The black silhouette of a vulture circles overhead, its large dark shape contrasting with the bright afternoon sky. It flaps its outstretched wings a few times before returning to its casual drift, hovering in circles far above the city as if weightless. Its flight looks almost effortless. What a sweet freedom that would be.
“Come on!” Victor shouts, shoving a large sack into my arms. The light stubble that covers his square jaw makes his expression even more pronounced. He’s not messing around. His voice is loud and forceful. Time seems to slow down. I am too lost in thought to really process what’s happening. Instead of running, I freeze. It’s stupid. Here I am standing around awkwardly, twiddling my thumbs, holding a bag of stolen goods. Seems like a good time to move. Instead, I am acting like a lawn ornament.
Despite his forceful shove, I remain frozen, holding tightly to the sack he’d just handed me. I look down at it and then back up at him. I can hear the sounds of angry voices and the thumping of boots against pavement getting closer. Victor may have gotten away with the prize, but he brought some unwanted guests. I can see it now. No, officer. I don’t know where this bag came from. I was just doing my famous statue impersonation, and it showed up. Oh, I’m going to the Justice Block? Awesome.
“Jett! Come on!” Victor pulls at my arm.
My legs spring to motion. Nothing like a little adrenaline to ruin a perfectly good daydream. My cargo makes running awkward. Victor shouts for me to run faster, and I look over my shoulder. Three men in black uniforms with red accents on the shoulders and collar are charging after us, their heads covered with the traditional red beret of the city guard.
“Stop! Thief!” they shout. The sound of their approach encourages me to speed up.
Victor slides to a stop in front of me, nearly causing me to crash into him. At the end of the alley, I see two more guards with their bright red berets. We are boxed in. The guards in front of us turn to face us, blocking our escape. There’s no time to think. The shadows of the guards behind us are looming closer with every moment.
“We’re heaped,” Victor mutters.
“There.” I point, my brain finally joining the party.
About thirty yards before the end of the street is an intersection. I dig my feet into the ground and launch my body forward as hard as I can, propelling myself toward the side-alley, our only means of escape. There’s no choice, no talking our way out. Either we escape or we become the newest residents of the Outlands.
The guards, who we call Red Caps, stare for a moment, apparently stunned to see thieves rushing toward them instead of away. That provides just enough of a distraction to keep them from noticing the side-alley. By the time they do, it’s too late. We are halfway there when they move to intercept us.
I reach the turn first, but I need to buy some time. I scan the area. An empty crate lies at the corner of the building. I kick it as hard as I can in the direction of the approaching Red Caps. The crate flies right between both of them, striking the one on the left in his shoulder and ricocheting off him with a cracking sound. The crate then smashes into the Red Cap on the right, hitting him squarely in the stomach. I tell myself that’s what I was going for, but I couldn’t have planned that kind of luck. I just hope it slows them down long enough. Victor passes me and takes the lead.
A hand grasps my shoulder; one of the Red Caps caught up. His approach is too quick to control, so now it’s time to fight back. I roll my shoulder, loosening his grip, and drop my body down. The Red Cap’s momentum carries him forward. I trip him up with my foot and shove him in the back as he stumbles past me, sending his off-balance body into the two Red Caps approaching from the front.
That should buy us some time. Not risking a glance back, I sprint off down the street after Victor.
A door swings open in front of me, nearly taking me out. I sidestep, barely missing it. The rapid direction change, combined with my full sprint, knocks me off balance. I make quick friends with a wall that, thankfully, prevents me from face planting into the ground. Pushing off the wall as hard as I can, I scrape my hands against rough stone. At least I am able to steady myself and keep moving.
We navigate our way through a labyrinth of alleys. After a few minutes, convinced we have evaded our pursuers, we turn into a dark alleyway behind a shop and wait. I slide the bag carefully to the ground and clutch my knees as I catch my breath. The adrenaline surging through my body, making my heart pound violently, takes much longer to subside. Victor stands at the end of the alley, peeking his head out just past the stone wall to see if anyone followed us. After a few minutes, he seems satisfied that we evaded our pursuers.
“What’s with you?” he asks with a snarl. If he’s attempting to hide his frustration, he is doing a poor job. Even though we’re close, there is still something intimidating about him when he’s angry. Victor is bigger than I am, maybe six feet tall with a strong, athletic physique. His muscles are toned and hard. His dark brown eyes are accented with natural golden-yellow flecks, giving him the look of a predator searching for prey.
“Me? How was I supposed to know you were going to turn me into your bag man?” I said.
“You lagged! If I didn’t know better, I would think you had never stolen anything before.”
He knows that’s not true. This is how we survive. We are thieves. Not the bad kind of thieves; we have principles. We don’t steal things of personal value. We don’t steal things we don’t need. Most importantly, we don’t steal from people who need it more than we do. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of those. It’s not like we chose this life. We steal because it’s the only way for people like us to live.
We are orphans. In Dios that means we don’t belong. We don’t fit into the city’s organized caste system. We also can’t get a job—jobs are for citizens who belong to one of the three classes. Everyone born outside of that caste system is unable to find employment since the Patriarch assigns everyone their job.
Our options are limited to stealing or sitting on a street corner with a tattered old hat, begging. No thank you. Beggars are just thieves who are too lazy to do the work. Plus, you have to worry about beggar gangs. Beg on the wrong corner and, instead of credits, you get an energy blade to the back. Beggar gangs are bad enough when you aren’t trying to encroach on their territory. I’ll take my chances with the Red Caps.
“We got away, didn’t we?” I say.
Victor shakes his head. “You got sloppy. It shouldn’t have been that close. If they’d have had tracker darts, all of this would have been for nothing.” He looks at me, his expression shifting from angry to concerned.
I nod in compliance. Victor is right. Victor is always right. He’s annoying that way.
“Jett, we have to—”
Victor is interrupted by the sound of blaring trumpets all around us. The daily broadcast has begun. Every window on every building in the Market flashes with a faint purple glow. The image of an attractive woman with dark hair in a fancy suit appears from some unseen device. The sky transforms into one enormous projection, the sun replaced by the attractive woman’s face. She begins with a warm, perfect smile. Her teeth are an unnatural white. Her eyes are bright but hollow and lifeless.
“Good evening, beloved citizens of the great city of Dios. May the blessings of the Great Bealz shine upon you.”
She says it with a strange excitement. How she manages to pull off the same energy for the same sentence every day, I will never know. She goes over what she claims to be important city announcements: shift changes at the mine, a few new policies for conducting business in the Market, things no one in their right mind cares about. Everyone pretends to be listening for fear of what might happen should anyone discover what they are actually doing: ignoring her.
“I’m Becky Boone. Today, we have a special guest with us,” she begins. I look at Victor who rolls his eyes, resisting a chuckle. “Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the reign of the Patriarch!” the woman announces with more charisma than any of her previous statements, which is impressive. “So, P1 News is proud to present the High Father of Dios, His Pontiff, Gregory Ignatius.”
The camera pans over to a regal man in long, flowing, white robes wearing an impressively large, square hat. Impractically large, unless its intent was to function as an umbrella—which the High Father wouldn’t ever need. He stays in the Temple Sector; they don’t make it rain there. Like his hat, his clothes are trimmed with gold. The High Father’s elderly face looks sickly with his sunken eyes and wrinkled skin. His voice, once deep and commanding, is now horse, weathered, and weak. “Blessings upon you, citizens of Dios.”
Even Victor has stopped fidgeting with the data-pad on his wrist. We knew what the High Father looked like. He was plastered on poster ads all over the city. For as long as I could remember, the only public appearances he ever made were for the weekly Chapel service. He never uses the media like this.
“On behalf of all of us in the Temple District, it is my honor to speak to you on this truly auspicious occasion. Today is a day we celebrate, for it marks the day we, the chosen people of Dios, were saved by the Great Bealz, who delivered us into this haven. After all we have endured—the trials, the struggles, and the joys—we have been formed into what we are today, a family. As the Holy Father of that loving family, I would like to remind you of our history.”
“Loving family?” I scoff. “I bet he has never stepped foot out of the Temple Sector.”
Victor puts his finger up to his lips and gestures subtly with his head. Two Red Caps walk past the alley we are in. We smile casually as they glance over. Nothing to see here, just a couple of Undesirables watching the daily broadcast. I close my mouth and stare back to the image projected in the sky.
“Before the Great Collapse, the world was divided into many nations, each working against the others for their own agendas. They were un-unified by language, by culture, by understanding. They built weapons of mass destruction in the name of “keeping the peace.” Then, they turned those weapons against each other. They killed each other by the millions with devices that poisoned the air itself. Those who were not killed by the toxic fumes were changed into something…” He pauses. For a moment, he looks as if he is trying to settle his stomach. “Unspeakable. The land became barren and home to creatures too horrible to describe. Thanks to the wisdom and preparation of our Forefathers, the founders of the Patriarch, Dios was born—a shield and safe haven for the chosen people of Bealz. The dome that surrounds our great city keeps the fumes away. The great walls that encircle us keep the monsters at bay.
“Today,” he continues, opening his arms wide as if inviting the city in for a hug. He’s so old his feeble arms shake in the process. “We celebrate the anniversary of our deliverance. Dios, our home, our hope, our salvation!” He lifts his arms up to the sky, tilting his head back as if speaking to the heavens. “Praise be to Bealz for providing us this great city where we can work, where we can live, where we are safe! Today, we honor you, citizens of Dios, for your hard work and sacrifice in making our home the paradise it is—in honor of our triumph as a people.” His eyes return to us. “I declare, for the remainder of the day, all Market purchases will be tax-free. The sugar allotment will be doubled for the next month. See your local bakers for their celebration pies. Praise Bealz!”
The Market Square fills with shouts of celebration before quieting down a moment later.
The camera pans back to the dark-haired woman in the suit. She smiles again, thanking the High Father for honoring us with his message. “It’s we who should be thanking you, High Father, for your tireless work in keeping our city safe.” Turning back to the camera, she speaks with a stern expression. “Remember, citizens of Dios, that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. Without the laws of the Patriarch to provide us with order, we would surely fall into another Great Collapse. Lawbreakers risk the safety of us all. If you see someone breaking the law and you say nothing, you are helping them destroy our city.” Her face warms up again, returning to its normal, unnatural levity, “Okay, citizens, let’s show our support and appreciation for the men and women of the City Guard and to our benevolent rulers for their hard work in protecting us from the dangers of the Outlands. Let’s observe a moment of silence in their honor.”
An entire market full of people with better things to do stand around looking nervously at the ground, waiting for her to sign off and give them permission to go back to their lives. I swear I can hear the heartbeats across the Market Square. Finally, Becky Fakesmile wraps up with her token conclusion, “I’m Becky Boone. On behalf of all of us here at P1 News, I wish you a peaceful evening. Sleep well, citizens of Dios, knowing that you are safe and free thanks to the constant efforts of the Patriarch. Goodnight.”
Safe and free? She says it with such natural ease; it’s almost like she doesn’t know. If she had seen what we have, I doubt she’d be able to smile so convincingly.
“You look like you just got nicked by a surprise inspection,” Victor said. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“Jett, how long have we known each other?”
“A long time.”
Thirteen years to be precise. We’d been best friends since before my parents were killed. There’s no point in trying to keep secrets from Victor. Victor knows me better than anyone. Sometimes he seems to know me better than I know myself.
“Do you think I can’t tell when something is wrong?” Victor pauses, putting his hand on my shoulder.
I avoid making eye contact with him, moving my gaze to the ground. There’s something about Victor’s eyes; when you look into them, it’s like he can peer into your essence. He was there for the most traumatic experience of my life.
“Parents again?” he guesses.
My memory plays like a moving picture. I see myself, a scrawny six-year-old kid, too young to understand what was happening but old enough to remember it all in vivid detail. My mother is lying motionless on the kitchen floor, warm blood pooling from her back. I’m holding her in my arms, crying as I call out to her as if my voice could somehow summon her back. Her breathing is faint, and she’s coughing as she tries to speak, trying to tell me something that I can’t hear over my own anguish.
I close my eyes to try and block out the memory, but the images barrage my thoughts with even greater clarity. Her dark brown hair lays disheveled across her shoulders and back, the ends soaking in her own blood. I don’t know why she doesn’t respond to my screams, why she just lays there. Well, I didn’t know then. I know now. My father lies next to her on his stomach, his eyes closed almost as if he is sleeping. Standing above them is a man, his face hidden by shadow. I try to remember, to picture some identifying mark of the man who killed my parents. It’s as if his face is covered by a dark cloud. There’s only one thing I can truly tell: he is young.
Victor snaps his fingers in front of my face.
I blink and nod to answer his question. “What if it—”
“It wasn’t,” Victor interrupts me before I finish.
“But maybe I could—”
“You couldn’t.” Victor shakes my shoulder, and I meet his gaze. “It was not your fault, Jett.”
“Those self-righteous Pharisites!” I curse. The more I try to understand what happened, the more I got lost in my rage. Maybe it’s best to just forget about it and move on. Shaking the thoughts out of my head, I decide I’m done thinking about it. “Do you think we got enough?”
“Let’s hope so,” Victor says. “We better get going. Don’t want to get stuck here after curfew.”
I nod. A couple of classless boys hanging out in an alley with a bag full of food is risky. One random Red Cap inspection and we are heaped. If the Red Caps didn’t find us, the beggar gangs would. I like potatoes as much as the next guy, but I’m not sure I want my throat slit for them.
Weapons are illegal in Dios—part of the Disarmament Pact made between the five cities. All advanced weapons, especially explosive weapons and materials, were gathered up and destroyed. The theory was that if no weapons of mass destruction existed, no one could be tempted to use them. The Red Caps and soldiers have guns. The beggar gangs have knives. The Levites have thrashers, which look like the long metal handle of a flashlight. Thrashers don’t project a beam of light though; they project nine three-foot-long strands of controlled energy used for flogging. Being classless, we have…our charm. It doesn’t hold up in a fight. Getting caught with a weapon is a surefire way to get sent to the Justice Block. Getting caught on the streets at night without a weapon is a good way to get dead.
Victor pulls up the sleeve of his shirt, revealing his dark, smooth skin. His portable screen projects from the small data-pad on his wrist. He rubs his fingers on his temple, and the image on the screen begins to change. His fingers barely move to slide between electronic pages of information until he stops on a blueprint of the Market. He taps his temple twice, and a luminescent green arrow projects from his wrist down the street. We follow it through the alleys into the Market Square.
The Market Square is a huge open-front market, about five hundred yards wide and a thousand yards long. It’s bordered by two- and three-story shops made of dark grey stone with muted red, green, or blue shutters. The shops that surrounded the Market Square itself are by far the nicest, carrying either higher end goods or more variety than their competitors. Street vendors set up temporary displays in concentric squares starting in the middle of the Market Square and working out, leaving twenty to thirty feet walkways for crowds to move in and around. The crowds provide great cover. Easy to get lost in them. One nice thing about being an Undesirable—no one really looks too closely unless they have a good reason. In a crowd, we are all but invisible.
Four main streets open into the Market Square, one from each direction. The main streets then open up to dozens of side streets which run like a square frame around the Market Square, each street longer than the one before it. The Square gets the most traffic. The further one moves out from the Square, the less crowded it gets. Shops further from the Square tend to be lower quality, lower prices, or just appealing to a more selective audience, which works for us. Stay away from the crowds, and find hidden treasures in the fringe shops.
The Market Square is the central location in the city, surrounded by four circular sectors with a designated train taking patrons to each. The North Train goes to the Temple Sector. It is highly restricted, Patriarch personnel only. The other trains travel out to the three sectors, transporting citizens to and from the Market.
Surrounding the Market, Sector A forms the smallest ring and is for Prime Citizens: upper class nobility. They have more credits than they know what to do with. Sector B is for the Artisans. As middle-class citizens, they are educated and have jobs that don’t require much physical labor. The largest circle around the Market Square is Sector C, home to the Plebs. They are working class miners, farmers, and factory workers who make just enough to get by.
Finally, there are the Slums. The Slums encircle the city just inside the outer-walls. The slums are an overcrowded dump of run-down, towering buildings on the verge of collapse as well as tents and make-shift homes. They house the poorest, lowliest people in all of Dios. Not only are they overcrowded with a lack of proper sanitation, they may actually hold more infections than they do people. The slums are home to the classless citizens and anyone convicted of a crime within the city. They are more like a prison than anything else. It’s still better than the Outlands, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine how.
We make our way to the Market Square, heading west toward our train. Victor freezes. A group of men walk past dressed in bright white robes, their uniforms trimmed with gold, designed to imitate the High Father’s. Each man’s hair is combed perfectly. Around their wrists they each have a golden data-pad that looks like a bracer. Around their waists, a golden belt with an attachment for their thrasher. Covering their right eyes are opaque, gold-tinted, square lens monocles. They move in unison. Twelve men, one footstep.
As one, they stop. The man in the front points. He doesn’t say a word. Two Red Caps grab a boy who’d stopped in their path. The boy cries out. The Red Caps pull him away, nodding to the men in white who then continue their synchronized march. I wonder how long they practiced that. Good use of time, I’m sure. I hear a loud cracking sound, and the boy screams. The Red Caps are whipping him—five lashes for stopping in the wrong spot.
“Levites,” Victor growls. He runs his fingers through his short black hair.
The name makes the hair on my neck stand up. Red Caps are bad but reasonable. Usually. Levites are something else. Levites aren’t as common as Red Caps, but dealing with them is far, far worse. Levites are what mothers tell their children about to get them to behave. “Be good little Johnny or the Levites will get you.” The only real difference between Levites and the boogeyman is the stories about the Levites are usually true. Levites are the self-proclaimed voice of the Patriarch. They are brainwashed in the Temple Sector as children, taught to love the letter of the law so much they actually delight in torturing people who break it. They are a combination of a priest and a street thug. Give them a reason, and they will make you suffer. Sometimes they don’t even need a reason—just an excuse. For a Prime or Artisan citizen, the Levities are almost amiable. They are valued members of society. As for the rest of us, I’m pretty sure they’d have us exiled just for looking at them wrong.
“We need to split up,” Victor says. “We’ll look less suspicious. I’ll take the potatoes. You take the bread. Meet you on the train.”
Ever the big brother, Victor chooses the heavier, more noticeable item, knowing that if we get caught, it will give me a better chance of escaping. We don’t have time to argue, so I do as he suggests. I remove the single strap of my busted up, dark brown pack from over my head and sling it to the ground. I open the flap and tuck the bread in securely before slinging it back over my shoulder. By the time I look up, Victor has already gone. I see him heading into the Market and toward the train. Of course, he takes the riskier route.
I pull the hood of my coat over my head and make my way down the west street until it opens up to Street One. Each of the dozen streets that frame the square are named by their number. The closest street is Street One then next is Street Two. It’s very creative. Street One is the most highly trafficked of the streets, but it’s still much less occupied than the Market Square itself. Either side of the street is lined with stores built entirely of dark grey stone or cement. Most have beautiful glass windows that serve as moving picture screens for advertisements and messages from the Patriarch.
The glass appears to have a faint glow. At first it seems like nothing more than a light to draw your attention to the window. A few years ago, I learned it’s actually a sort of protective force field. I was walking with another classless orphan, Telmen. Telmen is about my size but lanky with long, thin arms and legs. He kinda looks like over-stretched clay. He has messy blonde hair and a long face. His most notable physical feature is his oversized mouth that never stops moving. I jokingly pushed him into the glass, and it blasted him across the street into a couple of unsuspecting merchants. He looked so ridiculous flopping helplessly in the air. It took me longer to stop laughing than it did for him to get up and start complaining. Now I know to leave the glass alone.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here?”
Standing in front of me, blocking my path is a short, stout man with patchy facial hair and a large scar running across his neck. He’s wearing a brown cloak that drapes over his body, concealing his arms and torso. On his cloak is a white emblem depicting a howling wolf’s head inside a flaming circle. The Fire Wolves are one of the more aggressive beggar gangs. I recognize him—Bill Sonder, beggar gang enforcer. Bill pokes my shoulder, stepping closer to me. Victor and I did a job with them a few months back. The take was considerably less than they swore it would be. “You’ve been working in our nest again.”
“Is it yours?” I say. “I can never keep track. Maybe you guys should post signs. I’m sure the Patriarch would love that.”
He sneers. “Always the Lumegrin. You still owe us from that transport job. Debt’s come due.”
“You got your cut. Stop trying to shake us down for more.”
“Last warning. We’re watching you. If you don’t bring us what you owe, there will be consequences.”
“Thanks for the domes-up.” I take a step forward, trying to push past him. He puts his hand on my chest to stop me.
“You don’t pay, you’re gonna end up on our prey list.”
I shrug off the threat and walk past him, trying to pretend it didn’t get to me. Victor can figure out how to handle this. Last thing we need is a beggar gang stalking our every move. The looming threat makes me a feel a little paranoid. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder as I try to get my nerves under control. Street Eight is surprisingly crowded. Usually by now it would be half way to ghost town.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice him—a Prime citizen in a black uniform with a light grey sash walking past me, trying to sound all superior and important, ranting to someone on the other end of his digi-call. I notice he didn’t secure his data-pad, which is weird. Everyone in Dios has one. They contain access to all our personal information, credit accounts as well as any important information we choose to store in them. It’s pretty much our entire digital identity and maybe the most important and valuable thing we own. Data-pads are secured digitally but very hackable if you know the right people. A Prime data-pad would be worth a stupid amount of credits. Normally we don’t go for them because they are risky. When someone loses a data-pad, they report it. A few missing data-pads and the Patriarch deploys a bunch of extra Red Caps. More Red Caps make it harder to steal anything.
This opportunity is too good to pass up. I move casually, looking around slowly and making sure no one is watching. I carefully slip the data-pad off his wrist as he passes by, slide it into my bag and duck around the first alley I come to. I’ve got to make sure I’m not in sight when he notices it’s missing. He doesn’t. Rich snobs have no awareness. Obliviousness must be a luxury of the wealthy. This was just what I needed to shake my nerves after my encounter with Bill.
“You there,” comes a commanding voice blaring from behind me. It’s a crowded street; no reason to assume it’s meant for me. For some reason though, I know it is. I don’t turn around and pretend I don’t hear the voice.
Still, there are tons of Undesirables in the Market. No reason to incriminate myself by turning around. There is no way anyone saw me swipe the card; the streets are too crowded.
A hand grabs my arm forcefully, pulling me to a stop and spinning me around.
Standing in front of me is a man in a black uniform with red on the tops of the shoulders. He isn’t city guard. He is also wearing a red sash over his right shoulder. On the sash is a black and white patch with a picture of clutched fist, indicating he works for the Patriarch. On the shoulders of his uniform are the three black bars.
He’s a commander. What is a commander doing here? Commanders do not police the streets. That’s a job for common Red Caps. Commanders stay in the barracks or in their outposts, issuing orders from behind a desk. This is not good.
Using his forearm, he slams me into the stone wall of the shop behind me. The crash stings, sending little needles of pain up my back. I wince.
“ID,” the commander barks out aggressively.
He is surprisingly strong. His hold on me seems effortless. Even with his uniform, I can see he is thick like the trunk of a tree. His shoulders stretch out wide atop his torso like an upside-down triangle. His face looks rough—a squared jaw covered in a soft shadow of stubble, eyes wild like a beast. There’s a sense of cruelty and hatred in them. He slides the data-pad on his left over mine.
“2413985-U,” I respond instinctively.
The “U” at the end of my number indicates I am an Undesirable. Anyone born without a caste is classified as one. It should be obvious enough; the Undesirables are the only people in Dios who don’t wear a uniform—a black suit with a solid colored sash that indicates one’s class and occupation. It’s the Patriarch’s way of reminding us we are little more than garbage. No sense in trying to make worthless people look like they have value, I suppose.
The commander looks at the screen projected from his data-pad. I can see my picture through the transparent screen. “Jett Lasting. Age 18. Caucasian male. Hair brown. Eyes green.” He glances up at me to confirm what he is reading on my bio. “Weight 165 pounds. Orphaned age 6. Taken in by the Karr family. Karr family branded as Heretics. No known occupation. No recorded criminal history. No recorded residence. No recorded class.” He exhaled and flicked his wrist. The projected screen disappeared. “Another Undesirable street rat defiling the city with your filth. Every time I think we are too harsh with your kind, I am proven wrong.” He chuckled to himself. “You don’t respect the law, the system, the structure of society that keeps us safe. Your flagrant disregard for order and base human decency is a scourge upon this great city. I doubt this is your first offense. Tell me, rodent, do you know what the punishment is for theft?”
For a city that boasts about justice, punishments are a bit of a mixed bag. Every sector of the city has a Justice Block where all accused criminals stand trial. Two years ago, I saw a Prime get drunk and beat a man to death in front of a crowd. He was arrested and let go a week later with a “note on his record.” For people like me, people who don’t fit so neatly into the structure of Dios, an infraction as insignificant as say, bumping into someone of importance can result in a month in stocks. That’s a Patriarch favorite: it’s uncomfortable and humiliating, and it helps break your spirit. If they are in a bad mood or the Levite officiate doesn’t like how you look, you’re more likely to get a flogging. The worst part of it all is, any offense, gets your name entered into the Lottery.
In Dios, anyone who is convicted of a crime receives two punishments. The first is the penalty for the crime. The second is getting their name in the Lottery. They are given a ten-digit number. For every offense they get another entry. Once a week the sky screen lights up with an unnamed attractive girl in a shiny dress. She pushes a button, and transparent balls float around her like giant, glowing soap bubbles. Each bubble she pops reveals a two-digit number. Once she has popped five balls, the show’s host, Lorth Drant, announces the name of the criminal whose ID matches the ten-digit number. The criminal is then brought to the Market Square where they are given a choice: execution or exile to the Outlands. Most choose execution. It’s a faster death.
The commander glares at me. He looks young, way too young to be a commander. I’ve never even heard of a commander being under fifty. This guy looks like he’s thirty at best. Either he was born into a Class A family or he is very good at his job. I think it may be the latter, presently. His face is close enough to mine that I can smell his breath.
“Ugh, speaking of Undesirable,” I blurt out.
It’s not the smartest thing to do, but his breath is awful. It smells like he ate a bag full of overused socks. I turn away, trying to spare my nostrils from the assault.
He grumbles. “Perhaps twenty lashes will remind you your place.”
My eyes widen. Twenty is the maximum penalty for theft. Forty is considered a death sentence. My mind races. Excuses. Justifications. Bargaining. Escape. That’s a bad idea. Trying to escape a high-ranking officer would definitely result in getting sent to the Outlands. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl.
I’m so distracted I didn’t even hear the other soldiers come running up. “Commander Stone!” one of them shouts.
Mental note: always avoid Commander Stone. I can’t hear what they are saying to him. Something about a theft on Street Four. Something else about a briefing. Stone curses, and I feel his forearm push against my throat. I can’t breathe. My arms flail helplessly as I try to pull myself free out of instinct. Is he going to choke me to death right here on the street? I can feel my heart racing, panic flooding my mind.
Release. I feel my body slump to the ground as my lungs gasp for air. Each breath burning like I’m inhaling flames.
His boots move. I look up, and he’s running off with a small group of soldiers. A minute later, there’s Victor. He helps me to my feet and holds me up.
“Good thing I came back to check on you,” he says.
I straighten myself up and nod, finally regaining my breath. “How did you—?”
Victor smiles and waves his hand dismissively. “Oh, you know, whisper something to the right merchant. Rumors spread. Red Caps react. Before you know it, there’s a whole lot to do about nothing.”
I shake my head, and we make our way to train, careful not to draw any more unnecessary attention to ourselves.
We reach the station a few minutes later. The train hovers several feet over the track. The familiar humming of the magnetic field is comforting after my encounter with Commander Stone and the beggar gangs. Underneath the train is a glowing green light indicating the train is boarding. In just a few minutes the doors will close, the green light will turn red, and we will hover our way home.
No one lives in the Market Sector, officially. The merchants and storeowners close up at seven. They lock down their shops and secure them. The glowing force fields that cover the shop windows during the day are used to cover the whole building at night. Unless you have the right access card, the field is impenetrable.
The Red Caps leave at eight. After that, the Market belongs to the beggar gangs. I’ve heard members switch gangs often, which causes the power to shift continually from one gang to another. Each night the gangs fight for who will control the Market streets. Most of the Undesirables who live outside the slums end up in one of these gangs. It’s not a great life, but it’s not like we have much choice.
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