I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately. How something can be here one day and gone the next. Like a life, for instance. Or a brother.
It doesn’t make sense. Not when other things dissolve gradually, less noticeably, until you wonder if they were ever there at all. Like memories, fading at the back of your mind. Or the sound of his voice, his laugh.
I zip up my insulation suit and lower onto the bench, my elbows balancing on my knees. My fingers can’t stop working, pulsing with adrenaline – nerves mostly. The projection pad on the locker room wall grabs my attention. It’s broadcasting the news, the sound smothered by the nervous buzz of twenty applicants in matching white overalls. The noise subsides, and twenty pairs of eyes turn to the pad as a clip plays: a woman falling from the top of Craedor Tower, the fifty-storey skyscraper at the heart of the Metropolis of Light.
Her clothes flutter in the gust of her descent, her limbs seemingly lifeless.
I don’t want to see it, but I can’t look away. The clip cuts off right before she hits the ground. Silence falls from the ceiling, but only for a second, as a burst of music calls upon a new scene – an interview with an onlooker.
I scan the headline.
BREAKING NEWS: Mary Bates, a seasoned Guardian on the Army of the Light, falls to her death from Craedor Tower.
“They’re calling it an accident, you know,” my best friend, Clay, says next to me.
“What? Her fall?” I ask.
“Yep. Word around my ol’ man’s ward is she was up there doing who knows what, and accidentally slipped.”
“And you don’t believe that?”
“Not a chance. Guardians work with the Dark all day, dude. That type of corruption is sure to mess with one’s head.” Clay fluffs his tangle of dreads and reclines against the wall with crossed arms. He looks up at the projection pad and smirks from the corner of his mouth. “My gut says she wasn’t alone up there.”
I shift in my seat. “You think she was pushed?”
“I don’t think it, I know it. Remember the great SLS massacre of a few years back? Three Guardians losing their heads and wiping out half the tenants in their building? This has another whacko written all over it.”
“Honestly, though, I’d lose it too if I was selected as a Guardian.”
“It could still happen, you know.” I lean back and shrug.
“As if.” Clay snorts into my left ear. “Do I look like Guardian material to you? This right here” – he motions down his body – “is pure Gatherer.”
“All I see is a fool in white overalls. Oh, and what’s this? You’re surrounded by nineteen other fools just like you.”
I say fools, because that’s what we are. Even me. Of all the paths we could’ve chosen after graduating high school, applying to the Army of the Light is basically taking a shortcut to death. I’d like to think that I, like Clay, had applied because I really want to serve the city, and not just because my father’s the army’s General.
These days, the lines are somewhat blurry. I’m probably just insecure.
I gaze around the stale, white locker room at the applicants around me. By the looks of them – their squared shoulders and faces cast in stone – they likely agree with Clay. No one wants to be selected as a Guardian.
But that’s the risk in applying for the AOL.
“Look, there’s one now.” The way Clay says it makes me think he’s referring to a monkey tricked out in a uniform. He nods at the projection pad, now showing an interview with another Guardian. Tall, broad-shouldered and with a fringe that keeps falling over his eyes, he looks like any other guy. Except the badge on his uniform gives him away – a lightning bolt in the centre of a winged shield, and with his title written under it.
Guardian, Senior Officer.
My eyes travel over the Guardian’s head to Craedor Tower. At fifty storeys tall, it sports all floor-to-ceiling windows and a beam of Dark – black and wispy – shooting out at the top. Once a blanket over the city, corrupting everyone it touched, now a beacon, a reminder of how lucky we are to have the AOL.
Maybe that’s why I applied.
To become a hero. Or at least, to have people think of me as one.
“Anyone have the access code to mute this thing?” one of the applicants asks, getting up from the bench and approaching the supervising Gatherer – a tall, slender man dressed in white leathers and with his hair twisted in three tight buns on his head – by the closed metal door. “This loser Guardian’s ruining my focus.”
Agreeing murmurs echo across the room, but evoke little reaction from the Gatherer. “Sit down,” he says without blinking. “Your group will be called out soon.”
“But,” is all the complaining applicant manages before the Gatherer brings the transmission band on his wrist to his mouth.
“If you’re uncomfortable here,” he threatens, “I’m more than happy to have you removed from the premises.”
“Wow,” Clay breathes as the applicant shuffles back to his bench with balled fists. “Isn’t he awesome?”
“The self-entitled moron?” I ask.
“What? No. The Gatherer.” Clay snorts at me. “Now that’s a real job right there. Risking your life every day to gather the Dark. They’re pioneers, if you ask me. Discovering new horizons while expanding the city.” He extends his legs, puts his hands behind his head and sighs. “I can’t wait to get out there.”
“You’re really that sure of yourself?”
“Are you kidding?” Clay’s brown skin glows under the harsh locker room lights, and his nostrils flare with pride. “You and I, my friend, are bound for the front lines.”
If only I had his certainty.
“Happy Assessment Day,” I tell him.
Clay knocks me on the shoulder, but I barely feel it through the insulation suit. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. More importantly, am I allowed to acknowledge your B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y yet?”
“Nope. As far as I’m concerned, today’s just another day.” My parents too, if their absence this morning meant anything.
“Just another day? Please. Today’s the day that fate spins his big ol’ lottery wheel and decides our futures!” Clay leans so far in, he nearly falls over in my lap. He promptly sits up, however, when the door behind the Gatherer slides open and a middle-aged, blonde woman cradling a tablet steps inside. I recognise her face from last year’s broadcast. A psychologist, I think. A senior member of the team that facilitates the test.
The woman adjusts her glasses, and the locker room is cast in silence. “Alright, group H, it seems you’re the last batch of the day.” She gives all twenty of us a once over. “I trust you’re all familiar with the rules and proceedings? As you leave here for the gate, each of you will be given a helmet. If not locked in properly, the gate’s sensor will sound an alarm, and you’ll be automatically disqualified from the assessment.”
“No pressure, then,” Clay whispers.
The woman speaks on, “The objective is simple. Once the gate opens, you’ll race into the Dark and each retrieve one half of a coloured ring which you’ll lock into the appropriate socket on your chests. Locate the applicant with a matching half, and spar it out until one of you crosses the gate with a complete ring.” She narrows her eyes at us. “Keep it fair and clean. I need not warn you about the dangers of the Dark.”
She really doesn’t. We’ve been fed the stories since our first breath. How the creatures out there used to be human, until the Dark had touched their flesh. How they don’t survive off food and drink, but souls.
I always try not to listen, not to think too hard about it. If I do, I’d have to either acknowledge or deny it. That he’s out there. One of them.
“Good luck,” the woman concludes. “On behalf of the facilitators, I’d like to thank each and every one of you for your loyalty to our great city.” She spins on her heels and struts up the flight of stairs beyond the door.
The supervising Gatherer gestures for us to stand. “Line up and head out. I hope none of you have stage fright, the turnout is massive.”
I swallow. “Like you said, no pressure.”
Clay looks back at me as we fall in line by the door. “Yeah. It’s just the entire city watching our every move. No biggie.”
No biggie at all. Unless I fail.
My stomach roils and sweat pricks at the back of my neck.
I can already hear it: The great General Traynor’s son, sole heir to his legacy, a public disgrace. I can’t let that happen.
The line moves and we march out the door and up the stairs. The corridor is cold and dark, the walls bare like the rest of the building – the Eastern Collection Point, a barracks and training academy at the eastern edge of the city, one of only two permanent locations with a gate leading into the Dark. The fallen world beyond.
The outside air is cooler than usual, but it always is this close to the border. It filters through the huddled buildings like a dying breeze, licking at us in pulses, serenading our march with its whistle. A chill creeps down my spine and into my soles, momentarily gluing me to the concrete. A Gatherer at the top of the stairs plops a helmet in my hands, the visor shaped like a face. My fingers fumble with the fittings as we’re shoved under a walkway between two buildings, my chest tightening as we emerge to a roaring crowd.
It’s a holographic amphitheatre, sitting in the place of a usually vacant square. Instead of Gatherers moving through the gate, transporting the collected Dark in tanks to surrounding hangars, the space is alive with onlookers.
They’re a blur of glitching connections and varying broadcast resolutions, but their cheers envelop me like they’re actually here.
A drone encircles the amphitheatre, relaying images of our faces to the large, holographic screen in the centre. It takes me a moment to recognise the blue-eyed, blonde-haired applicant on the screen as myself. His eyes are too wide, and his face is too pale. He looks scared, like a captured mouse. I snap on my helmet.
The frightened applicant vanishes, at least for a second, until a screengrab of my face soars across the theatre to hover above one of the twenty assessment booths lining the edge of the square. The booths are sealed silver boxes, only just big enough for a single person, and with no access pad other than a ring-shaped socket in the centre.
It used to be my favourite part, seeing the winners of the Field Assessment enter the booths and be revealed their positions on the AOL.
Today, however, it’s a shadow hanging over me.
“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” says Clay as all twenty of us line up by the open gate to pass through the security sensor. “Just think about how many people are watching us right now. I’m almost nervous.”
Almost didn’t really apply to me. My heart hammers against my ribs as I scan the amphitheatre – a futile gesture, for even if my mother’s in the crowd somewhere, there are too many onlookers to single her out. I look to the walkway through which we had entered, spotting the woman who had briefed us alongside Eli Winter, head facilitator and Captain of the Eastern Collection Point. A hole ruptures in my stomach.
My father should be up there. If not to fulfil his duty as General, to at least support his son. Why isn’t he here to watch me?
Clay moves forward and I instinctively follow. The applicants pass through the sensor, one after the other, and vanish into the Dark.
I pause when it’s my turn, look back at the walkway a final time – still without my father – and allow a spark to burst aflame in my core. It’s anger, reaching its boiling point in my veins. My anxiety turns bitter in my mouth, and I swallow. I roll back my shoulders and train my eyes on the Dark beyond the gate. It’s a void of nothingness, a blanket of pure darkness torn only by distant flickering lights – the applicants lining up, the half-rings waiting across the course, and drones zooming around to film our every move.
A part of me expects the sensor to go off as I step through, and I hold my breath. Blood pounds in my ears, beating against the growing silence.
I hear the crowd, still roaring and clapping, but I don’t listen. They’re a faint whisper at the back of my mind, my sole attention on the incoming Dark. My feet move on their own as I enter it, feeling a thickness envelop me. Almost like gravity has increased, pulling me to the ground, forcing me to exert more energy.
I blink, and my eyes work to adjust to the shadows around me. Nothing but sand and rock, a wasteland by any other name. The sun looms overhead, but its light doesn’t reach the earth, smothered by the Dark.
A Gatherer in an insulation suit points me down the line of applicants, and I walk without taking my gaze from the murky horizon – the direction of the Veil, home to the Corrupted. Is Samael there now?
What is he doing? Does he ever think of me?
“Kasen,” Clay’s far-away voice snaps me back to where I’m standing in line. He shouts into his visor, “You okay? Your helmet isn't loose, is it?”
I clear my throat. Don’t look at the horizon. Get Samael out your mind. It’s bad enough my father’s not here, the last thing I need is for my thoughts to cripple me, ruining my chances at ever stepping foot in the Dark again.
Maybe that’s my reason for applying, for wanting to become a Gatherer. Out here, I’m one step closer to him. My brother.
“I’m fine,” I say, but I doubt my voice reaches Clay.
The final applicant lines up and a hologram flickers in front of us, shaping into a woman, the psychologist. The drones encircle her as she addresses us, her voice sounding through the speaker at the back of my helmet. It’s smooth and self-assured, almost intimidating. “Group H, welcome to the Dark.” She motions behind her at the endless stretch of night. “After eighteen years, the moment is here. You are no longer children, but young adults, and each of you have made the comprehensive decision to participate today.”
The drones peel away from the psychologist’s projection, gliding through the air to film the line of applicants. I can’t hear their voices, but I see their mouths moving behind their illuminated visors, cheering.
“My name is Doctor Marx, and I’ll be your facilitator today,” she continues. “If anything should happen, or if any of you would want to withdraw from the assessment, call for me by pressing the intercom button in your left-hand thumb, and I’ll have Gatherers escort you back. Like I mentioned earlier, it is vital that the rings are properly locked into your suits upon retrieval, as they monitor not only each of your vitals, but also shifts in your mental state, and your body’s overall reaction to being in close proximity with the Dark.
“The data collected by the rings will ultimately decide your position on the AOL. Do not fight your emotions, and do not suppress your thoughts. It won’t work.” Doctor Marx adjusts her glasses and eyes us down the line. “I expect every one of you to give it your all. Forget about any friends you might have around you. Once the assessment commences, all that matters is your mission. Retrieve a complete ring and pass the test.”
“Hear that? You better not go for my ring, dude!” Clay calls out to me. “If you do, I doubt I’d be able to hold back!”
“Who says you’ll need to hold back?” I shout in return.
We share a light-hearted look, and when my eyes return to Doctor Marx, she puts her arm in the air, her fingers extended.
The applicants shift around me, taking in position. I imitate Clay by lowering my stance with one leg slightly back, but it feels unnatural and forced.
Silence sweeps across the field, like a gust of wind no one can see or feel, too light to carry the sand, but heavy enough to make my skin ripple with chills.
I swallow, the helmet’s internal circulation unable to clear my misting breath. This is it. After this, my future will be set.
Doctor Marx’s hand cuts through the air, and the last thing she whispers in our ears before her projection vanishes, is, “Go.”
I kick forward against the ground to take off. My back foot slips on a rock, and I plummet with my arms extended. I’m left in a bank of dust, an extra layer of darkness, watching the applicants sprint toward the rings.
Maybe it’s a good thing my father didn’t come. To see his son fall over his own feet. To see him get left behind.
“Come on, man! Naptime’s over!” The dust settles to reveal Clay hurtling toward me, his voice reaching me in breathy murmurs. He runs around me, pulls me to my feet, and forces me into a jog all in a single move.
A drone hovers over us, following us across the field. Everyone’s watching. The entire city, probably mocking me.
Like they had mocked Samael.
My eyes focus beyond the drone on the two applicants reflecting in its lens – one with such a strong belief in himself, he’ll risk the assessment to go back for his friend, and the other a tragic mess, dirt caking his suit.
I want to be like the first applicant. I need to be.
“Let’s do this, Clay!” I shout. His cheer in reply is like music to my ears. It drives me forward, pressures me to increase my pace.
Clay, always striving to make things harder for himself, decides to take on an applicant approaching us on his return run. They lock fists, fighting over the complete blue ring in the applicant’s chest. Their battle fades in my wake, my eyes trained on the half-ring ahead of me, bright yellow and hovering over a magnetic platform. It’s right there, ripe for the picking, except I’m not the only one with the intent of doing so.
A yellow glow pins through the Dark to my left, a matching half-ring locked into the chest of a rapidly approaching applicant.
They’re faster than I am, closer to the ring. I push my every fibre into overdrive. They reach for the ring and grab it with both hands ... I push off against the ground ... They pull it in to their chest, about to lock it in ...
My extended legs crash into the applicant’s side and we tumble to the ground, the half-ring spinning out of their grasp.
The applicant tries to sit up, but my knee knocks them down as I crawl over them and lurch to my feet. Their arm sweeps at my ankle, but I move just fast enough to escape their grip. I grab the half-ring and twist it into my chest. When I look up, I stare into the face of a drone. The lens zooms in on the spoils of my victory, and I imagine the crowd beyond the wall cheering, whispering about the General’s amazing son.
He’s living up to his potential.
Just like his father.
My moment of pride is short-lived, however, when the drone takes off in the sky, revealing an newly energised applicant rushing toward me, his nostrils flaring behind his visor. I’m not done yet. Not by a long shot.
The applicant takes a swing at me and I block, but the force of his blow staggers me. My knees buckle and I fall back against a tall rock, behind which flickers the temporary fence the Gatherers had put up to keep out Roamers. I can hear them behind us, growling in the distance, pacing mindlessly along the field.
The applicant reaches for my chest. I kick my leg up and over his arm, forcing him down, me practically leaping onto his back.
My eyes instinctively follow the sound of nearby growling, my pupils struggling to focus on the shadow beyond the fence.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve never seen a Roamer’s face before, or perhaps a part of me wants to make sure it’s not Samael, but I can’t look away.
Not even when the applicant rockets into the air and falls on his back with me still under him, knocking the air from my lungs.
My eyes don’t leave the fence. I’m heaving, but I don’t look away. There’s a face in the Dark, pale and sagging. A pair of white, glassy eyes meet my gaze, entirely empty yet radiating with hate, with sorrow. Once an innocent person, now corrupted by the Dark, their consciousness stolen from them, their humanity.
No one knows why the Dark affects some people worse than others. Why some Corrupted maintain a cognitive state, doomed to feeding off souls, while others become ...
A creature no better than an animal, fed on by the Corrupted.
The applicant, still on top of me, struggles to break free from my hold. I didn’t even realise I was tightening my arm around his neck, choking him. My grip loosens and he rolls on his knees, gagging into his visor.
“Freak!” His strangled curse jabs at me like a knife.
The word echoes in my mind, taking me back to the thousand times I had other people spit it in my face. The thousand times I heard them refer to Samael as a monster, a devil, and me a freak for defending him.
It ends here. Now.
The applicant and I both scrape to our feet. He strikes first, smashing his fist into my side. My rib cage flares as I grab him by the shoulders, hooking my elbow around his neck and driving my knee into his stomach.
He sags against me and I sweep my foot under his legs. He’s on his back, me sitting on top of him, the half-ring in his chest exposed.
But I don’t take it straight away. My fist collides with his visor, barely making a crack. The applicant is screaming at me, but his fractured words become meaningless as I continue to pound. I only hear growling.
The sound of a child calling for his father after being abandoned.
“Take it! Just take the damn thing and go already!” The applicant’s words come in stitches. “I’m calling it, I’m pressing the button ...”
My fist freezes in front of the applicant’s face, my knuckles throbbing, even through the suit’s padded gloves. His lip is bleeding, his left eye already swollen from how my blows had ricocheted through the visor.
“I’m –” I start to say, but my throat closes up in disgust, my lips moving without sound.
With a weak, trembling hand, I grab the half-ring from his chest and lock it into mine. I get up and reverse, stumbling over my feet.
He’s okay. He’ll be okay. Just get back to the gate.
I’m on autopilot, my legs carrying me across the field like I’m hovering above ground. The only thing keeping me going is the gate, the light beyond it pulling me. The thought of victory. Of honouring my family’s name.
I flinch when an applicant surpasses me from behind, his chest throbbing with a purple ring. He passes through the gate with his arms raised, whereas I close my eyes until they’re met with light on the other side. The crowd’s cheers envelope me, the sound of my name over the speakers tasting sweet on my tongue.
The first person I see is Clay. He runs up to me and embraces me, squeezing my ribs to fine sand. “You made it, dude! You damn-well made it!” He knocks me on the back. “Greatest comeback of all time.”
He lets go of me, donning a smile too wide for his face. “How’d you manage to beat the guy and take the ring?”
I untwist my helmet and take it off. The air is crisp on my skin, like water after a gruelling training session. “You didn’t see the fight?”
“Nope. The drones were focussed on those two.” He motions to a pair of applicants having it out right in front of the gates. “The big fella was just about to make it, when the girl came out of nowhere to stop him.”
I run my fingers through my damp, sweaty hair. No one saw me lose it back there. Good. But why doesn’t it feel good?
“Helmet,” says a Guardian next to me and I jerk. When I’m too slow to hand it over, he takes from me and moves on.
“Kasen.” Clay frowns. “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you celebrating? You just passed freaking the test! We’ve done it!”
“I’m just tired,” I reply. My eyes want to look up to the walkway again, but instead I force them toward the gate. The applicant is still out there, the one I had pummelled. “Clay, has your opponent returned yet?”
Clay folds his arms behind his head. “Nope. Poor dude’s probably lying there in pain. I got him pretty good.”
I let his words simmer in my mind. Maybe I wasn’t too harsh. This is the AOL Field Assessment, after all.
I did what I had to.
He would’ve done the same to me.
The final victorious applicant comes charging through the gates with her fists in the air, screaming at the top of her lungs. Eliza Akiyama, her name is announced through the speakers, followed by the crowd leaping to their feet. She runs around the amphitheatre, pumping her fists, before leaping into another applicant’s arms. He removes her helmet, setting free a long, black ponytail and skin the shade of milk.
“Brother and sister, I hear,” Clay says as if he can read my mind. “Twins, apparently. And they both passed the test.”
“Two out of twenty. They must have good genes.” I look around the centre of the amphitheatre at the ten applicants who made it through. Ten applicants who, moments ago, were no more than a bunch of hopefuls.
We still are, I guess.
Always will be.
I turn my back on the defeated applicants being treated on the ground, one after the other being retrieved from the Dark.
“Ladies and gentleman,” says a voice over the speakers, calling silence to the crowd. Doctor Marx’s face appears on the holographic screen above the gate, drones filming her where she stands atop the walkway. “The final group’s Field Assessment has officially come to a close. Feast your eyes on the winners of Group H!”
The amphitheatre rattles with applause.
“Now, applicants,” Doctor Marx says, “this is the moment that really matters. Please proceed to your respective selection booths.”
The ring-shaped sockets in each of our booths light up, summoning us. I wait for Clay to move, to take the ring out of his chest before I do the same. All ten of us pad across the amphitheatre and, one after the other, twist our rings into the sockets. The booths open up with a whoosh, evoking gasps from the crowd.
I block them out, wishing them away.
My entire body tingles when I step inside, my legs trying to resist, to stay another moment in the past. When I was able to dream, to imagine my future. Because once today is over, nothing will ever be the same.
The booth closes, and I’m cast in darkness.
Seconds pass, and then suddenly, like a crack of lightning, Doctor Marx’s face appears on a projection pad in front of me.
“Citizen 48 801, Kasen Will Traynor,” she says, and the booth lights up yellow. “Congratulations on passing the Field Assessment. You are now among the select few tasked with protecting our great city.” Her words are short and irregular, and her voice flat. It’s not the real Doctor Marx, but a digital version of her.
“Uh, thank you,” I say.
The fake Doctor Marx smiles. “The data from your ring has been uploaded to the AOL classification system, and is currently being processed. Before we can proceed, the algorithm requires that you answer a few questions.”
Questions? No one ever said we’re supposed to talk during the assessment. “Oh, okay.” I rub my palms down my legs.
“Great. Tell me, Kasen, why did you apply to the AOL?”
I swallow. Of course this would be the first question. “Why did I apply?” My eyes search the screen, every nook and cranny of Doctor Marx’s face, her eyes. They’re staring right through me. “I guess ... I applied because I want to set people free.” Good, I guess that sounds believable. “As magnificent as the Metropolis of Light is, we’re all trapped in here. And the only way to possibly change that, is to clear the Dark.”
Doctor Marx nods. “Good answer.”
I’d hope so.
“Now,” she continues, “as the son of General Traynor, you must know a lot about the Dark?”
“What are your feelings towards the Corrupted that inhabit it?”
The air around my throat thickens, parching my mouth. I scramble for an answer. The correct answer. “The Corrupted feed off souls. They’re cruel and inhumane.”
“They can’t be saved.”
“Do you speak from personal experience?” she asks.
“No. I’ve never met a Corrupted.”
“Never? You knew Samael of the Dark, didn’t you?”
My breath snags. I look straight into the digital Doctor’s eyes, blue-almost-grey. Neither of us blinks, and neither of us speaks.
“It’s just Samael.”
Doctor Marx is silent, her face vacant.
I repeat, louder this time, “His name’s Samael, not Samael of the Dark. And he’s not a Corrupted, he’s my brother.”
“Your brother?” she asks. The lack of comprehension in the program’s voice makes my skin crawl with blistering heat.
I ball my fists. This is the final part of the assessment, and I have to be good. I have to say the right things. “He is my brother, isn’t he?” I ask. “We grew up together.”
“You were very young when your father brought Samael to the Metropolis of Light. According to news archives from –”
“They’re all false. Written for sensation.”
The fake Doctor Marx stares at me for a moment. “I sense a rise in anger levels, Kasen. Is everything alright?”
No, I’m not. Nothing about me is alright.
“My father took him into the Dark and left him there. A child.” My fists tighten even more, my nails stabbing at my palms. “I haven’t seen him in fifteen years. He could be dead!”
“Kasen, please try to remain calm.”
What if I don’t want to? What if I’ve grown tired of staying calm?
“If you don’t stay calm, I shall be forced to terminate this session, resulting in an immediate disqualification.”
I hold my breath. Her words ring in my ears, her face blurring before my teary eyes. I blink them away, breathing in deeply. I can’t get disqualified. Definitely not because I’m too weak to control my emotions.
“How much do you remember of Samael?” Doctor Marx asks.
“I remember …” I rub my elbow, unable to go on.
What do I remember? His face? His voice? We’re both grown up now, and everything about him ought to have changed.
“You remember the idea of him, am I right?”
I bite my bottom lip. As much as it pains me, Doctor Marx is right. His name is all I remember. The feeling it conveys in my memory.
My tongue is heavy as I ask, “Are we close to finishing?”
“As a matter of fact, Kasen, we’re done.” Doctor Marx is smiling again, like nothing of the past few minutes had happened. “Please step forward and place your palm in the centre of the screen.” Her face vanishes, and the outline of a hand replaces it. It throbs to the rhythm of my heartbeat, glowing brighter as I reach out.
My hand connects with the screen, and the throbbing stops. Silence coats the booth, the screen brightening as my data loads.
A voice sounds from all corners of the booth, “CITIZEN 48 801, KASEN TRAYNOR. OFFICIAL CLASSIFICATION: GUARDIAN.”
My results reach my ears like a distant echo, an earthquake slowly trembling its way up my legs and into my stomach, flipping it over. I pluck my hand from the screen and stumble back against the wall, my knees buckling.
“W – What?” is all I can manage. “No. It’s wrong.”
“CITIZEN 48 801, KASEN TRAYNOR. OFFICIAL CLASSIFICATION: GUARDIAN,” the voice repeats, this time loud and clear.
“There has to be a mistake,” I insist. “I can’t ... My father’s the General ... All three of my cousins are Gatherers ...”
Fake Doctor Marx reappears on the screen. “Congratulations with your classification. It is now time to share it with the world. Please proceed to exit the booth.”
“No ... No!” I peel away from the wall in a burst of energy and flee toward the screen. “It has to be wrong! I’m not a Guardian!”
“I sense another acute rise in anger levels,” Doctor Marx says. “Please, Kasen, calm down. Proceed to exit the booth.”
“Listen to me! Just listen!” I bang my fists against the screen.
“Please, promptly back away.”
Another blow. And another.
A crack shoots up the length of the screen, splitting Doctor Marx’s face.
“Dangerous behaviour detected. Peak anger levels reached,” she says in her flat tone. “Emergency containment protocol activated.”
An air duct opens in the ground to my left, pumping a light-grey fog into the booth. I curse and spin toward the door. The access panel scans the Citizen Chip in my right wrist, but it buzzes and lights up crimson.
“Please remain calm.”
I bang against the door. “Let me out! Help!”
The fog thickens around me until my face is submerged. My limbs become heavy, and my voice slides into my throat.
It’s almost soothing, seeing the fog twisting into itself in front of me, seeping out the door as it suddenly opens.
The amphitheatre passes before my eyes, the faces of nine other applicants staring at me in shock, their classifications flashing on the projections above their booths. A pair of hands curb my fall, clad in an AOL uniform. The Gatherer lowers me onto my back, slowly, gently. I look up at my booth, at the projection above it.
Instead of my classification, it reads Applicant Emergency in bright-red letters.
My thoughts slur and my eyes droop shut. Only the weak succumb to their emotions, my father always says.
But I’d rather be thought of as weak than have everyone see my classification. The one thing no one wants to be. A Guardian.