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 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.”