Nipped in the Bud

Beginning of the End

Jason watched the crowd from the southern corner of the Metropolitan Subway. He stood the same height as every other eighteen-year-old–six feet even. He wore his short, flat brown hair brushed neatly to the right and a pair of plain, black-rimmed glasses over his unnaturally bright blue eyes. He hated his eye color; it had earned him many beatings when he was a freshman and sophomore because they were not the nondescript brown that everyone else’s were. Other than his eyes, he looked just like the other boys his age. He wasn’t brawny, but he wasn’t scrawny either. His clothes consisted of a white polo and undershirt, dark grey slacks, and dull black dress shoes.

The year was 2055. Jason had heard stories of a time when everyone looked and acted differently, but if that time had ever existed, it was long gone. The population divided into eight age categories: Babies, from years 0-4, Children, from years 5-7, Preteens, from years 8-11, Teens, from years 13-16, Young Adults, from years 17-21, Adults, from years 22-39, Aging Adults, from years 40-60, and Elders, which covered anyone over the age of sixty. Each category had its own mandatory standard for appearance, one that would be upheld with force if necessary. As far as anyone knew, force had never been needed.

Jason moved away from the wall he had been leaning against and walked toward the gate for the train that would take him home. Most of the people here at this time of the day were Young Adults like he was. The boys all wore the same clothes and hairstyles, as did the girls; each one had long, sleek, blonde hair, pulled back into a ponytail that fell almost halfway down their backs. They all had perfect bodies, down to the last perfectly manicured fingernail, and matching jade green eyes. He sat on the train after passing through the gates and waited mutely for the conductor to announce his stop. No one spoke or looked anywhere other than directly in front of themselves. As he disembarked from the train again, Jason glanced at the clock. It read six o’clock, as usual. He nodded to himself and started for the door, but something flashed in the corner of his eye. He whipped his head around, his eyes following the bright spark of color as it rounded a corner. He surveyed the crowd to see if anyone else had noticed, but they all plodded on. His feet turned on their own accord to follow the strange flickering of color. It flashed again, a brilliant gathering of color Jason had never seen before. Before he could gain control, he was running toward it, bumping past the other people, who seemed to give no notice whatsoever. The alley was lined by brick walls, spotlessly clean and orderly, and a single trash bin at the beginning. After that point, it was all the same, just like everything else. His legs were unused to so much movement and began to ache before he reached halfway, but Jason was driven to find the source of the color. Finally, after what felt like an eternity of burning muscle and pained breath, he slid around the corner and skidded to a halt, amazed by what his eyes told him. An iron gate separated him from a whole different world, full of color and life. Jason let out
a sigh of wonder as he leaned against the cool metal, gazing up at the bright red streamers hanging from nails set high up on the walls and the bright blue sky beyond. A single canvas tent stood in the back and to the right of the dead end, tied up with bits of rope or propped up with metal bars. It was painted with a swirling green pattern, dotted with clusters of purple or blue flowers, and stood at least as high as Jason, and probably equally wide. There were chunky forms hidden under blue tarps, leaning against the walls, and crates and barrels grouped together, painted in an array of bright yellows, blues, purples, greens, and reds. As he stared, a soft breeze blew one of the streamers around the corner; the source of his curiosity. Then, the tent shuddered, and a small, skinny form appeared, backing out of the tent and dragging a cardboard box. When the girl turned around and spotted Jason, she froze, her amber eyes wide. Jason stared back, his eyes equally wide. He had never seen a girl with such black, curly hair before. It cascaded down her back in a glorious mane, tumbling over itself in twisted strands.

“Hi,” she said finally, dropping the box on a pile of newspapers. “I’m Kara.”

“Jason,” Jason replied after a moment. His brain had taken a moment to kick in. “My name’s Jason.”

“Hello, Jason. What are you doing here?” Kara asked, advancing toward the gate. She tucked her hands into the loose black sweater that hung from her narrow shoulders. Her dark jeans dragged the ground, even when she was wearing bright green sneakers.

“I saw the streamer,” he answered, waving a hand at the thing. Kara cocked a dark eyebrow.

“Interesting. How can you even see it?”

“What do you mean? It’s right there.” Jason regarded her, a little bit worried for her sanity now. Her eyes flashed, as if she could sense what he was thinking.

“All of you robots are programmed not to see anything other than what your master wants you to see.”

“What are you talking about?” Jason asked incredulously. “I’m just as human as you are.”

“Then tell me, Jason, why you all look exactly the same!” Kara snapped, beckoning out to the constantly moving crowd. “Why is everyone perfectly symmetrical, identical, and no smarter than the next?”

“It’s just the way we are,” Jason mumbled, unable to come up with any other answer.

“No, it’s not. I hate to break it to you, but there’s a lot more going on than you would ever believe.” Jason took a step backward, shaking his head.

“No. I don’t believe you.” Kara stared at him, then just shrugged.

“Whatever. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Jason watched her slip back into the tent, then began walking down the alley again. His brain, though, had different ideas. Everything she had said whirled around until he almost shouted in frustration. He paced back and forth, thinking hard. Someone was in control of what he thought and looked like? It was ludicrous! And yet, it held merit; everyone looked
identical, had names that didn’t stand out. Why hadn’t he seen it before? As he paced, something tickled his forehead. Annoyed, he reached up to brush his face. Soft, fluffy hair tickled his fingertips and he frowned. How had that happened? He marched back to the gate and sighed.

“Kara!” He heard movement, and she emerged from the tent, her eyes wary until they fell onto his face. “What’s happening to me?” he demanded. Kara picked up a shiny piece of glass and held it up. In the reflection, Jason saw that his hair had grown about an inch and a half and hung in a rough layer down his forehead. The roots were golden-blonde, but what had been there was still brown. Jason stared at his hair, reaching up to touch it, to make sure it was real.

“Jason, my friend,” Kara laughed, “you’re starting to believe!” Jason shifted his gaze to Kara’s bright eyes. She looked strangely happy.

“Why is my hair changing?” he asked, his voice reasonably calm.

“Because your body’s finally realizing that it’s not supposed to look like it does. That’s what happened to me, too.”

“You? You used to be like all the others?”

“Oh, yes, the Master doesn’t let anyone escape his grasp.”

“So how did you escape?” Kara tipped her head to one side, then stepped forward.

“Come in and sit a while.” She opened the door and stepped back to allow Jason entrance. “Welcome to my lair.” She said it with a mischievous grin. “Let me tell you something.”

“Ok,” Jason said, eager to hear more.

“I was born a normal girl,” Kara began in an overly dramatic voice, “to a pair of normal parents, in a normal house. I had one normal brother, and no normal sisters. One day, however, was no normal day. I was twelve when I overheard two men talking on the city perimeter. They were discussing a case about another man, one they seemed to believe had gone insane. They talked about him like he was some sort of animal,” she inflected, sitting with a huff on a crate. “It was only later that I found out that man was my father. After they took him away to prison. I began to question the system everyone seems to love so much, and figured out that it’s a clever plot to keep the population under control. How I found that little nugget, you don’t need to know,” she added when Jason opened his mouth to ask. She rubbed an arm unconsciously. “Anyway, It wasn’t long after that when I started changing. I became shorter than everyone else, my hair got thicker and darker with every day, and my eyes changed colors. Even my skin is different. The Feds tried to take me away from my mom, so I ran. I’ve been on the move ever since then.”

“How old are you now?”

“Sixteen,” she answered proudly. “And still alive.”

“It’s difficult to grasp,” Jason muttered, “how this is possible. Isn’t it natural for everyone to look the same?”

“No!” Kara cried, letting out a giggle bordering on hysterics. “No, everyone is meant to be different.”

“Then how is all of that possible?” he returned, sitting on a barrel facing her and leaning over with his elbows on his knees.

“Oh, my favorite question,” Kara exclaimed cheerfully. “And probably the most fun to describe. In every city, there is a hospital of sorts, where every robot is taken when they pass into a new age group and put into a sort of high-tech machine that resets their bodies and minds to fit the mold. But (aren’t you glad there’s one here?) there’s a glitch in the system; whenever a robot is exposed to the knowledge and accept it, they can change to what they were originally supposed to be. Does that make sense?”

“Yes! I do understand! This is amazing, Kara. We should tell everyone!” He jumped up and heard a loud rip that originated from his back, between his shoulders.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Kara murmured quietly. “If the Feds catch us, we’re over. Done, six feet under. They won’t let two kids interrupt their perfect world. And you might want some bigger clothes,” she added. Jason’s shirts had tightened across his shoulders to the ripping point, and his pants felt too snug around his widening waist.

“Where?”

“Here,” she said, pulling a box from the stack next to her. “I don’t know if these will work for you, but they were made for Adult men.” Jason pulled out a pair of strange blue pants, a fabric similar to the kind that Children would wear for pants. It looked wide enough, though, so he reached in to retrieve a shirt, a plain black polo. He then looked pointedly at Kara, who in turn looked pointedly at the tent, then turned her back to it. He took the hint and changed, relieved to find that the pants were a bit loose and the shirt
was wide enough at the shoulders to have about an inch of growing room. His removed his shoes and stepped out again, digging through the box to find more shoes. At the very bottom, his hand touched a pair of sneakers. They were a good fit.

“Seems like you knew I was coming along,” Jason chuckled. Kara smiled in appreciation of his banter but remained silent, her face falling into a thoughtful mask.

“I didn’t know I would get company today. I just go from day to day, endlessly waiting, but i can’t remember what for.” Jason sat down again.

“Maybe your purpose is to share the truth with all of these people.”

“It would be signing my own death warrant,” Kara growled. “Weren’t you listening to anything I said?”

“Yes, and I don’t understand how you can sit here and hide when there are people just like you out there who don’t know the truth!” Kara leaped to her feet, livid.

“Because no one will listen!” she cried out. “Because there is no hope for them! I’ve tried so many times, Jason. And every time, all I’ve gotten is trouble for it!”

“Fine. Stay here in your hole and hide from the world. I can’t. Not when I have a mother and father who need to wake up, or two little brothers who might go through life knowing nothing but this fake world. Thank you, Kara, for helping me, but this is where we must part.” Jason rose and strode for the gate, then down the alley and into the crowd. First, he would go home and convince his parents and brothers. No one said a word to him, but he felt the stares. His house was a welcome sight, even though it had nothing but the number to distinguish it from the others. His hair brushed lower again, nearly passing his eyebrows. He ran to the door and burst in, already grinning.

“Mom! Dad! Where are you?”

“In here, honey,” his mother answered, leaning out of the kitchen door. She looked worried. “Would you come here for a moment?”

“Of course,” Jason replied, pacing quickly to the door. His mother and father stood in front of the stove, across from a man in a long black cloak.

“Hello, Jason,” he said in a silky voice. “Welcome home.” His skin was deathly pale and hung in folds over his gaunt face. One long, thin white hand slipped into sight from under his cloak, holding a scroll. “You have been summoned to the High Court.”

“What have I done?” Jason glanced at his parents, who were staring, horrified, at the pale man.

“You have stepped beyond the boundaries set for your protection, Jason,” the man sneered. “This is not allowed. You will come with me.”

“No. Mom, look at me. Do you see a difference?” he said suddenly, taking his mother’s face in his hands. She eyed him, her eyes tracing his hair and clothes.

“Jason, where are your glasses?” she asked. He hadn’t even noticed they were missing. Her eyes were clouded and blank.

“No! Look at me!”

“She can’t see it, Jason,” the sickly man hissed. He grabbed Jason’s arm in an iron grip and hauled him away. His parents blinked, then smiled.

“See you later, dear,” his mother said cheerfully, waving her towel at them. Jason tried to speak but no words would come.

“Wait! This is wrong!” Jason cried, trying to pry his arm away. The thin fingers were stronger than they looked. “Let go of me!”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” the man whispered harshly. He dragged Jason out of his house and into the street. “See, it’s children like you that keep getting in our way. Curiosity killed the cat, as it will most certainly kill you.” The implication of the words forced the breath from Jason’s lungs.

“Hello, Jack, old friend,” a soft, strong voice piped up from just behind the man. He whirled on his heels. “Did you miss me?” There stood Kara, wearing a solid black tank top, tight black cargo pants, and combat boots, like the ones worn by soldiers in the histories. Jack flinched away.

“You,” he growled, with a vehemence that clearly showed he hadn’t missed the girl.

“Now, Jack, do try to be civil,” Kara reprimanded, pulling a Glock handgun from a holster strapped to her back. “Let Jason go, and we’ll go and talk somewhere, like normal people do.” Jack tensed his hand for a heartbeat, then smirked, showing yellow, crooked teeth, and released Jason’s arm.

“So, we meet again. I know someone who would be very glad to see you. Your dear Uncle Ethan hasn’t seen you in years.”

“That would be because the last time my ‘dear uncle’ and I saw each other, he tried to put a blade between my ribs,” Kara replied in a pleasant voice. “Not very polite, if you ask me.”

“Sweet little Kara,” a booming male voice berated. “Why are you being so rude to my General?” Kara whirled, her face white, to face the man. He was tall and broad with reddish-brown hair and a short beard. His false smile almost hid his dark blue eyes in folds of flesh. He signaled with his hand and twenty armed men surrounded them in an instant. “Come, Kara, let’s have a chat. General, bring the boy. If he tries to run, kill him.” Ethan grabbed the back of Kara’s neck and forced her around to walk with him. Jack did the same to Jason and hauled him along with a sinister grin. Jason felt horrible for Kara; she had stayed safe for so long, but then he had come along and ruined everything. Ethan and Kara were too far ahead for Jason to hear what they were talking about, but he noticed Kara kept flinching away and felt all the more sick.

“You are the last two,” Jack cackled in his ear. “The last two troublemakers. Ha! The true Age of the Master has finally come!”

“What?” Jason gasped as Jack squeezed his neck harder with his long, sharp nails.

“Like little rats that we needed to exterminate. The end of your run is nigh.” As he spoke the words, Jason heard the armed men snap to attention. Jack pulled Jason around to face them, right next to Kara. She stared up at him with tearful eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Then the rifles fired, and everything went black.





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