Albacron 1

Coming in early 2020

A New Series of Five Books

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 Albacron: #1 The Heart of the One

First in a Series

Want to know where the present-day political phenomenon might lead? The Hunger Games without the games. Where humankind’s inhumanity to humankind is the game in the 28th Century. Where history has culminated in seven hundred years of wealth ruling and exploiting poverty! Well—what if poverty fought back? 

1 – BEYOND THE PERIMETER

305 Years Ago, 360 Post Bellum (2425 by the old calendar):

Next to a tranquil body of water, an eighty-foot cliff rose from a narrow, silty beach. A disk-shaped platform sped fifty-feet above the shoreline. Two humans stood on the heliocruiser. The one in front, dressed in a silver, tight-fitting uniform, held onto a golden crossbar connected to the platform. Another stood behind him with hands on a gray crossbar. Her tattered, wind-blown dress stretched a short distance behind her.

The cruiser dipped toward the beach, swung left over the water, and then turned sharply right before climbing toward the cliff top. When it seemed as though it would impact, it lurched upward and over the rim.

The August setting sun reflected off the pilot’s protective helmet while it burned the woman’s exposed skin. She drew the outside edges of her lips downward as her disheveled, dirty hair streamed behind her.

The treetops shot past beneath them as the heliocruiser gained height. A distant village leaped into view. On approach, a multitude of run-down shanties appeared encircling a group of finer, official-looking buildings in the village square. A hexagonal, six-story mansion dominated the center.

Climbing higher revealed woods beyond the village. To the right, a single-story factory extended three hundred yards. A perimeter fence stretched from either end and surrounded the village like a snake encircling its prey. Beyond the factory spread more woods.

Slowing, the cruiser descended toward the mansion and landed in a courtyard surrounded by nine, spiral towers as tall as the building. Several gray-helmeted militiamen, dressed in yellow, skin-tight suits, rushed toward it with batons at the ready.

The militiamen spoke with the pilot. Two of them removed the woman and escorted her toward the mansion holding her from either side. She broke free and bolted. One militiaman sprinted after her and jabbed his baton onto her back. A flash of sizzling light enveloped her, and she fell to the ground.

The militiamen lifted the unconscious woman and lugged her toward the mansion, her feet dragging.

 

2 – HOME TO ROOST

A man in a yellow suit sat behind a large, semi-circular desk. He held a turkey leg in one hand. Pans and bowls, brimming with succulent foods, stretched around him on a royal-blue tablecloth. A rectangular opening expanded in the wall to his right, and two militiamen marched in pulling a twenty-year-old woman in a tattered dress. She struggled to keep up, her tousled hair splaying in every direction. They yanked her by the arms toward the desk and forced her to stand facing it.

The man behind the desk sat back, dabbed his mouth, and wiped his hands with his crimson, cloth napkin. “Another perimeter violator?”

One militiaman bowed his head. “Yes, Supreme Mayor.”

The mayor stared at the woman. “I know you.” He wagged a finger at her. “Mintaka. You’ve done this before.”

Mintaka looked away, tears flowing down her emaciated face like rain down a window.

The mayor glanced at the militiamen and tossed the napkin onto the table. “You may leave her with me.”

They stiffened. “Yes, Supreme Mayor.” Executing a smart left face, they marched toward the opening and stepped inside. It closed behind them leaving only the sign of the lift symbol on the wall, a gold rectangle surrounding two, back-to-back arrowheads, one pointing up and one pointing down.

The mayor stared at the woman. “Hungry, Mintaka?”

Her mouth filled with saliva, and her dangling tongue flopped in time with her nodding.

“I bet you are.” He picked up his turkey leg and bit into it. Chewing, he scrutinized her. A growl issued from Mintaka’s midsection. He swallowed. “You Vercundi would say that is the sound of your poverty. A poverty, by the way, we Albacronians know you deserve. Your history proves that.” He retrieved his napkin, sat back, and wiped his mouth again. “When were you here last?”

“Six days ago, Supreme Mayor.” The succulent smells made her breathe deeply.

He cocked his head, closed one eye, and pointed at her. “And you were here before that, I think.”

She nodded. “Two weeks earlier.” She opened her mouth slightly. Sucking in air across her tongue, she hoped the odors of meat, sauces, and cheeses would transform themselves into corresponding flavors.

Rising, he sauntered around his desk and stopped before her. He thrust a hand toward her neck, and she jerked back. “I won’t hurt you, my dear. I am, if anything, a peaceful man. You should be aware of that from my presiding over the daily ‘Nurturing’ gatherings.

He eased his hand toward her neck and grasped the dark-green crystal hanging from a string. “I see you were awarded the ‘Crystal of Shame.’” His gaze shifted from the crystal to Mintaka’s eyes. “Did you receive it after your first perimeter violation or your second?”

“The second, Supreme Mayor.”

“Just six days ago. That should have kept you from going beyond the perimeter fence.” He strutted around behind his desk. “And how long has it been since you’ve eaten?”

“Six days.”

He rolled his eyes. “What a coincidence.” Sitting, he eased his elbows onto the golden armrests and touched his fingertips together. “We administered a punishment of no food for three days. Why the discrepancy?”

“I drew high numbers at ‘The Nurturing’ for me and my younger siblings after that.”

“Poor, young Alheena and Bellatrix. And, with the ‘Crystal of Shame,’ you could not accept any gifts of food from other Vercundi.” He bounced his fingers off one another several times. “You brought this on yourself, you understand, by violating the perimeter fence.”

She stretched forward, her eyes on the food. “We were hungry. I thought there may be living things in the Big Sea.”

The mayor shook his head. “The sea is as dead as your dream of the Vercundi people ever being free … and there are no sizable animals outside the perimeter to speak of.” He dropped his hands and leaned forward. “We provide the food in exchange for your work in the textile mill. You work and draw numbers for ‘The Nurturing.’ If the quotas are met, everyone who draws a number receives one day’s food ration for their whole family. It’s quite elementary.” He shrugged his shoulders, held his hands out before him palms up, and smiled. “And it’s totally under your control. All directives originate from the capital in Adelphy. I simply administer it.”

Tears dripped down Mintaka’s face. She wiped them and sniffed. “I certainly am sorry. I promise you I’ll never go outside the perimeter fence again.”

He folded his arms. “You seem sincere. You must think … what would happen to that wonderful little brother of yours … Bellatrix, and his older sister, Alheena. They are under twelve years of age.”

“I know, Supreme Mayor. I’m all they have since our parents disappeared.”

His eyebrows peaked. “They wandered off, I believe … perhaps beyond the perimeter.” He shrugged and swept one hand before him leaving it hovering palm up. “Who knows what happened to them?”

Mintaka clenched her fists. “Maybe my father did, but I know my mother did not.”

He lowered his hand and gawked at her. “What are you saying?”

“I saw her after a ‘Nurturing’ gathering … and she simply disappeared.”

He laughed. “Disappeared into the crowd, maybe. After that ….” He glared into her eyes. “Who knows?”

She grasped the edge of his desk and leaned forward. “Yes, but I know what I ….” She noticed him staring at her hands. Yanking them off the desk, she stood erect. “Yes, Supreme Mayor. That is how it must have been.”

He smiled and cocked his head. “I’m so glad you see it my way.” He rose and adjusted his lavender tie. “I think you have had enough bad luck.” He pointed at the desktop. “Have something to eat.”

Her eyes met his, and she waited.

He flourished his hand three times toward the food. “Go ahead.”

Mintaka bent forward and grabbed a handful of headless, breaded fish cramming it into her mouth.

The mayor laughed. “That’s right. Eat up. Then we’re sending you home … and you never again will go beyond the perimeter fence.”

She turned her head toward him and said inaudibly, “No, Supreme Mayor. Never!” She turned back to the food and broke off the end of a golden-crusted loaf of bread. After dipping it into a yellow, creamy sauce, she attempted to jam the entire piece into her mouth.

The mayor chuckled, walked to the end of his desk, and pressed a button. Minutes later, the wall opening re-appeared. Two militiamen marched in and jerked to attention.

“See to it that this one is returned home to roost. She will be the first.” The Supreme Mayor’s eyes flared slightly as he smiled. “One day, you may be remembered for this.”

Mintaka swallowed and crammed more food into her mouth.

“To roost, Supreme Mayor?” one of the militiamen said.

“To roost.”

They strode behind her, and each grabbed an arm escorting her toward the opening.

The Supreme Mayor lifted one hand and waved his fingers. “Say hello to Bellatrix and Alheena for me.”

Still chewing, Mintaka turned her head, tried to speak, and nodded instead.

After they passed through the opening, it closed behind them. The little room jiggled as though it moved downward. It stopped, and part of the opposite wall slid left into itself leaving an opening. They marched her down a hall and stopped by a knob protruding from an unbroken, white wall.

Mintaka shook her head. “Wait. This isn’t the first floor.”

One militiaman pushed the knob, and a groove the size of a door formed to the left. “Wait in this room first. We must get clearance papers to let you go home.”

“Oh.”

The militiaman shoved the same knob to the left, and the area inside the perimeter retracted into the left wall. The other militiaman shoved her into a small, white, windowless room.

Mintaka stumbled toward a chair next to a round table and turned. The door closed leaving an unblemished, white wall facing her.

Outside, one militiaman swiped a hand over the center of the door at head height. A window sprang into view. They peered at her through the transparent material.

Mintaka looked at the militiamen and sat. One of them extended an arm toward his right side as though he reached for the handle again. She waited, expecting the window to disappear. Instead, a bright-orange light filled the room. She shielded her eyes with her arms and tried to detect the light source. It seemed to emanate from everywhere.

Her body warmed, and she panted. The temperature rose to an intolerable level. She jumped up, pulled at her collar, and screamed. Her consciousness faded, and she collapsed to the floor.

Outside, the militiamen watched as Mintaka’s clothing singed to a burnt-brown, then an ash-gray before bursting into flames. The orange color of the room changed to red, and her body exploded. Ash debris plumed into the air pulsating orange to black and back again. They watched it settle around the remaining flames like a black and gray snowfall.

One militiaman twisted the knob triggering a sucking sound. Watching the flames extinguish and the smoke race into the walls, they turned toward one another.

“Home to roost,” one of them said. He swiped his hand across the window and the opaque whiteness of the door replaced it.

The other militiaman pulled the knob, and the door perimeter vanished. They spun and marched away.

 

3 – WHAT’S FOR DINNER?

 305 Years Later, 665 P0st Bellum (2730 by the old calendar):

In my drab, little kitchen, I whipped around to discover the scrawny, medium-sized dog standing by the supper table.

I smacked my hands together. “Hey, hey, hey … scat!”

The dog jumped on the bench, grabbed the food sack from the table, and fled toward the front door.

Rushing into the living room, I noticed the door gaping open, the room empty. I slapped a hand on my thigh. “Come back here!”

I bolted to the exit in time to see the dog sprint along the dirt road between the other crumbling shacks. Panting and running my fingers through my cinnamon hair, I slumped against the flimsy doorframe.

That sack held all our remaining food. Abem Dinkun, Electra, what are we going to eat tonight?

Chara dashed from the only bedroom and skidded to a stop in the living room. “Electra, what happened?”

I glanced at her, reached for the front door, and closed it. “Did you just return from work?”

“A few minutes ago. Why?”

I stomped forward and pointed at the front door. “Abem Dinkun … you left it open.” Folding my arms, I tapped a foot on the floor. “You know there’s been a dog roaming the streets stealing food. You’re the only adult left in this family.” I slapped my thighs and leaned forward. “Can’t you take responsibility?”

Chara backed up, clasped her hands, and whisked them to her chest. “I didn’t do it! I know I closed the door behind me!”

I managed to resist a shudder. I’m so tired of watching her back. “Sometimes, I think I should have been the older sister.”

“Well ….” Chara looked at her hands as she lowered them. She glanced from side to side. “You’re almost an adult. You can gladly take over on your eighteenth birthday.”

I pulled up the torn hem of my dirty, brown skirt and wiped my hands on its cotton fibers. She’s so irresponsible. Talking to her is like talking to that thieving dog. I stormed toward the kitchen. “I’ve already taken charge.”

“Electra?” another voice called.

I jerked around and watched Meri Diana standing in the bedroom doorway, blond head bowed and hands clasped in the folds of her ragged dress.

I left the door open.”

You did it?” I rushed toward my little sister. I could just strangle…. I pointed at her. “Meri Diana! How careless can you be?”

Meri Diana looked up with wide eyes. “I’m sorry, Electra. I saw Chara enter from down the street … and … and ….”

She’s scared to death. I tell myself she doesn’t mean it … but, Abem Dinkun, we have no food for the evening if ‘The Nurturing’ goes badly!

 “I ran in to greet her,” Meri Diana continued.

Deneb appeared in the doorway. Meri Diana slipped an arm around her ten-year-old brother. He glanced up, and Meri Diana smiled. She looked at me, the smile fading.

I eased my hands behind my back to hide my clenched fists. “We scrimped and scraped to get a day ahead.”

I love her and Chara … but …. “What are we going to eat tonight, Meri Diana?” I stretched my hand toward the open cupboard. “The shelves are as bare as our spirits.” I stared at her. I’m glaring, but I can’t help it. “The dog stole everything we had!”

Chara edged forward and furrowed her brow. “We’ll have a good drawing this evening at ‘The Nurturing.’ You wait and see.”

Oh, that does it! Shaking a fist, I leaned forward. “Saying so won’t make it so. If only one section of our textile mill falls short on their quota, it will decrease the number of families getting their daily rations.”

Chara drew in her lips. “Well, I can tell you there was no quota shortfall … at least not in my section. We produced one bundle above quota today.”

I threw up my arms and walked about looking upward. “Great! That’s just great!” I stopped and glared at her. “That only leaves seventeen sections to hear from.”

“But we’ve had a good run of drawing low numbers lately.” Chara nodded. “We will again.”

I lowered my eyes. “Faith! You believe in faith … and luck, I suppose! They’re flimsy threads to sew with.” I stomped toward the table. Let’s face it … I’m the only realist among my siblings. “We better plan what we’ll do if we get nothing at ‘The Nurturing.’”

Deneb inched into the living room. “We can ask our neighbors for food.”

I turned, leaned against the table, and stared at the loose planks in the low ceiling. “I … hate … begging!”

Chara marched toward me and grabbed my hands. “Trust me. We will draw a good number.”

I squinted at my sister and pressed my lips together. She’s serious! If she thinks that’s going to make me feel more secure …. “You’re so exasperating!” I yanked my hands away and stared as though she were a spiritual vision. “Dreamer!” I turned away. “You’re nothing but a twenty-year-old child with your head in the clouds.” A cry escaped my lips. I spun, stared at each of them in turn, and darted toward the bedroom.

Meri Diana and Deneb parted and let me pass through the doorway. They peered inside before I slammed the door and leaned against it. I heard Deneb whimpering behind its thin veneer.

 “It’s all my fault!” Meri Diana said. I heard the front door open and bang shut.

I can’t take it anymore! How can anyone live like this? Somehow … I don’t know how … things must change!

I flung myself onto the largest of the two beds, buried my face in a pillow, and let my tears have their way.

 

4 – THE HEART OF THE ONE

 Thirty minutes after I ran into the bedroom and cried out my frustrations, a knock sounded on the door.

“Electra?” Deneb said. “It’s time for ‘The Nurturing.’ Let’s all go today.”

Like a clock, our masters wind us up, and we respond like the well-trained animals we are … day in, day out. Every day the same … every day we are the inferior people.

I dried my eyes with my skirt hem. “Coming.” Rising from the bed, I opened the door to find Meri Diana’s pleading, puppy eyes. A smile broke my lips. I can’t help it. I love her so much … my favorite sibling.

Meri Diana flew into my arms. “I’m so sorry, Electra. I’ll never leave the door open again. I promise.”

I ran my fingers through her hair. It always feels like bunny fur to me. That’s what Mama used to say about mine. I miss her. I need to be a mother for my sister now. “It’s all right.” I stared at Chara’s expression as it begged forgiveness.

I can’t stay mad at her, either. She can’t help what she is. We sisters must stick together. I smiled. “We will draw a good number. Maybe every factory section met their quotas, and it won’t matter even if we draw the largest number.”

Deneb inched forward and grabbed my arm. “A hundred and ninety-eight? Wowowski! I hope not.”

We laughed.

“We’re a family,” Chara said, “and we’ll always stick together, right?” She raised her fist and thrust it forward. The other two did the same until their fists touched.

We are all one … born of the same flesh. For Papa and Mama, we need to hold the remainder of our family together. I forced back tears and thrust my fist forward touching theirs. “Chara, Electra, Meri Diana, and Deneb. The heart of the one.”

“The heart of the one,” the others repeated.

I sucked in my lips, raised my eyebrows, and stared at each of them. “Let’s go to ‘The Nurturing,’ then.”

Deneb’s hands dropped to his sides. “Electra, will you tell us the legend of how Abem Dinkun saved the first two Vercundi?”

I folded my arms. “Deneb, how many times have you heard it? You could probably tell it.”

Meri Diana grabbed Deneb’s shoulders and smiled at me. “Oh, come on, sis … while we’re in a good mood.”

“All right.”

The heart-of-the-one siblings strolled out onto the dirt road where the familiar smell of poverty filled the air. We strolled toward the village square.

“Our great savior, Abem Dinkun, lived among the ancestors of the Albacronians. Those ancestors decided to create the first two Vercundi and allow them to live in a beautiful garden. The male Vercundi, Mashya, received orders that he and his wife could eat anything … but to stay away from the forbidden pear tree.”

“Yeah,” Deneb said, “but Mashyana wouldn’t listen.”

Meri Diana shook her head. “Oh, will you stop it? It’s not always the woman’s fault.”

Deneb yanked Meri Diana’s arm. “But it was the woman who wouldn’t listen. Remind you of anyone?” He bobbed his eyebrows.

Meri Diana smacked his arm and laughed.

“Well,” I extended an arm. “I don’t even know why you need me to tell the story. You’re both doing fine without me.”

Deneb jumped out in front of us and bounced along backwards. “No. Go ahead. I’ll be quiet.”

I shook my head and frowned. He does this every time. “All right, then. The Albacronian ancestral leader turned into a snake and talked Mashyana into offering a pear to Mashya. They stood before the mighty trunk of the pear tree, the giant snake wrapped around it.”

Meri Diana wrinkled her nose. “Oh, Abem! It’s the snake. I’ve always had trouble believing in a talking snake.”

Deneb pointed at her. “You don’t want to believe it, because it talks women into doing things they shouldn’t.” He stuck his thumb on his nose and wiggled his fingers. “Gullible!”

Meri Diana raised her fists and shook them. “Abem Dinkun … spare me, please!”

I clenched my jaw. “All right … let’s not get into this again.” I lowered my head and raised my eyebrows. “May I please continue?”

“The arrow! The arrow!” Deneb jumped up and down.

“Shhhhhh!” Chara whipped a finger to her lips.

I grabbed his arm and pulled him toward us. “Yes, I’ll get there!” I slipped an arm around his shoulders and smiled. “Abem Dinkun had always lived on the Earth … even before the Albacronian ancestors arrived. He heard about their foul plan to trick the new Vercundi couple into slavery.”

“And just as Mashyana handed the pear to Mashya ….”

I nodded. “Yes, Meri Diana, I’m telling the story. As Mashya reached and laid his fingers upon it, an arrow shot the pear from their hands.”

“Whoa! Yeah!” Deneb shouted. “And it pierced the head of the snake and pinned it to the tree.”

Meri Diana nodded. “And the Vercundi couple were free to go forth and multiply.”

“And for a hundred years, they lived free.” Deneb bobbed his head.

I shook mine and laughed. Looking at Chara, she caught my gaze and laughed as well. Soon, we all laughed as we arrived at the village square.

The sight of it made us stop. Silence reigned as our smiles faded. We lowered our heads and trekked into the square.

 

5 – THE NURTURING

 My three siblings and I walked into the village square and stood with our fellow villagers before a covered platform. It rose a foot above the ground and supported the ER—the Ethereal Receiver, which perched on it like an eagle eyeing its helpless prey.

None of us Vercundi knew how it operated. The Albacronians kept all the technology to themselves, and they made sure we stayed ignorant. Our only happiness came from our love, having children, and occasionally getting enough food to fill our bellies. We are allowed to know only what we see.

The bowl-shaped plate of the ER, nine feet across, sat on its platform perch. Its twin hung twelve feet above it from a pointed roof. A hollow, metal barrel, suspended in a wooden frame on wheels, rested to the right of the ER at the front of the platform. A handle stuck out from the frame facing the Supreme Mayor.

He stood beside a lectern dressed in his bright-yellow, frilly shirt, green coat, and pants. To us, he seemed mightier than a god. About seventy-five of the hundreds milling around had formed a line before the barrel. Others lengthened it as more villagers arrived. I stepped in line and turned to my siblings. “Let me be the one to draw today. You wait with the crowd.”

Chara eased her hand on my arm and smiled. “Get us a good number, Electra.”

The hope flowing from my sister’s eyes is contagious. I nodded, and the others melted into the crowd. After choosing a small, tan cube from the barrel, I buried it in my palm without looking and carried it to my waiting siblings. I stopped alongside Chara. Meri Diana nearly pulled off my arm.

I jerked the cube away. “Wait a minute, Meri Diana.”

“Is it a good number?” Deneb bounced up and down.

I pushed Meri Diana backward. “I haven’t looked yet.”

Chara drew a hand to her throat. “You haven’t looked?”

 “Give it to me!” Deneb pulled at my arm. “I’ll look for you!”

I yanked my hand away, but Meri Diana snatched the cube from me.

I reached for it, but she pulled it away.

The nerve of …!

Meri Diana smiled and waved it before my nose. “Not bad.” Her voice bubbled. “One hundred and twenty.” She cupped a hand above her eyes to block the hot, evening sun. “What percent is that?”

I paused. “Around forty percent.”

She clapped like a three-year-old. “Abem Dinkun! We’re ahead of nearly half the other villagers. We’re going to eat well tonight!”

Look at her. She’s so full of hope. I don’t want to ruin it.

Twenty minutes later, one member from every household had drawn a number. The Supreme Mayor strutted behind the lectern and raised his hands.

“All are present. We are ready for the transmission.”

Every eye turned toward the metal disks on the platform as a villager wheeled the lectern away. Two others pushed the barrel aside.

Streaks of crackling lightning shot between the upper and lower disks. A green fog swirled from the bottom to the top, replacing the bolts. It cleared, and the nine-foot figure of the Superior Albacronian stood on the bottom disk with arms spread.

The moldy smell washed over the crowd making my nose wrinkle—as usual, and a second later, I felt sick to my stomach—as usual. Every day the same thing happens.

The Superior Albacronian stood draped in a gold-colored robe with frills hanging off its wide sleeves and billowy collar. The Crown of Albacron rested on his head. The large, metal shield in the front showed a torch with moving red and orange flames. Three horizontal bars of iron stretched to either side, the middle ones longer than the others.

Every day we draw numbers. Every day he spouts the same nonsense.

“Good evening, fine citizens of the world. We, the Albacronians of Albacron, guardians of the Vercundi people and your line of defense against the meteor showers, welcome you to the nightly drawing at your local ‘Nurturing’. You all have your numbers, and I know you are eagerly waiting to begin. I hope everyone helped to make their quotas for today.”

Chara leaned toward me. “We’re going to be all right.”

“I think so,” I whispered. Look at me. Now, I have hope. That could prove to be dangerous, but I don’t care. Let today be different somehow.

The Superior Albacronian lowered his head and dropped his arms. “It was not a good day.” He looked up. “Although Lily Lock, Lanta, Nork, Cho Bee, and Troit did fine, the Beaton village turned in their seafood … three shipping containers short. The Roon Oak coal mines delivered six carloads less than quota, and Fore Wert had so many cattle die off that they turned in only two-thirds of their quota.”

He drew his hands together and let them dangle before his silvery-blue tunic. “But Bawl Mehr … oh, my … Bawl Mehr was the worst disaster we have ever seen. Several very bad Vercundi mismanaged some of the textile looms … and they turned in less than a third of their quota.”

Chara clutched my elbow. “I swear we never heard a thing from the other sections.”

“Of course, you didn’t,” I spat. “That’s because you’re released one section at a time. They don’t want us to mingle … to learn things.” Me and my stupid hope! When will I learn? Why should living always make us angry?

 I felt a tapping on my shoulder and looked to see Deneb staring at me. “Electra, we’re in really big trouble, aren’t we?” Drawing in my lips and blinking back tears, I nodded.

The Superior Albacronian continued. “Albacron may have to send in technicians to help, which has hardly ever happened in the history of the Post Bellum.” He shook his head. “And every Vercundi citizen knows what that means. All the villages will suffer with fewer rations until Bawl Mehr is up and running back to normal.” He shook his head again. “I hope it isn’t for too many days.”

That’s right. Punish the many for the sins of the few. Albacronians administer justice like swarming bees administer their stings.

The Superior Albacronian stretched his hands out to either side again. “And now, your Supreme Mayors will read you the cutoff numbers.”

More crackling lightning bolts streaked through his image. He faded, and soon only the moldy smell remained.

“Abem Dinkun!” I looked around as everyone began chattering.

Chara patted my arm. “We should still be all right.”

Blood pounded in my ears until I heard nothing else. “Dreamer!”

The Supreme Mayor swaggered before the disks and raised his hands. “I’ve calculated the cutoff point. After figuring in the quota loss, it comes to one hundred nineteen point ninety-six.”

I grabbed Chara, and we jumped up and down. “They’ll round it off at one hundred twenty,” I said.

They always do … and they will now. This is where our luck changes. I can feel it.

Chara nodded. “We made it!”

“Abem Dinkun!” said Meri Diana.

“Wowowski!” added Deneb.

“Those with one hundred nineteen or lower can go to the food distribution center, but your rations will be half until we meet the full quota again. The others….” He pointed to the drum. “Turn in your ‘Nurturing’ drawing cubes. My attendants will take them from you.”

Chara’s expression turned as cold as an ice-glazed, winter tree. “They didn’t round up.” Her eyes shot to mine. “They always round up.”

“It’s not fair!” Deneb stomped the ground.

No, it’s not fair. It’s Albacronian. I felt the edges of my mouth sag. “Perhaps because Bawl Mehr had the worst record ever.”

Deneb jabbed a thumb onto his chest. “So, they take it out on us … one family!”

Meri Diana shook her head. “It’s all my fault.”

There she goes again … taking the world onto her shoulders. I can’t let her do it over this. “It’s going to be all right.” I turned to discover Deneb crying.

Chara stomped off, stopped, and whirled around. “Saying so won’t make it so.” She turned and ran.

“Chara!” I reached toward her as she disappeared into the crowd.

She’s right to throw my words back in my face. I’m wrong to think that anything about our lives will ever change. Why am I such a fool? Why are the Albacronians the masters and the Vercundi the slaves? Why does anyone have to be a slave? Hope is for dreamers … and I’m just another dreamer.

The corners of Meri Diana’s lips turned down, and her brows rose. “What do we do now?”

My shoulders sagged. “We’ve gone without eating before. Come. Let’s go home.”

SAMPLE END

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