They can build walls all the way to the sky, and it’s up to us to fly above them.
The Council can pin us down with the might of a thousand Regulators, but we will fight back.
How many are out there?
The Defectives who refuse to stop believing.
Who… love in galaxies without walls.
Five days before chipping procedure
I tied up my shoelaces as I straddled the bench in the locker room. Jed Hampton, my best friend and next-door neighbor, ran with me every day after school. I was closer with him compared to any of the other seniors at St. Andrews. Maybe it was because we’d known each other as little kids, back when our dads used to grill in the yard on weekends to discuss intergalactic politics while our moms exchanged cooking recipes.
Or perhaps it was because Jed was the only one there for me after they imprisoned my father for falling in love.
“Hey nerd,” Jed said as he ruffled my hair.
I jabbed at him with an elbow. “You’re late.”
“C’mon Percy, give a guy a break. We have to be on time for like, seven classes a day.”
Jed opened his gym locker to change, and my cheeks flushed as he pulled his shirt over his head, exposing broad shoulders, muscular arms, and perfectly sculpted abs. Puberty graced him with the body of the Greek gods we read about in English literature class. I’d always been a little self-conscious about it, wishing I’d been more athletic. But I suppose it didn’t matter.
My insecurities will vanish on my eighteenth birthday.
“A fly just buzzed into your gaping mouth, Pers.”
I glared at him, standing from the bench. “I’m not a fashion accessory. Hurry up, Jedi.”
Jed called me ‘Pers’ because ‘Percy’ had one too many syllables, even though ‘Percy’ was short for ‘Percival,’ my actual name. So I called him Jedi just to taunt him and add a syllable. The fact that we both enjoyed Star Wars was a bonus, so he didn’t mind.
He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, leading us towards the door. Warmth radiated through my chest, followed by a sinking sensation in my stomach when I realized things would change after the procedure.
In five days, I’d lose my best friend.
I shoved the renegade thought away as we walked outside, greeted by the first day of autumn. It was my favorite time of year, when the crisp air caressed your cheeks and the leaves flared at the edges with shades of red and orange. I pressed my lips into a thin line as I admired the surroundings.
Would I still enjoy the surrounding beauty afterwards?
“Tag, you’re it,” Jed said, laughing as he sprinted away.
I ran to catch up, confident I’d reach him quickly. Secretly, I enjoyed running, because it was the one athletic thing I could beat him at. Where he excelled at strength, I made up with my speed. And brains.
I tapped him on the shoulder, moving to dart ahead of him, but he gripped my wrist before I could escape.
“Jog with me?” he asked.
My skin tingled where he touched me, and as much as I wanted to beat him to the fountain for the tenth day in a row, I slowed my pace beside him. All the schools were done with classes for the day, so we kept to the smaller streets, running into the occasional student here and there.
“Did you hear about Darren Cole? He’s getting chipped tomorrow.”
“What?” I asked breathlessly.
“I know. The Watchers caught him kissing a girl over at St. Agatha’s during lunch break, so The Council moved it up for both of them.”
The Watchers were sentries who patrolled the streets and tapped into phone lines, reporting anything suspicious to The Regulators for assessment and, if needed, to The Council for judgment.
My heart thumped in my chest, and I wasn’t sure if it was from the running or the news. Or even worse, perhaps it reminded me of my father. Over a decade ago, he kissed my mother one morning over breakfast. The Regulators took him away as he screamed obscenities like “I love you”—one of the many affectionate statements forbidden by the government.
For the most part, people were ignored as long as they didn’t show any of the signs or symptoms of feelings associated with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-23). We were human, prone to mistakes because of our evolutionary biology, causing chemical and hormonal imbalances leading to things like attraction, longing, even desire. Time and time again, history has shown how dangerous these behaviors were, but the procedure fixed these impulses.
A chill traveled down my back. “Come on,” I said, pushing myself faster. “Let’s pick it up, slowpoke.”
“You’re on, Pers.”
I pushed through the cramping in my legs as my feet struck the pavement, running faster to forget about the worries of the world around me.
What would compel Darren to kiss someone?
When Jed nearly passed me, my muscles screamed as I lunged ahead of him. “I won!”
We both hunched over, laughing while inhaling huge gulps of air.
Jed straightened when he could breathe again. “I let you win, as always. My legs are longer than yours. I’ve clearly got the advantage.”
“Uh huh,” I said with a smirk. “Whatever you say, Master Jedi.”
He gently punched me on the shoulder, and we sat at the edge of the fountain to rest. Groups of children played on the swings and the monkey bars in the distance, smiling and laughing as their parents sat on a bench with distant stares. A sinking feeling settled in my stomach. Seeing it from this side struck me.
Would I sit on a bench, lifeless and apathetic?
“Have you ever thought about it?” Jed asked me. His eyes sparkled like the water flowing out of the fountain beside us.
My breath hitched as I surveyed the area for Watchers. “Shh! Keep your voice down.”
“I already scoped out the scene. We’re alone.”
I pointed at the families across the park.
Jed frowned, resting his elbows on his knees. “Whatever, Percy. They can’t hear us.”
“Uh oh.” My brows furrowed. “You called me by my two-syllable name. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said with a slight tug on his lip. “Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like? You know. To kiss someone?”
“What? No,” I hissed. I leaned in to lower my voice. “You told me yourself what happened to Darren. It’s not worth the risk.”
“But isn’t it, though? What’s the point of living if you can’t actually live? After they chip us, we’re just domesticated animals.”
What had gotten into him? The rules were clear: feelings were forbidden. Even talking about them risked alerting The Watchers.
“You don’t mean that,” I said.
Jed leaned in, his breath brushing against my cheek as he spoke—way too close. “There are rumors about unchipped adults living in Canada—”
“Enough!” I yelled.
The adults from across the way stared at us with vacant eyes, and in an instant, a man wearing a blue uniform with a laminated government ID clipped to his collar—a Watcher—stopped in front of us.
“Everything alright?” he asked, his voice monotone.
“Yes. We were on our way home. Let’s go, Jed.”
We walked in silence through the neighborhood. Jed held a scowl on his face as he studied the houses we passed, each one the same: perfectly landscaped, clean porches, not a hint of disrepair. Once chipped, adult humans were extremely efficient, lacking the instability that came with mood swings. No more arguments, no more wallowing.
We arrived at our houses in time for dinner. I kicked a rock on the sidewalk and crossed my arms over my chest. Jed waved at my mother, who sat on the porch knitting in a rocking chair. She waved back without smiling.
“We good?” I asked.
He forced a smile, nodding his head. “I’ll call you.”
As he shuffled over the grass to head inside his house, I climbed the steps onto the porch, where my mom waited expectantly, staring at me. With a muted expression, she held out an envelope addressed to my name, stamped with the government’s seal, already opened.
“What is it?”
“A letter from The Council,” she said in a flat tone. “You have an appointment to meet your chip partner.”
Three days before chipping procedure
Ellie sat across from me, cradling a cup of tea between her hands. An antique clock ticked on the wall of her kitchen like a metronome, perfectly paced in even intervals.
I traced the rim of the tea mug in front of me. “What was it like? The procedure, I mean.”
Ellie shrugged, her eyes vacant. “Perfect.”
“Did it hurt?”
Part of the Perfectives program was matching chipped humans to genetically compatible mates to ensure chromosomally stable children would repopulate the planet, minimizing birth abnormalities.
A picture of Ellie with her parents hung on the wall beside the clock. Though her mother and father held stoic faces, the young girl beamed at the camera with eyes that danced in the sunlight.
I pressed my lips into a grimace as Jed’s words swirled in my head. The Ellie sitting in front of me differed from the girl in the photo. A husk of her former self, as if a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors shifted to whispers of gray.
Was Jed… right?
“Don’t worry.” Ellie stared at me with empty eyes. “You’ll feel better soon.”
One day before chipping procedure
I stood on the sidewalk in front of a large concrete structure with four garage bays—where Jed worked on vintage space rovers. My mind raced with jumbled thoughts, weighing the pros and cons of exploring these feelings further, as if searching for answers. Part of me pushed them aside, ignoring them as I planned for the procedure.
Yet, a small part of me grabbed onto those thoughts, holding them closer for inspection.
Jed stepped out of the bay with an opened garage door. He wore a baseball cap turned backwards with oil marks smeared on his face. His dirty tank top exposed his muscular arms that glistened in the sunshine. He wiped his hands with a rag as he approached me, and my breath quickened when he greeted me with his dimpled smile.
“What’re you doing here?”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “I, uh, met my chip partner.”
His expression darkened, as if I’d just told him someone died. “Right.”
The air hung between us, hot and heavy as we stood there, staring at each other without saying a word.
Jed broke eye contact first and forced a smile. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
We walked back to the garage bay, and he popped open the hood of the space rover, exposing a complex network of wires underneath.
Jed leaned a hand against the hood. “What do you think?”
“You know I have no idea what we’re looking at, right?” I asked.
He chuckled, his gaze lingering on me longer than normal. He reached inside, tugging on a RAM module until it clicked free, then held it between us.
“This memory stick was almost fried beyond repair. Took me three days to salvage it.”
I frowned. “Why didn’t you just replace it with a new one? No one cares about the inside as long as it looks good on the outside.”
Jed shrugged. “I guess I wanted the rover to keep some semblance of its true self.”
He stared at me with an intensity that caused my stomach to flutter, and I cleared my throat to break the tension.
“Here,” he said, taking my hand and placing the RAM module on my palm. “Put it back in the engine.”
I leaned into the space rover, visualizing how he removed it from the motherboard and attempting to click it back into place. My lips pinched together as I struggled to set the module back into its original position.
“I’m no good at this,” I said, my tone harsher than expected.
Jed took my hand into his, turning the RAM module around and guiding my fingers to the right position on the motherboard. “Push gently here.”
The skin on my hand tingled underneath his, and my pulse quickened when the clicking sound confirmed successful installation. A smile tugged at my lips, and when I turned to face Jed, he bent his head toward me and kissed my mouth softly.
As if by instinct, my eyes fluttered closed as Jed’s lips met mine. I’d never been kissed before, as any displays of affection were expressly forbidden by the DSM-23. This kind of behavior, if witnessed, would land us both in trouble with The Council. And though all the synapses in my brain fired erratically, telling me to stop—
Jed’s lips were warm and firm, molding perfectly to mine, our mouths clinging together for an endless moment.
And then I remembered: ever since that day, people looked at me with judging eyes, expecting my chip to short-circuit like his.
I can’t end up like my father.
I pushed myself away from Jed, my stomach clenching as a storm of emotions swirled inside of me.
Jed opened his eyes and blinked at me, as if waking from a dream that ended far too soon. “Percy, I—”
“No,” I said, touching my lips with my fingers. “You of all people should have known. What’s gotten into you these past few days? You’re acting insane.”
Jed grabbed my shoulders, his eyes burning like wildfire in the desert. “Come with me, Percy.”
I shook my head, my chest tightening with his words. “I don’t understand.”
“To Canada. There’s a colony of unchipped humans living there.”
A light-headedness took over me. “A colony of Defectives? No, Jed. That’s madness.”
“It’s not. I’ve been studying it for months now. There’s a secret passage—”
I pulled myself away from him, trying to run away as fast as I could. But Jed held onto me, his fist wrapped tightly around my wrist, refusing to let go.
Darkness consumed the edges of my vision as tears fought to escape.
“Pers,” he whispered. “Please.”
Everything in my being told me to leave. But Jed stood there, still and frozen, and I’d seen nothing more beautiful—a glint of emotion flickering in his eyes.
I relaxed my arm, his touch igniting neurons in my brain that had laid dormant for years. Call me crazy, but as the dissonance between what I thought I wanted and what I knew I needed blurred…
I made my decision.