The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Ten

wallpaper-866282_1280

Need to catch up? Start here, then continue to Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter Seven,  Chapter Eight, and Chapter Nine.

 

Chapter Ten: Revolution

 

Founder’s Day was the biggest, the busiest and the shiniest of the four High Holidays. Thanks to the mandatory attendance policy enforced on all High Holidays, the entire town turned out to honor the brave souls that founded Barter. All the Founder’s statues were decorated in bright colors to elevate their importance on this special day.

Sara chose a simple white dress and brown sandals. She plaited her dark hair in a braid woven with a silver chain and walked downstairs. Her mother, dressed in a similar fashion, walked with Sara out the door towards the town center. Today, everyone walked.

The festivities had already begun to build. Cries of “Good Founder’s Day, Inhabitant,” rang throughout the square. The vendors pedaled their goods, “Hot Crost Buns, Rice and Crisp Peas, just like the Founder’s used to make,” commercials popped up on a continuous loop for vials of genuine ash gathered from The World Before and labeled with the name of the Founder who gathered it, and a group of actors performed a play on a low platform in the center of the town square. They lauded the foresight of the Founders for following the First Inhabitant’s teachings and mimed the horrible deaths of all the ignorant people who chose to foolishly ignore the Founders’ warnings of impending doom. The play used to be Sara’s favorite thing about Founder’s Day. When she was sixteen, her cherished dream was to be one of the celebrated actors who so glamorously portrayed the wise Founders, but her learning had taken another path. Now she watched them writhing around the stage in mock pain, gray puffs of glittery ash exploding across the doomed figures.  She was wondering how much of the play was truth and how much was fiction when she heard the first explosion.

The town erupted into chaos. A second, closer explosion knocked some people off their feet as they began to scramble for shelter. A third explosion, closer still, sent a fine spray of dirt and chunks of rubble whirling through the air like deadly confetti. Sara stood still, stunned into inaction, clutching the platform. A grime-smeared hand grabbed her wrist and forcibly pulled. She turned to pull away before she realized the hand belonged to Eli. She tried to be heard above the din.

“What’s going on?”

Eli shook his head and again pulled her wrist to indicate she should follow him. Sara looked around for her mother but couldn’t see anything in the pandemonium.

“My mother,” she yelled, “I can’t leave her here alone!”

Eli shook his head vehemently and pulled harder. Another explosion knocked them to the ground. A thick whine buzzed in Sara’s ears, and she could see a cut over Eli’s left eye beginning to bleed. He winced as he struggled to his feet, grabbing at his left side where a small bloodstain was rapidly growing. He helped Sara get to her feet and yelled in her ear.

“We have to leave now!”

Sara followed, promising herself she would find her mother as soon as she could. They ran through side streets, past overturned carts and demolished businesses and across a corner of the park that wasn’t on fire. As they ran the last stretch towards the Supreme Inhabitant’s house, they could hear cries in the distance. Sara thought they were saying, “Long live the Revolution,” but her ears were still ringing too loud to be sure.

Locking the door behind them, Eli led the way down a narrow hallway towards a brown door and down two flights of stairs. He knocked with a bloody fist on a dull metal door at the bottom in a pattern, three-two-three, and collapsed against the wall, gasping. His face was pale,and his once white shirt was sticky with blood and grime. Sara’s white dress had fared little better.

The Supreme Inhabitant opened the metal door, first a crack, then thrown wide when he saw the condition of his son.

He threw his son’s arm around his neck to support Eli’s weight and began walking him into the room.

“There were explosions and-” Sara began to explain.

“Get in here and we can talk about it later,” the Supreme Inhabitant snapped at her. He gently laid Eli down on a low upholstered bench and began rifling through a nearby wooden cabinet. Sara hurried through the doorway behind him into the wide room, lit only by three ancient floor lamps. Three of the walls were covered in paintings and tapestries. The bottom half of the fourth wall was blank. Cabinets and metal racks filled with statues and vases were scattered throughout the room. Three black urns, hip high to Sara, were spilling over with gems and precious metals, and in the center of the room was a dark, wide wooden column supporting the ceiling. Shelves had been carved into each side and a spiral staircase wrapped around the column to the top. Each shelf was full to bursting.

Each shelf was full of books.

It was a giant bookcase. Floor to ceiling books. A tree of books. Sara gaped in awe that grew quickly to anger. She turned to see the Supreme Inhabitant pouring disinfectant from the cabinet into the now unconscious Eli’s wounds, his fingers gently probing for debris. She felt like screaming. Without looking at her, he spoke.

“The position of Supreme Inhabitant is not without its perks.” He brushed dust and bits of rubble from his son’s hair before continuing. “It is also not without pain. What use are jewels when I cannot spend them? What good are books without someone to read them to?” He turned and looked at her, smiling. His gold teeth glinted in the dim light as he stood and took a step forward. “And of what use is an exquisite work of art without someone to share it with?”

Sara took a step backward.

“None of these things are Allowed,” she said, “that’s not pain. Don’t dress this up as something noble.”

“Ah, yes. Would you prefer I was a noble rebel, storing pages upon pages of books in my head? And for what purpose?” He smiled at the shock that rippled over Sara’s face. “Oh yes, I know all about your little club, the very same club that is at present destroying the city at the cost of innocent lives for a cause they are not sure exists.”

“You’re lying.”

“Sara, Sara, Sara.” He shook his head. “Our ancestors established this city to be free of strife and pain and hunger. Your friends are destroying everything this city stands for because they want to revert to the Old Way. They want to be,” he paused, studying her face intently. “Natural.”

Sara focused on a painting of a girl with a strange turban and an enormous bauble hanging from her ear directly behind his head, refusing to betray any hint of emotion. The Supreme Inhabitant flicked his wrist and a machine lowered out of the ceiling pointed toward the blank wall behind Sara.

“Shall I show you what those days were like?”

Images began playing across the blank wall. Sara turned to look, her curious nature overpowering her urge to run. Some of the videos and pictures were in color, but some were black and white and grainy. A child with big eyes stared at her, its ribs clearly visible, wearing barely a shred of clothing. The aftermath of an earthquake, bodies half buried in the wreckage. Soldiers younger than herself being mown down by machine guns. Gaunt people with haunted eyes in chains. Humans destroying humans.

Tears wet Sara’s cheeks. Eli began to stir.

“This is what we ran from, Sara,” the Supreme Inhabitant said, his voice gentle. “This is what your friends are fighting to go back to.”

Sara shook her head. He was wrong, he had to be.

“How do you know it was them?”

“Because they have been rounded up. I’ve been getting pings telling me everything. Their ringleader is a woman named Margie.”

“That’s not possible!”

“Why, because you like them? Because you think they are your friends? They destroyed half of our city and innocent lives just to prove their point, so tell me, Sara, you tell me who the real enemy is.”

Sara sank against the wall and buried her head in her hands, defeated. She had thought they were her friends, and now they had most likely killed her mother. She had chosen the wrong path. Eli sat up.

“Dad, what’s going on?”

The Supreme Inhabitant turned to his son. “I told Sara the truth.”

Eli blinked, waiting for his father to continue.

“I told her that her friends tried to overthrow myself and the Pinnacle, but they failed and were caught and will soon be sent to the Unknowns as traitors.”

“Oh,” Eli said flatly, “that.”

His father’s eyes narrowed at his response, but he was distracted by another incoming ping.

“It’s safe now. I’m going to hold council with the Pinnacle before the trials begin. Both of you will stay here until my return.” He looked at Sara and bowed slightly. “Please, make yourself at home.”

The door clanged shut behind him with a final sounding thud and a lock clicked. Sara didn’t look up. Eli propped himself up on his good side.

“I thought he was going to tell you the other truth,” he said.

“Which is,” she mumbled into her lap.

“Your father, he’s alive.”

Sara’s head snapped up.

“And I can take you to him.”

Advertisements

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Nine

wallpaper-866282_1280

Grab a hot cup of coffee, start here, then continue to Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter Seven, and Chapter Eight.

 

Chapter Nine: The Meeting Place

 

Sara’s footsteps kicked up small puffs of dust and crackled on the occasional patch of vegetation. The single file line crawled silently along the dirt path in the dim light of the modified lamps.

She studied the back of the person in front of her, Joran, she heard someone call him. He was taller than she was, blocking her view of the path ahead. His brown hair had been shaved close and it bristled above the collar of his faded red shirt. His pants were dust repellent, the creased blue uniform of the park maintenance officers.

The line stopped.

Sara tried craning her neck as far right as she could to see what was going on, but she almost lost her balance in the darkness. She leaned against the wet, rocky wall that bordered the left side of the path. On the right side was a deep crevice. The grim looking woman behind her had assured her the crevice was bottomless, and even if it wasn’t, no one had ever crawled back out to set the record straight.

The line began to move again.

The Inhabitants walked for another three or four minutes until they came to a brown rock wall, smooth except for the crack extending from the path and continuing out of sight. The crack made a natural entrance into the meeting place.

Sarah filed through the narrow archway sideways into the room, and put a hand in front of her eyes against the unexpected brightness. The room was round, almost aggressively so, and domed upward for more than 200 feet with a large, brilliantly glowing orb at the apex. The walls were smooth, brown stone with an arched recess carved every two or three feet at eye level, all of them stuffed full of books. Cushions and pillows littered the floor, and several people began to take a seat.

What bewildered Sara the most was not the strange orb, or that she was in a giant underground cavern surrounded by rebels in the middle of the night, or even the hundreds (thousands?) of books, it was the silence. No commercials assaulted her vision, no jingles chirped in her ear, no facts or logistics flitted across her lenses when she looked at the faces around her. For the first time she could remember, everything was silent. Her fingers felt thick and heavy. Smells – earthy, cold, metallic, sweat – bombarded her nose. She had experienced a small fraction by not taking her vitamins, but this, this was different.

 

“You’ll get used to it,” said Ro, slapping her on the back, “the stone is a natural inhibitor. None of your implants will work. Keeps spies from recording what they see here.”

She plopped down on a worn blue pillow with a smirk.

Before Sara had a chance to retort, a tall man whom Sara didn’t recognize announced in a loud, deep voice that the meeting was about to begin and would everyone please grab a seat.

Sara chose a round silver cushion and sat with her back against the wall, her nerves jangling. She noticed Eli laughing with a group of other young Inhabitants and wondered how he came here, and what he was up to.

“If everyone is settled, let’s begin. The situation is growing steadily worse, so meetings might not be as frequent. Food, real food, is in short supply, so we’ll need to ration unless anyone wants to go back to eating the sludge,” here there were groans and some chuckles,  “and Guy was caught stealing parts for the Weapon.” A collective murmur rippled through the room, and the man held his hands up for silence. “We’ll need another volunteer. Anyone who is interested should see myself or Jack after the meeting. Okay then,” he clapped his hands and rubbed them together, “grab your book and a partner.”

Sara stood and stared at the stacks of books, confused, but excited. The books in her recess were in various states of disrepair, with only two or three in decent shape, and the rest missing pages, moldy, or burnt around the edges. She chose a hardcover book with light burn marks and missing most of its spine, then sat down, again with her back to the wall. She sniffed at the book. Its smell was smoky, but pleasant, pulling to the surface memories of Love’s book. She wondered briefly if Love and her parent’s had ever attended one of these meetings before she was interrupted by a chirpy voice.

“Hey there, hiya, how ya doin’, my name’s Margie,” the petite middle aged woman announced.  She had long black hair and was dressed head to toe in flamboyant green. Even the pillow she held was green. “Wanna be my partner?”

Without waiting for a reply, Margie dropped her giant green pillow in front of Sara, releasing a cloud of dust that made Sara cough and Margie sneeze seven times.

“Sorry about that doll,” Margie shook her head and sneezed an eighth time, “are ya ready?”

“This is actually my first time. Do we read the books, or…” she trailed off, looking at Margie expectantly.

“Oh honey, we memorize the books,” Margie grinned, “we restore them and memorize them until we know them by heart so even if they are taken away, we’ll always have them with us. It’s important work.” She gently slapped the book she was holding, releasing another, smaller cloud of dust that sent her into another fit of sneezes.

“This is the Iliad, and I’ve been memorizing it for four weeks now,” she continued after taking a deep breath, cradling the book like a sleeping child. “What did you pick honey?”

Sara flipped the book open. “Wuthering Heights,” she said.

“Sounds good to me,” Margie chuckled. “Let’s get started. I like to read a paragraph three or four times to get the gist, then work on memorization, then have my partner test me, but you do you honey.” She settled into her mammoth pillow and began to read.

The room filled with muttering and whispers, each Inhabitant intent on their task. Margie told her later that a handful of Inhabitants, only she used the word “people,” had memorized three or even four books. Sara realized that no one used the word “Inhabitant” to address each other down here and thought it was strange, but nice.

At the end of the meeting, the tall man assigned them into groups of four or five and gave them each an exit number.

“And remember, if you get caught,” he took a deep breath, “well, just don’t get caught.”

Tomas, Sara, another girl, and Eli had the same group. She followed them along one of the side trails that wound in dizzy circles and was full of creeping insects she frantically swatted out of her face and hair.

“Hey, so this trapdoor leads to the basement of the hovboard shop,” Eli told her as they paused beneath a smooth gray stone. “We leave one by one in intervals of five to seven minutes.”

The group crawled out of the tunnel and into the basement. Tomas bade them goodnight and walked upstairs to his apartment over the shop. The girl left out the shop’s back door, leaving Eli and Sara to wait.

Sara was still thinking of her book when Eli broke the silence.

“Good Founder’s Day to you, Inhabitant Sara Todd,” he smiled.

“Good Founder’s Day to you as well, Eli,” she replied. She had almost forgotten the High Holiday.

Eli waved his hand to indicate it was her turn to depart.

“Be safe,” he said.

Sara made her way home without incident and fell into bed. Her dreams were full of books and windy moors and brightly colored gum commercials.

Her mother woke her a few hours later with a cup of hot tea, a slice of buttered toast, and a vitamin.

“Good Founder’s Day, Sara,” she sang, “time to take your vitamin!”

Sara sighed. Back to reality.

 

 

 

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Eight

wallpaper-866282_1280

Start here, then continue to Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter Six, and Chapter Seven. Hope you enjoy!

Chapter Eight

Revolution

“That’s two questions actually,” Sara said automatically, still confused. “Wait, Revolution?”

Ro grimaced and rolled her eyes so far back in her head all Sara would have seen was white if she had been looking. Her attention had been arrested by a patrol bot scanning the grounds and headed straight for them.

“Now we’re in trouble,” Sara groaned.

Ro looked skyward as if to ask for strength. “Listen,” she hissed, “just follow me if you want to join us. Stay here if you want to get another adjustment.” Ro crept along the length of the bench and rolled behind a nearby bush. She ducked and rolled and crawled until she reached the tree in the center of the park. Sara watched, zooming in with her lenses. The bot was getting closer.

In a split second decision that would change her life forever, Sara followed Ro to the tree, ducking and rolling and crawling until she also reached the tree. The bot continued on its way, humming and scanning and sweeping up any stray bits of trash that crossed its path.

Sara stood with her back to the tree, watching the bot. A hand clamped firmly over her mouth.

Sara fell backwards into a void so dark even her lenses could not illuminate her surroundings. Then the hand was gone.

Sara screamed.

 

She landed several seconds later. Whatever she’d landed on was soft, almost spongy, and unpleasantly damp. She tried to stand, but her legs wobbled with the effort and the surface was none too steady.

A blinding light overhead illuminated her surroundings as she fell over again into the dampness. The first thing she noticed was that she was, in fact, on a giant growth that resembled a mushroom. The second was that she was surrounded by people, most of whom were trying not to laugh. Some were frowning. Some she recognized.

“Sara, roll off to your left,” Ro called out. She was standing next to a tall woman Sara had never seen before.

She rolled off to her left and dropped off the mushroom two feet onto hard dirt.

“Oops, I meant my left, your right,” Ro said, and Sara wasn’t sure Ro was actually sorry. She stood, wary.

Sara looked around. They were in an underground cavern with slick black rocks, dirt trails, and eerie growths like the one she had landed on. The light was one of the street lamps from the city, but it had been altered to glow brighter, and with a lid on top so the light shone only downwards. It was on a ledge at least seven feet above Sara’s head, and she could see a string of them off into the distance.  She looked again at the people.

By her count there were almost forty, including Ro. Two were brother and sister, Ian and Patience; she knew them from Assigned Learning. Sitting down on a large rock to her left was Tomas, the manager of a small shop in town where she bought her hovboard. Behind her she heard a familiar voice, one she never expected to hear in this damp cave full of rebels.

“Welcome to the Revolution, Sara,” Eli, the Supreme Inhabitants son, was smiling.

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Seven

wallpaper-866282_1280

Just joining us? Read the PrologueChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter Five, and Chapter Six.

Chapter Seven

The Code

 

     Tap tap tap. Sara’s head jerked up from her plate. She looked at her father with questioning eyes. He smiled, and again softly tapped the table with his thumb three times, tap tap tap.

     Sara giggled and tapped her plate twice in reply a little too hard with her fork. Her mother blinked, momentarily turning the nightly news report off her lenses to give her daughter a stern look, but was soon back in a trance, and from all outward appearances staring at nothing.

     Sara and her father did not watch the news. He told her it was for serious grownups like her mother and she shouldn’t bother with it. Sara asked if she wouldn’t get in trouble with the Pinnacle. He chuckled and said that the Pinnacle didn’t monitor something as trivial as who was watching the nightly new report. He said Sara would be just fine, and she believed him.

     Sara chewed on a green bean and stole a glance at her father. He winked, pretended to yawn, and stretched his lanky arms out to his sides as far as they would go.

     It was their nightly dinner ritual – three taps meant, “I love you,” two taps meant, “how much,” and the outstretched arms meant, “this much.” It was their secret code. Open displays of affection, even between family members, was frowned upon, although not quite a Not Allowed. Not yet.

Maybe it was the countless adjustments, or maybe the memory was just too painful, but Sara had forgotten the code. She had almost forgotten what her father looked like when he laughed.

___

     Sara quickly plastered a large smile on her face for the benefit of whoever was watching. She took the bottle from her mother’s hand, gave it a quick shake and turned back to the sink. She refilled her dinner glass and opened the bottle, then mimed shaking a pill into the palm of her hand and throwing it in her mouth. She took a long swallow of the water before turning back around, glass in hand.

Her mother was still standing there, but she had stopped rocking. Her arms were stretched out to her sides and back as far as they would reach.

Sara dropped the glass, water exploding over the floor. Something pulled at her memory and a sudden strong wave of emotion made her stomach hurt and she didn’t know why.

The shattered glass seemed to pull her mother out of the trance. The lights had gone from her eyes and her arms came down to rest at her sides. She watched the saucer-like kitchen bot pop out of the baseboard, beeping indignantly while it dried the floor and hunted for every shard of glass.

“What were we talking about dear?”

 

Whoever was on weather duty had gone a little overboard, Sara thought to herself, pulling her jacket tighter as she walked across the dark street towards the house. Fear gnawed at her belly as she raised her hand to knock on the pewter door that looked no different from her own.

“I wouldn’t do that,” a voice came from behind the tall hedge to the left of the house, “unless you want to explain to your neighbors why you’re waking them up at such an un-supreme hour.” Ro walked out from behind the hedge with a smirk on her face.

Sara scrambled to get off the front porch before she triggered the automatic doorbell. “Are you insane? Why did you ask me to meet you here? What-“

“Just follow me and try to keep your mouth shut,” Ro interrupted, “think you can do that?”

Sara huffed, but followed Ro back around the hedge and through narrow alleys, sometimes running, sometimes walking, and sometimes back the way they came. They had just paused behind a small park bench when Sara poked Ro and asked in a whispered scream just what she thought she was doing leading her around in the middle of the night just to crouch behind a park bench and freeze. Ro rolled her eyes.

“You know about the cranial implant, right?”

Sara’s puzzled face confirmed that she did not know.

Ro sighed. “You seriously think the Pinnacle isn’t keeping super close tabs on all its citizens? Influencing the way we vote? What we buy? How we decide what jobs we want?” She took a deep breath and stared at Sara. “They even decide when we die.”

“Now I know you’re insane. The implants are a gift. They extend life, not end it.” She shrugged. “Unless you’re like me, with glitching issues, then you’re supreme. They say soon we’ll be able to live forever.”

Ro shook her head. “That’s what they want you to think. You’ve been adjusted ten too many times,” she jammed her hand in her pocket and shoved a small, purple pebble shaped object in front of Sara’s eyes. “Unless you have one of these, they can hear everything you say, see everything you see, even read your brainwaves.”

“That’s illegal,” Sara protested, “what about the Privacy Protection Act of-“

“That act is to placate the plebs, nothing more,” Ro snapped, “and I can prove everything I have told you.” Her face was all sharp angles in the shadows, her eyes glowing. “The question is now, will you follow me? Are you ready to join the Revolution?”

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Six

wallpaper-866282_1280

Don’t forget the rest of the story! PrologueChapters One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.

Chapter Six

The Truth Will Out

 

Sara walked into her lab class three minutes late. She made brief eye contact with her teacher, his lenses scanning hers to make sure she had not been loitering. He nodded and resumed the lesson.

Sara took the last seat and grabbed her holo-pad to catch up on the lesson. Something bothered her about the girl at her table, a niggling thought tucked away in a forgotten corner of her mind, but she brushed it aside and began to take notes, her finger swirling over the holo-pad.

“What’s it like?” her partner asked.

Startled, Sara looked up at the girl. “I’m sorry?”

“What’s it like,” the girl repeated, “to talk to the dead?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I think you do.” The girl’s eyes narrowed to obsidian chips. “Tell me, what is the ‘Better Way’?”

Sara’s eyebrows tented in surprise. “How did you know about that?”

“If you had paid better attention at your appointment today, you’d know.”

Ro made a pretense of taking a memo on her holo-pad and snapped her fingers to direct Sara’s attention to her screen. On Ro’s holo-pad was Love’s note.

“I retrieved this note from your lenses today. Should have shown the good doctor, but I didn’t. Are you going to make it worth my while or not?”

Sara’s chest was tight with fear. “You were my tech today.”

Ro rolled her eyes. “You catch on quick.” She slowly clapped her hands three times.

The teacher shot a look at the two girls; a ping popped up on their lenses that warned another disruption would not be tolerated.

Ro shot a glance towards the window and smiled. She snapped her fingers again, pointing to her holo-pad.

Sara read Ro’s scrawled note silently: “Meet me tonight at the house across from your kitchen window. If you do not, I will alert the Pinnacle to your treason. Simple as that.” Sara chewed at the inside of her cheek, then nodded.

“Good,” Ro smiled. She leaned her elbows on the table and cupped her hands in her fists, her short black hair barely grazing the back of her neck.

Sara realized what had bothered her about Ro. Nobody else had hair that short. Not in the whole class. Not in the entire city. There were only two acceptable haircuts, long and straight for women, short and neat for men, and few exceptions. She wondered what else was wrong with this girl as she tried to concentrate on the lesson.

At dinner that night, Sara realized that tomorrow was a High Holiday, if she was still around to see it. She picked at her dinner.

“Sweetheart, the doctor is very concerned about you. She worries that you may have a vitamin deficiency. Have you not been taking them?” Her mother’s coffee colored eyes were soft and searching.

“I have been taking my vitamins,” Sara lied, “I think she was just being thorough.” She stabbed at the pile of beige mush on her plate and wondered to herself where the broccoli and chicken went. She wouldn’t ask her mother; it would only be another red flag that she was not taking her vitamins. She was beginning to see that Love had been telling the truth.

“Be that as it may, she sent a bottle of extra strength over and you’re to take two a day now.” She pulled the bottle out of her sweater pocket and tapped it on the table tap tap tap.

Sara flinched. “I think I’d better get to bed with tomorrow being a High Holiday and such.” She stood, walked over to the counter and scraped her plate into the square hole that served as their trash bin. At the end of every day, at precisely ten pm, the day’s garbage would be sucked down into the tubes beneath the city and incinerated.

“Don’t forget your vitamins.”

Sara turned to find her mother standing directly behind her, so close she could smell something sour on her breath. She was clutching the bottle of pills in her left hand and hugging herself with her right, gently rocking on her feet front to heel, heel to front. She shook the bottle three times with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Remember what the doctor said, Sara,” shake, shake shake, “you need to take your vitamins,” shake, shake, shake, “or she’ll have to report you.”

Something was wrong. Her eyes, Sara could see something was wrong with her eyes. They flashed with lights, green, a beep of red, a dart of yellow; it was almost as if someone was watching her through her mother’s eyes.

Shake, shake, shake.

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Five

wallpaper-866282_1280

-There’s more to the story. See the Prologue, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and Chapter Four.

 

Chapter Five

Followed

-10 Years Ago

Inhabitant Vaughn Faul read the next item up for discussion aloud to the room.

“Inhabitants Todd, Merkle, and James are to be banished to the Unknowns tomorrow. We must decide their fate.”

Jonas Pratt, the Supreme Inhabitant looked around the crescent moon shaped table at his fellow members of the Pinnacle. He could see by the way they avoided his gaze that they were waiting for him to speak first. He waved his hand at the Secretary. “Vaughn, read us the charges against each Inhabitant will you?”

Vaughn cleared his throat. “Inhabitant Thom Merkle and Esther James were found selling faulty counterfeit upgrades that caused multiple traffic disruptions, nine hospitalizations, and one death.”

Several of the eleven members shook their heads. A poor, young couple had bought the upgrades at a bargain price to give their infant son a chance at a better life; instead, the upgrades had caused a massive seizure leading to his death.

“Inhabitant Jason Todd was observed telling tales of the old days to his daughter, Sara, by his wife,” Vaughn continued. “She also suspects he has tampered with their daughter’s implants. The findings were inconclusive and the girl will be adjusted.”

Jason Todd was the city’s most gifted inventor. To send such a valuable asset into the Unknowns was unthinkable. To allow him to stay and spread his lies would be worse. This one malcontent could infect the entire city. Still, they couldn’t kill him.

“Send him out with the others, but make sure his daughter watches from home. We don’t need anyone getting sympathetic.”

The eleven nodded in agreement.

“Dispatch the other two. Separate them from Todd, then activate the cranial implant about a mile from the city. We’ll keep track of Inhabitant Todd in case we need his help to finish this.”

Jonas grasped at the air in front of his face and made a throwing motion towards the open end of the table, bringing up a virtual screen. On the screen were partially finished blueprints for a bomb. He grinned, his gold teeth glinting in the half-light.

                                                                 ___

Sara broke into a sweat. So they had found the note; it was all over now. She’d be banished to die in the Unknowns like her father and her friend.

“Well, out with it,” the doctor prodded, “why aren’t you taking your vitamins?”

Doctor Aliah looked so stern but Sara was trying her hardest not to laugh from relief. Vitamins were a small matter next to a note from a dead traitor. She tried her best to look repentant.

“I guess I just forgot. I’ve been a little forgetful since an adjustment I had at school a couple weeks ago.”

“A thin excuse,” said the doctor, “but I suppose I can let you off with a warning this time.” She gave Sara a narrow look. “But don’t think I won’t send a ping to your mother to make sure she is fully aware of the situation.” She frowned, adding, “And there is nothing wrong with your implants electronically, Sara. Perhaps it was only a vitamin deficiency.”

It was Sara’s turn to frown. She knew she hadn’t imagined the glitches, the headaches- even the voices. Those had started three days ago. They whispered to her at night, urging her to pack and leave, urging her to come out into the Unknowns where it was Safe. Sometimes Sara could swear it was her father’s voice.

Her face must have betrayed her confusion.

“Is there anything else you should be telling me, Inhabitant?”

Sara shook her head no.

“Very well. See the receptionist on the way out to settle your bill.” The doctor waived her hand in a dismissive motion.

Sara almost leaped out of the chair in her effort to get out of the room. Amie the receptionist was waiting at her desk, still as chipper as ever.

“Your visit will cost you only three credits today. Thumb please!”

Sara pressed her right thumb to the glowing blue pad Amie pushed in front of her. It scanned her thumbprint to confirm her identity, then the chip in her thumb for her plan and payment information. The pad flashed green twice.

“Great,” Amie chirped, “you’re all set to go! I hope you’ve had a pleasant experience! Have a splendid-“

But Sara was already out of the building, unfolding her board and joining the second tier traffic. A hooded figure followed a few seconds later.

 

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Four

wallpaper-866282_1280

-In case you missed it: PrologueChapter one, Chapter two, and Chapter three.

 

Chapter Four

Secrets

     The morning of the tenth dawned bright and clear like every other morning as far back as Sara could remember. The blue of the sky matched the blue of the cup half full of tea she was still holding from earlier that morning. The tea was cold now. Her stomach rumbled for solid food, but she was too nervous to eat. At least she didn’t have to report to Assigned Learning until after her appointment.

Her lenses had kept her awake and in pain almost every night this week. Advertisements uploaded at random. A classmate sent her notes on their combined tribute to the First Inhabitant project, but they came through at three in the morning and in a language Sara had never seen before and that her lenses refused to translate. Her eyes were stinging and red. She still hadn’t taken her vitamins. Not trusting her lenses, she consulted her holo-pad for the time: nearing noon. She decided to leave now. The sooner this appointment was over, the better.

Adjusting her stance on her hovboard, Sara glided through the park and down a side street, careful to avoid the platform in the square. The second tier traffic was light today. Sara looked down at the first tier pedestrians beneath her feet. Most Inhabitants preferred to use their air-cycles or hovboards for efficiency as well as distinction. Walking was for the poor. Cars were for the rich. Sara looked up at the smooth-bottomed XI-47 humming six feet above her head. Like hov-boards, cars used the city’s magnetic grid to float above the streets, but in the third tier and twenty-eight feet in the air. The most expensive cars had a special tint to keep out the commercials that beamed in from every business in the city. Sara had never ridden in a car, much less owned one.

She clapped her hands twice to disengage her shoes from her hovboard, jumped off, folded it down to pocket size and walked towards the gray building. It was almost indistinguishable from every other gray building in the city, save for a stubby black cross above the main entrance that marked it as the only Health and Wellness Center in Barter. For the first time, Sara noticed how gray the city was, how smooth and free of color. The one bright place in the city was the park next to the Center, but even there the benches were gray and the walking path as well; all smooth and made out of the same metal as the platform in the square.

Sara shivered and shoved her hovboard in her pocket as she walked inside.

Black plastic chairs lined the waiting room on floor eleven. The walls were off-white, the tile floor two almost indistinguishable shades of gray. Sara could have sworn the floor was green the last time she was here. She closed her eyes and waited.

“Inhabitant Sara Todd, you’re super early,” Amie, the receptionist sang out.”Why don’t you just go ahead and wait in the room for the Doctor?”

Sara’s forehead furrowed as she stood to walk back to the secondary waiting room. This was going to be a long day.

Outside the waiting rooms Doctor Aliah was training a new technician to read the diagnostic screen.

“This is where I plug in the wires that attach to the patient’s temples” she pointed, “and here is where you will sort the information feeding from the lenses. Bugs and glitches in the software are sorted into the blue folder, everyday patient life into the yellow folder, and any potential misconduct or peculiar behavior is sorted into the red folder.”

Her eyes searched the young technician’s face.

“Do not delete or misplace any information, Ro. I will know, and you will be banished. You will help with three patients today, then report back to your Assigned Learning. Have I made myself clear?”

“Absolutely,” said Ro.

“Good. First on the list is Inhabitant Tovah Fields. Let’s get to work.”

The Doctor and her technician came into Sara’s room at exactly two o’clock. Sara lay half reclined on the chair, her eyes shut. The technician taped the wires to her temples and sat behind her, reading the information that flowed across the screen in her lap, her nimble fingers sorting the information into the proper folders. Sara opened her eyes.

“Where did you purchase the lenses, Sara?” Doctor Aliah asked.

“A bargain basement trader. Elias.”

“Ah. And how long have they been glitching?”

“Not long. I made an appointment with the General Health Doctor, and he told me I needed to see you. I made an appointment right away.”

Doctor Aliah looked at the technician for conformation, and Ro nodded.

“Good. Please be comfortable while I consult your chart,” the doctor smiled, and then her eyes began to twitch and blink as she consulted the information on her lenses.

Sara’s stomach burned. She had erased the note from Love, but a good technician could find just about anything. She couldn’t see the tech sitting behind her. She hoped it was Culper. He was too lazy to dig deep into people’s heads.

Ro recognized Sara from the lab class they shared, but said nothing. She was too busy looking at the note she had found from a former classmate, presumed dead. Definite red folder material.

Doctor Aliah stood.

“Let’s see what the problem is, Sara,” she said, walking towards Ro.

She consulted the screen behind Sara’s head, pressing the blue folder, then the red. Sara held her breath.

Doctor Aliah walked around to Sara’s right side, leaned on the chair, and pursed her lips before speaking.

“Inhabitant, is there anything you want to tell me before I alert the authorities?”

 

 

 

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Three

wallpaper-866282_1280

-Feeling lost? Read the prologue here, chapter one here, and chapter two here.

Chapter Three

Take Your Vitamins

Sara’s body writhed in pain. She thought she heard her father’s voice, but then everything went black again. She felt as if she were drowning in the blackness. Even the circular room was a dull black; no doors or windows in sight. She heard the Voice speak again.

“Inhabitant, you have brought this pain upon yourself. Answer the question correctly, and all this unnecessary suffering will end. Inhabitant, what are the Five?”

The pain was less now, her head more clear. She stood up, defiant.

“My father said–” another wave of pain wracked her body and she fell to the floor. Her ears started to ring. Blood dripped from her nose and down her chin like gory face paint.

“Incorrect. Inhabitant, what are the Five?”

This time she could only prop herself up to reply.

“My father–” this time she screamed as her body spasmed. Every nerve was on fire.

“Incorrect. Inhabitant, what are the Five? Final answer before maximum pain is inflicted.”

Sara sobbed. She knew maximum pain would mean death. She also knew the Five stood for everything her father stood against, but what else could she do?

Sara closed her eyes and murmured, “Follow the Five, stay alive: Skipping a scheduled update is Not Allowed, Failure to report a glitch or malfunction is Not Allowed, Taking another Inhabitant’s updates is Not Allowed, Religious, Political, or Other objections or refusal of implants are Not Allowed, Removal of implants is Not Allowed.”

“Louder please,” the Voice demanded.

Now all Sara wanted was to end this nightmare and go home. She tried again.

“Louder please,” the Voice said again.

Sara took a deep breath, willing herself to use whatever strength she had left. She crawled to her feet, squaring her shoulders, and looked straight up at the ceiling. Sara screamed at the Voice. She screamed the Five to the emptiness of the black room, her words echoing, crashing into themselves and shattering, falling around Sara like confetti for a parade she didn’t want to see.

“Very good Inhabitant. And will you fail to report a malfunction again?”

Sara could swear the Voice was smiling. She grit her teeth.

“No.”

“Good. You may leave and report back to your dwelling for further instructions.”

A door opened in the wall to Sara’s left. Hot tears began racing down her cheeks as she staggered home with the knowledge that she had let her father down. Tomorrow, he would die.

 

 

 

Sara regained consciousness a minute or two later, still on the cold floor. The lights in the hallway seemed even brighter now. She groaned, propping herself up with her elbow and rubbing her head.

“Quite a fall you took, Inhabitant,” said a voice behind her.

Sara tried to stand up, but was too woozy to keep her balance and sat back down.

The Supreme Inhabitant’s son, Eli, squatted beside her, Sara’s holo-pad in his hand. He was in the same year as Sara, but she was training for a job as a product tester at Gryce Industries and he was training to take his father’s place. His smile was jovial, but Sara didn’t trust him. She said nothing and went back to rubbing her head, her eyes focused on the floor.

“I heard you got yourself in a little scrape today,” he continued, “but I’ll bet that adjustment did wonders for you. Then you got whacked on the head by a door. What a day, huh? Here, let me help you up.” Eli extended his hand.

Sara neither wanted nor needed his help. She stood up on her own and snatched her holo-pad out of his hand. Then she realized she probably shouldn’t offend someone so important. Part of her realized she didn’t care.

“Sorry, I’m not quite myself today. I have to get to class,” she mumbled and walked into her next classroom, this time avoiding the door. Eli shrugged and walked down the hall, calling out greetings to some of his classmates as he headed back to the Principal’s office.

As soon as school was over, Sara walked home. She was only too happy to put this day behind her.

At dinner, her mother was overly cheerful, the corners of her mouth pinned tightly into a smile.

“I heard someone got an adjustment today. A little out of sorts, were we? Well, I don’t like to say ‘I told you so,’ but I did. Sara, take your vitamins! You’ll feel so much better.” She scraped a bit of butter on her roll and stabbed at the peas on her plate, still smiling.

Sara nodded as she finished the last of her roll.

“I will. May I be excused? I have a lot to prepare for tomorrow’s testing and it’s getting late.”

The corners of her mother’s mouth came unpinned.

“Why are you doing this to me,” she hissed, “is this because of what happened with him?”

“You mean my father?” Sara said. She stood to take her dishes to the sink as casually as if her mother had mentioned a change in the weather.

“Are you malfunctioning,” her mother spat over her shoulder, still sitting at the table, “you know he’s Not Allowed.”

“And we both know whose fault that is, don’t we?”

Sara’s head was feeling sharp and clear as she reached for the vitamin bottle over the sink, opening it and shaking one white pill into the palm of her hand. She felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

“I just want what’s best for you, you know I do. Take your vitamin and get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

She kissed Sara’s cheek and gave her a gentle squeeze.

“I love you Sara. Never forget that.”

“I love you too, mom.”

As her mother walked away, Sara looked at the little white pill. She felt a sudden urge to throw it as far away from her as she possibly could. Instead she dropped the pill down the sink, running hot water after. She shook her head, unsure why she felt so elated over such a simple act. It was only a vitamin after all.

The figure across the street that had been watching Sara through her kitchen window smiled. The Inhabitants were waking up. The time for revolution was at hand.

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter Two

wallpaper-866282_1280

-Just joining us? Read the prologue here and chapter one here.

 

Chapter Two

Chickens

Sara ran her fingers along the spine of the thick, black book. She had never seen a paper book before. A civilization as advanced as theirs had little need of paper. She had found the book deep under Love’s bed wrapped in some old clothes; the girls were playing their favorite game, hide-and-seek. Sara couldn’t make out the words in the darkness and she couldn’t risk tapping the under-bed light on or Love would find her. She cracked open the book and put her cheek on the cool, delicate pages. She sniffed the book. It smelled like her Great-Aunt Linda – old and a little musty. She wondered where Love found such a thing, and why she kept it. Her stomach felt hot at the thought of breaking a Not Allowed. She heard Love’s footsteps by the bedroom door. “Saaaara, where aaaarre you?” Love giggled and pounced on the bed. Sara hastily put the book back and rolled out from under the bed, forcing a giggle as she admitted defeat. She wouldn’t ask Love about the book. She knew she couldn’t tell anyone about the book, not even her mother, or Love would be punished. Sara could never hurt her best friend.

 

“Call Doctor Aliah,” Sara commanded, squeezing her left earlobe to activate her implant for the call.

“Health and Wellness Center, Amie speaking, how may I direct your call?”

Sara squinted at the brightness in the receptionist’s voice.

“Hi, this is Inhabitant Sara Todd. I’m uh, looking for an afternoon appointment with Dr. Aliah to correct my lenses,” then she added, “Class 3.5.”

“Let me help you with that,” Amie gushed. “I have a three-thirty on the seventh, or a two o’clock on the tenth.”

Sara flicked her schedule up on her lenses, but all she could she was static. She tried blinking to refresh it. An image popped up that Sara had never seen before.

An electronic note from Love with today’s date.

“I’m not gone,” it read, “come find me. I’m with the Naturals. We have found the Better Way. Come find me.”

“Are you there, Sara?” the receptionist’s voice burst Sara’s concentration like a bubble. Sara gulped and the note vanished, her schedule in its place.

“The tenth,” she managed, “the tenth is good.”

 

Later during her first class at Assigned Learning, she puzzled over the note while the teacher droned on about the First Inhabitant.

Technically, the First Inhabitant no longer existed, and was therefore Not Allowed according to Lesser Not Allowed number twelve: Do not speak of the dead. The Pinnacle, the governing council of the city – of whom the Supreme Inhabitant was the head – got around this rule by erecting a life-sized statue of the First Inhabitant and every Supreme Inhabitant after. This way the students could learn of their brilliant leaders without committing a crime. One year a student asked why only the Supreme Inhabitants could cheat a Not Allowed. He was absent from class after that. Nobody asked why.

The First Inhabitant was a doctor. He lived with a group of people whose pursuit was the longevity of life through body modifications. They invented the first crude implants and founded the city of Barter that Sara now lived in. It was more of a town back then.

Sara’s thoughts drifted back to the note. It had mentioned the Better Way, something she and Love invented when they were twelve, bored with learning and big with ideas and dreams.

The Better Way was a simple wish list, a child’s fanciful daydream. There would be no implants or checkups with needles or sore eyes or stinging fingers. They would not be dizzy for days after new ear implants. They would not need to memorize The Five rules or any other Not Allowed’s and they could have whatever job they wanted. They could leave the city. They would even have dessert for breakfast if they liked.

And they would find the animals. Only a few animals remained in the city, and the Inhabitants were not permitted to see them unless assigned to care for them. The closest Sara had come to seeing a cow was the burger on her plate.

Sara’s father whispered stories to her at bedtime about things his father had told him at bedtime, stories passed down from generation to generation. It was Not Allowed, to be sure, and if Sara’s mother ever found out, she would turn him in for telling such lies, but Sara treasured those stories.

Her favorite story was about chickens. One of Sara’s ancestors had been a farmer. He raised chickens, cows, pigs, and horses. He had four cats and three dogs. He even had a few goats. Sara thought that was a funny word – goat. Her father would say it over and over again until it no longer sounded like a word and Sara’s laughter threatened to wake her mother. Then she would beg him for the chicken story.

The farmer had a little girl, just like Sara. Her job was to feed the chickens and collect the eggs while avoiding Solomon, the mean-spirited rooster. Solomon’s black heart delighted in chasing the little girl, pecking at her and digging her with his sharp spurs. One day the little girl had courage. She picked up a stick and fought back. When Solomon came towards her, evil eyes agleam, she clubbed him so hard he flew to the other side of the coop. Solomon walked with a limp ever after, but never bothered her again.

Sara’s father was an animated storyteller, flapping his arms like wings and bobbing his head to pantomime Solomon, with an expression on his face he insisted was evil but it made Sara laugh.

That was eleven years ago. Sara wondered if the note meant Love had found a chicken. She laughed softly to think of Solomon and the little girl of long ago.

“Something you’d like to share with the class?”

Sara’s head snapped up from the desk. The teacher was standing in front of her, his arms crossed, one eyebrow cocked.

“N-no sir, Inhabitant Palmer,” she stammered.

He looked down at the holo-pad in front of her and she realized too late that instead of taking notes, she had been doodling  farm animals. He took the pad and held it high for the class to see.

“I see you do have something to share with the class,” he said in a mocking tone, “things that no longer exist. Class,” he continued, walking back towards the front of the room, “if something no longer exists, what is it?”

“Not Allowed,” they chorused.

“Very good, class,” he put the pad on his desk. “And what is the penalty for a breaking a lesser Not Allowed such as drawing things that do not exist?”

“A visit to the Principal,” they chorused.

“And what happens in the Principal’s office?” he asked smiling, his voice as smooth as butter.

“You get adjusted,” they chorused.

The teacher sat on the front of his desk, arms crossed, still smiling as Sara rose from her seat to go to the Principal’s office. She willed herself not to cry. Maybe she did need an adjustment.

There were no such things as chickens anymore.

 

The Principal looked down his beak-like nose at Sara sitting in the plastic chair in front of his desk. He tented his fingers, tapping them three times on his chin before speaking.

“Tell me why you are here, Inhabitant.”

“I broke a Not Allowed, sir,” Sara said softly, “I drew creatures that do not exist.”

The Principal stood, walking around his desk and behind Sara, his fingers tapping the back of her chair tap, tap, tap.

“And why did you draw these, these creatures that do not exist?”

Tap, tap, tap.

Nausea rippled down Sara’s spine like ice water.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You don’t know.”

Tap, tap, tap.

Sara could feel his breath on the back of her head. She fought back the urge to vomit.

“No, sir.”

“Well then, let’s get you adjusted and back to class so you can become a productive member of our grand society.”

The Principal pressed his pointer fingers into Sara’s temples.

“Now,” he smiled, “this won’t hurt a bit.”

Sara walked down the harshly lit hallway towards her next class with swimming eyes and a head full of fog. She had needed the adjustment, she thought to herself. She had been right to turn in the Brinkles. She was wrong to have drawn the creatures that do not exist.

A piercing whistle sounded. Sara looked up just in time to realize she was standing too close to her classroom door, but too late to avoid the impact as it flung open. She fell backwards, arms outstretched, and the last thing she remembered hearing was her father’s voice.

How foolish. He no longer existed, and was therefore Not Allowed.

The Drying Effects of Wind: Chapter One

wallpaper-866282_1280

-If you missed it, read the prologue here.

Chapter One

Execution Day

Three Inhabitants stood on the gleaming metal platform in the square. One male, two females.

All three guilty of breaking the Not Allowed’s.

The Prosecutor read their charges from his Class 6 lenses to the crowd in a booming voice. He waved his hands about in a grandiose fashion, parading back and forth across the platform in a way that distracted from his under-average stature.

“Inhabitant Arthur Brinkle, you are charged with attempted and/or successful removal of your implants and inciting unrest against the Supreme Inhabitant which is Not Allowed. The penalty is death by banishment.”

The accused Inhabitant was young, in his mid-fifties, with brown-black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He looked neither ashamed nor afraid to hear his sentence pronounced.

“Inhabitant Mattie Brinkle, you are charged with attempted and/or successful removal of your implants and inciting unrest against the Supreme Inhabitant which is Not Allowed. The penalty is death by banishment.”

Mattie looked at her husband with a small smile and reached for his hand, but a guard tased her and she screamed, falling to her knees. A murmur hummed from the crowd. Surely even a rebel deserved some small measure of mercy. The Prosecutor hurried on.

“Inhabitant Love Brinkle, you are charged with attempted and/or successful removal of your implants and inciting unrest against the Supreme Inhabitant which is Not Allowed. The penalty is death by banishment.”

Love was still a child at twenty-three. When the Prosecutor announced her fate, she thrust both fists in the air and screamed, “Down with the Inhabitants!” before the guard could step in and tase her too. That settled the crowd in square opposition of the accused. The Inhabitants hadn’t done this. They hadn’t forced the girl or her parents to remove her implants. They were not pronouncing a death sentence on a child, the child had pronounced it upon herself and they washed their hands of her.

The Prosecutor lead the way as the guards marched the condemned Inhabitants down the shiny platform’s steps and along the road that threaded through the city towards the gate. Inhabitants lined the road the entire way. Some looked sorrowful. Some jeered curses and insults. Others were silent, like Sara.

Inhabitant Sara Todd stood deep in the crowd by the gate, swirling with emotion. Love had been her best friend since they met in Assigned Learning at the age of ten. Sara herself was twenty-three just last week. Maybe she was still a child, but she knew better than to remove her implants, no matter how they plagued her. Yet Love and her family had done just that, and had tried to encourage others to follow their example. It made no sense to Sara.

Love even made wild claims that the city smelled of rot. She said the grass in the city park was plastic. She said the food they were issued daily had little flavor and less smell, that it was a lump of vitamins and nutrients to sustain life, nothing more.

The lies her parents told were even worse.

The Inhabitants could clearly smell the crisp, clean fragrance of the city, feel the softness of the grass, and the food – the food! –was daily manna from the Supreme Inhabitant himself. Muffins studded with blueberries and dripping with butter, peaches downy soft and juicy, steaks smothered in crispy onions with great, fluffy baked potatoes and even fluffier rolls; how could she deny this bounty they could see and smell and touch and taste and even hear for themselves?

The crowd was silent as the procession approached the gate.

“Do the condemned have any final statements,” the prosecutor boomed.

“We did no wrong. May God have mercy on our souls,” Mattie Brinkle said, squaring her shoulders.

The crowd tittered at her foolishness. Souls and gods had been done away with eons ago.

“My only hope is that you see the light, as we have,” Arthur added.

Love had been searching the crowd when her eyes locked on Sara’s.

“’Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not,’” she quoted.

The crowd hissed. Quoting from a banned book was a lesser Not Allowed, to be sure, but still; the audacity of the child to heap sins on her head even as she faced execution.

Sara shrank deeper into the crowd to escape further unwanted attention.

The heavy gate cracked open as the guards forced the Brinkle’s out into the Unknowns, the  unprotected and unfiltered region beyond the city’s protective gates.

Nobody survived the Unknowns.

The gates, now shut, flickered to life, a giant screen. It was mandatory to watch the rebels pass into the EverAfter, and watch the city did, with bated breath.

First the man fell to his knees, fingers clawing the hot, red dirt as he gasped for breath. Without his implants to filter out harmful toxins in the air, his lungs shriveled and his nostrils scorched. His wife ran to him, an expected display of devotion, but she too succumbed in the dirt beside her husband. The girl was the last to die, tears streaking her face, one hand reaching back towards the city in a gesture of longing and regret.

Sara let out a quiet, shuddering breath. She tried hard to convince herself that she had done the right thing by turning in the Brinkle family, but she kept seeing Love’s agonized face as she died. She walked back to  Assigned Learning  with guilt gnawing at her backbone. What did it matter what Love said to her anyway?

Love was dead. It was finally over.