PART 1 - The Candidates
Maybe it was instinct.
As the school bus pulled away, Arthur half-turned in his seat and watched as his home for almost a year, disappeared in the rising cloud of red dust kicked up behind the wheels.
He didn’t know it was the last time he would see the run-down old farmhouse. By the next morning, everything he owned would be in a small pile of trash bags on the side of the road, his attic bedroom emptied and ready for the next foster-victim.
As he settled in for the long ride to the Metrozone, Arthur pushed the sweat out of his eyes. He was imagining all the rich Zoner kids, walking to school from their city apartments. Maybe they were stopping off for an ice-cold drink right now at one of the cafés in the shady tree-lined streets. Or perhaps they were taking a morning swim in their private swimming pools.
He pulled out his notebook and started doodling to pass the time, trying to hold his hand steady as the old bus rattled along the potholed road. Before long, the usual stragglers began filling up the empty seats.
Even though Arthur despised the way the Zoners treated the Outsiders at school, sometimes he couldn’t blame them. He had to admit they were a pretty rough-looking bunch. Sunburned, dust covered, ungroomed, and wearing government-issue clothes. There were no luxuries like hairdressers and clothes stores out here.
Arthur was every bit an Outsider. His straggly, sun-streaked brown hair was down to his shoulders and constantly fell in front of his face. His blue-gray eyes were hidden behind his despised thick-framed glasses. They did nothing for his vision, but he had learned, the hard way, to keep them on. Otherwise Uncle would be sent for to ‘straighten him out’. Something Arthur avoided at all costs.
He was always hungry and painfully thin. His foster parents rationed out small controlled portions of whatever they were eating, which were not nearly enough for a teenage boy. By bedtime, his stomach would be grumbling, and he suspected that his grades were bad because he spent his time in class dreaming about food. The only thing that he had going for him was height. He had sprouted up a few years before and hadn’t stopped until he had even overtaken some of the well-fed, plump Zoner jocks.
As the bus approached the Metrozone, the red fields of dust gave way to the crumbling buildings of the Transition. Rusted shells of cars, all useless now, littered the streets. Occasional figures, hurried by—Outsiders foraging for supplies, bandannas sheltering their faces from the heat and dust.
At the last stop before the wall, Arthur snapped out of his thoughts. He pushed his notebook aside and sat up, watching the door intently. The girl who got on was every bit an Outsider too. She was above-average height and lanky with a mass of frizzy black hair. Although she was average looking, she moved with a grace and self-possession that could turn heads. Arthur’s heart started beating so hard he was sure people could hear it.
Ever since she had moved here six months ago, she had become the best part of Arthur’s day—of his world. She moved down the bus and swung easily into the seat next to him.
“I have something you want.” She grinned cheekily at him, then reached into her dusty jacket and pulled out a muffin.
“Oh yes! Bay, you are the best.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
He ducked below the seat in front and wolfed the muffin down. Bay watched him, smiling. Her eyes were soft blue today, not the intense green they sometimes turned when she was mad about something. She pulled an old notebook out of her bag, and they sat quietly for a few minutes, passing their notebooks back and forth, scribbling secret notes, and drawing little sketches for each other. This was their morning routine and something that Arthur looked forward to more than anything else in the day.
He used to keep all the notes in a precious pile under his bed at the farm, but then Uncle found them during one of his random room searches. Uncle wanted to know who was writing the notes, but Arthur didn’t tell him about Bay. He paid for it with a beating that put him in bed for a week. Since then, he had been careful to destroy the notes.
The bus was approaching the West Gate. As the shadow of the wall fell across them, the automated virtual television, or VT, sprung to life. An immaculately dressed woman appeared at the front of the bus, flickering occasionally. Arthur recognized her instantly. Hope Juvenal, the familiar host of The Democracy Games, the nightly reality VT show that had transfixed the nation. Arthur’s foster parents didn’t have a VT, but he had picked up bits and pieces of the latest Democracy Games gossip from the obsessed kids at school.
“This is Hope Juvenal, reporting live from Camp David.”
The VT camera zoomed into close-up. Hope’s overly made-up face loomed eerily over the aisle.
“Today, in a dramatic turn of events, the first presidential primary has turned deadly. An incident during filming has left three people dead and several more injured. No news yet on the identities of the dead, but it is known that two of the candidates were in the building…”
Holograms of two handsome young men appeared where Hope had been standing seconds before. The tallest had reddish-brown hair and an athletic build. He had a confident, slightly jockish look about him and carried himself with an authority that made him look older than he was. The other was just slightly shorter with blond hair and a boyish expression. He had a wolfish grin that gave him an irresistible mix of charming and naughty. Their names floated in the air around them, but Arthur didn’t need to read them to know who they were. They were two of the most famous people in the entire UZA.
George Washington and John F. Kennedy.
More than a decade before Arthur was born, at the dark time of the raising of the walls, scientists successfully developed the technology to clone almost anyone from as little as a sliver of bone. Suddenly, the possibility of bringing back people who had been long dead became a reality, and the Resurrection Innovation Program, or RIP, was born. The divided nation needed leadership, and it needed hope. The entire country soon watched, transfixed, as a new Abraham Lincoln was “born.”
Since then, the RIP had continued the resurrections. Each year, two new “heroes” were created. They were raised to be the leaders; every detail of their lives was televised, analyzed, and talked over, from their first tooth coming in to their first kiss. As they came of age, they were expected to do their duty and run for president of the United Zones of America, competing in dangerous and challenging primaries designed to test their presidential worth. Their one chance to prove themselves before the nation they were born to save.
All of this was screened nightly in The Democracy Games.
The spinning holograms were now floating above a three-dimensional map of Camp David. Hope Juvenal spoke excitedly. “There are unconfirmed reports of an explosion…”
Arthur looked away. He wasn’t interested in politics.
He turned to Bay, but she was staring intently at the news report. She looked a little paler than moments before, and he could swear she was holding her breath. Arthur was surprised. In the six months he had known her, Bay had never shown much interest in the news. He wondered if she had a crush on one of the candidates and felt a small flash of jealousy. He shot a nasty look at the two handsome holograms.
The bus had moved into the gate and was being screened by several security drones. Blue walls of light scanned up and down the bus. Arthur looked out at the security police milling around the gate. There seemed to be more than usual. They always looked faintly sinister to him, probably because of their anonymous black military-style uniforms and faceless dust masks. Though it could also have had something to do with the arsenal of weapons they each had strapped to them. Not taking any chances with those pesky Outsiders.
Arthur looked up at the towering wall that loomed over them. The walls had been around since long before Arthur was born, raised at a desperate time in the nation’s past. The country’s resources had dwindled to almost nothing, and starvation and violent crime threatened the future of the already desperate nation. On the brink of a civil rebellion, the government had built fifty Metrozones across the country, giant urban areas to protect the good citizens of the newly formed United Zones of America. The rest of the country, the Outside, had been left to fall into ruin.
Despite what the walls represented, Arthur was always impressed by the sheer scale and often wondered if the other Metrozone walls were as imposing. Maybe one day he would see them. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he pushed it out of his head. Outsiders like him didn’t get to travel.
The bus pulled forward and turned into the school entry tunnel. The news report had finished, and Bay was now looking outside the bus with the same look of intensity. She was looking at the elaborate graffiti that covered the tunnel walls. To Arthur, it was the usual artful mix of spray-painted tags and occasional pro-rebel messages. Giant red As would always appear overnight, a subversive nod to the leader of the rebel gangs, known only as Abel. By the ride home from school, the As would be gone, painted over daily by the security police. Bay always studied the graffiti silently on the way in, and he’d learned not to interrupt. But today she seemed different, agitated. Something was wrong.
She shot him a look that stopped him from finishing his sentence.
The bus approached the school’s underground entry and pulled up in front of Westgate High School. Arthur hurriedly started digging around for his things and throwing them in his backpack.
Suddenly he was surprised to feel Bay’s hand on his. He looked at her and saw a look in her eyes he hadn’t seen before. Maybe fear? She moved close to him, her wild hair brushed his cheek, and for a second he actually hoped she was going to kiss him. His heart jumped. But instead, she whispered urgently.
“Arthur, no matter what happens now. Remember who you are.”
He felt something pushed into his hand, and then she pulled back. For just a second, her eyes locked on his, now very green and definitely frightened. Then she grabbed her things and was gone. Arthur looked in his hand. It was a snapped-off piece from the emblem at the front of an old car. Three small stars inside part of an oval. Outsiders collected them from the wrecked vehicles dumped all over the Outside like secret trophies.
His heart was beating hard. Something was wrong. Was Bay in some kind of trouble?
He slipped the emblem into his pocket and hurried off the bus after her.
He saw the back of her head disappear in the crowd of kids in front of them. Arthur sprinted forward to follow, but the security police were in particularly aggressive form this morning, and he felt a sharp sting on the back of his neck from one of their disciplinary lasers.
“Walk,” a voice warned him over the speakers.
There were two school entrances, one for Outsiders and one for Zoners. Arthur joined the slow line by the Outsider entrance. Outsiders had additional screening, including daily blood scans and rigorous pat downs, so there was always a long wait. He glanced enviously at the clean, relaxed Zoners strolling right in, wishing he could join them and catch up with Bay.
When he finally got inside, Arthur sprinted to the lockers, but Bay had already left. He quickly scrawled “OK?” on a piece of paper and slipped it through her locker vent. She would know it was from him. He felt faintly nauseous as he headed to class. He had never seen her like this. She was usually so relaxed and easygoing. Something must be really wrong.
About ten minutes into the class, a shrill alarm bell rang out. Principal Wright’s unnaturally cheerful voice sounded out loudly.
“Good morning, Westgaters. This is Principal Wright with an important message. I am sorry to have to announce that there has been a serious violation of our school community rules. Serious enough to necessitate the attention of the authorities.” The principal paused, allowing this last bit of information to sink in. A shocked silence had fallen over the class. Zoners and Outsiders alike looked around at one another, fear written on their faces.
The principal carried on, his bright tone at odds with his ominous message.
“Teachers are to escort their students to the multiuse hall immediately. A punishment will commence in ten minutes.”
Kids were instantly crying. There was a feeling of hysteria as they all started looking for friends, hoping for reassurance. Whenever the students were summoned to the multiuse hall for a punishment, the fear was palpable. Someone was about to be called up in front of the whole school and disciplined in a cruel and humiliating way.
Arthur had seen kids pulled up for all the usual antisocial behaviors, like using illegal substances on school property, or graffitiing the tunnel walls. The severity of the punishment depended on the crime and ranged from watching as their belongings were burned to having their heads shaved. But the punishment everyone feared the most was a disappearance. The disappeared kids were never seen at school again, and rumor had it they never returned home. They were just gone for good, as if they had never existed. No one went in knowing for sure who was going to be pulled up. Students racked their consciences, trying to figure out if it might be their turn.
The teachers struggled to maintain order as they directed the terrified students along the corridors toward the multiuse hall. As they approached the doors, the panic finally died down, replaced with a fearful silence. The Zoner kids were kneeling in rows on one side of the vast hall. The Outsiders were being shepherded to the other. Black-clad security police marched people into place.
Arthur knelt down in a long line of terrified Outsiders and bowed his head to the floor, hands behind his back, in the position they were required to assume. He stared hard at the polished wood floor. There were quiet sobs from kids all around him. He risked looking sideways along his row, keeping his head down. About twenty kids down, he finally saw Bay. Her face was pale, her shoulders shaking almost imperceptibly.
Usually Arthur wasn’t too worried. His worst crime was failing tests, something he did regularly thanks to his appalling spelling. This time, however, was different. This time he was truly afraid for Bay. Something was wrong. Was this punishment something to do with her? Had she done something? Why was she so afraid?
A few minutes passed as the last few students were silently lined up and made to kneel. Arthur studied the floor, feeling his heart thumping hard in his chest.
At last Principal Wright’s voice broke the tense silence. “Westgaters. I am sorry indeed that circumstances have brought us here. But as you know, violation of our community’s rules cannot and will not be tolerated. One of you has failed this school. One of you has failed your fellow students. One of you has failed me.” He shook his head and paused dramatically. “Commence.”
The doors banged open as five men in black suits, Secret Service badges clipped to their lapels, marched into the hall. Arthur kept his head down and focused hard on the sound of their footsteps. There was no question; they were heading toward the Outsider rows. Arthur could almost feel the Zoners slump with relief.
He risked another sideways glance at Bay. She looked over at him, tears running down her face. Arthur felt sick to his stomach with fear. Please, not Bay, he thought desperately. Anyone but her.
The Secret Service agents turned into their row, walking briskly in their direction.
Arthur could hardly breathe. This couldn’t be happening.
The agents were nearly at Bay. She had turned her head down to face the floor as they came close.
He couldn’t let this happen. He wouldn’t let them take her. He didn’t know what he would do, but he would do something. His hands were shaking with adrenalin.
The agents walked up to where Bay was kneeling, but they didn’t stop.
Arthur breathed out, his breath ragged. They weren’t here for her. He almost laughed with relief, until he glanced across at her. She was looking at him again, just as afraid, and something else too. She looked sad. She was looking intently at him, as though she was trying to memorize his face. For a moment he was confused. Then it dawned on him.
They were coming for him.
The agents were almost upon him. He quickly turned to face the floor, studying the joints in the wood, feeling oddly calm. Bay had known it was going to happen, but he had no idea how or why. His mind raced. What had he done?
The agents’ black boots stopped in front of him. He was getting pulled up. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He felt the kids next to him almost imperceptibly recoil from him.
“Arthur Ryan.” One of the agents stepped forward, stopping just inches in front of him. Arthur stared down at a pair of overpolished black shoes with a distinctive red stripe around the soles. For a second, he blinked in confusion. He recognized those shoes, but it couldn’t be possible. They belonged to the one person he feared more than any other, the only constant in a life filled with regular changes. The one relative he could claim, who had followed him like a dark shadow wherever he went, was now standing in front of him.
Arthur looked up in shock. For the first time he could remember, Uncle was smiling.
The other agents moved forward, and rough hands grabbed him, pulling Arthur up to his feet. He was dragged forward through the rows of kneeling kids. The sobbing had stopped, and a wave of relief washed over the students. It was just some quiet Outsider kid. No one who mattered.
Arthur struggled to make sense of Principal Wright’s words. “For stealing, illegal transportation of contraband beyond the wall, illegal fencing of stolen property…”
The Secret Service agents didn’t stop at the podium as usual, turning instead to the exit doors. Arthur felt a cold shock of fear. This couldn’t be happening. Faces started looking up, curiosity overcoming fear. Whatever this kid had done must have been really bad. He wasn’t getting the usual whipping or facing a humiliation. He was getting the ultimate punishment. He wouldn’t be going home today or ever.
He was being disappeared.