There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day. We’d arrived just after dawn, thinking we’d be among the first, but the square was almost full when we got there. The queue was confined within a series of compact, orderly rows, by red rope barriers. Row after row of young men and women, waiting. The air hummed softly with their collective hope, but beneath that was a faint, but distinct, whine of despair.
We were three rows from the back. I’d counted seventy, as we made our way down, and there had to be at least a hundred people in each. But that was just the queue in the square. Beyond the end of the barriers, a line of people, three or four thick, snaked irregularly down, what had once been the main shopping street, as far as the eye could see.
I’d not seen so many people gathered in the in the city centre like this for years. Way back at the beginning, when the GCC had introduced some controversial new policy or something, I’d been to a few demonstrations. There had been thousands of people at some of these, but they were different to this. They were loud and vibrant. People waved flags and banners, blew horns and whistles, wore face-paint and bright, colourful clothing and carried backpacks crammed with spare clothes, food and drink. People were angry and indignant back then. We were still happy back then. We still believed in the future. A future.
Now, we were resigned, subdued, fearful. This gathering It was very quiet and orderly. People spoke very little and, when they did, it was in hushed, soft voices. No-one wanted to attract any unwanted attention, to jeopardise their chances of being selected. They just wanted to wait patiently in line until their turn came. There were no flags or banners, no horns or whistles, no backpacks. All we had with us were the clothes we were standing in, and these were dirty, dull and frayed. We’d been instructed specifically not to bring anything with us. If we were selected, everything we could possibly need in the new world would be provided.
I think the GCC officials were a bit taken aback by how many people had turned up. They hovered around the edges of the crowd, in their high visibility jackets, glancing at us but not making eye contact, frowning and talking in low voices on their walkie talkies. Occasionally, they looked towards the large grey building at the other side of the square, where the queue began. At the front of the building, was a large set of double doors, at the top of a wide flight of stairs. Despite the humidity, all the doors and windows were firmly closed but, I was sure I could see shadowy figures watching us from inside, lurking behind the net curtains. I was also pretty sure they had air conditioning. The net curtains fluttered slightly, as if caressed by a soft breeze. But there was no breeze. I clenched my jaw against their hypocrisy.
Next to me, Grace was shivering a little. It wasn’t cold, it was almost never cold anymore, but she was soaked through. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her thin shoulders. She smiled up at me. Her skin was pale, almost translucent, making the dark shadows beneath her eyes look like bruises.
“Won’t be long now. The email said registration starts at nine.”
She looked at her watch. “Ten to.”
“See. Just a few more minutes and we’ll be moving.” I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. She pressed her cheek against my chest. Her damp hair smelled like vanilla and coconut.
It had started to rain about an hour after we arrived. It’s always raining these days. I always imagined that global warming would bring endless hot, dry days, but it appears that the opposite is true … for now at least. Something to do with warmer air holding more water vapour. I say “for now at least” because the GCC tell us that one day soon the rain will stop and, when it does, we’ll really be in trouble. As if we’re not already.
I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, as a sudden wave of nausea hit me. What was I thinking? What was I doing to Grace? To us? I couldn’t trust these people. They had lied to us time and time again. Imposed one crazy policy after another, and yet carried on living their own lives as if nothing had changed. I don’t even really know what we’re applying for. A new programme, a new world for young healthy young people. A chance to live, a chance to have children, a chance for a future. But where, how? It was very vague, very non-specific. But that was the point, they said. They wanted young, brave, healthy people. People who were prepared to take a risk for the future, for the human race, for the planet.
I had seen the first poster a month before. I’d been cycling back from the allotment with a basket of gnarled potatoes and a bunch of skinny carrots. It resonated with me right away. Something about the images stayed with me, smiling families, children, pets, bowls of fresh fruit, shiny white furniture. I thought about it all the way home. The seed was sown. By the time the leaflets, emails and notifications started to come through, asking for volunteers to attend an initial screening programme, it had taken root. I was convinced that this was what I had to do. What we had to do. Grace and me.
Our parents were devastated. When we told them, my mother wept, and my father just sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands.
“Mum, please?” I’d said. “Try to see it from our perspective? You and Dad have had a life. You’ve had jobs, kids, you’ve travelled, everything!”
“Son, we love you.” Dad looked up. His eyes were red. “Of course, we want all that for you, and more, but it just isn’t possible anymore. Times have changed. Just think about it. It doesn’t make sense. If something seems too good to be true, it almost always is.”
“It can’t be any worse than this! No meat, no fresh fruit and veg, except what we can grow ourselves, no power, except what we can generate ourselves, constant rain but not enough water, no cars, no new clothes, no jobs, no kids, no fucking money …”
“Ian, Ian.” Dad interrupted.
“Look, Dad, I know you don’t trust them because of everything they’ve done, but they’re trying. It’s hard. It’s really hard. We’ve gotta do something! Try something! We’re dying. The FUCKIN’ WORLD IS ENDING!”
“Ian!” Mum stopped crying. She was angry now. “That’s enough.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Look, we’re going to give it a try and that’s it. If it doesn’t work out, we can come back.”
“Are you sure?” Mum asked.
“Yes, I read it. It’s not compulsory. It’s not a prison.”
Grace’s eyes met mine. I looked away.
Now, standing in the registration queue, something didn’t feel right. Considering that we were all headed for some bright new future, there was a distinct lack of excitement. The invitations and information briefings had been upbeat and enthusiastic. Now, that we were actually here, the atmosphere was tense and apprehensive. Sure, it was a bit scary, stepping into the unknown like this, and the rain and the shifty GCC officials didn’t help, but there was something else. Something nagging at me. Something ominous, menacing.
I remembered an article about the GCC I had read the previous summer. It was on a subversive website that had popped up on my social media feed. It talked about corruption and elitism in the GCC and their belief that the single causal factor in global warming was overpopulation. It described their policies as Malthusian and suggested that their ultimate aim was extreme population control. It talked about eugenics and genocide and compared them to far right and fascist regimes of the past. It was fake news, of course it was. The conspiracy theorists had gone berserk over the past few years. Understandably so. But they were all nutters. Of course, they were. But what if … ? What if … ?
“Grace … ” I started. “I’m not … ”
My words were left hanging as the cathedral clock chimed nine. The crowd murmured. There was a scuffle of activity ahead of us. The GCC officials straightened their backs, poised and ready to officiate. The double doors at the top of the steps opened with a series of heavy clunks and a grating of metal on stone. Grace took my hand and stepped forward. I didn’t move. She took another couple of steps then turned back to look at me. Our arms were outstretched. She tugged my hand. Her eyes pleading. Still, I didn’t move.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m just not … feeling it.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Ian, come on. It’s time. Don’t do this.”
The queue was moving steadily now. I could see people ahead, ascending the steps and entering the building. People behind us looked at me questioningly, jostled me, started moving past us. What was wrong with me? I wanted this. Of course I did … Anyway, what choice did we have? What was the worst that could happen? I was getting paranoid. Been reading too much fake news. They weren’t going to murder us! I was losing my mind. I was just having a little panic. It’s a big deal after all.
I smiled at Grace and moved towards her.
“Sorry.” I kissed her forehead when I reached her. “Just a little wobble. I’m fine now. Let’s go.”
We turned and walked hand in hand towards the building.