“Who was she?” The man paused, repeating the journalist’s question slowly.
He sat in a tacky, overstuffed grey armchair, his hands resting on his knees. A fire blazed in the fireplace beside him and cast great shadows upon the flaxen wall behind him. Half of his angular face was cast in the darkness. The journalist sitting across from him edged closer to see his face from a better angle.
“She was freedom. She was fire and ash. She burned with passion. Her name was Alexandra, and she was my mother.”
I stand in the great hall, where we usually eat our supper or sort bullets into the correct boxes. Long tables stretch from one side of the room to the other, and light-grey curtains hang from the ceilings, parted to show the barren, ash-covered landscape outside.
Today the room is bare. Heavy iron blinds cover the windows and set the room in darkness. Only a few yellow bulbs that hang from the ceiling illuminate the space.
We stand in rows. Ten rows of fifty girls. We’re dressed in our uniforms: long, grey, felt skirts wrapped tightly around our waists, with light-grey blouses made of airy linen tucked into them.
We wear black ties, socks, and shiny shoes. Ribbons pull our straight blond hair back tightly. Before us stand our teachers and the Masters.
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Master. They’re taller than I expected, taller than us by far. They keep their blond hair cropped short, and their sharp, angular faces shaved clean.
There are five of them in the hall with us. They stand with straight backs in traditional grey suits, their arms held behind their backs.
Our teachers quickly move to the back of the hall. They blush slightly, intimidated by the power of these men.
The Masters sit down on the small stage in old plastic chairs, facing us. They hold papers in their hands, paper, and pens.
Behind the Masters hangs the Eternal Albion flag. I feel a certain surge of pride when I see the flag hanging behind our Masters. At the same time, I feel butterflies in my stomach.
It’s spectacular. A grey background tainted with red embers, and in the centre, a red phoenix.
It’s a representation of us, the people of Albion. We are the people of the ashes. We have risen as a great power from the ashes that our forefathers buried us in.
As silence envelops the room, I am reminded this is the moment that will define the rest of my life.
This is the day I’ve been preparing for my whole life. This is my time to prove to my people that I’m worthy of being a Perfect, worthy of my country and that I will serve it until the day I die, proudly.
I’m one of the youngest in my generation, so I stand in the last line, closest to the locked windows.
It’s the last day of Testing, and all those girls in the other lines have already been tested, and have become Perfects, and now they’re waiting for us so we can all go to the establishments together.
They look at us encouragingly, as if they’ve aged five years, as if they are already Albion mothers.
After what seems like forever, one of the Masters looks up at our line. He peers at us closely and then turns to his list. He clears his throat; it’s the loudest sound in the room, and everyone tenses.
“Numbers 958,687,487.64.3 to 987,533,512.64.5,” he says. “Please wait outside the room until your number is called. The rest of you are dismissed.”
There’s a shuffle of feet, and then we all place our fists over our hearts and face our flag. We swear our lives to the flag proudly. Then the girls who have already become Perfects leave the room silently.
My line waits for them to disappear before we exit into the corridor outside the hall. There are long benches in place, and we sit down to wait. One girl stays inside.
Sandy, number 987,533,512.64.5. I see her glance at us just before the doors close.
I sit with a racing heart, clutching the underside of the iron bench tightly. The girl next to me, Julia, bites her fingernails. She shouldn’t, she could get in trouble for that. I want to tell her, but I don’t dare.
I’m not sure if she’ll pass her Testing. Though she’s plenty fair and blond with dark eyes, her jaw is too sharp, her teeth are too large, and her lips don’t pull together well.
She spends most of her time with her mouth open to breathe. As I watch her, I realise that she has a good chance of becoming a Defective and going to work in the factories.
A few other girls I’ve known my whole life have become Defectives this week. They didn’t stay around to see what would happen to the rest of us.
They were ashamed and left immediately to work for Albion, to serve Albion like they had been trained to. Just not as they had dreamed.
Julia glances at me, then away again. I reach out and grasp her hand tightly. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. I know she’s thinking the same thing I am.
We wait, side by side, as girls are called into the Great Hall and others emerge.
Beth, my best friend, was made a Perfect yesterday. I didn’t doubt she would make it for a second. But she didn’t show any joy or pride for my sake.
She’s at the end of the corridor now, talking with one of the teachers. She glances in my direction and gives me a sharp nod. I hold my fist up and shake it to show her my strength. She smiles proudly at me.
Jennifer fails her test. She’s a Defective because of her wavy hair and short legs. Tears stream down her face as she runs past us, and Julia holds her breath. My heart thunders as I go over my answers in my head, those I’ve carefully prepared for today.
The door creaks open and a Master appears. He gazes at his list.
“958,687,487.64.4,” he announces.
My heart skips a beat. I stand up slowly, my knees shaking slightly. Julia lets go of my hand with a small gasp. I glance back at her as I walk toward the Master. He gazes at me, then nudges me into the Great Hall.
The door slams shut behind me, and the Master walks across the floor quickly to join the others, his shoes slapping against the stone floor. My blood seems to rush in my ears, loud and violent. I feel cold, and yet I’m sweating.
“958,687,487.64.4?” the middle Master asks. He’s older than the others, maybe one of the oldest people I have ever seen. Older than all my teachers. But he doesn’t look like a Cripple, just hardened by time.
I cast my gaze across the other four Masters. Three of them seem to be middle-aged; the one furthest to the left doesn’t look much older than me.
But his eyes are calculating and sharp, and I feel them piercing through me, as if he can read all my thoughts. As if he knows all my memories and I could never hide from him.
I raise my chin and place my trembling fist over my heart as I was taught to. This gives me a bit of strength, and after clearing my throat, I can answer.
“I am,” I say, then pledge my life to the flag and my country. When I finish, they write something down on their paper.
“Also known as?” one of them asks.
“Your mother as well?” asks another.
“The first daughter. You turned eighteen a month ago?”
“And you had your first bleed seven years ago?”
“Good. Has everything been regular since then?”
“The first two years were irregular, Master. But now they are regular, Master,” I reply.
They all nod with approval.
“How many children did your mother have in total?”
“Eight, Master. A full life, Master,” I reply.
“That’s appropriate. How many sons?”
“Seven, Master. I was her only daughter.”
“Good. Very good. Hopefully, her fertility will favour you. Now, hold your hand over your left eye and stand on that line.”
The Master points, and I move to the line a few paces behind me. A small chart of letters is placed at their feet. I cover my left eye.
“Read the letters.”
“No hesitations. Now the right eye.” He changes the chart.
“Good. Now step forward.” I move back into the middle of the room. “Can you tell us a little about your skills?”
“I enjoy sewing. I help mend uniforms quite often. I like children, I help with the younger girls when I can, Master.”
“Help with their classes?”
“Yes, and in the workshops. I’m good at teaching them how to organise their work in the workshops. And organising them to go to bed, wake up, eat, and so on. I like organisation.”
“So do we. Do you have many friends?”
“Not many, Master, but true and close friends.”
“Do you like sports?”
“What sports do you do, and how often?”
“I’m on the school track team, and I’m good at archery.”
“Yes, Master. We had classes here a few years ago, and I’ve continued.”
“That’s admirable. Good sports. Do you get sick?”
“Rarely, Master. I help out in the sick ward when I have time.”
“Ever had cancer?”
“Did your mother?”
“A few years back there was an attack in Sector 64. Were you exposed?”
“A few walls broke, and a whole classroom of girls was exposed. I was on the other side of the school, and I was safe.”
“You’ve never exited the school walls?”
“No, Master, never,” I blanch at the idea.
“Good girl.” He leans back in his chair, gazing at me. The others stare at me fixedly as well. My heart races in my chest, and I hope that they don’t notice the red flush on my cheeks.
“You’ve had a medical test?”
“Yes, five days ago. I received all my vaccinations as well,” I reply.
“Normal, Master. Fruits and vegetables only, Master.”
“You’re almost finished. Would you please remove your clothing?”
I nod. I’ve been prepared for this. My heart racing, I take off my tie and fold it before placing it on the floor next to me. They watch and wait as I pull my shoes and socks off.
I remove my blouse, skirt, underwear, and finally the ribbon from my hair, which cascades down my back, straight, thick, and long. The Masters gaze at me as I stand naked in the room. I’m shaking. I only hope that can’t see it from a distance.
“Turn around,” one tells me, and I obey.
It’s cold in the room. I shiver, turn my back, and then turn to face them again.
“Thank you. You may put your clothes back on.”
I nod. They stand up and step together to discuss while I dress. I haven’t quite pulled my hair back up when they turn back to me.
The oldest Master approaches me. He towers above me and places his hand on my shoulder. My heart races.
“As of this moment, Alexandra 958,687,487.64.4, you are a Perfect,” he tells me.
The air whooshes out of my lungs with relief. I raise my chin and step around him to face the flag. Placing both my hands over my chest and kneeling, I lift my face to the flag and take in the grey background, the proud phoenix. Tears stream down my cheeks in gratitude.
“I am of the ashes. I am reborn. I am Perfect. I am Phoenix. I pledge to serve my people in every way I can. I pledge to serve until the day I die, and I pledge to die for my people.
“I will be worthy of the Phoenix. I will give my country children—Perfect children—and I will kill for my country,” I whisper.
The Masters nod in approval. One reaches his hand down and pulls me to my feet.
“You are Perfect. You will not let anyone—Cripple, Traitor, Defective, or Foreigner—ever touch you or contaminate you. You are of the ashes. Fulfil your destiny.”
I nod, kiss his hand in respect, and then bow deeply to the other Masters. They nod at me, then I’m guided back to the door, and they call the next girl.
There are times, like the day of my Testing, that I wish I could have borrowed my strength from the future, to fight the darkness that was coming. If I had only known that day, what my true destiny was. It wouldn’t be long now before I met him, and before he changed my life completely.