Do you have experience utilizing screens for data entry?
Are you 16 or older?
Have you ever spent time in Rehabilitation?
Have you or any of your family members ever been chosen?
Amber St. Clair stared at the questionnaire in front of her. The questions glowed blue against the white glass screen, and she knew they wouldn’t disappear until she pressed her index finger against one of the answers supplied.
Thank you for your application. If you are eligible for the – Data Entry – position, someone from the Academy will contact you shortly.
The screen went dark, and she looked up just in time to hear the last name being called.
The young girl couldn’t have been older than 16, her small body of spidery limbs dwarfed by a mass of thick brown hair. For one tenth of a second she didn’t move, her mouth an ‘o’ of surprise; then, quick as a flash, she rose from her seat and ran onstage.
She threw her arms around another woman whose name had been called, the two of them breaking into a spontaneous dance. A wash of candy-colored sparks rained down from the ceiling, ranging from electric blue to sunflower yellow, and ribbons writhed and danced in the air as the auditorium filled with the pulse of light and movement. The audience roared in approval as she grabbed her yellow flyer, filling the auditorium with a near-deafening sound.
Everyone was always happy when a girl like Loren was chosen. She was young and healthy, her entire life ahead of her. Her lungs were clear. It was right that girls like her be chosen. It was fair. And judging by the crowd of several hundred people filling the hall with the sound of clapping and cheering, all were in agreement.
Loren’s face beamed off of the screens covering the walls, her smile magnified to 10 times its normal size as the words Auditorium for Academy Advancement flashed underneath it. Amber watched as the faces of the winners waved and laughed in a moving blur of images, and when she turned her head to the right, she saw that the woman next to her was stomping her feet and yelping as well.
The woman’s facemask was pushed up high on her head, keeping a set of twisted hair out of her eyes, and she had thrown her hood back to reveal a small black circle under her left ear. It looked as though the skin had been burned off.
An automated voice suddenly boomed out of the loudspeakers overhead.
The mechanical tone was deep and resonated with manufactured warmth. “The Success Academy would like to thank you all for participating in this month’s Zone Draft. If your name was called, congratulations! We commend you for taking a vested interest in your future. You may now remove your masks.”
With a cheer, the people onstage pulled their facemasks off and flung them high into the air. As they rained down onto the floor, Success Academy workers immediately leapt off of the stage and began to collect them.
“If your name was not called,” the voice continued, “please do not fear. All Blue Zone residents will have the opportunity to re-enter your names at next month’s Zone Draft. Thank you for your time and participation. You may now exit the aCube. ”
The woman next to Amber lifted her hood and settled her mask back over her face in one smooth motion. She inched her way out of their row and slowly walked towards the special section of the auditorium for family members of the chosen. Those seated there were mostly buoyant, but Amber spotted a few tear-streaked faces amongst them: small children who clutched onto hands or scrabbled onto shoulders, arms outstretched at their mothers, fathers and siblings onstage. A boy raced to the edge of the stage, grabbing his mother’s outstretched hand before being swept back by two Academy workers.
They walked him to a red exit door, forcing him to place his hand on the pad affixed to the wall on the left-hand side. When it lit up with a red light, he was pushed out. The workers, a man and woman, were clad in stark white jackets, matching pants and caps, with green armbands hiked up and over their right biceps.
Green Zone, Amber thought. Wonder what it’s like?
They wound their way through the aCube, handing out food and drink to the family members of the chosen, and Amber’s fingers squirmed and twisted in her lap as she watched the scene. Her stomach growled.
“This is scorching stupid,” Amber whispered vehemently under her breath.
“Excuse me?” An older man sitting next to her had heard her utter the swear word. She forced herself to smile at him.
“Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”
“It’s Rehabilitation for a day if a Greenband hears you say that word,” he replied. She let the smile slide off of her face.
“Well then it’s a good thing no one heard me, isn’t it?” She turned away.
Some of the chosen were already being escorted offstage, laughing and talking as their family members were presented with bags of new clothes and extra facemasks in addition to the food.
There was a slight tearing sound. Amber glanced down.
Her mask had ripped. The thick black paper, which had been intact only moments before, now bore an impressive tear on the right-hand side. She poked her finger through and watched it deflate in her hand. Where was she supposed to find another mask? It had taken her a month to save up enough food to bribe her way into this one. And it would be another month before the Street Sweepers came ‘round again. Amber placed it on the floor between her feet.
She averted her eyes from the ruined mask. This was it. Amber had promised herself if she wasn’t chosen at this lottery, she wasn’t coming back. She slowly rose from her seat, the first person in her entire row to do so, which forced her to step over feet and across knees mumbling, “Excuse me.”
A second string of Academy workers began to sweep through the audience, speaking in hushed tones to those still seated, and anyone not already making their way towards the exit was given a swift tap on the shoulder, gently pulled to their feet, and ushered towards the back of the room, where a long row of red exit doors led to the outside.
They worked their way through the aCube row by row, and a discontent buzzing began to fill the room. No one was ready to leave; as happy as they were for everyone who had been chosen, the minute they stepped outside the aCube it meant the lottery was really over, and they had not been selected. The workers shrugged, mournful looks on their faces as they carried out their duties when a voice sounded above the din.
“There must be some kind of mistake!”
A man was yelling. His voice was loud and clear, the anguish in it ringing out like a bell.
“Please, please,” he shouted, “just five more minutes! He was supposed to be chosen!”
Amber was a few feet away from the red exit doors. She glanced back.
He was an older man, with a shock of white hair juxtaposed against skin as dark as a cloud of smoke. Standing to his right was a boy, no older than 16, and the man was gripping him by the hands so tightly that Amber feared he would draw blood. She saw the flash of gold rings on each of his fingers, the thick layer of grime covering the metal no match for its winking in the light as his nails dug into the boy’s skin. Though grappling with the older man, he was no match against such relentless strength. The man began dragging him toward the stage.
A young Academy worker jumped off of the platform and grabbed his left arm, attempting to steer him towards the exit doors; her crisp white jacket was straining, armband askew, as she hung onto his elbow. He paused, attempting to dislodge her, but when she refused to let go he began to drag her along as well.
“Please, sir!” she shouted. “You can try again next year!” She pulled on his arm, fighting to stop him, while the boy bucked and wiggled on his right.
“Papa!” The teen bellowed. “Let go!” He began kicking his legs and flailing his arms, windmilling his body when his fist solidly connected with the Academy worker’s chin. She fell backwards, cap flying one way, armband the other.
Amber couldn’t ignore it. She rushed over, helping the girl to her feet.
“Are you all right?”
The Greenband looked dazed. Her hands kept drifting upwards, as though she was trying to find her cap, but it was gone. Her hair was a burgundy riot of curls around her face, her skin a warm golden color, what most Zoners would refer to as ‘high noon,’ with a smattering of freckles and the clearest gray eyes Amber had ever seen.
“I said, are you all right?” Amber repeated. She was barely light enough to work the Zone Draft, and there was a nasty purplish bruise forming on her chin. She blinked several times, struggling to focus, and her gaze landed on a fixed point behind Amber’s shoulder.
“Kill,” she said weakly. “He’s going to kill him.” The instant the words struggled out of her lips, another voice rang out in the hall.
“Stop right there!”
Amber’s eyes widened as she turned around. When the fight had broken out between the man and worker with the red hair, the audience had immediately leapt to their feet and made for the exits. They streamed towards the red doors like a fast-moving river, forming a bottleneck as they scrambled to get out. One Academy worker stood out among the sea of people, a white pinprick weaving his way through the crowd, and although his uniform matched those of the other frantic Academy workers struggling to maintain order, the stiff white collar of his jacket was dyed a scarlet red. He wore no armband.
The man was a Success Academy Officer.
“We’ve got to go, now!” Amber hoisted the girl to her feet, gripping her tightly by the arms and shoving her in the direction of the stage. “Go through the green doors as fast as you can. Don’t stop, don’t look back.”
The girl didn’t move.
“Are you listening to me?” Amber gave the redhead a gentle shake. “If he pulls out his weapon, any one of us could die. Even you, Greenband.” She took a deep breath. “Officers have a tendency to not stop shooting once they start.”
The girl with the red hair nodded, then took a few steps forward, swaying dizzily. She stumbled a bit as she made her way towards the doors, looking back at Amber over her shoulder.
‘Thank you,’ she mouthed.
There was a flash of green light as she disappeared through the exit door. Amber bolted in the other direction, making her way back towards the red doors, but the man with the boy stood in between her and the way out. Somehow, he was still making his way towards the stage, dragging the boy behind him. He appeared completely oblivious to the pandemonium around him.
“I was told this was his draft!” Hysterically crying, the man hoisted the boy off the ground and began to run full speed towards the stage. “Take him! Take him!” He was unhinged.
“The Draft is finished, Zoner.” The officer had climbed onto the rostrum and he spoke with the authoritative cadence of a person not used to being challenged. “Every resident that was selected has already left for the Green Zone. Those who were not selected are not allowed onto the podium. You must leave, now.”
Completely undeterred by the officer onstage, the man continued his breakneck speed as the boy flailed around, thrashing and kicking to get out of his father’s arms. They were almost to the platform when… pop.
There was a flash of white light. It was small, no larger than the size of a thumbnail, but shone as brightly as a beacon on the man’s chest. He stopped moving.
His arms went slack, loosening their grip on his son, who wriggled free.
A red stain blossomed like an opening tulip across his shirt and he glanced down, placing one hand squarely across the wound.
“He was supposed to be chosen.”
Then he crumbled, falling first to his knees then face forward onto the floor. Smoke trailed in a thin plume from the raised barrel of the weapon in the officer’s hand before it disappeared back into his pocket. The entire exchange was over in less than two minutes.
Amber ran. She leapt over the smoking body of the man, the stain on his shirt quickly turning purple as it spread over his back. The boy was backing slowly away from him, eyes frantically scanning the room for help, and Amber froze as his eyes locked on hers.
He had one brown eye and one blue. They were wide with terror, pleading with her to do something, to help him, but there was nothing she could do. She ran by him, urging him to follow behind her with her mind.
Go, go, she thought.
Then she heard the telltale pop and the light flashed again.
Amber kept running, expecting to feel the white-hot light hit her back at any moment. She slid her hand over the scan pad by the red exit door, her name flashing briefly into view on the screen before the door swung quickly outward. She didn’t slow down, bolting out the door and around the corner of the building before she came to a stop. She couldn’t breathe.
Her torso slumped as she fought to catch her breath, eyes closing as her chest heaved up and down. She could feel a scream building with each slow inhale and exhale. She pressed her hands to her mouth, forcing it back, and the sound slid down her throat, an oily black thing pressing against her windpipe to rest in her stomach like a stone.
Amber forced her eyes open. Her body was still hunched over, and as she stared at the concrete slabs beneath her feet she realized that her shoes had disappeared into the thick pile of ash covering the sidewalk. She kicked her feet out, scattering the gray dust in a haphazard pattern, and raised her face to the sky. No sun was visible; instead the neon green numbers of the clock suspended over the aCube blinked in the area above her head.
She felt steel-gray flakes of ash landing on her face, light as feathers. The soot rained from the sky, barely noticeable in some places but large as fist-sized clumps in others, and it was warm and heavy, settling like a blanket on her shoulders and arms. Her nose and eyes were beginning to run. Amber reached behind her head to pull her mask up and onto her face, but her hands came back empty.
She had forgotten her torn mask in the aCube.
Moisture was beginning to drip down the front of her face and onto her clothes. Covering her nose and mouth with one hand, she turned her head to the east, where the skyline burned in the distance. The smog was thick today, masking the huge steel and concrete buildings hulking just out of sight. They had been on fire for as long as anyone could remember, and from time to time huge clanging booms would ring out, echoing through the city as they tumbled under their own weight, foundations giving way to the flames. The skyline burned day and night, giving off a dull orange glow that often made the night illuminated as bright as daybreak while thick gray smoke covered the sun.
Many Blue Zone residents had long since abandoned the burning skyscrapers for brownstones further north, Amber included. She needed to get home.
Ash continued to fall from the sky as she pushed off the wall and began to walk, gray matter dusting her cheeks. Other people passed her on the sidewalk, covered in the stuff. They all knew it was futile to wipe it off, as it never ceased falling from the sky, so typically everyone in the Blue Zone was all limbs and eyes and hair, features indistinguishable from one another through the caked-on substance.
The majority of them donned black and gray clothes and facemasks to keep from inhaling the soot. A few gave her a sympathetic eye as she passed but kept walking, tightening the straps of their own masks around their ears. Robberies for masks weren’t uncommon in the Blue Zone.
“Scorching idiot,” she mumbled to herself. Amber tried to keep her hands as close to her nose and mouth as she could, but she could smell the noxious fumes slipping through the cracks between her fingers. Her throat was beginning to burn. Sweat ran down the nape of her neck as she walked, pooling in various crevices on her body. Amber took a thin sip of the air then exhaled, fanning her face. It was so hot.
Some believed there had been a time of ice and cold for months, when the matter raining down from the sky wasn’t gray and warm, but pure white and frozen. It was a fairy tale told to children on days the fires kept the zone hottest, but Amber didn’t believe it. As far as she was concerned, everything had always been dust and ash.
She walked past abandoned buildings, hulking craters of charred wood and steel. There were glimpses of faces at the windows, flashes of light as she passed. But most of the glass had long since disappeared, and she only got peeks of her neighbors before they quickly pulled cardboard coverings over the open frames.
“No luck at the lottery?”
Amber started at the voice, turning away from the dilapidated brownstones to see a group of boys standing at the street corner.
“Better luck next time.”
The words had sprung up from the center of the group, but it was hard to determine who had spoken, as the boys stood huddled close to one other, each wearing cuffed blue pants and jackets with oversized hoods to shield their faces from the ash. They were uniformly pristine—almost as if the ash knew better than to touch them.
Amber quickened her pace without responding, one word pounding in her brain at the sight of them: Cyans.