“Let's go barnacle hunting!” George said enthusiastic, wearing a wetsuit and almost comically large goggles. He had walked into the cabin and simply announced to everyone present his intention. He did this often, simply inviting everyone in the cabin to join him, whether it was practical or not. Often several people off duty would join him.
And One hadn't yet, and she didn't plan to anytime soon. She was in the recreation area, trying to beat Labyrinth. She had become more and more involved in the game in the weeks she'd spent with the cleaners. Well, not actually with them, but as one of them.
It had been four weeks sense the Society Test. It had been four weeks of depression for her. She spent most of her time playing Labyrinth, when she wasn't on duty. She kept herself isolated from the rest of the cabin, which was made up almost entirely of boys. Boys were annoying, especially the weirdos of the cleaning cabin. None of her old friends wanted anything to do with her. No one wanted to befriend a cleaner.
She hadn't chosen a name. She didn't care. She had been so sure of becoming a Primary Citizeness that she didn't want small excitement that came from a name. After all, a name was useless anyway. It served no practical purpose. Although she had begun thinking of the other cleaners as their names instead of their numbers. She tried not to.
She still had the dream. It was more vivid, and more common now. And at times she even knew that she was dreaming, but she couldn't control herself. The water drew her in, and she was swallowed up by it, reduced to floating white bones from the water.
The work was pretty easy. Their was no backbreaking labor, no fierce mental challenges. If And One could think of a single word to describe being a cleaner, it was boring. Endless hours of cleaning white halls and scrubbing floors created few fantastic stories. Every day And One got up, stepped into the shower to get clean, spent most of the day getting dirty again. Then she played Labyrinth for a few hours and went to bed. She had fallen into an easy, depressing routine.
“Why don't you come with us?” a girl named Jenny, no, number Twenty-Five, asked. “I think you would be great at it.”
“Oh come on, barnacle hunting? Why bother? The number of barnacles attached to the hull isn't going to lower because you take a few potshots at them,” And One said with a sour taste in her mouth. “It's pointless.”
“It's for fun, not maintenance,” Jenny said, disappointment evident in her voice. “But I can see I'm not going to convince you.” She turned on her heel and joined the rest of the cleaners, who were putting on the diving gear that was usually used for cleaning the hull.
And One glanced over at them. She had no idea what exactly “barnacle hunting” entailed, but it was probably another dumb waste of their recreational time. They apparently had a number of such pointless games. This was the first time anyone had tried to convince And One to join the. But she wouldn't. She was not going to waste her time like they did.
George came over. “Um... And One? I was... I was, um. I just wanted to know if... um, maybe you wanted to come with us?” He only stuttered when he was talking to And One. She was in no mood for stuttering.
“Go away! I don't need your stupid games!” She turned around so she was facing him. Her voice was very loud. “Your barnacle hunting is idiotic! It doesn't have any use at all! It's something you do to try and convince yourself that you're not just an idiot who can't do anything right!” She was screaming now. “But that's what cleaners are! Your just a bunch of idiots who try to give yourselves names and play pointless games to make up for the fact that you can't do anything else!” The other cleaners were listening now. “I shouldn't be here! I'm smart! The only reason I'm here is because of some stupid dream that interrupted my sleep! I'm smarter then anyone in this whole cabin! I could serve The People so much better, in so many better ways!” Her voice practicably gave out she was screaming so loud.
George stood there with an empty expression on his face. After about ten seconds, his lip quivered. A tear rolled down his cheek. Then he broke down, sobbing, and a boy named Tommy ran forward to stop him from falling.
“Screw you too,” he said, giving her a one fingered salute before helping George out of the room. The other cleaners followed. The door shut, and And One was left alone in the cabin.
She ran over to her bunk and buried her face in her pillow. It was quickly soaked in tears. She didn't know why she had suddenly exploded. She hadn't meant any of the things she said. Well, actually, she had meant every word, but it was easier to tell herself that she was a good person and she really didn't.
“Everyone is equal,” she said under her breath. It was the doctrine that she had been told as long as she could remember, and the doctrine that the fleet lived by. She knew it was true. She always said it allowed, and just like every single other person in the fleet, she knew it was true. But the cleaners were at the bottom. They were less equal then everyone else. She was less equal then everyone else.
She had know idea how long she lay there. She didn't care if she missed her shift. She didn't care if she lived another moment. Would it really matter? If she were to die at that moment, in a single instant, would anyone care?
No. If she were to die at that moment, then another idiot would take her place. She would fade into obscurity, just another number in a long list of the dead:
Citizeness one-billion, five-hundred and thirty two million, four-hundred and eighty-nine thousand, nine-hundred and one.
Cause of death: suicide
She thought about how she might do it. She could simply go to the top of the deck and jump into the water, and let herself drown. Perhaps the dream was a premonition of that? She had seen two people do that before.
One had been a young citizen, who had been shouting the same words over and over again: “Nothing here! Nothing here! Nothing here!” He had jumped into the water and was dead by the time his body was fished out.
The other one was an old citizeness, who had been very silent as she walked toward the safety rail. It took everyone on the deck by surprise when she simply tossed herself over, like she was some sort of garbage that was to be disposed of. She'd been alive when they got her out, but then died the next day.
“And One? Why are you crying?” And One looked up and saw Twenty-Seven in the doorway. There was a pain in his eyes, the pain that came from seeing an innocent suffer.
“Go away!” And One shouted, before covering her head with the pillow. She didn't need the charity of a stupid old man.
“Now, now, shouting at an old man? Something very bad must be wrong,” Twenty-Seven replied. He sat on the edge of the bed. “I can see that you're not going to tell me what, so I'll tell you a story instead.”
And One buried her face deeper into her pillow. She had no idea what Twenty-Seven was talking about, but it would probably be another idiotic cleaner thing.
“There once was a tortoise, and a hare, who lived in the woods together. The hare could run much, much faster then the tortoise, and was always gloating about it to the ofter animals. One day, the tortoise got sick of it and challenged the hare to a race. Now the tortoise was a slow, plodding animal, and the hare accepted his challenge, sure that he would win with ease. They lined up at the starting line, and when the race started the hare went so fast that he was practicably invisible. But the tortoise was slow, and it took him an hour to cover the same ground the hare crossed in a minute. Soon the hare was so far ahead that he thought the tortoise couldn't possibly catch up with him. So he rested under a tree, and slowly fell asleep. The tortoise didn't rest, and slowly but surely he passed the sleeping hare. When the hare finally woke up, he ran as fast as he could to catch the tortoise, but he had rested to long, and the tortoise had won. The hare assumed that he was better then the tortoise, and it cost him the race.”
And One flipped over to face Twenty-One. “What does that have to do with anything? And what's a tortoise? And a hare?”
“The hare is you, and the tortoise is George,” Twenty-Seven said with a smile. “You assume your better then him, and it's going to cost you.”
“That's idiotic,” And One said, a tinge of contempt in her voice. “How am I a hare?”
“People just don't understand these days,” Twenty-Seven said with a sigh. “You are arrogant, you think that you're above us.”
He had hit it right on the nose. And One's contempt disappeared. She suddenly felt guilty and horrible.
“And of course, thinking your better then someone is the surest sign that you aren't. You are young, and you don't understand the true nature of society. Especially our society, which lies to itself to feel better.”
“What?” And One said, almost laughing. “We don't lie to ourselves.”
For a moment Twenty-Seven seemed not to hear her. He stared at some invisible point in a non-existent horizon. Then he came back to reality. “You need a name, And One. I can't keep calling you a number.”
“I don't need a name,” And One groaned. She was back to normal now, the worst was over.
“Yes, you do,” Twenty-Seven replied. He went over two his bed, and pulled from under the mattress a strange object. It looked sort of like a recreation pad, but without electronic components. It had two hard sides, but was filled with something apparently much softer. On one of the hard sides it had written The Book of Baby Names. Twenty-Seven went back over and sat next to And One, and split the object down the middle! At first And One thought he had broken it, then she realized that there was writing on the soft inner part, and it was supposed to be opened that way.
“You know what this is And One?” Twenty-Seven said in his fatherly way. 'It's called a book, used for storing information in the Far World. It's considered obsolete now, but I never really thought there was anything that could truly replace it.”
“So this is where you get names?” And One asked.
“Yes, and there are quite a few to choose from,” Twenty-Seven added, flipping through the book. “Ah!” he said when he came to a certain page. “You could be Sara, or Elizabeth, or Kathrine, or Christina, or Valerie, or...”
The list was extensive. It must have been hours that they sat there and read through names. In all honesty, And One was excited. She had purposely denied herself a name, to make sure that she didn't end up like all the other cleaners. But now she figured she would be spending her life among them, why shouldn't she get about the only good part of being a cleaner? Maybe Twenty-Seven was right, she assumed superiority over the cleaners, and hadn't slowed down to see if she really was. She needed a new approach, and this would be it.
They went through loads of names. They were never right. And One couldn't see herself as “Abigail” or “Libby.” Twenty-Seven never got impatient. He never asked why. He simply said, “Then we'll find one that fits.”
They went through so many names that And One began to think that they would never find the right one. The rest of the cabin returned from their barnacle hunt, but when they saw what Twenty-Seven and And One were doing they politely remained quiet, and got into bed with out a sound. Through the sleep cycle her and Twenty-Seven remained at work.
“We'll never find the right one,” And One said when she was tired and knew she needed to go to sleep. The moment she stood up Twenty-Seven spoke in a voice of kind authority.
“You have to choose a name in one go And One, or else you'll get lazy and choose one that doesn't sit right.”
They repeated this exchange several times, with small variations. If Twenty-Seven hadn't been there And One would've doubtlessly given up.
It seemed no name would fit. They went through the entire book, and And One became frightened that their was no name for her. But Twenty-Seven reassured her and told her that her name was certain to be on the last page. Finally, they came to the last name of the last page. And One squinted to see in the darkness.
“Zoey,” she read allowed. “English variant of the Greek name Zoe. Meaning: 'life.'”
Zoey closed the book and went to bed.