An audible buzz spreads through the shed while the four workers finish salting the cheeses and clean off the equipment. I join the other women in the dressing room, and we change out of our overalls. There is excited chatter all around me, but I keep my eyes on what I’m doing and take no part in it. The women ignore me anyway. This is nothing new and doesn’t hurt very much anymore. I don’t share their excitement.
I can’t get enthused about the arrival of a new baby. I just can’t. It’s only been two nights since my last vigil and I’m still emotionally and physically drained from it. Plus, this is different. This is Chloe. I fear for her baby so much more; she is practically family.
I realise that I’ve unconsciously started rubbing the inside of my wrist, where a laser mark lies. A black cross, dark against pale skin. Other than the mark, I am very much like the other girls. Smaller maybe; slighter and slimmer, but there are no distinctive features that set me apart. We all have long hair, tucked under caps for working. Mine is an unruly kind of wavy that is infuriatingly neither straight nor curly. I may be smaller, but none of the others can be called fat. Overeating is not an option, and we are all kept physically active. My heart-shaped face and fine features give me a fragile look, which I have always disliked. The faces around me vary from shades of mocha to pale cream, and nothing sets me apart there either. I’m one of the paler girls, but I blend in.
No, an outsider would not pick me out for looking different. But still, an outsider is likely to be able to tell that there was something strange in the way I am treated by the other workers - an aloofness, a distance. It’s as though there is an invisible barrier separating me from them. Not invisible, I realise. Just on the inside of my wrist. Completely visible, if you cared to look.
I shake my shoulders, bundle my clothes into a locker, punch myself out and stride off into the brilliant sunshine, leaving behind the animated women and the dark thoughts that threaten to wash over me.
The path leading from the cheese shed to the hub – our little cluster of community - is pretty well tended, as the road is used every day. Many of our roads are not as good as this one, but still I have to pick my way around potholes and puddles. I gaze longingly past the willows and flax along the path. The rain has washed the world clean and left the sea sparkling. Far out in the bay, little white caps form, skim across the water for a way, then disappear. They look like they’re playing, and with that ridiculous thought, a smile flickers on my face.
I turn off up the cliff track rather than heading towards the hub and home. With a new destination in mind, my pace quickens and my step lightens. As I climb, the wind begins to pick up. It pulls at the dark tendrils of hair that have escaped from the knot under my cap, and at the hem of my tunic. I pull off my cap and shake my head, allowing the unruly locks their freedom. The breeze carries on it the familiar scent of salt and seaweed. I feel calmer already.
The clifftop allows an expansive view.
On the far side of the bay, the remains of what used to be a busy port can be seen, all containers and creaking iron. Over the decades the area has been raided time and again for metal to be reworked, but a few of the old cranes still punctuate the sky with their arthritic fingers. They teeter at insane angles; you’d have to be either desperate or crazy to go near them.
Ships have neither arrived nor departed this port for many generations. Grandad says that when the Isolation was first declared, any activity along the coast was taken as a threat. Craft were sunk on sight. Of course that was a long time ago, even well before Grandad was born, but keeping away from the water has become a way of life here. I am the only person I know who even swims. I’ve seen Polis soldiers get in the water on hot days, but they hardly count.
Near the port I can see the red roof of the recycling plant, which runs 24/7. The ancients left us mountains and mountains of the stuff, plastics and metals and glass, all tied up in tidy cubes. It’s been over a century since the Isolation, and we have hardly made a dent in the abundance of resources which they saw as rubbish.
The bay reaches round in a wide arc to my right. It is truly the picture of peace; a perfect curve, blue water lazily sweeping golden sand. Above me, gulls wheel and soar, their plaintive calls carried to me on the wind.
To my left, to the east, the unknown. The wide expanse of open ocean, going on forever and ever, and eventually melting into the sky.
I look long and hard, as I have so many times before, waiting to see something appear on the horizon and wondering what would happen if it did. My eyes watering from the chill in the breeze, I finally tear my gaze from that blue desert and I see Grandad making his way up the cliff track towards me.
I realise that he seems to have grown older in the last few months. How could I have missed this? Once so tall and straight, he has become stooped. He has brought his walking stick out today, and I realise that recently I’ve rarely seen him without it. His hair is almost completely white, and thinning across the top of his bare head. White too is the hair he allows to grow, carefully and tidily trimmed, on his chin.
When he reaches me by the cliff he is out of breath, but he is smiling and his pale blue eyes are shining.
“There’s nothing like the sea air!” he manages, leaning on his stick and trying to hide his heavy breathing. He pulls at the collar of his shirt. I want to chastise him for exerting himself, but I hold my tongue. Being told what he can and can’t do isn’t something Grandad accepts gracefully. Even Auntie Marama has learned to tread carefully when she has advice to give him.
Grandad is the one who raised me. He was from another hub, in Sector Two, but when my parents and brother died, he relocated us here to Sector Four. I was only tiny and remember nothing of my family; it has always been just the two of us. He’s my father and my teacher - he has taught me everything I know, from the movement of the moon and how to tie my shoelaces to rewiring a motion sensor. Around town he’s known for his knowledge of plants and their useful properties, although many of these we keep to ourselves. It’s thanks to his herbal skill that I’m able to mask my scent when camouflaged, and incapacitate any wild beast with a poisoned dart.
I motion to the deep blue nothingness in front of us.
“What do you think is out there?”
“Oh, continents, oceans… probably a fair few whales, porpoises, fish…” I hear the hint of a smile in his voice.
“Who do you think is out there? Do you think there is anyone left?”
Grandad is silent for a while, which I have grown used to.
“I’m not sure, Arcadia. But does it matter?”
“Of course it matters! Other people – other countries – other possibilities – of course it matters!” I lift my hands in irritation. I can’t believe how dismissive he is.
“I know how you feel, and I understand your frustration. But just remember, Dia. There are other mountains to climb which are much closer to home.”
I sigh. I’m not in the mood for his riddles today, so I change tack. “What about the Sickness?” I ask more calmly, turning back to the wide ocean and squinting, as though I can see particles of disease like pollen in the air. “Is it still out there?”
He rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Now that is a more interesting question.” It’s clear he doesn’t know the answer, but looks at me speculatively. “If you assumed it was still out there, circulating, what would you do?”
“I suppose I would do everything I could to prepare myself to fight it.”
He nods thoughtfully. “Preparation is always a good thing.”
We stand for a moment in silence, looking out to sea. I’m imagining a black cloud approaching, like a swarm of locusts, and wondering how I would prepare myself to fight a disease. My Grandad is all theory and no action.
As I turn away from the desert, he catches my wrist and his voice is soft when he says, “I thought you might come here when I heard that Chloe had her baby.”
I have nothing to say to that. Intuitive as always.
He knows better than to ask me if I’m okay. But he squeezes my wrist before letting it go, and says, “It will be alright. Be strong. There is nothing wrong with you.” When I sigh, he puts his hand on my cheek, gently, but makes me look at him. “I mean it. You have the ability to change the world, Arcadia.”
I nod and carry on down towards the water.
“Don’t go out too far,” he calls after me.
Grandad has always talked to me like this, but recently I’ve started to wonder if he is living in my universe. You have the ability to change the world, Arcadia. Everything I do is dictated by the Polis and restricted by my mark. My tiny show of rebellion is my vigil over the children marked for death, as I was. And most of the time I have to come home well before the sun is up, my battle already lost. My future is laid out in front of me like a woven carpet. Much as I dislike the pattern, I can see no way of remaking it. If I can’t alter my own destiny, how can he possibly imagine I could change the world?
Once on the rocks, I remove my boots and cap, and strip off down to my underwear. It’s not that I’m being daring or anything. There is no danger of being seen, because no-one comes here but me. My own private swimming spot. There are also mussels and paua if you know where to look. I’m not the only one who collects from the sea, but I’m the only one who’s willing to dive for it.
Today I’m not collecting though. I just need a chance to unwind.
I slip into the water with a sharp intake of breath. The first swim of the year, and the water’s touch is icy. I’ll warm up when I get moving.
I start pulling my way through the water, cutting through the waves in sure strokes. Before I know it I’m quite far out across the bay, the rocks behind me becoming wet black forms against the pale golden yellow of the sandy cliff. I put my head down and keep going. The next time I look back, the rocks are no longer visible, and the cliff itself looks small and insignificant. Just a part of the undulating shoreline. The saltiness I taste on my lips and feel stinging at my cuts and grazes is familiar and welcome.
With the rhythm of my breathing, my mihi runs through my head. I’ve always found it comforting, a reminder of who I am, my place in the world. My mihi is my identity. I am Arcadia Grey. My Grandfather is Mathias Grey. I come from Sector Four. My parents were Ian and Sarah Grey. My parents are both dead. The last part is always the hardest. I am Unworthy.
I am over halfway now; closer to the wreckage of the port. I’m beginning to feel the effects of the swim, and am making myself pull in deeper breaths to feed my hungry lungs. It’s time I turned back.
With the initial burst of energy expended, my body begins to find a different, more controlled rhythm, and I cannot stop my mind turning to the subject I least want to explore.
The cold weight returns to my chest, although I’m not sure why – this day was always going to come, after all. But I’m never prepared enough for the all-encompassing dread that hits me when another baby is born in our hub, and has to undergo their inspection.
For the rest of the hub, the arrival of a baby is cause for celebration, but I’ve learned not to get carried away. It’s simply too soon. I try not to imagine what Chloe is feeling right now. The nano-patch will have been applied at birth, her child receiving its life-giving vaccine as soon as possible, but the vaccine is no guarantee. So many of our children are simply not born strong enough to survive in a world so rife with infection, and although the Polis immunologists are continually improving the vaccine, many of our babies continue to contract postnatal diseases.
I imagine that Chloe will be beside herself with worry, wondering if her newborn will pass inspection, or whether it will fail and be marked. I shudder. Suddenly the chill in the water seems to be sinking into my bones. I can’t help it; whenever a new baby is born I can’t help thinking of my mother. What did she feel? Did she have any inkling of the results? What were there the clues that told her that I would not pass? That I would be found unworthy of life? And how could she take me out that night to the ring of stones to die?