The Calling Stone

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Kirsten awoke to the sound of the wind moving swiftly through her window, billowing the sheer blue curtains and bringing the scent of fallen leaves to her nose. She wondered how long had she been asleep. It occurred to her that the moonlight shining into her room was brighter than she would have expected. The new moon had emerged just last week, but it looked to her like a full howling moon was bathing the world with an almost garish glow.

She pulled the coverlet back from her thin pale body and felt the coolness immediately through her flannel gown. It had been an unusually warm November night when she laid down in her twin bed, but now it felt chilly. She wondered if she had missed the weather report that day, if a front had blown in unawares. She trudged over to the window to close it, but first she craned her neck to look up at the night sky.

The moon was indeed full.

Impossible, she thought. It was a feeling not unlike dread but more like doubt that rose up in her chest as she contemplated what she was seeing. Hopeful doubt. This isn’t really happening doubt. Perhaps she was dreaming.

She began to shut the window and had it closed halfway when she heard it. A thin piercing whine, shrill and reverberating. She wasn’t quite sure she had heard anything, really. It was more like she felt it. She stopped to listen. Nothing. She started to shut the window further and the noise came again, this time perceptibly louder.

It was coming from outside. She poked her head out to listen to it more carefully, trying to determine the source. The wood shop. She was certain of it. The sound was coming from the wood shop and suddenly that made sense in a way she would rather not have comprehended.

*****

          The day before, Kirsten had been gathering the last of the wild berries that grew in the paths behind her house, which sat on the edge of a birchwood forest. This was something a sixteen-year-old girl could still do safely. There were stories of kidnappings and highway boogeymen that floated around from time to time; but in the quiet community where Kirsten’s family lived, nothing of the sort had ever happened. Except for one strange disappearance, nothing ever would happen.

In all of her gathering trips since she was little, Kirsten had seen every sort of animal one might expect to see, from rabbits to deer, skunks to opossums. She had never run into a stranger. Neighbors, yes; kids she had seen at school but perhaps did not know well, certainly. The woman she encountered that morning, however, looked like she had stepped out of fairy tale.

She was quite old, to begin with. She looked exhausted and uncertain, her head pivoting about here and there. She was thin and frail with skin darkened by decades of sun. Her silver hair flowed in long tresses about her head and over the back of her tunic, which was a deep purple that reminded Kirsten of starry nights. She wore silver chains and bracelets with jeweled charms dangling about, and she had faded leather boots that had seen better days. She smiled through closed lips and bright blue piercing eyes when she saw Kirsten approaching.

“Hello. Are you lost?” Kirsten asked her when she was sure the woman was within earshot.

“Lost?” the woman answered. “Now there is a hopeless word. I prefer words of possibility, young lady. I am, as they say in my homeland, in a state of high wandering.”

Kirsten smiled. As odd an answer as that was, she liked the old woman instantly.

“You just looked like you could use some help,” she offered the woman. “I’m Kirsten. People call me Kirstie.” She strode toward the woman and offered her hand to shake.

The woman looked at Kirsten’s hand for a moment, and then softly grasped it with both of her hands and held it gently while she spoke.

“Young Kirsten. You have a pure heart. I can tell that already. When you have walked the earth as long as I have, you learn to recognize a pure heart. They are not as common as they once were.”

Kirsten noticed two things simultaneously. The woman’s hands were as soft as if she had never worked a day in her life, utterly out of place with her hard scrabble appearance; and secondly, her hands were incredibly strong. Kirsten had the distinct notion that she could not have pulled her hand back if she had tried.

“I am Salome. People call me Salome,” she said with a softly cackling laugh. Kirsten obliged with a small chuckle of her own.

“Pleased to meet you, Salome,” she said politely.

“We’ll see, won’t we?” remarked the old woman, still smiling.

What an odd reply, Kirsten thought.

“As a matter of fact, young lady, I could use some help. I’m famished, actually. My last meal was the day before yesterday,” she went on to explain.

“There are still berries around,” Kirsten said. “Have you been outside this whole time? See here, I have some in my basket.”

“I’m not from around here, as you may have guessed,” the woman said. “I don’t know which berries are good to eat and which ones will put me in the ground.”

“Well these are perfectly safe. Here, have some,” Kirsten offered.

The woman smiled and stretched out her hand to receive the basket. She took one of the berries and nibbled on it, sucking the juice out of it. She closed her eyes as she did this and then she gazed outwardly, distantly, as if she were remembering something from the ancient past.

“These are good,” she said simply. Then one by one, she popped each berry into her mouth and chewed each one slowly. Kirsten didn’t mind. The woman looked near to starving and Kirsten waited patiently as she ate her fill of the dark blue morsels.

Finally, the woman handed the basket back to Kirsten.

“Thank you,” she said kindly. “Like I said, pure hearts are getting so hard to find.”

“Will you come to my house?” Kirsten inquired. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s getting colder every day. My folks could help you find a place or something.” Kirsten wasn’t sure why she was saying any of this. As kind as the woman appeared, Kirsten wasn’t sure that inviting a complete stranger to her house was a solid idea.

“No child. You are very kind. But I’m on a mission and you have helped me enough. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do for you? I have more food at the house. Can I bring you something?” Kirsten offered.

“No, indeed. You’ve done more for me than you can possibly know. In fact, let me give you something for your kindness,” the woman answered.

“You don’t have to give me anything,” Kirsten started.

“Child, I am an old woman. You can’t take things with you when you leave this world. Here, I want you to have this,” the woman said.

She rummaged through a leather satchel she wore around her shoulder. It was as rugged and wrinkled as she was. It was covered in markings that Kirsten had never seen before, not quite pictures, but not quite letters of any sort. The woman pulled out an object.

It was a carved green sphere of stone. It was unremarkable, something you might find at an antique jewel and rock shop, in a bargain bin. It was dull with gray veins and flecks of quartz.

“Oh I couldn’t take that,” Kirsten said, attempting to be polite.

“I know, child. It’s nothing special to look at. But I insist you have it all the same. For your kindness,” she added, holding out the stone to Kirsten.

Kirsten didn’t know what to do except to hold out her own hand. The old woman dropped the stone into it and immediately Kirsten noticed how warm it felt. It was utterly smooth, despite its plain appearance. Perhaps it was a finer gift than what she had first perceived.

“Thank you,” Kirsten said.

“You are very welcome,” the woman replied.

“I have to go, now,” Kirsten explained. “I hope you get to wherever it is you are going. It was nice meeting you.”

“Farewell, child.”

The woman turned and trudged off into the trees. Kirsten noticed that she looked more frail than ever, stooping now and laboring through every step, as if the berries had given her no nourishment at all. But the woman didn’t stop or turn back and soon she was out of sight.

Kirsten walked back to her house, foregoing the thought of picking any more berries that morning. As she ambled up her porch steps and reached for the front screen door she noticed that she still had the rock in her hand.

She pulled the screen door with her left hand and was about to step into the house when she felt the oddest sensation. The stone vibrated. She was sure of it. She looked at it in her hand for a moment. Suddenly, bringing it into the house didn’t seem like a good idea.

She wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was a gift, although reluctantly received. She walked over to her father’s wood shop at the end of the driveway. For some years now, she had her own little corner of the shop where she kept her set of carving tools and various little projects. She walked up to her storage cabinet where she kept odds and ends and pulled out one of the little drawers.

She dropped the stone into it and closed the drawer, strangely relieved to not have it in her hand anymore.

Kirsten went inside the house and set about doing her chores. As the day wore on, she thought less and less about the encounter in the woods. By evening the next day, she had almost forgotten it completely.

*****

          Now as the chilly air enveloped her blonde locks and coursed over her shoulders, Kirsten knew what was making the sound. She wondered if anyone else could hear it, it was getting louder by the minute.

She pulled her head back inside and shut the window. But she could still hear it. It was pulsing and piercing and it seemed to reside inside her own head as much as it came from outside.

She crept quietly out of her room and went down the hallway to her parents’ room. They always left the door open. She peeked inside and saw both of them sleeping soundly, a soft snore coming from each of them in turn, as if they were playing pitch and catch warmup.

The sound was continuing to increase in volume. Yet her parents seemed unaffected. She thought about waking them, but decided against it.

A feeling began in her mind at that point. It wasn’t fear. Nothing much scared Kirsten. At Halloween parties and teenage girl sleepovers, she was the one telling the ghost stories. It wasn’t quite dread, either.

She felt a mixture of annoyance and curiosity. What had this woman given her? She wasn’t even sure the sound was actually coming from the seemingly innocuous stone; it was tucked away in a drawer a hundred feet away. She had to know for sure. She had heard of tinnitus. What if this was just all in her head?

She decided to investigate. A quick trip to the kitchen to find a flashlight, and she was out the door, briskly approaching the wood shop to put this matter to rest once and for all.

She walked toward the shop entrance and opened the heavy oak door. It was never locked. As she swung it open, the sound leaped in intensity. Now it was pulsing hard, making her somewhat dizzy. At the far end of the shop, on her bench, she could see that one of the little drawers was glowing with a green sickly light.

She hesitated. Kirsten. She heard her name. Kirsten. Yes, she definitely heard her name. It wasn’t a fell voice from some ancient crypt in a cheap horror movie. It was soft and soothing and beckoning. It was coming from where the stone was glowing.

She stepped slowly toward her bench and heard her name twice more before she reached toward the little wooden drawer and pulled it open. The light shined brightly and now the sound had reached its apex.

Kirsten.

She reached for the stone and picked it up. It was warm, like before when the woman had handed it to her. It felt alive in her hand.

Kirsten, it seemed to say.

“I’m here, Salome,” she heard herself say.

You have a pure heart, Kirsten.

Kirsten clasped the stone in both hands, feeling its warmth course through her limbs. Soon it grew hot in her hands. She wanted to put it down, but found that she could not move. The stone grew hotter and hotter and Kirsten was sure she would be burned, but still she could not flex so much as a muscle. She felt the heat radiating through her body and as it did, the sound she had heard began to fade. Her whole body felt like if was on fire, but still she could not move. She couldn’t utter the scream that was building in her throat.

Finally, it subsided, and with it, the sound that had beckoned her.

She made up her mind to get rid of the stone. She would find the river and cast the stone in it. She should have never accepted it.

As she turned to face the door, she realized with a cold terror that something was profoundly wrong with her legs. They ached terribly, every bone and sinew protesting. She reached down to feel them and that’s when she noticed her back ached as well. Bolts of pain coursed down her spine as she stooped, and she realized immediately that getting back upright was going to be a challenge.

The flashlight was still on her work bench, shining at the wall. With some difficulty she reached out toward it to pick it up, but ended up knocking it down to the floor. Its beam now pointing toward her, she knelt down slowly to retrieve it and that’s when she saw her own hand.

It was shriveled and dark and ancient.

She tried to scream. But no voice was coming from her tightening throat. She wanted to run out of that room, but she could not pull herself up again. All she could do was crawl toward the door.

The stone, now cold, was still in her hand. She couldn’t open her locked fingers to let it go. She crawled desperately toward the open door and pulled herself through it with all of her dwindling strength.

As she inched her way over the path that led from the house to the wood shop, she heard footsteps.

She looked up and saw the silhouette of a woman gliding toward her in long easy strides.

In the bright moonlight, Kirsten could see that she was tall and had long flowing black hair. Her face was strong and proud, not unkind. She wore thick leather boots that thudded deeply as they pounded the ground beneath her. As she drew near to Kirsten, she looked intently at her; and even in the pale light Kirsten could see that her eyes were a bright shimmering blue.

“I’ll take that,” she said, stooping down and prying the stone out of Kirsten’s outstretched hand.

Kirsten looked up at her for a moment and formed a word with her dried lips: “Why?”

The woman looked at her for only a moment longer. She reached into her satchel, a leather bag with curious markings, and pulled something out. She held her hand over Kirsten and dropped a handful of berries on the ground in front of her. Then she turned and strode away down the path and toward the woods.

As the woman’s figure shrank away, the moonlight faded, until Kirsten looked up and saw that it was back to its first quarter shadow. She could feel her breaths getting shorter and shorter. Then the light faded out altogether.

The Rabbit and The Beaver

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Once upon a time, there lived an ancient owl in an ancient tree. He had grown so old and so wise that all the woodland creatures considered him their leader. Everyone, that is, except for the Old Tortoise, who was actually quite a bit older than the Owl. But he doesn’t come into this story, except to say that whenever somebody told him that the Owl was superior, he paid it no mind because he had grown completely deaf.

One day, there arose a quarrel between the Rabbit and the Beaver over whose duty it was to warn the forest if a hunter were spotted.

“Absolutely it should be me!” declared the Rabbit. “I’m faster and nimbler and can cover the whole forest in less than half an hour. I believe the Owl should choose me!”

“And when you run hither,” argued the Beaver, “the hunter might go thither. While you’re zigging, he may very well be zagging. I, on the other hand, can slap my tail so loudly the whole forest can hear it in a moment.”

“Nonsense,” answered the Rabbit. “We won’t know if you are warning us or building a dam. That will never work!”

“Well I don’t expect a hot-headed Rabbit to see the sense of it. You think your speed is everything. But cooler heads must prevail in an emergency,” said the Beaver.

“Who’s hot-headed?” retorted the Rabbit. “Oh you think you’re so smart just because you can build things with your tail.”

“What have you ever built?” snapped the Beaver. “Just a hole in the ground! And that only if someone else got it started.”

“Why I never!” the Rabbit shouted. “I dig my own holes, thank you very much.”

They went on like this for quite some time. Finally, they decided to march over to the Owl to settle it once and for all.

The Owl was in the middle of breakfast (two mice, a spider, and a small delicious snake) when the two arguing animals arrived at the tree.

“O Great Owl, wisest of all creatures,” began the Beaver.

“Oh get on with it!” said the Rabbit. “Dispense with the pleasantries.”

The Owl glared at the Rabbit.

“I like pleasantries,” he declared. “Always in such a hurry are you, Rabbit.”

The Rabbit lowered his gaze a bit.

“Well, we don’t want to take up so much of your time, Great Owl, you see,” the Rabbit stammered.

“A simple apology will do,” stated the Owl.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Sir, for being in such a rush to…” started the Rabbit.

“Not to me!” interrupted the Owl. “Apologize to Beaver.”

“Apologize to Beaver! For what?” exclaimed the Rabbit.

“For interrupting his pleasantries,” answered the Owl.

“Oh, alright,” scowled the Rabbit. “I’m sorry, Beaver, for interrupting you. Now can we please get on with our business?”

“Apology accepted,” the Beaver confirmed. “O Great Owl, wisest of creatures,” he continued; and he continued for quite a long time.

“What is it you want?” inquired the Owl after Beaver has concluded his salutation, which included some of the great feats from the Owl’s younger days, an ode to the Owl’s intelligence, and several other impressive attributions.

“Allow me to speak, please,” started Rabbit. “You’ve said quite enough,” he said, pointing a finger at the Beaver.

He went on to describe the nature of their quarrel, how it began and how it proceeded. He was careful to leave out any of the personal insults hurled in the Beaver’s direction as he laid out his reasons for being the one charged with such an important duty.

Beaver went next. And he, too, laid out his case, being careful not to repeat any of the sleights he had thrown at the Rabbit.

“Little children,” said the Owl, when they had finished. “For all of your reasonings, you lack wisdom.”

They both looked shocked.

“He means you,” said the Beaver.

“He was talking to both of us,” replied the Rabbit.

“Beaver, you have not considered that not all of the woodland creatures can hear. Some are too old, and some live too deep in the ground, and some live too high in the trees,” explained the Owl.

“And Rabbit,” he continued. “Have you considered that not all the woodland creatures can see you? Some live in the river. How will you warn them?”

“I hadn’t thought of that, Great Owl,” said the Rabbit, sadly. “I thought my speed would be enough to let everyone know the danger. I guess I’m not the one for this task.”

“And I had just assumed everyone would be able to heed my warning. I guess I’m not the one for this task either,” added the Beaver.

“Little children,” said the Owl, with love and patience in his voice. “I charge both of you with this task. Each one of you can reach animals that the other cannot. It is by working together that the task will be done.”

The Rabbit and the Beaver looked at each other for a moment.

Then they embraced like old friends, and apologies were made, and invitations to dinner were offered, and all of the quarreling was soon forgotten.

From that day on, all beavers and all rabbits teamed up to keep the forest safe, for they had learned a valuable lesson in working together and helping one another.

The End

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.”