The Rule of One Page 2

Our father’s status allows us to live in the city’s outer ring, designed for the privileged class. This grants us the luxury of slightly better air quality and the rare advantage of being able to call a piece of land our own. Most of the populace live crammed on top of one another in gigantic billboard-laden skyscrapers, the incessant advertisements from neighboring towers flashing into their windows day and night. Their lives are spent fighting each other for more space, more resources, more everything. Neighbor will kill neighbor over a new pair of shoes. There’s never enough of anything to go around.

A mass of cyclists whips past me, weaving through the commuters that crowd the broad avenue leading downtown. Mira and I rarely, if ever, leave the Trinity Heights district; the university is a safe mile up the road from our house. Every day one of us spends an hour walking to and from school, eight hours in the classroom, and the rest of the evening completing coursework and relaying the details of another repetitive day to each other before we separate and go to bed. One of us in the basement, one of us in the upstairs bedroom we call “Ava’s room.” Wake up and the other repeats. Our days are miserably reliable and monotonous.

I stare at my feet, studying the faded lines on the pavement that was once solely utilized for vehicle traffic. To stimulate my mind I try to imagine the noises and smells of what a fifty-car traffic jam used to be like, when a loud honk blares on a connecting road ahead. It’s as if my imagination—minus the forty-nine other cars, but still worth my attention—manifests itself right in front of me for my own entertainment. No one takes note of the lone car hopelessly attempting to cross through the endless mob but me.

The army of walkers pushes me closer to the car, and I peer through the tinted windshield to see a richly dressed businesswoman talking loudly to herself, presumably leading some meeting she is late for. The air-conditioning blasts her hair around her face like she’s caught in a picturesque windstorm. It’s old-fashioned and perfectly psychotic to commute to work in a private vehicle. The only reason anyone uses a car in the pedestrian-congested city is to wave their prosperity flag pompously to the masses.

I hate inefficiency. Traffic jams must have been an infuriating waste of time. I shake my head, wipe my sweating brow, and continue my own short commute to school by foot. My preferred method of travel.

As I penetrate another half mile into the city, it’s hard to see the sky at all, with tower after looming tower dominating the horizon. A sign of progress, the government says. A sign of power. The sky is not enough—we will have to keep building up, up, up and conquer space itself before we will ever be satisfied.

I reach campus five minutes behind schedule and take a shortcut through the Great Lawn, passing the statue of Stephen F. Austin holding a massive Texas flag high above his head. The air is dead and windless, but the Father of Texas would never be allowed to wave a limp flag, especially in his adoptive capital. Hidden air currents blow underneath the lone-starred cloth, producing elegant red, white, and blue ripples that welcome students onto campus.

Strake University is one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges; great things are expected of you if you walk its hallowed halls. When the Family Planning Policy—known to the public for what it really is, the Rule of One—passed into law, the ideology of American society shifted dramatically. No more living for oneself; the American independent spirit is dead. We live now for the family. There’s just one chance for parents to make their only child a success, to carry on their name with pride and accumulate an income large enough to provide for the aging generations who will rely on their support. Because of this, adolescence has become a cutthroat competition, and Strake offers the appropriate training to compete in an overpopulated world where the weak do not last long.

I’m surrounded by thousands of students dressed in the same white linen uniform as I am, identical except for the strips of color that identify which placement level each student tested into. Although Mira and I are only eighteen, we’ve been placed in the most advanced rank of sophomore year, entitling us to the color purple. Flashes of the various tiers race across the lawn: purple, blue, red, green, and the lowest, yellow. What rank you graduate with determines the rest of your life. A purple diploma lays the world at your feet.

I make a swift right toward the eastern side of the quadrangle and observe that most of my peers have color-coded umbrellas covering their prudently coiffed heads, either to block out the Texas heat or to shield themselves from the prying surveillance cameras that line every corner.

I arrive at my destination, Tower Hall. Before I enter the ivy-covered building, I quickly close my own umbrella and turn on my smile in anticipation of the Facial Recognition System scanners.

The unavoidable surveillance cameras inspect every person entering any building on campus. The cameras can sweep through a crowd of a thousand people and know in an instant if a face doesn’t belong there. No need to scan individual wrists for security—that only happens if you draw attention to yourself.

In the corner of the entrance hall, a uniformed Texas State Guard scrutinizes the system’s monitors. I peer at the screens as the cameras connect my face with my name, which is programmed in the database. “Ava Goodwin—Approved” flashes across the monitor, and I mentally send out a small thanks to the universe that Mira and I share identical features.

Two sharp bells ring from the speakers, and I dutifully fall in line with the crowd that leads into the main hall.

Choirmaster Dashwood paces up and down a raised platform, his arms fervidly moving to the music as if possessed. He leads the mass of students—we only vaguely deserve to be called a choir—with a passionate focus that I find admirable. My own heart slightly racing, I close my eyes tight as I sing the slow, impassioned song, not needing the large hologram projection that broadcasts the lyrics.

Mira and I grew up watching hologram recordings Father gave to us of our mother singing at her piano. Sometimes he’d watch with us, sitting on the floor and leaning against our twin bed in the basement, captivated as our mother performed a private concert. The four of us, together, a secret family that can only exist inside a basement.

I’ve memorized everything about her—she seems so real in them. As children we became obsessed with music, less out of a desire to mimic what our mother loved and more out of a need to be closer to her. That longing ache of desperately wanting something I never actually had in the first place, I’m learning, is the pain of true disappointment.

“And move to the chorus. Louder!”

I sense a change in the room and crack my eyes open to find Halton entering the doorway. His carriage not quite straight, his gawky shoulders nevertheless yearn to be elegant underneath his impeccably neat white uniform with its bold purple line slashed across his body. His dark hair has a slight oily sheen to it, although I’m certain he washed it this morning. Despite all his attempted grandeur, he can’t keep his real self from seeping out.

He walks irritatingly slow, taking his time, knowing his tardiness will go unremarked.

The choir continues to sing while he finds his place next to me, forcing another student to slide down the riser. His bodyguard, Special Agent Hayes, falls in line beside him, attempting to blend into the choir by wearing a school uniform. Mouth firmly closed, the middle-aged man isn’t fooling anyone.

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