CHAPTER 1 - Selection
Rioting people filled the screen. The camera closed in to focus on a pile of burning bodies. Ella recoiled in horror as she realised that some bodies were alive and screaming. The commentator’s voice was a detached monotone.
“Violent gangs are roaming the streets, murdering the sick. In a futile attempt at decontamination, bodies are being incinerated.”
The Net-screen now showed empty buildings and deserted streets. The droning voice continued.
“As more of the population become infected, places of work and recreation remain closed. Talks are ongoing to introduce a World-Wide transport ban.”
The screen changed again to show the well-known presidential buildings of Stetslaag.
“Our reporter in the capital spoke to president Linchoff earlier this morning...”
Ella looked for the control pad to switch off the screen but couldn’t find it in the jumble of papers and magazines littering the table. She went to get a drink, ignoring the panoramic screen. The Eastern troubles were far away, and her problems seemed closer and more pressing.
It was after midnight, and David still hadn’t come home. Ella lost count of the nights she had waited for him. Then there were nights he didn’t come home at all. She knew his work was important. His team worked around the clock. Her husband only came home to sleep. She thought there might be something more behind his reluctance to come home, though. She suspected something other than his work was keeping him away from his family. Their marriage held an undercurrent of unease that she had tried to gloss over. If it weren’t for the Venture, she was sure they would have parted by now. The offer of a better future for Ella and her three teenage children was the only concern to her these days. David’s absence from her life was a secondary issue that she shelved for the sake of peace and for the sake of their future.
She had considered he might be having an affair. His boss, Beverley Fischer, was a prime candidate. The Director of Genetics at Transgene was intelligent, beautiful, articulate, and single. In her mid forties, she made Ella, who was younger by five-years, feel inferior. Ella never wore makeup or visited a hairstylist. She preferred a natural look and wore her straight blonde hair in a simple braid. Beverley had the well-groomed look of a model, and carried herself with the natural elegance and the inner self-assurance of a career woman.
Ella could see the attraction for David in a woman like Beverley Fischer, but she had no proof of an affair, only her intuition. The state of communications in their marriage ruled out the possibility of confronting David with something he would have to deny to be accepted into the Venture.
She heard the door open, and David walked in looking tired, his dark hair dishevelled, with the shadow of a beard making his handsome face appealingly rugged.
“You still up?” he asked, stating the obvious and making it a question.
“I was waiting for you, we need to talk.” She went to fix him a drink.
“Just look at the state of this place!” David stared in disgust at the chaos. “What do you do all day, Ella? You could at least keep things organised around here.”
His tone suggested tiredness, and Ella knew through long experience that it wouldn’t be a good time to confront him, but she needed to know how he felt about the news.
“David, we received a mailing this morning, about the Venture,” she began, taking the crumpled printout from her jeans pocket, hoping to get his attention.
“Not tonight, Ella, please, can’t it wait? I’m going to bed.” He ran his hand through his hair, in the familiar gesture that told her he was agitated.
“David, we got a message from the medical board today. We really need to talk,” she insisted.
“Ella, I don’t need this right now. Just tell me if they said yes.”
“Yes, they said yes! So we have things to discus. Important things.”
“We can talk later.”
“When, David?” she cried. “When can you fit me in? I’m sick of waiting for you to find time for us.”
“That’s not fair, Ella, you know what I’m involved in. If we don’t find a cure soon, we’ll be overrun. It will reach here. They might stop people travelling, but the virus won’t recognise borders.” He was obviously trying to be patient with her.
“You’re so wrapped up in this damn virus you can’t see what’s happening to us, can you?” Her blue eyes blazed with anger.
“There are more important things than us in this world. God you’re so selfish, Ella!” His voice held contempt and fuelled her to even greater anger.
“I’m thinking about our children! Our future! Or are we dispensable in your version of the New Eden?” She was furious. She felt he didn’t care about his family anymore, or what would become of them if they didn’t make the final selection.
“I can’t deal with you when you’re like this!” he yelled, slamming the door on his way out, leaving her incensed.
She threw the drink in frustration, shattering the glass against the closed door.
Flopping on the couch, she held her head in her hands. Fighting back the tears, she told herself she must not get upset. Suffering his indifference for so long, she should be used to his careless treatment of her, yet it hurt to be classed as someone of no importance by the man she loved. It still left an empty ache inside her, to be shut out of his life.
The Net-screen was now broadcasting the local weather and air quality forecast. Ella sighed, seeing the red dots covering their side of the county, which meant another day indoors for the kids. Amy and Kelly became impossible when they were cooped up for long. For the last two days, there had been no ozone coverage. The hole was moving away now, according to the charts on the screen, but the next patch of industrial pollution was moving in. She groaned. The sooner they were selected, the better. They needed to get out of this hellhole of a world. A fresh start would be good for her marriage too. She switched off the set and started clearing the broken glass. She took her time, knowing that David would already be asleep.
The next morning Ella slept late. David had already left for the lab, and the bed seemed large and empty without him.
Sixteen-year-old Kelly stood by the bedroom door, leaning against the wall, rubbing sleep from her eyes with one hand, and tossing her untidy blonde hair over her shoulder with the other. “Are we going to school today, Mum?” she asked.
Ella sat up reluctantly. “No, love, it’s a red dot day. You can use the Net.”
Kelly turned to leave.
“Tell Amy not to go out to feed Freddie without her hat,” she called after her, knowing how forgetful her younger daughter could be.
They were all squabbling at the breakfast table when Ella entered the kitchen, still in her dressing gown.
“Aren’t you getting dressed today, Mum?” James asked her.
Ella couldn’t see the point. She wouldn’t be able to leave the house with the pollution dust drifting in the air. “Maybe later,” she answered vaguely, pushing the loose tangles of hair behind her ears and reaching to open the mail.
“Is that from the shrink?” Kelly asked, watching her opening the encrypted message on the view-mail screen.
“The analyst, Kelly,” Ella corrected her daughter. “Yes it is!” She smiled at them. “Looks like we got the okay from them too.”
“Great!” chorused the girls “We’re going to be settlers. We’re going to be set – tel – ers…” sang Amy, to the tune of a current pop song.
“We’re going to New Eden. I can’t wait.” Kelly sprang to her feet in excitement.
“Sit down and finish your breakfast,” Ella told her.
“Does that mean we’ve been selected, Mum?” James asked quietly, searching his mother’s face with eyes that could have been his father’s.
Ella continued to scan the message. “Not quite,” she said, still reading. “The board of selectors still has to analyse all our data and make up their minds about us.”
“I hope we can go so Dad doesn’t have to fight the virus anymore,” Amy spluttered through a mouth full of breakfast cereal.
“Don’t speak with your mouth full, Amy,” Ella said absently as she flicked through the pages on screen.
“He doesn’t fight the virus, silly,” Kelly told her with all the superiority of an older sister. “He’s looking for a cure for it.”
“He’s actually analysing the genetic code of the virus, so an anti-virus can be formulated,” James explained patiently.
“Know it all!” Kelly hissed at him.
“I know more than you do!” he snapped back.
“Know it all,” joined in Amy.
“Baby!” James called her.
“Mum, tell him not to call me that, I’m fourteen and it’s time he treated me like an adult!” she yelled.
“I would if you’d act like one!” James yelled back at her, sounding like David.
“Stop it, all of you!” Ella said firmly. “Go and tune in your Net-Sets, and get on with your home-study.”
“Can I feed Freddie first?” asked Amy.
“Yes if you’re quick,” she said, thinking they would have to re-home the rabbit if they were selected.
“Don’t forget your hat, Amy,” she called as she heard the door open.
“No, Mum,” Amy yelled.
Thank goodness they’d passed the tests set by the analyst board. With all the strain on their marriage, Ella was sure the cracks would show. They’d bluffed their way through, showing a happy family face. Only stable, well-adjusted families were considered for selection. Ella felt a twinge of conscience but was pleased they had managed to pull it off. Her medical history had been a worry too. Her third child had been stillborn at four months into the pregnancy, and awkward questions had been asked. David’s position at the lab had ensured that the cause of the baby’s death was kept from the selection committee. He’d had the baby’s body analysed in secret at the time, thank goodness, so the records didn’t show the genetic malformation. Ella had been screened when she learned she was expecting Amy, again by David’s lab, secretly. Everything was normal and the pregnancy was allowed to continue.
Having to hide the truth from the medical board was a worry. They could have checked more thoroughly, but thankfully didn’t. If they had found evidence of genetic deformity in her records, she wouldn’t have passed. Only perfect individuals could go. If Ella had failed, the whole family would have been rejected. Somehow, she knew they would pass this hurdle, as surely as she knew she was meant to go to New Eden.
She pressed the print key to get a hard copy of the selection message.
Amy came into the kitchen batting the fine grey dust from her clothes.
“Amy, don’t do that in here!” Ella shouted. “Go into the detox room and take those clothes off. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Sorry, Mum,” she muttered, backing out of the room, retreating from her mother’s wrath.
Ella began to clear the table. She paused to look out of the window. The grey dust hung in the air like a fine mist. It already coated the plants she had been encouraging to grow in the garden. The beans hadn’t survived the last episode of heavy fallout. She reached up and turned on the air filtration system.
She felt claustrophobic, and it made her impatient. She used to dream of the freedom to take a walk in the open air whenever she wanted to. Now this possibility was almost in her grasp. Hope was all that kept her sane these days. She hoped for a better future for the children and hoped to salvage her marriage in New Eden. The Eden Venture was the one bright beacon in her life. She turned from the gloomy view and began the chores.
Three weeks later the message arrived. The heading was marked, ‘Ministry of International Affairs.’ It was one of the rare mornings that David was home for breakfast.
Ella was impatient. “Open it,” she insisted. “What are you waiting for?”
David took his time pressing the decoding keys. Ella could understand his hesitation. This message would determine how the rest of their lives would be lived. Kelly, Amy, and James had led such sheltered lives, knowing only the security of their provincial hometown. Their future would be full of uncertainty if the mailing contained the news that Ella hoped for.
With shaking hands, Ella reached for David’s arm and glanced around the table. James was wary, hiding behind a stony-faced mask. Kelly, old for her sixteen years, had her arm around Amy, drawing her close, her blonde hair a stark contrast with the younger girl’s dark curls. Their future lay in the pressing of a key. If they were selected, they would go, leaving all things familiar, to take a risk on a better future in an alien place. If they were rejected, they would stay, and face the predictable future. A future filled with illness, famine, inevitable war, and early death by any of those imminent threats.
Everything depended on the contents of the mailing. David hit the key and they watched the message being decoded on screen. Slowly the message emerged. “Do we go or do we stay?” David lifted his eyes to meet Ella’s briefly before he turned back to scroll the information. He read aloud, “The Federation of Counsellors are pleased to inform you...”
Ella cheered. “I knew it! I knew we would be going!”
James dashed from the room. Kelly tightened her hold on Amy, who whimpered, “Are we going?”
“Yes, Amy.” David went to hug his daughters. “We’re going next week to the assimilation station.”
“Where’s that?” asked Kelly.
“Half a day’s drive away. It’ll be like a holiday camp, with Mum and me there too.”
Outside, Ella found her seventeen-year-old son by the rabbit house. She resisted the temptation to ruffle his hair. Her tall, gawky son would not appreciate such a show of affection.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, James. What’s going on in that head of yours?”
James kept his head down and mumbled, “I don’t know.”
“Aren’t you even a little excited?” she asked the back of his neck.
“No,” his voice was hoarse.
Ella knew her son was fighting tears, and ached to put her arms around him, but knew he would be embarrassed by her concern.
“We’re all afraid, darling,” she said gently.
He looked at her then, his dark eyes brimming. “Really?” he asked. “You too?”
“Of course, who wouldn’t be?” she tried to reassure him.
“And you still want us to go?” he asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” she said firmly. Taking his hand, she led him into the shade. “James, you don’t know a world any different from this one.” She looked around at the wretchedness of her garden. “Imagine being able to stay out in the sunshine and be safe. Think how wonderful it would be to swim in a clean ocean. Even walking in the rain can be breathtaking.” Her voice sounded wistful as she remembered her childhood, a time when pollution was tolerable with care.
“Will we really be able to do all that?” He obviously found it difficult to believe.
“We hope we will.” She wanted to be honest with him. “If the information from the probes is correct, and there’s no reason to doubt them. If we manage to get there.”
“There are a lot of if’s in this, Mum.” He sounded worried.
“You’re right, but if we stay, there is only certainty, you know that.”
“I know, Mum, but if they could find the anti-virus, and if they could clean the atmosphere. If the peace talks don’t break down again, then we wouldn’t have to go.”
“If they could achieve all that, it wouldn’t be in my lifetime, or yours.” She wished he could see things from her point of view. “What if you had children, James? Wouldn’t you want to give them the best future you could? Wouldn’t you want them to grow up healthy and strong and free?” She tried to make him understand how important this move was to them all.
“I suppose so,” he admitted reluctantly.
He sucked in his lower lip that threatened to tremble. “I’m still afraid, Mum, what if —.”
She cut him off. “James, we can’t possibly cover all the what if’s.’’
“How can I stop being frightened, Mum?” he asked, struggling to keep his emotions in check.
She drew him into her arms then, and he stooped to bury his face on her shoulder.
“I can’t tell you that, darling.” She reached to stroke his dark hair. “Try to think of the positive things. That’s what I do. Next week when we go to the assimilation camp, they’ll tell us more about it. Maybe you’ll feel better when you start the re-settlement programme.”
“Will it be like school?” he asked, lifting his face from her shoulder, to look down into her eyes.
“I think so,” she said, and then smiled and added, “But I’m sure it’ll be much more fun.”
“Fun? How come?” He was obviously sceptical.
“Oh, there’ll be lots of things to learn about and new people to make friends with. It will all be new to your Dad and me too. We’ll have to learn how to survive in a new, wild place. We’ll have to learn how to hunt and grow food and build shelters.”
“Wow, will I be able to go fishing? That’s hunting isn’t it?”
“That’s the spirit.” This time she did try to ruffle his hair, but he ducked out of reach. “Let’s go back inside and read the message again.” She reached for his hand, and together they went back into the home that they would soon leave behind.