Chapter 3 - Eve
“You need to stop talking to her,” says Lil, as we wander back through A-Tunnel.
I rouse myself from my thoughts which have strayed far away from our recent conversation with Hana. “Sorry?”
“The girl. The ladder-climber. You need to stop talking to her, now that we are going into our final cycle.”
“Oh, Hana?” I can’t help smiling slightly. “She’s not a ladder-climber.”
“Right,” sneers Lil, “so she’s highly ranked then? I’ve just missed her name on the leaderboard.”
I shake my head, but it’s dark in the tunnel so Lil probably doesn’t see me. “No, Hana is low-ranked. Somewhere right near the bottom I’d say.”
“So she’s a ladder-climber.”
If Lil is trying to frustrate me, she should know it isn’t going to work. Not on me. Not on the girl at the top of the leaderboard. Controlling any indication of frustration or anger is second nature to me. “You know she isn’t,” I reply calmly. “Our positions were frozen the moment we finished that maths test. If she was trying to speak to us in order to raise her socialisation score, then it’s a pretty silly time to do it.”
Lil doesn’t respond and we walk along in silence, the walls of the tunnel echoing the dull thuds of our footsteps back at us as we draw closer to Block A. I know exactly why Hana is still trying to talk to me, and it has nothing to do with her socialisation score.
“This is probably her last harvest anyway,” I muse, massaging the skin around the edges of my monitor where the wires reach beneath the skin. I can remember exactly what I once said to her, of course, that naïve promise we made in the darkness at the side of the stage.
“You said she was going to be culled last time,” Lil points out, and she’s right. Each cycle, ever since my guardians first split up our naive friendship, I have justified their actions because this time Hana will be disappearing. This time Hana can’t possibly pass the harvest and will be removed from her physical body and transferred into the Grid.
And somehow, every single time, she has scraped through. I have a feeling she isn’t going to be so lucky this time. But then again, I’ve been proven wrong before.
“Even if she somehow makes it through this harvest,” says Lil, “you know that she will never pass the final one next year.”
More students are culled in the final harvest than in any of the previous ones combined. “I know.” I also know that my guardians did the wise thing, separating me and Hana when we were young. It’s easy enough for two unranked students to promise that they won’t see a score every time they look at each other, but that’s not the reality once the leaderboard comes into play.
Being friends in the first few cycles when we were unranked is one thing, but continuing that friendship into the ranked cohorts is much more risky. For one thing, it would affect my socialisation score, and every point counts. At the top of the leaderboard, the difference between first and sixth place can be as little as ten points. For another, if Hana had been culled in any of those earlier cycles and I had felt some sort of attachment to her . . . Well, a redline would negate everything I have worked so hard for.
No, it’s better not to associate with the low-ranked.
And what about Luc? He had started tutoring Hana when she was young, at my request, as we drew closer to joining a ranked cohort. I had thought, foolishly, that if someone brilliant like Luc could just work with Hana one-on-one, then she would improve on the tests.
But if the tutoring helped Hana in any way, it wasn’t enough—or maybe just enough to enable her to scrape through harvest after harvest.
“Do you think I should have let her say goodbye to Luc, though?” I ask Lil. “If it’s really her last chance?”
I wasn’t the only one who had tried to dissuade Luc from continuing the arrangement once it became obvious that Hana was destined to remain low-ranked. After all, it would affect Luc’s socialisation score. But Luc had done so well in the tests that a slight dip in his score once a week did nothing to lower his position on the leaderboard. I was pleased, however, when he had made the right decision in his final cycle, cutting off all communication with Hana and spending his time purely with the elite.
“Eve,” says Lil, stopping and turning towards me. “If Hana feels something for Luc, then that is breaking four of the six virtues.”
We are standing directly beneath one of the fluorescent lights in the roof of the tunnel, and it illuminates Lil in the same way I imagine the sun once would have, in the old world.
“I know.” Everyone knows that anything beyond a superficial connection with another is forbidden. “It’s not like that,” I tell her, although I’m not entirely sure that’s true. “He used to talk to her when she was younger, that’s all. Mentor her, once a week. And I just thought—”
“If she somehow makes it through this harvest and into her final cycle, and is then—by some miracle—harvested for a permanent position in our society . . . Well, then she can speak to Luc as much as she likes.”
Lil is right, of course. It’s better for Hana—and for Luc—that she stays away.
“Not that an overseer would want to associate with someone in a lesser position,” adds Lil, as we continue along the tunnel.
She’s right about that too, and the knowledge makes the tunnel lurch sideways so that I place one hand on the wall to regain my balance. If I am harvested for the preschool at the end of my final cycle, will Luc still want to know me? What about Lil?
“Are you alright?” asks Lil.
“Fine,” I say, regaining my composure. Lil might be the most appropriate person to associate with in Eridu, but I have no illusions about the foundation of our friendship. If my ranking dips, or if I am harvested for a lesser position, then she will be gone in less time than it takes to say ‘infraction.’
I’m not so sure about Luc though. He will probably still want to acknowledge me as his sister, but if he is an overseer and I am a preschool teacher, our paths will rarely have the chance to cross.
“You’re very quiet today,” notes Lil as we emerge into the courtyard in front of Block A. Similar to the one outside the institute, this courtyard is filled with some of the best oxygen-producing plants, a few bench seats, and, of course, the entrance to our living quarters.
“Mmmm, just thinking about Luc.”
“Oh, Eve,” says Lil, “most of us don’t even have a brother, and you are worried about missing yours for one cycle?”
I pull the sleeve of my jumpsuit up slightly to reveal the blue glow on my monitor. “I’m not worried.”
“That’s not what I meant,” says Lil, carefully. “Worried wasn’t the right word. I just meant it’s only for one cycle, that’s all. Then you’ll be back together.”
I say nothing as I swipe my ID card beneath the scanner and step through the sliding doors of Block A. Lil has no idea, of course—she, like most people in Eridu, doesn’t have a sibling.
We turn left and enter the communal hall together, my gaze sweeping across the faces of those sitting in groups at the long tables. At this time of the day, the communal hall is brimming with people dressed in browns and greys and blues. The atmosphere is slightly more subdued than usual, as those in their final cycle sit quietly, awaiting their summons. The young children in the brown of the unranked are the only ones oblivious to what is about to take place, and even some of them glance curiously up at the blank leaderboard on the wall, questions etched on their faces.
Lil takes her place in the nutrition line and I follow suit. “Well, I suppose it’s time to say our congratulations on another successful cycle,” she says to me, scanning her ID and receiving her lunch and vitamin allocation. “First and second, once again.”
That’s me in first and her in second—once again. I wonder if there is a hint of frustration somewhere beneath her cool exterior. “Congratulations,” I say evenly as I wait for my own food.
Lil hesitates, clearly expecting me to collect my lunch and then sit at a table with her as usual.
“I think I’ll eat lunch with Luc today.”
Lil rolls her eyes. “Whatever. I’ll catch up with you afterwards, if you like.”
I give her a noncommittal smile, taking my tray and walking over to the table where Luc is sitting with our guardians. It’s an odd sight—we don’t often sit together as a family unit. Instead, Luc usually takes his rightful place with the elite, the top six on the leaderboard in the final cycle. I always sit with Lil, and my prime and sec join the other guardians of highly ranked students. But today is a special occasion—the last time we will all be together before Luc leaves for his new position.
“How was your maths test?” Luc asks, as I slide into the seat opposite him.
“Fine.” I unwrap my salad roll and take a bite, but it feels dry in my mouth and I have to force it down my throat. “I got one hundred per cent.”
My guardians murmur congratulations, but it’s not like they are really surprised. Ever since Luc and I first joined the ranked cohorts, our guardians have become accustomed to us acing the tests and our names being high on the leaderboard. The overseers must look upon them very favourably.
“Eat up,” says Luc, and I force myself to take another bite. It must be close. Any moment now, Luc’s flexi-screen will beep, summoning him to the harvest.
Our guardians are as aloof as always, but somewhere deep down I’m sure they must secretly feel something. Not the faint shadow of concern that lurks at the edges of my psyche, but a hint of excitement, perhaps. They have benefited in terms of oxy-creds and prestige so far by having two highly ranked dependents, but once Luc is harvested for a premium position, there will be even more rewards. Perhaps we will be able to move into a bigger apartment. Of course, to them it’s no big deal that he’s moving away. They have both succeeded in maintaining the appropriate level of detachment from their dependents. I, on the other hand, have grown accustomed to always having my brother around.
Luc’s flexi-screen beeps once, drawing me out of my reverie. The sound echoes around the communal hall as the screens of all the students in their final cycle receive the message. The room compresses, the high-pitched beep reminding me uncomfortably of the transfer chambers. Luc reads the alert and then folds up his flexi-screen, placing it in his pocket. I stare at my food, imagining that I am removed from my body and that it’s somebody else’s brother who is leaving for the year.
Luc stands, not saying anything, and I thank him silently for giving me a moment to compose myself. When I can safely look up at him, he nods at me. “To be content is to be free.” His face is unreadable, and his monitor as blue as always.
I stand as well. “Goodbye, Luc.”
He tilts his head slightly to one side but doesn’t pull me up on the indiscretion. “If I am harvested as an architect, just you watch out for those tests.”
I nod, but I can’t bring myself to smile. I imagine Luc would do a good job of creating the emotional tests, perhaps challenging me more in emotional control than the current architects have. Our guardians say their farewells as I watch him closely, imagining him up on the stage, grey jumpsuit exchanged for crimson.
This is it for him. Tests this afternoon and tomorrow, and then at the end of it all the most important ceremony of the year, where we will find out which position he was harvested for. Overseer or architect? Either one will bring prestige to our family unit.
“Founders’ speed,” says our primary guardian, and Luc repeats the familiar expression. I just nod, not trusting myself to speak. The room is swaying ever so slightly, and I am starting to feel a little queasy.
I tell myself that it’s only for one cycle that we will be apart. Luc will move out of Block A and dedicate himself to his newfound role in society, but I won’t be far behind. One cycle, that’s it.
“See ya, Evie. Rank well.”