Chapter 4 - Hana
Staring at the grey slop in her bowl, Hana pokes it suspiciously with her spoon. She can usually stomach the food they serve up to the low-ranked, but today the lumpy texture won’t seem to go down.
“Are you going to eat that?” Across the table, a thin girl watches Hana from intense blue-green eyes.
Hana glances around the room and then pushes the bowl across the table. The girl takes it eagerly, shoving her own empty bowl across to Hana. There’s probably no-one watching today, but Hana positions the bowl in front of her, just in case. The leaderboard may be frozen, but it’s still better to avoid an infraction if she can help it.
The girl dips her spoon into the gruel and shovels it into her mouth. “Thanks,” she says, between mouthfuls.
“No problem,” says Hana, smiling. “What’s your name?”
“Neve.” The grey jumpsuit hangs loosely off her slight frame, making her seem too young to be a part of a ranked cohort.
“Nice to meet you, Neve. How old are you?” Neve’s blonde hair is cropped short, so that she resembles a pixie from the children’s stories they used to read at the preschool.
She swallows and then smiles with pride. “This is my twelfth cycle.”
“Right,” says Hana. “So this is your first harvest.”
A dark shadow passes over Neve’s face. The poor kid. She seems too small to be twelve. “You can say what you really mean, you know.”
Hana hesitates, and the girl clutches her bowl, staring at her defiantly. “This is your first culling,” Hana says, slowly. “But don’t worry, they take less of the young ones.”
Neve makes a face and Hana regrets her words. So much for trying to be reassuring. For the highly ranked, the harvest may be a time of great significance, but for the lowest-ranked students in Eridu, it is not a time to look forward to. Or, more accurately, it’s what comes afterwards, the culling, that disturbs their sleep each night.
Despite the reassurance from Cayn’s grand-guardians, being culled—having her essence ripped out of its shell and shoved into the Grid—doesn’t exactly sound appealing.
Hana’s stomach grumbles, and she opens her flexi-screen, swiping past the blank leaderboard to the oxy-cred analysis. She peruses the glowing digits for a moment, but, just as she expected, there isn’t enough in her family account to splurge on a more appetising meal. Sighing, she closes the screen again, wishing—not for the first time—that she didn’t have to live in the multi.
The system is fair, of course, much fairer than money in the old world. Everyone is responsible for keeping the little dark plants that line the walls of the multi healthy and producing the maximum amount of oxygen. At the end of each day, a machine analyses how much oxygen has been created, and the corresponding oxy-creds are split evenly between all the residents of the multi.
It is completely fair.
Except, of course, for the fact that the plants aren’t the only source of oxy-creds. Once the rankings came into play, Hana and her guardians’ share was much, much lower than others in the multi. And then there were those who lived in the units, who could grow their own plants and keep the oxy-creds all to themselves.
At this thought, Hana looks across at Luc, eating lunch with his family unit. He will make a fine overseer. Handsome, too.
The beep of flexi-screens around the communal hall interrupts these improper thoughts. The sound makes Hana’s stomach sink.
Slowly, those summoned to their final harvest rise and say their farewells before exiting the hall. Hana’s gaze is still on Luc, standing quietly with his family unit. His dark hair is cropped short, and from this distance he blends in amongst all the other grey jumpsuits. Not for much longer. Soon he will stand out amongst the masses in a brilliant shade of crimson. His sister sits still, exuding practised coldness so that it is unlikely she feels a single thing for him leaving.
Okay, that was unfair. Eve might not care about Hana any more, but she certainly did care about her brother, probably more than was acceptable. Probably more than Eve herself knew.
Tugging the sleeve of her jumpsuit down over her monitor, Hana nods goodbye to Neve, before rising and walking towards the exit. The communal hall, though large, suddenly feels stifling.
Outside Block A, Hana sits down on a bench beneath an oak tree, commanding herself to breathe slowly and deeply. The ceiling of Eridu, though fairly high up in the courtyard, feels like it is closing in, the fluorescent lights glaring down at her.
“Are you alright?”
For a moment, Hana imagines that it is Luc talking, that he has sought her out to say goodbye, or wish her luck, or something . . .
Hana looks up as Cayn sits beside her, uninvited.
She sighs, moving across on the bench so that he has more room. “Are you following me?”
Cayn shrugs, a lopsided smile on his face. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine,” she replies, making sure her monitor is still covered.
They sit in silence, gazing at the concrete path that weaves its way around trees and leafy plants. Those in their final cycle trickle out of Block A, across the path and into the tunnel leading to the institute. Hana watches carefully, looking for Luc, but if he is part of the crowd then she doesn’t see him.
“You know,” says Cayn slowly, “I only got thirty-five per cent. On the test.” His voice is even, giving no indication of the dread that must be threatening to consume him.
“I got forty.” Hana traces the edge of the flexi-screen in her pocket. “It’s not enough.”
They can’t check the leaderboard while the overseers do their final calculations, but Hana has no doubt that they will both be somewhere near the bottom. Whether she’s high enough to avoid another culling remains to be seen.
“I think I’d quite like to be a gardener,” says Cayn, interrupting her thoughts. “I like spending time out here in the courtyard, amongst the plants.”
It’s a dangerous game to play.
“You know,” he continues, turning towards her, “maybe we could both be gardeners. What do you say? Spend our days working the crops in the vertical gardens?”
Hana knows that she shouldn’t buy into his daydream, but his hazel eyes look so hopeful, and she can’t help smiling back at him. “That sounds nice,” she says at last. “But I was thinking that maybe I could be a cook. I know I could do a better job of whatever it was they served up for lunch, anyway.”
Cayn laughs, but it sounds all wrong, and he cuts it off quickly. “I’ll grow the food and you cook the food. Deal.” He leans back on the bench, staring up at the distant ceiling. “I mean, there’s no point in worrying, is there? The overseers have a plan for us, and we will all end up in the same place eventually, anyway.”
“I suppose.” Hana presses her feet firmly into the ground beneath her, savouring the feeling of being alive.
“Even if we make it through this harvest,” Cayn continues, “and the next . . . even if we are harvested for our ideal occupation, one day, not so far away, we will be joining our grand-guardians in the Grid. It doesn’t really matter if we are forcibly culled now or willingly transferred when we are older.”
Hana shrugs, wondering how offended Cayn would be if she were to stand up and walk away from the conversation. The flow of students heading to the institute has ended now, leaving Hana and Cayn alone in the courtyard. “That’s the thing though, isn’t it?” she says quietly. “When we are older. Not tomorrow afternoon.” She shifts closer to Cayn, putting her lips close to his ear so that she barely has to whisper. “Yesterday, you mentioned the rumours. About the Grid. About the transfer system. Do you believe them?”
It takes a while for Cayn to respond. In the end, he shrugs, turning towards her. His face is pale and his freckles stand out more than usual. “Whispers in the multi, Hana. Just whispers. And only under the cloak of darkness. Can you imagine what would happen if we were caught talking about it? How many virtues we would be breaking?”
Hana doesn’t respond. He’s right, it’s better not to talk about it. They are just rumours, anyway.
A lone student exits the sliding doors of Block A and crosses the courtyard, not paying any attention to Hana or Cayn sitting beneath the oak tree. Eve walks slowly, clearly distracted, before entering the mouth of the tunnel on the far side.
“She probably doesn’t even think about the culling,” says Cayn, following Hana’s gaze.
She murmurs in agreement. The high-ranked don’t worry about being culled. Their only concern is which position they are harvested for—a premium occupation or a lesser one.
For Hana, the stakes are a little higher.
“Come on,” says Hana, standing up. “Let’s go to the leisure facility. If this is our last day in Eridu, I don’t want to waste it sitting here moping.”
The boy doesn’t move.
“What is it?”
He squirms uncomfortably. “I don’t have enough oxy-creds,” he admits, at last.
Hana shrugs. “Neither do I. But it’s free to watch, right?”
Cayn smiles up at her. “Okay,” he says, getting to his feet. “Why not, future cook? Lead the way.”