The shuttle shifted to top speed before we found our seats. While the boys ran to the window, I noticed that Olivia didn’t dare complain about not getting to sit there. She held the edge, her fingers sinking into each line of the corduroy fabric beneath her. I smiled, thinking that she must be clinging to every memory of today as tightly as she did that seat.
I saw several friends from my school, including Amy, whose mouth gaped open when she saw me in the aisle. She asked if she could find me later and then hinted that Daniel was coming with their group. She giggled and ran down the aisle, my dad rolled his eyes and gave me a warning look.
“So, what do we do when we get there?” Olivia asked for the tenth time.
Mom gave her an understanding smile. “It’s the same as last year, sweetie. You’ll be in with the other kids your age and those who have volunteered to watch you. The fun happens after the ceremony.”
“When do I get to go to the Arches? Is it interesting? I wish I could see Megan. Could they let me in?”
Mom shook her head. “No one ten or under. Rules are rules.”
Being with the children’s room at Olivia’s age meant helping to watch the younger children and toddlers, an exhausting task. When I was her age, it felt even more tedious because I had finally learned the complete history of the Territory, our rebellion against the Republic, and the first and only time the Society Party ever retaliated.
“Daddy,” she asked, “is that the river from the story?”
I looked out to the water glistening in the sun, away from the sister who still had the innocence to call it a story— this horror the Society Party would place in our hearts. Our teachers would constantly remind us to say the Republic was not the enemy; the Society Party was the true villain. The Republic was full of victims, just like us.
“Yes, that’s the river,” my dad said into the silence. “And do you see the filter down there? The grey structure that looks like a dam with yellow stripes?”
Olivia leaned over to see the filter, the only reason we hadn’t died.
Or rather, the only reason any of us were alive to begin with.
Two centuries ago, the Society Party had all but brainwashed the people of the Republic. The Republic’s citizens gave over their freedom, their right to religion, and their right to have children of their own in exchange for the promise of a life of perfection. The illusion of their enlightenment and advanced philosophy allowed the Society to create any rule to bring happiness to its people by relieving them of the “responsibility of choice.” The Society Party considered themselves more humane than any other civilization in history because they allowed only the most potentially successful and perfected people to live. They believed any child who was flawed in any way, physical or mental, should not be allowed to steal the joy and peace of anyone else. Such a specimin should be labeled as such: Unnecessary.
Any baby in a lab that didn’t meet with standards, any child who began to show flaws as a young student, or any woman who would hide her imperfect baby… they were all enemies of the state.
“But not everyone agreed with the Society,” my father continued where my inner thoughts had stopped. “The Society had made enemies, and many people will never equate genocide with mercy. They’re smart and kind and knew love. But with many forfeiting their children to the Society Party schools by age three, those who did not comply with the mandates began to stand out. They had pushed humanity to new limits— except some people felt the new limits were not human at all. However, everyone who opposed the Society was labeled ‘intolerant,’ and the intolerant were not to be tolerated.”
“Is that how the Territory started?” Olivia asked.
“That was the beginning of the idea of it. They realized that they didn’t have a choice but to escape the Republic. The Society Party was spreading the lie that anyone who disagreed was dispensable because they disturbed peace and happiness.”
My father stopped explaining there, most likely because the twins were listening now. And how could he explain to them that, according to the Society, we weren’t alive? If someone could not experience everything in life because their morals or physical or mental defects prevented it, they were not worthy of life. The Society Party continued to use media, advertising, and propaganda to continue asking the question, “What else is unnecessary and holds back humanity back from the happiest experiences?”
The Society Party answers this question each Jubilee Day. Every seven years, the Society Party declares a new rule “ensuring freedom” and then focuses on enforcing that law, as well as all the previous Jubilee laws, for the next seven years. This was the refusal of religion, the burning of history books, the dissemination of traditional schools, and finally, the rule that all children would be quality controlled. They mandated that all babies must be engineered in laboratories, ensuring more conformity and quality. This policy also saved women from the pressures of pregnancy— losing time, physical confidence, and emotional attachment. They declared “Vessels” criminals for harboring an Unnecessary.
It was on the seventh Jubilee Day, two hundred years ago, that the rebels escaped and established the Territory.
The Territory’s founders had given up on protests or legislation. The Republic prepared for resistance as the fourth Jubilee Day approached. They were nullified by their compliance. Our ancestors used the celebrations and parties in as a cover for their escape. Twenty-four thousand souls crammed into hundreds of small shuttles and traveled through paths in the forest until they reached a clearing more than a hundred miles away. The Society Party was naïve enough to believe in their victory, so they never saw the escape coming. They threatened to destroy the Territory at first, but then didn’t bomb us or send troops.
Dylan hesitated, then asked, “Why didn’t they bomb us?”
“They would’ve lost their authority, built on an idea that they really wanted peace and happiness and transcendence. If they had killed us, even as Unnecessaries, it would have revealed their barbaric nature. Even now, the Society still can’t justify killing all of us, which is the only reason we’re all breathing.”
Olivia looked out the window at the massive water filter as our shuttle rushed by it. The dam measured eighty feet long, and the twins gazed at the men standing on it, their little voices commenting on what the workers were doing.
“Where did they put the Serum in, Daddy?”
“Well,” Dad sighed, “we don’t know, sweetie. We think it might have been somewhere up here.”
The Serum: a silent weapon for a quiet but violent war. They couldn’t bomb us or send in troops, so they did something sadistically brilliant. They killed our future.
By the time the first doctors of the Territory discovered the Serum in the water, there had been four miscarriages. In the months that followed, not one woman became pregnant. There were only three healthy babies born in the very first months of the Territory; their mothers had all been late-term when they’d escaped the Republic. By that time, scientists had determined that the Territory had been poisoned. Every woman’s fertility was weakened or destroyed. If they continued to drink the water unfiltered, no girl would grow up able to bear a child. Those three little souls that survived the escape from the Republic were the last babies anyone would see for nine years.
My father glossed over that in a few sentences. “A decade later, the famous Dr. Long developed the cure: the Shield Vaccine. You and Aislyn both have it because you got tested.”
“And you have to get tested,” Olivia said, trying to emphasize what she had learned. “Or you could die.”
Being experimental, a handful of subjects had died in the first year of the vaccine. Doctors tested each girl for the possible fatal reaction. If so, the vaccine was not administered to that child. It was rare, but I remember my Mom comforting her friend a few years ago. Her friend had come home from the Med offices crying, as she held her one-year-old girl after her second failed vaccine test. Every other mother would try to comfort her, a mother who would have to one day tell her daughter that the Society Party had killed her chance to carry a child.
“When did they make the law to kill all their babies?” Olivia asked.
“Two hundred years ago and try to keep it down,” my mom sighed, worried about what the boys would overhear. She touched her daughter’s curls, clinging to what innocence was left.
The boys wore white. Olivia wore white, yet today I realized how old she was— and how much she was beginning to see the darkness in this world. Thousands of lives lost because only perfection mattered. No one was safe because they might not be “alive enough” to live. If it didn’t hurt your brain that someone could have such a twisted logic, it tore your heart.
“I can’t remember what they call them: the mothers who still get pregnant and want to keep their baby,” Olivia said, her face scrunched.
“A Vessel,” I reminded her. “A Vessel is an enemy of the state because she’s harboring an Unnecessary. The children, all the Unnecessaries, get named when the Protectors rescue them, with or without their mother.”
“And then they go to the shelters?”
“Yes. And most are adopted right away, like your friend McKayla. She can’t remember being in the Republic, though.”
“How do the Protectors save them?” Olivia continued with anticipation and a twinkle in her eye.
“Well, you know, Protectors are amazing,” Dad started in a dramatic tone, making Richard stop chewing whatever he was eating. Dylan leaned in closer, listening intently. “And their trainers, some of the smartest and strongest men and women in the Territory, teaches them how to look, talk, and blend into the Republic so they can infiltrate it, find Vessels and Unnecessaries, and get them out. They can live out in the wilderness for a week before and after they sneak into the Republic. They can even help a Vessel by delivering her baby in the forest, carry a baby in their pack, and use technology to outwit the thirty Sentries and the army of police. They can also spy on some important people in the Republic, and find answers to questions. They can communicate with the Territory in a way the Republic can’t track.”
“How do they do that?” Olivia asked.
“No one knows,” Dad said, in his best story-telling mysterious tone. “It’s a secret.”
He talked about more legends and more famous stories of Protectors as the shuttle drove by the Training Circles. Each Protector was trained in Central Command, next to the Arches. Over Central Command was their Training Circle: stone cylinders, fifty-feet tall and covered with glass domes, though some opened to let in sun and fresh air. Each Protector had the five-hundred-foot circular space to prepare for missions. They were the only ones allowed inside of their Circle or Central Command. Their glass rooves made them look like diamonds in the late morning light.
“Megan will be one of them?” Richard asked, almost dazed.
My mom touched his head. “Looks like it, my dear.”
“The only thing I don’t get is why,” Olivia said as she looked out onto the Training Circles that awaited their Protectors.
“Why Megan would want to do it?” I asked.
“No,” she answered. “Why can’t they just let everyone live?”
I looked at Olivia’s eyes, but I couldn’t keep her gaze.
How do you explain it to a child— man’s corrupt desire to control the masses? How do you explain that people gave up life’s beautiful mess for fake perfection, pleasure, and comfort? How do you tell her that they tried to kill God so no one would ask if they had a soul that could be damaged? How do you tell her that she doesn’t know the worst of it yet? I probably didn’t either.
How do you explain to a ten-year-old girl that hell can exist on Earth if you don’t fight to keep it at bay?
You don’t. You do what my mother did.
You put your arm around that child, pull them close, and whisper truth into their ear.
“Because that means they lose something they aren’t willing to: their power. Everyone protects what they aren’t willing to lose.”
As I looked out at the horizon and the Circles, I realized how true it was. We weren’t willing to lose the lives the Republic stole.
The Protectors risked their lives for the chance to steal them back.