The inner ring is beautiful. Well, perhaps beautiful is the wrong word. It is very intense, very bright. It is clean, shockingly clean. Everything from the architecture to the people is perfect. The middle rings are fine at first. In the first middle ring, the only real difference is the new inclusion of color into the clothing and buildings.
It starts subtly at first, this addition of color, but it is still refreshing after the eye-watering white of the inner ring. As one begins to go further into the middle rings, one will see a less desirable way of life. Then comes the outer ring. Dirt seems to cover every surface, and children cry, left homeless, beaten, and bloody on the streets. There is an ever-growing darkness surrounding the world, and shadows have faces.
Aurora advises those born and allowed to stay in the inner ring should not leave. If they must, they are advised to stay within the first part of the middle ring. Aurora calculates that upon seeing the outer ring, those from the inner ring could be traumatized.
Aurora reminds every citizen that all are where they are meant to be. The mandatory testing allows the system to work and always will. Aurora will also take the time to remind the people that the Midnight Congregation does this because they care about their citizens. The walls were built for a reason.
The United Sector of North America has lived in this system for nearly one hundred years. Following Aurora’s creation in what was formerly known as Canada, the Midnight Congregation rose to power. With the help of the world-famous AI, they were able to unite a continent. Eventually, the Midnight Congregation spread its beautiful ideas to the rest of the world.
The United Sector of North America is still the most desired place to live. The other world sectors were still new. They were young. People living in the most excellent parts who had grown up in poverty. Dr. Aya Seif is one of those people. She distinctly remembers her life before the Midnight Congregation came to her home in Egypt.
Aya remembers being poor. She remembers lying awake at night, crying from hunger. She remembers her mother's tears every day about not being able to provide for her children. She remembers her brother’s death. She recalls no one caring.
When Aya and her mother received their testing, Aya was labeled a genius. Her mother was not. She was given a chance to say goodbye before she was taken to the European United Sector for schooling. She instantly found a specialty in medicinal practices and spent years studying to become a neurosurgeon.
After several years, Aya’s revolutionary work in the field had made her famous and put her on the Midnight Congregation’s radar. She was invited to come to the United Sector of North America and live in the inner ring. Under the condition that she joined a top-secret project. Operation Augustus.
Aya joined a team of world-famous scientists, doctors, and programmers to work towards creating an Aurora implant, a chip. If done successfully, it would be entered into a part of the brain where it would be able to interact with the intricate nervous system.
Aurora’s system was incredibly complex. It has been spread so far throughout the world and has had many upgrades. The hardware was constantly changing, evolving into the system they all knew.
It took five years of work, and many lost hope before the group completed the chip. A programmer named Amber Barnes was the one to figure it out finally. Then came the hard part—the implant being able to interact with the brain successfully. Aya was the first one to implant an animal test subject successfully.
The group was ecstatic. Due to their success, the Midnight Congregation would allow them all to stay in the United Sector of North America instead of sending them back. Aya was thrilled at the thought of staying there instead of returning to the European United Sector.
Then she learned the cost.
The Midnight Congregation wanted them to move forward with human experimentation, which was still years away as far as the group was concerned. The group deliberated for months before they told the Midnight Congregation that they had to run more tests. The very night they told the Midnight Congregation no, Amber pulled Aya aside.
“They don’t care,” Amber insisted. “Dr. Seif, you have to realize this. They don’t care about it being safe. They just want it done. They want to control us.”
“You should not say such things,” Aya responded nervously. “They are not true.”
“Aren’t they? I’m past being careful. I’m so tired of it. All of it. I won’t stay here much longer.”
“You wish to leave the inner ring? Why?” Aya asked, genuinely confused. The inner ring was a perfect society.
“You want to stay?” Amber asked, just as confused. “We don’t have freedom here. We can’t even choose our clothing. We-”
“Amber,” Aya hissed, trying and failing not to look into one of Aurora’s cameras that surrounded them. “You clearly are not thinking straight.”
“But I am Aya. I am. For the first time, I’m speaking my mind. Here, we can’t say what we want or do what we believe. We can barely even think. If this project succeeds, we’ll lose all sense of freedom.”
“Freedom,” Aya scoffed, “it’s such an American way of thinking. The old America. Freedom doesn’t work. Here, they watch and separate us to keep us safe. We are free because of this.” Aya’s voice softened. “Amber, you grew up in the United Sector of North America. In the nicest of the middle rings. You have only ever known this peace. I know what life is like without the Midnight Congregation. They care about us. They protect us.”
“Only because you and I are deemed worthy of protecting,” Amber argued. Aya bit her lip, Amber’s words swimming in her head.
“If you feel this way,” Aya said slowly, “why did you help us?”
“I had to. They... I had to .”
Aya wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this. She was shocked at Amber’s behavior. They had been working together for almost a year now and had become well, not friends exactly, but friendly. Aya didn’t have friends. People regarded her as strange. She still carried a thick Cairo accent from her childhood; it was just known that she wasn’t from the United Sector of North America. But she had started to think of Amber Barnes as somewhat of a friend.
“Amber, I believe that-”
“Ah, Dr. Seif, Ms. Barnes. There you two are.” Aya bowed her head down to Councilman Zindo Grove of the Midnight Congregation. Amber kept her head up in defiance. “Ms. Barnes, the car you ordered is here.”
“I didn’t order a car. But I am happy as always to oblige you, Councilman.” Amber walked away, and Aya had a pit of dread in her chest over what would happen to her.
“Dr. Seif, if I may, I would like a word with you?”
Aya nodded, knowing she didn’t have a choice. Grove led her to a waiting car, and they sat in silence before reaching one of the council buildings. He led her inside to his office. Aya had managed to shake her dread by this time and put on a smile.
When you leave us, they will look for weakness. You must be strong no matter what.
With her mother’s last words to her ringing in her ears, Aya plastered a smile and made eye contact with her councilman. She didn’t know much of Grove in particular. Aya didn’t care much for politics, but Aurora’s daily news announcements led her to tell that Grove was very influential. And not to be messed with.
“Dr. Seif, your work on Operation Augustus has been remarkable.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Do you know where the name Augustus comes from?”
“Hmm. I would suppose not with your... upbringing.” Aya bristled at the remark before putting her smile back on. “Augustus was the first emperor of Rome thousands of years ago. You do know of the Holy Roman Empire, do you not?”
“I know they made many great scientific advances, but I do not know much else,” Aya confessed. Schooling, as well as Aurora’s testing, showed Aya’s skills lay in medicine. Her studies were focused on sciences and mathematics.
“Rome was not always an empire. It was a republic once. Until Augustus, that is. He untied Rome and spread its borders. They had control of your home actually, in former Egypt.”
“My home is here,” Aya responded immediately.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Grove said, waving his hand dismissively. “Your birthplace then. He was a great man. A smart leader. In most ways. He called Rome the eternal city.”
“All things seem eternal until they are over,” Aya whispered, thinking of her older brother.
“A wise thought Dr. Seif. Rome did fall eventually. All empires did, and democracy reigned supreme. The issue was that many people drawn to politics were not suited for it. Aurora can tell who belongs in what profession. In what ring.”
“Yes. It is a great blessing.”
“It is.” Grove paused and stared at her. Aya shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. “I am no fool. I know you believe that it is too early to begin on human subjects. I know that you will, however. In fact, I have already found you a test subject. She volunteered quite happily.”
He nodded at his desk, and the screen covering it showed Amber, asleep or maybe unconscious, lying on a surgery table.
“No. She would never-”
“But she did, Dr. Seif. Unless you are questioning me, I would suggest you prep for surgery. The OR is ready for you.”
Aya closed her mouth and obeyed. She was led away from his office. Aya prepped and walked into the operating room, hating how clean it was. Every building, article of clothing, vehicle, and so much more in the inner ring was a blinding white. The citizens didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Aya performed better in that surgery than ever before. The implant was a success, and Amber would recover nicely. Aya stayed by her side as Amber slept for the next few hours, holding her almost friend’s pale hand in her dark one. Amber finally woke and looked over at Aya.
“What...” her eyes widened as she heard the voice in her head.
Hello Amber Barnes. I am your new Aurora implant. Please let me know how I can be of assistance.
“No. Aya, please tell me you didn’t.”
“I’m sorry. I... I had no choice.” Amber took her hand from Aya’s and rubbed the back of her head, where she felt the lump from the implant and begin to cry. “Amber I-”
“Get out! Get out of here! It’s not fair!” Amber yelled, tears streaming down her face. "It's not fair." She repeated in a softer voice, shaking her head.
“No! You were my friend Aya! I trusted you!”
Aya ran out, trying to blink away her tears. She rented a self-driving car and had it take her to the wall dividing her and the rest of the inner ring from the world.
“I calculate that you should not leave the inner ring while under this level of emotional distress.” Aya cringed at Aurora’s voice. Of course, she thought glumly; Aurora was the one driving the car.
“I wish to go to the outer ring. Not just the outermost of the middle ones. I want to go to the outer ring.”
“Very well. Please sign the dashboard. The Midnight Congregation cannot promise your safety when you leave the inner ring. The middle rings are moderately safe, but the outer-”
“Aurora, silence. I wish to proceed without your input.”
The rest of the ride was indeed silent. There were four sections of the middle rings. They begin to get worse as Aya passed through them slowly. She had never been so happy to see color. At first, it was soft, mostly grays. By the last section, there was color everywhere, not a single white shirt or building.
Aya knew she stood out terribly in her self-driving car and blindingly white outfit, but she didn’t care. She closed her eyes and waited to enter the outer ring.
The outer ring was by far the biggest, and while there was a wall separating it from the middle rings, no wall contained it. It stretched for miles. Aya had the car drive until they were at the coast. She tried not to focus on the horrors she saw on the way.
There was a testing center here. They always had them by the water. Aya remembered the Nile and allowed herself a small, genuine smile. The guards stationed at the testing center walked to her car, clearly not from the outer ring. Aya showed them her credentials, and they escorted her in. She meets with the director, and after a gasp from him over Dr. Aya Seif being there, she was allowed to watch the testing.
All children were tested when they were ten years old and were kept in their ring or sent to a new one depending on their results. Aya herself was thirteen, but only because the African Sector was one of the last to come into the Midnight Congregation’s control. Aya watched as the machines scanned the brains of the children. They were given many actual tests after the brain mapping scans.
Aya left the testing center and walked to the drop-off point. Parents hugged their children and told them to do their best. Aya knew if any of these kids were found to be special, they would never see their parents again. She thought of her mother and looked away. She saw the children walk in and heard Aurora’s voice filling the building.
“Welcome to the United Sector of North America’s Outer Ring Testing Center. Please remain calm. The testing process is daunting and requires much energy. But you are safe here.”
Aya closed her eyes, knowing the rest of the words. The lies that she heard every day. The words that she believed only a day ago.
“Do not fear your results. All people are worthy in our society. All people have their place. Do not fear your results. After today, you will be where you are meant to be.”
Oh, how twenty-four hours can change a life. The first time twenty-four hours changed her life was when her brother died. The second set of twenty-four hours pulled a young Egyptian girl out of poverty into the world’s nicest known place.
“Do not fear your results. This is how we achieve freedom.”
This was the third time. It showed Aya that her mother was right in not trusting the United Sector of North America.
“Do not fear your results.”
That Aurora was invasive. Aurora was not a helpful AI. It was a parasite. Aya opened her eyes and saw a young child being put into a car while his parents screamed and tried to grab him. He was special, just like her.
“The Midnight Congregation cares for you.”