I’ve imagined what it’s like for sixteen years: Imagined what it’s like to leave this place. Imagined what it’s like to have the perfect family. Today’s the day; I’ll open my eyes, and the entire world will be different. I'll no longer be a Replacement. I’ll be adopted by a family, my new family. One, two—
Ahna opened her eyes and looked around the metal chamber she called her bedroom. Empty. There was no mother, no father, no brother. No one. The room was as barren as it had been the past sixteen years. Except a sheet of paper. Her eyes narrowed when she spotted it lying in front of the door.
A warning? What did I do?
Pulling the sheets over her face, she let out a long sigh that melded into a groan. She contemplated staying in bed all day, but if she wasn’t in trouble then she surely would be after missing a full day of classes. Flinging the sheets away from her body, she rolled to her side and off the firm mattress. Her feet couldn’t escape the sheets quick enough, forcing her to fall to the floor.
She caught herself with her hands. Her reflexes were quick, usually, and for that she was grateful. Not that she fell often, but when she did, she was thankful that she could rely on her hands to be there.
Way to go, Ahna. Almost busted your face, the one good thing you have going for you.
A chill coursed through her body as she stood on the cold metal floor. She yawned so loud she laughed.
Geez, I’m tired. I gotta stop staying up all night . . . but it’s not my fault. Those bombs, or whatever they are, going off at night have not made it easy to sleep. This war between us and the Rejected is taking forever. Hopefully, I won’t be here to deal with that much longer. I could use a break from all the action.
She walked to the doorway and picked up the piece of paper, noticing it wasn’t the usual paper they used for announcements or warnings. Unfolding it, she saw the black ink that sprawled across the page, handwriting she’d never seen. She read it aloud.
“My dearest Ahna, Happy Birthday. I am very sorry to miss the celebrations I am sure will surround you today, but they have sent me away on some rather important work. I hope to return before the evening and look forward to finally seeing you at the Adoption Day ceremony. If I am unable to be there, just know that I will be thinking of you. Until tonight . . .” She paused for a moment. “Father.”
A smile spread across her face, a shriek of excitement escaping.
A family. I’m gonna have a real-life family! Gah!
She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror hanging opposite her doorway and noticed the bird’s nest that was her hair. With it hanging almost to her knees, it was difficult to manage; most days she tried to tie it up, hoping it would stay for most of the day. That would all be changing soon, though. The family got to choose the hairstyle of their children, and she couldn’t wait to get her first haircut. She envisioned it being cut short, though she wasn’t up to date on the trends within Deliverance. All she could hope for was that her family had a sense of style.
A whiff of body odor snuck up from her armpits.
“Phew, I stink,” she said, then laughed, hurrying to the shower.
She pressed the buttons on the waterproof panel inside the shower stall, the temperature lower than she’d like. It allowed her to turn it on and off, but unfortunately temperature was not in her control. The water flowed over her skin, waking her up. Goose bumps covered her arms, a shiver running through her.
My last cold shower. My last time with terrible water pressure. My last day in The Delivery Co.
She smiled as she rinsed the lavender-scented shampoo from her hair, twice, and stepped onto the black bath mat. After drying off and combing through her mane, she wrapped the towel around her body and walked to her closet. The lights inside turned on as soon as she stepped in, the screens illuminating her options . . . if one could call them options.
My last day choosing between boring and awful.
She swiped between the few options and selected the photo matching her usual outfit: a polo and pants. Very exciting.
Once she pressed it, a bag containing the outfit swung out on a metal arm. She retrieved it, returning to the bathroom to get dressed. She used to think it was exciting to have a smart closet, one that could give her what she wanted so quickly. Who wouldn’t want that, she used to ask herself. Since growing up, she’d become that person. It had lost all of its charm, which was easy to do when it never changed from only offering her two outfits. She had hoped there would be more as she got older, but she never got what she wanted, in life or her closet. The illusion of choice had shattered long ago.
As she finished buttoning her pants, Dean Tipper’s voice echoed in her metal tomb from a speaker in the ceiling.
“Good morning, Replacements. The time is now 8:25 in the morning. Please report to the cafeteria for breakfast.”
It went silent, but she waited for it to speak again, staring at the speaker. It almost looked as though a giant black eye stared back. That was silly, of course. She waited for additional announcements, specifically the list of birthdays. She continued to wait until . . . nothing.
“Also, everyone,” continued the voice, finally.
Here it is!
“Don’t forget to look your best for the Adoption Day ceremony tonight. As we say, dress your best for success.” A pause. Then, “That will be all.”
What the . . . maybe he forgot? She took a deep breath, then shrugged. It’s whatever. I guess I shouldn’t have expected it. Nobody around here would remember my birthday anyway. I better get to breakfast before it’s too late.
She started toward the door but saw her bed was still unmade, so she quickly pulled the sheets taut and tucked in the comforter. Then she picked up the piece of paper and folded it in half to stick in her pocket. The photo that hung on the wall above her nightstand caught her attention.
It was the same picture she’d had since she could remember, but suddenly she found herself staring at it.
A large ship was sailing over an enormous wave in the middle of a storm. Black clouds and rain surrounded it. Crates, barrels, and people were flying off the sides of the boat, but the captain held the wheel firmly, guiding it through the storm. Something intrigued her about the photo. Maybe it was the fact that amid all the chaos, the captain was calm. Ahna always wondered how she would react if she was the captain. Would she be able to steer the men to safety, or would the ship capsize, sending everyone to their death? She pushed that thought from her mind. It wasn’t exactly something she wanted to think about the morning of her birthday.
The golden frame surrounding the photo gave her an idea. She yanked the photo from the wall and stashed the letter behind the frame for safekeeping. Couldn’t risk having Ty or anyone else tear it up or something. She then quickly placed it back on the wall before heading out the door, the ship slanting slightly to one side as though it was going to sink.
The hallway was mostly empty by the time she made it toward the cafeteria. She hadn’t realized how long she’d stayed in her room. Warm yellow bulbs burned above her head, mimicking daylight. They attempted daylight to make it so the Replacements might forget they were locked away from the outside world awaiting eventual escape. But it was impossible to forget, especially on Adoption Day.
As she neared the end of the hall, she could almost taste the sausage through her nose. She laughed, picturing a hunk of meat escaping her nostril. Closer to the entrance of the hallway, she could see the familiar high brown hair of her only friend, S-18, or Sarah.
Sarah looked the same as usual: hair tightly pulled into what some might call a ponytail and her backpack slung over one shoulder. But something seemed different. Apparently she thought the option Ahna had chosen was appealing for the day because she too wore the same colorless collection.
The only thing that gave her any sense of freedom was her purple scrunchie, her staple accessory. It was hard to miss in a sea of drab. Sarah had crafted it from an old cloth she’d found while on cleanup duty in a dilapidated hall. One of the only perks of being punished, she assumed. Ahna envied her creativity; it wasn’t something they’d gifted her with, which was obvious in most classes. She was good at drawing graphs and charts, but they weren’t pretty. They were practical. Besides, she didn’t foresee a reason to employ creativity over practicality.
Ahna snuck up behind Sarah and used the deepest voice she could muster.
“S-18! What is in your hair?” she said, almost convincing herself.
“Nothing, sir, just—” Sarah stopped when she turned around to see Ahna standing there. She burst out in laughter. “Oh! It’s just you. I should’ve known by the terrible impression. You should work on that, stupid,” she said, laughing again.
They smacked their limbs together in their secret handshake.
“You should have seen me coming,” said Ahna. “Better go retake your situational awareness course. You barely passed in the first place.”
“You know that class is a joke. They all are. I don’t know why we can’t learn something more useful, like survival or fighting or something cool,” said Sarah.
“You mean like the Elite? Dream on.”
“Exactly. They might be jerks, but they’re jerks with muscles. Kinda makes them a little better, right?”
A voice came over the speaker in the hallway.
“Replacements, please make your way to class. Again, all Replacements, please make your way to class. Thank you.”
Ahna’s stomach rumbled.
“Dang, I missed breakfast! Now I’m gonna starve while Professor Terge teaches us the proper party etiquette. I don’t know which is the worst way to die,” Ahna said with a laugh.
Sarah curtsied. “Fear not, m’lady, I shall scavenge the land for the finest fare.” Sarah bolted into the cafeteria, disappearing for a moment. Ahna couldn’t help but smile. Sarah returned shortly, her hands in her pockets.
“Scoot your boot,” she said, hushed, almost pushing Ahna with her shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Ahna asked. An Elite guard was now following them. “Oh.”
“Just eat it, quick,” said Sarah, slipping a granola bar into Ahna’s hand.
“Thanks.” Ahna unwrapped the bar and devoured it as they walked to class, careful not to alert the guard. She’d seen them beat a Replacement for less. That wasn’t something she was looking for, especially not today. Sarah slipped her arm around Ahna’s shoulders as they walked to class. They used to walk like that all the time as kids . . . but Sarah had never stopped. Ahna didn’t mind it, though. Sarah was her best friend . . her only friend, really.
Less than a minute after sliding into their seats, which were next to each other, the bell rang and Professor Terge closed the door. She wasn’t tall, but her red hair threatened to dust the crown molding. The familiar rhythm of her writing on the chalkboard lulled Ahna into a bored state almost immediately, but she needed to stay awake. She had never failed a class, but for some reason this one had been a problem. She’d bet it on Professor Terge being a bit of a stickler, but maybe she just wasn’t emotionally invested in Assimilation into the Family Unit when she’d already learned all she thought she needed. Besides, she had a family after the ceremony. What more could she learn before then?
She felt something hit her foot. Sarah’s note. As she bent down to grab it, another hand swiped it away. She glanced at the owner of the hand.
Ahna hated his face. His perfect, square-jawed, never-touched-in-a-fight face that sat atop a well-structured sculpture of a body. He had a face that most people hated to talk to but loved to stare at. Ty was a self-centered, egotistical, womanizing, grade A jerk who had no problem using his brawn to intimidate others into doing things for him.
“Professor Terge,” Ty said in his deep voice, holding the note in his outstretched hand.
The teachers were no exception to the rule.
“Yes, T-3?” she asked, a smile across her face.
“I have something I think you should see. A-9 and S-18 were passing notes . . . again.” He handed the note to her, grinning at Ahna as he did.
Professor Terge walked back to her desk and placed the piece of chalk on the ledge of the chalkboard so she could read the note. Ahna and Sarah snapped at Ty in a hushed barrage.
“What are you doing?” they whispered. “What’s your problem?”
“You are, you lab rats,” he responded, smirking.
“I’d rather be a lab rat than a walking slab of brainless beef!” Sarah yelled. She was feisty for a reason Ahna couldn’t figure out.
“S-18! That will be enough out of you. And A-9, what are you hiding in your desk?”
My desk? What are you talking about?
“I . . . nothing, Professor. What do you mean?” Ahna asked, her heart racing.
“The note says to look in your desk. If there’s nothing inside, I’m sure you don’t mind us opening it, do you?” She waited, her blue eyes sharp as she stared at Ahna.
Ahna shot a glance at Sarah, then looked back to Professor Terge. “Of course, Professor.”
Professor Terge walked over to Ahna’s desk and lifted the top, revealing what was inside: the nameplate that usually hung on the door of Dean Tipper.
Oh, god. No.
The entire class burst out in laughter, but Ahna didn’t feel like laughing. She felt like throwing up. This was not good. Professor Terge grabbed Ahna by the arm and jerked her from her seat. Then she thrust the nameplate into Ahna’s hands.
“Out! Out of my class and wait in the hallway!” she yelled at Ahna.
“But, Professor, I—”
Ahna’s body heated up as if all forty eyes on her at that moment were beaming with the intensity of the sun. Her head slumped, and she started out the doorway.
Great. I’ve been fine up until today. Today of all days! Why?
She was mostly out of the classroom when she heard Sarah shout from behind.
“Wait! It wasn’t her fault, it was mine!”
Professor Terge grabbed Sarah and flung her from her seat and toward the door.
“I don’t have time for this. Both of you go to Dean Tipper’s office. Now.”
“But,” started Sarah.
“I won’t say it again, S-18. If I had my way, I’d ban you from Adoption Day, so you’d better hope Dean Tipper is in a better mood than I am,” replied Professor Terge. “And make sure you return what you stole. Thieves.”
“Yes, Professor. We’re going,” said Ahna. She looked at Sarah. “Come on.”
Professor Terge snapped at a nearby guard, and she pointed at Ahna and Sarah, saying, “Please escort them to Dean Tipper’s office. Make sure they get there . . safely, will you?”
The Elite guard nodded and followed as they walked down the bright metal hall toward the office. Ahna gave it a minute before she berated Sarah as quietly as she could, trying not to alert any passersby or the Elite behind them. She just couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“What were you thinking, Sarah? Seriously.”
“I thought you could use something to remember all of us by when you left.” She laughed.
“I’m serious, Sarah. This isn’t funny. It’s Adoption Day. We’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”
Sarah shrugged. “We? No, Ahna, I will be. And what are they gonna do? Lock me in my room? Put me on work duty? I’ve done it all. Won’t bother me any.”
“You did minor things before now. Never anything like this. This is big, Sarah. You could be—”
“Don’t say that!” Ahna whisper-yelled, looking back to the Elite behind them. “You know they could be listening. They might actually do that, too.”
“Reject me? Yeah, right,” Sarah scoffed.
“What about Lawrence?”
Sarah’s face tensed for a moment, then relaxed. “Lawrence was an exception to the rule, Ahna. We all know the story. I stole a door placard; I didn’t burn down an entire wing of Replacements. Besides, it can’t be as bad as they say, right? I mean, I would rather be Rejected and live on my own than have to stay here and conform to their stupid rules for much longer. It’s gotta be better out there than inside this prison. Who knows, maybe I’ll run into Lawrence,” she said, then laughed.
“It’s not funny, Sarah. It’s bad out there. Rejected are freaks; they have nasty deformities. I hear they look disgusting. Who knows what they’re capable of. They’d probably kill you on the spot . . . or eat you. Nobody knows what happens outside the Wall.”
“That’s the point, Ahna. Nobody knows for sure. Think about it. From day one, we hear the stories, but have you ever been outside the Wall? Have you ever met anyone who’s been Rejected?”
“Exactly. That’s the point. We don’t know what they’re like. Nobody does. Maybe they don’t even exist. Or maybe there’re thousands of them. Either way, I’ll take my chances. Besides, none of them can be more of a monster than Ty.” She laughed.
Her laughing ceased as they approached the large metal door at the end of the hall—the door that usually had the nameplate Ahna was holding with the inscription “Dean Tipper.”
Ahna swallowed hard, then pressed the button on the side of the door.
“Come in,” said the familiar robotic voice. She hated his voice.
Ahna looked at Sarah as she walked toward the door. Before it opened, Ahna grabbed her by the arm.
“Hold on,” she whispered.
“I’m going to take the blame for this, Sarah. No matter what he says, it was me, not you, understand?”
“Yes. Let me do this. You’ve gotten in enough trouble; it could mean Rejection for you. I’ve never been in trouble, plus it’s my birthday. He won’t Reject me for my first infraction on my birthday. That would be insane.”
Sarah paused, then sighed. “You sure about this?”
“I’m sure,” replied Ahna. “You’re my best friend, Sarah. I can’t have them get rid of you. You don’t want to leave me stuck here alone, do you?”
Sarah huffed, then shrugged. “I guess you’re right . . . thanks.”
“Besides, I have a family waiting for me tonight. I want you to have that chance too, so we can hang out somewhere that’s not surrounded by guards for once.”
Ahna smiled, then continued through the door as it opened automatically.
The door opened to reveal Dean Tipper standing near a bookshelf at the side of his office. The shelf was filled to the brim with books, some stacked on their sides on top of rows. Most of them seemed, at a glance, to be historical, which didn’t surprise Ahna. However, the number of books surprised her. She hadn’t seen that many books before. Not in one place, anyway. And definitely not in their condition. Many of them were of the time before the war. Adjacent to the bookshelf was a wooden desk, an award of some kind bearing his name on top of it, and a leather chair sat behind it, slightly pulled away.
“Sit,” said Dean Tipper, gesturing to the two smaller leather chairs opposite his desk. They may have liked to cause trouble in the classroom but would never think of doing so in Dean Tipper’s office. He wasn’t one to mess with, despite his stature. He was short but stood as though he had a string attached to the top of his head. Proper.
Ahna and Sarah obeyed, sitting immediately. She felt like she was sitting on a pillow or a cloud. Comfortable. Which was funny, given that it was the exact opposite of how she felt in that exact moment. She may as well have been sitting on a cloud, though, as the air felt thin, making it hard for her to breathe. A loud tick announced every second from the clock on the wall behind her, echoing inside her head.
It was a fresh experience, sitting in the Dean’s office. Under different circumstances it would have excited Ahna. She loved new things, but she wasn’t excited about this in the least, especially when she looked to see two Elite at the side door of his office, standing at attention, waiting.
What are they waiting for? Doesn’t that hurt their feet to stand like that all day?
Then she saw the door they were guarding. It differed from the rest of the facility. The door was made entirely of a solid dark wood with ornate carvings decorating it from floor to ceiling. Swirls and patterns had been carved deep, exposing the grain. If she was much closer to it, she was sure she’d smell the rich scent of cedar or pine. A screen was glowing within the room behind the door. Beside the desk sat a leather briefcase, a small lock on its handle.
A computer? Why are they guarding that?
A folder slapped down on his desk. Ahna snapped back to reality as Dean Tipper sat down opposite them both. He looked through the folder briefly, then closed it, staring right at Ahna.
“I believe you have something of mine,” he said.
Ahna realized she was still holding his nameplate and promptly placed it down on his desk, waiting for him to speak again.
“I’m sure you know why you’re here,” Dean Tipper said.
“Sir, I think there may be a bit of confusion, but—”
“Quiet, A-9. That was rhetorical. There is no confusion. You were brought here because you are a thief. What is surprising is that it isn’t S-18 this time.”
“Actually, sir, I—” started Sarah.
“Had nothing to do with it, sir,” said Ahna, shooting Sarah a look. “It was me. The whole thing was my idea. Sar—uh, S-18 had nothing to do with this and should not be punished.”
He chuckled. “That will be up to me to decide. This is serious, A-9. You are sure you understand what you are admitting to?”
Nope. Not at all.
Dean Tipper nodded, then gestured to the Elite. “Escort that one to solitary. I believe she knows the way. I will deal with this one.”
“No!” Sarah shouted. “Don’t do this, Ahna. You can’t, I changed my mind! Don’t do this!” The Elite seized her in his arms and carried her over his shoulder out the door. Ahna watched as she kicked around in the Elite’s arms, but she didn’t move. She’d seen people resist before, and it didn’t end well for them. She needed all the help she could get right then.
Once the door shut, Dean Tipper’s demeanor changed. His smile faded into a more sinister smirk, and he stared Ahna directly in the eyes. He looked like he was about to laugh.
“A-9,” he said.
It’s Ahna, stupid.
“I will be quite honest with you, and I hope that you will be the same with me, understand?”
“Are you aware that today is Adoption Day?”
She nodded again.
“And yet you still chose to do this. Sad. Sad, indeed. I wish I had a choice here, I really do, but you’ve left me no choice. A crime such as this cannot go unpunished. No matter if”—he glanced back at the folder—“it’s your birthday. The law makes no exceptions.”
“But, sir,” said Ahna, but she stopped when Dean Tipper slammed his hands on the desk, startling her.
“A-9, you are a cog in a machine, a cog that has rusted out and lost all function, no longer a viable piece. You’ve never been chosen in an Adoption Day before, and now I don’t believe you ever will.”
Ahna stared at him in disbelief. She’d never heard him speak like that. Her mouth hung open as she struggled to understand the situation.
I’m getting a family tonight. I have the letter . . .
“I would disagree, sir,” she said.
Dean Tipper raised his eyebrows. “Is that so? Then tell me exactly what your function is here. Go on, I’m waiting.”
I have plenty of things I’m good at, right? I’m funny, I have friends . . . at least one friend. I’m a quick learner . . .
“I have aced every test and have done everything I’m supposed to as a Replacement. Isn’t that my function?”
Dean Tipper’s face scrunched up, as if it caught him off guard, then it relaxed. He leaned in, his face only inches away from Ahna’s, their eyes locked.
“You may have passed all the written exams, but you have failed the biggest test of all. You failed to live by the laws, doing whatever you want with blatant disregard for the well-being of others. No family will want that from their child. No family will want you. We offer a premium product here at The Delivery Co., A-9, and you . . . are defective.”
Defective . . .
“You broke the law, A-9,” he continued, motioning for the two Elite guards near his door. They moved so they were on each side of Ahna, surrounding her. Trapped. Her heart began to beat in her throat. She could say nothing, feel nothing. Dean Tipper continued.
“For every action, there is a reaction. In this case, we look to our ancestors for guidance. The crime of theft has always been a punishable offense, A-9.”
There it is again, that stupid name. I hate that name. Wait, is that really what I’m worried about right now? Some name?
“I have been waiting for this for quite some time, and I’m happy to see that you have given me the . . . opportunity.”
Waiting for what? What opportunity? What have I done to you?
“By the authority bestowed upon me, I hereby sentence you, A-9, to Rejection.”
Rejection? No . . . anything but that. I’d rather die.
“And,” he continued.
“I will ensure you never steal from anyone again. You took something of mine, now I will take something of yours. I call for the immediate removal of your hand.”
Hold on, what?
The two Elite held her down while one pulled her right arm forward onto the desk. She fought back as hard as she could, but she was no match for them. They were modified to be soldiers, while she was built for nothing. As she struggled, one of the Elite pulled out a blade. Dean Tipper smiled at her as she squirmed in front of him, tears streaming down her face.
“Goodbye, A-9,” he said, then motioned to the Elite.
The Elite swung the long, sharp blade through the air. There was a flash as it descended onto her arm, light glistening off the metal. Ahna tried to scream, but no air escaped. Before the blade made contact, she collapsed, her head rolling back, and the bright light she once saw faded into complete and utter darkness.