Authors: Jill Williamson
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon declared war on Jerusalem and besieged the city. The king told Ashpenaz, head of the palace staff, to get some Israelites from the royal family and nobility—young men who were healthy and handsome, intelligent and well-educated, good prospects for leadership positions in the government, perfect specimens!
—Daniel 1:1, 3–5,
hey’re ready for you, Miss Rourke.”
Ciddah looked up at the enforcer and took a deep breath. She hugged her CompuChart and stood from her seat on the bench, wobbling on her stilettos. The enforcer pulled open the door, a yawning maw that expelled a breath of frigid air into the warm hallway.
She tottered toward the entrance but stopped on the threshold.
The auditorium loomed before her, a vast and silent cube. She’d seen it on the ColorCast before: a purple concrete floor; a field of orange velvet bucket seats; walls painted in gradient: lime green at the bottom to black at the top. A spider’s web of pin lights hung under the vast ceiling. Though the room had seemed vibrant and cheerful when she’d seen it on her Wyndo, in person everything seemed almost dull and cold.
Three tables on raised platforms stretched along the front and side walls and were covered in lime-green tablecloths. The hooded Ancients of the Safe Lands Guild sat behind each the tables, six to each wall—their eyes fixed on her like predatory creatures.
Ciddah spun to face the enforcer, who was holding the door
partially open. No; he was trying to close it, and she was standing in the way.
She stumbled forward, and the enforcer shut her inside. Another deep breath, and she started down the center aisle, each step a sharp crack that echoed through the vast chamber as she made her way toward the witness podium in front.
“The Director of Medical Care’s Public Health Report has changed little since our discussion six months ago when this guild approved the requisition of Miss Kendall Collin from Wyoming. We still face a lack of healthy children born within our walls.”
Lawten’s familiar voice was somewhat comforting, and Ciddah searched for him on the platform. He sat in the center of the front table. His face—the only one uncovered—looked small among the hooded Ancients.
“Then present your case, Mr. Task Director,” a grizzled voice said from the left wall, “and we will determine a course of action.”
“I call Ciddah Rourke to the witness podium to give her report on the status of Miss Collin’s pregnancy.” Lawten turned his calculating gaze down to Ciddah as if to remind her,
Just like we practiced.
Ciddah reached the “podium,” a short platform that sat in front of the head table. She climbed three steps to the top and sat in the chair facing Lawten, relieved not to have fallen on her face.
The air-conditioning being pumped in was meant to compensate for several hundred bodies, not the nineteen now present, and Ciddah shivered. It didn’t help that her blouse had a low back and capped sleeves, or that she was about to testify before so many faceless Ancients.
“Miss Rourke,” Lawten said, “please inform the Guild how Miss Collin is doing. Take your time.”
Ciddah didn’t need long. There was little to say. Still, she took a deep breath to calm her sparking nerves. “Kendall and her unborn baby are both infected.”
Everyone seemed to speak at once. “What do you mean?” “Surely not!” “How could this have happened?” “Where did we go wrong?”
Lawten struck the gavel against the sound block. “Please hold your
questions until Miss Rourke is able to complete her report.” He looked down to Ciddah. “Continue, Miss Rourke.”
She focused on Lawten’s face, as if speaking to him alone. “The goal with this transfer was to discover whether we could match an infected donor male with an uninfected female. As you know, it seemed successful at first. But the virus appeared in Miss Collin in the twenty-first week of her pregnancy. We still held out hope for the baby, but in week thirty-five, just last week, tests showed the fetus is now carrying the virus as well.”
“Is there any chance that once the child is born …?” a hooded Ancient asked her.
“I cannot imagine that the virus will disappear, sir.”
“What’s to be done, then?” the Ancient asked. “Is there no way to irradicate this virus from our populace?”
“I cannot speak to cures, sir, as that is not my area of expertise,” Ciddah said. “But if you want to produce a healthy child, it seems you must have two healthy donors.”
A stunned pause. “But there are none!”
“There are the Naturals,” another said.
“Naturals are no myth.”
“If they are real, how do they continually hide from enforcers?”
“They’re no use to us if we cannot find them.”
Ciddah sat back and waited as the faceless men argued.
“Forget the Naturals. We should trade for more people from Wyoming. How much will that cost us?”
“Kendall Collin was worth more credits than we all make in a year.”
“What a waste.”
“We might be able to afford a half dozen more uninfected trades from Wyoming, but will six to eighteen children a year, if Fortune favors us, be enough to save our land? And what after that? How will we ensure these people remain uninfected? That they serve more than one successful term as conscripted surrogates?”
“Kendall Collin received status as a national, a citizen of our land. In the future, we shouldn’t allow outsiders to fully integrate into our world.”
“We cannot imprison innocent people. And Fortune would not favor us if we did. We are not barbarians.”
“Hang Fortune! She has not favored us either way.”
provide national status to outsider women. The public will be watching.”
“Agreed. The publicity of our ‘queens’ through the ColorCast is too important to morale in the Safe Lands.”
“No one need know what happen to the queens postpartum.”
“Too dangerous. We need our past queens long after a successful delivery. They are the faces of the future.”
“I have another suggestion, gentlemen,” Lawten said.
All heads turned to the task director general. Good. Lawten would add some reason to this senseless debate.
“One of our enforcer patrols happened upon an outsider a few weeks back.” Lawten’s clear voice echoed around the room. “A young male, clearly uninfected. After some discussions, we learned it had always been this outsider’s desire to come inside our fair city, and so the enforcers brought him to Otley, who brought him to me.”
“Now we have a male donor and no females?” an Ancient asked. “So we attempt another trade with Wyoming and hope that the next girl remains healthy?”
“Hear me out, sir,” Lawten said. “I am suggesting something on a grander scale. Enticement. Recruitment. Enrollment.”
“I’m not following you, Mr. Task Director.”
“We visit this young man’s village and encourage his people to relocate.”
The Ancient’s brow lowered. “A large number of outsiders in the Safe Lands?”
“If they haven’t wanted to live here for the past eighty-some years, why would they now?” another added.
“Why give them a choice?” Lawten said, as if just coming up with the idea.
Ciddah’s breath caught. How could Lawten suggest such a thing?
“This Guild will not lock innocent people in cages, Mr. Task Director,” an Ancient said.
“Please, hear me out,” Lawten said. “This young man had been told lies about our people and our way of life. Once he saw our city with his own eyes, he wanted to live here more than anything. And he believes that, once his people visit, they will too.”
A thoughtful pause. “So you propose bringing people here, possibly against their will, in order to show them what they really desire?”
“In a way. And I truly believe the outsiders will enjoy living here in time. We only need to require the men to donate for a month or two,” Lawten said. “That would give us enough uninfected samples to last for years. With the procedure, of course, the women will have to make greater sacrifices.”
“Spoken like a man.” This was the first female voice to come from the Ancients.
“I cannot help the facts of biology, madam,” Lawten said. “But this sacrifice also means the women will become queens, with the adoration of the Safe Lands heaped upon them. Their surrogacy terms will be filled with luxury.”