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Chapter 1: Remnants
Cadence found me the night I surrendered to the Mara.
I got lucky. They devoured only my disobedience.
Cadence’s luck wasn’t so good. She’s been with me for over a year now, and I’m starting to think she’ll be the same impossible child forever.
“So I had this dream last night,” she says. “It was about trees. I miss trees. I miss climbing with . . . w-with—I just miss them. We should go find some. Let’s go now. Okay? Now. Let’s go now. Now-now-now-n—”
“Stop it.” I don’t have time for her lies. Regulation 3: Distraction is destruction. I must not allow myself to be distracted, nor be a distraction to others. It’s why everything here’s the same shade of grey: the paint, the carpet, even us. It’s the reason for these shapeless, hooded uniforms and masks. It’s even why we have to work everyday, instead of letting the computers do it all for us. Distraction leads to dreaming. Dreaming draws the Mara. The Mara would destroy us all—if the Towers of Refuge didn’t protect us.
But Cadence hates being shushed. She blows a rude noise in my ear and proceeds to singsong something that mostly consists of her new made-up word, trees, looped at different pitches.
She needs to stop telling stories and pestering me. Obviously, she can’t have actually dreamt. I’m pretty sure ghosts don’t sleep. And no one in Refuge dreams, not if they want to live.
My skin crawls in a not entirely unpleasant way.
“Dreeeams of treeeeees,” she warbles into my ear.
I swat at her and snag my hood. The ward securing it flies off. I scramble to yank it back in place and keep my mask from sagging. The last thing I need is to expose the uneven dark blotches on my naked face.
Forty grey workers sit behind grey consoles in the grey room, bathed in dingy yellowish artificial light—the windows were painted over back when the waters rose to hide the drowned city. Cadence says it was to stop the drowned looking back. In any case, my decidedly non-regulation colouring would stand out like a vivid stain on the face of such bland perfection. Showing my face wouldn’t just be a Regulation 1 offense, either. Regulation 2: Segregation is safety. Minimal contact between workers is essential to our survival.
“Probationary Worker 18-Cole.” The voice is nasal, cracking and uneven. “I might’ve known.”
I flush another shade darker.
Division Supervisor Kistrfyv’s shoes nudge my shameful black probationary hoodband. 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 gold thread. He’s dressed perfectly to regulation: baggy, form-obscuring grey tunic and loose pants hiding soft shoes, gloves under drooping sleeves, hood secured with its twin gold wards, and an opaque, veil-like mask covering every inch of admirably grey, medium-dark 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.”
I tighten my grip on the sagging hood. Cadence may be a forbidden distraction, but there’s no way I know of to get rid of her. She’s been around ever since that night in Corrections. The Mara could have killed me, down on Floor 6. It wasn’t the first time I’d failed to follow regulation, or I wouldn’t have been there in the first place. But instead of ending me, the Mara only ate my dreams—and left a troublemaking ghost in their wake.
I earned my way to a probationary position in the Surveillance Technology Division less than six months later. It’s not hard to obey regulation anymore; the Mara took the part of me that could make bad choices. Or any choices. I’m better off without it. If only Cadence would stop getting me into trouble.
“Probationary worker,” Supervisor Kistrfyv says again, leaning in too close. “I will not have you destabilizing my division. Submit. Now.”
The chair squeaks as I stand. My mask droops. I tuck my chin, partly to keep my face shadowed, mostly because the supervisor twitches and glares whenever my head rises higher than his. Head bowed, I shuffle around the console to pick up the black ward—a mark of shameful failure; I won’t qualify for gold unless I can pass probation—and snug it down over my hood. If I could, I’d dream of being invisible. But I don’t want things anymore. I just obey.
“Probationary worker,” Cadence mimics in a whiny tone so like the supervisor’s it makes me flinch, “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 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 and try to look contrite as I mumble through a comprehensive list of my violations: distracting behaviour, immodest dress, lack of focus . . . I wrap it up by mumbling the ritual phrase three times: “I call upon the Mara to eat my dreams.”
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 consume the offering and leave the rest of you intact. I’ve performed submission hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Before Cadence came, often there’d be a rush of emptiness left in their wake. Now, I feel nothing. I don’t have enough dreams left to satisfy them; if they came, they’d probably just end me.
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.
Cadence starts breathing the word weenie in a sort of singsong, gasping air in and puffing it out, drowning out Kistrfyv, who has started in on a lecture without giving me leave to sit. My thighs tremble.
I duck my chin another inch to appear more submissive. 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 band that wards off the Mara to replace my black one. Pleased enough to erase my record of failure once and for all.
Kistrfyv smooths the dual wards around his forehead as if to emphasize his elevated position and keeps lecturing.
“Betcha he’s bald under that hood.” Cadence warbles an improvised ode to his presumed follicular deficiency at top volume.
I’d kick her right about now, if I could. My legs are starting to ache from standing with my knees locked, but I don’t dare 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 edge past my hipbones, one anxiety-spurring fraction of an inch at a time. Meanwhile, Cadence seems to be experimenting with how long she can sustain each syllable. It’s annoying. And distracting. And kind of amazing.
“Aren’t you sick of it all?” she says, as if she knows what I’m thinking. “I know I’m bored.”
I tense. 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. She’ll get bored with me—or Kistrfyv will, if I can just hold out long enough.
“Don’t you want more? You’re really going to let that weenie bully you for the rest of your life?”
It’s clear she would do things differently, if she could. Her tragedy is that she literally can’t. Mine is she’ll never let me forget it.
Kistrfyv seems to see past my mask to the exasperated twist beneath. His sneer is so pronounced 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. It drains the color from the other workers’ skin, keeps them shapeless and slim and more or less the same. I remain an inexplicably vivid shade of brown, my eyes and hair still too saturated and distinctive. I’m too tall and too bony—which only adds to the misery of the rec cycles. On the bright side, every time they increase my Noosh allotment, it seems to dull Cadence’s voice and makes it easier to resist her distractions.
I can see my probationary trial receding further with every blink of the supervisor’s 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 groveling 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 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. I cringe.
“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 it’s better than being like her, forever complaining and never able to do a thing about it.
I’d like to, but I won’t. As much trouble as she is, she’s all I have left. And she’ll back off soon, because I’m all she has. All she’ll ever have.
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