As the smoke cleared, they saw me. I turned and ran as far and as fast as my legs would take me. Round corners, past shops, between mothers clinging to their baskets, stepping away from me as I ran through the crowded market. My worn-out shoes caused my heel to make contact with the hot earth, my breath stinging my lungs, gripping the small token in my hand I ran towards home. I could see it just ahead as I came around the old factory wall, our three room cracker-box house with the sunbaked walls, pockmarked by the frequent dust storms. It was the largest in our row. Suddenly I’m whipped around, stopped in my tracks by the tight grip on my right arm. I fight to break loose, the token goes flying from my hand and buries itself into the dust. In a heartbeat I’m surrounded by Enforcers, glaring at me from behind their shielded helmets, pointing at me with gloved fingers.
“We got him!” they shouted, tasers drawn.
“Where is it?” the tall one demanded while poking me with his stick. My arms pinned behind me, wrists clenched tightly in a vice grip, I can hear the whirring of the pistons and hydraulic system of my captor.
“We found it, Captain!” the rookie calls out as a metal hand holds up the precious wooden token.
“Well, young man, it seems the property has been recovered. Would you like to go home now?” The Captain stood a stick’s length away from me, careful not to get close enough for me to breathe on him. I nodded.
“Where do you live?” Reluctantly I looked towards home, knowing the backlash that would face my mother for my deed.
“Bring the boy,” the Captain said as he walked towards my mother, standing in the doorway. As we came to the step, I met my mother’s disappointed gaze with a disheveled smirk.
“What did he do now?” my mother called from behind the screen door.
“He stole a token from a Caretaker in the market. We have recovered it and will be leaving him with you for now. The Chancellor will want to see you tomorrow.” My mother nodded and called for our Caretaker who was tending to my sister Lora, to come and retrieve me. J’s cold alloy hand gently took mine and led me into the house, careful not to brush me against my mother as we passed. My mother closed the door and turned to me.
“Wyatt –” her voice caught in her throat as I held out my hand, three carved tokens staring back at her.
“They only saw the one” I smiled at my mother and J took them from my hand to pass to my mother. Tears filled her eyes as she hid them in the tin on the top shelf behind a photo of my parents, taken at their coupling ceremony when they were about my age.
I hid in my room most of the afternoon, laying on my cot, staring at the clippings I found from old magazines, taped to my walls. Smiling couples, many generations past, clinging to each other without protective precautions. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the stories my grandfather used to tell me of a time long before the Great Outbreak, when coupling was not assigned and Caretakers were not needed. I imagined our city without walls, overflowing with laughter and happy children playing together in the street. At dinner, father was absent again, kept late at the plant. My father burst through the door just as J was powering down for the night. His face was flushed, and his hair disheveled. He was speaking with my mother in hurried hushed tones, they were moving around so much I could not read their lips through the crack in the wall. I strained my ears to hear what they were saying.
“He isn’t ready” I heard my mother say, but I couldn’t make out what father said in return.
“He deserves to know he has a choice” my father said at one point…followed by my mother sobbing.
My father cracked my door open and I pretended to be asleep, letting out gentle snoring noises, careful not to stir too much. I turned back over as he closed my door, staring at the families playing on swings, holding hands in the woods, wondering what my mother’s hands felt like as I fell asleep.
I stumbled out of my room as J’s alarm went off when it was fully charged. My father sat in his chair waiting to take me to see the Chancellor, where I would face my order for Restitution. Our Escort arrived before my father could tell me what the Chancellor was offering in place of forced Restitution, so we rode in silence to the Chancellor’s Quarters in the center of the city. We arrived at the front of the marble and steel behemoth, towering over the stone courtyard, surrounded by E-50 units standing at attention. We were led down the granite hallway, our steps echoing. The E-50 units footsteps were hollow and their hydraulics pulsed and whirred around us.
The Chancellor sat high above us on his throne. Father said it was called the Seat of Authority, but it looked like a throne in an old book I found in a pile of ash behind the Knowledge Development building. My father approached the Chancellor, presenting me and acknowledging my crime as the Enforcement Clerk instructed.
“Wyatt, you are charged with theft of a food token, this is your third offense. Restitution should be strict. But—” the Chancellor smiled “I am told you are a talented boy. Is this true?”
I nodded. “I have repaired J, our Unit J-22 Caretaker, many times. I programmed additional upgrades and rewrote code so J could play new games with my sister Lora.”
He nodded, “And you created that smoke bomb yourself did you not?”
My father spoke up “Yes sir. My son has an extensive knowledge of chemistry.”
My father had sold me out, exposed my secret passion and now they would use it to create another Great Outbreak and wipe us all out, I was convinced of it.
“I would like to offer you an alternative to Restitution and Internment” the Chancellor smiled and climbed down off his throne. “Ever since the Great Outbreak we have been working to find a cure and save the rest of the population.” He placed a gloved hand on my shoulder. “I would like you to head up that effort. Of course your family will be greatly compensated. You will have the best Units to tend to your every need. A new home here in Citadel Courtyard, and the Coupling of your choice. Prescreened, of course.”
I thought about the old magazine photos above my cot, a cure would mean it would be possible again without fear of infection…touch.