Authors: Krista McGee
Tags: #ebook, #book
I didn’t say anything else, but the image of Asta being taken away—removed—stayed with me. And somehow I didn’t think she was going to be helped. The look on the Monitor’s face was
not the look she gets when one of us falls and scrapes a knee on the track. It was the look she gets when we do something we shouldn’t. But Asta hadn’t done anything wrong. She just had something wrong inside her.
A few days later I asked the Monitor if Asta would be coming back. I had worked on how I would phrase that question for days. It could not sound like a “why.” It had to sound like I simply wanted information, clarification. I had to sound like my pod mate Rhen. Logical. Not emotional.
“Excuse me.” I tried to ask with an air of indifference. “Will Asta be returning to Pod C?”
The Monitor did not even look up from her communications pad. “No.”
And that was all. I had to bite my lip to keep from asking why. I imagined all kinds of reasons. None of them made sense, and none of them, I knew, could ever be voiced.
In the quiet of our cube, I asked Rhen, “What do you think happened to Asta?”
But Rhen just looked at me like she did not understand the question. “She was removed.”
And that’s all she needed to know.
When I still couldn’t stop thinking about it, I asked Berk. We were back on the track several days after Asta’s removal. “If she went to the Scientists, why don’t they fix her and send her back?”
Berk slowed his pace a little before answering. “Maybe they will keep her with them.”
“But she’s our Historian.” I could argue with Berk. He actually enjoyed it, liked questions. “They already have one of their own.”
“Whatever they are doing, it is right.” This is what we have always been taught. And, of course, it is correct.
“But I want to see her.”
“When I leave to live in the Scientists’ compound, I will tell her that.”
That made me feel better. And worse. Better because I knew Berk would do what he said. Worse because I knew that when he did, I would lose another pod mate. I would lose Berk.
I did not want to think about that.
“I will win this time.” I pushed all thoughts of Asta from my mind and ran as hard as I could to the line marking the end of our circuit.
Berk left when we were twelve. It was very different from when Asta left. Lute, our Culinary Specialist, created a pastry that was huge and delicious. We are rarely given pastries—the Scientists say that we function best with vegetables and proteins. We are allowed fruit once a day, but pastries are only for special events: like Berk leaving us to begin his training with The Ten. One day he would be one of the leaders of our State, with a variety of specialties and more knowledge than any of us could imagine.
I always knew he would have to go. But I did not want him to. Berk was the only one who understood me. He was the only one who would argue with me. He let me ask questions and did not think I was peculiar for having them.
“Will you ever come back to visit?” Berk and I sat in the
gathering chamber. Everyone else had returned to their cubes. But the Monitors allowed Berk to stay. And because they allowed Berk to do anything he wanted, they allowed me to remain behind as well.
Berk shrugged. “If I can.”
I knew then he would be just like Asta—gone forever. Suddenly, my throat felt tight.
The lights flickered off.
Berk groaned. “Power outage.”
It happened often. Berk was sure he could help solve that problem. The solar panels, he said, were overtaxed. They needed to either add more panels or find a way to use less energy. When he got to the Scientists’ compound, he would make solving that problem his priority.
Berk tapped his communications pad and the small square made enough light for me to see his face. He leaned close to me. “I have an idea.”
I could smell the soap on his skin. His teeth glowed blue from the light his pad cast on his face. Berk took an eating utensil from his pocket, scooted off the sofa, and pulled me down with him. “No cameras.” He reached under the sofa, utensil in hand, and started scratching on the ground.
“What are you doing?” I looked toward the door, making sure no Monitors were here to see this.
“You will see.” His head was on the ground, his arm as far under the sofa as it could go. His other hand held his communications pad. I leaned down too, but his head was in my way and I couldn’t see what he was doing.
Finally, he pulled his hand out and smiled a big grin. I would miss that grin. “Look.”
I bent down and, in the blue glow of the communications pad, saw that he had scratched our names into the chamber’s hard floor.
My eyes burned. I didn’t know what was happening, but it felt awful. Like my heart would explode and leak out, one drop at a time.
“Is it that bad?” Berk’s face was in the shadows.
A tear slid down my face and Berk wiped it away with his thumb. “I will always be here.” He pointed to our names, a secret testimony to our secret bond. Me, an abnormality, and he, a leader.
The lights were back on—which meant the cameras were too. I stood and turned my back to the wall where the cameras were hidden. “Good-bye, Berk.”
I went back to my cube and buried my head under my covers, trying to push down the emotions threatening to spill out, like the tears that dampened my pillow and the substance, so like Asta’s, that dripped from my nose. My heart felt like it was being ripped out. Berk was my best friend in the whole State. And he was gone. Forever.
In the years since, I learned that when I am missing Berk or Asta, I can play my tears through my instruments. And the Monitors think I am just improving. They don’t know the truth. I play laughter and frustration. I play feelings I cannot define. But the music defines them for me. I don’t feel out of place when I am playing. I feel just right. I wish I could play all the time.
But we have other responsibilities. Like right now. I am supposed to be in my cube, reading my lesson on the learning pad. I am in my cube. And I have my learning pad. But I am using it to write music instead. Sometimes notes come into my mind and I need to get them out, on the screen, so I can play them later. The Monitors see me doing this. I know they will come in and tell me to stop, to complete my lesson. I know this and yet here I am, fingers flying over my pad, getting as many notes on my program as I can before—
“Thalli.” The Monitor arrives. She is the sixth Monitor we have had this year, although I know she has been here before. More than once. But the Monitors rotate every two months. The Scientists don’t want us becoming dependent on them. The Monitors are older than we are, from the generation before us, Pod B, and their lives will end before ours.
Productivity is key, as is peace.
The Scientists determined long ago that generations who live and die together will be more productive and more peaceful than those who live integrated with other generations. So we live only with our generation, seeing other generations only occasionally and only for short periods of time.
“History.” The Monitor taps on my screen and my lesson pops up. “You have free time next hour.”
I wait until I hear the Monitor’s sharp heels fading into the distance, then I finally look at my screen. I don’t know why I wait. Rhen wouldn’t wait. She would do exactly as she was told right when she was told to do it. Rhen wouldn’t work on music when she was supposed to be studying history either.
But I am not Rhen.
History is my least favorite subject. There is nothing new. At least with the other subjects, new layers are added each year. But as I scroll through the lesson, it’s exactly the same material we’ve had since we learned how to read.
“In the era before ours, the world was chaotic. People did
terrible things.” I look up from the pad. I would like to know about those terrible things. But if I even asked, I’d be taken away for sure. No one asks questions like that. Questions like that do not promote peace.
I look back down and pretend to read while my thoughts run away, back to my music. If I am being completely honest, I know I am flawed. But no one else has to know. I need to force myself not to give in to those flaws. Which means I need to force myself to study history.
Ah yes. Terrible things. The final terror was what the Scientists called a Nuclear War. Something that destroyed everything aboveground. Billions of people died in one moment.
I try to imagine billions of people. I see them as notes crammed on a pad of music, so many notes that the screen is black with just little dots of white peeking through whole and half notes, shining through the crevices of the treble clef.
I must concentrate.
The only survivors were The Ten, the Scientists who now rule the State. Before this war, they had been creating the underground State for almost a decade because the government of what they called their country wanted to have something in place to protect their rulers. The rulers never had time to make it underground, though. But The Ten were here. They had known this was coming—not the Nuclear War exactly, but something terrible. They watched people become slaves to emotion and be driven by conflict. The end result of emotion and conflict is devastation.
So they decided to begin again with a State that required peace, that did not allow for any conflicts so there would never be any wars. Emotions were limited for the same reason. Before
the State began, children were born in a way the history lesson called “primitive.”
“Primitive.” I mouth the word, barely above a whisper. It sounds awful. What does it mean?
Children were designed by The Ten, designed to be healthy and intelligent and know their places in the State. When their incubation period ended, they were placed in pods with other children whose incubation periods ended. Mine is the third generation of children, with each generation having just enough citizens to maintain productivity and fill the vacancies left by those who were no longer productive.
Ours will never be a world of billions.
I look back at my learning pad. I can answer all the questions at the end without having to read the information again. But the learning pad watches my eyes, making sure I read everything, not letting me complete the evaluation until I have looked at every word.
Finally, I finish. I return to my music when a sound erupts in the cube next to mine. Rhen’s cube.
I have heard that sound before. A long time ago.
It was the sound Asta made before she was taken away.
Rhen steps into my cube. Her nose drips a yellowish substance.
Before I can stop her, she presses the emergency button that summons the Monitors to our wing.
t was my fault.” I step in front of Rhen, blocking the Monitors from seeing her face, her nose.
“No.” Rhen’s hand is on my shoulder. She wants to report herself. It is logical—she realizes she is flawed so she must leave.
But something greater than logic makes me stop her. I don’t know what it is, I only know that I have lost two friends already. I cannot lose another. I cannot stand the thought of waking up every day and not seeing Rhen in our cube.
“I hit the button.” I look at the Monitors. The one who had come to me earlier stands beside a new one. They look almost
identical. All Monitors do. Dark hair, dark eyes, tall and thin, hair pulled away from their heads. They are designed with heightened senses of sight and hearing. Nothing escapes their notice.
“I didn’t hear you move from your seat.” The first Monitor looks at me, her dark eyebrows lifted.
I don’t say anything. Rhen looks at me, and I see the question in her eyes. I close my own in response. We will not discuss this with the Monitors.
“You are seventeen, Thalli.” The Monitor folds her arms. “You must stop playing tricks. That is not acceptable anymore. Do you think the Scientists play tricks?”
Of course the Scientists do not play tricks. They work hard and they work together and they help this world to function in perfect order and harmony. I lower my head to acknowledge that I understand that fact and am ashamed for having been frivolous with my time.
Rhen breathes in deeply through her nose, the substance making a liquid sound as it goes up. I do the same, trying to make a similar sound. The Monitor’s look of surprise turns to one of annoyance. “Rhen, please do not allow Thalli to encourage you to behave in ways that are unseemly for one your age.”