Authors: Ariel Djanikian
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2013 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright Â© Ariel Djanikian, 2013
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
The Office of Mercy : a novel / Ariel Djanikian.
1. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
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in every possible world
he sun sank behind the trees, and the blue-black shadows of the forest encroached farther down the sloping beach. The younger children eyed the dark warily and pushed closer to the weak, gasping fire at their center; the babies rolled their heavy heads and fell into whimpering sleep against their mothers' necks. The mood among the women and the old men was tense and silent. Motionless they sat, kneeling against each other in the sand, backs against the ocean winds, gazes steadily fixed on the fire, while inside, their thoughts roiled and screamed:
Twelve, it was almost too much to believe, their twelve strongest huntersâtheir beloved sons, their adored husbands and fathersâwere missing from the camp.
The hunters had set off into the forest on the morning of the last full moon, for what Roland, the leader among them, had announced during the prayers to Aliama would be a three-day hunt. The ocean had been greedy with her fish, and Roland and the other hunters believed they could do better venturing inland with their spears, following the rumor of deer, a scattering of split-toed tracks left in a slop of mud by the trees. They had crossed into the shadows of tangled vine and prowling beast with cheerful war cries and prideful hearts, the twelve. The clouds had made stripes in the sky, a sign from Aliama that He would protect them. But on the fourth morning the hunters had failed to return, and on the eighth day of their absence the remaining young men had gone to look for them, fearing that the recent rainstorms had altered the forest somehow, causing the hunters to lose their way home.
Now they all were missing. Six more nights had passed and what could their families do but watch the swaying wall of forest with growing dread?
Beneath the crackle and rushing gusts of the fire came the quiet sobs of a waiflike and darkly tanned little boy. He clutched at his stomach as if to catch in his fist and pull away the pain of his hunger, as one might remove a pinching crab. After a long, plaintive whine he was quickly silenced by his mother's sister with a sharp slap on his hand. It did no good to cry; everyone was hungry. They had found nothing to eat for many days but a half-dead bush bearing red sourberries and a few foul-tasting clams that two young mothers had dug up with sticks from the sand. The warm season would end; already the twilight air was crisp. If the hunters did not return soon, or if the terrible thing had happened and the forest had swallowed them all, then surely the women and the children and the old men left on the beach would starve.
Night crept in from the blank horizon and fell over them fully, and the children dropped off one by one into sleep. A pack of dogs howled in the distance, broadening the dark with their calls. The waves heaved and crashed, heaved and crashed, an endless song that had once brought comfort but now seemed like a terrible lullaby, their old friend the ocean saying goodbye. The older people rested their heads on mounds of damp beach. None had washed in many days, and the sand caked their hair and faces and gritted between their teeth; it settled in the crevices of their clothing and limbs, already laying claim to their flesh. Gradually the older people gave in to sleep too, though only the thin, reluctant dozes of those who are afraid.
It was from the deepest depths of this quiet, at the moment when despair had all but slipped to deadly acquiescence, when a strange noise suddenly reared from the forest. Instantly they were all awake, even the babies, who felt the rigid jolt of the bodies they clung to and screamed. Astonished eyes met with more astonishment around the circle. Then they were up on their feet, the women shrieking, the children clapping and darting like water bugs from one skirted hip to another, and the old men hollering prayers to Aliama, open-armed to the stars.
“Heey-yaa, hey-yaa-ho,” came the swelling chant from the forest.
The hunters had returned! Their voices rang with triumph!
At last the chant crescendoed and the first faces sprang from the forest's grasp. They were all together, the twelve hunters and the ones who had gone after them. They were filthy and exhausted, in torn leathers and with matted hair and sliced, bleeding bare feet, but alive, truly alive, all of them.
Sobs of relief broke to the surface and hot tears washed many faces clean. The men's eyes glittered with merriment, for they had not returned empty-handed: slung up by the ankles hung one, two, threeâfour slain deer! “Oh!” cried the children, stretching up on their toes and rubbing their bellies. Now they would have a feast for their breakfast. The fire roared as if in anticipation and everyone laughed. Roland brandished a bloodstained spear in two strong fists over his head and led the reunion into the warm, happy light.
This was the last moment: the first sliver of sun appearing over the ocean, unfurling a shimmering, golden path across the dancing waves; the smell of meat filling the air; the boys and girls draping their long limbs over their fathers' shoulders; and the stories of trial and adventure still only at their beginning. Then from a high place in the nearby trees, a small red light flashed from the lens of a well-concealed camera, and a soaring bright object, like a giant spearhead, broke from the wisp of clouds above.
An instant later the sky exploded, and all existence turned to ash.
n floor six, the sixth level underground, Natasha Wiley shut her sleeproom door and stepped quickly down the narrow hall. She moved as people do when they sense danger directly behind them, though nothing pursued Natasha but her thoughts. She turned sharply past the faded orange doors of the laundry bank and past the entrance to the waste-release stalls. The air vents hissed on overhead, making her jump, though it was a familiar noise. At the far end of the corridor, near the elevator hub, two citizens, both holding briefcases, were speaking loudly of the alarm. Natasha knew them; they were Elliot Beckman, Gamma, from the Department of Research, and Roger Descartes, Beta, from Health. Everyone knew everyone in America-Five, though the settlement boasted one of the largest populations on the continent. Behind the men, the tall elevator doors were parting open, revealing a menagerie of faces that shined with alertness through their sallow, grayish complexions. They all seemed to be watching Natasha, who broke into an awkward jog.
“Natasha!” said Elliot, just noticing her and holding the door open as she squeezed inside. “Maybe you're the best one to tell us. Has it happened? Has there been a sweep?”
The other citizens stopped their chatter to listen. The doors thudded closed and the elevator (called the “elephant” by most for its silver massiveness, lumbering speed, and dank, vaguely animal smell) heaved them upward with a groan.
“They stationed me in the Dome,” Natasha said a little defensively, holding a thick bundle of hair back from her face and straining her neck to look around at them all. “I don't know any more than you do.”
“But it must have been a sweep!” came Anusha Jain's high voice from the corner. She rose on her tiptoes to find Natasha's eyes in the jumble of bodies. “There's never been a four-hour alarm that didn't end in a sweep. Why even the Palmsâ”
“Course we got 'em,” cut in a gruff Beta whom Natasha disliked. “But was it Cranes or Pines, that's what I want to know.”
Cries of agreement broke from the group, and Natasha bit her lip until they had quieted.
“I thinkâ” Natasha began, but she stopped to correct herself. “I
there was a sweep. But I can't say for sure till I get to the Office.”
Two female generation Deltas joined them on level four, and a male Department of Agriculture Gamma elbowed in on level one, before they finally reached ground level, the Dome.
It was a relief, as it always was, to spill out from the cramped underground and into the light. The sky was especially clear this morning, and the sun touched the top of Natasha's head with its heat. The bright green treetops glistened and swayed on the other side of the arcing expanse of steel-framed, honeycomb windows; and the obscured figure of a blackbird traced easy loops in the empty, high beyond. Crowds of morningshift workers crisscrossed on the marble floor, dressed in blue coveralls, chem-repellent lab coats, medical scrubs, or second-skin shirts and tough synthetic-protein pants (Natasha's own outfit) as their jobs prescribed. As they walked, the citizens threw glances at the maincomputer, its eight-sided screen positioned atop the elevator hub. In the hum of talk, the word “sweep” echoed and bounced around the circular wall.
“Had to be a biggie,” one medworker was saying to another, as they passed Natasha. “They wouldn't raise the alarm for a partial sweep.”
“Oh, I don't know,” answered his friend. “If a group got close enough to the settlement, it wouldn't matter if there were only three or four of them.Â .Â .Â .”
The mounting curiosity among the citizens only served to escalate Natasha's own, and she pursed her lips and stepped a bit quicker. For now, the citizens could do little more than guess at the details. The Alphas would not make the news public until they had verified the count and watched the sensor tapes for themselves. Of course, the wait was driving everyone else in the settlement into a state of frenzied anticipation. Natasha herself could not imagine waiting all afternoon to hear what had happened, and she counted herself lucky to be among the elite few headed to a back cubicle in the Office of Mercy, where she and her team had been tracking both the Crane and the Pine Tribes for weeks.
“It's an exciting day.Â .Â .Â .” Natasha overheard a Delta woman saying. And it was.
There had not been a full-Tribe sweep in more than two decades, since the nearly disastrous sweep of the Palms.
On most mornings as she crossed the Dome, Natasha would indulge in a private moment to gaze out at the world beyond the windows, to contemplate the movement of clouds or the particular shade of blue suffusing the atmosphere at this hour. Not today, though. Natasha told herself that she had no time to spare for distractions, and she determined it best to keep her thoughts as firmly as possible within the settlement's walls.
Besides, it wasn't as if Natasha had any lack of
sights to admire. America-Five was the largest of its kind, and the Dome was the pride of the settlement: its apex soaring as high above the land as level three was deep. At evenly spaced intervals around the circular base (one precisely every sixty degrees) were six sets of large double doorsâat this hour gaping open and closing with arrhythmic hurriednessâeach set of doors leading into one of the wings: the Department of the Exterior, which housed the Office of Mercy, where Natasha worked; the Department of Health; the Department of Research; the Department of Agriculture, comprising the Garden and the vast Farms; the Department of Living, where the citizens gathered for meals, recreation, or, in the Archives, for study; and finally, the Department of Government, which was the only wing that Natasha had never entered, partly on account of her age (she was a mere twenty-four, like every Epsilon).
Taken together, as Natasha and all the citizens had learned as tiny children, America-Five had the basic shape of a concrete- and lead-enforced flower, buried to its head: the column of underground levels made up the stem, the beautiful Dome that capped it was the bud, and the six wings were the flower's six petals, stretching out from the center.
Six wings now, Natasha thought, as an electron saw roared on to her left, but soon to be seven.
Between the Department of Living and the Department of Government doors, blue tarps covered a portion of the Dome's wall; and from beyond the temporary airlock there came the bangs and rumbles of construction. The New Wing would make room for the next generation, the Zetas, already wrinkled, funny-looking little creatures in the Office of Reproduction, and due to emerge from their liquid phase of development in less than five months. Natasha smiled just thinking about them. She couldn't help it; all the other citizens were like that too. Even the most cynical old Betas among them couldn't help but glow with cheerful pride at the mention of the Zeta generation.
The numbers on all eight sides of the maincomputer simultaneously flashed 0800, and the pace of the morning workers picked up a notch. The crowds split off and began disappearing into the wings. Natasha lined up at the Department of the Exterior doors, behind Joe McMahon from the Office of Air and Energy, who greeted her with a nod and who, as a Beta, Natasha knew would be too proud to search her for answers. Natasha took a deep breath and smoothed the front of her shirt; there was a small dot of gravy from yesterday's dinner, and she licked her finger and absentmindedly rubbed away at the porous material. Despite what she had told the group in the elephant, she was absolutely positive that there had been a sweep; with an unprecedented two Tribes in the area and Jeffrey Montague working the nightshift, she could not imagine otherwise.
While she waited in line, Natasha loosened her thoughts and allowed herself to remember last night. She had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, full from one of her favorite dinners, roast chicken and peas. But her dreams had begun troubling her almost immediately: the dream of fire and smoke that had haunted her for years, which even the doctors in the Office of Psychotronomy had not been able to stamp out of her. She had just roused herself from the grips of imagined flame, as she had done a hundred times before, when the shrill cry of the alarm came over the speakers. The lights flashed three times quick and then blared on.
Min-he Fang, Natasha's roommate, cursed and tangled her legs in her sheets and half fell out of her bed. The two lockers containing their emergency biosuits burst open and their wallcomputers lit up with instructions: Min-he Fang, level two, main corridor, Ammunition Support. Natasha Wiley, Dome, outer circle position 270, Wave One Defense. Natasha retrieved her gun, a LUV-3, from its marked locker on the level six hall and boarded the first ride up to ground level. A lifetime of drills made it so that she hardly had to think as she took her assigned position, released the safety on her gun, and began scanning the night-blackened spread of honeycomb windows for movement. Around her, the ghostly figures of the other citizens on Wave One Defense did the same, and all together they made two concentric circles of resolute force around the Dome. During the early hours of the alarm, other citizens streamed through their formation, passing through to stations in various wings. The radio clipped to Natasha's ear buzzed with commandsâ“group eleven, fan the Garden,” “rooftop group two, maintain current alignment.” Yet as the night wore on and eventually began to tilt toward morning, all became silent. Natasha's biosuit clung to the sweat on her back and her LUV-3 grew heavy in her arms. The bodies of the other citizens swayed and seemed almost to sigh, though no one moved a step from their spot.
It came at 0548 hours, the low moan from the speakers that meant, by either success or failure, that the possibility of an attack had ended and all citizens could return to their beds.
What had made that surge of horror break across Natasha's mind? Suddenly her sight had changedâher imagination overthrowing the facts of the arcing Dome, the sky, the alarmâand the mundane dark had opened itself to her. The abyss where they had sent an entire Tribe of people (she had not doubted the fact of a sweep even then) had yawned at her like an open mouth.
Despite the warmth of morning sun through the glass, Natasha shuddered at the memory of it. “The Wall,” she whispered to herself, as she did whenever she felt a primitive feeling or instinct interfering with her logical thoughts. And after some seconds of concentration, the Wall began rising block by block in her mind.
She took a deep breath and closed the gap that had opened between Joe McMahon and herself. This was no time to think of last night, she scolded herself. Later maybe, when she was alone.
“Climate control off again?” asked Joe McMahon, who had apparently noticed her discomfort. He sniffed the air to test it.
“No,” said Natasha. “I was thinking of something.”
“Now that's dangerous,” he said with a friendly smile, before turning back toward the doors.
Natasha did not consider herself immune to the tricks of anachronistic emotions. She had to fight off her mind's irrationalities just like everyone else. Of course she knew that. Each generation was barely waddling around the nursery rooms on two feet before they had learned from their teachers that some of their deepest feelings were not to be trusted: that their fear of the dark, for instance, was a leftover fear from when their ancestors slept in the Outside with jaguars and poisonous spiders; or, likewise, that their greed for food persisted from a time when children did not always have enough to eat, and might have starved if they had not occasionally acted in pure self-interest.
Natasha remembered these lessons well. In the old Epsilon dormitory with its rows of bunk beds (that great room had since been transformed into a dozen couples' sleeprooms), Teacher Harriet had instructed the children to lie on their mattresses while she stood by the high control box. With the flip of a lever, she had plunged them into utter darkness, a dark so absolute that it made shapes and apparitions jump out before their uselessly opened eyes. During this exercise, in order to combat those shapes and apparitions, they were all to repeat the following mantra:
Nothing exists inside the settlement except the good things we have made. All bad things belong to Nature. All bad things live outside the walls. And they cannot come in, ever
Another time, a different teacher, Teacher Emmanuel, had taken their Epsilon group on a tour of the Farms and the silver kitchens. He had stood at the head of their cluster of child-sized tables and said: “Children, your greed for food is an instinct. It helped your great-great-great-great-great ancestors survive in the Pre-Storm times, and for that reason it became a behavior that is coded for in our genes. But we don't need that instinct anymore. Now we live in a settlement where everyone has enough to eat. You will never have to compete for food. It doesn't matter if you are unruly or sick or how many generations (Alpha willing) come after you. You will receive three nutritious meals a day, forever.” And as the lessons continued, Natasha
learn that her fear of a snake under her bed and her desire to steal the dinner roll from her neighbor's plate were survival instincts, and she fought them down with reason.
Likewise, as she and the other Epsilons grew, they discovered that a great number of their feelings had, as their source, archaic situations in nature, situations that clearly had nothing to do with life today. For instance, in their adolescence, they learned that a preference for certain facial arrangements and body shapes held no rational meaningâthat these predilections were a remnant of the animal drive for productive sexual selection, left over from a time when people needed to have sex to create new generations. On the same note, sexual drive in general (and in all its permutations) was essentially a manifestation of a vestigial need to continue the species, and should not be mistaken for mature, fully empathetic partnerships, which the Alphas did condone, though not encourage. Feelings of competition with other Departments or other generations had roots in bygone struggles for survival in the wild, and overdetermined urges of small-group pride and kinship were the same.