Countdown to Emergence Ball: Day Before
I’m breaking the rules, and I absolutely refuse to care.
Veda gallops through the floating gardens and whinnies ecstatically as we pass the last of the designated security posts. Each gallop takes us farther and farther away from the main quarters, and closer to where the island ends and the clouds begin.
For a moment, I forget I’m virtually a prisoner. I can leave this island, but not unsupervised. And even then, there is little I’m allowed to see, especially what lies below.
Back in the main quarters, Governess will go to wake me from my rest. She’ll be displeased at my unexpected absence, to say the least, with so many tasks yet to be done: final gown mods, vitamin injections, rosebud cheek infusions, last-minute blemish inspection and evulsion.
Then there is practice. There is always practice.
The curtsy: low, but not unladylike. The conversation: pleasant, but not probing.
There are fan drills to rehearse. The art of fan communication is delicate, this I’ve been endlessly taught. An incorrect flick of the wrist, a hereafter with a man I despise.
Expand the fan wide to indicate interest. Tap his shoulder to flirt. Right hand: I am available. Smack closed: I daresay we are incompatible.
I plan on using that last one a great deal.
The guest list must be memorized, ranked in order of importance. There are more insults to perfect, not to mention an inhuman amount of grooming.
Tomorrow is the most important day of my life, after all. I’ve been told it so much I’m starting to believe it and fear it.
“Keep going,” I tell Veda. The rhythmic thumps of her hooves grow faster. A frenzied, unrestrained drumbeat.
My mother loved music just as I do. She spent entire days on her air harp, her fingers dancing along its cords, weaving songs while painting her studio with colorful beams of light.
My mother, according to Governess, was a charming conversationalist and graceful dancer. Governess tells me all about my mother, and she often repeats herself. There is only so much to tell. Only so many stories. I know that she designed her own formal wear, and enjoyed berries and chocolate after dining. That she favored the color blue, and wore one long braid down her back unless the occasion dictated a more formal updo.
I know a great deal about my mother, and yet nothing at all.
A sudden rush of cold smacks me across the face, the air off the clouds growing stronger. “Faster,” I tell Veda. I pass the hedge maze and Tranquillity Pastures. Roar underneath the welcoming gate.
Not that anyone is really welcome. Not to Helix Island.
I want to go faster than I ever have. Farther than I ever thought possible.
Now, Governess will have gone from displeased to frantic. This is worse than skipping penmanship, worse than rolling my eyes when one of the debutees expresses her unfortunate opinion during Etiquette Training.
“Why can’t you just try?” asks Governess when I’m reported for impropriety. “Can’t you put forth the tiniest bit of effort?”
What she will never understand: not saying those things takes a lot of effort.
This is the farthest I have gone without a chaperone. Beneath me, Veda snorts with elation, and fear. “Don’t be afraid, girl,” I say. I hold my own fear tight, letting it surge through my body and push me farther.
When I’m found, Waslo will be informed. He is sure to engage me in a Discussion. Waslo Souture was my father’s protégé. My father had friends as well, though I haven’t met any. They have good reason to keep their distance from the legacy he left behind.
I can’t imagine Waslo was ever a friend to my father. A most talented student, I can’t deny, for his ascent into the Independent High Council is praiseworthy. If that’s the sort of thing you’d like to do with your life.
Waslo has been around for as long as I can remember. There have also been Discussions as long as I remember.
Perhaps he will choose “Respect for the Family Name” or “Appropriate Behavior as a Reflection of Upbringing.” Those classics I have committed to memory. Waslo grows especially passionate nearing the end of “Appropriate Behavior”; sometimes even a little spittle catches on his bottom lip.
No, those are not suitable enough. Not for an offense this bold. For this, he will choose “Being a Proper Young Woman.”
“A Proper Young Woman would never dishonor her legacy in such an inappropriate manner,” he will say. “And on the eve of your Emergence Ball, at that! What would your father think?”
I wish I knew, I will think but never dream of saying. Instead, I will stay silent, head bowed in shame, waiting for him to finish. Hoping his spit doesn’t find purchase farther than his thin lips.
I will feel inadequate, just as he intended. Perhaps this is why
Waslo is so important: he has a gift for making others feel unsatisfactory.
This will be our last Discussion, I suppose. In a few hours, I will reach my seventeenth year of life. Tomorrow is my Emergence Ball; within the week I will have a cohabitant. Shortly after, I will be relocated to my cohabitant’s island or, as is done in some cases, he will come to live on Helix. And then we will officially, as The Book of Indra tells us, “embark upon the journey of becoming Proper Cohabitated Citizens of Indrithian Society.”
Waslo shouldn’t fret so much; soon I will be someone else’s problem.
Strangely enough, the thought makes me laugh, hard enough to shift across Veda’s bare back. I can’t help but regard my laughter as highly unbecoming. But I do it anyway. I shake the pins from my head, letting my hair fall against my shoulders, allowing the wind to whip it into tangles, and surge forward.
Proper Young Women of the New Indrithian Society are happy to practice elocution and become versed in etiquette. They will memorize flower sonnets, never questioning that real flowers have not existed for centuries. Once flowers even had a scent, like perfume. There were more strains than we have selected to synth.
I’m sure grass must have smelled wonderful as well, not like the synthfields Veda tramples with each stride. Synth is as close to the former Earth as Indra’s finest scientists can replicate, but it will never be truly real. I often wonder if anything is in Indra.
Proper Young Women of the New Indrithian Society understand that penetrating questions are unnecessary. Curiosity is rude. Proper Young Women need not think beyond the gift of each magical Indrithian day: the lovely blooming of the synth-trees, the filtered air, and purified water. “Best not dwell below,” the old saying goes. Or
as written in The Book of Indra, “Unpleasant topics bring about unpleasant feelings, so why ever broach such subjects?”
I cannot help myself. I want to question everything.
I want to rip off my sashes and shriek like a hellion. I want to roll in the grass and soil my spotless white frock. Nothing is more point- less than a white gown. It’s like telling the world you are incapable of interaction.
I’m not normal, I think. Or, at least, I’m not like anyone else.
When they find me, Governess will sputter and cry, “Your happiness is my sole reason for existence.” Needless to say, I will apologize profusely. I will play at embarrassment, put the fault on my nervousness, willingly submit myself to her itinerary of torture.
Even better? I will pin the blame on heartbreak. “My impending cohabitation means leaving you, dear Governess. You are the closest I have ever had to a mother.”
That should quiet her quickly.
Strangely enough, the sentiment is true.
I often wonder how she felt, after all those years of training, for the High Council to assign her to an orphan. An impossibly strange one at that. An odd little girl who, when choosing her leisure pastime as a child, insisted on swordsmanship. Not social dancing or needle- point, as practiced by the highest ranks. I would wager Governess has regretted her assignment every day since.
But doesn’t she see the respect with which I hold my zinger? With every slash it barks. In the hands of a skilled swordsman, it would weave dangerous melodies. The more adept, the more sophisticated the song. The dissonant chorus of my practice must haunt her waking moments. Can’t she imagine the songs it will one day sing?
Raising me cannot have been an easy task, but tomorrow is the day Governess has been planning since my infancy. My birth into the
social stratosphere, my official welcome into the realm of Indrithian Citizens of Importance...and I am off riding Veda.
My Emergence Ball will be spectacular, and that is all that matters. As for me? I’m more of a gilded centerpiece to be admired. I’m Livia Cosmo, the Orphan Airess. Living, breathing memorial to the great Armand Cosmo. My father was a true Indrithian of Importance.
Before he died. The dead are never as important.
My mother is at his side. I’m the only one who remembers them. And yet, I have no memories of them.
I’m not sad. I never knew them. You cannot miss something you never had in the first place.
Orphans are rare in Upper Indra. In fact, I believe I’m the only one. Life expectancy is long here. Citizens are limited to a single progeny per cohabitation. This is how it has always been: father, mother, and child.
A child on their own? An orphan? Who would look out for such a thing? Who would show it care?
Veda is an anomaly, too. Horses have not existed for centuries, but my father successfully bred them in his labs. The colts were pitch-black, and none survived very long. Only a solitary mare.
Most refer to Veda as white, but they’re mistaken. Veda is ivory. And that is altogether different.
No one knows how long she will live, but I do not worry. No one knows what to expect from me either. Veda belonged to my mother, and now she is mine.
And she has never run faster.
What I know: my father was the most famous geneticist of Indra. He worked in the City of Indra, where the Middler population is trained from birth to serve those of us on the Islands. My father had Middlers at his beck and call, perhaps even wiping his backside after
a visit to the privy if he so demanded, which I very much hope he did not.
My father was that important.
According to Governess, I’m an Indrithian of Importance as well. I inherited the Armand Cosmo legacy.
Too bad I won’t understand a word of it. Life Guide refuses to in- struct me in genetics. I excel at every other subject, especially mathematics. I solved proofs and deciphered evolutionary patterns before Life Guide even taught me how. But still, genetics are too advanced, he says.
“But what about the test?” I ask him. “The one the High Council administered when I was little? The results said I have an aptitude for genetics. A gift.”
Life Guide pretends not to have heard me. If I persist, he claims that I’m remembering incorrectly.
I have a flawless memory.
“Just like her father!” That is what Waslo exclaimed when he heard the results, my memory is clear. “She is like him,” he said, looking down at me with shiny eyes half filled with wonder, half with fear.
I wish to understand the secrets in our cells, the mysteries of the blood that beats within our flesh. We all exist as one, but forever apart. Did my father even know this? I want to know all that he knew, and more.
Instead, Life Guide and I study Indrithian history, to marvel at our great society and its innovations and advancements.
Mostly we study The Book of Indra.
“Best not dwell below,” Life Guide cites when I ask a question he wishes not to answer.
What he means: learn what you are told to learn. Close your mouth and memorize a flower sonnet.
Sometimes I think he doesn’t know the answers himself.
Sometimes I think “the answers” are all he knows.
In my father’s time, genetics research was of the utmost importance. Population control, ensuring sufficient air and water supply for every Indrithian. The EX2 pill was his creation. I have taken my daily supplement since I turned twelve, as has every other Proper Young Woman. When I am cohabitated, I will discontinue my daily dosage, conceive my single offspring, and resume my daily EX2 pill after the birth. Except for the small human creature growing within me for nine months, everything will remain exactly the same.
Perhaps it’s good we’re only allowed one. I can barely manage myself.
Due to my father and the EX2 pill, the population is suitably controlled. Indra thrives. Now genetic research and implementation have evolved into something else entirely. Geneticists specialize in enhancements: dimple insertions, skin replenishment, skeletal adjustment. Nothing that changes the world, just your appearance.
Governess begged me to get a chest alteration before the party season. “No need to inflate for the whole evening,” she confided. “Only your debut entrance. And perhaps for the formal dinner.”
I refused again and again, and she would sigh dramatically, whole body crumpling as though I had stabbed her with my zinger. Governess believes in enhancements with the same intensity she believes in perfectly tied waist sashes. Her own face ceased changing when she began her yearly visits to the Rejuvenation Island Clinic. You could not discern her age unless you noticed the dullness in her eyes. She has yet to have the sparkle put back in, which is a very painful procedure.
Up here in the upmost of Upper Levels, we have everything we could possibly want for, according to Governess, who never fails to want for
an opinion. Unfortunately, this doesn’t include an actual person with whom I can have an actual conversation.
Life Guide doesn’t count. Master comes once a week to oversee my swordsmanship, and he doesn’t count either.
I have never visited the City of Indra, and the only Middlers I know are the maids appointed to scour the endless white surfaces of the main quarters, and the garden crew that reprograms the synth- trees to bloom for new seasons. Their leaves are gold and red and orange now.
Last year Governess chose white blossoms. I thought much the same of them as of my white dress. This year they grew apples. They look far better than they taste.
Veda neighs nervously. I’m getting closer to the edge. “Keep going, girl,” I tell her.
My Emergence Ball will be the biggest of the season. Everyone will be there, desperate to see Helix Island up close. Desperate to see my inadequacy up close as well.
And the Proper Young Men of Indrithian Society? They will line up to cohabitate with the Cosmo Airess. I will be forced to pick one of them—that’s how it’s done. That’s how it’s always been done.
The air grows chilly. The clouds draw closer.
Veda comes to a sudden halt. We’ve reached the edge. Nowhere else to go.
I gaze up at the dome that keeps us all protected. It is far above and faint, but I’m always aware of it. It is what keeps us from burning with radiation.
I gaze down. The floating islands glide through the clouds be- neath me, caught in their predictable orbits. They’re beautiful from afar—you can almost imagine each is a slice of paradise, but must paradise feel so limited? For a moment, in the space between, I see the bottomless City of Indra, the twin towers of the High Council rising above all others. There is so much glass that it’s hard to look at
directly, the way it refracts the sun’s light. It all looks as if it could be broken so easily, yet it has stood for centuries.
Behold Indra: city of impossible architecture, her beauty timeless, her secrets dark. Whose mind dreamed her to life?
For a split second, I imagine leaping into the sky and falling into the endless, unknown Indrithian void. Past one of the construction rigs, the crew of Hubbers astonished at my falling form, distracting them from island maintenance for a mere moment...
The feeling I get is exactly like experiencing an Emergence Ball. Falling into an endless, unknown social void...
Veda senses something. She backs us up. I shift her so we face Helix Island. My home, though not for much longer, if everything, unfortunately, goes according to the very well thought out and end- lessly practiced plan.
I will return to the main quarters and apologize to Governess. Tomorrow I will open my fan wide and curtsy low but not too low. I shall smile at each of the Proper Young Indrithian Men as though they are the most fascinating Young Men in existence, and then I will choose one with which to spend the rest of my life. At least it’s my choice, right?
In that moment, I feel something boiling to the surface of my skin. This part of me I cannot control. This part is not only improper but something far worse. Dangerous.
I give Veda a squeeze with my heels, and we gallop toward an enormous tree. On its branches hang the last of the apples. We’re going faster now, the wind blowing through my hair. When we’re practically flying, I draw the zinger from the sheath on my back.
I swing as we race, cutting through the air, and the blade releases a few notes.
The sound rises, growing angrier and more distorted. I hold the blade steady, the feedback disrupting the island’s well-preserved har-
mony. I pull myself to standing, balanced upright on Veda as she races forward, just as a burst of melody emerges from my zinger.
Not a song, but closer than I’ve ever gotten.
In the split second, we race under the tree and I launch into mid-air. I land where I started: sitting safely on Veda’s back. Veda halts. As I’m catching my breath, she turns.
Beneath the tree looms a tall figure in white.
I don’t have swordsmanship today. Why’s he here?
Is he constantly watching?
He bends down, picking up an apple from the ground. He holds it out to me in his open palm, gives it a slight twist. The apple falls into two perfectly cut halves.
“Livia,” he says. “We do not damage nature. We do not kill what grows.”
“But it isn’t real, Master. Nothing here is real.”
Excerpted from The Book of Indra, Chapter VII: “The Archives: A Universe of Wonderment”
The Archives are a gift to Indrithian Society. Accessed via wrist implant, entering the Archives can be easily mastered by both child and adult. A fully immersive environment, these Archive experiences range in nature and are entered via access chips.
As for your memory Archives, they are stored on an individualized chip assigned to each Indrithian citizen by the High Council at childhood.
From replications of historical events pre–Great Catastrophe and educational training programs (“simulations”) to reduplication of your personal memories, the Archives serve to Educate, Entertain, and Enlighten.
To Access Archives:
Find a calm, quiet location that is free of distraction. The Archives can be accessed from any location, though many prefer to do so in the comfort of an Archive access center. Archive access centers are located throughout Upper Indra, the City of Indra, and the HCP Hub. (For a complete listing of locations, see appendix LXIV.)
Administer two quick, firm taps to the wrist to circulate the blood. Insert Archive access chip into left wrist slot.
Quickly place thumb tip to pulse point.
Once thumbprint has been matched, DNA activation will be immediate.*
The length of the simulation is dependent on the Archive accessed. Memories provide the briefest duration, while historical archives can be looped to ensure the most satisfaction with your experience.
To end an Archive, within the memory or simulation tap your wrist twice to remove the access chip. Upon removal, you will immediately regain consciousness within the safety of your Archive access location.
The Archives: just another example of Indra’s greatness!
The Archives: offering a wealth of knowledge, a virtual preser- vation of your personal history, and hours of fun!**
The Archives: a universe of delight at your fingertip!***
* Your Archive access is monitored by the High Council via thumbprint DNA matching. Your individual Archive access is restricted at their discretion.
** If you attempt to access an Archive the Indra High Council has not made available to you, you will face immediate dismissal from the Archives. This process, also referred to as “flinging,” is both shameful and illegal. Repeat offenders will face punishment as dictated by the High Council. In extreme cases, the High Council Archive Commission may choose to give the offend- ing citizen permanent “shadow” status. Shadowed citizens are rendered voiceless and sentenced to wander the Archives for the remainder of their lives. You will know them due to their blank stares and hooded cloaks. Do not interact with them. Shadowed citizens serve as living reminders of the great gifts bestowed on the citizens of Indra, the Archives being among them, and the severe penalty for taking advantage of them.
*** Archive areas and experiences are restricted by and provided at the sole discretion of the High Council. The High Council has the power to alter, mod- ify, and adjust archival simulations. All further matters regarding Archive operations and “shadow” status are restricted by High Council command.
There is a story that everyone in the Orphanage knows. It is not about family, hope, or love. It’s about genetics. Mutations.
The ones that lurk beneath the Earth, that are cloaked in shadows and hidden within the eaves of the cavernous mantle. Though I have never seen one, they have made orphans of many.
If you listen closely while nestled in your too-small sleeper, you can hear their breathing beyond the security gates. Their bloodcurdling cries, their savage grunts. Each night, at lights-out, we feel we are at their mercy.
That is why twice a year the caretakers round up orphans, no one knows how they choose, in the middle of the night while everyone is asleep. They are forced to walk outside in their bare feet, their slippers left bedside to be reused by someone else. They are taken to a junction and there they wait. How long they wait depends on how hungry the mutations are.
The mutations...they can look like anything. The one I imagine has fused eyes and twin mouths that feed into the same throat. Its spine arcs so much it almost breaks through the skin of its back.
Its pupils are the color of mother’s milk, and its jaws are powerful enough to snap through bone.
When you’re brought to the junction, you’re left in the pitch-black. You cry, and every noise frightens you. You don’t know yet how to be strong. When they come for you, if they don’t eat you immediately, they will take you back to their tribe, far below, to be raised among them. They will put you to work, and your own body will betray you. It will become like theirs. Your legs will crack as they grow into new forms, and if you are pretty, you will lose that, too.
Twice a year the mutations take orphans, gifted to continue our sanctuary here in the bowels of the Earth. At the point where the City of Indra doesn’t care what goes on—we are that far beneath. There are greater worries.
After all, who’s going to miss an orphan?
All I had was my own hyper-crib at the Orphanage, and sometimes even that I had to share. A tiny box on tall legs, stuffed with two hungry babies. It was but one of a dozen in my unit, and but one unit among a dozen others.
The Independent High Council sent Recruiter to the Orphanage twice a year to inspect the new babies born without names. He wandered the rows of identical cribs, serving Indra in its “moral obligation” to its underprivileged. Recruiter came, he looked, and he left. He didn’t expect to find anything worthwhile. In fact, he was pretty confident he wouldn’t.
If you made it past the crib stage, you were assigned to Infant Surveillance. That wasn’t so bad. You’re so little, you don’t know any
different. If you made it a few more years, you got a cot in the Inter- mediate Dormitory.
Now that was something else entirely.
During processing, I got a way-too-big uniform. “Room to grow,” said Caretaker.
If you got the chance, that is. At the time I didn’t know that not all of us do.
Caretaker leaned over and looked at me. She hated me, I could tell. All the caretakers did. Even as an infant, I didn’t play by the rules. Made too much noise, used the playthings incorrectly. Led the group in building entire cities with the polyblox, then gleefully clomped the whole structure to pieces. The other kids didn’t do things like that. They liked watching me do them, though. Giggled and clapped their hands.
“Destructive tendencies,” muttered the caretakers, powerless to punish me, at least not when Recruiter was hanging around.
His uniform wasn’t like theirs. It was impeccably clean, his boots unsullied by grime, his collar unyellowed. I thought he was supposed to be special. He could’ve been my champion.
Recruiter walked the rows, inspecting the quiet babies, the ones whose parents never smiled at them, never sang or bounced them on their knee. All they got were the Caretakers, who didn’t hug or kiss or hold your hand. So these babies never learned to emote, their faces completely made of stone. Orphan babies never cry. They rarely make noise at all.
When Recruiter got to me, he stared down into my hyper-crib. His face was enormous and implacable. “There’s nothing here,” he said, as he had probably said on every inspection at every crib.
I reached out for him and I grabbed the rail instead. I fumbled forward as he walked away. I grabbed the rail with both hands, pulling myself up, my doughy legs barely able to support my plump weight. He didn’t linger over each crib for too long. I watched him
as he worked. There are orphanages all over. I’m sure we looked like nothing more than underdeveloped meat. He finished my row and moved on to the next. Still I watched him, a string of sounds starting to fall out of my mouth. He looked up.
He looked at me.
He inspected more cribs. I pushed my body over the lip of the crib and let gravity do the rest. I pushed to a wobbly stand and edged around the crib, guiding myself by the rails. More sounds that this time he ignored. I slapped the rail with one hand of pudgy fingers. He looked up again, annoyed. I returned his gaze with equal force. He looked around, as if unsure that this was really happening. He cut back to my crib and stared at me standing there. Then he pushed me down. A slight touch and he sent me back on my bottom. Perhaps he expected me to cry. When I didn’t, he walked away.
I fell onto my side and rolled onto my belly. As he continued his rounds, I stood again. I slapped the rail until I got his attention. He tried to ignore me, shooting glances across the room, but couldn’t. He removed his cap and ran a hand through his hair. He sighed.
He came over, and just as he was about to push me again, I spoke. “No,” I said.
And he didn’t.
I’ve been telling people “no” ever since.
My memory’s good, but not good enough to penetrate the infant haze. Something to do with underdeveloped brains prevents us from remembering those years. But I did manage to snatch my holofile off Recruiter’s desk one visit—he’s been cursed with a small bladder and doesn’t have the influence to get it modded, so his trips to the recep- tacle were frequent during testing. Recruiter would have taken it with him, but how did he know I could read? I didn’t even know myself.
I was only three. He hadn’t administered that test yet.
The holofile seemed to be no more than a toy. A toy that burst
with sculpted light as soon as I opened it, casting forth images of me turning in circles. My tiny body, my little-kid legs. Is that what I looked like?
Watching myself during an activity unit, where I was made to hit targets with zip balls. They monitored my heartbeat with sensors all over my body and asked me questions like, “Do you enjoy pain?”
“What do you dream about?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why do you hate the polyblox?”
“I love them,” I said excitedly. “Especially the part where I smash them!”
Recruiter’s assessment of me trailed beneath: “Early rebellious tendencies. Accelerated, aggressive reflexes. Correctly channeled, SUBJECT could prove Useful to Society. Unheard of development considering her status as Offspring Waste.”
Reading this, I’m surprised I hadn’t been thrown out the gates to mutants.
The Caretaker looked at her holofile, then back at me. “You already have a name,” she said, surprised. “How very odd. I’ve never seen one of you already having a name. Who gave it to you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Later, I’d find out they didn’t assign names until we’d assimilated from Infant Surveillance to Intermediate Dorm. Never knew how we’d react to the dorm transition. Some didn’t make it through the first night, so why waste a good name on a defective orphan?
“Well, you always were...different,” she said, like I had an extra foot or something. “Now you are Lexie. Say it after me. Lex-ie.”
“Lex,” I said. That sounded better.
“No. Lex-ie. That’s what it says right here.”
“Lex,” I said again.
She sighed, knew it was pointless to argue. She practically shoved me down the corridor to be issued my thermasheets. Relieved to see me go, I could tell. Now I’d be someone else’s problem.
Lex or Lexie, it didn’t matter. No one learned names in the Intermediate Dorm. The closest you got to existing was your cot number.
My real new name? 242.
The dorm was enormous. Cots as far as you could see. Lots of kids, all bigger than us new transfers. All wearing the same gray uniforms on their skinny bodies, their skin colorless from lack of exposure.
No one noticed our arrival.
Even with all those kids, the dorm was dead quiet. We were still little, didn’t know orphan rule #1: Don’t draw attention. Not that I followed rules. But still, I could tell this place wasn’t like Infant Surveillance. Not at all.
Orphan rule #2: Don’t ask questions. I could never get that one either.
It was the first week and 241 had been right next to me at evening cot confinement. I’d heard her snoring. Come morning, every trace of her was gone, even her thermasheets. “Where’d she go?” I yelled.
No one answered me. Just looked away. “New transfer,” someone whispered.
“Where’d she go?” I said louder. Sharp stares. Pale faces pinched in worry.
That just made me want to scream. I raised my voice. “Where’d she—”
“Shhhhhhhh.” Someone placed a hand on my shoulder. An older girl was leaning over, smiling at me. I’d noticed her before because, unlike the rest of us, she had some color. Like she was glowing from the inside.
The older girl looked down at me. I shut up. Her smile was what did it. You didn’t see those very often.
“I like you,” she said softly. “You say what you think. But right now, you should know when that becomes dangerous.”
“But where did—”
My stomach growled.
“You’re hungry?” she asked.
I nodded. Little kids, I quickly learned, got pummeled in the rush to the ration line. As hard as I’d pushed through the crowd, the food was gone when I got there. With so few caretakers, no one seemed to notice. Or maybe they just didn’t care.
Sometimes little kids starved to death. It happened once in my first year there, a little boy who didn’t wake up in the morning, and caretakers just carted away the husk of his weightless body.
So that morning the older girl took my hand and led me right to the front of the line, other kids stepping aside for her. I was starving and by then completely forgot about my neighbor’s empty cot. Kids are dumb like that. Easily distracted. Maybe she did it on purpose. Maybe she didn’t want to tell me about 241 just yet. The older girl was eleven, a year shy of graduating. When you made it to eleven, other orphans respected you because you were a survivor. You might actually make it out. You could teach them how to do the same.
The older girl’s name, she told me later, was Samantha. “But don’t tell anyone I told you, Lex,” she whispered. “That’ll be our secret. You call me 374 and I’ll call you 242 and only we will know the truth.”
Samantha, I’d thought, grinning. I loved having a secret, and I kept it. I never said her real name aloud, not once.
374 watched out for me. I never knew why she chose me, but she did. In exchange, she got little 242 shadowing her every move. She didn’t seem to mind taking care of me. Those first weeks were scary, and she’d
sneak to my cot and hold my hand and keep me from slipping away in the dark. No polyblox empires here, no other kids clapping at my antics. Without 374, I’d have disappeared. Maybe even to the mutants.
She made sure I got fed. Made sure I washed my face at groom- ing. Even showed me how to sleep with my sanibrush and day uni- form lodged under my body so no one would steal them in the night.
No one ever bothered me with 374 around. “Just do everything like you mean it,” she told me. “And no one will ask questions.”
She should have picked another kid. I was always doing everything wrong. Just stay quiet, that’s all that was required of me. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
“She’s gonna bottom out,” the others whispered, staring at me.
I got written up again and again.
One night 374 was braiding my hair before evening confinement.
“You’re the only one who can make my hair listen,” I told her. She smiled at that. Unlike me, she kept silent until recreation.
“What’s ‘bottom out’?” I asked.
Her hands stopped moving in my hair. She sighed before braiding again. “Bottoming out is when you go away and never come back,” she said quietly.
“Like turning twelve?”
“Yes,” she said. “Like 241. When you bottom out, that means the
Orphanage decides to kick you out.”
“Where do they take you?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. She was working my hair more quickly now and pulling harder.
“But why . . . ow!”
“Sorry,” she said, easing up. She turned me around so I was facing her and leaned in close. “I won’t lie to you, 242. I already know you can keep a secret.”
I nodded. Lex and Samantha, I thought.
“No one knows exactly where they take you, but probably the Lower Levels. The lowest, to be exact. Rock Bottom.”
“Like the stories. Of the mutations.”
“Don’t listen to the stories. Rock Bottom’s where they find most of us, you know. Bring us here to see if we’re worth anything. And if we aren’t, they just send us back.” This was a big secret, I could tell. Bigger even than our real names. “Rock Bottom isn’t a nice place, either. I can still remember it. Orphans sent back there won’t last long. They don’t have the skills or strength.”
“That isn’t right!” I squealed, horrified. “That doesn’t make any—”
She put her hand over my mouth. “Of course it isn’t,” she said calmly. “But you can’t change it by complaining.”
She smiled at me. “Someday we’ll talk about that, but not today. I’m afraid your hair needs to listen more.”
Gently, she turned me back around to finish my hair. I had a mil- lion questions, but I knew not to ask. There was a long silence. The repetitive motion of her hands calmed me. At least for a few minutes. In the end, I couldn’t help myself.
“Why do they take some of us and not others?” I said, trying to keep my voice as calm and quiet as hers.
“Lots of reasons.”
“What about 241?”
“The freckles, maybe. Those spots on her face. They didn’t like them.”
I didn’t understand, but I nodded anyway. I liked the spots. No one else had them. I’d thought 241 had gotten lucky to be so different.
Genetic flaw was a term I wouldn’t know the meaning of until I was much older.
“You have the most amazing eyes,” Samantha said then. “Like none I’ve ever seen.”
I had never noticed. Though I would spend time later on search- ing out just what had made her say that.
“But what if they take me?” I asked.
“They won’t,” she said firmly. “I promise.”
“How do you know?”
“Because, 242, you’re special.”
I smiled to myself. “And they’ll never take you either,” I said. “ ’Cause you’re special too.”
I really believed that. There was no one else like 374. She could cut the ration line and braid hair and everyone respected her. She and I would be fine.
She didn’t say anything, just finished braiding.
But being special doesn’t mean you aren’t a dumb kid sometimes.
Sometimes 374 would disappear for hours. When I asked where she’d been, she just smiled. “You know I can keep a secret,” I told her.
“But if I gave them all to you, you’d burst.” “Nuh-uh.”
“Someday I’ll tell you. I promise.”
It was a promise she wouldn’t keep.
My eyes popped open right before the official arise sensor. At wake-up, I liked to run over and stare at her until her eyes flickered open. “Oh, hi, 242,” she’d say sleepily. She’d yawn and tell me my hair looked crazy.
But on one morning, her cot was empty. In her place, a cleansing ma- chine hummed, blowing the cot with a steady stream of antisepticizer. No matter how many times she reminded me that when she turned twelve she’d be gone, I was still shocked. I could barely move from her bedside. An orphan with stringy blond hair tapped me on the shoulder.
“I know where she went,” she said, even though she’d never spo- ken to me before. None of them had.
“She graduated,” I said.
“No, she didn’t.”
“She was twelve,” I said, fighting back a sob. “She graduated.” “No, she was still eleven,” she spit back. “She was bottomed out.” “That’s a lie!”
“No, it’s not. We came in the same day. She wouldn’t leave before me. Everyone knows it.”
I looked around. Kids were pretending not to listen to us. “Well?”
I said to them. No one answered, of course. “Is that true?” I said louder. Pale faces pinched even tighter. One girl looked up and gave me a tiny nod before just as quickly looking away.
“Believe what you want,” said the one with stringy hair. “But I heard Caretaker say it. Probably happened ’cause of you. ’Cause she spent time with you. And you’re bad. Probably happened ’cause you get written up so much, and they figured she was the same.” Then she smugly smiles at me. I knew another write-up wouldn’t matter, so I finished our conversation with my fists.
She lost a tooth, and I won another write-up. But I was right: it didn’t matter. I was still alone.
My own turning twelve was so far away, and 374—Samantha— created an absence I couldn’t replace.
That night I cried, feeling more alone in my cot than I had ever been, fighting to stay silent so no one could hear my shame. I was still here, stuck, and I cried for the first and last time, overwhelmed by years of abuse for no reason other than being born into misfor- tune, and blessed with the knowledge that it was on me to make my life better. To become what I wanted to be. I made a promise to myself, one that I would die before breaking: I won’t need anyone else. Not ever.
Not ever, ever, ever.
REBELS: CITY OF INDRA by Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner, and Elizabeth Killmond-Roman with Maya Sloan, Karen Hunter Publishing 2014