Rose comes from the capital of the Confederation of Cities where its citizens live in luxury and the greatest fashion statement of all is being Altered. People change everything about the way they look as often as they do their hairstyle but Rose is different and travels to the land of the Unaltered to prove it.
I woke up confused, disoriented and under attack.
I could hear the sounds of bullets in the distance getting closer with every passing second. In the confusion following my abrupt awakening, it took me a few precious seconds to realize this wasn’t my room and that I was in a foreign bed. Then I remembered I was onboard a convoy, taking me far away from home.
I gazed out of the tiny window next to my borrowed bed to see the attackers; about two dozen people on horseback, riding parallel to the moving convoy. A few held lit torches that blazed against night’s sky. The rest carried guns, all aimed at me. My heart reached a frantic pace when I saw their bodies move closer to my window. I had lived my whole life in fear of assassination and now that the threat was real and present, time stood still as I observed the faces of my would-be killers.
Their faces shone with excitement and energy. Never in my entire life had I felt as alive as these people appeared to be, riding towards me with their guns blazing. The full moon illuminated them and the green valley they galloped across. Weaving in and out of the sparse trees, their horses flew across the grassy terrain and maintained pace with the convoy. With my breath frozen in my throat, I found myself confused with my discovery. These assailants seemed happy and not at all what I imagined assassins to be.
Their clothes were mismatched but not ragged. They had clean, Unaltered faces and their hair looked neatly arranged. I saw a young girl with two long braids streaming down her back. For some reason, those twin golden braids held me transfixed as she rode even closer. This would-be killer looked so young. She had to be about my age, seventeen. As I scanned the rest of their faces, I noticed none of them seemed much older than thirty. Women made up almost half of their numbers.
I had always been taught to fear assassins and imagined them to be deranged renegades, but these people seemed vibrant and full of glee. Their smiling faces almost made me forget that they were after me. Preparing for the worst, I steeled myself and moved away from the small window. Getting down on my hands and knees, I searched my cabin for something to barricade the door with. Unfortunately, every stick of furniture was attached to the wall.
The sounds of gunfire got closer and my once comfortable room was now stifling. My stomach twisted into a knot of fear that I forced myself to ignore. After all, I had been trained for this since I was a little girl and I knew what to do. I needed to take stock of my surroundings.
The convoy did not have accommodations for extra passengers, so the Leader of the Convoy had surrendered his room to me. I had made myself comfortable in his small compartment while he shared with the crew. The surfaces of his room were made of highly polished wood that gleamed in shiny perfection and I marveled at the cabin’s ingenuity in making use of every nook and cranny. A model of expert efficiency, its compartments slid into the walls and bins folded into the ceiling. I started to go through the compartments, looking for something of use, until I found what just might save me: a pistol.
Heavier than I expected it to be, I was pleased to find the pistol already loaded and ready to go. My fingers gripped the cool metal as I pushed aside the growing fear and remembered every word of my safety training. I moved into a tight corner with good cover, aimed the pistol at the door and waited for my attackers.
The knock on that door made me jump half out of my skin. Assassins don’t knock, do they? I slowed my racing heartbeat and forced my brain to think clearly.
“Who is it?” I asked with as much braveness as I could muster.
“Convoy Leader Simpson. May I come in?”
The voice sounded right, even and free of fear. Having been taught to expect a trap, I tightened my grip and took a deep breath.
“Come in.” My level voice didn’t betray any of my fear.
The door opened and Convoy Leader Simpson himself took one step into the room. He appeared to be more afraid of me than of the assassins outside of my window.
“Don’t shoot.” He lifted both hands in the air as though to surrender. “I came to tell you that everything is fine.”
I lowered the gun but kept it firmly in my hands as I moved back to the small window by my bed. Outside, I could now only see the backs of my attackers as they rode away. With their guns holstered, they rode quickly into a nearby thicket of trees where the branches and bushes would soon conceal them from the moonlight.
“They’re riding away,” I said in disbelief.
“It’s what they always do.”
I tore my eyes away from the small window and looked over at him. His impossibly smooth skin, as well as his strong and exaggerated chin told me he had been Altered.
“I don’t understand. This happens often?”
Simpson was young, not too much older than me. An expert at telling the age of citizens from our capital, Civitas, I knew the trick was to look past the face. Faces were often Altered beyond recognition. Instead, I focused on hands or even better, elbows. Sometimes older people tried to keep the saggy and stretched skin around their elbows covered since it was a dead giveaway, but hands are always out for everyone to see. The surgery hadn’t yet been invented to Alter them without hindering their function.
“They weren’t after me?”
He took two steps further into my room and stopped.
“Please rest assured that you will be fine. They were not here for you.”
“How can you be sure?” I asked.
“They don’t even know you’re aboard.”
I let out a sigh of relief and glanced outside once more. They had disappeared under the trees with nothing left to remind me of the attack except for the heavy gun I held in my hands. It seemed silly to still be holding it, so I handed it over to Convoy Leader Simpson.
Careful not to touch my skin, he removed the pistol from my hand. The youthful skin of the Convoy Leader’s hands told me he was in his early twenties. Such an important post for someone so young meant he possessed good connections. Yet he wasn’t well connected enough to not fear me. Though his dark brown eyes were scared, they also held a hint of curiosity.
“Then what were they after?” I asked.
He shifted his weight between his feet a bit before answering.
“They routinely attack the convoy between cities.”
“Why?” I had never heard of anyone attacking a convoy.
“It’s true, ma’am. They fire their guns at us, but it’s to no avail. The convoy is armored so their guns won’t do us any harm,” he replied without answering my question.
“I had no idea the convoy was armored.”
These attacks must happen often, which didn’t make sense. Who would want to attack the convoy? It carried essential supplies between all the cities within the Confederation of Cities. Did they want the supplies or something else?
“Well, I wanted to make sure you weren’t frightened or disturbed.” He kept his eyes downcast as he hovered in the doorway.
“Thank you. I’m fine.” I reassured him.
“Yes ma’am. Goodnight ma’am.”
He closed the door without once meeting my eyes. If he had, he would have noticed the irritation on my face. I had gotten sick and tired of being referred to as ma’am. At seventeen, I found the title more than a little offensive, but this poor guy must have been petrified after spending the last three days traveling with me.
People in positions of authority always thought I had been sent to observe them and report on them to the Chancellor himself. The Chancellor of the Confederation has ruled with absolute power since the Great Pandemic. His position had been created for our protection. Now, most people feared him almost as much as they feared my father. Little did they know I hadn’t spoken to the Chancellor in years and I could care less about reporting on people to him.
Oh well. Another day had passed without my being assassinated. I sunk down into my, I mean Simpson’s, bed and tried my best to go back to sleep, which proved to be rather easy considering the gentle rocking of the convoy over the iron tracks that stretched all across the Land of the Unaltered.
I had hitched a ride with the Chancellor’s Convoy. One of the few solar powered vehicles with enough range to travel long distances, the convoy carried trade goods throughout the Confederation of Cities, but for me they made an exception. I only had to present my identification tag to the Leader of the Convoy. He scanned the tag, raised his eyebrows and then tried not to make eye contact again. It’s what they all did.
The convoy traveled between the twenty cities of the Confederation and resembled a long collection of silver sausages. Made of gleaming metal, the entire roof of each compartment was covered with solar panels to generate enough energy to travel the long distances between the cities. Almost every compartment stored cargo, the convoy’s chief purpose. One compartment contained bunks and washrooms for the crew and another held the kitchen and a common living area for them to use. The compartment in the front held the engine room and the Convoy Leader’s bedroom and washroom. His compartments were lavish compared to what the crew used but still smaller than my closet back home.
The next morning, I enjoyed a far different view. I squinted out the small window to see something more beautiful than words. The sun was rising above the tallest and greenest forest I had ever seen. Of course, I’d heard about Eureka. The city derived its name from the ancient currency discovered around it. Its old coins had the name Eureka printed all over them and the name stuck. Outside of my window, I saw glorious trees for as far as the horizon stretched. The growth was dense with trees closely planted to the tracks, filtering the morning sunlight and making the outdoors appear cold and mysterious.
A timid knock at my door told me that once again, Leader Simpson wished a word with me. I flopped out of bed, arranged my pajama pants and long sleeve thermal shirt as best as I could and then ran my fingers through my long, light brown hair. If Leader Simpson expected me to look more dignified, he shouldn’t wake me so early.
At first, I didn’t hear the Leader of the Convoy when he entered my room. He cleared his throat to get my attention. I was used to things like that. People were sometimes afraid to address me directly.
“We’re nearly there ma’am.”
“Thank you Leader Simpson.” I held his gaze long enough to see that spark of curiosity behind the fear in his eyes. “What’s your name? Your first name?”
He blinked in confusion. “David.”
“I’m Rose.” I smiled for the first time in days, if not weeks.
The fear started to slip away, but he still did not relax. They never did. He continued to stare and seemed reluctant to make any further conversation. It made me feel like a freak show, as if I was some kind of strange, caged animal people were too afraid to approach.
“Have you been to Eureka often?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am. It is the most beautiful city in the Confederation.” He paused and looked stricken. “Except for Civitas, of course.”
“Of course.” I smiled even bigger. “Please don’t call me ma’am, I’m sure I’m younger than you are. What’s Eureka like?”
“The people are friendly, a little backwards and plain, but that’s to be expected.” He started with slow, deliberate words, but gained conviction and momentum as he went on. “But the trees are indescribable. I’d seen pictures of the region in school, but it wasn’t until I saw them in person that the sheer vastness of their size really hit me. They even smell magnificent.”
The last statement made me laugh out loud, and although David continued to maintain his distance, he had at least relaxed a little. I felt like I stunk and he couldn’t bear to stand any closer to me than necessary, but I was used to people treating me like I had the plague.
Despite the physical distance, David stayed in my room for two hours to tell me about the various cities and what they were like. I heard about the sun scorched deserts of Solaris and the plains of endless grain surrounding Panis. I envied all the things he had seen and wished I had tried to converse with him earlier in the trip because those two hours flew by. Eventually, he had to return to his duties, but he came back to my room later in the evening to tell me we were about to arrive. The sky outside my window had turned black before we finally pulled into the depot.
“I’ll be making this circuit again in a month and can check up on you, if you do not mind? Then if you hate Eureka, I can always take you back,” David said.
“Thank you. That’s kind of you.” I was used to people being kind to me, but this time it seemed genuine. I knew he wouldn’t have offered before our long conversation.
“Is someone meeting you?” He buttoned up his official looking navy blue coat. Its polished brass buttons flashed in the dim light.
“Yes, my Aunt Ivy.”
“Good. The depot is more than a fair distance from the town.”
The convoy lurched to a stop, and I braced my hand against the wall to keep steady. I had my things ready and waiting, so David gathered the different cases and led the way out of my borrowed room and down the long corridor towards the exit. Men jumped to life all around me as crates and barrels were being hauled out of the convoy and put on the depot’s platform. As I walked along the platform, the men parted and receded from my presence as if I was covered in rotten fish. They scurried to the sides and avoided my eyes. I hated their treatment and the miserable way that it made me feel, but it made me more certain than ever that I had made the right decision in coming to a place where people wouldn’t know me.
Not much to behold, the depot was comprised of a long raised platform made of wooden planks with a wooden railing on the side opposite the convoy. Overhead, a few dim and flickering lights cast strange shadows as the crew bustled to remove their cargo and load what appeared to be large crates of lumber. The echo of wood underneath my feet sounded odd but pleasant. Back home, all of the public walkways were made of concrete. I liked the loud clap the heels of my shoes made along the planks, and I immediately knew I liked this wooden wonderland.
Then I noticed the lumber workers scurrying about the depot, receiving their deliveries from the convoy. Their appearance caused me stop in my tracks and stare. I had never seen so many Unaltered adults in my life. The sea of brunette heads took me by surprise. Their hair ranged from dark chestnut to a light sandy color. I even spotted a couple of blondes. Variety like this was unheard of in Civitas, where everyone would dye their hair in bright neon colors, according to the fashion. No one kept their hair its natural color, except for me. Then I noticed their wrinkles. Some faces were covered in them, while others had just a few sprouting here and there, and their faces were all unique. Every nose and every pair of eyes had their own character. I could stare at this sea of faces and never find two that matched.
I spotted Aunt Ivy’s bushy red hair right away. I loved her hair. It was like no one else’s in my family, and we loved to joke that a mistake had been made and she wasn’t my dad’s younger sister. She disliked my parents as much as I did. We were each other’s real family. Since she had moved to Eureka ten years ago, we had messaged each other faithfully each week and we would spend the entirety of her yearly visit together. She looked every bit of her thirty-five years and had no plans to remove the tiny wrinkles that had recently appeared around her bright blue eyes.
Before I realized it, I ran to meet her and charged into her arms.
“My sweet Rose!”
“I’m here Aunt Ivy! I’m really here!”
I returned her vice-like hug, and we held each other until I heard David clear his throat with great exaggeration.
“Is your transport nearby, Doc Ivy?” David gestured to all of my cases.
“Just off the platform.”
As the town’s only doctor, my aunt was one of the few people allowed her own personal transport vehicle. I wasn’t surprised David had recognized her. Everyone knew my aunt by sight. She, along with her small staff, attended all of the sick and injured in Eureka, and even the men on the Convoy if they needed help. Sometimes she made short trips to the other cities to offer medical aid and training. Since she made a point of not using her last name, most people didn’t know about her relatives back in Civitas. They were satisfied with knowing only that she was a highly trained doctor from the capital.
Her transport smelt like antiseptic, so I lowered the window to breathe in the fresh night air, and waited patiently in the front seat as David loaded my things. This model ran on a rechargeable battery, and although ill-suited for long distance travel, it had a large flatbed in the back which could be used to carry supplies or even people lying down. Tonight it held almost every single one of my possessions. I had no idea how long I could stay in Eureka, but I did not want to go back home.
David finished quickly and paused at my window with a nervous smile. “Enjoy your stay.”
“Thank you.” I extended my hand out the open window. His large hand enveloped mine for a moment, and then he rushed away to disappear into the hustle of moving bodies on the depot platform.
“What a nice young man.” Aunt Ivy gave me a knowing glance as she got in and started the transport. “Did you two have a pleasant trip?”
“If by pleasant you mean, he avoided looking at me or making eye contact, then yes, we had a pleasant trip.”
“He made plenty of eye contact as far as I could see.” Aunt Ivy kept her gaze on the road, but her lips twitched in an effort to conceal a smile.
“Yeah, at the very end, he finally spoke to me. Not bad, all things considered. It only took three days for him to stop being afraid of me enough to have a normal conversation,” I said with little attempt to hide the bitterness I felt.
“Aww sweetie, things are going to be better here. I promise. People here aren’t afraid of your dad the way they are in Civitas and most of them won’t even know who your mother is. All they will know is that you’re my niece. Nothing else.”
I let out a deep breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. “I hope so.”
“Not really.” I was far too excited to be sleepy. “What do you have in mind?”
“A feast.” She flashed a gigantic grin at me.
Like other houses in Eureka, my aunt’s home was wooden, but hers had a red roof to distinguish it from the rest. A little larger than most of the homes we passed as we drove through town, her new home was tiny compared to her old house in Civitas. My aunt clearly didn’t want anyone to find out about her extraordinary wealth or its source.
While others spent years embellishing their wooden dwellings until they looked like replicas of the delicate doll’s houses I used to play with as a child, my aunt preferred to leave hers rather plain and with meager decorations. She filled the inside with simple but sturdy furniture, and left the walls unpainted, exposing the lovely wooden walls that mirrored the good timber surrounding Eureka.
Aunt Ivy loved to cook, something she was never permitted to do back home. Together we made all of my favorites. Since we had similar tastes, most of them were her favorites too. Plain, simple food, and nothing so fancy that I had to struggle to pronounce. We ate fried chicken, potato salad, and corn on the cob, with a giant jug of cider to wash it all down. We had just started in on the apple cobbler when Aunt Ivy brought up my plans for independence.
“You sure you want to get a job while you’re here? Lord knows I have piles of money I never even touch. You’re welcome to all of it.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I want a job.” I looked her square in the eyes. “I don’t want to have to ask anyone for anything anymore, and I want to feel useful.”
“I felt the same way at your age.” She smiled. “What about working at the clinic? You still against that?” She piled a heaping scoop of ice cream on top of her steaming cobbler.
“I appreciate the offer, honestly I do. You know I’m interested in medicine and I would love to spend time with you but…” I paused with my spoon in midair.
“But you want to get out from under your family’s skirt,” she finished for me.
Aunt Ivy always understood. Last summer, I had worked at my father’s hospital, drawing and storing blood samples. Everyone had either given me a wide berth and avoided contact with me, or they had resented my position there and did whatever they could to make me feel unwelcome. I wanted to be on my own and leave my family in Civitas, where they belonged. I wanted people to draw their own conclusions about me without any outside influences.
“Well, I talked to Paul Rivers. He runs the lumber mill, which around here is the biggest thing there is. He’s agreed to take you on. You can start tomorrow if you like.”
“Perfect. What will I be doing?” I swallowed another spoonful of apple cobbler. It burned the roof of my mouth, so I added a spoonful of ice cream to cool it down.
“Not sure, but I told him he’d be hard pressed to find someone brighter than you. He promised to look out for you.”
Some people hate leaving home. They miss their families, their friends, their school and everything else familiar. Not me. I relished the idea of starting over and going someplace so far away, no one will have heard about me or worse, my parents. I hoped that twenty-five hundred miles would be far enough. I couldn’t get any further without crossing an ocean. The distance brought a contented grin to my face.
Tonight, I was far away from home with the one person I loved most in the world, a belly full of my favorite foods, and about to start a new job in a town where no one knew who I was. Things couldn’t have been any better.