Rey was just trying to get south to her family. Whatever came next, all of the victory and defeat, all of the hardship and whatever semblance of glory, let it be said here and now, at the beginning: that was all she had ever meant to do.
When the time comes, Sister Dosmit had always advised, you’ll know what to do. Trust your heart and your gut.
So it was to her kin she ventured, at last; they had been waiting for her for so long.
Some would say, after the Discovery, that the first Alpha ever born must have been Alexander the Great. Some argued it had to have been Genghis Khan. Some suggested Cleopatra. Some went even farther back, to the figures of myth and lore.
Could have been true, could have been apocryphal. No way of knowing; by the time people had come to understand the nature of their own mutated biology, the bodies of those figures were long gone, lost to the past.
The first one ever documented, however—the earliest strong-willed, indefatigable, irrepressible individual whose bones scientists were able to exhume and test for that crucial extra chromosome pair—had been Catherine the Great. Yekaterina Alekseyevna. Born 1729 and died 1796 from a stroke, though vengeful maids would spread rumors of an illicit affair with her horse gone terribly wrong. Her remains had been dug up from their resting place in Saint Petersburg and studied, along with all the other available bones of rulers, both great and terrible, from the past.
As for the others, their test results would prove inconclusive. Or they were Betas. Or they'd been born after Catherine.
As for the Russian queen, the results had come back, clear as day: positive for the 24th chromosome pair, which cast a person as either Omega or Alpha, depending on its configuration. She’d been an Alpha. The earliest example of the mutation that could be found by scientists with the crude tools gifted to them by the industrial revolution and resulting second renaissance of the 19th century; a momentary blossoming of civilization, right before it all went to shit.
What might history have been without Alphas and Omegas trapped together in the world they'd torn apart?
Who could say. In the aftermath of the Catastrophe, there was hardly anyone left to ponder such questions.
So, although some might have insisted humans were always riding a rollicking train, free of brakes, on a one-way ticket to the end of times, it could be said that officially, as far as the meaningless historical records were concerned, 1729 was the beginning of the end.
. . .
In her pack Rey carried the following items:
One change of clothes, which included a set of men’s trousers and a sturdy button-down shirt, just as filthy as those on her body but a bit cooler, hewn from lighter fabrics. A knitted scarf and hat. Socks, too. And underwear, also men’s.
Rags for the bleeds and slick that came with her quarterly heat. Some dried herbs for cooking, some for poultices. A pot, a spoon. Two shards of flint for starting fires.
A dwindling supply of a crude decoction made from boiled balsam fir, spruce, and pine, which she hoped help to disguise her scent from any Alphas she might encounter.
A Ronson pist-o-liter, long since emptied of its fuel, but precious to her for sentimental reasons.
A silver toothpick, gifted to her.
A letter, read only once, committed to memory, then carefully stored in a leather wallet for safekeeping along with the only official document she’d ever had to her name: a birth certificate from Saint Padmé’s. Both worthless, preserved merely for sentimentality’s sake.
A lock of Sister Dosmit Ræh’s hair, gathered neatly with a bit of marigold yarn, bundled in the wallet alongside the useless documents.
A metal flask, half-full of rye.
The last of her tobacco and rolling papers.
A hunting knife. A Winchester 1892 rifle and three bullets. The antler of a buck she’d killed the previous winter, whittled into two distinct items: a bear figurine and a second knife.
Four pounds of venison jerky. A handkerchief serving as a makeshift vessel for a handful of dried raisins.
A second flask, larger—more of a canteen, really. This one for water.
A crude length of oilskin—canvas coated with linseed oil, with rope attachments—used to form her shelter on nights when a naturally protected area could not be found. A deerskin, upon or under which she slept.
One textbook, dog-eared and coverless, beaten to hell and back: The Alpha and the Omega: the Science of the Soul, by Doctor Anakin Skywalker.
And a glass-bead rosary.
These were all her earthly possessions.
She was not prepared for everything, of course. No one ever was. But she’d thought she was pretty well-equipped for the road ahead when she’d stepped onto the docks of Halifax Harbour.
That was the way it went, though. Hindsight was twenty-twenty, foresight was a blur of hopes and dreams.
. . .
The extra chromosome pair had been discovered by an ambitious scientist named Anakin Skywalker in 1887, about twenty years or so after Louis Pasteur had discovered the nature of germs and Charles Darwin had put forth the theory of evolution.
Anakin had not just been heralded for his discovery by his peers. He’d been awarded the first ever Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1901, then invited to and toasted in the parlor of every person who considered themselves an intellectual, every person of means.
His benefactor, industrialist Mister Sheev Palpatine, had scholarships founded in his name across the nation, in all the most established institutions, Université Laval and McGill, the University of King’s College and the University of Toronto.
Anakin's late wife, a devout woman who had devoted much of her life to charity work before dying during childbirth, had been nominated for sainthood.
Streets had been named after Anakin, parades given in his honor. His grown children—a young debutante Alpha who’d married a Beta sailor and given birth to an Alpha boy, and her twin brother, an ascetic Beta monk—had received invitations into the upper echelons of society and sent the rumor mills grinding wherever they went.
“He’s brought balance to this world,” all had said of Anakin, in admiring tones. “He’s shown us the truth, the light, the way forward.”
Everyone had agreed.
Every person who had mattered, anyway.
Like every Alpha who now had a reason, a biological impetus, to behave like an Alpha.
A justification for their sins.
. . .
Sometimes, during her journey, to pass the dark and dangerous hours when she could not sleep, Rey would recount her story to the leaf-strewn forest floor, to the flames, to the unfeeling trees that fidgeted in the firelight.
Once upon a time... I was Henrietta, named Wednesday for the day in January of 1900 when I was dropped on the doorstep of Saint Padmé's Home for Foundling Omegas, a newborn swaddled in yesterday’s newspaper, my parent-given Christian name scrawled in charcoal above the headline.
Now I am the only foundling from that home who survived the Catastrophe.
I don’t know how to do anything else but survive anymore.
The fire would listen politely, but she could tell it harbored little sympathy for her tale of woe.
And why should it?
All things must die. Even orphans. Even Omegas. Even fires. This, Rey had learned the hard way.
. . .
For over a decade, years and years and years that had bled together into one long orgiastic ballet of misery, the Catastrophe had seized the population in its fearsome jaws, and there had been no such thing as peace or safety. The four horsemen had run roughshod across the face of the earth, spreading pestilence, famine, war, and death.
In London, where Rey was born and abandoned, over two-thirds of the population had been struck down during her adolescence. It’d been the same in the rest of England; she’d read about the death tolls rising in the dailies until the day no newspaper was published, for there had been no one left to write the articles, work the printing presses, or distribute the copies.
Many in the cities who’d survived the early days of the pandemic had died slower, more excruciating deaths: starvation, slower-killing diseases, the aftermath of the bombings, especially those that dropped the dreaded alphic gas on the cities.
And all these problems were exacerbated by the precipitous drop in population; so much of the world had moved towards industrialization in the 20th century, and by the time the horsemen had finished their reaping, there had barely been anyone left to man the machines or keep the city running. In no time at all, things began to rust and decay.
No one knew for certain when or where the Catastrophe had begun; at least, no one whom Rey had ever encountered. But she knew this much: she was born in 1900, and when she was fifteen she saw the first wave of the illness—dubbed “the Lover's Death” by newspapers, caused by improperly quarantined experiments in genome therapy gone awry—take most of those who had lived in the home with her. Not long after, the bombs had begun falling.
By the time she was nineteen, she had been left with no choice but to walk away from the devastation that had become her home, her whole life bundled up in a knapsack, a scarf around her face the only protection she wielded against air a sickly mustard color, thick as soup and ready to choke her.
She never looked back, not once the whole time she was walking. Perhaps the nuns at Saint Padmé had once been good Christians, perhaps not; regardless, she’d known the story of Lot’s wife by heart for years.
. . .
Traveling on foot from the Maritimes to Texas was always going to take a long time. Months and months. A year or longer, in all probability, and that was if she could maintain a brisk pace and if the weather stayed mild and if the terrain was not so impassible that she had to backtrack or detour along circuitous alternate routes. It would require fortitude. It would require grit. And it would require a good deal of patience.
But Rey had all those qualities in spades, designation be damned.
So she arrived at Halifax in Autumn of 1919 on what was probably one of the last schooners to ever cross the Atlantic, captained by an indomitable old Beta named Han Solo who’d promised her safe passage in exchange for nothing more than a pair of brass candlesticks, an outrageous bargain in her favor. In Halifax Harbour, or what remained of it, she changed out of her demure traveling day dress—cut up into extra heat rags, even then she knew fabric was not to be wasted—and into her pilfered men’s clothing. Then she set out along the tracks of the abandoned Nova Scotia Railway, headed north to Windsor and then on, southwest, towards Maine.
. . .
Before this story begins in earnest, it should be mentioned: of course there had been designations before 1887. Few and far between, not talked about in polite society, but still there, just as dirt swept under the carpet is invisible but not forgotten.
It did seem, however, as if a few years prior to the Discovery, in the Spring of 1883 or ‘84, suddenly, without warning, an entire generation around the world had hit puberty and presented as Alpha or Omega, in numbers never before seen.
Before, there had been a world of Betas who had not even realized that 'designations' existed.
After, sex had become inescapable, in a way that most could not reconcile themselves with.
No longer had this been a fringe phenomenon, a genetic quirk confined to museums and sideshows. Donations had poured forth from titans of industry and nobility and governments alike, all concerned about their young ones. Research of the strange mutations had kicked into high gear; Anakin had been a beneficiary of that.
Right place, right time.
And another thing: after the Discovery had been publicized, lauded, and accepted as irrefutable fact, the world did not immediately fall into camps as neat and easy as Alpha, Omega, Beta.
It had been a messy business, restructuring all of mankind. Some things did fall away, by degrees. For a time. Like gramophone needles plucked from their grooves, the old bitter songs had been momentarily paused, prejudices set aside—perhaps with the expectation of resuming later—in order to make way for the new overriding ethos, designationism.
It had gone like this: Alphas run the world, Omegas repopulate it, and the labor of Betas keep it spinning.
This was to be the way forward.
The only problem was, not everyone agreed.
Some Alphas had not wanted to run the world, many Omegas had not wanted to repopulate it, and nearly all Betas had not found it fair that they should provide the labor. It had not been so simple as man versus woman or factory owner versus workers; not that they had ever been simple, either.
An Alpha who had agreed with these new ideas, who’d quite liked the idea of control and power and wealth, might find themselves at odds with an Omega friend or family member, who’d bucked at the very mention of 'breeding'. They both might be put in the awkward position of comforting a loved one who did not possess the 24th chromosome pair, and thus had been relegated to the role of laborer or drone.
Plus, where would this have left the people who had been in power, but were discovered to be Omegas and Betas? Where would this leave those who had been part of the downtrodden peasant and working classes but whom tested positive for the Alpha chromosome? The entire foundation of the world had turned to sand, shifting beneath everyone’s feet. Sex and chaos. Those who, by the new rules, should've lost their exalted status in the world, were loath to be parted from it. Those who had nothing to lose and, for the first time in their lives, something to gain, were all too happy to divorce the elites from their privilege.
A few years on, nations and families and religions had all begun to lose their meaning.
There had only been the worst of human nature, hungry and lustful and craven, and the all-consuming obsession with that one measly chromosome pair.
Oh yes, it had been a very messy business.
So came the wars. And with the wars had come famine. Both swept away those who might’ve known how to prevent the plague. Death had overseen the whole thing, a director staging his ballet.
Anakin had delivered balance, all right.
Because after the bombs had been dropped, the spiritus mundi poisoned, populations decimated, battles lost, countries wiped off the map, after the cities had been abandoned and the countryside harbored roving angry Alphas, still hopped up on the poison Anakin’s discoveries had engendered, there was a ferocious sort of balance. A wild and brutal and cruel balance, wherein might made right and to the victors went the spoils.
What was left of the world held its breath and waited. Maybe until it drowned, maybe until it resurfaced.
That was a sort of balance.