THE CLOCK ABOVE my door has traded in its hands for knives. They cut and slice, shatter the minutes and seconds from existence. Countless days have led me to this point, this day.
I’m supposed to feel prepared, ready to take the next step. I don’t. I know nothing about life outside these four concrete walls, and now I’m expected to live it.
Another minute is cut away, falls to the floor to join its assassinated cousins. Ten more and the light beside my door will turn green, I will make my last exit.
.One thing left to do.
Pulling my books from their hiding place between the mattress and wall, I lay them out next to me. I take a minute to feel the weight of their hardcover bindings, admire the artwork and illustrations, and commit it all to memory. A small sigh tumbles from my lips as I choose the first victim. I tear the stiff cover from the pages, force myself to move onto the others until they’re all naked. Three neat stacks of pages cower before me, held together only with a mesh-like glue, lighter, more easily concealed.
Taking the covers, I shove them into the laundry chute, listen to them plummet into the bowels of the Institute. They won’t turn up until I’m long gone.
A double beep from the PA sends a light tremor down my spine, disconnecting every vertebra from the whole. A wave of static drips out before the automated voice. “Five minutes to initial departure.”
I set to wrapping the pages in my uniform. The black, white, and dull shade of green mark us as inhabitants of Zone Three. Forcing the covered tomes into my travel pack, I pull the strings tight. A small smile tugs at the corners of my mouth, a sort of satisfaction. There is no indication of the pack’s contraband contents.
“One minute to initial departure.”
The light above my door flashes, a countdown. Sixty seconds. The surge of adrenaline is a wild animal chasing the anxiety from my veins. I smooth out the unflattering green pleats of my dress and pull my unruly hair back, twist it into a tight bun. The tattoo on my wrist peeks out from my sleeve. I yank the material down to cover it. A small O needled into my skin sometime before short term memory made its way into long term in my mind, will forever label me as an orphan.
My eyes trace the half-circle of wood that makes my desk, my fingers trail across its rough surface. There’s a small impression in the center of my mattress from too many years of use, I wonder if they’ll replace it. “Well I guess that’s it,” I whisper to myself, or maybe to the room, unwilling to believe my entire life weighs less than a waterlogged mop. I haven’t forgotten anything. This room is a clone of all the others in the Phase Two Institute, and now it’s empty, ready for the next orphan to take my place.
It is the beginning of a new month, August. The name representing my birth month has never held as much meaning as it does on this day. All the orphans born in August of the same year leave today. We are adults now. Ready to take the first step for reintegration into what remains of society.
When the world went to hell the New Terra Alliance sprang up like a hand raised in a classroom. Ready to answer all the hard questions and offer solutions to the catastrophes we created. If it weren’t for the NTA, we might all be dead.
The light turns green. The metallic clicking of the lock disengaging resonates in my bones. A groan as the steel door rolls away. I step out, looking back as the door closes, catching a last glimpse of the only home I’ve known for nearly fifteen years. The others stand with me in the hallway, their cheeks stained with tears, jaws taut with nerves. I try to stand a little taller. Though I recognize their faces, I don’t know any of them. Orphans from the same birth month rarely have classes together. The NTA doesn’t support non-academic friendships.
“This way please,” a voice calls from the end of the hallway. It’s her. Of course, it is. We lock eyes, but there’s no happiness there. Her deadpan stare bores into me and a sudden weight settles in my stomach. Dianna, the closest I’ve had to family or even a true friend if I’m honest. Burning fingers claw up my throat.
I may never see her again.
I was thirteen when she arrived. She was different from the other staff. She went out of her way to talk to me, offered for me to sit with her in the kitchen during meal times instead of sitting alone. She’s a woman driven by nerves. Always tense, always cautious. She’d often say nasty things about the NTA and then make me swear not to tell, her eyes jerking all around to make sure no one else heard. I never truly understood her, but she was always there, giving me a new book to read, telling me to keep each one hidden. Books that don’t aid in the advancement of knowledge are forbidden. Religious beliefs are strongly discouraged, as is any opinion that doesn’t directly support the NTA. It makes sense, there aren’t many of us left. We can’t afford to stand divided.
“Dianna,” I whisper when I am close enough for her to hear. Her shoulders tense, but she doesn’t respond. Her fists clench at her sides, the knuckles stark white against the dim olive of her slender hands. A splinter lodges itself in my stomach.
The silence is heavy with unsaid words, the tapping of our shoes on the tile is the only sound. We’ve delved deep into the labyrinth of the institute now. I barely recognize the route we’re taking through the lonely halls. We only leave once a year, each time to a different place, though usually to visit the different work sectors. To see what we could become when we leave Phase Three. The observatory where they watch us on small screens, the laboratories where they look for a cure, water purification plants, the government building where aged men sit in large chairs, fingers clicking keys on their letter boards. We’ve seen the inside of many buildings. I often wonder if there is a job where you can work outside. Where there aren’t walls two feet thick keeping out the warmth of the sun and the soft sounds of the wind.
Some people look at us like we’re diseased, others as if we don’t even exist. It’s because we’re wards of our Zone. Some people will always think little of us. Some will always pity us. Though I believe some also envy us. As orphans, we are taken in by the NTA, offered shelter, safety, schooling, and hot meals three times a day. It’s more than many have nowadays. At least our government cares enough not to leave us behind. They’ve given us a chance.
A heavily enforced metal door is ahead. GATE D is marked above it in black letters. Dianna swipes a card over the reader and presses a small button on the wall.
“East wing for departure,” she says, looking into a surveillance camera above her head. She turns her head further. No one else would recognize what she’s doing, but I do. She’s checking for other cameras. They’ve always made her uncomfortable. She doesn’t like to be watched, doesn’t like to think there’s someone listening to every conversation she’s had for the last five years. I don’t understand why she doesn’t quit, train for a different placement. Maybe she will when I’m gone.
“Dianna,” I say again, more insistent this time.
She turns to look at me, her pale green eyes shining under the fluorescent lights. “Everyone line up, the travel team will take you the rest of the way.”
As everyone else reforms the line, pressing close to the door, a hand closes around my wrist and pulls me out from the crowd. Dianna tugs me into an alcove to the right of the others, her usually calm expression marred by worry, jaw tight.
“Where were you?” I can’t help myself, I haven’t seen her in almost a week, the staff doesn’t get days off. I was starting to think she’d been infected. “I didn’t think I was even going to get to say goodb—”
“Joanna, listen, we only have a minute.” Her fingers dig into my wrist, nails biting down. She scans the ceiling above us. My eyes reflexively follow hers, finding the nearest camera is over ten feet away. Not close enough to pick up our voices.
I pull my arm away. “What—Dianna, what’re you doing?”
She shakes her head, web-like veins flair beneath her parchment skin. Every inch of her is hard and on-edge. “Jo, shut up. Listen to me. Phase Three isn’t what you think it is. None of this is. What we’ve been doing here, the classes, the lessons, physical training, none of it matters. It was all a waste of time.”
My mind attempts to plod through the mud of what she is saying, but I can’t seem to find traction. There’s unadulterated fear seeping through her skin, twisting her words into terrifying sounds.
“They aren’t raising you to become valuable members of society, you are nothing but livestock to them. They are raising you like farmers raise pigs-”
“Get moving, we have a schedule to keep.” The last of the others have gone through and the door guard moves towards us, agitation furrowing his thick brows. I ignore him.
“What are you talking about?” I demand, my voice taking on a tone unrecognizable as my own.
The guard places a firm hand on my shoulder and I want to smack it away but I don’t. “What are you talking about?” I demand from her again, but she is altogether composed, not the frantic woman of a moment ago.
“It’s time for you to go Joanna. He’s waiting for you,” she says, sounding like a teacher chastising a student, not the only friend I have in the world. But there’s a warning in her eyes, as legible as the print in one of my books. Don’t, she tells me, as she has hundreds of times before. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Pay attention, but never ask questions. Questions don’t lead to answers here.
My lips part but no words fall out. My hands ball into fists, but there is no suitable outlet for my frustration. I’m not sure whether to scream or cry. I want to tell her I’ll miss her. I want to give her a hug so she knows how much it’s true.
I can’t do any of that. The gate guard is hovering behind me. We aren’t allowed to be friends, never were.
I leave her standing in the hallway, unable to even say goodbye. My face is hot, skin crawling as though a thousand ants are milling just under the surface. Stepping through the door, it’s as though I can already feel the chill of early morning raising the small hairs on the back of my neck.