Prologue - Year 2048
She tried to slow down her breathing, even counting in her head to three as she inhaled and then exhaled in a measured, controlled pattern. It helped for a fleeting moment until the pain returned, intense and angry. The watch she now wore on her right wrist, a relic from before the war, measured the intervals at about seven minutes, which at her current pace put roughly a half mile between her and the Cell with every contraction. She offered a silent prayer to the heavens that it was enough, and the sky was quick to answer with thunder so loud and deep it seemed to vibrate the air around her. The bandage on her other wrist was already soaked from sideways rain fueled by strong winds. If the wound beneath hurt at all, she couldn’t tell. Any soreness was irrelevant in comparison to the pressure deep in her lower back – a pain so severe she worried her pelvic bone would split in two.
The storm was a factor she hadn’t considered, having grown accustomed to the temperature-controlled environment of the Cell, a constant seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit. The abysmal weather should have been a deterrent but had the opposite effect tonight. Drawing from its energy, she kept moving forward at a pace that was pushing her pregnant body to the edge of its limits. She was only twelve years old when the first Membrane went up over Washington DC, dividing them from the rest of the world. Encased in an impenetrable forcefield, a self-sustained city protected from the violence, Washington would set the precedent with other cities soon following suit. More Membranes were erected and would eventually become known as The Cells. Ten years had passed since she'd seen the sky or breathed air that wasn't conditioned. The storm, in all its glory, was proof that there were forces beyond the New Council's control.
She had been having contractions intermittently for two days, but the baby wasn’t due for another week. No matter how hard she tried to convince herself that this was false labor, instinctively, she knew this was her last chance to escape. Her pace was quick despite her swollen abdomen. As she made her way to the rendezvous point along the Potomac River, her mind ran through all the events that had brought her to this moment, and she let it wander. It provided a welcome distraction from her current predicament. The image of a man’s arm being ripped from his shoulder socket was forever seared into her brain. She could recall every gory detail as if it happened yesterday. Her mind conjured it on cue every time she thought of the war. Her generation didn’t have much of a childhood. They were children born into a revolution their parents started, and survival demanded they grow up fast. Otherwise, their war would devour them like it did almost everything else. Then again was she recalling a memory? The graphic image flashed once more in her mind’s eye, this time in slow motion, and she could almost hear the flesh being ripped apart. It seemed real, but she couldn’t be sure this memory wasn’t just more propaganda implanted by the New Council, a blatant reminder of the consequences of another uprising. Afterall, maintaining control hinges on the compliance of citizens, and fear can be a powerful motivator.
Flashes of lightning, though brief, interrupted the pitch black just long enough to confirm she was headed in the right direction. The vengeful storm raged as if she herself had summoned it, like an outward manifestation reciprocating the litany of emotions she’d hidden for so long. Grief for the childhood stolen from her. Fear for the life of her unborn daughter. Anger toward her mother. Her mother – the infamous Dr. Victoria Vose. On the one hand, Dr. Victoria Vose is a scientist, the creator of the first Membrane, and advocate for a better society. She is a leader on the New Council, beloved ender of the Econ-War, and at one time her personal hero. On the other hand, what kind of mother would use her daughter’s womb as an incubator for her next experiment in accelerated genetic modification? Hate is a strong word, but so far, she couldn’t find any other way to feel.
Dr. Vose, among many things, was experimenting with genetic modification and DNA splicing attempting to create a higher being, a more evolved human. This new human would not only be a superior specimen physically but would have natural immunity to nearly every virus and bacteria known to man. In fact, the immune system would be able to accurately predict and evolve to combat future mutations of viruses. Of course, this sounds admirable. What parent wouldn’t want to know their children couldn’t get sick or die from influenza? The problem was that the war and the subsequent breakdown of government had given Dr. Vose the ability to pursue this goal with absolutely no oversight. Human testing was just one of the ways she went too far. Dr. Victoria Vose in unchecked pursuit of her goal had created a compound to use in conjunction with her own advanced variation of CRISPR, technology discovered in the early part of the century that could detect and manipulate specific DNA sequences. The result was an acceleration in the natural evolutionary process. Dr. Vose essentially created a microwave for the evolutionary process and found a prime candidate to act as host for her latest creation. Of course, Dr. Vose would argue that this baby is a gift to mankind, justifying her actions in the artful, manipulative way only she could. To say the least, she had a fractured view of her mother, and she’d never be able to reconcile the two versions. Her only solace was to escape the control of her mother and try to be a better mother to her own daughter.
The rain felt like violent kisses on her face, cleansing her of all this pent-up rage. Emotions, or even thoughts that opposed the New Council, weren’t something you could express freely inside the Cell where Citizens were under constant surveillance. In a way the storm was her purge, freeing her of years of suppressed emotion, and she was grateful for it.
Dr. Vose had been experimenting with genetic mutation and DNA splicing long before she created the Membranes. The Membranes were created out of necessity, first to protect her precious laboratories from the war, then expanded to create her own personal playground. A person can accomplish a lot under the guise of peace and social justice. A forcefield-like structure harnessing energy, the Membranes created an impenetrable barrier, a safe place from the war outside. Once erected, nothing could get through. Of course, the opposite was also true. No one could get out, at least on their own accord. An army organized and controlled by the New Council seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and there was even speculation that the first of them might be clones. It doesn’t matter either way. They are unfeeling, well-trained mercenaries, formed to do the New Council’s bidding, police the Citizens, and prevent another uprising using any means necessary. They were called Scouts instead of soldiers, a benign almost friendly term served up by the New Council - a poor attempt to downplay their aggressive, militant tactics. They were effective. So much so that any name we gave them would become synonymous with fear.
Aware that Scouts patrolled this area regularly, she slowed to a more careful pace using a less open path that paralleled the river without getting too close. The change in momentum, brought her back to reality. If a Scout spotted her, this was all over, and there was so much more at stake than her own life now. Hell, the very contact she is supposed to meet was a former Scout. What if her sources were wrong, and he is a double agent working for the New Council? She is putting a lot of faith in a couple of brief exchanges with known C.A.N.C.E.R. agents. C.A.N.C.E.R. is an acronym, Citizens Against the New Council’s Enforced Reign. They are a group of radicals that technically don’t exist, and their main objective is to take down the Cells, abolish the New Council, and restore freedom. The more she learned about Dr. Vose and her utter disregard for human life ironically made C.A.N.C.E.R. sound more appealing.
An intense contraction forced her to her knees. She fell forward catching her upper body before completely collapsing in the wet earth. There was at least a half mile to go, and she simply refused to have this baby right here, right now. As she resisted the urge to give into her body and lay down, the storm subsided. An eerie quiet fell around her. She lifted her face toward the sky as the clouds parted allowing her to witness more stars than she’d ever seen. Her grandmother’s words surfaced in her mind: “We do what we have to do.” She didn’t have many memories of her grandmother, and this one must have been buried deep in her subconscious. Her grandmother said this often, and as a young girl, she always thought this meant that as women we didn’t have a choice. This moment had given new context to the words, and she realized what her grandmother meant. Women are tough, resilient. We are able to do what has to be done. Whatever that may be. Right now, what she needed to do is to move. She got up, more determined than ever, and one arduous step at a time, she finally arrived at her destination.
There was no sign that anyone had set foot on this bank in months. The area was overgrown with thick foliage, and there was not a boat in sight. Panic was setting in. Is it possible that she messed up, miscalculated? She knew this journey by heart. She had memorized every curve, every bend, every nuance in the five-mile trek from the Cell to here. She was certain that she was exactly where she was supposed to be, but doubt was causing her to question all her careful planning. As she stood on the bank clinging to her last ounce of hope, a small paddle boat slowly emerged from the far side of the river gradually closing the distance between them. Fear blurred the thin veil of reality, and for a moment she pictured an alien creature with long arms ascending from the depths of the black water. She’d heard stories of monsters out here, but before letting delirium get the better of her, she re-focused her eyes. As the figure drifted closer, she recognized the silhouette of a man sitting upright, hands attached to a paddle on each side. The boat was no more than three feet away, but the man’s features remained indiscernible in the dark.
As the boat collided with the bank, the man spoke abruptly, “You’re late.” Before she could offer an apology, he added, “Just how pregnant are you?” His tone was gruff, and without waiting for a response he barked more words at her, “That wasn’t part of the deal”.
She self-consciously wrapped her arms around her abdomen. The last thing she needed was for this guy to give her grief for being pregnant, or worse change his mind and abandon her here. What did he care if she was pregnant? Life in the Cell, under constant scrutiny, had taught her to play her cards close to the vest. She lied, “Relax, I’m only seven months. Got a way to go, yet.”
The man eyed her suspiciously before he responded, “Well, get in. We’ll be lucky to make it far enough down the river before sunrise.”
Without further comment, she awkwardly stepped inside the boat taking the only available seat in front of the former Scout, her back to him. Their vessel was a meager two-man paddle boat which did little to inspire confidence. There was a duffel bag in the back and several gallon bottles of water strewn about. Sitting down was both a relief and a burden. Without the distraction of walking, she became acutely more aware of the pain in her lower back. She eyed the bottle of water closest to her and was relieved when the man told her to help herself without her having to ask. She was precariously close to unraveling and didn’t trust herself to speak without a flood of emotions betraying her. She had learned very young the necessity of concealing her vulnerability, and rarely exposed that side of herself to anyone. She guzzled the water and was grateful for it as she was surely dehydrated. If only she’d been able to bring more supplies with her. She wasn’t comfortable relying so much on others. While she drank, the man navigated their simple boat away from the bank into the center of the river. They drifted like this for what seemed like hours, him paddling behind her, and her in a state of sheer exhaustion, until her body would be ignored no more. A contraction unlike any before it overtook her. She gripped the sides of the boat, her knuckles turning white, and her fingernails digging into the malleable wood.
The man broke the silence, “Seven months, eh?”
She ignored the comment, “I have to get off this boat.”
“There’s no time, and there isn’t a safe place to deliver a baby within a twenty-mile radius,” the man began explaining what he himself had already reasoned. He secured the paddles and tossed a blanket toward the front of the boat. “Better try and get comfortable. Ready or not, you’re about to have a baby.”
Before she could form an argument citing sanitary conditions among other more obvious variables like delivering a baby in a paddle boat, her water broke. She managed to turn herself around, facing the man for the first time since boarding the boat. The kind face that looked back at her contradicted his gruff tone, and for a second, she wondered if she had misjudged him. Could there be more to this man than her first impression? She watches as he spreads the blanket as best he can. He is younger than she initially took him for, but his skin has aged more than hers having been exposed to the harsh ultraviolet rays from the sun among other elements. Something she had been shielded from all these years. Was that the difference between them? His damage visible while hers was concealed on the inside, but both damaged. She laid on her back with her legs over her former bench seat. The next contraction was the worst one so far, and yet it paled in comparison to each one that followed. She labored for the next ten minutes enduring the pain in silence.
After carefully securing his paddles, the man grabbed a flask of alcohol, the drinking kind not the antiseptic, and doused his hands. He was clearly not prepared for what was inevitably happening. Watching this woman endure what surely must be the worst pain imaginable, in the worst possible circumstances, he had begrudgingly developed a respect for her. He recognized a soldier when he saw one. He had never left a man behind before, and sure as hell wasn’t going to start with her. She had fought hard to get this far. Her reasons for escaping the Cell must be damn good to risk her life and that of her unborn child. This woman needed his help. How hard could it be to deliver a baby anyway? Women give birth all the time, right?
“I’ve never done this before,” the man admitted nervously. He’d seen television shows with childbirth of course, pre-war, but the extent of his medical training went as far as crudely stitching a knife wound.
“You mean they don’t teach you how to deliver a baby in a paddle boat?” She asked sarcastically hoping the humor would help him relax. The joke did little to lighten the mood. “Just help me out of these pants,” she added.
With his left hand holding on to the edge of the boat, he ran his right hand through his tousled hair and sighed. His eyes made contact with hers and an unspoken agreement was forged. He gently helped her the rest of the way out of the pants relieved to have been assigned a task. He didn’t need a medical degree to know that the baby was crowning. “Push!” he yelled initially. Her eyes were wild with fear, and he realized that she had never done this either. Aside from being born with the necessary equipment, she was no more prepared than he. “You need to push now,” employing a more sensitive approach the second time, he began to coach her through the process.
She followed his orders and pushed hard, releasing a scream that shattered the silence and echoed into the night. Somewhere, floating down the Potomac River in a meager paddle boat, a baby girl was born, the first of her kind.
The man sat back, relaxing for the first time since he had laid eyes on her. The baby was bundled in a spare shirt he had pulled out of his duffle, resting in the arms of her mama who at this point was still awake by what he could only assume was sheer adrenaline. They were well past any danger from search parties. The light emerging from the East embraced her face in a warm pink glow. She was a beautiful woman he realized, seeing her for the first time as something more than his next job. War makes things like beauty seem trivial, but a world without beauty seems pointless. Neither of them spoke. Words were inept and couldn’t possibly describe the experience the three of them had just shared. Tendrils of her long, dark hair had worked loose framing her face, and accentuating her prominent, yet still feminine features. A cocoon of peace encircled their boat and neither of them cared to interrupt it, so they drifted for more than an hour in blissful, cleansing silence.
The baby was the first to break the quiet, with a tiny cry only a newborn can manage.
"I think she's hungry," the man said, diverting his gaze as she attempted to nurse clumsily at first like any new mother, but quickly relaxing into her new role, her new purpose. "My name is John,” the man announced, clearing his throat and extending his right hand.
"Angeline," she responded with a smile offering her free hand for an awkward, ill-timed handshake. The politeness of the gesture seemed silly following such an intimate encounter.
“Nice to meet you,” John returned mirroring her smile. Acknowledging the absurdity of his timing for such a formal exchange, he erupted into laughter, guttural and uninhibited.
Angeline closed her eyes, grateful for the laughter. It would be the first sound her baby heard in a place where laughter would surely be scarce. A place called the Extracell.