Ten years ago, Briar’s body rejected a government mandated vaccine known as SAP (Serum to Advance Progressivism), formulated to erase God from the mind. Briar was seven years old. She’s been on house arrest ever since.
Now, just weeks from becoming a legal adult, Briar remains non-responsive to her mandatory SAP injections. Along with her rapidly approaching eighteenth birthday looms a grim reality: by order of the Commandment, adulthood means institutionalization for those resistant to SAP.
In a matter of days, Briar will become a permanent resident of the ARC—a facility shrouded in dark rumors of torture, experimentation, and death. Her only alternative is to accept a last minute ultimatum to become a laboratory test subject for a new God-dissolving serum.
With a decade of solitude behind her and a lifetime of confinement before her—what does she have to lose? Except maybe her soul.
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“It’s late September, not the middle of July,” Briar’s mother said, blotting her forehead as she clipped down the walkway toward the car. “Seems Mother Nature didn’t get the memo.”
“Can I drive?” she asked, jogging to the driver’s side.
“We’ve already discussed this. You’re not allowed behind the wheel until that thing comes off your leg.” She nodded toward the clunky black box strapped around Briar’s ankle.
The infamous ankle monitor—aka life destroyer. Briar’s electronic prison guard since age seven.
“But that’s so ridiculous. What am I going to do, pick up a bunch of other unlevels and start a crusade? Come on, please? Only to the clinic. They’ll never know.”
“Don’t argue. Get in.” Her mother aimed the key fob at the car.
“You know, Mom, if you owned a cuffphone, like the rest of the population, you wouldn’t need that old fob. The car would sense you coming and the door would pop open on its own.”
Briar drudged around to the passenger side and climbed in, the headachy, sweet scent of floral air freshener hitting her between the eyes.
Her mom slid behind the wheel and clicked her seatbelt. “Buckle up,” she said, double-glancing at her daughter. “What on earth is that on your head?”
“You noticed?” Briar pulled the seatbelt over her shoulder and snapped it, catching a section of long blue hair in the clasp. “I was chatting with Mouse online, trying to cheer him up.” She plucked the wig from her head, freed the strands from the buckle, and pushed the wig into her bag, causing her furry keychain to fall out onto her lap.
“He was sad about losing his dad.”
The little boy’s face had crumpled as he’d told her he wanted his dad back. She’d known how to make him feel better but had swallowed the comforting Bible verse on her tongue—one of many passages her grandmother had taught her as a child—and put on the silly wig instead. Blue hair was acceptable. Reciting Scripture would get her arrested. Sharing Christian faith was illegal by law of The Commandment. The crime carried an even stiffer penalty than skipping a SAP injection or disabling a fleshcard.
Not that either of those things meant anything to Briar. Her body repeatedly rejected the Serum to Accelerate Progressivism, meaning she had no need for the under-the-skin device that kept track of SAP levels in the brain. Her body’s intolerance of SAP was the reason she couldn’t take a walk around the neighborhood, or drive—or do anything that made life worth living.
Her mom flicked her gaze to the little stuffed lamb dangling from the metal ring. “For goodness sake, Briar, need I remind you that you have graduated from high school? You are far too old for stuffed animals and playing dress up.” She glanced over her shoulder and backed from the driveway, her mouth a tight pucker. “It’s time for you to grow up.” She snatched her oversized sunglasses from the dash and shoved them onto her face.
“Not good advice to give someone majoring in child psychology, Mom. I actually want to be able to relate to the kids I’ll be working with face-to-face each day.” She picked up the stuffed toy handmade by her grandmother and shined its button eyes on her t-shirt. “Make that face-to-screen, in my case,” she muttered.
“Stop complaining. Your high school diploma is every bit as good as the ones received on that Greenfield High commencement platform—earned yours a full six months before the rest of the class, I might add. And your degree will be as commendable as those earned on the Greenfield College campus. Besides, don’t jump the gun. I have a good feeling about today.” Her mother gave half a dozen small nods. “Today may be the day we’ve been waiting for. Your brain might respond to the serum, and you’ll be free of that clunker around your ankle forever. Have a little faith.”
“Last time I checked, my faith is what the OLG was trying to get rid of.”
Operation Level Ground maintained a no-tolerance policy when it came to Christianity, and everyone knew it. The organization had long ago integrated the United States Postal Service, and now they owned cyberspace. OLG surveilled every email, video stream, blog, social media site, text message, phone call, and all other means of electronic communication known to man, to ensure nothing slipped past.
“Don’t get smart with me.” Her mother slid a hand from the wheel and pulled her sunglasses to the tip of her nose, throwing Briar a sharp look over the frames.
Briar smirked and tucked the lamb keychain into her bag. She lowered her gaze to the black box on her ankle. If by some chance her brain did accept the SAP injection, she’d be loose of the ankle monitor; but in turn, a fleshcard would be implanted in the back of her left hand to make sure her SAP level never dropped below the mandated amount. She shuddered. The thought of a chip being shoved under her skin set her nerves on edge.
The beep of an alarm filled the car. Briar glanced at the red light flashing on the ankle monitor and released a frustrated sigh. Her mom had forgotten to inform the OLG of her trip to the clinic.
“Dig the receiver out of my purse and text your appointment information to OLG headquarters.” Her mother pushed the designer bag toward her.
Dig. Definitely the right word. Briar poked around in the overstuffed purse, finally pulling out a phone—the wrong one. She needed the government issued receiver, not her mom’s personal cell. Why her mother insisted on holding onto that rigid old dumbphone instead of getting a cuffphone like the rest of modern civilization was beyond her. Briar tossed the thing back inside and then fondled it three more times before fishing out the right device.
“Booster?” she asked, keying in her I.D. number.
“No. Recheck,” her mom answered.
Briar texted “recheck” to the headquarters’ pre-programmed number. In a few seconds, the phone chimed. “That’s the code.” She unhooked her seatbelt, leaned down, and entered the digits into the ankle monitor’s keypad. A twenty-minute timer appeared on the screen, the blue numbers immediately counting down the seconds.
“Hope we don’t have any driving issues,” she muttered, re-clasping the seatbelt. “You’d better hurry. Five o’clock traffic is about to hit.”
“We’ve been doing this since you were seven. You know the timer automatically adjusts to traffic conditions. Sometimes I swear you try rattling me for fun.”
Briar pressed her lips together, fighting a grin.
Nineteen minutes later, her mother pulled into the parking lot of Greenfield Medical Center. “There’s a good one.” Briar pointed through the windshield at a space near the front of the building.
Her mother eased the car between the yellow lines and killed the engine. “Right on time,” she said, glancing at Briar’s zeroed-out ankle monitor.
They exited the vehicle and walked up the sidewalk to the automatic glass doors. “Find us a couple of seats. I’ll get you checked in.”
Briar scanned the waiting room, settling on a pair of padded chairs against the far wall. After a moment, her mother joined her.
“At least they’re not terribly busy today.” She sat and began rifling through her purse. “Now where is that lipstick? I tucked a brand new tube in this morning.”
“Your lips are fine,” Briar said. “Red, as always. Like you’ve recently devoured a cherry popsicle—or a small animal. Why don’t you have them tattooed?”
“No, thank you,” her mother said, continuing to ransack her bag.
“Briar Lee.” A pretty woman in blue scrubs that Briar recognized as Nurse Sheila held open the door that led to the exam rooms.
Giving up the hunt for lipstick, Briar’s mother stood and walked with her.
Briar uncurled the cuffphone from around her forearm. “Hold this for me until I’m finished?”
Her mother took the device and tossed it into her purse.
Briar cringed. “Couldn’t you snap it on your arm? Now it’s lost forever.”
Her mother shook her head. “Nope. Thing’s like a vice. Makes me claustrophobic.”
A younger woman with yellow scrubs and a dark, messy-on-purpose bun met them in the small corridor.
“Briar,” Nurse Sheila said, “this is Megan.” She’s interning at the clinic. I invited her to observe your procedure, unless you or your mother object.”
“Fine with me.” Briar smiled and shrugged.
“Of course, it’s fine,” her mother said as Nurse Sheila led them into a room containing an exam table and two chairs.
Familiar with the routine, Briar hopped onto the table as her mother chose the nearest chair. “Guess we came at a good time. That’s the shortest stint we’ve ever experienced in the waiting room.” She inhaled the disinfectant scented air, glad to rid her sinuses of Mom’s cherry blossom car deodorizer.
“Yes. The past few weeks have been pretty slow,” the nurse said, unlocking a drawer and removing a small key from one of the compartments. “Before that, it was chaos. August was a blur of parents rushing in to get their kids’ SAP boosters before school started. Things have pretty well settled down—thank goodness.”
Briar held up her foot to the nurse, who unlocked the monitor and typed a code onto the keypad.
“Do you have the receiver?” she asked, lowering Briar’s foot before positioning the monitor on the counter next to a device port.
“Briar?” Her mother raised an eyebrow.
“I put it back in your purse.”
“For Pete’s sake.” Her mother dove into the bag again, shaking her head. She excavated the device and the nurse settled it onto the dock.
Megan the intern stepped to the counter, her curious gaze on the ankle monitor. “Can I look it over? I’ve never seen one of the old models.”
Briar tried to ignore the invisible kick to her gut. What Megan was saying—without actually saying it—was that SAP was very well received by the human body. Normal people responded to the serum at birth. Very rarely did a child remain unresponsive by the age of two. To remain unresponsive, or unlevel, as OLG liked to call it, into almost-adulthood was nearly unheard of—entirely unheard of in Greenfield, Oklahoma. Yet there she sat on the exam table.
Sheila nodded at Megan. “Bit of a relic, isn’t it?”
Megan picked up the bracelet and turned it over in her hand. “Heavy. I’ve never held one over a couple years old. How long have you worn it?”
“Ten years. I got it when I was seven, soon after The Commandment was instated. My brain didn’t respond to SAP. Still doesn’t. You probably already knew that part.”
“The OLG headquarters are alerted if the monitor travels outside the electronic receiver’s range.” Sheila pointed to the device on the dock. “The radius is a hundred and fifty feet, about half a football field.” She opened a metal cabinet filled with neatly folded hospital gowns and chose a light blue one from the shelf labeled “medium.” She handed the gown to Briar. “In other words, Briar and her mother are very close.” She winked and patted Briar’s arm.
Briar rolled her eyes and mouthed the words, “too close.”
“I saw that,” her mother said. “Lucky for you I feel the same way.”
Megan clunked the bracelet onto the counter next to the GPS receiver. “No fleshcard?”
“I’m SAP-less, remember?” Briar answered, unfolding the gown.
“Fleshcards measure the amount of serum in the body, and are implanted when the patient is leveled.” Sheila cut in. “Briar’s brain doesn’t respond to SAP injections—she’s never been leveled. A fleshcard can’t monitor what isn’t there to begin with, so it would be useless.” She turned to Briar. “We’ll give you some privacy so that you can slip into that fashion-statement of a dress. I’ll be back in a couple minutes to escort you to the cellar.”
Briar rubbed her hands together. “The cellar,” she said in an evil whisper. “I can hardly wait.”