And here is the first chapter for the winning story, The Regime:
“ 28And it shall come to pass, when the moons of Roan align, that a Savior shall rise to face the Omega. 29The Savior shall be born in the Dredge, of meager status and not a man of wealth. 30He shall see the future and control it. His strength will abound unlike any other. He will be the Alpha, who will expose the Omega to its people, ushering in a new age of power for the Savior’s followers: a peaceful time, a prosperous time, where the enslaved of the Omega will be set free. 31Be wary and keep your eyes upon the district for your Savior to come, for he will disable the Regime.”
from The Book of Eccheons
The rat hole he called home had been without power for three days. Nestled in the Dredge, the high-rise was practically abandoned from the super’s last raise in rent. Not that any of it mattered, since new rations wouldn’t be doled out until Sixday—two days away. The mice didn’t mind. Neither did the roaches. But Marrok sure did.
At least he still had running water.
He carried a candle into the washroom and stripped out of his government-issued jumpsuit, the number 92831 emblazoned across the front of the steel gray fabric. His number. The only way the Regime identified him.
Marrok stepped into the shower and shrieked when the icy-cold beads pelted his skin. Hot water was a luxury afforded by only a few. Layers of grimy residue from his daily work in the mines shed from his body swirled down the drain as a black funnel cloud. He’d been working the mines since he was twelve, though most didn’t start until eighteen, taken under the wing of an old timer who showed him how to work smart to put bread on the table after his father was killed. Five years later, he was one of the most productive workers in the Regime mines, though the old man was long gone.
Marrok lathered with the perfumed block of lard and lye issued to all Dredge Occupants – one block every three months per household and nothing more – when the water cut off.
So much for running water.
Dripping with suds, he dipped his washcloth into the excrement tank that looked clean enough to him and finished bathing. The life of Citizen 92831.
After showering, he dressed in the specified night clothing: hemp pants and a tunic baring his identification number in black embroidery across the familiar steel gray. This color belonged to the Dredge. Nothing like the pure-white fabrics draping the numberless citizens of the Regime. He combed out his black hair that hung in wet curls to his broad shoulders. Through his reflection in the cracked mirror he saw anger build up behind his clear blue eyes. Anger at a system which kept him its prisoner for the comforts of a few. Mining a month for crystallithe ore that sold for half a year’s rations, while he stood in the dark bathed in piss water. But his anger only ran so deep. What could he do against an entity as powerful as the Regime?
Grabbing his candle, Marrok walked down the hallway and passed two bedrooms not much bigger than the washroom. The hallway opened to the apartment’s cramped living quarters: a small kitchen attached to a sitting area on the right, the front door opposite the hallway, and a living room where a large government screen spanned the wall.
A single window viewer programmed to a nature channel by his mother, Tanna, showed woodlands with bright sunshine and green leaves, a view that could only be manufactured by the Regime. It blocked out the industrialized megacity with its smog and filth, the skyscrapers towering into the clouds, the sounds of the layered traffic from ground to polluted skyways clogged with aerocles, Dredge transports, and taxis. The dark, dank city he called home.
Tanna slouched at the stove over a boiling pot of whatever soup she had scrounged up. “Did you finish your shower before they cut the water?”
“Did you get to finish before they cut the water?” Tanna slouched at the stove over a boiling pot of whatever she had scrounged up. The coal rations beside it were nearing empty.
“No,” he said.
Tanna faced him. Her once soft brown hair lay ragged beneath a gray handkerchief. Her eyes, the same shade of blue as his own, did not show his same anger. They showed her resolve and passive acceptance apparent in her crumpled shoulders and curved spine. It was weakness to Marrok. And it only fed his anger.
She turned back to stir the soup. “Are you hungry?”
Marrok remembered a time when she stood straight and proud instead of hunched over and ruined. The Regime was to blame.
“No.” It was all he could say.
The Regime kept its eyes and ears throughout the Dredge with a network of spies earning extra rations. At the young age of twelve, Marrok learned to keep his mouth closed and his thoughts to himself after his arrest by the Regimist Officer who came to their front door. His message? That Marrok’s father had died in a mine cave-in, crushed to death along with a dozen other miners. And, he had said, the Regime would like to compensate the loss with three months of rations to be delivered at once.
That was it.
A grieving wife, a fatherless son, and the Regime’s way to make that all better was three months of what was already not enough. The outburst had been overheard and reported. The officer returned and arrested him. He was locked away for a week in a Regimist prison camp. After that, he shackled his words about the Regime, but his heart had been hardened toward it ever since.
Marrok slid into his jacket and crossed to the front door. He knew he should have said more. But he just couldn’t. He figured he could bet the last of his crichtons in hopes of winning enough money to buy more coal, though he’d never before placed a bet on the marbles. Usually, he’d just have a drink and watch the gamblers in the betting rings. Some won. Most lost. Maybe he’d lose everything.
Maybe he’d get lucky.
* * *
The Crank was a hangout in the Hub, the downtown district of the Dredge. The metropolis buzzed with activity. Bright lights covered the buildings with flashing signs calling out each club’s sins of indulgence with pride. For most of the bars, patrons needed to be twenty-one to enter, and finding altered identification numbers was next to impossible with the new ordinances. But The Crank was for sixteen and up. Marrok didn’t need to fake his age there.
It was Fourday, and the place was packed. Regimist holograms checked his ID number at the door. “Citizen 92831, clear,” said the hologram in a metallic voice. “You have four crichtons remaining.”
“Thanks a lot, asshole.” Marrok pressed through the crowd.
Steel gray shirts dominated the room, though Marrok ran across an occasional white tunic that stood out like a star in a night sky. Lifers. They came down to gamble at the Crank where the odds were in their favor, and they knew each crichton meant the difference between life and death for the sucker hoping to beat the house. Lifers lived in excess. Their rations were huge and they played with the expendable portion, never with their meal ticket.
Marrok eyed the gambling tables situated along the far wall filled with up to ten Dredge occupants hoping for a lucky score. Marrok knew better. Luck was just a word. Cheers shot up from those standing around a table near the center of the row. A Lifer wearing a trouble-free grin was surrounded by women to whom Marrok could only dream of getting close. The look on their faces told Marrok the table was hot.
Looked like a good spot to him, so he took an open seat at the table.
A waitress carrying a clear tray approached him. She wore her short chemical red hair cropped around her face and neck. “Can I get you something?”
“Could I get a…a…” Marrok stuttered.
He stared at her full lips as she said, “You can get whatever you want if you have enough crichtons.”
Marrok held out his hand. She took it in her own and he froze in their sin. Their eyes met. Hers were round and green as the stars in the Almach system. His heart raced. She smiled. He knew he should’ve pulled back, that it was illegal for them to be touching without a marriage card, but her hands felt so soft.
The only female hands he’d ever touched were Tanna’s, and those were chapped and calloused, nothing like this girl’s soft, smooth skin. What was she thinking? They could go to prison for ten years if anyone reported them. But at the moment, he didn’t care. Let them take him away. How different could life be on a moon prison from the one he lived here?
She produced a scanner and scanned the chip in his hand. “You have four crichtons, Citizen 92831.”
Spell broken, he jerked his hand from her grasp. “My name’s Marrok.”
She smiled, showing straight white teeth. Freckles peppered the bridge of her nose and the apples of her cheeks. “What can I get you to drink, Marrok?”
“A Stinger on ice.”
“Oh, a bad boy drink, huh?”
His mouth opened and closed.
She smirked. “I’ll have that right out.”
She turned, and Marrok watched her long legs carry her through the crowd until she disappeared. “Nice, Marrok. Real smooth.” He shifted his focus back to the game, which had already started. The marbles, loosed from a chute above the table, bounced across the felt surface, and landed on various numbered squares. In the end, only one marble stopped on a marker the size of a pea. Marker number thirteen. A million to one odds…
The room blurred. Voices around him cut off by a ringing in his ears. His stomach felt nauseous. The feeling wasn’t new, it had happened before; it was happening again. He held his breath and fought to regain control of his senses. Within seconds, his vision cleared and the chatter of the gamblers returned. Marker number thirteen was vacant. The marbles on the table lay in different locations, as if they were the results of a previous game. Marrok shook his head. The gamemaker raked in the marbles. Marrok shook his head.
“Oh, a bad boy drink, huh?” The girl turned toward the bar.
He watched her long legs carry her into the crowd. Again. Déjà vu hit him like a board. He watched her move through the crowd. Marrok checked his wrist. Four crichtons remained. The game he’d just witnessed had never happened.
He started having these premonitions when he was six years old. Things happened in his mind’s eye seconds before they actually occurred. The visions had scared him at first and would’ve scared his parents too, if he’d told them.
The old man in the mine had figured it out. That day, they were driving a dragline, scraping away at the dirt to reveal the biggest find of crystallithe any of them had ever seen. The old man – who Marrok nicknamed Bard on account that he was always singing the history of Liridon before the Omega took over – had stepped out of the cab standing on the edge of the field he’d uncovered. Marrok yanked him back before a boulder, dislodged from the earthen ceiling, landed on the space where Bard had been standing. Marrok saw the old man get crushed in his vision.
He saved Bard’s life that day.
“How’d you know that boulder was falling in the pitch-dark? Tell me. I know you couldn’t hear it over the dragline.” Bard had said, chest heaving.
Bard’s eyes widened. “You saw it before it happened, didn’t you?”
“Forget it. Let’s just get back to work.”
“Does that happen a lot, Marrok?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He lied. The premonitions resulted from stress or excitement. It wasn’t like he could turn them on or off at will.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about, young man.” Bard placed a hand on Marrok’s shoulder and smiled, revealing gaps between his few teeth. “I can teach you how to control it.”
Marrok stared at the old man. “No you can’t. No one can.”
“I knew it. You have the gift.”
“It’s a curse.”
“When God chooses, he will reveal your path.”
Bard died within the year of heart complications, and never did teach Marrok to control his gift from God.
“Who’s in?” The voice of the gamemaker brought Marrok back to reality.
Holding his voice from shaking Marrok said, “Put me down for four crichtons on the thirteen.” He held out his hand, his palm damp.
The gamemaker scanned his chip. “Four crichtons on thirteen. That’s all the money you’ve got.”
Marrok feigned confidence. “Go big or go home, right?”
“A fool’s bet.” The gamemaker continued taking bets from the others.
A guy down the table sneered at Marrok. “Thirteen, huh?” His face was tattooed in black artistic symbols and swirls. Half his blue hair was shaved off down the middle. “Been comin’ here for years, and the gamemaker’s not hit thirteen once.”
“I guess it’s about time.” Marrok swallowed gravel.
“Bad move, dude.” Tattoo laughed and returned his attention to the game table.
Marrok used his tunic to dry his sweaty palms. The bet paid a million to one, and Marrok had dropped all his crichtons on it. If he won…that would be four-million crichtons. That’s what he was betting on.
“Your drink.” The girl held out a glass curved like a curling ribbon. Smoke smoldered from the red liquid inside.
Marrok turned. “How much?”
“It depends on if you win this game or not.”
Marrok crinkled his brow in confusion. Did she know what he had bet? He looked up at the dozens of monitoring globes suspended close to the ceiling, each recording every inch of the Crank’s gambling rings. She couldn’t have watched them all. Besides, she would need clearance to get into the imaging room, and he seriously doubted a waitress had that kind of swag. He took in a breath to ask her what she meant, but the plastic voice of the gamemaker stopped him.
“Last bets. Hands off the rim, behind the walls, let the marbles find their marks. And may you have the best of luck.”
He released the spring mechanism and marbles dropped out the chute. A gravity shield kept them from bouncing off the table. Marbles teetered and swayed. Most landed in the dead zone, but two landed on numbers five and twenty. Cries of joy went out from the gamblers who had placed bets on those numbers. One marble had gotten stuck above the gravity shield and dropped last. It bounced across the table and knocked the marble on the five into the dead zone. Screams resonated from those betters who thought they had won. The momentum from that hit sent the dislodged marble off kilter and across the table bumping the twenty off the board. The last marble slowly rolled before settling on a space the size of a pea.
“We have your winner,” the gamemaker shouted. “Number thirteen.”
“Holy shit.” Marrok glanced at all the shocked faces and tried to look surprised. He’d actually done it. All this time he’d sat around watching other people make money while he was too afraid to place a bet. Why the vision on this night, he wondered?
Some gamblers were smiling including the Lifer who gave him the thumbs up. Others held their heads in their hands, maybe having gambled away the last of their crichtons. Tattoo glared at him, a murderous look in his eyes. Marrok gave him a smug smile as the table cleared out.
“Congratulations,” the gamemaker said. “Your hand, please.” He raised his scanner.
Marrok held out his palm so the scanner could credit his chip with four million crichtons. His hand seemed suddenly heavier.
“Please remember, any winnings not reported to Regime will be forfeited and you will be charged with grand theft in the High Council.” His smile revealed flashing white teeth. “And may you continue to have the best of luck.” Then, with a wink and a nod, he left. After a big win, the Crank always closed the table to reboot and brought out a fresh dealer.
Marrok sat at the empty table staring at his hand.
A sense of foreboding fell heavy on him. He needed to get out of there, and fast. He’d cheated. It suddenly seemed possible that he may get some flack over winning all this money.
“You haven’t touched your drink.”
Marrok turned. It was her again.
“I haven’t paid for it yet.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Why’s that?” He stared into her green eyes as she inched closer.
“Someone bought it for you.”
“And so the flack begins to fly,” he muttered and got to his feet, hoping the free drink wouldn’t be more trouble than it was worth…
TO BE CONTINUED…