I am no longer faceless; hiding is pointless. Their hunt has already begun.
My name is already plastered on every screen--in front of every eye. My image interrupts movies, phone conversations, and even the daily advertisements. A photo of me accompanies the broadcast. For many, this will be the first time they've seen my face. It is my one day of fame, where the world knows who I am.
Their hunters are already interviewing my work and my apartment complex's owner. They have been working since they received my name and the new day began. I receive messages from coworkers that they are looking; names without faces beg me to return on social media and avoid the shame.
But I’m too afraid to.
I can already hear them--their rifle’s magazines are being locked in place for me. Bolts click and robotic voices speak behind the warehouse door like otherworldly creatures. I feel as if I am outside of the gates of Hell, and its minions have come to take me there to where I belong.
Lights brighter than the sun flash through the partially shattered windows I seek refuge under. I didn’t think they’d come here, of all places. To the Old City. They were just ruins now, left behind memories that pushed us to be better.
Surely, we were not better.
“Daniel Gagarin!” A tinny voice calls out over a speaker. I can hardly place a face to the voice; all of their enforcers sound the same. “We know you’re inside. Come out now, and no shame will be brought to your name.”
My hand rushes to cover my mouth as somewhere a metal clang fills the dusty air. They’re coming from behind, a sneak attack. They will take me. I cannot outrun the drones that are watching from above, silent and with omnipotent eyes.
Another bang; it elevates my heart rate. I feel like a bomb is ticking inside of my chest.
“This is your last opportunity!” The voice calls out again. “Don’t try it. Just come out and my men will not harm you. You’ll be free to call whoever you like to say goodbye.”
Another bang, this time much louder. I think they’re inside.
I scuttle in the mud, keeping my body below their damning search lights. I can hear the rain outside start. It’s hammering the metal roof above.
I see an old ladder that leads up to the rafters, and to a more concealed location. Maybe they won’t find me there.
I only need to wait until midnight, and then I believe I will be free. No one knows what happens if you do not arrive the day your name is called--no one has tried.
I wipe the dirt from my watch: 9:15P.M it reads. I can make it. I begin my ascension, eyes squinted as I search the dark for motion. Within seconds, I am cowering at the top in my crow’s nest.
“Alright. Be that way then… make it difficult...” the voice outside trails off. A horrible screech echos, and I throw my hands over my ears. “Hounds! Hader will need him alive!” He shouts.
Then I spot them, the things that have come to take me. Mechanical horrors trained to obtain us as if we were their foxes to hunt. They walk on four legs, with bodies of skeletal metal and wires bunched where muscles should be. They already had my scent coded into them; they knew my DNA. Every track I left behind would be a clue to where I was hiding, every fingerprint a step closer to taking me.
First come their lights. Flashing, purple little dots that hover in the darkness. They’re scanning the area now, following my footsteps imprinted in the mud. They growl as they search, sharing with each other things not meant to be heard by their prey. We were told it was just how the automatons spoke to one another, but I do not believe it. I think it is to inspire fear, and to further isolate the chosen.
Their claws dig into the muck as they move with rigid motions. This is not the model designed to be seen by the public on Reclamation Day. These models are far more horrific.
Far less human-like.
The circular, glowing bulb at the head of their serpentine neck stops and hovers over the spot I was just in. I watch, imagining my fate as their lights scan every inch of the ground for microfibers and drops of sweat. They could find God if he only visited once, and they would topple the kingdom of Heaven to rip him from it.
I feel the sensation of vomit starting to work its way up my throat; nervous tears are already streaming from my cheeks. I’m already conjuring horrible images of what happens to the people they send there. They say it’s for our expansion to the stars, but no one returns from those trips. Not a soul, and it’s never the successful ones who are sent.
It’s the people like me, the disposables.
And suddenly I am watching my doppelganger be created. Out of neon lights and crude imaging, my body, exact by every dimension, is being summoned by the hounds. They’re piecing me together from the scraps of my being. I can see myself cowering like a wounded dog. Sitting in the grave I’ve dug myself.
I shake my head, begging it not to move to the ladder’s first step, but when it does, I know all hope is lost. As each hand climbs the bars, constantly searching the dark abyss, I know where it will lead.
I move from my perch, climbing higher, throwing caution to the wind. They will not take me. That is when their heads perk up to me--they hear me. Growls begin and their spines light in a similar purple color.
Sparks light from the hinges on the front door and within seconds, the hot plasma has reduced the withering metal to melted, glowing goo. It falls to the mud with a ruinous thud, sinking deeper into it.
Metal boots climb over it, and my eyes focus on the rifle in his hand. Blue, electric plasma runs along its coils and immediately I’m looking down its dark barrel. Its body appears human; it walks on two legs. Its armor is as dark as shadow, and its helmet has no discernible human features. It is nothing but an empty, black slate reflecting my fear.
The hounds below circle me like sharks as I wrap my arms around the beam. They won’t stop shaking.
“Daniel Gagarin, by the authority of the Connected Countries Command,” the helmeted figure started. I could see no face or indication of it being human beyond its absolute voice. He didn’t shudder as his finger moved to the trigger. “I am hereby detaining you so that you may honor your mandatory civilian service. You are this year's chosen. Will you come willingly?”
“I know what you do to people who go there! To that thing in the sky!”
“Service or selfishness?” The figure replies. It was their slogan--their political agenda. “Which will it be? Don’t make me choose, sir.”
I gripped the bar tighter; I could feel the rust biting into my frail fingers. “You can’t do this to us!” I cried. “We’re not just dispensable things!”
An eerie screech floods the old factory; It sounds like a scream of a child captured in a glass bottle. The gun is glowing cyan, and the figure’s stance changes. I’ve seen it on the news, and only in the horrible stories. The ones about those who flee from their duty. Or do worse to escape their fate.
I imagine my name on similar news broadcasts, along with a recording of this very moment. I knew they were recording me, watching from somewhere. Laughing.
“No! People go there, and they never come back! You can’t tell me this is service--this is extermination!”
The figure removes its hand from the trigger and places it against its sleek helmet. My stomach drops as I hear its response.
Before I can even move, my body feels as if I’ve just been struck by lightning, or how I imagine it might feel. I lose control; muscles spasm and suddenly I let go. I can’t speak--I can’t scream. Everything turns numb, and I feel like I am suffocating. My lungs don’t work.
I can’t breath; I am falling.
“This one sure put up a fight. More so than the rest,” A voice wakes me. His words shake as he takes long breaths between sentences. “This will be a mess in the news. You know how much they despise problems. How did your team not catch him sooner?”
I can’t move. I can’t feel my arms or my legs; I can’t even see. Everything is dark. Black. Cold. Panic seeps into my skin. They have me.
“The subject works at one of our development foundries. Further investigation shows he works as a janitor on the factory floor” the tinny voice replies. His speech is perfect, inhuman. “He knew how to avoid our eyes within the city, and how we hunt.”
It is him. My hunter. He’s standing above me, so close I could probably touch his chilled shell.
“I designed you better,” the same elderly voice replies. “Better than human excuses, that is. To be deceived that long by a simple janitor?” The voice sighs and somewhere close I can hear the clanging of metal objects. “First that damned politician’s assistant, then that coffee shop worker… and now more of this! If the public finds out, panic will spread through the streets. They cannot know.”
“Do you?” The voice barks and grows weak. He clears his throat and adjusts his attitude. “You were designed as a contingency, should they not come willingly. It’s bad enough--” he stops.
I groan and gasp for air. I can breath again, despite the sharp pain in my lungs. Just as my eyes open, I wish they hadn’t. “Where am I--” I stop. I look down at the bed I’m attached to. My body is covered in an orange suit; I try and thrash but my arms and legs feel like gravity is holding them back.
A glass cover hovers overhead of me, opened, but ready to close and lock me inside of this capsule for good. Wires are already attached and a helmet sits above my head on a pair of mechanical hinges, ready to be lowered at a moment's notice.
“Oh, my…” the man remarks. He’s old, far older than anyone I’ve seen in the city. His grey, unheard of hair and beard silence me long enough for him to talk. “It seems our newest chosen is awake. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Gagarin. I apologize for the… lack of comfort.”
I glare at him, my teeth turning to cinder block and my saliva the cement. Instantly, he waves my hunter to the door so it’s just the two of us.
His face changes to a look of disappointment. “I know that look. You already hate me. It's the same anger they all feel, even the ones who come voluntarily lose their sense of pride when they wake to see me... and the shackles,” the elderly man moves from his stool to a computer at the end of the room, showing more of the laboratory I’m inside. Rows of the same capsule line the walls, each one with a suit inside. All are devoid of life. "You appear to be smarter, though. We've been taking chosen names for generations, and I'm always amazed at how few run from the calling. So many fools come willingly, thinking they'll be treated as heroes upon their return. I prefer working with the runners, you know?" He asks while preparing something. "They're so much... wiser. They're the ones who still think for themselves!"
“...then you’ll let me go?” I ask.
His empty face looks over his shoulder and instantly I know that is not to be my fate. A hole grows in my stomach. “I think you know that is not a possibility. We are on a strict schedule, Mr. Gagarin. A deadline, if you will.”
“Daniel… my name’s Daniel. Just call me that.”
His face changes; intrigue brings his hollow face to life.
“You don’t want to scream and try to run anymore?” The old man asks.
I feel a frown overtake my mouth. My eyes study my jail call. “No point, is there? You’re going to send me to that place, and I won’t be coming back. Will I?” I wait.
He turns away and monitors what appear to be my vitals on the large, holographic screen in front of him. His lips smack together, but no words leave his wrinkled mouth. “Still... I expected more of a vocal battle. Something. The few who run always want one last fight. Would you like to call anyone at least, before your departure?”
“I bet they have someone to say goodbye to, and that’s why they fight. I have no one to leave behind. I only have myself,” I continue. I imagine faces of those I wish I could’ve said goodbye to. Imaginary people for an imaginary life.
“Hmmm I see,” he stands, perplexed. “Then why run at all?”
“Why send us there?” I counter and he almost smiles. “I know it’s not to maintain that old base; it’s abandoned. And if space travel was possible, you’d be sending professionals. Not people like me. Everyone in the advertisements are always smiling, like they're happy to leave. I know it's a lie. No one is really happy to be chosen. They just expect people smarter than them to make the right decisions for them.”
He smirks. “You’re too smart to be a janitor. Luck must not have been on your side, young man,” he turns his attention to a picture hanging in his laboratory. It is the only picture not projected with holograms. A relic by the looks of its tattered edges and wood frame from an older age. “Who would have thought something so beautiful at night could be such a cursed place.” He approaches me, a syringe in hand. “This will help you to not get sick during the transport…” his sentence trails off, though his face says he wants to say more. “We do as are commanded. Fear is a powerful tool. Something lurks above us, and so long as we keep it satiated, life continues down here,” I squint as the needle pinches my neck. The area feels warm not a second after the needle leaves my flesh.
“Is... is that what happened to that mining operation? The gas explosion...” a hole begins to grow in my stomach.
“Every secret attempt is useless. It doesn’t want to be found.”
I look at the screen--to my entire life’s history summed up in barely a third of the screen. I imagine most people would have more. Something beyond a name, occupation, and blood type.
The old man follows my eyes and, with the flick of his wrist, the screen vanishes.
He chuckles and shakes his head as he adjusts something on the pad outside of the capsule. “It's best not to think about it. Imagine better thoughts before you leave." His face morphs into a horrible frown. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I ask. “Your name’s not out there! You're not the one being sent up there. You people just call for sacrifices, and they willingly come. And the rest thank God it’s not their turn. You don't get to say I'm sorry.”
He squeezes the edge of the capsule so hard his knuckles turn white. “We’ve been trying to see what’s up there for decades now, maybe you’ll be the one to finally see it. Whatever has its claws rooted so deeply into our souls. There’s a camera in your helmet... and the suit is made from recycled materials… try to imagine you’re doing the world some good. The ones who come voluntarily seem to think that way.”
He steps away just as the glass top lowers and hisses as it locks in place. Then, like clockwork, the helmet slowly descends and steals away my identity. I can feel mechanisms move me in place, to a circular blue disk at the center of the laboratory. It opens, like the aperture of a camera and I’m loaded inside of it.
The air feels raw. Electric. My skin tingles as the capsule begins to shake. In front of me, a holographic screen overtakes my glass window and shows me my destination. I’m looking at it now. Eyeing the white, imperfect sphere. Craters cover its skin; it hovers in the darkness like a jewel.
“Initiating one-way teleport,” a lifeless AI recites. It should have been a person. At least that way, the goodbye wouldn’t feel so impersonal. “The CCC thanks you for your service. You will be remembered.”
No. There’s nothing to remember of me.
A screech rapes my ears; it overtakes my screams. It feels like an earthquake is ripping through the metal, ripping it apart at an atomic level. It’s ripping me apart, too. Shattering my bones and peeling back my walls of skin and muscle. My blood feels like it’s boiling.
“Departing.” The voice reads as the screen goes black, and its snow-white skin appears.
We only see one face of the moon. Maybe it’s better that way; maybe we’re only meant to see the part it wants.