The interrogation room was small and Empire was uncomfortable in the chair they had strapped him to. The balding Lieutenant shouted question after question but all Empire could think about was the day it started.
He was on his way out the door and looked back at Alice, who was in the kitchen washing the two dishes they had used for breakfast. The orange sunlight shone through their window and was dancing around her uncombed hair. She was swaying back and forth ever so slightly, and she turned and saw Empire staring at her.
“I want a baby.”
Empire didn’t know how to respond so he simply pretended he didn’t hear her and left for work. Weeks went by without either of them mentioning it. He was afraid she was serious. But they both knew it was impossible. There was no way he could get through all three screening checks. For one, the two of them fell far below the minimum income requirement, which, admittedly, Empire had found a way to fake. He had even figured out a way to erase his Federal Record, so they wouldn’t find out about his being arrested when he was sixteen. It was that arrest, in fact, that prevented Empire from ever being assigned for work anywhere near a computer. The genetic test though would be a real problem. It couldn’t be faked. It was written in his DNA. His parents were lucky enough to have gotten pregnant before The Population Control Act.
Empire’s parents were actually some of the first to be offered the Generation 1 Genetic Inhibitor for their child. Initially, it was up to the parents if their child would receive one. That didn’t last long. One year after the inhibitor was placed at the base of Empire’s hippocampus, the PCA was amended, requiring every child to be implanted. Certain equality groups and religious fanatics protested. They attempted to destroy the factory where the inhibitors were produced. They bombed Birthing Centers and City Hospitals. They attacked Federal Hubs and Record Centers. Quickly, the Federal Council demonized them, blaming the deaths of children and families on their bombs and attacks. The protestors weakened, and realizing the Council was convinced that the inhibitors were the answer to all of Earth’s largest problems – population, pollution, famine, war – the remaining few instead left the cities, left the safe zones and took refuge in the borders of the Restricted Land.
Alice’s inhibitor was a Generation 3 – a chemical breakthrough. She needed only to take a pill to deactivate it. Unlike Empire’s, where surgery was required. This was one of hundreds of reasons he hoped and prayed that Alice’s slip of the tongue while washing dishes all those weeks before had been just that. He was not so lucky.
The Lieutenant circled Empire, asking something about a man Empire had never heard of – someone he kept calling the Pastor. He needed more time, so Empire began telling the Lieutenant, who ran his thick, ragged fingers through his remaining hairs, the whole story – all about the day Alice was washing dishes, all about the weeks of worry after, and finally about the night they were in bed and she turned to him, asking if he had heard her that day.
“I want a baby, Empire. I want us to have a baby. I want to be a mom and for you to be a dad. You’d be so good. And we could have a boy; he’d look like you. And you could teach him how to play gravity ball, and how to ride a flashboard, and how to dig for fresh water. You could take him camping where your dad took you when you were young…”
But he knew it was impossible. He tried to explain, but she didn’t understand. She kept saying there had to be a way. They loved each other, they had a home, and that they were the types of people that should be parents.
“Alice, you know they will never let me have a child. Even if I was able to hide the fact that when I was sixteen I got caught diverting water and medication from the central hub, even if I smudge our income reports to put us over the line, when they check my DNA, they will see that I’m a carrier. They will never let me have a child. Hell, they won’t even let me work in federal buildings.”
Alice argued and cried. Empire didn’t know what to say and eventually stopped talking. She tried to understand but just couldn’t. There had to be a way. She shouted idea after idea, one crazier than the next. “We’ll break into a hospital. And force someone to deactivate it!” Empire had to stop her there, that kind of talk was severely prohibited.
It had been done once. City Hospital 122. A young couple, plagued by similar circumstances, broke into the hospital and, at gunpoint, using the man’s grandfather’s antique pistol, forced a doctor to deactivate his inhibitor. The child was born outside of the city and received none of the vaccinations and vitamin supplements needed to suppress the rapid infection. He was dead within months. And the parents, who tried to run and jump border, were quickly caught and erased. It was all over the news for months.
“Alice, what would happen if our child was born with HDG? Would you want to put any child through that? What if we get caught? I couldn’t live with the thought of you being erased.”
Her heart sank, knowing he was right. But she still couldn’t accept it. She wanted to be a mother, and Empire knew that nothing was going to make that go away.
The Lieutenant spit on the floor next to Empire. He ranted and railed about how even admitting to having that conversation was enough to send him away. “We have you, now, Mr. Lock. You are ours. You’ll be erased within the hour – as soon as the Council releases the warrant. Now, all you have to do to make your punishment smoother and easier is give us the location of your wife and baby and tell us what you were doing at the Records Center. We promise not to hurt them. We just want to make sure the child isn’t a danger to others. Do you want to be the cause of another outbreak?” Empire knew that was impossible. Sofia was uninfected. She was perfect. But, he needed a bit more time, so he continued his confession.
It was a few days after their fight. Empire was still exhausted and had been walking on eggshells, desperately trying to avoid a repeat. Alice came home with a smile on her face that he had not seen in what seemed like years. She grabbed him from the couch and took him to the fire escape. She turned on some music as loud as it would go, making it impossible for city surveillance to hear what she had to say. She pulled Empire close and began to dance with him.
“Alice, what is –“
“Shhhh.” She whispered quietly into his ear. Even he could barely hear her. “I’ve figured it out, Empire. I know how we can do it.”
Empire’s heart thumped in his chest as she told him about a woman she worked with at the arboretum.
“Her husband had a Gen 1 Inhibitor just like yours. They heard about a way, so they took a vacation to the safety rim. They booked a cottage far out from the resort and, after the security check one night, they snuck into the Border. A man met them there and took them to a small building where a doctor made it possible for them to have a baby.”
“That’s impossible Alice. The inhibitor. It has to be deactivated with the same key it was activated with.”
Alice said she didn’t know how, but that it could be done. Then, she showed Empire a picture. There was the proof – on her holo-fone – a beautiful little girl. No ID mark, no inhibitor, no HDG, just a perfect little girl. Empire didn’t know what to say. As much as he was afraid of even having the conversation, and as much as he feared what would happen if they were ever caught, for the first time in his life, it seemed possible. He could be a dad.
The Lieutenant pulled out two of his own hairs and ran them along the table next to Empire. “I want to know where you met this man. Was he called The Pastor? Where did he take you? Where is the baby? What were you doing in the Federal Records System? You will tell me one way or another. You should make it easier on all of us and just tell me now.”
The cottage was easy enough to book, even doing under false identities, which Empire created. Even sneaking out after the security check was easy.
Empire and Alice found the man who had been contacted by her co-worker. He led them, through the forest, to an old building. It was small and the outside was falling apart. The inside, however was as clean as any hospital they had ever been in. The man led them to the back where he introduced the doctor, “This is the Doctor.”
He was short and fat and incredibly kind. His eyes smiled even when his mouth did not. And, from the moment he shook Alice’s hand, he made them both feel completely at ease.
“Now, Empire. I understand you are a Generation 1.” He had a funny accent neither of them knew. “And Alice, you are Generation 3?”
She nodded, and he handed her a pill. She quickly swallowed it with a glass of the cleanest water she had ever drunk. The doctor moved his chair so he was facing the back of Empire’s head. “Now, Empire. This will hurt just a bit.” He pulled out a very small needle and poked the inhibitor lightly. “That’s it.” Empire rubbed the back of his head; he couldn’t believe it was done.
“But, the key…”
“A design flaw. A small poke in the eye of the inhibitor and poof. Baby time. The Council work very hard to keep that secret.”
The Lieutenant slammed his hand down on the table. “Impossible! There is no such flaw!” Empire could tell from his tone this was not the first time he had heard about it. He was starting to get nervous, though. Enough time should’ve passed. A door opened and a young soldier entered. “I’m done wasting my time with this border jumper. Private, take this man away. Prepare him for Erasing. And issue an immediate Erase Order for his wife and his child.”
The young Private lowered his head and coughed slightly. It had been long enough. The upload had finished. He opened his holo-screen and turned it so the Lieutenant could see it. “Um, sir. The thing is, um, well, they’ve been erased already. We can’t get a warrant, because they don’t exist. We can’t erase him.”
His growl sounded like an animal Empire had seen in the holo-museum when he was young. “You did this! How the hell- what did you – You can’t – this is… this is… You’re Fault!” He screamed at Empire and berated the young Private with every insult he could muster. “This will not stand!”
“It will stand, Lieutenant. And that’s an order.”
The room fell silent. The Private and Lieutenant fell into line and saluted the tall figure in the doorway. Empire couldn’t see who it was at first. Not until he came into the room, then it was unmistakable – Council Representative Nine.
“Sir. All due respect, this cannot be allowed to happen.” The Lieutenant was sweating and shaking. His face was red and his hairs were bouncing around his glistening head. “He changed the records. They are out there. He’s right here. We have him. Issue a warrant and I will erase him myself, sir. I will find his wife and his child and I will make sure they –“
“That’s enough, Lieutenant. This matter is over. As for this man, whoever he is, he is clearly not Empire Lock, because if he were, that would mean that The Federal Records System, and by extension, the Federal Council itself, is penetrable. And we are not penetrable, Lieutenant. Am I understood?” Everyone nods in unison. “I find it hard to believe we’ll ever be hearing from whoever this is anytime again, because if we are to hear from him, well, erasing will be the least of his concerns.” The Council Representative turned and stormed out of the room as quickly as he had appeared.
Empire heard his warning loud and clear. He was released by the Private and led away from the building. For the first few miles of freedom, he couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder. But, no one was following him. He would’ve been afraid, but he knew his family was safe. And soon, he would be joining them.