There was a buzz about the place that night for sure. Everyone was gathered in the Grand Hall, sipping drinks and chattering excitedly. XXV was smiling and glancing a little shyly around him, having been led in along with the rest of his class. Everyone on the Mothership was there, from the lowliest drone to the Director (apparently, anyway – nobody had actually seen him). But there was only one person XXV was interested in seeing, and she was proving as hard to spot as the Director. Along that same train of thought, he quickly drained his drink and hurried off to the bathroom.
He examined himself in the mirror, nervously straightening his clothes and sniffing his breath. It had been a long, long time since he had seen YVK and now the thought of it gave him butterflies. Shortly after the hide-and-go seek incident they had been placed in different classes, on completely opposite sides of the ship. He had been told that his was for ‘gifted’ individuals, specially selected by the Director and his generals. Nobody ever mentioned what YVK’s was, but he had an uncomfortable feeling at the back of his mind that it was some kind remedial class for troublemakers.
He sighed. Why did she have to be so headstrong? Couldn’t she see that the Director was only harsh for the good of the community? If she’d only learned a bit of respect they could have walked in tonight together and it wouldn’t have caused so much as a whisper. For a long time they had arranged regular secret meetings, but in recent months he had had to cancel as he was picked for a succession of parades and meetings. He wondered what she thought of it all.
Suddenly, his train of thought was interrupted. YVK sprang in through the door and gave him a good-natured slap dig in the ribs.
“XXV 1279, long time no see! Remember me?” She winked. Her eyes were as bright as ever, and her smile just as warm. Flouting the rules of appearance as usual, she had abandoned the regulation bald head and was sporting a mop of unruly black hair. XXV stared at her, shyly, and swallowed.
“Of course. You look… nice.”
“Oh, thanks! So do you – very smart, almost a soldier. So how have you been?” She listened patiently to his mumbling about school and the like, offering a laugh or pat on the shoulder where necessary.
“I’ve missed having you around,” she said when XXV returned her question. He had the feeling she was avoiding details to save him worrying, so he put an arm awkwardly around her shoulders. “Do you still like me?” she asked.
“Of course I do. Together forever, I promised you.”
“Thanks. Then… can I let you in on a secret?” She whispered once he had finished. XXV nodded. “Ok then, come with me.” She took him by the hand and lead him out of the bathroom and through the crowd, until they came to a dark little corridor.
“Wait here,” she said. XXV waited there, wondering what in the world she could be up to this time. He found out shortly, as she returned with her arms full of something furry.
“What’s that!” he exclaimed, shrinking back.
“It’s an Earth animal,” she explained. “I rescued it from the laboratories. They were going to cut it open, but I can’t let that happen – not to something as cute as you, my little pet!”
“Ok…” said XXV, watching her play with the strange little thing. “So what do you want me to do?”
“Take care of it for a bit,” she said, handing it over. “Until the initial suspicion blows over, and I’ve worked out where I’m going to hide it. Please do this for me. I wouldn’t ask, but you’re the only person in this place I can trust to do the right thing.”
He looked into her pleading eyes and caved. “Oh alright. For you.”
“Hooray! I knew I could count on you.” At that moment a voice called from around the corner. “Oh help, they’re looking for me. Thanks again XXV, I promise I’ll see you soon.” She leaned over and pecked him on the cheek before dashing off again.
Smiling a little wistfully, he looked down at the bundle of fur in his arms. It was pretty cute, he had to admit. It would be a shame to see it cut up on a slab. The thing looked up and hissed at him.
“Ugh! I’m saving you, what’s your problem?” He looked around and quickly tipped it into a cupboard. He brushed the hairs from his arms and headed back into the hall.
XXV gasped. Had he been rumbled already? He whipped his head round to see who it was. It was the Director, beckoning him forward.
“Come here,” he commanded. XXV’s heart was in his mouth, but when he got there the Director smiled and extended an arm. “Gentlemen, this is XXV 1279, one of our most impressive young recruits.”
This took him somewhat by surprise. He listened as the Director praised his obedience and devotion, blushing slightly. If YVK had tempted him to defy the leadership, such high commendation made him want to prove his loyalty further.
He floated along in heady daze, basking in the glow of the praise and the kiss still tingling on his cheek – until suddenly, one of the senior generals tugged him sharply to one side.
“Hey, boy. I hear you’re a good and loyal. Fancy proving it?”
“Sure – I mean, yes sir, of course.”
“Good, come with me.”
He took him back out into the corridor and dumped something at his feet. Looking down, XXV realised it was YVK’s furry Earth animal.
“See this?” said the general. “It’s an Earth animal from the labs. Someone stole it from the controlled environment and now it’s contaminated, right?”
“O-oh, I see.”
“Yeah. So, anyway, I need you to kill it.”
“Yep. If you’re really soldier material, you’ll do it. Or are you more interested in looking soft for that female you hang around with?” He narrowed his eyes as XXV gasped. The general handed over his gun and left him alone with the thing. They stared at each other for a long time. XXV’s hands trembled; he didn’t know what to do. He did want to show YVK that he still cared. Her compassion was one of the things that always captivated him. But all those sermons about duty to the Community still rang in his ears. For the first time in his life he realised the eerie similarity between the warm glow he felt when laughing with his friend, and the swell of pride when he was honoured by the leaders. Now it seemed they were waging civil war in his stomach.
After a good ten minutes of standing, he sighed as an internal white flag was raised. When YVK returned the bubbling mess of fur and bone was enough to put her in the hospital wing for a week.
The Director smiled as she was carried past his office door. XXV 1279 had finally made his choice