Authors: Adriana Ryan
Copyright December 2012, Adriana Ryan
All Rights Reserved
Cover Art: James Smith,
Editor: Lindsey Alexander,
Formatting: Jason G. Anderson,
Scanning, sharing, or giving away any part of this book without the author’s permission is illegal. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.
For my family, for always believing.
I am baffled by mirrors.
When I look at my reflection, I see eyes I do not recognize (probably from my father), my mother’s nose, my sister’s mouth. It is
face, but it means nothing to me. The lines and curves of it do not resonate deep within me, do not inspire waves of feeling, either good or bad. I am nothing more than a collection of genetic puzzle pieces—I understand and accept this fully. I do not think myself beautiful, nor ugly. In any case, such labeling of oneself is against the law.
I dress quickly in my uniform, and tie the scarf around my left arm. It weighs heavily on me today, heavier, perhaps, than it has in a long time. The large red zero on it flaunts my emptiness. I am devoid of an embryo. As of this moment, I am worth very little to my government and my people. But maybe today that will change. Maybe I will finally have the chance to wear the gold scarf with the fruit-laden tree branch. I can almost hear the latch on my cage sliding. I can almost feel the brilliant sunshine kiss my eyelids.
The gray sky is a smothering blanket that settles around me as soon as I step outside. When the fallout is bad, we have to wear masks and stay inside except to go to work. Today I see black spots dotting the air, but it is not bad. I am still breathing, and this, I know, is something to be thankful for.
As I pass the alley beside my building, the Nukehead children watch me. Their eyes are insects that crawl across my neck, my cheek, my ear. Their whispers are fingers trailing through my hair. I keep my gaze on the cracked concrete beneath my boots and my mind on my destination: the bus that will deliver me safely to my fate, my duty.
I hand my plastic voucher to the bus driver. She wears a uniform similar to mine—a shirt and skirt with black rubber boots, but her clothes are a dusty pink rather than olive green. Her hair is wet and hangs in limp raven strands to her shoulders. Although I have seen her almost every day for the past three years, since I was assigned to my job at the Bureau of Transregional Affairs, her eyes run over my voucher, my badge, and then my face. Just in case I have morphed into an imposter version of myself, in case I am crazy enough to want to break into my own life.
As I cross from the bus station to the squat concrete building where I work, it is pouring silver rain. The drops sting my skin as they roll off, and I know I will be mottled red later. I’ve learned there are certain things the human body will never get used to, even if it has been exposed to them since birth. Acid rain is one such thing. Umbrellas have proved useless, the nylon tattering under the caustic solution in mere weeks. With the constant deluge of rainfall, most people don’t bother with them any longer. When an object does not meet its function, it must be discarded. It’s the logical way.
I step into the dank entrance hallway and make for the gloom of the stairs. They will lead me to the office where I work in a hive of desks and chairs with other BoTA employees. The perpetual wetness of the air, even inside, seeps into my skin. My pores drink in every last bit until I imagine I am bloated and swollen, but not in the way I want to be. Not in the way that counts. I leave marble-sized drops of rain behind me as I wind my way to my desk.
Moon leans back in her chair. She raises one green, tattooed-on eyebrow. The government allows accessorizing as long as the colors of the workplace are used. “You look ghastly.”
I sit down, my face burning. “It’s raining,” I answer, though I know this is not what she means.
“You’re due for a Match today, yeah?” She drums her shellacked nails on the tabletop. Her fingers look diseased, painted that shade of green.
“Yes,” I reply. There is no point in denying it. A Match is cause for much gossip. A Match is everyone’s business. Progeny is our only weapon now.
“You know who it is?” Moon asks, her eyes glinting in the tepid morning light.
I frown. “How would I know who it is?” Matches are never revealed in advance. It doesn’t matter anyway, since we don’t fraternize with the Husbands and would have no way of knowing them. I suppose it is another way of reminding us they are nothing more than mediums to our ultimate goal.
“I thought your mother would’ve told you. Clued her only daughter in to her future.” Moon has a way of setting me on edge, no matter what she says or intends to say. I know from experience that they are never the same thing.
“My mother doesn’t do me any favors.” I say this tightly. Perhaps Moon will assume I am offended at her insinuation of bias in the system, but I secretly wish my mother would do me favors. Unfortunately, to her, I am just a feather in our government’s cap—a daughter who will make more healthy children for the future of New Amana. We have no emotional ties, and I am as in the dark as anyone else.
“Vika? Vika Cannon?”
I look up. It is time. The woman in billowing beige pants is waiting, already glancing at her watch although she has only just called my name. I cannot be late for this. I cannot miss my chance.
I stand up.
“Here,” I say.
Here I am. But I wish I wasn’t.
Every office building has its own infirmary and Match Clinic. In the case of a Match, they simply call you in, introduce you to your Husband, and have you get back to work after a short talk. It is all perfectly timed to occur between menstrual cycles. My life is clockwork-precise.
My stomach seems to be filled with leaden butterflies as I follow the Match Coordinator. The scarf on my arm appears to glow, the heat of the zero branding my flesh. I’ve waited for this day since I turned twenty years old three months ago, and became eligible to be Matched. Three months. I can scarcely believe this is real, that it isn’t another one of my dreams.
“Rather early in the day for a Match,” I say to steady my nerves, to trick my mind into thinking this isn’t anything extraordinary.
The Match Coordinator says nothing, which I expected but am discomfited by nonetheless.
there a reason my Match is to take place so early in the day? A bad reason? Is the Match Coordinator tight-lipped because they’re usually that way, or because she does not want to be the one to give me the bad news? Matches don’t usually take place till the afternoon, and it’s scarcely nine o’clock. A headache begins, deep behind my eyes.
Soon enough, we enter the Match Clinic, with its austere smoke-colored walls and sticky plastic chairs. The Match Coordinator leaves me to stew in one of them while she speaks with someone at the desk. Finally, she turns and beckons.
I follow her, this time wordlessly. She deposits me in another faceless room. Its scent stings my nostrils as I wait. I’ve waited twenty years, and yet, this last wait seems interminable. Eventually, when I am on the knife-edge of panicked and petrified, the Match Doctor walks in.
She’s tall, with stocky legs that end, rather abruptly, in her white rubber boots. She says nothing, just stands by the door scribbling in her forms. I have the terrible urge to laugh, to run screaming from the room, to do anything to break the silence and my need to be in it. She looks up at me at last, and lets her eyes travel from my eyebrows to my feet and back again. Nodding briskly, she says, “Are you ready?”
For all the great many imaginative, pithy responses I’ve made up in my head over the years, I simply nod. In this moment, it seems, I have nothing left to say. No words to convey that I am not ready, not in the slightest, for “the great responsibility of leading your country out of its impoverished, self-consuming depths.” They teach us that at school, right at the beginning. There is no mistaking our duty. We may have rehearsed this scenario a countless number of times, but it steals my breath away regardless.
The Match Doctor opens the door behind her and my assigned Husband steps in.
My first thought is that he looks much like a stray dog I’d seen once, as a child. My mother told me that dogs used to be domestic pets in my grandparents’ time, but of course, when the War of the Nations concluded, the ones that survived were a drain on resources like food and water. They now live on the outskirts of our cities, picking at scraps and roving in small packs. This dog I’d seen was timid, its tail tucked between legs that were nothing more than skin-covered bone, its eyes shining mistrust wrapped in hope.
The Husband before me has the same sentiment in his brown eyes, the same expression of simultaneous submission and a desperate desire to please. He actually smiles at me. Smiles! As if we are two actors about to go on a date, like in the archaic movies my mother sometimes watched when I still lived with her. Mindless entertainment, she called them.
“Miss Cannon, this is Shale Underwood. He is your assigned Match.” The doctor steps back, as if leaving the stage.
Shale comes forward, his broad shoulders stooped slightly, and takes my hand in a quaint handshake. His palm is hot and dry. It squelches mine. “Very pleased to meet you, Miss Cannon.”
“Vika,” I say, withdrawing my hand. “You may call me Vika.”
Shale sits down in the chair opposite me, set there for this very purpose. As he leans toward me, his neck is slightly bent, and his head is as close to mine as possible. We are breathing the same few puffs of air between us. He waits for my questions.
I am paralyzed. I’ve thought of many questions over many sleepless nights, but now, the only one that comes to mind is, “How old are you?”
What does it matter, Vika? I ask myself. It is irrelevant how old he is. He is the one who will help you make a child.
I nod, at a loss for what to say next. Is this how our nights will be at home the entire time he is to remain with me? Silences punctuated by empty words? But, of course, we are not meant to talk, to become companions. He is merely assigned to me to fulfill a purpose: help me bear fruit, and if I choose, help me rear my child and keep house while I work. For companionship, there are women.
The doctor stands up after a few more moments. “Any more questions, Ms. Cannon?”
“No… No more questions.”
“Very well then. We’ll send Shale to your home, where he will begin his homemaking duties.”
I am dismissed. I nod at Shale, thank the doctor, and take my leave. The zero on my armband blazes.
Moon is waiting for me, her eyes gleaming in predatory glee. “And?”
I sit down, adjust the collar of my olive uniform. “And I’ve been assigned a Husband.”
“Is it his first time around too?”
I pause. Why hadn’t I thought to ask that? But then I realize it’s because I don’t want to know. “I’m not certain.”
“Well, what’s his name?” She fingers her own zero armband unconsciously.
This is why I do not trust Moon. She cannot be Matched yet as she is only eighteen—not quite emotionally ready for motherhood, as has been determined by the government. She is not quite a Défectueux, but she is not a citizen on par with the rest of us of child-bearing age, either. She has not proven herself yet.
Moon might very well be a Spark. For every fifteen terrorists—anyone thought to be against the principles of New Amana in spirit or in action—a Spark turns in, they are given a chance to emigrate to a different place, a place where people do not have to squabble over scraps of food and light and air as we do here in New Amana.
All of us dream of going to Asia, the continent with the largest area left unscathed by the nuclear backlash. When the War of the Nations occurred between the Middle East, China, and what used to be the United States, the resulting nuclear war decimated the North and South American continents, leaving the remaining citizens of all the countries that used to exist there to make sense of what was left. Most of the men in power were gone; healthy young men in the military had been killed. A feminist regime was born and New Amana was created to rise from the ashes.
The Middle East was utterly destroyed, but China won the war. It is now the world’s superpower, and has promised to take the healthiest of us in as temporary refugees. We take on work there that Chinese citizens do not want to do in return for a breath of clean air and a drink of fresh water. We work on wages that, to us, seem like riches.
A few volunteers will have to return every few months—for as long as they can stand the acrid air, which is getting steadily less livable—to clean up the country with borrowed technologies from China, to plant more trees and bring back livestock, until the land is inhabitable again.
The map of the world looks quite different now than it did when my grandmother was a girl. Countries have ceased to exist, territorial lines have been erased. It’s as if a careless child happened by, gave our little blue-and-green ball a good shake, and left the parts wherever they happened to land.
“Shale,” I say to Moon. Everyone in New Amana is named this way. The men are named for rocks and minerals—things that come out of the ground, to remind us of their place on the evolutionary ladder. Women are named after stars, planets, and moons. Heavenly bodies. “Shale Underwood.”
Moon smiles to herself. “Wonder when Mummy Dearest will be by to meet him.”
My hands close into fists. The thought has occurred to me, of course, but I’ve been trying to push it into the hoariest corners of my mind.
My mother, being one of the heads of the Match services, has been waiting for the system to turn out my Match since the day I qualified by turning twenty. For three months, I’ve been hearing that I need to take my prenatal vitamins, because it is only a matter of time before it will be my turn to produce the perfect progeny for New Amana’s future. Once the volunteers clean up our nation using Chinese technology, we will need to repopulate. In case there is another War, we need to be prepared.
I turn to my computer, one on par with machines before the War of the Nations. We lost a great deal of technology and some of the greatest minds of our nation in that war, but some stragglers have survived.
At the Bureau of Transregional Affairs, we are concerned with government communications between the different parts of our country. We have Défectueux Asylums in what used to be eastern Canada, the western United States of America, and Central America. Since our nation is so far-flung, everything has to run smoothly in order to keep the peace and reduce the risk of uprisings.
Of course, no BoTA employee is ever given information we could barter or sell to the terrorists. Each of us only has access to a sliver of data at a time. We never know what the other is doing. The work is slow, dull, and excruciating, but I am thankful for it. It keeps my mind off the rest of my life.
Time slips into an uneasy passage, and eventually, the whistle sounds. As I’m gathering up my bag, Moon says, “Best of luck with Shale.”
I hear the meaning under her words: Bear fruit if you want a seat on a ship to China; there is no other way out.