Beads of sweat dripped onto every desk beneath the blinding lights. Except for Jimmy’s, of course, who cruised through the multiple choice questions about Ulysses and Adolf faster than the warm-up ones about himself. He just didn’t give a damn.
In complete disharmony with the music of the ticking clock, the scratching pencils, and the heavy breathing, the proctor’s voice sang out once more.
“Sorry to interrupt you all, but there’s apparently been a very extreme emergency in, umm…well, on the Inside, and the Moderators have asked that all students enrolled in the EIU report to their MBs at once.” Very few students looked up. The proctor’s words glanced off their skulls, failing to penetrate their taxed brains, brains struggling to match synonymous words and deflect the irrelevant ones flying past their ears. All brains except for Jimmy’s, of course, who immediately perked up at the mention of the EIU, not only because he was bored and done with his test, but also because he happened to be a member.
Jimmy jumped up. “Ma’am, I’m in the reserve. May I be excused?”
The proctor quickly tucked a rebel strand of hair behind her ear. “Yes! What’s your name, dear?”
“James Saguto, ma’am,” Jimmy replied.
The proctor walked slowly, almost regretfully, to his desk and carefully lifted his pamphlet. “Sorry honey you didn’t get a chance to finish. Hopefully you made a proud showing in the five hours you squeezed in.” She leaned in for a whisper. “I doubt the others will do much better with five extra anyways…” She cleared her throat and spoke out to the glistening rows of bowed heads. “There’ll be retesting for anyone who wants it, of course, in the…well, later. You can retake it then.” At this last assurance, the proctor tucked the rebel test booklet under her arm and guided Jimmy towards the door. “Don’t worry, sweetie. You can take the test again next year.”
As the door shut behind him, Jimmy suddenly became aware of the noise his shoes made as they clapped the floor. I wear stiff heeled shoes, he thought to himself. My shoes have a stiff authority. I could be in what the Pures might have called…the military. The thought was a dangerous one, a thrilling one that always kept sailing through his mind until he managed to sink it. The Moderators, the Abolitionists, and even the Box Office had taken “military” out of the regular vernacular. Because there wasn’t one. The closest thing they had to a military was the EIU, and that’s exactly why Jimmy was in it. Not for the myth of fighting that he’d read about in the archives, or even the camaraderie that it was supposed to offer, but because it was his only chance, outside of being selected as the Inside Man for Box Office, of ever crossing into Pureside.
General P.P. Gonzalez was a disproportionately round man. Today he stood at the front of the room, swiping at his bulging neck with a towel.
“Christ, it’s hot in here.” He mumbled.
Indeed the locker room was hot. As P.P. waited for his men to return from their morning exercise regimen, he sat down on a bench, dipped his towel into a bucket of cool water and let it rest on his thigh. Water dripped onto the carpet floor.
Before it had time to form into a puddle, eighty men stormed into the room, a bustle of noise and laughter, towel slaps and jock straps. One man, a William Carlos Williams, immediately noticed P.P. and immediately knew something was wrong. The General was wearing shorts.
“Attention, men!” P.P. cried out. The men looked around to see where the noise had come from, and eventually found the source.
“Sir, yes sir!” they shouted in unison.
P.P. beamed. It was a tremendous boost to his ego that his men respected him, especially when he was not only sitting down, but wearing shorts. His greatest fear was ever looking like he was trying to overcompensate for something. He remained seated.
“Today, as I’m sure none of you have heard, Pureside’s largest mining facility has collapsed. Klammath contract workers were working on a new expansion directly behind the existing one, and the expansion became unstable at 3:29 am last night, causing a landslide that destroyed the facility. Inside, there were at least six thousand workers working and residing. Most are presumed dead.” He paused a moment, and then added, “It was Calendula. Calendula Sands.” He watched as several heads in the locker room dropped – men who were likely to have had younger brothers or sisters employed there. “I’m sorry, boys.” He never liked to show signs of weakness, but he had read somewhere that empathy elicited loyalty. He soldiered on. “The Herald reports it as the worst quasi-natural disaster in Pureside history. And because it happened right in our backyard, our unit has been put on full alert.”
“For what?” a voice shouted out from the back. “We gonna go clean up six thousand bodies, sir?”
P.P. shifted his weight. He hated that one. He always managed to make P.P. feel like he was overcompensating for something.
“State your name and ID.” P.P. shouted back.
“Sir, yes, sir. William Carlos Williams, sir. Zero five seven four, sir.” And even with the yes’s and the sir’s, P.P. and Williams both knew which fellow in shorts had one up on the other.
“Alright, seven four. You want to know the deal, I’ll tell you guys the deal. The EIU is coming in.” There were no loud shouts and nobody jumped to their feet in protest, but everybody sure as hell felt like it. It was the first invasion by the EIU since the Divide, Pureside’s self-annexation. It was the first time the Divide itself – the physical border between the two – would ever be breached.
Repressing a smug level of satisfaction from seeing their stunned faces, P.P. cleared his throat. It was times like these that he felt like a true leader. “In case you boys have forgotten, the EIU is not a military unit. The Outsiders don’t do war. They do help. The EIU acronym – which the Herald often mistakenly calls the Emergency Invasion Unit – is in fact an intervention unit. They’re sending in drones to give us a hand at the factory. They, not us, will be the ones clearing out the workers’ bodies, and rescuing whoever’s still alive to be rescued. As you can see, the EIU is actually quite –
“I think I speak for everyone in Pureside when I say we want the fuckers to stay on their side of the Line! Sir!” barked Soldier Barks.
“Name and I.D.” P.P. requested, quickly tiring of the interruptions.
“Jorge Barks, sir. Zero five one six, sir.”
“One six, they are not fuckers, they are here to help. Unlike those bastards in Portsby, who just threw their hands up and turned their backs on us without a word. Or like Klammath, who’s fault this all is to begin with, sending us their cheap goddamn Brownsborough contractors.” He took a deep breath, his belly stretching towards the fluorescent lights. “So if the EIU wasn’t coming in, you know who’d be cleaning up all those six year old carcasses?” There was a long pause. “It’d be you, Barks. It’d be you. Even with our entire division, we wouldn’t be enough. It would take us weeks, months. The bodies would rot.” To the emptiness, P.P. continued. “Men, we are not on full alert because of the EIU, we are on full alert because we are preparing to attack Klammath.”
This time there were audible groans of unrest.
One was louder than the rest. “Sir!”
“What!” P.P. yelled, beginning to lose his temper. He didn’t like raising his voice. He cleared his throat and smoothed his hands over his belly, soothing his outward composure.
Several sharp nudges into Barks’ ribs quieted him. Protesting never got them anything but more pushups.
With a clenched jaw, Barks responded, “Nothing, sir. Can’t wait, sir.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of, Barks.” P.P. wrung what was left of his dripping towel into the bucket and hung it round his neck. He stood up. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.” As he walked through the door, he called out like a coach, “Practice at 5. Gametime at 7.”
The boys, still more shocked by the news about the EIU than the age-old attacks on Klammath, turned back towards their lockers and changed out of their sweaty shorts into another kind of uniform.
Jimmy sat down along with the others. Two hundred and seven in all. It was the same room they’d been meeting in once a week for the past six years. Every Tuesday since Jimmy was ten. The towering Atrium was large enough to give each of them a space at the glossy opaque desk that hugged the walls of the room. Roughly two-thirds of the group sat facing this outer desk, each area outfitted with a chair and a monitor. These monitors were generally used for Virtual Missions like search and rescue, rapid evacuation, and mass resource distribution.
Without a doubt, everyone’s favorite mission was invasive defense. When invasive defense was the VM, nobody, including Jimmy, could peel their eyes from the screen. Weapons fire and explosions ricocheted off the high Atrium walls. If the VM audio were dialed back for a second, the room could've been mistaken for an office, filled with the clerical din of light taps and grimaces. In the Atrium, unlike in the classroom, Jimmy cared. He cared enough to sweat out his palms and under his eyebrows and through the seat of his pants. Everything seemed so real.
Unlike the Pures, who insisted that violence on screens had no deleterious effect on young minds, the Outsiders adhered to the studies. And the studies said it did. Science had proven the hold On Screen Violence had on the collective imagination, and so it was almost entirely eliminated. The EIU, and invasive defense in particular, was one of the last vestiges of approved violence remaining. On Screen Violence had been the first issue in a litany of many upon which Pures and Outsiders disagreed, but its significance came from the fact that it was widely attributed to being the first issue that led to the Boom.
The Boom was a technological one. It was a paradigm shift. It was a response to the tension that had formed between the intellectually elite and the average, and it was a vote to move forward rather than to linger behind, scared and unawares. When the Pures and the Outsiders broke from one another in the Great Divide, the Pures retreated from the brink of this Boom, shrunk from it, while the Outsiders leapt from it and never looked back. The Outsiders made a point of embracing the Boom, attempting to show that progress is never detrimental, as long as said progress is brought into the fold with careful consideration. Aside from the Abolitionists, you see, the Outsiders were very much about acceptance. The youngest EIU members couldn’t be more grateful that invasive defense was one such accepted entity.
The members seated at the outer desk, like Jimmy, were fondly referred to as Monitors. They were led by the Motherboard. The Motherboard faced an inner cylinder of screens called the Tower, where each Motherboard member, affectionately titled MBs, could relay information about their Monitors to each other and to various stations in the EIU. Until today, the Motherboard really had the most boring jobs.
Today though, the Chief MB stood up in the center of the Tower, so all the Monitors and MBs could see him.
“Alright everybody, moment of truth," he began. "With all your virtual training, I and the other MBs are confident that you’ll be able to handle this intervention with swift and sobering effectiveness.” He paused, for a second forgetting how to inhale. With painful deliberation, he spoke again. “You are about to see thousands upon thousands of dead children.” His voice scratched out. He cleared it back into being. “You will find them, extract them, and transport them to the gravesite that Pureside is preparing. Preliminary scans show no survivors, but if you do find one, report it to your MB immediately for plan of rescue.” As his words settled onto the Monitors, he let his weight fall back on his heels.
Monitor Lisa couldn’t help noticing that his Adam’s apple protruded unusually far out today. His tie was too tight. She raised her hand. Everyone looked gratefully towards her with the hope that she would ask the question to end all questions.
“Sir, how will we know what they look like?” This was exactly the question.
The Adam’s apple slid guiltily down. “What do you mean?” Chief MB tugged at the knot at the base of his neck. He was practically suffocating. “You’ve seen kids before, Lisa.”
“Not six thousand Pure ones,” someone said quietly, starting a murmur of agreement.
Chief MB continued, “Well, hey, okay, you guys are right.” The murmur quieted. “These days we hardly even see children. At least not like they have ‘em over there. But look, we go by the Box Office. And according to them, Pure kids look just the same as you guys, only… with a little variety. Just like the adults, you know, they're not tenned. And supposedly… they seem younger, less mature." He paused. "Trust your instincts." He held the tip of his tie lamely between his fingers. "Remember, they requested us because we’re the best. Cross-side wide. We are the EIU, and we are fit for this job.” He let his tie fall.
Jimmy, who had rushed into the Atrium fantasizing about gore and glory, sat still. He rarely watched the Box Office. All his knowledge about the Pures was based on the history books, the Archives. But the Archives stopped at the Divide. He had no idea what children over there might be like today. Before the Divide, Outside babies were just like Pure babies. But for some reason, during the Boom everything changed on the Outside. When babies were born, their mental and emotional infancy started lasting only about two years. After that, they started becoming like adults more rapidly, wanting what adults wanted and acting how adults acted. The Outsiders could do nothing to stop it. After all, children formed a respectable sector of society, and if they felt they had a right to something – in this case, adulthood – and it did not impede on the rights of others, then the Abolitionists and the Moderators were compelled to grant them that freedom. And so they did.
Jimmy’s thoughts were interrupted again by Monitor Lisa. “I don’t get Box Office, Chief…” The others watched her again, desperately waiting to see if she’d say the words they were all waiting to hear. “Can you just… tell us what they’ll look like?” These were exactly the words.
Chief MB craned his neck as if he could stretch out time. “Lisa,” He looked around. “Everybody.” He held out his hands. “Look, I don’t know either. I know you wanna know. I wanna know.” He sought to offer them something, anything. “I hear…” Faces shone. “Hell, the Box Office ran a piece a few years ago saying that… that, they look like nothing we ain’t ever seen over here. Kids with yellow hair, blue eyes. Black skin. Hair that curls.” He paused.
“They’re all supposed to look…different from each other, but somewhat the same.” Lisa nodded without understanding. Nobody understood.
They were all just kids.