“This will hurt if you don’t hold still.” I grab Zinnia’s wrist, but she tries to wriggle free. I hold firm, and she relaxes for about two seconds. There. I manage to prick her thumb with the lancet and steal a drop of blood.
Zinnia trembles on the stainless steel table. Her eyes widen. Small hands crush the hem of her white dress. Bright red seeps from the thumb prick, staining the fabric.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I pat her arm.
Zinnia glares at me.
She’ll get over it. I drop the scarlet bead of blood onto the gold chip and shove it into my scanner’s data port. When I press the button, the laser comes to life and pulses across the sample.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” I say. “You can call me Trina if you like.”
Zinnia’s mouth clamps shut, and she bows her sun-kissed head as though her prayer will somehow change the results. I almost ask her why she’s so scared. What would make her feel better. But then I remember my own Counting and shudder.
“I was five, too, when I was Counted.”
Zinnia peeks at me. “Did you get that then?” She points at the scrolled, metallic tattoo, dark against the pale skin of my right wrist.
“Sure did. When I finish your test, you’ll get one, too.” Everyone is marked. Chosen and Defect alike. I suppose the tracking tattoos are the Union’s way of making sure we don’t run away, though I don’t know why anyone ever would. “Can you guess what your results will be?”
“I don’t wanna be Chosen.”
“What are you talking about?” I say. “Everyone wants to be Chosen. It’s a privilege.”
Zinnia scrunches her nose.
The scanner clicks and trills a mix of high-pitched notes. I expect to see another common reading in Zinnia’s test results, that she’ll be a Tradesman or a Laborer – just another Defect. But I’m surprised when the number pops on the screen.
“You’ve got a Selectee Index number of 7.9831,” I say. Zinnia gives me a blank stare, so I smile. “That’s good news. You’re Chosen to be an Engineer one day.”
“What’s an engineer?”
“Someone who builds great big buildings, like the Chief Administrator’s Palace.”
She makes a sour face. “I don’t want to build things. I want to dance.”
I laugh at her desire to choose her future. It doesn’t matter what she wants. The scanner has already decided for her, like it did for me twelve years ago. And like it does for every citizen of the Union. That’s the way of the Genetic Census.
“Hold out your wrist,” I say in a firm voice and pull the tagging bracelet out of my lab coat pocket. “This may sting.”
Zinnia squirms as I slide the device over her wrist, but she doesn’t cry like the other children this morning. I key in the code, wait five seconds and remove it. A metallic tattoo smiles back. I wave the scanner over her wrist to activate the tracking code and genetic classification.
“You’re all set. Time to go.” I lift her off the table, noting the fresh scent of soap nestled in her hair.
“Where are we going?” Zinnia’s voice is so small, like an echo.
“To find your mother.”
Zinnia traces the curve on her wrist as she shuffles down the narrow, white corridor of the Counting Center. The camera eye follows us. A blinking red light seems to keep time with our pace. Zinnia squints at the lens and slows her pace. Glass doors swish open and shut as we pass a labyrinth of rooms, each one hinting at the smell of blood.
When we reach the Separation Room, a laser eye blinks and a steel-framed door glides open. A cold jet of air rushes over my exposed skin. I’m struck by the sharp antiseptic scent, stronger than usual. I’d much rather skip this part of the Census, but I can only do my job. The one I was Chosen for.
In the middle of the room, Zinnia’s mother sits at a steel table, her face cradled in bony hands, as though lost in silence. When we enter, she stands, and Zinnia pushes me aside to run into her mother’s arms. The mother leans down. Her coal black braid swings like a tail over the white lace collar of her dress. With trembling hands, she strokes Zinnia’s hair.
There is no easy way to do this, so I blurt it out. “You’ve got five minutes to say good-bye.”
The mother stares at me. Her eyes are splintered with red cracks as though she’s been crying, and her bottom lip twitches. No one in the Census training sessions mentioned this look. It’s not the look of a mother doing her patriotic duty. It’s the look of a desperate woman. A woman on the edge.
Zinnia tilts her head. “Why are you crying?”
“Be a good girl,” her mother says in a choked voice. She clutches Zinnia tight, and they sway back and forth as though they are alone in the room. A strange sensation flickers through me, seizing my stomach. I try to brush it away – bury it even – but it squeezes tighter. It’s not right for the Chosen to feel such things.
Zinnia’s eyes swell into pink puffs. “I want to go home.”
My voice lowers, almost a whisper now. “The Union is your home now, Zinnia.”
As soon as I say it, I want to take it back. Zinnia hides her face in the folds of her mother’s skirt, shutting me out. I stand motionless for the passing minutes, hammered by the blow of Zinnia’s tears and the jab of her cries. What can I do? This is not the scene they showed me on the training videos.
The crimson glow of the communication panel blinks on and off. I exhale slowly and tap the button. “It’s time,” I say into the speaker. My voice cracks on the last word.
“Acknowledged,” the guard on the other side says.
In an instant, the mother transforms into a vicious creature, not at all the same quivering dove I’ve spent the last few minutes watching. Her arms coil around Zinnia’s leaf thin frame. “No, you can’t take her.” She shoves Zinnia behind her body, a fortress wall.
My tongue lodges in the back of my throat. The flickering sensation reaches up my spine, my mind racing. After the devastation of the War, the Census brought stability back to our way of life. It gave us peace, order from chaos, and prosperity once again. Which is why parents give their children to the Union. Willingly. Not in defiance.
This woman is poised to strike at me…I don’t understand. Why won’t she let Zinnia be Chosen? I rub my forehead. My Testing Station will be safe. The only place I’m sure I won’t have to witness the gruesome scene I fear is about to take place.
But I’m too late.
The guard marches into the room, led by the stiff crease in his pants leg. The gold eagle of the Military Guard blazes on his gray uniform. With an unsteady finger, I point at Zinnia. He nods his shorn head and grabs Zinnia’s hand. Each movement is carried out with precision, a mathematical equation worked out step by step.
Only the answer to this equation has more than one outcome.
Zinnia grabs a fist full of her mother’s skirt. The guard steps between the pair and wrenches them apart. She flails in his arms. Each kick of Zinnia’s foot stings me, as though I’m the one carrying her out, stealing her away from her mother. Her screams pierce like ice picks, and all I can do is turn away.
I’m left holding the scanner, staring at Zinnia’s mother.
The mother plunges to her knees and claws my leg. “Have mercy,” she cries, each gasp another sting.
What am I supposed to do? Zinnia’s already been Chosen. Her classification already uploaded. The Genetic Census must be completed…right? Without it, what will prevent another war from breaking out?
I rub the back of my neck. I can’t deal with this right now. As I turn to leave, her hands grab my ankle, shackling me to the ground. I try to break free, but she pulls harder, causing my arm to snap forward. Something hard hits my leg. The tranquilizer. It’s standard procedure to carry one, though I never understood why until this moment.
The mother’s grip tightens, a vise around my ankle. There is no choice now. With a sigh, I thrust my hand into the pocket of my lab coat. The smooth metal handle is cool inside my clenched fist, which is odd because my fingers are already ice.
She loosens her hold on me and lowers her voice into a rasping whisper. “For honor and union.”
It’s like someone kicks the air out of my lungs. The day of my Counting floods back to me as if it were yesterday. I’m standing by the window of my childhood home. Sunlight searches through the dust speckled panes of our small compartment. The scent of freshly baked bread spirals through my nostrils. And my mother is next to me, humming.
She brushes my hair in soft, deep strokes, not pulling a single strand too tight. Her fingers dance as she weaves the strands into a thick, copper braid. I look just like her, only a smaller version. Same smooth skin. Same pale blue eyes.
“Hold still, Trina,” she says as I wriggle. Then she spins me around and speaks the exact words Zinnia’s mother spoke. “This is for honor and union.”
Only they were the last words she ever said to me. She never came to the Separation Room to say good-bye that day. In a flicker, the images are gone. I’m left alone again.
I stand shivering, let the tranquilizer drop to the floor.
In front of me, Zinnia’s mother doubles over, sobbing uncontrollably. An unseen hand locks around my chest, squeezing, as she melts down. Even if I stop Zinnia’s selection, it won’t keep the dozens of others from being Chosen this year. All sent to a life of privilege, wanting for nothing. But they’d still be alone, with no one to love them the way a mother or father could. I shudder. Who will I separate next? A son and father? Another daughter and mother? I shock myself that I harbor such forbidden thoughts.
“Get up,” I say.
I can’t be responsible for her pain. Not today. She looks up, tears streak her face like tea stains. Red patches blot her cheeks. She looks as though she hasn’t slept in weeks. What I’m about to do could get me punished. Really, I don’t want to think about that right now because if I do, I’ll probably change my mind.
I pull out the scanner. The genetic status window pops up. I glance at the mother. She’s trembling, clutching her hands close to her heart. My finger twitches as I scroll past Chosen and select Defect.
I buzz the guard station. “There’s been a mistake,” I say into the speaker. “That last little girl…” The mother stares at me, eyes reborn with hope. I swallow hard. “Her name is Zinnia. It was merely a false reading on the scanner. Sorry about that. Bring the Defect back.”
“Sure thing,” the guard replies.
The woman lunges for me, but I pull away, shake my head. “There’s no honor in defiance.”In the heavy silence that passes between us, I begin to wonder what I’ve just done.