The Needs of the Many

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2019 NYC Midnight Madness Short Story Contest, First Round Entry:

“All will bow to me, Empress of Gaya!” Roma shouted as she looked over the wasted plains that rolled on forever beyond the city walls. “Queen of Antar! Ruler of all peoples!”

“Oh!” she cried as she went tumbling off her wooden box.

Elora howled with laughter. “You dork!”

“Come on, Elora. Can’t a girl dream?” Roma asked, her green eyes gazing out again.

Antar was the last city on Gaya, ravaged for centuries by wars and plagues. No one could survive outside its walls. The Golgorin and the Sangorin, both human races, lived in an uneasy balance.

“Roma, your hand! Are you okay? Let me see that.” Elora drew Roma’s hand closer, but Roma snatched it away. Elora had seen it.

What had seemed like a nasty scrape with skin peeling away was actually a flap of synthetic skin, and underneath it was a scar.

“Roma, what is this?”

“It’s nothing,” Roma insisted, trying to push it back into place.

“I know what that is, Roma. I’ve been training in biomedicine since I was ten. That’s an amputation scar.”

“No!” Roma answered. “I got it when I fell off the geodome when I was…uh…eight.”

“No, you didn’t. I was there. You only bruised your elbow.”

Elora stared at her in wide-eyed disbelief. Her next words sent their friendship into a tailspin.

“You’re not Golgorin.”

***

            Over centuries, the Golgorin had taken over Antaran society. They began as experiments in bioengineering, humans who were slowly perfected genetically. Once they gained full citizenship rights, they began to take over political life. Beautiful and charming, they easily won seats on the General Council.

That was two hundred years ago and by now they had transformed life within those walls completely, doing away with the General Council and forming the Supreme Council, centralizing all power within its purview.

Now Fenwin, the lone Sangorin allowed on the Council, stood before its eleven Golgorin members, angry as a blood-wound.

“This is blind madness!” he shouted, slamming his fists on the iron table. “You have no right even to consider this…this barbarism!”

“Always so dramatic, Lord Fenwin,” answered Melken, long considered the leader of the Council, second in power only to Governor Tiglan. “You Sangorin, with your sentimental attachments, are the reason we are in this predicament. Golgorin numbers are strictly controlled, and adhere to actual need and purpose. But Sangorin breed like rats, never caring if it is best for Antar.”

“It is our right to bear children as we wish!” retorted Fenwin.

“Not for long,” answered Melken. “It is high time we address the population issue as well as the Codice Sacris.”

“The Codice Sacris,” interjected Donnic, who at fifty-five was one of the youngest members of the Council, “has been in place for a thousand years. It is not for us to violate its tenets.”

“Always siding with the Sangorin!” complained Melken, his long hair shimmering black despite being over a century old. “We have a problem and it’s only going to get worse. Lord Dodimus, your scientists just completed their yearly analysis. Has anything changed?”

The Minister of Agriculture answered resolutely. “There has been no change for the better. The predictions are getting worse every year. We cannot hold this course for long before mass starvation sets in.”

“It won’t be us starving,” declared Melken.

“People are already going without, Lord Melken.” Governor Tiglan finally added to the debate which had raged all morning. “I understand your feelings, Lord Fenwin, but we Golgorin, as you know quite well, have no such feelings for our young ones. Every Golgorin is assigned a place in the city before birth, and raised for that task. There is no wastefulness or emotional attachment to hinder our thinking.”

Fenwin knew it quite well. Golgorin were sterile and did not conceive children naturally. Golgorin women were impregnated in hospitals; their children were not considered theirs to love and raise, but to prepare for their roles in society: administrators, police, wall guardians; for positions of rank and power. When a Golgorin child died, there was no funeral; the body was quickly incinerated and a new implant was performed soon afterward.

“What you are proposing is outrageous!” answered Fenwin.

“I must agree once again with my colleague,” joined Donnic, “although not for the sake of sentimentality. I believe that destroying human life without due process or compelling evidence of the need for self-preservation, goes against the Codice Sacris. I’m quite sure of this.”

“A unanimous vote of the Council, along with the Governor, can change the Codice Sacris,” said Melken.

“That won’t be necessary, Lord Melken,” Tiglan declared. “The Codice is ancient, and does not address present day problems. We have allowed something that was written on paper, by people who believed in ghosts and gods, to limit what we can achieve as a human society. Let the vote commence. Three quarters will carry.”

“All in favor,” said Melken.

“No! You can’t do this!” shouted Fenwin.

“Please be reasonable,” urged Donnic.

“Raise your hand,” continued Melken. Ten hands with thick golden signet rings were lifted into the air.

“The motion carries,” said Melken, smiling. He had waited long for this.

“Fools! You will start a civil war!” warned Fenwin.

“Do not be overly concerned, Lord Fenwin,” said Tiglan. “Your daughter Elora can be exempted. And Lord Donnic, despite your assurances I perceive that sentiment has crawled its way into your perfect heart. But Golgorin children are not affected by this. Roma is safe.”

“When the Rules of the Codice are ignored, no one is safe, Governor Tiglan,” answered Donnic gravely.

“The matter is concluded,” declared Tiglan. “You are dismissed.”

***

            Elora spotted Roma leaving one of the food depots, basket in hand. It had been eight days since the incident on the wall, and Roma had been avoiding her completely.

“Roma! Please stop,” Elora called.

Roma gazed at her with disdain. Elora had never seen such a look from Roma directed at her. What could it mean? If anything, Elora thought they should be closer than ever; they were equals now.

However, she stopped.

“What do you want? Come to rub it in my face?” asked Roma.

“Roma, love, please. I wouldn’t do that. Your secret is safe. I swear it.”

“What good is a Sangorin oath?” sneered Roma.

“Roma, what’s gotten into you?”

“Look, from now on I think we should just –” Roma started.

But just then a loud trumpet sounded. Not a real one, and not the only one. Massive electric silver trumpets blared out the call for everyone to cease and wait for an announcement. It began immediately. The voice was Governor Tiglan.

“Citizens of Antar! As you know, the wastelands beyond our city walls cannot be inhabited, neither can they be cultivated, despite our best efforts. In spite our scientists’ diligent labors to keep out the pestilence and infectious airs that surround us, our food supply has been dwindling for many years. In response to the perpetual food shortages and the strain of overpopulation, the Supreme Council has decided that a Culling will begin in ten days. On that day, and every ten days after, two children under the age of 16 will be culled from the populace until we have met the goals set by the Departments of Agriculture and Human Services. It is the wisdom of the Council that Golgorin children are automatically exempt from the Culling. Furthermore, any first-born Sangorin children are eligible for exemption upon special request to the Council. All citizens will report to the Great Lion Arena by the first morning watch in ten days, without fail. That is all.”

Roma realized she was clasping Elora’s hand tightly.

“Elora, did you know about this?”

“No. Didn’t your father tell you anything?” answered Elora.

Then the screaming began. Some Sangorin women crumbled to the ground in tears while others stood motionless in fear and shock. Everywhere shouts of dismay could be heard.

“How can this be?”

“Is this legal? How can they do this?”

“What will we do?”

“Come with me,” Roma said. “I need your help with something.”

***

            Eight days had passed. Roma had asked Elora to steal something from her father. Besides being a part of the Council, Fenwin Lamb was Minister of Information Technology. Although Golgorin had taken over most sectors of science and industry, Sangorin were still allowed to work in information technology, due to geneticists’ inability to enhance logical intuition through bioengineering. There were a handful of Sangorin who had worked their way into minor leadership roles. Fenwin was one of them.

“I don’t understand what you needed with his pass-key. I couldn’t find it,” Elora complained.

“Of course you don’t, you dolt,” chided Roma.

Their camaraderie had been restored in the past days. While many Sangorin families despaired, some even sneaking over the walls to meet whatever fate awaited them in the wastelands, the two girls had spent every available minute together, as if they were living out their last days.

“I didn’t need it after all. I have a plan,” Roma said.

“Why can’t you tell me about it?” Elora pleaded.

“You have to trust me. Anyway, you’re just a bloody medic; you wouldn’t understand. I’ve been training in IT for years already. I started when I was seven, right after I found out.”

“Found out you’re really Sangorin?” asked Elora.

“It’s not that simple,” answered Roma. “But yes, after I found out I was natural born. I wanted to know how it happened. My father has told me nothing, only forced me to hide my deformity all of my life. A pass-key would have made it easier, but I’ve been hacking for years. I’ve discovered things.”

“Like what?” asked Elora.

“Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be alright. Just trust me.”

***

            The morning of the culling arrived.

All of Antar’s citizens were arranged in their sectors. Some Sangorin stood stone-faced; others had tears streaming down their faces. Sobbing could be faintly heard. In the Golgorin sectors, downcast faces of shame could be seen, but mostly a stoic silence pervaded their ranks.

The Council members sat on a massive stage at the end of the arena, along with a phalanx of armed guards. Governor Tiglan stood behind a podium. As the watch horns blew out the beginning of the hour, he addressed the assembled mass.

“The names that will be displayed,” he began as he gestured toward a mammoth screen above him, “have been chosen at random, with no respect to person or rank or education. In the Council’s fairness, some exemptions have been granted. But I have asked even those families to appear here, for we are all one society, and all that we do is done for the good of Antar. When you see your child’s name, you will escort him or her to the front immediately. I want to assure each and every one of you that Antar respects and appreciates your sacrifice.”

Smaller screens dotted the perimeter of the arena and a name appeared on every screen simultaneously.

“Dolorosa Fielding. Please bring her to the front,” announced Tiglan.

“No!” screamed a woman. “My baby!”

Her mother wailing in anguish, the girl’s father took her by the arm and slowly walked her to the front. Tears welled in his eyes as he whispered to her.

“Be brave, baby. It won’t hurt. Momma and I will see you one day. Believe it, child.”

“I believe, Daddy,” she answered, hot tears running down her own cheeks.

The next name appeared.

Tiglan hesitated as the crowd gasped.

“Elora Lamb.”

Elora felt her face drain as the shock of what she had just heard coursed through her. She was already at the front of the arena, just a few steps away from the Fielding girl.

“No!” cried Fenwin. “There’s been a mistake! She is a Council child. She is exempt!”

“She is Sangorin,” declared Melken, his delight showing behind his façade of fraternal concern. “Did you ask for an exemption?”

“Ask for an exemption! Are you mad?” cried Fenwin.

At that moment, Roma ran up to stage, leapt on top of it and shouted, “Wait! Me for her! I volunteer for the Culling. Take me instead!”

“You can’t do that!” Donnic yelled, rising to his feet. “You are Golgorin! And besides, no part of the decree allows for substitution!”

“What is this, child?” asked Tiglan. “No substitution is allowed in the Culling, and as your father has stated, you are Golgorin.”

“I am not!” cried Roma.

“Roma, no!” Donnic looked stricken as gasps and murmurs rippled through the crowd.

“I am not Golgorin, and you know it, Father. Don’t you?” she challenged.

“Is this true, Lord Donnic?” asked Tiglan. Behind him, Melken could not contain his mirth, a wicked smile forming across his face.

“It’s true,” said Donnic.

“My father conceived me naturally. He had help from a scientist. I am Sangorin and I volunteer to take this girl’s place.”

Expressions of shock and disbelief rocked the assembly. Angry shouts came from the Golgorin crowd. A chaos of sound was swelling the air.

“Silence!” announced Tiglan. The crowd quieted for a moment.

“There’s more,” Roma said.

“More?” asked Tiglan.

“Every Golgorin couple is assigned a Golgorin child to birth and raise. When I was born in secret, I was switched with the Golgorin child my father was supposed to have.”

“Then what happened to that child?” demanded Melken, suddenly appearing uncertain.

“She was given to another council member and his wife, who adopted her as their own,” Roma explained. “She is standing right here in front of this stage. She is Golgorin and she should go free. Take me instead.”

Shouts and threats were made in every direction. “Traitor! Adulterer! Lies!” Many more were heard, until Tiglan motioned his guards.

Shockwaves of gunfire burst upward through the air. The crowd hushed again.

“Councilman Donnic,” Tiglan said tersely. “You have broken the laws of our great city and performed an abomination before the citizenry. I believe I do not need the approval of the rest of the Council to declare you an enemy of Antar.”

“Release the Fielding child,” he continued, “and release Lord Fenwin’s child. Take Councilman Donnic and his daughter to the Culling Chamber.”

“No!” Elora screamed, running toward her friend. They hugged tightly for a moment before the guards pulled them apart.

“Remember me!” Roma implored before she was dragged out of sight with her father.

Chaos was erupting in the crowd as the guards streamed out to control the situation.

“We must leave now, Elora,” her father urged, pulling her out of the arena through the stage.

They fled to their home where Elora collapsed on the floor, weeping. After a moment, she felt something hard against her stomach. Something was in her tunic pocket.

She pulled out a note wrapped around an oblong crystal plate. She read it and realized what she was holding: a pass-key.

She looked at her father.

“This isn’t over.”

The Birthday Rules

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The unexpected sound of a doorbell can startle. It breaks into thought like awakening breaks into a dream. This one, however, was no surprise. Kenny had been waiting for it for years.

“Rodney! Good to see you. It’s been too long.”

“Yeah, Kenny, about that baseball bat. I don’t really remember lending it to you. I almost didn’t come,” Rodney explained, kicking at the dirt in front of the porch.

“Come inside. I have a surprise.”

Rodney lifted his six-foot-two frame into the mobile home where Kenny had lived with his grandmother for the last four years. In the dining room, he discovered three other students of Pullman High standing around an oak table.

“Tracy? You’re here, too?” he asked the lanky redheaded cheerleader who was standing, looking confused next to Mike, the school’s debate captain, and Bert, the newsletter editor.

“He said he could score me some pot,” she explained, looking both annoyed and embarrassed.

Mike and Bert mumbled in turn. Both had been lured in by some needful thing Kenny had impressed upon them.

On one end of the table was a large purple cake with a single candle, and stationed around the edge were four brightly wrapped boxes.

“Kenny, what’s going on?” asked Rodney.

“Happy Birthday!” exclaimed Kenny.

The others looked around at each other, searching vainly for some sign of comprehension.

“Oh, I know. You’re all surprised. Didn’t know it was my birthday last week, huh? Well, I’m throwing a party.”

“Kenny, wow…happy belated birthday,” Bert offered. “Why didn’t you just invite us…”

“Bert, come on!” Kenny chided, smiling. “We’re Facebook buddies, aren’t we? That’s right. Each one of you. I’m on your ‘friend list’, but not one of you wished me happy birthday. That should be against the rules.”

Mike and Bert shuffled nervously. Kenny continued.

“You know, it seems like yesterday we were in Scouts together, eh, Bertie? And didn’t we just have our first kiss at camp when we were ten, Tracy? Things used to be different, guys.”

“That wasn’t my first kiss, Kenneth. And I don’t appreciate being dragged in here on false pretenses.”

“False pretenses? That’s how most people really get along. In reality we’re all a bit savage,” he said coolly.

“I’ve had enough of this!” Tracy started toward the door.

“I think…I’m going to have to ask you to stay.”

Something in his voice froze her steps. She turned and saw a silver pistol in his grip.

“Now relax,” he continued. “We’re all friends here.”

“You don’t have to do this,” urged Mike. “Why didn’t you, you know, just let us know?”

“I doubt you have time, what with your 783 other friends, Mike,” Kenny answered, waving the gun. “Now look, we can all still have a good time. This is a birthday party, and I’ll be giving out the presents. Why don’t you sit down and open your gifts?”

“I don’t want a gift…” Tracy started.

“Open it!” Kenny smiled. “Please.”

Tracy opened the small box and dumped out a Transformers ink stamp.

“Is this…” she asked.

“Yes. You remember it.”

“You used to stamp my arm in fourth grade like every day. You were such a pain, but I let you. You got such a kick out of it.”

Tracy stared at it.

“You kept it all this time?”

Rodney opened up his box next. It was larger and contained an old leather ball.

“My old football!”

“Yeah, remember when it went under my old house and we couldn’t get it out?” Kenny asked.

“I remember. That was back before you…moved away.”

“Before they died,” said Kenny. “I finally got it out two years later, but by then you weren’t exactly talking to me, Mr. Quarterback.”

“I’m sorry.” Rodney looked down.

Bert opened his box, his hands dripping sweat as he fumbled with the contents.

“This is your service badge,” Bert said.

“But you helped me, Bert. You did most of the work, really. I figured after all these years I should fess up and admit you’re the one that really earned it.”

Kenny almost beamed.

Mike opened his box and pulled out a plastic watch.

“This is my watch! You stole it? I thought I had lost it!”

“Sorry, Mike. Too much temptation for a ten-year-old. But I’m giving it back now, okay?”

“Kenny, what’s this all about?” asked Rodney.

“I’ll tell you,” said Kenny, as he pulled the trigger and a small blue flame shot out of the barrel. He lit the candle with it.

“Whoa,” groaned Mike, quietly.

“To be a friend, or not. That’s the question that’s been bugging me. To go on living when your so-called friends have forgotten you, when the pretenders have stopped pretending. You guys have no idea what is means to be alone.”

Mike drew a breath to speak, but Kenny cut him off.

“Save it, Mikey! You’re gonna tell me what I have going for me? Just shut up for a minute. The only reason I haven’t blown this place is because I don’t know what comes next. I mean, it sucks right now, but death could be worse. You ever think of that?”

Mike shook his head.

“The dark clouds. The rainy days. Why would anyone keep putting up with it, except we just don’t know that death isn’t filled with the same nightmares? When you really think about things, our thoughts make us afraid, and we fail to save ourselves, to just end all of this crap.”

The candle started sparkling and running down quickly.

“Kenny what is that?” Bert cried.

“But I don’t have to go alone, I finally realized,” Kenny continued. “Let’s take that journey together, friends. Sunshine or rain…”

“Kenny, no!” Tracy screamed. She flung herself across the table and slapped at the fizzling candle.

In that instant the cake erupted and vaporized the room.

One can’t imagine what a birthday cake-colored supernova looks like. No reason to try. Certainly, it’s the last thing anyone would expect to see.

Atmosphere & Pressure

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I have a schizoid radio inside my head that literally never stops. Not an earworm, but a runaway rambling jukebox that underscores my joys and mocks my pain. Happily, an equally capricious nickelodeon also plays inside my head with similar wantonness.

Thus, when I first laid eyes on the helicopter Liv had chartered for us last week, Skywalker proclaimed, “What a piece of junk!” while Blood, Sweat & Tears informed me that what goes up must surely come down. I had a bad feeling about this.

Regardless, she beckoned me to climb into the cabin. The stocky pilot helped us into our seats, clicked us into place, and slipped into his own seat.

“You want the usual, young lady?”

“The whole stinking town!” she exclaimed with delight, over the roar of the rotors.

He winked.

I had no reason to fear. Liv had just treated us to an exquisite dinner of bean soup, veal cutlets with roast asparagus, and raspberry sorbet.

“Do you trust me?” she had asked, as usual, her blue eyes gleaming in her round beaming face.

Indeed, I did. It was our third date and as yet we had gone wherever she wanted, eaten whatever she had ordered for us; she had even paid for us each time.

As the chopper began its ascent, something struck me odd about how dinner had ended. I suddenly remembered the shiny-toothed waitress declaring, “All of our desserts are sugar-free.” I should have wondered why Admiral Akbar popped in and shouted, “It’s a trap!” But I didn’t.

One just didn’t tell Olivia Wainwright no. Valedictorian, head cheerleader, debate team captain; I was astonished she had even asked me out at all.

The first twenty minutes of the tour were pleasant enough. The night sky, the lights on the bayfront, the sparkling water reflecting the moonlight. I sensed Liv watching me as I took in the sights. The pilot dutifully droned on about the landmarks and important locales as we climbed higher.

But then something happened that should only happen in my nightmares. Truthfully, I had started to feel a discomfort on the ride over to the airfield. I thought maybe I wasn’t responding well to Liv’s hairpin turns and overreliance on her anti-lock brakes. However, as we ascended higher and higher, I could feel the treacherous gases reproducing in my gut. What would Blood, Sweat & Tears say about this?

“I can hold it,” I said to myself.

“What’d you say?” Liv asked.

“Uh, nothing! I said it’s getting colder,” I answered, which didn’t matter since I had remembered to throw on my bomber before I left the house. I was lying to her and I was lying to myself. It was only beginning. Soon P!nk was getting the party started, singing “I’m coming out!” while the only black X-wing pilot in the Battle of Endor shouted, “She’s gonna blow!”

I was going to blow it. The most amazing, dazzling, captivating girl in Pullman High School was taking me on a romantic ride through the sky, and I was going to break the most hideous wind since Han Solo cut open a Tauntaun. The angels were going to weep, first at my misfortune, and then probably because they would be close enough to smell it.

“Are you okay?” Liv implored, her eyes almost seeming to water. Already?

“How much longer is this?” I asked, not really caring if it sounded rude.

“I booked an hour.”

No! It was getting worse with each passing moment. A Persian-sized cloud of gas was descending on the vastly outmanned pass of Thermopylae. The mountain trolls of Mordor were gleefully hurling Grond against the crumbling gate. Queen Elsa was crying out to let it go while Santa Ana’s horde swarmed toward the Alamo!

“Blast it, Biggs! It was the dessert!” I yelled with cold certainty. Had to be.

“Mel! It’s okay!” Liv said, gripping my arm.

That’s when the odor hit me, a wave of things long dead and unlooked for that filled my head instantly.

Only, I was still holding it in. Did she just…?

I looked at her, still smiling, and our eyes locked like lasers. I tell you with an almost holy assurance that in that instant, that woman knew me, and I knew her.

“Let ‘er rip, Tater Chip!” she screamed.

I did. I should say, we did. We made onions cry. Since the invention of gas, there were five farts that were rated the most malevolent, the most appalling. This blew them all away.

“Good grief, that’s the worst!” she howled, laughing hysterically, tears streaming down her face. Somehow, our ice-cold pilot remained calm throughout the ordeal.

I couldn’t stand it. I fished an old playbill from “The Phantom of the Opera” out of my jacket and fanned the air around me while Liv ducked down to the floor in search of fresher air.

She spotted the paper in my hand.

“You went to see Phantom? Did you like it?”

“I loved it,” I answered, this time not lying.

“We should go! Next week,” she declared. “Dad, can you take us to see Phantom next week?”

“Dad?”

What?

“Oh yeah, sorry,” she exclaimed, turning toward the pilot. “Dad, this is Mel. Mel, this is my dad.”

Sorry?

My heart stopped cold in my chest. Sweet Sarlacc, Pit of Carkoon, please swallow me up right now.

“Hello, Mel! I’ve been wanting to meet you ever since I caught wind that you two were dating.”

He was a dad, alright.

“Uh, thanks. I mean…yeah. I mean, pleased to meet you,” I stammered as I tried to recall if Liv had ever mentioned anything about her dad. Details!

The rest of the flight went quietly, relatively speaking. Not a word from Dad or Liv. She just smiled. We landed back at the airfield and Liv drove me home at breakneck speed.

“See you next week,” she said as I stood on the curb outside my house.

I nodded.

“As you wish.”