My armband beeped. “Mia Bishop is needed at the exit of Sector B2,” I read on the interface. The blinking red letters signaled to me that I needed to stop what I was doing and make my way to the aforementioned sector. It was time for my monthly fertility test again. While I was still putting all of my gear away, the thing started vibrating. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” I mumbled, annoyed. The people who were responsible for internal communication and the relaying of messages had it pretty good. They sat in their offices all day long, doing nothing other than sending messages and orders back and forth, and making sure that they were carried out without further delay. In my more rebellious moments, I wondered if these people received instructions on their armbands, too, and who, if anybody, monitored them.
I hid the book I had been reading since yesterday, under a stack of newspapers. Then I set off before the supervisors could get any ideas about sending someone to come and get me. That would be really embarrassing, because the guards would drag me past my co-workers. Everything that had to do with monthly egg donation demanded immediate obedience. Dawdling was punished with a cut in wages. That was perfectly understandable, if you thought about how much our society needed those eggs. Normally, I was happy to do my civic duty. Just not today. Maybe I would get lucky and today would not be one of my fertile days. The egg harvesting procedure was not painful, but today, it was annoying.
That damned book was to blame. It had come into my hands yesterday, during the shredding. Quite by accident, I had skimmed over a page, and right off the bat, I had been hooked, against my will. The antiquated language had amused me, but the more pages I read, the more fascinated I was with the old volume. Had there actually been people who had wooed each other in such a convoluted fashion, instead of comparing their genetic profiles? I wasn’t sure why I found that whole back and forth between a man and woman so fascinating. But the fact was, I had started reading that book, which was against the rules, while shredding the newspapers automatically with my left hand. Even before the Sethari had attacked us, we hadn’t participated in convenient courting anymore. More than once, I had to read whole paragraphs over, to understand what the man and the woman really wanted from each other. The whole thing seemed barbaric and extremely primitive to me—but still, I couldn’t stop turning page after page. I hadn’t dared smuggle it out, so I could continue reading it in my living quarters, but it had prevented me from sleeping most of the night, anyway. On the one hand, I wanted to know how it would continue with the two of them, and couldn’t stop speculating about it. On the other hand, I couldn’t sleep, because the man had made his way into my dreams, in which I took the place of the heroine.
Usually I didn’t dream, and that made this night-time experience all the more disturbing. When my alarm went off, the thing that surprised me the most was the intensity with which I had felt every action, every touch. In the book, the cheeky tramp who stole a kiss from the duchess and broke her heart along the way, was described as dashing. I only knew vaguely what that meant, so my sleeping brain had literally created the man of my dreams out of him. He was tall, muscular, and had the brightest gray-green eyes you could imagine. I remembered exactly how they had bored into mine, before he had taken it upon himself to unbutton my shirt. In my dream, the start of my protest was suffocated by the man’s tongue, the skills of which were only surpassed by those of his nimble fingers. His cool hands had slid into the first gap that opened up in the fabric, and had continued his attack. I thought I felt his right hand gently brush my breast before he concentrated on the very hard tip. Inside my mouth, his tongue found its own fast beat, and then it was taken up by his thumb and index finger. Over and over, he pressed my stiff jutting bud between his fingers, sped up, and then slowed down, and pulled on it again. I could feel his arousal against my thigh, and the hardness almost made me lose my mind, just as much as his touch did.
Even in my sleep, I knew this man was a figment of my sick imagination. There was nobody like him in reality, and the things I felt when his cool skin touched mine, were indecent. He was much too intense. Everywhere his body touched mine, my skin burned. I heard myself groan in my dream, and it definitely wasn’t a sound of fear that had escaped my lips.
Yes, even in our difficult times, there were men and women who paired up naturally, at least that is what I had heard. But those kinds of things were only for the lowest classes who weren’t much better than animals. Driven by the most primitive of instincts, they united for the sake of lust—not for the sake of producing a child to aid in the recovery of our society. All of the other, normal human beings relied on genetic profiles in their search for a partner. That was safer. And better for our country.
The alarm was my savior. Before I got even more lost in my twitching limbs, it was time to get up.
I really hoped that the test would be negative today, and that I would be able to return to my work station right away. The dream was still pulling at me, like a spot on my back that was itching, but which I couldn’t reach with my own hands. The more I thought about the strange feelings that had filled my body, from my head to my toes, the more unsettled I became. Again and again, I looked over at the forbidden book. It had awakened something in me that I didn’t quite understand. I didn’t dare read further, nor could I lead it to its final destruction. The thought of grabbing it and reading another page, just one single page, made my heart drop to my knees. When I was told to report to the exit, in order to determine the state of my fertility, I realized that I absolutely did not want it to fall into someone else’s hands. So I hid it as well as I could.
I made my way through the various departments in the library building, towards the exit, and waved at my co-workers, who barely raised their heads from their duties. For a week, we had been shredding books and magazines that contained useless information, and there was no end in sight. Paper was a valuable resource, and it entered into the recycling process as soon as the mechanical aircraft picked up the containers full of paper shreds. I evaded one of the drones that was flying with an almost silent hum through the hallways, and turned my head to avoid its camera eye. I hated it when the drones stared at me with their insect-like eyes. Yeah, yeah, I knew they were lifeless tools, but the thought of being grabbed by one of them and being scanned, sent a shiver down my spine.
As with all humans who hadn’t yet fallen victim to the hundred-year war with the Sethari, I did my share to ensure the survival of the human race. I had received so much: a roof over my head, food to eat, and a job that brought a certain measure of responsibility with it. Not everyone was allowed to work in the library, where controversial information could be hiding. So why shouldn’t I give back, by donating something I could do without? I was aware of my tremendous good fortune. The work in one of the outside squads carried higher prestige with it, but was also more dangerous. The men and women in the outside service, defended our city against renegades and mutants. But I didn’t think that my contribution mattered less. And it was also no less dangerous, as I had seen in the example of that strange love story. But I thought I was mature enough to be able to see for myself how people had lived a hundred or more years ago. I was twenty-four years old now, and nearing the end of my fertile phase, so when, if not now, would I be wise enough?
I thought about the dreams the book had triggered in me. I had been sure that I could handle a novel full of almost hysterical emotions. Maybe, I admitted to myself with a sigh, I wasn’t as mature as I had thought. There were good reasons, after all, why women weren’t permitted to live with a partner until the end of their fertile phase.
Absentmindedly, I looked up. The sight of the glass dome in the entrance hall was so beautiful, that I had dawdled here from day one, just to be able to look at the sky through it. I had grown up in the city, and the sight of the blue expanse above me usually triggered mild anxiety in me. But looking at it through the glass dome, I loved the blue sky. I could have stood there for hours, watching the clouds drift by.
The library was a magnificent building that had survived the war unharmed, thus far. Maybe the Sethari had no interest in books. Just like the humans were focused only on survival, our detested conquerors were focused only on the submission of the Earthlings. In their eyes, a collection of printed paper was probably just as useless as music, films, or any other form of entertainment. The Sethari had only one goal: to eat. They were a race that fed on the energy of other life forms, and their search for nutrition left a trail of devastation in its wake. As soon as the resources of one planet had been exhausted, they would continue on their journey, fat and well-nourished. They didn’t care if their supplies, in whatever life form, only lasted for a short while. I often wondered how the Sethari, who didn’t plan much in advance, even managed to survive. But apparently, their tactics were successful, because, thanks to their superior weapons and advanced technology, they had been living on Earth for three generations like bees in clover. Twelve years ago, they had even released a virus that had left the majority of the women infertile in a very short time. It was only because of our scientists and the strict response by our authorities, that the birth rate was slowly increasing again. Thanks to women like me, who donated their eggs every month, a new generation of humans would grow up to fight the Sethari.
The muted light that penetrated through the thick clouds, made the dome shine in a golden light for a moment. I stayed standing there and looked up at the sky. It was so very far away, yet so close, as if I could stretch out my hand towards it and be able to touch the gray-blue hue. An inexplicable longing for something different, for something more, squeezed my heart.
A threatening prickle on my wrist brought my thoughts back to reality. It was the last warning before they came to get me. One last glance up at the dome, and I was at the exit.
I went through the wide door. Two heavily armed guards nodded at me. Even female workers like me were protected from attacks by wild beasts, and the renegades who gathered at the edge of the cities, sometimes launching surprise attacks to obtain food and valuable raw materials. I wondered what the rebels could want with paper shreds, but was thankful for the protection the guards offered us women, anyway. After the release of the devious virus, not only had most women become infertile, but horrible mutations had developed as well, and it was hard to tell if some had once been human or animal.
The transport was already waiting. I knew the procedure and went over to the small aircraft without hesitating. As expected, the door did not open yet to let me in. I held my armband up to the scanner first, and when the shrill beep sounded, I stuck my fingers in the designated opening. The hormone levels in my blood were measured with just a quick prick. A yellow light would tell me that my eggs wouldn’t be ready for harvest for another twenty-four hours. A green light meant that my eggs were ready for harvest. In that case, I would get in the transport, and ride with the other women to Sector M7, where the physicians had their offices. It was the red light I feared the most. It meant that my eggs were almost ready, and needed a little stimulation to become completely ripe. Women who saw the red light were taken directly to the U Sector. There, the women were subjected, for a long time, to sexual stimuli, until their bodies reacted the way the physicians wanted them to, and brought the eggs to full ripeness. In the Department of Reproductive Medicine, they had once explained to me that the window of opportunity, in which the ovum was in the best condition for artificial insemination, was only an hour long. The sooner the egg was harvested, the better.
By luck or fate, I had avoided that humiliating treatment up until now. But today, when my bad conscience was still tangled up with the physical turmoil left behind from the dream, I was filled with more than a bad premonition.
I stared spellbound at the little light. My throat went dry, and at that moment, the only things that existed in my universe were the lamp and me. I closed my eyes and imagined the yellow light that would give me a twenty-four-hour reprieve, during which I could be alone with my turbulent thoughts. I was almost sure that I could handle anything tomorrow. But today, I needed a break from it all, so I could return to being myself, who… the beeping sound that announced my results tore me away from my silent pleading. With shaking knees and a heartbeat I could feel in my throat, I forced myself to open my eyes.
The red light was blinking.
The doors stayed closed, the transport rose and left me behind, in front of the old library. For a second, I wondered if I could just go back inside to my work station. If I acted like nothing had happened, if I buried myself behind my shredder and worked diligently on my task, somebody would surely show leniency.
But it was already too late. The regular aircraft to the clinic had barely taken off when a different, markedly smaller one, came to a halt in front of me. The doors opened. Where there were usually two armed attendants to protect the aircraft, four men were waiting for me on this ship. They were wearing the same armor, had identical weapons, but seemed more like guards to me. There was no way I could escape. I squared my shoulders and got in. The sooner I put the procedure behind me, the better. With a little luck, I would be home again in three hours.
Unfortunately, luck had decided to ignore my existence. For a very long time.