I guess this story begins with a question: When did I lose hope? It's not something most people think about. Can you think of a time when you had hope then started losing it? Can you quantify it? Well, I know when it started to fade.
My family lived on the outer edge of the Colberra shell. My father and mother both worked in the one industry that mattered: water extraction. As they made their home in what is called the Outer Dominances, water came at a premium and people with my parent’s skill more so. Sure, the outpost had a water station connected to the shell's water network, but that had proven unreliable in recent cycles. Even before my parents moved to the outpost, the water supply from the network had begun to dwindle. Not in a noticeable amount at first, mind you. Most people would not have noticed the drop in output, but my father discovered it soon after he and my mother moved there.
See, my father had a particular knack for technology. We never understood where it came from, but he could make the network systems do things no one else could. He was very quiet about it, as it wasn't good to flaunt such abilities. You never knew when the Seekers, our shell's police force, might take offense or get suspicious. So, he kept it to himself. I remember asking my mother about it, and she just shrugged.
"He's always been that way, dear," she said in answer to my question, when I was about ten. "Something between him and those machines, it just works."
I tried pushing him for an explanation of how he did it, and he'd just smile, rub my head, and send me off to study. I persisted one day, and the look in his eyes still haunts me. They were empty, hollow, staring right through me. He sat like that for a long moment, then blinked and looked away. I swear he wiped a tear away. He just waved me off, telling me the answer lay in my studies.
So, I studied, but not the normal stuff like arithmetic, reading, science, or history. We did those, too. No, my siblings and I learned the code. The language of the machines. Dull, boring stuff. We would spend entire days just creating code on paper, forming constructs, learning symbols, and making sentence columns from them. My parents never ran out of the paper, even though we never figured out where they got it. One of my brothers, Donovan, insisted they just erased what we'd been working on the day before and reused the same sheets. Seeing as we never saw our work again after completing it, he might have been right. All four of us: me, the eldest, down to the youngest, my sister, Jyen. We all learned the code.
We learned other things too. My father, he could find things in the network most people couldn't. That included some things from history most people don't know. Early on, it became apparent I’d inherited my father's knack for working with the network. Maybe it came from all those hours drawing code on paper; I'm not sure. Soon, my father began giving me coding projects, having me create programs inside safe working environments he called sandboxes. Many a happy afternoon was spent making simple programs to do useless things on a side section of giant touch screens we called terminals. We even made games for Maryn, my other brother, and Jyen to play on the rare occasion my father allowed them near a terminal.
Yes, we were a happy family. Then, the illness came.
There was no pattern, no way of figuring out who would be next. It didn't come all of a sudden, like a plague. It was slow. At first, no one really noticed anything was amiss. Little old Marie, a kind-hearted lady who lived up the street from us, caught it first. Walking past her house, we could always smell fresh bread baking in her convection oven. Then it stopped, and we knew it was serious. Before you knew what to think, she was gone. We had no proof she died, but everyone assumed she did. One day, her house stood empty, and her only relative in the town refused to discuss it. There were rumors, though.
You must understand that paranoia dominated the people’s emotions in that part of the shell. They believed the government ruling the Central Dominance in Colberra Citadel was after them. They were a very isolated sort, and they liked it. It was true all along the Outer Dominances. For years, the central government had been trying to find ways to get the people to give up living in these regions. At least, that's what the people out there would tell you. My father had his own opinions about the issue, but he kept those to himself. He didn’t do it out of fear of the people, but because he feared the Seekers. Who didn't?
When the illness began, that was when we first saw them. Seekers, come from the Central Dominance. You could spot them anywhere. Long, silvery-colored cloaks, billowing in the wind as they strode through the streets. The empty streets. No one got in the way of a Seeker, because those that did often disappeared. People said Seekers didn't come out to the provinces unless trouble was starting. Some said trouble started when the Seekers showed up. All I know is they came when the illness did.
At first, we ignored them. As long as people stayed out of their way, the Seekers left the people alone. As much as the residents disliked having them there, they knew better. Seekers were the hand of the government, the power behind the force that governed the shell and the most elite fighting force in the history of Colberra. They were the law and could change it as they saw fit. Most of the time, they enforced established rules, as written by the Central Dominance. Sometimes, the Seekers would bend those rules to their own liking and benefit. When someone threatened the peace of the land, Seekers came. When disaster or disease struck, Seekers came. And when they came, everyone got out of the way.
We could only stay out of the way so long. As the illness spread, people began to get nervous. Even with their reputation, or maybe because of it, people in the Outer Dominances distrusted most things from the central city state. The Seekers were no exception to this distrust. Rumors spread that the Seekers had brought the illness with them, that they spread it on purpose, that the Central Dominance was trying harder to get the people to leave.
My father thought they were all wrong. He didn't share what he believed, but I could tell he didn't like the way they talked. Soon, we weren't allowed to leave the house. At first, we thought it was to keep us out of the way of the Seekers. Now, I think it was to keep us away from the people.
Either way, it didn't work. The illness was spreading. No one knew what was causing it, and the Seekers weren't very forthcoming with details. Someone would get ill and they'd disappear. It became clear to us very quickly the Seekers were there to contain the illness. Well, it became clear to me. My father was skeptical, but he always encouraged us to think things through.
"Why else would they be here?" I asked one evening as we sat to dinner. "Old Marie got sick, everyone knows that much. Then she was gone. The Seekers didn't come until after she got sick. But no one remembers if they showed up before Marie disappeared or not."
"I'm not saying you’re wrong, my sweet." My father took a sip of water and pointed at me. "But I'm not saying you're right, either."
Normally, we would go on like this for a while, him encouraging me to think through to a conclusion. Not that night. His mind was somewhere else.
The next morning, my sister Jyen began to vomit. At first, she just couldn't keep any food down; soon she began to dry heave. It went on for a couple days. My mother insisted it had nothing to do with the disease. There were no rumors of vomiting going around the settlement. Still, they kept my sister isolated. You can never be too careful with Seekers.
Her condition worsened. Jyen needed a doctor, but we couldn't take her to one. If we sent for one, the Seekers would get wind of it. We took turns caring for her. If it was contagious, my mother argued, it was too late. I remember sitting in her bedroom, holding her head in my lap, a damp washcloth in hand, massaging her forehead. She asked me to tell her stories, so I did. Every story I could think of, silly ones to make her laugh.
One morning, about a week later, someone knocked at our door. My father answered it, and the look on his face told us all who it was. I ran up the stairs and into my sister's room, where she lay sound asleep. It was the first time she'd really slept since the illness came. My mother sat by her bedside, a finger brushing at her hair.
"She's through it now," she said, a small smile touching the corners of her mouth.
I tried to say something, to warn her, but my father grabbed me from behind. I kicked and pulled, twisting to get away. A Seeker strode past, silvery cloak billowing around him even here. He wore a spectacle device across his eyes, the sun glinting on the screen as he entered the room. He approached the bed where my mother sat.
"Mom!" My voice was hoarse. "Mom, don't let them take her."
She just stood and moved away. My father held me despite my struggling to get free, to go to my sister. He wrapped his arms around me. The Seeker stood over Jyen's quiet form for a moment, voice murmuring just quietly enough that we couldn't hear what he said. Something beeped, and I saw a line of blue light scan over her body. After that, he turned to look at my father. He said nothing, but my father stumbled just a bit. He pulled me back out of the room, my mother following behind.
"No!" I screamed, kicking at my father, clawing at his face. "No, they can't take her! She's better now! Mom, please. Please make this stop. Please!"
She just stared at me, her eyes blank. She moved slowly, head tilted to one side, mouth hanging open. That stilled me. The look on her face. No tears, no audible cries. The silent cry of a mother who has lost a child.
They took Jyen that day. They gave us the name of a hospital in the central district she would be taken to, along with instructions for applying for travel papers. Those papers never came. We never saw her again.
My mother was never the same. Something inside her died that day. My father did his best to take care of us, but he seemed lost, distracted. I remember walking in to the kitchen to find him standing over the cooking glass, staring at the wall. Whatever he had been preparing lay ruined, the smell filling the house and drawing my attention. So, I took over some things. That's the day life asked me to grow up. We needed a mother, so that became my role.
My brothers, thankfully, didn't seem to mind me doing that. Maryn, the youngest, was seven cycles old, Donovan, the next oldest, two cycles my younger. We all grew up a lot that season.
My father finally returned to his work, although he spent less time away from the house. My mother still mourned, he told the citizens. We all got out a lot less after the Seekers took my sister. Donovan suspected someone had ratted on us and brought the Seekers to take her. Trying to reason with him was no use, as he became very stubborn and angry. He never said anything where Maryn could hear. My only hope lay in my father talking some sense into him, but he would just grunt and go back to work whenever I mentioned it.
So, we lived, a sad, broken family trying to put things back together. Each day left me more tired than the last, filling me with dread of what the next day might bring.
One day, my mother stopped eating. Nothing we did could convince her to eat. She would sip water, so I tried making a broth for her. She just turned her head away and rolled over, ignoring my pleas to eat. Soon, getting her to drink water became a chore. And the fits began. She would just scream, howling cries that echoed through the house. Sometimes my ears convinced me my sister's name was in those cries.
My father and I tried to calm her. Donovan did his part and kept Maryn away from her. When a fit came on, he'd gather our younger brother up, and they'd vanish out the door. Still, Maryn knew something was wrong. We all did. We begged my father to find some help for her, but he refused. The Seekers would come take her for sure, he insisted.
A week after the fits began, his fear came true. The Seekers took my mother away.
I held up a hand and Micaela paused.
"Was she actually sick?"
She shrugged. "Who knows? It didn't matter to them. Something was wrong with her, so they took her away."
"Didn't the people in the settlement do anything?"
She chuckled softly. "Those people. They're all talk." She leaned forward, pointing a finger at me. "They claimed to be frontier types, rugged, tough, not needing the trappings of civilization to survive." She smacked her hand down on the table. "Hypocrites! All of them. As soon as the Seekers showed up, they all got in line and bowed their heads. Not one dared stand up to the Central Dominance, not openly. They were all talk."
She stopped speaking, breath racing through her nose as she stared off toward the window.
"Did they tell the Seekers about her?"
She shrugged. "Probably. Who knows how they knew? Those buildings had thick walls. You couldn't hear her outside." She closed her eyes and sank down in her chair. Her shoulders slumped forward. "They heard her that day, though."
Her screams echoed throughout the streets as they left. Maryn and Donovan spent the day out of the settlement. Feeling helpless, I went to find them and wandered the desert. A small canyon, a gully hollowed out by the wind near a tall rock outcropping, opened up before me after much walking. From atop the formation, I could see for leagues, from the central mountains in the north to the edge of the shell to the south. I sat there for hours, watching the core-light reflect off the distant water shield protecting us from space overhead. That shell orbits higher than any other does, so we can see the water shield. My mind wandered, pretending it could see the surface in detail, imagining waves crashing back and forth. I pondered what it must be like to sail along the water, as legends told the ancient world had done.
Not anymore. Humanity didn't have boats. And I had no mother. In that moment, I felt more alone than ever, and my heart broke under the weight of it. I curled myself into a ball and wept. The tears flowed until there were none left and I just lay there.
Eventually something clicked in my head. Maybe it was the thought of my brothers looking for me. Maybe the thought of my father and how he must feel. To this day, I'm not sure what it was, but one thing was certain: they needed me.
So, I dragged myself down from that rock and made my way home. My brothers had returned from the desert. Maryn sat weeping in a corner, Donovan standing over him. My father sat nearby, head in hands. My family, or what was left of it.
In that moment, yes, I could have quantified hope. Three. Three people was all the hope left to me. Yet, even that was fading. I knew if any more of my family was taken, hope would not last.
Little did I know how much I would lose.