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Today I have to prove I deserve to stay alive.
I push the front door of my shack open a crack, enough to peek outside. It's dark and dusty out there. Soft pink moonlight falls on some of the shacks across the street. A small black ball hovers through the air with two red lights blinking on its metal surface.
I hold my breath, waiting for the cam-bot to pass. The red lights—fake eyes, we call them—double as motion sensors and cameras. They monitor our every move, relaying a live feed to the security hub in the city. Nighttime curfew isn't over yet, so I don't want to get caught.
But I hate waiting. My nerves have been on edge all night. Not just because of today, which is scary enough, but also because Logan should be here already. The wardens kept him late in the fields, but his extra shift shouldn't have lasted this long, or even half this long.
Finally, the cam-bot is far enough down the road that it probably won't notice me. I slip outside into the cold. Bitter wind rips at my red-orange curls. The wind is loud, but not loud enough to drown out the whimpers floating from the other shacks, from children having nightmares. Nor does it cover the constant hum of the acid shield in the sky.
Tonight the moon beyond the shield is only half an orb, but it still fills the sky, blocking many stars from view. Every night I see the pink acid clouds swirl on its surface and drip into the vacuum of space, pooling in rivers across the thin membrane scientists built around the edge of our atmosphere.
Every night I pray the shield won't break and let the acid through.
Dropping into the dirt, I lean against the front wall of my shack and dig my boots into the mud. I hug my knees to my chest. My heart hammers beneath my ribs. In my head, I recite chemical formulas—like LF for the moon's acid—and divide big numbers by other big numbers to stay calm.
Logan will be here soon. And I'll get through today.
The smells of sewage and decay settle in my nose. I try to ignore them. There isn't time today to regret the way the Developers have made me live for sixteen years.
There's only time to escape.
* * *
The sun creeps out. Security officials emerge from the haze of morning fog far down the road, a whole group of them with more cam-bots and the sinking moon at their backs. They tramp from one shack to the next, getting the other sixteen-year-olds outside.
The front door of the shack next to mine opens, and my friend Grady steps out. His brown skin glows in the pale sunlight. The bags under his eyes are puffy and swollen like he's been crying all night, but he'd never admit it. I don't blame him. It's normal to cry on the day we test for Extraction.
"Are you waiting for Logan?" he asks, forcing the door shut behind him.
I nod, glancing back down the road. He's still not here.
"Bad idea," Grady says.
"He won't be able to find me otherwise."
"They won't let you stay here." Grady nods to the officials in armor, who are still far down the road. They'll reach me soon, and they'll use their weapons to force me to get up and walk, if I won't do it myself.
"I don't care," I say.
I'm not sure I can face today without Logan. He should've been here last night. He would've snuck into my shack like he usually does. He would've held me and comforted me, and told me everything was going to be okay.
Even though that probably isn't true. He already took the test and failed. Our society's leaders, the Developers, are going to kill him when he turns twenty, if not sooner. Whenever they decide he's not strong enough for labor anymore. Whenever they have someone to replace him.
When I think about that, I get all crumpled up inside, and I shake so badly I can barely breathe. I'm afraid I'm going to crack and splinter into too many pieces for anyone to count—thousands, millions, trillions?
Grady nods, as if he knows all those things even though I didn't say them. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. "I'll see you, then."
"Good luck." The words almost stick in my throat.
"Good luck," he says, his voice almost too quiet for me to hear him.
I dig my nails into my legs as he leaves. There are other kids walking past me down the road: a growing crowd of people. They're all heading the way Grady is, toward the departure station. Everyone is leaving the camp, not arriving.
I fight to keep the panic from rising in my chest. Logan has to be somewhere. He promised he would see me off this morning. He promised he'd walk me to the station.
He always keeps his promises. Unless—
"Clementine!" The voice comes from somewhere down the road, and I can't see who it belongs to.
But it's him. It has to be.
I push off the ground. Logan moves past a boy and hobbles into view. He was born with a defect in his right leg, which gives him a limp. His floppy, dark hair flutters about his shoulders. Even from a distance, I can see the weariness in his face and the flush in his cheeks. The wardens worked him hard last night.
I run to meet him. "Are you okay?" I ask, throwing my arms around him.
"I'm all right." He presses his lips against my forehead. His breath warms my skin, calming me. But only a little.
Some crazy part of me thinks passing the test today could save him, too. That if I'm picked for Extraction, if I get to leave, I can convince the Developers to let him leave, too. That maybe they'll listen to someone who's Promising.
My eyes trail across the shadow of stubble on Logan's square jaw as he glances over my shoulder and loosens his hold on me. The officials must be close.
"You ready to go?" he asks. He brushes under his left eye with a finger, as if he's wiping off a bit of dirt. But it's not dirt. It's a fresh bruise from some punishment a warden must've given him during the night.
He tenses from his mistake. He doesn't like me to notice these things.
I scowl. "Is that all they did, or is there more?"
"That's all, and I'm fine. Come on, you're gonna be late."
"Put some mud on it, at least." I crouch and gather a clump of puddle dirt in my hands. Straightening, I press it gently onto the skin below Logan's eye, ignoring his hand pushing mine away.
He grumbles, and I smile. "That's better."
"What, because I look like you?" He snorts and gestures to my mud-covered legs. "Did you sleep in a puddle?"
"No. Maybe then I would've actually slept."
"You look nice, though." He tilts his head and gives the dress I'm wearing a crooked smile. It's the only dress I own, light blue, speckled with faded pink flowers. Its hem frays at the bottom. The shoes I'm wearing are the pair my friend Laila wore before the Developers replaced her.
That was two years ago. The shoes still don't feel like they belong to me.
Boots squish in the mud behind me.
"Show me your arm," a voice says. It's deep, warped by machinery.
I spin and come face-to-face with an official in dark armor. Green light shines through the eye slits in his helmet, blinding me for a second. All officials have fixtures for night-vision and X-ray vision, so they can see if we have possessions on us that we're not supposed to carry. The remembrance always makes me sick. They can see other things too, if they want.
His gloved fingers close around my left wrist, wrenching it upward. He scans the number inked into my skin—S68477—with a device on his own arm. After a moment, he says, "You're eligible for testing."
As if that's news to me.
He drops my wrist. "Get to the station," he says to me, before reaching for Logan's arm.
"I know I'm not eligible," Logan says, his voice a little strained.
"You still need to get to the station," the official says as he checks Logan's Extraction status. "The work transport will leave directly after the testing transport."
"He knew that already," I say. I swear I don't intend to snap the words, but they spill out that way.
"Thank you," Logan says to the guard, forcing politeness into his voice and shooting me a look.
The guard grunts in amusement. "Looks like your friend here doesn't have much of a shot."
The green light shooting from his helmet feels, suddenly, like a hundred needle points on my skin. But I don't care what he says; he's wrong. I have a shot, even if it's a slim one. Of course I do.
Even if both Logan and Laila lost.
"Get going," the guard barks.
Logan tugs on my hand. I lower my eyes and move with him down the road.
We trail behind the others heading for the departure station. Red sunlight bakes the muddy road and heats my back.
There are twenty streets in total in the work camp, and a hundred shacks and two latrine stations in each row. Two more officials stand ahead of me on this street, on either side of the road, scanning the crowd for anyone who might threaten the stability of the camp.
I try not to make trouble. I try to cooperate with them. Obedience is a key component of what the Developers call Promise, along with intelligence and physical strength.
Promise is everything. It's how the Developers rank us according to our usefulness, and it's what the instructors will test me for today. The ten sixteen-year-olds with the highest Promise are the ones who will be Extracted away from here. They'll get to travel deep down through the underground sectors—Crust, Mantle, and Lower—to the planet Core, the fifth sector, the home of the high-class citizens.
There, they'll be safe instead of worthless. They won't be forced to labor. They won't be replaced.
"Maybe this'll be the last time you walk down this street." Logan bumps my shoulder.
I close my eyes for half a moment to steady my breathing. "We won't find out until tomorrow."
"Almost the last time, then."
My eyes trail over the shack doorways where the children who aren't old enough to work or attend school sit with swollen bellies in the dirt. I used to be like them, before I figured out how to find scraps of food and hide them so older kids couldn't steal them. Before Laila took me in one night, when I was bloody and broken from a bad run-in with an official.
The official had caught me trying to climb to the top of the school roof on a dare, even though it was off-limits. The butt of his gun smacked my jaw and gave me a horrible cut that turned into a scar. He was ready to take my already slim meal rations away for a week, but Laila convinced him to take hers away instead.
I thought she wanted something in return, but all she did was carry me home and lay me on her cot, and wipe the blood off my face while I cried into the straw of her mattress.
She said I could stay there if I wanted. She said I was a smart kid, but if I broke too many rules I'd be replaced early.
She said she'd like to see me get picked for Extraction.
But she can't. She's dead now. She can't even see me fail.
"Maybe," I say to Logan. My Promise is pretty high, but high enough to make me more than a body and a number in the eyes of the Developers?
We reach the departure station. The steel platform covers an old section of the rusted train tracks that still run through the work camp. The tracks are a remnant of the days before our planet's ozone layer corroded from pollution and the moon's acid bled into our atmosphere. The days before our leaders and their chosen people fled far underground and left the rest of us up here to fight for a rare shot at survival.
There's a line of people standing on the stairs on the left side, which lead to the top of the platform. Officials at the top make sure the sixteen-year-olds waiting for the hovercraft stay behind the boarding rail.
Logan and I push into the back of the line. I don't see Grady, but he must be here somewhere. I hope I'll run into him again soon.
The kids who can't test and the ones who already did, like Logan, have to stay on the ground and wait for the hovercraft to the fields. They have no choice but to work the farms for the Developers until they're replaced. Some are forced to procreate, to replace themselves. Logan hasn't been chosen for that yet, but it could still happen. I worry it will every day.
I worry it will happen to me too, if I don't do well today. We could run if we fail, but we wouldn't make it past the electric force field surrounding the Surface settlement. We could take our own lives—and some of us do try—but too many fail at that attempt. And most of us are too scared to try. Most of us still hold out hope that the Developers will make an exception. That they'll let us live even after we turn twenty, if we remain obedient and work hard.
But in all my years alive, I've seen them make only two exceptions—they Extracted two people at age nineteen, for whatever reason. Two out of several thousand people is not the best odds.
There's a loud, whirring noise behind me.
A scream erupts from the crowd.
I tense, but turn my head to see what happened. There's a flurry of movement among the group of older kids. A couple of them are suddenly frantic, tripping over their feet, trying to run, but there's nowhere to go.
My fingers dig into Logan's arm. A hov-pod has stopped in the street behind us. Two officials hop out of the back, pulse rifles in hand. Then two more officials, and three more after them.
They stomp through the dirt toward the crowd of older kids. They wrench people's arms into view, and scan the numbers on their wrists.
They're checking everyone's replacement status.
My breaths come too fast. They don't usually do this during the day. Usually, they take people away in the evening, so we don't even see. So we can almost pretend it doesn't happen—at least until it's our turn.
Logan pulls me against his chest. I squeeze my eyes shut and focus on the shaky rhythm of his heart, but it doesn't help. I can still hear the unlucky ones when they're identified. They scream and sob and fight against the officials as they're dragged into the back of the hov-pod, to be chained up and taken to quarantine. That's what officials call it, but we all know what it really is: a gas chamber in the detention facility. A death room.
Two years ago, officials took Laila there. She threw me the boots I'm wearing now as they dragged her away.
The more of us the Developers keep alive to work their farms, the more of a threat we become. So they keep us weak and hungry, trapped by guns and fences, until they decide fresher blood would be more obedient. More useful.
Twenty is the cutoff age, but many people are replaced sooner.
Logan tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. He hums the tune of a lullaby he made up the night Laila was taken away, when I fell asleep in his arms with my tears trickling onto his shoulder:
To the krail's caw, to star song
In the field, love, we'll dance
'Til the moon is long gone
Until the world ends
When all the people marked for replacement in this area have been collected, the back of the hov-pod closes, and the vehicle heads down the road.
The rumble of a sky engine reaches my ears. I don't have to look up to know it's the departure craft come to transport us to the city. But not all of us. Only those my age will be allowed on board.
Logan's arms loosen around me as the line on the ground starts to push up the stairs. "Don't be afraid, okay?" he says.
"I'll try," I whisper. But how can I not be afraid? I've dreamed about this day for years. I've longed for it. I've dreaded it.
Logan gives me a crooked smile.
Bodies bump me from behind. I force my eyes away from Logan and take the first step up the stairs. Clutching the rail, I focus on the red sun glinting on the surface of the hovercraft. With every step, I urge my legs not to shake so badly. I walk up these steps every morning on my way to school. I can pretend this morning is like every other morning; I can pretend everything is normal.
I won't look back at Logan. For days, I know he's been worrying about what will happen if by some miracle luck is on my side today. If I win an escape that he lost last year.
But I can't worry about that yet. This test is my only shot.
I won't mess it up, no matter what.
Copyright © 2014 by Stephanie Diaz