On JORAH’S eighteenth birthday, he has to become a ‘man’ in The Society, in which men are deemed inferior. Jorah is given the role of fire fighter, and is immediately requested as a Match by a local government official called MELISSA BLOOM. Jorah’s ‘father’ figure, VICTOR, is strangely happy with Jorah’s role, leaving Jorah wondering if there is anyone left that he can trust. The only person Jorah feels he can trust is the kind of person The Society hates almost as much as men in general; his best friend, TOBI. This is because Jorah and Tobi are Double Blanks; homosexual men.
Males in The Society whisper of PREM LAHKAR; the only one who managed to remove his tracking counter but Jorah knows that this is just a myth to make men feel better. Jorah also knows that women are not to be trusted, yet life becomes even more complicated when Jorah discovers Victor and his biological mother are having an illicit relationship.
To add to his turmoil, a fellow fire fighter named LOGAN, hints that The Society may not be all it seems. Oddly, Melissa is also acting out of character and comes to Jorah’s aid after he is arrested for attacking his sister, SKYE. When Melissa is made responsible for him for a week, he is abused by Melissa’s sister, DAISY. Coming to Jorah’s rescue yet again, Melissa informs Jorah about something called Amendment 219, which would make everybody equal. Jorah has been convinced all his life that women are evil, yet he isn’t sure what version of The Society he should believe in anymore.
When Tobi is arrested for being gay, Jorah has no choice but to help Tobi commit suicide to help him avoid torture. Devastated, Jorah is even more heartbroken when Victor doesn’t comfort him but warns Jorah to keep quiet about his homosexuality. Finding instead, comfort in Melissa, Jorah even begins to believe that change could happen. While in his new role, he is becoming increasingly confused after Logan gets angry with him for trying to save a baby from a burning house; Jorah finds an empty cot but the baby seemingly disappears into thin air.
As Jorah’s suspicions about The Society begin to deepen and Melissa’s assistant, QUINN, confides in him that Melissa has been receiving threatening notes, Jorah wants to ask Melissa herself for answers. However, when he finds her in her cellar the evening of his first night shift, Melissa says she can’t fight for the amendment anymore, causing Jorah to storm out. Although betrayed, when a call comes in to say her house is in fire, Jorah rushes to save her.
Yet back in Melissa’s house, Jorah is knocked out by two strangers. When he wakes up, they inform him he is outside the walls of The Society, in a place called Orbital. Jorah initially wants to return, not believing that one of the rebels he has met is none other than Prem Lahkar. He and the other rebel, MAE, also claim that The Society was built on lies; a fabricated nuclear bomb forty years ago, and a belief system that used to be the reverse.
When Jorah hears from Victor again in the form of a video, Victor also confirms the stories Jorah’s been told and that he was Melissa’s ‘father’ figure as well. Moreover, Victor asks Jorah to give Prem a chance. A few days later, Victor is reported for having a relationship with Jorah’s mum by Skye and is arrested. Despite their argument, Jorah vows to save him.
Meanwhile, Jorah is equally comforted and irritated by Prem, who reveals he is attracted to Jorah and they start a troubled relationship. Jorah finds it hard to harmonise his new feelings for Prem and the suspicion that Prem is planning something sinister after they attempt to overthrow The Leader.
When Jorah and Melissa are finally reunited, and discuss plans to topple The Leader, he reveals his misgivings about Prem. Things grow tenser after Jorah publicly stands up to Prem, yet Prem waits to confess in private to Jorah that he does want an all male government in order to make women pay for the past; which Jorah finds he can’t support. Unwittingly, Jorah creates a divide in the rebels and soon enough, the two of them are on different sides; Prem leading the men who want male only dominance and Jorah; pledging his allegiance to Melissa and equality for all.
When Jorah goes back into The Society, Jorah says goodbye to Prem, even though he wishes he could change Prem’s mind. His goal is to save Victor and thwart The Leader’s plans to hand over power to her daughter, Octavia West.
Back in The Society, Jorah’s plan to save Victor turns into a nightmare when they are caught and Victor is killed. Both Mae and Jorah are injured; with Jorah’s injuries causing him to pass out. When he wakes up, he is tied to a bed and is confronted by Octavia West. Octavia tries to manipulate Jorah and get him to betray Melissa, yet Jorah doesn’t trust her. Octavia threatens to kill his friends, revealing that she has captured all of them. Just as Jorah is considering giving in, someone shoots Octavia and everyone else in the room through the window.
It is Prem who saves Jorah, claiming Melissa has invited him to join his government if she succeeds. Jorah passes out again and wakes up back in Orbital. Prem tells him The Society is falling and it looks promising for Melissa but no one is certain what the future holds.
At 3:27 am, I jolted awake. I stared up at the bottom of the top bunk and tried to remember if Victor was staying tonight and remembered after a few moments that he’d moved out. My bed creaked as I rolled over and put my feet over the side. The room was cold as usual; boys don’t get heating, just pneumonia.
I didn’t know what had woken me but as I looked up at the tiny window, it seemed brighter than usual. I heaved my body up and climbed onto a rickety chair and held onto the dusty ledge to see out. I put my fingers in the already established imprints in the dust. When I climbed up, I saw the fire blazing on the hill I had stared at my entire life. The hill led to the north of Central, where usually the buildings looked like black outlines that were watching over us. Yet that night, one of the houses was screaming with orange fire. I wondered if anyone had died.
I remembered what day it was going to be when I climbed down from the chair. I turned on the lamp, dropped to my knees and crawled under the bottom bunk. I spent the next hour staring at the flags that I had slotted underneath the mattress, cursing the fact I had been born a boy for the millionth time in my stupid life. I almost wished the fire were in my room, burning me to a blackened skeleton.
When I woke up at 8:42 am, back in bed, I stared at the wall. There were millions of scratches and marks all over it; I was sure it’d never been painted since someone realised I was going to be a boy and I wasn’t worth the effort. Regardless, today was officially the day I became a man and there was nothing I could do to change it. Even if I ran, there was no way to hide my age. People would be able to check my counter and see the information: name, age to the day, my vital statistics (blood pressure taken twice a day, medical history) and occupation. In my case, the counter read: Jorah Holt, eighteen and no days, 121/80, NMP (no medical problems), and T (trainee). It also showed the time, mainly to remind us that time was not our own.
In fact, the counter was like a thin wrist watch; completely non-removable of course. Many had tried. There was the story of Prem Lahkar and how he had managed it a few years ago but he was just a myth that people told themselves to feel better.
I’d tried to catch every disease that had passed through my school but I’d never fallen ill. If anything, my medical history was too clean. I’d never even been near a hospital, except for being born of course. I’d dreamed about natural disasters, household accidents, crime, even an evil spirit killing me off but whatever I was, I was resilient. Yet it didn’t matter how miraculous I was because the only thing that mattered was that I was born male. And men were only good for a few things: work and reproduction.
‘Wake up, arsehole.’ It was my sister, Skye, standing at the foot of my bed.
I sprang up, hitting my head. Skye guffawed and shook her head, then left the room.
I stumbled up, still holding my head but managed to hurriedly dressed myself in my jeans and tight t-shirt. Mandatory clothing. My weights sessions had been upped six months before and it’d definitely helped my muscle density but I still had a long way to go.
Birthdays for boys were pretty unremarkable except one: the eighteenth one. Today, I would be given more information about my future role based on aptitude tests I’d done three months before and I’d officially be put on the ‘desirable list’. The faces of the women at the panel still loomed in my mind, even though I couldn’t really remember their features correctly. They were just like death shrouds or ghosts chasing me though my every day, waiting for them to suck me into their darkness. There was the one who had smiled throughout but I guessed that was probably part of her job description. The other two had been stern, using the same flat intonation as one another, as though they were actually robots.
When they’d asked me; ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’; I’d thought about what I should say. The prepared answers were: fulfilling my duty to The Society, safeguarding future generations, being a model employee and citizen… Instead, an answer had popped out of me like an air bubble accidentally blocking a vein to the heart; ‘Dead.’
The panel had all frozen. Even the smiling one was too shocked to keep in role. She’d bowed her head and started picking at her nails as though embarrassed on my behalf.
‘I’m sure you are well aware that suicide is against the laws of The Society and our holy lady, Goddess bless her?’ one of the monotonous ones had asked, holding her pencil between her fingers and thumbs to either steady herself or show me what she wanted to do to me; snap me in two.
‘Um, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… Um, I will of course be fulfilling my duty to The Society. I was thinking of saying… working myself to death… to please our Goddess but I got nervous or something.’ I shrugged. Never forget: I am The Original Sin, I am The Original Sin and I must atone.
‘Well, that’s much better,’ the other robot woman said, making a note on her screen. She gave me her one and only smile of the day. I was sure she’d just Dumped me on the screen; I was going to be a Sinker. I didn’t know much about being a Sinker but that was the point; no one knew what happened to you once you’d been Dumped out of The Society.
When I was dismissed, I looked back at them from the doorway. The only one who was looking at me still was the one who’d made a note on her screen. She stared at me for a long moment and sucked her bottom lip under her teeth before dropping her head back to the screen on her lap.
It was no mistake when I’d said, ‘Dead.’ This place was going to kill me or I’d commit the sin of suicide out of despair, just like Kai had. Another fifty years of my sister treating me like crap: no thanks. Another fifty years of being treated like a third class citizen (after pets) by women: no thanks. Another fifty years of pretending I was something I was not: no bloody thanks.
‘Ready for your role, shit head?’ Skye spat at the bottom of the stairs.
I saluted the picture of The Leader and stared at her blankly.
She was blocking my path and hissed in my face, ‘I’ll tell you something, Jorah; no matter what they give you, you’ll still be just a boy. And I’ll still do what I want to you because no one cares. Got it?’ She flicked me hard in the chest, conscious our mum was nearby.
I nodded. If I argued with her, I would lose. I could be called up to a disciplinary board or arrested. The least that would happen was that my mum would get angry and lock me in the cellar again. Places without windows reminded me of the stories Victor had told me about the six years he’d spent in prison as a kid because his parents had been rebels.
‘Go on, answer back,’ Skye challenged me.
I smiled and did a bow. Victor had taught me bowing was actually a sign of aggression in our secret language. In an old past time called ‘bull fighting’, the person who was about to taunt the bull would always bow. I liked to imagine that, one day, I might just spear her like they did those poor bulls and then see what she had to say to me.
I marched past her into the kitchen, where I knew the letter was waiting. I ripped it open with my shaking hands and flopped into a chair as I re-read the words until they became blurry.
‘Jane Christ, fire fighter?’ I croaked. I could already feel the smoke smothering my lungs. The fire from last night seemed to be taunting me. I gripped the edge of the table and tried to think about running in and out of burning buildings and there were plenty of them to choose from; arson was one of the most common crimes.
‘That’s a good honest job,’ my mum patted me on the back as though I was a stranger in need of comfort. She wouldn’t want to waste too much affection on me, would she?
‘This is so perfect.’ Skye laughed. ‘I don’t even have to get rid of you myself, just let the fire do it for me,’ she added with a snarl.
My mum squeezed her on the arm; her very subtle way of telling my sister off. But she didn’t say anything as usual; she just continued preparing the sandwiches for my party. I had been allowed to invite a few people so I’d chosen Victor and a few guys from my college. I wasn’t usually allowed people in the house. I hadn’t invited Tobi because I didn’t want him to meet my mum or Skye. Probably ever.
‘Can I wait upstairs until the others get here please?’ I mumbled. Normally, I would have to help but I wasn’t going to miss my one day off.
Skye pulled a face but my mum nodded.
Yet when I got upstairs back into my room, I just sat on the edge of my bed and stared at my lap. Fire fighter? I guess it made sense. When I had slipped up on the question about five years’ time and said, ‘Dead,’ it had sealed it for me. Of course they would give me a profession where I might actually die. I had always thought any exit clause would do but the fact that The Society had taken this away from me too made me more furious than ever.
Yet, as usual, I clenched my fists and did nothing.
There was a knock at the door and Victor appeared, not waiting for my response. Boys weren’t allowed locked doors or too much time alone. ‘Happy birthday, buddy!’ Victor exclaimed and scooped me up in a big hug before I could move. His body was huge in almost every way; from his broad shoulders and massive chest, his strong legs that I used to marvel at when we’d played football together, his big hands that could easily span almost the entire top of my head and his big square face. ‘I got you a present.’ He shoved a box at me.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever had a real present before,’ I blurted out and then blushed. I perched on the bed again and held it on my lap without opening it.
‘So, open it, silly boy… Sorry, man.’ Victor laughed his naughty laugh.
‘Um… I’m not a man,’ I muttered and shook my head.
Victor sat beside me and nudged me. ‘Sorry buddy, you can’t escape this one. But don’t worry, I’ll help you.’ He paused and nudged me again. ‘Open it, for Goddess’ sake!’
The box he’d given me had a green bow and had been tied terribly. Victor’s big hands had never been good for delicate jobs. I pulled at it and put it aside. Then I lifted the lid off and saw a gold chain with a pendant, which seemed to be soldered closed.
‘Wow, how much was this?’ I choked out, daring to touch it with one finger.
Victor plucked it out and held it out to me. ‘It’s rude to ask that.’
I bowed my head. ‘Um, I’m sorry…’
Victor lifted my head up with one of his big hands and winked at me. ‘Don’t ever say sorry to me for something like that, Jor. Okay?’
I smiled. I should’ve known he wasn’t being serious.
‘You’re allowed to dress a bit more individually now and don’t forget, being individual isn’t always the worst thing to be.’ He lowered the chain back into the box carefully.
‘What do you mean?’ I squeaked.
Victor squeezed my hand and stood up. ‘Just trust me.’
I replaced the lid on the box and placed it beside me. I needed to hide it before Skye saw it and tried to destroy it. Maybe it’d be a lot harder for her to destroy it if I was wearing it…
‘So, what was the verdict?’ Victor asked from under the window. It was small window but it was a window and Victor had always told me to treasure it. He always stared at the wall below it as if he could see the world through the wall.
‘Do you mean the role?’ I mumbled, pretending not to know.
He turned and raised an eyebrow at me. He had lost most of his hair a few years ago but his eyebrows were still dark and thick like two canopies hanging over his eyes.
‘Okay, are you ready?’ I asked, wondering if I was talking to him or myself. ‘Fire fighter.’
Victor broke into a grin and nodded to himself, as though I’d told him I was going to be The Leader, which was impossible of course. The most important and well-paid jobs were only reserved for women. ‘Fantastic…’
‘Fantastic?’ I repeated.
‘You don’t realise but that’s a perfect job for you, Jorah. It’s more than perfect.’ Victor clambered over to me, pulled me up and gave me another hug. I was rigid in his arms. Then he went over to the door and opened it.
‘Victor, where are you going?’ I blurted out but stepped back on myself. ‘I mean… I thought you’d have more to say.’
Victor paused by the door and didn’t turn back for a minute or so. When he did, he wasn’t smiling anymore but his eyes were wide.
‘Jorah, things will start to make sense in time.’
‘Get yourself downstairs and get through this day. We can’t talk about this now.’ He left, closing the door behind him. The sound of the door closing felt like an axe slamming into my chest. I looked down to see if I was haemorrhaging but I was fine; I guessed the fire could still have me. The survival rate over five years for fire fighters was less than fifty percent. It wasn’t that I was that keen on living but I didn’t fancy burning to death doing the role The Society had given me. I wanted to die when I chose or by accident; somehow out of their control.