For four years I lived by my wits, my only constant companion a ratty and faded backpack that had been repaired so often I eventually had to replace it with an old canvas one I found in the attic of some old garage apartment. It was amongst a few things that had been packed in a metal storage chest that had escaped real rats and other nasties that seem bent on destroying all of the flotsam of time that people left behind when they died or ran away.
Attics and basements were where I found the useful things that I collected over time, especially clothes to replace the ones I outgrew. I didn't have too many requirements for clothes; no bright colors; cover all my private parts so males wouldn’t think I was advertising; pants had to have pockets and zippers or buttons that worked; and, in winter what I wore had to keep me warm. It didn't matter if they fit very well; they just had to stay on when I ran.
Attics and basements also gave me things to trade and barter, pieces to build traps so I could eat or secure my hidey holes. They gave me tools and materials to create weapons with for hunting and protection. They also yielded my one vice … books. Everyone thought I was mute and nearly everything thought I was brain damaged in some way. That suited me well enough, it meant they pretty much left me alone. But being alone had its drawbacks. Books filled a need I had. I may not have talked aloud but I heard words in my head. My vocal chords may have been atrophied but my brain was not. With books, and paper, and pencils I kept myself alive in a way some of the other street people had lost completely.
It was at a barter market that I hear the rumors for the first time. Someone was coming in and knocking off the adult gangs. Sometimes an entire group would be found dead the next day ... poisoned, gunned down, gassed ... but most of the time they just disappeared. Then certain parts of the city became off-limits. We street rats learned real quick that to cut across a certain park or go beyond a certain intersection meant you would disappear just like the adults. This went on for a year and the population of street people – be they gang, rats, or something else – took a real downturn. Every so often the territory of this unknown enemy would expand overnight and all the street people unfortunate enough to get caught in this expansion would disappear. That's how I disappeared.
Of course I didn't really disappear. No, I was tagged like a wild animal – an RFID chip behind my ear – and taken to a large holding station. I learned eventually that the people who had me had experienced enough losses due to violence and riot that they had learned to fill a holding station with street rats and other inner city dwellers and then just gas the whole building so they could do their tasks with a minimum of fuss from their captives.
I'd spent four days in the holding station, long enough to learn that my captors might claim they were out to help me but they weren't above hurting me either. I had a high pain tolerance even for a street rat, but a stun grenade or a strong electro shock would still knock me on my can and close to senseless. The best I can say about that time was that we were given two meals a day of soft foods and a cup of broth in deference to the fact that many of us had digestive tract and dental problems as a result of a poor diet. Then one night when I was at the peak of my claustrophobia and my mind was screaming for escape, they gassed us.
There was panic and chaos all around and then blackness. The next thing I remember was when I awoke by myself in a white room that was dimly lit. I panicked again almost right away because it was obvious I’d been messed with. For one thing I was in a hospital gown and for another I was completely clean from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet since I couldn’t remember when. My hair was clean and down all over the place when I normally kept it braided and tucked in my shirt so that it wouldn’t make a good handle to strangle me with. There was no bed or furniture in the room, the walls and floor were padded. I had been unconscious on the floor without in a sheet to cover me.
My eyes darted to every nook and cranny and I knew I was the only thing in there with me until I calmed down enough to notice my backpack sitting on the other side of the small room. I desperately wanted to grab it but I kept looking for the trap. I could feel eyes on me from some place. When you’ve lived like I had for as long as I had you develop a kind of survival sense of what is going on around you even if you can’t see it … and there was definitely a feeling of being watched.
Then a woman’s cheerful voice came out of the walls though I couldn’t find the speaker box. “Oh good, you’re awake. You needn’t worry about anything missing from your pack dear, we’ve left everything in there after inventorying it and you can keep it all, even those tools, so long as you don’t use them to harm yourself, harm anyone else, or attempt to escape. If you do you’ll be punished and that wouldn’t be nice for any of us. It is a bit early but Dr. Benson will be in shortly and explain everything to you. Just try and stay calm; I would hate to re-sedate you so soon.”
I felt like poor Dorothy must have when she landed in Munchkin Land. I grabbed my pack and then put my back to a wall and faced what appeared to be the door. There was no reason to waste energy, no reason to make a fuss. I waited … and waited. I estimated that about forty-five minutes elapsed and then the intercom spoke again. “Please remain where you are. Dr. Benson is entering the room.”
A pale-blonde woman, dressed in hospital green scrubs and a white lab coat, walked in slowly and carefully but she wasn’t alone, she had two guards with her. I thought she was crazy. Did she really think I was going to take on a guy three times my size with a fancy gun and a big ol’ tazer hanging on his belt? I certainly wasn’t going to take on two of them. They were like gargoyle book ends on either side of her.
She smiled like she was trying to be my friend. “How do you do? They call you Girl do they not?”
OK, that was freaky. How did they find out what my name was? It wasn’t on any of my gear. She must have read something on my face even though I tried to keep it blank. “We’ve been monitoring the interactions in the barter markets for some time now. We are also aware that you are not mute or deaf despite people’s perception of you. You are an adolescent female that associates rarely except when absolutely necessary. You identify with the population of street people known as Street Rats. Physically, beyond the normal rigors of your life, you are in good health. Your dental hygiene needs work but we will take care of that. You appear to suffer some stature reduction due to a limited diet but your skeletal structure has not been compromised so you shouldn’t pass this on to your offspring. And your behavior is defensive for self-preservation rather than aggressive and you lack any of the primary markers for drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, or any of the multitude of mental health risks associated with living on the street. Do you know what this tells me?”
I just stared at her. “It tells me that in your earliest formative years you came from a stable home environment, most likely a two parent home. I would further hypothesize that you lost your family, perhaps all of them, during the Outbreak. Do you know why this is important?”
I continued to just stare at her. “I am not sure whether you are aware of it or not but roughly fifty percent of those infected during the Outbreak are now sterile. Of those that are not completely sterile, roughly forty percent of those have compromised reproductive systems.”
I wasn’t sure what this had to do with me but I wasn’t about to ask despite the fact she had gotten my attention. Dr. Benson sighed. “Allow me to explain why you are here and not in a detention center.” Now that did get my attention; I really wanted to know where “here” was.
“Our organization has been given the mission to retake the metropolitan areas so that we can resettle the masses that have been displaced by the war to centralize the disbursement of resources. That requires removing and rehabilitating the large population of inner city dwellers that have resisted conforming up to this point. This rehabilitation comes in many forms and in order for us to serve people best we have to process them and determine what they need.”
I was a know-nothing in the beginning but even then I knew that something seemed off about what she was telling me. She wasn’t giving me too much time to think however as she continued, “During the processing we also determine what, if any, potential a person has. For instance, you are a very lucky young lady. Do you want to know why?”
I still wasn’t talking. “We give each inner city dweller a general physical exam that includes blood work. Part of the blood work generates a DNA record and part is used for other tests. Your blood work showed that you have antibodies to a certain clade of the Outbreak virus. We are on the lookout for those antibodies because that particular clade has proven to be immune to all of the clades of the virus. This automatically put you into an elite level of interest.” She said it like I was supposed to feel pride in that fact. When she got no reaction from me she sighed and with a strained smile on her face continued. “What we found young lady is that you are in a very narrow class of people. You are both immune to all of the clades of the virus AND you are fertile.”
When she still didn’t get a reaction out of me she bent down on my level making the guards nervous. “Don’t you understand what this means? You are in the top ten percent of the population; it is amazing that such a refined specimen has survived the life you have obviously been forced to live. If your genetic testing comes back as favorable as I suspect, you could very well be in the top five percent; a veritable Sleeping Beauty just waiting for us to find and wake you. The fact that you can read and write is extremely gratifying. And do not attempt to hide it because I have seen the book list myself and while your handwriting needs refining your basic grasp of the mechanics and grammar of sentence creation is undeniable. I suspect you are a very clever girl and do hear and understand most of what I am telling you though perhaps do not fully comprehend its impact. You will have a much easier time integrating into civilized society and we haven’t even touched on the ease with which we will be able to match you to an appropriate sponsor after you’ve been polished up a bit.”
She stood back up. “I know you are probably in shock. I know you’ve been forced to conform to a society well below what your sensibilities should have had to endure. But we’ve rescued you and you needn’t worry any longer. With your cooperation we will see that you are resettled with every advantage. All we need is the confirmation from your genetic testing to set your value to society.” Then she revealed a bit of steel underneath rather fairy godmother like facade. “You will cooperate. You have a duty and responsibility to this country to do so. We are here to assure that you reach your full potential.”
I later learned that Dr. Benson wasn’t a medical doctor but an anthropologist of all things. I had to look that one up. An anthropologist scientifically studies the physical, social, and cultural development of humans. Apparently I became a subject in a mass experiment on the people in this country … an experiment designed to continue the species by locating fertile males and females and matching them so that maximum benefit for society is reached. In other words Dr. Benson, her colleagues, and basically the entire organization they served – called SEPH by everyone - was into eugenics. I had to look that one up as well. Eugenics is the applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic population of society. Put in even simpler terms eugenics equals social Darwinism.
I was capable of reading those words I had to look up and having a very basic understanding of them when I first entered SEPH … Social Engineering for the Preservation of Humanity … but I didn’t really understand them. I can today and I am just as suspicious of them if not more so even after being under their so-called tutelage for two years.
I was no more cooperative in SEPH than I was at any other time after my family died. Old habits die hard and it took them nearly a year to “break me” of my “bad habits.” The staff of SEPH are a much different kettle of fish than the adults of Central were. For one thing they have an overriding goal they all believe in … the “preservation of our species.” They also have the tools, the budget, and the support of the authorities. It is the job of SEPH, of their organization, to make sure that people are retrained and funneled into jobs and classes that best suit them with the purpose of rebuilding our country so that its citizens and society reach maximum potential.
That is nothing but a bunch of hokey that boils down to social and genetic engineering for the purpose of creating a better human. Again in laymen’s terms it is SEPH’s job to pigeon hole everyone so that the government can get maximum use out of them for as long as possible.
After that first visit by Dr. Benson there were lots of visits by other staff members and lots of other tests, not all of them I was a willing participant in. If I was too recalcitrant they would simply sedate me if possible; sometimes other methods were used that were more painful, especially after they found out depriving me of activities or meals simply made me even less inclined to cooperate. Like I said, it took them a year to break me. And even then they didn’t really break me so much as I decided that I was wasting my time and that I could obtain my freedom faster by appearing to cooperate and take advantage of what they offered.
It was with a great deal of enjoyment that I made a fool out of Dr. Benson one particular weekend. She was nothing if not ambitious and she was set to show off some of us to several of colleagues from other similar facilities while she vied with them for a promotion. I’d heard all this by listening to staff gossip and since too many times I had almost slipped up and talked I thought it would be a fine time to get a little dig in on the good doctor since she was such an oversized pain in my backside.
Five of use from the different designations were put on display and put through our paces. I was the only one in my particular designation at the time and she had no choice but to include me. But rather than use me as a prime example of positive things she purposefully showed why the behavioral reviews were so important for a proper matching.
After really getting in some verbal zingers at my expense one of the staff from another facility – someone that Dr. B had been obnoxious to – look at me and said, “You know, it’s such a shame to see potential like this go to waste. It must lie in whatever caused her muteness.”
With barely concealed glee I spoke aloud where others could hear me for the first time in years. My voice was weak but steady when I said, “Oh, I’m not mute. I just don’t care to speak to Dr. Benson.”
I thought Dr. B was going to have a heart attack. It was made worse by some of her colleagues rubbing it in by saying things that all of the ones in my designation could be quite, quite clever and that had she only thought to ask them they could have easily given her advice on how to handle and encourage me. The two weeks I spent in behavioral re-education detention (BRD) for the incident was worth every claustrophobic minute.
Some of their “methods of persuasion” were painful. What they called shock therapy was basically getting tazered until you wet yourself. Sensory depravation was another popular penalty for chronic trouble makers. Other methods included hours forced to endure the environmental control station and your standard sleep depravation. As bad as they were the girls in the dorm where I was assigned used tactics just as painful. Even amongst the “F” class – F for fertile – there were different designations. These designations depended on the designee’s genetic profile, clade immunity, and behavioral profile. I was top of the dorm in the gen profile and immunity issues … not so much for behavioral profile though I wasn’t anywhere near the bottom in that trait after I was assigned to someone other than Dr. B and after I started talking. Some of those girls were foul-mouthed and psychotic; there were also a couple of certified sociopaths in there with us. You always knew which they were because they were fitted with ankle devices that administered drugs to their wearers on a regular basis. I learned to watch my back and to never take anything at face value.
My thing – mostly – was being passive aggressive and oppositional defiant though not in a loud or noisy way; as long as they didn’t ask me to do something I would … except when it came to health and fitness training and then I would fight if they tried to stop me. I loved health and fitness. I also loved academic training but I never openly admitted it. For academics we were allowed to progress at our own pace on the computerized tablets we were assigned. I had to have new modules installed so often they gave me a special key pass so that I could do it myself. This also allowed me to check out “books” to read that weren’t available in the hardcopy library everyone else used for study hall.
We had a couple of other mandatory course areas besides academics. I mastered Intensive Interdisciplinary Household Management – IIHM – which is a fancy way of saying home economics though cooking and sewing were only a small percentage of what we studied in that area.
I received my competency ratings in social interaction, comportment, and etiquette but I despised them; it felt so fake and artificial. Some of the older girls claimed we were being groomed to be trophy wives and seemed to revel in the fantasy. However I knew that wasn’t true as I’d overheard the staff saying that girls who thought that were in for a rude awakening once they were “matched” and sent off.
It took me a while to figure out what they meant by “matched” but once I did I understood that it fit in with the whole mission statement of SEPH and I felt stupid for not seeing it before. I was never promiscuous on the streets, never trusted anyone enough to let them get that close, but some of the other girls were very experienced and explained everything – in detail – to the rest of us. Basically, those of us that were fertile were being matched with a male that was genetically compatible and we were expected to be “fruitful and multiply.”
Thousands of people had died as a consequence of the war but millions of people died during the Outbreak. Many millions more around the world died in the aftermath of the Outbreak from violence and infrastructure failure. Then it was found that of those that had survived infection most were sterile to some degree. Enter SEPH.
Some females that were fertile but already attached to a non-fertile male were given the opportunity to be surrogate mothers. I recently found out that some of the girls in my dorm have been designated for this purpose since their behavioral profile or their personal genetic profile kept them from being matched. Of those that did get matched their partners ran the gamut.
SEPH is not a stupid organization; they want to achieve their goals and to do so there has to be some compatibility between matched pairs. Before a match is finalized the male and female are given the opportunity to meet face to face in a controlled environment. I’m not sure how well that goes normally since I was in a different designation.
Supposedly I should be grateful. Supposedly I should feel not only grateful but privileged. Yeah well, supposedly SEPH only has the human race’s best interests at heart and they are full of good intentions but I could blow holes in that left supposition the size of a prison ship. Just because I didn’t talk much didn’t mean there was anything wrong with my ears and the things I heard and the things I read using my pass key when no one was looking revealed that while SEPH’s lower ranking staff might be idealists, the upper ranks were manipulating things to their private advantage and making a ton of money while they were at it; the upper ranks were all about political power and influence.
Because of my designation I basically got sucked into a social and political pool of applicants that under any other circumstances I would have never had anything to do with. I was rare enough that I was going to fetch a high price on the market; not necessarily in dollars but in favors paid off and curried. Once I had come to understand and accept this I began to plan a way that I could use it to escape.
I’ve worked long and hard to get to this point. Dr. Benson might be the only one that still has suspicions about how compliant I am being now that the inevitable is at hand. All I care about right now is that I’m escaping this place, escaping my captors that have stolen my freedom for two years. I leave tomorrow on a transport heading west to the Outlands, an agricultural belt that buffers the major population centers from the Wastelands. Once I get there I’ll have to see what my options are, between here and there I will be too carefully guarded to escape and I’ll have to find a way to get rid of this blasted chip they can use to track me. When I do escape it will have to be permanently because if they re-tag me I’ll be put into the “egg house.” No way am I going in that place to be poisoned with hormones so I’ll produce enough eggs for surrogate mothers to hatch. I’d rather live out the rest of my life as a matched brood mare than die young and hard in that hell.