The ends of Carissa’s long white dress trailed on the dirty ground in a space not many other Copies visited. She hesitated by the entrance to the workshop filled with spare bellies, legs and tails attached to steel girders in the roof. Three wolves in shutdown mode stared at her. She kept to the walls, keen not to get too close to the beasts.
She watched an old man in grease-covered overalls bend over the open body of a fully assembled wolf on a work table. The Collective called them ‘Guardians’, but the Inventor’s term, ‘wolves’, was a more accurate description of the part-organic, mostly metal beasts. Her organic heart thrummed at the sight of the wolves designed to act as guardians of the urbanos, built to protect the Originals who had been rescued from the towns.
The Collective ten who controlled the city of Praesidium disliked it when Carissa hung out in the workshop, then turned up to the Great Hall looking less than pristine. But she enjoyed the dirty space, a place she felt more comfortable in when the wolves didn’t outnumber her. Nor would she discourage hugs from the grease-smeared Inventor. The human was just one of few Originals left in a city designed and run by Copies. Carissa preferred his lively company to the rule-following machines.
The Inventor’s workshop was located in a section of tunnels beneath the bright white city. A retractable roof, currently closed, dominated the centre of the room. It allowed larger machines to be lowered into the workshop for repair. Next to the passive wolves were machines for assembling and tearing down the urbanos.
The Copies, a claustrophobic bunch, preferred the brightness of the city and rarely ventured into the tunnels. But Carissa favoured the city beneath the streets; the gleaming white above ground made her new eyes water.
A pungent smell of oil and grease filled her nostrils. She pinched her nose and waited by the door for the Inventor to notice her. He continued to work on the open body of the wolf, muttering when he bent in for a closer look.
‘Sorry, boy. This is going to hurt a bit.’ He tweaked something in the wolf’s belly. The wolf growled, deep and long.
The Inventor patted its head. ‘I’ve got to get you ready. That means connecting your voice box and your pain sensors. Almost done.’
Carissa clutched her throat when the wolf lunged at the Inventor’s arm. He cursed and pulled his bloody arm away from the snapping mouth.
She stepped back, even though she was in no danger. She had warned the Inventor about treating the wolves like pets; they were dangerous and could not be tamed, not even when operating under the Collective’s directive.
In her retreat her shoe scuffed against the ground. The sound startled the Inventor. He stared at her, hand on heart.
‘Miss, you gave me a fright. How long have you been standing there?’
‘Not long.’ Carissa moved further into the room, keeping her eyes on the alert wolf. The other three in shutdown stared past her.
She nodded at the mature wolf. Its yellow gaze tracked her movements. ‘Is it going to Arcis?’
‘Yes. The Collective wants four of them to act as supervisors.’
‘To keep them in line?’ She shuddered at the thought of being under the beasts’ command.
The Inventor shrugged. ‘I assume so. Teenagers can be difficult to manage at the best of times. The Collective thought the presence of such magnificent creatures would command respect.’
‘Yes. They are quite something, don’t you think?’
They’re certainly something.
‘But the teenagers will be dazed. They won’t know what’s happening.’
The Inventor moved over to a counter along one wall and wiped his hands on an oil-stained rag. ‘Even so, they’ll feel enough to know the wolves are there. The wolves will supervise them, miss.’
The wolf’s pink tongue darted out to lick its metal lips. Carissa hugged herself when its gaze fixed on her.
‘Has this one received its directive yet?’ The Collective’s directive was simple: “Copies must not be harmed”.
‘Yes, miss.’ The Inventor sighed and looked down at the wolf. ‘It may look menacing, but it won’t, or can’t, harm you.’
Knowing the live one had received its directive made Carissa feel better. She moved closer to the table. The wolf watched her silently. She kept her distance. ‘I suppose the teenagers have worse to fear than the Guardians, Inventor. The rebels are their true enemy.’
The Inventor kept his gaze on the wolf. ‘What happened to the townspeople was horrendous, but shipping the teenagers off to a Praesidium-built urbano isn’t the answer. They need to deal with the truth, that this world is not safe.’ He looked up at Carissa. ‘They must learn how to survive in a vicious world. Relocating them to Essention so they can be enrolled in some education programme will only delay that.’
‘But wouldn’t they be safer in Essention, than in the towns? Their own kind, the rebels, poisoned them.’
The rebels had been in existence for just six months. Their goal? To free the townspeople from the tyranny of Praesidium and the Collective. But the humans misunderstood the Collective, a group of ten who only wanted to protect the townspeople.
‘The rebels aren’t the problem, miss.’ He waved his hand around the space. ‘This city is.’
She liked the Inventor, but she would not have him speak ill of the Collective. The ten had rescued the Inventor from a life of hardship. His town had also been hit by the rebellion, razed to the ground after a frenzied attack. The people living there had been left with nothing. The Inventor was a victim just like the other Originals who lived in Praesidium.
‘You should remember where you came from, Inventor.’ Carissa lifted her chin.
He sighed. ‘I do, miss. Every day.’
She could tell the Inventor needed more convincing. ‘The townspeople would be dead if Praesidium hadn’t rescued the teenagers. The adults were killed, then the town blasted with radiation poisoning. Should they have been left to die?’
The Inventor concentrated on the wolf on his table. ‘No, miss. But a place like Essention is not the answer. They don’t need protecting. They need to face up to the cold and unforgiving truth of life. And they must learn how to cope with it.’
The Inventor was an Original, so naturally his loyalties lay with the townspeople, which included the rebels. Carissa was a Copy, designed in the image of her dead Original to help keep Praesidium functioning.
A bout of nerves almost tied her tongue, but she forced out her next question. ‘Are you a rebel sympathiser?’
The Inventor flicked his gaze to her. ‘Of course not.’ He turned to the supine wolf and patted it on its head. The wolf snarled at him. ‘But forcing the townspeople to live in Essention—’
‘So they can get medical treatment.’
‘Yes, there is that. But enrolling the teenagers in Arcis, a place designed to separate them from life’s realities for who knows how long? That isn’t the answer.’
‘So, what is?’
‘Leave them in the towns with the right support to get on with their lives. Some of them are almost adults. Let them stay in the only place they know.’
Carissa didn’t see how that was possible. ‘Their parents are dead, Inventor, at the hands of the rebels.’
‘I knew you wouldn’t understand, miss. You’re not like—’
‘Like you? An Original?’ The reminder hurt. Around the Inventor, she felt less like a Copy, more human.
‘Well, yes, if you must know.’
She pushed her hurt down and lifted her chin. ‘No, Inventor. I’m better than an Original. I am an improved design.’
She was about to say more when Quintus, the spokesperson for the Collective, spoke through the communication disc embedded in her skull, just above her ear.
‘173-C. Please report to the Great Hall.’
She touched the disc. ‘Understood, Quintus.’ Carissa looked up at the Inventor.
He nodded. ‘You’ve got to go. I’ll see you tomorrow. Tell the Collective the wolves will be ready by morning.’
Carissa climbed the stairs that led to the surface. She exited through a door and crossed a circular courtyard to the Learning Centre, a large white building located at the heart of Praesidium. The sun pinched her ocular nerve as it bounced off the bright façade. She rubbed the pain from her eyes and hurried inside.
She veered down a corridor to the right of the lobby, past the upload rooms, where each day she delivered her experiences for the Collective to review.
Entering the Great Hall, she approached a white podium in front of a grid-like screen. She laid her palm flat on the podium and touched another disc on the side of her head connected to her brain. The day’s thoughts and memories caused her to shiver as they passed from her cerebral unit down the length of her arm and into the podium. Normally, she would do this in the upload room each morning, but the Collective preferred to receive real-time uploads when the group called Copies to the Great Hall. The screen shimmered and beeped upon transfer of the information.
In one corner of the screen, a shape morphed into a familiar face. The slightly distorted features, representing the Collective’s many voices, depicted a dark-skinned male in his thirties.
‘173-C. Has the Inventor finished with the Guardians?’
‘Yes, Quintus. He said they’ll be ready by morning. Four of them are destined for Arcis.’
Essention, the wolves’ destination, was an urbano built six months earlier by Praesidium’s digging machines and overseen by a group of Copies. At its heart was Arcis, a facility designed to attract the adults from the towns. Carissa understood Arcis’ original purpose was to give the townspeople access to the latest Praesidium technology. Townspeople existed in a state of poverty, living off the land and old tech from Praesidium. But to accommodate the teenagers, Arcis must become an education facility.
‘Good,’ said Quintus.
Still attached to the Collective, Carissa felt Quintus search through the upload of her latest memories.
On screen, he frowned. ‘It seems the Inventor is not as keen on our plans for the teenagers as you.’
Carissa nodded. ‘He is an Original, Quintus. He views things differently to us.’
‘He must prepare the urbano to receive the poisoned townspeople, and Arcis for the teenagers. Will he be a problem?’
‘No, Quintus. The Inventor wants to help us.’
‘Is he a rebel sympathiser?’
Carissa answered truthfully. ‘No, Quintus.’
‘Good. We need the townspeople’s knowledge of the rebels to ward off any planned attacks on Praesidium.’
The Collective ten had a particular interest in the Originals who lived outside of Praesidium. Quintus called the rebel’s massacre of the adults ‘a necessary sacrifice that would work to Praesidium’s advantage’. According to him, the teenagers offered the best chance to understand the motives of the rebels who threatened Praesidium’s existence. Teenagers were more likely to talk than adults.
Carissa heard some of the other Collective members speak through her communication disc: Septimus, Octavius, Unos.
‘The teenagers are en route to Essention,’ said Unos. ‘They will be treated at the hospital first, to alleviate the conditions of the radiation poisoning. They will be allocated accommodation in Essention. Families together. The sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds will receive a different chip to give them access to Arcis.’
‘What can we learn from the teenagers that we didn’t from the adults before them?’ said Octavius.
Septimus spoke. ‘The adults who came through Arcis provided us with some knowledge, but they were too rigid in their thinking, too loyal to the rebellion. We need the teenagers on the cusp of adulthood who are still young enough to shape and mould.’
Carissa frowned. ‘Won’t they miss home?’
‘They will accept Essention as their new home, 173-C,’ said Quintus. ‘We will make sure of it.’
‘And the rebels? Can they be reasoned with?’ said Unos.
Quintus’ voice became edgy. ‘The rebels kill their own kind to inflict damage on us. We will rise above their attempts. We will preserve what’s left of their people after their barbaric attacks.’
‘And we’re all agreed we need the teenagers?’ said Octavius.
‘Yes. The teenagers are too important,’ said Quintus. ‘The Collective must do everything to protect them from the rebels. The teenagers will be instrumental in our survival.’