The airdrones ended their watch of our village each night by lifting into the sky with a haunting wail. The buzzing swarm of black orbs always traveled north toward The Walled City, where they were rumored to spend the evening hours absorbing strange magic to keep themselves aloft. When I asked my grandfather about the mystical properties of the Privus’ hovering spies, he told me they weren’t magical objects at all, but products of something called “science.” I was eager to know more but speaking of such topics was dangerous–curiosity had killed many a Thrall.
As soon as the airdrones vacated Zone 28, their malformed counterparts from the Obsidian Tower clomped into the village. The stilt striders’ imposing, 10-meter statures and clanking innards created an air of menace the airdrones lacked. Each grotesque machine perched near the zone’s border on a pair of spindly legs, their cycloptic eyes sending a glare of blue light over our tents until the airdrones returned at dawn.
The airdrones and stilt striders enforced the doctrine of the Privus. Any Thrall who didn’t meet their work quota received a painful punishment. Repeat offenders were collected from their tents in the dead of night–never to be seen again. As terrible as the machines were, their actions were largely predictable. I soon learned the best way to avoid their cold gaze was to make my daily routines just as mechanical as theirs.
The Privus had asserted their dominance over my fore-bearers in what came to be known as The Final Lesson. The surviving dregs of the ill-fated revolution were labeled The Thrall by the ruling class and banished to isolated work zones kept under heavy surveillance. A generation later, we were still laboring in the fields and factories in exchange for nothing more than our lives. I wondered if life was somehow better in the other villages spread throughout the territories, but those who attempted to leave Zone 28 were never seen again. I was shocked when my grandfather revealed my siblings and I had once lived beyond the valley. Sadly, none of us had been old enough to form any memories of the larger world.
The Final Lesson had claimed my parents, leaving four children behind in the wastes. My sister Mary was the oldest of us by far, which thrust her into the role of caregiver. After Mary died giving birth to her own child a year later, her overwhelmed partner turned us over to the Privus. We were then transferred to Zone 28, along with Mary’s surviving daughter, Annie. Once there, we were reunited with our grandfather and placed under his care.
Against all odds, my grandfather managed to maintain our plot’s cultivation quota by himself–enduring years of thankless drudgery until each of the children in the family became old enough to work. He did his best to keep our youthful energy in check by feeding us a constant diet of fear. Before zipping us up into our partitions each night, he gave a lecture about life in the zone. His words are etched in my mind.
The Thrall exist to work and nothing more. Survival means keeping your eyes down, your head empty and your hands busy. Uselessness marks you for death. No amount of begging or pleading can save you from the Privus’ metallic beasts. There’s no place to run. Nowhere to hide.
Finding it difficult to sleep after Granddad’s dire warnings, I developed a habit of whittling pine scraps into tiny figurines until exhaustion overtook me.