The Collectors marched in, their black armor glinting in the sun, guns in hand. They brandished them at any citizens who moved out of line, throwing kicks at people to force them to brush up against the buildings on their way down the street.
Their leader led the group, carrying a pistol twice as large as the other soldiers, but handling it with ease. Even under the heavy plated armor, his muscles were visible, and thin brows stretched across his craggy forehead. A wispy beard dangled from his chin, and his dark eyes seemed to pierce right through the soul.
Several of Skylar’s friends found him attractive, but whenever Skylar saw him, her stomach turned in knots at his heartlessness. She didn’t care how pretty his face looked; someone that heartless could not be beautiful. Whenever he wrenched a child away from his grieving family, he needed no time to compose himself, instead was just able to brush it off because of his callous.
Skylar kept her face neutral, trying to hide her outright disgust. The standard-issue black boots worn by all the soldiers clapped in rhythm against the cobblestones that paved the streets. Everybody waited fearfully in the corners. Mothers gripping their children with unusual ferocity, as if afraid that these soldiers would try and take their sons and daughters away as well. Fathers stood stoically, refusing to publically show their fear in front of their families.
Her father rested a hand on her shoulder, and she froze, nerves tensed. Her father leaned down, lips brushing her ear, and whispered, “No matter what happens, I love you, Skylar. If, God forbid, you were taken away from me, you will always have a place in my home and a job at my garage.”
“I love you, Father,” Skylar whispered back, unable to put any of her thoughts into words. She felt something bubbling up inside her, and she leaned away in case she had to vomit, but nothing came up. Her throat seemed to wrap around itself, and her brain felt like jelly.
Danny tugged on her hand, and Skylar looked down. “Are they going to take you, Sky?”
Skylar squeezed his hand. “I don’t know, Danny, but whatever happens, I love you, okay? If they pick me, I’ll go do my job, and then I’ll come back, okay? I promise.”
“Evan didn’t come back when they took him.”
“Don’t think about that, Danny. I’ll come back. I promise, okay? I promise on the sun. I won’t let them beat me. Even if I have to rip them apart from limb to limb and crawl back home, I’ll come back for you.”
Captain cleared his throat, and all the soldiers stamped their foot once. Beads of sweat crawled down their foreheads and dripped onto their armored forearms, and one stepped to the side to wipe his sweat off with his gloves.
Captain wheeled on him, face red. He pointed his gun at him. “In formation, 21D!”
The soldier lowered his head, but said nothing. Captain turned back slowly to face the people and cleared his throat dramatically.
“I am here today to carry out a task that many of you dread. While I value families above all, my ultimate loyalty is to my government, and this is what I have been instructed to do. Chances are all of you will lose a treasured friend, sister, brother, daughter, son, cousin to the Selection. But let me remind you, this is only a three-year commitment. Any deaths caused by the labor camp will be duly repaid, and we will take the upmost measures to prevent any permanent harm to our recruits.
“This system allows us to alternate who have to serve time in producing the goods, and is the best way to keep our economy in tip-top shape so that we as the people can afford housing and food and clothes and luxuries that many people do without. To get all those things, some things must be sacrificed.
“If I call your name, please step forward. Two officers will step forward and lead you back to the ship. Resistance will accomplish nothing and will only result in disciplinary action being taken against you when we get back to the ship. It is best for everyone if you cooperate.”
With that said, Captain dramatically unrolled a scroll and took a deep breath, then made eye contact with a girl a few feet away from Skylar and her family. “Rebecca Dorson.”
Immediately, Mrs. Dorson burst into tears and grabbed Rebecca’s hands. The girl, Rebecca, smoothed one of her braids and pulled her mother close to her. Two guards stepped out of line and approached Rebecca, gently prying her off her mother and father and fastening her hands together with a clasp. Rebecca blew a bnch of kisses back to her family, and her mother started to wail even louder.
Mr. Dorson held his wife back from running, but tears were leaking from his eyes, too. “I love you always, Rebecca. Never forget that! Be strong! I’m so proud of you.” His voice cracked, and he looked off to the side to hide his sobs.
Captain waited until the wails had died down, then looked up and made eye contact with a boy on the opposite side of the semi-circle that had been formed around the Collars. “Chris Andrews.”
Mrs. Andrews again started to cry, grabbing her son’s hands. Chris wiped his eyes and stroked his mother’s hands tenderly before planting a kiss on her cheek. Two guards approached him and pulled him away roughly, pushing Mrs. Andrews back as she stumbled after her son, blue eyes swijmming with tears. “Please, no, choose someone else! I have no one else to provide for me!” she screamed, her voice echoing through the square.
“If your primary provider has been selected, you are free to appeal it to the courts. I cannot control or change the lists given to me.” Captain’s tone was flat and emotionless, and Skylar was overwhelmed with hatred for the man. The guards at least had the decency to look off to the side when they took the teens away from their griefstricken families.
He looked down at his paper again, and his brown eyes met Skylar’s. “Skylar Grandisk.”
A chill went up and down Skylar’s spine. “No,” she stammered, “It can’t be. There must be some mistake.”
Two guards approached her and took her by the arms, and Skylar bit her lip to keep from crying. Tears flowed freely among all the members of her family, and Danny broke free of Mr. Grandisk’s grip on his arm. “Sky!” he yelled, grabbing her leg. “Sky, please! Go away, Collectors, we don’t want you here!” he yelled.
Another guard stepped forward and peeled Danny off Skylar. “Control your son,” he growled at Mr. Grandisk, and he lowered his head as the guard struck him across the face.
“Leave my father alone,” Skylar hissed at the guard. “Do what you will to me, but don’t put your hands on my family.”
The guard leered at Skylar and pushed his face up to hers. “I can do whatever I want if they’re stepping out of line, girl, and you’d be wise to close your pretty little mouth before it gets you in trouble.”
“Unlike you, I have some decency and respect for my family, so I will do whatever it takes to protect them,” Skylar retorted.
The guard slapped her across the face. “I am your superior, and you will give me the respect I deserve!” he yelled, and Skylar bit her tongue to avoid snapping back at him. Instead, she just closed her mouth and looked him straight in the eyes, further infuriating him.
“Listen here girl, I’m only going to say this once. I’ve seen your type before—the rebels, the kids who think they can go through everything, the ones who think they’re smarter than me. Well, guess what? We always beat them to their knees. And every time, they swear up and down that we’ll never break them, but within a year, they’re always broken. I’ve never seen one come back alive, so if you want to see your precious family again, you’d better learn to clamp your mouth shut.”
With that, he whirled away, and Skylar gritted her teeth as she was dragged to the ship like the slave she was.