The White Lilac
Chapter One: Caryn
If I do this I will only have one week left to live. I stand near the edge of the practice aquarium unable to step forward. My heart pounds in my chest at the sight of the gray water and I am overwhelmed by the desire to hyperventilate again.
“Caryn, you need to focus,” Seventh Official Anderson says from somewhere behind me. “Are you listening?”
I swallow and nod, but I can’t take my eyes off the water. He steps between me and the aquarium and my focus readjusts to his dark blue suit and buttoned shirt. His tie is missing, like usual, probably stuffed in his pocket and his brown hair has been brushed through with his fingers one too many times so it sticks out beyond the dress code allowance. The dress code is not always enforced, but for today with so many important people watching, it could get him in trouble. The practice aquarium may look empty, like any other day we practice here, with its white concrete walls and quiet, stone floor leading from the entrance, surrounding the aquarium track, and ending at the showers, but I’ve seen the rooms that ring around the tinted glass of the underwater track and I imagine they are filled with people. All those people stuffed in rooms, unable to move freely, needing air.
“Listen,” Anderson says, snapping me back. “I know this is the Tournament and you are racing for the position, not for practice, but you need to breathe. I don’t want to carry you to Dr. Vos’ office today. Close your eyes and concentrate.”
The air in my chest shakes its way out of me as my eyelids close, yet the water still seems to glitter before me and the vice around my lungs keeps me from breathing in. I can’t help remembering the day Heather drowned four years ago. The sensations are too real, the weight of the water, the lack of oxygen, the sense of helplessness. All my nerves are on fire and already I can feel the water around me, suffocating me like it did her.
“Relax.” Anderson touches my shoulder. “If you want to lose, this fear will be the perfect excuse.”
“I don’t want to lose,” my voice whispers as I inhale. Silently I repeat this to myself over and over until I can breathe without shaking. I can’t lose, not after what I have done. I let Heather drown. I failed her when she needed me most, but I won’t fail again. It has to be me. It is the only way to make things right.
“Good, then keep breathing. This is not going to be easy, both May and Janissa want this and they have been training just as hard as you have. If you falter, they will beat you, but you are faster, stronger and more agile.”
“And I’m older,” I say. My back straightens and my breath steadies and deepens. I open my eyes to see Anderson’s face soften.
“You are older, but not by much. They know what they’re doing. You are not responsible for what happens to them, or for what happened to Heather.”
Anderson has said this before, but when he arrived the day of the drowning, Heather was already dead. Perhaps if he had seen how long I froze watching her suck in water or if he knew how my finger hovered over my panic button unable to press it, he would disagree. Or perhaps he would think differently if he knew she would smile at me as we walked to the pools, my thin body barely fitting in my swimsuit and my brow creased, and she would say, “Don’t worry about your time, just make me proud today.” It is all I ever wanted to do. It’s the only reason I’m here today, because if Heather were still alive she would be here and she wouldn’t want May or Janissa to die gathering the cure. But Heather’s not here and it falls to me to protect May and Janissa, even from themselves. It’s what Heather had done for me and I inherited the job.
I see Eighth Official Rafferty yelling in May’s ear while she nods and rolls her shoulders back to loosen her muscles. She’s thirteen and a half, but because of her shorter height, she could pass herself off as ten, at least that is what I have heard the staff here say. Janissa is taller, almost my height, even though she just turned thirteen a month ago. Her goggles are already in place as she bends over to touch her nose to her knees. Tenth Official Jones keeps patting her back, motioning at the water and pointing at the scoreboard. He is sweating and I see his lips form the word win again and again.
I don’t really know either May or Janissa very well and it’s my fault. Sure we work out together, have similar schedules, and are all focused on the same goal, but I stand here realizing it has been years since we just talked about normal stuff. Probably before we were given individualized trainers, and that is my fault too. I was the one who testified that Second Official Whit would train Heather and me for sixteen hours a day and when they disbarred him they also ruled that the same official could not train all of the candidates. From that day on we were all given our own trainers and no longer spent as much time together. Plus there is a bond between May and Janissa, much like the closeness I felt to Heather, only now Heather is not here.
I drag my eyes away and stare up at the metal rafters above me glistening with moisture. It is as if I am already encased under the water.
“I hate this aquarium,” I say to Seventh Official Anderson.
“I hate the course.”
“You still have to swim it today. There’s nothing I can do about that. Everyone has to do things they hate, even me.” He pauses a moment before going to double check that the contents of my equipment bag are correct. Then he takes my warm-up jacket and places it on one of the chairs along the wall. “Not everyone expects you to win.”
“I expect it to be me,” I say softly, but I doubt he hears me. I swing my arms in large, fast circles and take deep breaths. Just twice more and I will never have to do this again. And I will make Heather proud.
I walk back to the chairs, take the swim cap Anderson is holding out to me, and carefully tuck my shoulder length, blond hair into it. He hands me my goggles and says, “Try to relax.”
I hear the water lapping against the side of the aquarium and I think this is as relaxed as I am going to get. I try not to remember how it feels when the water flows over my head and the sense that I may never come back up that washes over me. I can do this.
“Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the Beta Earth Compound’s 15th Bicentennial White Lilac Competition,” Sixth Official Richard says. His voice echoes against the walls and makes the water droplets along the rafters tremble. Like our audience, Richard is also in one of the rooms below. He’ll be monitoring the cameras posted throughout the practice aquarium and is one of the judges along with the first five Officials, two for each of us.
“The winner of this competition will be appointed the White Lilac title and in one week will gather the Haydon cure. The course they will swim is a smaller version of the real aquarium, also located here in the east side of the Compound, and is designed to replicate the same issues they would face if they were actually collecting the Haydon cure. The contestants will be timed to see how far they can go in a single breath. The test of the single breath is a standard evaluation for a candidate’s gathering capabilities. They will also be judged on how efficiently they can gather during that time. Seconds will be taken away for every mistake or hesitation they make and the contestant with the longest time will win. Officials, prepare your candidate.”
In a fluid movement with the other trainers, as if they have practiced this together, Anderson offers me an oxygen hose and I place the mask over my mouth and nose breathing pure oxygen in deep, slow breaths. Although I can hold my breath unnaturally long without an oxygen aid, a by-product of all the splicing done to my DNA before I was born, the overdose of oxygen helps me to remain alert and focused as well as increases how long I can hold one breath. My body is used to collecting and storing oxygen and I can feel my lungs widening.
I use four of the five breathing techniques we are taught to help our bodies store oxygen. I first breathe in through my nose and out with my mouth in short bursts and I end with long breaths in through the mouth and slow bursts out. Richard’s voice continues in the background, explaining the details of the tasks, a brief history of the Compound, and statistics about the Haydon cure, all details I have heard so many times before I could quote them in my sleep.
When the first Earth colonists landed on Beta Earth they saw a fertile land waiting to be cultivated, but they weren’t the first living creatures here. In the lakes there was the jigger, a dark brown fish that grew to be ten feet long, and on a normal day it seemed fairly harmless, it would only attack if it sensed a threat or if another fish entered its territory. For most of the year it was easy to forget these fish were there, but once every eighty years, during the jigger’s mating season, they released a toxic dust into the air that is much stronger than all previous years. The jiggers do this as their way of attracting a mate and showing their superiority over other jiggers. The year the first colonists arrived was one of the worst years recorded. The dust coated everything and that was when the colonists started to get sick and die. Something had to be done.
Through a combined effort the Haydon cure was discovered to counter the effects of the jigger dust, though only a few of the first colonists survived, and the secrets of the cure were passed on to other scientists who founded the Compound; a community dedicated to studying the indigenous life on Beta Earth, gathering the Haydon cure, and advancing in medical science. The cure was discovered in the cells of the jigger, but only jiggers who had been in contact with human DNA while they were still eggs.
The problem was that the jiggers laid their eggs inside a deadly fresh water anemone with a pattern of white lilac blossoms on their tentacles. The anemones would clean the dust off the fish’s scales while the eggs were laid and would form a protective cover around them with small enough holes that the baby fish could escape once they hatched. The tentacles would only open if a living creature coated with jigger dust approached it. But everyone who touched an anemone died, perhaps not right away. Some lingered for days. But everyone died and the Compound took over the gathering process to reduce the number of times the cure had to be gathered. They trained their own candidates and maintained the cure supplies.
This is the first time in two hundred years that the cure has to be collected. I flex my toes mentally testing the muscles in my legs. The officials give us a solid five minutes of air, this on top of the hour of oxygen we had earlier this morning, before Anderson and the other trainers come to take the masks away. My breathing exercises have calmed most of my jitters and I am mentally primed to race.
Richard continues, “Today’s contestants have been prepared for this moment from before they were born. In lane one and wearing the red stripe is Caryn Tobin.”
I step up to the edge of the Aquarium and raise my right arm in a quick wave.
“In lane two and wearing the green stripe is Janissa Cordova.”
Smiling up at the cameras on the walls, Janissa waves both of her hands, turning so each side can see her face. I half expect to see her blow kisses.
“And in lane three wearing the blue stripe is Amaya Saladin.”
May does not even acknowledge the hidden crowd, instead she steps up to her mark and stares down into the water, completely focused.
“You’re going to be fine,” Anderson says in my ear. “If you start to panic, think about the Compound. Our purpose is more important than anything, or anyone. You were born for this.” He places the strap for my equipment bag over my head and rubs my shoulders trying to loosen the tension.
“Ladies take your mark,” Sixth Official Richard’s voice says over the loud speaker.
I step onto my mark and adjust my goggles over my eyes, preparing to dive into the water. The red flag for my first stop is nearly twenty feet deep and I can barely see it through the goggles’ lens and the moving water.
“Are you ready? Set….”
All of the muscles in my legs are ready to spring and my eyes are starting to dry from staring at the flag below. I can feel Sixth Official Richard’s word gathering in his mouth, poised in the air around me. My ears tingle as they wait for the sound of the bell. I know better than to look over at May and Janissa one last time, but I can’t help it. They are waiting on their marks, the water the source of their undivided attention. The task ahead of them is all they are thinking about, but my mind is scattered.
The bell rings and I watch them dive off the platform in perfect unison.