I was 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. The cloth was heavy, whole, and clean. Never-been-worn clean. I think that’s what scared me. I’d never seen clothes like that in my life.
“I’m Director Abrams from the Imperial Intellectual Complex,” one of the men said. “Is this the Dawes residence?”
My mouth fell open. I almost 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 said, the wrinkles in his brow sagging in relief. “What is your citizen number, young man?”
The other man flicked his thumb over a palm-tablet and the display blinked into view in the air above it, large enough for both men to examine at the same time. I didn’t care anymore what they were there for. It was the most fantastic thing I’d ever seen.
The hopeful look on the Director’s face dissolved. He was starting to look green again.
My mother emerged from our only bedroom, where she’d been patching up my sister Carrie after another playground fight. Ma’s dress was faded and worn in all the expected places, and wrinkled too. It was too big, and maybe it always had been. All of our clothes were cast-offs; we couldn’t exactly be choosy. We didn’t always eat so well, either. And I knew that Ma went without more often than we did. She stood there, staring at the Director, her face slack and blank. 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 exactly what the Imperial Intellectual Complex was—though I was probably the only one for miles around who’d even heard of it—but what anyone from the Empire’s own center for intellectual and scientific advancement was doing in my neighborhood, I couldn’t even guess. The IIC wasn’t a place for unclass kids like me. Most of the people in Abenez, our infamous slum in the human-landfill that was Mexico City, were lucky if they knew how to read.
“Get what things? Waiting for what?”
“Did you not get the notification?”
I shrugged. “No vid.”
His eyebrows hit his hairline, a feat I found rather impressive. He was quiet for a moment, no doubt considering this fascinating case study of poverty.
“Mr. Dawes, you have been 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 that you would be ready to depart today. But I can see that you are not.”
The Director’s eyes cast about, as if there was an answer to this unfathomable situation painted somewhere on the apartment’s grimy walls.
I couldn’t breathe for a minute. The realization of what he’d said washed over me with the most incredible feeling of rightness; and was dragged away in the receding tide of the next realization: I was abandoning my mother and sister.
At least my father had been taken for Resettlement two years past, so I didn’t have to worry about what he’d do to them without me there to look out for them. Still, it wasn’t much of a comfort. Acid-guilt and fear churned in my gut.
Then, so suddenly that I jumped, my mother screeched and flew at the Director, claws extended like a maddened bird of prey. Her fingernails carving bloody runnels into his cheeks.
He yelped like a stepped-on dog, threw up his arms to protect his face, backing into the watching crowd outside. The wall of people 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.
I had been frozen in shock, but I rushed over and grabbed her. “Ma! Ma! Please! Ma, calm down! Ma!”
It made no difference. A few of her wild, indiscriminate 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 attacks, and me wrestling with my mother’s anger and fear-strengthened hysteria.
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’s arms and jerked her so hard her head rocked back on her shoulders. Her neck snapped back and then forward again, and her teeth bit into her lip. She blinked in shock and was quiet for one stunned moment while blood welled in the cut. 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 like a dropped rag doll.
Fury rushed through me, 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. 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.
Ma 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 sniffed. “I’m Director Abrams of the Imperial Intellectual Complex. As a representative of His Excellence himself, I’ve come to collect this child. 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? This young man has struck a peace officer.”
The policeman holding me chuckled, and the other snorted. “Nah. He’s all yours. What with the emperor claiming him and all.”
Director Abrams glowered.
I jerked my arms out of the policeman’s grip and knelt beside my mother. Her eyes were closed, but she was breathing. Damp hair clung to her face and I tucked it behind her ear. “Ma?” She didn’t answer. She could have been asleep.
“Get your things, then.” The Director threw a look at the growing audience in the hall. “We have a schedule to keep.”
Swallowing on nausea and a growing feeling of loss, I stood. “I’m ready.”
Not that I had any choice in the matter. Selection was Selection. The Empire had claimed me and that was not to be questioned.
But more important than that, I belonged there. I’d always known I was different. A kid in our neighborhood didn’t spend what little free time he had in a library booth reading texts too advanced 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 bump-tag, or boomerball, or yard work for grocery money. I wanted to go, much more than I felt obligated to stay. And I hated myself for that.
“Very well, then,” he said, laying a heavy hand on my shoulder and steering me toward the door.
“Wait,” I said. “My sister.” I cast a look over my shoulder.
She’d come out of the bedroom and was watching me with wide eyes, her thumb in her mouth.
The Director either didn’t hear me or didn’t care. He pushed me out the door and I only caught that one last sight of Carrie; small, quiet, and abandoned.
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