“Now, why in the world would you want to know about that?” Kayan asks, eyeing me suspiciously. Almost like I’m sprouting extra limbs from my ears.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I attempt. I’m hoping he’ll attribute it to Micah missing, which is mostly true. It’s definitely one of the reasons I’m asking.
“Not exactly,” he answers, seeing through me with his hypnotic eyes. “You clearly didn’t receive that grade, or you wouldn’t be sitting here with me.”
“Honestly, there are a couple reasons,” I admit. No use lying. He’ll just see right through me no matter what I say. “That’s what we were told Micah received when he disappeared. I never really understood what it meant, but didn’t really question it because my parents were already so torn up about the situation. I want to know what it is and why it meant he had to be taken away from us,” I reveal, a bit anxious.
“I, also, had my test yesterday,” I continue, shakily. “One of my classmates was there as well. Right in front of my eyes I saw him be dragged away by Loyals like a criminal. The Healer barely had time to remove his needle before they grabbed him. Why does receiving an Unfavorable grade mean you get carried away? Is that what happened to Micah? What happens when someone is taken away like that?”
I want to ask more questions, but I can see in Kayan’s expression that I’m throwing too much at him at once. I bite my lower lip to keep my mouth shut. He continues to eye me as if I’m questioning reality itself. It takes him several moments of silent staring before he takes a deep breath and decides to talk to me.
“Why aren’t you asking your parents about this?” He questions. That isn’t what I was hoping he would say.
“I want to,” I say begrudgingly. It’s true. I would love to talk to my parents about this, but they are too distracted by my results to even care about Micah. They would simply push the topic aside for something else. “However, now that they’ve heard my score, they won’t even acknowledge that Micah even existed, or could still possibly exist. Even after how devastated they’ve been all these years, it’s like it never happened with my results. For that reason alone, I can’t trust my parents with the question, nor do I think they would even acknowledge it. You’re the only person I could think of that I trust enough with this.”
“Even after all this time?”
“Alright,” he sighs. Rubbing the thick stubble at his chin. “Don’t tell your parents I told you, though, or they’ll send Loyals after me for giving you ideas.”
“I promise,” I say earnestly. Excited, I scoot to the edge of my seat, ready and waiting to hear anything he’ll tell me.
“You know why someone would receive that grade, yes?”
I nod. Every child is told before their test that if you have average skills or lower you will receive the grade. We just aren’t told what happens after that.
“Good,” he acknowledges. He seems to relax a bit, too. “This is common knowledge to adults, so I hope I don’t upset you. You would have learned this given time, anyway.”
“I’m ready to learn, now,” I insist. I’m getting impatient with his stalling tactics.
“Fine,” he agrees, waving his paint brush in my direction. “When an individual receives the Unfavorable grade from their Bleeding Rite, they are forcibly removed from the colony. The colony sits on top of a large hill. Below, there is a large room with huge boilers that help run the colony, and keep us warm. Those who have been given the Unfavorable result are taken there to begin a new life helping to sustain our way of living, or left to die. Siblings of those that are removed from the colony are normally told that their brother or sister is being taken to a specialized area that can better help them with their unexceptional qualities. Those of us still living within Geha assume they have created villages and civilizations to help themselves survive, but it’s not common knowledge. Only the Loyals and our current leader, Governor Cloudmore knows those sort of details.”
“And everyone is okay with this?” I intervene. I can’t keep listening to this without posing more questions. “My parents are aware of this and haven’t done anything to go find Micah?”
“Yes,” Kayan answers, nonchalantly. “As adults, we understand Geha’s vision. We are attempting to assist evolution to create the most advanced human beings. We can’t do that without weeding out those that are merely average.”
I sit in silence, completely stunned by his matter-of-fact tone while he continues to paint like it’s nothing. As if the answer should have been obvious. Even with my above average score in everything Geha is looking for in an advanced human, I can’t comprehend this notion. If our leader, Nevada Geha, cared so much for our society, why would he do that to someone? Even those with average intelligence have something to offer in the grand scheme of things. No life is worth throwing away.
“Thank you for your time,” I stutter. “I appreciate your candor. I have to go.”
Before he can stop me or say another word, I jump up from my seat in the corner and rush out the door slamming it behind me. I don’t hear Kayan reopen the door or call after me, so I must be in the clear. Hopefully he assumes I’m going to come to grips with the news and not take it any further. Unfortunately for him, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that. Not knowing Micah could very well be alive.
I don’t go home. I have no clear destination, but I don’t stop moving. Walking, I make my way through the colony, weaving between buildings. It might not be the smartest idea I’ve ever had, but I’m hoping it’ll clear my head after all the new information. I need to think. With no one out and about at this hour, the streets are devoid of life. It is the only other spot, besides home, that I can be alone. I can’t handle going home right now. All the memories of Micah will only cause another breakdown rather than comfort me.
I let my feet lead me. I don’t even notice where I am or what direction I’m walking in until I see Central Hall standing tall before me. Although I was walking to clear my head, seeing the building again piques my curiosity. The odds are likely that there could be another unlucky individual who receives another Unfavorable grade. I may be the only individual who isn’t okay with the outcome of these people, but it still gives me a way to find Micah.
Hope in my heart, I jog around the outside of the building. I have no idea where the Loyals come out, but I can only imagine it’s somewhere on the opposite side of where the entrance is located. If teenagers came for their Rites seeing their classmates dragged off to never be seen again? It would definitely cause chaos. That would be how the system Geha initiated would fall. The future leaders of our colony choosing to end the cycle.
Today must be my lucky day, though I don’t feel all that lucky. I’m rounding the corner of the building when I hear a door slam open against the outer wall. I duck behind the corner just in time to see two Loyals dragging a gagged girl away from the building. That explains why I’ve never heard screaming before.
The Loyals pull her quickly away perpendicular from the building, and out of sight. I don’t even hesitate before I begin to jog after them. They follow an alley stuck between two tall walls for several minutes, never changing direction. Every once in a while the alley branches off from the path the Loyals continue to follow, which allows me to duck into them to avoid being seen. They never look behind as they walk, but I don’t want to chance getting caught. I really have no idea what would happen.
Finally, after five long minutes of the same scenery, we reach the end of the alley but I have no idea what to do next. I hide within the closest branch of alleyway to where they stopped, but can’t see anything that would give them a way out. There’s no door or gateway, which confuses me. I kneel down to watch the Loyals at work. I’m several feet behind them, so I should be able to see anything that they are seeing. However, I’m a bit nervous that they will turn around, and find their way towards me and the branch I’ve hidden in.
The Loyals stop a few feet before the end wall. Without missing a beat, the Loyal on the right bends down and lifts a door up from the ground that I didn’t see before. They leave it open when they descend with the girl. It takes every fiber of my being to keep myself hidden within the alley branch. I want to follow and see where they take her, but a nagging feeling in my belly tells me that I would be caught if I do. I’ve never been one to trust instinct since our colony has tried to weed it out, but I can’t ignore it. The feeling is too strong to push aside.
Although I have no evidence to support my worry, I stay put. I don’t have to wait any longer than a few minutes for the Loyals to return, but the girl is not with them. The door is replaced and they return in the direction of Central Hall without speaking or looking down any of the branches. I lean flat against the wall to ensure I won’t be seen in their peripherals.
When they pass me, I quickly switch to the opposite wall in case they decide to turn around. Since this process is understood as a necessity, they won’t expect anyone to be sneaking around for information but I would rather not be seen. They will definitely ask questions about why a recently tested teenager is skulking around. I wouldn’t know what to say in response since I can’t tell anyone the truth. I don’t move until the sound of their feet against the ground fades into nothingness. Only then do I risk looking around the corner in search of the Loyals that led me here.
I tiptoe towards the trapdoor. My adrenaline has skyrocketed, making me anxious that even the nudging of a pebble will alert someone to my presence. When I reach the door, I can see why I didn’t recognize it before. It looks exactly like the clay ground around it. Even the handle is difficult to see if you aren’t looking for it. I lean over and lift the door up just as the Loyal had a few minutes before. Inside is a tunnel with stairs made right out of the clay, twisting downward further below the city. My curiosity has gotten the better of me. Knowing that this is where anyone given an Unfavorable grade is taken nudges my feet forward and down into the descending corridor, carefully lowering the trapdoor on top of me. It takes me a few moments to realize that the air seems different than that in Geha. Heavier almost. I’m too driven by my need to know where the unfavorable are taken to focus on it.
With the door lowered, the stairway is almost completely dark. It takes several minutes for my eyes to adjust to the shadows. Once they do, I’m able to see bending shadows along the wall around the corner from me, suggesting there is some sort of burning torch ahead to help light the way. Grateful for the guide, I follow it not worried about the destination. Carefully I follow the stairs until it finally comes to an end at a small, enclosed room with a large torch situated to the right – a key dangling from a hook below it. Its walls and ceiling are entirely made of clay, and the wall opposite me isn’t a wall at all but rather a gate. On the other side, I can see and hear people working, groaning, and mulling about, but I can only hear them when my foot touches the last stair.
The closer I go to the blocked entrance, the hotter the room seems to get. It’s almost too much to handle, I feel like I may suffocate if I don’t get fresh air soon. Fighting against my nerves, I grab the keyring and make a dash towards the gate. I hesitate seeing the room expand before me. Analyzing the measurements, I estimate the room to be about 10 yards in width, and 100 yards in length with immense Boilers made of metal built into the clay on the right hand wall. Seeing how high the room is to accommodate the Boilers, there’s no wonder why the stairway down is so long.
Focusing away from the machinery, I see several dozen men working inside the room on different things. Some are shoveling coal into the Boilers, while others are moving coal from large piles closer to the left-hand wall towards the Boilers. There’s no pattern, rhyme, or reason to those doing different duties. The ages range from pre-teen to late 60’s, and every one of them is doing what they can to get work completed. Is this what keeps Geha’s power and resources working on a cloudy day, or there’s no wind?
Curiosity leading me now, I unlock the gate with the keys as quietly as possible. I remove the key from the lock and place the ring into my sweater pocket before carefully opening the gate just enough for me to squeeze through. The iron looks extremely old – like it would squeak and groan with even the slightest movement. Once inside, I close the gate and can hear a click as it shuts. I push on it but it’s locked again. I’m really happy I decided to take the keys along with me on this journey, now.
I duck behind a pile of coal a few feet away from the gate. There are dozens of them scattered around the room. I have no idea what will happen if I get caught, but I would rather be safe than sorry. I don’t know anyone so there’s no one I can trust. From what I can tell, these must be some of the Unfavorables who have been rejected from Geha. If I’m caught, they might use me as leverage to get back into the city. Still, my curiosity keeps driving me further into the boiler room. Oh, I guess these Unfavorable would be called Boilers. I’ve heard of them, but never seen one before. That makes a lot of sense. Either way, they might have some kind of clue about where Micah is, or what happened to him after he was sent down here. There’s no way I’m going back to Geha without doing more searching.
I take a deep breath and hold it, making a jump for the closest pile of coal. Not used the terrain and surroundings, I’m unable to get my bearings. I fall forward and roll behind the pile rather than simply hiding behind it. I’m able to hold in a yelp, but just barely – I end up biting on my lower lip to keep quiet. It isn’t long before I taste iron pooling on the tip of my tongue. Not wanting to leave any evidence of my visit, I swallow the thick, metallic liquid. I’m beginning to doubt whether I’m going to get very far. Maybe I need to find somewhere to regroup.
Searching along the only wall I can see, there’s a door almost hidden within the clay wall – it’s the exact color of the walls, but has a somewhat edgier look to it. It’s about a third of the way into the room, so I’m not that far away now. I look over the pile of coal I’m hidden behind to make sure no one is watching me. Thankfully everyone is still focused on their work, so no one is even looking in my direction. I take a leap of faith and run for the door. It opens surprisingly quietly as I duck into the room, shutting the door behind me. It shuts as quietly as it opened. I lean my head against the cool metal, gulping in deep breaths to relax my anxiety. I feel like I’ve run a four-minute mile.
I smile to myself, confident I’ve successfully infiltrated the Unfavorable world without being seen. When I turn around, I notice that the room is much smaller than I anticipated but it’s not the first thing I observe. Yes, the room is relatively empty and with the opposite wall from me covered in black piping crisscrossing each other against it. It’s extraordinary to see how much space it takes up within the tiny four feet in width, six feet in length, and seven foot tall hole in the wall. None of this grabs my attention like the shirtless, sweaty, muscular man holding a wrench and standing in front of a console with, what must be, a monitor on it near the back wall and situated to my right. He’s staring at me in the same manner that I am him: as if we’ve just been caught doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing. However, I’m relatively certain I’m the only one who doesn’t belong here.
A lantern hanging from the ceiling is the only light source within the room. It’s angled slightly, giving the man’s tawny skin and amber undertones a rich glow. Even though he’s probably about five feet away from me, I smell wheat. He must work outside the Boilers as well, with the Drudges. There’s no way the clay surrounding us could smell that way. It makes me want to close the gap between us and smell his hair, touch his skin. I bite my lower lip to distract myself from the strange feelings I’m experiencing. My thoughts linger on his height; he is only a few inches taller than me, and I suspect he’s only a few years older as well. Even my gaze follows the contour of his body, momentarily lingering below his waist when I snap myself out of my reverie, and back to staring into his rich, amber eyes.
The silence continues uncomfortably long. I want to say something, but I’m worried he might call for help from his fellow Boilers to take me away. The room is slightly chillier than the previous room, because of the clay. I would be grateful if I weren’t so terrified. Why hasn’t he said anything, or called for friends?
I can’t help but wonder what he’s doing down here in the first place. With such a physique, there’s no way he wouldn’t be glorified in Geha for one thing or another. He would probably make a fabulous Loyal or Player. What is doing down here with the Unfavorable? I can’t believe for even a moment that he would be given the grade. There are so many questions I want to ask, but not of them escape my lips. I wait impatiently for some reassurance of what my future will hold, gaze locked with the shirtless man.