The Voice: “Numbers. Facts. Laws. Fill your head with them. Now, before you may enter the Country of the Control, recite the Pledge: ‘Everyone is equal. Everyone receives their share. Everyone is the same.’ Rid yourself of all emotion; don’t dare take it with you.”
C H A P T E R 1
Member Mason Mast did not wear a gray uniform.
From his black boots to his black gun, Mason intimidated the citizens in gray. They cleared a path for him on the pavement, and he held back a satisfied smirk to copy their blank faces. None said a word. Their eyes stayed locked on the pavement.
As he scanned the citizens’ bowed heads, Mason’s narrow chin rose from his chest. Worthless fools.
He strutted past them.
Above his white-blonde hair, hovercrafts sped through the fume-filled and threatening sky. They ruined any chance of calm, as the sound of their zooming engines battled with the sound of a million shuffling bodies. Clouds joined in and rumbled their protests. The edgy atmosphere matched the one in Mason’s mind, as if the impending storm warned him. As if it were a sign. As if it predicted his doom.
A skyscraper protruded from the rest: the Headquarters of the Order. At the sight of it, the gray uniforms disappeared from his vision, and he desired to sink into the pavement.
Same reaction since I was 8. Pathetic.
Though the dense clouds seemed unyielding, the Headquarters sliced through the vapor.
Industry over nature. He swore the clouds recoiled from the steel.
The intimidating skyscraper towered over Nomen, the capital city of the Country of the Control. The rest of the surrounding skyscrapers looked minuscule in comparison. He copied its dominance, and in turn, towered over the citizens. He sneered at them in secret. Even if none of them could show it, he’d make them feel like he felt. He’d make them feel subordinate.
Black uniforms jutted out from the wave of gray. On each block throughout the city, the Members of the Order stood stationed at their posts. A 3 foot radius of empty space encircled them at all times. They watched and waited for citizens to commit infractions, ready to send them to the Jail. Citizens cowered under their scrutinization.
People of the past might have compared the Members to police officers. Or to soldiers, investigators, or assassins. Mason wasn’t sure. But he was sure that none of their guesses could capture his and the rest of the Members’ role in the Control’s society. Not in its entirety.
Nothing compared to the Members of the Order.
In truth, their job was a mixture of many, yet their main purpose was to enforce the Control’s laws. And the Country of the Control had many, many laws.
No jewelry. No facial hair. No makeup. No smiling. No laughing. No crying. No paper. No pencils. No cameras. No movies. No art. No books. No music.
Mason knew millions, but the Control had millions more. Still, he only needed to remember 1: no emotion. Every law stemmed from the Control’s supreme law. The Law.
He enforced it—with pleasure. But he couldn’t seem to follow it, no matter his dedication. He had his mother in him.
A Member arrested a citizen for his scruffy chin in his peripheral vision.
As Mason neared the Headquarters, citizens adverted their eyes. It provoked him. In a world where emotion was legal, citizens would run in the opposite direction of his black uniform. He wished he lived in that world. He desired to see their emotions, so much that his stomach tensed. He simpered, but none saw. To his benefit, the School of the Control’s conditioned citizens to stare at shoestrings.
As a Member, he learned to address foreheads, not faces.
Standing as stiff as a skyscraper, a Member replaced him at his usual post. Mason glared at her as he passed, but she paid no notice of him. She stared at the citizens, yet she managed to miss countless infractions.
Facial hair, untucked shirt, right boot untied.
The morning job-rush provided the most opportune time to catch offenses. Though they became gray blurs to the Member, Mason observed the citizens in focus.
Any Member could arrest a citizen for tardiness to work, but Mason made arresting citizens a game. The less obvious crimes became a thrill to detect. The increasing of severity in punishments added an extra bonus.
Though the replacement Member’s incompetence pissed him off, Mason forced his shoulders to relax. Tomorrow, he vowed to arrest an overload of citizens. He would compensate for her slack by packing the Jail.
I can’t wait.
The streets thinned, as Mason closed in on the Headquarters. He sucked in a deep gulp of air that puffed out his chest.
Once a month, for the past 11 years of his investigation, he made 132 reports to Floor 29.
For the first time, the Voice commanded him to report twice in the same month. He reported last week, yet he headed to report for the second time. His head throbbed from searching for a reason.
After he gave himself a migraine, only one answer came to mind: the Control was finally going to reprimand him for his overdue investigation. He could serve Jail time. Or he could be stripped of his position as a Member. Or he could be executed. His punishment depended on how the Control—and Leader Mast—felt today.
Fear sent a shiver up his spine. Clouds swarmed inside and above his head.
I don’t have time for this.
Mason’s mind blanked, just as the School of the Control had taught him. As the School had taught every citizen to empty themselves of thoughts and feelings. His emotion coursed down through his body and escaped out of his feet and onto the pavement. He returned to normal. Empty.
Mason feigned confidence with another puff of his chest and lift of his chin. He repeated Leader Mast’s words in his mind: “Emotion is for the weak.”
As he neared the Headquarters, Mason restrained himself from strutting past to the Establishment of the Control, the capital building. It was time he worked there. He deserved it. One failing assignment didn’t make him incompetent.
Though the Headquarters of the Order loomed over Nomen, the Establishment loomed over it. The height of the Establishment was more than Mason could imagine.
He couldn’t imagine at all, for that matter, thanks to the School of the Control. His education sucked away his imagination long ago. Before he learned to spell his name.
An alarm blared through the streets and through the entire Country of the Control.
Mason winced at the blaring noise, but he refused to cover his ears. Leave that to the citizens.
Speakers, positioned on every street corner, vibrated with the metallic sound of the Voice. “9 AM.” Time for citizens to be at their jobs.
He didn’t see any, but he hoped there were stragglers.
Just as the alarm ended, Mason reached the Headquarters. A Member, who served as the skyscraper’s guard, pushed one of the enormous doors open for him. Mason brushed past without a nod.
Black uniforms filled the foyer and pressed towards the back. The room seemed to stretch for miles, though an illusion created by the crammed Members. Giant slabs of steel formed massive walls that enclosed them, and with no windows, they blocked out the cloud-repressed sunlight. Fluorescent lights on the lofty ceiling provided the only, artificial light.
A single reception desk stood off to the side, but none of the Members approached it. the Voice had given them their assignments and locations already. As always.
Mason’s boots squeaked across the steel floor. Hundreds of elevators lined the back wall, and he cut through the crowd to the nearest one.
Unlike in the streets, no one shifted out of Mason’s way. Citizens moved for Members. Members didn’t move for other Members. Instead, shoulders brushed shoulders and elbows hit other elbows. Mason earned a few bruises before he made it to the back of the foyer.
Bodies packed the elevator. Mason squirmed through them to get to the last open spot. He squashed his back against the elevator’s side wall, and the icy steel chilled his back. He bumped into a Member and swallowed the spit that rose in his throat.
Elevators made him nauseous. So did people packed in a small spaces.
The Voice echoed through the steel elevator, as the closing elevator doors silenced the buzzing foyer. “State the floor number.”
Mason said, “Floor 29,” for the millionth time, as the Members crammed around him called out their numbers.
Years ago as a student in the School of the Control, Mason had learned that people of the past pushed buttons for their floor numbers. But that was centuries back. He couldn’t imagine all the people inside this elevator doing that. Now, the Voice handled their requests.
The Voice simplifies our lives. It never missed a floor number, no matter how stuffed the elevator was of people. Mason didn’t know how it was possible. The Voice surpasses all other technology.
Mason had responded with the same floor number for years and years. 11, to be exact. For too long. He had made too many reports. If emotion was legal, he would be an embarrassment to the Order.
Mason’s cheeks burned, though the steel walls stifled out heat, and his usual pale skin flushed red. No emotion. His hands squeezed into fists.
If he was back in his room, Mason would have punched a wall. Not hard, though. Bruised knuckles were suspicious.
Someone’s arm brushed his, and Mason gagged. The uncomfortable sensation of people against him, their body heat warming his skin, made him sick. Maybe vomiting would help. Then people might give him space.
Seconds stood between him and Floor 29. He had to focus. Soon, the Head of the Order would fire questions at him about his investigation. He forced his mind to go blank again.
Only 2 people in the world scared him: the Head of the Order and Leader Mast.
The Voice interrupted his thoughts and calmed him. “Floor 13.”
The doors opened, and the elevator freed a few bodies. Mason hated elevators, though he was always in one. Millions of skyscrapers comprised the Country of the Control, all stacked side by side, so elevators were necessary and unavoidable.
Mason wriggled his way out of the elevator and stepped into the hallway. Finally. People weren’t touching him anymore, so his queasiness passed.
A shower would still be nice. To wash off their germs.
Directly in front of him, a receptionist sat behind a desk. Even as he walked towards her, her hollowed eyes remained on her holographic computer screen. The elevator doors closed behind him.
He cleared his throat before saying his name. “Member Mason Mast.”
The old woman took her time to peer up at him, as usual. Their interactions over the past 11 years remained dry. Though she had heard his name millions of times, he still didn’t know hers. Not that he cared to.
“We’ve been expecting you.” The woman’s flat voice matched her expression. “Wait in Conference Room 5. The Head of the Order will be with you in 3 seconds.”
A bony finger pointed down the hallway to the location of the conference room. Mason already knew where it was.
Before he even took a step, the woman’s wrinkly face returned to her holographic screen. She would stare at it all day, thanks to the Control’s technology. Her old eyes were as capable as his young ones. Every citizen, no matter what age, could see. Could hear. Handicaps were a thing of the past.
If a citizen had enough money, that is.
Everyone is equal.
Still, science could only do so much. Death would greet her long before him. Doctors could straighten the wrinkles in her face and make her gray hair grow color again, but the Control knew it would be a waste. Her appearance wouldn’t matter when she was dead, and that would be soon. She was ancient.
The fluorescent lights hummed, and aside from his steps, it was the only sound in the hallway. Mason counted the steel doors he passed. Hundreds of conference rooms were on Floor 29, but he didn’t have to walk far to reach his.
5, Mason counted, as he reached a door with a black “5” in the center.
Beside the door, a steel box was suspended on the wall. Mason stepped closer and stood in front of the box. In an instant, a gray light shot out and moved over his body. A shiver ran down his back, as the light traveled up his black boots to his ice-blue eyes. It vanished as fast as it had appeared.
As the Voice instructed him to enter, the door swung open. Fluorescent lights staggered on and lit the once-dark room. They flickered as he walked in, and the door shut.
In his usual, uncomfortable chair, Mason waited for 3 seconds. Just as the receptionist had said. Until a black briefcase landed on the table across from Mason with a “smack!”
As the Head of the Order sat down, the steel chair creaked under the weight of his muscle. A gray badge on the shoulder of his black uniform highlighted his thick neck.
“Talk.” The Head of the Order dominated the isolated conference room like he did people.
No emotion. I’m not intimidated.
“The Final Test to join the Order is today, as you know.”
The Head of the Order leaned forward. “The point.” His metallic breath filled Mason’s nostrils.
Mason cleared his throat. “I designed the test to be personal to her. To make her emotional. To make her reveal information.”
Mason’s eye twitched at the Head’s unspoken threat. the Control had waited for too long. Any second now, he would receive his punishment.
Mason’s shaky hands grabbed the sides of his steel chair, as silence screamed between the steel walls. He waited to hear that the Control had sentenced him to death, but the Head continued to stare at him.
Maybe I will die before that old receptionist.
Though a risk, Mason stood to leave. His reports never took but seconds, and he didn’t want to wait any longer.
He didn’t take a step before the Head stopped him.
“Sit, Member Mason Mast. Leader Mast has another assignment for you.”
Mason paused, unable to move. The words repeated in his head: another assignment. His investigation was the only assignment he had ever received.
Mason tried to remain stoic. “What is it?”
A bead of sweat ran down the back of his neck and absorbed into his black uniform. the Control finally saw his potential; Leader Mast himself had entrusted him with a second assignment. Mason had desired this moment for years.
“Your Marriage Assignment.”
Disappointment dried his throat.
His Marriage Assignment was not a shock. At 19, he was the age all citizens received their assignments. Then, in a year, he would marry at 20, the same as everyone else. But he hadn’t expected to receive his Marriage Assignment from Leader Mast. the Voice had assigned marriage partners at random since its invention.
“Who is my assignment, sir, and why is Leader—”
The Head’s scrutinizing glare stopped him. Questions were signs of curiosity.
“The Control needs answers, Member Mason. Leader Mast has stressed this importance to me. If you don’t get them soon, your father will execute us both.”
There was his punishment. How did the Head say “execute” without emotion?
Mason did not want to die. Death sentences were for citizens, not him.
The fluorescent lights were too bright and too hot above his head, which now felt foggy and slow. Mason ran his tongue over the front of his teeth. Leader Mast would kill him. Familial ties meant nothing to his father. He had already proven that. And he did not play games; he didn’t know what games were.
Before he could stop, another question spilled out Mason’s mouth. “What does my investigation have to do with my marriage assignment?”
A vein in the Head of the Order’s neck throbbed. “Silence.” The whisper carried more threat than any shout. “You’ve investigated Arietta for the past 11 years and have nothing on her. No insight into her past. No clue at what she’s hiding. If the Final Test doesn’t break her, we have a problem. And from the looks of it,” the Head’s glare passed over him, “she won’t. The Control does not have faith. Especially not in you.”
“The solution is for you to marry her, so you can investigate her at your convenience. That’s your next assignment. Not even you could mess that up.”
Arietta’s face flashed in Mason’s mind. Her almond eyes, her caramel skin, her jet-black hair. He hated her. He wanted to purge her of her secrets and shoot her himself. “I’m assigned to marry Arietta Fiero?”
The Head raised an eyebrow. “Is there a problem, Member Mast?”
No emotion. Emotion is for the weak.
Mason shook his head, and for the second time, he stood up to leave Conference Room 5.
“One more thing.” The Head’s neck expanded as he swallowed, and he looked down at the steel table.
Time to pay for my inability to be tight-lipped.
“Why join the Order?” His timid voice surprised Mason.
The Head’s cluelessness offended him, but he held in his emotion. Isn’t it obvious?
Mason wiped out sensitivity for a living. One of these days, he would wipe it out of himself.
The Head knew Leader Mast made him a Member when he was 8. When Leader Mast gave him his investigation on Arietta. The Head didn’t know, though, that he hoped to become the next Leader of the Control.
When Mason didn’t respond, the Head added, “If you’ve come that far in your investigation, that is.”
So he meant Arietta. He meant why Arietta was trying to join the Order.
Mason’s jaw clenched. “She wants to join to find her family, I think.”
For the third time, Mason stood to walk out of Conference Room 9. This time, the Head let him go.
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