The year is 2020, and humans are beginning to reverse their overpopulation problem... but at a price.
Part 1 - Initiation
The first time I heard the name Imogen Chan was when I was eight. The year was twenty seventeen, and the world’s population had just reached ten billion. I thought it was wonderful that there were so many people in the world, and I told my parents so. They smiled and nodded, but I could tell that they were anxious, not as happy as usual.
My parents and I lived in a small white bungalow on the outskirts of Toronto, Canada. It was a part of the concrete and tarmac patchwork of housing that extended for kilometres in every direction. Every street looked similar, and so it was easy to get lost. I’d learnt from a young age to notice the tiniest landmarks as I roamed my neighbourhood – anything that would help me find my way back to my home in the labyrinth of bungalows.
Our house always looked a little different, though. A row of small windmills stood in a row at the edge of the garden, and my parents let our flowerbeds grow rampantly – partly because they were usually too wrapped up in his work at the University of Ontario to garden much. The borders were cheerful and the lawn was a riot of green, except in the summer, when water shortages hit even the comparatively rich. Then the flowers would wilt, and the grass would yellow, as they, along with everything else, seemed to suffer thirstily in the sweltering heat.
The day that I am remembering now was in late spring – April, I think. I had gone to bed, but I was still awake, listening to my parents talk through the door of my small bedroom. I was a lucky child in that my parents rarely argued about little things. Instead, they had heated debates about larger issues, and often when their voices were highest, they were in fact agreeing, just loudly. Tonight, they were talking about population. And they were united about the fact that it was out of hand.
‘We can’t go on like this,’ my mother said, and I could see her shadow move under the door as she paced up and down. ‘There is no way that the human race will survive with a population this huge.’
‘Something must be done...’ I heard my father say, pensively.
‘But what?’ My mother’s voice, sharply. ‘Every nation in the world knows that “something must be done”. It’s doing it which is the problem.’ She gave a ragged sigh. ‘Nobody wants to be the first. China’s brought in the one child policy again, but it isn’t enough. Not with life expectancy at ninety-eight and rising...’
‘Well, what do you think people should do? Shoot criminals down like dogs?’ I tensed a little where I lay. I’d never heard my father talk like that before.
‘It sounds bad, but if it was for the greater good...’
‘No country in the world would be the first to pass that law. And it goes against every human right in the book.’
‘If all the nations could agree on something. A global rule.’
My father gave a short, terse laugh. ‘I’m beginning to be afraid that our race couldn’t agree on something, even if all our lives depended on it.’
‘Which is where we find ourselves now.’
He sighed. ‘Exactly.’
I turned over and cuddled further down under my blanket, not wanting to hear anymore, but at the same time straining my ears. My mother used to tell me an old saying: “eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves”. I didn’t want to listen. But I couldn’t help it.
‘Three years time,’ my mother said heavily, ‘and who knows where we’ll be? That’s what they’re predicting, you know. Before it’s too late.’
‘Sometimes I wonder... I wonder whether we should have.’
‘Don’t say that,’ my mother’s voice was suddenly thick and trembling. ‘Sophie is perfect. I wouldn’t take it back for the world.’
‘But... there are millions of couples who think this, every day. We can’t just say that.’
‘I know, I know... but you have to admit, out of all the people who could have children, you and i are among the best...’
‘It’s true, but it’s partly it’s just selfishness. On both our consciences.’
‘Maybe we were wrong. But what’s done is done...’ My mother’s voice broke. ‘I’m scared. I have to admit it. What is the world going to come to? How are we going to carry on?’
I was curled up in a ball, my breathing coming fast and shallow, my heart hammering. I was old enough to understand what they were saying, but the reasons wouldn’t come. Did they want me not to exist? Was I not supposed to be here? I felt ashamed and scared. I wanted to be alive. But my parents weren’t sure.
I could feel the soft cloth of my blanket weighing down on me. It was my heavy-polymer winter one, and really too hot for the balmy April nights. Sometimes my mother would tell me about days in her childhood in April when the weather was only just slightly warm, and it would rain, gently and slowly, sometimes for days on end. They called it “April showers”, she said. I wished that it could be cool and showery at that moment, because I felt as though I were trapped in a furnace, suffocating under the weight of my parent’s secret fears.
The light from the sunlamps on our street glowed yellow through a slat in my blinds, bright after the day’s clear skies. I remembered going to bed in the winter and seeing only the faintest glimmer of life in their bulbs, and their tall posts buried almost half-way up in snow. They’d never had snowstorms like that in my mother’s childhood, she said. Not in Ontario. It was a day before the roads had been cleared enough for us to even leave the house.
‘What’s done is done,’ my mother repeated. ‘And we may as well make the best of it.’
Did they know that I was awake? Did they care? I didn’t bring it up for years. I never dared to. It was a childhood taboo, something which I never wanted to talk about, which I didn’t even want to think about.
My father breathed out heavily through his nose. ‘People will see eventually. The population has to come down, one way or another...’
‘People like Imogen Chan will tell you that any way will do. It’s for the “greater good”.’ Something about the way that my mother said that sent a chill up my spine.
‘If you ask me, worse things could happen to the US than the leadership of Imogen Chan.’ I knew about the US. I had been there for a holiday when I was six. It was hot there. Was Imogen Chan from the US?
There was a long pause, in which my mother seemed to think. ‘But she seems... so ruthless. She’d do anything to get her policies into the world.’
‘Maybe that’s what we need, to solve this problem. Ruthlessness.’
‘That’s what they said when Hitler was gaining power.’
My mother gave a shaky laugh. ‘But it’s true. Would you feel comfortable, letting your child grow up in a world ruled by Chan?’
‘I want my child to grow up in a world with a future. Whatever that takes...’ my father trailed off.
‘Is Sophie awake?’ my mother suddenly said, and suddenly her footsteps were crossing towards my room. I burrowed further under my sweltering cover and lay as still as I could, eyes closed, trying to make my breathing slow and steady.
She stood there, looking down at me, for what seemed like forever. Then she closed the door softly and I heard her moving away, back to where I could imagine my father standing.
‘I think she’s asleep,’ my mother said, in a low voice.
‘Good,’ he replied fervently, ‘but we’ve been talking too loudly. We don’t want to scare her.’
My mother sighed again, sounding very tired. ‘We should go to bed, Robert. We both have work in the morning.’
Under my covers, I breathed out shakily, trying to make sense of what I had heard. Suddenly my world didn’t seem as safe as it always had. I realised properly that my parents didn’t have all the answers – they worried and made mistakes and had regrets just like me.
Was I a mistake? Did they regret me?
At that moment, I made a promise to myself. I wouldn’t make my parents regret the fact that I had been born. I would make them proud, and make them certain that I was nothing to regret.
I hadn’t understood everything that they had said, but I had understood enough. There were too many people. It was causing problems. And someone called Imogen Chan was prepared to do anything to solve those problems.
If they decided that I was a mistake, would they hand me over to her?
This was the worry that plagued me and spurred me on in equal measure through the next few years of my childhood, until I was eleven, and Imogen Chan became more than just my bogeyman. More than just a name known by liberal left-wing intellectuals.
Imogen Chan, and the ideas she stood for, were to become a part of the life of every person on the planet.
One day, at the tender age of twelve, I decided that it would be a good idea to try and climb to the top of my boarding school’s observatory.
I spent days and days planning out the route by which I would climb up with my friends and hangers-on. First, out of Mr Jurd’s physics classroom window; then along the guttering to the rim of Haver’s balcony (access by key only). Of course, it would be less risky to find some way of getting the key off Adams, the old gamekeeper, but making it less risky would take half the fun away.
‘What if you fall, Ramonavitch?’ Little Guy Greenwood said anxiously, at one point, his big dark eyes blinking nervously, like a guinea-pig. ‘You’ll be toast!’
I leant easily back in my chair. ‘So I won’t fall. Just you wait and see.’ And I had every confidence that I wouldn’t. I was me: Christopher Ramonavitch. I couldn’t fall.
From Haver’s balcony, I would scale the wall using a catch and carbon-wire, which I would bring with me. The old bricks were lumpy, and between them and the burglar alarms, there would be plenty of footholds. From there, I would get onto the sloping roof. And that would be where the real challenge started.
‘You’re mad, Rammy,’ Jeeves from the year above said, taking a rubber ball from his pocket and bouncing it idly. ‘Mad, or suicidal.’
‘I’m not,’ I said, all confidence. ‘I’ll make it. You’ll see. I anyone coming?’
‘No. You’re safe. But get out of that cupboard quick as you can. I’ve better things to do then stand guard for you all day.’
I’d found out from a teacher, under the pretence of simple studious curiosity, that our observatory roof was made from copper-plated steel. And so I wouldn’t fall. I would use science to get me there. Science and my own ingenuity.
Three big magnets, liberated from a lab the day before, would get me to the roof. I would strap two of them to my arms using gauntlets made in the tech room, and pull myself gradually up the steep curving slope. Of course, there was a danger that they wouldn’t be strong enough. But the material was high-grade carbon fibre. It could easily hold the weight of a boy. The third magnet would be used as a foothold, if there were no real ones to be found. I would keep it slung around my neck until it was needed.
And so my scheme was perfect, planned out with utter recklessness, but also a certain care, and loving attention to detail. Romantic, but ridiculous and quite easily fatal. A friend who was a dab hand at drawing sketched the whole thing out on his tablet. A less optimistic one began writing me an epitaph.
And so it was that early one April evening, I found myself on the windowsill of Mr Jurd’s physics classroom, a magnet strapped to either wrist, a gaggle of boys at my back, and a thirty-foot drop in front of me.
‘Well,’ I said cheerfully, ‘here I go. Wish me luck!’
And then I stepped out onto the windowsill.
I felt the air rushing by me, and I reached up quickly, grabbing onto the guttering and finding my balance. The ledge was fairly wide, and after a few seconds, I felt almost safe, but for the tense faces of my friends, and the heady knowledge that behind me lay nothing but thin air.
I smiled at the group one last time, and a chorus of cheers accompanied me as I began to carefully edge off, starting my quest for the roof.
I think that, even considering what I have been through since then, that climb along the guttering to the bottom of the dome was one of the most dangerous things which I have done in my whole life. Every moment was hair-raising; every step defied a painful death. Now, looking back, I shudder to think what would have happened if I had fallen, not just to me, but to my friends, and the school as a whole.
At the time, the idea that I might die barely crossed my mind – and when it did, it seemed exciting, not terrifying. The risk was part of the fun, and it would make it all the more brilliant when I did reach the spire. But it was always ‘when’, not ‘if’. I was supremely confident that I would succeed, and so, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, I did.
When I finally made it to the sloping part of the roof, I was unable to hold back a sigh as my whole body relaxed. I knew that the boys would have made their way down from the physics room by now, and would be watching my ascent from the courtyard. There would be quite a crowd by now, I imagined. Maybe even a few teachers would have twigged.
I didn’t look behind me as I hauled myself over the ornate balustrade, and for a moment, I just crouched there, breathing deeply, looking down at my hands and noticing with irritation that they were trembling. Then I looked up at the Observatory spire, and a new flush of ambition surged through me. I was half-way there. I was going to make it.
I checked the magnets strapped to either arm, and then placed them carefully against the metal of the observatory. They took at once, jumping into place with comical eagerness. I grinned and slid my left one a little further up the dome. I felt with one foot for a purchase, and found it. It was just like rock-climbing, really simple. And if I ran out of footholds, I had my third magnet ready and waiting.
When I was about half-way up the roof, I heard a shout from behind me, a long, drawn-out bellow.
A teacher! And an angry one, by the sound of things. I almost looked behind me, then resisted the temptation. I wouldn’t look back, not even once, until I was at the top.
I began to listen, though, as I climbed higher. In the distance, I could hear the rattle of a train line in the distance, and the tweet of birds in the trees. If I strained my ears, I thought that I could hear excited voices, somewhere far below. A crowd had gathered to watch me, I thought with exhilaration. Then I caught a false foothold and slipped down a little, and suddenly my heart was in my mouth and my feet were tingling. I had to wait a few seconds before I could climb again.
Higher and higher I climbed, until finally, I was over the crest, and the spire of the dome was directly in front of me. I laughed in triumph, and lifted and pulled my magnets with renewed vigour, my body, hot with exertion and excitement, pressed close to the cold metal roof. Five metres away... three metres... almost close enough to touch. I took a long, deep breath, reached my magnets forward one last time, and then dragged myself up to the very top of the observatory.
I heard a great cheer go up from behind me, and I turned around, laughing with exhilaration, panting, to see the whole school spread out before me. I saw a gaggle of students and teachers – tiny from my great height – standing in the courtyard, their faces turned towards me. I stood up, the top of my head just taller than the spire, and a few boys through their ties in the air. To me, they seemed to be tiny blobs of blue and yellow against the red brick buildings behind them.
I leant against the top of the spire, and felt the wind blowing coolly – almost coldly – on my sweaty face. I had made it. I had scaled the observatory roof. I would be King of the school... I should be happy.
But somehow, looking down at the world, so distant and far below me, I felt a sense of anticlimax. So I had made it. Now what? Wait to be discovered, dragged down by my ear? Admire the view? Throw myself from the top of the tower? Suddenly, the whole thing seemed rather pointless, and I was gripped by a feeling of melancholy.
I found myself wishing that I had someone to share this moment with. This second of pure triumph, at what seemed like the very top of the world, unreachable, untouchable. Someone to dissect the climb with, to laugh with and pat on the back, and compare scrapes and tense moments with. It was lonely at the top of the observatory. Magnificent... but lonely.
And so, after another few seconds, I sat down, put my chin in my hands, and gazed out over the twilit school, waiting to be discovered, and to face the consequences of my rule breaking.
Sophie O’Sullivan came home from school one day to find her mother baking in the kitchen.
‘What are you making, mum?’ she enquired curiously, taking off her jacket and putting her tablet into its dock. Mrs O’Sullivan and her contemporaries rarely baked, not out of lack of skill, but because she stood by the widespread principle that refined ingredients, such as chocolate and cane sugar – were harmful to the environment.
‘I’m baking an election cake,’ Mrs O’Sullivan said, taking her eyes off the batter for a few seconds to look at her daughter. ‘To celebrate Imogen Chan’s stand for president. With the Social Progression party in power, and her as president, the world may finally begin to sort out its problems!’
‘We’re not even American, mum!’ Sophie felt a flash of nervousness at the mention of Imogen Chan’s name. Ever since she had heard of the politician a few years ago, she had found her rather frightening. She never had a hair out of place, never hesitated before giving an answer, and her radical, black-and-white statements made Sophie feel nervous.
‘But America is a major world power, and we only live fifty miles away from the border. Not to mention the fact that if Chan is elected, she’ll be the second Chinese-American US president, and the first female one.’ Mrs O’Sullivan sighed. ‘The US is long overdue for a female leader. We’ve had one, Iapan’s had one; the British managed it half a century ago.’
Sophie nodded, knowing that to argue with her mother about politics was never a good idea. She went to the sink and poured herself a glass of water, frowning when she noticed that the flow from the tap was little more than a trickle. The summer droughts didn’t usually affect them this much until high summer, and it was only June.
‘So, what time is my piano lesson?’ she asked. ‘You said that Ms Lewis had to change it?’
‘Oh yes...’ her mother looked up at the clock. ‘Goodness, it’s in twenty minutes! I’ll just get this cake in the oven, and then we’ll cycle over there together.’
‘I’ll be fine going on my own, mum, really. I know the roads.’
Her mother hesitated. ‘Well, if you’re sure. You’re getting old enough to go places on your own.’ Then she smiled, and wiped her floury hands on her apron before holding them out to her daughter. ‘You’re so organised, Sophie. I was never as capable as you at your age.’
Sophie wrapped her arms tightly around her mother’s waist, closed her eyes and smiled. It was nice to come home from school, and find your mother there, baking, in a good mood, and not to be tense or unhappy, but just enjoy the moment. Even if the cake was for Imogen Chan.
* * *
‘Very good. Almost note perfect.’ Mrs Lewis commended. ‘But your must allow more emotion into your playing!’ She gave a wide, sweeping gesture. ‘You can’t be a conservative good girl. You’re a feisty Latino! You’ve got to toss your hair, jump from note to note with a flourish! Again, from the beginning.’
“Rumba Toccata” was one of Sophie’s favourite pieces, but she couldn’t make herself engage with it. It was too hot, and the memory of her mother’s words in the kitchen was nagging at her, making her unsettled. She wanted a second opinion. Did everyone think it was a good idea that Chan was running for president?
‘Ms Lewis,’ Sophie said tentatively, ‘what do you think about the election?’
‘You mean between Smithson and Chan?’ Mrs Lewis looked thoughtful for a moment, and then smiled. ‘To be honest, I think they’re all as bad as each other.’
Sophie frowned. ‘Really? You don’t think Chan is sure to win?’
Mrs Lewis laughed, tossing back her curly, greying hair. ‘No way! That woman is so radical. It’ll take a lot for the Americans to go for someone with such strong opinions. There’s not much compromising where she’s concerned.’
Sophie’s mother hadn’t always supported Chan. But in the last two years, her opinion had changed. Water shortages had been hitting big cities worldwide harder and harder. Winters were getting warmer in the Northern territories, and the population was only continuing to rise. All these were factors in her parents’ gradual favouring of Chan’s rise to power, and subjects of dinner table discussion which Sophie listened to silently. The world needed a leader, they said. Someone who would be able to take the reins, and steer them out of this mess. And Chan was such a leader.
But not everyone felt that way, Sophie knew. Could Mrs Lewis be right? Were they all just as bad as each other?
‘But don’t worry, Sophie,’ Mrs Lewis smiled, ‘all politicians know basically what they’re doing, and it’s always turned out alright before. You’ll see. And besides,’ she added, ‘it’s American business, anyway. Nothing for us Canadians to worry too much about. Now. Rumba Toccata, again!’
* * *
At the end of the lesson, Sophie’s father came to pick her up. This was unusual, and Sophie wondered whether anything unusual was happening. Mrs Lewis wrote down the details for her next practice on his tablet, and then wrote them into her own large spiral-bound diary. Sophie saw her father give a look of disapproval at the sight of so much paper. Mrs Lewis obliviously snapped the diary shut and turned to face them.
‘Sophie did some excellent work today, Mr o’Sullivan. She’ll be ready to take her level nine piano examination by the end of the year, without doubt.’
‘I’m very glad to hear that, Mrs Lewis,’ her father said, giving Sophie an affectionate smile. ‘I hope that you’ve also been enjoying your playing, Soph.’
‘She seemed a little off today, actually,’ Mrs Lewis chimed in, ‘something about the US elections giving her stress. But I told her that they’re all as bad as each other, and that there’s nothing to worry about – nothing to affect piano, anyway!’
Mr O’Sullivan’s face darkened, and when he spoke, it was with a tone of restrained contempt. ‘On the contrary, Mrs Lewis. I believe that the upcoming election may affect all of us profoundly, no matter what our profession, age or social standing.’
Mrs Lewis looked taken aback. ‘Do you have strong political views, Mr o’Sullivan?’
‘Our family are strong supporters of Senator Imogen Chan and her policies,’ he said firmly.
As Sophie watched Mrs Lewis’s face, her eyes flickered from Sophie to her father, and back. ‘Relatively new supporters?’ she said in a light voice, but with a meaning underneath it which Sophie’s father caught. His brows contracted, and Sophie cast her gaze to the floor, wishing that she were somewhere else.
‘I suppose that you could say that,’ he said quietly. Then he seemed to retreat, and it was as though a cloud had moved from in front of the sun. He was backing down.
‘Well, Mrs Lewis, thank you for your time. I’m sure that Sophie is already looking forward to her next lesson.’ Sophie nodded, trying her best to give Mrs Lewis a relaxed smile.
‘She is a pleasure to teach. I’m sure you are very proud of her,’ Mrs Lewis said, keeping her eyes firmly on Sophie’s father. He simply nodded, then turned and began to move toward the door, Sophie trailing in his wake.
They got onto their bikes in silence, and headed towards the intersection and the suburbs. When they reached the safe cycle paths near their home, Sophie pushed down on her pedals and came up beside her father.
‘Hmm?’ he said, keeping his eyes ahead of him.
‘Are you and mum really strong supporters of Imogen Chan? Because – because I find her scary.’
Mr O’Sullivan sighed. ‘We think that considering the state of our world at the moment, Chan’s reforms are the only thing which is going to guarantee us a secure future.’
‘The laws she wants to pass, the rules she wants to set up.’
‘What sort of rules?’
Mr O’Sullivan (Her father?) hesitated before replying. ‘Well, mostly, population control. She wants to bring in stricter rules about when people are allowed to have children. But also, environmental factors. A lot of things that were already lifestyle choices for people like us will become the law: meat only on weekends, no cars for people with convenient public transport, no paper except where totally necessary...’
‘A zero tolerance one child policy all over the Western world, encouraging people to adopt... or not have children at all.’
Finally, Sophie plucked up the courage to ask herself the question that had been plaguing her for years. Ever since that night four years ago, when she had heard her parents discussing Chan for the very first time. ‘you and mum are big supporters of Imogen Chan... do you...’
Mr O’Sullivan came to a stop, pulling his bike into the edge of the road. ‘Yes, Sophie?’
‘Do you wish that... you hadn’t had me?’
A stricken look crossed Mr O’Sullivan’s face. ‘Of course not! Oh, Sophie, of course not. You can’t... you don’t believe that, do you?’
Sophie had to look away. She could feel tears pricking at the corners of her eyes, and she didn’t want her father to see them fall. To see the fear that she had been hiding come to the surface.
‘I mean... there’s too many people... and you believe that Chan’s reforms are right... so wouldn’t that mean... that you think I shouldn’t have been born?’
‘Sophie, look at me.’ Mr O’Sullivan came and stood in front of her, bending down so that his face was at a level with hers.
‘I would never regret having a child like you. Having brought you into the world, your mother and I felt guilty that we were having an experience which we felt that others shouldn’t have. But we also felt confident that you would be a worthwhile person, someone who truly deserved their space on this planet.’
He pulled Sophie into an embrace, and she fisted her hands in his jumper, feeling her tears begin to spill over. She gave a choked sob, and her father held her closer.
‘We were sure that you would make a difference, that you would be one of the people who really made the world a better place. We sometimes feel bad about overpopulation, but it only makes it more crucial that we bring you up well, and that, now that you’re here, you have the best possible life that we can give you.’ He pulled back to look at her. ‘You are precious. You are wanted. We wouldn’t change you for anything.’
Sophie found herself relaxing, and after a second, she pulled away, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. They were lucky that nobody had come past. Their bikes lay abandoned at the side of the path.
‘We should be getting home, dad. Mum will be wondering where we are.’
‘You’re right,’ he said, and looking up, Sophie was shocked to see tears in his eyes, too. ‘She’s saving the election cake for when you arrive home. It smells delicious.’
Sophie smiled, and went to pick up her bike. Her parents wanted her. They didn’t regret her. At least, not as much as they loved her.
But maybe that was why they supported Imogen Chan so much, she thought. Because they felt guilty about what they had done, and now they wanted to make things better.
‘To encourage people to adopt, or not have children at all.’
That’s what they were supporting. But they had already had her.
Mrs Lewis, her piano teacher, had a phrase of saying for situations like this. She would always say: ‘you want to have your cake and eat it’.
But, Sophie had always wondered, what was the point of having cake when you couldn’t eat it?
At that moment in time, Christopher was content. He was sitting on a bed in his own room, reading a good story on his vintage Kindle, and drinking beer, smuggled to him by a friend in an older year. He had just moved into the upper school, and no longer had to share a dormitory with nine other rowdy boys. He had his own space, and he could do what he liked in it.
He took a deep gulp of beer and sighed, placing the can on the table beside him and stretching his hands above his head. His lessons were over, and his homework was all finished. He had nothing to do right now – nowhere he should be, no one he had to talk to. It was a rare feeling, and he relished it.
But of course, peace is always short-lived in this world.
A sharp, excited knock sounded on the door, and Christopher groaned, flopping back against his pillows. ‘Go away.’
‘Chris! Chris, it’s me!’ He recognised the unbroken, annoying voice of his younger brother. Why on earth was he bothering him? Did he have no respect at all?
Christopher shut his eyes and sighed in irritation. ‘Even worse. Rudy, whatever it is, I’m not interested!’
‘Well, I’m not going away!’ The knocking grew louder.
Christopher growled in irritation and pushed himself to his feet, striding across the room and flinging the door open. ‘Rudy, I’m warning you one more time – ’
‘Chris, it’s the US election. They’re taking the final quarter hour of votes live online now!’ His brother looked flushed with excitement, and bounced a little where he stood.
‘Please. Are you really so excited about who’s going to be leading a pack of yanks?’ Christopher scoffed. ‘And don’t call me Chris. It’s Ramonavitch to you, or Christopher, if you really want.’
‘But you call me Rudy,’ his brother reasoned petulantly, ‘not Rudolph. So why should I call you Christopher?’
Christopher folded my arms and glared. ‘Because you should show a little humility for your elders. Or did you get totally spoilt rotten by your “Mommy”?’
Rudolph’s face fell. ‘You know that’s not fair, Chris. My mom was always nice to you too.’
Christopher shrugged. ‘Whatever. Anyway, I’m not watching this ridiculous election. It’s a waste of my time.’
Rudolph looked up pleadingly. ‘Please, Chris? We’ve all got popcorn, and you can share it with us!’
‘Oh my gosh, popcorn? With second formers? What an invitation!’ Christopher said sarcastically. ‘I can’t turn that offer down!’
‘You’re so mean, Chris. Just wait until you have to ask someone who won the US election. Then you’ll look totally stupid!’ Rudolph taunted. ‘I bet everyone else is watching it. Except you.’
‘I don’t really care who wins. Unlike you, I don’t have family ties in America.’
Rudolph sighed, looking down at his shoes. ‘Fine, then. Don’t watch. Stay here on your own, drinking beer. But I’m warning you,’ he said over his shoulder, as he turned around and made his way down the corridor, ‘Mr Carroll is making a round of the rooms. You might want to drink fast.’
‘Thanks, Rudy,’ Christopher said casually, and then squashed the flicker of guilt and relief that his brother’s returning smile ignited in him. That brat should be more respectful. Christopher clearly hadn’t squashed him enough when they were younger.
To be honest, he had mostly just been happy to have a brother, back then. It was a long time before he found out the truth about his parents. Then everything had changed for him. Rudolph’s mother was no longer family to him. She wasn’t anything.
Christopher shook his head, trying to banish the bitter thoughts that were crowding through his mind. All that was done. In the past. He would live with the consequences, but he wouldn’t let it ruin his future. Living was for now, the moment. He should remember that.
He took another sip of beer, and then another, then crumpled up the can and stuffed it into the bin beside his bed, taking care that it was hidden by some other rubbish. It was decent of Rudy to warn him about Mr Carroll, he supposed.
He was having trouble concentrating on his book, now, though. Telling himself it was the beer, and he was a bit of a lightweight when it came to alcohol, Chris switched off his Kindle and pulled his knees up under his chin. He had nothing to do, and suddenly, he was no longer content. He was bored. He sighed in frustration. Couldn’t he just enjoy a bit of peace without something spoiling it? Stupid little Rudy. Stupid US elections.
But there was something in what he had said. It would look bad if Chris was the only person in Eton not to know who was leading the US. And besides, what was the point of having a flatscreen in your room if you didn’t watch it?
Chris slowly picked up the remote from his bedside table, and flicked the screen on. He did a quick channel search, looking through the results for ‘US election’, and came up with what looked like a British commentary on the live American results. He moved the cursor over it, and a blue-and-red bar chart filled the screen, with a grey-haired commentator beside it.
‘As you can see, the votes are still extremely close,’ he was saying, and, as if to prove his point, the tally below the blue bar gave a quick burst of numbers, bringing it right up to the level of the red. ‘Although Chan is in the lead, Smithson is still getting a steady stream of voters, and it’s quite possible that he could still overtake and win this election...’
Then channel faded to what Chris assumed to be a live feed from the US – some sort of press conference for the candidates. Two figures stood on either side of a stage, their eyes glued to a blown-up version of the electoral chart, while flashbulbs flickered constantly in the audience below.
‘You can see that the tension is really getting to Smithson...’ the commentator said, and the camera zoomed close into the man on the right of the stage. Chris snorted as he took in the glossy sheen of the man’s forehead, reflecting the blue of his background. His mouth was a tight line as he watched the results continue to climb, his own bar just a little below the red one.
‘...Chan, on the other hand, seems to be keeping fairly cool, but just look at those hands... you can tell that this means a lot to her, this election...’ The camera panned to the other candidate, and Chris leant forward in interest. It was the woman, Imogen Chan, the one who was a bit of an eco-freak. His father had encountered her a few times, and said that she was one of the most stubborn people who he had ever met. As the commentator had said, she was looking calm and composed in comparison to her opponent, but Chris noticed that she was barely blinking as she watched numbers rise.
‘This election will mean a lot for people all over the world. Smithson’s rather more conservative views may hold well with many, but Chan’s reforms guarantee a safer future for a lot of people, too... and she has some very zealous supporters the world over. In China, the streets are red with people supporting Chan...’
There was a cut to Tiananmen square, and crowds of people holding posters of Chan’s face. Chris noticed a few phrases, ‘Zhong guo, Mei Guo’, and ‘Nu President’. Of course, this woman would be controversial if she won, wouldn’t she?
‘...In Britain, brawls have been breaking out all evening over the election...’
Chris laughed as the channel faded to show two portly men wrestling with one another on the edge of Tower Bridge, one in blue, one in red.
‘...and in Canada, huge crowds have gathered on the border in support of their neighbour’s presidential candidates.’
The camera panned along a line of people kept back by crash barriers, with hair dyed, faces painted, yelling and waving flags. Chris sighed. Honestly, the election fever! It wasn’t as important as all that. Power was changing hands all the time, in elections, in business deals, in agreements all over the world. But that never stopped people were getting incredibly heated about it.
The camera was still on Canada, showing a crowd of red-clad Chan supporters, their cheeks striped with red, and crimson flags raised. In the middle, flanked by her parents, Chris noticed a girl of about eleven. She was pretty, and peaceful looking, with grey eyes and light brown hair. Although she was in the same clothes as the rest of them, wearing the same colours, she looked out of place. She was waving her flag like all of them, but seemed somehow detached from their fervour, and rather nervous of everything around her. Chris didn’t blame her. He wouldn’t stand being out in those crowds.
‘...And back in Washington, the numbers continue their battle for supremacy. Only three minutes left, and Smithson is almost level with Chan. Are we going to have a last minute changeover? Could Smithson walk away with the vote?’
The man in question was blinking rapidly, lifting a hand to wipe the sweat from his brow. The cameras flashed ever more rapidly. Chan had lost a little of her composure, leaning forward on her podium, an intense look gleaming in her dark eyes. Her knuckles were white where they gripped the sides of the wood, and she scarcely seemed to breathe as she watched the numbers.
Two hundred votes difference... one hundred. Chris forgot himself, leaning forward, his eyes fixed on the screen. The newsreader kept up his commentary, his tone growing to one of total excitement.
‘But no, now Chan is climbing again, and we only have one minute left. She’s pulling ahead, there’s more in it... These last few votes are sealing it for her... Smithson is still climbing, but I don’t think he has a chance, and now we’re in the last ten seconds, and it’s ten... nine... eight... seven... Chan’s winning... (six... five...) It’s in the bag (four... three...) And... (two...) one... she’s got it! Imogen Chan is the next president of the United States of America!’
The camera zoomed into Imogen Chan’s face as a huge grin broke across her features. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, there was the faintest shine in them, but she blinked it away as the cameras threw themselves into action, lighting up the stage in a crowd of flashbulbs which would give any person an electric fit. Across the stage, Smithson leant against the side of his podium, looking broken and defeated. A crowd of senators and diplomats surrounded Chan as she walked forward, smiling and waving, and in his room, Chris punched the air and whispered to himself ‘da! Shje tsig ke!’...
Then a knock sounded on the door, and Chris came to himself. He hastily muted the television, picked up his kindle, and went to the door. Outside stood Mr Carroll, and behind him, bouncing where they stood, a group of three of his friends.
‘I want to do a room inspection, Ramonavitch,’ Carroll said, leaning around him into the room. ‘Were you reading?’
‘A bit. And watching the elections,’ he gestured to the muted screen. ‘Chan won, by the way.’
The boys behind the teacher looked disappointed. Clearly, they had been hoping to tell him this themselves. ‘I’m glad to see that you’re keeping up to date with current affairs, Ramonavitch,’ Carroll said approvingly, and only took a cursory glance around the room before leaving again, ‘I have to say, I’m surprised that Chan won. Surprised, but pleased. If you ask me, she’ll be much better at running a country than that Smithson duffer would have been.’
Chris nodded. ‘Well, thanks for stopping by, sir,’ he said politely, while his friends suppressed sniggers behind him.
‘All in the line of duty, Ramonavitch,’ Carroll replied. ‘Now, you boys should be off to your own rooms in half an hour or so. Just because you’re in the upper school, you can’t stay up all night.’
‘Yes, sir,’ they chorused, and once Carroll was off down the corridor, the three friends piled through Chris’ door, draping themselves on his floor and bed and discussing the election in loud voices.
‘For a moment, I was sure that Smithson was going to pull ahead. That Imogen lady looked about ready to kill when he was getting close.’
‘My gosh, can you believe it? A woman president!’
‘It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?’
‘Look,’ Chris said impatiently, ‘does it really matter than much? Someone was put into a position of power across the pond. It so happens that she’s a half Chinese female with some strong ideas. Does it really matter?’
‘You’re remarkably cool about this, Rammy,’ one of them said in surprise. ‘Doesn’t the idea bother you?’
‘I don’t see why it should,’ Chris said carelessly. ‘It’s not really going to affect us much, is it?’
‘Hmm,’ he looked thoughtful. ‘I suppose not.’
‘You’re letting the election fever get to you,’ Chris leant back on his bed and closed his eyes. ‘Just you wait and see. In a few weeks, she’ll have been coronated or whatever they call it, she’ll pass a few fuel consumption laws, and things will carry on exactly as normal. For us, at least.’
They looked slightly reassured, and after a few seconds of comfortable silence, Chris stood up. ‘Who’d like a beer? I have a few in the fridge.’
‘Rather!’ Chris got up and crossed over to the fridge, grabbed a few cans, and tossed them around.
‘Where did you get this?’ someone asked interestedly.
‘Morris in the year above gave it to me. He managed to get about forty past the frisk after the exeat last weekend. Don’t ask me how.’
‘Hmm. I might go and ask him if he has any more.’
‘He’s probably got rid of it all already. You know how they drink in the fifth form. Enjoy this stuff while you can.’
‘Alright then,’ the boy to Chris’ left cracked his can open and lifted it aloft. ‘To the daunting Chinese woman who’s just been elected president!’
‘To the daunting Chinese woman who’s just been elected president,’ the other two chorussed. Chris scowled, but lifted his beer to the toast anyway, before raising it to his lips and downing a mouthful of the bitter liquid. He’d already had one tonight. Maybe he’d leave some of this in the fridge for later. It wouldn’t do to have a hangover the next morning.
On the screen in front of them, red and gold fireworks were going off over Washington. And then it was showing the Chan supporters in Canada again, and as Chris watched, he tried to catch a glimpse of the scared girl from before. But the shot was from too far away, and if he saw her in the crowd, it was from too far away to see her face.
Sophie felt sick.
Today was a day which would mark her for the rest of her life. She, and the other girls in her class, would be getting back their eleven tests. They were the first Canadian grade to be taking them, and so there was nobody to reassure her, to tell her what to expect. If she passed, which her parents and teacher seemed confident that she would, then she would be allowed to keep her opportunities, her later life, open, at least for the smallest chance. If she failed... some paths would be cut off to her forever.
It didn’t seem fair that they had to do this now. She didn’t feel ready. She felt small, insignificant, daunted by what lay ahead of her. As she sat in the classroom, silently at her desk, she looked around her at the other girls. Some looked as scared as she felt; a few looked fairly cheerful; some didn’t seem to understand, and one or two were openly crying. The boys hovered around the edges of the classroom, chatting, tossing a ball, but awkwardly, aware of the worries plaguing the other half of their group.
Sophie felt a sudden rush of anger, and, looking down, she realised that she had clenched her fists. She didn’t want to feel like this. It wasn’t fair. And the boys would never have this feeling of certainty, this moment when everything hung in the balance. They didn’t know how lucky they were.
Just as she felt like she couldn’t go another second without screaming, the teacher came into the classroom.
‘Alright, everybody, behind your seats and in silence!’ she barked over the classroom’s noise. Sophie noticed how pale she looked, and the dark circles under her eyes. She seemed to have forgotten to put any make-up on.
‘Now then,’ she said, in a gentler tone, when the flurry of settling had died down, ‘I’m sure that all of you know that today is a very important day for all of you. You will be getting back your eleven tests.’
The whole classroom seemed to tense a little. Nobody so much as coughed.
‘It is even more important for the girls in this class, as it will decide...’ the teacher cleared her throat, and then carried on, ‘...it will decide who will ultimately have the option to follow a motherhood vocation later in life.’
Motherhood vocation. Sophie’s own mother had explained that word to her, the night after two female soldiers had come into their school and told them about the test. It meant whether or not Sophie would be considered, later in life, to have a child.
‘But not just considered, Sophie,’ she had said, her eyes shining with fervour, ‘whether you will be able to. At all. And this is why Chan’s regime works so well. Because she makes the choices for everyone, for the good of everyone. It’s wonderful that the eleven tests have come to Canada already.’
Sophie didn’t know whether she wanted to have a baby yet. The idea hadn’t really crossed her mind until she had realised that her passing of the test would decide whether she could or not. Suddenly, it had seemed very desirable indeed, something worth working towards and fighting for. So she had studied hard, staying up late every night with her tablet reading about environmental science, world religions, Ethics – the problems of right and wrong – and the umpteen other subjects that her mother’s American friends said that the Eleven test comprised of.
When she had gone into the exam, she had been shaking like a leaf and almost scared to look at her screen. But she thought that it had gone really quite well. There had been some questions on the things that she had studied, but they had been simple. And then there had been some strange questions which asked her about things like basic mathematics and what the holes in a hole-punched piece of paper would look like. She had left the room feeling considerably better than when she had entered it.
Over the weeks that followed, though, new anxieties had filled her mind. Supposing she had actually done terribly? That there were people in other places in Canada who were all far smarter than her? Or that her test had got lost in cyberspace, leaving her with a zero? Or that she had been marked down horribly for being barely eleven anymore, but nearly twelve?
Her teacher was still talking. ‘All of you did admirably in this test. I have to say that I was proud of nearly every mark. I will be taking each of outside, going down the register, to tell you how you did.’
Sophie heard a gasp from the girl to her left, and saw that she was pale and visibly trembling. Her family name began with an ‘A’. She would be first.
The teacher consulted her register and gave heavy sigh before looking up addressing the girl. ‘Jamelia Arriston, if you will come outside now?’
She nodded mutely, and Sophie could see tears welling in her big brown eyes. She got up and shuffled over to the door, where the teacher stood waiting. They went outside, and the door clicked shut.
The classroom was plunged into total silence. Sophie strained her ears to hear what was being said outside, and looked up guiltily, only to see that every person was doing the same, their attention fixed on the door.
A few agonising seconds passed, and then it swung open and Jamelia stumbled through again, tears sparkling on her dark skin. But smiling.
‘I passed!’ she burst out, and suddenly the atmosphere of the room relaxed slightly. So it was possible to pass. They had a chance. It was doable.
‘Did you see the game with Russia at the Red Leaves stadium yesterday?’ one boy asked another, and he responded with gusto. Suddenly, a low hum of chatter started all over the room, and as the next girl rose to her feet and headed out of the door, the girl next to Sophie leant across and talked to her.
‘I’m scared I’m going to fail,’ she confided, looking around with an anxious air.
‘Me too,’ Sophie agreed, although she felt a lot better now that Jamelia had passed.
The girl gave her an unsympathetic look. ‘Of course you’re going to pass. You’re really smart.’
‘But... I mean...’
‘It’s the people who are better at sport or stuff who need to worry. It’s unfair. They didn’t have a sports test.’
‘They had a fitness test afterwards...’
‘That doesn’t count! Pretty much anybody could have passed that stupid test. Only fat people or really stupid people would have failed.’
‘I suppose,’ Sophie said non-commitally, and, seeing that Sophie wasn’t going to debate with her, the girl turned away and began talking to Julia, who had just re-entered the room.
‘What did she say, Julita? What did she say?’
‘I passed,’ Julia sighed in relief, ‘thank heaven! Mother would never have stood for it if I’d failed. She’s adamant that I’m going to have babies when I’m older.’ She gave a hysterical giggle. ‘She says it’s what God made people for!’
Sophie studied Julia carefully, looking at the way that she smiled cheerfully, and the glossy shine of her dark curls. It seemed right that somebody like her should pass the eleven test.
‘Congrats, Julita,’ the girl beside Sophie said, before Sophie herself could speak.
‘Thanks, Maddie,’ Jullia grinned. They sat there in silence for a few moments, before suddenly, Julia seemed to think of something. She sat forward with a conspiratorial air. ‘You’ll never believe what happened yesterday, by the way,’ she said, lowering her voice.
‘What? What?’ Madeline asked eagerly, and Sophie leant forward in spite of herself.
‘My cousin says that when he was going back from school yesterday... he saw a bomb go off!’
‘Really?’ Sophie could hardly believe it.
Julia nodded. ‘He said he was on a Hydrobus which was going past the government buildings when it happened. There was a huge explosion and loads of smoke. Everyone was screaming, and the driver was telling everyone to stay calm...’
‘I heard about that,’ a boy said, leaning back over in his chair. ‘My mom says that it’s part of...’ Then he stopped and looked around nervously, as though he was going to so something against the rules.
Maddie scowled at him. ‘Well? What’re you scared of, eh?’
‘Well... part of a group of people who don’t think that the Americans should have come here. They think the Eleven test and everything is bad, and...’
‘Shh!’ Sophie noticed a female soldier passing them through the window, and all of them fell silent. It was unlikely that she could hear them through the window, of course. But even so, Sophie felt that it would be better to stay quiet. She felt a fear growing inside her, although she couldn’t place exactly why. Surely it would be alright for them to talk about these things, even if they were occupied by the Americans? They weren’t in a war, they weren’t in danger... were they?
‘Well, they shouldn’t be blowing things up here, then,’ Maddie reasoned. ‘They should be doing it in the US, where Imogen Chan lives.’
‘I don’t think we should talk about this anymore,’ Sophie whispered.
‘What, are you scared?’ Maddie challenged, smirking.
‘No, Sophie’s right,’ Julia said firmly. ‘Let’s talk about something else.’
Then they noticed that the next girl didn’t come back into the room.
‘She must have failed,’ someone muttered, and Sophie couldn’t help agreeing. She felt desperately sorry for the other girl.
Sophie started. ‘That’s me,’ the girl beside Sophie said, almost masking her nerves. She stood up, her chin high, and left the room, shutting the door a little louder than necessary. Sophie couldn’t help but admire her nerve.
After only a few seconds, though, she came back in.
She tried to lift her chin, but her shoulders were stooped. She dragged her feet, and when she saw the whole class looking at her, she seemed to shrink a little.
‘I failed,’ she said, her voice clear, but brittle and with a slight tremor. ‘Does anybody have anything to say about that?’
Nobody spoke. Madeline looked around the room, glaring, searching for a fight, but there wasn’t one. Even the boys sat in utter silence.
The teacher leaned her head through the door to call the next name, and frowned. ‘All of you, what are you doing! You should be doing some homework or reading while I do this. And please do not stare when the girls come back into the room. It’s incredibly rude and thoughtless.’ She consulted her list. ‘Tabitha Foster!’
Sophie switched on her tablet, grateful for the distraction. But even as she tried to read, she found her eyes skimming over the page without really seeing them. And she was listening as hard as she could, as the teacher called out each name, and each girl came back into the room. Most were relieved, saying, ‘pass!’ in an undertone to their neighbour, but a few went and sat down in silence, and one or two even laughed off their marks. ‘Fay-ul! Why am I not surprised?’ And then, of course, there were the ones who didn’t come back at all.
Sophie decided that if she had failed, she wouldn’t come back. She knew she wouldn’t be able to help crying, and she didn’t want to be the first to sob in front of the whole class. But would it be cowardly not to come back? Wouldn’t it be better to admit to failing, to be strong, like Maddie? She shut her eyes and prayed that she would pass. Please, please, she would do anything, give anything for...
For what? To look after a child? To hold a tiny baby in her arms? Sophie knew that passing this test was the first and easiest of the thousands of obstacles between a woman and motherhood. Mrs O’Sullivan had explained the new regime to her in great detail, and she had been dumfounded at the complexity of it all, the impenetrable barriers of testing and competition.
So what was she looking for right now? What was she hoping for?
The answer came to her suddenly.
She was looking for a choice.
‘Good luck, SOS!’ Julia whispered from another table, looking up from her tablet with a smile. Sophie grimaced in return, and headed over to the door, feeling as though her feet were made of lead. She felt the eyes of her class on her back, and slipped outside the classroom door, shutting it behind her.
‘Sophie,’ her teacher said, giving her a smile. ‘Please sit down.’
Sophie almost collapsed into a chair on one side of the table, while her teacher consulted the datapad, looking down it for Sophie’s score.
She shut her eyes. Please. Please please please please please....
‘Well, Miss O’Sullivan, you passed!’
She felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and suddenly she was lighter than air. ‘Really?’ she breathed, and a huge smile grew over her face until she felt it would split.
‘Really,’ The teacher said, giving a smile. ‘But that’s hardly a surprise. You’re intelligent; you’re fit and healthy; you come from a good background, and you go to a very good school.’ She looked down at the results again. ‘But it was closer than I would have expected for you. A lot closer. I think you must have been very nervous.’
Sophie felt as though a bucket of snow had been tipped on her victory. ‘I was...’
‘You can’t let nerves get in your way. You have real potential as a student, and out of all the girls in this class, you would make one of the best mothers. You have to remember that, and be more confident.’
She felt a little better again. ‘Alright. But, um... Miss...’
‘What will... what will happen now?’
The teacher gave a small frown, and closed her eyes for a few seconds behind her spectacles. ‘I expect that your mother has told you about the motherhood vocation process.’
‘Yes,’ Sophie says.
‘Well, an email will be sent to all parents, telling them about their daughter’s results, and requesting their permission for the next stage to go ahead – although that’s really a formality. Then, in a few weeks, your whole class will go to the Prince Albert hospital for the basic Chan operation. Those who pass will have their...’
‘Yes, they will have their eggs stored on ice. Those who fail will have them destroyed.’
Sophie felt a huge surge of sympathy for the girls who had failed. ‘But... what is happening to every other girls, and women, too? The ones who haven’t had the eleven test?’
‘Using other data, like SATs, Final results and degrees, they will be having this operation. But the older the woman is, the more complicated the operation becomes, and people are expected to pay a small sum for it.’
‘And if they can’t... don’t?’
Her teacher frowned, and for the first time ever, Sophie saw a look of genuine anger cross her face. ‘They have their tubes tied, and that’s the end of it. Now, Sophie, I think that you should be going back to the classroom. Congratulations again on your result.’
‘Thank-you,’ Sophie choked, and went back through into the classroom, trying to puzzle out what her teacher had meant. She would ask her mother when she got home. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound very fair on poor people.
She noticed people’s eyes on her, and whispered “pass” as she hurried to her desk. She noticed Madeline’s grey eyes glaring at her, and kept her own gaze down, on her tablet.
New worries had begun to occur to her, even when she knew that her worrying should be over. Would Madeline hate her forever? What would her parents say about her test score being lower than expected? And was there any way that, even now, someone could take away her choice? Would her parents say that having a child was wrong? That as a supporter of Chan and the new regime, she shouldn’t even consider it?
Outside the door, the calling of names continued.
The Chan regime took over in Britain by small degress, and affected the boys at Eton in even smaller ones.
It started with the election, Chris thought. The stir Imogen had created when she had won the election was large – far larger than usual for a presidential candidate – and most of the school were still discussing it when she was inaugurated a week or so later. The majority of flatscreens in the school were tuned to a US channel the day that Chan was made president, and it wasn’t until the ceremony was well over that people stopped talking about her and began to move onto new topics.
Chris had thought that this would be the end of it.
But gradually, Chan had begun to crop up more and more on television, first in global news channels, and then in British ones. She was monopolising current affairs. The night that the US and China made the Motherhood Vocation pact, nobody talked about anything else. That the world’s two superpowers would both agree to such an extreme regime seemed to astound even the teachers, and the next day, in their assembly, the deputy head announced that a debate would be taking place at lunchtime for people to share their views.
Rudolph had taken an infuriating interest in the whole thing, and took every opportunity he could to talk to him about it, asking what he thought, whether it would work, whether the UK should do it too.
Chris tried to brush him off, brush all of it off, as best he could, wishing that his brother would abandon this naive obsession and realise that either way, it wouldn’t affect them. But eventually, he couldn’t stand it anymore.
‘Look,’ he said to Rudolph, one day when he had burst into his room to announce that the eleven tests were being introduced to Canada, ‘when will you understand that none of this has anything to do with us?’
‘But it does, Chris,’ Rudolph frowned, shaking his head vehemently, ‘because, you see, we could be next. It took martial reinforcements for the government in Canada to agree – Jeeves in the third form said that means that they were threatening them with bombs! And Thomas’s penfriend in Canada says that all the schools and hospitals have soldiers in them, making sure that the girls are having their operations...’
‘Ugh, shut up!’ Chris threw his kindle down and stood up, towering over his brother. Rudolph shrank back visibly. ‘what will it take to get this into your thick American skull? No matter what happens outside in America or Canada or even England, we’ll be fine here. Nothing will change. You should know – you’re walking proof of that.’
Rudolph took a step backward. ‘Christopher...’
‘(LATER DATES, NEEDS TO ADD UP), There’s ways of getting around any rule if you’ve got the money and connections. Dad shouldn’t have had a second kid. You shouldn’t have existed. But he dumped my mum as soon as I was out, pulled a few strings, and here you are anyway.’ Chris drew in a deep breath, and Rudolph opened his mouth to speak, but Chris started again Before he could get any words out. ‘A few people might have been hurt in the process, but who cares? He doesn’t care. Your mother doesn’t care. And you don’t care, so why do you care about this? It’s no difference. Nothing makes a difference to us. We get what we want.’
‘Don’t say that to me!’ Suddenly, Christopher was shouting. ‘ya nenavizhu tebya, ty ukral moyu mat. You don’t really understand, do you? You don’t understand anything. So don’t act like you do, Rudolph. Don’t try to be something you’re not.’
Tears welled up in Rudolph’s eyes, and he took a step back towards the door. ‘I can’t help it that we’re not real brothers, Christopher. It’s not my fault. I can’t help it that dad didn’t play fair... I can’t help it that I only understand a few words of Russian.’
‘Please, Rudy. Get out.’
‘I hope Chan’s regime comes here too. If it does, I’ll follow it. I don’t want to be like dad.’
Then, to Chris’s surprise, his brother really did leave.
Chris sighed and turned around, pressing a hand to his forehead. He didn’t want it to be like this. He wished that it hadn’t been like this. But it was. It was, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault.
It was just the way the world worked. The rich get what they like, the poor have to like with what they get. And anybody who thought it would be different was a fool.
He closed his eyes and fell backwards onto his bed, lying still with his eyes closed. He tried not to think back, but his memories took him back anyway. To when he was twelve, and he had learnt how the world worked for himself, first-hand.
Why had Rudolph reminded him? He wanted to forget. Every day, he wanted to forget, leave the bitterness behind him, to block it from his life. But he couldn’t forget, and he couldn’t forgive.
* * *
The next advance that the Chan regime made into Christopher’s life was quite unexpected.
A friend of his from an older year – Morris – invited him to his dorm. When he went, he found several other people already there, and Morris himself passing around a large crystal decanter of wine.
‘If you get caught with that, Morris, you’re doomed,’ Chris observed, seating himself on the floor.
‘Yeah, but I won’t get caught. I’m charmed,’ Morris boasted, pouring out a generous glass of wine out and giving to Chris. ‘A toast to my good luck!’ Chris clinked his glass together with the other boy, raising his eyebrows.
‘Why have you gathered us all to this little symposium, then? Some special reason, or just because you felt like getting sloshed?’
‘Well, I was just getting on to that,’ Morris grinned. ‘I’ve had an email from my father, telling me that he...’ Morris paused dramatically, ‘is going to get a big promotion!’
‘Well, aren’t you a good daddy’s boy,’ Chris said sarcastically. ‘Give him my congr