The time of death record for Aria Sternman read 10:08 Hours, Day 15, Month Four, Year 2207. With shaking hands, Dr. Callahan logged the measurements of her seven-pound, eighteen-inch-long body and indicated the depth of her Immunity: complete and irreversible. He registered each number carefully into the database, rechecked his entry, and tried to keep the child from crying out. To be clear, Aria Sternman was not dead; but it was essential that the government believe she had not survived her initiation surgery.
His aide would return soon to take the body. Sweat glided down his forehead and he swiped it away with the back of his hand. He had to act quickly. Blue light glowed from the operating room walls and cast shadows on the three other infants. He paused above their glass covered cribs. Approval signatures glistened on their screens. The three children looked identical now, grey skin, steel irises, white hair. Products of Surgically Induced Albinism and marks of their entrance into the Republic’s SIA population. Aria was his first real failure, his first complete Immunity. Small spotting had occurred in other surgeries, imperfections that could be fixed with a few days at a Containment Centre. But never a complete reversal. He blinked at her coco coloured body, still astounded that she had completely returned to her body’s natural (and illegal) state.
A chime pealed from the speakers mounted above the operating table. “Thirty seconds until the clock runs out,” the computer marked.
The skin on his hairless arms puckered. There was not enough time. He returned to the squirming baby, syringe poised between his fingers. The serum would stop her heart for a few moments, freeze her body and prevent the monitors from registering her life. Her small, coffee-coloured chest rose and fell. Even for her own sake, he knew he would never have been able to murder her.
He clutched the body disposal bag as her eyes closed. He needed to stop shaking. Her body fit perfectly inside the cool, moulded case. The lock snapped shut. He straightened and adjusted his jumpsuit, brushed off the lapels of his lab coat.
The operation room doors slid open. Isabelle’s steps screeched against tile. He watched her expressionless eyes take in the surroundings, her features unreadable. A green-band encircled her right bicep.
“You were unable to complete her transformation?” she asked, crossing her arms in front of her chest. He had performed her surgery, played God with her body when he substituted regulation grey for her ivory pigment, resized her nose, restructured her cheekbones. He could see the faint, even lines made by his scalpel beneath her earlobes.
“Yes,” he said. He tried to keep his body stiff. Her eyes slid to the case and he swore she cringed. She did not lift her gaze. Like the rest of the Republic’s population, Isabelle had been conditioned to register fear of the Immune. Such education was efficient, binding, and powerful. All had, at one point or another experienced its hold, the way a shiver jolted like an electric shock through veins at the assumed threat. Even he, ashamed as he was to admit it, had felt it when seeing coloured flesh. Over time, however, his constant exposure to man’s natural state had desensitized him to it.
Her silvered eyes returned to his face, their pupils haunted. So different from the world he had glimpsed in Aria’s brown irises.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get some sleep.” He skirted around her, the bag clutched in his fist. She looked down at the container.
“Let me take care of the disposal.” She reached toward him, her arm extended in a precise angle.
“No, it’s fine. I can get rid of it.”
“No. I insist.” Her eyes were hard. He knew she did not want to touch the case. It could be easy, a voice whispered to him from the depths of his mind. Hand over the child, let her perish quietly in the icy chamber and no one will ever know of your treachery, of how you went against government protocol. You’ll be saving the girl if you do that, from Containment Centres and a science experiment-geared existence. His fist tightened around the handle. No, he could not. He ground his teeth together. Time ticked on the overhead digital and his chest stiffened. Fifteen minutes: that was all she had.
“Step aside, Isabelle,” he whispered.
Her eyes widened at his tone. He could see her fingers jump to the emergency alert button. Stay calm, he told himself. Stay calm and no one will have to die today.
He cleared his throat and straightened his lab coat, focused on the biodegradable threads. His heart rate slowed. “I would like to use this as an opportunity to educate myself in failure,” he said. “I need to remind myself that I can make mistakes that others such as yourself will never experience.”
Isabelle stepped back, her white tennis shoes whispering across the floor. Her fingers twitched away from red alert.
“My apologies, Doctor. Forgive me. I was only trying to do my job.”
“Aren’t we all,” he whispered and stepped past her into a hallway. His heart slammed into his chest, muscles in his fist tense. He had to get out of here, to keep moving. The white corridor blinded him as he hurtled through the hospital. Other exam rooms with red occupancy lights above their archways flew by him. For a moment, he wondered whose life the other red-band doctors held in their hands, who they welcomed into society with scalpels and pigment-neutralizing tools. But he could not pause. He had to continue.
As he walked, he calculated Aria’s time in his mind. He knew that her heart would continue to slow down with the chamber’s drop in temperature. Her body would eventually freeze into stillness. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. Just get down the stairs to the platform.
The steps flew beneath his soles, a concrete escalator to Earth. He stopped and fumbled for his ID. The laminated ecoplast folder cut into his hand as he scanned it across the sensor.
“Joseph Callahan. Exit time: 10:21 AM.”
He blinked. An entire day had slipped by in the windowless room, an insomniac’s nightmare. No, I must have slept at some point. But as he recalled the past twenty-three-and-a-half hours, he could not remember complete darkness at any point. Scalpels and blood coloured his memory. They must have given him something, perhaps an IV of potent drugs to keep him awake and alert. There was a cure for everything now, from exhaustion and fatigue, to hunger and poverty. He looked down at the case. Was it supposed to shock him that he used viruses, Old World vehicles of sickness, to maintain the Republic’s rules? He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
The exit door swung open in a metallic screech. A shiver slunk across his skin, his nerves blanketed in the sky’s fogged light. Sometimes, he had difficulty telling the difference between the city and the skyline. The grey mist covered him, equated him with ghost matter. He blended into a world of steel skeletons whose sun was hidden by clouds. And he hoped, in the end, perhaps there would be something that made him stand out.
A shoulder collided with his bicep, skin contacting skin.
“Sorry,” the woman said. Her white hair was cut short at her chin, her grey skin perfect in its uniformity. Unchecked anger bubbled in his gut. He readjusted his grip on the case. Bodies moved around them in a constant tide of lost memories.
“Citizen, are you all right?” she asked. Her silver eyes bowed downward. It amazed him how uneasiness could contort features, how his mere presence inspired fear somewhere in the recesses of her mind. Even if she did not understand why, her subconscious reacted to his high classification red band with a mixture of alarm and unease.
“I’m fine,” he muttered. She hesitated and met his eyes again. Her pale irises framed black pupils. They reminded him of what he’d been trying to forget since the previous morning, the mistake he had made.
Faces around him swam in oil rainbows. His knees threatened to buckle. He didn’t have time for this. But the memory fired through his mind and paralyzed his neurons.
He had rules, a routine. A cooling cup of coffee in the morning followed by application of his white and purple Syra-Strips before he left for work. He would stand for a few moments at the window to desensitize his body.
But that previous morning, he had spilled the coffee and broken routine. His hands shook at the remembrance. Faces around him morphed. Colour shocked across their blank bodies as exhaustion pulled him back in time.
He remembered how, at the beginning of the day, before he’d known who his patients were, before he had seen Aria Sternman’s eighteen-inch body, the coffee pooled on the counter in a brown puddle that tainted the silver surface. The plane’s uniformity irritated him at that moment, its unwillingness to absorb the liquid jarring his body into anger. He tried to focus on the walls again, but he could feel the brown ooze, the way the puddle grew into an imperfect glob. He needed to break dishes, shatter glass, spill pots of colour on the walls.
But he couldn’t be destructive and risk drawing that type of attention to himself. Instead, half-blind in the darkness, he stumbled to the back of his apartment and unlocked the secret door.
“Doctor, I discourage you from –”
“I need to get in there,” he said to the house bot.
“You haven’t applied your Strips,” she continued.
“They won’t help now,” he snapped. The code gave beneath his fingers as he felt the spilled liquid drip onto the kitchen floor. Tick, tick, tick.
He flung the entrance open. The sight shocked his senses. Electricity vibrated up his nerves. Photographs papered the walls. Their faces were beautiful, their gazes stark. Irises encircled pupils in bright blues and dull browns. Sharp angled jaws, pimpled cheeks, all facets imperfect. He had carefully traced over the outlines of these people’s bodies with scissors and papered the apartment in one of his anxiety fits.
These models weren’t playboy bunnies or porn stars with their synthetic lips and plastic skin, an adolescent’s wet dream. Granted, such magazines were easier to come by than the organic, forgotten documents of the Old World. The doctor had hunted down these photos, rescued them from old newspapers, expired paper records, disposed photo albums, even obsolete driver licenses, all sold on black market backstreets.
The photo directly before him drew his attention. A young girl, her coarse hair held away from her face in tight black braids, stood out from her surroundings. Her midnight skin gleamed and moved like liquid ink. Her front tooth was missing. These details marked a darker time, after the Resource Wars but before the Nuclear Apocalypse. Before race and culture had been defined in medical encyclopaedias as a disease, before the tumour of natural pigment that ate away at humanity’s survival had been removed.
He blinked as his heart slowed. The muscles in his shoulders relaxed. The faces swam before him in an opiate-like haze.
“Doctor, your transport departs in one minute,” the house bot warned. The voice shocked him into motion and he tore his gaze from the girl’s dancing eyes.
A pause. Then, “Are you sure you are in condition to go to work?”
“Just give me the Strips,” Dr. Callahan sighed. The spilled coffee had disappeared, absorbed by the apartment’s micro-sensors. Catalogued, cleansed, and recycled. Even though it was gone, the doctor could see the stain, the fluid glob spread itself across the steel. The image did not startle him as it had before. He would apply the porous sheets and everything would return to normal. Two Syra-Strips, one purple and another white surfaced on the counter. They twisted beneath his gaze. He shook his head at the hallucination. This was what happened when you resisted years of education, years of conditioning. You began to go crazy.
“You have thirty seconds.”
He grimaced and pinched the strips between his fingers, peeled off the adhesive. In one quick movement, he slapped the sticky ribbons on his forearm. He felt the band’s micro-teeth fit themselves into his pores and release serum into his bloodstream. His mouth went dry as he clutched the counter.
The timer on his watch blinked red. He glided across the floor and stepped inside the ecoplast portal. So similar to the cradles he would soon operate from without. As he looked through the panelled window at the empty house, he could see coffee stain the white walls. A reminder of what he would return to. He closed his eyes, felt the syrup soothe his nerves and burn his palm. But the dark girl from the photograph stared at him behind his eyelids. Unease leaked into his veins. The last time he’d looked at the photos before a procedure, his patient had gone into shock on the operating table. Too much of one drug or another, he couldn’t be sure. He shook his head. That wasn’t going to happen today.
Dr. Callahan blinked at the sky, the coffee blot a shadow against the clouds. The SIA woman had vanished, the transport station empty except for his vehicle. Gaping holes of a thousand bare portal docks dotted the concrete landscape. He walked down the barren rows. Aria’s case felt heavy in his hand, yet he calmly swiped his fingertips across the lock, the metal cool against his heated skin. And he knew the child would not die.
The baby kicked on the chair cushions in the secret room, her dark flesh encased in a white post-delivery onesie. He’d run diagnostics on her vitals a hundred times in the past fifteen minutes. Heartbeat, check, lungs, check, motor skills, check. All functioned like any other healthy, recently initiated, SIA newborn. Just one glance, however, would tell anyone else she was anything but a normal citizen.
How was she going to go to school, interact with the rest of the world? Was this small box of a room really much of an improvement from the Containment Centre? She blinked up at him. Her limbs paused as he held his fingers close to her hand. She reached toward him and her soft skin grazed his ridges.
He glanced up at the walls, the photos that had forced him to make such a miscalculation drawing his gaze. He remembered the first photograph he collected, a porcelain-skinned woman with dark brown hair and blue eyes. At five-years-old, he’d noticed it caught on the window of a train, a primitive form of mass transportation. He’d shown it to his parents, who in horror, tore the photograph in half and warned him to never look for it again. But he wasn’t responsible for his emotions and what they required of him; it was not his fault that his job had made his conditioning obsolete. He smoothed the photograph of the dark-skinned girl back against the wall.
A cry pierced the silence and he looked down sharply. His brows knitted as he lifted Aria up and held her to his chest. Automatic reflexes he couldn’t explain. Cradles, food, necessities as such would be easy to find. He could even reprogram his house bot to nurse the girl while he was at work. But when she grew up, he wouldn’t be able to keep her inside. It wouldn’t be fair. He patted her back and she coughed. Bubbles gurgled in a stream from her lips onto his lab coat.
I can teach her how to play chess, show her the works of Aristotle and Shakespeare. A smile radiated from his lips. As a member of the red-banders, he was given freedom, characterized by the sting of liquor and silent hours of solitary reading. He enjoyed the company of long-dead poets and idealists, but he could only teach the silver countertops so much before he felt as though he was crazy.
He ran his palm lightly over her scalp and looked into her roaming eyes. The brown irises absorbed him, deep in comparison with the photos that gazed upon him. So many infants had come before her, their joyous expressions unremarkable. He had let her remain in forbidden form. And once he gazed into the fiery orbs, he couldn’t imagine taking their light away with a few flicks of a scalpel.
The photo of the African girl at a playground in Johannesburg smiled down at them. The surrounding faces peered out of their photos, finding comfort that Aria was one of them, not alien as the rest of their generations and descendants had become. He sighed as warmth spread through his chest. As long as he kept her mutation a secret, hid her differences, no one would ever have to know. And maybe she would help him understand why they needed such masks in the first place.