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I’ve stayed strong. I’m strong because I know Marie isn’t. My sister lets her heart get in the way; she won’t acknowledge reality until it’s too late. I learned this when we first signed on, we had no other choice but Marie didn’t believe that. She said we could be part of The Sick. As if that was the best option. She didn’t realize that this world was run on cruelty. I made her join The Force, she’s said she’s forgiven me but I don’t believe her. She is a good person, and I forced her to do something despicable.
My name is Max. I work as an investigator for The Force. The Force controls everything; if you’re not on their good side you will live a short, painful life. There are three groups of people in the world: The Higher-Ups, The Force, and The Sick. I was born a Higher-Up but certain circumstances I do not wish to discuss have demoted me to The Force. My purpose in life is to please The Higher-Ups. I do this by controlling crime in The Sick Settlement. The Sick have an even lower task than I. They act as guinea pigs for The Higher-Ups by taking drugs, and testing products the Higher-Ups are afraid of. Their lives are monitored in their settlement. Life in the Sick Settlement is filmed and turned into reality TV for the Higher-Ups to watch. The Sick Settlement is their experiment, and I’m one who keeps it in line.
My name is Marie. I’m fifteen years old, and I have a job that leaves me feeling weak with guilt each and every day. I watch The Sick; I take notes on various test subjects (as they are called here,) and report information about their physical and mental health. The Sick Settlement is covered in a large, clear dome. Many of The Sick I am assigned to watch have tried to break this barrier. Some fling rocks at its surface. Others try to cut, or burn it. When they give up, The Sick merely stare at the immense dome, knowing that it is something they will never be free from. Right now, I’m assigned to 20 members of The Sick. As I grow older, I may be in charge of 30 or 40 at one time. I see everything my test subjects do. I record information about their social status, instruct them to take drugs, or test out weaponry the Higher-Ups are considering. I talk to them through a video screen in their homes, or from behind a glass box connected to the settlement. I’m looked at with cold, hateful eyes; eyes that make me want to cry.
“Jack, Jack wake up.” Mark whispers in the darkness. I open my eyes slowly, not wanting to acknowledge another day in this hell. I blink until I can see in the darkness. Mark puts his hand near my face and I can see his fingers quiver. This is our sign, an unsteady hand means danger. I nod, and he moves his hand to the door. He pushes it open slightly, letting moonlight flood in our dingy shack. I’ve always found it strange that the dome can keep so many things out, yet moonlight flows through it with ease. It’s raining and there’s a slight chill. This is all fake of course; Higher-Ups change the weather at will. Sometimes so they can test rain jackets, other times to add drama to the television shows about us. I hear harsh whispers over the beating of the rain. They’re looters. We’ve been lucky so far, they’ve always avoided us. I like to think this is because they fear me, but they probably just have even weaker people to keep them busy.
“This house is still in pretty good shape.” I hear someone whisper. “Do you want to kill the owners and keep it, or rob them and torch the place?”
Oh no, this doesn’t sound good. I’m not ready to abandon our house, but do I have a choice? I signal for Mark to run, and he gives me a look of disbelief before he leaves me alone. I pull a knife from my jacket pocket. A kid like me possessing a weapon like this is rare here. But I smuggled my knife in specifically for this type of situation. I open the door and slip into the dark alley. The looters are just behind the shack in front of me. They stand huddled together like vultures guarding their food. They don’t notice me as I slink across the alley. Their backs remain toward me as I inch close enough to see them clearly. They each have the word “Brutal” stenciled on the back of their leather jackets. They’re members of one of the two prominent gangs in the Sick Settlement. The other gang is known as “Demon.” I can’t quite decide which is the strongest, but anyone worth something in this world is a member of one of these gangs.
I creep through the darkness towards the gangsters. My knife gleams in the moonlight, and I hold the blade down so I don’t give myself away. I’m close enough to touch them now, and they haven’t noticed. They construct their plan in muffled voices; too enthralled to bother with their surroundings; quite strange for men of their social standing. My heart pounds as I prepare to attack. This is it, my time to show the Brutal I’m worth something. I lunge forward, swinging my arm forward to rest the knife against the neck of the unsuspecting gangster. The other two gasp in shock and draw their weapons.
“Move and I kill him.” I say, sounding a lot more confident than I actually am.
“Relax boys.” The man who I have trapped says casually. I recognize his voice, and I have a brief moment of horror before he stomps on my foot, wrenches the knife from my hand, and shoves me backward.
The one and only Chance Gerald, leader of the Brutal smirks, and stares down at me coldly. “Well well, what do we have here?” he says, his voice cruel and sandpapery. He flips my knife in his hand and admires it. “Quite a nice piece of weaponry you’ve got here. I wince as he scrapes the blade against my cheek, leaving a bloody line on my face. “Real sharp.” He says, staring intently at the now crimson blade. He looks me up and down, making a mental note of my face, voice, and strength. With this mental snapshot taken, the infamous Chance Gerald turns his emerald green eyes to my shack.
“How do you manage to keep a shack like that?” He says. The moonlight illuminates his pale face. A face that’s scarred and bruised with two narrow, piercing eyes resting on it. He doesn’t look it, but Chance is merely 25. His worn face and slicked back brown hair make him seem much older.
I turn my gaze from my captor to the ground and say “I’m pretty tough.” I know the minute I say it that this is the right answer. Chance pulls me up by my shirt collar and grins.
“Interesting.” He growls, glancing over at his colleagues then back to me. “How about we work ourselves out a little deal? I don’t raid your dwelling, and you consider joining our fine gang.” I nod and he smirks. “Of course I’ll have to keep this here knife…as collateral.” I nod again, my eyes wide with shock. What have I gotten myself into?
Chance and his crew disappear into the night leaving me alone on the cold ground. I look up at the vast expanse of sky beyond the dome; the stars shine brightly in the free world. As I hear Mark’s footsteps approach me I smile. I have a chance, a slim one but still a chance to make something of myself.
Max is gone when I wake up. He always is, but something about today made it sad. Max is 19 today and I don’t get to tell him good morning; though it’s not like we talk much anyway. After the way I treated him when we were demoted, I don’t blame him. I was so angry and hurt and I couldn’t help but yell and treat him with cold hostility. I guess I’ve damaged our relationship beyond repair.
I glance out our window to the dome beyond. There just has to be something better out there, something better than this. Sure there have been rumors of a society hidden from our own, a place out there for runaways. But I’ve never been brave enough to even think of escaping. They’ve trapped us; I don’t have the strength to resist my bonds.
I push these thoughts aside and turn to leave. As I step out into the hallway, I see my friend Yumi. She smiles at me and I quickly catch up to her. Yumi’s lucky. She was ten when she became an orphan so she remembers her parents. My mother was Japanese and my father was American. She told me once. Yumi means beauty in Japanese. My parents picked out that name ahead of time because they knew I would be beautiful. I don’t remember my parents at all. I’ve no idea why my name is Marie.
“Marie, are you ok?” Yumi’s clear voice jerks me back into reality.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I reply, smiling slightly so she knows I’m telling the truth. We come to the end of the hallway; a thick glass door that requires an ID card to enter stands before us. I pull out my ID and clock in. We hear a faint click as the door unlocks and we hurry in. We’re in the headquarters of the Sick Settlement. Everyone who works for The Force lives in the apartments and either works in crime control, or here. The apartment building is 20 stories high. Each department of the Force gets several floors that connect to their office surrounding the dome. The advisory department is on the 19th floor, about a mile from the top of the dome. The departments near ground level deal with producing shows about the Sick and organizing reports the advisory department sends them so they don’t really need to view the Sick Settlement. But our department needs the best view it can get.
Yumi and I enter the familiar office without being noticed. I look past the rows and rows of desks to the Sick Settlement. People look so tiny from this height. I can see almost the entire Settlement from up here. It’s like I’m viewing an ant farm. Yumi waves goodbye, the office is so loud I wouldn’t here her if she spoke. The other advisors don’t bother to look up from their work as I head to my desk.
Each desk has a screen for meetings with test subjects, a small television that can access every camera in the Sick Settlement, a tablet for typing reports, and a chute to put finished work in. This office perhaps the busiest place in our entire world, like the Higher-Up’s stock market times ten.
When I reach my desk I find a neatly typed note. It reads:
Congratulations. Your service as an advisor has led us to believe you will be capable of advising: J. Kinder code# 239. Thank you for your services. Sincerely, The Force
Unbelievable! They don’t even have the decency to put this person’s full name on the card. Congratulations? I’m just going to end up hurting this person, whoever they are. I try not to let these thoughts show on my face as I type the code number 239 into my tablet. The face of Jack Kinder appears on the screen. He has long brown hair pulled back into ponytail and intense blue eyes that look at me with anger and disgust. I skim over his profile, noting that he’s 18 and has lived here for three years. He’s the youngest test subject I’ve had to advise, and will likely be the hardest. The younger the person, the more fire and hate they have welled up inside.
I manage to push aside thoughts of my new assignment and work on old reports. I won’t have to meet with my test subjects until dinner.
I leave Marie sleeping soundly in the morning. Seeing her so peaceful like that makes me think about the times when she couldn’t sleep. I shutter when I think about when I was bored and reckless, and how my obsessions kept her up with worry and eventually led us here. I really thought I could hack into their system. The Force didn’t guard their information well, and I had it in my head that I was best computer hacker around. But I was wrong, and I was caught. Marie still can’t trust me with a computer.
Well I guess she can’t trust me with anything. We hardly talk now; if we say anything it’s usually about something mundane. I suppose she doesn’t trust me enough to say anything personal. It’s all just part of my punishment. The Higher-Ups won’t forgive me, Marie won’t forgive me, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able forgive myself.
I’m too nervous to eat tonight; the Brutal’s initiation meeting is coming soon. Unfortunately, if I miss a meal they call security on me. I sit behind the kitchen counter in a place hidden from the cameras; I hear the click of the advisors’ screen.
“Hello?” says a voice. This is a new advisor, I don’t recognize her voice. “I’ve got your dinner. You know I’ll have to call security if you don’t come out so please just…” I get up, revealing myself from behind the counter. The advisor is young, younger than me. A gasp escapes my lips when I see her. She’s just a child, yet she does their dirty work. She stares at me, trying to read my expression, and I close up instinctively. I put on my usual expression of anger and disgust. The girl’s face falls at this change in attitude, and she presses the button that sends my dinner down the chute. “My name’s Marie by the way.”
“Jack.” I grumble, pulling the tray towards me and pulling off the plastic wrap that covers it. “But you probably already knew that, and everything else about me.”
“No,” the girl mumbled. “They just give you a number and don’t bother, like your some dumb creature that doesn’t deserve better.” Her voice was tight with anger, and it surprised me. I almost forgot who she was, and what she did for a living.
“Don’t pretend like you care! I don’t mean anything to people like you. You’re actions kill my kind, yet you act without hesitation! You’re no better than the ones who set up this experiment.” The words flow out of me and I’m powerless to stop them. She probably only said those things so she could record my actions, she’s merely studying me. I’m so absorbed in my anger I don’t notice when Marie starts to cry. She tries to hide her tears but they slip down her cheeks in small sobs. I’m stunned as I watch her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone cry; certainly not an advisor. Tears show weakness, and weakness can be the death of you here.
“I’m sorry.” She says as she sobs. “You’re right. I’m no better than them. I’ve given people drugs I knew weren’t safe without hesitation. I watched as those drugs eventually killed them. I did what they told me to and ignored their pain.”
I stand shocked into silence for a long time. I didn’t mean to make her cry, yet my words sting her like poison. “Look, I’m sorry.” I mutter. “It’s just…well where I came from no one cared about me. It didn’t matter what I wanted to do, I was destined to be sold off to the Sick Settlement.”
“Sold off?!” Marie says her eyes wide. “The Higher-Ups bought you?!”
“My parents sold me for food.” I say so softly, I’m sure she can barely hear me.
“That’s just awful Jack. I’m so sorry. Someone has to do something about this! Selling kids off to get money for food! Forcing people to take unsafe drugs and trapping them like rats! What has the world come…?”
“Quiet, they have cameras everywhere, they’ll hear you.” I cut in. Marie nods, and I see her eyes glimmer as if she’s just realized something. The only thing I know is that she’s no ordinary advisor.
After I met Jack, the weeks passed in blurs. We talked every night, our voices hushed in the darkness. It was dangerous, but I didn’t care. Danger is the only worthwhile thing left for me. Jack told me of his childhood. How he lived in a world where no one had dreams, where the only goal was to find enough food for tomorrow. He told me about how his parents jumped at the chance to sell away their only child, knowing the horrors that awaited him. Jack told me of the drugs he’d been forced to take, and what they’d done to him when they weren’t quite ready yet. I told Jack about Max, and how I came to be in The Force. I told him about how it felt to give those drugs, how it felt to inflict so much pain. . I told him things I’d never told anyone before.
When we were done speaking of the past we dared to speak of the future. We spoke of ways to escape the dome until a bell rang signaling the end of dinner. However I knew the more we talked, the more dangerous we became, so I begged Yumi to monitor the camera in Jack’s house during dinner. If she kept watch, I knew they wouldn’t suspect anything. But I knew we’d need Max, he was our only chance of leaving. Yet the idea of him in front of a computer shook me to the core.
“Good God Jack are you ok?!” He sat slumped against the kitchen counter, eyes wide with a nasty gash dripping blood down his forehead.
“The Brutal…they killed a man to show me what they did to cowards.” He stuttered, voice shaking. Tears streamed down his dirt covered face and he looked up at me desperately. “I’m sorry Marie I had no idea what it was like to see someone in pain; knowing it was your fault. We’ve got to get out of here Marie, we just have to.” He was shaking violently yet he spoke with purpose. “The short time I’ve spent with you has been the greatest time of my life. I just, I…” He choked on his words, knowing if he said anything more there was no turning back.
“I love you too.” I finished, with surprising confidence. “We are going to make it out of here, tonight.”
When she told me I was speechless. My sister was determined to get out, she was in love with one of the Sick, and she needed my help.
“Max I need you to shut down the power system, if there’s a blackout Jack has an escape route, and I know a way to get out too. I know this is sudden but we’ve been working out a plan all you’ll need to do is…”
“Hold on a minute Marie. You want to break out of The Force? Are you crazy?!” I burst forward. It’s the kind of sudden, dangerous plan that got us here in the first place. “I thought you were done with danger, I thought you were punishing me because you wanted me to learn my lesson? Why…”
“Max, what are you talking about? I thought you didn’t want to talk to me. I mean I was terrible to you when we were demoted. “She said looking down. “I’d never punish you that would be too cruel.” She leans in to wrap her arms around me and I tense up instinctively. “Why are we so broken? Why did we let them hurt us like this?” The fact that I can’t answer these questions scares me.
“Ok.” I whisper. “Fill me in. I swear, never again will we be part of their experiment.”