Sherman Peter Pryor is resourceful—and patient. One must be both when dismantling generations of government interference into the sacred family unit. And a little bioengineering never hurt the Pryor’s back-alley national security efforts, either.
Sherman Peter Pryor stood at the rickety metal coffee cart in the dim break room. He chose a giraffe-themed swizzle stick from yesterday’s leftover junk for the Captain. Captain Horst was as short and stocky as he was clueless, so the giraffes served as a longstanding gag. Small towns such as Walgram had to make do with the resources available. “Stretch” turned 65, and party vibes, treats, and catering would last all week.
Stretching it out.
Captain Horst would likely ride his oaken desk into the grave. Stretching out the days before a new captain would take the reins.
The swizzle disappeared into the black murk, trying its best to incorporate some smoothness, and maybe some taste, into the brew. The add-in of the day, also a party leftover, was pumpkin spice caramel something-or-other. Sherman preferred black coffee. Decaf, at that. But times like these, one had to make do with the resources available.
Sherman pushed the gentle bustle of the station—already muffled behind the cinder block walls—into the back of his mind as he leaned against the door frame and stirred and sipped the lukewarm and too-sweet coffee. He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to do its thing.
Process. Compare. Analyze.
But when nostalgia started digging in, he realized he needed another dose. His injection was wearing off. However, he allowed the nostalgia some wriggle room. For the moment.
Somewhere, some exhausted little mommy had given birth to a brand-new baby boy. One she and her partner had prayed for and waited for, enduring years of parents and in-laws demanding to know when the young—turned not-so-young—couple would make them grandparents. And now, that infant, red and screaming with limbs still tucked tight from months-long in utero is the most important little boy in the world.
Sherman knew that feeling. Elation. Peace. And when the Allotment had fallen his way, he’d been deemed a fit parent.
Somewhere else, some exhausted mother was pulled from her bed at the sound of a knock. A uniformed pair, hats in hands, dished out bad news and condolences. And her only son, dead on the battlefield in a war neither he nor his mother started, is the most important little boy in the world. At least to her. Likely not to the country he served when the same Allotment that allowed her to birth a son deemed him to be unfit. To that entity, as soon as he’d drafted, he’d become a serial number.
Sherman knew that feeling, too. Grief. Loss. Until finally the Pryors put their collective genius together and, well…
The Styrofoam bottom showed through the last of the nasty liquid, and Sherman threw the cup away and headed down the hall to the interrogation room. Shame, really. That this tiny station had only this one room for the witness. No comfy sofas or television sets to occupy him. Only cinder block walls, a one-way glass, and a metal table bolted to the floor and littered with sweets and coloring pages. Like this tiny little witness would ever think to toss a table or the chair he sat on.
Sherman observed the boy through the glass. Curly brown hair. Brown eyes the same shade, clean and clear. No lack of sleep or crying for this lad. Lashes so long that any working New York model would give the last two years of her career for. The tot looked at the walls, up to the ceiling, down to the floor, then directly at the mirror where his reflection no doubt greeted him. Sherman wondered what the boy thought of his own image.
He turned the handle to the door and, dragging a wheeled office chair behind him, sat across from the boy. The boy slid off his metal chair, stood and pointed to the one Sherman sat in.
Sherman traded with him, allowing the boy the cushioned seat that twisted and turned. Sherman took his boot and drug the wheeled chair a little closer to himself, so the pair were knee-to-knee. He showed the boy the lever on the side of the chair, pumping it up so the boy sat taller. The boy smiled.
Sherman sat back and studied him. This little fellow hadn’t said a word since he arrived at the station. Captain Horst and a couple of deputies had bribed and begged. Candy, soda, Crayons, and a dusty giraffe toy—pulled from Stretch’s windowsill filled with all things reticulated ungulate—all fell short. The metal table held multiple feeble attempts at prompting communication, but the boy remained mute.
He sat up straight and looked Sherman in the face, unphased, the top of his curls level with the top of the chair’s back. He wore denim overalls with a faded red shirt underneath. The too-short pant legs rode up his skinny shins. Mismatched socks, one dingy white and one gray-and-red-striped slid into tennis shoes. Still staring at Sherman, the boy wiggled forward so that his knees could bend over the seat’s edge, allowing his feet to dangle free. It would be years before his soles could touch the floor from a seat such as this. His right shoelaces, untied, created the only sound in the room as their tips clacked against the base of the chair.
Later, when the rest of the task force showed up, the noise would grow. The bustle of the station would turn to chaos as the “important” ones took over the investigation, barking orders, making calls, storming the five-room building with more manpower than the walls could hold.
Sherman winked at him. The boy tried to wink back, but only managed to squeeze both eyes tight simultaneously.
The boy smiled and nodded. He knew what Sherman wanted. Sherman was confident the boy could withstand what was to come.
They had practiced, after all.
Sherman wheeled the boy’s chair to the side, so his massive shoulders blocked the view from the two-way, then back again, in direct view. Several times, Sherman took the boy for a ride like this. To any onlooker, it’d appear him to be playing with the kid. Cheering him up. Having a spot of joy in an otherwise dreary room.
The boy giggled. A soft, timid vocalization. The first utterance the boy had offered to the Walgram precinct. He’d done so well so far.
Even after all the bribery, the tot hadn’t even offered up his name. Well, the name the Pryors assigned to him after the first injection took hold.
After the little one could understand a little more.
Hendrix. Strong. Masculine. Sherman’s own son’s namesake.
The amusement ride continued. Back and forth, the casters on the boy’s chair scraping across the concrete floor. On one of these pendulum swings, he reached for the boy’s right sleeve, and, using his index finger, raised the cuff of the sleeve to reveal the child’s upper arm. A tiny blue Bandaid clung to the skinny arm. Sherman removed it in one quick motion, then spun the boy back into view. The boy didn’t flinch. Likely didn’t even realize Sherman had stolen his bandage and tucked the blue wad into his own pocket.
A few more swoops and spins of the office chair.
A few more muffled giggles before setting the chair still again.
Then Sherman Peter Pryor handed Hendrix the ratty giraffe from the metal table, put his index finger over his lips, and winked at the most important little boy in the world.
Practice had taken weeks with this one instead of months like the others. They were learning, Sherman’s group. The Pryors practiced their own back alley brand of national security like humanity itself depended on it.
Because it did.
The boy tugged on the giraffe’s ear. The injection had taken hold weeks ago—about three weeks to the day when the boy was acquired—so he was way too smart for the idle toys and sugary treats.
Way too advanced. In another week he’d be keener than Sherman.
The month after that, if all went well, this child could run the NSA singlehandedly. Once his vocabulary increased, that is.
In only a few weeks, the practice sessions with this young one went from Stage One to Stage Four. Elevating his status over the other males chosen for the project. Elevating him to the most important little boy in the world.
But the world couldn’t know this yet. The world as Sherman understood it wasn’t ready for the upending of the Allotment and the Unfit laws. It’d taken generations to deviate from the natural order of things to this degree. It’s as if the lawmakers practiced for decades on how to make a society miserable. To crumble and bow to authority. Over and over again. Like a championship high-diver. Try. Fail. Flop. Try again. Until dive after dive is a perfect ten.
And dive after dive, the country had taken quite a while to devolve.
It would take generations, likely Hendrix’s generation or the one after, to undo the mockery.
With time, the Pryors were sure their tiny tots, fully bio-equipped with the ability to pass the screening tests and outsmart the lawmakers, would prevail.
With time. And patience.
And lots of practice.
Sherman patted the boy on the head again and left him to his silent studying of the room. A quick glance down both hallways showed a slight increase in the station’s activity. The muscle was coming. Getting closer.
Coming to take the child, younger by five years than those in previous trials, into custody. To find this wayward soul a permanent home with an Elite family. To survey and blood-test to identify the ingrate who’d been foolish, careless, unfit enough to allow such a commodity as a son to wander off in broad daylight where a kind, traveling detective such as Sherman could stumble upon him. Where the injection and the boy, with all that practice, would do their thing. Together. In perfect harmony.
Sherman hadn’t been too keen on the idea of lowering the age bracket. But his partner had been right. Older kids clung to the hopes and dreams of Mommy, Daddy and Fido waiting at home. So, younger and younger the Pryors went, until they found the perfect age.
Old enough to feed themselves—at least fork-to-mouth skills were developed. Old enough to take care of most bathroom duties and rudimentary teeth-brushings. Old enough for a working vocabulary.
But not quite old enough to tie shoelaces.
Or to tie their current predicaments with a fear response.
Boys like this one were harder and harder to come by. Birth control methods and the mandatory visits the Sterilization Clinics demanded—not to mention the hefty government stipends for couples to remain childless—cut the unwanted pregnancies by more than eighty percent. These methods cut down on unfit parents.
And the Allotment, in all its glory, also cut down on fit ones.
Hendrix’s family, his biological family five states over, would be DNA-identified. And the mother, father, and all older siblings—there were three—would never be allotted the opportunity to birth another. All would be hauled to their district’s nearest Sterilization clinic and, well, Hendrix would be the last of that family line.
Because fit parents would never allow a child to wander off. Neither would proper big brothers or sisters.
And the country just can’t tolerate the Unfit.
Sherman’s great-grandfather saw this coming. The population control. The increased need for monitoring. Security. Smaller populations of people meant smaller armies. Smaller tax income for the higher-ups.
And an ever-shrinking decline in human decency. When you weed out the fit parents with bribes and threats, the passing-down of the Golden Rule becomes harder and harder.
Sherman was glad that vague Golden Rule, ancient as it may be, was beaten into him with a quite hot rod of iron. He felt the swell of the scar on the back of his neck. A permanent reminder that Great-Grandfather was right in all his ways. The Pryors and those they recruited to right this monumental wrong all carried similar marks. Not identical though.
Practice and time taught them that branding their group with a uniform scar was a bad idea.
So was leaving the Bandaid evidence on the recruits. Sherman felt the tiny wad in his pocket and took the five strides down the hall to the men’s room, passing the phlebotomist with her plastic bucket of goodies. Ready to draw blood on the boy. To determine his genetic makeup for family of origin and fitness.
In the restroom, Sherman tossed the bandage into the toilet and flushed, watching as it swirled and hugged the edge. He thought he’d have to flush it again, but the final swish of water from the rim sent the wad out of sight.
An officer came in the restroom and Sherman feigned washing his hands.
“Long wait, huh?” The guy tugged at his pants in front of the urinal.
“Good thing you found him. He’s in such shock he can’t even cry. Poor fella.”
“Yup. Poor thing. Hope they find his parents.”
“No kidding. Off to the clinic with them. All the way out on the tracks—,” the officer continued to mutter.
Sherman shrugged, keeping his eyes on his sudsy hands. Letting the warm water relax the tension that was starting in his wrists. That’s where it always starts. The wrists. The clenching of fists inside pockets. The need to roll and pop the bones to keep the fingers loose. To open juice box straws. To tie shoelaces. To prep injections.
He tried to remember as the officer spouted off about duty and parental honor that this poor fellow was just that. One of the masses, brainwashed by years of propaganda to believe the lies and fallacies in logic.
Sherman left the restroom. Two agents in black suits—a man and a woman—entered the boy’s waiting area. The Pryors had known they’d send a woman. A mother figure. So they’d practiced with the boy, whose IQ jumped several points by the day, to withstand her sweet ways and offers of comforting hugs just as he’d withstood playing with toys and chowing down on sweets in the interrogation room.
Hendrix was well prepared. Sherman wasn’t worried.
At least he’d have a chance to make a difference.
Sherman’s own son, deemed unfit through the screenings, never did. Off to war with him. Off to fight so that the fit and the Elite could live their lives in peace. Repopulate the country with only the best and the brightest.
Stretch motioned for Sherman to join him in the office. Sherman obliged. Another suited man, lean, deep-set brown eyes, and a high-and-tight cut, began the informal questions amid a flurry of giraffes.
Tell me how you came upon the child.
Tell me this.
Tell me that.
Sherman recited all the correct answers. All the correct syllables emphasized. All the correct cadences that would be typical in a time such as this.
“This is, what, your third or fourth find?” The agent’s fingers whizzed over his device, the screen no doubt filling with a long list of accolades for Detective Sherman Peter Pryor.
“Great work, Detective. Great work.” The guy nodded to the Captain, then joined the others down the hall with Hendrix.
Sherman had worked hard—well, with the help of the injections, he didn’t have to work that hard—to rise to his position. Undercover work. No black suits or fancy hair cuts for him. He was boots-on-the-ground in the homefront war on the Unfit. Find and report the tiniest infraction.
Kid screaming too much? Might be an unfit parent.
Kid taken to a health clinic one too many times? Not enough times?
Too spoiled? Not spoiled enough?
Dirty looks in public? Hand held too tightly? Not tightly enough?
Sherman had been trained to spot all of this, and with the elite government training program, he’d become quite skilled at it. Proven himself. Then, with practice, he’d become even better at protecting as many families from trips to the clinic as possible. Then Great-Grandfather deemed it time to start acquiring children to plant. Children like Hendrix.
Captain Horst sat back in his wooden desk chair and intertwined his fingers behind his head. “Bet you’re pretty proud of yourself. This’ll get at least a dozen Unfits dealt with—maybe lots more. Stop the line in time, is what I always say.”
By that, the Captain was quoting old propaganda. Stop the Unfit in their genetic lines. In time, there’ll be no more of them to deal with. This was taught in schools. Passed around at dinner tables, golf courses, and ladies’ luncheons.
Sherman nodded. “I just feel sorry for the little guy. I mean, what’ll become of him?”
The Captain reached for his own file and tossed it toward Sherman. “The blood scans. Clean as a whistle. Lad’ll be one of the lucky ones. Elite family. Best of the best for the little guy.”
Sherman scanned the page of results. The injections were performing well. Holding up under the initial screenings. The boy, by the Pryor’s testing, was genetically unfit at the ripe old age of four. He’d have been sterilized by his tenth birthday and slotted for the Draft by the time he was 18. Maybe younger depending on the heat overseas.
The bio shots changed all that, though. Masked the DNA markers and boosted the tot’s IQ. Smart enough to figure all this out someday.
And smart enough to stop it.
Sherman slid the file back to the Chief. An old-school manila file. The last district did everything digitally. But in Walgram, a county hit hard by the Allotment and one that “necessitated the doubling of Sterilization Centers,” you had to make do with the resources available.
Until the Elite could build it back up.
Brick by brick.
Or until the Pryor’s mighty mini army, one master genius at a time, could tear it all down.
Sherman said his goodbyes to Stretch and strode down to Interrogation. The lady agent was dancing the giraffe on the table in front of the boy. The other agents were busy on their devices, flipping screen after screen building their case.
Hendrix still hadn’t said a word.
Sherman knelt so he was face to face with the boy. He tousled the brown curls. The boy’s lips, thin and pink, gave the tiniest upright twitch. His eyes sparkled, then he blinked both his lids—a two-eyed wink meant for only Sherman. Sherman winked back and patted the tiny legs. The boy bent his right knee up to his chest.
And, like a boss, the kid tied his own shoelaces.
Without one bit of practice.
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Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
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