William Carlos Williams hugged close to the line of men crouched in the dark. “Gametime” in Klammath usually felt more like work than war, but this time it felt different. He could practically hear Jorge’s pulse beating next to him.
“Chill out, Barks. You’re freaking me out,” he muttered under his breath.
“Yeah.” Barks turned to face him, sweating. “I’m freaked out.”
“Well chill.” Williams elbowed him lightly in the gut. “Just calm down, we'll be alright.”
Barks wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. “Something just don’t feel right.”
Williams’ silence hung in the air as acknowledgement – only the leaves were talking; they rustled gently in the dark morning sky. “You call home yet?”
Barks nodded vigorously, almost frantic. “Yeah. I called. He was there. Pepe was there, at the factory.”
Williams shook his head and swallowed hard. Pepe was Jorge’s little brother, a scrawny little rug rat who had been tagging along with them for years, begging them to teach him the Drill, making fake guns out of cardboard. Half out of annoyance and half out of protection, Jorge had always ended up sending him home, where he’d eventually wander back to spend a few hours at the factory. Some protection that had been.
Williams reached a hand out and gripped Jorge’s shoulder. “It ain’t your fault man.”
Jorge could only shake his head, grimacing. He brushed the back of his hand roughly against his face, slapping off the tears. “Something just don’t feel right, man. Something just don’t feel right.”
“It’s just another game, Jorge.” Williams adjusted his crouch. “Just think of it like another game.”
Over the radio, P.P.’s voice came loud and clear, “Zero five, move forward!”
Jorge resolutely let the air in his lungs file out and gripped his rifle tight. “This ain’t just another game to me.”
Together the line of men came out of their crouches and began to advance, the sound of their boots decimating the foliage underfoot.
Dirth and Barb, aided by light, looked around at their surroundings. The room they stood in was small, but stacked with rows of equipment and a wall of monitors.
“Is this the factory?” Barb asked. “I thought this was supposed to be a mine.”
“It was…” Dirth answered, in disbelief himself. “I don’t know what this is. But it’s definitely no mine.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Barb retorted, “But if it’s not a mine, then what is it? I mean, I swear to God, Connor worked at a fucking mine. He was covered in grit every morning he came home…”
“Well, outside was a mine.” Dirth said, “But in here…is something else.”
The two of them looked up at the wall of dead monitors.
“Someone was monitoring them.” Dirth announced. “And with this technology, it looks like it was someone from Outside.”
Solomon sat at his oak desk, head in hands. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
From his earliest days as an Abolitionist, he had always been an outcast – he was the only Abolitionist who was what they called 20/20, 20 color hair and 20 color skin. Pre-Divide, the Pures had called it black. The others were a mix of things – some Asian, mostly white. It had always been ironic to him that the Abolitionists were composed of several discrete races, while governing a population of completely homogenous 10/10s. Centuries of cross-breeding and genetic manipulation had culminated in a single, somewhat muddled appearance for Outsiders – a similar height and weight, the same irregularly wavy hair in a generic darkish brown, matching medium-sized eyes, and a perfectly uniform shade of taupe skin – the lowest common denominator of dominant traits, so to speak.
The Abolitionists, on the other hand, had been kept to the side. Since they’d been forged in the era immediately preceding the Divide, they’d been diverse from the start, and there’d been nothing in the cards to change that. Sex was strictly prohibited for Abolitionists, and a steady dose of age-prolonging transfusions had prevented even one of them from passing yet. It was the Great Outside Project that nobody’d ever heard of – keeping those pesky Abolitionists alive. Technically, it was the Moderators’ job to come up with a backup plan for when the transfusions finally failed to yield and the Abolitionists began to die, but… there was really no incentive to do so, especially with so little information about what the Abolitionists were up to, and how they were doing, anyhow. And so, though the Abolitionists had initially been kept isolated for the purposes of philosophically sound governance, they had inadvertently also become the one-hit wonders of zoological preservation.
Solomon stared steadily at the bottle of pills before him. The pills on their own could slow maturation down to almost a quarter of the rate of what others experienced. Everyone on the Outside had them, and practically all of them took them, unthinkingly really. What about the Pures? he thought suddenly. How long did they live now?
Solomon still felt great trepidation when thinking about the Pures. Just like the other Outsiders, the Pures had always remained more of an intellectual concept to him than an actual set of faces or names. He’d been trained since birth not to think of them as anything more. Over time, his mind came to know and respect the existence of a line that could never be crossed, the line between abstraction and reality. But after his visit with Ms. Paltron, that line had been crossed, and his trusty mind – the vessel he’d strived to keep pure and free of outside influence for so long – had had no say in the matter. What a delicate thing, the mind, he thought. And now that his was contaminated, there was no chance of ever returning to the Abolitionists. That is, of course, unless he allowed himself to be burned, but… no. No. He let the finality of it sink in. He could never go back now. He was ruined. He was absolutely nothing.
On the precipice of that thought, Solomon backed away. He tiptoed closer to the illicit topic of the Pures. Who were the Pures now? Was there anything to be learned from them? How had they managed not to destroy themselves in war? How many of them were left? Did they still have animals? Were there… he braced his mind at the unusualness of the thought… other blacks?
For all he knew, he was the last of his kind. The Box Office had run a story nearly a decade ago that the last 20/20 on the Outside had finally passed away, 198 years old. But the Box Office didn’t know anything about the Abolitionists, so they couldn’t have known about him. Perhaps he was the last. The last black on earth.
He wondered grimly if Ms. Paltron’s next big story would revolve around his visit to her office. “Last 20/20 found – an Abolitionist!” A dark thought suddenly gripped him – Ms. Paltron had seen him; she had swiveled her chair around to face him; she had violated a primary tenet of Abolitionist law, even under the basis of an exemption, and yet she hadn’t skipped a beat. In fact, she’d even had time to fit in a slur. For a woman born post-Divide, she couldn’t have seen many of his kind... or could she? She was the head conglomerator at the Box Office; out of anyone, she was the most likely to know what went on on the other side. Could her indifference be a sign that there were others like him in Pureside?
Solomon shook his head in frustration. At least for the time being, Ms. Paltron had her hands full with another story – the EIU invasion.
It was knowledge he now possessed – the EIU was crossing the Divide – and he had no idea what to make of it. He thought back to the other Abolitionists – how they’d gaped at him expectantly, how eager they’d been to know. He could feel the anger beading once again on his brow. He had been betrayed by his entire family…
Yet Collinsworth had still not withdrawn him. This was perhaps what pained Solomon the most – the lingering invitation to give in, to desanctify all that he held true – from the leader himself. It spoke to a larger evil, an endemic sea change, rather than a singular lapse in judgment.
He gripped the bottle of pills and threw it across the room. Had he been a fool all along? What else was happening around him? He thought back to Judy, leaning so casually against the wall, plotting anarchy and smoking a cigarette, something that had been banned for decades. She had always been brash, but he had never seen her quite that way before. A fire had been lit under her.
For the briefest moment, he smiled, thinking of her twelve color hair catching the sun.
Kaemi and Sandy emerged into the daylight, Aniah still tight by Kaemi’s side. He hugged a stuffed bear in his arms, sucking his thumb on one hand and tightly gripping a seer stick in the other. For a prophetic, he was still extremely young.
Sandy squinted to take in their bright surroundings. There were plenty of trees, but they definitely weren’t in pretty little lines. “Is this it?” she asked, “Is this Portsby?”
Kaemi shook her head. “Hush, child! What did I tell you about keeping quiet?”
Sandy suddenly remembered all the instructions Kaemi and the others had been repeating in the tunnels before they'd emerged – move fast, stay low, keep quiet. Move fast, stay low, keep quiet.
But for all the mantras and doomsdaying, it sure was beautiful outside. The air was so clear here, nothing like the bad part where she and Barb were from. It was even cleaner than Klammath. Was that a bird she heard? A soft whistling sound came through the trees, and Kaemi suddenly fell to the ground in front of her.
Sandy stared, agape and uncomprehending, as Aniah grabbed her hand and pulled her down to the ground. “Siwvah and wed, blood of all,” he murmured. She suddenly heard screaming all around as Diggers in front and behind began to scatter in different directions, a wake of fallen bodies strewn across the floor. Up ahead she saw a group of men tackle Mardeth and bring him down to the ground.
Sandy resisted the urge to scream. A pool of blood seeped slowly from Kaemi’s neck.
“Siwvah and wed, blood of Kaemi,” Aniah went on, “Siwvah and wed, blood of all.”
Another whistling sound came through the trees – Sandy felt a sting at her neck, and then she too fell.
Williams scrambled over a moss-fallen log towards the women they'd just shot.
“Hold your fire!” he cried. The barrage of tranqs continued. He quickly assessed the scene. The black woman he’d shot lay bleeding on the floor, the tranq needle still caught in her neck. The little boy he’d glimpsed by her side was nowhere to be seen, but a small teddy bear lay there on the floor in his place. And then there was another girl, skinny and white with clods of dirt stuck in her matted blonde hair.
Amidst all the furor, she lay so peacefully there. She wasn’t beautiful by any means, but she looked like a girl he could like. A girl he could eat with, a girl he could write to, a girl he could carry.
He bent and lifted her tenderly into his arms. He stood, friends and tranqs flying past him, and suddenly felt different somehow.