The first chapter can be found here
Alicia sat opposite her mom at a long, narrow table in a grand dining room with a high ceiling that overlooked the sprawling lights of the city below. It was thirty stories up. Female attendants were busy setting down plates of food between them and scurrying about in every which direction.
“Is this the duck?” Alicia’s mom asked, pointing at a plate with her fork as she glanced up at an attendant.
The attendant nodded.
“Excellent! I’ll have some of that,” said Alicia’s mom, and the attendant started dishing several pieces into her plate.
After a prolonged silence, Alicia said, “Are boys really that bad?”
Her mom almost dropped her fork, as she let out a gasp. “Are you kidding me? You know all about them.”
“Do I really, though?”
Her mom nodded. “You’ve studied them in school, haven’t you?”
“But that’s just it,” said Alicia. “All I have to go on is what the curriculum teaches. I’ve never actually met one or even talked to one before.”
“You know how evil they are. You know all about the Great War –”
“– yeah, yeah … men started the nuclear war which almost wiped out all of humanity,” Alicia said, lolling her head from side to side. “And now, it’s up to us women to make sure the human race survives and history doesn’t repeat itself.”
“That’s right,” said her mom, adjusting the serviette tucked into her collar. “And remember, it’s going to be up to you one day to preserve our society, when your time comes.”
Alicia drew in a deep breath, held it, then let the air out with a huff.
“And I don’t want to hear anymore about how you don’t want to,” said Alicia’s mom, a concerned expression on her face. “We’ve been through that too many times. You have a responsibility to your people – or, at least, you will. And it’s important that you understand that. I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort preparing you for the job, and you have no choice in the matter.”
Alicia hated the subject. She dreaded becoming Overseer of the entire city. So much responsibility made her stomach twist into knots. She just wanted to live a carefree life, which made her think about the afternoon at the Erosium.
“You did reserve my boy, right?” she said, changing the subject.
Alicia’s mom sighed, setting her fork aside to take a sip from her goblet. “How many times are you going to ask? Of course. It’s done. He’ll be available on Initiation Day.”
“I just can’t help but think,” said Alicia, placing a finger to her lips. “He didn’t seem evil at all. In fact, he seemed sort of shy and weak. He seemed, well, rather –”
“Don’t underestimate men!” Alicia’s mom growled, slamming her goblet down. Juice splashed up above the upper rim.
Alicia startled, and tipped own her goblet over with a flustered hand, spilling its contents over the tabletop. An attendant quickly raced up with a washcloth and began absorbing the juice.
“Ahem,” her mom coughed. Then she spoke in a softer but still firm voice. “They can be very – well – deceptive, is all I meant. Appearances can be deceiving, Alicia. Remember, I lived in the old world. So I know from experience what it was like, what men were like. They’re vicious and cruel. And I know what they’re truly capable of, so don’t question me.”
“Yes, mother,” Alicia said, hanging her head. Every time they’d got onto the topic of men, Alicia’s mom practically beat her into submission. Protests weren’t allowed. But this didn’t stop Alicia from pursuing them anyway.
“So there was a problem at orientation, was there?” Alicia’s mom said after a moment, placing a forkful of food into her mouth.
Alicia laughed. “Yeah, the subject was the Operator’s brother! Can you believe that?”
A look of disapproval came over her mom’s face. “I’ll have to contact Sylvia at the Erosium and see what’s going on over there. It sounds like this is happening more often than usual lately. They must be slacking off on the DNA checks – but you did get a demonstration of eroso, didn’t you?”
Alicia nodded. “Yeah, they brought in another boy – say, is it really true that a man and a woman used to live together. In the old world, I mean. And they’d raise their children together instead of having them grow up in the Assembly … or in the Barracks?”
Alicia’s mom frowned. “You know we don’t like to talk about such things anymore. That’s the old way, and it’s over, gone. Finished.”
“But I’m curious. I wonder what that was like – having a mom and a dad all together in the same domicile. It must have been weird.”
Alicia’s mom dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her serviette. “You’ve got that right. It was strange, very strange. And it just wasn’t right. It was downright wrong! Young girls belong in the Assembly. That’s where they can learn what they need to live a good, productive life. And the boys,” she narrowed her eyes, “they belong right where they are: in the Barracks. That way they can be trained to make good, obedient servants of the city.”
Alicia had heard it many times before. In fact, it had been drilled into her not only in school, but by her mom. The subject seemed to come up every time they spent time together. Alicia wasn’t sure she agreed. She often found her thoughts filled with the way things used to be, and how they could be again.
“Was it really true that the population of men and women used to be more or less equal?” she asked. “Instead of the women outnumbering the men nine to one, like it is now?”
“Enough,” said her mom, clearing her throat as she straightened up in her chair. “You’ve been taught everything you need to know in school. I didn’t arrange for the Assembly to let you come over for dinner to discuss such matters. I wanted you to come so we could discuss your future, what you’re going to do after graduation.”
“Aw, mom, do we really have to talk about that?”
Her mom nodded abruptly. “You’ve been spending time with me once a week for years now. You’ve accompanied me on the job and you’ve watched to see what my role is in our society. But that’s not enough. After graduation, you will become my associate. You will be my shadow, each and every day.”
Alicia let out an audible sigh.
“What better role could you ask for? I just don’t understand why you seem so displeased with the most prominent position in Citadel City. Explain yourself.”
Alicia fidgeted in her seat. “Well, is it really true that all of us in Citadel City are the last of humankind in the world?”
“You already know the answer to that.”
“I know what I’ve been told!” Alicia protested, waving a hand in the air. “But that doesn’t mean it’s true, does it? The world is a big place. How do we know there weren’t more survivors after the war ended?”
“You know the answer to that too. No one could have survived those nuclear blasts. All the other cities in the world were destroyed.”
“But how about areas outside the blasts’ radius,” said Alicia. “Certainly there could be survivors.”
Alicia’s mom pulled the serviette from her collar and threw it into her lap with a flourish. “Alicia, I’ll have no more of it. Do you hear me?”
Alicia pursed her lips. Her mom was notorious for avoiding and evading questions about the old ways. The only times she ever indulged such questions were when it supported her own ideals. But that didn’t help Alicia.
Her mom looked at the three attendants who were still standing by. “You can leave us. We’ll require no more service tonight.”
The attendants bowed, then filed out of the dining room.
“Come with me,” Alicia’s mom said, and she dropped her serviette on the table beside her dish, rose from her chair, and walked over to one of the huge windows that spanned from the floor to the ceiling.
Alicia went up and stood beside her. Both of them stared out over the lights of the city, which illuminated the dark night sky.
“This will all be under your control one day,” her mom said at last, “and I want you to think about how profound that is. Everyone will depend on you to make sure things are running smoothly and that when problems arise you will be there to deal with them and solve them quickly and effectively.”
Alicia simply nodded.
“After graduation,” her mom continued, “you will leave the Assembly and come here to live with me.”
Alicia scrunched up her nose. “But I don’t want to leave.”
“But you will!” her mom hissed. “Everyone in your class will be leaving too, to go into their selected fields. And you will go into yours, here, by my side.”
“Then why can’t I have my own domicile, like the others?” asked Alicia. “They all get to move into their own places, and I get to move in with my mom. That doesn’t seem fair.”
“You’ll learn soon enough that being Overseer – though it has its perks – also calls for sacrifices.”
“Do I have any sisters?”
Alicia’s mom furrowed her brow. “What?” She stared sideways at Alicia. “No. Why?”
“How can you be sure, though? Maybe I have a sister who would be a better Overseer than me.”
“You are my only child.”
“But maybe there’s been a mistake,” said Alicia, “just like at the Erosium today.”
“When it comes to an Overseer, things are more accurately documented than with a mere Operator. You know that. I have no other children.”
“No other girls, you mean. Maybe I have a brother.”
“Enough!” her mom exploded, shooting her fists towards the floor. “You will be Overseer, and you will come and live with me! That’s final. And no more ridiculous questions about the old world, or brothers, or whatnot! Got it?”
A short silence followed before her mom spoke again. “Did you hear another girl was caught with a boy in her domicile?” she said, disdain ebbing through her voice. “Who knows how they sneak them out in the first place. But that’s another life wasted, isn’t it?”
“Two lives, mother,” Alicia corrected.
Her mom coughed on a snicker. “As if the boy’s existence could remotely be considered a life.”
Alicia ignored this. “I take it there’s going to be a Recompense then?”
Her mom nodded. “In two days.”
“I hate those things,” said Alicia, making a face as she folded her arms over her chest. “They’re so – so cruel. It almost reminds me of how men are supposed to be, and yet here it’s you – a woman – doing it.”
Her mom scowled. “That’s not right, Alicia. It’s the society that does it. All of us, together. When the law is broken, the perpetrators have to suffer the consequences. Plus, it leaves a strong example for others who think they might be above the law. We’ve been through this.” She adjusted the hem of her uniform. “And it’s not cruel. It’s humane,” she added, looking sideways at Alicia. “You will be attending, won’t you?”
Alicia shrugged. “I dunno.”
“It will look bad if you don’t. The future Overseer failing to show up at a Recompense? That would send the papers into a frenzy.” Her mom clicked her tongue against her teeth, making a popping sound. “You will be there.” She paused, waiting for Alicia to respond, but when she didn’t, her mom continued, “Say you’ll be there, Alicia.”
“Fine,” Alicia snapped at last. “I’ll be there! Okay?” And then after a moment’s pause, she added, “Who was it?”
Her mom hummed aloud for a moment, as if browsing through her memories. “A Rebecca Smotherson, I think.” She placed a finger to her lip. “And as for the boy … I don’t know, and, frankly, I don’t care.”
Alicia gasped. “Not Rebecca.”
“You know her?”
“She’s was a grade above me at school,” said Alicia. “Is she really going to go through a Recompense?”
Her mom nodded. “Yes.”