“My father was the brooding type—think first, act second. He taught me many things: when to fight and when to forgive. How to choose my battles. He taught me the importance of life and death.
“Most of all though, and despite his agony, he taught me the true meaning of freedom and what it meant for my mother. Her name was Alexandra, Alexandra 958,687,422.214.171.124.1.
“That means she was the nine hundred fifty-eight million, six hundred eighty-seven thousand, four hundred and eighty-seventh girl born in Sector 64 since the beginning of the war.
“And that she was her mother’s fourth child, and she spent two months in an establishment her first time and gave birth to one Perfect child.”
The man paused. He sat in a tacky, overstuffed gray armchair, his hands resting on his knees.
A fire blazed in the fireplace beside him and cast great shadows upon the flaxen wall behind him. Half of his angular face was cast in the darkness.
The journalist sitting across from him edged closer to see his face from a better angle. He was, after all, the child of a Perfect, and therefore one of the last people on Earth to have Perfect blood.
The journalist had seen pictures of Perfects before, when she was younger and when the photos still existed. She recognized the curved, dark brows, the long lashes, the full, wide lips, and the high cheekbones.
But his skin wasn’t the right color. It wasn’t pale like a Perfect, it was honey-colored and pulled taut against his prominent features. His hair, straight and thick, could have been Perfect had it not been so dark brown.
She couldn’t tell how old he was. His face was set into hard, determined lines.
“My mother was born in a nursery during the Eternal Albion. She was registered as a Pre-Perfect and lived in the nursery with her mother for a year before her mother was sent back to an establishment.
“Then my mother was sent to school. Her school was in Sector 64, what we know now as the North York Moors. For fifteen years she lived within the walls of her school, never stepping outside.
“She slept in a great hall with hundreds of other Pre-Perfect girls her age, and she was taught what was necessary and basic for girls in Albion.
“Neither she nor the other girls with her learned any politics, geology, or science—things that existed in most other places in the world. Though their biology classes were highly detailed, especially genetics.
“Every morning, at the beginning of the first class of the day, the girls in her school would stand in their classroom and face their teacher.
“Their hands would be placed over their hearts; their eyes were fixed on the great Eternal Albion flag that hung before them.
“Together they swore their lives to Eternal Albion; they swore to serve their country until the day they died. After, they would sit and be shown a short video.
“It had been designed by the Masters. It told of the war. It told of a great nuclear war that washed horror and death over the face of the world, leaving behind less than half of the world’s population alive.
“It told of a war still being fought a hundred years later. It told of the fall of Australia, the USA, and Nigeria. It told of the enemy powers in Asia: China, Japan, Indonesia, and India, aligned and fighting together.
“It told of Brazil, calling on the help of all the surviving islander nations, and it told of Europe. The great Europe, which had once been the center of the world; the powerful union of nations had fallen.
“Only Eternal Albion, floating above the continent, surviving as a single island, resists. But the nuclear war left in its wake more disaster than one could have possibly imagined, though it lasted mere months.
“Generations were born deformed and dysfunctional. They were a weak species of humans; they died young, and they were unable to fight. To save their people, the Masters created the Perfect human being.”
The man stopped again and ran his fingers through his combed hair, leaving it disheveled. He gazed at the fire, gazed at the floor, then up at the journalist.
“Is this what you want your listeners to hear?” he asked her.
She nodded her head once. “Yes, this is what everyone wants to hear,” she replied in a whisper.
He stared at her intently. She felt her cheeks blushing under his hard stare. She gazed at her microphone and waited. Finally, he cleared his throat.
“They were shown the video every day of their lives and internalized the information. It was the only version they’d ever been told.
“As for my mother, her life didn’t start, not really, until her seventeenth year. Like all girls her age, she assembled in the hall of her school and stood in a straight line facing a jury of Masters.
“It was the day of her Testing.”
I stand in the great hall, where we usually eat. Usually there are long tables stretching from one side of the room to the other and light-gray curtains hanging from the ceilings, parted to show the ash-covered earth outside.
Today the room is bare. Heavy iron blinds cover the windows and set the room in darkness. Only a few yellow bulbs that hang from the ceiling illuminate the room.
We stand in rows, ten rows of fifty girls. We’re dressed traditionally: long, gray, felt skirts wrapped tightly around our waists, with light-gray blouses made of light linen tucked into them.
We wear black ties, socks, and shiny shoes. Ribbons pull our straight blond hair back tightly. Before us stand our teachers and the Masters.
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Master. They’re taller than I expected, taller than us by far. They keep their blond hair cropped short and their sharp faces shaved clean.
There are five of them. They stand with straight backs in traditional gray suits.
After a while, they move away from our teachers, who go to stand in the back of the room. They blush slightly, intimidated by the power of these men.
The Masters sit down on the small stage in old plastic chairs, facing us. They hold papers in their hands, paper and pens.
I find myself concentrating on their papers. They’re very rare to come by; I’ve only seen a few in my lifetime. There aren’t many places in Albion that still make paper.
Behind the Masters hangs the Eternal Albion flag. It’s spectacular. A gray background tainted with red embers, and in the center, a red phoenix.
We are the people of the ashes. We have risen as a great power from the ashes that our forefathers buried us in. We are immortal; we are Eternal Albion.
I feel a certain surge of pride when I see the flag hanging behind our Masters. At the same time, I feel butterflies in my stomach. As silence envelops the room, I realize this is the moment that will define the rest of my life.
This is what I’ve been preparing for my whole life. This is my time to prove to my people that I’m worthy of being a Perfect, worthy of my country, and that I will serve it until the day I die, proudly.
I’m one of the youngest in my generation, so I stand in the last line, closest to the locked windows.
It’s the last day of Testing, and all those girls in the other lines have already been tested, have become Perfects, and now they’re waiting for us so we can go to the establishments together.
They look at us encouragingly, as if they’ve aged five years, as if they are already Albion mothers.
Finally one of the Masters looks up at our line. He peers at us closely and then turns to his list. He clears his throat; it’s the loudest sound in the room, and everyone tenses.
“Numbers 958,687,487.64.3 to 987,533,512.64.5,” he says, “please wait outside the room until your number is called. The rest of you are dismissed.”
There’s a shuffle of feet, and then we all place our hands over our hearts and face our flag. We swear our lives to the flag proudly. Then the girls who have already become Perfects leave the room silently.
My line waits for them to disappear before we exit into the corridor. There are long benches in place, and we sit down to wait. One girl stays inside.
Sandy, number 987,533,512.64.5. I see her glance behind us just before the doors close.
I sit with a racing heart, clutching the underside of the bench tightly. The girl next to me, Julia, bites her fingernails. She shouldn’t; she could get in trouble for that.
I’m not sure she’ll pass her test. Though she’s plenty fair and blond with dark eyes, her jaw is too sharp, her teeth are too large, and her lips don’t pull together well.
She spends most of her time with her mouth open, looking like a Cripple. As I watch her, I realize that she has a good chance of becoming a Defective and going to work in the factories.
Actually, a few other girls I’ve known my whole life have become Defectives this week. They didn’t stay around to see what would happen to the rest of us.
They were ashamed and left immediately to work for Albion, to serve Albion like they have been trained to. Just not as they had dreamed to.
Julia glances at me, then away again. I reach out and grasp her hand tightly. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. I know she’s thinking the same thing I am.
We wait, side by side, as girls are called into the Great Hall and others emerge.
Beth, my best friend, was made a Perfect yesterday. I didn’t doubt she would make it for a second. But she didn’t show any joy or pride for my sake.
She’s at the end of the corridor now, talking with one of the teachers. She glances in my direction and gives me a sharp nod. I hold my fist up and shake it to show her my strength. She smiles proudly at me.
Jennifer fails her test. She’s a Defective because of her wavy hair and short legs. Tears stream down her face as she moves past us, and Julia holds her breath.
The door creaks open and a Master appears. He gazes at his list.
“958,687,487.64.4,” he announces.
My heart skips a beat. I stand up slowly. Julia lets go of my hand with a small gasp. I glance back at her as I walk toward the Master. He gazes at me, then nudges me into the Great Hall.
The door slams shut behind me, and the Master walks across the floor quickly to join the others, his shoes slapping against the stone floor.
“958,687,487.64.4?” the middle Master asks. He’s older than the others, maybe one of the oldest people I have ever seen. Older than all my teachers. But he doesn’t look like a Cripple, just hardened by time.
I cast my gaze across the other four Masters. Three of them seem to be middle-aged; the one furthest to the left doesn’t look much older than me.
But his eyes are calculating and sharp, and I feel his gaze piercing through me like he can read all my thoughts. As if he knows all my memories and I could never hide from him.
I raise my chin and place my hand over my heart as I was taught to. This gives me a bit of strength, and after clearing my throat, I can answer.
“I am,” I say, then pledge my life to the flag and my country. When I finish, they write something down on their paper.
“Also known as?” one of them asks.
“Your mother as well?” asks another.
“The first daughter. You turned eighteen a month ago?”
“And you had your first bleed seven years ago?”
“Good. Has everything been regular since then?”
“The first two years were irregular, Master. But now they are regular, Master,” I reply.
They all nod with approval.
“You are your mother’s fourth child?”
“How many did she have in total?”
“Eight, Master. A full life, Master,” I reply.
“How long did she spend in the establishments?”
“Three months for the first time, two months the next few times, and six the last time,” I reply.
“That’s appropriate. How many sons?”
“Seven, Master. I was her only daughter.”
“Good. Very good. Hopefully her fertility will favor you. Now, hold your hand over your left eye and stand on that line.”
The Master points, and I move to the line a few paces behind me. A small chart of letters is placed at their feet. I cover my left eye.
“Read the letters.”
“No hesitations. Now the right eye.” He changes the chart.
“Good. Now step forward.” I move back into the middle of the room. “Can you tell us a little about your skills?”
“I enjoy sewing. I help mend uniforms quite often. I like children. I help with the younger girls when I can, Master.”
“Help with their classes?”
“Yes, and in the workshops. I’m good at teaching them how to organize their work in the workshops. And organizing them to go to bed, wake up, eat, and so on. I like organization.”
“So do we. Do you have many friends?”
“Not many, Master, but true and close friends.”
“Do you like sports?”
“What sports do you do, and how often?”
“I’m on the school track team, and I’m good at archery.”
“Yes, Master. We had classes here a few years ago, and I’ve continued.”
“That’s admirable. Good sports. Do you get sick?”
“Rarely, Master. I help out in the sick ward when I have time. I don’t get sick.”
“You have gotten sick?”
“Chickenpox, Master, when I was very small.”
“Ever had cancer?”
“Did your mother?”
“A few years back there was an attack in Sector 64. Were you exposed?”
“A few walls broke, and a whole classroom of girls was exposed. I was on the other side of the school, and I was safe.”
“You’ve never exited the school walls?”
“No, Master, never.”
“Good girl.” He leans back in his chair, gazing at me. The others stare at me fixedly as well. My heart races in my chest, and I hope that they don’t notice the red flush on my cheeks.
“You’ve had a medical test?”
“Yes, five days ago. I received all my vaccinations as well,” I reply.
“Normal, Master. Fruits and vegetables only, Master.”
“Where do they come from, do you know?”
“I help grow them, Master. In the gardens in the basement.”
“Correct. You’re almost finished. Would you please remove your clothing?”
I nod. I’ve been prepared for this. My heart racing, I take off my tie and fold it before placing it on the floor next to me. They watch and wait as I pull my shoes and socks off.
I remove my blouse, skirt, underwear, and finally the ribbon from my hair, which cascades down my back, straight, thick, and long. The Masters gaze at me as I stand naked in the room.
“Turn around,” one tells me, and I obey.
It’s cold in the room. I shiver, turn my back, then turn to face them again.
“Thank you. You may put your clothes back on.”
I nod. They stand up and step together to discuss while I dress. I haven’t quite pulled my hair back up when they turn back to me.
The oldest Master approaches me. He towers above me and places his hand on my shoulder. My heart races.
“As of this moment, Alexandra 958,687,487.64.4, you are a Perfect,” he tells me.
The air whooshes out of my lungs. I raise my chin and step around him to face the flag. Placing both my hands over my chest and kneeling, I lift my face to the flag and take in the gray background, the proud phoenix.
“I am of the ashes. I am reborn. I am Perfect. I am Phoenix. I pledge to serve my people in every way I can. I pledge to serve until the day I die, and I pledge to die for my people.
“I will be worthy of the Phoenix. I will give my country children—Perfect children—and I will kill for my country,” I whisper.
The Masters nod in approval. One reaches his hand down and pulls me to my feet.
“You are Perfect. You will not let anyone—Cripple, Traitor, Defective, or Foreigner—ever touch you or contaminate you. You are of the ashes.
“Fulfill your destiny, 958,687,487.64.4. Give your country children. That is your purpose in life. That is your most important duty. I look forward to seeing you again,” he says to me solemnly.
I nod, kiss his hand in respect, then bow deeply to the other Masters. They nod at me, then I’m guided back to the door, and they call the next girl.
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