I was barely eight years old when they came for me.
I opened the door to them myself. In the hall were two men in a kind of uniform I’d never seen before; so they couldn’t be the police. Still, you couldn’t trust anyone in uniform.
The first man spoke. “I’m Director Abrams of the Imperial Intellectual Complex. Is this the Dawes residence?”
My mouth fell open. I nearly laughed but there was something about the way he looked—the way his nose was wrinkling in slow, measured increments, and the way he seemed to be cringing away from the growing crowd of spectators–that made my hands clench into fists.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“And you are Jacob Dawes?” he looked as if he might be sick.
“There must be some kind of mistake,” He looked a little relieved with this possibility. “What is your citizen number, young man?”
He turned to the other man and they conferred over the information on a tablet. The hopeful look on the Director’s face dissolved. He was starting to look green again.
My mother entered the room just then. She’d been in the one bedroom patching up my sister Carrie after the playground fight she had finished.
She stood looking blankly at the Director. I shivered. I had no idea what reaction–logical only to her–she’d have to these strangers at our door. Or what she’d do.
Director Abrams was staring at her when I turned back to him. He cleared his throat.
“You must know why I am here,” he said to me. “Get your things. There are others waiting below.”
I knew very well what the Imperial Intellectual Complex was, but what anyone from the Empire’s own center for research and development was doing in my neighborhood I couldn’t even guess. Contemptible poor that we were, we just didn’t think of The Complex. It wasn’t a place for kids like me. The people in our little slum in the human-landfill that was Mexico City were lucky to know how to read.
“Get what things? Waiting for what?”
“Did you not get the notification?”
“Wouldn’t know.” I shrugged. “No vid screen.”
I swear his eyebrows hit his hairline. I hadn’t realized that was possible.
He was quiet for a moment, no doubt considering this fascinating case study of poverty.
“Mr. Dawes, you are one of the candidates chosen in this Selection for the Imperial Intellectual Complex. You should be very proud of such an honor.” His tone made it clear that one such as me should be particularly honored. “Your notification was sent weeks ago so you would be ready to depart today. But I can see you are not.…”
I couldn’t breathe for a minute as the realization of what he’d just said washed over me with the most incredible feeling of relief; and then was dragged away in the receding tide of the next realization, and the guilt of knowing this meant abandoning my mother and sister.
He stood, undecided, and clearly at a loss as to what to do.
Not that I would be given any choice in the matter. Selection was Selection. The Empire had claimed me and that was not to be questioned. No one would ask did I mind leaving Ma and my sister to fend for themselves, even though I had been the one looking after them since my father was taken for Resettlement two years past. They had come to collect me too and I would go because I had to go.
But more than that, I wanted to go. And I hated myself for that.
But I’d always known I didn’t belong here, that I was different. A kid in our neighborhood didn’t spend what little free time he had in a library booth reading books not intended for the eight year olds or even the eighteen year olds of the world. He didn’t spend the mindless vacuum of the school hours daydreaming in equations, or see the secrets of the universe where other kids saw tag, or three-square, or pushing a lawnmower for grocery money.
I wondered if Ma knew, the way I had; if she wouldn’t be surprised either. If maybe she would forgive me for deserting them.
“Get your things, then.” The Director threw a look at the still growing audience in the hall. “We have a schedule to keep.”
“Yeah, just a second.”
My throat tightened when I turned to Ma.
“Ma.” She was fixated on the Director, watching him warily like an unknown animal that had wandered through her door. Deciding if he was dangerous.
“Ma,” I tried again, touching her arm. She flinched but didn’t look at me. “Ma, I have to go. This man’s from the Intellectual Complex. They’re taking me there, OK? I’m leaving now, leaving for good.”
She looked at me, her face blank. No expression at all.
Then, so suddenly that I jumped, she screeched and flew at the Director, claws extended like a maddened bird of prey, her fingernails leaving bloody runnels on his cheeks.
He yelped like a stepped-on dog and, throwing up his arms to protect his face, backed into the watching crowd outside. He looked back in horror as he hit the wall of people. They absorbed the impact with barely a ripple, pushing him back into the apartment, and went back to watching. Like a herd of cows; curious but unconcerned.
“Madam, please!” Turning to the man with him, he yelled, “Go for help!” The man, face white, turned on his heel and bullied his way through the crowd.
I had been frozen in shock but recovered quickly, rushed over, and grabbed her. “Ma! Ma! Please! Ma, calm down! Ma!”
My efforts made no difference. A few of her wild, blindly thrown blows landed on my face and shoulders. I fought to hold down her arms every time I caught one but it barely slowed her. We struggled, the three of us; the Director whimpering, trying to bat away her vicious attack, and me wrestling with my mother’s anger and fear.
After forever, there was a flash of blue in my peripheral vision. A hand clamped down on my shoulder and shoved me aside. The policeman grabbed my mother about the upper arms and jerked her so hard her head rocked back on her shoulders. It snapped back forward and her teeth bit into her lip, blood welling in the cut. She blinked in shock and was quiet for one stunned moment and then, shrieking, she went for the policeman with fingernails and flailing feet.
His backhanded blow made a sickening crack against her cheek. She crumpled to the floor at his feet like a dropped rag doll. She didn’t move.
Fury rushed through me, was a ringing in my ears, a necessity in my arms. I drove my fist into his kidney. My father’s boot had taught me the sensitivity of that particular spot. Taught me well. The man staggered back with an “uphm.” He cursed and I was grabbed from behind by his partner. I struggled but when his arms tightened around me, I quieted. I’ve never been stupid. I’ve never confused an unwillingness to be defeated with bravery.
I looked over at my mother. She whimpered but didn’t move.
The policeman I’d punched looked at the Director–a long, appraising look. “So what’s the story here?”
He stood stiffly and announced, “I’m Director Abrams of the Imperial Intellectual Complex and I’ve come for Mr. Dawes.”
The policeman just stared.
“I’m a representative of His Excellence himself,” the Director huffed. “He has claimed the boy to do great things for our Empire.”
The policeman looked at me like I’d just tried to explain particle physics to him.
“Huh. OK. Well, you should go on and get out of here. You’re drawing a crowd down in the street too.”
“Is there not some judicial action necessary now, in light of the fact that this young man struck a peace officer?”
The policeman holding me chuckled. The other snorted. “Nah. We just would have hauled him down to the station to try to scare him a bit. You can take him. What with the Emperor claiming him and all.”
Director Abrams looked disappointed.
I jerked my arms out of the policeman’s grip and knelt down by my mother. Her eyes were closed. Damp hair clung to her face and I tucked it behind her ear. “Ma?” She didn’t answer. She could have been asleep. Her face was peaceful. The look was not of resignation, I think, but the ability to forget. My stomach clinched, but I ignored it and stood.
“Very well then,” the Director said to me, “as the officer has suggested we will leave immediately. Get your things.”
I ducked into the room and threw the underwear and socks I had into a grocery sack. I had no other clothes that fit.
I scanned the room. There was little there. In the corner I’d claimed for myself there was a small collection of things; interesting rocks I’d found, a small rubber ball, a model of the solar system I’d built from a ball of shiny foil and bits of broken concrete and glass. A picture Carrie had drawn of the two of us holding hands I folded carefully and slid into my back pocket. After one last look around the room, I left.
In the main room, Carrie stood off to herself, away from the jumble of adults that was little altered from the way I’d left it. She looked so small.
I knelt in front of her and looked her in the eyes. “I have to go now, do you understand that?” She slipped her hand into mine and nodded once, solemnly.
“I can’t help it, I have to go. I don’t want to leave you and Ma, it’s just the way things are. But you’re going to be OK, all right?” Her grip tightened and she nodded again.
“I’ll write to you, and if I can make any money, I’ll send that to you, too. Just make sure Ma checks Mr. Sanders’s vid screen, or the one at the library ‘cause I’ll write. But you have to check the vid screens, OK?
“I love you, baby sister. I love you a lot. You take care of yourself. And take care of Ma, too. That’s your job now. I know you can do it.” She nodded again, her thumb in her mouth but her eyes as serious and grave as any I’ve ever seen, even now. Tears stung in my eyes but I jerked to my feet; I couldn’t let her see. I turned toward Director Abrams.
“Let’s go,” he ordered.
I kissed Carrie on the cheek, my mother as well — though I don’t think she noticed. I whispered a pointless “goodbye”, and hurried out the door after him.