South Asian Province
I know three things: (1) I am a prisoner of Solace Corporation; (2) I’ll be sent to containment without trial; (3) According to my Info-Run, the rate of survival in containment is 0.0001%. 0.0001%
The green number flashes in the corner of my vision. My wrists are bound with metal cuffs. Ignoring the ache, I lift my hands in forced prayer to my forehead, and hit the I-Scan to turn off my monitor. Some data even I don’t want to know.
The Maglev transport rickshaw barrels up, up and up through Central City. I’ve dreamt of coming here to the high Stratas of the neocity, Central, my entire life, but not like this. A girl from the Narrows in the Unsanctioned Territory has no business in Central, unless she set off an explosive device in the city and, say, that girl already has infractions for smuggling . . .
My new pals, the other criminals picked up by the gray collar guardians, look about as happy as me. Grays are terrorist hunters; they can do what they please with us. The white collar guardians are ticket-writers that police the SA, but the grays mean blood. The tall boy must be from the Northern cities because of how perfectly he wraps his turban. The tearstained Uplander woman to my right is pregnant; the pitch of her sari curves around her belly like a sand dune. She was probably taken because of the child growing inside her. An unsanctioned birth, I bet. Or worse, she falsified records to get her and her child into Central even though they were both declared unfit by Solace to live in Central.
And then there’s the boy with the long black hair in his face. It fell across his eyes when they put the restraints on him. He’s clean, looks like he just walked out of a holo-advert for an Uplander fetish product, and definitely doesn’t belong in a criminal transport. Through his hair, it’s clear his jaw has a replacement, chrome. He nods in my direction. Too cocky. But this was his idea.
“Hey, girl, where’d you get your replacement?” The turbaned Northerner yells above the transport engines. He winks and nods to my right arm, which had been disguised by my stolen white-collar guardian’s jacket and gloves. But the recent explosion blew apart my jacket and my chrome peeks through the silicone skin like an exposed secret.
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“Why? You want a referral?” I don’t look up, but flex my robotic fingers.
His laugh is as deep as the Arabian Sea. “Sharp tongue in your mouth must hurt.”
“There’s only one per son I know who can still do work like that,” he says.
“Yeah. She’s gone.”
“Wahe guru,” the Northerner chants a small prayer. “What happened?”
I look at my black combat boots, then at the Northern boy, making sure the guardians are busy. “That’s what I’m going to find out.”
The Northerner nods with conviction. I only met him an hour ago, but I already trust him.
The transport speeds toward the upper Stratas of Central, the towering city that twists higher and higher in the center of the Ring that cleans the air for the Uplanders to breathe. And the coast line that edges right up against the girders that keeps everything from sinking into the sea. Metal bridges like silver webs connect the crumbling old structures with the new. Animated holo-adverts project, on every surface, all the things the Uplanders should desire. What they desire most is power and perfection.
Alliance Con is a time for the remaining eight provinces of the world to show off their planet-saving tech to the Planetary Alliance Commission. The PAC holds the keys to the world bank, and they use Alliance Con to decide which province deserves continued funding. The province that shows the best tech that will allow humans to survive on this, our dying planet, wins the funding to survive another year.
Yeah, the South Asian Province has failed to secure additional funding the past three years in a row, and this is their last chance. The SA is coasting on fumes and loans. They’ve promised their newest tech will win this year. They haven’t said what the tech is. The massive holo-screen reads: “Happy Alliance Day! This is our year!” And I want to tear it down.
We pass a twenty-story crumbling Buddhist temple with a holo-advert promoting Solace Corps’ new divination program, Sign. The skyscraper beside it dances with gaudy neon lights of animated, pampered girls wrapped in immaculate fabrics, drinking the newest youth genetic edit. Garbage, all of it. Uplanders have everything but souls. The whole neocity was built on the backs and blood of my people who aren’t even allowed to live here.
The holo-screen at the next intersection flashes with a series of faces. The transport moves fast, but I know that face. How could I not?
The pregnant woman stops crying and looks at me. “Are you . . . ?”
“Hush, Auntie.” The boy with the long hair in his face whispers. I don’t need his protection. Even he knows I’m the fighter, he’s the brains.
“I’m no one,” I say, and something in the woman changes. She smiles and subtly presses her hand to her chest and nods. The secret sign of the Red Hand, only for my eyes.
“Quiet,” the guardian yells to us all. “Or we’ll muzzle all of you animals.”
The woman presses her hands together and prays silently. The city rushes past the windows. Millions of scenarios pour through my mind, wave after wave. We went over the maps. We know the steps back and front. Stick to the plan, I repeat over and over until the words are tattooed on my brain.
We’ll reach the entry way into the general prison containment in a few minutes, but not before crossing the tallest bridge in Central that connects the upper Stratas to the lower. I’ve heard the Uplanders on the other side of the barrier glow from the inside out. If I didn’t hate them so much, I’d envy them a little. A crowd gathers below. It pulses like a swarm of ants consuming fallen fruit. They are cleaning up for Alliance Con. Central must be taking down another memorial for the fallen from the Last Vidroh, the uprising in Central at the end of WWIII. The memorials were their way of quelling the population’s need for retribution after so much blood shed. They’d hate for the important visitors arriving during Alliance Con to see the SA as anything but perfectly content in our completely divided world. My teeth slip from clenching too hard and I bite my lip; my blood tastes like metal.
“Rise of the Red Hand”
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A guardian comes through the transport to test us for various viral agents.
“Arm, Downlander scum,” he says to me.
I stick out my replacement arm and smile. “Nice gray collar. Never seen one up close,” I smirk.
He bristles. “Not that one, girl. The human arm, unless you’d like both arms to be replacements,” the guardian says. The test hurts every time. And every time I’m cleared from the Fever. I wonder if it even exists or if it’s just a government plot to keep us in line and afraid. They’re looking for symptoms of fever, blue rash, the beginning marks of paralysis, but mostly for a way to humiliate us. It’s been a problem for a decade. They get it figured out, but then it returns. The guardian hits up the boy with long black hair and then the Northern boy. Clear. And then he approaches the woman. She sits before him with her face turned away. What’s she looking at through the thin glass of the transport? Her reflection, or something in the city?
The view from the bridge we cross is terrifying. We are at least fifty stories in the sky. I see the deep brown electricity clouds flash in the distance beyond the dome like bellowing sky beasts. Hundreds of miles across, the Barrens wasteland is a scorched dark brown and red desert surrounding Central. And though no life is said to be able to thrive there aside from cockroaches, its volatility is as striking and hypnotizing as a tornado.
“It’s beautiful,” she says to no one in particular.
The guardian bends down to administer her test. “Arm,” he says.
She doesn’t respond. Her long braid hangs down her back gracefully. She stands and faces him. Her body is thin, frail, aside from her belly, like most of us from the Narrows. He raises his pulse baton. I hate those things. The weapon is allowed under the New Treaty laws because it’s not considered lethal, but the guardians turn up the voltage high enough and know where to strike to cause heart attacks. I’ve seen it.
“Watch yourself woman. There’s nowhere to go from here,” he says.
The woman’s eyes pass through the guardian. “You would have been perfect.” Her hands rest on her belly. I notice a bluish bruise on her hand the shape of a cloud. The Fever. She recites a prayer in Gurmukhi, Masiji’s language.
“Sit down, now!” the guardian commands.
The woman takes another few steps toward the guardian and then backs up as far as she can in the transport. “For the Rani, the Lal Hath,” she yells.
The Red Hand.
I try to stop her. “No!”
She runs and throws herself against the transport’s cheap excuse for safety glass. It shatters into shards that flash across our faces like razor rain. She doesn’t scream, but I do. Her body falls down and down and down, and there’s no sound when she lands, not from here at least.
The guardians signal an alert and ready their weapons, but there’s nothing to do about the woman. The transport stops. They yell and push us back against the unbroken side of the vehicle.
My stomach is a nest of vipers.
“Wahe guru,” the Northerner prays. “She’s better off. God knows what they’d do with the child of a criminal.” Bitter tears cover my face and sting my new wounds from the shattered glass.
I nod at the boy with the long black hair.
We can not fail.
Olivia Chadha writes science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and literary novels for middle grade, young adult and adult audiences. She has a Ph.D. from Binghamton University’s creative writing program and a master’s from the University of Colorado Boulder’s creative writing program.