MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
If you asked me to tell you about myself, I’d say first that I like to understand things.
I always have. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a tinkerer—prying apart old gadgets and laying out the innards of a broken radio or clock or toaster, delighting in the puzzle of making something new out of something old. It doesn’t have to be a human-made machine, either. I love watching ants march in a line to a bit of food, take it apart, and carry it single file back to their hill. I love the way flowers bloom and then wilt, how you can preserve them forever just by pressing them between the pages of a book.
I like figuring things out, the how and the why.
My mother once called me her little alchemist, told me she believed I could turn rust into gold, and that I would ramble on about every little detail that makes up something until I ran out of breath. I skipped the last few semesters at my high school to become one of the best students at Ross University of the Sciences, the top-ranked college in the world, and I’m about to graduate with an advanced degree after seven years, which should have taken ten. I’ve already got an internship lined up back in the Republic, and in a couple of months, I’ll be headed there for an orientation session.
But most people don’t know me like this. Instead, they’ll say:
This is Eden Bataar Wing, Daniel’s younger brother.
That’s who I am to others.
I understand why, of course. I may be a star student, good at figuring things out … but my brother is Daniel Altan Wing.
Ten years ago, he was known as Day, the boy from the streets who led a revolution that saved the Republic of America. His name was spray-painted on buildings, his profile drawn on both rebel pamphlets and wanted posters. He went from being a notorious criminal to a national hero in the span of a year. There are documentaries about what he did during the war between the Republic and the Colonies, about all he had sacrificed. For his country, for me, he had nearly died.
Yeah. It’s kind of hard to top that.
After the war ended, we moved here to Ross City, Antarctica, and during that time, I finished school and Daniel became an agent in the Antarctican Intelligence Service. Daniel, at least, is eager to leave our past behind. But that doesn’t mean anyone has forgotten his name or his face. There are still times when we’ll get stopped in the streets, or when I’ll overhear people murmuring as we pass by.
That’s Day, Daniel Altan Wing, a legend. And that’s his little brother, Eden.
Over the years, I’ve let this become the version of myself that everyone knows. Eden, the little brother. Not Eden the tinkerer, the inventor. They don’t know how I’m drawn to understand things, or how I’ve had nightmares almost every night since the Republic’s war ended. No, my identity is permanently tied to my brother’s, regardless of what I do or think.
I don’t tell most people who I am. I don’t talk about the questions that run through my mind or the nightmares that keep me awake at night. People instinctually know to avoid someone who carries a weight on his chest as heavy as mine. So most who know me just see the quick smile and the earnest face and hear the breathless, rapid-fire chatter about the inner workings of a machine. They don’t see the boy who startles awake at the sound of fireworks popping outside, convinced that it’s the thunder of gunfire as soldiers break into our home. They don’t see the boy who forces himself to stay up one more hour just so it means one less hour of calling for his mother in his dreams. So it means not feeling embarrassed for still not being over her death.
I like to show my bright side because it puts people at ease. Eden, who’s going to be just like his brother when he grows up. Not even Daniel seems to get who I really am. When I pretend I’m okay, it makes my brother happy. And when he’s happy, I can believe that I am too.
But at night, my dreams are filled with scenes of the Republic. They seep into every corner of my vision, all the good memories and the horrific ones, blending together so thoroughly that sometimes I can no longer tell one apart from the other.
Does Daniel have nightmares? If he does, he’s never mentioned them to me.
The Republic, my past … these are things I haven’t been able to figure out. To understand. Maybe that’s why I ended up applying for an internship back in Los Angeles. Because I miss it, because I want to make it better by turning the Trial stadiums into hospitals, universities, and museums.
But also because it haunts my dreams, those old streets and faded memories. Because I can’t stop thinking about it in the quiet and the dark. The brother that Daniel and I lost. The mother we will never see again. The father I never knew. Their ghosts walk my sleeping world, calling me back home.
I think about the Republic all the time. I wonder what it was like when I was small. I mull over and over the few broken memories I have. I read every article about the Republic that I can find. It’s the hole in my past, the part that makes no sense to me, and I’m obsessed with understanding it. I need to comprehend what happened in my childhood. How I managed to survive one of the darkest moments in our history.
But maybe that’s stupid, you know? Because, sometimes, it’s impossible to understand something. Sometimes things don’t happen for a reason.
The family we lost. The war that engulfed our lives. There is nothing to figure out, there is no how or why.
Sometimes things just happen.
* * *
To understand Ross City, my home, you need to tour it in two separate halves. Let’s start with the Sky Floors, where Daniel and I live.
Ross City is the capital of Antarctica, one of the most advanced nations in the world. Compared with the Republic of America, it’s an absolute utopia. Its towering skyscrapers are stacked to the heavens, sealed securely inside a biodome that keeps temperatures comfortable and simulates a regular day-night cycle during the long summer and winter months. Don’t ask me how it works. I’ve searched online for years and worn my brother down with questions about it, but it’s still a fascinating and somewhat frustrating mystery to me.
Daniel and I live in one of the wealthiest sectors—the Sky Floors, the top half of the skyscrapers where there are sunlight and stars and fresh air, where the buildings are interconnected like a web by long walkways covered in green ivy. Up here, each floor is made up of luxury homes, shops, fancy restaurants, schools … not a single crack in the pavement, not a flower or shrub out of place. A kaleidoscope of massive virtual commercials and murals lights up each side of every skyscraper, all the images in a constant state of rotation. Looking out across the city from up here is like staring out into a rainbow sea. In the winter, the skies light up with the aurora australis—the southern lights—and paint the nights with brilliant bands of turquoise and gold. In the summers, the biodome simulates the night for us, and we get the same effect with virtual displays.
To people who have lived here all their lives, this is a completely normal neighborhood perched high in the sky. To me, it’s a multicolored wonderland—as alien a place as the Colonies of America.
And it’s where I am now—at Ross University, on the top floor of Building 23 in downtown Ross City, where I’m currently trying to figure out the best way to sneak out of the complex before everyone else gets dismissed from class.
I peek my head out from my lecture room and into the empty halls. The university is a neoclassical wonder of a place. Antarctica likes to pay homage to grand civilizations of the past, like the Romans and the Egyptians. I never learned about those societies back in the Republic. I didn’t even know what neoclassical meant until recently—it’s not something my old homeland ever showed anyone, what buildings used to look like in the days before the Republic existed. So the university is full of light-filled geometric spaces and straight columns currently adorned with moving virtual murals designed by students in the Art majors, and when the halls are as quiet as they are right now, you can hear the fountains outside the front entrance. Beyond that, walkways link this floor to the same floor of nearby buildings, so that it all looks like a honeycomb of interconnected bridges.
A few other students wander the school’s halls, but otherwise, I’m alone.
I wait a second longer, then lower my eyes, hoist my backpack higher on my shoulders, and walk in the direction of the main entrance as quickly as possible. If I’m lucky, I won’t bump into anyone I know until I make it outside, where my friend Pressa should be waiting for me.
Virtual images and text hover over parts of my view, changing as I go. There are titles like ORGANIC CHEMISTRY and THEORETICAL PHYSICS above the classrooms. A virtual Level hangs over the head of every person in the hall. LEVEL 64. LEVEL 78. LEVEL 52. Interactive virtual buttons drift above the potted plants lining the halls. They say:
WATER | +1 POINTS
Other buttons hover over the classrooms.
ORGANIC CHEMISTRY FINAL
A | +100 POINTS
B | +50 POINTS
C | +10 POINTS
D | -50 POINTS
F | -100 POINTS
All of this—the labels on the classrooms, the points you can earn for watering plants or taking tests, the Level that each of us belongs to—is part of Antarctica’s Level system. Everyone in Antarctica has a chip embedded under their skin, right behind their left ear. Through that chip runs a technology that overlays virtual images over your vision.
It tracks what actions you make throughout the day. It assigns you a Level based on those actions. And then that Level floats over your head, so that everyone can see what it is.
Everything you do here earns you points that go to your Level. The more good things you do—score well on a test, help someone cross the street, and so on—the more points you earn toward your Level. The more bad things you do—cheat, steal, pick a fight—the more points you lose.
The higher your Level, the more privileges you’re allotted. At Level 7, you earn the right to use the city’s public bus, train, and elevator stations. You’re allowed to rent a home.
At Level 10, you’re permitted to shop for fresher produce, as well as eat certain types of foods and walk into certain restaurants.
To even set foot up here, in the Sky Floors where Daniel and I live, you need a Level of at least 50.
This is how Ross City uses its Level system as an incentive. It’s meant to encourage people to do good and discourage them from being bad. Apparently, it’s the fairest government ever designed, created after Antarctica realized that the rest of the world was stuck suffering in the same cycles of tyranny and dictatorships over and over again.
I mean, I’m from the Republic. I get what Antarctica’s going for.
But as I hurry down the halls toward the entrance, all I can think about is that, no matter how virtuous the system is, some people just don’t care to be good.
Sure enough, a familiar voice behind me makes me cringe.
“Hey, it’s Wing. Hey!”
Damn it. I swear under my breath, shrug my shoulders, and pick up my pace. My glasses slide down my nose as I hurry. I push them up nervously, accidentally smudging one eyepiece a little with my finger. Despite Antarctica’s advanced technology, the chip in my head can’t fix my eyes—which were damaged by the Republic’s plagues long ago—so glasses are still a part of my life.
Behind me, the voice only gets closer. Now I can hear the beat of other footsteps accompanying it.
“Hey, Wing, slow down. Where are you going in such a rush?”
Alan. Emerson. And Jenna. It’s too late to avoid them. So instead, I take a deep breath and try to look calm as they come up on either side of me.
We’re all the same age, except they’re undergraduate seniors, whereas I’m in the graduate program. The first, Emerson, grins as he slows down to match my stroll.
“You’re always heading out in such a rush,” he says, putting a casual hand on my backpack and grabbing the top strap of it. He pulls me back.
I shrug, keeping my eyes straight. “Just meeting a friend,” I reply. To my relief, my voice stays even and lighthearted.
“Your friend?” Jenna says on my other side. “Pressa, right? The assistant janitor?”
My friend Pressa doesn’t attend the university. She doesn’t have a high enough Level. Instead, she manages all the floor bots that sweep around our halls, cleaning them every morning and afternoon.
I hear the sound of my backpack unzipping behind me before I can respond. “You’re amazing, Wing,” Alan, the third student, marvels in false admiration. “All our books are downloaded into our virtual systems, but you still carry physical science books around?”
Emerson takes one of the books out of my bag. “That’s because he doesn’t use them for studying,” he says, flipping the book open.
I snatch my backpack away. “Be careful with that.”
But he’s already shaking the book. Out fall delicately pressed flowers—goldenrods, bluebonnets, fragile winter lilies—that I’d carefully placed between the pages.
I suck in my breath at the sight, then drop into a hurried crouch to pick them up. Already, several of them have come apart from the fall, leaving their ruined petals strewn on the marble floor. My cheeks redden as I hear a couple of snickers above me. The light sheen of sweat on my nose makes my glasses slide down again, and I push them back up, hating the awkward gesture.
“I didn’t know you were such a talented florist,” Jenna says.
I try to ignore her and pick up the rest of the dried plants, then place them back into their pages. Now other people in the halls are looking at me as I work. I love flowers—their colors, their fragility, the way they grow, the way they smell. I was going to dry these out and put them into frames. But I’m too embarrassed to say it.
Pressing flowers isn’t the kind of hobby that boys are allowed to take up. It’s not the kind of interest that gets you friends. My brother would probably never be caught dead doing this.
“Need some help?” Emerson asks me, stooping down to my level. As he bends down, he intentionally steps on the flowers still on the floor.
A surge of anger pierces through my calm, and I shove him backward. “Get off those,” I snap at him. But the flowers are already ruined.
ACCOSTING CLASSMATE | -10 POINTS
The text pops up over my view before I can stop myself, and the negative points glow red in my account.
Emerson gives me a mock look of shock. “Oh! Sorry—I didn’t see where they were.” He holds his hands up. “It was an accident. Don’t get too rough.”
This is how they treat me every day. It’s a careful kind of bullying, one that doesn’t trip the Level system. They’re not saying anything obviously cruel to me. They’re not pushing or shoving me. So the Level system doesn’t catch it, doesn’t deduct points for harassment.
Emerson hands my book back to me, then pats me twice on the shoulder. “Well, hope you have a fun time with the janitor.” His voice stays friendly and warm. Yet another way he tricks the Level system. “If you see your brother, tell him I said hi.”
Jenna brightens at the mention of Daniel. “Tell him I said hi too.”
The last time Daniel came to see me at the university, Jenna had blushed bright red and giggled all around him. Emerson and Alan had peppered him with questions about what it was like being the champion for a nation. Daniel, as usual, kept his answers polite and distant, but it didn’t change how I felt standing there on the sidelines.
I stare at the dried flowers in my hand, feeling like an idiot. How would Daniel do here, at Ross University? He was never the studious type, because he never had to be. Daniel is Day. He can run up the sides of buildings. Evade the police. Jump through a fourth-story window.
Me? I’m the nerd with bad eyesight who likes building things and framing flowers. When I speak, my voice is higher and softer than my brother’s. He is the hero who never has nightmares anymore. I am the odd, quiet one that he still treats like a kid.
I shove the crumpled flowers in my backpack, then crush them further by dropping my book into the bag on top of them. Anger simmers beneath my skin, along with embarrassment.
Pressa’s at the front of the entrance, leaning against a tree and waiting for me. Her face is round and smooth and light brown, the shape of her eyes slender, and when she gives me that easy smile, one of her teeth is endearingly crooked.
Her smile vanishes immediately at the look on my face. “What happened to you?” she asks as I approach her.
I got to know Pressa when I started showing up early at school every morning to work on my inventions. I helped her speed up her work by installing additional code into the cleaning bots. We’ve been hanging out ever since. In a university full of hostility, she’s been a lone comfort.
I think about telling her everything that just happened. If anyone understands what it’s like to deal with some of these seniors, it’s Pressa. But the words lodge in my throat, refusing to come out. Real men don’t press flowers into their books. They don’t spill their insecurities to their friends. Daniel certainly doesn’t tell me about all the things that happened to him in his past. Real men suck it up and change the subject until their hearts wither to dust inside them.
So I fold the words back into my mind and smile instead. “Nothing,” I reply. “Just glad to be out of class.”
She gives me a sidelong glance, as if she doesn’t really believe me, but she doesn’t push me further. Her arm loops through mine. “Still want to head to the Undercity?” she asks me.
I nod as we head toward the elevators. “I’ve been ready all day,” I reply.
She grins and gives me a wink that she knows always improves my mood. “Good. Because there’s a drone race happening later this week, and at least a hundred thousand corras waiting to be won. I figured we should go enter our bets.”
Drone racing. Gambling. These are dangerous activities in the seediest part of Ross City, but it’s the one place where I feel good about myself. I grin back at her, admiring the way her bobbed hair forms a straight line with her jaw. Then I unhook my backpack from one shoulder and reach into it. I pull out a small, circular tube.
Pressa’s mouth forms an O as she studies it. “Is that what I think it is?” she whispers.
I smile a little. “If you’re thinking it’s a drone engine, then you’d be right,” I reply. “I’ve been working on it for weeks.” Good thing Emerson didn’t dig any farther than my dried flowers. “This time, we don’t have to just place a bet. We can enter the race.”
Pressa shakes her head and grins. “Sometimes I wonder if you belong up here in the Sky Floors,” she says. “You have way more in common with the rest of us down below.”
I don’t answer her as we head into the nearest elevator and start making our way down. Maybe she’s right. I don’t fit in up here, in the Sky Floors where everything’s perfect until it isn’t. My heart belongs to the lower floors, the part of this place that hosts things like drone races and gambling. The part that Ross City doesn’t advertise.
Text copyright © 2019 by Xiwei Lu