Zaria’s Story

Artwork by Alex Bell.

Her arms were wrapped, like a boxer, and she had a canvas bag slung around one shoulder, which she held tucked under her arm. 

“What’s in that bag?” Mrs. Sunfinch asked, sounding almost like she was interested in trading for it with a customer.

“Nothing,” Zaria said, shrugging. She pushed the bag behind her back. 

“May I see it?”

Story continues below advertisement

“What? No.”

“If there’s nothing in it, then–”

“It’s my bag.”

“This is my shop. I’ve even let you stay on a few years later than the others, on the condition of good behavior.” 

“And for that I am thankful, but–”

“Zaria, you’re 19. It’s time to stop this childish behavior. Stealing things left and right, running from the enforcers…”

“It’s for a good reason.”

“The enforcers will not see it that way.”

“The enforcers won’t see it.”

“They’ve caught you once this year already! You are lucky that I still feel responsible for you at all. One night in a cell must not seem so bad!”

“What would you know about–” Zaria stopped, searching for the right words. “Watching my friends die is worse.”

Mrs. Sunfinch remained silent. The two stood staring at each other tensely. 

“What’s in the bag, Zaria?” She asked softly. After a moment, Zaria responded.

“A few more car parts. Little ones mostly, and some scrap plastic I found,” she said. 

“Is that all?” Mrs. Sunfinch asked.

“Yeah… Yes.”

“Are you sure?” Mrs. Sunfinch asked, eyeing a shape pressed against the side of the bag. 

“I might have bought more glitz disks.”

“How many?” Mrs. Sunfinch signed.


“Those won’t work forever. I’ve heard the next generation of enforcer hounds is immune.”

“Well then it’s a good thing those are only rolling out in the rich cities. Nobody cares about anything within a hundred miles of the desert. Of all the outland havens this has got to be the worst one.”

“How would you know?”

“You never watch the world data report, do you?”

“It serves no purpose to me. My world is the shop, the market, and the church. In that order.”

“Of course it is,” Zaria sighed, throwing her bag down on her sleeping pad and walking briskly past Mrs. Sunfinch, around the counter, and into the shop. She didn’t feel like sleeping anymore. It would be opening time soon anyway, and there was work to be done. 


<   ◯   >


Zaria was sweeping near the back of the shop when the door indicator buzzed. Without looking up, she kept sweeping. Then a voice called out across the shop. 

“Any princesses here today?” the voice called out. Then the source of the voice rounded the corner and spotted Zaria. “I think I found one!”

“You sound tired, Jay,” Zaria said, turning to face him.

“Not as tired as you look. Another late night… adventure?” Jay asked.

“Yeah. What about you?”

“I’m not nearly fast enough to do what you do. I was just picking up junk,” he said, patting a large sack slung over his back. It didn’t look very full. 

“Anything good?” Zaria asked. 

“You tell me,” Jay said, walking over to the counter and dumping the bag’s contents out while Zaria walked to the other side of the counter and leaned her broom against a shelf. 

“Let’s see what you’ve got today,” she said. “Looks like mostly just junk plastic? That’s good. The exchange rate is up these days. A handful of metal bits too, very nice. And is that a telemetry processor chip? It’s a little dirty but that’s a really good find. I’ll be right back.”

Zaria ducked into the back with the assorted junk to weigh it. She came back with a receipt a few inches long and handed it to Jay. 

“73 bits,” Zaria declared. 

“35 bits for the processor?” He asked, surprised.

“It’s a rare find,” Zaria explained. 

“Clearly. Wait, where’d all this extra weight come from? I know I didn’t find that much last night.”

“Call it an unexpected spike in value.”

“I can’t accept it. I didn’t find it.”

“Well I didn’t find it for me.”

“You didn’t find it, you stole it.”

“Are you going to take the extra bits?” 

Jay hesitated. “I have to. Even with your ‘unexpected spike in value’ it’s barely enough for all the rations I have to get.”

“I know,” Zaria said sadly, avoiding eye contact. “But it’s better than nothing.”

“I guess… See you tomorrow.” Jay said. He leaned across the counter and gave Zaria a quick kiss on the cheek before walking stiffly back out of the shop. Zaria watched as he disappeared down the street. The sun was finally clearing the wall, casting harsh light on the rough canopies over the first few market carts. 

Jay’s family had been living in a hidden shelter in the abandoned section of the old sewer system for almost a year now. Zaria couldn’t believe it had been that long. Nearly a year since she and Jay started dating. Nearly a year that Jay had been a scavenger. Nearly a year since Jay’s father was selected for termination. She had been there when they got the news. 

Jay got up to answer the door. It was an enforcer agent. Jay stood at the door silently. His parents sent his younger brother and sister to another room and walked to the door. 

“Is there something wrong,” Jay’s father asked. 

“Are you Jason Hawkins?” the agent asked.

“I am. What’s this about?”

“Jason Hawkins, as part of worldwide resource preservation efforts, you have been randomly selected for termination. You have 14 days to report to your local enforcer office.”

The enforcer left and Jay slowly closed the door. His mother began crying. His father stood there stoically. Zaria walked over to Jay and reached for his hand. He pulled away and walked over to the corner, collapsing. 

“Zaria,” Mr. Hawkins said, “I think It’s time for you to go.”

“Yes. Of course,” she replied, and went to grab her things.

“Do you need someone to walk with you?” Mr. Hawkins asked.

“No, but thank you for offering. I’m… sorry about all this.”

“Mhmm,” Mr. Hawkins said, subdued.

“Bye, Jay.” Zaria said. He didn’t reply. She quietly left and began her walk back to the shop.  It wasn’t far. 


<   ◯   >


The next two weeks passed in a daze. They seemed to neither begin nor end. The days just… were. It was strange, almost like living with a corpse. Zaria visited Jay only a couple of times in those weeks. He had finally started talking to her again. When the final day came, Zaria was invited to the Hawkins’ house to see Mr. Hawkins one last time, but she suspected she was really there for Jay’s sake. It had long been a tradition to stay up as late as possible before reporting to the enforcer office just before midnight. Some families threw parties, some tried to run or hide, others blew their savings on the most extravagant foods and gorged themselves on a massive feast. The Hawkins’ just stayed inside, seated on the floor, talking to each other. 

When the time came for Mr. Hawkins to leave, Jay insisted on accompanying him. Zaria followed Jay’s lead while Mrs. Hawkins stayed behind to watch the children. The night was still as they walked and they reached the enforcer office with only a few minutes to spare. Several others were gathered around the grim concrete monolith of a building. Some were old, some were young, nearly all of them were men, though there were a few women as well. Two enforcers stood menacingly at the door of the office. 

“Attention!” One of them shouted. “Two minutes until the attendance window is closed.”

Mr. Hawkins looked at Jay, then at Zaria, then back at Jay. 

“Jason…” he said quietly. “Take care of your mother.”

“Of course, father,” Jay said. 

“And just… be good,” Mr. Hawkins added. He looked at Zaria again. “You’ll look after him?” It almost didn’t seem like a question.

“Of course.” she said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help your family. You’ve all been so kind to me, I–”

“No,” Mr. Hawkins interjected. “Don’t sacrifice your life for ours. For theirs.”

“With all due respect–”

“Don’t throw your life away. Just… keep an eye out.”

Silence hung in the air. 

“Yes, sir.”

“Jay? Good luck. I know you’ll be a great man. I’m just sorry I can’t be there to see it.”

Jay just looked on as his father turned and walked to the doors of the enforcer office. Jay and Zaria lingered in the street, silent. The dim glow of the streetlights nearly blocked out the stars. Then, abruptly, the screaming started, ringing out in the night. Jay slumped against Zaria and began shaking silently. Then it ended, nearly as suddenly as it began, and the night was silent once more.


<   ◯   >


Mrs. Sunfinch left the shop that night. She said she had some errands to run. Zaria, being the oldest of the few children staying in the shop, was trusted with the shop keys, and the responsibility of closing up later that night. When the time came she announced that closing was in 15 minutes. Nobody in the store regarded her with much attention. Sure enough, 15 minutes passed, and nobody left. 

“Time’s up, everyone. Closing time!” She called across the store. The few people in the shop continued about their business. One came up to the counter. 

“Got anything good to exchange for–” he was cut off. 

“We’re closed,” Zaria said firmly. 

“I’m still here, ain’t I?”

“You were supposed to leave… 3 minutes ago. We close at 10:30 sharp.”

“I have stuff to exchange. Isn’t that worth something?”

“Everyone has stuff to exchange. Not everyone has the time to waste on it.”

“What are you saying?” the man said, holding back anger.

“I’m saying,” Zaria said sternly, “It’s time for you, and everyone else in here, to leave.”

“Not until–”


Nobody moved. She went into the back room and grabbed a broken electro-staff someone had exchanged.

“OUT OR YOU GET ZAPPED!” she shouted, hoping nobody would notice the staff wasn’t even turned on. She pointed it at a couple people and slowly but surely, they all filed out the door. When the last one had left, she locked the door, pulled down the security gates, and turned the main shop lights off. She walked into the back.

“Hey! Anyone not asleep?”

No reply came.


Zaria walked all the way to the back of the shop, to her sleeping pad, and sat down. She unwrapped the canvas strips she kept wrapped around her arms, careful to catch the small knife she kept wrapped against her left forearm, and the few bills and coins she kept wrapped on her right. She sat for a minute, relishing the freedom, turning the small knife over and over in her hands. She stashed the knife and canvas strips in her bag, and set the bag beside her. Then she laid down on her sleeping mat and fell asleep. 

She woke up about an hour after midnight. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly, and she sat up. She reached over to her bag and… 

“Where is it?” she muttered. She turned around and checked the other side, still no bag. Someone had taken it! She got up and crept slowly around the shop to the other kids’ sleeping mats. None of them had it. Besides, they were all asleep long ago. There was only one person who could have taken it. 

Zaria moved slowly and silently up a short staircase and eased the door at the top open slowly. Inside, Mrs. Sunfinch lay silently atop her bed. In the darkness, Zaria spotted her bag. It was on the bed right beside Mrs. Sunfinch. 

Zaria inched forward, gliding almost like a cat, creeping ever closer to the bed. The wooden floorboards beneath her groaned as she put her weight on them. Just before she reached the bed, squeeeeeeeak! The floorboard was loose, the end of it sticking up above the rest of the floor. Zaria dared not move her foot, for fear that it would squeak again. Her eyes shot towards Mrs. Sunfinch. The old woman’s eyes twitched, and she inhaled. Then exhaled. She didn’t move. Zaria didn’t move either. For at least a minute she remained completely motionless. 

She leaned forward just enough to grab hold of the flap of her bag. She slowly pulled it back, balancing most of her weight on the squeaky board in an attempt to keep it from making more noise as she shifted. She brought the bag slowly closer, but before she could pull it all the way, it stopped. Following the shoulder strap with her eyes, she saw that the end of the strap was held, almost clenched, in the hand of Mrs. Sunfinch. Thinking quickly, Zaria pulled her small knife from the bag, cut the thick strap, and began sliding it slowly through Mrs. Sunfinch’s hand. She knew she could repair the bag easily. As the strap slid through Mrs. Sunfinch’s hand, she twitched and her breathing seemed more alert, but her eyes remained shut. When the strap was finally free, Zaria pivoted, aimed her body towards the door, then suddenly, she launched herself as fast as she could back across the room. Mrs. Sunfinch’s eyes snapped open, she leaned up, and barely caught a glimpse of Zaria’s back swinging out of the door.

Zaria flew through the shop, out the back, and scrambled onto the roof. She looked out across the city, and began running. Once she had moved over a few buildings, she stopped and sat down. Her bag was, thankfully, still closed. She took the cut ends of the strap and tied them together in a tight knot. She opened the bag and started pulling things out. She tied her long hair back, pulled a pair of bulky goggles out of the bag, and put them on, resting them on her forehead. She pulled out a large square of cloth, and tied it around the back of her head as a makeshift mask. Next came the canvas strips. She re-wrapped her arms, replacing the knife and the money, checked for gaps in the cloth, and, satisfied with her work, closed the bag and slung it over her shoulder. She bent down, retied her boots to keep them tight, then stood up, pulled her goggles down over her eyes, and set off running again. She leapt from rooftop to rooftop, flying through the hot night air, until she reached the industrial sector. She deftly made her way down to the street level, hiding in the shadows. Her eyes instinctively scanned everything around her. Not seeing any threats, she dashed over to the bay door of a large factory. She picked the lock on the small access door, and quickly went inside. In the factory, conveyor belts and hoppers and massive machinery worked tirelessly to manufacture things. She looked around. Tonight the factory was fabricating holographic projection circuits. None of them would stay in the city. They would all be transported to somewhere, anywhere nicer, by the end of the week.

There were a few security guards and supervisors patrolling the assembly line, but the process was automated in this factory, so there were very few people. Zaria quickly shuffled forward, to the conveyor belt. She couldn’t pick the circuits up off the belt or sensors in the machine would alert the supervisors that something had been removed. Instead she made her way to the transition between belts, and began picking up a couple circuits here and there, being careful to not create huge gaps in the line. She put the parts in her bag and moved on to another section of the warehouse. She grabbed a few more components, then started back towards the entrance. She reached the door and began to open it. This was always the hard part. She couldn’t see what was beyond the door until it was open and she stepped out, and while she did that, her back was turned to the rest of the factory. 

Unfortunately, tonight was one of those unlucky nights. She turned around and began to open the door until a voice called out from across the factory.

“Hey! Don’t move!” the voice shouted. 

“Great idea!” Zaria called back. “You stay here, I’ll head out!”

She ran out of the door. Just her luck, there were two enforcers with an enforcer hound just down the road. Then the alarm sounded.

“Get back here!” one of the enforcers shouted. The pair started chasing her, sending the hound at her. It was faster than the enforcers, and agile. Zaria ran, ducking through alleys and side streets. She reached into her bag and pulled out a glitz disk and held it tight in her hand. Just in case. 


<   ◯   >


As Zaria twisted and turned through the streets, the enforcer hound barely struggled to keep up. She pushed harder and harder, running as fast as she could. The hound was getting close. Too close. She dashed into a narrow alley, the hound following quickly. There was a light buzzing above her, barely illuminating the narrow street. She tossed the glitz disk in the air, making it arc towards the hound, then jumped. Once airborne, she pushed off against the walls to gain height, quickly threw her hand into a small crevice in the wall, pulled herself up to grab the top edge of one of the buildings, and clambered over the edge. She lay on top of the building for a few seconds to catch her breath. Then she stood up. The hound would be almost fully recovered by now. She looked over the edge and spotted the enforcers catching up with the hound. 

“Get down from there!” one of them shouted. “You’re under arrest!”

Zaria turned and ran, leaping across the buildings. Fatigue was starting to set in. She needed a place to hide soon. She kept running and jumping, occasionally rolling to cushion a fall. Then she saw it. Across a few more buildings, an open hatch. Whatever was inside it had to be better than outside. With renewed vigor she shot towards the hatch, leaping farther and landing harder. She was only four rooftops away. Three. Two. One. She was so close. One last jump over the edge and she would be safe. Safer, at least. She ran, keeping her eyes on the target, kicked off with one foot, planted the other for the jump, pushed off, beginning to fly through the air. 

Before she knew what was happening, she was falling. Her foot had just barely clipped the edge of the last building and she tripped. She tumbled over herself, spinning for only seconds before colliding with the ground. All the air was instantly knocked out of her. She could feel blood trickling from her forehead and could tell she had likely broken a rib or two. The last thing she felt before unconsciousness claimed her was the crushing force of the hound clamping down on her bare shoulder, the steel-capped teeth slicing through it in an instant. She heard the enforcers finally catching up to the hound, then everything went black. 


<   ◯   >


When Zaria regained consciousness, she opened her eyes slowly. It was dark. Where was she? It was quiet. What happened? It was hot. Stuffy. Inside? She tried to move. Her wrists and ankles were cuffed to a large metal tray, tipped upwards so that she was forced into a standing position. After waiting in the darkness for what seemed like an eternity, a harsh, sterile-white light clicked on, and an enforcer walked into the room. It was a small cell, empty except for Zaria, the enforcer, and a small shelf which held her belongings, along with a scarcely visible row of something shiny but tarnished. She couldn’t make out what the objects were, but she knew they were not hers, and they were not good. 

“Cell C-42 Occupant, Attention!” The enforcer shouted at Zaria. “Prepare for processing! Any resistance will be met with consequences! Will you comply?”

“What happened?” Zaria asked.

“Will you comply?” The enforcer asked again. 

Will you comply?” Zaria mocked. “Yeah, I get it. Just–”

Before she finished, the enforcer threw his armor plated fist across her head. Her vision went black and spots danced in front of her as her head snapped to the side. She could feel blood beginning to leak down beside her eye. Hot. It was hot. And the punch was hot. And the room was hot. The blood ran down her face to her chin where it dripped down onto her chest, staining her already ragged clothing. 

“Will you comply?” The enforcer asked a third time. 

“Yes,’ Zaria said coldly. The enforcer pressed a button and the manacles holding her clicked open, and she stumbled forward, catching herself before she could tumble into the enforcer. 

“Cell C-42 Occupant, turn around. Keep your hands placed on top of your head. Any resistance will be met with consequences,” the enforcer ordered, grabbing Zaria’s belongings from the shelf on the wall. The enforcer then took Zaria’s wrists in the other hand, the glove’s long fingers encircling them like a snake. The enforcer turned Zaria around and walked her out of the cell into a narrow hallway lined with similar cells. On their way out of the cell, Zaria noticed the objects on the shelf that had held her bag. They looked foreign, but hauntingly gruesome in nature. The only objects that held resemblance to anything in Zaria’s mind was a bulky set of pliers with the ends twisted and gnarled, and a chipped kind of knife. 

The enforcer led Zaria through the narrow corridors inside the enforcer compound. From the outside, the building didn’t look that big. But it was an open secret that it stretches out underground, reaching into a whole network of underground tunnels. They reached the end of a corridor where a single elevator waited. They entered, the enforcer pressed a button, and the steel box began rising. When they reached the ground floor, they entered a door labeled PROCESSING in big block letters. Inside was a short line of people in similar positions to Zaria. Each with their hands behind their back, each with an enforcer behind them, each being held in the serpentine grip of an enforcer’s glove. 

When Zaria reached the front of the line, an enforcer behind a counter activated a screen with a single page displayed on it. Zaria skimmed it. It was all just bureaucratic nonsense to her. After confirming that she had read the information, she waited for a few seconds before being escorted into an adjoining room. It was small, but connected to a larger storage room. The enforcer holding her bag handed it across another counter to another enforcer who placed it in a bag, then disappeared, presumably to put the bag in one of the storage lockers until the contents were deemed either contraband, cautionary, or harmless. 

Just like before, she was led into yet another small room, with another enforcer waiting inside. 

“Arm!” The enforcer barked.

 The enforcer holding her let go of one arm. Zaria held it out in front of her. The enforcer roughly tore the canvas strips off of Zaria’s arm. Her knife fell to the floor. The enforcer picked it up, placed it in a belt-mounted canister, and began searching Zaria’s arm. Unsatisfied with his search, he began the same process on the other arm. Zaria’s small wad of cash dropped to the floor, and like the knife, was stashed away quickly. The enforcer searched her other arm and, still unsatisfied, stepped back.

“Where is your identification?” The enforcer ordered. 

“Don’t have any,” Zaria said flatly.

“You have been processed before. Where is your identification?”

“I don’t have any,” she protested. 

Suddenly the enforcer holding her wrist began to grip tighter and tighter. After only a few seconds, the pressure became too much. Zaria thought her arm was going to snap.

“I scratched it off!” she shouted. “It was on my arm!”

The pressure lessened, but it was still almost too painful to think straight.

“I scratched it for days. I used my knife. I had to cut it off! The scar is still there. Look at it. You’ll see it. It’s right there. Please, just look at it! I just–”

“Silence!” Spat the enforcer. 

He walked across the room, picked up what looked like a pen, and with the press of a button, the pen whirred to life, a needle at the end of it oscillating in and out faster and faster. It was a blur by the time the enforcer reached Zaria. The enforcer grabbed Zaria’s arm, gripping it tightly. He inspected it again and upon finding the aforementioned scar, began writing right on top of it. 

As the needle implanted the ink, the scarred skin began to hurt. It felt like it was burning. Scorching. Flaming. Destroying. In light of this new pain Zaria nearly forgot the crushing grip around her wrist. Then, almost as soon as it began, it was over. Her arm still burned, but with a blazing new emblem stitched in ink across the scar. 106C-42  RxT. Now she had identification. Now she was a number.

The enforcer turned and set the tattoo pen down. The enforcer holding Zaria’s wrist grabbed her other wrist and rejoined it with the other in a crushing grip. She was led out of the room into yet another, this one no more roomy than the others. The room was completely bare except for a metal chute opening on the wall and a yellowish tan jumpsuit thrown on the floor. Zaria was positive it wasn’t originally that color. 

“Remove your clothes, dispose of them, and put the uniform on,” the enforcer ordered.

Zaria hesitated, then said, “I need my arms for that.”

The enforcer released his grip on her wrists, and she let out a sigh of relief, rubbing her wrists as she did so. The effects were still there, but the crushing was gone. She walked over to the far corner of the small room and changed out of her clothes. She walked over to the metal chute in the wall, reluctantly shoving her wad of clothing down the chute. Keeping her back to the enforcer, she grabbed the grimy jumpsuit and put it on, pulling the zipper up on the front. The enforcer grabbed her by the wrists again, and led her out of the room, down a short hallway, and then to another elevator. They descended, then made their way to the same cell Zaria had awoken in. She was cuffed back onto the metal tray, forced to stand, and the enforcer left. Then the lights went out, and Zaria was plunged back into darkness. 


<   ◯   >


Zaria drifted in and out of consciousness in the thick darkness. The lack of light was oppressive, more so than even the harsh sun. Oh, what a gift it would be to see sunlight again. To feel the burn of the radiation emanating off that great orb. She could feel her arm throbbing still, the pain bright red in her mind as she sought out any source of sensation anywhere. As she was drifting back out of awareness, the lights flicked on, blinding her for a moment. The door swung open and an enforcer entered. 

“106C-42, attention!” the enforcer barked. 

“I’m awake.” she said, still groggy from her stupor.

“Amara Sunfinch is here to see you,” the enforcer said. As the enforcer stepped aside, Mrs. Sunfinch emerged from the hallway, striding into the cell. 

“Zaria…” she sighed, making eye contact. Zaria looked away. “It pains me to see you like this.”

“I know,” Zaria responded. There was silence for a few moments. “Are you here to bail me out?”

“No,” Mrs. Sunfinch said. “No, I’m not going to bail you out. I talked with the enforcers and your current penalty time is now one month. I think you can survive it.”

“But–” Zaria began to protest.

“It will do you some good. It’s time you learned the reality of your actions. And before you tell me it’s for your righteous cause, I don’t want to hear it. I gave you a chance. I thought if I took your bag… I thought maybe you would put it off long enough for us to talk about it. For you to get some sense into your thick skull! You betrayed my trust, and now you have to live with the consequences!”

Zaria looked taken aback. Mrs. Sunfinch got angry, sure, it happened from time to time, but she never raised her voice. She had never had this look in her eyes. It wasn’t exactly anger. Not exactly sadness. Disappointment? Guilt? Even as Mrs. Sunfinch turned to leave, even when the door closed and the lights went out, her eyes stuck in Zaria’s head. Haunting her. There was something about them… She didn’t know what exactly. Something. In the suffocating void of her cell Zaria drifted back into a thinly veiled sleep. She didn’t know if her eyes were open or shut. All she could see was Mrs. Sunfinch’s eyes staring into hers. Something.


<   ◯   >


The lights in the cell flared to life as the door swung open. Zaria lifted her head slowly, blinking from the harsh light. Her arms were sore, her wrists were wearing raw from the manacles. Her legs ached from being in a perpetual standing position. It was torture of the worst kind. Slow and nagging, neverending, yet never sharp. Always dull, sluggish, but constant. It had been a few days. Maybe. There was no window to be able to tell. The only reference she had were the 2 meals a day delivered to her cell and fed to her. Meals aren’t truly what they were. It was slop. Good enough to keep the prisoners alive, to keep them in pain, but not satiating at all, and certainly not appetizing. It was grayish-greenish, and fed through a tube. Specifically formulated to deliver just the bare minimum nutrition, it was absorbed perfectly, and kept everyone just barely alive. 

She expected the enforcer entering her cell to be bringing another canister of sludge but the one who walked in came bearing no such gifts. The enforcer stood in front of Zaria.

“106C-42, attention!” the enforcer ordered.

“Where’s the food?” Zaria asked.

“Inmate 106C-42, as part of worldwide resource preservation efforts, you have been randomly selected for termination. You have 5 days until termination. You may now name up to three individuals to have notified of your termination order. Please list the names of the three individuals to have notified of your termination order. You have one minute to comply.”

Thoughts raced through Zaria’s mind. What time was it? What day? Who would she tell? Mrs. Sunfinch. Her eyes. Mrs. Sunfinch had to know. How was the shop? She wouldn’t see it again. Never be burned by the sun. Eat real food. See anything more than a steel box. Sit down. See Jay. Jay! He had to know. Two. That’s how many he had lost now. Was she even alive anymore? Jay’s dad. Shell. Walking corpse. Zombie. 

“Please list the names…”

Quiet. Pale. Failing. Useless. At least he had gotten a party. At least he had seen another living person before it happened. Zaria would just see more corpses. 

“…of the individuals…”

How would it happen? Nobody knew. All anyone ever heard were the screams. The screaming. The screaming! It had to hurt. 

“…to have notified…”

Would Mrs. Sunfinch care? Would she feel bad? Would she come back? The eyes. Blue. Piercing. Cold. Shimmering with the edge of tears.

“.. of your termination order.”

What about Jay? Could he come back to the enforcer office? Even to see Zaria? What would he think? What would he say? What would he do? 

“You have 30 seconds to comply.”

Zaria was supposed to look after him. Not to sacrifice her life for theirs. A dead man’s last words. And she cast them aside. And now she was being cast aside. 

“You have 15 sec–”

“Amara Sunfinch. I want you to tell Amara Sunfinch. And Jay… Jason Hawkins,” she said. Looking right at the enforcer.

“Amara Sunfinch and Jason Hawkins will be notified of your termination order within 48 hours,” the enforcer said.

With that, the enforcer left, closed the door, and the lights went out again. The tumult of ideas swelled to a veritable hurricane of synaptic overload across Zaria’s mind. She couldn’t stop thinking, the eyes haunting her still even after unconsciousness claimed her. 


<   ◯   >


Three portions of slimy rations were brought to Zaria at regular intervals. Following suit with every other instance, the lights came on, the door opened, and an enforcer marched into the cramped cell. 

“106C-42, attention!” the enforcer shouted. “Jason Hawkins is here see you.”

Zaria looked up expectantly, and as the enforcer stepped aside, Jay rushed into the cell. 

“Zaria!” he exclaimed. He stopped when he stood right in front of her. 

“Jay, I–” Zaria began. 

“I’m going to get you out of here.”

“Jay, we both know you can’t bail me out.”

“I’ll… I’ll put something together. I’ll get you out. I’ll ask the shop lady! Doesn’t she–”

“She already came.”


“She already said no. She said it was good for me. A lesson.”

“Does she know…”


“And she still won’t bail you out?”

“I don’t know. She hasn’t come back. I don’t even know how long it’s been. I don’t know how long I have left. They said I have five days.”

“When did they tell you? And why only five? I thought you got two weeks!”

“I don’t know. The time blurs together in here. The rules must be different for prisoners.”

“It’s not fair!”

“It’s random.”

“We all know it’s not random! And it’s not random to me. To me it’s my dad and my girlfriend. Who’s next? My sister? My brother? My mom? How long until everyone in this stupid city is murdered by these… these…”

Jay saw the enforcer looking at him, tensing up, clenching his fists.

“How long until none of us are left?” he said softly. The enforcer eased and went back to his post. 

“Jason Hawkins!” the enforcer said.  Your visitation time has elapsed. Please exit the cell.”

“I’ll come back,” Jay said. “I’ll figure out when the day is. I’ll get you out of here.”

“Jay, please,” Zaria said.

“Please exit the cell!” The enforcer commanded. Jay started backing away.

“I’ll get you out! I’ll think of something! I promise!”

Jay’s frantic shouting was the last thing Zaria heard until her next delivery of sludge. The lights went out again and the door closed, and the nightmarish trance began anew. 


<   ◯   >


The meals passed slowly, agonizingly, the depressing slop oozing down Zaria’s throat. She stopped keeping count of the times after the news came. What was the point? She would be dead soon anyway. There was no way Jay could get her out. It was impossible. This had been racing through her head since Jay’s panicked visit. It was constantly on her mind. The lights flicked on again, the door swung open, an enforcer walked in, but there was no feeding tube in sight. Suddenly her restraints snapped open, releasing her wrists and ankles. She slumped forward, stumbled, and fell face-first onto the cold metal floor. 

Unflinching, the enforcer looked down on her, saying “106C-42, Attention!”

Zaria remained collapsed on the floor, her muscles refusing to recieve the signal to move. They ached worse than anything else. 

“106C-42, Attention!” The enforcer commanded again. 

It took all her strength and will, but slowly Zaria eased herself up off the floor and into a shaky standing position. Her limbs were burning from the effort, screaming out from sudden reactivation after extended disuse. She stood as straight as she could, and looked up at the enforcer.

“106C-42,” the enforcer began. “As part of worldwide resource preservation efforts, you have been randomly selected for termination. Your waiting period has elapsed. Termination will be carried out shortly. Turn around. Any resistance will be met with consequences.”

Had it really been five days already? Spent in near-perpetual darkness it felt more like five years, and yet, with her heart pounding in her skull it might as well have been five minutes. She slowly turned around, putting her hands behind her back. The enforcer wrapped her wrists in the same snake-like glove. Her skin had chafed against the cuffs in her cell, so the enforcer’s grip, though not excessively tight, burned and stung. Her arms shook, and the enforcer led her out of the cell for what was certainly the last time. 

They walked through the corridor one last time, into the elevator and up to the ground level one last time, and through another door, plain save only the label Term. Yard. They crossed the threshold into the dry night air. ‘Yard’ was an overstatement. It was a concrete slab with barbed wire-topped walls that stretched 30 feet into the hot night air, and small enough that even backed against the wall, Zaria couldn’t see the massive wall around the city. In the yard she counted 3 more people, each with an enforcer gripping their wrists behind their backs. She didn’t know what time it was, but she knew that before too long, around 15 more people would be brought in at the last second from outside. Like Jay’s dad. Jay! Whatever he had planned on doing obviously hadn’t worked. 

Zaria sighed and she seemed to shrink, less accepting and more scared of what was to come. Nobody knew how it happened. The enforcer walked her into the center of the yard, and the other enforcers followed. They let go of the prisoners, and began retreating to the door. One of the prisoners, a man who looked to be around 50 years old, glanced around frantically, then tried to make a mad dash for the door. Before he was even halfway there, the enforcers tackled him. A swift blow to the back of his head and he went limp. The enforcers left, and Zaria was left with the two other prisoners, a young man in his 30s and an elderly woman, and the unconcious man between them and the door. The three all eventually sat down on the warm concrete and looked at each other for a while, waiting for midnight. There wasn’t much light in the sky, but there was still the faintest glow of the sun just barely dying the sparse clouds a lighter shade of gray than the rest of the sky. 

“Michael,” The young man said. “My name. It’s Michael.”

“Zaria,” she said. “How long…”

“I’m really not sure. It’s been so long. The darkness, uh, messes with your senses.”

“I know what you’re talking about. I think It’s been about a week for me.”

“You’re lucky. Death will be a sweet release after what I’ve been through. It’s been almost two years. I’ve moved my arms maybe three times in that whole abysmal stretch of time. Getting here was… difficult.”

“When they took my restraints off I fell right on my face.”

“I can tell. It’s red. You’re starting to get a bit of a goose egg there.”

Zaria’s hand went up to her forehead, where Michael was pointing. It hurt to touch. There was definitely a lump there. Then she heard a noise and turned around. The man the guards had beaten was getting up. He crawled towards Zaria and Michael, clawing his way across the concrete. He looked up at them and Michael let in a soft gasp.

“Mr. Dion?” He asked, surprised.

“Hm?” the man said. “Yes, that’s–” he groaned in pain. “That’s me. And you… I’m sorry, I don’t think I know you.”

“To you I guess I was little Mike. I was friends with your son, Fletcher?”

  “I think I do remember you now. I’m… my memory is not what it used to be. How long has it been?”

“I got here about 16 years after you. And I’ve been here for, um, almost 2 years, I think.”

“Is Fletcher okay? When you came here, I mean,” Mr. Dion asked, almost choking on the words. “He must be almost 26 by now…”

“I’m sorry,” Michael began. “I really don’t know. After you… left. After that he was never the same. We drifted apart. I checked up on him a few times. I think he’s still alive.”

“That’s… that’s good. It’s not fair for him to lose us both so quickly. He knows. About me, at least. I had him notified. At least he won’t know both of us are leaving.”

A sharp twang of guilt shot through Zaria, and she thought about Jay. A voice then came drifting into the yard, as if from far away. Everyone in the yard looked up, straining their ears to listen to the sound. It was a message Zaria had heard before, except this time it was quiet. Softer. The voice went silent, and Zaria knew, and told the others, that it was time. The others were being brought in. 


<   ◯   >


The rest of the condemned walked through the door, led by an escort of enforcers. In all, there were 8 enforcers and 13 corpses between them. Zaria was soon surrounded by corpses. She was one herself. That’s all any of them were by now. Husks of people, just waiting for the horror to decend upon them, for the eternal sleep to place its mark on their souls. 

Then suddenly, there was an explostion on the far wall of the yard. Before the first one could fully register, there was another, and another. The wall now had a gaping hole two feet wide, blown stright through it. Through the thick dust and smoke rising around the wall, Zaria heard someone calling. Calling. Calling… her? Calling her. It was Jay!

“Zaria! Quick! We have to go!”

She stumbled forward slowly, wishing she had the mobility she had lost. The assembled group of civilians just stared. The enforcers rushed forward to apprehend whoever had the audacity to attack the enforcer compound. The audacity to attempt to save someone from death. To defy the government. To defy what seemed now to be nature itself. Zaria could only watch as Jay was dragged violently through the concrete hole. The enforcers carried him into the yard a little ways before hurling him against the ground. An audible snap rang out across the crowd, echoing in Zaria’s mind. She continued to stumble forward, towards Jay, and watched as the enforcers mercilessly beat him. He didn’t, wouldn’t scream. By the time the enforcers finally stopped their assault, Zaria was sure that every bone in Jay’s body had been broken. He struggled to turn his eyes to look at Zaria, who had just collapsed on the ground next to him. The rest of the people gathered in a tentative circle around the pair as a pool of red began to spread beneath Jay. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but only coughing came out. As blood sprayed from his mouth his body began convulsing, his limbs writhing into unnatural angles, splayed out on the now maroon concrete. As the spasms ceased, Jay’s voice came out in a ragged whisper. Zaria’s tears dripped slowly onto Jay as he struggled to force out the words. 

“I… tried…” he said. He began coughing again, and shaking. He was staring up, past Zaria’s head, as if at something far in the distance. “At least… we’re… together…”

“What about your family, Jay? I was supposed to keep an eye on you. This isn’t supposed to happen! This–”

“S-stop…” Jay whispered as forcefully as he could. “I… I… L-l… L…L-love…”

His eyes stayed staring off into space as he began coughing again. WIth the coughing came the shaking. The awful, violent shaking. His hand jittered and bumped against Zaria’s. She grabbed it and held it, trying to ignore the pooling blood soaking slowly upwards through her jumpsuit. 

As quickly as it started, the shaking stopped. There was a short wheezing sound as the last of the air in Jay’s ruined lungs left him. He gazed into the sky, a gray, starless square devoid of any and all beauty. 

The scream that escaped Zaria’s mouth was almost inhuman. Its intensity and piercing quality were unlike anything anyone there had ever heard. As the wretched sound rang out into the night, sustained by breath held in tortured lungs, the wailing masked the scrape of a trapdoor being opened, and made even the enforcer hounds within it hesitate for just a moment. As the pained wailing was curtailed by lack of breath, the hounds began bounding through the yard, tearing apart the small crowd. New screams rose up to replace Zaria’s, though none could match its intensity. Zaria stayed put, kneeling in her now soaked jumpsuit, as everyone around her was ripped to shreds. She faintly heard Michael calling out, trying to protect Mr. Dion. It was utterly futile. Zaria only waited. Before long, one of the hounds reached her, sinking its teeth into her arm, ripping straight through to the bone. Zaria simply endured it, shaken by the hound, silently accepting the horrendous pain. As less and less of her remained, she closed her eyes. The darkness came one last time, her aching wrists and ankles seemed like nothing now, and everything went quiet. There was only inky, thick blackness, completely smothering every sense until nothing remained except darkness. 



Leave a Comment
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists of Hart High School - CA. Your contribution will allow us to cover our the cost of our website and print editions.

More to Discover
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All THE SMOKE SIGNAL Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *