by The Cowl Editor on April 19, 2018


People in black hazmat suits
Photo courtesy of

by David Martineau ’18


“It’s really cold out today!” I said, my hands trembling as I stuffed them in the pockets of my thin coat. Beside me, Johnny walked with his head lowered in a sullen silence. He had been unusually quiet since we left school, but I didn’t bother to ask why, because I already knew.

“We’re not going to get caught, you know,” I said after a few moments. When he didn’t answer, I added, “Besides, what were we supposed to do? The next tram wasn’t for an hour. Do you want Mom and Dad to worry?”

Johnny shot me a glower, the same look he’d give me whenever I jokingly reached for a classroom window during school hours, even though we both knew that they couldn’t open. For identical twins, we certainly weren’t much alike—Johnny had always been more serious than me, and much more concerned with The Regulations. I knew from the moment we snuck out of the tram depot that he was poring over The Rulebook in his head, trying to determine exactly what punishment we’d be facing if we were caught.

I sympathized with his concerns, if only slightly, and sure, I could understand the Sovereignty’s decree, at least from an objective standpoint. Our tutors had always been careful to instruct us in what they called “Correct Compliance,” which is basically just another way of saying, “Follow The Rulebook,” which had been set up soon after the Sovereignty rose to power in the wake of the Great Extinction. Because the human race had become so small, it was necessary to ensure that all healthy offspring reached maturity without complications, so that they could restore human society to its former strength. 

Our tutors knew better than most of us what the consequences of being noncompliant were, so they did their damned best to make sure that they weren’t liable for any “errors” we made. I never really paid attention to their lectures on following The Rulebook. All I bothered listening to were their two main points: “Never instigate or respond to physical violence,” and “Never go outside.”

I liked to joke around with Johnny, and so whenever I got the chance, I pretended to be on the brink of breaking The Regulations. Moving to jump out of a window, escape through an air vent, or mime a punch in his or another’s direction always got me the same glare of disapproval.

This time, though, there was no joking around. I almost couldn’t believe it when he had agreed to sneak out of the depot with me, even though I argued quite logically that the distance between the depot and our house was short enough that we could walk it in far less time than it would take to wait for the next tram. I wasn’t going to wait an hour to get home just because our last health seminar got out late when I could take a short walk outside and make it there in half the time.

As we kept walking, I could see that Johnny was getting nervous. He had probably moved on to Phase Two of his usual ruminations, in which he pondered not only the immediate consequences of noncompliance, but its long-term effects on our eligibility and status. That was another common lecture in our health seminars, where it was stressed that even the most innocuous of errors could result in lasting damage to our bodies, which would lessen our appeal as “progenitors of the revived human race.” A major noncompliance—like the one we were committing right now—could affect our rank in the selection process, in which young men and women are paired together for the purposes of procreation. Johnny, being the stickler that he was, couldn’t tolerate the thought of being considered unappealing as a mate.

I had to snap him out of the mood he was in—after all, if he grew sullen enough, he might just rat us both out to our parents when we got home. Looking around, my eyes fell on the ground, which was covered by a layer of snow that had fallen overnight. Grinning, I bent over as I walked, scooped up a handful of the frigid snow, and tossed it casually at Johnny. “Heads up, sour-puss!” I called out.

The snow struck Johnny on the shoulder, leaving streaks of white on his coat that resembled an explosion of paint. He froze in his tracks, as much from the shock of being struck as from the coldness of the snow. Then his face grew red like fire, standing out against the bland gray of his jacket and the white smear that now marred it. “Michael!” he shouted, using my full name, as he did whenever he was angry with me. “What are you doing?” He frantically tried to wipe the snow off of his shoulder. “Do you want us to get caught?” he raged.

The thought that the snow on his jacket would be a clear indicator of our noncompliance came a moment too late. I felt a brief stab of panic, but I managed to rein in my fear. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I stammered, trying to calm myself as much as I was trying to calm him. “We can get it all off.” I hurried over to help him, and soon enough, we had erased every last trace of the snow on his jacket, except for a dark smudge where the fabric had soaked up some of the moisture. It’ll be fine, I thought. It’ll dry off by the time we get home.

Not a moment after we removed the snow from his jacket, Johnny’s hands lunged forward and shoved me away. “You idiot!” he shouted. “You can’t just leave well enough alone, can you?”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise—after all, Johnny had just violated the second of the two major tenets of The Rulebook. Then again, we were already guilty of one violation, and no one was around to see the other. “I’m sorry,” I said, lifting my hands in a calming gesture. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“No, you weren’t! You never think! You couldn’t have just waited for the next tram, couldn’t you? You had to do it your way!”

Now I began to get angry, the heat flushing to my cheeks a clear sign. “You didn’t have to come with me, lamebrain,” I snapped. “You could’ve stayed in the depot.”

“Yeah, and leave you to get caught all by yourself…or to make fun of me whenever I got home.” Johnny’s face lost a bit of its anger, which was replaced by shame and regret. “All I want is for our family to be safe. I don’t know if what the Sovereignty says is right…but I do know that if we get caught, it won’t matter either way.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. I knew he was right, just like we all did. The thought of being punished for a mistake as silly as the one I had made us both commit now terrified me. Was an hour really too long to wait?

I reached out and placed a reassuring hand on my brother’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll be fine.  We just need to get home quick…”

A low humming sound cut off Johnny’s intended response, and we both turned, somehow knowing the terrible truth before we saw it.

A sleek black vehicle, hovering about a foot off the ground, was approaching along the abandoned street. It stopped a few feet in front of us. Its doors hissed open automatically, allowing two figures to exit. I couldn’t figure out if they were male or female, for both of them were clad in heavy black gear made from some baggy material. Their faces were covered by masks with breathing tubes coming out of them, attached to tanks on their backs. They looked like something I had seen in my nightmares, but I knew that I wasn’t about to wake up in my bed, safe and sound.

Without a word, they grabbed me and Johnny and threw us into the vehicle, where we sat behind a glass partition which separated us from their section of the transport. When the doors hissed shut after them, my brother and I were plunged into darkness, unsure of where we were going or what would happen next.