Hey guys! Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m so excited about this entry, because after requesting permission from my publisher, I’m officially cleared to share the first chapter of The Elect with the world – FOR FREE! If you’re drawn into the story after reading this excerpt, I’d be honored if you purchase the e-book on Amazon, iTunes, or Barnes and Noble, and then left a review. I hope you enjoy the first chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Hunt. Confront. Detain. Deliver. Those are my orders. I repeat them over and over to myself as I prowl through the streets of the village. My boots make no noise on the dusty road as I weave between towering grey buildings, and my eyes scan every shadow and alley for movement. I can sense the presence of other Young Ones over my shoulder, searching like I am. We’re on a mission. Someone is breaking protocol, and we’re supposed to find him and turn him over to the Men in Red.
Frustrated that I’m missing something at ground level, I take three bounding steps and throw myself onto the roof of a two-story building. I land with ease and roll my neck, trying to relax. The early autumn sun creates a sheen of sweat on my tan skin, and my uniform clings to my back, but it doesn’t bother me. A short, red-headed girl lands on the roof beside me, and she leers, sizing me up. She’s a few years younger than I, maybe eleven or twelve years old, and she’s no match for me. We don’t speak. Nobody speaks. I move forward again, compelled by my very nature to follow orders.
I trace the edge of the building, scanning the empty streets below for clues as to the man’s whereabouts, but there are none. I leap over the road to the next row of buildings and try again. Across the village skyline, small uniformed bodies do as I do, bounding from one building to another, but there is no sound in the air. The light breeze coming down from the northern mountains carries no noise, which is what the Foundation prefers. I’m preparing to move to another street when the flutter of a white curtain in a red-framed window catches my eye. I pivot and immediately drop down to the road, landing in a soft crouch before moving towards my prey. I’ve found him.
I lift a leg and slam my foot through the front door of the five-story apartment building, and the wood splinters and explodes backwards into the hallway. I’m greeted by warm, stale air and sterile, white stairs. Footsteps shuffle in the stairwell overhead, and I can tell he’s moving upwards, towards the roof. I lunge up the steps, taking them four at a time until I reach the roof access. Light floods into the stairwell as he throws himself through the exit, and I tear after him, slamming against the weighted, metal door so hard that it breaks off its hinges and slides across the gritty roof.
He runs from me, pumping his legs as fast as he can so that his shaggy brown hair bounces around him, but he’s not fast enough. He looks over his shoulder at me and trips, landing on his side with a grunt. I don’t run to catch him now. The chase, uneventful and short, is over. His narrow chest heaves with each breath, and his gaunt eyes widen as I close in on him. He rolls onto his back, shuffling his hands and feet beneath himself to scramble away from me, but it’s no use. I lean over and grab the collar of his black shirt and tug him up so he’s standing in front of me, pain wincing across his bearded face.
“Citizen, you are in violation of Protocol Three, Section Two,” I tell him as I twist him to the side and pull his arms behind him. I retrieve a set of handcuffs from my belt and click them around his wrists.
“Please, kid,” he says. “Don’t do this! All I did was visit a friend.”
“Did you have authorization?” I ask, knowing already he didn’t. The sole authorized movement within the village is given to citizens going to and from work. Social calls are not permitted.
“N- no,” he stammers, dropping his head.
“Then you are in violation of Protocol Three, Section Two,” I restate. I lift my fingers to my mouth and let out a shrill whistle that cuts through the air. Several Young Ones on nearby roofs turn towards me. When they see I’ve apprehended the man, they drop back to the streets, disappearing beyond the ledges to head towards the Compound. I shove my prisoner towards the broken doorway, and he stumbles through and heads downstairs to the street. When we exit the building, he looks back at me with desperation.
“Towards the main road, Citizen,” I say, motioning with my head towards the center of the village.
“What’s going to happen to me?” he asks, shoulders slumping in on his thin frame.
“That is for the Men in Red to determine,” I reply and direct him to move with a flick of my hand.
We walk in silence from here on until we reach a main road where a single black van waits for us. Two Men in Red get out of the cab and one rounds the back of the vehicle and yanks one of the doors open. The other nods at me and grabs the man’s arm and tugs him away. I don’t watch them put him in the van. My job is done, so I head back to the Compound along with the other Young Ones, all of whom heard my whistle to stop the search and now walk ahead of me.
It takes about fifteen minutes at a controlled pace until we reach the Compound gates, and I file in line with the others close to my age. We wait without speaking for our turns with the nurses as we reenter the controlled zone. It’s standard protocol for us to receive a new dose of vaccine to protect us from outside elements whenever we return from a mission. I don’t question it. I have no reason to.
After a few minutes, only four of us are left — two girls, another boy, and myself. I can’t identify them by name, nor have I ever talked to any of them. One of the girls — petite and fair-skinned — reaches the nurse’s station when a deafening explosion roars from the far side of the Compound. A feathery cloud of dust spews into the air, and the ground trembles beneath me. Inside of the gate, nurses and Men in Red grapple for their balance, waving their arms and widening their stances.
I, on the other hand, do not even flinch, nor do the other three Young Ones in front of me. Instead, we all stand blank-faced with our hands by our sides as a tower of medical vials tumble from its formation and crashes to the ground. Sparkling shards of glass fly out like tiny, bouncing slivers of light while a mournful siren wails from further inside the Compound. A few of the Reds rush forward and push us inside the gate, locking it behind us in case the rebels are attacking. In all of the chaos, I am ordered to go straight to my standard position in the main courtyard amongst the hundreds of other Young Ones. Reds buzz around us, checking the buildings for anything suspicious, and I assume they find nothing since we are eventually dismissed to retrieve our dinner.
The sun has set by this point, and I take my place in line to retrieve my bar. It takes a couple of minutes before I reach the table, behind which stands a nurse dressed in all white.
“No water tonight,” she says. “Something’s up with the tower. You’ll get it in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I reply, taking my food. I step aside and go sit cross-legged in my designated spot. I rip the wrapper off with one swift tear and consume the bar in two bites. It tastes the same as ever — like nothing. But this bar is what gives me my strength, so I don’t complain.
When everyone has eaten, we are sent to our barracks for sleep. We all proceed in synchronized movements as we shower, change, and lie down on our cots. Tomorrow, I will wake up and repeat this same choreography, because it’s the same thing I’ve done every day for as long as I can remember. Nothing ever changes.
Through no earnest intention of my own, I find myself awake and lying on my back. A network of gray, steel rafters weave across the ceiling above me, and a lacy netting of cobwebs and dust flutter against them from the cold draft in the room. To my right, a Man in Red grips a thick rope hanging from a bell, and he pulls downward with a huff, sending the bell into a fit of clanging to awaken us. Though I would like nothing more than to remain beneath the wool blanket that’s tucked around my chin, my body propels me into a sitting position as a groan escapes my lips. The cool grit on the floor bites into my bare feet, and my bunkmates, a few dozen boys around my age, mirror my movements with almost identical timing. But when they proceed to stand and straighten their bedding, I hesitate.
I’m caught up in a strange cycle that I know I’ve repeated thousands of times, but it feels new today. In this moment, something has changed. I stand up and run my fingers over my cropped hair and release a slow breath. I’ve spent years in this building, sleeping on this very cot, but the memories are wavy, like my mind has been flooded with fog. I press my palms over my eyes, squeezing them shut.
Most of the boys have now begun to change their clothes. None of them speak, and the silence leaves an eerie pall in the air. Across the room, my behavior has caught the attention of a middle-aged Man in Red. I lock eyes with him, and his expression narrows, folding his dark brows inward as he studies my face. It’s my first indication I’m doing something wrong, and I swoop down and tug the sheet and blanket over my cot, smoothing the wrinkles. I glimpse up and see him now speaking to another Man in Red, and they both watch me. The pistols on their hips and the menacing sneer on their faces remind me that they’re here to keep us in line. And right now, I am out of line.
Not wanting to draw more attention to myself, I hustle to the trunk at the end of my cot and withdraw my uniform. I shrug into the routine brown button-up shirt and matching pants and shove my feet into wool socks and a pair of black boots that pinch my heels. As I reach down to tie the laces, a black mark on my right wrist draws my attention from beneath the cuff of my sleeve. I tug the fabric back and see the thick outline of a triangle tattooed into the tender skin above the tendons and veins. The fingers of my left hand trace the symbol as I search my mind for its significance, but I find a murky void instead of a memory.
Annoyed, my fingers tie the laces, and I stand. I’m a few seconds behind everyone else now, and I scan the room to find them all clicking various weapons onto their belts. In the top of my trunk, beneath where my uniform had been placed, I find a sling and several perfectly smooth gray stones. The pad feels worn and familiar in my hands, and I stroke the braided leather handles. Beside me, a pale-skinned boy with dull eyes and a wild patch of freckles attaches his own sling to his waist.
The shrill screech of a whistle cuts through the room, and I flinch. The trunk lid slips from my fingers and slams shut. I suck in a breath and wait for a reaction from someone, but there is none, so I drop the stones in my pocket as though nothing is out of the ordinary. The boys around me are falling into line, and I step forward to join them as we prepare to leave the building, somewhat aware that we should be heading to retrieve our breakfast now.
Just as we begin to move forward, a firm hand grabs my right arm, and I’m jerked to the side. Panic snarls in my chest as a heavy arm pins me against a cool wall, and I struggle to not grimace as the back of my head smacks into the unforgiving cinder blocks. In front of me stands the same short, stocky Man in Red who had been staring at me earlier. His greasy, blond hair is slicked over to one side, and his deep-set eyes are dark and shifty as they bore into me. He wears a scarlet shirt and black pants, and a small golden triangle is pinned to the left side of his collar. As he opens his thin lips to speak, I inhale the scent of stale alcohol and tobacco, and my stomach clenches with nausea. He grabs my face with a calloused hand and squeezes my cheeks so my lips squish together, and I can’t help but feel like an animal being inspected for slaughter.
“What are you doing, boy?” he asks with a sniveling, high-pitched tone. My face drains of blood, and my heart picks up speed as the Red’s expression grows more furrowed. The surprise of the encounter has my mind reeling, but I know better than to reply. I feel awake for the first time since I can remember, and I intend to keep it that way.
“What’s wrong with this one?” the Red mutters to himself. My heart pounds in my chest with such speed and voracity that I begin to worry the guard will hear it, and my own body will betray me. All at once, the guard releases my face with an apathetic grunt and pushes me towards the door by my shoulder. I’m startled by my sudden propulsion, and I stumble forward into line as relief floods my body.
I follow the silent parade of students as it streams out of the doors and into an alley. The buildings on either side of me are identical — long, gray, and void of visual interest. The only features that stand out against the monochromatic scheme are the doors, which are blood red and resemble nicks and cuts in the buildings’ exteriors. I’m tempted to look around, but I train my eyes forward and focus on blending in with the group. The crunching cadence of our boots against the unpaved dirt road fills the otherwise silent air.
“You, too?” a voice whispers to my left. We are now entering a courtyard, and before I can stop myself, I whip my head around to search for the source of the voice. A pair of warm, blue eyes set below a short curtain of straight, black hair meets my gaze. My own eyes widen as I jerk back to face the front. I scan the courtyard and find it swarming with Men in Red. Now is not the time to have a conversation.
“You missed it, too,” the voice whispers again, this time as a statement, not a question. There’s an urgency to the boy’s tone, and I feel the need to respond, but I don’t want to get caught again. I mull over his words, wondering what he meant. I begin to dismiss them when something rushes back to me — the gate, the line, the explosion, the vials.
Holy crap. I missed my vaccine. But why would that make a difference in my mental clarity? Is that why I can remember things now? Or did I catch something from the village when I touched the man? That couldn’t be it, because this boy didn’t touch the man, and he’s as aware as I am. The thought triggers an image of the man’s pleading face in my mind, and my stomach drops. What had I done to him? And why? I shove the memory down, knowing I need to focus on the bigger issue at hand.
Stealing a glance at him, I wonder if the blue-eyed boy was the one at the gate with me, but I don’t speak yet. If I answer his question, I will be admitting that I have broken protocol. And yet I can’t convince myself that this is a bad thing.
Even still, I don’t want to lose track of one of the only other students who could have answers. Clenching my fists by my sides, I muster my courage and decide to answer him in the briefest way possible. My lips are parched with apprehension, but I turn my head anyways and whisper, “Later.”
The boy tilts his head in agreement, his eyes filled with a knowing glint, and then we separate into two different columns that lead to a row of rectangular, black tables. On the other side of the barrier stand female nurses in a white uniform of cargo pants and pressed shirts. Like the Men in Red, they also wear a golden triangle pinned to their collars.
The lines move at a brisk pace, and I am soon handed a tin cup of water and a small, plain brown package. I take my ration and go sit on the ground in my assigned spot within the rows of students in the courtyard. The sky above us is clear and still has the lingering golden-pink hints of dawn at its far edge. The air itself is crisp with the chill of autumn and void of all sounds beyond the shuffling of feet and ripping of packages as everyone eats their breakfast. This place — my home — is desolate and sterile.
I set my cup down and tear at the edge of the wrapper that encases my food. Inside is a skinny, beige block that has no discernible scent. I already know what it will taste like, and I lift it to my lips and take a bite, ripping off a third of the bar. For how little flavor it has, I might as well be chewing the wrapper itself. It settles like a boulder in my stomach and leaves me parched, especially after not receiving my ration of water last night for some reason. As I reach for the cup by my side, a figure casts a shadow over me, and a large boot unceremoniously knocks my cup over with a loud clamor, spilling its contents across the dusty ground. My lips begin to part in protest when I notice the color of the shirt the person is wearing. It’s red. I stare out across the quadrant, waiting for whatever comes next.
“Here, kid,” the Red says with a smooth voice. He kneels beside me and places a new cup of water in my hand. “Sorry about that.” I dare to look at the face that is now inches from mine. The Red’s skin is dark brown, and his black hair is clipped short. A faint shadow of stubble hangs over his thin cheeks and sculpted jaw. This man is strong and fit — that much is obvious. And to my horror, there’s something in the guard’s expression. He knows.
I gulp despite the dryness in my mouth and turn away as fear seizes my body. I don’t want to be captured or re-vaccinated, assuming that’s the reason why I can all of a sudden remember things. I consider running off, but that’s a foolish idea. One glimpse at the guns strapped to the belts of the Reds is enough of a warning. I sigh and prepare myself for the worst, and then the Red grabs the knocked-over cup, stands back up, and walks off without another word. I blink repeatedly, unsure why he didn’t say anything. I know better than to speak after him, so instead I tear off another bite of food and stare at my shoes.