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The Rule of One (The Rule of One #1)
Author:Ashley Saunders, Leslie Saunders

The Rule of One (The Rule of One #1)

Ashley Saunders, Leslie Saunders




PART I

THE SECRET





MIRA

I am falling. The darkness is claustrophobic, like I’m buried underground. I drop through air, the wind shrieking in my ears, slapping my long red hair across my face like tiny, fiery whips.

My stomach flips and I feel sick. I try to open my mouth to vomit or scream, but I cannot move. I am made of stone, a statue hurtling deep down into the dark void.

Something brushes against my right wrist. Dozens, hundreds of fingers suddenly claw at my body, hands tearing at my clothes, clamping tight to my neck and feet.

My mind wild, but my body immobile, I desperately will my limbs into action. In a blind panic I fight to break free, but my arms and legs remain bound and rigid, helpless to the hands that threaten to pull me apart. To bury me.

My strength fades away just as a woman’s voice cracks open the silence. Her beautiful, warm voice rises and falls in a song, and I remember. My mother.

My darting eyes know only the black void, but her voice intensifies and surrounds me. With all the power I have, I struggle to reach out for my mother through the crushing fingers and darkness. Finally, my arms yank loose from the iron hands, and I feel myself ascend.

I jolt awake.

Breathing heavily, I find that I am sitting up in our twin bed inside the basement below our backyard, my muscles sore, my teeth and jaw aching. Ava touches me soothingly on the shoulder, but I’m unable to look at her, embarrassed I woke her again.

“Nightmare?” Ava asks. I nod stiffly, and she lowers her eyes like she understands. But she doesn’t. Not fully.

I look at the time. 6:30 a.m. “We’re late.”

Ava leaps out of bed and tears through the dresser before finally slipping on a pair of our white slacks.

“Where’s the clean—”

Careful not to wrinkle it, I toss her our structured linen top. Like a sash, a royal-purple line stretches diagonally across the front from heart to hip, the only break in the pure all-white uniform.

She rips off her T-shirt and continues to dress for school as I turn to the desk beside the stairs. I place our small tablet into our satchel and watch in the mirror as Ava takes great care to brush down her bangs that stop just above her green eyes. The same green eyes as mine.

I grab the concealer from a drawer inside our desk and look up to find myself face-to-face with the lifelike portrait of our mother. Images from my sleep rush over me, the terror of those hands gripping me in the dark more a memory than a dream. Popping the knuckles of my thumbs, I walk over to Ava standing in front of the mirror and try to forget. To shake off the lingering impression.

I know it’s no use. I will remember everything. After all, our entire lives are owed to mastering the most minute details. If we don’t remember, we don’t survive.

Placing the square compact in her waiting palm, I look up at my sister. My twin. With quick taps she skillfully applies the concealer over a star-shaped scar on her neck. When we were in the eighth grade, she tripped and fell into a patch of prickly pears in the greenhouse. Father was furious, but Ava reminded him that it was an accident and that we can’t control everything. No matter how hard he tries.

The scar now hidden, she smiles at me in the glass. “There. Now we’re the same person,” she says. I smile back and analyze our identical reflections. I am her and she is me. One soul in two bodies.

Without thinking, I touch my right wrist, where a microchip should be. A permanent reality of being the second-born in a Rule of One America: I don’t really exist.

“I wish it was your day at school,” says Ava. “You would have no problem getting us a perfect score.” I swing our satchel over her shoulder, and together we move up the stairs that lead to the long, empty wall.

“Just keep a clear head during our Spanish oral, and you’ll do fine, Ava. We studied all night.”

She emits a doubtful sigh, and I pull her forehead to mine. “Tú puedes hacerlo.” You’ll do great.

Ava grins and lifts her hand to the wall. Two soft knocks and the wall recedes, revealing a secret passageway that leads to our house. “See you soon,” she tells me.

She turns and half jogs down the tunnel. I hover at the opening until the last flame of her red hair disappears in the dark. I already feel her absence. Half of me is gone.

I close the passageway and descend the stairs in three light steps. I return to our bed.

And wait.





AVA

Starting the day off our usual routine has my nerves on edge, and I have to hurry through the tight underground passageway to make up for being late. As I charge past the concrete walls and up a second set of stairs, I shift my mindset into being above ground; once I step outside our house, I submit to a world with no privacy. Cameras and watchful eyes will monitor my every move. I have to be ready.

It is a precious secret that the two of us exist.

Father had five years to train his little girls in the art of deception before we left the safety of his protection and attended primary academy. Rules were drilled into Mira and me since before we could speak. Knowing this would be the key to our survival, he made following these rules into a game that was fun for us to play. The reward of his honest praise meant everything to me. One of my very first memories is reciting Father’s most important governing principle: We must be perfect. If one of us slips and reveals the secret, we will all lose the game entirely.

I knock twice on the smooth wall, and it instantly slides open, unveiling our pristine living room. The wall sealing into place behind me, I race into the house and move for the front door. In my distracted haste, I plow unexpectedly into my father standing in the entrance hall. He holds my sleek lunch pail in his hands, a stern look in his eyes.

My own eyes go wide with shock. “It’s six forty-five . . . Why aren’t you at your office?”

He narrows his lids into thin slits. I carefully grab my lunch from his grasp and stuff it into my bag. The fridge is stocked with premade lunches for each day of the week; everything about our lives is diligently regimented to the point of extreme annoyance.

My father’s continued silence pressures me to add, “We won’t do it again, I promise.”

“No. I promise. That was the last time. You cannot spend the night together—it is simply too dangerous.”

Father isn’t the sort of man whose glare you want aimed in your direction. A high-ranking government official—Director of the Texas Family Planning Division—he exudes authority and breathes schedules. In his sharp military uniform, he cuts a dignified figure, but there’s a slight bend in his shoulders this morning that I recognize as the heavy weight of responsibility.

I try to lighten the load by breaking into a grin.

“We’re learning a new song in choir today. Mira and I could sing it for you tonight after dinner,” I say.

His furrowed brow finally smooths over. “I would like that,” he says, straightening. He kisses my forehead lightly. “Keep your guard up, and always stay alert.”

“You have a good day too, Father,” I say over my shoulder as I head out the door.

Time to play the game.