The woman hurried through the walkway towards the main gate, an infant clutched in her arms. From the first moment I spotted her, my suspicions were raised. Head bent downward, attention focused on the child, everything in her manner screamed fakery. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone do it.

“Show yourselfe,” I ordered.

She glanced up for a second, the hood of her cloak pulled forward concealing most of her face, before her head dropped again.

“I said show yourself. Put down the child and pull back your hood, or you know what’ll happen.”

She tensed; aware I was onto her ruse. Her pace quickened as she passed below me, beneath the bridge. She had 50 or so yards to go before she reached the gate and left the compound.

“Show your fucking face,” I shouted, and she started to run.

I put the bead on her back, just below her neck, and squeezed the trigger.

Before the report had a chance to echo off the buildings, she went down. The child scrambled to its feet. A second discharge rang out and it fell close to the body of its mother.

“Jeremiah, you’re one mean bastard,” my colleague Bill muttered with contempt. He didn’t like me; very few of the men liked me, but I wasn’t here to win friends. I was here to earn money.

“Mean?” I asked, lowering myself back into my seat with the rifle across my knees. “How can I be mean if I’m just doing my job?”

“You shot her in the back. You didn’t even try to talk her out of it.”

I didn’t respond. I was sick of the chickenshit approach most of the men took. We were here to enforce the rules, not debate the rights or wrongs of them with the common folk.

My job was simple: if women didn’t have the mark and tried to leave the compound, I shot them. That’s what I was paid to do; what we were all paid to do. Some of the men would intervene if a woman without the mark tried to get out. They’d try to persuade her to go back and do what was necessary, but I didn’t waste my time. I’d been given clear and specific instructions, and to earn my wage I did what I’d been told to do.

Some of the women ran, believing I might let them go, but shooting them in the back wasn’t an issue for me. What did it matter where I shot them? They still ended up dead.

“She didn’t have the mark,” I said, feeling Bill’s eyes on me. “The bosses tell me if there’s no mark and they try to leave, shoot them, so that’s what I did. If you want to waste your breath trying to persuade them to go back, feel free, but I’m doing the job as instructed.”

“I know that,” Bill muttered, “but you don’t have to take pleasure in it.”

“Pleasure in a job well done?” I asked. “What’s wrong with that?”

“No, I mean taking pleasure in shooting a woman in the back.”

“I didn’t ask her to run. She knew what would happen. They all know what’ll happen. They’re relying on getting a soft sack of shit like you who won’t do his job properly. I ain’t a cheat. If the boss pays me to do something, I do it.”

“Are you calling me a cheat, Jeremiah?” Bill sounded affronted, but I figured his challenge was more about saving face than taking me on.

“Yes, I am calling you a cheat; a sack of shit cheat at that. Now shut the fuck up or I’ll shoot you, too. Go do something useful and move those bodies before they start to stink and bring in the flies.”

Bill went off to move the dead. He knew I wasn’t messing. If he challenged me, if he pushed me too far, I’d have shot him. I just wanted to do my job and get paid.

More women came, all with hoods pulled up, faces downcast. I’d order them to show me the mark and they’d look up, pulling back their hoods, the yellowish smear of oily paint clear on their foreheads. Once I’d seen it, they’d cover up quick, as if it was something shameful.

The women with husbands were easier to deal with, the menfolk making certain they showed the mark. It was the women on their own, those whose husbands had died on the coffin ships during the voyage, or the few who’d travelled alone to the New World, who were offended by the mark. I didn’t judge them. For me, it was simple. If they had the mark, they were free to go. If they didn’t and they tried to leave, I shot them.

When the first immigrants arrived, they were families, husbands, and wives with children in tow. They crossed the world fuelled by a desire to realise their dreams. As the opportunities became apparent, the number of single men arriving increased. They were looking for adventure, seeking riches and ready to take risks to achieve it. I had been one of them.

The influx of single men, plus interaction with the indigenous tribes, led to a problem for the founders of the New World: infidelity. Their wives were lured away with the enticement of freedom, riches, an escape from the back-breaking toil of subsistence farming. The grass was rarely greener, but the elders increasingly suffered the shame of their women leaving, which resulted in the inconvenience of having to fend for themselves and their offspring. They needed a solution, and they found one.

When the ships docked, the passengers disembarked and were sent for disinfecting, stripped naked and scrubbed down. Then they were assessed. Question upon question was asked so they could be registered. The females were given an injection. They were told it was to prevent sickness, to boost their health and fight the challenges of the environment in the New World. The reality was different. Most of the women were given the germ.

No one knew the criteria used to decide who received the germ; well, no one aside from the elders. The women themselves didn’t know if they’d received it or a placebo. The ignorance of the people meant the elders held the power. All women were injected, and all were given the mark to show they’d been treated.

As word spread about the process, a number of women tried to avoid being injected with the germ. That’s when the elders hired us to make sure no one evaded the process.

We were told very little about the germ. The elders claimed it was a necessity to ensure the survival of strong, pure, God-fearing folk, unsullied by lust and sloth. Some of the men were inspired by the thought of creating a new Jerusalem, but I didn’t care. All I wanted to know was how much I’d be paid. I wasn’t doing this for someone else’s future. I was doing it for me, in the here and now.


I was heading back from the canteen, my belly full of pork and beans, when I saw her. She was different, carrying an air of vulnerability. Her beauty was understated, natural. Walking away from the dock, distant from the chaotic scenes all around her, it was as if she was gliding through a dream, separated from the outside world by whatever was happening in her head.

She didn’t have the mark and made no attempt to conceal her clean forehead. It was unusual: the unmarked women were never open about it. At times, it was the overzealous attempts to hide their faces which made them stand out from the crowd.

She made no attempt to evade the checkpoint, nor did she show any haste to get away. Her demeanour didn’t ring true of someone trying to sneak past and avoid detection. She displayed an innocence which disarmed me for a moment.

I waited by the steps leading up the bridge, until she walked past me.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m guessing you’re lost.”

She nodded and muttered, “Lost,” her frail voice echoing my words. Her eyes were green, but such a pale icy green it reminded me of leaves with a coating of frost.

I pointed towards the disinfecting barn.

“You need to go back thataway, to the big building. They’ll see to you there.”

She didn’t move; just stood staring into my eyes, her face emotionless. Her hair was so black it seemed to absorb the daylight. Framing those icy eyes, it made me shiver despite the midday heat.

“Lost,” she muttered again, her tone vague and distant. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Sure you do,” I chimed, but I didn’t believe my own words. “You’ve come all this way to the New World, alone; a few immigration procedures ain’t going to perturb you none.”

“I didn’t choose…”

Her eyes broke away from mine and she lowered her gaze.

“My husband…”

A tinge of disappointment pierced my mood. Of course she had a husband. A woman of her beauty and elegance would have been pursued by an army of suitors.

“Where’s your husband?” I asked.

“He died.” Her words, repeated by rote, disguised a depth of sorrow.

“During the voyage?”

“No; it was an accident, last year. He died, and his parents took our son. They said they’d look after him while I grieved. A lawyer came to visit. He told me I had a choice. I could either emigrate to the New World and start again or spend the rest of my days in a hospital for the insane. They said my son would join me on the ship, but he never arrived.”

I’d heard a bunch of sob stories, but this one was different. She wasn’t telling me her tale to earn a reprieve or to win me over. She was telling me to purge her mind, as if the words would carry off the pain and sorrow as they exited her mouth. She fell silent, but I knew there was more, so I waited.

Spotting me with the woman, Bill dashed down the stairs from the bridge.

“How was lunch, Jeremiah?” he asked, trying to disguise his awkwardness. “Why don’t you go on up and I’ll deal with this lady.”

“It’s okay, Bill. Everything’s under control. You head off and get some chow.”

“I can take her to the barn; I don’t mind,” he stuttered. “When you get up there, look in the pocket of my coat. I’ve got a little bottle. Feel free to have a nip or two.”

I wanted to punch him, to knock him on his ass. He’d decided I wasn’t capable of dealing with the woman. He also seemed to think I could be bought off with a swallow or two of gut rot whisky.

“No, Bill. As the senior member of the team, I insist you get off for your lunch. Get going.”

I said the words with enough authority to ensure he spotted the underlying threat. Shrugging, he walked away. I didn’t watch him go, but I knew he was looking back over his shoulder every few steps.

“I’m Jeremiah, by the way,” I said, breaking the silence between us.

“Beatrice,” she muttered. She raised her hand slightly, as if she was about to offer it in greeting, but after a hesitation, it dropped back by her side.

“Well then, Beatrice, let’s get you where you should be.”

Her eyes reconnected with mine.

“During the voyage, some of the women said we’d be injected when we arrived, with a germ. Is it true?”

“I’m sure someone will explain it all when we’re down there. I don’t really have much to do with—“

“They said it was to stop wives and mothers running off with other men…or the savages.”

I smiled at her, struggling to know what to say in response.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to be listening to gossip. The elders want every woman to be checked and, where necessary, be given an inoculation. I don’t know if every woman gets the same treatment, but they’ll assess you and decide what’s best. My job doesn’t have anything to do with the process.”

“But I don’t have a husband, and my child isn’t here…I just need to find work, to survive. There’s no reason to give me a germ to stop me wandering. I have nowhere to wander from.”

I shrugged and said, “I guess they’ll take your circumstances into account. I’m just here to, well, to make sure you end up in the right place.”

Maybe they’d consider her situation, but I doubted it. The odds were they’d just give her the germ anyway. It was simpler. There was nothing I could do to influence their decision.

“Jeremiah, what does the germ do?”

“I just work here, on the gate. I don’t—“

“Well, what do you suppose it does?” she asked, interrupting my attempt at claiming no knowledge of what went on.

Sure, I was a gatekeeper, but I’d heard them talking. The other men spent their breaks playing cards or napping, but I listened, absorbing every word the elders and their underlings said. Everything had a value in the New World, and knowledge was a useful commodity.

“Well, I suppose if a lady has…relations…with a man, the germ she carries infects him,” I replied, trying to sound as if it was all supposition. “No man wants his…tool…rotting away, so I guess it works to prevent illicit liaisons. The elders are only trying to secure the future of the New World.”

She sighed; a sound born of frustration rather than despondency.

“What if a woman is single, or if her husband dies or runs off and abandons her? Is she never to be allowed to love again?”

I scratched myself as I tried to summon up the courage to ask.

“What about you, Beatrice? Do you think you could ever love again?”

It was her turn to shrug.

“Right now, it feels so far away. I need to survive, but who will employ me? I can’t do anything but keep house. I can cook and clean and wash clothes and run errands. I can sew and knit and build fires in the hearth. If I could find someone to offer me board and lodgings in return for housekeeping duties, at least I could survive. Then, who knows? If someone showed me kindness, I dare say I could love again. Alas, I’ll never have the chance to find out.”

“Why?” I asked, immediately regretting the question. I knew the answer.

“Will any man be interested in a woman who carries the germ? Would you be interested, Jeremiah?”

I knew what I should say, but I remained silent.

“All the elders will achieve is the demise of the New World. They’re destroying their future to exercise short-term control over the womenfolk and their offspring. If the new immigrants can’t breed, that only leaves the children of the pioneers. The gene pool will shrink and bring its own problems. In the future, the New World will be a wasteland inhabited by the sick and weak. Why can’t they see the futility of their actions?”

Everything she said made sense. I couldn’t argue with her. The elders declared the use of the germ would be temporary, but no one seemed to know how long temporary would be. The procedure for infecting women had been in place for years and showed no sign of being relaxed. Word was many of the women who’d arrived before the changes were also being injected without their knowledge, often by doctors once they’d produced children.

She was waiting for me to say something, but I had no words.

“Jeremiah,” she whispered, her hand gently touching mine, “you’re a good man, a wise man. I can see understanding in your eyes. If you could see your way to providing me shelter and sustenance, I will keep house for you, cook and clean and fetch and carry for you. Maybe, one day… maybe. I’ll wait in the town, and if you don’t come to find me before dawn, I’ll understand. It’s your choice.”

I wanted her, longed to take her in my arms, to tell her everything would be all right, but still I had no words.

She walked away, under the bridge, moving slowly towards the road. When she was but a few steps from the gate, she turned and looked back. I watched her, but still I had no words. Then she turned to go.

I put the bead on her and squeezed the trigger.