Chapter 1: The Devil You Know, the Devil You Don’t
200 years After-the-Tilt
I was born in the small city of Nova Urbi but never got to meet my parents. In order to protect social order, very strict rules govern our country. At birth, every baby is tested to find out its subspecies. Recessive genes make it so that as far removed as 4 generations, a baby with aethereusian characteristics can be born. In the past, it was common for people from both subspecies to engage in relationships with one another as they wished. But after the coup d’état, 24 years ago, it is no longer permitted. Ever since then, any newborn with aethereusian genes is discarded. For a while, they were killed on sight. Right next to the horrified mother. Now, pregnant women are tested in the early stages giving them a chance to abort the pregnancy. Occasionally, a “genetically affected child” slips through the testing. When that happens, the child is no longer killed, but instead, swept away to a highly controlled institution known as an “orphanage” where it is put to governmental use.
That is me. I am one of those.
But back when the story began, I didn’t know this. I didn’t know any of this. I knew nothing about myself. Nothing about the world outside the orphanage. I didn’t know about Heighten Characteristics or the uprising 24 years ago. I didn’t know about very much at all.
My name is FENN, I am 16 years old and this is the only life I’ve ever known.
Across my left cheek inked in red, is my aethereusian identification number 2409. I work along side people like me. Days are long and tedious. Nights are short in a damp overcrowded dormitory. When I do sleep, I dream I could escape this place. Run away. Far. But the ink on my face is a cruel reminder that I have no place in the outside world. Every morning, it is engrained in us: “We shall not be seen, we shall not be heard. But we are to be thankful for the life we were so graciously granted.” So, I try. I try to be thankful. Thankful to be alive. But no matter how hard I try. I can’t. I just can’t be thankful.
The alarm resonated across the building. Sleepy faces, all stamped in red ink, made their way out of bed. Some as young as 5. But most were in their late teens. All were unkempt. Long hair. Dirty looking. The dormitory had no running water, no mirrors, no means for anyone to care about their physical appearance. The floors, the walls, the ceiling all painted in an aggressive red, matching the pants and t-shirts everyone wore.
As we started making our way across the room, a large door opened from which two carts, pushed by guards in shiny black protective gear, entered. In complete silence, a line formed in front of each cart and breakfast was distributed. As soon as the grey slop was devoured, people made their way through the door and joined others on the assembly line. I did too.
The guards never spoke, never smiled and never engaged. But always they carried heavy weapons and kept us at arms length. They looked intimidating but in reality, I had never witnessed them interfering with our daily life. If a fight broke out, they merely stood by and did nothing. In an emergency, they never offered any assistance. But the most bizarre thing was to watch them step away from us as we came close to them. You could almost think they feared us. Other than that, we knew nothing about them. Who was in command? Where they came from? Where they went after their shift? Just as we knew nothing about the world outside the orphanage.
Occasionally, a rumor about the outside world would spread. But this is where we lived, this is where we died. Rumors were just stories. No one really could have known what was out there, for no one had ever left this place, to come back.
Yet, every so often, at night, I would have vivid dreams. Birds. I had seen birds flying. Fields and lakes too. Beautiful sceneries, I could not even describe in words. And colors. So many colors. Here everything was red. Bright, screaming red. The guards were all in black. We’d seen colors through the refraction of light. But to think that the sky was blue, the grass green and that so many shades of red existed was knowledge beyond our comprehension. Except for me. I had seen it. Countless times now. I had seen things I had never heard of. Things, I did not possess the vocabulary to describe. I had seen open fields and cities. I had seen people, no ink on their face, laughing and singing. Stranger yet, in my dreams, I had felt the wind on my skin. Not the stale air from a fan being pushed through a hot room. The gentle breeze of the sea and the furry of a tornado. And day after day, that was the place I would escape to. That precious piece of paradise hidden in my mind was the only thing keeping me alive.
I took my place on the production line. I sat next to Eva. Her and I had the same task. We were to remove any filament dripping off the hot extruder during the manufacturing of weapon parts. We were also to keep an eye on the temperature control to prevent the overheating of the material and assure that the melt surface flow speed was within the set guidelines for optimal molding quality.
It wasn’t a very exciting task, but it wasn’t particularly dangerous either. And that was a good thing. Some tasks required extensive physical skills, while some pieces of equipment on the line had left several workers dismembered.
You get use to the bright red walls, the bright red pants, the bright red shirt and ink on your face. But I could never get use to the sight of blood. When Ioma severed his left leg, it took me days to wipe away the memory of the blood spurting out of his artery. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t close my eyes at night. Blood always made my stomach turn, from as far back as I could remember.
For that reason, I was quite content with my simple, relatively safe task. No matter how dull and repetitive it was, it was one thing to be truly thankful for in this place. I was safe. I shall not be seen, I shall not be heard, I shall be thankful. Being safe was the one thing I could be thankful for.
A tremor shook the ground below me, followed by a second one. It made me dizzy. Suddenly, my head wanted to explode. It had happened before, but never this bad. Another tremor hit; this time much bigger. I stumbled to the ground. Eva too. I could hear a growing roar coming from the other side of the building. Or maybe it was just in my head? I didn’t know. Everything was spinning.
I closed my eyes for a second.
But it was no better.
I had vision of dark smoke, dark hallway, flashing lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and screaming voices…
The screaming voices weren’t in my head, they were coming from the other side of the building.
They were getting closer to us. I grabbed Eva by the arm and ushered her under the table. Just as I did so, the door to the dormitory burst in a flash of light. The ground shook once more. Dark smoke rushed into the room. My ears buzzing from the explosion, made it impossible for me to hear what was being said. I could see people I had never seen before. I could see their lips moving but couldn’t hear a sound. I could feel Eva shaking next to me. The room was no longer spinning and somehow my headache had gone away, but the smoke made it hard to breathe. I could tell the people were looking for something. Or was it someone? I didn’t know if I should fear them or not. Where were the guards? Why weren’t they protecting us?
I stayed as close to the ground as possible. Trying to catch my breath. Trying to hide. Hoping it would all go away, and we could just get back to work. Safe.
Then I thought about the blue sky.
I thought about the green grass.
A house stood.
A very big house, with lots of big windows. It was pretty to stare at. A lonely boy stood to the side.
It was gone.
As quickly as it came, the image was gone. I was back in the room full of smoke, next to Eva. If we stayed here, we were going to choke to death. If we stayed here, I would never get to see the blue sky.
I grabbed Eva’s hand and we made a run for it. I didn’t need to see, to find my way through the room. After 16 years in this building, the room’s layout was etched into my brain. We easily avoided the worktables, the machinery and the equipment and found ourselves in the dormitory. The intruders had entered there, it was only logical we could escape the same way.
We crossed the room, bumping on the beds littering the ground. The explosion had done more damage then I had expected. I could tell there were debris everywhere, but I couldn’t see it. Regardless I kept on running. My shin hit something, I lost my balance, but I kept on going. My lungs were burning. Each breath triggered a sharp pain jolting my entire body. I lost hold of Eva. I didn’t know where I was anymore or in which direction to run next. My lungs, the pain, the smoke and the darkness were all against me. But I kept moving. I hit the wall. Finally, a marker I could use. I dragged my hand along the wall and carefully made my way around the room. If the intruders had been able to get in, then sooner or later I’d find the way out.
Then it caught my eye. An opening dimly lit by a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Flickering on and off, casting an eerie glow on the dark hallway.
In the halo of light stood a young woman. She seemed surprised to see me.
That’s the last thing I remember. I must have hit the ground hard, because when I woke up, I had the worst headache of my life.