Ana Flood, Isabelle Bergman and Lily Anderson
There’s order to everything. Everything has a pattern, a set of rules that keeps it functioning. Without it, organisms die, governments fail, civilization collapses.
There’s a reason we’re the only ones left. We had order, while the rest of the world didn’t. And, as far as we know, it may soon be our responsibility to keep the order. Order that’s been maintained for decades - 105 years to be exact. 106 in 138 days.
This is basic knowledge.
Without order, we’d all be dead.
Chapter 1 - Ya Ling
September 25, 3029
Flinging my blanket to the floor, I awoke abruptly as a deafening siren blared through my neighborhood. Frantically, I raced towards the window with the hope to unearth the location of the disaster. My eyes weaved throughout the winding streets carefully investigating the city’s landscape. However, instead of the disastrous chaos I expected to see, the streets remained eerily desolate. As the siren bellowed into what seemed to be a peaceful night, I noticed a faraway distant glow emerging into the murky sky.
Bang! My body jolted with shock as my bedroom door collided with a dresser. Peering over my shoulder, I recognized the lanky figure standing in the doorway. With a quick click, fluorescent light swiftly illuminated my room revealing my best, and oldest, friend.
“Alfie?” I paused, turning towards him in bewilderment.“What the hell is going on?”
For a minute, he just stood there, averting eye contact and desperately trying to string together a coherent explanation for tonight's disturbances. It was unusual for Alfie to be so agitated. Instead of his signature goofy smile, I noticed distress etched on his face. Instead of the familiar melody of his laugh, there was a shakiness to his breath.
“Well, there’s been an explosion of some sorts in the factory section,” he uttered, fighting back a stream of tears and desperately trying to stay strong.
“An explosion? Are any of the workers seriously hurt?” I questioned in disbelief. It was uncommon for any type of disaster to occur in Imperium. Let alone sound the siren of death.
Alfie’s gaze met mine as he recalled, “Well, as soon as the explosion happened, my parents and I rushed over to help the injured. But, when we arrived, there was just huge debris scattered all over the ground and the factory was practically engulfed in flames. Obviously, we wanted to keep scouring the ruins, you know, for survivors. But, the government’s guardsmen came and forced us out. As we were leaving, the sirens came. A feeble sign of hope. So, I ran halfway across the city to see you. To tell you,” he suddenly paused. It’s almost as if he knew his next few words would eventually shatter the little hope I had left.
“People are saying there are no survivors.”
“No survivors? No…no that’s not right. I mean, there has to be at least a couple of survivors,” I replied, fondling with the charm of my necklace.
Alfie’s tentative eyes watched me pace around the small room and he continued with hesitation, “Ya Ling, I saw it with my own eyes. The plant is destroyed. There are no survivors.”
There. Are. No. Survivors. Each word echoed within the fragile walls of my mind and as if I had no control over my body, I collapsed onto the floor. Rushing forward, a panic-stricken Alfie engulfed my trembling body into a warm embrace. As the reality flooded my mind, I felt the distinct feeling of being absolutely alone. The distinct feeling of pure misery.
September 25, 3031
“Ya Ling? Are you even listening to me?” an exasperated voice shouts, yanking my anxious mind from a distant memory back to reality. Shifting my focus towards the irritated adult, I notice the pointed look painted on her face.
“Mrs. Pictor, I’m truly sorry. I’ve just been a bit distracted lately,” I apologize.
Today marks the anniversary of my parent's death, and despite it being two years, I still had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that they are actually gone. Every so often, the memory of their death hides far within the depths of my mind. And, just for those few moments, I’m happy. Successfully orchestrating a secret society alongside Alfie. Exploring the magical world beyond the city with Reb. Liberated from the overwhelming pain of my parent's death. But, just as I begin to find a shred of happiness in this world of misery, I’m reminded of my parent's death. And that once hidden memory, finds itself chained to the spotlight.
“Honey, listen. I know it's the anniversary of your parent's death and I really do sympathize with you. But for the sake of this family, you’ve got to get your act together for the cameras. It’s Press Day!” Mrs. Pictor exclaims while weaving a yellow ribbon into my curls.
Press Day, apparently, is one the most important days for those part of Imperium’s elitist class. On this remarkable day, the richest and whitest of Imperium clothe themselves in the finest attire, flaunting their wealth to the millions of cameras that supposedly capture their every move for the sake of us, the working class folk. It's basically a “brag-tus update” to remind anyone who’s not wealthy, powerful, or a politician that they're neither wealthy, powerful, nor a politician.
However, the actual day itself is pretty enjoyable. You know, if you’re not a recently orphaned teenager with deep-rooted hate for the government. Wait. It’s not that I absolutely hate the government because I’m an orphaned teenager. No. I hate the government because of the systemic racism that remains prevalent within our society at the hands of corrupt politicians and the government that protects them.
“Wow!” Mrs. Pictor says from behind me. “Finally, after three hours of tedious work, I’ve successfully transformed you from an Imperium reject to an Imperium elitist!”
Mrs. Pictor’s words replay in my mind as I stare into the mirror at a girl I barely recognize. A stranger. Her posture resembles that of an Imperium elitist, stoic and void of emotion; however her confidence seems to waver as Mrs. Pictor’s boney fingers brush across her shoulders. Her ebony hair is molded into perfectly placed curls that fall right above her collarbone covering several faded blemishes staining her neck. She exhibits a faint smile of what appears to be joy, but the nightmares shrouded behind her eyes relay a different story. Her dress’s fabric works to veil her frail body from the public eye, concealing years of malnourishment and starvation; while the luminous color enkindles a childish essence. That girl standing in the mirror is an Imperium puppet, and I hate her.
“Ya Ling, please pay attention to me!” Mrs. Pictor says snapping her fingers in front of my face. “The moment I saw this dress, I just knew it would be perfect for you! The color. The fit. What do you think?”
To be entirely honest, by some powerful sorcery or whatever, I actually manage to look presentable in this awful mustard colored dress; Mrs. Pictor practically forces me to wear. But, it isn’t me. Like every Press Day before, I’ve been reduced to a simple side character in the government’s tear-jerker of a narrative. “Lonely orphan girl gets saved from a life of despair by well-known political family, the Pictors.” Award-winning, am I right?
“Well, while the dress itself is perfect, I had to admit the color isn’t exactly me. Maybe we could try a shade of blue,” I respond tentatively, gauging her reaction in the mirror. Mrs. Pictor does not react kindly to any form of disagreement.
I watch her jaw tense as she exhales intensely. Her hostile gaze pierces through the mirror and a sickly sweet smile creeps across her face.
“If you want to ignore the countless hours I’ve spent scouring the stores to find the one dress I thought you would love, then yes, you can try something in a shade of blue. It’s not like this dress was extremely expensive anyways.”
Not to be mythical or anything, but I swear that despite her philanthropic status and alleged kindhearted personality, Mrs. Pictor is actually a monstrous witch in disguise. Besides her freakishly misshapen nose and coincidental chin wart, I’m convinced she uses her witchy powers under the guise of emotional manipulation -her favorite form of magic- to personally ruin people’s lives, or to be specific, mine.
“You know what, I changed my mind. The yellow actually does look good,” I mutter simultaneously appeasing Mrs. Pictor and my slight fear of her hidden rage.
“Great! Now listen, you can’t forget to update the reporters on your luxurious life with us,” she says with her famous patronizing stare. “Oh, and at least try to smile for the cameras this time, it’s important for our public image.”
“Of course, Mrs. Pictor,” I respond as she disappears into the hallway.
It’s natural for her to believe it’s her right to control me as some minion who’ll obey her every command. In her mind, I should be grateful for this lavish life she so graciously provided me with. After all, just a few months ago, I was nothing but a depressed and lonely girl with no foreseeable future. So, on Press Day, I’m obligated to fill the role of the happiest orphan to have ever walked this earth; ultimately thankful for my “terrific” and “charitable” government.
Chapter 2 - Aidan
June 16, 3026
“Aidan,” my mother calls. “Aidan, you must get up now. Today’s a Press Day.”
It’s still dark outside, but mother wakes me up this early so that I look perfect, or as close to perfect as she can possibly manage. Vivid colors from exciting dreams vanish as my eyelids force themselves open, the colors replaced with a sea of gray and pink. My bedroom.
My first Press Day was when I was about 5 - the first Press Day I remember. It was a gorgeous spring day, so naturally all I wanted to do was go play with the other children. But my mother pulled me inside and informed me that this was a necessary part of my training if I wanted to be successful in Imperium, “our wonderful government and country”. This would give me an advantage above everyone else, and I should be grateful for the opportunities she was giving me. Tears began to trickle down my face, but she quickly wiped them away and fussed with my clothes and hair. A pretty pink dress, a nice low ponytail.
The next time I cried at a Press Day, I was sent to my room with no breakfast, and did my hair myself. Same color dress, same low ponytail.
Now I know that Press Day means I don’t protest, I don’t bother my mother or father, I don’t worry about anything except the public eye. I’ve become the Government Girl with the pink dress and the low ponytail.
At about eight o’clock, once the sun is fully up, we prepare to step out of the house and meet the mob of cameras. Our house is very popular, because the whole family participates. Every part of the day is rehearsed, perfected to the amount of steps we take to get to the automobile. It’s a little dance, a stage performance we put on for the public eye. My father steps out and ignores the reporters, holding the door for me and my mother. My mother walks out next, smiles graciously at reporters, and then watches as I step out last and give a little wave. Then we briskly walk to the automobile, my mother, me, and my father, and step in.
When we get to Building One, there is a grey carpet laid out for everyone to walk on. It’s for practicality, it decreases the chance that we might fall and embarrass ourselves or the agencies we represent. We never speak to the press, although some choose to. Another lesson I was taught at a very young age: if you don’t open your mouth to speak, you never have to worry that you’ll say the wrong thing.
I’ve learned to like Press Days. It’s like eating vegetables, if you tell yourself you like them, eventually you just do. It took many years, but I’ve learned to glaze over, become a 2-D figure for the rest of the nation to marvel at, to speculate about. In these situations it’s easier to simply trick your brain than to invest energy into it.
Chapter 3 - Ellie
June 11, 3032
My internal monologue typically goes something like this: You can’t say that. Think, what is the opposite of what you want to say? How does this correlate to Imperium’s values? How can you make the teacher fawn over you just a little more by twisting your opinion?
It’s an unending cycle in the Academy, the school preparing students for higher-ranking positions in the government. One faulty move and you’re done. A failed student is substantially worse than not being admitted in the first place; once you’ve wronged Imperium, tricked them into thinking you can be someone you’re not, you’re “dropped,” as they call it. You’ve consciously given up your right to live with the highest members of society, and that shows more idiocy than not working hard enough to pass the entrance exam.
“Why is it vital to present yourself as visually perfect as well as mentally?” The professor’s shoes click loudly against the tiled floor as she walks up and down the rows of desks. My internal monologue commences with a pang of frustration. Because, Professor, you’re all superficial brats who believe that perfection is required for someone to be worth listening to and are ignorant to the point of no return. You’re all so stupid that you judge intelligence based on our faces when its our words that matter. It’s a hideous justification that silences the lower classes who have to deal with your thoughtless announcements day after day. I scribble my thoughts down on paper as quickly as possible, getting my frustration out to make up for what I’m about to say.
I raise my hand, dropping my pen to the desk as others finish writing their own ideas.
“Elle,” the professor says, and I paste a smile on my face.
“I apologize Professor, but it’s Ellie,” I correct, folding my hands in front of me. “Physical perfection is simply to show our importance. We must convince the lower members of society that we are worth listening to. It’s also a mark of professionalism, and can drastically help us earn the respect we’ve worked for.”
The professor raises her eyebrows, pursing her lips. She tears her eyes from me without a response and surveys the room before a look of pleasant surprise falls over her face.
“Aidan, what do you think?”
My jaw tightens and I take a deep breath. Calm down.
“In order to retain the respect of our subordinates, we can’t rely on our acts of intelligence,” Aidan explains from somewhere behind me. I don’t turn around, not confident in my ability to hold back a glare. “Physical attributes are an easier comparison. They’ll view us as we are without needing to understand why we are. They don’t know any better.”
“That’s what I was looking for.” The professor nods, and I focus my eyes on my notebook. I lean forward and scrawl Aidan’s words down begrudgingly. “Good job, Aidan. Now, write an essay to the prompt displayed on the board. Five paragraphs minimum, at least eight sentences each, understood?”
I flip the page and glance up, preparing myself for yet another assignment full of lies. One essay a day, and somehow each assignment is just like the last. A sickening test in which we must prove that we comprehend the beliefs that are expected of us. There is only one right solution in the Academy.
Today’s prompt is “Who in society is most to thank for our raging success in economy, health, and happiness?” This essay - a speech, really - is part of our preparation for graduation. It’s just a trick, something meant to weed out those who don’t understand that the answer is always the government. They are in full control, so there is no other plausible response - in their eyes, at least. They blatantly gloss over the fact that our economy runs on the payments of government workers while the lower positions leave people without the money to afford even the most basic of items. They ignore that healthcare is meant solely for the wealthy, and if you haven’t grown up in a highly privileged, rich white family, sickness means you should give up hope. It’s said that we’re all happy when in reality, I know of fellow students who fear what could happen if they lose their position in the Academy, longing to work with their actual interests that just won’t cut it in the end.
Before I lower my pen to begin, I reach up and touch the glossy red ribbon pinned to my gray shirt. This is the only color I’ve managed to get away with wearing over the years, an obscure act of rebellion in its own vague way that only I truly appreciate. The internal rant of mine from before melts into the ideals of Imperium as I ceremoniously, almost symbolically, release the ribbon and begin to write the opposite of all I believe in. It’s my only chance to get through this, my only chance to sit where our leaders have broken apart our world, sent it into chaos, built upon what I thought was only historical segregation. Power is all that matters to them; although I suppose that’s where we can agree. Power matters to me too, just not for any comparable purpose.
I will stand with the heads of Imperium, and I will reverse what has demolished our remaining humanity. It’s remained my intention from a very young age, something more to motivate me other than the immense pressure to succeed thrust on me by my parents. After being unable to graduate from the Academy in their teenage years, Mom and Dad vowed to never allow me to undergo the social judgment that comes with scholarly failure. They expect perfection like every other entitled member of high-ranking society; and, being some of the few capable of maintaining a steady living situation outside of the government, they see no rationalization as to why I should not reach this coveted flawlessness.
The day ends, my hand left sore and my heart aching from each and every lie I spouted in class. It troubles me exceedingly, but I am willing to turn my back on my individuality to join the era of conforming to wild but uniform expectations, as long as I ultimately have the capability to terminate what I went through to get to an official position; I want no one else to choke back their ideas and opinions, no one to be denied fundamental human rights on a racial or social irrationality, no one to have to settle for what they have when it is substantially impossible to rise above where you are born.
I ride the bus home, a pale yellow folder clutched tightly in my hands. I’d normally take a moment to skim over the graded papers from the past month, just to get a sense of how my parents will be reacting once I get home. However, I know that our final in-class grades and class rankings sit there in the pocket covering the work, so easy yet painstakingly impossible to look at right now. These numbers won’t determine what my rank will be following the final exam, but they’re a reliable indicator of whether or not I will make it into the top ten leadership positions. I’ll still get a well-paid government occupation, as long as I don’t fail, of course, but not anything with enough power to infiltrate the offices of the heartless meatballs running our government.
I tip my head back against the seat to gaze out the window. As the city rolls past, I notice that the symbolic gray I always imagine when thinking about the country is more of a reality than I considered. The bland color is everywhere; even the sky hovers over us like a dull shaded blanket of suppression.
Twenty minutes later I walk up the steps to our house, pulling out my key and letting myself in. I have the folder gripped tightly in one hand; Mom speeds into the front hall in an instant.
“Let me see,” she says breathlessly as if she’s been worrying about this all day - which she very likely has been. Monthly grades are always a big deal around here, but with the final grades and class rankings being released, this is presumably the moment my parents have been waiting for since my birth.
The folder is snatched from my hand and Mom turns on her heel, rushing back to her office. I hurry after her, my chest tightening.
A tiny gasp escapes Mom’s throat the moment she flips open the folder. She collapses down into the chair, her eyebrows furrowing in a rather unpleasant state of shock. Her lips part, her eyes darting over the paper. I had momentarily frozen in the doorway but dash forward, reading over her shoulder.
1: Aidan Cicuta
2: Ellie DeVeux
I cover my mouth with my hand. I realize with a start that I never genuinely cared about being first, just in the top ten; yet now, seeing Aidan’s name mocking me from her first-place position, I can assuredly acknowledge that I really wanted to beat her. Aidan, not one year ahead but two. Aidan, with her high-ranked parents who all but ensured her a spot in the Academy. Aidan, perfect, beautiful Aidan who could feasibly buy her way into running the country if she really desired; assuming she didn’t charm her way past the teachers, first.
It’s not fair.
“Second. Really, Ellie?” Mom’s icy voice tears me out of my angered daze as she slaps the folder down onto the desk. She leans forward, placing her fingers on her temples like my failure physically pains her. I cross my arms, for once not caring that I’m about to be yelled at.
“My grades were practically perfect,” I murmur, a humorless laugh bubbling out of my throat. I shake my head frantically, lunging forward to pull the paper out. “See? I had hundreds in multiple classes. How could she - how could Aidan-”
“Aidan. She’s the government girl in the pink dress, right?”
“Yes!” The only grade that catches my eye is of the annoyingly difficult government publicity class where I have to hold back some of my strongest opinions. Ninety-six. “She - it’s - it’s all favoritism. I had such good grades. We had similar responses to everything, I swear, they just like her so much.”
“Ellie, Ellie,” Mom says, grabbing the paper back. To my surprise, she sets it down and looks at me, grasping my hand. “She did have a slightly unfair advantage, yes. And I wish you could have done better, I really do, but this is promising. You might not be the highest rank, but you’ll lead, and that’s better than nothing.”
I take a trembling breath, glancing back at the paper with a nauseating sense of dread. “I worked so hard.”
“Not hard enough to beat someone who naturally has this far easier than you,” she says, her eyes sad despite the tiny smile she puts on for my sake. This is the first time she’s ever tried to be somewhat sympathetic over what, in this household, is considered failure. “You made it farther than your father and I ever did. We pushed you hard for a reason. This is good!”
I grit my teeth, feeling tears stinging my eyes as they threaten to fall. “Since when has second place been good? You’ve never let me stop at that before.”
“You’re right.” She leans over and abruptly yanks a drawer open, pulling out a few sheets of paper. “You’re going to your room right now, and you’re going to start with a practice essay. That’s the class you’re struggling in, publicity. You need to get your speeches down.”
A tear finally falls, and I wipe it away without sparing a second. “Okay,” I agree, taking the papers.
“You have one more chance to get to first place. You will practice every aspect of the final exam five times before the test next week, alright?”
I nod, glancing at her computer. “Can I look up a prompt?”
“Go ahead.” She stands up and pulls out her cellphone, walking out of the room without another word. I sit down, inhaling deeply to calm my racing heart. As my mind clears from its initial rage, I recognize the ever-so-slightly psychotic jealousy that falls over me every once in a while when I have any motive to compare myself to Aidan.
Top ten. That’s all you need, I tell myself, ignoring the overpowering urge to get something Aidan doesn’t have for once throughout my entire education. Top ten earns you the Imperium Policies internship, the job that ultimately carves a path toward leadership. I’m there, I have the spot as long as the exam doesn’t go so poorly I’m knocked down nine places.
However, the extra preparation couldn’t hurt. Shooting for first will basically ensure that I do well enough; it’s a concept well-known in this family. Blinding yourself from ideas of anything but total success will ideally push you enough to get something worthwhile.
My mother’s few words of comfort should tell me that I’m getting that something.
Nonetheless, the daunting pressure of my parents doesn’t push me as much as my will, my need to do all I can to save this country.
Chapter 4 - Ya Ling
July 07, 3031
From afar, I watched my little brother, the light of my life, writhing in agony on a steel medical bed. Tears flowed down my rosy cheeks as his cries for our dead mother echoed throughout the empty halls of the hospital. Seated alongside Alfie in the doctor's office, we waited patiently for an explanation of my brother's sudden illness. I drowned out the constant screams of my brother, choosing to focus on Alfie's soft humming instead. My frail hands lied intertwined in Alfie’s gentle grasp between the tiny space of our chairs. As my head rested upon his shoulder, a sign displayed above the doctor’s chair attracted my attention. Written in scarlett bold letters, Imperium’s Order Saves Lives stood out against the bland walls.
I imagined that the sign's purpose was to provide a sense of comfort. However, it provided me minimal to none. Imperium’s agenda that absolute order saved lives was nothing more than a deceiving, hypocritical lie. Imperium officials claimed our order was what fueled our survival. Everyday life restricted to a certain set of standards controlled the chaos. Fulfilling the duties of our designated societal roles maintained the safety.
But, if that was true, it would be my parents sitting alongside me; making the decisions a seventeen-year-old shouldn't even be allowed to make.
“Ms. Huang?” a raspy voice entered the office. “I’m Dr. Pictor.”
At first glance, this man was absolutely terrifying. Sauntering over to his throne-like seat, his bloodshot eyes gazed over Alfie and I, as if he longed for the closeness we shared. As he perched himself upon the seat, his pasty skin seemed to absorb the fluorescent light accentuating the tired bags dangling beneath his eyes. His face was littered with wrinkles and he exhibited what looked to be a permanent frown. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this man hated his job.
“After analyzing a series of tests we’ve performed on your brother,” the doctor began in a monotone voice, “it’s safe to say, your brother has contracted a case of Mortem.”
Alfie gasped beside me as I stared into space, stunned. I felt terrified. Growing up in the working class section of Imperium, my entire childhood had been filled with horror stories of Mortem. The excruciating pain. The inevitable death. Repeatedly, I had been told no child ever survived Mortem. Yet somehow, sitting in this stuffy medical office, I refused to believe my brother had been trapped in death’s prison without a single escape hatch in sight.
“There is a cure, right?” I asked hopefully, clutching the silver charm of my necklace.
“Of course!” the doctor scoffed, looking utterly displeased. He seemed legitimately appalled that I would even consider, let alone question, that Imperium wouldn’t have a cure.
“Obviously, as it’s Imperium’s duty to provide the best quality of healthcare for its citizens, we’ve formulated a treatment that eliminates the disease entirely. The only downside is that it’s just a tad expensive. But, surely, regardless of the price, you’d want your brother to receive the life-saving treatment he needs,” the doctor continued with a smirk as he handed me the financial form.
It was almost as if he took pleasure in the mere possibility I wouldn’t be able to afford the treatment. Which given my Reject status and on-the-brink-of-bankruptcy bank account, the chances of me affording an Imperium medical treatment, were, let’s just say, more than impossible. But, I wasn’t about to let something as simple as a payment become my brother’s downfall. He was my everything, and I’d be damned if I let him die under my care.
“Listen, there is absolutely no way I can afford this treatment. But, my brother needs it if he’s going to have a fighting chance at survival. Is there any way you could offer a discount or maybe a deduction if we opted out of some of the services?”
“I surely hope you’re joking,” the doctor answered with a look of haughty disdain. “While the treatment may seem exceedingly expensive to you, others know that’s the price of quality healthcare. You should be ashamed for attempting to barter like some beggar. Might I remind you, this is an Imperium medical facility. Not some common marketplace.”
“Please have some compassion,” I pleaded, as tears threatened to spill from my eyes. “My brother, he is the only family I have left. I would do anything to save him. I would even work for you for free for the rest of my life if you would just treat my brother. Please.”
“I’m truly sorry,” the doctor apologized, feigning sympathy. “But, it just wouldn’t be fair if I were to treat your brother for free and no one else’s. Just imagine the uproar it would cause amongst your people. Imperium’s once peaceful order would be ruined in seconds all because you wanted me to favor your brother over everyone else's.”
“This is absolute crap.” Alfie slammed his hands onto the doctor’s desk. “You talk about providing the ‘the best quality of healthcare’, but I guess that doesn’t include empathy for struggling teenagers who can’t foot the bill. You say Imperium’s order would be ruined in seconds just because Ya Ling wants to save her brother, like it’s our fault we're stuck barely making enough to live while you and your elitist buddies gallivant around the city spending thousands on extravagant dinners for your wives and pricey gifts for your children. Because, you won’t ever have to worry about that gut wrenching feeling of not able to provide for your family. The feeling of not being able to save the ones you love.”
At that moment, I went from distressed to really terrified. The doctor’s once permanent frown became contorted with outrage and annoyance. His hands formed tight fists and his eyes narrowed at the sight of Alfie’s defensive stance.
“You just made a huge mistake.” The doctor sneered, pressing a red button of what I assumed summoned Imperium guardsmen. “You just single-handedly ruined the only chance your friend’s brother had to receive treatment from one of the best doctors Imperium has. The guardsmen will be here in a matter of minutes and you Imperium rejects will be forced to leave this medical facility.”
“You know what? That’s fine.” I said, wiping a few tears from my cheeks. “Because, after talking with you, I don’t really see one of the best doctors Imperium has to offer. I see a petty and privileged Imperium doctor who abandons dying children without a second thought, and you disgust me.”
My brother’s death proved to me that the government only cared for those who fit their preferred mold of rich, white, and obedient. Almost every aspect of my existence has been corrupted by their blatant favoritism. My family. My friends. My education. My future.
But it wasn’t just my life, it was the life of every kid and parent a part of Imperium’s working class. If you were anything but rich, white, and obedient, you were born into a life of poverty and desperation. If you were anything but rich, white, and obedient, you were guaranteed a future tethered to a life of servitude. If you were anything but rich, white, and obedient, you were taught you had nothing of value to contribute to society. Not your hard work. Not the little cash you had left to give. And certainly not your “radical” opinions opposing the life you were practically forced to live to survive.
As Alfie, my dying brother, and I were escorted from Imperium’s medical facility that day, I made an oath, a promise to avenge my brother’s death. I would fight for a future that truly treated those of the working class with equality. No longer would our futures be bound to a life of slaving away in the factories. No longer would we relinquish our power and dignity to the elitist class. No longer would we fall victim to the oppressive order of the government. We would be free.
June 12, 3032
I look up in utter shock as the name echoes off of the concrete walls. I can hardly believe that Reb has the audacity to suggest such an individual.
“You think, Aidan Cicuta, the epitome of an Imperium citizen and since birth, perfectly bred to become a future leader in our government, should join the Jùjué,” I reply in disbelief.
Shaking his head in agreement, Reb begins, “Yes, Aidan Cicuta,” as if to say, who else better for the job?
“Ya Ling, her knowledge and brainpower are out of this world. She has this unbeatable drive and ambit-”
“Absolutely not,” I exclaim, promptly interrupting what I believe has the potential to become Reb’s, “declaration of things I love about Aidan”.
“Reb, first, I’m going to remind you she’s the daughter of not one, but TWO highly ranked government officials. Next, I know you know this, but in light of this recent request, I feel I must say it’s well known she’s expected and obviously wants to play a key role in the government,” I explain as the tension thickens throughout the room. “So, not only could it be an immense security risk, but also she would never, in a million years, join our movement.”
“You don’t know that for sure. Besides, wasn’t it your idea to recruit Academy students into the Jùjué for the plan?” Reb scoffs.
“Yeah, it was my idea to recruit Academy students,” I respond, smirking in his direction. “You know, the ones with good morals and basic human decency!”
I watch in annoyance as Reb rolls his eyes in response to my enmity about his precious Academy girlfriend. Listen, I’ll admit my choice of words may have been a bit condescending. But if Reb is seriously going to continue to defend his recommendation of Aidan Cicuta, I have a right, a moral responsibility, to notify him of his total stupidity.
While it’s true a part of me has become slightly concerned over his unusual choice of candidate, I’m mostly surprised. Of course, for Reb, it’s typical for him to always be entangled in some sort of relationship with a different girl periodically. But, he always knew the importance of separating his dating life from the society’s valuable work. So, either this infatuation with Aidan has seriously impaired his judgment, or he actually thinks she would be beneficial to our mission.
Bang! The metal door of the meeting room slams into the concrete wall, revealing a much-needed mediator who takes form as a goofy teenager.
“Woah! Dudes and dudettes, what’s with all the negative energy,” Alfie says with a smirk as he stumbles into the meeting room, plopping down into one of the chairs. “What’s crack-a-lackin?”
“Well, I’m proposing a new member that has the potential to be a great asset to our movement,” Reb explains, throwing an irritated look my way. “But, Ya Ling disagrees.”
Look, it’s not that I totally disagree. I’d be lying if I denied the value that Aidan’s elitist status held within our plan. Being the daughter of two highly ranked Imperium officials, her loyalty to the government would be indisputable, allowing her to investigate confidential areas without question. As the top graduate of her class at the Academy, she’s practically destined for a notable governmental position with access to valuable information. Aidan, quite literally, would be the perfect double agent the Jùjué needed. But, her obvious loyalty to the government begged the question: Would we, a secret society of rebels, be able to trust her?
“Oh please! I don’t disagree! I simply, full-heartedly, object!” I declare, watching Alfie’s eyes wander in confusion over what could possibly break the usual close bond Reb and I shared.
“Okay then,” Alfie says, wiggling his eyebrows with the hope to defuse the ticking time bomb of tension in the room. “If you don’t mind me asking, who’s the special candidate?”
Reb tilts his chin up and announces confidently, “Aidan Cicuta.”
I watch in amusement as Alfie roars with laughter, tipping his chair over in the process. Sprawled out on the floor he laughs, “Aidan Cicuta? You’ve got to be joking! She’s a total security risk!”
“You guys are impossible,” Reb groans with a look of defeat.
“Listen Reb, it’s not that Aidan wouldn’t be a perfect asset to our movement,” Alfie says, rising from the floor. “It’s just we can’t exactly trust her.”
“Precisely!” I agree. “Which is why I want to recruit Ellie DeVeux.”
“Wait, you think Ellie DeVeux is a better option than Aidan?” Reb chuckles softly. “You’re kidding me!”
“I can assure you, I'm not,” I respond, handing Reb and Alfie a thoroughly vetted profile of Ellie. “ I think Ellie DeVeux is the far more logical option. She will maximize our chances at generating the most change within Imperium.”
“The far more logical option, you say,” Reb mumbles, pondering for a moment. “Why?”
“Well, first off, she’s second in your class. And if you open your profiles to page 2, the family relations section, you will notice the immense pressure her parents have forced upon her from, well, birth. That, partnered with the high standards of the Academy, clearly shows her ability to succeed in even the toughest situations,” I begin.
“Second, you’ve always shared your suspicions that Ellie despises the government. So, if you will turn your profiles to page 4, Ellie the Rebel?, you will read a note she disposed of whilst in government publicity class. She writes, Because, Professor, you’re all superficial brats who believe that perfection is required for someone to be worth listening to and are ignorant to the point of no return. You’re all so stupid that you judge intelligence based on our faces when its our words that matter. It’s a hideous justification that silences the lower classes who have to deal with your thoughtless announcements day after day. Clearly, she’s meant to be one of us. And if you agree, I’m going to approach her at your graduation.” I finish, staring expectantly at Reb for his answer.
An awkward silence falls over the room as Reb sits deep in thought. Unexpectedly, and without warning, he flings a pillow in my direction, smacking me straight across the face. Not to be dramatic or anything, but I’m fairly certain that pillow could’ve blinded me. Anyway, my gaze refocuses and I notice a smile tugging at his lips. He throws his hands in the air as a sign of defeat.
“Alright, you’ve convinced me!”
Chapter 5 - Aidan
June 16, 3032
At graduation, we march in single file lines. Those from Street One wear their Imperium emblems with pride, puffing out their chests to show the gleaming silver. Others are concaving inwards, trying to hide the fact that, despite endless nights of polishing, their cheap gray badges won’t match up. Even if we claim equality, we’re aware that some may have advantages. It’s just a part of life.
My badge is silver - my parents wouldn’t have it any other way. A daughter of two high ranking officials should never, would never look less than perfect. An exercise regimen to keep me in perfect shape, a beauty regimen so that four hours of sleep looks like eight, hand-picked friends that will advance my social standing, and possibly even my career.
“You’re never too young to start thinking about these kinds of things.”
So now, the culmination of advanced calculus, political science for the new age, and tests every week has come to this. A parade across the stage, ignoring the crowd. A uniform march into our future. Where all of us will become political leaders, business CEOs. Those of us in the Academy look down on the rest of the country, the rest of Imperium. We learn to understand that it’s simply the way the system works, the order necessary for our civilization to survive.
I see the bright eyes of new pupils staring up at me, and fight the urge to laugh. They too sit in perfect lines, learning order from their first day, internalizing it all. And then they end up like us. Ten hard years of work, endless lessons, lectures, anxieties. All for this moment.
After we cross the stage, we stand with our right hand touching our badge and our left in a salute, as the anthem of Imperium blasts through the building. Its swelling music and crashing drums remind us of its power, remind us that Imperium will always reign strong. There’s a reason that the rest of the world fell around us. There’s a reason our country’s been stable for decades. The anthem tells it all.
We march off again, in the same order we came on. Order. Always Order.
Afterwards, I meet my childhood friend, Reb, at the drinks table. He’s already taken his badge off and stuffed it in his pocket, and I see he messed up his gelled hair the minute we got off the stage. Our parents are gathered around the brightly colored shots, talking about us in hushed, intense tones. He smiles, his brown eyes glinting, and hands me a glass of sparkling cider.
Reb and I have been friends since before the Academy, a strange occurrence in Imperium. His parents and mine both deemed our friendship acceptable, as my father and his mother work in the same sector of Building One and therefore we have the same social status.
“What are they talking about? They seem pretty worried,” I ask as our parents keep sneaking glances our way.
“Don’t worry about them. I’ve just told mother this morning I’m taking an internship in the wildlife sector instead of Imperium Policies like she’d hoped. They’re not too pleased about it.”
“Reb I… I don’t really know what to say…why aren’t you taking policies? You’re near top of the class.” I’m in shock.
He shrugs carelessly.
“Not really my thing. Honestly, father wasn’t very bothered by the news, although nothing really affects him at all at this point.”
I look over and see Reb’s father looking off into space with red eyes, three heavy shot glasses in his hand.
“But my mother on the other hand, I thought she would wake up all of Imperium with her arguing and yelling this morning, it was dreadful to deal with,” he continues.
“Not trying to be rude,” I begin, cautious of his situation, “but why would you want to work in wildlife? It’s just an endless field out there, nothing interesting. You could do so much in policies.”
His eyes turn to me with such intensity I almost don’t recognize them. There’s a drive, a passion that I thought had been lost by everyone who went through the Academy. His voice gets hushed, “I don’t want to be a part of their dumb system, A. I want something more than that. You don’t know what kind of hell hole you’re stepping into, and by the time you realize it, you’re too brainwashed and helpless to do anything. Well I’m not gonna let that happen to me.”
Suddenly his eyes become focused on the back of the room. I hear commotion, the gasps of many, and some shrieks even escape the students’ mouths. Reb’s face quickly turns from shocked to worried to distraught. I’ve never seen him like this, and I grab his arm.
“Reb, are you ok? What’s going on?” He doesn’t respond, and I’m unsure if he even heard me. I follow his gaze to see the guardsmen grabbing a young girl I’ve never seen before. She looks about my age, but isn’t in graduation attire. At her feet is shattered glass, most likely from the drink she was holding. My first assumption is that she snuck into the party and was caught stealing food. But then why would Reb be so worried about her?
At this point, most of the party is quiet, fixated on this young girl who fit so well before, but now seems so out of place. I realize I haven’t let go of Reb’s arm, and he keeps clenching and unclenching his fist.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?” he yells at his parents, who have moved to stand beside him. But they simply look away.
I see him scan the crowd with desperate eyes. Something about this just feels so wrong. My grip is tight now with fear, and I know I’m the only thing stopping him from running up to the girl.
Right as they reach the door with their “criminal” and the squad that came to get her, Reb throws my hand off and starts to run across the ballroom floor. Most of the guests have gone back to their conversations, but some notice his absurd behavior.
“No!” he cries as the doors shut and lock behind the squad. “No! What are you doing to her?! Why are you taking her?! She hasn’t done anything… STOP!”
Reb’s mother briskly walks towards her son, who is in hysterics, banging on the doors. She takes him into a corner to calm him down, and my parents usher me away so as to not be associated with such a dramatic scene. We leave soon after, without getting the chance to find out who she was or why Reb was so upset.
At home, my mother gives me a quick hug in an attempt to say “congratulations”. Then she places her badge and device on the countertop and grabs my hands urgently.
“Honey, your father and I realized that you haven’t told us what path you’re planning on taking yet, now that you’re an intern-level citizen.”
She gazes at my father, silently urging him to talk. They tiptoe on eggshells, reaching for the right words.
“Yes, we were just, um, checking to see if the Academy has been guiding the students to make the best decision possible. We firmly believe that you will do what’s best and… necessary for your career and goals, but we were hoping that you’d, um, how should I put this… that you’d-”
“That you’d chosen the correct path,” my mother butts in anxiously.
My steady gaze meets their frantic eyes.
“Don’t worry. I’m entering the policies field.”
The highest government position reserved for the best of the Academy’s students.
They breathe out a sigh of relief, and I watch as their shoulders fall from their ears, tension releasing through their entire bodies. Who knew parents could be this… concerned about their child’s future.
“We weren’t worried or anything. We were just excited to hear what you’d picked!” my mother quickly adds, and then they both walk into the kitchen, discussing their opinions on the array of drinks displayed at the graduation party.
I slip into my room and quietly shut the door. The holographic lights give a soft blue and white glow, and badges of silver gleam. I know exactly what they were doing. Who could’ve guessed that the son of a top tier family would choose one of the lowest level internships, the one left only for the lowest of the class? And since Reb had chosen that path, who’s to say I wouldn’t have as well? Ah, the anxieties of being a parent. Thank goodness for them, my life’s been planned out for me, by the Academy, by Imperium, by their own ideas. Don’t need to worry about little old Aidan making her own choices.
What a dumb thought. I should be grateful, excited. I mean, I’m going to one of the most elite parts of all Imperium. The knowledge I will gain is unimaginable. I can only dream of it.
Chapter 6 - Ellie
June 16, 3032
“Keep a smile on your face, darling. You can’t afford to be a sore loser right now.”
The words sting more than the last time my father deemed me a loser. I have a habit of recalling moments like that far more vividly than any positivity I’ve managed to earn from my parents, so I replay various “loser” moments throughout my education as the two of them walk me toward the graduation afterparty. They’re behaving as if I’m just as sad as the gray-badged abandoned citizens we pass along the way. I probably am, in their eyes. I just can’t let myself look like the disappointment they see me as, or else the rest of the world will see it too.
It was one thing when I returned home second in my class; it was a dreadful disappointment when my final landed me in the eleventh spot, right beneath the cutoff for Imperium Policies. I don’t see how the graders didn’t like my writing, my presentation, my intelligence. Nonetheless, it happened; I was pushed down to eleventh, and while I’ve accepted it, I’m having enough trouble trying to get over what’s out of my control with my parents now looking down on me like this.
We head through the open doors into the reception. Fingers wrap tightly around my wrist, and I glance up, Dad’s face tight in his suppression of anger I know he feels toward me. The smile I pull my lips into feels as if it’s using every muscle in my face, weakly tugging at my cheeks but having no impact on my eyes that are likely screaming for help to anyone who looks closely.
He lets go of my arm, and I clasp my hands gently in front of me. As I turn my focus forward again, a burst of color in a sea of gray and other dark, muted colors catches my eye. A teenage girl in a yellow dress stands with a drink in hand, alone off to the side of a table. Mom notices someone she knows and wanders off toward them, and Dad continues on in another direction. I stop walking, glimpsing back at the girl to see her eyes observing me thoughtfully.
Yellow. What an odd color for a day like this. My hand moves to my hip to touch the red ribbon tucked slightly beneath my shirt; it would have been deemed inappropriate for the ceremony, so I had to swallow my pride and hide it before my parents took it as another excuse to express their disappointment.
I search the crowd for a face I can trust won’t shame me. Almost instantly, I find Reb standing by the drinks, talking to another from our class. I wrap my arms around myself as a slight chill rolls through the room, and I prepare to put on a smile that will likely get easier once I talk to him. I’m sure he, of all people, wouldn’t treat me as less than I am because of my rank. Neither of us could ever outright share our true feelings about Imperium, but in the few conversations we’ve had, I’ve noticed a certain discomfort that settles over him in school. In the same sense that I observed the professors, leaders, and policies of Imperium, I observed the people through my time at the Academy. I yearned for subtle hints that someone else was seeing the inconsistencies and injustices of our country, and I never noticed it from anyone but him.
I’m just a few more strides away from Reb when a hand grasps my wrist.
I whip around and yank my hand back, holding it to my chest. The girl in the yellow dress stands before me, her eyes studying me the same curious way they had been moments before.
“Congratulations,” she says, and smiles in such a genuine way that I’m certain this isn’t some pitied attempt at making me feel better for being so close to the cutoff...so close to perfection.
“Thank you.” I’m at a loss for words, so I just let a breath of a laugh out and shake my head. “Thank you. I’m Ellie.”
“Oh, I know.” She holds her hand out. “Ya Ling.”
I tentatively accept the handshake, nodding. “It’s nice to-”
“Would you walk with me?” She smiles again. “I hear there’s a lot of history in this hall. I’ve never been inside before.”
I nod, glancing around. “It’s quite interesting, really. It was built back-”
“Come on,” she interrupts again, waving me along. I’m a bit taken aback by her directness, her informality; I haven’t had much experience talking to students outside of the Academy. Her yellow dress and casual demeanor is the mark of a commoner. I have slight envy of her ability to do this without shame; the social hierarchy within the Academy itself has people near the bottom hating themselves because we aren’t taught to love mistakes. Ironically, I’ve given up a lot of figurative freedom for the wish to lead; I’ve thrown away values on some level to ideally make up for it later, whereas while this girl may not have the power to act based on her own values, she doesn’t have the same pressure on her to keep her ideas to herself.
“Have we met before?” I ask, watching her grab another glass of sparkling cider as we move to a hallway. I subtly glance at Reb as we pass him, wondering if he’d smile or wave at me. Ya Ling passes the new glass to me, and I thank her quietly. Reb does end up glancing over, but his eyes seem to skim over me and go right to Ya Ling. It’s not every day you see a yellow outfit at anything related to the government, I tell myself.
“Not officially, no. I don’t go to the Academy, as you can see,” she responds, gesturing to her outfit. “We went to school together a long time ago.”
“Oh. Forgive me for not remembering,” I apologize. I take a sip of sparkling cider, looking at the vast hallway before us. It really is beautiful, despite the fact that it was built as a memorial to the makers of this country.
“So, eleventh in your class. That’s impressive,” she notes, stopping to look at a painting upon the wall. I slow to a halt by her, reading the plaque beneath it.
“You don’t like it, though, do you?” I take my eyes off of the words and see her looking at me, now.
“You don’t have to keep up the prissy Academy student act. You’re an adult now. You’re about to go into your first internship.”
I raise my eyebrows, not sure whether I should feel insulted or impressed by the connotation.
“Are you happy with how it worked out?” she asks, tilting her head slightly to one side.
“No,” I say without hesitation.
“I wanted to lead. I wanted to change things.” I bite my lip, looking away. I hear Ya Ling laugh gently.
“Good. We could use some change, Ellie.”
I tighten my grip on the glass, glancing around to make sure no one else is in the hallway. “You agree?”
“Wholeheartedly.” She pauses. “Would you like to work toward making this change with me?”
I try not to let the excitement that runs through me at those words show. Is she joking? What power does a low-class teenager have against Imperium? Even I’m not moderately close to a position where I can do anything.
“There are more of us.” Her voice lowers, and she takes a step closer. “I’ve been watching. I know you’re not unhappy because you wanted to lead. You wanted to infiltrate. It’s our goal, too.”
“Ellie, I lead the Jùjué. The rejects, translated, as our lives and opinions have been openly fought by Imperium’s government as long as we’ve been alive. We’ve been working toward a better world, one where freedom of speech is celebrated, where healthcare and education are affordable, where people aren’t given up on for reasons they can’t control.”
My heart rate quickens. This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone else openly challenge the government. “Why do you want me?”
“Academy students, in particular, are who we look for. People like you. People who’ve been wronged in some way by the government, yet will likely grow into a position where they have some level of power.” She sighs, angling her body toward me while she takes a sip from her glass. “No one suspects a teenager, really. And even better, no one suspects someone who’s likely been conditioned to believe every little thing they’re told by Imperium.”
I glance around again, waiting for someone to pop out at us. Is Ya Ling used to approaching people about rebellions in crowded places? “They might already suspect me. Whatever I wrote in my exam, they didn’t like it. Being put nine places below my in-class rank is concerning. I’ve been good at translating my thoughts into theirs, but not perfect.”
She shrugs, raising an eyebrow. “Doesn’t have to be a problem. You can gain their trust back. One bad exam doesn’t change ten years of training where you weren’t enough of an issue to expel.”
I can’t think of anything else to say, wanting this conversation to end before anyone overhears. Another slightly saddening thought crosses my mind, telling me it’ll be hard to regain trust if I’m seen talking to Ya Ling; this idea alone makes me give a solid nod, determined to help this movement in any way I’m capable of.
A smile spreads over her face. “Perfect.” She pulls one of the chains around her wrist off, pressing it into my hand. A tiny charm hangs off of it, just a simple square. “This charm is equipped with a special type of magnetization that will allow you access to our underground labyrinth. All around Imperium, if you look close enough, you’ll notice the charm’s symbol printed on walls or buildings. Put your charm to that symbol and you’ll be shown the entrance.”
She and I return to the reception and go our separate ways. I scan around for someone to talk with once again, clenching my jaw at the sight of Aidan and Reb having a conversation. She must have approached him while I was away with Ya Ling.
I finally hear my name being called and walk over to join a small group of friends - acquaintances, really - from school, people ranked lower than I am who might help me feel somewhat better about myself.
Not long into our conversation, a series of gasps fall over the room. Glass shatters, and my focus snaps toward the disturbance. A shout sounds nearby.
Ya Ling’s terrified face stares into the parting crowd, her arms held by two guardsmen. I let out a small gasp, Reb rushing after her as she’s ushered from the building.
“No!” he yells, his parents following him. “No, what are you doing to her? Why are you-”
Unable to listen to his wails, horrified by what just happened to Ya Ling when she appears to have done nothing, I race off toward the bathrooms, ignoring the cries of my friends. I slam the door behind me and let out a strangled gasp, running my hands through my hair as my heels click loudly against the tiled floor.
Why was she taken? Is it possible that someone overheard us? How does Reb know her, too? Are they coming for me next?
A few sharp knocks on the door startle me back to reality. “Ellie, come out!”
It’s my mother’s voice.
“We saw you run in there.” Dad’s heavy voice follows.
“One second!” I call out, desperately searching my brain for a reason to have run in here after some random commoner’s arrest. “I don’t feel good.”
The doorknob jiggles. “Oh, Ellie, let me in. Are you throwing up?”
“Not yet!” Not yet?! Like I’m planning on throwing up. I quietly back away from the door for a moment, taking a shaky breath. I glance in the mirror and fix my now tousled hair and step forward, opening the door.
I wrap an arm over my stomach. “I’m sorry, I just feel nauseous.”
“That’s alright. We should leave anyway.” Mom sighs, looking over at Dad as she grabs my shoulder. “We can’t be caught up in things like that.”
On our way out, a tall, formally-dressed woman with pale blonde hair pulled into a tight bun appears before me, a folder tucked under her arm. “Ellie DeVeux?”
I straighten myself up, hoping I’m not revealing that my nausea was fake by doing so. “Yes, ma’am,” I respond.
“I’m happy to announce that there’s been a dropout in the Imperial Policies internship,” she says, her red lips parted in a flashy smile. “Being ranked eleventh in your class, the spot is yours to fill, assuming you want it.”
Mom’s fingers tighten around my shoulder, and my heart skips a beat.
“Really?” I breathe out. Mom squeezes tighter to the point of it hurting, so I nod. “Thank you for the opportunity, ma’am, I would love to.”
She gives an energetic nod, pulling out the folder. “Here’s the information. Turn in the transfer form on your first day,” she instructs, pulling out a packet and handing it to me. I take it gently, almost scared to touch the paper in fear of it disappearing into a cloud of smoke that tells me this is all a dream.
“Thank you,” I repeat, keeping my voice level and calm as my mind screams in surprise and pure joy.
As we leave my graduation party, I tell myself that I will not let Ya Ling’s arrest stop me from carrying out her plan. I will pull through with this rebellion no matter what it takes; this internship is the key to rebuilding what the current government has ruined.
Chapter 7 - Ya Ling
June 16, 3032
A glass of sparkling cider shatters onto the concrete floor as four calloused hands abruptly seize my arms. My body is paralyzed with fear and a whirlwind of thoughts swarm my head. Is it possible the government knows about the Jùjué? Is Alfie safe? Where’s Reb? Suddenly, a guardsman shoves me from behind and I’m plummeting to my knees. Tears spill lifelessly from my eyes as I scour the room, hopeful for a knight in shining armor. However, all I spot are faces of fright or disgust. The party goers divide as I’m dragged towards two steel doors where another pair of guardsmen wait. One of the guards scan their badge and the doors fly open.
“No! What are you doing to her?!” I hear a voice, who I assume belongs to Reb, shout as my body is thrown carelessly through the doorway. “Why are you taking her?! She hasn’t done anything!”
“STOP!” The doors slam shut. It’s just a squad of terrifying men, and me. Quickly, I press the silver charm on my necklace as to alert the Jùjué I’ve been captured. Now, wherever I’m imprisoned, the Jùjué will be able to find me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of the all too familiar symbol I need in order to escape. It’s printed on the wall 30 feet away, taunting me. Urging me to use every ounce of power I have to break free. After a couple of seconds, the guards’ grip seems to loosen and I ponder whether to use this moment of fragility to getaway.
Within the walls of my imagination, an escape plan slowly materializes. I watch myself pinch the pressure points of the two guards detaining me. They collapse to the floor. As the two other guards attempt to recapture me, I see myself snatch one of the guards' guns. Sprinting towards the Jùjué’s symbol, I observe myself firing bullet after bullet in their direction. My hand presses the silver charm to the wall’s symbol and smoke pours into the hallway. Straightaway, I disappear into the opening of the wall, sliding into the safety of the Jùjué. I’m free.
I’m torn inside. But as the symbol rapidly approaches, I know I must choose. Do I risk my life and go ahead with the imaginary escape plan? The entirely theoretical scheme, that in the crazy realm of my head, seems to work out somehow, despite my nonexistent strength. Or do I choose to relinquish my power to these elitist guardsmen? In spite of the promise I made to my brother. The promise to continue rebelling no matter what dangers I faced, for the greater good.
All of the sudden, a surge of rage swells through my body. I’m furious. The memory of my parents’ death crawls out from the depths of my brain and finds itself chained to the spotlight. My hands form tight fists. The cries of my little brother as he writhes in agony rings throughout my ears. My body is shaking. I know what I must do the moment I feel a tug on my arm, calling my attention to the slight limp the guard to my left has.
With all my strength, I throw my left shoulder forward, slipping my arm out from the weaker man’s grasp. Twisting around, I jam my elbow into his ribs, freeing my other arm in the process as he grunts, doubling over. As the impact pushes me over, I aim to hit his knee with the bottom of my foot. Shouting in pain as my foot collides with an existing injury, the guard collapses to the ground. Alarmed by my violent outburst, the other guard’s hand snatches my elbow and a burst of pain erupts in my cheek. I stumble back and the guard that had punched me releases my arm. My vision goes blurry from the hit, so I blindly kick out in front of me as the metallic taste of blood begins to fill my mouth.
The guard yells in pain as my foot strikes his groin, and my vision clears to see him crumble to the floor. Glancing up I overhear one of the two remaining guards speaking frantically into a radio while the other stands frozen in place. His eyes are wide and panicked, yet the moment they meet mine, he charges.
I realize how tired I am as I turn to run down the hallway. The adrenaline that had prompted me to attempt an escape in the first place drains at an alarming rate. My legs are aching and my eyes fill with tears from the punch that leaves half of my face numb with pain. Turning down the next hall, I feel an arm grab my shoulder and the guard throws himself on top of me. A moment of terrifying weightlessness is followed by an explosion of pain in my head.
The stabbing sensation clues me in on the fact that my head had just slammed into the concrete floor. My vision blurs again, this time to the point where dark spots immediately appear, swimming before my eyes. The yells and radio static disappear, replaced by a high-pitched ringing sound that causes the intense pain in my head to swell into an unbearable suffering. The black spots begin to grow, slowly eating up the last of the light surrounding me. The weight holding me onto the ground pulls away right as everything else disappears.
Chapter 8 - Aidan
June 18, 3032
Ten of us sit around a large metal table. Top ten in the class, top ten interns. Surrounding us are our trainers--some are here with the sole job of preparing us for government life, others are taking time out of their schedules to help instruct the new interns.
We start by going around the table, stating our names and age. I begin.
“Aidan Cicuta. Sixteen years.”
I hear an audible gasp after I speak. My parents are known here. Very well known.
The rest of the names I recognize, Tara Ford, William Britts, Don Herald. One name, however, surprises me.
“Ellie DeVeux. Seventeen years.”
I’ve seen her in class, perhaps a few times. She never seemed too bright, I don’t even think her name was on the top ten list. Why is she here?
Then it dawns on me. She took Reb’s spot.
After introductions, a tall man with icy white hair and a navy suit walks to the center of the room. Beneath the table, my leg starts to shake. All of us sense the power he holds. If he chose, he could create our dreams or ruin our lives.
“Imperium,” he begins, speaking as though he’s addressing a crowd of thousands, not a room of about twenty, “rose out of ashes. We survived when the world didn’t. We found power in our suffering, like a phoenix. Now we have grown for more than a century, a well oiled machine that continues to edit itself. We have cultivated the best minds, the best systems, the best civilization. And now you have been selected to continue this legacy.”
He pauses, as if we should all applaud this point. Instead, silence.
I begin to zone out, fidgeting with the little points on my Imperium badge. It’s a step up from my graduation badge, with little codes and letters engraved to give me access to exclusive and high security areas. I look around and see other interns doing the same. In the corner, a clock ticks away. I hear bits of the speech - he speaks of the power that we hold, they honor that we’re bringing our families, the new life we will breathe into Imperium.
“So remember this moment. This is the most important moment of your life, where you become an essential piece of the machine of Imperium. Ask yourself, will you be a faulty piece of machinery, or will you be the mechanic who builds it into something even better? Thank you.”
We all softly clap, and as he exits the room, we rise at the command of our instructors.
We are ushered through the barren halls, just concrete slabs and white lights. Each step echoes, no matter how soft. I walk behind the head instructor, a tall woman with dark hair pulled into a sleek ponytail. I recognize her from the Academy, she was three years above me. What a strange sight, students in their futures. Behind me, I hear the nervous breaths of my peers. We are not told where we’re going, simply to follow.
The room that we enter is high security, with hand print devices, cameras, scans for our badges, and technology I’ve never seen before. Is this a standard process for the rooms in this building? We sit down in metal chairs around a velvet table, screens surrounding us, some showing images and some blank. We all sense that this is not a normal room.
The silence is thick, as we all look anywhere but each other. The instructors say nothing, until one intern, Kirsten, asks in a shaky voice,
“Is there a reason we’ve been brought here?”
It hangs in the air, unanswered.
Eventually, two men and a woman walk through the doors, dressed in military official uniforms. We all hold our breath as they walk by, their gaze piercing and their march startling.
“Welcome interns,” the woman’s voice slices through the silence. “I am Officer Cyrus, and these men are Officers Barca and Saladin respectively. We are here to instruct your first policies class. You may be surprised that you’re not in a room with professors, intellectuals, politicians. But I will be the first to inform you, we are the first people to know the policies, as our job is to enforce them. And no one must defy these rules if we want a functioning society.
“We will begin with the No Exceptions Policy. This entails us to arrest and punish any and all law breakers. If we let one person slide, citizens will get ideas, citizens will get rebellious. We cannot have that.”
She emphasizes “cannot”, leaving the hard “c” echoing through the room.
“Beyond this, we have the Sedition Policy. This states that speaking out against Imperium in any way that spreads harmful ideas of our government, laws, or systems is punishable by imprisonment, or possibly worse depending on the severity of the action. These are basic overviews, but they are essential in moving forward with this position. Is this understood?” the woman explains sharply.
We nod shakily.
“Do you have any questions?”
We shake our heads in the same fashion.
“Good. I’d expect nothing less. Let’s go over some reports and documents from recent instances.”
The man to her left pulls stacks of papers out of a locked metal box and places them on the table. The interns instinctively grab the papers to pass them around.
“No,” the man snaps. They coil their arms back in fear. “Do not touch confidential information without permission. Security is of utmost importance in this building. Is this understood?”
“Yes sir,” we murmur instinctively.
He nods and begins to explain that the purpose of these reports is to demonstrate the problems that we will have to face and solve daily, working in policies. Then, with a quick hand movement, the instructor that I recognized from the Academy walks forward and begins to distribute stacks of paper for each of us to examine. On the screen is a slideshow of the jobs of the guardsmen, the responsibilities and knowledge they have in regards to these policies. I look down at my stack and see a title about the effects of illegal fishing in the rivers on the outskirts of Imperium. There is a picture of an older man looking in fear, holding his rod and line, as guardsmen march towards him. Based on the words of the woman officer, I don’t know if I want to know what became of him.
The instructions last for the better part of three hours, going over different policies the whole time. We never switch around our documents, so I am stuck looking at a raggedy man fearing for his life.
Towards the end of the lesson, the officers receive a message from a bell boy, a middle class student hoping to work his way up by running around delivering information. I feel a twinge of pity; he is still unaware that his efforts will get him nowhere. There is no advancing in this system. It’s not how it works.
While they are distracted, I notice a second document stuck to my first. It’s handwritten, obviously not meant for me. We must carry through with the fourth phase’ it begins. Scanning down the page, the words ‘extermination’ and ‘capture’ jump out at me. I should leave it alone, or report it, and yet I can’t help but begin to investigate. It looks as though it’s just been drafted. I see the instructors start to pack themselves up, and in a mad panic, I stuff the document in the metal case provided to all interns.
What are you doing? This is against all that I stand for, all that I’ve learned, all that Imperium stands for. And yet here I am. With a stolen document in my metal case.
At home, my parents ask the basic questions, and then go back to the news. Today is a story about landmines found in the fields around Imperium, encouraging citizens to stay within the city boundaries. “This is for your own good,” the voice booms. “Imperium protects you, cares for you, but only if you let it.” My parents nod along, as if listening to a song.
I settle into my room, eyeing the metal case once again. After stealing the document, it’s felt as though everyone’s watching me, everyone’s suspicious. By the time I finish my assignments, the sun has set, so my holographic lights have turned on. They shine on the metal case, as if casting a spotlight. Eventually, curiosity takes over my self control, and I quietly unlock the case with my badge.
Chapter 9 - Ellie
June 18, 3032
“How has your first day been so far?”
A collective murmur of goods, greats, and fines fall over the room, a quiet and ever-so-slightly intimidated agreement that we’re all happy to be here despite some of the concerning policies we went over. Some portions of our lecture even had Aidan appearing nervous; the reports of various arrests around Imperium, in particular, drained all the color from her face.
“Perfect.” The white-haired man has returned, moving leisurely yet purposefully around the room with his hands held together behind his back. “Now, we have one last thing to talk about today. From what you’ve learned of security, I trust that no one will speak a word of this to anyone outside of these walls.”
We’ve learned about instinct in essentially every biology-related course in the Academy. Each instance, the professor has found it worth mentioning that humans are capable of sensing patterns on the tiniest of subconscious levels; gut instincts, just a slight twist in your stomach that tells you that something bad is going to happen.
With that warning turn of my stomach, I instinctively touch my chest where my ribbon typically sits. Our orientation packet made it clear that no accessories were tolerated in the Imperium Policies internship, and in my quest to gain total trust from the government, I decided against wearing it underneath my dress-jacket.
“We are aware of, but not entirely knowledgeable about a certain group of people here in Imperium,” we are told. I return my hand to my lap, clasping my fingers together. “Some low-class nobodies, most likely, people who haven’t yet opened their eyes to the great prosperity and pure strength of our country. They’re unhappy, unknowing to the fact that it is the love of Imperium that has made you young men and women, along with each and every person who sat here before you, so successful.”
Ya Ling’s wide eyes flash before me, eyes that I don’t doubt have seen more horror in the past year than the ten of us have in our entire lives.
“Some may be banding together, forming a sort of...hate group, dare I say, rebellion.”
The interns around me collectively gasp. I had seen this announcement coming, but this feedback from the others prompts me to paste a look of shock and outrage on my face.
“We know little as of right now. Where they meet, how they feel, what they discuss or plan, it’s all a mystery to us. We hope you can keep an eye out for signs. Part of your duties here will be surveying the poorer areas, listening, watching anyone who seems hateful toward you.” He smiles at us all, meeting eyes with one intern briefly before moving onto the next. A chill runs through me the moment he looks my way, and it proves indescribably difficult to stare back confidently. “And students, people will hate you. It’s common, in a position like this. They believe you’ve been handed your spot, destined to be here since birth. I think you can all agree that the Academy is no party. You have to be exceptional to be here, but they will never understand that.”
It’s a gross oversimplification; he blatantly disregards the fact that to get into the Academy, you must first be able to afford a decent education, which is quite literally impossible if your parents aren’t high in status. I’ve never seen anyone below my own family’s standing enter into the Academy, and those near my position typically drop out, unable to pay. I don’t blame them for hating us. Yes, we work hard, but at least we are able to put our efforts somewhere that gets us paid well, whereas the poor are condemned to labor and servitude that pushes their priorities toward the goal of living, not success.
It’s all a trap.
“Remember what I said, students. This is all to be kept confidential. Anything getting out on your behalf will result in immediate termination from this internship, as well as strip you of your title of Academy graduate.” He finally ceases his path around the room, placing his hands on the table between two interns just a few seats away. “I don’t mean to scare you, I really don’t. I simply must get across the dangers of information like this leaking to the general public. Can you imagine the uproar this would cause? The fear of a few lowlifes ripping apart the strongest civilization to ever be is pure lunacy, but not everyone will see it that way. We must not give these criminals the satisfaction of terrorizing our community psychologically.”
I realize that my hands are grasping each other so tightly that they’re shaking in my lap. I instantly release them and set them on my thighs, my mind fuzzy in its stifled fury. The man’s gaze finds mine once again. Although I’m aware he has been giving frequent eye contact with us all, I fear the worst, that he’s on to me, that he knows of my discussion with Ya Ling at the graduation afterparty, knows of the charm bracelet sitting beneath layers of clothing in my dresser at home.
He looks to the next person, and sighs, pushing himself away from the table to clap his hands together. “Well done, interns. Thank you.”
Because the building our internship takes place in is closer to my house than the Academy, I walk to save money on what would merely be a five-minute bus ride. Despite my sourness toward the government, I feel a sense of pride wearing the Imperium Policies uniform as I stride along the sidewalk. It’s not for the same reason anyone passing would realize, but it’s pride, nonetheless, and while I am concerned about my fellow interns searching for signs of rebellion around Imperium, I’m happy to be such an important part of said cause. It doesn’t help that Ya Ling is most certainly in prison right now, but she told me there were more of us. Once I find one of the entrances to this supposed secret hideout, I’ll better understand the motives and contacts this movement carries.
I turn onto a different street and look at the walls of the building beside me. Where will these symbols be hidden? The concept of the rebellion has grown exhilaratingly real since the white-haired man’s announcement, so I’m anxious to find one. He didn’t mention anything about these markings, so it’s safe to assume that they’ve never been noticed by anyone outside of the rebellion.
Similar to the day of my graduation, the color yellow flashes by my peripheral vision. I look over quickly, losing the burst of color in an instant in a crowd of people moving along across the street from me. I turn ahead for a moment, my fingers tightening around the handle of my case.
Did she escape?
I glance over again, and this time, the yellow has returned. However, it’s Reb that I see wearing it, a pale-colored jacket over his wildlife sector uniform. He turns the corner right as I reach the end of the block.
I move along quickly, not wanting to draw attention to my interest across the street. I bite my lip, wondering what this means. Yellow. One rarely sees it around here, and now I’ve seen Reb in it after discovering that he knows Ya Ling somehow. My observations from the Academy come rushing back, and I walk faster, desperate to get home to a quiet place where I can organize my thoughts.
I wonder what the true reasoning for his outburst at her arrest was. Why would he have risked making such a scene if he knew? Yet it seems just like Reb to give himself up if a friend was being arrested for no reason, with or without a rebellion occurring.
Look for a charm bracelet next time you see him, I advise myself. As I approach my house ten minutes later, I do my best to clear the thoughts from my head, preparing to shut my mouth, smile, and act inconspicuous and pleasant.
“Good first day?” Mom asks as I enter the kitchen, setting my metal case on the table.
“Really good. We learned all about the policies. It’s clear a lot of work goes into keeping things as peaceful as they are,” I say, my light, respectful tone quickly complimented by my mother as I sit down, opening my case. I have to review the objectionable report I was given, the policies of stealing and how it is not tolerated under any circumstance; I almost feel that this packet is taunting me once I read the first story of a homeless, single mother arrested for stealing an apple for her son.
It worries me greatly that we are meant to be stationed in areas like this, towns congested with people so hopeless, they can’t afford a single apple. I’m not sure what scares me more; how oblivious citizens are to these troubles, or how ignorant the government is to clear imperfections in their supposedly faultless system.
After writing a few senseless answers, I get a wave of nauseous guilt passing over me. I’m going to have to stand with these ideals for so long to get somewhere better. Can I really do this? Is it bad that I now have a rebellion heavily depending on me, needing me to do this? Ya Ling never mentioned what other Academy students are a part of this. I doubt any top ten are with them; even I wasn’t meant to be, at first. Is this the reason Reb switched to wildlife? The reason why Ya Ling approached me only after I’d been placed in eleventh? This rebellion might not be accepting of Imperium Policies students because of the training and demands of the job. How much further against my values will I have to go in order to lead?
“Mom, may I be excused from my work? I’d like to take a walk, if that’s okay,” I say softly, setting my pen down. I have to stop looking at this.
She smiles gently from her spot across the table. “You’re an intern, now, Ellie, an adult. You’ve done what we expected of you. You don’t have to ask to leave, anymore. You already understand good time management.”
I stand up, nodding. “Thank you, Mom.”
“Do get back soon, though,” she warns me, “your father still isn’t happy with how close you cut it. He’s convinced you’re going to get kicked out by the time the week is up.”
I raise my eyebrows, pushing my chair in. “Oh.”
“He’s just jealous. I am, too, but you don’t see me expecting failure. I just strongly advise against it.”
“I know, Mom.”
“Go ahead.” She waves me away, tilting her head back down toward her book. I race to my room to grab the charm bracelet, grabbing a light jacket so the stop by my room doesn’t appear suspicious. I call out a goodbye before leaving, rushing down the steps as I pull the jacket over my uniform.
I don’t bother keeping an eye out for an entrance in my neighborhood. I head straight to the building the graduation reception was held in, certain that her spoken interest in the building wasn’t just to attract my attention. The streets are still bustling with people as I approach the city’s center, mostly lower-class citizens walking home from their jobs. Most government workers are released around five; these people often work much later, this just the first wave released at seven.
I study the charm bracelet fastened around my wrist as I walk, touching the metal for a moment. It’s heavy and warm against my skin despite just having been there for ten minutes or so. I glance up at each of the buildings I pass, hoping to see the shape in the wall.
I turn the corner and stop, seeing a rather young man slumped down against the stone building, tucked into the corner by the steps to the entrance. He sits atop a thin blanket, the hood of his stained jacket pulled over his head. A cardboard sign sits by him, large, awkward handwriting reading little brother sick with Mortem - trying to pay for treatment.
I’ve slowed nearly to a complete stop before I recognize what I’m doing. I glance down at the small silver can at his side, the money I hold in my pocket seeming to weigh me down.
I have to earn Imperium’s trust back, I remind myself. If someone important sees, this could be enough to fire me from the internship.
The guilt from every word I’ve said within the walls of the Academy, in my own home, the dehumanizing reports I had to look at today, it rushes into me all at once as I stare at this man, his dry, quivering hands embracing each other tightly in an eternal beg even though he can’t see me with his head down like that.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the various bills in my pocket and lean down, dropping the money into the can. I hear a gasp, and the boy looks up, startled. I try not to let my shock show, realizing he can’t be any older than I am.
“Thank you,” he whispers, his voice hoarse. His tired eyes fill with tears. I smile, nodding.
“I wish I could do more,” I tell him, and watching his thin lips stretch into a grateful smile, I’m sure he knows just how genuine the words are.
As I walk away, a tall, well-dressed, clearly rich man stops me. “You should be ashamed of yourself, representing Imperium like that,” he reprimands.
I take a deep breath.
“You know he won’t be able to pay for that treatment no matter how much charity he’s offered. How does that represent Imperium?” I say sourly, brushing past him.
Chapter 10 - Aidan
June 22, 3032
My heart is pounding so intensely that I can feel it’s pulse ricochet through my entire body. My sweaty palms grasp the cool concrete corner of the building. I’ve been waiting in this alleyway for nearly 30 minutes now, ducking down as the occasional citizen passes by.
It’s Rest Day, which means Reb will be back from the outer fields. He always goes to the Exercise Center in the mornings to workout (his parents still insist that he does this, despite his recent behavior), and I’m standing here, waiting for him to finally pass. I need to talk to him, I really need to talk to him, and this is the only way I know how without my parents catching me. After the arrest incident and Reb’s choice to work in Wildlife, my parents sat me down and ordered that I wasn’t to see him anymore, and I wasn’t to be seen with him anymore. So much for childhood friends.
A few minutes feels like eternity, and I begin to wonder if I’m being irrational. Maybe even worse, this is all a trap! Maybe it was planted there to see if I’d remain loyal to Imperium, and I failed. Maybe now they’re coming to arrest me like that girl and who knows what --
I see a quick blur of yellow, but it’s gone. Wasn’t the girl arrested wearing yellow?
Thankfully, a familiar figure passes and snaps me out of my spiral. I peer out on the street just to confirm, and then burst out of my hiding space, running to catch up.
“Reb,” I breathe, grabbing his arm. He whips around, but then relaxes when he sees me. He begins to smile, but that quickly disappears.
“Aidan, what's wrong? Are you okay?” he asks in a hushed voice.
I nod and then quickly say, “Nothing happened to me. But… but I found something and I don’t know what to do with it and…”
I’m at a loss for words, a rare occasion for me. I can’t figure out how to tell Reb how serious this report is, how much classified information it contains, how it changes everything.
We begin to walk again, careful not to draw too much attention to ourselves.
“Reb, you’re the only person I trust,” I begin again. “I’m telling you this because I don’t know who else to tell, but something needs to be done.”
I take a deep breath, praying my decisions are the right ones.
“I found a document during Policies that talks about… arresting… and killing… and, and I can’t even say Reb, all I know is that this isn’t what we ever learned about in the Academy and I don’t know what to do about it but--”
“A, you have to calm down,” Reb says in a hushed tone, grabbing my wrists.
I’m nearly in hysterics, overwhelmed by the weight of information I’ve been carrying around for days. When we get the chance, he ducks into a small alleyway and I quickly follow.
“Listen, what you have to do is write all of this down in a letter. I will get it to the right people, I promise. But don’t put any names on there, lest someone gets their hands on it. And meet me at the Exercise Center tonight, on my second trip down, and pass it discreetly. Got it?”
I nod, unable to form a response. Reb smiles.
“This is what we needed. God Aidan, you’re amazing. Thank you.”
Then, as quickly as he came, he ducks out of the alleyway and becomes one with the population of Imperium again.
I sit at my desk. It is now after dusk -- I know because I sat here and watched the sun set, unable to write my thoughts down. Surely this should be easy. It’s like writing a report for school, something I’ve done countless times. But here I am with the worst writer’s block imaginable, and writing probably the most important report imaginable. What a wonderful combination.
I hear my parent’s door close, and the lights begin to slowly darken, telling me to sleep. But I cannot until this is done.
Well, just start at the greeting. You can at least write that, it’s easy. All right Aidan, you got this.
I take a deep breath, and my pen touches the blank paper.
Chapter 11 - Ellie
June 22, 3032
The color yellow springs out at me nearly every day following Ya Ling’s arrest. Always off across the street, always on the route home from my internship. And, each time, I realize it’s Reb just a moment later, walking home in his yellow jacket.
The same flash appears out of the corner of my eye days later, and this time, I don’t look back. However, I keep walking, and moments later Reb turns the corner ahead of me. His face is tanned from spending so much time outside lately, but it still appears that there is no color left in his face, his eyes wide and staring intently straight ahead. I glance down, spotting a white envelope clutched tightly in his hand.
The same instinctual dread I feel every day in Imperium Policies fuels me when I see that envelope. This is concerning the rebellion.
Without thinking, I reach my hand out and grab his wrist. We both stop, Reb’s head snapping to the side to glare at me indignantly.
“What are you-”
“Follow me,” I mumble, and yank him along. He draws his wrist sharply from my grasp, but when I peek behind me, he’s doing as I requested. I slip into the first alley I catch sight of, moving a few steps in before turning around to look at him. What am I doing?
“Why did you bring me here?” he asks, his voice lowered like he knows we’re not going to want to risk being overheard. I look down, seeing a glint of metal reflecting light by the edge of his sleeve. The envelope is now tilted to show the side that would normally have a name or address listed, but the surface is blank. My lips curve into a tiny smile.
“I know.” I tilt my head back up and look him in his eyes, narrowing my own. “I know.”
His jaw tenses a little. “Yeah.”
“I’ll get the letter where it needs to go.”
“Positive. I have better access, don’t I?” I cross my arms, subtly tugging my sleeve up as I do so to show the bracelet. His eyes flicker down and back to my face in an instant. “I know my way around these things. Why do you really think she wanted me?”
He holds out the letter, and I bite back another smile, accepting it.
“Be careful. You’re in a risky position. If you’re caught with that-”
“I won’t be. Trust me.” I shove the envelope into the inside pocket of my jacket. “Thank you, Reb. I’ll let you know when it’s done.”
He nods, his eyes trained at the ground as he turns to walk away. I stay there for a few moments, pressing my arm against my side to feel the paper. What could it be? Who is this from?
After the man stopped me on the street that day, I decided to be more careful. The next few days in my internship were spent agonizing over the fear of being reported; Imperium Policies students are not meant to stop and give money to the poor. We are supposed to avoid them at all costs, in fact, essentially making us more “relatable” as we’ve recently learned. We aren’t meant to be relatable. We’re meant to be leaders.
We’re meant to control, not help.
Because of my concerns, I had decided against continuing my search for an entrance to the hideout. I can’t be seen lurking around as often as I’d like, so I’ve temporarily halted my hunt. It’s best to stay away from signs of rebellion if I’m going to be a useful part of it. This is the first sign that’s come to me.
I continue home, keeping my arm rather stiff by my side to make sure no one sees the outline in my pocket. I know officers don’t hesitate to randomly search citizens if they even have the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing; not that an Imperium Policies intern is ever stopped. Our badges practically act as a protective shield. We could be seen beating someone of a lower class, and the victim would be asked what they did to provoke us.
I’ve gotten away with being rather secretive with my parents these past few days. Mom’s point that I’m practically an adult now has gotten the two of them off my back, and I no longer have to do my work at the kitchen table. This newly relaxed setting in the house lets me get away with a brief greeting and outline of my day before heading off to my room, where I close and lock the door. My heart begins to race the moment my fingers touch the smooth paper again, and I pull it from my pocket. I don’t notice that my hands are quivering until I find myself struggling to pull the envelope open.
The moment I lay eyes on the words, I realize that this is from Aidan. Years of being given examples of exemplar work in school makes her handwriting, even her tone, sickeningly familiar. It makes sense that Reb would be the messenger. But what caused the perfect little government girl to turn?
To whom this may concern,
I cannot tell you who I am for the safety of myself, my parents, my friends, my job, and more. I’m sure you understand. However, I have recently come across a document which I feel could be of service to you. If not, then I apologize for this inconvenience that this letter has caused. However, if it does bring you some sort of warning, a final piece to the puzzle, I’m honored to have been a part of it.
I recently came across an unofficial, extremely classified report on the actions that Imperium is taking against many citizens in the country. When I began to read it, I was afraid. Many dangerous words jumped out at me, and I was terrified for my own life, for the life of my family and friends. But as I read it, I soon realized that these words weren’t written in regards to me, in regards to anyone I know, anyone I would associate with.
I have reason to believe that Imperium is committing a genocide against the outer areas of the state, those with little money, little hope for a future. Those who do not look like me and my family.. They are already quite far into this plan, although I am shocked at how little I knew about it (actually I knew nothing), how little all of us seemed to know about it. It is actually my understanding that this has been in motion for decades, and the report I obtained is merely discussing the last stages.
The First Stage was to create a social divide (I was able to infer this from the little background information that was written in the document). The Academy was their way of doing this - a test divided the rich whites and the poor minorities. And none of us thought anything about it.
The Second Stage was explosions in factories and mines in the outer areas of Imperium. I’m now understanding that this means the minorities and poor families all suffered from this “attack” that Imperium staged (if this was one of your parents, my condolences. I sincerely apologize).
The Third Stage was a disease, (possibly “Mortem” which I’ve heard of on the news channel), to kill off children whose families couldn’t afford the cure. Those in the number streets, the richest, could afford the help needed to recover.
The last two stages I believe will be occurring soon, so this is the warning.
The Fourth Stage is to gradually begin kidnapping and arresting the orphaned teenagers to frame them for small crimes, such as stealing food. There is also a possibility that they will be framed for crimes that they didn’t commit, and no one would believe a poor, possibly resentful teenager.
And the Fifth Stage, the final part, is to eliminate any remaining minorities. According to the document I read, this is the only way to create a perfect and pure society. To truly reach “Order”.
Once again, I cannot tell you who I am or how I got this information. All I ask is that you trust me and know that this is very serious and important. I hope that you are able to use this information, but if not, thank you for reading my summarization of the Imperium report I read fully.
I wish you all the best, and hope that, if the time comes, I may be able to help you again (whoever you are).
My stomach sinks more and more with each word. I study the stages again, going back to reexamine it all the moment I finish. Six times I go through Aidan’s letter, and each time I grow more and more terrified of what this means. In all my resentment of Imperium, I was only aware of the tip of the iceberg. I feared extreme social divides, thinking I was so knowledgeable of how the nation has been wronging its citizens, when this whole time, all my life, they weren’t simply attempting to create perfection.
They are killing to create perfection.
I hear footsteps and shove the letter back into its envelope. I throw it into the top drawer of my desk and grab the closest book to me, freezing to listen when I hear the noise fade back into the living room. I hold the book to my chest for a moment, taking in a few deep breaths.
Ya Ling is in danger. More danger than I initially thought.
What if she’s already dead?
Epilogue - Ellie
June 29, 3032
“We have a bit of a last-minute assignment today.”
I watch our instructor pull a stack of papers out of a previously locked metal case. He drops a packet in front of each intern, and I study the faces of the first few to get theirs as they begin to turn the pages. I wait for some warning of what is to come, knowing that this can’t be good. My paper is set down the moment the eyes of the first intern widen. I glance down, the cover simply stating that this is confidential information about the current criminals of Imperium.
“These are some of our most dangerous prisoners, set before you.” I glance over to the intern beside me and see that there are profiles of these prisoners on the second page, complete with pictures of them. I touch my fingers to the corner of the packet, quietly swallowing the lump in my throat. “These animals have tainted the purity of Imperium. They are all that holds us back from true perfection. They have betrayed our communities and ripped apart our unity.”
I tuck a finger under the first page.
“What are we doing with this information? There are no questions,” someone points out, and although I don’t look up, I hear them turning the pages like they’re searching for a clue.
I take a trembling breath and turn the page.
“You must decide whether they live or die.”
Audible gasps are heard throughout the room. We all knew this internship would be hard, but I don’t think any of us expected to have to pick people to kill - although, it’s almost guaranteed that we won’t truly have a choice. I glance down, covering the picture with my hand. If I’m going to be sending someone to their death, I refuse to see their likely innocent face.
My stomach twists uncomfortably as I read about my prisoner; her parents died in the factory explosion three years ago, her brother going next a couple of years later after a fatal case of Mortem. Jobless, alone, and uneducated, this poor girl seems like every other low-class citizen I’ve read about. I turn my focus to reason for arrest, hoping for my sake that she’s committed some unspeakable crime that might somewhat fit this harsh punishment.
Reason for imprisonment: stealing from and manipulating the Pictors after she was taken in by them.
My heart skips a beat. I move my hand from over the picture.
I assumed getting through the Academy took strength. I assumed speaking against every single thing I stood for took strength. Nevertheless, it takes every last ounce of my supposed strength not to scream when I see Ya Ling’s picture staring up at me.