My wrist beeped and vibrated. Startled, I jumped up off my cushion. I should be used to these alarms by now. I mean they ran our lives. Why was I still such a jumpy mess? And damn I needed just another 15 minutes to get through this last chapter or two. Daria had to race to Ethan before that evil skank Lucy married him and moved away forever.
But Daria’s mad dash to her beloved Ethan would have to wait I guess. My literary escape was over. The Glendale Admin Center wouldn’t appreciate me being late. Especially today of all days. I had 15 minutes to get myself back to the Health Administration for today’s important afternoon shift.
I unscrewed the top of a hollow beam under the floorboards, unveiling a hidden library. I liked to think it was one of the biggest in Glendale, maybe in the entire Collective. The Superiors didn’t see the need for novels. Sure, each region had their own traditional verbal stories and schooling textbooks. But stories for entertainment or new ideas were deemed inappropriate, unnecessary, and illegal. I didn’t get it. Everyone could use a little escape from life.
The Superiors must have had a good reason. I was just some Health Admin in the smallest region in the Collective. What the hell did I know?
That didn’t mean that they had to know about my solitary acts of literary rebellion though. I threw my anxious body off the porch cushion and made my way to the front garden. There was one person who knew about my illicit reading. That would be the only other evaluator in the Health Admin, Jessie. She was the only person here understood the burden of our work. Everyday we made impossible decision after impossible decision that changed real people’s lives. Despite our best efforts and training, there was no way to escape the emotional strain. Jessie for sure didn’t condone my escapes but knew how badly I needed them. She kept my little secret, even if it came at the cost of her constant scolding.
I passed my mother slaving away in the front garden. Without pausing her attack on the resisting mutant weeds, she asked, “Enjoy your nap? Dream of anyone special?” Damn, she knew how uncomfortable my upcoming match made me. And she also enjoyed being obnoxious reason by teasing me mercilessly about it. My match was inescapable. I just wish I knew exactly when it’d be happening.
Not that it mattered, my time in this house was coming to an end and soon. I wanted to cherish these last moments, even if they were just me being teased relentlessly. I squinted and rolled my eyes. “Just resting before the afternoon shift, mother. No dreams.”
“Sure, sure. Very convincing,” she teased as she continued attacking the pesky genetic hybrid weeds that seemed to grow thicker with each growing season. My mother used every inch of our plot as a garden to feed her boys. She had dedicated her life to ensure her boys became strong, disciplined, contributing members of the Glendale community. Nothing shifted her focus from achieving that singular goal, particularly after my father’s retirement. My older brothers Troy and Liam were already matched and had started their own family units. They spent their days working as woodworkers out in the thick Glendalean forests like father. No way I could spend my days cutting down our perfect forests. I was always destined for the Health Administration.
“Seriously Aaron, you’re about to face a lot of changes. Your Health Admin assessment today and of course your pending match. Keep your mind clear and focused.” Dropping her gardening tools, she turned toward me. “I know how you can get lost up in that mind of yours. You don’t have that luxury right now. Think clearly, logically, and quickly. And then take action. No hesitation or weakness. You know how these things work.”
“I know Mum.” I responded nodding to try to end the parental speech. “I’m one of the best evaluators here in Glendale.”
“You need to start thinking bigger than little old Glendale, Aaron. You’re competing against evaluators from all of the regions now. Be disciplined. Be assertive.” A flash of a cheeky smile spread across her previously solemn face. “Plus, I know I’m excited to see who you’ll be matched with. Should be coming up anytime now.”
I could only shake my head, wishing the topic away. “Not thinking that matching nonsense at all. I’ll deal with that mess later. I have no control over that, and you know how much I hate not having control. I have control during evaluations though. I make the decisions.” Crap, I needed to move. Jessie and Dr. Ritcher would kill me if I were late today. “Gotta hustle. Need to make it to the rendezvous point almost on time.” I said as I walked away and stuck my tongue out back at her. Although she got under my skin like no one else could, Mum also had the ability to shake me out of my own world and bring me back to reality. A balance of gentleness and forcefulness to direct me down the chosen path.
Walking down the grassy trail, I saw Marit out in the back of neighbor’s the Svensens, looking as stern as ever. Of course she used her scheduled free time to practice her archery. The local Citizens Department gave each family unit its own special individualized perk. For some reason, the Svensens had decided to use their one household perk for a shooting range. How was that relaxing? Or helpful in raising three children? I didn’t get it. Not only that, they had decided to set their targets way too close to my family’s back porch where I spent my time lounging with my books. They certainly made it hard to escape my world of life and death decisions. At least their constant competitions provided the perfect material to practice my sarcastic commentary.
Geez, what the hell were my imaginary match and I going to choose for our special perk? The Glendale Citizens Department would give us a basic starter package that included a simple house with front and back gardens. This land could be used to grow extra food to supplement the standard food allotments or for household perks like the Svensens’ archery range and our porch. Would I be able to replicate the perfect serenity of that creaky porch in my new place?
Staring up into the branch-covered skies, I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling of longing. Damn, Mum hadn’t totally knocked me out of my daze. My mind was still back with Daria. I had to know what she was going to do. But I also knew that my time with her, Ethan, and even Lucy was racing toward its end. The end, that is. How I hated those two little words! Even if a writer gave me a sense of closure, all I would end up feeling were betrayal and jealousy. I had ceded all control over my feelings and emotions to the whims of this faceless stranger. He or she knew had an idea of what happened after so casually writing those awful words. I didn’t! I had invested my time and emotions into their characters and journey. Then with no concern, everything is ripped away from me. I was never ready to let go.
But I couldn’t help but marvel at this power. Without any real interaction, they could take me on a journey across time and space. Their words made me question my own thoughts and actions. What was it like to hold such power? Were you even aware of it? Maybe I could continue Daria’s journey myself. The agenda for next few scheduled breaks was set. Crap, I needed to shake myself out of this introspective tailspin before Jessie noticed. There was such little time away from the Health Admin and other scheduled activities. When I did find time for myself, I spent most of it lost in the uncontrollable world of my books on my family’s creaky porch. That needed to be entirely distinct from my life as a Health Admin evaluator. I needed to focus. Plus, I’m didn’t want to force Jessie to slap me upside my head to knock me out of this world of literary whimsy.
The walk to the rendezvous point from our collection of home units was short. I could already see the impatient outline of Jessie pacing back and forth through the branches. I needed a moment before I dealt with that storm of nagging. I beared to the left excited for an extra 15 seconds of Glendalean patented peace and quiet. Glendale was the smallest regions in the entire Collective, but I liked to think it was by far the most pleasant. We weren’t filled with the mining, industrial, agricultural centers or manufacturing facilities like other regions. They all had way more wealth and resources than little old Glendale.
But that was fine with us Glendaleans. Instead of massive dams, disgusting mines, and awful buildings, Glendale was filled of naturally stunning landscape. The peace and quiet that accompanied it were the best parts for me. Nothing could top them.
The rest of the Collective only knew us for two things: our lumber and biomedical facilities. The Citizens Department only allowed us to construct buildings in a small part of Glendale’s lands. Thick green forests covered the rest of the land. Our massive fleet of woodworkers harvested these forests, as they tore down the largest, strongest trees in the entire Collective. They were quickly replanted with our locally engineered seeds. During the great tree disease years ago, the ingenious researchers in the Health Administration developed these genetically altered seeds to rapidly and fully replant our forests within one growing season. The unmatched Glendalean researchers had found a way to create an endless supply of top quality lumber and easily fill our quotas for the Collective. That of course brought more favor from the Superiors in the Capitol.
Those forests were more than just a means of resources or favor. The famed Glendalean forests provided the most serene backdrop for anything. During my most daring moments, I would sneak a book in my workbag and make my way up a tall tree hidden in the forests. These nooks in the wood were the only times of somewhat true privacy. No family, no colleagues. I could even pretend to escape from these ever-present wristlets.
That is when the giggles of children didn’t echo through the trees. All Glendalean children spent gads of time in the forests honing their skills in tree climbing, walking across the most treacherous of branches, and nimbly jumping tree-to-tree. Tree climbing races. Tree swinging and jumping. We did them all. Of course we had no idea at the time, but these games were all part of the training to develop expert woodworkers. Children have far fewer fears than adults. You condition and acclimate them to performing stunts among the treetops early; you can make them more productive and comfortable workers when it counted as adults.
The biggest danger of spending unscheduled time in the forests was wandering into active cut zones. The Glendalean woodworkers cut and processed large sections of the forest with extraordinary speed. If you were unlucky enough to be caught in these cut zones, there was little chance of making it out without injury or worse. Something my family experienced first-hand.
All those years ago when we were younger before the threat of being matched, my brothers and I were just like the kids filling the otherwise peaceful treetops with annoying giggles and screams. Like most sets of Glendalean siblings, us Deyes boys were all far too close in age. That also made them my closest friends, constant playmates, and fiercest competitors. Anything and everything devolved into a massive clash. For some reason, tree-tag was easily the most heated and daring. This particular game of tree-tag took place as the new crop of trees was just beginning to reach maturity as the forests burst to life in the bright sunshine. To celebrate their arrival, the local Betterment Department had given all us kids a two-hour schedule reprieve from schooling. That meant more quantity time with the three brothers.
Troy, Liam, and I lounged along our back porch to the sounds of arrows whizzing and hitting their targets from the Svensens’ yard. Just relishing a chance to break from the physical and mental strains of schooling. Not Shawn though. “Why are you all lying down? The sun is shining. A new crop of trees is out there waiting for us.”
“Because we’re tired and these cushions are oh so comfy,” Liam yawned.
“Lame!” Shawn signed tossing a ball at him.
“Well, some of us have spent the last few days training out in those forests working our butts off,” Troy said rolling his eyes.
“Come on!” Shawn moaned. Geez, Shawn had become insufferable lately after he had finally started to mature physically. “We can’t let this chance pass us! No schooling or training. Perfect weather. Untouched trees.”
Liam hucked the ball back at Shawn. “No way! Now cut it out. Go bother the Svensen kids if you need to burn off some of the puberty energy.”
“Shut up!” Shawn shouted frustrated. “Aaron, you up for it?”
Crap, all I had wanted to do was fade into the background and enjoy the porch. I didn’t want to deal with annoyed brothers or more whining. “You know me. I’m always up for a quick game in the treetops. I mean as long as everyone else wants to play.”
“See! Aaron want to go exploring too!” Shawn bounced up and down, grasping at anything to help get us out in the forest.
Troy and Liam shifted their glances to each other before shooting a gaze of betrayal back at me. “I guess we have time and energy for a quick tree-tag game before sneaking a quick nap in.”
“Nice one,” Troy teased with a smile and a playful push.
“You know he wouldn’t have stopped whining until we had to get back to our schedules.”
“For sure! Annoying and whining levels would have been on full blast.” Shawn laughed. “Let’s go bros! No time to waste!”
The four of us, some more begrudgingly than others, raced down to the edge of our small groups of settlements. Hidden behind a tight group of firs and leafy bushes was a small hole in the fence that separated our residential nook from the massive tree crops. Our neighborhood had a silent collective agreement to keep this broken bit of fence a secret from the local officials. We all enjoyed the freedom to privately enjoy our Glendalean forests without explicit permission. Not to mention the little high from our minor acts of rebellion.
Easing through the snipped fence, we pushed ourselves to the base of rows after rows of massive trees towers. Each of these would be chopped down, processed, and transported across the Collective in the upcoming weeks. Crazy how fast they would sprout up and then disappear. Section by section the woodworkers would cycle across the forest lands, cutting and replanting. Never a break for them.
The sky grew darker and darker with the ever-thickening branches overhead as we progressed deeper into the forests. “Alright boys,” Liam started. “Let’s get this started. Remember, a quick game today. We don’t have a ton of time. Ready, set, go.”
The three of them were off in a flash. As usual, I started the game it, forced to chase the three others through the tangled web of branches and leaves. They were all headed in the same general direction this time at least. It was one thing to lose a game to my brothers, but it was another to get lost in these newly formed forests, I didn’t have any experience out here in early woodworker training like Troy and Liam. I’d be in big trouble in no time. Racing forward, I had to figure out which one I’d target first. No way I could go after Shawn first, He had been so eager. I had to give a chance to show off, at least for a little bit.
I glanced up at Liam hanging lazily among the branches. Without thinking, I set off after him first. His eyes widening in excitement, Liam effortless scaled up and across two large elms in no time. I struggled up the first as he plopped down on his branch in amusement. How the hell was I going to find the strength, speed, and desire to catch up to him? Forget that crap. Obviously, going after Liam was a terrible decision. I turned my attention to Troy who had perched on a nearby tree to witness my failure with Liam. Damn, I had wasted way too much energy foolishly thinking that I could catch Liam. I needed to buy a little time to catch my breath before trying to nab Troy. Maybe I could get him talking?
“Come here you idiot,” I laughed as I summoned a semblance of grace to leap onto a high branch on Troy’s tree.
He smirked up at me and hopped down to a branch below. “Are you getting tired little guy,” Troy snapped back at me, as he swung over to the next oak tree. He always liked to remind me that he was a whole year older and two full inches taller than I was.
I measured a tough, but possibly game-changing swing. If I could find a way to pull it off, I’d be able to launch myself right into Troy. By no means was it going to be easy, but I had a reasonable shot at least. And I was going to take it. Worst case I would miss to the left and cling to the massive trunk instead. I could handle that. I mean assuming that I didn’t slam into the trunk and knock myself out. Quickly judging the distance and trajectory, I began my tumultuous swing down toward the sturdy oak. No way he’d be able to scurry away. I had him. I just needed to focus on nailing this landing straight into Troy. Just as I was just about to burst onto his branch, two mortifying sounds filled the quiet forest air: the low cracking and groaning of dozens of tree trunks and a blood-curdling shriek.
Was that Shawn!?
The carefree smile from Troy’s face fell instantly. I swerved to the left and smacked right into the massive oak’s trunk. Instinctively, we immediately started off toward the falling trees and Shawn’s scream. No time to acknowledge the dull pain from my head-spinning collision or the danger of being in the center of a storm of falling trees. Liam swung down past us. He screamed back to us, “Troy, get to the nearest emergency beacon and signal for help. Aaron, follow me. We may need some of your medical training. Keep up.”
Liam set off toward the forest floor trying to avoid the swinging branches from falling trees. I moved as fast as I could, trying to keep Liam in sight. He was so goddamn fast. I needed to stay with him or risk getting stuck in the collapsing forest myself. We progressed deeper into the heart of the forest. The ominous buzz of saws and logging transports grew louder and louder. How did Shawn get this deep in the forest? Had I really spent that much time chasing Liam and Troy? The buzzing grew louder and louder. Damn, we were just racing into a random set of falling trees. We were heading into an active cut zone.
The cracks and moans of the formidable tress began to overwhelm the sound of the lumbering equipment. Shawn wasn’t the only one in trouble now. Liam and I were in the middle of the raining trees. A sharp snap rang above me as we continued swinging from branch to branch. Suddenly, I was launched into an unplanned left turn. I tried swinging back on track, but the mess of branches blocked my path. Liam kept racing further ahead. Trees fell on top of one another now. The dense planting of the trees had to drive up Glendale’s lumber production was working against us now. If one fell, it began a chain reaction of domino falling trees. Liam, Shawn, and I were now experiencing this chaos first-hand.
Geez, Shawn. Where the hell were you? How did you get so far away from us? I needed to think and quickly. The landscape and canopy of trees shifted endlessly. Swinging from branch to branch wasn’t an option anymore. There was no way to anticipate the movements of the falling trees while I was subject to their whims. The ground was my only hope. I gathered my momentum on this last stable branch. Scanning the forest floor, I saw a small hole through some smaller branches to the ground. Without hesitation, I took my chance and released my grip. As if trying to catch me in midair, a branch appeared out of nowhere on my right and reached around my hip, sending me tumbling through the air. I thudded down on the hard ground, landing straight on my ass. Pain radiated through my body as dizziness hijacked my head. Trying to ignore these, I stumbled onto my feet. I squinted my eyes as hard as I could and stared straight up into the descending tree madness. I steadied my breathing and internally calculated the trajectory of the mess falling around me. Waiting until the last moment, I dove and rolled as three trees converged upon me, narrowly dodging the massive elms. I took a moment to catch my breath and scan for other falling obstacles. One of the trees that I had dodged fell hadn’t settled still and began sliding quickly toward me. Staggering to my feet, I scurried to my right. No way to outrun it. Gathering all my courage, I quickly turned on the spot and began running straight at the speeding log. I let out a roar as I summoned all of my strength and launched myself into the air to hurdle the base of this massive oak. I had gotten enough height, but my back foot caught against the top of the tree. Toppling awkwardly head first to the ground, I had at least escaped being crushed to death by a rolling tree.
I screamed for Shawn as I struggled to my feet. No answer. I screamed for Liam, but only heard buzzing and snapping wood. I only had myself to rely on. The woodworkers had no idea what hell they unleashed upon us. A loud explosion of red light burst overhead. Troy reached the emergency beacon! The Hoodeds and local Citizens Department folks should be here soon. They would stop the cut and get us out of here. I still needed to get to Shawn though. I needed to know he was safe.
I kept racing forward, throwing my exhausted and battered body over fallen trees and branches. The buzzing came to an abrupt stop as flying platforms hovered overhead, trying to find an area to closer to the forest floor to deploy the Hoodeds. Where was Shawn? Hoodeds jumped down to the ground surrounding me. I didn’t care. I kept moving forward. A large Hooded lurched in front of me. I darted to the right away from her. A pair of Hoodeds appeared out of nowhere to my right. I ran directly between the two of them and dove between their outstretched arms. Quickly, I jumped onto my feet and dashed off. I’m not sure how, but I had found a way to elude Hoodeds. Keeping moving forward Aaron. I heard the faint sound of someone struggling in the distance. Was that Shawn? It had to be. Who else would be out here? Two large gloved hands firmly gripped my shoulder and lower torso. I screamed and squirmed, trying to break free. This Hooded was too strong. I couldn’t shake free. Her hood and uniform was different than the others. It was elegantly menacing as she held me in place as I felt a prick in my upper thigh. I had never seen anything like it before. Three Hoodeds were grappling with Liam and carrying him back through the forest toward us. Still no sign of Shawn. The Hoodeds had to have gotten to him. The Hoodeds always achieved their objectives. My head grew heavy as I searched for Shawn in this chaotic scene. Why weren’t these Hoodeds out scouring the forests for Shawn? Had they given up? Everything went to black as the cool feeling of the sedative quickly took hold of me.
“Swak!” A brazen crow screened above, sending the small wood into an explosion of bird squeals, shutters, and chatter. I shook myself back to reality. Crap, Jessie was glaring at me as she tapped her foot with her hands glued to her hips. I let myself drift back to the past way too close to the rendezvous point. Taken way too long to get here and ready for, and I knew it. I also knew Jessie was going to tell me all about it in full detail.
Clapping with every ounce of sarcasm in her being, Jessie hissed. “Well, look who we have here. Bravo, bravo Admin Deyes. Showing up with just minutes to spare before the biggest day in career. Just amazing Aaron. Simply amazing.” Rolling her eyes, she turned away and gazed off the edge of the transport.
“And good afternoon to you too.”
“Oh don’t you even give me that right now.”
“What crap? A nice little greeting?”
Brushing that aside with casual indignation, Jessie moved on. “You’ve really been pushing your luck lately over there.”
“Just running a little late today. But I’m here.”
“Yea, yea. There you are.” Jessie hissed. “Messing with a chance the rest of us would die for.”
“Now, that’s not fair.” I held my hands up. Jessie could jump all over me, but my work spoke for itself. “Dr. Ritcher always approves of my work. And apparently so do the Superiors in the Capitol.”
“At least, so far. You still have today to get through, and you aren’t off to a good start.”
“Don’t you worry about my work. I’ll be just fine. Why does it matter so much to you?” I asked with a heavy sigh.
That idiotic yet accurate question was met with a Jessie patented eye roll and bout of silence. As the two of worked our way up the Health Admin ladder the past years, Jessie always felt compelled to try to keep me in line. Almost like Mum in the garden, though with far less tact and more aggression. I guess this was her way of supporting me, even if some days that support felt more like a harsh slap.
I for sure did not understand the degree and severity of Jessie’s support, but I was self-aware enough to realize how much I probably needed it. No way in hell I would never admit it to her, but Jessie was a huge reason why I had stayed on track at the Health Administration. Without her, I probably would have drifted along in some mid-level position in Glendale for the rest of my life. Content? Sure. Happy? I bet. Fulfilled? Hmm.
Of course, she had a point now. With all of my reading and lack of focus, I had gotten a bit sloppy. So far it hadn’t outwardly my work or been noticed by anyone important enough. I had been lucky. Sloppiness was not tolerated here in Glendale or anywhere in the Collective. Everything was run on a tight schedule with citizens reporting to assigned locations and adhering to schedules without exception. If you simply followed the rules, you got to enjoy your lives and contribute to the greater community. Not following the schedule was unheard of. I don’t think I had ever seen anyone dare to ignore or miss their schedules in Glendale. There was no reason to.
Our wristlets finally ticked to 13:00 hours. The platform immediately buzzed to life and lifted the two of us up into the air. The journey to the Health Administration was thankfully short but not short enough. Jessie launched into the second round of her aggressive nagging. “Aaron, what’s your problem? Don’t you realize what’s happening? You have the chance to be an actual Central Admin! Not to mention your matching.” Jessie paused shaking her head. “And all you can do is act like a careless child. This isn’t just about you! Your mother and brothers. Not to mention Dr. Ritcher and the rest of us here in Glendale. I’d do anything to get the chance to work in the Capitol. Lock it up you idiot! Don’t fuck it up now with your books and daydreaming!”
“Jessie, I get it. Trust me, I get it.” I said as flatly as possible. Damn, she could be obnoxious and dramatic when she had a point.
“Sure you do,” she said rolling her eyes. “Please, just focus for this next shift. They aren’t going to be easy. Those people from the Capitol are going to be watching your every move and decision. You’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s the only shot you’re going to get. At least one of us should make it to the Capitol.”
“I know. I know. You’re right. Okay?” Giving into Jessie was usually just easier for both of us rather than matching her stubbornness and fervor. It helped that she was usually right like this time. Today was the one opportunity I’d get in front of the Central Admins. I’d had to take it. Somehow through years of hard work and a bit of luck, I’d worked my way up Glendale’s Health Admin and become one of its rising stars. I was young. Really young. But already the best evaluator in Glendale by far.
The importance of today’s shift could not be exaggerated despite Jessie’s best efforts. Officials from the Central Health Administration in the Capitol would be observing and evaluating every facet of my work. My thought process, how I handled the pressure, my interaction with the others, and of course my final decisions were all up for judgment. If they were impressed enough, these officials could put me on track toward a top position in the Central Health Administration, and who knows, maybe even higher within the Superiors. It would bring security and honor to my mother, my brothers here in Glendale, and my soon-to-be formed family unit. Wherever my impending match and I would be living in the Collective, we would be set for our new lives. Of course, totaling screwing up today or just doing okay work would mean that I’d get to stay here in perfect Glendale. Books, serene forests, and simplicity for a comfortable lifetime.
Thinking like that would do me no go right now. Too many people had worked too hard for this day. My schooling instructors first noted my potential as a Health Admin early on. I was always able to solve the daily deluge of logic puzzles and perform each of our assignments the quickest. I definitely wasn’t the smartest. But I was the best at identifying logical progressions and making informed, conclusive decisions. Learning the power of these skills and how to be decisive and unfeeling in my actions were the foundations of my rise at the Health Administration. After Shawn’s accident, I poured all my time into Health Admin training. I didn’t have the physical abilities and drive to work in the forests like Liam and Troy. I loved those forests. No way I could handle destroying those trees and watch them fall after Shawn’s incident. My hard work and innate logic had served me well so far. I was the youngest Health Administration evaluator ever in Glendale and fourth youngest in the Collective’s history. Our local Superior Dr. Ritcher always felt compelled to mention this to anyone and everyone visiting our facility. He was the one who had spotted my logical reasoning and quick decision-making skills from the start. Now, the Central Officials were starting to notice them too I guess.
Our transport platform slowly descended in front of the massive log cabin that housed the Health Administration building, a not so subtle homage to Glendale’s forests. Each of the buildings in the Collective’s administrative center were log cabins, but the Health Admin was easily the largest. Along with our forests, our medical prowess and research were unmatched in the regions. Without them, Glendale would have nothing.
Jessie and I marched into the lobby and waved our wrist in front of the first sensor. The main evaluator entrance swung open. Walking to the back of the room, we waved our wrist at a second sensor along the wall. Two individual elevator shoots emerged out of the wall.
Approaching our shoots, Jessie stopped just in front of hers and turned to me. “Aaron, you can do this. Stay focused and in the moment. Don’t overthink, you dumbass.” She stuck her tongue out and entered her shoot.
What a nutcase! All I could do shake my head and smiled at the back of my metallic shoot. Alright Deyes, this was it. I let out a slow exhale as I started to focus and clear my mind. The doors of the shoot shut with a soft hiss, as we began our descent into the lower levels. Embracing the darkness, I controlled my breaths and sent all thoughts of the day away. All that mattered were the facts presented to me for the next hours. Nothing else.
The doors whooshed open. Jessie and I walked in unison out of the doors, donning our stylish white clinical coats. We were now in work mode. No more lecturing. No more sarcasm. Most importantly, no more trips into the random depths of my mind. Our facilitator Abby welcomed us with a small flash of a nervous smile and gave us our stack of files for the shift. We entered the opposing rooms without any further acknowledgements of each other. I was on my own now. Just me and my brain taking on this challenge. I took my seat and a quick sip of my water. I pressed my buzzer to signal Abby to bring in my first case. I couldn’t help but steal a quick glance to the multiple surveillance cameras littering each corner of the room. I knew the Central Officials in the Capitol would be watching my every move and thought, eagerly waiting to critique and judge them all.
This afternoon’s group of clinicians entered the room wordlessly and immediately began the deluge of cases. The first case involved a middle-aged man who had fallen off of a tree during a shift. Phew, an easy one to start off with. This sort of accident was pretty common in the Glendalean forests. The patient had dislocated his shoulder and suffered a fairly massive blow to the head, resulting in concussion and acute memory loss. The clinicians upstairs had easily repaired the shoulder, but the damage was bad enough that they predicted that he would never fully cover his strength. With a fair amount of physical therapy and hard work, they thought that he would regain all neurological and memory functioning.
My job was first to determine whether more treatment should be given to the patient and then whether he would be continue to be a productive member of the Glendale community. The loss of the patient’s strength might make him an ineffective woodworker, but the positive neurological prognosis complicated things. I needed more information, and fortunately for me, we always had more information. Every citizen had an extensive medical history on file that I could access at any moment on my wristlet. The patient’s history was pretty unremarkable. Nothing stood out. Damn. I flicked through the rest of the information on file. Hmmmm. Maybe his standard birth genetic predictions would give me a few clues. The genetic information seemed to say that the patient was at very high risk of developing cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease in the next five years. That tipped the scales. The patient didn’t have many productive years left in his life. My recommendation was early retirement. He would be moved to a retirement facility within the next few days. That would give him enough time to say goodbyes to his family, friends, and Glendale. I announced my decision to the clinicians and handed the file back to Abby.
The second case was easier. A 3-year-old child was brought to the panel’s attention during his yearly medical visit. He had several signs various developmental delays. The most concerning presentation was the substantial language delay. The child had still not started to speak in phrases and sentences. Working with such a young child, I went straight to the genetic data. It was hard to really interpret, but it appeared that there was a small deletion on chromosome 16p11. The genetic finding alone wouldn’t have been enough to warrant action during the standard genetic screening at birth. But the child’s clinical presentation now changed things. The panel recommended immediate removal from the community, and I quickly agreed. This individual would never become a contributing member of the Glendale community and would only be a drain on it. Falling behind schedule was never tolerated, no matter the circumstances.
Case presentations continued like this for several hours. I made decision after decision, trying not to let fatigue take hold. I determined which patients received which treatment or not, whether citizens would be sent to retirement facilities, and evaluated how the clinic would use its limited resources. We only received a certain amount of resources from the Capitol. Our local Health Administration usually received the most of any region, but a mcuh of it went directly to our research and development sectors. Those sectors developed revolutionary treatments, ways to innovate the regions’ economies, and a series of other top-secret projects. I of course didn’t have access to all the amazing research happening in this very building. I had no idea what they worked on there. All I knew was that the results of this research helped to combat disease and improve the health of everyone in the Collective. And that’s all I really cared about to be honest.
My job had nothing to do with this innovative research though. Dr. Ritcher was also charged with managing Glendale’s research endeavors, but I was completely focused on the clinical and treatment side of things. I allocated our medical resources to the community and managed clinical treatment, even to people in Glendale I may know personally. Emotion was never allowed to play a role in this decision making process. The panels anonymized all the cases, so I never knew exactly whom I was evaluating. To make sure the process was double blind, my neighbors also didn’t know that I was one of the local Health Admin evaluators. They all thought I was just some medial technician for the medical services. It prevented any personal connections in the community biasing my decisions and any harm that would come to me from my more controversial evaluations.
Finally, the panel and I had made our way through all of the afternoon’s cases. I took a deep breath, trying to release the strain and tension from the caseload. It had been more than a full day. I couldn’t remember such a heavy parade of diverse cases. The folks at the Capitol must have requested to make this shift as challenging as possible. Even though I was also able to separate my emotions during the decision process, I couldn’t never entirely suppress them from bubbling up afterward. They always found a way to seep back into my consciousness. I could never completely turn those voices off.
Abby snuck back into the room after the panel had left. “Admin Deyes, you need to report to the main conference room immediately.”
Abby could only shrug as we left the panel room together. Had the Admins in the Capitol already finished my evaluations? Damn, that was a quick turnaround. I thought it would take hours or even days. I guess the Central Admins were even more efficient than us here in Glendale. At least I wouldn’t have this hanging over my head for long. Abby scooted over to Jessie’s desk as I paused in front of the elevator shoot. I gave a slight shrug of my shoulders to them. Jessie tried to give a look of support, but something about it just didn’t feel right. I gave one last cheeky face to the two of them. Abby erupted in stifled laughter as Jessie nervously glared at me. I flashed my wrist cuff to the elevator shoot and hopped in.
With an airy hiss, the elevator quickly sped forward and then to the right. I tried to regain some semblance of composure. I wasn’t used to being evaluated. That was my job. My fate was now in the hands of faceless officials in a far away land. Training to become a Central Health Admin would mean leaving my family and home. It for sure would mark the end of my rebellious reading adventures. I would never be able to sneak my mini-library into the training facility and the Capitol. What would a life be without swinging through the trees, painting pictures in my mind, or being surrounded by my family and friends? Nostalgia for even the littlest of things, like watching Marit shot on her archery range or my mother hacking at weeds in her garden, was already prematurely setting in.
The elevator came to a stop, and the doors quickly flew open. I took one last long breath. I had to focus and face whatever was waiting for me. I forced my feet forward with as much confidence as I could muster into the massive conference room. Only one person was waiting for me, Dr. Ritcher. No one from the Central Health Administration? Not even on a screen? Dr. Ritcher was a tall burly man who had been the head of Glendale’s local Health Administration my entire life. The other members of the Ritcher family were among the best woodworkers in Glendale. They were blessed not only with large physiques and incredible strength, but unmatched fecundity. Dr. Ritcher was one of the few in his large family to not spend his or her life in the forests. As head of the local Health Admin, Dr. Ritcher oversaw all of the Health Administration activities in research and clinical care. He had access to classified information that only a select few people in Glendale and the Capitol had. As such, he was one of the few who knew that I was an evaluator and that I was under consideration to be selected for training in the Central Health Administration.
As usual, we didn’t offer each other a greeting. Dr. Ritcher was not one to waste time or energy on simple pleasantries. I quickly sat at the opposite end of the table, waiting for him to break this uneasy silence that stood in the way of future. He was always dreadfully serious in this log cabin. It probably explained why the elites in the Capitol looked so favorably on his long tenure at Glendale’s Health Administration.
Thankfully, Dr. Ritcher’s desire for efficiency meant that I didn’t have to wait long. “Aaron, I have received your evaluation from the Central Health Administration. As you know, they were watching your evaluations today in the Capitol and have rendered their verdict quite quickly.” He paused a moment as he flipped to the next page of his file. “Something you will surely get used to. Congratulations, they have judged favorably on your performance. In fact, they are quite keen on your future prospects. They want to build you into a strong contributor for the entire Collective, not just Glendale. They believe in that talent I spotted quite a few years ago. You start training imminently. Your preparations will start at once. You will be notified on your wristlet. Thank you for your work here in Glendale, Admin Deyes. You have provided incredible service to the people of Glendale. You are poised to do fantastic things for the Central Health Administration, Glendale, and the entire Collective,” Dr. Ritcher stated in a measured, even tone.
Without delay, he stood straight up and shook my hand firmly. “Be careful and good luck, Admin Deyes. Working in the Capitol is more than just making logical progressions and decisions. You will need to watch your every action and thought, both in the clinic and in your personal life. Be mindful and constantly aware. Do good work. Remember, do what is best for the whole. Evaluate the situation and decide. Then, be assertive and follow through.”
I was frozen in shock. I didn’t know how to react. This last exchange was easily the most Dr. Ritcher had ever said to me in a single conversation. All I could muster quickly was, “Thank you, Dr. Ritcher. I appreciate everything you have given me here.” With a simple nod, Dr. Ritcher swept out of the room. I fell back into one of the big chairs around the table. Everything was going to change.