Read Ch. 1 of THE DISEASED ONES now!
“Today, my life changes for the better. Today, I become a citizen of the world.”
I grasp the folds of my crisp school blazer and pull the blue fabric taut, swallowing an unpleasant lump. I stuff my hand into the right pocket to feel for my documents. The rough and bumpy surface of the papers centers me. It’s okay. I have my documentation. I’m fine.
“Focus, Hollis,” I whisper to myself.
I lean back against the seat of the white van and square my shoulders. My eyes travel the length of the vehicle, darting between the windows and the driver.
Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Twelve bars. I count twelve bars.
I stare down at my feet, desperately trying to keep my voice steady.
“Today I become accountable to the world. Today I pledge my allegiance to the government. I pledge my skills to the service of my place and—and . . .”
My throat constricts as I search for the next word. My hands go numb. I clench them into fists, trembling slightly.
My mother’s calm tone blossoms in the back of my mind. “Today I help . . .”
“Today I help change the world.”
These words comfort me. My brow furrows and I scold myself, muting my countenance immediately. I shouldn’t be squirming like a little one. I’m an adult now. Or at least, I will be in one hour. I shouldn’t be so nervous.
I close my eyes and picture my mother’s perfect face. Unblemished high cheekbones, a thin nose, placid hazel eyes, and a regal demeanor. There’s no fear or anticipation there. It’s what I aspire to. Our features are so similar, but my face isn’t as controlled as hers. Today is my sixteenth birthday, and my expression keeps slipping in an odd attempt to grimace. It’s graduation day. Today I find out if I’ve lost the genetic lottery.
“Today I grow up,” I say.
A thrilling mix of excitement and terror washes over me. I press back the jittery, twisting sensation with all the willpower I have. This is childish. Why am I so nervous? It’s ridiculous—absolutely silly. There’s no way I won’t pass. This is a good day, an honorable day. I should be proud. Besides, it’s the government’s job to keep everyone safe.
The van lurches forward, rounding a sharp corner. I slide sideways, clutching the edge of my seat, and the smell of the new leather upholstery overpowers me. The odor is sickening.
My mouth twitches. Feeling threatens to spill across my face, but I fight it. I don’t know what’s come over me. I’ve never had trouble with this. A blank face is all I’ve ever practiced.
It must be the importance of today. “Focus, Hollis. You can’t let anything slip—not in front of a government official. Not on the day of the Test.”
A mistake like that would reflect poorly on my intake to the Area 19 Testing Center.
I hear my mother’s soft words. “Obey anything asked of you. This will be over quickly.”
I promised her that I’d make her and father proud. She said I was ready, and I’d repeated her words. “I’m ready.”
I channel my mother’s perfectly collected face. Her muted look is endearing—even soothing. How does she do it?
The van’s engine roars, snapping me back to the present. The sound turns my stomach and my poise slips again. I ground myself. The Test is a rite of passage, a symbol of my purity and worth as a citizen of the world. There is no reason to fear.
I breathe through pursed lips. Today I become an adult. Today I’m assigned my place, and I’ll show the world my carefully crafted perfection.
“Perfection,” I say. “Nothing less.”
I relax my face into the blank stare I’ve come to cherish. Society’s standard for absolute composure centers me. I know what’s expected of me today—a pristine appearance, flawless self-control, and perfect obedience. That’s what I will give them.
I count the colored threads weaving in and out of my blazer’s trim. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. I don’t know why I like to count things, but it keeps me calm.
The vehicle rounds a second corner and bright, obnoxious advertisements blare from screens that line the street transit stops. They flash from either side of the road, keen to entice people to buy the next best product. I disregard the screens out of habit and peer through the tinted window, gazing up at the monument ahead.
The Testing Center looms into view, towering above the city. Its pearly embossed prowess fills the entire street. Columns of richly decorated craftsmanship rise high against the building, set aloft by the dozens of marble steps that lead up to its entrance. Glass doors extend to either side, glittering in the light.
It seems silly to be driven to the Test when I only live a few blocks away from the Capitol City’s Testing Center, but it’s standard procedure. I wouldn’t dare question it. Everyone is escorted to their Test.
The van slows and I slide forward, catching myself on the heels of my burgundy laced boots.
“The path to a perfect society is perfect obedience,” I say, gaining a sense of purpose. I grit my teeth, burying my nerves as deep as they will go. Everything will be over soon, and after today, I can truly serve a purpose.
The van stops in front of the steps, and the metal door slides open. My escort, a heavy-set man dressed in a chic white suit, stands aside cautiously, allowing me to emerge from the belly of the vehicle. His face is blank, but not like my mother’s. His muted control is business-like and calculated. I understand. After all, he’s escorting an untested child to the Testing Center on her sixteenth birthday. I’d be anxious too.
Free of my government-issued prison, I take a deep breath and begin the trek up the stairs.
The silver pronged weapon in my escort’s hand glares at me. My mother told me I shouldn’t be afraid of the weapon. I know it’s just a precaution, but I can’t seem to staunch the lump in my throat. I swallow it painfully, shifting my focus to the stairs ahead.
Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty.
The man follows me closely, and together, we trudge up the last flight, straight to the glass doors.
“Please,” he says. “To the reception desk.”
I stuff my hand into my pocket to feel for the papers once more, as if they could have magically vanished in the short ride from my dwelling to the intake. I need to stop. I have my documentation. Everything is fine.
I adjust my collar and roll my shoulders back. I’ve been practicing for this day my entire life, so why am I finding it impossible to stay expressionless?
I catch the glint of the silver weapon, but I look away. I can’t dwell on it. There are more important things to focus on.
My escort directs me to the large, curved desk ahead. I walk up to a sharply dressed intake receptionist. A red pen is tucked behind her ear, propped up against her tightly weaved chestnut bun. She looks up from her work, removing the pen from her ear and grasping it between her knobby fingers.
“Ah, Miss Hollis Timewire. Big day,” she says. “Your parents must be so proud of you. Coming of age is such an honor.”
“You will make an incredible addition to society, no doubt.”
“And with your father’s recent promotion, you’ll have no trouble with your career assignment,” she chimes. “I’m sure you’ll follow in his footsteps. The commanding officer of Area 19’s military elite. Truly inspiring. What a prestigious family.”
I bow my head ever so slightly. “You’re very kind.”
“If I can just see your documents?”
“Of course,” I say, slipping my hand into the blazer and withdrawing several pieces of paper. Dirt is smudged on the corner of the top page, and part of the gold lettering from the President’s seal is water damaged.
Her piercing green eyes snap to the mistake. My lips quiver as a pang travels through my gut, choking me.
My mother’s words come to me again, cutting through the tortured thoughts in my head. “Hollis, today you become an adult.”
“I know. It’s my mistake.”
“We don’t make mistakes.”
We don’t make mistakes. I should have known that the flimsy shelf above my desk was no match for the glimmering fishbowl. I shouldn’t have placed my Betta there. I’m fortunate the papers weren’t ruined entirely.
“Well, well,” the receptionist says, taking the documents from me.
She falters a moment as she looks through the stack, unfolding each paper delicately as if it were something rotten and disgusting. She doesn’t grimace, but her posture stiffens and her crooked nose turns slightly upward. My clammy hands clasp together, as if in prayer.
She turns away from me for a moment to write something on a clipboard just beyond my view. The scratching of the red pen is deafening in the resolute silence of the lobby. It echoes off the vaulted marble ceiling.
I’m receiving a bad mark on my intake . . .
Seventeen metal beads. There are seventeen metal beads lining the chain that holds the black pen to the countertop. That’s the pen I’ll sign my pledge with.
“Well, all seems to be in order,” she says, rifling through to the last page. “If I can have you initial here and sign down at the bottom.”
I take the black pen, move the chain behind my wrist, and write my name. The receptionist collects the sheet and tucks it neatly into a large file folder.
“Right this way, Miss Timewire,” the heavy-set man in the white suit says. He points to a lift at the back center of the lobby, and I fall into step behind him. It opens with a clink, its doors sliding smoothly to either side. I step in.
“Identification please,” a soft musical voice says.
The man places his thumb over a small bioscanner directly above the button panel. The lift flashes.
There are thirteen polished buttons. The button at the very top is the smallest. It’s pure white, standing out of place above the twelve silver ones.
The man pushes the silver button marked for the third floor, and the lift comes alive, zooming up with unsettling speed. My stomach seizes, but I reprimand it viciously.
Why am I freaking out? People don’t lose the genetic lottery—not anymore. It’s been twelve years since the last incident. Twelve years. I need to stop acting like an undisciplined child. I need to calm down. It’s just the Test. Everyone passes the Test. Everyone graduates.
I take several cleansing breaths as the lift halts. It opens with a clink. I step out, and my escort leads me to the first door—the waiting room. He places his palm on the side panel and the door opens.
“Take a seat and wait to be called.”
I barely finish my reply before the door slides shut. My escort is rid of me. Must be nice for him.
I stand there a moment before I realize that I ought to sit down. I take the seat nearest me. It’s brilliantly white, and as I glance around, I notice everything in here is white—unnaturally white.
Someone coughs and I nearly jump out of my skin. I compose myself quickly and tuck my hands into my lap. I didn’t see them at first, but there are seven other intakes patiently waiting, sitting in silence. Their faces are blank, as good children’s faces should be, but something lies underneath. We are all thinking the same thing.
What are the odds that I fail this? Do I have the biomarker? Am I the one in ten million?
My stomach is churning again. Today is the one day that I can’t rely on anything I’ve accomplished because this is not a test of my skills or qualities. It’s a test of my blood.
Happy birthday everyone, I think to myself, let’s hope we all have healthy blood.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for that kid. The incident twelve years ago captured the attention of the world. To test positive? To be labeled a Diseased One? To be considered part of a hateful race of murderous creatures that nearly wiped out all of humanity? I shudder. It’s too vile to contemplate. I’m glad the biomarker is nearly gone. Its eradication from the gene pool will be humanity’s greatest accomplishment.
My eyes wander to the counter at the end of the waiting room. It’s directly next to the intake door. A map of the Testing Center hangs just below the silver clock on the wall. The floor plan is intricate, detailing each level in print too small for me to read at this distance.
The intake door opens, cutting through the quiet of the room like a hot, fiery knife. My heart jumps into my throat.
A plump nurse walks through the door with a clipboard and calls a name.
Calm down. I need to drop my expression right now, but I missed it . . . I missed the name. Did she call my name? Nobody in the room has moved. She must have called my name.
Mustering up all the self-control I can manage, I begin to stand, but to my relief, the curly-haired girl nearest the exit jumps up, tottering slightly, her bony hands balled into fists.
“Please, follow me,” the nurse says.
The girl obeys, and I slide back into my seat, feeling faint.
Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. My shoelaces weave in and out of the metal holes seven times. I trace their crisscrossed path with my eyes.
How silly of me. I came into the room five minutes ago. Of course I’m not next. I’m after everyone who’s been sitting here for who knows how long. I just need to be patient.
I cling to my mother’s flawless strength and dignity, sitting up in my seat and composing my face to match hers. I think back to her graceful words.
“Remember, Hollis, it’s just one day, and after that, you’ll never think of it again.”
She’s right. When this is over, I’m tucking the memory of today as deep as it will go, along with every feeling it has produced. I hate that I’m expressing anything at all. It’s juvenile and foolish. I’m putting it away forever after this.
That’s what I should focus on—not the pointless, muddled anxiety of passing the Test. Of course I’ll pass the Test. That’s not supposed to be a question any longer. My senior social studies presentation was on the socio-economic benefits of a Test-free society. The genetic lottery will be obsolete soon because the biomarker is almost gone.
Too bad I missed the cutoff, I think. It would have been nice to receive chemical therapy as an infant. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this.
“Miss Hollis Timewire, we’re ready for you.”
My hands turn cold. The waiting room is empty, and I’m the only one left.
“Please, follow me.”
I didn’t notice? How is that possible? All of the others have gone. How long have I been sitting here?
“Miss Timewire,” the nurse says sharply.
Her tone pulls me to my feet, and after a brief moment, I follow her through the intake door, keeping my gaze above her wide hips.
We walk down a long, cold hallway past seven doors. I count each one while our footsteps echo jarringly off the walls. The nurse directs me to the eighth room. It contains nothing but a smooth table, set pristinely against the back wall.
“Wait in here,” she says.
The door shuts, and I stand there, hugging myself. I need to wait for the doctor. I sit gingerly on the table, the sterile paper crunching beneath me.
“Everything is going to be okay,” I say aloud. “Only one in ten million people have the biomarker. I’m not different. I’m fine. Perfectly fine.”
I tap my feet against the edge of the metal table. I want to get this over with so I can take my pledge and go home. I want to show my parents my career assignment. I want to celebrate my success with them and eat a huge bowl of Bolognese. I want to be done.
A new wave of anxiety hits me like a sledgehammer. I feel sick, and a wild thought crosses my mind. Are they testing me now? Are they observing me as I sit here?
I scoff at my foolishness. They have to take my blood. Why are my mind and body issuing a full-frontal assault on my resolve? I hate this. I hate feeling anything at all. I don’t want to feel this—
The door to my room opens.
“Miss Timewire?” The dark-haired doctor’s tone is muted with perfect societal control.
“Yes,” I say, a little too loudly. I adjust my tone to match his: perfect, emotionless, respectable. “Yes.”
“How are we doing today?”
“Fine,” I say. I’m lying through my teeth. I’m not fine—not even close.
“I’ll just get a sample of your blood, and you’ll be on your way.”
I nod, trying to maintain my heartbeat as the doctor removes a blue stretchy band from his kit and wraps it tightly above my elbow. He wipes the flat of my arm with a cold cloth, selects a syringe, and sticks me with it. The sample of my blood is surprisingly dark, and the sight of it makes me a bit light-headed, so I look away. I focus on my shoelaces instead.
Seven times. Seven crisscrosses.
He finishes and packs up his equipment.
“I’ll be back shortly,” he says, holding the medical bag under his arm. “Wait here.”
I tuck my left foot behind my right and lean forward on my palms, staring blankly at the floor. A few more minutes, I think, just a few more minutes. But time seems to drag on.
I look up at the door. I feel like I’ve been waiting forever. Is that normal? It shouldn’t take long to run a sample of blood. Maybe it did back in the dark ages when citizens had to wait a few days for their lab results, but it’s 2647. Technology has rectified this. I should ask someone if the doctor will be along soon.
I hop off the table, and, against my better judgment, I grab the handle and pull. It’s locked. Why is it locked?
My heart does a little pitter-patter as I return to my seat, but the moment I’m back, the door opens, electrifying me. Someone has returned, but it’s not the doctor. This man looks different. His wiry hair, rimmed glasses, and grey eyes are unsettling, and he isn’t wearing a lab coat. I stand, unable to breathe.
“Yes, that’s me.”
I blink, letting out a sigh of relief. I silently scold myself for the last time—one more exposed feeling. Now I’m an adult. Now I can take my place in society. My shoulders relax, but the man hasn’t moved.
“Am I free to go?” I ask.
“Absolutely. Please, follow me. I will escort you out.” He holds the door open and gestures me through. “Please, to the left.”
I’m confused. The waiting room is to the right.
“Miss Timewire, please.”
I nod my apology and swiftly turn to the left. I count twelve more doors. I want to ask him where we’re going, but I can’t. The path to a perfect society is perfect obedience. I recite this to myself automatically. Besides, I passed.
The man stops at the thirteenth door. It’s larger than the others.
“Please,” he says. “In here.”
I hesitate for the smallest fraction of a second before taking the handle and pushing the door in. It’s heavy, so I lean into it, and now I’m certain. Something is very wrong.
I gasp, my self-control fracturing into jagged pieces. My hand slips from the door. There are a dozen people in front of me. And guns. There are guns.
My escort grabs my upper arm and pushes me into the room. His touch is foreign and unwelcome. Members of society do not touch one another—ever. Panic rises in my chest, choking me. I don’t know what to do.
My escort is joined by two men in beige military uniforms. They seize me, pulling me toward what appears to be a strange metal throne.
“B-but I passed,” I say, strangled as unfamiliar hands grasp at me, paralyzing me. This form of touch is horrifying.
“Unfortunately, Miss Timewire, you did not pass,” the doctor says.
A scientist near the back of the room speaks up. “This is an anomaly. We haven’t had a Diseased One in twelve years.”
“What?” I say. “No. I’m not a Diseased One. I can’t be. This has to be a mistake.”
I stand, my body tingling limply in the military men’s grip.
“We do not make mistakes, Miss Timewire,” the scientist says. “Will you strap her down, lieutenant? Securely please.”
They push me onto the hard metal throne and fasten cuffs to my ankles and wrists. A gun is trained on my head, and my body goes numb. This is a mistake. This can’t be real.
“Is this necessary?” someone asks.
“Of course. She’s a Diseased One.”
“But shouldn’t we study her? Couldn’t we?”
“No. This is a matter of world security—not one of your science experiments.”
“But what about Maddy?”
“No. She must be taken care of. Now.”
An icy sensation cascades over me. Taken care of? My face is tingling, and for the first time in my life, emotion, raw and pure, floods to the surface of my being. I have never experienced such a rush—and I’m terrified by the noise that escapes my mouth.
“This is a mistake. I’m not a Diseased One. I hate the Diseased Ones. I hate them!” I cry.
I pull desperately at the cuffs binding me to the metal throne. My heartbeat pumps into my ears and the tingling enters my limbs.
“Let’s do this quickly, doctor,” the scientist says, disregarding my outburst.
I pull against the restraints, tears falling down my face. They feel unfamiliar against my cheeks, unwanted and terrible, but utterly beyond my control.
“Please. I’m not a Diseased One. I’m not,” I say, through strangled tears. I can barely speak. “I h-hate them!”
The doctor ignores me and withdraws a large needle with green fluid. He flicks the end of it several times and pushes a small amount through the tip. It cascades over the metal and onto the glass rim.
“Let’s clean this up quickly.”
The needle hovers over my arm and my adrenaline peaks. My fingers stretch out, and in a snap of movement, everyone turns completely still—perfectly rigid, rooted to the spot.
“What are you doing to me?” the doctor with the syringe says. His eyes are bulging. “I can’t move.”
“We need help in here,” he says, panic fracturing his societal control. “We need help.”
“No, wait,” I say, clenching my right hand into a fist.
The doctor’s jaw slams shut as if an invisible hand forced it to do so. I’m overwhelmed with an incredible amount of control.
I’m trembling. “What’s happening to me?”
“Sound the alarm,” someone says.