two black eyes. But more than that punch, as surprising as it was, is the way time seemed to slow down around me. I want to say it was shock, or some kind of temporary fugue state, but that's not what it was. Something happened.
"My mother's thing, remember?" Jay practically yells at me.
"Oh, that," I say with relief. Jay's mother is hosting a party to celebrate his seventeenth birthday. That's what the thing is. It's going to be awful.
"We met up, what? Five minutes ago? And you're already trying to drive me crazy?" He pinches my butt. Hard. He's pretty worked up about this party.
I yelp and dance around. "No way. You are not blaming your crazy on me." I give him a solid punch in the gut. "You had years of exposure to your mother before we even met."
I go rock climbing, so my arms are strong. I've never needed to go to the gym to work out and "stay in shape" like some of the other girls do. I'm five feet ten and a half inches and the coach at school said I have an athletic body; he tried to get me to go out for track and field. I don't like the idea of people watching me like that.
But hitting Jay is like hitting concrete. He doesn't even notice my punch.
"And of course I'm coming, I already told you. That's why I didn't know what thing you were talking about. I thought you meant some other thing."
"You didn't actually confirm with my mother," he complains, "and I know how you feel about people, in general."
"I don't have a problem with people, in general. Just the idiots," I say. "And your mother."
It's kind of a toss-up, I suppose. A mother like mine, who actively avoids you and has already decided you're not worth the effort, or one who pays too much attention and has too many expectations.
Jay nudges me as an unfamiliar dark-haired boy, a bit younger than we are, walks toward us. He doesn't look right at us, but he flashes us two crossed fingers with his right hand.
I look up ahead and see them coming our way. Three Devotees. Jay and I mumble the greeting in unison, "Blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, soul of our soul," and we look down as they brush past us in their crisp white lab coats. It's best not to be noticed.
The Devotees work for the Department of Evolution—everyone just calls it Devo—and they do the work of Creation in partnership with God. The Department of Evolution is under the direction of Secretary Galton. Basically, she's God's voice here on Earth. In the midst of the genetic revolution a hundred years ago, when the Genetic Integrity Act closed America's borders, strict protocols for border biosecurity were instituted to stop genetic contamination. But we were still in danger of being overrun by the Deviants on the other side. Galton took control, ordered the fortification of our borders and gave the military the authority to do what they needed to do. Most people agree; she did what was necessary for our survival by relinquishing certain powers to the military to ensure our protection. Including the ability to create proprietary, genetically enhanced soldiers. The G-men. Since then, Galton has been leading us through the current stage of evolution, Regenesis, removing unwanted traits and improving and enhancing our best traits with the guidance of God.
In Social Biology class, Devotee Theresa taught us that we must all work for the common good, whether we like it or not. The less intelligent are more fertile and must be discouraged from breeding. Only those with desirable traits are allowed to produce the next generation.
There's this section, practically a whole semester of tenth grade, where we studied pedigree charts, and DNA, RNA, proteins, and ribosomes. DNA is a double helix that carries the genetic information for all life. If only one part of one gene is wrong, it can create a whole generation of imbeciles, and that is not in God's plan. Or in Devo's plan. All Devotees have that DNA double helix tattooed on their forearm, as a constant reminder of their purpose in life.
That's what the crossed fingers warning represents, the double helix tattoo.
We come up to the old Palace Theater. It's been shut down for a long time, and the large sign that hangs out front lost its first A, so it says PLACE. Someone found a way in down the side alley, and now kids hang out there. They say, "Meet me at the place." If they're overheard or an adult sees a message, it only says "the place." So far it's stayed secret. I've heard they have illegal sim-seats in there, ones that can scramble the biometrics and mask what you're doing.
"Jess," Jay says as he slows right down, "something's wrong."
"It's time to wake up!" a skinny boy with curly red hair yells. He's standing on a wooden crate, and people are hesitantly milling about. "People are dying! Out there, children are starving, and you send them poison. People are sick, and you send them plagues. The blood of our blood is on your hands!"
There are gasps at his blasphemy, but a few people cautiously move toward him in morbid fascination. His eyes are wild, there's spittle on his lips. Jay grabs my arm to tug me backward.
When the bullet enters the boy's left temple, it's as if he doesn't know it's there for a moment.
He's about to yell, his mouth opens, his lips form a word he will never say. Then he topples backward, and I hear the terrible thud as his head hits the ground. The people closest to him quickly step back. No one screams, no one looks up to see the Guardian with the rifle on the roof across the street. Everyone wants to blend in.
Another Guardian comes toward the Palace. The Guardians work for Devo and protect us from Deviants. The stiff collar somehow makes his slightly rumpled, brown uniform shirt look crisp. The yellow double helix is on the front of his cap, and above his left shirt pocket.
"Move along," he says. "It was just a Deviant."
We all know that the plain fact of his yelling out crazy stuff in the street like that is proof of his deviance. It's what happens sometimes, but it's most prevalent during adolescence. The deviance manifests and people become dangerous, psychotic Deviants, intent on our destruction.
The Guardian rests his hand on the butt of the holstered pistol hanging from his belt and waits for the brown panel truck with the whooping siren we can hear approaching.
Jay swears at him under his breath and keeps hold of my arm. We hurry off with the rest of the crowd, wanting to move as far away as possible. I look back in time to see somebody dart in behind the Guardian, dip a hand in the boy's blood, and leave an angry red handprint on the front of the Palace Theater. A red hand. I've heard the whispers but never thought it was true. As I stare at it, I bumble into Mrs. Yamoto, one of my neighbors. She walks fast, gripping her daughter's hand tightly. Last year, I saw the brown truck with the double helix on the side parked in front of her house. The Guardians had come to take her son.
That was his name.
No one is home when we get to my house. Jay and I like to hang out here a lot. When my mother is here she's always in immersive simulated reality or simmersion as it's called. From her sim-seat she can enter her simbody and experience her personal programming as if she is right there, in it. Although they don't see her, she can sit in at another family's table and engross herself in the drama of someone else's life. And if the real people aren't exciting enough there's always orchestrated reality to go visit, where she doesn't just watch, she participates.
Every night you can immerse yourself in the news broadcast as it updates us on the Deviants and the security of our borders, sometimes you catch glimpses of the abominations on the other side. You can even sit in when a Traitor to Humanity is paraded out. I don't like watching that, when they strap the traitor down and give them the injection. But a lot of people like to be up close and personal, want to really see the traitor's eyes as they die.
My dad only comes home on weekends because he works in Minneapolis, for Cortano. They do lots of things, but my dad works in the agriculture division. Cortano, with Davenport Technology, provides elite seeds for all the food crops. Their slogan is Breeding, Biotechnology and Agronomics. Cortano keeps America on the right path. The Devotees control Davenport Tech. They are the only ones allowed to be trained in biotechnology, which means they actually control everything.
My Dad has a pretty big job in distribution, making sure all the seeds are delivered where they need to go. He's responsible for the big four—corn, soybean, cotton, canola. He's been working most weekends for a while now. I think he wants to avoid my mother and I can't say I blame him. Maybe he's avoiding me, too.
I think I've mostly figured out the arcane algorithms that govern our personal programming, but they're always changing, adapting, monitoring. I make sure I subscribe to the right realities, even the occasional teenage rebellion program because that's what is expected. If you're too squeaky-clean and dull or too outside the norm, they'll pick up on it.
I make sure Jay is subscribed to the correct realities too.
"That boy..." I start, finally finding the courage to say it out loud.
People think that every single thing we do or say is monitored, watched for signs of deviance. There can't be hidden cameras in every single room of every single house and on every single square inch of sidewalk. There's a lot of surveillance for sure, but even that can't be reviewed in any detail, there would need to be one person watching for each person being watched. And then who's watching the watchers when they go home at night?
Our sim-seats are a two way feed, collecting information and adapting our personal programming and purchase profile. Wherever there is a sim-seat there is routine surveillance. I've conducted a few innocent experiments, watching the reactions, the subtle changes to my personal programming. Key words can increase the level of surveillance. And even when it's triggered, it's the complex algorithms that determine the reaction. It's got to be a pretty sizeable reaction or a singular, specific trigger before an actual person is watching and the real tracking begins. All the biometric data collected through the sim-seat means that even without retinal scans, fingerprints or DNA, you can be tracked anywhere by how you look, how you walk and by the sound of your voice. So caution is necessary, and certain words are to be avoided without eliminating all key words. The absence of those words is just as noticeable as their use.
"What about him?" Jay asks.
"His hair was an unusual color, did you notice?" I say, asking him if he saw the red hand. I suspect that those words together, red and hand, are one of those singular triggers that automatically bring close surveillance.
"Very unusual, but becoming more popular I think. I've heard other people say they've seen similar coloring, appearing all over the place," Jay replies, telling me that he saw, and that the hand has appeared elsewhere.
"Do you think the boy got the idea for his hair from someone else or did he do it on a whim?" I ask, because I want to know if Jay thinks the boy was part of the Red Hand or not.
Jay shrugs. "He probably saw it on someone else," he says. "But it was a strange way to show it off, he must have known what the reaction would be."
I nod in agreement. There was only one possible ending to the drama in front of the Palace. If it was some misguided suicide attack, it seemed to serve no purpose, so maybe he really was a crazed Deviant. But then again, I have no idea what the Red Hand wants.
There have only been whispers about the Red Hand, a secret, underground group whose goals are murky at best, and seem in opposition to Devo. There are escalating rumors of suicide bombers and other outrageous tactics. But only near the border, never here, right where I live. And we're always told it's crazed random Deviants that are attacking, but what if it's organized, what if it's the Red Hand? It's extremely exciting and frightening at the same time.
I march to my sim-seat and pull up the list of possibilities for my future. It hovers in the air in front of us.
1. Devo—Get called to be a Devotee and dedicate my life to the work of Creation.
2. Settle Down—Find my match and produce the next generation.
3. A Career—Become a career girl, move to Minneapolis and work for Cortano.
4. The Military -The opportunity to serve my country and defend our borders from Deviant attacks.
And that's the list. It's a pretty short list.
I made the list yesterday, with Jay, before I knew about my early assessment. Number Four seems like the path in life most likely to get me killed. Just after you turn seventeen is when Devo normally schedules your assessment. At the interview, the Devotees ask some questions, there are tests and measures, and they take the blood sample for the epigenetic scan. This way they can make the right choices for your Good Match list if you're going to settle down, or they can figure out what your career is going to be, based on your aptitude. A few weeks later, once they've decided, you find out your path in life. I guess I've always assumed I'd be put on a career path, Jay thinks so too.
If you settle down, then you have one or two children. We can't overpopulate, so no one has more than two. Once the Devotees have approved the genetic partnership of a couple, then it's left in the hands of God. From conception to birth, human interference is not allowed. When a baby is born, a Devotee examines it before it is even held by its mother. If it shows any sign of deviation, then it is God's will, and the Devotees take it, as a kindness to the mother. This is what happened to my mother's second baby. It's not a subject I have ever discussed with her. But if you had a sibling that was a Deviant, it increased your chances of being a Deviant too. That's one reason you could get an early assessment notice, if they think something might be wrong with you.
Jay's mother is practically a Devotee, the way she acts. She already has her own list of girls for Jay to settle down with, and hopes a few of them will be on his official Good Match list. They are all invited to his party, except Jay isn't interested in girls. We have a bet on who will kiss a boy first. Jay will win. But Jay'd rather go along with his mother for now than deal with any histrionics about him not settling down and producing the next generation. I've been over to meet his mom, and I'm Jay's "date" whenever he needs one. Which makes it easier for me, too. But we never hang out at his place with her around. She doesn't approve of me. And I don't suppose I approve of her, either.
Jay is properly horrified when I tell him about my assessment. We can be less circumspect now because this is all any seventeen year old is talking about right now, so it's expected.
"What if they want you to be a Devotee?" Jay asks as he paces, jumping to the most obvious explanation.
"Don't even think it," I moan as my finger traces nervous circles in my quilt. "What am I going to do? I need some sort of a plan."
Besides having a deviant sibling, you can also get an early assessment if someone recommends that you become a Devotee. If the looks she gave me in class count for anything, Devotee Theresa did not put me on her list. If you do get called to be a Devotee it's an honor, and not the kind of thing you can politely decline.
Jay throws his shoulders back and crosses his arms as he considers my situation. But he knows there isn't anything I can do, and there is no plan B.
"It'll be fine," Jay decides, and waves a hand to dismiss my concern. "Maybe they don't want you to be a Devotee, maybe they only want to check you out because of your sibling, and it'll be nothing."
Jay's not convincing me, though. Plus, I haven't told him about Blake yet. Or that strange thing that appeared on my skin. This morning, as I was getting dressed, I spotted a brown mark just below my ribcage, on the left side. It's like a freckle, but not. It's small, about the size of a flake of oatmeal with the same kind of rough edges. It's nothing. It won't wash off. It will probably go away. I'm not even thinking about it. At all.
There are deviations that don't manifest until the teenage years, like that boy earlier today. That's why they double-check you at seventeen with the epigenetic scan, to detect any unexpected alterations in gene expression. That brown mark I'm not thinking about, at all, has got me worried. Plus, there's what happened with Blake and the slow-time thing. If the mark is still there when I get to the assessment, I'll have a different kind of problem than having to join the Devotees.
Jay just turned seventeen, so his assessment will be soon, too. He brings up the last possibility from the list, the military. He says that instead of the Devotees making him into something, he can make something of himself. He tells me again about the Special Forces. If you have the right skills you can enlist as soon as you turn seventeen, before the Devotees get to you. The only thing Jay has ever seriously wanted to be is a pilot, and the only way he can do that is in the military. He's been prepping for it, doing a lot of physical training and practicing in the sim-seat.
If he qualified and passed the evaluation, then he could join the Special Forces Airborne. They are the elite, and it's extremely difficult to qualify. The military is also the only path that isn't controlled by the Devotees.
There's a recruitment center near school. We always walk by real slow, to catch a glimpse of what's going on inside. I can see the longing in Jay's face whenever we pass by. Some kids have even talked to the soldiers. There's been several thirteen year olds that were recruited, and I've seen them disappear inside after their parents sign them up for the Genetic Enhancement program. There is a substantial signing bonus.
Around here, no one ever wants to stand out or look different, but with the soldiers it's as if they don't even care. Sure, they're all neat in their uniforms when they're on duty. But when they're not, when they're hanging out in the yard between the recruitment building and their small housing unit, they do whatever they want and the Guardians can't interfere. They talk loud, and they cuss even louder when they're wrestling each other or betting on their frequent competitions. They have wild outfits and haircuts, and some even have tattoos that we can glimpse when they walk around all shirtless like nobody's business. You're only supposed to make improvements to the body you were born with. Why would they want to look as if they might be Deviant?
It makes them seem dangerous. And surprisingly enticing.
"I wish I could do that, enlist right now, before my birthday. I'd be gone before my assessment," I say.
Jay stops pacing around my room to stare at me.
"I just thought of a plan," he says, a bit reluctantly.
"Is it a good plan?" I say. "'Cause you know that's the only kind of plan I like. The good kind."
"Two things. Shut. Up." He says it in that voice that makes me do just that.
"This is probably stupid as hell, but I'm going to say it anyway." Jay runs his hands over his face, which makes me nervous. "There's a phantom, in the place," he says, but he's being careful and only mouths the word "phantom".
"Can you fix it so you don't have to wait until your birthday? Can we both enlist now so you can come with me?"
I'm stunned. Not only because Jay is suggesting this but because there is a phantom sim-seat. A phantom is completely anonymous, no feedback, no tracking, and there's end-to-end encryption. I'd be able to move through the network undetected. If it's real, it's immeasurably more dangerous than any unregistered, illegal sim-seat. We'd have to move fast, that sim-seat won't stay an entry point for very long.
"Do you think you can do it?" Jay asks with narrowed eyes.
I slowly nod my head as I think about how I could change my age in certain files. "I'm pretty sure I can."
"Pretty sure is how you feel just before something goes very wrong," Jay informs me. "You need to be sure sure."
I have certain capabilities with digital data. When I'm immersed, I can exert some control over the flow of data instead of passively allowing the exchange of information.
When I'm in there, I sense the interactions happening and I can track the ones and zeros, the yes and no responses, and I can follow the patterns they make. This is the crucial thing. Where other people see only a door for their simbody to walk though, I also see the tunnel under the door. It makes me an excellent infiltrator. Jay is the only person who knows I can do this. I can't use my sim-seat at home; it would be too easy to track me. I managed to disable certain security protocols on a sim-seat at school, though. I don't do much because I'm too afraid of getting caught, but sometimes I'll look at what my father's up to, let his shipping schedules flow around me. Stupid, I know.
"Hurry up." Jay sounds nervous. "And don't make any stupid mistakes."
He stands watch for me because I can lose awareness of my surroundings pretty easily. I pull the head gear down from the compartment above and tighten the strap around my forehead. The familiar feel of suction secures the helmet to my cranium.
"Listen. I don't make stupid mistakes," I say, trying for humor because I'm jumpy too. "Smart mistakes? Okay. But never stupid ones." I flip the visor down, and it too secures itself in place. The real world disappears, and all I can see is the faint blue glow of the system in standby mode.
"Would you hurry up?" Jay says between gritted teeth before I'm enveloped by silence. I slip my hands into the glove-like armrests. There's a tingle on the tips of my fingers as the connections are made. The faint glow becomes momentarily blinding, and I'm in. I stretch my arms out in front of me, but I can't see them. I don't have a shadow and I don't leave any footprints behind. I'm a phantom.
I'm not going anywhere near the military nodes, why risk it? I track down certain files and make some changes that will propagate out. In a couple of hours, I should show up on a recruitment list that indicates I turned seventeen last week. We hotfoot it out of there once I'm done. A couple of blocks away we see a red hand print on the wall of a store. Beside it, someone has scrawled The Blood of our Blood is on Your Hands.
My orders arrived yesterday. I qualified for the Special Forces evaluation. By the time my altered file is scrutinized, I'll probably be seventeen and old enough for the military anyway. Or dead. When I told my mother she looked relieved. She didn't ask how I was able to enlist before my birthday. It just reminds me that I'm never going to be who she wants.
There's this thing I do, in my head. I have a grey box and I shove all the stuff about my mother in it and then slam it shut. And when those things are in the box, it's as if they don't exist. I don't ever open it and I can't consciously think about it, or it won't work. That brown mark is still there. It didn't go away. I might need to cram that mark in there too.
Jay got his invitation to try for Airborne two days ago, so we're leaving together. He's very pleased that he's leaving before his mother's party. She, however, is not. I requested a posting to Intelligence. I think I'd be okay there. Intelligence is not a combat position, and I'd be pretty decent at it. Maybe even like it. I've been expecting the worst for so long that it's strange to feel optimistic.
We're going to a base somewhere near the border in the Arizona desert. I left a message for my father at his office. He hasn't responded, and I have a train to catch in the morning.
It's the end of the second week of the Special Operations Assessment and Selection course, and we're down to 150 candidates. Half of us made it halfway.
I hear "Private, you think that's funny? Beat your face, all of you!" and I sigh.
We all drop and start the twenty push-ups. Barry, my battle buddy this week, can't do it. He's struggling. Barry shouldn't be here, and he's making it difficult for the rest of us. I want to get this over with. I just want to pass.
"I said give me twenty, you ugly skid! There's no one here who's going to do them for you!" The drill sergeant's face is a bright scarlet, skin stretched taut as he yells at Barry. I recently figured out that a skid is a skinny Deviant. Our enemy.
"This private will, Drill Sergeant," I find myself saying loudly as I continue my push-ups. I don't dare eyeball him.
"Will what?" he screams at me.
"This private will do her battle buddy's push-ups, Drill Sergeant."
I still don't look at him because I'd probably chicken out if I did. Barry is my battle buddy, which means our fates are intertwined this week. If he's held back, I'll be held back too, which will make it that much harder to qualify, and I don't have a lot of room for error. And, since he's my battle buddy, he's my responsibility this week. Not that I think he'd do the same for me. I finish my twenty and stand at attention. My heart beats loudly as I wait.
"Then let's make it sixty," my DS shouts, an inch from my face. "I want to hear you count 'em out, skid. You've got sixty seconds."
The rest of the platoon has finished the twenty and stands rigidly at attention, waiting to see what happens. They must think I'm crazy. Maybe I am. Barry hesitates for a moment before climbing to his feet, wobbling a little. I drop and count out loud. It's harder to do push-ups while yelling. My muscles screech at me to stop, but I block them out. I fix on the tip of the drill sergeant's polished black boot in front of my face. At fifty-four my body prepares to mutiny, but I think about what the DS could do to the whole platoon as punishment for my failure. I finish the sixty. I get up and stand at attention, breathing heavily, as I force my arms not to tremble.
I don't know if I made things better or worse for myself.
Recall is announced, which means training is over for the afternoon.
"D-fac!" the DS orders, and I exhale.
D-fac is the Dining Facility. He's going to let us eat. Maybe even sit down for the five minutes allotted for chow time. I take off before he can change his mind.
I'm on my bunk in the barracks. We got permission to sleep. I can't lift my arms. I have never done anything like that before, and I hate people looking at me. Desperation, combined with temporary insanity from lack of sleep, perhaps. They have to give us four hours of sleep per day now, but they do not have to be consecutive hours.
Tonight, because of the number of washouts, two barracks were consolidated. Barry got himself into sick bay so I guess I'll have a new battle buddy tomorrow. Those of us remaining are a bit cocky. Well, the boys are, anyway. Some are practically naked, showing off muscles and brand new tattoos and making up stories about their fresh scars.
They swagger noisily around their side of the barracks trying to act like men, putting choke holds on each other and pulling stupid pranks. One boy was quietly and thoroughly taped to his bunk when he foolishly went to sleep before the others. Now he's cursing and promising revenge as he struggles to get out of his bindings. A bunch of the other boys stand around laughing and cracking jokes. I need earplugs or something.
There's a girl from my platoon in the bunk beside me who's trying hard not to cry. I noticed her today because she wouldn't give up. Even when she was falling to pieces, she kept marching or standing at attention or whatever pointless thing we were ordered to do. I surprise myself by slipping over to sit on the edge of her bed.
She jerks away from me.
"I don't want anything," I say quietly. "I only want to tell you to hang in there. I watched you today, and I know it's hard. It's hard for me too, but we both gotta stick it out, okay?"
The girl wipes her nose with the back of her hand and nods at me with wide eyes. "I'm Anna."
"I'm Jess. We should get some sleep."
"Why did you do that today?" Anna asks me. She means the push-ups.
I shrug, a little embarrassed. "I couldn't let that boy hold me back."
She nods. "I've really gotta make it. I want to get out there, waste some skids, and do my part to safeguard this country. My brother did it, and now it's my turn to do my duty."
Her voice is surprisingly fierce.
Then she asks, "Will you stay here?" The scared little girl inside her has returned.
I shake my head. "Then neither of us will make it. We'll look weak. We can't afford to depend on anyone else in here, or we'll be like Barry."
"After today, you don't need to worry about anyone thinking you're weak," Anna says quietly.
I slide back into my own bunk.
Anna is a bit down the line from me as we receive a lesson on land mines and other explosives. I nod at her. She nods back but looks a bit embarrassed. I gather she doesn't want to be friends or anything; that's fine, I'm used to it.
We're at the border on a stretch of barren red sand, a few miles out from the base. I've never been this close to the dark, looming wall that keeps the Deviants out. To the south, I can see the strange protruding formations of the badlands, but it's hard to tell how far away they are. It's humbling to think how long this desert has been here, that dinosaurs once walked the very earth I stand on...
And that's just the kind of thinking that can keep a girl distracted from more immediate problems. Such as land mines.
There are land mines hidden between us and the wall, and we need to clear the area. We're shown several methods, and my group uses all of them. We believe the area's clear.
"Someone needs to walk across, or tell their team to do it all again," our instructor says.
No one reacts. The instructor was expecting this. She crosses her arms and waits. She's got all day. There is some furious huddling in the groups around me, but I know my team has done everything properly. We swept the entire area, but we concentrated on clearing a corridor down the middle to allow us to walk single file. I think this exercise is about fear. We could check and check again while the enemy advances on us, but at some point we have to trust that we've done it.
"I'll go," I say, and step outside the safety area without waiting to see anyone's reaction.
I'm right, or I'm wrong, but at least we're no longer paralyzed by indecision. I have a suspicion that the mines aren't live. Why would they spend so much time and money training people, just to blow them up? Down the line, Anna watches me. I step gingerly, but move at a fairly rapid pace, and soon enough I'm at the other side.
Bolstered by my easy crossing, Anna follows my lead. She moves too quickly, though, without enough caution. When she's about a third of the way across her group's section we all see her freeze; she must have heard the click that tells her she depressed a trigger. Anna stands there for a moment and the finality of her predicament registers. Did they use live mines? She could stay where she is forever, but we all know that's impossible. I hold my breath, willing a different outcome. She slowly lifts her foot.
She does not die in combat, doing her duty, defending something she believes in. Hers is not a heroic death. This is a stupid training exercise.
I can't depend on anyone, and I can't take anything for granted, I tell myself as I gather up Anna's belongings and load them neatly into her pack. It's still sitting on her stripped bunk in the morning, looking alone and forgotten.
Less than a week left and I'm about to start the Victory Tower, which I'm looking forward to. As it stands right now, making it to Special Forces could go either way for me. I need to perform exceptionally well here, and my rock climbing experience gives me an edge.
I have to complete an obstacle course at extreme heights, using ropes and ladders and my own strength, and finish by rappelling down a fifty-foot wall. This is to prepare us for traversing the barren, crumbling world on the other side of the border. Two people are still ahead of me. I want to yell at them to hurry up.
The dark-haired boy in front of me eventually takes hold of a rope and begins to pull himself up. He doesn't look like he has much experience at this. I hope he doesn't hold me up. My hands clench in anticipation. I hadn't realized how much I missed climbing.
I finally get the nod and haul myself up the thick rope, hand over hand, my feet holding the rope taut beneath me. I climb higher and higher. A rope ladder is just out of reach. I rock my body to begin swinging, and my momentum builds until I can grab the ladder. I transfer and continue to climb. Next is a series of suspended rungs, like a schoolyard jungle gym. I grasp the first and use my abs to swing forward, grab the next one, and move rung by rung across a chasm, the bottom unseen, far below. My feet find a solid surface, and I pause for a moment to take deep breaths. This is great, exhilarating! I see a trapeze swing and grasp it firmly with both hands. I use the available space to take a running leap and swing out. I soar back and forth, arching my body to increase my velocity. I let go and fly through the air to land on a platform below. I continue to move, climb, swing, crawl.
Up ahead I can see the finish. The platform ends, drops off to nothing. The dark-haired boy is there, preparing to rappel. He has the ropes set up incorrectly and will have no control over his descent. I don't know if I should intervene or not. Will I lose or gain points for helping? Around here it's hard to tell.
"Wait," I shout.
I make my way over and correct the ropes. Our times are critical, that's what made my decision. I don't want him to delay me by injuring himself.
"Okay, go," I tell him. He looks at me, a little incredulous.
I quickly hook myself in and wait impatiently for him to drop down.
"Go!" I urge him. "Push off with your feet. You can control your own speed."
He begins hesitantly; drops only a few feet each time, but eventually gets more daring and makes it to the bottom. I swiftly follow in two drops and hit the ground beside him. I disengage myself and look at him. Why is he still here? I leg it. I need a strong finish time.
I have another day of qualifying, but I'm almost done. I managed a first-time Go on everything so far: swim, march, obstacle, navigation, even physical fitness. Everything except the firing range; that was a No-Go. I have to try again. I have psychological now, and then tactical, which includes hand-to-hand.
It's a relief to slide into the sim-seat and I reach for the helmet. This is the one that will make me eligible for Intelligence. I am very confident of my abilities.
My fingers tingle as the connection is made, and it starts. The IQ test comes up, twelve minutes allotted. I whip through it, maybe missed one because I ran out of time. Next is a battery of multiple-choice scenarios aimed at gauging your personality. They claim it's impossible to manipulate it.
Here's the fun stuff now. Analyzing text and parsing, sorting clusters, identifying patterns. My body goes limp as I enter the stream. Last is the cryptography, with random-number-generated encryption, hashing, that kind of thing.
Ooh, they added in some steganography, encryption within encryption.
The helmet relinquishes its hold on my head and I realize I'm finished. I leave with a smile. I know I did exceptionally well.
Chow time. I look glumly at the food on offer as a pretty girl brazenly cuts the line in front of me. She sneaks extra crackers and two apples into her pockets and disappears. Stealing food from d-fac is a major infraction.
It's been one hundred years since the half-mile-long chunk of celestial ice known as God's Fury fell out of the sky and into the Arabian Sea. The tsunamis that followed were relentless in their devastation. We saw footage of them engulfing vast shanty towns all over fourth-world countries. A lot of them didn't even have governments anymore. They'd lost control. Refugees were overrunning the functioning countries, setting up those shanty towns, and eventually causing the collapse of those countries, too. And then they were gone, swept away.
The Devotees tell us this is proof that Devo set America on the right path. After the Genetic Integrity Act was passed and the borders were closed, God sent his Fury to cleanse the Earth, leaving us with the task of improving the human race.
I was born during the total eclipse of the sun on October 5, 2108. An eclipse can last for hours as the moon passes in front of the sun, but totality is when the moon appears to block out the sun completely, and the earth goes dark. Totality was only three minutes and fifty seconds long, but that's when I was born. The date and time are on my right foot, which means I got the Devotee's seal of approval when I was born. My mother still took the eclipse as a bad sign.
I suppose that's why I started looking up. I want to be ready to dodge whatever is coming for me.
I have about fifteen minutes until lights out. I'm not supposed to be out of barracks, but there's a clear sky, and this might be my only chance to see the June Bootids meteor shower. It's usually pretty weak, but this year promises a zenith hourly rate of up to a hundred. My insides thrum with excitement.
I never talked about my stargazing to anyone at home because they're all afraid to look up. My telescope is about the only thing from home I miss. I know about tonight's meteor shower because I secretly have an espenak, a database with a five-millennium catalog of celestial information.
How I got it is kind of strange. I was on a school camping excursion. I hated it until it got dark. The night sky was so beautiful there. I snuck off to be by myself and look up. Jay was not on that trip, so it's not as if anyone would notice I was gone. I was being goofy, measuring how far apart the stars were with my fingers and then pretending to squish them.
"Don't squash Jupiter, it's my favorite," a voice beside me said.
I was too surprised to be scared.
He was an old man, at least to me. His hair was still jet black, though, and his eyes were a shining dark gold. Anyway, he started telling me about the stars and the planets and how you could navigate with them. He was talking about angles and degrees and orbits, and I got it right away. I'm good with patterning and everything up there follows its own pattern. It all makes sense.
"Whenever I look at the stars, I know they haven't noticed that I'm here. They've been up there since long before I came along, and they don't even know I exist. That's when I remember not to take myself quite so seriously," he said.
And then he gave me the espenak. It's a silver-colored sphere on a chain, and it looks as if it should be heavy, but it isn't. It has lines etched into it. Except they aren't actually etched; sections move if you know how to do it. He said it was like a puzzle box, and he showed me how to move the parts to open it up. Somehow, the small sphere becomes a flat box with a compass design on its surface. A holograph pops up when it's opened correctly, and he said I could retrieve whatever data about the stars I needed. Then he showed me how to use the information.
"It's yours now," he said when we saw the sun on the horizon. We'd been at it all night.
"Mine? Why me?" I couldn't believe anyone would give something so wonderful to someone like me.
"A teacher of mine gave this to me, and now it's time for me to pass it on," he said. "I'm glad I finally found you. There aren't too many of these around, and every generation needs a few good people to keep an eye on Heaven. When it's your turn to pass it on, make sure you find someone worthy, someone like you."
That was the best night of my life, the best thing that anyone has ever said to me, and I never even asked him his name.
The thing is, now I know when certain things are going to happen. Things other people don't want to know about. It made me question a whole lot of things that I grew up thinking were absolute truths. For instance, I'm pretty sure the meteor named God's Fury came from the P100ST comet and not necessarily from God, and the comet's hundred-year orbit is bringing it back this summer. The Devotees aren't talking about the comet, but they are preparing for the centennial celebration of God's Fury. They are expecting God to let us know if we're still on the right path.
In the meantime, I want to see tonight's meteor shower.
I'm much better at sneaking around than firing a rifle, and I have a stolen apple in my pocket in case I need a bribe. One building over from my barracks, with my back against the wall, I edge my way to the corner and a ladder that goes up into darkness.
Soundlessly, I climb up and over the parapet onto the roof. Before I can turn around an arm snakes around my waist from behind, trapping my arms, and a hand closes tightly over my mouth. My legs kick uselessly as I'm hauled behind what might be a heat exhaust and dragged up against a hard body.
"Can you be silent?" a voice hisses at me.
OK, stay calm, maybe I'm not going to die.
I get a sharp squeeze. "You were about as quiet as a grenade coming up here. Can you be silent now?" he asks again, with more urgency.
I nod quickly. It's hard to breathe. The hand loosens, but is positioned to clamp back down. Two breaths, in and out.
I manage to turn my head enough to see a uniform. His grip on my waist relaxes a little.
"I'd have noticed if you were following me, so why are you here?" he asks in a low voice.
I'm momentarily distracted and whip my head around when the first meteor streaks across the night sky.
"Why would I want to follow you?" I ask, both indignantly and a little too loudly. "Look. I didn't expect anyone to be up here, okay? Why are you up here?"
Who is this guy?
"I can tell how hard you're trying to be quiet," he says softly and gives me a sharp squeeze. "Try harder."
I struggle to break free, and quite unintentionally my foot kicks the vent. Loudly. I need to try harder.
"Are you simpleminded all the time or does it come and go?" He is angry now. "This isn't hide and seek. You could be dead right now."
I can feel his heartbeat, strong and steady, against my back. I don't think he's going to kill me. His pulse would be accelerated, wouldn't it?
He suddenly pushes me face down, flat against the roof, and half lies on top of me. It happens fast and feels impersonal, as if it's a practiced move done without thinking. I squirm and try to complain about the rock jabbing into my abdomen, but he presses his fingers firmly on my lips as he pins me to the roof. "Be still," he commands.
He's lost interest in me and turns toward a movement down on the ground. I can make out a transport backing up to a hangar bay. A few soldiers hop out, and then three civilians stumble from the back of the vehicle. The soldier on top of me curses under his breath when he sees them. There's a woman with matted auburn hair, and one of the men has lost a shoe and limps along unevenly. They're in torn, dirty clothing.
I get a blinding flash of the perfectly obvious and give up my resistance. This isn't about me sneaking around. Not even close. It's a little late, but the fear finally creeps in and I start to sweat. I'm acutely aware of his body pressed into mine as we watch the people below disappear into the building.
He remembers I'm here, and his fingers leave my lips but he keeps me pinned. "Okay," he says, his chin over my shoulder as he speaks in my ear. "Tell me again why you're here?"
"The meteor sh--"
He squeezes me tightly before I can finish. "Wrong answer," he whispers in my ear, and I shiver.
His breath is warm, it tickles my neck and I inhale his scent. My brain is now mush and my eyes are squeezed shut.
Wait a second. He's not supposed to be here either.
"I wasn't here." I exhale quickly a few times, trying to expel the fear that is mixed with a shaky desire.
"And while you weren't here, what did you see?"
"I wasn't here, so how could I see anything?" I answer as my eyes fly open.
He finally rolls off me and we sit up.
"I guess your simple-mindedness does come and go," he says, amused.
"Jackass," I mumble under my breath.
I think he smiles, but I'm not sure all my senses are working properly.
He nods to the ladder. As I step over, I realize I miss the feel of him pressed against me. I head down and he follows. Back on the ground we look at each other for a moment. I have to look up because he is tall, taller than Jay. His eyes are the silvery-gray color of ashes. There's a hint of a lazy smile as he shakes his head.
"A meteor? I'll be keeping an eye on you... J. Grant," he says slowly, and walks away at an unhurried pace as I stand in a state I believe is called catatonic.
Over his shoulder, almost as an afterthought, he says, "And you most definitely did not see me."
He disappears and I lean against the wall, dazed. I can still feel his fingers on my lips.
How did he know my name?
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