by Shannon Duffy
Copyright © 2015 by Shannon Duffy. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
My nails bite into the edge of the sofa. I know my parents are stealing glances at me from the couch beside me, but I pretend not to notice, not to flinch. I keep my eyes locked onto the port screen.
There was a massive power shortage in Tower province last night—one that allowed a convict to escape from Olympus Jail. Normally, a jailbreak would be bad enough, but this wasn’t just any convict. This was Darian One Sterling.
A murderer. And my childhood friend.
The newscaster scowls as Darian’s picture flashes in an emergency announcement.
“Desiree,” Dad says. He opens and closes his mouth, then shakes his head. I can tell my parents are worried I’ll pity Darian because of our childhood friendship. But I don’t. Going against The Protectorate wasn’t just a violation. It was plain dumb. The Protectorate provides the citizens of Tower with everything we could need.
Darian’s infraction, breaking into a head Protectorate office and stealing government files, is a serious crime. It would have led to at least five years in jail. But when his parents attempted to turn him in, Darian murdered them in cold blood. That’s a crime punishable with life in the Terrorscape, where you experience the worst nightmares imaginable.
“He used to be such a good boy,” Mom mumbles.
I know what she’s thinking. She says it all the time about the convicts. The Protectorate guarantees, within a 99 percent accuracy rate, that every citizen will feel like he or she is a valuable part of society. Anyone who doesn’t is just trouble.
Dad leans in toward the port screen, gazing at Darian’s jail photo. Darian’s dark hair has been buzzed short, and his crystal-blue eyes pierce the screen. “He isn’t good anymore,” Dad says, stealing another glance at me as if for a reaction.
I blow my hair out of my eyes with a huff, then turn to face Dad. “They’ll find him,” I say. “It’s just a matter of time.” Mom squints, studying my features. “Can you turn it off, please,” I say, then yawn dramatically. “I’m going to bed.” I smile and kiss them both on the cheek before I leave the room.
I don’t really have to fake sleepiness because I’m actually exhausted. When the power outage occurred last night, the Dreamscape shut down. The whole province of Tower woke up in the middle of the night, so I didn’t get my usual eight hours of sleep.
Without the Dreamscape, we can’t sleep.
My parents remind me all the time about stories their parents told them, of how things were in the Manic Age. The time before our bodies were upgraded to sync with the amazing invention called the Dreamscape. Thirty-eight years ago, people actually had to fall asleep on their own and, sometimes, they would toss and turn for hours. My grandparents said when sleep, in its mercy, did come, it often brought with it horrible images I’ve heard people used to call nightmares.
The thought sends a chill rushing through my veins. In all my sixteen years of life, I’ve never experienced a single nightmare. The Protectorate manages our dreams—and our lives—to perfection.
Until last night when the power went out.
One power outage isn’t really cause for concern, I remind myself.
I head across our flat toward my bedroom, my shoes clicking against the steel floor. Here in Emerson district, as in all of the six districts of Tower, The Protectorate ensures all homes are made with the finest steel walls and floors, and equipped with air-purifying systems. Viruses and ailments can’t spread as easily in such an environment. Just another way they protect us—and another reason why Darian is so painfully ungrateful.
I scurry toward my large, steel bedroom door and press my face against its cool surface a moment. Darian got what he deserved. He’s not the Darian of my childhood—the one who played jacks with me on the sidewalk, despite being a year older. Nor is he the Darian who stood up for me when Asher bullied me and called me Carrot Top until I cried.
I’d tried telling Asher my hair was auburn and not like a carrot at all, but that just made him laugh harder. Darian shoved him down, threw sand in his face, and told him to leave me alone. At the time, I thought it was heroic, but now I realize it was a sign of the violence brewing inside him.
With a sigh, I push the door open and head toward my bed. I pass my drawing easel with barely a glance. Not even the bluest shades of azure and cobalt mixed with swirls of ivory on my current seascape can pull me away tonight.
Slipping out of my shoes, I plunk down on my mattress, too tired to bother changing. I lie on my back and slip under the crisp, cool, white sheets.
Even if I did feel bad for Darian, I wouldn’t admit it. Siding with anyone who violates The Protectorate would make me Noncompliant. That would make me almost as corrupt as him. To side with those who violate The Protectorate is strictly forbidden and punishable by a week in the Terrorscape. Like always, whenever someone is jailed, the first five minutes of their time in the Terrorscape is televised nightly for all to witness. The thought of it makes me shudder. And the shame it would bring on my family is the stuff I believe nightmares are truly made of.
No, I’m not Noncompliant.
My parents have nothing to worry about.
I take a deep breath as I stretch both my arms behind my head and reach for the Dreamscape, eager for sleep. Its accordion-style Syncro-Drifter hums as I pull it out from the headboard of my bed until the spherical surface attachment stops and hovers inches above my face.
With a yawn, I hold the inside of my right wrist against the red, blinking scanner on the side of the Syncro-Drifter’s metal surface. It emits a tinkling sound, then flashes green as it syncs with the sensor beneath my skin.
“Relax, Desiree Six Haven,” the Dreamscape’s lilting voice says to me, chiming out its usual welcome.“The Dreamscape will begin its dream sequence in two minutes.”
Already I feel its soothing rhythm pulsing through me.
Still, a slight ripple of anxiety twists my insides as the Dreamscape starts pulling me under. Tonight I’ll dream the same thing I’ve dreamed about since I turned sixteen nine months ago.
The face of my future mate.
Guilt rips through me for letting myself be nervous. With all The Protectorate does for us I shouldn’t be anxious. They’ve done everything in their power to relieve the population of painful emotions. If anything, I should feel more grateful.
Images twirl behind my closed lids. It’s the beginning of every Dreamscape sequence. A set of hands, palms facing up, appears before me with the words “The Protectorate” floating above them.
“The Protectorate,” a woman’s voice whispers, misty and soothing, as if reading the words. “Here to keep you safe and guide you through life without worry. We are the helping hands of society. Come—rest your mind with us.” The hands spread out, rise up slightly, then disappear.
In their place an image of a snowy owl—the logo of The Protectorate—appears, fluffs its white downy feathers, and releases a low hoot. All my life I’ve grown to expect the image of the beautiful creature and the lulling sound it makes before the dream sequence begins. It’s always soothed me.
But tonight as I drift off to sleep, I remember that soon I’ll see Asher, my childhood bully’s face, in my dreams.
Since he is my life-mate, we’ll be bound together at the age of eighteen. Every night, at the end of every dream, he holds out our binding necklace to me, wearing the same familiar smirk I’ve grown to resent.
In some ways, I wish we’d known who our binding mate was going to be from birth. Maybe then Asher wouldn’t have been so mean to me. But at least now I have just over one year to get used to the idea. I know this year of dreaming of my mate is The Protectorate’s way to better prepare me for our binding. I also know this should be enough and that it should make me happy.