1THE UNITED NORTHERN ALLIANCE
SIX YEARS LATER
AS OUR BUS APPROACHES the Harka Museum of Re-education, I peer out the window at the soldiers standing out front in the sculpture gardens. The sculptures are just broken remnants, long ago smashed under combat boots. The flagpole flies our nation’s flag, an eye hovering over a globe branded with the letters UNA, the abbreviation used by everyone for the United Northern Alliance.
The driver parks on a circular driveway in front of the museum’s entrance, and I look up. Marble columns sweep fifty feet toward a pediment that still bears old scars from rebel mortar attacks.
There’s only one day left until I’m forced to take the Government Personality Profile Test—GPPT for short—which is why our class is on this field trip. The trip is meant to show us what happens to kids who fail the test.
A heavyset woman in a gray uniform stands up near the front of the bus as the door opens. It’s Ms. Baines, our Social Reconstruction teacher. She ushers our class out of the vehicle and into the hot sun. We stand on the asphalt, a diverse throng of kids. Everyone, rich or poor, orphan or not, goes through the same public school system in the UNA.
“This way, class,” Ms. Baines orders. We follow her up a wide stone staircase, toward the massive front door of the museum that beckons like a hungry mouth. Inside, it’s dark and cool.
The Harka Museum once held some of our state’s greatest works of art. Now, like most museums, it’s a shrine to our government and its leader, Minister Roland Harka. Instead of paintings, the walls display digital maps of the United Northern Alliance’s global conquests. Armies are rendered as colorful dots, and battles as pixelated cubes.
Being in this museum makes me think about our nation’s complicated history. At sixteen, I’m too young to remember what a real museum was even like. I only remember reading about them, before most books and digital media were withdrawn from circulation. That happened when I was eight, two years before my parents got taken, and just three years after the formation of the United Northern Alliance—a merger of Canada, the United States, and Mexico into one vast, chaotic nation.
From what my mom and dad told me, the citizens of those countries weren’t in favor of the alliance. But food was scarce after a global economic meltdown, and people were turning to violent crime. So the government leaders made the radical decision to create the UNA.
When angry citizens rebelled, military police used lethal force to stop the demonstrations. The demonstrations turned into riots, and then into total anarchy as people turned against their own government.
Every week our building would shake as a car bomb detonated somewhere, and I’d often fall asleep at night listening to the crack of gunfire. That was when Roland Harka, a charismatic four-star
general, took office by force and appointed himself prime minster of the UNA. For life.
After that, everything changed. Minister Harka united the military by rewarding those who joined him with bribes, and imprisoning anyone who disobeyed. He imposed savage penalties for breaking laws and snatched away the freedoms everyone took for granted. All communication was restricted: no more cell phones, personal computers, or Internet access.
Anything that could encourage subversion of the government, or simply draw a crowd—like religious gatherings—was outright banned. Then the nation’s borders were permanently closed. According to Minister Harka, the entire country had to be united in isolation to achieve safety and prosperity.
He also mandated that all scientists immediately put their knowledge to use for the benefit of the government. For Minister Harka, technological supremacy became the key to conquering the globe, amassing plundered resources from other nations, and maintaining order at home.
“Move it, Alenna!” Ms. Baines suddenly snaps, breaking my reverie and shooing me along a corridor. I’m lagging behind my classmates. We’re heading toward a large display screen, thirty by fifty feet, hanging on a stone wall in the main gallery. This screen is the centerpiece of every Harka Museum. When I reach it, I jostle for position, looking up at the live digital feed.
There is a name for the place that we’re watching—Prison Island Alpha—but nobody dares say it out loud for fear it might jinx them. Some call it the Land Across the Water, or the Land Beyond. To others it is simply the Forgotten Place. I stare in fascination at the footage of stunted trees and verdant plains now flickering in front of me.
The kids who get sent to this island are the ones who fail the GPPT, a test that predicts a propensity for criminal activity years in advance. It’s administered to all high school students during the fall of their junior year, and can identify potential murderers, rapists, thieves, and psychopaths before they act on their impulses. Because of this test, crime has virtually been eliminated in the UNA.
The test isn’t something you can study for. It’s not even a test in the normal sense. No one asks you any questions. Instead a serum gets injected into your veins, and then computers scan your brain, looking for abnormalities.
The kids who are found to have aberrant personalities—ones that will lead them toward a life of crime and violence—are labeled “Unanchored Souls” by the government and shipped to the desolate prison island.
I continue to stare at the digital window into this harsh world, waiting for something to happen. On the grassy plain, between rows of crooked palm trees, stand the ruins of gigantic concrete buildings. Behind them is a massive stone spiral staircase, leading up into gray clouds that hang above the landscape.
A balding museum docent steps forward, speaking into a microphone. His reedy voice crackles to life in our government earpieces, the ones we have to wear each day from sunrise to sunset in our left ears. Sometimes the earpieces play classical music—like Wagner and Bruckner—other times, recordings of patriotic speeches delivered by Minister Harka.
We can’t control the earpieces, so I’ve learned to ignore mine. But today I’m listening. I want to hear what the docent has to say.
“When Prison Island Alpha was first populated, more than two thousand video cameras were placed inside. We thought that the
island would develop its own civilization—like penal colonies have in the past. Most notably Australia in the 1800s.” The docent pauses. “Yet this never happened on Island Alpha. Instead, the savages who call it home destroyed most of our cameras. Only a few cameras remain, hidden in trees. We now rely on satellite imagery as our primary—”
“Can’t you drop more cameras in there?” a boy interrupts.
The docent shakes his head. “The inmates use the raw materials for weapons.”
“Doesn’t the island get overcrowded?” another classmate asks. It’s Melissa O’Connor, a brunette with perfect hair and teeth, courtesy of her wealthy parents.
The docent looks over at her. He has probably fielded a million random questions from students like us. I wish I could come up with one he’s never heard before, just to stump him.
“Overpopulation’s not an issue,” he explains, “because life expectancy on Island Alpha is only eighteen years of age.”
The crowd burbles.
I turn that number over in my mind. I wonder what it would feel like to have only two more years to live. My chest tightens.
I haven’t done any of the things I want to do with my life yet. I want to travel, but because of all the restrictions, I haven’t left New Providence in years. And I want to write music. I’ve been playing guitar since my dad started teaching me when I was six, and the guitar was bigger than me, but I’ve never played in public, only at home. And I haven’t even gone out on a date with a boy yet, let alone kissed one. For a sixteen-year-old, that’s pretty pathetic.
I realize for the first time what being sent to the island really means—the total annihilation of hope.
I peer back up at the image on the screen. I don’t see a single person. Just the desolate landscape, rotting under the sun. I wonder if the inhabitants are hiding.
“Can the prisoners escape?” a nearby girl asks the docent, sounding worried. “Build a boat and sail it back here?”
“Sometimes they try, but they always fail.”
“What a bunch of losers,” Melissa mutters. Her friends titter, but not me.
I guess I just feel bad for any kid who gets sent to this place, even if I know they deserve it. Maybe it’s because of what happened to my parents.
They never even received a trial. They just vanished. My dad had been a philosophy professor, and my mom had been a genetic engineer. At least before all the research facilities and universities were placed under government control. My mom quit her job because she said the UNA just wanted to use her research to develop biological weapons.
I never found out exactly why both my parents got seized when they did, although I assume it was partly because of my mom’s refusal to cooperate. I was told their old jobs had just been covers anyway, and that they’d been plotting to form a terrorist cell and assassinate government leaders.
For a long time, I was certain this was a lie. But these days I’m no longer sure what to believe. I loved my parents deeply, and I still hate the government for what they did to them. But it’s also true that the UNA succeeded in restoring order. There are no more bombs going off in buses, or people dying on the streets in rebel attacks. Perhaps accepting the inconvenience of being controlled by the government is actually the price of safety, like Minister Harka says.
Sometimes I feel angry at my parents for doing whatever it was that got them taken. They must have known I’d be stranded and sent to an orphanage if they got caught. Why would they jeopardize our family like that if they truly loved me?
I assume by now they’re probably dead, because prison conditions are harsh in the UNA. I often try to pretend that the first ten years of my life were a dream, and I was always an orphan. It’s easier that way.
I sneak a look at my classmates watching the screen. For once they look excited, probably hoping to see some on-screen violence. Usually their faces are slack with boredom, their minds dulled from taking government-prescribed thought-pills. The thought-pills are meant to increase concentration and help us do well in school, although they just seem to make most kids sleepy. They’ve never had much effect on me.
In fact, I’ve always felt slightly different from most of my classmates. This is partly because orphans with dissident parents aren’t too popular, but also because the things other kids bond over—like military parades and government war movies—just don’t interest me much. And the things that I love, like music and books, don’t seem to interest them.
“Oh my God!” Melissa yelps, startling everyone.
At the same instant, another girl shrieks, “Look!”
I stare up at the screen as a figure steps into view.
The instant I see his face, I gasp. I expected to see a menacing juvenile delinquent. Someone with a shaved head and blackened teeth, with curved talons for fingernails. Carrying a blood-spattered weapon.
Instead, I see a remarkably good-looking teenage boy staring defiantly into the camera lens. No weapon, no blood, no talons.
His dark brown hair is disheveled, and his eyes are a magnetic shade of blue, set above high cheekbones. He’s lanky, but muscular. Wearing beat-up jeans but no shirt, displaying his tanned, lithe torso.
The strangest thing of all is that the more I stare at the contours of his face, the more I feel like I know this boy from somewhere. But of course that’s impossible. I instantly dismiss the feeling. He’s just a random Unanchored Soul fending for his life on a prison island, while I’m here on the mainland, on a school-sponsored field trip.
Still, I feel oddly drawn to him for some reason. His blue eyes are piercing and intelligent.
“Ew, he looks so wild,” Melissa spits. “Like an animal.” Other kids instantly chime in with comments.
“I bet he hasn’t bathed in a month!”
“Or a year!”
“He doesn’t even own a shirt. . . .”
Our earpieces begin playing classical music to calm us.
“Quiet!” Ms. Baines admonishes, but no one listens to her, least of all me. I’m still mesmerized by the boy.
He’s gesturing with his hands as his eyes remain locked on the camera. At the same time, I see his lips start moving and I realize that he’s talking. He looks intense and focused, like he’s trying to convey an important message.
I speak up, startling everyone including myself. “Can you turn the volume up?”
The docent glances over at me. “There’s no audio. We can’t risk inmates trying to corrupt innocent minds with their madness.”
“Yes, yes,” Ms. Baines seconds, glowering at me for asking an
innocent question. “This boy’s probably speaking in tongues.”
“Someone should put him down like a rabid dog,” a chunky kid named Jonas mutters. He gets some murmurs of agreement.
“Stop it!” Ms. Baines snaps. She glances over at the docent sheepishly, like our class is embarrassing her. Then she turns back to us. “The island will take care of Unanchored Souls like this boy.” Her voice rises in pitch. “The island knows what to do with savage teenagers who don’t fit in!”
On-screen, the boy continues to talk and gesture fiercely. His hands dash and twirl, drawing complex figures in the air. I realize he’s trying to use sign language to communicate his message, but I still can’t understand.
It’s then that another figure emerges from a cluster of trees behind the boy.
This second figure is huge and menacing—a good head taller than the first one—and he’s wearing a long black robe. I can’t see his face clearly.
“Whoa. They’re gonna fight!” Jonas and his friends begin yammering. My heart starts beating faster.
“We can dim the screen,” the docent says, no doubt trying to protect our tender eyes. But Ms. Baines interrupts him.
“Don’t. It’s important that they see this.”
I watch as the dark figure edges closer, head down, slowly moving up behind his intended victim. The blue-eyed boy is still looking at the camera, oblivious.
“I can’t take it!” a girl cries. But she keeps watching, and so do I, the breath stuck in my throat. I’m surprised the boy hasn’t heard anything yet, like the crackling of twigs underfoot. But the dark figure is moving forward with methodical precision, like he’s done this many times before.
Now he’s twenty paces away from the boy.
At the very last second, the boy’s eyes widen, and he spins sideways. Melissa and her friends scream. The attacker lunges forward, his mouth twisted into a toothy snarl. I now see that his face is painted bloodred, with black lines rimming his eyes and lips.
The blue-eyed boy raises an arm, and surprisingly, I catch a flash of something sharp and silver hidden in his palm. It looks like a knife. Almost like he was expecting the attack and was just biding his time.
Then the image pops and slips into a dizzying array of electronic glitches. Everyone gasps. The screen cuts to black.
The docent looks truly alive for the first time. My classmates start babbling:
“Dude, what happened?”
“We want to see!”
“Bring it back up!”
“We lose the satellite feed sometimes,” the docent explains, entering a code on a touch-screen pad. “Not often, but it happens.”
Our class is getting noisier, and Ms. Baines shushes everyone. Our earpieces are practically blasting classical music now. A moment later the screen flares to life again.
But the blue-eyed boy and the dark figure are both gone. It’s just the trees, the grassy plain, the buildings, and that strange stone staircase, sitting there in a lifeless tableau.
Goose bumps run up and down my arms. The boy might be dead, unless he did indeed have a knife. Around me everyone is speculating about what might have happened.
The boy definitely didn’t look like he belonged on the island to me, but supposedly no one can tell from appearances. An Unanchored Soul is invisible to the eye. Antisocial tendencies cut across skin color, gender, looks, and everything else. Which is why the GPPT is so important.
At least I have nothing to worry about, I think. Of the millions of kids who take the test every year, only one thousandth of 1 percent fail and get sent to the island. And I’ve never done a single thing that suggests I’m a burgeoning psychopath. In fact, I’m pretty much the opposite of an Unanchored Soul. I get good grades, I keep my head down, and I look forward to the future.
While life as an orphan in the UNA might not be perfect, it could be a whole lot worse. So I know that the GPPT will show I pose no threat to anyone—let alone society itself.
Our class moves on to make way for another. Yet something about the blue-eyed boy on the video screen continues to linger in my mind and unsettle me just a tiny bit. What was he trying to tell us so desperately? And why did he look completely sane if he’s supposed to be an Unanchored Soul? For an instant, I wonder if it’s possible he got sent there by some fluke accident.
Then I put the thought right out of my mind. There’d have to be some kind of terrible mistake during the GPPT for such a thing to happen. And that would be inconceivable, because Minister Harka’s government—as it so often reminds us—never makes mistakes.