Carissa’s white slip-on shoes pressed into the grey concrete steps. The ends of her normally pristine and white dress trailed on the dirty ground. The workshop was filled with spare bellies, legs and tails hanging from hooks attached to steel girders in the roof. She moved inside, tucking her shoulder-length dark-blonde hair behind her ears.
An old man in grease-covered overalls was bent over the open body of a fully assembled wolf on a long work table. The Collective called them ‘Guardians’, but the Inventor’s term, ‘wolves’, was a more accurate description of the part-organic, mostly metal beasts. He had designed the wolves for the Collective to act as guardians of the urbanos, built to protect the Originals who had been rescued from the towns.
The Collective ten, who controlled the city of Praesidium, often scolded Carissa when she visited the Great Hall with a dirty hem or a smear of grease on the back of her dress where the Inventor had hugged her. But Carissa didn’t mind the harsh words if it meant she could visit the old man; he was one of the few Originals left in a city designed and run by Copies. Carissa found him far more interesting than the Copies who lived and worked in Praesidium.
The Inventor’s workshop was located in a section of tunnels beneath the bright white city. In the middle of the room was a retractable roof, currently closed, that allowed larger machines to be lowered into the workshop so they could be worked on. On the floor of the large workspace were larger machines used for digging and assembling the urbanos and tearing the retreats down when they were of no further use.
The Copies, a claustrophobic bunch, didn’t like dark spaces and rarely ventured into the tunnels. But Carissa, a Copy herself, had no problem with being down below. In fact, she preferred the cool, dark space to the gleaming white city, which made her new eyes water.
The workshop was pungent with oil and grease. Carissa held her breath as she waited by the door for the Inventor to look up and notice her. He continued to work on the open body of the wolf, muttering when he bent in for a closer look.
‘Sorry, boy. This is going to hurt a bit.’ He tweaked something in the wolf’s belly. The wolf growled, deep and long.
The Inventor patted its head. ‘I’ve got to get you ready. That means connecting your voice box and your pain sensors. Almost done.’
Carissa clutched at her throat as the wolf turned its head and lunged at the Inventor’s arm. He cursed and pulled his arm away from the snapping mouth.
She took a step back, even though she was a comfortable distance from any potential danger. She had warned the Inventor about treating the wolves like pets; they were dangerous and could not be tamed, not even when operating under the Collective’s directive.
Carissa’s shoe scuffed against the ground in her hasty retreat, causing the Inventor to jump. He turned and stared at her, hand on heart.
‘Miss, you gave me a fright! How long have you been standing there?’
‘Not long.’ Carissa moved further into the room, her eyes fixed on the wolf; it was still supine on the table but very much alert.
She nodded at the wolf. This one was large and mature. The wolves came in different sizes, some smaller and younger. Its yellow gaze tracked her movements. ‘Is it going to Arcis?’
‘Yes. The Collective wants four of them to act as supervisors.’
‘To keep them in line?’ She shuddered at the thought of being controlled by one of the beasts.
The Inventor shrugged. ‘I assume so. Teenagers can be difficult to manage at the best of times. The Collective thought the presence of such magnificent creatures would command respect.’
‘Yes. They are quite something, don’t you think?’
They’re certainly something.
‘But the teenagers will be dazed. They won’t know what’s happening.’
The Inventor moved over to a counter that ran along one wall and wiped his hands on an oil-stained rag. ‘Even so, they’ll feel enough to be cautious of the wolves’ presence. That’s the purpose of the wolves, miss. To supervise.’
The wolf’s pink tongue darted out to lick its metal lips. Carissa hugged herself as its gaze remained fixed on her.
‘Has this one received its directive yet?’ The Collective’s directive was simple: ‘Copies must not be harmed’.
‘Yes, miss.’ The Inventor sighed and looked down at the wolf. ‘It may look menacing, but it is not going to harm you.’
Carissa stepped closer, feeling a little better. The wolf watched her silently. She kept her distance. ‘I suppose the teenagers have worse to fear than the Guardians, Inventor. The rebels are their true enemy.’
The Inventor kept his eyes on the wolf. ‘What happened to the townspeople was horrendous, but shipping the teenagers off to a Praesidium-built urbano isn’t the answer. They need to deal with the truth, that this world is not safe.’ He looked up at Carissa. ‘They need to learn how to survive, not to be relocated to Essention so they can be enrolled in some education programme that will keep them from the horrors of the world.’
‘But wouldn’t it be safer for them in Essention, rather than in the towns? They were poisoned by their own kind, by the rebels who claim to have their best interests at heart.’
The rebels had been in existence for just six months and had stated their goal was to free the townspeople from the tyranny of Praesidium and the Collective. But the Collective had only ever had the townspeople’s interests at heart.
‘The rebels aren’t the problem, miss.’ He waved his hand around the space. ‘This city is.’
As much as she liked the Inventor, she would not have him speak ill of the Collective. It had rescued the Inventor from a life of hardship. His town had also been hit by the rebellion, razed to the ground after a frenzied attack. The people living there had been left with nothing. The Inventor was a victim, just like all the Originals who lived in Praesidium.
‘You should remember where you came from, Inventor.’ Carissa raised her chin.
He sighed. ‘I do, miss. Every day.’
Carissa could see the Inventor needed more convincing. ‘The townspeople would be dead if Praesidium hadn’t stepped in and rescued the teenagers. The adults were killed, then the town was blasted with radiation poisoning. Should they have been left to die?’
The Inventor placed his hands on his hips and looked down at the counter. ‘No, miss. They shouldn’t have been left to die. But a place like Essention is not the answer. They don’t need protecting. They need to face up to the cold and unforgiving truth of life. And they must learn how to cope with it.’
The Inventor was an Original, so naturally his loyalties lay with the townspeople, which included the rebels. Carissa was a Copy, designed in the image of her dead Original to help keep Praesidium functioning.
She stared at the Inventor. A bout of nerves checked her but she forced out the question. ‘Are you a rebel sympathiser?’
The Inventor flicked his gaze to her. ‘Of course not.’ He turned to the supine wolf and patted it on its head. The wolf snarled at him. ‘But forcing the townspeople to live in Essention—’
‘So they can get medical treatment.’
‘Yes, there is that. But then enrolling the teenagers in a place like Arcis, a place designed to keep them from life for an indefinite length of time? That isn’t the answer.’
‘So, what is?’
‘Leave them in the towns. Give them the right support to get on with their lives. Some of them are almost adults. Let them stay in the only place they know.’
Carissa didn’t see how that was possible. ‘Their parents are dead, Inventor, at the hands of the rebels.’
‘I knew you wouldn’t understand, miss. You’re not like—’
‘Like you? An Original?’ The reminder hurt. Around the Inventor, she usually felt less like a Copy, more human.
‘Well, yes, if you must know.’
She pushed her hurt down. ‘No, Inventor. I’m better than an Original. I am an improved design.’