I lean out over the edge of my pod and gaze down at my brother who is nestled within eight feet of sleek, white metal. “Tell me a story?”
Luc looks up from his flexi-screen, a vacant expression on his face as though I have unwittingly transported him into this room from some faraway place. “What?” His brow creases, and I wonder if I should just let him go back to studying. After all, tomorrow is an important day.
“A story,” I repeat after a slight hesitation, glancing over at the two pods clinging to the opposite wall. I lower my voice to barely a whisper. “About the old world.”
Our guardians’ pods have been sealed for some time now, so I presume they are asleep. At least, I hope they are asleep. For them, the harvest is of no cause for concern. Instead, hidden beneath my primary and secondary guardians’ cool exteriors, I suspect there might be a hint of pride or excitement now that Luc has completed his final cycle. Just a little bit, of course, not enough that anybody would be able to tell.
“Aren’t you a little old for bedtime stories, Eve?” Luc’s voice is expressionless, and I’m not sure how to respond.
“I just thought . . .” I let my sentence trail off, wondering if I should push the matter. What I want to say is, ’I thought this might be our last chance,’ but I remain silent, wondering what our guardians will do if they are awake after all, listening to our exchange.
So close to the harvest, I decide it’s not worth the risk of an infraction and lie back, chastising myself for asking such a silly question. “It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Goodnight.”
As I reach for the button that will trigger the lid of my pod to descend from the ceiling, enclosing me inside, my brother speaks again. His voice is so soft that I have to strain to hear what he is saying.
“I can hardly remember how the stories went.”
I hesitate, my finger hovering over the button, and then I let my hand fall to my side. “Once upon a time . . .” I prompt him.
“Do you think it’s a good idea?”
Shuffling over to the edge of my pod, I swing my legs over the side and clamber down the ladder towards the concrete floor. Luc sits up, adjusting the base of his pod so that it transforms into a low-lying seat rather than a sleeping chamber.
“It’s fine.” I sit next to him and pull the grey sleeve of my jumpsuit up slightly, bringing my dimly flashing monitor into view. “I’m not a little kid anymore, Luc. I’ve been blue for as long as I can remember.”
He stares at my monitor, watching the cool light within shiver and pulse with the colour we are told our skies used to be before the darkness came. Seemingly satisfied, Luc leans back in the pod, eyes closed, conjuring the stories from the depths of his memory. His own monitor flashes a dull blue on his left wrist—the mark of a virtuous student unburdened by strong emotions.
“Once upon a time,” he begins softly, and I sit back in the pod, imagining that we are young again. Back then, things like ranks and leaderboards didn’t matter, and the harvest seemed like a distant daydream. “Before the war and the darkness,” he continues, “humans lived on the surface of the Earth.”
I invoke the image in my mind—people going about their business beneath the warm glow of a star, rather than the harsh, fluorescent lights of Eridu. Luc doesn’t say anything for a minute, and I wonder if he has forgotten the stories again. It has been a long time, but he used to love telling them to me, and I would hang off every whispered word.
“Back then,” I prompt him, “people could feel whatever they wanted.”
Luc doesn’t say anything.
“Back then, emotions weren’t viewed as dangerous,” I continue, quoting his younger self word-for-word. “But of course, that came at a cost.” Luc sits perfectly still, eyes closed. I sigh, abandoning the story. “Are you thinking about tomorrow?”
He shakes his head, but I know that he is lying. After all, the day before your final harvest, what else could possibly consume your thoughts?
“What are you hoping for?” I whisper, glancing across at our guardians’ pods, but they are sealed tight like the tunnel to the surface.
“I will be content with wherever the overseers place me,” he says lightly, and I roll my eyes. It is the appropriate response, of course, the answer you would expect from someone at the top of the leaderboard.
“Aha, so a cleaner, then? Or perhaps working in the preschool?” The harvest is no joking matter, but we both know that Luc is not destined for one of the lesser positions. Being a cleaner, working as a cook or a gardener—those assignments are reserved for the lower ranked, not for someone in the elite. Even the notion of him being harvested as a teacher is ludicrous. Teachers have a higher standing than some, but they are still clothed in the dark blue of the lesser positions, holding no real power.
Luc gives me a tired smile now, and I become conscious of just how much the final cycle has taken out of him. Over the past year, Luc has devoted every possible minute to studying or volunteering, proving to the overseers that he is a model citizen worthy of retaining his high rank. He has done everything right—associating with the correct people, acing all of the tests—but such studiousness comes at a cost, of course. And this year, I can’t help but feel that the cost was me. It’s a selfish thought, of course, but we used to be so close. This past cycle has been tough and I can’t even remember the last time we spent any time together.
And after tonight, there won’t be any more time. I push the thought away. Working hard is necessary, of course, if you wish to have a successful harvest. And everybody knows how important it is to do well.
“I don’t think you’d mind being harvested as a preschool teacher when the time comes,” Luc says, pointedly. If that statement was made by anybody else, it would have been stained with criticism, but Luc’s face is kind, his voice filled with understanding rather than thinly veiled disapproval. He gets me, as nobody else in Eridu ever will.
I shrug. I always try not to think about my own fate at the end of my final cycle. It’s safer that way. “I will be content with wherever the overseers place me,” I say, echoing Luc’s words.
We both smile, and he puts an arm around me like he used to when we were little. Stiffening, I glance over at our guardians’ pods, but they stay resolutely closed. Luc notices my warning look and pulls his arm away.
“Sorry,” he says, rubbing a hand across his face. “I don’t know where that came from.”
The room shudders and I am teetering at the edge of an enormous chasm. I automatically step outside my body, imagining that I am numb to it all. That somebody else’s brother is going through his final harvest tomorrow and leaving for a year. That it doesn’t impact me in any way.
It’s what I always do when emotions threaten to break through my carefully constructed outer shell, my method for staying at the top of the leaderboard.
“I’ll miss you, you know,” I say quietly, once the room stops trembling and I’m certain that I have myself under control.
“You won’t have time to miss me,” says Luc, practically. “Don’t forget, Evie, you are going into your final cycle. You’ll be busy doing everything to maintain your own position at the top of the leaderboard, just like I did.”
I nod, hoping he’s right. If Luc’s absence makes me feel some sort of emotion . . . But it won’t, of course. The professors have taught me well.
Everything in my life has always been calm and predictable. Each day, I go to the institute, learning important subject content and completing a range of academic, physical and emotional tests. Then I am ranked on the leaderboard, and most of the time I am right up the top. Life in Eridu is ordered, and I know my place in it.
“And in a year, you will be harvested for a premium position, too, and we’ll both be living in D-Block.” His dark brown eyes are kind and reassuring. “Just imagine it now, Eve, the two of us as overseers or architects. Two siblings dressed in red. It’ll be worth a year of sacrifice.”
He’s right, living in D-Block and being honoured with the crimson garb of the premium positions will be worth the years of hard work. As the Book of Eridu says, sacrifice is a necessary stepping-stone on the path to success.
“I just don’t think I’m ready for things to change.” I watch my monitor carefully. It stays perfectly blue.
“Being an architect would be more interesting, I suppose,” says Luc, ignoring me. “Getting to craft the emotional tests. But the overseers are the ones with the real power.”
I have to agree with him. If I had the choice between being an overseer or an architect, I would choose an architect any day. But of course, there are no choices. At the time of the final harvest, the overseers will carefully evaluate our results in a number of different areas and assign us to our appropriate positions in society. And that’s where we will stay until we eventually elect to transfer.
“You’re right about me wanting to be a preschool teacher,” I whisper to Luc, deliberately changing the direction of my thoughts. Thinking about the transfer chambers is not a good idea at this time of the year.
He shakes his head. “Oh, Evie, I’m afraid you’re ranked too highly to be harvested as a teacher.”
“Probably,” I say, but part of me holds out the smallest sliver of hope. Working with the pre-schoolers and teaching them to live by the virtues of Eridu is my favourite assignment.
“Well I’m thankful for it,” he says, smiling, “because if you became a teacher then I’d probably never see you again.”
He says it in jest, but my stomach does a strange flip. It’s true that those in premium positions rarely seem to associate with those harvested for the lesser occupations, but that wouldn’t be the case with me and Luc, would it?
“And anyway, the lesser positions don’t come with the same oxy-creds,” he continues, not noticing my discomfort. “And you don’t want to live like the rest of Eridu does. Do you even remember what it was like in the multi?”
I shake my head; it was so long ago that the memory is fuzzy at the edges. I can vaguely remember pods stacked eight high, all the way up to the roof, resembling the exo-wombs at the incubation chambers, but not nearly as peaceful. We hadn’t stayed in the crowded multi for long, where everything had to be shared, including the oxy-creds generated from the plants lining the walls. Once Luc was old enough to join a ranked cohort, he had shot to the top of the leaderboard and our family had reaped the benefits.
I’m not sure why, but this line of thought is making me even more uncomfortable. “As long as I’m not harvested as a transfer agent,” I say brashly, “then the overseers can put me wherever they like.”
“Shhhh,” says Luc, but I imagine that if our guardians are awake then they would have said something by now.
I gaze at Luc’s jumpsuit, the same grey colour as my own, indicating that we are both members of a ranked cohort. In just two days, he will hold a premium position and be wearing crimson instead.
And he will leave Block A.
I stand, placing one hand on the ladder leading up to my pod. “Anyway,” I say, “better get some sleep—I have my final maths test in the morning.”
Luc nods, pulling his flexi-screen out from beneath his pillow. “I think I’ll do some last-minute revision.”
I hesitate, but it’s not worth being sentimental—the ramifications are too great. “Goodnight, Luc.”
He doesn’t look at me. “Goodnight, Evie.”