Transpara Stars

Two years ago, everything was normal. Our biggest threat was terrorists from foreign countries. We kept the information we needed in our cell phones. People actually continued aging after their twenty-fifth birthday.
We were free-willed human beings who lived in houses made of wood and stone and glass and metal, who lived for the next iPhone, who wasted their bodies and minds in a desperate attempt to survive and thrive.
That was before the Clones showed up.

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5. Chapter4

I slice through the aquamarine waves like a knife through butter, lifting my head every few seconds to catch my breath. Despite being Olympic-sized, the pool feels too small for this morning’s swim, and the burn on my neck complains at being stretched with my skin as I turn my head to breathe.

    The nice thing about the House pool is that there’s no chlorine keeping it clean, but an unknown chemical that doesn’t make eyes sting or turn hair green. I would never have to worry about my dark strands looking like dying grass, but being able to keep my eyes open is a relief.

    It’s because I can keep my eyes open that I always know when someone is watching me swim. Now, as I pop my head up for another gasp of air, I can see someone leaning against the wall near the door, watching silently.

    I can’t help scowling, and instead of staying up on the surface after kicking off of the wall, I dive down to the bottom of the pool, letting my belly brush against the turquoise transpara. Holographic fish dart around me, some occasionally swimming right through my limbs.

    I swim along the bottom until my lungs start to complain, then kick hard, shooting back up to the surface. I stroke to the edge of the pool and haul myself up onto the ledge, grabbing my towel. I swing my legs out of the pool and stand, wrapping the towel around me.

    “Is it breaking the rules to be here this early in the morning?”

    I jump, spinning. The person I saw watching me swim steps forward. It’s a guy, probably my age or slightly younger. His features are somewhat Asian, and his black hair falls over his dark eyes. I can see a few faded streaks of gold dye, probably left over from pre-Clone days.

    I straighten, pulling myself together and calming my jumping heart. “Technically, no. Curfew is 11pm to 5am, so...as long as I’m in the dining hall for breakfast by 7 and at my workstation by 8, there’s no problem. I do this every morning, and every night, too.” I explain.

    The guy nods. “I’m new here, so I don’t really know the rules.”

    My eyebrows knit together. “Well, they’re basically the same as any other Workhouse, so you should be fine.”

    He coughs awkwardly, looking down at his feet. “Um, actually...I’m...an RH? That’s what they called me. I’m kind of a rogue. Or I was, anyway. Then I got caught.”

    I gape at him. A Rogue human is a rare thing nearly two years after the Clones first showed up. The Clones were very thorough in rounding up everyone they could find, and made it so it would be nearly impossible for a human to survive without the aid of the Clones.

    I take a step towards him. “An RH? How did you survive this long?”

    “Um...I don’t really know, to be honest. Somehow, they never found my dad’s bunker, which was stocked with enough food to last through the first year. Then, when they started releasing people from the ships, I started searching for my parents. I never found them, but a young couple in their twenties found me, and I convinced them to hide me. I was there for about six months before the Clones finally figured out that there was an undocumented life force in the house and came to get me. And now I’m here.” He glanced up at me, then blushed slightly and swung his gaze back down to his feet.

    This kid was pretty shy after hiding for so long. I realized that it had probably been well over a year since he’d seen anyone around his age.

    “What’s your name?” I ask.

    He looks up again. “Um, the number thing that they gave me is CH10134.”

    I roll my eyes. “Okay, that’s good that you know your CH name. But what’s your real name?”

    “Oh! Um, James.”

    I squint at him. “You don’t look like a James. No offense.”

    “None taken, I get that a lot. My parents named me after some music guy, a singer or something.”

    I raise an eyebrow. “James Taylor?”

    He shakes his head. “No...something with an ‘H’. Hatfeld? I don’t know.”

    “James Hetfield?!” I gasp.

    “Yeah, that’s it! You know who he is?”

    “Was I just swimming in this pool? Yes, I know who he is! He’s the lead vocalist of Metallica! Or...well...he was, anyway. He’s probably gone now, like the rest of the adults.”

    His eyes widened with shock. “What? What happened to them?”

    Is there a way to break it to him kindly?    

    Not really, but I try my best. “Anyone over the age of twenty-five was killed on the ships. And...now, no one ever ages after they turn twenty-five. It’s some weird thing that the Clones did...I don’t know exactly why...but...everyone in here is an orphan. Some of us have older siblings, but no parents.”

    James gapes at me in shock and horror. His knees give out, and he falls to the floor. “Oh, God, no.” he whispers.

    I flinch when he says “God”. “You should avoid saying that.”

    He looks up, eyes wet. “Saying what?”

    “‘God’. It makes the Clones angry.”

    “But...I’m a Christian!”

    I look away. Having been an atheist before the Clones arrived, I never understood what it was like to be told that I couldn’t follow my religion anymore, that I couldn’t have faith. “They...don’t allow religion. If they catch you practicing, praying, or anything, you’ll be punished. I think they consider themselves as our gods.”

    He fingers his left earlobe, which I notice is pierced but empty. “So that’s why they took my earring...I was wearing a silver cross in my ear.”

    I nod, unable to say anything more.

    His face crumples, and he abruptly collapses onto his side, sobbing uncontrollably. After a short hesitation, I go to him, kneeling by his shaking form and wordlessly laying a comforting hand on his shoulder.



 

._._._.


 

    My team is waiting for me at our usual table, gazing down at their breakfast plates sadly. No one is eating, not even Finn.

    I lead James to the seat next to mine and set my tray down. He sits silently, eyes still slightly swollen. He doesn’t look very hungry, either, but he lifts a spoonful of cinnamon-dusted oatmeal to his mouth.

I turn to the team. “Hey, guys. I know you’re all still grieving, and I know we’re not working today, but we have to eat. Alec wouldn’t want us to just stare at our food and let it grow cold, he’d want us to actually eat it. So, come on, let me see some forks and spoons moving.”

For a long moment, nobody moves. Finally, Ruth picks up her fork and cuts into one of her waffles. She takes a bite and chews, looking around the table at everyone else. One by one, my teammates start to dig into their breakfast, until only Finn is left still staring at his plate with a blank expression on his face. I can tell that he won’t be as easy to talk to, so I leave him be.

“Alright, listen up, team. This is James,” I say after several minutes of silent chewing. James glances up, eyes flicking around to each face, then shyly focuses on his food again. I keep talking as the others gape at him. “He’s new to the Workhouse, totally new, and he doesn’t know the rules or have a team yet. So, he’s going to stay with us today, alright? Is that okay with everyone?”

Lila swallows and asks, “What do you mean by ‘totally new’?”

I glance at James, then reply in a low voice, “He was an RH.”

This gets everyone’s attention, and even Finn looks up briefly.

“An RH?!” Killian yelps. “Whoah. I didn’t think there were any left.”

“There probably aren’t now that I’m here.” James says quietly, surprising me. He looks up. “If there were others, I certainly didn’t see them.”

“How did you even stay rogue for this long?” Ruth wonders, eyes wide.

James tells the team the same story he told me, and I nibble on my toast as he speaks. Like my teammates, I’m not very hungry, but I have to stay strong.

“Wow.” Killian says once James is finished speaking. All around the table, the faces of my teammates are awed and impressed.

James looks down at his oatmeal. “It’s not that impressive.” he stammers. “I just hid in a bunker for a year. It’s not like I actually did anything noteworthy.”

“You survived as a rogue for more than a year.” Ruth points out. “Trust me, that’s pretty noteworthy.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, and a slight blush rose on James’ cheeks at the attention.

    “I bet you wish you were back out there.”

    I am startled by the sound of Finn’s voice, stretching over us from the end of the table. He looks up, gazing at James with eyes that are dark with anger and sadness. “I bet you wish you were still in your safe little underground hole, completely oblivious to the world above, blind to the fact that kids are orphans and slaves, and the few adults left are brainwashed zombies. I bet you wish you didn’t have to know that we’re so easy to replace, that if someone dies, their replacement is shipped in overnight and at their station like nothing happened. You wish you didn’t know that anything that could be rebellion is a cause for severe punishment, even when the so-called rebel is injured.

“Don’t you wish you didn’t know any of that?”

James gapes at Finn, eyes wide. After several seconds of silence, he replies, “No. I don’t. Because I’d rather know the truth than live in oblivion. I’d rather know that my parents are dead than live in fear of what happened to them. I’d rather know that I’m not the only human still alive than wonder if I’m all that stands between humanity and extinction. The knowledge hurts, but I’m glad to finally know the truth.”

Silence falls again.

A slow clap draws my attention to Ruth, who is applauding James’ speech with a somber expression on her face. “Once, I would have told you to preach it, man, preach it. But now, in this age of aliens instead of gods, I just say...brilliantly spoken, my friend. Brilliantly spoken.”


 

Just before breakfast ends, a guard shows up at our table requesting that my team and I be at the Star Room in an hour wearing our best clothes. We all look at each other as he walks away.

In an hour, we’ll be at Alec’s funeral.

We all go our separate ways to change, agreeing to meet up at the stairs outside the dorm halls. Once in the dorm room that I share with Lila and Ruth, I rifle through my side of the large closet full of Clone-made jeans and plain T-shirts until I find a cobalt blue dress with long flowy sleeves and silver threads woven through the silky blue material to make the fabric appear to be woven from the night sky. Lila and Ruth find similar dresses in their sections; Ruth’s is red with gold strands, while Lila’s is a deep purple with silver highlights.

    Once we’re all dressed, we help each other with hair. We decide to keep up the matching theme by giving each other the same hairstyle: a French braid, pulled over the right shoulder. Lila finds three makeup kits in the bathroom, but we all agree to stay make-up free.

    When we meet up with the guys, I’m surprised to see James with them, dressed in a an outfit similar to theirs: collared shirt and black slacks. He’s fidgeting with the collar of the shirt, which is the same color blue as my dress. His hand falls and his jaw drops when he sees me. His eyes briefly meet mine before he blushes and drops his gaze.

    “We all match.” Lila notices. We all look around at each other. It’s true. The boys are dressed in the same blue-red-purple color scheme as us, minus the silver and gold accent threads, and in pants instead of skirts.

    “Weird. Think she did that on purpose?” Killian asks.

    I shrug. “It wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Come on, we should get going. By the way, why is James here?”

    “Turns out he’s rooming with us. Looks like he’s our new teammate.” Killian says. There’s no bitterness on his face, no hate in his voice. He’s simply stating a fact. Finn, however, looks furious to be in the same company as Alec’s replacement. He remains silent, slouching in his wheelchair as Killian pushes him after the rest of us through the House’s winding halls.

    James ends up walking next to me; I’m surprised by how easily he matches my quick pace as he asks quietly, “New teammate?”

    “There was a fire yesterday. I went with a member of our team, Alec, to help Finn and his girlfriend get out. Alec...didn’t make it. We’re headed to his funeral now.”

    James sucks in a breath. “I didn’t know...I hope this is okay...that I’m coming...I found the outfit in my closet and guessed that I meant I was supposed to show up, too.”

    “It’s fine. Like Killian said, you’re part of the team now.”

    “Yeah. As a dead guy’s replacement.” James replies sadly.

    I don’t respond, and instead stop and let the rest of the team catch up.

    We’re standing outside the diamond-studded doors of the Star Room, which is the closest thing the Clones have to a church. Once my teammates have caught up, I give the doors a shove. They swing open silently, and I take a deep breath and lead the team inside.

    I hear James gasping as we enter. The Star Room is a stunning space to be in, with indigo walls that are studded with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and chunks of gold. Numerous staircases spiral towards the thirty-foot high ceiling, stopping eight feet short of the dark transpara. At the front of the room is an altar that shimmers in the light of dozens of candles.

    Resting on the altar is a coffin, carved out of ruby-red transpara.

    A holograph projector beams an image of Alec above the coffin. Somehow, the queen managed to dig up a photo from the old days, before the Clones. Alec is laughing at something, his face bright and happy and carefree. His bright green eyes sparkle with amusement.

    I look away, and I hear Lila stifling a sob behind me.

    Queen Kyrella stands to the side of the altar, watching as we approach. “Welcome, team MNCHT8. Today is a truly sad day for you, I know.”

    She looks at James, who is hovering hesitantly by my elbow. “I see you’ve met your new teammate, CH10134. And, yes, I did want him to be here for the funeral.” She gazes steadily at James, who looks down at the carpeted floor, hands clenched into nervous fists.

    Kyrella looks back at me and the rest of the team. “Now, may I?”

    I nod, and she turns to the coffin and raises her hands, motioning towards Alec’s holographic smile. “This young human soul, taken tragically yet heroically, died a death of courage, willing to sacrifice his life to save his teammates. He is worthy of a place among the stars, burning bright to be seen by all no matter how cloudy the skies. Let his soul shine for all eternity, and guide the paths of those who held him close to their hearts.”


 

    Once the funeral is over, we drift through the halls until we’re standing in front of the library doors.

    Before leaving the Star Room, everyone in the team took a candle from around the altar, each person choosing a different color. Kyrella was clearly confused, but she didn’t stop us, and silently motioned for a guard to follow us out of the room.

Now, as we stand in front of the doors, which are sealed shut to prevent anyone from entering, I step forward with a sky-colored candle in my hand. I kneel and set it in front of the doors. “I will never forget what you did, Alec. None of us will. I hope you’re happy wherever you are.”

Lila steps forward next, inky purple candle in hand.

One by one, each member of the team places a candle. Each person chose their favorite color, so everyone is represented clearly. Killian chose green, Ruth picked up crimson, and Finn selected a fiery orange.

James is the last to place a candle, and he does so hesitantly. His candle is blue, like mine, but a much darker shade, midnight. After he’s set his candle down, he stands and silently gazes at the collection of flames. “I never knew you, and I know I’ll never be as good as you were, but I promise I’ll do my best. I promise I won’t let you down.” he says softly, bowing his head. I can tell that he wants to pray, but he glances at the guard and steps back silently to rejoin the team.

We stand silently and watch as the wax pools on the ground and forms a multicolored puddle.

Kyrella’s guard looks on, a shadow over our shoulders to keep us in check.

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