Alarms blared and the warning lights along the hallway flashed as Thirteenth Official Allia Washington pushed the stretcher into the sleeping quarters. Twelve year old Mattai Jokio lay flat on his back, his skin a dark, unhealthy shade of yellow and his eyes twitching back and forth as if they were trying to watch a hummingbird flit between two flowers. Just like the others had been, which was not good for Mattai. And she’d had such hopes that this time the serum would work.
“How long has he been like this?” Allia asked.
“About five minutes now,” the cleaning lady said. She stood in the back of the room where the shadows hid all but the bright blue of her skirt.
Two other officials enter the room, including Ninth Official Yama, who outranked Allia and immediately took over. They lifted Mattai onto the stretcher and rushed him out of the main house, across the Compound and into Science Lab 5. Allia watched from the back of the room as Dr. Vos and his team swarmed around the boy. He was unresponsive. Another bad sign. Hours passed and then it was over.
They covered Mattai in a sheet and transferred the body to the morgue. Tests would be run to discover why his body had shut down, but Allia knew the final conclusion would be the same. Some combination of the DNA splicing and treatments he had been given had done permanent damage until it was only a matter of time. The serum was supposed to stop this, but their current formula had to be missing something. Mattai lasted three months longer than the others and for a few weeks Allia had started to hope, but it had been too soon.
There was a slight resignation to Allia’s steps as she walked back to the main house. It had been a long day and it was only half done. In her 58 years there had been many days like today. It never got easier, but after Britta, her last charge, had died she was determined not to get too close. Even though she had only worked with Mattai for six months, it had still hit her heart like a sledge hammer to see him collapsed on the floor. She overheard Ninth Official Yama say that some of the female officials became emotionally attached to the children, especially if they had also carried future contestants. Over the last 30 years Allia had lost eight pregnancies and three infants because of genetic defects and complications with their DNA splicing. Each loss had taken its toll. She had trouble coping for years and then they promised her they wouldn’t be as experimental. Yet that wasn’t enough, it was only when they also promised that her child would not be placed in the program that she agreed. It was the program that killed almost as often as the genetic complications. The children were pushed too hard.
She entered the main house and took the elevator to the fifth floor, where the nursery was located. Large glass windows lined the hall and she picked a spot near the middle almost directly across from a dark haired four year old boy. He was building a tower with blocks. It was tall, thin and haphazardly twisted from the base up so that it almost looked like a strand of DNA. Allia allowed a small smile. He was a scientist already.
Four years ago she had Brian and although he had not removed the loss of her previous tries, he had softened her heart and made life worth living again. He could not her because the glass was tinted on his side and even if he did Allia knew he wouldn’t rush up to greet her. Even though he was her son she was only allowed four hours a week to spend with him. It was not enough for him to bond with her, however, it was enough for her to feel more strongly about him than she had ever felt for her charges. And she could watch him whenever there was a lull in her duties.
Brian dumped a bucket of blocks onto the floor and began sorting them by color and size. One of the other children, a blonde haired girl around the age of two came over and squatted next to him. She seemed perfectly content to watch and at first Brian held a hand out to protect his tower, but then he relaxed and went back to his building completely ignoring her.
“They are so young.”
Allia glanced behind her and saw First Official Foreman.
“Which one is yours?” he asked, his gaze shifting from her to the children playing.
“Brian, the boy building the tower.”
He nodded. “Mine is Caryn, the girl watching him.”
Neither said anything as Brian’s tower fell. Caryn jumped up and started picking up the blocks that rolled too far. Brian didn’t appear bothered by the destruction. Instead, he tilted his head to one side as if it helped him think of a better way to build the next time. He picked up blocks and started building again.
First Official Foreman cleared his throat. “I heard about your charge.”
“The treatment didn’t work.”
“I am moving you back to full time in Science Lab 2 starting in the morning. I saw some of the notes you were working on and we need to make the proper coding of this treatment a first priority. We can’t afford to lose anyone else. We’re behind schedule as it is.”
Allia closed her eyes a moment. She felt exhausted, but the prospect of being back in the lab sounded much better than meeting a new charge in the morning.
“I will turn in then so I will be properly rested,” she said and turned to leave.
“We have openings in the candidate program now.” First Official Foreman’s voice was so low she almost didn’t hear it, but it made her bones freeze inside of her.
“Not for my son. I have a signed contract,” she said. She turned back to see he wasn’t watching her, but his daughter.
“I know,” he said, with a sigh. “But if we don’t find a treatment that works we might need anyone we can get.”