By: Katy Moran
Gemma sat in the corner of the room, her body pressed into the corner of the pale pink walls. The room was small but neat. A long-forgotten set of plastic horses sat on a shelf, the chestnut sunning himself in the make-shift paddock while the grey mare stared into oblivion. The sun trickled into the room affecting a glittering haze that moved not unlike the universe itself. The slow rise and fall, the eternal twinkle of a billion atoms. The girl sat quite still. Her hair was dark and plaited in a harsh way. One hand was stretched out poised on the faded edges of photographs that she had positioned around herself. Her long legs were folded underneath her. She moved closer squinting her eyes to absorb the pictures, memorising each detail of the family she would never meet. She studied the eyes of a girl, they were silver-blue like hers. She noted the slight tilt of the girl’s nose, the asymmetry not detracting from her otherwise pleasing face. She thought of her own small flat nose, the perfectly rounded tip specifically designed to complement her face. Her genetic code specially chosen to be flawless. She seemed to be frozen in time given away only by the tremble of her hands. She thought she heard a noise. He was coming back. She scrambled to collect the pictures off the floor and shoved them under her mattress. If he found them he would be angry. She sprang lightly off the ground and gripped the ballet barre on the wall. She dipped into a perfect plie. She watched her lean body stretch and extend in the wall mirror, each movement flowing effortlessly into the next.
‘You are losing the extension in your hip, you need to steady your heels.’ He leant against the doorframe for support as he spoke, his remaining leg trembled unsteadily.
‘Yes, papa.’ She did not look him in the eye but focused on her reflection, planting her heels more firmly into the carpet as instructed. The dread in her stomach threatened to rupture through her carefully composed face but she remained collected. Always composed, always collected. She repeated the phrase in her head like a mantra. The first rule of a perfect ballerina.
‘We will eat soon. Your mother is expecting to hear about your preparations today, and of course we have not forgotten that it is your birthday. Go and wash up.’
She walked down the hall towards the kitchen trailing her hand along the dips and cracks in the wall. Although the house had been rebuilt after the Great War not yet fifty years ago, the plaster had crumbled in places. They had repaired it as best they could, but priorities had shifted and all but her own room had been neglected. She could smell the sweet sticky stew cooking, her mouth watered, she had not eaten since breakfast. She stopped before entering, standing perfectly still so as not to disturb the picture in front of her. Her mother was fussing over the pot. Adding a pinch of salt and herbs, periodically tasting and adjusting. The steam condensed on her forehead curling the soft greying hair above her brow creating a soft fuzzy halo around her head. She watched as her mother brushed the back of her hand across her finely textured forehead, almost like crepe paper, each line telling a story of her past. She felt a pang of sadness that her skin would never age like that. Just then her mother looked up with a start, her face transformed from fright into a warm open smile.
‘My darling child, you scared me half to death, come over here. I have another surprise for you.’ She ushered her in and pulled out the small bundle of pictures from the back of a drawer, dropping her voice so her father would not hear. ‘I found some more photographs, these are from over a hundred years ago. This one is of your great-grandmother, Katherine. She was a programmer from the early days before the uprising. Look at the date, it’s the same as your birthday.’ Her voice caught but she covered it with a smile, ‘Fourteen is a special birthday Gemma, you know that. You are going to be perfect at the auditions.’
Gemma smiled running her fingers along the glossy surface, the date was embossed in the bottom corner, 1 April 2017.
She left as soon as was polite after the meal, returning to her room to gaze at the pictures until the sun first rays of sun streamed through the window.
The bile rose in Gemma’s throat as they walked towards the striking pre-war building. They entered through the ornate gates, stopping to be searched and scanned. Attendance was, of course, mandatory and the armed bots made it clear there was no turning back. The beautiful gold letters spelling out ‘Royal Ballet Academy’ glittered in the sunlight mesmerising her.
‘Before the uprising this was one of my favourite places,’ her mother spoke, startling her out of her daze. ‘I was a scientist, before they took over. But I loved the ballet. During the day I would be splicing genomes but at night I would spend hours watching the ballet. Even now, after everything else has been taken, they have never been able to replicate the beauty of it.’
Gemma stared in surprise. She had never heard her mother speak of before the war. Hardly anyone ever did. Humans had lost the war with the Androids and The New Order did a good job of convincing everyone that it was a better world. Besides it was the only one Gemma ever knew, there was no illness, no plagues. People didn’t age and death was a choice instead of fated as before. Climate change was resolved. Vast forests filled the barren landscapes once again. There were no rich, no poor. Everything was better since the Androids took over. Gemma often wondered what would become of humans had it not been for this. The only thing they could never imitate was the most human trait of all. Not that she had ever voiced those thoughts. They listened to every word. Heard every whispered sentence. Always watching.
Her father grabbed her hand roughly. And pulled her through the gate and away from her thoughts. The vast quad held swarms of girls buzzing with energy. Some were crying, their parents holding them and whispering words of comfort. Others practiced obsessively, eyes down averting the gaze of their competitors. Gemma tried to level her breathing, she did not want to appear scared. Her mother led her to the dark wooden doors which held a screen allotting audition times, she bent down leaning in so closely she could feel the warmth radiating off her mother’s skin.
‘Remember my little bug, you were created for this purpose. I selected every gene to ensure you would be perfect.’
Gemma nodded. She felt so small despite being only an inch shorter than her mother. She looked up at her father. He avoided her gaze and turned precariously on his bionic leg.
‘This is where we leave you, we’ll be right in the audience. See you soon my darling.’ Said her mother brushing back a strand of hair that had escaped from her tight bun.
Gemma stood in the theatre wings, she pulled at the neck of her pale pink leotard which was suddenly much too tight. An image of her father in the audience surfaced in her mind’s eye. His tight face watching for every mistake. Worse still was imaging her mother, sat clutching the skirt of her best dress. The thought of failing her drowned out even the fear of the judges who would decide her fate. She could feel the thumping of her heart in her throat as the weight of the audition threatened to crush her entirely. She had to make it through this round. A girl dressed in the same soft pink rounded the corner, the fear visible on her small face. Gemma recognised her as the sister of a girl with whom she once trained, a piano player if she remembered correctly. She had failed her auditions. Gemma had never seen her again but assumed they had terminated her along with the others who did not make it through.
A bell sounded, Gemma was next up to audition. She took a deep breath and walked onto the stage. The light beat down on her and for a second she was blinded, the panic rose. After a moment her eyes adjusted and she could make out the judges sitting behind a dark wooden desk. An imposing looking Android in the middle nodded and the music began. Gemma closed her eyes and let the music fill her, as if by magic her body started to move. Her body flowed flawlessly, as if the music itself lived within her and she existed solely to express it. All thoughts of the future left her as she moved. She extended into an entrechat and spun into a perfect fouetté. She caught glimpses of the judges as she twirled, their blank faces gave nothing away. Relief flooded through her as she approached the end of the routine. She chanced a glimpse of the audience trying to gauge their reaction. Someone caught her eye at the back of the hall. She tried to focus on the face as she revolved, it couldn’t be, could it? She spun faster, hoping to focus on the face that looked just like the picture. Just like Katherine. As suddenly as she had spotted it, the face disappeared. She stumbled as the momentum of the fouetté accelerated. The image of the face was the last thing she registered before the sickening crunch of breaking bones.
Gemma struggled to pull herself out of the darkness. Her head was heavy and the seductive comfort of oblivion kept luring her back under. But something was wrong. The noises around her did not to make sense. She was aware of the flicker of light passing over her eyelids. Everything was moving too fast.
‘Henry, what are you doing! You know they have to take her. We can’t help her now, she is no use to them. They’ll find us! They’ll kill us all!’ Her mother’s voice was frantic, the fear tangible in each shrill syllable.
Small fragments of the world around Gemma began to take shape. She realised she was in a car. All at once the sharp spark of pain registered causing her to stomach to turn. She couldn’t move her right leg. Glancing down through her tears she could see her leg hanging loosely, held together only by her sheer tights. The tibia and fibula had snapped clean through.
She heard her father’s voice, low and angry, ‘They will not take her, you know what they’d do. Best case scenario would be dissecting her to see where her code went wrong. Worst case, God I can’t bear to think, they have no compassion Mary. They’ve taken everything from me. They will not take her.’
‘And what of me!’ She spat back. ‘I love her too, but this is foolish. We always knew there was a chance of this happening. If we go back now maybe they will have mercy. Please Henry. Have some sense!’
Her father ignored her, pushing the car faster through the winding streets. Gemma thought she recognised the route. They had driven this way many times when she was younger, when her father still looked at her without fear and anger in his eyes. Not far from here was a brilliantly serene lake surrounded by a vast pine forest. They had sat for hours by the lake, watching the reflection of the trees on the perfectly still water.
Gemma summoned all her strength and pulled herself up into a sitting position. The pain radiated through her leg setting every nerve in her body alight.
‘Mom, I’m scared! What’s going on?’ She shocked herself how very child-like she sounded, as if asking for a bedtime story to stave away a nightmare.
‘Gemma! You’re awake.’ Her eyes were bloodshot, her mother’s kind eyes replaced by ones she did not recognise.
‘Papa, I’m sorry,’ tears streamed down Gemma’s face choking her words, ‘Where are we going?’
Her father did not turn around but instead spoke, quite calmly now.
‘Don’t cry Gemma, it will be over soon. During the uprising humans still had some value. We were the visionaries that created the Androids. We were their Gods. Until we weren’t. I never understood pain before they set up the termination process to weed out the bad genes. I knew you would have to compete and I could not stand the thought of losing you. There is no humanity left in this world. I love you Gemma, you were the best thing that happened to me, you won’t suffer this monstrous world anymore.’
Understanding dawned on Gemma, her eyes wide. Her mother clearly understood too as she jerked across and tried to grab the wheel of the car. Gemma flinched as the back of her father’s hand struck her mother. She was still.
The lake loomed in the front of them reflecting the perfectly round moon. It wasn’t how Gemma thought it would be. In place of fear she felt peace. She put her hand on her father’s shoulder.
‘Thank you, Papa.’ She closed her eyes and imagined the times beside the lake with her father and she understood him in a way she never thought she would.