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Bianca walks toward me, under too much sky. The white-hot twilight makes a halo out of loose strands of her fine black hair. She looks down and fidgets, as though she’s trying to settle an argument with herself, but then she looks up and sees me and a smile starts in her eyes, then spreads to her mouth. This moment of recognition, the alchemy of being seen, feels so vivid that everything else is an afterimage. By the time she reaches the Boulevard, where I’m standing, Bianca is laughing at some joke that she’s about to share with me.
As the two of us walk back toward campus, a brace of dark quince leaves, hung on doorways in some recent celebration, wafts past our feet. Their nine dried stems scuttle like tiny legs.
* * *
I lie awake in our dark dorm room, listening to Bianca breathe on the shelf across from mine. And then I hear her voice.
I’m so startled, hearing her speak after curfew, I tip over and land in a bundle on the floor.
Bianca giggles from her bunk as I massage my sore tailbone. I keep expecting some authority figure, like one of the Proctors, to burst in and glare at us for disturbing the quiet time. If you can’t sleep when everyone else does, you’re not even human.
“Sophie! It’s okay,” Bianca says. “I just wanted to ask you a question. I don’t even remember what it was now.” Then she stops laughing, because she understands this isn’t funny to me. “You’re not going to get in trouble. I promise. You know, we can’t even learn anything here unless we think for ourselves occasionally, right? Some rule we learned as little kids doesn’t have to keep us in a chokehold forever.”
When Bianca first showed up as my roommate, I hid from her as much as I could. I crawled into the tiny space above the slatted hamper in the side washroom, next to the wide sluicing cisterns that people use as toilets here. Bianca was this whirl of hand gestures and laughter who filled every room with color. When she started trying to talk to me, I assumed she was only taking pity on this painfully shy girl from the dark side of town and I’d just have to ignore her until she gave up.
She didn’t give up.
Now I look up at Bianca’s shape as I pull myself out of my huddle on the floor. “But you follow the rules too,” I say. “Like, you would never actually go outdoors right now. You probably could. You could sneak out of here, wander onto the streets, and the Curfew Patrols might not ever catch you. But you don’t do that, because you do care about rules.”
“Yeah, I’m not running down the street naked during the Span of Reflection, either,” Bianca laughs. “But a little talking after curfew has to be okay, right?”
Bianca makes me feel as though she and I just stepped off the first shuttle from the Mothership, and this world is brand new for us to make into whatever we want.
* * *
Since I was little, I couldn’t sleep at the right time, along with everyone else. I tried whispering to my brother Thom sometimes, if I thought he was awake. Or else I busied myself trying to do tiny good deeds for my sleeping family, fixing a broken eyepiece or putting my brother’s slippers where his feet would find them most easily on waking. Except my father’s hand would come out of the darkness and seize my arm, tight enough to cut off the blood to my hand, until I whined through my teeth. Later, after the shutters came down and the dull almost-light filled our home once more, my father would roar at me, his bright red face blocking out the entire world.
Everything is a different shape in the dark. Sharp edges are sharper, walls farther away, fragile items more prone to topple. I used to wake next to my family, all of us in a heap on the same bedpile, and imagine that maybe in the darkness, I could change shape too.
* * *
Bianca has found another book, way at the back of the school library, on one of those musty shelves that you have to excavate from a layer of broken settler tech and shreds of ancient clothing. This particular book is a spyhole into the past, the real past, when the Founding Settlers arrived on a planet where one side always faces the sun and had no clue how to cope. “That’s what history is, really,” Bianca says, “the process for turning idiots into visionaries.”
The two of us stroll together into the heart of the city’s temperate zone, past the blunt golden buttresses of the Palace, breathing the scents of the fancy market where she always tries to buy me better shoes.
Bianca reads all the time, and she tears through each book, as though she’s scared her eyes will just fall out of her head before she finishes them all. But she never does the assigned reading for any of our classes. “I’m here to learn, not study.” Her mouth pinches, in a way that only makes her narrow, angular face look more classically perfect.
Even after being her roommate for a while, this kind of talk makes me nervous. I’m still desperate to prove that I deserve to be here, though I’ve passed all the tests and gotten the scholarship. I sit and read every single assigned text three times, until the crystalline surface blurs in front of me. But everyone can tell I’m an interloper just by glancing—at my clothes, my hair, my face—if they even notice me.
“You’re the only one of us who had to work so hard for it,” Bianca tells me. “Nobody belongs here half as much as you.” Then she goes back to telling me that the Founders were bumblers, right as we pass by the giant bronze statue of Jonas, posing in his environment suit, one arm raised in triumph. Jonas’s shoulder pads catch the dawn rays, as though still aglow from the righteous furnace of decontamination.
Every so often, Bianca puts on a dress made of iridescent petals, or violet satin, and disappears, along with a few others from our dorm. There’s always some party, or banquet, that she needs to go to, to nurture her status among the city’s elite. She stands in the doorway, the silhouette of an upward-pointing knife, and smiles back at me. “I’ll be back before you know.” Until one time, when the shutters close and the curfew bells ring but I’m still alone in our room. I crouch in the gloom, unable to think about sleeping, and wonder if Bianca’s okay.
After the shutters open again, Bianca comes into our dorm room and sits on her own bed-shelf. “The party went too late for me to make it back before curfew,” she says. “I had to stay with one of the hosts.”
“I’m so glad you’re okay, I was so worried—” I start to say, but then I realize Bianca’s slumped forward, hands clasped in front of her face. Her latest dress, made of silver filaments that ripple in waves of light, bunches around her hips.
“I’m just … all I ever do is play the part that’s expected of me. I’m just a fake.” She ratchets her shoulders. “Sometimes I’m afraid everybody can see through me, but maybe it’s worse if they can’t.”
Seeing Bianca depressed makes me feel soft inside, like my bones are chalk. I sit down next to her, careful not to mess up her dress. Her curved neck looks so slender.
Neither of us talks. I’m not good at breaking silences.
“I don’t even know why you would want to be friends with me,” she says.
I get up and fetch the teapot from down the hall, and a few moments later I’m pouring hot tea into a mug, which I press into Bianca’s hands. “Warm yourself up,” I say in a soft voice. Bianca nods and takes a big swallow of the acrid brew, then lets out a long sigh, as though she realizes she’s back where she belongs. We keep stealing the teapot for our own dorm room, because hardly anyone else uses it, but some busybody always sneaks into our room when we’re out and reclaims the flowery globe for the common room, where it technically belongs. “Warm yourself up,” I say a second time.
By the time the tea is gone, Bianca’s bouncing up and down and cracking jokes again, and I’ve almost forgotten that I never answered her question about why I want to be her friend.
* * *
The two of us sit in the Zone House, in our usual spot in the gloomy nook under the stairs, which smells of fermented mushrooms. Upstairs, a ragtime band draws long, discordant notes out of a zither and a bugle, and people discuss the latest football match at that new pitch in the Northern Ranges. Bianca asks what made me want to be the first person in my family—my neighborhood, even—to go to the Gymnasium. Why didn’t I just finish grammar school, settle down, and get an apprenticeship, like everyone else?
Her wide brown eyes gaze at me, as though there’s more than one Sophie in front of her, and she’s having fun trying to reconcile them.
I’ve always dreaded when people ask me personal questions, but when Bianca asks, I feel a flush of pleasure that goes from my skin all the way inside. She’s not asking just to be polite, or using her question as a slender knife to cut me down.
“I always thought I would just go find a trade, like my classmates,” I say at last. “But then they wanted me to marry. There was this boy I was friends with at grammar school, named Mark. He and I just stood around, watching everybody, not even speaking except for a word here and there. People saw us together, and they all decided Mark would be my husband. They made jokes, or winked at us, or sang this gross song. The thought of his hands just owning me made me sick to my stomach. After that, I ran away whenever I saw Mark, but I was told I had to go to matchmaking sessions, to find a different husband. They said, ‘There’s a time to marry and have children, just like there’s a time to sleep, and a time to work.’”
Bianca pours more dark water into a tin goblet. “Yeah, they always say things like that. Or like, ‘Heed the chimes, know your way.’ This town! Everybody has to do everything at the exact same time as everybody else.” She laughs.
“I wasn’t ready.” My voice is a sore growl. “I’d gotten my visitor less than two dozen times when they started with all this marriage talk.”
“Your ‘visitor,’” Bianca says. “You mean your period?”
I feel myself blush so hard my scalp itches.
“Yes. Okay. My period. But I found out that if I could get accepted to one of the top colleges, like the Gymnasium, I could get a deferral on the marriage requirement. So I became the best student ever. I memorized all the textbooks. I found this place to hide, with a tiny light, so I could just keep studying right up until curfew.”
Bianca’s staring at me now, a notch between her eyes and an uptick around her thin lips. I shrink into my chair, bracing for her to say something sarcastic. Instead, she shakes her head. “You took control over your life. You outsmarted the system. That’s just amazing.”
I take a swig from my goblet and search for the slightest sign of condescension or mockery. “You really think so?”
“Everyone else at the Gymnasium is like me,” Bianca says, meaning a child of the temperate zone—or really, of comfort. Her parents died when she was very young, and she went to live at a high-powered crèche that groomed her for a leadership role. “We all came to the Gymnasium because we were expected to. So we could graduate and claim our places in government or industry, and help keep this bloody stasis machine whirring. But you? You are something special.”
I don’t think of myself as special. I think of myself as invisible.
Bianca orders some of the salty, crispy steamed cakes that you have to eat with a special hook, left side first. The first time I tried to eat one, I made a sprawling, wet mess on my table at the Gymnasium canteen, in front of a dozen other students, and then Bianca slid next to me on the bench and coached me in a hushed voice. I still can’t look at one of these without reliving my humiliation.
As we eat, Bianca asks what it was like to grow up on the dark side of town, on that steep cobbled street that climbs into deeper shadow, with the acrid fumes from the tannery and the chill wind coming in from the night. Where you woke up as the shutters lowered to let in the same gray light as before, and you lost a heartbeat, remembering all over again that you’d be working or studying under that pall of gray. But I don’t talk about any of that stuff. Instead, I offer her comforting stories about my tight-knit neighborhood: all our street parties, all the people who offered a hand when you were in need.
She looks at me in the weakly dappled half light, under the stairs. “I wish I could be more like you. I want to demolish everyone’s expectations. I want to keep surprising them all, until they die of surprise.” She’s not laughing, but her eyes have the same brightness as when she makes a joke. There’s more light in her eyes than in the whole wide sky that I grew up underneath.
Copyright © 2019 by Charlie Jane Anders