From where she was standing, Mable couldn’t tell if she was looking at the end of the maze or if she had only found the middle. She took a deep breath, feeling her stomach knot up as she looked around her.
She couldn’t see Charlie anywhere.
This was a point in the maze she had never been to. The door on the platform below could be another obstacle – she shuddered – possibly worse than the last one. She looked down at her arm, still bleeding through her shirt.
With another deep breath, she started down the stairs as slowly as she could, making sure that each step was sturdy under her foot. Once at the bottom, she strained her neck until she thought her head would pop off looking to see if Charlie was anywhere close.
Where is he? she thought, not wanting to see anything but him.
She hoped the door was the end – that behind it was the world outside with its sweet, unfiltered air and sunshine. Her heart leaped into her throat. It was that simple – she would wait here for Charlie and once he arrived, they could escape through that door and find Papa and Mama. They’d all fly away from this place and be okay. If only Charlie would come down the stairs.
The door was close now – still across the catwalk but closer than it ever had been. Her lip trembled. She knew every inch of this maze before this catwalk. Charlie had told her about the door but never what was behind it. She had considered that he might not know what was there, either.
Mable took two steps toward the door and one back, reminding herself that this was a bad idea – a terrible one, in fact. She could think of no other idea in the whole world that could possibly be worse than this one.
She was going to win this time, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop her.
She glanced around to see if anyone was watching. No one. The knot in her stomach grew larger as she realized that, if Charlie wasn’t coming, she would have to do this all on her own.
No, there was no way she could be allowed to win, she decided, not even this time. Her heart fluttered, and she took another step back. There was still time, she hoped, to run back and redo most of the obstacles – maybe even help Charlie with some of them. He did say last time that he had had some trouble with the memory game.
She even entertained the idea of letting him win again. That was only a temporary solution, though. They’d make them play over and over until she’d won. She sat on the cold, grey catwalk. There was time to stop and think this through.
Charlie was only six, much, much too young to win the maze. Mable wondered why they let him play, let alone win against her every single time. She couldn’t lose enough times to give him the time he needed to learn about the maze. She held her head. He wasn’t stupid or slow, just six.
The door slid open in front of her. The room beyond looked warm and inviting with soft cushions and pillows adorning the corner that she could see. Her aching body and still bleeding arm yearned to cross the threshold and lay, comfortable and warm, in the room where she could see no evil things lurking.
Winning wouldn’t be all that terrible, she told herself, considering the rewards. Kids that didn’t do the maze very well only went to special camps to get smarter, she had heard.
That wasn’t what Papa said, though.
“Mable,” a low, soft voice said from the doorway.
Mable looked up at a woman she had never seen before but somehow felt that she knew. The woman’s long, delicate limbs looked to Mable like new tree branches in springtime – strong and pliable.
“Mable, darling, why don’t you come in?” The woman floated over with the elegant grace of a pelican over the water, her long white gown swishing softly on the cold floor.
“I… I’m waiting for Charlie,” Mable said. She looked around for him as if she heard him on the steps.
The spectral woman kneeled beside Mable and draped one of her delicate arms around Mable’s shoulders. “Sweetheart,” the woman said, trying to get Mable to look at her. “The game is over now. You’ve finally won. We knew you would.”
Mable kept looking to the stairs. Charlie would come any moment, and she’d let him win again. That would buy them the time they needed. It was the logic puzzle with the playing cards, she thought, holding her breath. That’s where he got caught. Not by the memory puzzle or the big wall. He didn’t get stuck there.
“Why did you want me? He won all those times,” she said. “No one else got so many chances.”
“Mable, do you understand the maze?” the woman asked in the same low, smooth voice.
Mable thought she sounded like the purring cat she’d had once when her and Charlie and Mama and Papa had all lived on New Earth long enough after the terraform that everyone could go outside without suits. She missed the sunshine and the dirt.
She nodded at the woman. Of course she understood the maze. It was what she had thought about every day for the past three years.
The woman smiled and seemed to glow in the dim hall. “No, sweetheart, do you understand what the maze is for?”
For? Mable turned the question over in her mind. She had never quite considered that the maze could be for anything other than destroying families like hers. Papa had wanted to move to the new colonies on Io to get away from United Earth Federation and live in the wilderness, but Papa, they had told her after they’d taken him away, was a very bad man. As far as Mable could see, the maze was nothing more than a punishment for families that were different.
“Do you know why the Old Earth didn’t work?” the woman asked.
Mable was getting annoyed by all the questions but shook her head to appease the woman.
The woman seemed sufficiently satisfied and smiled. “People, Mable, were not very smart a long time ago. They ruined the Old Earth with garbage; stripped her of her resources. They were selfish and thought the Old Earth would last forever.”
“People have to be a little selfish,” Mable said. “That’s how they stay alive.” Papa had said it to her a long time ago, but she wasn’t sure why she felt the need to say it right now.
The woman laughed, high and musical. Mable would have been happy to hear such a laugh if she hadn’t been in the maze with this woman.
“Yes,” the woman said. “That is true, in a way, but people can care about the common good while caring about themselves. And after all, isn’t the good of the whole that’s most important?”
Again, Mable wanted to say something to upset the woman – wanted to rail against ever bit of nonsense the woman was trying to offer her. She took a deep breath. It wouldn’t help now, and she knew that.
“What does that have to do with the maze?” Mable asked. She tried to appear calm, but the woman was still holding her, and Mable knew her muscles were too tense. She hoped that the woman thought she was just nervous.
The smile didn’t fade from the woman’s face. “After the countries of Old Earth united to colonize the new planets, it was decided that it would be in everyone’s best interest to breed a new type of human. They wanted to make humanity smarter, more respectful of each other and their surroundings.”
Mable couldn’t help but feel that there were bits of information that were missing from what the woman was saying. She was only half paying attention, though. The other half was straining, listening for footsteps.
“Why not just clone the good people?” Mable asked and instantly regretted. She bit her tongue.
The woman laughed again, and Mable sighed in relief. She had taken the question as innocent. “Cloning isn’t legal, Mable. Not for humans. That’s immoral.”
Mable tensed her jaw. She had a hard time believing that cloning could be considered immoral and illegal, but the maze could easily be integrated as a cornerstone of society. Grown up things seldom made sense to her.
“The maze,” the woman said. “Was created to make society better. To make it stronger. Creating the maze was a way of making sure that everyone in society was fit to live there together. Do you understand now, Mable?” The woman’s round, light eyes sparkled with their seemingly genuine attempt at making Mable understand this container of horror. “It’s for the good of everyone.
“I… I don’t get it,” Mable said. She bit her lip. Now was not the time for honesty and she hoped that her confusion and admission wouldn’t be seen as a weakness and couldn’t be used against her.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she cooed like an eagle about to feed its young. She used a frail looking hand to stroke Mable’s hair. Mable tried to pull away, but the woman’s grip on her should became iron. “Think of it as quality assurance for the human race. Do you know what that means?”
Mable didn’t, but she nodded anyway. She cringed a bit, trying to remember the word that Papa had used when he talked about what was being done to people that the UEF considered not genetically superior. It started like genetic, she remembered, but the word wouldn’t come to her. She wanted to tell the woman that what they were doing wasn’t right – that the concept of the maze itself was inherently flawed as was the entire government, but she didn’t know those words, and Papa had always told her to keep quiet if something like this were to happen. She pursed her lips, praying that her frustration could not escape through her skin.
She broke away from the woman so she wouldn’t feel Mable starting to tremble. She turned her back on the woman and held onto the railing – still wondering where Charlie could be. He’s never ever been stuck before, she thought. Not even once. She couldn’t make herself think that he wasn’t coming.
“But he won every time!” Mable shouted turning to face the woman once more. “He beat me. He’s the one you want.”
The woman’s calm seemed undeterred. The glowing smile faded, but there was still no indication that she was frustrated of angry. For an instant, Mable thought she saw a flicker of hatred pass over her face, but then Mable couldn’t be sure whether or not it was something she had imagined.
“We know you let him win,” the woman said softly. “That was never a mystery to us. You were always the stronger, more compassionate sibling.” The smile returned. “Charlie is simply too selfish for society.”
Mable braced herself against the railing. “Where’s Charlie?” Her heart started to race, and her palms began to sweat.
The smile faded again. This time, Mable was certain that she could see hatred in the woman’s face, etched into every crease that seemed to appear from nowhere. The woman rose without difficulty to over, bear-like, over Mable and drifted toward the door. Mable went to follow, but a piercing glare from the woman stopped her in her tracks. The woman went to a part of the room that Mable couldn’t see and waited as the seconds turned into years.
When the woman returned, so had her smile, this time, instead of sweet and glowing, seemed to Mable sinister and acrid. She still floated as she made her way toward Mable. Mable tensed, bracing herself for anything – she knew this woman was dangerous. With a flick of her wrist, a man led Charlie out of the door.
Mable felt the blood rush from her face. She couldn’t be certain why she hadn’t expected this move. No matter how much she tried to find him and how hard she wished, her heart had told her, and by the way the woman had been talking, she had assumed, that she wouldn’t see Charlie anymore. The idea was starting to settle into her consciousness until this. Then Mable used the one tool that Papa said should only be used in extreme emergencies:
Mable lost her composure.
She took in a breath and let the tears flow freely from her eyes. She turned to the woman with all the hate she could muster.
“So what?” she said, letting the world fall apart around her. “So? He won again. It’s over. You’ll take him.”
The woman laughed but it wasn’t as pretty as before. “You silly thing. Why do you keep thinking the maze has something to do with speed and nothing to do with ability?”
Mable heard her but kept her eyes on Charlie, fixing his every detail into her mind. He wasn’t crying, but he had been – Mable could tell. She wanted to run to him and tell him that it would be okay soon, but she wasn’t sure that she would have believed herself.
“And now, Mable, we have to ask you to make a very grown up decision. Is that something you can do?” the woman asked, trying her best to look concerned and sympathetic.
Mable felt her cheeks go hot. She hated it when adults spoke to her like that. This woman, angelic looking as she was, had no regard for Mable or Charlie. She nodded, her jaw clenched.
“I can do that,” Mable said, forcing her voice to remain as calm as possible.
“Very good. Now, if you were in our position, who would you choose to save? Mable or Charlie? Mable would fit in best with society, but Charlie is smarter and braver.” The woman looked back and forth between Mable and Charlie.
Mable pressed her back into the railing. This was not their game. The woman had laid the options out so smoothly, but Mable felt there was a piece of information not being given.
“Why do I get a choice?” Mable knew she needed to get the woman talking again to work out what exactly was going on.
“Well, as I said, you’re both very capable, but only one of you can continue.” She stroked Mable’s cheek with a long, pale finger. “So which is it, Mable? Your own life or your little brother’s?”
“You’d… you’d take him instead?” To Mable, the choice was becoming less and less clear. She furrowed her brow.
“Yes, of course!” The low, smooth voice had evolved into a high pitched squeal that made Mable cringe. “We would take either of you. He had very excellent scores as well.”
“But…” Mable was starting to see the forest and the trees together. She hoped the woman could not see the wheels turning in her head. “You had every chance in the world to take Charlie. Three chances to get rid of me and take him.”
“Yes, dear,” the woman’s voice became low and smooth again, but Mable could hear the tension in it. The woman kneeled in front of Mable to look her in the eyes. “But it was always you we wanted.”
Mable swallowed. Here, trapped between the railing and this woman, the world stopped existing. She trembled and prayed again that the woman wouldn’t notice. Time seemed paused. She had waited for this opportunity and now, sitting before her, almost tangible in the air, she knew she couldn’t let Papa down. She had to make the right decision.
“Well?” the woman said. “We can’t sit around all day and think about this. We do need an answer.” The smile started to look more and more forced.
Mable bit her lip. “I… I would choose…” She looked at Charlie for long moment before turning her gaze back to the woman.
The woman kneeled. “Perhaps that sounds like it might be too selfish. Let me reword the question, dear, which would you choose for society: someone who would fit better, or someone who would not fit at all?”
Papa had once told Mable that the right thing and the easy thing were never the same thing, and she had pretended to understand. She looked at her feet and curled her toes. “I choose the better fit.”
The woman stood and took a few steps back, exchanging a deep frown with the man holding Charlie. Mable wanted to smile but stopped herself.
Mable took the woman’s hand. It was soft and warm in her own. She took one last look at Charlie, his green eyes welling up with tears. Mable fought the pressure behind her own eyes and shook her head. She smiled up at the woman.
“I’m ready,” she said. “I want to serve the greater good.”
The woman beamed. “That’s wonderful.” The smile vanished and she turned to the man holding Charlie. “Dispose of him.”
Mable took in a deep breath and held it. She had known that was coming, but still nothing could have prepared her for it. She looked at Charlie and he nodded through tears. Tensing her jaw, she nodded back. Then, she let herself be led away by the glowing, floating angel into the warm room waiting beyond the threshold.
It was necessary for the greater good.