An audible buzz spreads through the shed while the four
workers finish salting the cheeses and clean off the equipment. I join the other
women in the dressing room, and we change out of our overalls. There is excited
chatter all around me, but I keep my eyes on what I’m doing and take no part in
it. The women ignore me anyway. This is nothing new and doesn’t hurt very much
anymore. I don’t share their excitement.
I can’t get enthused about the arrival of a new baby. I just
can’t. It’s only been two nights since my last vigil and I’m still emotionally
and physically drained from it. Plus, this is different. This is Chloe. I fear
for her baby so much more; she is practically family.
I realise that I’ve unconsciously started rubbing the inside
of my wrist, where a laser mark lies. A black cross, dark against pale skin. Other
than the mark, I am very much like the other girls. Smaller maybe; slighter and
slimmer, but there are no distinctive features that set me apart. We all have
long hair, tucked under caps for working. Mine is an unruly kind of wavy that
is infuriatingly neither straight nor curly. I may be smaller, but none of the
others can be called fat. Overeating is not an option, and we are all kept
physically active. My heart-shaped face and fine features give me a fragile
look, which I have always disliked. The faces around me vary from shades of
mocha to pale cream, and nothing sets me apart there either. I’m one of the
paler girls, but I blend in.
No, an outsider would not pick me out for looking different.
But still, an outsider is likely to be able to tell that there was something strange
in the way I am treated by the other workers - an aloofness, a distance. It’s as
though there is an invisible barrier separating me from them. Not invisible, I
realise. Just on the inside of my wrist. Completely visible, if you cared to
I shake my shoulders, bundle my clothes into a locker, punch
myself out and stride off into the brilliant sunshine, leaving behind the animated
women and the dark thoughts that threaten to wash over me.
The path leading from the cheese shed to the hub – our
little cluster of community - is pretty well tended, as the road is used every
day. Many of our roads are not as good as this one, but still I have to pick my
way around potholes and puddles. I gaze longingly past the willows and flax
along the path. The rain has washed the world clean and left the sea sparkling.
Far out in the bay, little white caps form, skim across the water for a way,
then disappear. They look like they’re playing, and with that ridiculous
thought, a smile flickers on my face.
I turn off up the cliff track rather than heading towards
the hub and home. With a new destination in mind, my pace quickens and my step
lightens. As I climb, the wind begins to pick up. It pulls at the dark tendrils
of hair that have escaped from the knot under my cap, and at the hem of my tunic.
I pull off my cap and shake my head, allowing the unruly locks their freedom. The
breeze carries on it the familiar scent of salt and seaweed. I feel calmer
The clifftop allows an expansive view.
On the far side of the bay, the remains of what used to be a
busy port can be seen, all containers and creaking iron. Over the decades the
area has been raided time and again for metal to be reworked, but a few of the old
cranes still punctuate the sky with their arthritic fingers. They teeter at
insane angles; you’d have to be either desperate or crazy to go near them.
Ships have neither arrived nor departed this port for many
generations. Grandad says that when the Isolation was first declared, any
activity along the coast was taken as a threat. Craft were sunk on sight. Of
course that was a long time ago, even well before Grandad was born, but keeping
away from the water has become a way of life here. I am the only person I know
who even swims. I’ve seen Polis soldiers get in the water on hot days, but they
Near the port I can see the red roof of the recycling plant,
which runs 24/7. The ancients left us mountains and mountains of the stuff,
plastics and metals and glass, all tied up in tidy cubes. It’s been over a
century since the Isolation, and we have hardly made a dent in the abundance of
resources which they saw as rubbish.
The bay reaches round in a wide arc to my right. It is truly
the picture of peace; a perfect curve, blue water lazily sweeping golden sand.
Above me, gulls wheel and soar, their plaintive calls carried to me on the
To my left, to the east, the unknown. The wide expanse of
open ocean, going on forever and ever, and eventually melting into the sky.
I look long and hard, as I have so many times before, waiting
to see something appear on the horizon and wondering what would happen if it
did. My eyes watering from the chill in the breeze, I finally tear my gaze from
that blue desert and I see Grandad making his way up the cliff track towards
I realise that he seems to have grown older in the last few
months. How could I have missed this? Once so tall and straight, he has become
stooped. He has brought his walking stick out today, and I realise that
recently I’ve rarely seen him without it. His hair is almost completely white,
and thinning across the top of his bare head. White too is the hair he allows
to grow, carefully and tidily trimmed, on his chin.
When he reaches me by the cliff he is out of breath, but he
is smiling and his pale blue eyes are shining.
“There’s nothing like the sea air!” he manages, leaning on
his stick and trying to hide his heavy breathing. He pulls at the collar of his
shirt. I want to chastise him for exerting himself, but I hold my tongue. Being
told what he can and can’t do isn’t something Grandad accepts gracefully. Even Auntie
Marama has learned to tread carefully when she has advice to give him.
Grandad is the one who raised me. He was from another hub,
in Sector Two, but when my parents and brother died, he relocated us here to
Sector Four. I was only tiny and remember nothing of my family; it has always
been just the two of us. He’s my father and my teacher - he has taught me
everything I know, from the movement of the moon and how to tie my shoelaces to
rewiring a motion sensor. Around town he’s known for his knowledge of plants
and their useful properties, although many of these we keep to ourselves. It’s
thanks to his herbal skill that I’m able to mask my scent when camouflaged, and
incapacitate any wild beast with a poisoned dart.
I motion to the deep blue nothingness in front of us.
“What do you think is out there?”
“Oh, continents, oceans… probably a fair few whales,
porpoises, fish…” I hear the hint of a smile in his voice.
“Who do you think
is out there? Do you think there is anyone left?”
Grandad is silent for a while, which I have grown used to.
“I’m not sure, Arcadia. But does it matter?”
“Of course it matters! Other people – other countries –
other possibilities – of course it matters!” I lift my hands in irritation. I
can’t believe how dismissive he is.
“I know how you feel, and I understand your frustration. But
just remember, Dia. There are other mountains to climb which are much closer to
I sigh. I’m not in the mood for his riddles today, so I change
tack. “What about the Sickness?” I ask more calmly, turning back to the wide
ocean and squinting, as though I can see particles of disease like pollen in
the air. “Is it still out there?”
He rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Now that is a more interesting question.” It’s clear he doesn’t know
the answer, but looks at me speculatively. “If you assumed it was still out
there, circulating, what would you do?”
“I suppose I would do everything I could to prepare myself
to fight it.”
He nods thoughtfully. “Preparation is always a good thing.”
We stand for a moment in silence, looking out to sea. I’m
imagining a black cloud approaching, like a swarm of locusts, and wondering how
I would prepare myself to fight a disease. My Grandad is all theory and no
As I turn away from the desert, he catches my wrist and his
voice is soft when he says, “I thought you might come here when I heard that
Chloe had her baby.”
I have nothing to say to that. Intuitive as always.
He knows better than to ask me if I’m okay. But he squeezes
my wrist before letting it go, and says, “It will be alright. Be strong. There
is nothing wrong with you.” When I sigh, he puts his hand on my cheek, gently,
but makes me look at him. “I mean it. You have the ability to change the world,
I nod and carry on down towards the water.
“Don’t go out too far,” he calls after me.
Grandad has always talked to me like this, but recently I’ve
started to wonder if he is living in my universe. You have the ability to change the world, Arcadia. Everything I do
is dictated by the Polis and restricted by my mark. My tiny show of rebellion
is my vigil over the children marked for death, as I was. And most of the time
I have to come home well before the sun is up, my battle already lost. My
future is laid out in front of me like a woven carpet. Much as I dislike the
pattern, I can see no way of remaking it. If I can’t alter my own destiny, how
can he possibly imagine I could change the world?
Once on the rocks, I remove my boots and cap, and strip off
down to my underwear. It’s not that I’m being daring or anything. There is no
danger of being seen, because no-one comes here but me. My own private swimming
spot. There are also mussels and paua if you know where to look. I’m not the
only one who collects from the sea, but I’m the only one who’s willing to dive
Today I’m not collecting though. I just need a chance to
I slip into the water with a sharp intake of breath. The
first swim of the year, and the water’s touch is icy. I’ll warm up when I get
I start pulling my way through the water, cutting through
the waves in sure strokes. Before I know it I’m quite far out across the bay,
the rocks behind me becoming wet black forms against the pale golden yellow of
the sandy cliff. I put my head down and keep going. The next time I look back,
the rocks are no longer visible, and the cliff itself looks small and
insignificant. Just a part of the undulating shoreline. The saltiness I taste
on my lips and feel stinging at my cuts and grazes is familiar and welcome.
With the rhythm of my breathing, my mihi runs through my
head. I’ve always found it comforting, a reminder of who I am, my place in the
world. My mihi is my identity. I am
Arcadia Grey. My Grandfather is Mathias Grey. I come from Sector Four. My
parents were Ian and Sarah Grey. My parents are both dead. The last part is
always the hardest. I am Unworthy.
I am over halfway now; closer to the wreckage of the port.
I’m beginning to feel the effects of the swim, and am making myself pull in deeper
breaths to feed my hungry lungs. It’s time I turned back.
With the initial burst of energy expended, my body begins to
find a different, more controlled rhythm, and I cannot stop my mind turning to
the subject I least want to explore.
The cold weight returns to my chest, although I’m not sure
why – this day was always going to come, after all. But I’m never prepared
enough for the all-encompassing dread that hits me when another baby is born in
our hub, and has to undergo their inspection.
For the rest of the hub, the arrival of a baby is cause for
celebration, but I’ve learned not to get carried away. It’s simply too soon. I
try not to imagine what Chloe is feeling right now. The nano-patch will have
been applied at birth, her child receiving its life-giving vaccine as soon as
possible, but the vaccine is no guarantee. So many of our children are simply
not born strong enough to survive in a world so rife with infection, and
although the Polis immunologists are continually improving the vaccine, many of
our babies continue to contract postnatal diseases.
I imagine that Chloe will be beside herself with worry, wondering
if her newborn will pass inspection, or whether it will fail and be marked. I
shudder. Suddenly the chill in the water seems to be sinking into my bones. I
can’t help it; whenever a new baby is born I can’t help thinking of my mother.
What did she feel? Did she have any inkling of the results? What were there the
clues that told her that I would not pass? That I would be found unworthy of
life? And how could she take me out that night to the ring of stones to die?
My heart thuds in my chest. Familiar as this vigil is, the
adrenaline which floods my system is always the first sign that something is
near. My senses on high alert, I wait, hardly breathing, absolutely still.
There it is, the musky scent of dog. Slowly, very slowly, I lift the blowpipe towards
my lips. There’s never a second chance.
The faint crunch of leaves focusses my attention. The pipe
is half-way to my lips when the beast comes into view, standing at the edge of
the moonlit clearing. At the limits of my peripheral vision, I see it halt,
sniffing the frigid air. For a moment I doubt the effectiveness of my
camouflage. My hands pause, the blowpipe suspended. Has it smelled me? The
uncertainty is fleeting. I’m reassured by the countless nights spent in this
same spot; watching, waiting. Undetected.
The baby’s thin wail pierces the night-time stillness again
and the dog’s attention is immediately on the bundle in the clearing, ears
pricked forward and alert. It stalks into the moonlight.
The creature that reveals itself has a low-slung head and
flat muzzle. Its shoulders form an ugly hump as it noses its way towards my
tiny newborn charge. The sickly smell of death reaches me across the stillness.
I’ve seen this one before. A loner which hunts on its own. Mangy
coat and visible ribs, it hangs around the outskirts of the hub, waiting for a
chance to feed.
I aim the blowpipe carefully. The ache in my legs forgotten
hours ago, I will my heart to quieten, inhaling deeply and noiselessly. As the
dog pauses on the edge of the circle of stones, I send the dart away in one
It yelps at the sting on its rump and turns, snarling, lips
pulled back to reveal a row of jagged teeth. Yellowed eyes search the shadows,
nostrils flaring for a scented clue. Neither eyes nor nose register my presence.
The beast goes rigid, and falls onto the ground, a thin whine escaping its
I gently lower the blowpipe to my lap, stand slowly and
stretch, allowing blood to flow back into my legs. The sky will begin to
lighten in another half hour, and I have a lot to do before then. I tuck the
pipe into my belt and snap the clasp on the pouch next to it.
I look all around me, sensing the forest with my whole body before
leaving the shadow of the old oak which has provided my support through the night.
Finally satisfied that I am alone, I step into the clearing and approach the
two shapes in the moonlight.
The dog lies on its side, just outside a ring of stones two
metres in width. Its tongue hangs out and its eyes don’t blink. It’s not dead,
Inside the ring of stones is sand. Concentric circles woven
hours ago at sunset trace smaller and smaller shapes into the centre, where a bundle
rests, rejected by the town which lies less than a kilometre away. I hover for
a moment on the edge of the sand, wishing for the hundredth time that I could
enter it. I can hear small whimpers coming from the child. Only half an hour to
go till dawn. I send a silent message of strength to her, as though she could
live just by my willing it. Most don’t make it through the night. This one has
done so well. She must be strong; stronger than they thought. Strong enough to
Night after night I have sat out here, watching over the
bundles in the centre of the stones. I am unable to enter it for fear of
leaving signs of tampering. The rules are very clear. The nano-patch applied at
birth is a cocktail of life giving antigens and vaccines, but for many it is
not enough. A sickly child is marked for death, and the only way to earn the
right to live is to prove strength and resilience with surviving one night in
the ring. However, signs of interference would mean immediate death.
Death for a marked child is almost assured. At least it was
until two years ago, when I began my secret vigils. Since then, the numbers of
survivors have doubled. They are still far too few, but now at least the
newborns have a slim chance. No wild animals have entered the circle of stones
on any of my watches. No dogs, wild pigs, scavenging birds, cats nor even
weasels. If the hubbites have noticed the drop in animal tracks through the
sand, and the change in survivors, I haven’t heard of it.
The baby I have guarded tonight is female. Her mother
brought her at sunset, accompanied by a group of stony-faced women who made
sure that the mother completed the circular pattern and left her child before
the sun disappeared. No matter how many times I see it, their coldness always
wrings my heart. They have all been in her position. Is this why they can show
so little empathy? Are they so callous because they understand her hesitation?
Do they wish others to experience the same pain they felt?
I don’t understand it, and I won’t accept it, but I can’t
fight it. Hub tradition is strong, and even I can grudgingly admit that it is
based on a practical attitude towards survival of the fittest. I once heard a
woman tell the marked child’s mother, “She’s going to die sooner or later. Better
get it over with before you get attached to her.”
So instead, I have found my own way to help my tiny brothers
Unfortunately the woman with the stoic advice was right.
Even those which survive the night, and are welcomed back into their homes by
weeping mothers, rarely live another year. I have assisted eleven babes to live
through the night, and I have lost five of the older ones before reaching the
age of two. Many and more have perished, even with my night watch. I can keep
away the beasts, but a blowpipe is no defence from the biting cold, and the
sicknesses which the nano-patch could not prepare them for.
If she makes it, she will be number twelve.
I exhale and turn from the little bundle. Bending down, I
grab the dog by its hind legs and begin to pull it back the way it came. For a
straggly scavenger it’s heavy enough, and my body is weak with exhaustion. It
takes me nearly ten minutes to drag the creature to a ravine, and tip it down
to the creek below. When I look to the east I can see a thin line of pink
beginning to appear far away across the blackness. I close my eyes to the sea
breeze and allow myself a final hopeful thought for the child in the circle.
As I make my way towards the hub along the clifftop, the
horizon is slowly lightening and the ocean turns from black to grey. This
morning I feel hopeful, unlike most times I’ve stumbled back along this path
for an hour or two in bed. It’s mornings like these that make the many nights
spent in the clearing worth it.
I live with my Grandad on the edge of the hub, and slipping
back into our home without being seen is something I’ve done many times. When I
let myself into the pod, I move as quietly as possible. It’s become something
of a personal challenge for me to get past Grandad without him hearing me
“Alright?” his soft voice comes from the back room. I sigh,
“Yes,” I reply, and continue to my room.
I’ve never told Grandad where I go or what I do. I’ve not
had to; he simply seems to know. And although we’ve never discussed it, I also
know he’s afraid for me. But he’s never tried to stop me.
I strip off quickly and am asleep almost immediately. Morning will come far too soon.
It is not unheard of to receive a summons to the General’s
office, but it is unusual. Alex loops the brush back onto its peg and leaves
the stables, crossing the training yard near the climbing wall. Shouts of
encouragement mixed in equal parts with insults reach him on the damp spring
air. At the far end, a group of new arrivals, boys and girls, stand at
attention near the flagpole, chest out, chins up. They’re taking a dressing
down from their fifteen-year-old drill sergeant. Alex’s gaze lingers on them for
a moment. He’s been in her shoes. I can
spot a quivering lip from twenty metres, he thinks. And there are far too many in this bunch.
Mandatory military membership. The Polis takes them all. Our greatest strength and our greatest
weakness, he sighs, then bites the thought back. Opinions like that will have me up before the Council. He buries it
along with many others.
They will get better. His own basic training feels like long
ago, but in reality it’s only been six years. Back then, he was a
thirteen-year-old raw recruit, arriving at the barracks with his schoolmates to
continue his education. They had imagined that the academy could not possibly
be as bad as school had been, but they’d been wrong. It was far worse.
Alex leans in for the retinal scan at the administration
block and the door slides back. “Captain Alexander Hayes, Polisborn,” an
automated female voice announces smoothly. He makes his way to General Graham’s
office, and reports to his clerk. He prepares himself for a lengthy wait, but
to his surprise he is shown in immediately. The clerk leaves, shutting the door
firmly behind him.
Face to face, the General is as awe-inspiring as his
reputation. At Alex’s age, a year after graduation, he had already earned his
first three stripes. His experience in the field, his success stories both in
quelling trouble and in running peaceful sectors, and the fact that he did it
all well in advance of other officers his age; all this is common knowledge
amongst the Polisborn. He is a well-known and respected military figure, used
time and again by instructors as an example of the perfect Polis soldier. He is
a man to be feared and a man to be emulated.
Alex has rarely been in his presence alone and the feeling
is overwhelming. This man has signed his name to more executions than Alex has
watched, masterminded tactical manoeuvres to bring peace to warring sectors,
and earned his position and reputation with decades of loyal service to the
As the silence in the room lengthens, the summoned Captain
begins to feel more awkward. The General sits at his desk, studying a letter.
It appears to be brief, only a few lines, but he reads it time and again.
Alex’s eyes roam to a shelf where the room’s only decoration sits: an antique
timepiece, ticking audibly. It is very much out of place. The thought occurs to
him that it must be a hundred years old, judging by its overly decorative
shape. Such frivolous items have not been made since the twenty-first century.
“General Graham, Sir.”
“I appreciate your punctuality. Would you care to sit?”
“No, sir.” Is he
testing me? The seat which was offered is made of heavy wood, straight and
square. It is hardly ever used. The younger man remains standing.
“I have orders for you.” He hesitates before continuing, and
Alex’s curiosity fires up. Orders, verbally delivered by the General? A tingle
begins at the base of his spine and works its way up his back. He has a million
questions, none of which he voices.
“Yes, Sir,” he says. Chin up, eyes front.
“What passes between us in this room is to be kept strictly
confidential. There is no file. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Sir.” Understood?
Not one bit.
“You are to find a civilian in Sector 4 and bring her here
to me, in the Polis. You will do this alone and without the knowledge of your
unit or your CO. You will leave no trail.”
The tingling is now raising hairs on the back of his neck
but he replies, “I can take an ATV and be back tonight, Sir.”
“No checkpoints. You’ll be riding.”
The soldier’s eyes flick down to the General’s for the first
time. He openly stares at him, uncomprehending. “No checkpoints… Sir?”
His gaze is returned and it feels like a challenge, his eyes
cold and steady. “You heard me, Captain. Once you check out through the main
gate, official records will show that you returned here to HQ and are detained
on the medical ward after a fall. If you are discovered in the field you will
be court martialled for desertion.”
The General lets this sink in, never taking his eyes from
the young officer’s face. The ticking from the mantelpiece clock seems to get
From the little the General has shared, Alex does know this:
the likelihood of success is miniscule. Polisborn soldiers are highly trained,
and Polis checkpoints are the reason that the city has not seen strife in three
generations. Getting through them, getting round
them, is next to impossible. He knows because it’s part of his job to make them
However, even with that said, there is no question of
refusing the assignment. There never was. He knows full well that officially he
has no right to decline, even though, officially, the assignment doesn’t even
exist. When he finally speaks, the question appears to be one the General
The words come out more quietly than intended. “Why me?” Why haven’t you chosen someone else for this
honour… the honour to serve you as best I can and most likely die a coward‘s
“I thought that would be obvious. We need to keep this in