“Wake up, Aniya.” My eyelids flutter open to see my mother sitting on the edge of my bed, gently shaking me awake.
“What time is it?” I say groggily.
“You have two hours until the ceremony.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Her eyes are puffy and red, like she’d been crying before she came to wake me up. I know this day is always hard for her, having lost her sister and husband to the rocket. I don’t think she could bare to lose me too. I give her a long hug, hoping to reassure her with my touch. After the embrace, I hurry off to get ready.
We call it the Maotna Polos, meaning ‘The Death of an Innocent’ My father told me. In past lives, December 31st was a celebrated holiday, symbolizing a new beginning. Now it portrays an entirely different meaning.
For the past fifty years Earth has been a slave to Zokia, a celestial being from a neighboring universe. Zokia survives by feeding on the energy of his captors and demands an annual sacrifice. So, every year on December 31st, a name is drawn. The unlucky candidate is then stuffed in a rocket and shipped off to the Moon where Zokia resides. They never come back. Last year, a toddler named Billy Regan was drawn. His parents wept as the pod launched. The year before that, an old woman named Agnes Muffin was sent.
Three years ago, it was my father.
Seven minutes later, I’m standing in my bedroom staring down at my Maotna Polos uniform. Girls under the age of thirteen get a pleated skirt and boys a pair of dress shorts. Both wears long white socks. At the beginning of a child’s fourteenth year, the girls are gifted a white blouse and grey skirt past the knees. Gray ballet flats replace the black Mary Jane’s they wore during their childhood. Boys receive a button up shirt and a larger size of slacks.
Since I’ve just passed my fourteenth birthday, my Maotna Polos clothes are clean and flawless. Never worn before and smelling of newness. A shiver of pleasure wriggles up my spine as I slip the starched fabric over my bare skin. I twist my hair into the customary bun at the back of my head and step out of my room.
Mom is standing in front of a cracked mirror leaning against a stained wall in the space that serves as our multipurpose room. There’s an old, sagging couch squatting in a corner. Blankets and crumbs decorate its already stained surface, and there are indents where we sit. An uneven table, rickety chairs, and a kitchenette take up the other half of the room.
“Hey Mom.” She turns from her reflection to look at me.
“Oh Aniya,” she gasps, coming to me. “You are radiant.” I smile sheepishly and smooth out my skirt. She too is beautiful; the uniform hanging off her body in a way that highlights her figure. Her Honey-gold curls are tied in the same fashion as mine, though my thick dark hair resembles that of my father.
“We don’t have a lot of time, Mom.” I glance at the rusty clock siting above our threshold. 7:43. Only seventeen minutes. Where had the time gone? We step out the door and into the street, joining the throng of people also headed to the launch pad.
Someone taps me on the shoulder and I turn to see who it is.
“Gotcha again, A.” I roll my eyes and swivel around to see the culprit. Jakin McCall waits for me, a pleased expression on his face.
“Had it ever occurred to you that maybe I continue to fall for the trick purposefully so you can raise your self-esteem?”
His face falls in mock disappointment and I give him a friendly shove. Jakin and I have been friends since we met in the fifth grade, and every day he plays the same trick.
“You nervous?” I ask, my tone suddenly becoming serious.
“Same.” Just like me, Jakin had lost someone he loved to the rocket. His sister went just before my father, and she was sixteen years old. Being only ten, he had practically idolized her and was heartbroken when she was sent.
We walked in silence for the rest of the trip. I gave Mom a brief hug as we separated into our required age groups, and stood with Jakin and the rest of our class.
The crowd was silent as Sector Elder walked up on the stage. He was tall and broad, giving him the appearance of a military official. His silvery hair was combed neatly and slicked back away from his face, reveling eyes filled with age and intensity. But despite his intimidating appearance, Sector Elder was a gentle and fair man. He had lost his wife Mallory to the ships.
“Greetings, my fellow people.” His deep voice boomed over the loudspeakers and swept over the audience like a magic spell. “Another year had passed and so it was now time for another brave soul to be sent and appease Zokia.” He paused, looking deeply into the crowd as if searching for someone. “Hansen, the Choosing Box.”
From the left of the stage came a small man carrying a large black box. The heavy lid was padlocked shut to keep out citizens desperate enough to tamper with their name slip inside. Hansen placed the box on the table in front of Sector Elder and hurried away. Without another word, the older man produced a key from his jacket pocket and inserted it into the lock ceremoniously.
“And now for this year’s rocketeer,” Sector Elder withdrew a single slip of paper and unfolded it. “Aniya Pimberly,”
I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I can’t process anything other than that name. My name. I think. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Jakin, pulling me out of my daze and back to this world.
“Aniya?” I look into Jakin’s eyes, dark green and full of concern.
“It’s okay, Jakin.” I force myself to take a few deep breaths. “Tell my mom that I love her.”
“I will.” We embrace and I relish the feel of his arms around me. Eventually, I pull away and make my way to the stage. I don’t allow myself a look back, knowing it will only make me burst into tears.
“Aniya,” Sector Elder reaches out to me as I near him. “Thank you for giving the rest of us one more year.” I nod numbly and swallow the tears rising in my throat.
“You need to go.” He says, handing me over to a pair of guards. Then I am led away from my mother, from Jakin, from everything I’ve ever known. My only consolation is that I will soon be with my father again.
“Please step in here, Miss.” A woman gestures toward the open pod prepped to take me to my death. For the past two hours I’d been poked and prodded my medical professionals. Shots were inserted in every place imaginable, lights shone up my nose, eyes, and ears, and samples of skin, hair and urine were taken.
“Excuse me,” I had asked one of the doctors. “But why do you need all this stuff from me if I’m just going to be dead in matter of hours?”
“Because you won’t be dead in a matter of hours,” he replied curtly.
“I won’t?” I echoed. “But I thought Zokia was going to feed off my energy.” The man didn’t reply, only chuckled like I had just said the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.
Now I’m dressed in a fitted green jumpsuit, awaiting the fate that had haunted so many.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I ask the lady next to the pod. “How long will it take to get to Zokia?” She fidgets uncomfortably, obviously not sure how to answer the question. This as exactly what I predicted.
“I’m not sure miss.” She’s not meeting my gaze and I know something’s going on they haven’t told me. “Why don’t you just step into the pod?”
I react before I can think about the consequences, taking the woman by surprise and knocking her into the opening of the chute. As soon as I see her slip I take off, running the other direction down a long corridor.
Okay, Aniya, I think to myself. That was very, very, VERY stupid, but there’s no backing out on it now. You’ve got to think.
I stop my frantic sprint and take in the surroundings, searching for a place to hide. After surveying my limited options, I finally wedge my slight frame between two large fuel tanks. It’s definitely a tight fit, but I am concealed from prying eyes.
Before too long though, my legs start to cramp up and my back begins to ache. I shimmy my way to the opening of my refuge and peer around the corner, checking to see if the cost is clear. Two guards are coming my way, but they’re to engrossed in each other’s conversation to notice me and I duck back under cover.
“You know, Stanley,” one says. “Sometimes I wonder why we work for these people.”
“Don’t let them catch you saying stuff like that here, Frank.” Stanley replied.
“Why?” He combats. “What will they do? Feed me to Zokia?” He says that last sentence with obvious sarcasm.
“Oh, come off it, Frank.” The guard named Stanley said, annoyed. “You don’t really buy that crap, do you?”
“Of course not! Everyone knows that Zokia’s not really a supernatural captor.”
What’s he talking about? I think to myself.
“Speaking of Zokia, did that girl get sent to the facility?”
The facility? What facility?
“I can’t believe that all those people out there actually believe all that crap about Zokia! They just willingly send their families over there to be experimented on like lab rats! I mean, no one’s even questioned the authenticity of the lie.” I feel faint at the guard’s words. Experimented on? Does that mean that all of those people we supposed were dead, Jakin’s sister, Sector Elder’s wife, my father, were all alive? My breathing comes in ragged chunks as my mind struggles to comprehend the things I’ve just heard. My heart is beating so loud I’m afraid the guards might hear it.
Soon they move on, carrying their conversation with them. I crawl out of the nook I was hiding in and take a few deep breaths.
After some contemplation, I decide to follow the direction of the guards, hoping that if I stayed just out of sight they would lead me past an exit of some sort.
After utilizing this method for some time, I come by an exit. The metal door is ominous but clearly marked, but I hesitate before pushing the metal bar that would save me.
I think about my father and everyone else sent to that experimental facility over the years. I can’t just leave all those people to be poked and prodded like I almost was. Then my thoughts turn to my mother and Jakin and everyone else back home who are mourning me because they believe that I, along with many others, have been sacrificed and have perished at the hand of our ‘captor’. How can I leave them like that, suffering and living in fear? An alarm starts to wail and the corridor around me is bathed in flashing red light. They must’ve found the lady stuffed in the pod.
I know my window of opportunity is closing, and I begin to panic. Too many things to consider and too much at stake.
I’ll just go free, I tell myself. Then I can go back to the sector and tell the truth about our lost loved ones. Then we can band together and reclaim those who were taken! I place my palms against the door that stands between me and freedom. But, once again, I hesitate. Who am I kidding? That would never work. They’d run me down before I even got on the road. And I know I couldn’t just leave Father after just finding out he was alive.
I turn from the door. I can’t leave. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I know I’ll try. And as I head off into the depths of the institute, all I can think about is the look on my father’s face when I see him again.