Tandra had waited too long and now she had to pay for it. While the helicar hovered over the Institute for Parental Certification, the feared IPC, she felt her heart beat faster at the sight of those square, ominously gray buildings. She had wasted too much time out of pure insecurity. And here she was, seven-months pregnant, almost ready to pop, and she hadn't taken the test. She hadn't even tried. The only way to keep her baby was to agree to live for two weeks with a designated test child--most likely, an obnoxious one--in the hopes of getting her license afterward.
In other boroughs, parenthood was still seen as a private matter. Here, though, the local government required expectant parents or those who wanted to have children in the future, to pass a practical test before they were allowed to reproduce. "Parenthood is a privilege, not a right," was one of the borough's mottos. The administration honored it.
Most people chose to take a four-month course that prepared them for the test. Often, though not always, those who completed the course received parental licenses later. But Tandra had heard first-hand accounts about the indignities that aspiring couples (particularly single mothers) suffered at the Institute's homes.
"A teenage girl used to spit on me the first thing in the morning," said her friend Uki, who had taken the course but failed to get a license. "And an eight-year-old boy would call me and my husband every name in the book and kick us under the table, hoping we would kick back, so we would get disqualified."
Uki and her husband had flunked the test because they were labeled "overly permissive," which was considered as bad as being too harsh. Their marriage had collapsed amid mutual recriminations for the failure, and she had ended up deciding against motherhood. But Tandra hadn't, and time was running out.
Ah, the world moved at a faster pace than ever before. She remembered starting college at 18 and getting her bachelor's degree at 23. And there were kids not older than 19 who already had their master's! Accelerated learning, the experts called it. The new graduates were in positions of authority despite the fact that they hadn't learned to wipe their bottom, she thought. Now, people like her were working for them. It just didn't make sense.
The helicar, most likely designed by one of those genius teenagers, got closer to the ground, its sensors ready to detect a landing space. Tandra waited impatiently, blaming her predicament on her career choice.
She had tried to move to a less restrictive town, but interborough relocation laws had become tougher. After educating young people and investing in them for over 15 years, the local governments wanted long-term service in return. At least that was the case with high-tech programmers, robot designers and engineers.
Liberal arts majors, like Tandra, faced another problem. While their borough of origin was willing to let them go, others weren't interested in taking them in. Their talents were not practical. Her application had been denied 12 times.
"If you had a technical degree it would be easier," the relocation officer had told her. "But with only a master's in literature--"
He had elongated every syllable of the last word, as if the effort to pronounce it were too much for him.
"With that, the only place that will welcome you is El Yermo," he concluded with a chuckle.
If he had intended to be funny, he had failed to do so.
El Yermo was a wasteland--thousands of acres that had been abandoned after the explosion and meltdown of the biggest nuclear reactor in the region. The disaster had happened 70 years before Tandra was born, but scientists cautioned that the radiation level was still high out there and that the amounts of radioactive strontium and cesium hadn't gone down enough to make the area habitable again. The reactor was still somewhere in El Yermo, encased in concrete.
When the reactor exploded, people had been ordered to evacuate the area. All the plant workers and their families complied, but a few refused to do so.
They were, for the most part, peasants who didn't even know what a reactor was. Yes, they had seen the explosion, but accidents were common around the nuclear plant. They had stayed, and their children and grandchildren still lived there, procreating at their own free will.
Nobody bothered them. The government didn't interfere with anybody's business because there was no government per se, only poor, independent, isolated villages without electricity or running water.
Born and raised in a safe, quiet borough, Tandra had never been in the wasteland, but had seen pictures of it. Some were obviously fake, but she was sure that there were, indeed, children and animals with misshapen skulls, missing limbs or too many of them, fish with two mouths, and even worse things. El Yermo was the last place in the world she wanted to go.