Thirteen years ago
The contamination sirens wailed throughout every corner of Southern Guard’s fortified cityscape. The concrete facades of the many homes lining the top of the Outer Wall only amplified the deep wailing alarms that pushed into my ears. Dad ran to the closest of our two living room windows and scanned the gray streets as people hastily scattered back to the safety of their homes.
“Cara!” Dad yelled, calling for Mom as he closed both of the blinds, shutting out what little light strained inside through the dark afternoon clouds.
Mom hurriedly rushed into the living room from the hallway. Dad turned on the lamp beside me, then picked up one of the toys I’d dropped on the floor and sat it in my lap.
“Where is Ruma?” Mom asked shakily.
“She hasn’t made it back. Try calling her,” he suggested, and Mom quickly returned to her bedroom to grab her holophone.
“It’ll be okay,” Dad said, trying to console me as he gently laid his hand on my head. “Why don’t you keep playing?”
The toys I had received on my fifth birthday just a few days prior sat strewn over the couch around me. The relentless droning of the sirens kept me frozen in place.
“Erwyn, she’s not answering,” Mom said frantically, reentering the room.
“I’ll go look for her,” Dad said, throwing on his coat.
“They’ll arrest you for not sheltering in place,” Mom countered, grabbing his arm.
Without warning, my thirteen-year-old sister, Ruma, smeared with blood, burst through our front door.
“Please, help me!” she yelled as she threw the door shut and activated the security lock.
I pulled one of the couch pillows close to my stomach and clenched it with my fists. Ruma flung off her jacket and her trembling hands hung suspended in front of her body as if held by strings. Her gray undershirt, still wet from deep-red bloodstains, stuck to her skin.
“Ruma! What’s wrong?” Mom cried.
Dad rushed quickly toward Ruma, asking, “What happened? What happened?”
“Stop! Don’t touch me,” Ruma commanded, backing hard against the front door.
Dad took another step closer, and Ruma shouted, “Don’t touch me! I might be infected.” Her hands shook by her side as she stood stiffly in place.
“What are you talking about?” Dad asked, his voice matching Ruma’s panic.
As Ruma looked down at her stained clothes, her eyes seemed to freeze in place. For a moment, no one moved, except for Mom, who carefully reached from behind the couch, lifted me over the cushions, and set me down behind her.
Before that day, I’d only heard my parents mention perducorium a handful of times, usually when Ruma complained about not being able to travel beyond the Outer Wall. I struggled to pronounce the word, but I knew it was dangerous.
“Ruma, breathe. Just breathe,” Mom said as soothingly as she could while squeezing my arm tightly.
“Listen to me,” Dad said, trying to subdue his angst. “I need to know if you’re hurt.”
“No. I mean, I don’t know. Salom rode in from the tracking line, and he was covered in blood. So I helped him. I had to.”
“Why was he covered in blood?” Dad asked, his face heavily wrinkled with concern.
Ruma stood stiffly in place as her lips stumbled over incoherent words.
“It’ll be okay,” Mom reassured Ruma. Her grip was hurting my arm, but I was too afraid to say anything, peering from behind her shirt.
Ruma struggled to get the words out between shuddered breaths. “It was… He said it was a Stone.”
Dad shook his head, and Mom kept saying “no, no, no” over and over again.
“I-I don’t understand,” Dad stammered. “How did you make it past the perducorium scanners? You can’t—”
“We didn’t,” Ruma said. “Salom broke in through the emergency tunnels behind the stables, and we snuck in through the Outer Wall.”
“Where is he?” Dad questioned.
“When we heard the sirens, he told me to leave him and get home,” she said as tears slid from her eyes. “They’re going to take us away,” she cried.
“You don’t know that,” Dad said hollowly.
“It’s okay, baby,” Mom whispered, softening her grip on me as she gently shushed Ruma. “Let’s calm down.”
“It’s not okay!” Ruma fired back. “They’ll take us all.” Dad moved closer, and Ruma screamed, “Stay away!”
“Keep your voice down,” Dad demanded.
All three were silent except for Ruma’s heavy breathing.
“I have to get this off,” she whispered softly, taking off her bloody jacket.
“We need to get you cleaned up,” Dad said.
Mom carried me to the far side of the living room. I held her tightly so she wouldn’t let me go. Ruma cautiously moved across the living room toward the hallway bathroom.
Before she turned the living room corner, a heavy blow struck the front door. I screamed, and we all stood paralyzed by the voice demanding we open the door.
“What do I do?” Ruma quietly pleaded for an answer neither Mom nor Dad could give.
Seconds later, the door was slung open as at least a dozen agents from the Perducorium Removal Agency invaded our home. The agents’ defensive gear, concealing every inch of their bodies, made them appear more like robots. A few distinct red bands around their arms and legs lined the metallic-gray exterior of their protective gear.
Mom sobbed, reaching out one hand in protest as one of the agents aimed a gun at Ruma. He fired. Ruma shrieked as a small wire from the head of the gun embedded itself in her back.
“No!” Mom screamed as she clutched me close in her arms.
Ruma suddenly went stiff, like they turned her into a statue. As she fell to the floor, Ruma gashed her forehead open on the wooden end table my mom’s father had made.
Her body thudded against the ground. Dad dove toward Ruma’s side, and an agent flung him into the wall, shattering a few of our family pictures. Dad fought back, tackling that agent to the ground before he, too, went stiff from the wire gun. They braced his arms and dragged him out the front door, where I couldn’t see him. Mom slumped to the floor as I cried in her lap. Two nearly identical agents lurched toward us and grabbed Mom’s arms, prying me away from her. I saw my face reflected in the mirror of their helmets.
“Don’t take my son! Please. He’s my baby!” she screamed as they carried us outside to the eerily empty streets lining the top of the outer wall.
“It’s okay, baby,” a gentle voice said from behind the helmet. “We’re here to help.” I cried as she loosely carried me in her arms.
A moment later, another pair of hands pulled me from her and carried me along with my parents. No neighbors were outside, but curious and fearful faces filled the windows lining both sides of the streets. I couldn’t see Ruma, but I heard one of the agents say, “Her reading is positive.”
“Darvin!” Mom sobbed as they escorted her toward a strange van that might have been an ambulance. “Give me my son. Darvin!” Mom fought to free herself from the agents.
My body wouldn’t move. In a moment, I watched PRA agents shove my parents and Ruma in the backs of the strange vehicles. They drove away in opposite directions. I was loaded into a smaller car with two other children; both wore oxygen masks and looked frozen like me. They sat encased in clear chambers like unopened collector’s toys.
A young woman in a skin-tight white suit pointed at me. “What’s the child’s name?”
“Does it matter?” one of the agents responded.
“Yes. For now,” she said flatly.
As another woman fastened me to the seat in my own strange container, my heavy breathing fogged her helmet’s visor with a tiny cloud. After closing me inside the chamber, she shook her hands as if she’d just taken out a rotten bag of trash.
Someone with a droning voice said my parents’ names and address, followed by words I couldn’t understand. The woman in white grabbed my arm forcefully. Before I could resist, she stuck a thick needle in my arm with one gloved hand while she glared at a nearby medical monitor.
“Darvin Flint. Let’s hope we’re not three for three.”