Chapter 1: Before
It was the dead man’s expression that drew me, the depth of feeling on it, bare and exposed and unashamed. It called to me.
That’s a lie.
It was his perfect stillness, the blue-grey cast of his skin shamefully exposed where his mask had slipped in the night.
That’s also a lie.
It was my own distorted shadow, wavering against the pearly sheen of his blown pupils, the unmistakeable mark of the Mara-taken.
That might be closest to the truth.
It might have been why I reached out that night, forgetting the danger. It might be what starts the tingling at the base of my skull even now whenever I think of the dead, the fluttering itch in my fingers that sets them tapping and twisting.
But it’s not the truth.
I don’t know what possessed me to slip out from under the covers and pad across the crumbling tiles of the Corrections dorm that night, ignoring just how many rules I was breaking.
I remember waking, peering across the sleeping rows of failures. There should only have been the faint radiance of blue light marking the locked doors. Instead, it was as though a spotlight illuminated the unnatural stillness of the corpse. He’d been Mara-taken in the night, punished for failing to conform, to obey.
Ignoring the indecency of his shameful nakedness, the line of his jaw and the ridge of his nose uncovered, I reached out to touch the dense roughness of his night-stubbled face. I traced the lines etched there, the deep brackets around his mouth, the ridge and hollow where his cheek stretched over bone. Brushed the faint softness of his lashes, flared wide as if to flee the blank orbs between them.
I spent the night surrendered to the sparkling, tingling fascination of it. They caught me like that the next morning, one hand pressed to the dead man’s twisted face as if, tracing my way through the echoes of his horror, I could know what he knew, feel what he felt.
This is the truth of it: I don’t know why I broke the rules so spectacularly. But the Mara haven’t come for me yet.
I’ve learned to suppress the wanting, hide my reactions, obedient. From the protective gold threaded through the walls and spun into the ward that haloes the hoods of good workers, to the careful drilling in how to turn over all desire and wanting to the Mara before they can kill us, Refuge ensures the survival of the obedient. But those sheltered, obedient workers only live on Floor 10 and above.
So I learned to face forward and ignore the draw of the dead, to focus on stilling the wilful twisting, reaching dance of my fingers by pinching them bloodless into submission. I made it all the way to Floor 18.
But I can’t ever mess up again. I’m only there on probation. One more failure, and the Mara will take me. I have to stop obsessing over the dead.
Which would be a lot easier if I wasn’t haunted.
Chapter 2: Now
Her name is Cadence.
Like me, she’s unsequenced. Singular. Defective. Refuge discontinued her production series after only one unit. Not broken enough to destroy, but not valuable enough to bother making more of.
It may be why I messed up, why I got sent to Corrections in the first place. It may be why she’s able to haunt me even now I’ve reached the shielded security of Floor 18.
Unlike me, Cadence refuses to learn her place. It’s probably how she got killed (she says she doesn’t remember). If I’m not careful, it’s going to get me killed, too.
“So I had this dream last night,” she says. “It was about trees. I miss trees. I miss climbing with—”
“Stop it,” I say quietly, so none of the other workers notice. I don’t have time for her lies.
She blows a rude noise in my ear and proceeds to singsong something that mostly consists of the word trees looped at different pitches.
I don’t know what trees are. Probably just another one of her made-up stories. And she can’t have dreamt. She’d be . . . well, dead.
My skin crawls in a not entirely unpleasant way.
“Dreeeams of treeeeees,” She warbles.
I swat at her. My hood snags on one finger. The band securing it goes flying off. I scramble to yank the pale fabric back down over my hair. I clap the other hand over my face to keep my mask from sagging any lower down my nose. The last thing I want is the entire room staring at the uneven splotches on my naked face. Forty bland grey workers sit in bland uniforms behind bland consoles in the bland room. The floor is neutral carpet, the walls an unbroken expanse of neutral paint except for the supervisor’s mirrored observation window and the two doors. The lot of it’s bathed in artificial light. I’d stand out like a dark smear on the face of its perfection.
“Probationary Worker 18-Cole.” The voice is nasal, cracking and uneven. “I might’ve known.”
Division Supervisor Kistrfyv’s shoes nudge my shamefully distinctive black probationary hoodband on the floor. Embarrassment flushes my skin even further.
His damp, bulbous gaze is neatly framed between the loose mask drawn over his nose and mouth and the crisp, even spread of his hood under the dual bands of a supervisor. They’re proper wards, of course, gleaming with protective spun gold. He’s dressed perfectly to regulation: baggy, form-obscuring pale tunic and pants hiding light shoes, gloves under drooping sleeves, hood with its gold wards, and an opaque, veil-like mask covering every inch of admirably grey skin except the narrow opening around his eyes. His stance isn’t quite regulation, though; he leans forward, as though eager. If he weren’t the supervisor, he’d be at risk of a violation.
“I don’t like him,” Cadence says. “He’s a bully. And creepy. Why do you stick around this boring place, anyway? Let’s go already.”
I clench my fists to keep from swatting at her again. She knows perfectly well how important it is I pass probation and get promoted to full worker. I can’t afford any more mistakes. There’s no way I’d make it out of a second stint on Floor 6.
Some days, I wonder if we’re all grown with a Cadence, if she’s not a ghost at all but a sort of built-in temptation. But it’s not as if I can ask. The downside of strictly regulated isolation: no one to bounce ideas off of except your ghost, who’s probably a design defect in the first place.
Cadence is a forbidden distraction no matter how I look at it. We’ve been together so long I can’t really bring myself to blame her for all the trouble she causes. But if she makes me blow my chance to pass probation, I’ll never forgive her.
“Probationary worker,” Supervisor Kistrfyv says again, leaning in too close to be strictly regulation. “I don’t know how a worm like you managed to squirm its way up to this level, but I will not have you destabilizing my division. Submit. Now.”
I ease up out of my seat. The chair squeaks. I wince, and surreptitiously stuff hanks of overgrown hair out of sight. My mask droops from one side. I tuck my chin, partly to keep my hood on and my face shadowed, mostly because the supervisor twitches and glares whenever my head rises higher than his. Head bowed, I shuffle around the console and pick up the black band that marks my inferior status. It reminds every other worker of what could happen to them if things go wrong. Best case: survival as a pariah. Worst: death.
But I worked hard to make it this far. I snug the mark of my shame down over my hood, smooth the mask across my nose, and stand, appropriately slouched and modest once more. What I wouldn’t give just to be invisible—but no, I must not want. I must forget the shivery feeling I get when confronted with the thought cloudy eyes and chilled, stiff skin. I’ve worked so hard not to let Cadence distract me with her made-up stories, her childish fantasies of an imaginary world, her deceitful insistence on a place that is not Refuge.
“Probationary worker,” she mimics in a whiny tone so like Kistrfyv’s it makes me cringe, “I demand you extract my head from my butt. Probationary worker, I have nothing better to do with my time than stand here and blink like a fish. Probationary worker, I—”
“Probationary worker.” The real Kistrfyv speaks over her in warning tones. “You’ve held us all up from our work long enough. Submit, and be quick about it.”
“He’s such a weenie,” She huffs.
I twist my hands in the loose fabric at my sides to keep them still. Then I fix my gaze at the point where Kistrfyv’s mask drapes over his uniform and try to look contrite. I mumble through a comprehensive list of my violations: distracting behaviour, unnecessary interaction, immodest dress, lack of focus . . . It helps that he’s unusually short, and I’m enough taller that I have to tuck my chin, making me look submissive without really having to try. He still glares.
“Weenie, weenie, weeeniiie . . .” Cadence chants in my ear, distracting me.
I finish with the rote submission to the Mara: “I call upon the Mara to eat my dreams.”
It must be repeated three times. I string the words together under my breath, silently begging the Mara not to come at the same time. The only thing that could make this day worse is the Mara actually showing up and hollowing me out.
Rote submission is different than being Mara-taken. It’s meant as appeasement, a sort of pre-emptive measure. Void your disobedient impulses, turn over your hopes and desires to the Mara fast enough, regularly enough, and they’ll take the offering and leave you intact. I’ve performed submission hundreds, maybe thousands of times since they woke me from the Growers’ tables. Sometimes there’s a rush of emptiness left in their wake. Other times, they must not hear me. I know it’s for my own good, but I still don’t want them to come and eat my dreams. Better not to have any in the first place.
Kistrfyv makes me repeat the summons again. Louder. Clearer. Again. I scrunch my eyes shut and tighten my fists. This show of terror seems to please Kistrfyv, or maybe he just gets bored, because he finally lets me stop.
“Weee-neee . . . Weee-neeeee . . .”
Cadence starts breathing the words in a sort of singsong, gasping air in and puffing it out, drowning out Kistrfyv, who has started in on a lecture on the importance of submission without giving me leave to sit. My thighs tremble.
I twitch, suppressing the futile but tempting urge to swat her away. Instead, I lower my chin another inch, concentrating. Visible contrition might trim the length and severity of the lecture, and I need Kistrfyv to be pleased with me. Pleased enough to arrange a probationary trial soon. Pleased enough to grant me a promotion to full worker and hand over the gold ward to replace my black band. Pleased enough to erase my failure once and for all.
Kistrfyv strokes the dual wards around his forehead as if to emphasize his elevated position.
“Betcha he’s bald under that hood.” Cadence improvises an ode to his presumed follicular deficiency and warbles it directly into my ear.
I burn to give her a good kick. My legs are starting to ache from standing with my knees locked, but I don’t quite dare to shift my weight under the force of the supervisor’s damp gaze. To make things worse, the pants on this latest uniform are too loose. They’re edging past my hipbones, one anxiety-spurring fraction of an inch at a time. I pinch the end of my tongue between my teeth. The sharp-edged, familiar sweetness of blood and pain helps me focus.
Meanwhile, Cadence is losing interest in her little song. She now seems to be occupied with sucking the words in and out again in a breathy sigh. It’s annoying. And distracting. And kind of amazing. What it would be like to just do whatever I feel like, the way she does? I clamp down on that thought.
“Aren’t you sick of it all?” she says, as if she knows what I’m thinking.
I flinch. I prefer it when she’s picking on other people.
“Why do you put up with it?”
As if we haven’t been over it. As if she doesn’t know just as well as I do. Better, even.
“Fight back! Defend yourself. Look at him. He’s a shrimp. He’s scared of you. You can’t be satisfied with this. How can you be so passive? Do something—anything! Do you have a pulse? Hellooo . . .”
I can’t respond. I’ve got to hold it in. She’ll get bored with me—or Kistrfyv will, if I can just hold out long enough. I can be smart. I can obey. I can wait them both out.
I can survive.
“Don’t you want more? You’re really going to let that weenie bully you for the rest of your life?” she demands.
It’s clear she would do things differently, if she could. The tragedy of her life is that she can’t. The tragedy of my life is she’ll never let me forget it.
I struggle to hold back another eye roll, but Kistrfyv seems to see past my mask to the dissatisfied twist beneath. His eyes crinkle at the edges, and trails of indecent moisture seep out as his cheeks threaten to engulf them in a sneer so wide it escapes the upper edge of his mask. The effect is unpleasant, but not nearly as much as his punishment will be: extra cycles of rec and more Noosh—the dense, flavourless goop that meets all nutritional requirements while ensuring uniformity among the populace. Or it’s supposed to, anyway. I’m too dark, too tall and too bony—which adds to the misery of the rec cycles. On the bright side, every time they increase my allotment, it seems to dull Cadence’s voice and make it easier to stay on task.
I can see my probationary trial receding further with every blink of his bulbous, judging eyes. He has no intention of letting me live down my failure, letting me blend in with the crowd. He just likes watching me squirm.
I make no further apology, though Kistrfyv eyes me expectantly. He’d probably appreciate a little bow or a few tears. Maybe I should make more of a show of contrition. Maybe it would motivate him to promote me sooner.
Or maybe it’s hopeless. He tops off his lecture with a group chorus of benevolent regulation, watching me the whole time. After, I’m allowed to sit.
I move too fast, desperate to rest my quivering muscles, and bump my thigh. The skin burns, and I know it will bruise bright, invisible patterns under my uniform. Great.
I shift, all sharp angles at odds with the smooth, ergonomic curves of my seat, another reminder that I’m never right, even for something as simple as a chair. A wheel squeaks, high and thin, and I freeze.
“You’re both weenies,” Cadence says.
I’d like to tell her to shut up. I’d like to tell her I have no choice and she knows it. I’d like to tell her I’d rather be a weenie with a world to live in than like her, forever complaining and never able to do a thing about it.
I’d like to, but I won’t. She’s all I have. And she’ll back off soon, because I’m all she has. All she’ll ever have.
Chapter 3: Strangers
I don’t hate my job. Hate is dangerous. Hate is not stable. Hate is a wish for change. A wish is a dream that can draw down the Mara.
So I don’t hate my job. I merely appreciate when I no longer have to be at it. The pressure to focus, to keep from drifting off, to keep from being distracted by Cadence’s extravagantly expressed boredom . . . It’s exhausting.
Which is the point of work, after all. It’s the point of everything. Keep us just occupied and numb enough to stay out of trouble. Even water breaks are subject to regulation, carefully scheduled to avoid interaction between workers. But I excel at maintaining a modest perimeter, and my posture is flawless. Stooped shoulders, chin tucked, elbows in, small steps to maintain balance and avoid disruption. It’s not easy. I’m still growing, and I have an unfortunate tendency to trip over my own oversized feet. I clamp my gloved hands together in front as I walk to keep the fingers still.
“I miss colour,” Cadence says out of nowhere. Like she does. “When was the last time you saw a proper, rich blue? Or orange? I miss orange. And fruit. And eating.”
My mouth goes dry as a tingle buzzes the base of my skull.
“Shh.” I glance to either side and roll my neck to make the buzzing stop.
“Oh, come on, it’s not as if they can hear me,” she says.
Not good. She has to stop doing this to me, reminding me she’s a ghost. It makes me think of what comes before. And then I can’t stop thinking about it . . .
“I can hear you,” I say, though my mind whipped past ‘ghost’ and went straight to ‘death’.
“You oughta thank me for breaking the boredom. How you can stare at that screen all day, I’ll never know.”
No, she never will.
I hurry back to my desk and squint at the screen. Maybe if I pretend she’s not there, she’ll back off. I start scanning from the submerged lower levels, deserted except for the occasional sub-aquatic Refuge Force patrol and work my way up floor by deserted floor to the ebb and flow of the Corrections division on Floor 6 and on to the tangle of codes on the higher divisions. Floor 14 is reliably busy, the cleaners coming and going all day long. Floor 18 looks empty, though of course it isn’t really. The system doesn’t track surveillance workers. There’d be no point in sitting here monitoring myself sitting here monitoring . . . yeah, no point at all. The snarl of codes is heaviest between floors 15 and 30, tapering off on the higher levels. As far as I can tell only a few enforcers and a handful of division leaders ever go that high. Apparently the Mayor lives up there, but if she has a code in the system, I haven’t figured it out. Cadence interrupts.
“Oops. You missed one. Hey, if I help you find five more errors, can we leave early? I’m so done with this scene.”
I scan back across the display. A surveillance feed on Floor 10 is patchy, the handful of codes flickering in and out too quickly to represent the actual movements of workers. I flag the anomaly to the field team for investigation and go back to scanning the display.
“Hey, don’t ignore me. Say thank you. Manners. Honestly, were you raised in a barn?”
I don’t understand. Barn? But she’s teasing, playful, which is better than nagging. She did save me from an error, after all. She was also the source of my distraction. I’ve got to do better.
“Thanks,” I mutter into my mask. “Now will you let me concentrate?”
She makes a rude sound in my ear. It’s only a few minutes before she starts up again, complaining about things I don’t understand, distracting, harassing, and occasionally helping, just to change things up.
I won’t admit it helps me get through the day. A good worker doesn’t need release from the boredom. A good drone lives for the boredom—or rather, the boredom is what lets us live. So I don’t let on that I’m struggling to focus, counting the minutes through the day. Not even to Cadence.
I can’t dream of a different life, a better one. That’s not allowed. But can I help it if I’m forced to listen to Cadence imagine wild and beautiful alien worlds? She doesn’t always nag and tease and pester. Sometimes she tells stories, wild fantasies of people and places from the Outside. Colours, not just shades of bland off-white, forms that aren’t purposelessly shapeless and food that’s something other than flavourless and slurped through a straw twice a day. More often than not, her stories end with her trailing off in confusion, usually when she tries to talk about herself instead of just making things up. Because, you know—ghost.
None of her stories are real. She doesn’t remember her past. She doesn’t know any more about the world than I do. So instead of dreaming with her, I do the smart thing. I focus on my screen. Flag the anomalies. Repeat. Build a record of obedience.
I’ve only just sat down after my second water break of the day when I see it. I have to look twice to be sure. Surveillance is down across a full half of Floor 20.
“Is that . . . ?” Cadence sounds awed. “Full crash? How would that even happen?”
It’s a major anomaly. If there were warning signs, whoever missed that is going to be in a lot of trouble.
It wasn’t me, right? Please don’t let it have been me.
I flag it for field service in a flurry of clicks that highlight the breadth and severity of the situation. Whoever gets assigned to investigation on this one is going to be busy for a while.
An alert takes over my screen: “Surveillance Technician 18-Cole-: Assigned to task.”
That can’t be right.
“No way,” Cadence says. “You get to do a field investigation? Awesome.”
That definitely can’t be right. Only senior surveillance technicians are assigned to field duties. I glance at the supervisor’s office door and swallow a rising tide of panic. I should report something’s gone wrong and get the task reassigned.
Unless he did this.
The buzzing in my head settles into a deep, pulsing ache. I push back at it, rumpling my hood. He wouldn’t, would he? Purposely assign a major field investigation to me, just to see me fail? Or—
I take a closer look at the notation buried in the attached files. Two words jump out at me: “Probationary Trial”.
It’s finally here: my chance to leave failure in the dust and blend in with everyone else. I can’t believe it. I’d thought after this morning’s incident, I’d be waiting months, years even. I wring my hands. It’s here it’s here it’s here it’s—
Impossible. It’s a trap. Kistrfyv is setting me up to fail. I hardly know anything about field missions.
But there’s no way to refuse the task, not without admitting failure and giving up my shot at normality. So, fine. I’ll show him. I’ll show them all. I can do it. It’s the smart thing to do, just stand up and head out. Show no weakness, no distraction. In fact, I should get going. The sooner I complete the task, the sooner I can crush that weenie’s hopes of being rid of me.
“Really?” Cadence says as I push back my chair. I almost collide with a passing worker. “You’re actually going? This is so cool. What do you think Floor 20 is like?”
She keeps up a steady one-sided commentary. I try to breathe and walk at the same time. My fingers tap and twine. I clench them into stillness.
I don’t notice the figures at the elevators at first. When I do, my fists jump to my throat, tangling in the loose lower edge of my mask in undisciplined panic.
Refuge Force. It was all a trap. Kistrfyv set me up, and now they’ve come for me and they’ll drag me back down to Floor 6 to die and all of this trying will have been for nothing and—
There are several pale-uniformed figures standing there in front of the elevator. Which is weird. They’re too close together—even weirder. Most of them cringe, eyes shadowed under their hoods as if they’re just as afraid of being caught out in an error as I am. And those uniforms . . . Don’t enforcers wear dark, close-fitting uniforms?
“You just gonna stand there or what?” Cadence sounds annoyed. “Let’s get going already.”
It’s as if she doesn’t even see them, doesn’t realize how impossibly creepy this is. It’s a bunch of workers. Together. In the same place, at the same time. Nearly touching, even.
Other than their astonishing misconduct, they seem pretty normal—except for the one in the middle. He’s tall, his shoulders pulled back to show the clear line of his body beneath a carelessly disarranged uniform that obscures his ID code. Where the others keep their heads modestly bowed, he stares right at me.
I blink. His hood is shoved back, exposing dramatic blue-black strands against glowing, golden skin. But even properly covered, he would stand out with those eyes. Bold, fearless, and direct, he stares back with molten gold irises. It’s not the shape that stands out – like most of the workers, his eyes are long and flared, though a fraction wider and more upturned than my own. But such vibrancy and movement, the way they seem lit from within . . . I didn’t know it was possible for a worker to have eyes like that.
Is he an only, too? There can’t possibly be another like him, not in all of Refuge.
I step forward to get a better look.
“About time,” he says.
End, Limited Preview Edition (Oct. 20, 2017)
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