The Cerebrum Plan

Berenice—Cerebra Prima

Concentrating on the book I’m diligently filling in to carefully transcribe the results of my research on the Black Scourge, I don’t hear the door open behind me and jump at the scratch on my page.

“Forgive me, Miss Berenice,” Alena says with a groan, pale with fear at the prospect of disaster. “I didn’t mean to startle you, but you didn’t answer when I knocked.”

“Don’t worry,” I answer calmly, although I flinch inwardly. “What’s so important that you have to interrupt my work?”

Although this Corpus has been living in the White Citadel for several months now, she still seems to be haunted by fear. Her hair has grown a few centimeters, and a scraggly red veil surrounds her face, which has regained some color if not much in the way of curves. It will take some time for her to regain her physical equilibrium, and even longer for her psychological side if she manages to do so. Like all Corpuses in the Red Area, she has been traumatized by her life in this human mass on the one hand and the fight against the Zothers on the other. At sixteen, she now has a much greater chance of survival, protected by our compound, even if she doesn’t really seem to believe it.

Integrating these Corpuses into our ranks requires patience that I don’t have when I’m immersed in my research. I have to admit, however, that she has learned her duties relatively quickly and serves me well on a daily basis—unlike her predecessor, whom I had to dismiss because she was incapable of doing anything and took no care of my belongings. Finding good servants is a difficult task, especially considering my rank and responsibilities within the White Citadel.

“I asked you a question, and I’d like an answer,” I repeat in a drier tone than I’d intended, given her frightened silence.

“Th-the Chamberlain has sent for you urgently,” the unfortunate woman stammers before hurrying out of the room.

What a nuisance! Irritated by both my clumsiness and this unexpected setback, I close my book carefully and sigh. My days run like clockwork, and I still had a good two hours to finish transcribing the results I’d just discovered. I’m at a critical stage in my studies, and I can feel the solution just around the corner! My life’s work is important, even vital, because I’m supposed to be the one to find the cure for the Black Scourge. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been focused on my work, accepting few interruptions that take me away from my goal, even temporarily.

Torn between the desire to continue as planned and the order I’ve received that will put me behind schedule, I decide to grab my cloak from the hook by the window. After all, the daughter of the head of the White Citadel couldn’t appear without the pomp and circumstance befitting such a summons. The subject must be important for me to be called outside of the scheduled weekly meetings.

Looking out the window of the tower where my quarters have been since I was born twenty-two years ago, I see a battalion in the cobbled courtyard. They’re small dots from this height, but perfectly recognizable thanks to their blue uniforms. From my apartment, I have an unobstructed view of the surroundings: the old stone buildings, but also the greenhouses, the stables, the mill, the well, and, above all, the technical rooms. All of this is protected by the energy dome, which acts as an impenetrable bulwark against the outside world and provides a temperate climate ideal for crops and livestock. According to the ancient texts I study daily, our White Citadel is similar to the fortified villages that were so common in the Middle Ages. In fact, it was built on a hill once known as Montmartre, overlooking the remains of the great city that was once the nerve center of the country. Rubble sits in places where bombs dropped as a last resort destroyed everything, and rather well preserved remains in others. The result is an eclectic and bizarrely mixed landscape, where craters of gutted streets rub shoulders with still-standing Haussmann buildings.

Noticing the plastic coolers on the backs of some of the men, I conclude that the Delta Unit is back and that this justifies the interruption. I hope to finally get the samples I need to continue my work. Excited by this prospect, I hurry to the Directum room, careful not to fall down the stone stairs.

It has to be said that my spotless white toga isn’t exactly practical for getting around, but it is, like my cape, the symbol of my status as Cerebra Prima, future Chamberlain when my father is no longer around. Only Cerebrums are allowed to wear this color to identify the priority people to be rescued in the event of an attack, as we’re humanity’s only chance of survival.

Regaining my composure after a short run, I take a more measured step into the huge nave that serves as the meeting place for the leaders of our community.

Our ancestors chose this place after the Inferno because it was an old church, the Sacred Heart to give it its original name, whose thick stone walls guaranteed relative safety from the Zothers. What’s more, it was connected to an independent underground spring essential for our survival. Over the past two centuries, we’ve reclaimed this space, and now the entire perimeter within two kilometers of the hill where we built our citadel benefits from the walls erected by our predecessors.

“Here you are at last, Berenice!” exclaims my father the Chamberlain. “The Delta Unit brought back what you asked for.”

“Perfect! I suspected as much when I saw the men in the courtyard. May I see them?”

The battalion commander steps forward and hands me a cooler. Surprised by its weight, I drop it with a thud, masked by the captain’s scream of pain as the box hits him in the shin.

“What’s wrong with your leg?” I ask suspiciously as I carefully take a few steps back.

At my words, the battalion assigned to the security of the Directum, our government, moves in, drawing their swords from their sheaths to stand between the Delta Unit and our dignitaries. Everyone freezes and stares at their leader, frozen with anger and fear.

“It’s nothing,” he says through clenched teeth. “An insignificant scratch.”

“You’ve been bitten by a Zother!” shouts Harold, my father’s second-in-command. “And you dare to return to the White Citadel, disregarding the safety of us all? Alpha Unit, take him to the gates of the Red Zone at once! This is unacceptable, and I’ll hold you personally responsible if it ever happens again,” he spits the words out at the head of the unit in charge of his protection.

“That’s not true!” the incriminated captain screams. “I fell on the edge of a beam during a battle! Thanks to the serum, I’m not contaminated, and—”

“It doesn’t matter,” the Chamberlain interrupts curtly. “Even if you’re not infected, you’ve been injured so badly that you can’t take a light blow. The cooler didn’t hit you very hard. You can’t be efficient when you’re injured. You know our rules very well. There is no place for the useless among us.”

I look at the unit leader, who has no choice but to walk toward the exit, escorted not only by the Alpha Unit, but also by his men from the Delta Unit, who stare at him with some resentment tinged with relief. It’s true that the Chamberlain was lenient in not condemning the entire battalion, since they were all negligent in not noticing their leader’s wound.

Even if I’d wanted to help him, the look on my father’s face would have dissuaded me. We barely manage to maintain the valid community and, unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to deal with people who contribute nothing. It’s the hard law of the White Citadel, but it’s right for everyone’s survival.

I push aside the thought of this man, who will be replaced in a minute anyway, and return to my lab with my precious burden. I can’t wait to see if my deductions are correct.

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